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 diving in Nusa Penida

On schedule, the nearby mosque blares their prayers at 4 am. At least I’m up already; I usually bolt upright around this time anyway. I drift back to sleep after the prayer ends, and rouse the next time my alarm pings, which varies depending on the tide times.

I’ve been in Nusa Penida, an island off Bali, this past week. With an additional week off before the start of my new job, and having just come off an awesome vacation in Greenland and Copenhagen plus a side trip to Sydney, I jumped at the opportunity to come here to take my dive rescue certification. I’ve been wanting to do this course for a while, but I was reluctant to use precious vacation time to do it.

It’s also my first time traveling alone for this long; it’s different. Then again, I’m not really traveling per se. I’ve just parked myself for a week here in Nusa Penida, where I spend my days at the dive shop or in the ocean, and come back straight to the guest inn where I’m holed up. While on my rescue course, I didn’t really have time anyway to explore in between, as I would be reading up on the theory in the evenings after class. I did have a couple afternoons where I could have hired a scooter to explore (or more precisely, hire a guy to drive me around, since I’m not confident I can ride one safely on my own), but I’ve elected to chill in the cool shaded comfort of my air conditioned room. It’s much too hot to go hiking. 

I’m very happy I took the rescue course, along with the emergency first responder course. It’s a great refresher on safe diving techniques and skills, and I’ve gained more awareness in the different scenarios that could occur on a dive trip, as well as confidence of what I can do to help, both myself and others. My goal for this course was to become a much more self reliant diver, and I feel that I’ve definitely achieved that. Hopefully I won’t forget these lessons in a hurry!

My rescue course mate, Krystal, a nurse from Minneapolis. It was really good to have someone else take the course with me, since that afforded us more opportunities and scenarios to practice, not to mention someone else to commiserate with!
Krystal and I with our course instructors, Suna and Nick, and dive master candidates aka “rescue victims” Cut and Tess

My secondary goal was to spot some mola molas, lol, given that this is the season for it. Alas, it wasn’t to be. The others saw some on the days I was doing the rescue course – we did shallower dives then, and were mostly focused on skills. Oh well. But I had some really awesome dives, both during the course and for leisure: spotted lots of manta rays at Manta Point (the one dive spot so named where I’ve reliably seen them each of the three times I’ve been there); green and hawksbill turtles, orangutan crab, mantis shrimp, Napoleon wrasse, a banded sea snake, two snowflake morays, a bamboo shark, three thresher sharks, and a hammerhead shark.

Enroute to Crystal Bay, back from Manta Point. The cliffs here are stunning

It’s a good simple life, this kind of island life. No wonder there are so many foreign divemasters and instructors at Blue Corner, my dive school here on Nusa Penida. Some, like my instructors Nick and Suna, have been living and working permanently as dive guides on islands in South East Asia. While others come for a few months, to take their divemaster certification or to freelance as dive guides while getting dives in. Maybe that’s something I could think about, the next opportunity I have time off in between jobs… Hmm.

For now though, I’m grateful for this past week, for the incredible sights underwater, and for the opportunity to use my brain again and stretch myself.

This is primarily a photo blog, but unfortunately I don’t have any underwater photos this trip: I lugged my camera and strobe all the way here before I realized I forgot my housing. Lesson learnt, and hopefully remembered!

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.

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

Sailing the Dalmation Coast

We’d only done one other diving liveaboard before this one in Croatia. That was in Belize where we set anchor every night on the edge of the outer reefs. During that entire week, we only went to land once, and it was only because we’d just dove deep into the Blue Hole and needed a longer than usual surface interval, so we visited some red-footed boobies.

Aboard our boat the Vranjak I however, we docked every night at one of the island ports dotting the Adriatic coast. Some were sleepy villages, with just a main street hugging the water front. Others, like Hvar, were party isles, with super yachts lined as many as 6 boats deep to the docks and piers thronging with holiday makers decked in white linen in search of some late summer romance. As much as I enjoyed the diving and dozing in the sun, I looked forward every evening to when we pulled into port and we could throw on our sandals and jump back onto land to explore.

Our favorite island was the port town of Vis on the island Vis. A little more bustling than Komiza, a half forgotten village on the other side of Vis, but more sedate than thumping Hvar, we enjoyed our evening stroll along the promenade, through the cobblestone streets and past stone houses dating from the 17th century when the island was under Venetian rule.

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).

Diving the Somosomo Strait, Fiji

Except for one day, we spent the rest of our mornings in Fiji underwater. With over 2300 species of fish and nearly 400 species of corals, every dive was an exciting one.

Before this trip, I wasn’t really a fan of drift diving, because I preferred the opportunity to stick myself in one spot and have the luxury of slowly figuring out the proper exposure and strobe lighting for my subject. But currents are what lends the Somosomo Strait its fame and the title ‘soft coral capital of the world’. And with dive sites so brimming with life at every turn, photography can take a back seat. Half the time, I honestly did not know where to turn my head. From the moment we descended, there were so much to look at. Schooling black and red snappers, jacks, barracudas, big eyed brim, to the tiny thousands of blue chromis, orange and purple anthias. Heaps of corals – soft orange, white, blue, pink, purple polyps, hard stag horn corals, table top corals, fan corals. Beds of anemones with shy clown fish occupants. The odd sleepy white tip reef shark, the rainbow colored parrot fish and trigger fish. Nudibranches in all colors, stripes and patterns. Oy.

I did take photos though, loads of them. And I feel like I’m slowly getting the hang of this underwater photography thingy. If only half the time my camera doesn’t mysteriously reset itself to jpeg mode.

Getting ready for our first dive
Getting ready for our first dive

DSC07433

Little puffer
This little puffer reminded us of the ubiquitous puffers we saw in Belize

 

Lobsters
Lobsters, always a feast for the eyes

 

Grouper
We saw so many different colored groupers

Anthias galore
Thousands upon thousands of these orange anthias greeted us on every dive

Green turtle
Initially, we lamented about not spotting any turtles. But Julie, owner of Taveuni Ocean Sports explained that wasn’t a bad thing, since turtles fed on algae and these reefs were healthy enough to have minimal algae

Nudibranches
Nudibranches

Eel
Spotted this tiny eel on the night dive

Honey and Tiger Cowris
Honey and Tiger Cowris

DSC07826

Flying Gurnard
Flying Gurnard

 

Puffer
Puffer trying to hide behind this little twig of a coral

DSC07664

Golden Tunnel Dive
Golden Tunnel Dive

Blue Ribbon Eel
Blue ribbon eels are a rare sight in Fiji

 

Sea crate
These highly venomous sea crates are a fairly common sight in Fiji. We also saw a baby one climb up our dive boat

 

Scorpion Fish
As a friend so aptly dubbed it, the scorpion fish with the ‘resting bitch face’

 

Green Moray
It wasn’t till our last day of diving that we saw morays. On dive #10 at The Ledge, we saw a giant moray. On dive #11 at Fish Factory, we spotted this green moray and a white mouth

 

White mouth moray
White mouth moray

Octopus
At our safety stop, the surge kept pushing us back and forth over this octopus, so safely ensconed in its hole

Gallery

Diving in Maui, Hawaii

After a year on land, we finally made it back underwater, this time in Maui, Hawaii. Over 3 days, we dove 7 dives, all in the Southern part of Maui: St Anthony Wreck, Reef End at Molokini, Molokini Back Wall, Grand Wailea, and Makena Beach Landing. Fun dives, with many turtles (especially the night dive at Makena Beach Landing, where we literally bumped into 17 turtles in the caves!), some sharks, eels and octopuses.

My underwater photography is still very much a work in progress. It was at times a frustrating struggle with the flash. When it got too much, I just turned the camera off so I could properly focus on the moment – diving the incredible underwater topography with all the amazing creatures to behold.
DSC06376-7-1

Dove the St Anthony Wreck site. Not a big area, but it was a good check out dive, with a couple of turtles just chilling on the wreck itself.

DSC06401-56-1

DSC06432-81-1

We dove Reef End at the front side of Molokini Crater twice. Both times, I peered under this ledge and was treated to the sight of a half dozen juvenile white tips milling about

DSC06437-85-1

DSC06438-86-1

DSC06440-87-1

DSC06454-97-1

DSC06464-106-1

DSC06512-134-1

DSC06633-179-1

Crab feasting on uni

DSC06804-269-1

DSC06831-290-1

DSC06836-294-1

Gloomy nudibranch, endemic to Hawaii

DSC06956-414-1

DSC06979-433-1

Hawaii’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻaDSC07003-455-1