Thursday, January 5, 2012

Komodo: The Dives

I apologize for the length of this post, but the diving in Komodo was so amazing that I couldn't leave anything out (although I probably forgot things, so I am hoping the other divers chime in with more recollections).  I also want to profusely thank Sasha and Geoff, our fellow divers, for posting all of their amazingly beautiful underwater photos and videos.  All credit for these shots go to them.  Mr. Ben will also be providing additional video footage in the near future!

As I said previously, Komodo is known for its amazing diving- so much sea life, big and small.  But also for its crazy currents, which make diving there occasionally... cough cough... exciting?
Me (blue legs) and Tim (naked knees), working on our buoyancy.
Prior to heading out on the liveaboard, Tim and I really didn't have many dives under our respective belts...  Tim was as green as you can get, just having taken his Open Water Diver course back in December, giving him a grand total of 4 dives.  I had only slightly more experience than Tim, with about 10 dives to my name.  We were probably a little inexperienced for the level of diving we did in Komodo, but we stuck by our divemaster (Willie) and ended up fine.  Now we're practically experts (yeah right), having done 10 additional dives each on the trip, including strong current dives, night dives and drift dives... but I think to really perfect our skillz, we may take an advanced diving course anyway.  We could both use a little bit of work- both of us on our buoancy, Tim on not sucking his air down so fast (he ended up sharing Willie's air towards the end of every dive, which is not a big deal, but ideally he would have enough air on his own to make it through the full dive without sharing).
Tim and Willie, breathing buddies 4 life.  No, really, for Tim's life.
Raise the roof?  Not sure what hand gesture I am making here.
In any case, here is a description of each of our dives, including the craziness that occasionally ensued as well as all of the amazing stuff we saw (well, the amazing stuff that we saw that I could identify!).  The cast of characters is as follows:

Willie: the divemaster
Meg & Tim: your intrepid protagonists
Ben and Erin (sometimes referred to as Mr. Ben and Mr. Ben's wife): neighbors/friends/tour guides/recurring characters
Geoff and Sasha: fellow divers aboard the SS Mangguana
The dive boat.
 Also, this may be hard to see (click on it to make it bigger), but it's a map of all the dive sites.  Many of the online maps I saw didn't have all of the northern dives we did labeled...
Komodo dive sites.

Dives 1 & 2: Sebayor Kecil (the warm-up dives; one day, one night)

Willie's Sebayur Kecil pre-dive briefing whiteboard.
Our first couple of dives were memorable less for what we saw and more for the kinks we were working out...  I guess that's the point of having a warm-up dive!

On the first dive we had problems with tanks falling out of straps that connect them to the BCD, and then a piece of Tim's BCD was broken, so the speed boat had to go back to the boat to get a replacement piece.  In the meantime, we went down on the dive while Tim snorkeled around.  When the speed boat returned and got Tim ready to go, they kept suggesting that he just venture out by himself, "look for the bubbles" from the other divers, and head underwater to find us.  Not a good idea in general to be diving by yourself... Tim tried, but couldn't really see us, so he wisely decided it would be better to sit it out despite the boat driver's urging to "follow the bubbles." 
Big ole sea star.
Gorgeous lionfish.
 The second dive, which was a night dive at the same location (night diving is pretty trippy... if you turn your flashlight off, there is literally nothing but blackness around you), went much better, but was still a bit of a struggle, as Tim was not properly weighted down and kept floating towards the surface as his tank emptied.  But we did see a lobster!
It's like wicked dahk down here

Dive 3: Castle Rock  (the crazy dive)

This dive may be the most memorable of the trip, but not really in a good way.  The currents surrounding Castle Rock are a little bit insane. Here's our story:  on our dive briefing, we learned that we were going to be making a negative entry (i.e. no air in your BCD, just drop out of the boat head straight down, no time to mess around with your mask or anything) in order to get to where we needed to go without getting caught in the wrong current.
Willie giving us our pre-dive briefing on Castle Rock.
 It didn't go well... Sasha's BCD wasn't properly functioning, so we went down a bit and then came back to the surface to make sure she was ok.  Geoff was already down, though, and was quickly swept into a bit of a down current which pulled him deeper than we were supposed to go.  He spent the next few minutes clawing his way up to where we were supposed to be.  In the meantime, Sasha's BCD did was not fixed, so she ended up staying above the surface.  Erin, Ben, Tim, Willie and I tried again to go down, but by the time we made it down, we had floated away from our planned entry spot and to fight the current to where we wanted to be, which was really difficult.  We were all (well, except for Willie, who was totally calm) a bit panicked, as it was hard to swim anywhere and you had to grab onto rocks in order to avoid being swept away... plus the strong current in your face caused your mask to fill with water, your regulator to flap up and down (getting water in your mouth and making it hard to breathe).  We were all huffing our air pretty quickly due to the stress of it all.  At the same time, there were thousands of beautiful fish (giant schools of blue and yellow fusiliers, among hundreds of other types) swimming all around us.  It seemed like with each breath, I had a different feeling.  Panic one minute, awe the next, then back to panic.  A strange feeling.  This blog post I read about diving Castle Rock described it accurately: "scary-wonderful".  Luckily Willie was very calm and literally held our hands on occasion to guide/calm us.

Ultimately we didn't stay down for too long, as we were all out of air quickly from fighting the currents and our panicked brains.  In total we were only down for about 22 minutes!   The stress of the negative entry, the panicky feeling and the ridiculously strong currents had me shaking at the end of the dive.  I didn't really want to go down for another dive, but I manned up and did, and wow, I am so glad, because it only got better and better after Castle Rock.

Dive 4: Crystal Rock (the dive that lowered our blood pressure after the crazy dive)

Crystal Rock pre-dive briefing.
After the last dive, I was pretty wary about heading under the water again.  My hands were shaky as I checked my gear and got into the speedboat.  But this dive at Crystal Rock was so beautiful, it immediately calmed me (and everyone else, too, I think) down.   The current was negligible, the fish were plentiful, and we saw so much stuff, it's hard to enumerate.
Sooooooo many fish!

Here's what I know we saw: a white-tipped reef shark, hovering very close to the reef in order to guard the two babies she had hidden under a piece of reef (!), a turtle floating around, schools of yellow snapper, lion fish, napoleon wrasse, a blue spotted stingray, the bold clown trigger fish, schooling bannerfish and some box fish. 
Baby sharks!!!

Dive 5: Golden Passage (the dive I can't remember for some reason... but I think these photos show that it was pretty awesome)

All drains lead to the ocean?
Clown triggerfish!
 Dive 6: Batu Bolong (Willie's favorite dive)

Batu Bolong rock looks just like Willie's drawing, hole in the rock and all.

Willie told us this was his favorite dive, and you really listen to a guy who has thousands of dives under his belt, all of them in the area where you're diving.  Even Mr. Ben, who was suffering from a wicked bout of the stomach flu, sucked it up and came out for this dive between pukes.  The dive was worth it- peaceful, beautiful, so many fish and such beautiful coral that it was like being in a fish tank.
We had a close encounter with a harlequin or banded snake-eel, which we thought was awesome until we got to the surface and Willie told us that it was highly poisonous if it bit you on your soft tissue...  poisonous enough that you would not need to bother surfacing after being bit.  You'd be dead.
Moray eel, defending his spot.
Beautiful lionfish.

Like fish passing in the day.
We also saw moray eels, a sleeping white tip reef shark, lots of huge napoleon wrasse, boxer shrimp, a beautiful juvenile angelfish that Willie pointed out, a peacock mantis shrimp that Tim and I found (basically a big old lobster tail with eyes... that can also break your finger with its hidden claws if you get too close.)... so cool.
Boxer shrimp!!
Like swimming in an aquarium.

Dive 7: Manta Point/Makassar Reef (maaaantaaaaassss!!)

Definitely one of the coolest dives on the trip, this was a drift dive with low visibility, but lots of big stuff to see: Manta rays!  These guys were amazing.

While we were desperately gripping rocks on the seafloor, trying not to float away in the current, they are these huge things (up to 25 feet across), facing the current head on, flying slowly and gracefully through the water with their mouths open to suck up the concentrated plankton that draws them to the area (this blog post has a good description of the crazy feeling of being in such a strong current).

So graceful!
Resting, hoping the manta in the murk would come closer.
 Once we got ourselves established at a point, the mantas would come over to investigate us.  Willie told us that they would come within a few inches of us if we were calm and didn't breathe bubbles on the mantas as they were right over us... he was right.  The mantas came so close- it was breathtaking (and not just because I held my breath as Willie instructed).  They are really beautiful.

The seedy underbelly of Manta Point?
On the dive we also saw some turtles, one eating and one hiding from the current behind a rock (just like us!).  The seafloor was also rife with sea stars- giant bright blue ones as well as some chubby granulated sea stars.
This is my hiding spot.

 Dive 8: Tatawa Besar (the rescue dive)

This dive happened immediately after a huge, windy thunderstorm. The trip out to the dive site on the speedboat was a little, um, jarring.  As the boat (full of people and dive equipment that kept coming unhooked) dropped 5 feet down through thin air and slammed on the surface of the water, there was yet another wave looming over the boat.  Over and over again. Scary!

Anywho, we made it to the dive site and dropped into the water and down to the reef unceremoniously and without injury.  Because of the storm, the visibility was pretty poor down on the reef, but we were still able to see a ton of stuff:  a sea turtle munching on some green stuff, a moray eel, some harlequin shrimp, box fish, lion fish, a blue dragon nudibranch, giant clams, a school of batfish. Plus, at the end of the dive there was a massive area full of this one type of pointy coral (the name escapes me), which was really beautiful:
I love the color of these fish.
The most exciting part of the dive, though, was on the way back on the speedboat...  as we were motoring back to the liveaboard, we saw something pink and red bobbing in the still-rough waters.  As we got closer, we realized it was 2 lady divers with a floppy safety sausage, floating nowhere near any boats or other divers.  We pulled them into our boat and headed back towards our liveaboard.  As we neared our liveaboard, we saw a couple other diveboats searching (nowhere near where the girls were floating) and flagged them down to let them know we had rescued their divers.  Apparently these 2 girls (who were not even dive buddies with each other), had gone too far from their dive master and had been swept down and away by the current.  They couldn't fight the current underwater, so they surfaced and continued to float away... they had been floating for 20 minutes before we found them.  Crazy.  It was close to the end of the day, and if we hadn't grabbed the girls, they would have been floating out to the open ocean in the dark.

Dive 9: Pulau Tenga (the attack turtle dive)

This was a beautiful dive.  A very vertical, rainbow colored reef with lots of little nooks and crannies hiding cool stuff, plus massive schools of fish swirling all around us.

But the most memorable part of this dive was the attack turtle.... yes, attack turtle.  Tim pointed out a sea turtle that was gnawing on some stuff on the coral wall, and once it noticed us in turn, it was really curious.  It came right up to Ben (close enough that he had to jump back), messed around with him a bit, buddied up to Willie, and then floated over to Geoff and "kissed" him (i.e. nipped at his regulator).  Ben got a kiss, too.  This was one curious turtle.
Oh, hai.  Fancy meeting you here, Mr. Ben.
Can I get a closer look at this infamous "terror stick" of yours?
Happy New Year, Tim and Willie!  High five?

On this dive, we also saw a pipefish, a large boxfish, a bunch of iridescent reef squid floating near the surface (I thought they were plastic bags at first), surgeonfish, lots of sea fans, beautiful rainbow coral...
Blue tuxedo sea urchin?
This coral is awesome... I wish I had some fabric in this print!
I had no idea what these amazing feathery things were until I looked it up just now... the ones with stalks are crinoids and the ones without stalks are referred to as feather starfish?  Either way, they are beautiful- they sorta flow with the breeze and scrunch up when they get something in their grasp.
Amazing fire orange sea fans and matching fishies.

Dive 10: Wai nilu (the muck dive)

Wae Nilu dive briefing.
Lionfish in coral sleeping bag.
Nudibranch!  My new favorite word.  Ex: "Dude, zip your fly!  Your nudibranch is hanging out."
Our final dive was a "muck dive," or a low-visibility dive on less than perfect reef where you can see lots of juvenile fish as well as little goodies like nudibranches and the like.  On our dive we saw some banded pipefish with their fan-like tails, a ton of cuttlefish (changing color to ward us off. Well, by "us," I mostly mean Mr. Ben and his terror stick), a blue ribbon eel poking his head out of his hole, a frogfish (which is still basically invisible to me), coral shrimp fish, filefish, bright yellow juvenile box fish, nudibranches and sea cucumbers, lots of lionfishes...
Banded pipefish: I like their little red feathery tails.
Frogfish... the "Where's Waldo" of the ocean.
Cuttlefish!  When he gets mad, he flashes a dark color.
Dancing coral shrimp fish (the little sticks in the front of the photo), plus Tim's crotch.
Nemo and father?


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