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    Pulau Sipidan, Malaysia

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    Boredom, Hunger and the Lazy Diver

    April 14th, 2008 by steve

    So, yeah. The Maldives are pretty cool for diving with the big fish. But there really isn’t much else to do if the big boys don’t come out to play. The coral and macro life isn’t so great and we spent several dives looking for other forms of entertainment… and sometimes a little snack…

    Marcel does always swim with a fork, and I’m never underwater without travel chopsticks. mmmmm….anago…

    The currents were sometimes roller coaster fun and we got to watch the lazier divers hang onto coral for their dear lives. My favorite move was by a German couple who could magically use both hands to grab on to the reef while kicking the coral behind them AND somehow poke at a scorpionfish to take a blurry picture of him.

    There was another technique that we’d never seen before. It starts with that Batman utility belt you got last Christmas. Secure the grappling hook to the reef below and then lay back and take a snooze while the world blows by. Now this actually does make sense in some situations and can be better for the reef than using your hands – if you’re careful. But the sight of ten divers strapped into the reef in a very mild current just waiting for their suffering to end is a little funny. In all seriousness, I’ve never seen so much general disregard for nature amongst a group of divers. We all accidentally kick, touch and break things now and then while diving, but I take it for granted that everyone is trying not to. This trip taught me that there are a lot of divers who just don’t care and that’s really sad.

    Sad, but it reminds of the other German girl who stopped at nothing to get a blurry photo of everything. One dive, she crawled into a hole on top of an exposed rock and didn’t realize she had chased her target octopus out a small hole in the bottom. So the octopus is now sitting near me and we’re both watching her butt hang out as she’s draped over this rock still looking inside for my new friend. Oh, if only I had a camera for that!

    Mary says: but what about the lady that massaged an anemone with her hand?!

    Posted in diving, maldives | 2 Comments »

    Bad Steve!

    April 14th, 2008 by steve

    I’ll get this over with quickly. The bell rang at some ridiculous time like 5am. I assembled the underwater camera quickly and we jumped in the water in morning darkness to search for hammerheads. At about 20ft under, I noticed the camera case was slowly flooding. I ran(?) back to the surface and got the camera out of the case as quickly as possible and got the boat’s attention to come back and pick it up from me. So first bummer of the trip: no hammerhead
    photos. After the dive, we found the camera functional, but with water spots clouding the lens. Oh, the horror! How sore my arm is from Mary punching me.Here we entered the frantic and desperate times that have made us so well acquainted with the inside of our camera that we could easily get jobs with Canon.
    Cleaning the lens by flooding it with freshwater didn’t work, so our next desperate move was to swap the lens assembly with the jammed up one that we had replaced in Bangkok. Yeah, I’m a geek. I kept the busted lens assembly because it looked cool. This worked unreliably for a few dives, but the original busted gear problem eventually beat us. For our second trick, Mary disassembled the delicate lens assembly with hopes to clean the individual lenses inside.
    Wow, what a job, but she did it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite get this evil jigsaw puzzle back together. So – we’ve got no photos of any of the good stuff we saw. Oh well, at least we got to see it all and you don’t have to suffer through 200 manta and whaleshark photos.

    Right…?

    Posted in diving, maldives | 1 Comment »

    One Fish, Two Fish, Big Fish…BIGGER FISH

    April 14th, 2008 by steve

    The Maldives sit near deep water and provide a nutrient-rich environment that attract a good cross section of the marine food chain. Popular members of nature for divers are the 8-15ft manta rays and 15-60ft whale sharks. With a little luck, there are even hammerhead shark schools lurking here and there. But the big fish don’t always come out to play. The cruise before us apparently had terrible weather and saw basically nothing.

    But that’s ok, we had good weather and great luck with the fishies. Our third day out, we were in the water by sunrise to look for hammerheads in the deep open water where there nothing to be seen but dark blue peppered with shimmering plankton. Eventually, a pair of fat hammerhead sharks glided silently by to check us out. Soon after the outlines of a dozen more around us appeared and drew closer. We’ve seen so much diving the last couple years that little excites me anymore, but all I could do was shout WOW! again and again…and again when we surfaced.
    The next big dive was a manta ray cleaning station. We waited anxiously on a sandy bottom 78ft under as our air and nitrogen time quickly ticked away. After a bit everyone started to drift slowly shallower along a nearby reef. Well, everyone except Mary. She was on manta watch and stayed in the sand staring into the blankness ever so patiently. As the group was moving out of our sight, I went to prod her on a bit. Just as I got to her, I see the first manta coming right at us. I was too fixated for charades so I just grabbed her and aimed her at our visitors. Around eight 8ft to 15ft mantas played around in our bubbles for almost half an hour. We both were buzzed within inches of the big boys as they came by to see what we were all about time and again. As great as the mantas were, the most amazing show was watching one of the dive guides physically restrain a German woman trying to escape his grasp and mount a manta.

    Next stop: whale sharks. The game here is to cruise a stretch of deeper water on the outside of an atoll and watch for their shadows. One minute we’re napping after the morning dive then the bell rings and we’re jumping off the boat to snorkel with a 30ft whale shark. Through our captain’s persistence and luck, we found and swam with 7 whale sharks from 25 to 35 feet long in a four hour period. It seemed like no sooner had we dried off than he found another. The first 6 encounters were ok but shared with many divers. We stuck with the 7th shark longer than the others and when I finally looked up I saw that our boats were a couple hundred yards away. It
    took me about 5 minutes of on and off signalling to finally get noticed. For almost half an hour we were alone with a 30ft whaleshark who continually swam within petting (we didn’t) reach and even let me dive down beneath him a bit. These animals are beautiful to watch swim at any distance but it is truly amazing to be so close and -feel- their presence. A 30ft fish an arm’s distance away is just…huge. Thanks for the photo, Marcel.

    As if those encounters weren’t enough, we also saw innumerable whitetip, blacktip and grey sharks including a school of a dozen babies. Single mantas joined us for a few more dives, a couple of dolphins cruised by on one dive and I caught a really rare glimpse of a sailfish (maybe marlin?) passing by on another. After one dive, a half dozen dolphins came by and we jumped right back in the water to snorkel with them. They weren’t particularly friendly, but it was fun to watch them watch us.

    Posted in diving, maldives | No Comments »

    Back on the Boat

    April 14th, 2008 by steve

    Our stop in Sri Lanka was denied by a delayed Air Asia flight and our only alternative was to fly directly to the Maldives. Unfortunately, we could only get a night flight an so missed the view of the atolls from the air. After moving through the tiny airport, we met our greeter and jumped onto a small ferry to our hotel on the main island of Male. That’s right, the airport gets it’s own island and the island is no bigger than the runway and terminal. Male itself is like a Playschool Manhattan. I went for a walk to get water and saw about a third of town in less than an hour.

    The next morning, our rastafarian dive guide showed up to take us to our home for the next two weeks, the MV Stingray. We joined up with some of our 16 European (German, Austrian, Dutch) boatmates on a 30′ dhoni (small boat) for pickup. When the it’s not running errands, the dhoni carries all the dive gear and follows the big boat around. It’s a really nice setup since the air compressors are also on the dhoni so we didn’t have to listen to them between dives. Our two week cruise moved us through five atolls and three dozen dives.
    A typical day started with a wakeup knock at 5:45am, a confusing dive briefing at 6:30 and then normally a short dhoni ride to the dive site. Currents play a big role in atoll diving and are not predictable by the tides here, so one of the guides always jumped in the water to watch the direction the fish were swimming to determine which way the current was blowing and where the boat should drop us so we’d land near our intended dive spot. Invariably, no matter what the spotter saw, he would sing the same deadpan Bob Marley song “Medium to strong current. Medium to strong current. Go down quickly. Go down quickly.” We’d all jump in the water and usually not see the guide again until we were back on the boat. We’d be home for breakfast by 7:30 and napping by 9. Most days had dives at around 11 and 3 with only a couple night dives. That left a lot of time for napping.

    Interrupting naptime, we had opportunities to visit a few islands. The ones we saw were all pretty similar: sandy streets lined with brightly colored walls hiding family compounds. A main street right in front of the jetty with a few tourist shops. Maybe a boat or two under repair on a beach. A few fully covered women playing badminton in front of a mosque. Pretty much just like Hawaii.One night we had dinner on a tiny uninhabited island. We showed up after dark to find the crew had layed out a candle runway for us leading straight to the whale shark-shaped table they dug into the sand. That was cool enough, but then they got drunk, played with fire and tried to sing for us. ouch…

    Posted in diving, maldives | No Comments »

    Mommy, what’s an atoll?

    April 14th, 2008 by steve

    Charles Darwin theorized that atolls are formed by coral reefs growing at the edge of sinking volcanoes. Give a few million years and all you have left is a ring of reef with little or no actual land left in the middle. Anything above water left in the middle becomes an island with the fringing reef protecting it from the open ocean. Given more time the island too will disappear. The Maldivian islands’ maximum height of 7.8ft above sea level doesn’t bode well for the 350,000 people in this Islamic country.

    That’s where we are, somewhere in the 600 mile stretch of coral and sand in the Indian Ocean known as the Republic of Maldives. Amidst the atolls there are a debatable 2000ish spits of sand, 1192 of which have something green rising above the sand on them, and only about 200 of those that people call home. More than half of those are private or resort islands.

    Where else in the world would you expect to find islands named “Paradise”, “Holiday”, “Picnic”, “Fun”, and the constantly burning “Trash Island” mixed in with Dhoonidhoo, Nakatchafushi and Hulhumale? Sadly, we haven’t found Fantasy or Pleasure Islands.

    Finding your island of choice on the map isn’t easy. Maldivian maps belong on golf course scorecards. Instead of fairways and traps, you get submerged reefs (green) and land (yellow). The 100 square miles of Maldivian dry land hide on 1,800 square miles of reef spread over more than 45,000 square miles of ocean.

    Regardless, over half a million mostly European tourists visit these specks every year. Most sit in little resorts on those tiny islands. The more claustrophobic tourists like us come to the Maldives to board a dive boat and scoot through the atolls in search of manta rays, hammerheads, and whale sharks.

    Posted in diving, maldives | No Comments »

    Fake Smiles in the Similans

    April 14th, 2008 by mary

    Most people go to the Similans because it’s supposed to be one of the top places in the world to dive but for us it’s a convenient place to try out our shiny new dive gear.

    We booked ourselves onto a 4 day liveaboard with 21 other tourist divers, 8 divemasters and 7 crew; the MV Dolphin Queen embarked from Khao Lak in south Thailand. Before we pushed off from the dock the crew lit a 10ft string of firecrackers hanging off the bow of the ship to bless the boat for its voyage. We were told not to worry because the pressurized bottles of oxygen and generators were in the back of the boat. The vessel wasn’t big but somehow there was always space and plenty of lively conversation. We were even surprised by how little toe stepping there was given there was only 3 bathrooms on the entire boat that everyone shared. It’s funny, when we were on land sitting in the dive office watching their dive video we kept whispering to each other ‘where’s the fish’. There was a very noticeable absence in the usual underwater reef scene. And we had heard from people that have history in these waters that in the last two years between the mass tourism and warmer waters (el nino gets blamed for everything) the quality and abundance of the fish life has dropped dramatically. So we were set up for a pretty tame time and wow, there really was nothing to see. Sure there were highlights now and then but in general the visibility was low, the water cold, and creatures few. We still made the most of it and kept on jumping in four times a day. On the boat we were having a good time and there was enough underwater to keep us interested. Even more importantly our gear was working nicely.

    – steve says: The Similans don’t top my dive list, but they were better than I had expected. No big fish, but we did get seahorses, ghost pipefish and a stonefish!

    Posted in diving, thailand | No Comments »

    Waterworld, the good version

    September 24th, 2007 by mary

    Since there are no longer resorts on Sipadan, we headed to the nearby water village resort of Kapalai.
    This was the absolute show stealer for us here. The diving was good, but the resort was just fantastic. Kapalai is a set of bungalows hovering over the water swaying on wooden stilts over a submerged reef. There’s not a bit of land in sight until low tide exposes a small beach out back.

    It’s just an amazing place. Our hut opened to the sea in every direction and had a private patio to sun and watch the schools of fish that congregate right under us.

    We still had our South African floaties with us. After a morning of diving, Mary tied hers to the deck and floated out in the central area of the resort.

    Kapalai -is- a dive resort, so we didn’t get get to relax in the sun too much. Every day we’d do two dives at Sipadan followed by a macro dive at nearby Mabul island. Most days finished by jumping right off our dock to hunt for the colorful dancing Mandarin fish at sundown.

    With straining eyes, we even spotted a few pygmy seahorses. These little guys are like 1/4″-1/2″ tall and look just like the coral they live in. The first one was pointed out by a guide, but Mary amazingly found one later on when we were staying at Seaventure.

    -Steve

    Posted in diving, malaysia | No Comments »

    Life on the Rig

    September 24th, 2007 by mary

    For better or worse, Kapalai didn’t have two rooms available when our friends Peter and John came to visit. Sad as it was to leave Kapalai, we were pretty excited to move over to the Seaventure Resort 15 minutes away at Mabul island.
    Seaventure is an oceanic oil rig converted to a dive resort. It certainly isn’t the lap of luxury, but it sure is an oil rig! The story goes that it was brought to Brunei to be used as a casino. When that fell through, it was moved here. It still looks like an oil rig and there’s more rusted through metal than copious layers of paint can hide. It literally oozes character, but not so fun when it gets on your wetsuit and in your hair.

    After the spartan and rusting rooms, the coolest part of the rig was the open-air elevator that goes between the water level and main deck of the rig. The best macro diving is directly under the rig amongst the massive support beams and to get there you just take the elevator down into water. Better yet, when you come up, the elevator is submerged so you can belly flop right onto the platform like a dolphin at SeaWorld!

    Under the rig, we finally went too far with our frogfish fetish. Here we are taking one for a walk home. We followed (chased?) this poor guy for maybe 100 yards before he settled down and we realized we hadn’t been paying attention to which direction we’d been going!

    After one dive on Mabul island, John asked “Yeah, so what was that two-tailed fish?”

    It’s a cuttlefish having a seafood supper.
    -Steve

    Posted in diving, malaysia | No Comments »

    Our vacation from diving is more diving

    September 24th, 2007 by mary

    After so much strenuous travel in Indonesia, we felt we deserved another small vacation when we crossed into Malaysian Borneo. Conveniently, Jacques Cousteau-approved Pulau Sipadan was waiting for us. Sipadan is a tiny island that is surrounded by sheer walls that drop to a 6000ft underwater trench. It’s famous for having loads of sharks and turtles cruising around its walls. Now it’s perhaps more famous for the number of divers that flock to it in search of the ultimate dive. So many divers were coming, in fact, that the government shut down the 5 resorts on the island in order to protect it. Now you have to stay at resorts on nearby islands and get one of the 140 daily permits to dive here.
    Of course, the other version of the story is that the government realized how much money was flowing through here and kicked the other resorts off so they could build their own. That apparently hit a snag when they crashed a barge carrying building supplies into the island that they are trying so hard to protect … So for now it is just the divers and a Malaysian military base sharing a little piece of paradise. As for the diving: it is good. But we’re pretty spoiled after all the great Indonesian dives and can’t say our experience lived up to the hype. We did run across loads of whitetip sharks, a few fat grey and even a leopard shark. Lazy turtles were absolutely everywhere and unperturbed by divers. Actually one barreled right into Mary. We were even ‘lucky’ enough to witness a somewhat disturbing mating scene with the two half-shelled participants surrounded by a group of hecklers who swooped in every so often to bite the female.
    There’s also an extensive cave system called the Turtle Tomb that we didn’t get to explore enough. It’s named for all the turtle skeletons found inside, although there’s been 4 or 5 divers left inside, too. Needless to say, the dive shops aren’t interested in taking people in anymore. Here’s Mary at one of the several “warning: you will die” signs just inside the cave:

    Posted in diving, malaysia | No Comments »

    Funny Fish in the Lembeh Strait

    July 24th, 2007 by steve

    We’ve just finished a week of diving at Bunaken and then the Lembeh Strait, both in northern Sulawesi. Bunaken was pretty typical diving. Mary was out of it with the big burn bubble on her leg, so we didn’t stay very long. Lembeh, though, is a unique place in the world for diving. It’s often called “muck diving”, but that’s an unfair term. Although the bottom is silty and there’s some garbage floating around, it’s still better visibility than Monterey Bay on most days. What’s cool is that they get critters and small animals that you just don’t see anywhere else. You can’t really call them fish since they don’t have fins and some, like the puppy-like frogfish, walk on four legs. And they’re mostly small animals that don’t move very fast, so taking photos is a blast. Here’s a few we saw:

    The oh-so-cute Hairy Striped Frogfish. He’s just like a little puppy:

    Frogfish (a.k.a. Anglerfish)

    Giant frogfish yawning


    Peacock Mantis Shrimp sitting on eggs

    Flamboyant cuttlefish
    Nudibranch (slug) with a tiny lobster thingy

    Posted in diving, indonesia | No Comments »

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