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SS President Coolidge
Humpback Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga
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Monday, September 29, 2014

SS President Coolidge

The SS President Coolidge was built in 1931 as a cruise and merchant ship. From 1940 to 1942 it was used by the US military to evacuate citizens and transport troops. In 1942 it was finally converted into a true troopship and equip with guns. On 26 October 1942 it hit two friendly mines when navigating towards Luganville in Espiritu Santo. The captain tried to beach the ship and almost everyone could be safely evacuated. However, because a coral reef was in the way, the ship ended up slipping back into the water shortly afterwards.

Nowadays, it lies on its side in shallow water and offers perfect conditions for divers. This was the main reason why I traveled all the way to Espiritu Santo.

Once in town I hooked up with Allan Power Dive Tours. Allan Power, now retired from diving, is the leading expert on the Coolidge, with over 15'000 dives logged. I was lucky enough that it was reasonably quiet at the time so I got a personal dive guide for most of my dives and thus we were able to explore the wreck to its fullest and slowly extend my experience with deep dives. Even though the wreck starts at 15 meters, the interesting things are normally to be found close to or past 40 meters.


After an intriguing introduction dive where we stayed on the outside and looked at the different guns the Coolidge was equipped with, we ventured on our first penetration dive to visit The Lady. The Lady is a porcelain sculpture that was originally located in the dining room and is now in a more accessible spot for divers.

The next step was a visit to the engine room at 46 meters, where we could still see the gages set for full steam ahead.

Venturing deeper we visited the outside pool at 54 meters, which has an interesting mosaic floor, but which gave me some trouble counting all the different colors used ;).

Since that dive went well, we ventured into the Galley, which is located at 55 meters, where a large number of China bowls were still present, together with three huge cooking pots.

A short visit to Cargo Hold 6 & 7, revealed an immense spare propeller blade and boxes of ammunition, and set a new depth record of 56.9 meters.

Another highlight of the Coolidge are it's night dives, where you venture into Cargo Hold 2 at 30 meters without lights to see a spectacular show displayed by Flashlight Fish. It felt like being in a disco :).

My last dive day brought it all together. We swam on the surface until the end of the ship, where we descended and were greeted by the two resident Hawksbill Turtles. We then entered Cargo Hold 7 and progressed inside the ship past Cargo Hold 6, the Galley, Cargo Hold 3, B- and C-Deck and out through the Chain Locker. Completing a 200 meters inside traversal of the whole wreck with a maximum depth of 58.4 meters. Once we exited the wreck my computer showed 26 minutes deco time after 26 minutes diving, and it took 53 minutes until we were clear to exit the water.

I had a fantastic time diving the Coolidge and would like to thank Allan Power's team for making it such a memorable experience!

Unfortunately, my underwater housing only goes to 40 meters, so I don't have too many pictures of these dives, but the pictures I have can be found in this web album.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Humpback Whales in the Kingdom of Tonga

In the Kingdom of Tonga, one of the few South Pacific countries that was never conolized, we boarded the wonderful liveaboard Nai'a for a ten-day trip to the Humpback Whales in the Ha'apai Group.

We had a fantastic times with many whale sightings both above and below water.

Highlights were when we could spend close to an hour with a mother and her calf. While the mother rested the calf curiously swam up to us and then back to her mother again.

Later we spotted a Heat Run, that is a competition between several males for one female. It lasted over three hours with spectacular displays of tail slapping, pectoral fin slapping and breaching.

To end the perfect trip we had an encounter with four friendly Humpbacks that swam around the boat. We just stayed in the water and waited while they swam by repeatedly. One of them was particularly adventurous and repeatedly showed us his belly, swimming past underneath us on his back.

It was an unbelievable experience, seeing those huge animals navigate effortlessly through the water and even lifting their whole weight of 50 - 80 tons out of the water for spectacular breaches.

In addition to all the whale watching and snorkling we also did a couple of dives. However, diving in Tonga is not as good as other parts in the world, so if we had to choose between diving and whales I always selected the whales (at least after day 3). Nevertheless, we did see some interesting things on the dives. My highlights were Dogtooth Tuna hunting a school of fusiliers and a Corrallimorph Deocrator Crab.


I could go into much more detail what we saw on each day, but Joshua and Amanda, the cruise directors, already did a perfect job of that, so if you are interested what else we saw then I can highly recommend the following blogpost.

All my pictures can be found in this webalbum.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

Sharks in Fiji

Right after leaving Fiji two years ago I vowed to return to see the Bull Sharks. And so it was a happy coincidence, that the first part of my group tour to Tonga accommodated 9 days in Fiji with 3 Shark Dive Days!

But first we went on a regular "check" dive. Since we were an advanced group, we went straight for the outer reefs where we explored the wreck of Tasu 2.

On Monday it was time for the first two Shark Dives. For the first dive we went down to 25.5 meters and we encountered more fish than we expected. First of all we spotted many Bull Sharks, Sicklefin Lemon Sharks and Tawny Nurse Sharks. Even an elusive Silvertip Shark swam by in the distance and after the feeding ended we spotted a Whitetip Reef Shark cruising along the reef.

For the second dive we went down to 18.5 meters and saw even more Bull and Tawny Nurse Sharks. In addition we spotted the elusive Blacktip Reef Shark.

On Tuesday, another regular dive day was planned and we went out to Frigates, which boasts one of the worlds most famous breaks, which many surfers frequent. For divers it offers many interesting swimmthroughs and a nice wall dive.

On the way back we had a real highlight! Pilot Whales were spotted and we were able to go into the water and snorkel with them! We saw several smaller groups of up to 9 whales and even a mother with her calf! That was a promising start, considering we expect to see many more whales in Tonga :).

On Wednesday, the second Shark Dive Day came around. This time the Silvertip and Blacktip Reef Sharks stayed away, but there was enough action from the other specimens and so it was another memorable two dives!

Thursday was a day of relaxation, which I spent at the pool reading books :).

Friday meant our last day of diving in Fiji and it was another Shark Dive. The first dive was spectacular! At first a Sicklefin Lemon Shark swam right past me and then four Silvertip Sharks turned up and came really close to the divers. They mainly cruised around behind us, which had the advantage that they were easier to spot than all the other sharks which were cruising around the bait.

During the last dive there was a lot of activity again. But one of the highlights was when a guide showed me a Stonefish in the reef during the safety stop.

We had a fantastic time in Fiji, the Shark Dives were definitely worth coming here. The other dive sites were nice, but there wasn't as much fish or soft coral as we would have expected. Nevertheless, for Shark friends, this place is a must visit!

The Waidroka Bay Resort had very friendly and helpful staff. They also drove with their own boat to the Shark Dive, which was an advantage, even though the trip took almost 55 minutes one way.

All pictures can be seen in my webalbum.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

California: Best of

After one week in California and 1'068 miles in a rental car it is time for a short review. These are the things I enjoyed most:

1) Scuba Diving in Santa Catalina Island
2) Hiking in Muir Woods
3) Driving the Pacific Coast Highway (State Route 1) between Morro Bay and Monterey (driving from North to South offers the better view, as you are on the correct side of the road ;) )
4) Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park
5) Six Flags Magic Mountain

All pictures from California can be found in my webalbum.

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Six Flags Magic Mountain: Riding Rollercoasters till your dizzy

As a big fan of Roller-coasters, I forewent the standard visits to the Universal Studios and Disneyland and visited Six Flags Magic Mountain instead.

As it turned out, I picked the perfect day, there were very few people and so standing in line was the exception rather than the rule. In most cases I could walk right up to the gate and board with the next wave. Sometimes I chose to wait out up to two waves to catch front-row or rear-row seating.

In that way, I managed to visit the big 9 thrill-coasters within 4 hours (including a lunch break), some of which i rode twice. On the Screamer I could even stay seated in the front row because there was no one else in line!

The weather meant it well too. Too well... It was almost unbearably hot and every time I spied the Hurricane Harbour water-park next door, I was envious of the people who could cool down in the pools and on the slides, but one cannot have everything ;).

After 6 hours my head was shaken through enough and I enjoyed a wonderful ice cream before heading back to Los Angeles and my plane to Fiji.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yosemite National Park: Small animals and large trees

My next planned stop was Yosemite National Park, the oldest piece of land which was put under protection by a US State and was later turned into an official National Park.

The views on the way to the park were already quite stunning, but Yosemite Valley could easily top that with memorable mountain formation and large wooded areas.


Since it was late August and Yosemite Falls was dried up, it is fed by snow-melt and there was no snow left, I decided to hike around Mirror Lake, which of course was also dried up, but it still offered a nice view ;). The beginning of the trail looked like an official bear restroom, there were so many droppings around, that one had to be careful not to step in it. However, I didn't catch a bear in the act, or for that matter, a bear doing anything. Instead I spotted grey squirrels, a lizard and colorful birds. Later in the day we also spotted deer and a chipmunk. So from a wildlife perspective there was definitely something going on, even if it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

Leaving Yosemite Valley I made a quick stop at tunnel view, which offered a spectacular perspective on the valley.

Before leaving the park completely, I stopped at Mariposa Grove, home to the famous Giant Sequoias. They can get several thousands of years old and only die when they are uprooted by a heavy storm. But even then they do not decompose, so the trees that fell over 50 years ago look like it had happened yesterday.

For that reason it is also possible for it to live on with huge holes in them, either man-made as in the case of the Tunnel Trees, the California Tunnel Tree being the only one left, or due to several repeated forest fires, as can be seen with the Clothespin Tree.



Since I did not have enough time to hike to all those trees on my own, the trail is listed with 3 hours and the last shuttle back to my car left within 2 hours, so I had to take one of the costly tram tours, however, I learned a lot about the trees on this tour, so in the end it was money well invested. Rumor has it that these tours will be shut down in the coming year(s) to better protect the trees, so if you visit too late you should definitely plan to bring enough time for this part of Yosemite.

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San Francisco: Up the Hill and down the Hill

In Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco, I rented a bike and took the ferry to the city. On the way we slowed down so that everyone could take pictures of the famous Alcatraz prison, which I didn't visit, because tickets are regularly sold out 3-weeks in advance.

It sounded like a good idea at the time. Biking across SF, finding a couple of Caches and returning across the Golden Gate Bridge.

What I did not fully realize at the time was, that San Francisco was so extremely hilly!


Approaching the first Cache, which was located in Coit Tower, left me winded and I ended up pushing and carrying the bike up the street and up stairs! But the effort was well worth it. Inside Coit Tower one can see beautiful murals depicting different aspects of life in and around the city during the 1930s.

Next came a fun down-hill part to Pier 39, which is just packed with tourists, restaurants, shops and, hidden to one side, sea lions! What a ruckus they made!



Something everyone thinks off first when San Francisco is mentioned, or maybe second after the free love movement of the 60s ;), is Lombard street. So I collected my strength and pushed the bike uphill again... Driving down Lombard street, was an exercise in breaking, but still an interesting experience :).

After another speedy down-hill bit, I ended up at the Community Gardens near the Seafront. In a secluded little spot, a garden community has found it's home, and right in the middle of it, the oldest continuous Cache in SF :).

Riding along the waterfront, with an evil oncoming wind making my live difficult, brought me to the Golden Gate Bridge. But since I still had time, I rode on past it to China Beach and Land's End. I couldn't really enjoy the downhill part, knowing well that I had to bike that up again :(... But it offered me a nice alternate view of the Bridge.

After a long and arduous climb back up the hill again, I reached the Golden Gate Bridge and biked across it. Unfortunately, we had to use the westbound lane, so views of the city were obstructed by 6 lanes of traffic.

A short stretch on the other coast, which went first down- then up- and then downhill again, I reached Sausalito again and duly returned the bike.

Together with the morning hike, that had been a long, strenuous but also very entertaining day!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pacific Coast Highway: From LA to SF and beyond

After leaving the ferry from Santa Catalina Island I picked up my rental car and started driving North. But rather than getting there as fast as possible, I chose the more scenic Route 1, which is also known as Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Sections of this Highway were first constructed in the 1930s and most of the bridges built back then are still standing today.

Since it was already late afternoon, I followed the PCH to Oxnard. On the way I passed many beautiful beaches and a lot of traffic...

Early the next morning I continued North, making a first stop in Santa Barbara to admire a gigantic fig tree, which is 138 years old! Next to the tree you can see a historic rail car.
The PCH then continued mainly inland through common countryside, which wasn't too remarkable. At Morro Bay, we reached the ocean again and the landscape started to become very intriguing. It reminded me a bit of the Swiss mountains, just with an ocean next to it.

After this picturesque stretch the road flattened out again and we came to a beach with a big Elephant Seal population and very inquisitive squirrels.


Then we came back into the hills again and in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Statepark I saw a beautiful small beach with a waterfall.




But also the regular coastline offered spectacular views.
After so many natural wonders, I stopped in Castroville to marvel at something man built. The World's largest Artichoke!



I drove all the way North past San Francisco to San Rafael, where I met up with friends from Carnegie Mellon University and spent a relaxing Sunday.

Early the next morning I went to the Muir Woods, a State Park with a large population of impressive Redwood trees. In addition I also spotted a shy rabbit and a couple of grey squirrels.
Muir Woods is well known as a location for famous movies, such as Return of the Jedi and Vertigo.

After a strenuous 1.5 hour hike, I joined the PCH for a last time to drive back in the direction of San Francisco.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Santa Catalina Island: Under Water and Above the Trees

Santa Catalina island is just a short one-hour ferry-ride from Los Angeles and thus it is a very popular destination for vacations and day trips. My reason for going there was scuba diving. Santa Catalina is part of the Channel Islands which are well known for their Kelp Forests and wildlife.

In Avalon, the largest city on the island, an Underwater Dive Park was established in 1964 to protect the flora and fauna as well as facilitate diving. And so a large stair was recently built which makes this one of the easiest shore dive destinations I've seen so far.

Right after descending I spotted the Kelp Forest, which looked amazing, especially swimming in between the huge kelps was very interesting.
There were also many fish around. The Garibaldi, the official state fish of California, was omnipresent.
We then continued along the shore towards deeper waters and were visited by two huge Sea Bass, each almost two meters in size!
After 52 minutes the first dive was over and we rested for another 52 minutes before starting the second one.

On the second dive we visited some of the wrecks which can be found on the ocean floor. We were diving along, when I suddenly spotted something shark shaped, which I hadn't encountered before. It had a spike or horn in front of its fins and was laying very still on the ocean floor. I later learned that this was a Horn Shark, one of the few Sharks who can breathe while laying motionless on the ocean bottom, and thus it is resting during the day.
Our dive guide also spotted an Octopus, which was hiding inside one of the wrecks.
After 52 minutes it was time to leave the water again. But I wasn't finished for the day yet.

At 8pm we met again for a night dive. That was a very special experience, because with all the kelp it was sometimes difficult to see the other diver's lights! But fortunately, I always found my group again. ;)
At night we spotted dozens of Lobsters who were scurrying about and I also spotted a small snail with it's housing, which I haven't seen so often before.
Unfortunately, we were joined by an inexperienced diver on this night dive and so it ended after only 36 minutes...

Coming to Santa Catalina Island was well worth it. A fantastic experience in very easy diving conditions. I can highly recommend this site to any diver, who isn't afraid of coldish waters (the thermocline dropped to 17° Celsius, the main temperature was 24° Celsius).

The next morning I went for a short Hike looking for a couple of Caches, where I spotted the lines of the Zipline Ecotour. This looked very intriguing to me and so I quickly returned to my room, packed my bags and booked the next tour :).
They had five lines with a maximum length of 335 meters! It was very cool to glide over this interesting landscape and more than 90 meters over the trees. However, after bungy jumping this Spring, the thrill factor of Ziplining didn't really register ;). Nevertheless, it was a cool thing to do.

While exploring Santa Catalina I also discovered signs of the economic downturn, where even well known figures needed to look for new jobs ;)
More pictures can be found in my California web album.








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