Thursday, February 28, 2013

Maldives Day 4: Ari Atoll continued (large animals galore)

I woke when the crew started the engines at 6. Soon after I enjoyed an impressive sunrise.

We started the day with a trip toward our next destination. This was supposed to be another Manta Point where we can sit and watch Manta Rays coming for cleaning service.

Dive 7: Madivalu Rangali Start 210 end 120.

The dive briefing was simple - that we will be on a sloping outer reef with two "cleaning stations".

We were getting ready on the boat, when suddenly the dive masters said we are going to dive and jump quickly into the water. After jumping they told us "go down". This is usually a sign of a strong current which requires getting to the bottom as quickly as possible.

We went down in a disorganized group, and immediately realized the strength of the current.  On the bottom it was a fight to progress toward the first dive master. Mif showed up and tried to get our group together. Then suddenly he disengaged from the reef and signaled to go up. It wasn't clear what was his plan. When we got up he unrolled a signal marker, raised it and called us to go up to his location. I thought this meant that the dive was over, maybe because they put us down at the wrong place.

We slowly ascended, did a three minute safety stop, and got on the boat. Investigating what happened, we were told that he saw a whale shark passing above us and wanted us to be at its level. We were all a bit grumpy as this was a useless fight against currents without any need.

Two of the groups were in our situation, and the third one stayed down (and did some sort of a dive). 

The divemasters told us to get ready to snorkel as there is a good chance to encounter whale-shark on the surface. We jumped quickly from the boat into a group of russian tourists who were snorkeling from a small motorboat (probably from a nearby resort). I was still partially set up for diving (suit etc), and my equipment got tangled whole I was bumped into someone. In the end when I managed to get to the action I saw the head of a whale shark pass below me, and then it was gone. Soon after the people in the front said it dived down into the deep, and we got back on the Dhoni.

We collected the third group who saw two Manta Rays, and headed to the main boat. We were told to bring our snorkeling gear with us in case we run into a whale-shark.

By now breakfast was ready, and we sat down to enjoy it. Someone shouted "whale shark" and we all rushed outside to the deck. The dive masters told us to get ready to jump from the front of the boat. One of them, Deco, jumped and swam toward the shark to mark the exact location for the captain. He brought us close, and then we all jumped in.

This time I was better prepared. I disassembled the camera from the tray and flashes and so it was smaller and easier to carry. I also wore only lycra shirt instead of a wetsuit.

The shark was swimming just below the surface. We started following, with me trying to be just a bit ahead of it. 

At some point I crossed its path to take frontal picture, and it almost collided with me.

The whaleshark was moving in slow graceful movements. I had to work quite intensively to keep up with it. Below it was a small school of accompanying remoras. They kept in formation most of the time, but once in a while distributed, as if to catch some food, and then reformed.

It was getting harder and harder to get view of the shark, and it took me some minutes to realize that new snorkelers joined us. At least two boats. Apparently, once someone sights a whale-shark, all the boats in the vicinity rush over to catch the event. We were lucky to be the first ones to spot it, and so had it for ourselves for few minutes.

When the shark dove down and disappeared, the small dingy collected us and returned us to the main boat, which by now was quite far. We dried ourselves and sat down to finish breakfast.

The guides let us know that if we want to try the Manta point again, we need to do it soon otherwise the currents will change and the Manta Rays will not come. We quickly organized ourselves and return to the Dhoni.

Dive 8: Madivalu Rangali. Start 200, end 40

Before the dive, Mif let us know that our group will be guided by Dhous, another divemaster. It seems that we were reasonably easy to guide while other groups were more problematic, and so the guides rotate among the groups.

Dhous is a thin wiry fellow with a funny goaty. Among the three guides he is more on the wild side. He dives with a short stainless steel stick that he uses for pointing things and also for banging on his tank to get our attention.

Dhous underwater

Unlike the previous attempt, this dive went according to plan. We gathered down on the slope and visited some overhangs. 

We then reached a location where Dhous told us to wait. It didn't take long and a Manta Ray appeared above us. 

It did a slow majestic half circle and then disappeared. We all waited and after few minutes it reappeared above us.

In the water, we were joined by another group of divers. And so the water was rather crowded. Douth started us moving toward the next Manta cleaning station, when the Manta appeared for a third round. It was impressive how the large crowd did not deter it from staying in the same area.

We continued the dive, and slowly got toward the shallows. I returned to my favorite subjects.

Dhous pointed to a whitetip shark below us.

Returning to shallows, we encountered schools of fish.

Fifty shades of fish
I was getting low on air, and together with Saar, started toward a safety stop above the reef.  The top of reef was about 6-7m depth.

Up on the Dhoni, one of the groups reported a sighting of a whaleshark at the end of the dive. We prepared for snorkeling if we encounter it on the surface. About a hundred meters from us were few snorkelers boats, and so it seemed that this going to be a crowded event, again. Luckily for us, the crew spotted the whaleshark very near, and we jumped into the water without the other crowd. 

The whaleshark was cruising below us just above the reef. We snorkeled above it as it was moving gracefully in the water.

I continued working hard to stay above it. I realized that I am the only one still in the water. I guess the others decided it will not go up. I took it as a challenge to keep up with it, which was a good morning exercise requiring full power strokes. I continued swimming for some time (I am not sure how long). At some point the shark dipped down, and then back up.

I was hopeful it will surface, but then it descended into the deep. I stopped snorkeling and signaled the Dhoni, who was quite far behind (keeping respectable distance). They came over and picked me up.

On the boat there was general merriment. In one morning we had several amazing encounters.

After a lunch and some relaxation time, we moved toward our afternoon dive. 

Dive 9: MV Kudimaa Start 200, end 30

This site was wreck dive. The medium sized cargo ship was sunk on purpose on the sand next to the "house reef" of one of the resorts. 

Although the wreck was relatively fresh (sunk in 1999), it was covered by an impressive coral growth. I guess this is a testament for the richness of the sea here.

Dhous led us around the wreck. He searched for animals to show us. He pointed out a huge stonefish, that was extremely well  disguised. He then pointed out a nudibranch. He was a bit disappointed that we did not take many photos of it. I did not have a macro lens, and it was below a net that made access tricky.

Toward the stern of the boat I peeked over the rail, and saw three batfish. They were sufficiently patient with me to photograph them. This reminded me similar scenes during safari's in the Red Sea. The batfish here have slightly different shape though. 

Suddenly there were ringing sounds in the water -- Dhous banging on his tank. I thought something happened, but it took a while to locate where he was. He was up next to the "mast" of the boat. I came up toward him, and he pointed to a large black frogfish. These are notoriously hard to photograph (they usually come out as a dark blob with dots that look like backscatter), but I gave it a shot.

Largish frogfish, note the bait on a thin wire up on its head.

Few times I had clouds of bubbles from below entering my field of view. When I finished the photo session, I looked around and realized that there was a cloud of divers that came up to see the attraction. I returned down and from below this is how this mess looked like.

Frog fish was close to the tip of the mast.

We continued along the boat. 

Ayelet posing for the camera

When I was low on air (I was clearly the weak link of our group), we swam over to the nearby reef, and slowly ascended.

We reached a contraption of hanging bar in the water. Dhous swam to it, removed his fins, and started doing a rope walk.

We had a good laugh, and then the men used the bar for its intended purpose - a safety stop. 

Saar and David hanging out
We saw from above that the girls found a turtle munching on soft corals. Since we were low on air, I skipped the opportunity for close up mug shots :-(

We moored for the night next to a long island. As all the islands near here, it had white beaches and dense growth inside.

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.