Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Lonely Dolphin-Dive Report for Saturday 01/30/10

Even before I got to the bay this morning I could see the Humpback Whales spouting from my Jeep as I drove down Hale O Keawe Road. Conditions were good with clear skies and low surf. When I entered the water, I could see that even though visibility was fair, there was a lot of floating particulate matter in the water.

Often, I end my posts with a sunset shot. For a change of pace, I'm starting today's post with a photo of the sun rising over Mauna Loa. I took this from the water's surface just before I started my first dive. Mauna Loa is a massive mountain but it has such a gradual slope to it that it's hard to tell it's a mountain. The name Mauna Loa literally means "long mountain".

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
I dropped down deep to start the dive and checked in on the little colony of Longfin Anthias. All seemed well with them and the male was standing guard over his coral head as usual.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
Coming up the drop-off, this Eyestripe Surgeonfish passed right in front of me. It's a really attractive fish with beautiful colors and an ornately patterned tail fin.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
This Potter's Angelfish is a common reef resident, but one that is very difficult for me to photograph. As soon as I point the camera towards one, it dives into the coral and stays there. I got a little lucky with this one.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
Cleaning stations were really busy this morning. Here, a Manybar Goatfish gets worked over by a Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse.

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
Coming back toward the Two-Step, I saw 3 or 4 Honu getting cleaned or swimming up to the surface for a breath of air.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
As I was busying myself photographing the turtles, I sensed a presence above me. I looked up to see this Bottlenose Dolphin swimming overhead. I was amazed as I was in only 11 feet of water. This is a big dolphin, reaching about 10 to 12 feet long. Several years ago I had swum with a pair of Bottlenoses here in Honaunau Bay but they stayed in the deeper water beyond the drop-off.
Bottlenose Dolphins have a uniform gray color to their backs and flanks as opposed to the three-tone color scheme of Spinner Dolphins. They also have stubby noses compared to the long, narrow snouts of Spinners. Bottlenose Dolphins also have a strongly backswept dorsal fin as opposed to the more vertical dorsal fin of the Spinner.

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry fackler
Unfortunately, I was low on air when the lone dolphin made its appearance. I followed it for a while, watching it turn over rocks and coral rubble with its snout. Every once in a while it would rub its sides in the sand. These are all behaviors not often seen with Spinner Dolphins. 
Bottlenoses are usually social creatures traveling in small groups called pods. When one is found alone it is often because it is unhealthy or disoriented. This individual seemed quite healthy in appearance. I wondered if it was actually as lonely as it seemed. As I was low on air, I surfaced, but I hung out over the dolphin which was now in deeper water. I watched it as it casually browsed around the ocean floor, literally poking its nose in the nooks and crannies of the reef.

During my surface interval, I watched the dolphin surface and spout as it cruised around just off the reef. When I began my second dive, I looked around for the dolphin but it seemed to have disappeared. I turned my attention back to the reef where I made a couple more interesting discoveries.
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
Crawling blindly on a large rock, this sea cucumber looked somewhat hideous as it swept its oral tentacles about in search of organic detritus to consume. Most sea cucumbers move so slowly they appear inanimate, but this one was quite lively.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
Tucked face down into the coral, this juvenile Commerson's Frogfish does it's best to be inconspicuous. As it matures it will lose its bright yellow coloration and will blend into the reef so well as to be almost invisible.

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
The high point of my second dive was finding this huge Partridge Tun. I had only seen one of these snails before, years ago when a dive guide found one. Betty and I often find fragments of the shells which are as thin as potato chips and easily allow light to pass through them. It is very uncommon for us to find an empty shell intact. Even this living example had some damage to the shell around the aperature. The foot of the animal appears far too large to retract into the shell. These snails are usually nocturnal, so to find one in the daytime was really great.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
Low on air and coming back to the Two-Step, the ocean had one more treat for me. Around 50 Spinner Dolphins cruised by just beyond the drop-off. I had enough time to snap a couple pictures before surfacing.

As I was off-gassing before heading uphill, I watched the whales surface and spout offshore. No breaches today. I've formed this theory that it's a group of 2 or 3 females hanging out there and one of them is getting ready to give birth. I think they're females because I don't hear singing when I'm underwater. Males sing to attract mates, females don't. For three weeks now they've been staying off the south point of the bay as if waiting for something to happen. I'll wait and see what develops.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Reef Fish Kill-Off

This is a photo of the front page of this morning's West Hawai'i Today newspaper. The lead story involves the discovery of two bags of dead tropical reef fish that were discovered in a dumpster at Honokohau Harbor. The fish were apparently gathered for the aquarium trade. It's presumed the collector experienced an equipment failure with his aquariums resulting in the fish die-off. Of the 610 dead fish, 551 were Yellow Tang - a staple of the home aquarium business. From the photos, the other fish included Fourspot, Pebbled, and Longnose Butterflyfish, Achilles Tangs, and possibly Lavender Tangs.

The article goes on to describe the negative reactions in the community to this discovery. I've always tried to stay out of the fray concerning the various ways people use the ocean. Somethings that may seem terrible to one group of people may not really be all that bad. For example, at Honaunau, where I usually dive, some visitors are upset to see spearfishing going on. But Hawaiians have been spearfishing here for centuries, taking only what was to be eaten and not disrupting the ecological balance. Spearfishing is a traditional practice that, by its very nature, is an inefficient and very difficult way to gather fish resulting in very little impact to the reef. But the sheer magnitude of the fish kill described in this article indicates that the aquarium fish collectors are over-harvesting the resource. There was apparently no law broken by whoever dumped these fish...but maybe there should be. If fish continue to be gathered from Hawai'ian reefs in these kinds of numbers  it will only take a few years to see visible harm to the marine eco-system.

Deadliest Marine Creature in the Hawaiian Islands

In Hawaiian waters there are a number of creatures that could possibly be fatal to a human being.  A shark could easily rip a person to shreds, an eagle ray could stab a person with it's barbed stingers and jellyfish, scorpionfish and even cone shells could envenomate a hapless victim leading to death. Even eating a carnivorous reef fish like a jack could result in ciguatera poisoning and doom.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Of all these potential ocean hazards, none claims more lives than the one pictured above, the opihi.  Opihi are a type of limpet that lives on rocky shorelines which are frequently buffeted by strong surf. It is a prized delicacy in Hawai'i and the main attraction at a truly authentic lu'au. Opihii must be pried off the rocks with a butter knife while the waves recede. Many an opihi picker has drowned when the strong wave came back, catching the picker unawares and pulling him out to sea.

Opihi is most certainly an acquired taste and seems, to me, like eating salty rubber bands. The meat (which is the foot of the animal) can be either yellow or black depending on the particular species. Empty shells are silver on the inside and look a bit like bottle caps. The sxample shown above is a Giant Opihi (also called a Kneecap Limpet) and can reach a length of 4 inches. Other species are considerably smaller.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dive Report for Saturday 01/23/10

Today conditions were really nice at Honaunau Bay with flat calm seas and clear weather. When I got there around 7:15 AM, a group of local paddlers said that a couple of whales had been in the bay a little earlier. The sun had not yet crested Mauna Loa but there was sufficient light to see dive without a torch, so I geared up and got into the water.
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

A Blackside Hawkfish sits on a coral head and waits for a potential meal to swim by. Hawkfish are poor swimmers and are named for their penchant of finding a perch and patiently waiting for prey to come close.
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

A tiny Whitemouth Moray peers out from a crevice in the coral. A mature specimen can be up to 4 feet long but this youngster is only a few inches in length.

Photo Copy right 2010 by Barry Fackler

Sometimes. diving in the early morning affords you an opportunity to witness seldom seen behaviors. Here, a Cone Shell Hermit Crab considers forsaking its cone shell for a shiny Reticulated Cowrie shell. As hermit crabs grow, they need to find bigger shells. According to literature available to me, this type of hermit crab rarely occupies a shell other than a cone shell.
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Conditions were so calm today that I got to spend some time very near to shore in what is often referred to as the surge zone. As the name implies, this is an area where the water is very rough and not really conducive to SCUBA diving. Incredibly, there are fish that prefer this wild environment and are seldom seen away from it. One example is this female Pearl Wrasse shown above. The species gets its name from the female color pattern which is evocative of pearl necklaces.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Early into my second dive of the day, I chanced upon this Sidespot Goatfish. There is nothing particularly fascinating about this fish but it does have a pleasant pinkish tinge to it that you don't see in many reef fish.

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

I know I've been running a lot of lizardfish photos recently but this pair was such a bright shade of red that they really stood out on the coral. More often they are brown or dull green and blend in more with the surrounding substrate.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Caves provide a good environment to find nocturnal animals during the day. In this photo a Red Reef Lobster peers out from the safety of his own little "cave within a cave". While technically a lobster, it's more like a shrimp on steroids. With a maximum length of 5 inches it would not make a very satisfying meal. It is interesting in having stiff hairs projecting from its claws and body. These hairs give them a heightened sense of touch.
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Coming back to the Two Step, these Yellowfin Goatfish can be seen hovering about. They are so often seen by "regulars" like me that they hardly get noticed. They are nice looking fish and deserve a little recognition so here it is!

I had to wait around for an hour before I could go home so I just relaxed on the beach. I can't go straight home after diving at Honaunau because I live at around 1500' altitude and I need to let the nitrogen get out of my system before ascending. Anyway, as I sat on the beach, a Humpback Whale breached 3 times just outside the bay. A couple of minutes later another whale breached twice. It was a nice way to end the morning.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dental Hygienists at Work

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

As promised in a previous posting, here is a photo of yours truly with a pair of Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp tending to my dental and facial hygiene. The critters tend to pick between your teeth rather vigorously and this experience isn't for everyone.
By no means did I come up with this myself. I saw a picture of someone doing this in a magazine article and thought I'd give it a try. It was pretty easy providing you can hover well and make no sudden moves. When you have to take a breath from your regulator, just start to close your mouth slowly and the shrimp will get the message to evacuate.
There is a videographer here in Kona who likes to show video of himself getting his teeth cleaned by shrimp. He breathlessly tells audiences of tourists that it took many dives to the same spot for the shrimp to finally trust him enough to enter his mouth. This was not my experience at all. I just took up station near them, opened my mouth and they swam right in and got to work. Maybe I need to work on my storytelling technique!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sexual Dimorphism Redux

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Another example of how vastly different the sexes can appear in the same species of reef fish in Hawai'i. The plain little fish above are initial phase Bird Wrasse which can be either male or female. They are small (~3 in.) and, except for a little streak of red on their snouts, fairly drab. Below is the supermale of the species which is substantially bigger (6 to 7 in.) and endowed with vivid blue and green colors including a patch of nearly-neon green above the pectoral fin.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

All Bird Wrasse have curved snouts that allow them to pull their prey from among the arms of branching coral. This feature resembles the beak of an endemic bird, the Scarlet Hawaiian Honeycreeper or i'iwi. These fishes swim swiftly and erratically making them very difficult to photograph.

Wrasse sexuality can be a somewhat complicated matter. For purposes of today's post I'll just point out that Bird Wrasse supermales begin life as females and then, for reasons unknown, some morph into the colorful and socially dominant form. Gender-changing is common in wrasse as well as parrotfish.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dive Report for Saturday 01/16/10

Today, Betty came with me to do a one-tanker at Honaunau. Once again , it's a case of hitting the narrow window of opportunity between winter swells. Conditions in the early AM were excellent with good visibility despite constant northwest swells throughout the week. Betty was breaking in a new wetsuit so we decided to go deep today to help crush some of the air bubbles out of that new neoprene.

We descended to 98' where Betty revived an old custom of ours, Seeking out a familiar coral head, she reacquainted herself with a pair of Scarlet Cleaner Shrimp who are only too happy to give her a submarine manicure. These crustaceans rid sea creatures of parasites and dead skin and will also clean the cuticles of patient divers using their small claws. While the service doesn't actually hurt you can feel the shrimp being vigorous in their work. 

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

In the past, I've been able to lure the shrimp into my mouth where they proceeded to clean in between my teeth. It's quite an experience. I'll dig up a photo of it sometime soon and post it.

Aside from the pleasure of her company, I like diving with Betty for her wonderful ability to find tiny or hidden sea life. This is a welcome by-product of her passion for finding sea shells. Today she spotted this Panther Flounder hiding out in the open on the sandy ocean floor.
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Flounder can change their color and pattern to blend with the surrounding surface, rendering them very difficult to see. They are extremely flat, lying flush to the sea floor with only their eyes bulging upward.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Flounder start life as regular fish with eyes on either side of their heads. As they mature, one eye starts to slowly migrate first to the top of the head and then over to other side. As this process goes on, the fish starts to lean further and further onto its side until it lies flat on the bottom, resting on the eyeless side.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

After staying deep for around 12 minutes we slowly made our way up the reef where we saw this Big Longnose Butterflyfish transitioning from light phase to dark phase.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

Betty models her new wetsuit

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
We happened upon the Great Barracuda that I saw last week. It was still hanging around the same area. I was glad Betty got to see it. 

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
As I mentioned, Betty is great at finding little critters. This is a tiny Stout Moray eel she discovered sticking its head out from the coral.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler
To give a sense of proportion, here's the same eel with Betty's index finger for reference.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

As we prepared to exit, we saw this Green Sea Turtle cruising along the shoreline with the early morning sun on its shell.

We had a really great dive together. After we take our gear off, we go to a tide pool to get out of our wetsuits. This serves the dual purposes of making the suit come off easier as well as rinsing it of sand and debris. Today, however, we had a little company with us.

This small Green Sea Turtle had swum into the tidepool to feed on seaweed. We waited a few minutes for him to return to sea before we used the tidepool.

And that's the scoop on todays diving at Honaunau. Hope you enjoyed it!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Whitley's Boxfish and Sexual Dimorphism

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

A couple of weeks ago I posted a photo of a female Whitley's Boxfish. At the time, I mentioned that the male of the species was rarely seen but had beautiful blue coloration. For you, dear reader, I went through my slides and found an ancient photo of a male Whitley's that we saw years ago. The quality of the photo is poor due to the scanning process.

As you can see, the sexes differ drastically in appearance. This is an example of sexual dimorphism which Wikipedia describes as "the systematic difference in form between individuals of different sex in the same species". In many fish, the sexes are almost indistinguishable from one another. In some reef fish, though, the difference is spectacular. Examples include many species of wrasse and parrotfish.

The rationale for sexual dimorphism is a subject of debate but the leading theory is that it aids the male in attracting mates. A flashy, brightly- colored male will attract more mates than a dull, drab one. However, it seems that a flashy, brightly-colored male would also attract more predators too! Not a good scenario for propagating a species like the Whitley's Boxfish where males are already in short supply. The boxfish has an adaptation to deal with this as well - a strong toxin secreted through the skin which acts as an effective deterrent.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dive Report for Saturday 01/09/2010

There was major rockin' and rollin' going on in the southern part of Honaunau Bay on Saturday. One major northwest swell was just ending and another one soon to arrive so Saturday offered a brief window for shore diving. Weather was beautiful, though with clear skies and a nice breeze.

I had my wife, Betty, as my dive buddy on the first dive which was really nice. Visibility was, as expected, pretty poor with lots of stirred up sand and a range of around 50'. Also a lot of surge and depths shallower than 30'. Above is a juvenile Thompson's Surgeonfish. Although plainly colored, this is a pretty little fish with a nice lyre-shaped tail.

Hawaiian Dascyllus are common around Honaunau. When they are young they hide in branching coral, seldom wandering very far. When they reach adulthood they swim about the reef and establish individual territories which they very defend very boldly. 

Photos Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

The Saddleback Butterflyfish is one of the most beautiful fish in Hawaiian waters. It is also one of the hardest for me to get a good photograph of. They tend to keep their distance and are very skittish. This behavior, coupled with today's water conditions, again kept me from getting good results. Usually they are seen in pairs but this one was by itself.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

I wanted to make sure Betty got to see the colony of juvenile Pyramid Butterflyfish on the slope drop-off. They're still there and doing well. i know that someday I'll come to this spot to discover they've left for steeper drop-offs.

Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

On the return leg of the dive we made a pleasant  discovery. This little fish is a seldom-seen hybrid of a Goldrim Tang and an Achilles Tang. These two species tend to congregate together and every now and then produce an attractive mixture of the best qualities of each. This fish was swimming in shallow water with heavy surge and didn't want his photo taken
Photo Copyright 2010 by Barry Fackler

After a surface interval I returned to the water. Someone reported a rope caught on the reef in the south end of the bay. I went over to see if I could retrieve it but with the heavy surge and poor visibility I couldn't even find it. This burned a lot of air so I didn't take many photos. I did see this Orangemouth Lizardfish resting in sand and coral rubble. It has multiple bands of small, fine teeth behind those fiery lips and preys on small fish.

It was another fine day at the beach. After rinsing gear and a little nap, we headed into town to do a little shopping. As we drove, the setting sun was spectacular. I was able to pull over in time to take a photo of its last rays as it settled between papaya trees.

A good day of diving and enjoying life in Hawai'i. As our hometowns shiver in snow and cold, Betty and I count ourselves fortunate to be here at this stage of our lives. It is amazing how life can lead you in directions you never imagined!