Ocean Realm Images Flow – Newsletter 2017

Ocean Realm Images Flow – Newsletter 2017

2017 has been full of ups and downs.  It was personally challenging, with the sudden passing of my father at the end of 2016, but thankfully full of professional highs and amazing animal encounters.

AUSSIE ROAD TRIP 
The year started off on a trip that I organised for dear friends, Ned and Anna DeLoach, Wendy Brown and Yann Alfian around southern Australia.  I planned a road trip that included hunting for leafy seadragons and pyjama squids in South Australia, scouring the rich jetties of Melbourne for weedy seadragons and the world’s largest seahorses and hunting the cold temperate muck dives of the Derwent Estuary in Hobart for Critically Endangered spotted handfish.  Lastly, we headed up to Port Stephens for more temperate water muck diving.  We all donned our drysuits for the first time on this trip and had great fun trying to master these contraptions.  It was certainly a learning curve, not helped by many of our dives taking place in just a few metres of water!

NEW WEBSITE
Same URL as before, but entirely reimagined.  There is much more detail about trips, pygmies and higher resolution images to peruse.  It’s still a work in progress, but do have a look: www.OceanRealmImages.com

SEAHORSE SCIENCE
In May, I headed to Tampa University for the third international SyngBio conference, which was a meeting of the world’s seahorse and pipefish researchers.  It was great to meet this fantastic bunch of folk from across the world, and I was honoured to be invited to give the keynote speech ‘Seahorses and Beyond’ at the Tampa Aquarium for donors and attendees of the conference. I shared images and stories of little known and new species that I have been lucky enough to encounter from around the world. 

At the end of the conference, there was also a meeting of the fifteen or so members of the IUCN Seahorse, Pipefish Stickleback Specialist Group that I was invited to join last year.  During this meeting, which was the first for many of us, we began planning a global seahorse and pipefish conservation action plan.  I was appointed head of the subgroup tasked with raising the profile of syngnathid conservation issues along with Drs Helen Scales and Heather Mason-Jones. This is something that will be pressing on in 2018.

Late in 2017, I also was appointed as Global Pygmy Seahorse Expert for iSeahorse.  If you haven’t heard of it, iSeahorse is a fantastic citizen science program that uses data collected by divers and snorkelers about the syngnathids that they have encountered.  Please go and have a look at their website about the information you can collect to help this cause.  The data they have already collected has helped to extend the known range of many species and has given us a much better idea of global seahorse hotspots.  Adding data to iSeahorse, I helped to extend the known range of Bargibant’s pygmy seahorse by 1,000 or so kilometres north to the Izu Islands in the cool waters off Japan which was quite the surprise.  It just shows that there is still lots for us to discover about our oceans and iSeahorse is helping us to discover it.

PUBLIC TALKS
I have also done some fun public talks this year, in addition to the one at Tampa Aquarium. I spoke at the Zoological Society of London to the London Ocean Group about my pygmy seahorse research in June.  Again, I presented two talks in October at DIVE 2017, the British Dive Show at the NEC Birmingham.  The first was about my forthcoming trip with Dive Worldwide to the Philippines in 2019, and the second about observing and photographing natural history behaviour underwater without disturbing the animals in question.  The latter being a topic very close to my heart and something I always focus on during my group trips.

In Diver Magazine following the dive show, I was hugely honoured to receive a mention in Dr Alex Mustard’s monthly column.  Alex is a photographer that I’ve always looked up to, I’m sure you’ve seen his work, but check out his amazing photography and many accolades here www.amustard.com:

“The best talk I caught was Dr Richard Smith’s ‘How to Capture Reef Life Au Naturel’ extolling the virtues and benefits of photographing marine life on its terms. 
Richard’s argument was that those photographers who attempt to stage marine-life shots, don’t just risk harming the creatures, but also eradicate any chance of observing fascinating and photogenic natural behaviours, a point that Richard lavishly reinforced with his images.”
Dr Alex Mustard, Diver Magazine, December issue 2017.

COMPLETED GROUP TRIPS
Our Beloved Seas, the trips that I arrange and lead with Wendy Brown, had another fantastic year in 2017.  We welcomed a full complement of 18 guests on each of our two trips to Triton Bay, West Papua in March/April 2017 aboard Dewi Nusantara.  The first started in Sorong and headed down to Kaimana.  The second started in Kaimana and ended up in Ambon.  These both gave us great access to Triton Bay, whilst also adding some additional crossing sites which gave us chance to explore a bit and see some other highlights, such as the stunning Momon Waterfalls, whale sharks at Triton’s bagans and to see Jamal’s dottyback (Manonichthys jamali), which I’d longed to see for some time.

In September, we chartered Damai II for back to back explorations around the rarely visited Sangeang volcano, north west of Komodo.  These were the first of our new ‘Muck Magic’ series of trips especially tailored for muck divers, focusing on the critter life of the area.  They were such a huge success, with another full complement at 12 guests per trip, that we have planned Muck Magic III to the Philippines’ Anilao in April 2019.  We had some real highlights on these Sangeang trips, mine being Renny’s Flasher wrasse found only around Komodo and Coleman’s melibe (Melibe colemani), of which I found three.

Again this year, I hosted an ‘Expert Led Trip’ for Dive Worldwide.  This time to Raja Ampat aboard the Indo Siren.  Sixteen of us explored this magical area and did some outstanding dives with some very exciting finds.  My favourite was a tiny tunicate-living amphipod that I found pugnaciously poking his head out of a Polycarpa sea squirt, apparently protecting his young with fearsome thorny appendages. 

Mid-year I headed to Siladen Resort, in the Bunaken National Park off North Sulawesi in Indonesia.  I gave a series of marine life lectures to the guests there, and explored the reefs around Bunaken for the first time.  I had some very interesting finds, perhaps my favourite being a red form of Halimeda ghost pipefish that seems fairly common in the area.  I also found a flame angelfish off an area to the north east of Siladen Resort.  These stunning fish are common around the Central Pacific, but don’t appear to have been recorded from Indonesia before. After Siladen, I spent ten days at the new Dive Into Lembeh, again giving marine life lectures to the resident guests.  Having been to Lembeh Strait many times before, I really enjoyed the space and setting of the resort at the northern end of the strait, plus of course the bountiful creatures I encountered.

UPCOMING TRIPS

Wendy and I have recently added four brand new expeditions to the 2020 roster.  I know this seems terribly far away, but time flies and we will be announcing these trips in the coming months. Our 2018 trips are almost full (just two spots left!) and 2019 is going the same way.  There are more details about our upcoming trips below, or click here.  If you’d like to join us on any of these trips please contact Wendy or myself for more information.

2018 |
MAPIA ISLAND, NORTH WEST PAPUA | Dewi Nusantara
23rd July – 1st August 2018 (9 nights) – 1 x female share space available
Our trips are all but sold out for 2018.  We have just one single female share space on each of our two charters of Dewi Nusantara in July/August.  The first of these trips will be exploring Mapia Island, which is 100 nautical miles north of Manokwari on the north coast of Papua into the remote Pacific. 

CENDERAWASIH BAY, NORTH WEST PAPUA | Dewi Nusantara
3-13th August 2018 (10 nights) – 1 x female share space available
Again, with just one female share space remaining, this second charter heads into Cenderawasih Bay in search of the many endemic fishes and to see the fabled whale shark aggregations. 

2019 |
DUMAGUETE, PHILIPPINES – ‘DUMAGUETE DIVE FESTIVAL II’ | Philippines at Atmosphere Resort
25th March – 5th April 2019 (13 day packages including flights from UK)
Following the success of my Dumaguete Dive Festival as an expert led group tour for Dive Worldwide in 2016, we have planned another for March/April 2019. We are not arranging this one, so for more information please follow the link above or contact Sales@DiveWorldwide.com

ANILAO, PHILIPPINES – ‘MUCK MAGIC III’ | Philippines at Buceo Resort
7 – 14th April 2019 (7 nights) – 3 x Deluxe Rooms available
Anilao is the Philippines answer to Lembeh Strait or Milne Bay, but like every dive area has its own peculiarities.  I have found Anilao to be one of the richest area’s I’ve dived for nudibranchs.  It’s the only place I have ever seen Allen’s Miamira (Miamira alleni, previously Ceratosoma alleni) and an amazing undescribed Thecacera, whilst it also has bountiful other muck critters such as hairy frogfish, mimic octopus, pygmy seahorses and flamboyant cuttlefish.  We have taken the whole of Buceo Resort, which is located towards the tip of the peninsula and closest to the underwater action!

TUBBATAHA REEF, PHILIPPINES | Philippines, aboard Philippine Siren
14 – 22nd April 2019 (8 nights) – 1 x female share space available
I had a charter to Tubbataha in 2014 and have been keen to go back ever since.  Tubbataha really is something very special.  Whilst being at the heart of the Coral Triangle (the area around southeast Asia with the world’s highest marine biodiversity), the abundance of marine megafauna is very high.  On one dive I counted 21 sharks on my last trip, which is unheard of in other areas.  The two atols that make up Tubbataha are World Heritage protected, and unreachable due to their remote location so over six months of the year.  It really is the last megafaunal wilderness of southeast Asia.

SAUMLAKI TO AMBON ‘SOUTH TO NORTH I’, INDONESIA | Indonesia, aboard Dewi Nusantara
23rd October – 4th November 2019 (11 nights) – 2 Deluxe Cabins, 1 female & 1 male share space available
Indonesia obviously holds a very special place in our hearts, and between us we have many many thousands of dives across the country.  We are always looking for something different and new to offer our guests and are excited to offer these exciting itineraries for 2019.  Starting in the Forgotten Islands, we will sail across the stunning and remote Banda Sea to the Muck Mecca of Ambon.  Think blue water, tiny islets with possible hammerhead schools, the fabled snake island and many other unique creatures.

AMBON TO TERNATE,HALMAHERA ‘SOUTH TO NORTH II’, INDONISIA | Indonesia, aboard Dewi Nusantara
5th – 15th November 2019 (10 nights) – 1 male share space available
Heading north from Ambon we will visit Ceram (Seram), Pulau Obi and then up to Halmahera.  Halmahera has been on my wish list for years.  It has its own Bird of Paradise, Wallace’s Standardwing, and a new endemic walking shark (Hemiscyllium halmahera) plus many other unique fishes.  This will really be something quite different too, and even very different from the previous trip.  I can’t wait!  Just one male share space is available for this one, so hurry.

2020 | COMING SOON! Please email me if you’d like to join our trip mailing list

 

PUBLICATIONS

Throughout 2017 I wrote many articles for various magazines around the world.  I continued my column ‘Species’ in Sport Diver Magazine in the United States, as well as contributing lots of content for their Bizarre issue.  I also added more ‘Natural History Notes’ to my series on the Bird’s Head Seascape website.  I’ve also written the following stand-alone features, among others:

FIVE FAVOURITE FIRSTS OF 2017
I am always on the hunt for new and exciting beasties under the sea, so I thought as a final whimsy I would share my top five new finds of 2017.  After 3,500 dives there is still so much to see.  This is why I keep diving and we always make a donation through our trips to help preserve our amazing oceans.

  1. New Zealand Pygmy Pipehorse (New genus and species!) – Northern North Island, New Zealand
  2. Renny’s Flasher Wrasse (Paracheilinus rennyae) – Komodo, Indonesia
  3. Jamal’s Dottyback (Manonichthys jamali) – Triton Bay, Indonesia
  4. Tunicate Amphipod (Leucothoe sp.) – Raja Ampat, Indonesia
  5. Coleman’s Melibe (Melibe colemani) – Komodo, Indonesia

LOOKING AHEAD IN 2018
I have some exciting plans in 2018, some of which I can’t yet announce but, trust me, they’re exciting!  I have announcements about public talks in new parts of the world for me, scientific research that I’m looking forward to sharing and of course new group trips for you to join and lots of publications in the pipeline.

I can tell you that I have been invited to join The Underwater Tour. I will be joining three other underwater photographers (Jurgen Freund, Jason Isley and Darren Jew) to tour four Australian state capitals over four days in May.  You can now book tickets, so come along and hear us!

Wednesday 9 May        Brisbane, Queensland Multicultural Centre

Thursday 10 May          Perth, Kim Beazley Lecture Theatre, Murdoch University

Friday 11 May                Melbourne, Kino Cinema, Collins Place, CBD

Saturday 12 May           Sydney, The Guthrie Theatre, University of Technology

2018 also sees the start of my new column in Scuba Diver Magazine: ‘Inside Ocean’.  The first was just published and is all about mouth-brooding cardinalfishes.

In a few weeks we are heading to the Galapagos Islands for sold out back to back charters aboard Galapagos Sky liveaboard.  We’re all really excited about these trips, and something rather different than a Coral Triangle dive trip.

Finally, if you’d like to hear what I’m up to on a more regular basis, I suggest you check out my FaceBook page | www.facebook.com/OceanRealmImages

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT5: Raja Rarities)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT5: Raja Rarities)

The Bird’s Head Seascape is often touted as the epicentre of global marine biodiversity, and its reefs are truly something to behold. It is undoubtedly one of my favourite places on the planet to dive, and I am still amazed that every time I visit I encounter creatures I’ve never seen before. Some are new to science, others are way outside their previously known geographic range and yet more are hitherto known from just a few specimens. However, you might be surprised that it can take a little time to fall in love with this place.

With all the superlatives associated with Raja Ampat, expectations are always high but when folk arrive from across the world they can sometimes seem confused what all the fuss is about. Of course, there are a lot of fish, yes the reefs are pristine but the visibility isn’t always gin clear and there were only two pygmy seahorses on that last dive! Personally, I think that the Bird’s Head isn’t a one visit kind of place. A first visit can easily be spent looking at the bigger picture, distracted from the reef’s smaller inhabitants. You might not get to both the north and south of Raja, which are so very distinct from each other. You might not be there in the season that great clouds of silversides smother the reef. There are so many facets to the Bird’s Head that you simply can’t see it all on one trip.

Something very special about the Bird’s Head is the unexpected rarities that you are sure to encounter given time. On a previous Natural History Notes, I shared my discovery of a leopard anemone shrimp pair (Izucaris masudai) in north Raja. These stunning monochrome crustaceans were nonchalantly and unexpectedly sitting on a leopard anemone at 30 metres. On the same trip, I had photographed a Cenderawasih Bay fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus cenderawasih) off Batanta Island, one of Raja’s Four Kings. Named as recently as 2006, it turns out these beautiful fish aren’t restricted to the Bird’s Head’s famed northern bay as we first thought, they’re in Raja Ampat too.

Cenderawasih fairy wrasse spotted for the first time in Raja Ampat

Several years before, I was diving a great site in the north of Raja Ampat, named Cendana Dock where I found a couple of fishes that I hopefully named ‘Richard’s waspfish’. Howveer, thanks to Gerry Allen and Mark Erdmann’s fantastic ‘Reef Fishes of the East Indies’ apps, I finally discovered that it was in fact a rare triplefin velvetfish (Neoaploactis tridorsalis) known from just a few scattered locations in the Coral Triangle.

A rare triplefin velvetfish in very shallow water in northern Raja Ampat

Another fish that this app had finally helped me to identify was a bright green frogfish that I found at night on the Kri House Reef on my first visit to Raja Ampat in 2004. When I saw it again in Aljui Bay, North Raja, I solved the mystery and figured out its identity as the marble-mouthed frogfish (Lophiocharon lithinostomus). Again, a distinctive fish known only from scattered locations in the region.

Marble-mouthed frogfish are a rare species found in certain areas of Raja Ampat

For nudibranch lovers, the Bird’s Head again can easily take you by surprise. This spring, on a dive off Batanta Island I found a rare and very variable nudibranch, the pitted Ceratosoma(Ceratosoma miamiranum). The mantle edge had a harsh zippered edge and it took some time for me to find it in the identification books as some animals can be completely smooth and are almost incomparable. On a site in the south, I saw my first ornate dermatobranchus (Dermatobranchus ornatus). Unlike most members of this genus, this was a large animal several inches long. I always find it satisfying seeing a new nudi that isn’t too tiny to identify!

A stunning nudibranch Ceratosoma miamiranum

With each visit to the Bird’s Head one spends more time, covering more ground and looking even closer at the jubilant communities. Earlier this year, I was leading a group liveaboard tour around Raja Ampat. At a site called Mioskon something different caught my eye. From inside one of the large gaudy Polycarpa tunicates, I felt something following my progress along the reef. I looked round, and peering from within the exhalent siphon a large orange amphipod looking out. I had never seen anything like it. I later contacted the scientist who described a very similar species recently named after Sir Elton John, who explained that this is either a commensal amphipod, or a new species. He told me that this large male, with his menacing scythe-like gnathopod arms was likely guarding his partners and offspring within. Clearly, a great example of the Bird’s Head offering up another surprise.

An amphipod hiding inside a tunicate

Below are a few “Rarities” photos that aren’t mentioned in the text which Richard would like to share with us. Thanks Rich!

A paddle flap Rhinopias was an unexpected discovery off Batanta Island

Big-lip damselfish are the Angelina Jolie of the fish world

Miniature clingfish in southern Raja Ampat

Links to Previous Blogs:

PART ONE | In Appreciation of Damsels

PART TWO | Craving Cryptic Crustaceans

PART THREE |Sinister Hitchhikers

PART FOUR | The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

Richard Smith PhD, a British underwater photographer and writer, aspires to promote an appreciation for the ocean’s inhabitants and raise awareness of marine conservation issues through his images. A marine biologist by training, Richard’s pioneering research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses, led to the first PhD on these enigmatic fishes. Over the past decade, Richard’s photographs and marine life focused features have appeared in a wide variety of publications around the world. Richard leads expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment through marine biology lectures: www.OceanRealmImages.com / Facebook.com/OceanRealmImages

Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com Science & Conservation Blog
Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT4: The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT4: The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat)

For many people, one of the main attractions of the Bird’s Head Seascape is the pygmy seahorse (well I like to think so at least).  Certainly, Raja has amongst the highest density and diversity of these diminutive fishes on the planet.  If you haven’t seen one yet, they almost defy belief. It is easy to list any number of unusual features about them: a horse-like head ending in a puckered mouth, a monkey-like prehensile tail and eyes that move about independently.  From the tip of its pug-like snout to the tip of its stretched out tail, the largest can only just reach across a US quarter.  Even stranger than all of this is their reproduction where extraordinarily devoted fathers become pregnant and strict monogamy is exhibited between life-long partners.

I was recently on a trip exploring Raja Ampat aboard the Arenui, joining a cruise as resident pygmy seahorse expert.  Several years ago, I completed the first research on the biology of pygmy seahorses for my PhD thesis and was excited to spend a trip dedicated to these miniature fishes.  Five of the six described species of pygmies have been named since the turn of this millennium, which explains why there has been so little research on them.  During the trip aboard Arenui, I gave a series of lectures about my findings and the area’s astounding marine life in general.  We were lucky to see three of the area’s four species during the trip and there was great engagement from the guests who enjoyed hearing of the soap opera-like social lives of pygmies.

Pygmy Seahorses of the Bird’s Head Seascape:

Bargibant’s (Hippocampus bargibanti)| Bargibant’s pygmy was the first species to be discovered.  A researcher at the Noumea Museum in New Caledonia accidentally found the first pair when he collected a gorgonian coral for the museum’s collection.  The species was named after him in 1970, but divers weren’t regularly seeing them until the 90’s.  Bargibant’s pygmies only live in association with Muricella gorgonians and are covered in tiny bumps that mimic the coral’s closed polyps.

Denise’s (H. denise)| This is another gorgonian-living, and commonly seen species in Raja Ampat.  They can be distinguished from the closely related Bargibant’s species, by their more slender shape and longer snout.  They are also much more cosmopolitan than Bargibant’s: so far I have found them living on ten different types of gorgonians.  As a result of them inhabiting such a variety of habitats, their colours and surface textures are much more variable than Bargibant’s.  I have seen various hues of yellow, red, pink and even white.  Raja Ampat is also known for an, otherwise rare, red and white variety that inhabits Melithaea gorgonians.

 

Pontoh’s (H. pontohi)| In 2008, the two species of free-living white and brown pygmies were given the names, Hippocampus pontohi and H. severnsi respectively.  However, it appears that scientists may have jumped the gun.  Genetic evidence has since shown that they actually represent two colour forms of a single species.  The name ‘Severn’s’ is being dropped and Pontoh’s will be retained into the future.  Like many seahorses, this new evidence shows just how much variability there can be within a single species of seahorse.  Camouflage is so important to pygmies that they generally match their surroundings very closely.  White ones are most often seen around Halimeda algae, and brown ones around hydroids.

Satomi’s (H. satomiae)| This is the least common of the Bird’s Head’s pygmies, and in fact is currently only known from Indonesia.  It is also the smallest pygmy, not even reaching across a dime.  Very little is know about this species, but it seems to become active around dusk and is generally found slightly deeper than the other free-living species.  When I have seen them, they’ve often been attached to soft corals and hydroids beneath a large over hang.  There are beige and dark brown colour forms, and all are very active swimmers.

Photographing Pygmy Seahorses:

Sometimes it can a bit of a double-edged sword leading a trip that encourages people to interact with and photograph pygmies. I am always very keen to encourage non-invasive interactions where we can enjoy and capture images of them, without causing stress or harm.  The take-home messages I hope to promote are there should be absolutely no touching of the pygmy or their gorgonian, and to limit the number of strobe-lit images.  In fact, this subject was part of my PhD research and the findings are available as a code of conduct document that helps us to avoid certain behaviours that cause direct stress to the fish.

Recording your observations:

Relatively recently Project Seahorse, the world’s largest seahorse conservation organisation, began a citizen science initiative called iSeahorse.  This is designed primarily for who are able to record their seahorse sightings.  This includes pygmy seahorses, and the big ones too.  Next time you are diving and spot a seahorse, please record and log your observation.  You can check out the website to learn about the kind of information that is valuable to them.  I used iSeahorse to register my find of a Bargibant’s pygmy near Tokyo, which extended their known geographic range by hundreds of miles northwards.

Raja Ampat is one of the few pleases where you can see four of the six species of pygmy seahorse.  It’s hardly surprising, given the extraordinarily high biodiversity of the area and it’s fantastic level of protection.  Just remember, whilst enjoying pygmy seahorses please ensure not to disturb them.

Links to Previous Blogs:

PART ONE | In Appreciation of Damsels

PART TWO | Craving Cryptic Crustaceans

PART THREE |Sinister Hitchhikers

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

By Dr Richard Smith | Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com Science & Conservation Blog

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT3: Sinister Hitchhikers)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT3: Sinister Hitchhikers)

Parasites permeate every corner of the animal kingdom; indeed, even parasites have their own parasites. With one of my PhD colleague’s research focusing on coral reef fish parasites I started to pay more attention to these sinister members of the community.  Now I can hardly do a dive without coming across a stricken fish or other reef creature that is suffering at the hands of one of these insidious but fascinating beasts.

Funky Pill Bugs

Sweeper fish with parasite on headSweeper fish with parasite on headIn January this year I was aboard Dewi Nusantara for my charter exploring Raja Ampat’s southern reaches and the island of Kofiau.  As always, I gave lectures about the area’s marine life, so my regular guests are well aware of my penchant for external parasites.  Several even come up from their dives regaling me with stories of how many they’ve seen: there is a funny ecological quirk whereby if one fish is infected often a large proportion of the same species locally also will be.  According to my colleague, this is because these parasites ‘burst’ spawn and their offspring will infect many other individuals around the same area.

Parasites are extremely common on coral reefs.  Some bite and gorge themselves on blood very rapidly then drop off, whilst others grip on their host for their whole adult life.  The external parasites that have been the focus of my natural history notes of late are isopod crustaceans, which are basically marine pill bugs (woodlice for the Brits, or sea lice to anglers), found in the family Cymothoidae.  They are extremely species and site specific, usually found in the exact same location on just one host species.  Some attach themselves externally to scales, others are flesh burrowing (I saw some of these in temperate Australia recently, and they made me feel quite queasy), some attach to the gills and others live in the fish’s mouth.

Not Forgotten

Fusilier with chin parasite. Raja AmpatFusilier with chin parasite. Raja AmpatMost recently, amongst one of the enormous schools of passing fusiliers at the dive site ‘Boo Windows’, something caught my eye under one of the fish’s chins.  When I was able to get a closer look at a cleaning station I saw that the stricken fish had a huge white isopod parasite clutching to the underside of its head.  It had obviously been there sometime, as the fish was slightly deformed where the parasite’s little legs were latched on.  There was even a groove for the parasite to rest.

Whilst many of these copepod parasites are dark in colour, I was interested to see that this one was white.  Fusiliers’ type of colouration is known as countershading, whereby their belly is paler than their dorsal surface.  This helps to camouflage them against predators from above, as their dark top-half acts as camouflage against the darker water below.  Contrastingly, the pale belly camouflages them against predation from below against the predators looking up at the bright sky.  The parasite appears to have followed suit and matches the fish’s paler ventral colours.  Through natural selection, one would assume that fish carrying dark parasites would more likely be eaten than those carrying pale chin parasites.  The pale parasite is less likely to draw the attention of their host’s predators.  Since this would also mean that the parasites too are less likely to be eaten and are thus able to pass on their genes, eventually a pale parasite has prevailed.

I was intrigued to see only one isopod living under the fusilier’s chin, but in one of my images I discovered that there was actually another smaller individual living under the larger one.  The bigger of the two is the female, and the tiny one beneath is the male.  Since he is hidden under the large female’s tail, he is dark grey in colour.  After mating, the eggs of cymothoid isopods develop in a pouch on the female’s body.  There the young hatch and undergo their first moult.  The active and agile young then leave the brood pouch and go in search of a host of their own.  They have well-developed eyes, helping them to track down a host.  Between leaving the mother’s pouch and making permanent attachment on their new host, they undergo several moults.  Each stage is perfectly adapted for the job the larva needs to complete.  Sensory structures come and go and at the last stage grasping claws appear, which help their final attachment to the host.

Shrimp with internal isopod parasite

These isopod parasites are common on the reef and infect many different fishes; however, they are not only limited to fishes.  There are certain species that also inhabit the gill arches of crustaceans.  Whilst they look punishing for the host, parasites generally don’t kill them.  They can cause lesions, reduced their growth rates and make them weak and more prone to illness or predation, but the parasite wouldn’t actually benefit from the host’s demise – they’d lose their home.  Some parasites have extremely sinister tricks up their sleeve to ensure that they alone are looked after.  Certain parasites are able to sterilise their host, so the host producing its own offspring does not waste vital energy.

Next time you are diving in Raja Ampat, I suggest you keep you eyes peeled for these sinister hitchhikers living on the reef’s creatures.  Unsurprisingly, there are more species of these parasites in the Coral Triangle region than anywhere else on Earth.  After all, they too help add to the extraordinary number of species that make coral reefs one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.

 By Dr Richard Smith | Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com Science & Conservation Blog

Links to previous blogs:

PART ONE | In Appreciation of Damsels

PART TWO | Craving Cryptic Crustaceans

PART FOUR | The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT 2: Craving Cryptic Custaceans)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT 2: Craving Cryptic Custaceans)

Raja Ampat is famed for its outstanding fish diversity, so it’s sometimes forgotten that the area’s species richness extends beyond the piscine delights.  Although I would probably count fishes as my first love, I have a lot of time for crustaceans, and there’s usually a shrimp or crab of some kind that I’m hunting for during a trip.  At the heart of the Coral Triangle, I knew that the Bird’s Head’s high biodiversity would make it a great place to seek my latest target, the giant clam shrimp.  So, on my recent trip aboard Dewi Nusantara, I spent many hours scouring these massive molluscs for their miniscule residents, leading me to ponder the region’s other crustaceans too.

Specificity

Coleman's shrimps from Raja AmpatCoral reefs are well known for the huge numbers of species they accommodate.  One of the reasons the biodiversity of a reef is so high are the close interrelationships between different species.  Most are very closely associated with just one species. Spotted and spiny porcelain crabs for example live only with certain anemones, Coleman’s shrimps live only with fire urchins, whip coral shrimps obviously live on sea whips and new examples are discovered all the time.  A few years ago, Ned and Anna DeLoach continued their legacy of discovery by finding a type of porcelain crab that lives only on the anemones that live on the shells of certain hermit crabs!  This level of union blows my mind, but is commonplace in Raja Ampat and the Coral Triangle.

Not Forgotten

When we talk about crustaceans, we automatically think of shrimps and crabs, but the group is in fact much larger, with many of the less well-known groups often going unnoticed.  For example, the isopods that stick to and feed on the blood of hapless fishes are a kind of crustacean.  One, the tongue-biter cymathoid isopod, lives in a fish’s mouth killing off its tongue and drinking its blood.

Four whip coral shrimpsDuring my most recent trip in Raja Ampat, unusually strong winds from the south prevented us from getting to a few of the sites we usually visit; however, it gave us opportunity to explore some rarely visited northern locations.  We headed to a small bay, not many miles south of the equator.  Here, as soon as we descended, there were great clouds of colonial pelagic tunicates, or salps.  This is unusual in itself, but these salps were accommodating an even more interesting companion.

Sea sapphires are yet another kind of copepod crustacean.  They’re often mistaken for falling fish scales in the blue water, but this iridescent shimmering is actually light reflected from the crystalline structures on their backs.  Only the males have this reflective surface, which is used to attract females that live inside the salps.  With so many salps in the area, there were a huge number of these sea sapphires too.  I found one that had a female and half a dozen male sea sapphires clustered within.  Since the males are usually free-swimming they had almost certainly entered the salp to mate.

Unusual Sightings

Cardinalfish with copepod parasiteRaja Ampat is so rich in terms of its marine life that it’s unsurprising to come across very rare and unusual crustaceans.  Over the years I’ve found harlequin and tiger shrimps, rarely seen cryptic sponge shrimps and thorny crinoid crabs amongst many others.  Recently my hunt for the giant clam shrimp was very fruitful and I saw quite a few of these scarcely photographed shrimps all around the region.  Obviously living in close association with giant clams, they are not at all easy to photograph.  Not only are they skittish and elusive, but their clam home is so sensitive to any localised water movement that is takes a great deal of patience and perseverance to find them.

These weren’t the only shrimps that I saw for the first time on this trip.  Another, the leopard anemone shrimp, is one that I’ve been hunting for years. As their name suggests, they live only on leopard anemones.  Stunning in their own right, these small colonial anemones are just a few centimetres in length themselves, so their tiny and amazingly well camouflaged shrimps are extraordinarily hard to find.  Thinking to myself, “Wouldn’t it be lovely if this anemone had one of those shrimps”.  I was shocked when it actually did.  Well, initially shocked but then I remembered I was in Raja Ampat where anything goes.

Links to Previous Blogs:

PART ONE | In Appreciation of Damsels

PART THREE |Sinister Hitchhikers

PART FOUR | The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

By Dr Richard Smith | Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com Science & Conservation Blog

BIOGRAPHY: Richard Smith, a British underwater photographer and writer, aspires to promote an appreciation for the ocean’s inhabitants and raise awareness of marine conservation issues through his images.  A marine biologist by training, Richard’s pioneering research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses, led to the first PhD on these enigmatic fishes.  Over the past decade, Richard’s photographs and marine life focused features have appeared in a wide variety of publications around the world. Richard leads expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment through marine biology lectures: www.OceanRealmImages.com | Facebook.com/OceanRealmImages

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT 1: In Appreciation of Damsels)

Bird’s Head Seascape – Natural History Notes (PT 1: In Appreciation of Damsels)

Damselfishes are a ubiquitous, but often overlooked, member of the Indo-Pacific reef fish community.  Around two hundred and fifty species, three quarters of the world’s damsels, are known to live in the Indo-West Pacific.  With the world’s highest marine biodiversity, where better to enjoy these fishes first hand than Raja Ampat?

Spawning blue green chromisDamselfishes are egg layers, most often laying their clutch on a pre-prepared nest site somewhere on the reef.  When their eggs hatch, the majority of species’ fry will immediately be swept off in the currents to disperse around the ocean.  Whilst the parents of these young fishes will never see the fruits of their reproductive endeavours, others raise young that never seem to leave home: the ‘Gen Y’ of the fish world. Over the past eleven days, I have been exploring the northern islands of Raja Ampat aboard Dewi Nusantara observing this unassuming group of fishes and their array of reproductive strategies.

Ecosystem Engineers

Many of us have had personal experience of a damselfish protecting its eggs.  Sergeant Majors, anemonefishes and golden damsels are amongst a few of the common damsels that will not hesitate to take on us bubble blowers, seemingly unperturbed by our comparatively massive size.  These demersal spawners, lay their eggs directly onto the substrate.  Sergeant Majors nest en masse, with dozens of individuals making a wasteland of a few square metres of the reef, laying their purplish spawn that they enthusiastically protect from marauders.  As such they are a kind of ecosystem engineer, altering the habitat for their own benefit but changing it for others too.

Spiny Chromis parent with frySpiny Chromis parent with frySwimming along a reef in northern Batanta Island, I came across a honeyhead damsel that had also strikingly altered its local environment.  Rather than denuding it to lay its eggs, it had encouraged verdant algal growth within the square metre or so of its territory that it enthusiastically warded me away from.  Like a disgruntled farmer it chased off any other creatures that tried to enter the confines of its little farmyard.  Within the allotment honeyheads farm filamentous algae, which act as their primary food source. Their agricultural proclivities, and the exclusion of other herbivores and corallivores, alter the composition of species within these plots.  By changing patches of the reef, these damsels are altering it for other species too. Their influences having a disproportionately large reach given their size.

Golden damsels on the other hand, usually lay their clutch of bright pink eggs on a whip coral or some other such protuberance coming off the reef.  You’ll often see the diligent parent tending to their clutch.  By aerating and removing infertile or spoiled eggs, they remove a reservoir of infection for others in the clutch.  Like the eggs of many fishes, the initially vivid fresh eggs soon become grey in colour as they mature and the fry develop within.  Just prior to hatching you can even see the reflective eyes of the tiny fish within.

Doting Parents

Juvenile spiny chromisOne of the more extreme parental investments of a damselfish is found in spiny chromis.  These inconspicuous damsels lay few large eggs, which both parents tend for an extended period until the relatively large fry hatch.  They are rare amongst reef fishes, in that the fry lack a pelagic larval stage and remain close to where they were born their entire life.  Although adults aren’t as protective of their fry as some other damsels, they keep an ever-watchful eye over the brood from hatching until they are quite large in size.  When small the fry are almost transparent, but take on a faint yellow stripe as they grow.  Adult spiny chromis have quite pointed fins and although variable in colour geographically, they are more often than not dark in colour, especially in the West Papua region.  Finally the youngsters darken to become miniature versions of their parents, and even at this late stage remain in a loose school casually overseen by their parents.

Changing Colours

A final quirk of damselfish reproduction, which for me makes them one of the most beautiful reef fish groups, is the diversity of their juvenile forms.  Adult black damsels, for instance, are midnight black in colour whereas their juveniles are almost indistinguishable as the same species.  They are unexpectedly white and bright yellow, with bluey black ventral and anal fins.  The leading theory for the dramatic change in colour or pattern from juvenile to adult in reef fishes is to reduce territorial aggression from adults.  If juveniles appear completely different, the adults are less likely to hound them out of their territory and the two can coexist amicably.

Damselfishes are a group that many divers seem to overlook.  I hope that I’ve convinced you to spare these unassuming fishes a thought on your next visit to the Bird’s Head. The more you learn about these abundant fishes the more fascinating they become, adding both to the diversity of the region and your diving experience.

Links to Previous Blogs:

PART TWO | Craving Cryptic Crustaceans

PART THREE |Sinister Hitchhikers

PART FOUR | The Pygmy Seahorses of Raja Ampat

PART FIVE | Raja Rarities

By Dr Richard Smith Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com Science & Conservation Blog

BIOGRAPHY: Richard Smith, a British underwater photographer and writer, aspires to promote an appreciation for the ocean’s inhabitants and raise awareness of marine conservation issues through his images.  A marine biologist by training, Richard’s pioneering research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses, led to the first PhD on these enigmatic fishes.  Over the past decade, Richard’s photographs and marine life focused features have appeared in a wide variety of publications around the world. Richard leads expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment through marine biology lectures:  www.OceanRealmImages.com | Facebook.com/OceanRealmImages