Wet Tropics Underwater Photography 2015-16

After leaving the Kimberley for the start of the monsoon season, it was time to head east again to the Cairns region to photograph the animals of the Wet Tropics. Here are some of the highlights:

Photographing Noah Creek 002Rabbithead cling-gobies

Lugging my underwater kit around was no easy task. It weighs about 15kg, and the rocks around the streams can be steep and slippery. But to photograph cling gobies in their natural habitat, the risks must be taken. The first species I managed to get was the Rabbithead Cling Goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus). A large species, at around 12-15cm it is by far the most difficult to observe and photograph. Flighty and fast, they retreat immediately to rock crevices when disturbed. Females are dull brown, while males in breeding season are brilliant electric blue and black with a red tail outlined in blue. After countless sightings in the fast, rocky waters of Harvey Creek, all of which ended in the fish scooting away as soon as I was anywhere near them I managed great success. I slid like a walrus into one pool to come face to face with two fighting males on a flat rock. They were totally absorbed in their battle and did not notice my intrusion. I was close enough to fill the frame with one of them at a time, though they refused to sit still or both be seen in the open at the same time. I did get some great shots. All other attempts after that failed like the first in all of the streams we tried. They are the hardest of them all…

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus)

Male rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) resting for a moment before continuing the fight with his neighbor

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus)

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) Male displaying

 

Stiphodon cling gobies

Rabbitheads might be the largest, but the jewels of the stream would be the Stiphodons. Found in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Northeastern Australia, there are a number of species. Males are often very bright while females all look relatively similar with black horizontal stripes over a light brown base colour. They get around in small schools scraping algae off the rock surfaces. Later in the wet season, males display bright colours any they spawn, the larvae being washed out to sea before returning to the streams months later.

Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni)

Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni)

The first species this time round was the Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni). Despite being the most widespread Australian cling goby, it is one I have had trouble finding. At Ellis Beach I explored a small stream and found several of these munching away at the algae. I slid the top half of my body in and carefully took this one useful image. Outside breeding season, males become purple and when displaying become electric blue.

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus)

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus). Male

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus)

Red cling goby. Female

Also just outside displaying season were the red cling gobies (Stiphodon rutilaureus) which are found in the lowermost sections of the freshwater streams. Males become brilliant red with blue cheeks when displaying.

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby with white patches

The most common cling goby I see in the Daintree is the Black (Stiphodon atratus). Last trip it was the only species seen. Males look fantastic while displaying. Metallic green cheeks on a dark body with electric blue fin edging they seem to display earlier than the other species.  

Smilosicyopus leprurus

Smilosicyopus leprurus

Smilosicyopus leprurus – carnivorous cling goby

This one was a bit of a surprise, and finding it was a new sighting for the creek I was in. Unlike all of the other cling gobies featured here, this species is a carnivore, taking macro invertebrates. Despite intense searching all through the stream, this is the only individual I found and the best image I could manage.

Other gobies

There are a large variety of other goby species in the Carins region’s freshwater streams. Here are some images with captions…  

Unidentified Redigobius

The spotfin goby (Redigobius biklonatus) is common in the slow leafy sections of creeks near the sea.

Flase Celebes Goby (Glossogobius illinus)

Flase Celebes Gobies (Glossogobius illinus) are the most common of all of the goby species in the coastal streams.

Roman nose goby (Awaous acritosus)

The largest of the gobies, the Roman Nosed (Awaous acritosus) is also extremely shy, darting away quickly. They grow to about 30cm.

Sleepers or Gudgeons

A number of gudgeon species live in the tropical streams of the Cairns area, but can be shy and hard to photograph.  

Brown Sleeper (Eleotris fusca)

What might be a Brown Sleeper (Eleotris fusca) peering out of his boulder home…

Snakehead Gudgeon male (Giurus margaritacea)

Snakehead Gudgeon male (Giurus margaritacea)

Well, that’s the round up of the gudgeon and goby species I found in the Wet Tropics this time around. Next post will be about the other fish species…

9 Amazing animals from the cold waters of Southern Australia

 9 Amazing animals from the cold waters of Southern Australia

Well everyone, 2015 has been a rather hectic year. No rest for the wicked, some say. Right after leaving the Wet Tropics, it was straight down south with my favourite biologist and partner Linda for a “meet the family.” Yes, she did very well, but no doubt you’re more interested in what we saw under the sea… More information for each image can be found by following the Flickr link.

9 Dragons of the Sea

Now these little guys are about the most amazing members of the Seahorse and Pipefish family (Sygnathidae). There are three types of Sea Dragon found in Southern Australia, two kinds of Weedy and one kind of Leafy. The common Weedy Seadragon is far more abundant than you may realise. In one snorkelling session I spotted over 40 of them! It does take a trained eye, and they sit at a depth of 3-6m among seagrass and sea nymph beds. Like other seahorses and sea dragons the male is the one that looks after the eggs under his tail until they hatch. This was the first thing we saw on the first day. Not a bad start!

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

The long tubular snout is used to suck up tiny shrimps

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

In the sea nymph beds they can be a little tricky to spot…

8 Little Sea Dumplings

Unknown to most people that visit the beach, at night a strange little character emerges from the sand, peering out with big, bulbous eyes.

Dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica)

Dumpling squid emerging from sand (Euprymna tasmanica)

With a coating of sand stuck to their bodies, they switch on a light from an organ within to cancel out their shadows from predators and prey below.

Dumpling squid with sandy coating

Dumpling squid with sandy coating

Dumpling squid with curled tentacles

Dumpling squid with curled tentacles

If disturbed, they become even more adorable.

Dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica)

Dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica)

Dumpling or Bobtail squid are relatives of true squid and cuttlefish. Many species are found around the world’s oceans, and they are nocturnal, coming out after dark to hunt shrimps. The sand sticks to their bodies and can be shed in one lump with a spurt of ink if the animal needs to make an escape. The sinking blob of sand must look and smell like the squid and may distract a predator long enough for the little dumpling to jet away to safety. These little critter live only about 3 months. I had to brave the freezing cold water by myself to get these images after dark!

7 Colourful Cowfish

I really don’t know how a six-horned fish with a tiny mouth and psychedelic fingerpaint coating got the name “cowfish” but these Temperate Boxfish are very common on deeper reefs and seagrass beds in southern Victoria.

There are two species, the Shaw’s

Male Shaw's cowfish (Aracana aurita)

Male Shaw’s cowfish (Aracana aurita)

And the Ornate.

Aracana ornata 008

Ornate Cowfish

They get around picking at small invertebrates on the pylons of piers, rocks and reefs. We saw loads of these on the dives and some while snorkeling. Shaw’s were most common on reefs inside Port Phillip Bay and the Ornate was abundant on the seagrass beds around Flinders Pier.

6 Blue Devils

There is no need to explain the reason these fish are the major bucket list species of the Southern Sponge Gardens. At Portsea Hole we saw a number of Blue Devils just hanging around at about the 20m mark. On slack tide they emerge to sit in midwater to feed. Blue Devils grow to about 40cm.

Blue Devil (Paraplesiops meleagris)

Blue Devil (Paraplesiops meleagris)

Paraplesiops meleagris 025

Blue Devil in sponge garden

5 Leatherjackets

Hard sounding fish, no doubt. Leatherjackets are also known as Filefish. Allied to the tropical Triggerfish, they are prolific in Southern Australian waters. They are all carnivores, feeding on worms, jellyfish and anything else that they can scavenge. Like their Triggerfish cousins they have a sharp, barbed spine on the back of the head which makes it hard for predators to swallow them. The skin is usually rough, like sandpaper. Here is an overview of some of the species we saw: Pygmy Leatherjacket

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

The only Gunn’s Leatherjacket I have ever seen

Gunn's leatherjacket (Monacanthus gunnii)

Gunn’s leatherjacket (Monacanthus gunnii)

Bridled Leatherjacket. A small species often seen in huge swarms in warmer weather.

Bridled leatherjacket (Acanthaluteres spilomenlanurus)

Bridled leatherjacket (Acanthaluteres spilomenlanurus)

Female Southern Leatherjacket

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia australis)

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia australis)

The unusual Mosaic Leatherjacket – a juvenile

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

Male Southern Leatherjacket

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia freycineti)

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia freycineti)

The very distinctive Horseshoe Leatherjacket    

Horseshoe leatherjacket (Meuschenia hippocrepis)

Horseshoe leatherjacket (Meuschenia hippocrepis)

Yellow Striped Leatherjacket

Yellow striped leatherjacket (Meuschenia flavolineata)

Yellow striped leatherjacket (Meuschenia flavolineata)

4 Octopus

Well, the Occies didn’t disappoint either. On every night dive we found them. In the freezing cold, we tried our luck at Mornington Pier. It was blowing a gale from the north which is very bad news for conditions. However we did manage to find a few nice creatures, but the octopus were the real treat. This Southern Keeled Octopus sat patiently for photos before vanishing down a hole in the mud.

Keeled octopus (Octopus berrima)

Keeled octopus (Octopus berrima)

And anywhere we went on the sand on any other night we were rewarded with the Sand Octopus, a species that hides under the sand by day, emerging after dark.

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

They are absolutely everywhere! Especially at Rye. We found them hunting in ankle deep water.

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

Southern sand octopus burying itself

Southern sand octopus burying itself

3 Sealing the deal

What trip to southern waters would be complete would goofing around with the resident seals? These playful mammals are easily found at Chinaman’s Hat in Southern Port Phillip Bay.

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus)

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) Or Sea Lions?

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus)

 As soon as we arrived they greeted us, leaping into the water and rolling around, stopping to check us out before jetting away at full speed. They were too fast for any good images, but it was a blast.Actually, on second thought they might be Sea Lions. I’ll have to check…

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus)

 

2 A lonely cuttle

It was a surprise to only see one Cuttlefish this trip. We were diving at South Channel Fort and I saw him in a little cave. He came out and just sat there, in a miserable looking cuttlefish pose. I did get some cracker shots though. The wide angle lens worked a treat.

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

 

1 Deadly beauty

Without a doubt the most attractive of the octopus is the Blue Ringed. There are several known species, all of which have saliva loaded with a cocktail of toxins that will kill you (after making you completely paralyzed in no time flat) if you handle one and get bitten.

They are shy and retiring creatures, the Southern Blue Ringed has been a major bucket list species for me for a long time. Here are three I found in as many days: This little fella is doing his best not to be seen. They do not like coming into contact with people and usually sneak away quietly.

Camouflaged blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

Camouflaged blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

When disturbed they do change immediately, turning yellow with black blotches. In each blotch is a bright blue ring.

Displaying Blue Ringed Octopus

Displaying Blue Ringed Octopus

This one was spotted on the bottom under Rye Pier late one night. I was the only one in the water as it was too cold for anyone else. This one was so big I thought it was a Keeled Octopus. It was about the size of a tea saucer- far larger than I thought they reached.

Disturbed blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

Disturbed blue ringed octopus


Well, that’s about it for now. There is more coming when I get some more spare time, but in the meantime enjoy my Flickr album for more images. (Opens in new window)

 

 

 

Getting sub aquatic in the freezing cold part III

After the previous night’s failed attempt at getting in the water, Rick and I had decided to attempt a morning dive back at Portsea. Only a minute’s walk from the Dive Victoria Group’s dive shop, we once again dropped into the muddy water at the shore end of the pier. The murk was considerable, visibility improved slightly as we headed for the shallow reef nearby.

Rick under pier

Soon Rick tugged excitedly at one of my fins. I turned around as he jabbed his finger in the direction of three bedraggled looking male sea dragons sitting in a small sandy depression. It was like a divorced weekend dad’s meeting, all of them were missing fins or parts of their tails, yet carrying the unhatched eggs under what was left of their tails – females nowhere in sight. Rick was ecstatic nonetheless, they were his first ever sea dragons. The dragons weren’t so pleased and promptly packed up and moved to another spot to continue whatever they were doing.

Rick and sea dragon

Rick observes a sea dragon

The shallow reef had loads of nooks and crannies, most of them had a resident scaly fin guarding egg masses, but under the deeper ones there were several stingrays, hidden from the surge and sunlight while swarms of bullseyes (Pemphris spp) awaited nightfall to come out and feed. Sponges and bryzoans of all colours carpeted the ceilings.

_C3A6700

The stingrays were tucked right in under the caves. I could not get the camera far enough in…

Bullseye school

Bullseyes under a ceiling of sponges

But there were no cuttlefish to photograph, so we headed for the pier. On a pylon, a beautiful blue and yellow nudibranch (Tamjba verconis) crawled over a red sponge.

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Red sea tulip

Red sea tulip – a sea squirt – also on the pylonn

Red sea star

Red sea stars were common amongst the rubble

Orange biscuit star

Biscuit stars are never in short supply either.

One fish did catch me by surprise, and it was a lucky find. A small fish about 12cm long moved just enough for me to see it. Incredibly well camouflaged, the velvet fish (Aploactisoma milseii) is rarely seen though probably common. I don’t know much about these cool little fish, though they are probably ambush predators.

Velvetfish (Aploactisoma milseii)

The enigmatic velvet fish

So that was about it for the dive. Here’s a seadragon’s head. Just because.

Weedy sea dragon head

Getting sub-aquatic in the freezing cold part II

Well, here we are moving on to part 2 of the Southern diving adventure. My mate Rick came over to have a dive or two, specifically a night dive.

After getting the equipment again from Dive Victoria group we set off to Blairgowrie, just a little way up the Peninsula from Portsea.

It was a longer walk in the howling wind up the pier to the drop-in point towards the end. As soon as we finished the descent I noticed a Pot Bellied Seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) sitting on the pylon. I chased it around and around until it settled on a clump of weed. But the silt was too much and the seahorse kept turning away. I managed a couple of what I think are sub-standard shots.
Potbellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis)
This dive wasn’t so spectacular, the water was siltier, darker and other than mullet and a few leatherjackets and porcupinefish there was not a great deal about in the way of fish. But there were loads of invertebrates. The blue spotted yellow nudibranch was all over the place, as were sponges, anenomes, ascidians and hermit crabs.

Red hermit crab (Strigopagurus strigimanus)

Red hermit crab (Strigopagurus strigimanus)

White and yellow sea anenome

White and yellow “Poached egg” sea anenome

Red sponge macro

Red sponge macro

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Ascidians on pylon

Ascidians on pylon. Ascidians or sea squirts are not actually invertebrates!

There were however loads of Southern Goatfish, (Upeneicthys vlamingii) known locally as “red mullet” though are not mullet at all. They feed by feeling about with their chin barbels for food, plunging their heads into the sand when they find something edible. They also feed above the bottom on fish and crustaceans.

Southern goatfish (Upeneicthys vlamingii)

Southern goatfish (Upeneicthys vlamingii) rooting about in the sand.

Mooching about over the bottom was a sparsely spotted stingaree. Not a stingray, stingarees are easily identified by the short tail. They do have a spine on it, and it is every bit as nasty as that of a true stingray. These guys are super common in the shallows of Port Phillip Bay.

Sparsely spotted stingaree (Urolophus paucimaculatus)

Sparsely spotted stingaree (Urolophus paucimaculatus)

For me, the highlight of the dive were the leatherjackets (filefish). The six spined (Meushenia freycineti) was by far the most common, though only juveniles but the coolest is the sponge-mimicking Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus) which, when disturbed curls its tail and does its best imitation of a sponge.

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus) imitating a sponge

Sixspined leatherjacket (Meushenia freycineti)

Sixspined leatherjacket (Meushenia freycineti)

It was getting way too cold, so Rick and I surfaced and walked back to the car in the rain with totally numb feet and hands.

That night we scheduled a night dive, however the wind had changed and strengthened. Trying to gear up at Sorrento was horrible, cold and windy. Touching the wetsuit with my finger sent a cold shock up my arm. Besides, the visibility had dropped significantly anyway.

We agreed to return to Portsea the next day for a final dive…

Getting sub aquatic in the freezing cold part I

I’ve been back a week now, and I am only just thawing out after some awesome diving in the far south of Victoria.

I arrived at Dive Victoria Group‘s Portsea office and was fitted out for the gear. Now, I live in the extreme north of Australia, well into the tropics, and this location is about as far from that as you can get on the mainland. Wetsuits and hoods are not things I wear into the water very often in the hot North. Waddling down the short path to Portsea Pier, the cold wind froze the exposed skin on my hands, feet and face. This was going to be a real challenge!

To make matters worse, the dredging and opening of Port Phillip Bay’s heads have caused nasty erosion along the front beach of Portsea, so there is earthworks to stabilize it all, muddying up the water. Also, more swell can get in on the incoming tide, which stirs up the water significantly.

Life on the pylons

Looking towards the surface

Life on the pylons

Life on the pylons

Piercing cold needles of sea water seeped into my wetsuit as I eased myself in, but once fully submerged, the wetsuit did its job and I was warm, except for the hands and feet. Never mind, as I continued down and out, the murky water gave way to better visibility.

One of the first sightings was a wonderful Giant Cuttlefish (Sepia apama). It didn’t like the attention, and stayed just out of range of the camera. I did manage one snap shot but it is slightly blurred, no good.

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

The giant cuttlefish that would not stay still

As always there was a heap of ascidians (sea squirts), bryzoans, sea weeds and sponges growing all over the pylons. Picking away at them was a Magpie Perch (Cheilodactylus nigrans) which is a species of morwong; perch like marine fishes mostly found in cold southern waters. They feed on small invertebrates in the sand and among the marine growth.

Juvenile magpie perch (Cheilodactylus nigripes)

Juvenile magpie perch (Cheilodactylus nigripes)

By no means rare were swarms of porcupine fish (Diodon necthemerus). Closely related to the puffer fish, they are covered in sharp spines, if given a fright they inflate with water to create a spiny ball most predators can’t even hope to eat, though in the tropics I did watch a giant toadfish preying on one a few years back on the surface.

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) schooling

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) schooling

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) inflated

Porcupinefish (Diodon nicthemerus) inflated

At the corner of the pier was a Scaleyfin (Parma victoriae), a species of cold water damsel fish. This male was guarding his clutch of eggs laid in an old tyre.

Male scaleyfin (Parma victoriae)

Male scaleyfin (Parma victoriae)

A beautiful male Senator wrasse (Pictilabrus laticlavus) was paying attention to a nearby female, darting in and out of the weeds. As quick as a flash, they both raced towards the surface, spawning in a split second, returning to the weeds again.

Senator wrasse male

Senator wrasse male

Senator wrasse female

Senator wrasse female

At the end of the pier a bright orange fish caught my attention. Scribbled with blue, the Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalichthys mosaicus) paid me no attention, going about his business picking at things unseen amongst the sponges.

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

A cousin of the leatherjacket is the Shaw’s cowfish (Aracana aurita). This is a male, females are shades of brown.

Shaw's cowfish (male) (Aracana aurita)

Shaw’s cowfish (male) (Aracana aurita)

I moved out over the sea nymph and algae beds in search of other things when I noticed right in front of me was this awesome little Ringbacked pipefish (Stipecampus cristatus). With the appearance of a rotting sea nymph stem, it sits on the bottom, rolling around with the waves, snapping up tiny shrimps.

Ring backed pipefish (Stipecampus cristatus)

Ring backed pipefish (Stipecampus cristatus)

The star of the show were the sea dragons. (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). Cousins of the seahorses and pipefish, they drift about over the weeds and sneak up on tiny shrimps, snapping them up with the long tubular snout. Without the aid of diving lights, they are not overly colourful, but light up wonderfully when light is available. Orange body with yellow spots and blue-purple bars they are one of the most spectacular of all the southern fishes. Like all seahorses and their relatives, the male carries the eggs until they hatch.

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

A weedy sea dragon hovers in midwater

Weedy sea dragon camouflaged in weeds (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Despite their colours, the weedy seadragon is well camouflaged when they want to be.

A freezing cold first dive for this trip in Victoria, but not one I regret. Two more dives to come…