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Entries in Indonesia (3)

Tuesday
Feb112014

Where Have All The Fish Gone... Diving Weda Island, Indonesia

Four weeks SCUBA diving in Indonesia sounds like a good way to spend some time; however, swimming in an ocean devoid of anything larger than a sardine becomes worrisome in relation to the overall health of the reef ecosystem.

I was diving in the coral triangle in northern Indonesia based at Weda Island; a small island adjacent to Halmahera Island, the largest island in the northern archipelago, a region made famous by the nineteenth century naturalist Alfred Wallace and his discovery of the Standard-wing Bird of Paradise.  

Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle is a geographical term referring to a rough triangular area of tropical water between Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.  The triangle encompasses two biological rich areas of marine biodiversity. 

LEFT:  Map of Coral Triangle  courtesy (www.rareplanet.com).  Click to enlarge.

Weda Island lies midway between the northern and southern regions; an area susceptible to strong currents, water transports large volumes of larvae which form the building blocks of a complex marine web and ecosystem.

Few Fish and Invertebrates.   Siltation from Mining Operations

I became concerned after completion of several dives in habitats from near shore to coastal coral platforms and deep oceanic drop offs.  There was something missing – FISH; in particular, anything larger than a “sardine”.  There also was a general lack of invertebrates.  It was as if the coral home was open but the inhabitants had left for the day...

Despite the lack of fish and critters, coral diversity on the outer reefs was excellent with massive and delicate corals growing from near surface to 30 plus meters.  Unfortunately, two Chinese owned mining operations have caused siltation on inner shore reefs and inshore corals are degraded.  So where were the reef dwellers?

Warm Water, Climate Change and Over Fishing

Certainly tidal currents and the moon phase can affect the presence of predators; however, I spent a month in this area and the results were the same for nearly every dive – very minimal fish life, poor invertebrate diversity, and no sharks whatsoever!  

In some areas the water was incredibly warm and the effects of temperature increase could readily be observed in some coral species in the form of bleaching.

The stress factor most commonly associated with bleaching is elevated sea temperature, but additional stresses such as high light intensity, low salinity and pollutants are known to exacerbate coral bleaching.  If the causal stress is too great or for too long, corals can die.

Reef corals are very sensitive to sea temperatures outside their normal range.  Elevated temperatures of 1 Degree Celcius above the long term monthly summer average are enough to cause coral bleaching in many dominant coral species.

When temperatures exceed threshold levels for long enough, the symbiotic relationship between the zooxanthellae and the corals breaks down and bleaching results. If stressful conditions prevail for long enough, the corals may bleach and die. However, if stressful conditions abate, then the bleached corals can recover their symbiotic algae and return to their normal, healthy colour. The severity of bleaching can vary substantially according to water depth, location and species of corals.

Is commercial over fishing, the local effects of nutrient run off from farming and industrial practices (mining), and perhaps the warming effect of global warming (current change and coral bleaching) beginning to be realized.

Crown-of-Thorns

Not seeing and watching fish, I did observe several Crown-of-Thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) during my dives.  Although this species can reach plague proportions decimating corals (they feed on the coral polyps), the sighting of a few animals does not in itself present a problem.

LEFT:  Acanthaster planci is a large starfish that can consume live coral polyps at an alarming rate.  Click to enlarge.

The crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) is a coral eating starfish or sea star native to coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region. They are named after the dense spines radiating from their arms and they belong to the same group as all starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and brittlestars.

Crown-of-thorns starfish are an important functional species on healthy coral reefs. They feed on the fastest growing corals such as staghorns and plate corals, allowing slow growing coral species to form colonies, therefore increasing coral diversity.

Is it Too Late ?

I have been diving since the late 1970’s and can remember vividly the days when sharks did worry you, there were too many fish to see anything past a few meters and the corals were strongly coloured without showing the effects of bleaching.  

Is it too late?  Over the last ten years I’ve observed a downfall in many areas that were previously teaming with fish and other marine life.  Areas of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and parts of Australia that are “off the beaten track” and did have large number of fish now produce little…  

On another trip to Indonesia, I was very conscious that at night, several large fishing boat flotillas passed our live-aboard dive boat - stripping the reef of the very fish we had seen the day before…

I believe the years are numbered in which newly-minted divers will experience what was seen by earlier generations.  The over fishing, habitat destruction, lack of international pollution control, burdening populations in many coastal nations, and the need to feed people and profit from the oceans has taken its toll.

Whilst not every food species is directly affected, there is a flow-through effect that occurs when you remove one particular species from the chain, or reduce its numbers to near extinction (for example, sharks, tuna and predatory coral fish). 

The next decade will be decisive to the overall state of environment concerning the marine ecosystem.

Tuesday
Mar202012

Photography Can Be Difficult Sometimes – Current Diving, Indonesia

I recently returned from a three week diving trip to Indonesia.  I wanted to dive some of the lesser visited areas in the Alor region; an area renown for its very strong “switch-back” currents, eddies, and up-wellings.  A switch-back current is a current that proceeds in one direction at the surface but changes direction below the surface.  Often these currents are difficult to identify and can alter direction and velocity without any apparent “localized” reason.

Diving a Steep Wall and Point

I was diving on a steep wall which plummeted down to some unfathomable depth.  The dive began along the wall in the sheltered region of the reef.  My partner and I descended to around 25 meters making our way to the point of the reef which jutted out into the blue.  Reaching the point at around 32 meters we swam directly out into the blue water to observe large Dog-toothed Tuna and Spanish Mackerel and the odd shark that patrolled the point.

Closely watching bottom time (the time allowed at a certain depth with minimal chance of decompression sickness), we proceeded back to the wall to ascend to where a break-through was located.  The idea was to swim through the break-through and ascend slowly over sand to a shallower depth to the complete a safety stop.  

Is that a Current Developing?

The current developed literally from nowhere.  At first it was mild and swimming against the current wasn’t an issue.  I’d be watching a school of barracuda hanging behind us and a lone shark swimming lazily behind the school.  Stopping and securing my self to the sandy floor with my fin depressed into the sand, I waited for a photograph.  Several minutes transpired until I thought I’d captured a decent photograph.

Meanwhile, the current increased in intensity and angling downwards, began to drag anything along with it.  Swimming “cross-tack” like a sailboat in the wind, we proceeded over the sand, hiding behind the lee of a coral bommie for a quick “breather”.  I was a little slower than the others as apart from taking photographs of the barracuda; I was dragging a heavy Subal housing and twin strobes through the water.

The current then altered course and began to sweep the sandy sea floor perpendicular to the wall; our reprieve behind the bommie quickly disappeared as I and three other divers were propelled along the sand – back to slightly deeper water (15 meters).  Frantically we clawed our way, at a ninety degree angle to the current, along the current swept rubble-like bottom to shallower water.  Finally, we reached the safety of the lee of a bommie allowing us further reprieve from the current.  This was at 10 meters water depth.

Low Air

Everyone’s air supply was marginal at this stage; mine was sitting on 100 BAR – certainly there was enough air to complete the dive safely without current, but the exertion of swimming in the current had increased consumption markedly.

The current continued to increase in intensity and it was now impossible to swim against the current or perpendicular to it; it was too strong.  Even turning your head sideways to the current was a recipe for disaster, as your face mask was almost sucked from your face.  Looking at my dive partner I saw that her yellow snorkel was quivering like an Indian’s arrow head in a bowl of jelly.  The sand on the sea floor was whipped up like a, Iraqi sand storm!

Entangled, Iraqi Storm and Low Air

One by one, we let go of the bommie to literally fly across the sand making our way to a shallower depth for the mid-water safety stop.  This was when my problem occurred.  As I let go of the large piece of coral rubble, the current propelled me into an unseen coral bommie behind me.  My regulator and high pressure hose (despite being clipped closely to my body) became entangled in the coral.  Turning my head, I could see my dive partner looking at me, but it was impossible for her to reach me in the now raging current.

LEFT:  Lone silver tip shark swims behind schoolling barracooda.

Air Alarm – “Bingo Fuel”

Worse was to come, for as turned my head to look for my partner, the regulator was torn from my mouth; I could not reach it.  The current had extended the hose which had become caught in the coral.  I reached for my alternate air source, pulled it from its reciprocal and breathed some welcome air.

The air alarm then began to flash and send its “beep beep beep” aural message to warn be I had reached, what pilot’s call “bingo fuel” – 60 BAR, enough air to reach the surface and do a safety stop with a little to spare.  I always was at the safety stop at 50 BAR.  Now I was caught in coral at 10 meters!  The reason for the low air alarm became evident when I reached for my alternate air source; it was free flowing due to the current depressing the purge button!

My heavy Subal camera housing and twin strobes were angled away from me in the direction of the current.  The camera was acting as a sea anchor stopping me from disentangling the regulator hose and HP Hose from the coral.  The camera housing was attached to by BCD by a quick release clip – should I release the clip?  Fighting the current, I attempted to disentangle myself to no avail.

Should I Dump the Camera and Make a Free Ascent ?

Looking towards the surface I noted my dive partner had aborted her safety stop and had surfaced.  She was being propelled up, down and over, by the large surface waves the current had generated – at least she was on the surface and relatively safe.  I began to debate whether a free ascent maybe the only option, as my air was precariously low at this stage.  The surface was churning mass of white water…..

I released the camera housing from my BCD and watched as the camera bounced along the sand to become lodged in a crevice of a rock; the strobe and arms shuddering in the current, but the housing seemed to stay put.  Relieved of the sea anchor, I quickly disentangled the regulator, which was relatively easy after removing the drag of the camera housing, changed my air supply back to my main regulator and began to deploy my safety stop anchor.

Letting go of the bommie, the current propelled me along the bottom.  I literally flew toward my camera, grabbing it and clipping it back onto my BCD.  I had just clipped in when the current pushed me against another coral bommie.  I was careful not to repeat the previous experience and began to inflate the safety anchor balloon with my alternate air source.  I wanted the dive boat to know where I was located.

Balloon rushes towards the Surface

The partially inflated balloon speed to the surface as the air expanded due to decreasing pressure, but the current was too strong and the line deployed at a 30 degree angle.  The spool which held 50 meters of line was spinning crazily as the line deployed in the current.  Air was low, the alarm having stopped at 20 BAR.  I didn’t have the time to retrieve the line.  I pushed off from behind the bommie and used the current to propel me in a controlled manner towards the surface – maintaining contact with the line and safety anchor balloon, which by this time had been collected and secured to the dive boat which awaited me at the surface.  Completing my safety stop at 5 meters was uneventful other than watching the world fly by at 15 knots and watching my air gauge indicate 2 BAR!

Unavoidable

Looking back at the experience, was it avoidable; probably not.  The currents in this area are susceptible to change at short notice and are known for their ferocity.

The currents are one reason why the diving is so good at locations such as this, as where there are currents there are big fish which predate on smaller fish and so forth.  Some dives it feels as if you’re swimming in an ecosystem surrounded by a hive of aquatic activity.

Certainly my air supply was marginal; however, I lost probably 30 BAR of air as a result of the purge button on my alternate air source being depressed by the current.

It's a Pity

It's a pity I didn't shoot a few frames of underwater video to show the ferocity of the current.  I was far too busy dealing with other more important things.  However, here is a short video clip, taken from the dive boat, showing the strength of the currents in this area.

Indonesia Currents, Alor Region from Anaspides Photography on Vimeo.

Training and Experience

SCUBA diving, like photography is relatively easy, until the situation gets beyond the norm. It's then that training and experience pay dividends.

Training is not everything; you can have twelve dive cards from open water to specialty diver and still be inexperienced, although you may believe yourself adequately prepared. Certainly, nearly anyone can dive in good weather and sea conditions.  It's only when those conditions alter that problems may arise.  It an unfortunate aspect of diver training that many unhealthy, overweight individuals receive diving cards because they have the ability to "pay" – rather than the ability to perform.

All the divers in my small group were highly skilled and experienced, ranging from Dive Master to Instructor level with each over 2000 logged dives.

Tuesday
Jun282011

Rhinopias - Diving The Wallace Line, Western Indonesia

There are parts of Indonesia that are special places, especially those that fall along what has been named by biologists as the Wallace Line.  This imaginary line (actually it is defined geologically) separates the ecozones between Asia and broadly-speaking Australia.  Along the line the biodiversity is exceptionally high and there are many rare, uncommon and distinctly unusual species. 

In April 2011, I spent a tad over 3 weeks diving several areas along the Wallace Line n search of some of these species.

LEFT: A purple phase Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa) although brighly coloured is highly camouflaged amongst the surrounding coral rubble.

The water will be cold - I had been told....

I’d been warned that the water would be cold.  Despite the warning, I still gasped as I fell from the boat into the 21 degree water.  Considering I was diving in Indonesia, which straddles the equator, it was surprising to be almost suffering heat exhaustion on the surface and then to be exhibiting the mild symptoms of hyperthermia 10 minutes later.

LEFT: A purple phase Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa).  It's interesting that many fish cannot see colour, but can define tones.  So, why is Rhinopias coloured so brightly.

I was diving in the region of Alor and Flores in search of unusual fish and nudibranches.  In particular I was hunting (photographically speaking) a relatively uncommon and rare fish with the spectacular name of Rhinopias.  I’d only seen fish belonging to this genus a couple of times when diving in Papua New Guinea, and on these dives I was unfortunate to not have my underwater camera with me.

Rhinopias sp. - An Unusual Fish Species

Rhinopias means “long nasal septum”  and comes from the Greek and Latin translation.  All species belonging to this genus have this same characteristic -  a long slender snout leading to a huge cavernous mouth.  What separates the different species is subtle characteristics such as the type and number of appendages, and size of pectoral fins, and the locations in which the fish is found.  Colour and size, which can be controlled by food supply and environment. have no direct relationship to each species.

 Cold Water & Muck Diving

The water was mind-numbing cold and despite wearing a full wetsuit, I found it increasingly difficult to maintain my vigilance searching along the muddy bottom for the prized fish.  This area was not a beautiful reef in  brilliantly clear sunlit water, but rather rocky substrate adjacent to a village populated by a few thousand Indonesians living an almost “hand to mouth“ traditional lifestyle.  The visibility was limiting due to silt and debris entrained within the water column, and the bottom strewn with silt-covered boulders.  This was one of the favoured habitats Rhinopias; this style of diving is what has been named by the diving community as “muck diving”.

LEFT (2 images):  A Paddle-flap Scorpionfish (Rhinopias eschmeyeri).  Note the different colour hue and the lack of white "highlighted" eyebrows to that of the same species in upper photograph; variation is common amougst Rhinopias sp.

Muck diving came of age after intrepid divers decided to begin to explore the not so often dived areas adjacent to bridges, rivers, marshes, wetlands and villages.  You won’t the usual reef dwellers here, but you are liable to find the unusual, the ugly, and the strange.  You may also come across the juvenile forms of many of the more common reef species, as these backwaters are a safer habitat for small fry.

To add to discomfort a chilly thermocline had developed at a depth of 25 meters and I was reluctant to sink into the shimmering layer as the water here was colder than the warmer water above.  The shimmering water meandered its way across the rocky slope enveloping me for a minute or so before moving deeper; it was like going from a warm bath to a bath with floating ice cubes – then back again.

Why Are Rhinopias Special

Rhinopias is a genus of scorpionfish (Scorpanidadae) containing six species, and like other scorpionfish, utilise camouflage to blend in with their surroundings;  I’ve always found it odd that a bright red, pink, yellow or purple fish can be almost invisible as you swim over it.  Even when photographing the Rhinopias, I often find myself searching for the animal after swimming off a distance before making another run to take photographs - so good is nature to have provided such as tantalizingly beautiful veil of deception.

LEFT: A yellow phase Weedy Scorpionfish (Rhinopias frondosa) showing detail of the lure appendage over the cavernous mouth.

Rhinopias are rare fish, and sometimes appear in the aquarium trade, where they fetch high prices.  They are lie and wait predators and generally are not fast swimmers.  Their camouflage is unusual as the fish are brightly coloured over an often dappled base colour.  This bright colouring however, doesn’t appear to offer any resistance to their reputation of being exceptionally dangerous bottom dwellers.  To add to their concealment, are variously sized appendages which assist to breakup the visual outline of the fish and help disguise the large lips and mouth.

The appendage above the head of Rhinopias is used a lure and is often waved about like a small worm on a hook.  Any interested passer by, stopping to investigate the waving appendage is quickly consumed as the fish opens its mouth and lunges quickly forward.  The movement and opening of the mouth is enough to create a vacuum which sucks into the mouth any unsuspecting small fry.

Photographing Rhinopias

The most difficult part of photographing Rhinopias is actually finding the fish.  Because this species often resides in silty and muddy environments, ensuring that the water remains as clean as possible is a photographer’s first task.  Inappropriate fin movement and hand placement can completely envelope you and the fish with silt removing any opportunity you may have had to produce a good photograph.  Therefore, good diving practices are required and neutral buoyancy must be maintained at all times; a somewhat trying task when swimming in a current.

Visibility was quite poor during this particular dive and despite being slack tide, the tidal current carried  copious volumes of silt and debris from a the mouth of a nearby stream.  Backscatter was a major concern and to minimise this backscatter (seen as bright spots in a photograph) accurate strobe placement is essential.  I wanted the light from the twin strobes to just touch the fish and not illuminate the background water and entrained silt. 

The photographs were taken with a Canon 5D MK2 in a Subal housing.  The camera and strobes were set to manual to allow complete control over shutter speed, aperture and exposure.

Jostling With the Current

The current, heavy camera housing and twin strobes conspired against me as I jostled for a suitable shooting position.  Several times I had to float past the fish, turn and swim back up-current for another run, because I was not in the correct shooting position.  Everything from strobe placement, shooting angle, aperture and exposure had to be pre-visualised so as to acquire a successful photograph. 

The prize photograph is a Rhinopias lunging with its mouth open, but despite repeated attempts none of the fish I observed appeared interested in doing this for the camera, despite being offered a few tender morsels as a reward!

In my next post dealing with this visit to Indonesia, we’ll look at some of the other bizarre creatures encountered whilst diving: crocodile eels, rare nudibranchs, colourful morays and frogfish. 

If you have liked this post, why not let me know in the comment field below.