Broccoli Coral

by B. N. Sullivan

Broccoli Coral (Dendronephthya sp.)This is the second in a series of posts intended to showcase the many colors and shapes of soft corals in the taxonomic family Nephtheidae.

In the first post I mentioned that these corals appear in a countless array of colors. Most grow as tree-like structures having a stem, or stalk, with many branches. Near the ends of the branches are clusters of polyps which open like tiny flowers when they are feeding. When the polyps are closed, they look like little beads.

In fact, when the polyps are retracted, these corals -- especially the greenish colored ones -- resemble broccoli plants, and "Broccoli Coral" is one of the common nicknames given to this type of coral. One look at the photo here, and you'll understand why. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

Although this kind of coral can resemble broccoli in appearance, it definitely is not a plant. It is a colony of animals -- the coral polyps. The polyps arrange themselves in bundles at the ends of the rubbery stalks. Each polyp has exactly eight short, feathery tentacles. In order to feed, the polyps open and close their little tentacles, grabbing tiny nutrient particles that are suspended in the water.

Many Nephtheid coral colonies contract during daylight hours, making them look a bit shrunken and withered. They expand to feed at night, plumping themselves out and extending all of their little tentacles like bouquets of flowers at the tips of their stalks. For this reason, many of the best photos of these corals are taken during night dives.

I took the photo on this page in the Red Sea, during daylight hours. You can see that the polyps are tightly shut. In tomorrow's "Wordless Wednesday" post, you'll see some macro photos of this same variety of soft coral.

Corals of Many Colors - The Nephtheidae Family

by B. N. Sullivan

Nephtheid soft corals in the Red SeaThis past week our Wordless Wednesday post was a macro (ultra close-up) photo of a red Nephtheid soft coral. Quite a few people who commented on the photo indicated that they had never seen such a coral, or even imagined there was a coral of that color.

The truth is that corals in the family Nephtheidae are among the most beautiful things a diver will see underwater. They come in a seemingly endless number of color variations. Some of these corals have colors that are are very rich, like that in the image I posted last Wednesday. Others have softer colors, like those in the photo on this page. Nephtheid soft corals also come in assorted pastels, and some are so pale and delicate as to be translucent.

I have hundreds of images of these soft corals, and I must have promised myself dozens of times to stop taking pictures of them. How many photos of soft corals does one person need to take?! But I always end up relenting when I see still another color shade that I haven't photographed before. I can't seem to resist them.

The next several posts will display a sampler of Nephtheid soft corals in their various colors. Most will be macro shots that show not just the colors, but also the structure of this lovely type of marine life. We hope you will enjoy this look at some of our "corals of many colors."

Tales of Whales: Close Encounters with Humpbacks in Hawaii

by B. N. Sullivan

I should mention at the outset of this tale that, since Humpback Whales are a protected species, it is unlawful to pursue or otherwise interfere with them, either from the surface or underwater. People, whether on boats or in the water as swimmers or divers, are forbidden to approach "closer than 100 yards of any humpback whale or closer than 300 yards of a humpback mother and calf," according to the law.

On the other hand, the whales themselves are oblivious to (and excused from) such regulations. If they decide to, they are free to approach us, instead of the other way around. And once in awhile they do just that!

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)As it happens, our very first underwater whale encounter also was the most dramatic. Or perhaps it seems like that because like so many other 'first time' events in life, it left such a vivid and indelible memory.

Jerry and I were diving at Puako, Hawaii near a certain underwater promontory known as Snapper Point. At the top of Snapper Point, a narrow plateau juts seaward like a coral-covered peninsula. The top of the plateau begins at a depth of about 20 meters (65 ft), then the terrain slopes down steeply to a depth of nearly 40 meters (130 feet), where it levels off, more or less, into a sand flat. It always has been a favorite dive: Swim from shore directly to the base of Snapper Point, have a look around at the sand community for a few minutes, then begin a gradual ascent along the steep and rocky slope to the plateau, finally moving across the coral gardens toward the shallows and shore. It's a classic multi-level dive.

Because Snapper Point is sort of like the last outpost between the shore and the deep blue abyss, we often see big animals there. Sharks, eagle rays, mantas, amberjacks, barracuda, tuna and assorted pelagics cruise past Snapper Point frequently. We also see pods of dolphins in the area from time to time, and sometimes they see us, too, and dive down to look us over. In fact, the possibility of seeing big stuff is a main attraction for diving at Snapper Point.

Then one day at Snapper Point we saw the biggest of the big stuff.

On the day of our first whale encounter, we had completed the deepest part of our dive at Snapper Point, and we were coming slowly up the slope, poking lazily along, looking for shells and little critters on the rocky bank. Just like always.

We were a few meters below the level of the plateau when a shadow passed over us. We both stopped and looked up at the same moment -- just in time to see a full-grown Humpback Whale do a jackknife dive from the surface and glide down toward us. We were stunned.

The whale, which looked to be about the size of a city bus, leveled off just at our depth, at a spot maybe five meters in front of us. It stopped and held its position for a moment, pectoral fins akimbo, and with an eye the size of a basketball, it just looked right at us. I think we actually stopped breathing for a moment, and I'm sure that our eyes, too, were about as big as they could get!

Next the whale drew its pectoral fins in to its sides, banked slightly to its right, and began to glide away. Only when it completed its turn toward the blue did it move its huge tail to propel itself. The last we saw of it was the white undersides of its enormous tail flukes -- easily 10 or 12 feet wide (although we didn't exactly get to measure!) -- beating up and down gently but purposefully as it left us.

That was the end of that dive for us. We could think of nothing but the whale, so we ceased our underwater sightseeing for the day and headed toward the shallows and our exit point.

One of the most striking things about that encounter, beyond the fact that the whale came so close to us in the first place, was noticing how graceful and agile it was. You'd think an animal so large would just lumber about -- a bull in a china shop, as it were. What we saw suggested anything but clumsiness. The whale dived just as deep as it needed to in order to inspect us. Then it paused, motionless, with what any diver would recognize as excellent buoyancy control. And when it left us, it made what can only be described as a precision departure. No thrash, no clunky moves. Clearly it was exquisitely aware of -- and in control of -- its body position, and that of its fins and tail flukes. That is what was so impressive, and what burned into our memory.

While that was our most dramatic whale encounter, it was not the last. On a number of occasions since then, we have seen whales underwater. Most encounters have happened while we were in buoy mode (which I described in the previous whale post), positioned near a dropoff or near the top of Snapper Point, just waiting (and hoping) for the whales to pass by. Very often we would wait like that -- sometimes for up to an hour -- and see nothing but little fishies, or perhaps a manta as a consolation prize. But once or twice in a season a whale or two will swim past us at relatively close range, as if rewarding us for our dedication and patience.

Do they notice us? I have to say, yes, I believe they do. In some instances I have been completely certain that they noticed us. An example that comes to mind right away: Along with our friend Dan, we had spent about forty minutes one day, waiting in buoy mode over a certain dropoff, because we'd seen whales on the surface in that area, just as we were entering the water. It was a cold day, and eventually Jerry signaled that he was going to end his dive and swim to shore because he was too chilled. Dan and I were getting cold, too, but decided to remain at the dropoff awhile longer. Several more minutes went by, and then along came a pair of huge Humpbacks. They swam past, close enough that we felt turbulence. It was really exciting. Spontaneously and in unison, both Dan and I were 'punching the sky' in delight. And believe it or not, one of the whales slowed slightly and looked back at us momentarily, as if to say, "What in the heck is THAT?!"

We have learned something about when to expect a whale encounter, or more correctly, when not to. We have noticed that when we hear the whales vocalizing, we never see them, even when the sounds are so loud that we imagine they must be just feet away. Without exception, every time we have come face to face with a Humpback underwater, it has been during an interval of whale silence. We think, perhaps, that they just don't vocalize much while they are swimming. Of course, neither do we.

About the Photo : I've never been able to photograph a whale underwater. Either I haven't had a camera when the whales appeared, or else I had a camera but it was set up for macro. I chose the photo above from the NOAA Photo Library. According to the notation there, the photographer was Dr. Louis Herman, who has had a long career studying the behavior, sensory processes and cognition of cetaceans. It seems fitting that we use Dr. Herman's photo to illustrate our story: When I was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii (UH), several visits to the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, which Dr. Herman founded, gave me my first exposure to cetacean behavior. Dr. Herman is now a Professor Emeritus at UH.

Note: This is the third post in a series about the Humpback Whales that winter in Hawaii. In case you have not seen them, you may want to have a look at the two earlier episodes:
  • Tales of Whales: Humpbacks in Hawaii - includes a brief video of the whales, plus a link to a live web cam at Puako, where we dive. You may be able to see the whales for yourself if you are lucky!
  • Tales of Whales: Vocal Visitations - tells of hearing the whales underwater, and includes a link so that you can listen to the whales' songs and vocalizations, just as we hear them underwater.

Tales of Whales: Vocal Visitations

by B. N. Sullivan

Yesterday we introduced our readers to Hawaii's humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), the huge marine mammals that frequent our waters in large numbers every year during the winter months. At this time of year, the whales' presence dominates in this part of the Pacific Ocean. Not only do we see them daily from the surface as they spout, breach, and slap the surface of the water with their fins and tail flukes, we hear them incessantly beneath the ocean's surface. And sometimes, if we are lucky, we see them underwater as well.

Mostly, we hear the whales. The term whale songs has been used for years to describe the humpbacks' vocalizations. At times they do indeed 'sing', but believe me, a lot of what we hear from the whales is not exactly melodious. They snort, they whine, they trill, they grunt and groan. They make assorted barnyard sounds.

Jerry in Buoy ModeThey say "whoop, whoop, whoop" and then purr so loudly that the sounds resonate in a diver's body. When the whales are relatively close by, we can physically feel the sound waves their vocalizations generate, perceiving them as palpable vibrations in our own rib cages, in addition to hearing them.

We think of these events as vocal visitations by the whales. The term 'visitation' may suggest something akin to a spiritual experience in your mind. Without exaggeration, that is what the term is meant to evoke. It's impossible to experience these visitations without having an exquisite sense of awe, in the purest meaning of the word, and without feeling very privileged indeed.

Many, many times during our winter dives at Puako, the whale sounds have been so loud and persistent that they are completely distracting. At their loudest, the sounds are close to overpowering.

At such times there is really nothing to do but to settle on a sand patch somewhere to be still and just listen, because it's impossible to do or think of anything else. If there is nowhere safe or convenient to settle, we take up a posture that we call 'buoy mode,' which Jerry is demonstrating in the photo on this page. Buoy mode entails positioning oneself in the water column, suspended somewhere below the surface, but well above the bottom. The idea is to remain quiet and immobile. In this case we use buoy mode to listen to the whales in a kind of motionless meditation.

Sometimes we hear the calls of an individual whale. More often we are party to what clearly are conversations amongst a number of whales. But, almost without exception, every time we actually have seen whales underwater, the encounter has occurred during a period of silence on the part of the whales. Then out of the blue -- very literally in this case! -- there's a whale (or two or three), right before our eyes.

We'll tell you about some of our face-to-face encounters with humpback whales in Hawaii in our next regular post (after Wordless Wednesday!), but meanwhile we encourage everyone to visit The Whalesong Project to listen to the kinds of whale vocalizations that we hear all winter when we dive at Puako. When you get to the website, click on the phrase "We are bringing Whalesongs to the World" near the top of the page. Let the recording load in your favorite media player, and then sit back, close your eyes, and experience a humpback whale vocal visitation for yourself.

Tales of Whales: Humpbacks in Hawaii

by B. N. Sullivan

One of the most wonderful -- and wondrous -- things about diving here in Hawaii, is the fact that some 10,000 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) spend the winter months in our waters. During the winter months, we get to see them frequently on the surface, and once in awhile, underwater as well.

Our blogger friend Sheila put up a humpback whale video on her site yesterday, and it reminded us to share some whale tales with our readers. For openers, here's the video:

(If the video does not play or display properly above, click here to view it on YouTube.)

The humpbacks that come to Hawaii every winter are a part of the North Pacific population that spend their summers in Alaskan waters. They pass the summer feeding, mostly, and then migrate south to warmer waters in winter. Some of these whales winter in the eastern Pacific, near Baja California, while the rest come here to Hawaii. It is here that they mate, and where the mama whales who successfully mated the year before give birth to their calves.

The whales begin arriving for the season in late Fall. We usually spot the first ones some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The arrival of the whales is a big deal to those of us who live near the coast or spend time in the water. Neighbors vie to be the first to spot the whales as they arrive, and to spread the word, "They're here! They're here!"

We see them offshore frequently, throughout the winter. We see them spout when they come to the surface to breathe. As mammals the whales are air breathers, and even though they can hold their breath for quite a long time, they must come up to the surface regularly for air.

The humpbacks play near the surface, too. They slap the surface of the ocean with their tail flukes, or with their big, flat pectoral fins. They breach and frolic with one another. Quite often we see the mama whales with their youngsters breaching almost simultaneously -- a real sight to behold!

These are huge creatures, weighing over 40 tons at adulthood. Despite their mass, they are very agile in the water. In the video you'll see one whale manage to leap almost completely out of the water. We call that maneuver a "full pickle" -- a term based on an apt description we once heard: that the humpback whale sort of resembles a huge dill pickle, with ceiling fan blades for pectoral fins. I can't recall exactly where we heard that, but the image stuck, and we began referring to a full breach as a "full pickle."

Here's a link to a live web cam at Puako, where we dive most often, so you can see what we see from the shore. If you're lucky, you just may see some whales. (You can also see what our weather and ocean surface conditions are like, in real time!)

In the next post we'll tell you about some encounters we've had with humpback whales. Meanwhile, you can find out more about these incredible creatures at these recommended websites:
Next: Encountering humpback whales underwater.

A little fish with a big job

by B. N. Sullivan

Hawaiian cleaner wrasse (Labroides phtorophagusThis is an enlarged photo of a little bitty fish --but he's a little fish with a big, important job. Meet the Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus).

These little fellows -- only two to four inches long as adults -- make their living by keeping other fish clean. They are an important part of the reef community.

The little cleaner wrasse stakes out a spot on the reef, usually near a prominent coral head. He hovers above the coral in a head-up posture and wiggles. That's the cleaner wrasse equivalent of turning on a neon sign that says "OPEN."

Other fish come as clients to the cleaning station to be rid of bits of old scales, dead skin, and small parasites that they may have acquired. The client fish swims up to the cleaner wrasse and stops. The cleaner wrasse approaches and gives his client a once over, looking all for extraneous bits, which he then pecks off. This service can take anywhere from a moment, to several minutes, depending on how big the client is -- and how scruffy!

Spotted Puffer (Arothron meleagris)Here's a photo of a Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse servicing a Spotted Puffer (Arothron meleagris) at Puako. [And yes -- in case you were wondering -- the Spotted Puffer is a first cousin to the Stripebelly Puffer that we showed you a number of weeks ago. They belong to the same genus.]

These cleaning stations serve pelagic (open ocean) fish as well as reef fish. It's not unusual to see animals like sharks, manta rays, and large jacks waiting their turn at busy cleaning stations.

Once a cleaning station is established, it will exist for a long time -- even for years -- in the same spot. Client fish learn where it is, and return to it again and again. The busier cleaning stations may have several cleaners at work -- much like a barber shop with multiple chairs.

Some fish that don't clean other fish full time, do become cleaners from time to time. An example that comes quickly to mind are the several species of fish that clean turtles here in Hawaii. It happens that turtles' carapaces sometimes get covered with a film of algae. Certain fish that are primarily algae-eaters will clean the turtles' shells -- not because they are trying to clean them but because they like to eat the algae, regardless of whether it's growing on a rock, on a coral head, or on the back of a turtle.

Several species of shrimp also make their living cleaning other animals on the reef, and they act as dental hygienists as well. It's not at all uncommon to see a toothsome moray eel -- jaws agape -- with a little cleaner shrimp busily pecking about inside the eel's mouth. (Moray eels don't floss!)

We've played with both the cleaner wrasse and the shrimp to see if we could get them to work on us. The wrasses rarely seemed very interested in us, save for occasionally snipping at Jerry's whiskers. The cleaner shrimp are another story entirely. They'll readily crawl around on our hands, pecking at our cuticles, for example. And by the way, that REALLY tickles!

The cleaner wrasse in the photos on this page is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. That is, it is native to our waters and exists naturally only here. But, it has close relatives in other parts of the world that look very similar, and which serve the same function in their own locales.

In cruise mode -- with a little help from our friends

Our month-long vacation is behind us, but before we begin with the next round of diving adventures, we'd like to acknowledge some friends of The Right Blue.

Caribbean reef sceneSeveral of our fellow bloggers have written reviews and articles about The Right Blue in their own blogs:

Matt Keegan, a.k.a. The Article Writer, featured The Right Blue in a piece he wrote entitled Blogging Can Be Thankless Or Tremendously Rewarding.

Fellow Hawaii-based blogger Charley Foster referred his readers to The Right Blue in an article on his blog, Planet Kaua'i.

A photo of Bobbie and a post about The Right Blue appeared on the blog run by Samish Divers of Bellingham, Washington.

Fellow 'baby boomer' Rosie wrote a very complimentary review of The Right Blue on her blog, Rosie's Boomer Review.

Penguin lover Wiinterrr featured our article about the Blue Penguins of New Zealand on A Penguin's Tale.

We appreciate their role in spreading the word about The Right Blue, and helping us to grow. We encourage our readers to visit these excellent blogs, too.

Some of our fellow bloggers honored us with awards. In fact, in mid-October we received two awards on the same day!

Dawn at gave us a Beautiful Blog Design Award "For having the best pictures EVER!" Thank you, Dawn. You made us blush.

Later the same day, we heard from Jos at NoDirectOn (not: NoDirection), who gave us a Community Blogger Award. The award "celebrates people who reach out and make the blogging community a better one."

Then, a few weeks later, Jos also gave us a "Be the Blog" badge. "This badge is for bloggers who make their blog their own, stay with it, interact with their readers, and have fun!" Many thanks, Jos, for both of those awards. We greatly appreciate the fact that you appreciate The Right Blue!

Kathy, who displays her excellent work at Photography by KML, gave us an Amazing Blogger Award. Thank you for the recognition, Kathy.

Speaking of Kathy, she also is one of our most faithful commentators. She and Bernie Kasper of BFK Photography not only comment on our stories and photos more frequently than anyone else, their comments on Bobbie's photos are especially appreciated, since both Kathy and Bernie are such accomplished photographers themselves.

Among our other frequent commentators are the members of the Photography Group at Blog Catalog, and our fellow Wordless Wednesday participants. We thank them for returning to The Right Blue again and again and keeping the conversations lively.

Traffic to The Right Blue has steadily grown over the course of our first six months, thanks in part to readers such as Thomas Laupstad and Mark Stoneman, who have submitted the site and particular articles to Stumbleupon. We're sure that this has resulted in an expanded readership for The Right Blue, and we are grateful to them.

We are truly touched by the continued positive and enthusiastic response to The Right Blue, and we thank all of our readers and commentators for making this venture seem worth doing!