2019 in the Rearview

Writing a look back on the past year hadn’t crossed my mind this time, not to mention my complete overlooking of the fact that another decade had just flashed by. I only realized this after the deluge of posts by friends online, listing their accomplishments, highlights and lowlights.

Photographically speaking (since this is technically a photo blog), 2019 was a year I spent capturing my experiences, vs. actively seeking out sceneries to photograph. There’s an important distinction here. I focused on the latter in 2016 and 2017, where I joined photography Meetup groups to visit beaches along the Sydney coast every weekend at sunrise, and later on with Sydney by Kayak every morning in Lavender Bay. My goal then was to learn to see, capture, and appreciate the same environments in the different seasons, clouds and light.

Here in Singapore, the beach-scape hasn’t inspired me to the same extent, though I admit it would be a good challenge to take up, to try capture the different essence that is Singapore. In any case, my motivation to consciously and actively seek out scenes to photograph has waned, and accordingly my DSLR and various lenses has for the most part, stayed in my cabinets.

So, 2019 was the year of documentation, of recording our numerous journeys and adventures around the world, and of little moments with friends.

We rung in 2019 while still on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, where we learnt that at those altitudes where the air is so thin, it’s safer to stow away our cameras and focus literally on just placing a foot in front at a time.

When Jeff went to Shanghai for work in January, we also made a weekend trip out of it, and spent long hours walking around the town, delighting in the clean streets and charming old school architecture.

In March we joined a friend for a weekend in Yangon. It was like stepping back in time, into a Singapore in the 1950s.

We also did our first week long kayaking and camping trip in Coron and Palawan in the Philippines. There, we got a first real taste of ocean kayaking, where wild waves and currents freaked us out just a tad. But the food, freshly delivered each evening on long tail boats, was heavenly, as was dips in the crystal clear waters at our lunch and camping spots.

We also spent a long weekend in Bali, where we dove at Manta Point and Crystal Bay, and also visited some padi fields.

Over the Labour Day long weekend, we visited Hoi An in Vietnam. We may have spent one too many days in that little tourist town, but had did enjoy visiting the Champa temples in My Son.

Mid-May, we went to Sydney for work, and made most of the weekends visiting with friends.

Over the Vesak Day long weekend in May, we went to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even though the weather was unforgiving, we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the different temples. Apart from the main Bayon temple, which was crawling with tourists, most of the other temples were quiet and serene.

Natalie visited for two weekends in June, so we went to Langkawi in Malaysia for one of the weekends. We were a little disappointed that none of the beaches had kayak or SUP a rentals because of the (small) surf, but we still had a relaxing weekend splashing about in the sea and pool.

August saw us visiting Copenhagen and Greenland for the first time. The food in Copenhagen was stunningly expensive but delicious, and the kayaking in Greenland was addictive.

In September, we spent another long weekend in Sydney, this time for our friends’ Garry and Linh’s wedding.

When we got back, I found that I had an extra week and a half before I started my new job, so I booked myself on a week long trip to Nusa Penida in Bali.

October saw me travel back to the States, the first time in almost five years, to San Francisco for onboarding. I made most of my weekend there, meeting up with various old friends.

Over the Deepavali long weekend in November, we went to Yogyajarkta with a friend. We weren’t blown away by the Royal Palace or Ratu Boko, but Borobudur itself is grand and worth a visit.

In December, we did the Raja Ampat liveaboard, and so thoroughly enjoyed the diversity and richness of live in these Indonesian waters, we are seriously considering jettisoning our plans to kayak in Greece this September for another liveaboard aboard the Blue Manta to Komodo Islands.

Jeff’s family visited over the Christmas break, and after a few fun and relaxing days touring Singapore’s attractions and lounging in our pools, we spent a couple days in Bangkok.

2019 was definitely a good year travel-wise. It turned out fantastic career-wise too. So I’m stoked for the many more adventures 2020 will bring!

A week on a Raja Ampat diving liveaboard

What an incredible week we just spent living on the Blue Manta, a diving liveaboard that is currently sailing the waters of Raja Ampat, from the Dampier Strait to Misool and back.

A pod of at least two dozen spinner dolphins accompanying our sail to Dampier Strait

Life underwater there is so rich, teeming with enormous schools of fish that is heartening to see. Many dives, we were swarmed by darting anchovies and glass fishes that occasionally coalesced themselves into large balls to counter the prowling schools of jacks and snappers. Schools of large batfish cut placidly through these, and the schools of butterfly fish, juvenile triggerfish, juvenile snappers and blue and yellow fusiliers. At times, we were quite content to swim away from our close inspection of the sea walls for nudibranches, lobsters, shrimps, and pygmy seahorses to just revel in the busyness.

We were so lucky to luxuriate in the rich environs underwater

Then there were the mantas. We were lucky to spot them on several occasions, both the reef and ocean mantas. Enormous beasts that span up to 7 meters, they would come into the reef from the deep, to get cleaned by the eager butterfly fish. At Manta Ridge in Dampier Strait, we tied ourselves down to the reef with reef hooks and stayed almost the entirety of our dive to marvel at these majestic creatures regally gliding their way through and around the strong currents.

Admiring the graceful waltzes of the manta rays

In the deepening darkness when we descended for the night dives, we were usually rewarded with the sight of hunters prowling. Black tip reef sharks, swimming moray eels, stingrays, octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The crabs and lobsters would come out of their hiding nooks too, and the polypops would be unfurled in their splendid glory, feasting on the plankton. We also spotted the shy walking shark, endemic to Raja Ampat waters.

Some scenes from our night dives

One of my favorite highlights was ascending to the surface after our exciting night dives, to see the black sky filled with twinkling stars. Out in those waters, with no light pollution for hundreds of miles, save the warm cheery lights of our boat, the stars twinkled as brightly as they did in Australia (a sight I dearly miss in Singapore). I loved these quiet moments where we gently bobbed in the flat waters, soaking in the beauty of the night, before our trusty boat crew puttered up in their small boats to take us back to steaming mugs of hot chocolate and piping hot dinners.

Above water, in between the dives, we enjoyed little naps or chatted with the other divers. It’s always fun to swap dive tales with fellow enthusiasts, and get tips for new destinations to visit. This trip, we had many avid photographers and videographers on board, most decked out with unwieldy and heavy gear that they really put through the grind. It was inspiring to see their work, and to enjoy the gorgeous images of life underwater that they captured.

Our cruise director also found time for us to do a few land excursions – one where we spent a sweaty 20 minutes climbing the steep slopes to the viewing platform to see “Love Lake”, another where we visited Little Juliet Bay in Misool to see baby black tip reef sharks swimming in the shallows, and another to visit a quiet group of rock islands rising in the middle of the seas to form breathtaking lagoons.

Life above water in Raja Ampat

A swim through the mangroves in Dampier Strait

After a frustrating start with my camera underwater, where I had to get used to the settings all over again after not having touched it for almost two years, I gradually got more comfortable with the camera and strobe. So much so that I think I’m at the point where it makes sense to invest in another strobe light and a wide angle wet lens. (Lol, the little excuses we give ourselves for the acquisition of more gear.)

Some of the many types of nudibranches we spotted

Dani, our dive guide
A photo Dani took of me underwater – I felt a little like Moses, parting the sea of glass fish

Love the rich biodiversity underwater

Our dive sites

A week paddling in the Calamian Islands – Linapacan and Palawan, Part 1

Second last night of our weeklong trip: We just had a final 15 km to go – easy peasy, compared to the other 25-30 km days we’ve had in some epic conditions. However, our rash guards were starting to smell ripe, despite our best attempts to rinse them out to dry every night. And most of us were suffering from awful itches from sandfly bites. On top of that, I’d just experienced my first jellyfish sting across my right shin, which left a souvenir of a couple horizontal lashes. And my abrasion from where my spray skirt and back rest rubbed against my lower back burnt, and hurt every time I so much moved my back.

Maybe Chelsea had the right idea after all, to opt out that last leg of kayaking and enjoy a leisurely boat ride to El Nido.

But, as we begun reminiscing about the highlights, TS commented, once those itches and sores fade away, you’ll just remember the good bits. Never truer words.

Day one: The day we travelled

Our day started at midnight essentially, at Changi Airport, where we gathered to fly the first leg over to Clark. Here’s a tip – if you’ve never traveled to the Philippines before, you need to show a return ticket; otherwise the airline would not let you fly. We did have return fare, but our guide Huey, who was already in the Philippines, hadn’t provided us the details, and they were on a separate airline. We also couldn’t reach Huey, due to his wifi connection issues, and so at the last minute, bought a throwaway one way ticket back from Manila for one of our crew, who had not yet been to the Philippines on her new passport. At least the fares were cheap.

Anyway, long day. We got a bit of shuteye on the flight and landed bright and early in Clark at 6am. Met up with our guides Huey and Rey, then caught another flight out to Coron. There, we had lunch before we embarked on a long tail boat for what the boatman optimistically called a 4-hour ride to our starting point, Bongalisian Island.

It ended up being a 6-hour journey on hard wooden benches. We were soaked by the spray within minutes of pushing off. But the long travel had worn us down, and we all napped most of that time away.

We sputtered into view of the island right at sunset, but the tide was low and getting lower, and 100m from shore, the bow struck reef. The storage compartment below started to take in water, but given that we were grounded on the reef, there wasn’t a need to panic. The chef continued to cook our dinner at the stern, while we lowered our kayaks into the water and ferried our gear across to land.

We arrived at our first night of camping at dusk, and pitched our tents in the dark
It’s so nice to sit and stare up at the night sky again, although we didn’t linger too long by the beach, no thanks to the relentless sandflies.

Camping – I awoke in the middle of the night to scratching by my head, which was positioned by the tent door so I could get the maximum breeze. Shone my flashlight out, and I let out a small, involuntary yelp when I saw a rat. Ugh. Ok I get that we got plenty of rodents in Australia when we camped too – but they were the cute pademelons and wallaby varieties! Just as I started to drift off again, I heard more scratching at the corner of the tent and saw my camp mug fall. This time I let out a blood curling scream that woke up the entire camp. Oops! But the rat was still only outside, thank goodness.

Day two: The day I got scared of the waves

The sky was a deep azure blue when we pushed off, a beautiful day. There was a strong steady wind in the air though, 20-30 km/h. Huey pointed at an island in the distance and bade us towards it. My hat soon flew off though, and I spent a precious few minutes paddling in circles, trying to retrieve it in the ever steepening waves. By the time I had it firmly stuffed back onto my head, the others in their single kayaks were already small specks in the distance.

The waves got progressively larger. They were parallel to my boat and I stubbornly stuck to course since it provided the shortest distance to the tip of the island we were going to round. But they made me nervous, and my blood pounded when several smacked me in the shoulder, sending my laden craft wobbling. Jeff gave up the route decided to tack closer to shore, which might have been a smarter idea – except that it meant a longer time in those churning waters.

Eventually, I made it unscathed to Huey, who calmed my nerves by promising me that these boats were long enough to withstand waves up to 5 feet. As it turned out, the others, even though they had had more sea kayaking experience, were also similarly somewhat unnerved; that comforted me. 🙂

Exploring a quiet channel out of the winds. Photo credit: Jeff
Photo credit: Huey

The rest of the day’s paddling was calmer; in fact, that first crossing was still the singular most nerve-wracking experience I had on the water, ever. But it was a long day getting to our camping spot of the night, for we had to battle strong headwinds to get there.

Photo credit: Rey

We made it with light to spare though, and leisurely put up our tents right on the soft sand to enjoy the maximum breeze. We’d chosen this island because, although it was a pain getting to because of the headwinds, had no sandflies, vs. our option B, which was downwind but had a reputation for sandflies.

As luck would have it though, by the time we settled in for the night, the wind had picked up even more, and as we drifted off the sleep, it started to pull out our tent pegs, sending the fly sheets slapping ferociously against the tents. It was impossible to sleep. One by one, we gave up and moved our tents inland to the shelter of trees. Initially, Jeff and I resisted, and I reinforced the tent pegs by weighting them down with piles of coral and rock. No matter. The wind was so gusty and strong that it ripped them all out. We’d the front flap of the fly pulled back to get some breeze, but the wind blasted us with sand through the tent netting. I zipped the fly back down, and sweltered in the heat until a particularly strong gust of wind flattened the front of the tent, and then the sides down. It was impossible. We fled then for the safety of the trees, and there, with the fly cover completely off, I fell asleep immediately.

Day three: The day of the long crossing

Sunrise the next morning – TS’s tent was the only one standing on the beach, but note how the winds lift the fly sheet.

This was a mixed accommodation trip – meaning we camped out some nights, and slept at resorts the other nights. To maximize our time on the water, and guarantee good meals, our guides Huey and Rey arranged for caterers across the islands to cook our meals. Typically, a caterer would provide our dinner – sumptuous fresh dishes of seafood (fish / prawns / squid), vegetables (stir fried or pickled cucumber and tomato salads), meat (chick / pork adobe or beef redang), fruit (mango / orange / pineapple / watermelon). The same caterer, if not staying on the same island as us, would then return at breakfast to provide us hot breakfast and packed lunch to go.

It was a great arrangement, and we always looked forward to each meal. Our group favorite – eggplant omelette with pancakes this particular morning. Totally hit the spot.

Huey displaying our lunch of grilled fish. Photo credit: Jeff

Today was our longest day so far. 30km – some of it against the wind, but most of it downwind this time. And initially, I struggled going downwind. It was absolutely exhausting and frustrating to try to keep my kayak pointed at the same direction, and I felt I was braking and steering my boat more than I was paddling.

Photo credit: Rey
Photo credit: Rey

In fact, I struggled most of the entire day, and only as we neared our final destination of the day – Dryft, our glamping accomodation – that the winds shifted against us, and for once I welcomed the headwinds. At least I didn’t feel like I was fighting the boat the entire time.

That evening though, the more seasoned pros let me in on the secret of how to surf waves. Rule number one: don’t fight the boat. Let it point in the direction where the wind is pushing it. As long as I can kind of keep it perpendicular to the waves, I won’t capsize. Rule number two: don’t fight the waves. Feel it lift the boat, then let it carry the boat down. Rule number three: this is the time to conserve your energy. There’s less of a need to paddle, but instead use the strokes to guide the boat down the face of the wave. I could not wait to try out these tips.

Dryft – only a 3-month old eco-glamping site. The place felt like paradise, and we felt so clean and refreshed after our cold showers, having not managed to rinse off the salt crusts for 3 days

Day four: The day of surf landings

Before we pushed off the next day, Chelsea, Jeff and I crossed the island to explore a shipwreck right off the tip. The general manager of our glamping resort, Andrew, assured us it was well worth the detour. And indeed it was! Not quite 50 m offshore and in shallow waters, the old fishing vessel was covered in corals and teeming with fish.

The winds had finally died down – but I was actually a little disappointed because I really wanted to put to practice the tips I’d learnt about surfing! Nonetheless, there were still lots of itty bitty waves to practice on, and I soon found myself grinning, as I glided and slid my way down one wave to the next. It felt so commonsensical, I couldn’t understand why I’d fought against the waves so much in the first place!

But we had other types of surfing to learn today too – the dreaded surf landings. These are tougher, and everyone got nervous when the normally blasé Huey had us raft up so he could properly brief us on what to do. Remove our spray skirt cover; put one leg outside the kayak; watch for a big set to go by first, then quickly paddle toward shore with a defensive brace. Right as the boat glides towards the sand, jump clear of the boat then drag it in before the next set of waves come.

Easier said than done. I got to shore with no hitch, but couldn’t quite manage to jump clear of the boat before a particularly nasty wave knocked me over and washed the kayak right over me. Oh well. Luckily, I’d secured my gear and didn’t lose anything, except my sponge.

Waiting for our lunch at the surf beach
Jeff getting ready to launch into the surf. Photo credit: Huey

At least getting out was easier. We had to punch our way out a series of waves, but we could see the waves and face them head on. I did get quite drenched though, and had to pump quite a bit of water out of my kayak.

Me punching out of the surf zone. Photo credit: Huey
TS taking a breather and enjoying the calm waves. Photo credit: Jeff

Coming into Nacpan Beach for our accommodation for the night at Huei’s Resort, Huey warned us to expect another surf landing. Happily though, the waves were teeny tiny, and the only troublesome bit was having to drag the heavy kayaks up a couple hundred meters to our huts.

Diving with Hammerheads in Yonaguni

It’s an exercise of patience, diving for pelagics.

We plunged into the blue waters, the shock of the jump quickly replaced with a sense of calm, belying the rolling seas and biting wind above.

At first, our eyes see nothing but blue. Suspended in this blue environment, the bubbles from our regulators are the only indication of which way is up. Our eyes strain for discernable shapes, anything, in this endless blue.

Nothing, for a long while. Then from the depths, a school of unicorn fishes. And slowly, we make out details of the sandy bottom.

But no sharks yet. Our group circles around, maintaining a constant depth of 20m, watching the tiny organisms and jellyfish float us by, these timeless beings that have survived through the age of dinosaurs, megalodons, and other ancient creatures that are no more. Our air guage is dropping. It’s almost time to do a safety stop, and ascend back into the wildness above.

Then, the dive guide hits his tank, the sound short, sharp, and sweet. We swivel our heads to the direction he is urgently pointing. Six hammerheads swimming by by. They are big, muscular, but what beauties. We eagerly try to match their speed, to keep up, but it is futile. One peels off from the rest, turning around with a casual flick of its tail to head back to give us a closer check out, its long sinewy body undulating gracefully.

After what seems like just seconds go by, then the sharks swim out of sight. And then it is time for us to go back up too.

The hammerheads photos are courtesy of Nancy, our fellow diver, an American working on the Air Force Base in Okinawa. She shot these amazing photos of the hammerheads; our GoPro with it’s ultra wide angle don’t do them any justice.

We also enjoyed a reef dive as our check out dive, where we saw the largest patch of sea anemone ever, probably measuring 10m by 2m wide, with dozens of clown fishes flitting about the soft fronds.

Full moon weekend in Kiama

We were supposed to go camping in Kiama a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of friends. It was a new-moon weekend, perfect for astrophotography. Alas, I caught a cold at the last minute, so Jeff and I regrettably had to drop out. From the pictures, everyone else looked like they had a blast, so we had a huge case of FOMO. So this past weekend, we loaded our car with snorkel gear and kayaks, and drove down the coast.

It was swell. Although it was quite chilly out, snorkeling at Bushrangers Bay in Shellharbour was awesome. Right at the start of our snorkel, we spotted a giant cuttlefish – maybe a foot long. We followed it for quite a while, taking our fill of photographs and videos, then spied another resting by a clump of sea grass. We spotted 3 more cuttlefish by the time we got too cold to continue – plus a humongous Australian Short Tail Stingray gliding by below us.

Giant cuttlefish in Bushranger Bay, Shellharbour (photo by Jeff Fung)

We caught the sunset by the famed Cathedral Rock, where I crouched down in a teeny tiny nook between huge boulders, with the tide fast lapping at my feet. A couple was watching the colours (a bit too muted, alas) near us too, and Jeff ended up helping film the guy’s proposal. 🙂

In the deepening twilight, we spotted a pod of dolphins swimming the length of the beach just offshore.

After dinner, under the full moonlight, we ventured down to Bombo Quarry for a bit of exploration. Our mind was blown by how much light the camera could pick up. Even with just a couple of seconds’ exposure, everyone was lit up, almost as bright as day. Initially, I’d been a tad disappointed at not being able to take pictures of the milky way, but I think I’m a full moon convert now. Granted, the milky way isn’t as prominent under the full moon, but I love how everything else just jumps out.

And before heading back to Sydney and real life the next morning, we went for a bit of a paddle up the coast, squinting out in the horizon for those tell tale spots. No luck alas, even though we’d spied two active pods the day before. Can’t complain though, it was still a very awesome weekend. 😀

Weekend in Batemans Bay

My mum came to visit, so we went for a long weekend down in Batemans Bay. It’s a gorgeous location – very chill, much more low key than Jervis Bay, an hour to the north.

We got an AirBnB down by Surf Beach, where we went to one morning to catch the sunrise. The storm clouds from the day before still hung low above the horizon, but as the sun started to rise, the clouds dissipated.

Perfect for a leisurely kayaking trip along the coast. Since we had my mum with us, we didn’t bring our foldable kayaks, but joined a tour with Region X Kayak. It took some persuading for my mum to agree to go on the tour, but in the end, she said it was the highlight of her Sydney trip. 🙂 She was in a double kayak with Josh, the guide, and had an enjoyable time keeping her eyes peeled for the pods of dolphins playing in the waters in the bays.

We also checked out Guerrilla Bay, which lies in Batemans Bay Marine Park. It’s a picturesque location with a small rocky island that separates the bay by a narrow strip of sand which is accessible even at high tide. Jeff and I donned on our wetsuits one late morning, and slipped into the waters for a bit of snorkel. Not a bad swim – there were quite a few schools of fish, and even more sea urchins – but the current was buffeting and the waters very bracing. Maybe better in summer, and with gloves to pick the sea urchins.

We also checked out the Boat Ramp by Mossy Bay, where our kayak guide Josh had promised sightings of those gigantic Australian Short Tail Sting Ray. Indeed, we spotted a few swimming to and fro by the pier.

Australia’s largest sting ray, the Short Tail Sting Ray (photo credit: my mum)

We also managed to squeeze in an astroshoot by the beach Sunday evening. The clear skies meant for a lousy sunset, but we had about a 45-minute window between dusk and the full moon rise, enough time to get in some shots of the milky way overhead.

All in all, a most relaxing weekend down the coast.

How is it winter already?

2017 is zooming us by. I can’t believe it’s just a few days more before winter arrives in the Southern hemisphere.

Looking at the number of photographs I’ve taken so far this year, my output has fallen quite a bit. Indeed, I haven’t felt that driven to go out for sunrise shoots, or just shoots in general.

I could probably point to more than half a dozen reasons why this is the case, but I think part of it is due to my lousy sleep patterns. I just haven’t been sleeping that well. Most nights, I wake up at three and either just toss and turn for the next couple of hours or just give up and read in bed. By the time I’m feeling drowsy again, it’s almost time to get ready for sunrise – but I’m not in a safe state to drive.

The other big reason though, is that increasingly, I’ve felt that my seascapes photographs, in of themselves, are lonely scenes. They are just static pictures and don’t tell a story, of life, of adventure. I’ve enjoyed my past year in learning how to read the different conditions of the clouds and tides, the myriad compositions I can take to capture a certain mood or drama. But I’m beginning to feel removed from the action. Rather than take pictures of the waves, increasingly, I want to dive between the waves. To have my senses shocked by the biting cold waters, to be knocked off my feet by it’s sudden ferocity, then embraced by the swash.

And so, this past weekend, we have chosen to do just that. Left my camera and tripod at home, and just went ocean swimming with our snorkels. It felt good. To be able to efficiently slice through the water with bare hands, and ogle at leisure the schools of fish in the clear waters. Baby dusky whalers, wobbegongs, sting rays, groupers, squids, trumpet fish, old wifes, flounders, flatheads, leatherjackets, yellowtail scads, wrasses etc.

After, we unfolded our kayaks and paddled around North Harbour, starting from the Manly Sea Life Museum and hugging the Fairlight beach to Dobroyd Head, before crossing the harbour to Quarantine Station Wharf, Store Beach and Collins Flat Beach. It was a glorious end autumn day with brilliant blue skies and a warm sun.

I did snap a couple pictures with my phone though. Just for keepsake. 😉

Checking off our first open water swims

At the end of last year, we resolved that we would try an open water swim in Sydney. The 1.5km Manly to Shelly (and back) swim seemed like the easiest bet.

Last weekend seemed a good time to check off that bucket list. Winter is fast approaching; already, the water temperature is a fresh 20 Celsius. We’d a string of sunny days too and gentle swell in the weather report, so we asked a couple other friends keen to check off that swim as well and off we went!

Our friend Nicola has done that swim hundreds of times in the past 4 years. She did it again that Saturday morning at 7am, and messaged us soon that we just had to do it today. I’ve never seen conditions like it, she said. So many fish and sharks and awesome visibility, all the way through.

That was all the encouragement we needed. And indeed, what a swim! We’d brought snorkels in anticipation of gawking at the marine life, but it still blew our minds. We could see the bottom the entire length of the 700m swim from Manly to Shelly Beach, where we saw dozens of baby dusky whaler sharks lazily swimming about, schools of SBT (shiny bright things), three wobbegongs, groupers, sting rays (including a banded stingaree). We had so much fun, we forgot we were supposed to be swimming, and instead spent minutes hovering over the coral beds staring and pointing and grinning. Why had we thought it was a scary swim???

The next morning, Sunday, Nicola messaged us again. She’d gone out to swim again, and conditions were just as stellar. Rose and Lisa had other commitments, but Jeff and I didn’t need much prodding. This time, we brought the GoPro along too.

It was glorious. And we checked off our big 2017 resolution, twice. 😀

(Addendum: We went back to swim a week later – yesterday. The visibility was still quite good, but we learnt first hand that yes, the ocean won’t always be so nice and glassy. After battling the choppy waves for a while, we abandoned the effort. Oh well, the water was still nice and refreshing though.)

Diving in Tubbataha Reef, Philippines

We spent the past week on the Stella Maris Liveaboard, plying the remote Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Seas. Belonging to the Philippines, this 130,028 ha atoll was designated a UNESCO site in 1993, and can only be reached by liveaboards 3 months of the year (mid-March through May) owing to rough seas at other times.

Despite trying to tamper our expectations, we went with high hopes of seeing tons of pelagics. Whale sharks, hammerheads, manta rays – these were all supposed to be par for the course. In the end, we did not check any of these boxes off, due in part to light currents, and in part to strong winds and huge swells that restricted us to diving the same site 8x over the last three days (there was a 5.5 magnitude earthquake in the northern Philippines).

Nonetheless, the diving was top notch, and one of our favorites so far. The corals were mostly in pristine conditions, and there was always a ton of different fishes, rays, turtles, and sharks to feast our eyes on. Everyone’s favorite dive was, hands down, the Deslan Wreck, where, when we descended to a gap between a wall of corals, we could take a respite from the current and gawk at the dozens of circling reef sharks. This was pretty much the only site on our trip where we enjoyed a current that swept us along the coral wall, past schools of juvenile barracudas and trevally, resting turtles, yet more sharks, and tons of other reef fish.

Clown trigger fish

Devil fish

 

School of juvenile barracuda

 

Clown fish

 

Turtle

 

Diving Tubbataha Reef Philippines

 

Marble ray – Tubbataha Reef Philippines

We had good company too. Cristalle and her friend Alan from Hong Kong organized the trip for a total of 7 of us, and we were joined by a Chinese group from largely from Shanghai and a couple from Hai Nan. Our group of 7 dove with the couple from Hai Nan, and we past many happy hours in between diving and snacking and sleeping laughing together and practicing our Mandarin. That helped make the hours just fly by, especially on the unbearably long ride back from the reef to Puerto Princessa, through rough seas of up to 21 feet that sent whatever that wasn’t bolted to the floor tumbling across the boat.

Good times, happy memories.


Gallery

Underwater in the Adriatic Sea

We are just back from a gloriously relaxing holiday in Croatia and Singapore. In Croatia, we spent an entire week aboard the Vranjak I, a thoughtfully and sturdily appointed dive vessel.

Our lives on the boat were unhurried and chill: Wake up at 545am for the sunrise, wait impatiently for the bakeries to open to fill our burek cravings, watch the early morning glow on the island towns as the captain starts the engine and throttle out the port. Enjoy a warm cuppa on the couches on the bow deck of our vessel while soaking up the warmth of the morning rays. Squeeze into our wetsuits and plunge into startling clear waters for our first dive of the day. Lunch and siesta in the sun before the next dive. Dock at the next island, and explore its cobblestone streets and alleys in the golden evening light. Eat on board our boat, snap blue hour pictures, grab a dessert and aperitif on land after. Crash into bed after for a long and deep sleep. Rinse and repeat.

Our divemaster, Tommo, repeatedly stressed that we were blessed with the most beneficent weather. Think flat, glassy waters and blue cloudless days. Apparently, the week before we boarded, the divers had to content with gusty winds and waves 10 feet high. And indeed, the weather the days after we disembarked was alternately windy and stormy too.

The diving itself was novel. We’d only previously dove in warm tropical waters, and so weren’t expecting the brisk 62 F / 16 C waters that greeted us when we first plunged in. Although most of our dives were in deep waters (30-45m), visibility was good, and while we spotted no sharks, rays, or turtles, there were plenty of scorpion fish, sea centipedes, octopuses, lobsters, nudibranches, eels, cat shark eggs, and gigantic gorgonian sea fans to catch our interest. We also dove two wreck dives, the Vassilios (1920 Japanese trading vessel that sunk in 1930), and the Teti (1883 ship that also sunk in 1930).