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Chetna Purushotham

Life in the under-anemone: Because looking isn’t actually seeing

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It was sometime around the second week of March when something special had taken place, a big change, in the lives of a pair of false clownfish.

Living at about five meters deep over at Nemo’s reef, with beige-coloured tentacles and a pinkish-purple base, sat a magnificent sea anemone. Everything in the anemone appeared to be much the same, the fish couple who lived with it were busy cleaning out the anemone, lapping up its dying tentacles and parasites, while the anemone stood firmly guarding the couple from harm. The anemonefish were constantly swimming through the anemone’s tentacles, as was usual, to help it breathe. The anemone took what the anemonefish pooped and the fish ate what the anemone pooped. Business as usual! And yet something was markedly different in this anemone home.

There was something going on in one corner of the anemone that kept taking the fish pair back there. Was somebody hurt? Were they hiding a stash of food?

No… it was babies!

Attached to a cleared patch of rock under the tentacles of the anemone were hundreds of pairs of eyes on the tops of alien-like bodies, swaying gently in the current. In addition to protecting the anemone and themselves, the anemonefish must now protect their offspring.

They looked to be quite old already, which could only mean that they had been laid about a week before. It would be just a few more days before full moon would approach and larval fish would emerge. This meant focussed and dedicated work for the devoted father who was responsible for their care. While the female continued to take care of the anemone and daily duties, he concentrated on the babies, vigorously fanning the water with his fins, oxygenating, cleaning and doing everything required to make sure they survive. Both parents were invested.

A clownfish once hatched will have to live out its plankton phase until it is ready to find and settle into an anemone of its own and take on the forces of the underwater universe.

As dive professionals we sometimes think twice before talking about certain animals in our pre-dive briefings because we feel divers might find them too common or ordinary to be specifically mentioned. As we grow in dive experience, there is a natural tendency to create a hierarchy of coolness that we set for the marine life that is out there and the animals that we wish to see. Novelty, rarity and massiveness are definitely key factors in how high up in the list animals are positioned, and those that are seen often enough are further down, closer to the more ‘beginner diver stuff’.

There is definitely an appeal is seeing manta rays, sharks and turtles. They are enigmatic, extraordinary and closer to extinction than a damselfish. This extraordinary nature of the marine world, however, does not end here. There are so many phenomenal animals, interactions and communities that occur so commonly, we often fail to really see them entirely. And the loss is ours.

No two reefs or animals or behaviours are exactly the same when seen twice, even the most ordinary of things. That is just how dynamic the ocean truly is. Now you might ask- if there is so much beauty and wonder in the ordinary, why is it that we don’t see it? Perhaps we aren’t looking carefully enough. Perhaps we do not know what to look for. There is no special skill or talent required to do so. The secret is curiosity and patience. Wait, observe and soon, the animals will let you into their extraordinary world.

Text: Chetana Babburjung Purushotham |  Video: Umeed Mistry

sahil stone fish

A peek into the sex lives of the stonefish.

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Do You Love Me? A peek into the sex lives of the stonefish.

Stonefishes may be the most venomous group of fishes in the world, they may have some of the most potent ‘verrucotoxin’ venom ever studied and a full blown sting from a stonefish might kill you in under an hour, but should one powerful defence mechanism define their entire existence?

Stonefishes are primarily solitary animals that use extensive camouflage and stealth to catch their prey, typically fish. Seeing a stonefish fully out in the open is not particularly common, let alone finding one that is actively moving around. Unless it is mating season!

From what has been observed in the wild, stonefish males can go to elaborate lengths to court a female. Once she lays her egg mass on the seabed, the male swims over her eggs to deposit his sperms. Sometimes courtships can turn into an elaborate congregation where multiple males try to win over a female.

The stings produced by the dorsal spines of stonefish can induce intense pain, respiratory weakness, damage to the cardiovascular system, convulsions and paralysis, at times death. But hey, even the most brilliantly venomous animals can have a – I’m just a boy, standing in front of girl, asking her to love him’-moment, as we see in this beautiful video of male stonefish chasing after a female, captured by our stellar divemaster Saw Montu in Nemo’s Reef! Footage has been edited and tuned by Umeed Mistry J

Aren’t you rooting for the hobbling young male in this pair of lovers?!

Credits:
Image clicked by @Sahil Lokhandwala
Video by @Saw Montu(Instagram handle coming soon) & @Umeed Mistry

Dining etiquette for an Octopus | The Incredibles Showcase

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How do octopus eat their prey

How do octopus eat their prey

Dining etiquette for an octopus: Dig in with all hands!

Nemo’s reef is a fantastic place to spend hours watching these animals just,be. We follow them quietly, as they go about doing their daily things around the shallows of Nemo’s. That alone is one lifetime of diving right there! People often make the mistake of getting way too close to an octopus. Sure, it is sitting there in its crevice, changing colour in response to divers and that is rather cool! But what would be even cooler and perhaps much less disruptive for the octopus, is if we were to curb the excitement and give the animal enough space to get back to its life. This can in fact be plenty times more extraordinary a sight to behold than a tense octopus hiding in a hole! Here we see a young octopus that frequents the ‘first barrel sponge rocks’ area at Nemo’s reef. All of us have met this octopus over the past few weeks and she/he is now very comfortable around divers. When we first saw it, a diver was ten inches away from it with a camera, as it hid inside a crevice, perhaps thinking to itself – Hurry up mister, I’m starving and you’re in my way. As soon as said mister left the scene, the octopus was on the move! We suppose one can identity an octopus with a ravenous appetite by how thoroughly it inspects each rock, tickling every crevice simultaneously with every arm. Note how it expands each arm, turning its entire body in to a large web-like umbrella to trap any molluscs, crustaceans or tiny fish that get flushed out during its invasion.Once prey is in hand, an octopus might crush it, pry it open, or drill a hole in it, drain in some toxins or simply slurp it up, depending on the nature of its catch. Owing to its highly efficient, powerful and thorough hunting technique, an octopus on the hunt is almost always surrounded by a mob of other fish-a mix of allies and competitors possibly. Here we see a few juvenile groupers, wrasses, goatfishes and a tiny cloud of exasperated damsels. Isn’t this simply fascinating?

Video credit: Chetana Purushotham

The Angler Flounder (Asterorombus Intermedius)

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The Art & Science Of Floundering About

 

We all know what a flounder is, and we’ve surely heard of anglerfish, but what in the world is an angler flounder? As though the flounder and angler were each not sci-fi enough, evolution has fashioned this beautiful animal, a.k.a Asterorombus intermedius!

With intricate and elaborate head-to-toe camouflage and a stiff lure protruding from the tip of its mouth, the angler flounder takes the most effective adaptations of two very good predators and blends into something like a super-predator of the sandy bottom. But, why go through all that effort? Is procuring a meal really that difficult in the wild?

For many of us humans these days, finding food would probably mean, cooking a meal after heading over to the market, going to a restaurant, opening the fridge for a quick bite, making a phone call and ordering in (in increasing order of tech sophistication but in decreasing order of per capita effort?). You and I don’t really have to forage, chase or hunt for our food, sustenance and survival. But animals in the wild do, every single time, requiring sophistication and effort! As prey get smarter and harder to catch, predators have no choice but to evolve better strategies to make sure they have that meal on their plate. It is never an overkill.

The angler flounder on the hunt has heightened senses- it swivels each eye, keeping a look out for potential prey- a watchman goby or partner shrimp maybe? Hidden from view by its granular pattern and colour, carefully it crawls over the sandy bottom with webbed fins, waving its bait, casually but concertedly-come fishy-fishy-fishy…

Camouflage for a flounder is extremely effective but also a lot of work. There is the technical aspect of the chromatophores and pigments that need to be constantly redistributed amongst the flounder’s tissues, just the right amount and at just the right time, to give it the right colour, texture and hue. This requires the thinking aspect, where should I position myself? What should I blend in as? Am I on rock or sand or both? Of course, this is where the cleverness aspect comes in- there comes the goby, it is going to turn in my direction in…3…2…1… BAMMM! Meal.

While we might appreciate the beauty of these animals and their wild schemes, it helps to also appreciate all that goes in the making. Take something like camouflage, for instance. The next time you are trying to get too close to a flounder or scorpionfish or any camouflaged animal for that matter, for the thrill of a better view, a photograph or to instigate movement, remember that disturbing it will not only blow its cover, but also cost it a day’s meal!

Video Credit: Umeed Mistry
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Ocean Love: Book of the month

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If you are the kind who loves the ocean deeply, you surely know the pain of not being in or near the water for more than a certain period of time, after which you start to experience serious withdrawal. Long-distance relationships with the seas can be rather difficult. And looking at photographs and videos can do a great deal in lifting spirits and rekindling hope that the next reunion is not too far away. However, few things can come as close to giving us that same sense of joy and peace, as do good books about the ocean. Be it on a quiet evening at home with a hot chocolate or on the bus to work.

How many things can open up our imagination; awaken all our senses and transport us to places far away the way books can? The written word helps us paint the most vivid images in our minds while making us laugh, cry, contemplate or reminisce. In this series, we are sharing some of our favourite books (fiction and non-fiction) that teach us more about the wonders of the ocean but also beautifully put to words, all that we wish to, but usually struggle to.

Try our picks of the month and let us know your thoughts! We welcome suggestions!

#Ocean Love: Book of the Month – What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe

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What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins Jonathan Balcombe, 2017 To me, diving at the same dive site over and over is never boring. It feels...

#OceanLove: The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch

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#OceanLove: Book Of The Month The Highest Tide, A novel by Jim Lynch “If there is poetry in my book about the sea it is not because I deliberately put it...

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

#Ocean Love: Book of the Month – What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe

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What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

Jonathan Balcombe, 2017

To me, diving at the same dive site over and over is never boring. It feels like going to hang out at a friend’s house. There is pleasure in seeing them again and there is comfort in knowing all your favourite things about their place are still there.

I have a close friend at Dixon’s Pinnacle, here in Havelock; a cute and curious circular batfish (Platax orbicularis).  When I dive Dixon’s, typically the first thing I see is a 10 meter tall wall of batfish gingerly fighting the current. And nearly every time, there will be that one batfish that peals away from the school and swims over to where I am. Swimming barely a meter away, this batfish accompanies us to the second pinnacle, and waits patiently while we look at the big-eyes hovering behind the third pinnacle. She (or he) even ascends with us to the top of the first pinnacle towards the end of the dive while we look for juvenile emperor angelfish.

The probability of this happening is so high that I can confidently brief my divers about the batfish and sure enough, there my buddy will be!  I have grown attached to this batfish and find it especially comforting when she (or he) accompanies me until the mooring line at the end of the dive, even though it is a good 30 meter swim into the blue that my batfish buddy must swim back to the pinnacles, alone.

Book Review: What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe

My buddy and I say our goodbyes at the end of a dive at Dixon’s Pinnacle.Picture credit: Mayank Singh

I have not been diving for very long, but it did not take me much time to realise that while it is very difficult to tell individual fishes of a species apart , there is no doubt that every individual is different. Fishes, much like us, have different personalities and temperaments, which may be a sum of their life’s experiences. Although there is a lot that we now know about the lives of fish, there is so much more we are yet to understand about them.

The batfish at Dixon’s and several other underwater friends (and enemies) I have made around Havelock have got my mind constantly churning up questions about what they are doing, what they perceive, feel and think! And as though the forces knew exactly what was going on in my mind, the universe dropped a fabulous book into my lap (alright, read: kindle).

‘What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins’ is an eye-opening and mind-boggling account of fish lives that ethologist Jonathan Balcombe uses to make a strong case for fishes as being sentient beings and not merely animals to be caught or consumed. Balcombe bases his argument on decades of science and numerous anecdotal stories, told in a way that really draws you in. While you may or may not agree with some of his interpretations, the facts and observations he states are real.

Fish swimming in schools are not an arbitrary group of fish moving in arbitrary directions. They have leaders, informants, and navigation-communication systems. They have culture.

Photo credit: Vandit Kalia @vanditkalia

This book comes at a time when fish populations are steadily crashing across the globe. It is taking destructive and wasteful fishing practices to meet the ever increasing demand from the seafood market, the live pet trade, traditional medicine, aphrodisiacs, you name it! There is a need, now more than ever, to talk about fish, as individuals whose lives have intrinsic value and not just commodities that measure in kilograms, pounds or tonnes.

To begin with, we hear very often that we ‘evolved from fish’.  There is significant scientific evidence to show that we are descendants of fish and fossils of the first fishes dates back to 530 million years ago. Today they make up 60% of all vertebrate animals on earth. They have had plenty of time to adapt, evolve and diversify extraordinarily; just, not within our view.

We may never truly know what it is that fish perceive, but we are able to figure out the mind blowing extent to which their sensory abilities have evolved – vision, speech, hearing, taste and touch. Balcombe spends time on each of these and several ‘sixth senses’ including navigation using lateral lines, ultraviolet code language and hunting with electroreception!

Fish can think, calculate and memorise. The ‘three second goldfish memory’ is now a thing of the past. Wouldn’t you agree that a three second memory would be frighteningly painful for a manta ray that plans to travel between specific seamounts in search of plankton blooms and then go back each year for a routine clean at the exact same cleaning station, on exactly the same corner, of the exact same coral reef?

What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe - Review

Fishes such as this Dascyllus uses its lateral line system (seen as the thin line arching across its body) to detect movements and navigate its surroundings

Picture Credit: Gunnhild Sørås  @gunnigullet 

The most interesting part of this book (and you can tell while reading it), is also probably what Balcombe holds closest to his heart. Going beyond the senses, beyond just cognition, he asks- do fish have feelings? Do they have beliefs?

Through studies and stories that are amusing, sad, and hilarious and awe inspiring all at once, we see how fish can have feelings that range from stress to joy. They can appreciate the warmth of the sun in the same way we do after a cold rainy day. A visit to a cleaning station relieves their stress the same way a good massage does ours. They can be inquisitive, deceptive, empathic and playful. Fish have culture, traits that are not innate and need to be learned through the course of their lives.

It makes you wonder why it has taken us so long to acknowledge that fish are not just instinctive but are also intelligent too. Is it because we just have not spent enough time with them? Is it because their faces are not as expressive as other animals that we relate to, like primates? Speaking of primates and how intelligence is contextual, a quote by Albert Einstein comes to mind. “Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

“You don’t need to have fur and feather to have a personality. Scales and fins will suffice.” – Jonathan Balcombe

Picture credit: Vikas Nairi  @vikasnairi

In conclusion, this is a really fun book but also pertinent given the current state of affairs where fishes in our oceans and rivers are concerned. We have learned fish behaviour enough to know how and when to detect and catch them using sophisticated technology and yet we fail to use this same knowledge to stop decimating their populations and ecosystems.

Try spending about five minutes on your next dive observing a cleaning station. The interaction between cleaners and clients on a reef alone tells so much about their social systems and will show you that “fish aren’t just alive, they have lives”!

In the meantime, after having read this book, I look forward to heading back to Dixon’s to meet my buddy the batfish again. Do you think that they know that we know what they know?

What a Fish Knows is easily available online, in paperback and kindle versions!

Read other posts in the #OceanLove Book of the Month series here

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Who Are You Calling an Invertebrate?

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Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) juggled many professional hats during his life – he was a professor, biologist, philosopher, physician, and in the middle all that, he found the time to be a phenomenal artist as well. He is known for his enormous contribution to science, through the several new species he discovered, scientific concepts he theorized and biological terms he coined. He is also admired across various disciplines for his exquisite and influential collection of illustrations known as the ‘Kunstformen der Natur’ or ‘Artforms in Nature’ (sketched and painted between 1899 -1904).

If you are looking at any of these plates and admiring them for their abstract beauty or commending Ernst Haeckel for his marvellous attempt at science-fiction, take a look again. These are all real marine animals. They actually exist in these very shapes, patterns and forms. Ernst Haeckel observed and appreciated that in these underwater beauties; several decades before the advent of recreational SCUBA diving.

What do all these animals have in common? On careful observation you will notice that, yes they are all stunningly beautiful, there is inherent symmetry, but also, they are all types of ‘invertebrates’. They are all animals that lack a vertebral column or a backbone/spine inside their bodies.

Speaking of invertebrates, I never did understand the figurative use of this term in our society. To call someone a ‘spineless’, ‘invertebrate’ is to describe them as weak, cowardly, inadequate or ineffective. How did this association come to be?

Over 97% of animals on this planet are spineless, especially in the ocean. Some of the most venomous (box jellyfish), strongest (mantis shrimp), smartest (octopus), fastest reflexes (mantis shrimp again!), largest (giant squid), cutest (alright, this one is heavily subjectiveJ) are some form of marine invertebrate or the other.

A barrel sponge (Xestospongia testudinaria) can dwarf you despite your tank and fins
Vandit Kalia @vanditkalia

When reading about evolution and biology today we learn that, more and more, science doesn’t consider evolution to be progressive. Meaning to say that through the course of geological time, being older or having appeared first is no longer considered ‘primitive’ and being more newly evolved doesn’t make you necessarily ‘advanced’. Scientists now prefer to use terms such as ‘ancestral’ and ‘recent’ instead, with much less value judgement. Take sponges for example. Sponges consist of hollow cavities held together by protein fibres and they have numerous different types of cells, to filter food from water that is brought in and sent out. Sponges constitute some of the oldest animals to have ever lived (fossils as old as 640 million years old), and they still exist, all of 9,000 species of them.

A wise old coral colony
Gunnhild Sørås  
@gunnigullet    Vikas Nairi  @vikasnairi

Backbone-free animals are everywhere, and some of them literally shape our world. During the journey of a single dive in a shallow reef, we are immersing ourselves into a world whose multi-dimensional foundation, was built over millions of years, by the remarkably and astonishingly, spineless coral. Stony coral get a majority of their energy from their in-house photosynthetic symbionts and use it to put down calcium carbonate skeletons, layer by layer, that are strong enough to last years, centuries, and millennia. Corals live and lay the foundation of coral reefs, and then everyone else, from feather-duster worms to fish, start to step in to look for ways to build their own lives. An ecosystem is formed.

A closing sea anemone
Chetana Babburjung
 @chutney_babburjung

Through the course of your dive, you will surely find yourself smiling at clownfish in their anemones. Unlike a majority of their coral cousins which live as colonies of polyps, sea anemones are typically singular polyps lined by a whorl of stinging tentacles. Hidden in the centre of the anemone, if clownfish will allow you to see it, is an opening that is its singular window to the outside world- mouth and anus. It happens rarely and very difficult to catch with the naked eye, but sea anemones can move.

A peacock tail anemone shrimp busy on its host anemone
Gunnhild Sørås 
@gunnigullet

Anemones are cheerful hosts that collaborate not just with clownfish, but a variety of crustaceans, especially anemone shrimps and crabs that promise to help the anemone stay clean in return for a home.

Nudibranchs, a cryptic treasure.
Gunnhild Sørås 
@gunnigullet

Some of the more cryptic treasures to look out for on a reef are sea slugs, who are now coming out of the shadow of their celebrity cousins-the octopus. Among the mind-blowing diversity of sea slugs, nudibranchs are unique in that they breathe through gills placed outside their body (hence the name). While they have a versatile diet, some of them love eating fern-like hydroids. Hydroids just like their relatives -coral, anemones and jellies- are laced with stingers. No matter, Aeolid nudibranchs eat them anyway, carefully pocketing the stingers for later use as self-defence. Similarly sap-sucking slugs feed on algae but extract the algal pigments and keep them alive in their bodies for their own personal photosynthetic use. Is that ingenious, or is that ingenious?

Ernst Haeckel was particularly taken by the symmetry he saw in nature. A classic example for us would be- Echinoderms. A group found exclusively in the ocean, echinoderms are the sea stars, feather stars, brittle stars, urchins, cucumbers and several other unbelievable but underappreciated marine invertebrates (and therefore warrant a separate feature altogether).

A mollusc larva dancing in the blue
Vikas Nairi 
@vikasnairi

A typical shallow dive might last forty-five minutes to an hour and we may still not be ready to ascend to the surface, even though the gases in our tanks and bodies might dictate otherwise. But wait, the dive isn’t over yet.  Safety stops are the best time to connect with bizarre but brilliant drifting creatures, as we hover in an endless soup of plankton.

At the end of the day, if Boris Johnson were to ever call me a “supine invertebrate jelly”, I think I might just say, thank you.

Watch this space for our next  showcase on the underwater lives of the Incredibles.

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

#OceanLove: The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch

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#OceanLove: Book Of The Month

The Highest Tide, A novel by Jim Lynch

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea it is not because I deliberately put it there but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry” –Rachel Carson, in her acceptance speech of the National Book Award for non-fiction (1952) for ‘The Sea Around Us’.

Miles O’ Maley is a thirteen-year-old boy who admires Rachel Carson to the extent that he can quote lines from her books and speeches off the top of his head any time of day or night. Growing up around a beautiful bay in Puget Sound, Miles spends most of his time in the tidal mudflats looking for interesting marine life at low tide. He has an extraordinary passion and love for the water with an unparalleled understanding of the ocean and all of its inhabitants. Miles still is your average teenager; struggling with the perils of puberty, love and parents who he thinks do not understand him. He finds growing up more mysterious than the tides.

Sunset The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

Rock pools at low tide. Picture credit: Ajay Kumar @ajay.1994

He doesn’t consider himself special in any way; he only speaks of the world around him. In fact, people around him consider his fascination rather odd, until the day when everything suddenly changes. Miles becomes the centre of media attention for finding a gigantic deep sea creature beached in his bay. The story then becomes about how this one event changes his life, the people around him and the bay that he has grown up in and deeply loves.

While the story is one of fiction, none of the marine life that Miles describes is.  You will find yourself taking to the internet quite frequently to be sure that the bizarre animals and plants actually exist in this world. In this one read, just by following Miles through the ups and downs of his sensationalised summer, you learn about the beauty of tides and how they shape our coastlines. He describes in his totally casual tone, how the marine life seen when the water recedes, is not randomly thrown around but are living creatures that are tracking the tides as well, and actually thriving in this dynamic environment.

His adventures will also leave you wondering, more often than not, why you didn’t spend more time exploring the intertidal rock pools and mud flats during your last beachside holiday.

This is a story of one boy and the places his love for the ocean takes him. It is one that will resonate with you if you have ever been in the ocean, and if you haven’t, the tale is likely to make you excited enough to see everything for yourself! Miles puts it all in perspective for us when he says that “Most people realise the sea covers two-thirds of the planet, but few take the time to understand even a gallon of it”

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch is easily available online, in paperback and kindle versions!

Click here to read about our Intertidal walks at DIVEIndia

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

The Incredible Wrasse

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Our first showcase in this series is dedicated to a particularly fascinating and versatile group of fish.*Drum roll* – THE WRASSES!

With nearly 500 known species, wrasses form the second largest marine fish family (Labridae) in the world. Wrasses are generally elongated fish that taper at both ends, you could call that being “cigar-shaped”. Found in tropical and temperature waters, wrasses can be as tiny as the thumb-sized minute wrasse (Minilabrus striatus), but also grow to be as big as the 2 meter long Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus).

Portrait of a Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)

picture credit: Gunnhild Sørås

Most people know and love to see the Napoleon wrasse on a dive. A large and majestic fish that appears to carefully inspect divers with its googly eyes as it slowly cruises by. Napoleon wrasses have a single fin that runs continuously along its back (like a Mohawk); a characteristic feature of wrasses. Look carefully next time at a bird wrasse (Gomphosus varius) – you will see that same dorsal fin as the Napoleon, albeit on a smaller scale.

Bird wrasse (Gomphosus varius)

Brian Gratwicke (Wikimedia Commons)

Similar to the Napoleons, many wrasses appear as though their heads have been tattooed with Maori art. Intricate patterns radiate from their eyes in stunning colour schemes and patterns. Admire this artwork the next time you swim close to a red-breasted wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus) or a moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare).

Face painting on a Red-breasted wrasse (Cheilinus fasciatus) and a moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wrasses are a family found in great abundance across reefs. Perhaps a key to their diversity lies in their versatile diet. Wrasses leave no part of the reef unexplored. There are wrasses that eat fish, some that graze algae, some that crack open crustaceans and molluscs, and others that suck out worms and coral. A few chase after plankton in the blue.

There are also those that follow other fish, almost like a shadow, watching closely to see what hidden treasures are revealed when these hunters are at work. Look out for the small checkerboard wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus) hungrily tailing either a triggerfish upturning rocks or goatfish that is stirring up the sand in hope of nabbing a quick crab or clam. What would you call this- Clever? Lazy? Freeloading?

A checkerboard wrasse (Halichoeres hortulanus) waiting to see what goodies the yellow-margin triggerfish (Pseudobalistes flavimarginatus) stirs up!

Photo credit: Bernard Dupont (Wikimedia Commons)

By virtue of their choice of cuisine, some wrasses play critical roles in the functioning of coral reefs as an ecosystem. I am talking about the unassuming but industrious blue-streaked cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus). Cleaner wrasses feed specifically on parasites, dead tissues and mucous, found on bodies of fish that do not want to keep any of it. In the process, cleaner wrasses have set up some of the most phenomenal symbiotic relationships that can be observed while diving. These wrasses work in pairs or in small groups and work extremely hard to look for fish that are looking to be cleaned. A single cleaner wrasse on duty, working 4 continuous hours, cleans up to 2000 ‘client’ fish. Starting up and running a cleaning station successfully is no joke for these finger-sized fish and there is a lot that we can learn from observing them. (Watch out for our upcoming post- Business lessons from a cleaner wrasse partnership.)

A blue-streaked cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) working on a Napoleon wrasse with a keen eye.

Picture credit

Of all the wrasses that we might come across commonly, we are likely to underestimate the anchor tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) the most. The anchor tuskfish is named so, for its tusk-like canines. These sharp teeth when unleashed, transform the otherwise delightful-looking wrasse into a predator that every hard-shelled animal should be afraid of! Tuskfish can spend hours trying to dig out clams, carry them over to specific spots on the reef where they whack them repeatedly against specific rocks until the shells crack open and are ready for the devouring. Tuskfish are the first wild fish to be documented using tools.

I would like to end this showcase with one of my favourite wrasses of them all. It is one that some of us have probably witnessed, doing something so bizarre, in a span of one second, that no one but you and the wrasse will believe that it happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Epibulus insidiator or the slingjaw wrasse!

Watch this space for our next  showcase on the underwater lives of the Incredibles.

The author, Chetana is a PADI divemaster and resident biologist at DIVEIndia in the Andaman Islands. She is an alumnus of the Masters program at the Wildlife Conservation Society -India program and National Center of Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. She has been diving and exploring the Andaman Islands since 2013. She is also deeply excited about forests, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Back to School dive package

Back To School Dive Package: Underwater Naturalist

Posted by | Scuba diving Courses, Underwater Naturaliast Course | No Comments

Introducing the Back to School dive package!

If the ocean were your classroom, would you like to go back to school?

If you have been looking to know more about the marine environment and how life works underwater or if you would like to learn how to identify fish and other reef organisms, this two day package is for you! Learn more about some of the conservation challenges our oceans are facing and help us come up with solutions to protect these magical places.

We also offer this package as an Underwater Naturalist specialty through PADI and SSI open to any diver with at least an Open Water certification.

This program runs over two days and includes short theory classes and discussions along with four open water dives. You can also choose to do a night dive as one of the four dives.

During this course we introduce you to some of the numerous ocean ecosystems (yes, there is more than one!). We take you through how environmental factors shape these coral reefs as well as our experiences when we dive these sites. Reefs are extremely diverse spaces, where survival is based on cut-throat competition but also to an equal measure on cooperation and forging partnerships. Learn about some of these interactions as they unfold like a show around you on every dive! You also get to try your hand at identifying fish and other reef organisms and be a part of REEF LOG, the first diver-led reef monitoring program here in the Andamans!

Image courtesy: Gunnhild

Marilia and Jugal were the first two students on this course package.  Here is what Marilia had to say, Diving became much more interesting after a short Underwater Naturalist course, that basically introduced micro life, which I couldn’t identify before, and explained the relationships between the animals down there.” Jugal feels that understanding more about the underwater environment is rewarding on various levels. Knowledge of fish identification, understanding of interactions between organisms, relation between organisms and their environment are few aspects this course develops, which make every dive more interesting, fun and fulfilling. It also makes you aware of the importance of conservation through individual and collective efforts. Learning through discussions and reading along with practical demonstration (during dives) of everything in live action makes for a beautiful experience while developing a special tool to take away and make use of in all future dives!”

Diving with a naturalist’s perspective can also be fun.

To get more information on the same, please email us.