… with Thresher Sharks

They can be seen most mornings — early mornings — at the Monad Shoals, off Malapascua Island in the northern Philippines. The vertical wall, with a convenient viewing point 30 metres down, provides a convenient cleaning station for the graceful beasts with the elongated tail flukes. Johnny and the Varmints hitched themselves to the guide-rope.

IMG-20171021-WA0001The small island of Malapascua lies a 40 minute boat ride from the northern tip of Cebu, which itself is 200km from the international airport on the southern tip. The journey between these two points can be covered by a rental vehicle, either a car, van or in our case, a float plane. Never assume that the fastest vehicle will be the most convenient; we had arrived at the fag-end of a typhoon so adjustments were necessary. As it turned out, including the plane, the poor weather meant we utilised nine separate modes of transport to reach our destination.

Some transfer or another

One of several boats and chairs. This one was in brown rattan

For the final leg the dive centre sent its boat (there is a public service but it was now way too late for that). We made a night assault on the beach and I and the kit was dragged round to the shop. Johnny’s hotel was next to the Fun&Sun PADI centre, one of several dotted along the fine sandy beach on the southern island coast. An idyllic setting for grown-ups but never less than challenging for wheelchair users. Luckily, son Ryan would be at my side throughout the adventure.

To visit Malapascua from the UK and return after only four nights may seem an odd use of one’s time and money. But Ryan was joining Cheryl, his girlfriend, for a family reunion and a subequent invitation to me seemed too good to turn down. I love my diving; I knew this would be difficult but was also confident there would be plenty of willing hands.

Our programme began the next morning, bright and early. The boat’s ever-resourceful crew would experiment with ways of getting me on board from beach, boat or ocean, before settling on a plastic chair lashed to a pole and hoisted by them onto the fore-deck.

We made several dives during the build-up to the thresher descent; one to the small marine reserve of Gato, where we swam through a tunnel that was long enough for us not to be able to see the other side. It took a small leap of faith to make the dive into the abyss but it was probably only half a minute before the pale blue exit hove into sight.

And thrillingly, there were white-tipped reef sharks! Several of them, more of a conventional shark shape than a thresher and more menacing for that. By the time we saw them I was clear of the swim-through but others behind me inadvertently hemmed one in, and it darted towards them before finding a way out.

But the threshers were the highlight and they didn’t disappoint (video by Warwick Ngan Kee. The shadow at the end is of the diveboat, 100 feet up). As we were deeper, our sightings were limited to appearances through the gloom. Later there were arguments about just how many we had seen — several in succession or just one swimming in circles? Their mouths, while the familiar sickle shape, are far too small to pose a threat. But sharks of any kind have this mystique and thresher tails, which they use to stun their prey, are especially impressive.

Again due to the depth, our bottom time was limited and we needed to make a decompression stop while surfacing. On our way back to breakfast we were an excited group.

I always enjoy night dives, from the tip backwards into the blackness to giving the thumbs-up signal and piercing the silver surface above. And you always see good stuff; to improve my chances I tied a torch to my mask strap. This evening’s highlight was a writhing mass of green and black sealife, presumably feeding on some corpse, looking for all the world like the fabled snakes on Medusa’s head. They looked like eels but I later learned they are a type of catfish.

IMG-20171028-WA0000Now, back in England, having spent most of the past week either in the air or under the water, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I also feel shattered, which is odd considering others were doing most of the hard work. Would I go back? I initially thought never again. But on the other hand the hotel quickly put up several ramps, one permanent (Ryan christened it before the concrete set). I eventually found an almost sand-free route between the hotel and the dive school (the FreeWheel was again invaluable). The chair device works, although we must have stressed this particular one to its limits. And I finally made it into the shower without Ryan’s help (the exiting manoeuvre requires more thought).

So, with all that infrastructure now in place — madness not to, really.

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Johnny gets a pressy. Thank you all!

… to Malapascua, Philippines

The 7P principle

Odd, you might think, to write a travel blog about a place that you haven’t yet visited. But scuba-diving this remote Philippine island, lying off the northern tip of Cebu, will present something of a challenge for Johnny Sombrero and his trusty steed. And as the departure date approaches, as is Johnny’s wont before any trip (ask Juanita), he starts to worry.

It’s not that he’s alone. Ryan and members of Cheryl’s family will be there to provide all the support he needs. His concerns have nothing to do with the distance, or the flights, or the Hong Kong stopover, or climbing into the minibus for the four-hour drive north — or even the scuba diving itself.

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The paraw dive boat

It’s getting on the damn boat. Ordinarily, this is my favoured method of starting a dive. You get driven to the site, you kit-up, you sit on the side like a frogman and, boom, there you are surrounded by bubbles, above what you came to see. Getting on a modern dive boat is also a cinch; you wheel along the side of the marina and balance onto the stern dive platform. Still in the chair, job done. Well, more or less.

In this case, the stem of the local vessel, a paraw outrigger, faces the beach and access is via a plank. For an able-bodied person, negotiating this requires no more than a few steps up (maybe with arms outstretched for balance/effect). For me, well, I’m still not sure.

Plan A

If the plank is wide enough for my arse-cheeks, and if I can get purchase on it with my hands underneath them, I propose to sit on it and bum-shuffle my way backwards, up to the stem. If someone is standing either side of me in case I overbalance and if a third helps me reposition my feet in front of me as I mount. I can see that working.

My concern is that, from a manoeuvering point-of-view, my arms and shoulders are all I have. And after decades using them to pull myself up from the ground into my chair, my shoulder joints aren’t as secure as they once were. They have no effect on my day-to-day mobility and, for weeks now, I have been exercising to re-stabilise these joints. I have made progress, but I don’t want to undo this good work by being manhandled.

And while I’m at it, helping me out of the water after each dive needs some thought too. After passing my kit up, I do not want to be dragged up by my wrists until my belly folds over the side of the boat. That will hurt. We should find a point from where I can be pulled up using a twist-lift.

IMG-20171002-WA0006Most sailors will be familiar with this method. The deal is,  from in the water I face the side of the boat with my upstretched arms crossed above my head. A crewman takes each hand. We start a plunging motion into the water and, on my count, we all lift on the upstroke, untwist the arms and (in theory at least), I end up sitting on the edge. Minimal strain on the shoulders that way.

If this option isn’t available, again, we will find an answer. I may end up being towed. As long as we talk it through first. Because, as we used to say in the Navy, Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Johnny feels better now. Andale andale muchachos!

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Photos courtesy Cheryl Kng

 

… to Marsa Alam, Egypt

I learned to scuba dive in northern Egypt in the mid-90s. Back then, the dusty Hurghada strip had little to offer but, beyond the coastline, pristine reefs and coral outcrops made it a magnet for divers. Now it has become one of the most popular centres in the world; there are a lot more hotels and many, many more dive boats.

And so, ever the socialite, we headed south to Marsa Alam, where a resort and airport have been built out of nothing and divers think the extra hour’s flight time (direct from LGW) and longer boat transits worthwhile. The diving is different to that on offer at Hurghada, a little wilder maybe but just as beautiful.

I find boat dives the most convenient way of getting around. To protect my spindly legs I wear a made-to-measure long-john and sometimes a rash top; if it’s too cold for that then I don’t go in! For mostly cosmetic purposes I also wear fins.

My son had a PADI course booked and we shared a room at Marina Lodge. It was huge, next to the dive-shop and we made it work for us. Onshore was fine but the boats (I mostly fell off MV Rachel) required a degree of effort. It was easy to board but, once the dive equipment was laid out on the platform, I was hemmed in the corner for the duration. For a change of scenery I would bum-shuffle into the lounge for meals and, as we dropped anchor, aft towards the edge of the dive platform.

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Ryan (left, obviously)

I was accompanied each time by a most excellent divemaster, Amr Bazeed, another ex-Navy man and a commercial diver to boot. He set up my equipment and helped me every step of the way. Although I flatter myself I can get around I got used to Amr taking my arm between points of interest. One day I will find a dive centre that can rent me a scooter.

MV Rachel wasn’t the only boat heading out from Port Ghalib but we had plenty of space at each site. We spotted wonderful marine life ranging from barracuda to octopus, white-tipped shark, puffer fish and, as we flopped over the side for our very last dive, a huge greenback turtle.

But my outstanding memory is our swim through the vast hard-coral pinnacles of Torfa Aly. The three of us (Ryan was now certified) swooped and banked between the outcrops like low-time Avatars.

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Our last dive …