Cenderawasih Bay Exploration Aboard Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 1)

Cenderawasih Bay Exploration Aboard Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 1)

Having had two amazing trips in Raja Ampat, the time came for our expedition to Cenderawasih Bay aboard Dewi Nusantara.  This huge embayment, on the north coast of Papua, is famed for its whale sharks and large number of endemic species.  We began the 15 day trip in Sorong and first sailed past the east of Waigeo, then across to the north west coast of Papua and over the top of the Bird’s Head Peninsula before entering Cenderawasih Bay.  Once inside Cenderawasih we toured the western side of the bay all the way from Manokwari in the north west to the southern most area where the whale sharks are found.

Our adventure got off to a great start in the Kri area where we spent the first day getting our gills wet on some fantastic dives in the area.  The highlight was the return of the Oceanic mantas (Manta birostris) to the seamount Blue Magic.  I hadn’t yet seen any this year and apparently neither had the rest of the crew.  We were immediately greeted at the site by two mantas breaching, throwing their entire bodies clear of the water.  Underwater, at least six of these huge behemoths spent the whole dive with us and made repeated, very close passes.

With such a long trip we had the luxury of fitting a few land visits into the itinerary.  The first was sadly an unfruitful excursion in search of the elusive red Bird of Paradise (Paradisaea rubra), which is endemic to Waigeo and Batanta islands.  The walk was nonetheless lots of fun and we were privy to an astounding Papuan dawn chorus that alone was worth the 4 am start.

Luckily, our tour of Mayalibit Bay was a much greater success.  We, along with millions of gallons of water, entered and left through the narrow channel that is the only access to the bay.  The currents were like nothing I have ever seen before, the water was boiling and whirlpools appeared at random.  Inside the bay we saw cockatoos and hornbills flying overhead and investigated the many islands dotted around the southern part of the bay.  There was no chance of diving here as there is a healthy saltwater crocodile population resident in the bay.  The local marine park rangers told us how only the week before a villager had been taken by a croc whilst searching for sea cucumbers!

Cenderawasih Bay fairy wrasse, Cirhilabrus cenderawasih

Cenderawasih Bay fairy wrasse, Cirhilabrus cenderawasih

After some dives in the east of Waigeo we made the crossing to the mainland of Papua.  We stopped at Amsterdam Island just off the Bird’s Head Peninsula, where we dived at a site called Junkyard.  The site comprises small boats and barges from World War II, which were abandoned as the Americans were leaving the area 65 years ago.  This has now become a living reef, covered in corals and schooling fish.  The visibility was great and this helped us spotting eagle rays and barracudas, but we also came across some interesting macro subjects such as ghost pipefish.

The two morning dives at Junkyard were followed by an epic crossing over the top of the Bird’s Head to Manokwari.  Big swells rolled in from the north, which are often encountered at this time of year, and sadly prevented us from stopping off to see the nesting leatherback turtles on the Wermon beaches.  The crossing took the rest of the day and we arrived into Manokwari early the next morning.  Since diving in Cenderawasih is in its infancy, there is a great deal of governmental red tape and negotiations with the villages in order to dive.  On arrival in Manokwari, before we could dive, we had to check in with the village that owned the wrecks and reef.  We had to pay for the privilege, but we had a nice few dives in the harbour area.

These dives in Manokwari were our first taste of Cenderawasih Bay and acted as a changing of the guard between the usual reef fauna of Indonesia and the endemic fishes.  Here the longnose butterflyfish, Forcipiger longirostris, lives alongside the endemic Cenderawasih longnose butterflyfish, Forcipiger wanai, which was only described in 2012.  Here was also the first time I have ever seen the true Clown Anemonefish, Amphiprion percula, in Indonesia and certainly the first time where it is living on the same reefs as its close cousin the False Clown Anemonefish, Amphiprion ocellaris!  Cenderawasih acts as a buffer zone of western Pacific and Indonesian species.

Bagan fishermen attracting whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

Bagan fishermen attracting whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

Over the coming week, as we headed south within the Bay, we saw more and more of the endemic Cenderawasih fishes.  High on my list had been the Cenderawasih Fairy Wrasse, Cirrhilabrus cenderawasih, and although it took a few dives to find it, it was well worth the effort.  Eventually I found a few males and a harem of females between 25-30 metres depth where they remained in a small area.  The fish weren’t too timid so I was able to get as many shots as my bottom time allowed.  During the trip I saw eight of the fifteen endemic fishes.  Price’s damselfish, Chrysiptera pricei, Caitlin’s dottybacks, Pictichromis caitlinae, and the Walton’s Flasher Wrasse, Paracheilinus walton, were ubiquitous on reef dives.  My last remaining nemesis is the endemic Cenderawasih epaulette, or walking shark, Hemiscyllium galei.  I did manage to find one, very timid, individual on a night dive off Roon Island, but I wasn’t able to get a very good photo so this will definitely be a high priority on the next trip.

For many people the highlight and major draw card of Cenderawasih is the whale sharks, Rhincodon typus.  Since the 1940’s the floating Bagans, which are pontoons catching small fishes in very deep water, have attracted the sharks.  Since the discovery of this interaction by Western scientists in 2006, tourism has flourished and has become a staple on the few cruises that make it to this remote region.  The Bagan fishermen have, for many years now, been feeding the sharks with some of their catch, as the sharks are considered good luck.  Before the advent of tourism the sharks would accept their free snack and then head off at dawn.  Now, dive boats are able to buy some of the fishermen’s’ catch, which is given to the sharks over the next few hours.  The sharks stick around and we were able to experience an amazing encounter with the world’s largest fish!

Bagan fishermen attracting whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

Bagan fishermen attracting whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay

Like all diving in Cenderawasih, negotiations are required for diving to occur.  At 3 am Yann and the other guides were off searching for a Bagan with whale sharks present.  Having found one, they agreed on a price with the fishermen.  They then headed to the village to bargain for the chance to dive and snorkel within their jurisdiction.  Thankfully, all went smoothly and we were in the water with a 4.5 metre female whale shark by 7:30 am.  This female was joined by a larger male just under an hour later and over the next two mornings we spent at least 8 hours in the water, be it snorkelling or diving, with five different individuals.  It gave us plenty of opportunity to get the shots we wanted and have some amazing quality time with these amazing, harmless fish.

Given that this was a very different cruise from our usual Raja Ampat itinerary, I added a couple of new talks to my repertoire.  With our fantastic manta encounters as well as the whale sharks, I added ‘Giants of the Reef: Mantas and Whale Sharks’.  During the research stage of this talk, the more I read the more I was surprised about how little is known of whale shark biology.  We basically know nothing about their reproductive biology; where they mate, give birth or spend their formative years.  They appear to be born at between 50 and 90 cm, but only 19 animals less than 1.5 m in length have ever been seen!  We don’t even know what happens to adults when they leave the mass aggregation sites dotted around the world! It’s amazing how we know so little about the largest fish in the sea; it’s rather humbling in my opinion.

As always, I ran a photo competition for the guests, which was a lot of fun.  Madhavi was the winner of the behaviour category with her fantastic shot of ‘hugging’ whale sharks.  Normand won the favourite shot from the trip category with a juvenile Denise’s pygmy seahorse.

The other lecture I added this trip delved into the fascinating biology and evolutionary processes taking place in Cenderawasih Bay.  This will be the topic of my final blog, which should be posted in just over two weeks time, after we are back in Sorong.  In the meantime, check out my images from this trip by following this link and keep up to date via my Facebook page: www.Facebook.com/OceanRealmImages

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.

Gerry 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.

After 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!


As well as high fish counts, Mark and Gerry also documented 18 species whichhadn’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.

We 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 2013 (Trip 1)

Raja Ampat Aboard Dewi Nusantara 2013 (Trip 1)

After ten months away, I am pleased to find myself back in Raja Ampat, Indonesia on the stunning live aboard Dewi Nusantara.  It is often cited that this area has the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world: literally as you leave this region, in any direction, the number of species decreases.  As well as accommodating a huge variety of species, the reefs are also bustling with extraordinarily healthy fish populations.  For this reason Raja Ampat is a marine biologist’s panacea and the perfect spot for me to be conducting talks on the aquatic life found here.  The reefs truly are as nature intended.

It is great to be back on Dewi Nusantara catching up with the fantastic crew.  There are many of the same smiling faces and some new ones too.  The dive crew of Wendy (cruise director), Acho, Andre and Risko have been together for a number of years and between them have some of the best spotting eyes in the business.  The second in command, Yann, is on a well-earned holiday but will be back for our Cenderawasih adventures starting on the 10th February.  For our present trip guests came from four continents to join Dewi Nusantara and dive Raja Ampat, which truly is a testament to the boat, crew and the diving. 

Each trip has its standout moments, and we have been lucky to have a few this trip.  One very special encounter we had at the dive site ‘Mayhem’ was a blue-ringed octopus ménage-a-trois.  Mike, one of the guests from Central Coast Dive Center in Cincinatti, USA found the trio.  There were two males hitching a ride on the back of a rather perturbed female.  She flashed her bright blue rings whilst the two males clung to her back.  The local damselfish were rather unhappy about the presence of these predators and repeatedly slapped them with their tails before the female dragged the caravan into a small hole.

A couple of Dewi Nusantara's guests having a magic manta encounterAnother golden moment we had this trip was at Manta Sandy, near Arborek Island.  I have been to this site many times before and always had some manta action, but this trip was something special.  I counted eleven reef mantas (Manta alfredi) at one time coming in to be cleaned.  They didn’t seem concerned with us at all and repeatedly swam directly over our heads.  A couple had missing fin tips, several had crooked tails and one was missing both its cephalic fins.  These injuries indicate that the life of a manta isn’t an easy one.  Indeed, over the past decade the huge surge in demand for their gill rakers by the Traditional Chinese Medicine trade has had huge impacts on their populations.  Luckily in Raja Ampat they are protected, but clearly other dangers remain for these graceful beasts.

January’s weather in Raja Ampat can occasionally be slightly unsettled, with a westerly wind blowing up from time to time.  This had a slight impact on our itinerary but luckily there are so many brilliant dive sites it is always easy to reschedule.  This took us to some spots I hadn’t previously dived; including Yilliet Island where we saw a mammoth sized giant grouper.  Ordinarily these fish are one of the first to be targeted by fishermen, but thanks to the network of protected areas across Raja Ampat such fishes can still be seen here.  We estimated that the grouper was 5-6ft in length and was graciously accommodating several remoras and pilot fish.  Other new sites, that have become part of the regular itinerary in my absence, include Yeben Island and Bird Slope in Aljui.  There are so fantastic reefs in Raja Ampat that new ones are added all the time.  Yeben had fantastic hard coral gardens where napoleon wrasse, dogtooth tuna and rivers of fusileers wandered.  Aljui’s Bird Slope was a cornucopia of soft corals, gorgonians and whip corals all adorned with their associated creatures.

Scarlet painted frogfish taken whilst aboard Dewi NusantaraAs always, I conducted a series of talks during the trip about the marine life of Raja Ampat.  Especially popular was one of my new talks entitled ‘Critter Hunting: Tips on Finding Cryptic Critters’.  My goal is to help divers get more from their diving by teaching them more about the species and behaviours they see.  During this talk I explained about the different habitats on the reef and especially those that harbour communities of organisms all of their own.  For instance Crinoids play host to clingfish, squat lobsters, shrimps, crabs, ghost pipefish and even juvenile batfish.  By knowing where to look and what they might expect to find there the divers came back from the next dive with a long list of discoveries.  After the talk about my pygmy seahorse research there were also a number of guests finding their own pygmies.  Daz and Lysa became particularly adept at finding them and got some great shots to prove it!  At the end of the lecture series I organised a photo contest, just for fun (although with amazing prizes!).  Kara took the best overall photo with her shot of a three spot angelfish.  The best behaviour picture prize went to Marc for his shot of a manta soaring over the heads of Wendy and Acho.

As we pull into Sorong harbour, I will be sad to see the present group leave but consoled and excited by the forth coming conservation trip in support of Sea Sanctuaries.  I am very much looking forward to meeting Drs Gerry Allen and Mark Erdmann who will join us for the next eleven days.  These two men are world-renowned conservationists and marine biologists, as well as authors of many books including the recently published Reef Fishes of the East Indies.  Since joining Dewi at the beginning of this trip, has been my first opportunity to pour over this three-book tome.  The book has helped put a name to some of the fishes that I have been unable to identify over the years.  However, I’ve had to start writing down questions for Gerry and Mark that have cropped up during my readings!  There will be more about this trip in my next blog, so keep checking back or sign up for updates on the right hand side of this page.

A selection of images from the trip can be found in my Raja Ampat 2013 gallery, by following this link.  You can also read the trip report from my second trip aboard Dewi Nusantara by following this link.


Sport Diver UK February 2013 Article – Pelagian: Wakatobi & Beyond

Although I’m in Indonesia at the moment, through the wonders of the web I have been able to check out my new article in the February issue of Sport Diver magazine in the UK.  It is entitled ‘Pelagian: Wakatobi and beyond’, which is about the trip I made aboard Wakatobi Dive Resort’s live-aboard Pelagian in September last year.  It was a great trip where we saw plenty of amazing critters.  You can follow this link to the e-edition of the article.


Sport Diving Issue 156 – Komodo: Off the Beaten Track

I have just passed through Singapore, which gave me the opportunity to pick up a copy of the new Sport Diving magazine (issue 156), in which I have an article entitled ‘Komodo: Off the Beaten Track’.

This piece is about the trip I made with Graham Abbott, of Diving 4 Images, and Yann Alfian, a good friend of mine and fantastic dive guide.  Graham organised for us a small and slightly ramshackle boat but which was able to take us to new and rarely dived sites around the southern Komodo National Park.  It was a great trip so have a read of it below!

Attachment: Komodo Off the Beaten Track.pdf


Sport Diving Magazine issue 155 Article – Mid Atlantic Whaling

I’m always excited when the postman delivers the new issue of Sport Diving magazine all the way from Australia.  The new issue (155) landed on my hall floor a couple of days ago and contains my article ‘Mid Atlantic Whaling’, which is about the trip I made last July to the Azores Islands, 1600 km west of Portugal.

This was the trip of a lifetime.  I had always dreamt of swimming with a sperm whale but never imagined I would end up in arms reach of one!!  Anyway, the article link is below so check it out!

Attachment: Sperm Whale Article.pdf