Dominica Fishes – Part 2

Juvenile Queen Angelfish ( Holacanthus ciliaris) Dominica

A Juvenile Queen Angelfish ( Holacanthus ciliaris) gives Ned a quick look.

Dominica 2014 ~ Two of our recent posts have been about our visit to Dominica in the eastern Caribbean. There were too many photos for one post, so this is Dominica Fishes – Part 2. The lizardfish below is a Sand Diver, Synodus intermedius. Just after entering the water at one of our favorite Dominica reefs, Danglebens Pinnacles,  I saw Ned make a dash for the sand down at 80 feet. He had seen the Sand Diver sitting very still, with its mouth wide-open. This could only mean one thing: it was being cleaned. Fish often flee from their cleaning stations as soon as divers approach, but Ned is a master at knowing just how close he can get and he was able to capture the tiny Pederson’s Cleaning Shrimp as they worked their way around, removing parasites from the mouth and gills of the fish.Lizardfish being cleaned by shrimp - Dominica

One of my favorite finds of the trip was this juvenile Longspine Squirrelfish (Holocentrus rufus). We were making a night dive to count fish for REEF and our group, in typical surveying fashion, was spread up and down Champagne Wall. On the way back to the boat, I decided to explore the grass bed just off the reef, when a silvery/blue flash caught my eye. Wow, bright neon orange eyes with a metallic blue back – this was unlike any fish I had seen before and I had no camera and there was no diver with camera in sight and no one saw me signaling wildly for ten minutes for someone – anyone – to come take a look. Finally, Mike Poe showed up to save the day. Back at the resort, Cassandra Neal immediately called it as a juvenile Longspine Squirrelfish, based on the dorsal fin, which was not really visible to the naked eye but showed up beautifully in Mike’s photo. Dr. Ben Victor confirmed it, saying the tiny fish had likely just settled.  Juvenile Longspine Squirrelfish (Holocentrus rufus) - Dominica

Ned spotted this five-inch long juvenile Bluespotted Cornetfish (Fistularia tabacaria) as it was drifting in open water, heading for the lone gorgonian out on the sand plain. Tiny and wispy, it disappeared into the feathery gorgonian – I was hoping to see it the next day when we returned to the site, but it was either too well camouflaged or had moved on.Juvenile Bluespotted Cornetfish (Fistularia tabacaria) - Dominica diving

We didn’t see as many Yellowface Pikeblennies as we did on 2011, but we’ve learned that populations come and go and tend to be larger when the water is warmest: Yellowface Pikeblenny (Chaenopsis limbaughi) Dominica

The Mutton Hamlet (Alphestes afer) is another good sighting for fishwatchers. This is where common names can be so confusing. The Mutton Hamlet is a seabass but is not a hamlet like the ones we are usually referring to in the genus Hypoplectrus (which are also seabasses). Mutton Hamlet (Alphestes afer) - Dominica

Another fish that is more commonly seen in the eastern Caribbean is the Spotted Snake Eel (Ophichthus ophis), usually seen during the day with just their heads protruding from the sand.Blackspotted Snake Eel (Ophichthus ophis), - Dominica diving

A fish list wouldn’t be complete without frogfish. Our guides showed us quite a few but this Longlure Frogfish, perched in a colorful sponge was the prettiest. Its lure, at the end of a modified dorsal fin spine is used to attract other fishes, which the frogfish hoovers in with a very fast gulp. Longlure Frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus) - Mike Poe

Check in with us next week when we share finds from Dominica’s grass beds. 

Blenny Haiku

April 17th is  National Haiku Poetry Day and to celebrate, we offer Blenny Haiku. Please, no judging or heckling –  just having a little fun here – but feel free to contribute your own by commenting at the end of this post.

Fangblenny in holeSneaky fangblenny

In cleaning stations you lurk

No do-gooder, you

 

Spinyhead Blenny, Acanthemblemaria spinosaSpinyhead blenny

Often misidentified

As Secretary

 

Hairtail Blenny Xiphasia setiferHairtail, Eel, or Snake?

Xiphasia setifer

Latin name trumps all

 

Filament Blenny, Emblemaria hyltoniFilament Blenny

Reside in holes on deep walls

More common than thought

 

Longhorn Blenny Hypsoblennius exstochilusCool Longhorn Blenny

Found in shallow, surgy zones

but worth the bruises

 

Redlip Blenny, Ophioblennius atlanticusRed lipped blenny poised

No fear of scuba divers

Like king of the reef

 

Dominica 2014

Balloonfish Dominica Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Young Balloonfish (Diodon holocanthus) were everywhere!

Dominica! When Ned and I were asked to lead a 2014 REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) field survey, we suggested the lush tropical island in the eastern Caribbean. Our 2011 visit with friends, including the Wilk family (of ReefNet fame) and Dr. Ben Victor, had been so productive that we were eager to return. The eastern Caribbean has some interesting diving and the region has plenty of unusual fishes to lure avid fishwatchers looking to add a few more species to life lists. Dominica has fishy reefs and easy access to alternate habitats like black sand plains, grass beds and rocky shorelines – great for exploring.

Starburst diving is what Ned calls our dive style: we all jump in and scatter in different directions, meander a bit, stop occasionally to watch something interesting or peer into crevices and under ledges for cryptic fishes, then wander back to the boat. Fish surveyors don’t have to swim fast or travel far down the reef and our crew at Castle Comfort Lodge and Dive Dominica got it and join the spirit of the hunt.

Balloonfish face Mike Poe via Blennywatcher.com

Besides being cute, Balloonfish have such interesting eyes.

Red Banner Blenny Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

You can see why it is called the Red Banner Blenny (Emblemariopsis ramirezi).

During six days of surveying, our group counted 216 species of fish including the Red Banner Blenny, Yellowcheek Wrasse, and Lesser Electric Ray. We saw at least seven different Shortnose Batfish and many Balloonfish – they were everywhere – hovering under docks in tight little groups or tucked down into the grass where someone likened them to spiky little Easter eggs. Very young Coneys, just an inch or so long, moved nervously in and out of low-lying coral and once in a while we caught sight of a tiny blenny in the genus Starksia, darting around the urchins that they seem to favor as shelters.

Juvenile Coney yellow variation Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

We saw a number of tiny Coneys, some in this yellow variation; others were bicolored

Lesser Electric Ray Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

It was unusual to see this Lesser Electric Ray (Narcine bancroftii) cruising along a wall at 100′

There were plenty of Orangespotted Gobies, the Caribbean’s only species of shrimpgoby, keeping watch while their commensal shrimp plowed burrows in the mucky bottom. Googly-eyed Cardinal Soldierfish, nocturnal feeders and normally very shy could be seen on almost every reef dive, even during the day. Our guide pointed out a tiny Trumpetfish, so young that its body was nearly translucent.

Shrimp Goby & Shrimp Orangespotted Goby, Nes longus Dominica

Orangespotted Goby, Nes longus, stands guard while its commensal shrimp maintains the burrow.

Cardinal Soldierfish (Plectrypops retrospinis) by Mike Poe via Blennywatcher.com

The googly-eyed, very shy Cardinal Soldierfish (Plectrypops retrospinis).

Trumpet Fish juvenile Mike Poe via Blennywatcher.com

At 3 inches, this Trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculatus) was so small, it was still translucent.

It was a successful two-week trip both for fishwatching and invertebrate hunting. Since we have so many images to share, including a number by our friend Mike Poe who joined us for both weeks, we are going to upload several posts, including one devoted to invertebrates and one about all the fun we had in the grass beds. We’ll be back in a few days with our next post: Dominica Invertebrates.

Blackcheek blenny Starksia lepicoelia Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

A tiny Blackcheek Shy Blenny, Starksia lepicoelia, darts from its urchin shelter

Yellowcheek Wrasse Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.com

Yellowcheek Wrasse (Halichoeres cyanocephalus) were another exciting sighting.

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