Fieldwork 2.0

It’s that time again, after a few months of hiding behind my computer I’m starting the second big fieldwork season to collect data! I just arrived in Bali to sort out the last preparations for what will hopefully be a productive three and a half months of data collecting. I’m pretty excited about this trip, as I will be visiting some amazing places again where I’ll be working with great people!

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Home for the next 2 weeks

It all kicks off early tomorrow morning, when I’m leaving on a liveaboard trip to Komodo for two weeks. Safari Bali has once again kindly offered me a place on the Sea Safari VII, so I should be very comfortable while I’m trying to find frogfishesghostpipefishes and maybe the occasional manta ray or dragon. Once I get back from Komodo, I’ll be spending a fair bit of time in Bali again before heading to Lembeh Strait. The main thing I’m trying to figure out in Indonesia this year, is which human factors have the biggest impact on muck critters.

Like last year, I will again be doing presentations about marine biology and having long conversations with divers while I’m on the boat and staying at dive resorts. Some people might see this as a time consuming interruption of valuable research-time, but I really enjoy this aspect of my fieldwork. I feel it’s important as a researcher to share what you are doing with people who aren’t in academia themselves. What would the point be of all the work we do, if only a very select group of other researchers get to know about it?

ADEX

Which is why I am looking forward to the next stop after Lembeh: ADEX in Singapore. ADEX is the largest dive expo in Asia, with thousand of divers coming over to try to decide where to go for their next trip or what the newest trends are in the scuba diving world. I am very excited to have been invited to give a few talks about my research. In line with the theme of ADEX this year (Seahorses), I’ll be talking about pygmy seahorses, which I haven’t really done yet on this blog…

For the final leg of this trip I am heading back to Dauin in Philippines. Those of you who have been following the blog, will understand that I am rather happy that my good friend Luke (aka the Science Hobbit) is joining me again! Together we will be trying to figure out the best methods to study newly settled (=baby) critters. If you want to know how we’re planning to achieve that and whether or not we’ll succeed, keep an eye on the blog 😉

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Baby frogfish (A. pictus), finger for scale

Explosions of colour in the centre of marine biodiversity

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Sea Safari 6

I recently returned from another liveaboard trip, this time in Raja Ampat. I’m writing this blog in Sorong, after just having disembarked from the Sea Safari 6. We spent 10 days diving both the south and north of Raja and it was pretty spectacular. I was lucky enough that Safari Bali saved me a free spot on the boat again, allowing me to do research. The only thing I had to do in return, was talk about fish, since I do that all the time anyway, I consider this to be a pretty sweet deal.

The Raja Ampat region is found in the east of Indonesia, in the province of West Papua. The name “Raja Ampat” means “Four Kings” and comes from a local legend. The legend tells of 6 eggs that were found and from which 4 kings, a woman and a ghost hatched. In marine biology circles, the area is known as the global centre of marine biodiversity. It lies in the very centre of the Coral Triangle and is home to nearly 600 coral species and 1600 fish species. For comparison, the entire Caribbean has less than 70 species of coral.

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Raja Ampat: Painemu Lagoon

 

Unknown to most people, the Birds of paradise found here and in the Halmahera region further west also played an important role in publishing the theory of evolution. Between 1854 and 1862 Alfred Russel Wallace traveled and conducted research in Borneo, Sulawesi, Halmahera. He was collecting specimens of all kinds of animals, amongst others the birds of paradise found in the region. His observations of these birds helped him develop his own theory of evolution, parallel to Darwin. Darwin had been working on his manuscript for many years, but was hesitant to publish any of it. A letter from Wallace to Darwin, in which Wallace explained his ideas, sparked Darwin to finally publish his magnum opus. Darwin presented the article “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection” in 1858 at the Linnean Society as a joint work from himself and Wallace. Once Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published, Darwin ended up getting all the credit for the theory, but if not for Wallace and his birds of paradise, things could have turned out very different indeed.

While the birds of paradise are pretty amazing (we did go on land for a few hours to try and spot a few), the reason for this trip was to observe the diversity under water. This was the second time I dived Raja Ampat, and I can tell you it is fantastic. I’ve never dived anywhere else where the colours are so…everywhere, just everywhere. The quantity of soft coral, gorgonian seafans, corals, sponges, ascidians, etc is just staggering. You’ll find shades of every colour everywhere, some sites are so overwhelming that you’d almost forget to look for small critters and instead just float around to try and take it all in. Especially when there is a lot of sunlight and strong currents ensure all soft corals look like pink, orange, yellow, purple or white balls of fluff spread out over the reef. One such dive prompted the comment “This must be the campest divesite ever!”, and I couldn’t agree more. Many of the divesites around Raja Ampat look like the marine equivalent of letting a 6 year old kid decorate the Christmas tree…

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Explosions of colour (source)

Of course the diversity extends beyond corals, the fish life is just as great. It might be harder to find critters than Komdo or Lembeh, but there is a lot to make up for that. One of my favourites are the wobbegongs you find everywhere, especially at the northern divesites. But it’s also great to see all the schooling fish, and a very healthy amount of predators. We’ve seen a fair few sharks, tunas, Spanish mackerels, and other pelagic predators you don’t see very often in Indonesia. It’s also great to see lots of large groupers, since they are a very popular food-species, having a lot around means that protection is working and fishing pressure is not too high.

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Fish soup in Pulau Daram

This protection can be credited to the efforts of many local and international NGOs working in the region. Their work helped motivate local and national governments to establish Indonesia’s first MPA (Marine Protected Area) network. Raja’s 15 MPAs protect nearly 6 million hectares of marine habitats. The area is also a shark sanctuary where capture and killing of sharks, rays, dugongs and turtles is prohibited. To me, knowing that this beautiful area is being protected in the best possible way makes diving it an even more rewarding experience.

Dragons, Currents and Hidden Gems

Komodo tripThere hasn’t been much activity on the blog recently, mostly since I’ve been stowed away on various boats exploring the marine life around the Komodo Islands. I just got back from a very comfortable liveaboard trip ran by Safari Bali, who have been kind enough to let me hop on the Sea Safari 7 as resident marine biologist. In return for the trip I do presentations for the guests, help them identify creatures they’ve seen, or generally answer any ocean-related question they might have. A great deal if you ask me, since it gives me the chance to do research in one of the best dive destinations in the world.

Komodo has been one of my favourite spots since I dived it the first time six years ago. The enormous diversity in marine life and dive sites is hard to find anywhere else. Raja Ampat might have more species, but to me Komodo is more interesting. There are more muck sites, stronger currents, lots of weird critters and they’ve got dragons…it’s hard to top dragons.

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Komodo Dragon (Photo by Jennifer Tambosco)

Komodo national park was established in 1980 and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986. The park was originally designed to protect the endemic Komodo Dragons. They are the world’s largest reptile and are only found in the Komodo National Park and a few areas on the west coast of Flores. It was quickly recognised that the diversity in the surrounding ocean was a lot bigger than on land and protection was put in place for the marine environment as well.

Ghostpipefish party, six Solenostomus paradoxus hanging out

Ghostpipefish party, six Solenostomus paradoxus hanging out

Life under water is governed by the strong currents around the islands. The Komodo islands form a passage between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, the water flowing between them causes the famous currents in the area. These currents bring in important nutrients on which the marine life depends and it doesn’t take many dives in the area before you realise just how much of an effect they have. Diving in Komodo is always exciting, not just because you’re often flying around under water at exhilarating speeds, but also because of the enormous diversity of life that is created by these currents.

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

Pygmy Seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti)

Explaining just how diverse and exciting diving in Komodo is very difficult. To make life easier for myself, here is an excerpt from my logbook from the trip: manta rays, sharks, eagle rays, frogfishes, octopuses, turtles, napoleon wrasses, seahorses, ghostpipefishes, giant trevallies,… On top of that reefs are generally very healthy, with huge clouds of reef fish hovering around them. From the boat we’ve seen at least 3 different species of dolphins and a whale. In this crazy fish soup I spent most of my time looking for pygmy seahorses, which greatly confused some of the other divers on board. Why bother with critters 1cm in size if you’ve got manta rays and sharks flying overhead? This is a fair point, but I am trying to get an idea of how many pygmy seahorse are out there, so the manta rays will have to wait… In all fairness, I might have gotten distracted a few times, but who can blame me for that?

Selfie time with the local kids :) (Photo  by Jennifer Tambosco)

Selfie time with the local kids 🙂 (Photo by Jennifer Tambosco)

I am also using these trips to explore other sites in the area for critters. There are over 17000 islands in Indonesia and the best way to explore them is by boat. Some of the places we dived at along the way are absolutely beautiful and still pretty unexplored. One of my favourites was Sangeang, an active complex volcano (it has 2 cones) with 2 small villages on its slopes that specialise in traditional boat building. The dive sites around Sangeang are phenomenal; great muck diving, loads of critters, and mostly unexplored. Another gem (though better known) is the south of Komodo. The waters around Nusa Kode are cold (20°C) but very rich, it had some of the highest concentrations of anemonefishes I’ve seen in Asia. A night dive in the bay made it in my top 3 of best night dives ever, I won’t bore you with details, but if you like weird and wonderful critters it’s an absolute must!

Bontoh village, Sangeang volcano in the background

Bontoh village, Sangeang volcano in the background