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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Whale Research – A Key to Protecting Raja Ampat and the Coral Triangle

The islands of (the not so) Secret Bay of Raja Ampat

This past February Oceanic Society fielded its inaugural group on the famed Raja Ampat liveaboard the Pindito. The Pindito pioneered underwater exploration in the region and has been one of its longest active leaders in working to promote marine conservation.  We were a group of 13 avid snorkelers excited to be spending 12 days exploring the most biodiverse tropical reef ecosystem on the planet, the Bird’s HeadSeascape. Accompanying our group was cetacean researcher Benjamin Kahn. Benjamin is based in Bali and has been studying the whales of the coral triangle for over a decade. One of Benjamin's main research interest are the Indo-Pacific migratory corridors of east Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; and the importance of these narrow yet deep passages for large migratory marine life such as Blue and Sperm whales. 

Snorkeler in Raja Ampat above lush Soft Corals

Our group charter was going to provide him with valuable research time in the Raja Ampat waters, where we would spend the mornings and afternoons snorkeling and then the mid-day surveying for cetaceans. Benjamin has been doing these surveys alongside divers for the last 4 years, but we were his first group of snorkelers. Over the years Benjamin has observed more than 12 species (of the 30 present in the Coral Triangle) of cetaceans in Raja Ampat, and on a few occasions the groups have even managed to get in the water with the whales. These opportunities to have long days out on the water provide valuable data points for Benjamin about where whales are found in these areas and more importantly, how they are using them. Through the use of directional hydrophones and dedicated deck top observation time we were able to spot multiple groups of whales over the days we were there. The clang of the ship bell and the yell of “blow” punctuated many of our afternoons. 

Something that makes the Coral Triangle a unique area in addition to the marine biodiversity found there (over 450 species of coral, 1750 species of fish) is the fact that it has so much deep water habitat adjacent to shallow water habitat. In fact, almost 85% of the Coral Triangle waters are over 200m in depth, therefore you find exceptional marine diversity with high overlap of near shore and deep sea habitats. Benjamin is using these sighting efforts to identify whale hotspots in the area and look to see how these hotspots overlap with development plans. In order to properly conserve and regulate the marine protected areas within the Coral Triangle it is vital to understand how things like shipping lanes and potential extractive industries development may overlap with whale migration corridors.

Our days on the Pindito were full of exciting snorkeling opportunities along multiple islands, and many afternoons having intimate encounters with Bryde’s and Sperm whales as well as many species of dolphin. 

Map of our groups journey over the 12-day voyage

The additional benefit of dedicating some of our afternoons to whale surveys was that we also had saw many other animals that we might have missed had we just been motoring through. During these times we saw sailfish and manta rays jumping, marine turtles, and large bait balls that were attracting multiple seabird species.  

Manta seen jumping during whale survey efforts
Our group had truly wonderful experiences and at the same time was able to substantially contribute to the conservation research of the region.
Bumphead Parrotfish schooling

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Photographic Highlights of 2014

2014 was a very busy and exciting year for me. In my first full year as Director of International Ecotravel for the Oceanic Society - having led educational ecotourism and research programs for Oceanic since 1998, to be in charge of the long term development of our travel programs was both exciting and challenging. Along the way in 2014, nature once again provided the inspirational backdrop required to stay grounded and astounded by what I was able to share with our groups -

Incredible Raja Ampat

Aljui Bay in Raja Ampat

Lioness in Masai Mara

Cheetah cub in Mara

Komodo Island

Penemu, Raja Ampat

Nudibranch - Komodo Island
Bison - Yellowstone NP

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.

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