17 February 2006

DIVE contributors report back on best dives of 2005

What was your best dive of 2005? That was the question we put to DIVE's contributors, and they've reported back on a vintage year.

The Bestly Chamber, Yucatan, Mexico
The thought of dragging all the dive gear far into the jungle to photograph yet another cenote [water-filled sink hole] when there were perfectly good ones near the road wasn't really appealing, but Steve insisted. He'd found it the year before and kept telling me it was the most spectacularly decorated cenote in Mexico – a pretty radical claim, given the competition. After an hour's hike through the jungle being eaten alive, the muddy pool we arrived at didn't improve my mood.

Following my fellow divers, Robbie and Steve, into a tight underwater passage, the visibility soon turned to zero. After ten minutes we entered a bigger passage where the visibility reached 100m; and as the average depth was only 3m, we could see tree roots hanging from the ceiling. An hour later we still hadn't dropped below 5m and finally reached our destination, the Bestly Chamber. Without warning the unspectacular cave suddenly changed into a jaw-dropping wonderland of stalagmite formations, and a reluctantly undertaken dive became one of my best ever. Pristine white towers stretched as far as our lamps would reach. An hour photographing the chamber passed in minutes, and all too soon we turned for home.

To be able to see and photograph such pristine places is a rare privilege. Mexico is justifiably famous for its underwater caves but most suffer badly from the intrusion of divers. Hopefully the remoteness and obscure location of the Bestly Chamber will protect it from that fate, and those who do make it there will leave it as they find it.

Gavin Newman
Socorro Islands, Pacific Ocean
I was hovering in wild, blue water, darkness stretching away 5km beneath my fins. Next to me was a sheer rock face, swept by huge mid-ocean currents and battered by percussive swells as they smashed into the craggy volcanic pinnacle overhead.

I was on a quest to see the famous mantas of the Socorro Islands, a cluster of remote Pacific islands south of Baja California. Glancing around me, all I saw was the vast wall patrolled by the occasional silky shark, the sharks in turn being eyed warily by the rolling school of jacks that hung 50m off the rock face.

Suddenly I saw a darkening of the water beyond the jacks, the unmistakable silhouette of a big manta. Inclining one elegant wing-tip, it drifted towards me, neatly stalling only feet away to peer at me with genuine curiosity. Gently swaying the tips of my fins, I rose up to meet it – man and manta, eye-to-eye off a mighty oceanic rock face. For the next 40 minutes we pirouetted around one another, the manta enjoying the contact as much as the man. When finally I had to leave, the great ray accompanied me all the way to the surface, my final glimpse a flash of white belly as it turned back into the dark waters beneath it.

Monty Halls
SS Leopoldville, Normandy, France
The late Keith Morris [one of the UK's pioneering technical divers] called me about a place on an expedition to dive the protected wreck of the SS Leopoldville. After learning more about the ship's history and the expedition's aims, I seized the chance.

The tragedy of the Leopoldville was covered up for years, governments embarrassed by the needless deaths of so many of the American troops on board. She was carrying 2,200 GIs to Normandy on Christmas Eve, 1944, but the German submarine U-486 lay in wait only five miles outside Cherbourg. Although the ship took more than two hours to sink, shameful delays and errors in the rescue meant that more than 800 men died within sight of land.

Today, the Leopoldville is still a beautiful ship. The bow sweeps up majestically, the anchor chain still running from a hawse pipe and the wooden deck, and the gun and rows of portholes all make this a memorable dive. The damage from the explosion is a stark reminder of the ship's end.

At the request of survivors and relatives, our team raised an American flag on the wreck, and posted letters through a porthole. The simple ceremonies brought a human context to the gloomy decay of the shipwreck itself.

Guy Middleton
Fakarava Atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia
While not as well known as Rangiroa, Fakarava is one of the largest atolls in the Tuamotus Archipelago, French Polynesia – 56km across, with passes at the northern and southern ends.

We drifted with the incoming current and settled upon a coral rise at a depth of 25m in the wide pass at the southern end of Fakarava Atoll. The sun shone brightly through the clear water as far as 30m. Our bubble streams danced and dispersed as they ascended and were drawn into the lagoon. Through this curtain of bubbles they appeared: grey reef sharks, black-tip sharks, and white-tip reef sharks. Not a few, not dozens, but hundreds. The scent of blood from the fish carcasses carried by dive master Sebastien Bertaut preceded us as a calling card, and a-calling the sharks did come!

Three hundred-plus noses focused upon the source of the scent and ventured to investigate further. The sharks flowed as a fast-moving current in concentrated waves, as their hardwired competitive instinct triggered them to strive to outperform their rivals. Every shark for itself.

When dozens of fast-moving and highly agitated sharks are at arm's length distance, there is a frisson and an overwhelming sensation of awe, but no fear – sensory overload for even the most seasoned diver. A dive of a lifetime. We had orchestra seating at the predators' ballet and the performance lasted 30 heart-stopping, time-arresting minutes. As we made ready to leave, Seb offered a fish carcass up to some impatient and voracious grey reef sharks, who competed among themselves and reduced a 10kg snapper to fish flakes in a matter of seconds.

At a time when long-line fishing and shark finning threaten extinction for many species of sharks, it was obvious to all of us on that dive that we were seeing the best of the last. The shark action at South Fakarava on that day will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Douglas David Seifert
Giannis D wreck, Red Sea, Egypt
Like most of us, I don't get to dive as much as I'd like, but as a consolation I do get to think about diving every day. My favourite dives are inevitably the ones I have been anticipating most keenly. So, without a doubt, my top dive of 2005 was the wreck of the Giannis D in the northern Red Sea.

I try to do at least one Red Sea liveaboard trip every year but for three years running, poor weather, mechanical problems and even the European Championship had stopped me diving the Giannis. For those wondering, I should explain that it is hard to get a TV signal at Abu Nuhas. I and Egyptian crews are always reluctant to wander too far from coverage during major football tournaments! However, this year my luck changed. The Strait of Gubal was glassy smooth and we ended up diving the wreck direct from the rear platform of our liveaboard.

The Giannis D, a Greek-owned cargo ship that sank in 1983 after striking the Abu Nuhas reef, is a classic wreck. Although the ship is broken in half, the bow and stern sections are largely intact, and I feel it looks exactly as a non-diver would imagine a wreck to be. Perhaps what I enjoy most is that the Giannis D doesn't attract the crowds of bubble-blowers found on the Thistlegorm, so you still get that buzz of discovery, which for me is such an essential ingredient of wreck diving.

Alexander Mustard
Trawler wreck, Ras Banas, Egypt
It was a morning dive on the wreck of an unidentified trawler in southern Egypt – the wreck didn't have any guns or remarkable features and there weren't any big fish, but there was something very special about it that day.

Not many people know about the trawler, so we had it all to ourselves. Group leader Peter Collings located the wreck, but we had a long wait on the RIB because his buoy was blown off the site. It was a pleasure to finally drop into the water and follow the debris trail down to the wreck.

It lay upright on a slope of pure white sand that dropped away at a 45-degree angle. I swam down to the bow and gazed up at the skeletal structure, finely dusted with undisturbed sand and illuminated by the gentle light of an Egyptian morning. Floating just above the bottom at 50m, I watched my friends from the liveaboard MV Hurricane swimming along this peaceful scene with slow, graceful fin strokes.

The dive made me feel great. I didn't feel any noticeable narcosis on the bottom, but I'm sure it played a part in my perception and enjoyment of the scene, a placid contrast to the bucking sea above. The feeling of assurance and wellbeing stayed with me long after the dive, and I still recall it vividly as I write these words.

Simon Rogerson
Kelp forests, Catalina Island, California
It doesn't particularly matter where you pick your spot to dive around Catalina Island, the underwater marine life is just as good wherever you submerge. Admittedly, some reefs are more predictable for observing soup-fin and leopard sharks and other sites almost guarantee the giant black bass, but for me the bright-orange Garibaldifish take centre stage. They contrast superbly against the greens and blues of the clear Pacific waters and are complemented by the browns of the giant kelp. Very few marine environments support a plant that regularly grows to more than 30m in length.

Even more bizarre is that the giant kelp uses all of its extraordinary length not to spread out horizontally but to grow from the deep cool depths to the warm surface. This unique environment gives rise to a whole host of critters that adapt the kelp throngs for their home. These range from tiny bryozoa, through juvenile mackerel, to the palm-sized kelp bass. All are perfectly camouflaged to avoid detection. Then you have the strangest of them all, the iridescent Garibaldifish. It breaks all the rules. It positively advertises its presence. It's a feisty, fiery tempered fish, which makes it ideal for photography – rather than have to spend hours finding them, they quickly find you.

In a diver's relatively monochromatic world of blues, greens and greys, the bright-orange Garibaldifish has an almost hypnotic effect on any dive.

Charles Hood

Source: www.divemagazine.co.uk


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