Sunday, June 27, 2010

HUGE mistake—not taking the camera that is.

It was our second day at the resort. Now it was MY turn to go out on dive two of the day with Dive-master Don, and unfortunately, I decided NOT to bring my camera. Feeling nervous I figured I would use my first dive outing of the trip to get fully reacquainted with all the ropes—HUGE mistake—not taking the camera that is.

Don came up with a simple plan for that dive: walk out into the water from the small coral beach directly in front of the hotel, submerge and then navigate eastward along the edge of the drop off down to the point some 500 meters up the coast. Sounds simple, right? In theory it was, but…

I remember two things about that dive: first, it physically kicked my butt; and second, I saw some of the biggest most interesting fish I’ve EVER seen in all my decades of saltwater swimming, including all the snorkeling I’ve ever done.

Don, as master diver, had a tough job with lots of responsibility each time he took us out. Not only did he have to keep an eye on us to make sure we were doing okay, he also had to monitor our depth, how long we were out, the volume of our air, AND try to manage WHERE we were down there. Without a doubt it’s the navigation part that is THE most difficult thing to do of all.

His navigation strategy, which seemed sound enough when he briefed it, was to maneuver us in a saw tooth pattern back and forth along our line of travel and that’s pretty much what we did over the course of our hour plus excursion. Thing is, there were two things that made it very demanding to follow his desired navigation track—1) having to deal with a very strong current, and 2) almost as difficult, the steep nature of the hills we continuously traversed, especially while ascending.

The last time I spoke to retired navy diver Tom, he mentioned that he thought it best to stay out of strong currents and from my limited time in the water I can see why he would say that; BUT, some of THE most interesting sea life can be found in and around strongly moving courses of water, so naturally, that makes currents the place to be when you want to observe some fascinating sea creatures.

During the dive, and all our dives for that matter, Don would point out the direction that he wanted me to go and off I’d kick and pull until I came to a good “landing site.” It was at the end of one of these arduous segments that I found myself full in the face of a super surge of water. It felt exactly like being in a strong river current. The only way to maneuver in it was to hug the bottom by removing all the air from my vest. In this way I could use my hands to pull my body along while kicking mightily with my fins in spurts until I could find a spot where I could hold onto a boulder or some robust coral as the surging water continuously tugged or pushed on me.

About 45 feet down we came upon a superb spot at the bottom of a sweeping hillside covered with the waving tendrils of thousands of gigantic sea anemones (Stichodactyla Gigantea) the color and texture of freshly boiled spaghetti. The surge had the rubbery strands of these “spaghetti anemones” pushed sideways like a wheat field in a strong wind. It was there that I began spotting some of the most amazing fish I have ever seen outside of an aquarium. The current was so strong there that whole schools of fish had to swim continuously directly into the teeth of it just to maintain a static position in the water. It looked like they were on an invisible fish treadmill.

Don and I realized that we were in a special place. I looked back at him questioningly and he nodded using both hands palms down to signal that we should settle on the bottom to observe the sights. Ahead, a huge lone boulder the size of a small house covered with various types and colors of feather stars (of the Family Comasteridae), and green tube coral (Tubastraea micrantha) that looked exactly like some kind of strange wort-like plant, writhed with thousands of fish all seeking to maintain their place on their feathery giant rock of a home. Each fluttered mightily against the unseen current sluicing around them.

I could not take my eyes off the spectacle of it. And then, to make it even more surreal a long slender creature called a Trumpet Fish (Aulostomus maculatus) well over four feet in length suddenly appeared from the base of the boulder and swam directly up and then over to the other side of the colossal rock squirming with life. The oddly narrow fish was mottled with several shades of brown; although mostly speckled with the darker hues of the brown continuum, this trumpet fish was offset with a lighter yellowish colored area at the tail.

‘Did I just SEE that? Dang it! Why didn’t I bring my camera? I’m such an IDIOT!’

Then, something large flashed to my left. I snapped my head in that direction. It was another huge shiny colorful fish, about a dozen feet away between two and three feet long with a thickly bulging muscular body. It appeared to be upset with me, which was a first, since most of the sea life I’d seen up till then either ignored me or swam away if I trespassed into their comfort zone.

THIS fish, however, was definitely NOT ignoring me; in fact it showed a LOT of interest in me, and considering its substantial size and girth I found its attention a bit disconcerting. Yet, in spite of my misgivings I was thrilled and decided to slowly approach it, coming to within six feet of the irate creature. It was then I noticed that it had protruding almost rectangular teeth approaching the size of my own, at which point it ceased darting from side to side. Unexpectedly it turned, hovered and looked directly at me. This thing was so thick across the head that it had an actual full on face complete with those big goofy buck teeth; and goofy or not, it came RIGHT at me. I’m pretty sure now that I could have taken it in a fair fight but I was so shocked at its aggressiveness that I backed right up pushing backwards several feet with my gloved hands. It snapped around then continuing its original back and forth angry swimming. Now THAT was cool.

I did some web research trying to figure out what that gorgeous fish was and I’m certain it was a female titan triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens) guarding its nest. From what I read it was a good thing I backed up because those teeth can do some damage.

‘Oh MAN! Did Don see that?’

I turned toward my dive partner to see what he was doing but he was paying no attention to what I was observing. He had his head down holding his wrist compass in front of him. Trying to stay ahead of the curve he was evaluating our present position and no doubt thinking ahead to the next leg of our travel. Poor guy, he missed seeing my altercation with the mommy titan triggerfish.

But no, he too was checking out the life surrounding us. It seemed that no matter which direction we looked something incredible awaited our attention. When he saw that I was looking at him he motioned toward three immense silvery fish swimming lazily against the current some ten yards away with the backdrop of the anemone covered hill behind them. Don pointed them out to me and we both settled in to watch them for a bit. These amazing fish were sleek and from the side were geometrically shaped, kind of like a cross between a diamond and a circle. Almost a yard long they easily undulated into the current. It was obvious that they were built for speed. I still don’t know what kind of fish they are.

‘WOW! Why the hell didn’t I BRING the stupid CAMERA!?”

(We went back on a similar dive a couple days later during a different time of day and I was able to take a video of a similar huge life-covered boulder. Click here to see it on Youtube. Unfortunately, I had the wrong setting when I took it so it looks a bit washed out, also the current is not nearly as strong as it was during the first dive; but still you can get a great feeling for the large amount of bio-mass that can exist in one spot in a reef environment. Oh, one more thing, the current was still strong enough so that I was unable to hold the camera very steady as I was swept by it as you can see in the video.)

I could have stayed at that one spot for the entirety of the dive but Don had us on a schedule, so off we went back up the steep hill cutting at an angle through the current. I had to kick hard and continuously grab at rocks to use them as hand holds to keep me on course while ascending. There was no way I could conserve air; I had to suck it in and blow it out as fast as I could just to be able to keep going.

We didn’t quite make it to our intended destination point since my psi indicator went into the red about a hundred meters short. I held my gauge out for Don’s inspection and he called the dive pointing back in the direction of the shore. After a short ascending swim we popped up to wait for the boat to come and get us while we relaxed perched up on rocks a few feet below the surface under a picturesque towering cliff face.

The fact that we exhausted ourselves trying to keep to an unrealistic plan notwithstanding, THAT dive was THE best of my life up to that point. Now, if ONLY I had brought THE CAMERA! After that, no matter what, I ALWAYS swam with the cam. Memory is just too fleeting and the sights down there too rich for the human brain to be able to fully soak up and recall.

The pictures on display with this post are obviously not from that first dive; I made some video captures from video I made of the similar boulder in the Youtube video.
Anybody ready to go diving yet? I hope you're not weary yet of this stuff because I still have quite a few adventures to describe, even cooler than this one. So, MORE to come.


Ed said...

Why the hell didn't you take your camera?! Sounds like a good dive though I would have been a little freaked out by a large buck toothed fish.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I know right? I didn't get freaked out til it brought those teeth right into my face. Cool fish!

David said...

Sounds like a good time was had by all. Thanks for all the updates and pictures. Makes me want to visit. Dave D.