Wednesday 31 July 2013

by Amanda Lee Yue Ping, Class of 2014, Junior 1 Cempaka

The Silver Diving Expedition 2013 was off to an early start, 2.30am to be precise. However, all eyes were wide awake by the time we sighted Pulau Redang's famous archipelago from the windows of the ferry. The cluster of islands was surrounded by stretches of startlingly clear, turquoise water. We disembarked at Pantai Pasir Panjang (Long Beach), eager to rid ourselves of the most uncomfortable sardine-squashed-in-a-can feeling - mostly thanks to the boat-handler's energetic disposition and loud shouts of 'Masuk lagi! Masuk lagi!'. After everyone gathered, we had a short walk along the shore towards the hotel, thankfully without having to carry our luggage.We trailed sandy footprints all over Redang Bay's rather simple yet rustic lobby. Room keys were distributed, groups were sorted out and a short briefing was given about the schedule of the day. Being in the advance group, I felt a little nervous having not dived since well, the last silver expedition. All of our underwater skills were no doubt more than a little rusty. 

Photo Credit: Amanda Lee

Being in advance, we were expected to be responsible enough to set up our own gear independently. Ah, the heaviness of a full air tank, the dry, rubbery-smelling air and the forgotten feeling of soreness in your fingers as you struggle to push the stubborn pressure hose into its correct position. Our hotel conveniently had a stretch of coral reef right in front of it, aptly named 'House Reef' as it was a mere 20 to 30 steps into the water from the shore. We explored it sufficiently enough - or so we hoped, during our snorkel and practice dive. As the sun cast it's last rays before disappearing down, we gathered for our night dive briefing. All of us nervously tried our torchlights, switching the powerful lights on and off. Once again, we readied our gear, this time taking extra precaution to make sure that everything was in order for the night dive. The waters were pitch black as we entered through the shore.

Dive Number : 9
Location : House Reef, Pantai Pasir Panjang
Time : 7.30 - 8.05pm
Bottom Temperature : 28 Degree Celsius 
Maximum depth : 10 meters
Notes : Night dive from the shore! It was the same dive site as before, but everything looked completely different without sunlight. We descended with flashlights turned on and at the ready in one hand, the other hand holding on tightly to our buddies. My first glimpse underwater at night - hundreds of tiny silver fish no bigger than my littlest finger, darting everywhere, tickling us as they flashed by. We swam deeper and around the reef, trying to shine our flashlights wherever we could. The coral reef was certainly more vibrant at night, showing it's true colours like red, yellow and green. Tons of sea cucumbers, like giant black slugs littered the sandy floor. Some of us spotted a Morray Eel, peeking it's head out, like a snake but with fish eyes. As we settled down on a sandy stretch, the dive master counted and recounted us to make sure everyone was present. Looking as puzzled as one can look in a mask that covers half your face, he signaled to the other instructor to stay with us while he went off in search off the other two lost divers. The five of us were content to wait and play with the tiny fish as they darted in and out, shining like silver streaks in the light from our torches. At last, the dive master came back with Yi Shuen who had leg cramps, and her buddy. I thought I saw some really bizarre coral but it turned out to be Yi Shuen's hair billowing out of her ponytail as she knelt down opposite me. As we all finally settled down, the dive instructor gave the signal for 'lights-off'. We turned our flashlights off, some of us having more trouble than others. Eventually we could see nothing but blackness. As we waved our hands about in the water like we were instructed to earlier, tiny plankton in the water began to glow, like thousands of minuscule green sparks in the water. It was magical, like mystical, underwater fairy-lights. After a minute or two of frantic waving, the instructor switched on his lights, just in time for us to see a hermit crab, scuttling off on it's long red and white limbs. We then swam back and ascended safely. 

The night dive was in short, exhilarating. We took our time to bathe before having dinner at the cafe. Good company, warm food, the sound of waves washing onto the shore, the distant beat from the disco at a nearby hotel and, of course, the stars: twinkling and appearing silently one by one in the night sky. Early next day after breakfast, we assembled our equipment and took a boat to the dive site, where we would do our second adventure dive - deep diving!

Photo Credit: Nicholas Kong

Dive Number : 10
Location : Black Coral Garden
Time : 9.00 - 9.30am
Bottom Temperature : 27 Degree Celsius
Maximum depth : 30 meters
Notes : Our first boat dive, finally! This was to be our second adventure dive, a deep dive. We descended slowly, looking down all the time at the immense coral reef spread out before us. Like its name, most of the coral was black, with scatterings of Staghorn corals - long, thin and shaped like antlers in its midst. We swam deeper and deeper, equalizing the pressure in our ears every so often. There weren't many interesting fish about, or maybe I was just distracted by the stinging scratch on my palm. It wasn't caused by any long-tentacled jelly fish or a spiny lion-fish, nope. The long gash on my palm was cause by an innocent, stationary coral I accidentally brushed against in my hurry to regain control over my buoyancy as I found myself floating too close to the coral. Blood looks scarily black when you're at a depth of 30 meters! Also, salt water and cuts? Not a good idea. With my hand stinging, I wrote my name backwards on the slate the instructor handed me. On deep dives, symptoms of nitrogen narcosis are often felt. The symptoms are similar to a drunk person and also include slow reflexes. Besides writing our name backwards, we also did some simple equations to test our reflexes. It was not exactly World Maths Day worthy, but doing an equation 30 meters underwater was really something. On the way swimming back, I spotted a Fanta drink can among the coral which my buddy picked up and threw away once we got back to shore.

We had a good rest on shore, sitting at the hotel's quaint little coffee shop overlooking the beach, run by an old Hokien-speaking couple. When it got too hot, we took a swim. When we felt peckish, we snacked on plates of Chee Cheong Fun and whatever we felt like having from the convenience store nearby. Food, sand, sun and the sea - what more could one want?

Photo Credit: Lee Yue Yu

At Redang Bay, we fell into the same, lazy routine. From where we sat at the coffee-shop, the dive-shop was to our left, the sea and beach to the front, and food almost all around us. We also spent our leisure time with our faces glued to the compass, walking around the beach and bumping into people, beach chairs and volleyball nets as we tried to navigate a square in preparation for our next dive. There was just time for a good game of volleyball, before going for what sadly would be our fifth and last dive.

Dive Number : 12
Location : House Reef, Pantai Pasir Panjang
Time : 6.20 - 7.00pm
Bottom Temperature : 27
Maximum depth : 8
Notes : Another shore dive. We stood in shallow water as our instructor briefed us shortly on navigation during a dive. This time though, we gave him back our compasses as we had to do it the 'al natural' way. We started out with the basics, navigating a straight line and back. We swam off with our buddies in different directions. It was a simple task of just twenty fin-kicks forward, turn and then 20 fin-kicks back. Attempt #1 to navigate and I would say we were doing pretty well. Till we got to the 19th fin-kick that is. We were getting ready to turn back and head towards shore when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a turtle! There was a lot of pointing, underwater grinning (pretty hard to achieve with a regulator in your mouth), and frantic signaling of 'Turtle! Turtle! TURTLE!'. Obviously after that, we got pretty lost. Attempt #2 to navigate was significantly harder - we had to do a square and come back to the starting point. Using small indicators like the sand pattern and depth of the sand, we swam straight for fifteen fin-kicks, before turning 90-degrees to the right. Or left. Or was it right? Needless to say, we were pretty confused. All around us was the same; sand, sand and more sand. It was hard, rather near impossible, to tell where you started from. After about two minutes of confused signaling, we finally surfaced to see where we were - unsurprisingly way off course. We then just swam straight back, giving up on the square. Attempt #3 to navigate a horizontal line was finally successful! We went back onto shore before our navigation dive could become a night dive. Navigation was already hard as it was.

Sometimes, it doesn't really matter whether you're an Open Water diver or an advanced level diver. Diving is all about the experiences you garner and with twelve dives under my belt, I look forward to learning more. I definitely learned something new on every dive. Be it the names of fish, how hard it is to put a wet suit on, the types of coral, or how you should never stay underneath your buddy whose fin kick I learned, is pretty powerful. All of us went home with wonderful memories, experiences, and also with a lasting reminder of Redang's powdery sand in our shoes.

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