Thursday, March 31, 2016

Diving in Layang Layang, Malaysia

My logged dives #1418-1429

Sun-Friday, March 27-31, 2016

Bobbi has always wanted to go and see the hammerheads at Layang Layang. We have tried to make the trip before - the first time we attempted to go in season in April we were thwarted by the missing Malaysian airliner that caused our trip to be cancelled. The second time we tried we couldn't get a booking for April, but this time we were just short of the hammerhead season, our vacation falling at the end of March this year. 

We were hoping to be lucky, but to be up front about it, I didn't see any hammerheads. Bobbi spotted two she says, and others in our team got pictures of hammerheads far below us, except that one member of our group got excited and swam down to one but ended up with ten minutes of deco that one of the divemasters had to help her burn off by offering her his alternate air source. Not sure what she would have done had he not been there.

Normal diving was pretty good on Layang Layang, which is surrounded by 2000 meters of drop-offs, and whatever lives there comes up to feed every now and then. 

The video above shows one of our dives around Layang Layang where we encounter white-tip reef sharks, barracudas, schools of tuna, reef fishes such as butterflies, a clown trigger, and hard-to-see, ellusive garden eels

Sunday, March 27, 2016 First two dives on Shark Cave and Gorgonian Point

Our first day there, our first dive of that day, we were told to be at the dive center at 10:30. There we found tanks lined up and chose them and kitted up. My first choice had only 150 bar, so I found another with 180 bar. 180 was considered to be a full tank at Layang Layang. I didn't think that was a problem at the time because having just arrived after flying all night one night and then being collected at 4 a.m. the morning after the following night, I wasn't looking for ambitious diving and was expecting a check-out. This is pretty much what happened. We were taken to Shark's Cave, a wall with ledges where sharks liked to rest. For a check-out dive it was really nice, lots of whitetips, including 3 in a cave which I entered and filmed them milling about. Several were resting in sand. They sauntered off as we approached. We grew familiar with the other divers in our group. 

For the afternoon dive that day we were offered a similar spot or one where there was more current but more 'stuff'. We all opted for the stuff, and ended up at Gorgonian Forest to work our way toward Coral something. The 'stuff' it turned out were schools of batfish and mating black and white tuna, and some very large alpha male tunas leading retinues of smaller tunas down the pecking order up and down the reef just out in the blue, impressive, as you can see in the video here, giving our first impressions from our first day there.

Monday, March 28, 2016 - Dives 3, 4, 5

Monday March 28 began with a dive on The Point, the spot where everyone went to search for hammerheads. In fact we noticed that two boats were putting out as we were showing up to get ready for our dives. We didn't see any hammerheads on our dive, but one of these boats, Gavin’s group, hit the jackpot and saw a wall of hammerheads from the 25 meter fish ball on down to depth. When word of this spread, all divers there wanted to (a) see those hammerheads, and (b) compete with one another to be first on the site in the places most likely to see them. This was subject to nuance. Maybe they would be at the point or maybe at one of the sites either direction over; it was hard to tell. However that sighting on the first day impacted all our diving the rest of the trip. From now on the first dive of each day would be in the blue at 35 meters, looking for the elusive hammerheads. When we didn't see them first dive, then the second dive would start deep and in the blue. And so it went for the next few days. The first two dives included a lot of blue water diving down to near-deco and then coming up to see what was higher up on the reef.

The situation was complicated by a persistent annoyance at the dive center. In order to get several boat loads of divers into the water on a tight schedule, they would offload divers in their wetsuits and staff would take the boats around to pick up tanks, where they would replace the spent ones with replenished ones. The problem was that quality control over what was in those tanks was not consistent. So after a dive, you get off the boat and leave your gear behind. You return to the boat for the next dive and find your gear attached to a cylinder. You check air and find your cylinder to have on average 180 bar, and the boat is ready to leave. The engine is running, you can't even check to see if there is an air leak. And by 'on average' I meant that one or two tanks may be at 200 bar, most are less, and one or two in the group might have 150 bar. Since the group all stays together on the dive, this means the whole group is diving on 150 bar, and the situation could be corrected by finding a system whereby each diver chooses a tank, connects it, checks for sufficient air for the dive planned (almost all in excess of 30 meters), and can sort problems with o-rings or whatever before taking the tank onto the boat. This lapse caused problems on our dives that could have been avoided.

Diving two sites around Layang Layang, we see sharks, schools of tuna, barracuda, fusiliers, and jacks, a turtle or two, and reef fish such as puffers, clowns, and humphead wrasse

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 - Dives 6, 7, 8

On our second full day, halfway through our planned 12 dives, Tue March 29, we again headed for the Point, what I was beginning to see as being pointless (it would have been GREAT if we'd seen hammerheads, but there you are :-). 

The second dive was also pointless, but at a north west site, Wrasse Strip. Actually, it wasn't pointless for John, who showed me later a hammerhead he managed to film from way out in the blue. But on that dive, my tank had had only 150 bar to begin the dive with so I had had to ride high to conserve and couldn't really participate in the action. 

Our last dive that day was at the Crack, where we saw a few sharks on ledges.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - Dives 9, 10, 11

On Wed March 30, our first dive was on Gorgonian Forest, a dive site just over from the point, and one of my favorites. However, this turned into another example of how not to organize dives. Most tanks on boat were 200 bar but one diver was light, so she requested a full tank. We all concurred. John’s meanwhile was leaking so time was spent sorting his gear as well as hers. This could have been prevented, as always, if divers could simply kit their own tanks and check everything themselves, but on this day we were trying to get away early and the delays were causing impatience among the divers, as the other boats had left.

This had ramifications. Two boats appeared on the same site, and ours went in first. We had a routine for entering the water now. John and Laurie went in first followed by Bobbi and I and then others. To avoid getting swept off the site in the ever-present current, we were expected to descend on the reef and wait there, where we could get below the current and orient on features there. So we entered the water, splash, splash, Bobbi, splash, and then me, John shouted to the boat that his tank was still leaking so he returned to boat with 3 of us in the water.  Laurie, Bobbi and I, plus Eric as well, descended to the reef to stay on the site and waited, slowly consuming air. Eventually a crowd of divers appeared and moved down the reef all together, and it seemed to me to be all from the other boat. Bobbi and I, first down, were furthest up current. The two other divers further down current from us, moved over to check out the new group. Bobbi and I later worked out that their buddies would have been in that group and waved to them to join them, but Bobbi and I didn't see any signal and remained behind waiting for our group. When no other group appeared, I surfaced to find two empty boats. That's when I realized that the group that had just descended was two groups all going at once.

We were primed for a hunt for hammerheads, so I descended quickly and made for where the bubbles were still vaguely visible. Richie, one of our divemasters on this trip, had remained below to wait for us. Bobbi and I tried to head into the blue but the current slammed us back on the wall, where the fish life was actually incredible at 40 meters, a parade of hulking grey reef sharks, whitetips, tuna fish. Looking up I saw a turtle behind Richie. Richie was pointing down toward a pair of eagle rays hidden behind a thick fishball of jacks. It's in the video here.

Meanwhile our group were having another pointless dive in the blue, though Laurie saw hammerheads way deep. Bobbi and I had a remarkable reef dive with staff member Richie, the divemaster manager taking a day off (from managing, to come diving; what else would you do on a day off on Layang Layang?). It made us realize how much we were missing back on the reef by chasing hammerheads in the blue. However, the prospect of chasing hammerheads is an irresistible draw; we all succumbed to it.

Our second dive that day we went back to the point and played again in the blue. Several hammerheads were spotted. Bobbi saw one. One girl went down so deep she said she was just 5 meters above a hammerhead but she went into deco requiring a 10 min stop with buddy breathing rescue by Richie. On this dive, current was ripping the groups apart - three buddy teams in our group got separated, and Bobbi and I found ourselves diving in a wrong group for a while. It was hard to know who to follow, and when the current brought us to a calm part there were several divemasters hovering under SMBs, again difficult to identify which was our dive leader Ching Ching. Eventually we got back aboard the boat to go look for the three separated buddies who had all stayed together with Richie. We spotted them way downcurrent thanks to their trio of SMBs.

For the last dive of the day the group opted for Wrasse Strip because it had possibility of hammerheads in blue plus a nice reef. This was where I had dived with only 150 bar before and had not been able to go deep enough. I had plenty of air on this one, and someone said later that they spotted a hammerhead. Meanwhile, back on the reef, not much there, though I recall a tuna zipping across the top, and Richie's trick where he makes a ring bubble emerge from a thrust of his palm through a spray of bubbles. It was just a nice dive.

Thursday, March 31, 2016 - Dive 12

One last dive on Layang Layang with tuna, barracuda, scorpion fish, a turtle, and Richie's bubbles at the safety stop

On March 31, we had our last dive of the trip, since we'd need to vent in prep for our flight next day. Our group agreed to meet early for earliest possible departure, and Bobbi was so excited she set her alarm for 5:45, not 6:45 as planned. We went to the Point again and did the usual dive in the blue when the best dive there was deep and on the reef. But some people saw hammerheads. Bobbi said she saw one but when I looked I saw big grey reef sharks and tuna (in the video you can hear Bobbi banging on her tank to call my attention to the hammerhead, but I thought she was pointing at the reef sharks). It was still a great dive with plenty to see at depth, and Bobbi and I went 4 min into deco so we made our way slowly up the reef to chill at 10 meters, and saw a turtle there. Again, just pleasant diving, perfectly comfortable in t-shirt and half mm lycra with a rash vest, 4 kg of weight probably a kilo too much but 4 kg is perfectly balanced on my pocket weight belt.

Routine on Layang Layang

You get to Layang Layang by way of Kota Kinabalu, where you have to spend the night in order to catch the MAS Wings shuttle at 6:30 for the 300 km flight to in the Spratly Islands. There is a landing strip there 1.3 km long, running the length of the island, which offers divers their only form of land-based exercise, running up and down it, though the Malaysian military didn't like us using the 300 meters at the end belonging to their base.

The plane that brought us there collected others just leaving, in a ritual where the staff all line up and send off the old guests while welcoming the new to the resort on the island. So when the plane landed, we were ushered through singing staff onto the sun deck and into the café where we sat at tables, filled out forms, and had the routine and rules explained to us.

The routine would be idyllic the next few days. Everyone on our plane had purchased 12 dives, two the first day, 3 a day for three days after that, and a morning dive our last day, which would give us almost 24 hours of no-fly time before departure the following day.

Layang Layang dive sites from

The routine would be as follows (see also
  • At 7 am there would be a wake-up call to each of our rooms (unless we opted out). A light breakfast would be served consisting of beverages and toast, not worth getting up for. Our group opted to meet as early as possible for dives, to try to maximize the chance of seeing hammerheads.
  • 7:30 – first dive of the day
  • 9:00 – real breakfast, coffee, rest
  • 10:45 – meet for 2nd dive of the day
  • Return at noon for lunch followed by afternoon nap or downtime
  • 2:45 meet for 3rd dive
  • Return by 4:30 and wash wetsuits. Regs and BCDs were retained on the boat and returned with more or less full tanks in the morning. There did not seem to be an easy way around that procedure.
  • 5 pm tea time snack, happy hour 4 till 8 (30% off alcoholic beverages, and as we found out, happy hour runs to bedtime, thanks to the friendly barman)
  • 7 pm, buffet dinner, always ample. Divers on the dive boats tended to get to know one another and group around tables, so there was conviviality until bedtime.
  • 10 pm, Internet might kick in for half an hour. Although staff would patiently try to help guests get connected, in fact there was no internet service there, except for the brief window at 10, and it was rumored, again at 3 am for those really desperate. Because of a problem with the phone line. I could not even connect via my 1GB roaming package I had purchased in UAE, designed to connect through Malaysian Cellcom, because the Cellcom signal rarely reached the island.
On arrival we were all informed of the rules. Since most people who come to Layang Layang are divers, or married to one, the rules all applied to diving
  • No deco diving
  • 40 meters max – if you go below 40 you are banned 1 dive
  • If you go below 40 meters twice you are banned 24 hours
  • Divemasters have the right to check your computer for violations
  • If your computer locks you are banned till it clears
  • If you return your tank empty there’s a $100 charge for that
Just to give you an idea of the layout, there was a Malaysian naval base at the eastern third of the island, the largest strip of exposed land in the lagoon. The base was off limits. The resort took up the rest of the island. On that part of the island, there was a central pool, a sun deck with tables, and a dining hall that was not used by guests because most opted for tables in the shade just off the deck or along the side of the dining hall, overlooking the pool, and stretching to the reception / bar area. Guest accommodation lay either side of the central communal area, and the landing strip ran the length of the island between the resort and the seawall on the side exterior to the lagoon. There was no beach, just boat docks on the interior of the lagoon adjacent to the dive center a few dozen steps from our accommodation. The dive sites were all outside the lagoon, and boats would run through two channels to reach them.

Glenn's videos

Ok, so you really want to see hammerheads? Here's what my son Glenn saw when he was there in July recently. The one in the thumbnail is obviously high up on the reef, maybe at 25 meters. All the hammerheads our group spotted were well below 40, maybe 60 meters down.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Good diving in poor visibility on Dibba Rock with under water photography Dro Madry

My logged dive #1417

Saturday, March 12, 2016

I had left my wetsuits hanging out to dry at Nomad Ocean Adventure Fujairah last week so I dropped by and collected them on my way home to Al Ain from the TESOL Arabia Conference in Dubai on March 12. While there I went for a dive with an old neighbor from All Prints in Abu Dhabi, Dro Madry, who is well known in UAE for his photos of underwater life in the waters here. We were the only real divers (apart from students and their instructors) so I followed Dro around and videoed him at work / play. It had been raining torrentially in UAE before the weekend so vis was limited, but we found sting rays and turtles and between the two of us herded a school of bat fish from under the ladder where they were "hiding.'

Decent diving, worth going out of my way for, and I left my regulator in the bath where we soak our kit after diving, so now I have something else to go back and collect for another tour of Dibba Rock next time.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Refresher diving for Greg Raglow at Lima Rock and Ras Morovi, and next day at Dibba Rock

My logged dives #1414-1416

After a stressful workweek I was ready for a break. After work and on returning to my home in Al Ain, I packed and drove by myself across the country, ending up at Nomad Ocean Adventure in time for a jog up to Golden Tulip and back before dinner. In time, Greg and Joyce Raglow arrived from Abu Dhabi. We had dinner together, Joyce brought out a guitar and suggested I play, but the critical mass was not present that evening in the few people finishing their dinner in the majlis, and we soon went to bed. I had a great night's sleep.

Next morning, I met Greg in the pool for a refresher. I had trained him in 2014 at Nomad Ocean Adventure but he hadn't been diving since then: 

We went for a two dives on Lima Rock and Ras Morovi that day. Visibility was not so good, and we didn't see anything especially interesting, though the animals that caught our attention can be seen in the video above. These include a turtle, some nudibranchs, lion fish, morays, well, the usual suspects.

Next day Joyce needed to be back in Abu Dhabi early so I suggested we slip over the border in the morning and dive from Nomad Fujairah on Dibba Rock on that side. Again vis was poor but this is always a nice dive. The fish at the Aquarium continue to enthrall, and we ended with a small ray in the sand flats where in better vis we can sometimes see more of them, logged in the video above.

One interesting aspect of this trip was how lively Nomad was. Divers from all nationalities appeared, especially a group of Spaniards. Joyce again brought out the guitar, and Greg turned out to be something of a troubadour. Sylvia exclaimed how great it was to see how it was in old times. Steve did a near knock off of Classical Gas. Someone even handed me the guitar ...

Regarding the diving, next day a whale shark was spotted up north. Lara, pictured in the video above, sent Greg this photo.