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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A Whirlwind Work Trip: My First Michelin Star Experience

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We were very fortunate to be treated to a good dinner, my first Michelin star experience at the one-star Tano Passami L’Olio. The name literally meant “Tano, pass me the olive oil.” Chef Gaetano is very big on olive oils and treats it almost like wine in how he pairs each carefully, selecting carefully which oil he uses to finish each dish. We went for a tasting menu of sorts, starting with this amuse bouche.

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Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Wow! moment, more of a “hmm this is rather good.” It was interesting how the mousse was finished of with olive oil but I don’t remember a great deal more than that.

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The next dish was quite interesting – raw prawns Milanese-style marinated in citrus and anise, accompanied by pink grapefruit and cheese mousse and graced with caramelised peas. I wasn’t sure about the peas as they were semi-dry, with texture reminding me a bit of wasabi peas, just not as crunchy. I liked the fresh, fresh! prawns that were singing with the zing of the sea (go figure that out, I’m taking things up a notch – it’s a Michelin-starred place yo) and the grapefruit and cheese mousse was nice, though it tasted a bit like it was meant for baby food, but what lovely fine dining baby food it was!

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Now it was the next dish that really brought things up a notch. The caramelised quail eggs on tuna mousse was a revelation. The first one after going in the mouth went crackle! pop! and there were surprised looks all round the table. Then understanding dawned and we gleefully went with the second one. First, the sensation of caramel on the tongue, as it was an egg-shaped creme brulee with crackly crust all round. Just a little pressure with the teeth and tongue and the delicately cooked quail egg burst, coating the tongue with runny yolk. The tuna mousse made for a savoury counterpoint to it all. And the raw tuna in minted olive oil? Gilding the lily with its freshness.

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Our expectations went a little higher with the pasta course and we were not disappointed. We were presented with lemon risotto cooked in vegetable and milk and finished off with chocolate. I was a bit wary of this as I wasn’t sure how dessert-like a lemon and chocolate rice dish would taste. But no, this was deeply savoury, rich and wonderfully al dente. At the same time, the lemon flavour sang through and the bitterness of the chocolate balanced out the flavours. It was another eye-opener. Next time I’m in Milan, I’m coming back just for this dish.

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We were surprised by how full we were getting at this stage, we really hadn’t eaten a great deal, but it shows how satisfying the food was. We were very glad that the main course came in small portions. Small though the portion was, it was somehow the perfect portion. The roe dear saddle glazed with basil and wild berries and again finished off with chocolate was excellent. It was done very rare, the way I like it, yet wasn’t bloody (which the rest of my table seemed to like more). I think the meat must have been well hung because it was the tenderest deer I’ve had. Again, Chef Gaetano had a way with traditionally sweet foods, turning them into savoury wonders. The chocolate he personally grated over each portion at the table made all the difference again in balancing out the sweetness of the sauce and tempered the deep game flavour of the venison. Wonderful.

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What really won the rest of the table over (I was head over heels by then, no need for further wooing) was Chef Gaetano’s impeccable and very sensible wine pairings. He recommended two reds, only one of which I managed to get a photo of. This Humar Rogoves from the Friuli region was very reasonably priced at about €30 and was just right for the deer. In the words of the chef, it was a “sweety wine, very nice.” And indeed it was! Nicely balanced, sweet yet not overly so, it went better than expected with our deer in berry sauce.

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Then came the usual sorbet palate cleanser.

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And finally dessert. The almond cannoli filled with almond mousse, candy lemon, citrus cream and almond marmalade was lovely. The pastry was crisp and light as air and the mousse filling also light and sweetly lemony. It was a lovely contrast to the dark chocolate blob (I never found out what it really was), but the mousse and chocolate sauce was a deep, delicious contrast. It was a sly way of crowd pleasing, not particularly inventive but just the right to end a good dinner.

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Tano passami l’olio
via Villoresi, 16 ang. via Pastorelli, Milano, Italy
Tel: +39 02 8394139
Email: tano@tanopassamilolio.it

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.

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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