A Quick Trip to Redang: Mourning the Coral

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DC  and I went back to Redang to look up some friends for diving. We were there just as the coral bleaching broke out and were incredibly sad at the poor state of the coral. Global warming had taken its toll and the seas were unseasonably warm this time of the year. To upside was only for me as it was warm enough that I didn’t need to wear a wetsuit, the wuss that I am.

Our first dive was a bit of a shock. Whole patches of the coral had gone ghostly white and the patches stretched far and wide across the coralscape as far as the viz allowed us to see. It didn’t help that the water was a bit murky and the usually brightly coloured coral was completely washed out.

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A lot of the hard coral was affected,, including the staghorn that was bleached from its usual tan to sickly yellow to dead white. It was an incredibly sad sight.

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At some places, it wasn’t too bad, but we could already see the bleaching taking its toll on the outer edges. It was so depressing that the yellow sunflower coral that the other divers liked so much did nothing for me, looking to me as if they were pus-filled fungal colonies taking over the reef.

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Yet, not all dive sites were affected. Only some areas hit by the worst conditions of warm water and unfavourable currents suffered badly. On other reefs, it seemed like life went on as normal, with only minimal bleaching that was hardly noticeable.

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At some areas, I pretty much forgot that the bleaching situation was really bad – there was so much coral and fish life.

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But the diving wasn’t always great. Somehow we ran into a lot of poor visibility, especially in the sandy areas where we saw this blue spotted stingray.

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And this crocodile flathead, also in the sand.

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Things got a little better on the coral itself where there were bigger fish like this grouper.

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And on the coral were the pretty brown-banded pipefish that came in pairs, skittering over the reef with cautious movements.

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The soft coral didn’t seem to be very much affected. It was healthy enough that this lionfish took refuge in it, peering placidly out from its sloe-eyes.

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So all wasn’t quite lost as the reef didn’t seem to be all that dead. It appeared to be rebounding despite the dead patches. We were cheered as we continued our diving.

July in Vietnam: The Good at Ha Long Bay

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I’m going to start off with the good stuff that happened at Ha Long Bay. It was a fairly typical package tour where we were packed into minivans and trucked off in the direction of Hai Phong, stopping at the expected craft centre on the way. After being herded up to my junk and getting my passport confiscated for “safekeeping,” we headed out to Ha Long Bay proper. I was rather underwhelmed, mainly because I’d already been to El Nido, the “Ha Long Bay” of the Philippines. Of course El Nido beat this place hands down. However, taking a look at my photos again, Ha Long Bay is undeniably beautiful. It’s just a pity about the greeny-brown water.

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Our first stop was at a cave complex of sorts. I imagine it would’ve been really pretty on its own. Too bad about the garish spotlights in pink, purple and green. I really didn’t appreciate the suspect taste of whichever tourist association that put up those lights. Needless to say, my already bad mood blackened further at that point.

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At least the mood was lifted slightly by the Fun with English signs. Don’t you think it’s cute how they made sure that there was symmetry in the use of phrasal verbs. I know it’s not allowed, but I’d sure like to see how someone could write down a stalactite or draw into one!

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There were plenty of boat vendors trying to sell us wares at obviously exorbitant prices. They made for nice pictures though.

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There was also a completely pointless excursion to catch a glimpse of some local village after which they extorted money from tourists by insisting on a donation to the local school. I wouldn’t have minded donating if I actually got to see the school and meet at least a teacher, but not being let off the little boat till money changed hands was going too far. This was the one time being an inconspicuous solo traveller helped on this cursed tour. I quietly slipped back onto the boat while the others quarreled. At least the gloomy stalactite formations were vaguely picture-worthy.

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The best thing was probably the weather. It was fine for most of the time and even if the water wasn’t clear, the sky was a lovely blue that contrasted against the foliaged cliffs nicely.

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With the cliffs in the distance, it was almost reminiscent of a Chinese watercolour painting. Very pretty indeed.

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We had a little time to canoe in the bay, a nice prospect in the sunset if not for it being horribly dangerous (more later). I bring you this last photo having survived unscathed from nearly being run over by huge junks at the jetty and single-handedly steering a two-man canoe all by my little self back from the sunset.

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Enjoy.

Blue Cheese Biscuits

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I’m going to admit upfront that I’m not the biggest fan of blue cheese. But I wanted to make something a little special for two important men in my life. I knew that it had to be something special and something that wasn’t the usual type of baked good that comes out of my oven. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by getting a recipe from Nigella. (The other “bird” of course being me wanting to try out every single recipe in her book.)

These blue cheese biscuits really rocked, they were aromatic, robust and very tasty. In fact my aunt, who usually just pecks at food, ate up the entire plate of ugly bits after they were warm out of the oven! They’re also a very good introduction to blue cheese. While still tasting emphatically like blue cheese, the biscuits have a more tempered and less punchy in-your-face flavour. While I could only take a bite of blue cheese before getting overwhelmed, I could snack on these little gems for ages. I especially like the green-blue pistachio-y hue of the biscuits, makes them look so pretty in the jar for giving away.

A note of caution: it gets very, very pongy on the preparation and even more so when baking. My cheese-averse mum had to banish herself to the balcony while I made them. A couple of days later, she was still complaining about the smell in the kitchen storeroom (beats me how the smell got there!).

On the ingredients, I’d say don’t buy a very expensive blue like a roquefort. I snagged a schizophrenic blue from Fairprice that was labelled Danish on one side and British on the other for $7 and had cheese to spare. The cheese should probably be quite salty, but if it isn’t, add a pinch of salt. Lastly, Nigella’s recipe called from blue cornmeal. Needless to say, my local supermarket hadn’t any in sight, despite there being both a Cold Storage and a Fairprice Finest (which sucked, it didn’t even have blue cheese!). I resorted to getting some corn thins, a sort of health cracker like rice cakes, and crushing them for a cornmeal substitute. They gave a nice, slightly chewy texture to the biscuits fresh out of the oven. The only(!) problem was that they went soft soon after and needed a little (pongy!) while in the toaster before crisping up nicely. Next time I’ll try doing them with all plain flour instead, or with the prescribed blue cornmeal and tell you the difference.

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Ingredients:

175g blue cheese
100g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
125g plain flour
50g corn thins, crushed to a powder
1 beaten egg for glaze

Method:

  1. Squish the cheese and butter together, then mix in the egg yolk till it forms a pungent blue-green paste. Using your hands, work in flour and corn thin powder till just combined into a soft dough.
  2. Shape into a rough disc, wrap in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour or till ready to bake. It’s a good time to preheat the oven to 200ºC at this point.
  3. After the dough has been nicely chilled, dust a large piece of aluminium foil with flour and roll out the dough to about half cm thickness.
  4. Cut the dough into little squares about 2 by 2 cm. Transfer to a lined tray. Gather together the scraps and roll out and cut. Glaze the biscuits with the beaten egg.
  5. Bake the biscuits for about 10 minutes till just tinged golden at the sides.
  6. Remove and cool on a wire tray. Eat warm or leave to cool and store in an airtight bottle.

Makes about 100.

Layang Layang: Reef Life and Macro

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Don’t think that Layang Layang is only for the pelagics. There’s plenty of macro to be found here, it’s only that sometimes the currents and the wall can be a bit challenging for finding those critters and also getting the perfect shot of that tiny little creature. There was a lot of reef life here, such as this rather surprised looking tomato grouper.

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I was also quite pleased to see one of my favourites, a juvenile black snapper with its characteristic black and white stripes and dots.

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Then there were the fish that insisting on posing for a picture, like this slightly constipated looking pennant bannerfish.

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There were also bottom dwellers like blue-spotted stingrays.

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They always seem to stare up so malevolently at us.

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There were also other fairly amusing fish, like this doublebar goatfish. They like to rest on coral and pretend that they are not there, innocently spacing out, as if if they can’t see us we can’t see them!

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Others showed off their colours beautifully against the coral, like these panda butterflyfish and peacock grouper.

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DC is obsessed with the pufferfish family, just like I’m obsessed with hawkfish. His favourite shot of the whole trip is this seal-faced puffer that he cornered in a coral niche. It’s cute, isn’t it?

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Not so cute is this giant frogfish that has its mouth open in wait for unsuspecting prey. In a split second, it’ll pounce and the prey will be in its belly.

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Far less grotesque were pretty nudibranchs slowly making their way across the coral gardens.

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They were surprisingly hard to spot among the colourful backdrop of coral, but once found, a joy to photograph.

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Far harder to photograph were the pink anemonefish, who were so skittish, this is probably the only decent one I got amongst the tens of shots I took.

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Going down to the seriously macro-level, I found some large whip gobies on a sea fan and thankfully this one wasn’t as shy as my next subject.

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The Denise pygmy seahorses were such a pain to photograph. My camera had great difficulty focussing on the tiny creatures smaller than my fingernail. This one is pregnant and had the tendency to swim to the underside of the sea fan, making it impossible to catch on camera.

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DC got this picture that’s far superior to mine, it’s so beautiful how he managed to capture the eye and its almost serene expression.

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We had some good luck on sandy patches at the house reef at night. There was a flamboyantly coloured Spanish dancer.

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There was also this strange blob of a sea slug oozing its way along.

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Much prettier was this variation of a reeftop pipefish that wiggled its pretty pink tail and didn’t seem to mind the many flashes from our cameras.

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Then there was the bizarrely shaped longhorn cowfish that seemed to have difficulty navigating its way out of this patch of seagrass.

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Back on the coral reef, there were other oddities like this leaf scorpionfish with its glassy white eye staring out at us while swaying back and forth in the water pretending to be a leaf.

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In the anemone were some porcelain crabs, which were quite shy. This one kept scuttling towards the underside of the anemone and it was really hard to keep up with it before it disappeared from sight.

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A rare sight in the coral was this peacock flounder. Normally associated with muck diving, I was thrilled to see this one swim along and then try to rather unsuccessfully camouflage itself on some maze coral. Its googly eyes and patchy colouration gave it away immediately!

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There were also quite a few shrimp and other crustaceans hiding out in crevices. Here’s DC trying to get a good snap of some shrimp.

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They were some kind of orange cleaner shrimp that I have yet to identify, very pretty though!

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Other cleaner shrimp like these commensal shrimp also hung around the same area. Both kinds would come out onto my hand and pick away at dead skin. I suppose it makes good eating for them. And round goes the circle of life!

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There were also these spiny rock lobsters in another hole. I was so tempted to pull them out by their feelers but of course resisted. It’s a pity they were so shy though!

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Back on the surface of the coral reef, we were happy to see the bigger fish thriving. There were plenty of sweetlips about, including these adult harlequin sweetlips that seemed to love giving a mirror mirage by going in pairs above and below the coral.

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Then there was this emperor angelfish that came up to pose for a picture on my last dive. Such an obliging creature!

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And last of the fish, there was this white mouth moray looking out for prey.

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Unfortunately, as this video shows, it’s a bit of FAIL because it got slapped in the face by a passing fish. So much for being a lean, mean predator.

The nicest finale to our dive was getting up close to this turtle. As we approached, the green turtle was facing us and knew full well of our approach. Somehow it didn’t swim away.

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DC got in close enough for a really macro shot of it.

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But then we noticed something odd about the way it was rocking back and forth.

We realised that it was stuck in the coral! For the sake of this turtle, I broke one of the laws of diving – don’t touch any creature – and tugged it gently out. It got free and immediately coasted up towards the surface for a good breath of fresh air.

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It was such a lovely feeling to end our successful series of dives by helping out a stranded turtle.

A Healthy Picnic Lunch

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DC and I went to check out St John’s Island over the weekend. We hopped over from Marina South Pier by ferry. The 45 minutes ferry ride was comfortable and painless compared to the earlier hassle of finding parking at the ferry terminal. It was one of those incredibly hot yet lovely days and it showed off the island beautifully.

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The sky was blue, the clouds fluffy white and the thick growth of trees a deep lively green.

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There wasn’t a great deal to the island, only a research centre for marine studies and a holiday camp. The rest of the island that was accessible to visitors was pretty much a little park, probably equivalent to a zone or two of East Coast beach.

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Still, it was a lovely walk and surprisingly not quite as hot as we expected as most of the way was pretty shady especially a bit further from the beach. It was a lovely little bit of Singapore that was a nicely contradictory combination of well-kept park and forgotten bucolism.

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There were some mangroves along the coast standing upright in the water that was so clean it was almost clear. Only the sand clouded it up slightly.

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We spent a while peering at the little fish darting amongst the stilt roots of the mangroves.

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While there obviously weren’t any roses here, coming here was a good opportunity to stop and smell and observe. And of course test out the macro feature of my new camera!

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There were also cats on the island. Here’s a pretty one watching out warily both for us…

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… and the spooky black cat with scary eyes.

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Then we adjourned to a shady park bench for a very refreshing Thai-inspired salad redolent of mint and lemongrass. The ever-enterprising DC whipped out cold drinks from a little styrofoam box and it completed our meal very nicely. All we needed to do next was head back to the ferry and home, wash up and have an afternoon nap. Bliss.

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Thai-inspired chicken pasta salad

Ingredients:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive or peanut oil (optional)
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
1 cup pasta, cooked
2 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped (optional)
2 large handfuls mint leaves
2 heads baby butterhead lettuce
10 cherry tomatoes, halved

Method:

  1. Combine the fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, stirring to dissolve. I use pellets of palm sugar bought from Myanmar and leave it overnight in the fridge to give the sugar time to dissolve. Taste if you dare at this point to test for balance. It should be incredibly salty, fishy and sour all at the same time. Add more sugar to temper the sourness slightly and more fish sauce or soy sauce if it’s not fishy-salty enough. Don’t worry too much at this stage, you can tweak later too.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the oil, shredded chicken and pasta, then stir in a few spoonfuls of the dressing. Now toss in the lemongrass, chilli and shallot and keep stirring till well combined.
  3. Tear the mint and lettuce leaves into the salad and keep tossing. Taste and add more dressing if necessary. Spoon into a plastic box for storage and keep as cool as possible for your picnic.

Serves 2.

April in The Philippines: Puerto Princesa

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Some members of another church in Singapore were also Michael’s supporters. Knowing that I couldn’t find a room in Puerto Princesa (it was chock full because of a regional sports meet happening at the same time), a pair of ladies very kindly let me stay with them in their hotel room. Not only that, they also shared a queen size bed and let me have the other queen all to myself! It was bliss staying in a nice starred hotel with private toilets after so long.

The next day was Sunday and I went with them to visit one of the Kagayanen churches in Puerto Princesa. Apparently a lot of Kagayanens migrated to the main island and settled in Puerto Princesa.

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We attended the service in the small church…

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… and saw the fruit of Michael’s work in the hands of the Kagayanens. It was lovely to see how happy they were to have the bible in their own mother tongue, in a language that could speak straight to their hearts.

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I also went to have a peek at the Sunday School, where all the children were smiley and happy and enthusiastic.

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Of course, they were far more enthusiastic after Sunday School let out. The lechon was a huge draw for the kids, especially when the adults were hacking it up into juicy, crispy bits.

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As with church and Filippino custom, there was a sturdy table piled with an incredible array and volume of food. The lechon was the first to go as it was everyone’s favourite. Good thing they offered us some morsels first, because after the tray left it, we simply didn’t have a second chance. The rest of the food was really good too, all home made. It was such a great way to sample local food cooked by locals! Let’s see, I had some kind of offal dish, something called kare-kare which was a dish with braised banana hearts, and the usual chicken and fish cooked in unusual ways. And we couldn’t leave till we were groaning, not the table.

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The next day, we took a trip out to Honda Bay for some snorkelling and general relaxing. It was paradise-blue, amazing.

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We had a little picnic by the beach. Some of us walked on the beach, some of us snorkelled. (It was pretty amazing, I saw some razorfish and trumpetfish.)

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And some of us just lazed like these two starfish on the beach.

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The Black Manta: Pulau Aur

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We continued on into Malaysian waters to Pulau Aur. DC made it for the night dive but I was just too knackered. He had fun taking pictures with my camera. The next morning, we did two more dives before heading back to Singapore. Here’s a selection of highlights from all three dives.

DC spotted a cuttlefish on the first dive. The moment we spotted it, it knew straightaway that its cover was blown and it changed colour and markings  in a blink of the eye.

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As I got a bit closer, it went into a defensive posture with one tentacle raised, all ready to scoot off on a jet of water. We decided to leave it alone at this point.

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There were quite a few cute shrimp spotted in the dives. Here’s one DC saw on the night dive. It’s amazing how delicate it looks, yet its job is probably as a fish cleaner. It eats dead skin and parasites off fish.

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Here’s another shrimp, this time one that eats carcasses of dead creatures. If you put your hand close enough to a bold specimen, it’d quite happily hop onto your finger and pick away at the dead bits of hangnail, thinking that it must be some kind of weird dead sea creature.

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There are also the famously shy gobies which are a total bitch to snap pictures of. After far too many unsuccessful attempts, I finally caught these two shots.

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I still haven’t figured out exactly what kind of gobies these are. Drop me a message if you know!

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Another cute fish we found was the brown-banded pipefish. These were at first hard to spot, but once you found one it was often easy to locate the rest in the area.

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These relatives of seahorses had such comically serious expressions I could spend ages staring at them glide about the coral.

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Other fish were far bigger, like this  map puffer fish cruising around waiting for a little cleaner fish to get on with its job.

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Then there was this scorpionfish, most likely a tasseled or papuan one as it doesn’t have prominent eye cirri. Hard to tell though. It was probably a little bit annoyed that its cover was blown as the flash really showed up its pinks, reds and oranges.

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Then there was this blue spotted stingray that just couldn’t hide away enough. I think I caught in the act of burying itself in the sand for camouflage.

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Then there’s also the typical clownfish shot. Here’s a very grumpy specimen: it’s an orange-finned anemonefish and it’s not as  cute as the Nemo in the cartoon.

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And here’s a common lionfish that was so upset that it was just a commoner that it constantly looked down and tried to hide in the coral.

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See if you can spot this master of camouflage. It’s a hermit crab. Hint: look for its eye stalks.

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I got some lovely macro shots, the first of a flabellina, a kind of sea slug.

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Sea slugs have such a bad sounding name, so it’s nice that we call them nudibranchs most of the them. Here’s a really pretty one: it’s a pink dorid and I love how the pink and yellow-orange complement so nicely.

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And last of all, here’s a lovely fat little joruna nudibranch.

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And the icing on the cake, two joruna in very close proximity… mating?

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