21 de julio de 2020

Comet Neowise

Today I observed something in nature that I couldn't post as an observation here on iNat. My first comet. Exciting to actually be able to see it, even with the naked eye once I figured out where it was with my binos. We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes or I would have stayed longer and tried to get photos. I may try again later this week.

Ingresado el 21 de julio de 2020 por maractwin maractwin | 1 comentario | Deja un comentario

09 de mayo de 2019

Burma Rd Butterfly Walk (Trip)

Walked Burma Rd through Fowl Meadow looking for butterflies, hoping for Compton's Tortoiseshell (didn't find it). Also noted many birds, and a few reptiles and other insects.

Note that I basically went in a straight line for a mile and a half, then back. Of course, this tool maps circles...

Ingresado el 09 de mayo de 2019 por maractwin maractwin | 30 observaciones | 7 comentarios | Deja un comentario

30 de marzo de 2019

Fiji Reef Fish

After more than four years of work, I am happy to announce my book is finally being published.

Fiji Reef Fish is a field guide includes all of the species likely to be encountered by scuba divers and snorkelers exploring Fiji's reefs. It includes 866 species from 92 families, with over 1,200 photos. Each form is shown of fishes where males and females, initial phase and terminal phase look different. Fishes are shown in taxonomic order, the way naturalists and scientists expect them to be listed. When a species is likely to be confused with another, the differences are pointed out. All photos are of unrestrained live wild fish in their natural habitats.

Available now for pre-order on Amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/Fiji-Reef-Fish-Mark-Rosenstein/dp/1732499217
or purchase now through BookBaby at https://store.bookbaby.com/book/Fiji-Reef-Fish

Ingresado el 30 de marzo de 2019 por maractwin maractwin | 19 comentarios | Deja un comentario

26 de diciembre de 2018

Another dive trip to Fiji

I’ve just made my 14th trip to Fiji. This time was not with an organized group, but a few friends on the Nai’a liveaboard and then another week on the island of Taveuni.

Jody accompanied me on the first part of the trip. We left Boston a week after Thanksgiving. We spent an afternoon in Los Angeles with Bert on the way. The morning we arrived in Nadi we did some shopping in town, then the bus picked us up after lunch to take us to the Nai’a where it docks in Latoka.

Vanessa and Chad are still cruise directors, now in their third year. Koroi was the third dive guide. Many of the dozen crew members were familiar from my many previous trips, with a couple of new faces. The 17 guests were from all over: many Americans, but also a British couple and a pair of Argentinians. Besides Jody, my regular dive buddy Heidi was there and two others that I already knew. Everyone got along pretty well and new friendships were made. We also brought along Sancho, a stuffed ferret who was very interactive in the salon and even went on a dive.

The Nai’a still follows the pattern of eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, eat, dive, sleep, repeat. It is early summer in Fiji and the water was still a little cool, varying between 78 and 81 degrees. We had both rainy days and sunny days. One day had a tropical storm nearby that made the water very choppy, preventing us from getting to a couple of exposed sea mounts. We dived the protected fringing reef of an island instead. All diving is from skiffs, rigid inflatable motor boats, that give us a lot of flexibility and allow us to surface anywhere at the end of the dive and the skiff will come pick us up, rather than divers having to navigate back to an anchored boat.

We dived a variety of sites. The checkout dive is a silty reef not far from the industrial city of Latoka; I like this dive because there are a few fish we see there that we do not encounter later in the trip on more pristine reefs. Many of the dives are on pinnacles, towers of coral that rise from sandy plain or ridge to near the surface. This allows us to spend some time deeper looking around the base, then to spiral our way up to the surface. If there are strong currents, we could shelter behind the pinnacle (though most of the fish life will be on the up-current side). We also dived a few walls which are often good for sharks, tuna, mackerel, and other pelagics where they face the open ocean. No hammerheads were seen this trip, though we had quite a few Grey Reef Sharks and White-tipped Reef Sharks.

Fiji is known for its soft corals, and this trip did not disappoint. When the current is slack, these corals deflate and do not look like much, but when the current is running, they puff up into fluffy bushes in a variety of pastel colors. The site Mellow Yellow has one side covered in yellow Dendronephthya, many other sites have plentiful pink and purple corals. These areas are often covered by clouds of orange and purple anthias fishes. Many of the pinnacle tops are covered by gardens of branching hard corals. Some areas have been damaged by increasingly severe cyclones in recent years, but many are very healthy and beautiful.

One thing we did different was a dawn dive. We were up at 5am to be in the water by 5:30am while it was still completely dark. It got light during the dive, giving us a chance to watch the fish wake up. Different groups of fish awake and appear at different times and it is interesting to see the full community assemble. By the end of the dive it was full light and everyone was there. There were also several night dives offered after dinner.

One afternoon we did a village visit. We went to Somosomo on the island of Gau, a place I have been to several times before. Tom is the spokesman for the village and walked us around to see how they live. The village was founded in 1795, and this is their fourth location in that area. Twenty-nine families live there, with many of the houses having solar power. Fiji Telecom recently put in a satellite dish and four “land lines” so they have more reliable communications now than cell phones trying to pick up a far away signal. They did a “meke” for us, a ceremonial welcoming with singing and dancing and sharing of kava.

As a fish geek I was excited to see two new fishes that I had never encountered before. The second time the group did the shark dive at Nigali Passage, Jody, Bruce, and I went up the side of the passage and onto the shallow reef flat. There I encountered the seldom-seen Half-spotted Hawkfish, and my first lifer, a Yellow-spotted Scorpionfish. This small scorpionfish perches in branching corals like a hawkfish. Later in the trip I found a cave, only big enough for me to half-way enter, that had both a Tanaka’s Cave Wrasse and my second lifer, a Striped Basslet. During this part of the trip I logged 482 species of fish. Besides those two lifers, I got better photos to replace several in the book I am working on.

After ten days on the Nai’a, we cruised back to Latoka and a bus brought us to Nadi. In the first part of the trip, I did 33 dives and logged 491 species of fish. Then we said goodbye to new friends, and Heidi and I flew on to the second part of our adventure. We took a domestic flight on a Twin Otter propeller plane to the island of Taveuni in north-eastern Fiji to spend a week at the Garden Island Resort.

The resort has about 30 rooms, through this is the low season and there were only a few guests while we were there. Meals are in an open-air “restaurant” and choices for lunch and dinner are made each morning. The food was good, though they were not as good at providing options to my vegetarian friend as some places. When the day’s feature items did not appeal, once could always order pizza or a burger. They have a swimming pool, and the whole thing is just off the ocean. It’s a rocky coast there rather than a sandy beach. They used to have a nice wharf, but it was damaged in Cyclone Winston three years ago and not yet rebuilt, so we were taken by van to a wharf up the road for access to the dive boat.

The schedule and style of diving is quite different at the resort. They offer two dives from a single boat trip each morning. The dive sites are on Rainbow Reef, across the Somo Somo Strait from Taveuni, a 15 minute ride away. Most dives were on reef slopes above sand channels, with the reef top at 15-20 feet deep. The boat could hold eight divers. We had two different dive guides—Ane (pronounced Annie) is the first female native Fijian dive guide in the country, and Leo who is also a native Fijian. They gave site briefings on the boat right before each dive, and both clearly enjoyed showing off their reefs. The boat picked us up at the end of each dive so we didn’t have to navigate back to our entrance point. The surface intervals were spent anchored in a small shallow bay nearby. Since I like getting into different habitats, I snorkeled that bay each day, exploring the sand, turtle grass, and mangroves.

One day we dived the Great White Wall, a signature dive of the area. It is an exposed location that they can only dive on certain tides, so there were several dive boats there that day. The wall tops at 30 feet and drops hundreds of feet and is covered in white soft coral. A vertical swim-through goes from the reef top down to 90 feet and is an interesting way to get down on the wall.

The reefs in the area were healthy with a lot of fish, though not as much diversity as some of the other parts of Fiji that I have visited. I did see a handful of species there that we had missed the previous week on the Nai’a. And I got a lifer not on the reef, but in the mangroves while on snorkel.

The owner of the resort, Phil, and his wife Karen were present while we were there, and they were very friendly. They are Americans currently living in Hong Kong who are only there a couple of times a year. Most of the staff are Fijians, though the dive center is run by Juho, from Finland.

The resort offers a number of excursions. We were driven up a very steep rough road into the mountains for birding, where I got to see an Orange Dove and Silktails, both Fiji endemic birds. I actually did that twice—the first time it was pouring rain by the time we made it to the mountain top. We looked anyway, but couldn’t find any doves. Three days later I made the trip in the sun, and saw a lot of birds. We also walked to the180th meridian where it passed half a mile from our resort. The international date line makes a detour so that all of Fiji is on the same side, but east and west do change there. We’re told that most drones people have tried to fly at the resort freeze up and crash due to bugs in longitude tracking in the software.

On the second half of the trip I did just eleven dives (plus 4 snorkels) and logged 336 species of fish. Because the dives were all on one reef system, we didn’t see as many species as on the Naia who visits several different areas.

If you would like to see some of my photos from this trip, please visit https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157701541562152

Ingresado el 26 de diciembre de 2018 por maractwin maractwin | 4 comentarios | Deja un comentario

01 de junio de 2018

Scuba Diving in the Philippines

I’ve completed my second dive trip of 2018, my first time to the Philippines. The trip was with Undersea Productions. We stayed at two different land based resorts.

For the first part of the trip, 17 of us came to Crystal Blue Dive Resort in Anilao. The resort is a 2.5 hour drive from Manila, and people arrived on various days to spend seven to eleven days there. The resort is on a steep hill over the water, with dive shop, camera room, restaurant, office, and two floors of rooms each on a different level. The rooms were nice with working air conditioning and views of the water. Meals were all buffet style. The camera room is the nicest I have encountered, with about 20 separate work spaces sort of like library carrels. They also have a spa on premises with an excellent (and cheap) masseuse. We were lucky to be in the Philippines during the mango season and had fresh mangos every day!

All diving in the area is from bangkas, small flat-bottomed wooden boats with dual outriggers. This design allows them to get into very shallow areas and easily pull onto beaches, though they cannot tie up to a dock and almost always have wet landings. Crystal Blue puts no more than four divers in a group with a guide, so we weren’t crowded and had good personal attention from the guides. They are all native Filipinos and great critter spotters. We usually went out for two morning dives with the surface interval spent on the boat, and again for two afternoon dives. The afternoon schedule was flexible, with some groups doing only one dive. My group usually took a long lunch break, then did a mid-afternoon dive and then a dusk dive that would turn completely dark before we surfaced. During the surface intervals on the boat they provided coffee, tea, or milo, and cookies or crackers.

Dive sites ranged from just a couple of minutes away to 25 minutes for the furthest sites. They have about 30 sites to choose from, though we repeated some of our favorites several times. About half of them are along the coast where we were staying. Others were across the channel on a few small islands. The area is known for muck diving—on sand or mud bottoms where strange and wonderful creatures hang out. At least half our dives were muck dives, though we also dived patch reefs, larger reefs, one wreck, and a couple of pinnacle-like volcanic formations. Visibility ranged from 20 to 60 feet—not great, but that’s the price of diving there in the warmer months and what I expect in muck areas. The area has been compared to Lembeh, but with less trash.

On our muck dives we say many frogfish and scorpionfish, snake eels, dragonets and other sand-dwelling fish. Occasional seahorses were seen. Cephalopods were common. We had mimic octopus, coconut octopus, and several other octopods, a variety of cuttlefish including the charismatic flamboyant cuttlefishes, and reef squid. And many different shrimps and crabs, both large and small. It wasn’t hard to find flashy species like coleman’s shrimp and zebra crabs on the fire urchins, and emperor shrimps on sea cucumbers. Nudibranchs were also common, both brightly colored and cryptic.

In the coral reef areas, a rich diversity of small reef fish lived. Groups of orange and purple anthias swam above the reef, while many damselfishes swam among the corals. Occasional angelfishes and butterflyfishes flashed by. Peeking under ledges revealed banded pipefish, cardinalfishes mouth-brooding eggs, and other interesting finds. What was missing were any larger fish. We saw no sharks or tunas, very few jacks, and no larger snapper. Basically, anything edible had been fished out. This does not bode well for the long term viability of these reefs.

Crystal Blue is one of the few places in the world that does blackwater dives. That is night diving over deep water to see the small pelagic creatures that migrate up from the deep. These dives were offered most nights, and several of us did one of them. They started with a detailed briefing, as there are procedures and safety concerns different from regular diving. Then a boat took us way out where the water is a thousand feet deep, they drop a down-line festooned with lights into the water, and we drift with it looking for interesting critters. The holy grail of these dives are Nautiluses, and none turned up the night I did the dive. Photography is quite difficult and I wasn’t well prepared, though I did get a few mediocre shots of crab larvae, shrimps, and a young snake blenny.

Our tims in Anilao was very enjoyable, and we are talking about planning a return trip and would stay at Crystal Blue again. The rural location was nice, the food excellent, the service and accommodations great, and the diving definitely worth another visit. In my ten days there, I did nearly every dive offered, completing 35 of them while taking over 3,000 photos. I logged 434 species there, getting great coverage of muck habitats but missing out on exposed outer reefs entirely.

At the end of our stay at Anilao, most of the group transferred to Puerto Galera to stay at El Galleon and do another week of diving. Puerto Galera is across a straight, about 12 miles away on the island of Mindoro. This resort sent their boats to get us. They brought gear baskets so we could transfer our set-up wet dive gear without having to pack it. We went in the speed boat, a conventional day boat with dual outboards, while the luggage and gear went in a slower bangka. An hour later, we were there for lunch and orientation, and got in two dives that afternoon.

Puerto Galera is more of a party town, with bars, shops, entertainment, and bustle that was jarring after the quiet of Anilao. It reminded me a bit of Cozumel. Our resort was right on Sabang Beach, with three bars and just a ten minute walk to the center of town. My room was at the top of a ridge over a hundred feet above the restaurant and pool, accessed by a path of tall, irregular steps. I was careful to minimize the number of times I went back to the room during my stay. It should have had a nice ocean view, but trees had grown up to block any sight lines. The furnishings were OK, but the air conditioner struggled trying to keep up, even though I ran it on maximum around the clock. It did mask any sounds from the bars below. They ran a full-service restaurant with walk-in customers as well as those staying at the resort. We were on a full-board plan and they had buffet lunch and dinner set up for us, though we could order off the menu as well. I found this resort, OK, but not great. A couple who joined us just for that part of the trip seemed to take offense at every little thing, and ended up leaving early, but their issues had more to do with them than the resort or diving.

Dive operations at El Galleon are run by Asia Divers, a larger organization with a strict schedule and one hour dive time limits. Some of their dive guides were natives, and some were ex-pats. Our big group was all on the speed boat most days, diving as two smaller groups each with a guide, but still twice as large as we had just a few days previously. Besides hosting our group and a daily-changing roster of other hotel guests, they do a lot of training there, both beginning and IDCs for dive instructors. And they did not show any flexibility when we wanted to change the schedule. We returned to the resort after each of the four dives each day. During the shorter surface intervals between the two morning or afternoon dives, we came back to the restaurant for drinks and cookies.

They had a variety of dive sites to choose from, some very close and others up to 25 minutes away. They have a couple of muck sites there too, and we visited each twice, seeing a few things that we had missed in Anilao like Blue-ring Octopus and Weedy Scorpionfish. Many of their sites are coral reefs, again coral growing on volcanic formations rather than all-coral reef structures. Visibility was poor to fair, even on the reefs. We also visited several wrecks in their harbors which had interesting accumulations of fish and encrusting creatures. Here I found many of the same fish as in Anilao, but a bit better diversity with a few more species.

Twice we opted to take the hour-long cruise each way for two dives at Isla Verde, a small island nearby with clear waters and nice reef structure. Here I finally had 100 foot visibility and large clouds of reef fish. But still only a few larger fish, and no sharks. It was pretty, but without as much diversity as I expected. We were warned of strong currents here, but did not really encounter them. The first time we went to Isla Verde, our departure was delayed and we ended up diving while there were 15 other dive boats on the site. We moved up our departure a bit the second time, and largely had the place to ourselves. The surface interval there was spent on a beach at “Starbucks”, a primitive convenience-store shack that served instant coffee and various other stuff. The beach there has bits of broken blue and white pottery, the remains of a 400 year old shipwreck full of Ming-dynasty china.

So our time in Puerto Galera was mixed: not as nice above water, but underwater we got into some additional habitats and had a bit more diversity. I logged 449 fish species in that half of the trip, a few more than in Anilao, while doing 24 dives and taking almost 1,000 photos.

I’ve posted some of my favorite photos from the trip at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157695790575511

Ingresado el 01 de junio de 2018 por maractwin maractwin | 3 comentarios | Deja un comentario

09 de abril de 2018

Diving in the Solomon Islands

I haven’t done one of these trip reports in a while, but I’ve certainly been diving. I’ve been to Fiji four times in the last two years. But now I’m back from the Solomon Islands. I travelled with my friend Heidi from California, via Los Angeles to Fiji, where we stayed overnight, then continued on to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. The roads are horrendous in Honiara, so that it took an hour to drive the short distance from the airport to the yacht club in the center of the town where we waited a little until the boat was ready for us. They took us in a skiff from the dock to the ship out in the harbor.

We then boarded the Bilikiki for an eleven day cruise. This is the same boat I was on four years ago (when the airlines lost my camera on the way there) and this time I arrived with all of my gear. There were ten folks on the boat centered on a group of friends from Minneapolis, a pair of Germans, an Aussie who was just ending a six month stint as a visiting doctor to the Solomons, and a special treat: the owner of the Bilikiki and the former owner were both along just as divers, not working. The cruise directors are Tina and Oli, a German and French couple who did an excellent job.

The rest of our first day was just an orientation, setting up our gear, and dinner. Meals were all served buffet style in the salon, and we ate outside where they also had clear screens that could be rolled down when it was rainy (which it frequently was, this being the rainy season). There were only 17 guests on the boat with ten double-cabins, so Heidi and I lucked out and each got our own cabin rather than having to share. After dinner, the boat lifted anchor and steamed up to the Russell Islands for the next day’s diving.

Our typical day consisted of a hot breakfast at 6am, then the first dive at 7:30am. The mid-morning snack often had fresh baked cookies, and always popcorn. The second dive was usually at 10:45am, followed by lunch. The third dive was at 1:45pm, then another snack, often fresh fruit and more popcorn. The fourth dive was usually at 4:45pm, which gave us time to complete it before it started getting dark. Appetizers were served on the sun deck (when it wasn’t raining) at 6pm, and dinner at 7pm. Many nights a night dive was offered at 7:45. The food was good and varied, often with two entres and several sides to choose from, including fresh salads. Dinner always had a dessert. My friend who is vegetarian was pleased with how well they provided options for her too.

I made 42 dives on our ten days of diving, including four days where I competed five dives. Most times the ship was brought very close to the dive site, so that skiff rides were rarely more than a minute or two, and occasionally we could just swim back to the ship and the end of a dive. Because the terrain both above and below sea level is often very steep, sometimes there was no anchorage and the ship was live while waiting for us to dive. Several afternoons we anchored very close to shore and “the pool was open” and we could dive on our own if we desired directly from the back of the boat, though guided dives were also offered.

Many of the guests on this cruise were especially interested in sharks and other big animals, so many dives were planned for that. We would drop on a slope or wall and go to a corner where there was some current and the sharks, tunas, and others might come by. Gray Reef Sharks were somewhat common. I had one Silvertip Shark, and a few Blacktip Reef Sharks. Whitetip Reef Sharks were often seen on the reefs. We had a few Spotted Eagle Rays, a Mobula Ray, and I had a great Manta Ray encounter at the surface right at the end of a dive. Most of the guests did a Manta dive at the end of the trip, but Heidi and I opted to dive a nearby shallow bay instead, where we saw a dozen kinds of fish not previously encountered on the trip.

While I’m fine seeing the big guys, I am most interested in the smaller reef fish, so often moved off along the reef rather than watching for pelagics. A couple of times I went deep looking for different species, but those typically seen deeper in Fiji like Squarespot Anthias and Pyramid Butterflies were also found shallower in the Solomons, so there seemed little reason to spend time deeper. Like other Indo-Pacific locations, most reefs had unicornfish and fusiliers furthest off the reef, clouds of anthias below that, and damselfish just a little bit above to reef. There was a lot of diversity on the reefs, with about half of the fish familiar from my many trips to Fiji, but many different ones as well.

The Solomons have great diversity of reef fish. There are nine different kinds of anemone (clown) fish, and I managed to see and photograph all of them. I enjoyed watching and photographing both Melanesian Fairy Wrasses and Filament-fin Flasher Wrasses. Other favorites include Signal Gobies with their two huge false eyespots, and the bright red Flame Angelfish who are very shy and only occasionally peek out from their cover of coral.

Night dives were offered most evenings after dinner, and I did four of them. Lots of soldierfish and cardinalfish about, as well as many shrimps, crabs, and the occasional lionfish and scorpionfish. Special finds at night include a pygmy squid and an emperor shrimp on the back of a huge nudibranch.

Overall, it was both a fun and productive trip. In 43 dives I recorded 580 different species of fish, including 24 new to me. I managed to get 11 photos that I was missing for the book I’m working on.

Photo highlights are at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157693446400631

Ingresado el 09 de abril de 2018 por maractwin maractwin | 5 comentarios | Deja un comentario

17 de noviembre de 2016

Back to Fiji again

I’ve just completed my tenth scuba diving trip to Fiji. This trip was organized by Josh & Liz of Undersea Productions, former Nai’a cruise directors who had not been back to Fiji in ten years. Eighteen of us were guests on the Nai’a, from Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and the United States. We had a rare twelve day cruise, longer than the Nai’a’s usual trips.

I few from Boston to Los Angeles to Nadi Fiji, arriving a day early to get over my jet lag and have a chance for any lost luggage to catch up. Fiji’s main airport is still being remodeled and is a huge construction zone. I stayed at the Tanoa International Hotel before and after the cruise. It is across the street from the Novotel where I usually stay and was very similar—the food maybe a bit better, the grounds somewhat smaller. The birding is better at the Novotel, so I’m likely to return there.

We were picked up by bus from the Tanoa and two other hotels for the ride to the Nai’a where it docks in Loutoka, half an hour away. The Nai’a looks so small next to the other ships there. She’s a 120 foot steel ship with a single mast, though it is rarely under sail rather than diesel power. We were greeted by the new cruise directors, Vanessa and Chad. This was just their fourth cruise, so myself and several others in our group had more experience here than they did. Kenny is captain now, Johnathan having switched to the Fiji Aggressor. And Big Mo was off this cruise, with Koroi filling in as dive guide. Mita and Suli still run the kitchen, and the food was very good as always. All of the cabins are doubles with private bath; I was sharing one with Doug Smith.

It is now nine months since Cyclone Winston devastated central Fiji. Besides the destruction on land, in some places coral 100 feet deep was wiped out. The Nai’a has been avoiding some dive sites since then, but we planned to check out a few of them during our time here.

As usual, our checkout dive the first afternoon was at Samu, just outside Loutoka. The cruise directors apologized that it is not a very pretty site, chosen to be close so they can go back into port if necessary before heading further afield. As a fish geek, I like the site because it has some fish that prefer silty lagoons and are not seen at other places that are more exposed. We spent our first full day of diving in Vatu-i-ra which is beautiful and in good shape. The sites consist of current-swept slopes, walls, and large pinnacles. Most are covered in soft corals and clouds of orange and purple anthias. Then we went south to the island of Gau for two days, where we dived Nigali Passage for sharks. The sharks did not disapoint, with many Gray Reef Sharks, plus White-tipped Reef Sharks, large schools of trevallies and barracudas, and odd pelagics coming through. The wall outside Nigali is now one of my favorite sites. And the lagoon slope inside the passage has changed from a simple sand slope to beautiful hard corals in the last ten years. We next spent a day at Wakaya where there are more beautiful sites on a wall. The usual mantas did not put in an appearance. But caves down on the wall were productive for cryptic fish like cave wrasses, shy tobies and various dottybacks and basslets. We then went north to Namena where we spent three days. This used to be one of the best areas of the itinerary, but it was hit particularly hard by Winston. The sites there are quickly recovering, though the resort on Namenalala Island has not been rebuilt. But Grand Central Station and Kansas are worth diving again. I dived deep on some of the walls, looking for deep water fish like Barrier Reef Anthias (which I found) and Watanabe Angelfish (which I didn’t). We next spent a day in the Vuda area where we dived old favorites Cat’s Meow and Humann Nature which are OK but missing the hard coral gardens on top. The next day we tried some of the very exposed sea mounts E6 and Mount Mutiny which were hard hit by Winston and had not been visited by the Nai’a since. These were disappointing, with much of the coral missing from the walls. So we switched back to Vatu-i-ra for the rest of that day, and a night dive where I showed flashlightfish to cruise director Vanessa while finally getting a photos of them—both fully lit and their eerie green glow in the dark—for my book. We finished the cruise with some sites off the north coast of Viti Levu on our way back to Loutoka.

I spent most of my dives looking for hard-to-find species of fish. I do this partly because I’m a fish geek and like to see unusual species, and partly because I am still looking for some pictures for the Fiji Reef Fish book I am working on. In my early Fiji trips I dived the typical profile, spending most of my time between 60 and 20 feet deep where the reef is prettiest. Now I start many dives as deep as my gas mix will allow, and end in the extreme shallows if present. In the depths I found anthias, wrasses, and even a Silvertip Shark. In the shallows I found damselfishes and other wrasses, and blennies as well. I poke my head into any cave I can find where I managed to see several basslets, dottybacks, cave wrasses and comets, plus the common squirrelfish and cardinalfish. I managed to have a brief glimpse of another rare shark, a Zebra Shark, on an outer slope where I surprised it and sent it off into the gloom.

Our village visit was at Somosomo on Gau, a place I have been to three times before. This time our visit was on a Saturday, so the older children who spend their weeks at a boarding school in another village were home. We toured the village, seeing their farming and weaving businesses. We stopped at their grade school where the little ones learn English and Japanese as well as Fijian. Then into the community hall for the Meke ceremony where we were formally welcomed, presented gifts, shared kava, then the villagers sang and danced for us. After this we did something different—we were invited to just sit among them and chat while more kava was shared.

Two of our days in Namena there were other dive boats also present: the Fiji Siren and the Fiji Aggressor. We coordinated dive schedules so that we were never on the same site at the same time. We held our kava party one of these nights, and invited former Nai’a crew who are currently working on those boats to come visit. They ended up coming over so late that I had already gone to bed, but I hear that Richie, Eddie, and Joji showed up.

I was the only one on the trip to go on every dive, 42 in total. I logged 473 species (13 new to me) while taking 3,200 photos. During the trip I did my one thousandth dive, and it was celebrated with a cake that evening. Now I’m pondering when I will be able to return.

Some photos from the trip are available at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157675118273061

Ingresado el 17 de noviembre de 2016 por maractwin maractwin | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario

13 de mayo de 2016

More Fiji Diving

I’m back from another scuba diving trip to Fiji. My friend Heidi and I spent a week at Matava Resort on Kadavu Island, then ten days on the Nai’a liveaboard with a group led by Steve Webster.

This was my first time to dive in Fiji someplace besides on the Nai’a. Kadavu is the fourth-largest island, south of the main island of Viti Levu. It is bordered by the Great Astrolabe Reef, the second largest reef on the planet after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. We flew into the international airport at Nadi, then took a very small plane for the 45 minute flight to Kadavu. We were met by someone from the resort, and taken by pickup truck to the harbor after making several stops for groceries. Then we had an hour long boat trip to get to the resort, on the south east coast of the island.

Matava prides itself as an eco-resort. They have taken a number of steps to lower their environmental impact. Electric power is only available during the day from solar power, and very limited power in the evenings for fans from a generator. There is no power in the burés (cabins), only in the main lodge. Water comes from a rain collection system, with solar heaters. At night they use kerosine lanterns to light the lodge, and provide solar-rechargable flashlights for guest use. They grow many of their own vegetables and raise chickens. Kitchen scraps are fed to the animals, and much else is composted. They have tried to do the right thing for the right reasons, though in such a remote location some of it is from necessity. There are no municipal utilities and the nearest store is an hour away.

We only interacted with 7-8 staff members, though there were clearly more around. During the week we were there, thye hosted as few as six and as many as twelve guests, though they could handle double that. All meals were served at the main lodge on an open patio. Breakfast featured eggs to order (except for the day that the hens didn’t lay enough) and most other meals were served family style. Their website claimed that they can cater to vegetarians and vegans, but Heidi found that they weren’t feeding her well, especially with a lack of vegetable protein, and ended up leaving a couple of days early because she was starving. They had a bar with a nice list of speciality drinks, with happy hour every afternoon; we enjoyed that, particularly the Rattlesnake Margarita, which had muddled ginger. There had been a shakeup in the staff recently which probably explains some of the mixups and service problems. Two of the three owners were present while we were there, trying to fix things.

James ran the dive operations. They offered a two-tank boat trip every morning, plus shore diving on the house reef or additional dives if specifically requested. The first two days had poor visibility and mediocre conditions, but the next three days were markedly better. The first day we dived inside the lagoon, probably because we had snorkelers and novice divers along. The next day we did a pair of manta dives where we did see a few reef mantas, though not close in the 30 foot visibility and there wasn’t a lot else to see. However, the weather improved, and we dived outside the lagoon on the Great Astrolabe Reef the next three days where the visibility and marine life were much better. Richard Akhtar, one of the owners of the resort, arrived mid-week and offered to help when he heard that I am a fish geek looking for rare species; he took us to a point where deep water species can be found as shallow as 120 feet. There I saw Gilded Triggerfish, Painted Anthias, Barrier Reef Anthias, and Fourspot Butterflyfish.

The boat operations are tricky at Matava. Directly in front of the resort is a shallow mud/sea grass/reef flat much of which is exposed at low tide and only a few feet deep at high tide. To get to the dive boat, we walked across the mud & sea grass area until it got to be at least 18 inches deep, where we could get in the dingy. This boat then ferried us to the dive boat moored in the channel 300 feet off shore. The crew moved tanks and scuba gear (and my camera rig), but it was still time consuming and a lot of effort to transfer between the actual dive boat and shore. I snorkeled the house reef a couple of times. There were several fish new to me in the sea grass, shallow reef flat and along the mangroves nearby. The reef and fish life looked good where it became deeper than a few feet, but I never really investigated that.

We had also chosen this location for the birding. Kadavu has four endemic bird species, not found anywhere else on earth. The resort offers birding walks. However, due to communication issues we missed an opportunity to go birding early in the week, so I only went my last full day there. The walk was fun, but I only saw one of the endemic species, the Kadavu Shining Parrot, and that only from a great distance. A couple of guests there while we were came primarily for the birding, and they did get to see all four endemics.

After my week on Kadavu, I few back to Nadi just in time for the transfer to the Naia. I was concerned about getting there on time and with all of my luggage. There’s no guarantee that these small planes (a Twin Otter) will take all of the luggage if it’s a full flight. But we made it, a little early even, so I transferred to the hotel where everyone else was waiting for the bus to take us to the ship. On the way we stopped in Loutoka to pick up Judith, the U.S. ambassador to Fiji who was also aboard this part of the trip. Shortly thereafter all eighteen of us boarded the Nai’a and I was greeting old friends among the crew.

Amanda and Joshua are still the cruise directors, as they have been for my previous two trips as well. Keni is now captain, as Johnathan is currently captain of the Fiji Dancer. The other two dive masters were Big Mo and Koroi (previously a skiff driver). There were some new faces among the 14 crew, but the same friendliness, sense of humor, singing, and so much kava. The food continues to get better aboard the Nai’a, and they make ongoing improvements to the boat like a new lounge area at the back of the salon. The 18 guests were mostly from California and a varied bunch. This trip was originally announced as Steve Webster’s last dive trip, but like the Rolling Stones, he has already scheduled another farewell tour after this one.

The big news in Fiji was Cyclone Winston back in February, which did a lot of damage both on land and in the shallow seas. The village on Makogai and resorts on Namena and Taveuni were wiped out, and many other villages were damaged and people died. The Nai’a aided in relief efforts following the storm, and continues to bring more needed supplies to some small islands. Judith brought along boxes of school books to be delivered to several villages during our cruise. Several of the favorite dive sites on Nai’a’s usual itinerary were damaged by Winston and are not worth diving right now. However, given the health of the seas in the area, some recovery is visible three months later and a few years from now many should be fully recovered. But it was disappointing not to spend much time in Namena; most of the hard corals are gone from North Save-a-tack and half of the “wheat” from Kansas. We did not go to the sea mounts of Mt. Mutiny or E6 at all, and the wreck of the Nasi Yalodina has slid down into the abyss. Following the cyclone, they did many exploratory dives, and have added some new sites to the itinerary, and we spent a couple of days diving Taveuni, a place that the Nai’a never used to go to. There are plenty of great dive sites still in central Fiji.

Because I am looking for seldom-seen fish to complete my Fiji Reef Fish book, on every dive with a wall or slope facing the open ocean I started down at 120 feet, as well as getting into wave-swept shallows when possible (sometimes both on the same dive). I was successful in finding several of my target species in this way. Thirty new species on the trip, and many many more improved photos for my book.

This was a good trip for big fish. Besides the expected White-tipped Reef Sharks on many sites, and occasional Grey Reef Sharks cruising the outer edges, we saw quite a few Dogtooth Tuna and Spanish Mackerels. Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks were seen several times (with photos to prove it) and a Great Hammerhead too far into the blue for a picture. Mantas were seen on many dives at Wakaya and Gau. The usual shark dive at Nigali Passage near Gau had about 20 Grey Reef Sharks, plus plenty of other excitement.

As usual, I’m a sucker for the small colorful reef fish. Three different kinds of anemonefish, clouds of purple and orange anthias, and streams of blue and yellow fusiliers were on most dive sites. Pairs of yellow, black and white butterflyfishes move about the reefs, Groups of turquoise and lavender parrotfishes browse on algae. Wrasses in a dizzying array of colors and patterns fly about the reef. Most of these fish are familiar, and what I love about Fiji. When I am not finding anything new, I study the behaviors of the fish I know. I see how three different fishes, a bream, an emperor, and a goatfish, can hunt cooperatively together. How damselfishes try to defend their territories from schools of surgeonfish who cannot compete one at a time, but can overwhelm when they appear in large numbers.

We also saw plenty of the weird and wonderful. Tiny pygmy seahorses 1/4 inch long. Crinoid clingfishes living among the feathery arms of a crinoid. Transparent cleaner shrimp with spots of blue, purple, pink, and white. Black and white banded sea snakes. Upside-down jellyfish pulsing on the sandy bottom. Nudibranchs in every color imaginable. Night dives especially have unusual sightings: dinner-plate sized pleurobranchs, decorator crabs that can only be seen when they move, and flashlight fish glowing green.

We did our village visit at Kioa Island where there is a group of Polynesians from Tuvalu. They moved to this island during World War II and are the only such group in Fiji. They keep their language and customs alive to maintain a unique cultural identity while participating in Fijian life too. They sang and danced for us, but appeared more Hawaiian than Fijian. Another afternoon some people visited Vatu-i-ra Island where there is a seabird colony (I didn’t want to skip a dive for that on this trip). Cyclone Winston stripped most of the vegetation from the island and this year’s nesting is likely a total loss, but there are still birds flying about the island and new growth appearing from stripped tree trunks, so the colony will hopefully recover quickly.

Two of the guests, Bill & Tami, were married during the trip. Steve Webster officiated with the Nai’a crew performing music. It was held up on the sun deck, decorated with palm fronds and flowers. Bill had proposed to Tami underwater during a dive in Baja last year, and they are doing another wedding this summer in California for family.

I did every dive during the trip, five on one day and 37 total on the Nai’a. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts of this trip. I continue to find that Fiji is my favorite diving, with colorful healthy reefs, friendly people, and it’s easy to get to from the States. And in spite of so many trips, I still find new fish I have never seen before. I took 3700 photos while logging 337 species at Matava (18 new to me) and 482 species on the Nai’a (12 new to me). And I will be returning to Fiji in November.

Some of my favorite photos from the trip are at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157665888554584

Ingresado el 13 de mayo de 2016 por maractwin maractwin | 1 comentario | Deja un comentario

20 de abril de 2016

off to Fiji

I'm off to Fiji for three weeks. I probably won't have internet access while there. Part of this trip is land-based, so there should be some creatures besides fish this time.

Ingresado el 20 de abril de 2016 por maractwin maractwin | 1 comentario | Deja un comentario

06 de febrero de 2016

Scuba Diving in Raja Ampat, Indonesia

I’m back from another dive trip to Indonesia, this time to Raja Ampat, a group of islands off the northwest corner of New Guinea that hosts some of the most diverse coral reefs on earth.

The area is very remote. I flew Emirates from Boston to Dubai to Jakarta, then two domestic Indonesian hops to Sorong on New Guinea. Sorong has almost no tourist infrastructure to speak of. Which made it challenging when my friend Heidi and I went two days early to try to do some bird watching before boarding the boat. The taxi drivers do not speak English. It was difficult to arrange transportation to the former wildlife sanctuary that I had heard about, and we only managed to get there after the birds had quieted down from their dawn chorus, though we did enjoy seeing many butterflies in the forest.

Then we transferred by skiff to the Arenui, our home for the next 12 days which was anchored in the harbor. This is the same boat from my last trip in August, but this time in a different part of Indonesia. It’s a 140 foot wooden phinisi that takes 16 guests and 20 crew. This is the nicest liveaboard I have been on, with beautiful carved wood detailing and a very high level of service. They’ve got two massage therapists on the crew, and more chefs than usual so that breakfast is cooked to order and dinner was generally four courses.

This was the first time in a while that I joined an “open boat”, not knowing anyone there (other than my traveling companion Heidi) in advance rather than going with an organized group. We were mostly Americans, many from California, though there was a German couple on their honeymoon, and a Danish couple as well. There was a woman who is in the midst of several months of backpacking around the world who was previously in the interior of New Guinea. English is the common language on the boat, though the cruise directors (Lisa and “G”) are from Spain and fluent in many languages. The rest of the crew are Indonesian, with the chefs, stewards and massage therapists from Bali.

We did not do a dive our first day on the boat, but instead started the twelve hour passage to Misool where we did our first few days of diving. Then began the regular routine: cold breakfast available at 6am, first dive at 7am, hot breakfast after that, then a second dive, lunch, third dive, and afternoon snack. Depending upon the available sites, the fourth dive was either a twilight dive or a night dive, with dinner following. This made for some late dinners as night dives were at 6:30pm. The sixteen of us were divided into four groups, each with a dive guide. The two tenders would take out the first two groups, then come back for the second pair of groups. On different days we alternated which groups were first or “lazy”. By staying with the same guide for the entire trip, our guides got to know us and what we liked to see, to tailor dives to our tastes. I was the only one in our group of four who did every dive offered, and had my own private guide for most of the twilight and night dives, a real luxury. My guide was José, a marine biologist and freelance divemaster who was on the Arenui for a few months while each of the regular guides took a vacation, one at a time.

There was some variety of dive sites, but not as much as I had hoped for. Since this was an open boat, all sites were the cruise director’s choice, and were chosen to be “pretty”. Lots of slopes, walls, and coral gardens, but very little rubble, sand, silt or near-shore habitats.

We dived three different sites where Manta Rays were expected, and they showed every time. Four times we got to dive with the big Oceanic Mantas which I had never seen before, and twice with the smaller Reef Mantas. Blacktip Reef Sharks were seen with some regularity, though rarely close. We encountered Whitetip Reef Sharks a few times, and had a few sightings of Grey Reef Sharks off some of the walls. A treat was two new sharks that are not active swimmers: Tasseled Wobbegongs, huge carpet sharks that are well camouflaged and sleep on the reef, and Raja Epaulette Sharks (also known as Walking Sharks) that are shy but were occasionally seen on twilight or night dives.

Many sites had schools of large Pickhandle Barracudas, and schools of Bigeye Trevally were also seen. There were only a few encounters of larger pelagics like Dogtooth Tuna or Mackerel. But there were many many smaller fish. Lots of fusiliers, anthias and damselfish above the reefs. Many sites had what were referred to as “glass fish” or “silversides”, that appeared to be large groups of juvenile fusiliers, barracudas, cardinalfish, and sweepers. And there were a lot of colorful reef fish. Five kinds of anemonefish, many pairs of butterflyfish, gaudily colored angelfishes, clouds of orange and purple anthias.

Lots of small creatures were seen. Colorful nudibranchs and flatworms were on every dive. A vast variety of shrimp and crabs, including Harlequin Shrimp, Donald Duck Shrimp, Spotted Guard Crabs and Hairy Squat Lobsters. Four different kinds of pygmy seahorse, though the “Santa Claus” Pygmy is undescribed and might just be a color variation of Denise’s Pygmy Seahorse. We saw Reef Octopus on many daytime dives, though they were usually shy. Several Blue-ringed Octopuses were encountered, mostly on night dives. On one night dive under a village wharf, we discovered an 18 inch long toadfish in a hole, protecting 50 tiny baby toadfish!

Our first four days of diving were around the island of Misool. This is where we had the Oceanic Manta Rays, but not as much diversity of reef fish as I was expecting. The plan was one more day in Misool before cruising north to another area for more sites. But late that night, the first mate became very sick, having trouble breathing. One of the guests was a doctor and helped stabilize him, and we started the 14 hour cruise back to Sorong to get him to a hospital (there are no helicopters in Sorong for medical evacuation). The Arenui paid for his medical care and transportation, as he was ultimately flown out of Sorong to a better hospital. So not quite halfway through the trip, I had a day with only one dive, a mucky one just outside the Sorong harbor. Interestingly, most trips I end up with sores on my feet, but a mostly dry day in the middle allowed the just developing sores to scab over, and they didn’t bother me again. That night we made the shorter crossing to sites along the Dampier Strait where we spent the rest of the trip diving near Waigeo Island and some smaller isles. The diving here had better diversity of reef fishes.

One of the best dive sites in this area was Cape Kri. Shortly before our planned dive there, we heard by radio from another dive boat that a Saltwater Crocodile had been seen on the site, and they postponed that dive. And we spent the rest of the trip talking about crocodiles. One dive site was right below some mangroves, and when I inquired about spending the end of the dive in the mangroves, was told to avoid them because of the possibility of crocodiles. However, the next day I was able to talk them into letting me forego a regular dive to spend an hour in some mangroves, the first time I’ve really gotten to explore this habitat in detail. I finally was able to observe and photograph Archerfish, and added several new damselfishes to my life list, including the very colorful Java Damsel. The only “dangerous” creature I encountered was a sea snake, not often seen in this area. Our last dive of the trip, we did get to do Cape Kri, and it was one of the best dives. Wish we had gotten to do it more than once.

We did two land excursions during the trip. We visited the village of Arborek (whose wharf we dived under twice). A couple hundred people live there, mostly fishermen. They have a church, a school, and two tiny stores in the town with just two streets. The people were friendly, and eager to get their photos taken with westerners, especially the blondes in our group. We also visited a lookout point 300 steps above a beautiful lagoon. I took the advantage of both of these to look for birds and butterflies, seeing a modest number of birds, but failing to find any “birdwing” butterflies, the family from New Guinea that has the largest butterflies in the world. There was also the option one morning to go see birds-of-paradise by skipping one dive. I wanted to to this, but they wouldn’t run the excursion with only one person, and no one else wanted to go. Most of the guests were not on anti-malaria medications or there probably would have been other takers.

Overall it was a good trip. I took 4,200 photos, did 33 dives, and observed 552 species of fish that I could identify. That is the most species I’ve recorded on a single trip, though very closely followed by Komodo and the Solomon Islands. I would consider going back, especially with one of the groups I often dive with who could then influence the choice of dive sites to get into more diverse habitats.

A selection of my favorite photos from the trip are online at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72157664293709136

Ingresado el 06 de febrero de 2016 por maractwin maractwin | 0 comentarios | Deja un comentario