Diving the Similans: Small Fish

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I’m not very lucky with big fish. Whenever we’re out for a dive to see something like a special sort of shark or bumphead parrotfish or whatever, I rarely get the first glimpse. Also, my group is invariably the one that doesn’t see anything while other people spend ages looking at it. Case in point was that my group was the only one throughout the whole 4-day trip that didn’t see a single leopard shark, not even at the dive site named after them.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t see as many big fish or perhaps just out of sheer perversity, I like taking pictures of small fish. Each trip, I take one of the prerequisite photos of clownfish. These here playing in the anemone are called false clown anemonefish. It’s funny how they look so cute frolicking among the anemone tendrils yet have such grumpy expressions up close.

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Next is a series of my favourite little fish: the hawkfish family. These are infernally difficult to get good pictures of because they’re very shy. The pixy hawkfish is one of the shyer ones. Even though they’re rather common, most of the time I see them peeking out from a coral crevice. Either that, or the dart of a tail into shelter. I like the way it cocks its head very slightly to one side as if posing for a picture.

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Much less frequently, I spot the freckled hawkfish. It’s funny how it comes in two variations. I like the one with bright orange-red and white streaks better.

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The duller version somehow looks a million times grumpier. It still has freckles on its chin, just not the cute bright red ones of its prettier variation.

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The trick to small fish is merely patience, not luck. Once I spot one, I normally lie in wait for it to emerge and get used to me. Most small fish like either pause for a while to rest on a bit of coral, or stay in their own territory. It’s not terribly hard to get in a few shots in good light for fairly decent photos. Plus, good pictures compensate loads for bad luck with big fish.

April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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