Articles Comments

Marine Life Blog » Indonesia, Liveaboard Diving Indonesia, Raja Ampat » Raja Ampat to Ambon with Flying Fish Between

Raja Ampat to Ambon with Flying Fish Between

April, 2011–

I can think of few things more appealing than exploring eastern Indonesia on the Paradise Dancer with a boatload of friends, and that’s just what Anna and I did once again last April. Measuring just over half the length of a football field the stylish replica of a 19th century three-masted schooner more closely favors a boutique hotel than your typical liveaboard. Although there are amenities aplenty, it’s the world-class animals inhabiting eastern Indonesia’s Raja Ampat waters that entice our merry band of 19 critter hunters halfway around the world. Like us, this will be the second voyage in consecutive years for many aboard, and once again our trip coincides with the end of the diving season in Raja Ampat allowing us to customize our itinerary as the vessel makes a transfer voyage to her summer venue. The previous year’s two-week cruise took us west to the outlying reefs and muck of Halmahera before ending at Lembeh Strait. This year, we plan to explore the best of Raja Ampat then veer south toward the island of Ambon located on the northern fringe of the Banda Sea.

Juvenile Sailor Flying Fish, Prognichthys sealei

Following dinner Paul, Anna and I join dive master Wendy Brown and guides Yann and Andre around a spread of nautical charts. Knowing that we will visit plenty of clearwater reefs to the south, we set our immediate sites on the productive muck of Aljui Bay off the northern shore of Waigeo, the same bottom that crawled with critters the year before.

And sure enough once again we encounter a circus of exciting animals populating the pilings and sand slope of the Cendana pearl farm’s fuel dock. Even before we make it to the wooden structure, Yann and I spot a Wunderpus, bluering, and the same undescribed octopus I dubbed Slim Jim the previous year.

An undescribed blue-ringed octopus blanches as it makes an escape across the sand.

An undescribed blue-ringed octopus blanches as it makes an escape across the sand.

One of at least 60 octopus species from Indonesia waiting to be scientifically described. Until then, it has been dubbed Slim Jim.

One of at least 60 octopus species from Indonesia waiting to be scientifically described, we dubbed Slim Jim.

During that evening’s dive the unforgettable croaks of the seldom-seen Banded Toadfish welcome us back. While Andre scouts the pilings for the toadfish and frogfish, I drop down the slope intent on finding an epaulette shark – a small night-feeder resident that prowls the bottom on modified fins. Andre has been busy back at the pier while I’ve been away. He not only points out the amorous toadfish hunkered down in a sponge thicket, but also shows off four frogfish including a large emerald female wedged in the shadows of the pilings.

Banded Toadfish, Halophyme diemensis.

Banded Toadfish, Halophyme diemensis.

Spot-tail Frogfish, Lophiocharon trisignatus.

Spot-tail Frogfish, Lophiocharon trisignatus.

Epaulette Shark, Hemiscyllium sp.

Epaulette Shark, Hemiscyllium sp.

After comparing notes with Wendy and Yann, we decide to backtrack south to the island of Batanta with the hope of locating a submerged plateau we dived in 2005 with Larry Smith, and also visit a muck site that Yann is keen on showing everyone. As usual, Anna’s memory and notes serve us well. We not only find the reef we are looking for, but Anna also recalls hearing a morning chorus of bird calls at a jungle-lined bay nearby. The captain agrees to anchor that night as close to the shoreline of the bay as feasible. The following morning, right on cue, a squawking, squeaking, singsong world of exotic sounds erupts at the first hint of day – a morning that the sleepy headed, coffee-clutching clan assembled on the bow will not soon forget.

Because of currents we have to wait until afternoon to visit the offshore plateau. The delay suits me fine – I’m after flasher wrasse, which we discovered there in abundance nearly a half decade ago. The showy two-inch group of fishes typically go into a frenzied courtship routine later in the day when excited males dash about with elegant, oversized show fins unfurled and colors blazing. Their speed during courtship helps the suitors avoid predators as well as demonstrate genetic prowess. For the remained of the day males avoid becoming tasty tidbits by collapsing their fins, muting colors and hanging out with herds of smaller, non-descript females near bottoms offering ready access to hiding holes. Unfortunately, this particular plateau has hiding holes aplenty.

In the not so distant past the seamount’s crest supported a lush coral garden before blast fishing reduced it to a bone pile of rubble. From the fishermens’ point of view the price was right: A beer bottle of nitrates and a detonator costing less than $4 U.S. produces $20 worth of market fish. However, the destruction goes well beyond calculable economics. Each blast decimates a thriving habitat roughly 20-feet in diameter. Making things worse, the piles of pipe-size rubble left behind are too unstable to support new coral growth. It will probably be decades or possibly the better part of a century before coralline algae fuses the mass sufficiently for new corals to once again thrive. Fortunately, after a vigorous educational effort the use of explosives and other destructive fishing practices have been reduced markedly throughout the region. In the interim, the fragmented tabletop bathed with food-carrying currents provides sanctuary for a profusion of small, plankton-picking wrasses, including flashers.

When we drop on the mount we find our timing a bit off, the current still rips. Wrasses abound but are more interested in dinner than sex, and the blow is too stiff for comfort so Anna and I slip down the slope into the more manageable lee. At 60 feet, well below the working depth of blast fishermen, all is right with the world – robust hard and soft coral colonies stand heroic as far as the eye can see in 100-foot visibility. Adding to the good tidings, we find isolated groups of flasher and fairy wrasses displaying. While attempting to follow a juiced up Irian Jaya Wrasse an unfamiliar flasher species trailing white dorsal fin pennants streaks past. In an instant I’m off after the fish as it zigzags down the slope at a breakneck pace. Just as I realize that I’m approaching 90 feet the fish turns and works its way back up the rise where it pauses and displays before a bevy of females – the chance I’ve been waiting for. That evening Anna identifies the new fish from a paper stored on her laptop. It is a Nursalim Flasher described by Dr. Gerald Allen and Dr. Mark Erdmann in 2008 from the FakFak coastline several hundred kilometers southeast.

Nursalim Flasher, Paracheilinus nursalim.

Nursalim Flasher, Paracheilinus nursalim.

We’re back in the muck the following morning at one of Yan’s favorite sites in the crook of a bay just off a narrow beach of black sand. Chalky water baths a barren incline laced with seagrass and feather algae. Not much to look at, but just the kind of bottom where dandy little animals often hang out. What the site lacks in ascetics it more than made up for in sea slugs, a popular group of shell-less mollusks that have surprisingly eluded us until this point in the journey. In the 90-minute dive we ferret out a couple of outrageous sapsucking slugs and several aeolid nudibranchs, but the big deal of the dive is sighted above water perched in the leafless branches of an old tree. Not 30 feet from where we bob, waiting for the tender to return, two Palm Cockatoos preen calmly in clear view.

One of five known variations of Green Longtail Sapsucking Slug, Oxynoe virides.

One of five known variations of Green Longtail Sapsucking Slug, Oxynoe virides.

Sapsucking slug, Stillger smaragdinus.

Sapsucking slug, Stillger smaragdinus.

Yellow-tipped Phyllodesmium, Phyllodismium briaeum.

Yellow-tipped Phyllodesmium, Phyllodismium briaeum.

Unidentified aeolid, Favorinus sp.

Unidentified aeolid, Favorinus sp.

Sailing south toward the large island of Ceram we find clearer waters and an abundance of fish-rich reefs – perfect pygmy seahorse hunting grounds – so Andre and Yann set about searching for the tiny treasures. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph numerous pygmies and well respect how difficult it can be to capture a suitable image, so when a guide points one out I tend to move on and let others experience the joy and frustration. The two most common species, the Denise and Bargibanti, inhabit sea fans with their tails curled around the intertwining maze. Even with a guide’s finger pointing from only inches away pygmies blend so ingeniously with the background that they can be lost in a blink. Keeping an eye on the tiny targets is only the first trial. When approached, the reluctant subjects invariably droop, turn away, or slip to the opposite side of the fan. Adding to the challenge, the photographer must continually struggle to maintain position while holding a bowling-ball size housing steadily focused as colleagues hover nearby impatiently waiting their turns.

However, favorable circumstances are not to be ignored. Trailing behind for most of the dive, Yann and I catch up with the others after everyone has had a good look at a pair of oversized Bargibanti pygmies Andre discovered near the top of a fan that extends strategically above a supportive rock shelf. At Yann’s insistence I swim over and take a look. Perfectly perched in the open, a large pregnant pygmy looking for all the world like a plump snowman with black button eyes. Who could resist?

Bargibanti Seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti.

Bargibanti Seahorse, Hippocampus bargibanti.

As related in the previous trip report, I saw my first Rumengani Pipehorse in Lembeh Strait the week before setting sail on the Paradise Dancer. In fact, after several years searching for the recently described species, I saw five different individuals with the help of three dive guides, so the wispy novelties remain fresh on my mind. Experienced critter hunters are well aware that once you’ve seen an unfamiliar species in the wild you acquire what is known as a search image – a compilation of data such as size, color, habitat and behavior that make the species easier to find in the future. I rather believe that it has more to do with dumb luck than a search image when I happen upon a pair of the teeny, thread-thin waifs dangling by their prehensile tails from a gorgonian branch at 85 feet.

That night an unidentified species of marble shrimp crawls out from under a rock just long enough for me to snap off a picture. Natural selection went into overdrive when embellishing this outrageous creation.

Rumengan’s Pipehorse, Kyonemichthys rumengani.

Rumengan’s Pipehorse, Kyonemichthys rumengani.

Undescribed marble shrimp, Saron sp.

Undescribed marble shrimp, Saron sp.

Talk about ending our trip on a high note: At Tanjung Uli, off the current swept coast of Ceram, I live a four-year-long dream of swimming with juvenile flyingfish. I will not log details of the experience here. The full account appears in our “Encounters” column in the winter issue of DAN’s Alert Diver magazine to be released the first week of November, and also on their website: http://www.alertdiver.com/Flying_Fish. All too often when we see a captivating wildlife photograph we imagine the skill and prowess of a lone photographer is responsible for capturing the image. The Alert Diver piece, entitled “Team Flying Fish”, details how the solitary artist scenario doesn’t always mesh with reality. No less than a dozen shipmates and crew are responsible for the unique images presented here and in the article. A big thanks to everyone involved!

On Saturday April 23 the Paradise Dancer drops anchor in the Bay of Ambon, Anna’s and my first visit to the historic island. When we first began diving in Indonesia in the late 1990s the destination was off limits to outsiders because of a sectarian conflict that lasted until 2002. To me the bay will forever be symbolic because it was at Ambon in 1857 where Alfred Russel Wallace – the father of biogeography and co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection – looking down at a coral reef though the clear water later expressed his profound impressions of the watery wilderness in his memoir, The Malay Archipelago:

“… the clearness of the water afforded me one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges actiniae, and other marine productions, of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours. In and among them moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusae floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty or interest.”

Juvenile Pharao Flying Fish, Cypselurus naresii.

Juvenile Pharao Flying Fish, Cypselurus naresii.

There he stood, the greatest field biologist of all time unable to effectively explore the myriad life forms inhabiting the shallow sea shimmering only a gaze away. The passage brings to mind just how fortunate we are to be in the first generation in the long history of discovery to freely swim with the fishes. How lucky are we?

Filed under: Indonesia, Liveaboard Diving Indonesia, Raja Ampat · Tags:

Leave a Reply

*