Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Maldives Day 3: Ari Atoll

Dive 4: Rashdhoo Madivaru. Start 200, end 30

The aim of the dive was to see hammerheads. This meant diving very early. The wakeup call was at 5:30 before the dawn. We saw the sunrise as were moving on the Dohni toward the outer reef. The dive plan was to go down next to the reef and then swim outward into the blue.

Before sunrise on the Dhoni
For some reason it was decided that all of us (18+3 divers) will go as a group. As a result there was a huge mass of divers in the water. Again I had ear problems had to work my way down slowly. In the grayish water, we could see fluorescent plankton particles.

Once down the group was busy trying to see something in the marky gray water. Someone apparently saw a silhouette in the distance and then we all rushed in that direction. In the end we didn't see much.
We slowly returned to the reef wall, there the current took us along the wall. We saw several large tuna, and few sharks. Two large ones swam below us, they looked larger than white-tips, but it was hard to tell.

Toward the end of the dive we were close to the reef's top. It was about a meter or two below the surface and was rich with life. By now the sun came out and everything was vivid with color.

Mif in action

Large schools of needlefish were moving just below the surface. As usual, their color combination made them blend into the background. I saw before aggregations of needlefish, but never so many in one place.

We came back from the dive and immediately the crew raised anchor, and start us on our way toward the Ari Atoll. During breakfast someone shouted "Dolphins!" and we all came out to watch them swim next to the boat.

Dive 5: Hafusa Thila Start: 200, end: 30 (-30 from Ayelet)

This dive was on a classic Thila, with a small top and round shape. The plan was to sit on the top and watch the sharks go by.

Everyone ready to jump

Going down I noticed something was wrong. My tank was moving from side to side. I thought it was the strap but it was clearly fastened. I continued down hoping to fix it on the bottom. Ayelet and David started fussing with my equipment and signaled "ok", and so we continued. It turned out that it wasn't fixed and I continued diving with a big weight swinging back and forth on my back. We got to the edge of the top, and everyone sat down. My camera didn't work right and I also got kicked on the way down, so I was trying to fix it while not missing the action.

Few big sharks swam by. However, the mass (and mess) of divers made it hard to take pictures. At some stage the group moved down along the slope, it wasn't clear whether this was planned or not, but since they created a huge bubble screen, we followed. On the bottom, at about 30m, I saw two small white-tip sharks resting on the sand. I tried to move in closely to take a picture.

My tank was swinging wildly, and Mif and another divemaster tried to fix that. After a minute or two, I realized that they cannot solve the problem with the BCD on my back. So I removed the BCD, and found out that the anchor point for the lower tank strap managed to disconnect from the backplate.  This explain why the tank was swinging around while the straps were tight and nice. Together with five hands involved, we managed to secure it to place. I put on my equipment and tried to continue with the dive.

We saw more small sharks, and few larger ones from above. At some point Ayelet pointed to the right and we saw a small eagle-ray approaching. It seemed rather oblivious to us. I took some pictures and Ayelet started to swim with it.

Right then, Mif pointed out that we are probably at the end of our no-decompression time. I tried to signal to Ayelet to get higher, but she wouldn't leave the eagle-ray alone. Once we got her to say goodbye, we started moving up toward the top of the thila. 

Weird looking sea anemone

Once we moved off the current facing side, the current took hold of us and took us with it away from the thila. This was rather surprising since it didn't seem that strong before.

On the top there was somewhat of a mess again, and at some point Mif told us to start ascending as David, Ayelet and me were close to 50bar. Ayelet got so low only because she lent me her air for few minutes.
Anat at the safety stop

Back on the Dhoni everyone seemed unhappy with the dive. Mif and Sigala sat down to talk about it. After lunch, Sigala gathered us for a serious talk on how we should improve our behavior, not rush after big animals, get out of the water with 50bar etc. We all complained about the fact that all three groups are diving together creating a mess.

In addition, they swapped Doron and Omer from our group and replaced them with Saar and Mor. The reasoning was that all the girls (Ayelet, Anat and Mor) always have to leave early because of their buddies. We decided that once some of the boys finish their air, they will ascent, and leave the girls to continue together.

Dive 6: Panettone Start: 220, end: 40.

This dive was an outer reef dive in a site where there are Manta Ray cleaning stations. Our group jumped third, and moreover, I managed to loose my mask in the jump. Once again, Mif rescued it. This event caused sufficient delay for us to go down few minutes after the other groups. Once we got down we went along a mild slope at about ~15m. The water was murky and the visibility was poor. We saw some fish, moray eels, and such. Mif pointed out a large Napoleon fish, that was moving more or less at the edge of the visibility.

After few minutes, Mif pointed forward, and while we couldn't see much, we all stopped. Soon we saw out of the gloom a large Manta Ray. It was moving parallel to the slope in the opposite direction to us. We waited a bit, but it didn't return. We continued forward, and after few minutes, the scene repeated itself. I was not sure if this was the same Manta Ray or another (later one of the guides claimed these were distinct).

By the time we saw the third Manta, we reached large schools of yellow fish that were more or less stationary above the reef. David managed to swim slowly into their cloud.

A school of bluish fish passed above and created an interesting contrast with the yellow ones.

The fourth Manta passed above us and not below as the previous one. This one did a large circle around us, just at the edge of visible range. After a another circle it continued forward.

By this stage I was low on air. Mif sent Saar and me to go up. I inflated a marker and help on the line for a safety stop. It was a rather clumsy execution with me going down while unwinding the line, and then almost flew up with the marker (as the line was shorter than our depth). After this excitement, I hang on the line for a safety stop and then we slowly ascended to the surface.

On the Dhoni everyone was happy. Clearly this dive worked better than the previous ones. We embarked on the main boat, and then had a short trip to the place where we will stay the night.

This evening we are having a BBQ on the beach of the island. This is a small uninhabited island with a nice sandy shore, and surrounded by a shallow sandy lagoon. There were several boats parked next to the island, and it seems this will be a multi-boat event. We had the option to go to the short to enjoy the island, or go snorkeling. For me the choice was clear. I took my camera and went snorkeling. Ayelet joined me. 

We started with the outer reef facing into the atoll. 

After awhile we moved into the lagoon. The sand was very white, with small corals dotting it.

Ayelet found a large sting-ray hiding in the sand. It wasn't very cooperative and didn't stay for more than one picture.

We then swam across the barrier reef to the outer side of the lagoon wall. This part was facing a channel from the outer ocean into the atoll. The walls here were rich with table corals that went down all the way beyond our visibility range.

By now the sun was very low, and the special afternoon light was in the water.

Ayelet pointed out a sea cucumber that seemed to be standing on a table coral with most of its body upright in the water. I thought this was very peculiar, but then we saw another and another of these. I am not sure what exactly this behavior means. Usually we see such sea cucumbers on the sandy bottom, but here they were going over hard coral, which might explain the strange scene.

By sunset we made it back to the boat.

Half an hour later it was announced that we are about to depart to the BBQ party. By now it was dark, the moon didn't raise yet, and we could see the lights on the shore. Each boat crew arranged a section of the beach for their guests. Each of them had a big BBQ fire, and many small lights (we later saw these were candles in plastic bottles). It looked from afar as though a small city has sprang up.

The small dingy took us six at a time to the beach. There we saw a long dinner table set up, and large buffet table. In front of the table there was a sand sculpture of a whale-shark. It was impressively done with black sand (not sure how they painted it) and white dots.

Touring the neighboring feasts we saw the same design (exactly the same) but with different decoration. It seems that there is a template for whale shark that all the groups used. We realized that this was a BBQ island - the owners provided tables, chairs, grills, and apparently also whale shark template. The crew brought their own silverware, food containers and such.

The dinner itself was nice but not spectacularly so. Afterwards we wondered around the island. Anat and David were energetic and managed to go around (on the shoreline) at least nine times. At this stage the moon was up and the scene was illuminated by a silver light. The reflection of the moon on the ocean was on one side of the island, and the lighted boats moored inside the atoll on the other side.

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