It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Getting to Australia

We took a rather round-about path to Australia, via Asia, because we used miles for the flights and because I refuse to ride in coach for a flight that long :P  So, the trip there is deserving of at least one blog post of its own.  We had several options for what city to fly through in Asia, but eventually settled on Tokyo.  I've never been there before, so we scheduled things so that we'd have a day there.

We had a painfully early flight out of SFO, and a few hours at LAX.  We headed to the Admirals Club there, and they gave us a pass to access the first class "flagship" lounge, which I wasn't really expecting, because I didn't even know there was a first class lounge there, which is odd, because I've been to that Admirals Club many times, and I've just never noticed that magical door before, or at least never wondered where it led :P  I found the lounge to be not that different than the rest of the lounge, except there was actual food (a pretty decent breakfast spread), and more importantly, the cookies were higher quality than the usual AC cookies :)  Mmm, a giant bowl of Milanos.  I actually like the shower rooms in the regular lounge better, because they seem brighter and more modern, though they are smaller.  I'm sure that's just personal preference though.

When it was finally time, we headed to the gate, which was a total cluster, and of course the flight was running late, but they didn't admit that for a while.  We were flying AA metal, which I was a bit skeptical of.  I have never flown AA international business class, but I was expecting it to be underwhelming compared to non-US airlines.  I was actually pleasantly surprised.  The food (which I ate a lot of) and service were both very good, and the seat was not bad (though it was angled flat, not real flat).  I wasn't super excited about the movies on the inflight entertainment system, but I think that's more a reflection of how crappy movies have been for the past year :)  I watched Iron Man 3 and Chasing Mavericks, and enjoyed the noise canceling headphones (which I have at work too, and I totally love!).  I also slept a bit, and drank quite a bit too.  Hey, one has to pass the time somehow :P  Ooh, and I really liked the amenity kit, because it is excellently proportioned to carry a MacBook charger (and the primary use for those little bags that I've found is to carry around all of my electronic doodads).  After like a million hours, we finally got to Tokyo.  We got in a little bit early, and we made it through immigration and got our bags really quickly, just in time to leave our big bags at the bag storage place and make it on a bus to the hotel.  We stayed at the Hyatt in Roppongi.  

I was sort of vacillating on how to get to the hotel from the airport.  You can take a train to the subway, or a bus directly to the hotel (or one of a number of other options), and there are pros and cons either way.  In the end, I decided that point to point would be easiest, even if it meant waiting up to an hour for the next bus.  But we got lucky with the timing and didn't have to wait at all, and the bus was just easy.  It doesn't really require advance planning or reading subway maps, you just walk up to the counter and they tell you when the next bus is and sell you the ticket (we took the airport limousine bus, for the record).  We bought the ticket in a bundle with a two day subway pass.  The bus ride was a little under 90 minutes (which was faster than advertised for that time of day).  When we finally got to the hotel, we wandered over to the checkin desk.  There must be some hidden button that they press when a diamond member checks in, because all of a sudden, the GM and some other manager type appeared and there was a lot of shaking of hands and exchanging of business cards with Rob, when I really just wanted to go to the room and take a shower!  Eventually we were shown to our room (a suite), which was super swanky, probably the nicest hotel room I've ever stayed in (though I usually stay at the likes of the High Springs Country Inn, so the bar is not that high).

We showered and headed to the lounge for some snacks (and champagne) before plotting a course for the evening.  We decided to keep the plan simple and just walk around the Roppongi area and randomly find a place to eat.  We got walking directions for which direction to head, and headed that way.  It was really hot out, as expected, but there were tons of people out walking around.  We basically just walked from the hotel to Tokyo Midtown, which is a mall, that we took a stroll through, mostly to get out of the heat for a few minutes.  Along the way, we passed a bunch of ramen places, which gave me a hankering for ramen, so we decided to find one for dinner.  Our main criteria for picking one was that they take credit cards, since we hadn't yet changed money (doh!).  We ended up going to one on Roppongi Street, Korakuen, which was pretty close to the hotel.  Apparently this is a big cheap ramen chain, though we didnt know that at the time.  It was tasty and very cheap (so cheap that we could each afford to get our own boiled egg).  Yum, I love ramen, I could use a bowl of it right now.  We got back to the hotel early, maybe around 8, but I was so tired, I ended up falling asleep by 9.

Since I fell asleep at 9, I woke up at like 4, and after about an hour of pretending to sleep, I got up and started trying to figure out what we should do with our one day in Tokyo.  We first went over to Tsukiji to wander around the fish market.  We got there around 7am (before the wholesale market is open to the public), so we just wandered around the public part of the market, which had lots of little stands selling fish and produce, street food, and sushi counters.  Rob found several different varieties of his favorite kind of street food, meat-on-a-stick, so he was happy.  Eventually we found a random sushi place to have breakfast.  Some of the sushi was really excellent and some of it was just meh.  After a bit more of a walk around, we decided to head back to the hotel, but then when we were on the subway, we changed our minds and got off at Ginza, for a little walk around there.  It was still too early for most of the stores to be open, but it didn't really matter since all of the stores around there are too crazy upscale for me to shop in (except for the Apple store :P).  We went back to the hotel to cool off and regroup (and check out the breakfast spread in the club… the orange juice was excellent).  

After we regrouped, we headed back out to Harajuku, for some more wandering around.  I heard there was a really big 100 yen store there, which seemed like a good place for some souvenir gifts for my sister (who is a dollar store connoisseur) and her little ones.  We found it and were not disappointed with the 4 stories of cheap products :)  We walked around there and went in a few more shops, and eventually made our way over to Omotesando, and spent some time in Kiddy Land, where I was looking for something for my nephew.  I struck out on that, but instead found a nice little stuffed monster for Pepper (which she quickly accepted into her army of toys).  By this point, we were pretty hot and tired, so we decided to head back to the hotel and just sit around in the AC until it was time to head to the airport :)  We decided at the last minute to go to the airport on a shuttle that was one hour earlier than we had planned, so we could kill time at the Japan Airlines lounge instead.  

The bus ride to the airport was a bit shorter, or at least it seemed that way.  We got to the airport, picked up our stored bags, and headed to checkin.  There was no line at all, so we were quickly checked in.  We didn't have seats together (because of my own incompetence), but the checkin agent said she would ask the person next to me if he would switch seats with Rob (whose seat was in the same equivalence class).  We went through a super quick security process at the first class security lane (which I was nearly bounced from, until they saw Rob's boarding pass, hmph).  We made our way to the JAL lounge, since it is said to be the best Oneworld lounge at Narita (not surprisingly).  Since checkin and security were so fast, we ended up having quite a bit of time to kill, so I decided to take advantage of the 10 minute massage that they offer.  A massage can only be so good when there is a boarding announcement every minute.  Jeesh, now I understand why they don't make boarding announcements in the Admirals Club.  Aside from that, I passed the time by snacking, drinking sake, and making experimental iced coffee drinks with the cool coffee machine that they had.  At some point, someone came along to tell Rob that they had switched his seat, so we were now seated together.  Woohoo.

When it was finally time to board, I was pooped and fell asleep before we even took off.  I decided to sleep through dinner, and then of course I woke up in the middle of the night and I was hungry and bored.  I was pretty underwhelmed by the Japan Airlines experience overall.  The seats were about the same as the seats on AA, but the "bedding" was not as good (scratchy would be a good word).  The entertainment system didn't have that many interesting things to watch, and the headphones were a joke (I used my own instead).  But they do have ramen on the snack menu, so that's a plus.  So I had a midnight snack of ramen and ice cream.  Our flight got into Sydney at 6:30am or something like that, so they turned the lights on and started breakfast service at like 4am (ugh).  I don't even remember what I was served for breakfast, which means it was probably neither horrible nor awesome.

Once in Sydney, we cleared customs and then there was a somewhat convoluted path to get to the Qantas domestic terminal, and then made our way to the lounge there.  The lounge had a really good breakfast spread (including an automatic pancake maker, which Rob was quite impressed with), though the showers were a bit icky.  But beggars can't be choosers.  After a couple hours there, we finally boarded the last leg to get us to our destination.  I've never flown Qantas before, and this was only a 3 hour flight, but I found the food and service to be excellent.  There were some good options on the in-flight entertainment too.  I watched Anna Karenina, though unfortunately it was 10 minutes too long for the flight, so I still haven't seen the last 10 minutes of the movie :(  In any case, it was pretty interesting to watch the story in under two hours, considering it took me a year and a half to read the book :)  When we got to Cairns, it was super quick to get our bags, find a cab, and a short ride to the Hilton.  It wasn't the Grand Hyatt Tokyo, but it was not a bad place to stay.  The service was all very friendly there, and the room was perfectly nice.

We were pretty pooped from our whirlwind tour through Tokyo, so we decided to just take it easy in Cairns.  It didn't seem like there was that much to do without a car anyway.  So we walked along the Esplanade, found some lunch at a waterfront place there, and I think there was some napping too.  One thing I will say about Cairns is they sure do have a lot of bats.  Its sort of creepy and terrifying, but also sort of interesting.  If you read the backstory, it's an interesting lesson in exponential growth.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Ed Cooper's Wall

We were on the Escapade on Sunday for a tech boat.  We had heard that the viz in Carmel was pretty terrible (at least above 100') on Saturday, so Rob decided to pack macro.  The forecast was for a bit of wind and not much swell.  In reality, it was more like a bit of swell and not much wind.  There was some wind, more than none, but not much.  But the swell was bigger than I expected.  We made it down to Yankee Point and then for some reason we went back up to Lobos to look at Naia's/Ed Cooper's Wall.  We didn't turn back from Yankee Point due to weather (I don't think, though it did seem to be getting a little snottier down there), I think it was just because we didn't think to look at those sites until we were already past them.  The direction of the wind was favorable for diving these sites, because it would push us offshore (away from the Point Lobos park boundary).  We ended up settling on Ed Cooper's Wall.

The viz was quite bad on top, and once again, we found ourselves practically glued to the line on the way down.  By 100 feet or so, the viz was still terrible, and I was wondering if I was going to have to literally run right into the reef before I saw it.  It wasn't quite that bad, but almost :)  It did eventually open up before I ran into the reef, but not very far above the reef.  We hit the reef at maybe 130-ish feet, and as we got deeper the viz actually got really good, but really dark.  There was also quite a bit of current on the bottom.  In fact, as I was finally approaching the reef as I followed the line down, I felt like I was barely moving on the trigger!  We drifted out deeper with the current, drifting along the wall.

The one really notable thing about this dive was that we saw a bunch of little octopuses sitting around on the reef.  Not too surprising considering how dark it was and that the octopus have apparently been out in crazy numbers recently (at more usual octopus spots like the breakwater), but still unusual to see.  Other than that, it was just good viz and a lot of fish.  We drifted out and then eventually turned it and came up a bit shallower, and headed back to where we started.  As we got back to the shallower area where we started, there were a lot of juvenile rockfish skittering along right on top of the reef.  We eventually got to a spot where we decided to just hang out for the rest of the dive there.  The dive was called early, inexplicably, because of, errmmm, someone not knowing how to read their gauge (it was a reverse-Ted maneuver).  I had been pretty cold on the bottom, and the thing that kept me from calling it early was that I thought it would probably be pretty warm on deco, and I was not disappointed.  By the time we got to 100' for a deep stop, the water was super murky and warm!  So there wasn't much to see on deco, but at least it was toasty.

After all of the teams were collected by the boat, we decided to skip a second dive, since the visibility above 100' definitely didn't seem like it would make for a good second dive.  So we headed to La Tortuga for dive 2 instead.

Rob was shooting macro, and I think he got a few pictures, but still hasn't produced any processed photos.  So I am going ahead and posting this without pictures, but will add them later if they appear.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Yawn, Sur 19 Again

The three kitties were out on the Escapade again on Saturday, for a tech charter.  The conditions and forecast were once again looking good, though it was not epically flat like the last time we were on the boat.  There was a little wind.  I was thinking we'd make it to Yankee Point, but probably not any further south than that.  So when Rob came down from the wheelhouse to tell us we were heading down to Sur, I was a bit surprised.  And even a bit more surprised when there were whitecaps south of Point Lobos.  But that did not deter Mike, and before you know it, we were down at Big Sur Banks.  Okay, maybe it wasn't "before you know it", but rather after like 2 hours of motoring :)  Someone wanted to go to Sur 19 again, and we all joked about getting bored with it, since we had just been there two weeks ago.  Along the way, we encountered a big pod of dolphins, a few of whom were jumpers, that went skipping across the water, so it was already a good day on the water, before we even made it into the water.

So it was a little rougher than our last visit there, but there was no significant surface current and the water color looked a lot more appealing.  For instance, when we got in the water, we could actually see the downline from more than 3 feet away.  So that was a good sign.  It was a bit dark, but since it was very overcast, that wasn't too surprising.  We headed down the line, and around 90 feet or so, the line took an abrupt turn and flattened out, so there was some bottom current.  When we first hit the structure, the viz was excellent.  It was neither super bright nor super dark, but we could see a really long way across the structure.  We weren't on the nicest part of the structure though (hydrocoral-wise), so we headed off and found a nicer patch of hydrocoral.  There were a lot of juvenile rockfish again.  At first I thought there weren't as many as there had been two weeks earlier, but eventually they found us and it was as thick as ever.  Once different that I noticed was that while two weeks earlier, the fish were all on the bigger side of young, this time there seemed to be two distinct groups, one of which had smaller guys.

The visibility was once again pretty variable.  It was good when we got there, then it got worse, then it got better.  I think the current was also kind of variable, but that may have just been because we had protection in some spots more than others.  Overall the current was less dramatic than the last dive.  I spent a good bit of time videoing (actually brought my video reflector this time!) and I was quite happy with the footage, but unfortunately my hero-cam was stolen before I could move the video off of it :(  (I really would have appreciated it if the thief had at least left the memory card.)  In addition to the lots of little fish, there were also tons of lingcod, a couple of whom were monsters.  I thought I may have seen an adult yelloweye too, but the juvenile fish were so thick that I didn't get a good enough look to be sure.  I'm sure that sounds ridiculous, but the pictures should show what I mean :)

We didn't cover a huge amount of ground on the dive.  We scootered around for maybe a few minutes through the whole dive, but mostly we were stationary, since Rob was taking pictures and Kevin and I were both videoing (hopefully Kevin will produce a video from his footage, since the lack of a video from this dive is seriously irking me!).

When it was time to finish up, we sort of drifted just off of the reef to put our bag up, and we were immediately in a bad viz patch.  It was so strange.  We literally went from 50+ foot viz to less than 10 foot viz instantly.  We had to be right in each others' faces to see each other.  We have seen these kinds of walls of brown while drifting along on deco before, but I've never seen it on the bottom.  But it made me feel like I really wasn't imagining that the viz changed so much during the dive (and on the last dive here), which I thought was due to a mass of water with bad viz (which some of my dive buddies seemed to think was crazy).  The first several deco stops were in this murky water mass.  But then at some point we came out of it, but we were still right next to it.  At 20 feet, I could look at Kevin and see him surrounded by yellow murky water, or I could look at Rob or look below me and see basically unlimited visibility.  In fact, I was thinking that looking down from 20 feet seemed like the best viz of the entire dive (not that there was anything to see!).  But eventually it occurred to me that the murk that Kevin was in was probably warmer, so I moved over to it, and sure enough, it was toasty!  The water was not particularly cold in general, but for some reason a bunch of water sloshed down my neck seal at one point during the dive, so I was chilly.

When we surfaced, it was still overcast and still a bit windy.  It was windy enough that it was hard to catch the boat.  When the boat swung around to get us, I started maybe 10 feet from the back of the boat, and immediately went on the trigger to get to the boat.  I was scootering on full power and I had to kick hard to make progress.  Rob was already at the back of the boat, handing up gear, so I was thinking I might have to get a tow from Kevin (so embarrassing).  But I managed to make it to the ladder, but got a leg cramp in the process -- I was really kicking hard!  I handed up my bottles and scooter quickly and started up the ladder, which was kind of tricky with a leg cramp.

It was still overcast and pretty cold and windy on the surface, which I think dampened spirits for a second dive (plus Sur 19 is a pretty tough act to follow).  As we headed north, I realized that the wind had died down quite a bit.  There were whitecaps when we left Sur 19, but somewhere between there and Yankee Point, they had subsided.  By then I had changed out of my suit and decided it was calm enough to ride back in the wheelhouse (and I had setup a system with Rob, who was already up to, so I could signal him to ask Mike to slow the boat down, since I don't climb the ladder when the boat is under way :P).  I could see forever from up there, and there were no whitecaps to be seen!  Mike said that the wind started to die down as soon as we got in the water.  I'm glad we were not deterred on the way down.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Playing with Seals

On Saturday I was diving at Lobos, as part of a BAUE get-together.  I carpooled with Matt, so we figured we'd dive together too.  We ended up picking up a third buddy, Carolina, for the first dive.  The water was super super flat, but the kelp was super thick.  We had heard that the viz had been pretty bad over the past few days.  So we were thinking it would be good to get a bit further out, so the plan was to go to Granite Point.  We were all diving single tanks, so this would mean a pretty long surface kick.  We decided that if the kelp got too annoying, we'd bail and just dive Middle Reef or something.

After a bit of socializing, we headed into the water, which was a pretty high tide.  Ahhh.  We headed out, and after getting not too far outside of the cove, the kelp was annoying thick.  We were definitely further north than the worm patch, but we were further to the east, since we were headed to Granite Point.  We decided to just drop there.  We were somewhere on the east side of middle reef, and as promised, the viz was quite bad.  In the process of trying to get my bearings, we ended up on the west side of middle reef.  We stopped to look for Itchy and Scratchy, and much to my surprise, there was actually a wolf eel in there.  Maybe that should be too much of a surprise, considering how many little wolf eels we've been seeing lately.  We continued on, along the west side of the reef, when right near one of the nudibranch transects (transect 4, as we call it), Carolina signaled us to point out that a harbor seal was zooming around Matt.  It swam around us a bit and then disappeared to the surface.  I got my hero cam out and waited for it to come back, and sure enough, it came back in just a moment.  It seemed really interested in Carolina.  It would swim down, nibble on her fins, hug her, etc., then move on to me or Matt, and then maybe zoom down to a little "cave" at the bottom of the wall (which is, I think, where it was hanging around when we first found it) and then zoom back up to the surface.  And then a minute later, he'd be back to do it all over again.  We hung out in that spot for about 20 minutes, just playing with the seal (and getting video).  It was my best seal encounter yet!

Eventually he disappeared to the surface, and after a minute or so, when he hadn't come back, we decided to continue out along middle reef, though obviously at this point, we weren't going to make it to Granite Point.  Before you know it, we were at the end of middle reef, and it seemed like right there, the viz really opened up.  Since it was so calm, I suggested that we swim in on top of middle reef, since the kelp looked really pretty up there (especially now that the viz had cleared up a bit).  So we went up there, and saw a nice school of blue rockfish hanging out in the kelp, at about 20 feet.  After checking them out for a bit, we continued in and basically just followed the top of the reef in and eventually fell off the side and headed to the sand channel to finish our swim in.  Just a bit north of the worm patch, we passed another, smaller, harbor seal laying on the bottom.  But he had no interest in playing.  In fact, he kind of looked like he was trying to hide from us by being very still, and as soon as he saw that we saw him, he took off.  We swam in past the worm patch; I was hoping to get past all of the kelp before surfacing, and I was pretty much successful with that.  There were still a couple of kelp patches to navigate around on the surface swim in, but not much.

We had lunch during the surface interval, during which some of the other teams appeared from the water.  Matt and I wanted to do another dive, but Carolina decided not to.  I don't think we had a very solid plan for where to go on the dive.  I think we just agreed to hang out in the shallows on the middle reef or Hole in the Wall side of things, and hope to see more seals.  We got sick of the kelp even earlier on this dive, before we'd even made it as far north as the worm patch.  So we dropped and figured we'd head north.  Matt was leading, and I was not sure where we were for quite a while.  I initially thought we were on the west side of the sand channel, but then we encountered some pretty tall structures to our left, which seemed too tall for that area, so I thought we might be on the east side of middle reef.  But it didn't really matter.  We very quickly met a pair of friendly seals.  We played with (and video'd) them a bit, and then continued on.  But we quickly realized that they weren't finished with us.  We had 3 seals following up for at least 30 minutes.  I think at one point there was a fourth one in the mix too.  Usually when I encounter seals underwater, it is one at a time.  It was pretty cool to see more than one though, because in addition to doing really cute things to Matt's fins, they were doing really cute things to eat other.  There was quite a bit of rough play and cat-fighting between the two smaller ones (the third one was quite a bit bigger, maybe the mom?).  They weren't very good at sharing Matt's fins, even though there were two of them :P

At around 40 feet or so, the viz very suddenly opened up, and the water got much bluer.  This was conveniently right around the time that the two seals decided to stage a mid-water smackdown right in front of my camera, all while a third one was chewing on my fins :)  As we got a bit deeper, the seals kind of thinned out.  We still got visited regularly, but I don't think we had a continuous escort (or at least not that we noticed).  We eventually popped out at the end of middle reef, on the east side, and this was the first moment that I was certain of where we'd been the entire dive :P  There was a seal hanging out in the crack on the end of middle reef, that goes all the way through to the west side.  He eventually swam through the crack, out the other side (when Rob saw video of that, he said he was going to swim through it the next time we're there).  We crossed the sand channel over to Hole in the Wall, and swam around the back side of it, to the shallower structures back there.  Eventually I thumbed the dive on being cold.  I think that clear blue water was colder than the murky water.  Right around the sand channel, I felt a sudden chill and just couldn't shake it.  The swim back was uneventful, except for the seal escorts.  This time we made it quite a bit further south and didn't have any kelp to negotiate on the surface swim in.  Once we hit the surface, we were escorted the whole way back to the ramp by a seal!

An awesome day of nice, easy diving.