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.

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