The Sand Dwelling Slugs of California

Craig Hoover
A Nudibranch Adventure Through the Desert Beyond California's Coastline

Nudis & Nomads: The Sand Dwelling Slugs of California


A Nudibranch Adventure Through the Desert Beyond California's Coastline

By Craig Hoover

 

Catriona columbiana

Catriona Columbiana.
 
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What draws man to the desert?  Can vast empty plains fill a heart?  Are desert flowers hiding in plain sight amongst the emptiness, seen only by nomads crawling toward the next oasis?  Join me on a venture through the desert beyond California’s coastline and find out for yourself.

Our journey begins near the edge of a large reef in fifteen meters of water.  Brittle stars rule the edges of this reef, dominant where fish are scarce.  Large tube anemones are also common here, building leathery cases that lead deep into soft sediments.  Tentacles wave in the light surge at this depth, ready to instantaneously retreat into the tube if a predator, such as this rainbow dendronotus, grabs hold.  The Dendronotus creeps slowly, waiting for the perfect moment.  If successful, it will grab a mouthful of tentacles and, in an instant, be pulled halfway into the tube, where it will eat a few of the tentacles, leaving the gnawed bases.  A sure sign that a rainbow dendronotus has been feeding in the area is an anemone with amputated tentacles.

 

Dendronotus iris

Dendronotus iris feeding on Pachycerianthus fimbriatus.

    

Surge and current is channeled around reefs, energizing the swells passing by the reef’s edge.  Fine grained sand does not settle in places where water is in motion.  Often these areas are marked by dunes of large-grained sand mixed with crumbled bits of shell.  These dunes may extend for many meters beyond a reef.  A savvy nomad can use these dunes to find hidden oases.  Though flatfish and old shells are found here, the dunes are too unstable to support anemones or hydroids that nudis feed on.

 

Tritonia diomedes

Tritonia diomedes.

     

The far edges of the dunes are often marked by fine grained sand flats with crumbled little bits of shell.  Areas like this may indicate that dunes are nearby.  The bottom here is stable enough to allow growth of sedentary invertebrates.  Tritonia diomedes is a large cousin of the nudibranchs that may be found in this area, usually near their food source, sea pens.

Far from the reef, bits of shell are uncommon.  The sand is fine grained and surge overturns much of it.  Fortunately, there is prime real estate here.  Many hydroids need more stability than bare sand can provide.  Worms of various sorts provide the solution by secreting mucus that cements the sand around them into a tube.  Drifting bits of algae and blades of seagrass are snagged by worm tubes, forming small clumps.  Tiny hydroids are able to settle here and grow into colonies.

Several aeolids, species of nudis that specialize in feeding on hydroids, take advantage of this food source.  Eubranchus rustyus is a tiny aeolid that reaches a centimeter in length but is often much smaller.  They are usually located by first observing small white egg masses on their food source, Plumularia.

 

Eubranchus rustyus

Eubranchus rustyus likes to dine on Plumularia.

 

Another good sign that nudis may be about is the large solitary hydroid, Corymorpha, that may reach ten centimeters in height and can disappear into the sand in a moment.  Flabellina cooperi feeds on Corymorpha.  Cooperis are quite elusive, perhaps because they are the least common of three species of sand dwelling aeolids that share size and coloration.  Cooperis are unique in that they have an upside down white V that sometimes extends back from the forehead along the dorsum. 

 

Flabellina cooperi

Flabellina cooperi feeding on a small Corymorpha polyp.

 

Hermissendas, in contrast, have a yellow or orange stripe on the forehead.  Priceis have no stripe on the forehead.  The stripe can be difficult to see in nudis that range in size from one to several centimeters so careful examination of each nudi in this habitat is key to finding the rare ones.

 

hermissenda crassicornis

Hermissenda crassicornis.

 

Flabellina pricei is similar to a cooperi.  They both feed on Corymorpha, though Priceis are more common.  The cylindrical projections on their backs, called cerata, are connected at the base.  Priceis also have some of the most prominent eyespots of any nudibranch.  Looking into the eyes of a pricei is one big step towards filling the emptiness of the desert.

Sometimes it is difficult to make heads or tails of a slug.  If this is the case, there may actually be two slugs en flagrante delicto.  They often finish within a few minutes when carefully observed.

 

Flabellina princei

Flabellina pricei just after mating.

 

On days when the water is exceptionally calm, the sand may be covered with a thin brown layer of algae.  These are really special days in the desert.  Nomads who like to create images of the places they have been and the animals they have shared these places with know that swell brings a blizzard to the desert.  On days where the sand is covered with a brown layer of algae, the water is usually calm enough to create a good image.

 

Cumanotus fernaldi

Cumanotus fernaldi burying itself in fine grained sand (Behrens & Hermosillo 2005 list this species as Cumanotus species 1, Identification courtesy of Sandra Millen)

 

Nomads know that flowers bloom in the spring.  So do many other things in the desert.  It just so happens that animals like to have babies when there are lots of tiny little things for them to eat.  Nudibranchs may congregate to breed during a week or two in the spring and then disappear.  Sharing a special event such as a congregation is best done within a week of the initial sighting.  Such was the case with Cumanotus fernaldi.  Seventy individuals were sighted through the murky spawn of billions of other creatures during the coldest days of April.  They vanished a week later. 

The allure of the desert takes many forms.  Some nomads that I know quest for paralichthyid monsters.  Others believe the next oasis lies over the dune on the horizon.  I found the desert filled with a miniature world, host to a variety of unique desert flowers.  The desert is now a destination, filled with the beauty of the little things.

 

About the Author

Craig Hoover lives in Southern California.  He has been diving weekly for the past 8 years, logging over 1000 dives along California's coast.  He began taking pictures underwater 4 years ago with the help of the Underwater Photography Guide and its staff.  Since then he has taken a special interest in nudibranchs.  His goal is to photograph all 100 species that are found in Southern California.  When not photographing nudis, Craig is completing a bacheleor's degree in marine science at California State University Northridge.

 

 

Further Reading

 


Where to Buy

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Diving Underwater With Manatees

Stanley Bysshe
A great guide for how, when, and where to photograph Manatees

Diving With Mermaids

Underwater photo tips for Manatees in Florida

By Stanley Bysshe

 

Classic Pose

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F4, 1/50, ISO 1600

 
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Mermaids, Sea Cows, Gentle Giants, the West Indian manatee goes by many names, to which you can include photographic model. These slow moving giants love to hang out in 4-9 feet of water and are quite accessible to underwater photographers. It takes a little planning however and knowledge about the rules required for manatee viewing.

 

Up Close and Personal

"Up Close and Personal" 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F6.3, 1/50, ISO 250, Inon Flash x2

 

Florida Manatees

Florida has very strict rules about swimming with, boating around and underwater photography when it comes to endangered manatees. Sanctuaries are set aside that no one can enter. The fines are substantial. So it is best to plan a trip with an outfit that knows the rules. While Manatees can be spotted anytime there is a time of year that is best for photography.

 

When the water gets cold, the animals will seek the constant temperature of fresh warm water springs (72 degrees) and gather there in large numbers. So the best time to plan a trip is January thru early February. Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs are probably one of the best-known places for an encounter and there are any number of guided tours.

 

Three Sister Springs

Three Sister Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, F9, 1/50

 

Crystal River and Birds Underwater

Our trip started with a flight to Orlando Fla., and a two hour drive to Crystal River. While there are several places to stay I have added links to two of the most convenient. They are also very close to two of the best dive operators. I think you will find that Birds Underwater and Crystal River Divers have great service and guides. Look no further! Plan your trip mid-week to avoid weekend and holiday crowds.

Yes there can be crowds, and dangling legs can spoil a nice shot. I would contact either of the shops and try and arrange a quiet time to visit. For an added expense a private boat can be arranged. You can rent boats on your own, but if you don’t know the area, you can waste a lot of time. The tour operators know where the manatees are likely to be on any given day, and the above two will get you out early, which is key. As an aside there are some interesting fresh water dives in the area, which I plan to research on a follow-up trip.

 

Close Up

"I'm here for my close up", 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F22, 1/125, ISO 1600

 

Manatee Trip Tips:

·    Unless you plan to try some of the local dives, this is a snorkel trip. But, it will be cold (hopefully, if you want to see lots of manatees); water temp 72 degrees or less and morning air temp in the 40s or lower. So plan on 5mm with a vest or more. Most of the guides snorkel in dry suits.

·    All photography has to be from the surface. That is, you cannot dive underwater (so you don’t need weights). Floating and not standing is key to keep from stirring up the sand. Special permits can be obtained through the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife station to photograph underwater. There is a fee and you get a yellow vest that designates you as someone who can submerge around Manatees. Again, these activities are closely monitored.

Macro or Wide-angle photography?

·    Wide Angle all day long. This is the place for your wide-angle rig; dome ports, fish-eye and wide angle zooms. So you need to get close. The vis outside the Springs can be very poor, so again get close. Inside Three Sisters the water is constantly flushed out, so if there aren’t a lot of people the vis can be spectacular.

 

Classic Pose #2

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F4, 1/50, ISO 1600

·    Use of flash is restricted and may not be used until one hour after sunrise. So be prepared to do a lot of available light shooting. Know how to use your ISO settings. One trick to play with is to set your camera at Shutter Speed Priority (Nikon terminology) and Auto ISO. That allows you to shoot slowly moving animals with relatively fast SS in low light, as the camera will boost the ISO to compensate.

·    If the day is sunny, fill flash will help. In shallow water you can bounce the flash off the sandy bottom for fill flash.

·    If you are in Three Sisters Springs, look for other wildlife. For this, flash can be used anytime. This is also a good place for split shots (over/under).

·    Don’t chase the manatees. They will come to you or at some point just stop moving. The juveniles are especially friendly!

 

Photographer Love

"Take me home!" 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F18, 1/125, ISO 1600

 

A manatee photography trip is worth the effort. They are great creatures just to see and be near. But while they seem to be holding their own, the manatees are endangered and chances to photograph them underwater may be limited. There are available specialized photo trips or you can go on your own. Either way you have to be with someone who knows the local rules for the best opportunity to photograph a Mermaid.

All photographs were taken with a Nikon D3s in an Aquatica Housing. 8 inch Dome Port. 17-35mm 2.8 Nikon wide angle zoom lens. Dual Inon Z240 flash when used.

 

Additional Images From These Locations

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F5.6, 1/60, ISO 1600

 

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F7.1, 1/100, ISO 200, Inon Flash x 2

 

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F8, 1/100, ISO 200, Inon Flash x2

 

About the Author

Stanley BysscheI have enjoyed diving and underwater photography for over three decades. When I retired, my wife and I spent three years living full time on the island of Curacao and it was there that I was able to dive almost every day. Now back in the States, I don't get to dive as much but I still share the passion for photography that brings divers to this site.

 

 

 

Further Reading

 


Where to Buy

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Navigating the Kelp Forest Safely Underwater and Still Getting that Great Shot

Jonathan Lavan
Tips and tricks on how to get some great shots in the maze that is the kelp forest.

Beginners Guide to Navigating the Kelp Forest Safely and Still Getting that Great Shot

Tips and tricks on how to get some great underwater photos in the maze that is the kelp forest.

Text and images by Jonathan Lavan

Kelp Forest
Divers underwater at San Clemente Island, Southern California

 
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Cold water diving can be challenging. Lots of bulky equipment, extra weight and strong currents and surge can make even taking a camera along a difficult prospect. Then add the element of navigating the kelp forest it can get downright nerve wracking.

Whether boat diving or shore diving never just descend into the middle of the kelp forest. That might seem like an obvious instruction but you’d be alarmed how many dives I have been on where, supposedly, seasoned west coast divers have gotten so tangled up in the kelp that they have lost their fins or their buddy has had to spend more than half of the dive extricating them from their entanglement. Any self respecting boat captain will, hopefully, always place you near the edge of the kelp forest anyway.

Spanish Shawl

Photo 1: Spanish Shawl Nudibranch

Buoyancy in the kelp

You’re told when diving dry to only use your drysuit to regulate your buoyancy at depth and only use your BCD at the surface. That’s fine for straight diving but when using your camera you should use whatever combination of drysuit and BCD that gives you the best buoyancy control. Just remember to deflate both sources before surfacing. I always put just enough air in my drysuit to be comfortable and then control my buoyancy as usual with my BCD. It’s always easier to get that shot when air isn’t rushing up into your feet!

Photo 2: Red Sea Star on California Hydrocoral

Navigating underwater

Now, you need to convince your SLR that it’s a compact. Keep those strobe arms in tight until you’re ready to set up the shot. When travelling hold your camera sideways to navigate the kelp easier. Go even slower than you would normally. If you get tangled-stop-untangle and move on with your buddy’s assistance if necessary. Vis can vary greatly so, even more so then warm water diving, it is quite important to keep your buddy within arm’s length in this environment.

Whitespotted Anemone and Feather Duster Worms

Photo 3: Whitespotted Rose Anemone & Feather Duster Worms

Sealions at the edge of the kelp forest in Anacapa

The Edge of the Kelp

You will find plenty of great shots around the edges of the forest anyway and there will be more available light. There are many more colors and contrasts, especially among invertebrate life, in the cold water, then you might initially realize. Particularly nudibranchs (photo 1) and sea stars (photos 2) but also a wide variety of crustaceans of all sizes, sea anemones and various tube worms as well. As can be seen in photo 3 of the sea anemone and feather duster worms there is often a great deal of movement in the water typically known as surge.

Brittle Star

Photo 4: Brittle Star

Dealing with Surge

Unlike the Caribbean or other warmer Pacific waters where there may be some current to push you along, surge is a different phenomenon pulling you both back and forth. The best thing to do is “go with the flow”. Prep the shot, and as you are pulled back into frame by the surge, grab the snap. If the surge isn’t too bad you can get some interesting and artful shots this way. Bokeh is all the rage of late and the movement and vibrancy in the shot can more than make up for whatever detail of focus is sacrificed.

Threespine Shrimp

Photo 5: Threespine Shrimp

Giant Acorn Barnacle Strawberry Anemone

Photo 6: Giant Acorn Barnacle, Strawberry Anemones

Super Macro

Try to familiarize yourself with both the fish and inverts, in advance of your dives, so you have some idea of what you’re looking for. If at all possible, dive with someone with local experience who can lead you to the best shots. Super macro opportunities abound in the kelp forest as well. I never would have known the beautiful colors and patterns of this tiny Brittle Star (photo 4) if not for my magnifying diopter. The tiny Threespine Shrimp in photo 5 (there are two of them there) are virtually transparent so I was fortunate that I could readjust my angle so one of them was along the edge of the rock when I grabbed the shot so it could be clearly seen against the dark background. Giant Acorn Barnacles (photo 6) are another cold water creature worth a shot. Their large size and the fact that you have to catch them when their feeding arms are out makes for a fun challenge. Frequently, as in this shot, they are surrounded by other beautiful inverts like these Strawberry Anemones.

Gopher Rockfish over Whitespotted Anemone

Photo 7: Gopher Rockfish over Whitespotted Rose Anemone

Rosy Rockfish

Photo 8: Rosy Rockfish

The Fish

While fish are not as plentiful as in warmer waters there are still many opportunities for great photos to be had. Rockfish (members of the Scorpionfish family) come in many varieties and are slowly bouncing back from severe overfishing over the last several decades. The great thing about rockfish is that they just hang there. A fine example of this is (photo 7) of the Gopher Rockfish hovering over a Whitespotted Rose Anemone. The colorful Rosy Rockfish in (photo 8) is usually found at depths below 100 feet and near the base of ledges so best to look for them toward the start of your dive. Kelp Rockfish (photo 9) are more wary so there are usually a few good “peek-a-boo” shots to be taken.

Kelp Rockfish

Photo 9: Kelp Rockfish

In sandy areas you can find Blackeye Gobies (photo 10) which have the curious habit of resting on Bat Stars and if you’re lucky you might stumble on the face only a mother could love: the Wolf Eel (photo 11). They spend as much of their day as they can eating sea urchins to no ill affect, a photo I hope to get in the near future. Lastly there are a great variety of Sculpin all of which are very hard to tell apart. Usually quite small and skipping around the rocks they are often hard to see and even harder to get a good shot of. This Coralline Sculpin with the Red Volcano Sponge for a background (photo 12) is one of those rare shot that is the exception not the rule.

Blackeye Goby on Bat Star

Photo 10: Blackeye Goby on Bat Star

 

Photo 11: Wolf Eel

Final Thoughts

In closing, I would say if you have never experienced the cold and dynamic waters of the west coast and are looking for a new and challenging dive experience then grab that drysuit and dive in! Some truly amazing animals await you and as long as you are cautious, patient and dive smart there are many unforgettable photos to be taken. The post dive cocoa has never tasted so good…

Coralline Sculpin

Photo 12: Coralline Sculpin on Red Volcano Sponge

 

About the Author

Jonathan Lavan is the owner/operator of Underpressure Diving and Photography and an online fish ID instructor for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (reef.org). He shoots with a Nikon D300 with a 60mm or 105mm lens in a Subal housing, a ReefNet 10+ magnifying diopter, Ikelite 125’s or 160’s for strobe and a Light & Motion SOLA/PHOTO 500 focus light. He can be reached at jonathan_maureen@yahoo.com. His work can be seen at www.underpressure-spurdog.blogspot.comwww.underpressurephotographybest.blogspot.com and at Underpressure Photography on Facebook.

 

Further Reading

 


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

 
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Knowing your Subject: its Habits, Habitat and Behavior

Jonathan Lavan
How knowledge about your subject can increase your success rate with underwater photography

Knowing your Subject: its Habits, Habitat and Behavior

By Jonathan Lavan

 

Mexican Barnacle Blenny- Socorro Islands, Mexico

 

 
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So you feel like you’ve got a pretty good handle on macro photography. You got the right lens and settings. Now you’ve got to find a subject. Do you know what you’re looking for or even what you’re looking at? Knowing your fish and invertebrates and where you are likely to find them will put you at a distinct advantage and help you to get that great shot.

As a fish identification instructor for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (reef.org) I teach people, through online courses (fishinars,) simple memory clues for the many different fish you might see on a dive. This, of course, is just the beginning of knowing your underwater surroundings and finding the macro subject you are looking for.

Juvenile Bluehead- Nevis, West Indies

Example 1 - Bluehead Wrasse behavior

Our first example is an extreme juvenile of a Bluehead Wrasse (about an inch), commonly known simply as a Bluehead. The first thing you will notice is that the fish does not have a blue head. That is because only the adult male fish has a blue head. Juveniles always have a yellow head and a spot on the dorsal fin.

The most common behavior of all Wrasses is that they are rarely still and are constantly in motion so quite hard to get a good photo of. Finding this one resting in a Pink Azure Sponge for a backdrop was one of those shots begging to be taken. Knowing the common behavior of the wrasse and that what I was seeing was uncommon gave me even more of an advantage when choosing my shots in my limited time underwater.

Soapfish

Panamic Green Moray Eel & Mottled Soapfish (both juveniles)- Socorro Islands, Mexico

Moray and Soapfish - the odd couple

Our second example is from the Socorro Islands in the Pacific. While most of my fellow divers were taking video and photos of Giant Mantas and Hammerheads (and I did get a few wide-angle shots myself) I was finding unusual shots like this. Looking among the many large, long-spined sea urchins (be careful I came up with a spine all the way through my fin!) you will find many juvenile fish and great macro opportunities.

This shot is of two extreme juveniles one a Panamic Green Moray Eel and the other a Mottled Soapfish. The way they have balanced the shot with their synchronistic positioning to each other and how they seem to be touching chins is an example of the other thing you need when taking good underwater photography: luck (just keep shuttering!).

Again knowing the individual animal’s behavior lets you know that this is an unusual shot. As adults the Moray would certainly make short work and a quick meal of the Soapfish if given the opportunity. However as juveniles they are just hunkering down together for safety.

Slender Filefish

Two Slender Filefish- Roseau, Dominica

Slender Filefish - a special habitat

For our next couple of photos let’s look at some Slender Filefish. I’m sure for those of you who have dove the Caribbean that you are familiar with the larger Filefish: the Scrawled Filefish which is circumtropical, and the Whitespotted and Orangespotted Filefish which can be seen on most dives in warm Atlantic waters. 

The much smaller Slender Filefish can be found on the top of wrecks or reefs, in plenty of light, usually floating nose down among branches of gorgonians. While this shot is interesting and typical of their behavior the next shot shows the kind of shot you can get if you spend a bit of time playing cat and mouse with them.

Slender Filefish

Slender Filefish- Nassau, Bahamas

The key, of course is to be as unobtrusive as possible which is not easy when you outweigh your subject by hundreds of pounds and are constantly spewing bubbles. Buoyancy control, minimal movement on your part and anticipating the animal’s movements are all skills to be mastered.

Rock Beauty

Rock Beauty- Cozumel, Mexico

Looking for Color Contrasts

Other things to look for in the behavior and location of animals are color contrasts in their surroundings and personification in their “expressions”. The yellow and black colors of the Rock Beauty Angelfish contrasts nicely with the red and pearly white colors of the surrounding sponges. The three quarter view as the fish peeks out (behavior typical of the Rock Beauty) also adds to the composition. The element that most strongly connects us to the image, however,  is the “smiling expression” and “eye contact” that the fish seems to be making with the viewer.

Red Irish Lord

Juvenile Red Irish Lord- Cape Flattery near Neah Bay, Washington

Framing due to the animal’s habitat and position of the animal can also add a great deal to a shot. This juvenile Red Irish Lord in a little cavelet with the shadow on the back part of the body and the face well lit creates a nice mood to the photo.

Northern Blood Star

Northern Blood Star- Bailey Island, Harpswell, Maine

Even invertebrates can behave in ways that we can associate with. The Northern Blood Star appears to be reaching out to grab a tiny piece of algae which adds a story and drama to the shot.

Mexican Barnicle Blenny

Mexican Barnacle Blenny- Socorro Islands, Mexico

Barnacle Blenny - a great expression

Typically you do not want to take a shot head on of an animal. Three-quarter view followed by profile view is recommended. However, in this straight on shot of a Mexican Barnacle Blenny the fish has so much “expression” that the viewer can’t help but identify with it.

This photo was chosen by PADI as one of the finalists for the image on their 2013 PADI Dive Society card. It was the only macro image out of ten finalists chosen out of thousands of international submissions so the “expression” of the fish obviously affected the judges.

Longfin Sculpin

Longfin Sculpin- Cape Flattery near Neah Bay, Washington

The best advice - dive slowly

Finally, when looking for macro opportunities: dive slowly. Sometimes I will spend the entire dive in perhaps a twenty foot square area. Blennies, Gobies and other typical macro fish and invertebrates tend to be fairly sedentary which gives you an opportunity to get real close without them moving off. Look carefully and from many angles, you never know what you might find. I used a 60mm lens and a ReefNet 10+ magnifying diopter mounted to my flat port to get the overhead face detail of this Longfin Sculpin off Cape Flattery near Neah Bay Washington.

In Summary

To sum up the more you know about the behavior and habitat of an animal and the slower and more carefully you dive the better macro shots you will get. Diving while adventurous and invigorating can also be full of tiny moments that are just short of heaven on earth and can bring us to a truly tranquil and wonderful place in an otherwise hectic existence. It is great to be able to share these moments with the world.

 

About the Author

Jonathan Lavan is the owner/operator of Underpressure Diving and Photography and an online fish ID instructor for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (reef.org). He shoots with a Nikon D300 with a 60mm or 105mm lens in a Subal housing, a ReefNet 10+ magnifying diopter, Ikelite 125’s or 160’s for strobe and a Light & Motion SOLA/PHOTO 500 focus light. He can be reached at jonathan_maureen@yahoo.com. His work can be seen at www.underpressurephotographybest.blogspot.com.

 

Further Reading

 


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

Photographing Manatees

Jo-Ann Wilkins
Where to find these magnificent "gentle giants" and how to get the best possible photos of them

Photographing Manatees

Where to find these magnificent "gentle giants" and how to get the best possible photos of them

By Jo-Ann Wilkins
 
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Manatees, also known as "gentle giants," are incredible animals that weigh anywhere from 800 to 1200 pounds, measure up to 10 feet in length and can live to be a shocking 60 years old. These slow-moving creatures spend all their time eating, travelling and resting. They can be found in shallow waters of slow-moving rivers, canals, estuaries and saltwater bays that are rich in seagrass. Manatees are a migratory species that can be found anywhere from Texas to Massachusetts in the summer months and in the warm waters of Florida in the winter months. They hang around springs where the water temperature is constant at 72 degrees. They need the warmth in order to survive during the winter months. They are an endangered species and are protected by State and Federal laws. 

 

 

A mother nursing her calf. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/100 sec.
 
 
 
 
Manatees with a snorkeler in the background. Nikon D300, F-10, 1/200 sec. 
 
 
 
 
A mother and her two calves just outside of Three Sisters Springs. The visibility in the main canal can get pretty murky, as seen on this picture. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/60 sec. 
 

 

Where to dive with them

The best place to dive with manatees is Crystal River in Florida. Crystal River’s economy revolves around its manatees, so it is easy to find manatee tour operators and accommodations in the area. Trips are usually a few hours long. Underwater photographers who would like to spend more time with them in the water can also rent a boat. By renting a boat, you can spend the whole day in the water with the animals and not worry about crowds of tourists. When visiting Crystal River, the best place to observe the manatees is a site called Three Sisters Springs, where underground fresh water springs emerge. The water is crystal clear and warm, and the bottom is covered with delicate white sand. When the temperature outside gets cold, the manatees swim into this incredibly beautiful bay to rest and warm up.  

 
 
 
 
A man observing two resting manatees in Three Sisters Springs. The water is shallow and many tourists stand and walk on the bottom, but this sometimes stirs up the visibility and can scare the animals away. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/100 sec. 
 
 
 
 
A manatee swimming inside Three Sisters Springs. Nikon D300, F-11, 1/160 sec. 
 
 
 
 
Inside Three Sisters Springs, a manatee rests under the roots of a tree. Nikon D300, F-11, 1/50 sec. 
 

 

When to dive with them

The high season for manatee encounters in Crystal River is between November and March. Most tour operators will guarantee manatee encounters until March 15th, and planning a trip in January and February is probably the safest bet. Thousands of tourists come to Crystal River during that time to see the animals, so there are a few things to keep in mind: weekends are exceptionally busy, and large crowds can make your experience less pleasant. Since the water is quite shallow (around 3-5 feet deep in most places), many tourists walk on the riverbed and stir up the bottom, which in turn will upset your visibility. Furthermore, when tourists see a photographer with a manatee, they have a natural tendency to flock around you and the animal you are trying to photograph, which again, makes it difficult to take nice pictures. If you can, try to go during weekdays. You will have much more intimate encounters with the animals and better photography opportunities.  

 
 
 
 
A manatee being cleaned by fish. Nikon D300, F-9, 1/50 sec. 
 
 
 
 
A manatee coming up for a breath. Nikon D300, F-13, 1/40 sec. 
 

 

Important code of conduct

Anyone who goes to swim with the manatees must adhere to a strict code of conduct. For instance, you must not disturb a resting animal, you cannot chase, corner, ride, poke, prod and grab it, you cannot attempt to single or surround it, you cannot attempt to separate a calf from it’s mother and you are not to enter any designated sanctuaries for any reason. Volunteers and law enforcement officers are constantly monitoring the area to make sure tourists are respecting the animals. Underwater photographers should be extra careful to follow this code of conduct. Somehow, our large cameras attract the volunteers’ attention and they pay close attention to us. On my trip there, we were instructed not to free dive with the animals. I saw someone do a free dive to get to eye level with a resting animal (not close up, he had kept a good distance between himself and the resting animal) and he was warned to stop any free diving (our heads and bodies cannot go completely underwater). Furthermore, I saw a photographer do something stupid and unnecessary - he put his camera right over a rope, which serves to circumscribe the manatee sanctuary where no one is allowed to go.  It was not a big offense in itself, but he was called out of the water by a law enforcement officer and given a fine. So, photographers, please follow the code of conduct, it is there to protect the animals. 

 
 
 
 
A manatee injured by a boat. You can see the scars on its back and tail; part of his 
tail is cut off.  Nikon D300, F-13, 1/30 sec. 
 

 

Photography Tips

  • You definitely want to use your wide-angle lens when photographing manatees. However, be sure to also bring your macro lens for portraits of their wrinkled face, tiny eyes and whiskers. The water in Three Sisters Springs is so clear that you don’t need to be directly in their face with a macro lens. You can back off a little and still do a nice portrait. 
  • In the main canal outside of Three Sisters Springs, the water can get murky. Go into Three Sisters Springs and you will have crystal clear water. However, there aren’t always manatees inside of Three Sisters, but you will most likely always find them in the protected areas just outside of Three Sisters. Be sure to keep an eye out for animals entering the small canal to reach Three Sisters Springs.  
  • Manatees are mammals that must surface to breathe air. They can rest on the bottom for 3 minutes to up to 20 minutes. When they do come up for a breath, it is a good time to photograph them.  
  • Look near the edges of Three Sisters, close to the tree roots. Very often, the manatees go rest there and get their backs cleaned by fish. We call those ‘cleaning stations’ and are great photography opportunities.  
  • Mothers and calves are beautiful to photograph, especially when they are nursing. The mother’s nipples are behind her flippers. Therefore, if you see a calf sucking on the back of the mothers’ flippers, he is nursing. Be extra careful not to disturb them while they are nursing, as they will leave the area rather quickly.   
  • Once in a while, a bird will swim by you trying to catch a fish. They swim pretty fast but they are interesting to photograph... if you’re fast enough! 
  • Photograph the reflections of the manatees beneath the surface of the water. The white sand and the crystal water create beautiful reflections. 
  • Use a model to create perspective and interest in your photographs. Some manatees are playful and love to interact, but some do not. Using a model to show this interaction will create an interesting photograph.  
  • Unfortunately, many boaters have collided with manatees. Those who have survived bear large propellers scars on their backs and tails. You can document with a picture how these animals are vulnerable to human activity. 
  • Try split-shots (over-under shots). The scenery around Three Sisters Springs is very nice and is great for over-under shots. 
  • You are not supposed to do any free diving. It is therefore difficult to get to eye level with the manatees when they are resting. You can dunk your camera below you as low as you can without putting your head under water and take a picture. You may need many tries to get one good picture, but remember not to harass the animals and to not get too close while they are resting. 

 

A playful juvenile manatee. Nikon D300, F-13, 1/125 sec. 
 
 
 
 
Some manatees enjoy interaction with humans and are playful. This manatee hung around with us for a while. Nikon D300, F-10, 1/100 sec. 
 
 
 
 
Three Sisters Springs is a beautiful place to try split-shots. Nikon D300, F-13, 1/160 sec. 
 
 
 

Want more Manatee shooting tips and great Manatee photos?

 
 
 

Further Reading

 


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January Critter Season

Mike Bartick
While water temperatures may be cold, January is arguably the best time of year to find awesome underwater critter action.

January Critter Season!

While water temperatures may be cold, this is arguably the best time of year for critter action & underwater photography

by Mike Bartick

 

 
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Someone once said to me, “Eating at my favorite restaurant every night would get boring." Being a creature of habit I’ve had to rebut that statement for a long time. Finding myself staring into the surf line rolling into one of my favorite dive sites, I think about that statement and wonder if diving at my favorite dive sites could get boring? No way!

Sea creatures come and go, aquatic plants and even topography changes. Just like the terrestrial seasons, the ocean also has its seasonal moods, a certain rhythm that only Mother Nature can orchestrate.

These changes on dive sites in the Indo-Pacific are very similar to those I see at home in the Eastern Pacific. The cool waters of January and February coupled with changing wind direction seem to turn the water over and replenish the seas on both sides of the Pacific.

 

Underwater critter hunting in January

January is a wonderful time to hunt critters for several reasons, but the best is that there is usually an abundance of activity. It seems each January we find more critters with eggs than during any other time of year.

Shrimp, crabs, and squat lobsters are all critters I love to photograph. Challenging to shoot indeed, some of them are even more challenging to find. Here are a few methods I use when trying to locate such creatures (besides hiring the right guides).

The first tool in my box is observation, which is something we are all capable of and can really pay off. Seeing nervous damsel fish or crazed nemos can definitely indicate that they are trying to protect something, namely eggs. I look for bare wire coral on dive sites that damsel fish love to use to lay and tend their eggs.

 

 

This excited Damsel fish tends to her newly laid eggs on this otherwise barren wire coral.

 

This January in particular has been unusually good for finding nemo eggs. It seemed like every few days I found another patch of fresh eggs being protected by a veritable hornet nest of activity.

 

Macro shot of the nemo eggs reveals the undeveloped hatchlings complete with inquisitive eyes.

 

Nemo eggs are usually laid on a rocky patch just under the edge of the anemones. Ask your guide for assistance on this as they will know where the eggs are. Reckless examination of anemones will kill both the anemone and eggs.

Swimming crabs make great subjects, but are too often living under sea cucumbers or near tube anemones. I was lucky enough to discover this swimming crab was protecting something valuable.

 

Swimming crab snaps at me in defense, protecting its clutch of eggs

 

Many of the sea cucumbers host imperial shrimp and/or these tiny ornate swimming crabs.

 

Night dives offer some wonderful opportunities to shoot squat lobsters and a variety of shrimp that are not normally seen during the daylight hours. Purple barrel sponges become a whole ecosystem while crinoids and even nudibranchs all seem to have hitchhikers.

 

This squat lobster is often mistaken as a hairy crab; squat lobsters usually have two longer claspers up front than crabs do and often “squat” on their tails.

 

The elegant crinoid squat lobster is often found under the crinoid itself, but when disturbed this squatty will retreat to the safety of the crinoid, becoming wrapped up and very difficult to coax out without injury.

 

The coveted bumblebee shrimp are often found in very shallow water and are a tough subject to photograph. I have shot and re-shot these little fellows and still haven’t been able to nail the perfect photo. The bumblebee shrimp is named thus not only because of their coloration but also the way they seem to fly underwater!

 

The bumblebee shrimp is high on the “holy grail” list for macro photographers and remains near the top of mine.

 

No article would be complete without at least a couple octopus photos. The cooler waters often bring out the blue ringed octopus. These guys are not only tough to find but they tend to be very shy. Once engaged they will become playful, but getting them to play is no easy task!

 

Blue ring octopi are found all over the Indo-Pacific and Australia. They are extremely venomous and should not be handled.

 

The coconut octopus is a common but very entertaining octo found on many sandy muck dive sites throughout the Indo-Pacific and South East Asia. Their animated antics are fun to watch and photograph on both day and night dives. Collecting shells, discarded bottles or various other items seems to be the favorite past time of with these guys. They use these items to build their homes and are often seen moving along the ocean floor with different items in tow.

 

Soft snooted lighting helped to capture the playful but cautious mood of this interesting creature.

 

Often it's the more common critters I overlook that are the most compelling to photograph. Swimming away from something I have photographed before or just ignoring it altogether may be exactly the kind of attitude my buddy was talking about when he referred to his favorite restaurant.

Remember when you’re out there looking for critters, do your homework first. Check the food sources in the books first (if available) before looking for them in nature.
Diving my favorite dive sites on a regular basis has allowed me an upclose and intimate knowledge of the reefs, animals and their behaviors. It’s an amazing experience to see the things that only we divers get to see. I couldn’t imagine my life without it! January waters may be chilly but the critter action will keep your insides warm and fuzzy!

Now get out there and have an adventure!

 

 

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.

 

Further reading

 


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Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

Bartick's Critter Column: Reflecting on 2011

Mike Bartick
Mike Bartick looks back at his 2011 dive logs and reflects on great dives, unique critters, new behaviors captured, and more.

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.

 

Further reading

 


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

Bartick's Water Column: Mimic, Muck, & Beyond

Mike Bartick
This month Mike goes underwater in search of all things mimic and muck. Including Maluku frogfish, leaf scorpionfish, pipehorses, and more!

Mike Bartick's Water Column: Mimic, Muck, & Beyond

In search of critters in Ambon

By Mike Bartick

 

 
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The thing about a critter obsession is that it can be rather relentless, kind of like trying to shake a pitbull off my leg.  Having the good fortune to travel into Asia regularly allows me to feed the pitbull and quell the beast momentarily. I love to explore and investigate now as much as I did in my childhood, but I never could have imagined how amazing nature can be.  With my cross-hairs fixed on my primary target and my hopes high, the adventure to Ambon begins.

It seems that many of the animals in the Indo-Pacific are bio-geographically interchangeable, meaning that the ability to find the same critters exists throughout the critter triangle. However, it is my theory that certain animals are unique to each and every place. This theory again compels me to pack my bags and book that ticket. So while my sights are set on finding a particular animal, I also know that I will be able to fill my card with various other critter finds.

After exchanging a few e-mails with Andy at Maluku Divers everything was set, and the last item was to forward my shortened critter list for this trip. On this list were of course the obligatory Maluku Frogfish, Pipehorse, and others.

 

Maluku frogfish

 

Ambon sits at the gateway to the Raja Ampat Islands in West Papua and has become a stopover place to pick up liveaboards. ”It's nice to relax for a day or two to decompress before getting on the boat,” said a guest.  I suppose…but the seriously obsessed critterheads should just stay put and explore the wonders that Ambon has to offer. 

 

Dive model Gladys and a frogfish.

 

Maluku Divers is set back in a calm bay surrounded by fishing villages and light industrial fishing boats. The bay itself is rather deep, and is fringed by sandy sloping dive sites.  There is also the occasional wall dive, bommies, broken coral beds, grassy flats, and other interesting habitats. Some of my favorites to explore are the silty troughs that exist throughout the bay. These troughs dump themselves into deep water and provide many critters a safe passage as they commute from the deep to feed, and then return safely at different times of the day.

 

Leaf scorpionfish

                       Red leaf scorpionfish                               Yellow leaf scorpionfish

 

The leaf scorpionfish is a critter that I love but don’t get a chance to see that often. They actually remind me of miniature Rhinopias. The Scorpionfish traits become apparent with just one look, tall dorsal fin, compacted face, appendages or light frondosa above the eye’s and a gape feeder to boot. These guys come in several colors ranging from brown to red, white, yellow, and more.

Their lie and wait nature allows them to utilize their clever disguise, remaining motionless until their prey approaches. The same holds true for photographers as well allowing me the chance for some creative lighting.

 

Leaf scorpionfish

 

Maluku Frogfish

Ambon and Maluku divers were pushed into the spotlight a few years ago when a guest returned with a snapshot of the now world famous Maluku frogfish. This frogfish helped to put Ambon on the map as a prime muck diving destination for me and many others. The result of such a find is equal to a muck diving gold rush that sent shockwaves through the Critterhead community. Since then guests have been coming in regularly to photograph it.

 

Maluku frogfish.  Photo by Marcel Eckhardt.

 

It is an amazing creature that remains at the top of my list for many reasons. Is the Maluku frogfish one-of-a-kind?  We hope not.  But it does support my theory of the unique critters that we find at each of our destinations. Looking closely though at the images (provided by Marcel Eckhardt) on the right you will see that our special little friend is bearing eggs. Wow this is HUGE! No wonder it has become such a gold rush to see this unique creature.

 

Maluku frogfish with eggs.  Photo by Marcel Eckhardt.

 

Maluku frogfish eggs.  Photo by Marcel Eckhardt.

 

Here are a few interesting tidbits about this creature with my insight to expand

  • Limited sightings: Lack of mates for successful breeding keeps them deep.

  • Eggs attached: Female holds onto eggs until she finds a mate.

  • Heads to shallow grounds after finding her mate and successful fertilization is completed. Warmer waters, no immediate predators.

  • Blinking lights at the corners of its mouth (reported by Marcel Hagendijk) explains the lack of the lure.

 

Frogfish can live a very long life when undisturbed, and I hope that I have the opportunity to learn more the next time I'm down there.

 

Mimic octopus and Wunderpus

Maluku has mapped has several dive sites that are reliable for spotting specific critters like Mimic point. A site named after the resident Mimic Octopus and Wunderpus found living there. The site is a gentle sloping point, swept by current. The tidal changes bring a menu of goodies for the animated little cephalopods to feed, survive and breed.

 

Mimic Octopus has longer frondosa over the eyes as compared to the Wunderpus.

The Mimic is mottled in coloration and tends to be darker brown to purple and black. The tentacles are banded with thick white lines and the underside also has a white longitudinal line.  The Wunderpus has white bands but tends to be a bit more brown- green when flushed.

Minutes into the dive we find our first Mimic. First and foremost, these guys are octopus, duh!  So, in my book, this means they are playful when engaged, so how do we engage them? Finding them first can be a bit tricky so what I look for is a twig like object that sticks out of the sand.  I scan the terrain looking ahead and from side to side while moving slowly forward. Once spotted, I use my little chopstick to coax them out of their lair. Tapping on the sand near their hole they will peer out with curiosity, using their large inquisitive eyes and gaging for any apparent danger and proceed with caution.  At that point i offer them something like a shell, or a stick, in some cases my trusty chopstick. Slowly one arm reaches out, then another, and finally with confidence the octopus emerges.

After I offered this timid Mimic my chopstick, and he decided to take it and make it his own. He leapt forward out of its hole and pounced on the stick, enveloping it with his shroud. He then picked it up under his tentacles and began dancing back and forth from tip to tip. I fired away attempting to shoot some funny photos before he got tired of the paparazzi. Finally he threw the stick back at me and trundled away in a frustrated manner. Funny, he only seemed to mimic a frustrated octopus for me.

Both Mimic and Wunderpus seem to shape shift and imitate other creatures, I don’t doubt it that since they are cephalopods and are therefore some of the most intelligent animals in our oceans. But personally I think that the Mimic gets too much credit in that department as the Wunderpus does a pretty fine job at it too.

 

A Wunderpus glides down slope on the hunt, perhaps mimicking a flatfish. Clashing with a Mimic octopus and battling for hunting ground.

Mimic and Wunderpus share the same habitat and often come into contact with one another. This particular Wunderpus is on the hunt, gliding over the sand resembling a flatfish, ever so cool. Suddenly a Mimic leaped from its hole and attacked the Wunderpus. Shutters snapped and strobes flashed as these two collided, wrapping themselves up then flying apart, repeating over and over again. I think the Wunderpus may have won this battle as it was extremely hostile and aggressive, repeatedly attacking the Mimic even when the mimic tried to retreat. I finally separated the two with my Good Samaritan act for the day.

 

Pipehorses

One of the primary critters on my list for this trip was the Pipehorse ( in the family of Syngnathidae which includes Pipefish, Seahorse, Weedy and Leafy Sea dragons and the newly described Lembeh Pipedragon). So far there are only a two scientifically described Pipehorse so i am always on the lookout for them. In typical Ambon fashion our ride to the dive site lasted about two minutes, we rolled in and slowly finned down slope. In cases like this its all about finding the food source, so we began to examine plant flotsam patches of algae and other interesting little places that the Pipehorse may call home. The guide flags me over and with high hopes I see what appears to be a small piece of dental floss in the sand. Looking through my macro lens I see two tiny little eyes staring back up at me. A few moments later I see another and suddenly it appears that we hit pay dirt.

 

Black pipehorse

 

The cryptic Black pipehorse with sandy algae like appearance was very hard to detect. My guide deserves all the credit for finding this guy and after shooting a few frames we continue to look for others.  Almost a half hour passed when we finally came upon these two adults getting frisky.

 

Mating pipehorses

 

Seahorses normally mate belly to belly so I assume these two pipehorses are just basking in the glow of each other’s company. The male is perched above the female, with tails wrapped around the little twig for security. Moving back and forth never allowing me to get them both in the frame together, I had to remove my +10 diopter and resort more drastic measures. Nearing the end of the line with my air, I slipped away and patiently waited, finally for a brief milli-second the eyes matched up in my plane of field. When I finally saw the skull and crossbones in my dive computer I decided it was time to get shallow, hoping that at least one shot was acceptable.

 

Nudibranchs

Tambja hitchhiker

The nudibranchs in Ambon are again nothing short of incredible. Traditional to this region of the world a nice variety of nudis were found each dive. High f-stops and off camera lighting helped me with this common Flabellina and capturing animal behavior is always an intriguing shot.

 

A high f-stop and off camera lighting helped me with this common Flabellina.

 

Chromodoris with a tiny tag-along.

 

So be sure to keep your head in the game, change your lens once in a while and add a little flavor to your trip portfolio. Ambon is a definite repeat retreat for me and the muck diving there is prime.

 

Dive site: Dark Blue Wall

 

Special thanks

Special thanks to Maluku Divers in Ambon, Andy Shorts, Marcel Hagendijk, Gladys Guy, and the guides that helped make this story happen.  See you soon!

Maluku Frogfish credits: Marcel Eckhardt, more of Marcel’s work can be found at his website www.marceleckhardt.com

 

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.

 

Further Reading

 


Support the Underwater Photography Guide

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

Bartick's Water Column: Searching for Rhinopias

Mike Bartick
A first person animal encounter write-up that will be updated each month, and includes amazing critters and underwater photography tips.

Mike Bartick’s Water Column: In Search of the Holy Grail

A first person series from the oceanic rainforests of the world

By Mike Bartick

 

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Welcome to Mike Bartick’s Water Column, a first person animal encounter write-up that will be updated each month. I'll discuss my latest obsessions from the oceanic rainforests of the world. Get up close and personal with some 'Holy Grail' critters and chat about animal behavior.

 

My observations and quips are backed by research, but are from a naturalist’s point of view.  Join me as I travel through our planet's water column. Now let's go and have an adventure!

 

Underwater obsession

Obsession is a funny thing and divers can get it pretty bad. Add in a diver with a camera, and now we have a whole new world of obsession. For me, every expenditure seems to be measured against my newest lens or modeling light. The cost of a new strobe is acceptable, whereas basic maintenance on my car can be a stretch. Diopters are doable, although tires can wait. And when it comes to critters, that obsession works on me without mercy, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but it’s always inevitable until I finally have that critter square in my lens.

 

Rhinopias frondosa

 

'Holy Grail' critters

Several years ago I heard the term 'holy grail' applied to marine wildlife, which In-turn led me to think about my current 'holy grail' for critters. Since then my list has changed several times over and continuously evolves, vacillating between animals and specific animal behavior.

Recently while visiting my current favorite critter locale Anilao, Philippines, a guest asked me about a particular animal that she had spotted on a previous dive. With her best English, she enunciated through a heavy German accent, "I think I found a 'Wiolet Wionfish'." I thought about what she was trying to tell me for a minute, deciphering the words. A lionfish, hmm…they are a lovely creature indeed but a violet one? I have seen many very colorful lionfish in my day but not violet...and that’s when it happened. The spinning wheels in my head searched the memory banks for violet critters….then all at once like slamming on the brakes, it suddenly became crystal clear. Perhaps she stumbled upon an extremely coveted and photogenic critter. A creature so amazing that divers have spent their entire dive careers traveling the globe for the chance of seeing one!

"A Violet Lionfish,” I said, "can I have a look at your LCD?"  Straining to see through the back of her compact camera housing, the glowing distortion of her LCD was made worse by water droplets. But as my eyes adjusted, my suspicions were confirmed, and now became an overwhelming reality. The LCD glowed with the one of a kind image of a deep purple Rhinopias frondosa. Instantly my anticipation peeked and the obsession began to purr.

 

Purple Lacy Rhinopias, Rhinopias aphanes.

 

Rhinopias fever

We returned to the site to look for this special critter, amazing that I have dived this spot on numerous occasions, usually deep looking for unusual nudibranchs, and have never seen one here. But when I saw the photo, it all made sense.

Since that fateful morning several more Rhinopias have been discovered in the immediate area. My e-mail box has been filled almost daily with photos of Rhinopias, late night phone calls and discussions have ensued and continuous contact with local dive guides have enabled me to keep close tabs on the quickly evolving frenzy. Since then our tiny little macro haven has been rocketed into a fourth dimension of Rhinopias fever.

 

So what's the big deal?

Rhinopias are Scorpionfish that come in three flavors, the frondosa, aphanes, and the eschmeyeri. Each ranging in coloration, pattern, and size. They are a widespread Indo-Pacific animal that have sporadic sightings by divers. Speculation comes from academia which now thinks that the frondosa and the aphanes may be interbreeding. If so, this would nullify one of these two groups all together. Leading scientists speculate that one of these two are not a true species. Nevertheless, the Rhinopias hold a top slot on the 'Holy Grail' list of critters.

The Rhinopias is a benthic animal spending its entire life on the substrate. It has developed particular characteristics that enhance its charm and enable it to survive, so let’s take look at a few of them.

 

Appearance of Rhinopias

The aphanes' or frondosa’s camouflage is perhaps the number one feature and reason that so many naturalists are driven to see them, and depending on the particular fish, each individual’s appearance will vary.  They are covered with skin tags or elaborate frondosa that mimics the algae or soft coral and crinoids of its immediate surroundings. The base coloration is maze-like, striped, or blotchy. But both always have the tell-tale white spots under each eye. This is a common decoy eye that enables the predator to watch the prey, without detection. They can be found in rather shallow waters ranging from 10 feet to 50 feet, living amongst soft coral and algae, broken rubble, and sandy patches.

Rhinopias eschmeyeri are perhaps the opposite of their kin. These guys are a deeper dwelling animal residing in the 65-80 foot range. Often a drab brown when found, but with proper lighting they can vary from bright yellow, pink, red and orange and sometimes saddled in pattern and coloration. The skin tissue is smooth and covered with small skin tags. They dwell on seaward slopes and are often found in the open. The eschmeyeri are highlighted by the eyebrows or paddle flaps, giving them a 'Groucho Marx' appeal. All have a hooked style nose, a narrow face with the eyes close together and at the top-front of the face. Like other benthic dwellers, the Rhinopias molt their skin tissue to rid themselves of parasites or algae growth.

The Rhinopias are at the top of the chart in more ways than one. Once surviving the larval stage from cannibalistic siblings and hungry reef fish, the Rhinopias grows into a benthic apex predator. With no other reef fish willing enough to consume them, they parade themselves around with daring impunity.

 

Photo showing an up-close view of the Rhinopias eschmeyeri "claw."

 

The predator within

Rhinopias are a lie and wait predator that ambushes their prey by using a combination of camouflage and movements. The first few spines of the lateral fins have evolved into articulating toes if you will. These toes or "claw" helps them to hook into the substrate and pull themselves along. This is all part of the hiding and hunting façade as seen in other bottom-dwellers. By flopping about the bottom, other fish will discount the movements as flotsam or perhaps a wounded fish and come in close to investigate. The two white decoy spots below the eyes are distracting enough to mislead the prey. And as the unsuspecting fish approaches to investigate, the Rhinopias carefully watches, gauges the distance, and then all at once, the Rhinopias' jaw drops and inhales the fish.

Rhinopias are "gape feeders" which may explain part of its behavior. The mouth opens and the jaws gape forward. The opening is so quick that it actually pulls in a mass of water, creating an extremely strong vacuum, therefore making it impossible for the intended prey to escape, usually reef fish.

 

Rhinopias frondosa

 

Underwater photography and the Rhinopias

"I've found a Rhinopias. Now what?" Portrait photos are a great way to catch striking images of these ornate creatures. Look for contrasting backgrounds to make your subject "pop." Use your imagination with lighting. Positioning your modeling light off-camera can lend some nice drama to the shot. Incorporating a model can lend a whole new aspect to the shot as well. Working the shot with a dive buddy can often yield some great fun photos, so be sure to keep your head in the game and get creative. Read more about photographing behavior

 

                                                                                   

Rhinopias eschmeyeri and diver.

 

Like frogfish, another "gape feeder," the coveted shot seems to be the yawning behavior photo. Photographers have been known to camp out waiting for the photo op which occurs randomly and without notice. Is it stress that causes them to yawn? Are they creating a better seal for the strike? Perhaps we will never know the exact reason, but to watch one open up and yawn is too cool and really fun to photograph.

 

Yawn sequence of a Rhinopias frondosa.

 

Sometimes luck is in the cards and sometimes not. Mother Nature loves to play tricks on me, like when I look away. My wandering eye returns to the last frame of the yawn, or at other times, I'm out of bottom time and begin backing away, too far for strobes to reach.

 

Underwater photography tips - how to capture the yawn sequence

My three biggest mistakes have been:

  • Strobes won't recycle fast enough

  • Auto-focus begins to hunt as the jaw begins to open

  • My camera settings weren’t re-adjusted from the prior subject

 

Try to avoid my mistakes with these helpful tips when hunting your Rhinopias:

  • Anticipate the shot by setting your camera up during the approach. I often do this by bracketing a few frames (aka test shots) on a piece of coral or anything near-by.

  • A deeper F-stop (higher number aperture) will require more strobe power, but will yield a better color profile. If your subject is shallow then you will need a lot of strobe power to sharpen and colorize your photos.

  • Focus and lock on your award winning subject, re-focus every few seconds and re-lock. Achieving fast focus is key.  Once your Rhinopias begins to yawn, there won't be anytime for autofocus and you will once again, miss the shot. There is nothing more frustrating then to see your subject blur through the viewfinder as the action begins, then sharpen once it ends. Another benefit of focus-lock is compulsory strobe flash. This isn’t the case with compact shooters but turning the strobe power down will help the recycling speeds.

 

Purple "yawner," Rhinopias aphanes.

 

Shooting the entire yawn series isn’t requirement either. A single well lit photo says it all, and being ready for it makes all the difference. Stay tuned for next month's installment as I go after the flat faced frogfish of Ambon.

Now get out there and have an adventure!

Special Thanks to Crystal Blue Resort-Anilao Philippines

Mike Bartick

www.saltwaterphoto.com

 

Publisher's note - where to find Rhinopias

A beautiful Rhinopia will pop up now and then in Anilao, Philippines and Lembeh, Indonesia. However, Ambon, Indonesia may be the best place to see them - along with Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea or Bootless Bay, PNG. They have also been seen more than once in Alor & Bali, Indonesia; Hin Muag, Thailand; and Zanzibar, Tanzania. Good luck searching! And email us if you have a new Rhinopia spot. - Scott

 

UWPG Anilao 2012 Photo Workshop

Be sure to join the UWPG Anilao Photo Workshop in April / May 2012!

 

Further reading

 


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Indo-Pacific Critter Guide Gets Updated

Scott Gietler
The Ultimate Indo-Pacific critter list and online field guide just got better, with dozens of new entries.

Indo-Pacific Critter Field Guide Gets an Update

The Ultimate Indo-Pacific critter list and online field guide just got better, with dozens of new entries.

By Scott Gietler

 
 
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The underwater critter list and field guide has always been one of my favorite book pages in the Underwater Photography Guide. 

Since we saw so many fabulous macro and reef creatures during our Anilao underwater photography workshop, I decided to fill in some holes on the critter list.

 

indo-pacific underwater field guide update

Your friendly neighborhood Stargazer

 

About 25 new underwater photos were added, bringing the total to over 130 species.  New critters added include stargazer, napolean snake eel, pipehorse, crocodile flathead, boxer crab, and many others.

These species can be found throughout the indo-pacific region, especially the areas in our muck diving guide such as Anilao, Lembeh, Bali, Ambon, and others.

Updated Underwater Critter List

 

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