Back to Tulamben: Bottom Dwellers

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There were lots of creatures living on the bottom, whether on the bottom of a part of the wreck or on the sea floor proper. One of them was the relatively hard-to-spot snowflake moray eel with its startled expression.

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Other eels included the ribbon eel, like this yellow female…

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… and this black juvenile.

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Ribbon eels have a characteristic way of moving in and out of their holes, probably partly moving with the surge and partly to act like a lure for its prey.

Yet other eels we saw were the incredibly shy garden eels. It was impossible to get any closer without chasing them back into their holes.

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I think these are spotted garden eels, but it’s difficult to tell without a close up picture.

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Moving away from the eels, there were other fish that live in holes, like this goby…

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… and this yellowbarred jawfish with its characteristic yellow mark on its eye.

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Then there were the fish that simply sat on the bottom, never being found more than a few centimetres off the coral. Case in point is the leaf scorpionfish.

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At Tulamben, we found the white variation…

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… the yellow variation…

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… and a red variation. Such was the multitude of fish at Tulamben, it was a fish photo collector’s paradise.

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We were also lucky to find a rather hard to find ocellated frogfish. This tiny fella was about an inch or so long and we find him while battling a unexpected strong current. Too bad we weren’t able to stay for too long as I’d certainly like to get a better shot of him.

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And last of all was this deeply depressing stonefish. It’s almost perfectly camouflaged, with only its glum downturned mouth to give itself away.

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Back to Tulamben: Of Coral, Crevices and Cleaning Stations

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There was plenty of very healthy coral in Tulamben as usual. And there was occasionally very blue and clear water.

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We were lucky to catch a small school of razorfish passing by…

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… and were even luckier to discover an electric clam in a crevice on one of the walls of the wreck. Check out the blue-white lines on the clam – those are the electric bits. I wouldn’t advise putting a finger anywhere close!

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Other things in crevices included this octopus that didn’t make any attempt to conceal itself.

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All it did was to curl its bulbous head in a bit more to look like a giant, doleful nose.

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Another one was far less gregarious. I wouldn’t call this one shy, given its evil eye peering malevolently from its hole.

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Cleaning stations had plenty of crevices too. Here, many different types of shrimp were proffering their services, including this one coming right up to my hand. It tried to give my glove a good clean, but in vain.

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Others had more business with this giant moray eel, giving it a good dental check up.

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Some were so zealous about their job that they went into the jaws of the eel quite fearlessly. And the eel never bothered trying to eat it.

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The shrimp obviously had to be quite smart in getting out before the eel’s jaw closed, just like this one making the eel look rather foolish.

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Wayan did a reprise of the last trip and demonstrated how the shrimp would even go into his mouth with sufficient coaxing. Here’s an incredible action shot of not one but two (!) shrimp making a beeline for his lunch leftovers.

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And here they are making sure they’re doing a thorough job. Wayan kept at this till he could hold his breath no longer.

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The show was over and we went on to the next cleaning station. Here, a shrimp took a breather atop a coral grouper’s head before going back into its mouth for more dental action.

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And a midnight snapper waits its turn, mouth open in anticipation of the cleaning to come.

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A Quick Trip to Redang: Night Dive

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Our night dive was where I finally figured out how my strobe and camera worked together and I very merrily went round taking a tonne of photos. Sadly, not a great deal of them turned out well as I didn’t have the chance to linger. We had a big group with us and it was tough to stay in one spot undisturbed by other divers for a while. We revisited the black-finned snake eel from the last time, but didn’t manage to get in a better shot.

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There was a pretty little juvenile raggy scorpionfish, not quite so well camouflaged amongst the coral. I spotted it easily from its eyes – they look so much like Starlight mint sweets.

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Next up were the crustaceans that tend to only come out at night. Can you spot the transparent shrimp here?

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Then there was this uncooperative coral crab saying “look Ma, no hands!” It refused to come out and show itself topside up.

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And finally, after much frustrated snapping, I have a picture of a very shy saron shrimp. Isn’t it beautiful?

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For a dive trip to a place full of coral bleaching, and with general low visibility, this trip to Redang was pretty fruitful!

September in Bali: A Mucky Secret

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The other highlight of being in Permuteran was diving at Secret Bay. I don’t think it’s that big a secret anymore, but not as many divers go there. It’s a muck diving place, meaning that less of the casual divers and more of the serious divers go there. Why? Because muck diving is all about diving in places with less than white sand and very little coral. The atmosphere can be very depressing because of the low light and poor visibility conditions. Nonetheless, there are plenty of weird and wonderful creatures to see.

I strongly suspect this to be the Kodipungi lionfish, with its separated pectoral fin rays. It’s so beautiful and flamboyant against the dull grey sand.

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What surprised me next was the Banggai cardinalfish, something that is supposed to be very rare. When I’d last dived in Manado, I was told that these fish were only found at Banggai Island and the Lembeh Strait. Balderdash!

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Their blue-black colouration with the almost fluorescent white spots was mesmerising.

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There were also plenty of razorfish among the sea urchins. They were funny creatures that seemed to stand upside down on their noses to hunt for food.

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When pursued, they’d turn ninety degrees so they could make a quick getaway, but were otherwise always nose to the ground.

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Another rare find was the hispid frogfish. It was hilarious how each had a disarmingly charming white pompom on its forehead. This pompom acted like a lure to bring in prey. In a gulp, the poor fish would be gone.

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Another odd fish was the cockatoo waspfish that liked to pretend to be a leaf swaying in the water. Very strange.

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Less strange was this octopus that (for good reason) refused to budge from its hole. The best I could do was to take a blurred shot of its tentacles. Pity.

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Other inhabitants of this freakish side show include the striped puffer with its dark blotch around the base of its pectoral fins making it look recessed and mutated.

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Reflecting the green seaweed was this unidentified goby. It would’ve been difficult to spot if it was just a few inches into the seaweed.

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Easier to identify was the spotted shrimpgoby with its distinctive white iris and black markings. It was surprisingly how I managed to get close enough without startling the shrimpgoby.

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Almost completely camouflaged until it started moving was this peacock flounder with its weirdly asymmetrical eyes.

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Another well-camouflaged fish was this orange and black dragonet, its only giveaway the orange lips.

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There were more – this crocodile flathead, if left alone, would soon change colour to blend in with the sand below.

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There was also this really ugly pipefish that looked like a piece of random trash in the water. No wonder it’s called muck diving.

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Secret Bay was one of the few places where I saw full-sized seahorses, like this thorny seahorse. I was so thrilled by this find! Even though we’re told that pygmy seahorses are very rare, somehow I feel that full-sized ones are even more so because guides tend not to look out for them. What a great find.

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Another unexpected find was this whole pile of schooling catfish in the wreck of a little rowboat.

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Even more surprising was this ornate ghost pipefish floating along obliviously above the seething mass of catfish.

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Other than that, there was a truly horrifying sea centipede, another first for me (and hopefully last).

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And then there were the ubiquitous nudibranchs, though this time nothing I’ve seen before again.

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Check out this scrum of beautiful blue and yellow ones too. Lovely huh.

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And rounding things off, here’s a video of something not seen that often – a white-eye moray eel out of its hole in search of prey. Enjoy.

September in Bali: Menjangan Island

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I was in Permuteran to dive two very different locations. The first was Menjangan Island, also known as the island of the deer. To get there, we had to abide by a whole bunch of rules. I like multi-coloured signs like this and I especially liked the rather paternalistic exhortation to make sure all your diving equipment was attached securely to your body.

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While the diving at Menjangan Island wasn’t quite as spectacular as the other places I’d dived for this trip, it was very relaxing as there weren’t any challenging currents. The water was beautifully blue as usual and while there weren’t as many pelagics, there was still the odd gem or two. This yellow-spotted trevally was one of them.

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Here also was the second time in my diving career I saw a school of squid in broad daylight. The last time I saw a school of squid, it was my first dive. It took more than a hundred dives to see them again.

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Closer to the reef were plenty of longfin batfish. Here, they seemed almost excessively friendly, changing quickly from their day colours…

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… to night colours as they came in close, as they did when wanting to be cleaned.

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For some really odd reason, one of them swam right up to me, as if it was expecting me to do the cleaning honours for it.

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There were plenty of parrotfish around. I’m surprised how little photographed these fish are. I think it’s something to do with how shy they are and how they just don’t stay put in one place.

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There were others like this grouper that I can’t find in my fish ID book…

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… and more familiar ones like this Indian doublebar goatfish hovering over some coral.

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Some of the fish came in schools, like the two-spot snappers in their brownish grey raiment.

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Others were more solitary, like one of my all-time favourites, the juvenile harlequin sweetlips. I can’t get enough of its unique polka dot pattern.

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Some fish lived in crevices, like this yellowbarred jawfish emerging in search of prey.

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Others like this fire dartfish seemed to simply hover in one place posing for the camera.

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There were other fish that lived in crevices, and some of these you won’t want to get too close to. This fimbriated moray eel is one good example.

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Some were small and really difficult to get close to, like the goby. I can’t tell for sure whether this is a common ghostgoby.

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I think this is a large (!) whip goby but as usual, I can’t be sure.

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Other fish are much more easily identified, like these panda clownfish, also known as Clark’s anemonefish. They were so at home among the stinging anemones…

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… as was this anemone shrimp.

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Rather camera-shy was this hermit crab, which hid its face swiftly under its shell as the camera clicked.

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And then the ones that didn’t seem shy at all – the nudibranchs. I saw a white flabellina that seemed to mimic the coral it was on.

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There were others that were even more unidentifiable, like this strange blue one with an orange and white strip outlined by deep blue running down the middle.

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I tried to take some nudibranch portraits, some not quite coming out as I’d like as the flash refused to fire.

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And others came out much better, with a pensive, slightly lonesome feel that seems quite at odds with the experience of being a nudibranch, perhaps.

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September in Komodo: Getting Closer to the Coral

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I really enjoyed how varied the diving was in Komodo. There were plenty of drift dives, wall dives, and sometimes just plain vanilla let’s-poke-around-the-reef dives.

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I dived with Reefseekers and the guides were the loveliest and most professional I’ve met. In addition to their impeccable briefings and safety procedures, I liked how they shared their love for the ocean at a daily storytelling session. Each day there was a different topic, perhaps on rays, or on cephalopods or, in one case, on day and night colours of fish. I never really noticed till diving in Komodo that fish have day and night colours. Not only that, but they change to night colours in the day time to signal to the cleaner fish that they want to be cleaned. Below we have a few surgeonfish changed into their darker night colours, and this in very stark contrast to a much lighter brother who was already being cleaned.

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There were plenty of other fish hanging around the reef, like this startled looking soldierfish…

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… and this predatory giant moray eel.

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There were also plenty of hawkfish, and I had fun catching pictures of the threadfin hawkfish…

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… the freckled hawkfish…

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… more freckled hawkfish…

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… and the rare longnose hawkfish.

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Others in the reef were very hard to spot. Look carefully and see if you can spot a scorpionfish.

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Others away from the coral were the garden eels, poking their heads out from the sand only when divers were further away. It was impossible to get a closeup shot.

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September in Bali: Underwater

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The diving at Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida was nothing short of beautiful.

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There was plenty of very healthy coral and every single dive was full of beautiful coral scapes, quite different from the black volcanic sands of Tulamben.

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I loved how blue the water was and how colourful the fish were. They were everywhere the eye could see, with the tiny brightly-hued anemonefish hovering on the roof, the slightly bigger ones like the butterflyfish close to the reef and the large ones like the trevally hunting a few metres from the reef.

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It wasn’t all blue underwater. Featherstars like these gave bursts of colour along the way. These creatures are relatives of the starfish and can walk themselves to convenient places to feed. I like how they congregated on this coral to pose for a picture.

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The fish closest to the reef are generally the smallest and naturally the most skittish because they are food for most other bigger fish. I had a hard time getting a picture of these two-tone dartfish that always come in pairs. I love how they look like they’re wearing frilly dark clown pants!

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Another skittish fish was this adorable juvenile yellow boxfish that was almost impossible to catch on camera without being a spotted yellow blur.

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Bigger and less shy, yet still hard to capture was the emperor angelfish. It had this knack of sailing off in a huffy imperial manner away from the camera.

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Also adopting a regal manner was the spotted soapfish. Again, I kept capturing the tails of these fellas till this one though no doubt it’s angled away in retreat.

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Less skittish fish are those that laze along the bottom of the reef, like this hexagon grouper. It perched itself on the coral and anemones, keeping a careful eye on nearby divers and moving away on if they got too close for comfort.

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Others didn’t bat an eyelid even when we got close for a shot, like this giant frogfish. All it did was occasionally shift its foot-like ventral fins to get to a more comfortable position.

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One fish that we daren’t get too close too was the scorpionfish. This specimen is probably either a tasseled or Poss’s scorpionfish, with its well developed skin tassels along its chin and jaw.

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Other things hardly moved at all, like this egg cowrie. Its black mantle covered most its smooth white shell whilst it fed on soft coral.

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Some creatures were actively out hunting, like this very cute snowflake moray eel. It had a most sheepish expression on its face that amused me to no end.

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There was also the banded sea snake, a highly venomous reptile that we steered clear off. From a distance, I admired its pretty bands of alternating black and pale blue, its smooth rounded head and its rudder-like tail that was well adapted to propelling itself in search of prey.

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Last of all was this pretty pink  nudibranch with an orange flower on its back. It’s actually a pink dorid and the flower is its branchial plume through which it breathes. I wonder why it was doubled over though.

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Even without the fish I was after, seeing the variety of life here was rewarding in its own right. More to come in my next post!

September in Bali: Underwater Macro

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Bali as a dive destination really surprised me with the sheer variety and quantity of wildlife to be seen. The rich coral life supported many species that were rare at other more famous dive areas in the region. I could choose no better place than Tulamben to start taking underwater photos. There were lots of  Nemos to shoot, though some were shyer than others, like these false anemonefish or clownfish.

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The pink anemonefish flashed a bright pink against the brilliant green of their protective homes. Even so, they sulked at the camera rather disagreeably.

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It was this panda clownfish that finally posed nicely for me while guarding his pink eggs at the base of the anemone.

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Next up, the challenge was to spot and shoot the pygmy seahorses. My task was made far easier with the world’s best dive guide ever, Wayan. It was amazing how he could spot the little creatures so easily and point them out carefully. Here, you can see how tiny a pygmy seahorses is.

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Here’s the Denise pygmy seahorse up close, looking so elegant and fragile.

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Less delicate looking was the regular Gorgonian pygmy seahorse, though this male is very obviously pregnant. For seahorses, the males carry the eggs while the females swim free. What a great arrangement.

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Other rare fish included this longnose hawkfish, a very pretty fish that started my subsequent fascination with hawkfishes of all shapes and sizes.

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Then there was the jawfish that burrowed in the sea bottom, only revealing its face and yellow eyebrows to the surface.

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And there was the funny-looking ribbon eel that showed off its striped blue body and brilliant yellow mouth, looking like it had a tragicomic accident with a fluorescent yellow marker pen.

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Another interesting find was the robust ghost pipefish that looked remarkably like leaves gliding along in the current.

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Here’s a video with a pregnant one, you can just about spot its eggs in between its ventral fin parts right at the end of the video.

There were also other creatures like this pretty little cuttlefish so well camouflaged against some stinging coral.

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And then there were the pretty nudibranchs, also unglamourously known as sea slugs. There were pink ones with yellow trimmings…

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… black and white ones with orange trimmings…

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… purely blue ones…

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… and even pairs with pinkish brown splotches on them. I bet these fellas must be poisonous, otherwise they’d be way too easy to be spotted and gobbled up!

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Layang Layang: Reef Life and Macro

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Don’t think that Layang Layang is only for the pelagics. There’s plenty of macro to be found here, it’s only that sometimes the currents and the wall can be a bit challenging for finding those critters and also getting the perfect shot of that tiny little creature. There was a lot of reef life here, such as this rather surprised looking tomato grouper.

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I was also quite pleased to see one of my favourites, a juvenile black snapper with its characteristic black and white stripes and dots.

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Then there were the fish that insisting on posing for a picture, like this slightly constipated looking pennant bannerfish.

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There were also bottom dwellers like blue-spotted stingrays.

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They always seem to stare up so malevolently at us.

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There were also other fairly amusing fish, like this doublebar goatfish. They like to rest on coral and pretend that they are not there, innocently spacing out, as if if they can’t see us we can’t see them!

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Others showed off their colours beautifully against the coral, like these panda butterflyfish and peacock grouper.

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DC is obsessed with the pufferfish family, just like I’m obsessed with hawkfish. His favourite shot of the whole trip is this seal-faced puffer that he cornered in a coral niche. It’s cute, isn’t it?

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Not so cute is this giant frogfish that has its mouth open in wait for unsuspecting prey. In a split second, it’ll pounce and the prey will be in its belly.

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Far less grotesque were pretty nudibranchs slowly making their way across the coral gardens.

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They were surprisingly hard to spot among the colourful backdrop of coral, but once found, a joy to photograph.

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Far harder to photograph were the pink anemonefish, who were so skittish, this is probably the only decent one I got amongst the tens of shots I took.

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Going down to the seriously macro-level, I found some large whip gobies on a sea fan and thankfully this one wasn’t as shy as my next subject.

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The Denise pygmy seahorses were such a pain to photograph. My camera had great difficulty focussing on the tiny creatures smaller than my fingernail. This one is pregnant and had the tendency to swim to the underside of the sea fan, making it impossible to catch on camera.

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DC got this picture that’s far superior to mine, it’s so beautiful how he managed to capture the eye and its almost serene expression.

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We had some good luck on sandy patches at the house reef at night. There was a flamboyantly coloured Spanish dancer.

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There was also this strange blob of a sea slug oozing its way along.

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Much prettier was this variation of a reeftop pipefish that wiggled its pretty pink tail and didn’t seem to mind the many flashes from our cameras.

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Then there was the bizarrely shaped longhorn cowfish that seemed to have difficulty navigating its way out of this patch of seagrass.

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Back on the coral reef, there were other oddities like this leaf scorpionfish with its glassy white eye staring out at us while swaying back and forth in the water pretending to be a leaf.

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In the anemone were some porcelain crabs, which were quite shy. This one kept scuttling towards the underside of the anemone and it was really hard to keep up with it before it disappeared from sight.

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A rare sight in the coral was this peacock flounder. Normally associated with muck diving, I was thrilled to see this one swim along and then try to rather unsuccessfully camouflage itself on some maze coral. Its googly eyes and patchy colouration gave it away immediately!

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There were also quite a few shrimp and other crustaceans hiding out in crevices. Here’s DC trying to get a good snap of some shrimp.

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They were some kind of orange cleaner shrimp that I have yet to identify, very pretty though!

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Other cleaner shrimp like these commensal shrimp also hung around the same area. Both kinds would come out onto my hand and pick away at dead skin. I suppose it makes good eating for them. And round goes the circle of life!

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There were also these spiny rock lobsters in another hole. I was so tempted to pull them out by their feelers but of course resisted. It’s a pity they were so shy though!

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Back on the surface of the coral reef, we were happy to see the bigger fish thriving. There were plenty of sweetlips about, including these adult harlequin sweetlips that seemed to love giving a mirror mirage by going in pairs above and below the coral.

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Then there was this emperor angelfish that came up to pose for a picture on my last dive. Such an obliging creature!

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And last of the fish, there was this white mouth moray looking out for prey.

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Unfortunately, as this video shows, it’s a bit of FAIL because it got slapped in the face by a passing fish. So much for being a lean, mean predator.

The nicest finale to our dive was getting up close to this turtle. As we approached, the green turtle was facing us and knew full well of our approach. Somehow it didn’t swim away.

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DC got in close enough for a really macro shot of it.

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But then we noticed something odd about the way it was rocking back and forth.

We realised that it was stuck in the coral! For the sake of this turtle, I broke one of the laws of diving – don’t touch any creature – and tugged it gently out. It got free and immediately coasted up towards the surface for a good breath of fresh air.

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It was such a lovely feeling to end our successful series of dives by helping out a stranded turtle.

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.