Friday, 21 December 2012

Dive! Dive! Dive!

Hi friends!

When last I posted we had cracked our camera and were pretty down about it.  To focus on just this however would do a disservice to the excellent diving we thoroughly enjoyed in Palau, Yap and Truk (or Chu’uk).

For those who aren't into researching dive locations, these form three of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia, to the north of Papua New Guinea and to the east of the Philippines.  All are home to diverse diving experiences.

Palau is famous for strong currents, some interesting cavern dives and generally lots of life in the form of schooling sharks plus manta rays and pelagic fish such as tuna, marlin and sailfish.

Yap is home to a number of manta ray "cleaning stations", areas of reef where large numbers of mantas, some as large as 5 metres across, come to have parasites cleaned off them by reef fish.

And finally, Truk lagoon in Chu'uk is the site of a famous US bombing operation in WWII, Operation Hailstone, which sank in excess of 50 Japanese ships plus a number of planes.  These ships make for interesting and challenging wreck dives showcasing everything from boxes of beer bottles to guns, torpedoes, tanks, trucks, planes and even a John Deere tractor.

We visited Palau first, and had a great 7 days diving a wide range of sites.  We used reef hooks to hold ourselves onto the reef while grey reef sharks schooled in front of us over the deep drop-offs, and we drifted over massive coral reefs populated with giant clams and patrolled by schools of giant bumphead parrotfish, swimming along in a cloud of their own crap like prehistoric cows.  We also had curious Napoleon wrasse getting up close and personal, an interesting experience with such a large fish!  We saw a few manta rays, and watching these giant rays at play was a great experience we would soon be getting much more of at Yap.

The caverns were spectacular, holes in the top of the reef that you drop into at 2 metres, to emerge on a coral covered wall 30 metres down.  The light inside them was truly ethereal.  Our last dive into Chandelier cave allowed us to surface into a series of stalactite-covered caverns complete with trapped air that allowed us to take out our regulators and have a chat before descending once more.  Though we were cautioned not to fart as it would stay in there for every visitor to come after us!  Very tempting..... but I was good, I promise!

In Yap we stayed at the dedicated dive resort of Manta Ray Bay.  We didn't see any mantas at our first visit to the cleaning station, but as the week progressed we saw more and more, culminating on our last day with a 90 minute dive with up to 8 manta rays, some of whom formed a "mating train".  The less I say about this the better! The other diving there was quite varied, a mix of deep drop vertical walls with pelagic fish and beautiful coral gardens with some of the tiny life we have grown to love since our time with Scuba Junkie in Malaysia. One night on dusk we did a dive to watch mandarinfish come out to mate.  These little fish shuffle around amongst the coral and are normally quite bashful during the day, but on dusk males convince a series of females to join them for a quick dash out of the coral and a bit of a "quickie".  Let's just say the expectations incumbent on these males are a long way short of what are expected of a modern human male.

We did spend a part of the week nervously watching category 4 Hurricane Bopha pass to the south of Yap, our concerns somewhat assuaged by the consumption of the Yap "Stone Money" micro-brew beer.

Which brings an interlude from dive talk: Stone money (the real thing, not the beer) is a pretty neat invention of the Yapese (though the beer is still bloody good too).  These giant stone wheels were quarried over at Palau, and then transported by canoe at much peril back to Yap where no such stone was available.  The value of each piece of stone money is the subject of discussion between both parties and takes into consideration the age of the piece and the difficulty of obtaining it from Palau.  As a result when an Irishman turned up with some stone money that he had quarried and transported using modern techniques, these pieces did not have as much value as the traditional money.  Given that it can take up to 20 guys to shift some of these monstrosities they don't often move, but are still used for some transactions such as property dealings and a record of their ownership kept.

Leaving the land of stone money, we flew to Chu'uk, the land of the world's worst roads.  Never again will I complain about London roads or some bumpy Australian highway.  We joined our liveaboard dive boat, the Odyssey, not really knowing what to expect except for wrecks wrecks and wrecks.  What we got was deep, dark and dirty wreck diving, interspersed with wrecks that have been colonised by soft coral and turned into underwater wonderlands. 

Coreen couldn't enjoy it for long however, because on day two she felt an acute pain and perforated her eardrum.  This unfortunately ruled her out from any further diving, but despite this she maintained her usual sunny disposition and dedicated her time to becoming what was acclaimed as the best tech team on the boat, setting up the camera and assiduously checking it prior to every dive.  I couldn't have handled a disappointment like this with the equanimity she showed, and she reminded me why we are such a good team - she is the sensible one!

Then on day three, disaster struck the Odyssey.

Firstly, on the first dive of the day, at a wreck named the Hoki Maru, I experienced a bad case of nitrogen narcosis.  At depths in excess of 30 metres nitrogen can affect the brain like a drug, with a whole range of factors contributing to the nature of the narcosis.  After penetrating and then exiting the hold of the wreck at 37 metres, my narcosis took the form of a panic attack, my vision closing in and hyperventilated breathing.  I had to grab hold of myself and tell myself that if I didn't calm down, I was going to die.  I decreased my depth until the symptoms abated somewhat, and then aborted the dive, very shaken from the experience.  Having never had such issues at depth before, it was a severe knock to my confidence.  Talking about it with more experienced divers afterwards, they related similar experiences brought about by some unspoken anxiety prior to the dive.  Not having Coreen with me as my usual buddy, and then having the camera fail on my entry to the ship's hold (you can't tell it's a full SD card when the screen is black!), may have been contributing factors to the nature of my narcosis, but I will never really know for sure.

Then, after being back on the boat for some time, we discovered that a diver had gone missing from his group during the dive, and had died while diving in the wreck.  Based on post-analysis, what likely happened is that Rob's group thought he had aborted the dive due to ear equalisation issues, and the other group that he followed into the depths of the wreck were unaware that he was following them and was lost.  He was found at 50 metres in one of the most inaccessible and difficult parts of the wreck.  This event rocked everyone on the Odyssey.  It shocked all of us who had enjoyed diving with Rob and his wife Edie (who hadn't been on that dive). They were both very experienced and well-prepared wreck divers, and we couldn't believe that someone of his calibre possibly made such a serious communication error.  

Certainly the toughest part fell to the staff of the Odyssey, who had the overwhelming task of recovering Rob's body from a very difficult location and organising its return to the USA, after which they had to bottle up whatever personal feelings they had and try to ensure that the charter continued to be enjoyable for a bunch of shell-shocked divers.  In this, they did a wonderful job.  I certainly can't imagine where they found the strength, but they were inspirational, and together with Edie ensured we continued to enjoy the diving, while keeping Rob in our thoughts.  I hope it is what he would have wanted.  We were certainly reminded just how technically challenging this diving could be, and how serious diving could be as a whole.  Our hearts are with Edie and her family at this terrible time.
The remains of a Japanese crewman in the Yamagiri Maru engine room
The rest of the week brought some interesting wrecks, though it took me a little time to rebuild my confidence after the events of that fateful Wednesday, especially diving into the dark, confined spaces of the deeper vessels.  We saw massive torpedoes, huge 14-inch artillery shells, tonnes of ammunition, planes and plane parts, anti-aircraft and artillery guns, machine guns, trucks, a bulldozer, a John Deere tractor and gas masks, not to mention all of the everyday items like beer and sake bottles (the Japanese sailors drank A LOT), crockery, toilets, surgeon's tables plus medical bottles and kits.  On some of the wrecks we saw the remains of deceased Japanese sailors, a sobering reminder that these wrecks are not underwater museums but are in fact war graves.
Torpedoes in the hold of the Rio de Janeiro Maru
After Chu’uk we spent a fun few days in Guam, enjoying the wonderful hospitality of some of the people we met in Chu’uk (thank you Sean and John!), and we have now returned to Australia.

Over the last 9 months we have met some wonderful people who have touched our lives, and had some brilliant experiences that we will never forget, but now it is time to end our travels and start the next phase of our lives.  What will this entail?  This will be the topic for my next post, but let me just say the search for our own corner of Australia where we can grow our own food is about to begin.  Things are about to get really exciting for the two of us (and anyone who likes the idea of a free place to stay in Australia!).

Stay tuned......