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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September in Bali: Crustaceans at Tulamben

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You may have noticed that I didn’t have anything about crustaceans in my last post. This one is dedicated purely to the group of incredibly diverse and fascinating creatures. Tulamben is home to many crustaceans that, a hundred dives on, I still haven’t seen in such abundance, and in some cases never again since. Case in point is the soft coral crab below. It’s amazing how it just blends in with the coral. Look carefully at the centre of the photo and you’ll see it.

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Again, it was thanks to Wayan’s amazing eyesight that I managed to capture these shots.

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Then there was the delicate hairy purple crab that lived on barrel sponges.

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And there was the typical porcelain anemone crab that showed up fearlessly in broad daylight.

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Harder to spot was yet another weird species of crab, the wispy looking orange utan crab.

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Then there were the lobsters, like this one living on feather stars.

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And yet more living on sea pens, like these squat lobsters.

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And there was this tiny bizarre-looking lobster that lived on sea whips.

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Next on the list were the mantis shrimps. The larger ones were the smashing mantis shrimps that carried sudden attacks to catch unsuspecting fish that passed by its hole.

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Prettier was the peacock mantis shrimp that came out to hunt in its full regalia of colourful armour.

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In the shrimp family were Coleman shrimp that sat pretty on thorny sea urchins. They made space for themselves by snipping off bits of sea urchin spines, forming a clearing of sorts for their home.

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There were little shrimp that lived on bubble coral.

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And others that lived on anemones.

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There were also plenty of cleaner shrimp. Put your hand close enough and they’ll clean your fingernails for you. Put your mouth close enough and they’ll clean your teeth for you. Here’s Wayan demonstrating.

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And here’s one of my dive buddies showing off the new trick too. Cool eh.

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Viet-inspired Chicken Rice

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I was so inspired by the Viet chicken rice in Hoi An that I absolutely had to make my own. I started off on a typical Hainanese chicken rice base. Not having access to the type of chicken (most likely cornfed) that coloured the rice yellow, I improvised by adding turmeric to the rice base. For the chicken, I poached it the Hainanese way. However, the toppings were very much improved with plenty of typically Vietnamese herbage. Even in the absence of Hainanese chilli sauce, I thought this was a winner. It also passed the family test: every grain of rice was gobbled up even though I deliberately cooked more in the hope of leftovers. I can imagine it being even more magical with Hainanese chilli sauce.

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Ingredients:

2 cups rice

1 chicken
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sesame oil

2 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb-length ginger, chopped
4 cloves, optional
1 star anise, optional
1 thumb-length turmeric, pounded

½ carrot, shredded
Thai basil
mint
daun kesom (laksa) leaves
kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
big limes, cut into wedges

Method:

  1. Wash rice and put in rice cooker pot. Measure out how much water you’d put in and keep that amount in mind for the stock to use, about 450ml. (I use the “equal finger” method: stick your finger in the rice, and add water to the same level above the rice.) Now drain the rice and set aside.
  2. Put chicken in pot and cover with water. Heat gently till just boiling and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off fire and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken and set aside. Keep all stock and juices from chicken. When cool, rub with salt and sesame oil.
  4. Fry garlic, shallot and ginger in oil till fragrant, then add cloves, star anise, cinnamon and fry for a few seconds more. Add rice and fry till it’s dry and glistening.
  5. Transfer to rice cooker and and chicken stock. Squeeze the pounded turmeric over, discarding the dry turmeric pulp. Season with a pinch or so of salt. Cook as normal.
  6. Chop chicken and prepare herbage for serving.
  7. Before eating, arrange chicken on top of rice and top with carrot shreds and herbs. Squeeze the lime over and tuck in.

Serves 4.

The Black Manta: Anambas Islands

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DC and I needed a break, so we jumped at the chance when the waitlist cleared for the Black Manta. That weekend, it went to the Anambas Islands, Seven Skies Wreck and ended at Pulau Aur. It was a very relaxing weekend as the boat left on Friday evening and returned on Sunday evening from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. There was no long bus ride nor jostling with the crowds at the causeway. It was very chill as we could relax on deck or in the cabin and there were even cheap massages available, albeit not very good ones.

The boat travelled all night and delivered us to Pulau Damar, one of the southernmost of the Anambas Islands for our checkout dive. It was a nice relaxed, very easy dive with only a little current here and there. It was fun trying to catch a bit of current while trying out my brand new bright red Jetfin Revos. (Verdict? Not bad!)

There wasn’t a whole lot of life down there. We found a giant moray eel in a hole and I was glad that I didn’t have to get too close to snap this photo.

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I got a little bored, so started taking pictures of feather starfish, which look quite dramatic perched at the top of a lump of hard coral, especially when coupled with some cute Christmas tree worms to balance out the picture somewhat.

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DC had quite a bit of fun checking out his new gear and testing his buoyancy in different positions. Too bad I couldn’t signal for him to get closer to the coral for a better picture.

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Now this picture isn’t that bad. I really like how blue the sea looks behind it.

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There was also some really bizarre maze coral that I’ve not really seen much before. This is quite a cool texture shot.

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To top things off, we saw a pretty lionfish. This one is rather special as it’s not the usual common lionfish. It’s called the spotfin lionfish, from the pretty spots on its pectoral fins. Such a pity that I was for some reason distracted and couldn’t get a good close up shot of this fella.

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