Wakatobi: Nudibranchs

Nudibranchs are a photographers’ dream. For one, they come in so many different colours. Two, and more crucially, they are fairly stationary and do not shy from the camera. They are fantastic subjects for practising underwater photography on, such as this chromodoris (possibly a chromodoris willani).

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More colourful is the chromodoris magnifica. It looks as if it’s been invented by a kid drawing with a marker pen, with its bold colours and simple design.

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It also makes for stunning portraits, like this slightly pensive one.

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Making equally pensive photos is the chromodoris kuniei in solo.

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In a pair, though, they lose the pensiveness and from further away are surprisingly hard to spot with deep blue flecks on yellow and purple backgrounds.

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This last nudibranch I can’t seem to identify. Please tell me if you know. I like this photo a lot: it came out quite well even though the fella was in an awkward position in the shade. Naturally, I didn’t get a good shot and DC got a great one. His flash lit it up just enough to show the details and to keep some parts in slightly mysterious blur.

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This last specimen I think doesn’t belong to the nudibranch, or sea slug, family. Apparently it’s some kind of worm. Again, please say if you know what it is.

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Last, but definitely not least is my very favourite sea slug that sits atop DC’s head while diving. The cutest thing about it is that the gills of the nudibranch (the bit towards the back looking like a brush head) expel bubbles! It’s definitely not true to the original because I’d never seen a bubbling nudibranch before DC started wearing one on his head!

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Back to Tulamben: Nudibranchs

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And we conclude this series on Tulamben with a tribute to the nudibranch. There was no shortage of them at Tulamben, we even saw their ribbon-like masses of eggs occasionally.

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They came in all sorts of colours, from the usual white with coloured trimmings, such this one…

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… to those that looked like bits of bubblegum.

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There were a few that came in pairs, exhibiting the trailing behaviour of one hanging on to the tail of the other in making contact.

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There were others that made head-to-head contact, so I wonder whether it was a precursor to any mating action. In any case, these fellas move so slowly I’ll probably have run out of air before anything happened, so it was just as well that I moved on.

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We were pleased to have spotted a nudibranch that Wayan had never seen before. This warty fellow seems rather well placed to camouflage itself amongst the coral and sand, it’s no surprise it’d not been seen before. I’m sure Wayan will start looking out for it more from now on, and perhaps it could end up being a new species named after him!

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Other nudibranchs were more quotidian, like this yellow, white and black one, looking quite like most of the ones we see while diving in waters nearer to home.

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Some were unusual for me, like this red one. I’ve not seen a red nudibranch before, I don’t think.

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And others, like this, made me torn between liking them for their delicate contours and cute colouring, and turning away in disgust because the yellow splotches made me think it had a skin disease.

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Whatever the case, nudibranchs reminded me that slowing down helps you to get good shots on the camera, and that slowly but surely does it, just like how this one ended up where it was.

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And that was the end of our sojourn to Tulamben in Bali.

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 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.

The Black Manta: Pulau Aur

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We continued on into Malaysian waters to Pulau Aur. DC made it for the night dive but I was just too knackered. He had fun taking pictures with my camera. The next morning, we did two more dives before heading back to Singapore. Here’s a selection of highlights from all three dives.

DC spotted a cuttlefish on the first dive. The moment we spotted it, it knew straightaway that its cover was blown and it changed colour and markings  in a blink of the eye.

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As I got a bit closer, it went into a defensive posture with one tentacle raised, all ready to scoot off on a jet of water. We decided to leave it alone at this point.

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There were quite a few cute shrimp spotted in the dives. Here’s one DC saw on the night dive. It’s amazing how delicate it looks, yet its job is probably as a fish cleaner. It eats dead skin and parasites off fish.

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Here’s another shrimp, this time one that eats carcasses of dead creatures. If you put your hand close enough to a bold specimen, it’d quite happily hop onto your finger and pick away at the dead bits of hangnail, thinking that it must be some kind of weird dead sea creature.

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There are also the famously shy gobies which are a total bitch to snap pictures of. After far too many unsuccessful attempts, I finally caught these two shots.

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I still haven’t figured out exactly what kind of gobies these are. Drop me a message if you know!

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Another cute fish we found was the brown-banded pipefish. These were at first hard to spot, but once you found one it was often easy to locate the rest in the area.

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These relatives of seahorses had such comically serious expressions I could spend ages staring at them glide about the coral.

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Other fish were far bigger, like this  map puffer fish cruising around waiting for a little cleaner fish to get on with its job.

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Then there was this scorpionfish, most likely a tasseled or papuan one as it doesn’t have prominent eye cirri. Hard to tell though. It was probably a little bit annoyed that its cover was blown as the flash really showed up its pinks, reds and oranges.

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Then there was this blue spotted stingray that just couldn’t hide away enough. I think I caught in the act of burying itself in the sand for camouflage.

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Then there’s also the typical clownfish shot. Here’s a very grumpy specimen: it’s an orange-finned anemonefish and it’s not as  cute as the Nemo in the cartoon.

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And here’s a common lionfish that was so upset that it was just a commoner that it constantly looked down and tried to hide in the coral.

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See if you can spot this master of camouflage. It’s a hermit crab. Hint: look for its eye stalks.

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I got some lovely macro shots, the first of a flabellina, a kind of sea slug.

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Sea slugs have such a bad sounding name, so it’s nice that we call them nudibranchs most of the them. Here’s a really pretty one: it’s a pink dorid and I love how the pink and yellow-orange complement so nicely.

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And last of all, here’s a lovely fat little joruna nudibranch.

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And the icing on the cake, two joruna in very close proximity… mating?

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The Black Manta: Seven Skies Wreck

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It was a short chug over to the Seven Skies Wreck. The Swedish tanker went down in 1969 and settled rather conveniently upright so that we recreational divers could reach the funnel easily and explore to just above 40m. Only the technical divers with special training went deeper to the base of the wreck at about 60m. We used a line attached to the funnel as a guide on our way down and back up again. It got a bit hectic as people were moving up and down the line at different stages of the dive, so lots of patience was needed here.

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I don’t look particularly pleased in this shot, mainly because of the gobs of jellyfish in the water. It was nuts just how many of them were streaming past in a continuous filamentous flow. Sure, they were each rather small, but the trailing tentacles brushed past the exposed bits of my face and neck, leaving trails of fire as I descended. Now I knew why the divemasters all put their hoods on despite the warm water. Thankfully the layer of jellyfish stopped at about 20m, so by the time we got to the wreck, things were a lot more comfortable.

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There were lots of fish on the wreck. One of the reasons why people like to visit wrecks just to swim on the outside is that despite it being a dead ship, lots of coral like to grow on the shell. And where coral grows, there we find fish too.

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I’m still trying to figure out whether this is the wheel or not. It was a bit too far to the aft of the ship and not quite in the right location for a bridge. Hard to tell but still cute to imagine steering the ship of coral with this wheel.

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There were some chambers that had large enough openings to pass in and out of. There was plenty of soft coral encrusted all over and plenty of fish hiding inside, only to scatter quickly when a diver intruded into their space.

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The coral can be very pretty. I like the many shades of pink and orange on this one!

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There wasn’t a whole lot of macro-life on the wreck. The only thing I found was this slightly nondescript nudibranch.

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