Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Scuba Diving Palancar Reef - Cozumel, Mexico

Palancar- Cozumel Mexico

Just about every diver who makes the trip to the beautiful Island of Cozumel has the chance to dive the Palancar Reef.  The reef itself is quite a large reef and there are actually several separate but equally enjoyable Palancar dives. 

  You can take a charter from anyone of the numerous dive shops right on the island but also you can make the trip from the mainland right from Playa Del Carmen it’s just a longer boat ride.  Don’t let the boat ride scare you off because in one of my earlier blogs I shared the story of an unexpected encounter with a whale shark on this very boat ride.

  As I was saying the Palancar reef offers several different dives that cater to every level of diver.  Palancar Gardens is a shallow dive only 35’-67’ with great visibility and almost no current.  Here you will find hundreds of corals of every color imaginable and a large selection of sponges.  All the while you are courted by a multitude of colorful reef fishes.  A truly fantastic dive for a beginner or a good refresher but also enjoyable by the most seasoned divers. 

The Palancar Bricks is another popular dive however because it reaches depths of over 90’ it is usually reserved for advanced level divers.  Aside from the depth it is a relatively easy dive with incredible visibility over 100 feet and almost no current.  This site is also highlighted by the abundant healthy corrals to be found.  Huge coral formations erupt from the sandy bottom and this is a great place to spot eagle rays, turtles and often time reef sharks.  The coral continues to impress as you ascend. 

  Cleaning stations are a common site and it is always fun to watch the shrimp work their magic by removing parasites from turtles or rays.  A very enjoyable dive.  My favourite dive on Palancar by far has to be the Palancar Caves.  Huge coral formations create a vast array of caves, caverns and buttresses. Larger sea life is commonplace and this is a popular spot for photographers.

  Rays, Sharks, Turtles, eels, they are always here for your viewing pleasure.  It is a fairly deep dive again over 90’ but it still has little current and offers a diver some excellent visibility.  The coral is all very healthy and the local guides do a very good job educating divers on conservation.  Gloves are prohibited to discourage touching and buoys are permanently place to avoid anchor damage insuring that the great dive sites on Palancar reef will be available for years to come.

  You can easily dive 6-8 dives on this reef and not see it all.  I only had 3 dives and when I return I will be sure to explore the reef further.  Many a diver count Palancar among the top dives in the world and for very good reason.  I would recommend these dives to all.

Scuba Diving Kedah National Marine Park - Langkawi Malaysia

Palau Segantang- Kedah National Park Malaysia

Around 20 miles north of the port city Penang in the beautiful country of Malaysia is the Kedah National Marine Park. 

 The Malaysian Government has declared the park a protected area since 1985 and prohibits fishing.  The park consists of 5 Islands (Palau’s) with the main Island Langkawi hosting a Visitor Center, an underwater observatory some of the nicest beaches you will find in all of Malaysia.

  Palau Segantang has some bungalows that can be rented at a very low price.  The fact that the Island has no fresh water and all water is collected by park staff who use a series of tarps, and barrels to collect the rainwater may contribute to the low cost of accommodation.

  Something you can see here that I have never seen before is the Flying Fox.  It is sort of a cross between a bat and a dog.  They are actually part of the bat family and they are the largest bats in the world.  They can have a wingspan of up to 6 feet across and only weigh between 3-5 lbs.  They do not eat meat they eat fruit mostly.  However to see these large creatures fly around and land in a tree then use their hands to crawl and climb is just a little creepy.  They have been considered a delicacy by some cultures and are now on the endangered species list.  It has nothing to do with diving but I really enjoyed seeing them and felt it was worth mentioning.

  Back to diving.  Langkawi itself has no diving to speak of but there are several small islands within the park that have some magnificent dive sites. 

 One of the best known and frequently dived is Palau Segantang.  Located just west of the Island of Palau Payer, another popular dive destination Palau Segantang offers two corral pinnacles that rise from the seafloor from just less than 100’ of depth.  There is a slight current but the visibility is fantastic. 

 The Pinnacles attract a large variety of sea life such as Turtles, barracuda, eel, several varieties of jacks, large nurse sharks, seahorse, some pacific lobster, and many other varieties of fish.  It is also a great place to go to see many different types of soft corrals.

   When you leave the boat you descend to about 95’ to a sandy bottom.  Then you start to work your way back to the surface all the while admiring the many forms of life who call this formation home.  There are several swim throughs to enjoy while you work your way up.  It is an advanced level dive because of the depth and sometimes the visibility can be disturbed by the many ships that pass through the area on the Straits of Malacca. 

  However this site is an excellent 2 tank dive.  There are several day charters that make runs to the area as well as a few live boards that offer repetitive dives throughout the park.  Watch your air and time your dive properly so you don’t use your air at the beginning of the dive.  Beginner divers also frequent this site but they start the dive by descending to 60’ and working up from there.  Still a very enjoyable dive however the nurse sharks tend to stay closer to the bottom so they may well be missed. 

  Overall a very enjoyable dive that is sure to impress any diver of any level.  Bring your camera you are certain to get some great shots.

Scuba Diving Ginnie Springs, High Springs-Florida, USA

is home to many amazing things.  Amazing beaches, amazing cities, amazing theme parks, and some pretty amazing dive sites.  For a diver you have an abundance of choices. 

The corals and wrecks of the Keys, the Gulf of Mexico, endless rivers and inland lakes, or one of my all time favorites the caves.  There are several major cave systems in central Florida that are available to divers.  I had the pleasure to visit a great spot called Ginnie Springs.  Ginnie Springs is located in a Town called High Springs that is located West of Jacksonville and North of Gainsville.  It is almost between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The street address is
7300 Ginnie Springs Rd. High Springs, Fla.
  They offer a full service dive shop, picnic area, camping sites and access to one of the largest cave systems in North America. The water is crystal clear and stays a constant 72 *F all year round.

  Jacques Cousteau visited here once and stated it had “Visibility forever”

To access most of the sites available at Ginnie Springs you need to be able to show proof of having completed Cave and Cavern training from a recognized training agency.  If you don’t have a cave card they will issue you an open water wristband and you will only be allowed in certain spots.  If they find you wandering into places you are not qualified to be in they will ask you to leave the park. 

 I had yet to take any Tech or Cave training when I visited here so I was limited to the open water locations as well.  They do host several instructors who provide training on site but I am sure you would need to make arrangements with them before you show up.  I was pretty happy just diving what they call the ballroom.

  The Ballroom is located right behind the dive shop.  There is a large parking lot and picnic area with BBQ’s and tables.  There is easy access to a small shallow basin that is a great place for swimming or snorkeling.  The basin empties into the Santa Fe River and I think you can rent an inner tube for a little float down the river. 

Just inside this basin you will see a large opening in the limestone.  Welcome to the ballroom.  There is a lot of natural light that gets in through the entrance but you want to bring a light to explore the whole cavern because there are some dark spots. 

 If you go straight in and go down to the bottom right of the cavern you will see a small steel grate that covers the aquifer that supplies 35 million gallons of warm clear water to this spring every day.  If you approach the grate head on you will exhaust yourself swimming into the torrent and just float away so you need to go to either side of it and move sideways until you are directly in front of it.  You can hold on to the grate and feel the power of the water as it rushes past and then let go and be swept back into the cavern, it is far safer than it sounds a pretty fun thing to do actually.

  The deepest point in the cavern is about 50’ deep.  And it is large enough to explore on a single tank dive.  There was not much life to see just a couple small fish and a river eel that was about 3 ‘long.  For someone who has never been in a cave or cavern this is a great place to go.  Further down the Santa Fe you will find the entrance to the Devil’s Springs caves. 

 There are two systems the Devils Eye that has several thousand feet of caves and opens into the second system, the Devil’s ear it is a much larger and deeper cave system and many people have died in here.  There are grates in place and signage to warn you that without the proper training and equipment divers are forbidden to enter.  They do not allow open water divers to have a light with them to further discourage you from wandering into a place that you should not be in. 

This is a great place to spend a day diving or if you are so motivated take some cave training.  Though it is more suited to experienced cave divers an open water guy like me can still have a great time.  So put this on your list if you want to try something a little exciting and different from a regular open water dive.  You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Chance Encounter- Scuba Diving with a Whale Shark in Cozumel Mexico

As divers we are all aware of the many things that can come up to change our plans.  Weather, mechanical issues with a boat, equipment problems, illness, sometimes even the best laid plans have some unexpected surprises. 

 One of my most memorable dives was due to an unplanned surprise.  I was on a boat headed out to Palancar just off Cozumel Mexico.  We were leaving from the mainland so it was to be about a 45 minute trip.  The weather was terrific, the water was calm everything looked to be going according to plan.  However after only 10 minutes or so I felt the boat suddenly stop and the engine shut down I knew something was up. 

 Our Mexican Captain left the wheelhouse yelling something in Spanish that I did not understand but I can see he was excited.  All I could hear was “Get in the water” and that was all I needed.  While the other divers were asking what was wrong I already had my BCD on my back and my mask in place and with my fins in hand I was just preparing to jump when two things happened.  First I heard the word “Shark” and at the same time I saw the dark silhouette of what appeared to be a semi truck go under the boat. 

 Well this great lakes diver has seen every Jaws movie ever made and at that time had not had the opportunity to see a shark in the wild so needless to say I was no longer in much of a hurry to get into the water.  I was wondering if this was some sort of attempt to extort money from tourists the old “pay up or we feed you to the sharks routine” I don’t think that has ever happened but I was thinking it might be happening now. 

 As more people saw the ominous shape emerge from under our boat I heard the excitement growing and heard “whale shark, whale shark”.  By this time a second diver was geared up and ready to make the plunge.  He looked at me and said “Go ahead”, I have read about whale sharks and how they were gentle giants but I was not ready to be the first one in the water with something that big.  “You first” I replied.  He smiled at me and I could tell that he was having the same thoughts that I was, “Let’s go together” he said well that was good enough for me. 

 I rolled over the side and was pretty relieved to see the bubbles beside me from the other diver splashing in, I was a little concerned that he would renege on our deal and leave me alone with this monstrously big creature.  As I was securing my fins I could see the tail fin just disappearing into the blue.  Honestly I felt relieved.  I was not a coward I went in the water but I was not very sad to see the beast swim away. 

 For a couple seconds I thought my shark encounter was over. Then I saw the outline again.  This time it was not a tailfin but a huge gaping mouth that looked like it had the girth to swallow us both whole.  Man I was scared.  Bear in mind I was not an experienced saltwater diver at the time and had never seen a single shark except in an aquarium so I’m not ashamed to say hell ya I was scared. 

My new dive buddy put both his hands up in the air like he was signaling me to surrender.  No problem there I mimicked his maneuver and threw both my hands up high.  We were only a few feet from the surface and we were side by side as this graceful creature, slowly glided by us and gently rubbed against us as she passed.  The adrenaline, the excitement, the fear it was all of these emotions at the same time. 

 To this day I believe that she was well aware of our presence because she stopped her huge tail as she slid by as if not to harm us.  Then in a slow purposeful arc she reversed course and came back and again gently rubbed us as she passed on the other side.  It reminded me of a cat walking between my legs in a figure eight pattern rubbing against me.  Only this cat was about 42 feet long and at weighed at least 10 tons.

  By this time a few other divers had joined us in the water and the shark was now dividing her time equally among her new friends.  People were taking photo’s petting her and I watched as our dive master slipped beneath her and seemed to get pulled along in her wake all the while rubbing her belly with both hands in a circular pattern. 

 This trick I even attempted myself as my courage grew.  It was an amazing almost religious experience that something this large could be as gentle as it was.  Within 20 minutes of my heroic leap into what I was sure were the very jaws of death several other boats had arrived and there were probably 25 or more divers in the water all swarming to get a chance to touch this magnificent animal.  Then as suddenly as she came into my life she left.  I saw her heading down into the blue depths with a few divers trying to follow then she was gone.  But the man she left behind was changed forever by our 25 minute love affair. 

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world they are said to grow to be up to 50 feet in length and some say as big as 60 feet and 12-14 tons.  They are prehistoric and date back 240 million years to the Jurassic period.  They have over 3000 teeth yet they are filter feeders they open their mouths while swimming or sometimes while they hover vertical in the water they and suck in huge amounts of water and expel it through 5 gill slits located on either side of their body. 

Their backs are covered in light colored spots and each whale sharks spots are as unique as our fingerprints.  Scientists are building a database to record and track individual whale sharks using this pattern. They live between 70-100 years and they tend to follow the same route of migration. Cozumel is a regular destination for feeding and mating and whale sharks can almost always be found there between June and mid September.  I have repeatedly referred to the shark I was with as a female and I know this because the males have 2 claspers located near the pelvic fin.  She did not.

 I was told that my encounter was a very rare encounter because it was in December long after the usual migration and it happened much closer to the mainland than they are usually ever spotted.  I like to think that she came there to meet me personally and become yet another great reason why I love my underwater world as much as I do. 

Yes I was afraid, very afraid until I saw that this lovely lady of the deep had no intentions on hurting me only to be admired and caressed.  I think every diver should book a trip to Mexico between June and September to experience this wonder for them. 

There are few things I have ever seen or done that have moved me the way this particular dive did.  Man I love this sport!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Scuba Diving on The Arabia Wreck-Fathom Five Marine Park, Tobermory Ontario

At the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula that extends like a long crooked finger to form a natural divide between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay you will find the quaint town of Tobermory.

 Tobermory is a sleepy little village of just over 600 permanent residents all winter long but when the snow melts that number explodes as divers make the pilgrimage north to explore Canada’s first underwater national park

 Fathom Five National Marine Park was created in 1987, for the 15 years prior to that it was designated a Provincial Underwater Park  This underwater playground houses 22 ship wrecks like the famous Arabia, the intentionally scuttled Niagara II and the Forrest City, three of my favorites. The Park also offers numerous geological wonders to enjoy underwater such as the caves, the grotto, north otter wall and the lighthouse.
There is a plethora of dive boats to take advantage of but also you will find several worthwhile shore dives. There are also several other wrecks located just outside the parks boundary that you are free to enjoy as well.  Aside from the many beautiful sites to explore underwater the area offers a vast array of entertainment options to enjoy during your surface interval.  There is a large Visitor center, lots of shops and great restaurants.  You can take a glass bottom boat to explore some of the shallow wrecks such as the W.L. Wetmore or the James C. King.

 Many also enjoy a good hike or bike ride through the rugged Canadian wilderness. Witness the pitting and scouring of the limestone as huge rocks were dragged south by the receding glaciers.  A boat ride out to the towering limestone formation called Flowerpot Island or even take the ChiChiMon ferry over to visit the remote Manitoulin Island.

 There are plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts and a great selection of campgrounds to accommodate your every need. The water is clear and offers good visibility and surprisingly few zebra mussels.  However it does tend to be a bit on the chilly side ranging from the mid 40’s to the low 60’s at the surface. 

This is a good place to use your dry suit but many divers get by just fine in a 7mm wet suit.  I will in time write about several of the fantastic dives in Fathom Five but first I am going to focus on The Arabia a 131’ three masted barque was launched in Kingston Ontario in 1853 and a year later she crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a cargo bound for Scotland

  In 1883 she ran aground near Flowerpot Island but was refloated and only a year later she foundered in rough weather just off Echo Island October 4th 1884.  She was loaded with a cargo of grain headed from Chicago to Midland when she started to take on water. 

The crew of 4 plus the ships dog put up a great fight for several hours manning the pumps and doing their best to keep ahead of the water coming in but eventually the water won.  All 4 crew members and the dog were able to safely leave the ship and she went down in about 108’ of water.

  Now she lays upright and mostly intact pointing north The Arabia has two mooring buoys marking her final resting spot. When diving this wreck try to tie off on the furthest buoy to the north this will bring you down on the bow.  You will see her majestic bowsprit, or jib boom complete with anchor chains running down its length. 

You can really appreciate the great condition this wreck is in thanks to the cold fresh water of the great lakes.  You can clearly make out the 2 large anchors, a windlass, some deadeyes, and a bilge pump no doubt one of the last things used by her crew.  Just behind here you will come to a broken mast laying across the port rail.  Also visible is the ships large centerboard.  As you approach the stern you will see that her stern has broken off but you can find the ships wheel in pretty good shape.  

This wreck is deep and cold and at times you will find a current as well as limited visibility.  Watch your bottom time and closely monitor your air pressure because though this ship went down without any casualties 13 divers have lost their lives exploring the wreck since it was discovered in 1971.  It is an advanced dive and you want to be sure you have the correct training and equipment before you make the dive.  Overall a fantastic dive and one of the most popular dives in the park and any trip to Fathom Five should include the Arabia.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Scuba Diving at Bida Nok- Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

I travelled by bus from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia a 20 hour trek through the picturesque Kingdom of Thailand ending in Krabi on the shores of the Andaman Sea.

  From there it was a short ferry ride to the Island Paradise of Koh Phi Phi Don, known as Phi Phi Island. Pronounced Pee Pee. The Koh Phi Phi Island group is located in a national Marine park about 50 km S.E. of the much more developed Island of Phuket.

 Phi Phi has long been a popular destination for thrill seekers and backpackers. Its white sand beaches, high limestone cliffs, and world class scuba diving offer a robust assortment of activities that is sure to satisfy any traveler.  It also offers some a certain lifestyle that is fueled by cheap liquor and though punishable by death Thailand is also known as a hot spot for other mind altering substances that are never hard to find.

  Phi Phi Island was made famous by the Leonardo Dicaprio hit movie “The Beach” that was filmed there in 2000.

 Later Phi Phi was further made infamous by the tragic Tsunami that struck on the morning of December 26 2004 leaving the remains of over 2000 souls and almost that many more unaccounted for.

  It is an Island Oasis filled with tragedy, romance, adventure and debauchery, oh how I loved Thailand.  I stayed on Phi Phi for a several months and it will always hold a place in my heart. 

  Phi Phi was settled during the 1940’s by Muslim fishermen and is said to be about 80% Muslim today though there is also the strong presence of Buddhism and other religions.    

It has long been the site of a huge coconut plantation with thousands of trees towering over the village unfortunately most of these trees and the industry associated with them were lost to the Tsunami.

 Temperatures on the Island range from the mid 70’s in the rainy season, mid May until December but then shoot up to the high 80’s during the high season that starts towards the end of December and runs into May. 

  Water temperature is usually in the low 80’s visibility is not what I experienced in French Polynesia however it still offers at least 40 feet of vis during the rainy season and around 100 feet during the high season. 

  There are several world class hotels on the island such as the Phi Phi Don Chukit Resort, Phi Phi Don Cabana hotel, the luxurious Zeavola Phi Phi Resort and even a holiday Inn however there are also a huge selection of “Guest Houses” that offer travelers a cheap but comfortable option during their stay.

   I shared a guest house with a Swedish friend of mine and between the two of us we had a comfortable apartment with a great deck that cost us roughly $60 U.S. per month. 

  It is usually pretty quiet on the island there are no cars to speak of and the main form of transportation is a bicycle, or over water on the famous long tail boats.  Freight is usually moved by a push cart commonly referred to as a “Bim Bim” cart as the words Bim Bim are loosely translated to Beep Beep and it is the well used chant the operator uses to warn you that they are coming through.  The narrow brick walkways are lined with shops, restaurants and one of the highest concentrations of dive shops I have seen anywhere in the world. There were a couple Bim Bim operators for local dive shops that would partially open aluminum 80 so that it made a constant hiss.  This brilliant maneuver worked like a charm to part the sea of pedestrians that made their way through the narrow  thoroughfares. 

  The many shops, and restaurants that line the walkways offer consumers prices that are very favorable.  You can have a tailor-made suit created for just over $100, custom shoes for $75 or a great meal consisting of a nice Pad Thai with a 750ml bottle of Chang the local beer, for just over $1.  It is truly one of the greatest destinations you can ever find on a tight budget. 

  On to the diving.  There are at least 20 dive shops on the island but you will find that they all charge the same amount, it is decided what rates will be charged by all shops before the start of every high season and discounting is not looked upon favorably.

  The majority of the tourists are young Scandinavian backpackers from Sweden, Norway, Finland or Denmark and most of the dive shops cater to this demographic, almost all guides will speak English but I recommend you walk around and talk with a few to insure you find an operator that you are comfortable with.

  Some operators have huge dive boats that bring 30-40 divers out at a time I have always preferred a smaller group myself so ask some questions.  There are many great sites for every level of diver that are easily accessible from Koh Phi Phi including Hin Daeng/ Hin Muang known for there amazing soft coral formations and some caves and swim troughs, Shark Point and The Snake Cave they are pretty self explanatory, The King Cruiser wreck which is a car ferry that went down in about 100 feet of water under some pretty suspicious circumstances (also know as The Insurance Wreck) and I will detail all of these sites in future blogs but I will focus on the most popular site of Bida Nok in this entry.

   Bida Nok is one of two towering limestone islands located close to the Famous Beach featured in the Leonardo Dicaprio movie.  It is home to some of the healthiest and robust coral formations I have ever encountered.  Huge formations of colorful soft coral, large “Elephant Ear” corals nice ledges and some spectacular drop offs. 

  It is also home to an abundance of sea life such as large leopard sharks, I have watched as the guides flip these large docile creatures over on their backs and put them into a trancelike hypnotic state called tonic immobility and  they will rub its belly and pass it around so guests can take a turn handling them.   I am not sure I agree with this type of interaction but I must admit it is entertaining to say the least. 

Groups of Black Tips  reef sharks are often seen patrolling the site and it is not uncommon to encounter multiple whale sharks depending on the time of year. Hawksbill turtles, glassfish, gorgonians, parrot fish and the always popular scorpion fish are also found on almost every dive to this site.

  Banded sea snakes that are among the most poisonous snakes in the world are a regular site.  Though deadly poisonous it is comforting to know that they are not very aggressive and they are so small that they apparently can not open their mouths wide enough to bite a diver.  They say you only have to watch your ears and the webbed part between your fingers.  I’m not sure how much of this was true however I will admit the I had my hands over my ears with my fingers closed the first time I entered the snake cave.  I am not sure but I think I may have seen my guide laughing at me while I assumed this defensive dive posture. 

  Seahorses and sea dragons, I could spend a 45 minute dive just watching them dance through the water.  Unlimited Nudibranches are also common attractions to this thriving ecosystem. The moray eels here are very odd looking.  I am used to a moray having black dead looking eyes but the eels here have these unique white eyes with a dark pupil, to me they resemble the eyes you would find on a stuffed animal I called them Muppet eels.  I found them a bit comical.

    Of all of the sea life that I have found here the one I enjoyed the most and have yet to see on any other dive was the cuttlefish.  For those of you who have no encountered one they are related to squid and octopus. However they have a very large almost sad looking face.  They are masters of disguise and can completely change not only the color of their skin but also the texture itself. 

  The cuttlefish have 8 arms though much shorter than you will find on a squid and they do emit a dark cloud of ink as a defense against predators.  Watching them reflect the light as they swim in open water is fascinating but even more fascinating is watching them as the move around the coral trying to hide, they capture and mimic the colors of the coral below them instantly.  They can be very difficult to spot as they are so well camouflaged that one may think they are actually transparent. 

  This dive can be done easily at a 30-40 depth.  You could go deeper if you wanted but this dive offers so much to see that you will want to milk every minute of bottom time you can.  Bring your camera because you will seldom find a location that has more unique and beautiful subjects to capture on film.

   An excellent dive in a land known for many excellent dives.  As a small island you meet almost everyone in a very short period of time.  If you are thinking of a trip to Thailand there are much better advertised dive destinations but any diver I met said that they preferred the diving around Koh Phi Phi to any of the better known locations. 

  Send me an e-mail and I can steer you in the right direction for food, accommodations, dive operators and some pretty epic bars.  Give the Banana bar a shot you won’t regret it.  Tell them ScubaSteve sent ya!