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Marine Life Blog » Indonesia » Komodo Dragons, a rare Crinoid Crab, Rhinopias galore and the beginnings of the Octopus Army.

Komodo Dragons, a rare Crinoid Crab, Rhinopias galore and the beginnings of the Octopus Army.

The Exotic Creature Tour, Part I: Komodo East to Alor – April 2010
Two previous trips to the Nusa Tenggara region of Indonesia convinced us that the islands hold far more than mantas and sharks and other big animals the waters are so famous for. When we booked the Komodo Dancer for a month of diving, divided into two, two-week voyages with four days scheduled between to explore Maumere Harbor, we requested an itinerary emphasizing dry river beds, lagoons, sea grass meadows, patch reefs, and pier pilings. For the most part, our group of critter hunters will be keeping their eyes glued to the bottom, hunting for a hodgepodge of seldom-seen animals instead of scanning the blue for Mr. Big.

Komodo Dancer

Komodo Dancer

Ned and Paul plan our dive trips far in advance, so we had no idea that the timing of this voyage would coincide with the final phase of their Pacific invertebrate book project. We haul along a hard-copy draft for final editing. Even though the 520 pages with 2,000 photos documenting 1600 species would seem somewhat complete, we are well aware that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what is actually out there waiting to be discovered. After five years of heavy hunting this will be our last chance to add new species to the pages. That plenty of critters remain became evident at Rinca, sister island to Komodo, where on our first dive we pick up three hot new crabs. The dive is a precursor of what is to come and happily, rare-animal action continues nonstop for the next 100 dives.

April 8-11, 2010 Bali, Indonesia

Our 1:00 a.m. drive from the Denpasar Airport to our hotel in Ubud is quite different from our last trip to Bali, 10 years ago, when we arrived during the day. At this late hour, the roads are free of temple worshippers and buzzing motorbikes, a welcomed relief from 36 hours strapped inside airplanes. Still, the drive brings back warm memories of earlier years when Ned and I first fell in love with Indonesia.

Four days of lying low in an isolated bungalow above a jungled ravine at Ubud is just the break we need after being chained to our computers for the last several months. We spend our last morning with friends Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock who live in Bali. The couple, early pioneers of Indonesia diving, and the folks responsible for first exciting us about visiting Indonesia back in the 1990s, have spent the last few years working for Conservation International in the Raja Ampat/Triton Bay area. Their fine underwater photographs and local insight are displayed in Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, their most recent publication, released in 2009.

Indonesia Map

Indonesia Map Courtesy Garry Bevan

April 12-15, 2010 Rinca to Komodo

On the way out of Bali our party converges at the Denpasar airport for our short flight to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores, where we will board the Komodo Dancer, a.k.a., Ombak Biru. The group, all friends and diving companions for years, have a spirited reunion. Roger Van Dok, chomping at the bit to be back underwater, gets down to business by passing around wanted posters for two fugitive crabs that Paul is fixated on finding with the help of eighteen pairs of critter-hunting eyes powered by umwelt.

Our Group

Our Group

We were recently introduced to the German word umwelt (pronounced, oom-velt) in Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s 2009 book, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science. Umwelt is our perception of the natural world and our place in it. People possess it in varying degrees, but its once life-sustaining influence is on the wane as we plow relentlessly into a modern world. It’s our sense of umvelt that takes us to Indonesia and compels us to turn over rocks, pick through crinoids, and dive after dark. It’s a desire to learn the names of things and contemplate their place in our universe. A discussion of the concept prompts our group to joke about getting in touch with our inner taxonomist.

During the introduction of cruise director Garry Bevan and dive guides Claire Holman and Gede Merta, we are pleased to learn that they are as ready as we are for the hunt to begin. Prior to the voyage Garry was described to us by two different friends in the same way, “Well, Garry is Garry.” As it turns out, their rather puzzling description hits the mark. It has been a long time since we met such a character. His intriguing English accent and dry martini wit would make him a shoo-in for Monty Python’s auditions – it’s easy to envision him wielding a broad sword against the Black Knight at the toll bridge. Although he makes every effort to hide the fact, it soon becomes apparent that Garry has hidden talents. With tools flying like Edward Scizzorhands, he repairs every piece of broken dive or camera equipment we can throw at him, and even more impressive, the man can read the Komodo currents like a wizard. Claire, as chipper underwater as above, has a genuine knack and enthusiasm for finding critters. And need I sing even more praise for the eagle eyes of Indonesian naturalist guides, and Gede is one of the best.

A most unusual crab discovered inside a yellow crinoid is among the early discoveries at Rinca. Paul and Ned can’t even place it in a family. It turns out to be the third documented sighting of a rare member of the hairy crab family, known as a Companion Crinoid Crab, and the first reported from Indonesia. I personally add a purple Ladybug-like amphipod to our growing collection of crustaceans. My little find is quite different from a second, more common species inhabiting these waters. To get an idea of just how entertaining something as obscure as an amphipod can be, have a look at Mike Elliott’s DiveFilm movie, “Ladybug, Ladybug” from iTunes.

Companion Crinoid Crab

Companion Crinoid Crab

Purple Ladybug Amphipod

Purple Ladybug Amphipod

Paul and Ned working on the new book

Paul and Ned working on the new critter book.

The last time Ned and I dived in this area we photographed a small red clingfish that turned out to be an undescribed species. On a morning wall dive, I drop down to a ledge to see what has kept Ned preoccupied for the last 10 minutes. I am thrilled when he shows me a group of the same distinctive clingfish skittering around a rock. We spend the last part of the dive watching fusiliers sail down in endless streams to a cleaning station manned by a pair of Blue-striped Cleaner Wrasse. The water is so unusually warm and clear at Cannibal Rock (in fact Garry states that it is the second best conditions he has seen in all his years of Komodo diving), that after a brief council we decide to remain in the area an extra day. Ah, the advantages of having an accommodating cruise director, and chartering the entire boat.

Undescribed Clingfish

Undescribed Clingfish

Cleaning Station

Cleaning Station

Before leaving Komodo, we stop at the Loh Liang Ranger Station for an early morning dragon walk. Not only do we find a bevy of the world’s largest lizards lazing away their morning in the shade, but also catch sight of megapodes, a strange brush fowl endemic to the region! After the walk, Ned recklessly heads back to the boat early, leaving me to meander through the souvenir stalls without monetary supervision. Lucky for both of us, strands of Komodo pearls don’t come close to the quality or price of those from the Atlas South Sea pearl farm we visited last year in Raja Ampat.

Komono Dragon patrols his domain

Komodo Dragon patrols his domain

Route-Alor-Master-April map

Route-Alor-Master-April map Courtesy Garry Bevan.

April 16-18, 2010 Adonara and Lembata Islands

Eager to make our way to Alor, we decide to bypass dive sites in northern Flores, figuring that we can spend extra time there on our way back to the port of Maumere. Pulau Raja is a good place to break up our long run and it proves to be a great site for critters. Claire finds yellow pygmy seahorses; the first of what will be many ghost pipefish, and Ned strikes it rich in a field of flasher wrasses at 50 feet. Timing works to our advantage making it possible for a 4:30 dive when male flashers go into their daily 20-minute courtship display. Many in our group have never observed the little wrasse displaying, so we settle down to watch the show with the added bonus of Ned swimming willy-nilly in pursuit of the zippy of little fish. In honor of the extravaganza, Garry names the site Flasher Reef.

Yellowfin Flasher Wrasse

Yellowfin Flasher Wrasse

Javan Flasher Wrasse

Javan Flasher Wrasse

In the Boling Strait we add even more ghost pipefish and our first frogfish to the list. But the showstopper is a trio of rare Rhinopias on the single site: a yellow Weedy, pink Paddle-flap, and a beautiful reddish specimen that becomes the source of much debate: Is it a Weedy or a Lacey?

Paddle-flap Rhinopias

Paddle-flap Rhinopias

Weedy Rhinopias

Weedy Rhinopias

Mystery Rhinpias. Could it be a Lacey?

Mystery Rhinopias. Could it be a Lacey?

Out of the blue, Garry announces an afternoon hike for anyone interested. From Watu Warawutun to Waipukang – “Just 3 miles to the village,” he broadcasts with authority as he makes further adjustments to his GPS. “Now don’t be shy folks, after a brief jaunt the boat will meet us at Waipukang in time for the afternoon dive.” I’m used to my daily 3-mile power walk at home, but don’t take into account the hilly terrain, a winding rut of a road, chatty locals, and so many goats to observe. Garry, decked out in hiking boots and outdoorsy vest with a curious “Octopus Army” patch sewn over the breast marches off in a cloud of dust and quickly disappears over the horizon. Others of us with flowers to smell and less stamina straggle into Waipukang two hours later. The “Octopus Army” patch intrigues me, and Garry, obviously amused that someone took notice, promises a shopping excursion for vests in Maumere at the end of the trip.

Garry’s forced march. Photo by David Hull

Garry’s forced march. Photo by David Hull

April 19-21, 2010 Alor, Indonesia

As planned, we spend three days exploring the Alor Strait and Kalabahi Sound, between the islands of Pantar and Alor. Mushroom Coral Pipefish, a pair of seamoths, and Magnificent Urchins complete with commensal Coleman Shrimp and Zebra Crabs keeps things hopping. Lillian Kenney and Dave Hull add icing to the cake by videotaping a pair of mating cuttlefish. As if everyone is not quite happy enough Claire points out an exotic Dragon Shrimp concealed within a black coral bush, and during the night dive at the same location, Gede finds a Red Reef Lobster.

Rare Dragon Shrimp

Rare Dragon Shrimp

Red Reef Lobster

Red Reef Lobster

The water is quite cool here, which is a shame because it keeps a lot of our group from making what proves to be a most rewarding night dive. Claire is on a roll finding critter after critter and Ned hits the jackpot with the discovery of an unbelievable nudibranch impersonating a bit of soft coral to perfection. And that’s only the beginning of the strange tale, which will be featured in our upcoming Encounters column in Alert Diver. I won’t give the storyline away except that it has to do with mimicry gone wonderfully wild.

Undescribed soft coral nudibranch, look closely for the hitchhiker

Undescribed soft coral nudibranch, look closely for the hitchhiker

While waiting for the current to calm at our chosen site, we drop in the lee of a point where Gede finds even another Rhinopias, the most beautiful yet, a gorgeous yellow Leaf Fish, and a most stunning Papuan Scorpionfish.

The Rhinopias keep coming

The Rhinopias keep coming

Papuan Scorpionfish

Papuan Scorpionfish

After the currents have their blow, we dive a choice site. As I drop down, I see Lynne Van Dok gesturing toward a population of flasher and fairy wrasses inhabiting a rubble slope. It is only 2:30 in the afternoon, a little early for spawning, but these fish are rather precocious and an unusual customer really stands out. I have spent hours chasing wrasses about, but this one is unlike any I have ever seen. I spend a frenzied half hour trying to get enough video to make an identification from Dr. Tanaka’s Fairy and Flasher Wrasse Guide, downloaded on my laptop. Is it possible that this is an undescribed species? The question will remain unanswered until our return voyage.

April 22-25, 2010 Pantar to Lembata

Beangabang Bay on Pantar is a focus point of our itinerary. On our last visit, four years ago, we found the bay packed with amazing animals. It was where, on a night dive, I saw my first pearlfish. I was so excited that the entire boat made the night dive the following evening. Five minutes after tumbling out of the dinghy, the entire reef exploded into a four-hour spawning display, including not only dozens of species of hard corals, but also anemones and corallimorphs, punctuated by a waterfall of flashlightfish. It was one of the most memorable dives Ned and I ever made.

Dinghy One heads for the deep

Dinghy One heads for the shallows

Years of diving have taught us how quickly and frequently things change underwater. And things have changed. The reef off the lava flow where we had witnessed the coral spawning shows marked deterioration from a probable outbreak of the Crown of Thorns Starfish, and the great field of soft coral between 80 and 100 feet is no more. Of even more concern, our first dive on a sand slope that had once been extremely productive produces just one pair of ghost pipefish. Our unfavorable results set Garry, Claire and Gede into high gear, making exploratory drops around the bay. An hour later, Claire returns beaming, having found us a honey pot. Sure enough, for some unexplained reason, the 100 yards of the bare sand slope she found holds a circus of kick-in-the-britches animals – three magnificent pairs of Roughsnout Ghost pipefish, Ambon Scorpionfish, Mimic, White-V, and Coconut Octopuses, dozens of juvenile puffers the size of buttons, and normally rare Ocellated Tozeuma Shrimp galore. Late in one dive Claire escorts Ned, Mary and Michael back down the slope to a performing Wunderpus at 50 feet. The little saucer-sized wonder dances, prances, and skips across the bottom like a circus star. “Would have been great video,” Ned tells me later. Yeah, yeah, yeah… I was nowhere to be found…but it is exciting to know that Beangabang is still a magical place.

Wunderpus

Wunderpus

Wunderpus

Wunderpus

Wunderpus

Wunderpus

Ambon Scorpionfish

Ambon Scorpionfish

Roughsnout Ghost Pipefish

Roughsnout Ghost Pipefish

Roughsnout Ghost Pipefish

Roughsnout Ghost Pipefish

We make our way back to Flores through the waters to the south of Pantar and Lembata. Ah, but another day, more frogfish, Wunderpus and Rhinopias (This Rhinopias thing is beginning to be interesting; by last tally we’re up to six, an unheard of sightings count for such a rare fish.) In the afternoon we check out a site on the SW side of Adonara that Burt Jones told us about. There isn’t much happening until I get in the middle of a toby fight: Yes, you guessed it; the brawl is over a woman. When found, the trio of Black-saddled Tobys, two males and a single female, are moving as a unit around a coral head. At regular intervals the males face off and collide beak to beak. One clash ends with jaws locked onto the tail base of the rival. As the pair spin in open water two new tobys sail into the scene. I almost drop my camera when I realize that the newcomers aren’t tobys at all, but Mimic Filefish, a species that impersonates tobys so predators believe that they share the little puffers’ defensive capabilities. I have been searching for the little Mimics for years, but what a time to appear, right in the middle of a toby brawl! Before the new developments can be processed, the bitten toby, after long minutes of indignity, frees itself by swelling up with water and spiraling down to the bottom then back up to break the attacker’s grip.

YouTube Preview Image

Mimic Filefish

Mimic Filefish

April 26-27, 2010 Maumere Bay (Flores), Indonesia

Tied fast to a pier in Maumere Harbor, we say goodbye to half of our group, who catch a commuter flight back to Bali while we expectantly await the arrival of friends for the next cruise. The rest of us will spend four days diving the bay while the crew begins preparing for the next cruise.

As promised, Garry escorts Anne, Lynne, Mary and me to the local dry goods store, to search for the now-fabled “Octopus Army” field vest. In a cautionary note he forewarns that the last time there, he couldn’t find a single vest among the endless hanger rows of garments. Oh but Garry, whom we have recently taken to calling General Ikan Gurita (Indonesian for octopus), has obviously underestimated our search skills, finely honed after two weeks of critter hunting. En masse we attack the awaiting wall of garments and within minutes come up for air clutching six vests. Roger, who tags along, later likens us to a foraging school of striped catfish. ~~Anna & Ned DeLoach

The Octopus Army is born

The Octopus Army is born

Coming soon:Maumere muck diving, volcano hiking, and a seabean jewelry industry is born.

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