Dominica: Invertebrates

Onuphis sp. Ned DeLoach Blennywatcher.comDominica, February 2014 ~ Poring through the new copy of Reef Creature Identification between dives, our guides Tony and Imran mentioned that they could find Onuphis worms, specifically, an undescribed species that we had never personally seen before. Tony showed us one at the very end of a fish survey dive and in the excitement, ahem, all air was consumed from certain tanks. The site was shallow and full of other interesting things so plans were made to return the following week to photograph this tantalizingly beautiful creature. We’re saving the adventures of Team Worm for a future article, but the above image gives you an idea of why we were so excited.

Bumblebee Shrimp, Gnathophyllum americanum Ned DeLoachTwo years ago, we found many Bumblebee Shrimp but almost always under and around urchins. This time we found the odd little quarter-inch shrimp on nearly every sea cucumber we examined but hardly any in association with urchins (and Dominica has a lot of urchins). Bumblebee Shrimp, Gnathophyllum americanum, feed on the tube feet of echinoderms (urchins and sea cucumbers belong to the same phylum: Echinodermata) so this must have been sea cucumber season for the little epicures.

Channel Clinging Crab Ned DeLoachOrange Ball Corallimorph (Corynactis caribbaeorum) Ned DeLoachNight dives are a good time to see invertebrates that venture out under cover of darkness to feed. I tend to take Channel Clinging Crabs, Mithrax spinosissimus, for granted – these large (5-to-7 inch carapace) crabs are not particularly uncommon; however I probably saw more on our one night dive than I have seen in all other Caribbean locations put together – there were a lot of them. Same goes for Orange Ball Corallimorphs. These are difficult to show to other divers because the second we hit them with light, they retract their translucent tentacles.

Atlantic White-spotted Octopus Octopus macropus Ned DeLoachIn contrast, on the same night dive, I saw my first Atlantic White-spotted Octopus, Octopus macropus. There is an octopus species in the Pacific that looks very much like this one. It tends to be the most wary and shy of any that we encounter so it was very interesting that this Caribbean species behaved much the same way.

Pontonia mexicana Pen Shell shrimp Ned DeLoachThere were a lot of pen shells in the shallow areas of both grass and sand. Since he had never photographed one, Ned suggested that we hunt for the Pen Shell Shrimp, Pontonia mexicana, that lives symbiotically within the shell. That’s all Imran had to hear – he was on it in a flash.

Flamingo Tongue (Cyphoma gibbosum) Mike Poe via Blennywatcher.comSand Dollar with Pea crab Mike Poe via Blennywatcher.comOur dive buddy Mike Poe shared several of his shots: I really like the up-close view of the little one-inch Flamingo Tongue, Cyphoma gibbosum. His shot of a live Sand Dollar is interesting – you can see a little white Sand Dollar Pea Crab, Dissodactylus mellitae, that lives symbiotically with the echinoderm.

Urchin Crab Gnathophylloides mineri Mike Poe via Blennywatcher.comAnother interesting find was tiny Urchin Shrimp, Gnathophylloides mineri, living on sea urchins. They feed on the epithelium of sea urchin spines and blend in so well, that it usually takes a while to see them.

Brachycarpus biunguiculatus Twoclaw shrimp Ned DeLoachWe end with one of my favorite shots, taken by Ned. I think this Twoclaw Shrimp, Brachycarpus biunguiculatus, rivals the fishes featured in our previous post, for cutest critter on Dominica. Check back soon, for more of our favorite sightings on last month’s visit to Dominica, including cool finds in the grass beds.

Photo Friday: Alive

Flamboyant Cuttlefish ready to hatch Ned DeLoach

Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi, ready to hatch from its egg.

Our submission for this week’s Photo Friday topic: Alive is tiny a Flamboyant Cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi), about to hatch. We’ve shot this several times over the years; the first time was in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia in 2006. At the time, we had no idea how to tell when the cuttlefish would hatch, so we spent hours and hours over many days, watching them. We finally learned that when they are ready, the developed cuttlefish would turn these dark red, purple and orange colors, then suddenly without any other warning, pop out, a fully formed miniature of the adult.

Nudibranch Preying on a Goby

Nudibranch on Goby Fiji Ned DeLoach

The first time we saw this was in Fiji

Here’s another strange one: A nudibranch that attaches to and eats the fins of shrimp gobies! Shrimp gobies are cool fishes – teaming up with nearsighted burrow-building shrimp, the vigilant gobies act as sentinels, watching for danger, while the shrimp build communal burrows. Life is good out on the sand flat, right? Well yes, until the little nudibranch, Gymnodoris nigricolor, enters the scene.  In the photo, the nudibranch is the little black job hanging onto the fin of the goby.

We were diving in Lembeh back in 2000 when Mary Jane Adams told us about this relationship of the nudibranch on the goby and asked if we had ever seen it in Lembeh. She had recently seen it in the Solomon Islands, which was a range extension, since at that time, it had only been reported from Okinawa. We didn’t even know such a relationship existed, but our guide said he had seen it once at a site called Critter Hunt, so off we all went in search of it.

No luck in Lembeh but in 2005, I found it in Fiji (which I think was the first time it had been recorded there) – but of course at the end of a dive and 65′ deep. Ned got a shot but the goby spooked and darted into its hole, taking the nudibranch with it. We weren’t sure if the nudi would still be hanging on when the goby re-emerged but our allowed dive time was over so we couldn’t stay around to find out. I marked the spot with a very distinctive rock and we planned a second dive so a couple of others could photograph it. A comedy of errors ensued – mainly because I didn’t realize there were two large bommies at the site and the tender driver had dropped us on the other one.  After a little head scratching, I finally saw the second bommie, found my marker rock and the goby with the attached nudibranch! I got a few seconds of video then Burt Jones showed up and got a couple of shots before the goby freaked again and dived into its hole – we marveled at the  strength of the grip the nudibranch had on the goby fin.

Nudibranch on Goby Solomon Islands Ned DeLoach

Nudibranch preying on shrimp goby (Solomon Islands)

Nudibranch on goby Close-up Solomons Ned DeLoach

Close-up nudibranch preying on shrimp goby

In 2009, on a sandy slope in the Florida Islands in the Solomons, I saw another! I was scouting for Ned and by the time he got some photos, the goby decided I was a threat and dived into its hole. The nudibranch hung on during what was a very fast and certainly violent by nudibranch standards, dive by the goby into the burrow.

Bob Bolland’s Okinawa Slug Site has more photos and lists references, including the paper, The First Association of an Adult Mollusk (Nudibranchia: Doridae) and a Fish (Perciformes: Gobiidae) and the 2000,  paper  that confirms the nudibranch does feed on the goby fins – I think before that, the nature of the relationship was speculation. And the paper has a close-up of the hooked radula of the nudibranch’s mouth, which helps explain why the nudi is able to hang on the way it does. I’ve loaded a little bit of video on our BlennyWatcher YouTube channel  so you can see how the nudi hangs on when the goby bolts, or you can click below to watch.

Why We Love Lembeh

Wunderpus strikes a pose Ned DeLoach

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

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

Pygmy Seahorse Ned DeLoach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frogfish on Gates Housing Ned DeLoach

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

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

Bigfin Squid laying eggs Ned DeLoach

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

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

Settling eel Ned DeLoach

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