It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Best Dive of the Year?

On Saturday, Rob and I were back on the Escapade, hoping for better conditions than last weekend :)  It wouldn't be hard to meet that criteria on this dive.  The forecast was pretty good, but I didn't really see it as Big Sur good.  But John was bantering about Big Sur to Jim before we even made it out of the harbor.  As we rounded Point Pinos, it was a bit rougher than I was expecting, considering the forecast.  It calmed down a little once we were past Cypress Point, but it really laid down after we got south of Point Lobos, which was sort of odd.  By the time we got to Lobos, I figured we would make it to Yankee Point, but wasn't expecting anything more than that.  Then when we got to Yankee Point, someone came down from the wheelhouse to say that we were going to shoot for Big Sur Banks.  Woohoo!  After a little bit of discussion, we decided to shoot for Sur 20 (since we'd already dived Sur 19 so many times this year already, hehe).  It was a calm ride out there, and when we got out to the site, it was flat.  Flatter than it had been in Carmel Bay.  The water color also looked better than it had on the ride down.  There also appeared to not be much current, at least on the surface.

Photo by Robert Lee
I was the first in the water, and reported very nice-looking water on the surface.  We headed down the line, and found that the clear water stretched all the way down to the bottom.  It was not only clear, but bright and blue at the bottom.  Probably the best conditions I've ever had at Sur 20 (possibly tied with one other dive).  There was an enormous school of juvenile rockfish on the pinnacle.  There was a smaller school of adults too, but the juvenile rockfish were definitely the main event.  I was playing with a new piece of gear -- a real video light.  Actually Rob was carrying the video light, with the idea being that he could light the reef for me.  So we played with that for a bit, and then eventually he was taking pictures, so we swapped light heads, and I tried light for myself.  Lighting for myself was doable, but it was definitely easier with Rob.  My arm just isn't quite long enough!  I found it easiest to shoot when I wasn't on the trigger, as I was moving a bit too fast to keep the light in the right place when on the trigger.

Photo by Robert Lee
We spent almost the entire dive on the top of the pinnacle, since that's where all of the fish action was.  We made a couple of very brief forays down the side of the pinnacle we were on, and through the channel in the center.  There were quite a lot of lings, many quite big.  Before you know it, it was time to start our ascent, boohoo.  I shot the bag (since Kevin wasn't there :P).  As it was unspooling, the line got kinked and it stopped unspooling.  I couldn't clear the knot fast enough and lost it.  Rob looked at me in disbelief that I had lost the spool, and then he looked up, and it had worked the kink out and was unspooling and dropping back down.  Rob caught it.  Phew.  Other than that, deco was uneventful.  When we surfaced, it was even calmer than it had been when we descended!  Getting back on the boat was quite a different experience from the previous weekend :)

Photo by Clinton Bauder
After a super awesome dive like that, it's always tough to decide whether to do a second dive.  On one hand, there is no way a second dive will be as good.  On the other hand, with such good conditions, how could we pass up a second dive?  So we decided to do a second dive, and it was of course a disappointment, though in this case, it was more of a disappointment than expected :P  We went to a site just north of Lobos Rocks called "Mashed Potatoes".  I'd never been to the site before, I think it is an old Cypress Sea mark.  The viz there was quite different than Sur 20.  It was green, chunky, and like 15 feet or maybe 20 in some spots.

Photo by Clinton Bauder
The site was advertised as having three arches, which we did manage to find.  I would probably describe it more as a tunnel with two big overhead openings, but I guess that is just another way of describing three arches :)  We dropped down onto the top of a wall, and then dropped down along the wall, at the bottom of which were the arches.  The wall was pretty cool, and I think it would be pretty impressive in better viz.  At the bottom of the wall, there were a bunch of round "stones", kind of like big river rocks, but very round.  It was interesting.  The arches were nice, and probably would have seemed even cooler to a non-cave diver (does that make me sound like a snob?).  After we went down the wall, through the arches, and meandered a little on the other side of the arches, I wasn't sure what to do, but it was only like 20 minutes into the dive.  We went back through the arches, Rob took a few pictures, and then we headed up the wall and called the dive early.  We had to claw our way through some kelp to climb the boat ladder.

John claimed this dive as the best dive of the year, though Clinton (later) pointed out that he was pretty sure a whale at Lobos beat out even this dive for that title :)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ocean 1, Allison 0

On Saturday, Team Kitty was on the Escapade for a 15/55 boat.  This was my first dive back after our trip to Australia.  A nice long cold dive is always a good welcome home after a warm water trip :)  The forecast looked alright the night before.  In fact it looked so alright that I didn't take any bonine.  As it turned out, it was a bit rougher than the forecast predicted.  It wasn't really too rough for most of the ride down, but somewhere past Lobos, I started to really feel it.  We had been talking about going to Mount Chamberlin, but then as we were passing Lobos, we stopped to discuss if we wanted to dive at Ed Coopers' Wall.  There were no strong opinions (two great dive sites to choose from), so I insisted on Mount Chamberlin, since we'd just been to Ed Coopers' recently (and it hadn't exactly been epic).  So we kept on going, and it seemed liked almost as soon as we turned the point, oy.  I started to regret my insistence on continuing down to Yankee Point.  By the time we got to the site, the wind had kicked up a bit, with whitecaps about.  I was feeling pretty terrible as we dropped the downline, and so I was just trying to get into my gear and into the water.  We ran through our gear checks, then took bottles, and then I was deposited into the water, not completely under my own power (it was a three bottle dive).

As soon as I hit the water, I noticed that the viz was terrible, at least on the surface.  You had to be right on the line to see it.  I was drifting from the line a bit, and realized, when I tried to deploy my light, that my scooter was clipped through my light cord.  I figured it would be better to deal with it at 20', so I headed down, now off of the line, following Rob's bubbles, and hoping they would lead me to the line, which they did.  When I got to the line, Rob and Kevin were both there.  After a minute or two of wrestling with my scooter like it was a mad bull, I finally got my light and scooter sorted out, and we continued down the line.  It was really dark and snotty all the way down to about 150 feet.  In fact, as we approached the bottom, I felt like I nearly crashed into it before I saw it.  The viz when we got to the bottom (which was somewhere between 150 and 200) was probably about 10 feet.  As we cruised down from there to the sand at the bottom of the southwest corner, the viz did improve.  At the bottom, it was probably around 30 feet, but it was dark as night.  I was still feeling not so awesome when we first got to the bottom, but I did feel quite a bit better after about 10 minutes.  At that point, I realized that I'd been so out of if as we got geared up, that I hadn't checked any of my bottles as they were clipped onto me (that they were the correct bottles and that they were full).  Doh!  So I had to stop and go through them, and found that everything was fine.

Considering how bad the viz was, we actually covered a ton of ground, I guess because Rob wasn't shooting.  We came down the west wall, I think a little further north than usual, and made our way south all the way to the corner.  Then we crossed over the sand from the south wall over to the south annex, which we usually don't do in bad viz (though I don't know why, since the navigation is pretty hard to screw up).  We were pretty far to the west end of the south annex today, at the deep part, with a very dramatic wall on the back side.  After cruising around there for a bit, we headed back over to the south wall, and worked our way up shallow enough to do a bottle switch.  Aside from all of the ground that we covered, we saw some basket stars and wolf eels (well I saw one wolf eel, but apparently Rob saw three).  The viz was getting worse as we got shallower, and by the time we got to about 150', it was dramatically worse.  I would say that the very bad viz layer started around 150'.  And yet, amazingly, we managed to make it all the way back to K2.  I was feeling a bit doubtful that we would find it, even though I knew we were very close, and then I saw a big school of rockfish, and I figured this had to be K2.  And a moment later, through the murk, I saw a pinnacle coming up shallower than 90'.  It was about then that we realized that there was some insane surge right on top of the pinnacle.  Rob suggested that we head off of the pinnacle a bit to shoot the bag.  I didn't really think the surge was any big thing, but I followed him.  And then, while we were putting the bag up, woa, we got dragged like 15 feet back toward the pinnacle.

I feel like up to this point, I haven't really done justice to my experience of this dive.  It was an ugly dive.  It was dark, the viz was very bad for about half of it (the half above 200'), I was very seasick and then sort of seasick for the first half or so of it, and I didn't have finkeepers.  Yea, I know that last one is a really lame thing to mention, but I swear, I felt like my fins were going to pop off for half of the dive, and I kept worrying that on deco, they might actually pop off (I was worrying about that before deco, once I was actually on deco, they were surprisingly well-behaved).  So, by the time we got to deco, I was pondering whether I just wasn't cut out for these kinds of dives anymore.  Deco was actually fine, the only nice thing about that viz was that it was pretty toasty warm on the way up.  But on deco I was reflecting on the dive, and decided that the best word to summarize it was "challenging".

At the 20 foot stop, I developed some seriously bad sinus problems.  I spent a lot of time on that stop trying to blow something out of my nose, though that was not very fruitful.  Eventually it got to the point where I felt like I just couldn't blow out of my nose at all.  Just about then, Kevin decided to pay homage to Ted with some sort of hand-holding shenanigans, which caused me to collapse in laughter, and flood my mask.  So I spent the rest of the stop trying to figure out how to clear my mask when I could barely blow out of my nose; I blame Ted.  As we were finishing up our 20 foot stop, I started to feel a little seasick again.  I think I may have looked up at this point and realized that it was pretty rocky up there.  At some point during the 6 minute ascent, I think the 11 foot stop to be precise, we stopped for an extended (that would be more than one minute) stop, for some reason or another.  That stop completely pushed me over the edge into seasickness.  When I got to 5 feet, I spent about 15 seconds there, and decided that that was enough of a stop.

When I got to the surface, I pulled my mask off to try to deal with my sinus problems, and with really no warning at all, I threw up.  It was super snotty on the surface.  I looked up at the boat, and it looked like a little toy boat dancing around on top of the wind waves.  I know I use that imagery a lot, but that's actually what the boat looks like to me in these kinds of conditions.  The boat was picking up another team, so we were waiting for a while.  But the boat was really drifting, and it drifted enough that it was pretty close to us, so we decided to just scooter over there.  As I was scootering over, I saw that John was passing a bottle up to the boat, but it seemed to be taking a long time.  Then he took the bottle back, and one of the crew told me that John was having some problem with his bottle.  Rob and Kevin made a beeline to the ladder, and I figured someone should go help John, so I headed over to him (thinking that I was the last person that should be offering help, since I could barely keep my breakfast down).   Of course by the time I got there, he had sorted out his problem (which I knew would happen!).  But I figured we shouldn't all pile up at the back of the boat, so we hung back, and before you know it, the boat had drifted way off from us, and we decided we should just wait for them to come back around for us.  Then I threw up again.  Wind waves were breaking over our heads.

The boat finally came back around for us, and I handed up a bottle.  Then I scootered off from the boat, so John could drop a bottle off.  I unclipped my second bottle, and had one finger hanging onto a bolt-snap, waiting for John to back off from the boat.  But he didn't.  Instead, he hung there while he got his next bottle off, etc.  By the time I decided to just scooter back to the boat and loiter while he finished up, I couldn't catch up to the boat.  It was really moving in that wind!  So I laid back and waited for John to get back on the boat, so they could swing around once more to get me.  All the while, I was holding onto my bottle with one finger (on my poor RSI-riddled hand).  I was afraid if I tried to clip it back off, I would drop it.  So instead, I locked my hand around it and waited.  The boat finally came back around, and I handed up my bottle.  Phew.  I handed up my scooter (keeping my O2 bottle for the climb up the ladder), and then grabbed the ladder and took a fin off.  The ladder on the Escapade had suffered some damage the day before (it got bumped by another boat while transferring passengers, and got kind of crunched down along the rail on one side).  So, I had a bit of trouble holding on, with my hand which was now permanently claw-shaped.  So after getting one fin off, I just couldn't conceive of how I was going to get the second fin off, without losing my grip on the ladder.  And this was all unfolding as I was getting periodically mangled by the waves.  So then I wondered if I could swing my fin up above the water while clinging to the ladder with all my strength.  My fin popped up above the water, and Josh caught on, and leaned over and pulled it off.  Phew.  Now I just had to drag myself up the ladder.  That didn't go too well either.  My arms didn't seem to be working, so I asked for help, and immediately there were at least 3 people on top of me, basically lifting me (or my tanks anyway) out of the water.  Definitely not a good day for my street cred.  Let's just say I was relieved (and horribly seasick) when I sat down on the bench.

Practically everyone was seasick on the ride home.  I think we all agreed it would have been a better day to sleep in.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Australia: Back to Ribbon Reef 3

For our last day of the trip, we were back at the Ribbon reef #3 area, where we had been on Tuesday.  We started at a site that is supposedly rarely dived, Gorgonian Bommie, which is a pinnacle from about 50 feet to 110 feet, which is kind of a short and fat pinnacle, that has really nice gorgonians on the sides.  The entry procedure for this site was sort of "interesting".  There was a down line installed at the top of the pinnacle, with a buoy on top.  We were anchored off of the pinnacle, so we were instructed to get our entire team ready to go, and then wait on the swim step until the boat swung closest to the buoy, jump in, and swim to the buoy.  Okay, fine.  The weird thing was that they used like the smallest, least visible buoy possible on top of the pinnacle.  It was no Team Kitty float!  There were some huge gorgonians, that's for sure, though they were not all in pristine condition.  Rob was diving without his camera, so we played with the hero cam instead (which I've included some snapshots from).  I eventually suggested that Rob take the video reflector and light the scenes for me, and this worked pretty well.  Other than the gorgonians and fan thingies, the reef wasn't super nice, but the fish life was pretty good.  On top there were the ubiquitous anemone fish.   Not too surprisingly, when we surfaced, with divers holding onto the downline on their ascent, that teeny tiny buoy was below the surface :)

After that, we headed to Steve's bommie (very close by), for two dives there.  We'd already been there, so we just spent our time trying to get some video and harassing, err, playing with, the fish.  At the end of each of the dives, we managed to have the pinnacle top to ourselves, which was nice.  On both dives, we found the Nemo clownfish, which had been mentioned in the briefing on our first visit there, but I hadn't come across.  I don't think I've ever seen this kind of clownfish before, so that was nice (though unfortunate that Rob's camera was out of commission).  I decided to play around with the snapshot setting on the hero cam, so that whenever we saw a nice "portrait" subject, I would video it a bit and then also try snapping a picture (using the video reflector on Rob's primary light to light it).  Most of the stuff that I took pictures of was too small for the camera to focus on, but I did get one nice picture of a Wobegon shark way back in his crack.  Woohoo!  (Rob found him back in that crack, which was an excellent find!).

I don't remember the name of the last site that we went to, but it was a little wall/sand slope.  Where the boat was moored was quite shallow, maybe 30 feet deep at most, and as we followed the reef, eventually the sand sloped down, and there was a wall that was like 30 feet tall, with coral outcroppings along the bottom, which was at about 60 feet.  There were some nice schools of silvery fish at the site, but I spent quite a bit of time playing with a bluespotted stingray, who was very tolerant of being video'd.  We also found two interesting flatworms, including one that was quite small, and nudibranch-like :P  All in all, a nice long last dive.

For dinner, we had a repeat of the BBQ from Wednesday night, since I guess that's the standard last night dinner :)  Since it was our last night, we stayed up late, drinking, and listening to the Australian guys tell stories.  Those guys were funny, but I could have really used subtitles while listening to their stories :)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Australia: Osprey Reef

Saturday we woke to find that we had in fact made it to Osprey reef though the boat sustained minor damage and the fresh water system was not working. It was a bit more sporty out here, with, for instance, waves sloshing up onto the swimstep. The wind was about the same as it had been, but there was more swell, or at least that's how it seemed to me (and I am not a weather expert, nor do I play one on ba_diving).

The first site we had planned for had a broken mooring, so we went to "False Entrance" instead.  It consisted of some coral ridges separated by sand, running at an angle to a big wall that supposedly goes to 1000 meters. There was quite a bit of current. It seemed like everywhere we went, we were moving against the current :P. We hung out on the wall hoping to see some bug stuff swim by, though the only thing we saw was one reef shark (we saw another laying on the sand on the way out to the wall). The wall does seem to go forever though.

After hanging out on the wall, we headed over to one of the sand channels, where there was a big school of trevally.  Getting back on the boat was a bit of a cluster. There was a lot of current midwater so we came up the line. We decide to head to the ladder, just as a group of three made a bee line for it, and got one of the hang lines wrapped all around the ladder. So we came up the down current hang line and getting from there to the ladder was tricky. Rob ended up making it halfway from the line to the ladder, grabbing onto the swimstep, and then he swung me for the line to the ladder. Super lame, I know. Once back on the boat it seemed that everyone else had even more trouble on that dive :)

The second and third dives were both at North Horn, with lunch in between. The first dive was a shark feed. They wanted everyone to get in the water at once, so people were entering with either a (very) giant stride off of the side, or in the usual manner off of the back.  We were going to go off the side (because it looked fun) but then there was a big line for that so we headed to the back. Rob jumped in and practically got washed right back up onto the swimstep by a big wave. Then he had to kick hard against the current to get to the line.  After watching that, I decided to go in off the side after all, since that was up current of the line.  I kind of assumed Rob would just head down with the group and wait for me, but actually he waited, while getting pummeled by the current, the entire time while I was waiting in line to get in the water -- poor Rob. Anyhoo, when it was finally my turn to jump in, oof, what a jump, I felt like I was hitting concreted when I hit the water :)  Once reunited with Rob, we headed down the line.

There were already some sharks swimming around midwater, so we entertained ourselves with those while waiting for everyone. The feeding spot is on top of a little pinnacle next to the wall, and the wall right there it kind of amphitheater shaped. So people were directed to sit on the curved area of the wall to watch. Rob and I opted out of the wall sitting and instead hovered right next to the wall right where the curved amphitheater met the flat wall. Before the dive, one of the DMs suggested this as a good spot to see the action.  Eventually everyone was in the water and situated, and they lowered a cage with a bin of shark food (fish heads and the like) in it.  They sharks got all excited, and then they opened the cage, and the sharks went at it.  I think shark (or anything) feeds are kind of dumb, but I found it surprisingly entertaining to watch.  And it was definitely the best shark-peeping dive I've ever done.

Once the feed was finished, we meandered along the wall, watching the sharks cruising along.  A lot of them stuck around even after the food was all gone.  There was a manta sighting on the dive, but we didn't see it.  Boohoo.  Aside from the sharks, the reef there was actually pretty nice, which surprised me, considering that they do a shark feed here.  Even the little amphitheater area where people sit on the wall was in pretty good condition, which made no sense at all to me :P  Getting back onto the boat was once again a bit of a cluster because of all of the surface current.  One of the DMs (Simon) was basically hanging on the bottom of the ladder, and plucking people from the drop line, and placing them on the ladder (hands and then fins).  I ended up waiting on the drop line for quite a while, because people kept swimming over to the drop line, having not very much gas, and so they got plucked ahead of me. It was pretty entertaining to watch (Rob avoided this altogether, by swimming from the mooring line straight to the ladder, to avoid the plucking, because you know, that's how he rolls).

Lunch was pasta dishes and salad.  When we got back into the water for the second dive, we both jumped off of the side of the boat.  After I hit the water, it seemed like something was a little out of place, and after looking over my gear, I realized that my video reflector had popped off of its double ender, and was rapidly descending below me.  I pointed it out to Rob (since there was no way in hell I could chase and catch it), and amazingly, he zoomed down and caught it.  Phew.  The second dive at the site was more of the same -- a lot of sharks were still around, but we also covered more ground along the wall, checking out the reef.  Rob flooded one of his strobes on this dive :(  Apparently there was a long hair in the O-ring, though I still tried to blame it on Pepper.  Actually I think it was because of the rough crossing the night before, everything had been moved down to our room, so he setup the camera on our bed, instead of on the camera table.

The last dive of the day was at Admiralty, which was a pretty cool site.  The drawing of the site on the whiteboard looked like a maze.  I guess the main site is a coral outcropping on top of a wall.  Because there is a sand "bottom" the "maze" sits on top of, but there is also a deep wall adjacent to it.  There are some extended swim-throughs (or "caves") in a few spots, but we decided to skip those.  The reef was in great shape, and all of the nooks and crannies were pretty cool.  I especially liked the fact that the reef came up to less than 20 feet.  I was thinking, and I know this sounds like something Rob would say, but it would be awesome to dive the walls around here with some trimix, and then follow the reef all the way up on deco.  There must be some cool sea monsters down there :)

Overall, I thought that the deep walls at Osprey were pretty impressive, the reef seemed to be in better shape and had some brighter soft corals, and I think that the viz was better there.  But I didn't think it was particularly epic.  I thought that the best dives that we did in Fiji were better than the best dives on this trip, just as a point of comparison.

Dinner was pork belly, sweet potato purée and veggies, with tiramisu for dessert.  We once again had to secure everything for a rough crossing, though it was not as rough as the night before.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Australia: More Diving at Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10

Friday we did another day of diving around Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10.  The first dive was at Cormorant Caves, which was a wall with little inlets, though I couldn't figure out where the "caves" were or what cormorants had to do with the site :)  The wall, which went from about 20' to 100', got quite a bit better after we got a bit further down away from the mooring.  There were a lot of soft corals, though not super colorful.

The second dive was back to Cod Hole.  When we got to there, the spoilsport was already there (really? there are like two dive boats in this entire part of the ocean, and they can't avoid sitting on the same site at the same time?). We didn't do a feeding, but the cod were out, presumably because the spoilsport fed them. There were about four of them wandering around on the sand, so it was much less chaotic than having everyone crowded in one place. Once again we never really made it to the reef. We played with the cod, taking pictures and video.  I even took some pics of Rob with them (though they weren't very good, since I could barely hold the camera up, let alone figure out how to change the zoom level).  Then we looked around at the little coral outcroppings there. Rob found a shark snoozing in a hole, and we also found a huge giant clam (which I think was mentioned in the briefing the first time that we came).

Lunch was pizza and salad.

The third dive was at "Rod's Rock", which I found to be a pretty boring dive. There we a big squat pinnacle, which was fairly ugly on most sides, and some nicer reef off to one side of it. Then there were little coral outcroppings scattered on the sand.  There was a fair amount of current, though you could hide from it in some spots. We didn't manage to hide from it the whole dive though, since we wanted to actually check out the different coral outcroppings, and as a result we (I) got totally worked by the current at some points.  We were told that there were sea snakes here and we had a brief encounter with one right near the end of the dive as we were about to make one last pass around the pinnacle. Wow, those things really look like snakes.  The sea snake was pretty cool, so that probably made the otherwise blah dive worthwhile.

The final dive, at Challenger Bay, was an awesome dive, though I think that was more to do with what we did there than the dive site itself. We were hunting for macro critters, which was great fun. I felt like I wasn't doing a great job of finding critters, though near the end I sort of redeemed myself with a cool flatworm and a new-to-us nudi. We also found tons of pipefish -- Rob found the first couple, and then it was like they were everywhere.  This was a fairly shallow dive, with a gentle slope covered with coral chunks separated by little bits of sand. We meandered all the way to what was described as the end of the site, and back very slowly. It was a fun and relaxing (and long) dive.

Dinner was roast chicken with couscous and ratatouille. Dessert was a super good chocolate tartlet. Just thinking about it gives me cravings.  Then we had to batten down the hatches for a long rough crossing to Osprey Reef. We went to bed at 8 because it was too rough to do anything else :)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Australia: Lizard Island and Inside Out

View from Lizard Island Beach
On Thursday, we went to Lizard Island, and got a new bunch of passengers for the second half of the week.  I thought this was kind of a waste of half of a day.  It's not that I mind spending half a day doing something on shore on a one week liveaboard, but it was more like a two hour shore activity, which blew more than half of the day.  We still had to get up at the usual early hour, we went ashore, walk around on the beach, did the little hike over to the airstrip, and then Rob and I rode back on the tender to the boat, where we had a few hours to kill before the next batch of people came aboard, got their briefing, filled out paperwork, etc.  And then of course the first dive was a "checkout dive" (for everyone else), which I assume limits the choice of dive sites.  This is one reason it would be vastly superior to be on the boat with a group that is all there for a week.

A lizard
Anyhoo, so we got up, had breakfast, and then headed to Lizard Island on the tenders.  I wasn't really sure what the best footwear would be (and really got no guidance at all on this from the crew), since we were landing on the beach, but then we'd be doing a little hiking.  So most people (including me) wore flip-flops or the like, and a few wore socks and shoes and then as we landed on the beach, they had to deal with that in a hurry.  In hindsight, the optimal choice would have been no shoes on the tender, with a small bag containing sneakers.  We wandered down the long stretch of beach where we landed, and then re-grouped for the hike to the airstrip.  You go over a big hill, which has some nice lookout points, but the hike is really not too strenuous, so flip-flops were okay.  We eventually got to a little pavilion area by the beach, where we had some sandwiches.  While we were there, we did see one lizard, scurrying around outside of the pavilion.  The tender arrived at the beach right by the pavilion, and Rob and I rode back to the boat, while everyone else waited for the plane.  A couple of the crew members also swapped out, including the captain.

View from lookout point at top of Lizard Island
We got back to the boat and were told we had a couple of hours to kill.  I asked if we could snorkel off the back of the boat, and was told no (surprise surprise).  So we killed some time, more passengers arrived, we killed some more time while they got briefed at, and then eventually lunch was served.  Lunch was a hodge podge of soup, salads, sandwich materials and nachos.  At some point, we were told that we would not be making an attempt to cross to Osprey Reef that night, because the conditions were too rough.  We would instead make an attempt the following day, which would give us one day at Osprey Reef instead of two.  So that meant we had a day and a half in the vicinity of Lizard Island (Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10).

We went to a dive site called "Inside Out".  Once we got there, the mooring was found to be broken, so we had to wait quite a while for that to be fixed. We were told there was no current, but found quite a strong current. There is a wall from less than 20' to about 50' , then a sand slope to 60ish, then another wall down to about 100'. We started out near the bottom, on the lower wall, in hopes of seeing some big stuff off of the wall, though we did not succeed. Swimming into that current at 90' was a bit unpleasant. I basically spent the whole time trying to find little bits of reef sticking out that I could hide behind to get out of the current (it reminded me of diving at Ginnie :P)  This made photos pretty hard. We came up shallower for the drift back. Overall this was not the prettiest site, especially compared to the sites we'd been to the day before.  The most remarkable thing were some big green fan-shaped coral formations and some nice sea fans at the bottom. I did find three nudibranchs though!  They were nudis we saw in Philippines (and maybe Fiji) so they don't count in Rob's book :P

We had dinner before the night dive, which was a tasty fish, Barramundi, which I don't think I've had before. It tasted and had a similar texture to crab meat. Yum. It was served with potatoes and a really tasty roasted veggie medley. We also had dessert before the dive, which was pavlova. I don't think I've actually had that before; it was really good.

The night dive was at the same site.  With our nudibranch finds on the last dive, we were hopeful about our macro prospects, and we were not disappointed. Rob found some pretty good nudis. Overall, it wasn't a super productive macro dive, but it was a lot of fun looking for stuff!  Rob managed to find some new-to-us nudibranchs, so they even count :P  After the night dive, there was wine and TV in the lounge.  We spent the night back by Lizard Island, so it was nice and calm.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Australia: Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10

We finally managed to do some really good diving today.  We also managed to get a day with a normal schedule.  We had "first breakfast" at 6:30 (cereal, milk, yogurt, and fruit), then did the first dive at Pixie Wall.  This was a wall, though it wasn't that tall.  The best parts are definitely from about 60' up, but since the boat had their wonky rules about reverse profiles, we had to really try to find a patch of coral in the sand to look at below 80' at some point during the dive :)  This was the least awesome dive of the day, so I won't say much about it.  There were some really nice sea fans hanging off of the wall, and I found one cool little hole in the wall that Rob swam behind to take shots looking out.  Rob also found this cool arch-shaped tunnel in the wall that if you swam into opened into a room that was open above.  

The second dive was at Pixie Pinnacle, and it was my favorite dive of the trip yet (though not my favorite dive of the day :P).  This was a skinny pinnacle going from about 20' (or maybe a bit shallower) to 100'.  There was a decent amount of current.  We dropped onto the side of the pinnacle, and Rob swam us up-current to try to get to a little side pinnacle in the sand.  I was huffing and puffing off of the pinnacle at 90' and realized it was probably 20 feet below us, and refused to go any further :)  The really cool thing about it was all of the pelagic life swarming around the pinnacle.  There were schools of barracuda, jacks, and trevally, plus lots of smaller (unnamed to me) fish in their own little schools.  On one side of the pinnacle, there was a little shelf at maybe 30 feet, and we hung out there for quite a while, and it was great fun to watch all of the various kinds of fish just swirling around us.  I also got buzzed by a Napoleon wrasse.  The top of the pinnacle was also nicely covered with corals (soft and hard), Nemos, and crinoids (my favorite).  One of the DMs (Nick I think) showed us some little pipefish that he found, though unfortunately Rob was shooting wide-angle.  Since the best part of the dive was in the shallows, we had a nice long dive here, watching all of the fish swirling around.

Lunch was "curry day" with a super tasty beef curry, tandoori chicken, rice, flatbread, raita, and some other stuff for people who don't believe in curry before diving (which normally I don't, but it just smelled so dang good!).  After lunch, we dove Cod hole, which is a pretty well-known site where you get to play with the puppy dogs, err, potato cod.  It was actually a feeding, which I didn't expect, though I suppose it should not have been too surprising.  There was a briefing and we were told a couple things.  One, don't flail around, because the cod are being fed by hand and might mistake your flailing arms as a food source.  Two, we were supposed to get negative and plant ourselves in the sand during the feeding, because otherwise there was no way we could stay still without flailing :)  Three, don't pet the cod, they are not actually puppy dogs.  One and three I could get behind, but I was a tad skeptical about two.  

We made the mistake of being the first in the water, so we had to mill about while we waited for everyone else.  We did see one cod before the feeding began.  When the DM running the feeding showed up, everyone got into a semi-circle, and everyone except Rob and I planted on the bottom.  Rob was instructed to get on his knees on the bottom and he politely declined, hehe.  I went into slightly bad trim as if I was going to get on my knees and then when the DM looked away I resumed my usual slightly less bad trim off of the bottom.  Breakin' the law, breakin' the law.  If there had actually been current that made it hard to stay in place without excessive finning, I would have been on board with planting myself on the bottom, but there was not, so I was opposed on principle.

Not too surprisingly, the feed was very chaotic and not really a good chance to get photo or video of the fish.  There were just way too many divers flailing around everywhere.  But once it was finished, the divers pretty much dispersed and we stayed behind, along with a couple of the fish, who were quite the camera whores.  We both got some good shots/footages of the fish, and it turned out what we took during the feed was a total waste!  By the time the fish had lost interest in us, it was pretty much time to end the dive, so we did.  There was reef to look at there, but we just didn't get to it.

After a snack of brownies and cookies, we did the final dive of the day at Dynamite Pass.  This was my favorite dive of the day (and the trip so far).  It was a wall, and it was just very pretty.  There was tons of soft coral (though in much more muted tones than the soft corals in Fiji), and there was a lot of really colorful hard coral.  Being from the land of the hydrocoral, I find most warm water hard corals to be quite blah, color-wise.  This was the first time I saw really colorful hard corals.  The colors were still more muted tones than, say, hydrocoral, but they were pretty bright blues, mint greens, golden yellows, etc.  It was just a super pretty wall, and the ride back in the (minor) current was especially nice.  We also saw a school of bump head wrasses off of the wall, which was pretty cool to see such big fish schooling!  We also saw a couple of sharks on this dive; one was off of the reef and the other was swimming right up through one of the little "bays" that the wall wrapped around.

For dinner that night, we had a "BBQ" with lots of barbecued meats, including some kangaroo, which of course I had to try.  Rob was very happy about the copious quantities of meat, but there were a bunch of salads to go along with it too.  For dessert, we had what I would describe as chocolate cheesecake balls dipped in chocolate.  There was a name for them, which was a term that I was not familiar with.  It was the last night of the trip for everyone else on the boat, so there was a more "festive" atmosphere that night, with people staying up late, drinking, etc.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Australia: Ribbon Reef 3

We had to return to Cairns overnight due to a passenger having a medical problem.  I slept through it completely, so when I woke up, I didn't even know.  But Rob woke up and heard us dock, so he filled me in.  One of the passengers had some shortness of breath after the first dive, which was apparently suspected to be a pneumothorax.  Based on her condition (pretty good), the high winds, and our proximity to shore, returning to shore by boat was a better option than evacuating by helicopter, so that's what we did.  This meant that we did not make it to where we planned to go on the second day (Ribbon Reefs 9 and 10), and also we got a late start. But we still managed to get five dives in, but only made it to two sites.  The schedule was different than planned, with (only) one breakfast in the morning, followed by two dives, lunch, then three more dives (including a night dive), then dinner.

We started at Steve's Bommie, which I think I had heard of before, so I figured it must be reasonably good. It is a pinnacle from about 20 feet to 100 feet. It's reasonably steep on all sides, with a little side bommie coming to maybe 70 feet on one side. Rob shot macro on the first dive, because there were supposed to be stonefish and other macro subjects. I thought we kind of struck out on the macro critter front though. I did see one stonefish, swimming around but it darted behind a rock and then I couldn't find it for Rob. So I felt like this dive was more like scouting for wide angle shots for dive 2.  But there were a few other good sightings. There was a nice school of barracuda right off the pinnacle on the bottom.  And a leopard shark (different than our "leopard" sharks) laying on the bottom.  He let me swim right up and get a little video, before getting annoyed and swimming off. There was also one of those little electric clams (found by a DM). Up on top of the pinnacle, there were lots of various kinds of fish swimming by.  The top of the pinnacle was just the place to be, as it had much nicer looking coral formations, lots of anemones with Nemos, and little colorful fish zipping around. It was also pretty crowded with divers by the time we got there though.

For the second dive, we got in before anyone else, and spent some time at the top before it got crowded. Then we zipped down to the side bommie for some pictures of its sea fans and yellow snapper. By the time we got back to the top, most of the crowd was gone. I found a nice big stonefish in a little cave in the side of the pinnacle. Of course Rob had the wrong lens now!  So I tried to get it with the hero cam, though a real photo would have been much nicer.

For lunch we had a bit of a mish-mash of dishes, including nachos, salads, etc., all of them tasty, many using familiar ingredients from the night before (since almost no one ate) including the beef recycled into a noodle salad and the beets into a salad with goat cheese (my favorite way to eat beets!).

After lunch we did three dives at a site whose name eludes me (but may have been "Flare Point"), with pretty short intervals between.  It was supposed to be wall-ish, though it was patchy in many places. The first dive was a drift dive, though the current wasn't very strong at all. We got onto the tender (an inflatable) and rode a couple minutes out, dropped in, and drifted back to the big boat. The directions for how to find the boat mooring weren't too clear, probably because we changed direction at the last minute (due to the current running differently than expected). We were in the first (of three) tenders dropped, but eventually all of the other teams passed us, since we were dawdling taking pictures.

The reef wasn't that beautiful for wide angle, so after the first dive, Rob switched to macro.  The second dive seemed almost like a dusk dive, because the sun gets low in the sky so early.  We meandered in the other direction, looking for critters. I think that the clownfish were the best subjects. We found an anemone out in the sand with three of them, and one was quite interested in Rob's strobe. And then Rob's hand. The night dive featured a few interesting finds, including a "nest" of baby fish wriggling all around. It was strange, but cute. But the best find of all (for the whole day I think) found me. I was swimming along with Rob on my left, when something bumped my right hand. I couldn't imagine how another diver could have snuck up that close to me. I turned to look, and it was a turtle, who had bumped me with his flipper.  He was swimming right alongside me. I had no time to switch over to my video reflector, so I quickly defocused my light and swam alongside videoing it. Rob had the great idea to go above the turtle and point his defocused light down on the turtle. I think the video turned out pretty well considering the lighting options we had available to us.

Dinner was after the night dive, which is my preference, since I don't like diving on a full tummy (plus I could drink at dinner :P). We had salmon with hollandaise (or something like that), potatoes, and veggies which were all super good.  Then for dessert we had an orange almond gluten-free pound cake with a berry sauce. Yum!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Australia: Finally Diving at Saxon Reef

On Monday, we finally got to dive after all of the travel.  We were supposed to be picked up by the Spirit of Freedom shuttle at 11:15, but that happened more like around 11:45 (which was a bit annoying, since they didn't even call to say they were running late, though that seemed predictable since they were running one instead of the usual two shuttles).  Even once we got to the boat, we got a late start due to a few people arriving late (not sure why) but we finally got moving around 1:30 or so and after a bit of a bumpy ride, we made it to our dive site for a "checkout dive".  Along the way, we had lunch, which was a spread of sandwich materials. They have a really good multi-grain bread and there was also a huge pile of sliced avocados (one of my favorite foods).

The dive was at Saxon Reef, which is a site that I think the day boats visit from Cairns.  So not too far away, though I think we were going for about an hour and half before we got there.  We were going to do two short dives with a short surface interval, since we needed to get going for our long overnight steam. On this dive, everyone had to go with a DM and at the end of the dive, we had to inflate an SMB and orally inflate our BCs at the surface.  Since we were diving unusual configurations, we had no clue what our weight would be (well, "no clue" is a bit strong). We were the first in the water, so while we were bobbing, Rob decided he could use more weight. Pretty much as soon as I descended, I realized the same, but didn't feel like going back for more weight. I figured any good DM on a checkout dive would be chock full of spare weight :). So the dive site was not an awesome dive site, as you might expect for a checkout dive. It was basically big patches of coral here and there over sand flats, with depths (in the part we saw) ranging from about 20 to 60 feet.  The highlight of the dive was three moray eels, one of which was really big, and all were quite friendly. There was also a nice patch of staghorn coral with a big school of yellow snapper wiggling around in it. We eventually turned around and meandered back.  At this point, I decided I could really use some extra weight.  So I asked Nick (the DM) for some weight, and he pulled off his belt and popped a three pounder off for me. Phew, nice to take a full breath again :P

When it was time to ascend, things got a bit squirrelly.  First, someone on our team was having trouble staying down, so the DM tried to give her more weight, but she ended up popping to the surface, and the weight he was trying to give her ended up dropping to the bottom (which was only like 25 feet, so no big deal).  After that was all sorted out, I figured we should do the stuff we were supposed to do for the "checkout", though at this point I was a bit "low" on gas (not actually low, but low from the perspective that we were supposed to return to the boat with 700 psi, and I rolled into my safety stopped with about 800 psi).  So we were supposed to put up bags during the safety stop. Fine, I can do that (usually). So I whipped out my bag and put it up (from 20 feet) and headed to 10 feet. Then Rob pulls his bag and without any sort of warning, puts it up and immediately it tangles with my line. And it had way too much line on it, so it was running diagonally from Rob to the surface. I was pretty annoyed that Rob popped his bag into mine, without any warning, so I headed to the surface in a huff, getting my fin tangled in all of his slack line in the meantime.  I managed to flail my way out of it and get to the surface, but in the process, I forgot to orally inflate my wing. Oops. Luckily the DM did not notice, and I passed my checkout anyway. Rob did too, even though I think he should have failed based on his bag shoot :). It would have been at best a 2 in Fundies : P. Oddly, when we got to the surface, Rob didn't seem to think he had done anything wrong.  Apparently it was my fault.

After a short safety stop, we got back into the water for a dusk dive. Rob and I were on our own for this dive, so we had a much better time :). The highlight of the dive was a reef shark. It was kind of creepy since it was getting dark. We also saw a cute little ray. Other than that, it seemed like there was a greater variety of fish around, presumably coming out for dinner.

The ride that night was quite rough. Dinner was pretty late that evening, and by the time it was served, there was almost no one left standing. I think there were 5 or 6 of us at dinner. Rob had gone to sleep, most of the others were sick. I was feeling pretty borderline myself. I was feeling exhausted (being on a bumpy boat always wears me out, plus I took a half Bonine), but I managed to stay awake just long enough to eat. Dinner was tasty, though unfortunately I could only eat about half of it before scurrying off to bed, since I could barely keep my eyes open.  It was some sort of steak with a brown sauce, potatoes, broccoli, and roasted root vegetables, including beets!  I've recently developed a beet addiction, so this was very exciting in theory, though the way I was feeling, I could only managed to eat about two bites :(. So I went to bed around 9, but I was pretty impressed because I stayed up later than Rob. That never happens :P

Rob didn't end up posting any pictures from the first day, but since I can't stand not to have any pictures, I am including a snapshot from my video footage (hence the bad lighting, etc.).