Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Skylight Cave" and the Western Side of Claveria Lagoon

We did a total of three dives out the channel to the western side of Claveria’s lagoon. From that, we have a pretty good feel for what’s out that way. First, there’s the visual drama of Moray Wall, the first terrain feature that one runs into once passing through the lagoon’s “gate” to the left. I’ve described this notable area in very glowing terms in two previous posts, Jellyfish at the Gate and The Tall Wall. (Photo above: 4 baby lobsters)

Thinking now on how to describe the rest of the lagoon’s western diving, the first thing that comes to mind is the spot I call “Skylight cave.” One of the locals, a woman in fact, pointing vaguely out to the western side, told us of a cave “out there,” and if Skylight cave IS the cave she was referring to, then we found it on our very first time out.
(Photo above: presumably a species of nudibranch)

We almost DIDN’T find it. On our initial dive out to the western side of the lagoon, we nearly swam right over the top of the little cavern. It was late afternoon but feeling more like evening due to dark stormy conditions up on the surface. Gliding just above and through ancient volcanic rocks overgrown with old layers of coral material, I spotted a squared off rectangular opening in the coral a few feet below and below that saw a white sandy floor. Realizing that there was a cave down there, I caught Don’s attention and pointed down at it, jabbing hard several times with my right forefinger.

There wasn’t much air left in our tanks, but that didn’t concern us much since we knew that the rest of the dive would be through fairly shallow waters. Knowing that, we opted to take a few seconds and explore this unexpected discovery. (Photo above: I believe some type of small triggerfish)

And actually, during that first time at the Skylight I don’t even drop in to it. I stay high and video Don from above as he swims through and out the open ended cave.
During that first time quickie exam of the cave he simply drops in through the “skylight,” takes a quick look around and then swims out of the bottom opening located on the seaward side.

Near the beginning of the clip I surface for a brief moment providing a glimpse of the gloomy stormy weather above. I MUST rave about my G11 once again: Even with the lack of anything more than indirect sunlight, my Canon does a great job of clearly capturing the action beneath the waves. I've embedded the YouTube of that clip below:

The cave floor is covered with a layer of gravel and white sand. There appears to be no creatures living on it at all, probably from being so exposed to strong surges of water coming in from the open sea when they get high and violent. I’m sure that the rush of strong wave action, especially during high seas and typhoons completely scours the cave floor, keeping it sterile and barren.

On the other hand, there is plenty of colorful invertebrate sealife clinging to the ceiling and upper walls of the cave, including different kinds of ascidians and sponges. Some parts of the coral walls are porous, with holes and crevices shallow and deep. Even a few various species of smaller fish use the cracks and fissures at the top of these walls as their homes, as well as back in dark sheltered corners and alcoves.

Examining the videos closely, the cave can probably be better described as a wide spot in a spaciously deep fissure partly enclosed by jumbled boulders. I say this since the cavern has so many open areas across the top of the ceiling and even out through its sides. (Photo above: Taken from the floor of Skylight Cave directly upward at the "skylight." The rectangular opening frames a blue sky. From where this is taken the surface is about 12 feet above.)

A signature aspect of the cave are broken chunks of rounded semi-flat rectangular stones wedged askew at several places in its ceiling and walls. These fallen and jammed “roof” pieces are what provide openings for sunlight to stream in. These sunbeams make the cave welcoming and friendly instead of darkly ominous like so many other lightless caves I’ve explored. (Photo above: The cave's skylight from a few feet above looking down at the cave floor almost 10 feet below.)

The welcomingly brightly lit interior, lit up by several sizes of sunbeams is why I call it Skylight cave. It is located on the edge of an extensive zone of similar terrain, thick with deeply fissured ancient volcanic rock, most of it heavily encrusted with old and new coral, as well as with plenty of other types of clinging reef creatures. The YouTube embedded below is from our final visit to the cave, when there was plenty of sunlight available as can be seen with all the sunbeams throughout its interior. (Photo above: Looks like seaplants, right? But nope, that's a clownfish and those green plant like tendrils are actually its anemone home and hideout.)

Many of the numerous fissures are quite wide and run for relatively long distances throughout the western side of the lagoon. During our final dive of the lagoon we took turns exploring some of the wider ones, although occasionally we found
ourselves having to push ourselves back out of those that narrowed too much to allow us to pass, while others just closed up completely. (This photo is of another Nudibranch, a form of one that I've never seen before, perhaps unique to this part of the Philippines.)

Almost all of these long narrow fissures, most at a depth of less than 10 feet, have long open cracks running along their top sides. These cracks make it easy for one diver to follow the progress from above of the “spelunker diver” swimming through the circuitous tunnel like trenches below. (The photo left is of the infamous Crown of Thorns Starfish, hated far and wide for its reputation as being a reef destroying coral eater. I saw just one of them in the lagoon area, so I'm assuming they are not much of a problem in that part of Claveria. After all, you have to HAVE coral before these pointy predators can eat them.)

This region, on the western side of the lagoon (left side looking at it from the beach), is not as stunningly impressive as “the canyons” or “moray wall,” but I appreciate the much greater diversity of sealife hidden and protected within its multitude of nooks, fissures and crannies. In fact, I predict that because of all those hidden crevices, clefts and cracks, that no matter how many times one dives in that area, at least one new and different life form will be observed on every dive; whether its five dives or fifty. Check out a sample of this area by way of this YouTube selection I took during our last dive of the area:

On our very first journey into the lagoon’s west side, immediately after the discovery of Skylight cave, we attempted to swim directly back to the beach. It LOOKED like it should be a piece of cake; BUT, trying to do so turned out to be a costly mistake. Soon, we lost all our water depth, to the point that it barely
reached our knees, if we had been standing, which we weren’t. In hindsight, we should have reversed course, but committed to moving ahead, we continued, hoping that the water level would get deeper as we moved forward. (Below: Another shot of one corner of the cave's skylight looking directly up at the sky.)

Don finally just stood up, deciding to risk a broken ankle or knee by hoofing it directly over the partially submerged rocks to the relatively nearby shore. As for me, with my historically rickety ankles, there is no way I could ever attempt such a thing. I decided that I would continue pulling my body through the shallow water toward the center of the lagoon and hope for the best.

Soon, the water was not even deep enough to cover my whole body, even while lying flat on my stomach. I continued forward though, by lifting my body up by doing a pushup and then flopping forward, always searching for the next little pool or series of pools that I could use to keep going through the sharp rocks. I did my best to keep from dragging my stomach and legs over their jagged edges, not wanting to rip apart my expensive wetsuit. At the same time, I was greatly aware of keeping
my camera from swinging and whacking along on its tether. I can buy ten wetsuits for the cost of that one item, so I did my best to keep it balanced behind and above my right shoulder. (Above: Two reef fish of a species that once again I've never seen before. They have exquisite coloring that camouflages them perfectly for where they live.)

I did this for about twenty minutes, all the while a thunder storm whipped torrents of rain across the lagoon’s surface. I concentrated so hard and was breathing so deeply and loudly in my regulator that I barely noticed any of the bad weather, except that every few seconds I’d hear the loud crack of a lightning bolt. Thankfully I gave them little mind since they all appeared to be striking miles away.

To make matters worse, I could not head straight for my aim point since spiky coral and even shallower water continually caused me to detour in a zigzag fashion. My extreme efforts made me lose track of time. To finally get to deep water may have taken me even longer than 20 minutes, or more likely, it was much less than that;
but so exhausted was I from flopping my body forward through water hardly a foot deep, while strapped with almost 70 pounds of gear, that it FELT like forever. I think hell must be like that.

(Photo right: Looking down at one of the many narrow fissures located on the western side of the lagoon.)

We definitely learned an important lesson that I offer here for anyone ever considering trying to swim, snorkel or scuba across that western side of the lagoon, to or from the beach—DON’T!—especially in low tide, which is what we had going on during that time.

WE certainly learned OUR lesson, for the next time we returned from a western lagoon dive, Don brought us back in by following the southern edge of the seamount guarding the western side of the lagoon entrance. Quite by luck, we found that the little island’s inside perimeter has a convenient little channel around it that easily accommodates a swimmer or diver all the way back to the channel entrance. Doing it that way was a heck of a lot easier than doing painful combination pushup-belly flops through
shallow water on sharp coral for 15 or 20 minutes, THAT is for SURE.

All the still photos included in this post were taken of sealife I spotted in rock fissures and fractures in and around the western side of the lagoon, which of course is also where Skylight cave is located.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Nice post which Gliding just above and through ancient volcanic rocks overgrown with old layers of coral material, It spotted a squared off rectangular opening in the coral a few feet below and below that saw a white sandy floor.It concentrated so hard and was breathing so deeply and loudly in my regulator that I barely noticed any of the bad weather, except that every few seconds I’d hear the loud crack of a lightning bolt. Thanks a lot for posting.