Parasites

“You parasite!” is quite an insult. And rightfully so! A parasite is an animal which lives off the bodily substance of another one while the victim is still alive. This is in contrast to a predator, which hunts down and kills the fellow creature it lives on. A big dangerous toothy predator inspires fear in us, but we also respect it and admire its might – just think about these majestic lions or awe-inspiring sharks. But a parasite only evokes disgust. Even when looking only at a fish (otherwise quite alien to us in its mindset) befallen by some parasite, we shudder with revulsion.

by Pacificklaus

Very sick goby. Look how worn out that fish looks. The spirals on its back is a copepod of the genus Cardiodectes (Pennellidae). Seen in San Remigio, Cebu, Philippines.

Parasites might be freaks, but are by no means freak occurrences. In fact, most animal species are believed to be struggling with several types of parasites. In the warm, biodiverse waters of the tropical and warm-temperate (Sydney) Pacific Ocean, parasites are abound. I have found parasites on many different species of fish, and on sea slugs. And I have frequently observed parasite-cleaning activity: on tropical coral reefs, a cleaner station is a great attraction for the underwater naturalist. Such a station is the home range of a parasite removing fish or shrimp. It’s often a prominent coral head or crevice. Divers can often observe a line of larger fishes waiting to be serviced by these unusually specialized animals. On these cleaning stations, fish which would otherwise try to eat each other or fight for territory become calm and docile. It’s like a bunch of hooligans in a doctor’s office who know that they need to behave to get their treatment! Once a fish is up for cleaning, it sometimes changes body coloration (to signal cleaning readiness – see the image of the Hawaiian goatfish below), and spread their fins and open their mouth. The cleaner wrasses or shrimps then busily sweep over their client’s body, even enter mouths and gill cavities, and munch the parasites they find. It’s a win-win situation (a mutualistic symbiosis): the client fish has its parasites removed, and the wrasse gets a rich meal (yummy! Parasites! Sydney has quite a sophisticated restaurant scene, but I haven’t yet found a place which serves these). After a couple of seconds of such a treatment, the relieved, now parasite-free client fish swims off.

Goatfish in Hawaii, with a red coloration (“clean me!”). The cleaner wrasse is of a species restricted to Hawaii.

Interestingly, the cleaner wrasses of the tropics are joined by cleaner clingfish on the Australian east coast around Sydney. Clingfish are a family of small fishes somewhat related to gobies, and one species here has evolved to be a parasite remover as well. What environmental or evolutionary-history factors have led to the addition of a new member to the cleaner-guild in our warm-temperate waters I don’t know, but would love to find out. The cleaner clingfish often hide on sponges when not in action. I’ve had them try to clean the skin of my hands, as well as the tropical cleaner wrasses work on my legs – they seem to be quite attracted to my body hair and kept picking on it!

by Pacificklaus

Cleaner Clingfish, Kurnell near Sydney, Australia.

In Malapascua, Philippines, one of my favourite places – ever! – for diving adventures,  we divers have the opportunity to see the rare and elusive thresher shark. These large predators of fishes usually stay deeper than a recreational diver can go, and spend much of their lifes in the open ocean. We can observe them in Malapascua because they visit the reef on nearby Monad Shoal to get – you have guessed it, I’m sure – their parasites removed by cleaner wrasses. The parasites pesking the sharks are crustaceans and flat worms. The sharks were found to have parasites in their gills (I’m sure that hurts, even though I don’t have gills myself) and their urethra (Ouch! Yikes!). The spectacular and rarely observed breaching of these amazing sharks is most likely also an effort for parasite removal. When they re-enter the ocean at great speed, the rush of water through their gills unhinges some of the parasitic crustaceans stuck there.

by Pacificklaus

Not only wrasses remove parasites, these shrimp do the job as well. Nelson Bay, Australia.

Recent marine biological research (led by Dr. Alexandra Grutter and Prof. Bob Warner) also suggests that pressure from parasites is a significant factor in shaping the life histories of fishes. Many bony fishes (all fishes other than sharks & rays) are small animals to begin with, and start out life very small, as minute larvae. The toll a parasite takes on a larva less than a centimeter long will be significant. In comparison, if a mosquito drinks a few micro-liters of blood from you or me, that might lead to an itch, but is hardly life-threatening. A comparable amount of body fluid taken from a fish or fish larva with only a few grams of body mass will cause a significant problem! That’s why, quite possibly, a lot of fish larvae escape the reef and live in the open ocean (in the pelagic environment), and only settle on the reef after they have reached a certain minimum size. And even for smaller settled fish, like the really sick looking goby above, a single parasite can be a major drain.

by Pacificklaus

A copepod parasite on two mating mandarin fish. A fish STD? Bohol, Philippines.

Parasites are an important part of the ecological interactions going on underwater. So, if you see a little goby carrying a comparably huge parasite during one of your next dives, I hope you’re not simply creeped out anymore, but find the whole parasitic situation interesting as well!

Check out all of my parasite and cleaning pix here. If you’d like to chat marine biology & dive & shoot pictures underwater with me, join me at the Evolution Photoganza September 2014 in Malapascua, Philippines!

by Pacificklaus

Copepod parasites on a Port Jackson Shark. Even on the eye. Ouch, ouch, ouch!

Neeews

A few things are new and exciting in the world of Pacificklaus: If you haven’t read it yet on these pages, I am a PADI scuba diving instructor now! I will start teaching the PADI shark conservation specialty course with Abyss Diving in Ramsgate/Sydney, with the 1st course running May 24th. Good stuff.

Then, there are still spots available for the Evolution Photoganza, our annual photo&marine bio workshop in Malapascua, Philippines, in September. I recently wrote about some of my favorite animals underwater in Malapascua, the happenings on the Evo house reef in Malapascua, and travel tips to the neighboring island of Bohol.

Also: my big underwater camera housing is in service. I started using a point&shoot which I had won last year. The results were surprisingly good! It’s the photographer, not the camera, hehe.

Tomorrow I’m on my way to Nelson Bay again, a prime dive spot quite close to Sydney. Stay tuned for some new pictures!

by Pacificklaus, Australia.

Angry anglerfish, Sydney.

Bohol

Interested in joining the Evolution Photoganza 2014, but not sure what to do before and after in the Philippines? There are more than 7000 islands in this island nation, and while some are in reality too small for a visit, there are still so many options for the traveler. A place I have visited twice, and greatly enjoyed is the island of Bohol, just to the east of Cebu. You will likely fly into Cebu City, and from there you can catch a 2 hour ferry to Tagbilaran, the capital of Bohol. While this is a rather unremarkable city, the rest of Bohol is really the Philippines at their best: lush tropical vegetation, water buffaloes taking a leisurely bath in a village pond, and smiling country people next to the road selling paradisaical tropical fruit. You will see hand-sized butterflies flapping around the orchids, and seabirds sailing back to shore in the glowing late afternoon skies. Bohol is a tranquil, beautiful and happy place. It’s one of these places which makes your heart overflow with sheer happiness about being there.

Yes, that is a fish. Robust ghost pipefish, Cabilao, Bohol, Philippines.

Bohol was the site of the first contact of the Philippine people with Spanish explorers (Magellan who arrived in Mactan a few years earlier was Portuguese). Some of the oldest Christian churches and monasteries in Asia are in Bohol, well worth a visit. A classic Bohol trip also includes a river cruise on the Loboc river, complete with local folk dances during some stops on the river’s banks, and a table-bending buffet. Of course, as pretty much everywhere in the know word, you will run into some German backpackers, but Bohol is also very popular with Filipino tourists families coming from the country’s cities. So during such a river cruise you will probably be culturally immersed into the Pinoy tradition of traveling in larger groups of friends and relatives and eating and laughing together.

Ghost pipefish at home in Cabilao/Bohol.

And there is more: the smallest monkey in the world, the tarsier, lives in the inland shrubbery of Bohol. It would be very hard to find one on your own (it’s really quite small), but you can see these highly unusual primates (they hunt insects at night, hence their huge eyes) in the Tarsier Sanctuary. Highly recommended! Another highlight certainly are the chocolate hills, a unique landscape of conical hills, the grass on which turns chocolate-brown during the dry season.

One of the smallest monkeys in the world, the tarsier.

The main tourist accommodation area in Bohol is the small island of Panglao across the bridge from Tagbilaran, a pleasant little town with several hotels and restaurants as well as some good dive shops. I once stayed there in the Ananyana Beach Resort, a bit out of town, and liked it very much.

Another, more quiet place to visit is the small island of Cabilao, a brief boat-ride off the north-west coast of Bohol. You won’t find any nightlife there, and few dining options outside of the resorts, but it’s a lovely island to relax and, did I mention dive? Cabilao is another one of these Pinoy macro diving wonderlands. I saw an incredible collection of small-sized marine life there during my visit in 2009. I stayed at the Cabilao Beach Club, and thoroughly enjoyed the stay.

The better hotels both in Panglao as well as in Cabilao will be very happy to organize trips for you to all of the aforementioned sights of Bohol.

Any more questions about the Photoganza or possible trips before and afterwards? Don’t be shy and get in touch with me!

More macro wonders: mandarin fish mating.

Tough

In 2012, I won a Olympus TG-1 “Tough” compact camera plus an underwater housing for it. I was really very excited, it came as the 1st prize in the “behavior” category of the photo contest at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns. A nice camera, but obviously I already had an underwater camera, otherwise I couldn’t have won the competition in first place. So, I smiled, proudly showed it to my friends, and put it in my camera-cupboard. Some time later I lent it to a friend who was on his way to Vanuatu, and I played with it a bit during kayaking trips and wen photographing the big eels in the pond in Victoria park in Sydney.

Seahorse from Clifton Gardens.

But I really came to appreciate the camera when my main SLR setup went belly-up-ish (a minor leak, which did not destroy the camera, but made me leave it on land till the housing was serviced). I started diving with the TG-1, and found it a useful camera for a number of reasons:

-          This is one of the camera models which can be submerged without a housing, down to 10 meters. Now, I am still using it with the housing, but the thought that a leak will not destroy the camera is comforting!

-          This amphibious nature of the camera let me take it to places where I would not have been able to take my large & bulky SLR setup, for instance on a kayak, and would not have wanted to take a non-waterproof camera.

-          The Tough is small, and it’s easy to wedge it in crevices, or to quickly point it in an awkward angle at some of the fish swimming by.

A mid-sized frogfish, shot at night with relatively poor visibility. The light in the back is coming from my dive buddy.

-          Also, it’s easy to switch between the regular (wide-angle), macro and super-macro mode. I got really satisfying wide-angle shots and macro sots with tat same setup during one dive. That’s a real treat, with the SLR I always have to decide on macro or wide-angle before the dive. Once the lens is on the SLR, there is no way of exchanging it underwater.

A really nice wide angle shot!

-          And it does video really well! I have gotten a few good ones since I started using it.

Here are all the shots and videos I got with the tough. I will, of course, go back to my pro level camera once it’s serviced, but the Olympus TG-1 didn’t fail to impress me! It would be a great camera for a beginner or intermediate underwater shooter.

Happy Diving!

Lots of Stripeys in Sydney.

House Reef Dynamics

I wrote another guest blog post! This time, for my friends at Evolution Diving in Malapascua, Philippines, who are also hosting the Evolution Photoganza this September. The post is about the interesting interactions between corals, algae and algae-eating fish. It turns out that algae-eaters are necessary to keep corals free of algal overgrowth, and that corals give these fish shelter and spawning grounds. In this way, either a coral or an algae-dominated state can be stable. Marine biologists have only recently started to understand these dynamics.

 

Shooting The Deep

This is a guest blog post I wrote for Abe’s of Maine a while ago, about the challenges and pleasures of photographing underwater at advanced depths. I think there is a lot to be learned for every underwater photographer from the special considerations one has to take when trying to bring back shots from 60, 70 or 80 meters. If you don’t have all that much bottom time, and need to stick very closely to your dive plan, you really need to think about what you are doing. Enjoy!

Shooting the deep in Malapascua!

Fish of the Month: What? Fish

This month’s fish of the month is Pataecus fronto, commonly called the Red Indian Fish.

I was so excited to finally see this fish! Many thanks to my dive buddy Mandy for spotting it! This is an Austrlian subtropical & temperate east coast endemic, meaning that it does not occur anywhere else, in fact the whole family, the prowlfishes (Pataecidae) are restricted to Australia.

Pacificklaus Photography

Red Indian fish, Bare Island, Sydney.

I have never seen a more passive fish, even with two underwater photographers really close to it, it didn’t even flinch. Rather, it swayed back and forth in the surge like a dead leaf, stuck next to a finger-sponge. And that’s also how it looks, like a big leaf or sheet-like sponge. Another example how behavior has primacy in evolution, the perfectly camouflaged body only works with a matched behavioral repertoire. A fast swimming, active fish would never have gained any advantage from such an unusual body form, and hence how the fish behaved paved the way for the evolution of its body.

Why is this fish called Red Indian fish, you may ask? It’s because the dorsal fin looks like the head decoration of a native American chief. Now, it’s of course totally un-PC to call the fish “Red Indian” fish, so I suggest “Native American Elder with Ceremonial Head Decoration Fish”. However, since that’s confusing, since it is an Australian fish (and there are really few native Americans in Oz), that does not work too well. So, how about Heroin-nod-off fish, in recognition of the fish’s extremely passive demeanor? No, that would probably somewhat condone the use of this dangerous opiate, so we will have to go with “What?” fish for now.

Fining for Fotography

(Or: Phining phor Photography)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The base of all underwater photography is proper buoyancy and good fining. If you make a mess of the visibility by kicking up tons of silt, and can’t stay still in front of your photo subject, you won’t get a quality image, no matter how wicked your camera is.

Let’s look at these different non-camera skills we should have when trying to take pictures underwater:

Hovering: Everyone who ever took a photograph knows: it’s usually a good idea to keep still while you’re pressing down the shutter. This is true on land, and naturally also under water. Now, we could simply lie down on the ground and start snapping, but this is not a good idea in a couple of situations: when the sediment is particularly fine, you will end up in a sand-cloud not conductive to photography. If you are in a region with corals covering the ground, you don’t want to destroy them by putting all of your weight on their fragile little branches. And if you are diving along a wall there might not even be a ground to rest on. So, maintaining absolutely neutral buoyancy is the way to go: make sure you don’t carry too much lead and distribute the weight you have on your gear in a manner which makes all your body parts sink equally (“A man yells from the water: ‘I sink’. A German guy walks by and asks him: ‘What are you sinking about?’ – that one always comes to my mind when I hear the verb ‘sink’). A block of weight in a strategic position high up on your tank or in a trim pocket of your BC can work wonders. Furthermore, relax and breathe shallow. Deep in- and exhalations will move you up and down through the water on every breath cycle.

Frog kick: typically divers first learn to fin in a style resembling the leg motion in a freestyle swimming stroke, alternatingly raising and lowering outstretched legs. This works well in most situations, and creates quite a bit of forward thrust. It’s not ideal, however, when trying to maneuver very precisely for underwater photography. In this case, it’s much better to use the frog kick:  keep your thighs in a stable, horizontal position, and rotate your calves outward. This will propagate you forward in a much more controlled manner, and stir up noticeably less bottom sediment. Especially in some of the murkier (but seriously biodiverse) Sydney dive sites, this can make a big difference! In a variant of the frog kick, you only rotate your feet at the ankles, and cause even less sediment perturbance. You won’t move forward very fast, but this fining style will allow you some highly controlled maneuvering.

Rotation: When swimming with the frog-kick style, you can also turn much more easily. Just do the frog-kick motion with one leg only, and you will rotate in the other direction. That’s a very useful technique for getting yourself into just the right position relative to your macro subject – an indispensable skill when shooting all the minuscule shrimps, gobies and blennies which populate the crevices of a coral reef.

Note: Pursuit is ridiculous! You look like an underwater ass when trying to catch up with a fish trying to get away from you. In most cases, it won’t even work. Trying to catch a wrasse? You’d better be Ian Thorpe II, on a good day. Now, if it’s a slow-swimming fish like a puffer, you could maybe beat him in a race, but it’s still not conductive to taking a quality shot of the fish: you will photograph from an unstable, not particularly controlled position and will not be able to concentrate on proper framing and composition. Also, you will, at best, get a shot of a panicky fish, and not one of an animal showing its natural behavior.

More tips for underwater photography (my 10-part series on starting out in the art) are here. And if you would like to see me in action with my camera, and join me for some underwater shooting at a seriously top dive spot, come to the Evolution Photoganza in the Philippines in September!

Bestest Animals in Malapascua

The island of Malapasqua, just north of Cebu in the Philippines, has become my scuba diving home for me in the last few years. First as a dive spot close to the home of a lady I was romantically involved with, then as the location for the majority of my tech diving training, with Evolution Diving. Since 2012, this year for the 3rd time, I have been organizing the Evolution Photoganza with Evolution Diving, a workshop where I am teaching both underwater photography and marine biology to enthusiastic divers.

What are my favorite animals underwater in Malapascua? There are quite a few worth mentioning!

The gobies! These gobies are like personal friends to me. In 2011 I & the guys at Evolution did a study investigating the goby fauna of Malapascua, and found 59 different species, 2 of them unknown to science. We found gobies associated with shrimps, gobies in the sand, hovering gobies, gobies hiding in-between urchin spines and gobies on crinoids. I love them all!

Malapascua goby on a soft coral.

A must see in Malapascua are of course everyone’s favorite sharks, the thresher sharks, Fuchshaie (in German) or the dako iho (‘Big sharks’ in Visayan). A four meter long ocean predator swimming circles in front of you, before breakfast? Not bad.

Wooow! Coming right at me.

Also pretty cool, if you can find them: the frogfish. In a sense, an apex of vertebrate evolution. Supreme camouflage. These fish look like a piece of algae covered rock, or like a sponge, and behave so calmly that the camouflage tricks lots of their prey fish into not even seeing them before it’s too late and they become frogfish lunch.

A superbly camouflaged hairy frogfish.

The nudibranchs, a type of sea slugs, are abundant and diverse. I got a pretty good shot of this one!

A colorful Nembrotha nudibranch, crawling over the Malapascua reef.

I’ve been going back to Malapascua, since it offers a unique mix of large fish and supreme macro life. The location in the coral triangle, with lots of currents delivering nutrients and a set of deep walls, shallow bays and heavily overgrown pinnacles make an underwater naturalists dreamland. Here are the best shots from last year’s trip. Sounds good? Join us for this year’s Photoganza ’14!