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When Paradise Goes Bad
A New Yorker's Account of the Tsunamis...
I was at sea scuba diving in the uninhabited Similian Island chain, an 8 hour boat ride from the island of Phuket, when then first wave came through. What would follow are a series of events that changed the lives of so many people forever. As an up and coming underwater photographer, I had planned on spending the week taking pictures of the breathtaking beauty of the reefs and island scapes, however, I spent the last 2 days documenting the devistation, destruction and compassionate rescue efforts that not even images can properly portray. We have experienced the two extremes of paradise. The idyllic beauty and the sheer destructive power of the amazing planet that we inhabit.
We were diving at a remote site in the open ocean called Richlieu Rock, a pinnacle in about 120 feet of water, which at high tide is exposed by about 10 feet, and during low tide is totally submerged. There was an abnormally strong current, as I literally had to pull myself across the bottom of the ocean floor, hand over hand, to keep from being washed into the current (which I would later learn was the actual wave passing through our relatively safe position in the open ocean). By the time I surfaced 34 minutes later, the sea was exhibiting extremely abnormal tides.
The tide tables indicated high tide, yet Richlieu Rock was exposed by more than 15 feet. We checked again and it had disappeared under the sea.
A whirlpool started forming around us. Shouts in Thai rang out as our engines immediately roared and our mooring rope was cut to avoid being sucked into the whirlpool or hitting the rocks. Word came over the radio that some divers were missing at a nearby Surin Island and our crew set a course to go help. By the time we approached Surin Island 30 minutes later, we watched in horror as a huge cruise ship was battered against the rocks, unfortunately not able to maneuver fast enough to escape the waves. Through binoculars we watched the life rafts being deployed. More news began pouring in of swimmers being swept to sea from a 30 foot wave on Phuket, and that more waves were continuing north and heading right for us. Our boat crew conferred with other boats also stuck at sea, and it was decided that the safest course of action would be to head south (yes in the direction of the waves!) towards the Similians where we had what they thought was some level of protection. As we hopped from one island cove to another, we
observed the abnormally low tide everywhere we stopped. The reefs were exposed in many areas, and the exposed islands looked more vulnerable than ever. It was like looking at a ring around a dirty bathtub. We made it to Similian Island #4, the only island that possessed a cell phone relay tower. However, it was nearly impossible to get a signal. Even when you could get a signal, you couldn't sustain it long enough to hold a conversation. SMS text messaging was the only means of communication. It reminded me of the hours post 9/11, when communication was nearly impossible. As sunset approached, there was an eerie calm all around us. We eventually moored our boat as recommended in water that was over 100 feet deep, but in my opinion, far too close to shore. At some point we even fell asleep. We woke to shouts of imminent demise, "get your life vests, it's coming in 10 minutes!". I expressed my frustration that we were too close to shore, but the crew did not do anything about it. So I spent over an hour watching our depth on sonar, as my rudimentary understanding of tidal waves told me that we would lose depth as the tsunami approaches. Every 10 or 20 minutes for the next 3 hours, we received frantic warnings of the imminent wave coming our way. Passengers were saying their last goodbyes, however prematurely it was. There was talk of Navy boats coming to rescue us, but it would
be hours before they arrived. Boats can not outrun a tsunami. Thankfully the second set of waves never made it in our direction. However, I have no doubt that if they did, we were too close to shore and would have been pounded against the rocks.
In the morning, we set a course back to Phuket, an 8 hour trip. During the entire trip we observed everything imaginable floating in the ocean. As we approached the island, the quantity of debris increased. Lounge chairs, luggage, a refrigerator, trees and dead animals all floated past us. After we docked is when we witnessed the true level of what had happened. I have never witnessed such levels of devastation. The tsunami destroyed in a matter of minutes, what a hurricane destroys over the course of a week. As we walked around Patong and Kamala beaches, which were hardest hit by the waves, the smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere. Rescue crews were trying to cope with the task at hand, including the logistical impossibility of accomplishing the recovery of bodies without the proper equipment. In some instances cars and buses were crushed like accordions and sent into the first and second floors of what used to be 4 and 5 star beach resorts. Images of European children with missing parents were heart breaking. For every local, there were two tourists killed or missing. The only way to try and locate missing friends and relatives was to look at boards of photos taken of the
recovered dead bodies. It was eerily reticent of the streets of NYC after 9/11. Unfortunately the chances of finding your loved ones here at this point are just as grim.
The last estimate was almost 100,000 dead and missing. But the world moves on. Hopefully a humbler and more compassionate place. We watched some tourists even going swimming in the beach, although just an hour earlier we saw a dead body randomly washing up on shore. Words and images can not paint a grim enough picture of what happened here and throughout the rest of the region that fringes the Indian Ocean. My thoughts go out to all who died or lost loved ones during this incredible natural disaster. My view of the world has changed forever. I have always appreciated the power of mother nature. "Mother" as in that which gives life, "Nature" as in the uncontrollable and unpredictable and unfortunately, what sometimes takes life. The images and feelings from the last 72 hours will never be erased from my memory.
Yap's Critter Hunt
Bonanza for Macro Photographers
Four week's worth of "critter hunting" in Yap produced some fascinating creatures and a look at some varied and special marine habitants for those participating in the search for new and unusual marine critters.
Manta Ray Bay Hotel and Yap Divers, based in Colonia, Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia, hosted the unique month of exploration. Led by Larry Smith, one of diving's most famed "muck diving" experts, and MRBH founder Bill Acker, daily dives to find the out-of-the-ordinary on the reef were both fun and productive.
Acker dived with Smith in Smith's backyard of Komodo and western Papua in Indonesia and was amazed at the amazing "muck" creatures Larry consistently found there. So he decided to bring Smith's talents to Yap.
"I knew we must have ornate ghost pipefish, pygmy seahorses and other unique critters," Acker said. "We just needed some trained eyes like Larry's to help us find them."
Yap has large inner lagoons and deep channels leading to open ocean.
There are more than 1500 fish species in the Micronesia area and most are found in Yap. Add to this an even larger number of invertebrates that make Yap prime ground for this sort of diving.
Among the finds, a pipefish with markings similar to that of a Janss pipefish but as yet unidentified. It is a beautiful little golden and blue creature known only by a common name of Barrier Reef pipefish. A capped razor coral shrimp, robust and ornate ghost pipefish and mating mandarinfish.
"What a wonderful, unique, diverse, thrill-a-minute experience here in Yap!" Smith reflected. "I had my nose in the reef looking for strange and beautiful small critters and a squadron of 5 or more manta rays were flapping all around overhead!! It was tough duty here in Yap."
There can be a problem, a good one, for photographers. Diving in places like Miil and Gufnuw Channels, where big mantas and cruising sharks are common, means there are both wide angle and macro opportunities. Personally, I decided
Aerial of Yap with Mill channel to the right. Nikon D1 Camera, 17-35mm lens, Polarizer. F4.5 at 1,000th shutter. Shot from rear cargo hatch of small plane. Height 4,000feet.
This pipefish is an unidentified species known only by the common name Great Barrier Reer pipefish. Shot with a D100 in Aquatica housing, Twin Ike 125s and Sigma 50mm macro lens at F9 at 180th. Depth 60 feet (we also found one in only 15 feet!).
A cryptic nudibranch on a leaf at 80 feet. Angled Single Ikelite SB-125 strobe at 1/4 power, 50mm Sigma Macro lens, D100, F18 and 180, Aquatica housing.
to "think macro" and not let the mantas distract me, at least for a few days. I went five days using just a macro rig and then dedicated about 4 more dive days to wide angle in the mornings and macro in the afternoon. I finished up my two week stint leaning mostly to macro again.
Since we never knew what we would find, except during the mandarinfish dives, I mainly
A commensal shrimp living on a crown-of-thorns starfish. Angled Single Ikelite SB-125 strobe at 1/4 power, 50mm Sigma Macro lens, D100, F18 and 180, Aquatica housing. Depth 20 feet.
used my Sigma 50 and Nikon 60mm Micro Nikkor lenses. I had a housed Nikon D100 in an Aquatica housing. I was assisted by Natalia Vanderwyk, who also took photos when she wasn't modeling. She went for the smaller stuff with a D100 in an Aquatica using the 105mm lens. Dual and single Ikelite SB 125 strobes were used.
Muck diving is one of the most popular diving
Schooling manta rays at Garden Eel Flats, Miil Channel. Twin Ikelite SB-125 strobes at 1/4 power, 10mm Nikkor Full Frame Fish Eye lens, D100, F 5.6 and 60th shutter, Aquatica housing. Depth 80 feet.
activities among underwater photographers and marine life aficionados. It basically means divers look in odd and diverse habitats for unique marine life. This can range anywhere from the muddy bottoms of mangrove swamps, river spillways and under harbor piers. Also, the protected areas of lagoons and outer reefs are prime habitat. Divers are finding such odd habitats hold the most interesting and often colorful of marine creatures and fish.
For the most part, the water was fine and the weather cooperative. The first few days we had lower visibility as a storm had been in the area and the waves were kicking things up a bit. For macro, this isn't a major concern as everything is done so closely. But angling the strobes just right to keep the suspended sand particles from leaving too much scatter was a concern. Some creatures, like flatworms, were also found in areas that had a fine
Cleaning shrimp on a fishing boat wreck in Yap. Twin Ikelite SB-125 strobes at 1/4 power, 105mm Nikkor Macro lens, D100, F22 and 180, Aquatica housing. Depth 60 feet.
silty bottom. So working slowly to reduce silting was a priority.
Outside the reef visibility averaged easily 100+ feet. This is where we found a majority of the pipefish species. At outgoing tide, visibility in the channels can be lower but was still anywhere from 20 to 80 feet. So the main challenge was framing them up and waiting for the right moment or moments to snap the shutter. In all, the diversity produced over a couple of weeks of diving was very rewarding.
The diving in Yap included surveying some new spots, looking for the unusual in the tried and true spots and also combining some of Yap's famous
Mating mandarinfish at Rainbow Reef have become a hot item in Yap. Shot at late dusk with the help of DS125 strobe modeling lights and my trusty Hartenberger torch, D100, Nikkor 60mm macro lens, F14 at 1/60th. Depth: 15 feet.
big animal experiences within a day's schedule.
"We even stumbled across a W.W.II landing craft wreck with some kind of big torpedo or bomb not far away from it," Smith recalls. "This site will be one of the main attractions in the future for Yap macro photographers; but might have to get that bomb thing out of the way first!"
Dozens of "critters" ranging from shelled mollusks and nudibranchs to odd fish and phosphorescent corals have been observed. The list includes a variety of multicolored flat worms, nudibranchs not found in any of the opistobranch ID books, a variety of ghost pipe fish (one species found in only one book and is unidentified), mantis shrimps, and cleaning shrimps of all shapes and descriptions, an unidentified big crab eating algae from the base of one of the mooring lines, whitecap prawn gobies and active mandarinfish.
Model Natalia Venderwyk with a striped clownfish at Peelaek Corner. Nikon D100 in Aquatica hosu-ing, Sigma 15mm lens, DS125 Ikelite strobes, F22 at 1/20. Depth: 50 feet.
"We observed them mating on almost every dive there, males fighting and locked in combat for over 20 minutes, and pajama cardinal fish eating the "smoke" that appeared at the spectacular climax of mandarin fish mating," Smith declared.
Yap's Rainbow Reef is an inner lagoon coral reef area near the mangrove forest. This is where the exquisitely colorful, but tiny and reclusive, mandarinfish live and come out at dusk to breed and do mating rituals. Sea grasses, sandy shallow channels, deep main channels, outer hard coral reefs and even the remains of an 1800s copper plated and wooden shipwreck all produced special "critters".
Smith also celebrated a personal milestone during this trip with his 17,000th (that's right, three zeros!) logged dive. This was done in the beautiful southern Yap Caverns. Dolphins accompanied the boat to the site. It was a fitting scenario for such an amazing landmark plunge.
The big critters included observing a huge grey
Larry Smith (left) and Bill Acker, Mai Bay Hotel founder
Larry Smith (left) and Bill Acker, Mai Bay Hotel founder reef shark with mouth wide open being cleaned only a few feet away from divers. And the old shark bottle call produced blacktips, whitetips, gray reefs and the always impressive silvertips rising from the depths. Spotted eagle rays, sea turtles, and, of course, the mantas, were seen on many of the dives.
At day's end, editing was easy. Each room at Manta Ray is equipped with a large desk area with multiple power outlets. It was a simple matter to plug in a laptop, an auxiliary drive and download and edit. We used special treasures. RaJ Critter Hunt runs from
Wednesday to Wednesday for four consecutive weeks next June thru July, 2005. Check out the MRBH Website (www.mantaray.com) for details.
experiment by the Acker-Smith team and Manta Ray guests. The next hunt has a search for lacey scorpionfish and Micronesia's new pygmy seahorse species high on the list. Whatever the outcome, it will be a month of special diving that will certainly allow Micronesia's Yap to reveal a few more of its
Photoshop CS to work on the keepers that couldn't wait until we got home. That instant gratification of digital is a real plus and also allowed us to get a good look at the rare creatures we photographed that day to help i.d. the inverts and fish.
In all, it was a rewarding
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