Thursday, September 21, 2006

Rescue Mission in Tioman

Early this year an instructor friend of mine had the unfortunate experience of a fatal diving accident involving one of her diver. Despite quick action taken by other divers and a doctor who happened to be present at the time, the victim could not be revived. This and many other accidents reported ever more frequently prompted Sachi and I to take up the Rescue Diver and EFR certification. Accidents can and will happen when going diving. We strife to prevent and avoid them but if they do occur we at least have the skill to try and help.

…And so after several classroom and pool sessions it is of to Tioman to do our open water practical. This is my second trip here – the first was for my AOW certification.

Beautiful Tioman seen from the Paya beach jetty.

The Course

The course was TOUGH! Both of us were exhausted at the end of each day. Lee (see Diving in the City) was our instructor and Agnes was his assistant and our “victim”.

Sachi and I taking turns giving rescue breaths every 5 seconds to Agnes the “victim” while swimming back to the boat. I actually had cramps on my left thigh half to struggle with during to long swim back to the boat.

Quick check of vitals, 2 cycles of CPR…

…some oxygen from a DAN kit…

…and the victim miraculously recovers. Smiles all round. (I could use some of that oxygen at this point.)

A refreshing dip in the cool waters of a stream behind Tioman Paya Resort after all the hard work sure feels good.

Now for Some Fun

We had a tight schedule, so not too many opportunities to take photos. We only managed two fun dives one at Sea Fan Garden and another at Pulau Renggis.

The dive at Sea Fan Garden was really a joke. We did not manage to see a single sea fan. Apparently the guide did not know the exact location and took us to the wrong spot.

I seen these juvenile yellow boxfish – Ostracion cubicus, on several occasions but each time failed to take a decent photo. This time I managed a reasonable shot. They are extremely shy fishes.

A young map puffer – Arothon mappa, identified by radial spoke patterns around the eyes.

Phyllidia elegans.

A beautiful Chromodoris magnifica.

Phyllidiella pustulosa.

Phyllidiidae family nudibranch. This is the only clear shot I managed so it’s difficult to tell exactly what species it is.

A small Linckia multifora with a strange lump on one of its limb. It’s probably been bitten off. If the other limb did not end up as lunch it will probably regenerate into another total new starfish.

Beautiful green bubble coral - Plerogyra sinuosa.

Close up of a crown of thorns – Acanthaster planci, devouring staghorn corals. They contain a toxic compounds called saponins which may cause extreme pain and swelling. Some people may have allergic reactions towards these toxins making the wounds heal very slowly so be careful when near them.

The dive at Pulau Renggis was also not so fun. Unfortunately another guest at the Sealantis dive center came along for this dive. He was taking his DM certification and being a typically loud and pushy American he was “policing” us throughout the dive as if it was a secret navy operation to flush out terrorist hiding among the staghorn corals. I really could not take my time to get any good pictures.

A baby Fromia monolis.

A very small Heteractis magnifica flapping around in very strong current on coral rubble at 5m. Hopefully it survives long enough to host some clown fishes of its own on day.

Sailor’s eyeball algae – Ventricaria ventricosa. The largest single celled algae in the world. These are about marble sized, spotted during my safety stop at 5m. They grow to about 50mm and can be found anywhere up to 20m depth. It feels like very tough and smooth rubber balls with a metallic sheen. I thought they where discarded plastic the first time I picked one up when I was diving in Derawan, Indonesia.

A Word about the Accomodation

Tioman Paya Resort was expensive for the quality of the rooms and food - definitely not recommended for those planning to stay at Paya beach. The Neighboring Paya Beach Resort is much better but always seems to be fully booked all the time.

I’ll be Back

No time for photos again; but I’ll be back. Tioman is after all the nearest place from KL for good diving spots. 4 hours drive and 2 hours on the speed boat – anything for some Nitrogen!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Back to Tioman

Everyone's been complaining about my dive blog not being updated for such a long time. Well, I've been a little busy the last few months - mostly with work.

I did get to do my Rescue Diver course 2 months ago. The open water parts were also done in Tioman over a weekend. Most of of our time were spent practicing rescue techniques; even when we were on dry land. It was tough but well worth the effort I think.

I did manage to do a couple of fun dives with my camera. The problem was that I was already out of practice with the camera so most of the photos were crappy to say the least. Anyway visibility was very poor in Tioman. I've not had time to salvage any of them yet, but I promise to do it after returning from Tioman.

We are leaving tonight for three full days of diving. Hopefully I'll have more time to hunt around for willing "models".

Sunday, February 26, 2006

New battery for my Suunto Mosquito

I bought my Suunto Mosquito just after my Open Water certification last year. So far I had about 50 dives on it. During the last trip to Jarak, I noticed that it was already low on battery. The manual did state that the battery will last approximately 50 dives - the shortest of all the Suunto models.

Just before going for the crazy dive in the flooded rock quarry a few days ago, I actually changed the battery. Suunto advertises the fact that the Mosquito has a user-replaceable battery. So being a DIY enthusiast that I am, I decided to really go ahead and do it myself. Suunto also recommends that you buy the battery kit that consist of not only the battery but also the battery compartment plastic lid and the O-ring. The problem is that the kit is expensive. So off to the corner camera shop to get the CR2032 battery. It only cost me RM14!

Opening the battery lid is not easy. First find a coin that fits well into the groove and twist it in the direction indicated. It should move by about 20 degrees. I made the mistake of using a smaller coin and made a little mess. The plastic is rather soft and I found out that you can easily cut into it. So be careful not to damage the lid.

After turning the lid, you have to gently pry it off. It's stuck very tight so I used a small stiff pen knife to pry it off. Be careful not to dig too deep into the groove between the lid and the body of the computer and damage the O-ring or more importantly don't make any scratches on the area where the O-ring contacts.

After replacing the battery, apply a thin coating of silicon grease to the Tiny O-ring on the lid. Replace the lid and screw it back on firmly. That's about it.

The quarry dive was the first test since then. I'm glad to report that it functions perfectly.

I'm not sure how many time I can re-use the plastic lid. It seems to be made of soft resin or plastic so the catch may wear out after a few times of unlocking and locking it into the computer body.

If you want to save a bundle and don't mind taking the risk, then just go ahead and replace the battery yourself. It's really very simple.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Diving in the City

It’s getting nearer to the end of the monsoon season and the nitrogen withdrawal symptoms must be really bad. A few days ago my friend and diving instructor Nick asked me whether I’d be interested in trying out a new lake he found somewhere in Damansara Perdana. I, like any true dive junkie, immediately said yes. For those of you who are not familiar with the area, it’s a suburb just several kilometers away from Kuala Lumpur city center.

This morning we met at half past eight in the morning for breakfast in Shah Alam. Lee (another PADI instructor) drove Nick and me to our regular restaurant nearby for “Nasi Lemak” and “Roti Telur”. There we met up with yet another PADI instructor Kelvin (I hope I got your name right).

After stuffing ourselves we made our way back to Dolphin Sports dive center in Matsushita Sport Center where Lee runs his dive and swim shop. We loaded up our gear into my car and off we went.

We soon made our way to the dive site. It wasn’t actually a lake but a flooded rock quarry by a construction site!

The view from an apartment complex on top of the hill nearby the quarry.

I drove my car as near as possible to the banks. We still had about 4 meters of rocky slope to get our gear and ourselves down to the edge of the water. It was really hard work getting all that gear down – especially the tanks. The hot late-morning sun didn’t help at all.

Kelvin, Lee and Nick unloading the gear from the back of my car.

Kelvin opted not to dive, so it was only the three of us. In retrospect, I think he turned out to be the most sensible among us.

Lee suiting up on the edge of the water.

Nick in his commercial diving overalls up to his waist just barely one step away from the sand bank.

The water didn’t smell bad – that’s a good sign! I could see schools of small fishes near the surface, so it’s probably not some toxic waste dump – another good sign! However the water looks really green – reminds me of Pulau Jarak! “Doesn’t look too bad” I thought. Hah! Was I ever wrong!

Nick takes one step into the water and he’s already up to his waist. The bottom was a layer of soft sand over very fine silt. Step on it and your feet sink into the muck up to the top of your ankles. It feels a little like it’s pulling at your feet.

We moved to deeper water and gave each other the signal to dive. The moment we went it I immediately lost sight of the others. Visibility was almost zero! If you stretch your arms out you’d not be able to see your fingers! I swam around with outstretched arms in the hope of finding the others. I could barely read my dive computer to check my depth. I couldn’t even tell whether I was going up or down – the pressure on my ears gave me some rough indications. It was around 4 meters and I bumped into Nick briefly, and in a split second I could not see him again. It was hopeless and I decided to surface. In fact we all can up one after another within seconds. None of us knew where the other was even though we were only a meter or two from each other.

This is exactly the condition of the visibility. Nick was at about 2 meters depth and just centimeters away from my camera.

On the surface, we decided to give it another go but this time we would hold on to each other as we moved along. Down we went again 3 abreast. Slowly we descended while moving forward. At about 8 meters everything became really dark. We had to use our dive lights. After a while we hit bottom. It was 13 meters. The three of us formed a circle and then sort of stared at each other for a while. I don’t think there was much we could do under such conditions. Several minutes passed and Nick gave us the ascend signal. All of us agreed and slowly made our way up. Lee had already deployed his sausage earlier and we held on to him while he solely wound on his reel to control our ascend rate.

When we reached the surface we could only burst out in laughter.

Lee and I near the surface.

Nick and Lee near the surface.

Nick and Lee on the surface.

A hour of loading up our gear, half an hour struggling in the hot sun to get out gear down to the waters edge, another half and hour to pack our stuff up, and finally an hour of cleaning up. All that effort for 10 minutes of dive time in near zero visibility!

Was it worth it? Probably not – but it was definitely an interesting experience. Kelvin thinks that we are a little crazy - hmmm.... maybe. A small group of people fishing on the opposite bank probably agrees with him.

The craving for nitrogen will hit us again and the dark green water of a rock quarry will once again look like diving paradise.

It looks so beautiful from afar.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

GIMP and Some Crappy Photos from Dayang

November 19th and 20th was to be the final dive trip to Dayang Island before it closes for the monsoon season in 2005. I have just bought a new digital camera after weeks of research into which affordable digital camera that will hopefully give me some good underwater pictures. Finally I settled on the Canon A610 with the WP-DC90 housing. This will be my first time using a camera underwater.

Not unexpectedly most of the photos were really crappy. Only about 3 out of 200+ photos were good enough to use as is. However a really nice piece of software came to my rescue. No it’s not Photoshop – it’s an incredible piece of software but I can’t afford it. Instead I use something almost as good – GIMP. It’s free! I’ll tell you more about GIMP later.

Dayang Island Resort

This is my first time to Dayang. I was warned by others that the resort is very basic, the food basic, the boat ride uncomfortable and the dive sites crowded. They were right! Dayang is mostly frequented by divers from Singapore. In this trip I think I was the only Malaysian on board (other than the crew… but then again they could be Indonesian). My group consisted of all Japanese – dive friends of my wife.

Dayang Island Resort.

The boat is crowded and this is not peak period for Dayang trips. I hate to see it when the boat is really full.

On the way from Mersing, just past midnight, it rained and everyone had to jam into the lower cabin. There was hardly enough space for everyone. The rain was seeping through the upper deck and leaks were everywhere. I don’t think any of us managed any sleep in the hot, wet and stuffy conditions.

The next morning we arrived after 4am. All of us just went straight to our assigned bunks and I managed about 2 of sleep, skipping the early morning dive.

After breakfast I went for a checkout dive. I didn’t take my camera as I was unsure of the conditions there. The second dive onwards I had my camera with me. In all I made 5 dives with the camera and all I got were crappy pictures. I seriously needed some digital help to salvage my trip.


“GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages.”- excerpt from the official GIMP web-site.

GIMP was created 10 years ago somebody who wanted something with the capabilities of Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is an excellent piece of software but it is expensive. Most people (me included) will not be able to afford it. I’d rather save the money to buy a strobe.

For the purpose of improving the look of your digital photos, GIMP is more than capable. In fact in the help file, you can find specific information about how to improve your digital photos.

What I did to my photos

I don’t have an external strobe, so almost all my photos suffer from poor colour balance. More than half of them turned out green and completely useless. Some of them had enough of the other colour in them to be rescued by doing white balance adjustments in GIMP. Most of the time I use the Auto-White-Balance function. It works well most of the time. Only occasionally do I need to resort to manually adjusting the white balance.

Beside white balance adjustments you can also adjust the contrast level and colour saturation to give you more vivid colours and avoid that washed out look.

Another problem I noticed from my photos is that they were almost always poorly composed. It’s not easy getting a well composed picture underwater especially in strong current, and most of the time the “models” are very uncooperative. This can be fixed rotating the image and then cropping. I always crop my images to improve the composition. The results can be very dramatic. 5 megapixels is enough to allow some very liberal cropping.

Another very useful tool is the smudge tool that I normally use to remove some annoying bright specks resulting from backscatter.

Other tools available like noise reduction and sharpening filters are available but I rarely use them. I don’t want an artificial look to my photos.

The results

Instead of just having 3 images to show for this trip, I now have a few more presentable images thanks to GIMP.

Overall I must say that it’s not a bad effort for a first time – sleep deprived – underwater photographer with a very basic camera setup.

I did improve on my second outing to Jarak (see earlier post) and I hope to continue improving. If I do get a crappy shot now and then I know that there’s still hope with GIMP around.

Giant blue starfish – Linckia laevigata. The disc is the madreporite – a porous sieve like plate that allows the starfish to draw in water into its vascular system. Water pressure is used in keeping its shape and in locomotion.

Starfish - Fromia monolis.

A small giant clam – Tridacna maxima. Listed in the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Giant clams grow to enormous sizes by having a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthallae algae which is found within its mantle tissue. The algae like in coral polyps produce food for the giant clam – up to 90% of these clams requirements. Like coral, these clam require sunlight to allow the zooxanthallae to function.

Metallic shrimp-goby - Amblyeleotris latifasciata. I only managed one shot before it quickly disappeared into its burrow.

Fist size hermit crab. It kept turning away from me. Probably very camera shy.

Tomato anemone fish – Amphirion frenatus. This female is aggressively defending its patch of Bulb-tentacle anemone - Entacmaea quadricolor.

The much smaller male hides from the bubble blowing monster.

Polychaete worm embedded in coral.

Bridled monocle bream – Scolopsis bilineatus. The one photo from this trip that I did not have to crop to improve the composition. It was just sitting there posing (or sleeping). At one point I got too close that the front of the camera bumped into it, but still it didn’t budge.

Peacock sole – Pardachirus pavoninus. We saw two small specimens of these in one night dive. This photo was illuminated by my dive light only.

Nudibranch – Phyllidiella pustulosa.

A pair of Phyllidia varicosa caught making out.

Nudibranch – Phyllidia elegans.

Nudibranch – Fryeria menindie.

Nudibranch – Phyllidia ocellata.

Storm approaching Dayang (left) and Aur (right). This was taken just before we were scheduled to return to Mersing. It did actually catch up with us resulting in a very uncomfortable boat ride.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

At What Depth Did I Take That Photograph?

Happy year of the dog! It’s the Chinese New Year holidays and we have three days of public holidays starting Monday. I’m in no mood to go back to work for just 2 days so I took Thursday and Friday off as well. So I have 9 continuous days of absolutely nothing to do. What better time to update my blog.

I always have trouble remembering what I saw after a dive. Having a camera helps a lot. Photos are also really useful when you want to identify exactly what you saw. While researching the identity of the subjects I often come across interesting bits of information that make the whole diving experience more satisfying. Isn’t it a more enriching experience when, for example, you see a giant clam and you get thoughts like: “…these guys have blue or green Zooxanthallae inside them that produces part of their food requirements, instead of just sitting there filtering the water for passing plankton. That’s why they can grow so big…”; instead of “… hey look giant clam… I wonder how they taste… yuck it looks blue and green… it’ll make me sick… hey look another one of those colourful fishes…”.

As you can see from my previous post, I always record the depth at which I made the particular photograph. No, I did not stop to write it down on my slate. That would be too much tedious work. What I do to get depth information from all my photos is really easy.

Before the first dive of any trip, I normally synchronize the clock in my camera to the time on my dive computer. The JPEG files produced by the camera carry, among other things, a date (and time) stamp. This information is preserved even when the file has gone through some image processing (e.g. with GIMP). Note that this date stamp is not the same date stamp recorded by the operating system of your computer.

A screenshot of popup window with some image information recorded by the camera.

If you are using Windows XP like I do, you can see this date stamp by just putting your mouse pointer over the file (or thumbnail) in Windows Explorer. In a moment a popup windows appear that shows the “Date Picture Taken” piece of information. It does not show the “seconds” but having the time to the closest minute is good enough for my purpose. You can also look at the advanced properties of the file to view all the stored image information.

My Suunto Mosquito dive computer and my Canon A610 camera inside the WP-DC90 housing.

When I come home from a dive, I normally plug my dive computer to my PC to download all my dive profiles. Incidentally, I built my own Suunto interface using the instructions found on this site: Roli's PC Interface for Suunto® ACW® Dive Computers. It’s cheap and simple to build. Just don’t go suing anyone if it fries your dive computer!

The dive profile shows you your time and depth profile. From here you instantly know at what depth your photographs where taken – simple!

My home made Suunto Mosquito PC interface device.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Jarak Trip - Christmas 2005

Fond memories of Pulau Jarak

Finally the day arrived. It's the 22nd of December 2005 and it's the day we departed for Pulau Jarak (Jarak Island) in the Straits of Malacca for our Christmas dive trip on the live-aboard Kaleebso. It's diving, eating, diving, eating, more diving and then some sleep for the next 3 days. Oh, and let's not forget the Christmas party!

I was all excited because Jarak is, in some ways, special to me. Just 11 months ago in January I took my Open Water certification there (on the Kaleebso as well.) I didn't get to see much then. I was too busy concentrating on breathing and trying not to let my anxiety get the better of me. Well I suppose all first-timers must go through that stage. Jarak wasn't the ideal location for any first time diver. The sea was choppy, it was murky and green! Coupled with a foggy mask and less than perfect eyesight, I couldn't see beyond my blue Biofins. I remember throwing up on the surface while waiting for others to make their entry. The captain, Khay Lee, was even kind enough to throw me a live-saver to hang on to while I fed the fishes around with my partly digested breakfast. I remembered thinking to myself that this was horrible and I swore to myself that I'd never enjoy scuba diving.

Anyway I did make it through in one piece and 50 dives later I'm back! This time I'm already certified as an Advanced Open Water Diver and more importantly I'm now armed with a new Canon A610 – it’s a great camera for underwater photography – which I will tell you about in another post. This is my second outing with it. The first was a month ago in Pulau Dayang. Most of photos from that trip were really crappy (I'll post them another day). This time I'm determined to get some good shots.

The other reason why I like Jarak is because it's a relatively un-spoilt even though it's not a designated marine park. Its remoteness makes it inaccessible to all but the most diehard divers. Besides, where else could I go during the Monsoon season – I desperately needed to alleviate my Nitrogen withdrawal problem?

Sachi (my wife and dive buddy) and I prepared our gear the night before like we always do on our previous trips. I had the day off from work and intended to leave home at around 6pm. With the help of some directions from our friend Asther, we made our way to Tg. Karang jetty (3°24’14.16”N, 101°10’14.14”E). Ahhh! The aroma of a fishermen's jetty tells us we've arrived at the correct place at about 8:30pm. The Kaleebso was already waiting for us. Almost everyone arrived around then. There were 21 guests, 5 crew members and the 15 year old son of Khay Lee who was tagging along – it was the school holidays.

The location of Tg. Karang Jetty and Pulau Jarak as seen on Google Earth.

We soon departed and sailed (or should I say dieseled) our way north-west towards Jarak. It normally takes about 9 hours! Jarak lies about 73 nautical miles from Tg. Karang (about 135km for you landlubbers.) However the sea was choppy and we were headed directly into the wind. It took a little longer. Mary, the captain's wife, already prepared dinner. We ate, had a briefing, introduced ourselves to each other and then mingled around till it was time for bed. I slept well despite the rough seas. Our roommate Fukimi did not have such luck. She was feeling a little seasick all night through and could not get any sleep. In fact her condition got worst over the next 3 days! Poor Fukimi, just newly certified Open Water diver and this was to be her first time diving from a boat.

Sunrise in Jarak. Fishing boat are moored around the island taking shelter for the night from the rough sea.

I was up already before dawn. The Kaleebso moored at the south-eastern part of the island near the steps leading up towards the light house located on the island. The site is called Moray Harem (3°58’32.44”E, 100°06’09.36”N).

A rough map of Pulau Jarak. Unfortunately the island does not show up on Google Earth nor NASA's Worlwind map, so I have to make a rough sketch based on a copy pinned up on the corridors of the Kaleebso.

It was a rather cold morning with an overcast, very grey sky. Mary was already preparing breakfast on the top deck. Soon everybody came up to have their fill of Mary's excellent cooking. I ate only a little as a precaution. I too get seasick sometimes and I can still clearly remember what happened during the last two trips on the Kaleebso. You see, I have a tendency to “feed the fishes” on my first dive in the morning almost every single time. I even avoid waiting on the surface for other divers in our group. I normally tell Sachi and others that I will descent immediately to about 5m and wait there until everyone is ready to descent.

Mary making breakfast on the top deck.

Dive 1: Moray Harem, 09:24, 23rd Dec.

Sachi and I made our first dive at 9:24am. We agreed to make our first dive simple and shallow. We descended at the back of the boat to about 11m and then slowly made our way north towards the island. I soon started pointing my camera at anything and everything, and started shooting. I tried shooting some gobies, blennies, coral formations, a couple of Moorish Idols and some other fishes. Aarrrgh! They all turned out crappy. What's wrong with me? We made our way towards shallower waters to end our dive. That's where I spotted a cluster of sea urchins. OK I thought, they're not exactly fast movers so if I can't get a single well exposed and focused photo from these guys I'm never going to be any good at it. So the only good photo from this dive is a close-up of the bright orange butt hole of a sea urchin.

Sea urchin - Diadema setosum. Long (~30cm) black spines with a redish-orange anal opening. Sea urchins belong to the phylum Echinodermata which includes the classes: Crinoidea (Sea lilies and feather stars), Stelleroidea (starfishes), Echinodea (Sea urchins) and Holothuroidea (Sea cucumbers). There were many more sea urchins scattered around Jarak than 11 months ago when I was here last. They are usually found on and around coral formations in clusters.

Despite the name of the site, we did not see any Morays. They must be sleeping late. Other divers later reported spotting several Honeycombed Morays.

Dive 2: Moray Harem, 11:43, 23rd Dec.

Again at Moray Harem, but this time we ventured into deeper waters to look for my favourite subject – gobies. Entry at the same place but we then proceeded on a south-westerly direction away from the island. We soon came to the edge of the reef and it was sandy bottom then on. At 20m there were gobies galore! They were everywhere – swimming around in pairs, peering out from their burrows and just sitting around on the sand.

The first ones that really caught my eye were pairs of colourful banded gobies. I slowly exhaled and let myself settle on to the bottom. With my camera in held in front I slowly crept towards the nearest pair. Fortunately I had better luck with my camera this time.

Banded goby - Amblygobius phalanae. These gobies wander around (this one photographed at around 19m depth) in pairs taking mouthful of sand a filtering out the organic matter and eject the sand out of their gill slits. The most interesting thing about these creatures is that they are apparently monogamous!

We saw several pairs of a darker variation of banded gobies in the same location, but they proved a little too shy to let me get close enough to get a good close-up.

A darker variation of the banded goby shown above. This particular one had 3 dark spots on the tail fin while in dive #6 at the “anemone gardens” we spotted another one with a single spot.

Just nearby I spotted a sandperch just sitting there staring at me, seemingly posing for a photograph!

Red-spotted sandperch – Parapercis schauislandi. This one was just sitting there in the open posing for me. Photographed at the depth of 19m.

There were also many shrimp-gobies around. I could easily have spent the entire dive just in this few square meters patch of sandy rubble. In fact there are over 1,900 different marine species of gobies – the largest number of species of all fishes on earth. If you include fresh and brackish water species you have over 2,100 of them. I won't be running out of subjects to photograph any time soon!

Barred shrimp-goby – Cryptocentrus fasciatus. Photographed at the depth of 18m.

I believe this to be a variation of the barred shrimp-goby – Cryptocentrus sp. However I cannot be sure as it was only peering out of its burrow at the depth of 18m, before disappearing inside after only a couple of shots.

After 20 minutes, Sachi signaled me that it's time to head up towards the shallower reef. We looked around for the elusive honeycombed moray that was supposed to be in this location, but again we failed to find any. However we did see a very large porcupinefish – Diodon liturosus hiding in a crevice.

Black-blotched porcupinefish – Diodon liturosus. This one actually has greenish brown blotches instead of black. Photographed at the depth of 10m.

Again I ended the dive looking at a cluster of sea urchins. This time I spotted some small cardinal fishes hiding among the spines.

A coral cardinal fish – Apogon properupta. It hides among the long spines of the Diadema urchin. Photographed at the depth of 7m.

Dive 3: Moray Harem, 15:20, 23rd Dec.

After lunch and some rest we made our third dive in the same spot. This time we were determined to find the honeycombed moray.

16 minutes into the dive – success! Our first encounter with a honeycombed moray eel. This one was rather aggressive. When I got too close with the camera it lunged out of its cave at me, showing its entire body. It wasn't very big but it did have a set of menacing sharp teeth. I quickly put the camera between me and the charging moray and pushed myself backwards. When it realized that I was out of range it quickly retreated back to its cave.

Honeycomb moray eel – Gymnothorax favagineus. It was in a rather nasty mood. The black blotches seem to be spaced further than the typical honeycomb pattern. Perhaps it is not matured yet. It is yellowish all along the back from head to tail. Photographed at the depth of 7m.

We also spotted a couple of white-eyed morays in this location. So Moray Harem does have moray eels after all.

A red pixy hawkfish – Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus. Photographed at the depth of 7m.

Nudibranch - Phyllidiopsis krempfi. These creatures are hermaphrodites, i.e. they both male and female. However they still need to find a partner to copulate. Can’t DIY! Photographed at the depth of 7m.

There were nothing else very interesting to see. At the end of the dive, while making a short surface swim back to the boat, I had some muscle cram on my left hamstring - time to take a break.

Dive 4: Moray Harem, 19:47, 23rd Dec.

Night dive always presents the opportunity to see some strange and bizarre creatures that you don't normally come across in the day. Creatures that are normally very active during the day can be sedate and very camera friendly. Night time also presents some unique challenges in photography – hovering just above a clutch of sea urchins while holding a dive light in your left hand and a camera in the right, doing your best to get a good angle and focus while at the same time worrying about your subject suddenly lunging out to bite your nose off make it all very tricky to say the least.

This time we went in a large group of maybe 10 divers – security in numbers I guess.

A sleeping blue-barred parrotfish – Scarus ghobban. If you look closely, you can see a see a layer of transparent mucus enveloping the sleeping fish. This is to avoid being on the dinner menu of nocturnal predators. Photographed at the depth of 14m.

I encountered a very large and curious (or confused) Moorish idol while gliding along at above 12m depth. It appeared out of nowhere and started circling me very quickly just an arms length way. It just went around and around! How strange.

Moorish idol – Zanclus cornutus. I normally have a hard time getting a good photo of these guys but this time I was lucky. This particularly large specimen kept swimming in circles around me. I can only guess that it was somehow attracted to my bright dive lights. Photographed at around 12m.

An even stranger creature was encountered strolling across the sandy bottom at about 10m. Someone in the group spotted what looked like a pile of dung was in fact a crab. You'd never know it unless you see it actually walking. This particular one even had a cigarette butt as part of its decoration.

What the **** is this?!? It's impossible to tell what's under all that gunk and rubble. I was told that it was a crab. What interested me was the cigarette it was carrying (top left leg) which I did not notice until Asther pointed it out to me later. It's probably a hand-out from one of the many fishermen sheltering around the island.

A very sick golden rabbitfish – Siganus guttatus. The poor fellow is practically wasted down to skin and bones. Photographed at 9m depth.

Towards the end of the dive someone spotted a very large honeycomb moray lying under a coral ledge with the full length of its body visible. What a magnificent giant! It must be at least 1.5m in length. Its head was huge and that stop me from getting very close with my camera. The memory of the earlier encounter is still fresh in my memory.

A very large honeycomb moray eel – Gymnothorax favagineus wedged under a coral ledge. Its entire body was visible and I estimate it to be close to 2m in length; taking into consideration of the 25% magnification factor underwater still makes this a 1.5m monster! We found this towards to end of the dive at 9m depth.

After we exited Sachi excitedly told me that see was “attacked” by an equally large giant moray just before we can upon this honeycomb specimen. It was apparently swimming freely out in the open.

I guess after this the dive site has now truly earned its name.

It was a good day of diving and most of us turned in for an early night. The sea was getting progressively rough as the wind picked up, which made me feel just a little seasick.

Christmas Eve

I was again the first to rise early the next morning. The weather looks to have deteriorated compared to yesterday, raining almost the entire morning.

As we were gearing up for our first dive at around 10am, a marine police patrol ship which approached the island since early this morning dispatched several officers over to pay us a visit. It was a regular security check. I do feel safer to see them around – we are after all right in the middle of the Straits of Malacca which modern pirates are known prowl.

We made our first dive as the police officers were leaving the Kalleebso.

Dive 5: Anemone Garden, 10:29, 24th Dec.

We went straight down along the mooring line in 22 meters of water. It's rather dark at this depth especially with an overcast sky above. It feels more like an evening or early morning dive.

It was a sandy bottom – my kind of place! All around there were shrimp-gobies. One particular goby sat very still just outside its burrow. I managed to push the camera right up to it and it still sat there. The result was a really nice close-up of a Periophthalma shrimp-goby (I think).

Periophthalma shrimp-goby - Amblyeleotris periophthalma. Photographed at depth of 22m.

The group quickly moved on as no one else was really interested in these creatures. We did not come across many interesting thing this dive. Even fishes were few. I think we were the only ones foolish enough to come out on a cold, dark and rainy morning.

However at 16m someone spotted a filefish (leatherjacket) hanging there head down just off the bottom. Soon it was surrounded by cameras. I hope it wasn't blinded by all the flashes and strobes going off. I only managed 3 shots (only 1 was in focus) before it decided it had enough and swam off still with its head pointing downwards. What an odd way to move around!

A Strap-weed filefish – Pseudomonacanthus macrurus just hanging-out. Photographed at depth of 16m.

Despite the name of this dive site we did not see many anemones around. Only several magnificent anemone scattered around in the shallows.

The obligatory anemone fish of every dive trip – Skunk anemonefish (Amphiprion akallopisos) perched on a Magnificent anemone (Heteractis magnifica). Photographed at depth of 8m.

Dive 6: Whip-coral garden, 13:57, 24th Dec.

The sky was still grey after lunch. After some rest Sachi and I decided we would go for our second dive of the day. As we were gearing up several others asked if they could join us. “Sure” I say. To my surprise they then asked me what my dive plan was. This, my 56th dive according to my log book, will turn out to be the first time I will lead a group of divers (they were all probably more experienced than I was).

I made a simple plan: go straight down from the back of the boat go along the outer edge of the reef at about 12 – 14m for about 30 minutes, then head into the reef into shallower water, make a U-turn then head back in the opposite direction. At around the approximate position of the boat we would swim out to deeper water and make our safety stop and then surface near the boat.

Just under the boat, I encountered the first subject to photograph – a young yellow-margin moray. This species grow to about 1.5m in length and is apparently very common around here.

A small yellow-margin moray – Gymnothorax flavimarginatus. Photographed at 11m.

We moved along the reef edge. I was a little outside in the sandy-bottomed area just outside the reef hoping find something out of the ordinary – and of course this is where one finds lots of gobies.

At around 14m I spotted a rather large nudibranch. Underwater it looked a very dull green all over. Nevertheless I took a few shots and to my surprise when I checked the photo at the end of the dive it turned out to be a very colourful creature.

Nudibranch - Glossodoris cincta (Thanks Asther for helping with the id). I found this one several meters away from the reef edge on the sandy bottom, practically in the middle of nowhere for these guys.

A porcupinefish – Diodon hystrix resting under a coral ledge at 13m. It reminds me of an airship on a mooring tower.

Sachi posing in front of some pagoda shaped coral formations at about 7m depth.

Towards the end of the dive, we came upon a spot where it was covered with magnificent anemones. Of course they were all populated with skunk anemone fishes. This site should have been named anemone garden instead of the previous site.

A carpet of Magnificent anemone – Heteractis magnifica swaying back and forth with the surge at 5m depth. A nice place to spend your 3 minutes of decompression safety stop.

Dive 7: North-South Highway, 16:17, 24th Dec.

The Kaleebso made its way towards what most people acknowledge to be Jarak's most spectacular dive site, i.e. the Pinnacle – a submerged reef with the reputation of currents strong enough to rip your mask off.

From afar the sea looked like it was heaving a fair bit, and when we got there it was obvious that there would be no diving here today. We made our way back towards to island to a place called the North-South highway.

We spotted many nudibranchs in this site and they where mostly very large. Much bigger than what we normally see in other dives.

Nudibranch - Phyllidiella pustules, at 8m depth.

Nudibranch - Phyllidia cf. alyta, at 6m depth.

Nudibranch - Phyllidia varicosa, at 4m depth.

Yet another Phyllidia varicosa, at 4m depth.

A larger specimen of a yellowmargin moray – Gymnothorax flavimarginatus. Photographed at 8m depth.

Papa, mama and baby reef lizardfish – Synodus variegates, stopping to perch on the reef one by one right in font of me. A few seconds later they then proceeded to swim off one after another. All this happened at about 7m.

Christmas Party

No night dive today. It's just as well. I was feeling a little tired already at the end of the third dive. Besides we are having a Christmas party on board!

On normal days the food served on the Kaleebso is excellent, I'm sure everyone will agree, but tonight it's special – it's the eve of Christmas and we're having a party – so the food prepared by the crew is extra special to say the least.

Captain of the Kaleebso – Khay Lee – preparing the Christmas turkey on the tepanyaki grill.

Turkey ready to be served. Yummy!

After dinner we had an appearance from Santa. In fact we had two different Santas that night. Everyone had brought a small gift to be exchanged with something from someone else. We played some games and everyone had good laugh.

Santa Francis (the one in glasses) handing out some goodies.

After the party we just sat around to chat. I was sitting on the top deck looking down at some people fishing on the bottom deck. The bright lights of the boat attracts flying fishes an in turn they attract large sailfishes. That night I saw a group of 3 swimming slowly up to the surface to within a few meters from the boat.

During the day it’s common to see sailfish leap clear out of the water around Jarak. Underwater I have yet to see any.

Dive 8: The Pinnacle, 09:34, 25th Dec.

Christmas day and the sea finally seemed calm enough for us to dive at the Pinnacle. We were lucky that it was when the current were the weakest. It was a very mild current upon entry. I had no problems swimming against it sticking close to the bottom or the coral formations, occasionally finding some rocks to pull myself along with my hands.

There’s an abundance of Dendronepthya growing in this site (16m). They seem to thrive in very strong currents.

The sea around this submerged reef is absolutely teeming with life. Large schools of Jacks and Snappers circle around while smaller fishes stick closer to the reef. This site truly is spectacular.

However I was not able to take any photographs of the spectacular landscape and sealife around it. The visibility was not very good and it was dark like the two previous mornings. My camera only had a tiny built-in flash incapable of any kind of wide angle shots in low light.

A very small white-eyed moray – Siderea thysoidea, at 14m depth.

Banded coral shrimp - Stenopus hispidus Several of them were found in a shallow cave at 14m depth. These are cleaner shrimps. They wave their very long white antennae around to advertise their services.

Nudibranch – Phyllidiella zeylanica, at 14m depth.

The entry and the dive were relatively easy. However the exit proved to be a little tricky. When we signalled to surface I had 50 bars of air left in the tank - more than enough to ascent safely. I deployed my safety sausage and started a slow descent up to 5m. That’s when some of us in the group headed towards a buoy line nearby. “No problem” I thought, “I can hold on to the buoy line with one hand and my reel with the other”. This soon proved to be a mistake. When I reached the rope, the current became very strong and I had a hard time trying to hang on with one hand. Sachi realised this and grabbed my arm to keep me from being pulled away by my sausage. I didn’t want to let go of it if I could help it.

After 3 minutes we ascended to the surface. My sausage by then was probably 20 meters away and the reel was still slipping in my left hand paying out more line. Still I was determined to hang on to it.

We waited for the small tender to come get us. In the distance we could see it picking some divers who were swept away by the current. Several minutes passed before it came along side us and threw us a line to hang on to. There were several divers already on board so the only way back to the boat was by a tow. We were being towed against a very strong current. It took more than 5 minutes for the tender to get back to the Kaleebso. When we got back my line almost became entangled with a couple of diver who were behind me on the tow line. Just as I was to climb up the ladder my tank became empty! I actually managed to consume 50 bars of air in the struggle.

Thinking back, I shouldn’t have deployed the sausage if ascending along a line with a current. With the sausage already deployed I should’ve just drifted with current. Lesson learned!

Dive 9: 11:08, 25th Dec.

After an hour rest, we made a last dive nearer to the island. Easy dive – no current. Nothing extraordinary encountered in this dive.

A couple of reef lizardfishes – Synodus variegates, posing at 12m.

Nudibranch - Fryeria marindica, at 13m depth. However I’m not confident that I have identified it correctly.

Skunk anemone fish – Amphiprion akallopisos, at 11m depth.

Some sort of clam? It quickly shut its shell when I approached. It was about 15cm from top to bottom, found at 5m depth.

Overall Picture

It was certainly worth coming back to Jarak; in fact I may just make it an annual affair.

This is the second outing with my camera. I noticed an improvement in the photos since the first time, but there’s still a long way to go before I can take what you would call magazine quality photos. Composition definitely needs improvement: I notice that many of my photos were shot from above. I should get lower to be on eye level with the subject.

Another problem I have with many shot is backscatter. I should get closer or go buy an external strobe. The good strobes tend to be a little expensive, so I think I’ll just have to have lots of patience and improve my approach technique.

An interesting point that I want to make is that some seemingly mundane subjects can produce interesting pictures; an example being the sea urchin on the first dive. It’s also worthwhile to identify the creatures photographed and do some additional research on them. I certainly learned a lot during the time it took to write this post.

Sunset at Pulau Jarak.