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Lembeh – The Gift That Keeps Giving

March, 2011–

Before flying on to Sorong, in far eastern Indonesia, for a voyage on the famed Dewi Nusantara, Anna and I stop off yet again in Lembeh Strait. We have the pleasure of diving with friends Claire Davies, Shirley Westcott, Wendy McIlroy, and Cary and Jim Yanny, owners of Eco Divers and Lembeh Cottages where we’re all staying.

The first morning, promptly at 8 am, we load in a van and whisk down the mountainside to meet our dive launch at Police Pier for the hop over to the Nautica, moored at her accustomed roost in the middle of the Strait. Even before we have a chance to fill out the Nitrox log, Anna and the ladies are hammering out a new episode for Blenny Week, Anna’s idée fixe for the past several dive excursions.

In fact, her six-part parody of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, now up on the little screen, includes “Secrets of the Blenny”, shot during the week.

YouTube Preview Imagehttp://www.youtube.com/user/BlennyWeek?feature=mhee

Soon the filmmakers are huddling in the salon in a fit of jabber and giggles as they plan out the script. I only hope viewers get a fraction as much enjoyment watching the clips as Anna and friends had making them. While the ladies busied themselves with their artful endeavors Detmon, veteran dive guide and friend, and I slip away for a bit of critter hunting. And bingo, right out of the gate, we stumble on a Wunderpus Octopus making its rounds. Later in the afternoon, we visit an algae and sponge thicket where I’ve photographed flasher wrasse over the years. Each afternoon from 4 to 4:30 several species of flashers spawn in frenetic orgies that occasionally end with cross-fertilization. In the six months, since our last visit, the showy little two- to three-inch wrasse have hybridized once again, this time a few mature males share the markings of Filamented and Blue Flashers, both regular participants in the afternoon trysts.

Wunderpus, Wunderpus photogenticus, out for a stroll.

Wunderpus, Wunderpus photogenticus, out for a stroll.

Current Lembeh version of Filamented Flasher, Paracheilinus filamentosus.

Current Lembeh version of Filamented Flasher, Paracheilinus filamentosus.

Blue Flasher, P. cyaneus.

Blue Flasher, P. cyaneus.

Hybrid between a Fliamented and Blue Flashers.

Hybrid between a Fliamented and Blue Flashers.

Just as we are heading back up the slope Detmon points out a brilliant red and yellow Spiny Devilfish waddling across the bottom as if on a mission. Before I can settle in to take a picture Demon grabs my arm and points out a second, third, forth, and then fifth devilfish ganged around a large anemone where the waddler is headed. The gathering of solitary lie-in-wait predators is exciting, but unsettling. Unlike the flashy red fellow tottering toward the mix, the other devilfish display characteristically drab coats and lie partially buried in the sediment with only elevated eyes and bristling backs exposed. Their row of poison-laced spines, rising above the sand like concealed gun turrets, acts as a telling reminder to tread lightly when mucking around the bottom.

It obvious from her swollen belly that the largest of the five devilfish is a gravid female whose pheromones are attracting a stable of suitors. In all likelihood a ritualistic courtship competition will soon begin with one of the males eventually winning the right to spawn with the female around sunset. We would dearly love to stay, but an hour still remains before dark and after three long dives our computers are beginning to sizzle.

Spiny Devilfish, Inimicus didactylus, decked out in a multi-colored coat.

Spiny Devilfish, Inimicus didactylus, decked out in a multi-colored coat.

Spiny Devilfish Face

Spiny Devilfish Face

The next morning we spend much of our dive following a ball of juvenile Striped Catfish – armed with poison spines, the thousand feeding mouths roll across the bottom like a thunderstorm. As protection from predation, a pair of juvenile jacks with patterns mimicking the tiny catfish, have taken up residence with the continuously morphing cloud of bodies. On the way back to the boat I run into a Snake Blenny, arguably the strangest blenny in the ocean, hunting in the shallows. Instead of hightailing for its burrow this fine fellow permits a surprisingly close approach before slowly slithering away.

Ball of juvenile Striped Catfish, Plotosus lineatus

Ball of juvenile Striped Catfish, Plotosus lineatus

Symbiotic juvenile jacks.

Symbiotic juvenile jacks.

Snake Blenny, Xiphasia setifer.

Snake Blenny, Xiphasia setifer.

In the afternoon luck continues. Under a log at 60 feet we discover a wildly wriggling wisp that turns out to be a recently settled moray still cloaked in the translucent-green vestiges of its pelagic larval life. In the branches of a soft coral bush Detmon points out a peanut-size egg cowrie with its tentacles, eyes, proboscis and foot fully exposed. Close inspection reveals a fresh clutch of eggs being attended to by the busy snail.

Post larval moray

Post larval moray

Wilson’s Egg Cowrie, Prionovolva wilsoniana, with eggs.

Wilson’s Egg Cowrie, Prionovolva wilsoniana, with eggs.

Even though we’ve made at least a thousand dives in Lembeh the ever-generous bottom continues to bestow extraordinary gifts. Back aboard the Nautica for lunch Ednan, another eagle-eyed guide, reports finding a Rumengani’s Pipehorse living on a wall at 80 feet. The news sets me on high alert. This just happens to be the one in the same exotic little fish that has topped my most-wanted list of must-see animals for the past four years, the time elapsed since the animal was first found in Lembeh by Manado-based dive guide Noldy Rumengan and photographer William Tan of Singapore. (I tell Noldy and William’s story of discovering the new pipehorse that today bears Noldy’s name in the January 2012 Alert Diver magazine.) Even after sorting through the logistical improbability of relocating the pin-sized whiff on a heavily encrusted submarine wall the size of a football field, I’m optimistic, and with good reason, I have a ringer in my corner – Detmon. Over the years I’ve acquired a mythical regard for the hunting prowess of well-seasoned Indonesian dive guides, and Detmon ranks among the best.

With what seems to be an all too brief set of directions from Ednan, we’re off.Easing down the drop off to 80 feet Detmon glances right then left, then takes a fin stroke or two north and begins hunting.I hover above at 60 feet to save air. Twenty minutes later he motions me down, and points into a jungle of algae, soft coral and sponge. I see nothing. He points again; I stare again. This time a sand-colored thread of life, with a long prehensile tail lassoed fast around a stem, takes shape just off the tip of Detmon’s finger.

Rumengan’s Pipehorse, Kyonemichthys rumengani.

Rumengan’s Pipehorse, Kyonemichthys rumengani.

When you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll. On our last day in the Strait, we find another pair of Rumengani Pipehorses, this time in the chalky shallows near a construction site south of town. The little fish have altered their appearance to match the silt-covered alcove where they dangle from a snarl of dead stems. Watching the fish blend so adeptly with their surroundings, it’s understandable why it has taken so long to discover the remarkable animals. This thought brings to mind the probability of all the other splendid life forms remaining to be uncovered by inquisitive eyes.

Mated pair of Rumengan’s Piphorses.

Mated pair of Rumengan’s Piphorses.

If you want to experience the thrill of critter hunting in Lembeh Strait, join us June 2012 for Lembeh Cottage’s Second Annual Fish and Critter Hunt.

Book today to secure your place!

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One Response to "Lembeh – The Gift That Keeps Giving"

  1. […] we posted Ned’s photos in last year’s Lembeh Strait trip journal, I am just getting around to cataloging the video. You can view this behavioral interaction of the […]

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