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Mike Laird's Diving Diary CROATIA (2013)

Bobara

I was diving with Aquarius who are in the small fishing town of Mlini, about 10 kms south of Dubrovnik. They were charging 75 Euros for two dives with full kit provided. quite cheap by UK standards and very much the norm in this region.

The general equipment was fine, but not top end. The regulators were a bit creaky but worked fine in the water. Initially I had no idea why we were being issued 7mm suits with hoods in these waters but they turned out to be quite necessary.

The catamaran chugged out to a nice anchorage point by a small island about 2 miles off shore. We suited up and by giant stride entry all got in the water. It was just a group of 5 including the Dive Master.

Visibility was only 12-15 metres which was a shame in view of the brilliant sunshine and calm weather. There was little by way of fish life but to make up for that there was an abundance of star fish in many colours and sizes. On the way down to 19 metres we went through two thermoclines so I soon realised why we were wearing such thick suits. Bubbles going into my suit caused real buoyancy issues and I could have used some ankle weights to be honest. I simply could not get the bubbles out and had to cling to rocks (without gloves) during our decom stop. I had actually asked the DM for 10 kgs of lead but he said I should only use 8kgs. Frankly, as I use 8kgs normally on a 3mm suit I would think I know what I need and this kind of proved the point. The instructor ended up having to give me 2kgs more lead. I was not happy when we surfaced. Our bottom time had been 42 minutes.

Raznjici

The boat then moved to the other side of the islands in readiness for our second descent. I have to say that I have never really been impressed with any Mediterranean diving. Malta was OK but Cyprus seemed devoid of almost all marine life and was utterly disappointing.

Once again we hit two thermoclines on the way down. By the end of the dive I realised that gloves would in fact have been useful! I had no buoyancy issues on this dive as I had 2 kgs extra lead tucked into my BCD pocket. We saw a nice sized octopus and a moray eel who popped out and bared his teeth to us. Once again very few fish which was a shame. All in all it was a nice dive in terms of it being calm and the scenery being nice but the lack of fish is a pity. Bottom time 46 minutes.





VENEZUELA (2013)

Lying some 160 kilometres off the north coast of Venezuela the archipelago of Los Roques is now my favourite dive location anywhere in the world.

There are, I believe, three dive centres on the islands and I chose to dive with Arrecife on Gran Roque who were excellent. Their equipment was all great, the instructors were also very good, none of the dives were overly busy and their prices were attractive. At the time I visited the dives were about U$50 each and there is some room to negotiate if you book and pay for several at the same time.

During my time with them I dived on La Buceadora, El Morrito, La Ahocada, El Passeo and the Coral Gardens at Madrizquy. I also took boat rides out to some of the outer islands for the magnificent snorkelling and stunning beaches. No matter where you dive, or how deep you dive, there is an abundance of sea life here the likes of which I have only seen in the south Pacific.

My favourite site though has to be La Ahocada. The boat dropped myself and the DM close to some cliffs. Less experienced divers are not allowed to dive here. We had agreed to go in with no air in our BCDs and to get under the waves as fast as possible. It was rough on the surface and we would have surely been smashed into the bottom of the cliffs had we hung about.

A pristine white, sandy sea bed greeted us at 24 metres (about 80 feet). The bright sunlight from above penetrated the clear water with such ease that it reflected back into our faces and we really could have done with polarised masks. Very quickly into the dive we realised that we were in the midst of about 120-150 tarpons. These are big, aggressive looking fish. About 2 metres long, 30-50 kilograms and with shiny silver plates rather than scales. They have a slightly pre-historic look to them.

Watching them swim by was an absolute delight. I have no idea whether they are aggressive towards divers but we had no issue with them. Keeping the underwater cliff face to our left we swam up and over some ridges and then dropped into some short tunnels and ravines. We ended with a jaunt into a fast and lengthy drift current and saw oodles of fish species along the way. When we surfaced we 'high-fived' each other. The DM told me that of the 3,000 dives he has done in Los Roques this was his best and that he has never seen a greater number of tarpons. He later told me that a sports fisherman would typically take 4-5 hours to real one of these in as they can fight so hard! What a great dive this was.





BELIZE (2001, 2004, 2007)

Tackle Box Canyons

I love Belize. Travelling south from Mexico down the Yucatan coast you are suddenly transformed into a different world. Then taking a boat out to Ambergris Caye and basing yourself there for a while is an absolute must. A chilled, beautiful little island that shouts out for folk to visit.

This particular dive lies almost directly due east from San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. It may in fact be the closest dive site to the coast and sits right on the edge of the reef. The currents here are minimal, visibility was about 30 metres and the depth for the dive varied from 20 to 30 metres.

Descending from the mooring buoy you follow a narrow channel which brings you to the first tunnel which was covered in a myriad of colourful sponges. A little further on there is a cavern into which a diver can descend. It’s a bit gloomy at times and a torch was useful. The shadowy darkness generally results in fewer fish but if you are lucky you might just catch sight of a lobster or two. They like it in here with all the nooks and crannies.

Back on top of the caverns there is elkhorn, brain, pencil and huge plates of boulder coral. Chimney and vase sponges are plentiful and there are all of the expected fish in abundance. It really is a lovely place to blow a few bubbles.

Blue Hole

Far further out to sea than most dives is the Lighthouse Reef and most people come here only for one thing – to dive the famous Blue Hole. There are in fact more than a dozen sites on this reef but sadly few divers have time to visit them all. It is a picture-postcard view when you get there but it can be quite heavily visited.

Carved out of limestone and with a maximum depth of over 400 feet this site is on most divers’ must-do lists. It is not a dive for novices though as the cave features are accessible only by diving 90-100 feet where the wall recedes creating an overhang from which huge stalactites descend as much as a further 20 feet. Visibility is better than 30 metres at the surface and remains surprisingly good down to 100 feet. Of course, once you are under the overhang it diminishes so you will be glad of a torch to make the most out of this dive.

ND bottom time is short so keep an eye on everything including your buddy. Quite a few divers have been lost on this site.

You come here for the experience rather than marine life which is sparse at best. If you are lucky you might see the odd shark or turtle but generally it will just be sponges, algae and some worms. Back nearer the surface you start to see lots more varied life around the rim of the hole in the sun drenched & warm shallows. Well worth spending the time and money to do this dive.

Eagle Ray Wall

The name kind of gives it away but this is where I came to see some Eagle Rays and I wasn’t disappointed. The water was very warm, currents were minimal and the visibility was good but could have been better. Perhaps it was 20-25 metres (the locals were moaning about it because they are used to near perfect conditions all the time, but for me it was still great!).

It was a simple descent and the coral ridges made navigation quite easy too. The rays were soon to be seen all around us. They are so beautiful to watch as they glide past with seemingly little effort. We managed to stay down and enjoy the show for quite a while as it is a pretty shallow dive – possibly 9-12 metres.

Shark Point

This is on Glover’s Reef which is, I think, the most southerly of the Belizean reefs. To get here took more than an hour on the boat and the sea conditions were not good. Everyone either felt sick or was sick. Once in the water we descended as quickly as was safe to escape the swaying motion of the surface waves.

Even though the sea was quite rough the visibility seemed pretty good, 25-30 metres. That was a comfort as we started seeing the sharks very quickly and I always like to know where they are even if they are small or considered ‘friendly’. I never consider anything that can move that fast, which weighs as much as me and has multiple rows of razor sharp teeth to be worth ignoring.

I saw my first Hammerhead. Wow. It was such an amazing experience and it intrigued me more than most other sharks I have ever seen. How on earth did they ever end up looking like that?





AUSTRALIA (2003, 2009, 2010)

Lady Elliot Island

Australia is almost as far as you can get from the UK and this dive site is about as far off the east coast as anyone goes on the barrier reef. The farther north you travel up the reef system, the closer it is to the coast. This far south the edge of the reef is more than 50 miles off shore and took more than an hour to reach even on a rather impressive boat. Most people were terribly sick. I felt grim but wasn’t sick. However I was very glad to get my gear on and get into the water.

We started off with a dive at Coral Gardens. Wow! It was spectacular from the moment we deflated the BCDs. Stunning corals and sponges, a rainbow of colour, plenty of manta rays and the odd turtle too. I think they were loggerheads. There were vast numbers of different fish, some of which I have never seen before. We also came across a very aggressive moray eel.

In the afternoon we did a second dive from the boat at a site called the Blow Hole. To be honest I found this quite claustrophobic but I am glad that I did it. I’ve done other caves and wrecks but this was more like descending into a chimney. At 14 metres a hole can be found in the reef below you and it is 5-6 metres across. We sank down into it and then a tunnel runs off at 90 degrees. It turns after 20-25 metres into another hole. I was glad I did it but I was so busy concentrating on air, and my surroundings that I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have.

Lady Musgrave

I have rarely enjoyed such a shallow dive. The added bonus of course is that my air lasted and lasted. Great for me as I can be a bit of a gulper! Most of the time we stayed around 8-12 metres although we went deeper at times. We did the Manta Ray Bommie dive and also the Drop-Offs.

We saw coral trout, flutemouths, batfish, huge moray eels and some lionfish. We saw two sea snakes and plenty parrotfish chomping away on the coral. There was a slight current in places but generally it was a very easy and hugely enjoyable dive.





UNITED KINGDOM (2000 onwards)

Scapa Flow

This is the largest sheltered natural harbour in the world and where the Home Fleet chose to make its Atlantic base during both the World Wars. It’s the scuttled German High Seas Fleet of 1919 that makes this such an interesting place to dive though.

The German ships are in pretty murky water yet the British block ships are in far better visibility. Nevertheless we opted to dive the SMS Brummer which was a light cruiser and laid mines. It was pretty gloomy and very cold (with thermoclines for added enjoyment!) but with torches we saw this massive ship lying on her right side on the sea bed. The hull is covered in a carpet of Plumrose Anemones and we finned our way along the deck (what is left of it anyway) to the massive guns. On the very seabed we were at 35 metres.

It was a wonderful dive and there was a good deal to see but it would take a long time to see even one ship completely due to the combined challenges of cold, darkness and depth. That said you really need to do these dives and not just the warm water dives overseas. I would definitely like to come back here and do some more.

St Abbs

I have long wanted to dive ‘Cathedral Rock’ and knew, by reputation, that it was difficult to locate so I was glad to be part of a group led by local DMs and an instructor. It is part of a marine reserve and it’s easy to see why such a beautiful area (both above and under the water) warrants protection. It is this beauty though that also spoils the place in some regards as it does attract a huge number of visitors, many of whom are here to dive.

Once underwater and on the reef, the wall falls away and you can make your way down to two chambers. The first is rather small but the second could easily be used as a garage for several cars. It was an absolute delight to see such an array of marine life in British waters and really inspired me to do more diving close to home. Nudibranch, crabs, mussels, spotted gobi, squat lobster, sponges and anemones.

Stoney Cove

This place was one of my first dive sites and one that I shall always have a strange affection for. When you first hear about it sounds like a bleak place – a disused quarry. Indeed when you see it your opinion (above water at least) will be little different.

Once you walk into the water though, you enter a magical world. It is however a man made one and that in many regards makes it even more special. The last time that I went the water was not that clear, perhaps 12-15 metres visibility. As you descend you go through a couple of thermoclines. Not as cold as diving in Scapa Flow but still pretty chilly. (Perhaps one day I ought to try out a dry suit!)

Well you certainly don’t come here to see marine life but what you do come here for is to see all that man has deposited in the quarry including a Viscount Aircraft, a bus, trees, an MG car, a landrover, a boat and loads more besides. It is a hugely interesting place but in reality you come here to improve your diving skills, not to see pretty fish!





CAYMAN ISLANDS (2005)

The Sandbar

These stunning islands were discovered by Columbus in 1503 and are still a British Crown Colony. It is utterly beautiful and quite a tricky place to get to from the UK. But, as with most of the less visited places around the globe, that is usually what makes it so worth while!

As ‘dives’ go it was one of the oddest I have ever done because the water is so shallow and because most of the people in the water are not divers and are in fact standing on the sand and feeding stingrays by hand.

Whether or not you agree with this feeding of marine life it did afford me the chance to lie on the seabed and watch these wonderful creatures close up and undisturbed (other than when a clumsy tourist stood on me!). Because I was in less than 2 metres of water and almost inactive my air lasted longer than on any other dive I have ever done. It would be a dream to get the same experience with manta rays!

Bloody Bay Wall

This certainly sounds an exciting dive and I never did manage to find out why this place was so named. We had been told by the DM that only a few metres under the water the reef gives out to a vertical wall that drops for several hundred metres straight down. What a thought!

We finned our way NE along the reef to where it became eroded and pocketed with overhangs. Patience paid off and we soon saw a Channel Crab which was the biggest crab I have ever seen. The shell was nearly a foot across and it had long legs and claws that looked pretty dangerous. I have been told they can measure a metre across from leg to leg.

We didn’t spot any lobster which we had hoped to see but on the way back to the boat we were greeted by a good number of Great Barracuda. They really are odd looking fish but quite easy to spot with their silvery bodies glinting as we got closer to the surface. Truth be told, barracuda make me nervous. I never know if they can be trusted with all those teeth. (Perhaps that is why this is called Bloody Bay Wall? Not exactly a selling point for a dive site. ‘Shark will have your leg off reef’ probably wouldn’t do too well as the name for a dive site either!)





VANUATU (2009)

The President Coolidge

This was a shore dive. Just me and the Dive Instructor. I was told that he would take me to see ‘The Lady’ which was at 45 metres, the deepest I have ever been. I did warn him that I go through my air quickly but I don’t think he realised just how quickly despite me keeping an eye on my gauge and telling him as often as I could.

We waddled into the sea with all our kit on. It was annoyingly shallow for quite a distance which meant we couldn’t really swim. Being in a suit in this heat was not funny. When I could eventually submerge myself in the water it was a welcome relief.

This ship was run aground in WW2 after hitting two friendly mines. (I’ll bet that captain got a telling off!) It is regarded as one of the top dive sites in the world so I felt very lucky indeed to be able to come half way across the globe and dive here. Wow, wow, wow would have to be my summary of the dive. Rifles, bayonets, helmets, jeeps, trucks and shells everywhere. It was a confusing penetration dive and I am glad my instructor knew it well. We met plenty of sea life including a great number of lion fish.

The Lady, by the way, is a small figurine in the middle of the wreck. I think it must have been some sort of lucky charm for the ship and now it is something that divers strive to tick off their list when they dive in Vanuatu.

On the way up I gave the instructor a warning my air was low and I had to go onto his spare regulator and share his air. During the second deco stop I was on a pony bottle. It was too close for comfort. For me any deep dive in the future will have to be twin tanks I think.

Million Dollar Point

This is another shore dive from Santo. Far shallower than my previous dives here, in better light and of longer duration being at 10-15 metres. To be honest I think I enjoy these dives a whole lot more. (Going to kiss The Lady was fun and one of those things that you feel you need to do at the time but on reflection I probably wouldn’t do it again).

There is still a vast and interesting array of wreckage, bulldozers, trucks and even boats down here. This is how the site got its name, because at the end of WW2 millions of dollars of surplus army equipment was dumped in Santo Harbour. Thankfully though all the nooks and crannies that it has created seem to have attracted a huge variety of marine life and there is lots to see – sponges, corals, fish and crustaceans.





EGYPT (2001)

Bluff Point

This dive site is a place I never really thought of coming to owing to its proximity to Sharm el Sheikh. I always just imagined that it would be far too crowded. Avoiding the peak holiday season though gave me quite a pleasant time. There were a lot of day boats and liveaboards but it wasn’t too bad.

Bluff Point is to the north of the Gubal Islands and the strong currents in these waters provide all that the reefs need to thrive. I had never seen Fairy Basslets before and they seemed, to me at least, like giant goldfish. There were hundreds of them sparking in the under-water sunlight.

There are quite a few wrecks around here and we were diving the SS Ulysses. The odd thing is that there only seemed to be part of it here. Perhaps the rest was eaten by a large fish with an appetite for steel-work! Anyway, the wreck is at 25+ metres and the water was surprisingly clear and slightly cooler than I thought it would be. I have to say that the location was more inspiring than the actual dive.

Sha’b Abu Nuas

This site has the claim to fame of the most wrecks in any one location in the Red Sea. There are in fact a couple piled on top of each other and now it is impossible to clearly distinguish one wreck from another. We were told that whilst some of them have been genuine navigational oopsies, one or two of the others are probably insurance frauds and were intentionally sunk.

There was a vast array of pelagic fish but we were also treated with some White-tip Reef Sharks, several Grey Reef Sharks and two Hammerheads. They really are strange looking creatures. Most of the sharks here have seen so many divers in their time they just ignore you. It is rather odd the way that they treat you with total disdain.

What we had really hoped to see here was a Leopard Shark as they are quite common and I have never seen one. Well, I have been here but still never seen one!





MALTA (2006, 2007, 2009)

HMS Maori

This is another famous wreck. Not famous for what it looks like or where it is, but famous for what it did. This is the ship that was responsible for sinking the German boat Bismarck.

Maori herself was hit during a fierce aerial onslaught in 1942 and sank quickly. Not much is left though as the entire bow and stern sections were blown apart and scattered across the seabed. The bridge though makes it a very interesting dive and due to the length of time the wreck has been down here there is an abundance of marine life.

A word of caution – There are still lots of live shells visible on the seabed and buried slightly below it in the mud so take great care!

Rozi

At the far north-western point of Malta lies the wreck of the Rozi, not far from Cirkewwa Arch.

The wreck itself sits bolt upright on the seabed at about 35 metres. It is in pretty good shape having been purposefully sunk for the enjoyment of divers in 1992. That’s probably just an excuse for the fact it was too expensive to scrap or they simply didn’t know what else to do with it!

It was a tugboat so as wrecks go it’s not that big but it is a nice dive and there is plenty to see. We met loads of sand smelt, chromies, picarel and bogue. The visibility was OK but it was a bit darker than I would have anticipated (possibly an overcast day). Take a torch just in case would be my recommendation.





CAPE VERDE (2008)

Tres Grotes

These islands are the closest tropical islands to the UK and not yet that heavily visited. As the name of this dive may suggest it is a dive down to three penetrable caves. Quite an easy dive to a maximum of 18 metres. Roll off the boat, follow the wall down and hey presto – there you are.

The caves are easy to access and not at all claustrophobic. There was lots of lobster. I’ve never seen them like this before and they almost didn’t care that we could see them walking around.

Some dolphins came to say hello. They are just wonderful to meet underwater. I wish that they had stayed longer so that we could play. I really wanted to grab hold of a dorsal fin but you never really know how they would react. In the movies they seem to love it and take you for an under-water ride. In reality I wasn’t brave enough to try it out.

San Antao

The dive outfit that I was with was run by some stereotypical German chap and I have never been on such a regimented dive. ‘I’s were dotted and ‘T’s were crossed. Not a bad thing when safety is so paramount but it was the way that it was done that made me chuckle away to myself inside.

On this dive we were instantly greeted by shoals of rockfish and bream and then a lemon shark and later on two mako sharks. The under water flora was also incredibly varied and I need to swat up on that a bit as I really don’t know much about it which is a shame when you are in such a great environment.

Once again this was not a heavily visited site and as far as I could tell I was the dive shops only customer on the day. A great shame for them but a great plus point for me.





CYPRUS (2011, 2012)

Vera – K

I was told two conflicting stories about this ship and where it came from. The story I am giving you here though is that the Vera-K was a huge Lebanese ship which ran aground and which had to be blown up. If that is incorrect I can only apologise. Not every diving tale can be easily verified.

I have to say it was very average as a wreck dive. As it was blown apart the wreck is scattered and slightly confusing and surprisingly there was not a lot of marine life. It disappointed me but it doesn’t mean I won’t go back. Cyprus has some truly great dive sites on offer so I just need to go and see more of them!

Amphorae Caves

Now this is what I am talking about! This is without doubt one of the coolest diving experiences that I have ever had. There were only three of us; myself, a lady obsessed with photography and the DM.

A giant stride off the boat and down we went. At first I couldn’t get my buoyancy quite right and I was stuck on the surface. 2 more kgs of lead sorted that issue out. Once we were down the DM lead us around various rock formations, a short wall, an even smaller reef and then we came to the cave. Really it is more of a swim through but I guess they call it a cave because it sounds more dramatic.

This is the site of an ancient ship wreck, possibly Roman. The wooden structure of the boat has long since gone but the cargo must have floated out and became stuck in this cave. The amphorae (large terra-cotta containers for wine or olive oil) are now all stuck on the ceiling of the cave and held in place by centuries of barnacles. Once inside the cave you have to roll onto your back and look upwards and there they are for you to marvel at. It was spectacular and awesome to think that they came off an ancient boat hundreds and hundreds of years ago.





OMAN (2005)

Salalah

Rolling backwards off the boat and into the water was an absolute blessing. It was a scorching day and I was sweltering. I really didn’t want to wear a full wetsuit but the Instructor said I really ought to because it was cold. The water was 24C!!! Obviously he has never dived in the UK.

From the minute I was in the water I just kept seeing new sites, one after another. This was more like being in an aquarium than a standard dive. I saw sting, eagle and torpedo rays. Apparently there is also something called a Devil Ray but I didn’t see one as far as I know.

We saw plenty of reef sharks and much to my delight (after my disappointment in Egypt) I saw my first ever Leopard Shark. What a fabulous creature. I was tickled pink to have seen one and I so wanted a photograph but he (or possibly she) was gone in a flash (no pun intended).

Before our air ran out we were further treated to see some yellow mouth and pepper moray eels cautiously guarding their respective territories in a wall as we ascended.

Musandam

This was as much a delight as the last dive Omani site. Lots more interesting marine life to see and not another dive boat in site. (I hope it has not changed too much since I was there.)

Green turtles are a normal sighting and we also saw two of the slightly more elusive Hawksbill turtles. We were told that there are in fact five species of turtle to be seen in these waters.

We saw great numbers of porcupine and scorpion fish and also some sun fish which they call Mola Mola. The visibility was excellent and one thing that I wanted to see was a Whale Shark as they come through these waters at the time of year I was there but sadly we didn’t see one. We did see one huge shark below us in the water though and the Instructor told me when we got out that it was a Tiger Shark. I am glad I didn’t know that whilst I was in the water. Most sharks are usually fine with divers but Tiger Sharks have a bit of a reputation at times.

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