In the darkened salon of Dewi Nusantara on the last evening of the trip, Martin and Kelly were sharing their fantastic images taken over the past eleven days. Having this opportunity to see a collection of pictures from the trip gave me a real sense of the amazing diving we’d been lucky enough to experience. Among his pictures, there were many unusual nudibranchs (several of which I’d never seen before), shrimps such as the elusive harlequin and Coleman’s species, pristine reefs and blue-ringed octopuses – to name just a few.
Wendy and I, who together make up ‘Our Beloved Seas’, had tailored this trip to explore northern Raja Ampat. As with all our trips, we planned to dig a little deeper and get off the beaten path with our voyage. We visited only the northern two ‘Kings’ of Raja Ampat: Batanta and Waigeo Islands. Usually, charters also head far south to visit Misool Island too, so this gave us much more time to visit some sites we’d had on our radar in the north for a while.
The trip was off to a bang in northern Batanta. Our quarry in the small and unassuming bay, which was our first stop, was a very special fish indeed. The picturesque dragonet (Synchiropus picturatus) is, in my opinion, the more beautiful cousin of the mandarinfish. Whilst the ostentatious mandarin is most well known for its coital displays that take place at dusk each day, there was none of this lewdness with our picturesques. These turquoise fish, covered in psychedelic rings, were going about their business on a rubble and coral slope. Although I haven’t seen one in eight years, I must have seen at least a dozen in the hour we spent scouring the slope. We then surfaced to another natural spectacle as dozens, well 140 by our count, of Papuan or Blyth’s hornbills (Aceros plicatus) came to roost on the island adjacent to where we’d been diving. We could hear the characteristic whooshing of these huge birds as they flew overhead in pairs and small groups.
Our next day was spent with equal numbers of special fishes; they were just several orders of magnitude larger than those from the previous day. Wendy had found a new manta cleaning station and we spent two dives cruising between the coral outcrops that accommodated the cleaner wrasses that drew the mantas to the site. It must have been manta rush hour at the site, there was an almost incessant stream coming to be cleaned. At one point I was buzzed by a squadron of five pure black ‘Darth Vadar’ mantas. Whilst the black form isn’t uncommon, I had never seen so many at one time.
Heading further north, we spent a couple of days in the bountiful Dampier Strait area, diving the world’s most biodiverse coral reef (well, that is according to a fish species count undertaken by Dr Gerry Allen a few years ago). We saw white tip, black tip, grey and wobbegong sharks, which is sadly quite an extraordinary species count for anywhere in southeast Asia these days. Turtles and large clouds of fishes complemented the little creatures such as Pontoh’s and Severn’s pygmy seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish and ghost pipefishes.
Next was Aljui Bay, one of my favourite places to dive in Raja Ampat, if not the world. The topside scenery is extraordinary and the underwater world is equally unexpected. I have seen several unique Denise’s pygmy seahorse associations with the gorgonians here. On this trip we saw Denise living on an Echinogorgi gorgonian in a colour form that I hadn’t seen previously. The pygmy was bright red and white, much like the form of Denise seen more commonly in the south of Raja Ampat. The ever-rewarding night dive at Cendana Dock pearl farm didn’t disappoint. Between us, we had many cephalopods such as white-v octopus, bobtail and bottletail squids, as well as other treasures including toadfish singing and waspfishes.
During the night after leaving Aljui, we passed over the equator into the northern hemisphere on our way up to Wayag. This beautiful island group is the poster child for the whole of Raja Ampat. The view from the top of one of the hills across the islands is stunning, as are the islands at sea level. After three current charged dives, where I saw bigger schools of trevally than I’ve ever seen anywhere before, we went on a little boat trip round the islands. Out of the azure waters burst steep limestone mountains covered in spartan tropical growth.
Several days’ diving and cruising southwards found us finally sitting back in the waters off Batanta Island, with just two muck dives remaining on a site called Algae Patch. Although the currents into the channel between Batanta and Salawati were ripping, we had nice calm conditions for our dives. The list of critters clocked up by the whole group during these two dives was outstanding. Many amazing nudibranchs were firsts for most of our guests, ghost pipefishes and hoards of unusual shrimps made up the roster.
Although the trip absolutely flew by, I’m pleased to be diving with many of our guests again very soon. The Philippines trip is just round the corner in September, which many are joining. Although the next trip with spaces isn’t until March 2017, when we will be sailing from Sorong to Kaimana taking in the rarely explored highlights of the Fakfak coast and Triton Bay. For more information about our upcoming trips check out my expeditions page, or contact me. For images from this trip, check out my album.
We are already more than a quarter of the way through 2014…. how did that happen?! It’s been a busy few months here at Ocean Realm Images with group trips to Socorro Island, Mexico and the Philippines, plenty of published articles and exciting new ventures in TV and film.
Socorro :: January 2014 | The year kicked off to a great start in January with my group trip to Socorro Island, Mexico aboard Solmar V. We spent eight days diving this remote island group 250 miles from the Mexican mainland. It truly lived up to the name ‘Manta Capital of the World’, but there were many more creatures than just mantas with amazing shark, dolphin and interesting endemic fish encounters. I’ve posted some images from the trip here.
Philippines :: March 2014 | I have just finished an amazing trip, with a brilliant group of people to the Philippines. Sixteen of us spent a week at the remote Tubbataha Reef in the middle of the Sulu Sea, followed by 5-8 days (some people chose to extend) at Dumaguete Resort. Dumaguete offered a perfect contrast to the pristine reefs of Tubbataha, with amazing muck diving where we saw all the top wishlist critters you could possibly hope for! For shots from the trip check out my Tubbataha and Dumaguete galleries.
I am really blessed to travel with such great folk on my group trips. We have shared so many laughs and amazing experiences, but I am most pleased to see such enthusiasm for the marine life and a passion to preserve and interact respectfully with them. Here are just a few testimonials from recent trip participants:
“AMAZING! Richard is able to make scientific talks hugely entertaining. I learnt so much, and every dive after the talks I found myself on the hunt for the new critters I had just learnt all about. Brilliant!” Madeleine, Australia.
“The talks enchance the diving experience and encourage new interest outside the obviously spectacular! Friendly, approachable organisation” Martin, UK.
“We joined Richard’s group tour in Fiji and found the whole experience to be enjoyable and very informative. We can highly recommend any future tours.” Maurice, Australia.
“As a non-diver I enjoyed the talks so much and learnt a lot. Thank you so much Richard.” Kaye, Australia.
“A great experience to share our diving with Dr Richard – an inspiration, who gave another perspective to my view of the ocean realm” John, UK.
“Rich’s talks were an added bonus to the trip. Very clear, informative and although I have been diving for years I learnt new information. Encouraged lots of discussions within the group and made one more aware of reef creature’s behaviours.” Mary, UK.
My expeditions aren’t the ordinary run-of-the-mill dive trips. I aim to share the wonder of the marine environment by diving the world’s best locations with daily marine life presentations to help you get more from your diving. Learn about reef behaviour, critter hunting tips and more from beneath the waves. Please click the links below for info on these upcoming trips, contact me through my contact page or email me directly Richard@OceanRealmImages.com
• Indonesia – Dewi Nusantara (liveaboard)
Trip 1 – Flores, Alor & Wetar – 13-24th August 2014 (last two cabins remain)
Trip 2 – Flores & Alor to Wakatobi – 25th August – 5th September 2014 (LAST SPOT: female share)
• Philippines – Azores (liveaboard)
Cebu and Malapascua itinerary including thresher and whale sharks! – 19-28th September 2015
Starting and ending right in front of Atlantis Resort Dumaguete, this is the perfect place to sneak in a few additional days of amazing muck at the beginning or end of your trip!
• Indonesia – Arenui (liveaboard)
Special Pygmy Seahorse Cruise, Raja Ampat – 5-16th February 2016
I have been busy as ever writing articles for various publications around the world, four continents so far this year! I’m very excited about my new series ‘Get more from your Underwater Photography’, which started in the March Underwater Photography section of Sport Diver UK. I was also pleased to see my picture of the Japanese pygmy seahorse ‘Japapigu’ gracing the cover of DIVE magazine. I had a slight change of pace for my article in Asian Geographic, which was an oceanography piece about the Coriolis Effect and its influence on polar seas. Online, I also had the website of the week with the British Society of Underwater Photographer’s (BSOUP) and a featured album and blog for Wakatobi Dive Resort about my work on pygmy seahorses.
Asian Diver – ‘On the Sea Shores – A Diver’s Guide to Tides’ (Issue 1, 2014)
Asian Geographic – ‘Considering Coriolis’ (Issue 1, 2014)
Depth Magazine – ‘Exploring Australia’s Southern Seas’ (March/April 2014)
DIVE – ‘The Mysterious and Intimate World of Pygmy Seahorses’ article and cover shot (March 2014)
Sport Diver UK – ‘Get More from your Underwater Photography’ (March 2014) which was about me and the origins of my marine life passion, and ‘Get More from your Underwater Photography: Photographing Behaviour – Where to Start ‘ (May 2014)
Underwater Journal – ‘The Mysterious Pygmy Seahorse’ (Issue 31)
BSOUP (British Society of Underwater Photographers) website of the week
Wakatobi Dive Resort Facebook album and blog post
TV and Film Work
Over the past year or so I have worked on various TV and Natural History films along side 3D timelapse specialist Robert Hollingworth. Many of these projects came to fruition at the start of this year and the tail end of last with ‘David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive’ (Sky), ‘Mysteries of the Unseen World’ (National Geographic 3D Imax film) and ‘Jimmy Doherty’s: Food Prices the Shocking Truth’ (Channel 4 – UK) all showing recently.
These projects took me from studios in the Cotswolds to chicken hatcheries in Holland and allowed me unprecedented access to explore the deserted halls of London’s Natural History Museum through the dead of night (which, I’m not going to lie, was absolutely terrifying).
2014 Marches On!
There will be lots of adventures over the coming months. I am about to head to Indonesia where I will be joining fish gurus Paul Humann, Ned and Anna DeLoach on their two trips aboard Dewi Nusantara. We start in Ambon and will sail through the Banda Sea to explore the southern islands of Flores, Alor and Wetar. It will be these islands that we visit during my own trips in August, so we’ll know all the best places to take you!
If you’d like to get more up to date info from myself and my adventures over the coming months, head over to Facebook and ‘Like’ my page Richard Smith – Ocean Realm Images!
It has been a very busy few months since my last blog update so I thought a last quarter review style blog would be the easiest way to cover everything. Since my last update I have led a group trip to Fiji, dived in Nelson Bay, Australia with let’s Go Adventures and in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia and attended the world’s largest dive trade show in Orlando, as well as having numerous publications around the world.
I realised recently that my first published piece was over six years ago. How time flies! I still regularly write for Australasia’s Sport Diving magazine, but I’m now also writing for many other publications. Over the past few months since my last update, I have published eleven articles in eight different publications (listed below, with links where applicable).
I have many features coming in the New Year too, including a new series starting in Sport Diver UK’s Underwater Photography section, which I’m very excited about, so keep your eyes peeled for that one. In the meantime, you can follow the various links below to read some of my publications from the past couple of months.
Australian Geographic – ‘Weird and Wonderful: Japan’s Underwater Life‘
Asian Diver – in issue 6, 2013 I had two feature articles ‘The Coral Triangle Species Factory’ and ‘Cenderawasih’s Secrets‘
Dive Photo Guide – ‘Photographing Reef Fish‘ and ‘The Ultimate Guide to Photographing Pygmy Seahorses‘
Scuba Diver AustralAsia – ‘The Life and Times of Hippocampus’ and ‘Japan’s Underwater Jewels’
Scuba Diver – Through The Lens – ‘Photographing Reef Fish’
Sport Diver (UK) – Seahorse conservation interview in ‘The Conservation Diaries’
Sport Diving – ‘Raja Ampat – A Biologist’s Perspective’
UltraMarine – ‘Ocean Oddities’
I have recently put several new trips on the books, taking us all the way through to 2016! I’ll be visiting some of my favourite areas doing some fantastic diving, whilst also learning about the creatures we’re seeing, so why not join me?!
I’ve revamped my website’s Expeditions page where you can read more about these trips and link through to their very own pages. The trips are getting very busy, and one trip sold out in less than three hours! If you’d like to join any of the following trips, please contact me:
Indonesia – Dewi Nusantara (liveaboard)
Trip 1 – Flores, Alor & Wetar – 13-24th August 2014
Trip 2 – Flore, Alor & Wakatobi – 25th August – 5th September 2014
Philippines – Azores (liveaboard)
Cebu itinerary including thresher and whale sharks! – 19-28th September 2015
Indonesia – Arenui (liveaboard)
Special pygmy seahorse cruise in Raja Ampat – 5-16th February 2016
Finally, if you’d like to get more up to date info from me and my adventures I suggest you head over to Facebook and ‘Like’ my page Richard Smith – Ocean Realm Images. That way you’ll see lots of lovely photos and stay up to date on trips and publications in real time!
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
The Japanese pygmy seahorse, Hippocampus sp, (known locally as 日本のピグミータツノオトシゴ or Japapigu) is an, as yet, undescribed species of true pygmy seahorse found, as the name suggests, in Japan. They appear to be closely related to Coleman’s, Pontoh’s and Severn’s species, and like these other species, are not found living in close association with a specific host such as a gorgonian or soft coral.
The species is characterised, and distinguished from the other free-living pygmies, by a reticulate pattern of white lattice over the body, which often has a black spot within it. The body colouration is brown, beige, to pink and whitish.
They inhabit subtropical and temperate reefs from southern to the central west of Japan. The Izu islands of Miyake and Hachijo are good locations to find these elusive seahorses, as well as Kushimoto and Sagami Bay. I saw many in the 8-15 metre range in protected areas, where they were living amongst the algal turf and small hydroids.
Given that they are yet to receive a scientific name, it is unsurprising that very little is known about their biology or conservation. This is true of all the free-living pygmy seahorses, which are yet to receive a research focus. My work on the gorgonian-associated pygmy seahorses is the only research on these species’ biology yet to be carried out.
You can see some of my Japanese pygmy seahorses by following this link.
I have recently returned from an exceedingly fruitful trip to Japan, where I attended the 9th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference in Okinawa and dived both Izu Peninsula and Hachijo-jima.
Having initially spent a week in Okinawa, attending the conference I spent a week exploring Izu Peninsula organised by Kiki Diving Club, which are based in Nakano, Tokyo. I visited a few different areas, the first being Arari Dive Centre on the west coast of Izu. This was a great spot for muck diving. I saw many Japanese pygmy pipehorses, tube blennies and nine different frogfish!
After Arari we headed to Osezaki, also on the west coast, and dived with Hamayuu Dive Centre for a couple of days. I particularly liked the outside of the bay, where deepwater currents make for interesting diving beyond the 30m mark. Here we saw small schools of Cherry (Sacura margaritacea) and striped anthias (Pseudanthias fasciatus), both found only in deep water. Inside Osezaki bay is a proper muck dive, and very protected from currents and big seas. It is also a very popular site for learner divers and there can apparently be 100’s of divers at the weekend, which I avoided like the plague!
Finally, Shingo (owner of Kiki Diving Club) and I visited Izu Oceanic Park on the east coast of the Izu peninsula. This is also a popular site and the critters’ locations are well known to the management. They passed on the info and we succeeded in finding a few frogfish and some Japanese endemics. Unfortunately the swell picked up making entry/exit a bit of a nightmare, especially with a massive camera, so we just did two dives.
After Izu I headed, with a friend, to Hachijo-jima, an island nearly 300 kilometres south of Tokyo. The diving was outstanding and thanks to Tanaka-san and Ogino-san of Concolor Diving I saw everything I had on my wish list. The very top of the list was the undescribed Japanese pygmy seahorse, of which I ended up seeing thirteen!
We experienced some unseasonably cold water, at around 19˚C, which made some of the dives a little chilly! By the end of the week though the water was back to normal and I’m informed a few days after it was back to the expected 28˚C, after the Kuroshio current shifted back to its rightful place.
All in all, my first experience of Japanese diving was exceptional, and I’m keen to get back there and explore a little more of what the country has to offer.
If you would like to see my images from this trip, follow these links to: Izu or Hachijo
On the 1st April 2011 my PhD was officially awarded. I am the first person to have completed a PhD on the biology of pygmy seahorses and I’m excited to share some of my findings. My thesis is entitled ‘The Biology and Conservation of Gorgonian-Associated Pygmy Seahorses’. I will be publishing the findings from my thesis in the scientific literature in the coming months so keep checking back or sign up to my blog updates for details. Until then I wanted to share some information and facts about pygmy seahorses:
• What is a pygmy seahorse?
Pygmy seahorses are a group of seven species of miniature syngnathids (technical name for seahorses and pipefish) fish that live in the Coral Triangle region of southeast Asia. They range in length from 1.4 – 2.7 cm between the tip of the tail to the end of the snout.
• How many species of pygmy seahorse are there?
Within the first decade of the 21st century six of the present total of seven species of pygmy seahorse were officially named. Before that only Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse was known to science, having been described in 1970.
Follow the links below to the image galleries for each of the pygmy seahorse species where there is more information about them individually:
Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti)
Denise’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus denise)
Pontoh’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus pontohi)
Satomi’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus satomiae)
Severn’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus severnsi)
Walea soft coral pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus waleananus)
The final described species of pygmy seahorse, Coleman’s pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus colemani), is thought to be restricted to Lord Howe Island off the east coast of Australia although there are unconfirmed reports from eastern Papua New Guinea and Taiwan. I am yet to observe this species in the wild but hopefully one day I will have the opportunity!
There are likely to be new and undescribed species of pygmy seahorse yet to be discovered. One such species that awaits a name is the Japanese pygmy seahorse.
Japanese pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus sp.)
• How do pygmy seahorses differ from the larger seahorses?
Pygmy seahorses are morphologically distinct from all other seahorses. Apart from their extremely small size, they have a single gill opening on the back of the head (all other seahorses have a pair of gill openings either side of the head) and the young are brooded within the male’s trunk rather than a pouch on the tail.
Several other small seahorses are sometimes referred to as pygmy seahorses, but lack the true pygmy’s single gill opening and trunk brooding. These include some recently discovered species such as the endemic Red Sea soft coral pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus debelius) and a pair of deepwater, apparently closely related, southern Australian seahorses: the southeast Australian Bullneck seahorse (Hippocampus minotaur) and the southwestern Paradoxical seahorse (Hippocampus paradoxus).
• Where do pygmy seahorses live?
Pygmy seahorses live in different habitats from their larger cousins. Larger seahorses are rarely found on tropical corals reefs, particularly current prone walls. Pygmy seahorses have evolved several adaptations to fill this niche perfectly.
Three species of pygmy seahorse have evolved a special association with sessile coral reef invertebrates. Two, Bargibant’s and Denise’s pygmy seahorses, are only found living on gorgonian corals. Bargibant’s lives only on one genus of gorgonian coral, Muricella spp, whilst Denise’s pygmy seahorse is known from at least nine genera of gorgonians. The third species, the Walea pygmy seahorse, is found living in association with soft corals.
• What do pygmy seahorses eat?
The diet of pygmy seahorses consists of small crustaceans.
• Can you distinguish between male and female pygmy seahorses?
Male pygmy seahorses have a tiny slit at the base of the abdomen and females have a tiny round, raised pore.
Female pygmy seahorse on the left hand image (a) with a raised circular urinogenital pore and a male right (b) with a slit-like opening to the brood pouch. Scale bars are 5 mm.
• How do pygmy seahorses reproduce?
Like all seahorses the male is responsible for all post-fertilisation care of the developing young. Eggs are transferred, unfertilised, to him from his mate into his brood pouch. They remain within the pouch, which is full of blood vessels, until they are born 11-14 days later. The blood vessels bring nourishment and oxygen to the developing offspring. Between 6 and 34 young have been recorded from a single clutch of eggs.
• What happens to the baby pygmy seahorses after they’re born?
The young are released with some force from the male’s brood pouch and are swept away by the current into the ocean. They then have a planktonic phase where they feed and grow in the water column until settling onto the reef. They are dark in colour until settling onto the reef, where they change to suit their immediate surroundings.
Satomi’s pygmy seahorse on the other hand, is reported to give birth to young that settle immediately to the reef around their parents. This observation does however seem at odds with the relatively large geographic distribution of the species. Without a pelagic phase for young pygmies to drift with ocean currents and reach new reefs they would be unlikely to have a distribution stretching from east to west Indonesia.
For more information on the birth of pygmy seahorses in the wild follow this link to my paper from the journal Coral Reefs.
• Are pygmy seahorses endangered?
Mine has been the first study on the population sizes of pygmy seahorses. Currently all seven species of pygmy seahorse are classified as ‘Data Deficient’ by the IUCN World Conservation Union. This classification means that not enough is known about their population sizes to make an informed assessment of their conservation requirements.
I studied the populations of Bargibant’s and Denise’s pygmy seahorses around Wakatobi Dive Resort, southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. The resort has gone to great lengths to protect their reefs for the last fifteen years, which provided a rare opportunity to estimate pygmy seahorse populations in a near pristine environment. I found that the population sizes of these two pygmy seahorse species are naturally low. They were in fact among the lowest for any unexploited seahorse population yet studied. Their habitat specificity and small population sizes mean that conservation measures may need to be taken to protect them in some areas.
For more information on my pygmy seahorse population paper published in the scientific journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, please follow this link.
• Do pygmy seahorses have any predators?
The small size and amazing camouflage of pygmy seahorses mean they do not suffer heavy rates of predation. Occasionally however, they may be opportunistically be taken by one of the reef’s general predators. There are also reports of long-nose hawkfish eating pygmy seahorses but there is no truth to the myth that the presence of a hawkfish on a gorgonian means there will be no pygmies present.
• Can you keep pygmy seahorses as pets in an aquarium?
The habitat specialisation of pygmy seahorses, their extremely delicate nature and small size all prevent the true pygmy seahorses from being kept as pets in aquaria. Unsuccessful attempts have been made by national aquaria in the past and resulted in the death of the animals and their gorgonian coral host. Confusion can arise as the Dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae, is also known as a pygmy seahorse. Unlike the true pygmies, this species is slightly larger, has paired gill openings and males have a brood pouch located on the tail. The care of these dwarf seahorses can be quite challenging and it is recommended only for experienced aquarists.