Monday, December 17, 2012

Success! Certified Bonnie Swesey at Nomad Ocean Adventure, Musandam, Dec 15-16, 2012

My logged dives #1178-1181

Nicki strains to identify a fascinating creature encountered in the deep

ACS had a last day of work on Thursday for the seasons holidays so teachers were feeling relaxed enough to drive across the UAE on Friday rather than heading up straight after work on Thursday.  We had booked diving Friday and Saturday, so Thursday evening our group, Nicki, Bonnie, Bobbi, and I just relaxed at the dive center and prepared ourselves for the adventure ahead. Roger arrived from playing in a concert in Dubai after most of us had gone to bed.

Next morning, not too early, I took Bonnie in the pool to refresh her training which she'd already completed at Freestyle, Dibba two weeks before.  We rehearsed the Dive #2 open water skills and then headed out to sea to do it!

It was a bit windy with overcast skies, unsettled weather, but seas not too bad despite a bit of spray riding out, so Theo motored us over to Ras Morovi where we dropped into the calm sheltered bay there.  Bonnie and I started out as a buddy pair, she performed her skills without a hitch, and we caught up with the others around the beautiful living reef there.  Bobbi and Nicki were diving deeper than we were because I was staying high on the reef to keep Bonnie near the surface and to show her and Roger a small cave with crayfish.  The crayfish was home, but in the process another couple of divers Dan and Randa appeared with a camera, Nicki and Bobbi got distracted, and Roger continued over the saddle with Bonnie and I to the the cabbage coral patch where there are sometimes turtles.  None home today, so we continued to the lovely alcove where we've had so many pleasant ray encounters.  None there either so we continued a little ways until Bonnie reached 50 bar.  We were doing a safety stop when another diver appeared with the thumbs up sign.  Nicki's divemaster training had kicked in and they had been searching at the surface for their lost buddy, Roger. The situation was fraught with ambiguity but Nicki and Bobbi continued their dive as we ended ours.  We did learn a couple of things.  One is that engines revving at the surface are barely audible at depth, and indistinguishable from normal picking up diver noises.

Our dive at Ras Morovi was a lovely dive and the best of the weekend.  On the down side, the water was foul in spots with flotsam, and strangely we found dead animals.  At depth we had seen a sting ray with bite-sized chunks taken out of it, and on the surface a dead turtle was floating near where we eventually collected Bobbi and Nicki.  Not sure what this means, if it was just that day or a harbinger of things to come.

Our other dives that weekend were not particularly memorable.  Visibility was ok but cloudy on all of them, and we hardly saw any animals of note, apart from the normal fish life, blue trigger fish, trevally, rainbow wrasses, lion fish, batfish ... there were lots and lots of fish (I must be getting jaded :-), just nothing large or unusual, though I remember at the end of our last dive Sunday coming up in a school of a thousand silver fish swirling round and round us.  My main focus, and Bonnie's, was getting her course done.  Bonnie did very well, systematically overcoming all the challenges required in the PADI course, removing face mask being particularly daunting and troublesome for many.  This is the activity most prone to panic on the part of the student, but Bonnie managed the stress well, and in the end, passed the course.

She and Roger are going to the Maldives soon, and I hope they continue their diving there and enjoy more and more pleasant experiences under water, since experience is ultimately the most persistent teacher.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fun Diving Musandam with Nomad Ocean Adventure, Dibba, Dec 7-8, Buddied with Jay Fortin, Bobbi and Nicki

My logged dives #1174-1177

Nice diving this weekend at Nomad Ocean Adventure, even mellower for me as the trip was arranged by Greg Golden and David Weiler (not me for a change) and I had no students around apart from past ones. Besides Greg, Jay Fortin was down from Doha and became my dive buddy, and Bobbi and Nicki drove up with me in the car. Tom Longo was in our group with a couple of advanced students of his own, and Greg Perry was there as well, whom we'd been with on a liveaboard dhow once up a time. Also present: Kristyn Ulrich, Lindsay Guthrie, and David, Gail, and Heather Muirhead. It was a large and gregarious group, and les après plongés continued well into the evening.

For me, it was total relaxation. I didn't have to do anything apart from get myself and my gear aboard the dive boat until, once we were under way, Theo turned around and asked me where I wanted to go for the first dive, the first I'd been asked suddenly to think about something. It was a lovely day, clear blue skies, so clear we could see fish-head rock way up the coast. Seas were blue and placid, reflecting the jagged mountain coastline that separated the two natural blues, and the air rushing through the boat had an almost pleasant chill to it. I allowed as how it seemed like a nice day to do Octopus Rock.

It was a great weekend for diving, almost no current on all but our last of four dives. That's unusual for Octopus Rock (what we used to call the Stack back in my ADSAC days). We dropped in on the south point of the rock, where we can often hide from strong current, but there was none today. It was actually possible to follow Theo's dive plan, which was to head north with the rock on the right, and then veer left at the Big Boulder and find the next ridge over and follow the wall on our left to the north, and THEN of all things round the far end of the wall and follow it back to the south. One of those directions is usually impossible against the strong currents that plague Octopus Rock, but not today :-)

Octopus Rock is always full of fish. Today there were schools of bright blue trigger fish seemingly everywhere, some hiding in rocks with their tails sticking out, curious fish. I don't recall seeing bat fish but the little blue wrasse were following puffers around as they wandered into the bat fish cleaning stations. Once we'd rounded to the south we came on a rock over which hovered a school of barracuda. On the ridge itself we found a couple of crayfish not particularly well hidden.

When we reached a place I thought was about the right distance back, I went over the ridge and swam to the next one over thinking that might be Octopus Rock. It looked about right under water but as we rounded it and came shallower, we realized there was nothing there that went to the surface. This is a tough place to navigate, all the ridges confuse me. As we were coming up to shallower depth, we passed through schools of jacks and trevally that reminded me of similar schools in the AndamanIslands. We did a safety stop over the coral atop the rock and surfaced to find we were about even with Octopus Rock, but still short of it to the west, maybe one or two, or three, ridges over.

Once we were all collected we motored over to Ras Morovi for a tasty lunch on board the boat and from there we headed to Lima Rock for our afternoon dive. We dropped in the south side and meandered casually to the west. Again there was almost no current and when our meander turned to the east we realized we had rounded the west tip of the island. Sometimes there are fierce currents there, but today it was like a swim in the pool.

Where we dropped in, there was a honeycomb moray halfway down the rock wall, nice to see something that large before we even reached the bottom. Swimming along at about 20 meters, I saw a cow-tail ray in mid water rippling speedily along in the opposite direction to us. The ray was about a meter and a half across and was missing his tail. I'm pretty sure we saw the same sting ray a second time at the end of the dive on almost the 180 degree opposite side of the island. I was looking into an alcove when the ray decided to leave his hiding place and swam right below me (I almost missed it but Nicki used the tank-banger Bobbi and I had given her to call our attention to it - it's not a bad idea to make sure your best dive buddy has a tank-banger). There was some contention about whether this was the same ray we had seen earlier or not; Jay swore the second ray was a lot smaller, so we asked another diver what he thought, and he said they were different, the second was much larger – so go figgah (I'm telling you, they were the same :-)

We reached port not too late in the afternoon. Thousands of fish we would never see underwater were lying on the boat ramp at the colorful fish market, which we could see across the bows of the dhows. Back at Nomad Bobbi and I cleaned our gear and left it out to dry in the rain that would appear later that night. Then I went for a 5 km jog to Golden Tulip and back in the dusk while Bobbi and Jay went for a walk into the beachside fishing village. Nicki got out her cheese for an early happy hour which we joined after showers. Dinner buffet was served superb, as usual, Chris's mom being back in personal hands-on charge of the Mauritius cuisine.

Next day, we got an early departure. Someone banged on our door at 7:45 and we were away from the dive center by 8:30. The boat got off around nine, with pleasant Hassan at the helm. Our first stop was Ras Sarkan, on a day so clear that the island of Mother of Mouse could be seen popping out of the ocean to the northeast.

The water was again a 25 degree centigrade chill, somewhat warded off by our 5 mm wetsuits. Visibility was good and while waiting for the others I watched fish swirl around a large rock below me, 5 or 7 meters across, and just covered in fish. We dropped down on top of a torpedo ray hiding under a blanket of sand, which we swished off so we could see him better.

The dive plan at Ras Sarkan is to keep an eye on your compass and hang out at the point, which you've reached once your compass tells you you're heading north. On a currenty day, there should be plenty to see there. Today the current was slack, so as we turned to the north at the point and then started heading back west we realized we had reached the tip and passed it without much incident. Ras Sarkan is deep. We got down to almost 26 meters with a high view of the sand below but depending on how much air we thought we would need to complete 50 bar or 50 min 'whichever comes first', we varied our depth to conserve air molecules in our tank. Jay stayed above us, Bobbi was usually above me, and I was playing it at about 16 to 20 meters most of the dive. Nicki on nitrox and small lung size was least concerned about air consumption or deco and and was usually well below me. Nicki goes slow and is very observant. She told us later she had seen scorpion fish and even a scorpion-like walkman (I saw one in Malaysia last summer). She called me down on a couple of occasions to see the nudibranchs she was discovering. Coming up from the last of those calls to come look, I shined a light in a hole and found the tail of a honeycomb moray. I followed that around a bend and came on a huge head poking out the ledge, odd that I hadn't seen that first. Following the ledge along, there was a second honeycomb smaller than the first, probably an offspring. After 50 minutes of that, perhaps a bit longer, we surfaced a little back from the point at Ras Sarkan.

Our last dive of the weekend would be Lima Rock, and Theo had an interesting plan for it. After a great lunch (there was a delicious pasta salad, and Jay had bought nuts and fruits, including watermellon, on his walk the night before) we motored over to Lima Rock where Theo said we would drop on the north side, round the east point, and then come back to the west on the south side. Hassan motored us off the point for a shoof and Theo said it looked as though there would be current there. He warned us against getting caught in it and riding the freight train to Iran. More than once we have been caught in that current and sometimes driven down to over 30 minutes so that you can't just come up. You have to ride it east and do your safety stops. The one upside to that one-way trip is that there is almost always a huge school of huge barracuda lurking off the point and this inadvertent drift dive takes you right through them.

Current also attracts large fish, so it's worth risking if your diving skills are up to it. There wasn't much current at the start of the dive and I saw the green whip coral bending into the current before I actually felt it, but soon we found ourselves being sucked along toward the point. I signaled everyone to stay together and close to the rock, though I wandered off it as far as I dared hoping to spot devil rays which are sometimes seen there if conditions are such that you can get to where they are (and if they are there of course, on this day, we'll never know). We did see a flight of large bat fish as we approached the point and when we stared to get carried inexorably into it we found fishnets and ropes we could hold on to and keep our position.

It was a position worth keeping. The schools of barracuda were all around us. We enjoyed them for a couple of minutes but then had to work our way into the current up a flat rock that was rushing over the gap we had opted not to pass through. I was pulling myself with handholds in the rock, and the barracuda, big ones, were right in front of our noses. This was interesting and we got a rest in the gap, but had to continue along a featureless rock face. This is where the whale sharks like to hangout, where the plankton can be driven through their filters, but like the devil rays, they were taking the day off, and we had to fin our way stiffly into that current.

Normally when we pass this way we are coming from the middle of Lima Rock. When diving in the coral gardens there, there is a large rock that juts out seaward and I know that if I go around that, the current is likely to carry me out to the point (we got caught in that once with the DeJong kids when they swam out past the rock to get closer to the whale shark they spotted in midwater there). Often when going in this direction you are on a one-way ride and it barrels you along this blank wall until you reach the gap and can duck in out of it. Then you either end your dive hanging out off the point and let it spit you toward Iran or you go through the gap to the other side, and if lucky see the devil rays.

Today we were having to do the trip in reverse. We were having to fight our way up-current along that blank wall, and the vis was poor to boot, a bit silty. It was not as bad as it could have been; it was doable, but not pleasant. And when we came to the point where the wall juts into the sea we had to fight our way along it into what appears blue nothing which only I (possibly) knew ended in a coral garden where there would be no current. I got there first and turned to look for the others. Bobbi soon appeared, and I spotted Jay overhead. Jay and I were both at 50 bar from the exertion. Nicki meanwhile had found a turtle and surfaced with it. We surfaced to find her, saw she was just behind us, so we all regrouped at 5 meters in the coral garden.

Here the diving was again pleasant. We had only ten minutes before we needed to surface but in that time we visited the bat fish cave and found a couple of elegant lion fish hovering beautifully. Keeping to 5 meters we came atop a rock and found a turtle there. The turtle's shell was encrusted in barnacles, and a blue tang was trying to eat some morsels there. The turtle saw us and slowly moved away. Turtles are not very good at expressing alarm (or maybe they just don't get alarmed, they just leave the area, they think, as unobtrusively as possible).

The last dive was challenging, different from the others, but I thought it was a great dive, nice to be with advanced buddies and to be able to probe the corner where the currents are. Another great weekend in UAE thus comes to a delightful end, and thanks Chris for hosting us :-))

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Freestyle diving, Dibba Rock, Dec 1-2, 2012: Started Bonnie's OW dive course

My logged dives #1172-1173

It was National Day weekend in the UAE, a long 4-day one for me and Bobbi, and her colleague Bonnie. Bonnie is going to the Maldives with diving friends and wanted to start her PADI open water dive course.  The weather in Abu Dhabi for the weekend looked stormy and windy, but WindGuru was showing conditions on the east coast to be placid for Saturday and Sunday, so with all of us including Nicki packed cozily into our Honda MRV/Pilot, we started out at leisure for a long drive Friday afternoon across a rainy Emirates.  The drive became longer through a series of mishaps.  It was raining hard as we passed by Abu Dhabi airport and we somehow ended on the Suweihan road.  We used to reach the Eastern Region this way so we carried on under cloudy skies that alternatively darkened and drenched the desert.  Past Dhaid we found lengthy tailbacks approaching Masafi, with too many National Day shoppers crowding the roadside "Friday Market". This brought us to the cement factory near Dibba almost exactly an hour later than we would have arrived had we gone our usual route.  By now it was pouring down rain and getting dark. We found the border crowded, chaotic, and uncomfortably lit with vision impaired by headlights in the drizzle, and for the first time ever we were turned back.  

Fortunately we knew of accommodation in the residence apartments in Dibba. These had tripled their rates for the weekend but we still found an affordable two bedroom flat in Alia Suites, outside of Dibba for 1000 dirhams a night, or $368 dollars, which made it $40 a night per person, the best deal we would likely get on such short notice on a holiday weekend.  Any port in a storm: it was roomy, clean, and comfortable, amazingly had free wifi, and normally would have been a third that price. We catered it with Indian chat and tandoori from Lulu's, and bevvies from our coolbox. We were a positive, compatible group of friends, out for an adventurous long weekend.  Anything could happen.  We were enjoying ourselves.

Next day was beautiful, clear skies, no trace of the rain the night before apart from puddles in the road and wadis.  Nicki made us all filter coffee and we turned up at Freestyle divers at 9 a.m., on spec, and found that their one boat was doing Dibba Rock shuttle service the two days we would be there.  This was ideal for dive training.  Freestyle Divers is on the premises of Royal Beach resort, there is a pool there we can use for dive training, and with three rides a day out to Dibba Rock, there are many options for blending ocean diving with confined water.

Bonnie had completed the PADI eLearning course online, so we got her started in the pool. The way the course works, after the initial pool session, dive students are ready to try out the ocean, and the first dive of the course is FUN, no skills allowed.  Bonnie did great in the pool and ocean despite strong currents as we tried to find our way along the reef that has all but disappeared.  

Air temperatures early December in Dibba were balmy, but the ocean was a cool 25 degrees centigrade.  Bonnie had rented a 3 mm wetsuit, and Nicki lent her a hoodie to augment that, but the rest of us were diving in 5 mm suits. We were dropped in at the aquarium where all the fishes are, and though we had to fin a little into the current  rounding the island from the channel, it was not difficult at that point.  There are masses of fish in the aquarium, always captivating with clouds of snappers covering the rocks, punctuated by the occasional silver trevally, rainbow wrasse, and puffer fishes riding high above the fray. We found a little torpedo ray that followed us around like a puppy dog, and we showed it a flounder we found in the sand there (the moses sole).

From the aquarium I tried to lead us onto the reef, identifiable from its loud clacking.  I think I took us beyond it, looking for sharks which we can sometimes see there, and at its southern end Bonnie surfaced and we drifted a little to the east, but when we got back down and finned north, we found ourselves on the raspberry coral at the eastern end of the L which is a good place for turtles. We had welcomed a 5th diver into our group, Andrew Roughton, he had a camera, and he snapped this picture of the turtle we found there.

If there had been no current we could have gone back west to the right angle of the L and followed it back north to return to the aquarium, but there was no way.  The current was too strong, so I indicated we move to the north toward the rock.  Nicki and Bobbi duly complied and soon disappeared to the north, while Bonnie and I found it easier to go with the current from where we were, and Andrew, coming behind, followed us. The current guided us gently over some more raspberry coral patches like those in the photo, where we found cuttlefish, and some rock bommies where batfish lived. Bonnie was curious about the sea cucumbers, and people in Hawaii do worse to them than just touch them (they put them on rocks to make them eviscerate and show their kids) so I picked one up and handed it to her underwater. They feel soft and squishy if you're expecting something else. At 50 min on my dive computer and surfaced with Bonnie.  It was a nice dive.  Bonnie logged it on FaceBook:

That afternoon Bonnie and I returned to the pool and finished all of her remaining pool modules. We had changed to Lycra for this, perfect for the warm pool, but cold each time we had to come back to the pool deck and brief the next module and change tanks. 

Next day we returned to Freestyle, this time to dive on their 9 o'clock boat, which didn't get away until after ten, which provided ample time for Bonnie to get her equipment set up and sorted, and in the end we were on the boat awaiting others. Unfortunately Bonnie had made a tactical error in purchasing what she thought was a copy of the mask she had been renting, but which in the ocean turned out to be too big for her.  This delayed her descent until Phil on the boat offered to lend her his.  It was the same model, but again just different enough that it fit her, and she and I were able to get down and dive together.  The others had gone off already to dive the back side of the island.

Andrew took this picture of Bonnie on her first day of diving

There's really nothing worse for a beginning diver than a mask problem. The diver can't see properly and takes in water. The diver is not experienced enough to know what s/he is doing wrong, and it compounds anxieties. I had tried tightening the strap and defogging it with spit, but there was no way around the ill fit. But when Phil provided his mask Bonnie was at least able to come long and enjoy the dive.  We started in the aquarium as we had the day before.  There was only a hint of current, so I led us onto the coral reef we had been looking for the day before.  Today I was able to pretty much follow the reef, where we found a couple of cuttlefish that I moved my hand near, so they would back off iridescent. The current was more noticeable there so I turned us back north to regain the calm of the aquarium, but it was a stiff fin into current on a north compass heading to get us into the lee of the island where the current slackened, and Bonnie was doing well to keep up.  We had gone now to almost ten meters which made me realize we were getting swept a little off the rock, so I followed the contour east and found a small school of large barracuda lurking. We swam close to those, and found batfish nearby, and I was of two minds whether to go south to back to the aquarium or continue around the back of the island.  We passed under the shadow of a boat and Bonnie signaled she wanted to ascend, so we came up 35 min. into the dive.

Bobbi and Nicki were enjoying their dive as well, finding morays and pipe fish on the back side, and being dogged as usual by the playful torpedo ray. Dibba Rock appears in the good vis we had today to be making a comeback from the twin hits of cyclone Gonu and prolonged red tide, plus harbor and villa construction up and down the coast there. Bonnie decided to return later to complete here course, and no one was that excited about Dibba Rock to go again that day, so we made an early return to Abu Dhabi, arriving just in time so see the precision flyers in acrobatic formation off the corniche, after two fun days out in a beautiful country celebrating its 41st national day that weekend.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Damaniyites Diving with Global Divers, Al Ansaab, Oman, Oct 26 and 27, 2012

My logged dives #1168-1171

My good friend and dive student (and world-class lawyer) Jay Fortin was flying into Muscat with his wife Robin for the weekend and wanted to dive the Damaniyites, so he made a booking with Global Divers, in Al Ansaab, in the Muscat, capital area , Oman, for Oct 26 and 27, 2012. They asked if Bobbi and I would join them and help with a refresher for Robin.  Of course we agreed.

Global Divers <> operates from the Aviation Beach Club in Muscat, where I was a member and kept a sailboat from about 1990 to 1995.  It was a great little beach club, pleasantly rustic, and accessible via a straight road from one side of the main highway between the Airport and the Ghala / Alansaab roundabouts.  We used to drive from Sultan Qaboos University where we lived for ten years and make a u-turn at the Ghala roundabout and then drive back to the turn where the straight sandy road traversed a vast tract of scrub lands where we used to sometimes hold running events.  What a great playground.

It's much different now.  First off, there is no airport roundabout.  There's a flyover now, and past the airport where we started looking out for that straight dirt road, there are massive roadworks where a superhighway soon to connect Muscat to Seeb has churned up our playground and thrown up buttresses for flyovers, and we couldn't even see the coast from there. Even the town of Al-Ansaab had been overhauled with shops and banks, but we found the coast road and drove it past a new Spinney's Al Fair to work our way back up the coast behind the airport.  We passed an elaborate gate and hit the brakes.  We backed up and sure enough, there it was written Aviation Beach Club.  What a makeover.  Just inside the gate we could see signs pointing the way to Global Divers, though there was no signposting from the road.

For those of us coming from UAE, it's an hour further to reach the Seeb area, so I don't know how often we'll use Global Divers in future as opposed to Al Sawadi, especially as we can find comfortable accommodation for 15 riyals a night and intriguing local nightlife in Suweiq, but if you're living in Muscat or landing there, then you save that hour driving outside Muscat to Al Sawadi.

Damaniyites is an island chain that stretches offshore between Suweiq / Barka and Seeb in such a way that there is some point in the chain that it is about equidistant between the two, so that the boat ride to that point is about the same for either area.

Global Divers favors the island with the ranger post, which it can access in no less time than it takes to get there from Al Sawadi, though to dive the Jun island part of the chain, this would be a long trip from Global Divers in Seeb. However, Global has decent access to the Aquarium, which is closer to Seeb than Al Sawadi, and very popular with divers.

We had great vis there and warm temperatures. The thermocline didn't kick in till around 18 meters, three millimeter wetsuits were quite comfortable,  and some divers wore shorties.  On Friday October 26th  we went to the bay just north of the ranger station and dived Three Sisters to the west and a site they called Noodle to the east.  On that first dive we found large honeycomb rays, at least one turtle, smaller morays, and a sting ray under a rock at the 18 meter point where we decided to stop punching current and turn around, ascend gradually, and fin comfortably with it.  Bobbi and I had been joined at that point by a third diver who ran low on air and ascended just as a mackeral or some large fish cruised by just off the sand. Further on we found a pair of crayfish brazenly exposed on a ledge outside their lair.  If I'd have had a net or a pair of thick gloves I could have easily snagged one of them.  They were both waving their feelers at us, and relying on that moreso than eyesight.  It was only when I stuck a finger in the way of one waving feeler that the animal backed in high alarm back into his hole, and the other followed suit.

On our second dive on Noodle across the bay, we met with a current on descent but once to the seaward side of the island, we had a good long dive.  All our dives were an hour on this trip (because they asked us to come up by then). On this dive I recall more of the same, especially a turtle or two and the large honeycomb morays.  We ended up being swept over an area that was not reef, and came up midway between the island with the ranger post and the next one over to the east.

Next day, the 27th  we continued our exploration of that area by diving the back of the island to the east of 3 sisters, so we'd dived the whole face comprising two islands by the time we were through.  We again had nice vis. We found an easy ledge for Robin to descend on, but Jay and Robin got ahead of us and kept going when we clacked to call attention to a large honeycomb moray and we saw no more of them till back on the boat. So we joined where Global instructor Ali was leading some other divers at 18 meters in the sand and we positioned ourselves midway between them and the boulders on the wall. We figured if they saw anything  in the sand they'd call us over.  From our vantage on the wall I saw a turtle fin vertically up the wall and called Ali's attention to it. At one point a ray swam past Ali and we tried to give chase. I noticed another hiding in a crevice and again I called attn to it. Later we came on a number of honeycomb morays including one just lying on the bottom.  Again we had a nice long dive and we thought an interesting one, until we got back on the boat and found everyone including Jay raving about the leopard sharks.  Since Jay had gone ahead of us and saw it after that, I don't know how we missed it, but we've seen so many of them, we were not all that crushed.

Our second dive was planned for the Aquarium, arguably the best site in that area.  At times there we have seen sea horses, free swimming morays, scorpion fish, and rays.  Our anticipation was excited by reports from the boat that had done its first dive there that they had seen leopard sharks too.  However, for our afternoon dive, the wind was picking up as was the current, and conditions were less favorable than they had been in the morning.  Still we moved through clouds of snappers and saw a sting ray at 20 meters in the sand.  Bobbi found a scorpion fish and we came on a number of honeycomb morays, including one whose head was poked outside some sponge coral, being cleaned by blue wrasse, looking satisfied indeed.  At the end of the dive we came on a school of darting squid, all in all not bad for a day out.

Due to the changing sea conditions, the boat ride back was fairly miserable, spine-jarring bouncy and wet.  Everything got soaked, and it reminded me of the best sailing days off Aviation Beach back in the '90's.

Meanwhile, we bid adieu to Jay and Robin, until next time ...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Certified Peter Eberle and Simon Fryd in o/w at Nomad Ocean Adventure

My logged dives #1164-1167
October 11-13, 2012

Thanks Tim and Laura Charge for arranging a fun week for their visitors. They had their guests enjoy a number of water sports ending with just the thing for a visit to the UAE, a scuba diving course in Musandam, Oman, and who better to conduct such a course than their own o/w instructor, me :-)

Taking a break from diving last weekend we enjoyed a “Bistro Brunch” at the British Club in Abu Dhabi last Friday with Nicki who invited others, including a helicopter pilot named John, and his wife Thelma. John was a diver and at some point during the brunch, Bobbi was telling them that last weekend we'd had a minor problem with timing on the dive boat we were on, with some customers complaining that my students and I had taken too long at the surface interval and delayed the boat's return to port which had caused some difficulties that Lisa and Theo at Nomad had had to deal with and therefore we had been asked to not do training during surface intervals. However, Bobbi said, this used to be not a problem when sometimes we would have enough people to get our own boat. So John said he had friends that would come with us and with the Charges and their visitors, maybe we could get enough divers to put together a boat load and do our own thing and not be constrained by these other “customers” whoever they were. It seemed like a great idea, but then again, it was “Bistro Brunch” at the British Club, where many a scheme is hatched, only to come to naught in the clearer light of morning.

However, somehow this worked out. John and Nicki came through with three other divers, Terry and his young 12 year old jr. advanced diver, Nick, and Jorge, another pilot (I think) who was exploring tech diving with John. So with the Charges and their three guests in combination with these other folk, plus Bobbi and I, we had a dozen people diving two days with Nomad Ocean Adventure, who graciously organized a boat to be made ready for whatever peccadilloes we could envisage on it for Friday and Saturday.

I'm working in Al Ain now and am forced out of my workplace at 1:30 on Thursdays so I drove from there straight to Dibba where I arrived at 4, just beating the Charges and their guests to the dive center. When they arrived, we did the paperwork, including the exam to ascertain that everyone had done the eLearning, and then we got our equipment together and entered the pool. Due to the inertia that must be overcome getting 3 people who have never been around scuba gear before, and one who had not even snorkeled, into the pool and moving around it on snorkels, then donning scuba gear and snorkeling with that, imagine all the things that can go wrong, we were just about to go below the surface at 7:30 when someone from the kitchen came to tell us that dinner was being served. We were on a roll though, so we went ahead with our Module 1 training and finally made it to dinner at around 9:00.

We still had two modules to do in the morning. PADI standards allow dive 1 to be conducted after module 1 but to do dive 2 you have to have completed module 3 in the pool. Since we had our own boat we didn't have to get up at the crack of dawn for it. All the divers were staying overnight for diving the following day so no one had to be driving Friday night back to Abu Dhabi, the main reason for an early departure and early return. So we decided we'd meet for breakfast at 6:30 and pool at 7:00, and shoot for a 10:30 boat departure. The only problem was that Bobbi was getting up at 5:00 in Abu Dhabi and she and Nicki were taking a taxi over to John's, where he was planning to leave at 6:00 to arrive at NOA at 9:00 for an expected 9:30 departure. People hate to get up at 5 when they could sleep until 6 if it's only to be kept waiting for a boat whose departure is delayed, but as it happened, their paperwork somehow didn't reach the border post so when they arrived there they were delayed 45 minutes while that was sorted, so they turned up at the dive center at 10:00, not 9:00, just as my students and I were exiting the pool, perfect! (for us :-)))

It turned out to be an amicable lot. They didn't mind that our first dive site would be Ras Morovi, where there is very easy entry for students. John and his friends hadn't dived it much before if at all, and John the pilot was attuned to my directions (head south, then east, then north, etc), since he would be leading all the others apart from the Charges and their guests, my students. So beautiful day, a little warm for 5 mm wetsuits, calm seas boating out, coral blotches clearly visible through lagoon green waters, and not only that but a sting ray visible in the sand just under the boat, my students dipped beneath the salty waves for the very first time in their lives.

Thankfully there were no ear problems. Buoyancy was an issue as it often is with students in shallow water in 5 mm wetsuits. Weighting was about right though. When we all got down we went over to visit the sting ray, who thought us rude, and showed his disdain by wandering off in such a way that we could follow him just at the edge of vis, which was not bad. We took the hint and went along the coral where a grey moray was seen swimming away from its cover. Acting like we'd caught him naked he scurried under a rock and poked his head out abashedly.

We continued along the coral to where the saddle is and just to our left was a cave where two weeks before I'd found a couple of large crayfish inside. At that time my two students might have missed the crayfish due to ear problems, not being able to get down to see in the cave, and this time they missed it due to buoyancy problems starting to take their toll where at that moment one of the students, riding a bit high in the water, touched the surface, his buddy rose to assist and ended there himself, and as he was regaining control and coming down the 3rd got himself in difficulty and a yo-yo scenario was unfolding.

I managed to get the two students to get down and stay there with Tim and Laura and as the 3rd wasn't descending, I went up to see what the problem was. He was uncomfortable and anxious, and though it doesn't happen often, hardly at all, he thought he'd better get back on the boat and try again next dive. As this was the first dive, and he'd made it 18 minutes, and the boat was right there, I saw him aboard and went back to rejoin the others, who were still right below. There was a mild current though, so as the student wasn't coming down right away, I needed to get back down before I lost contact with the others.

The rest of the dive went well. One of the students was inside of 100 bar already, so I led us up along the cabbage coral to 5 meters. We were fighting the current slightly so when he went down to 50 bar I turned and let us ride the current. The decreased depth and effortless motion stopped the air hemorrhage and the student became comfortable enough that he was signalling me OK at 50 bar even though he was easing down to 40. The cabbage coral is a good place for turtles to hang out and we saw one there. Floating effortlessly now we drifted back on to the cave with the crayfish, and this time they both saw them. A lone barracuda was hunkering about there as well. At that point my student admitted to 30 bar in his tank and we made an easy ascent to the surface, 37 minutes after having commenced our dive.

We went back across the bay to Ras Lima for our lunch break. The mystery meat sandwich wraps seemed much like chicken until someone remarked that one of the cats that Aliona had left us seemed to be missing. Naw, really the food was great, and plentiful, potato salad, fruit, cakes. Nomad takes care of its divers stomachs. They're French :=)

Ras Lima would have been a good place for a second dive except that there was algae there. If we hadn't had our own boat, that's probably where we'd have dived, as we have done before, nevermind the vis. But as we had our own boat and could negotiate amongst ourselves, we decided that Lima Rock north side would be a better spot. I had the boatman take us to the middle, which is where I dived with my divers. I warned the others about the currents at the ends and I hear that some divers got caught in them, but they can write their own blogs, or leave comments in this one.

My students and I along with Tim and Laura took our time kitting up and descended tentatively, no ear problems particularly, but buoyancy being still a threat. I had warned everyone to stay close to the reef, to use it as a reference to enable them to keep their depth, and avoid currents that might appear in the open waters off the reef. Everyone was fine as we descended to a sand patch at about 12 meters and did our exercises. The stressed student had accompanied us but declined to participate in the skills. The other two got through the reg clears and recoveries, the alternate air source breathing, and the mask clears ok. One diver's air was beginning to get low so we headed back up the reef, coming on yet another turtle.

Two divers were playing it high on the reef. I managed to get one back down but the other, the anxious one, surfaced, so I had the other two do an alternate air source ascent the short distance up to where he was. The boat came over. The anxious diver wanted to leave the water. He'd improved, made it to 25 minutes this time. The low on air student was down to 60 and we had accomplished our objectives so I thought it was time for him to exit as well. The other diver, whom we called Fred, still had 90 bar so I suggested we continue with perhaps a compass heading, get that out of the way. We agreed and descended into a cluster of dancing squids. We saw Tim and Laura to our left and I tapped my tank to attract them. They looked around but didn't see us, so Fred and I continued our descent. Near a rock with blue soft corals we headed out over the sand, reaching almost 18 meters, and back again to the same blue rock. Fred was now pushing 50 so we headed up found Tim and Laura at the surface.

It was a great day's diving. On the trip home, I had a chat with the student who had discovered that diving was not for him. The discovery had surprised him but I encouraged him to continue with the pool work which we had almost finished and join us in fun diving the next day. He took me up on it as far as pool after dusk but ended up on the ladder while the other two worked on their hovering and no-mask swims. As we exited the pool he accepted that he was having a visceral response to perceived danger and the training wasn't overcoming it. He decided not to join us next day, visited the beach instead.

Meanwhile Fred and Peter finished their pool work and we went to dinner and good company with knowledge that we could sleep late next day. The boat wasn't leaving now till when we wanted to go, but we made an effort to depart at the same time as Lisa and Theo in their two boats with Nomad's other customers. Destination, Lima Rock south. I told the boatman to head right for the middle and announced to all aboard that we were going to check current using the human dummy method. That would be Fred, who did a ten minute float for us as one of the requirements of his o/w course.

This 3rd o/w course dive has a two skills, mask flood and clear, and fin pivot with oral inflation. We dropped down on a sand ledge at about 10 meters for that, and under the nearest rock was a small sting ray. After admiring that we did our skills and then finned into the slight current, dropping to about 16 meters in the process. There was excellent vis and water temperatures very pleasant for diving, even in the cold thermocline. There were a lot of bat fish about and blue triggers, but one of my students was low on air early in the dive so I led us up to 12 meters and eventually to 5, letting us go with the current to conserve air, and keeping us at safety stop level. When that diver went down to 30 bar, we surfaced and did some surface skills while waiting for the boat. Peter hopped aboard and Fred and I went back down to burn off his 80 bar. On that part of the dive we saw a turtle swimming near the surface. We had agreed that when he went low I'd rig an SMB and he'd surface on CESA, controlled emergency swimming ascent. Fred did that just fine and of course we had to re-descend to get my reel tied off on a rock at 7 meters. Coming up from that I decided we'd better do a 3-min safety stop in the coral gardens there. So we had a nice long dive, something like 47 minutes.

I had the boatman take us to Ras Lima for lunch. While there, Fred had to complete his swim which put everyone including me in the water to check out the vis. There was definitely algae there so we negotiated a second dive at Lulu Island, between Ras Lima and Ras Morovi. It turned out to be a good call. It seems Ras Lima was collecting all the algae which was sweeping past Morovi and Lulu, and not impacting Lima Rock at all. I think the group enjoyed their dive on Lulu Island though I spent it with my o/w students. We stayed in the inside channel, doing the module 4 mask removal / replacement (and clear) and hovering, and I rigged an SMB for Peter and had him do a compass out and back to it, then a CESA from there. When we surfaced on that we completed the flexible skills with weight and bcd removal replacement, the two students putting on stellar performances after exacting pool training. The boat came and we put Peter aboard and Fred and I slipped below the surface to retrieve my SMB and burn off his remaining air. We heading north, turned east, but on the south leg hit current which swept us back the way we had come and caught the line to my SMB in coral knobs. We were ready to come up anyway, and everyone else was putting their gear away on the boat. Two divers successfully certified, great weekend.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Certified Tracy Lavin and Lucy Cowan PADI o/w via Nomad Ocean Adventure, Musandam

My logged dives #1160-1163
September 28 and 29, 2012

Divers pictured: Graeme, Jonny, Vance, Tracy, Bobbi, Lucy, Faye

We spent another great weekend, Bobbi and I, in the company of good friends in our running group who came over to Musandam, Dibba to do some diving with us. There are changes afoot at the border. The border was wide open the first decade we lived in UAE. People just drove back and forth to and from either side of the wadi marking the boundary, and apart from the dip in the dirt road, you wouldn't know you had left one country and entered another. The impression that it was all UAE was maintained by the fact that you could drive through Oman from UAE Dibba to Ras Al Khaima. You passed an Oman border post on the way blocking the dirt track up the mountain that came down the other side on Kassab, but even the RAK hash house harriers held an event every year where teams would run from RAK to Oman Dibba and end with a party on the beach there.

They still do the Wadi Bih run each year, but now it runs from Oman Dibba to the top of the mountain and back down to end with, thankfully, a party on the beach, but it's not possible to pass the Oman checkpoint to continue into RAK. The Omanis still have no border control in Dibba but a few years back UAE put one at each of the two road borders and has been waving across people with valid UAE entry documents. This caused very little impedance, until now they have started requiring tour operators drawing clients from UAE to submit a copy of each customer's passport and UAE visa. This has caused no end of frantic emails and disruption to business folk on the Oman side, as we scan documents and they scramble to comply with the new regulations. According to the newspapers they have even closed their inland border post, the one on the main road, leaving only the one on the corniche open, This was ostensibly so that they could better match permits with passports by funneling traffic through just the one border, and according to those same news reports, this has caused demonstrations to occur on the Oman side which blocked the border for a time so that no one could pass <

So it was that we anticipated some delay crossing into Oman via the only UAE border point that was open after work on Thursday night. However, when we arrived at the border checkpoint at around 9 pm there was no traffic apart from us, and they waved us across after the usual cursory glance at our passports and visas. My students Tracy and Lucy were following in a car driven by a driver borrowed from where one of them works, and they were concered because they'd made no provisions for the driver to cross the border, but they tuned up at the Nomad hostel in Oman at about 11, with the driver, who had made no prior arrangements to cross he border. Graham and Jonny however, with Faye in the car, were delayed when they crossed the next afternoon. They were made to sit 20 minutes in a waiting room before being allowed to pass. Go figgah, as we used to say in Hawaii.

Meanwhile Tracy and Lucy had arrived too late Thu night to get anything done on their PADI open water course apart from fill in the paperwork and take the quick review test. They even missed dinner, which was waiting for them under plastic in the oven. We went to bed about midnight and agreed to meet by the pool at 6 in the morning.

I had wanted to meet IN the pool at 6, but there was no one around to issue them equipment when they'd got there so late, nor was there anyone up at 6 am, through we discovered they'd left the equipment and tank fill rooms open for us, so we were at least in the pool after briefing and showing how the gear worked by around 7. But it's difficult to get through the first module in less than an hour, and PADI standards are to exit, de-kit, and re-kit for a second session, which we didn't start until after 8. We finished it comfortably by 9 but Nomad's new system is to get the boats to sea by 9:30 a.m., and whereas that is welcome if you're hoping to get back to port by 4 and back to Abu Dhabi by 8, if you're trying to teach a course starting on Friday morning, it makes it hard to get the required 3 modules in before the second dive of the first day.

Lisa was in charge of our boat and she chose sites that would provide my students an easy first dive at Ras Morovi, with a second dive at Lima headland, where we could do the third confined water module during the surface interval in order for the students to qualify for doing the second dive of the day as part of their PADI course. We had a nice ride out and chugged into the familiar shallow bay at Ras Morovi where I've started many a PADI o/w dive course, and were descending under the waves by 11:30.

It's a nice dive. There's a pretty reef with hard and soft corals and plenty of fish. From time to time we've seen sting rays and eagle rays here, barracudas out in the channel, and at times of the year playful squid spawning. Today the ladies began their dive careers a little tentatively, as students often do, nursing ear problems, having trouble coming to depth, but controlling buoyancy well. I finally got Tracy to come down to a cave and see a ledge full of crayfish, their feelers spread wide almost two meters apart. Right outside that ledge Bobbi found a crayfish carapace discarded by some predator, possibly human. As we passed around the corner you can hardly detect unless you have a compass, and glided over the cabbage coral there, Lucy pulled my fin because I was passing by a turtle I hadn't noticed. We followed him as he swam casually away and then rounded the coral to the north coming in over sand and boulders that aren't all that interesting unless you see turtles there, as we sometimes do, or enjoy the clownfish in the anemones, as we saw on this dive. But I know that just ahead lies a coral garden decorated with blue soft corals, and with a ledge and a cave that have been productive in our experience for interesting ray encounters. No rays today, but continuing on there are coral coves that ride above the sand at depth. We were staying at around 10 meters, and I led us up to 5 where we did our safety stop from 50 to 53 minutes in our dive. With students, Bobbi and I are pretty good about adhering to dive times.

Back aboard we crossed the wide bay to Ras Lima on the other side. Most of the divers tucked into lunch but Tracy and Lucy and I took small tanks over the side to try and get through module 3. We had some problems. My 5 mm wetsuit required me to go deeper than 1 or 2 meters in order to compress it so I could stay down comfortably, and the ladies were having ear problems preventing quick descent to 4 meters. There was a little surge in the shallows where we ended up, but we managed to get through it before we exhausted the patience of the divers back on the boat, and made it back aboard for the 2nd dive on Ras Lima.

We were the last in the water since we had to change our tanks, and the ladies were becoming a little waterlogged. But we eventually made it beneath the waves where we were a little disappointed by the poorest vis of the weekend. We started down gradually along the coral, enjoying the fish, especially the big sweet lipped puffer fish. Eventually we found a sand patch suitable for the dive #2 skill set. Happily neither Tracy nor Lucy had any problem with mask clearing or any of the tasks they were asked to do in the water, except maybe hovering, which I recall was a challenge even for the instructor candidates at my IDC in 1993. Once we were at depth our dives went well. This one was kept to 10-12 meters again, moving up to 5 meters at 47 minutes and surfacing at 50 after a safety stop. Toward the end of that dive I found a turtle in a cave looking like it was thinking to bed down for the night, but we disturbed it and it meandered off, possibly mildly annoyed with us. There were plenty of covered ledges in the area, and we were the last divers it would see that day, so I'm sure it survived the night.

We had stopped our dive a little short of the point but one diver who went there reported better vis and devil rays and eagle rays off the point. I do like the point myself, the water seems to go riot with bigger fish as you near it, though the bottom gets deep there. But we were happy to have got through the day with 3 pool modules and two dives completed, and now we were heading home to do the last two pool modules for the course, which we completed just before dinner at 9. We were so tired, me in particular now that my work requires me to drive to Al Ain every day. I was falling asleep at the dinner table, so Bobbi and I excused ourselves and we went back to our room. So glad we didn't need to get up for any pool modules next morning. We were exhausted from a long work-week and a longer first day of the weekend, 6 to 9, 15 hours (of pleasure, it's a great privilege to be in a position to teach diving as a professional hobby.) We slept soundly, me from the time my head touched the pillow, till after 8 next morning. I guess we needed it.

Rested for the following day I had only to plan a program that would get us through our last two dives of the course and include all the so called flexible skills as well. Because of recurrent ear issues I decided to plan the controlled emergency swimming ascent as the last item of business for the first dive (dive #3 in the course) and do all the other flexible skills during the surface interval. That would leave the u/w compass heading, which we'd leave for the last dive.

It was a calm day's boating and currents on Lima Rock were pretty benign, so we pulled in there for a first dive on the south side. Vis was not bad on the rock. I had a slate with me and I wrote a note on it for the ladies to keep an eye out for the little blue cleaner wrasse that the batfish so love when they park themselves at the cleaning stations and let themselves be administered to. The schools of batfish, and the seedy side, those somewhat obvious but tolerated cleaning brothels where the big batfish like to hang out, are one of the attractions of Lima rock. So are the huge honeycomb moray eels, though we didn't see any today, but we saw another turtle, and at one point, once the ladies had cleared their ears and we had got almost to 18 meters, we came into a huge school of barracudas, hundreds of them. We swam through them and enjoyed them until they managed to distance themselves from us, and we headed back to the rock and ascended slowly until we found a place where, 45 min into the dive, I thought we might tie off my smb, or submersible marker buoy, or what we more commonly call a sausage. By tying it off on a rock and fixing it to its tie, I was able to partially inflate it before releasing the reel without having it drag me up in the process. This allowed me to jam a lot of air in it before I released it which made the line quite taught. Of course this wouldn't work if you were planning to move with it attached to yourself, but it was a well deployed line if I say so myself. The ladies were able to CESA up it to end their dive on a high note.

For the second day in a row we missed our lunch break to work on our dive course. It's a little hectic to do it in just two days, but we managed. We got all the surface work done and then dropped in near the headland end of Lima Rock North side, near the submerged tunnel that goes clear through the rock at that end. As usual we worked our way slowly downwards as ears permitted but not far into the dive we encountered a current sweeping us eastward. At one point it was even a down current so I was constantly checking how the clearing was coming and struggling a bit myself to keep us together and at a comfortable depth. Our ladies did very well in such adverse conditions. Eventually we were able to work down to the sand where the currents are lighter. We also had some coves to sneak into for relief from the current. Here I decided to have their ladyships do their compass work, which they pulled off quite well given that 12-15 fin kicks north took them far whereas turning and trying to do the same thing back took them almost nowhere. But their direction was true so we completed the compass heading on target and regained our point. After that, we played in some swim-throughs, and Tracy and I both got some sea urchins in our knees, something which concerned Tracy a lot more than it did me. By now the current seemed to have shifted and we rode it comfortably back the way we had come. As I was taking us up to our safety stop we hit the point where the current was again blocking us so I eased us into a ledge with neutral current and again 47 to 50 min of our dive we spent in safety stop. We'd got down to about 16 meters on this one, nice dive, certified two new divers, very happy day.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Will the following entities please stop spamming my blog

Whereas I have been experimenting with Google Ads on my blog, just to see what would happen (nothing much has :-( but I don't care :-)) this blog is essentially non-commercial.  I therefore would respectfully request that the following providers of services in the UAE please desist making vacuous comments on my blog (such as those shown below).

Comments are welcome if they contribute to the conversation around diving in the UAE or anywhere, but the incessant comments generated no-telling-how show no understanding of what is in my posts apart from the fact that they are targeting a blog whose content is often about sea sports in Musandam.

If you would like to comment with any kind of substance regarding the content of the posts, welcome, but the comments of which the following are but a small sampling are becoming annoying, and I've been moderating them as spam (but they keep coming, so Google/Blogger needs to improve its spam filter).

The above were published apparently, but I removed them as spam using the tool shown.  Interesting there has been no spam as yet on THIS particular post :-). I added some appropriate tags to see if I could attract some ... 

Meanwhile, my Google ad earnings have been hardly stellar. I'll leave it on a while longer and maybe switch it off :-)

As a footnote here: I have renewed my request that the spammers please desist from spamming my blog here:

Amazingly, they have left spam comments at almost every post apart from this one, suggesting that they ARE reading the blog.  In that case, thanks :-)

I take that back, checking below I see that they did get one post through in Dec 2012.  Ok, the brute force attack does let some get through, and now you see what I mean.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Musandam with Nomad Ocean Adventure: Fun diving with Bobbi and Nicki

Logged dives #1158-1159

Bobbi and I hadn’t dived the entire month of August.  I was away on holiday the whole month in Georgia and Armenia <>, hiking for exercise, no diving, and Bobbi was there with me for two weeks of that. I returned home a week ago but we spent my first weekend home resting and reuniting.  Then I had my first week of classes which is always stressful, and after 5 days of that, we decided to get some sleep Thursday after work and not drive over to Dibba to dive on Friday so as to take it easy that morning and not have to drive across the UAE until late afternoon.  For comic relief, we took Nicki with us and we arrived at Nomad Ocean Adventure in Oman Dibba right about dinner time.  It was perfect to arrive there after a relaxing day, fall into eating good grub and enjoying old friends and dive buddies, and eventually fall into bed and sleep comfortably all night, and not have to get up next morning until 8.

One of our acquaintances there was Khaled Al Sultani, a serious sea-life photographer younger than Dusty but larger than Glenn, and even more talented with a camera, whom we’d met on a recent trip to the Damaniyites. Here’s a link to his videos from that day <>.  On this day in Dibba, just one boat was going and we were all in the one, so we met again underwater where Khaled was photographing a pair of huge orange nudibranchs lying one atop the other under a panoply of purple processes.

We were at Octopus Rock. Current was right for it, just gentle to the north but not throwing us off the rock, vis was excellent, maybe 15-20 meters, and we’d descended in clouds of blue triggerfish. There were morays everywhere it seemed, large crayfish under ledges, caught in my torch beam, and then Khaled waved us over to see these phenomenal nudibranchs which he illuminated in his video lamps.

We rounded the rock in the blue coral patches and found some barracuda hulking in the far valley, lots of them. We found a ledge heading north-south, perhaps the wall Theo had told us about, and followed it south away from where we’d seen the barracuda, with every intent to retrace our fin kicks and recover the rock where we started. There were lovely things to see there and back, little blue crayfish with white feelers jutting out the rocks, morays, lion fish, Nicki found a black nudibranch but couldn’t find it to show it to me.  But she found a remarkable slipper lobster <>.  She also found a small scorpion fish in the sand just before we met divers coming the other way presumably from Octopus Rock.

But we weren’t at Octopus Rock.  We were at the submerged rock just north west of it.  It’s a complicated site.  I guess the north south wall we had found might lead us back to Octopus rock at its southern end, but that had not been obvious from there, it just seemed to fall away to depth.  But we rounded the little rock we’d arrived at instead and in fact it’s a great place to do a safety stop, about 5 meters deep, and swirling with jacks and smaller schools of fish weaving in and out of one another in shades of silver.

Back aboard our boat we broke out lunch, good fare on Nomad boats, sandwich wraps of mystery substance, but tasty rice or pasta, fruits, soft drinks.  After eating and changing tanks, we headed south along the coast past Ras Morovi  to Lulu Island.

At Lulu Island we kitted up and descended on our usual dive where we drop on the west of the island, then round it to the north, and proceed underwater on an easterly heading to reach the other islands just further that way, finning at 16 meters along the bottom.  As we started heading east Nicki managed to rile some aggressive clown fish in the anemones on the way over.  We arrived finally in the usual spot amidships on the far island north and we headed clockwise around the island.  As we were turning the north corner we came on a black marble cowtail ray nudged up against a rock, trying to pretend we couldn’t see him but getting agitated over the fact we wouldn’t go away.  Eventually we left him alone and completed our circle of the island to come into the gap between that one and the next further south.  There in the sand beyond we saw a ray flying past, possibly the same one we had seen earlier.  We tried to chase it but he was just too far away and faster than we were.  So we continued south along the wall, finding morays and lion fish, until toward the end of that island again we came on yet another cowtail ray nestled into the wall like the first one, and rippling his skirts in the same way.  This could have been three ray sightings, or two, or the same ray encountered three times on one dive. Whatever, he was interesting to observe at close quarters with his nose pointed up against a rock wall, and no means of escape short of panic.  We were careful to give him space so as not to trigger that.

We were in a bay of islands which we followed south and then predictably west, heading for the seaward side of the island where we’d put in on the landward side. Visibility wasn’t as good as on the first dive, lots of particles in the water, though still good visibility.  We were looking for turtles reputed to be here, and we were gliding over coral patches sloping down into sand that looked inviting to turtles and divers as well.  But eventually this petered out into sand sloping deeper to the north (funny, we were diving with a 4th guy named Peter J), and I thought if we headed west over that we’d arrive back at our island.  We were at about 17 meters, it was deeper to the north, so I tried to angle slightly to the south.  Ahead of us was a dark spot that seemed it could be land, but turned out to be mirage, just receding dark water.  We went over this until my air was approaching 50 bar, 45 minutes into the dive.  The only good thing was we had a 4th ray encounter, another cow tail, but not the same one, this one was bigger and took off in a cloud of bottom silt.
The group seemed content with this, but I was concerned and decided to surface and see where we were.  When I did so I discovered the current must have nudged us north because we were past the island we were shooting for and almost to the wall of the mainland. So I went down and led the rest of the way west over the sand to where the coral resumed with beautiful fish and we were able to conduct our safety stops with something to see.  

Because we were in a place we weren’t supposed to be I got out my SMB, or submersible marker buoy, otherwise known as a sausage.  They are tricky to deploy.  First timers are liable to get dragged up with them as they fill with air if they’re not quick enough to release the trigger letting the reel spool out the line as the sausage shoots upward. I got mine up fine and Nicki decided to deploy hers because there’s this thing among divers to see whose sausage is bigger and can be deployed fastest.  Mine was first, but Nicki wanted me to mention that hers was new. She had also come across a reel in the sand and plopped it in her BCD pocket.  These things can cost $70-$100 so it’s great if you find one.  

When we surfaced, again at 57 minutes, Peter told us we had missed seeing a trio of seahorses that Nicki was showing him, about the time I’d decided to surface to see where we were.  I thought "darn!" at the time, but we’ve seen lots of seahorses lately.  But when we were talking to Nicki about it in the car on the way home she said she didn’t see any seahorses.  Turned out they were pipefish, sort of a straight line version of a seahorse with a seahorse head and beak.  Nicki hadn’t mentioned them earlier because every time she was going to, Bobbi had said again how happy she was with her new mask which she bought in Texas after having problems with ill-fitting masks earlier in the summer in Philippines and Perhentien in Malaysia.  Her mask had developed a leak in the skirt just as we were leaving on that trip and the one she took with her hurt her nose with its plastic.  She bought a new one in Malapascua but that one was just as bad.  So when she was in Texas she bought one from a company that accommodated special faces.  Anyway that’s about all she talked about on the way home, and she wanted me to mention  it in my blog.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fun diving on Al Marsa liveaboard to Musandam

My logged dives #1152-1157

You don't get on a liveaboard to Musandam for superior diving. You do it to get away, to totally relax, to be pampered in a cycle of dive, eat, sleep, repeat.

I put my deposit down and let myself flow into the break from real life back on dry land.  On Thursday I lingered at work till about 2:30 and then hit the road, direction Dubai, moving slowly over to Dibba driving alone 3 hours in my car. I got torch batteries on the way, gas at the pump in Oman, took my time, and arrived at the Dibba Oman port well before dusk, in time to check out the large sharks hauled up on the boat landing slab at the impromptu fish market. One was a guitar shark. I was one of the first on board, others trickled in from 6:00 to as late as 7:30, and when all were present, we were invited for dinner on the top deck in the harbor. It's not practical to eat al fresco on a moving boat, so the first meal is served in the harbor.  This being the case, there was no need for anyone to get there before 8 pm.

I was along because one of my ex-students, Greg Golden, had assembled a group of his buddies for one more stage in a “summer of diving” while their spouses were away for the summer. I'd had to miss their trip to Kassab because Bobbi and I were in Malapascua, but two weeks before they'd been in the Daminiyites. I was finally able to hook up for this big splurge liveaboard trip, much more affordable while my spouse was away in Houston, though I miss Bobbi as a dive buddy. The cabins on the liveaboard are cramped but fine for a couple, and with Bobbi, all our dives last an hour. On this trip I was buddied with the dive guide, and he was obligated to end his dives at 50 bar or 50 minutes, whichever comes first.
Itinerary for the trip - Thanks to Simon Lange for use of the photo
We motored up to White Rock overnight where aboard the brown dhow I got a lie in till almost 7 a.m and awoke to a brilliantly clear morning moored in a fjord surrounded by stark mountains rising from the blue sea.
Thanks to Simon Lange for contributing the photo

 The dhow stayed where it was and we got in a speedboat and went to the seaward side of a ras called Kaisah. I don't think I'd ever dived that side before, but the current was ripping. We all got buffeted along until we'd hit an underwater cove and the backwash created a back-current that we had to struggle into till we reached the other side and hitched a ride on the rip current again. The current gave us good vis, but there wasn't much to see, nothing unusual at any rate, until we got out to the point. Just before the point we hit another back current and this was the end of the dive for Greg and his buddy, another Greg (Perry). Both were low on air from the hard finning into the back currents, and I myself was at 75 just 35 minutes into the dive, but pulling myself along on the rocks, so when Greg and Greg went up, Brian joined me, and we rounded the point. Here we saw a barracuda, and sheltering in the relative slack around the point, a turtle. It was a nice start to a 4-dive day.
Who trained this guy? Thanks to Greg Perry for this photo of Greg Golden, as he explained "demonstrating the risks of improper SMB deployment as part of my "Don't do this" series of advanced scuba instruction.  While it looks very realistic, I was totally in control of the sitch."

Breakfast was waiting on the sun deck, and when we'd had that we still had an hour and a half to kill so I went and laid down in my cabin and completed my lie-in with a morning nap. Then at 11 we all piled back in the boat for a second dive on the inside of Ras Kaisah.

This was the same place we'd overnighted last time Bobbi and I had come out with this company, only on that trip the dive leader had taken us inside Ras Kaisah on the first dive and then on the headland opposite for the second, and I recall that all aboard were a little disappointed in the choice of dive sites, especially once we'd seen that White Rock lay just off the mouth of the khor. But White Rock has variable currents. Whereas many people who shell out for this kind of trip are committed and experienced divers, there are also divers with limited skills, so dive sites are selected conservatively. Ironically you could get a speed boat from Sultan Qaboos Harbor to advertise a trip specifically to White Rock, if you wanted to dive it, but it doesn't seem to be on the Al Marsa agenda. They've been in the area a while, I'm sure they have reasons for avoiding it.

Brian explained that current would come from the north and strike the headland and diverge in such a way that current would be going out to sea from a particular spot and running inland on the other side of that spot. If the current had slackened we could dive to the left toward the point where we'd seen the turtle and had good visibility, but he seemed concerned when we reached the spot that the current was too strong, so he had us head inland with the reef on our left. This took us into poorer vis away from the point, and though it was a comfortable, pleasant dive, we didn't see much apart from lots of fishes, though Tom Longo, another instructor along with us, saw turtles in his buddy pair (with my cabin-mate Guy).
Red lion fish, photo by Simon Lange
So now it was time for lunch, and after that I lay down on the cushions on the aft deck for an afternoon nap, really shaking off stresses from a week at work where we were short of teachers and creaking at the seams to keep that ship afloat. Sleep was facilitated because the dhow was under way and the ships engine and the slop of the sea on the hull lulled me. When it came to anchorage in Khor Habilain, and the engine stopped, I awoke to the sound of Led Zepplin from someone's iPod playing from the top deck above.

Three p.m was time for our third dive, this one on the inside of Ras Dilla at a site Al Marsa have named Muqtah (no telling why). Brian again outlined a conservative profile. We would go in the speedboat a little ways out the headland and then work our way back towards the dhow. By not heading seaward out the point, we would avoid any threat of current (and the interesting animals that like current that one might encounter at the ras, or point, itself). As some people say, “it's all good”, and Brian is a good dive leader. We were settling into each other's dving styles, and the Lebanese named Roland whom Brian was shepherding was proving to be good on air consumption. So I didn't mind joining him again. Apart from Roland, I was the odd diver out. Everyone else was paired. Rather than assign me to Roland, Brian had had Roland buddy with him, leaving me to be a free agent, to attach myself to whomever I pleased. The last two dives I had ended up with Brian. This third dive I started out with him and Roland.

The direction we were heading had hazy visibility, but to compensate if Brian was looking in the coral walls I would look out in the sand, and if Brian moved to the sand I would keep an eye on the corals. The corals were teeming with fishes but the interesting stuff was out in the sand. At one point I saw a big fish there, the only time I had tapped my tank up until then. It was a yellow finned barracuda. On Brian's watch he tapped to show us a sting ray, a large marble one like the one I'd seen at Lima Rock two weeks before. He rippled fast along the sand but when we chased it, it wheeled toward the reef and the passed slowly before us, so I could clearly see its marbled dorsal side. It headed slowly toward a hole so we followed it there and shined out torches on it.
Scorpion fish, photo by Simon Lange
There was more in the sand. Brian showed us a scorpion fish I would likely have missed. He also noticed a small jaw fish and pointed it out just as it slipped deep into its hole, where I could barely see it in my torchlight. He also pointed out some tiny arch-backed harlequin shrimp in one of the soft corals. Brian is from Philippines so when he showed me that he took me back to Malapascua, where the dive guides were so good at finding the small stuff like harlequin shrimp time and time again.

When that dive was done we got back aboard the dhow and it headed south toward Lima headland where we would do a night dive and two dives the following day in the area where we normally visit on day trips from Dibba.

However, one great difference in liveaboard diving is that when we arrived at Ras Lima, it was dusk (signalled by a booming canon shot from the seafaring town of Lima at the start of Ramadhan), and we were about to do a night dive there. This turned out to be one of my best night dives ever. We had a large group and people stayed together and called each other over to their discoveries, which seemed to happen one after another. We saw lots of eels, including one peppercorn or geometric moray, hovering lion fish, and a couple of trumpet fish.
Peppercorn moray, photo by Simon Lange

There were lots of squids that were attracted to our lights. They would swim into them, right in our faces in other words, and then escaped in a cloud of ink when we touched them. There was a scorpion fish that was walking along the bottom on his lower set of fins, and a baby one just a centimeter long, very hard to see. I found a small crab in a rock and nearby a cuttlefish that became agitated when lit up. There were large pufferfish resting on the bottom that just ignored our lights. There was a rope running down to depth encrusted in marine life and at 18 meters deep we found a seahorse on it.
Seahorse at night; photo by Greg Perry
At one point a marble ray without a tail appeared and rippled through the divers lucky enough to see him. I was the last in the group so I saw him plop down in the sand away from the lights, raising a cloud around him as he did so. This dive lasted just 40 minutes, by order of our dive leader. At the end I wondered why my buddies, usually so meticulous about time, hadn't gone up yet, and then I discerned from their unfamiliar gear that they were divers from another dhow mooring in the same cove that night.

Fluids tasted so much better after a night dive, and I'm not sure how long after dinner I went to bed, but crew hands were stomping on the foredeck overhead of our bunks at 6 a.m so there was little chance of oversleeping the 7 a.m dive. This was planned for Octopus Rock, and during the briefing Brian mentioned that if there was current present at the dive site he would abort that site and take us to Ras Morovi. When we arrived at Octopus Rock there were two boats there already with divers preparing to enter the water, but Brian pointed at the obvious current and told the boat driver to take us over to Ras Morovi. I was disappointed on the way over but at least Brian's choice of Ras Morovi sites was the seawardmost face of Jilly Island, which I have dived only once before. I had been planning to join Brian and Roland on the Octopus Rock dive because the dive site is complicated and I've never led a dive there and knew where I was accurately. I was first kitted up at Ras Morovi before Roland had started to put on his tank, and Brian was helping others enter the water. First in were Tom Longo and Guy, my cabin-mate, so since I was ready I decided on the spur of the moment to join them. I didn't have time even to ask. I just let Brian know what I was doing and descended with them, and after a while they understood we were a threesome.

We hit a sand bottom at 17-21 meters and went along in fine clear water, each of us using torches to see better. There wasn't much to see apart from beautiful blue soft corals, a moray or two, and lion fish in the crevices. But soon Tom started banging on his tank with his torch, pointing to a ray in the sand. As he started to ripple he stirred fine silt and it was even then hard to see what was causing the commotion, but I arrived overhead in time to see a large cow tail ray, minus his cowtail, heading away from us divers. He was too fast to follow for any distance.

We went the length of the island north to south and where we turned the corner we encountered strong head current. No one communicated not to go so we clawed our way forward. Tom signalled 100 bar at this point and it was hard breathing to get through to where we were heading north on the other side. Guy pulled even with me and we found ourselves surrounded by bat fish, some undergoing complete makeovers from the administrations of the tiny wrasse. We were just entering that slack space, me in the lead by now, when a ray shot past me over my left shoulder (reef on my right). I thought it was an eagle ray from its speed but it was more brown spotted and diamond shaped (I think), but I remember the tight body, long tail, and speed so fast there was no point in having a camera. The guys strung out behind me would have seen it for a few more seconds as it overtook me. Tom said he thought it was an eagle ray.

I doubt that because I saw two more eagle rays later in my dive, and the one that shot past me was not one of those. I was just passing through 100 bar at this point and my buddies were rising higher on the reef. Below me I saw a turtle. Vis was decent but not superb so animals were vanishing into the haze. I could see my buddies were ascending, I could see their fins near the surface. We were only 40 min into the dive and my air was holding. I was still at ten meters and I had an SMB and I signaled that I was deploying it and I think it must have been obvious that if they wanted me I'd be below the SMB. We'd been finning into a mild current, it seemed to be bringing out the animals, and I decided I'd just hang out literally at 12 meters, and let the current carry me the way we had come. I figured I might encounter other divers from our group coming up that way, and I could join them.

That's when I saw the eagle rays. This has happened to me on wrecks in Abu Dhabi when for some reason or another I've been left alone and had the opportunity to watch the rays come back to the wreck. They seem to avoid groups of divers but they don't notice one diver hovering until they're already on the scene and then in the case of eagle rays, they shoot off like a jump jet. The first eagle ray did that and I thought like wow, when moments later another happened along. Just like the first, he rippled toward me, noticed that I was not one of them, and departed in an impressive display of power and grace. Two eagle rays, rare and sublime.

I played no games with time or bar. I ascended with 50 bar and reached the surface with 53 min. on my computer. I had heard the boat gears grinding just minutes before but when I reached the surface I was alone with my SMB. I was just on the far side of a gap in the rocks, so I swam through the gap and saw the boat, as well as a turtle passing on the reef below. The boat happened to be downcurrent, so I was there in no time.

Back at breakfast on the sun deck you could feel the anticipation of the upcoming whale shark dive. Peter was wondering what dive he could do with his advanced student and we were talking about a whale shark specialty dive and how in case the WS didn't show up, we could drag an object through the water and students could practice not touching it and how to keep buoyancy while keeping up with it and keeping the correct distance from it, and photographing it without flash and so on. In his briefing Brian always tried to avoid mentioning the something big so as not to jinx the dive, and he explained how he liked to dive the south side but if there was any current he'd switch the the north.

We headed over to the rock in the speedboat and Brian checked the current north, east and south of the island, and found one midway along the south side. But it was pushing to the east, he figured we could drift with it, and he figured on the east point we could round the rock to end the dive on the north side, and that was our plan.

I was planning to dive with Brian but Tom and Guy were in the water first and shouted for me to join them, so I jumped and went with them. There was a major current, more than I would have tolerated if I'd had to make a decision based on my usual method of jumping in the water and seeing if there's current, and if there is mid rock, go to the other side. But it was turning into a nice dive. My buddies kind of deferred to me so I followed my whale shark strategy of keeping at about 12 meters, though the current was pitching us all about, and we were sometimes at 16 meters or more. Meanwhile the other divers had gone deeper, to 20 meters and were diving deep. Vis was very poor. I didn't think they'd be able to see a whaleshark overhead whereas at 12 meters you cover where the WS is most likely to be.

But the problem is when vis is bad you can't see far enough out into the water to see where the WS is likely to be. We saw lots of interesting things. There were shoals of barracuda passing and we finned back against the current and managed to join them. At times we found ourselves in the midst of playing trevally darting about. Always we were carried by the current, at times faster than at others, but always cognizant of the fact that the current might want to sweep us off the rock and make us miss our turn through the gap to the other side. So I was playing this dive 12 to 16 meters and close to the rock.

Other divers were playing it deeper and farther from the rock, due to the slope at that depth. Consequently we heard their tank banging but I thought maybe a divemaster was warning a student to get in out of the current. But no, that was their first whale shark sighting. They said it passed overhead. They were too deep at 20 meters, the WS was at 16 and moving against the current, and they couldn't chase it, so they didn't get a great look. But we were at 12 and couldn't see to 16 and that far out to sea.
Picture by Greg Perry (with thanks)

When I saw Brian at the corner he signalled me a definite WS sighting, so I knew then that we had missed it. Back on the boat he told me they'd seen a second small WS as they were doing their safety stop at the corner. Meanwhile guy and Tom and I were heading for the spot on the north side where I'd seen a WS two weeks earlier, but we had no luck on our outing this day.

Except for the missed whale shark, in aggregate it was a phenomenal dive weekend. When we came up and the boat came to pick us up, we saw a pod of a dozen dolphins breaking the surface just beyond the boat. I tried to swim over to them but they dived and moved further away, always out of sight. They and the barracudas and trevally on the Lima Rock dive made it a better than normal Lima Rock dive. I've seen my quota of whale sharks already the summer. I had a great weekend out, relaxing and highly charged in spurts, challenging diving, nice company, nice time.
Chasing dolphins, photo by Simon Lange (with thanks)