Monday, December 18, 2006

Galapagos, Ecuador, December 2006

I don't remember when I first heard about the Enchanted Islands... it seems like I've been wanting to go there for ever...


...mesmerized by incredible tales of fantastic encounters with wild creatures unafraid of man. Where harsh reality is like a wonderful dream. Where fabulous visions turn out to be real.

travel blog

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Galapagos: The dark side

⊗ The Galapagos archipelago is much vaster and its main islands much larger than I expected, but so is the number of people living there. Despite 97% of the land area being a national park (since 1959) and the surrounding waters being a marine reserve (since 1998), both recognised as World Heritage Sites with unique ecosystems by UNESCO, the population has more than tripled over the last eight years. Puerto Ayora for one certainly seems to be booming judging from all the construction going on there.

⊗ The lure of economic opportunity has attracted a lot of new immigrants from the poor mainland, not just because of the money to be made in the substantial and still growing tourism industry, but also because of the rich fishing grounds. As most everybody, they're not here to make a sustainable living, but to get rich as fast as possible, no matter the cost to the environment. Local fishermen are a pretty big & aggressive lobby group on the Galapagos islands, regularly demanding larger quotas - as if they're respecting them in the first place. Unfortunately, whenever allowances are given (for sea-cucumbers, lobsters or whatever), they are exploited without any consideration and the reaped benefits generally quickly spent on instant gratification, not on securing ones living.

⊗ And it's not just the small men in the street, but also the big boys that are out there to make a killing. Fishing fleets seize any chance to make illegal forays into the marine reserve and scoop up its riches. (I was actually told that Japan shamelessly offered Ecuador to build a new airport & hospital, and generally improve the infrastructure on the Galapagos islands in exchange for fishing rights for the next ten years! After that there wouldn't be anything left anyways.)

⊗ The consequences of over fishing are alas clearly visible in the surprising absence of some species. While I still did see quite a few hammerheads, especially around Wolf & Darwin, (1) there were barely any white-tip reef sharks around, (2) strangely enough I only saw one Galapagos shark, (3) except for a small school or two, there were no jacks to be seen. It being my first time in the Galapagos, I can not of course compare what I saw with previous visits. My nearest reference therefor being Cocos island off Costa Rica's west coast, around the same time ten years ago, where white-tips were all over the place and where I witnessed truly huge schools of jacks, day after day.

⊗ Another problem with the growing number of people, both immigrants and tourists, is the ever increasing need for more infrastructure (land, housing, roads, electricity, water, etc) and food (locally grown & imported). Not to mention all the human waste that needs to be disposed of. As import of materials and food increases, so does the risk of invasive species free-riding in and exterminating the local ones.

⊗ Control? If there is any kind of patrolling or supervision going on I didn't notice it. Except for the officials at the airport making sure every tourist pays his/her 100 USD park visitor fee. An amount I don't mind at all paying for the privilege of experiencing the Galapagos, but I sure hope it all goes to the preservation of the natural state of the islands.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Galapagos: About my trip

⊗ The M/Y Reina Silvia is a great ship, but it is not build for divers. The cabins are decent enough and there's plenty of living space, but except for a scuba tanks storage rack, there's no dive deck to speak of. Meaning everything (wetsuit, booties, fins, mask, etc) is hung or stowed in crates on the rather cramped sundeck. And your UW camera equipment... well, that's your problem.

⊗ Surprisingly for a live-aboard of this class, the M/Y Reina Silvia does not offer Nitrox.

⊗ While the organization and service on board were impeccable, the diving was always done in one big frustrating clump of fifteen divers plus two guides. This by itself is totally unacceptable when paying top dollars for a first class dive trip - and I would not have booked this cruise had I known this. Even though we always rode out in three zodiacs and officially three teams, we all went to the same spot at the same time. Maybe because there was only one senior dive-master and one junior dive-guide?

With that many divers together in the water, it's impossible to enjoy a dive, no matter what there is to be seen. Macro dives are total chaos as everybody of course clambers to see the shy little seahorse the guide has found. Action dives are inevitably fiascos, as that many divers clinging side-by-side onto a current swept rocky edge, create a veritable wall of bubbles that scares or at least keeps away, the already wary hammerheads. Not surprisingly, the best part of any dive was when we let go and were spread out by the current. Only then would they appear out of the blue and come nearer for a closer look.

⊗ The M/Y Reina Silvia was never anchored far off the dive sites, but still, the zodiacs should have had radios on board, as well as first-aid-kit & oxygen, not to mention more powerful twin outboards (instead of a weak single one).

⊗ Personally, I did not appreciate being left alone at the surface by two of the zodiacs, given the conditions the day I lost my team (see: Española: Gardner seamount).

⊗ The two weeks route around the islands wasn't very travel efficient, with many long overnight sails. Not that big a thing -thanks to the calm weather- but why sail back and forth so much? Also, Tauchreisen Roscher sells its Galapagos package advertising four to five days around Wolf & Darwin, where some of the best diving is to be done. We only stayed three - even though weather conditions were fine.


⊕ That said, I did get to experience quite a few amazing things, as you can probably tell from my account. Both below the waves and during the many wonderful land excursions, knowledgeably led by the main guide.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Santa Cruz: Charles Darwin station

Our last day is a dry one, in order to off-gas all the nitrogen accumulated during the dives. After breakfast we visit the Charles Darwin station, then get some time off for sight-seeing & shopping in puerto Ayora. In the afternoon we then head off by bus to the Chabo reserve, where we get to see some free roaming wild giant tortoises.

 Giant turtle
After that, it's time to pack. Tomorrow I start my 48h journey back.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Isabela: Cabo Marshall

Dive 1: Cabo Marshall, 6:58, 24°C water, visibility about 10m, mild current. As soon as we submerge we sight a small manta shying away in the blue. Soon followed by several big ones flying by below us.

Then, from the deep, a large school of mobulas comes straight towards me... before veering off to my right as they continue their climb. What a fantastic sight! I can hardly believe my eyes.

 Mobulas
Later, as I drift away from my team, peering into the blue, I sight some more mobulas, apparently flying around in a circle, being joined by more and more of their kind, slowly forming a girating swarm of congragating mobulas, dancing in the sun's rays. Whow!

 Mobulas
In just this one dive, I've seen more mantas and mobulas than in all my -over 1400- previous dives put together.

 Manta
Dive 2: Same place, 10:23, same conditions. Not a single manta or mobula to be seen. A couple of hammerhead sharks do come by to see us off. As well as a white-tip reef shark.

 White-tip reef shark

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Isabela: Punta Vicente roca

After Wolf & Darwin's tropical conditions, the 20°C water at punta Vicente roca feels... cold. But the sea-lions and flightless cormorants don't seem to mind. Also to be seen here are turtles, octopus, seahorses and shrimp colonies.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Darwin

Another three hammerhead dives at Darwin's arch. During the second dive, I actually get to glimpse a huge school, there must be hundreds of them, way out in the blue, barely visible, but whow, what a sensation!

Hovering in the blue, one moment I'm surrounded by thousands of small fish and a gang of jacks, then, suddenly, in a split-second, they're all gone. Below, a dolphin shoots by. Clearly in hunting-mode. Then, out of nowhere, they're all back, as if nothing had happened. Incredible.

As we finish our third dive, we end up beside a school of steel pompanos, hanging around just below the surface.

 Steel pompanos

Monday, December 11, 2006

Darwin

Darwin island. Sunrise. Thousands of boobies and frigates are in the air, circling above their volcanic layer-cake island, rejoycing in a new day. The imposing steep cliffs prohibit any landings. I can hardly wait to get going and jump in.

 Darwin island & arch
Dive 1: The arch, 7:06, calm sea, 26°C water, visibility a good 15m, mild current. For some reason we're almost always diving in one big group of 17, despite being divided in three teams... creating a -for sharks- unpenetrable wall of bubbles when all of us are hanging onto the rocks. Only when my team finally heads off and ends up on top of a sand patch do we get to see some action: hammerheads coming in for some servicing by eager cleaner fish.

 Hammerhead shark
Dive 2: The arch, 10:55, strong current & surge. Same scenario. Nothing to be seen until we split into smaller groups. Only then do they appear out of the blue, in small packs. And this time I get my -it's now or never- chance: one of them turns and slowly swims straight towards me, I take a deep breath, it comes closer still, I hold my breath to avoid freaking it with bubbles and point my camera, when it fills my frame I shoot, it veers away, I shoot again, it's gone. Later on we also glimpse a dolphin diving down and some jacks streaming by.

 Hammerhead shark

 Hammerhead shark

Dive 3: The arch, visibility has dropped to 10m. Again, the best action is above the cleaning-station sand patch. Spread out over several meters we get to see hammerheads all around us and near enough to be real exciting. And I even get to see my first Galapagos shark.

 Hammerhead sharks

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Wolf

We sailed the whole night and when I wake up we're just anchoring beside steep cliffed Wolf island. The air is swarming with sea birds. There's no way to set foot on land here, instead we've got three dives on the program.

Dive 1: Falling rocks, 7:02, 26°C water allowing me to dive without my restraining jacket, nice visibility of about 15m but not much sunlight, only a slight current. There's nothing to be seen at first, then slowly they start appearing out of the blue: hammerhead sharks, plenty of them. Not very close but everywhere. When Rafael, my team's guide, suddenly starts finning into the blue I follow in his wake, and am rewarded with the sight of a whole school of hammerheads slowly passing by. During the rest of the dive I spot at least ten eagle-rays, a sea-lion, a sea-turtle and a lone white-tip reef shark. This is definitely more like it!

Dive 2: Shark bay, 10:50, same conditions. Several small schools of hammerheads cruising by in the blue, always keeping their distance. Powerful as they are, they are rather shy and don't like our noisy bubbles at all. But a few do come a bit closer to inspect the commotion. And I finally do get my chance to take one shot. (Note the love bites on her back.)

 Hammerhead shark
Dive 3: Shark bay, 14:57, same decent visibility, no current. They're still there. Above. At the side. Below. Unfortunately out of camera reach. At the end of the dive, during our safety stop, a lone mobula passes by. The first one of this trip.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

North-Seymour

I decide to have a dry day, skipping the early morning dive, after which we set sail for Wolf & Darwin. The islands I've been waiting for since this trip began. Tomorrow we'll be there...

Friday, December 8, 2006

Española: Gardner seamount

We start the day with a great dive at Gardner sea-mount: several marble stingrays hiding in the sand or under overhangs, eagle-rays in the blue and a small school of about twenty golden cow-nose rays flying by! Not to mention two huge jackfish.

Not so great is that I've lost my group... they just disappeared into the blue and did not come back to the reef as agreed in the pre-dive briefing. So I surface alone, amid 2m swells. No land nor zodiac in sight. Before deploying my SMB I blow my tank-pressure-powered horn. While pretty shrill it sounds rather meek in the middle of the ocean. No worries though, a bit later a zodiac appears. And moves on without picking me up! Because I belong to the white team, and it's the yellow team's zodiac... I'm still bobbing there in disbelief when the green team's zodiac passes by and just leaves me there too. Incredible. They do return however once they've picked up their team members and remain by my side until my own zodiac finally arrives.

The second dive, at the same place, is even better than the first one. First a squadron of six eagle-rays passes by within shooting range. Later followed by another one of five. And I get to see some more marble rays and sea turtles too.

 Eagle-rays
Long sunny walk at punta Suarez, where we get to see the usual inhabitants: sea-lions and marine iguanas. The iguanas have red flanks here, due to their diet consisting primarily of red algaes. We also get pretty close to masked and blue-footed boobies. The latter have an elaborate courtship ritual that we're luckiy enough to witness: the male slowly lifts one foot after the other, in a funny dance, the female -if interested- mimicks his steps, he then raises his beak straight up in the air, as well as his tail and wings, to see if she really means it, if she does she'll mimick him again. After repeating this a number of times, confirming their partnership, they'll then get a bit more romantic by touching beaks and picking up twigs. Pretty cute.

Blue-footed boobies
Further on, we also sight a few waved albatros, the last ones of this breeding season, as most have already taken off.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Floreana: Enderby & Champion

Early dive at Enderby followed by a land tour at punta Cormoran. There's a shallow lagoon there, with about 30 flamingos. We are lucky enough to witness a courtship parade by a bunch of stiff-walking head-turning cackling males. A rather funny spectacle, that no female seems to be interested in. In a nearby bay, at least half a dozen turtles are hanging around, resting, waiting for nightfall to crawl up the beach and start their labour. December and January are the egg laying months here for sea turtles.

 Flamingos
Second dive, a little after two, is at Champion. The sun's out. The water's a nice 26°C. Visibility about 10m. Turtles, some schooling fish, a bunch of white-tips, a dark marble stingray and a playful sea-lion at the end. Not bad.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Santa Cruz: Gordon's rock

First action dive of the trip, starting with a rough entry & speedy descent. A lone hammerhead shark in the blue keeps a safe distance. A handful of white-tip reef sharks swim by below. I take my first shot at another hammerhead coming a bit closer. But alas not close enough. A sea-turtle wanders by. Followed by a sea-lion speeding towards who-knows-what. Probably just showing off again.

I decide to skip the second dive, held at the same place, to get a bit of a rest. There're plenty more diving days ahead.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Santiago: Cousin's rock

Busy day. Starting with an early morning wet-feet landing on a black-lava-sand beach. Home of -you'll never guess- marine iguanas and Galapagos sea-lions. The more special thing about this island however is that it also houses the smaller nocturnal fur sea-lions, which during the day time usually hide in crevasses & cliff-side holes.

Pre- & post-lunch dives are done at Cousin's rock. The main thing here being a large & dense school of striped salemas. A white-tip reef shark cruising by adding a bit of spice.

Just before sunset we go for a little climb on Bartolome island to enjoy the view of the surrounding volcanic landscape.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Isabela: Tagus cove

After breakfast we suit up and hop in the zodiacs for the short ride from the ship to today’s prime dive spot: Tagus cove. It’s 8:04 when we roll into the instant-wake-up 19°C cold water. Luckily my double 7mm wetsuit does keep me cozy if not comfy.

We’re soon rewarded for our bravery: playful sea-lions swim by and I actually manage to keep one’s attention for more than a second by performing some acrobatics too, which, though they must appear as slow-motion clumsy turns to a sea-lion, quickly have me sucking hard on my regulator.

 Sea-lion
Still recovering my breath, I then turn my camera to some much calmer creatures: three pretty large seahorses, one of them clearly pregnant.

 Seahorse
Two hours after the first dive we’re back again. This time I also get to see several stingrays, a sea-turtle, a pair of small penguins passing by just above me before plunging down in hunt-mode and a flightless cormorant torpedoing by, chasing some unidentified small fish.

Afternoon walk-about at Punta Espinosa on Fernandina island. The place is crawling with marine iguanas, huddling together by the dozens, in harems jealously guarded by head-shaking salt-spitting males. Flightless cormorants are drying their useless wings.

 Flightless cormorant
18:00, we're sailing over the equator as the sun sets and the moon rises above the volcanoes. Another world indeed.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Genovesa

We start the day with an early dive, rolling over into a choppy sea at 7:02. It doesn’t take long before a sea-lion joins us, showing off with some incredible underwater acrobatics. Shortly thereafter a hammerhead shark cruises by nonchalantly. In less than 20m of water! They’re not usually seen that shallow, at least not in other parts of the world. And that’s just for starters. As I turn around, an eagle ray flies by down below and a golden cow-nose ray hurries past towards... -I can hardly believe my eyes- a whole school of at least fifty golden cow-nose rays approaching from the opposite direction. And all that before breakfast!


After a fortifying breakfast, Victor takes us for a land tour on Genovesa. We land on a small beach amid a sea-lion family with several cute puppies. Swallow-tail gulls are nesting right beside the path. These are the only gulls in the world that hunt at night. They share the island with masked boobies, red-footed boobies, frigate birds, Galapagos doves and herons. Most of them within touch distance, unafraid of man.

 Sea-lion puppy
After an amazing first dive, the second dive, at 15:05, in Darwin’s bay, is rather boring, with nothing worth mentioning. But then, with a visibility of about 5m, it’s hard to see much.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

M/Y Reina Silvia

At 7:30 I’m transferred to the airport by pick-up, mini-ferry and bus. Pausing along the way for a quick look down one of the pretty deep Gemelos sinkholes. The plane bringing in the other guests is late, but Victor, the main guide, looses no time rounding up everybody and organizing the move to Baltra’s harbor. There, the Gobierno Provincial De Galapagos lets us through without a word and we jump onboard a zodiac for the short ride to the M/Y Reina Silvia, our live-aboard for the next two weeks. We are fifteen tourists on this trip: nine German, one Polish and four Swiss divers, besides yours truly. To take care we get around, get fed, get to see a lot without getting lost above or under water and return happy are ten crew members: captain, first & second mate, cook & assistant, waiter/barman, engineer & assistant, deck-hand and two guides.


Being alone, I get to share a compact cabin with Piotr, a sympathetic Polish guy, who’s also appointed as my dive buddy on this trip.

After a three-course lunch, we’re thoroughly briefed about everything, prepare our gear, suit up and step into the 24°C water directly from the stern of the ship, by now anchored between the two small Plaza islands, on Santa Cruz’s east coast. Just for a short check dive, to get wet and make sure everything is working and we’re properly weighted. In my case that means 6kg of lead, in addition to my 4kg stainless-steel backplate! But then, I’m wearing a very buoyant double 7mm wetsuit.

 M/Y Reina Silvia at Plazas
We dive along a shallow coastal edge with sandy bottom. Viz is poor, about 10m. There’re some fish around, but nothing too interesting except for two turtles and a stingray. The sea-lions all seem to be sleeping on shore.

 Sea-lion puppy with its mommy
Shortly after the dive we do a quick walk-about on Plaza sur, the same place I visited two days ago. So I get to see the sea-lions again anyway :o)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Plaza sur

Today I joined a tour to Islas Plaza (63$ incl.lunch). More specifically to the southern one of the two islands. Together with sixteen other tourists and two guides, we first drove for almost an hour across Santa Cruz, passing through several vegetation zones, then boarded the Santa Fe II, a small boat, for the cross-over to Plaza sur, a 90' sail. Along the way, frigates suddenly start flying close besides the boat. The reason's soon clear: at the stern, the cook is cleaning some fish for lunch.

 Frigate
As we approach our landing place, we are greeted by barking Galapagos sea-lions. Dominant males each cruising their stretch of shore, keeping an eye on their harem. Females sunbathing among the big rocks, feeding their young. Puppies waiting for their mommy to return. Plaza sur is indeed home to a whole colony of sea-lions. And I can get real close to some.

 Sea-lion
Besides these, on the surface, very lazy animals, there're also plenty of land & marine iguanas and several kinds of sea-gulls nesting on the steep cliff-side of the island.

 Land iguana
Note that day-trips like this one are not the best way to see the Galapagos. Unless you don't mind spending most of your precious time in transportation to & from the various islands. But, if like me you've got a few days to acclimatize before the real show, then of course it's an option.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Santa Cruz: Tortuga bay

It's a 45' hot walk from the hotel to Tortuga bay, along a paved path cutting through dense scrubs and cactus trees. There's a great beach there with some surf. As I approach some black lava rocks, my eyes suddenly focus on something that moved. And it's not alone. Perfectly blending in with the rocks are at least a dozen marine iguanas, absorbing the sun's heat. I'd say the bigger ones are about 75cm.

 Marine iguana
Later on, walking along the beach, I notice more of them lazing in the sand. 15' later I come to a protected lagoon, where it's possible to swim around without being pulled down by the dangerous under-tow. The sun's burning by now. Good thing I put on some sunscreen and brought a bottle of water.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Santa Cruz: Puerto Ayora

Sea level. Plenty of oxygen in the air. And with a temperature of about 25°C, it's a nice bit warmer too. To get down here from Quito took me almost 7 hours by SUV, plane, bus, mini-ferry, bus and taxi. I'm not sure they knew I was coming at Hotel Silberstein, but I got a room anyway. From the hotel it's only a short walk to the Charles Darwin station, where I saw some pretty ugly giant tortoises and some very cool golden land iguanas, frigate birds gliding in the sky high above and pelicans flying by just above the cactusses.

The cost of living seems to be surprisingly low here. For only 3$ I had an almuerzo in "Rincon del Alma", a small family run place. Nothing fancy, just honest home-made filling food for hungry travelers. And pretty good value, considering I got a glass of almond milk, a bean-potato-cheese soup, rice with fried platane and meat stew and a flan as desert. 1/2l of water costs 35cents. 1/2l Gatorade 1$. Internet 2$/hr. Ecuador uses US dollars as currency.

Puerto Ayora is the main town on Santa Cruz, the second largest island of the Galapagos.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Quito

After a 28 hour journey by car, 2 trains, 2 planes and SUV I find myself in Quito, capital of Ecuador, a small country on the north-west coast of South-America. Located on the eastern slopes of the Pichincha, a 4794m high active strato-volcano in the Andes mountains, Quito, with an elevation of 2808m, is the second highest city on this planet. (Tip: To avoid altitude sickness, it's recommended to drink a lot.)


I arrived here yesterday evening, the plane litterally landing in the middle of the city, narrowly streched out over 50km between the mountain flanks.

I'm only here in transit though, a short stop-over before continuing my journey tomorrow morning, to the Enchanted Islands...

Curious about what a guy like me does when having a resting day? At 6:30 I enjoyed a nice buffet style breakfast, while the clouds drifted over the city and planes started coming in. At 8:30, in order to loosen up my travel-cramped muscles, I did 50' of fitness in the hotel's gym, followed by a warm relaxing bath and cooling rest. Then, at 10:30, to get at least a sense of the city and its people, I chartered a taxi for a private city tour. Pepe, the cab-driver, driving me by the most interesting places while giving me some background info every now and then. En Español. Two hours, 25$. That's about as much culture as I can take in a jet-lagged day :o) Back at Hotel Quito, I then had a decent, though at 15$ rather pricey, buffet style lunch. Followed by some blogging (3$/hr). At 16:00 I got a 50' massage to relax some more. Having been warned several times to be very careful outside, and there not really being anything nearby that looks like a nice place to eat, I decide to call room-service around 19:00... Bad choice. Must have been the worst burger in my life :o( Wake-up call tomorrow is at 5:30, so a night in town is out of the question. Not really a problem as there's a 6 hour time difference with Europe, and at 20:00 I'm about falling over.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Bangkok: Last day

I repacked once again. This time resulting in an 11kg city backpack and a 28kg gear bag. Luckily they didn't charge me for the overweight. The taxi ride to the airport, arranged through the guesthouse for 290 THB, took 45' using the normal road (not the expressway). There's a 500 THB departure tax. The duty free hall is fairly big but rather uninteresting.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bangkok: Chatuchak weekend market

From the Khao San road area the easiest way to get to Chatuchak is by taxi (80 THB). Once there you can wander around the vast covered market area for hours. They sell all kinds of things here: clothes, household stuff, silverware, amulets, souvenirs, furniture, ... and of course food. Quite an experience. A must see really.

For a totally different shopping experience you can head to one of the big up-scale shopping centers like Siam Center/Paragon or the more popular MBK complex. In the former I had a nice cafe latte and muffin in Starbucks, for 135 THB. And in the latter I enjoyed some great Japanese food (sushi, tempura & soup) and sake, for 420 THB.

It's quite amazing actually how fast you can move from one price range to another, eating for 30 THB, then dining for 600 THB, just by walking to another street. And as you can imagine, I didn't even come near the really expensive places...

Saturday, May 13, 2006

from Hua Hin to Bangkok

There's a 2nd class AC bus leaving Hua Hin for Bangkok every half hour. The ride takes about 4 hours and costs 160 THB (including a small bottle of water). From Bangkok's southern bus station it's a 15' taxi ride to Khao San road (55 THB by meter, 200 THB if you listen to the touts).

Before leaving Bangkok, I'd left my heavy dive gear at New Siam guest house for 15 THB/day, allowing me to travel light. A real luxury! At New Siam, prices vary from 240 THB for a single fan room with common cold water shower to 550 THB for a double AC room with private hot water shower. Breakfasts here are decent.

For nice food I can recommend the Baan Sabai hotel & restaurant. It still has some colonial atmosphere and a quiet terrace.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hua Hin

Hua Hin is a modern coastal city, only 2 hours south of Petchaburi (30 THB by 3rd class fan bus), fully geared towards tourism, both Thai and foreign. Its long beach is completely lined up with private properties, towering condos and tourist class resorts. While this may not sound too great, in a way it's actually nicer than over-built and over-crowded Koh Tao. At least if you find the right place.


Baan Talay Dao resort is a fairly new and relatively small place with accomodations varying from comfortable studios to deluxe suites, just a couple of kilometers south of town. I stayed here three nights, enjoying buffet breakfasts, walks along the beach, the refreshing swimming pool & jacuzzi, the peaceful lush garden setting and dinners overlooking the beach... all that for about 80 USD/day, all included. The restaurant serves delicious Thai food and pretty decent steaks.

Monday, May 8, 2006

Petchaburi

Just a short 3rd class train ride (3h45, 138 THB) from Bangkok lies Petchaburi, a town off the main tourist maps, where people still smile at you and offer help without being asked. I stayed in a no-name Chinese hotel, in a basic fan room with common cold water bathroom for 200 THB.


The town is full of wats (= temples), one of them on top of a small hill, where monkeys rule without mercy. Vendors actually sell corn and bananas to feed them. And they know it. It's strongly advised NOT to bring anything in a plastic bag unless you want to get rid of it. I personally witnessed several take-away strategies.

Strategy #1: A medium sized monkey nonchalantly strolls towards you, looking the other way, as if interested in something in the trees. But as it passes by your side, it suddenly turns around, snatches your bag away and leaps off to examine its catch.

Strategy #2: An alpha monkey comes towards you without a trace of doubt, its purpose clear: your plastic bag. In this case I was holding the bag and cleared it away from its grabbing hands. Having missed the bag, it then jumped straight onto me to get another go, baring its teeth to warn me not to fool around. At which point I conceded and it ran away with its booty: a couple of sweet cakes and a botlle of water - which it expertly opened to have a gulp after having gorged on the cakes.

Strategy #3: When a tourist is stupid enough to buy monkey food, why wait till he/she actually gives it to you? As the vendor hands over a couple of bags of corn to an unsuspecting (Thai) tourist, a big female monkey jumps in and runs off with both bags crammed in her arms.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Bangkok: Wat Pho

Dressed in shorts I wasn't allowed in the Royal Palace, but I could enter Wat Pho (entrance fee: 50 THB), the temple of the oversized golden reclining Buddha. There're quite a few other temples and stupas on the grounds and several stone statues of fierce looking guards.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Bangkok: Khao San road

Khao San road & surrounding streets truly are a phenomenon. So much so that they've become a tourist attraction. It's much more alive than Charoen Krung road where I stayed upon arrival. Not only because of all the backpackers from all over the world, but also because you can easily get away from it all by submerging yourself into the bustling city life just a couple of streets away. Off the main tourist streets, you can get a street side meal for 20-30 THB. A fraction of the price you pay in the places catering to tourists.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

from Koh Tao to Bangkok

After 3 days of doing nothing but sleep, eat, read and walk along the beach at sunset I finally got myself together to leave the island and bought a joint ticket (ferry-bus-train, 2nd class AC upper bunk) for 1080 THB.

The Songserm ferry is pretty terrible, its aircon being set to deep-freeze, chasing everybody up to the windy roof for the 3 hour crossing. From Chumporn pier to Chumporn train station it's only a short 10' bus ride. Dinner in the nearest eatery, as I really don't feel like lugging my 40kg of gear around town. The express train leaves on time, and I'm actually able to get some sleep before arriving in Bangkok around 7:15 (only 45' late). From the station its a 50 THB taxi ride to Khao San road.

Shambara guesthouse is full, so I head over to another backpacker street nearby, and end up in the Bella Bella guesthouse. Basic twin room with fan and common cold water bathroom, 270 THB. I'm totally drenched in sweat by the time I've climbed the stairs to the fifth floor. But, it's quiet up there, and there's even a view of Bangkok's rooftops. Eggs, toasts and coffee breakfast costs about 70 THB. Internet access is cheap at 30 THB / hour and burning a CD only costs 100 THB.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Koh Tao: Jamahkiri health spa

Just to sweat a little bit more I went to a herbal steam sauna, then, in order to cool down again, I got smeared in with aloe vera gel and wrapped up in a sheet to relax, followed by a face cleaning treatment and a jasmin oil massage. All in all 2h30 of special attention, for 1750 THB at the Jamahkiri spa & resort. Because I'm worth it :o)

Friday, April 28, 2006

Koh Tao: Like a flying fish

Shortly after I arrived on Koh Tao, an ad in one of the restaurants caught my eye. It was about a flying boat. The place being close to where I stayed I went to check it out and met Rafael, Israelian, owner of the shop, pilot and instructor, who was happy to answer all my questions. So now, three weeks later, after having done all my deep wreck diving and Bjarne's OW course, I showed up again and made arrangements for a little trial flight (about half an hour for 2800 THB only). As passenger of course.


Rafael set-up and prepared the FIB (Flying Inflatable Boat) did his pre-flight checks, got the boat pulled into the water and off we went!

After taxiing for almost 10' to get the right wind we effortlessly took off, rising higher and higher above the sea. Whow! Then we skirted the island's coastline for about 25' before smoothly landing back in Mae Haad bay.


The FIB only takes two people (incl. the pilot), securely strapped up, with a visored helmet and earphones for in-flight communication. Not that I said much, as I was just too enthralled enjoying the view.


Yeah, I could imagine myself learning to fly one of these. Just for the fun of it. Apparently it only takes about two weeks to learn (consisting of theory, about 15 hours of duo flights, 3 hours of solo flights & exam - all that for about 2000 USD).

I was not allowed to bring my own camera, to avoid it flying off on its own into the rear propeller. A precaution I accepted reluctantly. Unfortunately the FIB's wing-fixed camera didn't do its job properly, so I've got no in-flight pictures :o(

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Gulf of Thailand, April 2006

Imagine a deep blue sea and a clear blue sky, all around you, as far as the eye can see...


Standing on the M/V Trident's upper deck, that's exactly the view I enjoy right now. Slowly sipping my early morning coffee. Waiting for the sun to rise just a little bit more, so as to have more light penetrating the water.

Everything's ready, I just need to gear up and splash in for some deep wreck diving!

trip report
travel blog

Thailand - info sheet

VisumBelgian citizens automatically get a four weeks visum upon entry. For longer stays a visum must be requested beforehand. In Copenhagen, a two months visum can be obtained from the Thai embassy within a week. Besides your passport you must bring two pictures, a copy of your Danish residence permit & travel documents, fill in an application, and pay 175 DKK.
TimeBangkok time = Copenhagen summer time + 5h
WeatherAir temperature's around 35°C, very humid with occasional tropical showers. Water temperature's a balmy 29°C.
Currency1 Euro = 46 THB
1 USD = 37 THB
LanguageEnglish is barely spoken by some.

Deep wreck diving in Thailand?

Two and a half years ago I got trimix certified and followed an advanced wreck diving course in the Philippines. So it was about time to put the two together. But where? Having been invited on an exploratory deep wreck diving expedition in Sri Lanka, I needed a place relatively nearby where I could refresh my skills, in preferably similar conditions. Subic bay in the Philippines not being my favourite place, I checked out my options in Thailand.

Even though Thailand doesn't immediately pop up as a possible destination when thinking about technical diving. There's some deep diving going on on its west coast, with Mark Ellyatt having put Phuket on the tec diving map thanks to his 313m deep record dive, but there are -as yet- no wrecks to speak of. And on the east side, the Gulf of Thailand is a rather unknown place when it comes to wreck diving. That is, until you start looking a bit deeper.


Somehow, a Google search resulted in a link to the M/V Trident. And it immediately caught my interest, offering exactly what I was looking for: exploratory deep wreck diving! Co-owned by Jamie McLeod (tec instructor trainer) and Stewart Oehl (tec instructor), two British expats living on Koh Tao, the M/V Trident is currently the only ship organizing deep wreck diving expeditions in the Gulf of Thailand. Besides the owners, there's also Michael (tec diver), another British expat, who acts as divemaster & gas blender, and of course there's the ship's Thai crew: captain, cook, engineer & deckhand.


In less than a year Jamie & Stewart have found over a dozen wrecks, lying in 50-70m deep water. From wooden fishing boats to cargo vessels to WWII war ships. And they've got plenty more marks and sonar glitches to check out. One wreck in particular has gotten them a lot of media attention, both good and bad: the USS Lagarto, a WWII United States submarine sunk by the Japanese in May 1945 and now lying 70m below the waves. Considered a war grave, it's alas a no go site.

Thanks to the M/V Trident, the Gulf of Thailand is indeed becoming a serious wreck diving area, with virgin undived wrecks waiting to be found.

The Tattoo bar

When not looking for wrecks, the M/V Trident's dive crew can often be found in the Tattoo bar, a beach-side British hang-out, only a short stroll from Master divers in Mae Haad bay. Cold beers, English pies, American burgers, New Zealand steaks, beautiful Thai sunsets, ... What else could you wish for when stuck on dry land?

This is where I first met Jamie & co after arriving on Koh Tao a couple of days ago and it's here we all gathered yesterday evening before sailing out into the Gulf. Stewart rejoicing over the fact that, yes, I do occasionally have a beer too.

Boarding & departure

I'd actually already boarded earlier in the day, as I'd had to vacate my bungalow, check-out time being 11am. A group having cancelled last minute, it turns out there's only one other diver besides me. Meaning I've got a three bunk cabin all for myself. And being the first one on board I even got to pick which one. What a luxury!


My few non-diving-gear belongings quickly thrown in one of the lower deck cabins, the first thing I did was to take advantage of the bright daylight to check and set up my gear. After which I just made myself at home and relaxed.

A little after 8pm we took off, with an offering of noisy fire crackers to appease the gods, before heading out to sea. Once we'd left Koh Tao behind, it went all black around us.


Sitting on the upper deck, Jamie tells me about the HTMS Pangan, the wreck we'll be diving the next few days. Weather & time permitting, we might also check out an unknown mark. The last two days are reserved for Big Boy, an as yet unidentified wreck, which they've only dived once before in rather rough conditions. In other words: adventure guaranteed! Briefing done, Stewart shows me how to use his dive planning software. Just so as to keep my feet on the deck.

The HTMS Pangan's history

The HTMS Pangan was a Royal Thai Navy Transport, built in Japan in 1927, about 60m long & 10m wide, 1874 tons empty & 2442 tons full, with 2 diesel engines and 3 guns (60, 40 & 20mm).

She sank the 19th of July 1961, at 10pm, off the coast of Surathani. Her entire crew (81 souls) was saved six hours later by a Japanese freighter. Why she sank however is not too clear. She'd left Bangkok earlier that week carrying 'damaged' ammunition & gunpowder to be dumped at sea.

Officially she went out of control and the crew abandoned ship when her main engine broke down after battling heavy seas for several hours. Supposedly a large wave had hit the ship, some of the cargo broke loose and rolled to one side, making her list heavily and take more waves. Totally swamped the pumps & engines failed. Rough seas would have been very unusual at that time of the year and the cargo might not have been as properly strapped down as it should have. More probable however, from the damage on the wreck, a fire broke out and she went down ablaze...

Deep wreck diving stop by stop

How to find a wreck

Basically, it takes a lot of dedicated research to find a wreck. Knowing what you're looking for is probably a good start. Knowing where to look is next. Or vice-versa. There're bound to be some kind of records somewhere, be it maritime archives or battle reports. Anything that might give you an approximate location will do. After that it's search & explore.

Wrecks attract fish. So having your ears tuned into the fishermen's grapevine might give you some good clues as to where to look. Though they're most likely to be very protective of their best fishing locations.

And while you're out there anyways, why not keep your sonar on. Who knows, you might just get lucky and stumble upon something.

One way or another, Jamie & Stewart have already found several wrecks over the past year and still have a whole bunch of probable & unknown marks and mysterious sonar glitches to investigate. All written down in Jamie's little book of secret coordinates.

Getting there

We sailed all night, arriving in the early morning, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It's actually the sudden quietness that woke me up, after having been lulled to sleep by the constant throbbing of the engines.

Using GPS coordinates the captain steered the M/V Trident to the wreck's approximate position. After which a search pattern was performed using the sonar to pinpoint it as accurately as possible. On his signal a deckhand then let go of a drop line, a relatively thin line weighted down by about 10kg of lead at one end and kept afloat by a buoy at its top end.

Anchoring

No anchor was actually dropped. In stead, Stewart jumped in the water, fully geared up for action, to go and tie down the M/V Trident directly to the wreck.

Depending on the conditions, one or two crew divers jump in the water near the drop line's buoy and are handed the end of a ticker line, after which they descend into the blue looking for the wreck.


If they're lucky they'll be able to see it on their way down, or find it thanks to the fish that usually hang around a wreck's vicinity, using it as shelter. If the visibility is bad they might need to perform a circular search using a reel attached to the drop line. If unlucky they may have to resurface and the whole procedure then needs to be repeated from scratch for another try.

Usually though, as was the case this morning, they find the wreck on the first try, tie off the line, give three strong thugs to signal the surface crew of the successful tie off and either resurface immediately or after performing a short dive. At this point the M/V Trident is securely tied to the wreck, thus ensuring a direct line of descent & ascent for subsequent dives. No need for divers to search for the wreck each time they go down, loosing precious time and running the risk of not finding it in bad viz.

Stewart having done the tie-off, Michael then jumped in to set up the deco rig, a horizontal metal bar hanging 6m below the ship, where divers can perform their last deco stops, breathing surface supplied oxygen.

Dive planning

With recreational diving, assuming you have a dive computer to keep you out of decompression trouble, you can basically just grab a tank, jump in and surface when you feel like it or when your tank is almost empty.

When deep diving however, you can't be that careless. A dive plan is crucial for a safe & successful mission. Once you get into decompression diving, every stop is a virtual ceiling. There's no such thing any longer like an immediate ascent. Unless of course you want to experience your body bubbling like champagne. The effect however is more likely to have you convulse & scream than relax & laugh. So you'd better make sure you'll have plenty of breathing gas for your planned bottom time at maximum depth, more than enough for all the mandatory deco stops on your very slow way back up to the surface and some extra just in case you got delayed.

Any plan should have a back-up. Dive plans are no exception confirming the rule. Issues like exceeded maximum bottom time or depth, loss of gas, inability to return to the ascent line, etc must be addressed beforehand. Leave nothing to chance. Be prepared.

Luckily for me, each dive crew member has his own laptop and I can use anyone of them to plan my dives. Which is pretty cool, as it allows me to play with different dive planning software programs, e.g.: Pro Dive Planner and ANDI Dive Planner. Of these two, I personally prefer the first one.

The programs are pretty straight forward actually. Basically you enter your breathing rate, maximum depth, planned bottom time, bottom & deco mixes and you get a nice table with run times, deco stops & gas needs.

Pre dive preparation

Having a plan is one thing. The right gear to execute it is another. And as for the plan, any life critical piece must have a back-up.


A set of doubles was waiting for me when I boarded, so I just had to screw on my Dive System wings and stainless steel backplate with harness, followed by my two Scubapro MK-25AF regulators. After that I also prepared, analyzed & marked my two decompression stages. Then put all the other stuff in a storage crate: Cressi 'BigEyes' mask, Mares 'Vedra' back-up mask, Suunto 'Viper' computer (gauge mode), wrist slate, Dive Rite primary & safety reel, Oxycheck spool, Buddy & Dive Rite SMB, TillyTec primary & Tektite back-up lights, booties & Mares fins and my 7mm Camaro suit.


All in all about 60kg of equipment... and that's without my Sea&Sea DX8000G compact digital camera. Everything mindfully readied for the dive, my mind itself is next to claim some attention. The danger factor can not be ignored. Anything that goes wrong down there might be fatal. Pre dive stress & nerves. Doubt. Fear for the unknown. Standing on the upper deck, breathing in the fresh morning air, my worries slowly retreat as I refocus on the dive at hand. The sun's high enough now. Mission time!

Deep air dive

The dive deck is spacious enough for four tec divers to gear up simultaneously. But right now it's just Michael and me. We'll be diving together, as it's my first dive of the trip and I haven't been diving deep for a while.

Suited up, double tanks strapped on my back, wings partially inflated, deckhands help me hook up the two deco stages, one on each side. After a last minute check, I duck walk the few meters to the ship's aft platform and splash in. A line runs from the bow to the stern and I immediately grab it, so as not to drift away with the current. Half pulling, half fining I make my way to the bow, where the down line is. This part can be a bit hectic and strenuous due to all the gear and the inevitable drag it causes, no matter how streamlined it is, especially if there're waves and current. But this morning it's not too bad. Still, we take our time at the bow to recover our breath before deflating our wings and start our descent.

↓ 5m. We briefly pause for a mutual bubble check and to pressurize our deco tanks before continuing on our way down. 10m. 15m. 20m. Down. Down. Down.


↓ 25m. Michael's already way ahead, pulling himself effortlessly down without loosing time. Descent time is bottom time. No sense in wasting precious minutes hanging around now. Steadily dropping deeper, I check all my gauges & instruments once again. 30m. The anchor line keeps disappearing into the blue below me. 35m. The wreck's still nowhere to be seen. 40m. Being on air, I can feel the first touch of narcosis. Suddenly, there she is. Just a vague shadow looming out of the blue.


↓ 45m. I pump some air in my wings to slow down my descent. 50m. We're on the wreck. Viz is poor, but Michael knows his way. I follow. It's as if the wreck is shrouded in a cloud of silt. I'm definitely slow-minded narced. I need to double check my instruments just to register what they're showing.


The wreck's alive with hundreds of small fish using it as refuge. Jack fish gangs dart in and out.

It being the first dive, we keep it simple. Staying on the outside, following the wrecks contours, just looking into the larger openings.

↓ 55m. Planned maximum depth. The bottom's maybe another 5m down, but barely visible. There're still some ammunition shells lying there in the sand. But somehow I don't particularly feel like messing around with those.

Soon it's time to return to the ascent line. We've been down for almost half an hour already. Narcosis sure has a way of playing with time. I guess it's because of my mind running at half speed, that time seems to pass twice as fast?


↑ Back at the line, we start on our slow way up. First deep stop's at 36m, where we switch from our bottom gas (air) to our deco mix (nitrox). Up 10m and another short stop. And up again. Then, from 18m onwards, we stop every 3m, holding on to the line to control our depth and avoid being carried away by the current - even though it's only slight at the moment. The narcosis actually sticks quite a while, my head only clearing up totally around 12m, long after I've left the deep!


↑ 9m stop done, we swim towards the deco rig below the ship, move up to 6m and switch to surface supplied pure oxygen to speed up the off-gassing of the nitrogen absorbed by our bodies during the dive. Still, it's a long wait just hanging there. Breathing in and out. In and out.

Time up, I let myself drift towards the ship's ladder, take off my fins and climb aboard. Michael's there already. Having a multi-gas dive computer, he can follow a real time deco schedule, in stead of a max-depth max-time pre-planned one, thus giving him shorter stop times. All in all it took me more than 50 minutes to come up. And that's for a relatively short shallow deep dive, with accelerated decompression.