It's about diving. And cats.

Me diving

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Philippines 2015: Dumaguete

We went to Dumaguete, the Philippines for a week in August.  We considered a few different places, and in the end I think that the Philippines won out because we really liked it there last time, and because it was a fairly known quantity in terms of how to get there, etc.  On the short list of places was Anilao and Dumaguete, and Dumaguete basically won because we knew people who had been there that recommended it, plus there is an Atlantis there, so I figured it would be easy to set everything up.  I liked Dumaguete a lot, and would definitely recommend a trip there.  However, if I were to go there again, I'd probably go there for a bit less than a week (and attach it to a trip stopping in some other place in the Philippines as well), since there isn't that much variety, compared to say Puerto Galera.  While we were there, we spent 1 day at Apo Island, which is reef diving (versus Dumaguete's local sites, which are pretty much all muck diving).  Apo Island was nice, but I didn't find it to be great reef diving, so we decided to not go back for a second day, even though we'd originally planned to go there.  I know other people who have been to Dumaguete who loved Apo Island, so your mileage may vary.

One thing I liked about Dumaguete versus Puerto Galera is that it is more like you are in a tropical paradise than a dirty little city by the water.  Once you are out on the water off of Dumaguete, it feels quite remote (in a good way).  The weather was also much better than when we were in Puerto Galera, so that may be coloring my view on this :)

We liked Atlantis Dumaguete a lot, and if you are planning to go to Dumaguete, I'd definitely recommend it.  The grounds are very nice, the room was clean and very well chilled, the spa was nice, and the food was good.  The dive shop was well-run, and the staff were all friendly and did a great job.

So without further ado, here are the day-by-day reports (sorry for the not very inventive blog post names):
Dumaguete: Day 1
Dumaguete (Apo Island): Day 2
Dumaguete: Day 3

And since I couldn't find a place in any of the posts to put this picture of Rob sitting on a tree trunk that hangs over the water, I'm putting it here.  The first time that Rob tried to jump up on the trunk, he completely wiped out (and hurt his knee I think).  The worst part was that there were a bunch of locals sitting on the beach, watching as this unfolded.  Anyhoo, since he endured such suffering to get the picture, I had to put it on the blog somewhere :P

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dumaguete: Day 7

Mantis shrimp with eggs
For our last day of diving, we had a bit of a mission.  Rob wanted to find a pygmy sea horse, which we hadn't seen yet on the trip.  On our first day of diving, two of the other divers that were on the boat with us saw one at the deeper part of Bahura.  The dive staff was pretty doubtful that we would find one, but they humored us.  So far, we hadn't even seen the right kind of sea fan for a pygmy sea horse to be one.  There was one of these sea fans at Bahura, but it was way down the slope and out over the sand, at around 100'.  There were a bunch of other divers on the boat, though they were diving with their own DM.  So the plan was that when we pulled up to the site, we'd get right in, head down to the sea fan, and look for the sea horse, hopefully finding it (and getting some shots) before the other team got down there.

Banded sea krait, eek!
We got to the bottom of the slope, and swam out over the sand for a bit before we found a lonely patch of reef with a sea fan on it.  Nearby there was a school of barracuda hanging out about 10 feet off of the bottom.  The three of us crowded around the sea fan, each taking a portion of it and searching on it for a sea horse.  We were looking for several minutes when the other divers showed up, and their DM also came over to scan for a sea horse on the fan.  We eventually gave up without finding a pygmy sea horse :(  To slightly make up for that, we did make one good find down on the sand, which was a banded sea krait, all coiled up on the sand under a little overhanging patch of coral.  Those things kind of give me the willies, but they are also kind of awesome.  Rob took a few pictures, and then we headed back up the slope to shallower depths, where there was more to see.

We worked our way up the slope slowly, looking at the usual assortment of nudibranchs and other critters.  The highlight for me was a pair of banded pipefish which I saw (and managed to shoot some video of).  I love these guys, although Rob says they aren't very photogenic, which I can't disagree with.  I still like watching them.

Flamboyant cuttlefish hunting
For the second dive, which would be my last, we did another shore dive in front of the resort.  The plan was to look for flamboyant cuttlefish in particular, since the DM thought he knew where we could find one.   We swam down the slope and to the left from the resort.  Before we got to the area where the cuttlefish was supposed to be, we had an excellent turtle encounter.  We came across a turtle sitting on the reef, who let us hang out with him for a bit.  When he finally swam off, I swam alongside of him for about a minute.  He was lined up next to me just perfectly to video, so I was sort of swimming half on my side, looking at the turtle, framing the shot of him, when I did something rather embarrassing (and not very environmentally friendly).  I swam right into a coral head, and slammed my shoulder into it.  It hurt.  After the dive, I found that I had both scraped and bruised my shoulder... through my wetsuit!  Well I deserved that.  Sorry Mr. Coral Head.

Flamboyant cuttlefish being flamboyant
Eventually we came to the area where the flamboyant cuttlfish were supposed to be.  We were looking and looking and couldn't find anything.  Just when we had given up and decided to turn the dive, I found one.  It was a pretty big and not very flamboyant one.  It seemed rather lethargic, not putting much of a show on for us, but hey, beggars can't be choosers.  Eventually things got a bit more interesting, and it was hunting, sticking its tongue (whatever that thing is) out.  But it still wasn't very colorful.  While Rob and I were watching it, the DM found two more, less than 10 feet away.  They were smaller and much livelier, putting on a very nice light show for us.  Between the three of them, we watched them for quite some time, so that when we finally moved on, it was pretty much time to end the dive.  Not a bad dive to finish up with!

Snacks and drinks at the restaurant
After lunch, I went back to the spa for a massage, and then Rob and I met up at the restaurant to have some afternoon snacks and drinks, before the dreaded packing that we had to do that night.

Our trip home was pretty uneventful, though insanely long.  The one small bit of excitement was that we got upgraded to business class for the (short) leg from Manila to Hong Kong.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Dumaguete (and Oslob): Day 6: Whale Sharks

Big boy
Paul from the dive shop managed to recruit 4 other people to join us on the whale shark snorkeling excursion, so we went on Friday.  I didn't really know anything about where we were going, except that it involved a jeepney ride, then a ferry ride, then another short jeepney ride, then a boat ride.  Turns out, we were headed to Oslob, which is a little nothing town that has recently made a name for itself as a whale shark snorkeling destination.  More on that in a bit.  It took maybe 45 minutes to get to the Sibulan seaport terminal, where we got on the ferry.  We got there a bit early and took one quick walk around the block to see the nearby shops.  Turns out there were some street food options there, but we didn't have any cash, so Rob missed out.  When we got back, they were loading the cars/trucks on the ferry, which was pretty entertaining to watch.

Sibulan terminal
The ferry ride was about 45 minutes, and when we got to the other side, we drove to Oslob, which took about 20 minutes.  We stopped at a little resort where we would have lunch (after the snorkeling) and we changed into our wetsuits and left the jeepney there and took another open-air jeepney type of vehicle the 3 to 5 minute ride to where we'd actually be snorkeling.  We were loaded onto boats for the 2 minute paddle out to where the whale sharks were.  There is a long line of these little paddle boats full of tourists, but most of the people are just watching the whale sharks and not actually snorkeling.  There were a fair number of people snorkeling, but it wasn't too crowded.  In the middle of all of this were a few more of these little outrigger paddle boats with feeders occasionally throwing fish (or shrimp?) in for the sharks.  It's not exactly what I had in mind for snorkeling with whale sharks.  In fact, before we got there, I did not know that there would be feeding going on.  I realize that this is a pretty controversial practice, but I'm going to skip any commentary on the controversy.

The beach at Oslob
The whale sharks were really cool, but it was a bit of a frenzy with all of the snorkelers, and eventually a boat with a few divers showed up, whose bubbles made things even more chaotic, or at least made it harder to take pictures and video :)  Overall, it was a neat experience, but I'd much rather swim with whale sharks in a more natural environment, and will probably try to do that again some day.

After we finished up our snorkel (which lasted maybe an hour), we headed back to the little resort where we had stopped on the way, and after changing and showering, we had lunch.  We hung out around there a bit longer and then headed back to the ferry and eventually back to Atlantis.  We got back there a little after lunchtime.  I skipped the afternoon dives to go to the spa for a massage instead (which was very good).  I met back up with Rob for the night dive, which we did as a shore dive.  It was a real shore dive this time, none of this riding out on the boat.  Actually maybe it wasn't quite a real shore dive, as we walked into the water without gear on, and walked up to the boat, where I gear was, retrieved our gear from the boat, and got geared up next to the boat.

Whip coral shrimp
We dropped in like 5 feet of water and swam out.  It was just the two of us (and a guide) on this dive.  The conditions were a bit more sedate than they were the previous night, without the raging current.  We saw a bunch of frogfish tonight and more of the usual little critters we'd seen at this site on previous night dives.

Cuthona yamasui
But the best find of the night was at the very end, in about 3 feet when we were about to surface right on the beach.  Paul (the DM) found a nudibranch on a hydroid, which was a super cool nudibranch that we'd never seen before.  It had an olive green body with turquoise and white cerata; we later ID'd it as Cuthona yamasui.  We spent several minutes admiring it, and Rob took a bunch of pictures.  When we were finished with that, we finally surfaced.  Some of the dive staff was waiting on the beach to take my gear for me, but I told them I thought I could make it back to the dive shop under my own power :)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Dumaguete: Day 5

Cardinella ornatissima
While we were at breakfast today, we overhead some other people talking about snorkeling with whale sharks.  We didn't know that there was any place nearby to snorkel with whale sharks, so I told Rob to look into that (while I went to change for the dive or something).  Turns out, there is a place to snorkel with whale sharks on the next island over, which was accessible by ferry.  So if we were interested, we could spend a half day doing that in the next couple of days.  We expressed interest in this, but they needed more than just the two of us to make it a go.  Paul, one of the DMs, made it his mission to recruit more people to go with us, and said he'd let us know when we could go.

Cardinalfish with eggs
Anyhoo, back to the diving.  Rob had been pestering the DMs to take us to a dive site called "Cars" which Frank had told us about.  Apparently this dive site is on the deeper end of things, which is maybe why it is not typically visited.  There are two car wrecks in the sand at around 90', and there are also some other structures like pipes and some other metal structures down there.  Of course this is at the bottom of a big slope from 30' or so, so there is plenty to look at in the shallows as well.  For some reason, Rob had really become obsessed with getting a shot of a Cardinalfish with eggs in its mouth, and he chose this dive to really fixate on that.  I didn't think that 90'+ was the most reasonable place to try to obsessively photograph such a thing, but Rob did.  So I felt like I spent most of the dive watching Rob stalk the Cardinalfish at the bottom.  There was plenty of other stuff to look at too, of course.  We saw a sea spider on this dive (eww), a bunch of ghost pipefish in the wreckage, plus the usual assortment of nudibranchs.

Sea spider, ick!
For the second dive of the day, the highlight was finding another mantis shrimp with eggs in its mouth.  I was really glad that we found this again, because it was such a bummer that Rob couldn't get a shot of it the first time (due to camera problems on that dive).  The mantis shrimp with eggs are so pretty!  Rob also got a picture of a nudibranch, Cardinella omatissima, on this dive, which I think may be the prettiest slug we saw on the trip.  It's pink!

In the afternoon, we went back to what I think was the Dauin Sanctuary, where we encountered a very hungry sea turtle.  It was probably about halfway into the dive when we found this turtle, loping along on the reef, so we started to follow him and video him.  We soon noticed that he was nibbling on this and that as he stomped along.  We followed along with him for at least 20 minutes, watching him move along the reef, stomping on or munching on pretty much everything in his wake.  I guess it's not just the divers walking on the reefs here.  He made for a very cooperative video subject, I think I got at least 15 minutes of footage of him, so we had fun following along.

Blue ribbon eel
For the later afternoon dive, we went looking for ribbon eels, which Rob had specifically asked about.  The dive staff knew exactly where to go to see them, and about 10 minutes into the dive, we found some, first the yellow ones and then some blue ones very close by.  We spent some time getting photos and video of them, before moving along to look at what else that dive side had to see.  We found more clownfish with eggs (which we'd also seen the day before).

Yellow ribbon eel
The night dive that night was a bit of a shit-show.  We were diving the site right off of the beach from the resort, so the plan was to go in from the boat (only because our gear was already all on the boat... the boat didn't even have to start it's engine to get us to the site :P), do the dive, and then swim back to shore.  But there was a bit of a current, which eventually kicked up to what I'd describe as a "raging" current.  So much of the dive was spent looking for little bits of anything sticking out of the slope, so I could hide behind those to avoid the current.  As you can possibly imagine, some of the other divers on the dive were maybe not super comfortable with swimming in current, and there was a lot of flailing.  There was one point where we were on a sand slope, with some sort of thick line that ran down the slope for about 20 feet.  We just happened to be inspecting some critters that were living on the line, when suddenly a wall of silt came tumbling down the slope toward us.  Rob jokingly made the hand signal to get on the line at the line we were looking at :)  Despite the shenanigans, we did make it back to shore and lived to tell the tale.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dumaguete: Day 4

Clown frogfish
For the first dive of the day, we went back to the Tires site for the first dive, though on this dive, we spent a bit less time on the tires and more time on the sand.  I found two awesome slugs on the sand, and one more on the tires (which was unfortunately very curled up and hard to see, though Rob managed to get a nice picture of it anyway!).  We haven't been able to ID any of those three slugs, sadly.  Later, Rob found a neat little slug (that reminded me of Armina californica) on the sand, and we continued to see quite a few more of those throughout the day.  Once we ID'd that slug, we found that it was in fact an Armina.  It was also a great dive for frogfish, which isn't too surprising, since we saw a ton of frogfish on the tires previously.

Unknown nudibranch
The second dive was at Dauin Sur, which is (mostly) in a reserve.  It is a sloping reef, which I would describe as patchy, or rather some parts of the reef aren't super healthy.  We continued the theme of new-to-us slugs, and also saw some other oddities, like a mantis shrimp with a mouth full of eggs.  Rob was having some problems with his camera in the latter half of the dive; for some reason, it wouldn't focus.  (I don't remember if it turned out to be in-water user error, or if something wasn't setup quite right inside of the housing.)  That was a bit of a bummer, since the mantis shrimp with the eggs was super cool!

Another unknown nudibranch
For the after-lunch dive, we went back to San Miguel, which we'd done the previous night.  We found a lot of the same critters from the night before (no giraffe nudibranch, though), but with slightly less silty conditions.  Rob and I have managed to get pretty good at finding the tiny nudibranchs that live on the green leaves (whatever they are) in the sand, so I amused myself with looking on the back of every one of those leaves that I could find, and found quite a few of those slugs.  Actually I found two different kinds of slugs on the backs of those, so that was exciting.  We also saw quite a few pipefish.

Mandarinfish smooching
We did the mandarin fish dive at dusk.  Actually it was a bit before dusk, which was kind of a problem.  There is a rubble pile where the mandarin fish live (in the cracks and crevices of the rubble pile), which is really close to the mooring.  Maybe a one or two minute swim.  So the plan was to go to the rubble pile and watch the mandarin fish, and then once we had seen enough, we'd continue on to dive the rest of the site.  In hindsight, this was backwards, because it was way too light out when we got there.  So we spent the first 45 minutes of the dive watching the mandarin fish scurry around the rubble pile, not actually mating.  Then in the last 20 minutes or so they finally started to come up off the bottom to mate.  So we spent the entire dive at the rubble pile, and actually overstayed the dive time by about 15 minutes.  The other dive team got bored with the mandarin fish after like 30 minutes and went off to do their dive elsewhere, and missed all of the action.

Harlequin shrimp
It would have made more sense to stop at the rubble pile on the way back at the end of the dive.  Or even more sense to start the dive later.  We asked if we could do that the next day (do a night dive on the site, since the night dives always started at dusk anyway), but apparently this site is in a marine reserve, and night diving is not allowed.  So that explains the poor timing for the mandarin fish dive.  Overall I'd say that if you've seen mandarin fish elsewhere before, unless you have a real love of mandarin fish, this dive probably isn't worth doing.  The mandarin fish dive at Puerto Galera was definitely a better experience (although there were like 12 people on that dive, so at least on this dive, by the time the fish were out, we had them all to ourselves).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dumaguete: Day 3

Flamboyant cuttlefish
Today we finally did a day that was pretty much all muck diving, which I was happy about, since that's what I really wanted to do on this trip.  We managed to start finding some of the more interesting/weird/tiny nudibranchs (actually that started on the previous night's night dive).  We saw so many different nudibranchs today.  It was also the first day that I started to completely lose track of which dive site we went to when.  On the first day, I was writing down dive site names in my wetnotes throughout the day.  Then I remembered that when we went to Atlantis Puerta Galera, on the last day, they gave us a printout of all of the dives we had done during the trip (date, time, dive site name, who our dive guide was).  So I was assuming that would happen again, and stopped writing down the names.  Turns out, we never got such a list of dives at the end of this trip.  Boohoo.
So you will have to live without knowing exactly which critter was spotted at which dive site.  The reality is, that aside from a few specific features (like "this site has tires" or "this site is kind of deep"), I think most of the muck sites are pretty similar.  And since I don't really know which site was which, I'll stick mostly to what we saw in this post.

Unknown nudibranch
The morning dives were all about the slugs.  Anyhoo, we saw several of the Phyllodesmium magnum slithering over the sand, which seemed fairly common and not that hard to see, but we also saw one of the better hidden (at least the one we saw) Phyllodesmium colemani, which looks like a very scrawny version of its sand-slithering cousin.  I was also excited to see Jorunna funebris, because there was a picture of it on one of the posters at the dive shop, and I had pointed it out to Rob and said it looked like the Philippine version of the San Diego dorid.  We also saw a cool looking (non-nudibranch) slug, which was all black, with a "horn" sticking up out of the middle of its back, slithering over the sand.  We haven't figured out what it was (we really need to get a nudibranch ID book for the Philippines).

Thorny seahorses
In the afternoon, we had a bunch of good non-slug finds, including two (not just one, two!) flamboyant cuttlefish that were hunting.  Rob even managed to get a picture of one of them sticking its "tongue" out.  One the fourth dive of the day, we went to this sloping sandy site that had a TON of seahorses.  There were multiple different kinds and colors of sea horses, including a couple of thorny seahorses and the more common common seahorses.  They seem to come in all shades of neutral, from yellow to white to light brown.  There may have been other kinds of seahorses, but since I'm not really a seahorse expert, I don't know.  I spent quite a bit of time on this dive trying to video the sea horses as they "swam" across the sand, or even just bobbed around with their tails wrapped around something.  I don't think they make for the most interesting video, but I find them insanely entertaining to watch.  Such dignified creatures.

Unknown sea hare
One other notable (to me) find on this dive was this really pretty sea hare.  It was tiny, slithering along a piece of sea grass, lime green with turquoise speckles.  So pretty, it looked like a piece of jewelry!

Lobiger viridis (?), the giraffe nudibranch
The night dive was awesome, one of my favorite dives, mostly because of one super cool find.  But before I get to that, we saw two more flamboyant cuttlefish this dive.  Those guys are starting to seem like they are a dime a dozen.  We also saw two other (non-flamboyant) kinds of cuttlefish.  One of them was unlike any cuttlefish I've seen before, and while I wouldn't call it pretty, it was kind of neat looking; it looked like something from outer space.  I realize there are a lot of things in the ocean that people might say that about, but if I think that, it must truly be weird-looking :)  But the awesome find of the night was... the giraffe nudibranch.  Okay, there's no such thing as a giraffe nudibranch; it was a Lobiger viridis, I think not even a nudibranch (just a slug), but it looks like an upside-down giraffe.  Actually it doesn't, but that was what I first thought of when I saw it, because of its long "legs", the processed coming out of its back.  After having studied it more, I now postulate that if you flipped it upside-down, it would look like a dinosaur.  Whatever it looks like, it is one weird-looking critter.  Even our DM was excited by this find; I guess it's not too common.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dumaguete (Apo Island): Day 2

On Monday, we went to Apo Island, which is a tiny little island that is a 30 to 40 minute boat ride from the resort.  The island is surrounded by a marine sanctuary, and is fabled to have actual reefs, as opposed to the muck diving around Dumaguete.  I originally thought that the island was uninhabited, but that's not true.  There's a very small population on the island, plus a couple of (small eco-)resorts.  Atlantis seems to do trips to Apo Island several days a week, at least while we were there.  Our week-long package included two day trips there.  Since it is a "long" boat ride (35-ish minutes), the boat leaves a little earlier in the morning, and there are three dives, with lunch between the second and third dives.  You get back in time to do a night dive, but not in time to do the fourth dive of the day.  In other words, it's a 4 dive day instead of the usual 5 dive day.

On the day that we went, the ocean was a little lumpy on the way there, but it flattened out throughout the day.  So the ride there was a bit longer than the ride back (when the water was super flat).  We were on the bigger boat, which is one of those outrigger-style boats (a pangka). We did three dives at Apo Island, which were all very close to each other.  The first and third dives were both on sloping reefs, which were perfectly nice reef dives, but they weren't spectacularly colorful.  We saw several turtles, including a pretty nice swim-along with a very small one.  The second dive was a wall dive, which was a very nice wall.  I was worried it wouldn't be a very impressive wall, but it was pretty nice and vertical.  Rob shot wide angle, and while the reefs (and turtles) were nice, there were quite a few interesting macro critters that almost made me wish he was shooting macro instead.

Lunch and entertainment on the boat was interesting.  I thought that we would land on the island for lunch (like we did when we went to Verde Island from Atlantis PG), but lunch was actually prepared on the boat.  There were a variety of tasty and tasty-looking dishes (unfortunately I wasn't feeling too well, so I didn't eat much for lunch), and the crew played some music for us using some interesting "instruments" (think paint can for drums).  I also learned on this trip that the platforms that run on top of the outriggers make an excellent sun-bathing platform.  Or warming up between dives platform.  We rode back on those platforms, it was nice and toasty in the sun!

Thecacera pacifica, the Pikachu nudibranch
We did the night dive back at Dumaguete that night.  We saw lots of great critters, including a bobtail squid (or the Bob squid, as I like to call it), more weird shrimps on whip corals, a flamboyant cuttlefish, a different (we think) species of Phyllodesmium, and drum roll... a Thececera pacifica, the so-called Pikachu nudibranch.  Definitely one of the cutest nudibranchs of the trip!  It was a great night dive, I just wish I had more room to include pictures in the writeup :)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dumaguete: Day 1

Leaf scorpionfish
On the afternoon of our arrival to Dumaguete, it was raining like crazy when we got to the resort.  It actually started raining on the drive there; it wasn't raining when we flew in.  When we walked down to the restaurant to fill out the paperwork to checkin, I looked at the water off of the beach, and was a bit surprised by what I saw.  The ocean was angry.  The dive boats are all moored just off of the beach, and brought up to the beach to board.  They were bobbing around like toys on the tops of the angry waves.  I couldn't imagine walking into that water to board the boat.  It turns out, we had caught the tail end of a typhoon, and by the next morning, the water was dead flat, and very pretty and tropical looking.  Phew.

Ornate ghost pipefish
For the first day of diving, we had to show up a bit earlier than usual, so that we could fill out the forms for diving, etc.  There was a video that we were supposed to watch.  When it came up that we had been to Atlantis Puerto Galera before, one of the DMs said we'd probably already seen it before.  Even though I'm pretty sure we hadn't, Rob assured them that we had, and thus did not need to see it again.  Which was good, since there were some technical difficulties preventing them from showing it.  We filled out the paperwork, got the tour of the dive shop, were shown how to use an O2 analyzer :P and then we setup our gear for the first dive.  They loaded our gear on the boat, we had the briefing, and we were off.

(Muppet) scorpionfish
For the dive, we went to Dauin Sur, with just a divemaster and one other diver.  I guess this was our "checkout dive" and since the other diver was an OW diver, we were constrained to a max depth of 60.  However, I don't know if this really affected the quality of the dive.  There was a patchy, often rubbly reef, so it wasn't really a muck dive, but also not really a reef dive, or not in my mind anyway.  We started out on a sandy, sea grassy area, and after a shorty swim, we came to the patches of reef.  While we were on that area, I spotted my first "critter" of the trip, some kind of fish that looked just like one of the leafy pieces of sea grass.  Of course once I signaled Rob, the fish disappeared into a hole in the sand :)  We saw a bunch of nudibranchs, though I don't think any of them were new to us.  Very near the end, I did find a cool tiny aeolid, but Rob was not responding to my light signal (we were very shallow at this point).

Costasiella sp. a.k.a. dang small nudibranchs
For the second dive, we went to a site called Bahura, and we were diving with one other couple and the DM.  This site was a reef on a slope.  We saw a bunch more nudibranchs on this dive, including finding two small white aeolids in the shallows, which I think were probably the same as the one that got away on dive 1.  Since Rob actually managed to get pictures this time, we were able to ID them as Flabellina bicolor (or so we thing).  I also found a very nice scorpionfish sitting on the reef, almost impossible to see at first.  Overall, I felt like I was a bit more useful at critter spotting for Rob on this dive (though still not nearly as useful as a DM :P)

Filipino Dirona (Phyllodesmium sp.)
After lunch, we headed to Ginama-an, which is a lot of sand, sloping down, and then there is an area containing tires.  The tires are super covered in life, which were put there as an artificial reef.  They are really quite encrusted with life, especially compared to all of the sand (which has lots of interesting critters, but none of the colorful encrusting reef-y stuff).  Lots of colorful sponges, tons of crinoids, etc.  The highlight of this dive was that there were lots and lots of frogfish.

World's cutest crab
The fourth dive of the day was at Sahara, which is so named because it is all sand.  It was more of what I expected muck diving to be (so was the first half of the tires dive site).  It was a lot of fun just wandering around the sand, looking for weird creatures.  There were plenty of those, including some sea horses, more slugs, and ghost pipefish (which I love, but for some reason Rob is not so impressed by them).

Hairy squat lobster
For the night dive, we dove the house reef, though still from a boat.  It was like a 1 minute boat ride :)  It was mostly sand at first, but then down the slope, there are some tires, and also some big structures which are, I think, concrete blocks (mooring blocks, maybe? but really big).  We saw a turtle snoozling amount the tires, and a whole bunch of cool tiny critters, including a tiny snail on a sea fan and those tiny little crabs that live on sea whips.  I thought that the best find of the dive was a tiny little pink crab on a pink soft coral; it blended in SO well with the soft coral!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Porpoises, and Molas, and Whales! Oh, my!

We went out on the Rubber Ducky last Sunday and this Sunday, for some whale watching.  We had rather different conditions across the two weekends, but saw a lot of the same critters, so I thought I'd post all of the videos and photos in one post.

Last weekend, the conditions were a bit rough, with whitecaps pretty much the whole afternoon.  For the first hour or so, the whales were pretty elusive, but while we were meandering about, trying to decide where to go to find whales, a big mola swam right up to the boat.  He hung out with us for a while, and eventually I got the idea to try to video him with my GoPro, by hanging off the side of the boat with the camera underwater :)  I didn't have a selfie stick or anything like that to extend the camera under the water, just my arm!  But the mola seemed pretty content to hang out by the boat even while I hung over the side of the boat.

Later we found a pod of Dall's porpoises, who were zooming around the side of the boat and eventually started riding in our bow wake.  So I tried the same thing to video them.  The only problem with video'ing bow-riding porpoises while hanging over the side of the boat is that you have to hang over the side of the boat while it is underway.  My arms definitely got a good workout while one was hanging onto a rope on the boat to keep me in the boat, and the other was holding onto my GoPro trying not to lose it into the depths.

A bit later, we finally found a cooperative whale to take pictures of.  An insanely cooperative whale, actually.  We followed along beside a young humpback who was breaching every few minutes for about 2 hours.  We hung out with him the whole time.  There were a few whale watching boats around part of the time, but eventually they got tired of it (or had to take their passengers back into the dock) and we had him all to ourselves, which was good from a photography standpoint.  He would breach several times, dive for a couple minutes, and then he'd be back, breaching again.  Eventually he started to slow down, and was breaching only like every 5 minutes.  The entire time he was heading in the same direction, to the northwest, right into the wind.  So it was a bit of a bumpy ride to track alongside of him, and of course I was stuck driving, since Rob and Clinton were both taking pictures.  But they got some great shots, so it was definitely worth a couple of hours banging around in a boat.

This weekend, we came back and had much the same experience with a big mola and bow-riding porpoises, though this time the water was dead calm.  It was the perfect day for hanging off the side of the boat with a GoPro!  I also had a much better idea of how to get the shot from that position, having reviewed my video from the previous week.  So we played around with that for a while, and then looked for whales.  Unfortunately the whales were not quite as cooperative today.  There were some nice flukes, but not much in the way of breaching.

The best photo-op of the day was a sea lion that popped up right in front of the boat and snagged a fish right in front of us.  Poor fish, but neat to watch!  The video for today is at the top of this post.  There was another video from last weekend, which isn't nearly as good as this weekend's.

Also, I have to mention the baby sea gull in the parking lot.  Last week, we noticed a sea gull's nest in the parking lot of the boat launch with a fuzzy baby nearby, and this week Rob actually took some pictures (hard to convince himself to shoot pictures of a sea gull :P).  I can't believe I'm posting a picture of a sea gull here, but I just love the shot of the baby stretching his wings.  Even sea gulls are cute when they are babies!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Back to Sur-D

For a second week in a row, we had very good weather, good enough to make it down to Big Sur on the tech charter.  We also happened to once again have a boat consisting of all Tech 2 divers, so the idea of going back to Sur-D again came up.  On the one hand, we'd just been there the previously week.  On the other hand, it was an awesome dive site, and since we can't always go there even when we can make it to Big Sur, it seemed like it would be squandering an opportunity if we didn't go there.  When Nick mentioned that he hadn't been to Sur-D before, the right decision was clear.  (I was glad when Nick chimed in with that, since I really wanted to go to Sur-D, but it didn't seem like everyone else was on board with that idea.)

Once again we had great viz, in fact it was even better than it had been the previous week.  Maybe the viz was not technically better, but it was more blue and less green.  Not that the previous week's viz was anything to complain about, but it was more of a teal shade of awesome viz, while this week was more of an aqua shade of awesome viz.  In terms of current, though, this dive could not have been more different than last week's.  Last week, there was no current.  Today, there was a raging current on the bottom.  It was one of those dives where the whole purpose of the dive seemed to be to make it up-current to the other end of the pinnacle, only to be shot back to the other end once you got there.  It made posing for pictures a LOT harder.

We did a brief search of the area for our 8-legged friend from last week, but we couldn't find him.  We spent more time on this dive on the main structures (there are two structures that are much bigger than the others; I'm not sure which of them is "the" pinnacle) than on the little side structures, mostly because some of their crags and protrusions afforded us a tiny bit of protection from the current.  There was a spot right near the center of the big pinnacle where there is a crack (that's not quite the right word) across it, where the structure dips down a little, which seemed to be a relative dead zone for current.  Conveniently, there are also some monster heads of hydrocoral in this spot, which are quite photogenic.  So we spent several minutes here during the middle of the dive, and again near the end of the dive, while we caught our breath from dealing with the current.

Today's dive seemed a bit fishier than last week, with a bigger school of (adult) blue rockfish congregating near the top of the pinnacle.  I don't know why they weren't hunkered down in a spot where they could hide from the current.  That's what I'd do if I were a fish.

Deco was uneventful until the very end.  When we were doing our last 30 second pause at 5 feet, what looked like a thick rope came drifting along.  But it wasn't a rope.  It was actually a kelp stalk that was super encrusted with barnacles.  So encrusted that you couldn't really see the stalk at all, and the white barnacles made it look like a fat rope.  It was a really bizarre thing to see drifting by.  Rob pulled out his camera to take some pictures.  I hung out for a bit, and finally got sick of hovering at 5 feet (my least favorite deco stop of all!) and went to the surface and watched him.  The picture turned out pretty well.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sur D!

I've wanted to dive Sur D for a long time.  It seems like we talked about it for ages.  It required the right combination of being able to make it down to Big Sur Banks, and having the right group of divers on the boat, that could all do a dive in that depth range (i.e. divers with GUE Tech 2).  GPO, excellent viz, my first trip to Sur D.  One time, we actually made it down there, but our attempts to dive were thwarted by insane current.  Then, sometime this past winter, when I was sick, a BAUE charter that I was supposed to be on made it down there, and came back with excellent pictures.  Yet another charter in the spring made it down there a second time (this one I missed because I had too much work to do to go diving, a once in five years kind of event for me, but of course on that day, they went to Sur D).

So we finally had a boat that made it to Big Sur, and that had the right set of divers on it, so I made it very clear that we *were* going to Sur D.  I think Clinton didn't want to go there, but was a little afraid of what I would do if he too strenuously objected to my "suggestion".  Today was one of those epically flat days, with barely any surface current, when you could leisurely get into the water and lollygag* on the surface.  Not that we did, but we could have.  The water was also very clear.  And it just got better on the way down.  When I was around maybe 80 feet, I looked down and I could see the top.  And it looked so close, I thought there was no way we could be on the right site... the top is supposed to be around 160 feet.  The viz was just that good.  We landed on the top of the shallow pinnacle.  It was very pink with corynactic, though it didn't have the usual Sur Banks gigantor hydrocoral.  But the structure was quite dramatic, with a very vertical side to that pinnacle.  We headed down the side of the pinnacle, to start our dive in the deeper section.

Before it felt like the dive had really even started, I heard a squeal.  A someone is squealing through their rebreather kind of squeal.  Rob and Kevin are both big time squealers (rebreather chatterboxes in general), so I had to look from one to the other to see that Kevin was the source.  He was flapping about and pointing, into a spot that could only be a GPOs den.  I went to check it out, and then the GPO came out to play.  He was a very friendly chap.  He posed for pictures, and then slithered over the reef a bit, and sat back down to pose for some more pictures.  By now the second team's lights had appeared, and we excitedly tried to signal them (too excitedly perhaps), and eventually Kevin scootered over to drag them over to look at the GPO, whether they wanted to or not!  When Rob finished with him pictures, Clinton took over.  I really wanted to pose for a picture with the GPO, but since there were 6 divers and 2 photographers trying to look/shoot, I never really got the chance to get into a position for that.  Boohoo.

After probably about 10 minutes of playing with the GPO, we headed off to some of the other small side pinnaclets at this site.  Rob and Kevin had both told me from their previous dives here (grumble) that there was interesting topography.  The sides of the main pinnacle are pretty steep with some overhangs, but there are also just a lot of smaller side structures, which I don't think is obvious from the bathymetry.  On the deeper side pinnacles (some of which weren't nearly as colorfully encrusted), there were quite a lot of vase sponges.  I would say this was unusual compared to other Sur Banks sites, though on our most recent dive at Sur 19, we noticed an unusual number of vase sponges.  There was also a small (by Big Sur Banks standards) school of blue rockfish that was pretty deep, not on the top of the main pinnacle, but hanging between it and some of the deeper smaller side structures.  After we finished looking around in the deeper section (which is only like 180-190 feet at its deepest), we headed back to the main pinnacle to finish up the dive.  There were quite a lot of juvenile rockfish hanging out above that.  We found some big pristine hydrocoral heads, though they weren't nearly as common as Sur 19/20.  But the pinnacle is still super colorful, mostly from the corynactis.

Deco was uneventful, and so was the ride home.  We decided that after such an awesome dive, there was really no point in a second dive, which would surely be disappointing in comparison.

After all of the waiting, talking, trying, etc., Sur D did not disappoint.  The main pinnacle is super pretty and photogenic, and there are tons of little side structures to investigate on future dives.  I think we could do many more dives here before it gets old.  The fact that the first dive here featured a very friendly, photogenic, GPO certainly didn't hurt in convincing me that this is an awesome dive site.

P.S. While using Google to spell-check the word "lollygag" I learned from the urban dictionary that there is another meaning for this word.  Now I'm not so sure if I should use this word anymore.