Monday, December 30, 2013

Jamie O'Brien leads the charge at Waimea Bay

  After just returning home to Oahu after a wonderful surf adventure abroad I was amped to see some big waves in my backyard. Luck so happens the swell has been lighting up the North Shore here in Hawaii so after a relaxing morning on the south side Heidi and I jumped in the car and headed North.
  We could tell the waves were big well before we got to Haleiwa. But when we got to the shore there were no surfers anywhere. Haleiwa, Pauena Point, Lanis, Pipe....nobody. We had seen a few big wave charges as we drove past Waimea Bay so we stopped back by after Pipe. Surfers had their big guns out for some huge sets that rolled through, and it only seemed to be getting bigger. I was impressed as a couple of women paddled out as well. Always good to see. As I snapped a couple of pictures I noticed a couple of guys paddling much shorter boards over towards the shorebreak. It turns out this was Kalani Chapman and Jamie O'Brien.

From here on Jamie O'Brien stole the show. His buddies were set up back on the beach with a small motor hooked up to a tow cord. Jamie paddled out with the handle and had then take out the slack once he was out past the shorebreak.
  I didn't think the communication would be in place to make this work in such a volatile environment but when the set came the engine roared to life and suddenly Jamie was on his feet getting pulled into the wave. Next thing I new he had thrown the handle and was surfing one of the most mutant barrels I've ever seen in person. Or on T.V. for that matter. After the barrel closed out ontop of him he casually ran back up the beach, told his buddies how crazy the wave was, then paddled out for an even bigger one. After doing this several times he caught a massive bomb.
  The lifeguards here at Waimea are some of the best in the world. They see these conditions every winter and have new tourists playing on the beach every day. They would call out over the loudspeakers when big sets were incoming, urging everyone farther back away from the shoreline. One time they even called out a incoming bomb to Jamie over the loudspeaker. Pretty impressive if you command that kind of respect from the lifeguards here.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Great Oceana Trip: Looking Back

Great Oceana Trip in Review

 Australia: Adventure Down Under

Day 1 of the adventure
   Four countries in a month and a half with Myles and Jack as my surfing, diving, and adventures buddies through it all. A lot of planning went into where we would go and what we would do but ultimately it would come down to weather, waves, and a little of that famous Gillespie luck to pull off what I had planned. Now that I am back home in Oahu, looking back at all the pictures and remembering all the experiences, I would saw that we accomplished 99% of everything we set out to do, plus a bunch that we stumbled upon on the way.

Exploring inland Oz
  It started for me back on Nov 15th with a long flight from Honolulu to Australia. Ending up in Brisbane, late at night, I was thrown into driving a right side steering wheeled car thru unfamiliar territory to a hostel with no way in. I fought the urge to rubber neck as I drove through downtown Brisbane and managed to unhinge the gate at the hostel and soon found my bed. The adventure begins.

Trying to find Nemo
 The next day things started falling in place. I picked up a surf board, my two traveling companions, and we caught our first waves of many to come. From this point we never slowed down. We ended up surfing some famous spots in Australia: Noosa, Coolum, Snapper Rocks, and Byron Bay. Even though it was the off season we still found surf which was very lucky. We even had time for a little inland waterfall trek adventure before catching a flight up to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.

Epic weather and surf sesh at Snapper Rocks
Great Barrier Reef
  Here we hopped on a liveaboard boat for a diving adventure with my friends company Pro Dive Cairns. The 3 day boat trip motored straight out of Cairns to the outer reef. It was a pretty diving intensive trip with 11 dives over 3 days. Myles got certified as an open water diver and all three of us got checked out on using enriched air. As well as checking off a small part of the ultimate scuba divers' bucket list, the biggest barrier reef in the world! We found Nemo, Crash, and timed it perfectly for the annual coral spawning event on our night dives.

One of our funniest moments. Kangaroo boxing match
  Back on solid land we drove up through the rainforest north of Cairns. We stayed overnight deep in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest which turns out to be one of the oldest forest on Earth, harboring plants left over from prehistoric times. No trip to Australia would be complete without a close brush with some dangerous wildlife which we also experienced when a poisonous red bellied black snake crossed our path while hiking Mossmons Gorge. Although the most dangerous animal encounter may have come earlier at the Australia Zoo when a lounging kangaroo double punched Myles in the head. Still one of the funniest moments from the trip. Next stop Bali.

  Bali Barrels and Biker Gangs

Turtle friend on the wreck of the U.S. Liberty
Exploring underwater Bali
  I had been following the surf forecast for Bali while we traveled thru Australia and had noticed a rise in swell right about the time we arrived. So we were a bit shocked to paddle out to waist high ankle biters during our first session at Padang. The next morning we recouped over Balinese coffee (think grinds and sludge at the bottom of your cup) and Nasi Goreng (the best fried rice you will ever get for $2), and rented motor bikes to check out ultra consistent Uluwatu. It was the best decision ever. The waves were head high and peeling. The lefts went forever if you caught the right wave. The only downside from this was the extremely far paddle back after riding a wave for 30 seconds. Paddling out through the cave at Uluwatu is a right of passage for every surfer who comes to Bali and the boys performed admirably, as they would through the entire trip. Check out more surf stories and pics here.
Pound it
Bali Biker Gang

 More swell followed with many waves caught. Some of the best coming at a spot right in front of our hotel called Impossibles. Again, long lefts were the name of the game but this time they were way overhead. Welcome to the best waves of your life. Bali always has a way of coming through, even when there is no swell...

Lines rolling in at Uluwatu, Bali
  In between these two swells we had a chance to catch a ride up north to the sleepy town of Tulumben. It is here that the famous wreck of the U.S. Liberty sits in shallow water just offshore. It is perfect for scuba diving and we took advantage, staying just up the road and getting 4 dives in while staying just one night. Nudibranchs, frogfish, bumphead parrotfish, and crazy colors reminded me why Indonesia gets my nomination for best diving in the world. And I've seen a lot.

  Next up...New Zealand's fabled South Island.

Campervan Thru Middle Earth, a.k.a. New Zealand

  It was a bit hectic our first day in New Zealand. Our plane was late, customs took forever, we needed to pick up our Escape camper van by 4pm, and check in at our hostel in Kaikoura by 7pm. In theory it should have been possible but after flight delays, airport lines, and getting rear ended when we finally did get in a taxi we were running a bit behind. Fortunately the guy working at the Escape depot said he would stay later, and the hostel left our key on the counter. Phew, our luck holds strong again.

Reflecting back on Mt Cook
Determination in the deep south, NZ
  We figured New Zealand would be strictly land adventures but we soon found out the truth. Greymouth provided excellent waves (and thankfully wetsuits), Wanaka showed the real adventure was 12,000ft above land (while jumping out of an airplane), and the Fjordlands mesmerized us with towering waterfalls and stunning sea cliffs while we glided over the deep sound in our boat. Plenty of land adventures abounded as well from hiking at Gillespies Beach, behind the scenes at Monteith's, and climbing Mt Cook (well a trail that has a Mt Cook overlook).
Sick cliff jump into Blue Pools
About to get very wet
Cruising Milford Sound
It wasn't all tropical
Deep V's across 4 countries
From 12,000 to 0ft in a couple minutes
  Even though I had been to many of these places before some surprises were still in store. Jack and Myles found an epic cliff jump into the bluest water along the Haast pass, puzzle world in Wanaka was a blast, and the mini go karting overlooking Queenstown was a rush. Not to mention timing working its magic to put us in the heart of Middle Earth on the night of the world premier of the Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug. One of the greatest treats was doing all of this with style, in a van painted with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The only way to travel in NZ

                      Fiji: Surfing, Sun, Sharks, and Scuba

Underwater Canyons
  After driving over 2500km in New Zealand we all wanted a little break so I had planned a stay in a nice place on a quiet corner of Fiji's main island. From here we could get boats for surfing, diving, and even the Beqa shark dive. The managers at the Waidroka Resort where we stayed were great. Our surf guide Joel showed us some fun, but shallow local breaks before taking us to one of the best waves I've ever surfed, Frigates. This outer reef passage is miles away from land and took about an hour by boat. I didn't think any wave we saw was going to compare to what we surfed in Indo but this wave may have taken the prize. We scored so big at Frigates that we went back the next day only to find the wind and lack of swell had left only a shadow of the great wave that was the day before. But not to be deterred we strapped on scuba tanks and descended to find one of the best dive sites in Fiji.
The Famous Beqa Shark Dive

 As our grand trip neared its end there was only one big adventure left for us, the Beqa Shark Feeding Dive. Two tanks, an unknown number of sharks (I couldn't count them all), and the photo of the trip sums it up. It blew away my expectations.

Perfect Wave- Frigates Passage
   Some unforgettable moments: Myles being punched by the kangaroo, Jack realizing a bumper and tail light replacements only cost $64 in Bali, watching Myles exit the airplane at 12,000ft, watching the crowd watch us cliff jump Blue Pools, going from having no checked luggage allowed to all of it checked in for free in Brisbane, and seeing the boys faces when paddling back after catching the best wave of their life, again, and having my sunglass snatched from my face by a thieving monkey....all priceless memories.

Searching across Oceana for the fabled 'green room'

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas In Fiji: Yasawa Island Life

Christmas in Fiji
  What an amazing place. A week of surfing and diving on the coral coast with Myles and Jack, a private surf trip to the fabled cloudbreak, and a true Fijian island experience on Wayalailai in the Yasawas is how I've come to know this country. Eco Haven, the resort here on Waylailai, is run by the local villagers. Everyone stops to say, 'Bula', or hello in Fijian, and are just downright nice. I hung out with some local kids on top of the big rock, went for hours of snorkeling on the fringing reef, and hiked to the top of the massive granite outcroppings that make this island resemble a mini Yosemite. The guys have shared their local drink Kava, which is supposed to mellow you out kind of like marijuana, and have also taken us all out for a not so intense 'shark feeding' with one curious white tip. You could tell the guide was enjoying things when we saw dolphins on the way back. 

View from the top
View looking the other way
The guests here are from all over. Spending Christmas here has brought up many discussions on how Christmas differs in different parts of the world. Some Swedish guest have confirmed that they all watch Donald duck cartoons on Christmas eve, and I was shocked how many countries open presents on Christmas eve. All the villagers here went to church which I was surprised was late to start like everything else here in the islands. Apparently 'Fiji-time' is not just an option here but rather a way of life. Especially if too much kava was consumed the night before.

Super wide angle underwater split shot of Wayalailai Island

  Having plenty of free time here on the island meant lots of time spent exploring underwater. The reef right around the island was very shallow until a sudden 30ft drop off a hundred meters from shore. From here it descended into the blue abyss. There wasn't an overabundance of fish however I did spot some hunting milkfish, a lone white tip reef shark, some clownfish, and some mating squid.
  Once a day we would jump in their small motor boat and head out to the outer reef for a snorkel with the sharks. It wasn't much after experiencing the Beqa Shark Dive a few days earlier but a few white tips hung around waiting to get a freshly speared fish from the guide. The ride was worth it though just to see the reef. Clear water and tons of caves, swim thrus, and caverns. The mid day light filtered into the caverns creating magical worlds of twilight.
Another peaceful day in the Yasawa Islands, Fiji

   The villagers running the resort meet the passenger boat each day with a welcome song on the beach. And the welcoming never ends until they send you off on your way with a goodbye song from the same spot. Not a bad way to wind down an epic adventure and a great year. Vanaka Fiji.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Taming the Infamous Cloudbreak

The judges podium
Sets rolling in
A boat from nearby Tavarua Island watches on as surfers in the distance catch massive waves at Fiji's Cloudbreak

  When I first saw the movie "Endless Summer II" I wanted to be good enough to travel the world to surf. Luckily after a few seasons in Hawaii I am just getting to that level where I can handle most anything that is thrown my way. However I never thought that I would surf a wave like Cloudbreak. In the movie the two stars head to the outer reef, about an hour boat ride, only to see a low lying cloud hovering over the ocean. It turns out this is just the sea spray and white wash from massive waves crashing against the outer reef near Tavarua Island. This was is known as cloudbreak to the international community and that movie really put it on the map. It is still a 45 minute boat ride to get there from the main island, and it is still a beast of a wave. In recent years a famous surfing competition occurs here with pros like Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning fighting for the deepest barrels. It can get big, real big. And I had a chance to surf it at the peak of a swell.
I snapped a few pics before paddling out to tame the beast

  Luckily it was only a 4-6ft swell and not a 14ft swell but I must admit I was still a little nervous. Like most other waves here in Fiji, Cloudbreak is quite shallow and break on razor sharp coral reef. But after surfing Frigates and Fiji Pipe on the south side of the island I was ready to try it. I snapped a few pictures of surfers dropping in on overhead sets before strapping on my leash and paddling out.

Nicely formed lefts at Cloudbreak
Kelly Slater's view

  Overhead sets were the norm for the first few hours. One huge double overhead plus set came in. A couple of surfers were caught on the inside and ended up way over the reef. Luckily I made it over the shoulder as a surfer raced by on the wave of his life. The crowd was very spread out as the waves were peaking in different areas depending on their size and angle. It took a while to break the mystique and catch my first wave but when I did I felt like I had just gone skydiving or bungee jumping. The energy you get from surfing a place for the first time is always satisfying, the adrenaline I got from surfing Cloudbreak for the first time was incredible! As the tide came in and the winds picked up the crowd got thinner and thinner. I ended up staying for hours until there was just four of us out there picking off the set waves. I was so lucky to have catch Cloudbreak with a decent swell. When I finally paddled back to the boat I felt an immense satisfaction and smiled to myself for the whole ride in.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fiji Shark Dive: Beqa Island

Following the food bin

No one know he is there but me: Bull Shark
 When I was first getting in to advanced underwater photography I got a lot of advice from a pro photographer named David Fleetham. One thing I remember him mentioning was his desire to go back to a famous shark dive in Fiji, where sharks emerge a few feet in front of you from the midst of a tornado of fish. I later had a couple friends travel to Fiji with a dive trip run by Maui Dreams and they came back with similar stories of this shark dive I just had to do. So this incredible sounding dive has been on my radar for some time but when was I going to get the chance to be in Fiji....insert the great Oceana Trip of '13. And what better way to introduce Myles and Jack to Fijian diving than to go straight to the Beqa shark dive I've heard so much about!
A bull cruises close in front
I've been talking about this ever since our first dive together in Australia. It is only fitting that this was to be the culmination of our diving together and our last big adventure on this trip. The dive is a shark feed where all the guest descend to 80ft, then kneel down behind a line. Two divers from Aquatrek dive center are the shark feeders. They have huge crates with them filled with tuna heads and I'm not sure what else. They are not afraid to hand feed most of the sharks but if a big bull or tiger comes through they will toss it and let the shark snatch it up from a safer, but still very close distance.
Sharks in the midst
A white tip patrols

 I was a little worried about my ears not clearing properly on the dive we did the day before. So I tried every trick in the book from taking sudafed, to drinking lots of tea and water, getting a good nights sleep, and even putting Mentholatum up my nose. We all jumped in the water excited to see some sharks and I promptly descended to 14ft before my ears stopped equalizing. This was not a good start.
  Luckily the guides knew me to be an experienced dive master so they didn't hesitate to take the rest of the group down to the feeding site and leave me to try and slowly make my way down. After 20 minutes of checking out a few remoras that were swimming near the surface I slowly started to be able to descend. My right ear never equalized but by going very slowly I sank deeper towards the site.
  I was just beginning to make out the line of divers and the swirling mass of fish when I heard the tell tale clanking signalling the end of the feed. I hoped that the boys saw some cool sharks and tagged along with the group as they ascended past me. I was pretty bummed but we did go by a cool shipwreck on the way back to the boat and I thought I may have seen a bull shark from far off. But still pretty bummed. The shark dive I'de heard so much about, so close, yet just out of reach. I expected the second dive to be even worse.
  I took another sudafed kindly supplied by one of the managers. It is a decongestant that can temporarily alleviate the symptoms of congestion which plague scuba divers trying to equalize. The real kicker came when Paul let me jump in and descend before everyone else. Just in case my ears acted up again I might have time to descend like last time after awhile.
 I promptly descended to 13ft. This was going to be tough but it was my last chance. The group shows up about 5 minutes later and swims down to a spot about 65 feet deep. As I hovered over the same coral head I spent the majority of the first dive I willed my ear to equalize. It never did. But I was able to get lower and lower until all of a sudden I was there! I picked my place in line and started to experience the Beqa shark dive! Luckily this one lasted longer than the first. I saw white tip sharks and grey sharks swimming around the outskirts of the fish tornado. Tawny nurse sharks hovered over the sand. Ragged tooth sharks and a few very big bull sharks circled until appearing from the middle of the tornado to snatch a tuna head. Free swimming remoras, the fish that suck onto sharks, were everywhere as well as a lone great barracuda and a massive grouper who was surrounded by tiny schooling yellow fish. 
Got the shot: Bull shark about to chomp
One of the shark feeders noticed my big camera and came over right in front of me. After a few moments of waiting a ragged tooth shark zeroed in on an easy meal and came and snatched a couple tuna heads from the feeder's hand. I was already excited just to have made it, now I got to see a shark feed right in front of me. What happened next really blew me away. The shark feeder swam back over to me and motioned for me to follow him over the line. I was really hoping that Jack and Myles were GoProing this as I was led to a spot in the midst of the fish tornado. The feeder held out a tuna head again and we both waited. There is so much action here that it is hard to know where to look. And it is hard to know where the shark is going to come from. But you know that it will come.
  So we are looking and I have my hand on the shutter button when I see the biggest bull shark turn towards us. I start snapping pictures in rapid fire hoping to get the moment when the shark opens its mouth. It all happens so fast that I don't even know if I got the picture until back at the resort.
Emerging from the tornado
7ft Nurse Shark
I stayed in the midst of the tornado for the rest of the dive. Even though I couldn't make it down for the first one I feel like I am the luckiest one there. I had my camera bumped into by a 7 foot nurse shark, and close encounters with bulls and ragged tooth sharks, both of which I had never swam with before. I don't know when I will get to do this dive again but a little discomfort in the ear was totally worth the experience.
Greedy shark
Keeping a close eye on me
 It is pretty wild to think that we were surfing not too far away from here but on the up side at least they are well fed.