Thursday, August 09, 2012

Pattaya June July Trip, Nong Nooch II, The Giant Arapaima


After an hour of browsing and photo taking, when we were finally able to tear ourselves away from “The (amazing) Bromeliad Garden” located just to the right as one enters “The Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Gardens,” we made our way back out to the park’s main boulevard. We weren’t quite sure which way to go, but from the brochure map clutched in our thoroughly sweaty hands, it sure looked like we had plenty of possibilities. We decided to play it by ear and just follow whatever good things we saw in front of us.

Immediately to our front, out the gate upon departing from the lovely bromeliad section, we once again viewed the charming little manmade lake, in front of which we had parked our motorbikes more than an hour earlier. We soon found that this water feature was the continuation of a much larger lake system, the rest of it being across the street but hidden by thick foliage and buildings.  
No matter where one looks... 
Following the sidewalk along the main road we crossed to the other side just past the lake to our left and entered a jungly section by way of a little weather-worn wooden bridge. Seeing a foot-long lizard warming itself on the planks in front of me I paused to take a quick shot of it.

On the concrete jungle path, which now had us climbing, we followed a boulder lined stream to our left, the seemingly unmoving brown waters of which eventually ended up in the lake behind us after flowing under the road, or it would have flowed I suppose whenever a hard tropical rain caused it to. In no time we topped a rise finding the origin of the muddy colored stream. There before us was a large expanse of another much larger body of water than the one across from the bromeliad garden behind us. Looking around, now we noticed that Nong Nooch was laced with hundreds of meters of an intricate system of wide elevated walking paths interspersed with even higher viewing platforms. At that point we were only at the beginning of the paths and platforms but I could tell it was going to be amazing.
Not sure what it is, but it was displayed near the muddy stream
But before we got involved with the elevated viewing paths, we decided to go and explore what was offered at the lake. Approaching it we saw that the viewing paths extended well out into the waters. A sign displayed prominently near the entrance to the pier like pathways announced what was out there in the complex of steel poles and walkways: “Feed the Giant Arapaima!” 
Feed the Arapaima! Notice also the  few sections of floating garden, only a small bit compared to what we could spy across the lake 
Thinking about the sign as we passed by it deeper into the maze of platforms, I thought ‘Well that’s strange—I thought the arapaima was a South American fish.’ Sure enough, it IS native to South America, especially to the Amazon region. In fact, recently I saw shows on both The Discovery and on NatGeo channels detailing how the arapaima has been so successfully bred in Thailand that the largest samples on record are now probably in Thailand, some of them longer than 7 feet long weighing many hundreds of pounds. It seems that the Brazilians have eaten all the huge ones that they have available. Like I keep saying in these posts, the Thais do nothing half way.

I took a few pics of the arapaima viewing and feeding area, a square enclosure surrounded by a multi-tiered complex of vertical support poles, safety rails and walking platforms to provide as many people as possible easy access to the sight of the giant fish in the muddy waters below. We chose to stay at the top level to watch the folks below go about feeding the 6 foot plus monsters lurking in the waters below.

I’ve noticed that all Thai theme parks love to add to their revenue by offering their customers the chance to feed the animals, whether it be hungry crocodiles, elephants, horses, sheep, parrots, and of course—huge fish! It’s a pretty good racket. During my two trips I must have easily paid more than $300 in all doing it. I find it irresistible in spite of my chintzy side that is always whispering to me that I shouldn’t. I’m proud of myself that this time I chose not to feed the fish, perhaps because by keeping above it all I removed myself from the temptation. Unfortunately for my pocket book though, later on my compulsion to put food in front of animals would rear its ugly head and I would give in to it. Woe is me.

As far as feeding the arapaima, one pays a couple bucks to be given a pole with a piece of chicken tied to the end of it. We watched from above as people would dip the chicken pieces near the water above the heads of the gigantic fish, trying to tease a snapping reaction from them. From our vantage point the deep green broad backs of the fish made them appear more like fat alligators than like fish—headless alligators. More often than not the powerful fish grabbed the meat off the line before it could be jerked away. It was fun for me to vicariously enjoy the sight of someone else wasting their money for once. Suckers!

We soon had our fill of watching the monster fish since we really couldn’t see much more of them than the faint outlines of their fat long bodies in the murky water. What they should do is create a viewing window that puts the viewer beneath the water line; now THAT would be cool. I'd PAY to do that.

We departed the lake by way of a different pier than the one we had entered on. It led us to a set of stairs up the steep bank, more like a hill, that took us up to a tree shaded plateau, where a mostly deserted snack and drink outdoor bistro like place awaited us. By this time we were all pretty hot and thirsty so while the girls got drinks we found a table with a nice view of the lake and settled down to rejuvenate a bit. We marveled at the beauty of the park, noticing the huge floating gardens across the way while making a mental note to make our way over to them eventually, something that we never got around to doing regrettably. Over our several trips to Nong Nooch we STILL didn’t get a chance to see it all.

Half way through my drink I absentmindedly began doing my pocket checking ritual—there’s my wallet, there’s my eyeglass case, there’s my scooter keys. Wait. Oh crap! I don’t feel my keys! What the…! Jolting to my feet I urgently emptied my pockets unto the glass of the table top. Then pulling my pockets inside out I groaned, “You’re not going to believe this folks. I LOST my scooter keys! Damn it!”

Life went from a moment of carefree relaxation to panicky dread.

Come back in a couple days and I’ll tell you what happened. (chuckle)

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pattaya June July Trip, Nong Nooch I, the adventure begins

At the entrance of "the bromeliad garden"

Last April, on our first trip to Pattaya, “the Don, “our venerable trip leader and guide,  mentioned several times that if we ever found the time that we should schedule a visit out to a botanical garden that he had passed by several times over the years on his many bike trips out into the Thai countryside. Not being much of a “plant guy,” (as he says) he never bothered to venture past the gates; however, to me he offered this phrase a time or two, “But I know how much you love nature and plants and flowers and all, so maybe you’d like to make the trip and check it out?”

The only thing about going out there that gave me any pause at all is when he mentioned that it was more than a few kilometers out (like 15 or 20); and, he continued, based on my scooter driving rate of travel (as compared to his Speedy Gonzales style) he estimated that it would take us more than 30 minutes to get out there.

Every thing there has the "wow factor!"

We never did make it out to “the gardens” in April. The logistics of having along from the Philippines one of my girls complicated scooter travel to say the least. It wouldn’t have been a problem if three on a bike was legal (although the Thais do it like crazy), but as a foreigner getting caught with the extra passenger is a sure fire fine; not a very hefty one, but who needs the hassle? Anyway, we knew we were going to return in June so we put off the botanical visit until then.

For me, chasing after “Don the bike master” on a scooter always means a heavy dose of strain on top of a full measure of anxiety. I know this to be true based on what happened last April, when after following him around Pattaya for a couple hours on our quest for Thai drivers’ licenses; we stopped in at a doctor’s office for a quickie physical. Normally, my BP is around 110/70, but not that time. I was aghast to see it up at 180/90! Being in a constant state of dread will do that to you.
I could have sat right here all day
To make it worse was speeding along after him with a passenger tucked up behind me, because now a mistake meant killing or maiming not only me, but the mother of our children as well—oh boy! And to add even more to the "oh no" pot, on one of our trips to a nearby electronics mall, we passed by the recent aftermath of a really nasty scooter crash. It was not pretty. The mangled bike lay twisted on the road in a debris field of shattered plastic pieces and splotches of blackening blood. The driver had obviously been badly hurt, if not killed, and had had already been scooped up in one of the ubiquitous baht buses and taken to the hospital. Gulp. I read somewhere that scooter accident deaths are the modern Asian plague. I believe it.
I had no idea that bromeliad species got THIS big
Anyway, knowing that such negative thoughts can result in the fulfillment of them I always attempt to buck up, man up, and get my bravado on. Acting brave is the next best thing to being brave; that has been my way for decades. Weird thing is—it works—who’s going to know the difference?
I actually have several of these at home, but they don't look THIS good.
I can see the route now in my mind’s eye—out the hotel driveway right on the one-way 4 laner that is Second Road and soon right again on Pattaya Klang. You'll follow that busy four lane with its extra long traffic lights all the way to where it T’s into a fast moving 6 lane (8 or even 10 lanes, if you count the inner and outer shoulders) boulevard called Sukhumvit Road. We sped along that thoroughfare for a long time, long enough for me to eventually relax somewhat even—not an easy thing for me trying to keep up with Speedy Don. As we approached traffic lights I’d hope that each would turn red and force us to stop long enough for me to take my hand off the throttle to shake out the tension in a bad right wrist. If I have to go for longer than ten minutes cranking on the throttle, inevitably that forearm goes into spasms. When that happens all I can do is pull over and massage it until it passes.
Luckily we hit plenty of red lights and so my arm got plenty of rest and mostly behaved. But we did have another unscheduled stop that didn’t involve traffic at a place that Don had warned us of beforehand. For the most part the Thai police don't bother with stopping tourists tooling around on scooters within Pattaya proper, but they obviously have a policy to stop ALL foreigners on bikes outside of the city. Three or four miles down Sukhumvit we could see a traffic light in the near distance; it looked like we would easily make it through on green, but then a frantically gesturing policeman stepped out, pointing at us as if shooting lightning bolts from his index finger before raising both arms high in the international signal to STOP.

There were three policemen manning the checkpoint. One was already questioning and checking the documents of a hapless Thai biker. Don and I pulled off the shoulder to a spot right in front of the police station and let the girls off. We joked and laughed that what Don had predicted had actually happened; he wasn't exactly omniscient though; he’s been stopped at that spot countless times over the years. The cop assigned to us kept a stern demeanor, probably expecting us to not have drivers licenses. He almost seemed shocked (or disappointed perhaps) when we pulled ours out and merrily handed them over for his inspection. Once he saw we were good to go his attitude suddenly switched over to smiling friendliness. Don pulled out his tourist map and showed him where we were headed. The now affable policeman began to try to speak Thai to our ladies and he seemed surprised yet again learning that they were from the Philippines. So we got him twice in the same stop--hah! He nodded a thank you and pointed us back out to the road, dismissing us to continue our journey. We thanked all of them with Don giving them a chuckling “See you again, probably SOON!” They didn’t understand us, but we laughed at the joke just the same. We gave them a wave and a hardy hi-ho and sped away on down the road.
I have these but have never seen the flowers. Look carefully in the center.
Then again, is that tiny flower from the bromeliad, or is the bromeliad actually a host plant for the tinier plant?
I'm getting ahead of myself. During this recent stay in Pattaya (Jun-Jul '12) we ended up making more than one trip out to a special place that we were about to learn is called The Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Gardens. Now that’s a rather long, even grandiose name, but in this case, it’s definitely a place that lives up to the grandiosity of its title. Our stop at the police check point marked just past halfway to the intersection where you turn left for the final two mile drive to Nong Nooch’s entrance gate. Don hadn’t warned me how long that approach road would be; in fact, its a four lane divided boulevard that winds and S-curves into the country side interminably with almost nothing to mar the pastoral view by way of buildings or structures along the way. It feels like you are heading out into the middle of no where.
Photography is a dream in that place. No matter where you aim there is a sublime shot.
I tell you what though, the Thais do NOT do things in half steps—saying that, coming to that conclusion, is even easier after having lived “here” for ten years where most public works and large endeavors are done cut-rate and left mostly looking unfinished. I have to chuckle reading what I just wrote because it reminds me how much repeating that theme at almost every turn, comparing the Philippines to Thailand (there is no comparison) eventually just irritated the heck out of my wife. “Well, if you love it here so much, why don’t you just move here!” Always easy to de-fuse, I would just shrug and in deadpan tell her, “Coz YOU’RE not here asawa; otherwise..”

Finally, we got to the end of that endless approach avenue, came to another intersection and following the sign turned right for another couple hundred meters to the actual park gate. From there, looking into the park, the place seems very understated; at that point I really wasn’t expecting much. Boy did I soon have another thing coming.
Look how they arrange the individual bromeliads to form a larger mural of plants.
Don and I have learned to have the girls—who look like Thais by the way—hang well back while the two of us pay for our tickets at the various attractions. Note: Thais always pay about a third less than foreigners at all the attractions. So, we don’t say anything, they don’t ask, and we pay the price they ask for. Usually they don’t ask since Thais don’t speak English well. We hand over some money, they hand us back our change and the tickets and the four of us go merrily on our way. But there WAS one time where a more punctilious attendant actually asked the question, which I of course honestly answered, and only then, well, you know…

We drove up the lane and into the park and soon came upon a small manmade lake on the right where we saw a dozen bikes like ours parked. We pulled in to park in line with them and thus started our adventure in Nong Nooch.
You'd never get away with this back in the states these days. Cute.
Directly across the street from the lake we spotted a charmingly quirky entrance into a garden area and in we sauntered. I was immediately impressed. No matter where you look there is something to see, no detail too small not to attend to. My camera began a workout that by the end of the day resulted in hundreds of photos loaded onto the memory card. Within moments I noticed the theme of that particular garden and announced it to my fellow site-seers, “Hey, almost all the plants in here are bromeliads, did you notice that?” Don grinned, answering half mockingly, “Okay Phil, if YOU say so.”
These look African. They look aged, as if imported. Interesting to see in Thailand.
Okay, so I’m a plant geek. But even I didn’t know a bromeliad from a commelinid until the wife happened to bring home a few potted species of them from some people who were moving to a place with a much smaller yard.  Bromeliads really are a fascinating family of plants, many of them originating from tropical jungles and rainforests of the world. The first time I saw them was on TV a few years ago where a program showed how tiny tree frogs would lay their eggs in water trapped handily in the base of certain bromeliad leaves. Awesome! Of course, I hadn't bothered to memorize the name of the plants until I happened to own a few myself. Finding out the name on the internet of this family of plants was fairly easy; I just typed tree frog plant into the search engine and there it was.

Not realizing the full extent of Nong Nooch, we browsed and enjoyed for almost an hour the relatively tiny  bromeliad garden. I say relatively tiny even although at the time I didn't think so until I saw how massive the rest of the park is--it's gigantic.
This plant is about five feet across and  three feet high. Gorgeous
I was fascinated with the way the gardeners took these hardy plants potted in tiny black plastic bags and arranged them in holders on the garden walls to form some of the most amazing mural patterns using the varying foliage colors of the various bromeliad species. I’ve never seen anything like it. Many hours later, almost a half hour after the park "officially" closed, we drove back toward the gate and I glanced over to see a sign on the frontage wall. "Bromeliad Garden," was on the sign. "See! I told you so!" I called over my shoulder to my wife, pointing at the sign as we sped past it almost out the gate.
Its in the details. Wow!
Not wanting to bore Ed Abbey, who, dollars to doughnuts, won’t even get this far, I’ll finish this post off and continue to write more about all the other remarkable exhibits at Nong Nooch in upcoming entries. Oh, and enjoy the photos. I’ll put a handful here in the post, but if you’d like to see more go to my Flickr site where I’ve placed hundreds of outstanding pics from this most outstanding Botanical theme park. Go here for the day 1 photos of Nong Nooch. 
Statuary everywhere, not just in the bromeliad garden

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pattaya June July 2012 Trip, Our 2nd Dive with Remarkable Rays

After getting out of the tank with the big sharks (I believe they call it Zone 2) I figured the other tank would probably be an anticlimax. I hadn’t scoped out the tanks before diving as Don had and instead had spent about an hour chatting about just about everything you can imagine with Ali, Underwater World’s Iranian dive master.
As I said in the previous post, Ali is an interesting very personable fellow. During our hour long conversation he spoke excitedly about a proposal he has made to the owners of Underwater World to expand in a big way by adding another gigantic outside pool and basically making it a “reef world” that would provide the best possible interactive experience with a plethora of sealife for both scuba divers and snorkelers. I would LOVE to see that happen.

Once again, Don managed to “do his thing” by talking Ali into letting us take a small net bag filled with 10 feed fish into the tank with us. Since it wasn’t exactly feeding time for that tank I don’t think Ali and the tank management really wanted us to do it, but it didn’t take too much pleading to make it happen. It reminded me of all the times my mom used to say, “Don’t eat that cookie; you’ll spoil your supper.”

Getting into the other marine tank wasn’t nearly as easy as the first. To get into the tank with the big sharks all we had to do was drop into the big concrete bathtub that performed as an anteroom, open the steel gate and swim right in. In the second tank we had to gingerly make our way along a narrow concrete ledge and then just as carefully lower our selves, weighted heavily down with all our dive gear, into the water off a rock wall. Going through all that I realized that getting out would be an even tougher process (and it was).

I went on regulator before dropping into the water figuring to put my flippers on while sitting on the bottom. My own fins are much easier to put on and take off, requiring only a tug of a thick spring that fits around the back of my Achilles over my dive bootie. To someone familiar with them the loaner fins would probably be just as simple to use but in this case one of the fins straps had come off and I wasn’t familiar with how to reattach it. I called Ali over and he took care of it for me. A full 5 or 6 minutes later and I was finally ready to explore the new tank.

I shot a couple puffs of air into my BCD to get me off the bottom and went looking to see what I could see. Right in the middle of the tank on the other side of the viewing tunnel I saw a swirling mass of excited fish and realized that Don was right in the middle of it. I pressed the on button on my camera and made my way over to him.

Immediately I feel a much different vibe in the second tank. Although for the most part the fish are smaller they are more colorful and move around quickly. But what really makes that tank pop are the rays. I LOVE those things. They are amazing creatures.  They don’t swim, they fly, their wings moving them every bit as gracefully through their element as eagles do through theirs.

At just past 5:30 in the video watch the ray as it leisurely approaches in the distance. It reaches the top middle of the viewing tunnel and suddenly hits the accelerator, shooting forward and reaching me literally in the blink of an eye. It streaks directly under me and I am barely able to turn the camera fast enough to follow it through the viewfinder. They are most certainly underwater athletes and like any athlete rays apparently feel compelled to exercise their athleticism.

On that note, at 5:58 one of the muscularly nimble rays takes a swooping lap around the tank. I attempt to follow it and I do manage to keep mostly within camera range, albeit clumsily and pathetically considering I am swimming with all my might on the inside of its flight path. Just the same, I had a grand time trying to stay up with it, something I wouldn’t recommend normally while on scuba gear, since it causes one to really suck up the air. At deeper depths that’s how you pack extra nitrogen into your body tissues, never a good thing; but with me barely beneath the surface in a shallow tank, I hardly used any air at all I think.

As graceful as the rays are though, whenever they approached, nuzzling, flapping and pushing at me, looking to be fed, I felt like laughing into my regulator from the goofy appearance they effect with those big, seemingly smiling mouths of theirs. Several times while feeding them bits of fish my gloved fingers would get nibbled on. It wasn’t painful. From the feel of it, instead of teeth it felt more like they have a hard upper and lower bony ridges with which to manipulate the food in their mouths.

I think the funniest part of the embedded YouTube clip takes place starting at 2:09 when a ray approaches Don right in front of me and begins to nuzzle and hungrily chomp on my dive partner’s head. Even though I know he’s not hurting Don I can’t help myself when I see the ray almost envelop the top of Don’s head with his munching mouth; I reach out and push the hungry animal away.

The images of the hungry fish completely hiding the person feeding depicts something I’ve already experienced many times, even when I was still but a snorkeler. There are reefs around Puerto Galera where fish are so used to being fed by humans that they similarly engulf people offering them food. I learned though that that behavior is not natural as I tried bringing food with me on dives in the Coral Cover area on the other side of the peninsula from Sabang and the fish simply shied away from me.

Starting at just before 5:40 there is one rather somber scene played out on the video when Ali is seen removing a dead denizen from the confines of the tank. It had been dead for quite some time based on the look of it. Don had been snooping behind all the bits and inside all the nooks and crannies and discovered the stiffly lifeless fish under and behind one of the fake coral features.

Two very rubbery bodied spotted sharks kindly swim together in a circle almost directly below me and I take advantage by recording several seconds of it. Watch how they seem to use a loaded spring effect as they move their tails side to side which easily moves them forward through the water. To go where they want to go they simply aim their heads in the desired direction. Both the rays and the sharks, closely related cousins on the family tree, are natural engineering marvels of locomotion. Humans are clunky half-baked third-rate rattletrap model-Ts by comparison.

All too soon it was time to end the dive, but we had high hopes that Ali would allow us to finish up the considerable amount of air we had left in our tanks by giving us a third dive in the fresh water tank with the huge catfish and arapaima. That would definitely have been a great way to end the day but it was not to be, and in a way, it was our own fault.

Evidently, we had so impressed a visiting Russian family that they decided to give a tank dive a try. We were disappointed but took it in stride. As we rinsed our gear we watched the three young fellows go about suiting up, seemingly for the first time ever.  “Holy cow Ali, I would NEVER want your job!”

“Why is that?” he asked.

“I know it’s just a shallow tank but still, being responsible for the training and safety of three complete scuba novices in a tank full of sharks just does not sound like a lot of fun to me.”

He smiled. “It’s not a problem. I’m used to it. Anyway, I’m so sorry I won’t be able to get you guys into the freshwater tank.”

We hung around for another hour to see how Ali’s clients would do as first time divers. Funny thing, the biggest of the three lads, a muscular crew-cut blonde fellow in his late teens or early twenties, never did enter the tank. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out, but he must not have been able to handle breathing with the regulator. The other two, one a kid of about 14, and the other a young man that I would guess to be in his late twenties, eventually did quite well; although they probably used up just about all the air in their tanks the way they were sucking it down like crazy. I was the same way when I first started, the anxiety and the newness made me feel like I needed to breathe in again as soon as I exhaled. 

If I ever get back to Pattaya again I'll be sure to dive with the sharks and rays at Underwater World again. For me, once was NOT enough.







Labels: , , ,

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pattaya June July 2012 Trip, We dive with sharks


Our recent two week trip to Pattaya Thailand, our second in two months, lasted about a week longer than I would have liked. Two reasons: First, after one week I came down with an awful cold that felt more like the flu; and second, we missed our kids—a lot. It’s understandable that contracting an achy body cold could put a damper on a trip, but I was surprised at myself for being so homesick for my kids. The fact that we took one of them along with us in April on the first trip I think greatly stemmed missing all of them that time; but this time it was just us, and “us,” it seems, was not enough. Strange—it really surprised me; so, a little personal epiphany this time around.

Once again we learned that the area around Pattaya in Chonburi Province is chock full of must-see places to visit. It amazes me that so many people, when I tell them that we go to Pattaya, have no idea that there are so many things to do and see there, other than the bars, nightclubs and beaches that Pattaya is evidently mostly known for. Sure, there are bars and girls aplenty in the evening hours, but during the day there are more family oriented activities than anyone could possibly manage to fit in even if they spend a full two weeks there.

Last April, during our last trip to Pattaya, we visited an aquarium called “Underwater World” located just a short 15 minute drive from the hotels off Pattaya Beach. Don says that over the last couple years of its existence he had passed it many times but had never stopped in until taking us there. I still haven’t gotten around to writing about that April trip (goodness, we made SO many!), although I certainly plan to, so I can include all the great pics and vids we took as non wet-getting observers, but this post came about after seeing that diving in the tanks with all the wonderful fish is offered. Immediately, I KNEW that the next time we visited that diving the tanks WOULD become the primary event of that particular two weeks at Pattaya. (And sure enough—it WAS!)

Deciding which pieces of my personal dive gear to take along with us to Thailand was a primary consideration on planning the trip. Don made the correct decision to take along his BCD while I opted to use a loaner at the aquarium. My “buoyancy compensator device” has the dive weights incorporated into it while the aquarium’s does not, which means I had to wear a weight belt and that sucked. As the years have passed and the pounds have packed on I really do not have much of a waist. I was reminded of that unfortunate fact when my weight belt continually tried to make its way down my hips, over my butt and down my thighs. Aaargh! I really MISSED my own BCD. As it turns out I had plenty of room in my check-in bags and would have easily met the weight limits. Live and learn.

The fellow that runs the diving experience at the aquarium is an expatriate Iranian fellow named Ali. He claims to speak limited English, but you couldn’t tell that by me. I simply slowed down a bit my Michigan “speed English” and he more than held his own with me. As an American retired serviceman I have built up a lot of bad historical blood with the country of Iran. For me, this has come about over the years starting in ’79 when our entire embassy was illegally taken hostage by Khomeini’s underlings in Tehran. My personal rancor continued to build in ’83 when 283 of my marine brothers were exploded to death by one of the first of the Islamic suicide bombers.  And then, in ’98, when 19 fellow airmen were killed at the Khobar Tower explosion by another gigantic car bomb funded and fostered by Iran, and not to mention all the IEDs that they continue to supply to insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq that have killed and maimed hundreds more of us, being aware of all that, you’d think that I would have an intense dislike for Iranians just out of general principle. Thing is, in my travels around the world, particularly in Southwest Asia, I have never met an Iranian that I did not cotton up to. Every single one that I have ever chatted with I’ve found to be extremely personable, deferential, and completely likable. Ali is no exception. He is intelligent, well-spoken, and a gentleman. If you get the chance to dive with him, by all means do it.

As usual, the four of us made our way to the aquarium on our rental scooters, with our gals packing most of our dive gear in backpacks as they clung to our waists in the hectic Pattaya traffic. Don had stopped by to speak to Ali the day before to smooth the way—I call it “Don doing his thing”—and once again, doing so was well worth it since he got them to drop the price of admission; all we had to pay was the $100 each for the dive. Ali had apologized for the cost but he was correct when he explained that the uniqueness of the experience would be well worth it.

We arrived about an hour before the time we needed to start gearing up. I spent the time BSing with Ali while Don and the girls scoped out the tanks we’d be diving through the Plexiglas viewing tunnels. When it was time to get ready to dive Ali said it would be okay if our gals accompanied us to the back area to help us suit up. Truthfully, I cannot do it without assistance. My shoulders and other assorted body parts and joints are just too shot to handle the gyrations of putting on my wetsuit without help. I was surprised that the dressing area is so lacking—only one plastic chair and no tables or enough hooks to store clothing or personal items during the dive, but we made do.

It was a thrill just to find ourselves in the back area of the aquarium. It smells strongly of fish and seawater. I loved it. I went over to the big car-sized entry tank and looked over the edge of the concrete wall down into the water. Surprisingly, one of the largest sharks on site was resting inside, its enormous tan body almost completely filling the giant space from back to front. Seeing that gorgeous creature resting there in all its natural splendor I couldn’t believe I would soon be coursing through the same water with it.

Ali said that most of his diving clients when they approach him to scuba in the tank have absolutely no dive experience at all. With Don’s hundreds of dives since the mid 90s and my two years and 60+ dives, Ali was quite pleased that all he would have to do is float in place and watch us do our thing. I asked him what we were allowed to do as far as the sea creatures we’d be swimming with and his answer was almost shocking to me, “Anything you want. You guys are experts after all.” He did go on to warn us that the groupers at times could be a little aggressive and the same would be true with the large female shark during feeding time. At that I told myself to definitely keep my body parts out of the mouth areas of ANY of the fish in there, a pledge that I forgot about the moment I entered the water of the tank. For a moment I had the stupid thought that if I DID get bitten by something in there that it would provide a really cool souvenir. I’d much rather have an awesome kiss bite scar from a shark than one of those silly tattoos I see on so many people these days.
 
I just completed compiling a video that I’ve already placed on YouTube of all the clips I took during that first dive in the tank containing among other creatures, sharks, groupers, tuna and sea turtles. The rest of this post is about the contents of the 9 minute video, segment by segment.

The first 50 seconds shows Don and Ali making last minute preps and exchanging final words as we then submerge and enter the tank space through the entrance of the entry tub. It’s interesting to see how the air space above the water is completely draped with thick black plastic with banks of bright spotlights at the central apex.
There is an immediate thrill when realizing that there is nothing but water between me and the big fish swimming around the tank. They pass around, above and below us without seeming to care about our presence. I’m not sure if I felt blessedly invisible or satisfyingly accepted; either way, it was cool.

I thought the sight of being so close to the sharks would be off-putting, but it wasn’t like that at all since they convey absolutely no threat whatsoever. There was no fear at all, only excitement.

It was fun also to “spy” on occasion on the “civilian” observers under the curved clear tunnel plastic.  Some of them seemed more taken with us scuba divers than with the sea creatures around us. I do know that a lot of them took a lot of photos of me; every so often they’d flash me good with their camera strobes. I had to laugh into my regulator at one point during the fish feeding period when suddenly I heard an almost urgent knocking on the glass tunnel upon which I was resting. I glanced down and saw this odd looking Asian man giving me the strangest look. He reminds me of one of the Dumb-n-Dumber characters, probably because of that bowl haircut. I suppose he was compelled to demand my acknowledgement. I nodded and went back to my fish watching. Check him out. He’s in the video almost 8 minutes in.

Twice in the video I was fortunate to have one of the large green sea turtles pass very near, looking for a food handout more than likely. At 6:10 you can see what it’s like to swim with one while holding onto its shell. I placed the camera atop of its back and followed along just behind it while lightly grasping the edge of its shell. I did this several times and learned not to hold on too tight. It would let me know to let go by jerking its shell hard side to side. As long as I didn’t impinge its motion though, it was completely happy to let me tag along.

Don was kind enough to take the camera from me a time or two to get me in some shots. At about 4 minutes into the clip I can be seen closely inspecting the big fleshy colored female shark as she lays uncharacteristically (for sharks) on the tank floor. I was thinking it might be sick but I soon figured out what it was doing. It lays there with its snout inches away from a pipe pumping in oxygenated water. Normally, sharks must stay in motion to allow water to pass along its gills so it can “breathe.” In this case the big girl is lazily letting the onrushing water do all the work for her—a very smart shark that.

Oh, and there is another pipe providing the same rush of oxygen rich water to her right, closer to the viewing tunnel where some of the groupers and other smaller sharks do the same thing as the big female. In fact, in the very next segment I approach very closely another smaller spotted shark with its gills being washed by the pipe water. Putting the camera right in its face next to its right eye you can see it idly staring back.

At 7:31 the big female becomes excited by feeding time when two of the Thai tank workers on scuba sets come in with buckets full of small fish. You can see in the video how close she comes to me and in fact she didn’t just pass near but fully pounded into my side with a thud. She did that three times. The first time she powerfully bashed me full into the back of my hamstrings making me think that either Don or Ali had just banged into me for some reason. I swung around to confront my attacker and imagine my surprise when I realized that I had just been powerfully tackled by a very large excited shark. All the fish approached me in similar fashion on occasion during the feeding time, I suppose since they have been conditioned to associate divers with being fed. Ali had warned me about that, telling me to keep my distance. But it was awesome. How many people can say they’ve had something like that happen to them?

Watching the two Thai fellows go about their feeding duties I notice they opt not to wear fins, instead keeping their buoyancy negative so that they can keep their feet mostly on the bottom. I’m thinking that they do it that way so that they can stay vertical, otherwise, trying to manhandle the sharks with one hand while shoving the bucket of fish into their snout with the other would be nearly impossible.

After more than 45 minutes in that first tank Ali gave us the “get out of Dodge sign” indicating the end of the dive. After a short break we headed over to the next marine tank containing the huge rays. The next post and video will cover that dive. Until then….

Labels: , , , , , ,