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ANAMBAS DIVE TRIP
April 1993

We spent the Easter weekend on a scuba diving trip in the area of the Anambas Islands which are in the South China Sea between East and West Malaysia. The islands are actually Indonesian territory.

We left Singapore on the evening of April 8th aboard the MV Empress, a 70’ steel hulled converted shipping trawler. It sleeps 15 plus crew, has air-conditioned cabins, showers and lots of space. There were 4 crew and 11 passengers.

We boarded by dinghy from the West Coast Park area and because of late arrivals it was dark by the time we left. We passed by the container port, Sentosa and along the East Coast. It was very interesting seeing Singapore from the water in the dark as some landmarks were easy to pick out but others, like our apartment, were much more difficult. It was also interesting seeing all the anchored ships from the water rather than from shore as their lights, added to the onshore lights, are quite spectacular.

We went to bed while the lights of Singapore were still visible and woke up the next morning with no land in sight in any direction. I woke before seven because the boat came to a stop and I thought we might be "there". However, they had stopped because a fish had been hooked on one of the trolling lines and it could not be brought in while under way. It was a small tuna that became a snack before dinner – fresh, raw and very good.

pulau_tokongmalangbiruIna started to get a little seasick after she got up and got progressively worse as the day passed. About noon we arrived at the first island we were to eventually stop at. It was called Pulau Tokongmalangbiru and was really just a rock sticking out of the sea with a couple of trees and lots of birds on it.

This was the first dive site and everyone was quick to get at it. Ina was still feeling a little sea sick so we tried a little snorkeling first. The water was warm, crystal clear and there were lots of corals and things to see but a little too deep to reach. We put on the tanks and tried a dive but didn't have enough weight. This was the first time we had tried our wetsuits and they were more buoyant than we realized. Ina started to feel quite ill so we called it quits after about 10 minutes.

After everyone had returned to the boat we traveled to the next island which was about 3 hours away. This one, called Pulau Repong was larger, tree covered and had a couple of sandy beach areas. Ipulau_repong did a 45-minute dive with two others (Mark & Tony) as Ina was not up to it. We took the dinghy several hundred meters up current and had the current carry us back to the boat which made for a very relaxing dive. Spent most of the time at about 40 feet but went down to 65 feet a couple of times as we followed the edge of the reef. The water was very clear and we saw lots of small fish, corals, anemones, starfish and other marine life including a small moray eel. As this was my first "real" dive I was quite impressed with everything and quite comfortable with being under water. Mark and Tony are quite cautious divers and do not take risks so I was quite comfortable diving with them.

We stayed just offshore Pulau Repong overnight and several of the divers did a night dive. It was lovely being moored beside a small tropical island, a warm breeze, gentle seas and lots of stars. Later in the evening a very large bright moon came up from behind the island and lit everything up.

pulau_bowahWe left this island first thing in the morning and traveled to Pulau Bowah which is about as close to a tropical paradise as you're likely to find. It consisted of two main islands and several small low islands and reefs that formed a lagoon. Clear blue and green water, coconut palm trees, sandy beaches and jungle vegetation higher up. The total length of the islands may have been as much as 3 kilometers. No other people or boats anywhere. (In fact we saw no boats or signs of other people until we got back to the shipping lanes on the last day).

I went for a reef dive with 4 other divers (Yen, Cheong, Sue and Kitty), all different from my previous dive and much less cautious, particularly Yen who is always in more of a hurry. We were down for 40 minutes at an average of 60 feet to a maximum of 80 feet. This made me a little nervous as the PADI dive books stressed that divers should not go beyond 60 feet unless they had a deep diving certification. I had a little panic type attack at about the 15-minute mark which had me quite worried and I almost surfaced. I got everything under control and slowed down my breathing and was fine for the rest of the dive. Not a pleasant feeling and I can understand how a person could get into serious trouble if they were to panic.

After the morning dive the boat moved into the larger lagoon and we stayed there for a couple of hours and several people went snorkeling and visited one of the small islands. In mid afternoon we moved again and anchored on a reef in a sheltered bay next to a high cliff. Ina and I went for a 45-minute dive along the edge of the reef at about 45 feet. Saw a lot more fish than on the previous dives and larger corals. Went into an easy current then drifted back to the boat. Spectacular! That night I went on a night dive with Mark. The area below the boat was quite bright with a surrealistic glow from the boats' floodlights. As we left lit area under the boat it became pitch black except for the flashlights we were carrying. It reminded me of the darkness found in a cave - absolute. There were different fish than during the day and you could follow them with the flashlight beam. I saw an anemone type of animal that was sticking straight up about 12 to 15 inches. When the light beam first fell on it, it turned toward the light and then slowly shrank to less than a quarter of its original size. It's much more difficult to orient yourself in the dark by both direction and depth and a couple of times we found ourselves at the surface. This dive lasted about 50 minutes to a maximum depth of 60 feet.

On Sunday morning we moved to a reef called Batu Katoaka (2º 25'N - 105º 51'E). The only land (barely) visible was a couple of small islands on the horizon. I went for a 55-minute dive with Mark and Tony. Averaged about 40' to a maximum of 60'. This was the most spectacular reef yet. Large "table top" corals, some up to 20' across, large areas of "stag" coral, many fish, some in large schools, huge rocks teaming with life and very clear water. There was quite a strong current, which we went out into and we ended up quite far from the boat when we surfaced. I was completely out of air by the time we finished so I felt the sensation of having to suck the air out of the tank that had been talked about during the training. I had been watching my pressure gauge closely so it was not a surprise, however, it was interesting to note how quickly the air gets used up when you only have a couple of hundred pounds compared to the 3,000 lbs. you start with. The crew picked us up in the dinghy and we were back in the boat and under way to the final dive sight by 11:00am.

The last dive was a wreck and I didn't decide to go until we had arrived and anchored. It was deep as the top of the funnel was at 95', 150' over the stern and on the seabed at 210'. The wreck is at 2º 15'N and 104º 57’E and was in sight of a small island (Pulau Tokongmalangbiru I think). We were told that the wreck was the Seven Seas, a Swedish tanker launched in 1966. It was 97,950 DWT, 830' long, x 128' x 59' and blew apart and sank on October 6, 1969. It was described to us as the “third largest shipping loss of all time” – I have not been able to confirm any of this information.
 
The skipper of the MV Empress brings divers to the wreck occasionally so had set up a line to it with a mooring buoy just under the water surface. They couldn't find the buoy so sent one of the crew down to find it and set a line to the top deck of the wreck. One of the crew was going down and offered to go with me as I was quite uncertain about going down so deep as was one of the other new divers. The plan was that Steve would lead and we would follow the line down so we could see the wreck and if we felt comfortable we would go further but stay with him and let him know when it was far enough. Great plan!

The current was quite strong on the way down and the visibility was only limited to about 50' so we were quite deep by the time we finally got a good look at the wreck but we proceeded down the line to the upper deck and the current disappeared. Both Sue and I still felt comfortable so we dived over the side and down to the next lower deck which was the bridge area. We went down another deck level and I thought to check my depth gauge - 140'. This made me feel very uncomfortable and I started breathing quite heavily. Sue was having a problem and was getting a little panicky so I took her by the arm and turned to signal Steve. Just then he took off deeper and as we had agreed to stay close and because Sue was getting panicky I thought it best to follow. It turned out he had speared a fish and went to get it. Anyhow, we caught up to him and signaled to go up. Sue started to calm down after we got closer to the upper bridge and by then I was feeling much better but didn't want to hang around much so we started for the surface using the mooring old line which we had found rather than the newly set line as Steve wanted to see where it came to the surface. I was leading as we went up and I had the distinct impression that the line had changed from straight up to horizontal and then to down.

I was only partly concerned with the fact that I felt I was going down again because our scuba lessons had stressed how easy it was to get disoriented under water and I figured that was my problem. It wasn't because the rope was going down. Steve signaled to leave it and swim to the surface. By this time we were at about 60' and when we surfaced we were quite far from the boat. The dinghy came and picked us up. As we were waiting I checked my depth gauge and the maximum depth indicator needle was beyond 160' which is its' maximum reading. Steve had a dive computer and said we had gone to 52 meters (170'). In total we were under water for less than 20 minutes. Apparently Sue had started to get narced (nitrogen narcosis) because she had been experiencing sudden and severe tunnel vision. One of the girls in the other group of divers had actually run out of air while on the wreck and had to buddy breathe to the surface so we were all lucky.

If you ignore the near accidents and possible death or injury, it was quite a dive. It's an eerie feeling to see the wreck come into view as you get closer to it, particularly because this one was so huge. As we got to it and started going from deck to deck I began to realize how massive the wreck was. The stern area, which had the bridge, crew quarters etc. and which was the major part that was still intact was small compared with the forward part of the ship, probably 80% of its length, which was the oil storage tanks. Everything forward of the bridge had been badly damaged in the explosion. There is lots of marine growth over everything and masses of fish had been attracted to it because it forms a type of reef. There is obvious damage to what is left as you can swim right into the bridge and it was in the tank area where Steve speared the fish so we were swimming between, under and around beams, decking cables etc.

PADI offers advanced courses for anyone who is interested in deep diving beyond 60 (PADI limits all recreational diving to 130'), night diving, wreck diving, drift diving, boat diving or under water photography. So far I haven't taken any pictures but I've done everything else without the proper certification - not a good boy eh!