Chapter 6 - the diving! (non-divers... don't worry - this is for you too - please read on!)
2nd November - We do a couple of local dives ("bof" as the French would say), and finally leave Bira behind us (nothing personal, but YAY!).
Over the course of the next two weeks, we cover 3000 nautical miles from West to East, from Sulawesi to Papua, including Batu Ata, Wakatobi, Ambon, Banda and Missoul, ending in the salubrious Sorong.
This means a lot of travelling overnight, and sometimes during the day too. The crew get little rest and work hard, seizing naps now and then on various surfaces on the boat, as they don't seem to have cabins. Captain Ahmed in particular is doing an amazing job, as he's got to keep on top of things 24 hours a day, give or take.
Over the two week period, we clock about 33 dives in the locations flagged on the map I've attached to this post (thanks Howard and your GPS app), and we do a couple of trips onto islands too.
*** Why was this trip so different? ***
On dive holidays in places like Egypt and the Maldives, where tourism is highly developed, you arrive at a dive site and there are often one, two, three or more other dive boats all sending divers down to the same site.
It's the underwater equivalent of walking round the most popular new attraction at the zoo. You might be excited to be there, but there's a high chance your view will get spoiled by someone wanting to take a zillion photos and you invariably get kicked in the head by a stray fin if you're not careful (or get your foot stamped on, if you are still in the zoo analogy).
Now imagine travelling around unexplored places in the wilds of Africa, looking for your favourite critters and being pretty lucky pretty often.
The Wicked Diving blurb states that it's an expedition. Some of the dive guides, whilst all very experienced, have never dived here either. We're all in the same boat, literally and figuratively. We rarely see any other boats AT ALL, let alone dive boats wanting to share in our explorations.
So many amazing moments... here are some of the fishy highlights...
- A huge marlin swimming beneath us when we were about 10 metres deep, posing for a skydiver-like photo shot all holding hands in a circle, diving in the blue and weren't really expecting to see anything. Ricky was taking the shot from beneath us, and suffice to say, when he saw the marlin appear out of nowhere and swim right towards him, raising its sail, he thought his time had come.
- From the boat: seeing a 15 metre fin whale languishing around on the surface, blowing air out of its blowhole, and then diving, showing off its massive tail; and seeing schools of dolphins - that never got boring!
- Under the surface, we saw several banded sea snakes, cute little pygmy seahorses hiding in fan coral, sharks cruising around frightening the life out of the smaller fish, shy turtles, hilarious batfish (which are so curious they swim right up to your mask and follow you around), crocodile fish just lying there, dwarf lionfish playing hide and seek in a nook or cranny, massive bumphead parrotfish, schools of sinister-looking barracuda hanging around like a gang of dodgy lads on a Friday night, dynamic-looking Spanish mackerel and trevalli speeding around, shy, fascinating octopi (when they move over the surface of a rock and change colour, it is mesmerising), stonefish, all kinds of nudibranchs (brightly coloured seaslugs - if you have never seen one, google "nudibranch" and prepare to have your mind blown) and plenty of other amazing fish and giant barrel sponges and coral heads, untouched by careless fins.
- Others saw a wobbigong shark and a giant manta during the trip (I had to wait till my Raja Ampat trip the third week of November to see them). (Some also glimpsed a hammerhead, but I've still not seen one of them. I don't feel a huge need to see one but it will be nice the day I do!)
- BUT, as if all that wasn't enough, the creme de la creme, once-in-a-lifetime experience was seeing a pod of 7 orcas from the boat, and getting in and snorkelling as they swam past! Those of you who are on Facebook have already seen the video. I'm doing a separate post about that with a fab photo from Howard, so watch this space.
I'll add a selection of my photos at a later date - I still haven't copied them off the memory card yet. And I probably need to photoshop them and sort out the manual white balance anyway!
*** Types of dive sites ***
We are lucky to be able to dive in such a range of dive sites, from walls to reefs to pinnacles to muck-diving to wrecks to horse-racing in the "big blue" (yes, you read that right) and even an underwater lava flow from the 1988 eruption in Banda. The coral has grown back 6 times faster there than it does in other places, due to the nutrient-rich lava. It's a really unusual seascape, with lots of coral which looks like huge cabbages and lettuces.
*** Currents and stuff like that ***
The diving itself was sometimes a little challenging but not crazy, like I've heard Komodo can be. We had a few little currents going in unexpected directions - in particular during one safety stop we all found it quite challenging to maintain 5 metres. On a couple of drift dives (where you let yourself be carried along by the current), I did feel like it wasn't really my thing, as I struggled to avoid hitting other divers and corals (mostly bothered about the coral of course!). And I quite like having the time to pootle and investigate. No pootling during those drift dives as you hurtle past things wondering what that blurred thing was! I just need to do more strong drift dives, so I can relax into the flow and learn to appreciate what they offer. I am assuming nudibranches aren't on the list.
*** Dive sites - names ***
The list below includes all the dives I did. I missed a few, as I needed to give my ears a rest while waiting for the antibiotics to kick in and fight off the little infection in my right ear.
2/11/13 Sting Ray City, Fish Market, BIRA
4/11/13 Ricky's Wall, Jo's corner, Tofu, BATU ATA
5/11/13 Fluffy's, Karang Kota West Wall, WAKATOBI
7/11/13 Ambon entrance, AMBON
8/11/13 wreck dive SS Akila, AMBON
9/11/13 Pulau Suanggi, island near BANDA
10/11/13 Lava flow, Batu Kapal, BANDA
11/11/13 Pulao Koon (excellent), Pulau Madorang
12/11/13 Boo Rocks (fish everywhere! One of the best dives! Had a few mermaid moments), Shadow Rock, Whale Rock, RAJA AMPAT
13/11/13 Nudi Rock, Neptune's fancy, Kaleidoscope, ( I didn't dive at all on 13th but noted the names)
14/11/13 "Raja Ampat" site - I didn't do it but everyone loved it. I dived the 2nd and 3rd dives of the day - Gua Farondi (Farondi cave) and Prue's Friendly Canyon. Which we all agreed wasn't very friendly.
Diving friends - let me know if you want more details about the specific dive sites and what we saw where, as I have some more notes in my logbook.
NB: The dive site names might not make sense to other people wanting to dive the area, as the divemasters named some of the sites themselves. Either on the spot, or the previous year when Ricky did the same trip.
If I'm honest, not every dive was fantastic, but I don't think I have ever been on a trip where every dive was fantastic. That is all part of the fun - not knowing what is going to happen and whether you will be lucky. It's like extreme bird-watching in neoprene.
Suffice to say - the overall expedition experience was brilliant, magical. A true adventure. The messages I've exchanged with some of the other passengers since they got back home confirms it... it was special!
- meeting Tilikum's free cousins (orcas for those of you who haven't seen Blackfish yet)
- a little info on our land trips
- everything you need to know about going to the loo on the Jaya
... and much, much more. Maybe. Can't really remember right now but I hopefully still have some notes somewhere.