Wrapping Up a Week of Diving

Posted in Under the Sea on January 17th, 2010 by MadDog
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We ended up a week of diving, bush trips and industrial-strength socializing with Anita, Wouter and Anita’s father, Jos, today. It’s been a pleasure having them with us. Yesterday I realized that I had no photos of Jos. So, I took this shot of him steering Faded Glory:

Jos turned out to be very handy with a boat. On our last day, he handled the boat while the rest of us did a drift dive at Magic Passage. Communications were a little light, as we do not speak each others’ languages, but he is a very pleasant fellow. I wish that we could have had some heart-to-heart conversations.

Here is a shot of Anita and Swami Monty in the water at Magic Passage with Faded Glory,  Jos at the wheel, coming up in the distance:Anita, Jos and Wouter are leaving tomorrow morning. Wouter is an avid diver and runs with a crowd of dedicated techno-human-dolphins in the North Sea. I wouldn’t be surprised if we begin to get applications for diving here in Madang. It’s an entirely different experience from their normal dives. I think that Wouter found it a pleasant break from the adrenaline-drenched sport as it is enjoyed off the coast of Belgium.

Among the critters that we saw on our last two dives at Magic Passage  and Rasch Passage  was this Starfish (Nardoa rosea)  practicing Extreme Yoga:I am able to contort my body like this, having practiced yoga since I was a pre-teen. Okay, okay, I’m not as nimble and Gumby-like as I once was. However, I’ve not yet reached the point, at sixty-six, at which I need to ask myself, “Can I still do that?” This is a great blessing for me, as the physical activities (yeah, all  of them) are important keys to my well-being. I owe much of this to my Dad, an accomplished athlete, acrobat and dancer who taught me the principles of physical fitness as a life-goal and the concept of the body-aware spirit.

We may as well have a look at another starfish. This one, I think, is a Fromia nodosa  with its little toes curled up very cutely: You can’t swing a dead cat here without smashing a starfish. We have many different species and I have neglected them severely. I’m certain that their tiny little feelings are hurt. I’ll fix that in the future.

I got a bit of a “wow” experience from this huge mob of Reticulated Dascyllus (Dascyllus reticulatus):We would normally see a dozen or two in a plate coral. This was a huge plate and was home to a couple of hundreds of these lovely little purple-lipped fish. I love to play “scare the fish” with the Dascyllus.  If you slowly stretch your arm out over the plate with your hand closed in a fist and then quickly open your hand the entire gaggle will dive simultaneously into the coral and disappear. It’s like magic. Now they’re here – now they’re not. If you look closely, you can see them trembling in their little nooks and crannies where they hide from predators.

Barrel Sponges fascinate me. Some of them are huge. This Xestospongia testudinaria  is about two metres from bottom to top. Some are much larger:

You can see a few Purple Anthea (Psudanthias tuka)  swimming in front of the sponge. The “purple” in the common name is a relative term. As with many fish, the colour that you see underwater is radically dependent on the depth, the colour of the sky and the condition and tint of the water. Sometimes P. tuka  appears purple and sometimes blue. The yellow dorsal fin edging and caudal fin are constant. The fish appear a bit motion blurred, because I was forced to a slow shutter speed by the low light level.

I am exceedingly happy, nay, overjoyed by this image:As you may gather, I’m easily aroused from my usual “so what” attitude. When I saw this fish, I became terribly excited. That will give you an idea of what a fish geek that I am. The reason for my shaking hands and fumbling fingers is that I have never seen this fish before; it was my first sighting. It is a species of Shrimpgoby (Ctenogobiops tangaroi).  There are several fortuitous aspects of this shot, aside from the novelty factor. First, there is the brevity of the sighting. I barely had time to raise my camera, hold my breath for a few seconds and fire off a shot before it disappeared down its hidey-hole.

Another lucky aspect of this image is that I caught the fish’s partner, a commensal shrimp (Alpheus ochrostriatus)  bulldozing a load of sand out of the shared shelter.

I’m not looking a gift fish in the mouth.

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Back to the Coral Queen

Posted in Under the Sea on January 16th, 2010 by MadDog
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Though diving is all about relaxation and discovery to me, it’s nice to enjoy the occasional adrenaline shot. Yesterday, Anita, Wouter, Jos and I decided to go for a little more excitement. To my knowledge, The Coral Queen,  a large freighter resting on the bottom on the inside of the barrier reef near Rasch Passage  has not been dived for possibly a decade.* It was once a very popular dive, especially at night, when it was occupied by many thousands of flashlight fish. As it became more popular, the flashlight fish were frightened off to another hiding place and The Coral Queen  gradually faded back into dim memory.

The truth is, unless you are a wreck fanatic, the site doesn’t have much to offer. There is little growth and few fish because the hulk lies in a place behind the reef that has little exposure to nourishing currents.

I had the wreck located by sonar on my GPS readout on Faded Glory,  so we opted to give it a try. Having bought a long rope, we attached some dive weights to it and threw it over the bow as we passed over the top of the wreck.

On our first dive down, we discovered that I’d missed it by enough that a thorough search pattern, lasting about a half-hour, failed to show us the wreck. I did get one interesting shot of a rather rare Beaded Anemone (Heteractis aurora)  during an otherwise miserable dive:When we returned to Faded Glory  I told Wouter to have a go at locating the wreck again while I prepared to drop the shot line a second time. When Wouter saw the image of the wreck pass under us, he told me to heave the shot line over. As the barrel that it was wrapped around stopped spinning when the weights hit the bottom, I geared up for a quick trip down to see if we had the wreck. Voila! The weights were about two metres from the hull of The Coral Queen.

I came back up and we cruised around for a while to give us a little more surface time. We then descended again into the murky water. Here is a photo of Wouter tying off the shot line:Anita watches in the background. Wouter is a very experienced diver and is a bit of a wild man. By that I mean that he dives wrecks regularly in the North Sea, something which I find amazing that anybody would want to do. Deep, cold, murky dives in raging currents to see rusting hulks is not my cup of tea. However, it has been nice to have an experienced technical diver along. Anita has nearly two hundred dives, so she is no bother at all – she simply does her thing.

Here are the weights and the knife set aside so that we can bring them up when we finish the dive:There being little light and nothing much to photograph, Anita and Wouter put on a little demonstration of their customary “Titanic” maneuver, which they swear that thet do every time that they dive a wreck:Belgians are a strange lot.

Wouter did manage to find this lonely cleaner shrimp:I’m not sure what it was there to clean, as there were few fish about.

Here is a ventilation funnel. Whoopee!

Because of the low light level, I had to shoot at ISO 800, something which the Canon G10 does not like. The images are very noisy. Good photography was not the goal of this dive.

After ascending back to Faded Glory,  Wouter went down again to attach a float to the end of the line leading down to the wreck. Here you can see his bubbles coming up and the yellow float:The marker will float about two metres under the surface and allow us to easily find and tie up to the wreck without playing the guessing game that we played yesterday.

It’s nice to be able to dive The Coral Queen  again. I’m looking forward to doing it at night to see if the flashlight fish have returned. The only problem is that you have to descend the line to the wreck after dark with no lights  whatsoever, not even a glow stick. I’ve done it several times and I can testifythat is a thoroughly spooky experience.

* Of course, I don’t know what everybody else is doing. If you have done The Coral Queen in the last ten years, please leave a comment. I’d like to know the recent history of diving the wreck.

UPDATE: I got this historical information from Jim Birrell: The Coral Queen  was owned by Laurie Crowley at Lae. He originally owned Crowley Airlways at the old Town airport. His hangars were located at the rhs looking towards the sea. He also owned various helicopters and small light aircraft. He used the Coral Queen  for backup support. He still lives in NSW somewhere. Growing up in Lae with his kids we sometimes went for rides on the small coastal ship Coral Queen.  It was later sold and ran up and down the coast between Lae and the sepik.

Thanks for that, Jim. We really appreciate the comments which we recieve from our readers. I’ve only been here since 1981, so my historical knowledge is woefully lacking.

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Henry Leith and the Green Dragon

Posted in Under the Sea on January 15th, 2010 by MadDog
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No, I have not taken up writing children’s fantasy stories. A couple of days ago Anita, Wouter and I went diving at Wongat Island  on The Green Dragon  B-25 Mitchell bomber and the coastal freighter wreck, The Henry Leith.  It was an amazing day of diving, as the water in that area was as clear as I have seen it in over twenty years. Both wrecks could be clearly seen from the surface. Anita’s father, Jos, stayed on the boat most of the time, as he is pleased to do so. We all took some time while we waited for a safe period between dives to take a walk on the beautiful beach.

We started our day at The Green Dragon.  Here is an amusing shot of Wouter peering through one of the waist gun ports. There is an identical port on the opposite side of the fuselage. I stuck my camera through it and snapped Wouter as he shined his dive light around examining the ammunition feed chutes and other equipment scattered inside:

Under the port wing of the bomber there is always a mob of these fish. I should know the name of them, but it escapes me at the moment and my big fish book is at the office:I’m luxuriating in the glory of a 31.2KBS connection at my house. It took me only two years to get my phone line repaired by TELIKOM. We learn patience here in Madang – or we leave. We’re suffering another mass exodus of expatriates recently. Economic woes, lost contracts, fears of violence and a general dismay concerning the rapid deterioration of the cival infrastructure has caused many to abandon Paradise. It makes me sad to lose so many friends.

If you are a regular reader of Madang – Ples Bilong Mi you will be familiar with this scene. It is a Blue Spotted Stingray (Dasyatis kuhlii)  fleeing in terror:Or, maybe not. If there were any sense to this situation, it should be the other way around. These creatures are remarkably tolerant to a close approach, as long as you do it slowly and don’t surprise it. If you put STINGRAY in the search box, you’ll find many other posts with images of this fascinating critter. We nearly always see one or two at The Henry Leith.

On the deck we found this juvenile Papuan Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis papuensis):They are very easy to photograph, as they seldom move unless you actually poke them, but they are difficult to find. They normally lay in wait for a meal on a coral rubble background where they are extremely difficult to see.

Also on the deck, at the stern, we found this lovely juvenile Common Lionfish (Pterois volitans):The common name refers to its numbers not its appearance. They are commonly seen, since there are plenty of them. There is, however, nothing common about their form. They are beautiful beyond description.

At the end of the dive, while hanging near the anchor line waiting for my blood nitrogen to bubble out like a fizzy drink, I took this image of my air bubbles racing to meet the sun:If life gets to be any more enjoyable, I’m going to have to hire someone to take part of the load. I’m pretty well maxed out on pleasure.

Maybe it’s just a mood swing.

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Back to The Green Dragon

Posted in Under the Sea on January 14th, 2010 by MadDog
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A few days ago, Wouter, Anita and I dived The Green Dragon,  a B-25 Mitchell bomber shot down near Wongat Island  during WWII. We dived on The Henry Leith  later that day. While walking on the beach during our de-gassing surface time I picked up a couple of handfuls of the little treasures that Mama Nature placed there for my amusement:
Among the lovely baubles I find several opercula (the “door” of a marine snail’s shell), a bunch of cowrie shells, including a rare Golden Cowrie (I think), lots of colourful bivalve shells, and some beautiful blue coral.  The opercula are commonly called “cat’s eyes”. I imagine that you can easily pick those out. The bit of bright blue glass at the top is a weathered fragment of a fancy wine glass. Somebody had a party on Wongat Island  a long time ago.

Down on The Green Dragon,  I got a nice shot of the starboard engine. The port engine was lost when the huge machine was ditched after being hit by Japanese gunners:

As you can see, the wreck is rapidly being made part of the reef.

Since I began diving The Green Dragon  a couple of decades ago, I’ve seen it deteriorate severely. The wonderfully tough and corrosion-resistant aluminium framework and skin are finally giving up the ghost. Here you can see all that remains of the four 50 calibre Browning M2 nose guns:

It’s sad to see the once powerful war machine going back to nature. Or is it?

Here is Anita waving hello to you from the cockpit:Nearly everyone wants to have a photo of this strange activity.

Wouter would rather pretend to fly the plane than wave:To each his own.

Under the Starboard wing we found one of the resident Ribbon Eels (Rhinomuraena quaesita):

You can enter RIBBON in the search box to find other images of this fascinating and gorgeous critter.

At the tail of the plane, just above the little 30 calibre “stinger” machinegun, I found a new growth of very unusual coral:I don’t have a clue what species it is, but it certainly sports an incredible colouration. I believe it must be a Fire Coral of some sort. It has the right shape, but it is tiny compared to the other species of that family of corals.

I’m having difficulty finding time to write much in my posts. I love doing the photography, but I also enjoy the writing. Since work pressure forces something to be left behind for a while, you’ll be spared my incessant jibber-jabber for a few more days.

Like The Terminator, I’ll be back!

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Stinky River – The Balek Wildlife Sanctuary

Posted in Mixed Nuts on January 13th, 2010 by MadDog
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Yesterday we took a break from diving with our friends from Belgium, Anita, Wouter and Anita’s dad, Jos. We drove  out the road to Lae and the highlands until the pavement ran out, about fifty kliks out of Madang. Along the way, we stopped at a small park which I have not visited for about twenty years.

The Balek Wildlife Sanctuary is the home of what we call The Stinky River. It is a sulphur spring which bubbles out of a cave in the huge limestone escarpment along which the road runs to the Gol Gol River. Here is a shot of the cave entrance and the emerging stinky river:

If you find the smell of rotten eggs unbearable, you had better stay away. Hydrogen sulfide permeates the air. The colour of the emerging water, however, is quite startling. It is an unearthly blue colour. I’d guess that it’s loaded with copper compounds.

Here is the place, not far inside the cave, where the spring emerges:The white stuff is some kind of algae or bacteria that grows on the rocks in long, hairlike strands. The small river that is formed by a confluence of springs contains what appear to me to be some variety of trout. How they manage to survive here is beyond me.

UPDATE: I think that I may have found the organism in the Balek springs. Thanks to my Facebook friend, Len Zell for the tip about sulfur-based metabolisms which shot me off in the right direction. Another mate, Justin Friend, also sent one of his science guys out there to have a look and he came back with the same conclusion – sulfur. I Googled around until I stumbled onto Thiothrix,  which is a filamentous sulfur-oxidizing Gammaproteobacterium. It lives in sulfur springs and sewerage pipes, among other places. As soon as Pascal Michon returns from France, we’ll take a specimen over to Divine Word University and get it under a microscope. Hopefully, I’ll have images soon. Stay tuned.

The “wildlife” in Balek Wildlife Sanctuary needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There are many claims extant on the web for a variety of critters. The only wildlife that we saw, aside from a rather ferocious looking spider, were these two young Hornbills which are the “babies” of this nice old man. With wings clipped to prevent escape, They could fly short distances, but obviously preferred to stay close to their papa:

I’ve observed that many Papua New Guineans treat animals roughly with no consideration of pain and suffering. This is not surprising nor objectionable for people who traditionally have considered anything that moves as a potential meal. This old fellow (probably about my age) treated these young Hornbills as if they were his grandchildren.

The Papuan Hornbill is a stunningly beautiful creature. The adults have a crest along the top of the beak:The eyelashes amaze me. In adults they are very long and delicate. They are very inquisitive and often act like unruly children. There was once a resident Hornbill at a local hotel. Its favourite pastime was to harass the hotel guests. I you had a bag beside your lounge chair at the pool, the pesky bird would hop over (they hop on the ground in a most comical fashion) and remove all of the contents of the bag, often tossing items into the pool. It also thoroughly enjoyed biting toes. As long as you were careful not to allow it to get a toe into the back of its beak, where it could exert bone crunching strength, it was fun, in a creepy sort of way.

The garden is a bit sparse, but does include a magnificent display of Bird of Paradise plants:

There is also a huge pile of rocks in which lies the grave of Robinson Crusoe, so they claim. I find it amusing that they insist that this fictional character is buried here in our lovely Madang.

Other wildlife being scarce, we began to hunt. Wouter found this bizarre spider, about the size of a small coin:The Balek Wildlife Sanctuary is a nice spot to visit while in Madang. There seemed to be some doubt as to the proper entrance fee. I don’t think that they get many visitors. Since there were four of us, I offered K5 each and that was deemed acceptable.

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Anita and Wouter Dive Madang

Posted in Under the Sea on January 12th, 2010 by MadDog
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Friends from Belgium, Anita and Wouter and Anita’s father, Jos are visiting this week with us here in Madang and I am enjoying half-days off from work to take them diving and sightseeing. Today I’ll show you some images from our dive on The Henry Leith,  which you have seen featured many times here on Madang – Ples Bilong Mi.

Here is a nice shot of Anita and Wouter hovering over the wreck in unusually clear water, something that is a rarity in the area where the wreck has rested for decades:

As usual, the hulk was teeming with fascinating life. Here is a lovely young Spotfin Lionfish (Pterois antennata)  lurking in a corner in wait for an unsuspecting fish to pass by:You can use the search box for SPOTFIN and find other images of this beautiful fish.

This is a close-up image of the polyps of a sea fan:I have uploaded this image in a higher resolution that I normally use so that you can see the delicate structure of the individual colonial organisms. It’s worth clicking it to enlarge the image.

This is a Periclimenes  shrimp. I can’t determine the species. Many of them are so similar that it takes a very close examination to figure out which is which:

They are also difficult to photograph, as the tentacles of the anemone are constantly waving about and the shrimp itself is restless and does not like the camera lens hovering a few centimetres above it.

This is a very beautiful nudibranch that Wolter found hiding in a difficult to reach spot. I should be able to find this species in my invertabrates book, but it also eludes me:

I need to invest someday in a dedicated nudibranch book. As helpful as the web is for finding things, I still prefer a real paper book in which to find species photos and descriptions. Wading through the web to find a particular species is simply too time consuming for me to work it into my hectic life.

Along with the critters inhabiting the deck we found three juvenile Circular Spadefish [or Batfish] (Platax orbicularis) wandering around near the bottom at the stern:

It was dark there, so flash was necessary, but this youngster was remarkably cooperative, allowing me to approach within an arm’s reach. Fish rarely pose for the photographer, but this one showed some interest. The only problem was the extreme contrast between the white, highly reflective bars and the darker portions. Still, this is one of the best shots of this species that I’ve managed so far.

We have many more dives to report and a nice collection of images coming up later this week.

Stay tuned.

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