Back to Tulamben: The Small Ones

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I have a very soft spot for the little creatures and DC was constantly waiting about for me to finish lying in wait for one small creature or another to emerge or stay still enough to photograph, such as this hawkfish.

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I was very happy to see quite a few hawkfish there, like this pixy hawkfish with the tasseled dorsal fins.

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Then there were the ornate ghost pipefish. It’s normally quite a rare fish to spot, but we saw plenty here. This one is fairly young, as can be seen from its wispy tail.

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Then we got some nice young adult specimens like this.

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And finally some of the older, darker coloured ones that looked less delicate than the younger fellas.

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We also found some of its close cousins, the robust ghost pipefish. They were well camouflaged, looking like brown leaves floating just above the sandy bottom.

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Another of my favourites is the pink anemonefish. Here, one shyly looks up as another dodges away from the camera.

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I don’t know how rare these spine-cheek anemonefish are, but I was delighted to find them as I’d never seen them outside of the fish books before.

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Check out the weird spine jutting out from its cheek!

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Other anemonefish had eggs! This is really rare anywhere else, but every trip to Tulamben I’ve seen fish eggs. Have I told you yet how much I love diving at Tulamben?

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It was really sweet to see how the parent tended the eggs so carefully.

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There were other fish with eggs too, like this sergeant major fish. I think it was really cool how the eggs are purple.

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This fish had laid its eggs on the walls of the wreck, and we ascended to an entire expanse of sergeant majors guarding their own eggs. A wonderful sight.

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Then there were the juvenile fish, like this baby emperor angelfish.

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I like how striking it is, looking like a kid got a white marker and drew circles on the fish.

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Other juvenile fish were less pristine, like this bannerfish that made it out of a bigger fish’s jaws just in the nick of time. Poor guy.

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Of course other juveniles do much better, like this batfish, looking much more elongated than its adult self.

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There were other fish that remained small even as they reached adulthood. One of them is a superstar of the diving world – the pygmy seahorse.

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It was almost impossible to get good shots of this shy creature half the size of a fingernail, especially when it turned its back to the camera and resolutely looked away.

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Still, no trip to Tulamben would be complete without a couple of pictures of these, imperfect or not.

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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: The Star Attraction

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Every morning I’d go out from Labuan Bajo to Komodo by boat, not returning till nearly dusk. There wasn’t a great deal in the nondescript town, mainly guest houses, small eateries and shops selling everyday necessities. Oh and there were a couple of dive shops too. Probably the nicest thing about Labuan Bajo was looking out towards Komodo and the Rinca Islands at sunset.

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But we’re talking about the dragons today and this is the lovely scenery that passed by while getting there.

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We saw the Komodo dragons en route to more diving, simply stopping at Komodo Island itself. I went in the dry season, which was great for diving, but not so great for the vegetation. Most of it had withered, leaving bare hilltops to face the blazing sun unprotected.

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Hardly were there clouds in the sky, and sea reflected sky to give beautiful blue hues.

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I found it amusing that the Indonesian term for Komodo dragon appeared to be Loh Buaya as buaya means “crocodile” or, in Singapore slang, “sleazy pick up artist.” More amusing were the various primitively painted signs prohibiting guns and logging, and I thoroughly approved of the no-anchoring rule.

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Even though it was only about 10am, the sun was incredibly hot already and we were happy to stand in the shade of the reception area while our guide briefed us on safety.

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Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation, not quite because they catch you unawares and tear you to bits on the spot. No, it’s a far more horrible death than that! The Komodo dragon is a large lizard but hardly the large dragon-size most people imagine. It gets its dinner by catching unsuspecting prey by surprise and taking a good bite. Then it slinks off to wait while its poor victim dies a slow death, not because its bite is venomous, but because its saliva is so full of nasty bacteria that the bite wound festers and eventually kills the animal. The collection of animal, mainly buffalo, skulls near the reception area was a rather stark record of the Komodo dragon’s bite.

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And then a collective gasp arose from our group: we spotted the first one in the distance! It was slinking off slowly through the scrubby vegetation as we zoomed and clicked furiously.

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Then our guide took us down the path further into the island and there were plenty of full-grown adults simply lolling about in the shade. So much for lean, mean killing machine.

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This fella looked almost immobilised by the heat of the day…

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… we even got close enough to photograph its belly-flopped feet. This one wouldn’t get up and go hunting in a jiffy!

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As another went past, we were fascinated by its tongue. It hissed in and out, detecting the various scents in the air – this was how it knew which weak and vulnerable prey was nearby.

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And our guide took us traipsing further into the island. We walked up a hill…

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… or two, almost devoid of shade because of the dry season.

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But the paths eventually led us to more beautiful views of the sea beyond.

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It also led us to more evidence of deadly Komodo dragons. Our guide said that as long as one of the many buffalo and deer on the island fell sick or got too old, it would eventually end up as dinner for the Komodo dragons. What a sobering thought that none on the island could enjoy a golden old age, not even the dragons themselves.

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We soon came upon more Komodo dragons and were warned to keep even more of a distance…

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… because these rather nondescript burrows formed the nesting ground. Komodo dragons dig several burrows but only lay their eggs in one. The other burrows are meant to be decoys to deter would-be predators. Some of the predators are other Komodo dragons even!

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When the Komodo dragons first hatch, they are tiny little creatures no larger than common house lizards. It’s a hard life for them scurrying around in constant fear of being eaten by other dragons. I can’t imagine how they manage to scavenge for food without themselves getting eaten.

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But once they grow big, they can stick their tongues out at anyone…

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… just like in this video.

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

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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!

Guest Post: DC Dives Redang – More Lessons and Funny Things

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For my introductory deep dive, Tim decided to make things a bit more interesting and took down a raw egg to show the effects of water pressure. On the surface, air pressure = 1 atm (atmospheres). For every 10 metres depth, the effect of the water pressing down on us increases by another 1 atm, so at 30 metres depth the pressure is 4 atm. What this means is that an egg, cracked at a deep enough depth, will retain its round yolky shape in the water. Like so.

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It was quite an interesting science lesson, and it was quite fun to bat the yolk ball back and forth between us. Unfortunately, we got a bit overenthusiastic and after a while the water pressure was unable to compete against the squishy strength of our hands. The yolk broke and made quite a mess in the water.

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Lesson over, we got round to some nice diving. One of my favourite photographic subjects are pufferfish. There was a nice specimen hugging the reef that day.

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It always cracks me up to see pufferfish. It’s hard to imagine funnier-looking fish. And if you ever imagined a football swimming through the water, that’s how they swim. We also came across a juvenile boxfish, which is part of the same family as the pufferfish. The poor little guy was petrified by us, and did its best to hide in the coral for protection. When he grows up, he isn’t going to be much bigger either!

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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: Islands 1 to 9

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The Similan Islands get its name from the Malay word for “nine.” This cluster of nine islands is famed for its underwater boulder landscape and the coral gardens that grow around them.

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Some of the boulders really are bits of island and where sea and land meet, I had a fish-eye view of waves breaking on the boulders above.

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It’s also much of a fish nursery here. Schools and schools of little fish envelop the boulders. It makes for a beautiful sight in the right kind of light.

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Sometimes the schools get so thick that you hardly see anything else beside little fish. Even other divers get obscured in the crowd.

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Most times it’s hard to tell what species the fish are. Other times, when the schools are made of fish destined to be large predators, it’s easier. Here we have a school of juvenile chevron barracuda.

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Those barracuda would probably grow up to feast on the blue schools of these fusiliers.

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Either fusiliers or these snappers that formed a school around me.

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While Islands One to Nine didn’t offer up a great deal of hard-to-find wildlife and the visibility wasn’t as great as we hoped (bad weather the night before), there were lots of great opportunities for good photos (including this one of DC).

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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]