Whale Sightings and Wimpish Snorkeling

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August 21st 2017
Published: August 24th 2017
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It is Sunday morning and I am sitting on the porch watching the waves crash against the sea wall. It seems that it is all or nothing with the sea here. Either the water is so calm that you could be looking out across a really enormous lake, or otherwise it is dramatic, noisy, and violent. I prefer the latter to watch and listen to, but it does make getting in and out of the sea, especially when wearing heavy dive gear and trying to navigate the uneven rocks underfoot, extremely tricky, as I proved yesterday when it took me five minutes to inch the short distance towards the beach steps and it was only due to gallant intervention on Dudong's part that I didnt end up permanently impaled upon a very sea-urchiny rock.

Last night, being Saturday, we had a party on the porch and it was a jaunty, laidback affair. Nathan gave us all a salsa lesson which was lots of fun, even if I did trip over my feet at least five times, and Felipe ran a quiz which our team, Team Shrimp, won on the exciting last point.

We had a mass exodus on Wednesday when eight people left so the place feels very quiet. It was sad to see everyone leave as we all got very close in the month we spent diving, science training, and filling toilet buckets together, and their last night was made especially emotional when news of a stranded whale in Liloan harbour reached us. The project scientists, Javi and Felipe, raced off on Dan Dan's motorbike to investigate and to offer help, but came back with the news that the whale was nowhere to be seen which was good news at least. Over the next few days, reports came in of the animal (there was some debate as to whether it was a small whale or a large dolphin) still drifting around the harbour but it seemed that it was able to leave on its own accord so it appears that it wanted to be there and so no one could/ should have done anything.

With the emotional farewells and dolphin/whale drama out of the way, it was time to get back on with our surveying. I am glad I am here for an extra week as it is only now that it feels like all the diving and science is coming together for me and that I am actually feeling vaguely competent in my surveying. The training here is so rigorous and extensive that by the time it finishes, there are only a few days left to put it all into practice if you are only here for a month, and I think people were a bit disappointed not to have longer to survey. The training is as long as it needs to be so there is no way around it, but I am very grateful that I was able to wangle six weeks leave from work to be able to stay slightly longer.

After waving goodbye to our soon-to-be-departees, Charlotte, Ben, Nathan, Jerome and I swam out to CCC's boat, the Nudihunter, while Bok ferried the extra tanks over from shore in the little paddle boat. The Nudi whisked us (slowly) across the bay and round to our survey site, Lepanto, where we had been for the last few days. It is a really nice site, with lots of interesting invertebrates including a large number of nudibranchs, the colourful
little sea slugs which I get excited to find every time.

The first half of the survey was completed successfully despite a lively start during which Ben and I lost the other buddy pair, aborted the dive, resurfaced and found the other buddy pair waiting patiently at the surface for our signal to descend (I am half convinced that they were mischievously swimming in circles to avoid our search as I still have no idea how we did not see them bobbing about above us when we were looking around for them) as there had apparently been some confusion as to whether we would all descend together or separately. After all this kerfuffle and a quick tank change for me (who apparently uses 20bar just to descend, have a lost buddy panic, and resurface), we were descending again and back in business. The surveys seem a lot calmer now, probably because we know the site better, the conditions are better than the currenty swells in which we did our training surveys, and I am getting more confident with the dive skills and making my air last for the full survey (so hopefully no more swimming over to my buddy and sheepishly signalling that I am down to 70bar, the minimum we are allowed to begin our ascent with and having to end the survey early).

With the first survey out of the way, we had to wait a couple of hours before we could dive again, so we decided to hop off the boat and fill the time with a snorkel. There didn't seem to be that much to see where the boat was anchored, so Charlotte swam around trying to find something more interesting than sand to admire on the sea floor, whilst I practiced using my fins to jump out of the water like a crocodile (we all do this, right?) Perhaps it was because no one was dangling a tasty treat above me for me to snap at like they do for crocodiles on boat tours, but I failed miserably in my attempt to athletically fling myself out of the water, but I did end up landing next to an adorable little fish which was two cm long and staring intently at me. It had an unusually elongate body and hovered in an upright position about a foot from my face. We stared at each other as we wiggled our tails/ fins in unison and then it did a little spin. I returned the spin and then it began to sashay back and forth. We continued this dance for a few minutes whilst Charlotte watched from a couple of metres away.
'How lovely!' I thought. 'Here we are bonding and becoming friends!' Then I noticed that it was inching closer to me.

Feeling a little like my new fish friend was beginning to get a bit too near, I swam backwards a couple of feet, at this point only concerned about the fact that I couldn't see him without going uncomfortably crosseyed. My fish friend followed me, a look of intent in his beady little eyes.
I swam backwards a couple of metres further, by way of experiment. The fish was still with me, unnervingly having seemed to have teleported between positions as it closed the gap (surely a considerable distance for a 2cm long creature) so quickly.

The fish continued to follow, each time closing the gap and getting ever so slightly nearer every time and I was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable by its persistence (no means no, after all).

Charlotte was now watching with a look of apprehension visible from behind her snorkel mask.

'Is that a parasite?' she asked suddenly as the fish jumped out of the water and nearly landed on my head.

I took one last look at the fish, which was now staring unabashedly back at me as it took my hesitance as an opportunity to swim right up to me and lodge itself mere millimetres from my face, and I agreed that this may well be the case.

'Back to the boat!' Charlotte and I shouted in unison, and set off at a speedy front crawl. We soon covered the 100m back to the boat, and incredibly, the little fish was still with us as we raced pantingly up the ladder. As I was waiting to go up, I felt a small but sharp pain in my calf and I looked down, expecting to see the fish attached to my skin by its snarling teeth but it turned out to be just a jellyfish, much to my relief.

We settled down on the boat, our enthusiasm for snorkelling around the ocean, with its fearsome, predatory, inch-long creatures, suddenly dampened.

Later, when I plaintively told Ben about our narrow brush with parasitic disaster, he explained about juvenile wrasse behaviour, where small fish attach themselves to the shadows of sharks and other large pelagic creatures for shelter and protection, and that really I had just been denying an innocent creature of refuge from the large and dangerous ocean. So now I feel guilty, as well as justifiably pathetic for getting bullied out of the sea by something the size of a liquorice torpedo. We got nominated as Dicks of The Day that night for our wimpish evacuation from the sea, but luckily (or not), Shrimp had chosen that day to scare a small child by chasing and barking at her, so he stole our glory of biggest fools on base for the evening.


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