This beautiful Lionfish (Scorpionfish; Firefish; Turkeyfish) was floating in the surge beneath Hole in the Wall on Sunday. I really adore these guys- such a wonderful display of feathery creativity. I will sorely miss being able to get close to such wonderful creatures.
One of the great attractions of diving is the abundance of life you get to witness. It’s true what they tell you in the handbooks- a half-hour dive on the reef will let you see more diverse flora and fauna than ten times as long walking through a forest or a field. Pick the right spots, and life is teeming around you, always moving, always interesting, always colourful. It’s a never-ending procession of the creativity of the Creator, and I get high off it.
Since getting into diving, I’ve discovered that one of the coolest things about being underwater is that a lot of the stuff that lives down there is downright weird. I’ve posted a few nudibranch shots, for example. When I say the word ‘slug’, you’re going to think of some ugly grey slimey thing that oozes on your lettuce head. But these marine versions are so phenomenally diverse, with bizarre and seemingly extraneous appendages and blatantly unnecessary colours, they could have stepped right out of a Gaultier costume extravaganza.
Take Christmas Tree Worms. These guys are awesome. I had no idea what they were at first. They look like little plastic toys, sticking out of holes in rocks or coral heads. Their bizarre spirals cluster like superfluous decorations, a teeny tiny forest, so for a while I wasn’t sure if they were plant, animal or mineral. They look just like a soft coral growth, but when you get too close, they suck back into their holes, curling up and vanishing in the blink of an eye- distinctly un-plant-like behaviour. Again what strikes me each time I see them is the wonderful colours. I’ve only got this one shot of a blue one, but I’m determined to see if I can’t collect a full set of colours.
These next shot I don’t have a lot of intelligent things to say about. I don’t know what you’re looking at. It’s just a random piece of reef scenery. Most likely coral. I just love that it looks like nothing else you’d find on the earth’s surface- it could almost be some alien flora. And this is a tiny six-inch fraction of a reef. Imagine if you could catalogue everything living and growing on Madang’s ten miles of living barrier.
This giant spiny Sea Slug was one of the highlights of Sunday’s dive. I’ve no idea what species it is, but it was huge- about a foot long, and as fat around as a clenched fist. You could headline it in a Ridley Scott feature and nobody would have any problem believing it was some extra-terrestrial parasite. The outrageous colours and bizzare protrusions make it like a giant step-brother to the fragile little nudibranchs, a behemoth among molluscs. Enjoy it in all its grotesque, spiny glory.
And on the subject of patterns, neither of these shots are as crisp as I would have liked, but both were taken in suboptimal optical conditions (say that three times very quickly with a marshmallow in your mouth). I hope to get a better chance at catching them again in the future. The first is, I think, some species of Angelfish. I’m not entirely sure. I found it flitting around coral off Barracuda Point on Saturday, during a dive that was full of exciting wildlife, but low on photographic opportunities. This one moved just a little too much for me to get a sharp shot, but even so I think you can appreciate the wonderful colouring and patterns.
The second photograph is of a juvenile Emporer Angelfish. The Emporer Angelfish is a relatively common sight along the reefs here, but apparently the juvenile version is a little less prolific. The two look nothing alike- in fact if you didn’t know it, you’d think it was a completely different species of fish. I will try and get a photo of an adult for comparison. But this juvie’s rings and swirls and splotches of white and blue are just delightful- truly one of the prettiest fish I’ve seen. This one was lurking around the wreck of a Cessna just off Tab Island.
From a little juvenile a few centimetres long, to a great walloping lump of fish more than thirty metres down, this guy is some species of Rock Cod, I think. He was the second of these I found lurking under a coral growth in just a couple of minutes. I spotted his cousin a little earlier while loitering at forty metres, but as I was about to line up a shot I noticed Jan had moved on and was around the next spur, and I didn’t fancy being left alone. Ascending, and this one made his presence known. At over half a metre long, I bet you could get quite a few steaks out of him.
And from the plain and almost ugly to the extravagantly beautiful. This one is a reefside classic, alternately known as a Firefish, Lionfish, Scorpionfish, or even Turkeyfish. I think that the common name for this species is the Red Firefish, and it belongs to the order Scorpionidae, so Scorpionfish works as well, but with a big mane like this you can see why it gets the Lionfish moniker. This is with out a doubt one of my favourite fish in the sea. It is posessed of a delicate beauty, with that fan of long fragile trendrils that float like so much extraneous crepe-paper. The stripes are full of drama, a veritable siren screaming ‘do not touch’: the Firefish gets its name from the row of poison-tipped spines protruding from its dorsal fin. And like the sub-adult Sweetlips, its locomotive habits make it a joy to photograph. The Lionfish hangs motionless in the water, looking deceptively like a piece of discarded seaweed, drifting with the surges, before pouncing on smaller unsuspecting fish. I got my lens to within six inches of this young one- always cognisant of the dorsal spines- and it never really gave me a second look.
I won’t say that it’s one of my favourite dive sites, because I pretty much love them all. It is however a fascinating blend of history and nature that teases the imagination, above and below the water.
The American B-25 sits in shallow waters just off Wongat Island. She was shot down during the Second World War by the Japanese, when they held northern Papua New Guinea and had one of their major bases just a few miles down the road. The story of her six crew is not a happy one. Although just one crewman died in the crash itself, the other five were captured and, in retaliation for recent bombing raids carried out by the Americans, executed. The aircraft sits in almost perfect condition as a lasting, living memorial beneath the waters.
It’s only even been murky when I’ve dived the B-25, so I have yet to get a good shot of the wreck as it lies. It’s at a considerable angle, with one wingtip at about twelve metres’ depth, the other down around twenty-eight. The wings and tail-plane are still intact, and even remnants of the undercarriage can be spotted. The deeper right wing has the propellor fixed to the engine, bent back by the crash-landing but still recognizable where it sticks vertically out of the sand.
One of the favourite features of the aircraft are undoubtedly its machine-guns, still mounted in the wreck. There are four guns protruding from the nose housing, two inset in each wing, a tail gun, and the B-25’s distinctive gun-turret mounted atop the fuselage towards the rear of the aircraft.
Divers can drop into the roofless cockpit and sit in the pilot’s seat, the steering-wheel still mounted in the control board. This is my boss. I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to have that second stage between his teeth…
Over time, as with everything discarded in the sea, nature has claimed the craft, which has now become a naturalised reef. A giant barrel-sponge sits on the up-slope wingtip, a distinctive marker during the descent and now growing so big that there are concerns it could snap the wing off altogether. Coral and sponges and algaes and all sorts of other undersea flora have colonized the surfaces. Fish spawn in the hundreds inside the relative safety provided by the abandoned fuselage. Others graze the vegetation under the wings and around the tail mount.
There are regulars here. A White Leaf Scorpionfish lives among thorny corals at the back of the left-hand wing, elusive and hard to spot even on a clear day. The bottom shot shows him in natural light rather than flash-lit, and you can see why he’s not that easy to find. He’s about four inches long. Check out that beautiful eye.
I’ve seen these guys a couple of times when I’ve been down there. I can never tell whether they’re False Moorish Idols, Three-Stripe Angelfish, or some other form of Bannerfish, all of which look pretty similar. They are beautiful- though a tad skittish and hard to get close to, hence the murky shot.
Yesterday, there was some giant lobster living under the wing. I haven’t seen him before, I just noticed his antennae and the front knuckles of his long spindly legs dancing out from underneath the wing. I didn’t get too close. He must have been nearly a metre in size, when all the protrusions and probiscuses were taken into account. He was a little shy and slipped back into the silt before I could get a photo.
The other resident we came across yesterday was the polar opposite, both in terms of size and body complexity. This little nudibranch was spotted by Bec, who managed to prove to me (as has been proved to me time and again) that I suck at finding nudibranchs. I do, however, love a bit of nudi action when I can get it.
My favourite family of Anemonefish lives on the right wing of the bomber. They’re just back a little ways from the cockpit in a big writhing blob of anemone, predictable and easy to find. Unlike Lionfish or Sweetlips, the Anemonefish tend to be a little camera-shy, and as soon as you point the thing at them, they’re dancing like they’ve got ants in their pectorals. In fact they’re some of the most highly territorial little fish in the sea, and even though relative to them I am the size of an Enterprise-class aircraft carrier, they still try and see me off from their patch. As a result, getting an in-focus photo of one is no mean feat. I resort to the age-old practice of firing off as many pictures as I can take and hoping that by sheer dumb luck, at least one will turn out right.
It works occasionally.
The shot below shows the difference between shooting flash and shooting natural light (this one using natural light).
It’s hard to avoid celebrating the diversity of life, even on something as incongruous as a war wreck. I find the triumph of creation as one of the great beautiful mysteries of this world. Left to itself, we find the force of life manifesting in almost every circumstance, even one where death previously triumphed. As if the natural world is telling us with one loud voice, everything can be redeemed.
My knowledge of Sweetlips is pretty limited. I first heard of the fish as a species hand-feeding chunks of bread to them from the end of a reefside jetty in Vanuatu about six months ago. Big squat things without fancy colour or graceful shape, they’re still somehow appealing in their brute ugliness, like many fish I paddle across. Apparently they taste great, though I’ve never (to my knowledge) eaten one.
These here are sub-adult Silver Sweetlips- given away by the array of yellow spots over their body. They’re not pretty. They’re not streamlined. As far as I know they’re not possessing of any uncommon intelligence. What makes them special for the photographer, however, is that they’re about as dynamic as cows. They sit there on sandy bottoms- in this case in rock crevices about twenty metres down the reef wall- and hang there an inch off the ground. They don’t really move much, and they don’t appear to be particularly bothered by the presence of divers. If you’re careful, you can get to within a few inches of them, and they might give a lazy flick of the tail and drift just out of reach, but so long as you don’t charge in amongst them, that’s about as much movement as you’re likely to see.
So I had some fun lining up a few shots with them. Here, one Sweetlips shows off the distinctive pattern of yellow spots that sadly fade with time. You can see the distinctive fat pout that presumable gives the fish its common name.
Firing flash catches some of the silvery hues off the fish’s flank. While I like using natural light where possible to photograph underwater, conditions often make this challenging. If the dive is deep or the sun is behind cloud, not only does this adversely affect shutter-speeds, but you lose the natural colours of the subject, and everything cools down to shades of blue. Firing a flash is like putting a burst of sunshine on a fish, and if you’re subtle about it, you can make it as bright and colourful as it would be at the surface.
Listen to me. I make it sound like I actually know what I’m doing here.
This Sweetlips below clearly had enough of my photographic intrusions and tried to make a run for it. Happily it still moved slowly enough that I could keep it lined up in the frame. Its more colourful piscine cohabitants like the Moorish Idol and the Anemone Clownfish (forthcoming) are rarely so accomodating.
As well as making moves on loitering Sweetlips, we came across a whole bunch of other life down in Sek Passage yesterday. In fact, there were shoals and shoals of the stuff above us near the reef crown.
I only had a split second to fire off a shot at this torpedo-like Barracuda as it streaked past me, so it’s not as sharp as I would have liked. Mind you, his teeth certainly are.
This little fella I have no clue about. All I can say is he was slow enough for me to get a bead on him before he scuttled off. If anyone knows his name, drop me a line. I’m always curious.
My final offering from Sek Passage is somewhat less natural than the rest of my portfolio. This is a diver’s weight, the sort we hang from our belts to help us stay underwater rather than cork to the surface. I spotted it almost directly beneath where we’d anchored the boat at the mouth of the passage. To give you an idea of scale, it’s about three inches long. I don’t know how long it’s been down there, presumably dropped by some slip of wet fingers and lost to the deep. It was about seven metres down. It’s an anthropic intrusion into an otherwise natural environment, but I really like how it’s been colonized by the reef anyway. With luck, in another few years, you won’t even be able to see it at all.
Although the fish-life off northern Queensland wasn’t perhaps as copious as we have out in Madang, it was a little more sedate and less sketchy. I have a hunch several decades of protection on the Great Barrier Reef contrasts heavily with the existence of the fish in Madang Harbour, who have to duck and hide every time an outrigger drifts overhead. As a result, it sat still a little longer to allow for the odd photograph. I’m still mastering the art of piscine photography, so don’t look too closely at these shots, but these are some of the critters I got a kick out of diving off Port Douglas.
This first fella is one of my favourite fish portraits of all time, not just because of the angle and the fact that he stayed still long enough for me to take a shot, but also because he has a particularly gourmless expression on his face. Not that fish generally convey the sort of intelligence that you might get off, say, a mole, or a surfer, but this one looks particularly detatched from its reality. I love the big eye and the pout. And on the subject of eyes, my gut tells me this is a Red Bigeye- no prizes why.
This Bream greeted me as I dropped into our second dive. She was tantalizingly amiable and circled me a few times, getting nice and close and allowing me a few snaps. I have a hunch she was all dolled up for a night on the town, with that stylish yellow eye-shadow, pink lipstick and a bit of extra colour on the cheeks and top of the head. All kinds of colourful, at any rate. I would have liked to get this shot without all the fins in the background, but unfortunately this is the hazard of diving the Great Barrier Reef, with divers coming down like thick rain from the surface.
I don’t actually know what this fine fellow is, but his bright yellow lips caught my attention. I’ll have to look it up. I did some visual comparison with a shot of some juvenile Sweetlips I have and there was enough similarity there to raise a question-mark, but enough difference to leave me wanting. If I figure it out (or if somebody with more fish knowledge and/or discipline than I have lets me know) I’ll post an update. That’s assuming, of course, that you care.
Chromis are some of my favourite fish in the ocean. With their little oval bodies (they’re only a few inches long) and forked needle-like tails, they’re quite distinctive and terribly copious. They tend to swim in large shoals near the reefs, and are as easily accessible to snorkellers as to divers. They swim en masse, their shiny hides catching the daylight, twitching like a great shimmering rug has just been shaken out when they get spooked. I really love watching them swoop and dive as one gathered organism, then bouy back to the surface once the perceived threat has slackened. Neither of these pictures really does them a great amount of credit. We get mostly the turquoise Blue-Green Chromis in Madang, a beautiful fish. These lesser-coloured cousins take on a silvery hue- I’m not sure if their name reflects their pigmentation.
The final fish in this little show is one familiar to anybody who’s frequented tropical reefs, the impeccably-named Parrotfish. With their beak-like bills with which they can be audibly heard crunching coral, their fluttering wing-like pectoral fins, and their outrageous network of bright colours, they mimic their aviary namesakes in a variety of fashions. Usually fleeting and fast, I’ve not managed to get many shots of a parrotfish at all, though I see them on almost every dive I do. This one obliged by giving me a lazy fly-past. I’m particularly fond of the pathway of coral-like patterns around its face. Again, a personal favourite.
Of course, the fish that everybody wants to see when they hit the reef is coming up next…
We had a big storm on Friday night. Some of the biggest waves I’ve seen yet slamming into the sea-wall in front of the restaurant at the Lodge. The murky skies didn’t clear, however, so Saturday was washed in dull grey light. We dived the Cessna at Tab Island, and although the viz wasn’t too bad, it wasn’t crystal either, quite a lot of suspended particles in the way. All in all, a good time to practice some close-up photography and bypass some of the silt.
Anemonefish are some of the real characters of the reef. Aggressively territorial, they lurch out from among the tendrils of their symbiotic home to defend even against a whopping behemoth like me. Their darting and diving, however, make them hard quarry to catch on film, rarely in one place for more than a fraction of a second. These two little beggars were tiny- less than two centimetres apiece. I don’t know if that makes them a really small species, or juveniles. They were hanging out above one of my favourite anemone species, with the translucent arms and blue tips. Not every macro shot I took worked out, and I got a couple where the focus picked up the little flecks of suspended matter an inch or two infront of the fish, but a couple came out usable.
For those that care, sea anemones (commonly misspelt anenome) are in fact animals, not plants.
Another fascinating inhabitant of Poseidon’s realm is the nudibranch (noo-dee-brank). Literally translated as “naked gill” (for the exposed set of gills these tiny molluscs typically carry on their backs), nudibranchs are tiny sea-slugs, generally a few centimetres long, who make up for their fragile structure and small stature by displaying a rich array of irridescent colours. There are apparently several thousand known species of nudibranch (which leaves room for many more unknown), and they are notoriously difficult to spot, especially to a novice like me. But very cool when you do see them. On Saturday, Lorraine proved herself to be a nudibranch spotter par excellence, and we saw several different species. This blue one with yellow spots was the brightest, however we also found a pair with a sandy camouflage that made them all but dissapear into the seabed but an irridescent blue underside. This strange willowy white thing may or may not be a nudibranch (it has no discernable features that I can identify) but I’ll fit it in this category until I learn better. Yes, it actually propelled itself along by itself- really beautiful to watch.
I found this bright blue fish (below) lurking among coral this afternoon while snorkelling out by one of the other islands in the harbour, accompanied by Dave and John. John is a mechanic and admin in our office and lives out on the island, commuting by outboard each morning and evening. We went out for lunch and a swim, then broke down on the way back into town and spent fifteen minutes bobbing around on the harbour while John replaced the sparkplugs on the motor.
I still have a way to go in underwater photography, but there’s a certain thrill in the challenge of trying to capture these minute inhabitants of the underwater realm. I should probably brush up on my fish identification skills as well. More to come, ear and weather conditions permitting.