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A Fish Fancier’s Heaven is found in the Solomon Islands

November 2009 – Solomon Islands
November 17, 2009 – A few minutes after landing at the Nadi Airport in Fiji we join up with the last of our group of 20 in the waiting area before boarding our final flight to the Solomon Islands. At the end of our multi-day aeronautical ordeal, awaits the Bilikiki, provisioned and ready to whisk us away for a two-week dive vacation. Ned and I feel like we’re among the last divers in the world to visit the Solomons. In fact, the majority of our present party are making return visits. Paul, remembering the region’s lush coral garden from his trip some twenty years ago, when the Bilikiki first went into service, had for some time been reminding us to pack wide angle lenses. His counsel creates a mini-dilemma: with ever tightening airline restrictions, the extra weight means leaving behind vital necessities, like chocolate….. And besides, knowing Ned’s penchant for critter hunting, I had strong suspicions that the extra lenses won’t make it underwater. Oh well, a dome port and zoom lens are duly dug out, dusted off, and packed replacing two pounds of Dove Silky Dark.
Hours later our flight-weary band stumbles off the plane at the capital of the Solomons, Honiara on Guadalcanal, site of some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Campaign. A phalanx of pre-arranged porters shepherd us through Customs and onto a waiting bus.
Once aboard the Bilikiki, cruise directors Kellie Oldfield and Sam Leeson assign cabins and have our luggage delivered, while the crew makes ready for an overnight passage. Before we know it, all is unpacked and in place, and we find ourselves lounging on the top deck sipping cocktails, nibbling hors d’oeuvres, as a sunset blazes across the horizon.

A Vegetarian's Dream

A Vegetarian’s Dream – Floating Salad Bar at Every Stop

Bilikiki

Bilikiki

Ladies of the Bilikiki

Ladies of the Bilikiki

November 18 – 21, 2009 Russell Islands

Our first two days are spent at White Beach, site of a WWII depot. The sand slope angling down from a collapsed dock and submerged barge is scattered with jeeps, buckled truck bodies, oil drums, bright green beds of calcareous algae, and thickets of branching coral. This is far from Paul’s promised coral gardens, but the trashy terrain offers up great critter hunting. Right away Roger Van Dok finds a spidery decorator crab covered with tunicates, and there are tons of nudibranchs and exotic fish. In the shallows, flat-topped Archer Fish glide through mangrove shadows. And, at night the place comes alive with seldom-seen animals.

Roger’s Decorator Crab

Roger’s Decorator Crab

New Marble Shrimp – Saron sp.

New Marble Shrimp – Saron sp.

Archer Fish

Archer Fish

At Leru Island, we find out what everyone has been bragging about. A shallow, sunny shelf piled high with corals runs as far as we can see. As everyone glides about in amazement I spot Ned and Paul with their heads down, feverishly photographing a coral hermit crab no bigger than a button. After running the images through Photoshop it’s easy to understand their distraction.

Coral Hermit Crab

Coral Hermit Crab

Video: Fish Fanciers Heaven

Our night anchorage inside a lagoon with a mucky slope provides a good chance for me to locate a species of Slingjaw Wrasse, recently described by Bruce Carlson and Jack Randall. Although the new species is quite similar to the more familiar wider ranging slingjaw, Epibulus insidiator, the two scientists had long suspected that there are actually two different species. After a recent collecting trip in the Solomons their hunch was confirmed. Their work appeared in the journal, Copeia in 2008. I brought the paper along hoping it would help me track down their discovery, which according to their research inhabit protected inshore waters similar to where we are anchored. On the late afternoon dive I spot a bright yellow female with a black pectoral fin blotch diagnostic of the new species. In my fruitless attempts to communicate the need for a photo to Christina Rudman and Karen Garcia the fish spook and disappear.
The following evening, anchored at the same site, I have a second chance to document the new slingjaw, but Ned, who doesn’t miss a night dive, isn’t too enthused about using up his bottom time at 60-feet on a late afternoon dive. Knowing his weakness for flasher wrasse, I dangle the promise of a filamented flasher I saw nearby, so off we go. Ned gets shots of both the male and female of the new species, Epibulus brevis, the flasher, and to top the dive we find a spawning sea cucumber on our way back up the slope.

New Slingjaw Wrasse, Epibulus insidiator, Female

New Slingjaw Wrasse, Epibulus brevis, Female

New Slingjaw Wrasse, Epibulus insidiator, Male

New Slingjaw Wrasse, Epibulus brevis, Male

Filamented Wrasse - Typical Variation

Filamented Wrasse - Typical Variation

Spawning Sea Cucumber

Spawning Sea Cucumber

November 22, 2009 Mary Island
An early morning departure gets us to Mborokua, a.k.a. Mary Island, in time for the 8:00 a.m. dive. Ned, clued in by an e-mail from our fishwatcher friend, Kreg Martin, heads down a steep slope directly behind our anchorage to look for Red-tailed Flashers, a species he has yet to encounter. He finds the Red-tails at 130 feet, but because it is early in the day the males are not flashing their colorful courtship displays. The remainder of our group returns from Barracuda Point wide-eyed and animated about great schools of jacks and barracudas. Their excited babble about  “the fishiest dive ever” is all the prompting I need to switch to my wide-angle rig, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’ll let Ned tell about his afternoon flasher episode. ~ Anna

Video: Fishy

Cleaning station

Cleaning station

Painted Thecacera - Nudibranch

Painted Thecacera - Nudibranch

Yamasui’s Cuthoha – Nudibranch

Yamasui’s Cuthoha – Nudibranch

Crinoid Shrimp

Crinoid Shrimp

I sit out the afternoon dives to gain a bit of extra bottom time, and at 5 p.m. slip off the dive platform and head down to the rubble patch where I spotted two male Red-tail Flashers that morning. The best time to catch males in full display is during a narrow 20-minute window in the late afternoon when the fish become sexually active. The approximately dozen Indo-Pacific flasher species described to date tend to live fairly deep, typically between 60 and 180 feet. Because the two-inch males are so vulnerable to predation, colonies of the little plankton pickers hang out above fields of rubble, coral, or algae where they can dive when threatened. To keep from drawing attention to themselves, males seldom display except during courtship, so the late afternoon reproductive period, when the males dash about flashing wildly provides the best chance to see one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean in all its glory.
Arriving at 130 feet, I glance down at my computer: 17 minutes till decompression it threatens. I’m early, the few Red-tail males, mixed in with a group of more plentiful Filamented Flashers, are just beginning to get excited. After a fifteen minute wait the males hit their stride frantically racing around the bottom between harems made up of smaller, nondescript females.
Although it goes against instinct, I settle near a group of egg-swollen females and wait. I have to admit it is agonizing watching your target repeatedly displaying ten feet away. But patience pays. Eventually the male zips past, but I don’t feel that I got the shot. I glance down at my meter just as it goes into deco. With plenty of air, I decide to wait for another pass. Minutes later, my target zooms in, pivots, spreads its magnificent fins and holds pose just long enough for me to lock focus.    ~Ned

Red-tail Flasher

Red-tail Flasher

November 23 – 24, 2009 Marovo Lagoon
A night crossing takes us to the famous Marovo Lagoon. The area is famous for woodcarvings and we have two village visits scheduled between morning dives. While Ned waits by the water’s edge watching the children splash in the shallows the rest of us charge toward a row of waiting craftsmen, each determined to return with an exotic treasure. Everyone covets a beautiful hardwood bowl carved in the shape of an angelfish. Darcy Charlier makes the winning bid, which includes cash and a t-shirt. We’re all wondering how she is going to pull off the t-shirt part of the deal, when Roger gallantly strips off his shirt sealing the bargain. We later learn from Kellie and Sam that bargainers regularly return minus shirts, shoes and hats!

Roger’s Loses His Shirt

Roger’s Loses His Shirt

Kid’s of Marovo Lagoon

Kids of Marovo Lagoon

Kid’s of Marovo Lagoon

Kids of Marovo Lagoon

Kid’s of Marovo Lagoon

Kids of Marovo Lagoon

Kid’s of Marovo Lagoon

Kids of Marovo Lagoon

Inspecting Morovo Treasures

Inspecting Marovo Treasures

I am a keen collector of drift seeds, more commonly known as “sea beans.” No trip to an area with tropical beaches is complete unless I can indulge in a little beachcombing. The next morning I skip the dive and snorkel to Kicha Island where among a chorus of morning bird calls, I leisurely hunt the wrack line for oddities. The wash of leaves and seaweed are refreshingly free of the plastic debris that clutter so many beaches we visit.

Kicha Island Sea Beans with Pod

Kicha Island Sea Beans with Pod

I return to the boat to find the morning divers gathered around Ned’s laptop. It seems that he made a last minute decision to change over to his wide-angle lens. After glancing at the image on his screen I realize what the excitement is about. I’ll let Ned provide the details. ~ Anna

After several days of world-class reefs and swirling fish, I decide to switch lenses and take a few scenics. Because of a heavy early morning overcast, I’m regretting my decision even before tumbling out of the dinghy. Once underwater conditions appear even more bleak. Without sun the coral shelf is dark and unappealing, and the usual sparkling visibility is clouded with particulates. Instead of following the outer reef line with the others, I break toward the shallows. As I round a towering bommie, I find myself face to face with a herd of huge Bumphead Parrotfish. Now I’m not much of a big-animal diver, but bumpheads are an exception. The whacky brutes, which consume great quantities of coral and algae, and can reach four-feet in length and weigh up to 100 lbs. are edgy so I drop down to the bottom and sneak forward. Because of the particulates the use of a strobe is impractical. Coupling this with the dim light, dark corals and dull fish, my camera rig is pushed to its limits. Within a minute, the herd of about 40 fish had enough and moves seaward. I drop back and make a wide circle attempting to head them off, but they are on to me and scatter. One large bull breaks solo and heads back down the outer reef line silhouetted against a backdrop of blue. Just as the beast begins to outpace me, I catch a glimpse of Chris Rudman ahead. Waving my arm wildly, she instantly assesses the situation, turns the bull back toward me and gracefully swims parallel with the bulky beast as it passes. I love that lady!  ~Ned

Bumphead Wrangler extraordinaire

Bumphead Wrangler extraordinaire

November 25, 2009 Guadalcanal
One of our companions, Mike Phelan, is a long-time REEF expert-level fish surveyor. REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) is expanding its Fish Survey Project to the Pacific early next year so Mike and another expert surveyor, Lillian Kenney, have been documenting fish sightings during our trip. Having spent two years in the Solomon Islands, over 30 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, Mike graciously shares his wealth of knowledge about local customs and history. His Peace Corp project, run by the British government, was to conduct the first national census. Listening to his stories about traveling from island to island by whatever means of water transport he could muster, usually dugout canoes, we can’t help but think of the irony being back 33 years later traveling in Bilikiki-style comfort while conducting a fish population census! Mike speaks fluent Pidgin and we’ve delighted watching him interact with the crew and the many locals who paddle up for a visit at each of our stops.

Mike and Lillian Keeping Up with the 3,000 Fishes of the Solomons

Mike and Lillian Keeping Up with the 3,000 Fishes of the Solomons

Even More Food, Just What We All Need

Even More Food, Just What We All Need

We can’t dive around this historic island of Guadalcanal without visiting one of the famous war wrecks, so Sam selects the I-1, a Japanese submarine that ran aground after a battle. The forward 1/3 was blown up in the 1970’s by a salver who apparently didn’t know that there were still torpedoes aboard. It is a good dive, but the venture makes me feel a little guilty because I just can’t make myself enjoy wreck dives. I make the obligatory swim around the hull and once over what is left of the top deck before heading to the shallows. After the dive, we observe a dry riverbed up the coast and ask Sam and Kellie if we can give it a try hoping to find a good muck site.
With only three-feet of visibility and surging swells our exploratory muck dive is aborted. While bobbing on the surface waiting for the dingy to reposition us out toward the reef a black hulk dressed in Darth Vader black and loaded down with commando-like gear emerges from the surf and clambers toward the beach where members of a local village have gathered to watch the strange happenings taking place just offshore. The startled villagers scatter as if a bomb had exploded. Soon the screams turn into laughter as first the men and later the women, children and dogs emerge from a palm thicket and approach a smiling, waving, Pidgin-speaking Mike.

November 26 – 30, 2009 Florida Islands
Currents haven’t been much of a concern during our trip but they are screaming during our early morning dive at a mid-ocean bommie in the Florida Islands. Roger, in an effort to get out of the blow dodges inside a cave and whiles away his time inspecting nooks and crannies. His effort pays big dividends when he catches a glimpse of a tiny white seahorse the size of a sunflower seed swinging by its tail from an algae blade. Fearing he will lose sight of his prize he sticks his head outside just long enough to catch Ned’s attention. It is a rare little Pontohi Seahorse, according the Kellie, only the second ever found in the area. After the dive, Ned dubs Roger “Liberty Senior” after our beloved eagle-eyed Indonesian dive guide and dear friend, Liberty Tukunang.
Inspired by Roger’s find, the following morning Kellie discovers a dark version of the Potohi we later identify as another recently described species, known as the Severn’s Pygmy Seahorse. Including the more common Denise Pygmy Seahorse and the Barbaganti, that makes four species of pygmies for the trip.

Roger’s (aka Liberty Senior) Pontohi Pygmy Seahorse

Roger’s (aka Liberty Senior) Pontohi Pygmy Seahorse

Kellie’s Severn’s Pygmy Seahorse

Kellie’s Severn’s Pygmy Seahorse

Denise Pygmy Seahorse

Denise Pygmy Seahorse

Barbaganti Pygmy Seahorse

Barbaganti Pygmy Seahorse

Although Ned is making every night dive, I have only made one and guilt is setting in. Since the night diving crew has been having luck lately, I resolve to give it a go. My buddy Darcy, who over the years has faithfully accompanied me on many misadventures, decides to join us. The dusk divers return to the boat warning of a rising current, but we are already committed. Darcy and I last 25 minutes screaming past nudibranchs and decorator crabs, before giving up. Ned and the other night diving veterans wisely duck behind coral heads and return an hour later with several winners, including another outrageous Saron Shrimp.

Male Marble Shrimp, Saron sp.

Male Marble Shrimp, Saron sp.

Mbike Island tops off our trip. We start the dive on a scenic wreck, festooned with corals and loaded with nudibranchs and lionfish. Later, we work our way up a white sand slope toward the beach, stopping every minute or so as Kellie points out dozens of exciting animals including a golden Ornate Ghost Pipefish, a pair of frilly pipe horses, a sea cucumber loaded with symbiotic shrimp, wasp fish and nudies of every description. I spend the shallow part of my dive following a pair of lionfish hunting in a team on the rich sand floor. Ned is in heaven having found a colony of Filamented Flasher Wrasse in only 30 feet of water sporting unique color patterns. In fact, the bottom is so loaded with unique animals that we decide to spend the day.

Video: Lionfish.

Filamented Flasher Solomon Style

Filamented Flasher Solomon Style

Filamented Flasher - Variation

Filamented Flasher - Variation

There are so many shrimp gobies on the slope I make a concerted effort to find a rather rare black nudibranch that, oddly enough, lives attached to the fins of certain species shrimp gobies. The triple play symbiotic relationship with goby, shrimp and nudibranch all inhabiting the same burrow, was discovered by nudibranch guru Mary Jane Adams in the Solomons a number of years back. Since then the unique behavior has turned up in Indonesia, Fiji and Japan. While leaving my video camera running on a pair of shrimp busily bulldozing the entrance to their sand burrow, I wander off to search for the mysterious nudibranch. After sneaking up on dozens of gobies I hit pay dirt, finally finding the little back nudi clinging to the dorsal fin of a Stienitz Shrimp Goby. Thrilled, I rocket back to retrieve my camera to film the discovery, only to find that I am out of tape. Broken hearted, I swim off to locate Ned who gets the image.

Symbiosis in Overdrive

Symbiosis in Overdrive

Video: Work is Never Done

November 30 – Our last day of diving is spent at Anuha, another sand slope covered with critters. On a shallow patch reef, I work a coral head graced by a school of golden Glass Fish. The water is crystal, the sun is out, and the tiny fish that usually school at the entrances of shadowy depressions swim in the open relying on thicket of staghorn coral for protection. The mesmerizing image providing a dazzling parting shot from the Solomon Islands.

Video: Glassfish Farewell

While most spend the afternoon packing away cameras and drying dive gear, several of us gals go to shore to check out the beach at Anuha for sea beans. We’re immediately joined by local children who, after we explain what were looking for quickly scamper off in the brush. In a matter of minutes they return with their hands overflowing with giant beans of all types. Finally ready to return, Lynn blasts forth with a piercing whistle. Wowed and intrigued, the kids gang around attempting to mimic Lynn’s dazzling feat. After an impromptu whistling lesson we leave the cheery band merrily whistling away.

Whistling Lesson

Whistling Lesson

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3 Responses to "A Fish Fancier’s Heaven is found in the Solomon Islands"

  1. Dee Fulton says:

    Love reading your stories, from leaving the Dove chocolate rations behind to missing the video of the gobi-shrimo-nudi triumvirate. Feel like I’m there with you. Hope to see you in Sept. at Buddy.

  2. Jessica Martin says:

    I read all your stories about your great journey and love to see your all energetic work.

  3. Doug Lappi says:

    I loved your picture of the coral hermit crab. We took a trip in the Bilikiki last year and Vicky, one of us, snapped a shot of one very similar to yours. I was stunned when I saw the picture; I never imagined there could be such an spectacular animal. Thanks for confirming that there is! I will always be on the look-out now.

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