Saturday, December 23, 2006

My Top 10 Most Memorable Dives

Morning at Mabul

Sunset at Mabul

Since earning my PADI diving certification 5 years ago, I’ve logged 94 dives. It’s not a lot compared to the dive pros who log hundreds of dives a year. But it’s still a pretty good figure, considering that I do an average of 2 dive trips a year, for an average of slightly under 20 dives a year. The early years were crazier, due to the novelty of my new-found hobby and the gung-ho factor. This year (2006) I’ve really slowed down – only 6 dives!

If you noticed, I said “memorable” dives in the title. Not “best” dives. These are not necessarily the most enjoyable dives, but they stick out vividly in my memory. You see, in diving, there is no such thing as a bad dive. There are only different dives. Even a “bad” dive can be good, because it’s different and offers a new experience from which to learn and remember. For example, a dive in low visibility would be bad for recreational purposes, but good for training, so that one would be more prepared for similar low visibility conditions in the future. It builds confidence.

There’s a lesson for life and a spiritual parallel there too. That is, things don’t always go well. Sometimes there are screw-ups and bad weather, but in all things there is a positive side. We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Like Joseph, things may look bad now, and people may intend it for evil, but God intends it for good in the end.

So here goes the good, the bad and the ugly… in chronological order.

1. My First Ever Open Water Dive
Anemone City, Pulau Redang, August 2001

Straight after getting my temporary cert from my instructor Nic, the bunch of us five students plunged in for our first dive as qualified divers. Nic took us to Anemone City, which is an obscure dive site off Redang. No buoy, no line. Few people know of this site, and Nic had to direct the boatman to the spot, using the position of the islands for navigation. The current was strong, and Nic went down first with a float and line to set the descent line for us newbies. Guess what? It didn’t work, because the current was swift and the moment we dropped in the water we were carried on the surface away from the line. The boat went round to pick us up and turn around upstream to try descending again. Again it didn’t work. Since we were brand new to open water diving, we were not so quick to descend and ended up separated by the current. Jannie and Cindy were together. Daniel and Beng Hui were together. And I was alone. Well, due to Nic’s *ahem* excellent training, we didn’t panic. We each found our way to the bottom and regrouped with Nic. I remember seeing lots and lots of anemones covering the rocks like a giant rug. Towards the end of the dive I ran low on air and had to share with Nic (how embarassing!). We got back on the boat and headed back to shore. I can't remember what happened after that.

2. Night Diving
Pulau Redang, August 2001

My first night dive was actually an “unauthorized” one. According to the PADI syllabus, divers only learn night diving in the Advanced course. But since our instructor was keen to give us a feel of night diving right after our basic Open Water certification, he took us out one night to the shallow reef in front of Redang Bay Resort. You could say it was an unofficial introduction to diving in darkness. We grabbed our underwater torchlights, geared up and walked down to the warm sea water after dinner. To cut a long story short, I don’t remember seeing anything but rocks and boulders. I guess we were more concerned with overcoming our initial fears and sticking close to our instructor, so as not to get lost. You could tell we were really rookie divers, because towards the end of the dive my buddy thoughtfully handed me her secondary regulator (the “octopus”), thinking that I was low on air. Well, we didn’t realize it, but we were floating at the surface already!

I followed up with a proper Advanced course at Perhentian in March 2002. There, the instructor took us out for a proper training night dive. We went through the skills test and simulations. Since then, I’ve done a handful of night dives. Night diving is always exciting and adrenaline-inducing. The only bummer is that I have to get wet and salty again at the end of the day, when I would rather be snug and dry, and enjoying the sunset and dinner. Instead, I have to eat dinner early, or rush through dinner, or eat leftovers later, coz the best time for night diving clashes with dinnertime. I’ll also miss the sunset coz I’ll be busy preparing for the dive. And after the dive, I have to pack and wash the gear, and shower again. If the dive ends late, I’ll have wet hair till late at night (I don’t believe in hairdryers, except in emergencies). Kinda spoils the relaxing mood… but I’ll still go night diving, because you never know what you’ll find. I saw a moray eel once, right in front of Coral View Resort, Perhentian. I think it was a honeycomb moray -- white with black dots -- or perhaps it was a black spotted moray...? :)

3. The Puke Dive
Rayner’s Rock, Pulau Dayang, October 2002

This was one of my “worst” dives. People usually ask, what bodily functions can you do underwater? The answer is, everything. The only problem is, your wetsuit gets in the way. Divers routinely pee in their wetsuits. There’s no other way out. The urge to let go is due to the cold water and immersion diuresis, which is the urge to pee induced by the effect of being submerged. Scientists have documented this fact but the exact cause is still not clear. Anyway, I should be talking about puking, not peeing.

It was a windy day and the waves were rough. I was sleep-deprived from the previous night’s traveling. Rough sea + fatigue = sea sickness. On top of that, I had a heavy lunch which included greasy mee goreng. Ah, recipe for disaster. For the afternoon dive, which was soon after lunch, i.e. no time for the food to digest, we went out to Rayner’s Rock. This is supposed to be one of the best dive sites at Pulau Dayang. But my memory only remembers the puke. About 10 minutes into the dive, my headache began throbbing and my stomach started feeling queasy. Nausea. Vertigo. Lunch was on its way out... and out it came, at 18m underwater. I whipped the regulator out of my mouth, but I was just a bit too late... and so parts of the barf went into the regulator (Yuck!), while the rest went into the watery world! Little bits of lunch started floating away in the current, and hungry fish darted over to gobble it up. Vomit certainly looks different underwater. It spreads out in a thin film, with strings of digestive mucus clinging on. I felt much better after getting it all out. Vomit leaves a bad taste in the mouth, so I gargled and spit with seawater. Ptooeyyy! I put the regulator back in my mouth, but it smelled of vomit! Arrgghhh! So I took it out and flooded it and purged it a number of times until it was clean. I continued the dive feeling much better. Later when I got back to the jetty after the dive I cleaned out the regulator properly… there were still bits of orange sacs and fibre stuck inside. And that ends the story of the puke dive.

4. The Combo Dive
Pulau Tenggol, May 2003

This was the deepest night dive I’ve ever done. It was down to 100 feet (30m), to a fishing boat wreck in the bay where all the resorts on Tenggol are located. But I was on a live-aboard dive trip, so I didn’t touch land for 3 days. Our dive boat was tied to the mooring buoy which was anchored to the wreck. During this dive, I also had to do some navigation at the bottom. So, in a sense, that one dive fulfilled the requirements of the Advanced course: Deep dive, night dive, boat dive, navigation.

It was an eventful dive. Earlier that day, we dived the same wreck to check it out. It’s a rule of night diving, that you should dive in familiar sites, which you have previously dived in the daytime. So, anyway, Andrew, Cheng and I descended with the others. At the bottom, Cheng suddenly made some signals that he wanted to go up. Andrew also followed him up. Later, I found out that Cheng had bad air in his tank, and couldn't stand breathing that air and therefore aborted the dive. I didn’t get the message, so I stayed back, thinking that I could join the other group. In the commotion, the other group had gone ahead and left me behind too! So, there I was, all alone in the dark, 100 feet below the surface… For a moment, I panicked. But then I remembered the procedures taught during training. And as long as my air supply was OK, I should be OK. First step is to look for my other buddies. So I blacked out my light by pointing it onto my wetsuit, and scanned 360 degrees around for other sources of light. After a few seconds of hovering in darkness, I saw the faint beams of the other group’s torchlights in the distance. I quickly made a beeline for the group, and was surprised to find that they were exploring another nearby boat wreck. So, I dived (1) from a boat, (2) to a deep wreck, (3) at night, and (4) navigated from one wreck to another. A combo dive.

5. The Glamour Dive
Sharon's Stone, Pulau Redang, August 2004

I did a dive trip to Redang with my brother. We stayed at Redang Bay Resort, which has probably the cheapest dive rates on the island. Sharon’s Stone sounded alluring enough, and so we geared up and boarded the boat eagerly. Well waddaya know, the visibility that day was bad, just a few metres. Even the divemasters couldn’t get their bearings. It was a comedy of errors. We descended without a line, which would have been OK in clear water, but in low viz we couldn’t see where we were going. Then there was a diver from another group who couldn’t equalize, thus keeping us waiting. A divemaster stayed back to help the fella descend, while the rest of us chased after the other divemaster who had gone ahead of us and was speeding into the distance, oblivious to the delay. I was afraid that we would lose sight of him in the poor visibility. And so, there we were madly chasing the divemaster, who was zooming ahead in search of the Sharon’s Stone reef. Well, he couldn’t find it! We spent the next 20 minutes skimming over the sandy bottom.

Sand, sand, sand everywhere. As a consolation we did manage to see some cute little shrimps on anemone clumps out in the middle of the sandy bottom. I saw some sea pens, starfish and worms too. Diving in poor visibility can be disorientating, especially when you can’t differentiate up from down. When you can’t see the bottom, or any reference point in the distance, your eyes start playing tricks on you. It’s like an autofocus camera trying to focus on a blank sheet of paper. After a while I even started feeling a bit of vertigo. So, we finned close to the bottom, with our noses almost in the sand… well, almost. We ended the dive with a safety stop in open water. Later, the dive shop gave us a discount on the dive, since we didn’t arrive at the intended destination. How nice of them.

6. Sugar Wreck
Pulau Perhentian, August 2004-2006

This has to be one of my favourite dive sites. I’ve dived there on each of my annual trips to Perhentian over the past 3 years. Each time, the diving conditions were different. The first time had no current, good viz. Second time had moderate current, poor viz. Third time had strong current, moderate viz. But I saw the most fish during the third time. The current was so strong that we had to grab the line during the safety stop, and we ended up looking like flags flapping in the wind – a whole line of divers trailing from the line. A bit like a clothesline caught in the wind.

Sugar Wreck is a sunken 90m bulk carrier ship. It was carrying sugar (hence the name) when it sank in December 2000. It now lies in 18m of water, but because it’s a pretty big ship, the top of the wreck is only 6m below the surface. There’s a warning buoy anchored to the wreck.

Sugar Wreck is good for reliving the Titanic experience, especially on the descent, where you glide over the hulking mass of the wreck, avoiding the railings, cranes, masts and ropes that protrude through the water. Most of the wreck’s surfaces are covered with slime, or soft corals, or barnacles. There’s lots of pufferfish near the stern of the wreck. You can also see a school of razorfish that swim vertically, head down-tail up. There’s also lionfish and scorpionfish. A bamboo shark hides under one of the masts. I saw a turtle the first time I dived there, but none ever since. A lone barracuda resides in the hull of the wreck. The divemaster will usually take divers on a tour of the wreck, from one end to the other, and detouring into the open hull of the wreck. The ship rests on its starboard side on the silty seabed, leaving the hull opening sideways. Strictly speaking, this is not technical wreck diving, as there is no penetration of enclosed passages. We always make sure there is a direct access to the surface in case of emergency.

7. Sipadan-Mabul
Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Mabul, May 2005

It’s difficult to pinpoint the most memorable dive at Sipadan-Mabul. Besides the first ever dive at Sipadan, which I mention in No. 8 below, the memory of Sipadan-Mabul just can’t be dissected into individual dives. It’s more like a mosaic than a snapshot. Among the scenes that stick out clearly are the first boat ride from Mabul to Sipadan. You know, it’s like after all the hype about Sipadan, I was finally on my way there, on the speedboat skimming over the deep blue waters of the Celebes Sea. I had my camera to take some landside photos of the island, but unfortunately I had no underwater camera. Someone said they saw dolphins, but of course, I had to be the one who didn't see them...

Some flashbacks of Sipadan-Mabul:

- Snorkelling at the Drop Off during our surface intervals. It’s like no other snorkeling experience I had up till that time. Imagine, swimming over sandy bottom 3m deep… then suddenly the bottom just disappears over the edge, and all you see is a wall dropping almost infinitely into the deep blue below. I ventured out from the sandy bottom, towards the open water and bottomless sea, always keeping a watchful eye on the white sandy bottom nearby and making sure I knew how far away I was! I didn’t want to get into trouble while hovering over nothing but water. See, if I dropped my watch there, it would fall for 600m before hitting bottom. It’s a really awesome feeling of fear mixed with adventure. There’s a lot of hard and soft corals growing on the wall and ledges, and a profusion of fish that patrol the edge between beach and abyss. The resident lone barracuda hides among the legs of the wooden jetty. A turtle swam by. Ladidadidumdum. I didn’t dive at the Drop Off, but snorkeling there was just about good enough!

- Barracuda Point was a terrible disappointment, because there were NO barrucudas. Zero. I dived there four times to no avail. But there were some other interesting sights that partially made up for the total lack of barracudas. I saw lots of reef sharks. Loads of them. There’s a place called The Airport where a whole “squadron” of grey reef sharks would rest on the flat rocky bottom, making it look like an airport with sleek fighter jets parked on the tarmac. At one point, a rare leopard shark sped past in the swift current. I only managed to catch a glimpse of its side and tail, as it quickly disappeared behind us. Divers are incredibly clumsy in water compared to fish (Duh~!). I was being pushed along by the current (doing what we call a “drift dive”), and the shark just went the opposite direction, against the current, effortlessly!

- Turtles, turtles, everywhere. I stopped counting after a while. There’s turtles swimming, turtles eating, turtles sleeping, but I didn’t see turtles mating…

- Lots of fish! At Sipadan, you'll see many types of fish that you can see elsewhere too, but they're in greater number at Sipadan. If you see one batfish at Redang, you'll probably see five at Sipadan. Just multiply the numbers.

- Diving at Mabul is great for seeing little critters and bottom-dwelling creatures. It was my first time seeing frogfish, crocodilefish, ribbon eels and loads of big, colourful nudibranchs. I was diving with some seasoned divers who talked in scientific lingo, like “Oh, did you see that beautiful Chromodoris?” And so I had to quickly brush up on my Latin to counter with phrases like, “Oh yeah, wasn’t that a Phyllidia?” I like a mix of little critters and big fish in diving. Some people are macro lovers, others prefer wide angle. I like both.

- Sunsets at Mabul are lovely... so too is the morning sky, as you can see in the two pictures above.

8. My Virgin Sipadan Dive
South Point, Pulau Sipadan, May 2005

My first time at Sipadan also happens to be my deepest dive ever. We went down to 130 feet (40 metres)!!! The water was so clear that it didn’t feel that deep. I had my first taste of Sipadan’s legendary depths, as I couldn’t see the bottom which was another 600 m below. My only indication of land was the sloping wall on my left. Unfortunately, the marine life was rather sparse. Hardly any fish worth noticing. And at that depth the wall was devoid of corals. Everything was a shade of blue or grey. The most obvious sign of life was the hissing of the dense air coming through the regulator with every breath that I took.

But the idea of logging such a depth on the depth gauge was thrilling enough. OK, maybe it’s a cheap thrill. But it doesn’t happen everyday. I’m still wondering if I actually got nitrogen narcosis on that dive. I don’t recall getting a “high”. That only means one thing, I gotta go back and do it again to find out. :P

9. Big Fish Dive
West Ridge, Pulau Sipadan, May 2005

Imagine the largest shoal of fish you’ve ever seen. Then imagine swimming into it, under it, through it, around it. Yup, I swam right into a massive shoal of trevallies. From a distance the reflective silver scales of the fish made the shoal appear like a fuzzy gray blob on the blue background. The current was carrying us divers along, and soon we were drifted into the living wall. The current was flowing but the shoal was stationary, hovering in the water like a hot air balloon in the sky. I was at the bottom about 12m deep, and I saw the shoal extend from the sea bed almost to the surface. That’s a 12m-high wall of fish. That’s A LOT of fish. Swimming into the shoal of thousands of fish was a truly incredible experience. It’s like being surrounded by an amorphous living blob that shifts, swirls and folds around you as you play with it. I dropped to the bottom and slowly ascended through the middle… slowly the mass of fishes parted and surrounded me, swirling around. The fish wouldn’t let us divers too close to them, but it was a pretty close encounter. I could see the sleek silver fins gleaming in the sunrays that pierced through the water and almost gaze into their eyes, if only they would stop swimming around! The wall of glimmering silver was disorientating at times, when the fish started circling me and making me lose my sense of direction. Exhilarating! I think I spent 10 minutes with the blob of fish before I had to continue with the drift dive and watch the silver slowly fade to gray and nothingness. This is what diving is about! =)

I didn’t get to see the famed school of barracudas at Sipadan, despite diving at Barracuda Point four times! So this school of trevallies is the compensation. Not as majestic as barracudas but better than nothing.

Oh BTW, trevallies are good to eat. Once when I was diving with my instructor on my first few dives, we came across some trevallies. Being the ever-helpful instructor who wanted to educate his students well, he scribbled on his underwater slate “Lunch” with an arrow pointing to the trevallies swimming by. :P

10. My First No Wetsuit Dive
D’Lagoon, Pulau Perhentian, August 2005

Most divers dive with a wetsuit. It’s for protection against the cold, and against scrapes and scratches from corals and rough surfaces, and stings and bites from creatures. But in warm tropical waters, there’s not much need for insulation from cold water, unless it’s a deep dive into colder water, or there happens to be a thermocline or cold currents. For shallow water dives, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s warm enough to dive without a wetsuit. And in my opinion, there’s no need to protect oneself from the corals. In fact the reverse is true. The corals need protection from divers! That’s why the more environmentally conscious dive operators prohibit divers from wearing gloves, so that they don’t go around grabbing live corals.

Back to the wetsuit… we were going to dive in the warm shallow waters of D’Lagoon a.k.a. Teluk Kerma and I decided to ditch my wetsuit. I figured that since it was afternoon and the dive was shallow, it would be just nice to try plunging in wearing just a pair of shorts and lycra vest. The sense of freedom was very refreshing. Another advantage is that I needed to use only one piece of weight because there’s no need to counter the buoyancy of a wetsuit. My last 4 dives at Perhentian this year were without wetsuit -- just skinsuit top and boardshorts. It also eliminates the hassle of lugging a damp heavy wetsuit back from the trip. And there's no need to rinse the wetsuit. Yay. Well, I know wetsuits are important for protection against the cold and for general protection against exposure to the elements, including the sun when at the surface. But I just like the freedom of no wetsuit on me. Maybe I'll change my mind when I get caught in a cold current one fine day, or run into a horde of jellyfish. :)

D’Lagoon is a very easy dive site. It’s shallow and without currents. We were blessed by the presence of a school of bumphead parrotfish chomping on the corals. There were about a dozen of the metre-long bumpheads. It was great. (I went all the way to Sipadan earlier in May 2005 but didn’t see any bumpheads! Maybe it was the wrong time.) Back to D’Lagoon, I also saw a cute reef cuttlefish that was hovering above a rock on the sandy area. Cuttlefish are nice to play with, as they hang around to check out divers and they have the amazing ability to change colours. On the sand they are white. On the reef they morph to brown or whatever colour the background is. Sometimes half the body is white while the other half is stone coloured. D’Lagoon is also known for the cleaning station where anemone shrimp clean fishes’ mouths and gills. Sort of like brushing teeth. The shrimp will pick off bits and pieces of food or parasites from their clients’ mouths, scales and gills. We divers get the same treatment too, but on our fingers. As we approach the anemones, we just stick out our hands and the shrimp will swarm over and start to pick at our cuticles with their little pincers. It’s a really amusing sight to see the one inch shrimps trying to clean our cuticles. Free “manicure”.



CH said...

Cool...I like all your sharing on your blog...some are funny, some are inspiring, some are informative, and well, some well, i just dont get it.. :))

But do blog more... :)

TL said...

Beatiful pictures of Mabul and great blog entries.Especially like reading about your dives!

:) Glad I've got my own reg..won't have to worry about renting one one has puked into.Nice of you to wash it well after that.Have heard some pretty nasty stories about rental regs.


HL said...

ch: I blog only when I'm inspired... but I'll try harder to inspire myself. :)

tl: So far, I haven't had any problems with rental gear. I've had some problems with bad air, stale air, etc., but it's bearable, for the sake of the fishies. :)