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PADI underwater naturalist

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

Dive Site: Nemo’s Reef

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DIVE Site: Nemo’s Reef

DIVE PROFILE

MAX DEPTH: 15-20 meters
AVERAGE DEPTH: 5-8 meters
BOTTOM TIME: 45 – 60 minutes

About the Dive Site: Nemo’s Reef

Nemo’s reef. Where do we begin to describe this extremely familiar yet totally mysterious place! A shore entry site, it opens into a swimming pool-like setting with shallow water, white sand and a baby reef (1-3 meters). It then splits into two long fringing reefs on either side of the shallow sandy pool. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands harbours over 2000 sq.km of coral reefs and a majority of this area fringes along islands. Thick forests, mangroves and rocky shores make access difficult in most places and this is where Nemo’s reef is popular. Easy entry and exits, not requiring long surface swims. It is also fairly sheltered from winds through most of the year.

On an average day at Nemo’s, we typically get to see mixed schools of reef fish, everything from surgeonfish, rabbitfish, parrotfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish and snappers, sweetlips queenfish and chubs, to hunting trevallies, needlefish and barracudas. Five species of anemonefish can be seen here, easily, giving this reef its name. Cephalopods like the octopus, squid and cuttlefish are residents at nemo’s with regularly used dens and rubble patches. The banded sea kraits and the more estuarine file snake come through regularly, along with the beautiful Kuhl’s sting ray. Molluscs, crinoids, crustaceans, sponges polychaetes and several other invertebrate groups thrive here as well.

High tide is a great time to dive because the water is usually clear and we get to see the sloping topography of the reef, however, the marine life tends to concentrate into dramatic densities when the tide recedes, the water level comes down and visibility drops.

The topography of the dive site makes it ideal for us to begin dive courses and take people on their first ever SCUBA diving experience, but by no means is Nemo’s reef just a training space. The shallow profile of this reef allows us to stay until we hit the reserve on our tanks without having to worry about no-decompression limits. So this gives us on average an estimated 60-80 minute underwater for fun divers who are keen on exploring the rocks and sands for crazy macro life- day and night!

While we love all of our dive sites dearly, it is here that most of us come back nodding in awe-inspired disbelief, thinking “did we really just see that animal in the Andamans? And in Nemo’s reef?” Starting with flying gurnads, ornate ghost pipefish, robust ghost pipefish, devil scorpionfish, angler flounders, honeycomb moray eels, seahorses, bizarre nudibranchs, sea moths, skeleton shrimps and as of a week ago- painted frogfish! While a bunch of these are potentially only briefly passing through, we are certain that most are resident and have missed our eye from having not looked carefully enough or for long enough! Shore dives at Nemo’s reef are very easy to organise and we are never limited by space. So if you are keen on shore diving, our divemasters would be thrilled to take you. It gives us a chance to continue exploring this crazy reef!

Pictures clicked at Dive Site: Nemo’s Reef, Andamans
by Dev 

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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#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.