Bartick's Critter Column: The Critters In My Head

A look back at my adventures of 2011

By Mike Bartick

 

 
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As the calendar year for 2011 quickly draws to an end, I, like many others, spend some time reflecting. For many people the year end means changing their appointment books, reading old notes, pouring through business cards or sending a thank you gift. But for this diver, these year-end rituals take on a different flare that I'm sure only other divers can identify with. I begin looking over dive logs and reflecting on specific dives, totaling logged time underwater, and backing up the mass of accumulated gigabytes of photos. As divers, our measuring stick for the past 365 days are quickly broken down to accomplished dives. Looking forward to the coming year we mark our new calendars with dive trips and annual dive events, club meetings, and boat trips.

My grading system of stars seems to be on every page in my book. I guess the highlights of my favorite dives last year can be categorized by what I saw and learned, the unique critters I encountered, and new behavior of some the others.

 

Unique animal discovery

This juvenile flamboyant Cuttlefish (below) is a great example of the size and caliber of the critters we found at one of my favorite muck sites. On a hot run of night dives last season we hit pay dirt with multiple unusual finds.

 

                   
                    Flamboyant Cuttlefish dwarfed by my wrist mount dive watch.

My partner waved me over to see something interesting and her eyes told me instantly that she had found something out of the ordinary. Kind of an oxymoron really, as muck diving is all about finding the unordinary. She pointed down at the sand, but I did not recognize what she was pointing at. I saw a small sand patch moving near her finger and at first glance I almost discounted the unusual find as a juvenile sole.  But there was something different about this guy.  So I began to examine it and make a mental checklist.

A benthic walker, three fingers wide and less than a palm in length, disc shaped with a tiny mouth, jets, two feet up front and two webbed paddle-like feet on the rear are used to walk and swim. This was no flatfish or mimic sole. This guy looked like the rosy-lipped creature we found in the Galapagos. Then it struck me...it's a Batfish!

 

Batfish found at The Desert    

 

 
Detail of front forward walkers
 
 
 

Estuary Batfish (Halieutaea sp.)

Okay, but what the heck is a batfish doing here? I was shooting photos of this amazing little critter as he walked about, bolting off the sand and gliding along. I was so excited I could hardly keep calm, my strobes popped away as I attempted to chronicle the find with photos.
After the dive I hustled back to get an accurate ID. Quickly thumbing through the Reef Fish ID book I found it.  Sure enough, the Halieutaea sp. is in fact a batfish, an estuary batfish at that. Localized to Indonesia, this critter is a long ways from home. Needless to say each subsequent night dive at The Desert compelled me to keep my eyes glued to the sand.

 

New behavior

New behavior is amazing to observe, human and animal alike and just when you think you’ve seen it all, the rules change. Or at least that’s how it felt with this Gurnard. Normally on night dives the Helmut Gurnard (Dactyoptena orientalis) seem to be a bit lethargic, but not this guy.

Using my hand to cover my focus light I tried to move around this guy to gain some perspective. Then in the darkness of the night it decided to take flight. This is something I had never seen before and was amazed to watch it take flight like a bird.
I took off after it, as it glided at least 3 feet off the substrate following the sandy slope into the deep. My computer reminded me that I had exceeded my MOD (Maximum Operational Depth) by beeping as the depth increased. Finally I had to let it go.  There are very few instances where I regret diving on Nitrox and this was definitely one of them.

 

Helmut Gurnard using my focus light to hunt.

 

Now I know why these Helmut Gurnards are called Flying Gurnard.
I guess it's obvious now that they can and do take to the open water to escape, even if it is in an attempt to escape.

 

 

Several years ago a photo was published of a Wunderpuss suspended in the water column.  Many say photos like that are set up, even created by the guide, and yes perhaps some of them are. But chances are if you spend enough time underwater, you will see some unusual stuff. Often times, it’s the game of patience that prevails and being ready for the unexpected can make or break a shot.  Timing is everything.

Cephlapod behavior is always fun to watch and photograph. These highly intelligent creatures are true independent thinkers. I watched this Wunderpuss cruise away as it furled its arms inflating itself, then jetting away, furling its arms again to inflate and repeating, pulsating. I pursued it across the sand trying for one or two sharp photos of it slowing to inflate itself again.

Finally relaxing, it allowed me and some buddies to grab some great shots. The afternoon is a great time to find active cephalopods out foraging for food. Open sandy flats make for prime octopus habitat; bottles, coconuts, cans, almost anything that can provide shelter is used to make a home.

 

Octopus in a bottle.

 

Looking forward to the next year brings a rush of excitement knowing that adventure awaits on the horizon.

Meeting new people, making new friends, visiting new destinations, and finding new critters, the anticipation is palpable as I begin to fill in my new calendar. 

Not all of my memories revolve around the small things. For example, these Wobbegong sharks, talk about cool critters. We were graced with Wobbies on almost every dive in the Dampier Straits last year.

 

Smiling Wobbegong shark. Taken at Dampier Straits, Raja Ampat

 

Hiding under piers, tucked inside of caves, laying on the sand, I loved the detail of the frondosa up front and had to get a nice tight shot. The Wobbies we encountered were very docile and would allow a close, quiet approach.

 

I was able to sneak my wide-angle lens in for this up-close and personal shot. I swear his breathe was fogging my lens port…

 

Looking forward

So as I bid a fair good bye to 2011, I can't help but to anticipate 2012. New friends, new experiences, new opportunities maybe a new mask, but most of all - the diving…

Make the best of your New Year, one dive at a time.  I hope to see you out there…

Now go and have an adventure!

-Mike Bartick
 

About the author

Mike Bartick is an avid and experienced scuba diver, and Marine Wildlife Photographer. He has an insatiable love for nudibranchs, frogfish, and other underwater critters, and he is the official critter expert for Underwater Photography Guide. See more of Mike's underwater photos at www.saltwaterphoto.com, and at www.thecritterhead.com.

 

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