Cenderawasih Bay Exploration Aboard Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 2)

Cenderawasih Bay Exploration Aboard Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 2)

The small harbour of Manokwari, surrounded by verdant mountains and filled with an eclectic mix of vessels from across Indonesia, was the starting point for our second Cenderawasih Bay voyage.  Following two hectic days cleaning, refuelling and carrying out routine maintenance of the boat a full complement of guests arrived for our second trip aboard Dewi Nusantara (you can see pictures from the trip here).  After the guests arrived we immediately began our journey southwards into the Cenderawasih Bay marine park, Indonesia’s largest.  Over the coming two weeks we sailed from Manokwari in the north west of Cenderawasih, down to almost the southern point.  From there we went back up and dropped our ranger in Manokwari, before the epic crossing to Raja Ampat where we spent four days, ending up in Sorong.

Walton's flasher wrasse (Paracheilinus walton), a Cenderawasih bay endemicCenderawasih only caught scientists’ attention in 2006, and these early surveys immediately highlighted the bay’s unique assemblage of endemic fishes.  It was discovered that the bay is actually an excellent example of evolution in action.  Fifteen of the fish species found abundantly on its reefs are found nowhere else on the planet, and a number of others have unusual colour morphs that are completely different to those found outside the bay.

When scientists analysed the movements of landmasses in the area, they found that over the past 14 million years large island fragments have almost completely blocked the mouth of the bay.  These created a large lake out of the bay and effectively isolated its inhabitants from the outside world.  The different environmental conditions the creatures experienced acted as drivers of change and eventually moulded them into new species.  In isolation, much like the tortoises and finches of the Galapagos Islands, the ancestors of Cenderawasih’s endemic fishes eventually became those we see today.  The fishes with unusual colour morphs in the bay are actually populations on their way to becoming new species.  In fact, some of these may yet be described as distinct, pending results of on-going DNA analyses.

Randall's Anthias (Pseudanthias randalli) a deepwater fish found relatively shallow in CenderawasihAnother peculiarity of Cenderawasih Bay is the relatively shallow occurrence of several species such as the Ornate Angelfish (Genicanthus bellus), Randall’s Anthias (Pseudanthias randalli) and Burgess Butterflyfish (Chaetodon burgessi).  These fish are generally found below 50 metres throughout the rest of their range, but can frequently be seen between 20-30 m in Cenderawasih.  The theory behind this phenomenon is that during periods of lowered sea level in the bay (which has been 120 m lower than today’s levels on two occasions during the past 150,000 years) the availability of shallow reef-flat habitat was very limited, and the species that usually inhabit it went locally extinct.  When sea levels rose again, the deep water species exploited the vacant niches and have kept a foothold to this day.

Before seeing these deeper water fishes, I thought it so unreasonable for them to be living beyond our usual diving depths.  However, the more diving I did in their comfort zone, it really started to hit home that we are only just scratching the surface of the ocean when we dive.  Obviously, the deeper you go the more different colours in the spectrum are attenuated, but it is great to look at photos taken at depth.  The strobes really make the colours pop from the relatively drab colours you see with the reduced ambient light.  We saw many of these deep water species on the trip, especially around the Numamoron Strait and Roon Island area.

Some of the children of Yende villageWhilst diving around Roon Island, in the vicinity of Yende village, we took the opportunity to visit the village and have a look around.  It is a very tidy and nicely kept place, with two large churches and a school that gladly received the supplies many guests had brought with them.  We saw the women of the village preparing Sago palm in the traditional way, by firstly whittling the pulp from the trunk and then removing the edible sediment from the fibre.  The village has received government subsidies and each house has a solar panel to provide a little electricity. The paths are all well paved and street lamps are also solar powered  with most houses built on stilts over the water.  The villagers were very amenable to our requests of diving their reefs and we were pleased to see healthy coral reefs, with endemics galore as well as sharks and turtles.

After Roon we finally managed a trip out to the Lincovin Patches, which are patch reefs located in the open ocean of the bay.  We had tried a couple of times to get out there, but some pesky swells had always thwarted us.  Finally, we were blessed with some calm weather and we took the opportunity to visit the reefs.  It was well worth the effort: the visibility was great and we saw many larger creatures such as whitetip, blacktip and grey reef sharks plus many turtles.  It was clear that these reefs aren’t fished, as commercially valuable species such as grouper and large parrotfishes were abundant too.  The shallow hard corals were in good condition, but sadly like much of Cenderawasih, we saw evidence of Crown of Thorns activity.  These huge sea stars are voracious corallivores that leave circular patches of white coral over the reef as their calling card.  Hopefully the reefs will be able to recover quickly from this onslaught, as they are otherwise unexploited and healthy.

Whale shark mouth!After visiting the patch reefs we headed south to visit the whale sharks of Kwatisore.  There is always a slight feeling of nervousness when planning a wild animal encounter; you can’t just assume they’ll be there!  I certainly felt it when we returned to the bagans of Kwatisore hoping to see the whale sharks.  The process of arranging a swim with the whale sharks starts very early in the morning with the dive guides taking the tender boat out to see which bagans actually have sharks present.  Once they found one, they then negotiated buying some of the small fish that the fishermen caught overnight.  In the morning these were fed to the sharks in order to keep them around for our viewing pleasure.  This all goes on behind the scenes, as by the time the rest of us get up Yann, Andre, Risko and Ben had already organised a bagan for us to visit.

The number of sharks constantly fluctuated during our time in the water, as new animals arrived and others left.  At their most abundant, we were surrounded by five of these giants!  I think it’s very important to take a moment and really soak in the feeling of swimming with the world’s biggest fish.  Sometimes taking photos can become all encompassing and the true value of the moment missed.  Luckily, we had literally hours in the water with them and plenty of truly amazing moments.  I will never forget the moment one of the whale sharks came to the surface inches from my face to have a closer look at me.  I wasn’t feeding it, but it obviously just decided I wasn’t a threat and was worth investigating further.  Many times they came so close I had to avoid them crashing into me, but I found that by remaining calm and floating as still as possible they would always sense where I was and avoid touching me.  Having seen whale sharks fleetingly in the Galapagos Islands, Maldives and for more extended viewing in the Philippines, I would definitely say this is the best encounter that I have had with whale sharks.

During the trip we weren’t only served a generous helping of whale sharks, but we also saw some whales too.  On the crossing between Cenderawasih and Raja Ampat we saw a large Sperm whale hanging out at the surface.  Sperm whales make exceedingly deep dives to feed on squid, which indicates that the waters must drop off drastically from the northern Bird’s Head.  Then, on the first of our four days in Raja Ampat, around the Kri area, we had a couple of encounters with Minke whales.  Both of these whales have a huge geographic distribution, and whilst it’s rare, it’s not unknown to find them in the tropics.

Cenderawasih Bay has some very impressive sponge growthExploring Cenderawasih Bay has been a fantastic experience and I was thrilled to see so many of the endemic fishes of the area.  As a result of our encounters, I have developed quite a soft spot for dottybacks and fairy wrasses.  Biologically this is a fascinating place, but it must be said that the reefs don’t compare to those of Raja Ampat.  The diversity is discernibly lower, with the reefs being dominated by relatively few species compared to the vast array found in Raja Ampat.  The reefs were also much less busy, with fewer big schools of fish.  Having said that, there are very few reefs in the world that would stand up against those of Raja Ampat.  Plus, Cenderawasih remains one of the best places in the world to have in water experiences with whale sharks.

The past two months as naturalist on Dewi Nusantara have been amazing.  I have seen many creatures for the first time, especially thanks to all the unique fishes of Cenderawasih.  Our whale shark encounters were truly once in a lifetime and as always the reefs of Raja Ampat were mesmerising.  I’m not yet sure when I will be back in this part of the world again, but I hope it won’t be too long.  I will miss the fantastic staff and crew of Dewi, and especially the sound of the crew’s constant laughter.  I want to especially thank Guido, Wendy, Yann, Andre and Risko but the rest of the crew too, although there are sadly too many to name!!

Ardeadoris egretta is a relatively common nudibranch in Cenderawasih BayMy next dive trip isn’t until October, when I will be heading to Fiji’s Matava Resort leading a marine life course in conjunction with Deep Blue Adventures.  I will be carrying out daily lectures on coral reef biology and all that Fiji has to offer beneath the waves.  If you are interested in joining me feel free to read further details by following this link or drop me a line.

Pictures from Cenderawasih Bay can be seen by following this link.

To read the report from our first Cenderawasih Bay trip please follow this link.


Raja Ampat Conservation Cruise on Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 2)

Raja Ampat Conservation Cruise on Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 2)

The past eleven days have been spent on a very special trip aboard Dewi Nusantara surveying and exploring a couple of areas in central Raja Ampat, in conjunction with the Sea Sanctuaries Trust.  The trust works with local communities to conserve large tracts of reef from overexploitation and destructive fishing.  For the trip, we had the honour of being joined by the eminent Doctors Gerry Allen and Mark Erdmann from Conservation International, who were surveying the reefs and searching for new and unusual species. We were also joined by various donors involved in conservation funding; from the man after which the Triton Bay walking shark, Hemiscyllium henryi, is named to a family that have worked hard to protect jaguars and hyacinth macaws in the Brazilian Pantanal.

Sea Sanctuaries headquarters in Saukabu, Raja AmpatGerry and Mark were initially held up for 36 hours in the Aru Islands due to bad weather.  Apparently it had been an ambition of Gerry’s to visit these islands, where they were searching for freshwater fishes.  They finally joined us off the island of Kri and quickly began unpacking various rainbow fishes and even a freshwater pipefish from the pickling jars.  After less than an hour on board they were already off exploring Blue Magic for a massive whiptail ray that Mark had recently come across.  With a 3.5 m wingspan, it appears to be a new species but they came back empty handed on this occasion.

After a couple of days around Kri, we headed north to Aljui Bay.  Given that this is one of my favourite spots on the usual itinerary I was very happy to spend the day here.  Whilst on the night dive at Cendana Dock I remembered that Wendy, the cruise director of Dewi, had been telling me about a discovery made by Anna and Ned DeLoach whilst they had been on the boat last time.  She told me of a new species of hermit crab crab (a crab that lives on a hermit crab), which they had found at Aljui.  So, when I happened across a hermit crab, I had a closer looks and sure enough I found a relatively large porcelain-like crab clinging to hermit crab’s shell.

The morning after Aljui we went off in search of arguably New Guinea’s most iconic species, the Bird of Paradise.  A large fig tree just in shore is a lekking site (a lek is a patch of ground or area used by a group of birds or mammals used for communal display) for male Red Birds of Paradise to display and woo the females.  Personally I didn’t see the birds, but I did see several large flocks of Palm cockatoos flying overhead.  There were also several pairs of Blyth’s hornbills and high up in a tree, a spotted couscous slowly ambled between bows.

Bustling reef in Raja AmpatAfter birding on Waigeo, we headed into the heart of the Sea Sanctuaries no-take zone in Penemu.  In fact, Sea Sanctuaries have set up two large no-take zones (NTZ) with many ties and links to the local communities.  They have made a long term, 25 year, commitment to the villages in the Fam area with an agreement for 70,000 hectares to be protected.  The delineation of the NTZs is legally binding and there are even community sanctions for breaking the rules of the zone, such as cleaning the local toilet.  The two NTZs are centred around the uninhabited island of Penemu and the remote Bambu atoll, which are 5,610 ha and 64,218 ha in size respectively.

During the cruise, Gerry and Mark conducted underwater visual censuses of the species found in both of Sea Sanctuaries’ no-take zones.  For the 11 sites surveyed, they recorded a total of 707 species and their data indicates that there are many more species to discover here: an estimated 854 on Penemu’s reefs.  The average diversity they found on any one site was extremely high throughout, but at Batu Rufas they recorded a staggering 357 species.  This is actually the second highest number of species they have ever found on one site. Given that Raja Ampat has the most diverse marine ecosystems globally: at Batu Rufas we actually experienced the world’s second most species rich dive!

Dr Mark Erdmann identifying new species in Raja AmpatAs well as high fish counts, Mark and Gerry also documented 18 species which hadn’t previously been recorded in Raja Ampat, including Satomi’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae) and the leather coral pipefish (Siokunichthys breviceps) that I was able to add to their list.  This helped to push the total number of species found so far in Raja Ampat to 1502 and 1697 for the entire Bird’s Head Seascape, for which they added ten new species this trip.  Very excitingly, they also found two or three fishes that may well be new to science, including a whiptail (Pentapodus sp.), dottyback (Pseudochromis sp.) and a dwarf goby (Trimma sp.).  This just goes to show how important it is to conserve these reefs and the ideal location of Sea Sanctuaries’ Penemu no-take zone.

We spent several days diving the Penemu NTZ, which in my opinion boasts some of the best diving in all of Raja Ampat.  We did a couple of dives at both Melissa’s Garden and the ridges of Batu Rufas, which thankfully are both under the protective umbrella of Sea Sanctuaries.  Melissa’s has absolutely stunning hard coral gardens from which clouds of hungry damselfish create a wall of mouths for passing plankton.  For the two dives at Melissa’s I didn’t go deeper than 10 metres, spending a couple of hours mesmerised by the swarms of fishes.  At Batu Rufas, here too huge schools occupied the shallows, but descending along a couple of the ridges, soft corals, gorgonians and different fish species proliferated.  This diversity of habitats partly explains why Batu Rufas has so many species.

Acho, one of Dewi Nusantara's dive guides, and a mantaWe also explored the remote Bambu region, which, so far as we know, has never been dived before. Bambu island is the second no-take zone created by Sea Sanctuaries.  Given that this was virgin territory we split into sub groups to survey the widest area possible and different depths.  The first dive of the day at the centre of the atoll was very promising and I saw five black-tip reef sharks, large groupers and mantas at the surface.  Sadly the following two dives next to the deep drop off were badly damaged by dynamite fishers.  It seems that without any villages to keep an eye on their valuable resource it had been looted by others less willing to take care of it.  Despite this, Mark and Gerry still found relatively high species diversity and hopefully now that this area falls within the no-take zone some recovery can begin to take place.

This was an extremely rewarding trip and it was an honour to share a boat with such amazing biologists and conservationists as Mark and Gerry for ten days.  I will look forward to hearing how the descriptions of the new species progress and most importantly how Sea Sanctuaries works to protect them and their homes.

After just over 24 hours in Sorong we will be heading off again, this time to Cenderawasih Bay on the north coast of Papua.  Mark very helpfully gave us many great sites to check out so I will be reporting on that when we next have reception in two weeks.  In the mean time I have posted the images from this trip, which can be found by following this link.



Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara (Trip One)

Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara (Trip One)

Almost a year to the day I am back aboard the beautiful Dewi Nusantara (formerly Paradise Dancer) sailing the bountiful waters of Raja Ampat, Papua, Indonesia.  This is the first of my three trips aboard Dewi, where I’ll be conducting a series of marine biology evening lectures and hunting for elusive pygmy seahorses to further my research on these amazing miniature fish.

The diving has been magnificent as ever, and after only two days in the Kri area we had already seen both species of manta (giant manta (Manta birostris), and reef manta (M. alfredi)), three species of pygmy seahorse (Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti), Denise’s (H. denise) and Severn’s pygmy seahorses (H. severnsi)) and five species of sharks (White tip, black tip and grey reefs plus the tasselled wobbegong and the Raja Ampat epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium freycineti)).

For the third day of diving we moved to Aljui Bay, which is probably my favourite area on the itinerary.  The steep cliffs and fjord-like scenery above the water continues below the waves where dense forest is replaced by vibrant soft corals and enormous gorgonians.  There are many species of unusual nudibranchs to be found crawling and snacking about the corals, but is it the pygmy seahorses in this area that most interest me.  In Aljui I have found several unusual associations of Denise’s pygmy seahorses and gorgonian corals, which had not previously been recorded.  We also saw several yellow Muricella gorgonians, one of which had seven Bargibant’s pygmy seahorses living on its surface.  They weren’t too deep, allowing us to spend time watching behaviour as they moved around and interacted with one another.  The night dive at Cendana Dock in Aljui was very productive this trip with several Raja Ampat epaulette sharks, toadfish, spot-tail frogfish (Lophiocharon tristignatus), flamboyant cuttlefish and even a pair of Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera elegans) in the shallows!

Awesome dive guides of Dewi Nusantara (left to right): Yann, Wendy, Risko and AndreAfter Aljui we headed for the Penemu area where we did a couple of dives at Melissa’s Garden.  I saw a couple of pairs of eggs laying Loki whip gobies (Bryaninops loki) with the female laying whilst the male fertilised them.  The highlight however was the absolutely stunning hard coral gardens that cover the huge reef top of the site.  These are some of the healthiest and most diverse I’ve seen so I basically spent most of the dives pottering around the shallows awestruck!

Following our fantastic day at Penemu we sailed south to the area southeast of Misool Island.  In this area we spent several days diving Farondi, Wayil Batan and Fiabacet, which are really quite different to the sites in the north.  The most memorable aspect for me about these southern sites is the schooling silversides, which are continually hunted by mobula rays, trevally and any other predator that can manage to snag them.  The reefs are a kaleidoscope of colour, covered in soft corals and with rivers of fusileers flowing over them.

For me another exciting aspect of diving in the Misool area are the red and white Denise’s pygmy seahorses that can commonly be found on the Melithaea gorgonians.  To perfectly match the polyps and stems of these gorgonians the pygmies have white tubercles (bumps) and a red body colour.  I have now recorded Denise’s pygmies from at least nine gorgonian genera and the seahorses match exactly the colour of each host.  Whilst very rarely found in other areas this association with the Melithaea is very common in Misool and is one of the most beautiful colour forms.

After amazing dives at Magic Mountain, where we again saw the giant manta, and Boo Jendala made famous as the cover shot of the ‘Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat’ book by Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock we headed for the last morning of diving off Batanta Island.  Batanta is one of the four kings that make up the Raja Ampat region and is a great muck diving area.  There was an overwhelming diversity on the dive and the list of critters would easily rival a dive in Lembeh Strait.  Obvious highlights were a pair of Harlequin shrimp, a juvenile pinnate batfish, Randall’s frogfish, seahorses, ghost pipefishes and several nudibranchs that I hadn’t seen before.  One of the nudibranchs wasn’t in any of the books I’ve searched so far!  Maybe another a new species from Raja Ampat!

During the trip I presented several Power Point presentations on the marine life of Raja Ampat as well as tips on how best to observe and photograph natural behaviours of these creatures.  Some of the titles of my talks included: ‘Raja Ampat: Why is it so Special?’, ‘The Biology and Conservation of Pygmy Seahorses’ and ‘Observing and Photographing Behaviour’.  I also ran a competition with ‘Best Overall Shot’ and ‘Best Behaviour’ categories; the winning shots were a stunning pair of Harlequin shrimp and a beautiful filter feeding porcelain crab respectively.

Check out the images from this trip here.

Blogs for my second and third trips can be found by clicking the links.

Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara (Trip Two)

Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara (Trip Two)

I was ever so excited to welcome the guests for my second trip around the Raja Ampat region of Papua, Indonesia aboard the beautiful Dewi Nusantara as it meant we’d be back in the water very soon!  The first day of diving is such a solid start to the itinerary and really sets the scene for what’s to come that even veteran divers are astounded by the riches of the area.

We began by spending a day in the vicinity of Kri and Sorido Bay Resorts where the first dive offered up three Pontoh’s and two Severn’s pygmy seahorses.  It was exciting to see these usually extremely hard to find fish in such abundances so I spent much of the diving observing them whilst others saw bigger creatures such as tasselled wobbegong sharks and schooling snappers.

The second dive thrust bigger fish into my focus as a couple of grey reef sharks hunted a school of scad near me and we spent the second half of the dive entertained by four giant mantas (Manta birostris).  Giant mantas are distinguished by bold black and white colouration on their back surface and a knuckle shaped lump just behind the small dorsal fin.  It was great to see that one of these four females was quite heavily pregnant.  They were happy to make extremely close passes of us, even too close for my wide angle lens on several occasions, whilst they were getting cleaned!

Dewi Nusantara with sails up

As the new cohort of guests settled onto the boat I was reminded (as if I needed a reminder!) what a special and magnificent vessel she is.  Based on the design of an American schooner and with French interior design; her size and silhouette alone demand respect.  With three masts and at a length of 57 m the Dewi Nusantara, translated from Indonesian as Goddess of the Archipelago, is striking.  Attention to detail was paramount in her design, intricately carved symbols and carvings can be found all over her.  The rooms are equally impressive: a blend of artistic curves and naval craftsmanship.  Not to mention the famed ‘Master and Commander’ suite, which spans the width of Dewi and has a wall of windows across the stern, a Jacuzzi bath and lounging area.  Surely this suite alone is the envy of other luxury live-aboards worldwide.

After such an exciting first day it was the perfect time for my first talk, which is entitled ‘Why is Raja Ampat so Special?’.  It wasn’t a difficult talk to put together as the lush reefs, abundant fish life, unique and rare creatures all speak for themselves.  I have found that this talk really puts the rest of the itinerary into context from the animals we see to the types of reefs we encounter.

The next day we had planned to visit the manta cleaning station at Arborek but it was a little choppy so we decided to defer that for our journey south and headed to Melissa’s Garden instead.  Much like the rest of Raja Ampat, Melissa’s really is pristine, frontier diving at its best.  The shallow reef top is covered in stunning hard corals that sprawl over an area at least the size of a football (soccer) pitch.  Last trip I spent the entirety of two dives just taking in these shallow areas but this time I decided to explore the reef crest and sloping walls.  I found several female gobies laying their eggs on whip corals whilst their partner fertilised them.  The eggs are transparent when laid but as they mature they turn dark as the fry develop inside.  There was also abundant fish life and we passed a large school of slender pinjalo and numerous barracuda schools.  Returning to the boat after one of our dives we came across a pod of spinner dolphins too.

After a couple of dives spent around the aptly named Eagle Rock, where a trio of enormous fish eagle soared above us, we sailed into Aljui Bay.  Pygmy seahorses abound here, as do many rare and unusual nudibranchs, cowries and flatworms.  We dived the Cendana dock on consecutive nights and encountered a smorgasbord of amazing animals.  A stargazer, pair of rough snout ghost pipefish, spot-tail frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish, coconut octopus, bottletail squid, velvetfish, 6 Raja Ampat walking sharks and a harlequin shrimp were just a few of the more celebrated inhabitants of the dock!

On our voyage south from Aljui we stopped at Arborek to dive ‘Manta Sandy’, which we had missed on the second day.  I took the controversial decision to put on my macro lens and photograph the small critters of the sand/rubble area near the manta cleaning station.  Of course this was always going to mean that hundreds of mantas would show up to entertain the other guests, and sure enough they did.  At least half a dozen reef mantas (Manta alfredi) came in to be cleaned.  The saving grace for my macro lens was that Andre, one of the boat’s guides, found me a fantastic bright orange and beige velvetfish in the rubble.  Luckily, we returned for a second dive at the site, which meant I could swap to wide angle and even luckier, the manta action was better than the first dive.  Several mantas passed only inches above me and we had some brilliant encounters, which were some of the best I’ve had at the site.

Following a great day at Manta Sandy we headed to the south-eastern Misool area.  We were utterly blessed this trip with the most fantastic visibility I’ve ever seen in this region.  The water was impossibly blue and when set against the kaleidoscope of soft corals this was truly a sight be behold.  We also had epic schools of silversides on several sites.  One school was even using the three windows of ‘Boo Jendela’ as a highway to avoid a large school of ravenous trevally.  Watching them flow in a tide of bodies back and forth was heart wrenching knowing that some at least wouldn’t survive the predator’s onslaught.

Our night dives were also particularly memorable in this southern region.  Wendy, the fantastic cruise director, found two huge Spanish Dancer nudibranchs (Hexabranchus sanguineus), which were as long as from the tips of my fingers to my elbow!  One had a small pair of imperial shrimp living commensally on its surface.  At another site we saw a trio of rare crustaceans: tiger shrimp (Phyllognathia ceratophthalmus) cryptic sponge shrimp (Gelastocaris paronae) and a Xenia coral shrimp (Hippolyte sp).  There were also nine of the usually impossible to find and very well camouflaged nudibranchs Phyllodesmium jakobsenae!

After such a brilliant time in the south our bittersweet final day of diving was upon us.  It is bitter since it is our final day of diving for the trip and sweet as it’s muck diving!  If you have seen my image galleries and read some of my articles you’ll probably know that I LOVE muck diving!  Batanta certainly didn’t disappoint.  We saw a host of rare nudibranchs, a juvenile pinnate batfish and a feeding blue ringed octopus!

In a couple of days we’ll set sail for my final trip aboard Dewi.  I’ll be posting a blog after that trip but until then have a look at the images I just uploaded from this trip.  They can be found by following this link.

The blog entry for my first trip can be read by following this link and my third and final trip by following this link.


Reef Creature Behaviour: How do Flamboyant Cuttlefish mate?

Reef Creature Behaviour: How do Flamboyant Cuttlefish mate?

Continuing my Reef Creature Behaviour series, which started with ‘Something got your Tongue?‘, this week I will be answering the question: how do flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) mate.  I was lucky enough to observe this two years ago at Maluku Divers in Ambon, Indonesia.

Courting flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi), small male and large femaleI had just descended to about 10 metres on a late afternoon dive off the island of Ambon in Indonesia when suddenly the bright colouration of a large flamboyant cuttlefish caught my eye. These aren’t rare in Ambon, although they are elsewhere, but it is unusual for a flambo to show off its bright colours without first feeling

Unfortunately, when people find a flamboyant cuttlefish they often attempt to encourage the animal to flash its defensive colouration.  The ordinarily brown animal suddenly flashes bright colours to advertise its poisonous flesh.  Sadly, this greatly disturbs the animal and the likelihood of subsequently seeing natural behaviours is greatly diminished.  I am a great believer in leaving animals undisturbed and waiting until they are comfortable enough to continue as if I weren’t there.  This will be a continuing theme throughout this reef Creature Behaviour series: to see natural behaviours the animal must not feel threatened.

Mating flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi)I was intrigued to see what had caused the large flambo to flash its colours so I hovered several metres away and waited.  After only a few seconds I noticed that there was a second, much smaller, individual next to the larger one.  It too was flashing its bright colours and appeared to be stalking the larger one. After about five minutes the smaller animal moved slowly in front of the larger one and the bigger animal opened its tentacles wide.  The smaller animal swam quickly forward and deposited a sperm packet in the buccal cavity before retreating again.  This behaviour was repeated several times before the smaller male swam away.

Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) preparing to lay eggsAfter the male had departed I decided to wait and watch the
female a while.  She moved towards a boulder about the size of a melon and began excavating a hole beneath it.  The excavation was fairly rudimentary and after only a minute of so she paused motionless outside the opening she had created.  The female shuddered and a spherical shape formed in the middle of her tentacles.  She the disappeared into the hole to deposit her egg.  This deposition of the egg, followed by several minutes spent motionless outside the entrance of the hole continued until my hour was up and it was time to surface.

On a subsequent dive our guide showed us a tiny juvenile flamboyant cuttlefish, about the size of a bumblebee, which must have just hatched.  I’m sure it wasn’t from the clutch we saw being laid, but it is evidence that this species is successfully breeding in the area.


Flamboyant Cuttlefish Facts and Information:

• The flamboyant cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi, is a cephalopod found throughout tropical southeast Asia.

• In addition, the paintpot cuttlefish Metasepia tullbergi, a sibling species to the flamboyant, is found in the waters between Japan and Hong Kong.

• Ordinarily, the colouration of the flamboyant is a rather drab brown, but when startled or threatened the cuttlefish flashes bright yellows, pinks and contrasting white and dark patches on the dorsal surface.

• It was recently discovered to have poisonous flesh, which is believed to be as lethal as the venom of the blue-ringed octopus.

• The flamboyant cuttlefish tends to walk along the bottom, in its preferred sheltered habitats, using its tentacles and modified flaps on the mantle under the body.



Reef Creature Behaviour: Something got your tongue?

Reef Creature Behaviour: Something got your tongue?

Observing natural behaviours whilst underwater is one of the main reasons that I love diving so much.  Whilst staying at Kasawari Resort in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia for a week in January I came across something very special and unique.

Tongue-biter Cymathoid isopod parasite (Cymathoa exigua) in the mouth of a spinecheek anemonefishAt first glance it looked like an ordinary anemonefish dancing in and out of the stinging tentacles, but as it turned towards me, I noticed an extra pair of tiny eyes checking me out from inside its mouth.  They were the eyes of a very special and specialised parasite indeed.

The pin-sized beady eyes belonged to a tongue-biter cymathoid isopod parasite (Cymothoa c.f exigua).  This sinister relative of the harmless woodlouse (I think they’re known as pill bugs in the US) enters the fish’s mouth as a tiny juvenile through the gills and attaches to the tongue, which eventually dies off, and the parasite grows in its place.  Whilst it must be quite uncomfortable, the parasite, by definition, doesn’t kill the fish, although it sucks its blood whilst sitting motionless in the mouth.

The large cymathoid isopod visible through the mouth is in fact the female of the species, and her mate is smaller and located on the
inside of the gill arches, out of view.

Whilst in Lembeh I saw these parasites on two occasions.  The first was in the mouth of a saddleback anemonefish (Amphiprion polymnus) and the second in a male spinecheek anemonefish (Premnas biaculeatus).  The spinecheek was a small individual, and the size of the parasite prevented the fish from closing its mouth fully!

Keep checking back to my blog over the coming weeks and months, as I plan to make a little blog series of the behavioural observations that I’ve been lucky enough to witness.  Also, feel free to sign up to my Facebook page for updates of when my blogs are posted.