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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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 Komodo: Blue, Blue Oceans

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I flew to Flores from Bali, landing at Labuan Bajo, the staging point for Komodo. Komodo itself is a small island off Flores and is home to the famous Komodo dragon. I wasn’t here just to see the dragons, but also to experience the famed diving in the area. Diving here is challenging with the strong currents but very rewarding as it is very much an untouched area with an incredible amount of fish.

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Every dive I had was so blue and full of fish. There were trevally in great abundance and in greater abundance were the fusiliers and other smaller fish that made their prey.

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It was always a fish soup experience each dive.

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Famous here are the pelagics, otherwise known as big fish that swim in the blue, like the ominous looking giant trevally.

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They get pretty big, though not quite as big as a diver!

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It was almost shocking to me how often we saw Napolean wrasse. These are rare in other waters but seeing two or three in one dive was almost the norm here.

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They weren’t too shy and often swam round us in large circles, as if to mark out territory.

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Some of them were not yet in the terminal phase and had lighter markings on their smaller bodies. It was wonderful to see these majestic creatures cruise round us.

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Other creatures were more fearsome than majestic, like the dogtooth tuna. From afar they looked fine…

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… but up closer their rows of teeth and rather unfriendly expression made me think of how eagerly they would take revenge on me – all for my penchant for tuna sashimi.

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There were some slightly dangerous fish in the water. Here’s probably the most dangerous – the titan triggerfish. It’s been known to attack divers and to grave consequence. Thankfully it wasn’t nesting season when they tended to be very aggressive and territorial. This one just cruised past without taking any notice of us.

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Even though they have a reputation for being deadly, sharks are generally pretty harmless. There were lots of white tip sharks in the area. It is obvious how they got their name and it’s marvellous how the white tips are almost luminous in the water.

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These creatures were quite shy and it wasn’t easy to get a photo. It doesn’t help that they tend to be quite small, generally being about one to two metres long.

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Some of them came in right onto the reef but quickly shied away from the avid photographers.

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The closest we got was when there was a white tip shark hiding in a cave, oblivious to the fact that its tail was sticking out for all to admire.

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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!

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: Not Your Usual Fish

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Of course there are lots of other types of fish and sealife other than the typical, well, fish-shaped fish. Moray eels were rather common and we even came across this one moving homes. It’s rare to see moray eels out of their usual crevices so suddenly seeing this one was a nice surprise. We kept a good distance away from it because giant morays are known to be aggressive. Not quite to the point, but there’s a story about a rather tame one in the Similans that divers fed by hand. One day after getting his usual sausage treat, the moray eel mistook the dive guide’s other hand for more tasty offerings and bit off his thumb in one hefty chomp!

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We found another giant moray under a coral cover and this time it was facing off with a small hawksbill turtle. Too bad I had a bit of problem fiddling with my camera and didn’t manage to get in for a closer shot.

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In the end the turtle and the eel just minded their own business and the turtle wandered off to munch on some moss. It was a bit of an anticlimax, like the turtle telling us to run along, nothing to see here.

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Along another patch of coral, the visibility cleared up a bit and we chanced upon this beautiful cuttlefish. Once it saw us, it reared up cautiously, though its colours remained the usual striated spots. Only if it got spooked would it start having fluorescent violet spots ringing the edges of its body.

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I like how otherworldly and calm it looked against the backdrop of coral and anemone.

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Giant Spiced Apple Cupcake Surprise

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I was a little tired of the typical twee cupcake thickly coated with icing everyone scrapes off and throws out. (Dudes, icing sugar is expensive yo.) Instead, I went the other way and made giant cupcakes. The good thing is that this method cuts down on the bother of filling a zillion neverending cupcake cases. I made five in this recipe instead of the usual 15 or so. To make things a little special, I soaked some dried cherries in kirsch and filled the cupcakes with these little surprises.

The recipe itself is the same as the Orange Clove Cake, just that I added two grated apples to the cake mix for a fruitier, slightly denser and moister cake.

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Ingredients:

240g plain flour
½tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp cream of tartar
½tsp salt
¼tsp ground cloves
170g butter
200g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 eggs
2 egg whites
½cup milk
2 red apples, grated

big handful cherries, at least 30
good splash of kirsch or vodka

Method:

  1. The night before, soak the cherries in the kirsch. They should be plump and juicy when ready.
  2. Preheat oven to 160°C.
  3. Combine the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cream of tartar, salt and ground cloves.
  4. Beat butter and sugar till creamy. Add in the eggs one by one, beating in between each addition, followed by the egg whites and vanilla extract. Beat till light and creamy.
  5. Fold in the flour mixture and milk alternately till you get a thick batter. Stir in the grated apple.
  6. Fill up each giant cupcake case halfway, fill with a generous spoonful of cherries, then top with remaining batter till about ¾ full.
  7. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or till a skewer comes out clean.

Makes 5.

The Black Manta: Anambas Islands

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DC and I needed a break, so we jumped at the chance when the waitlist cleared for the Black Manta. That weekend, it went to the Anambas Islands, Seven Skies Wreck and ended at Pulau Aur. It was a very relaxing weekend as the boat left on Friday evening and returned on Sunday evening from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. There was no long bus ride nor jostling with the crowds at the causeway. It was very chill as we could relax on deck or in the cabin and there were even cheap massages available, albeit not very good ones.

The boat travelled all night and delivered us to Pulau Damar, one of the southernmost of the Anambas Islands for our checkout dive. It was a nice relaxed, very easy dive with only a little current here and there. It was fun trying to catch a bit of current while trying out my brand new bright red Jetfin Revos. (Verdict? Not bad!)

There wasn’t a whole lot of life down there. We found a giant moray eel in a hole and I was glad that I didn’t have to get too close to snap this photo.

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I got a little bored, so started taking pictures of feather starfish, which look quite dramatic perched at the top of a lump of hard coral, especially when coupled with some cute Christmas tree worms to balance out the picture somewhat.

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DC had quite a bit of fun checking out his new gear and testing his buoyancy in different positions. Too bad I couldn’t signal for him to get closer to the coral for a better picture.

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Now this picture isn’t that bad. I really like how blue the sea looks behind it.

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There was also some really bizarre maze coral that I’ve not really seen much before. This is quite a cool texture shot.

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To top things off, we saw a pretty lionfish. This one is rather special as it’s not the usual common lionfish. It’s called the spotfin lionfish, from the pretty spots on its pectoral fins. Such a pity that I was for some reason distracted and couldn’t get a good close up shot of this fella.

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August in China: Panda Signs

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There were lots of fantastic bilingual signs in China. Even though a lot of them were grammatically correct, some, like the one below, couldn’t quite translate the poetry in the Chinese language. Here we have a polite sign telling people to get the hell off the grass. I like how the Mandarin version includes a rhyme.

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I saw this sign at the entrance of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Centre and wonder why people need to make use of the free sewing kits. Horrors! Do so many suffer maulings from the pandas?

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And the last classic in the giant panda exhibit is hardly serious and scientific but it’s so whimsical I love it!

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August in China: Giant Panda Mania

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Chengdu is probably most famous for its giant pandas. The furry black-and-white mascot is plastered all over the tourist shops it’s surprising that people don’t get sick of them. One evening, Mr Bunglez and I dropped into a youth hostel to book a  half-day panda tour for ¥80. They gave us each a plush panda key chain which is so big I don’t know what to do with it!

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To round off the evening, Mr Bunglez insisted on taking me to a panda shop, obviously selling all things panda. I couldn’t resist taking the enamoured panda fan-girl shot outside its window display. After gawking at panda apparel, panda shoulder bags, panda plushes and other room accessories, I settled for a stack of panda postcards. After some persuasion from Mr Bunglez (for cheaper than an equivalent stack of postcards, I get 52 different panda pictures), I also got a deck of panda poker cards.

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We were picked up far too early the next morning and snoozed all the way to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base where I took more cheesy photos.

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It was a short walk into what was really a small zoo specialising in pandas.  I’d not seen pandas before this, only the ones on San Diego Zoo’s panda cam, so I’m not very embarrassed to say that I went completely gaga over my first sighting. It’s almost funny that I was so pleased by the sight of this lazy fella nosing away at some bamboo, musing over its plans for the day: to eat, poop or sleep some more. After snapping this picture, we stared at it for a while and then realised with great dismay that it was really going to sit there for the whole day.

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Moving rapidly on, we found some slightly more energetic pandas posing cutely in the trees. (This shot is taken with zoom using my crappy old camera so pardon the graininess.)

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After a while, we realised that pandas are a very lazy bunch and do nothing but lie around. What a life!

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Soon our guide took us round to the juvenile panda enclosure where the one-year-old teenagers romped. Here, they were slightly more energetic, though you can hardly tell the difference from the photos!

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Still, they are far cuter than the adults. As we avidly watched the pandas, Mr Bunglez couldn’t help but get slightly annoyed as I kept exclaiming sotto voce “Pandaaa! Pandaaa! Paaan! Daaa!” over and over again.

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The most fun bit was watching the keeper come out into the enclosure. These young fellas were really attached to him and gamboled around him, wanting to play. It was quite amusing when he wanted to leave the enclosure as he had to leg it to the exit faster than the teenage pandas and get to the door before them.

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After the keeper left, the young ones seemed a bit sad.

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Soon, they recovered their high spirits and went on with their panda play. One of them got so carried away playing with a car tire he clumsily fell down the steep side of the enclosure into the ditch below. Dazedly, he looked around, then continued pawing at the tire for a while before crawling back up the slope to the main enclosure.

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After this enclosure, we went on to see the infant incubation centre where tiny newborns were showcased. No photos allowed here so as not to disturb them. They were rather ugly anyway, the hairless and helpless pink creatures. They definitely weren’t as cute as the grownups! It’s only much later that the characteristic black bands appear on the skin, after which the white fur turns black at the right spots.

[Next up: Red pandas]