Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Poker Night At My House

Hozumi called me up last Friday night and let me know we were having dinner and poker at my house on Saturday night. I'm pretty easy, and thought it sounded like fun, so I invited a couple other people and then started trying to decide what to fix for dinner. Since Kelli and Sarah are in the states, it means that I'm the chief cook and bottle washer, actually it means I'm the only cook. So most nights I eat a few pretzels, have a swig or two of a protein drink that you may know as Scotch, and call it good. But since I actually had civilized people coming over, I figured they might like a little more than just Scotch and pretzels. And frankly I figured a little solid food might not be a bad idea for me either. So I went to Price Costco, bought some Mahi filets in a bag, and a package of these giant mushrooms.
Hozumi brought the fixings for bruschetta, and she made a fresh batch of it, it was amazing!

Another of my closely guarded secrets is that I'm actually a pretty good cook. I was a cook for some very nice restaurants for a few years back in my high school and college days. Yes, I can actually spin pizza dough, flip eggs without a spatula using only the pan, and cook one of the best omelets you've ever seen or tasted. Now the reason this is a closely guarded secret is that if people knew that I could actually cook, and make some mouth watering dishes, they might expect me to actually do it. And that might cut into my dive time, just as this little dinner and poker party did. I actually gave up my Saturday afternoon dive, just to prepare these stuffed mushrooms. It's not just a matter of putting the mushrooms in a pan and sprinkling some cheese over them.

First you give them a good washing, then you cut the stems out of all of them. Next you dice up the stems into tiny little mushroom chunks. I suppose some might just use a cleaver and chop, chop, chop. Not me, it's part of my obsessive\compulsive side. I cut each of them into little rings, then I slice the ring in half, and then cut it into little strips. And when you're doing that many mushrooms, and you're as freaksihly OC about it as I am, well there goes a good hour or so. Then you sautee the diced mushroom stems with some fresh diced garlic, sprinkle with several different seasonings, add some Virgin Olive Oil and butter and sautee over a medium flame for about 5 minutes. Then you let your sautee cool for a while. Next you mix in bread crumbs, I prefer buying the seasoned croutons and then pounding them to turn them into crumbs. Then mix in a couple eggs and some parmesan cheese. Now mix everything together, and it should have a thick paste type texture. Now you bring a big pan of water to a boil, and only after it is boiling do you add the mushroom caps. You cook them for 1 minute, and I mean 60 seconds, not 90 seconds. After you drain the mushroom caps, you put some olive oil in the bottom of a pan, rub it all over and then place the mushroom caps upside down in the pan. Now you take a little fork or spoon and put the paste you made up from the diced mushroom stems into the holes in the mushroom caps. You want it to be heaping a bit, since you'll have quite a bit of it to try fitting into all the caps. Finally you spread mozarella cheese over the top of them. I kind of like the mozarella\provolone blend. Now bake them in the oven at 375 for about 20-25 minutes. You want to bake them until the cheese on the top just starts turning a golden brown.

At this point you'll have some mushrooms that will rival those you'll find in any gourmet restaurant. As you can see, it's a bit of a time consuming process, so it's something you only do for special occasions. And after skipping my dive on Saturday afternoon, and going to all that work with the mushrooms, only 2 people showed up for dinner, Hozumi and Greg. Well, the 3 of us had a pretty darn good meal if I do say so myself, Caribbean Jerk Mahi, stuffed mushrooms, fresh bruschetta and corn. Corn just goes good with everything! But again, the whole cooking thing is a closely held secret, so let's not be saying anything about it.

Then it was poker time, and Bev showed up. I've got a pretty nice poker chip set, but we just play for the fun of it, never any money involved. That's a very good policy especially when you have the kind of luck that I do. But lady luck was actually with me on this particular night. Greg was the first one I knocked out of the game. Then we started getting lazy and played a couple hands of Indian Poker, which wound up having huge chip pots. In case you're not familiar with the game, each player gets one card, which they aren't allowed to look at, and they have to stick it to their forehead so that the other players can see it. So you can see everyone elses card, just not your own. Then you start bidding based on their cards. So if they have an ace on their forehead, you might want to just fold, since the best you could hope for would be a tie. But such was not the case in the final hand. Greg was sitting off to the side, so he could see all of our cards, and he looked like he was thoroughly enjoying the turn of events. Here you can see the size of my pile of chips is looking pretty good compared to Bev's, but things can turn very quickly, especially when it's Indian poker. Now to truly appreciate this situation, you need to realize a couple things. Hozumi is extremely competitive, and really, really, really hates losing to me. And when she thinks she smells blood in the water, she can be pretty ruthless. Now remember, she has no idea what the card on her forehead is, but she knows what Bev and I both had, so she started bidding big, I mean real big. She knew that Bev only had a 4, and evidently she felt pretty good about beating whatever was on my forehead too. Poor Hozumi, she couldn't possibly beat anything, but she had no clue. So I knew that Hozumi had a 2 and Bev had a 4, I mean come on, how low could my card possibly be, it had to beat those two. So I kept matching Hozumi's exorbitant bets, and then raising her myself. Finally those two had all of their chips in, and they were bidding on a 2 and a 4. I wasn't about to be pushed around by these two and their piddly little cards, so I matched their bets. Greg thought it was all so funny he could hardly stand it. He told Hozumi to look at her card first. She was so bummed, it was great! Next he had Bev look at her card, and from the expression on her face, I knew I beat her. Sure enough, I had a 5 on my forehead. Now normally I wouldn't bet anything on a 5, but when you have no clue what you're betting on, you'll do almost anything. So yes, Hozumi had to officially declare me the winner, I think she would have rather been tortured on the rack for hours on end. Such was Poker Night at my house!

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Few Island Sights

One of the lessons I'm quickly learning is that getting the great shots with your camera means you have to be in the right place at the right time, and then you have to have your camera with you, and have it ready to shoot at a moments notice. Last Friday as I got to the bank parking lot, I looked across the street and saw this beautiful rainbow coming right down on top of Mt. Carmel Cathedral. It's actually a double rainbow, you can just barely make out the second rainbow near the top of the Town House sign if you blow the picture up. So I'm sure that people are going to get sick and tired of seeing me with my camera in tow, but you just never know when you're going to want to capture an image. I'm just going to share a few of the sights I managed to capture with my camera over the course of the weekend. Just another day on Saipan, hopefully you enjoyed the story through pictures today. I think they speak much more eloquently than I ever could.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The New Camera

My new Canon EOS Rebel 400D XTi got here earlier this week, so as you can probably guess, I'm very excited. I've never owned an SLR camera before, so I've got an awful lot to learn, but I like challenges. The nice thing about this camera is that even if you don't want to have to learn all the settings, you can still take some pretty amazing shots in fully automatic mode. And the lenses have automatic focus as well, so all I have to do is find what I want a picture of and push the button. Emma was just begging to have her picture taken by being a couch potato.

Kelli and Sarah just left for the states yesterday and took the camera I use for my underwater photography with them. I decided not to order the underwater housing for my new one until I learn to use the camera really well first, so I won't be having any new underwater pictures for a couple weeks. But that's ok, I have so many around that I think I can find a few to post for the next couple weeks. While I was poking around looking for other things to take pictures of, I noticed that the orchids on the old tree stump had produced some flowers for me, so I thought they would make a nice subject as well. This one was shot in macro mode, even though I didn't have a macro lense on for it. My macro lense should be arriving any day now so I'm excited to see what kind of difference it will make. We have a whole patch of red ginger growing in front of our house, which also makes for a great photo subject. It also looks great in a vase on your table, however it can be pretty tough getting all the ants out of the flower first. That was a lesson I learned the hard way the first time, I wound up bringing a bunch of uninvited guests to dinner that night. And I was pretty impressed with one of my zoom lenses for the camera as it brought one of the old WWII tanks in the lagoon in for a closer look. I think I'll be having a lot of fun experimenting with the camera and finding out what it's capable of in the next couple of weeks. So the pictures might be a little different than you're used to, but don't worry, I'll get back to diving pictures very soon. I decided to go down to the Thursday night street market to take some pictures as well, and couldn't resist stopping by the American Memorial Park Visitor's Center to get a shot of this. This little guy was literally on top of the world, even if his mom was within reach. Saipan is a photographers dream, and I hope to bring it to you in vivid color and detail within the next few weeks.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Just Another Day In The Grotto

This nudibranch is called a Halgerda johnsonorum, and this was only the second time I've ever seen one, so I was quite excited when I saw him just sitting in the wide open on a rock. This is the same species that I caught mating with the Halgerda guahan a little over a month ago. This one is definitely a more rare find than the guahan or the malesso, at least in the Grotto. In the picture above he is in his "sitting" pose, kind of all scrunched up, making him look more round and short. Luckily for me he decided to go for a stroll and stretch out, giving me the ability to get some different shots. Here he is on the move and is fully stretched out. I think it's cool the way they can appear either totally flat, or they can raise the surface of their body along the yellow ridge lines. I don't know if they do that as a defense mechanism or it's just the way they are. Since this was only the second time I'd ever seen this guy, I was taking a ton of pictures, probably close to 150 just on him alone. Some Japanese divers had come in by this point, and were curious about what I found so interesting. The two tourists both had cameras, so I motioned them over and pointed out this guy, and the Halgerda guahan who was only a couple feet away. The lady got so excited you could actually hear her yelling underwater. I always enjoy sharing my discoveries with diving tourists, as I'm sure they love taking the pictures back with them. As I was swimming through the Grotto looking for the next nudibranch, I ran across this egg mass. A year ago I would have had no clue what it was, and frankly wouldn't really have cared. Now that I have started my educational process with the nudibranchs, I have seen enough egg masses and ribbons to realize that's what this is. The thing about this one that throws me for a loop is that I've never seen another one like it. I've shown you pictures of the egg ribbons of the Halgerda guahan and malesso, they are the tan ones that look like a strip of something glued to the rock in a spiral pattern. This one was a tube, but if you blow the picture up and look closely, you can clearly see the little strings of eggs. I have learned from the Philinopsis gardineri that they will wrap these egg masses around their bodies, and then they shed them as they move forward, leaving a cocoon like contraption. So now the question is, what kind of nudibranch leaves this kind of egg mass? You can bet I'll be looking until I figure it out. Then as I got back up to the rock where I find all the purple Ptereolidia ianthina, I spotted these two Halgerda guahan, each partially in little holes on the rock. That would be why some days you can look and look and maybe only find one or two in all of the Grotto, they are hiding out in their holes. And because their body is completely flexible and moldable, they can fit in just about any kind of hole or crack. After looking around for a bit I found this about 4 feet below where these two were hanging out. This is the egg ribbon for the Halgerda guahan. You can see all those little holes in the ribbon, that's what happens to the lighter spots I showed you a couple days ago. So are those spots where the eggs have already hatched? Just one more of the many mysteries begging me to figure them out. And then I had to take a few pictures of the Ptereolidia ianthina so they wouldn't all be screaming discrimination. They seem to get a little jealous when you pay too much attention to the other nudibranchs, and they won't look at you when you try to take their pictures. So in order to keep everything in balance in the world of Grotto nudibranchs I did the right thing and took a few pictures of this guy too. And the best part of a dive like this is that it's not unusual, I can go down to the Grotto pretty much anytime now and come away with as many nudibranch pictures as my memory card can hold. Yes, I'm spoiled rotten, I'll readily admit it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

More Dive Pics

When I got to the Grotto Sunday morning, I was shocked that there were only two divers who were already done with their dive, and the parking lot was empty otherwise. That meant I had the Grotto all to myself. When I don't have to worry about other divers, I will take advantage of the opportunity and look some places that I wouldn't otherwise. I like looking under the shelf of the rock you jump off of, sometimes you see unique nudibranchs just barely below the waterline, but you really don't want another diver jumping on your head which is the reason I only look there when nobody else is around. I was pretty surprised though when the first thing I saw was a Halgerda guahan, about 6" below the waterline and right on the front of the rock. I knew that they came in fairly shallow, but had no idea they went that shallow. Good information to know and to tuck away for later reference. When I went out of the Grotto, this green sea turtle was waiting for me in exactly the same spot as the day before. As long as you move slowly and don't appear threatening, turtles will usually let you get fairly close for pictures and don't even seem to mind letting you swim in the general vicinity. Now I could easily spend my entire dive just becoming a turtle and swimming off into the open ocean with these guys, but I have nudibranchs to find and have to remind myself of that. I keep seeing Mike Ernest out walking, and I keep telling him he should be diving instead. He wants to see one of these Leaf Scorpionfish very badly, but has only seen one once and then couldn't take any pictures because his camera fogged up. I've been having pretty good luck spotting them lately, as this is my 3rd one in the last couple months. This guy was hanging out between rocks outside of the Grotto. The first time you see one, you probably won't recognize it as a fish because they blend in so well with their surroundings. And if they move, they just look like a leaf blowing in the currents, so even that doesn't give them away. But once you've seen a few of them, you start knowing what to look for and the kind of places you're most likely to find them. This is definitely one of my favorite photo subjects, I just think they are very cool looking. Sometimes this is what you will first see of a Leaf Scorpionfish though, they will have their head tucked down toward the hole they are hiding in, so you'll just see part of their body, and one of their little fins sticking out to the side if you're lucky. Color is not always a giveaway either. You'd think that because this guy is such a bright shade of pink he would be easy to spot, but at the depth I saw him at, that color wasn't showing up at all. It was only the flash of the camera that brought out his real colors. I have seen Leaf Scorpionfish now that are brown, pink and yellow. I'm not sure how many other color varieties there are, but I definitely have my eyes open for them. I just can't seem to resist taking at least a few pictures of the orange sea fans, especially when I can get the blue ocean in the background. The beauty underwater really is amazing, it's just a matter of recognizing it when you see it. I'm always amazed that dive guides take their tourists to the Grotto without flashlights. If you don't have a flashlight on a Grotto dive, you will miss some of the most amazing scenery down there.

I did have one or two more pictures I wanted to add to this post, but blogger doesn't seem to be cooperating, so I guess they'll have to wait til tomorrow. And yes, I did see plenty of nudibranchs on this dive, including a very impressive Halgerda johnsonorum, but you'll have to wait til tomorrow to see him. Also I just got my new Canon EOS Digital Rebel 400D XTi, so I'll be starting to throw in some pictures from that as well. I am very excited about getting it, and think it will definitely expand my range of subjects.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I Finally Found Halgerda Tesselata

When I came back inside the Grotto Saturday morning I decided to look in some different spots other than the places I usually look for the nudibranchs. If you always look in the same spots, you are most likely to keep finding the same nudibranchs that make that their habitat. I was on the ridge between #2 & 3 just looking for any sign of movement on the hard rock surface. This guy was slightly smaller than my thumbnail, and when I first saw him he wasn't moving. He was so small that I couldn't make out any of the definition on him at all with my naked eye, I didn't even know for sure that was a nudibranch. I thought maybe it was just a little patch of something stuck to the rock, but it was different than everything else around it, so I decided to go in for a closer look. Very carefully I moved my fingernail close to the edge of it to see if it moved at all, and sure enough, it was a nudibranch. After a little nudge from me, he decided to start working his way over the rock. I still couldn't see what it was and had no idea what type of nudibranch it was, I only knew that I had never seen it before so I was going to get as many pictures of it as I could. When you're shooting something that small that you can't really see anyway, you're never quite sure if the focus is right until you get the picture back and put it on your computer. The key to getting good shots is taking dozens and dozens of them, or in my case hundreds. Especially if it's a nudibranch I haven't seen yet, I'll shoot until I fill up my memory card or run out of battery life. When I got back home and looked at the pictures on my computer I was pleasantly surprised to find that only a couple of the pictures of this guy turned out blurry, the rest were awesome. This is a Halgerda tesselata. No I didn't go making a brand new discovery for the world or science or anything, but it was still my first Halgerda tesselata, and I've been looking for them for a couple months now, ever since I saw Mark James picture of one. One more nudibranch to my Grotto nudibranch portfolio. I know that there are plenty of people with a lot more pictues of nudibranchs than I have, but I am having an absolute blast learning all about these little critters. And I think that because of the sheer number of hours I spend underwater at the Grotto every weekend, I'm getting a pretty good handle on the types of nudibranchs we have there, and the most likely places to find them. Then for the second time, I saw this interesting guy on one of the boulders inside the Grotto. When your light hits it, it looks almost metallic, the colors are vibrant and it definitely stands out in its drab surroundings. I think it must be in the crinoid family somewhere, but it is different in quite a few ways from the normal crinoids we have everywhere. The typical crinoids arms are pretty soft and flexible. They can curl themselves up into a ball like this guy, but even when they do, they are still very soft and pliable. This guy feels like coiled wire and is very strong. When he thinks there is something around that might be a possible food source, he will outstretch those arms and probe around. Here you see him with half of his arms outstretched, and you can see the inside, where I assume the mouth is. I have some research to do on this guy to see if I can come up with an ID for him. Just one more of the thousands of unique little critters that make the Grotto their home. This was one of those days that there seemed to be another nudibranch everywhere I looked. I still have a really hard time identifying these little guys, there are about a dozen or so of them that all look exactly alike to me, but the experts have different names for all of them. So I just submit them and wait to hear back what they call them. I always get excited when I see one of these guys, this is Halgerda malesso. I see Halgerda guahan all the time and see pretty large numbers of them, but this one doesn't seem to be nearly so common in the Grotto. I just really like the looks of them, they have such a unique look to them with their yellow dots, and the two yellow lines that border their mantle. Their rhinopores and gills are also quite distinctive with the dark brown dots covering them. It is my belief that every single one of these guys has a unique pattern, much the same as our fingerprints are unique. I have looked closely at pictues I have of several of them, and their patterns all seem to be quite different. Now tell me, how could you not enjoy spending hours and hours with magnificent creatures such as this guy? I'm telling you, they're addictive. Once you learn to spot them, you want to find another, and then another. Then you're always looking for the perfect shot of them with a great background and colors. This isn't the best setting I have one set in, but it is definitely one of my best pictures of a Halgerda malesso. And I was happy to see that these guys are still laying their egg ribbons. I have made another discovery about these. If you look, you'll see the little white patches all over the egg ribbon, if you come back in a day or two, there will be holes in the egg ribbon where all those patches are. So whether those are the first eggs to hatch or what I'm not sure, but I'll keep watching and studying them. And I also saw this Chromodoris lochi on the rock where I usually see the purple nudibranchs, the Ptereolidia ianthina. This is the first time I've seen one of these on that rock, but I'm learning that's one of the best rocks to look for a variety of different nudibranchs. I think you can probably tell that I was really happy with this dive, as I got some great pictures of a wide variety of nudibranchs and other critters as well.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Weekends Are Made For Diving

This is a sight that greets me every weekend and signals that my adventure is about to begin. This is looking out the #1 hole at the Grotto, skimming over the rock to the left. Most people go out the cut on the right side of the hole, but I choose to go up and over this rock, looking for nudibranchs along the way. You just never know what you're going to find on that rock. It seems there are some nudibranchs that like to sit on top of it and catch a few rays, I guess they're working on their tan. No sooner did I get out of the Grotto and take a quick look around than I saw this guy sitting right outside the opening, it's like he knew I was coming and was just sitting there waiting for me. There is a tall rock right near where I have seen him the last couple of times, and this time he decided to go up and do circles around the rock. Now most people would think it was cool that he was sticking so close giving them so many photo opportunities, but most people don't get vertigo when they ascend too quickly. I did manage to get in a few good shots before I fell to the bottom spinning uncontrollably in my head. There is nothing like starting your dive swimming with a turtle. I suppose some of you might get tired of seeing turtles and hearing me talk about the magic of swimming with a turtle, but there are a few people out there who get it. I know that Tami totally understands my fascination with turtles and appreciates it as well. But just because I enjoy taking pictues of turtles doesn't mean I don't appreciate the other sites down there as well. There is a little patch of this staghorn coral outside of the Grotto at about 100', right on the edge of a pretty steep drop off. You can usually find some pretty cool fish and eels hanging out in this area, but the coral itself also makes for a great picture. I find it always pays to spend the time to look in each and every little hole, you just never know what might be in there waiting to have its picture taken. This eel was being a bit shy and didn't really want to come out for a picture, but he did let me stick my camera down in the hole to get him. Many divers swim right past things like this never realizing what it is, it is camouflaged pretty well and blends in with its surroundings. It is a spondylus clam, which is the favorite of some of the local carvers and artists. The shell, while quite ugly and plain on the outside, is smooth, shiny, colorful and beautiful on the inside. Some of the bigger fish, snappers and tuna will bust them open, eat the clam inside and leave broken pieces of the shells. This orange sea fan is poised underneath the crack that turns into the #2 opening into the Grotto. It makes for a very cool picture though to get the fan with the vivid blue of the ocean in the background, contrasted by the dark rock walls. There is art everywhere when you're diving, it's just a matter of opening your eyes and seeing it all around you. Occasionally I like to look back up and see the waves crashing above me, or in this case through the rocks looking outside the Grotto. It's amazing but when I'm down there I really feel like it's where I'm the most comfortable. I don't really want to have to go back up, and I never feel any anxiety about being underwater. I sometimes wonder if I wasn't supposed to be a fish and if my gills aren't just cleverly disguised. Those who have gone diving with me and tried to make their tank last as long as I make mine last hae probably wondered the same thing. As you may have gathered from some of my pictures, yes I like swimming into some pretty tight spots trying to get just the right picture or angle. I sometimes forget that I'm not a fish and can't always follow them wherever they go. Now if you're a regular reader of this blog, you are probably wondering where the nudibranchs are. Oh yes, I saw nudibranchs on this dive. In fact I saw a nudibranch I've never seen before, and it was so small I really didn't know what it looked like until I got home and blew up it's picture on the computer. But if you want to know what it looked like and what kind of nudibranch it was, you're just going to have to come back tomorrow.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another Year Older - Now As Old As Kelli!

For 4 days every year I get the chance to harass Kelli about being older than me, but sadly those 4 days go faster every year and then I'm the same age as her again. We went out for French night at the Kili Cafe at the Hyatt the night before my birthday. French night is only on Tuesday and my birthday was on Wednesday, so you do what you have to do. We had a couple friends join us for a quiet dinner, well, it was quiet until Sarah and Chris started the food fight, but more on that later. Those who are regular blog readers will probably recognize Bev, or Bubbles as she is also known. In spite of the fact that she ditched me on the last dive she was supposed to go on with me and left me just sitting there waiting for her for a while, I still invited her to my birthday dinner. I think I just wanted to harass her about it all night and try putting on a guilt trip. I don't think it worked, but we'll see what happens next time she asks to go diving with me. And Hozumi is always there ready to party with me and help me celebrate my birthday, or pretty much anything else for that matter. In honor of French night, Hozumi even dressed up to look French, I think she pulled it off well. Here you see Hozumi eating my piece of birthday ice cream cake. In all fairness, she didn't eat it all by herself, Bev had a little bit, and Sarah had a bite or two, but Hozumi had the lions share of it. Just as she was taking the last bite I told her I wanted a taste of it, but it looked like it was too late. And here is a rare pictue of Sarah and Chris. It's rare because they both have decent smiles, they're not sticking their tongues out or making other ridiculous faces and they don't have any food on their faces. Don't believe me? Well let me prove it then. At least here Sarah is just looking semi-normal. The problems come in when she and Chris start getting creative about posing for pictures, that's when things like this happen. They both wind up with whipped cream all over their faces. Who would have ever thought that I would look like the mature one at the table. Well ok fine, there is always Kelli, but she doesn't count, she's always mature. And finally, this is the perfect plate of food. For those of you not refined enough to know how to properly dress a plate of food, let me show you how. Now it is important to note that while eating everything on the plate, your pinky needs to be extended straight out, and your nose should be slightly in the air. But then you need a cream puff on your plate, a piece of cold boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, a fried doughnut thing, watermelon, smoked salmon, and rare prime rib with mushroom gravy. You want to try keeping the gravy off of the watermelon, but it's not really that important. Watermelon still tastes good even with mushroom gravy on it. Happy Birthday to me, I'm now as old as my wife!