Looking back on a Year Out

I’ve been lucky to be able to take a year’s sabbatical at work. Well it started out as 6 months but soon grew to a year. Most of it was taken up with diving and of course with my camera and housing accompanying me. So I thought I’d take you through a tour up to the most recent trip. I’ve not been around the club as much as I used to but I’ve been diving on behalf of the club!

I’ve missed my friends but also made lots of new ones, but also ensured I saw people throughout the year, especially if they wanted to join me on a holiday.

Just before I left for my year off, I took a week’s holiday to go to the Red Sea with Ed, Keith, Steve, Fliss, James, Tristan, Lou, Pete, Tony M, Alan R, Judith. We dived on the Brother Islands and around Safaga, ending up back at Hurghada. The quality of Little Brother and Big Brother reef’s are fantastic but be ready for strong currents and lots of finning. The reward is viewing oceanic white tip sharks, thresher sharks and hammerheads. One late afternoon, as the light was going, we ended a dive under the boat (away from the reef) with a grey reef shark swimming close and circling us. We hung around in awe and as one by one, the divers left the water, the few of us remaining felt a little nervous. Pete lept out of the water leaving Steve and I the last to clamber out. The shark came close enough for me to see it’s gills opening and closing, and the light was fading fast…isn’t this their time to feed ?

One more week of work and I’m finished and off to the Farne Islands for a club diving trip.

Farne Islands

Mark M, Steve B, Claire, Shaun, Lou, Pete and I rented a house in Seahouses, parking the club tornado in the drive. Steve got stuck into the cream teas and Lou and I longed to play with seals. We got our reward as one got particularly boisterous with both of us on a dive together, and we ended up rescuing each other. Whilst surfacing I yet again felt a tug on my fin. Looking down I expected to see a cheeky seal’s face but saw a walrus image…it was Mark playing around. The joke was on him as I pointed eagerly beyond him and there was a seal pulling on his fin too !

We had a great week’s diving with the best weather the Farne Islands had seen all year. We even managed a day off to see a castle and enjoy the local area. On our last day we anchored the rib and went across the beach to `our house’ to get some lunch sorted. Claire, Lou and I sorted out the food and Claire thoughtfully dropped the sandwiches in the sand, to give us that authentic holiday on the beach feel. Pete taught us how people from up North live in style, as we ate fish and chips sitting on the sea wall (much to Mumfie’s disgust…after the 3rd day). A great place and good company.

Sardinia

I travelled to Italy with Anna, a diving friend, with an aim to produce an underwater video for a company to be shown at the dive show. We stayed at a hotel in a marina in Portisco, near Porto Cervo on the Costa Smeralda and dived every day for a month with Amphias divers. The dive company operated a huge rib out of the marina and the diving was superb. There are marine parks and drop offs with lots of marine life. A particulary good site takes about 2 hours by rib, and is in between Sardinia and Corsica, Lavezzi. Here large groupers are quite friendly to divers and big sea fan grow. It’s a deep site as you have to go down the anchor line until you get to a plateau of rock at around 30-40 metres, leaving you little time to spend with the groupers. Big moray also congregate here. Sting ray, nudibranch and huge shoals of fish make this one of the best places to dive in the Mediterranean.. I particularly liked some of the caves. Anna and I took it in turns each dive to video as we each had still cameras too. We learnt a lot about being model’s and switching mentality from still to moving shots. The surrounding scenery and countryside was beautiful, and there are many roman ruins to visit. We had plenty of diving freedom as the regular customers were led by the guide and we were left to do our own thing. We also got invited to interesting parties the dive guide introduced us to, mainly expats living in Italy and working in the travel industry.

Egypt

I went to Hurghada to be a dive guide on board Tiger Lily, a boat I’ve been on for a holiday before. Being a dive guide is a little different, you don’t get the luxury rooms but it’s still comfy on such a nice boat. You have to get up before everyone else to check the weather, talk to the captain and get everyone up. It was fun to roust the clients up at 6am for the promise of a dive before any other dive boat in the area, thumping on their doors reminding them this was not a holiday!

I dived most sites that I was familiar with and gave the group dive briefings, then leading them around underwater. There were two guides to a boat as it takes 20 people, but Achmed spent most of the time resting and pulling together video CD’s, telling me to just get on with it. You can never really relax with so many people on board, there is always someone who wants to know what that funny marine creature is called, problems with their camera, where are we going next, or more detail on the area. The dive guide is the contact between the customer and the boat crew so any problem has to be sorted. You also have to keep people informed at all times so they can relax in the knowledge of what or where the next dive is. Plans do have to keep changing dependant on conditions and other boats in the areas and it was an interesting insite. Achmed and I had to talk a lot to make sure we gave the same message, especially if we were covering up a problem! The clients reacted well to me as they assumed I’d been doing this for a while, and I gained their respect immediately when they knew I was an experienced UK diver.

It was fun, but I found I couldn’t really take pictures as I tended to lose the group if I got focused on a subject! Luckily no mishaps and good feedback from clients, but I wouldn’t want to do it for a job and it’s not the same as diving for yourself, you feel responsible for so many people. It’s a great boat to be on and I would go back again, as soon as possible.

I travelled on to Sharm el Sheikh to climb Mount Sinai, and joined the club for a busman’s holiday, a week day boating in Sharm, staying at the Sonesta Club Resort in Naama Bay. You start walking up the base of Mount Sinai at around 11pm, and it soon becomes a scramble and climb. There were lots of people doing it and now and again you noticed Bedouins sitting in the shadows and bumped into Camels along the way. The trouble is that the path was very narrow and camels are scary and bad tempered…much like many of our past diving officers. As you point your torch to the side, you notice there is a huge drop and you’re on the edge of a precipice. The group reaches the top at around 4am to watch the sunrise with the Bedouins. The air is cold and damp and you can hire a blanket. Once the sun is up, you go back down the mountain and realize just how beautiful the scenery is, and how high up you have come.

Anyway, meanwhile the group had started their first days diving. When we weren’t diving Andy S, Yo and I socialised at the Camel Bar (Alan Thomas is famous for falling out of it), whilst the `parents’ Ray, Margaret, Ted, Alan, Pam, John, Marion, Frank and Sheila enjoyed themselves, riding camels and snorkeling in Dahab. I admit to being a little upset when Camel diving said I had to do a check-out dive before I could go on the proper dive sites, but once that was done, I enjoyed the day boating. Though a little crowded underwater, it proved to still be quality diving as we dived Ras Mohammed and the Tiran Islands of Woodhouse, Gordon, Jackson and Thomas (named after Alan’s grandfather). My buddy Andy stuck close to me as I always had an unending air supply… that seemed to come in handy.

More to come in the next newsletter as I then head off to Philippines, sailing in the Solent for 2 weeks, Indonesia, and back to UK diving. Then off to warmer climes in the Caribbean: Tobago, Grenada, Windward Islands, more Sailing in the UK. Diving at Porthkerris in Cornwall, Yacht Racing in the UK and then back to UK diving and a trip to Devon, ending in Cowes Week. Then back to work and a little break in Mexico – Baja.

Next Stop…the Far East

13 hours to Singapore, 3 hours to Manilla and then another 3 hours by car took me to the waters edge in the Phillipines. Here, I naively expected to be boarding a ferry from the coast to a small island called Mindoro. I assumed the car was coming across too and when we arrived at the `beach’ I saw a canoe with a small outboard engine.

Bags were carried and I waded out to the boat (more like a dug out log) which took 3 passengers across the water at night with a guy holding a torch on the bow checking for reefs. A couple of hours later remembering my friends warning me about sea pirates, we were deposited on a beach at Puerto Galera by the dive shop. Here only a few minutes walk away was El Galleon Beach Resort, the accommodation hosted by Asia Divers.

The island was full of Europeans and Americans living and working there, and the native and expat community lived very happily together. The place had a great atmosphere, and the hotspot was `The Point’ a bar on a balcony over the water. Here whenever the bell rung (which was quite often each evening) the person ringing it paid for everyone in the bar to have a short. Drink was cheap and kept coming, there was no excuse to refuse.

The diving was made easy as the crew carried your kit once you set it up, onto the boat. The boats were small wooden boats, like a canoe with stilts either side, carrying up to 6 people max. The underwater world was very different to any other overseas diving I had previously did, and a good introduction into weirder creatures I would meet later in Indonesia. Mimic Octopus, frog fish and strange marine life that were so well camouflaged you needed a guide.

A Brit guide called Pete looked after us and proved an excellent spotter and a good friend. 3-4 dives a day became the norm and very flexible time wise, so you can vary each day and stop when you needed a break. Water temp was around 27 degrees but I always felt cold, perhaps because of the long dives and short surface intervals. Vis was poor but life was prolific if you knew where to find it, seemed like a UK dive with green rather than blue water. Verdi island was an extra day trip and here currents, wall diving and good vis showed yet a different side to diving in the Phillipines.

The Spaniards discovered Puerto Galera in the early 16th century as a safe haven for their trade ships during heavy squalls and typhoons; the words literally mean ‘Port of the Galleons’. Legend has it that once sailors arrived on the island; they never wanted to leave without a promise to come back and I can see why. The dive guides and locals are so friendly and regularly hold parties that everyone is invited to.

For the non-divers there are some reall nice walks and I joined a group of Hash House Harriers (no Andy, it wasn’t something I smoked!) who went on weekly runs/treks through the rainforest. After an initiation consisting of an introduction, drinking beer and pouring it over my head, I was given a teeshirt and the title of Hash House Harrier, welcome to events all over the world. There is a really nice local marina and walks around the island to a lighthouse with some great views.

Many restaurants for all nationalities are available and very good, there was a particularly good Thai restaurant run by a Dutch guy which we went to time and time again. I booked through Snooba travel, and Sport Diver published my article and pictures in the March edition of the magazine.

Indonesia

Still with the Asia buzz, I joined a group 10 Bristol underwater photographers (and friends) to Indonesia, in the Lembeh Strait, located on the North East side of North Sulawei, Indonesia. Here, a special dive resort Kungkungan Bay pampers divers. This place holds special strange and tiny creatures, attracting enthusiasts in photography. Of course Mumfie had mentioned this place to me many, many, many times before and growled at me in envy when he heard I was going there.

The site consists of log cabins on stilts built within an old coconut plantantion. Sunbathing is a bit hazardous as there are still plenty of coconut trees around and you never know when one will drop. Boats take you out 3 times a day and shore diving is unlimited, subject to strong tidal flow. That means there is still time for an early morning dive and night dive, turning out an exhausting 5 a day.

There really is nothing else to do here, so if you don’t dive you will be bored to tears unless you spend time in a hotel somewhere else on the island where you could hire a car and go into the mountains.

After each dive, which was generally 60-70 minutes, whilst still in the dive boat, a warm towel, fresh fruit and a hot chocolate is provided. Just the start of the pampering you can expect. There is no need for you to go carrying heavy kit, the dive centre will carry your equipment back, rinse it and put it away ready for your next dive, leaving you with more time to carry out other pursuits such as changing film and getting ready for the next dive.

After diving, relax in the beautiful restaurant, or watch the world go by from either the large upper and lower sundecks. The restaurant overlooks the Lembah Straits and is open 24 hours a day for your convenience providing any type of food you desire. Your daily wake-up call is with either freshly brewed Tea or Coffee delivered to your room every morning before a pleasant stroll to the restaurant for Fresh fruit and a delicious breakfast of your choice. The Indonesian people were lovely and completely oblivious to the war going on in Iraq, contrary to the media hype.

Much of the diving was in shallow water, ie: below 25 metres, but there were some nice reefs and drop-offs at 30 and 40, particularly where the pygmy seahorse lived. This special little beast is a joy to find and a frustration to photograph. Smaller than your little fingernail, this tiny seahorse is cleverly camolflaged as a soft coral polyp sitting on a soft coral polyp. Spotting them is one thing, taking a picture is another with a 105mm lens plus dioptre plus wet lens. Focusing is then the problem, particularly as the pygmy seahore is shy and tends to look away. This is a very rare species and well worth the effort.

Many patches of hairy-looking debris turn out to be hairy frogfish or ambon scorpionfish. Other rarities include the blue ringed octopus, ghost pipefish, cockatoo waspfish, mantas shrimp, devilfish and so many different colour and shapes of nudibranch…best get my anorak out. It’s worth understanding that most of the diving here is described as Muck Diving because the visibility is poor and there is lots of black sand and rubble. It is here that the special critters live hidden from view but for the keen and practiced eyes.

For photographers this is almost exclusively macro as everything is minute. Marine life you never thought existed are pointed out to you by a guide; it’s made me look more closely at every bit of reef, rock, sand or wreck both overseas and in the UK. Try it.

The Mimic Octopus was a creature I was lucky to find both in the Philippines and Sulawesi. It moves over the sand changing into a disguise, hoping you will think it’s a sea snake or sole or other creature it is mimicking. I’m sure it was mimicking an underwater photographer at one stage, or perhaps I was a little narked and it was my buddy.

The centre was so relaxed that if you said you wanted to go on a night dive they left you a cylinder and you could go in whenever you wanted, but you had to check what time would be slack as the currents ripped through the area. One morning I got up and dived at 5am. Something Mark warned me of was the wetness of the country. It is such a lovely luscious area, warm and humid and very wet. It’s cheaper in the rainy season but it does rain all the time, so I didn’t dry out until I got home as I was either under the water or above the water getting wet.

SARS was spreading rapidly and Singapore schools were being closed, so it was time to head home.

Check out next month’s article on my trip to the Caribbean and back to real life diving in UK waters…encounters with basking sharks.

On and Under the Water

War had started in Iraq so I turned to some UK diving (not being only a fair weather diver!). Diving early in the year can be a bit cold but worth it when the vis is nice and the crowds of divers are not around. Devon is particularly nice as Lumpsuckers start building their nests. It’s also the time for mating Cuttlefish and you can watch the females laying their eggs.

I stayed on top of the water for a while, enjoying crewing on a couple of boats sailing on the Solent. Everyone was talking about the buzz of yacht racing so I thought I might try it somewhere laid back and fun. I booked a trip to warmer climes in the Caribbean, to take part in the Tobago regatta, a week’s racing on the island of Tobago with 7 people I had not met yet, to race during the day and party at night. It’s a big organised event with marquees and free rum.

I flew to Grenada and boarded a 43 ft yacht. We got the boat ready and `moved in’ (at low tide this consisted of leaping from the concrete harbour onto the scoop on the stern without falling overboard). We sailed overnight to Tobago which proved a rude awakening for my first offshore passage. It was supposed to take around 12 hours but the weather was so rough it took 20 hours and I was sea sick the whole time. I felt pretty miserable, dragging myself out of bed for my shift, working the winch and running to the side to throw up ... again. Luckily I got my sea legs after that and enjoyed the rest of the trip immensely.

Race week had a lay day where we hired a car and drove across the island, visited a rainforest and did some local diving. We didn’t win any races but held our own until we broke the boat on the last day and had to move to another for the rest of the trip. I was just being hoisted up the mast to fix a problem when everything came crashing down! When the festivities of the regatta were over, I continued on a tour of the Windward Islands of Bequia, Martinique, Mustique, Union, Salt Whistle Bay, Tobago Cays. 

I did loads of snorkelling in crystal clear waters and booked some diving. A dive company `Grenada Divers’ operated from a speed boat. They were touting for business, so I called them up on the radio. They would provide kit and pick you up from your moored yacht in Tobago Cays. They were not interested in qualifications or even if you had dived before.

Elvis, our Rasta dive guide handed me my kit as we approached the dive site. ` Just follow me’ was his guidance as 6 of us put on the kit and went over the side. My reg free flowed as I descended and I wondered what I was doing. I had brought my own mask and computer but hired the rest of the kit which was pretty worn. One of the guys from my yacht was a Padi diver so we buddied up. Otherwise I might as well have dived on my own as there was little organization under water.

The current was strong and we had to descend quickly, difficult for one of the group who had only completed 6 dives. We dived on a wall, with a very rich reef, packed with hard and soft coral. The problem was that the vis was so bad with very green water that you couldn’t really appreciate the sights or colours. We whizzed along, flying and trying to keep together, all at various depths (I was at 25 metres). Photographs were sporadic as I was moving too quickly to hold that shot. One by one air consumption forced the divers to surface up the SMB the guide was towing and the boat followed us during the drift. Finally I was left with the guide and we had passed our 1 hr max. Elvis was pretty chilled out and I had plenty of air, so we hung around for a while, the current now much slower, and I was able to appreciate some of the flora and fauna.

A quick break and they are ready to chuck us in again. Elvis ends up doing around 6 dives a day, many on a reverse profile…shouldn’t think he’ll live past 40. This time a shallower reef and a view of shoals of Sweetlips, Grunts, French Angel fish and more Caribbean looking creatures and sponges (ok, they weren’t smoking ganja or wearing shades…but did look pretty laid back). Very nice but again visibility was more on a par with the UK (on a good day); I have to say that the snorkelling was much better quality. Perhaps it is the currents that ruin the visibility or the time of year I was there. Elvis delivered everyone back to their yachts, and stopped off for a quick rum and coke. This really is cowboy diving in the Caribbean.

Back to the UK and Sport Diver Magazine sent me to Porthkerris in Cornwall to write an article on basking sharks. Louisa accompanied me as my buddy and camera caddy and we had a laugh. The shore diving at Porthkerris is excellent and we enjoyed getting wet before going out on Porthkerris’ Catamaran. Louisa and I hung over the side of the Cat observing a basking shark. It was a monster and we were about to get in the water with it.

We were launched off the back of the boat and made to swim (in drysuits and a full weight belt!) towards them. The shark approached and Louisa and I stuck our heads under the water……it’s hard to describe your first sight of a basker with its mouth wide open. It swam right in front of us and we popped our heads out and looked at each other with jaws dropped…I didn’t even lift my camera…Wow.  It proved hard work as the basking sharks were very elusive and time and time again we clambered back on board and went through the same procedure until we were exhausted.

We ate out in the best places, forgetting the Cornwall is the back of beyond and everywhere shuts at 9pm. We left our B&B with good old Elsee saying….where are you off to, you’ll never find a fish and chip shop around here..don’t be back too late. We later discovered one remaining fish and chip shop and the best table in the house…the local bus shelter.  We non-workers know how to live it up. We managed to get a great dive on a 30m wreck in between basking shark watching the following day. A trip well worth the effort. They really are fantastic creatures, gentle giants of the sea. As for my award winning pictures…I need to go back and try again !

Karen Gargani

This page was last updated on : 06 Sep 2011