Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Maldives Day 2: Diving at last

I woke up at 5am. On the east there was a red pre-dawn haze. On the west the full moon was slowly setting down. I watched the two heavenly bodies for a bit, and then decided to try to sleep again. 

At 6am, Sigala came with a wake up call. We gathered in the living room and got a short briefing from Mif, one of the three dive masters. I later found out that Mif is a shortening of his family name. The other dive masters had similar shortened names - Dos (spelled Douth) and Deco (or Deggo, I never really knew). 

We got onto the dive boat and started arranging equipment. I had some problems with mine (as I had pieces gathered from different components). In the end it seemed that I am set. We were divided into three groups of six people each. Ayelet and me were with Mif. With us were David & Anat, and Doron   & Omer. 

Dive #1 - Velassaru beru, S. Male Atoll, Outer reef. Start 210, end 50, Time: 43min Depth: 32m

The Dhoni took us to the outer side (facing out of the atoll toward the ocean) of the island next to us. We jumped into the water, and immediately felt the current. We descended down and were immediately swept away by the current. The wall next to us was full of life, with large schools of fishes going along the wall.

It took me some time to get adjusted with my gear and biouency. I went into an overhang to take some pictures and felt very unsure of my balance. It took a minute to realize that my tank was half falling from its place. I chased the dive master, and then spent several minutes while he tried to fix it. Later after going into the boat I realized that I didn't assemble the straps properly :-(

While of this was going on, a devil ray passed us from above, and I totally missed it. At some point the current switched sides (I am not sure if this is because the depth), and we started going in the opposite direction.

All by all it was a very nice dive, some technical problems but still enjoyable. The wealth of fish and corals seems very promising for the next few days.

Going up from the dive to the Dhoni we got the equipment secured. As with previous safaris, it was great not to have to disassemble anything, just put the whole rig into its place. The Dhoni collected all of us in small groups (as some buddy pairs went up early due to air consumption).

On deck we made the second coffee of the day, and by the time it was ready we were called for breakfast. The breakfast was a combination of western food (toast and eggs) and local food (some salad from fish with a local version of flatbread, similar to nan or to a pancake, and sides of tropical fruits).

Dive 2: Bodu Hithi Thila, S. Male Atoll. Start 210, end 30, Time: 51min, Depth: 27.13m.

This dive was on a thila. Thats the local word for a pinnacle coming up from the depth. As Mif  described it - a small mountain coming from the bottom. This particular thila is large enough that we only seen part of the slope on one side. This time, our group jumped last into the water.

The dive did not start that well, I had problems pumping with one ear and it took few minutes before I could clear my ears to get below 5m.

Once I passed this barrier the dive started to be very nice. The current took us along the reef wall, which was rich with life. There were large number of bluish trigger fish, similar to the ones I am used to from Sinai, but much smaller in their size. There were very peculiar starfish.

David fooling around

Much of the local corals were covered with something (algea?) that looked like moss, with very small crowded leaves. Between the corals small school of fish were positioned toward the current. Among them we saw big yellow "sweetlips". I was surprised how close I could get to them (much closer than I intended, as the current swept me toward them).

One of the benefits of having a group in front of us was that we were alerted in advance for various encounters. At some point I heard a dingling noise. Looking at Mif I saw that it wasn't him. But then he pointed forward and I saw a white tip shark going slowly along the reef, cutting diagonally with our path, but higher along the reef. A minute later another one followed more or less in the same path.

First shark encounter

Moving forward we saw few of the next group clustered around a rock. Moving closer we saw it was an eel of a type I never saw before - honeycomb eel. It was perfectly situated for photograph and so when I had my turn I took few pictures of it.

Next time we heard an alarm I was close to Mif, and immediately moved to the direction he pointed at. Initially I saw nothing in gloom, and then slowly a big Manta ray emerged. 

It was moving slowly and gracefully, passing me and the rest of the group at a very short distance in front of us. For few minutes we watched to see if it will return, but it seemed that it had enough of us.

Ayelet was very happy!

When I got down to 50bar, I checked with Dov, and saw that he was in similar situation. As we pre-arranged, we signaled to Mif that he and I will ascent, leaving Ayelet and Anat as a buddy pair. This way they could continue with their half-full tanks.

Our Dhoni

All by all it was a great dive, putting a checkmark on two of the big animals on our list. Lets hope this is only the start of a rich streak.

We had a rich lunch, and then got on our way. We crossed from Male Atoll to a Rashdhoo Atoll, a smaller atoll. This was a three hour ride, and most of us used the time for a nap. I slept in the shade on the deck, with cool wind around.

I woke when we entered the Rashdhoo atoll. This one was small enough that the eye could see that the islands form a half circle (I could not see the other side of this small atoll (turns out that it is about 8km).

Dive 3: Rashdhoo Madivaru - Start 200, end 25, Time: 37min, Depth: 31.70m.

The plan for this dive was to go in the area of a channel where the current going into the atoll. From the guides I learned that this is not a tidal current, but rather a strong ocean current that hits the atoll. We had a complicated dive plan, but the dive turned out a bit different than expected.

Our group was the second to go. I jumped into the water and lost my mask. The Dohni crew member shouted something to Mif who was already in the water, and he dived down and retrieved the mask. After this debacle, the rest of the group jumped in. By now got curried away from the planned starting point.

We went down, this time without ear problems, and reached a sandy bottom at around 30m and reef wall above it.

There was a very strong current, and Mif headed against it. It took some effort but we managed to follow him, to a place where the bottom met a cliff that went down into the infinity. The current was strong and we had to hold the rocks to stay in place.

Immediately, Mif pointed to white tip sharks that were patrolling the area in front of us. It was impressive how little movement they invested in resisting the strong current we had trouble fighting. After watching few of them, we started inching our way to the left. Soon, we reached a reef wall, and the current took us with it.

The wall was rich with life and movements. Every now and then we saw sharks, mostly in the blue. Few moved higher than us in the opposite direction. Aside from sharks we saw other large open water fish, varients of tuna.

I was starting to be low on air. The fight against the current at the start of the dive has cost me dearly. Mif wanted to send me up with Doron and Omer who were already below 50bar. I pointed out that I have more than 60, so he let me stay, but asked me to drift above the group for safety stop.

We drifted by a large cloud of small fish, with larger predators that feed on them. I tried to get some pictures although they do not capture the beauty of the sight.

I started to wonder whether I am going to go up with someone or wait for the group. I saw Mif raising a signal tube with a line and thought we are all going up. Instead, he gave me the line and told me to go up. It once I was on the line the current took me away from the reef. It was weird floating in the ocean all by myself. I thought I might see some large creature but none came. Finally, I decided that my air was sufficiently low that I should ascend. On the surface I saw the Dohni from afar, collecting one of the other groups. I floated and enjoyed the view of the islands and sea birds that were flying by.

When the Dhoni picked me up, there were people from the third group who went in just after we did. After few minutes the crew spotted Mif with the rest of my group (Ayelet, David, and Anat). We picked them up and started looking for the first group. After a while I noticed that the Dohni was moving back into the atoll. We passed a small fisher boat that told the crew that the group was inside the atoll. If I understood correctly, they were swept by the strong current and "flew" with it inwards, hundreds of meters from the start point.

Back on the boat, we were told to get ready for a land trip. A short ride on the Dohni landed on a rather big island that is apparently the central settlement of the atoll.

A village elderly took the group on a tour.

The local cinema
Some of us got separated to take pictures of the sunset.

We tried to find the group, and instead found ourselves on the opposite coast of the island. We decided to return along the beach. On the way we saw seabirds, some morey eels in the shallows.

We realized that under the trees lining the beach there numerous tunnels dug by crabs. Most of them were shy, but we stumbled upon a large one that was busy feeding. Instead of running away, it froze in place allowing us to take some pictures in the falling light.

A traditional fishing skiff passed next to us in the channel. It gave an interesting contrast to the rather modern water scooter.

Today was David's birthday. The crew made him a surprise, and arranged his cabin with flowers and wrote with leaves on his bed "Happy Birthday". It was impressively done. After dinner they came out with a manta-shaped cake and we all sang happy birthday.

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