Big Blue Diving - Koh Tao - Thailand - Displaying items by tag: PADI
Monday, 08 October 2018 15:49

The Beluga Whale That Spoke

When we think about the loudest creatures on the planet, most minds will go to the trumpet of an elephant, the howl of a wolf or the screech of a woman scorned. In reality, the creatures that make the loudest noises by far are the whales that inhabit our oceans all around the world: the loudest apparently being the sperm whale, which can raise its voice to a crazy 230 decibels underwater – it doesn’t sound that impressive until you consider a 10-ton bomb gives off 210 decibels and a space shuttle launch generates around 170 decibels of noise!

 

So what the hell are these gobby gargantuans going on about anyway?

 

We know that whales make noise to communicate, locate and tell others about food sources, and to find each other. The tend to speak in clicks, whistles and pulsed calls which can travel hundreds of miles underwater, and it’s actually thought the sperm whales’ calls can reach half way around the world…although it would take a few hours.  One of the most talkative whales out there is the beluga, which is where this curious tale begins…

  

The year is 1984, and here I should insert some inane Big Brother pun but I’ve leave that to you lot. The National Marine Mammal Foundation were studying and training dolphins and whales for ‘Cold Ops’ (otherwise called top secret naval stuff) and had a number of belugas undergoing constant training. It was during a normal session when researchers reported hearing what sounded like a muffled conversation, which they described as sounding like someone talking loudly in an adjacent room. It was then that one of the divers (and co-founder of the foundation), Sam Ridgeway, climbed out of the whale enclosure and asked his colleagues ‘Who told me to get out?’

Noc’ was a beluga whale that had been living in the research centre for 7 years, and was very familiar with trainers and the language they used every day with him. It appears that unbeknownst to the staff at the foundation Noc had been working on communicating with his human friends, and had managed to produce a pretty damn good impression of them too, which you can hear for yourself right here:

 

https://www.cell.com/cms/attachment/2021739480/2041549424/mmc2.mp3

 

Pretty remarkable eh? It’s like he’s been listening to them and decided that the English language is simply humans going ‘duh duh duh, doo doo doo’ over and over again, suspiciously like the Swedish language as a matter of fact.

 

To teach him a lesson in showing off and to remind him just who was the boss around there, the researchers immediately inserted tubes into his nasal cavity to try and find out just how he’d managed to produce this kazoo-like sound and discovered he was manipulating pressure in his nasal tract which caused this bizarre noise. The reason why remains a mystery, though Michelle Jeffries, one of Noc’s early trainers, described in an interview:

 “He was very easy-going. He wanted people’s attention. He wanted you to stay around and interact with him and rub him. He didn’t try to bullshit you like some of the dolphins did”

We should take a moment to enjoy that incredible statement about the bullshit from dolphins.

Michelle continued, presumably after taking out her obvious frustrations by kicking a dolphin and eating a tin of cheap tuna:

“He was just glad for your time, and he was very patient. Plus being the younger one, he was a little bit more reactive, eager. Noc was the kid who was willing to try. I think that was part of the thing behind him mimicking speech. He liked watching people. He liked being around people…He wanted to make a connection.”

Noc spoke in this way both underwater and above, responded to his trainers or would spontaneously start chatting away but only if there was a human present or he was alone – strangely he would never talk in this was around the other whales.

So what happened to this genius beluga whale, the first animal (or maybe second after that dog that says ‘sausages’?) to manage a passable attempt at the English language?

 

Dead.

 

 

 

Published in October
Friday, 05 October 2018 16:42

Freediving on Koh Tao

 

When I was a child my family and I would take yearly trips to see my Italian family in Sicily, during which my father would take my ten-year old self and my brothers out spearfishing. The thrill of being in the ocean wielding my very own weapon (a ferocious trident that was my absolute pride and joy) at an age when I was barely allowed to cross the street alone was incredible, and then to go on the hunt for elusive octopus, delicious passing snapper, aggressive eels and basically anything else that looked reasonably edible was something I’ll never forget to this day.

What really had me fascinated was when my father would spend a bit of time breathing quite deeply on the surface for a minute or so, take what seemed like a gargantuan breath and effortlessly disappear beneath the waves to impossible depths for a child to imagine – how did he do it? How could he hold his breath for so long? Why weren’t the fish scared away by him? I had so many questions, and that’s when freediving first piqued my curiosity.

 

It wasn’t till years later that I learnt that what we were doing (in a very amateurish fashion) was called ‘freediving’, and was becoming a very popular pastime for those wanting a little more from their diving. The 1988 Luc Besson movie ‘The Big Blue’ we’re named after then showed me just what freediving could offer with some training and what seemed like a lot of effort, and I was hooked.

 

Surely for people to dive to such depths on just one breath you have to be some sort of super healthy, non-smoking, yoga loving athlete, right?

Wrong!

Freediving is something that everyone (regardless of shape, size, or fitness levels) can try and be successful at – as log as there’s no serious ear problems. In fact, the first man to freedive more 100 metres was 65 years old when he did it!

It starts with learning about the mammalian dive reflex, and controlling the urge to breathe (those contractions you feel in your diaphragm) which we all feel when we’ve held our breath underwater for a while. You learn relaxation procedures to help not just hold your breath for a minute or so but to really push the limits of your body and mind away from their comfort zones, control the feeling that you need to breather and before long enter into the realms of proper freediving – to be able to breath-hold for 2 minutes plus whilst gliding silently around the reefs, without a care in the world.

It’s not so much physical exercise, but more about knowing your body, mastering the psychological effects felt and strengthening our mind’s ability to live the moment peacefully, whilst in full control of the situation. 

 

 

So what are the benefits of learning how to freedive?

The freedom felt whilst underwater without the heavy scuba equipment is really quite exhilarating. Scuba diving is wonderful when you want to spend a long time underwater exploring every nook and cranny, but with freediving the beauty is in its simplicity and silence. 

 

When freediving the marine life you encounter aren’t as skittish as when you’re scuba diving – bubbles from scuba regulators are noisy, and there isn’t that much sound underwater other than the communication of the different creatures down there so it inevitably disturbs everything. Freedivers, on the other hand, appear to be less of a threat, so the creatures down there let you get closer to them, and they also come closer to you – after all you appear to them to be just a new, big fish so they’re also very curious. Of course, you are always limited in the time you can stay down there interacting, but it opens up so many places for exploration where it just isn’t feasible to go scuba diving - maybe there’s no dive centre to rent equipment or get your tanks filled, but with freediving all you need is to don your mask, grab some weight and a buddy and you’re good to go!

 

What’s next?

Easy; all you have to do is set aside at least 2 days of your life to visit us on Koh Tao, and the SSI Level 1 freediver licence can be yours for the rest of your life. To book your courses, or for a little more information take a look here!

 

 

“The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.

 

Umberto Pelizzari, world champion freediver.

 

 

 

Published in October
Friday, 28 September 2018 17:30

Top 5 Coolest Sharks

Goblin Shark

The ugliest shark on this list, the goblin shark is found in the deep, deep waters where looks don’t get you far but having an evil pointy snout and weird extendable jaw makes you the King of the oceans.  Found off the Australian coast (I presume it looks more handsome when surrounded by all those awful Aussie bogans) this shark looks like it could eat an apple through a letter box with its very English teeth, which are literally like regular teeth after a hand grenade went off in your mouth.

Said to eat other bloody sharks, it has translucent skin so the about-to-be-eaten sharks can see exactly where they’re going as they get devoured by this deep-dwelling monster.

Megamouth Shark

A very well-named shark pays homage to this creatures’ unique feature – it’s terrifyingly massive mouth that puts even my ex-wife to shame. It’s also a wearer of a particularly weird expression, which always reminds me of someone who’s just farted a real stinker and is now waiting for everyone else to notice. Again, memories of the ex-wife…

Despite having a mouth you could park a car in, this planktivorous filter feeder (like the whale sharks we have around Koh Tao) eats mostly plankton, which doesn’t seem to have any bearing on its size – they reach 4-5 metres in length and weigh around 1200 kg!

They were discovered around 40 years ago by and since then there’s been less than 100 sightings, making it one of the most mysterious sharks out there.

 

 Hammerhead Shark

Diving with hammerhead sharks is a dream for every single scuba diver out there, I’d wager. One of the more well-known sharks out there, I spent a lot of my childhood dreaming of these bizarre looking creatures, and wondering just why they had such a ridiculously shaped-head (called a cephalofoil) that seemed to defy all rules of what a shark looks like. Now it’s widely believed that the shape improves the vision of the shark, making them capable of seeing both what’s above and below them at the same time, giving them what is essentially 360-degree vision! Unfortunately, that advantage comes at a cost: since their eyes are so far apart, hammerheads suffer from a large blindspot right at the tip of their snouts.

 Cookiecutter Shark

The cookiecutter shark has a name that doesn’t exactly fill you with fear, and as they reach a size of just 50 cm it’s one that I initially thought I could defeat easily in an arm-wrestle…however with a little research I’ve now decided that this shark is one vicious little predator you would not want to mess with!

This nasty piece of work preys on just about every large and medium-sized creature it can find, and is known to eat whales, sharks, dolphins, seals, rays, dugongs and more, yet still won’t even entertain the notion of eating a durian. It eats by latching onto its prey with its upper teeth, which anchor into place and then the lower teeth start munching away, cutting out a round cookie-shaped chunk of flesh – hence the name!

Though rarely encountered by humans, a handful of attacks were reportedly caused by cookiecutter sharks, as well as significant damage to many US Navy submarines. Like I said, not to be messed with! Luckily, they spend most of their time in the very deep parts of the oceans (thought to be 1000s of metres down) and then vertically migrate at night to feed. Night dive anyone?

Bull Shark

They may not get all the headlines (we can thank the ‘Jaws’ movies for that) but the bull shark is THE most dangerous shark in all of the oceans in the world, with more recorded attacks on humans than any other shark known to man. Known to swim in both salt and fresh water, one was even recorded 1100 km from the sea up the Mississippi river - there’s just no escaping these hungry monsters!

Of the thousands of dives I’ve been lucky enough to experience, the ones that I remember more than any other are no doubt those we had with the bull sharks at Chumphon Pinnacle and Sail Rock (close to Koh Tao/Koh Phangan) a few years ago…and hopefully again soon! Being surrounded by 20-30 sharks almost three-metres long, with each weighing around 100kg is certainly not a dive you’ll forget anytime soon. Luckily for all of us here on Koh Tao there was never a single recorded incident when sharing our dives with these sharks – it’s thought the amount of delicious fish available for them to eat meant they were never hungry enough to mess with us divers!

Published in September
Saturday, 22 September 2018 18:45

The Top 10 Dive Sites in the World

Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island, Malaysia

This unbelievable dive site in Malaysian Borneo was brought to the world’s attention by Jacques Cousteau over 50 years ago, who described it as ‘an untouched piece of art’. Often considered as the top diving destination in the world, it’s home to over 3000 species of fish and hundreds of different types of coral. It’s common to see turtles, white-tip sharks, eagle-rays and Napoleon fish beautifully framed by huge schools of pelagic predators that cruise these waters, with massive swirling vortex of barracuda and jackfish sharing their home with crowds of batfish, humphead parrotfish and too many nudibranchs for a mere mortal to handle. A bucket-list site for every scuba diver out there!

 

Chumphon Pinnacle, Koh Tao, Thailand

By far the most visually impressive site close to the diving mecca of Koh Tao, this pinnacle is easily the best chance to see the whalesharks close to Koh Tao. Once home to bull sharks and reef sharks that locals swear will be back any day now, it's a fully submerged granite pinnacle 14 metres at its shallowest point and reaching as deep as 47 metres off the northern tip towards a secret pinnacle nicknamed 'The Castle'. It's surrounded by schools of chevron, yellowtail and pickhandle barracuda, teira batfish, large Malabar and brown marbled grouper towards the ocean floor and beautiful schools of fusiliers being hunted by passing king mackerel, trevally, queenfish and rainbow runners - an excellent place to watch the ocean at work, with a lot of interaction between the different types of fish that live there! It's also a great place to find some of our most beautiful nudibranch when you head towards the bottom, where old discarded fishing nets provide vital food for these sea slugs.

 

The Yongala, Townsville, Australia

SS Yongala was a steel passenger and freight steamer built in Newcastle upon Tyne, England and operated on the passenger route linking the gold fields of Western Australia with the eastern ports of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. It is now a world-class shipwreck off the coast of Queensland absolutely teeming with life - you may see manta rays, sea snakes, octopus, turtles, bull sharks, tiger sharks, huge schooling barracuda and of course spectacular corals. 

The Yongala sank during a cyclone in 1911 killing 122 people, a racehorse called 'Moonshine' and a red Lincolnshire bull. It was believed that the hull of the ship had been ripped open by a submerged rock, and the wreck was not found until 1958. The ship is 109 meters long, and reaches depths of 30 metres, with the upper sections of the wreck just 16 metres below the surface.

 

Blue Hole, Belize

Housed in the Mesoamerican Reef System — the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere — and located 70 km off the coast of Belize this site was chosen by Jacques Cousteau in his own personal ‘Top Ten’, no doubt due to its incredible natural features: this vertical cave 125 metres deep still contains remnants from its days above water, with perfectly preserved stalactites on show. It is also home to different types of sharks, large grouper, tuna and other pelagics plunging into its depths.

USAT Liberty Wreck, Bali, Indonesia

This incredible wreck dive site is a 130m long armed cargo ship which was hit by a Japanese torpedo during World War II, then pushed back into the water in 1963 by the eruption of Mount Agung which caused the vessel to slip off the beach! It now lies on a sand slope from about 9 metres to around 30 metres of water, making it possible to snorkel and amazing to dive. This wreck dive will certainly keep you busy, as the ship itself is smothered in marine life that has transformed the ship’s remains into an underwater haven. Here, you will find a variety of hard and soft corals, sea fans, nudibranchs, gorgonians, hydroids, anemones, and much more.

 

Sail Rock, Koh Tao/Koh Phangan, Thailand

With no other dive site for miles around, Sail Rock is renowned for being the undisputed number one dive site in the whole of the Gulf of Thailand. The only site for miles around (and a full 2 hour cruise from Koh Tao) all of the larger species in the area are attracted towards it which inevitably makes it the best place to see whalesharks in Thailand – in 2017 there were at least 102 whalesharks sightings here, the most ever seen in the recorded history of Koh Tao/Koh Phangan diving!

Once home to bullsharks (come back soon please!) it's covered in pelagics - schools of chevron and pickhandle barracuda, along with big-eye trevally, batfish, queenfish and tonnes of fusiliers! The edges of the site are usually home to prowling King Mackerel over a metre long and huge, fat Malabar and brown marbled grouper lurking at depth, looking to feed on the smaller fish that blanket the dive site.

 

Fujikawa Maru, Truk Lagoon, Micronesia                         

It’s hard to pick the ‘best’ wreck in Truk lagoon, but if I have to pick just one it has to be the Fujikawa Maru. It was a cargo ship, built in 1938 by Mitsubishi and requisitioned by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II to be used as an armed aircraft ferry. The conversion included a compliment of six-inch guns cannibalised from old cruisers which had last seen action during the Russian/Japanese war. Fujikawa Maru arrived in Truk in 1944, and off-loaded thirty B5N2 bombers onto Eten Airfield. Since these aircraft had been disassembled for shipment, they were unable to help defend Truk in the military operation against the Japanese and were destroyed on the ground, plus the Fujikawa Maru was sunk- leaving us with possibly the world's best wreck diving site.

It's now a picture-perfect shipwreck, covered with coral and sea life. Each of the five holds also offer incredible marine life, however the highlight is maybe the massive engine room which occupies the midships area, taking up 3 floors. She also features a cargo of Zero fighter planes in one of her holds!

 

Aborek Jetty, Raja Ampat

 Probably one of the most photographed jetties in the world, this is truly a great place to go and remember to take your camera with you, fully charged! With literally thousands of fish blanketing the areas under the jetty (with the type of fish there changing quite regularly too!) making it feel almost like a night dive, there’s probably if anything too many fish here – it can become a little disconcerting for those not experienced in diving with surrounded by so much marine life. As well as the swirling schools of fish this is an excellent site for those with an eye for the macro, with nudibranch aplenty, all sorts of weird and wonderful crustaceans and adorable frogfish lurking where you least expect them.

 

Darwin’s Arch, Galapagos

 Whalesharks. Eagle rays. Sea lions. Turtles. Dolphins. Schooling hammerheads, plus Galapagos and tiger sharks.  Schooling barracuda, thousands of jackfish, and tuna hurtling through the waters. ALL ON ONE DIVE.

 

Must I say more?

 

Blue Corner Wall, Palau, Micronesia

The most requested dive in all of Palau for a very good reason. Despite strong and unpredictable currents (making it a difficult dive for beginners) grey and white-tip sharks are attracted to this ridge, and with the upswelling currents come plankton and algae-rich waters caught up in the currents’ grasp and declaring ‘dinnertime!’ for the pelagics and their friends in the area – it’s common to see dogtooth tuna, king mackerel, large schools of barracuda, snapper and jackfish, Napoleon wrasse, eagle rays, hawksbill and green turtles plus plenty of macro.

If that isn’t enough some of the more rare visitors to the Blue Corner also include hammerheads, marlin, sailfish, bull sharks, manta rays and whalesharks – keep your eyes peeled!

 

Published in September
Friday, 21 September 2018 10:41

Daily Weather Reports for Koh Tao

Anyone who’s been living in a cave the last week may have missed out on some of the big news stories that have dominated our TV sets recently – extreme weather! 

With hurricane and typhoon season running from June to November in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and also a huge swathe of Asia, this time of year is always an exciting one for us weather watchers. Hurricane Florence is currently busy wrapping up its attempted destruction of North and South Carolina, USA and the other big story is Typhoon Mangkhut which had cut a deadly path through the Philippines, Hong Kong and South-East China, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

 

Luckily here on Koh Tao we don’t really get hurricanes or anything even close to what’s being suffered by those affected by Florence and Mangkhut, and it’s only usually during our monsoon rains (mid-November – December) that we can sometimes suffer from flooding – we had some bad ones in 2016 and again one year later – or the occasional super-cool water spout (thanks for the excellent photo of this beauty last November from Andreas Fiskeseth) that appear on the horizon around that time of year.

 

So how can we find out what the weather is like now anyway?

 

The easiest way to get a daily report of the weather here on Koh Tao from a real person who is actually on the island (that’ll be me) is to click right here where I’ve been reporting not just the weather but also information on wave size in regards to snorkeling and diving here, which are easily the most popular activities on Koh Tao, along with boozing.  I may not be as glamorous as those delectable beauties that are so commonly found on the Mexican news channels (if you don’t believe me just Google ‘Yanet Garcia’) but I’m certainly thorough.

 

If you’re looking to check the weather forecast for the next few days, there’s a glut of apps and websites that are available, and to be perfectly honest with you most of them are absolutely shite – it’s very common for these apps to declare the day as being ‘rainy’ even if it only rains for a few minutes in that day, which is pretty misleading. Here at Big Blue we rely on two in particular that seem to be a lot more accurate than other: ‘Windguru’, and ‘Windy’. By taking the information given from both we can usually predict the weather for the next week very accurately indeed!

 

Oh, and today? Hot, sunny, and another bloody whaleshark at Sail Rock. What a time to be alive!

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

 

Published in September
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