Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Ups and Downs of the Komodo Islands

Sorry for the long delay for this post, I've been having quite a hard time writing this one. Our visit to Komodo was very up and down, with some really amazing things, and some really unpleasant things. So it's been a harder one to write up. We also don't have that many pictures from this time due to a camera mishap which you'll read about soon. But to see the ones we did take, click here.

Kanawa Island
After leaving Bali, we flew to Labjuan Bajo which is a small Indonesian island to the east. We stayed there for one very rainy night, before taking a 2 hour boat ride to Kanawa Island. We had great hopes for this island. It was very small, comprised of accommodations, a small restaurant and a dive shop. It seemed perfect, and it was beautiful. 

Diving the House Reef
We had a bit of trouble getting the dive shop to arrange for us to dive. Turns out they were closing in a few days, and so all the staff didn't have much incentive to provide service, and were more focused on doing some last dives themselves. That being said, we had one day diving out around the islands, which was pretty fun. The currents all around are very very strong, so I was quite nervous, but we followed all the safety briefing instructions and were fine. Another day when we couldn't get a boat dive arranged, we did a guided dive of the house reef, which allowed us to rent equipment and then later in the day do out first solo dive. It was pretty interesting and fun. We were both very focused on navigating and checking each other and doing all the things to keep us safe, that we didn't find any fish! But it was a really great learning experience and we were very happy to have done it. It helped us become more confident, and was great to have under our belts when we got to the Maldives. 

Rinca Island
Another day we went on a boat trip to see the Komodo dragons, which was a big part of why we ventured to the area. We were on a boat with 8 others, and were heading to Rinca, which is the only island other than Komodo itself that has the dragons. It's supposed to be a more picturesque island. The set up is kind of funny, they have this big gate with statues near the dock, but then you walk a long ways across a field before you get to the ranger station. We payed all the fees, and headed out on our guided trek. You go with two guides - one in front of the group and one behind, both with big sticks, in case any dragons come around. The first dragons we saw were a bit disappointing, they were lounging asleep under the kitchen hut. We'd read that this often happened because their sense of smell is so heightened, that even though the rangers don't feed them, they know where the food is. 

Komodo Dragon under the Ranger hut
Small Male Komodo Dragon

We then saw a baby male dragon - about 1.5 metres long, running along through the woods near us. It was cool to see how he moved, and such, but he was a bit small. After many pictures, we kept going. We saw some wild water buffalos, one wading in the water and one blocking the trail we were supposed to take - needless to say we took a detour. Which ended up being great, as a large female Komodo dragon ended up coming up the path towards us, before veering off and stopping in the woods just near us, so we could take some pictures, before carrying on. They're very impressive creatures, but you have to stay so far away because they're so dangerous, it's hard to get their full effect. 

Large Female Komodo Dragon
After the trip, everyone was extremely hot, from the high temperatures and the long walk. So we asked the boat guide to take us to a snorkeling spot before lunch. We arrived, and all jumped in, Jerome did a small dive down to see a turtle, came up and gave me a panicked look. He reached into the pocket of his swimsuit, and pulled out our soaking wet camera.... Disaster! He went back to the boat, took out the card and battery and hung it all to dry, hoping for the best. We weren't very optimistic about the camera, but were crossing our fingers about the memory card. We rinsed everything in fresh water and put it in a ziploc bag with lots of silica packets and left it. We had computer access in the Maldives but it looked like all our files were corrupt, so we were very sad, but luckily when we got home, Jerome managed to salvage them all on his computer, so we can share all these neat pictures. 

Our Accomodation
Our accommodation on the island was a small hut with a mattress and a mosquito net, and sort of blinds you could raise up or down. Our view was of the beach which was really great. It was very warm in the day and at night, so we would raise them up to try and get a breeze. We were fine the first two nights, but on the third, just as we were getting into the bed, I saw something scurry across it... we moved the sheet, and it was a cockroach... Gross! We got it out, and tried to assure ourselves it was a one time thing, since we hadn't seen any the first two nights. It took us about 1/2 an hour to get all settled and sleepy again, when something ran up my shoulder. Needless to say, I freaked out a bit, and sure enough, it was another one... So we sat with the light on again for another half hour on the lookout, but didn't see anything. So we tried going to sleep again, and again, something climbed up my other shoulder. Another cockroach! At this point, I'd had quite enough, and got out of our hut. We poked around and couldn't see any more, but I wasn't getting back in there. We took our flashlights and explored the island a bit - there were a few hammocks around that we were hoping we could use to sleep, but they were all already full of other sleepers who were too warm in their huts or cabins. We eventually found a massage bed under a hut, and wedged ourselves on it, for a few short hours of uneasy sleep. 

This big guy decided to try and hitchhike on our pack... we weren't amused,

In the morning, we decided that with both the cockroaches and the inability to do the diving that we wanted, that we'd be better off leaving the island, as we couldn't see spending another 2 days there. We spoke to the reception, and they assured us, they'd spray the hut with pesticide and we wouldn't see any more. But we decided that enough was enough. We talked to some others who were also leaving, who had the exact same thing happen to them! Also on their third night. So our deduction is that they spray pesticide when they change the sheets, and it lasts for about 48 hours, so that on your third night, they come back. 

You have to admit, even with the bugs, it was a beautiful place
So we left Kanawa and took the boat back to Labjuan Bajo, I was a bit worried that we didn't have a place to stay lined up, but we had seen a cool dive shop called Blue Marlin Diving that had a cafe in it when we were in town earlier. So we headed there, got a nice cold drink, and used their internet to book a room, and then we arranged with them to dive the next day. They were super helpful! So we ate some dinner, and then headed to the hotel. It had a real bed, and no bugs in it, it was lovely! 

Eerie sky from the volcano
Next day we went diving with Blue Marlin, we saw some pretty cool things, beautiful islands, and had a great time. So we booked again for the next day. That night unbeknownst to us, a nearby volcano erupted. When we got up to eat breakfast at the hotel, we noticed they kept brushing dust of the plates, and had the food set up inside instead of outside and the sky was a really weird gray colour. We found out about the volcano and that we were basically underneath the ash cloud, which was slowly falling all around. Everyone in the streets had dust masks, it was quite surreal. We headed to the dive shop, and they said we'd go anyways to check it out and find some good spots. The first place we went was crazy! The falling ash was all suspended in the water, making the visibility quite poor. But the bottom of the ocean was also covered, so all the colourful coral of the day before had a thick layer of gray ash over it all. It was very apocalyptic looking! We saw a poor flat flounder fish trying to camouflage on the sea floor, but who was leaving a perfect trail through the ash, so you could see exactly where he was! The dive company called around, and found out that the island we'd dove at the day before was actually outside of the ash cloud, so we headed back there and had another good dive. 

The Ash cloud made it very dark all day, and covered everything in ash

Both us and another couple had flights booked the next day, and so we sat out the third dive and got to talking. It turns out that we'd both just booked the same last minute liveaboard to the Maldives the night before! What are the chances of that! We had a lot of fun talking with them and had a lot in common, so were very anxious to get to spend a week with Mimi and Chris in the future! They also write a cool blog about their trip which is super epic - a whole year long trip! Check it out if you have a chance, you might even find us in a few of their posts! 

Traditional Dance the hotel put on.
While we were at dinner that night we heard about the airport having been closed all day, and that they didn't know if flights would go out the next day. The airport there is pretty tiny, and not very high tech, so we couldn't find a way to confirm. So next day we packed up and headed to the airport. All flights were still cancelled, and the person we spoke to said he'd call us when we got re-booked. No real timeline or anything. So, we went back to the hotel and got our room back, and spent the day catching up on blogs, our travel log, and reading. The next day we went back to the airport again, and they said we'd maybe go tomorrow, but not to worry, they'd call us. This was getting a bit old, as we had to keep packing up etc. and we couldn't dive as you can't dive within 24 hours of flying, but we didn't know when we'd end up flying! This time they said they'd pay for our hotel room, since they just couldn't get any extra flights in. We didn't want to have another wasted day, so we went back to Wicked Diving and decided to get certified for Nitrox which is a different blend of gas, that allows you to stay down longer and more safely as long as you follow certain guidelines. We also got to see a traditional dance at the hotel, which was really interesting. 

The volcano from our flight!

That night we got a call saying that we were scheduled on a flight the next day. We asked about our connecting flight, and they told us they'd deal with it later. So after another dinner and night at the hotel we headed once again to the airport. Got all checked in, and tried to find out again about our connecting flight. They assured us that they'd sort it out at the next airport, as the system was down here. We flew out, and almost right over the volcano that had erupted, a bit freaky, but all went well. After waiting in many lines and talking to many people we finally managed to get on a connecting flight to Yogyakarta. We were supposed to have had 4 days there, but we were only going to have 1 now. We spent the flight figuring out how to see what we wanted in such a short time. 

Overall, the Komodo island experience was very up and down, we saw some really cool stuff, and met some great people, but then there was the cockroaches, the drowned camera and the long volcano delay. All in all it was definitely a memorable experience!  

Click here to see our complete album from Komodo.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How we edit and organize our pictures

We've been using Adobe Lightroom to organize and edit our pictures.  We've been trying to take most of our pictures as RAWs.  This means that your pictures take up considerably more space (~15 MB) than a normal JPEG (1-3 MB), but edits on RAWs tend to look a lot better then if you were editing the JPEG directly.  For a more in-depth discussion of the tradeoffs, SLR Lounge has a pretty good article on the differences between the two formats.

Editing makes a pretty big difference to some pictures - particularly underwater photos, and photos that were over or underexposed.

Here's an example of one of our pictures from the summit of Mount Kinabalu (you can click to enlarge).  On the left is the original, unedited picture.  The center panel shows the result of increasing the brightness on the JPEG vs increasing the brightness on the RAW in the final panel.  All that I did to this picture was increase the exposure.

Original, edited JPEG, edit RAW
Here's an example of one of my jellyfish pictures from our dive at Point Lobos. I took a lot more artistic liberty with this photo. Red light penetrates water the least, so underwater pictures tend to have a bit of a bias towards green. I made it a lot bluer - probably bluer than the water actually was.  I also played around a bit with the exposure, whites, blacks, shadows and highlights - basically to try to get the jellyfish to standout a bit more.

Original (left) and edited (right) version picture of a jellyfish
Here's what lightroom looks like.  This is in "develop" mode - most of what I'm doing just involves moving the sliders around and seeing what I like best.

Laura's has a copy of Adobe Photoshop as well.  Photoshop is a lot more sophisticated and works on a per-photo basis; it doesn't have any of the album management features that Lightroom provides.  If you do decide to start shooting in RAW and you're looking for an easy way to organize and edit your photos give Lightroom a try (Adobe offers a free 30-day trial)!

PS.  Thanks to Marta and Kim for suggesting Lightroom to us (and convincing us that shooting in RAW is worthwhile).

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Diving at Point Lobos

Jerome -- The only time that Laura and I dived in Northern California was in February when we were getting our Open Water Certification.  Those dives spent the majority of the time doing the dive training exercises. So this was our first "real" fun diving back at home.

Laura opted to go with a full drysuit.  It creates a watertight seal around your neck and wrists and in theory keeps you a lot warmer in cold water.  The downside is that a dry-suit is more complicated, more expensive, harder to maintain buoyancy (at least for a drysuit beginner) requires you to wear a lot more weights (to offset the air in the suit. I really disliked the choking feeling from the neck seal, so I opted to wear a wetsuit (varying in thickness from 8mm - 5mm).  Water on the surface wasn't too bad - even when we hung out on the surface for 30 minutes waiting for everyone to get properly weighted etc, the cold wasn't too bad.  But at the bottom it was cold - only 11°C!!  Both Laura and I noticed that we moved and functioned considerably slower in the cold water.

What did we get to see?  On the surface, we saw an otter, a sea lion, and pelican.  Down below, there were lots of pretty big jelly fish, nice anemones, fish, lots of kelp -- an a friendly seal that came by to check us out!  Visibility wasn't great -- I'd guess about 3m or so. And because it was so cold, our dives weren't too long - around 30 minutes rather than the hour we'd generally do in warm water.  On the surface, the rocking of the waves on the little zodiacs was pretty unpleasant -- I think most of the people on the boat were feeling some degree of seasickness.

Not sure how often we'll be braving the cold to scuba dive out here in the future.  It's a very unique marine environment, but its a lot of time and effort for the fairly short dives and the cold a low visibility make it a bit less rewarding.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Beautiful Bali

View of Mount Kinabalu in the distance from our dive boat in Kota Kinabalu
(This is a post that Laura wrote up after we visited Bali, but we didn't end up posting it because I went snorkeling with our non-waterproof-camera in my pocket.  After several tries, I was luckily able to recover all of our pictures!)

Album of all bali photos

Laura -- After leaving the jungle, we headed back to Kota Kinabalu for 3 fun days of diving. We'll post more about the diving once we get home and can easily see the videos and photos.

We caught a flight from there to Bali, Indonesia and headed straight to Ubud for about five days. The first place we stayed was right beside the Monkey Forest. So naturally, we spent an afternoon there. The monkeys seemed to particularly enjoy climbing on Jerome. There were all sizes and personalities and we spent several hours watching them.  Here's a couple of them:

More monkey videos in my YouTube playlist.

The next day we took a cooking class at Paon Bali. It began with a market visit where we learned about and tasted the different fruits from the area, such as mangosteens (our favorite) and salak. Then we were put to work - slicing, dicing, and grinding ingredients. Puspa the head chef led us in cooking nine traditional dishes! If you're curious, here's an online copy of the recipes. At the end we got to eat our spoils, and it was a very tasty feast!

Market selling the ingredients to prepare the traditional balinese offerings that are put out every day.

Mangosteens - our delicious!  Our favorite 'exotic' fruit.

Salak (aka snake fruit).  Kind of dry and apple-y

Laura, crushing the ingredients to make the basic yellow sauce
Jerome, crushing peanuts to make peanut sauce

Our finished meal
The following day we continued expanding our knowledge, by taking a Batik making class. We arrived at 10am, and didn't finish until 6! We started off by drawing our design on paper. Coming up with the ideas of what to draw was quite a challenge itself. Once we were happy, we transferred it onto an 18" by 36" piece of cotton, also in pencil. Then came the tricky part. You use a special little device that holds wax and lets you draw on the fabric. There's quite a knack to it. If you have too much wax or tip it up too much it leaves a big drip on your picture . If you have too little, it won't write. And if you tip it down too much, it drips boiling wax on your hand! Needless to saw we each had a few drips, but overall did pretty well. Next we used metal stamps in hot wax to make geometric patterns along the border. Once the whole piece was outlined in wax, it was time to paint in the dye. It is a bit like a colouring book picture, except where the wax is now will be left white at the end.

Tracing the outline with wax

Laura adding a border to her batik

Laura's batik - Finished with the wax and ready to color

Jerome's batik - finished with the wax and ready to color

Choosing colours was interesting. There were about 15 colours to choose from, but they didn't all paint on with the colour they'd be in the end. So the pictures looked weird. For example the green dye paints on a dark purple, and then in the chemical setting process turns green. And the reds painted on very faint, but deepened with sun and water exposure. There was a colour wheel to use to figure out what the colours should end up like.

It took a long time but we eventually covered the whole cloth. They had to dry and then were ready for the magic. It was so neat putting them in the setting bath and seeing all the colours change! A few rinses in hot and cold water, and we were done! A very fun and productive day.

Laura's completed batik 
Jerome's batik before setting

Jerome's batik after setting -- note the color changes!
The next day, we were scheduled to go diving, and were up and ready to go by 6:30, only to find out it was canceled. We went back to sleep intending on only sleeping for an hour or so, but didn't wake up until the afternoon. So we explored the main street. Very interesting as every shop, house, car, moped has a small offering on it to the spirits. It was also only a few days before Galungan day - a biannual holiday to give thanks to the gods. So everyone was busy making decorations and more complicated offerings for that along the road. After dinner we attended a traditional Kecak and fire dance which was quite impressive. A large circle of men perform a rhythmic chant while dancers act out the story of the Ramayana.

Our last day in Ubud was a bit of a splurge. We'd found this hotel, the Royal Kamuela Villa, with these beautiful villas and decided to stay for one night. We had a private pool, a king sized bed, a bathroom the size of the bedroom. It included afternoon tea, bedtime chocolates and a welcome foot massage. It was heavenly!

That night we also decided to go fancy for dinner and tried Locavore, which had really great food!

Best dish was this bloody mary sorbet with tomato consomme.  Warm soup, cold bloody mary sorbet, super flavorful.

Slow braised oxtail / pan-fried gnocchis / green asparagus & sorrel veloute / egg plant puree / wood sorrel leaves
That wrapped up our time in Ubud, and we reluctantly tore ourselves out of our pool and headed to Amed - on the east coast of Bali. We did a quick stop at a water temple on the way.

In Amed we stayed in a very cute, very efficiently run guesthouse called Geria Geri Shanti. It was also a dive shop, and we spent 5 days there, completing 12 dives, including our first night dives which was very interesting.  Other highlights included diving with huge Manta rays and seeing our first Pygmy seahorses!

There's a lot more pictures in our album!