I would have to thumb through old and current passports to come up with the exact number, but off hand, Anna and I have made at least 20 extended trips to Lembeh Strait in Indonesia since our first visit in 1999. There are many reasons for such frequent visits, but ultimately it boils down to two factors: the animals and the dive guides.
In our travels, we have yet to explore another bottom that consistently attracts such an impressive array of kick-in-the-britches creatures. And as far as guides go, Lembeh boasts the most talented corps on the planet. That’s why, when Anna and I arrived in the Strait this June to host the second annual Eco-Diver’s Lembeh Fish and Critter Hunt, we didn’t hesitate to center the activities around finding 30 of the most sought-after animals in the Pacific. Among others, the dream list included such notables as Pygmy Seahorses, Ambon Scorpionfish, Mimic and Wunderpus Octopus, Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Hairy Frogfish, Ghost Pipefish, Tiger Shrimp and the elusive Bobbit Worm.
A chart was provided for keeping a tally. After each dive everyone ticked off the animals they sighted beside their name. The columns began to fill from the first dives and never lost momentum for the next two weeks. Although we stressed that the hunt wasn’t meant to be competitive, no one listened. By Wednesday’s night dive only a a few blank spaces remained beside each name, and the race to complete the list took on a life of its own.
On a previous night dive both boats had seen the skeletal face of a buried stargazer, but only one group had sighted Bobbit Worms. So finding the giant worm topped the evening’s agenda. Once again Lembeh and the guides worked their magic, not only did the group get their worm, but when it was tracked down, the brute was spawning a great cloud of gametes—one of those rare in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time moments.
The worm story can only be topped by the Flamboyant Cuttlefish hatching tale. During the first week a group of four kneeling in the sand around a half coconut shell watched a quarter-inch cuttlefish pop free from its marble-size egg casing and float away as Anna’s video recorded the event.
We didn’t just find a single pygmy seahorse, but multiple individuals of four species, plus a pair of cryptic Rumengani Pipehorses, a new species discovered in the Strait by guide Noldy Rumengan. And no one went wanting for cephalopods, the Strait was full of octopus, cuttlefish and squid. By the end of each week everyone had seen far more animals than they ever imagined, and several divers ran the list, sighting all 30 species. (Click to review the 30 Species Hit List and group portraits.)
While the participants add onto their lists, Anna and I do some exploring of our own. We have the fortune of having Johan Lumonang as our guide. We last dived with Johan a few years back when he was just getting started. Even then he had exceptional skills for sorting out the tiniest animals from their tangled surroundings, and his rare talents have only gotten better. He’s a natural—one of a rare breed with skill, pizzazz, and a bit of magic about him. During dives we let him go wherever his instincts dictate. It is our job to keep tabs on his whereabouts and stay close. We are well aware that if we are to find the type of animals we’re hoping for the odds are 20 to 1 that it will be his eagle eyes making the strike.
At 60 feet on our first dive with Johan, inside the famous black-sand bay of Teluk Kembahu, he shows us a Green Melibe nudibranch measuring at least eight-inches in length, one of the largest and oddest nudibranchs anywhere, and a species we haven’t seen in several years. As the peculiar animal lumbered across the bottom from time to time it throws out an oral hood to ensnare small crustaceans buried beneath the sand. The feeding veil, a hallmark of the genus, stretches so thin we can see the hood’s fingerlike tentacles probing for food beneath the taunt covering.
We remain with the great slug until our computers send us up to the shallows where we finish our dive. Like the deep slope, the shallow sand shelf lining the bay appears uninhabited until you begin to prowl. Almost immediately Johan points out another Melibe, this time, an unfamiliar species no larger than a fifty-cent piece. Then, as if by intuition, he shows me a tiny Siphopteron, a rarely seen snail-like headshield slug belonging to a little-known group of mollusc I recently learned about and have fallen in love with. The animals, no larger than melon seeds, only appear on the surface occasionally, and even then they are difficult to locate. There is only one way to find them: putter along with your eyes glued to the bottom for hours on end. So, whenever we get a chance, that’s what Johan and I do for the next couple of weeks. Our puttering pays off, besides Siphopterons we discover several close relatives all wearing fleshy head scoops, the diagnostic signature of the clan. Surprisingly, taking pictures of the little slugs is quite a trick. Unlike slow-going nudibranchs, these guys are track stars, and when disturbed burrow in an instant.
Our time scouring the sand reaps many rewards including a strange little seahare, a close relative of nudibranchs and headshield slugs. The grape-sized slug would inflate and, like squid, jet away by forcing water through a hole in its mantle.
Always a sucker for juvenile lionfish, when lucky enough to find them, we happen upon a recently settled zebra lionfish clinging to the side of an encrusted rock.
At the beginning of the second week the shallows produce a settling flatfish. By the size and shape of its mouth I believe it’s a Pacific Halibut. But the real significance of the find: It is in its transitional phase with one eye still migrating from the opposite side of its head.
While adrift in offshore currents, larval flatfishes have typical bilateral fish-shaped bodies, properly aligned fins and pigmented eyes, one on each side of the head. To ready themselves for a hazardous life on flat sand bottom, flatfishes, like the halibut, pull off one of the animal kingdom’s most astonishing feats of developmental biology. Just before settling to the seafloor muscles, skin, nerves, blood vessels and bones inexorably shift into the flattened shape of a dime-sized benthic juvenile. During the magical metamorphosis, one eye migrates across the head until it rest next to the other, backs darken, bellies lighten, swim bladders disappear, and dorsal and anal fins realign to ring the body.
Even smaller, appearing as nothing more than a yellow speck, an undescribed mysid flits around an algae clump.
Searching inside the folds of a discarded rice sack Johan exposes a primitive archaeogastropod in the family Stomatollidae.
Always expect the unexpected in Lembeh. When first found the pelagic Sea Butterfly seems disoriented as it flaps aimlessly about the sea floor. When I reach out to help it along, the animal takes off for the surface powered by gelatinous wings. Formally known as Thecosomata, Sea Butterflies are relatives of nudibranchs that spend their entire lives in the open ocean.
Everyone loves nudibranchs. Four that strike my fancy.
On Johan’s day off, Denny Tukunang becomes our guide. While the others are busy looking for pygmy seahorses, Denny and I poke around a bed of grape algae and come up with a tiny Green Sapsucking Slug. The first either of us has ever seen.
Back on duty, Johan’s crustacean mojo goes into overdrive, finding three new shrimp for the next edition of Reef Creature Identification Tropical Pacific. Any or all could be new species.
Crabs as well as other arthropods protect their internal organs from a harsh outside environment with a hard, jointed exoskeleton, which gives them moveable armorlike protection and a firm surface for attaching muscles. The scheme works extremely well except when growth occurs. The solution is molting, a stressful activity requiring a great amount of energy while the new, enlarged covering, secreted as a liquid between the body and old covering, solidify. After a long, slow struggle sloughing off the old exoskeleton, the animal inflates forcing the soft, deeply wrinkled jacket to expand to its new dimensions.
It’s rare to see a crustacean molt. Because the animals are vulnerable to predation during the extended process most hide away inside deep recesses. This Red-spotted Guard Crab that spends its life within the branching arms of coral have no place to hide making it easy to observe as it wrestles out of its old armor.
The overarching arms of branching coral harbor more than crabs. An entire community of shrimp and fishes live nowhere else. The inhabitants are easy to see scurrying around within the matrix of tightly knit branches; taking a good photo is another matter. This portrait of the Broadbarred Coral Goby below takes 10 minutes to capture.
One morning early in our stay I mention to Johan how badly I want to see a Hairy Octopus. The secretive species no larger than my thumb has sat atop my most-wanted list every since I first heard the animal existed some ten years back. Over the years the species had been sighted in the Strait several times. However, it had been months since anyone reported a sighting of either the Hairy, or for that matter, a Blue Ring Octopus in genus Hapaloclaena.
Fortunately, there were plenty of other octopus around including the Starry Night Octopus. Like the Wunderpus, and occasionally the Mimic, the Starry when first encountered often twists its arms in fancy poses and prances across the bottom. Ours dances a jig for several minutes before slipping off into the night.
For some unknown reason Johan decides that we should explore Tanjung Kubor, a long neglected dive site on the western shore of Lembeh Island. As we descend a trickle of cool water seeps down my collar signaling a subtle change of seasons—a change that often brings new animals to the Strait. At 70 feet Johan searches the length of a waterlogged mooring rope stretched across the bottom. Minutes later I hear him rapping on his tank with a rapid tempo. When I arrive by his side he was face-to-face with a strange little octopus perched on a white rock next to the rope. I have to stare, squint, blink and stare again before I finally see the faint outlines of blue rings scattered across the octopus’s mantle. I turn to show Johan, but he is off hunting again. I’ve been lucky enough to have seen several species of blue rings over the years and studied the photographs of hundreds more, but I have never seen another quite like this.
While I’m still studying the octopus Johan comes flying back wide-eyed and signaling for me to follow. Sensing I’m reluctant to leave, he points to his hair. We’re off. Even though he left his steel stick in the sand as a marker it takes several minutes before he relocates the target of my decade-long quest. And there it is, hunkered down on the side of a rock looking exactly like a tuft of filamentous algae. No wonder it has taken so long to track down. I remain watching the octopus until our computers force us up to the shallows.
But Johan isn’t finished yet, on our way back to the slope he stops with a start in front of another Blue Ring, this one a beautiful tan fellow with bright blue rings advertising its poisonous nature.
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