The Wonderful World Below The Waves

Thursday, 10th February 2011

Owner stories

By Virginia Dimsey, Oyster 62 Saildance II

A yacht provides a unique opportunity to visit places where the underwater world is least impacted by human activity and nature is at its natural best. Without too much difficulty you can learn the skills and carry the equipment that makes snorkeling and diving a part of your way of exploring the world. In this article I hope to describe how our exploration of the undersea world unfolded. All the photographs that appear in this article were taken by me while snorkeling or diving with only a point-and-shoot camera. I hope the photos will show the incredible colour and beauty of what you can see and learn under the sea. Of all the wonderful adventures we have experienced during our global circumnavigation, none has been as unexpectedly thrilling and joyful as our exploration of the ocean.

In October 2005, after my husband, Peter, retired, we started our circumnavigation in our new Oyster 62, Saildance II. Before leaving England, our focus was mainly on supplies for the boat, safety equipment, planning enough food and putting together the medical kit. A year later when we were in Newport, Rhode Island, we sensed that our trip around the world would provide some fantastic diving opportunities that we should prepare to take advantage of. So we bought our own dive gear (BCD, regulator, wetsuit, fins and mask and importantly a dive computer/watch).

Having good equipment, which fits properly and you are familiar with, is very valuable. We also had a compressor and four tanks installed in the lazarette of our boat. Having this gives you the flexibility to go on your own when and where you like. We were novice divers. Whilst I had my Open Water Diver certificate I had only dove 20 times, whilst Peter had done his training in a pool and received his certificate on a sailing holiday and had even less experience.

I began taking photos with a mid-range point-and-shoot camera with waterproof housing, which worked well and was easy to carry underwater. This was not easy as the fish you are photographing are moving, the water is moving and you are moving! It was amazing that anything was in focus. We started to buy several reference books and found that those with actual photographs, not drawings, helped to identify the various types of fish more easily.

Building a knowledge of what you are seeing adds a great deal to the enjoyment. Slowly, we developed a ‘wish list’ of fish we hoped to see. Sharks and Manta Rays were at the top of the list, but then there were lots of other unusual and colourful fish such as the Clownfish, Lionfish, Napoleon Fish, Anemonefish, Ghost Pipefish, Mandarinfish as well as Octopus, Moray Eels, Barracudas, Turtles and Stingrays. Additionally, it is important to learn what not to touch, particularly those that are poisonous.

It was in these reference books that we discovered that marine diversity increases exponentially as we moved westward. The Indo-Pacific region is universally acknowledged as the world’s richest area for marine diversity. There are more marine creatures there than in any other region of the world. The Coral Triangle runs from the Philippines south-southwest to Bali in Indonesia, where it angles eastward extending past southern Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands, before going back northwest to the Philippines. To give you an example, in the Caribbean there are 50 species of coral, but in the Coral Triangle there are 600-800! Likewise, there are over 2000 species of fish in the Coral Triangle and only approximately 200 in the Caribbean! We had so much to look forward to as we sailed westward.

As we crossed the Pacific, our first dive was in the Galapagos, which really was jumping in at the deep end! The water there is quite cold with the Humboldt Current coming up from the Antarctic, about 65ºF (18ºC) so you need a thicker wet suit (5-7mm), which are available to hire there. With a thicker wet suit everything is different, especially one’s buoyancy, so we were a bit nervous. But after seeing a school of hammerhead sharks we were all excited. Also, in the Galapagos we had such fun snorkeling with the sea lions, which swam playfully around us.

Our next dives were in the Tuamotu Atolls in French Polynesia, where the islands have disappeared leaving just the fringing reefs. The tides fl ow quickly in and out through the passes and many pelagic fish (big fish) congregate there to let the water flow through their gills without having to swim around. We went with dive schools because you really need to know where to go and the currents can be strong. We descended as quickly as we could to the bottom and then held onto a rock to avoid drft ing with the current. You look up and it is like shark wallpaper, literally hundreds of reef sharks, white tip, black tip, grey sharks, all lazily swimming about. At first we were terrified! But slowly, you got used to the fact that the sharks are not interested in you. After finishing the dives, everyone was comparing their shark photos. All the divers experienced a huge adrenal rush seeing so many sharks at once! We had our best dives on the Rangiroa and Fakarava Atolls. All the way through French Polynesia we had wonderful diving, mostly with dive schools. Diving with the French has its pluses – we really appreciated that the French dive schools never make you sign a waiver before diving, the dive master takes responsibility for his divers and usually takes no more than five at a time. Outside of the French territories, you always have to sign a waiver before you dive.

After French Polynesia we stopped in Suvarov in the Cook Islands. It is a very remote, low atoll and also a national park. The only way to visit Suvarov is by private yacht, so it is lovely and quiet. The warden told us that Manta Rays were sometimes seen behind where our boat was anchored. I decided to swim out behind our boat to see if I could fi nd them. After 45 minutes, I turned to swim back when all of a sudden there it was – a Giant Manta Ray!

I stayed motionless as it swam around me fearing he would swim away… but he didn’t. We continued to swim around together for what seemed a very long time. I noticed that he had a totally black underside. By now I was starting to get cold, but took some pictures to prove I had seem him! I swam back to the boat excitedly telling everyone what had happened. My first Manta Ray! Shortly after, I looked up Manta Rays in our reference books and discovered that a totally black ray was very rare. What excitement! These rays have large triangular wings stretching up to 6.7m (22" ). The next day, we went to look for more rays. It took quite a while and we were about to give up, but again, we found one near our boat. But this ray was a more common variety with white on his underside. They are such majestic creatures, gliding on their huge wings as they feed on plankton. They seemed totally unconcerned with us until they got a few feet from you, when they would turn away. On both occasions we left them; they did not leave us. We subsequently had more opportunities to snorkel with Manta Rays in Fiji, Indonesia, and the Maldives. On every occasion it was an incredibly exciting experience.

We were in Vava’u, Tonga just at the end of the birthing and mating season (July to October) of Humpback Whales. The whales had migrated from Antarctica to the warmer tropical waters of Tonga, where they give birth to their calves. Tonga is unique in that swimming with whales is legal with a certified company that is controlled by Whale Watching Regulations. It is possible to have the most amazing underwater views of mothers and their calves. We enthusiastically signed up with a local company. After a couple of hours searching we came upon a mother with her calf. Our boat approached them very slowly, away from the side that the calf was on. When we got within 100 metres, we slipped into the water without making any splashes and stuck close together, so that the whale didn’t see multiple objects approaching it. One whale came towards us, close enough for us to touch it! The first day I was overwhelmed by the entire experience of being so close to 23 tons, that I didn’t take any photos! Where do you point the camera? So I signed up for a second day of excitement.

Unfortunately, when we were in Australia, we missed diving the Great Barrier Reef because a lightning strike to Saildance II delayed us for six months. One day, as we were preparing to snorkel, an Australian rushed over from his sailboat to tell us not to go into the water because the invisible, very small (matchstick-sized), extremely venomous Irukandji Jellyfish were around. We heeded his warning! Also, because the Great Barrier Reef is quite a long way off shore, people generally use ‘live aboard’ boats and make three to five dives a day. For us, two dives a day is plenty. However, further north along the coast, we did sail to Lizard Island and visited the Research Station. We were lucky to be there to hear the once-a-week talk by the director who made an excellent presentation about the work of the station. He told us where to snorkel, which was right off the boat to see the most enormous Giant Clams, 1.5m (5" ) in diameter.

While in Australia, as a special treat, my husband arranged a plane trip to Ningaloo Reef on the remote western coast of Australia. Annually, between April and June, an estimated 300-500 Whale Sharks congregate there at the time of the mass coral spawning. We snorkeled two days and saw many Whale Sharks (5-10m, 15-35" ). People fly here specially to swim with these beautiful, docile creatures. There are several boats looking for the Whale Sharks, assisted by a plane, which spots where they are and passes the information on to the boats. The boats take turns with their snorkelers swimming with the Whale Sharks. As they swim slowly on the surface you can keep up with them, even swimming with only one hand, as your other hand is holding a camera. Nothing can compare to the thrill of swimming beside a Whale Shark! If you manage to take a good photo of the left side behind the gills and email it to ECOCEAN, they will enter it into their photo-identification library. If your shark is re-sighted, an automated email is sent to let you know. I have been receiving emails about two Whale Sharks now for three years. These photographs are helping in the research of tracking the migration of the Whale Sharks. Currently ECOCEAN is tracking more than 1,200 of them.

One of the first islands we visited in Indonesia was Banda, one of the Spice Islands. Again, by word of mouth, we heard one could see the beautiful Mandarinfish by snorkeling in town below the main hotel. So three ladies ventured off at dusk when these tiny fish, (6cm, 2in long) come out of hiding to mate. With some patience we eventually saw them, swimming around in pairs among the black sea urchins. We also saw several Ringed Pipefish, with their red tails, and some lovely Starfish. Several days later we set off to dive. In the rush of the morning I had neglected to put the yellow O-ring into the camera’s underwater housing. It didn’t take long to realise that the camera was ruined. This was a disaster! The camera was unfixable, we were in the eastern part of Indonesia with nowhere to buy a new camera and here I was in the area of the highest marine diversity. I was devastated. Luckily, a friend lent me a camera, but it was a huge disappointment for me.

Further along in Indonesia, at the southeast end of Sulawesi Island, is the Wakatobi Marine National Park, where the Hoga Island Marine Research Centre is based. It is right in the centre of the Coral Triangle. Every year between March and September hundreds of researchers and students visit the island on expedition with the UK based organisation, Operation Wallacea. Before helping with the various research projects, the students have to undertake a week-long Coral Reef Ecology course, which provides everyone with a basic introduction to coral reef biology and ecology. The centre is currently run by a spunky English girl named Philippa Mansell. She gave a short lecture to the visiting yachtsmen about what distance to walk out to the boat carrying all our equipment, including the tanks. At lunch, one of the researchers commented that his group had counted 400 Stonefish (the world’s most venomous fish) in the area between the beach and where we got into the dive boat. Henceforth we walked very carefully and with shoes!

Just east of Bali, opposite Lombok, are the small Gili Air Islands. They are a popular diving centre. The diving here is not the best because the reefs have been extensively damaged by bomb fishing and are just starting to recover. However, we found an excellent French dive master, who persuaded us to take the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course. It included our first night dive, which was quite an adventure, plus a dive down to 30m (100" ). We found it was important to keep working at improving our diving skills. Like all sports, refining your technique increases your enjoyment, confidence level and safety.

After Indonesia, we went to Singapore, where Saildance II was struck by lightning a second time, so we couldn’t continue with the yachts heading toward the Red Sea. It took six months to repair everything and by that time the southwest monsoon was blowing. We decided to sail up the northwest coast of Borneo to Sarawak and Sabah, both part of Malaysia. On the way, we stopped at a remote Atoll, Layang Layang, 190 miles (300 km) off the Borneo coast. The draw card for divers here is to see schools of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks. It was August and it turned out to be too late in the season and unfortunately we didn’t see any of them. However, we met a group of people who were experienced divers, some had done over 2,000 life time dives, who had volunteered to help rid Layang Layang’s reef of the infamous Crown of Thorns. This starfish grows to over a foot across and has 10-20 arms. Its appetite for live hard corals has threatened reefs from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans. Once the reef dies, the reef fish leave. The volunteers inject sodium bisulphate into the starfish, which is deadly to them, but does not harm the reef. They are gathered up and burned on shore. We asked if we could participate, but they didn’t want the liability of accidents from the venom of the Crown of Thorns or the handling of injection needles. A pity, it would have been very interesting to do!

Sabah, at the top of Borneo, is rapidly developing its tourism, particularly rain forest jungle trekking and diving. After we had made several hiking trips into the jungle, we moved onward with great anticipation to what is reported to be fantastic diving. First we dove on Lankayan Island. We saw many new creatures, lots of Green and Hawksbill Turtles, Jaw Fish, Peacock Mantis Shrimp, Blue Spotted Rays, Sweetlips and Nudibranchs. Then we moved down to Sipidan Island, considered one of the five top diving destinations in the world. In order to preserve Sipidan, the Malaysian government has made a number of restrictions, including no night diving and only 120 diving permits a day. We arranged for a private dive boat to take us and saw an enormous school of Barracuda in a spectacular tornado-like swirl. They do this to drive their prey into the centre to make it easier to catch them. Next came large schools of Big Eye Trevally, while another highlight was large schools of Bumphead Parrotfish that are hilarious to watch. They are 1m (3ft ) long with big, dirty teeth that desperately need dentist cleaning. They use their large forehead to break the coral and then eat it. It was a spectacular morning.

While in Singapore, I managed to replace the camera I had flooded for a newer model. I also bought a much better Japanese waterproof housing and took the big step of buying a strobe light. But the important lesson learned is it is best to organise all your camera equipment quietly the night before diving. A mistake is too costly, not just monetarily, but there is nowhere to buy new equipment at a dive site on a remote island. My next problem was that I had no idea how to use the strobe, so it sat quietly in its box. Luckily, while diving in Sipidan, I met another diver with the same equipment. He spent several hours with me and helped speed up the learning curve. A strobe may be more cumbersome, but what a difference a strobe light makes. Without a strobe, everything underwater below two metres looks bluish and muted. Up to this point of time my photographs were in a ‘blue period’. Now, with a strobe the entire photography experience changed. The colours were incredibly bright and more in focus. An inconsequential brown blob at 70 feet turned out to be a fabulous bright red Frogfish! Now our suggestion would be to carry an underwater flashlight, day and night, to see the true colours, even if you don’t have a camera.

Near Sipidan are the islands Mabul and Kapalai, which are famous worldwide for macro photography and ‘muck diving’, getting its name from the sediment on the sea floor, the dead coral. What makes muck diving so different and interesting is that it is the perfect habitat for unusual, exotic and juvenile organisms that make their homes in the sediment. One can look at numerous, very small sea creatures sitting on the seabed, some only as big as your little finger nail. The Orangutan Crab with its long flowing red hairs, the beautiful neon pink Hairy Squat Lobster and various tiny Translucent Shrimps. Once the dive master knows you are interested, he will point out these little creatures, even things so small you can barely see them, such as the rare Pygmy Seahorses. I grew very interested in these tiny sea creatures, particularly Nudibranches that come in an incredible variety of colours and shapes. But there were also huge numbers of various species of Scorpionfish, Flatheads, and many colours of Frogfish. Finding one of these amazing creatures by oneself is such a thrill. Muck diving provides an amazing opportunity to do macro photography; the water is calm and these little sea creatures do not move around much, so you can get very close to them.

We have had a truly wonderful time exploring the world both on land and below the waves. Our Oyster has provided us with this opportunity and we have seen a world that the average tourist doesn’t even know exists. The whole underwater experience has been a revelation. On every snorkel or dive one can see something new and different, from the majestic Whale Shark to the miniscule Nudibranch, and that brings a smile. We have also come to a deeply felt understanding of the need to balance the demands of the civilized world with the protection of the natural life that surrounds us in the seas. We hope that the description of some of our experiences has whetted your appetite to explore the beautiful world under your boat. It is easy to get started.

We wish you all good sailing and also wonderful snorkeling and diving – you will discover it will enhance every voyage.

Tips for successful diving, snorkeling, and underwater photography

- Buy your own gear - Mask/snorkel and fins, and if diving a wet suit (3mm), BCD (vest), octopus and regulator and a dive computer/ watch so you have equipment that is comfortable, fi ts and is reliable. Dive schools have equipment, but it is not always the quality you want or is comfortable. Also we found a thin stainless steel 30cm (12 inch) probe very useful to make touching the bottom safer.

- Take the time to get the basic Open Water Diver certifi cation or a refresher course before you leave on your voyage.

- My current photographic equipment is: Canon’s top of the range point-and-shoot G11, Fisheye Underwater Housing, Sea and Sea YS-110a Strobe. e problem with point-andshoot cameras is the ‘shutter lag’ (the time between pressing the shutter button and when the image is taken). However, moving up to an SLR camera plus its underwater housing is exorbitantly expensive, and it is also heavy and bulky.

- Just as having spare parts for your boat, it is a good idea to have a second camera for land photographs. Remember, to prevent accidents, set everything up the night before!

- We recommend a BAUER Compressor. We bought another, cheaper make and have had nothing but trouble. Most Oyster yachts have a large enough lazarette to install a compressor and tanks.

- Carry a dive torch both day and night to see the real colours of the reef

Must have book:

- Reef Fish Identification Tropical Pacifi c by New World Publications. A comprehensive field guide – see: www.fishid.com

Other useful books:

- Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Field Guide by Allen & Steene. This is very comprehensive and includes reef plants and animals.

- Tropical Reef Research – Coral Reef Animals of the Indo-Pacific by Gosliner, Behrens, Williams. Covers all reef animals except fish.

- The Snorkeler’s Guide to the Coral Reef by Paddy Ryan, Sea Challengers Publications, an excellent introduction book.