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As we swam out to the reef, navigating by moonlight, Vickie held my hand tightly. Feeling her tremble, I squeezed back in reassurance. When we reached the reef and began to play our lights along the corals, sponges, and gorgonians, the beauty of Cocoview Wall shone forth. Against the surrounding blackness, the brilliant colors were strikingly apparent. Azure vase sponges shimmered iridescent against the night and the red sponge, which appears black in daylight, glowed a rich crimson. Large banded coral shrimp waved their claws while tiny red shrimp darted from perch to perch almost faster than our eyes could follow. We came upon a free swimming moray eel, then a large crab who, oblivious to our intrusion, continued to dine upon his algae salad garden. Further along we encountered a small octopus hunting for his dinner. Under the scrutiny of our lights it changed color from turquoise to white to red, and then with a final puff of ink disappeared into a crevice in the reef. By now, Vickie was relaxed, swimming hand in hand with her husband, fascinated with each new wonder as we cruised along the nocturnal reef.
When Vickie's air was down to 1500 psi, we turned around and began to drift with the gentle current back to our entry point. Directing my light towards the surface, I saw that it had begun to rain and was struck with that strange feeling of being glad I was underwater so I wouldn't get wet. As we rounded a huge promontory of coral, I saw motion at the far reaches of my light's beam. Could I believe my own eyes? Yes, something big was moving towards us through the darkness, appearing huge against the blackness of open water. As it swam closer, the clear silhouette of a shark materialized from the gloom, at least six feet long, and heading right for us. Experience has taught me to treat sharks as one would a large, strange dog. The best tact is to meet them head on; running away is just an invitation to be chased. Confronted by this resolve, a shark will most always turn tail and quickly depart the scene. With this concept in mind I swam forward, but as if in a game of chicken, the shark, apparently blinded by our lights, blundered forward, heading straight towards me. With no other choice available, I extended my arm forward, using my dive light as a billy. Just as we were about to collide, the shark turned sharply to its left, and as we looked on in amazement, promptly crashed head first into the reef. Dazed for a moment, it shook its body violently, then turning away from the wall, swam swiftly past us, disappearing into the darkness.
From the massive cloud of bubbles that followed, we must all have exhaled a big sigh of relief together. Turning back to take inventory of my group, I spied Vickie with her body pressed against the reef. Her husband was holding her with both hands to keep her from zooming to the surface, and the look in her eyes was quite something to behold. As my own tension subsided, I thought back to the confidence of my pre-dive briefing and began to laugh uncontrollably, promptly causing my mask to flood. I cleared it, looked over at Vickie's impossibly wide eyes, and flooded it all over again. To compound matters, from all the flooding and clearing, Vickie assumed that I had been injured somehow in the fray. Her training took over, and forgetting her own fear, she swam forward to assist me. What an experience! What a woman! I flooded my mask all over again.
As we swam into the familiar shallows of Cocoview's front yard, a driving rain and whitecaps scudded across the surface. I was reminded of the t.v. commercial which admonished that, "You can't fool mother nature." King Neptune had certainly asserted himself this evening. In addition to a show of the sea's limitless force in wind and wave, we were treated to a face to face nocturnal view of one its most powerful creatures. I certainly hope that Vickie will continue night diving, though she'll have to take many a plunge before encountering another as exciting as this. Beginner's luck aside, she certainly had done well, and came away with what divers cherish most, major bragging rights and a heck of a good story to tell. What is more, all of us that night learned that even the most experienced scuba diver may quite appropriately expect the unexpected.
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Kicking for all I was worth, it quickly became clear that the mating pair would receive no courtesy from the bachelor turtles. Jaws gnashing, flippers thrashing, their clear intention was to dismount their lucky comrade and slip, none too discreetly, into his place. Disgruntled suitors bit at his rear flippers and tail, while another behemoth endeavored mightily to insinuate his head between the males belly and the females great curved carapace. Others, too excited to wait any longer, simply climbed on top, a heap of horny turtles stacked as many as four deep. This was getting rougher than a beer soaked singles bar on Saturday night, the testosterone charged males showing no quarter in a free-for-all battle for the affections of this apparently comely, 300 pound, turtle lass.
Bringing up the rear, I felt somewhat like a peeping tom at a sex show featuring sumo wrestlers, but that didn't stop me from flashing away with my strobe while swimming hard to keep up with this magnificent melee. The female seemed to be doing all the work, swimming the pair and all the hangers-on to the surface to breath while her paramour just held on for dear life despite the perilous assault on his hindquarters. At one point peer pressure was simply too great and the ball of turtles exploded, the mating pair driven violently asunder. Unseen in the ensuing confusion, the female swam off to the sidelines, presumably for a smoke, while the lust crazed males feverishly grappled to mount one another. For a moment, I feared for my own safety visualizing the headline, "Diving Paparazzi Crushed in Turtle Daisy Chain." Then one keen-eyed colossus recognized his love interest at the edge of visibility and off he flapped at top turtle speed, with the entire pack hot on his flippers.
How long could this torrid turtle passion carry on? Well, let me provide you with a clue. When both film and photographer were exhausted, I struggled back to the beach, pulled off my wetsuit, dried off, broke out another camera, strobe, and wide-angle lens, changed film, grabbed a drink, geared up again, and kicked back out to the reef...only to find the entire gang still at it, more ardent than ever. Duly impressed, I fired off another roll of film, following the action closely until one of the males finally tired of my prying eye and whacked me soundly in the chest with a solid left flipper. Clearly I had outworn my welcome. Reluctantly giving up the chase, I gazed longingly after the love stricken throng as they vanished into the indigo haze. Then, with 2,000 feet of living ocean beneath my fins, my head full of awe and wonder, I set a compass course for land while offering up an fervent prayer of thanks for such a rare glimpse into the raw passion of life in the heart of the bountiful sea.
Copyright © - Ken Knezick - Island Dreams
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On my most recent visit to Sipadan, I found one lionfish that had taken this intuitive process a giant step further, but this time while working nights. When photographers shuffled into the water for a beach night dive, this enterprising individual would swim over and wait patiently at our feet as we donned mask and fins. The symbiotic action began as soon as we submerged and turned on our lights. First the lionfish would pose dutifully for a portrait, offering us an appealing choice of profile, 3/4, or grinning head shot. Then, as the strobes recycled, he'd intentionally make use of our dive lights to gain himself an easy meal.
Most night divers have probably noted that the reef fish are disoriented, and temporarily blinded by our bright lights. This resourceful lionfish had learned to take advantage of their bewilderment to sneak up and swallow them whole. A menacing specter indeed, he'd hover directly above the prey with his feathery pectoral fins arrayed in a wide shield, then at just the right moment, swoop down and pick them off. Then, to complete the symbiosis, he'd come over and pose for another portrait.
This game continued nightly, until the photographers either ran out of film or swam off in search of other photo opportunities. When video cameras and their super bright lights were in evidence, this behavior quickly fast-forwarded to unbridled gluttony. By the end of the photo shoot, this wily lionfish was as round as he was long, with lumps bulging out of his tummy. My only worry was that this lionfish super model would go the way of Grand Cayman's famed giant green eel Waldo, who I firmly maintain expired due to overindulgence, after years of accepting choice tidbits from visiting divers. None the less, it's nice to know that in the natural sea, where everyone is someone's lunch, not only the strong, but the intelligent will persevere.
Copyright © - Ken Knezick - Island Dreams
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I'll let you in on a some secrets. First of all, you won't ride a manta ray while standing around on deck, lounging in your bunk reading a magazine, or in the galley eating seconds on lunch - you have to be in the water. To improve your chances, plan your dive to allow the maximum amount of safe bottom time, and don't spend all your dive with your head buried in the reef. Keep your eyes moving, continuously scanning the open water, above, below, and all around, as the big guys often approach from behind you. When not diving, spend some time in the water on snorkel, maintaining a watch off the stern of the boat. And when you do encounter the big one, remember that while you can chase a large pelagic, you never will catch one. Rather than scare it off with an aggressive approach, move slowly and swim parallel to its course, giving the creature time to become comfortable with you. If you simply stop and wait, chances are a manta ray will come back to you, frequently passing directly over head. At this point, with gloves removed, you might try to gently stroke its underside. Avoid touching the tail or wing tips. If this "foreplay" is accepted, you've made a friend for life. The ray will hang motionless in the water column and quiver with pleasure, then follow you around for the rest of the dive, apparently interested in the possibility of a long term relationship.
As for whale shark riding, I certainly do not consider myself an expert. I swam with a big one on snorkel last year, and photographed a small one on scuba last week. But yesterday I had my closest encounter yet. At dusk, my buddy Tom Parsons and I swam a compass course off the stern of the M.V. Fling, anchored at buoy six in the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary. We came to a place where the depth goes from sixty feet to well over one hundred and began swimming along this drop off at forty feet. Almost immediately we saw a large manta with two big remoras on its back. It glided quickly across our path moving effortlessly, seemingly oblivious to our scrutiny and all too quickly disappeared into the blue.
We continued our swim, heading into the light current. I was gazing down at a big coral head swarming with chromis and creole fish, when Tom grabbed my attention by shouting into his regulator. Turning, I looked directly into the face of a huge creature coming straight at us. The whale shark is the biggest fish in the sea, with a broad mouth adapted for scooping up plankton. As this one approached it looked as if it could swallow me whole, like Jonah. My fingers fumbled for the controls of my camera, opening the lens aperture wide to compensate for the low light. I fired off a couple of shots head on and then one from the side as the creatures silver dollar-sized eye stared into mine. Then, as it glided past, Tom and I swam over the behemoth's back and grasped its dorsal fin, one on either side. The twenty-five foot long fish continued its leisurely progress, seemingly unperturbed by our freeloading. From our perch we could inspect its huge gill slits and broad back with the distinctive white spots for which the Mexicans have dubbed this fantastic fish "pez domino" in Spanish.
After hitching a short ride, I slipped off to fire off a few more frames of Tom and the whale shark swimming together. Then the fish began to stroke its huge tail fin more powerfully. As the unlikely pair rapidly picked up speed Tom's regulator began to free flow, leaving a silvery curtain of bubbles behind them. He told me later that if he had turned his head to the side, his mask would have been stripped right off his face. Tom finally let go as the magnificent fish headed down the wall and disappeared into the gloom. We hung together in mid water for a few minutes to slow our breathing and savor the moment, then began a reciprocal course back to the boat. As we slowly finned along at thirty feet, a good sized nurse shark swam beneath us, providing a graceful postscript to our fabulous experience. Regaining the boat, we found ourselves reluctant to leave the water, stopping on the down line to do our preventative decompression stop, never ceasing to scan the waters around us. Finally climbing the twin ladders onto the dive platform, I think we were equally glad for the experience we had shared and for the fact that we each had a credible witness to yet another tall tale from the Texas Gulf.
Copyright © - Ken Knezick - Island Dreams
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Now some will tell you that the effects of Kava are limited to making your lips tingle. My personal experience with this unique beverage began in Vanuatu, where it is brewed quite powerfully, and most assuredly contradicts the mild tingle theory. From this encounter, I can assure you that Kava can also makes your toes, your hair, and everything in between, tingle. My folly was trying to match shell for shell with an Aussie expat who has imbibed the potent stuff four or five times per week for the past 15 years, mainly because it was cheaper than beer. As the evening progressed, I found myself sailing through uncharted territory which peaked with a glorious out-of-body religious experience under the bright canopy of stars in the dark Vanuatu night. This was shortly thereafter followed by my bodies total rejection of the kava and a serious bout of the dry heaves. My Kava hangover lasted a good three days. But I did not quite allow it to detain me from diving 150 feet to "the Lady" on the wreck of the S/S Coolidge the next morning, a dive for which Vanuatu is justly famous.
Fortunately, the kava in Fiji is apparently concocted more subtly. There it is offered as a social gesture as much as an intoxicant, so don't be afraid to give it a try. If you're new to Kava, ask for "low tide," and you'll receive only half a shell full. The tradition in Fiji is to clap once before receiving the bowl into your hands, drink it off in one draught, then clap three times more to seal the experience. It's a pleasant ritual of bonding with the group. After partaking of a few shells, you'll be an old hand, and perhaps find that your musical abilities have improved immensely, and you can now sing along with the band, IN Fijian. So just clap your hands, say "Bula...vinaka vaka levu"...and enjoy Kava - the Beverage of Kings!
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