Wakatobi: Bottom Dwellers

Most dives at Wakatobi were wall dives, with us drifting along watching the coral like TV just on one side, our backs to the blue. Sometimes we’d miss some sights out in the blue, like a few stern-faced tuna cruising past. But most of the interesting things were unsurprisingly in or on the coral wall, like this crocodile fish in a shallow sandy alcove. Look carefully for its eye towards the centre of the picture and you can see it materialise. It’s even harder to spot with the naked eye, because the dark mottling only shows up when filled in with the white light from the camera flash.

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Another fish that favours grounded in coral alcoves is the blue spotted stingray. It was a bit of a rare find at Wakatobi, and very shy. I like how electric the blue of its spots are!

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There was one dive site in particular that broke away from the usual wall dives, letting us explore the sandy bottom. We saw a few leopard flounders with markings so matching to the sand beneath it that I’m sure there were plenty more than we could easily spot. Look for the eyes slightly right of centre if you can’t make it out.

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One of my favourite underwater pairings to look out for are the shrimp and its goby. In this case, the blind shrimp keeps house for two sand shrimpgobies. It must be busier than normal!

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And here’s a Randall’s shrimpgoby that is on guard. It’s already alerted its shrimp, which is snugly hiding in the burrow.

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One of the rarest of the bottom dwellers is the sea moth, a strange fish that doesn’t swim. It crawls along the sandy bottom using its fins and tail instead.

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This bizarre creature comes alone or in pairs. We spent a while stalking this pair across the sandy bottom, trying not to disturb them or the sand under our fins as we made our shots.

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More stationary is the yellowbarred jawfish peeking out from in its hole in sandy coral rubble. I’m told that the jawfish is one of those where the male holds eggs in its mouth till they hatch. The mechanics of how this happens boggles my mind. Sad to say, this one didn’t have eggs in its mouth.

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Not quite bottom dwellers but making it to this post because they’re always found perched on the coral are the blennies. These are the ones with heads that look vaguely like Homer Simpson, like a strange mermaid edition.

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The odd bulbous eyes never fail to fascinate me. It’s a pity they’re generally very shy and dart away so quickly it’s hard to get a decent picture. We see so many out there while diving, but rarely have a good shot.

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Similar in size but with a more elongated head (and therefore looking more like an archetypal fish) is the triplefin. I think this is a pale-spotted triplefin, but please correct me if it isn’t. It’s got a very translucent body and red and white markings that makes it blend in very well with the coral beneath.

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Amazing.

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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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: Cute Little Fellas

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Despite the currents at Komodo, I managed to catch some pictures of cute little critters that are pretty shy and hard to photograph. One of them is this little blenny with its somewhat unsuccessful attempt at pretending to be a shadow in some bright orange coral. It darted about, emerging cautiously from various crevices in the coral when it thought the coast was clear.

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Its squat, square face reminded me a lot of a particular cartoon character and I christened it the Homer Simpson fish.

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Another really hard one to spot let alone photograph was the juvenile bicolour parrotfish.

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This little guy was tiny and incredibly hard to get close to.

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Luckily, I managed to spot two at separate occasions and caught a fairly decent shot of this fella’s orange half-mask.

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One thing that surprised me about Komodo was that there were mandarin fish in their true habitat. In most places like Lembeh and Malapascua, mandarin fish are generally found in areas with broken coral. If you think about it, in its most pristine conditions, no fish would live in broken coral as its most  favoured habitat. I suspect the coral could have ended up broken from all the masses of divers swooping in trying to get a good shot.

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Here, the little fellas were out in broad daylight and not in the evening as is typically the case elsewhere. While they were pretty shy, it wasn’t as difficult to get a good shot through the staghorn coral in bright daylight.

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Another amazing thing that I caught was a yellow-barred jawfish out of its hole. Typically, these fellas have their heads protruding from their holes at best. This one came right out in search of prey, and right in front of my lens at that!

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Last of the cuties was this dragonet that I’ve not seen anywhere else. I suspect it’s the Morrison’s dragonet but can’t be sure.

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While trying to photograph the adult, I noticed a juvenile in the same area and to my delight, this photo turned out fairly in focus. I found its bulbous starlight mint eyes and tiny sharp mouth enchanting.

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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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