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Marine Life Blog » Ambon, Indonesia » Critter Bonanza under Ambon’s Laha Pier

Critter Bonanza under Ambon’s Laha Pier

Ambon, Indonesia May 2011–

We love diving under docks, so Anna and I are understandably excited as our launch approaches the fabled Laha Pier located on the northern shore of Ambon Harbor—a corner of the world long famed for remarkable animals that we have been itching to explore for more than a decade. It is our last full day aboard the Dewi Nusantara (formerly the Paradise Dancer), the luxury live-aboard, which for the past two weeks has sailed us south from Raja Ampat in eastern Indonesia, and dropped anchor at Ambon this very afternoon. Like us, everyone is in high anticipation of ending our voyage with a bang.

Redhead Coral Gobies

Redhead Coral Gobies

As the saying goes first impressions can deceive. Topside, the storied pier, smaller than expected and girdled with a scrum of weathered fishing vessels, juts out unimpressively from a grimy beach fronting an equally grimy lagoon. The scenery doesn’t improve underwater. From a forest of line-fouled pilings a steep slope piled high with bottles, boards, busted buckets, and waterlogged boots cascades seaward—one of the last places on Earth anybody would want to visit unless you happen to be a critter hunter.

Many of us are immediately drawn to the swarms of pie-sized Fire Urchins scouring the seafloor in nomadic hoards. A careful survey of the echinoderms reveals exactly what we’re hoping for—mated pairs of Coleman Shrimp, and a scattering of Brook’s Urchin Shrimp—obligatory symbiotes that live exclusively among their hosts’ hornets’ nests of spines. On our way back up the incline dive guide Yann spots a pair of Harlequin Shrimp dancing atop a sea star dragged into the shadows of a junk pile for dinner.  After the dive, reports of bumblebee shrimp, frogfish and a pair of pipehorses continue to filter in.  Without question, Laha Pier is hot.

Coleman Shrimp, Periclimenes colemani.

Coleman Shrimp, Periclimenes colemani.

Brook’s Urchin Shrimp, Allopontonia brooki.

Brook’s Urchin Shrimp, Allopontonia brooki.

Harlequin Shrimp, Hymenocera elegans.

Harlequin Shrimp, Hymenocera elegans.

Bumblebee Shrimp, Gnathrophylum americanum.

Bumblebee Shrimp, Gnathrophylum americanum.

At the pier once again the following morning a current forces us up into the shallows among the pilings. While clinging to rocks, Anna and I watch a lizardfish dart out into the gale and grab a toby, which, as is its nature, inflates to the size of a ping-pong ball. The toby’s last-gasp strategy works for several minutes, but eventually the fish is swallowed whole. The current abates as quickly as it began. Anna disappears down the slope while I check out a number of large cornetfish uncharacteristically hovering in the shallows. I slip slowly over the rocks on my belly, but the fish spook. Ten minutes later they are back settled into place as before. This time I make it close enough to see a troupe of white-banded coral shrimp picking parasites from the fishes’ gills like robots on an assembly line.

Lizardfish with inflated Toby.

Lizardfish with inflated Toby.

Cornetfish cleaned by White-Banded Coral Shrimp, Lysmata amboinensis.

Cornetfish cleaned by White-Banded Coral Shrimp, Lysmata amboinensis.

At ten o’clock, the next morning two skiffs from Maluku Divers pull alongside the Dewi Nusantara to collect Anna and me along with three shipmates who plan to remain in Ambom for a few days. Anna and I join the skiff with the resort’s manager, a gregarious Dutchman, Marcel Hagendijk, and Indonesian dive guide Semuel Bukasiang. Anyone who keeps up with our dive travels is well aware our esteem for local naturalist guides. Like Laha Pier’s renown for harboring rare creatures, Semuel’s reputation for finding them precedes him. Trained in Lembeh Strait during the 1990s as one of Larry Smith’s original team of guides, Semuel later explored much of eastern Indonesia on live-aboards before settling in Ambon where he continues his reign as a superstar supreme.

Following two morning dives we arrive at the resort to find our luggage stowed in a waterfront bungalow and a warm lunch waiting. Recently relocated on Ambon Harbor’s northern coastline, closer to the airport and better diving, Maluku Divers is our kind of resort: laid back yet service oriented, comfortable and picturesque, with a top-notch camera room and dive facilities, and best yet, providing quick and easy access to a wonderland of world-class animals.

That afternoon at Laha, while Semuel and I are away, Anna videos a pair of cuttlefish mating, a behavior I’ve wanted to document for some time. As it turns out, it takes three lengthy dives, following cuttlefish about, before I get the goods. Finally on the third dive, after trailing the five-inch subjects for more than an hour, the pair finally becomes frisky. Suddenly, the smaller female turns to face her partner and bends all eight arms back over her head exposing an opening for the male to dart forward and insert his sperm packet. The episode is repeated two more times in rapid succession before the pair calmly resumes their hunt.  Minutes later the female begins nosing around a small crevice where she eventually extends a cone of arms inside leaving behind a single, marble-sized egg dangling by a thread.

Male cuttlefish (left) placing sperm packet.

Male cuttlefish (left) placing sperm packet.

Female placing fertilized egg.

Female placing fertilized egg.

The cuttlefish never seem bothered by our company. Most of their time is spent feeding for crustaceans among the rocks. When a potential meal is detected, a long translucent feeding tentacle shoots out and grabs the victim that is drawn into a circle of sucker-lined arms and promptly dispatched by an unseen beak.

Cuttlefish hunting.

Cuttlefish hunting.

Cuttlefish with captured crab.

Cuttlefish with captured crab.

Toward the end of the morning Semuel signals us of over to show off a Mosaic Boxer Crab he found under a rock. Although I have photographed the species before, the exquisite pea-sized crab, noted and named for feeding anemones attached to the ends of its claws, has evaded Anna’s lens. As she positions for the shot I turn to find a colorful rock to use as a backdrop. When I pivot back, Anna and Semuel have vanished. Unconcerned, I take a shot or two of the crab before I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Semuel motioning up into the water column where Anna is making a safety stop. Puzzled, I tuck the little crab back under its home rock and swim to her side. She points at her left thumb, oddly cinched below the knuckle with a red rubber band. Then she makes the sign for “lionfish” and points back at her finger.

On the boat Anna relates the sorry saga of her hand going down for balance, as it turned out, on the spine of a lionfish. We have been on lionfish collecting trips with REEF in the Bahamas, so know how painful such wounds can be. Hot water is the elixir, breaking down the venomous protein for relief. Anna sits with her finger inside a thermos of warm water for the best part of an hour significantly decreasing her pain. Had Semuel’s rubber band trick helped in the effort? Who knows, but Anna is back in the water that afternoon.

Great animals keep coming. While surveying a stretch of coast we find three classic crustaceans one after the other. The first is a Hairy Squat Lobster nestled in the fold of a barrel sponge, followed by a magnificent Banded Tozeuma Shrimp clinging to a black coral bush, and finally topping off our trio of miniature wonders a Wire Coral Crab.

Hairy Squat Lobster, Lauriea siagiani.

Hairy Squat Lobster, Lauriea siagiani.

Banded Tozeuma Shrimp, Tozeuma armatum.

Banded Tozeuma Shrimp, Tozeuma armatum.

Wire Coral Crab, Xenocarcinus tuberculatus.

Wire Coral Crab, Xenocarcinus tuberculatus.

Later in the dive Semuel leads us to isolated coral head the size and shape an old beetle bug car. In this and other oceans we’ve occasionally come across such isolated structures that for some unknown reason attract an inordinate amount of sea life, measured in both biomass and biodiversity. Anna and I call these phenomenon “beehives”. This site, undercut on opposite sides with deep grottos, hums with activity inside and out. Waves of small schooling fish dominate the seascape until open-water predators pass sending the multitudes diving en masse for safe haven below. Lively cleaning stations are also key components. Inside, hinge-beak shrimp carpet the walls and white-banded cleaner shrimp wave white antenna to attract customers from the legions of cardinalfish hovering nearby. It’s a place to spend hours, so we do. The longer we stay the more we see. Soon even cryptic species make fleeting appearances—first a juvenile Coral Grouper (the first I’ve encountered) and later a Convict Goby. But the main attraction is a Fimbriated Moray curled deep within the recess with its open mouth wide to accommodate cleaner. Try as she might Anna is unable to maneuver her camera housing into position to record the action; but not to worry, Anna has a plan.

Juvenile Coral Grouper, Cephalopholis moniata.

Juvenile Coral Grouper, Cephalopholis moniata.

Convict Goby, Priolepis cincta.

Convict Goby, Priolepis cincta.

The following day, our last in Ambon, Anna arrives at the beehive equipped with a recently purchased GoPro—a miniature video unit, packed inside a Plexiglas housing that fits in her hand. Stretching as far as possible she places the housing, with the camera running, on a rock near the moray’s gaping mouth. With lights aimed from her primary housing near the entrance she watches the drama unfold. Later, at our bungalow she excitedly downloads her images, only to discover that the tiny camera had been angled a mite too high cutting off much of the eel’s head. Although dismayed she good-naturedly edits the footage nonetheless, entitling the results “Learning Curve”.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFbxeXhSf64&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

A southerly blow, sending spray over the seawall, doesn’t bode well for our final dive. We’re after an image of a Redhead Coral Goby destined for the next printing of Reef Fish, Tropical Pacific. But unfortunately, our intended target sighted by Anna a few days before, lives among mazes of coral braches in ten feet of water where the surge reigns. With a good ol’ fashion what-the-heck, we decide to go for it, knowing that if necessary, we can later head down the slope to calmer water.

Redhead Coral Gobies

Redhead Coral Gobies

As expected the swells in the shallows throw us about at will. I decide that as long as we are here we should at least search for the goby, which Semuel quickly locates. The instant I see the charming little fellow scampering around the pencil-sized braches I decide to try for a shot. Lying spread eagle on the sand with my BC deflated and extra weight ringing my waist, I’m still out of control. Adding to my woes, the goby, wanting nothing to do with me, hides out of view. Semuel helps the effort by settling on the opposite side of the coral, which forces the fish to scurry from side to side. Then, unexpectedly there are two gobies that for split second nestle together looking straight into my lens as seductively as puppies at the pound. I bite down on my mouthpiece, exhale until my lungs scream, but no luck, my legs and body still pitch like leaves in a gale. Then Anna comes to the rescue lying across my wayward legs. It’s just what I need. Ten minute later, the gobies come together and I snap the shot.

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