Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Day 24 Don’t think that I’ve spent the entire month with wet hair and wrinkly fingers. We have occasionally left the water to do other things:

Wetsuits OK, so I was still thinking about the water on our first day in Phuket, when I went into HotWaves and ordered a couple of custom-made wetsuits. The biggest downside of diving is the neoprene we need to cover ourselves in unless we are diving in very warm water. The choice is either stuff yourself into a rubber suit or freeze. Since I’m not an off-the-peg shape I have never been happy with my wetsuits, so I decided to have a couple made. One full-length, 5mm suit for diving in Oman in winter, complete with zippers at the ankles and wrists, and another, thinner, sleeveless shorty, which should be more comfortable than the one I have now. I’ll try it out tomorrow. Sorry, no pictures… no one looks good in a wetsuit, and Mme Cyn perhaps worse than many. Fortunately, the fish don’t care.

Car We rented a car on our ‘off-gassing’ days* and went around Phuket island. The Goat had wanted to rent motorcycles, but we didn’t have any proper shoes (and I’m a sissy anyway), so we opted for a jeep. The jeeps were all out, so we settled for a tiny little Toyota Yaris, the sort of car that would get eaten by 4x4s in Dubai. Even so, it had a little back up warning beep like a Mac truck. This grumped the Goat no end. Oh, that and the fact that every time he went for the turn signal, he hit the windshield wipers. Every time. I’m so glad he’s not the type of guy who minds when you laugh at him.

Wat Chalong, where we stayed, has a rather famous Buddhist temple, or wat, so we had a look. The Thai wats are very ornate compared with the Japanese temples, and this was no exception. One thing they do that the Japanese don’t is set off fireworks. Next to the temple, there’s a big brick oven. You buy firecrackers from the monks and throw them in the oven, and they explode with a series of bangs. I’m not sure why. In Japan you clap your hands in the temple to get the attention of the gods, and maybe since the Thais are rowdier, more joyous types, this has the same effect.

Wildlife The Goat, having never ridden on an elephant, decided it was time to rectify the situation. I have done so, and I know better. However, since he was so set on it, I took my Dramamine and we went. He was up for the hour long ride, but I rather put my foot down at 20 minutes. I think he was glad of it, too. He could happily have ridden all day, but it must have been wearing on his nerves to have me cling to him and squeak every time the animal took a step. Now, intellectually I knew it was perfectly safe, but perched 15 feet up in a wobbly houdah with your toes curled into an elephant’s neck is no place for a middle aged sissy like me to be.

There was a little café bar at the elephant place where a couple of gibbons were hanging around. Charlie and Lanaia were part of the furniture and quite friendly. Later on, however, we visited the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Kata. Young gibbons are popular pets here, and the locals often take them to the beaches for tourists to ooh and ahh over and have their photos taken. Unfortunately, the tamest ape turns aggressive once it matures, and these animals are then abandoned or abused. The GRP reintroduces them into the wild in the national park, where they are supposedly safe from poachers. It doesn’t always work that way, but they try.

We also visited a butterfly garden, where various common and rare species are bred and preserved. The Goat was fascinated in particular by an Atlas moth, which one of the breeders handed to him. Impressive, but it’s still a bug.

Aquarium Phuket has a marine biology research center and aquarium. We got there late in the day, but they said we could stay past closing and we had the place almost to ourselves. This was great, since the highlight was a tunnel through a very large tank that housed leopard sharks, eagle rays, black tip reef sharks, and any number of large shoaling fish. With nobody else there, they turned off the people-moving sidewalk and we got to stay as long as we liked. It was excellent. I just wished we’d managed to see these creatures while we were diving. Maybe next time.

By the way -- for those of you who wish the full details and lots of pix, I refer you to the Grumpy Goat's blog, in particular the "Thai Dive" and "Thai Dry" entries, where he's done a much better job documenting our adventures. Of course, he's got time. He's only back at work... I'm still diving!

(NB for you non-divers, you have to take a break from diving now and then to let the nitrogen escape your body tissues, or you feel awful. Smart people don’t dive 24 hours before flying either, so that’s an off-gas day too.)

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Saturday, March 17, 2007


Day 16. I am a menace on a boat. For the sake of those around me, I should never be allowed on one. I frequently have to crawl aboard and skootch around on my backside to position myself, since one good pitch sends me flying into whoever is there –generally clutching whatever I can grab hold of to steady myself, which is lethal if you and your target are both fully kitted-out scuba divers. When I come up after a dive, it is generally safer for everyone if I take off my gear in the water and hand it up, since I will invariably overbalance and fall back onto my back into the sea if I have to climb a ladder with fifty pounds of kit on my back. I think the boat boys secretly cringe when they see me coming, since they know at least one of them is going to be assigned to keeping me from doing any damage. At least I tip well.

Oh, and on top of having the sea legs of a giraffe on roller skates, I get horrendously seasick.

I come by that honestly, at least. My father, who spent twenty five years in the Navy, once told me that every time he was deployed he was green as a toad for the first three days. I used to wonder how anyone who spent so much time seasick ever managed to stay in a profession that required ocean voyages. Little did I know that the one sport I would take up would put me in the same boat. So to speak.

I’ve always been motion sick. I was that ‘lucky’ kid who got to sit in the front (unheard of!) because otherwise I would puke all over the back seat. In grad school, a group of us went to Hershey Park, where they went on the monster roller coasters and I merely watched the four year olds enjoying the Merry Go Round and had to woof into the trash can next to the bench. I could go on, but you get my point.

So why take up scuba, which was guaranteed to make me queasy? Why indeed. My instructor nearly had to carry me from the boat the first ten or so dives I did with him. My club thought I was insane. I ‘fed the fish’ every time I went diving, and mastered the fine art of puking into a regulator. And trust me – retching underwater when you have to keep your teeth clamped around your only air source while knowing if you let go of it you will drown is a fine art.

Lately, though, the seasickness thing is mostly at bay. I guess lots of practice and Dramamine settles your stomach over time. However, there are still things that will set me off. One is being over-tired. Another is fumes or strong smells, such as the diesel fuel they use in the boats.

So here I am, in Thailand, on a very expensive section of my trip, where I have to be on a boat for three solid days. Normally I avoid live-aboards, but some of the best diving in the world can only be reached by a long journey out from the mainland, and the only sensible and sometimes possible thing to do is to live on a boat for several days: eating, sleeping and diving. Or in my case, trying not to toss my cookies. Between not having slept the night before and the smell of very spicy Thai cooking coming from the galley… well, let’s just say I dived one out of three on the first day.


Friday, March 16, 2007


The seahorse is a wondrous beast. The male incubates the eggs in a pouch, leaving the female time to relax before producing the next batch of eggs. Wonderfully efficient way of raising a family, don't you think? Seahorse as feminist icon.

This little fellow is a harlequin ghost pipefish. Very hard to see, let alone photo graph. Wish I had. This was taken by a guy named Mike in Puerto Galera. I wasn't on this dive, but he shared his photos.

Which is a good thing, because he prevented me from getting close enough to this blond seahorse to get a good picture. The rather 'blue' one here is mine, taken from quite far away. I had to blow up and crop the image or you would never have seen the wee beastie. The clear, close one at the bottom is Mike's. See the difference? Of course, his was also taken with a spiffy external underwater flash. Santa, are you listening?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Day 8. Finally. After having spent the past 150 dives searching, ever conscious that they are highly camouflaged and probably lurking nearby, I have finally, finally seen an octopus.

My buddies have seen two already on this trip, both on dives that I was scheduled to do and then didn’t (one because I had a headache, the other because I wasn’t comfortable with the dive guide). Heike came back with pictures of a tiny little one, and then Marion snapped the fist-sized blue-ringed one this afternoon. Mine was spotted on a night dive that I nearly didn’t do because it was pouring with rain, the sea was choppy, and all but one other diver had cancelled. However, the other guy is going back to the UK tomorrow and he’d never done a night dive, so it was on. I went mostly because I had said I would go.

Was I glad I did. At first we saw a whole lot of nothing. We went in over the sand and there wasn’t much to see. I was thinking “Ick – I could be back in the bar instead of here swimming through jellyfish.” But then we hit the reef.

I think I am, in essence, a muck diver. Give me a little piece of reef on a night dive and I’ll stay in about 10 m square for the whole dive, peering under everything and watching the fish sleep. And I saw some great stuff once we hit the reef: two frogfish, a scorpionfish, a free-swimming starfish, and a rather rare decorator crab (wearing hot pink sponge), along with the usual assorted lionfish, cleaner wrasse, marching urchins and various crustaceans. However, our guide, Ruben, was a bit of a torpedo, so we did a lot of swimming and casual looking instead of staying put. I decided to assert myself a bit and stopped on a piece of reef that had a magnificent black and white cowrie clinging to it when Ruben started frantically flailing around with his light several meters away. When you dive at night and someone violently swings his light at you, you go to him as quickly as you can. You never know whether he is in trouble, and the usual bogeys of diving are increased when it’s dark. So I took off like lightning and caught up with him, ready to assist in saving him from some disaster. Then he redirected the light to a red blob in some coral. I looked and looked again, but couldn’t figure out what it was I was supposed to see, and was a bit miffed that I’d chased over there to find there was no big emergency. And then the blob unfolded a tentacle and started sliding toward the sand. A hungry octopus, looking for a meal.

Its head and curled body were about the size of a dinner plate, and it seemed to move mostly by unfolding itself a leg or two at a time, inching its way across the sand first to one coral head and then the next. As it curled in one leg it unwound another, moving very slowly, wasting no motion. Definitely stealth design. It was clearly not intimidated by us, since it didn’t bother to change colors as we hovered over it. It stayed a mottled red, so it was brilliantly lit up against the sand. I could see it pulsate, like some Hollywood alien. After about six minutes my buddy was clearly bored, so we carried on with the dive. Given the choice, I’d have stayed there until my tank was dry.

What a magnificent creature. We’ll dive the same site tomorrow night, and maybe this time I won’t leave my camera on the boat. Sigh.

Day 11. Update. Octopus #2, big and black and beautiful on the Boulders in Puerto Galera. This time I had my camera, but he just looked like a big black leather bag on film. Oh well.

(Photo: Marion’s blue-ringed octopus. The tentacles are the bunched up blue and green circles and, if you look at about “8:00” from the tip of the pointer, you’ll see its eye. See what I mean by camouflage?)

Saturday, March 03, 2007


Day 7. You’d think that teachers would make excellent students. After all, they understand the difficulties of running a class and the responsibilities of making sure everyone understands what is being taught, so you’d think they’d be supportive of whoever was trying to teach them. You’d think teachers would have every sympathy with anyone standing up in front of a room, and do whatever they could to put that person at ease. You’d think that teachers would be tolerant of badly written materials and tests and be cooperative with any tasks required in the course of the class.

You’d be wrong.

Teachers make appalling students. We are demanding, impatient, intolerant, and constantly assessing the person disseminating information. We always know a better way to do it, and require that whoever is teaching us be able to answer any question we throw at them clearly, concisely, completely and instantly. We demand that the text be discussed and debated, and take nothing as given unless absolutely clear and logical. We are highly intolerant of badly written exam questions, and query everything.

Or at least I do.

Actually, I’ve been quite well behaved during this course. My fellow students are all scuba instructors, and some of them have gotten a bit shirty from time to time, but for the most part we’ve been attentive and cooperative. Until the exam.

Now I have taken many scuba exams in the course of my studies— the PADI Open Water, Advanced Diver and EAN exams, the BSAC Sports and Dive Leader exams, and the TDI Gas Blending exam—and they are uniformly dreadful. This latest one was the worst. Who cares who took the first pictures of the Andrea Doria? Or what justification a diver might use in removing pieces of a wreck? And whether the ideal team is two “highly skilled” divers or three divers surely depends on the purpose and complexity of the dive, doesn’t it? And how about that question that has one answer in theory but quite a different one when it comes to applying the theory to practice? And then there’s the language used for writing these questions! Grammatical and syntactic errors everywhere – I felt sorry for our German speaker, whose English is text-book perfect, trying to make sense out of some of the bizarrely-worded questions. And to top it all off, the test writers made the classic error of making a number of questions dependent upon previous questions, so that if you make an error anywhere in the chain you’ve blown them all. Throw in the fact that the pass mark is 80%, and you begin to wonder why we put ourselves through these courses.

We all passed, of course. I missed two questions: one piece of trivia which I simply didn’t know and the other which I would have passed in the real world because I know I can’t do simple arithmetic and would have had the formula written on my slate. Even so, poor Sam had a hard forty minutes of it afterwards when we dragged him into the bar and then argued each point with him and with each other.

Well, at least we bought his drinks.

(Pufferfish on Dry Docks, Sabang)


Thursday, March 01, 2007


Day 2. Today’s lesson concerned laying line off a spool inside a wreck, tying it off at intervals, and using it as a visual and physical guide for finding the way back out. Or, more appropriately in our case, Playing with String 101.

We did a dry run on land, and Sam talked us through it, demonstrating as he went. All very knowledgeable, all very competent. All very useless. I am strictly a kinesthetic learner when it comes to anything physical. Show me and it’s gone in five minutes. Make me do it and it has a chance of sticking. So I steamrollered poor Sam’s lesson and took the spool in hand. My classmates (who had been politely listening and absorbing until I grabbed the string) quickly followed suit, and we spent several splendid minutes rigging the dive shop in 18 weight nylon line. Once Sam figured we were ready, it was into the boat and out to El Capitan once again, the site of yesterday’s mishegas. BK was there to help out, so Jim & Marion went one way with him, and poor Heike got stuck with me again. Off we went.

When a pair goes into a wreck, one lays the line and the other follows, checking and taking up slack as needed. I led to begin with, and then we switched positions, with the second leader tying her reel onto the first’s. At some point, Sam was to give one of us instructions to give the out of air signal, and we were to swim to the other, do the signal, then air share out to the exit, using the line as guidance. Once out, we were to go back to ‘normal,’ re-enter the wreck and go retrieve our lines and reel them in.

Air sharing is stressful at the best of times. Two people on one small gas supply is a scary thought. And of course we had to do all of this in semi-darkness, in an unfamiliar environment, with a whole lot of rotting metal between us and the clear blue sky and its accompanying air supply. We had to use unfamiliar equipment unfamiliarly configured, and there were stingy sharp things everywhere. Naturally. Oh yeah, and we were supposed to be careful of our finning techniques (learned yesterday) to keep from damaging the wreck or kicking up the silt.

Actually, it went rather well, except that I was about two kilos too light and kept hitting the ceiling.

Day 3: We somehow have graduated to Advanced String 201. We went to a new wreck, the LST, lying in about 32 meters. Lovely wreck, with bunk beds still intact – so convenient for tying string around. I led but we only got part way through, due to my lousy air consumption and general muppetness. (I had re-weighted and hadn’t established neutral buoyancy before entering the wreck, so I spent the first few minutes bouncing around.) However, I did everything right except that I shortened the dive perhaps more than necessary, so it went well. Then the final drill: we went back to the shallow wreck and had to follow Sam’s line out with our eyes closed, then do it again eyes closed and sharing air. Insanity. I managed to snag my dropped reg hose on a piece of wreckage and had to figure it out blind, I ended up on the wrong side of the line and ran smack into a wall, and Heike and I managed to get tangled up just before the exit.

However, I did learn a couple of Valuable Things: 1) get a swivel clip for my primary demand valve just in case I have to drop it so I can secure it to my body instead of wrapping it around bits of wreck 2) fingertips are useful tools in a blind situation , and 3) if your buddy ends up with your legs on either side of her head, the hose tangled around you both, and clearly stuck on something, stop, stay still, and let her figure it out. If she’s in real trouble, she’ll pinch the hell out of your leg, and then you can help. Otherwise, you will just make things worse.

Good lessons.

(1.Marion & Jim on a line. 2. Me & Heike air sharing. Photos courtesy BK)


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