Friday, July 20, 2012

Pattaya June July 2012 Trip, Our 2nd Dive with Remarkable Rays

After getting out of the tank with the big sharks (I believe they call it Zone 2) I figured the other tank would probably be an anticlimax. I hadn’t scoped out the tanks before diving as Don had and instead had spent about an hour chatting about just about everything you can imagine with Ali, Underwater World’s Iranian dive master.
As I said in the previous post, Ali is an interesting very personable fellow. During our hour long conversation he spoke excitedly about a proposal he has made to the owners of Underwater World to expand in a big way by adding another gigantic outside pool and basically making it a “reef world” that would provide the best possible interactive experience with a plethora of sealife for both scuba divers and snorkelers. I would LOVE to see that happen.

Once again, Don managed to “do his thing” by talking Ali into letting us take a small net bag filled with 10 feed fish into the tank with us. Since it wasn’t exactly feeding time for that tank I don’t think Ali and the tank management really wanted us to do it, but it didn’t take too much pleading to make it happen. It reminded me of all the times my mom used to say, “Don’t eat that cookie; you’ll spoil your supper.”

Getting into the other marine tank wasn’t nearly as easy as the first. To get into the tank with the big sharks all we had to do was drop into the big concrete bathtub that performed as an anteroom, open the steel gate and swim right in. In the second tank we had to gingerly make our way along a narrow concrete ledge and then just as carefully lower our selves, weighted heavily down with all our dive gear, into the water off a rock wall. Going through all that I realized that getting out would be an even tougher process (and it was).

I went on regulator before dropping into the water figuring to put my flippers on while sitting on the bottom. My own fins are much easier to put on and take off, requiring only a tug of a thick spring that fits around the back of my Achilles over my dive bootie. To someone familiar with them the loaner fins would probably be just as simple to use but in this case one of the fins straps had come off and I wasn’t familiar with how to reattach it. I called Ali over and he took care of it for me. A full 5 or 6 minutes later and I was finally ready to explore the new tank.

I shot a couple puffs of air into my BCD to get me off the bottom and went looking to see what I could see. Right in the middle of the tank on the other side of the viewing tunnel I saw a swirling mass of excited fish and realized that Don was right in the middle of it. I pressed the on button on my camera and made my way over to him.

Immediately I feel a much different vibe in the second tank. Although for the most part the fish are smaller they are more colorful and move around quickly. But what really makes that tank pop are the rays. I LOVE those things. They are amazing creatures.  They don’t swim, they fly, their wings moving them every bit as gracefully through their element as eagles do through theirs.

At just past 5:30 in the video watch the ray as it leisurely approaches in the distance. It reaches the top middle of the viewing tunnel and suddenly hits the accelerator, shooting forward and reaching me literally in the blink of an eye. It streaks directly under me and I am barely able to turn the camera fast enough to follow it through the viewfinder. They are most certainly underwater athletes and like any athlete rays apparently feel compelled to exercise their athleticism.

On that note, at 5:58 one of the muscularly nimble rays takes a swooping lap around the tank. I attempt to follow it and I do manage to keep mostly within camera range, albeit clumsily and pathetically considering I am swimming with all my might on the inside of its flight path. Just the same, I had a grand time trying to stay up with it, something I wouldn’t recommend normally while on scuba gear, since it causes one to really suck up the air. At deeper depths that’s how you pack extra nitrogen into your body tissues, never a good thing; but with me barely beneath the surface in a shallow tank, I hardly used any air at all I think.

As graceful as the rays are though, whenever they approached, nuzzling, flapping and pushing at me, looking to be fed, I felt like laughing into my regulator from the goofy appearance they effect with those big, seemingly smiling mouths of theirs. Several times while feeding them bits of fish my gloved fingers would get nibbled on. It wasn’t painful. From the feel of it, instead of teeth it felt more like they have a hard upper and lower bony ridges with which to manipulate the food in their mouths.

I think the funniest part of the embedded YouTube clip takes place starting at 2:09 when a ray approaches Don right in front of me and begins to nuzzle and hungrily chomp on my dive partner’s head. Even though I know he’s not hurting Don I can’t help myself when I see the ray almost envelop the top of Don’s head with his munching mouth; I reach out and push the hungry animal away.

The images of the hungry fish completely hiding the person feeding depicts something I’ve already experienced many times, even when I was still but a snorkeler. There are reefs around Puerto Galera where fish are so used to being fed by humans that they similarly engulf people offering them food. I learned though that that behavior is not natural as I tried bringing food with me on dives in the Coral Cover area on the other side of the peninsula from Sabang and the fish simply shied away from me.

Starting at just before 5:40 there is one rather somber scene played out on the video when Ali is seen removing a dead denizen from the confines of the tank. It had been dead for quite some time based on the look of it. Don had been snooping behind all the bits and inside all the nooks and crannies and discovered the stiffly lifeless fish under and behind one of the fake coral features.

Two very rubbery bodied spotted sharks kindly swim together in a circle almost directly below me and I take advantage by recording several seconds of it. Watch how they seem to use a loaded spring effect as they move their tails side to side which easily moves them forward through the water. To go where they want to go they simply aim their heads in the desired direction. Both the rays and the sharks, closely related cousins on the family tree, are natural engineering marvels of locomotion. Humans are clunky half-baked third-rate rattletrap model-Ts by comparison.

All too soon it was time to end the dive, but we had high hopes that Ali would allow us to finish up the considerable amount of air we had left in our tanks by giving us a third dive in the fresh water tank with the huge catfish and arapaima. That would definitely have been a great way to end the day but it was not to be, and in a way, it was our own fault.

Evidently, we had so impressed a visiting Russian family that they decided to give a tank dive a try. We were disappointed but took it in stride. As we rinsed our gear we watched the three young fellows go about suiting up, seemingly for the first time ever.  “Holy cow Ali, I would NEVER want your job!”

“Why is that?” he asked.

“I know it’s just a shallow tank but still, being responsible for the training and safety of three complete scuba novices in a tank full of sharks just does not sound like a lot of fun to me.”

He smiled. “It’s not a problem. I’m used to it. Anyway, I’m so sorry I won’t be able to get you guys into the freshwater tank.”

We hung around for another hour to see how Ali’s clients would do as first time divers. Funny thing, the biggest of the three lads, a muscular crew-cut blonde fellow in his late teens or early twenties, never did enter the tank. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out, but he must not have been able to handle breathing with the regulator. The other two, one a kid of about 14, and the other a young man that I would guess to be in his late twenties, eventually did quite well; although they probably used up just about all the air in their tanks the way they were sucking it down like crazy. I was the same way when I first started, the anxiety and the newness made me feel like I needed to breathe in again as soon as I exhaled. 

If I ever get back to Pattaya again I'll be sure to dive with the sharks and rays at Underwater World again. For me, once was NOT enough.

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