Eastern Malaysia, Borneo, Sabah, Sipadan & More

Borneo, Sabah, Sipadan, & More

Eastern Malaysia

The Island of Borneo has been home to a tropical rainforest for the past 140 million years. The Cretaceous period trees and plant life have given way to modern Quaternary period tree and plant varieties, but this region still remains a densely covered reserve for animals such as sun bears, Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, Bornean clouded leopard, and horned bill birds.  The  man of the forest, pronounced locally as Orang utan, is currently the largest living primate in the world, though some of their extinct ancestors were even larger. We think what really makes them special is their ability to problem solve, use tools, and interact socially. For instance, if they have an upset stomach, they know where they can find and eat clay that will sooth their stomach.  Unlike most humans, they make a fresh bed every night out of leaves and may even make a pillow or fashion a blanket. As far as social bonds go, they give and receive gifts from each other, and just like humans, they remember what gifts were exchanged and the relevance of the gift per member in the standing social hierarchical order. Yes, humans are not the only specie that can disappoint close relatives, holidays or not.

 

But back to Borneo; It is the third largest island in the world and  currently divided between three countries. 73% of the island is part of Indonesia, the northern 26% is part of Malaysia, and 1% is comprised by the sovereign state of Brunei.  The last time the island was under one rule was during World War Two when the Imperial Japanese Forces were implementing their “Asia for Asia” tour. During this time, many Malay intellectuals, Malay Sultans, and Chinese residents were executed.  British and Australians prisoners of war were placed in camps or sent on death marches; Only 6 out of 2,500 prisoners survived the Sandakan Death March.

Further back in history, before the end of the ice age when sea levels were lowered by some 60m (200ft), this island was part of a large peninsula extending all the way to Asia.  Deep waters on the east side of the island of Borneo kept animals such as the tiger, rhinoceros, and elephant from crossing over to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and on towards Papua New Guinea and Australia. Conversely, this deep water, also called the Wallace Line, kept Indonesian animals such as two species of Anoa (miniature water buffalo), Babirusa (a curling tusked pig), and many other smaller placental and marsupial animals from ever entering Asia. And since it is the waters that intrigue us divers the most, this is what we will bring up next.

 

So, out of 394 named islands or pulau, as the locals call them, and 535 unnamed islands around Borneo, the number one spot to dive has to be a small remote island formed by volcanic activity. The Island known as Sipadan is the only oceanic island in eastern Malaysia and this affords great muck diving a beach walk from shore on the largest barrier reef in Southeast Asia and the added benefit of nearby pelagic species that appear out of the 2,000ft (600m) depths that separate Pulau Sipadan from Sulawesi Indonesia. This means that on one dive you can experience seahorses, cuttlefish, shrimp, and frogfish, and on the next dive see whale sharks, hammerheads, mantas, and schools of barracuda, humphead parrot fish, and tuna.  Jacques Cousteau once called Sipadan one of the top five places to dive in the world. This status brought too many divers to the region and reef degradation soon ensued, but since 2005 the island has been transformed back into a marine park. Park Management only issues 120 permits to dive the Island each day, and the system operates sort of like a lottery system, in that if you stay at a resort 3-4 days, you most likely will get a permit to dive Sipadan at least one day. It’s not a precise or perfect system, but since the instillation of the permit system, thousand-year-old reefs have made a tremendous comeback.

Pulau Sipidan boasts some 20 dive sites, with the majority on reefs or walls that eventually descend into deep surrounding depths. We recommend visiting here as an advanced diver  or better, as you may encounter down welling’s such as at Barracuda Point and you must be comfortable with deep diving as the scalloped hammerheads and thresher sharks at South Point prefer to school down at 40m (120ft). Turtle Cavern is the resting site of turtles that didn’t find their way out of the cavern possibly due to stormy nights and temporary silted conditions. To make sure you have a great dive and return trip from this eerie location, cavern training is recommended before you dive this site. We should mention that it’s almost mandatory to dive here with a camera as The Drop off site is one of the most photographed dive sites in the world. The Drop off is a popular location for night dives too. Lobster Lair is another hot spot for photographing crevice critters. To name a few other dive sites, Hanging Gardens is the place to view dazzling ledges of soft corals, Turtle Patch is a great place to see green turtles and occasional hawksbill turtles, and White Tip Avenue is the place to see a wide variety of sharks including, yeah you guessed it: white tip sharks.

Now because no one can stay on Pulau Sipadan overnight, dive operators who receive finite allotments of dive permits for each individual day bring their guests over from islands such as Pulau Mabul, Pulau Kapalai or from the Borneo mainland city of Semporna.  Pulau Mabul is 25 minutes away by boat from Sipadan and has several resorts and over a dozen muck diving sites to choose from. Some of the most well known dive sites include Paradise 1&2, Lobster Wall, Froggy Lair, Coral Reef, and Eel Garden. Offshore of Palau Mabul is the popular muck dive site and home reef of the former oil rig Sea Venture. Pulau Kapalai is actually a submerged sand bank surrounded by reef and the only resort on this island is built on stilts and features 59 chalets. The reef here also offers muck diving opportunities.

The MV Celebes Explorer is the only liveaboard out here and they are rationed the most permits each day to dive off of Pulau Sipadan.  On Sundays they port in Semporna to pick up divers, and the rest of the week they dock in Mabul at night. On Wednesday’s you can join them after a 45 minute speed boat trip from Semporna to Pulau Sipadan.

The port city of Semporna is also the gateway to the northeast islands. Pulau Si Amil is the spot to find rare nudibranchs. Pilau Mataking is the honeymooner island and is one of the few places in the world with an underwater post office box, which could come in handy if you had to choose between diving a wreck or mailing off postcards. Pulau Sibuan offers muck diving for those primarily captivated by frogfish, pygmy seahorses, and mandarin fish, and deep channel diving for divers favoring mantas and stingrays. Pulau Mantabuan also hosts mantas, but it is better known for its displays of black coral.

North of Semporna is the port city of Sandakan. Close by are the Turtle Islands: Selingaan, Gulisaan, and Bakkunganke. An hour and a half boat ride from Sandakan is a marine protected area including the island of Lankayan. There are 32 named dive sites around the island or nearby including: Jawfish Lair. Mosquito Wreck, and Froggie Fort to name a few.  Visibility is less here when rain makes the mainland rivers run faster during December to March, but April and May is whale shark sighting season and turtle hatching season is June to September.

Off the west coast of Borneo near the port city of Kota Kinabalu in the South China Sea, the most world famous island here has to be Pulau Tiga, which is actually a group of three islands where they just happened to film the first season of a dynamic and everlasting TV series called Survivor. There are 20 national cabins here and you can arrange a charter to bring you to and from the island so you can take a relaxing mud bath, but for serious divers your time is better spent muck diving around the island at locations such as Asmarqa Point or Coleman Shoal. Pulau Tiga is part of the rest of the Tunku Abdul Rahnab Park (TARP) and there is also plenty of diving on the five islands of Pulau Manukan, Pulau Gaya, Pulau Sapi, Pulau Mamutik, and Pulau Sulug. Besides the 25 dive sites within the park, there are other dive sites in the surrounding area.  Leopard Reef is known for its small sharks and Edgell Patches is known for its occasional sightings of whale sharks.

Northwest of Kota Kinabalu are the easy to reach white sand beaches of Palau Layang Layang. This island is surrounded by 13 reefs, wall dives, and pelagics such as scalloped hammerhead sharks, and is also part of the Sulu Sea. Near shore there is a group of three islands that make up the Matanani islands and a great place for photographers and macro divers.

At the very northern tip of Sabah, Borneo is the port city of Kudat with surfing, freediving , wreck diving, and even more off shore diving around Pulau Bangi. Scientists researching in the fields of biology, ecology, oceanography and other earth sciences collect here because this is the spot where the Sulu Sea and the South China Sea fuse salt contents, blend grains of sand, and mix microscopic nutrients. Meanwhile in the surrounding atmosphere, the Northwest monsoons entertain one and all from November to December then give way to the Southwest monsoons from May to October, making March and April an ideal dry time to visit here. Notable mentions: Pulau Maliangian Kecil has a nice lagoon, and Pulau Maliangin Besar has giant lobsters. Tajau Laut Reef is the place to go for a night dive. Mysterious Shipwreck is a 60m (180ft) long cargo ship ready to be explored.

Phew! So as you can see, we barely put a dent in naming all but a few of the hundreds of islands around Sabah, Borneo and eastern Malaysia. You might see whale sharks at any or all of the local dive sites or none at all. Dugongs, a more refined nose and mouth relative of the manatees, but have sleek flukes for tails instead of flattened spoon shaped like beaver tails, are more commonly found on the northwest waters of Borneo where sea grass is more plentiful. Other marine life may vary greatly from island to island including reef structure and quantities of sharks and turtles.

Kota Kinabalu is the main airport hub in Northern Borneo and also a great place to stay if you want to do some shopping or visit a large night market will all the exotic foods and delicacies to choose from. From here it’s less than an hour flight to Sandakan. To get to Semporna you have to first take an hour flight to Tawau, and then take a bus ride up to Semporna. You can take a nonstop flight to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur or take a direct flight from Singapore, but keep in mind though; the word “direct” sometimes means possible stops anywhere, including Antarctica. Oh, and the only way you can see all the major islands in one trip is to spend more than a fort night give or take a year traveling to most of the islands one at a time. But who in their right mind wants to walk along so many pristine beaches, explore so many vibrant reefs, eat so many varieties of foods from so many subcultures, just to satisfy a primal urge to see what the world below really does have to offer? A hint would be those that need to inhale air in their regulator, keep buoyancy in a BC , and a mask practically glued to their face. Any guesses?

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Posted in Borneo, Dive Destinations, Dive Liveaboards, Dive Travel, Malaysia, Manta Rays, Marine Life, Muck Diving, Pelagics, Reefs, Scuba Diving, Scuba Training & Education, Sharks, Sipadan, Stingrays, Turtles, Underwater Photography, Walls, Whale Sharks, Wreck Diving, Wrecks | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Cozumel Mexico, Always a Top Dive Destination

Cozumel Mexico

Always A Top Dive Destination

One of the most visited dive destinations in the world has to be the island of Cozumel. Part of the local allure is that it is has short flights from major cities. This means that practically before the ice melts off your shoes from Chicago or New York, you could be standing barefoot on a beach letting the sun drenched sand warm your toes.  For many visitors, this is all they need, for others the allure of a favorable rate of exchange and already low local prices has made Cozumel an ideal tourist/diver destination, but for divers like us, we become excited when hearing things like: the Palancar Reef is part of  second largest barrier reef in the world and runs from the tip of the Yucatan and goes south some 700 miles to the Honduras, and the local waters are home to a thriving community of some 300 species of fish and numerous communities of invertebrates, crustaceans, corals and the associated marine park is now over twenty years old.

Tourists have been coming to the island of Cozumel for more than the past thousand years. It was the aspiration of every Mayan female to visit the temple of Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility, medicine, and weaving and located in San Gervasio. Over ten thousand Mayans lived on the island of Cozumel until 1520 when a few members of the crew of Pánfilo de Narváez gave the Mayan locals a glimpse of Spanish metal hats and swords, traded a considerable amount of glass beads, and unknowingly gave the locals a plethora of smallpox.  By 1570 less than 360 locals survived the epidemic. By 1650, most of those locals still remaining on the island were relocated to the mainland due to constant attacks by pirates. By 1848 refugees from the Yucatan peninsula began repopulating the island, and after Cousteau stopped by in 1959, scuba divers began profusely washing up on shore and/or showing up in greater numbers at the airport, each and every one in search of a shaker of salt, a lime-flavored beverage, and scuba tank filled with a fresh supply of air.

For scuba divers, Cozumel comes in a wide variety of travel packages and hotels. Some hotels have their own dive operations on site, while others have docks and work in tandem with third party dive charter operators that moor long enough to take on and later drop off divers.  One creative operation even has the hotel on one side of the main street, and an on property underground tunnel leads to a private dive club located beach side; on the other side of the street.  There are a handful of well-known large dive charter operations that operate daily as well as countless numbers of small boats and independent dive operators that seem to magically appear during peak tourist seasons.  Most operators rotate the dive sites by the day, but others may have multiple daily scheduled dive sites, or may be booked by groups to go to selected dive sites. As for the hotels themselves, they may be all inclusive resorts, small to mid-sized, near town, or locations mostly towards the southern end of the island near the main section of the adjacent marine park. If you are in one of the large all-inclusive hotels, you can choose from Italian, Japanese, American, or even Mexican cuisine nightly. The town of San Miguel is lined with shops, restaurants and cafes, There literally is a hotel, dive operation, restaurant or shop tailored for everyone coming to visit the island of Cozumel. And if all this isn’t enough, ferries from the Mexico mainland areas of Cancun and Riviera Maya can bring divers or sightseers for the day.

As far as the dive sites go, most are easy drift dive sites. On some, the only time you will kick with fins is to stay in place while taking an image of a seahorse, frogfish, or huddled spiny lobsters or while descending down a tunnel or out though a small cave like opening. Marine park rules don’t allow divers to wear gloves as they don’t want the coral killed by divers using coral outcrops as handy tripod stands. Your divemaster will go over some marine park rules when you purchase your marine park band that has to be visibly worn on your wrist while diving. You can stay between 12m (36ft) to 20m (60ft) on most dives, but you can also choose to move down the sloping walls depending on your level of training. Farther out from shore you could go down some 30m (90ft) and look down at a vast amount of nothing beneath you except for waters that are deep blue and continue to descend down to 1,000m (3,000ft), but fortunately, near the reefs is where most of the scuba dive action happens and fish hang out.

Some of the popular dive sites include:  Santa Rosa, a wall dive, with lots of corals and barrel sponges, and stingrays.  Al Cedrals is a good spot to fine nurse sharks nestled amongst the corals. The Caves at Palancar Reef where you can swim in and out of tunnels and then over to sand banks where stingrays hide in the sand and helmet cowries lodge in the crevasses. San Francisco is a shallow wall with some tunnels, a pinnacle and tons of coral for small fish to hang around and lots of lobsters. La Francesa is two dive sites in one. During the day expect to see stingrays, a giant grouper and even a giant hermit crab in a cave. On a night dive expect to see upwards of eight octopus, and over a dozen lobsters walking out in the open. Locals call the sweet succulent tasting slipper lobster “la cucaracha” for just like cockroaches, they are found everywhere. Coral polyps are also out at night and give the coral a soft surreal appearance. For deep dives we should mention The Bricks at Palancar. At 33m (99ft) black coral and a pinnacle are found at the edge of a great drop off. Maracaibo has swift currents, but schools of fish on the south end near the lighthouse, and Barracuda has lots of passing fish on the far northern end of the island.

For shore dives you might like The Plane Wreck in front of what is now the El Cid Hotel. Not much is left of the original aircraft frame, but there is usually an octopus or a moray eel hiding in the wreck and squid or a few schools of fish passing by. Another interesting place to do a shore dive is over at Chankanaab National Marine Park. You pay a fee to get in like any other water park, but the shore diving is free once inside the park. After a dive you can eat at a snack shop, do some shopping, see some Mayan artifacts, walk around the lagoon, see some botanical gardens, swim with some dolphins, or snorkel back out to the reef and count the turtles passing by.

For non-diver day activities, you might like shopping down town at the San Miguel square, visiting the Island Museum, or taking the Mayan Choco edible educational/tasting tour at the Kaokao Chocolate Factory: Yes, we like chocolate. And yes, there are even more tourists activities near where the cruise ships dock including Mall of America name brand restaurants, a Discover Mexico Cozumel Park, and Dolphinaris, but keep in mind that these last few activities are less crowded when the cruise ships are not in port. For outside the city activities you might enjoy the scenic beauty at Punta Sur Eco Beach and nearby lighthouse or step back in time and visit the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio. You can also visit one of Cozumel’s own cenotes, but these smaller cenotes are not available for recreational diving like the larger and longer one’s over on the Riviera Maya side of the mainland.

So are you excited to go?  Cozumel is next to the second greatest barrier reef, it has lots of interesting dive sites and shore activities, it has non-stop flights and an easy direct flights from many North American cities. The rate of exchange and prices are good and the local seafood is fantastic. You may not want to come here every year like some of the tourists covered in oil do, but just like Cozumel was like Mecca for Mayans, these warm tropical fish filled waters are one of the top visited destinations for both new and seasoned divers too, and some times all it takes is a little fun in the sun to change one’s attitude, no matter the latitude.

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Posted in Cozumel, Dive Destinations, Dive Travel, Family Travel, Marine Life, Mexico, Pinnacles, Reefs, Scuba Diving, Scuba Training & Education, Single Travel, Underwater Photography, Walls | Tagged | Leave a comment

Grenada: Shipwrecks, Spice, and Beaches Delight

Grenada

Shipwrecks, Spice, and Beaches Delight

     

Take a small group of islands, sprinkle them with white sand beaches, coral reefs, and shipwrecks, add the largest shipwreck in the Caribbean for good measure, stir in a healthy dollop of fresh home grown spices, and then set under the warm tropical sun until you have an irresistible dive destination, and you have the recipe for making the islands known as the Grenadines.

Grenada is the largest of the islands and is home to the Maurice Bishop International Airport in St. George. Some thirty dive sites are situated on the southern end of the island near St. George and none of these dive sites are very far from shore, making it easy to do morning, afternoon, and night dives. Out of the fifteen wrecks around Grenada, the 183m (600ft) long 1939 built luxury liner Bianca C, the Titanic of the Caribbean, is the largest wreck and you can either dive along the length of it following the currents, or you can dive part of it then swim over to Whibble Reef as a muti-level dive. The furthest stern section has collapsed in on itself, but the forward section is still complete with even a swimming pool built into the Ship’s deck, but at 90- 160ft deep, this ship is made for advanced and tech divers. This ship went down accidentally while being towed out of port after a fire broke out and has had over fifty years to turn from wreck to reef, and now large coral and sponge colonies encrust the ship and reef fish as well as sharks, barracuda, and turtles, pass from one end of the ship to the other on a regular basis. On the opposite side of the wreck spectrum, Grenada offers you a small unique wreck called the Quarter Wreck. This is only the stern section of a cargo ship that accidentally sunk while being towed out to be part of the site which is now called Three Part Wreck. Quarter Wreck sits upside down with the propeller positioned for divers to approach and pose for what could only be described as the perfect background for magazine cover shots. Stingrays rest in the sand between the rocks on the substrate adjacent to the wreck debris and in general try to ignore the photo sessions. As for other local wrecks, the Veronica L has tons of life and encrusting corals and is also another hot spot for taking images. The MV Shakem Wreck sank in 2001, so it has just started its journey on becoming a reef, but already supports lots of life. The Hema 1 that sank in the Atlantic side waters three miles off shore in 2005 is in a similar state of growth, but has the added advantage of having passing pelagics such as sharks and rays. The wreck of the King Mitch, a converted mine sweeper, is also located nearby in the Atlantic side waters and this is a good site to view reef sharks.

   

Of course it’s not all wreck diving in Grenada, Flamingo Bay and Molinere Reef are great places to find long snouted seahorses hanging out around the soft corals. The black seahorses are hard to spot, but the orange and white stripped seahorses lend themselves to photo opportunities.  Purple Rain has soft corals, barrel sponges and seemingly endless undulating walls of purple Creole wrasse. Boss Reef is known for lobster, crab, and green and hawksbill turtles. Shark Reef on the Atlantic side sounds ominous, but it is chalked full of nurse sharks which are typically docile unless pulled out of their coral seclusions by the tail; and that’s about the only time these nurses lose their patience.

  

Normally after listing the local dive sites we mention the surface related tourist attractions, but with Grenada we’ve only mention two thirds of the diving so far. Carriacou, Petit Martinique as well as the smaller uninhabited islands also have pristine dive sites that are seldom visited or not even formally named. The Sisters with cave and cavern diving, the southern stingrays around Sandy Island, Cistern Point with arguably the largest lobsters in the Caribbean, the 31m (92ft) long Boris tugboat sunk in 2007, Black Rock, Diamond Rock, Arc de Vero, are just of the fewer well known dive sites around the northern islands and close to the dive operations in Carriacou and the White Island Marine Park. You can take a flight from St. George to Hillsborough on Carriacou or take the daily boat service to both Petit Martinique and Carriacou.

  

Did we mention all the local diving yet? Not quite. It appears that Grenada was the first place in the Caribbean to place sculpture underwater. Diving in the Moliner Beausejour Marine Protected Area you will find life size cement statues of people holding hands, a writer hunched over a desk complete with typewriter, a man on a bike, a mermaid looking at the facial impressions of college students, and Amerindian petroglyphs. This is all near the wreck of the sloop Buccaneer, and near the area where corals are being grown for eventual ecological reef restoration purposes.

  

You’ll need more than a week to see all the sites, but save a day or two to see some of the lands sites too. Grenada is home to old rum distilleries, 17th century molasses factories, sugar plantation ruins, and the 3km (1.9m) long Grand Anse Beach is considered one of the top ten beaches in the world. Grenada is also home to spectacular waterfalls, parks, botanical gardens, secluded bays, marine parks, hiking trails, and national forest preserves filled with such creatures as iguanas, African mona monkeys, Indian mongoose, feral goats, and some 150 species of birds. Three species of humming birds can be spotted zipping from one ubiquitous flower garden to another. For an awesome sight, one might watch for an osprey over Antoine Lake plummeting down talons first and snatching a fish right out of the water. The endangered Grenada dove also makes its home here.

  

Sure, the locals produce cinnamon, clover, mace, allspice and 20% of the world’s supply of nutmeg, but it may be the locals’ infectious friendliness that you’ll remember most. The locals were born within a group of islands filled with white sand beaches, secluded bays, forests, warm tropical breezes, naturally grown fruits, fresh spices, and a plethora of scuba diving sites. We wouldn’t say that living in paradise is easy, but Grenadians have learned to make the best of it; and best of all, they look forward to sharing their islands and lifestyle with you.

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Posted in Dive Travel, eagle rays, Grenada, Marine Life, Reefs, Scuba Diving, Sharks, Turtles, Underwater Photography, Wreck Diving, Wrecks | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Riviera Maya

 The Riviera Maya

Caribbean Diving & Diverse Cenotes

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If you ask most divers to choose between fresh water diving and tropical diving, we’re sure that the majority of divers would pick tropical diving fins down; you have beautiful reefs, colorful fish, large Pelagics, and endless warm tropical destinations to choose from. We think that your first thought of freshwater diving should also be just as exciting and interesting as your saltwater choices; freshwater dive sites complete with stalactites and stalagmites. Perhaps you would like some clear water dive sites with fossils, human bones, ancient Mayan artifacts, some sites with freshwater fish, some with tropical fish, some with overhanging gardens, and some sites with amazing caverns and caves to explore depending on your certification level. You can see how now the choice between freshwater diving and tropical diving gets a little tougher to make, but to avoid making a decision, we recommend that you visit the Riviera Maya where you can combine and do both types of diving while on a single memorable dive vacation.

Before we get into mentioning some of the most popular dive sites we thought we should mention just exactly where the Riviera Maya is located. It’s in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo along the Caribbean waterfront just south of Cancun from Playa del Carmen, through Akumal, and down to Tulum. You can take a bus, shuttle bus, or private car from Cancun and be down to Tulum in around two and a half hours. So even going down to the far end really isn’t all that far, but it does include glimpses of over a thousand years of Mayan history. On the way down you have to pass several sleepy little towns along the coast lines and you are never too far from one of the thousands of life sustaining fresh water wells in this part of Mexico.

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Probably some of the best saltwater activities on the Maya Riviera include snorkeling with the migrating whale sharks from May thru July near Playa del Carmen at dive sites such as Chun Zumbul. Sure, there are scattered small reef outcrops in a field of sand suitable for stingrays and small reef creature, but when the whale sharks hit the area, all eyes are on them. These gentle giants tolerate the antics of bubble blowing tourists with amazing seasonal regularity. The next biggest event comes when the waters turn slightly colder in the winter time and bull sharks put on a show at selected dive locations. Many of the sites have a sand substrate, but the dive sites may have pinnacles, arches (Los Arcos), swim throughs, caves and caverns that make each dive site unique and worth visiting. Pared Verde the most well known wall dive is a step down a sand embankment and gives rise to a wall dive from 70ft to 100ft (21-31m) before becoming a sand plain once again.  The wall is home to multitudes sponges, corals, invertebrates, assorted domestic small fish as well as occasional passing large pelagics. Most of the dive sites are less than 100ft (31m) deep and average 100ft (31m), but some sites like Tortugas named after all the local turtle sightings, can drop down to 130ft (140m). If you want to see schools of sabalos, (spanish for tarpon), and a small cavern, we recommend the dive site called Sabalos. For wreck divers, there is the former shrimp boat Mama Viña that was sunk on purpose in 1995 and is now home to soft and hard corals, schools of fish and occasional passing sharks, eagle rays, sailfish, and other pelagic fish.

There are several dive sites all the way down to Tulum and sites like Stingray have interesting pinnacles, but you need dive a mere 25ft (8m) to view the pinnacles and the sea life around them as well as the stingrays that gave the site its name. There are also swim throughs at Cuevitas at 10m (33ft) with lots of hard corals, and lots of fish to view at Piscina (Pool), Tank Ha Deep, and Dreams. We should also mention that a lot of these dives are drift dives due to the north flowing currents and some of the currents are stronger at some sites than at other sites depending on the time of year.

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There are more than 40 some dive sites along the Riviera Maya that are part of the second largest reef system in the world, but for many divers the real reason to dive the Maya Riviera is to dive the freshwater cenotes. This entire region of Mexico was formed out of limestone that once stood way above sea level when the sea level was some 300ft lower during the last ice age. Rain water seeped through the landscape and dissolved through the porous limestone with a little help from the formation of small amounts of carbonic acid. Great underground fissures and/or circular holes were slowly over time carved deep into the limestone and later stalactites and stalagmites tried to fill these new voids. Some of the fissures connected the eroded cavities to each other and essentially became underground streams and rivers that eventually drained out into the open ocean. Some thousands of these hollowed out cavities could no longer support their overhead roof structures and caved in forming pools of fresh water across an expanse of otherwise dry appearing landscape. To the Mayans these pools were sacred wells on many levels and they also believed that located at the bottoms of these pools were the gateways to where the underground gods resided. Mayans performed human sacrifices in some of the pools and in others left pottery, jewelry, gold, jade, obsidian, cloth, and other precious items as offerings to the gods. Fossils of earlier animals round out the picture and make each cenote entered by divers a very unique and one of a kind experience.

Of course the problem with cenotes is that once you dive one, you may feel compelled  to dive others. You also might like going where few divers have gone before.  It starts out simple enough by going on a guided dive to Dos Ojos and seeing interesting shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, next you find yourself swimming through the Casa Cenote that leads to a river and the sea beyond meaning that sometimes you will come face to face with freshwater fish and with tropical fish such as tarpons at other times. You also might even get a chance to swim near manatees. Next you might want to try the Gran Cenote which is famous for its easy entrance and endless white colored passageways or try Calavera with fossils, artifacts and a halo cline at 50ft (15m) of depth. Angelita is popular with tech divers as you can pass through a sulfur cloud at 90ft (28m). There of course are many other well known cenotes, but depending where you are staying may determine what other cenotes you may wish to explore.

2ojosmed gran-cenote-b lascalaveras

Now you would think that with all this diving that there would be little time for anything else, but it turns out that besides all the sacred wells, the Mayans also left the ruins of three nearby major cities and temples to explore. Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza are all in easy reach of the Riviera Maya. The ruins of Tulum sit right on the cliffs some 13m (39ft) above the adjacent ocean. Inland, Coba has a 138ft (42m) tall pyramid to view, and of course Chichen Itza has an entire city built over many time periods and is surrounded by four main cenotes. These once vast cities all but disappeared and were covered by the surrounding jungles soon after the Spanish appeared.  The Spanish soldiers and explorers were quick to collect, under pain of death, any gold and other valuables and in exchange they brought forth salvation thru religion, colds, and viruses. Unfortunately this unforeseen exchange, not to mention periods of excessive drought, decimated the Mayan population, destroyed their culture, and put an end to the ancient Mayan way of life. On the positive side, the Mayans were such great engineers, mathematicians, astronomers, architects, and artists, that we know much about them from their sculptures, artifacts, temples, and cities that still stand after so much elapsed time.

tulum ruinas-mayas-coba 300px-Templo_de_los_Guerreros

So you see, you get more than two types of diving when you explore the Riviera Maya and there is so much more than mere saltwater and freshwater diving to do on the Quintana Roo Peninsula. You can be a professional beach bum and rest in a chair while watching the tides come in and out, or you can seize the opportunity of a lifetime and explore the ancient Mayan world as a novice archaeologist. Perhaps the overall point we are trying to make here is that there are not a plethora of destinations in the world where the option to visit and dive in sacred cenotes and scuba dive in saltwater can be combined so many ways and then forged into one simply spectacular as well as historical dive adventure.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Dive Travel, Eagle Rays, Marine Life, Mexico, Pelagics, Pinnacles, Reefs, Riviera Maya, Scuba Diving, Scuba Training & Education, Sharks, Stingrays, Turtles, Underwater Photography, Walls, Whale Sharks, Wreck Diving, Wrecks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Peter Diving System

 

 

 

 

Every year at the DEMA (Dive Equipment and Marketing Association) Show, which is the largest dive industry trade show, among other things, we look for one new item, thing, device, or program that will help introduce the general public to the amazing world of scuba diving. This year at the November 2018 show, we had to give two fins and a snorkel up to the Peter Diving System. At first glance the Peter Diver System resembles a hookah system where air from the surface is supplied to divers down below. In this case two to three people can simultaneously breath off of one tank of compressed air. The tank, or cylinder of air, floats on the surface in a yellow boat shaped-like harness with multiple hand hold built right in the sides, and has a dive flag mounted on top. To use the system requires students to don a mask, snorkel, wet-suit, and fins. An instructor goes over a large sized but easy to follow teaching/safety training chart before taking the students into the water just like during a discover scuba diving program, then the students can put on a very light weight belt in warm waters, place the regulator in their mouth, and go under water. The peter system will let students dive down to a max depth of 6m (20ft).

The instructor stays with the students and can look up at the tank to see how the air supply is doing by quickly checking the color of the emitted gauge light: green is full, yellow is half full, and red is the last quarter of the tank, and time to surface. It’s fun and easy to learn and try, afterwards the kids are ready to do a discover scuba dive. They already know the drill about training by chart before the dive, so they are ready to take the next step, and before you know it, they are excited and ready to sign up to become open water divers, with weight, belts, buoyancy compensator vest, and back mounted tanks.

 

 

 

The conversion rate is great, but this is not the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. People with physical challenges or adaptive needs, will find that it is easy to use diving underwater when the weight of a back mounted tank is removed from the equation. It’s easier for those of us with back issues too. The entire system with a carbon tank may weigh only 10kg (22lbs) and only needs to be placed in the water, not strapped to your back during the dive. This is great for hull cleaners and people doing repairs underwater too, as tanks can get heavy even when you’re neutrally buoyant or floating like a leaf.

So, you can see that there are multiple benefits from using the Peter Diving System; SSI (Scuba Schools International), a worldwide diver certification/training organization has teamed up with a diving school in Majorca Spain to get people interested in the world below. The Peter Diving System is available in at least seven other locations around the world; see the map at www.peterdiving.com. We feel that any system that can easily excite and usher in new potential divers to any scuba training organization is a positive advancement for the entire scuba dive industry, as well as a win for all future local dive communities and a lifelong family recreational activity.

 

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Posted in Family Travel, Learning to Dive, Scuba Diving, Scuba News/Events, Scuba Training & Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bay Islands, Roatan, Utila, Guanaja, and more.

The Bay Islands

Roatán, Útila, Guanaja, and more.

When you think about the second largest Barrier Reef in the world, your first thought should be, “Why aren’t my bags already packed?”  We know divers and snorkelers that have been traveling down to the Bay Islands year after year and never seem to get tired of the endless dive sites, reefs, local wrecks, tropical beaches and island lifestyle. Perhaps one of the hardest decisions to make is which island to visit first. The Bay Islands consist of eight main Islands and 53 cays which are off the coast of Honduras. The largest Island is Roatán and boasts to have 176 dive sites. Guanaja claims some 50 dive sites, and Útila, the smallest of the big three, report to have 90 dive sites. On average, if you dove 4-5 dive sites a day, you could view most of the dive sites in as little as five months, but keep in mind, this estimate doesn’t include the other five islands and quite a few of the other cays. For example, many dive boat operators offer day tours over to Cayos Cochinos where 16 other buoyed dive sites are located. Underwater pinnacles and seamounts are also some favorite dive sites to visit. Also, some hotels, resorts, and dive operators boast that they have access to secret dive sites only revealed to their customers, clients, and distantly related soon to be best friends.

So what can you expect to see in the Bay Islands? Quite a lot actually, marine parks and designated reserves have helped the local coral reefs stay healthy, vibrant, and home to large schools of fish, lobsters, and crabs. Groupers, dolphins, rays, and sharks are the apex predators of the reefs, turtles frequently come in to the underwater camera or video frame, and migrating whale sharks especially around the island of Útila steal the show from February to June.

Some of the most famous dive sites around Roatán include: Dolphin Den where a maze of tunnels, and caverns, and is where a collection of dolphin remains were discovered; this site leads out through the reef and into the open water. Shark Dive is a sit in the sand encounter while experienced shark divers feed passing sharks. Hole in the wall is a must visit if you like sand chutes and tunnels. Also ask the locals which dive site is best to see, seahorses, encounter hammerheads, nurse sharks, big eye jacks, or specific corals. Wreck dives include: The 100m (300ft) long Odyssey wreck and the 70m (210ft) long El Aguila wreck is currently resting in three main sections.

Dive sites around Útila include:  Black Hills is a seamount dive exploding with fish and dense corals. Black Coral Wall is a wall dive like much of the local dives here, but with the extra added attraction of black coral found as shallow as 8m (24ft) . The Canyons dive site is filled with corals and small resident fish. The largest wreck dive here is the 30m (90ft) long Halliburton.

Dive sites around Guanaja include: Black Rock Canyons where volcanic flows formed cracks, caves, and tunnels and now teeming with life, and the Vertigo wall dive with mesmerizing drop- offs. The Pinnacle is known for its tendrils of black coral and seahorses. Wreck dives include: the 80m (240ft) long Jado Trader and the shrimp boat Don Enrique.

Now although the Bay Islands are part of Honduras, the Bay Islands are unique in several ways.  It all dates back to Christopher Columbus back in 1502 on his fourth and final “discover the new world” tour.  Because the local Paya islanders were unfamiliar with Christianity, they were by default deemed hostile, which was close enough to get one labeled as cannibals, which most definitely meant one was eligible for a sea voyage and sold to a plantation or mine where work would definitely not set one free. We can’t blame Columbus for all the islander’s deaths though, as European diseases brought by his men and others killed untold numbers of local indigents.  The point is, that the island population was decimated or soon became nonexistent on some islands, and made it a great place for migrations of English settlers, pirates such as Captain Morgan, black Caribs, and lastly, Cayman islanders to call home. It is because of all this that the primary language of the Bay Islands is a blend of English and the second most spoken language used is Spanish, while on the Honduras mainland Spanish is the primary language. The local cultures and customs are also unique to certain regions in the Bay Islands, which is also kind of interesting, and lends itself to different types and amount of spices used in preparing local food dishes and cuisine.  One thing to remember though, coconut and seafood dishes are king on the islands, especially conch ceviche, conch curry, conch soup Garifuna, cooked crab, and grilled lobster.

As far as accommodations go, Roatán offers the most choices and if you want your money’s worth, perhaps one of the  all inclusive or all meals resorts on Roatán is the way to go. On Útila and Guanaja there are similar but less resorts although one can also stay in a bungalow on a cay or a villa on a rock in these Bay Islands destinations. The limits are only as endless your budget, time you have available, and how close you want to be to the water’s edge.

The largest number of dive shops are on Roatán, and there are two professional dive schools here that may teach year round.  Students have been known to double up and take a dive-master course during the day and Spanish lessons in the evening. Other visitors come for the hiking, horseback riding or a side trip to the mainland to visit Copán and see the mysterious Mayan ruins.

Ask any whale shark and they will tell you that February through May there is less rain, hurricanes, and a plethora of plankton, but for the rest of us, the water is inviting year round.  We hope by now that you have been inspired enough to check out the Bay Islands. Be careful though, or you too may become a non-stop frequent flyer to the Bay Islands and find yourself with an airline bag half packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

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Posted in Bay Islands, Dive Destinations, Dive Travel, Dolphins, eagle rays, Guanaja, Honduras, Marine Life, Pinnacles, Reefs, Roatan, Scuba Diving, Scuba Training & Education, Sharks, Turtles, Underwater Photography, Underwater Video, Utila, Walls, Whale Sharks, Wreck Diving, Wrecks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Cuttlefish; The Undisputed Master of Camouflage.

The Cuttlefish

The Undisputed Master of Camouflage.

  

Off the shores of every ocean except around the Americas hovers one of most ingenious creatures in the world. The Cuttlefish can blend in with almost any natural substrate and most divers will swim unknowingly right by them as they appear to look like a clump of seaweed, a rock, or a patch of gravel. To begin with, they are not a fish, but a member of the phylum Mollusca along with snails and bivalve clams. The word “cuttle” may have come from the Old Norse word for “soft”. They are in the same class Cephalopoda as octopus, squids, and the nautilus. They have eight arms and two elongated tentacles similar to squid and in the middle of that ring of arms is a parrot like beak. They also have a unique internal porous plate called the cuttlebone. The purpose of this porous aragonite plate is similar to a scuba divers “BC”, buoyancy compensator, and the cuttlefish can change its buoyancy with just a little addition or subtraction of gas or fluid within the cuttlebone. You may have seen cuttlebones at a nearby pet store where they are sold as calcium enriched nibble treats for birds such as parakeets. So, while the squid flies just under the surface, and the octopus hugs the bottom or hides in dens, the cuttlefish is hovering over the substrate like a mysteriously color changing oblong shaped flying saucer in search of its next close encounter with shrimp, fish, or crab. They may be near shore in Australia or Indonesia, or found down to depths of 600m (2000ft) elsewhere. Apparently, below this depth their gas filled cuttlebone may implode, so great depth and cold waters may be the biggest reasons why they haven’t already invaded the Americas.

A couple of other things we should quickly mention is that they have three hearts. They use two of the hearts just to pump blood to their gills as they use hemocyanin, a bluish green copper protein, to carry oxygen around and this is less efficient than the rich red colored iron based hemoglobin that we use. The third heart pumps blood to the other parts of their body. Like the squid and octopus, they can squirt out a dark or brown ink that gives them a cloud to hide behind and may as well momentarily affect some predator’s sense of smell.

  

Lastly, we have to mention the eyes and brain. The eyes are shaped like squiggled W’s and have two concentrated sensor spots called foveae on each eye; one of the spots concentrated on light forward of the body, and the other sensor spot on light emitted behind the body. The eyes have no blind spot such as those found in human eyes, and they can even perceive polarized light as well as low levels of light, and without their eyes they can use their lateral lines to hunt in complete darkness. Their eyes may be considered quite advanced in so many aspects, but for the record, the cuttlefish is colorblind. They are constantly looking for visible cues such as light intensity, contrast, polarization, background patterns, and substrate textures. They have one of the largest brain to body mass ratio sizes in the invertebrate kingdom and some scientists believe cuttlefish are similar in intelligence to vertebrates such as pigeons and mice. In laboratories they can run simple maze tests and can be conditioned to learning at least two conditional rules to be used at the same time; such as looking for secondary signs in order to determine the best routes to escape through pipes, or be taught to tap on objects to receive food rewards.

  

On the basic level, their brain takes in the surrounding visual cues and as quick as lightning sends signals out to their seemingly electric skin to change color, patterns, and/or skin texture. Cuttlefish need use only one of three distinguishing methods to make themselves appear invisible. With small backgrounds such as sand, they use a uniform pattern and they blend in by appearing as a collection of sand particles.  For certain sized gravel rocks, they use a mottle pattern and they appear with larger colored areas that replicate as a group of rocks. The third method called disruptive, is used not to blend in with the background, but to disrupt or break apart their own body outline so that potential predators don’t recognize their natural body outline against underwater backgrounds, boulders, or large checkerboard backgrounds such as tested in marine labs. Add to this pattern coloration or different light intensities from forming different colors across their skin and you have a very stealthy and deceptive predator/prey species. Now add their ability to use muscular rings to pump up and transform regional skin tissues into bumps, blades, spikes, and leaflets, and you have what could be easily mistaken as an alien species.

To take a closer look at how they make their bodies change colors we only have to go skin deep. Just beneath the skin are layers of elastic sack cells containing different pigment colors, and commonly referred to as chromatophores. First we find yellow, then red, then deeper down brown pigmented chromatophores. Each chromatophore can reduce in size or increase in surface size by 500% merely by pulling on or relaxing their surrounding muscle cords. Below these chromatophores reside a layer of iridescent emitting and reflecting cells of the colors blue, green, red, and pink.  Below this layer are leucophores, cells that reflect all colors of light at once, or what we commonly refer to as white light. It appears to be a highly complicated eye to brain to skin activity, but cuttlefish can change color in some twenty million pigment cells in mere split seconds and still have extra brain power left to use for other evolving applications.

  

Besides camouflage, cuttlefish use their skin to communicate with each other including using locomotion indicators such as hovering, sitting, jetting, and postures such as arm position and, placement as well as fin shape, and head tilting. In Broadclub cuttlefish, smart smaller males have learned to appear as non-sexually receptive females to move without impunity around larger males guarding potential female mates. They can do this with such skill that the side of their body facing larger potential male rivals appears female in appearance while the side facing potential females partners they flaunt their male side and hence display to the female how clever they really are. While large males are allowed to mate with females some 30% of the time, the clever cross dressing smaller males are allowed to mate some 60% of the time and thus their learned ability to go covert or in duel disguise is successfully rewarded by receptive females over time and their abilities are more successfully propagated through each generation.

  

Another adaptive use of Broadclub cuttlefish is their ability to have waves of light appear to ripple across their head and arms which seems to hypnotize crabs while the cuttlefish prepares to strike from the best strategic angle, so as not to get pinched from the crab’s claws while bringing the crab into contact with their beak.

  

One species can use their colors to worn off predators or go one step farther as to highlight a yellow fringed warning color that they are poisonous such as the little Flamboyant cuttlefish who prefers to walk across the bottom of muck and rarely swims. They are the only cuttlefish known to be poisonous, and the poison is in their muscles, and perhaps as potent as the poison of the blue ring octopus. The fact that they walk similar to a lobe fin fish and have a reduced size cuttlebone could lead to a new evolutionary direction for this species. The fact that cuttlefish only live two years at most, have such a large amount of brain power, and have persisted in the fossil record since the Cretaceous times, shows that these rather unusual soft bodied aliens have the right stuff to keep on evolving and becoming even smarter and more diverse over time: that is, if sharks, fish, dolphins, seals, and humans don’t eat them all first.

 

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The Maldives: A Garland of Islands in the Indian Ocean

The Maldives: A Garland of Islands

In The Indian Ocean.

  

Nowhere else in the world can you find such a spectacular creation of coral and white sandy beaches rising just above the current sea level. Twenty six atolls and just fewer than 1200 islands form a chain from just below the equator to 804 km (500 miles) north. The average height of the land is 1.5m (4”11”) above sea level and the highest point is 2.4m (7’10”). It all started some 65 million years ago when a volcanic mountain range sprouted up above the surface in almost a straight row then gradually began to subside. Corals had time to grow micro layer by micro layer and form great communities around the volcanoes before earlier generations were forced downwards during bouts of subduction to depths as deep as 2100m (6400ft).

  

As for history, Sanskrit writings mention these islands as early as 500BC when sailors from India and the island of Java crossed through the Maldives on their way to trade with Madagascar and the eastern shores of Africa. The local Maldivian Buddhists converted to Muslim in the 12th century and the Maldives were given independence from England in 1965. In 1972 tourism began with two resorts, and now there are over 92 resorts spread out over 65 islands. While there are a few land based dive resorts, there are over 30 dive liveaboard operations. Tourism has become a major component of their economy and it’s safe to say that more than twice the number local Maldivians visit the islands each year.

  

So what’s the big attraction here? Turns out that the big attractions are whale sharks and mantas. With the small attractions including frogfish and seahorses. The islands are home to 1100 species of fish, 5 species of turtles, 187 species of coral, 145 species of crab, 48 species of shrimp, 21 species of whales and dolphins…you get the idea. Add 483 species of mollusks and echinoderms, and you have a recipe for filling hard drives, flash drives, and camera memory cards. But to be honest, we’re not really sure how many images of a seahorse, clown triggerfish, or manta at a cleaning station one can take before ever being really satisfied?

  

And speaking of endless lists, how about the local accommodations? You can stay in  accommodation on land, huts over the open ocean, rooms with infinity pools or you can adventure out and see more variety on a dive liveaboard. For lunch, you can dine in your cabana, at the main lodge, feast at a tented table at the end of a jetty, boat out to a secluded beach, or fine dine in an underwater restaurant which can be a one of a kind experience or an awkward experience if you ordered the catch of the day and you notice a school of fish looking at you in distain. And when it comes to water sports, Maldivians have a list of everything ready to try out from kayaking, jet skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, to submarines, and whale watching.

  

So when is the best time to dive here? Well to start off, the Maldives have two seasons. The Southwest season is wet with monsoon rains and this season goes from April or May until November with June to August having the most rain. During this time, There can be large plankton blooms that bring in large pelagics and visibility can range from 20-40 meters (65- 130plus) feet. The eastern side of the Maldives is where the Mantas and whale sharks will be most likely viewed during this season. The Northeast season on the other hand from December thru April/May, is dry and brings slightly warmer and calmer waters to the islands. The eastern side will have sharks and pelagics, but the mantas and whale sharks will be hanging out on the western side of the Maldives during this season. The northeast season is also when the liveaboard vessels head down south towards the equator, or you can board more northern exploring liveaboards at this time. The stronger currents that flowed in January will calm down and give rise to slack currents during March and April. But with this being said, our own experiences coupled with multiple feedback reports verify that the best time to visit the Maldives is year round and repeatedly.

  

So what about the dive sites? Unlike some vague dive site names such as found in mostly English speaking countries in the world, the Maldivians (even though many speak English) have perfected the names of dive sites and it’s almost amazing what you can discern with only knowing four words in their home language of Dhivehi.  So for all future reference, Kandu means channel, a Faru is a reef rising up in a channel, a Thila is a reef or pinnacle reef rising up inside an atoll, and a Giri is like a thila, but much smaller. When you have a thousand islands, this system makes every dive site easier to remember. Take the popular dive sites such as Fotteyo Kandu, Hembadhu Kandu, and Ziyaara Kandu. Just by the name you already know they are channel dives and most likely have caves, overhangs, swim throughs, small arches, or they lead to small reefs and have sharks, turtles, moray eels, schools of fish, and eagle rays swimming by on their way to work or Mantas stopping by the local cleaning stations. Kuda Faru, and Eri Faru are reefs in the channels where one would expect to find gray sharks, white tips, silver tips, Napoleon wrasse, coral, and invertebrates. Okobe Thila, Kudarah Thila, Mas Thila, all tell you that you will see tons of corals and schools of red teethed triggerfish, snappers, fusiliers, sweet lips, and more. Of course there are some dive site names in English that are rather precise and some popular ones include: Manta Point, Hammerhead Point, and Turtle Beach. Other popular sites with no clue in the name include: Three Palms for looking at nudibranchs, and Vacation Home Center for a variety of everything living in shallow to deep waters.

  

Of course there are over 2000 years worth of wrecks scattered around the channels, atolls, and deep reefs, but a few of the popular wrecks include the 35,000 ton Victory freighter, The Fesdu fishing trawler, the Halaveli cargo wreck and the Shipyard where two vessels rest near each other with Skipjack 1 resting at a vertical angle against the reef and the Skipjack 2 resting horizontal in the sand on its portside and both can be visited on one dive if currents permit.

  

So as you can imagine, it’s hard to visit all the possible dive sites in one single trip, no matter which season you choose, but it’s even more difficult to imagine that all the Maldives could become uninhabited within the next 80 years, as glaciers melt and the sea levels continue to rise and are predicted to increase by some 2m (6ft) in height by 2099 in a best case scenario as predicted by the majority of world leading scientists; although this well defined theory is not deemed accurate according to a the scientifically challenged. Either way, this unique Garland of islands comprised of 26 atolls needs to be preserved, protected, and profusely perused by you.

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Frogfish, The Overlooked Camouflage Artist

The Frog Fish

Nature’s Most Overlooked Camouflage Artist

  

There are over 48 species of frogfish, but few divers ever see them. In fact, most divers can’t see these cryptic colored critters until they are pointed out by a local scuba divemaster or guide. Frogfish are currently found in tropical and sub-tropical waters worldwide except for a few places such as the Mediterranean Sea. The Sargassumfish is a species of frogfish that lives near the surface in a raft of seaweed and has occasionally drifted as far north as Norway. Meanwhile, another species prefers brackish water close to shore. Some species prefer deep water and live as adults down to 4000m.

In Australia they are known as anglerfish, which may be more appropriate as the majority of these fish don’t really look like a frog and most of them have a first dorsal spine that looks like a rod (illicium) and at the end there is a lure (esca). The esca is shaped like the food source that their prey most often is attracted to, so some species have an esca that looks like a worm, while other species may have an esca that resembles a small shrimp or fish. The esca can regenerate if needed, so they never run out of imitating bait.

  

This ability for a fish to fish via rod and lure at first glance seems impressive, but for frogfish this alluring stroke of evolutionary creativity is just the beginning. They can attract fish larger than themselves and they can swallow such unlucky fish in one sudden gulp and this quick gulp process can take as little as six milliseconds to complete. Their prey has no time to react to this speed and that includes other anglerfish that get too close as well. They achieve this overwhelming suction ambush hunting technique by widening their mouth 12 times the natural opening size, doubling their stomach twice their own size, and by pumping extreme ramjet blasted amounts of water out through their gills.

Now, all the things mentioned so far would be spectacular achievements for a typical fish, but this hunting strategy is only feasible because of the aggressive mimicry behavior of frogfish. Frogfish don’t have scales and instead they rely on bare skin to keep them safe from predators. They put themselves right out in the open and in harm’s way, but first they camouflage themselves so brilliantly that most potential predators and photographers alike, swim right over or by them. In order to maintain this “you can’t eat what you can’t see” philosophical way of life, most frogfish can change colors to match their background. This process can take seconds, days, or months. Frogfish not only paint themselves with solid colors, but they can add intimate circles with spectacular detail that allows them to look just like sponges with porous openings. They can add lines to look like seaweeds or add smaller painted pores to look like corals. Their skin can also form into remarkable warts or bumps. Some species even developed what appear to be hairs, tassels, or leave like appendages derived from skin cells. They also allow clumps of algae and hydrozoa to grow or cultivate on their skin to help make them blend in with the surrounding rocks and substrate. They are such masters of camouflage, that one of the best ways to spot them quickly, becomes looking for a clump of algae, coral, or a sponge that to your surprise, has a fish, shrimp, or crab hanging out of its mouth.

  

It’s not just the adults that are good at camouflage, but the juveniles do it too. Larval forms floating in the plankton may have little tassels that help make them look like little tentacled jelly fish, and when they get big enough to sink to the ocean’s substrate, the young will change colors so they resemble toxic or foul-tasting sea slugs and flatworms.

Yes, they are cannibals, so no fish no matter what species that is less than twice the size of the frogfish is safe around them. Males may be one tenth the size of females, so after a moonlit night courtship which involves swimming upwards and releasing sperm and eggs, the male may end up as a lite snack if he gets too close to the larger female; it’s just what they do, nothing sexist or personal, fish gotta eat.

  

Now you would have to scuba dive around the globe to see most of them as one specie is found only in Hawaii. For the specie found in the Sargasso seaweed it might be easier to visit the display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City than paddle out hundreds of miles in the North Atlantic looking for the sargassum. Still another new species of frogfish was found recently in the Lembeh Strait off Sulawesi island, Indonesia. Coincidentally, Lembeh Strait has the highest concentration of different species of frogfish in the world. Local divers and resort operators track the movements and whereabouts of different frog fish throughout the year, as some species of frogfish remain in one place year-round if the hunting is good, while others either move around depending on what they currently feel like eating or to avoid predators such as sharks that use electro and chemical sensors to locate food. So, their camouflage may not always work with all predators at all times, but the fossil records show that it has worked pretty well for the last 23 million years and ironically, their evolutionary adaptations and longevity really make frogfish as a species stand out.

  

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Cebu and the Visayas Islands

Cebu and the Visayas Islands

The Heartland of The Philippines.

   

Magellan had no idea how good the scuba diving in this part of the world was, but in 1521 when Spain was big time in to colonizing the world, you couldn’t find a decent set of fins or a mask and snorkel to save one’s own life, so instead Magellan attacked the locals of Mactan Island and you probably guessed by now that his opportunistic overtures didn’t end well. After several other attempts, the Spanish finally colonized Cebu Island in 1565 and they had no clue that the surrounding waters were filled with large whale sharks, thresher sharks, hammerhead sharks, and pristine coral reefs. They also had no way of knowing that one day, Cebu’s white sand beaches and tropical sunsets would be more precious than all the gold in…well…Spain.

  

Cebu is the ninth largest out of some 7,100 islands that make up the Philippines and Cebu is one of the 167 islands that make up the central region of the Philippines. Because of the Spanish conquest, Cebu city is the oldest, as well as the first Christian city in the Philippines. Right next to the three million inhabitants of Cebu is Mactan Island; home to the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. It takes an hour flight from Manila or a 24-hour ferry ride to reach Cebu City and Mactan Island. The reason we mention all this is because adjacent to Mactan Island are more than a dozen well known dive sites. You can start right off shore at Kontiki Reef, or dive off one of the nearby islands such as Nalusuan Island Marine Sanctuary, Cabilao Island, Olango Island Marine Sanctuary, Shangri-La Marine Sanctuary, out at Hilutungan Island Marine Sanctuary. As you can see, there are lots of marine sanctuaries around Cebu and the neighboring islands. Photographers might enjoy Tambuli Reef and airplane wreck, or a nice macro dive at Agus Bay with soft corals, sponges and colorful fish. For advanced, cavern or tech divers adhering to safe diving limits for compressed air, Nitrox and mixed gases, Mactan Island is home to The Marigondon Cave where the ceiling starts at 30m (90ft) and the floor base is 43m (130ft) and goes back 40m (120ft). If you like large invertebrates, and pulsing flashlight fish, then this is the dive for you. If you are into wreck dives, then the 63m (190ft) long San Juan Ferry is the largest nearby wreck, but this 400 passenger vessel rests at 50m (150ft) of depth with the top at 35m (105ft). It’s been collecting coral and fish since an explosion took out the engine room in 2000. For another deep dive, there’s Tingo Point off of Olango Island. Here at 40m (120ft) is a ledge that drops off into a deep wall dive, but right off the wall and into the blue you have a chance to see thresher sharks on the lookout for schools of fish. The Monad Shoal at Malapascua is another site known for seeing thresher sharks at shallower depths rather than there usual deep water habitat.

  

Down on the southwestern end of Cebu Island is the town of Moalboal where there must be more than two dozen dive sites. Pescador Island has the most requested dive sites such as Cathedral Cave with a awe inspiring view of the surface and a great place for night dives too. This area is also a marine sanctuary with plentiful fish, turtles, and coral. As for other dive sites, Tongo also has an impressive reef, caves, and drop off walls. Dolphin House has coral, caves, and pygmy seahorses. Panagsama Beach is the place to view the sardine run and Talisy Reef is a turtle sanctuary area. There are also lots of resorts, restaurants, and white sand beaches to check out here in your free time.

There are also charter operations that cruise around the Visayan Archipelago. You can dive Pescador Island, Balicasag Island off of Bohol Island and Sumilon Island. The marine sanctuary near the southern town of Oslob is where licensed operators can provide  snorkeling and diving with whale sharks. Near Siquijor you can dive Sunken Island which is known for its schools of Napoleon wrasse, humphead parrot fish, and frog fish. As you can see, the diving sites seem to be endless and since Pilipino time is uncannily in sync with Margaritaville time, you can see how it could take many a fresh seafood dinner and incredible physical effort to leave the relaxing white sand beaches to visit all the local dive locations on a single visit.

 

Things to know before you go: current is 220 volts, so bring a converter or two. The water temp varies between 23-30˚C (73-86˚F). You will see potentially poisonous sea snakes, but they are mildly mannered and generally won’t bite your tail if you don’t pull on theirs. Giving them a meter (3ft) of space is also a nice gesture or common curtesy. Some 26 million people speak the Philippine National language of Pilipino which is a central Manila dialect of Tagalog, but in Cebu and the surrounding islands, some 20 million people speak Cebuano, which is the second most spoken language out of the 180 some languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines. Fortunately for many of us, the most spoken foreign language in the Philippines is American English.

Most diving is done from traditional Philippine wooden hull vessels with outriggers called Bankas; pronounced (Ba ankas) they range from several to 13m (10-40ft) long. They are very sturdy and dependable in open waters and you will quickly become an expert at diving off and boarding back on again. Other local types of transportations to try are the Jeepneys which were originally transformed WWII willys jeeps with elongated seating compartments on the back end and metal horse statues welded to the hood on the front end. Now, some are prefabricated or made using Japanese trucks, and include very elaborate paint jobs and more fog lights than Baja 500 dune buggies. The motorized tricycles are a hoot to try too. The limited number of occupants and restricted weight or size of luggage seems to be anyone’s guess.

  

Now on your non-diving day we recommend a day trip to nearby Bohol Island to view the Chocolate Hills, the Matutinao Nature Park, Philippine tarsiers, and a boat ride on the Loboc river. You can also do an eight hour trip up to the Chambuhat Oyster Farm for a delicious seafood lunch. Back on Cebu Island you should make a point of going  to Oslob and possibly to Sumilon Island for some time in the sun, water, and beach.

Near Oslob you can go to the village of Tan-awan where they feed the whale sharks krill. Tourists on Cebu will fill a highly organized parade of boats. Tourists can paddle out to the whale sharks where they have an opportunity to get in the water and snorkel with a group of whale sharks. This is a controversial tourist attraction as the normal migration of whale sharks in this area is 60 days and one whale shark named Mr. Bean lingered in this area 362 days just for the free food. Secondly, the krill they feed the whale sharks is just a small portion off all the types of krill whale sharks normally dine on along their normal migratory path. The jury is still out on if this is like eating a diet of hotdogs every night, but you get the idea. Lastly, the local whale sharks have become unafraid of boats, yet they have not had enough evolutionary time to learn to be wary of boats with propeller blades, which has had some negative consequences.

  

There are also a number of water falls to explore and day trips that include picnics and private beach excursions. Cebu has a number of modern shopping malls to explore for those that need more surface time. There are also several historical museums, historical sites such as Fort San Pedro built (started) in 1565, a must see Taoist temple, Christian and other religious as well as cultural landmarks, including the encased cross that Magellan brought to the islands on his ill-fated voyage. It’s ironical, but had Magellan come to Cebu as a tourist instead of a would-be conqueror, he would have had a great visit and great memories, instead of just the time of his life.

  

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Posted in Dive Destinations, Dive Resorts / Properties, Dive Travel, Marine Life, Muck Diving, Pelagics, Philippines, Reefs, Scuba Diving, Sharks, Turtles, Underwater Photography, Underwater Video, Whale Sharks, Wreck Diving, Wrecks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment