Saturday, March 13, 2010
We recently spent several days in Donsol, Philippines. We were lucky enough to swim with several whale sharks and visit a waterfall that falls into the ocean. We had a great time. The only negative about the experience was the lack of compliance to the rules that are meant to protect the whale sharks. The Interaction Center says that when you go out on a boat with a guide that the guides will follow a rule of one boat for one shark. Several times there were several boats who all had their swimmers in the water with a shark together. At times there were more than thirty people in the water at once. Over the course of four days, I saw several people intentionally touch whale sharks. Having thirty people swimming with one shark made it impossible for the guides to completely enforce the rule against touching. Even when a guide saw a guest touch, there is no enforced punishment. It is an amazing experience, but rule enforcement is a work in progress.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
We weren't quite sure what we were getting ourselves into. We found the Ari Jaya on the internet, and it seemed like just what we were looking for. But we couldn't find much information apart from the website, and it seemed too good to be true. As soon as Aleksandra picked us up at the airport, we knew everything was going to be terrific. We soon boarded the Ari Jaya, our new home for ten days. We sat on deck, discussed the itinerary, and sipped avocado shakes which were surprisingly good. Aleskandra was a great host. She is very personable, responsible and accommodating. If you are looking for a trip that you can tailor to your needs, this is a great way to go. We were able to talk with her about what we were interested in seeing and photographing. She listened and offered good suggestions based on what we said. She was also very flexible when we requested repeat dives or wanted to move on. And she's a great dive master who enjoyed the diving as much as we did.
The Ari Jaya is fairly basic, but it is nice and comfortable. There is one shared bathroom on deck with a warm water shower. It was clean and easily accessible for a quick shower after diving. The cabins below are small, with curtains for doors, but we had enough room to dress and store our clothes, and that proved to be all we really needed. The boat has a unique design with a large flat area to sit or lie on in the shade. We spent the majority of our time here. It was a cool place to sit and relax on cushions out of the sun. There were also two comfortable deck chairs on the bow of the boat that I liked to sit in to read or look for falling stars at night. The sunsets and surroundings were beautiful everywhere we docked. At the Cannibal Rock anchorage, we saw monkeys and pigs running on the beach and komodo dragons swaggering at dusk. We also watched eagles fish and fight for food. They sounded like jets when they swooped close to our boat. At another spot, we saw thousands and thousands of bats flying out of their caves at dusk. It was mesmerizing.
The food was good and healthy. It was mostly Indonesian with seafood and chicken or beef. There was usually a salad and there were always vegetables. We ate fresh fruit for dessert. When we weren't eating much fruit, the cook started making us fruit shakes instead. We also had snacks during the day as well as water, tea, coffee, beer, and soft drinks.
It was just the two of us, so we had the boat all to ourselves. The crew was always there to help, but it felt private and quiet. At night we chose to sleep on deck. Most nights we were sleeping under the stars reflected in perfectly still water with no other boats around. It was quiet and peaceful. The temperature was cool, but comfortable, and sleeping outside in the fresh air was very nice.
I wore a 5mm wetsuit that I am very glad I picked up in Bali. I also wore a hood and gloves. In the south, I got cold at the end of each dive. The rest of the time it was a bathing suit or a t-shirt and shorts. At night, I wore a sweatshirt. Other things I took and would highly recommend are sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, an Ipod, a camera and several books. Big beach towels are provided. Scrabble is also on board. It's the Polish version, so that makes it interesting. The z is only worth 2 points. There are fish ID books on board and lots of scuba magazines and books mostly in German and Polish.
This trip was remote and exotic. It was pristine and beautiful, with a good mixture of peaceful relaxation and adventure. It was uncrowded, and the diving was spectacular. It was my first encounter with mantas and I could have done that one dive over and over again. We were probably the only 3 people in the water that day with dozens of mantas close enough to touch. I didn't want to leave.
We spent the first six days diving the major sites in the north part of the park, including Batu Balong, Castle Rock, Crystal Rock, and Karang Makasar. The diving in the north typically consisted of fast currents, beautiful soft corals on the reefs, large schools of fish, humphead parrot fish, napoleon wrasse, giant trevally, occasional white tip or grey reef sharks, and much more. I think there would also be good macro, but with the strong currents and large fish around, it was difficult to pay attention to the macro. We dove Karang Makasar twice, and it was magical. There isn't much to see on the site besides the mantas, but what else do you really need.
For the last four days we headed down south to anchor at Cannibal Rock and dive the surrounding sites. The water in the south was cold, but the reef was beautiful. The reef seemed to be in great shape with hard and soft corals, crinoids, and critters covering nearly every inch of rock. It was great for both macro and reefscape pictures, and, of course, we came across numerous sea apples. The night dives in the south were also fantastic. Twice we came across squid that stayed around for a few minutes and let us get pictures. The different types of crabs, shrimp, and various other invertebrates were too numerous to mention. A few times we got surrounded by groups of blue fin and giant trevally that were hunting and dashing around at high speeds. Just watching the speed at which they move is exciting and gets my heart beating a little faster.
It was a special trip for us, certainly one that we hope to do again. Aleksandra is launching a new, bigger boat in October. We are trying to plan when we can go back. Aleksandra says she has some ideas about how to preserve to intimate, private boat feel on the larger boat. My plan is to recruit a group of friends to go with us, so that we still have a boat to 'ourselves', just a larger group of 'ourselves'.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
While ascending from a wreck dive last week in Panama City Beach, Florida, there was a school of atlantic spade fish that swam to us. This group was exceptional for taking photographs, because they swam tightly packed together, and they were completely unafraid of me and allowed me to come very close. I have recently been wanting to get some fish school pictures, but I haven't had many chances where I could approach close enough to fill my wide angle lens.
I took a lot of pictures, and it gave me an opportunity to practice lighting silver fish. Silver fish can be difficult to light, because if you light them too brightly they reflect it back as white light. If you don't get enough light on them, the blue of the water will wash their color out. So this gave me a chance to practice several methods including only using natural light and color balancing after the fact, using my typically strong powered strobes with a small aperture (the size of the hole that opens up in the lens to take the picture), and turning the power of strobes down to get some highlights lit up on the fish without lighting up the entire fish. The easiest way to get acceptable results is to turn the strobes off and white balance (the second image above), but my favorite pics came from using the strobes but at their lowest power setting.
More spade fish photos and Panama City Beach scuba photos here.
Thanks for reading.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Apparently, a while back, Panama City took an old bridge they were replacing and broke it into pieces and sunk the pieces out in the Gulf. These spans quickly became artificial reefs that attract fish, divers, and fishing. Last week Shannon and I did a dive on one of them. Above is a picture of Shannon descending on the top of the bridge structure.
This span had large congregations of small baitfish.
And, of course, the baitfish bring in the occasional predator.
This was a large school of Amberjack that swam around with us for much of the dive. Occasionally, an Amberjack would swoop in on the baitfish for a meal.
Shannon and I spent the last few weeks in Panama City Beach, Florida and had a few great opportunities to swim in the Gulf of Mexico with dolphins. We went out on jet skis once, and I jumped in the water and had a great experience of two dolphins swimming around me several times. On another day, we went diving at the St. Andrews jetty. Immediately upon descending, eight dolphins surrounded us and swam around looking at us for about a minute before swimming off. We could still hear them communicating, and luckily they were curious enough to come back for a second look. Finally, while Shannon's best friend Jenny was in town, we rented a center console boat and took it out into the Gulf where dolphins seemed to be everywhere we went.
The first two times we saw them, I did not have a camera. My underwater housing was sent in for some minor repairs, and besides it doesn't fit on a jet ski very well. When we went out with Jenny, I still didn't have my camera, but I did learn from the first two experiences to bring Shannon's camera along. The viz was terrible, but I was able to get a few fun portraits.
Being in the water with wild dolphins is a special experience. Doing it three times in the space of a few weeks doesn't change that one bit. When they seem to pivot around in the water to look you in the eyes, it is difficult to describe the experience any other way than magical.
For more photos from Panama City Beach, click here.
For my portfolio of my favorite pictures from this year, click here.
Contact us if you want to share our next magical experience with us.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Shannon and I are currently staying in Panama City Beach. Shannon's brother Steve is getting married in a few weeks in Alabama, so we are hanging out here until then. On Thursday morning we went diving at the jetty at St Andrews State Park. Picking up air fills and food took longer than we planned, and by the time we got there we had missed high tide by one hour--we had heard the ideal time to dive the site is one hour before high tide :( Not to be deterred, we put our scuba gear on and made a long walk to the gulf. Unfortunately, for most of the dive we couldn't see anything because of terrible visibility. I hung on to Shannon's BC so that we didn't lose each other while descending. It worked, but even at depth there was no viz.
After swimming around the end of the jetty, into the channel that goes to the bay, we found good enough viz if we stayed at 30 feet deep. Below 30 feet, the viz would close up to nothing, and above it the same. For whatever reason, we could see each other from six or seven feet away as long as we stayed at 30 feet deep and on the bay side of the jetty.
Unfortunately for us, there were lots of people fishing off of the jetty at the time. I haven't been diving around fisherman before, so I wasn't sure how great the risk is of being hooked, but I can imagine the result is pretty bad if it happens. We didn't get hooked, but we did come across of fish that was hooked on a broken line.
He still had a lot of life in him, but Shannon was eventually able to grab him and I grabbed and removed the hook. It seems simple, but it was a two person job. Shannon's gloves made it easier for her to grab the fish without getting stuck by a spine on his gills, but she didn't have quite enough dexterity to remove the hook. I am sure if needed, either one of us could have done it on our own, but it was just easier for her to hold the fish and me to remove the hook. There is some unique sea life at this site, but unfortunately the area is overrun with discarded fishing lines and lures. I would imagine many fish lose their lives to lures and lines that are broken off and become a deadly form of trash. We will be adding more pics of Panama City Beach here.