Saturday, September 10, 2005

Hvar, Croatia, September 2005

Adriatic cavern & wreck diving.

trip blog

Croatia - info sheet

VisumA valid passport is required.
Transport• Charter flight from Copenhagen to Split: 2½h.
• Bus transfer from Split airport to Split city: ½h
• Fast ferry from Split harbor to Stari Grad: ¾h
• Bus transfer from Stari Grad to Hvar town: ½h
TimeCroatian time = Danish time
WeatherAir temperature: 25-30°C. Sunny except for the last two days. Water temperature: 20-23°C.
Currency1 Euro = 7,35 Kuna
LanguageEnglish, besides German & Italian, is spoken by most - at least in the tourist places.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

Dive safari to Brac & Solta

It takes about two hours to cross from Hvar to Brac on the spacious but rather slow boat, loaded with twelve divers, and after a short translated breefing upon arrival, we’re pretty eager to get wet.

The water's 23°C fresh as I giant-step into it from the stern of the boat, but several short swims the previous days have somewhat prepared me and my snugly fitting 6+4mm rental suit does an excellent thermal insulation job.

Barely 3m deep two relatively small holes in the slightly sloping bottom allow easy one-diver-at-a-time access to a vast dome-like cavern. As usual, you can't see anything upon entry, as the eyes need time to adjust from bright daylight to twilight, but then, slowly, the cavern takes shape as its encrusted walls start looming out of the dark.

We’re supposed to spiral down and up along the walls, but my elderly Austrian buddy just keeps dropping down all the way until he hits the floor, after which he just stays there on his knees, silt bellowing around him. The cavern's also known as the church, so maybe he feels like praying. Luckily for him, right below the entrance holes, a mount of rubble rises up from the bottom at 42m to about a not-that-deep 25m. After a questioning look at the guide, we both drop towards the mesmerized diver. He doesn't seem to recognize the guide however, nor does he react to the guide's signals. So I firmly grab him by the arm, establish eye contact, and signal him to stick by my side and follow me. Which, surprisingly enough, he does for the remainder of the dive. Though in a rather trance-like state.

Supposedly there's some stalactites on one side of the cavern and a few stalagmites down below. But as there are several inexperienced divers in the group and the water being rather murky below 25m, the guide wisely chooses not to go that deep.

The cavern's large enough that two groups can dive it without really being aware of each other. Below us, several big tuna fish endlessly keep circling the cavern, but otherwise there's not really much to see and the whole experience only takes 35'.

After boarding the boat, the captain takes us to the next dive site, about one hour away near Solta island, this time for a wreck dive on a sunken fishing boat.

The water's noticeably cooler here, about 20°C. But it's a nice wooden wreck, lying between 18-22m, about 15-20m long I'd say, leaning slightly to one side, with some super-structure still remaining and giving it character. Too bad I don't have my camera with me as there's some neat wide-angle shots to be taken.

There's not too much fish life here either and the one nudibranch I notice, clinging on a rope, is lost the next moment in the tumult caused by a bunch of Polish divers, apparently not caring too much about marine life. The bottom though seems to be covered with sea cucumbers.

After the second dive it takes us a rather long three hours to sail back to Hvar.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Nautica dive center

Nautica is a Polish dive center located right below the Sirena hotel. Most of their customers being -you'll never guess- Polish, only a few of the staff actually speak English. The service is adequate, but you're expected to take care of your own gear & yourself. That includes making sure you've got another tank on board the boat for the second dive!

The dive season runs from May to September.

• 15 Euro for a mandatory Croatian dive permit (valid one year)
• 25 Euro/dive (tank, weights, boat-ride to nearby site & guide)
• 15 Euro/day for full gear rental (Technisub mask, Mares full-foot-fins, Eques 6+4mm suit, Scubapro jacket & regulator)
• plus 35 Euro to join a dive safari to Brac & Solta (1 cavern + 1 wreck dive)
• plus 40 Euro to join a dive safari to Vis (2 wreck dives)

Saturday, September 3, 2005


Hvar is a nice little coastal town that attracts both charter tourists and super-yacht owners. Overlooking the town and harbour is an old restaurated fortress offering some great views. It's a fairly easy walk up. The entrance fee is 10 Kuna.

There's plenty of restaurants to choose from (e.g. Pape, Junior, Paradise garden, Macondo), most of them serving decent seafood.

Prices vary from 20 Kuna for a sandwich & 40-60 Kuna for a pizza or spaghetti to 120 Kuna for a fish plate. And at 15-20 Kuna for 1/2l of good Croatian beer or about 30 Kuna for 1/2l of decent Croatian white wine, you won't leave thursty. To seal the meal, many restaurants offer a glass of grappa on the house. A can of Coca-Cola costs about 5,25 Kuna in a supermarket. Tap water is potable (= free).

Sirena, our communist era hotel, is located in a perfect little bay, just a 30' stroll from town.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sulawesi, Indonesia, July 2005

Looking for critters specialized in remaining strangely invisible.

travel blog

Indonesia - info sheet

VisumA visum is required for Belgian citizens! And there's a departure tax of 75000 Rp. In Copenhagen, a one month visum can be obtained from the Indonesian embassy within 2 weeks. Besides your passport you must bring two pictures, a copy of your travel documents, fill in an application, and pay 350 DKK.
Transport• Flight from Copenhagen to Frankfurt: 80'
• Flight from Frankfurt to Singapore: 12h
• Flight from Singapore to Manado: 3½h
• Taxi from Manado airport to Manado city: ½h.
• Boat transfer from Manado harbour to Bunaken: 25'
TimeN-Sulawesi time = Copenhagen summer time + 6 hours
WeatherAir temperature: 30°C. Often overcast with some downpours every couple of days. Water temperature: 28°C.
Currency1 USD = 9000 Rp (Indonesian Rupiah)
LanguageEnglish is spoken by some.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


It's a 45' ride from Murex Manado to the airport. Followed by a 3,5 hours flight to Singapore. The airport's left-luggage charges about 5 SGD/bag/day. Not cheap, but very convenient. The MRT to Bugis takes about half an hour or so. We've got 24h to shop, before continuing our journey back to reality.

After previously having tried trendy Japanese conveyor-belt sushi (3-6 SGD/plate) and popular food court Chinese noodles, we now choose for a no-nonsense dinner served on banana leaves in an Indian eatery (4,5 SGD).

From Little India to China Town only takes 5', thanks to Singapore's speedy MRT. Most of the smaller stores are closed on Sunday, but not the big shopping centers like Sim-Lim Square, Funan Digital-Life Mall or Raffles Shopping Arcade. In Singapore, to shop is to be. And with the bargains to be done here, it's hard to resist the urge to acquire a few things just to confirm your existence. In my case: Arena & Speedo swimming trunks (35 SGD/piece), 'Shadow divers' by Robert Kurson (20 SGD), 'An essential guide to digital underwater photography' by Michael Aw (25 SGD) and a pair of Merrel walking shoes (50 SGD). I managed not to buy an ultra-portable Sony Vaio laptop (3700 SGD) for writing my reports while on the go, a Suunto Mosquito dive computer (500 SGD) as back-up for my Vyper, and a lot of other things.

Before you know it, time's up, and you've got to head back. From City Hall to Changi airport, 45' by MRT (1,5 SGD).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Murex dive resort outside Manado

While aboard the Liburan, a headline in a dive magazine jumped out at me: 'Betlehem, better than Lembeh'. Betlehem being pretty near to Manado, we decide to leave Bangka a day earlier, to check it out.

From Bangka we're first transferred to the mainland, stepping off the boat onto the black sand beach of a small fishermen's settlement. Our pick-up arrives soon afterwards and drives us to Murex's dive resort just outside of Manado. A long 1,5 hour ride, through the city's maze of lanes. Once there we're given a nice bungalow with a remarkable sense of privacy, thanks to lush vegetation and cascading water, creating a double wall of green & white noise.

The next day we're on our way to Betlehem. Hoping to see a rhinopia scorpionfish. But they're here no more. Still, it's an enjoyable muck dive with four seahorses, a weedy spider crab, some anemone crabs, several nudibranchs, a line of sharp looking razorfish and a school of small barracudas.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Murex dive resort on Bangka

On our way from Lembeh to Bangka, a pod of dolphins graces us with their presence, effortlessly riding the ship's bow wave, before veering off to go somersaulting in the stern waves. The crossing only takes a slow 2 hours, after which the Liburan drops us at Murex's small resort, where we accommodate ourselves in one of the spacious sea view bungalows. Our guide here is Kennedy, who does his best to keep all the tourists satisfied. The food's excellent and for once there's no noise disturbing the peace.

The diving here is mainly around pinnacles overgrown with soft corals or along sloping walls. Currents can be pretty strong depending on the tide. Making it totally impossible for me to photograph the tiniest seahorse I've ever seen. Actually, it being only a couple of mm tall, I can't even say I had a good look. Not a dive goes by without at least one frogfish being spotted. Considering they pretend not to be there for a living, it must seriously undermine their self-confidence to constantly be in the center of divers' attention.

Dedi had some problems with his ears, so I left my eardrops on the Liburan. Only to get hit a couple of days later by a double ear infection myself. Despite preventive action. Luckily some Dutch divers staying in the resort had some eardrops I could use. But I still had to stay dry for three long days. I guess there must have been something nasty in the water, because three other tourists also had ear problems during our stay on Bangka.

My favourite site here is actually located on the mainland. A 15' crossing from Bangka, Paradise Pier is first class muck diving with more critters per square meter than I've ever seen. The pier is heaven for all kinds of creatures, from refuge seeking juvenile batfish to hidden daemons waiting in ambush for innocent souls. Hot springs keep the water temperature comfortably warm. An ideal playground for photographers indeed. But beware where you put your hands!

A sea fan is home to several wonderful harlequin ghost pipefish. At some point four of them even posed together. With sunlight in their back they almost seem to have a halo. A beautifully colored frogfish, inspired maybe by the pipefish's typical head down position, tries hard to keep his precarious upside-down position between a sponge's arms. Among paradise's rubble you can find devil scorpionfish and false stonefish, moody cuttlefish and small seasnakes looking for some morsel. Nudibranchs are all over too, should you run out of usual subjects.

Surrounding the pier are three different habitats: seagrass, sandslope and coralreef. There I saw green pipefish, baby frogfish, small stingrays darting out of the sand, a whole colony of frantic hingebeak shrimps and even a hovering army of ghost shrimps...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Liburan live-aboard in Lembeh strait

For 150000 Rp, Ron arranges a boat to bring us back to Manado, as there's no public crossings on Sundays. It's a rainy boat drive, together with some islanders going to the big city for some shopping. At the mooring quay, Mr Anky is waiting for us, and brings us to Bitung, N-Sulawesi's main harbour city and the Liburan's home base. A 1,5 hour drive. After settling the payment, we're then brought to the Liburan, a basic live-aboard that will be our floating home for the next week. The crew gives us a cordial welcome, taking care of everything as we settle in. Dive gear is set up immediately, as they fully expect us to go diving straight away. We don't object.

The Liburan can supposedly take up to eight passengers, besides a crew of at least six. However, as it happens to be, we're the only ones to have booked this trip. So we've got the whole ship for ourselves, and the full attention of the very friendly crew. A real luxury. Now, I can't imagine eight divers on this rather small ship, as even six would be crowded. The crew's the most professional I've ever seen in Indonesia, working together efficiently as a team, to make our stay as pleasant & comfortable as possible. Rudi, the German owner, isn't there, but Ferry, the captain, and Dedi, the dive guide, make sure everything goes smoothly.

After lunch and a small siesta, we're ready for our first dive. The site: Aer Prang. 70' later we surface, after having seen a small blue-ringed* octopus, a rare golden-orange* giant mantis shrimp, a fingered dragonet, a big stone fish dug out of the sand by Dedi, a seahorse, a black crinoid squat* lobster and various nudibranchs. Without a doubt one of the most fantastic intro dives I've ever had. Now this is what I call muck diving extraordinaire! Am I glad I just acquired a digital UW camera, allowing me to shoot and shoot without concern of running out of film.

Lembeh strait is not that long actually, and there's absolutely no need to be on a live-aboard. All the dive sites are within a short boat ride of the resorts here. But make sure that they have a 'maximum 4 divers per guide' policy. Especially if you're into photography. In our case it couldn't have been more perfect, with Dedi as our personal guide. For a trip like this to be successful, the guide's the one who has to deliver. He's got to find the critters. Knowing where to look is one thing, seeing is another. Especially in Lembeh, where what you see is not always what it seems. On the strait's mainland side, the sloping bottom mainly consists of black lava sand. Here's where incredible critters roam and hide in full sight. Pretending to be sponges, weed or sand. You could spend a whole dive without seeing any of them but for the guide's gift of detection.

I spent about 3,5 hours underwater every day, doing 18 dives in all, seeing at least one (for me) new critter on 14 of those. I've marked them with an * in this report. It's truly amazing actually. Normally I'm happy to see just one new creature on a whole trip.

After our wonderful first dive, Dedi kept us thrilled with more of nature's amazing creatures: Giant, painted, warty, hispid* & white-striped hairy* frogfish; a yellow* shortfin lionfish; devil, leaf & ambon* scorpionfish; false, reef & estuary* stonefish; cockatoo & longspine* waspfish; velvetfish*; pink & yellow* pygmy seahorses; various kinds of hippocampus; a winged* pipefish and two robust* ghost pipefish; a pair of scrambling seamoths; a mimic* octopus quickly floundering into its hideout in the sand; cuttlefish; blue, black & yellow ribbon eels, snake eels and several moray eels; longnose*, bubble-coral, cleaner, anemone, emperor & mantis shrimp; hermit, box, boxer, anemone, decorator, whip coral & soft coral crabs; tiny pink squat* lobsters on a sponge; cockatoo* flounder; flying gurnard; mandarinfish* romancing at dusk; coral & banggai cardinalfish; a small bamboo* shark; stingrays; tiger & egg cowries; electric* clams; lots of nudibranchs and a polyclad flatworm.

This list is by no means complete, but it should give you an idea. Besides being a magnet for critters, the strait's sandy slopes are also a kindergarden for various fish species. One thing we did not see, is the rhinopia scorpionfish. Next time maybe.

On the Lembeh island side of the strait, corals are more abundant, with plenty of soft corals and sponges, should you get bored with the black sand. There's even a wreck or two.

Sunday, July 3, 2005

M.C. homestay & dive center on Bunaken

As agreed beforehand, Ron, the Dutch manager of M.C. DiveBunaken picks us up behind the Celebes hotel at 10am, for a free 25' boat ride to his homestay on Bunaken, right beside the village, facing mainland Sulawesi. At 9 Euro pp/night, including three meals, it's a bargain. The food is excellent. Even though we had fish and rice twice a day, for most of the week, I never got tired of it. Coffee, tea and water are free of charge. With even a big 19l water bottle in the bungalow for our convenience.

The bungalows are basic, with an Indonesian style mandi and a small terrace. They're a bit too dark for my taste, but OK. All the front row bungalows are being renovated at the moment. There's no power during the day, but at night the homestay is connected to the village's generator. The village's proximity is a bit of a nuisance due to the noise from the public addressing system in the evenings and mornings. Imagine a woman rallying people to donate for a new church or house for the priest, every evening, again & again. And religious pop songs at 5am... Interesting local customs indeed.

Two boat dives cost 35 Euro (including, I think, equipment). There's a 7 nights (room+meals), 10 boat dives and 1 night dive package for 210 Euro. Visitors must pay a 150000 Rp Marine Park fee, valid for one calendar year. Jimmy, one of the two dive guides, is friendly, but doesn't speak much English.

The wall dives around Bunaken are relaxed and nice, with quite a few soft corals and big barrel sponges. Fish life is abundant especially at reef corners, but don't expect anything bigger than an occasional napoleon or a turtle. With a bit of luck though, you might spot an eagle ray passing by or a reef shark down below. And if you're really really lucky, as was a Vietnamese girl during our stay here, a juvenile whale shark might cruise in from the blue for a closer look!

The wreck between Manado and Bunaken is definitely worth a dive. Especially for wide-angle photography. With a maximum depth of about 39m, it's a bit deep, but it allows some nice swim throughs.

Saturday, July 2, 2005


Only a short flight away from Singapore, but a whole other world. There are no trolleys in the arrival hall. Besides it being only a short stroll to the outside, they would cause too many jobless porters. After having checked our options, we take a taxi, for 50000 Rp, from the airport to the Celebes Hotel, a slow 30' minute ride due to some traffic jam.

The Celebes is perfectly located close to the harbour, right where the small boats moor and depart for Bunaken. The basic room, at 50000 Rp for two, including undrinkable coffee and a toast for breakfast, is just four walls around a bed, but we don't need more. It's just for one transit night anyway.

Having nothing else to do, we walk around town. Checking out some supermarkets & malls. They're quite something actually. Besides the AC being rather chilly when entering from the sweaty streets, you almost get blasted off your feet by the noise level of the public announcements and music. I mean, it's just impossible to think, let alone talk, while in there. But Indonesians seem to like it. The louder the better.

A Coca-Cola can costs about 3000 Rp, as does a 1,5l bottle of water. You can get a basic meal in a street side eatery for 6000 Rp.

Friday, July 1, 2005

Sea&Sea DX8000G underwater camera

Though branded as a Sea&Sea underwater camera, it's actually an eight megapixels Ricoh Caplio GX8 digital compact camera in a polycarbonate Sea&Sea underwater housing.

At time of purchase, this camera was the best solution considering my requirements: a very compact underwater set-up both with wide angle and macro capability, at least 5MP, no shutter-lag to worry about, a maximum depth rating greater than 40m and an affordable price tag.

Sea&Sea's housing perfectly envelops Ricoh's GX8 compact camera, and allows easy access to all its functions.

Very compact package. I want to be able to take the camera into caves & inside wrecks, so the smaller it is, the better. Besides, with my dive gear already taking up most of my travel weight allowance, I just can't afford an extra case with bulky camera equipment. Another advantage is that the DX8000G's small size allows for some great shot angles from 'dirt'-level.

The 0.6x wide angle conversion lens, which can be put on or taken off underwater, turns the already wide 28mm* into a very wide 17mm* lens (* focal lengths are 35mm film camera equivalents). Perfect for pictures of large subjects - when they dare come close, underwater sceneries or wrecks.

Zoom range. With a 3x optical zoom lens going from 28mm* wide angle to 85mm* portrait, I can take both diver pictures (without having to back off too far) and super-macro shots of pretty tiny subjects (as close as 1cm with wide angle or 10cm with tele lens).

Zooming badly affects image quality, making it quasi useless.

Maximum depth rating of -55m.

Auto-focus. What a great feature after the manual guessing with Sea&Sea's analogue Motor Marine II EX.

The camera does have some trouble auto-focussing in low light low contrast situations. There is however also a manual-focus option, but I haven't bothered yet to try it out.

Lacking optical image stabilization, a.k.a. anti-shake, it's hard, though not impossible, to get sharp pictures in super-macro mode due to hand shake, body movement or restless subjects. You really need to be able to stabilize yourself (e.g. with a stick). Plenty of light of course helps too.

Instant feedback! Allowing for corrective measures on the spot when necessary.

Rather small 1.8" LCD.

MMC or SD memory cards up to 1GB. I kind of like the fact that I can use these multi-purpose memory card formats, in stead of the more brand specific ones like xD, compact flash, memory stick, etc. I use Sandisk SD Ultra II (512MB) & Extreme III (1GB) cards, good for about 150 & 300 photos respectively, in JPEG format at maximum resolution (3264x2448 pixels).

Internal memory of only 26MB. A joke really. But as far as I know, this is the case with most digital cameras, e.g. none really have any useful internal memory.

Almost unlimited number of exposures, with adequate memory-card & fully loaded batteries. No longer limited to 36 film exposures, this gives me the freedom to try again and again with various settings & angles, allowing me to experiment & try things out (without it costing anything).

Image quality is arguably not quite the same as with film cameras. The original JPEGs often have a certain flatness, missing the vibrant quality & depth of celluloid. However, with adequate editing software a lot can be done :o)

→ underwater snapshots taken while shark diving in the Bahamas

Rather poor low-light performance. Due to the small 1/1.8" CCD sensor, using ISO values above 100 immediately results in very grainy images.

While it's really great to be able to take AVI video-clips at 30fps, the maximum resolution of only 320x240 pixels is sub-standard.

Lighting issue: I did not buy an external strobe for this camera, because I don't like the fiber-optic cable slave-mode solution. In my opinion, it drains camera batteries for nothing besides slowing down the camera too much - as it takes several seconds to reload the built-in flash, during which the camera is out-of-action. In stead I've tried to use my dive torches:

Green Force's TriStar Diamond (less than 30W halogen equivalent), with its three little LEDs, doesn't quite come close to providing the necessary light for macro shots, but using it may help afterwards during post-processing to restore some of the reds.

TillyTec's HID 35 (125W halogen equivalent) with flood reflector, in conjunction with TillyTec's LED 1000 (100W halogen equivalent) with diffuser, provided just enough light for an underwater video project in Mexico's cenotes. In the total darkness of the fresh water caves, photography however still wasn't practically feasible with this camera.

Battery type: Two universally available AA cells (alkaline or rechargeable), custom-made high capacity rechargeable battery or AC adapter. So far I've used:

Rechargeable AA NiMH cells from Sanyo (1.2 V, 2300 & 2500 mAh). While kind of satisfied with their performance (good for about 100 shots w/o flash), they completely self-discharge within a week and totally give up after about a year's moderate usage.

+ Rechargeable AA NiMH cells from Ansmann (1.2 V, max-e 2100 mAh). These provide enough power for my camera to be almost always on, even on 2h long dives! Remarkably better than my supposedly more powerful, but unreliable, self-draining Sanyo cells.

Battery indicator: Consisting of only 3 rather imprecise levels (3/3, 2/3 & 1/3), the battery indicator isn't of much use, except as a very rough & unreliable estimate.


Singapore's hot & humid. 6 hours ahead of Copenhagen. 1 USD = 1,6 SGD. 1 Euro = 2 SGD. It's probably the cleanest city in the world. And Singapore's pretty efficient mass rapid transportation system, MRT for short, brings you anywhere in no time. Especially with an EZ-link card, getting in & out of the subway is a breeze. Or you can walk. The center's not that big actually.

If you need to find a specific road, street or bridge, check out this pretty cool city map of Singapore. Good old unfoldable city maps are available for free in the airport (among other places) and pretty handy once you're out on the street trying to find a particular place, be it a street, mall or subway station. Street names are well-posted at each intersection to help you around.

We're staying at a backpackers place called the Inn Crowd. They've got mainly dorm beds, but also some double rooms at 48 SGD/night, including basic make-it-yourself breakfast. It's located in Bugis, Little India, close to Sim-Lim Square, a big shopping mall full of all kinds of electronics.

However, the Adelphi's my primary target, as that's where Singapore's Sea&Sea dealer is housed. And I'm lucky. The DX8000G, Sea&Sea's latest UW digital compact camera, has just arrived. Replacing the less than a year old DX5000G. It being brand new, I can't get a special discount, but the promotional price is a pretty good deal. And I do get 3% off for paying cash. After that I can relax. I got what I came for. Besides the camera & housing, I also bought a 0.6x Wide Angle Lens, rechargeable batteries, and a couple of SanDisk Ultra II 512MB SD memory cards (90 SGD/piece).

A Coca-Cola can costs about 1,2 SGD, as does a 1,5l bottle of water. You can have a nice meal for 5-10 SGD.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Flight #1 cancelled, #2 delayed, #3 missed

Summer vacation means busy airports. So we make sure to be there in good time. There being no check-in queue, we find ourselves in Copenhagen airport's departure hall way too early to have a gate assigned. So we just stroll around while waiting for a gate. Waiting for a gate in fact till 17:10 our planned departure time. At which point we're finally told that Maersk has cancelled its flight to Frankfurt. No reason given. We're just redirected to a service desk, where they're not quite prepared to face a whole flight of stranded passengers demanding a solution. However, all other direct flights to Frankfurt are fully booked. But they assure us they'll get us there no matter how nor when.

In our case that means we're rerouted to Prague first, at 18:25, on a SAS flight, stuffed in the tail end between the MD80's two engines. That's a very noisy place. But hey, we're flying. And with a bit of luck we should make it to Frankfurt, even though only half an hour before our flight to Singapore. We've been told to go for it, change terminals as quickly as possible and run for the gate upon arrival in Frankfurt. And just forget about our luggage...

In Prague's rather provincial airport, there's no personnel at our supposed departure gate. 20:35, our planned departure time, comes and goes without any information whatsoever. Until at 20:50 we're being told that our flight will be leaving at 22:00. Meaning there's no way we can make the Singapore flight. We've been told repeatedly that all subsequent flights to Singapore are fully booked. The little hope we'd left, now totally evaporates. At last we're on our way to a city we no longer have any reason to go to. It's 23:30 when Czech air drops us in Frankfurt's deserted airport. Our luggage is actually waiting for us by the time we make it to the belt. But it's too late to get anything done. All airline offices being closed, we head for the airport's Sheraton hotel, only to find out that there's some international football match in town and not a single room's available. However, one of the clerks knows about a small family run hotel only 5' from the airport, at 140 Euro for a double room, half the Sheraton's price. A bargain we sure hope to get paid back. A bit later a friendly Turkish looking man picks us up and cramps us in his old Mercedes together with another traveler. It's hot and humid as we drive through the night to the Taubengrund hotel. It could be any town, almost anywhere. The room's decent enough, and after a quick shower I just crash into bed.

Next morning, as we have breakfast in the Mediterranean looking dining room, Marianne calls Singapore airlines. What was just totally impossible yesterday, is no problem at all today. We can fly at 12:35! With our luggage. Once again we have a holiday, thanks to Singapore airlines' helpful attitude. We're given a ride back to the airport, where check-in is a breeze, making it all real. The flight is on time, we've got decent seats, with private view-when-you-want movie displays, the food's pretty good and we even land on time. Only 12 hours later than originally scheduled.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Take care of your gear!

Right before leaving for Malaysia, we had our regulators fully serviced, i.e. taken apart, cleaned, all small parts replaced, put together again according to the manufacturer's specifications and tested.

On the 14th dive of the trip my S550 second stage started to leak. Purging nor a thorough rinse afterwards solved the problem, it still leaked on the next dive. So I took it off, not wanting to risk a free flow, using my octopus in stead for the remainder of our stay.

Of course I brought my regulator back in for revision as soon as we got back home. The verdict: Both 1st & 2nd stage were pretty dirty. The filter in the 1st stage actually had to be replaced again. Rather unusual after only 29 dives! Meaning the tanks must have been in a sorry state inside. Full of corrosion dust. As for the leak, a piece of the rubber seat in my second stage was chipped off. Possibly by a little piece of rust hitting it at high speed.

But that's not all, the 2nd stage was full of salt and dirt too. As I said, though the crew supposedly took care of the gear, it never got much more than a quick dip in the tub. At the end of the day. Together with another 50 sets or so. The tub's water must have been saltier than the sea.

Even though I took care of my own gear the last couple of days, after having witnessed the poor treatment it got, the damage had already been done. I should have known better. I did actually, but... lesson learned: Always take care of your own gear. Nobody else cares as much as you do.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Sipadan, Borneo, Malaysia, March 2005

Diving around a small oceanic island rising 600m from the deep.

trip report

Malaysia - info sheet

VisumBelgian citizens, among others, automatically get a three months visum upon entry.
Transport• Flight from Copenhagen to Tawau: 21-26h (via Amsterdam & Kuala Lumpur)
• Mini-bus from Tawau airport to Tawau city: ½h
• Mini-bus from Tawau airport to Semporna: 1h
• Speed-boat from Semporna to Mabul: ¾h
TimeSabah time = Copenhagen winter time + 7 hours
WeatherAir temperature: 30°C (in the shade). Water temperature: 28°C.
Currency1 USD = 3.7 RM (Malaysian Ringit)
LanguageEnglish is spoken by most.

Tawau - Semporna

Upon arrival in Tawau's small national airport, we are welcomed by an employee from the resort and immediately transferred to our hotel in Tawau: The Belmont Marco Polo. The fanciest hotel in town, with all modern amenities one might expect in a business class hotel.

Standard rooms cost 160 RM for two, including buffet breakfast. Cheap maybe compared to European price levels, but actually quite expensive when just around the corner you can e.g. get a meal for 2,5 RM from a night market food stall. Which is what I did straight away, trying out nasi campur, a plate of rice with all kinds of local dish samples. The outside world is quite a contrast really with the hermetic feeling of total isolation you have inside the hotel.

The next morning, our ride is waiting for us at 6:30 am, for the transfer to Semporna, a one hour drive through endless palm tree plantations. In Semporna, the minibus drives straight up to a comfortable speedboat, that zips us to Mabul island in less than 45'.

Sipadan-Mabul Resort

SMART is a very efficiently run resort, with a capacity of 90 in about 45 chalets of varying comfort levels, not counting the deluxe water-bungalows, of which more are under construction.

We got upgraded from the standard twin-share chalet we'd booked to a stand-alone chalet just like that, probably because of the length of our stay and having booked directly. A very nice gesture indeed, worth 300 USD or so, which we've appreciated a lot, now having a private hut in stead of a shared one in the back.

The hut, it doesn't look like much more than that from the outside, is pretty nice indeed and has both fan & AC, ensuite bathroom and a private terrace overlooking the gently waving palm trees and the sea.

A lazy stroll away, the large buffet style dining hall serves excellent Asian food 3 times a day. Coffee, tea & water are availale all day and included in the full-board price, while soft-drinks, beer & alcohol can be bought at the pool-, jetty- or dining room bar, where e.g. a can of soda costs 1 USD.

While the resort maintains a high standard despite the number of tourists, the dive operation suffers a bit from its emphasis on quantity in stead of quality. Though they've got plenty of powerful twin engine dive boats, they still cram as many as 10-12 divers in a single boat. Another thing that struck me, is that several boats will drop their divers at the same time at the same site, in stead of choosing another site or waiting 5-10'. Three of our dives were basically ruined by the sheer number of divers in the water at the same time, reminding of similar situations in the Red Sea around Hurghada, where the sea periodically turns into a giant jaccuzi of exhalation bubbles.

Some of the dive masters seem burnt out by their factory style working conditions. It's hard to care and remain personal when you get exposed to too many new faces every day. Breefings covered the bare minimum and no extra information was ever volunteered unless explicitely asked for.

SMART offers full service, meaning that gear is carried to and from the boats, set-up and rinsed afterwards, without you having to do anything. A service I'd rather do without, as I prefer to handle my gear myself. But that isn't quite an option. Unfortunately some of the (non-diving) staff doesn't quite know how to properly handle & set-up gear, and the rinsing isn't much more than a quick dip in a tub. Another problem is the state of the tanks. Too many are leaking, sometimes in a disturbingly noisy way. And several times we had minor problems with the outboard engines on the way to or from Sipadan. Clearly indicating that it's not only the dive masters that are overworked.

In theory you can dive with nitrox if you want to, but in practice it's not that easy to obtain and at 35 RM per tank very expensive indeed. Considering the number of divers, they should have a dedicated nitrox fill station and offer it for free. Now, that would be a service I'd appreciate!

The diving however is great, even though visibility was rather poor, varying between 10-15m around Sipadan and rarely exceeding 5m around Mabul. Turtles are still abounding on many dives and cruising or resting white-tips are a regular sight. We didn't get to see the large circling school of barracudas, but this time I did get two glimpses of an investigative hammerhead. Muck diving is in, and though the term is slightly misused here, critters can be found: harlequin file fish, flamboyant cuttlefish, clown frogfish, leaffish, devil scorpionfish, real and false stonefish, etc

Sipadan island has been closed off since january this year and the old resorts are slowly being broken up, in order to restore a semblance of natural peace, the island being an important nesting ground for the turtles it became famous for.

Only armed marine guards are now allowed to overnight on the island, to protect the precious source of income that well-to-do visitors are, rather than the turtles, whose eggs they now can dig up and sell without annoying witnesses. During the day their main pass time is watching the 100s of tourist divers crowding one of the old resort piers during the in-between-dives break, and making sure they don't wander off too far. All these divers now come from neighboring islands like Mabul & Kapalai, and even from Semporna on day trips or live-aboards. So I doubt the ecological impact of too many divers will be lessened in any way by the closure of the old resorts on Sipadan.

The island has definitely become much more accessible than 10 years ago. Resulting in more and more divers now crowding the place and feeling like great adventurers... but under water they're just clumsy humans trashing into the corals without a care. A sad sight. Despite explicit warnings that divers not respecting the fragile environment will be forbidden to dive, I never saw a dive master admonish anybody.

On several occasions during our stay, I heard muffled blasts while diving around Sipadan, as if something heavy had been dropped in the water above me. Once it unmistakenly felt like an explosion. Pretty near. But then, shock waves travel long distances under water. According to our guide they're caused by dynamite fishing in the Philippines. Not a very pleasant thought. I've previously seen the ghastly desolation of coral reefs totally destroyed by dynamite fishing in Indonesia. A sight I imagine one can compare with the utter devastation of an atomic bomb dropped upon a vast city.

Sipadan - Mabul - Kapalai

Sipadan - Mabul - Kapalai, three small islands forming a pretty ideal combination of game & treasure hunting.

Two hours after setting foot on Mabul island, we were in the water for a check-out dive, during which I got surrounded by small yellow tail barracudas, maybe mistaking me, with my yellow fins, for their big brother.

A normal dive day consists of two morning dives around Sipadan, between breakfast and lunch, followed by an afternoon dive around Mabul or, exceptionally, around Kapalai.

Besides or in stead of the boat dives, it's also possible to do unlimited jetty dives from the water bungalows pier, as long as you've got a buddy.

Rides from Mabul to Sipadan take anything from 15' on a calm day with a powerfull twin-engine (115hp) speedboat, to more than 30' on a rougher day with a smaller twin-engine (85hp) boat.

Sipadan offers better visibility and more action, while Mabul and Kapalai are known for the small stuff.

Flying turtles

Turtles are all over the place around Sipadan: sleeping in wall crevices, swimming over the reef, seeking food among coral rubble, slowly rising in the blue towards the surface for a precious gulp of air...

Several times I had at least 4 of them within my field of vision! They're not always there in numbers though, and sometimes we only saw one or two. But hey, some places you're lucky if you see one in a whole week's diving.

More often than not however, there were more of them than I could care to count. Small and large. Hawksbill and green. And I had close and personal encounters more than once, with turtles swimming right up to me, barely avoiding a collision.

Circling barracudas

On our first Sipadan dive, at Mid reef, we passed a small school of circling barracudas. But we never met them again afterwards. However, around Mabul, to my delight, I got surrounded by small yellow tail barracudas twice.

Huddling humpheads

Also on our first Sipadan dive we were lucky to see a tightly packed school of about two dozen sleepy humphead parrotfish. They look kind of prehistoric to me. With their big coral crunching beak-like teeth, oversized heads and small flapping pectoral fins. Normally you have to get up real early to see them, but then, you may be so fortunate as to see hundreds of them, as did a Japanese girl during our stay.

Streaming jacks

On two of our dives around Sipadan, at South point & Turtle patch, we got to submerge right into a fairly big school of silver jacks, endlessly streaming in the shallows, as if in a hurry to nowhere. Quite an hypnotic sight, and one of my favourites. I could hang out there in a trance with them forever.

There's also a large gang of young jacks hanging around the water bungalows pier.

Cruising sharks

On most Sipadan dives, we saw white-tips cruising around or resting on the bottom. But unlike the turtles, these predators are rather shy and usually moved away each time I tried to sneak closer.

One day, we also came upon a fairly big leopard shark, who inevitably also got tired of too much attention, and slowly swam away.

On our one and only 6am early morning dive, I was lucky to twice get a glimpse of an inquisitive hammerhead coming out of the blue to check out the commotion, but deciding it wasn't worth calling his friends.

I noticed at least one grey reef shark during a drift dive, but not close enough to call it a good sighting. Too bad, for these dudes look like real sharks, unlike the not-quite-so-serious-looking white-tips.

Walking critters

Twice I found a big mean looking stonefish basically fully in the open, which is rather unusual as they prefer to dig themselves in the sand or hide themselves among coral outcrops they try very hard to simulate.

In front of the water bungalows jetty an artificial reef consisting of wooden structures and hollow concrete blocks is a good place to look for frogfish, several of which have made it their home as it attracts a lot of small fish seeking refuge. There're at least three rusty red frogfish pretending to be harmless sponges. Mika, a Japanese dive master, also found a yellow clown frogfish for us. The cutest little (10cm) thing I've ever seen. It kept trying to walk away from us using its fin-feet, in the most comical cartoonlike way. The next day we witnessed a bigger black frogfish doing the same slow-motion wobbly moon-walk down a sandy slope. While slowly gulping in water as if out of breath. What a wonderful world!

Also around Mabul, two small flamboyant cuttlefish were crawling over the sand, maybe in order not to be blown away by the current, after in vain having tried to get away from us big madly flashing monsters. The comparatively big reef cuttlefish also shows up now and then.

Lisa, a Philippina dive master and probably the best spotter of the dive resort, dug up a devil scorpion fish out of the sand (using her handy pointing stick). After which it crawled around on its claw-like fins, seeking a more peaceful place.

On several occasion we saw leaf fish, some yellow, some black. They're another "I'm not there" kind of pretender found in various locations.

Crocodilefish, big and small, can be seen on most dives around Mabul, usually on sandy bottoms, but I also got to shoot a picture of one perched on top of a coral boulder.

Besides the above mentioned critters, we also saw nudibranchs, ribbon eels, snake eels, moray eels, mantis shrimp, cleaner shrimps, colony shrimps, anemone crabs, octopus, lobster, cowry shell, etc. And, though I didn't see them, there are mandarin fish both around Mabul & Kapalai.

Semporna - Tawau

We spent two nights drying out & off-gassing in Semporna, a harbor town with an impressive fishing fleet of small-medium sized boats, all setup with large arrays of big lights for attracting fish.

The boats' fishing lights are clearly visible at night from Mabul's beach, and slightly annoying when you just want to gaze at the starry Milky Way.

Semporna, though not what I'd call a nice place, is worth a look around, if only to get some local flavor and a sense of daily life, especially around the market place, but also in the town's commercial streets.

The first night we stayed in the Dragon Inn, a picturesque place built on stilts above the water. Standard rooms, placed in long rows, only cost 66 RM for two including a very basic breakfast, but are not very pleasant, being rather dark and way too musty for me. The huge stand-alone VIP bungalows, at 135 RM are nicer, but offer no peace from the constant roaring of outboards cruising by, nor from the nearby mosque's early morning chants.

So we moved to the new Seafest Hotel for our second night, which besides actually being cheaper, at 97 RM for two, offers modern comfort, satellite TV and a nice buffet breakfast. A delicious buffet dinner in the hotel set us back 14 RM pp. Otherwise you can have a decent lunch for 5 RM. A can of soda or a 1,5l bottle of water cost 1,5 RM only.