Male fur seals at Taiaroa Head

We spent two days exploring the Otago Peninsula, outside the city of Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island. On the second day there we visited a small cove called Pilot's Beach, a small crescent of sand bordered by a jumble of rocks on each side. The cove is situated on the sheltered side of Taiaroa Head, the wildlife reserve at the tip of the peninsula.

We saw Blue Penguin burrows near the beach, but not the penguins themselves since we were there during the bright midday hours. The penguins only come ashore at dusk to spend the night in their nests, returning to the sea again at first light.

We did get to see several good-sized male New Zealand Fur Seals (Arctocephalus forsteri). While we had seen some female fur seals sunning themselves at Kaikoura the week before, this was the first time we had seen the larger males of the species.

Several of these guys were swimming rather close to shore. We sat on the rocks beside the beach for quite awhile so we could watch them. We were surprised to see them lazily swimming on their backs at times, sort of lolling about, paddling just a bit with their front flippers, while their back flippers poked up above the water's surface. Unfortunately they did this too far offshore to photograph clearly, since I didn't have a telephoto lens.

Then one seal seemed to notice us, and swam toward the rocks where we sat, as if he had decided to have a look at us.

Male New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri)
He made one pass, and then swam seaward for a bit before circling back to inspect us again. We didn't move (except to raise the camera). This time the seal came even closer, paused right in front of us, and raised his head out of the water for a better look at the strange jeans-clad mammals sitting on the rocks.

Male New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri)
He stayed there for a few minutes, just staring at us. We stared back! He came in just a bit closer, and we began to wonder if he was going to haul out right onto the rocks where we were sitting.

Male New Zealand fur seal (Arctocephalus forsteri)But no -- in the end, he just rolled over onto his back and swam away from shore. We were sorry to see him go back out to sea, but we were grateful to have had such a great close encounter with this very photogenic marine mammal.

Not too far away, there is a fur seal breeding colony populated by females and a few dominant males. Those older males are very territorial and do not appreciate interlopers. They will challenge and fight younger males who intrude at the colony.

We were told that the fur seals we saw in the Pilot's Beach area are mostly younger males who come to the area to rest in the sheltered cove, away from the threat of the older males.

Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula

Taiaroa HeadOne of the nicest stretches of coastal scenery we've come across while traveling on New Zealand's South Island has been the Otago Peninsula, outside the city of Dunedin. In turn, probably the most interesting part of the Otago Peninsula (at least for us) is Taiaroa Head, situated at the mouth of Otago Harbour (see map).

Taiaroa Head is quite scenic. (That's it looking like a picture postcard in the second photo, taken just a few days ago.) But in addition to being pretty, it also serves as a wildlife preserve. Fur seals and sea lions frequent the waters around the headland, and haul out on the rocks and nearby beaches. There are breeding colonies of several kinds of seabirds.

Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula, New ZealandOne species of seabird that lives at Taiaroa Head is the Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi), an endangered species. These magnificent birds are huge, with a 10 foot (3 meter) wingspan. You can see one soaring above the lighthouse in the photo at right.

The albatrosses spend up to 85% of their lives at sea, feeding on fish and squid, and sleeping on the water, but they must come ashore to nest and breed. The colony at Taiaroa Head currently is home to a Royal Albatross breeding population of about 140 birds.

Gulls at Taiaroa HeadTwo species of gulls also nest in this area. In fact, if you click on the second photo to enlarge it, you will see what look like myriad white spots along the face of the cliff. Those white spots are gulls -- hundreds and hundreds of gulls. They dominate this particular cliff face.

And if you click on the third photo to enlarge it, you will see why that cliff face, and the top of the wall where the gulls are standing, look white!

Next time we'll show you some of the other wild residents of Taiaroa Head -- on land and in the water.

Sunbathing at Kaikoura

On the eastern coast of New Zealand's South Island, about halfway between the cities of Blenheim to the North, and Christchurch to the south, sits the little town of Kaikoura. If you're hungry for seafood, Kaikoura is a good place to stop. There are several fresh seafood markets there, and many of the restaurants specialize in "Crayfish," the clawless rock lobster found in the waters offshore.

New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri)There's another attraction at Kaikoura. Just outside the town at the headland of a small peninsula that juts into the Pacific ocean there is a place where you can see wild New Zealand Fur Seals (Arctocephalus forsteri). The seals haul out onto the rocks there to bask in the sun and rest.

The day we visited Kaikoura we saw about a half dozen seals in the area called Point Kean. The seal pictured here was sunbathing not far from the parking area, making it relatively easy to take some photos while still maintaining a safe distance between us and her. (We think this is a female, based on size. Adult female fur seals, we are told, usually weigh between 30 and 40 kg).

These seals are a protected species. Hunting them has been banned since 1946. According to information provided by New Zealand's Department of Conservation, the current population of these animals is about 100,000 but it is estimated that there would have been around one million seals before hunting began in the mid-1700s.

Currently there are breeding colonies of fur seals at several locations on New Zealand's coast.

New Zealand's Little Blue Penguins

Penguin Crossing signWhen we think of marine life, we most often think of fish, of course. Next we probably think of invertebrates such as crabs and lobsters, corals, and marine mammals like dolphins and whales. We sometimes overlook the fact that there are many species of birds that qualify as marine life, too.

One kind of marine bird that we are getting to know during our New Zealand trip is the penguin. Until we came to New Zealand, we had never seen a live penguin except at a zoo or marine park. This trip has afforded us our first opportunity to see penguins in the wild.

Several species of penguin make their home on the coasts of New Zealand's South Island, but by some stroke of fate or luck, the first one we are learning about -- and writing about in The Right Blue -- is the Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor).

Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor)The feathers on the Blue Penguin's back and head really are blue, but they look more blackish when they are wet. They are cute little fellows -- and they are indeed little. In fact the Blues are the smallest penguin species in the world. Adults usually weigh about a kilogram (a little more than two pounds), and they stand about 30 cm (1 foot) tall.

Despite their small size, Blue Penguins can swim fast underwater -- about 8 km (5 miles) per hour. They spend most of the daylight hours swimming at sea, diving again and again to catch their prey -- small fish and squid. According to the folks at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, these birds are known to make an average of about 800 dives each day. Each dive lasts about 20-30 seconds, although Blue Penguins are able to hold their breath for up to two minutes.

When they swim on the surface, they assume a prone position that makes them look like chubby ducks. On land they stand upright, and walk in a waddle, rocking back and forth with each step.

Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor)Penguins' wings are used to propel them when they swim underwater. When they walk on land, they tend to hold out their wings to help balance. They are not able to fly.

Their natural predators at sea are sharks, killer whales, sea lions, and leopard seals. On land they are sometimes killed by ferrets, dogs, and other predatory mammals. Like other marine animals, Blue Penguins also face man-made dangers. They sometimes become entangled in fishing gear and other marine debris, and their nesting grounds are damaged and encroached upon by people and pets.

Approximately 200 Blue Penguins make their home in an area near the port of Oamaru -- situated on the South Island's east coast, about an hour's drive north of the city of Dunedin. Volunteers have provided the Oamaru Blue Penguin colony with nesting boxes in artificial burrows (see photo below). Access to the area is restricted during the hours when most of the birds come ashore to rest and feed their chicks.

They come ashore each evening at dusk, and spend the night on land in burrows where they nest. At dawn they emerge from their burrows and return to the sea to find their food, often ranging as much as 25 km (about 15 miles) offshore in the course of a day's swim.
Blue Penguin burrows at Oamaru, New ZealandTo see more detail, click on any of the photos to enlarge.

South Island Safari

Sheep farm near Port Levy, New ZealandLast week we told our readers that we would be suspending our diving tales for the remainder of 2007 because we were going to be traveling for the month of December. Then we posted a photo from Australia, but that was a tease. Our stopover in Sydney actually was quite brief.

The photo here (click on it to enlarge) should give a clue to our true destination. What country is known for rugged coastlines, magnificent scenery -- and sheep? (Lots and lots of sheep!)

In case you haven't guessed, we are in New Zealand. More specifically, we are on the South Island where we will remain for the rest of the month. Here's a link to a decent map of New Zealand's South Island.

We arrived in New Zealand several days ago, having flown from Sydney directly to Christchurch. We decided to base ourselves in Christchurch for the first few days in order to adjust and get our bearings -- and, since this is a driving trip, to get more practice driving on the left side of the road before we venture further afield!

As a rule, we are not so fond of cities and we are more inclined to spend our time in the countryside when we travel. We also seem to have a built-in water sensor that reliably draws us to the nearest seacoast, lake shore or river bank wherever we go. For this trip, our intention is to see most of the coast of the South Island, as well as some of the mountains and lakes.

A major focus of this journey is to see creatures that we have never seen before -- and may never see again, at least in their natural habitat. It is one thing to see such animals in zoos and marine parks, but another entirely to see them in the wild. We are hoping to see fur seals, several species of penguins, Royal albatross, and other marine birds indigenous to New Zealand. We're calling this our South Island safari.

Over the next several weeks, we will be posting photos and stories about New Zealand's South Island whenever we find ourselves with a good internet connection, so stay tuned. This is the beginning of the tale.

Today's photo is of a sheep farm near Port Levy on the Banks Peninsula, not far from Christchurch. Lucky sheep to have a view like that!

Surface Interval

Divers boarding a boatDivers refer to the periods between dives as 'surface intervals.' When multiple dives are performed in a relatively short space of time, the length of the surface interval figures importantly into the calculations involved in planning the depth and duration of successive dives in order to avoid decompression sickness.

In addition to that technical use of the term, divers often use the term 'surface interval' amongst themselves as a waggish reference to any period when they are not diving: Home life, school or work? To the hard-core diver, they're all mere surface intervals!

We're having one of those kinds of surface intervals right now.

We are traveling and will be away from home for the remainder of this month. That means we are away from our photo archive and our old dive logs from which we mine most of our stories.

We will continue to post stories in The Right Blue while we are traveling, but they will be different from our usual fare. Instead of writing about adventures past, we thought it might be fun to see what we can find to share with our readers in real time as we travel about.

Although this trip is not a dive trip, we will be near the sea most of the time. We intend to maintain our usual theme, but it will be mostly from a surface vantage point. So, please indulge us while we get ourselves out of the water for awhile, and come along with us to a part of the world we've wanted to visit for a long, long time.

Turkeyfish or lionfish? Different name, same critter

Hawaiian Turkeyfish (Pterois sphex)Several days ago I put up a couple of photos of a Hawaiian Turkeyfish -- as a sort of tongue-in-cheek reference to American Thanksgiving. 'Turkeyfish' is a common name for this fish -- but it is not the common name. In some circles, the same creature is called a 'Lionfish.'

Some of the readers who commented on the previous post seemed to know this, and found my Turkeyfish label to be a bit confusing. Unfortunately that is one of the problems with identifying things in nature by their common names: the names are not standardized. That is why I always include the scientific name (when I know it!) as well as the common name for the marine life in the photos I post on The Right Blue. Scientific names do not vary.

The angle of the photo on this page might give a little better clue as to why this fish might have earned either of its common names. It has this habit of spreading its spiny fins when it is disturbed, a display that must have reminded someone either of a turkey's tail, or a lion's mane. That seems to be the origin of both common names for this fish and its kin.

The scientific name for this fish is Pterois sphex. It belongs to the Scorpionfish family (Scorpaenidae). A characteristic shared by the fish in this family is that they possess venomous spines. This is their defense against being gobbled up by larger predators.

This particular species is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. In other words, it is native to Hawaii, and it is not found elsewhere naturally. There are other fish of the genus Pterois elsewhere in the world. They all look quite similar, but close examination will reveal some clear distinctions among the species.

These other fish in the genus Pterois also are referred to as Turkeyfish or Lionfish, depending on geographical location and who's doing the talking or writing. At least one leading ichthyologist (fish biologist) prefers to apply the name Turkeyfish to the genus Pterois, and the name Lionfish to a different Scorpionfish genus, but most people seem to use the two common names almost interchangeably.

Some people who commented on the previous post mentioned that they thought they had seen this fish in a saltwater aquarium, presumably away from Hawaii. They may indeed have seen this species, or they may have seen one of its similar-looking cousins -- one of the other fish of the same genus that I mentioned above.

I don't know a whole lot about the fine points of the aquarium trade, but I do know that Turkeyfish/Lionfish are valued as "ornamental fish" and are collected for sale to aquarists. In fact, the population of these fish on our coasts has been depleted noticeably over the years as commercial fish collectors scooped them up in large numbers to sell.

The individual fish in the photo on this page (and in the previous post) has lived in the same small patch for years, along with a handful more of the same species. These fish do not have a very wide range, so once a diver discovers where they live, they can reliably be found in more or less the same spot day after day, and -- with luck -- year after year.

We know this to be true in more than a theoretical sense. Along with our friend Dan, we dived the same stretch of coastline at Puako, Hawaii several days a week for years, and we came to know where all of the permanent residents lived. We know precisely where these Turkeyfish/Lionfish live -- but we're not telling.

You don't know jacks...

...but we do!

We know jacks (Family: Carangidae), and they are among our favorite kinds of fish. The family has many species, and everywhere in the world that we have dived we have encountered several species of jacks.

Diver with Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus)One species we've seen in numerous locations is the Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus). In fact we've seen these guys everywhere from the Red Sea, through the Indo-Pacific region, to Hawaii.

Bigeye Trevally - a.k.a. Bigeye Jacks - tend to gather in fairly large schools during the daylight hours. Usually they'll hang out with their gang along a dropoff or reef slope all day long.

Around dusk, they fan out into the open ocean to hunt all night as individuals. In the morning, they find their 'schoolmates' again and reconvene to spend the day near the same dropoff. Once they form up, they often swirl around in a dense pack -- a way for them to keep together and stay more or less in one place. It really is a sight to see.

Diver with Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus)Jerry likes to play with these jacks. In fact, what he likes to do is herd them. That's right, I said herd them! He discovered that he can approach a loose aggregation of these fish while they're still a bit offshore in the bottomless blue, and coax them to go more or less where he wants them to go by swimming alongside them, much like a cowboy would ride alongside a herd of cattle.

We had been diving along this particular dropoff very early in the morning for several days in a row. Each morning we had seen the jacks in more or less the same area. I was able to take quite a few shots of this very photogenic school of Bigeye Trevally, and while I was busy taking photos, Jerry was perfecting his herding skills.

I watched him for a little while and decided it would be fun to shoot a series of photos of Jerry-the-Jacks-Wrangler in action, demonstrating his fish herding skills. As you can see in the first two photos on this page, Jerry was able to herd the jacks from offshore to the edge of the reef and nudge them into a denser aggregation. These fish are ever-moving, of course, and eventually they would begin to swirl. When that happened, we'd swim out, away from the dropoff, and then look back just to watch them swirling. From that perspective it was quite a hypnotic sight.

On the morning this series of photos was taken, I had suggested ahead of time that after the jacks schooled and began swirling, Jerry try to get inside the swirl. I thought it would make an interesting photo.

Diver with Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus)Ever the cooperative model for my underwater photos, Jerry agreed to try to get inside the cyclone of Bigeye Trevally.

Diver with Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus)The fish kept swirling and swirling, and I kept on snapping the shutter, even though it was difficult to keep things in focus with all that motion. What an action sequence!

Diver with Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus)For his part, Jerry found that he could not remain stationary once he was inside the swirl. In fact, we eventually had to stop because Jerry was becoming quite dizzy!

Diver with Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus)I think the caption for this final photo in the sequence should be, "Can I stop now? Please???"

If these schooling jacks look somewhat familiar, it might be because they are also featured in the photo in the header of The Right Blue. The images were shot at Sipadan, an oceanic island in the Celebes Sea, off the coast of Borneo.

Loggerhead sea turtles need further protection

Over our lifetime of diving and being around the ocean, we have had close encounters with many sea turtles. We like sharing our sea turtle stories and photos, and we know that readers of The Right Blue like them, too. We've told our readers about Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Hawaii (including a special Green sea turtle named Myrtle), and yesterday we featured a Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) that we had encountered in the Red Sea. Today we'd like to introduce you to another species of sea turtle.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)Meet the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta). While there are populations of Loggerhead turtles around the world, the North Atlantic Loggerheads are genetically distinct from other populations. They are an important part of the marine ecosystem along the coasts of the southeastern United States, yet many marine scientists believe that they are on the brink of extinction.

In the past, Loggerheads were actively hunted for their meat, and their eggs were gathered as food. Today the species is protected internationally, although major threats to their survival remain. Loggerheads are most at risk from commercial fishing activities, and from degradation of their nesting grounds.

Loggerhead sea turtles become entangled in gill nets, and get caught in trawls and scallop dredges. Like all sea turtles, Loggerheads are air breathers, so they must surface from time to time in order to breathe. Entanglement in fishing gear prevents them from surfacing, so they drown. Turtles that do not drown outright often are injured in the process of struggling to escape fishing gear.

Incidental catch: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)Fisheries that employ long-lines -- gear that consists of hundreds of baited hooks on a single line to catch fish -- also inadvertently catch Loggerheads. Long-line fishing is efficient, and is probably less ecologically damaging than trawling or dredging (in terms of 'by-catch'). Nevertheless, no one has yet discovered a method to eliminate the danger of long-lining to the sea turtles who are attracted to the bait, and who end up swallowing large steel fishing hooks along with that bait.

In the United States, there are Loggerhead nesting beaches along the Atlantic coast, particularly in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Loggerheads also nest on beaches of States bordering the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Texas. Sadly, the number of nests on these beaches is declining, and in the case of Florida, the number of Loggerhead nests has declined by about 50% over the past decade -- a startling figure!

An explosion of beachfront development is partly to blame. Some coastal areas are simply being eliminated as nesting grounds as housing and commercial activities encroach on them. Other nesting areas are being damaged by pollution, and disturbed by human and motor vehicle traffic. Turtles swimming in populated areas also are more at risk from collisions with boats.

Volunteer removing a fishing hook from a sea turtleToday two conservation organizations, Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity, have petitioned the Federal government of the United States to strengthen protection for North Atlantic Loggerhead turtles. They are urging the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for protecting Loggerheads in ocean waters, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for protecting turtles on land, to change the designation of these Loggerheads from "threatened" to "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

In addition to the threats from commercial fishing and degradation of nesting areas mentioned above, these conservationists also believe that climate change is now impacting the survival of Loggerheads. As summarized in a press release issued by Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity:
Many marine biologists fear climate change will stress loggerhead sea turtle populations even further. Climate change can cause severe storms, erosion and sea level rise, all of which can affect sea turtle nesting on beaches. Rising temperatures caused by climate change may alter the timing or location of nesting or may increase the number of female turtles, because the sex of the hatchlings is temperature dependent. Climate change may also affect sea turtles by altering ocean currents and migration routes. Finally, ocean acidification caused by rising carbon dioxide levels breaks down the shells of preferred turtle prey, such as mollusks and crustaceans, and could alter turtles' food supply.
We decided to tell our readers about Loggerhead sea turtles today in support of this effort by Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity to recruit greater protection for these magnificent animals. For more information, please visit the Sea Turtle pages on the Oceana website.

We have crossed paths with very few Loggerheads over the years. As a result, we had no photos of Loggerheads in our personal collection to use for this article. All of the photos accompanying today's post came from external sources. The nice Loggerhead portrait near the top of the page came from Wikimedia Commons, and the photos of the Loggerhead with the fishing hook in its mouth were supplied by Oceana. We thank the donors of these photos for allowing us to publish them on The Right Blue.

Some of the factual information in this article was derived from Oceana's report, Climate Change and Commerical Fishing: A One-Two Punch for Sea Turtles (12 page 'pdf' file), and the Loggerhead Sea Turtle 5-year Review, published in August of 2007 by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (67 page 'pdf' file)

Tips for diving in blustery weather

Over the years we have learned a lot of things about diving that are seldom taught in training courses. One of the things we have learned from experience is that the conditions on the surface are not always indicative of conditions beneath the surface, and vice versa.

For example, on a day that is very windy and blustery, surface conditions can be problematic or even dangerous, while conditions a few meters below the surface may be completely calm. A brisk wind can turn the surface into a froth, generate choppy swells, and create or enhance surface currents. In short, the surface of the sea is not a pleasant place to be when it's very windy.

A green sea turtle swims below the surface at Puako, HawaiiMost wind-driven waves and surface currents extend only a meter or two below the surface, thus as divers descend they are very likely to find calmer conditions. Our first tip, then, is to advise divers entering the water on a blustery day to descend as quickly as possible to get below the choppiness and surface current. Regardless of whether you're entering the water from the shore, or from a boat, if a strong wind is blowing and the surface is choppy, plan ahead of time to get below immediately and wait for your dive partner(s) there, not on the surface.

When divers are underwater on a blustery day, they can look up and see the wind whipping across the surface -- just like in the photo on this page (taken at Puako, Hawaii) -- and sometimes the wind actually can be heard from below, too. Our second blustery weather diving tip is this: If you look up and see that it is windy on the surface, try to surface as near to your boat or shoreline exit point as you possibly can. In blustery conditions, do not plan on making a surface swim at the end of your dive. Swimming through chop and swells will tire you, and if there is a surface current as well, it may carry you away from where you want to go.

In fact, when we dive in very windy conditions we consider the rough surface to be the equivalent of an 'overhead environment.' The term 'overhead environment' commonly refers to a situation in which there is literally a barrier overhead preventing the diver from making a direct ascent to the surface. The usual examples are diving in cave, or inside a shipwreck. In the case of extremely rough surface conditions the barrier is not a physical one in the same sense -- you won't bump your head on it! -- nevertheless, we plan the dive as if there were a physical barrier. We consider that a direct ascent to the surface in those conditions is not an option, and we plan the dive accordingly.

In summary, when the surface conditions are extremely rough, it is unwise (to put it mildly) to be on the surface anywhere but right beside your boat, or within wading distance of your shoreline exit point. Descend immediately when entering the water, and don't surface until you are right at your boat or your shoreline exit point.

Fire coral: Another view

by B. N. Sullivan

Fire coral (Millepora dichotoma), Red SeaAfter the previous post about fire coral was published, Jerry asked, "Why didn't you include a picture that shows what the whole thing looks like, instead of just some macros? You know, so that divers and snorkelers will know what fire coral looks like before they get too close."

I had to admit, I was remiss in not including such a shot. The photo at right is Jerry's choice to show fire coral as divers and snorkelers are likely to see it. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

The fire coral species shown here is Millepora dichotoma. Like several other fire corals of the same genus, it tends to have whitish tips while the main structure of the colony has some color. Those of you who have been following this blog for some time could probably guess that this photo was taken in the Red Sea as soon as you saw those bright orange fishies. I've mentioned several times that these little fish, called Scalefin Anthias (Pseudanthias squamipinnis), are ubiquitous in the Red Sea.

We'd also like to note that the background color of this photo is pretty close to The Right Blue!

Fire Coral: Look, but do not touch

by B. N. Sullivan

Caribbean fire coral (Millepora alcicornis)When is a coral not a coral? When it is a fire coral.

Fire corals (Family: Milleporidae) look like corals, and that's how they came to be called corals, although some biological characteristics related to their life cycle set them apart distinctly from true corals.

Fire corals are reef builders just like true corals. They secrete a calcareous skeleton. They take on a variety of different shapes ranging from lacy branches (like the example in the first photo on this page), to plate-like structures, to crusts that can cover other things growing on the reef, such as sea fans.

Fire corals and true corals do belong to the same phylum (Cnidaria). A characteristic that all Cnidarians have in common are nematocysts.

Nematocysts are tiny structures on the surface tissue of the organism that are used to capture food, and to defend against predators. Nematocysts actually are very cool structures -- one of nature's engineering marvels. They consist of a fine tube, inside of which is a little coiled thread with microscopic barbs on the end. When something touches the end of the nematocyst it fires the barbed thread into whatever has touched it, just like a little harpoon fired from a harpoon gun.

Red Sea fire coral (Millepora dichotoma)The second photo on this page is an enlarged 1:1 macro shot of fire coral. The little hair-like structures on the surface (called dactylozooids) are armed with the nematocysts. Touching those little hair-like structures triggers the nematocysts to fire. Click on that photo to see an even larger, more magnified version.

The nematocysts of fire corals carry a toxin that is intended to paralyze the minute bits of plankton that are the fire coral's prey. The toxin also causes pain to predators. Divers who touch or even accidentally brush against fire coral, experience a painful sting that burns like all get out -- thus the name fire coral.

Marine biologists who study these kinds of organisms have discovered something that is useful to know. The nematocysts of fire coral (and their first cousins, the hydroids) are de-activated by acids. Thus, it's a very good idea for divers to include in their kits a small container of vinegar when they visit places where they may possibly encounter hydroids or fire coral. A little squirt of vinegar immediately stops the nematocysts that may still be stuck to the skin from firing.

Conversely, fresh water and soapy solutions actually aggravate the nematocysts. The last thing you want to do if you are stung by hydroids or fire coral is to rinse the skin with fresh water. It actually prompts any remaining nematocysts to fire.

If you are ever stung by hydroids or fire coral, you won't forget it. Usually a welt or rash arises immediately and stays for a week or more, burning again every time you take a shower or bath.

For the record, the fire coral in the first image on this page, is Millepora alcicornis, a Caribbean species. It was photographed in the Cayman Islands. The species in the second photo is Millepora dichotoma, photographed in the Red Sea near Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

UPDATE: Here are some more fire coral articles and photos on The Right Blue:

Why I love macro photography: Surprises

Leather coral with tiny fish, Celebes SeaAbout a month ago I said I love macro photography (ultra close-ups) for the fine details that are revealed. The example I gave then was a photo of a tiny hermit crab with hairy legs and turquoise eyes. Neither of those features could be seen with the naked eye -- much less by a pair of eyes behind the faceplate of a dive mask! Those details only became visible when the photo was enlarged.

The photo at right is another example of the kinds of surprises that sometimes appear when macro photos are enlarged. I shot this image of a mushroom-shaped leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) -- a type of soft coral with a sort of rubbery skin -- because it caught my eye as a perfect specimen, in miniature. Only when the photo was enlarged did we notice the face of the tiny little fish that was hiding under the edge of the leather coral. Click on the photo to enlarge it even more.

This coral specimen was maybe two inches (5 cm) high, so the little fish was too tiny to see clearly. (For the photographers out there, this is a 1:2 image.) We have no idea what species the little fish with the great big eye is, but we surmise it's a juvenile of a reef species. We love the way he's hiding, but peeking out curiously, too. The image was shot during a night dive in the Celebes Sea.

Wreck of the Jolanda: Strange cargo

On April 1, 1980 a Cypriot cargo ship called the Jolanda was en route to the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba. As the vessel passed by Ras Mohammed, the cape at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, it encountered very rough seas and ran aground on a reef.

The freighter took on water and sank, coming to a rest on the edge of the reef near a steep dropoff, where it reportedly teetered for several years. Finally, in 1986, a storm took the Jolanda the rest of the way over the ledge, and she sank out of sight into the depths.Wreck of the Jolanda, Red SeaThe Jolanda was carrying containerized cargo, some of which spilled out onto the reef as the vessel broke up. For years, the containers and some of the cargo remained as the only sign of the wreck visible to divers at sport diving depths. We first saw the remains of the Jolanda's cargo in 1989. By that time soft corals already were growing on the broken containers.

For quite awhile, lines and cables attached to one of the more intact containers were used as a mooring for visiting dive boats. This photo was taken in April of 1991, eleven years after the Jolanda sank. On a return visit in late 1995, this particular container was gone, too.
These days not much of the Jolanda's cargo containers remain, but some of the freight that was inside the containers still can be seen littering one section of the reef. No, you're not seeing things. The Jolanda was laden with bathroom fixtures -- toilets, sinks, and bathtubs.
For decades, this cargo has been a source of amusement for divers, and especially for underwater photographers. Nearly everyone who has dived on this reef has taken a souvenir photo of this cargo.

The reef where the Jolanda sank used to be called Turtle Reef. Later it was renamed Jolanda Reef after the famous shipwreck. The name may sound a bit familiar to those who have been reading The Right Blue for awhile. It was mentioned in the story of an exhilarating dive we made in some crazy currents at Ras Mohammed.

Since you've asked: Answers to readers' questions

You may have noticed a tab that says "Contact" up there on the navigation bar in the header. If you click on it, a form opens where you can type a private message to us.

Most of the messages we've had so far have been greetings from family and friends who didn't want to post a public comment, but wanted us to know they had visited The Right Blue. Other messages actually have been questions, which we have answered privately (as long as the questioners left an email address).

Some of the questions we get reflect curiosity about who we are and how we got to travel to so many places and do all these dives. One questioner asked it this way:
"How do you get to go to all these places? Are you independently wealthy or something?"
Independent, yes; wealthy, no.

Diving at Puako, HawaiiJoking aside, please realize first that the stories and photos we feature here represent decades of diving experiences. As we explain on our About page, The Right Blue is essentially a memoir of our thousands of dives, so many of our stories are about events that happened quite a while ago. Indeed, we really did go to all those places, but we did so over a long period of time.

I should mention as well that we both did international work for most of our careers. Naturally that entailed a lot of travel, plus several stints of living overseas for years at a time. Some of the places we've dived may seem exotic, but they were relatively near to where we were living during a certain period, not halfway around the world. Many of our dive trips actually were tagged onto the end of business trips. In fact, we came to be quite well known for doing that!

Another question we have been asked repeatedly is whether we are instructors of either diving or underwater photography. The answer to both those questions is "no." Over the years we have coached many new divers and photographers, but we have never taught diving or photography in a formal way, nor do we intend to. We'll leave the teaching to the very well qualified folks who do that for a living.

Although we never pursued instructor training, we both are divemasters. We decided to get our divemaster licenses not because we wanted to work as divemasters or dive guides, but because it made our lives easier when we traveled to dive, especially after I began taking pictures underwater.

As a rule, underwater photographers do not like to dive with groups. For one thing, photographers like to move along at their own pace (and sometimes that means staying in one spot for the entire dive). Also, groups of divers are likely to scare off some of the critters the photographer wants to shoot, and they can stir up silt and sand, blow a lot of bubbles, or accidentally swim into the background of a scene at the wrong moment -- all of which can end up spoiling a shot.

It is customary for dive centers and charter boats all over the world to take divers in small groups to see the underwater sights, led by a qualified guide, for safety reasons. We discovered, however, that most operations will allow divers who are licensed instructors or divemasters in their own right to go off on their own if they wish, following a single check-out dive to verify skill level and familiarity with conditions. The reasoning is that if you are officially qualified to manage or train other divers, then you must be qualified to look after yourself. (In many cases, this boils down to a liability question.)

We went through divemaster training as a means to an end: We wanted to be able to manage our own dives if we wished to, regardless of where we were in the world. As it turned out, it opened other doors for us as well, but independence was the real reason we became divemasters.

Night shift on the reef

Colonial anemone (Nemanthus annamensis)There are nocturnal animals in the sea, just as there are on land. Many marine animals hide all day and only come out at night to hunt, feed, or mate.

The colonial anemone pictured here (Nemanthus annamensis) is one such nocturnal marine animal -- part of the underwater 'night shift' that begins shortly after sunset and lasts until dawn. The only way to see these nocturnal marine creatures is to dive at night.

The anemones in these colonies open as soon as it gets dark. During the night they look like pretty flowers, with their tentacles extended to feed. When morning comes they fold their tentacles inward and each one of the 'flowers' turns into a tightly shut fist. While they are closed during the day they look like nondescript lumps, their nighttime beauty obscured.

The photo was taken during a night dive in the Red Sea, near Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. If you click on the photo it will enlarge.

Background check: Same critter, different look

Bearded Fireworm (Hermodice carunculata)This was an experiment to see how changing the background changed the 'look' of the creature photographed. All three images on this page are of the same creature, but each photo uses a different background. (You can click on each of the photos for a larger view.)

The creature is a kind of Polychaete worm called a Bearded Fireworm (Hermodice carunculata). It's a very distant cousin of the earthworm (same Phylum). Those clumps of very fine hair-like bristles are called setae.

The setae look nice and fluffy in the photos, but they are not decorative. They are the Fireworm's defense against predators (and divers?). When something touches the venomous setae, they break off very easily and stick in the skin of whatever has disturbed them. The name "Fireworm" comes from the very nasty burning sensation caused by the venom in the setae.

[Note: Handling these guys can be very tricky and is not recommended, even while wearing gloves. The setae will break off and stay lodged in the glove fabric, only to be transferred to your skin later on.]

The first photo shows a Bearded Fireworm on a natural background, just as we found it. This particular one was photographed in the Mediterranean Sea at Konnos Bay, Cyprus, but we have seen this species in many other places.

Bearded Fireworm (Hermodice carunculata)They crawl around on sandy and rocky bottoms at shallow depths, looking sort of like big caterpillars or centipedes. We've also seen them in seagrass beds, hurrying to and fro, searching for a meal.

The largest Fireworms we've seen have been about six inches (15 cm) long, but we understand that they do grow bigger. Most often we have seen them as individuals, but occasionally we have seen groups of them devouring sea urchins, a rather creepy sight.

Can you guess what the blue background is in the second photo? Believe it or not, it's Jerry's dive fin! On the spur of the moment we decided to scoop the Fireworm onto the fin to see what it would look like on a blue background. If you look closely, you'll even see scratches on the fin.

Bearded Fireworm (Hermodice carunculata)Then we noticed a red encrusting sponge nearby. We dropped the Fireworm from the fin onto the sponge. He started to crawl away, but not before I was able to photograph him on the red background. I think I like the red background the best.

I do like the color blue, of course, but blue plastic hardly is a 'natural' background, so the red sponge just works better, visually. The contrast shows off the Fireworm to good advantage.

Moving a creature to a nicer, prettier background is an old trick in nature photography -- on land as well as underwater. I haven't done it too often, but when I have, I always try to return the photo subject to its natural setting.

I'm not at all sure that a Bearded Fireworm would voluntarily crawl onto this kind of sponge, so before we left, we moved the creature back to where we initially found it on some algae-covered rocks. It's only fair.

Picture this! -- Photographing the photographer

Diver photographing marine lifeRecently someone asked us, "How come there are hardly any pictures of Bobbie on The Right Blue?" The answer to that question is that I've always been the one behind the camera instead of in front of it. As a result, we have very few underwater photos of me.

Ever since we began The Right Blue, Jerry has been going through the thousands of slides we had stashed away, methodically looking for the ones that have a story. Several days ago he came across the one at right. Fortunately it was filed away along with the one below. Jerry scanned them both and passed the images to me to write about.

The first photo was taken by a dive guide and given to me as a souvenir of a trip we made to the Turks and Caicos islands. That's me, stalking my prey -- sneaking up on an interesting photo subject.

The second image is the photo I snapped a few moments later. I had followed this pair of critters around the sand flat for nearly ten minutes before they lined up just right for me to take the shot. I've mentioned in earlier posts that I really love to take pictures of critters' faces and especially their eyes. My next favorite theme after faces and eyes is behavior.

Southern Stingray with Bar JackThe dark colored fish in the photo is a Bar Jack (Caranx ruber). This fish makes its living as an opportunistic feeder, so it is swimming along a little above and behind a Southern Stingray (Dasyatis americana) hoping to snag a free lunch.

The stingray rummages in the sand looking for little creatures to eat -- worms, small clams, tiny crabs, and such. To locate its prey, it fans away the top layer the sand by fluttering its wingtips.

The crafty Bar Jack follows closely, letting the stingray do the excavating. If the stingray uncovers something that looks tasty to the Bar Jack, the jack will snatch it in a lightning strike, then resume its position keeping watch over the stingray's shoulder, as it were.

We've seen Bar Jacks throughout the Caribbean. In addition to pairing with hunting stingrays, we've also seen them following goatfish -- another species that digs around in the sand and rubble for food.

By the way, the Bar Jack doesn't always look so dark. When it's not feeding, it is a handsome silvery blue color, with a black bar running along its back from its dorsal fin down to the lower lobe of its tail fin like a racing stripe.