Dec 092011
 

Diving 4 Images Newsletter, 09 December 2011
I seem to be having great luck recently, on each trip not only have we been finding new species but also finding things out of place. This was the case during a dive on Bag island in the Raja Ampat recently.

Convict FishThe currents were roaring and the swell was unpleasantly large at the planned dive site. Knowing my group very well from plenty of previous adventure dive trips I knew they would have keel-hauled me for putting them into such strong currents. I opted for a nice easy dive on a reef slope I had previously checked out on Southern Bag Island rather than one of the smaller islands. The reef itself looked fair for critter hunting; there were some great patches of hard coral in the shallows going down to scattered bommies with a variety of invertebrate growth with some great lettuce coral formations and lots of sandy patches in between. The reef turned out to be pretty good too. As we dived further along the reef we happened upon a few awesome features such as reef spurs that jutted out from the main reef slope with mini walls and deep overhangs filled with colorful soft corals. We were going really slowly as critter life was giving us enough to keep a slow pace and the fish life wasn’t bad either, we saw a black tip shark cruise by fairly close too.

We were almost an hour into the dive at less than 10 meters when I noticed a very interesting looking black eel below me. Well, that is what it looked like at a very quick glance. All of a sudden I became aware of what it really was. This was no eel, this was a really elusive fish, a fish that divers can search for for years and never spot. Scientists, biologists, marine life enthusiasts and dive guides all over the Asia-Pacific have sought out these really mysterious fish. I know about major dive expeditions that have gone in search of this very fish and still only had the odd lucky glimpse of its head. There have been TV documentaries and National Geographic stories written about these fish and yet they are still an enigma and very little known is about them. I’ve personally only seen the head of this fish a couple of times, popping out its hole.

The fish that we had the privilege to encounter was an adult Convict Fish, Pholidichthys leucotaenia, one of the most mysterious fish on the planet.  Whilst this fish is one of the most elusive and mysterious species know to marine biologists, it would be wrong to call it ‘rare’. It’s common to see the juveniles on reefs and at times we can see literally thousands of them, large social schools resembling juvenile catfish, swarming over the substrate like an army of aquatic ants. But then, as they reach maturity, they just disappear…thousands of juveniles and no adults! A mystery indeed!

Its only in the last few years that a few pieces of the jigsaw that make up the life of the Convict Fish have been pieced together. The adult constructs a series of burrows covering as much as six meters, which it rarely (if ever) leaves. Most divers consider themselves lucky to see the head of an adult as it pokes out of its hole, spitting sand and debris from its burrow. How they mate and what they eat are still missing pieces of the puzzle, though an interesting theory has been proposed to explain how the fish can grow to two-feet long seemingly without feeding. During the day the juveniles swim free across the reef but at night they return to the burrow, a unique trait for a fish. A study on Convict Fish observed adults holding juveniles in their mouths and the current theory is that the young bring food back for their parents, but at the moment this remains a unproven theory. If the theory proves correct it will be another trait unique to this amazing species. It’s not even clear which taxanomic group the fish belongs to, though often refered to as the Convict Blennie it’s certainly not a blennie and DNA testing has so far proved inconclusive.

Adult Convict Fish are rarely seen, never mind photographed, so it was with trembling fingers that I lined up my camera. Not being the best shooter in the world it took me a few shots to get my settings and exposures close enough, but I knew I had to get a few full body shots and a close up of this weird face. Luck was on my side as the fish was not shy and didn’t spook as I got closer. We even managed to witness some very interesting behaviour too. It was assumed that living in burrows would result in this species having poor eyesight but this didn’t prove to be the case. While observing it’s movements it became apparent that the fish has an amazing sense of what is in front of it, it never banged into anything, as it neared the reef it would come to a quick stop, pause then change direction. A few times when diver and camera was placed in front of it we even watched as it swam perfectly backwards slithering its long slender body in reverse.

What a great pleasure it was to witness this first hand; if only we had someone shooting film with a decent high-definition camera, this was perfectNational Geographic material here!

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 Posted by at 03:56
Dec 022011
 

In September and October 2011 Diving 4 Images ran a trip to Komodo and Flores searching for nudibranchs, though just about every wish critter pops up on these too. This is the third nudibranch special we have run and they are becoming increasingly popular; previous expeditions had resulted in species counts of 223 and 301 and our group of ultra-keen nudi lovers were optimistic that we could do even better this time around, especially as we were joined by nudibranch expert and author Alicia Hermosillo.
How did they do? Here is Graham’s trip report…

A slow start as we lost a day, airline issues meant quite a few liveaboards missed a day, but I knew we could make this up with outstanding diving and plenty of new species.

In fact the late start wasn’t all that bad; I took the group to a little spot on an island north of Labuan Bajo with good visibility and a pretty reef with the full range of coral growth and even some decent fish life. After the first day the list wasn’t too shabby, considering the location, we had 37 species of opistobranch and even a few unknown species.

I had decided to start the group off on one of the best islands in Indonesia for opistobranchs; Sangeang Island on the north coast of Sumbawa was to be our first stop. The first day on this island and we had another 79 species to add to the list and we hadn’t been to the killer sites yet either. This meant on our second day of diving we already had over a hundred species, not bad by any means! Quite a few of the species we were finding on this island were new to Alicia who has been here previously and spent quite a lot time Asia, mainly in the Philippines and Papua New Guinea but also in Bali and Komodo on a previous trip!

We were not only finding slugs, we had quite a frogfishes and ghost pipefishes, a hairy octopus, different species of long armed octopus, boxer crabs, plenty of saron shrimps and even the odd big fish sighting, a big thorny back stingray and a school of about 20 or so bumped parrotfish. The reefs were pretty good too, really beautiful diving in fact.

By the end of the third day we had just over two hundred species and still every dive saw more added to the list. Funny thing was we still had quite a few of the more common species that we hadn’t come across, which meant we had lots more to search for. I knew we were going to find many of these more common species later as it’s a matter of diving on a different variety of habitats in order to find certain species.

We had been finding nudibranchs not stop and it was hard to leave this amazing island. When we did eventually get into Bima, a place where I was after a few different species in a different habitat, not only did we find a few other species not found on too many other sites but also we found mimic octopus, shaggy frogfish (A. hispidus) and a few different species of other frogfishes from the gorgeous and colourful tiny juveniles to the giant Commersons. I always like to try my best fulfill everyone’s wish list when they join trips and I’d found out that there were quite a few divers had species other than nudibranchs on their wish list – such a shame – hehehe! The main things people wanted were harlequin shrimps, Coleman shrimps and boxer crabs. We had 2 different species of boxer crabs including a species that has yet to be named and lots of the more common Lybia tessellata. The harlequin shrimps showed up as usual along with Coleman shrimps, there were also thorny seahorses and a bunch of other cool photographic animals. So in all we had a very happy group of critter hunters indeed by the time we left Bima.

Okenia cf. rhinorna, Photo by Anouk Houben
Okenia cf. rhinorna, Photo by Anouk Houben

Our next aim was to head down into Horseshoe Bay, sadly conditions weren’t favorable and tides wouldn’t be in our favor either. I opted to stay safe, dive a few sites in the straits between Komodo and Flores, and then spend more time diving around Padar island. This is by no means a big issue as Padar in itself is one amazing dive area with fantastic invertebrate life, great fish life, outstanding topographic features and of course chances of even more new species to add to our list. Entering Padar our nudi count was already very close to 300 species. The 3rd dusk dive wasn’t so rich for nudibranchs so I chose another unknown spot that looked great for critters and outstanding macro life, with chances of other surprise critter showing up too. Sure enough we found about another 5 species to take us over 300. There was one hilarious moment as a huge bamboo shark went right by in front of my face as I was searching for tiny critters, it shocked me, but knowing the markings of this shark I had no problem with it. I signaled to the others and Kirman, our other dive guide in the water, looked up to show people his cool nudibranch find only to have a 6 foot shark right in his face, he forgot all about the nudibranchs in a hurry as I watched him try to fin backwards as fast as he could with arms raised and me laughing so hard I flooded my mask. We had a great giggle about this back on the dive deck. The funny thing was it was only a very placid brown bamboo shark!

We managed to time 3 Sisters at a slack enough time to hunt nudibranchs without too much current or surge. I’ve always found a few cool species here but this time it was hot… really hot…we got lots of really cool species for this super keen group of hardcore branchers. The next three dives were on one of my special sites called Taman Rahasia (Secret Garden). This one I found back around 2002 when I started my own charters and had more chance to explore the spots I’d always wanted to. Since then I’ve taken numerous divers here and we’ve had regular manta and mobula rays here, often sharks, rays, good fish life and great variety of fish, not only good fish and critter life there is a gorgeous mini wall with fantastic coral growth, black coral bushes, colorful soft corals, and a huge variety of invertebrates. Here we saw a few new species of nudibranch along with schools of mobula rays, thorny seahorses, xenia shrimps & crabs and a few lucky divers saw a wonderpuss and we found the 3rd species of boxer crab we had yet to find Lybia cestifera. As it wasn’t as hot as usual for nudibranchs I moved the night dive to another spot and we ended up with a bunch more nudibranchs, they just keep comin’!

Our next day was set aside for some adventurous exploratory diving on northern Flores and day one started with an amazing muck dive. I’d checked out a spot that looked very interesting from the topside topography and sure enough on my few minutes check out dive the habitat showed enough interesting features to make a very worthy site. I asked the crew what the local name meant and they told me that in the local language the translation meant crazy beach, only in the local twang if sound like they said crazy bitch, to me that sounded much better so the name came Crazy Beatch and it turned out to be an amazing site with lots of long arm octopus species, a huge stonefish, ornate and robust ghost pipefishes, five more nudibranch species to add our list including two unknown species.

Siphopteron sp – Photo by Alicia Hermosillo

So, we had 345 species going into our last dive of trip one. We all had great determination and Alicia was so keen to make it up to 350 for this trip, the search was on. I chose a site where I knew there were usually plenty of marionia species and often a species of nudibranch that can often be found eating marionia, the gymnodoris aurita which was yet to go on the list. A slight current came up just after we entered and sadly what often happens is that when the current comes nudibranchs go into hiding. There were still some to be found, like tiny syphonopteron including a new one unknown to us. Then as the current subsided, low and beyond all the marionia came out, including one we hadn’t seen. Then, another very cool animal, a non nudibranch, so I didn’t bother to show Alicia, I did however get excited enough to made sure the other divers saw this cool critter. What I find interesting is that I’ve been seeing these little bizarre shrimps for quite some time on trips all round Indonesia, though recently it was the biggest and most talked about critter in Lembeh when I was there earlier this year and now it seems to be another wish list critter that photographers often ask for. The common name we call it over here is the hairy shrimp, which was until recently was not easily found in any regular identification books.
After this dive Ali went to work totting up our total and going through photo’s we were still two short of 350, until the next day when Ali had a little more between trips to go through more unknown nudibranch images from the group and sure enough another couple of nudibranchs showed up that brought us to a grand total of 350 for trip one.

The aim was on to now get over 400 species and this was no easy task as we had already found so many. I had a good feeling about it though as on my previous trips through this area I’d found a few new sites that were really rich for nudibranchs, but as the Zenmaster said “we’ll see”.

At the start of the trip I offered diving under the jetty for those waiting for the other divers joining the next leg of this expedition. First of all I had to spend a little while chatting with the guys on the navy boat to get permission to dive under the jetty and it was all ok to dive there. The jetty wasn’t as hot it used to be but sure enough there were a few more species to add to the never-ending list we were building. I met the other divers, called the skipper to prepare to leave. As soon as we were onboard we were on our way east of Maumere for some black sand muck diving. We arrived for a night dive which came up with only a couple of species, but the next day the sand and seagrass area went off. There were hoppers everywhere, this is Ali’s name for the Syphopterons, we had about four or five different species of these beautifully colored butterfly like opistobranchs along with our first Armina, it was bizarre we hadn’t come across any Armina species at all yet and they are usually common on many of the black sand sites we dived already. I was sure Alor would bring us quite a few different Armina species.
Heading further east we were on our way to a spot I’d found back in 2008 on a similar expedition that brought us a mighty 226 species, though that was my first ever doing a nudi count for fun. It was so good that this is now becoming a yearly event for Diving 4 Images. After two dives on this special nudi site we found 8 new species including one that was on Ali’s wish list, a cool Trapania squama that Ali had yet to see, never mind photograph!
Always one for exploring, and with a great open minded group I offered the chance for an exploratory dive in this interesting area and everyone jumped at the chance to dive somewhere totally new. I asked the two guides to head out and see what they could come up with. We may have one or if they both something interesting enough we’d have two different spots. There were plenty of options for dive sites nearby, with big rocky outcroppings and a mix of sandy and rocky shorelines.
We split the groups and dived from the same point with one group going reef left and other reef right, both groups reported excellent reef with bommies and some cool critters, plenty of nudibranch species but it was Ali who found the one species to add to the list. Our night dive here wasn’t as rich I’d expected though it was still great with a few more different species to add.
The next day was time for some more exploring on northern Flores, I’ve dived quite a few reefs on north Flores, there is a lot of old impact but there are also many really excellent walls. The wall here was a classic Banda Sea/Wakatobi kind of wall dive with good coral cover, not a huge amount of nudibranchs though on this one small section of reef top above the wall we came across fifteen plus species and added another two to the list. Moving further east I decided to check out western Pantar, I wanted to go to a spot further south but the wind was blowing too hard against us so after checking a few spots I opted for an area near a small village. Here we had a bit of current that eventually subsided and we managed to find another two species.

Blue Ringed Octopus – Photo by Bob Widman

The wind was still blowing strong so I decided to move again out of the wind and in search of a hot spot for our late afternoon and night dives. Much of the area I checked out looked very lagoon like with very little invertebrate life. After about 30 minutes of searching I came across one reef top and slope with lots of patchy coral and good invertebrate covered bommies with lots of leathery corals and rubble patches that can often be good for nudibranchs that come out at night. Here we came across more species to add to our list and a cute little blue ring octopus also showed up, the evening brought us a few giant Spanish dancers with shrimps and another three species to add including more that Ali had never seen before.

Next up was the bay of Kalabahi, I was sure we’d find a few unknown species here and sure enough the bay didn’t disappoint. Apart from adding another twelve species we also found two bright yellow Rhinopias frondosa, yellowy/green thorny seahorse, velvet ghost pipefish and more species Ali had never seen.

Rhinopias frondosa – Photo by Bob Widman

It was now getting harder and harder to find more species to add to the list but we had a new goal as Ali had said her highest high from the Philippines was 425. All we needed was about a five species a day and we’d be over 425. Next up was The Mini Wall, this didn’t perform so good though we still found two more to add and for the next dive I chose a spot very close by and came up with another three species so that was already looking like our target was well set if we kept going at this pace. Of the species we saw one was a special animal that was top of Ali’s wish list, a Petalifera lafonti, and a pretty little Phyllidia polkadotsa.
Ali was starting to crave for her wish list critters and high at the top was a specific species she’d been seeking out for years. So…time for a joke. I gave Mary a photo of the nudibranch that Ali was so pining for, Mary put it on her laptop and then subtly asked Ali if she knew what it was. Ali went nuts and was close to tears, asking me to go back to the dive site where it was found. We were finding it so hard to not to laugh, but somehow Mary and I managed to keep it up, eventually we caved in and put Ali out of her misery.

Glossodoris averni – Photo by Graham Abbott

Next up I was hoping to find some of the larger dorids we had yet to see so we went to a spot on north Pura island, at one of the world’s most unique dive locations that was originally called Clown Valley though I love what Larry Smith called this “The Valley Of The Clowns”, Larry had such a great way dive site names! We were now up to 399 and I’d briefed everyone that we didn’t want a tiny spec of a nudi for this, we had to find a really cool one and sure enough the Sea Gods were with us and a gorgeous Glossodoris averni showed up.

Unknown Thecacera sp. – Photo by Graham Abbott

As the weather was looking much better we started to make our way south to Beangabang, on the way we stopped for a dive at a spot with a different habitat, from about 3-7m the reef here had lots of caulerpa which can be a good habitat for unusual critters. Sure enough we found another two species before the current picked up enough to make critter hunting too difficult. One of these two species was a gorgeous and probably new species of Thecacera, it looks a little like the Thecacera pennigera variety that is found in more temperate water but with much smaller dots.
Then we were at Beangabang, a place that was originally found by Indonesia’s critter legend Larry Smith who I had the great pleasure of diving with here, along with Stan Waterman and friends on a three-week expedition from Kupang to Sorong back in 2001. Since then the usual hotspot hasn’t been as hot and I’d been hearing reports that Beangabang wasn’t as hot as it used to be. I had a very special spot here that I knew would bring us a few more species and a few more wish list critters as well! Sure enough the spot came up with the goods, on our two dives for the afternoon and night we came up with another four species and one that really got my blood boiling – I saw that looked like a really big Thecacera of some sort, new species I thought, but then it turned towards and it had this huge beard thing going in front it’s face.

Unknown Thecacera sp. – Photo by Alicia Hermosillo

I knew this genus but never seen this species before, it was very closely related to Thecacera it was some sort of Polycera. I called Ali over and she got all excited too. Turns out the only other unknown animal and the only species similar was a specimen that Ali had found and photographed on a previous Indonesia trip!

We weren’t taking much notice of ‘none nudibranchs’ so I’m not too sure but I think we came across four different ghost pipefish species here too, oh and a cool little juvenile Rhinopias frondosa, a few different frogfish – just like the old days of Beangabang – I love this place so much I take the locals supplies each time and have a little fun with the kids here who I’ve grown to know quite well!
Now we were up for some exploring, though not without the help of a couple of spots from an old British buddy Martin who enjoys exploring Indonesia just as much as I do. After a rocky crossing along the south of Pantar to Lembata we dived a site Martin has named Nudi Heaven as they had found lots of nudibranchs they had never seen before. Today was not so different from when Martin and friends had dived here! Within minutes we were onto some really unusual and rare nudibranchs, even by Ali’s standards. The coolest little nudibranch from here was a really unique Okenia Pellucida

Oh and the reef was amazing here as well and we ended up with another 3 species from Nudi Heaven. As it was getting windier and choppier I opted to get into calmer waters and we rounded the headland and headed straight for a black sand beach area I noticed with the binoculars. A quick few minutes check out revealed another few species and a great habitat so we all dropped in and not only did we find two more but another two making four for the this dive, plus frogfish and a bottom that was packed with what looked like dancing twigs.

Ceratasoma magnifica – Photo by John Munch

The afternoon dive was not as rich for nudibranchs though one lucky couple did happen to come across the gorgeous Ceratasoma magnifica and as usual Ali had found another addition for the list. The reef in this area was super rich with invertebrate life coming out of black sand with lots of scattered rocks really densely packed with coral life. The shallows were also fantastic with lots of sponges, frogfishes, weird octopus and more nudibranchs, though the water was fairly chilly!
A much warmer and calmer day on the north of Lembata and here we dived a sand slope with sea grass and giant black coral bushes that I call The Sunken Forest. The black coral bushes didn’t reveal much as expected as so far there are no known nudibranchs that live on black corals. However, there were a few nudi’s in the sand and a new Haminoea to add to the list along with a Eubranchus that Ali found making two more additions. Next up was a dive site right in front a little village with black sand usually great variety of critters and nudibranchs. We didn’t find too many during most of the dive, then Ali and I met right at the shallow sea grass and both gave each other a signal of no nudibranchs to add, right then we both came across a species that was yet to be seen. Ali found an Phyllaplysia sp. this is a critter that Ali had really high on her wish list and then we found a rather rarely seen baeolidia sp. as yet un-named.

Phyllaplysia sp – Photo by Alicia Hermosillo

I had lost the gps point for the sea mount here so along with the village leader I went out to check out the sea mount. Though before we left we needed to take some sacrificial offerings as this a reef that was sacrificial to the villagers here. We needed some food offerings, alcohol – usually local palm wine but beer was good enough in this case, some money in the form of a thousand rupiah note and a cigarette. The village leader said his words to the Sea Gods and I was allowed to dive. I have yet to dive with a group of divers as I’ve usually entered this area with a bunch of hard core critter lovers though today I thought it could be an interesting area to hunt for nudibranchs. There was great fish life and some interesting habitat but the distance from our boat and the doubt led me to opt for a closer site and we dived the reef next to the sandy slope we had just dived previously. This turned out to be really rich, after already logging 465 species we managed to get another four from this old impacted reef including another one that high in Ali’s list of things to see, this time a Sagaminopteron ornatum.

So, our final day of diving. I know a few spots on the north of Flores though they are better for fish and reef scenery so exploring was the way forward with this group. I checked out a point that looked interesting, it turned out to be a sheer wall with great coral growth but not the best habitat and certainly no good with the little bit of current that would make nudi hunting a little awkward on a sheer wall to say the least. The next spot further into the bay was a really interesting reef that had been heavily impacted by the tsunami and earthquake that swept the north of Flores back in 1996. There were huge cracks in the reef top that were lined with colorful corals. A great dive though we only came across one nudibranch we had not yet seen which was an un-named Haminoea sp.

Melibe digitata – Photo by Graham Abbott

The next spot on our way towards Maumere was a spot I’ve dived before, though again mainly for fish and scenery. This time I checked the very end of the reef/wall section where I’d finished a dive on a previous trip and found it to be an interesting and rich looking habitat for cryptic critters. We dropped in onto rocks and sure enough Ali loved it, she was on fire and we ended up with another seven species from this site and the one I loved so much was the weird Melibe digitata that I’d never seen before…

Conclusion & Statistics
Our aim was to go slug hunting and see how many we could find. I had only tried doing nudi counts twice; my previous counts with groups on trips like this were far exceeded this time. The first time I tried counting slugs was on the very same route back in 2008 where we came across 226 species, we were all blown away with this high count. The second time I tried this was an Ambon and Beyond Komodo combination trip in 2010 where we had 301 species.
Alicia is a biologist specializing in opistobranchs who has done nudi in other areas. In Mexico her high count has been 80, in the Philippines with Dr. Terry Gosliner and his science team she logged 425, and this was also with people collecting, then in Milne Bay Ali’s count was 399, on a previous trip to Indonesia diving Bali & Komodo Ali logged a total of 310 species – this time our final count came out at 483 different species.
Of the species we had found there were 44 new to Ali and about 14 that were totally unknown.
A huge thanks to everyone who joined to make these trips happen, everyone helped in some way by finding, photographing, filming all these great animals…
I wonder how we will get on next time?

 Posted by at 15:54