Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Arch & The end

We are a mile west of the Claveria lagoon on our final day of diving. Ten minutes into our last dive of the day, we’ve seen enough of “the crack” in the islet’s submerged foundation. We are ready to push on and continue our quest to explore new territory under the waves.

Once we leave the immediate vicinity of the towering 50 foot high crevice, I have little idea where our diving takes us. I know our initial direction is west, but our navigation after that becomes confusing. By necessity we twist left, right, double back, circle left then right, and so on. We never go in one direction for long before we have to change course again. Technically we ARE lost, but it’s never a concern; in fact it’s fun and exciting.

The terrain seems to consist of circling sea walls. Five minutes after we leave the starting point I have no idea how far away the boat is, but we know to find it all we SHOULD have to do is go up and look for it. So we don’t sweat it.

It’s been several weeks since that last dive. Writing now about what happened then spurs me to remember the event more exactly. As I do a question arises: What is it about that spot that makes the underwater navigation so perplexingly roundabout?

Looking for a clue I check out the satellite image of the site in question on Google maps. A quick glance at the area makes it all quite clear why our dive route was so circuitously unclear. Enlarging that relatively tiny area I count at least 9 separate islands all in close proximity to each other.

And THAT is the answer: It seemed as if we were swimming in circles, because we were. Frankly, until I saw them on Google maps, I had NO idea that those islets were there. I didn’t notice them when I jumped into the water.

I don’t know why I haven’t used it before, but now that I’ve familiarized myself with Google Maps, I think I’ll add an embed of the entire area, from the Claveria Lagoon all the way out to the far dive site out to the west. I even got fancy and added labeled place marks and lines showing direction of travel. As I write this I have no idea if it will work, but I’m hoping so—Google Maps has the potential to be an outstanding elucidation application.

And indeed, it DOES work! Click on the placemarks and the line for explanations. Also, click on the blue title at the map bottom "Claveria Lagoon scuba sites" for an even larger map. Good stuff!
View Claveria Lagoon scuba sites in a larger map

The embedded video below shows typical scenery of that area. The experience is a bit like diving down at the Claveria canyons in that one’s sense of direction becomes easily confused. Although one difference is that the far western site doesn’t have deep gully like canyons arranged close together in a maze like the lagoon canyons have. Basically, the far site consists of lots of sea walls.

Obviously these walls are the underwater bases of the various islands, while the nearby coastline also provides its share of seawall as well. From underwater you won’t be able to tell which wall belongs to which island, or if it’s part of the coast until familiarity with the topography is attained. Until then, the only way to tell where you are is to go up and look.

The fishermen were right though, the western site DOES have a LOT of sealife. As I’ve been saying though, with few exceptions, even in that place there is a definite dearth of fish larger than the size of my hand; and I have VERY small hands.

Unfortunately, the scarcity of sizeable fish applies to the ENTIRE area; although until THAT dive I just didn’t understand why. I mean, with all the huge rocks, crevices and canyons for the fish to hide in, I figured there should be no way (unless they use explosives and cyanide) that the local fishermen could be catching EVERY large fish strictly using trawling nets or hook-and-line.

But for me, the mystery of missing “big ones” was solved as soon as I saw how easily our boatman was able to plunge to almost any depth simply by breathing air pushed through a tube by way of a small gas powered pump no larger than my mom’s sewing machine. With a set up like that there’s no place ANY fish can hide; no hole, no nook, no cranny, no depth, no where.

In fact, several times while relaxing in the pavilion between dives I observed hardy young fellows straight off boats walk by wearing weather-worn wetsuits, each
carrying a five foot long wooden spear gun (similar to the one in the photo). Each also toted nylon net bags bulging with fish, all of which appeared to be smaller than one of my girly hands.

So, I may be wrong, but from what I’ve seen there doesn’t appear to be any game management. If there are any limits on size and numbers, well, no one is providing enforcement.

Anyway, if I was in charge, I’d go for the Palawan example and completely ban all fish kill. Then, with the complete recovery of the native sea life population, which to build on already has some pretty fantastic species diversity, not to mention the incredible underwater topography already providing stunningly dramatic imagery backdrops, scuba divers from all over the country and from nations everywhere would pour into the Claveria lagoon.

Well, shoot! I told myself that I wasn’t going to go off on that particular tangent, but I just can’t help it. So many times when I bring up my displeasure with the local style of over fishing I get this ode to practicality: “Well, yeah, you’re probably right; but poor people GOT to eat, don’t they?”

But I think my response makes even more sense: “And WHAT do they eat once ALL the fish are gone?”

Halfway through the dive we entered an area where we found ourselves bracketed between TWO seawalls. At the time I figured we were passing through a huge geological fold that was either part of the island or the mainland. Even now I still don’t which it was.

We pass around a bend and I stop to float for a moment, just to take in the new scenery. Don goes to the far wall and begins to explore with his spotlight the holes and crevices in it. Once again, I am in awe at the sheer beauty of the place and that is even before I see the arch.

And then I DO see it, something so strikingly unexpected that I’m not sure it’s real. With my Canon on video I move forward trying to figure out what exactly it is I’m looking at. Unfortunately, the video I took (that you can view below)just does NOT do it justice.
High, high above me is a giant archway made of stone. I can’t believe my luck that we’ve found it. Indirect light from the surface streams through the top of the arch, silhouetting it in shades of blue.

Almost twenty seconds into the clip you can hear me yelling into my regulator. I’m trying to get Don’s attention but he’s too far away to hear. I get back to the work of trying to properly capture video of this singular spectacle.

The thrill of the moment is overpowering, of seeing something so uniquely brilliant and knowing that likely only a handful of others, if that, have ever also had the pleasure of seeing it. Probably only a few locals have had cause to witness it, like our diving boatman, perhaps deep in the water at that spot trying to spear fish. Somehow, I doubt it though; otherwise, I’m sure they would have told us about it.

I wish now that I would have surfaced to find out exactly where the arch is and WHAT it is for that matter. From beneath it’s impossible to tell if the arch is the underside of a land bridge between two islands, or maybe it tunnels beneath a tiny peninsula of land protruding into the sea.

Passing under the arch you can see in the video that there is another wall that ends direct travel along the two parallel walls; although a diver can probably simply swim to the top of the wall and keep going that way. At the bottom of this dead-end
wall is a pit filled with smaller rocks. I’m still kicking myself for not going topside there to see what is going on. It’s a mystery that I might not ever get the chance to solve. Heck, I was SO close to the surface anyway; after all, I went to the underside of the arch to film it and the surface was probably less than ten feet more above that. Dang it.

Oh, and here is the MOST unbelievable thing: Don NEVER SEES the arch above him. In the video he swims under it, gets to the dead-end, and swims back out the way we came in. Evidently, if he looked up, he never figured out what he was looking at. I’m still scratching my head over that one. The lesson from that: NEVER assume the other diver sees what you see. So the two of us were there, and I’m the only one who got to see it. That really makes me feel bad.

For me, the arch was the highlight of the dive. It haunted me for the rest of my time down there, even until now. The rest of what I saw, although pretty good, just does not compare.

That dive turned out to be the PERFECT final dive for what turned out to be an unforgettable scuba expedition. When Don asked me to go all that way north to check it out with him I never would have predicted how great it would be.

And once again I must go on record with the following: With all the wonderful things to see in that relatively tiny area near Claveria's lagoon, I predict that someday, perhaps many years from now, Claveria WILL be THE scuba diving Mecca of Northern Luzon. I’m just thankful that I had the opportunity to see it, perhaps to help discover it FOR them, the people of Claveria, so that they can take the bull by the horns and get ON with making it happen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Claveria Scuba Expedition, The beginning of the end

Saturday afternoon and we have but one dive left in our Claveria scuba expedition; we are sad but excited.
(Above: view from the boat on the way out of the lagoon.)

We want to get in at least one dive down the coast to a spot where the locals, mostly fishermen, are telling us about whenever we ask if they know of places where there are lots of fish. If there isn’t so much great underwater sightseeing right there around the lagoon I’m sure we arrange a dive down that way much sooner, especially after the great things we end up seeing there in our final dive.

(Photo left: A colorful nudibranch and above it some kind of seasquirt.)
Don does “his thing” and makes a deal with a local boatman to take us. I think all together, including the tip from me, we pay 500 pesos, almost $12. I am MORE than willing to pay them the extra 200 pesos after the help they give me in getting in, out, and then back in the boat again. I ALWAYS need extra assistance with the wreck that my body has become.

The two boat guys have their little outrigger pulled up into the shallows just off the beach near our pavilion. With my tank already strapped on I simply back up to the side of the boat, unbuckle it and let them put my BCD and tank aboard. (Below: Colorful sealife clinging to the side of island's base wall.)

Don, on the other hand, hates to take off his gear during transport to and from a dive. At least he, with his freakish strength, is able to actually pull himself up into the little bangka. Watching him, he's awkward to say the least, but VERY entertaining. He pulls his whole body up, gear and all, onto an outrigger support and then slowly crawls on his hands and knees to the edge of the boat. I have to counterbalance by leaning away from him to keep the boat from tipping. At last he makes it in. All that just to keep from having to shed his gear for the ride out. I HAD to chuckle.

“How in the hell did you just DO that Man!” I marvel.

I couldn’t do that in a million years, nor could I have done it even back in my heyday. His strength never ceases to amaze. (Below: beautiful seastar on side of seawall.)

Check out the embedded YouTube video below. I start filming just as we pass through the lagoon’s channel. The eastern side of the lagoon’s “gate” is seen first and I continue to pan across the front of the boat until the western side of the “gate” is in view.

In the clip Don apparently signals me to pan around one more time, I think asking me to film the view of the lagoon from that aspect. I should ask him what he wanted there I suppose. At the time, it was impossible to hear each other over the boat’s banging two-stroke motor. It sounds more like a ½ stroke! What a racket! It’s all you can hear in the video.

(photo right: feathery life forms on seawall. What are they?)

The coastline is gorgeous. Hills, covered thickly with verdant foliage rise like miniature mountains straight out of the sea. Where we are heading the hill's vertical prominence at the very edge of the shore is what makes the diving so interesting since their verticality continues far beneath the waves as well.

In the last fourteen seconds of the video the very bow of the boat points directly at the spot we are heading for. It’s the two tiny islands just out from the far point of land. THAT is the place where we egress the boat for just over an hour of some of the best diving yet, as can be seen in the two videos below.

But first, just getting out of the little bangka is an adventure in itself. Don surprises us all when he simply throws himself sideways into the drink from his perch to my front. He doesn’t even go on regulator; he pulls his mask on, grips his snorkel in his teeth and before we know what his plan is, SPLASH! (Below: Beautiful delicate pinkish gorgonian.)

As for me, I do it a little more deliberately. First I jump in with my mask and snorkel only. Then I have my fins passed into the water one at a time as I put each one on. So far so good. The next thing I need is my tank already attached to my BCD vest. The boat guy struggles to lift it then drops it over the side next to me in the water.

I expect it to bob straight back up to the surface, but it doesn’t!

‘What the…?’ xxx xxx(Below: Delightfully hued soft coral in a sea of other clinging colorful creatures.)

Then I remember that I FORGOT to put some air into my BCD to make it buoyant! Cursing my absentmindedness, I take a breath and dive down to find it. The boat has drifted a bit away from it but happily its still buoyant enough to keep it from sinking too far or quickly. I only have to go down a few feet to retrieve it. I pull it back up with me and there’s Don, wondering what the heck I'm up to. (Below: small blue gorgonian.)

With one hand on the floaty part of an outrigger and the other clutching the top of my BCD, I ask him, “Hey man, can you shoot a little air into my BCD? I forgot to do it in up in the boat and I can’t reach the inflator."

He does so and now the BCD and tank easily float allowing me to quickly pull into the shoulder straps, velcro on the bellyband and snap together the buckles of the two holding straps. Faster than its taken to write this I’m in my gear and ready to dive. With a thumbs down and an okay to Don, down I go.

The water is way too deep for the boat guys to drip anchor there and too far away from the little rocky island to moor; just the same, they are able to keep it floating in the exact same spot for the hour and a half we stay there. But now, thinking back on it, once I was in the water I think they ended up pulling the boat close enough to the island to drop an anchor on it.

But none of that concerns me as I submerge and almost imperceptibly begin descending. I still have to take my time because of my stuffy head. For once, Don and I don’t have much of a dive plan. Basically the idea is to keep each other in sight, no more than a few seconds of swimming from each other. Of course how far that is will depend on currents and visibility. Ten feet down and we have our answer: clear water with hardly a hint of a current, so everything looks great.

Looking about, the good visibility provides an immediate thrill. We are fairly close to the precipitous coastline, perhaps less than 60 feet away, just the same, staring down I can see that the bottom is a LONG way beneath me. Even closer than the shore though is the island. Seeing it rise from the seafloor like a fat roughhewn pillar, I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame; but hopefully not to the same effect of course.

Suddenly I see another diver in the water heading over to the island. At first I assume it's my dive partner, but then after a double take I realize it’s one of the boatmen. He sees that I’m looking at him and he motions for me to come over. At that I put my camera on video, press the on button and start filming.

Once I realize it’s not Don I’m looking at, I take a closer look at the guy. Much to my surprise he’s trailing an airline. The rubber tube he's breathing from looks to be clipped to the small of his back to a lanyard where it then runs up his back to his mouth. Controlling the length of it by coiling and uncoiling it with his hands, he still manages to use his hands to swim as well. In the first video below he’s not that deep yet, less than 25 feet; but then I remember that he’s NOT on scuba. At that, I’m VERY impressed.

I can’t imagine trying to suck in enough air through a small rubber tube that would allow me to swim and operate at depth. Then I remember while still up in the boat
that they had started up a little gas driven engine in on the deck at the very point of the bow. At the time I didn't even realize that it was an air pump.

In the two videos of the diver kid, notice that he seems unable to stay continuously at depth; every so often he has to go back to the surface, probably to get a full breath. I suspect that the pump is not quite able to push enough air to allow him to remain at depth comfortably.

This is evident right off the bat. In the first clip he beckons urgently for me to come over. When he sees I’m on the way he points into the deep crevice running up the side of the submerged part of the island, but then can’t seem to wait for me and kicks hard for the surface.

I see why he’s called me over. That humongous vertical crack in the base of the island is a fantastic feature. It goes so deep into the rock that at first I can’t make out the back wall. I begin to think it might actually be the entrance to a very tall cave. That would have been really cool, but I soon see that essentially it’s a chimney going from the seafloor all the way up to the top of the rock.

Aside from that awesome geologic aspect it’s the life forms in and around it that electrify me. The soaring cleft is chock full of a variety of busily swimming fish, and for the first time in all my Claveria dives I see various samples of gorgonians growing from the side of cliff faces. No matter how many times I get to see those things I have to stop and admire their sublime perfection. They truly are exquisite. Whenever I see one I’m sure that God MUST love best the creatures of the deep.

In the video below, the kid goes in after Don to point out something inside the
colossal crevice. Quickly, I pan over to my depth gauge to show that he is easily managing a depth of 45 feet. I didn’t know until later but the kid wants Don to spear some fish for him. The problem is that the fish he points out are two of the most fabulous in there, a very large pair of batfish. I had seen them in there a few minutes earlier, seemingly at play. I greatly enjoyed the sight of them swooping after one another, their muscularly thick triangular bodies effortlessly darting about. Their shape reminds me of US Air Force B2 Bombers, but they rip and soar through the water more like Navy F18 Hornets.

Shortly after shooting the footage of the kid swimming high above me, Don comes out
of the crevice and swims down to me where I wait on the sandy bottom. I’m puzzled because he acts so upset. He points at the kid high above us, shaking his head all the while. I find out after the dive that the guy persistently wants Don to spear the batfish, something Don equally persistently refuses to do. He tells me an hour
later up at the pavilion that there was no way he was ever going to kill the ONLY TWO fish of that type we had seen in all our hours in Claveria waters. I was proud of him! Now, if only the people frequenting the lagoon area would start thinking along those lines. THAT would be awesome.

The dive continues and we see several more amazing and interesting things. That will be in the next post, the last one about our wonderful dives there in Claveria.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Skylight Cave" and the Western Side of Claveria Lagoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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