Ten years is too long between dive trips to Bali. Lamentably, that’s roughly the period that has passed since Anna and I last explored the island’s underwater slopes for critters. After such a long hiatus, we finally make it back and find little changed except for the island’s buzzing motorbike population, which has grown exponentially.
We’re here to join friends for 12 days of diving at Scuba Seraya—a charming dive resort, located a mile or two south of Tulamben, the island’s famed diving retreat on the northeast coast. To satisfy a long-lingering urge, Anna and I arrive a week early to explore Secret Bay and Pura Jati—muck sites on the opposite side of Bali. After a four-hour drive from the airport in Denpasar, we settle into a beachfront hotel in the north-coast town of Pemuteran, about halfway between the two dive locations.
Far from being a secret any longer, Secret Bay has been turned into a dive park with showers, restrooms, a concrete walkway and a fee. Our April arrival coincides with a seasonal lull, so for four days we pretty much have the place to ourselves. The shallow trash-strewn lagoon, just around the corner from the busy ferry terminus to Java, is not much to behold topside or underwater. But for some unknown reason, the espresso-colored seafloor littered with nautical trash harbors a menagerie of Daliesque oddities—just the kind of animals we travel halfway around the world to see.
Although we put considerable thought and effort into being underwater during high tide in the hopes of picking up a bit of clear water our efforts prove fruitless. During our five dives in the bay visibility hovers from 10 to 15 feet even at the high water mark.
The first critters to brighten up the bay are Banggai Cardinalfish by the dozens. These striking black and white beauties, much prized by aquarists, are more than likely the offspring of escapees from exporters who brought them here from their restricted home range far to the north. Among the clusters of Banggai milling around the rotting ribs of a fishing vessel we notice a few males brooding eggs inside swollen jaws.
After sorting through the bay’s contingent of dragonets, nudibranchs, and scorpionfishes, we hit the jackpot when the well-camouflaged profile of a Hispid Frogfish materializes. Making the event even more rewarding, our prize—a rare species we’ve never seen before—turns into a pair. The smaller male, drawn to the egg-swollen female by pheromones, nestles expectantly against her side. Although frogfishes are inherently difficult to tell apart, the large pom-pom shaped fishing lure attached to a thin rod affixed to the species’ head leaves little doubt we’ve found the fabled fish.
Pura Jati, situated just off the coastal road some 45 minutes east of our hotel, has also been turned into a diving park with showers and welcomed shade provided by a thatched pavilion. Once again we are the only divers in sight. Underwater, a barren stretch of sand leads to a slope at 30 feet. Unfortunately, our guide who seems to have picked up a cold during the Ogoh-ogoh procession at his local village a few day before, cannot clear his ears below 20 ft. confining our dive to the shallows. Within minutes, a flash of action catches my eye. Approaching, I can make out a flatfish clutching a fish in its mouth. Our sudden appearance startled the predator that turns out to be a Pacific Halibut. In the confusion the prey breaks free and disappears like a shot.
Eventually we come to a stretch of sand scattered with thimble-size corallites. “Quite odd to find stony corals without any hard substrate to attach to.” I’m thinking as I pick up a piece. As I examine the specimen, Anna squeals. Looking up I see her thrusting her finger at a shallow furrow in the sand leading to a corallite. I can just make out her muffled message, “It moved.” Then she gives a second squeal. This time I see why she’s so excited—her finger points to a second corallite plowing rapidly through the sand creating a shallow trough in its wake. Anna recently recounted the delightful tale of the “Traveling Corals of Pura Jati”, on her Blenny Watcher blog.
Just like that, a week has passed and we find ourselves on the road to Tulamben, a name that brings back pleasant decade-old memories of our two previous stays. Four hours later, the road cuts through Tulamben—little more than a strip of hotels and scuba businesses pinched between the sea and the tailing slope of Gunung Agung, the tallest volcano on Bali. A mile or so more and the driver turns seaward down a narrow road that ends at the gates to Scuba Seraya. Since the last time we passed this way things have changed drastically. Ten years ago, only the skeletal framework of raw construction encircled by bamboo scaffolding stood on a recently cleared plot of seashore as the proud owner and developer Patrick Schwarz, with a sweeping hand, conjured a vision of what we see today. Glancing around at Patrick’s dream come true, Anna and I both savor the feeling of being back home.
Over the next several days friends begin filtering in, first in twos and threes, then by the car loads and finally a caravan, so many, in fact, that our band spills over into the adjoining resort, Villa Markisa. The resorts just happen to sit smack in the middle of some of the best, and the most easily accessible critter hunting grounds in the universe, as long an easterly wind doesn’t blow.
The steep slope stretching north from the resorts to Tulamben is one continuous dive site. Boat rides are short, typically 5 minutes or less. The longest, maybe 10 minutes takes you to the famed Liberty wreck on the slope fronting Tulamben. Those of us wanting even more time underwater get our wish. We simply take a few steps across a rocky beach to find plenty of action.
Our first shore dive sets the pace for the next 12 days. Only a rock’s throw from the beach a large mantis sits in his burrow as a mysterious snapping shrimp appears from the below and tiptoes across its hole-mate’s folded spearing claws. Not ten minutes later a second mantis of the same species is found sharing its accommodations with a Blue Boxer Shrimp. Then we spot the first of what becomes a non-stop parade of nudibranchs—a Tulamben specialty. Many of the nudis we find are rare, famous, spectacular, or species we’ve never seen before.
Anna and I love cleaning stations, and the slopes are home to some of the most entertaining we’ve ever encountered. Most stations accommodate a pair of resident Tomato Groupers that act like they own the place, and a big muppetlike Black Spotted Moray. Typically White-banded Cleaner Shrimp, and juvenile Blue Striped Clearer Wrasse dominate the local pest control business. Sharing the beehives of activity are satellite animals by the hundreds including waves of hinge-beak shrimp scurrying over the rocks and clouds of cardinalfish sweeping in and out of the shadows. Interestingly, nearly every station has a cute little juvenile Emperor Angelfish hanging around.
Cleaning stations are important components of healthy reef systems. The parasite problem is so rampant on reefs that at regular intervals infested fish—which is nearly all fish—hover near a station to have parasites removed. The primary pests are the water-borne larvae of gnathiid isopods. Similar to ticks, these microscopic crustaceans emerge form the sand to suck their fill of blood. In less than an hour the larvae drop off and burrow back in the sand where they metamorphous into their next life stage. To expedite their feasts, the isopods prefer to tap the blood-rich linings of gills and mouths. This is why you often see client fish with their mouths open and gills flared. Because the morays’ gill openings are too small to enter the shrimp gain access through open mouths, at times penetrating so deep into the maws of the beasts that they disappear from view.
Everyone loves octopus; and our group is constantly abuzz with the news of the most recent sighting. Although one group spends quality time with a large Day Octopus that wide-eyed witnesses estimated to be 4 feet across, two thumb-size octopus—a blue ringed and Poison Ocellate—steal the show. Unfazed by a company of divers following its every move, the blue ringed snags a crab to a round of muffled applause. Not far away we find a Poison Ocellate Octopus, calmly going about its business. Surprisingly, its reddish color blends remarkably well with the sandy terrain.
After our earlier visits to Bali, I will forever associate the island’s east coast with ghost pipefish. On our last visit in 2001, we would regularly sight as many as a dozen on a dive. Even though we arrive a few months before ghostpipefish season, which typically gets underway in August, there are enough of the little phantoms around to keep everyone happy. Every bit as exotic as the ghost pipefish, a delicate juvenile spadefish turns up at a favorite dive site. Throughout our stay, the little beauty remains next to a bright red crinoid where it was originally discovered.
Night diving and crustaceans go together. The dive guides at Scuba Seraya are particularly proud of their boxer crabs, as well they should be. Everyplace else in the Pacific we’ve dived requires turning over a gazillion rocks to locate a single crab. No such problems here, our guides know exactly where to look finding one of the wee marvels in a matter of minutes.
When the world spins in a well-greased groove dumb luck occasionally comes into play—and so it is on an afternoon dive. Lagging behind as our group heads down the slope, I only catch a glimpse of a small head and oversized dorsal fin before they disappear into a sand hole. Backing away a few feet, I settle to the bottom and wait, racking my brain in an attempt to sort out what the strange fish might be. From its size and shape I’m thinking fangblenny.
By coincidence, fangblennies happen to be fresh on my mind. Just the week before with the help of our ID book, Anna and I identified a similar-appearing species that turned out to be a Smith’s Fangblenny. But from what I briefly saw, my mystery fish seems different from the fangblennies I remember from the book. After ten minutes the tip of a tiny head with an under-slung mouth slowly emerges, followed by a set of goggle eyes. One look at me, and the fish disappears once again. This game of peek-a-boo continues for 30 minute before the front half of a white and black body bearing an impressive dorsal fin with an ocellated spot extends from the hole. I snap off a shot and inch forward spooking the fish back underground. By the time the divers troop back up the slope an hour later, the fish still hasn’t completely emerged, but I feel I have a sufficient image for an ID.
Back at the resort with the fish’s image glowing on my computer screen, I compare it with six pages of fangblennies in the book, but can’t make an ID. That evening I email the photo to ichthyologist Gerry Allen with Conservation International and co-author of our Pacific fish book. Stumped, Gerry forwards the photo to Bill Smith-Vaniz, a blenny specialist in Florida, who deems it to be a new, undescribed species.
After we leave for home Mark Erdmann, Gerry’s colleague at CI arrives at Scuba Seraya. With help from the guides and dive director Doris Hug, Mark relocates and captures the fish. As I am writing this, the fangblenny is on his way to Florida where Dr. Simth-Vaniz has consented to undertake the descriptive work. And most exciting, if it indeed turns out to be a new species, he has graciously agreed to name the fangblenny after Scuba Seraya in honor of our group’s memorable visit.
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