Monday, July 11, 2011

Jellyfish at "the gate" on the way to "Moray Wall"

I HAD to update this post by adding this video clip of "Moray Wall." It truly provides an incredible perspective the others do not. Enjoy!

Our trip to Pagudpud to fill our dive tanks was a complete success. Even with all the side trips we made it back to the hotel in Claveria by early afternoon.
To avoid diving in the dark we decided to quickly get all our equipment together and then immediately head over to the lagoon. In less than an hour we pulled up to the park gate. Don did “his thing,” which is to always try to get best price, but to no avail. We had to pay the full 300 pesos even though it was already fairly late in the afternoon. As the attendant lady said, “Whether it’s for all day or one hour, the fee is still the same.”

We were able to wrangle ourselves into the same pavilion as the day before, right next to the tourism seminar. Not that it mattered much where we ended up, since our intention was to get into our gear and directly into the drink.

The surface swim out to the lagoon’s “gate to the sea” is actually quite long, perhaps as long as 15 minutes or more. Not that it affected how long it took to get out there; but the tide was high that afternoon, as high as we’d seen it. So high in fact that we weren’t able to wade much at all once we entered the water. We put on our fins and began snorkeling only 20 yards from the beach.

We made it all the way out to the western side of “the gate” when Don groaned, “Oh no, I can’t believe it. I forgot my trim weights!”He carries his extra five or six pounds of ballast weights on a belt, where as I keep ALL my weights right in my BCD vest pockets. In the rush, it seems that he had forgotten to strap on the belt.

“What do you think? Should I go back and get it?”

“Yup,” I said, spitting water, “You’ll be fighting buoyancy for the last half of the dive if you don’t. I’ll wait here and just snorkel around while I wait for you.”

“Okay, I’ll be as quick as I can,” he promised.

“Well, don’t tire yourself out. I’ll be fine. Take your time.”

Watching him make the swim back was like watching paint dry. No one swims very fast in scuba gear. It’s just not done. I’d snorkel for a time, checking out what was near the surface in the immediate vicinity, look up to check on his progress, and every time I looked it seemed as if he’d only covered a few more feet.

Finally, I saw him struggle up onto the beach. I sighed thinking, ‘Now I have to wait for him to swim ALL the way back out here again.’

But no, next time I looked up from a bit of snorkeling there he was being pulled though the water by a bangka boat. Don had hold of an outrigger while the boat slowly motored out to my location. Even with the boat pulling him along though, it took more than five minutes for them to get out to me.

During the half-hour of waiting I couldn’t help but notice the huge number of small jellyfish floating all around me; primarily it seemed they occupied the top ten feet of the water column. Occasionally one would break through my defenses (my camera and gloved hands) and one or two of their foot long plus tentacles, which were nearly invisible, would sting me on the face or neck. It wasn’t all that painful, more like a temporary, slightly burning irritation.

I greeted Don as he let go of the outrigger, “Hey, good idea to use the boat man. If you don’t mind, let’s hurry up and get down below all these jellies, seems like their numbers are increasing by the second.”

“Okay, give me a second.” He called a thank you out to the boatman and then told him how much to get from his girlfriend in payment.

Finally! We got our heads together and quickly went over our plan. As always we kept it simple. We would go down, swim to the left down the wall and then explore all the way around the outside of the base of the western “mount” before making our way back into the lagoon directly through the western side, hopefully.

Even with the delay we were doing good; the sky was mostly clear of clouds and the sun was still high enough to give us great light in water that was showing some pretty good visibility.

Before going to regulators we swam a little further, actually going out a ways into the sea through the lagoon’s “gate” between the two miniature seamounts guarding its flanks. You could say it’s like a scaled down version of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Check out the embedded video.
At the very beginning I pan the camera around to capture the way it looks from the water where we are at that moment, just a few seconds before we submerge. In photos from the shore, the gate “seamounts” actually look not all that far away; yet from near the mounts themselves the beach looks a LONG way away.

Once on regulator, instead of heading straight to the bottom, I elect first to tarry near the surface a while to take some video of the multitude of jellyfish pumping away all around us. Looking at the video, they are almost as thick as stars in the Milky Way, and as far as the eye can see in the water.

Watching Don make his way down through them, it was obvious to me why he did so quickly. Last year he opted to cut the sleeves off his wetsuit so that his forearms are free and unencumbered, or so he claims. I’ll take his word for it that THAT is how he is most comfortable, but of course it leaves his exposed arms completely vulnerable. As they certainly were on THAT dive, because his forearms were getting draped on by the jellys, and I KNOW he was feeling it.

Even so, their effects weren’t so bad the day of this video. It was the NEXT day that had an entirely different result, when he paid dearly for having those arms bare. For as copious in numbers as they appear in the clip included with this post, the jellys numbers seemed twice as much the next day.

And that NEXT day, our last day of diving, after two more dives amongst all those active jellys, when he came out of the water the meaty side of both his forearms had scores of angry red welts from where their tentacles had stung him repeatedly. Conversely, with hardly any welts at all, the reverse side of his arms must have been fairly well protected by the thick hair growing on them.

Towards the end of the jellyfish video Don can be seen quite a ways below on the shoulder of the seamount, a fairly extensive, almost flat area some 15 or 20 feet deep. The fun thing about this gently sloping shoulder is that as you go along it to the north, it ends, suddenly and dramatically dropping as a sheer cliff that forms ‘the wall.” This drop continues another 40 plus feet to the seafloor below.

Just as we did the day before, we headed over the edge of that cliff, and then, down “the wall,” as I had started to call it. Don quickly made for the wall’s base far below, while I slowly settled along its vertical face, allowing my slightly occluded ears to equalize as I leisurely followed him down.

By the time I reached the bottom Don was off exploring on the other side of the gorge, which is what the wall forms as it circles around in a rough “u” shape. Because it was bathed in so much light, perfect for photography, I stayed right there along the near side of the wall. Very soon I became glad that I did.

Exploring along the base heading west, something made me spin around and look behind me. There, swimming in the other direction up a narrow ramp was a huge green moray. I knew it was large because it was so long, its body forming a series of “s’s” as it slithered away from me. Without a second’s thought I took off after it. I knew it wasn’t the size of the giant we’d seen the day before, but it was large just the same and I was drooling to capture an image of it. I marveled at the sight of it, the muscularly thick body in continuous motion, its slightly mottled skin glinting an intense shade of green and yellow in the bright stream of sunlight.

‘Wow! Look at that thing go!’

Twenty or so feet up the narrow incline I paused. There was a little yellow and brown striped eel head peeking out from its tiny burrow. It caught my eye just a few inches from my right hand. It was another type of eel, probably a juvenile; I stopped for a split second to take a quick photo, but it was a split second too long. I turned back to look for the big moray but it was gone, likely into a hole in the side of the wall.

I rested there on the ramp of rock, turning my head to find the whereabouts of my dive partner. He was good to go, so I turned back to check out the little eel. Before I even got my head down to focus on it though, another head caught my eye, and then, above it, another head, and then another.

My God, there were eel heads all up and down the side of this wall. It seemed as if everywhere I looked there was another head. It began to creep me out, like being in a dream where everywhere you look, everywhere you are about to step is a snake. I loved it!

I didn’t know where to focus the camera. I put it in video and moved it from head to head before finally finding a really large head some ten feet up the ramp. I pushed up and floated over to it, shooting footage the whole way.

Within five feet, THAT is when I spotted the second head. In the video you can see that it suddenly appears from the other side of the first one. The first thing I notice about them is that they appear absolutely fearless of me. They don’t SEEM aggressive, but I can’t tell for sure. With no little trepidation I push the camera in on them closer and closer, until finally, with my arms extended as far as they’ll go, I have the camera body less than a foot away from the serpentining charmers.

These two fellows also do not come close to the size of the giant we spotted in the cave down below, but they are not small either. For the life of me I could have sworn that they were two very large and very long sock puppets, with the hands and arms of a very large man moving them about.

I can tell they are aware of me, but they do not always seem to care if I’m there or not. Sometimes they appear to get caught up in some kind of eel conversation between the two of them, and while caught up in it, they ignore me. It’s strange; it felt as if they accepted my presence as normal, as if they accepted ME, perhaps as a fellow sea creature.

I would have stayed there longer to just soak in their odd behavior, but there was still much area that we had not seen. You can’t see him in the video, but by the end of the clip Don was right there as well. He saw how engrossed I was and figured there must be something really interesting on the other end of my camera. I’d say he was right.

I did spend another minute taking nothing but still shots of my two enchanting sea serpents. I’ll include a few with this post. You might not agree, but I think the portraits of these dual morays are some of the best undersea shots I’ve ever taken.

After that dive I no longer referred to that area merely as “the wall,” from that time on I’ve been calling it “Moray Wall.”

Later onshore I was a bit bothered when as we excitedly discussed our discoveries with the tourist guy he exclaimed, “Wow, so why didn’t you catch it? It would have made a good meal!” I hope he was joking. I’d hate to see those incredible creatures’ lives ended just to fill some cooking pot. THAT would be a REAL shame.

Our dive was still far from over. Taking one last look over my shoulder at my two new eel pals, I waved so long and continued our exploration. It was time to check out some new territory.

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