Monday, July 16, 2012

Pattaya June July 2012 Trip, We dive with sharks

Our recent two week trip to Pattaya Thailand, our second in two months, lasted about a week longer than I would have liked. Two reasons: First, after one week I came down with an awful cold that felt more like the flu; and second, we missed our kids—a lot. It’s understandable that contracting an achy body cold could put a damper on a trip, but I was surprised at myself for being so homesick for my kids. The fact that we took one of them along with us in April on the first trip I think greatly stemmed missing all of them that time; but this time it was just us, and “us,” it seems, was not enough. Strange—it really surprised me; so, a little personal epiphany this time around.

Once again we learned that the area around Pattaya in Chonburi Province is chock full of must-see places to visit. It amazes me that so many people, when I tell them that we go to Pattaya, have no idea that there are so many things to do and see there, other than the bars, nightclubs and beaches that Pattaya is evidently mostly known for. Sure, there are bars and girls aplenty in the evening hours, but during the day there are more family oriented activities than anyone could possibly manage to fit in even if they spend a full two weeks there.

Last April, during our last trip to Pattaya, we visited an aquarium called “Underwater World” located just a short 15 minute drive from the hotels off Pattaya Beach. Don says that over the last couple years of its existence he had passed it many times but had never stopped in until taking us there. I still haven’t gotten around to writing about that April trip (goodness, we made SO many!), although I certainly plan to, so I can include all the great pics and vids we took as non wet-getting observers, but this post came about after seeing that diving in the tanks with all the wonderful fish is offered. Immediately, I KNEW that the next time we visited that diving the tanks WOULD become the primary event of that particular two weeks at Pattaya. (And sure enough—it WAS!)

Deciding which pieces of my personal dive gear to take along with us to Thailand was a primary consideration on planning the trip. Don made the correct decision to take along his BCD while I opted to use a loaner at the aquarium. My “buoyancy compensator device” has the dive weights incorporated into it while the aquarium’s does not, which means I had to wear a weight belt and that sucked. As the years have passed and the pounds have packed on I really do not have much of a waist. I was reminded of that unfortunate fact when my weight belt continually tried to make its way down my hips, over my butt and down my thighs. Aaargh! I really MISSED my own BCD. As it turns out I had plenty of room in my check-in bags and would have easily met the weight limits. Live and learn.

The fellow that runs the diving experience at the aquarium is an expatriate Iranian fellow named Ali. He claims to speak limited English, but you couldn’t tell that by me. I simply slowed down a bit my Michigan “speed English” and he more than held his own with me. As an American retired serviceman I have built up a lot of bad historical blood with the country of Iran. For me, this has come about over the years starting in ’79 when our entire embassy was illegally taken hostage by Khomeini’s underlings in Tehran. My personal rancor continued to build in ’83 when 283 of my marine brothers were exploded to death by one of the first of the Islamic suicide bombers.  And then, in ’98, when 19 fellow airmen were killed at the Khobar Tower explosion by another gigantic car bomb funded and fostered by Iran, and not to mention all the IEDs that they continue to supply to insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq that have killed and maimed hundreds more of us, being aware of all that, you’d think that I would have an intense dislike for Iranians just out of general principle. Thing is, in my travels around the world, particularly in Southwest Asia, I have never met an Iranian that I did not cotton up to. Every single one that I have ever chatted with I’ve found to be extremely personable, deferential, and completely likable. Ali is no exception. He is intelligent, well-spoken, and a gentleman. If you get the chance to dive with him, by all means do it.

As usual, the four of us made our way to the aquarium on our rental scooters, with our gals packing most of our dive gear in backpacks as they clung to our waists in the hectic Pattaya traffic. Don had stopped by to speak to Ali the day before to smooth the way—I call it “Don doing his thing”—and once again, doing so was well worth it since he got them to drop the price of admission; all we had to pay was the $100 each for the dive. Ali had apologized for the cost but he was correct when he explained that the uniqueness of the experience would be well worth it.

We arrived about an hour before the time we needed to start gearing up. I spent the time BSing with Ali while Don and the girls scoped out the tanks we’d be diving through the Plexiglas viewing tunnels. When it was time to get ready to dive Ali said it would be okay if our gals accompanied us to the back area to help us suit up. Truthfully, I cannot do it without assistance. My shoulders and other assorted body parts and joints are just too shot to handle the gyrations of putting on my wetsuit without help. I was surprised that the dressing area is so lacking—only one plastic chair and no tables or enough hooks to store clothing or personal items during the dive, but we made do.

It was a thrill just to find ourselves in the back area of the aquarium. It smells strongly of fish and seawater. I loved it. I went over to the big car-sized entry tank and looked over the edge of the concrete wall down into the water. Surprisingly, one of the largest sharks on site was resting inside, its enormous tan body almost completely filling the giant space from back to front. Seeing that gorgeous creature resting there in all its natural splendor I couldn’t believe I would soon be coursing through the same water with it.

Ali said that most of his diving clients when they approach him to scuba in the tank have absolutely no dive experience at all. With Don’s hundreds of dives since the mid 90s and my two years and 60+ dives, Ali was quite pleased that all he would have to do is float in place and watch us do our thing. I asked him what we were allowed to do as far as the sea creatures we’d be swimming with and his answer was almost shocking to me, “Anything you want. You guys are experts after all.” He did go on to warn us that the groupers at times could be a little aggressive and the same would be true with the large female shark during feeding time. At that I told myself to definitely keep my body parts out of the mouth areas of ANY of the fish in there, a pledge that I forgot about the moment I entered the water of the tank. For a moment I had the stupid thought that if I DID get bitten by something in there that it would provide a really cool souvenir. I’d much rather have an awesome kiss bite scar from a shark than one of those silly tattoos I see on so many people these days.
I just completed compiling a video that I’ve already placed on YouTube of all the clips I took during that first dive in the tank containing among other creatures, sharks, groupers, tuna and sea turtles. The rest of this post is about the contents of the 9 minute video, segment by segment.

The first 50 seconds shows Don and Ali making last minute preps and exchanging final words as we then submerge and enter the tank space through the entrance of the entry tub. It’s interesting to see how the air space above the water is completely draped with thick black plastic with banks of bright spotlights at the central apex.
There is an immediate thrill when realizing that there is nothing but water between me and the big fish swimming around the tank. They pass around, above and below us without seeming to care about our presence. I’m not sure if I felt blessedly invisible or satisfyingly accepted; either way, it was cool.

I thought the sight of being so close to the sharks would be off-putting, but it wasn’t like that at all since they convey absolutely no threat whatsoever. There was no fear at all, only excitement.

It was fun also to “spy” on occasion on the “civilian” observers under the curved clear tunnel plastic.  Some of them seemed more taken with us scuba divers than with the sea creatures around us. I do know that a lot of them took a lot of photos of me; every so often they’d flash me good with their camera strobes. I had to laugh into my regulator at one point during the fish feeding period when suddenly I heard an almost urgent knocking on the glass tunnel upon which I was resting. I glanced down and saw this odd looking Asian man giving me the strangest look. He reminds me of one of the Dumb-n-Dumber characters, probably because of that bowl haircut. I suppose he was compelled to demand my acknowledgement. I nodded and went back to my fish watching. Check him out. He’s in the video almost 8 minutes in.

Twice in the video I was fortunate to have one of the large green sea turtles pass very near, looking for a food handout more than likely. At 6:10 you can see what it’s like to swim with one while holding onto its shell. I placed the camera atop of its back and followed along just behind it while lightly grasping the edge of its shell. I did this several times and learned not to hold on too tight. It would let me know to let go by jerking its shell hard side to side. As long as I didn’t impinge its motion though, it was completely happy to let me tag along.

Don was kind enough to take the camera from me a time or two to get me in some shots. At about 4 minutes into the clip I can be seen closely inspecting the big fleshy colored female shark as she lays uncharacteristically (for sharks) on the tank floor. I was thinking it might be sick but I soon figured out what it was doing. It lays there with its snout inches away from a pipe pumping in oxygenated water. Normally, sharks must stay in motion to allow water to pass along its gills so it can “breathe.” In this case the big girl is lazily letting the onrushing water do all the work for her—a very smart shark that.

Oh, and there is another pipe providing the same rush of oxygen rich water to her right, closer to the viewing tunnel where some of the groupers and other smaller sharks do the same thing as the big female. In fact, in the very next segment I approach very closely another smaller spotted shark with its gills being washed by the pipe water. Putting the camera right in its face next to its right eye you can see it idly staring back.

At 7:31 the big female becomes excited by feeding time when two of the Thai tank workers on scuba sets come in with buckets full of small fish. You can see in the video how close she comes to me and in fact she didn’t just pass near but fully pounded into my side with a thud. She did that three times. The first time she powerfully bashed me full into the back of my hamstrings making me think that either Don or Ali had just banged into me for some reason. I swung around to confront my attacker and imagine my surprise when I realized that I had just been powerfully tackled by a very large excited shark. All the fish approached me in similar fashion on occasion during the feeding time, I suppose since they have been conditioned to associate divers with being fed. Ali had warned me about that, telling me to keep my distance. But it was awesome. How many people can say they’ve had something like that happen to them?

Watching the two Thai fellows go about their feeding duties I notice they opt not to wear fins, instead keeping their buoyancy negative so that they can keep their feet mostly on the bottom. I’m thinking that they do it that way so that they can stay vertical, otherwise, trying to manhandle the sharks with one hand while shoving the bucket of fish into their snout with the other would be nearly impossible.

After more than 45 minutes in that first tank Ali gave us the “get out of Dodge sign” indicating the end of the dive. After a short break we headed over to the next marine tank containing the huge rays. The next post and video will cover that dive. Until then….


Ed said...

You've been civilized just like I have. More than a couple days away from my family and I feel depressed and lonely. I can hardly believe that years ago I used to feel so free and full of pep on my own.

Not sure I would tempt fate by petting a shark like you did. I think I would settle by remaining a bit away even if the darn thing could swim over and gobble me up before I knew what was happening anyway.

Unknown said...

Personal Protective Equipments is used as barriers between a person and a hazard. Their main purpose is to prevent injuries by protecting people from unnecessary exposure to hazards on the job.

Thomas said...

PJ, your server is rejecting my SSA email response. Please send me an alternate email address. Tom

Unknown said...

You are lucky enough to visit Pattaya city..I think you should travel all cities in Thailand they are awesome.
There are many things to do in Pattaya in June which all f you should not miss.
Check out a list of things to do and places to visit here.