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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- New Zealand Pygmy Pipehorse (New genus and species!) – Northern North Island, New Zealand
- Renny’s Flasher Wrasse (Paracheilinus rennyae) – Komodo, Indonesia
- Jamal’s Dottyback (Manonichthys jamali) – Triton Bay, Indonesia
- Tunicate Amphipod (Leucothoe sp.) – Raja Ampat, Indonesia
- 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
I really don’t know what happened to 2015, but what a great years it’s been! There have been lots of amazing expeditions, creatures and publications to my name. I hope you’ve all had a brilliant 2015 and looking forward to 2016 and beyond. Here’s is a little run down of what I’ve been up to over the past 6 months:
Apart from some non-group expeditions, in the six months since my last blog I’ve run trips to Atlantis Dumaguete Resort and aboard Atlantis’ Azores liveaboard around Cebu Island in the Philippines. Most of the guests joined us for the entire 18 days and we saw such amazing creatures as 18 seahorses on one dive, 11 frogfishes on another, thresher sharks, whale sharks, Lembeh seadragons (Kyonemichthys rumengani) plus many more. As always, we donated some of the proceeds from the trip to a conservation organisation. In this case we chose the Marine Megafauna Foundation, who strive to protect the world’s biggest marine fishes.
Just recently also I completed a trip aboard the Bilikiki in the Solomon Islands. I am always blown away by the remoteness of the Solomons. The reefs are pristine and full of life, whilst on land, we went to a village that had never been visited by foreigners in the 60 years since it was founded. I can’t imagine that’s true of many places in the world these days. My underwater highlight was certainly Lynne’s pipefish (Festucalex rufus), which I have been looking for for sometime but had never seen before.
I have recently added four brand new expeditions to the 2018 roster. I know this seems terribly far away, but time flies! Our 2016 is basically full and 2017 is going the same way, so we figured it was time. There are more details about trips below, alternatively keep an eye on my website, which I keep up to date: OceanRealmImages.com/Expeditions
2016 | I’ve been very fortunate with my trips filling up very quickly and there are only a couple of spots remaining to join my expeditions in 2016. These last spaces are on the trip I’m leading for Dive Worldwide to Atmosphere Resort, Dumaguete in the Philippines. To read more about this expert led ‘Dumaguete Dive Festival‘ please follow the link above or contact Reservations@DiveWorldwide.com
2-12th March 2017 (10 nights) | All of Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. Indo-Siren Liveaboard. ‘Four Kings Expedition‘ as an expert led group tour for Dive Worldwide. For more information please follow the link
above or contact Reservations@DiveWorldwide.com
23rd June – 3rd July 2017 (10 nights) | Underwater Photography Workshop at Siladen Resort, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. For more information please follow the link above or contact Ana@Siladen.com
NEW | 22 – 31st August 2017 (9 nights) | Muck Magic Trip 1 – Sangeang Island & Bima Bay aboard Damai II (Labuan Bajo to Bima). This ‘Our Beloved Seas’ trip is a joint trip between Wendy Brown and myself. We have recently added this and the trip directly following it, but the second trip filled in minutes! If you’d like to join us in these exceedingly rich and rarely visited areas for critter hunting please contact Wendy or myself(Richard@OceanRealmImages.com) for more information. We expect space to fill fast.
NEW | Galapagos Islands aboard Galapagos Sky
25th February – 4th March 2018 (7 nights) | Trip 1
4-11th March 2018 (7 nights) | Trip 2
Wendy and I have repeatedly been asked by our guests to plan some trips to destinations outside the Coral Triangle. However, knowing how our regular guests love that area’s warm waters we have planned back to back trips to the Galapagos Islands in February/March when the waters of these mystical and historic islands tends to be warmer and clearer – whilst maintaining their renowned bounty. As always, I’ll be giving talks and this will be the perfect place to share my passion for evolutionary biology, which was the subject of my Master’s degree.
NEW | 23rd July – 1st August 2018 (9 nights) | North Cenderawasih Bay & Mapia Island aboard Dewi Nusantara(Manokwari to Manokwari). This first trip aboard Dewi Nusantara will take us to new ground. Whilst we will start and end the trip in Cenderawasih Bay, we will take this opportunity to visit Mapia and its surrounding islands 100NM north of the bay, and the equator. Here the remote and very rarely visited reefs are bustling with life and ripe to be explored.
NEW | 3 – 13th August 2018 (10 nights) | Classic Cenderawasih Bay aboard Dewi Nusantara (Manokwari to Sorong). Starting in Manokwari, we will sail to the southern reaches of the bay in search of the area’s world renowned whale sharks. We plan to spend a couple of mornings face to face with the sharks before continuing our search for other amazing fishes found only in the bay. It is well know for the high numbers of endemics, which you’ll learn all about in my talks!
I haven’t only been underwater since my last update; I’ve been busy writing too. I’ve continued with my regular series in both American and British Sport Diver Magazines, with ‘Get More from your Diving: Critter Hunting’ and ‘Species’ respectively. I’ve also written the following stand-alone features:
‘Titillating Twilight – The Lure of North Sulawesi’ – Asian Diver
‘A Japanese Spin on the Night Dive – Hot Ke Night’ – Asian Diver
‘Changing Seas: Evolution in the Ocean’ – Scuba Diver AustralAsia
‘Solomon Islands: Reefs at the Edge of the World’ – Scuba Diver – Ocean Planet
‘Shooting for Science’ – Scuba Diver – Ocean Planet
‘Diving Mini Breaks: Australia’ – Sport Diving
‘Diving Mini Breaks: South Pacific’ – Sport Diving
‘Bird’s Head Natural History Notes part 1: In Appreciation of Damsels’ – Bird’s Head Seascape website. A new series about my adventures in the BHS.
I’ve also had a couple of cover shots for Asian Diver and Sport Diving magazines as well as having my shot ‘Whip Gobies and Eggs’ judged as a finalist in the ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year.
Thinking ahead, I will also be speaking at the ADEX dive show in Singapore from 15-17 April 2016, so come along if you can!
Five Favourite Firsts of 2015
– 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 2015. After 3,000 plus dives there’s still so much to see. This is why I keep diving and we always donate what we can to help preserve the amazing oceans.
1. Leopard Anemone Shrimp (Izucaris masudai) – Raja Ampat
2. Giant Clam Shrimps (Anchistus demani and Conchodytes tridacnae) – Wakatobi Dive Resort & Raja Ampat
3. Lynne’s Pipefish (Festucalex rufus) – Solomon Islands
4. Red Sea Longnose Filefish (Oxymonacanthus halli) – Egyptian Red Sea
5. John Dory (Zeus faber) – Izu Peninsula, Japan
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
I have just returned to Sorong, after another fantastic trip aboard the beautiful Dewi Nusantara around northern Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. This was the first of Paul Humann, Ned and Anna DeLoach’s two charters,
so, as you might expect, we have been excitedly looking for all manner of weird and wonderful sea creatures – I’ve been in my element!
My highlights for this trip included snorkelling with an inquisitive dugong (Dugong dugon) in northern Batanta Island, observing and photographing my first baby Pewter angelfish (Chaetodontoplus dimidiatus) in Aljui Bay in northern Waigeo and seeing a tiny newborn tasselled wobbegong shark (Eucrossorhinus dasypogon) back in Batanata.
It struck me that the words ‘wobbegong’ and ‘dugong’ must have a similar derivation, so I contacted my dear friend, and wobbe-botherer, Jo Stead to clear up the origin of the shark’s name. Apparently, ‘Wobbegong’ means ‘bearded fish’ in an aboriginal Australian language. I need to do more research, but I imagine ‘dugong’ must also mean ‘something-fish’. In any case, the dugong was my first ever in-water experience with these elusive mammals. I went snorkelling with one of the trip’s guests, Holmes. Something caught my eye, I looked into the distance and the dugong came towards us. It circled several meters below us before swimming off after what seemed like hours, but was more likely tens of seconds to a minute.
No less exciting, was the baby wobbegong shark. It was so small it would have fit in the palm of my hand. Wobbegongs are live-born, and resemble miniature versions of their parents on birth. It sat motionless in the centre of a vase sponge, waiting for some prey to happen past it. The baby pewter angel was also a great sighting. These fish are found only at scattered locations of northeast Indonesia, and it seems that relatively few images exist of the adults, let alone the juveniles too.
Whilst you may have heard about the impending global coral bleaching event that is being tracked by NOAA scientists, I am happy to report that I have made no observations, as yet, of coral bleaching from Raja Ampat. Coral bleaching events, such as the massive one in 1998 that killed 16% of the world’s hard corals, are a result of the El Niño phenomenon and are a very real threat to the coral reefs of the world. Although fine at the moment, the warming waters that cause bleaching are forecast to spread over the coming months, so we will have to wait and see how the world’s reefs fare with this onslaught. Check out this link to read more about the present global bleaching event forecast – it’s a sobering read.
Funnily enough, Raja Ampat has been facing the opposite effect recently. We have experienced relentless and unseasonal south winds with unexpectedly cool waters for this time of year. Usually 28-29˚C, we have had at least 2-3˚C degrees less than this at several of the sites we’ve dived. Luckily, we planned to stay north for this trip and have enjoyed stunning visibility in the Dampier Strait and been able to dive in some areas of north Waigeo, which are usually inaccessible. We’re already very excited about the next trip, which promises some exciting diving as ever!
If you’d like to see some more of my images from the trip, please check out my gallery HERE.
Originally written for BirdsHeadSeascape.com, and based on this trip, I wrote about my recent rekindled interest in damselfishes for their blog ‘Bird’s Head Natural History Notes: In Appreciation of Damsels‘. You can read this on the fantastic BHS website by following this link (coming soon) or read below. The BHS is an online collective, funded in part by Conservation International (one of the beneficiaries from our own ‘Our Beloved Seas’ trip donations – OceanRealmImages.com/Expeditions). They aim to spread the word about the amazing area that is Raja Ampat and inspire the important region’s conservation. Check out their website for a mine of information about West Papua and the Bird’s Head Seascape.
BIRD’S HEAD SEASCAPE – SCIENCE/CONSERVATION BLOG
Bird’s Head Natural History Notes: In Appreciation of Damsels
By Dr Richard Smith – www.OceanRealmImages.com
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?
Damselfishes 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.
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.
Swimming 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.
One 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.
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.
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
An update is long overdue but I’ve fallen sadly behind on blogs of my travels, publications and exciting marine life finds of late. There’s a lot to catch up on here at Ocean Realm Images!
Since my last blog, I’ve completed several more successful trips as group leader; both alone and with Wendy Brown as ‘Our Beloved Seas’ trips. The trips have included Tubbataha and Dumaguete in the Philippines, Alor, Wetar and Wakatobi in Indonesia and most recently Northern Raja Ampat (follow links above to galleries and trip reports). We saw some amazing marine life living where it shouldn’t (The thinline wobbegong shark (Orectolobus leptolineatus) in Alor and the mimic jawfish (Stalix sp) in Dumaguete) and several firsts for me – including species for which very few sightings have ever occurred (Humann’s fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus humanni), new species of flasher wrasse in Alor (Paracheilinus sp.), soft coral pipefish (Siokunichthys breviceps) and harlequin grouper (Cephalopholis polleni)).
Wendy and I are very pleased that so far from our three trips, we’ve been able to pass some of the proceeds to conservation efforts specific to the regions we’ve visited. So far we’ve donated $1500 to help the amazing work of the conservation charities Save Our Seas Foundation and Conservation International. We both think it’s hugely important that we give something back to preserve the oceans that we love so much. We hope you agree!
There are lots of exciting expeditions in the pipeline too. I have a number of charters coming up this year and all the way through to 2017 (I’ve even started plotting 2018!). We can still accommodate a few people on trips this year; including the land portion of a trip to Atlantis Dumaguete Resort in the Philippines and in the Solomons too, so do contact me if you’re interested. Follow the links below for more details or check out my expeditions page here https://oceanrealmimages.com/
I have also started a new and exciting venture with Dive Worldwide, a UK based diving company for whom I will start leading trips as of February 2016. I recently gave a talk about our upcoming Philippines trip at London’s Russell Square Hotel. The talk went very well, and it was apparently the best attendance they’ve had. It was great to meet some of the folk who have already signed up and those who since have. Keep your eyes peeled on my social media (Facebook and Twitter) for details of my next talk with them, which is currently in the planning stage.
Upcoming trips (with spaces):
12-21st September 2015 | Philippines | Land-based stay at Atlantis Dumaguete Resort.
12-22nd December 2015 | Solomon Islands | Live-aboard trip on Bilikiki.
21st February – 2nd March 2016 | Philippines | Trip with Dive Worldwide to Atmosphere Resort, Dumaguete.
18-29th March 2017 | Indonesia | Trip to Triton Bay aboard Dewi Nusantara. Only one cabin remaining.
I’ve been extremely busy writing for various publications around the world. Since my last update, I have begun writing a regular monthly column for Sport Diver magazine in the US, called ‘Species’, which has so far covered: Crinoids, Goliath Groupers, Caribbean Spiny Lobster, Sea Stars and Whale Sharks. I also completed my five part series in British Sport Diver magazine ‘Photographing Behaviour’, and have now begun a new series ‘Critter Hunting’. I’ve also had a series ‘Mini Breaks’ in Sport Diving magazine and a couple of cover shots with them too. In addition to those regular features, I’ve also had pieces in Wild Travel magazine, Action Asia, Depth Magazine, Aquanaut, Silent World, X-Ray magazine, Diver, Dive! I’ve been busy to say the least!
Ocean Realm Images…and Films
Finally, if you like moving images, I have recently started shooting HD video with my D800 SLR camera. The first video that I’ve put together is now up on my YouTube channel ‘Diving The World’s Richest Reefs – Raja Ampat, Indonesia‘. Check out the link and I hope you enjoy it.
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.
I’m just back from another fantastic charter aboard Dewi Nusantara, around some of Indonesia’s best dive spots. Like the previous trip, we visited some of our favourite sites in Alor but this time we then headed north to finish up in the Wakatobi chain of islands. I have a long history with Wakatobi and was very excited to be back diving the area’s fantastic reefs.
OUR BELOVED SEAS
If you missed my last trip report, I ran this and the previous charter as part of a new venture alongside Wendy Brown. Together, Wendy and I make up ‘Our Beloved Seas’, leading scuba diving expeditions for divers interested in learning more about marine life and exploring some of the best dives the oceans have to offer. Wendy has spent the last decade diving around Indonesia, firstly with Wakatobi Dive Resort and then as cruise director of Dewi Nusantara. With unrivalled knowledge of the country’s dive sites, she gets us to the best places to explore the region’s diversity. Meanwhile, I give marine life talks so our guests can learn about the amazing creatures and ecosystems we encounter along the way whilst also hunting for rare, strange and endemic fishes (those on my previous trips will know how much I love an endemic, or indigenous creature). Together our knowledge and experiences place our guests in the best locations to experience some of the world’s best diving.
Wendy and I are both passionate conservationists, and for each of our trips we donate a percentage of the proceeds to a different conservation organisation. For these two trips we chose to support ‘Save our Seas Foundation’, who do fantastic work through the funding of conservation, education and research projects around the world. In the Coral Triangle region they fund projects that work to reduce destructive fishing techniques, as well as the protection of marine megafauna such as sharks, turtles and mantas. More specifically, around Indonesia they have a major project conserving and researching the magnificent manta ray and the fisheries targeting them in Bali, Komodo and Raja Ampat. If you’re interested learning more about them, please visit www.SaveOurSeas.com.
After an all too long hiatus from diving in Alor, which until this year I hadn’t visited since 2008, I was pleased to be back for the fourth time in six months! I’m a firm believer that the more you dive a site, atoll, island or country the more you get out of it and the more you ultimately see. Even after so many repeated visits to Alor, we still saw plenty of new critters and behaviours to get excited about on this fourth trip.
My favourite fish from the Alor area is definitely the stunning Humann’s fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus humanni). Despite an exhaustive search, and being blessed with the humanni eye, I couldn’t find this little beauty on the previous trip. Thankfully, within two minutes of descending on a dive in the Pantar Strait, I spotted a displaying male. These fish are one of the most challenging to photograph that I’ve ever encountered. Unlike many other male fairy wrasses, the Humann’s doesn’t display only in the water column above his small harem. Instead, he dashes around the reef, swimming many metres from one female to another in a matter of seconds. Reaching a maximum length of 7 cm only compounds the difficulty in spotting and photographing the elusive fish. My technique to point him out to the guests was call and grunt my signature noise as loudly as I could and continually point at him as he sped around. I couldn’t take my eyes off him for even one second for fear of loosing him amongst the throngs of Javanese fairy and various flasher wrasses. Several people did manage to pick him out from the crowd, but his similarity to the more abundant Javanese fairy wrasses wasn’t helpful.
As the rest of the group headed off in search of Rhinopias, I spent the rest of the dive attempting the photograph the Humann’s. After half an hour I’d finally figured out that my best bet was to stalk the cleaning station that he visited every ten minutes or so and hope to capture an image there. After a couple of frustrating missed shots, I waited another twenty minutes and got the shot I was after during one of his ablution stops. I was very happy with the shot, although sad to have missed the Rhinopias that the others found.
THE VOLCANO’S ROAR
After a few days around Alor it was time to begin our journey north towards Wakatobi. However, we were first due a stop at the volcano of Kumba, which was located perfectly en route. Every one of the four visits I’ve made to the volcano has been different. Some have had more boom, others were smokier, but this time there was much more lava than previously. We arrived at the remote volcano just as a great cloud of smoke bellowed from the top of the island. As the sun set, ambient light gave way to a glow from the crater. Every fifteen to twenty minutes glowing embers of lava were sent flying from within, followed by an ear splitting resonant boom. Some lava was sent so high it cleared the crater and started a fire on a hill the other side. This must be relatively frequent an occurrence, since a clearly defined tree line was visible where nothing but dead trunks remained.
The last eruption before we went on our way, gave the greatest show. Being pitch dark by this point we could hardly make out the plumes of smoke, but couldn’t miss the noise of the eruption. This was easily the most dazzling eruption I’ve seen so far. Glowing lava covered the slopes behind the crater and rivers of smouldering boulders tumbled down the hill towards the ocean. When they eventually reached the water in an enormous splash, you could hear the crack of cool water being vaporised by the intense heat of the rocks.
RETURN TO WAKATOBI
I have a long history with the Wakatobi region. I initially visited the area in 1998, on my first ever trip to Indonesia, where I spent four months volunteering for a conservation organisation cataloguing the nudibranch (sea slug) species diversity. Ten years on and I spent six months at Wakatobi Dive Resort for much of the fieldwork for my PhD research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses. With additional dive trips in between I’ve spent almost a year exploring this biologically rich region and was very excited to be heading back again.
I always find that each area I visit has certain characteristic creatures that are unusually common or memorable. There are several of these around Wakatobi (apart from the pygmies obviously) and one of my favourites is the halimeda ghost pipefish. On arrival in the Wakatobi region our first stop was at Binongko Island, which I had never visited before. After my initial shock at the 24˚C water, I was quickly distracted by a pair of these lime green syngnathids that I had found living in a patch of algae. The male looked to have recently settled from its planktonic stage, still possessing long filaments on the dorsal fin. Both the male and female however were covered in the lovely red filaments that make these fish so photogenic.
BUTON MUCK DIVING
Over the coming days we revisited the favourite reefs of myself, Wendy and Yann around Wakatobi Dive Resort. After this we headed to our final destination of the trip, the large bay around Pasarwajo on the island of Buton, just off the southeastern Sulawesi mainland. This area is well known for its muck diving and we were all excited to be back on the typical sandy slopes of this kind of diving. We visited the famous sites of Cheeky Beach, Asphalt Pier, New Pier and Mandarin Pier with outstanding sightings.
Cheeky Beach in particular was absolutely on fire. The list of treasures from all the guests, Wendy, the four guides and myself was amazing, and definitely rivalled Lembeh Strait in richness. The most unexpected find was a stunning little paddle-flap scorpionfish (Rhinopias eschmeyeri) hidden amongst the orange algae. In addition, we had many wish-list critters including blue-ring and poison ocellate octopus, Coleman shrimp, various ghost pipefishes, seahorses, seamoths and a Spanish dancer nudibranch. This list isn’t even doing the amazing biodiversity full justice. It was fantastic to finish the Our Beloved Seas trips on such a high note!
A HAPPY ENDING
The last night is always a double-edged sword, having the fun photo share but also the ominous spectre of packing. We had an exceedingly high calibre of submissions in the photo share on this trip, and I was really pleased to see so many behaviour shots. Behaviour shots are always my favourite, which is why one of my talks is dedicated to them. The popular vote was again very tight, but ultimately it was a full house for David Dempsey who again took home the prize for the best shot. He had a stunning image of a scorpionfish eating a shrimp taken at night in Beangabang Bay (I’m still kicking myself for missing that dive, I should have known better!).
The first ever Our Beloved Seas trips were a fantastic success. Thanks to everyone for making them so brilliant. Both Wendy and I are very excited for the trips we have planned over the next couple of years. Our upcoming trips are filling extremely quickly, with just a single male share cabin remaining until 2016! If you’d like to see some of the expeditions available in the future, check out my website’s expeditions page | www.OceanRealmImages.com/expeditions
You can also follow me on facebook | www.facebook.com/OceanRealmImages
Both Wendy and I are also on twitter | rich_underwater | OurBelovedSeas
To see some of my images from the trip, please follow this link to my Alor to Wakatobi | August 2014 album.
FOLLOW UP FROM MY LAST TRIP REPORT | In my previous blog, I posted a shot of the wobbegong shark we found and were unable to identify. I contacted a friend who specialises in wobbegongs and who’s described a couple of southeast Asian species himself. He believes our shark from Alor is Orectolobus leptolineatus, which he described in 2010, and if so, it is one of only a few live examples ever seen and photographed. We seem to have made a habit of seeing super-rare creatures on our trip. This was certainly the aim of the ‘Our Beloved Seas’ union and long may it continue through working together, in addition to conserving these amazing oceans of ours.