Monday, October 27, 2008

Diving Down Under

There aren't any big mountains in Australia, but there is quite a bit of rock climbing. However, we decided not to haul our climbing gear around with us. Instead we planned to scuba dive. I've been diving for a while, but Shelley had just taken her dive course in the summer. She was a bit nervous about her first "real" dives. One of the things she was nervous about was having to do a big "giant step" entry into the water. Of course, the very first dive we did had the biggest giant step I'd ever done. It was about 3 m (10 ft) from the platform down to the water. That might not sound like much, but all geared up for diving it's a little intimidating. Shelley joked to the dive master that he might have to push her and he replied that it wouldn't be the first time!

Our first dives were out of Exmouth at the north end of the Ningaloo Marine Park. It's the main place to dive the Ningaloo Reef. We dove with Ningaloo Reef Dreaming. Just because of scheduling, our first dive wasn't even on the reef, it was the Navy Pier. It seems funny that you're at this world famous reef and one of the best dives is a pier! But the Exmouth Navy Pier is considered one of the top dive sights in the world. It didn't turn out so good for us. We arrived at the pier to be greeted by high winds, and rough, white capped water. The dive master went in to check conditions but soon returned reporting that visibility was about a meter and we wouldn't be able to dive. So much for that dive.

We came back in the afternoon and it was calmer, but there was still quite a lot of surge and visibility was only about 3 m. On top of that, we had a big group with quite a few beginners. Shelley and I were ready and jumped in first, which of course meant we then had to wait, bobbing up and down, for everyone else to get their act together. Finally everyone was in the water and we could descend. Not surprisingly given the conditions, one of the beginners (not Shelley!) didn't like it and the guide had to take them up and wait till they were safely up in the water. Again, we waited, this time at the bottom of the guide line instead of the top. Eventually the guide returned and we set off.

What a circus! With the poor visibility, everyone was trying to stay as close together as possible, And with the large group and the surge tossing us around, that meant constantly struggling to avoid getting kicked by the fins of the person in front of you. Shelley ended up holding her regulator to make sure it didn't get kicked out. At one point I did have my regulator kicked out of my mouth. I'd thought that would be a scary thing, but it was more confusing. It took me a minute to figure out what had happened and to realize I could no longer breath, at which point I grabbed my regulator and put it back in my mouth. I don't even recall having to clear it of water. Thankfully I didn't have any trouble locating it or I might have got a bit freaked out.

On top of the crowd problems, we were swimming in, around, and under the pilings of the pier while the surge and other people bumped us around. Shelley banged her head under one piling. We did see some big gray nurse sharks, which are one of the attractions, but even that was a rather murky view, obscured not only by the visibility, but also by the other divers struggling to see.

You could tell that in the right conditions it would be a great dive - there were a ton of fish going by and lots of stuff on the pilings. We hoped to get a chance to come back to try a second time but it didn't work out. It also would have been better if we'd explored on our own instead of with the group, but given the conditions and with it being Shelley's "first" dive we didn't. It was definitely a "trial by fire" for Shelley. Too bad we didn't have kinder conditions. But she did really well and handling the challenges gave her more confidence than an easy dive would have.

On the positive side, we saw whales breaching both times we were at the pier. And a big sea turtle swimming lazily alongside the pier.

The next day we headed to the Muiron Islands, about an hour boat ride from Exmouth. Unfortunately, conditions were still pretty rough. I struggled to avoid getting sea sick, keeping my eyes on the horizon. It was a bit sheltered at the first dive site, but there was still some surge. Of course, the rough conditions meant poor visibility again. Great coral and fish though.

I'd been feeling distinctly queasy before the second dive but was alright once I got in the water. But when I got back on the boat after the dive it was rocking and rolling a little too much. I barely got my gear off before rushing to the back of the boat to puke. I was surprised how suddenly it hit me. I skipped the next dive, although it was debatable whether sitting on the rocking boat was any better than diving feeling sick. Shelley still went on the third dive though, good for her. She said it was the best dive of the day, annoyingly!

The next day we went to Lighthouse Bay, a shorter boat ride, and conditions were a bit better. Except that there was quite a strong surface current. Even swimming from the back of the boat to the front (to descend the mooring line) was a struggle, especially for Shelley who was still getting the hang of swimming with all the dive gear on. Starting with a bit less air in her tank, and using it up a bit faster, Shelley needed to surface sooner than the rest of us. She went up with the assistant (trainee) guide. When we came up about 15 min later I was surprised that Shelley wasn't back at the boat. Unfortunately, her guide had misjudged and they came up a long way from the boat. With the strong surface current you had to swim hard just to stay in one place, let alone make any headway. Eventually, with some help from the guides, Shelley made it back to the boat, but she was exhausted and skipped the third dive. Probably just as well since the current was even stronger at the third site. One of the divers gave up before they even made it to the mooring line, after failing to swim against the current and getting pushed and banged against the side of the boat by it. Again, despite the less than ideal conditions, there was fantastic coral and sea life.

And that was the end of our three days of diving in Exmouth. We were a little disappointed that conditions hadn't been better, but there's not much you can do about that. If we'd had more time we could have waited for better conditions, but we had a lot of ground to cover. At least Shelley had 6 dives under her belt and wasn't a total beginner any more.

We did some snorkeling at Turquoise Bay in Cape Range Park near Exmouth. It was awesome snorkeling with lots of coral and fish and even a sea snake. Given the water temperature, you really needed a wet suit though. I had my own with me so I was fine, but Shelley didn't so she couldn't stay in as long.

Our next stop was Coral Bay at the South end of the Ningaloo Reef. This is a smaller town and we weren't even sure if there was a dive operator there. Luckily there was (Ningaloo Reef Dive) but all they had going the next day was a "wildlife viewing trip" with an optional single dive. We signed up. The first part was whale watching and we were lucky to see lots of humpbacked whales. The first sight of them was when one jumped completely out of the water just ahead of the boat. Pretty impressive. At one point we had two separate pods (groups) of whales on either side of the boat. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to capture the whales in photographs. All you end up with is a a distant view of a sliver of their back. The pictures definitely don't convey how impressive it is to see such huge animals.

We weren't so excited about "swimming with the manta rays". The tour operators share a spotter plan to find the mantas. This day the plane only spotted one so multiple boats converged on it. The manta obviously just wanted to find some peace and quiet so it was swimming away at high speed. So the boat would race after the manta, try to drop us as close to it as possible, and then you were supposed to swim as fast as you could to catch a murky glimpse of the manta before it disappeared. I'm not an especially fast swimmer, especially with my camera in my hand, so the only glimpse I got was when the manta happened to double back past me. I could have done without this part of the outing.

The dive was great. It was inside the reef so it was much calmer. And Shelley and I were the only ones diving so it was just us and the guide. It was quite a shallow dive, at one point only a few meters deep. The coral was some of the best I've seen in size and variety and health. We saw sharks at one point. This is something that a lot of divers get really excited about and spend a bunch of time looking for. I'm not sure what the big attraction is. Usually you just see them cruising by in the distance. I'd rather look at the coral and the fish myself.

We enjoyed the dive so much we immediately signed up to dive the next day. All they had scheduled was a half day trip but at least it was two dives. The first dive wasn't as good as we'd hoped. There was some surge and it was along a wall with a sandy bottom. Not so much coral or fish. I spotted a few nudibranchs and rockfish and eels. But because of the surge, Shelley was hanging back from the wall and didn't see so much. The next dive was more like the day before with good coral and fish.

And that was the end of our diving. We'd have liked to do more but unfortunately we didn't have the time - too many other things we wanted to see and do. Next time ...

The photos aren't great - it's tough taking decent pictures underwater. But it's still nice to be able to share a little of how fantastic it is down there. (Taken with Canon SD700IS with Canon WP-DC5 underwater case, tweaked with Adobe Lightroom.)

2008 Australia Underwater

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