Archive for October, 2013

Raja Ampat

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on October 9th i boarded the “Sea Safari 8″ bound for Raja Ampat.  i was reunited with my parents for the first time in 9 months, then introduced to the passengers and crew and shown to the lower deck.  like me, everyone’s quarters were pre-assigned but that didn’t stop us from trading rooms time and time again until we were absolutely confident we could hang our hats in the one that suited us best.  i ended up with a most exquisite little cabin with a bunk in the bow of the ship.  the wall next to my bed even curved along with the ship’s hull leaving little room for my feet at the bed side and plenty of ceiling to stare at while i was rocked to sleep each night.

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she was a fine ship: approximately 113 feet in length with a solid metal hull and a wooden superstructure that creaked appropriately on a rough sea.  every cabin had its own bathroom with a hot shower and every room including the dining room and observation lounge was air conditioned.  a seemingly comfortable setting for me and the other 13 passengers, however it would be the 11 dedicated crew members, our cruise director Dalton and guide/naturalist/photographer Ron that would ensure our days were long and packed to the brim with adventure and as little sleep as possible.

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Raja Ampat is a remote archipelago of over fifteen hundred mostly uninhabited islands.  it was created when a massive shelf of limestone (formed from many generations of compacted coral remains) was thrust to the surface by shifting tectonic plates.  over the years rain seeped into the porous rock dissolving it from the inside out.  subtle dips in terrain turned into deep valleys and deep valleys became the ocean itself.  this left behind hundreds of dramatic oblong shaped islands all within close proximity.  to top it all off, a limestone eating parasite called the chiton is rapidly consuming all of the limestone at the intertidal zone giving the islands a cool mushroom-like look until their imminent collapse.  sadly, the future is grim for these oblong wonders.  it’s only a matter of time before they are reduced to nothing and returned to the sea once again.  BUT in the meantime, a view from the top of even one of the lesser peaks proves to be of the more stunning the world has to offer.

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due to Raja’s remoteness, lack of tourist infrastructure and well… lack of people in general, experiencing it properly is very difficult and/or very expensive.  i had the luck and honor of experiencing it quite properly in the company of 13 well traveled individuals who were all a tad bit wiser than i.

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we barely had time to get settled after leaving port before the adventures began.  we stopped off at a small island and took the tender boats to its shores for what i assumed would be a leisure stroll along the beach…  and then something wonderful happened.  Ron our tour guide opened his mouth and elegant science started spilling out.  he knew the scientific names for everything.  he knew all the relationships between the flora and fauna.  he was well versed in the geology and natural history of the area and he could explain it all in one constant and digestible stream of thought.  often his scientific rants would get briefly interrupted by new discoveries.  be it a simple flower or a fallen seedling, to him they marked new pieces to the habitat puzzle that surrounded us.  the puzzle that almost always boiled down to the same burning questioron1n that is always on his mind, “who’s pollinating who?”.  he also explained how various plants could be used in a survival situation…  to paraphrase: “the hard bulbous fruit from this plant is a fisherman’s friend.  not only because its natural buoyancy makes it a useful buoy to hold up your fishing nets, but when you grate the skin and sprinkle it into a shallow bay it will deplete the oxygen in the water causing the fish to suffocate, die and float to the surface.  if you had enemies, you would use the sap from this common plant.  one drizzle of this touches the skin and you’ll be dead in less than an hour”.  on and on he went…

it was in those moments that i began to realize the gravity of the situation i had just stumbled into.  not only was i about to venture into a remote and wonderful realm that very few people ever get the chance to see, but i’d be doing so with someone who has the ability to elegantly explain every aspect of it to me.  after witnessing my first Ron rant i turned to my dad and simply said “wow… i didn’t realize it would be THIS kind of trip”.  he then patted me on the back and laughed and replied with “Ron’s the reason we came here”.  from that moment on i began to think of this trip less as a Raja Ampat trip and more as a ‘Ron trip’ that just so happens to take place in Raja Ampat.  most of the other passengers had done trips with Ron before and many will again because they recognize the value a guide worth this much salt can add to an adventure.  i’m sure that if Ron was so inclined to organize an expedition to a Walmart somewhere in rural Kansas, the people would follow him.  i sure as hell would.

IMG_2411 (copy)But who exactly is this Ron K Leidich?  from what i could gather, he’s a naturalist/marine biologist/ornithologist/World War 2 historian/environmental activist/writer/photographer/tour guide/teacher/dive instructor/business man/family man.  when he’s not leading tours through Raja Ampat, Palau and Borneo, he is taking aerial photography of sperm whales via helicopter, and when he’s not taking aerial photography of sperm whales via helicopter, he is researching and documenting the undiscovered relationships between tropical plants and their pollinators.  he also lives in Palau where he runs his Kayaking company “Planet Blue” and is working on a book about the native plants of Palau that will be published next year.  he also played an instrumental role in the banning of shark finning in Palau.  does that about sum him up?  probably not even close but it’s a good start.

for the next ten days our daily routine would go something like this:  birding at 6:30am sharp, followed by breakfast, followed by first snorkel, followed by lunch, followed by second snorkel, followed by a hike/beach walk/island exploring, followed by a well deserved couple of beers followed by dinner, followed by a lecture or daily photo review, followed by passing out hard.  whether we were weaving through tiny limestone islands via tender boats, hiking through dense jungle or along sandy beaches,  snorkeling through coral reefs or watching a detailed power-point lecture, we were quite efficiently unlocking all of Raja’s hidden treasures and becoming smarter in the process.

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my second dose of hard reality hit when i equipped my mask, snorkel and fins and jumped into the water for the first time.  all of my past aquatic experiences combined could not even come close to preparing me for the bio-diversity and aw-inspiring beauty that lies beneath Raja’s surface.  from the mass profusion of giant corals that compete tirelessly for aquatic real estate to the countless species of invertebrates, crustaceans, mollusks and fish that make their homes amongst them.  it would seem that Raja Ampat is the marine equivalent to a metropolitan melting-pot at rush hour and the best part is that it’s all taking place less than ten meters below the surface making it a true snorkeler’s paradise.

(all professional-looking photos from this point on and including a few from above are courtesy of Ron K Leidich)

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please have a gander at some of my favorite underwater oddities:

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Wobbegong
will you believe that this freak of nature is a type of shark?  this is a sit-and-wait predator with tassel-like lips meant to fool fish into thinking it’s just another anemone until they swim by too close and get swallowed whole.

 

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Walking Shark
i found this little dude sleeping behind a rock.  though he is perfectly capable of swimming, he likes to use his fins to walk along the ocean floor.  his kind is also endemic to Raja Ampat.

 

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Blacktip
OMG, big f*ing shark!

 

Blue Spotted Feathertail Ray (copy)

Blue Spotted Feathertail Ray
this little blueberry pancake loves to lurk underneath hard flat corals

 

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Clown Triggerfish
sure you have all seen Triggers but have you seen them with giant white spots covering their belly?!  Triggers earn their name from their ability to erect their first dorsal spine and lock it into place with their second dorsal spine which then acts as a ‘trigger’ to release the first spine lock.  triggers will go trigger-up either when angry effectively communicating “you mess with the fish, you get the trigger”, or when they are frightened they can dive head first into a tight patch of hard coral and use their trigger to lock them into place.  at that point they would sooner die from getting ripped in half than give their predator the satisfaction of prying them loose.  as you can see, Ron seems to have riled this one up pretty good.

 

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Mantis Shrimp
this sharpshooting maverick of the sea comes equipped with either slashing or bashing appendages that are capable of slicing a fish in half or shattering your camera if you get too close.  he strikes with the force of a 22 caliber rifle, so fast that the water around its appendages boil and send out an underwater shockwave.

 

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Wrasse
these fish have some interesting mating habits.  both males and females participate in group spawning which pretty much entails gathering around and launching your sperm and eggs into common area and hoping for the best.  unfortunately if you are a male wrasse, this is the only type of action you are ever going to get.  however if you are a female wrasse, not only do you get to partake in the fish orgies but you have the option of changing your gender and transforming into a “super male”.  this involves growing twice your size and gaining brilliant colors.  once in this form you become a total fish babe magnet with a harem of females to follow.

 

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Spiny Devilfish
this little guy is the most poisonous fish on the reef.  it’s a good thing he’s only crawling at a snails pace using those little pectoral members.

 

Nudibranch, Phyllidia varicosa (copy)

Nudibranch
very small, very colorful, comes in over 3,000 flavors.

 

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Giant Clam
gills on one end and blow hole on the other.  go in for a closer look and get a blast of sea water in your face.

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during my ample time in the water i decided to dabble in a little free diving.  strap a few weights to your belt, descend slowly and move as little as possible while maintaining a zen-like state and you’ll be surprised at how little oxygen you really need.

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Raja has a vast trove of treasures above sea level as well.  we woke extra early one morning and ever so quietly stepped trough the interior of the island of Gam and witnessed the Red Birds of Paradise perform their mating dances in the canopy above.

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this osprey swooped down and caught a snapper with its talons right before our eyes.

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this rare species of cuscus as well as this fruit bat were just asking for it…

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we even visited a paranoid pearl farm.  i use the term paranoid because of the many guards with machine guns that keep it secure.  when you are dealing with that many pearls at once you are going to need some muscles to compliment your oysters.

this timid woman demonstrates the correct way to extract a pearl from an oyster so not to stress it out too much.

this timid woman demonstrates the correct way to extract a pearl from an oyster so not to stress it out too much.

 

our fishy finale on our final day in the water was one i wont soon forget.  we let the soft current carry us along the coast of Kri Island to a rounded corner where the shelf dropped off into a deep blue abyss and an opposing current met us head on.  perhaps it was the clash of currents, perhaps it was the dawn of the full moon or perhaps it was just that time of day when fish get especially randy because when we rounded that corner we were greeted by thousands upon thousands upon thousands of schools of fish of all shapes, sizes and colors.  they all weaved into one another gracefully but stayed determined to keep formation.  several meters below i noticed multiple schools of trevally coming from different directions and all converging into a central point forming a dense knot of fish below my feet.  i filled my lungs with air to their fullest capacity and descended into them.  rather than swimming away from me they simply opened their circle slightly leaving a safe arms-length distance allowing me to enter.  i sunk to the center of the circle and before long i was completely surrounded.  when i glanced up to the surface to gauge my depth my view had been obscured and the circle had IMG_2619 (copy)closed over the top of me.  i was completely engulfed in a sphere of fish so thick that no ocean scenery could be detected beyond them.  it was just trevally in front of trevally one after another in every direction moving fast and vigilant on a tight circular path over and over again.  i found myself elated and disoriented at the same time.  i was also on the verge of a minor panic and was starting to entertain unreasonable thoughts.  these were not small fish and if they all suddenly decided to turn in on me at once and tear the flesh from my bones i would be reduced to a sinking skeleton in a matter of seconds.  i darted swiftly in one direction in an attempt to exercise any dominance i had over them but they only shifted the inner circle slightly to uphold their safe arms-length distance.  it became clear that i was less than an afterthought to them.  trevally are among the fastest swimmers in the ocean and the least likely to pay any mind to the likes of an awkward lanky surface dweller.  i posed about as much of a threat to them as a Wile E Coyote does to a roadrunner and if there were any part of me that had the slightest bit of doubt about that fact the record would be set straight in the seconds that followed.  somewhere in the orchestra a single fish must have omitted a low frequency sound to indicate that it was being threatened quite possibly by one or both of the blacktip sharks who were lurking nearby.  to say that news travels fast in fish community would be an understatement because in the span of that next second every single last fish suddenly vanished all at once leaving me all alone surrounded by the familiar blue abyss.  i looked up and was relieved to see that the surface was in plain view.  it was time to start breathing again.

umbrella_boatit was hard rain on our final day as we packed ourselves and our belongings into the tender boats and headed back to Sorong to go our separate ways.  we didn’t let the torrential downpour get in the way of long goodbyes, but even then the goodbyes didnt seem nearly long enough because the next thing i knew the passengers had all dispersed and just like that i was right back to the harsh realities of world travel and decision making, soaking wet with half a plan.

 

 

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Captain Roark

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a sudden change of plans

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last we spoke i was most likely sun bathing on a jetty on Mabul: an island somewhere off the coast of Sabah in eastern Borneo.  well folks, since then i have stirred things up quite a bit.  in fact it was not too long after pushing the ‘post’ button on my last blog entry that i proceeded to haphazardly slingshot my way across Asia.  from Mabul i took a boat to the mainland port of Semporna then took a bus to Tawau at the far southeast end of the overland Borneo trail.  from there i took a flight to Kuala Lampur, then another flight to Jakarta, then another flight to Makassar on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia then a final flight to Sorong in West Papua at the far east end of Indonesia and almost off the map entirely.  my layovers were long and the crammed budget-air conditions woke up muscles i didnt know i had only to numb them again with a slow dull ache.  this was all made worth it when i was greeted in Sorong with four-star treatment that all began with a very nice man holding a sign with my name on it.

why the sudden ‘West Papua or bust’ action you may be wondering?  one night while on Mabul drinking Tanduay Rhum with my new dive buddies and mentally plotting my path to the Philippines i received an urgent and unexpected message from my parents.  as it turns out they were just about to embark on a posh ten day scientific oriented live-aboard snorkel adventure in Raja Ampat: a tropical archipelago off the coast of West Papua.  a couple they were to meet there unfortunately had to back out at the last minute suddenly leaving an empty cabin on the boat bought and paid for and about to fall directly into my lap as long as i could get myself to West Papua as quickly as possible.  after giving the matter very little thought i put Philippines on the back-burner and headed as fast as i could in the opposite direction.  with the help of a very useful flight search engine, my credit card and the patience and pain tolerance i had built up over the past seven months, i was able to make it to Sorong in West Papua in record time with three whole days to spare before meeting my parents and my new home for the next ten days.

sorong5when i first arrived in Sorong it didn’t seem like much.  a poor, dusty, long and slender town built along the shore with a market and port of appropriate size and one road to connect it all.  i was put up in the nicest hotel in town which was by no means a Hilton but compared to the accommodations i was used to it may as well have been the Bellagio.  after my first wave of jet-lag passed i initiated my routine wander mission.  i made it down the street and rounded a corner when i witnessed a child’s reaction to me unlike any i had ever seen before.  it’s mouth and eyes widened to their absolute fullest extent out of pure necessity just so it could purge itself of the raw excitement boiling inside.  somehow it managed to stay upright while twisting its body and launching its limbs in all directions in random patterns.  this child was accompanied by others who were also made ecstatic by my sudden presence but none had the spark of this child.  this child was one hundred children.  once in my lap, one hundred children became a calm dead weight that could be easily held and molded into any shape.

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my wander mission soon turned into a scout mission or rather a hotel hunt.  the truth of the matter was that when my posh ten day boat trip was over i would be on my own once again and stranded in a foreign land.  when that time comes it would be in my best interest to be prepared with a list of accommodations far more modest than the one i was currently staying in.

along the way groups of young (but not too young) girls would rush out of schools and shops and bolt across busy streets and circle me in hopes to get their picture taken with me.  once i gave them what they wanted they would scream and flail their arms about as if Justin Bieber himself had just kissed them on the cheek.

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i could get used to this…

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i could get very used to this…

sorong2about seven kilometers into my hunt i was stopped by a nice young man in business attire who introduced himself as Patrick.  once he learned of my predicament he insisted on assisting me with my hunt.  i graciously hopped on the back of his motorbike and he took me to every single hotel in town.  we sang to each other along the way and had heated discussions about which artist sang the better rendition of “i will always love you”.

i soon learned that budget accommodations are almost non-existent in this town.  in fact, budget anything is almost non-existent in this town as well as in all of West Papua due to the hard logistics of this remote and underdeveloped part of the world.  this intensifies the further inland you go since many villages can only be reached by air.

after the hotel hunt was complete, Patrick continued his grand tour by taking me to the university he was attending to meet his class mates and then to a rehearsal of the A cappella group “Voice of Glorify”.  there forty voices filled my ears with song.

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i was hand delivered to the doc early on my final morning in Sorong and shuttled via tender boat to my new home on the magnificent “Sea Safari 8″.  i was reunited with my parents for the first time in 9 months, then introduced to the passengers and crew and shown to my quarters.

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stay tuned for fishy tales from what is quite possibly the last untouched and most biodiverse marine habitat on the planet Earth.

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Sabah Sabah

this adventure starts off with a Brunei exodus via jungle boat taxi starting from the capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan then into Sarawak, Malaysia then back into Brunei’s Temburong district.  from the small river port town of Bangar it was an easy bus to the town of Beaufort and we were back in Sabah once again.

 

we spent the night in Beaufort: a small Malaysian town of little excitement.  we procured cheap lodging across the river at a Chinese run motel and made friends with the young bar maids at the “Comwel” bar near a small market.

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the next morning we caught the train back to Kota Kinabalu where we spent the next several days plotting our next moves, recovering from our last moves and making frequent visits to the cinema.  over the last several months i have become increasingly more of a sucker for the cinema.  after weeks of hard travel a good night staring at the big screen can be just the thing to make me whole again.  this time however, we went a little over the edge.  i wont tell you exactly how many films we saw but i will say that it was way more than a few.  we must have been the Centerpoint mall’s best customers by the end of our stay there.

20130917_222736on our fourth morning we embarked on our new Sabah adventure starting with a seven-hour bus ride to Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah.  Sandakan is home to a very disturbing and lesser known piece of World War 2 history called the Sandakan death marches.  it was here that the Japanese brutally tortured over two thousand Australian and British POW’s, tried to make them build an air strip and finally failed, then marched them 260 kilometers west to Ranau while they slowly died of starvation, dysentery and malaria.  the few that made it were crammed into unsanitary huts and left to die.  after the war ended the Japanese executed the remaining soldiers and torched the Sandakan POW camp in an attempt to hide the evidence of their war crimes.  luckily a handful of prisoners were able to escape and survive long enough to tell their tale and bring about justice.  many of the events have been pieced together in this PDF book if you are interested in a quick read.

one curiosity of mine that had to be satisfied while in Sandikan was the whereabouts of the mysterious ferry to Zamboanga City in the Philippines.  i was fully intending to take this ferry until my hopes where crushed a week prior when Zamboanga City shut down due to an unfortunate battle and hostage situation that broke out there.  having been fixated on this ferry trip for so long, part of me was hopeful that they rerouted the ferry to a more desirable local but i think i mostly just needed to hear the words “no Roark, you will not be boarding that ferry” in plain broken english.  since the mysterious ferry embarked from an equally mysterious port some miles from town, we were directed to a hotel in town where all ticket sales were handled.  the manager there then directed us to a different hotel a kilometer south of town where we were directed yet again to a place called “Block H” across the street.  soon after crossing the street we realized we had stepped into a different place entirely.  here, row after row of long oppressive concrete buildings stand four stories tall along the waterfront all marked with a letter A to Z.  it had the look of a concentration camp gone rogue.  each building had a little character that had crept into it over the years.  the locals were happy to make our acquaintance.  after a few failed attempts at speaking Malay to them i came to realize it was a large seemingly isolated Filipino community, some of which had just arrived and some of which had already become Malaysian citizens.  we finally managed to locate Block H but the trail went cold from there.  i never found the answers i was looking for but by this time i was too distracted to care, especially when we traversed the coast a little further and discovered a small water village sandwiched between a clump of fishing boats and an old rusty barge.  the village was so rundown and ill maintained that negotiating what was left of its walkways was nothing short of an obstacle course.  when i reached the end of one walkway i was greeted by a dozen hyper charged children who got a little excited when i set my camera to video mode.

 

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several miles west of Sandakan is the Orang Outang Center and we arrived just in time for feeding time!

 

our next stop on this adventure was Sukau: a very secluded small town in the jungle built along a meander of a river.  the man who ran our guest house took us out on his boat as we searched out crocodiles and proboscis monkeys.  the monkeys were abundant and the crocodiles would occasionally bubble under the murky surface then reveal their long scaly backs to us.

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down on the southern east coast of Sabah is the small dirty port town of Semporna.  this is the jumping off point to many islands including the very exclusive and coveted island of Sipadan.  only 120 people per day are allowed to visit it and they usually need to book 6 weeks in advance and pay a pretty penny to partake of its world class diving.  rather than jump immediately into an island adventure i decided to let myself get a little distracted.  i wandered into a water village with my guitar and made some friends.  then later i got well taken care of by some locals at a nearby bar.  we played songs late into the night, had arm wrestling contests and engaged in long winded borderline inappropriate conversations about our cultural differences.

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from there i hopped on a boat to the island of Mabul to meet up with Nicolas who had gone there the day prior.  this island is small enough to circle on foot in 30 minutes and for whatever reason has an obscenely large population of children.  the water is so shallow among these islands it’s common to see water villages and structures built miles off shore.  Mabul has an interesting mixture of scuba diving eco-conservation enthusiasts and illegal Filipino immigrants who dump rubbish into the sea and fish with dynamite.  sure there is tension between them but it’s masked with smiles exch20131002_180459 (copy)anged at a very laid back island pace.  my first day here was spent swimming, scoping out the village and sipping rum smuggled in from the Philippines.  my second two days here were spent coping with the effects of a flu-like illness i had contracted.  when my fever finally lifted and my apatite regained i was already overcome with the ease of the place.  i had become good friends with the dive staff and their few customers.  i had become quite accustom to relaxing on the jetty during a sunset and gorging on the three well balanced buffets served each day.  i also went on three dives as i discovered the wonderful world of macro diving.  it is what Mabul is known for after all.  not too far below the surface are thousands of species of very tiny, very unique and wonderful creatures (such as nudibranches).  i also encountered some special creatures of a bit larger size: frog fish, Mandarin fish, and the notoriously fast sharp shooting maverick of the sea, the mantis shrimp.  this little bastard has the ability to strike with the force of a 22 caliber bullet, so fast that the water around its appendages boil in the process.  in the last minutes of my final dive i got up close and personal with a hawksbill sea turtle.  the biggest i had ever seen.  his shell alone must have been five feet in length.  even when i positioned my eyes two inches away from his i could tell that he wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned.  i am sure he realized that if it came down to an underwater battle of Roark vs the giant sea turtle, he would most certainly win.

i never ended up getting my Sipadan dive permit, though honestly i didn’t try all that hard.  i think subconsciously i was just creating a reason for myself to come back… heehee… and i totally could too.

 

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