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.
The 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!
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
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?
I felt so lucky, we had the ultimate critter loving group one could ask for!
What a great trip we’ve had so far. 12 days in Ambon, full on critter hunting and now more to come starting tomorow when we head of on our Beyond Komodo Critter Cruise.
Sadly the internet connection over in Ambon failed numerous times and my laptop went down for a while too which meant I was unable to keep a ongoing log like I wanted.
In short, we found tons of really cool animals such as wonderpuss, mimic and poison occelate (Mototi) octopii, cuttlefish in all shapes and sizes including many flabouyant including the tiny and colourful juveniles, even mating pigmy cuttlefish, just about the scorpionfish one could shake a stick at came out including two species of Rhinopias and the much loved brilliant red Rhinopias eschmeyeri with some fantastic environment shots by Shannon Conway (gallery to come very soon). We watched some fantastic behaviours including a bobbit worm eating a lionfish and surprisingly enough this was right in the middle of the day. We saw plenty of frogfishes in a huge range of shapes and sizes, (sorry to have to tell you Hanna-personal joke she knows well though!) but once again the Psychedelic eluded me. Some of the group had seen it previously, others hadn’t! Being divers who understand that marine life is after all a part of nature we weren’t all that bothered about not seeing it, in fact no one really mentioned it too much we were having such a great time hunting for anything and everything else down there. We know that Ambon is not going anywhere and we’ll be back another day and we all know that there is plenty more out there we have yet to find…
And as for our nudibranchs – It was great to find a few more species of nudibranch new to us and a few we have yet to identify. The enthusiasm of this group was great, we even had some of the other guests at the resort joining in and getting excited with us!
We had a fantastic highlight video produced for us already that we even managed to check out on our final evening, thanks so much to Nannette! Everyone who joined contributed to the nudibranch count and our total count was right by my estimate of 130 species. Not a huge amount, but for such a small area, only a few miles radius from the resort not too bad. So far 132 though we’ve yet to go over all the images, video grabs against ID books.
Big thanks go out to Andy and his crew for making all this happen and arranging a great land tour on our final day of off gassing. Havis’s village and the fresh water river eels are a must do for anyone heading out that way. For those who enjoy scenic drives, the north coast is also a great highlight with some lovely little villages along the way. Huge respect also goes out to Havis for being such a wonder of talents, he really is the sweet’n’swooning vocalist of Ambon. If you’re lucky you might just get to experience one of his live & truly unplugged sessions while dining.
There are many reasons for organising dive trips specifically for these very unique animals. The main reason for me personally is that I can always find something new for those who join. On every trip when we search in the right habitats and environments we can find an animal that we have never seen before and maybe even an animal that no one else has seen or photographed. For those who have been diving a lot around the world and even a lot around Indonesian waters we can still make sure you see something new. This is one of the biggest highlights of critter hunting. Also, for beginner photographers these have to be the easiest animal to get easy images of and great photographic images from the get go!
It’s not all about nudibranchs!
As we are searching for small animals in a variety f habitats we tend to come across a whole range of other animals too. Often we find just about all the classic highlight critter that dive guides and marine enthusiasts search for all the time.
More for the future…
I’ve found that these specific nudibranch trips have been so successful and satisfying for those joining that I’ll be running these trips annually from now on. Each time I will be bringing along a nudibranch expert who can also enhance these trips even further by bringing with them their expertise…
The good thing is that over the years I’ve found dive sites that are specific for nudibranchs and now we have the chance to go and explore with super keen branchers for these wonderful animals
This list is now up to 132 species from Ambon alone and will be updated shortly!
Reference: Gosliner, Behrens & Valdes – Indo Pacific Nudibranchs and Sea Slugs
Wow, at last, a few issues slowed me down but now I’ve managed to get things working. First of all some great news regarding airlines here in Indonesia, well not all of them, but at least one has taken the initiative to now look after divers. We looked into the airlines who were flying into Ambon now and after some phone calls and a meeting we worked out that Lion Air were offering divers free overweight baggage. I still wasn’t satisfied that this would happen so we made sure to get an email confirming this and without any hassle or waste of time Lion Air went ahead and sent an email confirming free overweight baggage for our divers. Oh wow, it was so refreshing to check in without the hassle of negotiating overweight baggage and going to and from the check in desk with payments and receipts. I made sure to do the usual and check in as a group making sure to try my best to charm the folks behind in the counter into making sure our baggage would be priority and guaranteed to get on the plane. In Indonesia, just as it is anywhere these days, luggage doesn’t always follow along with the divers.
Our flights went smoothly, a few hours in Makasar airport passed by quickly enough with some snacks and drinks and eventually we arrived in Ambon. Upon arrival we were welcomed by the Maluku Divers staff we I simply handed over our baggage tickets and let the porters do their work. We were all very happy to see our luggage safely come round on the conveyor belt, then after a short 10 minute drive to the resort we were welcomed again, this time with a drink, plenty of smiling faces from the staff and the usual dive forms and paperwork to fill in. It was great to see that many of staff remembered those in the group who had previously joined me on trips at the other locations that Maluku Divers had prior to this all new REAL dive resort.
Even though most of the group of hadn’t booked a dive on the first day, eventually 7 out of 15 of us became itchy to get in and dive for a night dive. I’ll go into the diving more tomorrow but let’s just say we’ve seen plenty of amazing critters and so far we’ve came across at 42 different species in only 4 dives and already at least one nudibranch that I’ve never seen as well, not too bad eh!
It all starts with packing all that dive kit, spares, ID books and trying to find room for some clothes and other bits’n’bobs…
It was really interesting to be back on the boat where I started my first full liveaboard work as the head divemaster onoard Sea Safari 3 for Kararu back in 2000 where the Kararu folks had whisked me away from Wakatobi Dive Resort with the lure of Liveaboard diving adventures on the islands of Komodo, Flores, Alor and later on the exploration trips round Irian Jaya too.
The cheery captain Pak Yan was still onboard Sea Safari 3 and had been calling and sending me text messages asking me about the intended route. It was great to hear that he was still really keen and cheerful as ever. I was surprised to see Sonny (the engineer) still onboard as well, just about all the crew had since moved on and many of the crew were very new. The boat, Sea Safari is fundamentally still the same with a few slight changes onboard. Sea Safari 3 being the oldest in the fleet for Sea Safari looks a little rough round the edges but it still makes a great dive platform and once everyone had been ushered to their cabins they all came out smiling. The level of comfort and the amount of space we all had was fantastic.
Sea Safari do not have any dedicated dive staff which works ok for me as I can bring onboard my own dive crew to suit each particular trip I make onboard the Sea Safari fleet. I had brought onboard one of the Indonesian guides who had always looked our clients for Bali trips when I was unavailable. Menyun had previously worked for Bali Scuba and we would only book with them for our clients when Menyun was available and the reports always can back with great praises for his professional manner, spotting abilities and his knowledge of marine life. Now Menyun freelances and will be working with Diving 4 Images on many future trips throughout Indonesia!
This wasn’t going to be your average Komodo trip, far from it! Onboard were a group of hardcore critter lovers who had been asking me for over 5 years to take them to dive nothing other than Bima and Sangaeng island, two of my personal favourites that are on the standard Komodo Liveaboard route. I had wanted to do this trip for years and somehow we always ended up elsewhere. I’ve took many trips and spent many days non stop diving in these areas.
Starting of in the islands north of Labuan Bajo, just for some exploration diving. I checked out a few spots and the second spot I checked had all the right habitat for good critter diving, I continued and checked a few others spots but this second spot was the chosen site. Our first dive revealed a few cool macro subjects but we all amazed at the big fish life that came by. An eagle zipped by a few divers, there was a giant thorny back stingray and a school of yellow striped jacks as well. The critter was not the best we had seen but with such an interesting habitat we had to check it out again at night…
Wind blew up a little too much so we moved to the other side of the island. Here we found another spot that looked like it could be a good habitat for small critters. On entry there was a mild current, though the current picked up and made the dive a little awkward to say the least. After 60 minutes the current the subsided and a few of us managed to find a few nudibranchs we hadn’t yet noted including the giant bizarrely named Asteronutus cespitosus, there were big lobster and a few other including a very unusual crab that was making its home in the large barrel sponges, not one of the small porcelain crabs, this was a much larger crab with slight purple markings. I’ll be keeping a look out for this on future trips for sure…
The weather on Sangeang turned out to be perfect and marine life was amazing, especially for nudibranchs and weird animals, which was exactly what we were looking for. There were only a few juvenile frogfish, we didn’t find any larger adults anywhere on Sangeang but they were seen in Bima. Of the ghost pipefish family we had plenty, a few different coloured ornate ghost pipefish, most of which were on new sites too, there was the usual robust, delicate, there were even some of what I think were the long tail ghost pipefish Solenostromus armatus, there was also a lovely velvety looking ghost pipefish too! A couple of the usual super hot critter sites didn’t perform at all so we only made one dive on these, even so we still found at least one really cool or totally new animal on every dive. However, a few other new spots came up with many amazing new critters, quite a few totally new to me as well! A few of the reefs we dived weren’t just mucky critter sites, there were also spectacular reef scenic dives as well. Bubble Reef was perfect with about 25-30m visibility and buzzing with small fish, Deep Purple was a bit of a wash out and we ended up in a drift dive, discovering some really interesting fish filled coral reef spurs from 14-20m and during the drift we even saw a few big eagle rays cruise by.
We had planned one of my favourite dive sites on this island for unique species and many really interesting nocturnal nudibranchs, though the tides weren’t going to be right, I wanted to avoid current, we had already been caught out once on Mentjeng Wall so I didn’t want any more current, especially on a night dive. We moved over to Bima and dived one of my old favourite sites in the mouth of the bay for a late night dive. It was good with a few interesting nudibranchs and a pair of huge ornate ghost pipefish. I always feel so sorry for ghost pipefish at night as they get so easily blinded by dive lights and especially strobes. I usually ask dives not to shoot them at night for this very reason but the temptation for most is just too hard to pass by. As this site was good but not excellent as it used to be I moved the boat deeper into the bay for some more serious critter hunting, where I knew we were going to find some other critters we had yet to find on this trip and hopefully a few more totally new animals as well!
We woke in Bima with another dive boat close by, this was the first other boat we saw the whole time out on this trip. I headed over to find out where the other boat planned to dive so I could choose alternative sites. There are so many great sites in this bay that it’s stupid to drop divers on top of another group here. We found a few really interested animals in the bay here, the list was great and on every dive we found something new. There was one really interesting nudibranch (see photo below) that we were unable to find any close ID on in any of the books we had.
Just one of the new nudis to me. It could be Chromodoris tumulifera, thanks to Terry Gosliner for pointing me in the right direction. Not yet photographed in Indonesia on Nudipixel anyway!
We were really hanging out for more diving around Sangaeng so we headed out of Bima and over to the majestic volcano once more. I headed to another place we had yet to dive on this trip and divers were still amazed at the number and variety of sites this island had to offer. Again even more new species of nudibranch to add to our list and even more cool critters too! On our last day for a possible night dive conditions were just right and we eventually managed to dive on another of my favourite sites, this time my favouite site for nocturnal animals. I really wanted to dive this so much and as it turned out, it was off the charts. Not only was it great for critter action at night, there were a few divers who opted for a day dive and loved this site for the reef scenery and fish life too!
On our very last day, I wanted to try and go out with a bang. There were a few new sites we had dived previously that I wanted to check out again as we had been finding lots of really tiny nudibranchs and other tiny critters. As not everyone is into the super tiny critters I organized the diving so one group could go for a few larger animalsand one group for the tiny which I led on a site we decided to call Small Wonders while Menyun led other group at Sangeang Rox which is more of a reef dive with bommies scattered with lots of gorgeous black coral bushes and a great variety of coral, fish and some larger critters… Our dive on Small Wonders turned out to be non stop critter after critter with a tiny harlequin shrimp, a few different ghost pipefish and we only covered a distance of about 30m width and 20m depth the whole dive. Our group photographer Jayne who was new with her Canon G11 didn’t know where to turn next, poor Jayne went from critter to critter and had so many subjects it was hard to know who to go to next! What a great way to make our final dive!
In all we saw more critters on this trip than we had seen in many years diving in all other locations. Keep a watchful eye out for more forthcoming Sangeang Critter Cruises…
Comments will be added soon, in short there were rave reviews from all on this, even Menyun, our dive guide with thousands of dives round Bali, many more in Wakatobi and other ares said “wow, Sangeang, I don’t what to say, it’s too much”.
Big thanks to all on this trip for helping with finding and helping to identify many of these nudibranchs. An even BIGGER thanks to our team photographer Jayne Bruner for all her efforts with her new camera – keep up the great work!
The main trip was arranged on behalf of Conservation International to make a full survey of the Teluk Cendrawasih. During the first trip Dr. Mark Erdmann was the group organiser, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Gerry Allen aboard, Gerry is one of the worlds best ichthyologists. we had the hard coral experts Dr. Emre Turak and Dr. Lyndon Devantier. A group of local experts, Paulus Boli specialising in local village communities, Erdi Lazuardi and Defy Pada specialising in coral growth and coral cover, Seha Rizqon specialising in conservation, Ricardo Tapilatu specialising in turtle populations and Abdul Hamid Toha specialising in marine fisheries. Bruce Moore was brought in to access the tourism in this region and I helped with what ever was needed, looking for new species and helping Bruce to look for the possible dive locations.
I had arrived a day early to ensure all went smoothly for the groups arrival. We set off in the afternoon to check out the nearby island Owi. For Bruce and I the survey site was not so hot as a tourist dive location though it was amazing to hear the experts opionions. They really enjoyed it and had some very high fish and coral counts here. Mark and I made another dive near dusk on Owi. Mark needed to do to pick up a temperature logger (device for measuring water temperature over long periods of time). Mark went to exchange his loggers and I went off to find out more about this area. Now this was a dive site, a wall dropped down from 5m depth to 35m then sloped off into the abyss below. Here there were plenty of big fish, giant and blue fin trevallies came in to feed on the smaller fishes, schools of alsorts of fish were hanging out in this area and reef scenery in deeper area was excellent.
This was the one I had been waiting on for so long, a cruise where all the guests on board were interested in critters, or for those who were new to this, they were all willing to learn more about them.
Here are just a few of the creatures we saw on this cruise, lots of different frogfish, leaf scorpionfish galore, lots un-identified nudibranchs on many different dives, crustaceans galore, lots of inimicus (devil scorpionfish), two different species of pigmy sea horse, common sea horse (H. kuda), cockatoo waspfish, torpedo ray, pegasus sea moth, bobtail squid, manta, sharks, good schooling fish action and of course excellent reef scenery too! Oh yeah and a lovely BLUE RINGED octopus!!!!
Thought it may be a good idea to let the guests tell you what it was like through their own personal comments – straight from the comments book:
Tim Bertsch – a fantastic tour around Komodo marine park, saw pretty much everything, fantastically well looked after, great companions, good weather – this trip had it all! But the main thing was the amazing diving, seeing new stuff dive after dive; thanks Graham for such great guiding so many times. Looking forward to the next time. P.S. Thanks for the loan of the shark hood!
Collin and Sara – Very professional – knowledgeable, more than competent and tremendously enthusiastic. Couldn’t be better.
Michelle Hosley – wonderful itinerary, saw oodles of great nudibranchs, shrimp, cephalopods & much more. Graham is a great dive leader, I’d dive with him anytime, My second trip on Pelagian & I’ll continue to recommend it as a comfortable boat & good operation. Look forward to Diving 4 Images soon again!
Dave Hosley – Graham – you are the man! A fabulous memorable trip. One of the best ever. Great sites, great boat, great crew! Would dive with you anywhere!
Rod & Pat Huggett – what a spectacular inaugural voyage. Let’s do it again !!!!!
Iris Karinkanta – what a great trip. Thanks Graham you’ve opened a new door. I’ve seen so many amazing things. I didn’t know such things exist. Thanks!
Jon Bertsch & Rosemary Chengson- Thanks for an excellent trip hunting for the elusive critters and exploring new sites. Nudibranchs off the chart, all manner of shrimps, crabs and other crustaceans. Cuttlefish, octopus (Blue Ring) and more. It was great to be so well looked treated by the staff and to be shown so many new and interesting critters. Every piece of rock holds a secret hoping Graham will miss it – but he rarely does. Looking forward to the next trip.
Joni Hildal – Graham this trip was better than ever imagined. The best, most amazing dive sites. We found almost everything and more. The only problem will be trying to top your 1st trip! Congratulations on your new venture, lots of success and happiness always. Keep me posted on your future trips.
Roberto Sozzani – Great diving, the best cruise to Komodo, lots of critters, a real pleasure to dive with you, I hope to do it again soon!
Conclusion – an excellent group of divers and critters lovers, an excellent all round cruise on a very fine vessel. Even though this was the Black Sand Critter Cruise aiming at critters, it was still important to give everyone and overview of the area. Everyone saw a manta ray, sharks, some large pelagic fish, awesome schooling fish life and outstanding reef scenery during the cruise.
The list of critters is available for anyone who really wants to know more about what we saw.
I set up these trips for our returning hardcore critter lovers who enjoy the lazy diving and adventurous nature of these special Diving 4 Images charters. These charters from Sumbawa through to Sangeang, Komodo, north Flores and into Alor were to be slightly different from our usual charters. I do try to make each trip unique in some way or other. This was different mainly due to us starting a slug count. After the first few days of diving in Bima and on Sangaeng Island we had already seen so many different species of nudibranchs that this was an ideal time to try and see how many species we could log and photograph. To our amazement the species count ended up at 223 different species of slugs, including many really bizarre and some unidentifiable specimens too. Even with the help of Debelius & Kuiters latest ID book, and now with Coleman’s new book in front of me I still can’t put names to many of the species I have photographs of. The recording of nudibranchs ended up being a great hit with everyone and even the divers who joined us for the second trip were overwhelmed by the species they had come across on their leg of this adventure.
During the course of our trips we saw plenty of the rare Pictured dragonets and Mandarinfish in Komodo, then a really unusual species of dragonet in Alor which I managed to get one photo of (see photo). We stayed and watched this unique and maybe new species for quite some time in the hope a female would show up and this male would show us his gorgeous fin ion all its glory. I think it was a very lone male as no female showed up – aaahhhhh! It was quite surprising to see that quite a few usual top critter sites were not so hot. We put this down to the recent storms that had been through this region during the months previous to our trips. However, we still managed to find some top wish list critters including a small and very colourful flamboyant cuttlefish (see gallery photo). As always with a top critter like this, I made sure that no one missed out on seeing such an amazing and much sought after fantabulous wonder. Along with Flambo, came all the usual fire urchin critters like Zebra crabs, Coleman shrimps and even the more unusual Allopontonia iani shrimps. While we are onto shrimps, we had one diver asking if we could find the gorgeous little tiger shrimps. There was one place where it was going to possible, sure enough as luck had it there was a very small tiger shrimp (see photo) posing for us. The giant frogfish from Cannibal Rock had gone walkabouts, and who can blame them, this site gets a lot of visitors these days. Luckily I’d spent quite a lot of time searching out other areas of Horseshoe Bay while with the BBC looking for other specific critters. Due to this I was able to locate the whereabouts of the giant froggies. Luck was on our side as one giant froggy was actually standing atop the other, probably its mate! It took a while but eventually the most beautiful of all nudibranchs Ceratosoma magnifica was found. Not only this species, we also came a new nudi for me, this was a species of Ceratosoma I’d never seen, according to Debelius it’s a C. moloch. As usual we found not only the cool bobtail squids but their more unusual cousin, the cute little bottletail squids. On one of my new critter dive sites we also came across a velvetfish, not the most photogenic of fish, though certainly a great find for those who enjoy the rare and unusual critters.
As we headed overnight onto the north of Flores we awoke and many divers thought we hadn’t moved at all, the ocean was so calm, it was like a lake. Here we checked out a few spots I’d never dived before. These new exploratory sites can often be a great highlight of the trip. We ended up late at one place I was hoping to check out. However, we were close to a spot a friend had pointed out to me a long time ago called Toro Besi. This is a site apparently dived by plenty of other operators. I checked it out and wasn’t all that enthused, nice hard coral reef, not so many fish and minimal invertebrates. I tried looking for an area which may be more of a critter rich spot, though the surrounded area was sadly very impacted. We dived Toro Besi, not a top dive though we found some very interesting tiny species of nudibranch which we had never seen including Trapania toddi and a tiny juvenile of a Ceratosoma sinuata, none of us had ever seen this species so small so it took us a while to work out what it was due its size. The next spot we dived looked like it was going to be a similar dive to the last one, however not so! By the time I’d checked it and we entered there was a bit of current, maybe a bit too much for some in the group. I was amazed as we were amongst the most amazing topographical reef I’d seen in a long time. At 15-25m there were lots of patch reefs ranging from 3-5m high and 10-30 long, all surrounded by white sand channels which were loaded with garden eels. Not only was this great topography, there were plenty of reef sharks, some huge giant trevally, snappers, sweetlips and plenty of the colourful reef fishes… This was a truly special site I hope to get the chance to dive again soon… The shallow reef here as many on the north of Flores is nothing special however a great habitat for the smaller nudibranchs that hide in amongst the algae covered rocks, it was that we saw the tiny and very bizarre Siphopteron sp. (see gallery photo).
Three new divers joining Diving 4 Images for the first time arrived with Carol who has joined us a few times now. Sadly one divers arriving from the US had some bad luck and her baggage hadn’t came with her. We had managed to get enough dive kit for her start the first days diving. We started Maumere and as Maumere at the time wasn’t as hot for critters on the black sand muck sites, we headed out to one of my favourite walls on Pomana Kecil. This is a great spot for pigmy sea horses and there are often chances of biggies too, for those who care to look that is! However, Hanna wanted to photograph the smooth plucked chicken looking pigmy sea horse so this was our target critter… Sure enough there were plenty of them and everyone managed to get a great look, take photos and video of these little beauties. Here we also came across a tiny juvenile pinnate batfish, looking exactly like a poisonous flatworm and plenty of other great critters which kept us busy for a few dives. As the bay was too murky we stayed out on the islands and the current helped me decide where we would dive. Our dive was a CFZ, yeah a Current Free Zone. I know not to drop this group in with current, though to do it at night would probably end up with me being keelhauled – not my favorite pastime while out at sea! Our CFZ turned out to be a top spot too. On the wall we had a few of the super cool disco clams, a whole range of different crustaceans, a giant Spanish dancer nudibranch complete with shrimp, really unique and very bizarre nudibranchs, one is still being ID’d by experts and the other was a very cryptic species of Phyllodesmium (see gallery photo). Then, even more, the few divers who were left after over 80 minutes managed to see a really bizarre little octopus, it looked a little hairy, though not quite a true hairy, more shaggy I suppose, this little critter managed to blend in so well into the sandy substrate. Unfortunately on diver’s bag had not arrived from the US, though we had plenty of friends helping to bring along and after our night dive we picked the bag up and headed off. After our first dive we had an amazing close encounter with a 25m whale that ended up a little too close for comfort before it dived out of sight. We another exploratory dive, this time choosing the site based on land topography. Low and behold a real winner for us. This site was a fantastic site for nudibranchs, it was a classic black sand critter rich spot. Every rock had something interesting on it, we made 3 dives on this site and each time had different critters turning up including ornate ghost pipe fishes. We had to go into Larantuka to restock with fresh water and some more fresh veggies. The usual critter dives here were not so hot, going in search of more, I came across a small bay with plenty of crinoids filled coral bommies, a quick dive here to check it out revealed a few giant frogfish so I called this place Hanna’s Bommies as Hanna is crazy about frogfish and we hadn’t seen one in a few days. One of the frogfish had gone only to be replaced by a mating pair, Hanna stayed the whole dive waiting to see if they would go up and release their eggs, sadly not today, not on this dive!
Entering the Alor Regency we started in Pantar which is usual a real hotspot, however another top site was not quite on form. We gave the area a few days and managed to find a few different species of ghost pipefish, some divers came across a Wonderpuss photogenicus, there was only one pinhead sized orange frogfish, tozeuma (sawblade) shrimps, horned black coral crabs and many more crustaceans, the night dives here were as always outstanding. Before diving Pura we stopped off at a special spot which is great for close encounters and luck truly was on our side today. One tender boat had an engine problem and I waited patiently with my group for the others to join us. As we slowly descended and got to about 20m we were welcomed by a giant Mola mola. This was made even more special as the divers had never thought of ever being able to see one of these truly bizarre oceanic wonders. I haven’t dived site a lot, though each time it surprises me with great finds, apart from it being a very unique upwelling reef. On Pura we were hoping to find the holy grail of critters, though our luck had ran out on the mola and we never managed to see the Rhinopias (Weedy scorpionfish) which was hanging out here recently. The bay of Kalabahi brought us plenty of great highlights, we had Wonderpuss, Pegasus sea moths, 2 different sightings of the very unusual poison ocellate octopus (octopus mototi), all the fire urchin critters one could ask for, there was a brief sighting of a hairy octopus and a whole array of super cool nudibranchs.
On the way back towards Maumere we dived Muricella’s Garden, which is my favourite drop off and big fish dive in this area. Sure enough we weren’t let down, wrong tide for the usual eagle rays, however there were two really big grey reef sharks, a few black tips cruising round and white tips resting in the caves here. While the sharks were cruising off reef there were two giant Giant Trevallies going in and out of the divers as if we were in their territory, I’d never seen these here before – a very cool addition!
For our afternoon and night dive we would be on a great black sand site, a few divers opted to just do the night dive as I’d said this would be a top dive. The afternoon was good enough and on the night dive we saw the same 3 green robust ghost pipefish, a bunch of dwarf pipe horses, the huge school of shrimp fish surrounding the black coral bush and in the shallows amongst the sea grass. We spent lots of time around one particular patch of coral and rubble and found 2 juvenile frogfish, the very bizarre and super cryptic Lobiger souverbi (see gallery photo), plenty of other cryptic nudibranchs, another delicate gpf in the sea grass along with yet more nudibranchs and bizarre crustaceans.
For our final day we headed back towards Maumere and due to strong currents in the overnight crossing we wouldn’t arrive at our planned site till 10am, I chose to have breakfast first while we headed towards the shoreline. I knew we’d be diving on very beaten up reef here as these reef have been heavily impacted by nature and some illegal fishing. For us, it was ideal, another different habitat which brought plenty of different slugs, including the giant T bar nudi (notodoris serenae) and the tiniest of all and not so easy pronounce Sagaminopteron psychedelicum. As we over to our final dive site The Crack on Pulau Babi, a few divers had expressed a very keen interest in trying to see the afore mentioned unpronounceable slug again. I though there would be a very good chance at The Crack and sure enough after a few minutes of searching I came across one of these tiny (less than 5mm) slugs, though the pattern is simply outstanding and well worth the search. Apart from this, the wall here was loaded with Nembrotha’s, seen here feeding, mating, cruising the reef and even getting mixed up and trying to mate with different species – doh! As usual the leaf scorpionfish were found along tons more really cool and bizarre nudibranchs, including even more none of us had seen before and more not in any ID books. An excellent dive to end out trip on… It was a great pleasure to have two new divers join us and both were totally enthused by seeing new and unusual marine life. To me these are how all divers should see the underwater world, with a broad and open mind…
Thanks to all those who join Diving 4 Images charters. It’s you who make these trips such fun and adventure and this is what keeps the fire in me alive!
A private charter with the BBC’s number one coral reef film maker Peter Scoones and assistant producer Emma Rolfe (now Emma Pearce). Heading out to tiny island for nearly two weeks, filming for the BBC’s next huge project called Planet Earth.
The Shallows Seas portion of Planet Earth was aired November 2006 and is now available on DVD…
I knew it was only a matter of time before a professional film crew would want to get out to this unique island. I knew that this island had a very special and most unique attraction – vast quantities of sea snakes that live here all year round.
Diving 4 Images had various inquiries wanting to film this unique island… then a very serious inquiry came in. After a few months of emailing back & forth and a few long distance phone calls, a suitable boat was found at the right rate. Even though I knew the snakes were harmless to divers, no risks were to be taken with this team. We had all the nessasary contacts for a quick evacuation if needed, then we had to see if we could source anti venom, we eventually found this a week or so prior to departure. We all met the evening before our departure to go over any final requirements, the film maker Peter Scoones and researcher Emma Rolfe (now Emma Pearce). All in very good spirits on our first evening out, maybe we would even have a few laughs along the way too? In the morning we were off, we had arranged, with guarantees to make sure the all the 250kg of luggage would arrive. Our prior arrangements made sure the luggage all arrived without any issues.
Two flights starting from Bali to Kupang the over to Alor, we were on the boat mid afternoon and off we went on our way into the deep blue open ocean of the Banda Sea. Currents were against us just about all the way and a bit of choppy ocean slowed us down. This was not the fastest of boats at the best of times, it took us longer than planned to finally reach Gunung Api, all no problem as we had allowed plenty of filming time.
On arrival we arranged for the safest and most appropriate of the 2 anchorages I had scoped out on previous trips through here. Once we safely anchored in and tied to the shore we headed out to make our first dive. This was more of a check dive really, making sure all the filming gear was working right, everything was working fine… During the first two full dives on our first day we never came across the huge agregations of snakes I had seen in previous years. Though snakes do move around, I knew it would only take us a dive or so to find the hottest spot for the best snake activity.
On our first full day of diving, I went off to explore another one of the many ridges I knew on the island, another known for sea snake activity. This turned turned out to be the very hot spot we were looking for with plenty of sea snakes all over the place in large numbers! Peter dropped in while Mark and I installed buoys so our tender boats could be close at hand at all times without wasting fuel. We were going to be here for a while and wanted to make life as easy as we could! Peter managed to get some excellent footage with perfect lighting. We had clear blue skies and managed to make a few dives with very little current before needing to opt for a second choice of site due to conditions. At the end of this day we were all very hopefully for another great day…
We awoke to a very cloudy day, terrible for underwater filming, never the less, we carried on to see if we could search out some interesting sea snake behaviour. We did come across a sea krait that seemed was was actively feeding, but for a big production we needed BIG drama, BIG action, BIG TIME activity… and all with the best possible lighting!
Another morning and even worse weather. It had rained all night. The wind had turned, blowing right in to the small bay where we were anchored, so much so that we needed to move to another location for a safer anchorage. As we headed out for our first dive, Peter seemed in fairly low spirits, all due to the lack of light. What we saw though really made a difference, we came across the kind of behaviour that the BBC was after. A big aggregation of snakes were following blue fin trevally that were following a school of yellow saddle goatfish.
Sea snakes feeding with jacks and goatfish on Gunung Api
This was not just drama, it was really colourful too, plus the snakes were very active in searching out food, it was hard at times to see who was going in first. This was the kind of action we were after. The next dive we had some snake feeding action. On earlier dives we had noticed that the snakes seemed to follow one diver more than anyone else, was this colour related, smell related or what… maybe it was Mark Chambers (divemaster) special Balinese aftershave, we never knew? On this dive though, the snakes seemed to be really interested in following me. Groups of 20 or more snakes were directly behind me at one point.
Even though we had very poor lighting Peter managed to make the most of what was there, he took some high quality snake footage. Peter had brought along his high definition monitor. Looking over the rushes that evening was great, it looked fantastic. He had the main behaviour on film already. The sky cleared in the evening, the crew rigged up a screen and speakers so Peter could set up his projector on the deck and we watched a film. What was it we watched, of all the films you can imagine you wouldn’t believe this – Wallace & Grommet, Peters favourite!
We awoke to a clear day all hoping it would stay with us for more great filming. The first dive was another very productive one, this time with even more feeding behaviour. We were managing to find excellent snake behaviour on most dives now, when we had conditions that allowed that is. We were monitoring the tides and currents and we did find a certain pattern starting to emerge! Though being a very small island in the open ocean it does seem to have it’s own rules regarding currents, when and where they would be at their strongest was just not predictable enough. Once we had worked out what the currents were up to we timed our dives as best we could, yet still the only predictable thing was our hot spot, great snake action on every dive. We had searched all around the island and I created a fairly thorough map of the best sopts on the island for future referance. We never managed to find another hot spot, but what we did find was many great spots for dive sites. One area with a huge school of swirling jacks, area’s with gorgeous reef scenery, great soft coral walls, amazing shallow hard coral gardens, there is actually much more to this island other than snakes.
The next few days we managed to judge the tides fairly well to avoid the majority of the current. However we still got caught out slightly as the current came up strong at the end of a dive. The snake footage shot over the next few days was just what Peter and Emma were after. They had the sequence they were after from this trip well within the time we had planned, still we headed out to try and better certain shots and add a few more that may help the sequence even more. Peter managed to take even better shots of snakes with the best possible lighting.
Just when we thought we got to know and understand the currents here, they started to change like the weather on a typical day in England. On a few dives before we left we managed to see the current change 3 times during one dive.
The last task was for Peter to take some production stills that would possibly go forth to promote and advertise the future show Planet Earth. As expected with so many snakes on this hot spot, Peter managed to get plenty of good images from the new Nikon D2X digital camera, he’s not just a great film mater, this fella creates damn good still images too!
Peter took the video while I took the stills camera to see if I could get a few more shots action shots of snakes, jacks and goatfish. The action was once very good, this time a few lionfish were amongst the action, whether the lionfish were actually in the group as a result of the group entering their territory we never found out. I shot as many action shots as I could…
Then I noticed a huge female come into view. This snake swam off, only to be followed by a smaller male, then as I watch the small male wrapped its body aorund the larger female. I went crazy with my underwater buzzer to attract Peters attention, it would be great if he could get this on film. WHile Peter was on his way I managed to shoot a few shots of the mating snakes with the stills camera. Now this was a yeehaaah dive indeeed!
The trip went so well that Peter had shot enough footage to eventually go towards creating a great sequence, and all well within the time we had allowed for the charter. We even found mating sea snakes on our last day. Now I can’t wait to see the next great BBC production — Planet Earth!