Friday, May 16, 2008

Tubbataha Tale #3

Day 4 | Dive 2 | Location: Washing Machine

Turtles are very photogenic. Whenever anyone saw a turtle, the photographers would descend in a swarm, taking picture after picture. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy having the pictures afterwards, but at the time sometimes I would like to have a few moments just to enjoy the moment.

Which is why when I found this little turtle, nestled against the reef, I decided to not to tell anyone. Instead I approached very carefully and lay down on the sand next to him. The turtle and I looked at one another. The turtle didn’t look at all impressed – he watched me for a few moments then carried on staring aimlessly at the reef ahead of him. He appeared to be very relaxed and I found that chilling-out next to a turtle is very relaxing. I am usually dubious about 'humanising' marine animals – but the turtle characterisation in ‘Finding Nemo’ was just too perfect! I’m sure all divers loved that. One feels that a turtle is someone who could use the word ‘dude’ and get away with it!

I’m not sure how long I was there before the first photographer arrived... but thank-you, I was a little resentful but now I have the memory to keep so it’s all good (although I must confess, this wasn’t the only turtle sighting that I kept to myself!)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tubbataha Tale #2

Day 3 | Dive 1 | Location: Delsan Wreck

I was at -42m, once again the rest of the group were between 7-15 metres above me. Once again, I was in the blue – too far out to see the wall this time. I was checking my direction by watching the other divers above me, to my right. I was looking, once again, for Hammerheads and, once again, I was without success. But there were sharks around, many sharks actually: some beautiful White-tip Reef sharks, some Black-tips also, at least one Bamboo shark and quite a few Grey Reef, even a couple of fairly big ones. I was having a lovely morning!

Most of the sharks were below me, and so that was where I was looking… until I saw something move out of the corner of my eye… I look to up and to my right and there he was – a big shark, directly ahead. It was hard to tell exactly how big – because he was facing me, swimming towards me. I could clearly see the wide mouth and the teeth, which told me he was pretty big. I could see his tail swishing from side to side behind him and suddenly this triggers a memory of something I read recently about Grey Reef sharks: “when disturbed they show typically antagonistic behaviour, such as swimming with exaggerated movements.”

“Big teeth” I mused to myself. Then suddenly it hit me! There was a large shark swimming straight at me! I’m 42m underwater, being approached, at speed, by a large animal with big teeth! Oh!

But I was calm, I stayed motionless, I watched. He swam straight towards me until, at the last possible moment, he made a graceful swerve to the left. As he passed I could see he was, indeed, quite big – nearly 3m. He gave me a dismissive look: If the shark had a voice, it would have sounded like Robert de Niro and it would have said,
“Are you looking at me?”
Either that, or it would have sounded like Stephen Fry and said:
“How disappointing! You looked fatter from a distance.”

Too late, I realised I should have pointed it out to the other divers. It had taken another left swerve and was almost underneath them, I looked up to see my dive buddy already pointing.

Afterwards the Divemaster told me it was an Oceanic White-tip. This is what the Ocean Guide has to say about them:

Up to 350cm. Pelagic species, only sometimes venturing close to coral reef areas. One of the largest species of the family, it is easily distinguished by it's large rounded dorsal and pectoral fins with broad white tips. This elegant and fast swimmer lacks the hectic movements typical of many requiem sharks. Often accompanied by pilot fish or other sharks. Said to be one of the four sharks most dangerous to humans, but there are no confirmed reports of attacks.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tubbataha Tale #1

First, a little marine geography lesson for you: shores lines do not look like this (see fig 1), they look like this (see fig 2). We call these steps ‘Drop Off’s (although we should, since my father will no doubt correct me, call them Drops Off.) When we dive them, we call them walls. We should probably call them cliffs, because that’s what they resemble, but we don’t.

Most Drops Off are fairly tame: in Boracay our first is at -9m, down to about -18m. Following this is a sandy slope (dull) down to about -33m, which then drops to about -60m. This is a good wall – but it’s a quick dive because there are no shallows. It’s straight down and up again, 17 minutes later.

At Tubbataha the Drops Off are majestic. My favourite dive was Black Rock, where the wall starts at -4m and drops down to -70m. For the landlubbers out there, let me give you a sense of perspective – 66m is about a 22 storey building.

Imagine a cliff face 22 storeys high, a vast hanging garden of soft corals, giant gorgonian fans, huge barrel sponges jutting out; schools of bat fish tumbling down it’s sides, bright blue fusilier fish marching across it’s window ledges. Sharks sweeping back and forth, and me – suspended, weightless, mid-water, just trying to take it all in.

Day 2 | Dive 1 | Location: Black Rock

“I might go deep if the conditions are good,” I said to my dive buddy just before we back rolled. He gave me a wink and an ‘ok’.
“You stay below us?”
“Of course!”
“Ok, enjoy. Bang if you see a hammerhead! I will come down for that!”

We dropped straight in on the crest of the wall. The conditions were perfect – maybe 30m visibility. The early morning sunlight was glinting in the shallows, making excellent silhouettes of the triggerfish as we started our descent. I left my dive buddy feverishly taking photos at about -15m. The DM and the less experienced divers all stopped at about -20m. It was a glorious wall, sheer with shelf like layers; on one sandy shelf I saw my first white-tip of the day, snoozing quietly. I moved out, away from the wall, about 6m into the most perfect shade of blue and surveyed the scene. I was at about -30m, looking up at the wall above me, 8 ‘floors’ high and dropping below me for another 14 ‘floors’. I left the crazy Russians* behind at -35m and then it was just me.

At -40m I saw the bottom clearly, still a fair way down. I could see many sharks down there, lazily meandering to and fro. I looked up: the first group looked a long way above me, even the Russians seemed a fair distance. I kept dropping. At -56m my computer bleeped to tell me that was far enough! I have my alarm set to an Oxygen Partial Pressure of 1.4 (or 140%). You can have too much of a good thing: beyond 140% it is possible to ‘overdose’ on oxygen. The cut off point is actually 1.6, but I am a safe diver (honest Dad!), at 1.4 there is a risk, so that’s as far as I go.

I did look longingly at the bottom for a moment though and then up, by now the nearest diver was my buddy 20m above me. I took one last look down and there, with perfect timing was a huge eagle ray. They are a rich wine-red in colour, but at this depth he looked purpley-maroon. I could still clearly make out the white spots across his wings though. He was big, maybe 2m wingspan, with a long tail stretching more than 2m behind him. His ‘flight’ was effortless and looked slow, until he overtook me several seconds later! I tried to keep up and managed to for maybe 30 seconds! By which time my computer started to complain about Deco. One last look around me, up the beautiful wall and at the soft sunlight so far above… and then I started my slow ascent and rejoined the group.
Thanks to Sandy for the excellent photos!

*Obligatory in all diving stories!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Two sleeps until...

I go on holiday! Hurray! Once again I hear you ask:
"And what does a dive instructor who lives on a remote island do for her holidays?"
Once again I reply, "I’m going to an even more remote spot (note the absence of the word 'island') to do some diving!" Hurrah and hurray!

I am going to Tubbataha Reef for five whole days. Tubbataha: National Marine Park since 1988, UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993 and unanimously agreed to be, not just the best diving in the Philippines, but some of the best in South East Asia. Hurrah, huzzah and hurray!

As you can see from the map (thanks Google) Tubbataha is an awful long way from anywhere else. Not just in distance… take another look at the map, note how many cities are marked, how many cities that are big enough to make the map. Not many. Palawan (the big island to the west) is remote. Tubbataha is the edge of the world.

And what do I hope to see? Well I am keeping everything crossed for hammerhead sharks. I have seen one, once before, and have never forgotten it... but that's another story!

Some manta rays would also be fine. I expect to see lots and lots and lots of fish: the area has never been over-fished, because no one has ever lived there, and since 1988 there’s been no fishing at all. This is going to be the nearest thing to pristine that I have ever seen. Because there are no islands (just a few sandbanks at low tide) Tubbataha is home to many pelagic (big ocean-going) animals and as you can see from the map, there is a dramatic drop off very close by – the deeper the water, the bigger the fish. There are sometimes whale sharks and even (can I dare to hope?) whales seen at Tubbataha.

I plan to do four dives a day. I am told some will do five – but I am not sure if I can take that pace! I was anticipating doing at least one night dive... but when talking to a friend recently he cheerfully told me of his own experience:

"Of course the fish are drawn to your light and the sharks follow the fish," he said. "So don’t be surprised to turn your light and find yourself surrounded by very big sharks!" He grinned, "and they look so much bigger up-close and in the dark!"

Hmmmmm. Back on the 12th – watch this space!