Layang Layang: First Approach

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We flew to Layang Layang via Kota Kinabalu by chartered plane. It was a cute little propeller plane and in much better condition than the ones I flew in The Philippines and Indonesia. Nonetheless, we still had to go a bit snap-happy!

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We could see the pilots very clearly through the open cabin and were very amused watching them go through their pre-flight checks and put on their own seat belts.

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We flew over the beautiful outlying islands off KK…

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… flying low enough to see our own shadow in the pretty turquoise waters below.

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It was then followed by nothing but blue water for a while, until the pilots announced that we’d reached Layang Layang and that they would bank the plane to let us have a good view of the atoll island. It was great flying a chartered plane! Not only were they patient enough to wait for us to finish the touristy photo-taking before takeoff, they also gave us a good few turns of the island to take pictures to our hearts content.

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You can just about see the shape of the atoll in this picture, together with the lagoon formed in the middle.

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The resort is on this thick bit of the atoll that has definitely been reclaimed. There’s the air strip, the resort and the Malaysian air base and nothing else.

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The rest of the atoll isn’t really much of an island, with quite a lot of it underwater most times of the day.

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It was a lovely place smack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but sea and sky stretching out as far as the eye could see.

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It was especially beautiful at sunset with wide panaromas of coloured sky throwing their colours onto white clouds…

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… as well as casuarinas and hardy tropical pines silhouetted beautifully against the setting sun.

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We went on sunset walks before dinner when we weren’t completely knackered from the diving to take in as much as we could.

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Inside the very charming resort, we found different sea creatures in the room. Some days we had angelfish, other days a turtle, and on one special day, we had a pair of manta rays come visit!

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And on the last day of diving, a hammerhead came to visit us. It was so sweet of the resort staff to put in special touches like these to make our day even better.

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More to come soon on the diving!

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.

Diving the Similans: Things on a Wreck

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Our last dive in the Similans was at Boonsung Wreck. It used to be a whole boat at the bottom of the sea, but the tsunami lifted it up and smashed it into four big pieces. Ironically, this makes for richer marine life as there’s more space for coral to grow and therefore more places for fish to hide and spawn. Among which were these bored, listless looking longfin bannerfish mooching about the place.

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There were quite a few moray eels and here was one of the few blackspotted morays I’ve seen. It wasn’t too pleased with its hole because soon after I took this picture, it departed and tried to fight a white eye moray for space but sadly was soon defeated and had to go back to its lousy old hole. Poor guy.

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Then there were goby shrimp and their shrimp gobies. It’s cute how all the shrimp does is shovel gravel out of the hole. Talk about a menial task. The goby just guards the hole and darts in at the first sign of trouble. The shrimp never shovels past the middle of the goby’s body. It was so hard to get close enough to take a good picture. This is the best I got.

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Then there were these two lovebird cuttlefish who stuck together despite showing their alarm colours. I think there were too many divers hovering over them and no crevices big enough for them to hide in.

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Last of all was the only set of nudibranch eggs I saw on the trip. It was funny how there weren’t a huge number of nudibranchs in the Similans. The ones I saw were the rather common and boring ones, so it was such a treat to see the ribbony sheets of eggs. See how each pink dot is an egg? I wonder how these things survive without being eaten by predators, they’re so obvious. Maybe they’re poisonous to most fish.

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Boonsung Wreck was a nice easy wreck to dive at. While the viz wasn’t the best, I liked how there was stuff both on the wreck and around it. It was a relaxing end to the diving.

Diving the Similans: Things That Made Me Sad

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Several things on the trip made me sad. One of them was the first injured fish I’d ever seen. I noticed this fish being unnaturally still on a sandy area. I thought it odd that somehow it didn’t quite seem alert and did nothing to move away or show that it noticed me when I moved in closer. Then I noticed that there was something wrong with its tail. Looks like it’d been bitten off and the fish was just waiting to die.

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At least it’s natural for fish to get predated upon and go places to die. This sight here wasn’t at all natural and I was upset because our dive guide smeared himself on the sea floor to just for a picture. No doubt he wasn’t lying on living coral, but there are also creatures that live in the sand and they have equal right not to be disturbed like that. Especially not when their homes cave in when a diver lands smack in.

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At least the schools of fish made me happy. Just watching the fish soup swirl past put me in a better mood.

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Doesn’t it do that for you too?

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Diving the Similans: Manta Ray

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We’d left the Similans proper and gone up north to Koh Bon where we had a few decent dives but without seeing much that made us go “wow.” DC and I chatted with Vincent, the guy behind Black Manta, who joined in for this trip and he suggested we go with him for the next dive. Hope was up when Vincent came back from the recce dive saying that he saw mantas!

We were very hopeful in the first 20 minutes of the dive but the hope started to fade as the current picked up and the visibility got worse. At one point the whole group was clinging for our lives to a coral outcrop and there wasn’t much to do except hold on tight and not turn my head lest the current rip off my mask. And then Vincent started pointing. We strained our eyes trying to figure out what it was and then our eyes focused and we saw the manta looming in the distance.

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It then disappeared and then for quite a while we hung back in a more sheltered area rather than by the outer walls of Koh Bon. Soon, we noticed that the divers in the far group started to get excited and swim out further. The manta was back!

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Calmly and unhurriedly, it came past, flapping its wings sedately. The slow strokes belied the strength and speed of the motion as we had to hurry to keep up with the big ray.

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This one was a beauty and huge too! Its wingspan must have been at least 4 metres.

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It seemed to want to get closer and play with us as it wheeled and came round a few times.

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Each time it seemed as if it was teasing us by leaving and then turning round in a sedate circle to come back and check us out.

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It was almost as if it was saying to us, “You puny humans, look how tiny and helpless you are and look how big and lovely and graceful I am.”

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It came up magnificently close.

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So close in fact that my camera couldn’t take in the whole creature!

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I could see clearly its eyes, mouth flaps and gills as it sailed past. If my regulator wasn’t in my mouth it’ll probably have been agape at this majestic sight.

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Soon it was over and the giant manta ray wheeled for the last time and swept back off into the distance.

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Diving the Similans: Beach Time

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It wasn’t all underwater action in the Similans. We stopped at two different white sand beaches there, one a rather rocky beach on a bright sunshiney day.

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This place is called Donald Duck Bay. Quite obvious from the picture eh?

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It was nice to just poke around on the beach, looking out at the view…

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… and watching startled crabs scuttle for their lives to the water.

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Another beach we spent a little time on was much more beautiful. It had the smoothest white sand that Singapore probably could never hope to import. Just too bad about the overcast weather though.

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Here we also spotted crabs, this time duelling hermit crabs.

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Diving the Similans: Not Your Usual Fish

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Of course there are lots of other types of fish and sealife other than the typical, well, fish-shaped fish. Moray eels were rather common and we even came across this one moving homes. It’s rare to see moray eels out of their usual crevices so suddenly seeing this one was a nice surprise. We kept a good distance away from it because giant morays are known to be aggressive. Not quite to the point, but there’s a story about a rather tame one in the Similans that divers fed by hand. One day after getting his usual sausage treat, the moray eel mistook the dive guide’s other hand for more tasty offerings and bit off his thumb in one hefty chomp!

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We found another giant moray under a coral cover and this time it was facing off with a small hawksbill turtle. Too bad I had a bit of problem fiddling with my camera and didn’t manage to get in for a closer shot.

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In the end the turtle and the eel just minded their own business and the turtle wandered off to munch on some moss. It was a bit of an anticlimax, like the turtle telling us to run along, nothing to see here.

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Along another patch of coral, the visibility cleared up a bit and we chanced upon this beautiful cuttlefish. Once it saw us, it reared up cautiously, though its colours remained the usual striated spots. Only if it got spooked would it start having fluorescent violet spots ringing the edges of its body.

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I like how otherworldly and calm it looked against the backdrop of coral and anemone.

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