Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lion Fish, Nudibranchs, and Nemo

28 April 2015

Scuba diving!  One of these years, I’ll get an underwater camera so I can take photos of the exciting things we see when diving.  It’s a whole other world down there!

The day we arrived, the hotel people called the dive operator in the area, and the young man who speaks English, Ping, met up with us.  We booked the two tank dives for Sunday, and he met us at
7:30 AM, as planned. 
Drove us out to a jetty at one end of the huge bay here, climbed into a dinghy, and we headed out to the dive boat.  This was essentially a cabin cruiser that was retro-fitted as a dive boat, so there was a ton of space - two decks, the lower deck holding all the dive gear and tanks.  The two of us were the only clients for the day, on this spacious boat.  

Even though we had breakfast at our hotel, there was a nice spread with fruit and coffee for us, and we relaxed as we got under way.

We motored across the bay to a small fishing village, to pick up the dive leader, Ming Wu.  And then headed to the far end of the bay, where we were going to dive.

Now, each dive shop has their own way of doing things.  But this operation was unique.  We were on  the large boat, which anchored in an area without coral on the seabed.  And we needed to take
the dinghy over to the two areas where we’d dive, on the coral reef.  This meant fitting us for the gear (fins, masks, and weight belts, mostly) on the big boat, putting all that into the dinghy, donning our shortie wetsuits, getting the tanks and buoyancy vests into the dinghy, and then us climbing into the dinghy as well.  

While in the dinghy, we then put on all our gear - weight belts, fins, buoyancy vest with the tank hooked on - so we were sitting in the dinghy wearing a good 40+ lbs of gear.  Richard and I kept thinking, there we were with weight belts, so if we fell overboard we'd sink, and have to drop the belts to not drown.  I know, worst case scenario, but still!  (And as a teacher and attorney, we both think in those terms.)

Anyway, our first dive was at about 45 ft or so (15 m), and we swam and drifted with the current, wending our way around the coral reef.  There was a great deal of plankton in the water from the wind/waves the previous day, so visibility was maybe 15 ft (5 m), not great but okay.  The coral was interesting, since we could see all the colors - mostly deep greens and purples and maroons, with white edges.  Tons of fish - little purple fish with yellow tails (fairy basslets), red squirrel fish, all kinds of butterfly fish in different yellow, black, or white stripes, and interesting angel fish with long floating tendrils on their dorsal fins.  We also saw nudibranchs, which are sort of like little sea slugs but not gross the way land slugs are - nudibranchs come in various colors and patterns, and some have feathery antennas on their heads.  Interesting little guys!

Of course, we also saw a clown fish family hanging around an anemone - clown fish are immune to the toxins in sea anemones, so they use the anemone to protect their eggs and young.  We saw Mama Nemo, Papa Nemo, and two little tiny baby Nemos, all swimming around among the tentacles of their anemone bed.

Our dive leader showed us a tiny little yellow puffer fish, a cute little round fish.  Schools of small white fish with a single black stripe, other schools of neon blue fish, some big parrot fish munching on the coral, and all sorts of fish we couldn’t identify - but lots and lots of fish all over the place. 

The best, though, was the lion fish I found!  I’ve never seen these outside aquariums before, so this was amazing!  Lion fish can be nasty creatures - certain species are poisonous, while others devour most of the fish on a coral reef.  They’ve invaded the Atlantic and Caribbean, and are decimating reefs there.  (We went to the lion fish training program in St. Thomas, and Richard made a few sightings - I never did.)  But in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, they have natural predators and so lion fish aren’t as much of a problem.  Anyway, they’re small black and white or brown and white striped fish with long spines on their back and for side fins, each spine having tapered skin and looking like individual feathers.  Really beautiful fish, but definitely rather ominous looking!  It was exciting to see two of them on this reef. 

After maybe 45 minutes, we did our three minute safety stop at 15 ft depth (5 m), and then headed to the surface.  The dinghy returned to pick us up - and this is always the worst part for me.  After 45 minutes of being weightless in the water while acting like a mermaid, gravity always hits me hard.  And then, instead of climbing up a ladder into the large boat, we had to climb out of the water into the dinghy.  I’m so bad at this.  First, we handed up our weight belts, then the tank/vest combo, and then, with fins on, we were supposed to boost ourselves into the dinghy.  Now, I can boost myself backwards onto a wall when I’m standing in front of it, no problem.  But this is boosting myself out of the water and into a boat when the part I’m holding, the gunwales, is above my head.  I don’t have the upper body strength for this, no matter how hard I kick with the fins; I can get high enough to hold on with my arms in the boat, but I can’t seem to get my body into the dinghy. 

So I ended up boosting myself up and then getting dragged into the dinghy by the crew.  Into a little, two bench, five-person dinghy.  Stuck for a moment or two balanced on the edge of the boat on my belly, unable to go forward or backward, and then dragged onto a seat, on my stomach.  Which meant that to roll onto my back, I had to fall onto the bottom of the boat.  Of course, I rolled onto some feet and legs of the crew, and we all burst out helplessly laughing as I flailed around like a captured manatee or something.  I eventually managed to sit on a bench next to Richard - and his entry into the boat was better than mine, but definitely not graceful.  
Anyway, we all had a good laugh, and headed back to the main boat.  Had our surface interval (needed to prevent a toxic build-up of nitrogen, which occurs with breathing air from the tank at depth), and then had our second dive.  We went to a different part of the reef, which didn’t have as many exciting fish, but had a lot of table coral - it looks like a flat curlique tabletop above a single pedestal.  With little fish darting in and out of the curls of coral.

This was a shallow dive, all of 9 - 12 ft (3 to 4 m), so we were able to stay down for a longer time.  There was quite a bit of surge underwater, and when we surfaced we discovered why: the wind had come up and there were strong waves, probably 2 or 3 ft (just under 1 m) - not huge waves, but enough to created the surge underwater, and to bounce us around as we floated and waited for the dinghy.  (Which made the entry into the dinghy even worse, and I have the bruised arms and stomach to show for it.)

And then, the dinghy ride back - with all the gear, plus all the people, the dinghy started taking on water every time we hit a wave!  It got to the point where the engine was swamped and cut out, and we drifted a bit.  After conferring a bit in Burmese, the dive leader and our interpreter, Ping, jumped overboard to lighten the boat - they grabbed their fins and just jumped!  The boat driver bailed out some water, got the engine going again, and delivered us to the big boat.  Then he went back to pick up the other two, and got everyone safely into the big dive boat.  Whew, what an adventure!

We found lunch waiting for us, but after all the bouncing around neither of us were ready for a huge meal - so we enjoyed some rice, a little shrimp in garlic sauce, very little pork in a spicy sauce, and salad, with more fruit for dessert.  Really a lovely meal, but we just weren’t ready for that much food at that time. 

Anyway, we had a slightly bouncier trip back to the dive leader’s village, passing the giant Buddha of the hill, and then back to the jetty.  A drive back, and we returned to our hotel.  Exhausted and happy - diving is wonderful exercise, but it’s also deceptively tiring.

We’re both very happy we got in some diving here in the Bay of Bengal!  (Doesn’t that sound exotic????)

And also happy our hotel has room service, so we can have supper while in our jammies!  Because a day of diving and boating really is exhausting.

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