Monday, January 31, 2011

Jan DiveTrip to Mindoro "The Klein's' clean up" Day 6.1`

Jan 20, 2011 Thursday
Day 6.1

This morning it was early to rise after early to bed last night. My on again-off again jaw pain reared its agonizing ugly head yesterday afternoon, causing me to down a couple of Tylenol and then several beers when we ventured over the hill to Sabang for some dinner. As it always does, the pain receded but the beers and medication put me out like a light as soon as I finished yesterday’s journal entry.

As the sun struggled to shoot a few rays over an ominously dark horizon the water was smooth and provided clarity to the bottom when we went out to inspect for conditions. A front of clouds filling the eastern horizon gave us reason for concern and caused us to hurry up and get our first dive in just in case bad weather was on the way. By 0900 the front got to us but happily all it brought with it was overcast. By the time we entered the water for dive number one of the day there were already three dive boats tethered at the buoys directly off the hotel pier. I remarked that with each boat averaging 5 to 6 divers, plus us, it would be like Grand Central Station out there beneath the surface. It turned out to be exactly as I predicted.

It cost me less than two hundred lbs of my 3000 to make it out to the buoy base. After a short stop there we headed southeast along the drop off. Its no mistake that so many dive boats bring their fares to that spot. Don observed today that every time we dive that area we see it from slightly different angles and always see something new, or at least I do. We’ll probably end up diving that spot for the next two days that we have left to dive here.

Sure enough, we ran into other divers no matter where we turned. Don would point out a clutch of two or three and we would veer away to another area only to run into another pair or a single just over the next boulder or rock wall. We finally just swam south far enough up the face so that we ran out of them. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that many people blowing bubbles in the water all at the same time. Usually I feel isolated down there with just me and my dive partner.

That first dive I went down a couple times to the base of the wall that ends at the 70 foot level, but mostly we stayed between 40 and 50 feet. Our dive was shortened to just 55 minutes due to Don having a problem with a constant leak around his regulator mouthpiece; even when he wasn’t breathing in it would still allow air to come out—not good. He just bought the entire regulator and octopus assembly in Hawaii and he’s had constant issues with it since using it. Ever “the fix it man” though, between dives he took the mouthpiece assembly off and discovered a set screw at the base that was slightly out of adjustment; a half hour of turning the screw in and out, sucking through the mouthpiece to check it, and hooking it back to air twice for the final test, and he finally had it set at just the right place. I would never try something like that, but for “Daring Don” it’s just another day at the office. He’s a very handy fellow to have around for sure.

After waiting the requisite 1.5 hours (or so) we reentered the water for round two at just after 1330. This time the dive went swimmingly, lasting a full 70 minutes with plenty of air to spare for both of us. As I mentioned earlier, my inner ear squeeze is no longer any problem at all; for some mysterious reason my Eustachian tubes appear to have completely opened and I can now hold my nostrils and overpressure with a quick blow to get instantly equalized. All I can think is that the constant pushing of air into them these past six months, even when I’m not diving, has caused them to increase in size. Take note all you other would be divers with similar inner ear squeeze problems.

My dive mentor also mentioned how impressed he now is with my ability to foster my air almost as well as he does. When we first started this stuff he would routinely come up with as much as 1000 lbs more air than I did. It was humiliating to say the least. The first thing I did to fix that problem was to stop squeezing my stomach with the vest belly band. I don’t know why I would do it, but I would cinch it up as tight as I could. All that did was cause me to feel like I was never getting enough to breathe. And finally, once my confidence and comfort levels reached where I am now all the anxiety that caused me to suck air exhorbitantly left me and allowed me to breath in slow and relaxed.

The second dive was a long one, although it was so enjoyable that it didn’t feel long. We pretty much followed the same plan as dive one only this time there were no other divers to avoid. We took our time and had fun gliding up and down the shelf, feeling more like slow motion fliers than swimmers. I remarked at the end of that dive that I have dreams all the time where I do exactly what I am now able to do underwater, where I soar and jump and fly as if gravity does not exist!

Again, below I describe some of the intriguing little experiences I had during today’s dives. As usual, whenever I visit the underwater wonderland there is never a dull moment, at least not for me, aka "Nature Phil."

Right off the bat, as we approached the buoy I spotted a bulky yellow-tinged triggerfish take off like a shot. It had been busy feeding and our oncoming presence interrupted it. It had already ripped open a sea urchin which in present state looked all the world like a spiny half coconut. Once we had unwittingly scared the triggerfish away other smaller fish (what kind are they, especially the yellow ones?) that would otherwise never have a shot at the succulent delicious insides of an urchin were taking turns having their fill with apparent great gusto. Notice in the video I took below that there were several different species of fish working on the urchin, but it was only these banded yellow white and black ones that had the temerity to continue eating as I approached. I think I'll give them a new nickname--"the badass banded butterflyfish."

I just spent more than two hours trying to find out what kind of fish those are enjoying the half shell of a sea urchin after a Triggerfish opened it up. My knowledge of marine fish is, in a word, pathetic; but it's slowly expanding as I do my research for each video and photo taken during my underwater forays. At first I thought these three-toned fish with their three broad vertical bands of black, white and yellow were a form of tang or angelfish, but I soon decided instead that they must be a species of butterflyfish, and after staring at more than 25 or 30 online photos at, I proved myself correct. They are called Klein's butterflyfish, or The black-lipped butterflyfish of the fish genus Chaetodon a tropical fish in the family Chaetodontidae. These fish are omnivorous, which in the animal kingdom means they eat opportunistically just about anything. On second thought, that's actually kind of the way I eat.

Because I have so many pretty cool videos I'd like to share from day 6's dives I decided to break up day 6 into two or three posts, so they will be labeled day 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3. A lot of interesting things to see from that one day, so there you go....

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Jan Dive Trip to Mindoro "A writhing mass" Day 5`

Jan 19, 2011 Wednesday
Day 5

We had two pretty decent dives today. We still don’t have access to a boat so we are keeping pretty much right out in front of the hotel’s waterfront, but this place has such great diving so close to it that I have absolutely no complaints at all. On both dives we headed straight out to the buoy at 35 feet down about 60 yards out and then headed mostly east on a zigzagging exploratory course until our air forced us to make our way back to the pier.

I’ve now done at least 35 dives at about an hour each and I have to say that I’m feeling more and more comfortable and confident in what I’m doing down there. For instance, when I started I could not even get to ten feet in depth without having to pause while I struggled to clear my inner ear squeeze. Now, Don never has to wait for me to equalize my ear pressure at all; even when we go to depth I’m right with him and ready with a thumb up when he checks on my status.

Another mark of improvement is my breathing; today is the first time I’ve ever finished with two hundred pounds more air than him; in the past we would end our dives with me close to empty while he still had more than 700 lbs left. All this comes from being more relaxed in the water, and from practice. New divers with similar problems, take heart, if I can improve, anyone can.

So dive number one lasted 70 minutes with the deepest depth of nearly 70 feet reached; the second one was only 65 minutes and we kept it mostly between 35 and 50 feet. You always try to make your first dive the deepest one for nitrogen off-gassing reasons.

On the second dive poor Don found himself in a state of self-induced misery as he could never really see clearly through his mask. His girlfriend had asked him if he would like another coat of anti-fog fluid applied, but for some reason he told her not to worry about it. He spent the entire time swishing water in the faceplate but to no avail. As for me, I am quite satisfied to use two dots of baby shampoo rubbed vigorously into each side on the inside of the faceplate and I never have a problem—works good, lasts long time. Thank you Dave Baker!

I’m going to try something a little different this post; I will make a sort of running commentary of what I saw during my dives today. I will do this by reviewing the snapshots and film footage from my Canon G-11 camera as follows:

For the first time ever I was able to video a swimming lion fish. I think maybe the cold water is making them sluggish and less stealthy—no complaints from me.

I made one pretty long video (the abridged version is below) during the day’s first dive of teeming undersea life, including an Avatar-like (from the movie) orange flower looking anemone that disappears into its hole as the camera gets too near. They are actually called tube anemones for the obvious reason. The visibility at that depth, which was between 40 and 50 feet was outstanding, especially considering how occluded it was in shallower waters. How can anyone grow jaded at the sight of the colors and variety of fish species, their sheer number is stunning—surely it’s not possible to get tired of it, absolutely sublime!

I spotted two different types of colorful little slug like creatures called nudibranchs—on the first dive I found a blue, black and white longitudinally striped one with a yellow crest on one end, perhaps its head. Anyway, I guess the crest is at its head end, although I can’t be sure since I didn’t see it moving. There are also a couple of yellow spikes at the other end. All in all, its color scheme is quite striking. After a quick search in wikipedia I learned that this particular blue, white and yellow type is called a Chromodoris lochi.

The second apparent nudibranch I decided to film because it was moving around, albeit slowly. It is very snail-like in shape and movement, but it has two sets of “horns” comparable (sort of) to the retractable eyestalks on land snails. On second thought on this nudibranch the front appendages actually look more like antlers, especially when the photo is enlarged. These front antler-horns are bright red while the back middle ones are dark, the same as the top side of its body. Well, wait; these rear appendages don’t resemble the front ones much at all, as there are actually three of them. I really need to research the creature so I can properly call its body parts what they are. The top of this crawling creature is very dark, perhaps black, while its bottom side is white; actually, its appearance reminds me of how a killer whale is set up in color. Oh, and to top it all off there are small bright blue bits to it as well, on its “fore” and “aft.” It’s an absolutely amazing looking little creature—maybe God was feeling a bit punchy when he threw that one together? Anyway, check it out for yourself on the video I took of it:

I also videoed an interesting sea urchin with barber pole-like dark and light stripes on its quills as compared to the normal all blackish ones on the more numerous style of longer quilled urchins. In this same video is an anemone with very cool flower-like rubbery appendages. While taking this footage I suddenly noticed a spiny little bug eyed fish which I pestered and closely followed until it finally took off faster than I could swim.

And take a close look at a photo I took of the sea urchin that I later learned is called the double spined urchin or banded sea urchin, Echinothrix calamaris. Or don't take a close look, I'll enlarge it for you. See the eye of the porkupine fish? It's kind of creepy. I never noticed it until I happened to enlarge the photo later. Also, see the sphere in the center of the banded sea urchin? According to Wikipedia, THAT is it's anus. NO way! Is this stuff interesting or what!

I always feel compelled to look down into the maw of the big barrel corals (or maybe they are a type of sponge?). Usually there is nothing but a few broken pieces of coral or other bits of unidentifiable flotsam lying in the bottom. But this time I looked into one and discovered something pretty cool—three juvenile lion fish—fish which during this trip appear to be everywhere on every dive. Before this dive trip it seemed I hardly ever saw any.

It occurred to me today while seeing all these now ubiquitous lion fish that from afar they resemble feather stars, which I don’t believe are much desired as food by many predators. So, maybe that’s how lion fish developed those incredible decorative featherlike spines, as a form of camouflage protection. Check out the two photos here, one of a zebra-striped lionfish and then of the black and white feather star--notice the similarity?
The pics I snapped of these three particular “barrel-dwellers” (see the pic of them above) without the flash they appear blandly dark and light in color, but in one or two that I snapped with the strobe you can see they are quite colorful, with variations of brown and tan stripes and speckles. No matter how many lionfish I see, even now that I see them almost every dive, I am fascinated by them.

Speaking of being fascinated by certain creatures, hermit crabs have interested me since I saw my first one when I was no more than 5 or 6. This time I found one at depth, over 30 feet down, which I thought unusual; and unlike the ones I played with yesterday in the shallows near the jetty, this one wasn’t very cooperative, although he was a bit larger. I do enjoy those interlopers, for some reason they really appeal to me. Maybe because it never fails to freak me out when unexpectedly a crab with its mass of legs, pincers and whiskers comes out of what I supposed to be an unoccupied shell.

Interestingly, we found an ancient mysterious chain that is frozen in the strangest most unlikely shape, as if it was wrapped around something that is no longer there, perhaps a barrel; or maybe it was massed up over the logs of a long gone sunken ship that rotted away. The links are from a substantial chain, probably an anchor chain, and are so covered with underwater overgrowth that I almost didn’t notice it. I’ll bet that chain has been down there for decades, maybe longer—if it could only talk!

I peered into a small basket cave, which is what I call little caverns inside old rotted out coral formations. This one was inside an ancient giant coral lump about six feet high, about half as big as a VW Beetle. Craning my head while lying flat on the seabottom to peer into the murky hole at its base I could hardly see anything but darkly roiling movement. It looked extremely promising so I broke out my dive light to investigate.

There, way in the back, was a writhing mass of whiskered striped fish (I assume they are a type of catfish, but I need to look these things up and find out) Each one about 6 to 7 inches long, there must have been a couple hundred of them. The small nearly invisible entrance was guarded on one side by the sharp spines of several sea urchins, and I paid dearly for the privilege of taking these photos, my right forearm sustaining several spine punctures. I didn’t mind at all; seeing that squirming mass of fish life was worth every painful perforation!

Ah success, I found this fish on Wikipedia. It's called the striped eel catfish (Plotosus lineatus). According to the site: "this type of catfish, as juveniles, often form dense aggregations; in P. lineatus juveniles form dense ball-shaped schools of about 100 fish, while adults are solitary or occur in smaller groups of around 20 and are known to hide under ledges during the day."

So, I must have discovered a nest of young ones. The info site on P. lineatus goes on to state that the barbs of these fish are extremely dangerous, even fatal; another reason NOT to touch anything and to wear gloves in case you do. I just wish that I would have thought to take a video of this intriguing fish behavior; it would have looked really cool.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Jan DiveTrip to Mindoro "YES on Diving!" Day 4`

Jan 18, 2011 Tuesday
Day 4
(Suggest you click on each photo to enjoy them fully...)

Yes on the diving today!

It started out slow however; woke up lazy and so didn’t get up until well after 8 am. From a supine position on the bed with hands behind my head I can see the sea through the room’s glass door. I could see that the water had a bit of chop to it but not nearly as bad as it’s been the last couple of days. My view bode well for today’s underwater adventures. Just the same I rolled over and closed my eyes to squeeze out a few more z's.

By 8:30 I was bored with sleeping and went up on the veranda for some coffee and a bowl of fresh fruit salad for breakfast. We were further encouraged to see that dive boats from Sabang were braving the trip around the lighthouse point to drop their divers into the water here at the dive buoy in front of the hotel. However, we did notice that the small local Bangka watercraft still were not out trying to make their way over the swells; evidently it was still too much for them.

By 10 am, a walk out on the pier revealed that the visibility through the water was noticeably improved; we could see rocks at the bottom several feet down that we couldn’t make out yesterday, not to mention that the breakers were only a tenth of their size from 24 hours earlier. All in all, it looked good for a dive. I asked Don if we shouldn’t go sooner than later in case we lost the window of opportunity that now seemed to be presenting itself. He agreed and we wasted no time in suiting up. At the very prospect of getting back out in the water, I was one happy camper!

Our plan was similar to the dive we aborted yesterday—head straight out to the buoy, pause, and then continue down the stairstep shelf to about 100 feet where we would putter around for five minutes before reversing course.

This time when we submerged just past the pier we noticed immediately that the waves were innocuous and the visibility, well, it actually existed, unlike the day before. We pressed on. In almost no time we hit the buoy. I was thrilled at how much easier I am able to clear my ears. Don never had to wait for me; I was able to feel almost instant relief by holding my nose through my mask and blowing. It’s almost as if my Eustachian tubes are becoming trained for diving by the constant act of forcing them to equalize. Even at home these past two months I have constantly pushed air into them; now I can see it’s paying off.

Pushing past the buoy, an interesting phenomenon presented itself—warm pockets of water were all over the place. You can actually see them before you feel them from the shimmering haze they cause. The distortion is severe enough that it prevents me from being able to read the numbers on my gauges when we are actually inside these “hot pockets.” I enjoyed the warmth though, since the water has been downright frigid since we got here.

On one of the several shelves going down into the channel depths a small stingray hovered only a few feet to the left of my course. I paused for a bit to pull my camera down my right arm where I stow it on a loop. I haven’t reviewed the images yet, but I took both stills and a few seconds of movie footage. They are fascinating creatures. This little one wasn’t near as shy as the other larger ones I’ve observed.

By the time we were half way down the hill to the 100 foot bottom the water was almost as clear as I’ve ever seen it. All the murk was above us. We stopped at 97 feet and flattened out on our stomachs. The view down there looking out into the continuing depths of the channel is a bit boring; rolling, flat, sandy, featureless with little evidence of life. In less than a minute we turned tail and flippered back up the hill, now soaring high above us. I enjoy the feeling of flying upwards, occasionally using a rock to help push upwards against.

Once again, we found the big concrete buoy mooring and took a break. I had my camera out and ready for any photo ops. Seeing nothing unusual or new I looked straight up to see if there were any boats tied on up there. Then something caught my eye over Don’s right shoulder. Holy cow! I have never seen fish that big before. A huge school of these things, maybe 30 to 50 in all, were massed only about 15 feet behind him. Some of them looked to be well over four feet in length. They looked powerful and tasty. I pushed him hard on his shoulder to get his attention up from his console and jabbed my finger at the gigantic fish. Seeing them, he was as stunned as I was. No matter how many times you go down, even into the exact same area, you just never know what new oddity or amazing creature will show up. I finally remembered to bring my camera to bear but by then they were too far away in the hazy water to capture the size of them. I have only a few seconds of fleeting video that I intend to try and identify them with. Back on the surface we couldn’t stop talking about the size of those fish and how many of them there were. Incredible!

We waited just over an hour and a half to make a second dive of the day. Strangely, even though the waves were much smaller and the surge lessened, the visibility was now much reduced again, almost as bad as it was yesterday. We headed back out to the buoy hoping the water would clear up but it never did much. Later, Don said that the current had reversed, which is why the murk must have returned the way it did.

Concerned that we might become separated in the greenish gloom, Don opted that we would simply stay right there at 35 feet on the concrete pad and just observe the sea life from that vantage point. I took a few shots of an unlikely looking fish decorated with white circles all over its brown body and fns. I’ve seen them before but was never able to get a shot of them.

I also found a tiny slender stick-like fish hiding down at the base of the concrete pad amongst the quills of its protector sea urchins. It was banded alternately with yellow and dark stripes only about three inches long. I hope the pictures turn out okay. I’ve never seen another fish quite like it yet.

And finally, I got some great shots of two juvenile lionfish. For some reason they always tend to keep their bodies pointing head down. Every time I try to capture them on film I get them from the back with their heads facing mostly out of the shot.

Without being able to swim to keep his body temperature up Don was miserable from the cold water. As for me, I felt just fine; must be all the blubber that keeps me warm and cozy. I knew my fat would come in handy one of these days. Once he began to shiver he decided to pack it in.

We headed back to shore where I found that I still had more than 700 lbs of air. I used all but 300 of it over the next half hour exploring the shallow depths along the base of the breakwater jetty. I found several nice shells but in trying to stow them inside the trim weight pocket on my BCD vest I evidently left the zipper open and lost one of my 4 lb bean bag trim weights. Dang it. Oh, and the shell pictured is not one of those I picked up since it still has its occupant. I only collect those that are deserted.

Aside from carelessly losing one of my bean bags I had a great time playing with some of the numerous hermit crabs living in the shallows. The largest one I found was very shy and I’d have to wait a while to observe him come out of his shell. On the other side of the pier I found one that had just about grown out of his used shell home; I’d pick him up and it would immediately come out and grab the material of my glove—feisty little critter! As always, I suggest you click on the photos to view them in their full glory...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jan Dive Trip to Mindoro "Lars the Dane" Day 3`

Jan 17 2011, Monday
Day 3

I take it all back, the glowing remarks I made yesterday about Captain Gregg’s that is—I’ll get to that in a bit.

Another late bedtime due to several glasses of wine on the veranda caused me to awake late to weather that was and is still most foul. Even now, sitting up here with an early evening coffee I can hear the angry surge of pounding sloshing waves out there in the cold damp darkness.

We decided to make a road trip over to White Beach to find “Lars the Danish guy,” as recommended by the European manager yesterday at Captain Gregg’s. Thinking back, there was a scruffy bearded American fellow with him and both of them colluded on giving us Lar’s name as being the go-to-guy in these parts for outboard motor repair. I say that now in retrospect after what happened when we acted on their “helpful” info.

The six mile drive, or thereabouts, is continuously winding and slow, what with all the pedestrians, trikes and scooters acting as rolling speed bumps. We turned down the first narrow lane after reaching the White Beach area and got stuck behind a jeepney unloading a group of Korean tourists at a resort hotel. During that pause an obliging Filipino gentlemen informed us that we should return to the main road and continue another kilometer to The Tamaraw Hotel, assuring us that Lars was across the road from that place.

We easily found The Tamaraw but the only thing across the street from it is a building under construction and an unimproved muddy road disappearing up the hillside to the right. So, we pulled into the Tamaraw and parked in a cul-de-sac lot allotted for about a half-dozen tiny beach cottages. Walking toward the water we asked an attendant at a beach rental kiosk if she knew of Lars. She sent us back across the street and up the muddy road; she told us that his office was at the end of it. Off we went.

Expecting some kind of repair shop, instead we entered the grounds of what appeared to be an elaborate child care facility. I knew immediately that if Lars was in this place he wasn’t about repairing watercraft engines. We continued to follow the winding sidewalk through an attractively landscaped area interspersed with cottages and open air classroom huts; there was even a large outdoor stage pavillion. At the end of the pathway we came to the office. A sign announced that we were on the grounds of The Stairway Foundation.

While Don went in to make his queries I was diverted by a cute yet quietly dignified little puppy tied up at the far end of the office bungalow. The little guy sat there without so much as a wiggle or tail wag as I squatted on my haunches and said hello. I was tempted to reach out but his reserved demeanor kept me from doing so. I took a picture of the cute fuzzy little fellow and wished him well. (That photo was lost along with all the other great shots in the camera, dang it!)

I found Don in the office speaking to a thin worried looking European man who turned out to be Lars, the director of the foundation. As I walked up to them I heard the balding fellow inform Don that in no way was he any kind of expert in the field of outboard motor repair. A sick feeling began to settle in my gut as I realized what had happened.

I asked Lars about his foundation, from the signs and posters the place was a sort of a school for homeless street kids; mostly for boys from the explanations I received. Don did his thing and wrangled the use of a computer and internet to check out more info on our broken Mercury engine. While he researched I spoke with a young teacher, very beautiful and very sweet as so many of the women over here are, nice enough to interrupt her going over a lesson plan at the table we also sat at, and found out a few more things about the foundation.

The kids they receive mostly come from government run institutions that are not nearly as nice as that one. The selection process involves an interview with the child, most of whom are between the ages of 11 and as old as 16. The primary education goal is not any kind of degree but is to ensure that the kids learn the basics of reading and writing, as most of the rescued street kids are illiterate. If you have ever driven through Manila you’ll see these kids everywhere, dirty and ragged. There must be thousands of them all told.

Wanting to help the foundation out after learning all this, I told Divine and my stepdaughter, Jen, to pick out some items to buy. Jen picked out six bracelets made by the foundation children while Divine chose three beautiful hand-woven basketry items made by local Mindoro craftsmen. After a half hour Don thanked the staff for their generosity and we ambled down the winding walkway and back out to the car for the return ride to Sabang.

Don’s online research revealed a surprising fact about the outboard that he was seeking to repair. For one thing, that particular Mercury boat motor, the 40 hp two-stroke, has not been manufactured since 1978, and as early as 1972; that means the one we have out there on the dive boat is at least 33 years old and probably much older than that according to Don. It speaks well for Mercury outboards that this ancient engine, once it’s bad switching module is replaced, may well continue to operate for another untold number of years. Go Mercury!

On the return drive from Lar’s foundation we passed the ferry pier where the roll-on roll-off (RO-RO) ferries used to operate out of when we used to be able to go to directly to Puerto Galera from the Batangas Pier instead of the now much longer overland drive now required from the ferry port destination of Calapan. Don thought it would be nice to check and see if there is any plan to resume the Batangas to Puerto Galera RO-RO run. He woke up the attendant in the office who told us that the latest rumor is that service might begin again sometime after March. I’m convinced it will probably never restart. I hope I’m wrong; it’s such a pain to have to make that two-hour drive from Calapan, unless Don is driving, who can blast through the run in about 80 minutes from Sabang.

Back in the town of Sabang, Don parked in the as yet unfinished town pier and went off to ask around about the location of an outboard motor shop. He found two locals, this time not relying on any wise-ass European or American, and these honest local Mindorans informed him that “Merly’s,” all the way back past Puerto Galera was the primary shop for such things. Don wanted to backtrack all the way to find this guy but I begged off; it was past 1 pm—we were all hungry and tired, or so I whined. Besides, maybe we could still get a dive in I said hopefully.

Riding back over the hill to our hotel, the anger I felt toward those two guys from Captain Gregg’s began to boil out of me like molten lava. Those fellows colluded to send us on a wild goose chase, and continued the hoax even after I earnestly shook the European fellow’s hand with a heartfelt thank you. I can imagine the laugh they had after we were out of sight. Writing about it now I’m so angry I could spit. I told Don that I will never have anything to do with that place again. I won’t eat at their restaurant (probably) and I certainly won’t partake in anything to do with diving. How can I ever again trust such people? Would that guy “playfully” sabotage my dive equipment just to have a laugh at my expense? How am I to know? All I know is that there are plenty of other dive shops and dive resorts and they will be the ones to get my business.

Back at the hotel we stared out at the seas still angrily roiling boiling and seething, much the way I felt about the way we had been fooled into going on that wild goose chase to find “Lars the outboard motor repairman.” We decided to try and get a dive in, thinking that if we kept it simple that we could quickly get beneath the surge and enjoy the stiller deeper waters below. We would head straight out to the channel bottom, perhaps to 100 feet; and then veer right before making our way back to the pier. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…!

Upon entering the water the first thing that struck me was the coldness of it. This is the tropics; thus, the water near shore is rarely cold; in fact, I’ve never seen it anything but slightly chilly, not ‘til much greater depths are reached.

The next thing I noticed was the near zero visibility. I fully extended my arm and my stretched out hand was nearly obscured by the silt in the water. I hoped that this extreme murk condition would lessen at depth as it did the last time we dove in choppy waters here, but I began to have my doubts.

Don and I slowly bobbed our way out to the deeper waters beyond the pier. As my feet left the security of the bottom, immediately a surge pulled me out and away from my dive partner. Soon I was more than fifteen feet away from him. I called out, telling him to make his way over to me before we submerged so we would be able to have each other in sight underwater. He made his way over and we deflated together, only instead of being able to sink below the surge we became caught up in it. Separated by only a few feet I was stunned that I could no longer see him, the silt was that visually impenetrable. I kicked over to him trying to keep him close and in sight by keeping one hand on his tank, but it was no use. The surge buffeted and tugged us where it wanted and we had very little to do with it, try as we might.

Again, he disappeared right in front of my eyes. That was it; I’d had enough. Feeling very anxious, I kicked hard back toward him, reached out as far as I could while kicking desperately with my fins, and grabbed his gloved hand. We rose together the couple feet to the surface where I gave him an earnest cut sign. Later, back on shore, Don said he saw my hand on his glove but couldn’t see me; the visibility was that bad and at that moment he also realized that we needed to get back in.

Seeing my signal to end the dive he immediately nodded in agreement. I pointed toward shore and gave him a thumbs up, but the weird thing to me at the time is that the shore was no longer where I thought it was. We had already been yanked way to the west out of our intended path and now I realized that we were going to have to fight mightily just to get back to the safety of the slack water where we had started from.

With bearings registered I put my head down and began kicking hard for the pier. About then, a mountainous wave washed over me, knocking my mask half off and filling it with water. Readjusting my mask, another wave crashed me down into the sea bottom, rolling my tank hard into a rock. I was thankful to be on regulator—as long as I’m breathing I know I’m okay I said to myself. I came up to get reoriented and as soon as I knew where to head to I kicked hard for the pier yet again, only to have another wave smash me into blind oblivion. Again, I recovered from the bashing, checked for proper direction and struck determinedly once again for shore, only now the waves had pushed me into a shallow rock infested area—so I began to use those rocks to pull myself back on course while maintaining strong flipper action, or at least I did until the next surge, and then the next, and the next rocked my world.

Continuing in that vein I finally made it to the comparatively stiller water near the boat dock. It wasn’t until then that I felt confident enough to be able to take the regulator from my mouth. Life saving adrenaline was still coursing through my body; it’s what had given me the strength to persist through those killer waves back into the safety of the shore. I felt enormous relief that I wasn’t going to drown after all, for I truly felt up until that moment that dying was a distinct possibility.

Now safe, I looked back out to sea for Don, and momentarily panicked when he was nowhere to be seen. Then, thankfully, my head frantically turning to and fro, I spotted him way off to my right. The breakers had carried him over there like a piece of driftwood. He was okay though, on his feet and slowly making his way over the submerged rocks back over to the dock. Great, we had both made it back in. For a while there, it had been everyman for himself, and nothing could be done about it other than to struggle and press on. In this case, it’s true what they say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you smarter.”

After getting over the excitement of our little ordeal, I heartily enjoyed a chicken fried dinner made by my wife in the hotel kitchen, while Don and his gal went back into town at 4:30 pm in search of Merly, the local outboard motor expert, as well as to grab a bite from Captain Gregg’s, a place that I doubt that I will ever patronize again. After quite a search for Merly’s place, Don said he finally managed to find the man, who does his repair business from his house up on a hill on the outskirts of Puerto Galera. After discussing the nature of the malfunctioning motor with the guy, Don left the alleged bad component with him to check out before heading back to Captain Gregg’s restaurant.

At the restaurant he left word with a friend of the owner/manager of the prank played on us, making sure to inform him that we weren’t happy and we hoped they enjoyed the laugh they had at our expense. When I think about it, I realize the practical joke could be construed as a minor thing, but I’m sorry, I take it more seriously than that. Thus, I include here the story of what happened at their hands to warn others who might run into these characters to be careful about trusting information obtained from folks at that establishment. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Once again, we call it a night hoping that the morrow brings good diving weather. My fingers remained crossed…

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jan Dive Trip to Mindoro "Distressed Sea Creature" Day 2`

January Dive Trip to Mindoro

Sunday, Jan 16, 2011

Big disappointment in the morning—after hitting the wine and then the hay sometime after midnight last night we awoke to hugely violent seas. The waves were already fierce at 8 am, and even now 12 hours later they are still that way, only higher and more destructive since the tide is so high. It’s a wonder the jetty doesn’t collapse under the surging gigantic swells constantly blasting into it.

Don noticed towards the end of our dive yesterday that the high pressure fitting in my console was leaking significantly. We made a mental note to check it out first thing today. The pressure gauge fits tightly into the housing and only with the two of us struggling with it did we manage to extract it enough to gain access to the faulty hardware. He tried tightening the locking nuts with a couple of wrenches and at first it seemed like that fixed it; but then, after we pushed it back into the over-tight plastic holder we discovered again a constant stream of bubbles pouring out into the bucket full of water we used to test it. We pulled the gauge back out of the housing and then he pulled out the union with a needle-nose explaining that it was supposed to have two tiny O-ring seals fitted into a groove at each end. Right off the bat we noticed that there was only one seal, while the other end was missing a seal in its groove. That means the brand new, straight-off-the-shelf regulator had been manufactured with but one rubber O-ring. (But wait, not true, the regulator was bought used on sale at the PX on Honolulu; so there you go.) Don was puzzled how it had taken so long for it to spring a leak, why it hadn’t done it immediately (Even if it WAS a rental in its previous life).

He modified the plan for the day to try one more time to get the outboard motor running, after which we’d take the malfunctioning high pressure hose to a dive shop in Sabang to try and find the little seal for it.

But first, he grabbed his tools and headed back out to the boat, now bobbing vigorously at its moorings on the slack water side of the resort’s breakwater. We had discussed it on the drive from Pampanga—he wanted to try and see if cleaning the 3 magneto contacts that supply voltage to the sparkplugs would do the trick. As he worked, the weather got worse and worse—there was no rain thank goodness, but the wind progressively picked up from the southeast which drove the breakers ever higher and higher. What a change from the day before when the water had been smooth and quiet without even a ripple to mar the surface.

If he is anything Don is tenacious. He spent six hours plugging away again at trying to get that engine running, and for a while, it seemed he had succeeded. I was reading a paperback about The Battle of Stalingrad on our entrance porch that faces the cove. Suddenly, my head jerked up when the motor roared to life. I was sure it would be a false promise, but surprisingly it continued to hum and roar each time the throttle was turned. In fact, it ran quite well for about five minutes before suddenly cutting out again. For sure now our backyard mechanic claims to know that the problem is in the electronic ignition module.

But finally, close to the end of daylight, once again admitting defeat, Don replaced the cowling looking worn out and beaten, declaring that he was all in. He hoped that maybe we can find a place locally that might have the module he needs to get the motor running, and decided to ask in Sabang when we went there next to try and find a seal for my pressure gage.

The five of us loaded up into his CRV for the ride over the hill. Parking the car in the rock-studded muddy field that passes as Sabang's town parking lot we picked our way through puddles and up the shabby street to the town's "main street." Turning right we followed it toward the unfinished pier then turned left up the narrow lane that is dive shop row to The White Tip Dive Shop. Alas, it is closed on Sundays.

We reversed course to see if Captain Gregg’s might be open, and although the shop was closed a female attendant and a European manager were friendly and helpful. The sweet tempered lady attendant went into the closed shop to find the seal while the tall manager with his European accented English and closely cut hair provided us with a tank to use to check our repair. For less than a dollar we walked out of there with not only a tightly sealed pressure gauge but with information on who to talk to about where a person might be able to find a part for an outboard motor. I’ll never say anything bad about Captain Gregg’s again. (Yeah, RIGHT!)

My wife had already fried up some chicken for my dinner but I decided we should go ahead and eat with Don and his lady to save him having to drive us back over the hill when he had already decided to have dinner in Sabang tonight—that way we saved him a trip back and forth over the super steep hill.

We ate right there in the Captain Gregg’s restaurant. It can get loud on occasion, depending on who else happens to be eating there, and for a minute or two it got really raucous when a group of Asian tourists, probably Koreans, came in and began to scream at each other in what I suppose was their form of ebullient conversation. We all turned and looked at them as one since none of us could hear each other anymore and the six men, noticing our irritation, quieted down. That was pretty cool; usually they’ll just ignore those kinds of nonverbal disapprovals. After that, the meal was good and so was the savoir faire.

So, we never did get into the water today unfortunately. It was probably just as well we didn’t. The conditions are not the safest for scuba, not to mention the visibility is probably pretty bad as well with all the silt being churned up. Its so bad that huge uprooted banana trees and twenty foot tree limbs were carried in and tossed up against the seawall.

The dive assistant noticed some kind of distressed sea creature that had also been dragged up into the relative quiet behind the breakwater pier. He captured it in a plastic basin so we could check it out. One of the locals claimed that it was a jellyfish, but I knew there was no way it could be. It was bright orange with eye stalks on the top of its flat head looking all the world like retractable horns; in the cramped basin it appeared to be flat like a stingray only without the tail and stinger; it also had a patch of curlicues that looked like orange feelers or tentacles on its topside. Neither Don nor I have ever seen anything like it. I asked all the hotel workers if any of them planned on eating it and if not let’s toss it back into the sea in case it might survive. The fellow who captured it took it out on the pier and asked where I wanted him to toss it back in. I made a poor decision and pointed out to the end of it. He released it and we watched the thing try to fly with its fluttery round wings but the huge waves simply buffeted it and turned it up down and all around. I should have told him to let it go back into the calmer water on the northwest side of the jetty. Dang it.

It occurred to me watching the waves break ever higher against and over the pier that it would be neat to get some pictures of us standing out there while the pounding towers of spray immersed us. I had my step daughter hold the camera on us in movie mode to capture us getting soaked. It was exciting. I wouldn’t go out there now at 10 pm though; the waves are even higher and fiercer than ever.

Hopefully, tomorrow will bring calmer weather and allow us to get at least one dive in. Don is telling me now though that he plans on trying one more thing with the motor, so fingers crossed.

(Unfortunately, there are no photos to go with this post. I had several hundred photos in my Cybershot and made a huge mistake in not downloading the memory card every day or two. It filled up and then corrupted. We lost ALL the photos. We were just sick about it.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jan Dive Trip to Mindoro "Still Water" Day 1`

January Dive Trip to Mindoro

Saturday, 15 Jan 2011

We were on the road this morning by 0430. The only real traffic was on the other side of Manila just before getting on the SLEX (South Luzon Expressway) around 0630, but even that was not too bad. From there it was smooth sailing. We hit the Batangas Pier just before 0800, in time to catch the 8 o’clock Montenegro RORO (roll on roll off) to Calapan. It was a big ship and mostly empty. The waters were as still as I’ve ever seen them; not even the hint of a ripple. The skies were strange; from the time daylight allowed us to see, the visibility was obscured by a smoggy looking haze. Even Makiling, a picturesque mountain marking the end of the SLEX was mostly hidden by this odd haze, which lasted right up through the end of the day, even right here on Mindoro. Could be it lasted so long because the air was so still, no breeze to drive it off.

The drive from Calapan went as well as it ever has—no incidents of any sort. It was obvious that the rains have continued to batter the area since our last trip almost two months ago—lots of evidence of cleaned up mud on the Nautical Highway and fresh scars on the adjacent hillsides. We arrived at the Calapan Pier at 1030, the drive up the Nautical took but one hour ten minutes to PG; so, with another twenty minutes or so to the resort, we arrived at Coral Cove exactly at noon.

With the relatively early hour of our arrival we decided to get a dive in. Why waste the first day? Especially since the water appeared so clear and calm. I had a banana and a Coke Zero at the bar which is where Don found me when he wandered up from our beach side rooms. It was one pm by then. We decided to start getting ready by two pm. Suiting up we were in the water by two thirty, the dive ending at four thirty for a total of two hours. A loooong dive!

Don took along his pneumatic speargun, the first time he’s tried it since overhauling it. He demonstrated how it works by first pumping it up with a bicycle pump and shooting the spear into a tree trunk with a heavy thunk six feet away. Not sure if spearfishing is legal here, anyway, he only made one shot and missed with it. I do know that I don't like it, but, sigh... There's lots of stuff that I don't like. Add it to the list I guess...

Around eighty feet down at the bottom of the stair stepping slope I caught sight of a fleeing stingray. It was about four feet long from stem to stern and two and a half feet across at the head/body. It’s my second stingray sighting and I love to see them swim, even though both times they were intent on making getaways from us. I’m looking forward to the next sighting and hopefully will be ready to get a photo or video of it.

Don forgot himself, never stopping during the first half of the dive he kept a pretty good head of steam as we continuously followed the amazing bio diversity along the cliff face. I knew why he was so intent in his swimming—he was looking for a big fish for dinner. We saw lots of fish, but the only large ones were a few distant parrot fish. I began to become concerned when I realized how far we’d gone and my air was just about down to 1200. 'How are we going to get back?'

Then I spotted a good sized lionfish hiding in some kind of green coral or sponge. I can’t remember how deep we were at that point, but the fish appeared to be black, white and gray. I took several shots of it but should have taken at least one with the flash in case the depth was taking away the color. Still, it was cool getting the opportunity to see one so big from so close. I even nudged it once trying to get it to change from its head down position.

When I reached 1000 lbs of pressure I grabbed one of Don’s flippers. The problem is that by that time we both realized that we were WAY down the coast. Oh great! There was going to be hell to pay getting back.

The shoreline was only forty or fifty feet away when we turned to go back. We headed for it to discuss our situation. Revising our plan we decided to closely follow the cliff lined shore, conserving our air by staying shallow and making frequent resurfacings to rest and strategize.

Following the rocky cliff along the coast was pretty sweet. The water was still without waves and the scenery with all the big tumble and jumble of gigantic half submerged rocks and boulders is amazing. In fact during one of our underwater jumps from point to point I happened to look down and saw the biggest puffer fish that I have ever seen. It was about ten feet down and ten feet away. From nose to tail this thing was at least four feet long and as fat as a baby harp seal. It looked like a swimming dirigible. Even now I cannot believe that I saw this thing. Amazing!

At last we made our last underwater leg to the breakwater beach in front of the hotel. My pressure gauge was riding on zero.

On a sidebar, the hotel’s beach and waterfront was surprisingly well groomed upon our arrival. I congratualated the staff on it. Tina told me that it was clean this time because it had been several days since any big storms had washed any trash up. On the other hand, the concrete stairs to the beach are no more. Even though they are formed from at least a half a ton of concrete, a storm had produced waves that not only knocked it loose from its moorings on the seawall, it was moved more than fifteen feet away and half buried in the coral sand. We spent about a half hour trying to dig it out so we could try to roll it back into position, but even with three of us putting our backs into it, along with my pathetic one, the thing would not even give us a subtle shift in the sand. Until we can get a block and tackle it's not going anywhere. As a stop gap one of the staff rigged the dive boat ladder to allow us access to the little beach. Heaven knows that boat ladder will probably never be used for its intended purpose again anyway.