Massive Coral Bleaching at Planet Rock

Posted in Under the Sea on March 7th, 2011 by MadDog
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On Saturday I had my last dive in Madang for several months. We went out to Planet Rock  in Astrolabe Bay.  I had not been there since October of last year. Fortunately I’m feeling much better than I was then. I distinctly remember feeling suicidal on that dive. Things are greatly improved since then. Life could get interesting, so I’m happy to stick around for a while. I still have important work which provides me with a living and I have many other good things in my life. I’m coming around. I’m on my way to adventure for several months starting in two more days. All this is good news.

What is definitely not good news is the massive coral bleaching that is happening all up and down the coast near Madang. I’m not an expert on anything, but I think that I can safely say that the episode is caused by the rise of local water temperature.

I can remember when the average water temperature on a dive to twenty metres was about 27 or 28 ° C. Now it is more like 30 or 31. This is certainly enough to trigger coral bleaching on a long-term basis. If bleaching episodes last long enough, the coral dies completely and the reef becomes broken rubble in short order. New coral growths have a hard time establishing themselves on rubble, because it is not a solid foundation. As soon as a new colony begins to grow, the bit of rubble is disturbed by wave action caused by storms and the colony is dislodged.

Here is a large plate coral which looks to me as if it will soon be rubble.

Nearly this entire colony is affected to some extent.

Here is a close up of another type of coral which will most likely not recover. It’s difficult to tell without specialised knowledge whether or not the coral polyps will survive. To me, it appears that these are empty shells.

It looks bad enough up close.

It looks even worse from a distance.

This patch of dead or dying coral is about a hundred metres long.

Here is another badly bleached area about fifty metres wide.

All around the top of the rock we saw hundreds of patches of bleached coral during a forty-five minute dive. I would say that this is an increase of about fifty times as much dying coral over any cases which I have seen before. It is very worrisome.

We did not spend the entire dive surveying dead coral. Rich Jones found this little octopus in a hole.

It is devilishly difficult to photograph something back in a hole. You simply cannot jam in enough light for a decent exposure back in the hole without overexposing the coral which is surrounding it. In the shot above you can see one of the legs and the eye.

The octopus had captured a shell occupied by a hermit crab and it was busy trying to extract it for lunch when we came along. I pulled the shell from its tentacles so get the picture above.

Then I was faced with an ethical dilemma. Do I turn the hermit crab back over to the tender mercies of the octopus to suffer its natural fate and allow the octopus to enjoy its rightful meal or do I carry the shell a few metres away and drop it, giving the hermit crab a new lease on life, but leaving the octopus hungry?

I decided to put things back the way we found them and let nature take its course.

But I did feel bad for the hermit crab.

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Sunrise – Starfish – Insects

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Under the Sea on March 4th, 2011 by MadDog
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I’m going a little crazy getting ready for my trip. Regine, a long-time friend from Austria, is back visiting again in Madang. She brought three friends with her. I’ve been entertaining them for the last few days. Along with my feeble attempts to think of everything I need to do to get ready to travel, I feel rather more busy than I care for.

It’s been months since I have been in the mood to get out before light and catch sunrises. A few days ago, I could no longer resist. The sky across the harbour seemed to be on fire:

The colour, coming through a narrow slot between the horizon and low-hanging clouds, covered nearly a quarter of the sky. Here you can see nearly the entire eastern quadrant ablaze:

That was worth getting up for.

I got a couple of interesting starfish shots on my last dive. This is a nice image of a Cushion Star (Culcita novaeguineae) :

These are quite common in the waters around Madang. They are about the size of a football.

Here is another very common sight. This is the leg (arm?? which is it?) of a starfish. It was probably bitten off by a fish. You can clearly see that a whole new starfish is growing from the severed end of the limb. Given time, it will look like any other starfish:

I found this moth wearing a fancy coat out on my veranda one morning:

And this is a rather large grasshopper which I spotted only a metre away:

This got me thinking about large grasshoppers. I feel strangely calmed when I let my mind wander. Google is a fantasy land. I wish I could get a job Googling all day. Ask me anything. I’m the answer man. So, you want the world’s largest grasshopper. I deliver:

Of course, I make no claims of accuracy for the information which I supply.

Still not had enough of grasshoppers? What about this one (the grasshopper is the one on the right):

If you recognise that one you are probably a mature adult who watched a great deal of  TV in your youth.

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The Funny Side of Life

Posted in Under the Sea on February 27th, 2011 by MadDog
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As it was never difficult for me to find humour in the oddest corners of life, it has been disturbing recently that I don’t laugh as much as I used to. The reasons for this are multiple and obvious. Depression never gives one a cheerful outlook. Stress is not likely to invoke laughter. Trauma seldom makes one giggle. Nevertheless, I have discovered that I can regain areas of functionality by concentrating my attention on how I perceive life unfolding around me and consciously adjusting my habitual reactions to those perceptions. In other words, I give myself an attitude check.

For instance:  It has now been nearly two weeks since I last posted. I’ve been fretting about this for days. Sometimes I simply can’t kick-start myself into action. Oh, I have a list of excuses as long as my ape-like arms. However, analysing it as objectively as I can, I have to admit that I just ran out of things to talk about. I needed to give myself some time to let the word well refill. Among other excuses were power outages. Several times as I sat with my hands poised over the keyboard composing the first sentence, the UPS screamed in agony and the air conditioner groaned and fell silent. Also there were rainstorms which blocked my satellite and killed my web connection. A few times I just felt “too tired” or I “had a headache” or I suddenly “got hungry” or any of several other manufactured distractions pulled me away from what I needed to get done.

So, what’s so funny about that? Well, nothing and everything. It’s not funny that a grown (dare I say mature?) man can find so many excuses to avoid doing something which he knows will make him feel better when he’s done it. It’s not funny that depression cripples us in so many unfathomable ways. The list of reasons why it’s not funny is lengthy. However, if you wrote a scene for a comedy and put Steve Martin in as the slightly disturbed and angst filled star, it would be very amusing. It might invoke some self-conscious giggles. Let’s have Steve preparing his CV for an important job application. I can see how he might never get around to actually doing it. Each time he starts and fails to complete the task it adds to the comedic frustration. As time goes by the distractions become more and more contrived. Forgot to feed the cat. Was that the telephone ringing? Oh, I need to trim my fingernails!

If I step outside my skin and watch myself, I have to admit that I resemble Steve in the movie. This strikes me as funny. It’s funny because it’s unreasonable. There’s an almost slapstick quality to it. Each little act of masochism is like a pratfall. One asks why is this guy doing this to himself? Why doesn’t he just get on with it?

Now that I’m writing, I feel better already, though when I read through what I’ve written I can’t imagine that anyone will make sense of it. Oh well, I am not here to make sense. That’s never been a goal.

I think that I’ve flogged that dead horse long enough. I’ll now show you some images from last week’s dive on the wall at Blueblood. I’ll try to find the humour in one of the worst dives I’ve had for ages. I’ll try to smile at a cold, rainy day.

We saw clear water as we approached the wall and prepared to go in. However, by the time we went over the side, we had drifted a bit and we ended up in a torrent of muddy water spilling out from the lagoon. The sky was very dark with grey rain clouds so there was little light. The water was so turbid that by the time we reached fifteen metres the visibility had dropped to less than two metres. I sincerely did not want to be there. I started to give Rich Jones the “I don’t like this” hand signal and pointed upward with my thumb. Rich just kept moving forward. I wasn’t happy about that, but the last thing that I wanted was for us to lose sight of each other. After a while we came into clearer water and things brightened up a bit. I got this shot of a nudibranch:

You may note that it is a bit grainy. That is because the light level was so low. I had to boost the ISO of my sensor to 400 to get an acceptable shutter speed. That is the point at which the Canon G11 gets noisy.

There were no big fish about, something which is becoming more and more common; I don’t know why. Everyone is commenting on it. We see no sharks these days and fish bigger than a hand are becoming less and less plentiful. I did, however, get a few nice shots of unusual corals. Here’s one:

And here’s another:

My thumb is there to show you the size of the coral.

I like this shot of coral polyps streaming in the current:

This is a very young Leather Coral colony, I think:

And this is the most strangely coloured Fungia coral that I have ever seen:

It seems to me that these very strange colourations of many species of coral are becoming more and more common. I have no idea what causes it. It may be another manifestation of abnormalities caused by an increase of water temperature. This is something we have been experiencing for many years. The average temperature of the local reefs has risen considerably over the time which I have been diving here. We are seeing a huge increase of coral bleaching episodes.

I haven’t found much humour yet, so I’ll finish up with this grinning Moray:

Rich Jones found it hiding in a crevice. It was very difficult to get a shot. I took about ten exposures. This one was the best.

Faking It – or Pretending to Be What You Are Not

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Under the Sea on February 11th, 2011 by MadDog
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I’ll do something a bit different today. This post is actually a magazine article which has not yet been published. I submitted it nearly a year ago, so I don’t think it will find ink. So that it doesn’t go to waste, I’ll use it to bore you today.

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Sea people are adventurers and poets. Sea people are those who paint their lives boldly and joyously stroke by stroke on the vast canvas of Earth’s oceans and fresh waters. Fishermen, sailors, divers and snorkelers, surfers, sailors, merchantmen and marine warriors are all of a breed. They are bound by their love of and respect for the sea. How much great literature and visual art has been born of the relationship between humans and the sea? How can those who share this love of the sea not be inspired to and desirous of expressing their sentiments by the creative work of their minds and hands?

This is all very well and good, providing that one possesses the tiniest quantity of artistic talent. Being able to write a complete sentence and snap a decent photograph are largely demonstrations of technical skills. True artistry, however, mystifies the untalented. One might be capable of drawing water, but little else. Therefore we, the great ungifted masses, have forever been awed by those who are competent to pick up a pencil or brush and create from their mind’s eye a unique vision of the world. It’s a gift which few of us possess.

Therefore, out of sheer jealousy, we are inclined to mimic it. Since the arrival of the digital age, wretches such as us can aspire to play monkey-see-monkey-do and create images which, though utterly bogus, are pretty in a chintzy sort of manner.

Most folk today are familiar with basic image manipulation software. Nearly everybody can download pictures from their camera and play with them. Some of the software which comes with cameras even allows a bit of expression in the way of filters which apply special effects to the images. These are worth playing with to get one’s feet wet.

However, if one is serious about faking it, one must be prepared to step out a bit and trudge up a slight learning curve. I use Photoshop CS4 for all of my work. This is primarily because I work for someone else who wields enough financial clout to purchase it. It is absurdly expensive. One might liken it to the Rolls Royce of photo software. Adobe, the producer of Photoshop clearly states, “If you have to ask how much it costs, then you can’t afford it.” I’m absolutely certain that there must be ten pirate copies of Photoshop running on computers around the world for every copy which has been purchased.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The GNU Image Manipulation Program, cutely nicknamed GIMP, is very capable and free software which strives to provide much the same power as Photoshop.

No matter which program one is using, the process details will be similar. We won’t go into details here, because our purpose is to show what one can learn to do in a couple of evenings. There are thousands of excellent tutorials available on the World Wide Web without payment which provides step by step instructions for the use of the tools in the software. Much of is learned feels very intuitive and quickly becomes habitual so that one can concentrate on the creative experience instead of the technical details.

Aside from the familiar controls with which most of us are familiar when working with our snapshots; brightness, contrast, colour saturation, hue, there are very many filters available to create effects which provide an almost endless range of possibilities for artistic interpretation of an image. A filter is a bit of software which examines the pixels of an image and then applies a complex mathematical formula to it to modify its appearance. Fortunately, one needs to know absolutely nothing concerning what is going on inside the complexity. There are simple slider controls which provide a way to adjust the actions of each filter. Simple filters can deal with elementary things such as noise (unwanted “static” in the image making it appear as if it were a miss-tuned TV), sharpening edges to make an image appear more focused, and corrections of distortions, such as correcting camera tilt by making the horizon level or correcting the apparent tilt or leaning of buildings.

The real beauty begins to glow when one begins to apply the artistic filters. There are dozens of them with names such as watercolour, poster edges, dry brush, fresco, paint daubs and palette knife. One can even apply filters upon filters to achieve genuinely wild effects. The trick is to learn when the fiddling has gone too far. Both programs mentioned above allow one get in the time machine and go back to an earlier stage of the process if sudden nausea occurs while examining the resulting image.

Though we concentrate on the sea and especially on creatures under the sea, there is no limit to the type of image with which one might begin. It can be anything. A carrot, if it seems particularly handsome.

One might ask of what use are these creations? Are they really art? My response is that neither question is pertinent. Unless one is obliged to make a living from artistic endeavours, then the exercise need only be purely for enjoyment.

Personally, I find such pursuits a pleasant alternative to sitting in front of the TV absorbing what currently passes for entertainment. This seems to me to be entirely passive. If you seek to create instead of consume, try your hand at Faking It. You might be amazed by what you can do.

You’ll find a variety of images here, some of them fishy and some not.

Scratch the last sentence. All of them are fishy.

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More Coral and Flatworms – Ho-hum

Posted in Under the Sea on January 25th, 2011 by MadDog
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A week ago I would have bet against a long delay until my next post. That was before I remembered that I would have a house guest for the week. To further delay me, PNG Power arranged a splendid display of incompetence by switching the power on and off over nearly the entire weekend. My dinky UPS was not up to the task. When It got to the point at which I could not safely shut down my computer before the UPS gave up with a shriek, I decided that I could use a break anyway.

Today I’ll show a few more coral and flatworm images from our dive on the wall at Blueblood.

I looked through my pitifully inadequate marine invertebrates reference book for this coral without success:Likewise, this specimen escaped the attention of my book:I’ve found the web virtually useless for identifying organisms. Give me a big, fat book anytime. Once I have narrowed down the possibilities by leafing through the pages and scanning the images quickly with my calibrated eyeballs, I can pretty quickly determine what it is, or at least that my book doesn’t have it.

Pretty much the same thing applies to flatworms, such as this little beauty:It’s easy to identify which of the items here is the flatworm. It’s flat. In fact, they are so flat that they remind me of the creatures inhabiting a bizarre two-dimensional world which sprang from the mind of the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott in his novel Flatland written in 1884. The work was  a not-so-subtle dig at certain aspects of Victorian society.

And here is a junior Flatlander:

This is an infant version of the previous one. This one was only about five millimeters long. You may note that the image looks a bit grainy. This is because of the digital noise from the sensor. I had very little light here, so I had to push the sensor up to ISO 400. On the Canon G11, this is the threshold at which noise becomes a problem. This was made worse because I had to take only a portion of the frame, since the critter was so small.

Here is another denizen of Flatland:

In this shot you can see the fault with the flash arrangement on the Canon G11 factory underwater housing. If you get too close with a macro shot and need to use the built-in flash you will find that the lens portion of the housing casts a shadow on the lower part of the image. You can see evidence of that here in the blue cast in the bottom portion.

I’ll finish with a couple of more unidentified coral images:

There’s a spiky one.

I don’t know how to describe this one:

A princess castle under the sea? Okay, I’m reaching now.

The headstone for Eunie’s grave should arrive from Australia this week. I’ll be contacting my friend Shane at Lae Builders to find out how quickly he can construct a cement monument suitable to hold the headtone. Taking care of Eunie’s resting place is something which I must see to before I leave for Australia and North America hopefully before the middle of March.

I wish that I could overcome the anxiety which I feel when I think of planning my trip. I know from experience that I will be okay once I get on the plane out of Madang. It’s always the same. However, the planning for this journey is going to be very tricky. I have some very important things to do. My future welfare will depend on the results of my efforts in ways which are new in my life.

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Flatworms and Ice Spikes – Yikes!

Posted in Under the Sea on January 14th, 2011 by MadDog
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I can remember seeing ice spikes before, but I never had an opportunity to capture a photograph of one. A few days ago I opened the freezer door to get some ice and I got a surprise also. One of the cubes was topped by a perfect little ice spike. Here it is:

I’ve read that the purity of the water is a key factor in the formation of ice spikes. My water here at home is all rainwater which is stored in a big cement tank under my front porch. I suppose it is relatively pure, as there would be no dissolved minerals as are found in ground water. The spikes form when the water is freezing. If conditions are just right, they grow in the final stage of cube formation. Since water is one of those rare and peculiar substances which actually expand when freezing instead of contracting, the little bit of water that is finally freezing keeps expanding and the only place it has to go is up.

I’ll show you a few shots from our dive up on the wall at Blue Blood last Sunday. It was Flatworm Day, but I’ll get to them later. While we’re on the subject of strange looking things, here is a Bubble Coral (Plerogyra sinosa):

These look like balloons, but they feel like . . . nothing! They are so incredibly delicate that I don’t see how they survive. If you fiddle with the polyps they contract and leave a razor-like skeleton exposed.

Here is one of the many flatworms which we saw. I have never seen so many individuals and so many different species in one place. It’s a little hopeless for me to look up the species name, so I won’t bother:

I’ll be showing images of the other species which we found over the next few days.

This coral shot has a wealth of detail in it. It’s worth a click to see the delicate structure:

I’ve uploaded it at a larger than usual resolution so that it can make a good desktop background.

This is one of the largest colonies of this reddish coral that I have seen:

Finally, I’ll throw in a Flabelina  genus nudibranch. This is one of the better shots that I have of these. They are only about 30 mm long, so it’s difficult to get a really good close up:I don’t know where this depression is going. There seems to be no bottom. At least I’m still mostly functional. I get up and go to work except on days when I’ve notified the office staff that I have something else going on or I have urgent personal things to which I must attend. I socialise, I write. In short, to outward appearances I seem to be relatively normal. Inside smoulders a train wreck. In this heap of rubble the fire is spreading. I’m still rejecting drugs, because I still believe I can manage without and I don’t want to trade what I think is a manageable situation for one which lasts for an indeterminate length of time and may or may not help me. Furthermore, at the end of any treatment, I’d be left with the problem of getting off the drug. This can sometimes cause its own problems.

Even as bad as I feel now, as I look back over the last four months I have to acknowledge that I can mark progress month by month. Some of it is very significant progress. I’m sleeping much more easily and the nightmares have relented. The panics have receded into the dark corners. I sometimes feel those cold fingers reaching out, but they no longer pull me to the floor. Social gatherings have become easier to tolerate and I can sometimes feel good for an entire evening. Suicide no longer seems like an option. That’s a lot of improvement.

My friend Alison Raynor just suggested to me that I should start concentrating on how much I’m going to enjoy my trip to Australia. I think that’s good advice.

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More Salty Goodness from Leper Island

Posted in Under the Sea on January 10th, 2011 by MadDog
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I’m now one dive behind. Our last Leper Island  dive was some time ago. Yesterday, which was Sunday, we did a dive on the wall up at Blue Blood in a spot where I had not been before. I’ll be showing some images of the incredible variety of flatworms we found there. That’s for later. Today, I’ll show some more shots from the Leper Island  dive.

With the help of friends beginning on Friday evening, I managed to keep myself distracted over the weekend – Friday at the Country Club for a very difficult quiz, Saturday on Sanguma,  with Rich Jones and Jenn Miller and Sunday up at Blueblood with a group of friends. Distraction was particularly important to me, as Saturday marked four months since Eunie’s death and I desperately needed to avoid deepening my depression by brooding on it over the weekend.

I imagine that distraction is important to anyone suffering from severe reactive depression. I’ve been depressed for longer periods of time – this episode is in its sixth month and is pushing me closer to the edge than I have ever been. I’ve never before suffered depression so profoundly disabling. It is very scary. There is no aspect of life left untouched by it. It drags down every joy and leaves its ugly traces in every dark corner of the mind.

Strange as it may be, I’ve experienced some significant comfort from a friendship with someone who is equally depressed for other reasons. Comparing notes and discussing symptoms and coping strategies has been very helpful to both of us. The most valuable thing for us, however, has been to have someone to talk to who understands exactly the feelings which are so troubling, someone who is experiencing them at the same time. There is great value in speaking the with the same vocabulary and sharing the same emotions.

Again, a blessing.

On to the pictures.

You’ve seen the Sailor’s Eyeball (Valonia ventricosa)  many times here:

This is a particularly nice one. Repeating myself as usual, I’ll mention that this is the largest single celled organism on the planet. It’s an algae. The skin is like tough plastic and transparent. It’s full of green fluid.

Here is an image of a plate coral that is clearly dying. You are looking straight down on the colony:

Everything below the white line is dead. The white line shows where the symbiotic protozoans have either died or been expelled from the polyps. Above the white line, the coral appears more or less healthy.

Here is a starfish which has lost part of a leg to a predator. It has begun to grow back, but it appears comically small:

It will continue to lengthen and thicken until it matches up with the rest of the previously stubby leg.

Here is a coral garden shot with a big colony which brings to mind a mountain covered by rice paddies:

I enjoy trying to make these little reef scenes appear to you as close as I can get to what I saw with my own ancient eyes. It is a pleasant distraction with some minor purpose. It is infinitely better than watching the television set, an addiction to which I have not been able to put aside. Distractions . . . Blessing or curse? I suppose it depends on the nature of the distraction, eh?

Here’s another reef scene with a spiky coral:

I saved the best for last, hoping to end up with something a little more flashy. Here are a couple of Nemo wannabes for your amusement. Specifically, they are Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion percula)  hovering in the protection of their beautiful Magnificent Anemone (Heteractis magnifica):

The colours are not natural due to my use of flash, which puts artificial sunlight where it never shines. Still, it does make a pretty picture.

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