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.