Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Last day diving Komodo: Sabolan Kecil and Basar

July 31, Wicked Divers, Sabalon Island, just outside Komodo National Park
My logged dives #1228-1229

Find Sabolan Islands on this map just northwest of Lambuanbajo

We're heading for Lombok tomorrow.  If bandwidth is better there I might try and upload videos; otherwise they will be forthcoming on my return to UAE soon, so stay tuned

Bobbi and I booked on the 'big' (bigger than the alternative) Perama boat leaving Labuanbajo Aug 1 bound for Lombok and due to arrive there Aug 1.  We got a cabin, $200 each for the trip, which includes 3 nights on the boat and stops at Rincon to see dragons and at other places in Sambawa like Mayo for snorkeling.  We are due to arrive in Mataram or Singgigi the evening of Aug 3. 

Meanwhile we had a day to kill, and where to spend it, seeing mantas or sharks, or just a quick hop local dive to a nearby island, bet back early, and not hassle currents.  Bobbi seemed happy with the latter prospect so we booked a boat just the two of us with Wicked Divers for $75 each of us for a short nearby, 45 minute distant, island that is not really in Komodo park.  I suppose that's why its coral did not seem as pristine as with the other sites, and possibly because bombing has been done here, there were not so many fish as there are inside the park, or maybe if we had been there another day, we would have seen plenty.  Our guide Christin said that sharks were often seen here (we didn't see any) but then again the last few boats to go to Makassar Reef didn't see manta/s either, so to describe a dive site on the basis of one day diving it is a little like a blind man describing an elephant.

On the day we were joined by a couple of wholesome looking but slightly chubby Swedish girls (they'll never find my blog, right?) so we had others in our group.  The girls were fun to chat with, but our diving today was on the least interesting part of the Komodo diving elephant, though it was relaxing and pleasant, exactly what we had bargained for.  On the first dive I remember a green moray, garden eels and just after that some barracuda just ahead of our group. Along the reef we were bothered by the most annoying batfish that tried to swim in the way of any photos we might be taking. Apart from these highlights there were the usual critters. We got down to 26.5 meters and dive time around 58 min.

Bobbi and I went snorkeling during our surface interval at an idyllic beach location, with turquoise water turning to deep blue where the sand sloped downwards.  Right here we saw a hundred or so small squid aimed in a line all the same way with the youngest (smallest) at the end of the line.  I continued over some coral and this is where, half an hour later, we began our dive with intent to go north, the way the captain said the current was running.  But instead we were pushed to the south and drifted that way over a lengthy stretch of nothing until we finally picked up coral on the other side and continued our drift.

This dive was a little more interesting than the first one.  We found a couple of blue spotted rays, always fun the way they ripple along the bottom, kicking up sand at they go, not as graceful as their cousins.  Bobbi said she saw two turtles, one at the beginning of the dive and one at the end, which we followed on our safety stop.  I found a scorpion fish hiding in a small cabbage coral and we saw a couple of clutches of crayfish.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Bobbi and Vance diving with lotsa sharks in Komodo National Park, Indonesia

July 29, diving in Komodo National Park with Komodo Dive Center
My logged dives #1225-1227 

Besides the manta hangouts, there were only two good dive sites in Komodo Park that we really wanted to see that the liveaboard wouldn't go to, and these were Castle Rock and Crystal Rock (and the nearby Cauldron, all three well worth a day out from Labuan Bajo). Both are near each other and we managed to arrange the trip with Moritz who manages Komodo Dive Center <>. So on the appointed day we pitched up at his shop in the morning and got on his decent boat and headed across the channel to the dive sites in the northeast corner of Komodo Island, a boat trip of around 2 hours.

We dived Crystal Rock first. Crystal Rock juts a little above water which must make it a shoal that's invited shipwreck, though we saw no evidence of that. We were hoping to see big creatures here but didn't really, since we hit between rising and falling tides. Crystal Rock has a saddle with another submerged hump and we spent the dive going between the two. We descended in a school of purple surgeon fish and swam around jacks and the usual reef fish while circumnavigating the rock, until near the bump past the saddle we came on a resting reef shark. He posed for pictures but then decided we were too near and wandered off, but then decided he wanted his picture made after all so meandered back and took to rest again. After that I don't recall what we saw because I'm still thinking about the next dive, but our maximum depth was 26.5 and dive time around 55 min.

After a snack and coffee, we dropped in on Castle Rock which met expectations as far as beefy white-tips are concerned. Bobbi and I had been joined by a Spaniard with just 30 dives on the first dive. He was ok but he decided to join his friends on the second dive, so it was just Bobbi and I and our guide Alex on the remaining two, and being a small and most experienced group, we were first in as well. This turns out to be a good thing on Castle Rock, since the sharks were plentiful and all around up when we first arrived on the reef. We descended to about 22 meters and hooked into rocks to hold ourselves into the current, but it wasn't so strong that I couldn't swim over to where the sharks were if I wanted. A group of them and some big jacks were gravitating toward a certain bommie, but when the others joined us they moved away from where we were and we hooked in to the balcony and watched the sharks move to and fro over the lip just in front of us in the blue. Alex said he counted 12 but I told him when I was in Palau I could only count up to 13 before they had moved around so much that I lost track. But there were at least that many. We hung on for 25 min or so till I got within 5 min of deco and then we moved off and let ourselves go with the current to the far side of the rock where we basically hung out in the lee of the current and burned off air, coming up after 50 min, maybe 24 meters max depth.

The last dive was in a channel between two islands called the Caldron. This dive started in a coral rubble valley that looked like it might see a manta occasionally but we saw only sharks and turtles here. Not that there is anything wrong with sharks and turtles, and the occasional big green moray eel. We got some nice videos of these creatures as we moved from the rubble valley up the coral and into the caldron, which is a hole with a white sand bottom of 22 meters from its rim at 12 meters. We found turtles and one of our sharks swimming here. The current nudged us constantly to complete our dive, and near the safety stop we were entertained by a wayward whitetip and another small turtle that led my GoPro on a merry chase through a school of colorful reef fish. This dive was shallower than the others, less than 20 meters, and again lasted over 50 minutes, with air consumption compromised a little with the constant wrestling with the fairly mild current.

This might be our last day of Komodo diving. We had thought to go on a dive on sites near Rinca Island where we might put ashore and see the famous dragons, but we're also thinking of doing a 3 day cruise that stops at both Rinca and Komodo on its way to Lombok, which appeals to me, and if we do that then we don't need to make any special trips to see dragons. Alternative ways to get to Lombok are to fly to Denpasar and then come on a cross channel ferry maybe straignt to Gili Trawangan, or take the local bus to the ferry to Sambawa, transfer to minibus to Bima and then cross Sambawa on a day bus to where we get the ferry to Lombok, a journey of 24 hours by the time we reach the other side.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Vance, Bobbi, and Dusty do Manta Research Diving in Komodo National Park

July 23-26, Wicked Divers Komodo National Park
My logged dives #1213-1224

Dusty and I met in Bali on July 17, moved out of our constantly boombox noisy $20 hotel room on Poppies 2 at midnight, and moved into another called Keden 2 (same price) we had found in a sound shadow on Sorga, the lane connecting Poppies 1 and 2. We tried our hand at surfing next day (Dusty doesn't have the knack and I have lost it :-) and waited for Bobbi to arrive from Houston 2 days later. We went to Ubud, no longer quiet and traditional Balinese, but a suburb now of greater Denpasar. We made a couple of hikes we found in an old bit torrent version of Lonely Planet Guide, now paved over and crowded with motorcycles, and thus not mentioned in the latest version of the book that Bobbi brought with her from the states (and now we know why).

We flew from Denpasar to Labuanbajo, Flores, on July 22 in order to start a 4-day manta research trip starting next day July23 with Wicked Divers. There's someone at the shop there (named Mariel) who answers email promptly which was a great help in our planning the trip from different corners of the earth. There are a couple dozen dive outfits in Labuanbajo but most are not that easily findable online and those that have web pages don't always respond to mail. One shop even messed up our booking after we had accepted to go on the trip, and that's how we ended up with Wicked, because all questions were answered quickly by Mariel by email, and because they had a “budget” boat focusing on mantas, which appealed to me, and I managed to convince Bobbi and Dusty to come on board with it.

Dusty managed to get us a room in Labuanbajo at Golo Hilltop Hotel, $45 for a triple, because he chanced on a vacancy due to cancellation, and they picked us up from the airport and took us to a hilltop place just out of earshot of town with a remarkable view. We thought it was a little shabby at first but after looking around town and finding nothing better and plenty worse we returned to the hotel at sunset (the best time) with new appreciation for the place. It was foreign owned by people who worked there during the day, and after relaxing in the pool with the volcanic islands view at sundown we tried to book places after returning from our liveaboard, but found there were no rooms available there till September, so we were lucky to land there our first night. And one of the staff there put us on to a new hotel on the beach, named the Luwansa, a little expensive, but not much $55 for a double plus a bed for Dusty, so we at least had a place to stay and even chill out on return from our liveaboard, and avoided the more salubrious and noisy options in town.

July 23

We were at breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and at the diveshop in town before 8. We had arranged a bemo to take us into town the day before so it was a simple matter to repack for a dive trip and leave excess baggage at Wicked Divers and proceeded to the boat to do a dozen dives, 3 a day the 23rd, 24th, 25th, and 26th.

Not far out of port we stopped off near the beach resort on the island of Bidadari for a checkout dive in relatively murky and mildly currenty conditions. Our dive leader Diego, a kindly ramrod thin guy from Mexico, checked us out by leading us into current to test our air consumption and buoyancy, and then had us go with current to see how we stayed together in ten meters vis. There wasn't much to see on the dive, the most remarkable creature being a crab in some rocks and a glass shrimp behind that. But we checked out ok and stayed down 58 min at 16.5 meters maximum depth,

Back on board we found another diver had joined us, Eiko from Germany, ferried out to our boat by prearrangement after his flight landed late. His girlfriend was back in LB taking an open water dive course and he was going to join her after the manta research trip for a more relaxed liveaboard. Meanwhile we were heading to Kanawa Island, and we saw spinner dolphins as we approached the island. Spinners are distinctive for the spin they make on broaching the water. The dive off Kanawa was a little more interesting that the first one. With 20 meter vis there was blue water and the excursion began to feel more like a holiday. We found hump headed parrot fish here and blue spotted rays in the rocks. There were some beautiful hovering cuttle fish at end of dive, plus the usual reef denizens, making this a pleasant dive. Our max. depth on this one was 17.5 meters, at 61 min.

Our last dive of the day was Sebayor wall, Here we found a crocodile fish, turtles munching coral on the reef, and lots of other small stuff. Our dive profile here was 19 meters, 57 min.

After the dive, there was dinner. Food was provided pretty constantly between dives on the boat. There were always bananas and oranges and apples on the table, coffee, tea, and milo for the taking at any time, and even packets of Pocari Sweat powder to put in fresh drinking water. We were each provided a plastic bottle with our name on it to add water to, rather than drink from numerous plastic containers.

We would snack from the fruit tray before a first dive, have breakfast afterwards, and lunch after the second dive competently prepared by a dutch indonesian girl Melika who spoke fluently in English, Bahasa, and even Spanish with Diego, depending on whom she was talking to. The third dive of the day was followed by a snack (cake, popcorn) except for the first day, where the snack followed the second dive. And finally there was dinner served later, with beer and soft drinks available for $2 and $1 respectively, except that at the end of the trip, Diego said the “honestly list” had blown away, so we didn't owe anything for our modest consumption of these items, so I put that money into tips for the staff at the end of the trip.

Sleeping was dorm style, 6 mats on the lower deck for Bobbi, Dusty, and I and the other three for Eiko, Danny the manta research student who was our informant on the trip, and Melika, the aforementioned cook, with Diego taking a 7th bunk on a raised daias by the hatch. We all slept pretty soundly on the trip. We were knackered at the end of each day and there were no disruptive snorers among us, so all in all a very compatible group.

July 24, 2013

Blue and yellow ribbon eel, photo by Eiko Gramlich

We were starting to fit in to the routine of 7 a.m. wakeup, 8 a.m. diving. Our first dive this day was Tatawa Besar, a beautiful reef wall. Vis was maybe 30 meters, easy to see the surface from any depth, thus a tendancy to slip too deep. Sea creatures on this dive included an interesting blue / yellow ribbon eel, batfish, schools of fusilliers, and lots of turtles at the end of dive. The turtles here seemed unconcerned about divers interruption their meals. Our profile on this dive was 24.5 meters, 64 min.

Our 11:00 dive would be at Karang Makassar where we hoped to finally see some mantas. On this special “manta research” trip we would be diving here two days at different times of day; i.e. mid-day with raging currents and lots of mantas, and afternoon with more slack conditions and fewer mantas.

Eiko, in the group of divers with bubbles in the videos above, took this picture of me taking the videos on my GoPro :-)

Danny got us into collecting data on mantas. He was a third year undergraduate student already getting involved in some interesting projects like this one, under the umbrella Data assignments were for Dusty to record manta encounters and their timings, Bobbi to record other divers sighted to try and guestimate how crowded the dive site was, and me taking photos of manta underbellies to try and record their distinctive markings there and possibly match them with others in a dbase that Danny had of photos of known mantas on this reef. Data results showed some long encounters with our mantas on these dives, 15 minutes being not uncommon, and Bobbi's data showed what we knew all along, that this site was full of divers when the current was ripping, and we had it to ourselves for the afternoon dives. My pictures revealed a match with one known occupant of this reef, and a new individual we might call V from markings on her undersides. Danny was also collecting data on how many males and females there were, and whether the females were pregnant. Mantas rear only 1 pup at a time and that only once every 2 or 3 year, so their exploitation by Chinese medical industry is particularly damaging, considering that manta fisheries will soon wipe out the known populations if they are not preserved.

Our first dive was amazing with mantas. We figured we saw 8 mantas, the first one 15 min with a flight of 4 coming in overhead toward the end. Mantas become comfortable with divers keeping low on a reef, and will even interact with lone researchers. On our second dive on the same site Karang Makassar we saw fewer mantas but this time we saw a white tip reef shark, 2 meters, and at least one turtle.

July 25

On this morning we did our first dive on Batu Bolong, which Diego said was one of his favorite dive sites in this area. Bolong means hollow due to keyhole on one of two rocks, so it was a distinctive landmark serving to orient us on many of our dives here. It was also a popular stop for other dive operators. We dived the south side in order to dodge the current, along with dozens of other divers from 4-5 other dive boats, making for a crowded, a disappointing dive. When we dived the lee of islands we'd go left and right over the reef and zig zag up so there were few surprises after our first couple of passes. I'd left my SD card in Bobbi's computer card reader the night before, but pictures I remember I would have taken from this dive are 3 turtles, and high on the reef a large scorpion fish, and surgeon fish changing colors and being cleaned by wrasse quite near to me. Diego said in his briefing that we'd end the dive at 60 min or 50 bar or when we got bored with the orange fishies. Almost the latter happened, as we went up after having reached a max depth of 26 meters, only 50 minutes dive time.

Another of Eiko's photos: Vance GoPros a manta

Our second and third dives on this day were again on Karang Makassar. As with the day before, on the first dive we saw maybe 7 mantas, often in pairs and again with long encounters, since they were just hanging out in strong current, scarfing up the plankton.

One, the one I call V, went right overhead of Danny and I (and current wrenched me off the rock I was tenuously clutching when I tried to twist around to take the overhead picture). On this dive, we were pretty focused on manta, max depth 17 meters, 50 min.

On the 2nd dive of this day at Karang Makassar we dropped in at a far point where the current was against us so we aborted and returned to the dinghy and got a drop to a more favorable spot currentwise, but 30 bar lighter in our tanks. Still the dive was shallow, 17 meters max, so we got 50 min on round 2. It was a so so dive by Karang Makassar standards, bleak terrain with a white tip at rest, a large monarch sting ray in the rubble valley, a couple of turtles, and toward the end of the dive when we least expected it, coming down the valley was a lone lost manta. For Karang Makassar it was not up to expectations (only one manta), but seriously, on how many dives worldwide would you see all that and be by any stretch disappointed?

The place where the boat anchored each night was called Siaba Besar. Diego outlined a plan for us the next day to do a challenging current dive outside the bay and then a second dive after breakfast at the mouth of the bay, and a third dive on the way home. However, something dramatic happened at 10 p.m that night that altered this plan. Coming up from our last dive on Karang Makassar that afternoon, we had all noticed a split in the siding on the dinghy we were using as a chase boat, and we thought it was funny at the time, but that evening, the boat sank. Actually it wasn't the boat itself; the boat was eventually hauled up to the point it could be bailed and refloated, but it was its engine sinking that meant that our last day diving would be without a chase boat, and this somewhat altered where we could dive our last day on this trip.

July 26

Diego dutifully woke us up at 6 a.m but since we didn't have a chase boat, we had to dive starting at our anchorage in Siaba Besar. Therefore we started over sand but went as far as the reef where we started to feel current, with which we couldn't proceed. All tolled, our profile was 17 meters for 55 min. It was not a bad dive all things considered. We saw turtles as far as we got on the reef, I found a blue spotted ray, and Diego pointed out a snake eel in the sand. Heading back over coral toward the boat, we found a white tip meandering in the bommies. It was a nice, relaxing dive for first thing in the morning.

After breakfast we moved the boat to Pengah Kecil, where we dived 19 meters, 55 minutes (kecil means small, as in island; basar means large). The choice of spot was dictated by the fact that the boat could be brought near to the island, and to do it safely we had to stay in the lee and zig zag as at Bolong the day before. Avoiding current meant an easy dive, but no big Komodo stuff either, though we saw a lot of micro life, pygamy clownfish, and an eagle ray that zoomed down the reef over us, made a long pass out into open water, and then returned to the reef to buzz us a second time. Again, not a bad dive, and the best we could expect under the circumstances.

Our final dive of the trip was at Sabayor island, 17 meters, 60 min, Here the boat moored in the lee of the island and we did a round trip over the reef and back to the boat. This made it again a conservative dive, but Bobbi spotted a young eagle ray that let me come up behind it and take its picture, and Danny found a little crab next to clownfish on an anenome. We also found nudibrachs and other creatures too numerous to mention.

Overall it was a great trip. We all enjoyed the mantas and the opportunity to learn so much more about them and appreciate their vulnerability. The Wicked crew were great company for 4 days, and Diego was an incredibly competent guide, as was Gafur, the Indonesian divemaster acting sweep, always worth lagging behind and hanging out with for the things he could point out. The folks did the best they could, but the big cloud over the silver lining was the chase boat sinking, a huge crimp in the program. And also, dive shops there were telling people water temps were 29 degrees, and were therefore steering people into shorty wetsuits, which they seemed to have a lot of as opposed to full-length ones. That turned out to be inappropriate. Actual water temps were colder, plus all the currents meant scraping on rocks, so that Bobbi and Dusty couldn't help getting cut up and stung while holding on to whatever they could during the times we had to stay low and watch mantas. Me, I had insisted on a full length 3 mm, so I was fine, but I was stung on my hands by hydroids sometimes, and Danny changed to a 5 mm at some point on the trip. So I would say if you do this trip, and if you have the option, try and avoid diving in a shorty if at all possible.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sérgio Simoes starts an Advanced OW dive course

July 12, Nomad Ocean Adventure speedboat trips to Musandam
My logged dives #1211-1212

Sérgio's wife Daniela is a colleague of mine at work. She told me that Sérgio had recently certified as an open water diver and was wondering if he could join us on one of our trips, but though he had completed the course in May, still in July he had still not received his certification. I offered to contact the dive center and see what the problem was, and soon his certification was visible on on PADI's Dive Chek, certified in May, processed in July, but now he was legit to dive with me.

I woke up after a deep, long sleep at Nomad Ocean Adventure on Friday and met Sérgio, who had driven down that morning from Al Ain, and after a chat over coffee, we decided to start working on his advanced course, so we arranged to do our two dives that day as an advanced o/w boat dive, and peak performance buoyancy dive.

Seas were a little rough due to rain over the mountains, so the boatman took his time, taking an hour and a half to reach Ras Morovi.  But once there we had a great first dive. Sérgio and I had worked out correct exposure protection, I had extra weights, we fine tuned buoyancy on the bottom with fin pivots and set out to explore the reef.  Vis was decent and Sérgio's diving was fine.  We skirted the bottom looking for rays and came up to the cave where I can always find at least one crayfish.  That cave is home to batfish as well and they are not camera shy.  Just outside the cave a trio of lion fish posed for photographers.

We continued south along the reef till I judged it was time to pop over to the other side. I have a favorite spot on this dive, a grotto where there are sometimes sting rays, and I had mentioned to Sérgio that turtles lived in this neighborhood.  As we progressed along the eastern side of the reef, heading north now, I moved deliberately ahead of other divers who had also popped over to this side of the reef, so as to be first to the grotto to see what might be lurking there.  There were no rays, but we came upon a very large turtle relaxing there.

When we came along he contemplated our presence and decided we were crowding him, so he moved slowly and gracefully out of his niche and headed down the other side of the reef, and I followed him with my GoPro.

Sérgio's air held out well and we had a 50 minute dive plus a safety stop. Sérgio had the typical novice problems with buoyancy toward the end of the dive and surfaced inadvertently, but unlike most at his stage of diving he got control of it and came back down to finish out the safety stop.

To make all of this a learning experience we decided to conduct the next dive as a peak buoyancy one. We finished lunch and motored over to Lima Rock to see if the seas had calmed enough for diving there.  The south side was still too rough, with waves crashing on the island, but the north was sheltered, so we went in there. Again we would work on fin pivots, breathing and hovering, and do swim-throughs as buoyancy exercises.  

We entered the water at about the middle of the north side of Lima. My strategy here was to reach the point and see what was there.  Along the way we found this cute little yellowmouth with a wrasse exploring all the yellow parts.  I meant to take this as a video with my GoPro, in which case you would have seen the little blue wrasse enter way inside the moray's mouth and disappear down the throat, only to emerge and continue his ministrations.  However the GoPro has no display and works on button presses, so I had pressed one too many, and the GoPro was in a mode where it takes multiple shots of the same scene, but only over a second or two, so I didn't get the video shot I wanted.

Sérgio signaled he was at 100 bar as we neared the point but there was little current there, so there was no problem edging our way past the gap and further along the wall.  There was a swirling school of jacks present, and I went out on the rock where John and I had found the barracuda the week before hoping to get a shot of them this time; I was very aware of my camera today :-)  However, the barracuda weren't home so we went back to the gap and found a crayfish in a crevice.  Sérgio signaled 50 bar so we worked our way around the corner and into safety stop position at 5 meters on the reef, heading back the way we had come on the north side.  Our dive profile was 18 meters at 39 minutes, plus the safety stop.

Chris and Armand were already back on the boat when we emerged, but they had seen an eagle ray, perhaps the same one I saw last week, at about 12 meters depth near where we had surfaced.  The boatman went around picking up other divers on the north side but avoided the south where white horses raged.  However, some of our divers had rounded the point and were now floating in the chop.  We picked up two, and the one from Oman, Nasser, amazingly fasting despite the heat and salt water, asked if the others had seen what was behind the school of jacks.  Neither had seen anything there, but Nasser insisted he had seen a whale shark swish its tail and move away. He had a big camera and owned a diver center in Seeb.  If he got the shot maybe we'll see it on his website,

So all in all, it was a nice day of diving, with plenty of critters around, and I'm looking forward to diving with Sérgio again when he is ready to complete his advanced course.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

John Henzell's Advanced Open Water Course

July 5 and 6, Nomad Ocean Adventure speedboat trips to Musandam
My logged dives #1206-1210

John has been talking for some time about doing a course with me.  He has a dive certificate from a long defunct Australian agency from 1978, and since he has some logged dives, I offered to give him an advanced course under the PADI experienced diver program. He works for the National newspaper and travels a lot, but some time ago he had asked me to set aside this weekend for a course.  But then I didn't hear from him for a long time so I was surprised when he wrote to ask "if we were still on".  Bobbi had just gone to the states, so I was available, and I took him up on it, especially as he was kind enough to do the driving across the country. We picked up Nicki somewhere along the way, and pitched up at Nomad for dinner, some good company, and a good night's sleep, not something I normally get on weekdays.  The border crossing, sometimes an issue, had gone smoothly, the agent on duty checking our papers through the window of his air-conditioned kiosk.

Friday July 5, 2013

Friday July 5 we found ourselves on Fizzy's boat, destination Octopus Rock; we being Nicki and John and some other military types and Chris from UK and the German Marcus diving with Bob from Scotland. Paul was aboard training Vince Cording, an ex advanced student of mine, in deep specialty.  Most of our boat were diving nitrox so sorting the tanks with each diver's name on it was a challenge at the start of the dive, passing tanks around a small boat, and John and I using generic air.

Can you spot the torpedo ray :-)

John and I decided to do the first dive as a deep dive and since Paul was taking Vince to the north east for depth, and since I have almost never dived in that direction, I decided to go there. There was only a slight current pulling us west, a fairly benign condition for Octopus Rock.  It was a beautiful dive as Octopus Rock usually is, with good vis and the usual suspects, a topedo ray in the sand, swarms of trigger fish, batfish at the cleaning stations, and clown fish in the anemones. We saw some large honeycomb morays and at 5 meters on our safety stop on the shoulder of the rock, there were the resident jacks.

We had planned a multilevel dive of 24 meters for 20 minutes, 16 for 10, and the rest of the dive for however much time we needed at 12 meters, based on my experience using the wheel.  In the event, we didn't need all that time. We were doing our safety stop after 22 minutes, so for calculating a pressure group for the next dive, we used the 29 minute NDL on the tables for 25 meters. 

One reason the dive had been so short was that John was having buoyancy issues as divers with limited experience do, so during lunch in the surface interval I explained how to control it, and we did the next dive as a peak buoyancy dive, on Lima Rock South. We started near the west end and went along the wall to the east.  Vis seemed a little more cloudy here, and I kept the dive to 18 meters to give us a 45 minute bottom time in our pressure group after our surface interval, and conserve John's air, though this put us on a wall where I would normally have gone lower to the sand, not much on the wall. So I decided to rise, a challenge to someone working through buoyancy, but John vented in time to keep to the new level of 12 meters.  Later in the dive, he had to work out buoyancy to follow me down to see a crayfish I'd lit up in a cave, and further on he decided to take a picture of a yellow-mouthed moray, and again had to breathe himself down to it to stay in position (though he was pinching the rocks as well to keep level, he confessed later, and as can be seen, left hand, in the photo below).

The high point of the dive was right at the end, with John coming on to 50 bar.  I saw a flash of silver, in the shape of a fleeting sail, further down the reef.  I spurted down to have a look and found a huge eagle ray hanging on the reef nose first, about 4 meters in wingspan.  They spook easily so I eased in as best I could without startling it.  After a few long seconds, he became aware and fled to mid-water, but I was still able to follow his shadow a few seconds more as he turned and circled almost out of sight.  Only later did I realize I hadn't thought to use my GoPro :-( one of three missed photo ops on this weekend ).  But the buoyancy work was paying off, John lasted 41 minutes on this dive, plus another 3 min on the safety stop.

The second missed photo op came on our night dive at the Caves at Fishhead Rock.  We managed to recruit enough paying customers to make it worth Nomad's while so Fizzy got back in gear and conducted us northward.  I had thought we were going to the near cave but it seems they had discovered the one I had found some years ago. After going over the procedures with John we entered the water and as luck would have it, luck because on a night dive you never really know where you are, John and I stumbled on the cave first.  

I happen to know it has an exit to the surface, so it's a more or less legal night dive, not a real cave in other words, but it's still dark when you wander it with a torch and penetrate. John stayed close behind ... also on night dives it's not perfectly clear who is close behind you, but I recognized his fins and his dangling alternate light.

So we were slowly moving into the cave, deliberately, keeping off sides, top, and bottom, when I thought I saw light ahead.  The top of the cave so soon?  Not at all, the white was the rippling underside of a large two meter wide marble ray disturbed in his night rest and now looking for a way out around the blinding bathyscapes that were moving in on him.  He wasn't frantic, just probing, seeing where he could slip his biomass through where we weren't.  I moved to the side as he rippled by and then to my surprise he was followed by second one.  And then they both slipped by us and were no longer there. Fizzy said later she had spotted one near the entrance to the cave. 

I had deliberately left my GoPro behind thinking there wouldn't be enough light in a night dive, but I think there was, the marble rays were impressive in the torchlight, so I was kicking myself a second time that day, another memorable moment unrecorded, like countless such moments in the 40 years I've been diving without a camera (and 30 without a computer). One of these days I'll tell my grandchildren about them.  

For this dive, we saw also some gaily dancing squids (also illuminated well in torchlight) and some perky grasshopper shrimp, spotted  from glowing red eyes in the torchlight, move closer, and they move away like a flea.  The most interesting thing besides the rays was how we surfaced inside another cave. I had noticed we had been covering bare rock the last of the dive, unusual since there is usually coral here.  But when we came up and saw we were inside an air pocket in a cave we realized that the reason there was no coral was that we had ended in a place that doesn't get sunlight. Another buddy team came up in a similar place and one of the guys got quite anxious because there was no obvious way out short of going back under, and he was low on air.  But in our case, I detected a place where the surge seemed to be coming from and found there an opening that led to night sky.  I guess the other buddies did about the same because they emerged a few minutes later. Our dive had lasted 30 min plus the safety stop, and we had got to 15 meters during John's successful round trip compass exercise over the sand.

Saturday July 6, 2013

So three dives through the advanced course and two to go.  After dinner back at Nomad and another good sleep, we were back up and on the dive boats, this time to Lima Rock North for a dive we would conduct as an advanced boat dive.  We started at about the middle of the north side and headed east, taking advantage of the numerous swim throughs there to work on John's buoyancy as we went.  We picked up a little current as well and half an hour into the dive we had arrived at the gap and were shooting through in almost still water to the other side.  Here we found schools of jacks off the point and a slight current that we had to pull into.  I don't think John used the rocks, so his air depleted rapidly in the current.  As he neared 50 bar, I kept our depth  to ten meters or less, then decided we should let ourselves drift back to the point and use as little air possible to let stuff come to us rather than us work to get to it.  Unfortunately there wasn't much there apart from the schools of fusiliers, so with John nearing time he would need to come up I decided to have us drift a little further over the deeper rock off the point, and there we found the school of barracuda I'd been looking for.  We dropped into it to let the barracuda swirl around us before deciding to ascend as John was low on air.  On ascent I realized that concern about depth and John's air had caused me to space on the third great video of the trip, as I had forgot again to fire up my GoPro.  But John did well.  After going a bit deep on one of the exercises early in the dive, reaching 24 meters before we'd realized it, our dive had lasted 45 min plus the safety stop.

For our last dive, we stopped at Ras Sanut (Wonder Wall) on the way home for the last required dive of the AOW course, Navigation.  We didn't see much in the process, but we set up the compass courses very well.  We started on a south heading for 30 meters, at the end of which I left my hat weighted down with nearby rock rubble. Then we returned north to the start, where I'd put up my reel.  Finally we went east 30 meters and then south the same distance, where we got down to 18 meters. Now when we turned west, we should find my hat at the end of 30 meters, which we did.  I collected that, and from there it was an easy 30 meters back to the reel.  I recoverd that and we exausted our air in the rest of a 41 minute dive much higher up on the reef.

And at the end of that, John Henzell, having fulfilled all the other requirements for AOW (eLearning, filled in logbooks signed) earned his Advanced Open Water certificate.  Congratulations, John (you been grandfathered :-)