Friday, March 20, 2009

The Long Ride Home

[Note: I'll update later with some pictures!]

The last legs of this trip are all in the air. From Makassar we fly to Bali, have a brief stopover, then off to Taipei, another stopover, and then home to San Francisco. Because of our friend the International Date Line, the trip starts in Makassar on Thursday morning, and after about 24 hours in transit, it's Thursday evening in San Francisco.

The hard part, of course, is figuring out how to do the trip without ending up hopelessly jet-lagged next week at work. So we'll try a combination of staying awake (my favorite solution to jet lag), and the homeopathic No Jet Lag pills. I've got books to read, and we'll see what fine cinematic treats China Airlines has in store.

Much later...

And it all turns out fine. Jan wasn't feeling too well, so she slept much of the trip. Christopher and I managed to stay awake most of the way, and the airline showed us some decent movies (unlike the trip over, where the "highlight" was a TV movie called "The Librarian"): Madagascar II on the Bali-Taipei leg, then Quantum of Solace (not my favorite Bond flick, but diverting enough for a plane) and Slumdog Millionaire, which I actually wanted to see, on the long transoceanic leg.

On the layover in Bali, we did a little shopping to use up the last of our Indonesian money, then ate lunch at the same Japanese restaurant we went to last September before catching our flight home. That gave us a chance to say goodbye to a few of our friends.

During the stop in Taipei, we had time to walk around and see some of the shops, including a gift shop from the national museum. Unfortunately, we also found shark fins for sale at several shops. But there was also nice tea, art, and some cool electronic gizmos. So that kept us busy. Another intriguing aspect was some rest areas they had decorated to resemble some of the natural areas one might visit in Taiwan. Kind of an interesting way to advertise, and a pleasant little respite from the commercial and travel facilities.

Oh, and they had a bunch of decorated art cows. The decorations were by school children. They were very bright and colorful and very cool looking!

All in all, our very long travel day passed relatively quickly, and the great reward came when we arrived in San Francisco, where we were greeted by our very eager, happy daughter. That was a most welcome end to a great trip.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Interlude in Makassar

Because of domestic flight schedules, we got to spend about a day in Makassar. We had flown through Makassar on the way to Raja Ampat, but this time we got to go into town and stay overnight.

Several interesting points. I noted on the way through the first time that the city and/or the airport seem to have two apparently interchangeable names, Makassar and Ujung Pandang. Some quick Googling now tells me that Ujung Pandang was a somewhat short-lived official name of the city at the end of the 20th century, but it is now Makassar again. I should note that a lot of the place names in Indonesia seem to change now and then. The province of Papua, which includes Raja Ampat, was at some point Iryan Jaya. But not anymore.

Second, Makassar is a commercial and shipping center, but not a tourist destination. It is practically at the geographical center of the Indonesian archipelago. We had a nice hotel, the Imperial Aryaduta. Nice facilities, but it's odd to be in a place where even the hotel staff speaks fairly limited English. Makassar definitely is not set up to cater to American tourists.

Third, this is our first stop in Indonesia where you really get the feeling of how deeply Muslim this country is. There are mosques seemingly everywhere, including one right across the street from our hotel. This means we can hear the call to prayer five times a day (and the hotel room has an indicator to show us where Mecca lies). The hotel information book includes a prayer-time schedule for the entire year.

Going out to lunch was a bit of an adventure. Aside from the fact that we had a bit of difficulty understanding the verbal directions from the hotel staff, we also didn't have any clue where we were going. So we found a restaurant and decided to go in. The menu was only in Indonesian, and the wait staff spoke only a tiny bit of English. Luckily I had learned enough of the names of food items on the boat that I could identify chicken, fish, rice, noodles, and a few other items. And beer. We perhaps didn't expect eight big bottles, but it was a hot day, and they went down great. The food was really tasty, and cheap. No complaints.

Dinner was pretty amusing, too. In the basement of the hotel there is a Brazilian-Mexican Pub and Restaurant called Salsa. The homesick Californians decided to see what Indonesian Mexican food is. We're still wondering, because the menu had no Mexican items. At all. Go figure. So we mostly ordered pizza!

I guess most important, the hotel had Internet service for me, and massages for Jan. Something for all of us, and a nice little experience that served as a transition on the way home.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Diving Recap's over. Lots and lots of diving, and it's done. So let's look back at what we've done:

43 dives, and I think Jan and I were the only ones who did them all. I spent nearly 52 hours under water, or an average of about an hour and twelve minutes for each dive. And Jan averaged about 7 minutes more per dive, which adds up to almost a full five extra hours under water over the two weeks. Amazing!

I guess we're kinda seriously waterlogged by now. But it's OK. A few days ago I was concerned that my ears weren't going to be happy with a dive trip this long, but they seem to have made it through just fine.

So, short summary is that we've done more diving on this single trip than we've ever done at one take before. Was it worth it?

I guess the obvious answer is, "Duh." I can't believe we'd have spent that much time if we weren't enjoying the dives. Although I have to say, we did a night dive the other night that was just dismal. Even the cruise director called it "crappy." And we were still down about an hour. So I guess it's plausible that we might have done a huge amount of mediocre diving, especially having traveled halfway around the world to do so.

Fact is, Raja Ampat and the surrounding area are amazing. I have never seen the sheer variety of corals and colors as we observed here. Just spectacular. And fish! Large numbers of fishes, big schools, great variety, and so on. And the reefs were quite healthy and robust.

Even in those cases where we didn't have spectacular conditions, such as the last few days in the north where the visibility was murky, we saw some great stuff (and could tell that in good conditions, it would be truly awesome).

Looking back, I realize I haven't said much about the dive boat. We sailed on the Archipelago Adventurer II, of the Archipelago Fleet. And I believe the cabin shown in the little slide show on the page is the cabin we actually stayed in. I have to admit to having some mixed feelings about the operation. I can break it down into three separate areas: the diver operation, the business, and the boat itself.

The dive operation is top-notch. The dive guides are terrific (especially Ali and Made), they know the sites and conditions very well. The tenders, tender crews, and deck crew are great. We had some issues with the management of the operation--how they chose sites or limited dive times--but that didn't mar the diving itself. The cruise directors are relatively new on the job, and this is their first time running a liveaboard.

On the business side, I was really impressed with Archipelago Fleet. They arranged all our domestic transfers and lodgings, and all that worked very smoothly. I don't think we could have managed all that by ourselves. It was particularly helpful to have locals there to negotiate all our baggage transfers and fees at the airports. This was all a cut above what I've experienced with other dive companies.

Lastly, the boat itself. The website describes it as "newly constructed," but frankly, it's a bit run down (and I'm told it's going into dry dock in June for some much-needed repairs). The public areas are nice. Both of the dining salons (one of which is used as the camera and TV room) are pleasant, and the dining deck outside the upper dining salon is lovely. The sun deck has no covering, so it's really a SUN deck. Really, it's too hot up there most of the time, so we ended up either indoors or at least under cover on a lower deck. Several of the cabins leaked when it rained. Some of the fixtures and finishing in the cabins were in less-than-perfect repair.

Overall, then, I'm a little conflicted. On the whole, I liked the dive operation and the boat crew and the business operations. On the other hand, the boat itself isn't really up to the standard of other "luxury" liveaboards we've been on.

So Raja Ampat gets a big thumbs-up for the diving. Archipelago Fleet really impressed me as a company and overall operation. I have real reservations about the Archipelago Adventurer II, though. So I would certainly consider going back, but would want to see that the boat had gotten some real upgrades. There are other boats operating in the area, and I would have to look at them, too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Return Engagements

I've always been of the school that says great experiences aren't repeatable. Your second trip to Disneyland can never be as magical as the first. And if you win the lottery, you should stop buying tickets.

Along those lines, the passengers on our boat last night chose to head back to the sites where we dove with manta rays and under the piers the other day. In the light of not-so-favorable conditions where we'd been diving, the group elected to bypass the signature dive site of the region in favor of sites that had given us great dives. The danger, of course, being that it might not be as good this time. Indeed, I mentioned to Jan last night that we could sit and wait for mantas with no luck, or find that the fish had abandoned the piers and a current was ripping through or something. Ever the optimist, no?

So we arrived early at Manta Sandy to check for favorable currents and such, planning to dive at 8:00 am. Of course, another boat shows up and drops their divers in at 7:30. So we rescheduled to 8:30, so as not to overcrowd the site.

At 8:30 we dropped in, and lo, there are mantas at the cleaning station already, and we had as many as six at a time swooping through for the next hour-and-a-half or more. Marvelous! As good as the first time, and maybe even better in some ways.

Getting back on our boat, we learned that the other boat that had jumped in ahead of us had waited 40 minutes before seeing any mantas, and then had only three. So we definitely got the best of that exchange! They were coming back to the site as we left, so maybe they had something good later.

Then on to the piers, where we dropped in fish. Really. Just desolate. Ghost town. We poked around the reef for a while, finding some pretty nice fish and things, and eventually headed back to the piers. The anchovies had returned, as had the school of trevally jacks that like to hunt there. But no sign of the scads that were so plentiful the last visit.

On the plus side, someone found a little farm of giant tridachna clams (Jan counted 19 of them), including some quite large. Always nice to see big, healthy giant clams.

All in all, it was worth coming back. No great disappointments, and the mantas were at least as good the second time around. We were fortunate.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Great Expectations

All trip long we've been hearing about how great the north was going to be: great visibility, big fish, and so on. And indeed, it's quite different from both the early muck diving we did and the reefs as we worked our way up here.

On the other hand, conditions have been somewhat poor, with unusual currents bringing in murky, yellow water much of the time. The nutrient-rich water is great for the reefs and the critters who live on and around them, but it makes the diving less than spectacular. It's nice to see a school of 100 fish, but frustrating to know that you could see 1000 or more if the water were clearer.

This suggests that perhaps our cruise director should have been a little more circumspect about what we would find here. Yes, we're all experienced divers and know that the conditions are at the whim of the ocean. But we can't help but get our hopes up when we constantly hear how great it's going to be.

It's a little disappointing, but we are still seeing some great stuff. No complaints about the diving; it's just not quite what we'd been led to expect.

Personal Bests

One thing that fascinates me about diving is that the longer I do it, the more I learn about myself. I have, over the years, learned to slow my breathing to the point that I could almost always make a standard tank of air last for an hour under most circumstances. Earlier this week, I faced a challenge, in that some of the folks I was diving with were pushing for longer dive times, up to and sometimes exceeding an hour and a half.

And I utterly surprised myself by managing to do it, too. It was a stretch at times, and I came up with nearly empty tanks a couple of times, but darned if by the end of the trip, I'm not finding 80-90 minutes a very reachable goal nearly all the time. And a couple of times I got to find out what happens when my dive computer runs out of digits to count the dive time. It only uses two digits, so when we aimed for 100 minutes a couple of times, I was curious to see what it would do.

Turns out I can't dive more than 99 minutes on my computer. It just stops counting at 99 (or at least, stops displaying additional time. This seems bad, as it's really, really important to know how much time has elapsed. It was one of a couple of limitations I ran into this week with my old computer. I think I'm going to have to invest in a new one before we do another serious dive trip. Luckily, that gives me a little time to save my pennies.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reef Encounters

Neat stuff today, in rather unexpected venues. First dive in the morning was a manta dive at a site called "Manta Sandy." As the name implies, it's a sandy sea mount with little coral, but one area is a known cleaning station for big manta rays. And after we sat there for about 15 minutes, here came several big rays. The first ones, I'd guess, we maybe 8-12 feet across their wingspans. Later we saw some that must have been more like 15-18 feet: just massive. They come in, swooping and swirling, with remoras attached, so the cleaner fish can do their jobs. Truly fun to watch, and we had about an hour of that, so it was definitely worth the wait.

Next stop was at the pier at a little island called Airborek (or maybe Air Borek). The main attraction is huge schools of little bait fish (scads, mostly, but also anchovies) that hang out under the pier. Those were spectacular: fun to swim with a great photo and video subjects. The big surprises awaited us on the coral heads nearby. Ali, one of the dive guides, found two pygmy seahorses that he hadn't known about before. Then one of the divers, Mary, found a little blue-ringed octopus.

Basically, I had very low expectations for both of those dives, and both turned out to be great. This is one of the reasons I almost never skip a dive: you never know what you might miss. There's always risk with going to a spot to see one particular thing, since it might not be there. On the other hand, you could always see something great you didn't expect!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Plural of Octopus

Considerable discussion among the pedants in our group about the proper plural of "octopus." I had never really thought about it, and never looked it up. Apparently,"octopi" is incorrect. Indeed, my spell-checker has just flagged it as an error.

The correct word is apparently "octopodes," although "octopuses" is also acceptable (and the only version my spell checker -- and Blogger's -- seems to accept).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mixed Results

One of the biggest changes in diving since I started almost 15 years ago is the common adoption of mixed-gas diving. It used to be that the tank on your back held compressed air, and while that is still sometimes true, on most of these tropical dive boats the tanks are mostly filled with Nitrox now.

"Nitrox" is a generic term for "enriched air" which is air with more oxygen added. Oxygen is generally very good for your body. We've all see tired athletes breathing oxygen to recover, and various kinds of patients breathing it under a doctor's care.

Divers have tried lots of modifications of breathing gas over the years. Ultimately there are two (or three) issues they are trying to solve:
  • Air contains 79% nitrogen (versus 21% oxygen), and nitrogen bubbles can cause "the bends." The less nitrogen, the better.
  • Oxygen at high pressure can be toxic. So not too much of that in the mix, especially as you dive deeper.
  • Breathing too much pressurized oxygen over the course of a day can also be toxic (but in a different way).
I'll spare you all the science behind all this. Suffice it to say that it's desirable to displace some of the nitrogen in breathing gas with another gas. Under many conditions, oxygen is a good choice, but if one is diving very deep (and therefore under very high pressure), that could be deadly, so an inert gas such as helium or argon is generally used instead.

I remember vividly seeing film of divers years ago in a bathysphere breathing a gas with lots of helium added. The resulting "helium voice" was quite memorable. There is still "heliox" in use, but divers more commonly use the heavier (but also inert) argon now.

Fairly recently, recreational divers started using Nitrox (air with additional oxygen), which for most diving provides a margin of safety and comfort.

The drawback for me is that one needs a special dive computer to handle the necessary calculations for allowable depth and time given a particular mix of gases. Most modern dive computers handle this pretty elegantly, but my rather outdated one requires that I set it for the percentage of oxygen in the Nitrox for every single dive. And if I should forget, it defaults to assuming I'm using a 50% oxygen gas for my next dive, rather than the more reasonable assumption that I'll be using whatever I used the last time (usually between 30 and 32% oxygen).

So of course, I have now twice forgotten to set the computer before a dive on this trip, and it has been a huge hassle. I think I've handled it well and responsibly, by occasionally lying to the computer and telling it I was breathing plain air instead of Nitrox, so as to balance out the calculations. But I should not have to do this.

Before I do any more serious diving, I will probably need to invest in a new dive computer. Not that I mind new toys (especially computers!), but I basically like the one I have, but for this one thing. Annoying.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Misool Eco Resort

Been so busy diving the last couple of days, I haven't gotten to write at all! Diving's been really good, though.

This afternoon a few of us had the chance to pay a brief visit to a new dive resort here in Misool, the Misool Eco Resort. To say it's beautiful is an understatement. It's a lovely lagoon, and actually incorporates a small island in the lagoon via a wooden bridge.

The idea of the resort is the be as "green" and sustainable as possible. Thorben Niemann, who designed and built much of the resort, gave us a little tour and pointed out many features, such as the fact that all the wood used in construction was driftwood. They capture and use waste water for gardening. And they will soon have solar panels to generate much of the daily electricity (though not enough for, say, the air compressor in the dive center). And they've created a marine preserve around the resort, so there's no fishing and the like. We saw fish and small reef sharks swimming right in the lagoon.

It's quite beautiful and impressive. My pictures don't do it justice; you should click through to their website which does a much better job. I did get one cool shot of the inside of the roof at the resort's restaurant, though my little camera doesn't do it justice:

All I can say personally is that in the brief time we were there, we were accosted by some of the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen. They were fierce! We had forgotten to put on any repellent, but I have to say it would be a very different experience staying at the resort than on a boat as we are (with no mosquitoes!).

But it's really nice to see someone creating a very different kind of resort.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Motoring from Ambon

After our night dive tonight, we pulled the anchor and started on our way north. Tomorrow morning we'll be at a small island with a fringing reef north of here. We'll do a couple of dives there, then around noon we'll head for Raja Ampat itself, specifically the island of Misool.

Raja Ampat literally means "four kings." It refers to four native kings who controlled the spice trade back in the 17th century. They divided up the spice islands, including the area we're going to now.

Raja Ampat includes one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, and should be quite spectacular. It is known for having the greatest diversity of both coral and fish life of any area known on the planet.

Diving in the Muck

Today's diving is what we call "muck diving," which means searching for creatures (usually small ones), often amongst rubble, sand, or detritus. In fact, some of the best substrate for muck diving is human flotsam, such as bottles, discarded clothing, and such.

We have already seen, after only two dives, some very cool stuff. One highlight is that we've found several pairs of small cuttlefish, and have observed them both eating and mating. Wow! I'd only seem that on video before. We've also encountered more stonefish than I've probably ever observed before. Stonefish are very hard to see, as they blend in with their surroundings. But they pack a punch: very toxic spines that can kill humans. So it's good to know there are a lot of them around, if only to make us really, really careful.

Frogfish Update

Just had a chat with James, one of the cruise directors. He says the much-anticipated psychedelic frogfish hasn't actually been seen by anyone in about a year. As noted in my earlier post, it was first found some twenty years ago, then "misplaced" until last year, at which time it was seen a fair amount for several months, but not since.

We've declared a bounty on finding this fish: free beer for the remainder of the trip for whoever locates it. If that doesn't find it, nothing will!

We did a nice dive this morning, kind of a check-out dive, but we saw good stuff.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Off to Ambon

Today was a transit day. We said goodbye to Bali, and headed off to Ambon, where we would meet the dive boat. One of the joys of flying different airlines these days is the varying restrictions they put on baggage. For example, on China Airlines to get over here, they restricted us to two checked bags each, with a weight limit of 20 kg per bag. That's a pretty tight restriction for divers, especially for those bringing cameras and lenses and underwater housings and such.

Then this morning we took our first flight leg from Bali to Makassar (or Ujung Pandang; I need to learn why the place has two names) on Garuda Indonesia. Their limit is 20 kg per passenger. So now we're facing excess baggage fees. Luckily, they discounted a bit, as we were about 10 kg over each, and they only charged us for about 10 total.

Then we had to change airlines to get from Makassar to Ambon, so we got to do the whole baggage dance again with Lion Air. They, too, wanted to limit us to 20 kg per passenger, and again we were over, but again we got a bit of a discount.

At some level it begins to feel like kind of a racket, designed to charge one for the same overage, over and over. Unfortunately, to get to the particular corner of Indonesia we want, we have to take different airlines for each leg, so we have to cope.

Also at Makassar, we met up with the rest of the group we'll be diving with for the next couple of weeks. That includes old friends like Liz and Josh, the trip organizers from Undersea Productions, and also some new acquaintances who will soon be friends, too.

Arriving in Ambon we were told the airline hadn't been able to include all of the checked baggage. This meant that three of the bags for our group didn't make it. Luckily, all of Jan's and my bags showed up. Some other people will be a little short of fresh clothing, or in one case, short a camera housing, until we can get the additional bags in the morning.

Boarding the boat was interesting. We had to take taxis for 45 minutes or more to get from the airport to the harbor. I was quite impressed with the quality of the road the whole way. Ambon is not exactly a major metropolitan center by global standards, but it has a good main road, at least. Certainly better than many we've encountered in some other countries.

And a good thing, too, because midway through the ride, it started to rain. And we're talking major tropical downpour, with water running down the streets, kids floating boats in the gutters, and sometimes little visibility from the car. But it never felt dangerous, despite the closeness of the traffic, including the ubiquitous scooters.

The dive boat was docked (perhaps "wedged" is more accurate) between a cement barge and a tanker of some sort, so they had rigged “gangplanks” (just boards,really) to get us onto the barge, and from there onto the dive boat. It was a bit precarious, especially as it was still raining, but the crew was very helpful and we all made it aboard without incident.

And they greeted us with fresh coconuts to drink the water from. This is going to be great!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"Holiday, No Problem"

As planned, a quiet day around the resort. Got up at a reasonable time, which bodes well for adjusting to the 20-hour time change. Complementary breakfast buffet was pretty good: lots of fresh fruit, fresh bread for toast, eggs, bacon, Tater name it.

Then everyone else in the group went off to the spa for various "treatments," so I headed out to the beach to relax and read. All the nice, shady spots were already claimed, so I found a decent spot near the pool and read for a bit. The sun eventually got a bit strong so I headed over by the lounge where they have computers, Internet, and wifi, and got on the net to read a few e-mails.

Lunch was a decent cheeseburger (figure we might not see another until we get home), then a little more lazing about. We took a late afternoon stroll along the beach walk, which went by some other resorts, lots of beach bars and restaurants, and some pretty scenery. We got back just as it started to rain.

Then it rained some more. I know I wrote a bit about the rain in Ubud when we were here last year. Boy, when it decides to rain, it really rains. Welcome to the tropics! We got good and soaked on our way to dinner. Our friends decided not to even go out, just stayed in their room. I guess this will be a good test of my new deck shoes (made by OTB), which are supposed to drain well (they do) and dry fast (we'll see).

Christopher's Austrian friend who is currently living in Ubud for a couple of years drove down in the rain to visit. They joined us as we were finishing dinner, and ordered drinks. When the waiter brought her mineral water, it was too cold, and she asked for one "not cold." His response summed up the day for me: "Holiday, no problem." He brought her another, not cold.

So I've decided that's the theme of this trip for me. I'm on holiday, so I'm not going to let anything be a problem. I will let other people take care of things that might otherwise be problems. I'm just going to enjoy.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Beach Stop

Sitting on the beach here is very pleasant. There is nominally free wifi out here, but I haven't found the key yet. Here, by the way, is the Puri Santrian resort in Sanur, Bali. We arrived quite uneventfully after about 20 hours in transit: 13+ hours from San Francisco to Taipei, Taiwan, then after a couple of hours in the transit lounge there, another five hours from Taipei to Denpasar, Bali.

Flights were on China Airlines, and were quite painless. Good service, lousy video, but we slept a lot of the way. Food was even pretty decent.

Being met at the airport by folks from the dive operation was a nice touch. Just knowing we didn't have to fuss with a cab and such was worth a lot.

Bali is much the way we remember it, of course. Makes sense, since it's only five months since we were last here. Very pleasant people, hot weather (30 C this afternoon, muggy). Puri Santrian is very nice, right on the beach, with a huge pool and lots of great places to sit on the beach. We seem to be considerably younger than the average couple here, and a lot less German. Don't know whether that's real, a sampling error on the beach, or a skew in the demographics in the late afternoon.

Jan has already made spa arrangements for tomorrow. I plan to relax, read, write, and maybe figure out the wifi. A couple of our friends who will be on the dive portion of the trip are also staying here. We may meet them for dinner. Or not. We're definitely slipping into vacation mode quickly.