Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dive Safari - fifth day

The last day of the safari : -(

I slept again on the front deck. Today, however, we planned to sail early in the morning to reach the site of the first dive. I wake up at 5am hearing the zodiac engine with the crew removing the mooring lines. Avrahami and I pack the mattresses and bedsheets and move them to the back deck so they won't fly in the wind once we start moving. I decide to continue to sleep in the back. Avrahami wakes me up after 15min to see the sunrise. We do several shots of the sunrise over the front "porch".

I then go back to the deck and sleep. enjoying the breeze until we arrive at our next site at Ras Mamlach. The site is a lagoon sheltered from the strong current by Ras (landhead) that projects into the sea. The lagoon is white sand and the reef surround it.

First dive: We go down from the boat to the floor 5m below and start heading southeast. We reach the wall and go down to 25m and turn right. The wall is very rich and full of life. There are many "pine" corrals. After few minutes we reach a large projecting rock above us.It is surrounded by huge schools of glass fishes and פזיות that whirl around it in amazing patterns. The sight is hypnotizing. I try to catch the size of the school with the camera, but I am not sure if that is possible. We continue along the reef and shortly after decide to turn around and return at a shallower depth of 18-20m. We continue past various rock formations and reach a place where there is a land-slide of sand. This was the sign that we reached the rock projection into the sea. Indeed the slope is much more rock than coral now, but still full of life. As we continue forward we start fighting a current. The current mixes cold and warm water so the temperature changes dramatically. We can see the water shimmering at the places where water of different temperature mix together. When the current gets stronger we turn around and drift back to the landslide and follow it up to the sandy bottom of the lagoon. The water here is warm and still and we cruise around the shallow coral groups that dot the lagoon floor.
Stats: 15L 200bar to 60bar. Start 7:52am, 57m, max depth 27.1, avg 13.7

We eat breakfast, and turn south back toward Dahab. The site of the second dive is the Canyon. This is a steep semi-open cave like structure in the rocky slope that we created by an ancient wadi. Usually it is reached from the shore, but we will jump down from the boat and reach it from above. The guides and the captain have differences of opinion about the exact spot that we should enter in, at some point the instruction is given and we all jump from the back of the boat into the water.

Second dive: We collect into groups and start heading south. The sea floor is at about 15-20m, but we cruise at 7m to save air. Turns out that we entered the water quite far away from the canyon, and so we spend about 10 minutes of swimming before we reach the site. The upper end of the canyon is a rock cropping surrounded by schools of small fish. We follow the crack of the canyon down the slope. I am at the end of the group, and see before me people plunging into what looks like a small hole. I enter last. The original crack opens up to a big cavern that is open from above. I notice that the depth is much deeper than the original briefing (we were supposed to enter at 25m, but instead enter at 34m and then go down to almost 40). It is unclear to me whether Peit made a mistake, or just wasn't coordinated with Boaz.

We go slowly up the canyon, and soon reach a bigger "hall" that has a larger opening from above (this was supposed to be our original point of entry). The hall is populated by a large school of גרזנונים a fish that usually lives in darker caves of alcoves. Their coordinated movement is graceful and creates nice play with the light from above, so I try to make capture some of it with the camera. After few minutes we continue going up the canyon. At this stage the tunnel is almost vertical (it looks like an ancient waterfall) and we slowly drift up to enter the last room. 

We exit the canyon into a cloud of fish that lives around the rocks that surround this upper entrance. We stop there to enjoy the large variety of life on the rock and watch the next group after us going through the canyon. The passage of divers in the canyon creates plumes of bubbles escaping through the canyon ceiling. This has the look of a bubble curtain. In the upper part of the canyon there is no clear opening, so the air bubble escape through small holes. There was an area in the sand where many small streams of bubbles come out of random points in the sand.

At this point, 30 minutes into the dive, Avrahami signals that he has only 50bar left. I have 100bar (half of a larger tank). It seems that Avrahami's buddy disappeared, and so he came to me for help. I make a joke asking him how much he is paying, he laughs, and take the regulator from my mouth. I switch to the secondary regulator. We signal to Boaz that we are starting to go up, and he and all the group follow us. I try to maintain slow and even rate of ascent, while keeping Avrahami in tow. I signal to him to stop hovering above me (out of my line of sight), and instead to swim to my side. We go up, and I even manage to take some pictures (not so great). When we reach the safety stop level, Avarahmi returns the regulator. We few minutes for everyone to assemble, and then break to the surface. We were supposed to be picked up by the Zodiac, but we find the ship close to us, and so we swim to a rope they throw and they pull us in one by one.

Stats: 15L 200bar to 60bar, at 12:02pm for 47min, max depth 38.7 avg 13.7.

It is getting late and there is a discussion whether to have lunch before or after the third dive. Boaz plans that we will dive at 2, return to the boat at 3, and then have a quick lunch and enter the port (the target site was just next to the Dahab port) where the transportation waits for us at 3:30. I go down to quickly pack everything that I won't need after the dive. I return to the deck but things are going slowly. In the end we get into the Zodiac at 2:30 and into the water only at 2:45.

Third dive: The site is called the Islands. It is a shallow collection of big rock formations with corals just off the actual reef (somewhat similar to Nabaq in topography). Only about 6 people decide to go to this last dive. I buddy with Avrahami who took a camera from Dani, and I try to show him how to take pictures. I myself don't find that many targets and try to enjoy the reef. We drift to the north side with Shmuel, while the rest of the group goes south. At the shallower ends we see schools of fishes as they swirl around us. After 45 min we go to the water surface (as per briefing). The Zodiac picks us up, and then the other group and we go back to the boat.

Stats: 15L 200bar to ??, at 2:48pm for 44min, max depth 14.6 avg 7.6.

I quickly pack my dive gear, have a quick shower, and sit down for lunch. In the mean time the boat gets into port. The crew changes to their "street cloths". We bring up all the bags and do a double check for forgotten items. It is time to get off the boat, and the crew brings the box that holds all the sandals, which we totally forgot about for five days. It is blazingly hot outside, and we no longer get sea breeze which makes all the difference. Together with the crew we take all the baggage to the two mini-vans that wait for us outside the port (there are no trollies and the cars can't get in), load the baggage on the top of the van. We stand for a collective picture with the crew members, and then take off. At this stage we are totally soaked and dying for the air-conditioning to start working.

Getting out of Dahab involves a series of bureaucracies. We have to fill a passanger list form, get it approved by the local tourist police, and then cross several checkpoints. Unlike the night we came in, now I am awake for the ride, and see all the check points that we have to cross at different intersections. The scenery along the way is impressive.

We reach the coral island, where the dive shop that rented equipment for some of the group sits. While we wait for them to return the equipment the driver takes us to a hill so that we can get Israeli cell phone reception. So there we are a group of tourists standing on a hill overlooking the fort on the coral island and talking on our phones :-)

After 15 minutes we continue our trip. We get to the border crossing, load the stuff on three trollies and start the crossing process. At the egyptian side we need to fill forms and get them to the border control. There is a large group in front of us and the process takes a long while. I am the last in our group and chat with two American Jews that went down to Dahab for two days of diving. When there are only three of us left (Boaz, Avrahami, and me) someone cuts in front of Boaz and gets 10 passports stumped, so we are delayed even more. This fellow had a family of many little kids, each dragging some piece of luggage, and they kept getting in the way of the trolly that was loaded with two sets of dive equipment, three gas tanks, and my bags. We walk 200 m to the actual border, unload the trolly and then carry the baggage to the Israeli side. We reload on Israeli trollies and go the customs. In the end after 2 hours we get outside at the other end. Avi already got the car, we load it, say goodbye to everyone. It is already well after 9pm....

Tzipi is craving ice cream (they didn't have on the boat). So she convinces Avi against his better judgment to go search for Dr. Lek in the north shore. We get there and it is hot, and full of people (mostly young Arses), and Dr. Lek is now something else. Tzipi does not give up and we get some ice cream. In the mean time I try again to contact Yael and manage at last to have a short conversation. We go to Kinnert's apartment, and take the personal bags up. Avi and I decide to go for a night dive. After some debates we decide to go to the coral reserve.

Fourth dive: We enter the water at Ben-Harush beach. We decide to start without lights and turn them on when we reach the action area in the reserve. We go to 15m, and pass through the sandy area. Avi is leading at brisk pace and I keep up.

At some point Avi signals "lights?" I give a yes, and we turn on the light. We visit one coral boulder (Sela Yehoshua). Avi circles to the right and I to the left. I immediately hit a starfish that I never saw before, as though it was made of bubbles. I try to signal to Avi but he does not see. I continue and find a spiked starfish, a type of starfish that eats corals. I saw one before in Eilat, but they are pretty rare. I take several photographs and then go searching for Avi to show him. Few meters to the right I find another one of the strange star fish.

We then continue to the bigger boulder (Sela Moshe). There there is a richness of life forms. My flash batteries run out, so I am more or less out of the game, and just watch the animals. I signal to Avi that my flash is gone and we start heading toward the shore, and once reaching the reef turn right to get back. We get hit by a strong current and spend something like 15-20 minutes swimming against the current to get back out. This part is not fun anymore as we, or I am, at least, quite tired.
Stats: 15L 180bar to 60bar, at 11:21pm for 68 min, max depth 15.8m, avg 5.8.

We get back to Kinneret's place, while Avi takes a shower I call Yael and the kids, then I take a shower and to bed.
The end. These were very active 5 days, but a lot of fun. I can't wait until the next safari.....

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dive Safari - Fourth day

Woke up at 5am. The sky is lit but the sun is not up yet. I go to the back of the deck and find Avrahami and Dani argueing over some philosophical issue. I go down to make some coffee and climb to the roof to watch the dawn.

After awhile Avrahami joins me and we watch the sun go up over the mountains. During the sunrise I see the back of the turtle in the water between us and the sun. People slowly got up and around 6:30 we started getting ready to dive.
First dive: Instead of diving again at Gabr El Bint, Boaz said he will take us to an unknown site north of it that has a massive gathering of fan corals (gorgonias). The plan was to go down along a canyon to 30m then turn left and hit rows and rows of fans. Since Peit was not diving (unclear why) one group (Avi, Tzipi, Shmuel, Meir, and me) went down by ourselves. Boaz came with us on the zodiac to check that we are going in the right place. He pointed to a place, and we jumped off the zodiac and started to go down. I saw that fair early on Meir loses an integral weight. It goes down fast and hit the bottom below us. I let him know that I saw it falling, he was confused and didn't realize that he lost the weight, I pointed to the weight, and started going down to where it fell. As I got close I see Avi reach the weight and pick it up, and so I move aside not to hit him. He starts to go up. I see that Shmuel and Tzipi are a bit above me, and so I decide to spend the time taking pictures, I go down deeper to take a picture of the canyon mouth, and the see a fish in a nice position so take its picture as well. It then hits me that I am wasting bottom time (no nitrox, argh) and so I move back up to 14m next to Tzipi. After a while Avi and Meir join us and we go off. I take the lead and go down the canyon. Since it starts at 20m or so, the trip ends very fast at 30 and I turn left.
According to the plan we were supposed to hit an amazing bunch of gorgonias. Instead, we find a fairly barren slope. I continue and find another small canyon, and say, maybe that was the one we needed to come down to. But again, we see very little, except for few corals that look like pine needles. This continues as the slope is vertically scoured by small canyons every few meters. We slowly go up since the bottom time before decompression is starting to get down to single digits. A nice turtle swims in the other direction and passes us. It is always amazing to the see the slow graceful movements as they fly through the water. About 20min after we started going down the original canyon we cross a big canyon, and indeed on the opposite slope there are many gorgonais. At this stage we are limited to 20 meters depth, and so we see the top part of the gorgonias and see the rows continuing down beyond our sight.
The gorgonias are known to be the living environment of ניצן הגורגוניות a shy fish that has camouflage to blend in with the lines of the fan. We starting searching for these and I find one and manage to get some pictures of it. We find several of those among the amazing forests of fans. In Eilat there are two or three of these.
In previous dives I was impressed to more, but here the amounts are just amazing. At this stage my computer shows 1 minute to decompression limit so I am starting to up. We slowly go up along the slope, I am making sure that we go up slowly spending more than a minute per meter rise. At ~15 meter we get to a reef wall and start going up parallel to it. As usual in sinai, the wall is an impressive view. We see schools of fish below the water surface. Avi raises a marker ballon, and we start approaching the water surface. Soon enough the zodiac reaches and we start climbing aboard. After we board, we see the second group, who started more than 10 minutes after us also reach the water surface, and so we collect them as well.
Stats: 15L 200bar to 50bar. At 7:52am for 58min, max depth 30.8, avg 15.9.
We eat breakfast, and disengage from mooring rope, and start going north toward Dahab. The sea in this area is not that quiet, and so we start going up and down. I decide to give up on writing the journal, and move to the tip of the boat where there is a small balcony that overhangs over the water. Several of us sit there watching the blue sea and going up and down with every big wave (with an occasional water spray on our feet). After a while we start noticing flying fish. They jump out of the water fly as though their fins are wing over the water. I knew about these types of fishes, but never saw them in action. The amazing part was the length of their jumps, which was much more than I would have imagine, spanning what seemed like tens of meters. We pass Dahab lagoon that is dotted with wind-surfers, and the various beaches of the town. The sinai-old-timers complained how much the area has developed and beaches that contained only sand and camels are now covered with resorts. About 40 minutes after Dahab we reach the blue hole.
Second dive: The plan for this dive is to perform a classic short dive that starts north of the hole, goes down in a chute to 30m and then along the reef wall next to structures that are called "the bells" (since they form concave areas in the reef) all the way up to top entrance to the "hole" at 7m. To get off the boat we jump while it is in open water as it doesn't have a mooring point next to the site.
The chute is not so narrow, and going down headfirst is fun. I try to wait before I go down so to see the chute rather than just the bubbles of the one going down before me. In the middle of the chute there is a closed section with "windows" looking out to the open sea. In one of them there is a fan coral growing like bars on a prison window.
I got out of the chute, and I am floating in the middle of a bottomless blue sea with the reef wall on my right. We start going along the wall climbing very slowly. We see schools of open water fish, corals growing off the wall, and large shield like corals that cover part of the wall.
At some point we see a stream of bubbles coming from the deep below us. Turns out later that these were the bubble of technical divers that went down through the hole (we saw them later on during their decompression stops). As we "climb" up Shmuel spots an impressively large scorpionfish and we stop to photograph it.
Closer to the sea level the coral is more colorful and richer. We get to 7m where there is a saddle point that leads into the hole. In the middle of the saddle there is another scorpionfish that has greenish color.
I take its pictures when it suddenly opens its mouth letting me take a rare picture (for me). We go to hole, where the visibility is not great and look around. Peit and Meir go down to see how it looks from deeper levels, I stay at 12-13m. Peit returns with a lobster in his hand and signals "yummy". Tzipi is all upset and signals "you will take it out over my dead body". Peit comes closer to her and shows her the lobster and then cracks it open in a dramatic gesture. Turns out that this was just a molted shell.... We come out of the hole and continue to climb slowly and then resurface. The boat is waiting for us and we swim toward it and catch a dangling rope that brings us in.
Stats: 15L 200bar to 50bar. At 12:55pm for 54min, max depth 30.5, avg 13.7.
We continue north toward Ras Abu Galom, moor there and have lunch.
Ras Abu Galom is a natural lagoon that is reachable by camels from Dahab. The edge of the lagoon is a reef that falls into the depth of 30-40m. On the shore there is a small bedioum village. The sea is very clear and from the boat we can see the bottom and various fishes.
Third dive: Avi, Tizipi, Shmuel and me go as a group.

We head toward the reef wall and go down to 15m. We turn right and start following the wall. There are various outcrops with different corals. Large green "cabbage" corals and very large "balls" of coral whose name I don't know.
At the end of the reef wall where it meets the shore there is a massive land slide as though part of the mountain collapsed and rambled down into the sea.
There are various shallow caves in the wall.
On the roof of one of these I see several corals, sponges, and two lionfishes floating upside down. The picture I took looks normal enough except that the light on the background is from the wrong direction.
We return a bit and find an opening toward the lagoon.
The lagoon itself is very shallow with a maze of corals going through it. There is a lot of junk thrown into it and not many fishes. apparently the locals are diving frequently in the lagoon.
Stats: 15L 210bar to 50bar. At 4:11pm for 73min, max depth 17.1, avg 8.2.
We return to the ship. Avrahami who went snorkling reports that he saw a large octopus. This raises hope of finding one in the night dive.
Fourth dive: Avi and I go for a night dive. We reconstruct the route of the earlier dive in the afternoon. Avi finds a lobster hiding in the rock and I manage to take a picture of its head.
I see many different kinds of shrimps, but efforts to photograph them fail pretty miserably. We see many חבצלות of different color schemes,
including one that looks like an Indian chief's head attire.
We then move into the lagoon, where we hoped to find crabs and lobsters and other animals. We find very little there. Avi spots a cuttlefish and a morena, and I spot a crab.
At some point it get a bit cold and we decide to head back.
Stats: 15L 200bar to 80bar. At 7:47pm for 77min, max depth 9.1, avg 4.0.
On the ship we find two of the crew busy fishing for calamari's. Turns out that they are close to the water level all around the ship. I am considering jumping back into the water, but decide that I am too tired. We have a large dinner, chat a bit, and then I go to sleep on the deck again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dive Safari - third day

Woke at six. Prepared myself a cup of coffee and went up to the deck. Avrahami slept there all night and tried to tell me that this was the real Sinai experience. I am thinking of trying this later one. The views from the ship are serene with the early morning.
First dive: We board the zodiac and ride to the Thompson reef. We go down fairly fast parallel to the reef wall and see from a far a sand circle with a huge shape resting in the middle. Turns out later that this is a Potato Grouper.
We go down to 25m along the wall and reach the opening of a very narrow and deep canyon. The canyon is less than 2m wide at this point, and is very deep (I didn't see the bottom) with several arches on the top.
We go down below the first arch, and the group continues down to the second arch. I decided to stay level and go above that arch. We then start going up from the deep. I am very heavy and had to pump the inflator all the way down, and when going up for the first time in my history I get the feeling of going up uncontrolled. I release air and relax, but the computer is beeping and being "mad" with me. For the rest of the dive I keep an eye on the computer to regulate my ascent rate.
Peit points up and three large silver fishes go above us, a variant of a tuna.
We go along a vertical reef wall with a current taking us along. Peit takes us very very slowly up as we drift along the wall. The wall to our left is covered with soft corals, fan corals, and rock corals. There is a lot of small fishes, and schools of large ones in the open water to our right. Peit points us to a large locus getting cleaned below a coral. Its mouth was wide open and you could see all the way in.... I tried to take picture but my flash didn't work :- (
Turns out that the on/off switch is not working, and from that point onward I turned it on before each dive outside the water. We see several cleaning stations along the way.
After half an hour of drifting we reach the corner of the reef and go up to the waiting Zodiac.
Summary: 15L, no weightbelt, chicken vest, 200 bar to 95bar. At 7:34am for 48min, max depth 44.8m, avg 15.5.
We go back to the boat and have a nice breakfast feeling very happy. After breakfast we moved back to the Jackson, and enjoyed the view. There was a discussion whether to try see hammerheads again or see the eastern side which is supposed to be the nicer. In the end we split into two groups, I chose to go to the reef with Peit.
Second dive: We went down next to the southern wall of the Jackson, and positioned the wall to our left and went along it a nice pace. There was amazing richness of fishes and corals. We spotted several Blue Spotted מחבטן.

At one point one of the photographers up front started waving frantically and I saw him chasing a turtle. The turtle wasn't interested and went down along the wall. I gave up on it. But Peit started following it and we came down after him. I noticed a huge trumpet fish swimming alongside me, and used the opportunity to try a close up.
When I looked up I saw Peit and Avrahami watching the turtle eating soft coral. I came in slowly and the fellow didn't mind me, so I started taking pictures, getting closer and closer.

It was an amazing experience. After 7 minutes I decided that maybe the group is getting antsy, and returned going up slowly to the group sitting in the water waiting. At this stage the same trumpetfish came to investigate me, and I took several pictures of it in close up, which is something I wanted to do for a long while.

A bit later, we turned around and up and started returning. The reef there is amazing with its richness.
Statistics: 15L 200 bar to 60 bar. At 11:56am for 74min, max depth 27.1 avg 9.8.
After lunch, we started going back north, a ride that took quite a while through open sea. Some people felt real sick, while I slept on the middle deck. We were supposed to stop for a dive at a site call Ras Tantur. However, they either did not find the site, or there was a police station there with police people waving for us not to stop (I didn't understand).
We stopped at a place that looked promising as "uncharted" site, and after debating whether to dive or not, we decided to snorkel and see first whether it is worth the effort. I joined several people in snorkeling since it was a good time to get wet (it was very hot). After a nice swim toward the shore-reef, we scanned the wall and decided it is not promising. In the end we decided to returned to Gabl El Bint, where we already had a good dive.
Third dive: Since we knew this site Boaz, sent us to dive by ourselves. Avi, Tzipi and me joined with Shmuel (an "old fox" on the boat). We more or less repeated the same course as the first dive of the safari, going around the banana and returning through the sandy laguna. This time we took our time, and went slowly taking pictures as went along.

Relatively early on we run across a turtle that went by.
About the time we turned around Tzipi points a small school of tunas swimming in the blue depths of the open sea. They were too far to take a picture, but a very impressive sight as they were fading in to the color of the sea. Soon after Shmuel spotted an octopus, the first one we have seen so far. The octopus was very shy and went below the rock. Continuing on Avi spotted a nice עקרבנון that posed for us. Then Tzipi and I run into an egg-ribbon of a Spanish Dancer. The end of dive went well into the dimafternoon light and we started seeing חבצלות open up and start crawling across the reef. They move in slow fluid movements that I always find hypnotizing.
Statistics: 15L 190bar to 40 bar. At 5:55pm for 64min, max depth 23.2 avg 12.8.
After a short rest we decided that tonight we will go for two night dives. Most of the boat participants were reluctant to dive at night, so in the end only three of us (Avi, Tzipi and me) went diving, and in parallel Peit and the Zodiac driver went looking for lobster-like crabs.
Fourth dive: We more or less reconstructed the route of the previous dive, but were shallower and not going as far out. We started going without lights enjoying the silence and the flashes of lights from between the corals. After we turned around we turned on the light and each of us went looking for treasures among the corals. There were many fishes sleeping in various nooks and crannies.

When we started scanning the edge of the sandy lagoon floor, I found two very large slugs. One we hiding among the rocks, and so we only got a view of its back, which was very dark red. The second was one of the black-white ones we saw the night before. In the sandy area the water was full of worm like creatures that wiggled throughout the water. It felt like we are swimming in a noodle soup. At this stage Avi was ahead with Tizipi close to him, and I was moving by myself through the night, checking every few minutes that I can still see them in a reasonable distance.
Toward the end of the dive I heard Avi signaling with his horn and I rushed over to see him trying to photograph a large lobster-like animal. It had a tail like lobster, and two large antena (thicker than lobster's) but didn't have the big lobster claws. Avi had some flash problems, so I moved in an tried to take few pictures of the fellow.
Statistics 15L 210bar to 90bar. 8:19pm for 60min, max depth 14.3 avg 10.4.
Fifth dive: After dinner Avi and I decided to go for another night dive. Everyone else declined. We used 12L tanks, so I took weights with me.
This time we turned on the lights in the beginning of the dive and started photographing. I found a bunch of spider crabs on the rope the boat was tied too near its reef-side anchoring.
One of them jumped and started swimming in the water and I tried to catch that, when I noticed that on the rock behind it there was a beautiful flat worm that was black with white dots.
We continued on and Avi signaled he found something. I came along and saw something that looked like a slug. I started taking pictures and then it went "whoosh" and jumped in to crevice, and I realized it was a small cuttlefish.
Continuing on we saw fewer fish than before. Over all it was fun to "poke" with the lights in the holes looking for animals. I saw many large shrimps, easily recognizable by the orange glow of their eyes.
Statistics 12L 220bar to 70bar. At 10:42pm for 61min, max depth 9.5, avg 5.5.
We returned after an hour, not wanting to keep the crew up too late. After disembarking from the equipment and drying off, we went looking where everyone is. We found most of them sleeping on the coaches of the middle deck. The moon was up and there was a nice breeze. I saw Peit sitting on the deck. He asked me whether we saw big things in the water. Turns out that they saw two dark shapes between our lights and the boat. These were either large schools of sardines, or some interesting animals that we missed (I kept my eyes down).
I sat on the roof of the upper deck and watched the full moon light playing over the waves, and sipping a bit of whiskey. Went down to the cabin took my pillow and bedsheets, took a matress and slepts on the deck watching the full moon above me.