Scuba in China
by Denise Mattia
It was late afternoon by the time we returned to shore. The look of delight on my dive buddy's face mirrored my own. Dan and I had flown around the world to go scuba diving in two completely different regions in China. We had endured long boat rides, waited aboard a fishing vessel for the tide to ebb, and wobbled across a floating dock to reach dive sites. It had been worth it - not just to see the marine life but also to witness the enthusiasm with which the Chinese embrace the most popular sport in the country.
The Great Wall and the Watery Deep
Arriving in Beijing from New York just 12 days before, I'd hooked up with Dan Lund, a travel agent from Denver. We were here on behalf of China Professional Tours of Norcross, Georgia, to determine the feasibility of offering scuba diving with their tour packages. Nick Qin, the president, planned an ambitious itinerary that took us from the heights of China's Great Wall to its watery depths off the coasts of Dalian and Sanya.
Accompanied by our guide, Ron (courtesy of China International Travel Service - CITS), Dan and I toured the capital and flew east to the bustling, affluent port city of Dalian. The third largest harbor in China, Dalian boasts a shipping and railroad industry, the world's largest Ferris wheel, the world's longest bungee-jumping tower and miles of recreational beaches.
We were met by Ma Hong Biao of the Northxiang Underwater Center, a teaching facility that handles underwater engineering, construction and salvage, as well as dive tourism. Mr. Ma, as he is known, provided an overview of our upcoming dives. Some 6,500 pinnacles rise from the ocean floor along China's coast. Several dot Bo Hai Bay, where we'd start our explorations.
Our first introduction to Chinese waters was a plunge into cold green vegetable soup. September's stormy weather had mixed the plankton-rich water with bottom sediment. Visibility at Star Rock, a site located 30 minutes from shore, was only a few feet and, if our dive guides Yan Jun and Han Jun (unrelated) hadn't known where the algae-coated fractured rocks that comprised this reef were, I might have swum head-long into them.
Fortunately we found clearer water at Fortune God Reef, a lighthouse 18 miles due south of the Tiger Beach Reserve. It took us an hour and a half to reach the pinnacle in a flat, banana-yellow fiberglass skiff. It was another hour before we got into the water, since we had to wait for the tide and currents to ebb.
During the interval, we boarded a picturesque state-run wooden crabbing vessel that was moored near the site, where we witnessed the living and working conditions of the fishermen. The time passed quickly while we learned (by gesture) how the men used their fish pots, and what their names for fish were.
Ready to have fun, they mimicked my abysmal pronunciation, and I laughed right along with them. Still, I made points by recognizing the calligraphic carving "fu" which hung above their boat. It means happiness and it's also a good-luck symbol for the boat.
Trussed up in a 7-mil wetsuit, I hardly felt the chilly, 64-degree water once we were able to dive in. Visibility at this site was more than 30 feet. Yan, Han, Dan and I sank to 70 feet and slowly explored the base of the pinnacle. Bald slabs of rock, cleaved by weathering in a distant millennium, lay askew on the ocean floor and were reminiscent of formations I'd seen in Hawaii, Baja, Panama and Brazil.
Punctuated only by blue cushion sea stars, the obsidian surfaces contrasted with the nearby carpets of brightly colored golden zoanthids. Fluted sea slugs danced on boulders, while abalone clung to fissures and juvenile seabass hid in crevices. Yan Jun found a swimthrough and we glided past razor-sharp edges, exiting into a band of colder water that swooshed out from deep within the pinnacle.
After 53 minutes in the water, we'd covered most of the leeward side, and it was time to surface. We climbed aboard the vessel and transferred our gear to the skiff. Thanking (xiĆxiĆ, pronounced shur shur) the fishermen for their hospitality, we boarded our "banana split" and sped back to port, realizing that we'd been on an adventure few Americans can brag about.
Interest in scuba diving in China has been developing over the last two decades. In 1979 the U.S. National Oce-anic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA) agreed to promote a better understanding of marine issues through scientific and technological cooperation.
Between 1995 and 1998 SOA expanded coastal management to include marine sanctuaries and estuarine research reserves. Additional projects included installing mooring buoys, monitoring coral reef ecosystems, mariculture, scuba training and ecotourism.
After the United Nations named 1998 the International Year of the Ocean, awareness of the marine environment among the Chinese people intensified. The result was the construction of more than 300 marine and island parks and recreational facilities along the country's 11,000-mile coast - such as Dalian and our next stop, Sanya.
We flew 1,800 miles south to Sanya, a province in Hainan. The second-largest island in China, it's the playground of the Chinese world. Seasonal downpours didn't dampen the spirits of visitors to this stunning holiday destination in the South China Sea, but because of the tempestuous weather the gear in our bags didn't see the light of day until we were almost ready to leave.
Despite the rain, we finally did three back-to-back dives at Jalong Bay, where my guide, Wu Tie Ling, quickly pointed out red night shrimp hiding inside the recesses of a coral head, and jewel and pencil urchins on the sea floor. The reef system along this southern section of the island is comprised of coral mounds or bommies, the tops of which are coated with varieties of rose and brain coral interspersed with saucer coral.
It's possible to dive this area by boat or from the floating dock that's anchored about a half-mile from shore.
Dan and I chose both. Because of time constraints, we kept our dives between 35 and 70 feet, finding plenty of critters in the 81-degree water directly below the floating dock. In addition to Moorish idols and lionfish, Wu spotted a pair of splendid flatworms crawling on a mound.
Studding the coral nearby, colored anemones stretched their slender tentacles in the mild current. When I approached a bright orange variety, I was attacked fiercely by the three-inch clownfish fry within, and fled the nipping guardians in favor of photographing a dozen docile pipe-fish. They, at least, were unconcerned about my being there, and obliged me by moving calmly in unison from one bommie to another.
We squeezed in one last dive from a spiffy, 30-foot catamaran at the West Island Marine Amusement World. Here scuba instruction ranges from a one-time introduction to the sea to classes for "professional" or certified divers. With hundreds of enthusiastic divers experiencing the thrill of discovery underwater (and making a splash of it) daily, savvy fish take cover. I was assured, however, that there are abundant populations at less frequented sites.
On shore, we waited for our van with our wet gear piled high on the curbside. Passersby gathered and spoke to us. Throughout the trip our dive equipment, cameras and especially our appearance (we were the only Caucasians in sight) had been cause for spirited conversation and gesticulation. By now it was easy for us to interpret the sign language - we were exotic, and people wanted us to be in their photos. We obliged. The smiles on our faces broadened.
Unfavorable weather conditions had prevented me from seeing the reefs at their best; still I was content at having been able to appreciate some of what this fantastic country has to offer. I was pleased to see dive equipment that was two decades newer than mine - and that was also well maintained - at training facilities where divers received extensive and thorough instruction. Most of all, I felt privileged to be able to dive with a coterie of great scuba instructors. Even though many of them knew no English, our mutual love of the sport had bridged the language barrier.
To dive with them again, to witness more of China's wonders - underwater and topside as well - I'd return in a heartbeat.
For more information, contact China Professional Tours: Phone: 800-25-CHINA or 770- 849-0300; Fax: 770-849-0301; Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Website:www.chinaprofessional.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Scuba/Snorkeling."