Saturday, July 31, 2010

A funeral not attended, A fish pond started

Al Mitchell was buried today in the American Cemetery on Clark. Long before the ceremonies were to begin I was up, showered and dressed, fully intending to go and pay my respects to help give Al the send off he deserved.
I finished tying my shoe laces, stood up and had to sit right back down again. My heart was palpitating, my head spinning. Weak and powerless, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Divine was ready to go, already getting our scooter riding helmets ready for the trip.

“Give me five minutes,” I told her weakly, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Worried, she nodded and went to get me a glass of water. I sat back in my easy chair with closed eyes and shaking hands. I realized I was having an anxiety attack, probably from the thought of attending the funeral. Anymore, going to those things brings on waves of panic and nausea.

Feeling guilty about not attending I changed back into shorts and t-shirt. Sorry about that Al. I’ll come out and say goodbye later. I promise.

During the days of worry, anger and fear over the then unsolved Angeles City murders I did a lot of watchful meditation way in the back of my yard.
I go there to rest and think, sitting on a bench located strategically behind a visually protective wall of vegetation where I feel relaxed and secure, my feet propped on rocks topping the eastern rim of the depressed feature of my tropical rock garden. It's safe there in that deeply shaded spot, my back against a high wall where I can easily see anyone and everything while they have no idea that I'm there.

The gardens back there have been in place for two years now and other than the climbing spread of the pothos and other vines up the mango tree it looks much like it has from the beginning.
Thinking back, most of my visitors over the years ask if I intend to turn the rock lined yard deep hole, its sides filled with various types of growing plants, into a fish pond. I always chuckle, agreeing that doing such a thing would be pretty cool indeed.
"Maybe someday..." I always answer them.

There was something about the unexpectedness of the deaths of the Brit, the Canadian and the American, all older retired men in similar circumstances to my own, that brought to mind the concept that life is too short to NOT do worthwhile things WHEN possible.

Looking into the green depths of the rocky hole at my feet, it suddenly seemed more like a verdant mocking grave. At that moment I felt compelled to fill it with water and brightly colored fish. I thought of blogger Ed’s post on a really cool Koi pond and in a flash I knew I would make it happen.
Slapping my knees I got up to go find Divine. Her brother-in-law, Eddie, has always been my go-to guy when these inspirational urges to build or improve the homestead come over me.

“Sweetie, call Eddie. I got a new project for him. I want to build a fishpond!”

She laughed and I saw that look on her face that says “Oh boy, here we go again.”

The very next day Eddie came over and I explained what I wanted and showed him where I wanted it. In seconds my little idea became his grand vision.

The day after that, this morning, he was over bright and early with his stone and mortar man. Eddie also brought with him two of his grown sons, his standby workforce, to help with all the preparatory grunt work, such as transplanting the plants into pots and helping to dig up the rocks and boulders that used to make up the structure of the rock garden.

It was surprising how much dirt was removed to make enough space. As they dug out the area, enlarging what I thought was already a substantial hole, I figured at least a couple yards worth of sand and mango roots were wheel barrowed to a new pile across the yard.

The rest of the day was spent mixing cement out on the street and transporting it to the work site where the tile and mortar expert used it to form the foundation and walls of the forthcoming fish pond. By the end of the afternoon we had two tiers completed with two or three more to go.

When we do stuff like this everyone in the household takes great interest in watching the proceedings, and with great patience and good nature, no one involved doing the actual work minds in the least, a very sweet Filipino quality I've observed over the years.

Tomorrow is Saturday, but all the workers will be back once again bright and early to continue to build on the latest project. Tune in tomorrow to see how it progresses. I’m kind of anxious myself to see how it goes. I've got some really cool ideas I want to pitch to Eddie while we still have time to incorporate them.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mark Dizon's Murder Spree has definitely come to an end

By now, everyone following news of the Mark Dizon murder spree knows that he was captured with a slight struggle in the town square of San Fernando in the province of La Union. By bus, that’s about four hours north of here, Angeles City, where all the killing took place. Dizon’s father was afraid that his son would end up going down in a hail of gunfire and according to one account that is probably exactly what would have happened.

As previously arranged, the youthful looking killer came out into the San Fernando town square to meet his dad. Some news accounts state that Mark tried to pull a handgun once he realized that the meeting was a trick. Thankfully the police team was able to bring him under control before he could use it.

I did a search engine check using “Mark Dizon capture” and was amazed to see how worldwide the interest in this case has become. News groups from Australia, to Hong Kong, To England, to the US, to everywhere in between are reporting on the killings and on the capture of the killer. Its interesting to see how so many headlines are trumpeting how the Angeles City police were able to use Dizon’s Facebook account to identify him and his connections with the daughter of one of the men killed. It's as if Facebook singlehandedly brought a killer to justice. Sensational stuff.

I’ve got to give the AC cops some real credit for how they developed and followed their leads right to the killer. For the most part we who live here tend to think and say negative things about law enforcement. So far though, the way this case has progressed, its gone a long way in beginning to reverse some of that negativity.

In fact, I was so pleased with the outcome of the manhunt that I sent a congratulatory message to the mayor by way of his Facebook. I thought that was apropo considering Facebook is how they were able to crack the case wide open. Either the mayor or one of his staff even sent a response blurb:

Fil Spare July 28 at 12:03pm
Amazing job on the apprehension of Mark Dizon. Not just the foreign community, but everyone living here breathes a collective sigh of relief. Thanks Mayor!

Ed Pamintuan July 28 at 12:47pm Report
Mark dizon has been charged before the court with 5 counts of murder and robbery in angeles city. a separate case of illegal possession of firearms will soon be filed in san fernando city, la union. we did this because of the collective efforts of the city administration, the local police units and the local community, both locals and expats. with this kind of cooperation, angeles city will soon become a haven for foreigners, tourists, residents, retirees or visitors alike. thank you. let's continue to be vigilant.

I was actually quite impressed with Mayor Pamintuan’s response. The way he spreads the credit around to all who helped in bringing in the murderer, including his police, locals and expats shows real leadership. A horrible tragedy took place because of a narcissistic killer but perhaps something good can come out of the way we all came together to bring him to heel.

I was shocked to see all the views of my blog post displaying the photos of the perpetrator. I don’t check my sitemeter all that often, but I decided to see if anyone was paying any attention to this particular post, and boy oh boy, are they ever!

I went to the sitemeter page showing the referral sites, and it’s obvious where all the traffic is coming from. The “PhilippinesPhil Mark Dizon photo spread” has been linked in the CNN world news site, The Huffington Post as well as in several popular blogs and other news sites from around the globe. With the way search engines work, which is to rack and stack by numbers of hits, after a site begins to build up a head of steam the hits become more and more. In other words, the more hits you get, the more hits you get.

To get an idea of this take a look at this graph from sitemeter showing page views for the month of July up until today, July 28, 2010:

As you can see, normally, I have a very small viewership, which is fine by me; I’m satisfied with the few readers that happen to come across my almost 400 posts. Over the last two days though, since posting Mark Dizon’s photos, which were sent to me by an anonymous source, the PhilippinesPhil site has received an unheard of number of viewer hits.

It will be nice if some of you who happened by my site this way continue to come back and read a few of my other posts, future and past. I think I have a unique way of describing what it is like to live here as a foreigner. Come on back and see.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Angeles City killer, his photos are EVERYWHERE now, including here

According to Harry the Horse the AC police are totally convinced that there is a single killer on the loose for all the multitudes of recent murders in AC Town. His name is Mark Dizon; and now, EVERYONE knows his name and what he looks like. There are posters all over the place with a head shot cropped from this photo, which is the one I mentioned in my last post "Unexpected Death."According to Harry the Horse the police are on high alert, all of them wearing protective vests in case they immediately have to swing into cap busting action if a sighting of Dizon is reported. Some pictures of the serial killer surfaced by anonymous source and have gone "viral" on the internet, mostly by email attachment. The American expat community is ensuring that everyone possible has seen them, including me. Harry even posted a few on his site.The poster I saw today that was delivered to my home, probably by subdivision security, states that there is a 100,000 peso reward leading to his capture. At the current rate that's almost $2200; big money for the average resident of this place.
I've also heard rumors that the reward may even be as high as 500,000 pesos. Now THAT just may bring some results; although, I'll believe when I see it.

In the photo above, now THAT looks like a heck of scope on a pretty powerful rifle. If this man is as psycho as claimed we will be lucky if he doesn't just get desperate and start plinking randomly at innocent passersby. We can only hope not.
When I first saw all these photos it was a bit of a hit to the gut. WHERE and HOW did this guy GET all these guns! Surely his family knew? With that wispy "teen" moustache and the "hard" look he effects in all the gun toting shots, in no way does he resemble the smiling fellow holding the baby. Truthfully though, looking at the way he mugs it up in these photos, he just seems like a wannabe to me, and after what he's done, he's turned out to be a desperate one at that. The photo above is particularly chilling since he's probably brandishing the gun and silencer that he used to kill Al Mitchell and four of the other souls that happened to be in his house that day.
This looks like an M-16 or an AR-15; regardless, its an assault weapon. Again, what is he doing with it? According to Harry, the police now have all these photos as well and when they saw them they took great interest in them. Did ONE man really have access to ALL these deadly weapons?! Supposedly its widely known that he was "deranged" in an aggressive way; why then was he allowed access to them? All rhetorical questions of course.
None of the folks that I've communicated with know yet much of the personal background on this guy, other than he claimed to be a computer repairman. In some of the photos such as the one above he poses in a very large garage with some relatively nice automobiles. Makes you wonder if they belong to his family or to his friends. I'm quite sure the police have noted the types of cars and probably already know where this was taken, because of course, the owner would know necessarily about the guns as well. I'm pretty sure that they are illegal for most people to own assault weapons.
Some of these cars are pretty cool and probably very unique as far as around here anyway. Geez, if these are his and or his family's cars, why would he want to get involved with all this gangster killer stuff? In some of the emails flying about and in the local reporting its been reported that he pawned a lot of items. That would indicate money problems. Is all this killing simply about money?
And yet another type of gun...

... and yet another! How DID this guy get like this?
This little miniature would sound like a loud popgun going off, and aimed pointblank directly into the head will kill just as lethally as a magnum or a baretta. Was this the gun he used to kill innocent people without neighbors noticing?
Interesting how the moustache shaved, a smaller smile and a slight change in hairstyle can make him look like an entirely different dude. All ye who live here, take note, take heed.
Here is a profile photo of him. In some of the reporting and mad emails furiously flying about its said he was offering himself out as a bodyguard. Was he trying to make a name for himself, is that why all the killing? Did he watch too many gangstah movies? I will bet that he has a grandiose concept of himself, a total narcissist. I wonder why no tattoos though? Anymore, especially in the US, guys are plastering themselves with those ridiculous things to show how tough and intimidating they are. Then again, tats aren't really that big over here yet. Anyway, the word is that his family is negotiating with the police for his surrender. I hope that is true and they aren't stalling for time while he makes a getaway to some distant province. As my buddy just emailed me: "Let's just wait and see how it pans out."

To shoot at least 9 unsuspecting people in the head takes a man without normal human empathy, in other words, a soulless monster. Remember that if you see him on the street.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Unexpected Death

Unexpected death has always been a part of this place, but lately it’s become decidedly murderous. In fact, to those of us expats trying to quietly live our lives here in “The City of Angels,” potential violence seems to be swirling around us like never before. The latest spate of killing has left many of us permanent party members shaken, feeling insecure, vulnerable and unprotected.

This month alone there have been three multiple killing murders, all taking place within the dwellings of each of the murdered foreigners: First, a Canadian man and his Filipina girlfriend were killed in their home in the Oasis compound, followed last week by a Brit and his girlfriend in their apartment in Santa Maria 2, and just the other day a retired American air force veteran along with four members of his household were executed in his residence over in Hensonville Court. All these homes are in supposedly gated and guarded subdivisions.

I’m not whining about this. After all, with a six-inch scar on the left side of my chest, where 24 years ago I was slashed open by the business end of a butterfly knife during a mugging attempt by three thugs, I SHOULD know better. I was lucky to survive that attack; the cut was meant for my throat; so believe me, I KNOW personally how dangerous this town can be. We live here at our own risk; we ALL know that. It’s always had the reputation of being a Wild West town, a rep that it continues to live up to. A place where the “have nots” come to take from “the haves,” IF they can. Yet, we all hope that civil progress will eventually permeate and make us less of a target… a pipe dream?

Complacency! Part of the problem is that the trappings of civilization are all around us—nice malls, grocery stores, cafes and restaurants, and plenty of really sweet friendly people. It makes us forget the dangers. On that note, speaking to a tourist at the gym yesterday, an American, he was shocked to find out how quickly violence can be visited upon those not watchful. I related a few of the stories of what’s happened here in the years I’ve lived here and he was aghast, in complete disbelief.

NO ONE LOOKS dangerous you see. Back home, dangerous people LOOK dangerous. Not so here. An armed robber is likely to be an average clean-cut fellow in ordinary attire. Even back in the 80s, the fellows who attacked me looked as innocuous as everyone else. In seconds I was surrounded; without a word spoken, a knife came at me in a sweeping arc from the guy charging into my 11 o’clock. I moved to escape, and instead of my throat, he slashed the skin open just above my heart. I was in and out of the situation in 10 seconds, absolutely delighted to be alive. Indeed, I NEVER felt SO alive when I finally slowed to a walk some 200 yards from the scene of the attack and could finally assess the state of the booboo on my chest.

As we are continually unpleasantly reminded, violence potentially lurks around every corner. This town is a magnet for thugs, thieves and ne’er-do-wells from all over the archipelago. Although, perhaps many don’t start out that way; maybe they come with the best intentions, hoping to find work, only to learn that being jobless is even worse in a strange place with no family off of which to sponge. Most of these desperados resort to simple theft, but desperation, drugs, even drunkenness possibly, all can lead to much worse; something true the world over.

The Grapevine. When foreigners are killed or die in these parts we learn of their passing mostly by way of the expat grapevine, an informal network of communication that “gets the word out.” It’s a system that has become all the more effective with the instantaneous nature of Facebook, email, texting and messaging. And of course we have Harry the Horse, who does a great job of providing “the official word” from the local police, the mayor and from many other of his “personal sources.” Between all of it, both official and ad hoc, we probably have access to MUCH of the truth; although often, many of just put two and two together to arrive at an alternate version of it.

The amazing thing to me is that even with this efficient impromptu communication system, many of us never hear of some of the horrors that have taken place. For instance, the British chap and his girlfriend were killed a stone’s throw from where I now sit, yet until I finally read about it from Harry I appeared to be THE only person within my communication loop that had even second hand knowledge of their demise.

In another murder from last year, when “the crazy American guy” (that’s what we all called him due to his continuously aggressive manic state) bled out at the spot where he finally dropped on Fields Avenue at the entrance of the 7-11, the rumors of exactly how and why he was killed were significantly different from what was reported. What to believe? I spoke to a girl at my gym that personally saw the doomed American staggering away from the man chasing him who she said repeatedly stabbed the pitiful fleeing fellow. My God, I have nightmares resembling what happened to that guy who died in the street literally like a stuck pig.

I probably shouldn’t do it, but I shudder recounting the stories of people killed over the years. The tales of foreigners found trussed and hacked, stabbed or bludgeoned to death in their own homes are legion—seems like a new one pops up every few months or so. A few years ago I attended the quiet burial of a retired marine who was literally buried in a sack; his dismembered body had been found in their home by his wife. (Strangely enough, his wife did not attend the internment). To be fair to Angeles though, he had been killed in a town about an hour away from here. Just the same, we residents become hardened to the parade of gruesome murders and convince ourselves that it could NEVER happen to us.

One way we harden ourselves to it is to talk about these unfortunates in ways that lead us to the conclusion that they died due to their own stupidity. We tell ourselves, ‘THAT could NEVER happen to ME. That German guy was an ass; he was asking for it.’ Or, ‘that Swiss fellow always brought home a veritable parade of bar girls to his house, no WONDER he was killed.’ We ALWAYS do that—always. I try not to, but heaven help me, even I do it. I suppose it’s a way to maintain sanity, to keep from being overwhelmed by fear.

But I also try to make the personal knowledge of the details of each killing useful. To me, finding out the specifics of all the grisly deaths provides valuable lessons of what to do and what to avoid. And actually, all the latest discussion of how three foreign men could allow themselves to be shot to death in their own homes has brought to light a few beneficial reminders of bad stuff that has happened in my OWN home that COULD have led to similar deathly disaster.

Case in point, Divine reminded me today of the time a few weeks back when two men showed up at our gate on a motorcycle claiming that I had sent them to work on our air conditioners. Smart girl my fiancée, this prompted her to call to me at the office. I was with a client and told her distractedly that I had no idea what she was talking about. Thinking it merely a mistake, she sent them away. I only dimly remember the phone call but in talking about it today I asked her why she hadn’t called subdivision security. She says now, in light of the latest epidemic of killings that she should have. If those two men had been able to gain access to our house, who KNOWS what awful things might have happened. Read on…

In trying to figure out how a lone gunman, if indeed there was only one, could kill five grown people with such apparent ease, check out this scenario, one perhaps very similar to what COULD have happened on that day when the two bogus repairmen showed up at our place:

Once the criminal is in the house he brings out the hidden weapon and trains it on one person. I asked Divine hypothetically what she would do if a man got in and held a gun to the head of one or her daughters. Naturally, she said she would do whatever she was asked to save the life of her girl, whether it means handing over money, or even going to the bank to get some.

Here’s the problem with that sort of compliance; once the robber/ransomer gets what he wants he will be compelled to kill everyone in the house to protect his identity. He knows with no witnesses left behind that the police will not likely figure out who did the killing, and even if they do “solve it,” with enough money and negotiation he may well beat the rap and possibly be released in relatively short order (there is no death penalty to worry about). And understand this; the police routinely will not do much more than a cursory investigation unless someone pays for “the costs of it.” And remember, if one side is willing to pay for an investigation, someone else may well pay to counter it.

The justice system can be a strange quirky animal to those of us from other hemispheres and continents. Many times, in the event of a murder, justice is more a question of negotiations between three parties: the defendant’s family, the family of the victim, and the government prosecution team. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing; I’m just describing how it CAN operate. For the most part, locals seem satisfied with this system of give and take, which in actuality is completely outside of written code. The benefits are: The bereaved family gets some compensation, while the offender’s family gets their loved one back. Little of it sits well with victimized outsiders, but they can choose to live somewhere else if they don’t like it.

So, in hindsight, that phone call from my fiancée may well have saved the lives of everyone in the house. Thing is, on occasion we DO have workers in our home, as do LOTS of people for many perfectly valid reasons. In fact, the man who killed the five people is said to be a computer technician; and I’ve seen a purported picture of the guy—he is a handsome young fellow with a winning smile—in the photo he’s tenderly holding a little baby, perhaps his own child. At first glance, I would probably let this guy in my house all day long if he came recommended to fix my computer or to install a new appliance. A beguiling man like that, intent on theft and murder, only needs to get INSIDE the door. Once he pulls a gun and has it trained on a loved one, he’s got you and he’s got everyone in the house and it really wouldn’t matter if you have a gun or not.
Thinking along preemptive lines, I’ve already instructed my people to inform the subdivision’s security guards whenever we have to have unknown delivery or repair people in the house. We will ask the guards to note the men for later identification purposes. Perhaps that will give them second thoughts of carrying out a theft/murder. The problem in the case of the killer computer repairman though is that he was probably already known and trusted by the household. The police have labeled him psychotic, although the better description would probably be psychopathic or sociopathic.

Thing is, unanticipated death reaches out to expats and locals alike. A few months ago my fiancée got off the phone after an animated conversation and told me that her cousin’s body had just been found in a nearby town. She said the left arm of his corpse was horribly mangled and missing below the elbow, as if blown off by an explosion. That was the initial story with more bits of info to come.

Over the days and weeks, more information slowly trickled out as to the state of his mutilated body. Keep in mind though, if I hadn’t continually probed I would not have been told much of anything. THAT is the way of it here. MOST folks do NOT ask questions; they know it’s not safe, that no good can come from knowing anyway. If ONLY I could keep to that advice!

The next time I asked for the latest on her cousin’s death she told me that the investigators counted over 50 bullet holes in him. What! Seems like something like that would have been immediately apparent; then again, there was so much gore and mayhem that perhaps the presence of some little bullet holes weren’t all that apparent until after all the blood and mud had been hosed off. Who knows? I DO know this though; the death, as sensational as it was, NEVER made it into the news! In fact, I asked every local and expat I happened across and NO ONE has ever heard of the shocking killing. How could this be NOT newsworthy? (In this purview THAT is a rhetorical question ONLY!)

But as for me, I HUNGERED for news. I pestered my fiancée with question after question, trying to find out WHY? Why did this quiet young man in his early 30s die so horribly? Who could possibly be THAT mad at him? What did he do to deserve such a thing? No one kills with that sort of brutality unless trying to make an example, or perhaps, out of supercharged passionate anger.

With that in mind, did he have a lover? Yes, he had two of them; in fact, both of these ladies were at the funeral and grieved right next to his widow. What!

(That’s another one for my “ONLY in the Philippines” list!)

Okay, did any of these ladies have a husband or a jealous boyfriend? Nope, apparently not; there was no love triangle that anyone knew about, and if there HAD been a resentful third (or fourth party) then the involved mistress(es) would have let THAT cat out of the bag—no doubt about it.

He was killed at night, apparently bushwhacked driving his motor trike on a back road. Was it a mugging then? No, he still had his wallet and it was undisturbed. It MUST be concluded then that he was purposefully targeted and probably by more than one assailant. Fifty some bullet holes mean probably at least three or more assassins took part. Look carefully at the dead man’s face through the casket viewing window and a bullet hole depression can be seen in the lip, even through the makeup and plaster. The man was riddled.

On that note, was he involved with drugs? No, he was a loving father with small children and had a good job doing fabrication and construction as a master welder. He had no reason to dabble in such things. He didn’t sell drugs and he didn’t take them.

Was he involved in politics? Ahhhh. NOW there was no definite answer. It was a resounding “I don’t know, maybe?” He was known to carry around explosives in the form of “fireworks” for “protection,” and he WAS killed in a time leading up to the elections. Hmmm.

But WHAT! Who carries fireworks for protection? No way. And was his arm blown off from his own explosives? No answer. In fact there never will be an answer. And truthfully, not even the family wants to know. They just want the horrible memory to fade away. In these parts, finding out bad things can be far worse than knowing—how peculiarly un-American—WE MUST KNOW; it’s in our DNA. Folks here on the other hand, seem to be able to shrug off such things and not lose much sleep. Amazing.

Ah, but here’s an interesting cultural oddity that I was fortunate enough to learn about due to this unexplained killing. The family placed three chicks atop the dead man’s coffin where they busily chirped and scratched away throughout the death vigil. The purpose of such a weird practice?—by tradition the chirping chicks provide comfort to the spirit of a person killed too soon in life, perhaps unjustly, where the killer is never expected to be brought to justice. Strange; right?

At this point, I don’t even want to know anymore why the guy was killed. I liked him, he enjoyed coming here on occasion and sitting up in my tower among my fruit trees, but I don’t care enough to put my own life at risk to find out the answers to all these mysteries. His own immediate family has accepted his ghastly passing with nary a mutter so who am I to question it? I shrug it off as they have. For them, it’s all about survival and finances. It would probably be dangerous to pursue answers; and besides, they can’t afford to pay the costs of funding such a thing anyway. Justice does not come free. I couldn’t live like that, but I’m not them.

The ONLY reason I bring up his strange demise anyway is to make the point of how violence can rear its ugly head like a deadly game of whack-a-mo for both foreigner and Filipino alike. Pop! Pop! POP! We all just hope it’s not OUR head that gets whacked, because whether we want to admit it or not, while we live here, we ARE in the game.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Chasing The Batfish

Fishville in Facebook is a favorite pastime of mine. Until recently, I thought that the game makers at Zynga simply made up the host of caricature funny fishes in their Fishville game. Then I plugged a few of the fish names into the internet and was surprised to see that all are based on an actual fish.
Pinnated batfish from Fishville on Facebook

Speaking of Fishville, one of my new favorite fishes is called the Deep Sea Angler. The animated game version of that bigheaded toothy fish looks totally improbable UNTIL you look at the actual Deep Sea Anglers, which are some of THE most bizarre creatures anyone could ever imagine. In fact, the actual Anglers are stranger looking than the Fishville representation.

Months ago, when Fishville brought out the Pinnate Batfish I thought for sure that nothing could actually exist like it in nature. I was wrong again, but I only I found out for sure during a snorkeling session at Sabang last month.

I had the camera in video mode lazily exploring the shallow water forty feet from where we step out of our beachfront room when suddenly there in my face was a live version of the Facebook batfish.

‘Whoa! No way!’ I thought. ‘THAT’S the fish from Fishville! A batfish! How cool is that?’

Listen carefully to the video and you can hear its comparatively tiny rearmost fin called the caudal fin flittering frantically on full speed to keep it moving to escape my following presence. That tiny “fin propeller” just does not look big enough for “the boat” it’s trying to push; yet, even though it appears vastly underpowered, the fish is actually faster than it looks. I tried to kick ahead of it to get more of a profile angle of it on the video but with flippers alone I couldn’t manage to do so.

I found the following information online about batfish at the AnimalPlanet.Com website:

“Batfish belong to the Ephippididae family. The majority of the species that are available for sale in the aquarium trade are from the genus Platax. Batfish can reach a size of around 15 inches in an aquarium, and over 20 inches in the wild. Batfish are usually recognized by their elongated dorsal (top) and anal (bottom) fins when young. As the fish grow, the fins become shorter and the body becomes longer.

Batfish live in tropical and subtropical oceans throughout the world. Juvenile Batfish live in inshore waters with mangroves, floating on the surface of the water in order to mimic a floating leaf. Larger Batfish usually are found on or around coral reefs. Depending on the age of the fish, Batfish can be found in schools, or as solitary individuals. The diet of Batfish consists of invertebrates such as worms, small anemones, hydroids, and small crustaceans.”

So obviously, based on the above info, the batfishes in my video are youngsters. The pics I found of adult batfish show that they eventually grow into their oversized upper and bottom fins, although they keep their unusual triangular appearance and actually resemble an angelfish at that stage.

I’m not sure why these particular batfish were in the area that I videoed them. At that young age they are relatively slow movers with limited maneuverability and so would appear to be easy prey in the open water. But maybe not—their girth is so slim that from directly behind and from the front, to a half blind predator they would be almost invisible. Also, to a stupid predator I imagine that the oversized fins make the juvenile batfish appear more substantial than they actually are. It follows then that a young batfish would be absolutely protected from the advances of a stupid half blind predator fish. May it be so!

What tickles me when watching them in the water is how the immature batfish resembles a sailing vessel while moving through the water. To make a turn they lay way over on their side as if tacking, the only fish I’ve seen do that (so far). In that respect they also remind of the way a large aircraft banks through the air when making a rolling turn around their longitudinal axis. Normal fish just don’t do that, or its just not nearly so apparent. In that respect, everything about the batfish is exaggerated. But I imagine once they grow into their adult bodies that their unusual manner of maneuvering becomes more typical of other fish.

I just do NOT get tired of this stuff. I should have been a marine biologist. . . .Oh well, maybe in my next life.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bumfuzzled by a Huge Sea Turtle...

One of the biggest thrills ever in my short scuba career occurred a couple days into my last diving trip. Staying low, practically crawling along the sea floor we round a big boulder and the first thing I see is a big old sea turtle. At the first moment of that encounter my camera was still hanging off my right shoulder by the strap high above my right bicep. I keep it up there where it tends to float above my head next to my ear when I want to have full use of both hands.

The turtle was not in the least troubled by our presence and just continued to mosey along, floating and paddling away from us staying just above the sea floor. I scrambled to retrieve my camera to record, what to me, was a very momentous event.

Super charged excitement from the unexpected sighting of this giant turtle in its natural habitat caused me to nervously fumble in getting the camera back down my arm and the fumbling continued in trying to turn it on. I was bumfuzzled, like a hunter with buck fever staring down the barrel of his rifle at an amazingly antlered deer.

Finally, I got the camera on and commenced to take several stills before changing to video mode. I was struck by the size of the animal. From shell front to back it was well over three feet long, and I noticed that the trailing edge of the carapace was cracked and worn, as if it had seen a few seasons. I don’t think it is a youngster, but not being a sea turtle expert I can’t know for sure.

Doing a little internet research I am fairly certain that this particular turtle is a hawksbill. And from the size it appears to be a mature specimen since everything I read states that they grow three to four feet long, exactly the size of MY turtle. It also matches up well with the hawksbill photos I found. What's more, watching the video, if you look closely you’ll see it munching on some kind of small sponge, and according to the sources I found the hawksbill is one of the only sea turtles that eat sponges, which tend to be toxic to most other creatures.

For the most part I kept my distance from the beautiful creature. I’ve seen videos of divers hanging on for a ride by clinging to the shells of swimming sea turtles, but that seems wrong to me. When it comes to wildlife I’d rather observe and disturb them as little as possible.

I motion to Don to have him approach a little closer, to position himself directly across from me on the other side of the turtle to serve as a contextual back drop. I did so after realizing that there is no context in the shot, no way to gauge the turtle’s dimensions.

Don didn’t understand what I wanted and just hung warily back. I noticed with surprise that he’d pulled his knife from his leg scabbard and was brandishing it at the ready. He told me later that not knowing how aggressive sea turtles are, and with this one being so large with such a big scary beak, he said if it came after me he intended to poke it in a rear leg to distract it.

As for me, I wasn’t worried—I’ve watched enough Discovery Channel to know they aren’t aggressive; although, with a head the size of a medium sized dog along with those menacing jaws and big hawk's beak, I too admit being wary with being so close to the biting end of it.

A fascinating feature of the scene playing out in front of the camera in my hands was observing the retinue of fish following the huge turtle around. I tried to figure out the reason they hovered near it, often under it in fact, and came up with an answer—eating opportunities. When the hawksbill stopped to munch on the little brownish-green sponges, the attendant fish waited for any cast off morsel to become available and would immediately dart over to suck it down their greedy little gullets.

But that wasn’t the only opportunity available to these opportunistic turtle fishes; they also patrolled the back end of their turtle-buddy waiting for whatever dropped out of that end as well. In fact, the presence of these fish is the only way to get an idea of the turtle’s size in the video—the two large colorful fish flitting about the turtle in the clip, I believe they are a type of wrasse, are over 9 inches long.

Knowing the local penchant of folks around here of eating pretty much anything that swims, walks or flies, I wondered how this particular large and apparently aged sea turtle had managed to escape the cooking pot. Having learned a hard lesson when I made the mistake of revealing the location of a pristine underwater cave in a post several years ago that resulted in its ruination, I will not divulge the location of where we spotted the turtle.

Having declared my intention to try and protect this particular turtle, now that I’ve learned a little more about the hawksbill I have a theory as to how it has survived. According to my cursory research, hawksbill meat can be made quite toxic due to the poisonous nature of what it eats. Also, they tend to stay deeply submerged for most of their lives, something that should also help preserve their lives; and since they eat sponges they probably aren’t tempted to go for what most fishermen would bait their hooks with. And finally, we found the turtle in tepid water at the bottom of a relatively shallow rocky lagoon, a place without many fish, at least not compared to a lot of other nearby places; so there is no reason for anyone to visit such a place.

Taking all that into account, perhaps that is how it has survived; or, maybe the locals didn’t eat it because it’s protected. That would be the ideal scenario, and I would love it to be so, but, I just can’t make myself believe it. Then again, who knows?
Thing is, people break the rules all the time for all sorts of reasons, and one of the most common of these excuses is poverty. On that note, "developing nations" like to argue that saving the environment is a "luxury" ONLY applicable to the First World. I don't buy that at all. Shouldn't it be common sense that you don't crap where you live? Fishing with dynamite or cyanide is a great example of "crapping where you live," something that still happens. Another more literal example can be smelled at any time of day walking the beach front of Sabang; if THAT isn't the smell of people crapping where they live then nothing is...

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Diving along the cliff face, we happen upon a cave...

Snorkeling up and down the coast had been fantastic, awe inspiring even, and convinced me that there would be some even greater sights to see along those soaring cliffs and fallen boulders via scuba diving as well. I mentioned this to Don hoping to plant the idea to include some shallow dives along the various shore lines around us. No problem, he liked the idea right away.

When not in the water we were often up on the huge dining veranda directly above our beach side rooms. From there the eyes are naturally drawn across the water to a huge lone rock placed like a miniature isle mount perhaps 500 meters out. All told I probably took more than two dozen photos of that big rock. It practically insists on being photographed.

The water just off that rock also happens to be a designated dive spot, one of about ten located in the immediate vicinity of the resort. Every one or two hours another dive boat from Sabang would drop off a gaggle of divers at that particular one by the rock. We would have dived it too on our first trip except the resort’s dive boat was out of commission, or its Mercury outboard was anyway.

Don had taken a cursory look at it in May and declared that he would bring some tools and hardware next time to see what he could do, if that was all right with the manager that is. From what I’ve seen of Don’s mechanical abilities I had no doubt that he would have that outboard purring like a waterborne kitten when we got back.

On the very first afternoon of our return Don asked the resort’s boatman to have the dive boat brought up and tied tightly to the dock so he could work on the outboard. I could see them below from the veranda. Within minutes Don had the engine torn apart into at least two dozen pieces, all spread out around him. When it comes to problems involving mechanics, hydraulics, electronics, computers, cars, motorcycles, scooters, you name it, Don can figure it out and fix it.

As far as that big old Mercury, he had never worked on an outboard before, but within a few minutes he had it mostly figured out. He explained, “It’s just a two stroke engine, like a lawnmower on steroids with three ganged cylinders…” He went on to explain the function of all the other devices and mechanisms that he had sorted out as he removed, refurbished and reinstalled them. In two hours he had it started and running; after another hour he had it spinning like a top. It turns out there was no one major problem, but a host of small ones. His innate mechanical abilities notwithstanding, watching him methodically repair that outboard reminded me why he’d been so successful as an aircraft maintenance superintendent in the air force. He epitomizes old school American ingenuity; he’s no nonsense and doesn’t quit until he arrives at a solution.

By the time we headed out to the rock it was well into the afternoon but I was happy to see we still had plenty of sunlight for good underwater observation. Wait too long into the day and visibility drops dramatically.

The boatman repositioned us twice to get us within twenty feet from where the water meets the rock face; the insistent current persistently tugged the boat away from the spot we wanted. Finally we were all geared up and perched for our back flip into the drink. Don gave me thumbs up and flipped over. A second later I pushed back; saw my flippers framing the sky, then water, then boat, then sky again. I love that dizzy head over heels feeling—what a rush!

I gave our girlfriends and the boatman thumbs up and as per our agreed upon plan I swam to the cliff face, fighting the current every inch of the way. A little out of breath when I got there and the water being so deep along the smooth cliff, there wasn’t much of a rest to be had—there wasn’t much to cling to and the water was surprisingly deep at that spot.

I didn’t see Don until he suddenly popped up to my right. He must have been a feet below for me not to see him during the 20 foot swim. Diving is like that, it can be very difficult to see what’s around. I always feel like I’m wearing blinders because of the mask; and its made worse that the head is restricted from easily being able to pivot from the regulator held in the mouth. You can turn or crane your head somewhat, but mostly you have to maneuver your entire body in the water to change the field of view.

Peering down I felt a thrill trying to see how deep the bottom was at that point near the base of the lone rock. The water is a dark bluish green and the underwater cliff face drops away without end. We definitely would not be diving in that direction on that day. (A few days after I had already left for home, Don dove that spot on his own. He said he had the boat drop him well away from the cliff face and then headed straight down. He found the bottom at 125 feet. There wasn’t much to see other than very silty brownish sand. He made his way slowly back up the cliff face and found it to be a series of terraces all the way to the top.)

We decided to drop down ten or twelve feet and make a lap around the big old rock. It wasn’t an easy swim due to the relentless current sweeping around the point protruding out into the channel at that spot. Struggling, I didn’t much enjoy it. Like all rocks and boulders protruding from the sea there the bottom structure is much eroded so that the shape as seen from below looks like an enormous rock mushroom head on a stony stalk.

For me, the fun of that dive started when we began exploring the shore line, keeping mostly 20 or 30 feet out at mostly shallow depths from a few feet down to no more than 15 feet. I saw types of corals, polyps, sea squirts and other colorful oddly shaped sea life that I had never seen elsewhere in our other dives before. Even now, several weeks later, I’m still trying to identify some of what I captured on my Canon G11.

Aside from the amazingly diverse life all around us, the toppled boulders and rock slabs all jumbled together half in half out of the slapping waves high above us was wondrous in itself. We explored what amounted to underwater rooms, their ceilings and walls consisting of the expansive sides of topsy-turvy hunks and chunks of giant stones. We’d swim up narrow passages of rock and find ourselves under and behind giant boulders, the boulder-blocked sun very often providing very little light to see by. Don would have to switch on his spotlight so we could see what was about.

Now that I’ve learned how to do it, I’ve embedded two videos taken by me, one below showing Don swimming into a cave that we’d found during the very moments I shot the clip. Thus, you are watching a moment of discovery. He had no idea how deep the cave or what awaited him once he got into it. In other words, it was awesome! Once determining it was safe and sound, Don, who is certified to dive caves, signaled to follow him in by flashing the searchlight.

As can be seen in the video the cave was no more than a short tunnel ending at a small cave with a dome a couple feet above the water’s surface filled with what turned out to be dubious air. I opted not to go off regulator worrying that there might be a pocket of something toxic lurking in such a small space. All it takes to knock a body unconscious is a breath or two of methane from a rotting animal carcass. Don said he tried a short gulp of it but quickly went back on regulator when he tasted the staleness of that tiny space completely isolated from the outside atmosphere.

The other video above shows one scene of what I describe above, the boulders and fallen slabs of rock forming underwater open spaces of assorted sizes and shapes. Notice the impressive colony of pinkish orange ascidians firmly attached to the underside of the enormous rock forming the ceiling of that particular cavernous space. Some of the ascidian colonies (also called sea squirts) resemble bee hives. Notice also the school of hundreds of yellow fish busily swimming about in their “rooms” beneath those stacks of fallen rocks.

At the end Don swims through a very narrow and low opening to the other side of the house-sized boulder; with camera rolling I follow. He turns and carefully watches to make sure I keep low to prevent from catching my tank as I come through. You can see him signaling to stay low.

We come upon a giant sea turtle and I video it as proof of our encounter it in my next post…