Monday, March 31, 2008

Weekends = Diving

If you're looking for me on a weekend, you'd better be looking underwater, as that's where I'll be if I have anything to say about it. I was supposed to take Inga from Germany out on a dive Saturday morning, but she came down with a cold, so Zandra was the only one that showed up. Not a problem, as long as I can get wet I'm happy. Here is a shot of Zandra hovering above me at Lau Lau. One of my favorite things to do at Lau Lau is to go swimming through all the little tunnels and caves that are tucked under the rocks and coral. I always enjoy seeing the light shining through at the other end. As I disappeared into a black hole I was wondering if Zandra would follow me in or not. I looked back several times as it's a fairly long tunnel, but I never saw her behind me. Sure enough when I poked out the other end I looked over and she was swimming parallel to the tunnel on the outside. I can't say as I blame her, it was pretty dark in there.
Now that I have my camera back with me again, I'm always looking for what I think would make an interesting picture, or something from a different angle or vantage point. There are a lot of factors underwater that can throw you a curve ball though, such as the visibility, the amount of sediment in the water, the use of flash, and on and on. The great thing about using a digital camera is that you can just snap away and try anything you want, then just delete the pics that didn't turn out the way you wanted.
As we were heading back toward the rope, I dropped into a little sand finger and there was this gorgeous Talpa cowrie just sitting there glowing. It must have just been killed and eaten the night before because the shell was in perfect condition, not a scratch on it. So when Zandra came through I was waiting to see if she'd spot it, she didn't. I tried pointing it out to her, and she still didn't seem to see it, I finally had to take it and put it in her hand. Maybe your eyes need to be trained to spot shells, but they just seem to jump out at me when I'm down there.
As we were swimming out on our dive I looked on the rock that I found the little bubble shells on the week before and sure enough, there were 3 of them crawling around on it. I saw these two just sitting still in one spot, and didn't really think much of it until we came back on the way out.
That's when I spotted this little egg ribbon that the bubble shell nudibranchs had been laying when I saw them earlier. It was very, very tiny but when I blew the picture up you could definitely see the individual little egg strings that made up the egg ribbon. The bubble shells are called Haminoea cymbalum, and evidently this is the season for them, so try to make sure you don't crush and kill them when getting in and out of the water, they like hanging out in the shallows on rocks.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Live Shells On A Night Dive

One of my favorite things about night diving is that you see so many things that you hardly ever see during the day. Typically live shells like this Tritan's Trumpet are tucked way back into holes and between rocks during the day, but at night you will find them out crawling around hunting. They are one of only 2 known predators for the Crown of Thorns, Tritan's Trumpets and Napolean Wrasse are the only ones capable of taking on the poisonous Crown of Thorns and eating them. The big fleshy part that is attached to the ceiling is called the foot of the animal.In this shot you see the operculum, it is the door that the animal seals the opening of the shell with when it pulls itself back into the shell. It helps protect them from becoming a next meal for some of their predators. You can also see his antennae or feelers leading the way in front of him.
And in this shot you can see his eyes on the sides of the feelers, they are very tiny and are fixed to the antennae unlike some other shells, like a spider conch in which the eyes are on the end of long tubes that can come out of the shell and check things out before the animal comes out itself. These guys are just totally fascinating to me, and make for great photography subjects.
Then I came across this little cone shell hunting along one of the walls. I'm not sure of the correct identification for this one, so I'm going to have to go visit Doug and find out what it is. You can see the siphon tube sticking out the small end of the shell, the cone shells have little darts or harpoons that they shoot out through those tubes which contain neuro-toxins which paralyze their prey allowing them to envelop and consume them. Some of these small cone shells are so poisonous they have been known to kill people as well. Usually it will be because the toxins shut down the respiratory system of the victim and they drown.
In this shot you get a pretty good look at the foot on this cone as it cruises over the coral, and at the pink tip at the end of the shell. I'm still waiting to see one of these guys actually attack another shell and surround it. But I'm sure if I keep looking long enough, sooner or later I'll get my wish. I definitely need to do more night diving!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nudibranchs Are Back!

I have absolutely no idea what this is, I'm guessing it's some kind of coral colony, but I've never seen it before. I was outside of the Grotto and went over some of the big boulders that come up almost to the surface and it was on the top of one of them, so it was only in a couple feet of water. I was struck by the vibrant, brilliant purple color, it almost seemed fake it was so bright and colorful. I wanted to stay and just study it for a while, but with the waves the way they were, I was lucky to get a couple pictures of it that turned out. After spending an hour or so outside of the Grotto just looking around, I went back in to see if there were any nudibranchs just waiting to get their pictures taken.
It seems that most of the nudibranchs went into hiding for the last few months, but this past weekend they were back in full force. I believe this big guy is a Phyllidia carlsonhoffi, they have quite a few variations in the species, some with yellow on the raised bumps, this one had pure white bumps and yellow rhinopores.
I have been seeing the occasional Halgerda malesso for the past few weeks, but this week they seemed to be back in full force, I saw 7 of them on this one dive. They are one of my favorite nudibranchs to take pictures of, their intricate patterns and raised yellow bumps make them very distinctive.
This is a Phyllidiella granulata, and it's only the 3rd time I've seen one, but it's been in the same general vicinity every time, so I think I'm getting a pretty good idea of where to find them now. This is a fairly large nudibranch, at nearly an inch and a half. They are pretty easy to spot since they are so white, and it stands out in such contrast to what they are on.
Then I spotted another Halgerda malesso who was just moving away from this egg ribbon she had evidently just laid, it looked very fresh, no rips or tears in it. I guess we can now declare that mating season is officially open once again for our gelatinous little buddies.
And after looking for a while, I came across Halgerda guahan as well. Usually this is the one I see the most of, but this time I was seeing a lot of Halgerda malesso and this was the only guahan I saw on this dive. He was feeding on some little white sponges.

It's also been a while since I've seen the Chromodoris lochi around, but I've seen them for the last 2 weeks in a row now. I also got some of my pictures of these published in Neville Colemans Nudibranch Encyclopedia which just came out recently. Ours are distinctly different in coloration than any of the others that I've seen. I posted pics of this one on and just learned that it's not a Chromodoris lochi after all, but they have now identified it as a Chromodoris colemani. It really doesn't look much like the other pics of Chromodoris colemani I've seen, but they are the experts, so this is now officially Chromodoris colemani Then as I was looking around the rope rock, I spotted a very, very tiny little purple thing. It was so bright and distinct that I figured it must be a Ptereolidia ianthina, but it was so small I couldn't tell with my naked eye. Once I got home and blew it up on the computer I discovered that it was indeed a baby Ptereolidia ianthina. I haven't seen any of the adults around for several months, but now I've discovered proof of their offspring, so that was pretty exciting. I've had quite a few people ask me if I'd be willing to take them on a nudibranch dive in the Grotto, and it looks like we're just about back to that season again, so just let me know when you want to go finding the little critters.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cypraea Testudinaria - The Pig Cowrie or Tortoise Cowrie

I was swimming through the Grotto on a night dive Sunday looking for nudibranchs when I came across this guy just sitting there right in the open. This is a shell that you don't see very often around here, but to catch him with his mantle fully covering his shell and just sitting right out in the open is even more rare. I started snapping away taking pictures of this very impressive creature. The size also really surprised me as he was at least 5" long, that's a big shell.
As he started to retract his mantle you could see the color and pattern of the shell. These guys have been known by a couple common names, a Pig Cowrie, just because it's such a huge shell, and a Tortoise Cowrie, because the shell is reminiscent of the pattern on a tortoise. One of the other distinguishing features of these shells is it looks like they have little flecks of white paint all over them, like they were splattered by a spray paint can.
This view of the cowrie with his mantle fully retracted gives you a good look at his pattern and the little white specks all over the shell. It's nearly impossible to mistake this shell for any other because of its size and the distinctive pattern, also it's the only shell I know of with the white specks all over it like that.
And here's a side view of this most impressive shell. Many times you will find broken pieces of them laying on the ocean bottom, the snappers love to eat them, but to find them live and with the mantle fully exposed is indeed a rare treat. Live long and prosper Cypraea Testudinaria and make lots of babies!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Axe Murderer Tours Latest Victims

Common sense would dictate that one experience with an outfit with a name like Axe Murderer Tours, and you would learn your lesson. Not this guy, he actually willingly came back for a second helping. I took Don Hubner out diving last year sometime, we had a mutual friend who hooked us up. Last time he was here Don told us he couldn't handle spicey food, so I took him to Oleai Beach Bar & Grill right before the dive for chicken taquitos. It wound up wrecking his dive and cutting it short, but he contacted me before coming back again and said he wanted to go diving again. He was here for some meetings, so we went on night dives after his meetings and packed the 3 day weekend as full as we possibly could with dives.
We managed to get in 10 dives in 6 days, which is certainly not a record or anything, I managed to do 16 dives in 5 days in Bali, but it was a lot of dives, and I think I can safely say we are both dragging our tails today. We had an absolute blast though and managed to see some very cool things. Don is a Marine Biologist from Hawaii, and had 2 other Marine Biologists here with him, both of whom I also took out diving, Lance and Mark. One of the things that was a big bonus for me was being able to show these marine biologists something they'd never seen before. Lance had never seen a Hawksbill turtle before so on our Sunday morning dive I took them to Lau Lau and told them I'd find one for them. There are several spots they hang out and I can usually find them if I have enough time. However that means that I'm not wasting anytime, I'm making a beeline for all the usual turtle hangouts.
Kelli had also decided to go on this dive with us. I usually try to go on a slow, leisurely pace when she is along, but I was determined to find a Hawksbill turtle for Lance, so I wasn't wasting any time getting out there. I'm afraid I really gave Kelli a workout, but we did strike paydirt and found the big Hawksbill.
I'm sure there will be many stories told about this past weekends diving adventures, but for me it was just another weekend of sharing my passion of the underwater world with some new friends. You may come to Axe Murderer tours a stranger, but you'll always leave as a friend.

Haminoea cymbalum

I went back to Lau Lau yesterday with the sole purpose of finding the bubble shells that I captured in my pictures the day before. I knew where to look, it was the rocks right under the rope fairly soon at the beginning of the dive. I started looking hard at all the rocks when I got in the water, but couldn't find anything that even came close. I was bummed thinking that maybe catching the one was just a fluke. I talked to Deanna Tessen earlier in the day who told me that she and Keith found them in big numbers at Obiyan. So we went to Obiyan first, but I didn't find any there either. So Don and I went ahead and headed out for our dive. After he ran out of air and I got him back to the pipeline rope, I went back over to the other rope and continued looking for the gorgeous little bubble shells. As I was looking over one of the rocks, a little splash of color caught my eye, there were 3 of them crawling around in what looked like a tumbleweed attached to a rock.
They were definitely small, between 1/8th and 1/4 of an inch long, but it was clearly them. I was thrilled, I finally spotted the elusive little guys and now I was going to get some good pictures since I could see them. I had looked them up in one of my books the day before and discovered that they are called Haminoea cymbalum. It says their distribution range is from Indonesia to Hawaii. The description says it is a very beautiful shelled sea slug that is fairly uncommon, but when found it is usually in large aggregations down to 20 meters of water. That is the description given in Helmut Debelius' Nudibranchs and Sea Snails Indo-Pacific Field Guide.
I just kept staring at the little guys and was taking pictures. They are amazingly intricate and beautiful. This is actually considered a nudibranch, but one that has a fragile shell that it wraps around. I am always amazed when discovering something as tiny as this, and then wonder how many other cool things I overlook every single time I go underwater.
This gives me one more addition to my collection of nudibranchs and sea shells that I've photographed on Saipan. Truly a great dive!!!!

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Bubble Shell I Never Saw

On my dive at Lau Lau bay yesterday I was heading out on the rope and I saw that little elongated seahorse looking thing so I decided to take a couple pictures of him. He was less than 2" long and about a quarter as thick as a pencil, so he was pretty small, but I managed to get a couple good pictures of him. I was shocked when I got home and downloaded the pictures onto the computer to discover the little bubble shell right next to him on the rock. I never saw it with my naked eye, I'm guessing it had to be less than 1/8th of an inch long, so pretty tiny. I have seen this one in books before and have always admired it's amazing looking mantle, but this is the first time that I have ever gotten a picture of one. It just goes to show that there is so much more down there than I ever see. I'm going to have to start looking at my pictures much more carefully I can see. Here is a little closer view of this amazing little bubble shell, I'll have to look the name up for you later.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Night Dives in the Grotto

Night dives are absolutely my favorites, you just see so many different and cool things, and you have the oppportunity to get right up next to fish and take their picture while they're sleeping. This colorful little guy was tucked into a little ledge on a big boulder in the Grotto and was out cold. I kept taking pictures and the flash was going off inches from its face, but he never moved. It makes it so much easier to get just the right shot.
It seems almost everytime you look into holes tucked deep into the rocks you see a bright blue patch tucked way back in. The parrotfish like to be tucked way back in where hopefully predators won't be able to get at them. They surround themselves with a mucous-like bubble while they're sleeping, so often you'll see what looks like a transluscent bubble around them. They are typically very sound sleepers so you can take all the pictures of them you like and they never stir. Sometimes you can even touch them or bump them and they just keep sleeping. But then other times you bump them and they come flying right at you like a freight train. You know how you react when abruptly woke out of a sound sleep, they're much the same way.
This speckled peacock grouper wasn't quite asleep, but he was close enough that he was letting me get right in his face to take the pictures. It's always nice when the fish are so cooperative about posing for pictures.
This is undoubtedly my favorite bi-valve shell, for the life of me I can never remember it's proper name, but it's commonly called the fire oyster or electric oyster. If you look in the opening you'll see a bluish line on the top. When your flashlight hits that, it looks like an electric current pulsing through the opening of the shell. They already look very funky with all the little whips flowing out from the shell, but when you throw in the blue pulsating feature, it just makes this guy very cool.
Last night was the first time I can remember seeing these particular coral polyps. They were amazingly bright and vibrant, the colors from them almost jumped out at you. There was a little colony of them on one of the big boulders near the hole #1 exit to the Grotto, and that's the only place I saw them.
They are definitely worth a visit to though, you won't believe how bright and colorful they are. That's one of the things I love the most about diving, even after having done thousands of dives, I'm still discovering things I've never seen before all the time. I'm like a kid in a candy store down there, I'm just looking everywhere in awe.
And on night dives you get to see cool critters like this slipper lobster, they are out feeding at night. During the day you very rarely ever see these guys, but at night they are a pretty common sight.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A New Nudibranch For Me!

I had a friend from Hawaii come out yesterday for work, so as soon as we were both done working we decided to go do a night dive. Night dives are my absolute favorites, you see things then that you never see during the day. We all know how many dives I've logged in at the Grotto, but last night was the very first time I've seen this nudibranch. He was crawling on a rock in about 28' of water very close to the rope rock. I couldn't tell with my naked eye exactly what he looked like, but I know he was different from anything I'd ever seen before, so I just started shooting. I really love the age of digital cameras, I never could get the quality or amount of shots I get now with an old film camera.
In order to get just the right shot, you have to be patient, keep waiting for the nudibranch to get positioned just right, wait for the swells to calm down and stop blowing you back and forth in the water, and then get your camera to lock in on the nudibranch in just the right spot. I have submitted this guy to already this morning and I'm just waiting for Erwin Kodiat to identify him for me. Needless to say, this one little nudibranch made my whole dive! I spent a good 15 minutes with him just shooting him over and over, hoping that at least a few of the pictures would turn out great. I've got some other pretty cool shots from last nights dive, but those are going to have to wait for the next post.
Thanks to the books sent to me by Rudie Kuiter - Nudibranchs of the World, and Neville Coleman - Nudibranchs Encyclopedia, recently I was able to identify this guy. I believe this is a Bornella anguilla. According to the description in Nudibranchs of the World, it has an elongated body, dorsum with pairs of leaf-like cerata followed by singles, feathery gills at first; head with distinct black eye-spot and lots of finger-like processes at front, mosaic pattern of dark lines, filled with white, black yellow or orange. Yup, I'd say this guy matches the description and certainly looks similar to the ones in the books. I love having those books for reference tools, and of course it's always fun to flip through them and see my own pictures in there.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

More Live Shell Pictures for New Book

This is one of my favorite little shells, they are commonly referred to as being in the chickpea family, because they're about the size of chickpea's. This is a Cypraea Bistronatada and has a golden or orange color that just glows. This was is live and was crawling along some sponge on a night dive. You can see the mantle covering the shell, the little things sticking up from the mantle are called pappilae.
This is another member of the chickpea family, this is a Cypraea Margarita. The surface of the shell is highly polished and glossy from the mantle constantly covering it and retracting polishing it to a high gloss. These shells feed on the yellowish sponges that grow on the coral.
Cypraea is the Latin name for Cowrie, so these are all members of the Cowrie family. This one is a Cypraea Testudinaria, commonly called a Tortoise Cowrie. It is a big shell usually 4-5" in length and fairly thick. It is amazing the tiny holes that these big shells can maneuver in and out of. This picture was also taken on a night dive in the Grotto.
This was is about the same size as the previous shell. This is a Cypraea Argus, commonly called an Eyed Cowrie. Their mantle makes for excellent camouflage as it blends right in with the sponges and coral and is very hard to spot unless you know what you're looking for. In this shot the shell had the mantle fully covering the shell.
This is what the Eyed Cowrie looks like when the mantle is fully retracted and the pattern of the shell is showing, you can see where it got it's name. They are characterized by having darker bands separated by lighter bands and tiny little brown circles that look like eyes.
This shell is between the size of the chickpea shells and the big guys like the Argus and the Testudinaria, it is usually between 1-2" long. This is a shot of a Cypraea Leviathan crawling along a wall on a night dive. Here its mantle is covering the shell and you see the pappilae outstretched in all directions. The pappilae are used like legs or arms to help move the shell through the tight little holes it gets into. The color of the shell is a beautiful golden color and usually has some lighter bands going width wise across the shell.
This is a slightly juvenile Cypraea Talpa working its way over the coral and sponges on a wall in the Grotto on a night dive. It's mantle gives it excellent cover as it usually blends right in with the sponges it feeds on. The shell will usually be about 3" long and is a golden brown color with a very dark brown base.
This is a Cypraea Terres and is a fairly small shell, usually less than 1" in length. This particular shell has an almost transluscent mantle allowing you to see right through it and see the pattern on the shell itself. You can see the little pappilae protruding from the mantle covering the shell.

And this is one of the most commonly found Cowrie shells, it's a Cypraea Poraria or a Porous Cowrie. They are also commonly called Strawberry Cowries because their reddish purplish color and the little dots on them make them look like little strawberries. Their mantle is fairly transluscent and they have more pappilae than any other cowrie that I've seen. We really do have some spectacular shells in our area, but in order to see them like this you need to dive at night and then look very, very carefully on all the coral and sponges to spot them. They blend in so well that you can be looking right at them and never notice them.