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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Flatworms and Nudibranchs - Snorkeling Raja Ampat

Glorious Flatworm
This past November in Raja Ampat our Oceanic Society snorkeling group was again treated to many macro sightings. Locating these wonderous creatures, flatworms and nudibranchs, was often very challenging. Many are less than 2 inches long, and while vibrantly colored are usually perfectly camouflaged among the sponges, sea squirts, and corals they may be found feeding upon. Much like last years sightings the diversity of what we encountered in this years expedition was often spectacular. The dramatic patterns and colors that these animals utilize is truly fantastic. I am sure that there were countless individuals that we missed, but fortunately we managed to spot quite a few. It was a great help to again have our local guide and expert, Dalton Ambat, searching along with us.
Psychedelic Slug feeding




It was the walls that we snorkeled while spending 2 nights at Alyui Bay in Waigeo Island that presented us with some of the most slug sightings per day. These walls are rich in soft corals and tunicates, both things that the nudibranchs and flatworms like to feed on.  At Alyui Bay there is also a large pearl farm. There are literally thousands of oysters being grown in this bay, perhaps the extra structures and the fact that there is good "flushing" of water through this bay also helps to account for the diversity we see there. The walls that we snorkel along in this area have been a highlight of our trip for the last two seasons. In fact, it is at the pier of the pearl farm where we have our night snorkel. This pier is one of the places in Raja Ampat recognized as an exceptional location to see a wide variety of unusual critters.  To follow is just a small sample of the variety of sea slugs and flatworms that our group saw during this most recent snorkel expedition to Raja Ampat.

Elysia ornata
Brown Margin Glossodoris
Glossodoris sibogae
Linda's Flatworm
Pseudocerous sp.
Bicolor Flabellina
Fabellina rubrolineata
Nembrotha kubaryana
Risbecia tryoni
Pseudoceros goslineri
Red-striped Flatworm - Maritigrella virgulata
Thuridilla lineolata - seen in Sulawesi
To learn about traveling to Raja Ampat for your own snorkel adventure visit Oceanic Society, a non-profit marine conservation organization located outside of San Francisco, specializing in educational marine expeditions throughout the worlds tropical oceans.

A few websites that are great resources for identification help are:

Marine Life Photography - Also their great new iPhone and Ipad app for Hawaii reef life ID
The Sea Slug Forum
Nudi Pixel

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Return to Raja Ampat - 2012

Vibrant reefs to explore
Well this past November Oceanic Society returned to Raja Ampat for our second snorkeling expedition. This year we were joined by 16 avid snorkelers. Many had already visited a dynamic array of snorkeling destinations including Tonga, Micronesia, Palau, and Fiji. Our trip has now switched to a new vessel, the SeaSafari 8, much larger and outfitted (for our group) for limited diving. Our itinerary had us departing from Sorong and heading towards Misool for our first evening, after that we would head back up North and visit a variety of locations that had been highlights from last years trip.
Our vessel - SeaSafari 8
As we left Sorong we were excited and eager to finally get in the water. Even though all of us have been around the globe snorkeling, there is really nothing like Raja Ampat. This bastion of marine biodiversity does not disappoint. For shear numbers of species and visible variety of macrolife it is unparalleled. Each time you enter the water you can be assured that you will almost certainly see something you have never seen before, no matter your level of experiences. Add to this the physical beauty of the islands, the warm water, and the fact that you rarely share any of the sites with another person and you have set yourself up for a true escape into nature. One where you can spend as much time as you want exploring and observing the kaleidoscope of diversity that is on display. As you float through these vibrant coral reefs you see an ecological landscape that is as dynamic as the Serengeti. Animals are competing for resources and access to mates, some creatures are preforming services for others in exchange for something that benefits them, a mutualistic relationship. It is easy to forget as you float over all these strange animal lifeforms that they are indeed just that, a resilient and interlinked ecosystem of species, each with their own unique strategy for survival. To follow are just a few of the amazing sightings we had in 2012.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp
Ghost Pipefish

Blue-Girdled Angelfish

Our local guide Dalton photographing a Lionfish

Tasselled Wobbegong Shark

Glorious Flatworm


Map Puffer


Social Tunicates
Juvenile Regal Angelfish
These photos show just a small sample of the amazing critters we saw on our adventure. With one of the world's richest coral reef fish fauna, over 1300 species, and harboring over 75% of the world's coral species, every moment in the water was special. During out trip we also were able to have a few land based activities. The primary one being a return visit to the village of Sawinggrai on Gam Island. Here we had the opportunity to view the Red Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea rubra) at a lek site. Just like the previous year, after about 20 minutes of waiting we were rewarded with great views of the males preforming mating displays. As we turned to leave we had another surprise, an arboreal mammal had been watching us as we admired the birds. A few branches away was the Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus), a truly strange looking creature, seemingly a bit of a cross between a possum and a lemur! On our way back from the bird hike we saw many different species of orchids which the villagers had placed along the trail. We also saw a few more bird species including parrots and fruit doves.

Red Bird-of-Paradise

Spotted Cuscus
Parrot species
What another incredible snorkeling expedition to Raja Ampat. Many of our group went on for 5 more days of snorkeling in Sulawesi and I will post some photos from that extension soon. Inspired by all that we saw this season we are already beginning to plan our 2013 return, these trips fill up quickly so please visit Oceanic Society's trip webpage for more information about how you can participate.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Coral Reefs of Ulithi Atoll - Yap, Micronesia


BulBul Island and the "Blue Hole"
Just back from another week spent in part snorkeling the vibrant coral reefs of Ulithi Atoll. Ulithi is located about 90 miles East of the island of Yap located in the Federated States of Micronesia. The crystal clear waters around Ulithi make it a snorkelers ( and divers ) paradise. Healthy coral reefs provide excellent habitat for a variety of creatures and unlike many other places we still encounter reef sharks here on a regular basis.



I have been coming to this area for about 8 years now with Oceanic Society groups and this is still one of my most favorite places to explore with ecotourists. The island that we stay on, Falalop, is populated by about 400 persons. In 2005 after securing permission from the island Chief Oceanic was given the go-ahead to start bringing in small groups of ecotourists. With only about 100 visitors per year Ulithi is a location few others get the chance to explore. Below are just a few pictures from our most recent trip.




Cleaner wrasse go to work on a tilefish, the Blue Blanquillo.




A more adventurous cleaner wrasse in the mouth of a moray eel.




Here an octopus gets friendly with a lurking grouper.




Healthy reefs never fail to disappoint.




Some Fourspot Butterflyfish in search of food.




A Guineafowl puffer apparently whistling away the day.




A Peacock Razorfish moments before he disappears into the sand. Click this link to see his quick escape.


Our groups days were spent snorkeling, but this was really a trip about sea turtles. These four participants are part of a growing number of ecotourists that are taking part in what is being referred to as "voluntourism" where individuals pay to participate in conservation projects. In this case we were in Ulithi specifically to work alongside the 16 local sea turtle monitors employed by the Ulithi Marine Turtle Project. So while our days were spent searching the reefs for cool critters our nights were devoted to tagging and measuring the green sea turtles that nest on the islands of Ulithi Atoll. In the next few days I will share more about that effort.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Return to Palau 2012



Have just finished up an Oceanic Society trip to Palau with travel to both Yap and Ulithi Atoll. We had a great series of snorkels and were treated to a wealth of critters like this Longnose filefish in Palau. Never disappointed in the Rock Islands, our group was able to explore a variety of habitats from hidden lakes to blue holes. Oceanic continues to deliver a quality experience by getting to sites that are traditionally thought of only as dive locations. We spent a wonderful afternoon snorkeling Blue Corner seeing large schools of Big-eyed jacks and barracudas as well as many grey reef sharks.

Star Puffer

This Star puffer also stayed in place for us as we were swept along gently with the current. We also visited The Big Dropoff and hit it just perfect at a low tide. The multitudes of fish at this site were crowded into large groups as the low tide made the available vertical habitat temporarily vanish. This Steephead parrotfish was busy getting cleaned, and Whitetip reef sharks cruised the shallows.



Steephead Parrotfish w/ cleaner wrasse


Whitetip Reef Shark
As we went through German Channel we also managed to catch a glimpse of a large manta ray. If you click on this link you can see a video of some mantas we saw underwater during our last trip to Palau in 2011.

Manta ray

On another day we used the early morning cloud cover to locate some Mandarinfish in a secluded lake. After a bit of searching everyone in the group had seen this colorful critter.


Mandarinfish

The coral in this area was equally as impressive. Large groups of brain corals one more brilliant than the next.




A trip to the famous jellyfish lake provided the expected Dr. Seuss-like experience of being transported to another world.




We were also able to catch a glimpse of the local seabird inhabiting the lake, the Pied cormorant, warming himself up in the sun.





A giant clam in Ulong Channel also surprised as it had both sides of it's shell covered in table corals.





All in all another fantastic few days spent exploring the rock islands. Stay tuned for photos from our days in Yap and Ulithi Atoll.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Colorful Nudibranchs From Raja Ampat

Risbecia tryoni

Some of the more spectacular creatures to observe while snorkeling at Raja Ampat are the numerous nudibranchs, or sea slugs. Tucked among the many sponges, soft corals, and colorful tunicates these gaudy, ornamented animals are tiny visual jewels. In Raja Ampat these slugs, because they are so abundant, seem much easier to spot than in many other marine areas. And like everything else in Raja, there is great diversity allowing you to see at least one new flamboyant species with each different snorkel site visited.

Nudibranchs are so colorful for a variety of reasons, to warn predators and to fool them, for camouflage, and because some have toxins which can taste bad to predators. Many can incorporate stinging cells from the anemones they eat, while others hijack the poisons from the sponges that they ingest. Thankfully for the snorkeler we are most interested in locating, observing, and photographing them so simply th fact that they ARE extremely colorful makes for a bit of an underwater treasure hunt when trying to locate these small (most are less than 3-inches) critters. Below are photos showing some of the slugs we encountered on the most recent Oceanic Society snorkel trip to Raja Ampat in Oct/Nov of 2011.

Nembrotha cristata
Chromodoris annae
Elysia ornata
Halgerda batangas
Caloria indica
Phyllidia ocellata
Nembrotha chamberlaini
Chelidonura varians
Chromodoris coi - laying eggs
Flabellina exopata
Nembrotha kubaryana
There are some terrific sites on the web to learn about nudibranchs and see detailed pictures of them and many other marine animals for id'ing your photographic finds. I have listed some of my favorite below. Here is link for a great book for id'ing Nudibranchs.

MarineLifePhotography - Keoki & Yuko Stender
Secret Sea Visions - Burt Jones & Maurine Shimlock 
Sea Slugs of Hawaii - Cory Pittman & Pauline Fiene
Underwater Photography Guide - Nudibranchs