Saturday, April 4, 2015

Miri to Singapore

                                                             MIRI TO SINGAPORE

 We left the quiet city of Miri and headed southwest down the coast of Borneo in order to minimize the length of the passage across the South China Sea. We anchored amongst the construction equipment of a new LNG terminal the first night and in the petro-harbor of Bintulu the next. For the next four days and three nights we sailed and then motored across open ocean to the Islands of the Tioman group off the southern east coast of peninsular Malaysia. On the first day we had 5-7 knots of wind on the beam and sailed at 7-10 Knots. Days two and three were windlass, so we put lots of hours motoring at 6-7 knots. As we approached Tioman we begin to cross the freighter lanes going to and from Singapore. Lots of ships going different speeds and directions. At one point I (Steve) had just gone to bed (at 1 am) when the AIS showed that we had two ships from opposite directions both converging on us. So, very little sleep for me that night.
One day this huge Cicada circled the boat and landed. It spent the day on our solar panels, but was gone the next morning.

The South China Sea required constant lookouts as there were freighters and fishing boats everywhere.

By cutting a bit across Indonesian waters we were able to make landfall on one of the Tioman islands, Pulau Aur, at the end of the fourth day. It was a beautiful spot with majestic cliffs and had some of the nicest snorkeling we've seen in Malaysia
                                                          Aur Island in the Tiomans
                                               Local fishing boat in Aur Island
After two days at Aur, we headed up to Tioman Island where we anchored behind a small island that is used by many tour operators as a dive and snorkel site. We got there on Saturday and were amazed at the number of boats and vacationers using this rather small site.
When we went ashore we saw trees covered with what looked like large black fruits.

Closer inspection showed the "fruits" to be fruit bats who were spending their days hanging out in the trees around town.

Both Pat and I are fascinated by bats so we spent a lot of time watching these animals as they bickered among each other while roosting in their colonies.
While not everyone agrees, we think they are quite handsome, kind of like good looking chihuahuas with a cape.
A closer look reveals one of the real downsides of communal living, the sharing of parasites.

Back on board we decided to go snorkeling, so the three of us got into the dinghy and anchored up close to the rock with all of the tourists. Mostly Chinese and South Koreans, they were having the time of their lives, snorkeling around close to their boats, many wearing lifejackets.
Turns out that Saturday is the busy day as tourists come from Singapore for the weekend. For the next several days we had some great snorkeling with good if not great visibility.
                                                    A coral garden with rabbitfish
                                               Vikki snorkeling with lots of reef fish
                                                               Thick-lipped wrasse
While the snorkeling was fun and there were lots of fishes and corals it became apparent that this reef was not in great shape. There were virtually no adult (large) fish present. Every night after the tourists left, locals were out fishing on the reef, even though it is a marine reserve.
One of the results of killing off all of the large fish is that for species that change sex, such as the wrasses and parrotfish, we find extremely small males as the way the sex changing works is that the largest female in the population changes sex and becomes a male if there are too few males present. On this reef we saw males much smaller than would ever be found on a healthy reef with less fishing pressure.

                                                             Female slingjaw wrasse
                               This male slingjaw wrasse was much to small for a healthy population
 This crown of thorns seastar eats corals but they were uncommon on the reef, so did not appear to pose a danger to the habitat.
                                      the red-breasted wrasse is striking and curious

And of course, there were anemonefishes

                                                                          Hi Nemo
After a few days shopping and snorkeling at Tioman, we headed south to rendezvous with our friend Barry who built a sistership to us, called Twocan. We met on an island (Sibu) on our way to Singapore and visited for a couple of days. Barry and crew are headed across to Miri, Borneo, then eastward to the Pacific Islands and finally they plan to go to Fiji.

                                             Twocan sailing into the harbor on Sibu Island
We cleaned the bottom while anchored in Sibu and got ready for the second big challenge of this leg (the first was the South China Sea), Singapore harbor. Singapore is by far the world's busiest harbor with ships from everywhere converging on this small city state on the southern end of the Malay Peninsula.
As we approached the harbor the amount of traffic became almost unbelievable. There were literally hundreds of ships in view all the time, many anchored, some underway, some anchoring and some getting underway. There were tugs with tows, pilot boats, supertankers and junk freighters, all moving in a controlled but unpredictable fashion.
This shows our AIS as we moved through the thirty some miles of heavy traffic. This was a really awesome experience as we had never seen so many ships or so many types of ships.
                                              Supertanker head-on (thankfully anchored)

Then the squalls came, and for the next four hours we had low visibility, driving rain and an intermittent chart plotter. The three of us were extremely busy and the day went from exciting and wonderful to just plain hang on and stay alive. We used radar, AIS, chartplotter, computer charts and three sets of eyes. It was a good day to be done with. At the very end of the day we anchored on the west side of Singapore and as we dropped the anchor Vikki saw a strange pink thing that turned out to be a small pod of river dolphins.  None of us had ever seen these in the wild so it was a great end to a harrowing day.

The next day we motored up to Puteri Harbor where we said a sad farewell to our great crew Vikki and picked up our friends David and Noreen who will sail up to Phuket with us.
                                                                   Bye Vikki

 We traveled into Singapore with Vikki and experienced one of the world's great cities. Marvelous architecture, great restaurants and a fascinating blend of cultures from all around the world.
 If you can count the stories on the three towers, you can estimate the length of the "ship" that spans the top of the three towers, pretty impressive.
 The Singapore Flyer's "ferris wheel" cars can be used as dining cars for special dinners or you can just have a drink. The flower-like building to the right is the museum of science.

 Oysters for sale on the waterfront from just south of Quadra Island in British Columbia
 After a quick look around the city, Pat decided we should see the Singapore zoo, and we ended up at the "Rivers of the World" exhibit, quite impressive. They have an excellent manatee exhibit and other tanks as well as a short river cruise by tapirs, capybaras and a jaguar.
 Mekong River catfish with strange placement of it's eyes
 The Gharial is a fish-eating crocodile, look at the long slender snout
 No, pandas do not live in rivers but the zoo has lots and it keeps people coming to the rivers exhibit if there are a couple of pandas there, this giant panda was asleep in the middle of the day
 The red panda is much more active and better looking, but not so famous.
                                   One of the large freshwater tanks in the exhibit

Our bus ride back to the harbor was typical of public transport in Singapore, efficient but crowded.

                                                Crew change at the BIG Hotel with Vikki off to the airport
                                         and David and Noreen getting ready to come to the boat. 

Black line leads to Silver Tern in Puteri Harbour Marina, Johor

 David took this photo from the top deck of Hotel Jen above the marina. They have a swimming pool, spa and bar that cruisers can use while here. Our galley is full of food and we are refueled, ready to take off tomorrow for ports north as we head up the Straits of Malacca. Our next check in port will be Langkawi Island.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Kudat to Miri

[s/v Silver Tern] Kudat to Miri


We left Kudat on Feb. 4, bound for Miri, Malaysia, via Brunei. Our crew were friends Chris and Kurt from Sebastopol.  For once, we had winds and waves in our favor most of the time. We were able to do day trips and anchor every night, very civilized cruising. On the way we passed Mount Kinabalu, the crest of which is rarely seen as it is generally shrouded in clouds but we passed by just at sunrise and got a nice look at this majestic mountain. (Our friends the Fowlers may climb it some day)
Mt Kinabalu
 We sailed down to Tiga Island with following seas and light winds. We always enjoy Tiga, Pat loves the mud volcanos and we both love the wildlife.  We took one long walk to the wild windward side of the beach, got chased by a very territorial group of macaque monkeys but had a generally nice time.

 The water was not clear enough for the snorkeling to be worthwhile but we did try.
monitor lizard

long tailed macaque
After a couple of days on Tiga we headed south for another favorite spot, the Klias river.
 We spent four days and three nights on the Klias, watching birds, reptiles and monkeys
pied hornbill

oriental darter, relative of cormorant
Proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo and mature males have noses that rival those of elephant seals.

Young males have a much more modest proboscis, suggesting that the trait is involved in attracting females (like much of what most male mammals spend their time and energy doing).
This macaque spent several hours playing with the old plastic poncho that he dragged out of the river.
While anchored on the river we were often treated to light shows by fireflies, a most magical display. After watching several “logs” disappear as we approached, we realized that there are quite a lot of crocodiles in the river, oh well we weren’t going to swim anyway.
Just to the west of the Klias is the island and city of Labuan, a duty-free port where we spent several days enjoying good restaurants, cheap wine and chocolate (sadly enough, very little dark chocolate is available in Malaysia). The Labuan Marina is open again with lots of cruising boats coming and going. We enjoyed Friday night happy hour on the dock exchanging stories with other cruisers.
Labuan is a town/city that houses a large support fleet for the offshore oil fields. The following photo is of our chart plotter as we entered the relatively small Victoria Harbour. Each of the grey triangles is a ship with its AIS on in the harbor - a bit crowded!

 As we were in Labuan during the middle of Chinese New Year, we were treated to a lion dance in one of the local malls.

Sadly, Chris and Kurt left to return back to California and we were once again on our own. They were great crew, arriving with gifts like coffee and cheese and not leaving until Kurt swabbed the decks and Chris dived on the prop and pulled off the weeds we had wrapped on our river cruise. 
Our next stop was the sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. Brunei is one of the three countries to share the island of Borneo, and is by far the smallest and richest. They have a hereditary Sultan who rules with the support of the Muslim religious hierarchy. In order to keep that support, Sharia law was introduced into Brunei last year.  I asked the driver who helped us purchase fuel how much this change had affected the people. He said not much except that now thieves have their hand amputated so theft has decreased - bit sobering for us Western soft-hearted folks. We did not get into how this new law affected women, a topic best left undiscussed in Brunei.
The cost of fuel in SE Asia is highly variable. In the Philippines, it is now over $5.00 US per gallon. In Malaysia, it is about $4.00. In Brunei, with heavy subsidization from the sultan, it is just over $1.00. So, we filled our tanks here in preparation for the next passage.
Leaving Brunei we sailed down to the marina in Miri where we were able to do a variety of projects, catch up on email and start to provision the boat for the next leg of our voyage, the passage across the South China Sea to Singapore.
Because we had given ourselves almost a month to do final preparations in Miri, and Silver Tern was pretty much ready to go, we had time to take a trip up to Mulu National Park, home of the world heritage Mulu Caves, and just a thirty minute flight from Miri.
Mulu caves may be the largest cave system in the world, much of it is still unexplored but what has been investigated and open to the public is simply stunning. The cave system sits in a relatively pristine area of montaine rain forest and a night walk there gave us close looks at a lot of neat animals, including the swamp frog, lanternbug and whipscorpion below. The whipscorpion has a broodpouch in her claws, she carries around her young until they hatch.

Stick insects are usually hard to see, this green one was easy to spot at night
Spiny stick insects are a bit easier to spot and when mating (photo below) they appear almost prehistoric

Lots of big spiders were out hunting at night, their eyes shine just like those of many mammals.
This snake is a specialist on slugs, and is active mostly at night
This is a really small ant colony, the whole thing is on the underside of one leaf about 4” long
Lots of neat and interesting insects were out at night during our walk like this brown katydid and caterpillar.

The hairs on this caterpillar have toxins on them that are really irritating.
And of course, there are spiders on the ground as well as in the trees
And where there are insects and spiders there are lizards to eat them. This gecko is one of the “flying” species, capable of gliding between trees.
Most lizard have to be content to move around on all fours
There are lots of these huge (golf-ball sized) millipedes crawling on the forest floor day and night. They have remarkably few predators as they produce some quite toxic substances if disturbed.
Despite the neat forest animals, the real draw in Mulu are the caves and we took several different tours.
Most of the tours required a ride to the cave entry via a longboat. Because there had been very little rain, the longboats could barely make it up some of the rivers.

 People are only allowed in the caves with a certified guide. This has two results, one is that there is virtually no graffiti, trash or destruction of delicate cave structures and the other is that there are almost no tourists lost. This is a huge, complex and relatively unexplored cave system. One cavern measures 400 meters wide, 600 meters long and is 270 meters high. Several of the caves we explored had ceilings over 100 meters tall. Our tours ranged from walks on boardwalks through “show caves” that were pretty much like what one might experience in a US National Park (Carlsbad Caverns for instance) to forays through caves that required quite a lot of physical capabilities. We squeezed through passages that were barely wide enough for us, rappelled down steep slippery rock faces, waded underground rivers and climbed some interesting pitches. Yes, we had climbing harnesses, helmets and ropes, but this was way beyond what you could do in the US or Canada. It was pretty intense but let it us see just how extensive, complex and diverse the caves in Mulu are.

Deep in the Mulu cave system

Entrance to a "Show Cave"

Looks like an ex-president

Caves have lots of bats and swiftlets

Deep in the caves, these racer snakes prey on bats and birds

Like everywhere in the tropics, the caves have their small predators

Walkway through a "Show Cave"

Cave wall

This large dripping stalactite is called a jellyfish formation

This round (showerhead) stalactite has water showering out of it, feeding stalagmites below

Called curtains, these formations are really beautiful

These tall (10 foot plus) stalagmites are fed by tiny stalactites above (see photo below)
Tops of the stalagmites above showing stalactites that feed them their carbonate. Soon, (perhaps a few thousand years) these will join, forming a column.

Sir Brooke's birdwing butterfly

This area is called the "Garden of Eden", pretty good description
Our next crew member Vikki arrives Thursday and we depart Saturday.  The crossing will take about four days after two days of day hopping down the coast, then, we will go from Bintulu directly across to Tioman Island, on the east side of the Malaysian peninsula. This island is popular for weekend vacationers from Singapore as it is close and has good diving and beach front resorts.  After Tioman, we will work our way around Singapore and stop at the Puteri Harbour Marina located in Johor, Malaysia.