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Marine Life Blog » Behavior, Indonesia, Liveaboard Diving Indonesia » A rare pipehorse trumped by a christmas tree worm spawning

A rare pipehorse trumped by a christmas tree worm spawning

April 6 – An overnight steam takes us to Pisang Island, a lone sentinel southeast of Halmahera. The impressive stands of giant hardwoods sheltering calling birds and edged by a white sand beach bode well for a shore excursion. The water here is as clear as any I’ve seen in years. Aggregations of orange and purple anthias fill the sea along the drop-off as far as the eye can see



Eduardo Martinez and I drift along the edge and follow a huge school of grazing bumphead parrotfish, while Ned and Liberty spend the first dive turning rocks in a rubbly, bombed-out section of the reef flat. For their troubles, they discover a tiny frogfish, an abalone, a couple of flatworms and a crab or two. Dave Inman declared the afternoon dive one of the most beautiful he’d ever experienced.

Guido, Joyce, Heather and I skip the afternoon dive to beach comb and conduct an informal flip-flop survey. For five years now, we’ve noticed that a beach’s collection of flotsam flip-flops tends to be either left-footed or all right-footed. Over the years this phenomena has led to much speculation, even to an imaginary spoof documentary entitled “Island of Left-footed People.” I stumbled upon a tidy little explanation last year while reading Skye Moody’sWashed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam.”  In 1990, five containers fell off a ship, releasing about 80,000 Nike athletic shoes into the North Pacific. Beachcombers and oceanographers collecting the shoes found that depending upon the location along the Pacific Northwest coast, shoes were predominately left-footed or right-footed. As the story goes, the slight curvature of the left and right-footed toes of the shoes caused them to tack in different directions with the prevailing currents and wind. Our flip-flop survey on Pisang showed a statistically significant count of 11 left-footed shoes to 22 rights.

Pisang’s One-stop Flip Flop Shop

Pisang’s One-stop Flip Flop Shop

The beach prize of the day is a germinated sea bean. I’ve collected hundreds of different tropical drift seeds but this is the first time I’ve ever found a seed that had actually completed its journey and carried out its purpose. After photos, we carefully replant the seedling. Check out for more info about sea bean drifters.

Sea Bean Doing Its Thing

Sea Bean Doing Its Thing

Settling  Foxface the Size of a Quarter

Settling Foxface the Size of a Quarter


The clear waters of Pisang Island also provide plenty of action after dark. Acho shows us decorator crabs and nudis as fast as we can take them in. Twenty minutes before the end of the dive, a plankton cloud moves in bringing a swirl of bugs and worms that halo my video lights. But with the unnerving chaos comes a scattering of settling fishes, including surgeons, jacks and lionfish, tinier than my pinky nail. Their transparent and silver bodies – vestiges of a recent pelagic past – brand them as newbie’s. Within moments of settling, the vulnerable fry disappear under rocks or beneath the sand. In a few days they will reappear as full-fledged juveniles.

 Just before we surface after our prescribed 70-minute dive, the saron and hingebeak shrimp begin pouring out of the crevices. But, rules are rules, and we mustn’t keep the softie, non-night diving cocktail circuit back aboard waiting too long for dinner.

Actually, cocktail hour proves to be a useful time to share photos and knowledge and we return to find the Gordon’s school of underwater photography in session, conducted by David Kay with student Mary Ulrickson honing up macro skills on the bottle.

David Conducts a Much Needed Gordon’s Digital Photo Course for Mary

David Conducts a Much Needed Gordon’s Digital Photo Course for Mary

Pisang island has surely been visited by other dive operators passing this way; however infrequently enough that there are no known names for the sites in dive literature. Pisang means banana in Indonesian, so Wendy, Yann and Acho, christened the sites we explored: Pisang Goreng (a popular fried banana dessert), Pisang Susu (a tiny sweet yellow variety) and Gone Bananas. A delightful ending to a delicious day.

April 7 – We start the day at the southern end of Mano Island. We’ve been asking for muck and we get it! What a fun site – we find five different species of pipefishes plus a beautiful black Ornate ghost pipefish. Flasher wrasses were flashing off in the middle of the day instead of waiting for their traditional late afternoon courtship period. I come over a rise and find David, Jim and Paul tightly gathered around a small coral head photographing a colony of diminutive coral hermit crabs. Instead of commandeering discarded gastropod shells like their larger brethren, coral hermits take up residence in abandoned wormholes in living coral. In most instances coral hermit colonies consist of fewer than a dozen individuals. However this coral mount contains hundreds of the cute little characters busily waving their feeding antennae in the current.

The Sashimi Hunting - Bruce, Eduardo, James and Guido

The Sashimi Hunters - Bruce, Eduardo, James and Guido


It is the ship’s policy when exploring new territory, to always request permission from nearby villages before entering the water. Today’s appeal received a rare rebuff. It is upsetting until we learn that the local powers have a good reason for their decision. Tomorrow is national election day and the village doesn’t want any distraction in their declared “Quiet Week”. In such isolated communities the presence of two dingy-loads of Darth Vaders in neoprene, tumbling backwards in unison and remaining submerged for hours always attracts considerable attention. What appears to be a bit of bad luck sets the stage for afternoon prosperity.

With no more GPS numbers to try in the area the dive team decides to explore a silty channel before steaming on. It takes a bit of searching along the mucky grass slope, but before long we begin to find gold. First to appear are pairs of endlessly cute Signal Gobies, busily digging their honeymoon suites in the soft sediment. In deeper water we find dense aggregations of flasher wrasse displaying in all their glory at the height of a late afternoon love fest. I’m stalking an unfamiliar lizardfish when several wildly swinging lights catch my attention. When I arrive at the scene four of our group surround Yann, who is clearly excited. Straining to see what he is closely following with his finger, it takes what seems like forever to see the two threadlike forms he is tracking – oh my, two Rumengani pipehorses! Underwater naturalists around the globe have been abuzz about these tiny creatures that were recently discovered by Singaporean photographer William Tan’s dive guide, Noldy Rumengan. Shortly after the pair was discovered in North Sulawesi and subsequently scientifically described (Kyonemichthys rumengani) a second pair of the same species was rediscovered hundreds of miles south in South Sulawesi. This leads one to believe that with the right search image in place we might find that these splendid little fellows are more common than first imagined.

While maneuvering to keep our eyes on the tiny pipehorses without stirring up silt, Yann points to a Halimeda Ghost Pipefish not six inches away. In the excitement I had to force myself to slow down. We’re at 60 feet on the third dive of the day; this is no time to be swept away in a frenzy of goby fever! Back on board the tender, I tell Ned, who with Liberty had been occupied in the shallows photographing a Hairy squat lobster, about the new pipehorse, but the significance of my words don’t register until I show him my video. “Why didn’t you insist that I go back down to shoot them?” he barks. “I told you it was the new pipehorse” I reply. “But you didn’t say it was Noldy’s pipehorse…”   Uh-Oh.

Squat Lobster

Hairy Squat Lobster

April 8 – Our fortunes continue to run, as Wendy and company put us on an oceanic reef that Paul later declares to be one of the most beautiful he has ever dived. (That is a significant declaration coming from a 40-year dive-travel veteran.) Thick, healthy coral reef framed with hundred-foot-plus-plus vis extends in every direction. Here biodiversity meets biomass. Fishes large and small saturate the sea, filling every cranny while shoals of open water species laze in the reef’s lee or repeatedly explode in starbursts of colors off the point.

Even with so many wonderful things buzzing about, a number of the group spend a chunk of their bottom time laying flat on the 60-foot seafloor watching jawfishes pop high out of their holes to nab passing plankton.

Blue Jawfish

Jumping Jawfish

Liberty as usual dutifully goes about the business of finding critters for the book. His dedication pays dividends when he extracts a 5-inch sea cucumber from a crevice. Under closer examination, the strange little cucumber turns out to be a segmented worm!

Liberty’s Not-Sea Cucumber

Liberty’s Not-Sea Cucumber

We hate to leave this reef after just two dives, but we still have a lot of territory to cover. Our afternoon dive is another winner with more sharks, dartfishes, glassfish and the biggest moray I have ever seen anywhere. Toward the end of the dive Liberty’s eye catches a wispy swirl emerging from a Christmas Tree Worm. Ned, realizing that the animal is spawning, immediately goes into action.  

Spawning Christmas Tree Worm

Spawning Christmas Tree Worm

Now, it’s my turn to be heartsick for missing a rare sight. I have been fixated for some years now with finding spawning Christmas Tree Worms, to the point that I have contacted the few divers I know who have witnessed the behavior to match their sighting times and dates to moon phases and coordinates in the hope of improving my chances. Liberty’s discovery occurred at 3 pm on the day before the full moon – both peculiar times and dates indeed for the spawning of anything. For minutes, the reddish brown strands spiral up the corkscrew core of the worms’ gill structures before tailing off in the current. Later I tell Ned that I would happily trade him my Rumengani pipehorses for his sighting. Still smarting from missing the pipehorse the evening before, he readily agrees to the imaginary trade.

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