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Vance's Personal Dive Log for the year 2008

Vance Stevens, P.A.D.I. Open Water SCUBA Instructor #64181

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Vance, Bobbi, and Dusty's girlfriend Joan emerging from diving off Dibba Rock March 1, 2008

Date Logged Dive # Location Diving with Trainees and buddies
080126 - January 26, 2008 797 Dibba Rock Freestyle Time of year for another Wadi Bih Race. Bobbi was away in Bahrain, but Dusty was in town with his girlfriend Joan and with Omar and an old BSAC diving buddy John Kiernan we made a team to run Wadi Bih on Friday. This year the race started and ended in Dibba, so we booked a room at the Seaside, drove up Thu, and left our dive gear there while we ran the 72 km up the mountain and back. After the race, and an afternoon meal at the Golden Tulip in Dibba, Oman, Dusty, Omar and I (John went to the 'villa' and Joan had a nap) went over to Freestyle to call in at the bottle shop and sit on the Freestyle lanai and sample the wares. A cold wind was churning up the waves, it was overcast, and sitting out was most unpleasant, so we headed home, ordered delivery, and sampled wares until falling into a second GREAT night's sleep..

Joan's Advanced Open Water Boat Dive - Next morning we reported to Freestyle for diving and had a great dive on the rock, but felt while doing it that it was so-so. The weather was not so bad in the morning. The seas were still not flat, but vis was good. The boatman noticed the current was running northwest toward Musandam and he took us to southeast side of the rock. Joan had just certified in Cancun so we had to ease her into the water in a stiff current. My plan was to go north toward the rock and then move more toward the WNW to come out on the raspberry coral patch. But the current was moving us with it and Dusty was taking care of Joan so Omar and I were hanging on to rocks waiting for them. There were barracuda in the shallows and nearer the rock a shark powered past moving with the current. I may have been the only one to see it. Actually I don't remember much from the dive because it was so disorienting fighting the current and the tide was going out and leaving things shallow so I would pop my head out from time to time and make sure I was oriented properly. In this way I managed to place us on the usual mooring line and take us along the wall to the raspberry patch. There I saw a second black tip, and Omar, keeping up with me, saw it too. On this part of the dive, the current dissipated a little and we were able to move about over the reef. Dusty kept signalling that he was at 50 bar, 30 etc. But we were shallow and he was being informative rather than concerned so he and Joan managed to catch a glimpse of some devil rays right at the end. We all surfaced healthy and happy but after the boat ride back and cold wade to shore, clouds and wind picking up, we didn't feel like doing a second dive, so we headed home.
080209 - February 9, 2008 798-799 Dibba Rock Freestyle Joan Lim's Advanced Open Water Deep and U/W Naturalist Dives
On Friday we ran the Terry Fox annual event in Abu Dhabi and toward evening we got our act together for the move over to Dibba. We had a great chicken tikka dinner in Dhaid en route and rolled up at Al Raha apts at around 11 at night (Seaside, next door, was full). We slept reasonably well and reported to Freestyle at 9 a.m. Saturday

First dive on the Inchcape was predictably and competently executed. Joan was briefed on minimum surface interval calculation on the way out to the wreck and she headed down the mooring line her first really deep dive without a hitch despite strong current that was only slightly diminished at the bottom. We were the only divers we saw on the wreck. A boatload from Al Boom was just leaving as we arrived, and the only other buddy pair on our boat stayed out of sight from us. Still the dive, which used to be cracking, was a little disappointing. The wheelhouse was lost in the storm last summer, the honeycomb morays were not at home, I didn't see a single scorpion fish, and the storm had collapsed the hull so that rays could no longer get under it and hide. Despite the relatively poor vis could still see the wreck was surrounded by shoals of snappers, but 20 min, the NDL for 30 meters, was quite enough for short attention spans on that dive. The kids were low on air so we actually started up at 18 minutes. Everyone stayed on the anchor line for the haul up in rebuilding current and hung in there for the three minute safety stop, and we exited the water safely with another dive challenge met and ready for the log books.

It was a cold boat ride back, but seas were calm, the sun was out in clear blue skies, and the sea and mountain backdrop looked picture postcard. Back at the dive shop, out of the wind, we warmed up for a second dive. We had walked through the u/w navigation the day before but due to the current and receding tide we decided to postpone that one to next week and make this an u/w naturalist dive instead.

On Dibba Rock an u/w naturalist dive means you go looking for sharks and devil rays. We didn't see any sharks but I did spot a few rays in mid shallow water. I don't think the kids saw them. What we couldn't avoid all through the dive, the entire 51 minutes almost, were schools of large, hulking, and very proximal barracuda. These guys were swarming all over the raspberry coral patch, which was where we chose to spend our dive, even though at the start we almost missed the patch. We started the dive down the mooring, where Dusty found a flounder, but eventually moved too shallow and let the current move us off course. I noticed at the end of the dive that the boat had picked up the others way down current, so most likely the others had let themselves get carried away, but I managed to compensate for current and keep my group in the coral patch for lots of encounters with the barracudas, some devil ray sightings, and three times fleeting visits by Spanish Mackerel, the largest fish we saw all day. This being an u/w naturalist dive we also noted invertebrates such as anemones, sea urchins, clams, sea cucumbers; and other fish too common and numerous to mention: e.g. the puffers, torpedo fish, triggers, rainbow wrasse, clownfish in the anemones, snappers, parrots, tangs (surgeons), damsels, etc. etc. As usual, and despite no sharks or turtles, it was a great dive off Dibba Rock.
080301 - March 1 800-801 Dibba Rock Freestyle Joan Lim's Advanced Open Water U/W Navigation and Peak Buoyancy Dives for certification - Picture at the top of this page
The vis off Dibba Rock was not good, lots of algae-like suspended matter in the water gave the site a brownish tinge and obscured objects two meters away. Temperatures were a cool 23 degrees centigrade, not icy, but cool in 3.5 mm of neoprene and lycra. These conditions can be interesting for navigation work. Unfortunately I left my reel on shore and had to conduct the 30 meter kick cycle calibration on my own fin kicks. I found a pipe in the water and led us 30 m from that, and Joan counted 26 kicks, 50 sec. I normally lay line on this exercise and then take it up to go over the same route on return, but vis was so poor that it was impossible to find the starting point so with our choreography broken Joan started getting confused on the dead reckoning part of the exercise and I decided to move into compass work. We finned into the raspberry coral patch and found a level rock slab with a fist of coral growing on it. I signalled Joan to head south from there, which she did, pretty much on course. She reversed and overshot the slab but was counting kicks so she stopped short still within site of it. I stayed on it and could still see them when she and Bobbi stopped so I motioned them back and we went into the square pattern from there. Due to current and vis I suggested Joan go just 20 kick cycles, starting up current to the west. I followed her on my own heading, and she turned about where I did. On the south leg she again coincided with my distance and heading, well done. On the third leg she was now finning with the current. I compensated for it but she didn't and she went a little far on that leg I thought. On the last leg, she again performed a fine heading and stopped at the prescribed number of kicks. There was no slab in sight but I calculated it would be back up-current to the west, so I led that way a few kicks, and there it was. Considering the conditions, Joan had done a sterling job of navigation;

We had been running into schools of big barracuda on our meanderings, and Joan had seen a turtle, but though we spent another 5 or 10 min more just looking on that dive before Joan's air ran low (at around 45 min; 7.8 meters) we saw no more interesting animals. Devil rays had been reported in the area, and snorkelers were seeing sharks, but we were too focused on our work on this dive to encounter these animals.

Next dive took place from 1:26 (and lasted 45 min, 13.8 meters). Andy took us to the south side of the rock on the assumption that current was running northwest, so we decided to do the visual reference skill of the navigation dive from the mooring in addition to the peak buoyancy work Joan had been doing on both dives today. We swam 30 m from a big rock near the mooring line and I put up the marker buoy. I had Joan lead us back to rock which she did more or less (we found it). But getting back to the buoy was another matter. It would have been easier with better vis, but there were not enough obvious landmarks in the drabness for an inexperienced diver, so we missed it again. I surfaced and spotted it, and we went that way to collect it but I decided not to spend the entire dive in that area, so we popped over the wall and into the sand on the back side. Joan probably wondered why we wheeled around in the featureless sand. We were looking for rays, didn't find any, and we continued along the back side wall, found a green moray, and headed shallow on around the rock, coming up on the moorings just short of the raspberry coral patch. This could potentially have been the best part of the dive, the place where the more interesting animals are normally spotted in this area. But my buddies were getting cold and low on air, and we surfaced just short of where I would like to have ended the dive in the raspberry coral patch.
080307 - Friday, March 7, 2008 802-804 Dibba Rock Freestyle divers Leslie Op-Beckman's boat and navigation Advanced Open Water dives - plus a fun dive with Cal Ponton

Visibility was improved but not excellent. On our first dive Leslie was readjusting to the environment, Seth was helping her, and Bobbi was tending to Kiwi, so when I saw a shark I'm not sure if anyone else saw it. Actually I'm writing this a week after the event and I don't remember all that well what we saw on our morning dive on Dibba Rock. I think we saw turtles. There was a slight current. It's coming back to me. We started from the east and drifted over our favorite coral patch midway through the dive. When I recognized that we were in the area of the NW corner mooring lines I reversed us and kept us in the coral. There were a lot of fish there. It was a beautiful dive. But only the one shark.

Second dive, Bobbi dropped out (back problem) but Dusty and Glenn joined Kiwi and I and. Leslie did her navigation with Seth again as buddy. Her compass work was excellent. There was a stiff current though so that we tended to get swept to the north on exercises. In the square pattern the south and north legs were hard to compensate for. We were fighting current against the southern leg and on the final northern search for where I'd left my inflatable SMB I spotted it only 13 kicks into the course. Leslie had gone well past it by the time she stopped, I couldn't find it when I searched to the south, and I had to recover it by boat at the end of the dive. I thought the exercise was successful though because if there had not been a current Leslie would have succeeded just fine. We had a bit of time and air left for a cruise over the coral patch but again I don't recall there was anything apart from beautiful tropical fishes there.

Cal Ponton showed up for the third dive. Everyone else was ready for a break so I went with him, just the two of us. There weren't many on the reef so we had it to ourselves apart from one other pair of divers we never saw. The sharks had come back though. I saw three of them, one about 2.5 meters, and Cal saw the last one I did (people have to stay up with me in order to see the sharks when I do). We saw turtles as well, and lots of the big fish in mid water and the smaller colorful reef fish we had seen on the first dive. The third dive was the best of the day.

We had been planning to do a night dive but Leslie and Seth were feeling jet lagged having arrived only the day before, and it was chilly enough that the others didn't insist. So we called it a day, no pun intended.
080308 - Sat, March 8, 2008 805 Inchcape at Al Aqa'a Freestyle divers Leslie Op-Beckman's deep Advanced Open Water dives - We did a deep dive on the Inchcape wreck across from Le Meridien Al Aqa'a. This is a technical dive for beginning divers. It always goes about the same only this time we had ripping currents at the surface. We took our time going overboard. Seth, master diver, stayed back on the tag line and recovered people if they got swept aft. Once in it was necessary to claw our way to the buoy and then get down it, hanging on the mooring line like pennants in a stiff breeze. The current dissipated at 30 meters and everyone was a lot happier below. Cal and Kiwi buddied, Leslie and Seth likewise, and my two boys made a third pair. Those who hadn't been before were impressed with the fish swarming the wreck. Some saw the honeycombed morays, and we all enjoyed the big lion fishes in the holds. Everyone watched the time well and after 20 min we headed up the line, did our safety stops, and got back on board.

We were going to do another dive or perhaps two more to complete Leslie's course, but a big oil slick was spotted heading for Dibba Rock and we decided to abort for the rest of the day. That was a bummer. It was shaping up to being a fine day.

Leslie and Seth were on holiday and stayed down for the rest of the week. They reported later that some days they had Freestyle and Dibba Rock all to themselves. On those days they saw "tons of sharks" as Leslie put it as well as eagle rays. Leslie complete her Advanced course with the diving pros there during that time.
080328 - Fri & Sat, March 28-29, 2008 806-808 Dibba Rock Freestyle Freestyle had no place on the Friday 9 o'clock boat to Dibba Rock, we didn't feel like doing Inchcape, so we rolled up Friday for the noon dive. We had got up early, got an early start, and arrived in the Dibba area around 11, so we had lunch at Bon Burger (iffy) and decided to look in at Dhiyafa residences on the off chance they might have a room. They don't take reservations any more and we had come intending to sleep in the car, maybe inland somewhere, and go for a hike next morning. We'd downloaded a few possibilities for hiking from the Chirri 2000 site. But there WAS a room available at Al Dhiyafa, only 230 including the new 20% tourist tax, 240 if you don't mention you are there for diving. So we decided to take the room, hadn't expected that, and to stay for an additional Sat morning dive, which we booked as soon as we arrived at Freestyle.

The way Dibba Rock works is, it's full of animals, but ideally you have to go when it's quiet. Unfortunately, as mentioned, the morning boat hadn't even had a place on it, and most of the divers were still around for the noon dive. So it was crowded, so crowded that as we went along the reef, we saw other divers and snorkelers just either side of us, so there wasn't much along the edge of the raspberry coral patch. Eventually we did come on a shark there, at the edge of the sand, but the highlights of that dive were, for me, big school of juvenile barracudas that were hovering over a dense ball of snappers; and for Bobbi, the cuttlefish family (Bobbi noted there was a mommy, a daddy, and a baby cuttlefish there). The cuttlefish were nice and ripply, and iridescent at times, and there were also turtles around, not seeming to mind divers. It was easy to see their skins pocked by little rings of barnacle shell.. There were bat fish lying around flat on the reef. At one point a devil ray popped into view and circled close enough for me to clearly see his head and eyes. We stayed down 60 minutes, 7 meters, 24 degrees C.

.It was a pretty dive, but we had to wait till 4 pm to get the rock back the way we like it. By then there were fewer divers wanting to go, mainly people on courses, and some snorkelers, and there had been no other boats on the rock since the noon session. So the rock had been left in peace for the last couple of hours. We moored at the near buoy on the left and from there it was just a short fin into the coral patch. Bobbi and I were first in so I figured we'd head for the middle this time, just the two of us. We found the barracudas and the ball of snappers and the sharks had come back. There were a couple of them prowling the reef and we spotted them a number of times before the other divers appeared on the scene and the sharks vanished. But the turtles were still there, and the cuttlefish, and all the other Indian Ocean reef fishes. And also there was a huge mackerel that I saw twice, the size of a shark, but not a shark, on the prowl, hungry, now you see him, now you don't. We surfaced after 58 minutes, 7 meters, 24 degrees C.

The best dive of the weekend and certainly for the year so far was next morning at nine. Our boat was full again, nine polite young local divers from a school in Dubai and some others on courses. It was a boat load but I requested to be able to enter the water first, before the boat briefing (we knew the drill) permission granted. I also got to choose the dive spot, the mooring on the left. Bobbi and I entered the water ahead of all the others, finned to the reef, and straight to the center as we had the day before, but vis seemed a little hazy and apart from an imperturbable turtle at the start of the reef, there were no exciting fish. Lots of beautiful stuff about but no barracudas, a few snappers but no dense ball as the day before, And no sharks.

We criss crossed the reef. I went to its top end where it becomes barren rock and across the purple coral to the sand end. Nothing. I decided to follow the sand around where it met the reef, half expecting to see the other divers coming the other way, but we saw no one. We followed the reef along till we passed under the shadow of our boat, back where we started, and continued on a few kicks to where the crossed anchor marks the reef, and that's where I spotted the barracuda. When I see those barracuda I figure I'm near where there could be sharks, and sure enough one came gliding in over the reef. I checked my watch, 25 min. into the dive.

To make a long happy story short, there were three sharks in that area. They were a little coy at first, and when two came into view together and saw us they bolted but then returned. Normally when we see sharks they try to avoid divers. But these behaved differently. Maybe it's because Bobbi and I can hover and not move much, but these guys started circling us. Not menacingly, just keeping a certain distance but this was their territory and whatever they were looking for there they didn't seem inclined to give it up. At one point one of the sharks stuck his nose in the reef and went vertical as if to go after something, an eel maybe. But mainly these three guys just shared space with us for the next 15 minutes. Bobbi and I hardly moved off the spot, we just kept pivoting watching this shark and then that one, and sometimes two and sometimes all three at a time. Now and then the big barracudas would come into view or schools of fusiliers would intervene between us and the sharks. The sharks frequently came within a few meters of us and I could distinguish them by where the remoras were on their backs. They didn't seem to mind us but didn't want to get too close to us either. They didn't know, we could have been dangerous!

We were asked to keep our dive times to 50 min but because we were always first in I felt I could exceed that time by a little. Some other divers happened by at that point and I mistook them for our group so I thought we might follow them. They almost passed by without seeing the sharks, but the leader finally saw one and started clacking. We thought if we stayed with these guys we would minimize inconvenience to the boat handlers but it turned out they weren't ours. We surfaced anyway and saw our group FAR to the south. We'd hung out near the entry point but they had moved with the current. There were half a dozen people in the water around the distant boat, and rather than wait at the surface, I took a bearing on it and suggested to Bobbi that we go a few minutes underwater. With the current we flew along. We were off the reef now, but still we passed through a school of barracuda and saw a shark scurry across our path. Then as we ascended we came up over a turtle. As the boat came to get us we saw a cuttlefish move under us. Great dive! We made it 58 minutes, 7 meters, 25 degrees C, marginally warmer than the day before.
080502 - Fri & Sat, May 2-3, 2008 809-811 Dibba Rock Freestyle Diving Friday with Bobbi and Nicky at noon, then Bobbi and I and Glenn at 3. On Saturday at 9:00 we all dived as a foursome.

I'm logging these dives in the car on the way home. Nicky wants me to mention the turtle cleaning station. blue tangs cleaning the turtle's shell. My favorite was the turtle who emerged from a coral patch chomping on a mouth full of coelenterate, gobbling back the trailing bits in beak sized chunks and trying to retain decorum before the trio of divers who just appeared out of nowhere. Bobbi, at the wheel as she usually is on the drive home while I catch up on computing, wants me to mention the big puffer fish and iridescent cuttlefish. I like the way the cuttlefish start out swimming normally, tentacles at the front, and then when they notice you they go en garde and reverse into backing off, tentacles trailing. Then when really shocked they go all psychedelic. Bobbi also wants me to mention the weird batfish who are always up to shenanigans. At Dibba Rock they like to lay flat in the coral, possibly to escape notice. No diver is going to NOT notice a school of a dozen batfish the size of dinner plates laying sideways in a coral patch, even if they are pretending not to be there.

Nicky's just recouped all her unlogged dives from this website, making a log book entry for each dive we did together over the years, so she can take an updated logbook to Egypt with her. She had me sign all the pages while we were sitting around in our wetsuits waiting to board the boat this morning.

When we came up from the dive this morning I asked Nicky how she liked it. "Boring" was the first word out of her mouth. I asked her if she was becoming bored with sharks. No she said, just with going looking for them.

Someone is becoming a jaded diver. Maybe she'll find better in Marsa Alam, but I doubt if she'll find better diving in Hurghada than at Dibba Rock. Funny I never read about Dibba Rock in any of the dive magazines, but Uki is constantly there. She works for JVC and has the enviable job of testing their camera equipment on the best underwater diving she can find, and she's almost always at Dibba rock, making videos for her company. I'd love to see those videos some day.

Freestyle divers is a very comfortable place to dive. The apre plonge is greatly enhanced by the close proximity of a bottle shop, making ordering beverages at hotel prices totally unnecessary. Accommodation in Dibba is available at very reasonable prices, and nothing seems to perturb the folks at Freestyle very much. We drove down from Abu Dhabi on Friday in time to make the 12:30 dive. Or at least we assumed be here at 12 meant to meet, and not to dive, especially as we have in the past waited till one or later for that first afternoon dive to get under way. But this Friday at noon, the divers were kitted out and getting in the water and wading out to the boat when we arrived at five after. They said no problem, they'd wait for us. We hurried our preparations and the boat left at 12:30.

There were a lot of boats to the left (northwest) of the rock so Andrew drove us around the back and moored to the southeast. Here we had the choice of going shallow to the front of the island or along the back wall and popping into the shallows on the far side of the island from there. Figuring I might not have the chance to do the wall again anytime soon, and because the ladies I was with are excellent in air consumption, I decided to do the deep side. Nicky and Bobbi and I used to see a lot of jawfish and rays in the sand out here but since the storm neither seem to be much in evidence. Still it was relaxing finning out over the sand, no current hardly, water temp in May just right to beat the heat.

We regained the wall and found more life here. There were dozens of morays and snake-like eels. The morays were green and grey and in one memorable tableau we saw four gorgon heads poking out at us from under a rock. Nicky would have taken a photo but later she poured green algae-filled water out of her camera instead. Meanwhile, I want to buy one of these Sony DSC-T70s, really cool and compact, big display screens.

Morays abounded here. Dark and light tan snake eels swim in tandem, and other morays scurried for cover as we came up on them. There were pipe fish as well, a flounder lying face up in the sand. Lion fish, rainbow wrasse, agitated triggerfish ...

But the exciting part of any dive on Dibba is shark alley. I had done a similar dive with Bobbi and Joan recently where I had finished a wall dive on the back side of Dibba Rock intending to lead us into the shallow raspberry corals but it was colder in March and someone requested to surface instead. But now it was a warmer 27 degrees in the water and the vis was quite good, so I located the raspberry patch and the circling barracudas and it was only a matter of time before the black tipped reef sharks started motoring by. . What made this dive a treat was the clarity of the water. The sharks were quite sleek and easily visible gliding along the reef, fun to watch. At 55 min Nicky signalled up and I remember following a turtle out over the sand as I kept an eye on her and Bobbi's feet as they ascended above.

Bobbi and I returned to this spot with Glenn later that afternoon (Nicky had decided to remain ashore and pour water from her camera). Andrew dropped us in at the same mooring as before, but this time I led us not down the wall but directly into the shallows. Only now we were running with the current fast to the NW, bumping over brain coral as we went (not literally of course, keeping careful of neutral buoyancy ;-). The fish were amazing but the vis was hazy, not like before, and when we reached the raspberry patch we found ourselves peering into an algae cloud. We went to the edge of the reef without seeing much of anything and we wheeled around to get back under the barracuda, and return to the balls of snapper fish where we would more likely see sharks. Eventually we came into an area of markedly better vis and we noticed the current was picking up until we were heading right back into it to the SE, facing the spot where we had left the boats. There were some rocks about and we clung on and watched the sharks file past. Actually, they didn't go as in a parade, but we simply held ourselves in the spot appreciating the better vis as well as the fact that this current was going to feel right to big fish. Eventually a devil ray appeared overhead, and more sharks. Exciting spot. At 55 min we let go and drifted down current over the edge of the reef where we saw yet another shark that led us into the sand. We surfaced at 58 min.

Next morning was almost as good. We were dropped at the southeast mooring this time. Vis was a little disappointing, as was the first of the dive when we went the length of the reef without seeing one shark. All the other ingredients were there. Right under the boat there were shoals of barracuda. We found several turtles in the coral, chilling out in pairs and in various turtle poses, e.g. balancing on 4 fin tips like a reptilian ballerina on a coral stage. But no sharks. There were other divers around. It looked like maybe the sharks were shy today.

I wheeled us about and had us retrace our fin kicks over the coral patch. Again we were simply enjoying the tropical fish and I was thinking to guide us to the the aquarium at the far end of the reef where Bobbi and I had simply hung out with a trio of big sharks on a morning dive a few weeks back, when Bobbi started honking on her noise-maker. She had seen the first shark. We were again surrounded by barracuda. I thought maybe we were in a place that sharks liked so I started scouring the area. Aha, there was another one, my turn to honk. For the next ten or 15 min we followed the strategy of holding our ground and letting them come to us. With apologies for boring Nicky, we had a number more shark encounters this way as the sharks criss-crossed the reef, a small one here, a big bulky one there, here a shark there a shark, and over there one with a remora trailing off his back. Actually they didn't come THAT frequently (hence Nicky's boredom) but I can think of nothing I prefer doing an a Saturday morning better than relaxing in pleasantly cool water, exerting minimally, and taking in the spectacle of the underwater world and its variety of fish, punctuated by a flash of grey in my peripheral view and then start chasing after a shark that's just materialized there, sometimes getting quite close to it before its better stamina and adaptation to that environment leave me gasping into my regulator and on the lookout for more. Fun.

Black tip off Dibba Rock, May 17, 2008, photo by Jonny Ing

080516 - Fri & Sat, May 16-17, 2008 812-815 Dibba Rock Freestyle Certified 5 Open Water divers: Rachel Barton, Graeme Francis Mullen, Jonny Ing, Gillian Hendrie, and Mark Whitworth. Great weekend. I told Terry he was running my favorite all-time dive center. I meant it. The diving at Dibba Rock is world class and Freestyle does its best to make sure as many as possible enjoy it without being treated like pax.

A lot of people who ask to take my dive course want to do it in Abu Dhabi because that's where we live and it saves driving 4 hours to Dibba. At least at Dibba the boat rides are only 5 minutes. In Abu Dhabi you are 30 min to 2 hours by boat from the most suitable dive sites. For tradeoff in time vs. quality of diving, you're better off going to Dibba a mon avis. The diving at Dibba can hardly be beat.

I had been training a group of five, all good dive students. I had started this group in their school pool but the principal at Al Khubairat came by and told the teacher who'd got us in that there would be no further diving in that pool. This turned out to be a good thing in the long run because it forced me to seek entry to Al Jazeera pool, which I can now use for training. So I managed to get the group of five trained during the week all with module 1 in the pool, and 3 with module 2, and we finished the academic off on Thu night in Dibba, finishing up the final exam after midnight at the Seaside Apartments.

We got another module done in the pool at the Royal Beach Thu a.m. and then we went in the ocean having booked a noon dive off Dibba Rock. This dive began a little chaotic with 5 first time divers having to fine tune weighting and buddy procedures. Vis was a little cloudy and I spent most of my dive corralling students, so I didn't see any of the sharks though Bobbi, diving with Mathew Crabb, a BSAC dive leader who had joined our group through Graeme and Rachel, did. My group found a pod of 4 turtles that took a long time ruminating on their escape options before sidling away, and them and a cuttlefish were the high points of that dive, for me. First student ran low on air at 45 min, not too bad for a first dive at 7-8 meters max.

We finished the confined water part of the course during the rest of that afternoon, winding up in the pool for tank removal, followed by cold beverages from the nearby cold beverage shop, and dinner at the Lebanese after shopping in the souk (our group found straw cowboy hats for the upcoming Bon Jovi concert, and Bobbi bought a tackily cheap but very fetching dress for only 20 dirhams).

Next day my students were feeling a lot more confident in the water and the diving was excellent. I had a problem deciding what to do with 5 divers needing to do CESA's on one day on 3 dives with only one instructor in the water. Andy, boatman, was also an instructor and could watch divers at the surface, so I took two divers in with me, Andy keeping an eye from the boat, and Bobbi accompanying the one remaining at the surface, I took two in the water at the start of each dive, one down with me at a time and back up one-on-one, to do all the CESA's that way while the others joined at the anchor line, and we rotated all 5 through the 3 dives. Worked well.

Reunited on the surface at the mooring line, our first dive that day we dropped into what I call the aquarium. I was thinking to do the first dive off the marginally deeper back side of the rock so as to keep to the proper profile, but it's just 13 meters there and 8 at the front, not that much difference in DCS terms. Most importantly, we were the only divers there that morning, vis looked good, and it seemed that conditions were right for game watching in shark alley, so after spending the first 15 min in the exercises that make this dive the most compromised in the PADI course, I led us into the raspberry reef where I saw a shark in the distance though my students didn't. Then vis turned cloudy and we found only turtles and cuttlefish. I had assigned two of my students to do compass courses out and back on each dive, and the ladies had the first turns, but there were no further shark sightings. Having seen the one previously, I decided to take us back to the aquarium where the vis was better and it was there, 45 min into the dive, right at the spot where the rusted anchor rests on the coral, that sharks started zipping back and forth across the reef. We hovered there watching them till after 51 minutes, someone went low on air, and we surfaced through a school of barracuda in alternate air source pairs.

For our second dive, my students wanted to see another part of Dibba, so from the same mooring we repeated the CESA routine, but we went into the back side of the rock this time (the side not facing shore). Bobbi and Mathew saw a shark on their way there but they were ahead of me and my students, and we didn't see it, though we saw schools of batfish and many morays instead. Jonny, on compass detail for this dive, led us on an easterly heading which turned out to be more or less along the wall so I decided to lead us myself more northeasterly out over the sand, looking for rays. We got out to 12.8 meters depth without seeing any but happy surprise, the jawfish were back. We found three of them in holes in the sand not far from the wall. They are such curious creatures, and it's good to see them make their re-appearance after the storm the previous June.

Not much else happened that dive (apart from cuttlefish) so let's talk about the third. In this one we had little to distract us, having done all our skills apart from a single CESA (dispatched at the beginning of the dive) and a couple of compass out and backs. Mark did his first and I steered him into the part of the reef down from the sunken anchor where we usually start seeing the interesting animals. There were none so we continued on and came on a turtle trying to scratch itself through its shell (no telling how long it had had that itch). I was starting to notice barracuda around so when I found a cove in the reef I had Graeme do his compass heading right over the top of the healthiest bed of corals. He led us into a dark water patch at the end of which were a couple of schools of snappers. We went almost up to those and it looked like good shark territory to me. We turned and headed back to our starting point and halfway through that leg a shark appeared and passed right in front of us in clear view on a perpendicular course. That was cool so I led the group back to this area. It was swarming with barracuda and, it turned out, sharks. We did our 4th-dive hovers there, turning 360 and watching the sharks shoot by every few minutes. At one point three darted right past me. Sometimes they went slowly and we could follow for a few seconds. It was one of those priceless panoplies difficult to describe, the colorful reef fish, swarms of fusiliers, balls of snappers, sharks darting in among the barracuda, everything in motion and tantalizingly hazy except the fleeting moments, combinations of wild animal and adrenaline, that get etched onto memory and if I get to it quickly enough, are recorded in this dive log.

We stayed there for ten minutes until it got quiet for another few, and then we moved further down the reef. Here we found another couple of blacktip sharks swimming together. I chased after them as they swam away until one went right of a fish ball and the other to the left back over the reef, and I followed that one. My student divers were all enjoying this but alas, 50 bar and 50 minutes coincided in two of the lads, and we surfaced from a depth of only a few meters.

This was one of the most exciting open water dive courses I ever taught. Good choice (over Abu Dhabi) by this young and adventurous group of divers, to whom, congratulations on both your choice and achievement.

Nicky scores a black tip with her replacement camera, June 6-7, 2008
080606 - Fri & Sat, June 6-7, 2008 816-821 Dibba Rock Freestyle

O/W certification dives for Jacques and Advanced OW dives for Ben
I met two of my students on Friday at 9 a.m. My other open water student had been involved in an automobile accident so he didn't turn up. This left me free to work with my other o/w student Jacques while Bobbi and Nicky had a miserable time on their dive at the Pinnacles. Their boat broke down, they had to put in at Sandy Beach just short of the Pinnacles, and when they finally got there the vis and current were so bad that they only spent 11 min down. They kept enough air to use their tanks on their subsequent dives.

Meanwhile Jacques and I kitted for ocean diving and did module 4 in the confined water near one of the buoys marking off the boat dock at Freestyle divers. Because Bobbi's boat was delayed getting back we had plenty of time to do module 5 as well, and even did a couple of open water flexible skills (compass and snorkel reg exchange).

Ben Advanced Boat Dive; Jacques O/W dive #1
My slightly delayed noon dive was with Jacques and Ben. It was to be Jacques's first ever ocean dive (with me, he'd had some prior Scuba training in the South African Special Forces). My advanced student Ben wanted me to help him complete an advanced course, but as I'd never dived with him before, I suggested a 'boat' dive. Ben turned out to be a decent diver but on this dive he didn't see any of the sharks Bobbi and I kept pointing to every few minutes. We also saw a big devil ray nose down in the reef, long tail looking like a mooring line pointed toward the surface. It looked alarmed as we came up on it, and departed quickly with power and grace (Ben didn't see that either ;-). Jacques was first to reach 50 bar and as we were in only 5 or 6 meters of water I suggested we do a 3 min safety stop in such a way as to extend our game viewing. Vis was improving as we headed up the reef and a turtle came into view. We were following the turtle when a shark came up alongside it and drew our attention after it. Then another shark appeared and this one doubled back on us as these sharks sometimes do and swam around us, but in this vis, in plain view, only a few meters away. When these animals moved out of site, I took Jacques to the surface and Bobbi and Ben followed. We were all talking about what a great dive it was and so I was quite surprised when Ben said he hadn't seen any of the animals. I made sure he'd see them on subsequent dives.

Ben Advanced Navigation Dive; Jacques O/W dive #2
Nicky joined the four of us for the 3:30 dive. Jacques had a few OW dive #2 skills to do on this one and we got those out of the way in no time at the bottom of the mooring line. I had planned this dive as Ben's advanced navigation, so again from the mooring line, we went out to calibrate 30 meters, and Ben was to lead us to the calibration point and back to the boat after doing that, which he did after a fashion. His straight line compass out and back was much more successful. We did a square but there was a problem with counting kicks on one of the legs so we repeated that one next day. In all this moving about with Ben I started to confuse him with my buddy Jacques because vis was not great and both had similar haircuts and were wearing the same Freestyle divers pink shortie wetsuits. At a moment 30 min into the dive when I thought Jacques was right at my shoulder, he was actually closer to Bobbi and Nicky and had reached 50 bar and decided he should surface. I went after him and could still see the others on the bottom when I reached the surface and discovered him climbing aboard the boat which was conveniently close by, so I rejoined the others down and we continued our dive as a fun one after that. I made sure Ben saw lots of sharks.

Ben Advanced Navigation Dive completed
Next morning at 7 am I met Ben at the Freestyle veranda where Terry very kindly agreed to allow us to awaken him so he could open the equipment room. The tide was quite low and it was hard fully kitted at first to fight the surge pulling us back toward shore but it diminished the further out we got so that within about 20 minutes of strong kicking we were over the first rubble spots leading to the raspberry patch at the island. I suggested we drop down and fin the rest of the way over sand. 5 or 10 min. later we were gliding over the raspberry coral, water temperatures approaching 30 degrees C, pretty ideal, vis not too bad, and within minutes of arrival there, we encountered black tip sharks patrolling the area. I have to admit my animal sightings are kind of blending into one long memory cartridge on the weekend spent there, but we had excellent conditions for viewing wildlife, including the reef all to ourselves. I remember seeing Spanish mackerel, which usually pop in and out of a diver's event horizon quickly at mid-day, swirling in place in groups of 3 and 4. The sharks seemed more playful than usual. Once we had enjoyed those lurking beneath the schools of barracuda, and were heading back in time to make our 9 a.m. dive, we found two more pairs out over the sand. One of these was especially curious. I remember keeping a wary eye on him as he passed near us twice. He was large with trailing remora, seemingly more interested in us than his compadres with more to preoccupy them back over the reef. We continued over the sand and surfaced at 51 minutes to complete the swim back to shore, arriving in due time for our 9 a.m. meeting for our next dive.

Ben Advanced Underwater Naturalist Dive; Jacques O/W dive #3
For the 9:30 dive, we decided we had seen enough sharks and for something different we wanted to see the 'back side' of Dibba Rock. We were dropped at a mooring near the island and after doing the CESA with Jacques, we all regrouped and finned toward what I call the aquarium, the sometimes relatively clear water with boulder corals and lots of tangs and puffers about at the foot of the mooring lines. But instead of heading right and over the raspberry patch, we aimed left and kept to a northerly heading to get us over the shoulder and heading down toward the 13 meter depths of the back side. Along the way we ensnared a few pipe fish, and we pointed out the many moray eels among the boulders, but it was colder back there and the vis was clouded with algae. It was very hard to see anything beyond the next person over. I found a spot for Jacques to take us out on a compass heading, but he held his compass angled and missed his heading on return. I notice he was getting down to 60 bar, plus the current was picking up against us, so I signalled a return for Jacques and I to the shallows we'd just left. The others followed us back to the aquarium and much warmer and clearer water where Jacques and I ended our dive after about 31 min with a simulated alternate air source ascent performed from our safety stop at 5 meters. While awaiting the boat at the surface, we watched the others below us, and Jacques pointed out a couple of large sharks visible from where we were looking down a little further off the reef. Bobbi and Nicky and Ben were last up in the boatload, staying down around 65 minutes to complete their dive.

Jacques O/W dive #4 for CERTIFICATION
Ben called it a day after his two dives and went back to Seaside to check out and return with Jacques's wife and child, but Jacques stayed on to complete his dive course with his final checkout dive with Bobbi and Nicky and I at noon, keeping to the Dibba near-side shallows this time. Jacques had a compass course to navigate and he did very well this time, having monitored his compass continually from the time we descended to the time he completed his circuit. The only other skill for that module was hovering, so we found the barracudas that seemed always to be good indicators of sharks, and we maintained ourselves mid-water there while the sharks buzzed in and out over the raspberry patch. I led us as far our the raspberry coral as I could and found a school of juvenile squids in the rubble where someone had dropped a bag that led both Nicky and I to investigate it. Jacques's buoyancy was improving with every dive, and his air consumption was better as well. Retracing back over the coral, we had to come up after about 41 min, leaving Bobbi and Nicky, who reported seeing tuna, cuttlefish, eels, snappers in schools, trumpet fish, a manic picasso trigger fish, and blue tangs biting a turtle's legs.

With Jacques having completed his dives for certification, and Nicky simply knackered, Bobbi and I went back to the rock at 3 pm. (49 min 9-10 m.) with Rachel, Graeme, and Jonny Ing, who had just come in off their desert camping trip for the last dive of the day. They had all certified just two weeks earlier and were doing their first refresher, good on 'em! Being not quite refreshed, the initial free descent was a little messy. As soon as one diver drifted off the mooring line, we all lost sight of it to stay with him, and the current swept us back to the deeper water off Dibba's dark side (rewind, replay: USE the mooring line, HOLD it or keep it in sight). We basically descended into the same cold gloom we had been in earlier that day. Having taken a bearing to the east off the mooring before descent, I led us that way and eventually found rock and boulders sloping up to the island. Moving to the south I eventually found the aquarium (near the mooring lines) and then went looking for the coral patch. It eluded me, though I kept angling east and south. These would have been the correct directions had I been outside the raspberry as I'd thought, but instead I had popped over the coral bommies a bit early and was INSIDE between the island and the coral I was seeking. Eventually I came on, of all things, the discarded bag that we'd seen on the previous dive and then I knew exactly where I was. I popped from the rubble onto the raspberry and simply conducted our previous dive in reverse.

Nice dive too. All divers were keen. Buoyancy improved as did buddy positioning as divers stayed close by my shoulder, the better to see the sharks amble by. The first one was huge, went right in front of us and then came back. He was a couple of meters long and when I sounded my u/w horn he tensed, bolted, and disappeared in a flash. Too bad. We meandered toward the sweet spot, finding it eventually beneath the barracuda. Then it was just fun to hang out and wait for sharks to meander past. Great way to end the day, 4 dives for me, sharks present on all of them, and a diver certified and coming back next week for his advanced course!

080613 - Fri & Sat, June 13-14, 2008 822-827 Dibba Rock and Inchcape Wreck Freestyle Divers Jacques and Ben both certified Advanced Open Water during the weekend - Picture credits here, Nicky Blower (thanks, Nix!)
It was the usual excellent diving weekend at Freestyle divers with three dives a day for me each of the two weekend days. Bobbi was away in Houston but I picked Nicky up outside her flat at a bit after 7. We were on the road with arrival at Freestyle by 11, or 3.5 hours driving with a diversion along Emirates Road to get Nicky some Dunkin Donuts, for which she had a craving. Jacques and Ben were waiting for us and we efficiently got kitted for our noon dive, which I was conducting as an Advanced OW Boat dive for Jacques. Nicky wanted to dive the back side of the island at some point over the weekend. We were dropped at the second mooring back from the shoulder that takes us from the aquarium to the back side so I knew we would start our dive to the east to the ribbon of raspberry coral and then head north to the aquarium before dropping into deeper water at the back of the island. I understood there was a current but it was in our favor, so when I reached the raspberry we were fairly easily carried along with it to the north. We saw some sharks there, passed the aquarium, and at that point it was developing into a drift dive. Dropping down past pipe fish and morays, I wanted to go into the sand and look for jawfish but as we moved off the rocks, we were getting caught on an express train and I signalled a retreat to the safety of the boulders. It was tough finning into the current but not too difficult to ride the flow along the rock wall, and now and then we would venture into the sand, heels first to brake, stopping to see that we could, then tentatively probing a little further. Vis was good and buddy contact not a problem, but we could hardly get off the rocks. When Jacques showed me 50 bar I led him up the wall leaving Ben and Nicky as a buddy pair. I found the clear window into the shallows on the east side of the rock so we popped over and ended our dive there, surfacing after 35 min, 14 meters max depth. The boat found us and after a brief search, we found Nicky and Ben still on the back side, all having returned safely.

The next dive would be Jacques's Advanced Open Water Underwater Navigation one. During our break on shore I managed to find my reel where I had measured off 30 meters, so we took that down with us and tied it off at the mooring line. High tide had been between dives so the current was not so strong as Jacques and I began our dive with the calibration leg. I laid out the reel from the mooring alongside the raspberry patch so it was pretty straightforward to find our way. I counted 20 kick cycles over 30 meters going with the current and 26 going against it, and on the return leg I took up the reel. It was then Jacques's job to take us to the point where the reel had reached, counting kick cycles and following natural features. He did fine on the way out, locating the rock we were using for recognition, but on the return leg he possibly forgot to start his count. The best thing to do in that case would be possibly to return to the start, or if one were far along the route, estimate. Jaques's navigation was fine but he overshot the mooring, but again vis was good and we were able to get back to it.

From there I took us east and then north over the raspberry patch to where we found barracudas and predictably soon thereafter, sharks in the vicinity of the anchor left in the coral. I decided this might be a fun place to do our compass work, so from the anchor we did a compass heading out to the north and back to the south. Jacques did this very well, and I noted that we had reached a sand edge to the coral patch on the northerly leg, and would be returning there when Jaques went into his square. From the anchor, I had him start out heading to the east, which took us to the rubble at the top of the coral patch. His leg to the north into the current was of approximately the same number of kicks as the previous one and I made a mental note that we might have to lengthen that to reach the anchor on the final southerly leg. The third leg I counted out the same number of kicks again and recognized the sand edge to the coral, but here Jacques went off again and instead of stopping he carried on for some time on the same westerly heading till he was down at the bottom of the coral. I had counted the extra kicks so I brought him back to the sand patch where he should have stopped. Here he headed back toward the anchor and we fortunately found it. I congratulated him and we had a brief look around for more marine life, but all the exertion and concentration on distance and direction had taken its toll on air consumption and we had to surface again after 35 min, 8 meters depth.

Our last dive of the day was to be an Advanced Open Water Night Dive for both Jacques and Ben. There was however a minor tropical depression passing near Oman at that time and the winds in Abu Dhabi had been whipping up wind and waves off the north coast. In Dibba on the east coast of the UAE sea conditions were as not much affected apart from the winds that had been increasing throughout the afternoon and building stronger at sundown. The hot wind was blowing sand, knocking over equipment laden dive racks, and making it uncomfortable to sit and wait for dusk. To compound problems, one of Tatiana's group had had an accident (drove into a shop at the Friday market outside Masafi) and was waiting for Police so he could join us. So it was almost dark when we boarded boats for the trip out. The dive itself went well, essentially a repeat of our dives earlier that day, east to the raspberry patch and then wander around underwater in the dark. We saw red and white striped glass shrimp and quite a few huge crawfish out and about just looking for someone to eat them. Next day near the aquarium we found the ravaged shell of one of these creatures, so I guess someone or something had not been able to resist the temptation.

We were pretty tired after all that so it was home to pizza and favorite beverages and bed and about 5 hours of solid sleep before wresting ourselves awake for our now almost traditional 7 a.m. fun dive where we meet at the dive center and swim out to the raspberry patch just to see what's happening there when there are no other divers about. This a.m. we had a problem with one of my tanks and had to get Terry out of bed (he was awake in it, watching TV) to open the equipment room for us, which he did good naturedly while muttering something to the effect that we were mad (as in 'cow disease'). The wind was still powering through and there were whitecaps near the rock when Ben and Nicky and I set out. I reached the coral in 20 min but Nicky wasn't using a snorkel and was getting blown off course so that she and Ben ended a bit south of where I wanted us to be. It was clear they wouldn't be able to fight surface current against the wind so I suggested we go down and fin north, which we did, but Nicky wisely decided that wasn't going to work for her and she bailed out and headed back to shore. Ben and I headed north but got swept easterly toward the rock before we reached the coral and so ended in the shallows right near the rock where the worst surge is. I surfaced to check our position and made out that we needed to go west. This was into the current but we breathed into it and soon popped down over the clacking coral bed. We saw a devil ray sweep past almost immediately, and some minutes later a few sharks. As the coral dog-legged to the north, the current relaxed and we hung out there letting the sharks come to us every minute or two. When Ben went below 50 we surfaced and headed back to shore, being careful to angle our course to account for current, returning just in time to prepare for the next dive.

This was to be an Advanced O/W Deep Dive for Jacques and Ben down to 30 meters, but as Ben and I had just been diving 35 min at 8 meters we would enter this dive with a small nitrogen accumulation. Fortunately, and almost inexplicably, there was almost no current on the Inchcape so when it came time to descend after almost two hours at the surface, it was very relaxed, only us (Nicky, Ben, and Jacques and I) on the boat, and even the wind was diminishing. Water clarity was excellent near the top but we hit plankton or algae at 20 meters and so vis on the boat was no better than average. Down the line several minutes into our dive we moved forward and found Fred, one of the resident honeycombed morays. We did our skills there, compared depth gauges, and I'd taught the guys how to tie bowlines which they did with no obvious loss of motor skills. Nicky found some nudibranchs (and showed us pictures LATER, thanks a LOT Nicky!) and other than that all I found were morays. The no-deco time on my computer plus our dive time added up to 20 min throughout our dive, but 17 minutes into it, Jacques, ever vigilant of his air consumption, showed me 50 bar, and we headed up the line at a safe ascent rate, did our safety stop at 5 meters, and back aboard all were safe and sound and seemed to have not only survived but enjoyed the dive.

At noon we did the last dive of the advanced course, and afterwards we couldn't get Nicky to stop grinning. Nicky and Ben both wanted to go round to the back side so when we dropped divers in at the mooring just down from the raspberry patch, the 4 of us stayed aboard and got Morris to take us to the east shoulder where we entered down the wall and came out on the sand. Current was almost nil, the water temperature was very pleasant, and vis was good. We headed over the sand to find where the jawfish USED to be but found no rays or nothing much of interest there until returning on a northwest angle to the wall I finally found a jawfish, and a flounder down from that. He wasn't the only jawfish and after we'd had a good look at these curious creatures we moved in to the rocks and enjoyed the puffers and morays and agitated triggerfish till we finally turned the corner on the island where there were schools of fish milling beautifully about.

I figured if we were in the right spot I should soon see pipefish, which I did, so I started moving us shallow into the aquarium area. Jacques was doing well on air, Nicky was taking lots of pictures, and we were comfortable and relaxed when suddenly a shark zipped by. Jacques and I came alert and a second came past, and then one meandered toward us head moving side to side, close enough to see "hey wait a minute, these aren't sharks like me," and turned and high tailed it.

To make a long story short, and it was a long story ... ten minutes to when I took Jacques to the surface at 43 min, and for another ten or 15 min after I went back down to continue enjoying the spectacle with Nicky and Ben ... we were essentially surrounded by sharks who were swarming all over that part of the reef. They cruised among the coral boulders of the aquarium this way and that, forming tableaux of two or three sharks superimposed on coral backdrop heading in different directions all at once, with perhaps another sniffing at our feet, or coming between us. We talked later to try and estimate how many there were. The most I spotted at any one time was 4 but then others would appear elsewhere, so there must have been half a dozen or more. The water was clear, the sharks were near, and tolerant of the proximity of the three of us. Nicky got some great pics. I hope she'll let me put some here or post them where I can link to them. I'll even forgive her for not showing me the nudibranch.

awright!! the rest of Nicky's excellent photos are here:

Congratulations to Ben and Jacques who certainly could have done their advanced course under less appealing conditions.
All photos from June 13-14, 2008   by Nicky Blower, used here with her permission
080822 - Fri & Sat, August 22-23, 2008 828-832 Dibba Rock Freestyle Gillian certifies for Advanced Open Water - Our first diving weekend since returning to work from summer holidays and we had an ex-open water student who wanted to go on to her advanced course, so we pitched up at Freestyle Divers at noon on Friday and went for a dive, just me, Bobbi, Nicky, and Gillian. For our first dive we selected a boat dive to give Gillian a refresher. It took her a while to get buoyancy under control (but she did in the end). Looking back for her on her first dive in a while she could be anywhere between midwater and the surface. A current was sweeping us along the raspberry coral patch and I was turning up into the current to keep from being swept off it, and these maneuvers eventually proved too much for Gillian as she let herself be carried off the reef, then to the surface, where the surface current moved her even further off the reef. She seemed OK at the surface so I suggested we snorkel back to the reef, but after a few minutes of that with negligible progress she was uncomfortable with taking in water through the snorkel so I suggested we just go down and try to regain the reef along the bottom. Ear problems prevented a fast descent so we were carried even further in the wrong direction. Many would have given up by now but not Gillian. I had one hand on her BCD and with the other I was augmenting fin kicks by pulling us along the bottom. Ten minutes later, 36 min into a 50 min dive, we got ourselves back onto the raspberry coral. Here it was much nicer. A black tip meandered into view. We followed a tongue of coral out to where a trio of devil rays were hovering off the reef. We came up on the rays and they didn't bolt, as they often do. They moved off the reef and we followed. Gillian was under control by now. With 53 min of dive time, max depth 13.5 meters off the reef, we surfaced having salvaged the dive nicely.

For the three o'clock dive we were taken to the east (right) of the rock and dropped in with possibility of riding the current back over the corals at the front or dropping over the wall and diving the back side. Nicky favors the back so we humored her. We did the dive as Gillian's underwater naturalist dive. We went out over the sand off the wall looking for rays and jawfish. We found the latter and watched them watch us from their holes while Nicky photographed. I've noticed from her photos that often they have cleaner shrimp living on their heads and jaws. This time I was able to spot the shrimp live (just have to know what to look for). They were the high spot of the dive though we saw the typical reef fish and morays on our way around the rock to finish at the spot where Nicky got all the shark shots last time we were there. This day that spot was pretty as usual, aswarm with tropical reef fish, but quiet.

We had a long wait for dusk to descend so Gillian and I could go on our night dive. Gillian's buoyancy was improving steadily and for her first night dive she was an excellent buddy. In a crowd of lights like fireflies she stuck close by me. We didn't see much remarkable in the way of fish but the temperature of the dive was ideal, like a cool bath, and turning off the torches and swirling up phosphorescence is always fun, as is swimming about a moment with only ambient light from moon and stars. It was a very pleasant dive, well executed.

In the morning it was time for a deep dive on the Inchcape. The wreck is a challenging dive for newcomers, 30 meters, but a redundant one for experienced divers. As with the night dive there is a detailed briefing and a regimented entry down the mooring line, which is tied to the starboard stern of the wreck. On this day we descended in a cloud of algae with clear water, thankfully, from ten meters on down. I stayed close by Gillian naturally while Bobbi and Nicky went on down to the wreck. Eventually we arrived and examined the deck in the short time we had remaining. Both Fred and Frieda, resident honeycomb morays, were home and craning their necks for diving photographers. The shoal of snappers was there as usual, parting for divers to pass but closing over like branches once a hiker has pushed through. We conducted the dive with close precision, aiming for the mooring line at exactly 20 minutes. We took another ten on the ascent, stopping in the algae at 5 meters for a 3 min safety stop. Back on the boat safe and sound, all felt it was a good dive. The wreck is always beautiful, and there were no mishaps.

The last dive of the day was Dibba Rock, the shallow front. Gillian really had her act together now with buoyancy. The algae that had been present near the surface at the Inchcape was clouding the entire dive site here though. At times we could barely make out the sharks passing by. I saw my first one in clearer water coming down the edge of the reef as I'd got a bit too high and popped my head above water to make a heading correction. We put ourselves on the raspberry coral and I had Gillian do a dead reckoning from a spot I led her to, to the origin, and back to her starting point. Later I had her do a square pattern, but current was shoving us aside and we got carried too far on our third leg, couldn't be helped, her heading was fine. I saw a shark on that third leg, don't think anyone else did though. Bobbi was getting good at spotting sharks, kept honking at us. Nicky was taking pictures and working on her hair.

At the end of that dive it was a pleasure to congratulate Gillian on her accomplishment and on her underwater maturity in just 5 dives to truly advanced diver status.
080830 - Sat, August 30, 2008 833-834 Ras Gurab Ocean Diving Center, Abu Dhabi Back to the balmy waters close to home in Abu Dhabi, PADI open water training dives #1 and #2 for Calum and Kyla Cromey-Hawke, two young students, brother and sister, whose father particularly wanted me to train them, so we'd spent Wed and Thu nights in the classroom and pool at the Beach Hotel, and Saturday they were ready for their first two dives. Suhaib is the new dive pro at Ocean Diving Center, he's from Jordan, and he runs a professional tour, nicely impressive. He also swept us out over reasonably calm seas, slight wind a-blowing, to a new set of coral and bommies for me at Ras Gurab, one with plenty of fish, excellent vis on this our lucky day, and water the temperature of a refreshing bath. We had two dives there. Calum thought we got to 8 meters on at least one. They were 61 and 46 minutes on my computer, the last three being a safety stop. The first nice long dive was done without skills, just meandering among the corals, admiring the schools of snappers and whatever that diamond fish is, flat silver, with yellow fins top and bottom pointing streamlined back, and a delta fin at the end that wiggles when he gets to speed, lots of those. We also saw some spotted yellow grunts, some yellow and black striped bream, some parrot fish, blue tangs with yellow paint slashes at the tail fin, and one small grouper that stared back at me. Also shrimp dutifully cleaning guppy holes while the latter stood guard. Skills on the second dive were the usual reg recovery, mask clear, and alternate air source both static and on ascent, plus compass skills and CESA for both students. Nice day, very pleasant, happy re-union with the fickle seas off the coast of home.
080905 - September 5, 2008 835-837 Dibba Rock   Two refresher dives for Angela, and first three dives for Rachel Barton and Graeme Mullen's PADI Advanced Open Water course. - As we often do, Bobbi and I got up at dawn to make coffee and finish packing and head across the country to our consistently favorite dive site in the whole world, Dibba Rock. We had agreed to meet Rachel and Graeme there for their Advanced O/W dive course, 5 dives in a weekend. They had also brought along a friend, Angela, for a refresher.

On arrival shortly after 11, we found Freestyle had over-booked and had decided to lay on a separate dive boat for us with the catch that it was leaving earlier than planned, and they asked us to get ready in 15 minutes. This became awkward because of the refresher diver. Angela had been certified some years ago but had not dived in 8 years, and I didn't want to take her out with us without first having her review some skills including mark clearing and alternate air source in confined water. So I took her on a brief session in the shallow water on our way out to the boat. As one can imagine, there are many issues including weighting and trepidation when a diver after such a hiatus is asked to review skills while being rushed so as not to keep others waiting. Angela did fine, performing the skills flawlessly, though not smoothly (I encouraged her to take her time). Once we got on the boat, we were told our dive time would be only 30 minutes because that boat was scheduled to return at a certain time to take other divers to the rock. Typically after noon dives, there is at least an hour before the 3 p.m. dive, so there seemed no logical reason to have us cut our dive time down to half what it should be when the next dive could just as easily be delayed. Waiting around is an accepted part of diving but DIVING is the main part, and to cut that back wasn't cool, but in the end, Angela ran low on air at about 30 min. so I had to surface with her anyway, Bobbi was diving for free as my assistant, and as for Rachel and Graeme, they were promised one free night dive in compensation.

And the dive itself, that half hour, was superb. Graeme and Rachel were doing it as a boat dive and as a low stress refresher, so we just headed over our favorite raspberry coral patch. There was an algae cloud on the south part of the patch so I tried to stay in the clearer water to the north where we soon started seeing barracuda, and near them, predictably, sharks whiz by right on cue. We saw a turtle, and at one point in the dive I indicated to Rachel that she should keep an eye on the blue above the coral, and it was not long after that we saw a devil ray in just that vicinity, and were able to follow it closely. In fact at the start of the dive we had tied up at the back of the BSAC yellow diver and a couple of South Africans I knew shouted back to me that I needed to change my website where I had said that there were devil rays on the rock in summer. They were there now, in September. These guys had apparently seen a few of them. We saw just the one before Angela went low on air and 27 minutes into the dive I heard our boat rev its engines to get our attention to come to the surface.

Our next dive I planned as advance u/w navigation. I walked Rachel and Graeme through the course on the beach beforehand and once in the water we decided to head to the back side of the rock for variety and maybe see some jawfish. Glenn had meanwhile joined us and he and Bobbi went down first and were no more to be seen because Glenn was having problems with a non-inflating BCD and hadn't adjusted weighting at the surface to compensate so their dive didn't go well at all. Rachel and Graeme and Angela and I were not having a great dive either because the algae cloud had by then moved to where we were just about to go diving. So we descended in murk and didn't see much on the way down and over the wall to the back side. Actually I was looking about for almost any salient feature. I finally settled on a pointy rock at 11 meters and I had Rachel and Graeme lead us away from it 30 meters along the wall and then back to it using natural reference points. Then we headed north over the sand from it and back to it on a reciprocal compass heading, 30 meters. I left a pile of rocks at the outer point in hopes of coming on them later in a square pattern. Back at the rock we headed east before turning north and then 30 meter to the west, though I could feel on that leg we were caught in a current. I held back on fin kicking but Rachel and Graeme went ahead (didn't see my pile of rocks, hmmm). We all turned south and when we hit the wall we looked upcurrent for the pointy rock. We found it close enough considering the current. Angela was by then down to 50 bar so rather than carry on around the back side I led us back the way we had come to shallow, clearer water. Near the mooring I took Angela to the surface and Graeme and Rachel kindly followed. There were a dozen dive boats there, and we found one from Freestyle that would take Angela at which point Graeme and Rachel and I went on down to continue diving on the reef in front. We had 15 minutes of dive time left to reach 50 minutes and in our remaining time we saw a few more sharks and right at the end of the dive a huge turtle. I recall how nice it was to see sharks again after sand diving at the back of the island. I also recall just now that the turtles might not feel the same about the sharks because we came upon one there that was missing a back fin due to a wound, since healed, that looked suspiciously like a shark bite. He seemed to be getting on quite well on three fins, thank you very much.

Back on shore we had a long wait for the night dive, which got under way at 7:30, Glenn joining Rachel and Graeme and I. This was a very pleasant dive. I got a little chilled toward the end of the dive, wearing just my lycra, and I remember that two weeks before with Gillian the temperature had been perfect. Winter is on its way. Graeme and Rachel thought this dive was the best ever. I alerted them to keep an eye out for little red eyes and there were LOTS of those, each with a tiny red shrimp attached. The highlight of the dive was passing over a family of turtles all bedded down flat in the coral patch. There was another turtle as well we followed with our torches on it who trailed a nice remora right down the middle of his shell. My night dives always include a few moments without lights where we switch those off and all make phosphorescence sparkle in the dark and then swim around a bit in the moonlight, kind of makes you want to strip all your gear off.
080906 - September 6, 2008 838-839 Inchcape and Dibba Rock Freestyle Last two dives for Rachel Barton and Graeme Mullen's PADI Advanced Open Water course, for certification. - Another lovely day dawned at Freestyle divers and started for us with a deep dive on the Inchcape. These are set piece dives with instructors taking down students. Graeme and Rachel were buddied for this purpose with Bobbi and Glenn intending to accompany us. But at the last minute they were asked to accept a solo diver as buddy, and when the questions were asked later one of them was, did he have an advanced certificate? I don't know the true answer to that question, but if not, what was he doing on this dive? Glenn had helped him put his gear together at Freestyle and he wasn't familiar with backward rolls. If this was his first ever deep dive that would explain how he consumed half a tank on the descent and got down to 50 bar before a single circuit of the deck. Bobbi and Glenn had to return to the surface with him and give him alternate air-source on the way up. They were not pleased, but I managed to get Glenn's payment for the dive waived. They would have preferred having a decent dive though.

Meanwhile Rachel and Graeme and I were carrying out our dive as planned. I had a little trouble getting Rachel's attention at first because she was glommed on the two large lion fish in the sand by the stern, but I soon got them settled on the deck for the cognitive task of calculating a minimum surface interval. That out of the way, plus quick comparison of depth gauges, and we headed off for a tour of the wreck. There was a huge bull ray in the sand and the normal panoply of snappers and whatnot, and Frieda was seen to be lolling about in one of the hatches. Fred was perhaps sleeping and had not come out to play. Graeme got down to 70 bar before 20 minutes were up and I made a quick pass around the deck looking for Bobbi and Glenn to tell them we were heading up early and was only mildly concerned that I couldn't find them since they should have still been there since 20 min had not yet passed, but then I had to focus on our safe ascent. We watched my bottom time on my computer go from 2 minutes to 5 then to 22 then to 44 and very quickly to 99. At the surface I saw that Bobbi and Glenn were already on the boat with their tail of woe. Rachel and Graeme were saying, no THIS was their best dive ever.

The last dive of the advanced course would be underwater naturalist where students have to identify 5 vertebrates and 4 invertebrates. Same buddy pairs as before (without the solo diver, thankfully) I told my team they could do as they liked but I'd be looking for sharks and devil rays and if they wanted to see those they could come with me. They all did, though the start of the dive was a little disappointing since the red algae had settled in with a vengeance casting a brown pale over what we would prefer had been blue water. We started out on the boulders near the mooring. I pointed out a pair of synch dancing batfish and different kinds of trigger fish. There was an interesting cleaning station where a pair of wrasse were working the gill slits of a passive puffer. A shark came by near the start but we didn't see another for several minutes. We had got all the way out the tongue of coral that signals the end of the reef when a lone devil ray appeared. We swam after him and he let us get close enough to get a good view of his eye stalks but when he took us into the rubble off the reef I decided to let him go. We doubled back onto the reef and a big shark appeared, and some in our group swam after him until he went into the rubble. I hung back to be sure we didn't lose our coral patch and as the others were returning the shark reappeared and swam right beside me. My turn to follow over the coral and then the water overhead suddenly morphed into a school of devil rays. Our group caught up to them and watched them disappear into the haze and then further on we saw them again. At that moment two sharks passed just below them in one of the signature tableaux of Dibba Rock, close and dynamic juxtaposition of shark and devil ray. The sharks swam out of view but we followed a phalanx of 8 rays as they moseyed on ahead of us, swimming two meters off the reef. I was able to fin quite close to them. When the rays vanished more sharks appeared, Graeme pointed to 50 bar and disappeared, and Rachel his buddy signaled up to join him at the surface. At that moment a small shark cruised nearby in clear water and Bobbi and Glenn and I swam over and watched him out of one eye and Rachel ascending out the other. We spent another 5 minutes meandering about on our own but only saw one more shark. Up on the boat I allowed that was one of MY best dives ever (vis could have been better ;-)
080919 - September 19-20, 2008 840-843 Dibba Rock Freestyle Open Water Certification dives for Kyla Cromey-Hawke. We'd scheduled two dives on the Friday, meeting up at noon. A huge retinue (8 or 9) of divers appeared mainly brought along by Rachel and Graeme, and also a few just turned up such as Gillian, certified advanced by me not long ago, and Iain, a hasher who wanted to see if he could get in on a discover scuba diving introduction to an open water course. I told him to watch the dvd while I was taking Kyla on her dives, and I'd take him in the pool in the evening while the others were out night diving.

Rebecca Woll was also down to do a refresher course pursuant to a planned trip to Mauritius over the upcoming Eid holiday. Kyla was brought down by her father Bob, a commercial diver, who stood watching from the shore as we set out on the first dive. Andrew (at the helm) asked me if a 12 meter descent would be ok, in which case he'd take the east shoulder off the rock and we could round the back side on our way to hopefully reach the raspberry coral bed at the front where we usually see the cool animals. Jen and her husband wanted to join us, and we took our time going in while Andrew sorted out Jen's o-ring, and Rebecca was sorting out her memories of her last dive under Bobbi's capable buddy assistance. Kyla and I dropped on down the mooring line and I had Kyla do her oral inflation and mask flood and clear while waiting for the others.

When all together, we headed on a north heading down the boulder wall and onto the sand where we at some point reached 18 meters (60 feet on my depth guage; I'd somehow left my computer in my dive back back ashore). Jen and hubby went their own way while Kyla, Bobbi, Rebecca, and I went over the sand looking for rays and jawfish, saw neither, so tracked back to the wall and angled up the boulders looking for the way into the shallows on the northwest edge of the rock. I saw a light space and headed for it.

We came into the shallows where we found grunts and snappers among some nice coral bommies, but also sand and coral rubble and a little surge. I was confused as to where we were exactly when Bobbi signaled an ascent. Her snorkel had caught at her neck under her chin, causing breathing problems, and rather than let me work it out for her, she decided to do it herself at the surface, so we all had to join her there. This was a good thing in that at the surface I saw that we were inside the coral and therefore then knew where we had to go to go to reach it. But it was a bad thing in that Kyla had to descend midwater in order to resume diving and she had ear problems doing so. I waited at the bottom for her to work it out, Bobbi and Rebecca disappeared into the haze but returned to see what was keeping us, and after a few minutes, I figured we might as well head for the reef and let Kyla join us at the bottom when her ears cleared. At least I now knew where the reef was.

The clacking on the raspberry coral bed can be heard as you approach it heightening anticipation of what you might find there. When we reached it I decided to turn right on it and almost immediately I saw a shark crossing it. Kyla however, still having trouble descending, was too high up to see it and Rebecca was lagging behind with a foggy mask and so only Bobbi rushed over to see it. We soon saw another and not long after that we saw a devil ray mid-water. Again Bobbi was there to see the second one, and the third, but our ladies were just far enough above and behind that they missed these as well. I don't think any of them saw the last shark or two I caught skirting the edge of the reef, though I believe we all saw turtles on this dive. It was a nice dive.

The next dive we decided to get a drop right on the reef and our dive buddies agreed to keep abreast with us this time and I promised to show them sharks if they'd keep up with me. I got on the reef right away on a westerly heading from the mooring, and we passed early on by the salient anchor the marks the start of the coral patch. This dive was superb. We saw sharks, plenty of them. Rebecca was stoked she finally saw a shark!. We also saw devil rays. But the really memorable aspect of this dive was the turtles. We kept coming on them throughout the dive but as we heading out to the far edge of the reef we found turtle city. It was low tide, Andrew said later they go there from shore at low tide (which was why we didn't see them next day, same place, but high tide). At one point we found dozens bedded down in the coral. I was able to count seven in one view, and one who took off just as a shark passed, presenting another of those Dibba Rock tableaux. Bobbi swam alongside them and touched their shells, a benign intrusion into nature we think. We decided to return there next day. Incidentally, at the end of this dive, Kyla became a certified O/W diver.

Back on shore, I guided Iain through the flip charts explaining discover scuba diving and took him into the pool where he did everything perfectly, so I figured that the following day's diving would be pleasant. The morning dawned not so hot, the seas were calm, and the vis looked excellent as we backward rolled off the boat, though it deteriorated to haze over the coral patch itself. Bob had decided to join his daughter Kyla, and Bobbi was teaming with whomever as I was sticking close to Iain. I saw a shark almost immediately though again the other divers were hanging back, and it was only Bobbi who joined me in pointing and making the shark sign at her forehead. We saw some cuttlefish here as well, and later some flighty squid larvae dancing with rippling skirts. Though vis was poor we saw more sharks but we had to work hard against the current to make our way all the way out the reef where we saw no turtles as we had the day before. At least as that point we could wheel around and return comfortably with the current. Time and air were running out when a pair of devil rays appeared and led us off the reef. We had to work a bit more to get back on the reef and Iain signaled 50 bar. We were shallow and I wanted to show him one last shark which I felt we'd surely see. One appeared on cue and Iain saw it, so we headed up. Another nice dive.

Iain wanted to go for another dive so we obliged, this time going off the east shoulder as we had our first dive the day before. We descended down the line into a school of blue trigger fish. As we popped to the sand a big brown ray meandered over. There was another snuggled underneath a wire mesh fishing pot. As we had the day before we went into the sand looking for jawfish, found none, but did find a small delta ray, the kind we see often at the breakwater in Abu Dhabi. Continuing up the wall we found morays and lion fish and clown fish in the anemone. This time I didn't take the gap that led me the day before in the shallows between the rock and the reef. I kept wide and went west along the boulders. Too far west I thought, looking for a chance to turn south. But the rocks looked familiar, eventually a rope tied to one showed us a mooring, and beyond that, the raspberry coral; however, 40 minutes into our dive. Now we were back on familiar territory though. We saw more sharks before Iain showed me 40 bar and at 50 minutes we headed up.
081003 - October 3, 2008 844-845 Dibba Rock (where else?) Freestyle Divers Working again with Iain, getting him up to PADI O/W dive #2 - Bobbi and I had been hiking for three days in the Jebel Alakhdar region of Oman but came back on Thu just to see if Iain wanted to go diving He did. Unfortunately all our usual hoteliers in Dibba had doubled their prices on the occasion of Eid Al Fitr, each and every one, even Seaside, so we didn't stay the extra day as we normally do.

But we hooked up with Iain Friday morning and rode up together to Dibba, doing academic modules 2-3 in the car on the way up. Once there we did a first dive, 8 meters on the front side of Dibba Rock. Vis was not good, there seemed to be a cloud of algae hanging right on top of the raspberry coral. We saw interesting creatures though, as usual. Bobbi found a couple of nudibranchs caressing each other right off the bat. We saw a squid and a cuttlefish, and a placid turtle. There were the usual batfish, triggerfish, wrasse cleaning stations ... and sharks of course. These glided in quite near, otherwise we wouldn't have seen them. Oddly as we came out to the end of the reef vis cleared somewhat. We turned to regain the reef, and there was once again the murk for some reason. We still saw sharks and were looking for more when we thought we ought to end the dive at 55 minutes.

I took Iain for his 2nd and 3rd pool modules between dives and we then re-entered the ocean for what was officially his o/w dive #2. This time we dove the back side. Again it was murky and there was a current sweeping us along, so I didn't want to get too far out over the sand. We found a few morays in the rocks and in the sand, no rays, only ray shadows, but regaining the reef Bobbi noticed jawfish. We found a couple, young ones and shy, that ducked out of site. There was a strong current, I overcompensated for it and came up too early looking for the gap round the rock, got us caught in the surge, went back down, and led us to the shallows as Iain was running low on air. He and I ascended at around 48 minutes (15 meters), nice dive, but I prefer the front side with all the sharks. Iain did well, two dives to go.
081010 - October 10-11, 2008 846-848 Dibba Rock and Inchcape Freestyle Divers My o/w student cancelled his dive in Abu Dhabi so Bobbi and I suddenly had a weekend free and decided to go to Dibba and dive just the two of us. We made a leisurely 11 a.m. start from Abu Dhabi and arrived in time for the 3 p.m. dive. We were told vis had been great at noon but by now the haze was back slightly over the reef. We popped over the side and I realized I'd left my compass ashore because I was using a different reg from the usual one (with compass) and hadn't thought to bring another, they were back in my dive bag. Solution snorkel over to the reef and descend right on it and then you can't get lost. In the comforting 30 degree waters we drifted along over raspberry corals, greeted occasionally by sharks which for some reason didn't give me the kick they usually do. The reef was fairly crowded with divers as well. A group of Arab guys followed close behind us and when we spotted a turtle one of these divers went after it as it lifted off the reef. Feeling threatened the turtle accelerated and the Arab used his arms to pull himself forward rather than streamline with fins. He caught up with it and gave it a shove to one side. I was afraid he was going to grab it. People at the Royal Beach Hotel are starting to catch the ones that loll off the beach and haul them out of the water. It's a nature reserve but there's not very diligent enforcement. Trying to remember now what else we saw. As we were first in the water we gave ourselves 65 minutes down, nice dive.

Next day we got up at 6 to get ourselves down to the dive center and do a morning swim out to the rock. For some reason a lot of people at Freestyle think we're superhuman for going out there in full gear but Bobbi had no problem (no current fortunately). I used a rope as a 'buddy line' to help her confidence in case she flagged but she did fine. We took a 30 degree heading direct to the rock but Northerly would probably have been better as we had to fin west to find the reef. None of the dark patches looked quite right till I saw a turtle lift off one and a moment later a shark swim over the top of the reef below. Yep this was the place. We descended.

The raspberry reef at 7:30 a.m. is alive in a way that it isn't once the horde of divers arrives. Vis was decent as we finned along the southwest leg toward the junction of the V that shapes that reef. There were sharks moving about, more than we usually see. We were the first to bother them this morning, so they only slowly moved away. We saw many, some coming right along our bows as we finned comfortably forward.

Heading N/E along the left leg of the V as seen on this page, we found the anchor that marks the top left of the V and then turned around for the return leg. It was at this point that a pair of devil rays came into view. Also they were high off the reef in the clear water above the soft white haze clowding the coral. We swam over to them and got good views as they cavorted and sauntered away.

We had a pleasant return back along the reef, finding more sharks and right at the end of the reef a half dozen cuttlefish. Two of these cuddlefish were locked in a tentacle to tentacle embrace, face to face. On that dive I wish I'd had a camera to record some of the sharks that came close, the devil rays, and those two cuddlefish.

We'd been diving over 50 minutes but we'd come to the end of the reef and wanted to make the 9:30 dive, so we consumed last 100 bar in our tanks finning 210 degrees along the bottom till I got down below 50 and we surfaced just 10 minutes finning from the Freestyle dive boats.

Since we'd been to the rock Bobbi and I decided to go to Inchcape just the two of us. So many times we've been there with students and others who had compromised these dives but this time it would just be Bobbi and I. To make it interesting we decided in advance to go three minutes into deco.

One thing that was different about most of our dives here was that without students hanging on the line and with no current so we didn't even have to hold on to it, Bobbi and I just dropped to the bottom, passing the others hanging on the rope, and falling the 30 meters in about a minute. So rather than spending 4 min of a 20 min dive inching down the rope, we arrived at our spot with 19 minutes still to go.

Here we had the wreck at our leisure. We found a ray in the sand that wriggled away around the bow and disappeared on the other side. We perused the deck looking for Fred and Frieda and finally found them nestled into the very bow of the wreck. Mohammed came along and stroked them and we did likewise, first time I'd dared touch a honeycomb moray eel. Fred and Frieda didn't seem to mind. Their necks were surprisingly soft. Bobbi touched them too.

We let our deco build to 3 min and started up the rope. The deco held till we reached our safety stop and burned off at 5 meters. We stayed another couple of minutes as a safety stop and headed up to the surface. Great dives, great weekend.
081025 - October 25, 2008 849-850 Abu Dhabi: Delta Buoy and Old Cement Barge Kirk Duthler on his good ship what's its name Certified Calum Cromey-Hawke, Open Water - Kirk Duthler and his partner boat owner Nicolas Bouverot asked me to show them some local dive sites in their boat. They had to be fairly local because they had only one engine, so we puttered out to Delta Buoy. It was a nice day. Delta Buoy is about 20 km from Abu Dhabi and the wrecks are 40 km beyond that (Lion City and Jassem) or 60 km further (Ludwig). It had been a while since I'd been to DB. I always look for the gully or 'canyon' which is the most salient thing I've ever found there. We anchored on my GPS and dead reckonning, and that plopped us right on a patch of staghorn coral with some attractive leopard spotted grunts in it (at the bottom I moved the anchor off the coral and placed it in the rock ledge). I thought we'd hit the canyon and moved along the ledge but it soon petered out, and then we were over nondescript coral dollops swirling with fish, but meandering nowhere. I followed my nose this way and that and big surprise to me eventually came out right on the dropoff at the end of the canyon. At that point I knew exactly where we were. I led in the area around, found us a nice sea snake to follow and get tantalizingly close to, and in the sand where we hoped to see rays we encountered a big mackeral fish just passing through. But following the ledge back toward the boat we never found the anchor. When we surfaced after 55 min. (12 m) we found we were near it but it was in a gully further over, which explained my confusion at the outset (to me, no one else cared I don't think).

For our second dive we were planning to stop at the breakwater on our way back to the Intercon harbor, but we decided to go to Old Cement Barge instead. I had misgivings about that because there was no fish-finder on the boat I have had a hard enough time finding it sometimes WITH a depth indicator. But we decided it was on the way home, halfway there, and when we arrived we found Dolphin Divers (Tariq's crew) parked on the wreck with divers bubbles coming off it, so it was obvious where it was. We snorkeled over and saw if from the surface, and saw the batfish patrolling, and went down on a bubble stream. Unfortunately the vis was pretty poor, silty. Not much to see apart from a school of fish hanging off the cement bags at the highest point. I tied my marker buoy there and sent it up, and later we came back in the boat so I could GPS the exact spot before going down to retrieve my marker, so maybe next time I can get right on it.

Fun dives for Abu Dhabi, congrats to Calum for getting his certification.
Saturday, November 15, 2008 851-852 Abu Dhabi: Empros Reef and Boxes 4 km from Ras Gurab Empros, Abu Dhabi Ianthe and Rosanne DeJong Open Water dive #1
With Red Tide devastating Dibba sea and beaches, I was forced to train Ianthe and Rosanne DeJong in Abu Dhabi, but it turned out to be a great day out. Empros were quite impressive. They brought a liveaboard boat over from egypt to enter the market here and they've only been around for a week or so. They're aiming to please. All passengers were issued cabins with heads and warm water showers (and towels, of course). They had a huge coolbox full of fruit juice and fizzies. They brought staff with them from Egypt who were kind and helpful. At 450 per person to be pampered for a day, we had quite a few from Froglegsscubaclub take them up on the offer.

They took us to a couple of sites I had never been to before, both full of fish like baraccudas, batfish, sea snakes, yellow spotted grunts, jacks .. really active. First dive with the two kids was 32 minutes, 14 meters.

Empros had two compressors and filled the tanks as we used them. I was just about to take my two students, dutch girls 11 and 14 yrs old so quite small but game, on their second ever dive when suddenly a storm comes out of nowhere, seas choppy, suddenly turned the sea to a cauldron, currents fierce. Couldn't take the young girls, so went with their mom instead. Down below I found Bobbi with her buddy Nicky unaware that the sea was broiling topside, and they were ready to come up so though Godelieve and I had spent just 18 min down I wanted to get Bobbi and Nicky to go up the rope so I steered by the boat shadow and found the anchor dangling from the stern, and we went up that together. Topside, the guys on the Empros were prepared, they had brought a chase boat and were able to collect divers who were unable to get aboard the pitching yacht. Still recovering divers from those rough seas was less than straightforward

The seas made a lot of passengers sick and they were unable to enjoy the great buffet set out including a big pile of shrimps which were left to the ravenous few with sea legs. On the way home, things smoothed out and everyone arrived in home port safe and sound and feeling almost normal again.
November 29, 2008 853 Abu Dhabi, Lulu Island corner by the jetty Cleanup Arabia 2008 Ianthe and Rosanne DeJong Open Water dive #2
Froglegs were offered a boat courtesy of Mahir at Gasco which took me and Godelieve and her two kids Ianthe and Rossane, and well as Bobbi and Stewart Clarke over to Lulu Island for a beach cleanup. I had decided to include the kids 11 and 14 for the environment experience, but in fact I took them for their PADI ow dive #2. We did all the exercises required for that dive in shallow water made challenging by the fact that just as we were all about to set off from the corniche beach a wind storm blew up, just as when we dived here last, or tried to, except this one was not so fierce and the boats set out. There were whitecaps on the water INSIDE the island though, so I had the boatman take us to a jetty where we'd be protected from the wind. We dived right at the jetty. It was very shallow, just a couple of meters, and maybe 20 min down, and vis was pathetic and subject to being made worse by flipper movement, but the kids did great, stayed together, got through the exercises under poor conditions, and emerged much more experienced divers. Hope our next dive is great. They've been unlucky so far :-(
December 2, 2008 854 MALDIVES: Fan Reef to Ory Faro Rashdoo Divers at Kuramathi Village We rushed ourselves out of the house at 8 in the evening to arrive at the airport only to find that our flight to Colombo from Abu Dhabi was delayed two hours. Apart from the inconvenience of having to batten the hatches at home two hours prematurely (our departures are always rushed and abrupt), we were mainly worried that we would miss our connection to Male. The counter staff looked it up and told us that even with the delay we would still have half an hour to catch our flight. We were still concerned about our bags, especially our dive gear. No problem, we were told. Usually that means no problem for the person who tells you, 'no problem.'

In Colombo we were met by airport staff saying “Male? Male?” They ushered us to our gate and within minutes of taking our seats, the plane started rolling back. Bobbi and I wondered how they would have had time to offload the plane we had come let alone transfer baggage to our flight. So we were quite surprised when in Male our bags were among the first off the belt. Each had been tagged “for immediate transfer.” We passed through immigration easily enough, our bags were x-rayed for contraband booze and pork products (this country claims to be 100% Sunni Muslim; it must be a condition of citizenship), and right inside the terminal we found our transfer desk and to make a long story short, we were on a boat within half an hour of stepping in the arrivals hall and at Kuramathi Island by 11:30 a.m. Coming down the jetty from the speedboat that brought us from Male we saw a small brown white-tip reef shark in the shallow clear turquoise water under the jetty. It turned out that small sharks like that, half a meter or so, were frequent visitors to piers around the island, but it was an initial obvious sign of healthy underwater environment. After checking into our cottage just off the beach we made it down to the dive center, and at 14:00 we were heading by boat (spacious and perfect for diving, even a bathroom aboard) for the nearby house reef.

For our first dive at Kuramathi, we drifted along the wall with a slight current so diving was sometimes done hovering, and we each surfaced with 70 bar. It was not bad for having just stepped off the plane. Water temps were comfortable, vis was a lot better than we were used to, fish were plentiful. There seem to be a lot of tuna prowling around this part of the Maldives. They like the 20-25 meter depths. We saw a white tip reef shark during the dive and at another point a turtle. The wall was beautiful and relaxing, but there was coral rubble in places and chalky silt maybe from where they had constructed some cottages on piers near shore. So it wasn't a great dive but it was a pleasant one and not totally devoid of dramatics. We were glad to be where we were.

Depth and time: 24 meters max depth on a wall dive where we stayed at mostly 20 meters. Time: We were told to be at the surface in 60 min including the safety stop and since it was our checkout dive and we needed to behave ourselves, that's exactly what we did.

Temperatures: We each wore our thin lycra and were a little cool during the dive. The lycra was bearable but since we each had 3 mm suits as well we used those on subsequent dives and were perfectly comfortable for the rest of our time in the water.

Weight: As an instructor who usually carries weight to give off to students I'm never sure how much weight I need, so a Maldives trip is a good place to fine tune. I discovered through trial that I need 4 kg in my 3mm suit. Even then I dropped a kg at the bottom at the end of one dive and stayed down, but to cover all conditions (in case of exertion in current for example) 4 kg is the right weight for me with that thickness full length wetsuit.
December 3, 2008 855-6 MALDIVES: Hafza Thila in North Ari Atoll and Rashdoo Channel in Rashdoo Atoll Rashdoo Divers at Kuramathi Village Next day was much better. North Ari Atoll is just an hour by boat across the Channel from Rashdoo and the next morning we crossed over there for a dive on Hafza Thila. A thila is a coral peak that in the case of this one comes to within ten meters of the surface and was around 28 meters at its base. We crossed in about an hour on smooth seas with cool sun in pleasant temperatures, maybe 28 degrees air temperature, which was similar to water temperature.

At Hafsa Thila we dived along its wall at around 20 meters. There were lots of treats on the dive. We first noticed some nudibranchs and a scorpion fish (the kind that are plentiful on Martini Rock) and a moray, also common in the UAE. But again we found cruising tuna and bonito which we were told looked like tuna but with a black pattern on the back, and unicorns and batfish, and a nice school of orange fish with big red eyes that let us swim among them. We saw white tip sharks occasionally on this dive, and the first big treat as we angled up near the top of the reef was the resident eagle ray who was happy to cruise among the divers. At one point it turned along the wall and came right up to me and let me swim alongside. I could have stayed with it for some ways but it turned a corner along the wall and would have taken me out of sight of the other divers.

The top of the thila was even nicer than the wall. At one edge there were a couple of octopuses that other divers chased back into their holes but when they left Bobbi and I hovered a couple of meters away and they came out and caressed themselves with their tentacles. One extended a tentacle to the other and left it there for reassurance that the other was nearby. We watched for some time and then moved to the staghorn table corals at the top of the thila. There were baby sharks there hiding in pairs under the tabletops. A big moray (the size of our honeycombs but dark purple) moved about here, and when he sought cover under the tabletops he dislodged the sharks who were then forced to swim about exposed. Those plus the plethora of other reef fish made this a great place to hang out while we breathed down to 50 bar and time to come up with the others at 60 minutes (24 meters max depth, just for the record). On the ascent and safety stop I made it a point to fin into the current and so keep myself over the thila so I got to see the eagle ray come back and cruise over the top, my parting shot of that reef, great dive.

Rashdoo Channel - The second dive of the day, the afternoon one, was off Rashtoo Island, which was one over from Kuramathi, separated by a channel, which made this an interesting spot. We were told in the briefing that the channel was 30 m. deep but we would move from thila to thila and thus keep ourselves in the 20 m. range, and we would end up in the midde of the channel. We followed Sam the divemaster, who knew the thilas well. We started on a colorful wall with masses of little blue trigger fish (common on all our dives so far) plus the usual suspects, but saw little else of interest until we navigated to a spot where we swam up a canyon with cloudy conditions and were feeling a little bored when we saw a white tip and another resting on the bottom. Sam then led to the thila on the left (our entry point for the second dive we did here on Dec 7) and here there was a huge humphead napoleon wrasse at 22 meters on the coral shoulder. We rounded that shoulder and came into a perpendicular canyon and here we saw several sharks cruising. This was a nice spot, sharks moving about for the rest of the dive, as many as 5 at a time. The other fish were their usual color and variety but the sharks really put the icing on the cake, and we enjoyed this dive very much and found it an excellent way to follow up our superb morning dive.
December 4, 2008 857-9 MALDIVES: Donkalo Thila, Fish Head, and Maya Thila in North Ari Atoll $ Rashdoo Divers in combined safari with Cottage and Kuramathi Village We went to bed at 7:30 the night before apparently still exhausted from our previous workweek and missing a night's sleep traveling to Colombo and Male. That evening we had been to the sandbar on the far north of the island to see the sunset, just missed it because we had been called in at 5:30 p.m. for a briefing (which contained no information we couldn't have been told when we left the center that afternoon at 4). We had had two beers while waiting for the briefing and we were strangely mellowed from them. After missing the sunset (we had seen the orange and purple cloud show though) we had returned to our room by way of the sting ray feeding which takes place every evening at 6:30 at the Cottage Spa pier on that island. And we somehow ended up in bed after showers and just didn't get up even to go have dinner. We weren't hungry, just tired. So when we turned up next morning at 5:45 a.m. to get our dive gear from where it was stored at the center, we were the only ones on the boat who had just had ten hours sleep, I'm sure.

The boat took off at sunrise heading south across the channel over smooth seas, occasionally disturbing flying fish that skimmed the surface across the water. It was a brilliant day, subtly sunny through a protective layer of clouds. Temperatures were ideal. We passed between idyllic islands and wondered what the liveaboard cruise boats anchored at certain spots were treating their divers to. We never found out, but pressed on to the south. Eventually a buffet breakfast spread was arrayed on the top of the cabin and we were enjoying coffee. After an hour and half traveling we arrived at our spot.

The dive-leader Fredericka had a laminated diagram of Donkalo Thila and gave us her usual most thorough briefing before jumping into the water to check current. She wasn't happy with the location, she said we were on the back side to where we wanted to be, but she said the current wasn't bad and we could get where we wanted to go from there, so she called us in. Vis was disappointing, kind of like Lima Rock on a good day, not endless blue as we might have expected. Still we were able to see the sharks resting on the bottom at 30 meters from where we cruised at 20. At the far east of the thila there were some alcoves with lobsters inside and a couple of rocky outcroppings, very deep, which we pushed down to about 28 meters, but all we saw there was another resting shark. Fredericka had been stopping to take photographs along the way and here, half an hour into the dive, she started to focus on the ceilings of the caves, leaving Bobbi and I sort of treading water and wondering what to do. Bobbi saw a bull ray cruise by fast but apart from that it was the anticlimactic end of the a dive where we had expected to follow the fearless leader. I think what Fredericka had expected us to do was never-mind her and carry on around the thila and meet back at the top, which was what we ended up doing on the next two dives. But the top of this thila was not all that inspiring, mostly rock and not that much colorful coral. We found a turtle there while breathing down to 57 minutes, then doing a 3 min safety stop to arrive at the surface after one hour, as we'd been told on previous dives.

Back up top we were told we could have a choice of going to another site nearby (at that point, sounced boooring) or to Fish Head, which we'd read about and which was one of the reasons we had chosen Kuramathi over other places, its proximity to both Fish Head and Mayafushi. Fish Head was known for schools of Hammerheads if you got there early enough in the morning. Now at mid-day we were told to expect to see the big napoleon wrasse there. It seemed doubtful that the schools of sharks would still be there. We saw the occasional grey white tipped reef shark on this dive, but again I would say not a great dive on the order of Hafsa thila the day before. This time when Frederika got stuck into her photography we carried on away from the group and found the three big napoleons. Bobbi remembers blue shiny fusiliers and batfish and moray eels. I remember a current carrying us to the far end of the rock and getting some shelter from the current as we rounded it, but as we attempted to come up over the top, we were faced with the current and had difficulty maintaining our position. The current was flushing other divers in our group to the same spot and they ascended as they went low on air. We hung out to the bitter end. There was a small turtle up there and some coral heads with colorful fish, but nothing highly inspiring. I recall writing back on the boat that I had gone 26.2 meters, with a dive time of 61 minutes (58 without safety stop).

For the last dive of the day we went to Maya Thila, the other reknowned site in northern Ari Atoll off Mayafushi, and the other spot we had come to see, so we were pleased with the locations we were being taken to. This turned out to be a cracking dive, as my earstwhile BSAC colleagues might have said. Again vis was not all that great, and Fredericka again got stuck into her camera after pointing out some sharks resting on the bottom, but by now Bobbi and I knew to just carry on. Her briefings were at least good enough for us to follow on compass. At the northwest point there was an obvious overhang which we swam through and carried on briefly to the east but then turned south to where there was a second thila in the haze (had been indicated on Fredericka's diagram) which we finned over to. Here we got a bit deep for a third dive, over 27 meters but we found some sharks out there, one a bit larger than the other smaller grey white tips we'd got used to. We didn't want to linger at that depth so we regained the thila to the north and carried on around it, encountering more sharks swimming nearby, till we arrived back at the salient overhang, at which point we came up ten meters to the top of the thila. Here we found the others in our group enjoying the fish life there. Bobbi and I meandered out the point defining the top of the overhang and found a turtle out there which we swam with. It was unconcerned about divers, just swam along with us, and we managed to herd it back to where the others were and Fredericka took over, making it the subject of her photo studies for the next five minutes. Then Fredericka beckoned another diver over and we thought there was something interesting to see so we followed. In fact she wanted to pose this other diver on the far side of an anemone, in a shot you often see in dive magazines (except this subject was hanging on a rock for support; whereas the models you see in the mags are perfectly buoyant). Still it was good she got us over there because a shark appeared out of nowhere and criss-crossed the reef, casually swimming un-noticed by most of the other divers. Bobbi and I were able to swim alongside and see it in the bright light at only ten meters. It was a nice way to end the dive and our day out on safari from Rashdoo atoll.

We were back from our dive in time to get home and change into our running clothes for the short jog out to the sandbar, finally in time for sunset. We started in the opposite direction from the sandbar, toward the jetty at the eastern waterfront of the island, just to elongate the jog a little bit. The island is only a little over a km long and angles slightly north at its western edge, making the sand bar there a good place to see the sunset, and we stopped at the last bar before the sandbar and picked up a couple of Coronas and walked them the rest of the way out the beach. We strolled into the cool turquoise water to immerse ourselves and cool off from our jog and sip our beers as the sun went from bright yellow to more subdued orange and sank in a ball below the clouds on the horizon. Then we wandered back barefoot to where we'd got the beers and had two more while taking a seat on the pier to watch the nightly stingray feeding. It was interesting as usual with sharks and remorahs darting constantly among the big brown rays which glided over one another in anticipation, and when the man came out to feed them they mobbed him and flapped up his backside, emitting grunts like hippopotamuses while he stuffed chunks of meat in their mouths while the rays chewed at it as he introduced it, as if the ventral surface of each ray was a face with only a mouth about where you would think it should be, but with no nose or eyes. Then we went back to our room and showered with every intent to go out and have some wine with dinner, but somehow we rested again and just stayed in bed for the next ten hours, neither hungry nor in want of anything but rest. We both slept well, and I remember having many dreams, none that I could recount now. It was starting to feel like a vacation.
December 5, 2008 860-1 MALDIVES: The Caves and Three Palms in Rashdoo Atoll Rashdoo Divers at Kuramathi Village We got up and had breakfast, exactly the same as the previous time we had eaten here, a nice mix of curries and standard English fare, but only our second time here, already beginning to feel redundant, especially as this was our chief source of sustenance on Kuramathi. In case we might want to make a sandwich later we took a couple of bread rolls from the breakfast buffet back to the room with us.

30 meters, 61 minutes, “the Caves": We reported to the dive center at nine for our second dive on the house reef. The dives on the reef south of Kurumathi are not particularly interesting. We had dived the section closest to the jetty our first afternoon on the island and found it ok for a checkout dive and orientation to Maldives underwater, but it was not a place I wanted to pay a fortune to go back to. The first section extends to where they have just constructed bungalows out over the water, and we figured that might be why there was coral rubble and silt here, but we found when we dived the third and farthest out section this morning that the silt extended the length of the reef. The caves, or more accurately shallow alcoves with nothing of interest inside when we were there, are on the wall beneath the submerged reef that extends beyond the sandy sunset beach and underwater define the continuation of the atoll. The site is a wall dipping from 5 meters to well below 30 in the sand far below. The idea is to cruise along it at 20-25 meters so as to extend dive time while being able to see anything that might be in the sand below. Some tunas or bonito (possibly the the latter) cruised by in the blue, but we didn't see anything else out there. On the wall itself there were morays and lion fish and the dominant tiny blue triggers spawning en masse, and fish the same shape as unicorns but without the 'corne'. Above from 20 meters we saw three eagle rays move overhead but we couldn't get up to see them close due to the time it took to ascend, but when we saw the last one 45 min into the dive we decided to come up to the shallow edge of the reef. We stayed where we could see into the top as far as the silt would allow and as deep into the blue as we could. It was prettier up there though the coral was not that colorful and it was milky with silt, but the reef fish were teeming here and it was a pretty part of the dive, nice relief from the wall, which could have been any wall dive in the Philippines but with accommodation and San Miguel and diving itself a fraction of what it cost in the Maldives.

The afternoon dive is (Gasp!) Three Palms, the section of the house reef between the harbor and the caves. Have these people no shame? I'm wondering why they didn't offer us better diving today. Oh well should improve tomorrow, 6:00 a.m at Hammerhead Point and 9:00 at the northern channel at the opposite northeast corner of the atoll, hopefully the side up current from the silt. We'll see. Now to go dive Three Palms (ho hum).

Three Palms was an absolute wash, $100 worth of diving (for the two of us) wasted on poor vis and a wall of coral rubble whose impression I have from it was browns and murky greys. We did it at around 20 meters. At one point I went down to 33.5 meters just to see what was in the deep sand bottom. There was nothing, but I had to go that deep just to SEE the bottom about five meters further down. I could not help resenting during that dive that Rashdoo Divers had not taken more care that their customers should have an exciting and varied diving experience. Our choice for the morning had been the Caves, just a little further out the three palms reef, where we had never been, or Rashdoo, next island over, where we had been, but which would have been the better choice of two dives, clearer water, and shark infested channel diving. Actually we learned through experience that the best diving for vis and interesting sea life on Rashdoo Atoll was further east and north around the atoll just minutes away by boat, yet for one day of our holiday we were shunted down to the southeast end of Kuramathi Island on the reef closest to the harbor for our two dives that day (afternoon dives at the two dive centers were combined, so the only alternative to diving Three Palms was NO diving). This reef is accessible from shore via snorkeling channels, so conceivably you could rent a tank and shore dive this reef, and in fact we saw snorkelers free diving during the shallower parts of our afternoon dive. Resorts with house reefs sometimes offer unlimited free shore diving as part of the package (in practice, divers sated with good boat dives elsewhere won't do much shore diving due to the nitrogen hit, even if it's free, so this enticement rarely results in many more tanks being used – but the point is, what some resorts offer as a inducement to attract divers to their centers, Rashdoo divers was including as part of its main offerings, which resulted in our spending an entire day of our expensive Maldives dive holiday diving on walls little different from what you might find in the UAE or in the Philippines).

After the dive we rode the boat around to the Cottage dive center so we could store our gear where the dive would originate next morning. We had signed on to go look for hammerheads, best done at sunrise, and there were trips Saturday from Cottage and Sunday from the Village dive centers. These were actually the same center, under same management, but they listed slightly different dives so divers could have some choice (mornings only). I saw that the next afternoon dive was given as Ory Faro, which is the dive site right outside the harber. I mentioned to Fredericka that the diving that day had been crap and expressed disappointment that the following day the afternoon dive would be at the same place, because Bobbi and I would not be going back there and we had been hoping to dive a better spot next day. She wandered off later and returned while we were having an evening refresher on the pier opposite the dive center. We saw her writing on the whiteboard so as we were about to leave we walked over to see what she'd written, and she had changed the next day afternoon dive to Madivaru Finohlu nearer the sweet spot of the lagoon, which we immediately signed up for. Things were looking up.

While drinking our beer we had been snacking on nuts smuggled onto the island from Abu Dhabi and we had stuffed the wrappers in one of the beer glasses that the waiter collected when we were finished. It was noted by the Island Survelliance that the guests from Room 37 had food not purchased at the resort, and this information was entered into the central computer database so that the system was alerted to monitor our consumption. The database kicked back the information that we had indeed made no purchases after 7:30 for the past two evenings (when we had gone to bed without dinner) and that our expenditures were much lower than our profile indicated they should be. Later that evening we purchased a carafe of wine at one of the outlets and extracted from our bags more smuggled food, a tin of designer pasta and a pack of gourmet spice tuna which we spread on bread smuggled from that morning's breakfast buffet. Probably we could have got away with consuming contraband food items a little while longer had it not been for the bread. This bread, being perishable, was clearly not a smuggled item but, ahem, a stolen one! This was duly reported back to Island Surveillance Central where, unbeknownst to us, we were flagged for our suspicious behaviors. We were skating on thin ice now and we'd have to watch out who was watching us from now on. Although we didn't realize it at the time, Room 37 was now on the close scrutiny list, and staff would be alerted to watch our every move whenever that number was given out towards a purchase at one of the island's outlets.

Meanwhile, oblivious to what data the computers were compiling behind our backs, we returned to our room where we still had a two thirds full plastic bottle of water, costing $4.40 on this island (and even now the staff had been instructed to see if they could determine where we were getting our water, as the computers indicated we had not purchased any more from official island outlets for the past few days). As we had made greater than usual purchases of alcoholic beverages this evening (surveillance computer data indicated that this was closer to normal, but still no food purchases, very suspicious, our profile would be analyzed carefully while we slept), we went to bed at around 8:30 and slept till 5:15, when we got up to go look for hammerheads.
December 6, 2008 862-4 MALDIVES: Hammerhead Point to Madivaru Reef, North Channel, and Madivaru Finolhu in Rashdoo Atoll Rashdoo Divers at Cottage and Kuramathi Village Since Bobbi's watch was 7 minutes fast and we had only a 5 min walk to the Cottage dive pier and all our gear was there and we had only to don t-shirts and bathing suits and put on our sandals and walk along the beach over to the boat, we arrived before anyone else. It was starting to get light when Sam came to unlock the shop and about that time the boat appeared with tanks and we kitted up with the other divers. By sunrise we were in position further up the lagoon at the spot where hammerheads were known to congregate at this time occasionally. Fredericka had seen them the morning we arrived, 15 of them she said, so they could be there or maybe not. We weren't the only boat on the water. Divers from the liveaboards would be going deep we were told. By law in the Maldives you can't go below 30 and report that fact while still under the jurisdiction of the Maldives gov't (perhaps more importantly, it affects liability and insurance in case of accident). Hammerheads are known to be a deep water fish, and we were diving in a channel 200 meters deep I think I heard Sam say. It would be a blue water dive.

It was pretty easy to all get in and then follow Sam around for half an hour. If we had been at 30 meters those of us diving air would have had 20 min before having to come up. I figured out that with Sam diving Nitrox a good strategy for Bobbi and I was to hang above him. He would let us know if he saw anything and we could save our nitrogen hit for when it would be needed. To make a long story short, it wasn't needed. We saw nothing but beautiful deep blue, excellent vis here (and ironically nothing to see except the occasional passing tuna). I kept the sum of my dive time and no deco time remaining equal to 30 throughout the dive, but as we neared 30 min time passed and soon I was up to 16 meters swimming about 5 meters above Sam. Eventually he worked us over to the reef, which turned out to be Madivaru (though I didn't know it at the time). Now the dive became beautiful. We drifted along the wall to its edge and then continued out a tongue of rock and coral extending along the sand bottom. There had been tuna and/or bonito on the wall and now looking down on the coral tongue we saw white tip sharks and big humphead wrasse moving along it among the other colorful fish. We worked out way down to it, drifted along it, enjoyed the sharks meandering lazily, and breathed our air down toward 50 bar. Our no deco time was now at the point where our dive time could go over an hour, which was the time we were due back on the surface, so there was no rush, just take in the beautiful scenery. We followed the thila up to its highest point at 8 meters and waited there while a shark passed through a gap just even with us. At 57 minutes I noticed a school of 2 dozen barracuda which happened to be at 5 meters, and I suggested we do our surface interval there, in their midst. Great way to end a dive!

We were back on shore by 7:30, time to have a shower before going to breakfast and meeting up for our 9:00 dive. In the restaurant they had made small changes to the menu. On the upside dhal was now among the curries, but the the delicious pork bacon had been replaced by a more hilal but less succulent chicken product. Also we didn't notice at first but the waiters had been instructed to triangulate on us. They positioned themselves in such a way that at no time would we be unobserved. Our normal coffee man, the one we rely on to fill our cups each morning, had made it a point to carry the pots as far away from us as possible and keep himself across the room so that we would be forced to focus on him for attention. That way we would be less likely to notice the other spotters at the moment that Bobbi chose to transfer two precious bread rolls from the top of the table to her bag which she'd place open in her lap. In an instant the order was given to swarm. A Surveillance Agent dressed as a waiter immediately appeared at our table. At first we hoped he was bringing coffee as our cups had been empty for over 5 minutes now. However he duly informed us that we had violated the regulations of this institution and possibly broken some laws in the Maldives as well by attempting to steal two rolls of bread from our breakfast table. This was totally against the regulations and capitalist creed of the island on which we now resided and in future if we desired bread outside of breakfast time we were to purchase it in the manner of any other pax at the coffee shop, where there was nothing on the menu for under $7. I'm not sure, perhaps you could get a bread roll there for $5. Maybe I should have asked for the bread menu at that point. However, as the resort was making an egregious misdemeanor over two pieces of bread we defused the situation by returning the bread to the top of the table where it would stay and later be thrown away with the rest of the uneaten garbage left over from the morning meal routine.

After breakfast we had a nice dive at the North Channel where we were told we had the chance to see a manta. I remember seeing those in the Florida Keys in the 60's as a matter of course (regarded as a kind of sea monster at the time, some people used to try and spear-gun them), and they were common in Cook Islands, and of course Yap, which had a dive on the north side of the island where the mantas came and played with the divers. Now they are not so common, though we did see a hovering eagle ray on this dive, hanging in on a gathering current so we had to fight the current to draw even with it. The North Channel dive went from thila to thila separated by sandy banks full of dancing garden eels, lots of them, almost everywhere you looked carefully in the sand, until you got too close and they would totally vanish. We saw a turtle, and sharks of course – one went behind a rock and I went around the other way to catch him as he passed behind it, but when I looked in the anticipated place, no shark. I looked under the rock and found him cowering there, but on discovery he escaped and made his way through the approaching divers and beyond to safety. There were lots of Napoleon wrasse, Bobbi saw a barracuda. We saw a scorpion fish and a nudibranch, the big trigger fish (what are they called, emperor?), and lots of baby blue ones, turkey fish, morays ... lots to see on this dive.

We had a few hours break in our room, becoming our routine on Kuramathi, and at 1400 we met for the briefing for our third and last dive of the day. We were going to Madivaru Finolhu but in the briefing Bobbi and I were told we could dive solo. Sam drew a chart of the reef with depths and contours and we just had to keep straight whether the current would run east to west or the opposite. In the event, it ran east to west and we were dropped down on the wall and had to follow it to its confluence where we had been given instructions depending on whether the current was incoming or outgoing to hang on there and wait for sharks (but don't swim where they were coming from or we'd scare them away) or in another kind of condition swim around to the backside of something and approach the area from the north. We had been there that morning so it seemed kind of clear what to do, and the first part of the dive was easy except for the current which we'd been warned would carry us across the channel if we let it. We started along the wall at 25 meters but soon went higher as we had little no-deco time at that depth, and at some point I thought I'd look over the top of the reef and see what was up there at about 15 meters. The current was really jamming so I had to be careful to hold my position and so as not to be blown off the crest of the reef and into what turned out to be sand on the other side. That was a surprise; I had expected the top of a reef, and in the sand was a big sting ray and a shark. I turned to make sure Bobbi was ok in the current and when I looked back both were gone, leaving only a pile of churned up sand where the ray had been. So we played at the crest for a little, sometimes dropping down the wall side to be better positioned vis a vis the current, and the next time we popped over to the sand, the ray was there again. This time we managed to get close to him. The sharks liked the top of the wall and it was not unusual to see their white fin tips just on the other side and rise up a bit for a better view. Only 20 min or so into the dive we had been steamrolled down to the picturesque Madivaru reef proper but unlike that morning when we had viewed the comings and goings of the animals living there at leisure and in placid comfort, we were now chasing deco and fighting current to hold our position, which was in turn consuming our air faster than we normally used it. The reef to the south was beautiful with tuna cruising along it, and surely sharks to arrive soon, but as we followed it, it went deeper, 24 meters and dropping, with only 4 min. no deco time at that depth. We had to get higher so I led us to the back of the reef where we had some shelter from the current and then back to the top, about 20 meters, where we hung on like extended pennants to chunks of rock in the coral garden, blue and orange fish flitting everywhere, and looked to see if any sharks would cruise by. None did, dive time got to 30 min and only minutes to go before deco, so we had to get higher. I led us down into the sand where we had again shelter from the current. One of the Napoleon wrasses was there, and we swam to the thila on our left and climbed that to about 18 meters. But vis was too cloudy to see higher ground anywhere around and this seemed to be the end of the road, and the place where we had ended the dive that morning. I didn't recall seeing any escape to higher ground that morning, and I was down to 50 bar so the choice was to stay there and end the dive (probably the wisest option, in retrospect, nice reef, chance a shark or two would wander by in the next few minutes) or turn loose and see if we could get carried to a higher reef. Since we were just under 40 min dive time and a higher reef would have given us another ten minutes to explore it, we opted for the latter course and found ourselves getting swept over coral rubble that rose only up to 12 meters. I was down to 30 bar and Bobbi had 60 so I decided to go onto her octopus while we drifted to see if we could make a landfall. After a couple of minutes we did see a reef to our left and we swam to that. It turned out to top out at 8 meters but was again just brown broken coral, so I gave Bobbi her octopus back and we ascended to 5 meters for a safety stop. The time at that point was 49 minutes, and in the 3 min we hovered we got swept like a catamaran before the wind, ascending finally on the north side of Rashdoo island with the two radio masts, around the corner and out of sight of Kuramathi. We swam toward that island and would have made it in half an hour or so, in case our boat didn't recover us, but eventually the boat appeared and we were picked up. No body seemed to mind that we had become separated from the group and had to be recovered on the far side of the channel.

After the dive we went to the nearest beach bar for deco treatment but found a Philippino there testing his bass and drum background thump grinder and karaoke skills, so it wasn't pleasant there. We walked up the Cottage and had a beer or two on the pier overlooking the green water with sharks and needlefish cruising under the pier. At 6:00 happy hour began so we ordered some evil concoctions called After Diving (Campari and Drambui and wine) and something else called Karamathi Way. We then retired to quarters for showers and laid down to dry off and next thing we discovered it was late and we'd gone to bed again without dinner, so that was again our routine in Kuramathi.
December 7, 2008 865-7 MALDIVES: Hammerhead Point to Madivaru Reef, Rashdoo Channel, and Veligando North in Rashdoo Atoll Rashdoo Divers at Kuramathi Village Next morning we had a last chance to look for hammerheads. We were up at 5 but again, as with our routine, after getting about ten hours sleep!! There was only one other diver besides Sam our dive leader, a German guy named Hennie. The four of us entered the water before sunrise and headed out to the blue. In no time we found ourselves surrounded by the most incredible school of hammerheads. Hah, yeah sure. Actually Bobbi noticed a marble ray on her way down, and I noticed in our wanderings in the blue today that we were never far off the reef. You can tell by the presence of reef fish in the blue, and I was keeping track by compass of where we were. So we weren't in particularly deep water and we weren't particularly deep ourselves. Sam was making a show of looking for game at 25 meters, and Bobbi and I were trying to stay above him to conserve air and consume less nitrogen. In fact the reason I liked that dive was only in part the miniscule chance of seeing hammerheads. It was the perfect thing to be doing at sunrise on Kuramathi Island, cool, blue, relaxing, spots of blue phosphorescent diatoms looking like stars in a galaxy wherever we looked, and all there was to see apart from the occasional big marauder fish, and the big blue-brown fish shaped like unicorns without the corne who like to school at the back of people's regulators. After after half an hour of pretending to look for hammerheads Sam led us west which I knew now was the really fun part of this dive, ending up on Madivaru Reef, also my favorite reef hereabouts. We hit the reef at exactly the place we had left it on a freight train the day before except now the current was calm and we could move about and enjoy the scenery. The orange and blue fish were there in the healthy coral with the occasional shark swimming close by, small grey white tips. The napoleon wrasse was there. The barracudas were schooled where we had ended our dive the previous morning. There were dozens of garden eels poking their heads above the sand as we made our way to the opposite thila where we saw more sharks and moray eels. Then Sam led us to the north to find that higher reef which I hadn't known about the day before (our train was heading west ;-) We ended the dive there seeing nothing of great interest, except another shark or two, ho hum.

After this dive, we went to breakfast. Without explanation we found our table assignment had been changed abruptly. That is we sat in the usual place to begin with but the waiter came and snatched our number 37 away and we were asked to move our things and also the food we had already placed on our usual table to a more claustrophobic location in the restaurant. Bobbi found herself seated in such a way that she was right next to a pillar which left her without any sort of view for 135 degrees of her field of vision. I asked why and was given a non-informative answer. I'm sure it was for security reasons. I think we were being moved to a place where we could be watched more closely, a place equidistant from the stations where the agents dressed as waiters could keep better eye on us, or perhaps it was a table in better view of the hidden cameras.

At least we still had diving. We ate breakfast only to survive on Kuramathi. For our morning dive we were taken to Rashdoo channel, a place we had thoroughly enjoyed a couple of days before. But this time we had to dive it more conservatively. We couldn't really get down into the canyon where we had seen all the sharks the time before. In fact we started our dive crossing to the ridge where we had seen the Napoleon wrasse our previous time there, and he was still in residence and we were able to swim quite close to him and see him clearly, but to do this we had to drop down to 26 meters. I'm sure someone has taken a picture of that wrasse and I can find it on Flickr. Anyway, Bobbi and I were forced to keep to the top of the reefs between 22-25 meters to keep our dive time, total up to then plus no-deco remaining, summing to 30 minutes. We saw some sharks below on the reef and in a sand patch a pair resting, one of them quite large. Near the sharks someone had dropped a blue fiber plastic bag from a boat and as rubbish was quite out of place in this pristine location I went down to collect the bag (and ahem get a closer view of the sharks). Woops, 31 meters. That little indiscretion cost me in deco time. Sam was taking care to lead us up the reef because he knew we'd been deep. Accordingly we probably missed a lot of sharks that cruise the channel, but we did find the little blue and yellow ribbon eels that Sam had told us to watch for. We also found lobsters. Meanwhile we had crossed the channel and were coming to the part around our boat harbor, the part that we had already dived too many times on previous days. But today it was active. There were snorkelers in the channels above and they were disturbing the sharks which on two occasions headed in off the shallow part of the reef just above where I had gone to burn off deco, passing right in front of me on their way to the safety of the depths. I was surprised on surfacing (with 60 min on my computer) that we were near the bungalows built out over the water on the south side of the island, coming on to a near repeat of our first dive on Kuramathi 6 days earlier. We'd almost come full circle then, but we still had one afternoon dive to go.

The afternoon dive was way around the lagoon past Madivaru and just past Veligando Island, at a place called Veligando North. Again Bobbi and I were told we could go solo, but watch out for the current, which was indeed strong. We were told in our briefing that we should watch the wall for honeycomb morays and other small creatures but we'd be not likely to see big stuff here as it had been the spot most damaged by the tsunami when it had ripped through here some years past. The wall was nice and concealed many treasures. One of our first tableaus was a pair of brown morays each with a shrimp cleaning its neck, very picturesque. There were lots more morays, lots of honeycombs, lion fish, little shrimp in holes, and the usual reef dwellers. We saw no one else for most of the dive until at the end we hooked up with Sam and his group. A capper for the day was a meaty black tip reef shark that appeared suddenly, making us homesick for Dibba Rock. These are much finer animals than the lean white tips, more sure of themselves, prouder sharks than their light finned cousins. It was a pleasant dive, an adrenaline letdown perhaps, but an easy way to finish off six days of diving in Rashdoo and Ari Atolls, and the nitrogen hit would allow us to fly in 21 hours, which was about the time our plane was due to take off from Male the following day.

The cost of all this diving turned out to be around $1400 (comes out to about $50 a dive including boat trips) and as we paid our bill that evening, there were no surprises. Our food (mainly drink) expenditures came to about $250 for the six days.

One final incident came next morning when we tried to change our table to one of the hundreds of others of empty ones in the spacious breezy restaurant that had some view of the ocean because they were not behind pillars. We were told by one staff to see the man at the front desk, who sent us to our coffee waiter, and finally several waiters (and quite possibly some security personnel dressed as waiters, intensively trained to handle this kind of outbreak among the pax) descended on us and told us all the tables at that restaurant were reserved, ALL of them, as far as the eye could see, there was nowhere for us to sit but where we'd been assigned, and we should go back to our pillar and behave ourselves. So we did (but we moved the blocked-in chair so it wasn't behind a pillar, I'm almost surprised we weren't asked to move it back ;-)
Date Logged Dive # Location Diving with Most recent dive is the one listed above

After Maldives, traveling in Sri Lanka, a bit of a journal I'll place elsewhere later ...

It's a little expensive to hang out for long on an island in the Maldives, and at the end of 6 days we felt we had seen pretty much all the secrets of our atoll that Rashdoo Divers were capable of revealing to us given the staffing available to them. So on Monday it was time for us to move on. Ever organized, our resort had arranged a small yacht available to whisk us and a few other guests back to Male airport (flying fish, dolphins, and even a sailfish sighted en route, lovely trip). There we were met by a representative of the company that had arranged our holiday, though there was not much for him to do but walk us from the boat to the departure hall where we passed through security and eventually boarded our plane. The weather in Maldives was generally sunny with high clouds keeping the worst of the heat away, but on our approach to Colombo we noticed raindrops out the airplane's nose camera and indeed the tarmac there was being inundated with rain. We disembarked and got a cab which drove through the rain into town. Colombo was a world away from the tranquility of an island in Maldives. Traffic was horrendous from the outskirts of the city which now started right outside the airport though there were twenty kilometers of stop and go traffic before we entered the city proper. By then it was dark and drizzly dreary. The driver complained of road closures, had to circle though clogged streets to come a second time at the section of Galle Road we were on, had to wait on many occasions for several lights to change, was constantly squeezing between smoke belching trucks and buses, and when he pulled up to the Hotel Renuka, which we'd booked online, we were all worn from the trip, especially the last part from the airport to town. As a parting welcome to the decaying city, he looked with disdain at the money I handed him, 2500 rupees (a little less than $25) though it was more than the 2247 that was indicated on the booking ticket we'd been given at the airport (which I showed him – tipping and pricing are quite ambigous in Sri Lanka).

The Hotel Renuka was quite nice for $50 but then at the end of our stay when we were handed a bill for $70 we realized the price quoted over the internet did not include service charge, government tax, and VAT. The Runuka did have a nice restaurant, the Palmyrah, which served an excellent perfectly spiced Sri Lankan meal for two for $20 including several tall Lion Lagers, though the bill with the aforementioned tariffs came to $26. Still all were provided with excellent service and quality, so the only truly depressing thing about the situation was the weather. CNN was showing a band of grey clouds over Sri Lanka and Southern India which they said would bring flooding. We were planning to go up to Ella in the hill country and do some walking, and this plan was not going to work well if it was pouring down rain. So we went to bed in Colombo our first night there thinking the only thing to do for it was sleep.

Next day started out sunny so we decided to carry out our plan, which included staying at a nice hotel in Colombo where we could leave behind our dive gear. After breakfast, having sorted our things, we took a backpack each with us in a cab to the bus station. The last time we traveled in Sri Lanka we had our kids with us so we hired a car and driver to drive us to Kandy and a few other monument towns beyond, the latter being places we had missed on previous journeys to Sri Lanka. A lot of foreigners like to travel in this way for good reason. But the driver will suggest places to stop along the way, and most of them are things of minor interest, like a perfume factory for example, where there is a strong pitch at the end of the 'tour' to take some of the products home with you, in compensation for having been given such a gracious tour to a facility you would never have stopped for had you not been steered there by a driver you might be more comfortable having not hired in the first place. So having seen the last of the monuments we wanted to visit in two previous trips to Sri Lanka, this time we were planning in the few days we had before we needed to return to work in Abu Dhabi, to go to Ella, one spot that looked nice in Lonely Planet, and stay there.

But we still had to get there. We weren't expecting a problem but we've noticed in our last two trips to the island that Serendip has vanished in a surge of humanity overwhelming decrepit infrastructure that had seemed to function adequately our first trip there in the late 70's but was starting to get noticeably run down when we revisited 15 years later. On our first trip, it was easy to get around Colombo, buses were easily caught, and amazingly Sri Lankans would not only queue politely for them but they would insist that foreigners go at the head of the queue. Getting around was a matter only of turning up at the bus or train station, and I don't recall that there was ever a hassle getting from one place to another -- and we went from Colombo to Kandy for the perihera, and back to Colombo and then around the country by its south and east coasts, before heading inland to Nuwereliya to walk overnight on Horton Plain, Land's End. Next time we went with the car and driver, and we noticed that the roads were constantly crowded, making driving around tedious and anything but pleasant. In Kandy, we had to go way up the mountain and out of sight of the lake to find accommodation (and the temple there was partially closed after a bombing) and the monuments we wanted to visit elsewhere in the country had $15 entry fees (not insignificant for a family traveling together). In this our most recent visit we saw from Lonely Planet that you now have to pay to walk around Horton Plain, and it's apparently crowded up there. This visit, we had settled on Ella as a place with scenery, some walking possibilities, and lots of interesting sounding, simple, accommodation.

But to get there in this day and age, from modern, hectic, crowded Colombo, first of all we were dropped at the busy station where we were approached by people touting buses who, when we said Ella, looked puzzled and repeated back, Ella? Where?? There were no buses to Ella, not directly. It took us some moments to work out that we needed to take a bus to Badulla, but initially we were pointed to one queue then another. We got on one crowded bus but when we asked a fellow passenger he told us that bus wasn't going where we wanted to go. It was rare to find someone who spoke English there, but after half an hour we were finally directed to a Badulla bus, and when we got on we found it had seats, and was air-conditioned. That was good because we were going to be there for some time. We had arrived at the station at around 9:30, we thought, and we were on this bus around ten, and then we sat there for over an hour while it gradually filled up. We eventually noticed a sign in the bus that said it left at 12:10. We were concerned about that but amazingly the bus filled and pulled away half an hour early. It took us to the END of that journey to realize that time in Sri Lanka was half an hour ahead of time in Maldives. So we had actually arrived at the station at ten and got on the bus at 10:30 and it had left after an hour forty minutes.

The journey was not bad. We had a map and could track our progress. This was important because we could see that the bus was taking the southerly route to Badulla and not the northerly one through the mountains. Using this information we worked out that we would be passing through Bandarawella before we reached Badulla and from the Lonely Planet we saw that we could get a bus or taxi to Ella from Bandarawella whereas from Badulla bus connections were infrequent, and the way to do that journey was to backtrack to Bandarawella, so we decided to get off the bus at the town short of our destination. In this way we could possibly also avoid having to deal with the person behind us who slipped us a card for a guest house in Ella and whom we were afraid we would have to shake off if he attempted to guide us.

But as the bus ascended the mountain to Bandarawella it started to rain, and by the time we had arrived at that town it was raining quite heavily. There was not a real bus stop there, only a roadside where buses pulled over and people got on and off. At the place where our bus pulled over there was no shelter per se except for a couple of stores with a very small awning already crowded with people who had stopped there to escape the downpour. The bus stopped, the door opened, and the attendant indicated that this was the place. I got off and ran in under the awning with my day pack and my computer pack, both of which I wanted to keep dry. I set them on top of a counter which happened to be displaying the plucked produce of a butcher of chickens. Bobbi followed through the deluge with her own hand luggage and she took over watching my two hand bags. I now had to go with the attendant to the back of the bus to retrieve our backpacks proper. The bay opened up offering some protection from the rain but there was little shelter there and water was running in the street so my boots got soaked as I pushed bags aside to retrieve our packs one by one. By the time I had got them both and set them on a plastic container that just happened to be in front of the chicken seller's shop, I was soaked top to bottom, and our packs were getting spattered from runoff from the awning as it splashed at our feet.

So this was not the best of entries to a destination. However as we stood amid the Sri Lankans every bit as uncomfortable as we were, kindnesses began to emerge. The chicken sellers asked us where we were from and where we were going and in this way ice was broken and they even offered to take our bags behind the counter to help us keep them dry. They indicated for us where the bus stop for Ella was (not where we'd been left off unfortunately, but two blocks yonder, by the clock tower we could barely see through the rainstorm). They suggested we could possibly go to Ella by tuk tuk. Now this was an idea. A minute or two later, one stopped just meters from us and let out a passenger. I ran over and told the driver we wanted to go to Ella. He said get in. I said how much. He held up five fingers which I assumed meant 500 rupees, about $5. In this rain it was worth it, I didn't haggle. I asked him to pull forward. He did and Bobbi got in. One by one, passing them to her through the unrelenting downpour, I handed her our bags which she put around her in a way you would understand only if you had ever been a passenger in a tricycle motor rickshaw. It's a tight fit, with the extra consideration of making sure that things stayed dry. But we both squeezed in and tuk tuk tuk ... we were off.

To make a long story short, the driver took us the 12 km to Ella, turning his 2-stroke engine off and coasting in the downhill parts, and peering out by peeling back the windowless tarp the driver was using to protect passengers from the rain, we found the hotel which we had by the time of our arrival chosen from the Lonely Planet guide (it was near the police station, and there was a sign on the road showing the side road to the police HQ). The hotel had rooms (everyone had rooms in that town we found later) a little expensive but very comfortable, more on that later. We got our gear in from the cab and I went back to pay the driver. He asked 700 rupees. In the negotiations that followed, he told our hotelier that he had indeed held up 5 fingers, as we insisted, but followed by two, which he now demonstrated. There's the five fingers and, what's that, another two suddenly appear. That was bullshit of course, but to placate him I gave him 600.

Though if it's normal for a hotel in Colombo to advertise $50 rooms and then charge $70 why shouldn't a driver ask 500 rupies and then charge 700? That's getting around in Sri Lanka!

The hotel was quite agreeable. Our LPG had said we should consider this one if comfort was a consideration, though prices had doubled since 2003 when our book was published. We agreed to stay on half board, which meant we would eat dinner there rather than go out in the rain and forage for food that evening, and have breakfast there as well. After some discussion in which the room we were offered for 5500 (put a decimal midway in there to convert to dollars) came down to 5000 plus service charge and taxes etc and we got that down to a straight 5000 including taxes plus plus. That had broken down to 2500 for the room, 2000 for dinner, and 1000 for breakfast, so it was ambiguous what the room alone really cost. In any event it was a superb room. Each room including the dining room had little alcoves where there was a table with near 180 degree views of the rain drenched shrubbery and the road below, a small mainly pedestrian way leading from the main road to the police station. We had a couple of tall bottles of beer there while watching the clouds turn sunset colors and resting up from our trip, and after just time to take a bath and dry off it was time to go down and eat. The food as always in Sri Lanka was curries to die for, filling and delicious. A couple more beers later and there was nothing to do but go up to bed. It was dark and still raining out so we didn't feel like taking in our surroundings just yet. Oh there was one thing to do, there was a big sign next to the stairway advertising wireless Internet, no strings attached (the sign said). So I asked about that and was told there was one string actually, I had to purchase a card. But the card was only 100 rupees an hour so I said sure, give me one, and went up to my room anticipating at least an hour of net surfing before bedtime. But up in my room no wireless was detected so I walked my computer down to the lobby where still no wireless was available and showed this to the hapless, or in the case of matters pertaining to technology, clueless hotel staff member who had greeted us to this hotel, negotiated prices with us, brought us our food and beer to our room, and was the one face pertaining to all services provided here at this hotel. He thought maybe atmospheric conditions caused by rain were preventing internet from reaching my computer. I said that may be true for internet in general but my computer was not detecting a modem operating from this hotel, and for that modem to be detected by my computer and for it to then provide me with internet despite atmospheric conditions were two different things. But the word modem did not appear to computer with this fellow so I had to leave it, though not without registering my complaint that this was one big string attached to wireless service purported to be available there at this hotel.

Next morning dawned overcast but it had at least stopped raining, so after breakfast (papaya, omelettes with spicy chilis, bread and jam, and watery coffee – forget coffee in Sri Lanka, drink the tea for which the country is justifiably famous, thanks to pickers earning 150 rupees any day they manage to bring in 10 kg of tea leaves, about what a worker can pick in a day according to LPG – we went up to the nearby train station to book platform cars for the famously scenic train ride back to Colombo, which LPG had mentioned must be booked in advance. The station was leafy and decidedly rural and had a glass-encased buddha out front. It was almost like a toy train station, staffed by a life-time worker nearing retirement age who patiently explained in excellent English that this was school holidays and all the platform cars had been booked as had been all first class seating. We could come down on the day and try for second or third. There were two trains a day, one at 6:47 and the other three hours later. We had heard their whistles that morning only an hour or two after the dogs stopped yapping in the middle of the night.

Even taking our chances in 2nd class, the train was likely to be the most comfortable way back to Colombo on Friday when we would leave to return to Hotel Renuka and retrieve our luggage and catch our plane on Saturday. Now it was Wednesday and we had two days to enjoy Ella and the walking possibilities mentioned in the LPG, but first we had to find ourselves some accommodation more suitable to our budget and social status. The Hotel Country Comfort was indeed comfortable but we hadn't rested well with the dogs barking and the view wasn't the best possible in Ella, which was famous for its panoramic Ella Gap, looking back across the rolling foothills to the plains and even the ocean below (the latter on a rare clear day, it was said). Plus the meals were expensive, we like variety, and there proved to be plenty of restaurants on Ella's on main street. It was a very compact town consisting of a few storefronts on a crossroads. Buses came through regularly, almost constantly, making the main street a roar of diesel engines and their collateral fumes. So as we popped into the many places to stay along that street a prime consideration was being far enough away from that noise, which was one of the advantages of the Hotel Country Comfort, though the HCC did have a nocturnal dog problem, as has been mentioned. Dogs might be hard to avoid in this town in any event.

Probably the nicest place to stay in Ella might have been the Ambient a couple of km up a road from the main town, but it's major draw was the great views, and though the dry season had officially started in Sri Lanka (December to April according to LPG) this December we were still in the wet and there wasn't much to see from mist shrouded Ella. Also it seemed the afternoon rains were the norm and we didn't want to be stuck in a place far from the town center, so we never went up there. Near the town center we found many agreeable places many for less than 1000 rupees a night. But some were right off common areas (too noisy), one looked fine to me but Bobbi said, did you see those sheets? Filthy! So that was off our list. Another had wonderful spacious well decorated rooms with real matrimonial double beds for only 1500 but each room had a view of the road and was hence within earshot, so it was out of my specs. Finally we climbed a paved track up to the “Hilltop” and found pleasant rooms with a common lanai with a view of some waterfalls on a hillside and views right out the gap in theory when the mists lifted. These rooms were 1200 and I managed to negotiate a fan with that (and none of these places applied service charge or taxes to room prices). The owner wondered why I needed a fan since it was cool at night, but I made it a condition of our stay since this was our white noise system to promote peaceful sleep and also to dry our boots, still wet from our soaking the day before. We noticed that Internet was available there for just 130 rupees an hour, and in fact it was via the computer inside the comfortable family living room (when it worked as was the case with seemingly everything here).

We liked the look and feel of the Hilltop, and we took a room there. It turned out to be quiet, we never heard family or street noises when trying to sleep, and there were no dogs barking at night. It was even further from the train station so though we could still the whistle in the morning, we at least didn't get the vibration from the train as it rumbled nearby our old room at the Hotel Country Comfort. And when the mists cleared, as they did our next morning there, we had a great view down the gap. Nice.

Well, to make a long story short, our stay in Sri Lanka could have been better. Essentially we were rained out. On the other hand, once we got to the Hilltop, we had a very comfortable place to chill out in the rain. At moments the mists raised, from the lanai at the Hilltop right outside our room we had a view of Little Adams Peak, one of the walks recommended in LPG, which entailed a km walk out of town up a tiny tarmac road to the next village away in that direction, and then a jaunt up a trail to the plantations, then through an unmarked gate to the base of 300 concrete steps leading up to the peak itself, a round trip trek of about 5 km from our viewpoint balcony. On our first full day in the town, the one where we moved to the Hilltop, once we got settled in to our new place we walked up to the top but found ourselves socked in when we got there, and we returned to the town just in time to beat the onset of the afternoon rains. The next day, our last and only full day in Ella, we awoke to better weather and decided to jog to the top. This time we got the view but the rains began in earnest while we were having breakfast on our lanai and this day ended up a total wash, except that we relaxed, napped, read, and eventually got a ride in a tuk tuk to the Ambience Hotel up the mountain from ours, and found from there that for twice the price of our room they had essentially the same view as ours, so we were happy to be back where we were.

We also discovered a great small restaurant in Ella, the “Ella Village Restaurant, Ella”. The kind proprietor had a book where previous guests had recorded rave reviews of his cooking. We concurred and added our review to the others there. The really nice thing was that his food was cheap. For 250 we could order a heaping plate of rice and 5 curries (the aubergine curry and coconut sampol especially tasty). We ate there three times rather than at our hotel (one curry for twice the price). It's a small thing but given the weather and the fact we couldn't really get into the countryside while there, this place was a dominant experience in a town with few possibilities for such experiences. Interestingly we read in the journals kept by the proprietor that others from many nationalities had sat out the rains in the same spot and appreciated the curries and beer provided by this little ambassador for Sri Lankan cuisine.

The day of total rain we went to bed early, resolved to awake at 5 and catch the early train to Colombo. Ironically this day dawned with sunshine and the train ride home was a glorious litany of hillsides and waterfalls. Or would have been had we been able to get a seat in the observation car at the back of the train. We tried to get 1st class tickets at the station but there had been no cancellations so we rode in 2nd, prices just $7 and $3.50 respectively. But whereas in first class you'd get a seat and a view and no disturbances the rest of the journey, on our ride we managed to both squeeze into a single seat where its mate was occupied by a child only because we happened to board at the first stop out of Badulla. By the time the child disembarked people were crowding the aisles, so we let a young girl sit down, three to a pair of seats being normal on that ride, and people in the aisles blocking much of the view. It was a long tedious ride, but still with waterfalls and lovely views of hill country on the first day we would have been able to get out and hike had we really visited Ella in the dry season.

At the terminus in the Fort district of Colombo, it was pretty easy to get a tuk tuk to the Renuka Hotel where we'd left our dive gear, and what we really wanted after we checked in to our overpriced room was a nice cold beer, but this happened to be the day of the full moon, and guess what you can't get in Sri Lanka on full moon days? Not only that, but things normally open are closed on this day, so even our Internet cafe down the street was locked and barred. The only bright side was that the Palmyrah Restaurant was about to open, and the Ginger Beer there wasn't a bad subsitute for the real thing.

Next morning I went for a jog to see if there was anything we'd missed around Colombo. I ran from the Renuka Hotel on Galle Road along the back side of the lake to the Fort part of town. The Fort was a small fortress of army checkpoints and traffic barriers, so the stretch of road outside the Hilton to the sea was happily devoid of traffic. At the corniche itself the sea lay under glorious sunlight as I turned south to continue my run toward the cannons facing out to sea, next to each of which a soldier was stationed. At the first one I was challenged and told I couldn't run down the Galle Street seaside corniche road that was my straight shot home and that many tourists must have enjoyed strolling in Colombo in the past. Not only that but when I backtracked to take a more inland road home, I was challenged numerous times, told to cross the road, a few hundred meters further on, cross back, stopped and told I couldn't enter this hotel district ... in short, I found a city where pedestrians were prevented from accessing the most agreeable parts.

So this was my impression of Colombo this time around. Our first visit before our kids were born, back in the late 70's, tourists were put at the head of orderly queues to board buses, transport was relatively straightforward, the country was laid back and easy to get around. Now the infrastructure has been neglected in order to pay for war and securily, it's become a hassle to travel in, and if you're there on a full moon night you can't even sedate yourself.

I wish for happier times for Sri Lankans. Bobbi and I would like to visit the Maldives again but next time I think we'll prolong our time there and avoid Sri Lanka if all we'll have is a few days to try and get around there.

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Last updated: April 24, 200905:00 GMT

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