Saturday, March 2, 2013

Maldives Day 6 - last diving day

I woke up on the upper deck around 6am, with the sky lighting up. I soon heard activities below, and realized that everyone was up. By now I was well versed in bundling my stuff in the bed sheet and in two minutes had everything back to the cabin. We saw the sunrise, and then sat down for morning briefing.

Dive 14 Miyaru kandu, Start 200, end 20

This was a channel dive. Unlike yesterday we were supposed to cross the channel from one shoulder and rest on the bottom in the middle of the channel mouth. We jumped in with negative entry. By now I was proficient at jumping in, taking the camera from the crewman and immediately descend. By now I would then connect with Ayelet who jumps next after me.

Friendly reception on the way down

The current was not as strong as yesterday's dive, and we swam across the channel mouth with ease. 

The downside of this, was the much smaller number of sharks.

A bit after we decided to unhook and start drifting in the channel we run across a large Napoleon fish. I managed one or two shots, and was getting close to a third, when Alex came out of the left and tried to get close to it. The fish bolted and swam away. 

We slowly drifted up with the current. Saar and Mor (who rejoined forces today) tried a new way of keeping contact in a buddy team.

Saar and Mor keeping in touch. Dhous watches somewhat amused

Dive 15 Mata Kandu, Start 200, end 20

We returned to the site of yesterday's afternoon dive. Unlike yesterday, today we aimed to get to "shelve" in the middle of the channel mouth. 

We jumped to the north of the channel, and then crossed most of its width until we settled about 2/3 of the way across. At some point three eagle-rays passed across our path in a graceful formation. (They were too far into the blue to take a picture of them.)

A shark, and barely visible a pair of eagle rays

Similar to yesterday, we saw many sharks moving in the blue. I thought that down here we will get a closer look.

I am not sure if we didn't have as good a dive as yesterday, or maybe we have grown used to seeing sharks and its not such a big deal.

After unhooking, we came across the big Napoleon, probably the same one we saw here yesterday. This time I got a chance for a nice picture of it.

As was the routine by now, we went up while drifting with the current.

Saar and Mor with a variant on the buddy hold
Anat and David doing the more traditional version

Ayelet decided she wants a picture with Dhous.

He instead wanted to stretch his legs, leading to an interesting situation...

We returned to the boat, and started the journey from the Vaavu atoll to the Male atoll. We ate lunch while the boat was going through mild waves, and it was rocking a bit. Few people lost their appetite. I went to sleep.

Dive 16 Loshfushi Kandu. Start 200, end 20

This was the next to last dive of the safari. The plan was to go on a drift dive along an outer reef, and end with the current taking us into a wide channel.

We started a bit off in the blue parallel to the reef wall. We saw several sharks above the reef and also some below us. We crossed the mouth of a relatively narrow channel. 

Right about this area we saw a small turtle that passed overhead.

One small turtle, four divers, and very dimly a shark in the background

We run into schools of coral fish, including snappers and bannerfish.

As we continued we passed a Napoleon fish in the blue, sharks, and coral outgrowths. We were picked by the current heading into the channel. We started "flying" over the reef. Ayelet spotted a turtle eat some soft corals. I held onto a rock and managed few pictures.

Notice how Saar barely holds on while the turtle calmly goes against it...

We picked up the speed and started ascending while drifting over the reef. I went up with David, and sadly finished the last day dive of the safari.

David minding the depth at the safety stop

We were resting waiting for the evening dive. I was sitting on the middle deck in the shade reading a book. A small colorful boat approached us and there was some discussion between its crew and ours.

I looked down, and saw that the boat had a huge Merlin (sailfish) on its deck. Few back and forth discussions, and the crew threw a rope to the small boat, the merlin was tied to it, and unceremoniously dropped it to the sea. Dhous pulled the line and dragged the huge fish toward our boat. He couldn't lift it by himself and needed another hand to get it on board.

Line caught Merlin

It turns out that the boat was not a fishing boat as initially I thought, but a water supply boat. They did drag a line during their trip, and caught the Merlin. Our crew bought the fish of their hands. They claimed it was 80kg fish, and they bought it for 30$.

By now everyone was gawking on the fish and examining what is going on. Dhous and the kitchen aid brought two knifes and set to work on cleaning the fish. 

Ready for action

They worked for quite a while, first filleting it, then cutting large chunks, removing the skin from each, washing, and packing in bags. I guess the bags went into the freezer/cooler. Dhous said that this will give them fish supply for about a week. [I spared you the pictures of the process here]

Dive 17 Villivarn giri: night dive Start 200, end 70

The site of the night dive was around a small pinnacle, called in the local language giri. The dive plan was similar to what I am used to in night dives in Sinai. We went in in pairs and each pair did their own exploration of the site. Initially we were surrendered by quite a few people, but slowly Ayelet and I managed to disengage and find the space for exploration and photography.

The night reef life here was similar to that of the red sea, with many shrimps and crab showing up at night, and bigger reef fish resting in every nook and cranny.

There were few odd animnals. Some kind of anemone like creature but without the tentacle. It closed up like anemone after a bit of time in the light.

There was also a smallish coral or sponge that reminded me of clusters of pomegranate seeds. 

We did get our share of morays of different sizes, some of them friendlier than others.

And as usual, I cannot avoid the clownfish.

We found a small cave like structure, and snuggled at the end was a sleeping turtle, who seemed oblivious to our presence.

All by all it was a very nice dive. We were the last emerge from the water ("first in, last out" is my moto for night dives :-) 

Once on the Dhoni the guides climbed onto the roof. We followed up. They were sitting on a bench facing each other with two large drums between them. They were drumming and singing. The noise and light from below were hidden by the upper, and so the small group of us was separated from   the world. Above we could see the stars in the pre-moon night. It was a very surrealistic moment to end this last dive with.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Maldive Day 5: South Ari Atoll and Vaavu Atoll

Dive 10: Kudarah Thila. Start 210 end 40

This thila is a rather small one and considered very beautiful. The plan was to come with the current and land on the thila and explore it. We did a negative entry dive where we need to jump and immediately get below the surface to 5m or more. This way we do not get carried away by the surface current.

We quickly descended on the slope of the thila, and had to fight with the current to stay in place. Douth gathered our group and led us toward the higher ground. Once we got to the protected side, we managed to progress forward.

We passed a nice arch decorated with sea-fans and schools of yellow fish.

Past the arch we hit on a strong current.

Mor hanging on in the current
To move forward we had to cling to a rock, and then pull ourselves forward and then catch another one before the current took us back. This was really slow going, and not very healthy for the reef. It wasn't clear if where Dhous was taking us. He himself seemed to move like the fish without worrying too much about the current.

We stayed put for few minutes, and then I noticed that Dhous disappeared. There were four of us and we moved back a bit and then decided to "climb" up to the top of thila. Here the current was even stronger. There was a huge amount of fish, of all shapes, sizes and colors. Many tuna and jacks swam among the smaller fish.

I left the rock I was holding for one second, and found myself three meters away. I saw the rest of the group on the top of a small pinnacle, and decided to join them. 

Lots of fish, and behind them, my group...
After a fight with the current, I was almost there. To get better hold I caught Ayelet's fin. She thought I was signaling to leave and let go of the rock. Both of us were swept away in the current. I tried to get down to hold something, and Dhous came over and dragged me back onto the reef.

I pulled my reef hook and got myself secured. The reef hook is a small hook at the end of about a meter of rope, ending with a shackle that you attach to the BCD webbing. This allows a diver to hover about the reef in strong currents. It was weird being tied this way, and I had to play with the anchor point to get it right.

Ayelet showed next to me (I thought Dhous helped her after me, but it turned out she made it back herself). She positioned herself a bit forward. We sat there for few minutes to watch the fish activity. As someone later described it, the experience was like being immerse in a large busy aquarium.

I was starting to be low on air. I signaled Dhous. He signed "ok". He banged his pointer on the tank to get the groups' attention, and marked "ascent". I was trying to get ready for the ascent and managed to unhook myself from the rock. However, I didn't hold anything else, and before I knew what was going on I was flying away in the current. I was surrounded by bubbles from all the divers in front of me so had only partial view of what was going on with the group. After few useless kicks I realized that there nothing I could do about it, except watch the thila disappear below me.

I slowly ascended, and few minutes later could see the group floating about a twenty meters behind me.
At about 10m depth I pulled out my signal marker. Once again the process of unwinding the rope and getting the thing in position was awkward. I managed to raise the signal and hung on the line. By now Saar reached me and after him the rest of the group. I realized that everyone was there, except Ayelet. Instead Matti, who was with another group found himself with us. It was clear that Mor was furious about something Anat did, and they were having an underwater heated discussion.

Once we finished our safety stop and ascended, I asked what happened. Saar said he saw me leaving and so unhooked himself to join me. Anat and David tried to get Mor and Ayelet's attention that we were all going up. When Mor didn't seem to understand, Anat unhooked her from the reef, which upset Mor very much. David who gave Ayelet the sign and then unhooked thought she was behind him, but then didn't see her. To summarize it, we had a mess, and everyone was upset about how the others behaved.

The Dhoni picked us up, and then continued to collect other divers. Among them was Ayelet with another group. I learned that she tried to leave when David signaled, but had trouble unhooking herself. When she managed, she looked around, and all of us were gone. She thought we were another group few meters away, so swam toward them. When she realized they were not us, she turned around to look for us elsewhere (we were long gone with the current by then). She disengaged from the reef, and was caught in a whirlpool caused by the thila. The current took here down with great speed. She inflated her BCD and managed to get up, but then she was too light, and started to go up very quickly. One of the other divemasters saw this happening, and caught her at 5m below the surface. She then did a safety stop with him and his group. She was pretty shaken by these events.

Several other buddy pairs got separated, and so Sigala told us that after breakfast (which was waiting on the boat) we will do a debriefing to understand what happened and how to act next time. The basic conclusion was that we had to improve communications and also stick with our buddies. Sigala also had discussions with the divemasters how to give us better briefing and also make sure we understood what they want. Another conclusion from the discussions was that Mor, who was unhappy about leaving dives with a lot of air remaining, will not be part of the group, and dive with Sigala instead. Thus, we were left with Saar as a third buddy for Ayelet and me, and then Anat and David as the other couple in the group.

Dive 11: Five Rocks Start 210, end 30

Once again we were diving to a thila. The name comes from the shape of the thila whose top is broken into five sections separated from each other by channels. We were warned again of possible currents, and prepared for negative entry and fighting the current.

It was a nice surprise that once we went below 10m there was very little current. We descended on top of the thila and started investigating. The thila was rich with big sea fans and fish.

Dhous found one of the round sea stars that we saw before, and turned it over to let me photograph its star shaped undersize. I was not very happy with the manipulation of sea creatures, but the picture came out nice. After taking the picture I made sure to turn it back to its original position.

Next to it was one of the biggest sea-cucumbers I ever saw.

Huge albino sea-cucumber

We continued our trip and found encountered even bigger sea fans, yellow sweetlips and such. 

Ayelet hiding behind a sea fan

A nudibranch 

Mif leading his group

There were many sea lilies all over the place. They look similar to the ones I know from the Red Sea. but their color scheme is different, with white "stems" and dark feathers.

Sea lilies decorating a sea fan
Although I tried to be relaxed in this dive, my air run down much faster than anyone else in our group.

Saar and I ascended into the blue. I tried to raise a signal again. This time the signal tube flew upwards while the line stayed in my hand. Somehow I disconnected the line when I refolded the tube after the last dive.

I sighed and let Saar raise his marker. He carefully unrolled his, and being smarter from my experience checked the line before inflating the marker. His line was also detached from the tube, so he tied it, and then raised it. We did a safety stop and then rised to the surface and onto the Dhoni.

I was happy to see that the Dhoni crew collected my signal, and so I got a chance to fix the problem.

Unlike the previous dive, everyone was very happy on the way back , On our way back we saw that the main boat unmoored and already sailing at full spead. We intercepted its route and boarded. We had lunch while sailing. The trip to our next destination, the Vaavu atoll, was over 3 hours, so we all used the time to rest and relax.

Dive 12 Mata kandu - Start 210, end -20

This dive was a channel dive. The Vaavu atoll is well known for relative narrow channels that connect the atoll with the ocean. When the current flowing inwards there is an aggregation of large pelagic fish near the channel mouth. This means that if we manage to stay there we can see many of them. The problem, of course, is that there is a strong current taking us away from that point. To avoid that, the strategy for channel dives is to drop off to one shoulder of the channel, where there is less current, and then move toward the channel mouth and hook there to some rock. In this dive the channel mouth was at 35m, and so we could not hook in the channel itself. Instead, the plan was to sit on the "corner" of the channel mouth, where the ocean-ward reef wal and the channel wall meet.

We jumped down and assembled on the wall. We then progressed toward the corner. Along the way we encountered a large Napoleon fish. 

Dhous took us all the way to the corner, and there we hooked up. In front of us a large number of sharks patrolled in circles. Some came in a bit closer, and the other stayed in the blue in front of us. I was shooting without actually knowing if the pictures will come out or not.

Unlike the previous dive, this time the hook worked nicely and after a bit of fudging with the anchor point I managed to feel comfortable. So far my experience is that the higher on the body the anchor point of the line, the more comfortable I am. The only problem is that this means that I am skewed to one side, as I have to connect the hook to one of the shoulder D-rings. I guess I could have made a rig with three points (two shoulders and one waist ring) to make me more symmetrical. This is a bit like the rig of a kite.

After sitting down for about 15-20 min, Dhous signaled that we should disengage from the reef. We were all close to the non-decompression limit. I was down to 50 bar and signaled this to him. Thus, it was surprising that he started swimming against the current downward. After a minute or two he switched direction and signaled for us to drift away into the channel. Since I was low on air, I asked for some of Ayelets. We flew in the current connected by the air hose between us. We slowly ascended and returned to the Dhoni.

In the dive profile the period I was hooked to the reef is
easy to detect, as there are virtually no changes in depth.

On the boat we waited until sundown, and then had the night dive briefing.

Dive 13 Alimata faru

This was not a usual dive. The plan was to get into the water near the jetty of a local resort, which caters mostly to Italian tourists. We should go down and stay on the bottom, and the sharks will come to us.

Going into the water we already saw many headlights pointing in all directions. It felt like a scene from a sci-fi movie. There was at least one big group there before us. On the bottom I saw several large sting rays and few sharks going about.

Dhous signaled for us to follow him, and led us to the edge of a sandy area. Inside there was a frenzy of action - sting rays, sharks, and huge jackfish all trying to get to the food. 

A hungry Jack fish

Apparently the resort and the dive boat bring remains of fish to feed the sharks. All the fish in the area were trying to get their share of the free food. I tried to tie myself down, and had problems with the hook. Moreover few peoples banged into my flash arms and I had to fix this. To add to the problems I had water coming into the mask. I slowly tried to regain composure and start enjoying the show. I was later told that while I was doing this a big nurse shark managed to coil itself around my mid section (I didn't feel that).

A minute or two after we settled down, Alex and Gal, who were very excited, landed on us from above. I tried to push them aside, but to no avail. Ayelet and I both realized that it is best to move away. We swam a bit to the side, to a large open sandy area, and waited there. Here there was less of a frenzied struggle, but still the various players zoomed by and came to check us out and look for food.

Few times I was looking in one direction and suddenly realize that a shark or ray was just next to me on the other side. Unlike the sharks and rays that were moving fast but in a predicted way, the jacks were flying in from above at amazing speed. I was shooting at them with the hope of catching the whole fish, but without time to compose or focus. Surprisingly some of these shots were successful in the end.

We sat there for a while, watching the action around us.

Fifteen minutes or so later, Dhous came and tried to get us back to the center of the action few meters below us.  We settled down. A minute later Alex and Son crashed on us again. This time we got the message  We retreated away from the group.

The underside of sting Ran,
The divemasters collected the groups and moved us away from the jetty. The current took hold (much stronger than I remembered going on. The whole group was dense together and again we got kicked inadvertently. Ayelet and I hanged back and let the group open a lead on us.