Saturday, June 19, 2010

6 Whale Sharks on Al Marsa Liveaboard Diving June 18 and 19, 2010

My dives #987-990 Friday; Saturday #991-993
See Nicky's photos of this weekend here:
Thanks, Nicky, for permission to post some of these here:

Bobbi has been itching to go see number #2 son in Korea, but I persuaded her to stay one more weekend by bribing her with a liveaboard diving dhow sailing two nights off the mountainous coast of Musandam.  She came out to PI where I work at Thursday afternoon 4:00 p.m. and by 7:30 we were at the border post on the Dibba corniche showing photocopies of our passports to the guard on duty.  Our passports were at the Brazilian embassy, we explained, awaiting visa stamps.  The guard could have turned us back, but he waved us through, and not long after that we were on the top deck of the dhow, enjoying the wine we’d smuggled across and having dinner with our friends Nicky and Greg and Peter and Allistaire, and half a dozen others we’d get to know better over the next two days diving together at Lima Rock and points north.

The dhow headed up to Lima while we slept and 6 a.m. found us anchored at Ras Lima.  By 7:00 a.m. we were all in a speedboat heading for the island and half an hour after that we were descending on the south side, middle of the island.  Current was mild, all divers were experienced, and all went to depth at 20 meters or so pretty quickly.

Vis was decent. We came to a big boulder and everyone went left, between the boulder and the reef.  I went right toward deeper water and came upon a cow tail ray at 29 meters in the sand.  Bobbi followed me around the rock where on its far side we found a large honeycomb moray half exposed where the rock met the sand.  We continued up the reef and met the other divers just before the first whale shark appeared overhead. It was a baby (small for a whale shark, big by any other standard).  We saw it first by its familiar profile against the light at the surface but most of us were able to rise to its shallow depth in time to see it move slowly back the way we had come.  It didn’t seem to want to stay and play.  We saw why a few minutes later when its mother appeared, slowly finning after its calf.  These were whale sharks on a mission, with some place to be, cruising along Lima Rock.  But by now we had achieved the correct depth so we were able to swim nearer the second one.

If you can log in to Facebook, check out Allistair's video of this whale shark here:

When the third whale shark appeared I was at just the right place to swim right up next to it.  I didn’t touch it, but when it noticed me right at its shoulder it decided abruptly to make its exit. It bolted as if I’d touched it, almost swiping me with a last powerful flick of its tail. (I brief my divers now, do not touch the whale sharks – it looks like I’ll have to add to that, keep a 1 meter distance; any recommendations on that?).

This was one of the most incredible dives we had ever made at Lima Rock.  Three whale sharks, a turtle, lots of the usual batfish, and at the end of the dive, when we turned to fin back against the current, 8 devil rays appeared just below us swimming in formation across our path, and keeping just ahead of us as they relished whatever nutrients they were getting from the current.  For the record, our maximum depth was 29 meters and we were down for one hour. And that was all before breakfast.

We did two more dives that afternoon, not as excellent as the first of the day, which would have been hard to beat.  After breakfast the dhow motored up to Ras Sarkan at the southern opening to Khor Hablain.  We did a dive around the ras and had to fin through a stiff current at the sea-most point.  We saw a couple of cow-tail rays in the sand, and had the opportunity to swim alongside one, at a point where we also encountered a school of barracuda.  Bobbi and I traveled with the group until 41 minutes into the dive I saw Allistair get out his submersible marker buoy, and I signaled him we would continue. He nodded assent so we kept at it for the rest of 60 minutes, having gone 26 meters at our deepest.

From our lunchtime roost on the top deck of our dhow, we saw yet another whale shark checking out our speedboat, proof that it is possible to see one while diving at Ras Sarkan. Meanwhile the seas came up and the boatmen decided not to head back to Lima just then. We had been planning to dive Ras Morovi but due to the waves we headed over to the north of the mouth of Khor Hablain, Ras Dilla. We dived a site called Muqtah which we reached by speedboat from where the dhow was anchored near a salient rock formation on a north/south wall inside Hablain, where south looked directly to Ras Sarkan. The boat took us around the corner and dropped us where we rode the current west, turned the corner, and headed north back toward the dhow, which we almost reached. This particular spot on this day was not very attractive. There was a lot of brown algae in the water so everything looked like an old photograph.

Because of the current at the start of the dive, Bobbi and I elected to descend rather than wait at the surface for the others, so we dived on our own for over an hour. There were a lot of fish but nothing of much interest apart from a remora that wanted to attach itself first to Bobbi and then to me, and a large turtle that swam up the reef when we approached it. When I shined my light in a small alcove full of fish fry, the kind that are like a dust cloud, that baffle your depth perception until you are finally able to focus past them, I saw that there in the cave was a small black bull ray. He was not happy about being discovered and kept moving around in the cave and rippling his skirts at me. He was hard to see because of the cloud of fish fry.  Later in the dive as we were about to do our safety stop at 60 minutes, we came on a bunch of squid near the surface, the kind who are curious of divers, and dart about us trying to figure out what planet we were from (or at least what part of the planet as far as they knew it).

I’m writing this on the boat after that third dive.  The boat has just developed a problem.  The rudder appears to have fallen off.  They are trying to get it to Ras Samid, in the Khor between Hablain and Lima, by steering it by means of a rope attached to the speed boat while the dhow proceeds slowly on its own engine power.  The guests on board are hoping this won’t compromise their diving.  The seas appear to have laid down a bit, and it’s fairly smooth out here at sea.  And I’m still jet lagged and sleepy, coming down with a cold from the extreme air-conditioning aboard.  I’ve been sleepy all day.

We anchored at dusk and got in a night dive at Ras Samid.  Neither Nicky nor Bobbi wanted to go, so I got to buddy with our buff Philipino guide, Brian.  That was a treat since I was coming to respect his skills.  He spotted animals so frequently that I didn’t have to think about what to look at.  One of his first finds was a … a what, not a lizard fish, but a flat fish buried in the sand, looks ugly otherwise, like an alligator head.  He found a couple of neat crustaceans, one a particular kind of hermit crab that likes to construct a feathered living shell.  I was shining lights in crevices lighting up the glass shrimp behind the red glow eyes there, and in one lair I found a couple of forearm length crawfish, deliciously just out of reach behind a wall of sea urchins.  Brian saw an octopus, but I missed that.  We found a lot of morays and lion fish decorating the walls with fluttery spines, wine red in the bright lights.  The sea temperature was so pleasant that after 45 minutes we didn’t want to stop the dive so much as get back on the boat and go after the food and drink.

In the morning we awoke surrounded by dhows.  Two had made the trip overnight to rescue our crippled one.  They were tied alongside when we reported above decks at 6 a.m. for coffee and briefing.  The plan was to go on our dive at 7 as usual but as we hadn’t made it back to Lima the day before we would do the first dive at Octopus Rock just south from where we were, current permitting.  Then we’d have breakfast and transfer our stuff to the blue dhow and proceed from there to Ras Lima and dive Lima Rock the second dive of the afternoon.  The third dive would be played by ear.

First order of business was the first dive, so we were all soon in the speedboat and heading out across the slight chop to the little pimple of a rock we used to call “The Stack” but the new generation of dives calls Octopus Rock.  People entered the water in good order and stayed near the rock despite a southerly current, which we realized was going to challenge us as we descended.  I have to admit, despite having dived here a dozen times, I don’t really know this site.  It’s got a couple of undersea hills to the east of the exposed rock, but I’ve never had a gentle day there where I could wander at leisure and figure out where they were.  Fortunately, our guide Brian knew the area well, and how to negotiate the currents.  He popped us right away into the green whip corals at 29 meters and Nicky had in no time found two large seahorses, top and bottom in the grasses in Yin and Yang position.  Right around the corner there was an interesting crustacean like a clawless lobster that I thought might be a vacant shell but when I swished it, it backed off. Brian led us from one outcrop to another, sometimes directly into a stiff current that sucked our breath away.  At one point we came on an eagle ray and startled it so, it took off straight up, bumping into Allistair in flight.  It rose like a rocket ten meters and leveled off overhead, leaving us just a glimpse of its diamond-shaped long-tailed profile.  In the valleys we found a few big barracudas, and morays in the pinnacles.  Somehow back at the rock after hopping from one outcrop to another, Brian signaled safety stop 41 minutes into the dive.  We clung to the coral for a last three minutes and the surfaced pretty worn out already after our first dive of the day.

We had our breakfast and then shifted all our stuff to the blue dhow for the slow trip back home.  This dhow took us to Ras Lima and moored in the shelter there, leaving the third dhow to tow our rudderless one back to Dibba without us.

The next dive was at Lima Rock.  Vis was excellent here down to 15 meters or so, where there was a chilly and murky thermocline.  Brian put in at the middle and told us the current was moving west but when we started that way it was into the slight easterly current.  I stayed above the pack because I’d been relegated to a 12 liter tank. They hadn’t filled the 15 liter monster I’d been diving from up to then due to their preparations for the move to the working dhow.  This was not of great importance for my diving except with the 20% advantage in air I’d been pushing the depths and staying underwater for an hour each dive.  This dive I didn’t see the need to go deep, if there was anything at 25 meters they’d call me, so I cruised along at 16 or so.  My priority was time in the water, not depth.

This put me in great position, when the first whale shark was spotted, for me to swim over to it, since it was at about my level and moving at a leisurely pace. Most of the other divers were at depth. I don’t think anyone else came up to the whale shark.  I followed it glancing back to where I’d now lost sight of the other divers though I could still see their bubble streams.  They were below the thermocline, and the whale shark was above it in clear water.  After a minute or so the whale shark went into the thermocline and wasn’t so easy to see, so I returned to where the other divers were.  Bobbi was easy to spot, good buddy that she is, she was the one looking around for me.  I’d forgot to mention to her that I was heading the opposite way for a few minutes, but did I mention the whale shark??

The next thing to happen along was a devil ray, cruising with the current at about 25 meters.  By now we’d passed the point where the current split heading to each corner of the rock and we were now being carried slightly with the current in the direction of Lima headland.  The effect of the current was getting more pronounced.  I wasn’t leading the dive so I guessed that Brian intended to let us be committed to the current, which would take us to the Lima end of the island (west) and we would then go around to the north side of the rock.  Brian let me speculate to myself on his intentions for about 5 minutes, when he cocked his thumb back the way we had come in a signal to reverse out of there.  The current had by now got stiff so it was hard work powering against it, but I went at it, checking back now and then to see that the others were keeping up.  I knew the current would lessen shortly, and when we reached the middle of the island then we’d be in the current going our way that we’d finned against at the beginning of the dive.

Bobbi stayed with me but I have no idea what happened to the others.  They didn’t follow us, must have seen another whale shark. Meanwhile, Bobbi and I found ourselves in a world of batfish, 12 meters depth, visibility clear as a swimming pool, a very beautiful part of the dive.  The bat fish are engaging creatures.  They get big, school in groups resembling schooners, like to come close to divers, like to hang out at cleaning stations and get serviced by blue wrasse.  They vacated the cleaning stations when we came on them leaving us in clouds of wriggling blue triggerfish.

Below we noticed a spotted eagle ray.  Normally skittish, the ray didn’t notice us, and we were able to descend on it, 16 meters or so.  It never fled, just headed out over the sand.

We were coming to the end of the dive, being carried now by the easterly current.  I signaled that we should move up to safety stop depth – 5 meters - and I noticed also that we were coming up to the wall around which I know the current really picks up.  At first I thought we should avoid that but the current was now too strong to fin against.  Best thing then was to prepare for it.  I sent my marker buoy up and as we rounded the corner had to tug it a couple of times to free where it wanted to snag on outcrops.  It was a good thing I was watching for that, I was able to jerk it free twice by catching it in time.  Now Bobbi and I were caught in the rapids being carried along at 5 meters depth and counting down three minutes for our safety stop.

Just ahead of us at the end of the island was another whale shark, keeping itself pointed into the current, positioned to take advantage of it by extracting whatever morsels that the current brought it.  We let ourselves be swept right past it.  What a safety stop! Nice dive, Lima does it again!

There were some choices for our last dive. Ras Morovi and Wonderwall were two good sites just north and south of where the dhow was anchored in Lima headland.  However these were not convenient to our hosts.  Seas had not been exactly flat as we motored back from Lima island to the headland, and we were told it wouldn’t suit the dhow to take it to the south facing Wonder Wall, where it would be more exposed to open sea.  If I’d been running the show I’d have either sent the speedboat there or at least back across the protected stretch to Ras Morovi where people always seem to enjoy their dive.  But it was decided we’d just dive where we were, off Lima headland, which has some nice boulder formations going down to 20 meters and on a clear day, colorful fish within, and sometimes some barracuda off the point. But this was not a clear day.  It was in fact a brown algae day, murky, everything a shade of brown. Some on the boat said afterwards that the dive was boring.

However, Bobbi and I got lucky.  Since the boulders were cloaked in brown I decided to head over the sand in search of sting rays and we were soon off on our own. I was checking out all the deeper clumps of rock, coral, and grasses at 20 meters deep, well off the wall, and here it was that I lucked into a resting leopard shark.  What a nice find, I hadn’t seen one of those in a long time.  Bobbi and I watched it from a distance when Greg Golden and his buddy Johan appeared, and I conducted them to where the shark lay.  Bobbi had just found a knife in the sand and I was using this to bang on tanks to attract the others, but none from the main group came. Meanwhile we were drifting nearer and nearer the leopard shark and finally, as leopard sharks do, this one became mildly annoyed at having its nap disturbed and lifted off the sand, did a small circle and came back to rest exactly where he’d been a moment before. That happened to be where we were by then on top of him, so he repeated the maneuver, this time gliding gently right at us, around us, between us, circling us, coming close enough to where we could pet him. He didn’t react adversely to that, but eventually he ended up in a different spot a few meters away from the first. We could have played with him like that for some time, not much else to do on that dive, but we didn’t want to intrude, so we moved on our way and left him in peace. Leopard sharks have mild personalities, but this was one of the most docile and playful leopard sharks I’ve met yet.

Thanks again, Nix, for the use of your photos :-)


  1. Sounds like an enchanted weekend, Vance.

  2. Hey Vance, nice blog as always. I have some photos and hope to get them uploaded today or tomorrow. Will put them on Facebook/Picasa, you're welcome to use them if you like.