Hurricanes, Cyclones and more oh my

arrow crab and basket star
arrow crab and basket star after the storm 

It has been hard watching the weather channel during the last six months.  So many places that I have been diving have been hit by hurricanes, tropical storms or cyclones.  These powerful storms have been just devastating topside and to the reefs surrounding them.   In the above image a coral head with a knobby sea rod had been upended by a hurricane.  I suspect both the coral head and the sea rod will eventually die.  (You try living on your side when you are designed to sit upright!)   And yet, at the time I shot this image several months after the hurricane went through, an arrow crab and a basket star had turned the sea rod and coral head into their home. (You have to look very close to see the basket star which is behind the arrow crab and it helps to look at the image at 100%).  

I was looking through images I’ve shot over the last year or so and it occurred to me.  I have been diving at certain islands before and after a storm has gone through.  Yep, topside and underwater often have gotten pretty beat up.   Sometimes when I have been places after a storm the blue tarps are still up on the buildings to shut out the rain.   But, I have seen that with the passage of time there is usually recovery.  Now there is no question the dive sites are different. And, I am sure the life experience topside is never the same.  For instance, below is an image I took of the Papa doc wreck in Grand Bahama about six months before a hurricane when through.  

It took a while to get both squirrel fish to venture into the image while shooting images at the Papa Doc site

  At the stern of what was once a tug boat the exhaust port for the engine was still intact and the fish, in this case long spine squirrel fish, were able to swim from one side of the hull to the other through the exhaust port.  The hull although cracked was still intact.  There also were quite a few sea fans and sea rods attached to the hull.  The sand the wreck sat on was pretty minimal.   Now consider what the wreck looks like a few months after the hurricane went through.  

papa doc stern
papa doc stern after the hurricane

The stern of the Papa doc is gone.  I could find no long spine squirrel fish any where on the wreck. Most of the sea rods and sea fans were blasted off the wreck.    And, there is an additional three feet of sand that the wreck is sitting on.  Where did the sand come from?  What was a sandy beach about half mile away, now has a whole lot less sand.  Oh, and the sand displaced the garden eels that otherwise were near the wreck before the hurricane.    It was hard to believe it was the same wreck.  And yet, there was some fish life around the wreck and you could see where the sea fans and sea rods were trying to make a come back.  

In February 2016 a class five cyclone (same thing as a hurricane only in the Pacific) went through Fiji.  One of the dive shop owners told me that Taveuni  after the storm did not have a single leaf left on any top water plant.  Now that was hard to believe because only sixteen months later Taveuni was a lush tropical island.   

The palm trees have leaves, the grass is green and the recovery looks good.  

Lots of leaves and greenery now after 16 months.  And underwater, well in Fiji my only word for it: spectacular. 

Rainbow reef after the storm
Rainbow reef after the storm

So hopefully, with time all of the islands in the Caribbean will make a recovery.  

Have you ever sailed in the the Yasawa islands?

The islands of Fiji
The islands of Fiji

Unlike most of my posts, I have included more about how we got to Fiji and more details about the travel rather than just focusing on the dives.  

Day 1 of our trip was a lot of flying. Dallas to San Francisco was about four hours and uneventful. I had worked until noon that Thursday, the day we were to leave, and then went home to make sure I had all of my gear ready. I had packed over the preceding two weekends so I needed to make sure I had not forgotten anything in the packing process. We were picked up at the house at 3 p.m.  We left Dallas late in the afternoon and had a several hour layover in San Francisco.  We ate at an airport restaurant; the food was passable, but nothing special.  

The flight from San Francisco to Nandi airport in Fiji, was not a lot of fun. We left San Francisco around 10 p.m. local time.  The flight was 10 hours of feeling like a sardine in a can of sardines. There were a few empty seats thank goodness.   We probably should have paid for the upgrade from coach.  The seats were close together and food was crap.  Hardly slept a wink.  Nancy took a sleeping pill and then was awaken several times while she was trying to sleep.   We flew over the equator and over the international date line.  We started the trip on Thursday afternoon and arrived in Fiji early on Saturday. 

Our early arrival in Fiji at 5 a.m. local time on Saturday was uneventful.  We collected all of our luggage, fortunately it all arrived, and cleared customs without any issues. Based on travel advisories we had received I had split up the camera equipment in my backpack. I had put two camera bodies and multiple lenses and a focus light in my photographer’s vest which I wore so my backpack would only weigh about 15 pounds.  My backpack would have otherwise weighed in at over 40 pounds.  Once we got on the plane I had put the equipment back in the backpack and put it back in the overhead.  The games we play to avoid another bag fee of $200. 

 The temperature in Nandi was pleasant, almost cool.   From the airport we took a cab to the local yacht club that advertised it was open for breakfast at 7 a.m. We drove by a spa that advertised day rooms, which didn’t look to be open.  We would later learn that it was open, oh well.  The yacht club didn’t actually open until 10 am.  We got lucky, we met Andrew from a local dive shop who let us park our bags while we got breakfast. (I wanted to try to do a dive or two with Andrew and his shop after he was kind to us, but unfortunately our travel plans would not allow us to fit it in.) In a local restaurant in the marina near the yacht club we had breakfast.  I had a Fijian breakfast burrito scrambled eggs with mushrooms in a tortilla. It was pretty good.  Who knew I had to fly to Fiji to have a breakfast burrito?  After breakfast, we moved the gear to the yacht club and tried to rest.   We both slept on what looked like bean bag chairs.  After we slept for a while we ate lunch and tried to stay awake until 5 pm when we met the crew from the boat. 

We were met at the yacht club by Steve and Georgia, the base managers who had been our crew on a trip we did in the Pearl islands of Panama.  They introduced the crew for our trip, Julian the captain and Jim the first mate, both from Fiji.  We met the other guests on the trip and had a round of drinks while we waited for dinner.   Dinner was a lobster dish and Fijian ceviche, which were very good. The rest of the evening was pretty much a blurr for me because of the lack of sleep. I finally got to sleep and slept until just past sunrise local time.  Making the adjustment to Fijian time did not seem to be too difficult, but 17 hours of time differential did make it a bit tough to figure out when to check on things back at the office.  

Day 2 in Fiji: The sky was somewhat overcast with a little wind but otherwise nice. The clouds meant that I could still take a sunrise picture even though I got up a bit late.

Sunrise on day one of the boat trip
Sunrise on day one of the boat trip

We ate breakfast around 8 a.m. while under way.  I don’t think captain Julian put up the sails until after breakfast although we sailed until around noon.  

We were on a 59 foot catamaran which is a luxury boat in the Trade Winds system.  To say that the boat is very nice, is an understatement.  There is quite a

bit of room for the guests to read and sit around on the boat and watch the islands go by while the boat is underway.  The state rooms are good sized and there is plenty of storage space for cloths and camera equipment.  We were traveling at about 4-6 knots under motor and sail.  My underwater housing was stowed in the diving equipment compartment.  The marine heads are well designed and are efficient.  The marine toilets were push button flush and seemed to work without getting stopped up. (This is a vast improvement over the first trade winds boat we sailed on in which to flush the toilet you had to hand pump water into it in order for it to flush.  Also, on the old boats there was little if any air conditioning.  And, electrical plugs were at a premium.  The new luxury boats are much better at providing the creature comforts that are easy to get accustom to using). There are two U.S. electrical plugs on each side of the bed and more plugs up in the saloon where the kitchen is located.  At 59 feet in length there is plenty of room to house the eight guests.   Air conditioning on the boat works well, and it was on each evening so we could sleep well.  

We had breakfast while underway.  The food was excellent.  Jim was a chef at a prior job and it shows.  He is one of the better chefs we have had on the trade winds cruises.  We did not have the typical trade winds menu, I suspect that is impart related to what food staples are available in Fiji, but the difference was refreshing.  By midday, Chris, one of the guests had caught a tuna that probably weighed 10 to 12 pounds. The tuna was good as sushimi, and as sushi.  

Chris hooks a tuna
Chris hooks a tuna

We reached our destination before noon.  We snorkeled for about an hour before lunch.   Then after lunch, I assembled the underwater camera housing and went back out and snorkeled for another couple of hours with the camera.  There were several things about the snorkeling that struck me.  One, the variety or corals was significantly greater that what we are accustomed to seeing in the Caribbean. 

Second, the health of the various corals appeared to be very good.  Third, while some of the fish looked somewhat familiar, but in different colors, there were a lot of fish that were quite different from what we were used to seeing in the Caribbean. 

blue green damsel fish and stag horn coral
blue green damsel fish and stag horn coral

By the time I got out of the water, the light was going down.  The clouds had rolled in so it was a pretty over cast day; consequently, it got dark fairly early. 

At dinner we learned that we would go to manta strait and see if we could see any manta rays snorkeling the morning.  We anticipated we would do a dive later probably after lunch.  Out of the guests we had 6 divers.  One of them, Len, a retired attorney from Nevada was 82. I decided I would keep an eye on Len just to make sure he was ok.  When you think about it, it is pretty impressive to be able to strap almost 50 pounds on your back and then be able to go diving.  I sure hope I can continue to dive until I’m 82, of course that does assume I live that long.   

Day 3: We had clear skies and we went snorkeling at manta bay right after breakfast.  Just before we dropped anchor at manta bay, a sea plane landed and coasted up to the manta bay resort, which not surprisingly, sits on manta bay.  Now seeing a sea plane land and take someone up to a resort is not something we see every day in Dallas. 

sea plane
sea plane at the manta resort

Unfortunately, no manta rays showed up at manta bay when we were there, but we did find an octopus and a lot of other sea life.   

After our snorkel we sailed to sand dollar beach.  When we got there, I looked down at the wall near our anchorage and said “lets go diving”.  Well that didn’t work out.  I suspect in part because getting tanks refilled in the Yasawa islands is not very easy.  And, unfortunately dollar beach was a bit rough with the surge and current to see much snorkeling.  Later that day Julian moved the boat closer to sand dollar beach.  

The coral break was mostly dead, and we didn’t find many sand dollars.  We talked about going for a night snorkel, but I was pretty tired so I gave up.  The food was good.  Beef tips at lunch were great.  Breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes.   Good thing we are snorkeling quite a bit otherwise weight gain would have been a challenge.  I was hoping that the dive in the morning would be worth waiting for.

Day 4: Julian moved the boat back to the early anchorage at Sand Dollar beach.  Visibility at the beginning of the dive was excellent.  We weight checked Len and with 10 pounds he was fine.  Weight checked Nancy with a new wetsuit and 24 pounds seemed ok, but she did have problems getting down.  Jim said he gave her some more weight to get down.  I chalked it up to first dive of the trip jitters.  Unfortunately, the weight distribution was not even according to Nancy so she felt like she was going to roll to one side.  Mid-way thorough the dive visibility got really bad.  Then Nancy’s computer told her she only had 2 minutes of air left;  when I got to her she was checking the analogue gas gauge and it showed 1000 pounds of gas so I helped calm her down and she stayed down for the rest of the dive.  Meanwhile I had seen a sea krate so I went back and checked it out, got a picture or two before it was time to do the three minute safety stop.  Visibility went from great to crappy mid-way through the dive and then back to good, then we had to turn around.  So I suspect between the visibility, the computer malfunction and the new wetsuit, Nancy was not enjoying that first dive too much.

Sea krate, Laticauda colubrina
Sea krate, Laticauda colubrina

  After the dive, Julian moved the boat to another “Y” island.  We did some snorkeling after we anchored.  Later in the afternoon we went into the village on the island where we had a kava ceremony.  Everyone had to put on a sarong, even the guys.  The ceremony was pretty interesting.  They offered us Kava drink which looked and tastes like dirty dishwater.  Afterwards the locals danced and sang for us.  It was quite a nice ceremony.   Captain Julian explained that Kava ceremonies had been abused in the past by outsiders who would come in engage in the kava ceremony and then not leave for a long time, all the while expecting the villagers to feed and house them.  Nice work if you can get it, but I guess they now ask how long you are planning on staying at most if not all of the villages.   I guess even paradise has its challenges. 

A sandy beach on one of the Yasawa islands
A sandy beach on one of the Yasawa islands

The village we visited has maybe 300 people.  Most are older men and women, grandma and grand pa age folks who tend to be fisherman or farmers.  Then there are young children who are going to school.  

Going back to school
Going back to school

We walked through a preschool school and saw some of the youngsters who attended. 

Even in school what is outside is more interesting than inside
Even in school what is outside is more interesting than inside

Most of the people from the village who were in the 18 -40 year age range were either away at school or had moved out of the village to live and work in the cities in Fiji to make a living.  Most of the people who live in the village appear to live a subsistence lifestyle.  Len was our honorary chief for our group and they made a nice lei for him and for everyone in our group.  The people living in the village were nice people.  

After the Kava ceremony we took the dingy back to the boat and then had vegetarian lasagna which was ok.  Sorry, I just like meat protein, so it’s hard for me to get excited about vegetarian anything.

  Day 5: I woke up early around 3:30 a.m. because my left ear was bothering me.  Too much water, with no drops.  I found some hydrogen peroxide and treated both ears then took an ibropen.  I was hopeful the hydrogen peroxide would take care of the problem so I could keep diving. (Fortunately, the hydrogen peroxide did the trick and I was fine).  

So far on this trip I had taken almost as many topside pictures as I had taken u/w pictures, which is out of character for me; but I did have to do something on those long sails.  And, besides we had only done one dive so far.  The snorkeling had been good, but it’s hard for me to get excited about snorkeling since the angle of the shots are for the most part overhead shots which rarely produce usable results.  Diving down and trying to clear my ears with each breath hold is a challenge since my ears clear slowly and by the time I got down to depth I would typically have very little time to compose an image.  In my mind snorkeling is not particularly useful.   

Since I was up early I noticed the lights at the back of the boat seem to attract quite a few little fish.  Every now and then a needle fish which was maybe a foot in length would come up and try to get a free meal.  It didn’t appear that he was particularly effective in his hunting.  

By 6:30 a.m. the light was starting to come up and it looked like we would have at least a cloudy morning.  There was a little wind, but not more than 3 knots.  The water was very still with hardly a ripple.  It looked like the sun would come up over a mountain which usually means we will probably not have much of a sunrise. 

Sometimes its good to be wrong about what the sunrise will look like
Sometimes its good to be wrong about what the sunrise will look like

Well I guessed wrong, it turns out it was a pretty nice sunrise.  I even managed to capture on video of the some of the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and the sounds of roosters crowing in the morning.  

Day 6: Thursday;  We had a long sail in the morning.  We stopped at lunch and had a snorkel.    The coral was pretty, but the viz was a bit iffy maybe 50 feet of viz.   We had lunch then sailed south to Mana island. We did a dive on an uncharted dive site.  Huge bommies, not a lot of fish.  I’ve named the site, “Can’t Bommie Love”. 

Can't bommie love dive site
Can’t bommie love dive site

 I got a few shots but viz was pretty poor and with little fish life the bommies were okay but not spectacular.   We had Indian food that night on the boat.   I was thinking, hopefully we will get tanks filled and go diving on Friday.  We did sail out to where they filmed Blue Lagoon.  Yep it is pretty, and we did another snorkel.  

Blue lagoon
Blue lagoon

Day 7: Friday;  tank fills are taking quite a while.  One compressor, 3 whips and 50 tanks ahead of us.  At least the bay is beautiful.  Only a handful of boats.   Read and responded to several emails before breakfast.  Sunrise was a bit boring; no clouds so not a lot of character to the sun rise.   I guess the resort that is near us has been closed for 4 months because the “Survivor” series rented it all and closed it so they could film nearby.  My left ear is still bothering me but it clears alright so it must be an outer or middle ear problem.  Food had been good; bacon and quiche, plenty of food.  Getting bored waiting for the tanks to get filled. 

I suspect once the tanks are filled we will head off to a dive site and dive it then head closer to the port.  By 10 a.m. it looks like some of the tanks have finally come back.   I checked the tanks after I picked one up and said it felt light.  I unfortunately was right, the tanks had been hot filled and only had about 2700 pounds of air.   So we left the tanks in the sun and let them warm up so with heat expansion they would register about 2900 but pressure would drop once we hit the water. Because the tanks are being filled so slowly, Jim stays at the shop filling tanks and Julian takes the boat out to a nearby reef.  We wait for Jim and the dingy and the last of the tanks out at the reef.    

While we were waiting to arrive we did a snorkel around the reef and we see several sea planes land which was pretty interesting.  Nice way to get to a resort. After Jim gets back to the boat, we do dive 3 of the week, which is a site known as cabbage patch. We start over white sand and drop down to about 30 feet and follow the sand down to the reef.

divers swimming toward the cabbage patch site
divers swimming toward the cabbage patch site

One of the early creatures we encounter is a huge broadclub cuttlefish.  Steve took some video of him and them I took a couple of stills.  The cuttle fish just sits there, but he changed colors a few times before he swam away.

Broadclub cuddlefish
Broadclub cuddlefish

We eventually dive deeper down and see the cabbage patch which is a huge patch of plate coral.  Among the leaves of the cabbage patch there are three schools of fish. 

The cabbage patch
The cabbage patch

I take a few stills and then a few videos of the moving schools of fish.  We continue on until we hit 30 minutes of dive time and then we turn around and head back.  On the way back, I saw a couple of interesting tunicates and a few more schools of fish.  When we were about to make a left turn to get back to the boat, I notice a sea krate at the bottom so I dropped down and watched him hunt for food.  Sea krates are pretty animals despite being quite so toxic.  And of course, there is no anti-venom for them so if you get bitten, you are dead.  I got close to the sea krate, but he largely ignores me while I am videoing him.  After I finish filming the sea krate, we head back to the boat and it’s a pretty good swim, several hundred yards back to the boat.  I deploy my smb on the way back and carry the flag back since there is some boat traffic in the area.  It was a good dive with excellent viz and interesting wildlife. 

At the boat we get the gear hung on the sides of the boat so it can dry.  The boat now looks like the streets of Milan where they hang all of the laundry out to dry.  Bummer, it’s the last dive at least on this part of the trip.  Fortunately, we will have more dives on the second half of the trip.   I checked some of the images from underwater.  I did get some good ones on the dive and on this part of the trip.  I will put them away for now and start new cards. All of the weight restrictions for the airlines mean that I have to make some hard choices about what gear I bring.  And, I left the netbook at home to conserve space and weight. So I wasn’t able to edit any of the photos until after we returned to Dallas.  

This part of the trip has been good. Julian and Jim were excellent as captain and fist mate.  I ‘d sail with them again. Sure wish we could get a compressor on the next boat.

Is there a compressor on this boat?
Is there a compressor on this boat?

Have you been to Paradise?

Rainbow reef in Tevouni
Rainbow reef in  Taveuni with loads of soft corals

For the most part, when I travel, I usually have a pretty good idea of what I expect to see when I arrive at my destination.  Typically before I leave to go to a destination, I have looked at one or more photo sites to give me  a sense of what I may be able to see, and shoot, when I get to the destination.  Many times I have done some research on the accommodations that we will be staying at to make sure we don’t get an ugly surprise.  It is rare that I am surprised, and even more rare that I am pleasantly surprised.  I suppose based on all of the traveling I have done, I am spoiled and have very high expectations.  And yet, a pleasant surprise is what we found in Taveuni at Paradise resort.  

In five days of diving, I did 15 dives, 3 dives a day, and each of the sites we saw were different and I did not grow bored with the sites becoming too similar.  Fiji is famous for being the soft coral capital of the world.  Paradise Resort which has relatively quick access to rainbow reef is in my mind the epicenter of soft coral diving.  Keep in mind, to be interesting there must be a pretty good current that runs through a dive site with soft coral to adequately feed the soft coral and keep them open and beautiful. 

Most of our dives we did on slack high or slack low tide, so the current was not completely rippin’.  After one of our dives one of our guides pointed out a place where the current was racing through near where we had been diving.  The current looked to be well over 5 knots and if we had been there we would not have been there long!

Soft corals and a blizzard of fish

If you want to be able to push a big camera through the current, be prepared to bring your big blade fins.  I wore my dive rite fins and left most of the people on our trip behind.  Split fins may be comfortable, but leave them for water that doesn’t move as much. And be prepared to be well fed at the resort.  Big engines need lots of fuel!

Back at the resort there are opportunities to shoot macro shots, with nudibranchs and the house reef has resident blue ribbon eels and other macro subjects. 

A juvenile anemone fish trying to hide in an anemone

During the week, we saw sharks, but because there is no feeding of sharks in the area.   The white tip sharks did not approach our group and were content to sleep just off the wall in water too deep to dive.  We also saw two enormous Napoleon wrasses that each would have weighed well over 300 pounds.  We saw several dozen pilot whales on our way to several of the dive sites and a pod of dolphins as well.  Sure it would have been interesting to get closer to them than 20 meters while on the surface, but I was quite content to be able to observe them from afar.  So when will I go back to Paradise Resort, as soon as I can find  space in my schedule.  I will plan on spending at least two weeks there next time.    

What would you do to protect an endangered species?

One of the interesting thing about doing a fair amount of traveling is that you get to meet a lot of different people.  Now during my travels I can say that I have never met two people who are exactly alike.  And, to my way of thinking that is a good thing.  Too many similarities and I think life could become way too boring.

The thought occurred to me recently that some people I have met are very committed to making sure that certain animals  are not wiped from the face of the Earth.  It’s my understanding that we are in the mist of a significant extinction period of time.  To my way of thinking the ocean would not be the same without turtles, manta rays or even sharks.  Now I don’t get particularly excited about reptiles, but turtles are just fun.  Their expressions always remind of grumpy old men.  Were sharks to go away after hundreds of millions of years of survival it would mean that an apex predator would be gone from the ecosystem.  Removal of the apex predator would mean that there would be far less balance in the marine ecosystem than there is now.  Mantas, until recently I had never had the chance to see them up close in the ocean.  They are graceful and are able to glide through the ocean like no other animal I have seen.  

 Now, I will be the first to admit that I have always enjoyed eating seafood.  The problem is that the nets that have been used over the years often are damaged or lost and can create a hazard to marine life in the form of ghost nets.    

Ghost net
Ghost net

Often marine life cannot see the lines that make up a net.  When a net is cut lose in the ocean, it is not uncommon for it to catch creatures that it was not intended to catch.  Not long ago I was sailing with a young boat captain who had come across a net that had captured a giant manta ray.  Now manta rays are endangered and quite often they are enormous.  Cutting one loose while you are on scuba gear takes quite a bit of courage.  If you get caught in the net with the animal and it can still swim, it can drag you down to depths that you cannot survive.  Now, think about jumping in the water with no scuba gear on and cutting an animal loose from a net when the animal is only slightly wider than an SUV.  Now that takes courage.  So my caps off to you Captain Jordan. 

Hurray it’s shark week again

Grey reef shark
Grey reef shark swimming overhead

In my opinion, apex predators are very interesting.  From what I have observed they are curious and will investigate what they think might be food.  If there is food in the water they will take an easy meal.  

This is why you wear the suit-
This is why you wear the suit

Sharks unlike people do not have hands which might otherwise allow them to tactically check out potential meals.   So what do they do, they taste potential entres with their mouths.  Now that might seem bad, it can have a bad effect on anyone the shark chooses to sample.  

Grey reef shark at shark junction
Grey reef shark at shark junction

So I keep thinking they sure are interesting but I ill try to avoid becoming a meal,