Friday, July 13, 2012

A trip to Eilat, lousy visibility, great finds, and surprises

It is summer and hot. It was a long time since I last dived in Eilat (April). And so it was generally agreed that diving is a priority.

Matan and Efrat decided to spend three days after pre-arranging babysitter for the girls. Alon and I decided to join for two days. In the last moment Roy got a leave from the army and joined us.

Eilat in the summer is very hot (> 40C in the shade). The water is warmer, and we could dive with shorts without being cold. 

Our first dive was to the Sun Boat, a sunken boat on the north shore of Eilat. It was early AM and so we had nice light in the shallows. The visibility in the water was poor, and indeed at one point Alon and I lost Matan & Efrat. Since Alon was low on air (we had only a partially full tank to start with), we started heading back.

When we got out of the water we met Matan & Efrat who preceded us by few minutes and already removed their gear. Matan reported that he saw a Frogfish in the shallow water and asked if I want to photograph it. I immediately said yes. He went to get his mask and fins to show me the place. 

He returned with his equipment but also with a cup that contained a small octopus that was found hidden in some  of the junk Matan collected from the water. Matan released the octopus in the shallow water (knee high). I went to photograph it. 

The octopus (who was probably unhappy after being exposed to air and taking a mud bath before being saved) decided that my camera was a great shelter. It attached itself to the port and did not let go.

I took few pictures with the octopus "attachment".

Eventually we gently managed to get it off. I took a picture, and immediately found that it returned to the lens. After a while we did manage to convince it that the rocky bottom was a better hiding place.

After this rather funny incident, we went to locate the frogfish. Since frogfishes tend to stay in one place and pretend to be a sponge or a weed, Matan found it. I must say that I would not have noticed it without the pointer. It looked like a piece for seaweed on the bottom.

I tried to photograph it. But apparently it didn't like me, the flashes, or maybe its reflection in the dome. It kept moving away from me, "walking" in funny bouncy steps. I spent more than 10 minutes and managed to get some photographs.

We later learned that this was the first sighting of this species of frogfish in Eilat, and this observation led to some excited comments from the experts.

Our next dive was at the Sateel, a very classic dive to a relatively big wreck. This is one of the sites where no one can get lost. The visibility was again very poor. On the way into the water we met a dive leader who saw the camera and told me there are two big octopi on the "10m rock", which is a well known landmark on the way to the boat, and of course there is the resident red frogfish. I told Matan (who forgot something) that Alon and I will wait at the rock.

The visibility was really bad, and we started going down until the 10m level. We found a rock there, but it was quite different from what I remembered. There were no octopi nor frogfish. And so we resigned to wait for Matan & Efrat. After 10 minutes we decided that they probably missed us, and continued to the boat.

After getting to 25m depth, we should have hit the boat, but it was clear we were in the wrong place. For some reason I thought we were south of the boat, and kept correcting toward north against the current to correct for that. After a while we hit some pinnacles, and then I know where we were - directly north of the boat.

 Going south we reached the boat.

Above the boat there was an amazing spectacle. A large school of small fish (sardines?) that was forming flowing shapes. There were various predators that were trying to feed on them. These included the slow lionfishes that waited for their chance and the fast open water fishes that darted into the school. 

Each of these attacks lead to a sudden shift and movement of the whole shape. We floated there and I tried to get some sense of the shapes we saw.

When we decided we have to start heading back, we swam directly west and then hit the correct "10m Rock". And indeed, there was a red frogfish waiting for me. I started composing a shot, but was not happy with the results. 

Then I moved to photograph the big octopi. The male was sitting in the open with one arm (the one carrying the sperm) leading into a hole were the female was hiding. They were totally immobile and ignored the divers who kept looking at them.

We came out of the water very happy. Meeting Matan & Efrat topside we learned that they did the oposite route (going to the boat and then north), which was kind of ironic.

Matan & Efrat went to shop for presents for the girls. Alon went to take a nap on the beach, and I took Roy to snorkel in the coral reserve. We saw schools of small fish just below the water surface. We also big needlefish that were hunting these baits. However, they kept their distance from us, so no pictures.

I then switched from wide angle to macro setting, with my new ringflash (version 3, and probably the last for now). Alon and I headed toward the Yatush, a small boat in 30m of water just next to home base. 

As the dive started I took few pictures to check the camera setting. After about three clicks the camera suddenly froze. The screen was on and showing a piece of seafloor (as though the camera was pointed at it) but it wasn't updating. None of the keys managed to snap the camera out of this, even the on/off key had no effect. I was sad and for the rest of the dive did not take any pictures.

Going out of the water, I opened the housing, and managed to reset the camera only after removing the battery. I then reinserted everything and was ready for the next dive. By the time the tanks were refilled and Matan & Efrat returned, it was pretty late. We decided to go for the south shore, but could not find parking. In the end we compromised for a place we didn't know that well, but decided that like all of Eilat it would be full of life once the sun set. 

Just as we were about to say goodbye to Roy who took us there and was planning to retreat to a coffeeshop while were in the water, I remembered that we need extra lights. One of them did not work, so I had only three lights. We got into the water and started diving (as everyone was tired of waiting for me). Two minutes into the dive and after several failed test shots, I realized that I probably flipped down the flash when inserting the camera back into the housing. The flash was in "off" mode and would not fire. This means no pictures in a night dive :-(

I did try few pictures using Alon's torch as a light source. This was interesting but not too satisfactory.

Later when I told this story, few people reminded me of the "curse of the red frogfish". There is a legend that most encounters with a red frogfish are followed up by some mishap, sometimes with flooded cameras. From this perspective I got a light version of the curse, maybe because the fish was still relatively small :-)

The next day we went on two dives. The first was to the "Caves" a sight with a lot of sea life. I had few finds, the most interesting was an Emperor Shrimp. This is a very impressive shrimp that is known to "hitchhike" on other animals, usually sea cucumbers. It is very common in some areas (Philippines for example). However, some of the dive friends told me that if I would scan every sea cucumber I encounter, I will find them. Now, there are quite a few sea cucumbers in Eilat. Actually many of them. So the habit of scanning each one I encounter seemed like an obsession. Finding a shrimp was a surprise. I barely saw it, and Alon didn't manage to see what I was so excited by. 

For the last dive of the trip we decided to try to recapture the fish ball on the Sateel. Since it was Friday the place was busier than yesterday, and there many divers in the water. This time I managed to find the way. On the 10m rock the big male octopus was still in the same position although it retracted its arm. The female was still hidden in her hole. I didn't see the frogfish (although when we came out Alon told me he saw it on another rock nearby).

On the Sateel itself we didn't see any fish. After we gave up and started leaving, we realized the fish were still there, but somewhat off the boat (as there was so many divers on the boat). We did get to see some of the action, but the images were not as exciting as the previous ones.

We packed our stuff and headed home, making sure Alon makes it in time for Friday night dinner ....