Why We Love Lembeh

Wunderpus strikes a pose Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Reminiscent of a Balinese dancer, the Wunderpus strikes a pose

In 1999, on our first trip to Lembeh Strait, Indonesia, we were introduced to dives unlike any we’d ever experienced. No colorful coral reefs here – this was “muck diving” – a new concept to us. Dropping down into greenish water to behold a wide-open expanse of nothing but black sand was almost enough to send many of us scurrying back to the boat. But it had taken us 44 hours and 5 flights to get here, so we stuck like glue to our dive guides who began pointing out bits of trash and clumps of sponge that magically turned into fishes and crabs and octopuses. We were hooked -  so hooked, that in the 15 years since that first trip, we have been back 24 times!

We are returning in late May and there is still room if you want to join us. We’ll be offering our 3rd Lembeh Fish and Critter Hunt with Eco-Divers Resort Lembeh. This is our week-long workshop on reef fish and invertebrate identification, behaviour and photography – all centering around the critters of Lembeh Strait. The details are available on the Eco Divers web site. To get an idea of the possibilities, check out my video from the 2012 trip: Two Weeks in Lembeh or read our two blogs posts from 2012 by clicking on Lembeh Fish and Critter Hunt – Week One and Week Two. We hope you can join us!

Back to why we love Lembeh Strait:

Roughsnout Ghost Pipefish Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

This Roughsnout Ghost Pipefish was drifting above a bed of shaggy algae

Pygmy Seahorse Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

A very gravid pygmy seahorse

On that first trip in 1999, we saw our first Wunderpus Octopus (it had not even been formally described at that time), ghost pipefish, hairy frogfish, and pygmy seahorses. We watched a crocodile fish gagging as a small swarm of catfish swam in and out of its mouth every time it coughed (it finally spit out a rock, apparently sucked in when it lunged at the catfish). There were Fingered Dragonets, Cockatoo Flounders, Pegasus Seamoths and nudibranchs of every shape and color. We were shown a small colony of gorgeous black and white striped fish living in some long-spined urchins in two feet of water off a small island in the middle of the Strait. “Banggai Cardinalfish,” confided the dive manager, “Supposedly escaped from a tropical fish importer’s tanks.”

Banggai Cardinalfish Lembeh Strait Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Banggai Cardinalfish were introduced to Lembeh Strait around 1999

Over the years, we’ve made many new dive friends and many local friends. We’ve attended a local wedding, partied at the disco in town and had the privilege of sitting onstage as guests of the mayor during Bitung’s annual Tulude celebration. We’ve watched the area grow from two dedicated dive resorts to over twelve, the Banggai Cardinalfish have moved up the Strait, sharing anemones and urchins with local fishes and we’ve recorded some amazing images and behaviors. Many would not have been possible without our exceptionally talented dive guides, whom we’ve always considered partners in our success.

Cyerce Nudibranch Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

This beautiful cyerce nudibranch was crawling across a sponge during a night dive

During the research for the Reef Creature Identification Tropical Pacific book, our dear friends Jim and Cary Yanny of Eco Divers arranged for private boats and guides to allow us to dive on our own schedule. If the resort boats were full, as they often were, we used a local water taxi, whose owner, Abang, had worked with many film crews and not only knew the dive sites well, but understood the idiosyncrasies of photographers on a mission. While Ned and our guide worked on a subject, I searched for additional animals. Often, even if I found something of interest, my navigation skills were rendered useless on the underwater desert and I couldn’t always locate Ned and our guide to lead them back to the subject. No matter how long we were down or where I happened to surface, I could count on Abang, always at watch on the back of his boat, to point out their bubbles.

Eel in cleaning station Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The eel, surrounded by hinge-beak shrimp, was being cleaned by Scarlet Ladies

Our primary guide was the brilliant Liberty Tukunang, who remembered every animal that Ned shot during our four years of working together. Once when he waved a puzzled Ned off a cryptic shrimp, his answer back on the boat was, “You shot that 2 years ago at TK3 on the night dive.” On Liberty’s days off, Ben Sarinda would often guide us. Liberty would carefully question Ned about what Ben had found and was visibly crestfallen if it was anything spectacular. Ned would tease them both, “Liberty, you are good, but Ben is lucky!” We recounted one of Ben’s exciting finds, a Shell Mimic Shrimp, in our Alert Diver Magazine article, The Great Charade.

Shell mimic shrimp Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Is it a shrimp or a shell? It’s a Shell Mimic Shrimp!!

Liberty and Ned worked together, sometimes looking like a surgical team, kneeling in the sand as Liberty tenderly coaxed a shrimp out into view with a satay stick, just enough for Ned who was manually focusing the entire time, to get an adequate identification shot. We called them 30-minute shrimp because it often took Liberty 30 minutes to get the shrimp to walk into view long enough for Ned to tap the shutter button. This was not 30 minutes to get the in-focus, full-view photo that was good enough for the book – it was 30 minutes to get one exposure, good or bad. If the shrimp popped back into the crinoid or acropora coral, they started over again.

Golden Goby Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The little Golden Gobies would be here just a few weeks, laying eggs in the bottle.

At times, our good friend, William Tan, author of several underwater pictorial books, joined us with his guide, Noldy Rumengan. In his other life, William is a violinist for the Singapore Symphony and Noldy is the guide who discovered the Rumengani Pipehorse, a.k.a., the Lembeh Sea Dragon. Some of our happiest times were when Cary, also an accomplished photographer, could take a day out of her hectic schedule to hop aboard. It was a heady time – giddy from finding a rare or undescribed species, exhausted by six or more hours a day underwater and happily surrounded by dear friends.

Rumengani Pipehorses Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Named after dive guide Noldy Rumengan, two wispy Rumengani Pipehorses hang from algae

Besides the special friendships, Lembeh has given us other gifts. We saw our first Blueringed Octopus there – then, over a month’s time, followed 13 more individuals, watching them hunt, fight and mate. Ned, who was captivated by Roger Steene’s beautiful flasher wrasse shots, began seeking them out and shot the first photograph ever taken in the wild of the Togean Flasher (finding it in Lembeh Strait was also a range extension for the species). I followed a school of foraging catfish so long, that they turned and worked their way up my leg. Who knows what they found on my wetsuit that made it worth their while but I was enthralled as they rolled up my leg, finally scattering as they reached my hands. The next day, as I sat filming the same catfish in their home log, a frogfish, perched on top of the log, swam over, bumped into my port, tippy-tapped on my head for a few seconds before settling onto my light handle, apparently deciding it was a better spot for luring cardinalfish. Being kissed by catfish and danced on by a frogfish made for dives I will never forget.

Togean Flasher Wrassse (paracheilinus togeanensis) Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Ned photographed the first images ever taken in the wild of the Togean Flasher (Paracheilinus togeanensis). 

Frogfish on Gates Housing Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The frogfish decided my camera was a better spot for hunting cardinalfish

We followed a foraging Wunderpus octopus for an hour to see what they eat (shrimp goby shrimp for one thing). We returned to the same dive sites day after day to document the behavior of mating and egg-laying squid. We photographed a previously undocumented relationship of an undescribed porcelain crab that makes its home on the anemones that live on the shells of hermit crabs. Fascinated by this arrangement of crab living on anemone living on a crab, we worked our way up the coast, examining every hermit crab we could find. Ned noticed tiny juvenile Bluespotted Trevallys that took on the striped pattern of the foraging catfish they followed – a new case of opportunistic mimicry that got the attention of several scientists.

Jacks with catfish ball Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

A discovery: juvenile jacks turning striped pattern on and off to mimic the striped catfish

Bigfin Squid laying eggs Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Over the course of a week, Bigfin Squid filled the gorgonian with eggs

With the work on the creature book completed, the emphasis on hunting inverts has yielded to “bimble” diving, i.e., just wandering along to see what might turn up and still, Lembeh produces: on a night dive, Ned found a lovely settling eel, no more than an inch and a half long. In 2012, we finally saw the coveted Hairy Octopus, spent several dives watching a Broadclub Cuttlefish lay eggs and indulged in Ned’s obsession with syphopterons. This past year, I spent my dives tracking benthic ctenophores and we ticked off more than 10 different species of coral gobies, including the very cool Redspotted Coral Goby.

Hairy Octopus Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Finally, the Holy Grail for critter hunters: A Hairy Octopus!

Settling eel Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Ned found this tiny settling eel during a night dive in Lembeh

So, no telling what 2014 in Lembeh will bring but it is sure to be special and we are eager to return.  We invite you to join us!

P.S., I’ve scanned the article we wrote for Ocean Realm Magazine way back in 1999 – you can download the pdf:  The Underwater Naturalists’ Indonesian Journal.

Lembeh Strait location New World Publications


More Blennywatcher 2013 Favorites

Anchor Tuskfish, Choerodon anchorago, Ned DeLoach, Blennywatcher.com

Yep, we see those teeth! Anchor Tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago), Indonesia

Here are a few more favorite Blennywatcher images from 2013. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will already have seen most of our favorite images, but some didn’t make into a post and others were published earlier this year in Alert Diver, Scuba Diving or Wetpixel. So, we’re ringing in the New Year with a few more photos from 2013, starting with this Anchor Tuskfish displaying quite a mouthful of teeth. The menacing look is quite out of character for this mild mannered member of the wrasse family.


Soft-coral Pipefish, Siokunichthys breviceps, Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Even with the search image, the Soft-coral Pipefish were difficult to find and follow.

Our first trip of 2013 was a month long journey through Indonesia aboard the Dewi Nusantara that took us from Sorong up to Ternate then back down to Ambon. We were off to a grand start with a new fish for our life lists: the Soft-coral Pipefish, Siokunichthys breviceps. Cruise director Wendy Brown and our guide Yann Alfian had a newly acquired search image for the tiny pipefish and found a few right away on our first dive at Mioskon, setting the bar pretty high for the rest of the cruise.


Waigeo bay with jellyfish Bennywatcher.com

The serene bay in Waigeo was full of pulsing jellyfish.

Lagoon Jellyfish Waigeo, Ned DeLoach, BlennyWatcher.comOne of my favorite areas in the Raja Ampat region of Indonesia is the island of Waigeo and this time, Wendy surprised us with a snorkel trip in a small bay that is full of jellyfish. We spent an hour swimming (cautiously) with the lovely jellyfish and Ned, “Mr. Safety”, reported that they do not sting – he knew this because he tested it by putting his entire hand in the tentacles.


Waigeo wall with pitcher plants Anna DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The walls were draped with orchids and pitcher plants

The steep walls that line the waterway to the bay are draped with blooming orchids and a climbing variety of the exotic pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant with a leaf that develops into a tendril that ends in the lidded pitcher. The plant secretes nectar that attracts insects into the trap below that is filled with digestive fluids.


Twotone Dartfish, Ptereleotris evides, Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The closer we got, the closer the dartfish hovered to the hole in the coral head.

Off Halmahera, we photographed this gathering of Twotone Dartfish, Ptereleotris evides (you can just see one Zebra Dartfish hanging out with them). We usually see this fish in pairs, hovering near sandy burrows. This gathering was unusual not only in number, but in the choice of burrow – a tall, nearly hollow coral head.


Blueringed Octopus Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The Blueringed Octo was on the move

This Blue-ringed Octopus had just emerged from beneath a green and brown crinoid and was in the process of changing color to blend in more closely with the reddish sponge.


Coral Croucher, Caracanthus maculatus, Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

I love the little hairy “wolfman” face of the Coral Croucher.

A two-inch Spotted Croucher, Caracanthus maculatus, peeks from within the branches of its Acropora coral home (Pisang Island, Indonesia).


Atlantic Longarm Octopus, Macrotritopus defilippi Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

This was an extremely animated Atlantic Longarm Octopus.

Back in Florida, we managed two very quick trips to the muck-diving capital of Florida, the Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach. Ned followed this Atlantic Longarm Octopus, Macrotritopus defilippi as it danced across the sand. I missed the action because I was obsessing over a pair of spawning Molly Millers (see Hello Molly).


Mock Hairy Blenny juvenile, Labrisomus cricota Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

A one-inch juvenile Mock Hairy Blenny at the Blue Heron Bridge

As we were exiting from the dive, I stopped to check out the base of a bridge piling and saw a blenny that I did not recognize. I grabbed Ned to take this shot and sent it to Dr. Ben Victor for identification assistance. It turned out to be a juvenile Mock Hairy Blenny, Labrisomus cricota, originally described in 2002. The juveniles look very different from the adults.


Large-eye Toadfish Batrachoides gilberti Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The cartoon character face of a Large-eye Toadfish, Batrachoides gilberti

In July, we visited Utila in the western Caribbean for the first time. I prepared a “hit list” of species we wanted to photograph and with the help of the guides at Deep Blue Resort, found them all. This Large-eyeToadfish, Batrachoides gilberti, with its impossibly goofy face was quite a sight. We’ll be highlighting the rest of our finds in an upcoming Alert Diver Magazine article.


Circled shrimp Gnathophyllum circellum Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Circled Shrimp on a Tiger Tail Sea Cucumber

Two summers ago in Bonaire, Bas Tol guided us on an East Coast night dive, where he showed us two Circled shrimp, Gnathophyllum circellum. We had never seen this shrimp any other time, but our friend Ellen Muller, sees them regularly on Bonaire and they had been reported them a few times from the Blue Heron Bridge. We finally found several on our own during a coral spawning night dive this past September during our annual stay at Buddy Dive – they were on Tiger Tail Sea Cucumbers! Their close relative, the Bumblebee Shrimp, is known to feed on the tube feet of echinoderms, so I wonder if the little Circle Shrimp were dining on the Tiger Tails or just along for a ride. (see Scuba Diving Magazine, Critter Hunt: Bumblebee Shrimp)


Christmas Tree Worm Spawning Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

I saw it – I finally saw it – spawning Christmas Tree Worms!

After many years of looking for this, I finally saw spawning Christmas Tree Worms! This had become a bit of a joke among my friends as I always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when others saw it. This phenomenon has been observed at all hours of the day and night on many different moon phases, so predicting it was impossible. It was particularly maddening because the spawning is a slow process, lasting 15 to 20 minutes, so it is not like it would happen just as I looked away. I had resigned myself to never seeing it, then on coral spawning night, I lucked up! The way the eggs or sperm move slowly up and around the spirals of the feathery structures is slow and beautiful.


Ninelined Goby, Ginsburgellus novemlineatus Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

We always find Ninelined Gobies in association with urchins.

We devoted most of our month long Bonaire stay to hunting for blennies, which meant including visits to some of the generally less accessible dive sites in order to cover different habitats. At the southernmost end of the island, in 2 meters depth, we not only found blennies, but many species of gobies, including the adorable Ninelined Goby, Ginsburgellus novemlineatus.


Two-bar Triplefin, Enneanectes deloachorum in nuptial colors Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Two-bar Triplefin, Enneanectes deloachorum in nuptial colors

And wrapping up 2013, we were very pleased to learn that a blenny – the Two-bar Triplefin was named in our honor: Enneanectes deloachorum. This is a male in its nuptial colors. Dr. Ben Victor described the fish in the paper: The Caribbean Roughhead Triplefin (Enneanectes boehlkei): DNA barcoding reveals a complex of four West Indian sympatric cryptic species (Teleostei: Blennioidei: Tripterygiidae)This was indeed an honor and means a lot to us.


With that, we wish you happy diving, critter hunting and fishwatching in 2014!

Divers Back to the boat Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Lobster Face

Ornate Spiny Lobster Panulirus ornatus Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

The unintended artistry of natural selection.

It seems that every one of Anna’s and my favorite photos comes with a story attached. Our encounter with a night-prowling lobster is one of my favorites. It took place a few years back in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia where we were spending most of our time diving after dark searching for new crabs and other critters to include in Reef Creature Identification—Tropical Pacific.

Our guide, Liberty Tukunang, and I slipped away from Anna and her bug-buzzing video lights to explore the sand that extended from the reef where our boat—a long, low, green and yellow water taxi made of wood—bobbed 20 feet above. We hadn’t gone far before Anna’s beam waved us back. Returning, we found her staring down a lobster the size of Manhattan that happened to be a species we had been hunting for a long time – Panulirus ornatus, the Ornate Spiny Lobster. Our sudden arrival sent the lobster racing off into the night with Liberty and me on its tail.

But the beast was a thoroughbred. As hard as I kicked I couldn’t keep up with six jointed legs, built for the terrain. Just as I thought all was lost, Liberty, with a burst of speed, drew even and plunged his stainless steel stick into the sand. The lobster was stopped in its tracks. My momentum carried me around and, for a few brief seconds, face-to-face with a face epitomizing the unintended artistry of natural selection.

Blenny Challenge Week 5

Tessellated Blenny Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Tessellated Blenny, Hypsoblennius invemar, in its barnacle shell home

We found it – the Tessellated Blenny – a great way to end week 5 of our Bonaire Blenny Challenge! Ned teased me for telling the world that we were looking for this fish because he had lost faith in finding it. Although I received reports of previous sightings, all we found were Orangespotted blennies, fish that look similar at first glance. Our friend Ellen Muller took it upon herself to make inquiries and sent me a detailed list of possible locations, compiled by  another local expert Sipke Stapert, which we followed systematically, until finally, success. Ellen is one of the first people we consult when looking for something on Bonaire because if she hasn’t already seen it (which is rare), she knows someone who has (check out her beautiful images at her photo site here).

The last time we saw a Tessellated Blenny, Hypsoblennius invemar, was in the mid-90s and I had forgotten how pretty they are. Like the Orangespotted Blenny, they are small, live in empty barnacle shells and have lots of orange to brick colored spots. The Tessellated has a distinctive dark spot just behind the eye. For my old eyes, it takes a minute of close examination with a light to verify that the spot is present and sometimes I still called Ned over to what ended up being another Orangespotted Blenny. Viewed close up, either with a good camera or my handy SubSee Magnifier, other differences, such as the shape of the cirri and the spot patterns, are evident between the two species. An interesting note: The Tessellated Blenny is native to Venezuela, Colombia and the Lesser Antilles and considered introduced (nonindigenous) throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of southeast Florida (ref. USGS nonindigenous fact sheet).

Hairy Blenny Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Hairy Blenny, Labrisomus nuchipinnis, in its courting colors

The Hairy Blenny, Labrisomus nuchipinnis was everywhere. We saw them, ranging from 2 to 6 inches long, on every shore dive we made. Most were not particularly shy, allowing us to get really good looks. They were usually under and around the very shallow shore rocks but on one occasion, we found two high up on a dock piling in the middle of a prolonged battle – presumably over a female, since one sported courting colors.

Redlip Blenny Ned DeLoach BlennyWatcher.com

Redlip Blenny, my first blenny love.

Our last image from this month’s hunt is the Redlip Blenny (Ophioblennius atlanticus). This was the first blenny I learned to identify when I started diving and though common in some places, is still among my favorites. There are a lot of them in Bonaire and still much fun to watch.

We have had a super time on Bonaire and thanks to all our naturalist friends here, have had a very successful blenny hunt. I hand-drew two maps of where we saw many blennies this year: one of the blennies of Buddy Reef (17 species from the sea wall to the reef) and one of the Bonaire blennies from sites around the island. I left both the Buddy Reef and island blenny maps with Augusto Montbrun, Buddy Dive Resort’s Dive Operations Manager and a copy of the island map with Susan Porter of Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy. If you are visiting Bonaire soon, look them up for the info – or – ask around – there are quite a few other blenny aficionados on the island who know where to find the fish. We did see a lot of other things this month, including octopus, cool razorfish behavior and, dare I say it, gobies. So stay tuned for more. And to our Bonaire friends, (I like Douglas Adams and have always wanted to quote him):  So long, and thanks for all the fish!