Underwater Life: The last thing a glass fish sees

Shards of living glass

Dive any reef or wreck in Colombo and you will see them.

Small shoals of shining glass fish, shining that is when the light hits them. They blink in and out of existence as the light hits them for a kaleidoscopic experience that is sometimes unreal, especially when they congregate in a huge shoal that engulfs you and surrounds you in small shards of sunlight.

Glass fish on a reef

Glass fish and cardinal fish on the Cargo wreck

Usually the glass fish aren’t so spectacular, they hang around in a group of about a dozen close to any sort of crevasse on the reef or ‘caves’ formed on wrecks by the structure of the sunken ship. Presumably they do this for shelter with a place to retreat to if a predator attacks.

What they don’t seem to realize is that their shelter is most often where the attack is launched from. You don’t have to look too closely at the crevacess and cracks to see them. The groupers lie there innocuously, seemingly somnambulant. Blue line groupers are the most commonly seen though flower groupers and a few others are also relatively common, lounging about warily eyeing you as you pass over their heads. Occasionally one will lose its nerve when you come too close and flash into the depths of the reef, showing remarkable acceleration for what seemed like a sleepy fish.

Nonchalant blue line grouper

It is this acceleration that is the glass fishes’ undoing.

The grouper’s tried and tested fishing method is to lie motionless apparently completely ignorant of the flashing glass fish above its head until the small fish, lulled into a sense of complacency drop their guard.

A millisecond later and the shoal is one less.

Still nonchalant...sort of

If you are lucky and patient, you would have seen the grouper metamorphoses from a motionless fish to a blurry missile, mouth gaping as the ambush is sprung. A flurry of activity ensues as the glass fish swirl in confusion and the grouper returns to its post.

Eyeing a target

Peace returns to the reef as the as the glass fish, not blessed with a long memory, forget the ever present danger in the dark.

The last thing a glass fish sees


Kraken’s Gaze

The now familiar outline of the Medhafaru wreck appeared out of the blue-green waters, the bridge tilted at a Pisa like angle with the glass still intact though black with algae. DJ moved off to the front of the wreck as I stayed at the back, my more conservative Suunto demanding that I remained relatively shallow for our second dive of the day.

One of the regular denizens of the wreck, a greenish yellow moray, a species we still have not been able to identify, poked its head out a small structure on the deck. It stared out, clenching its jaws repeatedly, as all morays are prone to doing. This does give these eels quite a vicious look especially with their jagged teeth but apparently all this gulping is just to help circulate water over their gills. It’s still not advisable to go sticking any body parts you are fond of near a moray; in fact that’s a good general rule with pretty much any animal.

Best to stay clear of those teeth

Unfortunately I was experiencing some issues with my camera on this dive with the lens fogging up. Giving up on my efforts to get a pleasing portrait of the eel I turned back to bridge. And that was when I noticed it. It was hard to miss actually. Part of the ship was glowing, first white, and then black, then back to white.  Intrigued by this and slightly concerned that I might be suffering narcosis at the unlikely depth of 15 meters, I decided to investigate.

Cautiously getting closer to the object I noted with some relief that it was an octopus, apparently enjoying a Saturday morning lay down sprawled on the ship with his tentacles spread. On seeing me approach, he decided he had better cut his siesta short and backed out and up in between a staircase running down the ship.

Gimlet stare

Safely ensconced he turned a gimlet eye onto me and glowed red again. Unfortunately with the camera issue and a nosy (Scorpion?) fish getting in the way, I could only get a few shots of his eyes. Eyes which were quite eerie I must say, red with a bright black pupil. Eyes that looked as if the octopus was suffering from a virulent hangover and/or possessed by a demonic influence.

The nosy scorpion fish

Mesmerized by the glare I was getting, I just barely registered movement out of the corner of my eye. As usual on the Medhafaru where fish life is prolific, a group of Jacks streamed past me followed closely by a hunting Giant Trevalley who was so intent on securing its meal that it almost headbutted me in the process.  The octopus took this rather exciting interlude as an opportunity to make a getaway back into the deeps of the ship. As I turned back all I saw was a tentacle retreating into blackness  leaving me to hang by the bridge enjoying the hunting shoals of fish over the wreck until my beeping computer reminded me it was time to return back to the real world.


10 Minutes

Is generally all you have at 36 meters before your bottom time runs out. At 36 meters you are under 3.5 atmospheres of pressure. This means that your ears will pop like crazy as you descend and more importantly you will use your air correspondingly quicker. Your bloodstram also will absorb nitrogen faster at greater depths, and you become saturated with nitrogen (for a super analogy check here. Coming up too quickly in such a situation will cause the nitrogen to bubble out of your blood stream like a coke bottle with its top removed. This is mildly unpleasant to say the least, leading to the dreaded ‘bends.’

The combination of faster air consumption and nitrogen saturation means going into decompression on deep dives is especially dangerous as you run the risk of breathing your tank dry during an extended decompression stop. For the uninitiated this is the period of time you spend hanging at around 3-4 meters of water while the absorbed nitrogen leaves your system. Not a fun thing to do when you have many minutes of hanging around while worrying about running out of air and trying not to pop to the surface inadvertently (the effect on one's sinuses also leaves a lot to be desired). 

Unwise amount of ‘Deco’

At 36 meters however and about 30 minutes by boat lies an underwater garden, huge Gorgonian sea fans dotted on a sandy plain swept by strong currents. The presence of the fans means that dropping an anchor is a no-no. You basically have to throw yourself off the boat some meters up from the GPS point, grab your camera from the waiting boatman and swim down as quickly as possible, trying to keep yourself oriented in the right direction, keeping an eye on your buddy(ies) and equalizing frantically to prevent your sinuses from imploding. Of course all this time you have to keep an eye on your gear to make sure everything is working properly. Needless to say this is complex and this site is only for the experienced diver.

DJ behind a fan, should give you some idea of the size of the Gorgonians

Once you hit the bottom you have to find your photographic subject. For those with wide-angle lenses and dual strobes (i.e. DJ from Divesrilanka.com and Nishan from Seas of Serendipity) the subject matter is often the fans themselves. These with the camera metered for the blue background and the strobes providing fill flash, make beautiful subjects.

 A wide angle shot courtesy of DJ (Divesrilanka.com)

For a macro head like me (mostly due to the limitations of the DX-2G rig I carry), the subject are the coral gobies on the fans. Usually you find these gobies on whip coral on the shallower reefs but singly. At the Gorgonian Gardens however some of the fans have a few skittish gobies to keep me busy. I have made a few attempts at wide angle and possibly will do some more soon.

The first goby I photographed at Gorgonian Gardens. He seems a bit surprised.

 Recent wide angle effort (no colour so no good)

The challenge of taking photographs in these conditions however does sometimes make land photography pale in comparison. You have to maintain your breathing to make sure you are neutrally buoyant and not go crashing into the fans, you have to ensure your fins are out of the way for the same reason, you have to keep an eye on your bottom time, an eye on your buddy(ies) and fight the surge to stay in one place.

This is of course before you actually find your subject, then spend some more time finding one that stays in one place long enough to take a picture, meter the image, figure out your exposure, strobe position, etc to make sure you’re getting a workable image.  Needless to say this is challenging. And it is frustrating after you find a willing fish to hear your computer start beeping after a few frames.  You can only ignore the beeping for a couple of minutes before having to accept common sense and leave the gardens for another time…on the bright side there will be another time.
Last Friday’s workable image.


Environment & You - EFL Public Lecture series

EFL's 30th Anniversary lecture series which began on Thursday 24 November continues for the next 3 consecutive Thursdays. More details on the flier below and you can reserve your seat by calling the number on there. The Marine one should be interesting!


Ghost Nets

When a person sits down to a fish curry or a portion of fish and chips, they rarely think of where that fish comes from. We rarely realize that when we consume fish, we are eating the last truly wild caught meat on the planet, our ancient role as hunters reprised in the role of modern day fishermen.

Of course the new age fishermen are a far cry from what they were centuries or even decades ago. With engines, mechanization, longlines that stretch for kilometers with thousands of hooks and nets that could engulf the Empire State Building, the fisheries industry has become almost unrecognizable as has sadly our oceans, rapidly depleted and overfished what we see in our seas now appears to be but a sad remnant of the abundance that was there decades ago.

Our surface interval chats with Uncle Sumathi used to really bring this home, 56 years old, he had seen foreign trawlers come and rape the seas off Colombo, taking so much fish that the numbers have never recovered. Apparently the local fishermen had to gang up and beat up some of the fishermen who came in the trawlers to get rid of them and protect what was left. The discussion about the differences from then and now were frequent and depressing.

We rarely think about the ‘cost’ of the food on our plate except in monetary terms. The reality is that there is a far greater hidden cost to our environment, apart from the incidental catch which kills thousands of marine mammals and birds a year our hunger for fish continues to kill days, weeks, months and even years after the fishermen have moved on. This is done silently, without fan-fare by lost nets, those that escaped the fishermen, taken away by currents or carelessness.

A fish eye view of a derelict net, a net smothering Palagala (shallow reef in Colombo)

We see these nets often on our dives, especially on the inner reefs, carpeting the rock smothering everything in its path. Some are huge and while we try and take off what we can, it is a disheartening process as sea fans and soft corals often crunch away from the rock as we cut the nets. We often find fish entangled, dead or dying and other animals (await a story about a crab rescued from a net) waiting for a slow, inevitable death in the nets.

Dead and beheaded, a fish killed by a ghost net

One of our wrecks, the Medhafaru was literally a tomb for fish being sheathed in nets before some inteprid divers from the Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club cleared a lot of them from the ship. Research has provided some staggering estimates for kills from these nets, with a  single net in Puget Sound being estimated to have killed over 3,000 seabirds and fish combined. We don’t have any figures from Sri Lanka but it would be safe to assume fish kills are quite high.

Perilously close, fish feed close to a net on the Medhafaru

Divers can of course play a part in removing this menace but with the risk of entanglement it is advisable if only experienced divers working in teams tackle this kind of thing. We can all however try and understand where our seafood comes from and at least appreciate the cost to our natural systems from this harvest.

Cutting a net off the reef (only experienced divers should do this)


Hitting the Shoal

One of my favourite spectacles underwater are the ‘bait balls,’ conglomerations of small fish grouping together, tightly packed for protection from predators. These are especially common on the Cargo Wreck where thousands of fusiliers (Caesionidae) can be seen often in amorphous fluidity.

Not exactly a bait ball, but a shoal of fusiliers heading past.

Close up they are quite a beautiful fish

They are especially prolific when there’s a bit of a current and some plankton in the water and while fascinating to watch by themselves, the action really starts when a few Bonito show up. These medium size tuna hunt in small packs of five to eight fish and are capable of simply jaw-dropping bursts of speed.

There is nothing that can compare to the adrenaline rush you get watching these in action. I’d only seen these fish dead on a block of ice at a supermarket before I started diving so the speed and agility which these fish displayed was mind-blowing (I’m of course rapidly running out of superlatives to describe the action). You first notice them as a faint silver streak out of the deep blue. If they pass overhead you can see their slim silhouettes black against the backdrop of the sun glittering through 30 meters of water. You can see them flex their fins, moving them in and out as if warming them up for the rush into the shoal.

You have to keep a close eye on them at this time because even if you look away for a second, you can miss the lightning attack. From almost a standing start, they seem to pick a target and dart into the shoal of fusiliers, a blur as your eye struggles to follow. The bonito arrow is followed by the shoal of fusiliers splitting to avoid the attack, the fish moving as if with one mind. One bonito after another darts into the shoal, the fusiliers desperately trying to avoid the incoming fish. An underwater ballet unfolds that is beautiful to watch but deadly serious. Flashes of tuna and clouds of fusiliers playing a game of life and death, slowest one loses.

(Unfortunately my camera is too crap to capture these images but if you click here, you can see some baitball images that DJ has taken.)

This fusilier obviously caught the wrong end of someone's stick

Whenever I see shoals of fusiliers over the Cargo I always hang around in the water watching them while the uninitiated remain too busy looking at the ship to notice the hunters approaching. One of the seminal moments of the last season was when I was amidships close to one of the masts by myself as the hunters circled. A bonito came tearing into the fusiliers right at me, missed his kill and arched up past my bubbles back into the blue.

A grace under water that has truly to be seen to be believed.


Underwater life: Hawkfish

Most definitely the clowns of the underwater world. Wikipedia rather boringly describes them as 'strictly tropical, perciform marine fish of the family Cirrhitidae.' Well yes that does explain their taxonomy but rest assured Hawkfish are fish with attitude.

Who are you looking at? Hawkfish don't back down easily
There is one species that we come across (I think, as I am no expert in identifying fish) on our dives off Colombo and that is the Pixy Hawfish (Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus). This also appears to come in two flavours, the usual spotted kind and a more solid colour morph which is sort of orange with faint spots to be seen sometimes. You will often see them perched amongst corals or a parts of a ship, looking out like a lord looking over its domain. Apparently this habit of superciliously peering around is what inspired their common name, 'hawkfish.'

The spotted version of the Pixy Hawkfish doing what it does best, hawking

I used to see these fish quite frequently while diving but it wasn't until I started taking photographs on dives that I truly came to appreciate their character. This was brought home to me when I was trying to take a photograph of a nudibranch I had found on the Medhafaru wreck, a new species that I hadn't seen before so I was quite excited and determined to get an image of it. This of course since nudi's are generally sessile creatures wasn't rocket science. I did however notice a strange anomaly when I was trying to take the photo, an orange flash that kept appearing and disappearing in the viewfinder.

On removing my eye from the viewfinder to ascertain the cause of the confusion, I was surprised to see a Hawkfish staring at me, eye to eye. Apparently in my efforts to photograph the nudi, I had strayed into his territory and he was having none of it. Despite the fact that he was about 1% of my size he pugnaciously charged the camera and me repeatedly.

Attitude..this is with my macro lens on so the fellow is right up in the camera

I've experienced this many times with Hawkfish who seem territorial to the point of foolishness. They are also incredibly inquisitive. Again on the Medhafaru, DJ and I were diving it and DJ had swum into the cabin to investigate. Being afraid of dark spaces I remained outside to photograph his bubbles streaming through a gap in the cabin. It wasn't long however until this attracted the attention of a Hawfish. First he investigated it and then for a few minutes tried to attack the bubbles.

Hmm...what's that?

Unsuccessful in this he finally discovered that if he leaned against the bubbles he received a rather wonderful massage. The expression of bliss on his face was comical though perhaps tinged with a bit of narcosis on my part.

Getting relief for that backache

Hawkfish are definitely fish to watch out for on the reef and make great photographic subjects for a bit of eye-to-eye action.

Obviously this courting couple did not appreciate being disturbed


A Word of Explaination (again)

It is a bit shocking to me that I've let this slide so much. My sidebar indicates that for the whole of 2011 I've had one post. I guess in the end that is an indication of how busy a year it has been, personal stuff and a new job with the usual steep learning curve on top of a crazy dive schedule has meant zero updates. Well here's a commitment to blogging a bit more. The flavour of things are probably going to change a bit as well, especially since I now have underwater photography gear and I avoid Yala because of the overcrowding.

So in short order expect:
1) Some wildlife snippets from yonks ago

2) Shorter dive posts with more images

3) More commentary and links on going on's in the conservation/environmental field in Sri Lanka (I will try to avoid ranting)

4) Possibly some information with pictures of the denizens of the deep. Sadly I'm one of the few people in the world obsessed with nudibranchs so expect geeky posts on that.

Stay posted...


Old Man and the Sea

It was an unlikely place to be, the little shanty in Dehiwala by the sea, bidding goodbye to a most unlikely friend. Lights flickering and a baby kitten mewling as we sat quietly in a group with a shared sense of loss. He was almost unrecognizable out of his constant, characteristic red t-shirt. I’m going to miss the early morning rides out, the old man’s shrewd eyes slightly milky with age but with a sharp tongue. His ribbing about my weight was an integral part of our dives as were the stilted chats during the surface interval, the old days of fishing and the scarcity of modern times, a grassroots view of the current dire straits the country’s marine resources are in.

One of my favourite memories was the mischievous glint in his eyes  when he happily informed Asha and me that while we were obliviously coming up from a dive, our bubbles had tickled a Whale Shark over our heads.

I think Ajja put it best.

‎"Up the road, in his shack, the old man was sleeping again. He was still sleeping on his face and the boy was sitting by him watching him. The old man was dreaming about the lions." Good bye to the real "old man and the Sea". We will miss him so much.