Wakatobi: Crustaceans

Wakatobi yielded quite a few interesting crustaceans. Sure, we’d seen most of them before, but it’s always nice to say hi to old friends. Let’s start with the lobsters. The spiny lobsters with their long feelers are always rather impressive, especially when you suddenly come across one in a crevice at eye level.

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Sometimes they can be quite shy and it’s hard to resist the temptation of reaching out and pulling it it out of its hole by the feelers! In case you’re wondering, yes we all managed not to cave in. After all, Wakatobi is famous for being a no contact dive centre. Do not touch is a central part of their dive philosophy. This is one of the reasons why the reef is so pristine!

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We also saw a bunch of crabs, like this shy hermit crab.

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There were also some porcelain crabs, but most were very shy. This is the best photo of such a crab in this trip. Sure, there would have been better photos if our guide Yono had used his pointer to push out the crab from under the anemone when it went into hiding. In fact, one dive I found myself staring at the empty anemone top, wondering why Yono wasn’t doing exactly that. Then I caught myself and realised again that keeping a pristine reef also means that you don’t disturb the animals from their normal habits. You just need the patience and the opportunity to get a good photo.

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Which is exactly what happened with this orang utan crab below. It looks like a piece of red lint at first, but look carefully and you can first make out its eye stalks and then its fragile-looking limbs, all covered by what looks like fluffy red fur.

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We were also lucky to see a collector crab on a night dive. It had pretty white and dark blue banded legs, and a rather fetching mantle of small anemones on its back. You see, it gets its name from the way it picks up charming-looking anemones and sticks it on as camouflage.

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DC managed to get a very impressive close up. The anemone flaps over its forehead, making it look as if it’s frowning.

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Next up is another DC masterpiece. It’s a spider crab, which is typically rather hard to spot and also hard to photograph, because the camera has difficulty auto-focussing with all the spindly legs in the way.

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And then the shrimp. One of my favourites are the commensal anemone shrimp. I love wagging my fingers at them in the hope of enticing them onto my nails for a good manicure. Unfortunately, none of them were keen enough this time.

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There were plenty of banded boxer shrimp in crevices, their trademark red and white colouration on their claws. It’s the same colouration of a barber’s pole and advertises a similar service. The shrimp offers a clean while a barber, a shave. It’s funny how there are these parallels in natural and human worlds.

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I was very happy to see some saron shrimp as they’re hard to come by. This one is a very red specimen without much marbling that a lot of its cousins seem to have. This pose somehow makes it look very poised, as if it knows that the camera is snapping away!

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One of the most frustrating crustaceans to shoot is the bubble shrimp. The two photos below are our best shots. There’s something about its frail tendrils and the voluptuousness of the bubble coral that really interferes with the camera’s focus.

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This is one of those you have to go diving to look at more closely. It’s so amazing to simply observe how a delicate shrimp can wodge itself in the bubble coral.

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And the piece de resistance? We’d never seen this before till Wakatobi. Plus, it’s hard to spot because it’s so darn small and even harder to photograph because the anemone tendrils it lives among tends to block the view of its characteristic head. Here’s the best shot we got so you really have to go diving to see it for yourself. I bring you…

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… the popcorn shrimp!

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Wakatobi: Reptiles

We saw quite a few turtles at Wakatobi, all green turtles. Green turtles are apparently named for their green fat rather than being green on the outside. Historically, they’d been hunted by sailors for fresh meat, but thankfully people don’t eat turtle that much these days.

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The turtles we came across were rather friendly, in that they didn’t mind us being around at all, even though we got in pretty close.

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Sure, this one didn’t really do the eye contact on first meeting thing, but it’s good enough for me!

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Here’s where DC’s super duper camera and mad camera skillz took over and he managed to get these pensive…

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… and vaguely sulky photos of this green turtle. See how beautiful and true the colour is…

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… compared to the one I took with the washed out blue cast. (I take full responsibility for not getting the settings right, but no amount of editing could sort this photo out, so I generally left it alone.)

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And after a while, we got over our excitement and left that turtle. We delighted in others just passing by, like this one cruising along in the blue watching the coral wall go past.

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A less friendly reptile was the banded sea snake. DC managed to get in nice and close to this one in a crevice. He’s so brave, I wouldn’t have the nerve! Check out its beautiful black and grey-blue scales.

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It’s a very shy creature and doesn’t stick around much. I only managed a hasty shot that shows off its rounded head and rudder-like tail.

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And off it went, not to be seen on the same dive again, while yet another green turtle looked on curiously.

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Wakatobi: Puffers and Other Odd-Shaped Swimmers

One of DC’s favourites is the seal face pufferfish. It’s got such a nonchalant expression with its pouty black lips, but isn’t easy to photograph. These puffers shy easily and don’t like divers coming too close. No wonder DC’s so pleased with this side portrait.

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The white-spotted puffer was more common at Wakatobi. It was mostly found hanging out near the coral, often getting a good clean from the blue-streaked cleaner wrasses. See how its mouth is open in seeming content while being tended to by the little fish. It was much easier to approach when being cleaned. There’s an etiquette at cleaning stations that no one eats anyone else, so each fish gets its turn to be clean and is less wary than normal. A great rule!

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Sometimes the puffers seemed to be asleep as they lay on the sand. Even though we got really close, this one didn’t seem to be bothered at all.

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Same for this large star puffer. It seemed to be sound asleep (fish don’t have eyelids) with its mouth agape. DC managed to land gently on the sand and kneel in front of it to get this shot.

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Again not so common was the porcupinefish. Its distinctive head shape is super cute. There’s something about the large eyes and  rotating fins that I get a kick out of watching it make its languid way over the coral.

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Unrelated to the puffers but still odd-shaped to me is the bumphead parrotfish. At our first sighting, I was really exciting because if we do ever see them on a trip, it was invariably only one or two relatively fleeting encounters and then they were off. At Wakatobi, we saw so many, normally in pairs, that DC lost interest after a while…

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… but not before capturing a few close-ups. See how the bumphead’s forehead and mouth area are slightly scuffed. This is from banging into the coral and then nibbling off bits. You’d typically expect a herd of bumpheads to turn up if the water suddenly becomes cloudy from the sheer amount of coral chomping the buffalo of the sea do.

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My favourite odd-shaped swimmer is the clown triggerfish. I can’t tire of admiring its wonderfully whimsical patterns, from the large white dots on its belly to the yellow lipstick with extra white outline round the mouth to the yellow fan detail on its dark blue tail.

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The only thing that could be vaguely scary about the clown triggerfish (its cousin is the often highly aggressive titan triggerfish that clever divers normally stay clear of) could be its teeth. But here, all it’s doing is keeping its mouth open partly as invitation for a dental check, partly as signal that it’s in “please tidy the room” mode.

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Last and littlest in this series is the black-saddled toby. It’s a little fish that darts around quite a bit and I’m glad that this photo of one furtively trying to get away is composed so dramatically!

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Wakatobi: Bottom Dwellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amazing.

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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Wakatobi: Getting in Close

Wakatobi is a great place for macro shots. If you have a good camera like DC, you could get right in on some of the creatures, including this warty frogfish. It looks uncannily like a bright yellow plastic toy covered in coral muck.

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It’s of course quite easy to get in close when it’s soft coral. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t run away, I like how the textures really show up when you go in closer. Check it out.

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With coral, sometimes you don’t have to go in too close. DC pointed out this barrel sponge which is typically round but this one was heart-shaped! How sweet!

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Other ways of getting in close include catching a fish unaware, like how DC did with this poor fella in a barrel sponge. It must’ve been so relieved to get away once he was done with the shot!

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Another way is to try getting in under the creature, like with this reef cuttlefish. It looks quite different from the bottom, with its blowhole clearly showing.

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Otherwise, just tackle it head on. The cuttlefish will definitely start its aggressive display, which is quite interesting to watch as it changes its colour and pattern, and lifts its tentacles threateningly like so.

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Another creature worth getting close to is the anemonefish. This Clark’s anemonefish peers out furtively from the stinging anemone…

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… while this clown anemonefish merely looks up in mock surprise, his smaller counterpart taking confidence in the protection of the anemone.

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Wakatobi: Pygmy Seahorses

One of the holy grails of diving is the pygmy seahorse. For some, simply seeing one is good enough, but for others, the coveted prize is a good close up picture of the little fella. For us, we only got halfway to our golden chalice: we got pictures alright, just really crappy ones. This common pygmy seahorse below is the most common and is generally easy to spot. If you can see it, look right in the centre of the photo for the slightly different shade of pinky-red against the rest of the sea fan. It is turning away in a huff, grumpily looking away from the camera.

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Then there’s the Denise pygmy seahorse, which lives on a slightly different type of sea fan. It’s more slender and less knobbly than its commoner relative.

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It also looks more pensive and on this trip, seemed much less standoffish.

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What really astonished us was a third kind of pygmy seahorse. On most trips, dive guides would speak of the common and the Denise with great awe, as if spotting a rare treasure whenever they find one. Here, our guide pointed out the Pontohi pygmy seahorse without much fuss and patiently helped anchor us while we went crazy firing off photo after photo of this rare find. The Pontohi mimics dead leaves of the Halimeda algae it hides in and bobs about with the current.

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Needless to say, it was highly infuriating trying to get a good shot. DC’s camera and camera skills were much better and he got these two pictures where you can make out its orange markings on the back and crown fairly well. In fact, he took all the pictures in this post because mine came out plain bad.

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Wakatobi: Colours of the Reef

One thing I love about diving is the surprising variety of colours to see. Closer to the surface at about 3 metres depth, the coral starts off rather pastelly and not particularly colourful. The fish are also somehow less colourful up here. Here’s where I admire the beautiful clear blue of the sea or observe the interesting textures of the coral.

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Then just slightly deeper and the colourful fish start popping out. It’s faintly surprising that entire schools of fish can be an intense electric blue with bronzed yellow fins.

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Alternatively, they could be bright magenta, standing out brilliantly against the sometimes drab coral.

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Then there are the slightly bigger and less colourful but no less flamboyant-looking pyramid butterflyfish. They somehow look like company logos swimming around in loose schools.

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There are also bigger fish that hold plenty of colour, like this pair of bright red crescent-tail bigeyes that stared miserably out at my camera. Their colourful background didn’t help lift their mood at all. How sad to have a permanently downturned mouth.

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One of the more cheerful looking fish is the aptly named fire dartfish, that stands out so prettily against the white sandy area it likes to live in.

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Against the more colourful coral background, there are the pictus blenny, looking incongruously like a yellow-tailed Homer Simpson, and the royal dottyback, showing off its magenta and bright yellow colouring.

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In the coral itself are Christmas tree worms, like this pretty yellow version.

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A real treat is to come across a whole range of colours on one piece of coral. Here, the worms are white-edged brown, bright pink, electric blue and yellow.

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Others living off the coral include this sea cucumber lined brightly in vermillion. Its stripes work well with its nobbly skin.

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My perennial favourites of bright orange clown anemonefish are another colourful highlight of diving. Here, a whole family looks up expectantly out of dusky pink-brown anemone.

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In blue-tinged green anemone, the very slightly purplish pink anemonefish looks out more dolefully.

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A much tinier fish, the translucent red whip coral goby lives on fiery red whip coral, shyly looking everywhere but the camera.

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Then at night slightly more colours come out. The blue on this scrawled filefish comes out decently against the reds of the coral.

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And the vermillion, brown and white of the twinspot lionfish come out dramatically against the slightly more muted coral.

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We had our own colours too. As a contrast from the usual black of neoprene wetsuits, DC and I went for red fins, which appeared purplish when deeper as the water absorbed the red light.

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And I decided more colour is always good, and wore my bright pink dolphin hood to match the colourful underwater life.

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More to come next post!

Wakatobi: Pristine Coral

I had my doubts about Wakatobi because they made it clear that pelagics, i.e. big fish like sharks, are not commonly spotted in Wakatobi. Plus, unlike Manado to the north, it wasn’t quite known as a muck diving area, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect.The only thing I knew was that the water was an unbelievably clear blue.

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It wasn’t just bubbles that I saw. As promised, the reefs were all incredibly pristine. There was rich marine life all over…

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… with beautiful sea fans like this Gorgonian below.

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My camera wasn’t set right and I was too lazy to figure out what was wrong. It’s a pity because it’s makes the water look murky when it’s really just the sunlight filtering down. Some of the sea fans got really big…

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… so it was no wonder that fish liked to hide behind them, like this batfish with the weird-looking eyes.

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Batfish are pretty common and they’re very friendly. Occasionally, one would follow us like a dog, occasionally going up to sniff at our fins or such.

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But here’s the only place where we saw isopods on batfish. Check out the bug-like creatures hanging out near this one’s eye. Our dive guide assured us that it was a symbiotic relationship, with the batfish providing transport and the isopod parasite-busting services. I found it quite bizarre and wonder how the isopod even manages to clamber onto the batfish’s face.

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Back on the reef, there was plenty of pristine coral, like this soft coral that I think looks like purple cauliflower. Sometimes it appears slightly yellow, making it cauliflower curry!

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There were other soft corals that sprouted what looked like tiny little flowers – lots of bunches of stinging buds!

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Then there were the pretty electric blue sea sequirts that were so delicately outlined against the coral backdrop.

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It wasn’t all just staring at corals. There were many things to see in, near and around the coral, like the divers in this photo with the terrible settings. I promise that I’ll learn how to use my camera properly underwater – at some point.

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In the coral were clams that somehow managed to always wedge themselves deep within so only their purple lips can be seen.

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Then those who hang out near the coral are the ones like my favourite juvenile harlequin sweetlips with its adorable polka dotted pattern…

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… and the six-banded angelfish with its dizzying arrangement of dots and stripes.

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Hanging out around the coral was the cuttlefish, which were hard to spot from afar as they change coloration and pattern to blend in just so with the coral. It’s definitely not easy to see this one at first glance!

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And the other usual suspect hanging out near the coral was the great barracuda. Look closely and you see its scary teeth. We’re glad that it didn’t hang around that much in our dives.

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