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The Coral Triangle

Komodo National Park

From Sea Slugs to Seascapes: Komodo National Park

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Bornella anguilla - coral triangle adventures

Nudibranchs…

By the end of the recent Coral Triangle Adventures trip to the Komodo National Park and surrounding islands the intrepid guests would have no doubts about the propriety of my self-designated “nerdibranch” moniker, as I effused endlessly about nudibranchs and other sea slugs. These shell-less relatives of snails exchanged the protective coverings of their ancestors for the deterrent effect of toxic or noxious chemicals. Many announce this line of defense to would-be predators with brilliant warning colors, a phenomenon known as aposomatic coloration, while others use camouflage to avoid detection. Despite their often-conspicuous markings, the small size of many nudibranchs and other sea slugs admittedly makes it challenging to find them while snorkeling. Understandably, the manta rays, giant cuttlefishes, sea snakes, and the dazzling diversity of tropical reef fishes observed in the Komodo NP area are well deserving of our guests’ attention and appreciation, but it can also be satisfying to occasionally engage in a sea slug scavenger hunt. Once a nudibranch is discovered one can then wonder at the other-worldly beauty of these sometimes-bizarre life-forms that seem like they would be more expected in the underground seas of Europa than in the oceans of our own planet. The bumpy Phyllidiids and the sea squirt-eating Nembrotha species were among the nudibranchs most commonly observed by guests on this recent trip. Highlights included Bornella anguilla, a psychedelic-patterned nudibranch that can swim like an eel, spotted by Ethan at Sangeang volcano, and a pair of leopard-spotted nudibranchs, Gonibranchus leopardus, observed at Satonda.

Lush reefs can be found throughout Komodo National Park - coral triangle adventures

Sunbeams…

But as a coral reef ecologist who has seen first-hand the devastation that coral bleaching, crown-of-thorns seastars, sedimentation, and overfishing have wreaked on reefs in some parts of the Indo-Pacific, the breathtaking undersea vistas we encountered were also soul-stirring. One could spend hours marveling not just at the myriad forms, colors, and behaviors of the reef’s denizens, but also at the enveloping beauty of the sites and sounds that wash over you. The dance of light on the seafloor; the extensive, tangled thickets of staghorn corals; the pulsing schools of irridescent Chromis; and the profusion of pops, snaps, and grunts visually and audibly announce to visitors that this reef community is thriving—and from the coalescence of these elements emerges the intangible, indescribable gestalt of a vibrant coral reef. These stunning seascapes manifest in innumerable forms, each influenced by the unique environmental conditions and assemblies of life found at each site. Beyond experiencing the spectacular beauty of hard coral-dominated reef areas one would expect from the Coral Triangle, like those at Gili Davat and Gili Banta, visitors to the Komodo NP and surrounding islands also get to take in the striking contrast of colorful hard and soft corals against the black sand at Sangeang volcano and wind between the astoundingly rich sea grass beds and mangroves of Tatawa. The beauty of these diverse habitats, and the profusion of life they support, are what draw us to Coral Triangle locales such as the Komodo National Park and surrounding islands. From sea slugs to seascapes, CTA’s Komodo trip has it all.

Porcelain crab photographed by coral triangle adventures

Crabs and anemones

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Here’s a bit of reef irony, the porcelain crab (Neopetrolisthes maculatus) lives on carpet anemones where they can hide from potential predators. Their carapace protects them from the harmful nematocysts that might otherwise deliver a painful sting to the crab. Unlike most crabs, they do not scavenge for food, rather they have bristle-like hairs on modified appendages around the mouth that allows them to filter feed plankton. Their name derives from their desperate attempt to escape predators; they can detach their claws and leave them behind as decoys while they quickly retreat. Ultimately, they will regrow new claws. The crab, though is not one to run at the first sign of trouble. Along with any anemonefish that may share their host anemone, they will aid in protecting the anemone from predators such as butterflyfishes.

Boxer crab or pom pom crab photographed in Komodo National Park - Coral Triangle Adventures

A boxer crab

The porcelain crab, however, is not the only type of crab that has a relationship with sea anemones. The boxer crab (Lybia tessellata), sometimes referred to as the pom-pom crab, enjoys a symbiotic relationship as well, but quite opposite from that of the porcelain crab. Instead of residing inside the disc of a larger anemone, the tiny crab (a shell of just 2.5cm across) finds and uses even smaller anemones for his defense. By picking a single anemone in each claw, they effectively have a painful punch. Plus, they often strip the anemone for food if nothing is immediately available. It may sound like this is not the balanced relationship that the porcelain crab has with the anemone, but the anemones, being as small as they are, are easy prey for a lot of reef creatures such as fishes, shrimps, other crabs, and nudibranchs. If they remain sessile, they must find a spot that allows them to be exposed to good water flow so they can capture food and maximize gas exchange.

Researcher taking a photo ID of whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines. Coral Triangle Adventures

CTA supports Whale Shark Research in the Philippines

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Coral Triangle Adventures supports Whale Shark Research in the Philippines

Large Marine Vertebrates research Institute of the Philippines Logo - coral triangle adventuresPart of the origins of Coral Triangle Adventures began in the small, coastal village of Donsol, Sorsogon, Philippines. Dubbed the ‘whale shark capital of the world’, Donsol has been the place to go for exceptional encounters with whale sharks since the late 1990s. We have been bringing groups there for over a decade and over the years have grown to appreciate the local efforts to protect the whale shark and promote their conservation.

Working in the country since 2010, the Large Marine Vertebrate Research Institute of the Philippines (LAMAVE), registered as a Filipino non-profit NGO (non-government organization) to boost its work to promote conservation of marine biodiversity in the Philippines through scientific research. Of course, as their name implies, their main focus was, and still is, on the conservation of large marine animals such as whale sharks, rays, dolphins, and whales. Given their focus, the whale sharks of Donsol was an ideal place for them to learn more about the biology and ecology of whale sharks in the Philippines. They further compliment their scientific endeavors by providing their findings to local managers and also contribute as scientific advisors towards best management practices.

In 2016, CTA had a snorkeling trip to Sogod Bay, southern Leyte where we met up with our good friend Gonzalo Araujo, the executive director of LAMAVE. During his presentation, he talked about future projects in the Philippines and mentioned their proposal to study the movements of the whale sharks, in combination with the effort required by the local tour operators (in terms of time spent and distance traveled) to find whale sharks for their guests in Donsol. Their approach was elegant (as most good studies are); they wanted to secure 33 GPS trackers and place them on the 33 licensed tour boats that bring guests out to swim with the whale sharks. This would allow them to track the time spent and distance traveled for each boat and also get an idea of where whale sharks were spending their time during the day. At the time, the proposed research was in the funding stages and that’s where we came in :-)!

Given our close connectivity to LAMAVE, the focus subjects, and the community of Donsol, as well as our desire to see best management practices based on solid science, this was a no-brainer for us. We immediately decided to fund their work and helped them purchase the needed GPS trackers. The project is currently moving forward with great zest and we look forward to seeing the results. We are proud to support LAMAVE and their goals of increasing knowledge through scientific research, and are confident that it will lead to best management practices so that both the whale sharks and local stakeholders have a successful relationship for years to come.

Please click here to learn more about LAMAVE and how you can donate to their organization. In most cases, donations directly support local Filipino students and researchers in their endeavors to protect and conserve populations of large marine vertebrates in the Philippines.

Please also keep an eye out for our special Philippines snorkeling tour in 2020!

nembrotha kubaryana, Raja Ampat Indonesia, Coral triangle adventures

Surrounded by nudibranchs!

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Setting up marine life ‘themes’ on our snorkeling tours is something we’ve been doing for many years. Whether it would be butterflyfish, scorpionfish, or shells the goal for us and the guests is to find and identify as many as we can during our snorkeling expedition. We then collect all of the photos and present them to everyone in a poster format. Raja Ampat has always been one of the best places for snorkelers to see nudibranchs. Many nudibranchs feed on tunicates, sponges, and cnidarians and in Raja Ampat many of these organisms can be found in high abundance in usually less than 0.5m of water! The poster was set up with 24 slots to be filled by the species that we find and photograph, and admittedly, in the beginning of the trip, 24 slots might have been a bit ambitious. I say this because the last time we did this poster, we found a total of 17 species of nudibranch and ended up including sea slugs to ‘beef up’ the number of sightings. At the end of this trip, however, 24 slots proved to not be enough! We saw a total of 31 different species of nudibranchs (true nudibranchs, so the number goes much higher if we include sap-sucking slugs, head-shield slugs, etc…). Raja Ampat always amazes us and never fails to raise the bar on so many levels. Here is the fruits of our labor, a full size poster of some of the more colorful and engaging nudibranchs found on shallow tropical reefs..

We visit Raja Ampat again in Jan 2019!

Juvenile ocellated parrotfish taken in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Being Juvenile in Raja Ampat

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Snorkeling in Raja Ampat gives us the chance to see not only a huge diversity of adult reef fishes, but also dozens of juvenile fishes as well. Many juvenile reef fishes spend their ‘early years’ on shallow, protected reefs where they can hide amongst the variety of corals, sea grasses or mangroves. More often than not juveniles are more colorful than adults, or display color patterns that can be described as aposematic (warning colors), or mimic other fish as a potential defensive strategy. Here’s my collection (not complete by the way, there are just too many) of juvenile fishes we saw on our recent trip to Raja Ampat

Click on the photo to learn a bit more about juvenile coloration and behavior…

A juvenile regal angelfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile regal angelfish

A juvenile semicircle angelfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile semicircle angelfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

A juvenile twinspine angelfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile twinspine angelfish

A juvenile freckled hawkfish taken in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile freckled hawkfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

A juvenile sailfin tang photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile sailfin tang

A juvenile ornate butterflyfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile ornate butterflyfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

A juvenile pacific longnose parrotfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile parrotfish

A juvenile mimic surgeonfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile mimic surgeonfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

A juvenile leopard wrasse photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile leopard wrasse

Juvenile Javanese damselfish taken in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile java damsel

 

 

 

 

 

 

A juvenile yellow boxfish photographed in Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle Adventures

Juvenile yellow boxfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

We will be visiting Raja Ampat again for sure (click here for more information) and I am already excited to see many more of the juvenile fishes!

Being Juvenile in Belize

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After being away from the Caribbean for 20 years, I was incredibly excited for the return. Ironically it would be to Belize, the last place I had been in the Caribbean prior to moving the Indo West Pacific. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, the Mesomaerican Barrier Reef (or Mayan Barrier Reef). My personal goal for the trip was to see the variety of colorful and amazing juvenile reef fishes, especially from the angelfishes, damselfishes, and the highlight, a juvenile spotted drum that can be found in the Caribbean Sea.

It is not exactly clear as to why many juvenile reef fish possess gaudy colors, patterns, or shapes. Perhaps it is a form of aposematic coloration, where the bright colors serve as warning to all predators that the potential prey item may be toxic. Or it could be some sort of camouflage, or simply a phenotypic display as a function of some other type of genetic combination that codes for a specific behavior. No matter the case, the end result for us is the chance to see rarer and more colorful versions of common reef fishes that we are excited to see on any given Caribbean reef.

Adult spotted drum photographed in Belize

Spotted drums…

Juvenile spotted drum photographed in Belize

Juvenile spotted drums…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A colorful rock beauty photographed in Belize

Adult rock beauties…

Juvenile rock beauty photographed in Belize

Juvenile rock beauty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adult blue tang photographed in Belize

Adult blue tangs…

Juvenile blue tang photographed in Belize

Juvenile blue tangs…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

yellowtail damselfish photographed in Belize

Adult yellowtail damselfish…

juvenile yellowtail damselfish photographed in Belize

Juvenile yellowtail…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

adult french angelfish photographed in Belize

Adult French angelfish

Semi-adult french angelifish photographed in Belize

Semi-adult french…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We will be visiting Belize again in 2018! I am already excited to see many more of the juvenile fishes of the Caribbean.

chocolate chip sea stars in Komodo National Park

Colors of Komodo

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Reef quid at night in Komodo National Park

A reef squid…

Color is a major part of what we, as snorkelers, experience in the underwater world, especially in coral reef ecosystems. As the various wavelengths of natural light reflect off shallow fish and invertebrates we are treated to a thousand different shade variations on color, more than one would ever hope to find at the Home Depot paint center. And, the colors are continually changing due to the diffusion of sunlight as well as the use of marine organisms’ chromatophores. During our latest trip in Komodo National Park we were treated to marine habitats and their inhabitants that displayed extraordinary colors so we thought a short blog devoted to color would be appropriate. From the ever-present anemonefish and their host anemones to Peacock mantis shrimp, vibrant nudibranchs of every shape, and hue-morphing cephalopods – squid, cuttlefish, and octopus, the many underwater habitats we explored were ripe with color. But, it wasn’t just the colors that made Komodo’s surrounding reefs so eye-popping, it was also the patterns, textures, and the behaviors associated with all the crazy vertebrates and invertebrates that thrive in this area. All in all, coral reef life is always depicted with bright colors yet Komodo’s marine organisms surpassed any expectation in regards to this. We cannot wait to get back to this part of the Lesser Sunda Islands to experience once again the layers upon layers of reef life and the underwater kaleidoscope there.

Peacock mantis shrimp photographed in Komodo National Park

A colorful peacock…

A feather duster worm in Komodo National Park

Feather duster worm

false clown anemonefish in Komodo National Park

False clown anemonefish…

typlical reef scene in Alor Indonesia

Fish Galore in Alor!

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anthias hover above a colorful patch of coral in Alor, Indonesia

Anthias converge

The title really says it all. We have yet to visit a snorkeling destination where the reefs possess literally thousands of fish on any given snorkel. Sure, many of our destinations have snorkel sites that promise (and deliver) thousands of reef fish, but no one place be it Raja Ampat, Komodo, or even Palau can match the consistency and, at times, the number of reef fish on any site, at any time.

Blue-green chromis in Alor Indonesia

Chromis hover

We were flat out amazed every time we got in the water. Anthias and damselfishes, usual suspects along reef margins that catch a lot of current, were in concentrations that sometimes created a seemingly impenetrable wall in the water column. Snorkeling beneath the dense clouds fish would shade out the sunlight!

This was our second trip to the area and as we continue to learn more about it and the snorkeling opportunities that it offers, one thing seemed to be true: there are a lot of fish in the Alor archipelago and for anyone who loves to see colorful reefs alive with fish, visiting this destination should be at the top of the list. We cannot wait to return in 2018 to see fish galore in Alor!

A colorful bristle worm at night in Palau

The Worms Came Out at Night in Palau

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Bristle worm near the surface on a night snorkel in Palau

Bristle worms are

Ok, so I’m probably overemphasizing the worm density in Palau’s inner lagoon waters but I needed to grab your attention. In early April, Coral Triangle Adventures had a chance to explore the various marine environments throughout Palau’s amazing archipelago. During the trip we were able to do a couple of night snorkels during which a plethora of bristle worms showed up. These beautiful, nocturnal polychaetes have adapted to virtually every imaginable marine habitat around the world and we were treated to at least one unidentified species with beautiful iridescent coloration. Bristle worms have a bizarre head, tail, and segmented body with each segment containing spiny bristles. The bristles not only help the animal to crawl and swim but also make it difficult for predators to swallow, though none of us in the water decided to test this attribute.

Big fin reef squid visits during a night snorkel in Palau

Also out at night were Big-fin reef squid. Our lights seemed to mesmerize these gorgeous cephalopods that hovered in shallow water and allowed close inspection of their alien-like morphology. Overall, our night snorkels turned up a lot of interesting marine life that were often out of sight during diurnal hours. We can’t wait to do more night explorations on upcoming CTA trips!

butterflyfishes of palau, a poster by lee goldman and coral triangle adventures

Butterflyfishes of Palau

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Butterflyfishes are some of the most popular reef fishes in the world. They are colorful, active during the day, and can be found on shallow reefs in a variety of marine habitats. Palau has 35 species of butterflyfishes and most are easily accessible for snorkelers. Our goal on our recent snorkeling trip was to see as many as we can and make a poster of those we saw.

butterflyfishes of palau poster

Butterflyfishes of Palau

I built the poster template that included 24 spaces, and off we went to collect our photos. After the first snorkeling, I realized we might have a problem. We had 24 spaces available, but the accessibility to butterflyfishes in Palau is so incredible that we could have made most of the total number without much stress! In the end, we decided to have the poster revolve around butterflyfishes in the genus Chaetodon, forgoing the inclusion of the bannerfishes (genus Heniochus), but did include the long-nose butterflyfish (Forciper flavissimus) and the ever abundant pyramid butterflyfish (Hemitaurichthys polylepis).

Our poster turned out to be pretty good! We photographed almost all of the butterflyfishes in the genus Chaetodon (missing out on the deep dwelling C. burgessi for obvious reasons) and a couple of others for lack of sightings. Not too bad for 10 days of snorkeling and we cannot wait to return in 2019 to build another poster, this time perhaps making it a bit larger…

The poster measures 28 x 42 and is about 5 MB in size. Click on the image to download…