Monday, October 20, 2008

GUE Dive Extravaganza, October 14-19, 2008

I just got back from Living Seas' GUE Dive Extravaganza 2008. It was an awesome, awesome trip that I can safely say set the bar extremely high for everyone who attended. I have taken away so many precious memories that I can now die a happy man. Yes, the trip was that good.

In what has become an annual affair, Gideon and co planned a liveaboard trip the MV White Manta to visit the wrecks of the South China Sea. This was the most ambitious trip to date, with 5 full days of diving and only GUE trained tech divers on board. Including Gideon and Leon, there were 6 Tech 2 divers and 7 Tech 1 divers, plus 2 support divers. Just about everyone had taken a course from Gideon in the past or otherwise had some association with him. Putting the G in GUE were visiting guests – 4 from Australia, one from Thailand and one from China. The rest of the divers were local to Singapore. Also on board were 5 X-scooters, including mine.

We boarded the boat in Singapore at 6.30pm on Wednesday. Shortly after, the boat departed for the overnight trip to the first wreck. We had a quick briefing followed by an excellent Thai dinner. Then we moved on to setting up our gear and analyzing our tanks, which had already been filled. Gideon spent some time giving a scooter briefing to those interested.

Thursday morning some unexpected circumstances delayed our progress and we tied in to the Aur Tanker around noon. It was a bright, sunny day and the seas were flat with no current. The Aur Tanker is an unidentified tanker, named as such due to its proximity to Pulau Aur, a nearby island. Apparently all identifying features of the wreck have been removed and nobody seems to know much about it, apart from the fact that it has been down for several decades. A sketchy briefing revealed that the ship was upright and had 2 superstructures, one at the stern and another at midships. Teams started splashing in at approximately 30 min intervals. Leon and I were the second team to go in, passing Jim, Vie and Matt, who were decoing on the line. We were tied into the midships superstructure, which was around 42m. We spent the dive scootering around the deck at around 48-50m, orienting ourselves for future dives. Vis was about 10-15m. We estimated the wreck to be around 150m in length with a bottom around 63m. There were numerous blast holes which allowed a few minor penetration opportunities. The fish life inside the wreck was plentiful, with lots of large snapper, grouper and barramundi cod hanging out. Around the wreck were the usual suspects, including jacks, barracuda and batfish. Leon called the dive when he depleted his stage, so we switched to backgas, moved our deco bottles around, and started on our way up. Deco was uneventful apart from the slight current at 10m and up.

Dive 1: Aur Tanker
Max depth: 55.3m
Bottom time: 23 min
Runtime: 63 min

Since we started late, there wasn’t enough light to do a second dive on the Aur Tanker. We motored to nearby Pulau Lang for a night dive. Around 7pm, we splashed in, with everyone diving stages of 32%. The dive was very relaxing with lots of marine life – several moray eels, crabs of various shapes and sizes, banded coral shrimp, sleeping parrotfish, one very flamboyant cuttlefish who seemed to enjoy the attention, barracuda, and pufferfish. The teams averaged around an hour each before surfacing. We had a leisurely dinner and started the overnight trip to the Repulse.

Dive 2: Pulau Lang
Max depth: 16.9m
Bottom time: 67 min
Runtime: Same

Very flamboyant cuttlefish, photo courtesy of ZJ Wen

We arrived at the Repulse around 7am and quickly tied in. After a quick breakfast, Gideon gave us a briefing on the history and orientation of the Repulse, with insights from a 2004 expedition that he was a part of. The Repulse, a battlecruiser, was the pride of the British Navy and saw action in both WWI and WWII. It joined the HMS Prince of Wales and several destroyers (together, known as Force “Z”) in 1941 to attack Japanese naval forces around Malaya. However, the convoy was attacked by a large number of Japanese aircraft, and without air cover, both the Repulse and Prince of Wales were sunk by torpedoes. Its sinking has been described many times so history buffs can read more about it elsewhere.

The Repulse lies mostly upside down, resting on its port side at about a 45 degree angle from being completely turtled. We were tied in slightly ahead of midships, on the underside of the wreck, near a large torpedo hole (where the flag is in the picture). Leon and I were the last team to go in, passing a team decompressing on the line as we scootered down. The wreck became visible around 15m, despite the shallowest point being around 35m! We spent a minute orienting ourselves on wreck, before dropping down to the deck and heading for the bow. We passed the pair of 15 inch guns, sticking out majestically from the sand. There was a thermocline at 51m, below which vis declined noticeably. We spent several minutes at the bow, looking up to see the entire height of the ship against the backdrop of blue waters and the blazing sun. Around 8 minutes into the dive, we started heading back, and along the way spotted a large marble ray and an accompanying cobia. We followed them all the way back to the stern but didn’t have enough time to explore. We headed back to the line, taking note of several follow up areas along the way, and began our deco. The wreck continued to be visible until our 15m stop. The view on deco, where we could see the wreck stretching out in both directions into the limits of the visibility, was incredibly grand, and is something I will not soon forget. This dive, our first on the Repulse for this trip, was one of the most enjoyable open water dives I have ever done. The dive had everything – great vis, no current, beautiful wreck, marine life, and scooters.

Dive 3: HMS Repulse
Max depth: 51.5m
Bottom time: 25 min
Runtime: 65 min

We broke for lunch and a surface interval while our tanks were being filled. On our second dive on the Repulse, we decided to extend our bottom time by breathing down the stage fully and using some of our backgas. As we scootered down the line, it was apparent that the vis has worsened. The thermocline had moved to about 45m, with vis of about 20m above and a milky white 10m below it. We scootered to the props this time, spending some time admiring the huge prop shafts and rudder. We did a tight swim through around the props and emerged on top of the wreck, a little ways down. Not having had enough of the view of the bow, we scootered to the bow again and took in the grandeur again. Finally, it was time to go and we headed back to the line. There was a mid-sized turtle (apparently, a resident) lazing around the top of the wreck. Deco was long and boring, with a slight current on the line.

Dive 4: HMS Repulse
Max depth: 52.2m
Bottom time: 35 min
Runtime: 88 min

After dinner, Gideon measured me for a new 30/30 drysuit. He then gave an overview of drysuit diving to those contemplating first time suits.

I awoke at 7am on Friday to frantic calls of “Whale shark! Whale shark!” Laziness got the better of me and I didn’t get up. Apparently, a curious whale shark had surfaced near the boat and was swimming around nearby. Later, after the first team had returned from their first dive of the day and the second team was still in the water, the whale shark returned. Everybody grabbed their masks and fins and jumped into the water. It was a baby whale shark, around 3.5m in length. It hung around checking us out for about 20 min, providing lots of photo/video ops, before descending into the depths.

Whale shark near the surface, photo courtesy of ZJ Wen

On our first dive of the day, we again went to the bow and props but spent some time checking out various entry points along the way. Another large marble ray (the same one?) was lying in the sand near the props. The thermocline and layer of milky vis was still there, but vis had improved somewhat since the previous dive. Deco was uneventful, and the whale shark returned around our 3m stop. We scootered alongside it as it circled the boat once before disappearing for good.

Leon and I scootering with the whale shark near the surface, photo courtesy of Vie Panyarachun

Dive 5: HMS Repulse
Max depth: 55.8m
Bottom time: 21 min
Runtime: 61 min

We spent the surface interval watching video of the morning’s dives and the whale shark. Around 3pm, teams started splashing in again. Another team borrowed our scooters for an excursion to the props, so we did a swim dive. Vis had deteriorated once again, with vis below the rising thermocline less 5m. We investigated several entry points without traveling too far from the line, due to the poor vis. On the way up, we checked out the torpedo hole before completing our deco.

Dive 6: HMS Repulse
Max depth: 50.0m
Bottom time: 22 min
Runtime: 59 min

That night, Gideon gave an overview of what to expect in Cave 1 to several divers who are signed up for the course next year. We left that Repulse that evening and arrived back at the Aur Tanker around 3am.

Saturday we did 2 dives on the Aur Tanker. We were again tied into midships superstructure. Vis had deteriorated since our first visit there, with vis less than 10m. We dropped off the starboard side and scootered to the bow. We came off the bow and followed the anchor rope around for a while, eventually coming to a concrete block. The anchor was nowhere in sight. We made our way back to the bow and investigated a couple of entry points before returning to the line.

Dive 7: Aur Tanker
Max depth: 60.0m
Bottom time: 21 min
Runtime: 65 min

On our second dive of the day, vis had worsened once again, to about 5m. The entire wreck was covered in a milky white layer. There was also a mild current that picked up as our dive went on. This time, we went around the props and rudder and found a huge hole and lots of wreckage near the stern. The hole was full of large snapper. We did another long dive, depleting our stages and breathing some backgas. We saw 2 large lionfish and schools of baby fish on our way back. As we were leaving the Aur Tanker, Leon tried to untie the boat from the mooring line at around 15m, but failed as the current was pulling the line taut. My first thought is that he should not have been doing such strenuous activity on a Tech 2 dive. By the time I signaled for him to stop, he had been fighting with the line for some time.

Dive 8: Aur Tanker
Max depth: 58.6m
Bottom time: 30 min
Runtime: 84 min

Leon felt some slight pain in his elbow shortly after surfacing. He was quickly put on O2 and monitored. Shortly after, about 45 min after surfacing, I felt some odd pressure in my left rotator cuff. It’s hard to describe the feeling. It wasn’t really painful, rather, it felt like pressure deep inside the shoulder joint. Not wishing to take any risks, I went on surface O2. After about 30 min each on O2, the feeling had subsided for both of us. Looking back at our profiles, I don’t think we did anything wrong. We certainly didn’t deviate from any of our planned profiles. What we learned is that we should probably be a little more conservative when planning multiple days of tech diving, and most definitely refrain from any strenuous activity during/after technical dives.

We did a shallow night dive, followed by 12 min at 6m and a 6 min ascent, all on O2. Thomas and Wen came along to keep an eye on us. The feeling did not return for either of us, so that must have done the trick. It was a good night dive, where we saw several nudibranches, flatworms, 2 baby lionfish, a big angry red crab, a large moray eel, and a baby stonefish.

Dive 9: Pulau Lang
Max depth: 11.0m
Bottom time: 59 min
Runtime: Same

Late that night, we took off for the Maritime Fidelity. We arrived at 7am and tied in to the wreck. The Maritime Fidelity is a bulk carrier that used to carry fertilizer. It sank in 1999 in about 45m of water. During the dive briefing we were told that we were tied into the port side near the bow. So we were surprised to arrive at the stern after about 20 seconds’ scootering. Vis was quite poor, around 7m or so, so it was difficult to get oriented. It turns out that we were tied into the port side near the stern. We did a tour of the wreck, from stern to the bow and back to the stern. We checked out a huge cargo hold (now empty) and the machine room near the stern. We spent the short deco surrounded by batfish.

Dive 10: Maritime Fidelity
Max depth: 40.0m
Bottom time: 30 min
Runtime: 53 min

Team shot before our last dive of the trip, photo courtesy of ZJ Wen

With that, the trip was over and we started heading back to Singapore. We spent the few hour trip eating, telling diving stories, and putting away our gear. We were back in Singapore by midday, and everyone headed their own ways, back to reality.

Group shot, photo courtesy of ZJ Wen

Things I learned:
1. We need to encourage more females in the region to pick up tech diving. As much as I like you guys, spending 5 days on a boat with 15 half naked men is not my idea of fun.
2. Scooters rock! The scooters are great enablers, allowing more varied and safer dives.
3. It’s probably a good idea to dial up the conservatism after multi day deco diving, especially for Tech 2 level dives.
4. I should use sunblock. A peeling bald head is not very attractive.

Thanks to:
The Living Seas crew for planning a great trip.
Gideon for his tips and watchful eye.
Leon for being a reliable buddy as always.
Thomas and Wen for the thankless jobs of gas blending and diving support.
The crew of the White Manta for the good food and service.

Pictures and video to come in time.

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