Searching For Manta Rays & Whale Sharks

Searching For Manta Rays & Whale Sharks

Created: 2016-11-09

On a cold January day in the dive centre I received an email that led to me sitting where I am typing this – balancing my laptop on my knees on a beanbag on the sun deck of the quite glorious Blue Voyager liveaboard, whilst she sails around the idyllic paradise atolls of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

The email was from Blue O Two – the best dive holiday company in the world, in my opinion.  They were writing to let me know that I was invited on a familiarisation trip aboard one of their boats – where there would be diving in the day and presentations on the extensive Blue O Two fleet in the evenings. It took me all of 2 minutes to check childcare arrangements and book my flights!

So, in early October, following a manic summer season at the dive centre, I threw my new Scubapro Hydros lightweight BCD in a bag, along with most of my kit (I admit I forgot some things because I was rushing!) and headed off to Heathrow.  The Emirates flight to Dubai was a delight and I managed to watch two films, including Finding Dory, which really put me in the mood for some warm water diving.  The Dubai – Male flight was a bit more crowed but I managed a couple of hours sleep before arriving at the airport and being picked up by our guide for the week Gabriel – a truly enigmatic man from Argentina who seemed genuinely as excited about all the diving as we did!

The liveaboard was luxury personified – spacious cabins, decadent lounges and this sun deck, furnished with sofas, bean bags, sun beds, and the essential (?) hot tub! After a false start in cabin 8 with a poorly roomie with the lurgy, I settled in cabin 2 with a delightful northern gentleman who put up with this southern lass’s snoring and pretended he never heard it.

The diving began that very first day with a check dive at “Fish Head” – not the most salubrious of names for a dive site but oh my goodness did it deliver!  The place was overrun with huge sting rays (I lost count around 9) and the cute award went to the squillions of baby blue triggerfish mooching around in the shallows.  On the way back in the Dhoni (I’ll explain that in a minute) we were even treated to the company of dolphins.  Possibly the best check dive in the world!

So, the Dhoni.  Our cute wooden, traditional Maldivian Dhoni follows the main boat when we pootle along and it is essentially a separate dive deck.  All our gear is neatly lined up on spacious benches, with a crate underneath for smaller bits and pieces.  Between dives, the crew refill our cylinders whilst we enjoy a cold drink on the main vessel – and the best bit – they sail the Dhoni off to a distance where we can’t even hear the compressor – a welcome break to us all as we are all dive centre owners from around the UK who spend a large part of our time at work listening to the drone of a compressor!

The food on board is incredible.  The Sri Lankan chefs knocks up some true culinary delights from his small galley kitchen – ranging from Lasagne to Chinese to our and seemingly his favourite, curry.  Not just any curry, but 8 difference dishes of meat / fish / vegetable / daals and so on. Quite spectacular!  Every time we return from a dive we are presented with a welcome ice cold drink and a home-made goodie of some description.  In case we got the chance to get hungry (we don’t) there is a whole branch of bananas hanging at the back of the boat ripening in the sunshine.  They really have thought of everything.

So back to the diving. Our first full day landed us two very special encounters with the majestic manta rays.  In daylight hours, we stationed ourselves next to a cleaning station and watched these gorgeous creatures cruise in for a spruce up courtesy of the little wrasse.  By night we turned on the super strength lights at the back of the boat and “cooked” for the mantas, whipping up extraordinary quantities of plankton and krill and it wasn’t long before they sniffed it out and began to feed at the back of the boat, in their typical swirling round and round doing somersaults manner.  Of course, we were not content just watching from the back of the boat, so we kitted up, with torches and cameras at the ready, and headed down to the sandy bottom. We all stuck our torches into the sand, pointing upwards in some strange light-sabre-like ritual, but the plankton and krill obliged and came in their drones, so thick at times that I was put in mind of the Wraysbury viz! However, what happened next sadly never happens at Wraysbury – a manta swooped within centimetres of my head and expertly gobbled up a ton of goodies from the light beams.  It treated us to a show of three loops around the whole group before heading off – only to come back again about ten minutes later when there was more to eat again.  It was truly magical and I confess it brought a tear of pure gratitude and joy to my eye! Turned out this wouldn’t be the first time…

Cruising around the South Ari Atoll the following day we had one thing in mind – searching for the gentle giant of the ocean, the Whale Shark.  We systematically worked our way up and down the ocean side of the far south hoping for an encounter when suddenly the crew spotted something in the water.  We all rushed to the Dhoni which sped off whilst we kitted up.  Divers threw themselves into the water, but unfortunately my buddy was having a problem with her fin strap and we were last to enter the water. However, this turned out to be an absolute stroke of genius.  She giant strided (strode?) into the water, negatively buoyant as per usual, and as her head sunk below the surface and I was about to follow, the crew shouted “whale shark” and pointed in the opposite direction to where everyone went.  I jumped in and immediately grabbed her and pointed the opposite way and then there, looming out of the blue, came the most glorious sight – an enormous, graceful giant of the deep, a whale shark.  He allowed us to swim alongside him for at least 5 minutes, and it is something I will never, ever forget, and yes, there was another tear! As if that weren’t enough we saw a turtle and a second whale shark fleetingly towards the end of the dive.

The rest of the dives during the week were equally beautiful and chilled – and we were treated to a spectacular array of hard and soft corals, beautiful reef fish, black and white tipped reef sharks, turtles, nudibranchs, eels of all shapes, sizes and colours, eagle rays, sting rays and manta rays.

All in all, it was an epic journey full of incredible experiences and I can’t wait to offer this trip to all of our divers in 2017!

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Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
WIth a return to the water imminent, now is the time to make sure everything is in good working order and serviced in line with manufacturers' recommendations. Bring us your regs, BCDs, computers and tanks - we offer a 2 week turnaround time for most servicing so that will ensure your gear is safe and ready to use by the time we can resume diving. We are open on Thursdays from 10am until 5pm, for a kerbside drop off and collection service, but please ensure your visit is part of an essential journey in line with current guidelines.
Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
Not to be outdone by BoJo, here is our road map.

We will remain closed until 12th April 2021, with the exception of click and collect / kerbside service as before. For these, we will continue to open every Thursday from 10am until 5pm, with no appointment necessary.

We hope to commence outdoor in-water training from 29th March assuming our inland dive sites are classed as outdoor leisure facilities. We then aim to commence indoor in water training from 12th April when indoor leisure facilities are allowed to reopen.
Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
As the end of lockdown appears to be within touching distance, we come to the 8th in a series of Anna's favourite warm water destinations.

RAJA AMPAT – WEST PAPUA - INDONESIA

Where is Raja Ampat and what’s so special about it?

Although technically you wouldn’t be wrong to say that Raja Ampat is situated roughly halfway between Madagascar and Mexico, and is an archipelago made up of the four (Ampat) Kings (Raja) islands (pulau) of Misool, Batanta, Salawati and Waigeo, in reality, there are more than 1500 islands here, with a total population roughly the same as the town of Salisbury in the UK. You can spend a week anywhere here and spend time with pretty much only the people you’ll dive and stay with, either on a liveaboard or on land (I spent a week on Gam, one of the smaller islands. No roads, no mains electricity, no noise, no light pollution. Marvellous). Other advantages include its considerable and stunning marine life biodiversity and a reef system agreed as housing the richest ecosystems on earth. This area is also home to the incredible Birds of Paradise (for your entertainment – watch “Dancing with Birds” on Netflix, narrated by Stephen Fry).

Why should I dive there?

See above. What other reason would you need. You won’t run out of dive sites, nor things to see. Absolutely incredible. You will likely see the Tasseled Wobbegong shark, Giant Clam, Bumphead parrotfish, pygmy seahorse and many kinds of frogfish. Raja is also known for some fierce currents, so get some diving practice in before you go to fully appreciate it. All the islands will offer spectacular diving – Misool is considered the crème de la crème as it really is so much further (and less explored/busy).

When to go?

October to March has the calmest waters if you’re doing a liveaboard. Having said that I was there in November and some days were pretty choppy, but not blown out. Visibility is superb, and the water is always warm.

What to take?

There’s a fair bit of flying involved, so definitely trade out the heavy wetsuit for a dive skin. My favourite is the Sharkskin, it’s super light to pack, windproof, warm, quick drying and neutrally buoyant. A reef hook. Do NOT be tempted to buy one there or any other dive related item for that matter, you will pay double or triple UK prices. Take a camera and learn how to use it before you go! If you’re going to be island based, particularly homestay, do take some snacks and favourite foods like apples, oranges, snackbars, as the food can sometimes get a little samey (in my experience), drinking water is in good supply but don’t forget your reusable water bottle, and a good supply of electrolytes! Try to take as little packaging as possible, or plan to take it away with you.

Preparation, preparation, preparation !

It takes time to get there, so plan your time appropriately. You’ll fly into Sorong, and if you’re land based will need to take a speedboat to your accommodation. It’s very easy to arrange one (just tell your accommodation and they’ll pick you up), but not particularly cheap (too many variables to list here – the exchange rate at a glance is…. Knock four zeroes off the end and divide by 2 e.g. 3,000,000 rupiah  3,000,000 300  £150 approximately.) If you’re land based, you may need to pay cash (the bigger resorts will take cards, homestays don’t), and hence you’ll need to plan a larger than normal zipped bag/Ziploc to carry around your wad of notes.

Where to stay

You can choose to spend as much or as little as you wish, from high end luxury liveaboards (the Dewi Nusantara, anyone?) which will give you a fabulous selection of incredible dive sites throughout a week or 15 nights, to basic beachfront homestays (from around £25 a night upwards, including board), up to beautifully appointed dive resorts (Raja Ampat biodiversity Resort for example). One salient point to note… the liveaboards boast photos of white billowing sails atop romantic Phinisi schooner style yachts… you may get a last morning photo op with the sails up, but don’t be fooled – you’ll be motoring around the dive sites, not sailing. Homestays are all grouped and managed under the “stayrajaampat” website since they’re remote and don’t all speak English/ have internet. It’s a great website for info on all the islands and their attractions: https://www.stayrajaampat.com/ultimate-raja-ampat-guide/raja-ampat-islands/ It’s also run by volunteers who do an amazing and fair job.

Splurge.

Raja Ampat is definitely a splurge destination – but as much as you want to spend all your time underwater, do plan for a few days on land exploring the jungle and the magnificent birds of paradise on Waigeo or plan to go further afield down to Misool which is 4+ hours by speedboat from the airport town of Sorong and may set you back over £300 (round trip) on top of your accommodation. You may want to plan a trip to the highly picturesque Piaynemo island lookout (below is a picture of my friend and dive guide Tommy precariously showing off there).

How to get there?

Sorong airport is your destination whether land or liveaboard based (there’s a smaller airport in Waisai but isn’t that useful for transfers). You get there via Jakarta, Makkasar, Manado, then a ferry (huge, busy, cheap, relatively comfortable, air conditioned, fascinating if you’re a people watcher) to Waisai, then a small boat to your destination. It’s a long, long trip and you will know you’re on the other side of the planet by the time you get there. Plan the length of your holiday accordingly. I only had an hour and a half flight from Manado but the transfers took all day from Sorong to Gam (see map below) and vice versa.

Good to know?
Overweight luggage isn’t actually that expensive on the local airlines.
Get your cash before you get to Indonesia, preferably! ATMs limit you to 1,000,000 at most (£50).
Bring a good first aid kit and make sure you have insurance (Dive and travel). Dive conservatively. There is a deco chamber in Waisai, but it’s expensive and doesn’t guarantee 24/7 operation. The nearest DAN approved chamber is in Manado (see above for my trip times to and from Manado).

I stayed at Yenros Homestay and dived with Raja Ampat Biodiversity Resort next door, on Gam island.

Photo Information:
Map Source: Wikipedia
Piaynemo islands. Photo Credit: Tommy Milton
Ferry from Sorong to Waisai. Photo Credit: Anna Williams
Tiny frogfish. Photo Credit: Anna Williams
Dive dock at Gam island. Photo Credit Anna Williams
Ocean Turtle Diving
Ocean Turtle Diving
This week Anna is transporting us away from the grey skies of the UK, to the crystal clear Caribbean Sea!!!

The Elbow – Turneffe Atoll – Belize – Caribbean Sea

Where is Turneffe Atoll and what’s so special about it?

Turneffe is one of the only four atolls in the Western Hemisphere, three of which are in Belize (sandwiched between Mexico and Honduras). Almost every diver will be familiar with the Maldivian atolls of the Pacific– typically a ring shaped coral rim, a chain of islands surrounding an extinct volcano that has eroded leaving a central lagoon. Turneffe Atoll is almost 50km long, 30km off the mainland, and is the largest atoll in the MesoAmerican Barrier Reef System with over 200 mangrove cayes (islands). What is more, it’s been a Marine Reserve for nearly 10 years, has no permanent inhabitants and is largely littoral forest and mangroves – great news for both marine fauna and us divers!

What is The Elbow?

The Elbow is one of the most well-known dive sites in Belize, but whereas most of the dive sites are generally known for being calm, easy, shallow and colourful with no current, the Elbow is famous for being a true drift dive (with occasional currents running like a train!). Situated at the southernmost end of Turneffe Atoll, the current here rages towards the south, and divers are scooped up on a kind of marine motorway, shunted out into the blue, down the coast and spat out where the eastern and western drifts meet at the atoll tip. More info on Turneffe and its other dive sites here:

https://ambergriscaye.com/pages/town/diveturneffe.html

Why should I dive it?

Big currents mean big pelagics, big schools and the big wide blue. The current whisks divers out into the blue, where I’ve seen runs of 20+ huge eagle rays, schools of Horse eye jacks and cruising turtles before drifting back towards the wall. It’s huge thrill “armchair diving” and watching the canyons and coral formations scroll beneath you.

When to go? Between November and April/June is “tourist season”, do your homework on the “shoulder” season though for fewer visitors and better prices (October, July). The Elbow dive is most definitely dependent on conditions including weather, swell and tides so it’s best to stay at the Atoll to make sure you get to dive at optimum conditions. Blackbird Caye Resort is a well-established 5* PADI dive resort right on the ocean’s edge.

What to take?

If you’re a photographer – it’s your wide angle kit you’re going to need at the Elbow.

Preparation, preparation, preparation!

The Elbow is most certainly an Advanced Open Water Dive/ Deep Diver spec – for the depths (up to 30+ metres), and the drift (Drift Diver recommended). You’re likely to be doing a negative entry (buddy teams descending together directly from the boat without surface wait) and each diver should be very comfortable sending up their DSMB. Preparation makes the most of your dive!

Insider tips….

There are weeks and weeks’ worth of dives here at Turneffe, so it makes sense to stay on the atoll to take full advantage. Turneffe is also home to the rare Whitespotted Toadfish endemic to Belize. Listen for it, you’ll hear and feel its grrrrunt in the pit of your stomach before you see it. (Like a mobile phone vibrating on a glass table).

Splurge.

Blackbird Caye is the only resort on Turneffe to have its own airstrip. Do splurge, Turneffe from the air is breathtaking! Do not miss treating yourself to a few days inland either … I highly recommend Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle lodge where you can float upriver and visit a Mayan spiritual site deep within the caves, before relaxing in your rooftop bathtub under the stars and palms. Un-Belizeable!

Bonus

Belize is English Speaking and tiny. You can get from the mountains to the bottom of the sea in a couple hours. It’s also absolutely stunning.

Fun facts

Turneffe Atoll has been touted as the actual location of Peter Pan’s NeverLand according to a theory published in 2018. An attempt to drum up business was subsequently made by the Belize Tourism board, offering a free holiday at Turneffe to randomly selected applicants with the names Wendy or Peter. News and video here:

https://www.breakingbelizenews.com/2018/05/10/is-turneffe-atoll-the-geographic-location-of-peter-pans-paradise/

Whitespotted Toadfish. Photo Credit: www.reefguide.org