Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pit Stop @ Key Largo FL.

Before I completely forget that I dove in Key Largo, let me jog a few notes. This happen after the return from the Galapagos on 12/26/2008. I never dove Florida, so I decided to take a 3 days pit stop. Things are very expensive in FL, 3 days of Travel Lodge motel cost $110 a nite and 4 days of car rental cost $600. Diving wasn't too bad, I went with Ocean Divers, I choose to dive the Spiegel and the Molasses Reef.

The next morning, got up at 6am, left Flordia city at 6:30am, it was still dark and got to the pier at 7am. They have 2 boats and a doezn people were getting ready. I found my boat, suit up my 7mm and took my camera on board. The ride out to the reef was not bad compare to Monterey, it was rough but again not that rough and took about 40 minutes. Captain brief divers there were 5 ft surf and rough sea, I took the words cautiously but again, it really wasn't that rough. It was just like an average day in Monterey but several people got sick. The captain spent another 20 mintues navigating around to find a spot that isn't waving that much and ended up at the French Reef. Detail about entry and exist and the use of the current line to get back on boat was described in detail. I did a 60 minutes dive at a depth of around 25 some feet. It has a good 4~5 ft side to side surge which again was average Monterey. The surface was rougher than below for sure, took a little effort to take off fins, hand camera over and climb the slamming ladder. Interestingly after I got back, I wasn't the last to come up. 8 minutes later, the onboard DM had to deploy the rescue line and jump in. Found the remaining divers several hundered yards drifted and had to help them back. After everyone got back onboard, captain decided to call the day and go back. I was certainly disappointed, it was rough but not that rough and the dive was so shallow that it was almost like snookling. With a shorten day, I decided to cruise down to Key West, a long 3+ hours drive just to check out the marker !

With so much driving from the previous nite, I woke up at 7am the next morning !! Knowing I will miss the morning dive, I drove to the pier and search for my options. Fortunately, the afternoon boat goes to the Duane and because the sea was still rough, local said Duane would be a better dive. The boat ride was about the same as previous day, we had to pull ourself through the surface line to the bow line and then decent through some currents and onto the top deck at 98ft. Once situated, it was quite peacful and the visz was great ! Water was about 73F, so my heavy 7mm suit fits me well ! I circle around the wheel house, top deck. A very nice deck with plenty of baracuda patroling the deck and then all sorts of reef fishes. 45~50 minutes later, got back on boat realized 1/2 of the people on board didn't dive due to roughness ! We then venture to Molassess reef, it was a 18~22 ft dive that I can clearly see the bottom of the boat whole time. I didn't go very far, just circling various part of the reef and try to take some fish faces and the reef. I did a 70 minutes dives after the captain bang on the boat enough time. All and all, my short 3 dives experience diving in Key Largo were decent, warm enough to call it tropical. They said summer months between memorial and labor day weekend would be the peak season and best time to dive the Keys. For me going east, I might as well go to Hawaii, nevertheless, it was the warmest dive I had for 2008. If I am going to Florida again, it will be the Crystal River manatee instead.

For my last dinner of the trip, I decided to find a place close to the hotel in Florida City instead at the Key and deal with the driving after. I found this restaurant Mutineer looks decent. I tell you yellow fin snapper and grouper had been my feeding my diet for the last few days and it was awsome. While I am still figuring out should I have grouper or yellow fin one last time, I saw aligator on the menu ! How can I pass that, last time I had aligator was over 15 years. It was preapare sautee with lemon capers, delicious and I still can't tell it from chicken :-)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Galapagos - Big Animal Paradise!

Galapagos diving, wow! What a place to dive. Despite my detour from San Francisco to Chicago, then Miami before getting into Quito at late night, the first part of the travel wasn’t too bad. Did I just say it out loud it was a mess?! For ½ a day I was actually worried I am not going to make it to Quito on time for the next day transit. The US domestic airline industry is really beating up their customers, I seriously hope some days something going to make the airline change just like our newly elected president said, we need to change. The flight from Quito to San Cristobal was another adventure; we had to fly an hour and a half to the largest city in Ecuador – Guayaquil, from there we waited on the plane for an hour and not allow to use the bathroom (another airline regulation) until the next 2 ½ hour flight takes off.

Aggressor I, a decent sized dive yacht with all the expected amenities, stateroom are sufficiently roomy for two full size adult, drawer and overhead storage are sufficient. If you book early enough to get one of the top deck room, that would be an added bonus. For those rooms, you can open the window and hear the sea breeze and birds in the late nite and morning. After the orientation, we set up our gears and cameras. The camera table was not as good as some other yachts; nevertheless it served its purpose. Of the 14 divers, 2 with dSLR, 3 with HD video and a couple with point & shoot. Our check dives was at Isla Lobol in the island of San Cristobal. What a fantastic way to start the week, a shallow 22 ft depth into a mix of sand and rock bottom immediately welcomed by large amount of sea lions. They are the same California coast species but the similarity stop there, these sea lions were so friendly they swam side by side with divers at arm length and slow down to accommodate divers lack of maneuverability so they can exchange eye contact. Others demonstrated their best acrobatic skill and they rarely puff bubbles at our face. The dive had solid 40+ ft visibility and warm 74F degree, it’s my warmest water dive of this year!

Next morning, the boat arrived North Seymour Island, we had 2 dives in the morning at Mosquera. Mosquera is a little island between North Seymour and Balta, we sighted several giant sting ray, moral eel, turtles, white tip, black tip sharks accompany by all sorts of reef fish schooling. Water temperature was 73~74F also with very mild to no current. In the afternoon, we hike a trail in the North Seymour Island. There we had opportunities to shoot frigates, boobies, and pelican. Sea lion pups, land and marine iguana came close to check us out. As I wind down the first nite sat down on the top deck watching sunset sipping a glass wine, I began to realize how rich and diverse life is in Galapagos while in such remote location. The movie Jurastic Park kept poping out of my head.

After an over nite full speed North West heading, our trip reaches the main theme. It’s the first of the 2 most important islands for the Galapagos dive, the Wolf Island. The island is not very big, both end can be seen clearly. Sea birds patrol the island looking for left over and fish on shallow water. We did 4 dives there. Dive leader Walta went into great length on how to dive here, manage the current and where to look for pelagic. Most divers onboard were very experienced divers but Galapagos is a different type of diving and it’s important to listen carefully to the briefing. The first 2 dives were at the site Landslide. I am not sure how it gets the name, perhaps it’s from the jagged edge cliff formation of the island. As soon as we flip from the zodiac, we head straight down to a plateau of reef and rocks roughly around 77 ft. We must hold on or grab onto rocks to avoid drifting away. Couple divers even use reef hooks, I strongly discourage using reef hooks flying above the reef, more about this later. I on the other hand found some rocks formation in a way that I was actually able to sit down with rocks all around and above me; I hardly feel any current. The currents are there, bubbles were moving at a 60 degree angle. As we situated ourselves comfortably, we look above, below and into the blue. It wasn’t long when school of hammer head starting to cruise by. Groups after groups, above, below, everywhere were hammerhead. It was very much like sitting in the mezzanine watching an opera performed by a mix of hammerhead, eagle ray, tuna & jacks. The giant 6 ft hammerhead gracefully sway it’s tail through the blue was much like a ballerina spin across the stage in Swan Lake. I hold my breath, it was exhilarating. 20 minutes later, we swam into the blue cut through the hammerhead path but yet we could still see them above, around and below us casting a sexy silhouette over the sandy bottom. On the third dive, we move to the other side of the island and dove the Anchorage point, it was very much the same format, straight down to the bottom, find your row seven in the IMAX theater and just wait watch. There we had groups of eagle ray, follow by hammerhead, Galapagos and silky sharks shown up again and again. At the end of the day at Wolf, we were all exhausted, not from diving in the current but from busy keeping track on what we had seen. It was difficult to comprehend there were so many varieties of huge animals and at such large quantity, it was spectacular. In between, I notice lots of life on the reef also, all kind of reef fish and moray eel, several yellow colored puffer hang out between rocks. I have never seen such bright yellow color on puffer, it was striking.

The next morning, we show up at Darwin, we were greeted by birds while soaking up the scene of the Darwin Arch from a distance. It was a beautiful morning. We did 4 dives under the Darwin Arch, it was even more spectacular than Wolf, hammerhead, eagle ray, mobula ray, school of jacks, tuna, lobster, you name it and they are there. On one dive, I was separated with the group as we swam into the blue, as I hover during my safety stop, a large marlin head towards me, circle me my buddy a couple times before vanished into the blue. We compare notes on the zodiac as we transit back to the Aggressor, the group saw mabula ray while I saw a marlin, so we were even !

On the 5th day, we dove 2 more dives in Darwin before getting back to Wolf, there we did one more dive and concluded the Wolf & Darwin expedition. A long bumpy overnite 16 hours cruise took us back to the island of Santiago, many folks slept through the entire ride and skip meals. The ride was not for the weak stomach. Cousin rock is where we did 2 more dives the next morning, it was colder then Wolf and Darwin. Themalcline drop the water temperature to 64F briefly, the themalcline cloudy the water. I focus on macro on the fist dive, took the 105VR down, nudibranch, reef fish, and sea horse were sighted. On the next dive, we decided to play with sea lion again, there was an area like a cave, a family of sea lion just keeps coming up and down to this area to play with us. We went on another land tour in the afternoon, Baltolome island, this is an extinct volcanic island, there were basically no life other than a few crickets and dry vegetation. The solidified lava throw demonstrated how land was formed. On top of the island, we had the grandest bird eye view of several islands, it is beautiful. After the hike, we did a zodiac tour along the rocky coast line, there we saw penguins ! Not large numbers but they are so cute to photograph.

Time flew and we are on our last dive day, we dove the Gordon Rock in the Santa Cruz island. If we had to pick on bone, this would be the worst of all the dives. It was cold, 68F with several even colder thermalcline making the visibility down to 20, 30 feet only, almost Monterey like. While it was cold, we still encountered hammerhead. Follow after the dive, we went on land where we were greeted by sea lion, crabs, iguanas, and birds again. This island also has the hybrid iguana. The view on top of the island was breathtaking, on one side it looks like Big Sur California and on the other, it reminds me of Komodo. In the afternoon, we went to the island Santa Cruz, here we saw the giant turtle farm. Those things are huge. The rest of the town like many tropical village, there are gift shops and restaurants, the atmosphere was really laid back. We spent our Christmas dinner on the island, I wander into a street off the main road and found some street restaurants where we sat on Rubbermate chair in the middle of the street but you know what, the lobsters were out of this world ! For about $12, we got big 1 ½ pound lobster tail meat. It was grill with a special source and it was so delicious, we had to order for more.

The next morning, we pack our bags and head to airport. The journey had finally come to a conclusion. Over the course of the week, we had seen many things we had never seen before; we had played with many sea lifes we had never played with before. We were inspired by how some animals manage their survival. We didn’t see whale shark, we didn’t see red-lipped bat fish and we didn’t take any close up shot of hammerhead. But we all had an awesome time. A note on hammer head, they are extremely shy animal and any detection to unfamiliar movement and bright color will scare them off. Couple divers in the group use reef hook, they were waving in the current 5 feet off the reef, this is basically to tell the hammerhead stay away. Other time they were out in the bottom off the reef blowing bubbles, another signal for the hammerhead not to come close, it was a big disappointment. If you do get to dive Galapagos, trust the guide, hide yourself between rocks and relax your air consumption, hammerhead will come to you and let you take their muck shot.

A few final words on travelling. The airline industry had definitely abuse their customers to a new level. Forget about services, they basically don’t care anymore, you travel or not, it’s your problem. If you have to get on the plane, you have no choice, you had to take the beating. It doesn’t matter which airline, they all treat their customer worst then third class citizen. I had to pay $60 three times for my dive bag. Basically a moist 7mm wet suit, a moist BCD and fins weight more than 60 pounds ! Everything else I put it on my carry on and that’s probably over 50 pounds too. The one thing I take away from this travel experience is to check in 2 dive bags next time each wait less than 50 pounds and I would be ok. I think domestic dive trip is pretty much out of the question with the kind of airline baggage policy. Also last time I travel alcohol beverages was $4 and now it’s $6. Bloody hell !

View slide show here.

So here is something I learned a couple of weeks ago (it's now 2/22/09). Our last meal in Quito was in an authentic Ecuadorian restaurant call Mama Clorinda, we order one of the famous authentic dish. At the time, I thought it was a roast baby scukling pig, it was tender and delicious. But now I realize it ain't pig, it's a guinea pig ! Guinea pig is actually a big mouse (cavy)! Ouch but it was delicious !