Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Diving in Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (1)

At last, I have dived in my own country! angel8

I went on a three-day dive trip to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (TARP), Sabah, last week. The marine park is accessible by a 15-minute speedboat ride from the mainland. I went diving with Downbelow, a dive operator based on one of the islands, Pulau Gaya (Gaya Island).

It just happened that during my visit, it rained every day. So the underwater visibility was not very impressive. According to the dive guides, visibility was the best during the driest months, e.g. January and February. Anyway, this being my first time diving in the tropical seas, I was quite happy to have seen heaps of marine life that I haven't before.

Every morning, the routine was pick-up from the hotel, followed by transfer by speedboat to the island. Then I would spend the morning doing two dives, and would have a tea break after the first dive, and lunch (catered for) after the second dive. After another dive in the afternoon, the dive operator would send me back to the hotel.

This is a photo of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain (4100 m) in South East Asia, taken from the speedboat. Every day, during the speedboat transfer to and from the island, I saw this.

The jetty on the Gaya Island.

On the first day I set foot on the island, the dive operator gave us a brief introduction to the island and the marine park.

A sign erected between the jetty and the dive centre, informing visitors what they mustn't do in the marine park. It says "...it is an offence to: Bring any weapon, explosive, fishing net, trap or poison into this park...Bring pets into the park...Take away sand or coral". And that penalty is a 1000 Ringgit fine plus a three-month imprisonment for first-time offenders.

Our three dive sites on Day 1 were Sulug Island, Edgel's Patch and Coral Garden. The photos below were taken in the first dive site.

The visibility as I mentioned wasn't too great. So, I didn't take many shots like this one, which shows a huge school of fish in the background.

There were corals everywhere I looked. The seascape was very different from what I was used to, where there was seagrass or seaweed or kelp on the seafloor. I don't remember seeing any seagrass patches in this dive site. It was mainly coral reefs with some sandy or silty patches. This photo shows some staghorn corals amid other hard corals.

Stony coral (Family Faviidae?)

There were many soft corals around the dive site too.

Roy, my dive guide, told me these are bubble corals.

He said that bubble corals are home to orangutan crabs (Achaeus japonicus), the fuzzy red thing in this photo. It was about 3 cm long I think. Basically it's a decorator crab covered in red algae for camouflage. There is an excellent picture of the critter on this website: http://www.starfish.ch/c-invertebrates/corals.html. Click here.

There were many sea fans around the dive site. I tried to take photos of sea fans with a diver in the background, the kinds of photos I often see in dive magazines but wasn't every successful.

There are sponges everywhere too. Large barrel-like sponges like this one were quite common too. This one was 2 to 3 -feet tall.

And wow! Feather stars were very, very common! It was impossible not to notice them. They were perching on sponges, on sea fans, on soft corals, and I even saw one that was swimming freely in the open water.

The blue seastar (Linckia laevigata) was the second-most common sea star around the dive site, after the feather stars. I didn't see this sea star very often where I used to dive in Australia. Many of them were quite big, about 20 cm or even more across. Unlike many sea stars, this species can actually regenerate the whole body even when there is only one arm remaining.

In this dive, we saw a few sea cucumbers that were quite big, sitting on the silty, sandy sea floor.

A white stonefish! The arrow points at the eye. This was the only one I saw. So it had to be rare. This one was almost one foot long.

A zebra moray eel

I saw a few nudibranchs. This one was Phyllidiopsis species (?).

Giant clams were not very common. I remember when I went snorkeling in Coral Bay, Ningaloo Reef, they were everywhere I looked.

Note (19 May 2010):
Correction. I was just told by Bubble Ring that Mount Kinabalu is not the highest peak in South East Asia, only one of the highest ten.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Underwater Sydney Project

I just read about the Underwater Sydney Project on Chad's blog (Adventurous Adventures: http://chadshen.blogspot.com/) and thought I should help spread the news too.

Do take a look at their website: http://underwatersydney.com.au/. It has some great marine life images and short, easy-to-read stories about marine life. In other words, even someone who doesn't know much about marine life can understand what it is all about. The project's founding partners are Sydney Aquarium Conservation Fund and Sydney Coastal Councils. The team running the website consists of both underwater and media experts.

According to their website, the project aims to "1) makes people love their own local marine life, 2) helps them get to meet it, and 3) inspires them to help protect it." Agreed. In fact, I believe many nature bloggers are contributing to these too, in our own ways.

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement on their website:
"The biggest threat to the world’s marine environment is lack of awareness. People only protect what they know and love… and our oceans are out of sight, out of mind and out of luck. The marine world urgently needs a good publicist!"


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Snorkeling in the Yallingup Lagoon (for the last time) - (1)

Yallingup Lagoon again? Yes, and I wouldn’t mind many more times although this was probably the last time, ever.

If you still remember my last post about Yallingup, I was there in the middle of January (17 Jan 2010). About two weeks afterwards (31 Jan 2010), I was there again with two other keen snorkelers, Truc and Jude. We went camping on a farm in the Margaret River region for two nights so that we could go snorkeling there. So, thanks to them I had the opportunity to visit Yallingup Lagoon again.

I have previously written about Eagle Bay, which is another good snorkeling spot near Dunsborough, and not too far away from Yallingup. However, for a snorkeling site, Yallingup Lagoon is worth writing about more than Eagle Bay is. This isn’t just because the lagoon is easier to snorkel because it’s shallow (less than 1 meter) and calm. It’s also because people tend to think of Yallingup Beach as a top surfing spot and just another snorkeling site. People who find out about snorkeling sites only from “Dive and Snorkel Sites of Western Australia” will probably miss out the lagoon because it’s not included in the two books.

While it’s not possible to dive in the lagoon, I would describe it as a fantastic snorkeling spot, if not the best in that region. I mean, honestly, it is teeming with more marine life per cubic meter of sea water than anywhere else I ever snorkeled (except perhaps around Rottnest Island)!

The Yallingup Reef consists of granite boulders to the south, which is the left side of the lagoon when you stand facing the ocean in the car park in front of the caravan park. To the north and to the outer edge of the reef is a limestone rock platform.

Looking towards the south of the lagoon

Looking towards the north of the lagoon

The lagoon is the southernmost point in Western Australia where there are still tropical fish species thanks to the Leeuwin current. Near the beach, a number of signs have been erected to inform visitors about the status of the lagoon as a reef protected area and the range of marine life that can be found there. One of the signs says that the lagoon acts as a sick bay for the fishes. Interesting!

There were heaps of fishes in the southern end of the lagoon, although many of them appeared to be juveniles rather than adults, possibly because the bigger ones have moved on to deeper water. It was mostly shallow in this part of the lagoon, about 3-4 feet. Even the ledges are not very deep below the surface. In some parts, you may even run aground.

These are the photos I took in the south end of the lagoon.

Boulders in the south end of the lagoon. Also, see how clear the water was!

Lots of zebra fish (Girella zebra) in the lagoon. Although not very colorful, they were still delightful to watch!

Heaps of striped trumpeters (Pelates octolineatus) too.

Old wives (Enoplosus armatus) at the edge of a wireweed (Amphibolis) seagrass patch

Stripeys (Microcanthus strigatus)

Western buffalo breams (Kyphosus cornelii) - a relative of the common buffalo bream (Kyphosus sydneyanus). The western buffalo breams doesn't have a black margin along the edge of its tail and has no moustache, unlike the common buffalo bream. Also, the common buffalo bream feeds on brown algae while the western buffalo bream feeds on mainly red algae.

A male black-throated threefin (Helcogramma decurrens). It was a small fish about 4-5 cm long. The name "threefin" probably comes form the fact that it has three dorsal fins. It is one of the most abundant fish specis on reefs off the southern coasts of Australia. The red blotch under the fish's chin (blue arrow) indicates that he was now in the middle of mating season.

I managed to show Truc and Jude this pretty feather star too. You see, in the past, I have told them frequent enough about my encounters with southern eagle rays off South Cottesloe. But whenever we snorkeled there together, the eagle rays just seemed to have disappeared from there! And I did tell Jude and Truc that there were heaps of fishes under the ledges in the lagoon. But well, they were not as plenty as the last time I found them. Typical wildlife! Anyway, at least when I told them there were sea stars in the lagoon whenever you turn a rock over, I managed to show them it’s true.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My dive story (4) - Rottnest Island double-dive (II)

Date: 22/1/2010

Second dive: Little Armstrong Bay, Rottnest Island

For this second dive of the day, I was quite happy to find my buoyancy control had improved. I was still not very self-reliant and vigilant though, having forgotten to check my depth and air pressure regularly. A few times, I forgot about my buddy too (blushed). As I wrote in my last post, I had my share of problems in diving too.

For this dive, the maximum depth was 12 meters and the visibility was about 10 meters. Our bottom time was 43 minutes. When we surfaced, I still had 100 bar of air. Unfortunately, the guide decided to wrap it up early. For some reasons, two divers in the group aborted their dives early. One diver couldn’t equalize her ears and had to abort her dive. Later, another diver somehow began to rise to the surface feet first. (Note: when I check my dive log again, I realized that photo of a diver rising to the surface feet first in my last post was actually taken during this second dive, not the first dive).

When each of the divers went for the surface, the guide had to go and make sure he/she was alright. When this happened, myself and the other remaining diver were told to just stay put to wait for the guide to return. I guess probably having to go back and forth this way made the guide use up his air quicker than he would be. So he decided that we finish our dive even though I and the other remaining diver still had plenty of air.

Although there are not as many caves and swimthroughs in this dive, the marine life in this dive site are not very different from that in the first dive. In terms of fish life, I saw lots of western king wrasses (Coris auricularis), schools of blue-lined hulafish (Trachinops brauni), and some blackheaded pullers (Chromis klunzingeri). Other than that, there were the regular stuff on the reef, e.g. lots of Sargassum weed, Ecklonia kelps, hard corals, sponges, some gorgonians and a few nudibranchs (Chromodoris westraliensis).

Brain coral

Gray finger sponge

A highlight of the dive was finding two weedy seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) on the sandy floor. Everyone in the group was pretty excited about the find. I was too, but not as excited as I was the first time I saw one when snorkeling off South Cottesloe.

It was my buddy Lammert who spotted the first seadragon.

Later, I spotted another one near a boulder. This one looked a bit weired and had a shorter tail.

Another special moment was the sighting of hundreds and hundreds of Woodward’s pomfrets (Schuettea woodwardi) that were hovering in the shadow of our dive boat. I was there waiting for the guide to return after helping a diver surface. And then when I turned around, hundreds of Woodward’s pomfrets came into sight. I have never seen such a huge number of pomfrets in any of my snorkels or dives so far.