The Squidboy

Swimming against the tide...

More mountains, heart-shaped padlocks, bubble-lifts
Correspondents are already raving about the mountainscape shots, but I could do far better under different conditions. One thing that was difficult to capture was the multiplicity of mountain-ranges: you might see a dim image in the background but in reality, the effect was that of possible infinity: an extension of mountains on a planet composed on nothing but.

This gives you an idea of the multiple ranges.

In any case, the view in-situ was extraordinary: the combination of spectacular rock formations and forest growing wherever it can) often, it seemed, out of sheer rock) was unlike anything I've ever seen.

I understand now why tourists put up with masses of fellow tourists to check this stuff out. Decades ago, there wasn't much in the way of domestic China travel, but now, middle-class Chinese can take the family to a resort hotel and on an outing to someplace this intriguing. The concept is growing on me...

Towards the end of the trip, we got to the railings festooned with padlocks (some heart-shaped).

The padlocks are bought by couples who then "lock" their relationship upon the mountain. I guess if you divorce after something like that, you both turn into blue three-meter beings with pointy ears.

Also, the "bridge" which is a rock formation where the ends almost touch, it's been bridged by a metal bridge. The light was shooting almost vertically though the gap and the effect on the panoply of greenery and granite was worth every sweaty step of the last five hours. Maybe Cameron will return with his 3-D cameras and shoot a documentary on this place...

Descent from the mountain was effected by a 300-meter "bubble-lift" made of clear Plexiglass and built on the outside of a mountain-shaft. Here's what it looks like from the bottom:

Got back just in time to scrape up the end of the buffet dinner, but getting enough to eat was critical: we were all running on fumes. Off to bed.

DAY 4:
Getaway day, but regrettably, it began with an 04:30 wakeup. Ugh. Grabbed my bag and got on the bus, the sun was starting to lighten the sky as we reached the airport. Puddle jump to Changsha, but our original flight to Hong Kong had been cancelled, so we got a flight to Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone just north, and hopped a bus to the new Shenzhen West Immigration checkpoint: the line of mainlanders hoping to enter HK was a Great Wall, but we all had Hong Kong's ID cards with embedded chips, so used the e-channel (card + thumbprint = instant entry) and got on another bus to the massive Kowloon "Elements" mall, where I could take a quick MTR ride back home, where I promptly spent the afternoon sleeping.

Great trip. Here's some more shots from the end, where we waiting for a bus to take us back to the hotel. The characters are carved into the rock and painted.

Jude was asking about camera/lenses, so here's a non-zoom shot showing where I was standing when I got that "CuteGirl" shot in the first post. You can see her standing behind her somewhat-more-aggressive competitor in the roasted-chestnut-sweepstakes...

And yes Tim, those are cable cars (in Japan, the official term is "Ropeway"...):

Big bronze statue of some badass Chinese dude. Absolutely roasting and light everywhere, no way to get other than a silhouette...

And a few more shots because...why not?

The mountains of Zhangjaijie, Hunan
Breakfast. Nap. Lunch. OK to go.

Our group masses in the hotel lobby. On the roof are giant wooden slabs carved with Chinese calligraphy.

Compatriots ready to GO.

It was 38 degrees yesterday, the same today, plus haze and humidity. But when you get chances like this, you don't pass them up.

Let's GO!!

On the bus we squeeze, mountainscape in background:

And upon arriving at the welcoming pagoda, we meet our tour guide. The whole afternoon would be following the guide and her fellow guides.

First, we go through the turnstiles, which required a touch-card ticket and a thumbprint.

Once through those, a covered walkway keeps the hordes in order.

Start of the walkway.

Compatriots ready for the trek.

An "Avatar" sign reminds you that these are indeed THE mountains used for the film. My coworkers tell me there are other mountain ranges in China that make the same claim. My take? It's all good.

We're making progress up this staircase/walkway and while we're out of the sun, we're plenty sweaty. Then the guide gives us all tickets...

Gots me a ticket, oh YEAH!

once we climb further we find out what the ticket is for...

Cable car! YESSSSS!!

I love cable cars and this one rips straightaway past some excellent scenery:

Once we exit we pass a group of entrepreneurs selling nothing but roasted chestnuts. A dozen women yelling and shoving chestnuts in our faces:

A few of the savvier ones enlisted their offspring, and I got lucky with this shot:

She just hit that pose, I was 20-meters away and the Canon flash filled in the details. Where does this kid rate on the Cute-O-Meter? Off the scale, I say. I gave her a one Yuan note (that's about US$0.15, Mr Geithner) and she seemed perplexed that I didn't want any chestnuts in return. Foreign devils are strange, but I did say "sheh sheh nie" ("thank you").

We continue across the trail which took us across the forested edge of mountains to gaze at (and photograph) other mountains and rock formations. For hours.

It was arduous, rushed, sweaty, confusing at times, and utterly worth it. I'd recommend this place to anyone, but go in the autumn: the amount of forest begs for blazing colors.

Conditions for fotos less than ideal: few clouds and a morning tour would prove better for most locales. Did the best I could, here are some samples (I shot over 400 fotos, and a few videos):

Plenty left, more next time! Comments welcomed...

Stefan goes to Western Hunan Province
No vendor trips this year, not to the usual destinations (Vegas, San Frisco) or unusual destinations or any destinations. Got out of Hong Kong a couple of times—most notably to Macau where we did a roundtable discussion in early July. But while last year was notable for a shortage of such trips, this year featured various junkets which regrettably I was unable to attend. Too busy: Hong Kong Syndrome.

So when I was greenlighted for a trip to China, fabuki. I'm there. A prosaic destination like Beijing or Shanghai? Nah...i scored a dual-entry visa (they're pricey) and new pages in my passport (formerly free, they're now pricey the US govt going broke or something?).

Up before 0800 in rainy Hong Kong, taxis are not in sight, I take a crowded MTR train to the Airport Express station. Fly to Changsha Airport in Hunan Province and meet my one Hong Kong journo compatriot and the PR rep. The airport is fairly new but small—they're already constructing a new terminal.

Journo-pal needs a Net connection, so we hang at one of the local eateries, which lets In some of the facility's underpowered air-con. They set up a large fan, which helps cool us off and keeps some of the cigarette smoke at bay. Not everyone is smoking, but it's often disgusting: between the one-child policy and the millions who die annually from smoking-related diseases, China seem determined to put a dent in its gargantuan population.

Fortunately, the free Wi-Fi at this place is fast, and I've got something I need to write and send out now, so I get that done. After that, time to cruise the airport as pal spends more time on the Net connection. Although I'm used to eccentric gift items, the souvenir shops at Changsha Airport have some of the more bizarre retail gift-items I've ever seen

Some of the food-packs have forearm-size pieces of meat/fish/pork-belly preserved...somehow. Some of the food I can't recognize AT ALL. Things I can recognize, like large jars of small fish preserved in chili oil, seem more Hannibal-Lecter than airport-gift-shop. Ironically, the walls are lined with lovely ceramic tea sets and bamboo tea containers—things you'd buy for relatives in North America and Europe that would delight them. Between these two extremes: chewing gum, candy bars and most importantly, bottled water.

The airport's other facilities are foot-massage places and VIP lounges reserved for, get this, bank VIPs. I guess if you have a super-phat account with one of China's big banks, you can hang out in these lounges. Maybe if you were a senior exec with, oh, an AIRLINE, you would...have a super-phat account with one of those banks.

We spend hours in this pokey airport. I didn't get a foot-massage as the two people I was with weren't interested. I did eat some interesting noodles, drank coffee and fruit juice, sweated and mostly tried to stay interested. At some point we found out our flight was delayed, perfect.

At the Zhangjiajie Airport, our group is put on a bus for a "half-hour" ride which lasts more like an hour, cruising along a rural highway not unlike Wisconsin. Small roadside stands sell whole watermelons. A few roadside places made of wood sport red lanterns and look like kung fu movie sets, as we trundle by. Finally we're at the hotel, which has a triple-height lobby and is surprisingly tasteful—less so are the greeter-staff uniforms: the men wear white cowboy hats while the women wear uniforms from one of China's many ethnic tribes.

They're impressive but as we're late, we're told that if we want to eat dinner we need to do so NOW as the restaurant is about to close. So, I spent the entire day getting to some place in Western Hunan Province to rush for the tail-end of a hotel buffet. The "glamorous life of international tech journalism" needs a mascot: a sarcastic imp with a watermelon-belly and a grating, sawtooth laugh.

Those unaccustomed to a mainland buffet will be bemused, I've faced a few and some were designed by that fiendish imp. Go to a Shangri-La Hotel (they've got them in Beijing and ShanghaiHotel and the buffets are heaven. Other places, you take your chances. In Hunan, even the dishes that don't look spicy can take your head off. I made it through a decent amount before giving up, sweat-glands and sinuses torture-tested. Got some fruit and what-not to put the fire out, then went to my room, which required a 200-meter walk organized impromptu by an energetic young employee. Simple really: walk over a couple of outdoor bridges to an obscure elevator, take the third floor and walk 100 meters past rooms marked "35xx" until suddenly the "15xx" rooms appear.

The central air-con is weak, and I'm still sweating as I unpack. Jump in the shower and wash off the day's dust. The room is nice, and considering I'm in the center of a continent where the weather is usually chilly-to-frozen, I can deal with the weak air-con. The cable TV is amazing: 61 channels in Mandarin and one channel (CCTV9) in English.

Sleep fairly decently and next day, time for a whole lotta tech-speak...

DAY 2:
Lotta techspeak. Afternoon ends with a small group interview with some senior execs from the States. As is often the case, a half hour of content trumps most of the keynotes and announcements that took up the entire morning.

But the top guy said it during his keynote: "When in China, anytime you have a chance to attend a 'gala dinner', don't pass it up." So promptly at 18:30, we went to the main hall for said event. However, we got some of the last remaining seats, at the side of the stage, so while I only have a few shots of the entertainment, there were acrobats and kung fu kids and a fire guy and a guy putting a sword against his bare back while his assistant struck it with a thick bamboo pole until the pole broke and dancers and singers and silly audience-participation poetry-reading contests and nonstop Hunan fun. I just was in no position to snap much in the way of fotos, although ironically a cohort got a shot of me onstage getting ready to rip the sifu into four pieces (we failed).

The theme was based around "Avatar" as the mountains of Zhangjiajie were used in the film—Cameron just CGIed off the bottoms and made them the "Floating Mountains of Pandora." This meant the staff wore one piece blue costumes and blue pointy ear things.

And are they not CUTE?!?

The hill tribe costumes were still on and guests were offered a bowl of rice whiskey prior to entry. It smells like paint thinner and I don't drink alcohol but it was a nice gesture.

Hotpots were set up and simmering on the table...This one in front with the pork balls and vegetable was very tasty. I didn't try the soup in the white tureen...other small dishes had various appetizer-things, at bottom left is an array of sliced pear in red marinade, tasty.

The jug wrapped in burlap contains more paint-thinner for those who prefer getting batfaced to dealing with the food. Guess the meat in the steel hotpot, go ahead.

Yes, it's frog. Not much meat on those little critters, but this wasn't bad: whole cooked garlic cloves and onion-variants, interesting sauce.

This beef dish look spicy to you? One bite and you'd be yelling "HuuuuuuuuuuuuNAN!"

The ol' chicken feet...I like the Cantonese ones cooked in orange-colored sauce, but the plain white ones make me, chicken feet.

We obviously didn't have enough meat/chili things so they brought pig's trotters. Gelatinous, piggy, not bad at all. But what's that thing at left?

Shrimp and squid cooked with celery and melon balls and served in a carved melon-half. It was kinda Canto-style, and yummy.

Oh yeah, give me a roast pigeon and I'm happy. Gamey, highly seasoned. A couple of places in Hong Kong are famous for roast pigeon and some people like to suck out the brain (they slice off the back of the head for easier access). So of course I'm daring my companions to snaffle up pigeon-brain, but they declined, the wimps.

These were great: sticky rice packed around pork ribs and steamed.

Entertainment time! Myself, kung fu kids and audience-members prepare to get medieval on this dude.

The fire-guy: he was entertaining, but seated to the side with microphone stand in front, shooting directly into bright blue Avatar-style spotlights, this was the only shot even close to decent. He was sticking the blazing torches inside his shorts and stuff.

End of the feast: the fish in foreground was superb. Can't remember what all else we ate, but as we left the dining hall...

...we are STILL cute!!

Tomorrow: the mountains!

Day Whatever
2009 scuba
Woke up feeling fine. By now the pattern's clear: climb into the boat, motor out to the reef for a wall dive. Only thing that changes is the visibility and currents...the sealife is excellent though. Check the pix:

One side...

...the other side (of the island/reef).

A pair of spiny lobsters safely tucked into a ledge. Everything wants to eat these tasty guys, so they hide during the day, poking out their crazy-long antennae. If their gorgeous blue legs give you a "spider-vibe," remember that they're any case, they're part of the reef's ecosystem so you leave 'em be.

Another cute-fish-and-anemone symbiotic relationship.

Did all five dives today. It's a lot, especially given the sensory stimulation. As we return from one dive we're accompanied by a school of dolphins (porpoises) zooming alongside, leaping out singly, in synchronicities of three, etc etc. First time this has happened to me but it's as enchanting as everyone says it is. Pure magic. They're sleek, playful, sculpted gray hardshell streamliners. They clearly enjoy our company and sporting with us as we motor back to the mothership.

The Korean/Filipino guy with the underwater vidcam did capture video of these magnificent beasts, but as his camera was white-balanced for The Deep, it's basically a "red-and-white" video (the machine was compensating for lack of red underwater, while of course it was being used above water). It needs editing but it's a gas to watch--maybe someday once I learn digital video-editing software I'll try to stitch together some highlights.

A seafan: these are living coral and can be big enough to hide behind. I love how the flash shows its venous structure in orange and white.

A much smaller seafan in yellow & black splendor perches on a lump of colorful coral with the Blue Abyss as backdrop at left.

That turtle is still out there somewhere...

You rarely get a chance to get two divers silhouetted against the late-afternoon sun...I love this shot.

The night dive would have been relatively dull except for a sea snake unconcerned with our presence (stunning, I've never been that close, but don't bring a camera on night dives) and a very large and active lobster. The Korean guys I was with told me on the boat they didn't know lobsters could go into jet-propulsion overdrive, of course the crustacean went into hyperdrive once it viewed us as predatory. I wish I'd brought the camera and shot in video-mode...20/20 hindsight is never fun, is it? Cameras on night-dives mean you have no free hands as one holds the underwater-torch (can't see much without light) and the other the camera. Still, I've never been so close to a sea snake and watched it hunt...I was close enough to see its facial markings (black/yellow, the body has silver and black bands).

Another excellent dinner, and a decent night's sleep.

There are more fotos and such, open for comments...

Day Two
I sleep OK and the bell dings at 0600. We're treated to some comestibles (coffee and a banana) before going onto the "chase-boat": solid, holds about a dozen people plus equipment for about eight divers. First dive is always about checking gear, rental/new/otherwise, but we follow a one-meter reef shark across the coral, swim with a hawksbill turtle and see an eagle ray cross the perimeter, along with a school of barracuda in a rectangle (usually they cruise the way they're shaped: in a long thin group ready to snarf up any unlucky small fish. I didn't bring my camera as this is my first outing with the Canon G10 and its brand-new housing, it's a bit of a learning curve on that, but not too different from the previous Canon. Also wanted to test the rental fins, new weight belt (I finally got one with pouches for the weights, an improvement) and my new mouthpiece.
The mouthpiece is made by a company called Seacure ( and I highly recommend it. They're not expensive, which is a relief as scuba gear can have silly prices. You basically dip it in boiled water for 25 seconds, shake off excess water and bite down on it. The thing molds itself to your teeth. You can repeat the process if you have dental work done later. It fits great as you'd expect, and you're holding the mouthpiece with rear teeth while diving so it's much more comfy.
Back for real breakfast, then out to Apo Reef proper, which is 20-25 minutes in the chase-boat, out in the sun. ALL the dives at Apo Reef are wall-dives: you plunge into the drink, get your bearings and head off into the abyss. And we dive as a group. Currents vary, but essentially you're pushed along a lovely wall of soft corals, with the occasional big fish, seafan, huge weird white sponge or whatever for extra amusement.
A bit more on Day 1 later but here's some underwater pix:

One of the Korean divers had this high-definition underwater camera setup with LED-lights on armatures, quite the rig. That's the orientation for wall-diving, most of the closeups of marine life were shot by swimming along the wall looking for stuff.

 For example: the biggest lionfish I've even seen (15 cm long, or thereabouts). The fish is totally chilled, because it's in prime defensive posture: those picturesque spines are loaded with venom, and no predator would try take a bit outta this guy. At about 25 meters, I saw no color: it appeared black and white, but lit with flash and color-corrected on the computer, its stripes emerge... 

The surreal white thing at left is a sponge, the most ancient form of life, I've heard. They do nothing but sit there and filter plankton. At right is a damselfish, but I used to think of them as "lemonfish" for obvious reasons. Maybe..."lemon muffin" would be a cuter name...all that color is why you use a camera-flash at these depths.

Oh yes, and here's another reason.

Dives 3 and 4 are much the same: fabulous. Someone notes that my neckline above the wetsuit is cherrying up (the sun is FIERCE, one of our dive guys wore a cloth totally covering his head, with sunglasses, a freaky-yet-cool look). As the night dive is set shortly after our return ("don't take off your wetsuit" says Gordo), I take off my wetsuit. I want to shower, download fotos and moisturize my sunbaked skin (later I'm told the night dive was "bland"...they often are, frankly, but I'll do one tomorrow).

Dinner is excellent fish, lasagna, and a couple of kinds of salad. A bit more banter and everyone's headed for bed by 2100. That's a liveaboard for you: night-time is for "off-gassing" the nitrogen that the body stores from breathing all that compressed air and naturally dissipates.

I'm forgetting something...oh yes, the turtle! This isn't the first time I've swum with a sea turtle, hopefully it won't be the last. I like 'em, they've got personality.

Off to bed myself to await the 0600 bell...

(no subject)
"You're doomed," said Andrew, part of the mini-UN microcosm aboard the Borneo Explorer, pulling out a bright yellow tube of Vegemite. Of course I'm doomed, I'm in the Philippines! Before the tour had ended I'd enjoyed an excellent V'mite sandwich and came to appreciate the Philippines as never before.

First time here since 1994, when I experienced out-of-season typhoons, scuba-dived through Japanese wrecks off Coron Island and ate some of the worst food in Asia. This trip was organized by Captain Smithers, rogue member of a Hong Kong scuba-duba organization and I was fortunate enough to be invited along.

Like most of these live-aboard trips, no more than 2-3 individuals come from the same country. We've got a pair of Finns, coupla Aussies, another American, assorted Brits, Filipino divers, and at least one Korean. And it must be said: the Philippines has greatly improved its infrastructure, the people are fun and friendly and while this was a far more structured trip, I had a wonderful time. So, here's what happened (with minimal editing):

Arrived yesterday via waaaaay-too-early flight, but they stuck me in biz class which was nice, and I got a minivan with the Hong Kong contingent. Was dozing on the van-ride in but spotted a few only-in-Los-Pinos signs: Among a money-changer's offerings: "demonetized money." A nearby pharmacy sold "non-acidic Vitamin C." And of course jeepneys clog the nice new asphalt highways (if you don't know what a jeepney is, Wiki-whack it--it's worth it) with pictures of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo wearing a spotless white hard hat. Favorite jeepney name: "Cyber Tooth." Many runners-up...

I wake up as we head into a Starbucks in a highway-truck-stop area. All Starbucks are alike, but I can use a coffee. It keeps me alert as we turn into a tiny two-lane road, obviously we're close.

Wrong. We drive for half-an-hour down this small road past jeepney/ trucks/pedestrians/stores/who knows what. Huge signs for "The University of Perpetual Help." And election signs for local politicians in who've adopted the hard-hat look: "The full-time governor," reads one. Well that's a hell of a slogan. The pols have names like Sanchez, Ermita and Roxas.

Then we turn onto a larger highway that continues past fields and's another 20 minutes or so until we get to a curve where there are signs for scuba-resorts, a few sporting Korean Hangul script. OK, we're getting close.

Amazingly, as we round a bend an astonishing clear blue bay appears in the distance, and yes, that's where we're heading. As we park the van, a set of concrete/stone stairs lead down to the resort we've booked. We must walk down this distinctly wild trail--my compatriots left their heavy scuba gear in the van, I took my main bag down, into immediate drama: the staff claims the rooms we paid for are occupied...fortunately the Captain's companion, a no-nonsense Hong Konger, was not about to leave it unsorted. Anyway, I got my room: a dowdy run-down but OK-enough beach room.

The view right outside my door is stellar.

It turns out we're sailing off the next night, so I use the time to catch up on sleep, relax, admire the views and eat a not-atypical Filipino brekk:

OK we've a spam variety, an egg, garlic rice and corned beef hash. The coffee was excellent!

Food's not the strong point but it really is gorgeous here.
Not too hot or humid, and a nice breeze as well. Next day it's time to gear up (I need to rent fins and a BCD: the vest you can inflate that holds your compressed-air tank, the "octopus" with four hoses tapping into your tank gauges/main regulator ya breathe out of/spare regulator) and head out to our ship: the Borneo Explorer (

The obligatory sunset shot as we head out to the dive boat.

I'm rooming with a pleasant Aussie named Rob, he takes the upper bunk while I have a nice double-bed. Dinner and dive-boat briefing from our friendly divemaster Gordos. After that, we hit the top deck and I do some writing while some of my fellow aquanauts swap stories. None of this lasts long as we're all going to bed early in preparation for the 6:00 wakeup bell (literally: they walk up and down the hallways ringing a bell).

The diveboat guys are pretty chilled. "When your hair is wet, it's time to eat," says Gordos, "When your hair is dry, it's time to dive."

OK, the dive-fotos you've been waiting for are not in sequence, but here's just a taste of what I experienced in three days diving off a coral wall at Apo Reef...

Turtles are wonderful: they swim along you and look you in the eye. I wish I could capture that moment, but this was the best I could do...once the other divers catch up with their cameras, the critter just wants to swim along and do what it does best: eat stuff. The dappled sunlight indicates we're still on the flat at a depth of about five meters: most of our dives were over the edge and along the wall, oh yeah.

Heading past huge coralhead toward The Abyss.

Following Gordos!

Stay tuned...more to come, believe it.

Stefan Hammond
Hong Kong, March 2010

end-of-scuba-for-now: back on dry land
Had one more full day in Phuket to rest up and let the scuba gear dry. Logged onto the hotel Wi-Fi during breakfast and instant-messaged a few friends/colleagues. Went out for essential shopping: topped up the Thai SIM card with cash (now that it lets me receive data its usefulness increases), bought snacks for office-colleagues and snapped some more fotos of the new Singapore-style mall, JungCeylon.

Oh yeah it flash, it real real flash, bling bling bling.

Despite the tourist-downturn the mall is popular. Fortunately for me the mall has an enormous Carrefour outlet with lots of interesting snackage: Thai-tourist-boxed chocolates (nice pix of the Grand Palace on the box), bags of local peanuts/sesame candy and dried jackfruit which is damn good.

You can tell it's Chinese New Year from this array of yellow/red/gilded plastic stuff and stuff.

JungCeylon = games + food + shopping. They have a bowling alley...

This giant bowling pin is a dead giveaway.

But in case you miss the hint, here's a massive banner advertising the bombardment of hapless pins with heavy spheres.

Gun range (paintball-splat or live-ammo)...bang bang bling bling.

Mega Force Gun Simulator. I like the mall reflections at left.

They have a cineplex. And escalators.

And did I mention it was Chinese New Year?

The Sino Phuket walkway,
lined with coffeeshops/restaurants/shops...

The "Cash Cow"  banner: a triple-entendre of Chinese astrology, wishful thinking and Western slang.

Stroll on in.

And here's another killer English shop name.

JungCeylon is chockfull of those carts found in Thai malls selling Hello Kitty kitsch or sunglasses or whatever. Seems the Eurozone is getting serious about busting people found with counterfeit goods back home, so if you get popped in Switzerland for a 199 baht Fakeucci trinket, don't come crying to me.

Relax back at the hotel and head out for another Thai massage ("you want strong, medium, or..." "STRONG!" They get it...).

Wander Patong Beach..

Of course they're big on big iced seafood here. Prawns the size of kittens.

Lobsters...may put a dent in your mortgage payments.

The "no insurance" jetskis: don't rent these things. They put just enough gas to let you get out half-a-klick then come out and "rescue" expensive stunt. For you.

One palm tree silhouette shot...shame about the giant concrete seahorse.

A branch of Coyotes "Mexican" food...we have an outlet in Hong Kong, and as it's above a branch of Watsons (a chain owned by HK tycoon Li Kashing), maybe this is the "Hong Kong block"...

I grab more street food: a Muslim woman sells me grilled chicken on a stick, the sort of thing made with pork all over central Thailand, along with a pack of sticky rice: it's even better than the pork-variety. Some noodles and a coconut-dessert-thing, Pack up most of my gear, gotta shower and get up early to get to the airport, a 50-minute drive from here.

Phuket still not my favorite place in Thailand. It takes 3 hours to get to the pier and an hour to the airport, creating a cabal of gypsy-cabs: the van-guy told me they pay 2,000 baht monthly to the gendarmes for the privilege of overcharging Europeans-without-shirts.

That said, it's close to some of Southeast Asia's best winter divesites.

It's not easy to time these trips, but while I'd dive the Black Manta again (in the same spots, oh yes I would), it'd be good to arrive at the airport and go straight to the boat. You can't fly right after diving though: need about a day for the nitrogen-levels in your blood to dissipate. There's always something.

Scuba 09: Final Dive-day
Our last day of diving kicked off at 0715 at the Hin Kong pinnacle. Pinnacles rise up from the ocean floor and maintain ecosystems of coral/fish.

This sounds prosaic, but pinnacle-dives are magic. You can get in close for macro-photography, although my simplistic underwater digicam has a straight-on flash so sediment particles in the water reflect as white blobs (better rigs have flash-units at angles, sticking out on metal arms).

To avoid this, either I shot without flash or got in damn close, which given buoyancy/topography/currents and of course the fact that my viewfinder had given up, isn't the simplest task. The fish often think you're a predator and attempt to flee or hide. If they were models, I'd fire the lot of 'em...well, not the morays, they usually stay put (although they are stunning when they swim: eel-like undulation). And of course the corals are stationary, so if you can stay still and check things out there's often some good shots to be had.

I've already posted most of the primo pinnacle shots (check the previous entries) so here's some onboard stuff:

From the scuba deck steaming past an island—the big green cylinders hold nitrox, an enrichedair mix popular with fundivers of late.

Those are three of our hotshots diving from the top sundeck into the's great to be young, heh heh.

Frogman tattoo on one of the Bangalore Boyz: design drawn by his son. The red/whitestripe background is the internationally known scuba flag.

A coupla other boats, island, sea.

So that was the first dive, up for breakfast (bacon is what fuels scuba-divers!) and then back down at 1100 for the final dive of the trip: the Boonsung wreck. It wass a tin-dredger (likely being towed somewhere) which sank in a politely shallow 14-18 meters of water about 20 yrs back. It was all in one piece until the tsunami of 2004: the waves picked it up and disassembled it into large components (ironically, making it a more interesting site).

Chris with the dive plan meticulously choreographed on the whiteboard.

Divers gear up as David gives me an impish look.

Calm down ladies: it's Dilip from Bangalore, sure to be the next Bollywood sensation?

Dilip again...white socks and fins...tres chic.

Owen making sure the Big FishWithoutGills are all set to leap off one last time.

The wreck...all I can say is: baby moray farm. I saw at least five, including one that swam straight up at me (it was in a wreck-compartment and wanted to get over to the next one, they swim to find a better hiding place).

I got a macro-shot of this cute black/white honeycomb moray, a baby one who'd found a niche in the wreck and was posing for foto-ops.

Aha, another moray. Now, open your mouth and look FIERCE! Give me your war face!

You don’t scare me! Work on it!!

A nudibranch: these tiny critters are beloved by divemasters. There are many varieties and they are cute little guys, just a few centimeters long.

The wreck is home to yet another fishblizzard.

Visibility was limited, otherwise the huge encrusted gears and other industrial stuff would make some choice fotos.

Once we get back onboard the dive-boat becomes a scramble as everyone's rinsing down their own gear and packing it away: I get the baby shampoo and give my wetsuit a wash. Then it's time to eat lunch/exchange cards and email addresses/grab last-dive fotos (thumb-drives are essential) and of course check out of our "hotel rooms": the cabins where none of us have gotten quite enough sleep, but have been commodious enough (some of the boat crew slept on the top deck, some of the guests too for all I know).

The crew set up the rental BCDs and octopus-rigs on tanks for the next batch of divers. I like these shots: a forlorn array of modern faux-samurai armor...

The scramble of packing, saying goodbye and settling bills keeps us all busy, and then we wait in the blazing midday sun for the minivans to be sorted. I snap a few fotoz...

Diveboat for sale.

If you do buy the boat, puhLEEZE do the world a favor and paint over this depiction of a fish cuz it is ugh-a-LEE.

A few of my diving-homies wave bye-bye, see you next time, the fish will be happy to see us again!

Once I'm in the front seat of the minivan back to Phuket, I'm dozing...most of the way into town. Back to the hotel in relatively good shape—i.e. my "land legs" return fairly quickly. Went to a local massage place for a powerful Thai massage to help press the nitrogen outta my tissues. Keeping it simple: an air-conditioned look-over the massive image-database I've acquired and a good night's sleep.

- A 50/50 mix of white vinegar and rubbing alcohol is supposed to be useful: a drop or two in each ear prior to dives wards off potential ear infections. I mixed up a small bottle and used it as a prophylaxis, as your ears are constantly under pressure when undersea. I didn't get any ear infections, then again, I've never had any ear probs related to scuba diving.

- I have been told since I was a tiny tot that human saliva is the best anti-fogging agent available. You spit in your mask and rinse it out a bit. But on this trip people would use a squirt of baby shampoo, and rinse it furiously with the fresh-water hose. I found the shampoo a great help in keeping the mask fog-free. You want the mild stuff—don't drench your mask with antibacterial-strength cleanser. Baby shampoo, it works.

- You can fit up to three baby moray eels in a single coral-hole.

- My fins wanted a divorce. Well, actually it was me that wanted the split: I got them years back, on sale, and while they work fine, they're too big/heavy/stupid to haul around. I donated them to the diveboat. Will get some new ones, smarter ones, maybe neon orange or green.

To complete the sequence, the last entry will have fotos of the area I stayed in, wacky signs and semiotics, minimalist culture thereof. And of course the JungCeylon mall...

Skooba: yr doin it rite.
NOTE: If this lingo throws you for a loop, it's "LOLcat-speak."

English is a dynamic language with wondrous resiliency: it's difficult to break. Can write, maybe you no read good, but you OK no problem. Language work even broken, good, OK.

So..."LOL" means "laugh(ing) out loud," which u type as shorthand to indicate that something is so funny it makes you LOL—when conversing via text, it's useful. As cats are often hilarious, they can make ppl LOL.

But, being cats, their literacy is subpar. Thus, "LOLcat-speak" is by nature incorrect, but also a mythical subliteracy spawned by cat mentality and text/Net shorthand. It's an Internet meme, but if u fire up may well find yrself LOLing.

And you may be able to comprehend the following captions. I shall now spindle and mutilate the Queen's English, whilst she amuses herself with her corgis or watches mixed-martial-arts marathons on her giant-screen teevee.

Self Contaynd Unnerwatter Breevn Apparattis. I has it. But, lookz kinda scairt...dun worry, jus foolin around.

Lookz like hokki puk but is "regyulayter" so no smiles, sorri bout dat. But...I lookz kul.

"Ohai!" sez da bloo starrfish.

Diz stoopid table, won't even hold da fish, too many holez innit.

Oh, a rare bubblhead diverfish!

Minimalizm. Yr doing it rite.

Dere is traffik jam wid all dese diverz swimmn aroun, where da fish.

I has a safety stop at five meeterz but I lookz kinda dorkki.

Aki, kwit dribbln water an makn me laff, where is dat boat.

No srsly where is da boat. We is wavn an stuff.


Reeln in da skubafish reel fast, heh heh, k thx bai.

Scuba 09: Part 5
Another boat-bunk-night: slept well with intense dreams: only one I remember was hanging out with Mike Wilkins and deciding to see a film which required that we find the correct train platform, in a sort-of cinema-train-station, thus combining two of my recurring dream-themes: imaginary cinemas and travel-plans that I screw up.

Our ecosystem is, inevitably, divvying up into subgroups. At meals I enjoy the company of the Israeli couple and Eri, our minivan-symbiosis put us together as we're in separate dive groups—glad I yakked like a maniac throughout the van ride. In our dive group, divemaster Chris has me, an American/Brit couple who live in Hong Kong (David and Marsha), and a tall Frenchman who's training to become a divemaster—Bernard—and his teenage son, Eloi, whose enthusiasm for scuba is nonpareil.

The Indian group hangs/eats/smokes cigs/dives together, and the others, a mix of Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, an Austrian couple and dunno who all else, are on my periphery. Free-agents: Joshua, an expat American who's with the Bangalore Boyz but loves to chat when he's not tweaking his enormous underwater cam-rig, and my roomie Greg, who was beset by head-pain yesterday, a sinus headache that worsened with depth. He went diving this morning but is now sacked-out, I'm letting the poor guy get some rest and hanging out on the main deck (fortunately, a bit of rest was what Greg needed and he was back with us later that evening).

Josh being silly with his pantaloons...seems everyone's gone a bit manta-lolo...

Ready to rock at 0630: coffee and a banana to jack in some potassium, and some serious leg-stretches to ward off cramps. Richelieu Rock, so-named by Jacques Cousteau as its purple corals reminded him of the nobleman's purple robe. All new territory for me and this one's a killer: no currents so I get in some macro shots of purple/red corals, myriad fish, wild anemone/fish combos and a pair of cuttlefish so chilled-out I could not fluster them even when flashing them with the Canon from a few centimeters distance. All the sealife here was remarkably unskittish.

Great for fotos, although I missed the cute l'il seahorse (OK, you try standing on your head and aiming a box at a tiny little critter 23 meters under and see how you do). Underwater photography isn't an exact science but I had a few moments to check the shots (most of my photos haven't been viewed yet) and there's some cherry stuff in the box.

Check. 'Em. Out:

Yeah. Catch yer breath and let's get minimal...

OK, now for some cuttlefish shots.

The last it was sitting for a portrait.

And now here's Chris looking like he's sticking outta a rock pinnacle...

Now...can you spot the fish?

Have a closer look...

I tweaked the color/contrast, they camo well down there, but this is a scorpionfish and not something you want to touch! Some creatures uglier'n others...

I love these yellow fish, found out their proper name: the Lemon Damsel:

This coral was everywhere, and it's stunning, looks floral:

Mad color, look at this mix:

When overstimulated, stare at yer fins, heh heh.

OK, time to go back to the Land of Air.

Barnard and Eloi approach the surface, forming an intriguing silhouette...

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