creatures of the muck

Creatures of the muck

by Janice Nigro

Muck diving.  “Le” muck diving.  There is no pretty way to say muck diving even if you are French.  In fact when you do muck dive for the first time and look out over a silty, sandy slope, or a pile of coral rubble, it seems that a hopeless hour underwater searching for some form of life, including your dive buddies, is ahead.  I was especially worried about unfairly judging muck diving at Maluku Divers in Ambon because my trip there immediately followed a boat trip through Raja Ampat which is so full of color and life everywhere.  But with a beautiful Balinese meal sitting in front of me at the end of the first day of diving on Ambon, my thoughts were that, perhaps all of the previous 15 days of travel, including three international flights through four countries, two domestic flights, and a liveaboard trip of twelve days, was just to arrive at Maluku Divers on Ambon.

Although we took one of the longest, but most scenic, ways to get to Ambon, once we arrived there, our traveling was over.  Our first dive at Laha I, along the southern coast of Ambon Bay, was reported to be an absurdly long interval away from the resort when in fact it took less than five minutes, barely enough time to be introduced to Jamal our experienced dive guide from Lembeh, Mo our boat driver, and Hafez, a young Indonesian king who helped us with our equipment on the day boat.  Topside, this dive site happens to be a small but active wharf area where people seem to both live and work on their boats.  The children are especially intrigued by the foreign divers.  They wonder why we use our money to travel so far just to see the fish right under their boats.  I can tell you why now, because at two meters under water an odd assortment of beautiful creatures was busy about its day as well.

We did a backward roll into the warm water and swam to a pile of rubble directly under the boats.  It was noon so I was completely surprised when it was a mandarin fish colony that we were on a mission to observe.  My previous encounters with mandarin fish were to watch them having sex at 6:30 in the evening, but they were also busy scampering about at noon, just ignorant of the opposite sex and yet brilliant against their colorless home.  I was so focused on getting that perfect photo of a mandarin fish that I almost missed just how many other creatures inhabited this rather small rubble complex.  Banded pipefish were just hanging in the water, and very long white antennae revealed the location of the largest banded coral shrimp that I had ever seen.  One of the oddest-looking fish, an estuarine stonefish, was lying there like a sunken shipwreck.  With the exception of the stonefish that seemed cemented into this habitat, I found it difficult to understand that out of the entire ocean these creatures chose this noisy, close to shore site, and yet they live here together at least during daylight, harmoniously.  These were my first 30 minutes in Ambon.

As we continued on just this first dive, it became apparent that there is no comparing the diving here to that in Raja Ampat because muck diving is just simply an entirely different sport. While in Raja Ampat we were more on a guided tour of mountaintops and walls underwater where classic coral underwater scenes abound, in Ambon we were encouraged to stay in one spot, maybe one where there was just a pile of unremarkable rocks, and look for anything moving.  Jamal’s mere thoughts seemed to bring forth different creatures, at an exhaustive and uncontrolled rate, like he was a genie in training, but I forced myself to pause and try this alternative dive style approach.  I had incredible luck finding creatures.  In the Laha area, sea urchins of many types are serious diving hazards everywhere, and you are tempted to overlook them, but this is a mistake.  I initially was compelled to look at the fire urchins because of their vibrant colors, but then I started to see other animals living within them.  I discovered that they harbor all sorts of crustaceans and are like a mini habitat that transports squat lobsters, zebra crabs, and the beautiful pairs of spotted Coleman shrimp across the sand.  This “wait and see” method was quite useful to practice, because in Ambon, as you are waiting to peek at some main event creature, which was often, you could say so what, and find something else nearby that occupies your attention, like a solar powered nudibranch because you wonder which end is doing the driving.

When asked, divers who come to Ambon immediately respond that they want to see histiophryne psychedelica, the new species of frogfish that was re-discovered by a novice diver in 2008.  It disappears though or so they say, but when the other dive group from the resort returned from their first dive at Rhino City with photographic evidence of the celebrity fish, we were hoping to be his next human visitors.  I did not want to miss this fish so I followed Jamal closely on this dive.  The psychedelic frogfish had not been disturbed, because Jamal was able to lead us directly to it.  This fish was identified as a frogfish ultimately through DNA analysis, but it has features that distinguish it from typical ones.  Most notable is its flat forward looking face, but it also has no lure.  Like any unusual looking creature, this fish deserved a few minutes of quiet inspection without movement or flashing lights, but I was attracted to it in an unexpected way.  Often fish have physical features that advise the onlooker to keep away, but this fish has a soft, fleshy appearance that really tempts you to touch it.  As if to remind me not to do this, was an eel, a sort of bodyguard to the frogfish, living in the same crevice.

The psychedelic frogfish’s coloring was also a bit of a mystery to me.  It is usually obvious why a frogfish looks as it does; generally I am not sure that I have actually seen one when I have seen it because they imitate their habitat so well.  Although the overall color of the psychedelic frogfish allows it to blend in with the sand of Ambon, there are vibrant white lines that extend radially from its eyes and then swirl around over the main part of its body.  It was not until I read about this fish, where these patterns were shown to parallel those from certain hard corals, that I could begin to see how the fish evolved to mimic its environment.  However, the lines also have a sort of hypnotizing affect on the viewer and perhaps, have a dual purpose in distracting as well any prey so that it loses concentration for a moment.

Histiophryne psychedelica was an amazing fish to see but what was additionally fascinating is how many other unusual “what was evolution thinking” kind of creatures were on the same dive and within meters of the shore and surface.   There is a resident giant black frogfish in about two meters of water at one end of the dive.  We also found a rhinopias scorpionfish hiding in the halimeda algae.  A white leaf scorpionfish and an army of hinge-beaked shrimp occupied the coral bommie across from the psychedelic frogfish.  It was also a place for finding all sorts of nudibranchs that seemed big enough for the nearly blind to see.

The dives in Ambon rarely went below twenty meters.  Only once did I find myself at twenty-five meters and that was to watch a flamboyant cuttlefish that we had inadvertently chased to this depth.  Most dives occurred on this same coast, just different sections of it.  Even though the landscape was somewhat similar overall, sloping sandy, I was starting to feel that there were different neighborhoods.  The Laha dives were where the harlequin and bumblebee shrimp, pipefish, and assorted frogfish lived in the rubble and the sand.  Further west, the landscape becomes more covered with corals and especially crinoids.  Here there is also a jetty, Air Manis Jetty, where a different lifestyle is in development.  There is quite a bit of human refuse where eels and giant banded coral shrimp could find a home.  The crinoids here have space to move about the sand like ladies in 17th century ball gowns and were sometimes escorted by a matching ornate or long nosed ghost pipefish.  Octopi displayed themselves openly in daylight, and fat nudibranchs were busy chewing the sponges that covered the pilings of the pier.

Unexpectedly by day, I was really becoming a confident diver in Ambon.  I was filling my log book with the description of creatures many of which I actually found myself:  a xenocrab on an isolated whip coral protruding from the sand, a curious long armed shrimp by a tree anemone, a pair of leaf scorpionfish that I nearly drowned myself in excitement over and no one around to show, lots of pygmy cuttlefish, shrimp in crinoids, and shy long snout seahorses bobbing about as if they were drunk.  I found that I could spend most minutes of a dive looking at a single anemone.  All varieties exist on the sandy slopes of Ambon, bubble anemones in different colors, carpet anemones, and tube anemones.  So many different types of shrimp and crabs could live in one single anemone.  Especially at the anemones if you waited long enough, the animals would begin to crawl out from hiding.

But who comes out for the moonlight?  I boldly proposed to postpone dinner one evening for a night dive on the house reef.  An hour and a half later we returned to the resort with a whole new set of images in our heads.  It is not clear what you are looking at sometimes during a day dive in Ambon, but at night it takes some special imagination to identify an animal and where its eyes might be.  This is especially true with the crabs for which there seems to be an endless parade of.  It is a bit like dropping in on Alice in Wonderland’s underwater tea party where everybody’s hat mimics his own favorite piece of underwater habitat, but sometimes it looks ridiculous and awkward for the crab to live with.  One case in point was a decorator crab with long thin pink vertically growing sponges on its head.  It looked to be performing some sort of balancing act, and so perhaps, I thought it is with a bit of pride or personality that each animal adopts its headgear rather than merely for survival.  There were open soft corals, a giant pleurobranch, many kinds of nudibranchs, and a bobtail squid that buried itself up to its eyeballs in the sand to escape while peering at us.  We were nowhere near finishing our air on this dive; it was actually hunger that drove us back to the shore after one and a half hours.

Each hour underwater at Ambon went by like lightening for me.  I am not sure what kind of rating system one can apply to diving in Ambon.  A star rating system does not seem accurate because it conjures up more typical images like corals and blue water and big animals and whether there is current or not.  Things are not swimming around much and if they do have fins they can also have legs attached to creep around, and sometimes your photos of an odd creature inadvertently advertise Coke.  I am a scientist, and I cannot help but think of evolution when I am under the water.  All sorts of ideas pop into my head, like what exactly was evolution thinking, and how genetically different am I really than the rhinopias scorpionfish?  To me it seems that Ambon is a collection of evolution’s experiments or abandoned ones in addition to the usual animals, and perhaps a rating system should correlate to remarkable skills of evolution at work here and your confidence level as a diver when you leave.

©2013 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com

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