Category: Travel

Travelling with your fishes and travelling to see fishes.

Two Wrecks, Part 2: The Yongala

Last month, I wrote about a memorable dive trip to the Nord, an intact shipwreck just off the south-east coast of Tasmania. But lets face it, not many people go to Tasmania. That’s a shame, of course, since it’s one of the world’s truly beautiful places, but its just too far out the way to get many foreign visitors. Most people who travel to Australia do however end up in Cairns or Townsville in far-north Queensland, because from there you can reach one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef. And from there you can also take a charter trip out to see the Yongala, the most spectacular divable wreck in the world.

Yes, yes, the reef is great. Did over a dozen dives there. Loved ‘em all. But let’s face it: the reef is really pretty tame diving. Most of the charters that go out there have so many novice divers that the dives they lead are always short in duration, in protected waters, and limited to 18m depth. Lots of pretty fish. Beautiful colors. Absolutely nothing to scare you. However, there are also longer, more advanced trips offered, and for these they require proof of significant dive experience. One of these trips is to the Yongala; along with its big sharks, huge rays, schools of barracuda, 30m depths, and currents strong enough to blow you to New Zealand. And what a trip it is.

I was there in April of 1995 as part of my Dive Master certification course. I was taking the course with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, a large dive school and charter outfit that works out of both Cairns and Townsville, but I was in Townsville at their training facilities.

Anyway, part of the Dive Master certification is an apprenticeship program where you serve as an instructor’s assistant for the lower level classes. My second apprenticeship was with an Advanced Diver’s class that was going out to the Yongala for two days of diving at the wreck site.

We boarded the 22m motor catamaran Watersport on a Friday evening. Mike Ball has two boats out of Townsville: the larger, more upscale Spoilsport; and the older, smaller, slower, less luxurious, but a lot more fun, Watersport. Watersport’s clientele includes a lot more backpackers and mad-keen divers than the executive-laden Spoilsport, so it has a very casual atmosphere. Good food too.

You board Watersport in the early evening, then she motors to the site through the evening and overnight while you sleep. She arrives at about 4:30AM so you wake up at the site. The wreck site is in very open water, and land is barely visible in the distance on clear days.

So, how did the ship get wrecked way out there? Actually, no one is completely sure, as she is still inside the Great Barrier Reef, in that strip of north-eastern Australian coastal water that’s protected by chains of coral breakers to seaward. And there were no witnesses to the sinking because the Yongala was a major maritime tragedy and all hands were lost. I’ll let Mike Ball himself tell the story in this version I stole from Townsville’s tourism Internet site,

“She was an attractive ship, with wood paneling and stairways, and operated by the Adelaide Steamship Company since 1903, one of several on their northern run. Newspapers of the day wrote of her up-to-date appointments, her smooth ride, and her seaworthiness.” Mike Ball says.

On March 21, 1911 she sailed from Brisbane with forty-nine passengers and a crew of seventy-two. On the 23rd her crew unloaded freight at Flat Top Island and sailed for Townsville, her principal destination. “Minutes later the weather station at Flat Top received notice of a cyclone but ship-to-shore radio had only begun the year before and the Yongala didn’t carry wireless equipment.” Mike Ball continues. Four hours later, the sky heavy with storm clouds and the sea already violent, she was sighted in the Whitsundays and reported as heading north into the heart of the storm.

As Mike Ball explains, she was due in Townsville on the 24th but her late arrival didn’t cause any undue alarm as it was presumed that her master had changed course to avoid the eye of the cyclone. “But a week later and now well overdue, wreckage began to be found. First bags of pumpkins and a sailor’s shirt, then a life buoy and the music room door. Later finds included hatch gratings, mail bags, and the only body, a race horse on its way to compete in Townsville.” Mike Ball says.

The ship itself and all aboard disappeared and a Marine Board of Inquiry at the time delivered a report that concluded: The fate of the Yongala passes beyond human ken into the realms of conjecture, to add one more to the long roll of mysteries of the sea. “The mystery remained and stories of a ghost ship, covered in rust and identical to the Yongala, began to circulate. One well-documented tale was by two fishermen who chased her behind a headland near Bowen. When the two men came round the headland she had disappeared.”

Mike Ball’s expression is still serious as he continues: “Then in 1943, during World War II, a minesweeper found her in about 25 meters of water … not where she was expected to be from all previous reports, but where she should have been … right in line with the route most vessels take when heading for Townsville. She had been on course, heading for home and safety when she went down.”

Fifteen years later two Townsville divers located her again, complete with her dead crew and passengers, and brought up a safe found in the purser’s office. Its serial number was sent to the European manufacturer and it proved to be one supplied to the Yongala during her construction in England in 1903. Parts of the mystery…her location and the fate of those who sailed with her… were solved. The mystery of exactly why she sank still hasn’t been completely resolved.

Even with stories of ghost ships aside, the history is an intriguing one. The site is now a recognized historical site and the wreck itself is operated under a strict “look, but don’t take” policy. Neither are you allowed to enter the wreck’s hull, as all diving is restricted to the outside.

The Watersport ties to a mooring line that also serves as an ascent/descent line to the wreck. The surface current at the site can be quite strong, and so a line is needed to keep you from getting either swept away or exhausted.

The Watersport’s presence soon attracts a large shoal of orbiculate batfish (Platax orbicularis), which feed on the waste from her head. “Submarine seagulls” I started calling them. They will readily feed from your hand but you are discouraged from doing that as they get a little too friendly. And at about 70cm in length, they can be a real nuisance. There were also a large number of jacks (Carangoides fulvoguttatus) around, but they weren’t nearly as cheeky as the batfish.

Our first dive down to the wreck was, I admit, not very fun. My job, as instructor’s assistant, was to follow behind the class and make sure none of the students got lost. Everything was fine until one student began getting quite low on air, and we were still at 25m depth and quite far away from the ascent line. When he got down to his tank’s red line, I handed him my spare regulator. So, with two people drawing from it, my tank also emptied quickly. I don’t particularly enjoy being under water with an empty air tank, so I had to watch my gauge carefully to make sure we had enough air. As we approached the ascent line I could see we didn’t, so I handing the diver over to the instructor to draw from his tank. Basically the dive involved too much stress management to be any fun. However, two things struck me about the wreck: the incredible color of the soft corals and the fish! The water was very clear, about 25m visibility, but while looking down the length of the wreck you could only see about half that length as the view was lost in clouds of small damsel fishes, mostly the brown yellow-tail damsel (Neopomacentrus azyron).

The other dives we did were a hoot. Some were part of the class’s instruction, some were just for fun. One time, I just jumped in without my stinger suit or weight belt, and played along the ship’s upper deck. I was limited on that dive to a maximum depth of 16m as my earlier dives put me in danger of getting the bends if I went deeper. This was the only time I have ever dived without a weight belt or body covering, and the freedom was amazing. Being used to 12C water, I only brought a light Lycra stinger suit along, rather than a wet suit. The 25C water was quite comfortable without one. But everyone else was diving in 3mm wet suits (Wimps!). The stinger suit was protection against fire coral and the odd jellyfish that washed by in the current, but on that occasion, I left it behind and just threw on my tank, mask, and fins. Great fun.

Another instructional dive was down to the very bottom, to a depth of 30m. The purpose of this dive was to introduce the advanced students to deep diving in a controlled situation. They had to do some simple arithmetic problems at depth to illustrate that they were in fact suffering from nitrogen narcosis even if they didn’t feel it. My job was to hover above the class and make sure no one panicked and made a mad dash to the surface. While we were down there, one of the dive masters swam right down to us without a tank! I had of course heard of people who can free dive to 30m but had never seen it done before…I was quite impressed. For myself, however, I have never been able to equalize my sinuses and ears easily enough to dive very deeply on a single breath. Wish I could.

The neatest dive was a so-called “dusk dive”. Because of the refraction of light entering water, it gets dark quite early under water. The sun can be up, but if the angle is low enough, the light can not penetrate to depth. Therefore about an hour before sunset is a dusk period, when the only illumination comes from the blue sky above. At this time there is a changing of the guard, as both the nighttime fish and the daytime fish are active. It is also when the big predators do their hunting. We swam among huge bull rays (Myliobatis australis), a sawfish (Pristis microdon), a large school of giant barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), and one bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). The last of these, by the way, has been known to eat the odd human, but by the time we saw him I was getting so used to swimming among fish that were bigger than me that he didn’t make much of an impression.

We also took the students on a night dive…wonderful stuff. The colors of the corals are at their best then because you take your light source with you, and have the full spectrum available to see them. We saw my only live sea snake (Aipysurus laevis) and lionfish (Pterois volitans) on that dive. After the dive, we were waiting to board the boat. The instructor went first, then the students in turn, and then finally me. Now, this was a pitch-black tropical night, out of sight from shore, and the only thing visible was one boat in an ocean of India ink. Below me was, I knew, a fair number of sharks. And I was just sitting there, floating at the surface with my feet dangling down. As I turned my head, a large hump rose out of the water right next to me. Aackk! But it turned out to be just a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) coming up from air. We had met her before, a large female that grazes on the soft corals of the wreck. At about a hundred years old, she would have been a young adult when the ship went down in 1911.

Practically every fish to be found in the Great Barrier Reef is at the Yongala too. The list of what we saw is just too long to go through. The density of small fish was greater than anything I’ve seen on the reef, and throw on top of that the drama of the sea turtles, sea snakes, and big predators, and you have what, all the reviews say, is one of the very best dive sites in the world. I am counting the days until I can go back. ?

Two Wrecks, Part 1: The Nord

This article is a little bit of a departure, as instead of dealing with things aquarist, its about things marinist. I know many of you harbor ambitions to observe exotic fish in the wild, as well as in your living room. So I thought I would write an article about going out and seeing the real thing. Of course, the best way to see fish in the wild is while under the water, and the ultimate activity of the amateur underwater tourist is SCUBA diving. Sure, you can see lots of great thing while snorkeling too, but there is something to be said for staying under water for an hour at a time.

So say you literally take the plunge and find yourself with fins on your feet, a tank on your back, and a mask over your face. Where do you go?

Well, I’ll tell you the story of two of the ten very best spots in the world to visit. Just in case you every get really adventurous. They are both early twentieth-century Australian steamer ship wrecks, the Nord and the Yongala.

Alas, neither wreck is for the novice diver, as they are both quite deep and potentially quite dangerous. I would only recommend that an experienced diver with at least an advanced certification attempt either trip.

This month, I’ll talk about the Nord.

The wreck of the Nord is located near the south-east corner of Tasmania, about an hour’s drive and then a forty minute power boat ride south-east of Hobart.

The area has a temperate climate, similar to northern California or Oregon. Tasmania’s west coast is very wet, but the east coast (where the wreck is) is quite dry in summer, but can be wet and windy in winter. Snow is rare at sea level, but temperatures can drop to freezing in the winter. Summertime high temperatures rarely exceed 30C. Ocean water temperatures are usually from 12C to 15C, but in late summer some inlets and bays have water in the low 20’s.

The wreck is quite close to Cape Pillar, the southeast corner of Tasmania, and to Tasman Island, a small island just south of Cape Pillar’s point. Tasman Island is the rocky home of the historically significant lighthouse that guided the way to the Port Arthur penal colony. Port Arthur was Tasmania’s first British settlement and it has a long and sorrowful history. It was the most brutal of the Australian penal colonies, and much more recently, the location of a massacre of 35 people in 1996.

The history of the wreck is quite interesting. The ship was delivering a shipment of 12,000 cases of benzine (motor spirits) from Melbourne to Hobart during an unusually late-season and severe “Sou-wester” in November of 1915. Unfortunately, she was too far from shore and so passed between two small islands called the Hippolytes, rather than passing inside them along the shipping lane. She then struck what was at that time an uncharted reef between the two islands. Although she did not flounder, the Nord began taking on water faster than the pumps could handle. Captain MacKay attempted to run to Port Arthur, but the winds around Tasman Island were too strong for the ship to make headway. He then backed off and tried to make it back to Fortescue Bay, a lovely inlet about ten kilometers to the north of Cape Pillar. However, the ship’s coal fires were extinguished by incoming water before they could reach the inlet. Now adrift, but relatively sheltered beneath the cliffs of the lea side of the cape, they rowed a line to the shore. The order was given at 7.15PM to abandon ship and all of the British officers and Chinese crew made their escape along the landline in a carry basket. The deserted ship sank at 2 AM on Monday, 8th November, 1915.

A picture of the Nord was featured in the January 1997 issue of National Geographic magazine, along with (among other things) pictures of the nearby Cathedral Caverns, and a picture of a great white shark taken at the sea lion colony at Isle des Phoques, about 50km to the north. Yes, there are dangerous sharks in these waters, mostly great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), locally known as white pointers; and mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), locally known as blue pointers.

Don’t worry about the sharks though.

White pointers are surprisingly picky eaters, and have only been known to attack divers at the surface near sea lion colonies, apparently mistaking them for sea lion pups. They are also becoming increasingly rare, so rare in fact they have now been declared a protected species in Australian waters. The area supported a large amateur fishery for them in the past, however, and the jaws of a near-world-record 6.4m female now adorn the wall above the bar of a nearby hotel. Rent the movie Jaws if you want some idea what a 6.4m white pointer looks like. Personally, I’ve never seen a white pointer but am acutely aware of their existence whenever I dive near a seal colony. Other than that, I give them less thought than I do the grizzlies while hiking in Banff.

Blue pointers are an offshore species that have never been known to bother divers. They feed on the tuna that still brings hundreds of fishermen to the area every summer. The tuna fishermen often catch them as well, and they are apparently quite delicious. I have seen this fish while diving on one occasion, and they are magnificent animals, with beautiful cerulean blue backs, snow-white bellies, and a perfect, sleek, and deadly shape.

My first trip to the Nord was in July 1994, and it was my most memorable.

Despite being literally a stone’s throw from shore, the Nord is in quite deep water at the base of a cliff. She rests upright on a steeply sloping sandy bottom with her stern toward shore. Her propeller rests at a depth of 36m, while her bow rests at a dangerously deep 52m. The top of her dilapidated wooden deck is at a depth of 28m.

Even the shallowest of these depths is capable of inducing nitrogen narcosis, a mildly to seriously incapacitating condition quite like alcoholic drunkenness. And the risk of the bends while ascending from these depths is very real. So only experienced divers who strictly adhere to the dive tables’ safety rules should be down there.

Getting to the Nord is an adventure in itself, as the boat trip goes along some of the most spectacular sea cliffs in Australia. The waters can be rough, however, and the wreck is surprisingly difficult to locate, so you really shouldn’t try going out there without a professional guide. Eagle Hawk Dive Center is the biggest dive outfitters in the area and will take suitably experienced divers down there whenever weather permits.

On the day I was first there, there were seven of us divers and the boat captain in a 6m Shark Cat (an open-water powerboat equipped with twin 140 HP outboard motors). The weather didn’t look to promising, with cloudy skies and strong winds from the west. In the lea of the coastal cliffs, however, the water was quite calm and there was surprisingly little swell. We were diving in two groups. The first group of five (including me) was only going to visit the stern of the ship in order to keep within the no-decompression depth limit of 42m. This is the maximum depth from which you can make an emergency direct ascent. But also on board were two dive instructors who planned a decompression dive to 52m. From such a depth it is mandatory to make a decompression stop at a depth of 10m and another at 3m to prevent the bends. The rest of us also planned decompression stops for safety reasons, even thought they were not strictly necessary. So we lowered two tanks over the side, and left them hanging from a large orange buoy at 10m and 3m depth to provide a depth marker, something to hang onto, and some emergency air while we decompressed.

Into the water we went. We descended quickly down the decompression line, then dropped through open water to the ship’s deck. Almost as soon as we started to descend did the dark hull of the ship become visible directly below us on the sandy bottom. The water was exceptionally clear that day by local standards, with 30m of visibility. The water was also pretty cold, at about 11C (after all, it was the middle of winter).

We dropped onto the deck, and then immediately spilt over the side to the sand bottom and the propeller. Dive safety guidelines dictate that you go directly to your dive’s deepest point and work your way up from there. A soon as we saw the propeller it disappeared behind hundreds of fish that filled the volume inside and under the wreck. The fish were of only two species: barber perch (Caesioperca rasor) and the much more abundant butterfly perch (Caesioperca lepidoptera). As a general rule, colder waters tend to have more individuals of fewer species than do warmer waters. Both of these fishes are members of the family Serranidae, which is well known in aquarium circles because it also contains the tropical anthiases, such as the purple anthias (Pseudanthias tuka). All serranids are smallish (about 20cm long) plankton feeders that are quite tame and gregarious. The butterfly perch is a rosy pink fish while the barber perch is a silvery species with iridescent blue head markings. Both would make lovely cold-water aquarium residents.

The butterfly perch were so thick that only when I actually swam up to the massive propeller did I get an unobstructed view of it. After swimming between the propeller and the rudder, I went up to the dilapidated deck. It would have been nice to swim into the hull, but we were neither equipped to do, nor planning to do, a penetration dive. I was also beginning to feel my judgement cloud with narcosis and thought better of entering a confined space. I did however sit on the ship’s toilet.

After very few more minutes of exploring, our six minutes of bottom time was up. The ascent to the 10m and then 3m decompression stops was uneventful: the water was so miraculously clear we could actually see the boat, the buoy, and the decompression line from the deck of the ship, so finding the line again was a snap. While we were waiting at the 3m level the two instructors finally arrived at the 10m level for their mandatory decompression stop. They waved excitedly up to us…a cause for sudden concern. A quick exchange of OK signals assured us that they were fine.

After a couple of minutes more we went to the surface and clamored into the boat. After another seven minutes we were joined by the two instructors, who immediately asked why we didn’t look at the sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) that was playing with our fins while we were decompressing. Ya, sure. But they were insistent. OK, there was a sea lion.

Almost as soon as we were safely back on board and got the boat back up to speed did we run into a pod of 30 common dolphins (Delphinus delphus) who came to ride our bow wave. They must have been pretty bored – a 6m Shark Cat doesn’t produce much of a bow wave to ride. Back on went our masks, fins, and snorkels. The motors were cut, and into the water we went. I was so excited that I put on a mismatched pair of fins and forgot to put my gloves back on. Usually, dolphins will just take off as soon as their bow wave disappears, but this group came right back toward us as soon as we hit the water. What followed was a merry game of tag, as six snorklers and 30 dolphins chased each other over a significant portion of the Pacific Ocean. The dolphins were quite friendly, but would not allow you to actually touch them. Instead, they would whirl at lightning speed just beyond your fingertips. It was also obvious that, like humans, dolphins “cue” on the eyes…when they look at you they look straight into your mask.

A sea lion (the same one?) also made a brief appearance, but he seemed quite intimidated by the (smaller) dolphins and didn’t stay to play.

After twenty minutes, the dolphins started leaving us behind, and the encounters soon dwindled in frequency. Then the dolphins left us entirely. We started back toward boat. The boat was by this time quite a ways away (and made no effort to come get us I might add) and so my hands were pretty cold by the time we got back.

The rest of the ride home was spent running the Shark Cat up and over the building swell for a fun roller coaster ride. Everyone was so high from the dive and the swim with the dolphins that the trip home just breezed by. It was one of the best days of my life, and one I’ll never forget.?

Fish Watching, Down Under: Part 2

As I mentioned in part one of this article, part two is about fish in the Great Barrier Reef. So to all you reef enthusiasts who got bored with the first installment, I hope the wait was worthwhile. If you have never been to a reef, I hope you get the chance to visit one at least once in your lifetime. It is truly an amazing experience.

For people with an interest in reefs, snorkeling or diving in them can be described very easily with just one word: WOW! If you are interested in knowing what you are seeing, or remembering all the details, the above description still applies, followed by “information overload”. Multitudes of incredibly colored fish swimming past an array of coral, anemones, rocks, algae and sea grass or dashing over a sandy stretch as they move from coral head to coral head. It is so dream like that that on my first visit to a reef I shook my head at the sight of two thread-fin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) on their way to a coral formation. Are they real, or have I been in the water too long? They were real, and there was much more to see.

Whether you have just a casual interest in reefs, or you must know everything that you see, I have some advice: get a few of those disposable underwater cameras and use them. You will forget 90% of what you saw by the time you are back home. This is no comment on your memory, but of the overwhelming diversity of life that is to be found in a reef. Over two days I spent about three hours in the water, and took three rolls of pictures. One of the most common fish in the pictures is the six-bar wrasse (Thalassoma hardwicke), a strikingly barred fish that is difficult to miss, yet I don’t recall seeing a single one. The pictures don’t lie. The wrasses were there, I just happened to be more interested in the butterflyfish at the center, or the spawning pair of sergeant majors, or the giant clam, or… So enjoy the scenery and let the camera remember what you see.

My other bit of advice is to relax and have fun. If you are going to snorkel, learn to use your equipment beforehand by practicing in a pool. You don’t want to worry about a leak in your mask or tight-fitting fins when you are on the reef. Also if you wear eyeglasses, you can get your prescription ground on the diving mask, or you can wear contact lenses. Trust me, chasing fuzzy fish hoping for a closer look is a very frustrating and tiring task. Before I got contacts I missed a close look at a sea turtle because I dismissed it as a glitch and had to come up for air. When I realized my mistake it was too late, the turtle swam away.

A last bit of advice is to do your homework. Learn about what creatures are dangerous at the reef and what to do should you run into them; local regulations; the best sites and so on.

Our tour started at Fitzroy Island, where we took a sea kayaking and snorkeling trip that left a lot to be desired, but that’s another story. The island is rocky with beaches of broken coral pieces that make tinkling sounds as the waves roll them. You can watch butterflyfish, sergeant majors, and cuttlefish right from the pier as you arrive. The snorkeling site had a lot of dead coral and the water was a little murky in places. It didn’t look promising, but as I explored further out things got very interesting. There were two Indo-Pacific sergeants (Abudefduf vaigiensis) at the base of a rock. As I got closer, the two dashed away revealing a batch of purple eggs on the rock. That’s when a feeding frenzy broke out as various fish came out to dine on the eggs. I took a picture of the frenzy and left in a hurry as I didn’t want to be responsible for a lost clutch of eggs. The diners happened to be two of the aforementioned “invisible” wrasses (Thalassoma hardwicke), two Jansen’s wrasses (Thalassoma jansenii), some young scissor-tailed sergeants (Abudefduf sexfasciatus), and a gorgeous male parrotfish (Scarus sp.). The parrotfishes are very difficult to identify as the males are highly variable in coloration and the females are very plain. From my pictures I managed to identify two species: the bullet-head parrotfish (Scarus sordidus) and the bridled parrotfish (Scarus frenatus). The males of both species are an incredible turquoise blue with green patches, pink dots and lines.

Along the way I stumbled upon a pair of virgate rabbitfish (Siganus virgatus), that seemed to always be in the same general open area. I also found a blue-spined unicornfish (Naso unicornis) that blended very well with the water. The fish has a greenish coloration that matches the color of the water, making it hard to see in deeper water. Other fish that seemed to disappear in open areas were either sand-colored, in which case I ignored them; or silvery green like the cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii), whose long body (150 cm) would be visible one second and then disappear in the reflections at the water surface, as if it was a mirage.

Noticeable in the sand were goatfishes and I thought there were two species of them. But close examination of the photographs revealed that I had actually seen at least four species: half-and-half goatfish (Parupeneus barberinioides) with a striking half-brown, half-yellow body; Indian goatfish (P. indicus); side-spot goatfish (P. pleurostigma); and black-striped goatfish (Upeneus tragula). The last three are pretty dull, so whenever I saw them they just registered as “another goatfish”. These fish have chin barbels (hence the goat in their name) that they use to dig in the sand.

Going back to more colorful fish, one of the highlights was finding three separate cleaning stations where bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) were busy cleaning other fish. The fish were undisturbed by my presence and it was neat to see larger fish arrive and hang in funny positions waiting to have their ectoparasites removed. Another highlight were two pairs of six-banded angelfish (Pomacanthus sexstriatus) that were determined not to let me get a decent picture of them. Luckily I managed to surprise one of them when I returned from shore with a new camera, and got a nice side view pose. They let me chase them through an area equivalent to half the size of a medium sized swimming pool, but always stayed in the same general area. Angels are territorial, and if that was the size of their territory I pity the marine aquarist who wants to keep them.

After chasing the angels I got a little cocky and started to look for something bigger. The angels’ territory had lots of crevices, so I looked for moray eels and jacks hiding in them but had no luck (the keyword here is look, not probe). While at the surface I saw a crested tern dive for fish nearby, so I thought I’d take a closer look. As I got closer the water seemed very strange and I lost my depth of field. The water was silvery everywhere, not just at the surface, and the rocks disappeared. A moment later my eyes refocused and I realized that I was surrounded by a huge school of small silver fish. They were either herring or anchovies. I thought I might see predatory fish dart at them, but the idea that I was near the center of their school was not a comforting one, so I moved on.

It was time to go back to shore, and I realized I was having too much fun when I caught myself rolling and swimming at weird angles trying to get the perfect shot of a crescent wrasse (Thalassoma lunare). At these times one almost forgets to surface for a breath of air. When I returned to shore, our kayaking guide asked if I had seen anything interesting. After hearing my account with glazed eyes he casually said “you should try the outer reef. You’ll like it”.

The next day we took a sailboat to Upolo Cay, in the “outer reef”. Our guides gave us a quick course in snorkeling technique, good manners and safety on the reef, and convinced us to take an introductory SCUBA lesson. To calm everyone down, we were assured that we had a better chance to see Elvis at the reef than a shark. We saw neither, but we later found out that we could see sharks if we took a second dive and asked one of the dive masters to show them to us.

There was something definitely different about the “outer reef”. The water was much clearer, deeper, the coral was alive and of an incredible variety, and giant clams were common. Butterfly fish were everywhere, along with multitudes of damsel fish. We snorkeled near the boat, took the SCUBA lesson, were ferried to the cay and snorkeled back to the boat.

The first fish seen was the boat’s mascot, a batfish (Platax orbicularis), that parked itself under the stern. It was an adult so it didn’t have the dead leaf shape and pattern of the young fish. As I neared the first reef patch I was greeted by schools of spiny chromis (Acanthochromis polyacanthus) and lots of blue fish, yellow fish, blue-and-yellow fish, black-and-white striped fish, and brown fish. I managed to narrow these down to the many species of damsel fish, though my pictures are not sharp enough to identify which species were present. I did get a great picture of a dusky anemone fish (Amphiprion melanopus) swimming over sea anemones, though.

We were not allowed to carry the cameras during our SCUBA dive, so I don’t remember much of what I saw. We did run into a school of Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus), more anemonefish, a bicolor angelfish (Centropyge bicolor) with its striking dark blue and yellow colors, more six-banded angelfish and a truly giant clam. As if things weren’t colorful enough, these giant clams are dark green-blue with turquoise spots. Our dive master showed us that you can actually stick your hand inside the clam and not get trapped.

We were then taken to Upolo Cay itself so we could soak up the sun and warm up. The snorkeling on the way back was great, though we were literally herded back to the boat. I inquired about stingrays and turtles. I was assured that chances were very good of seeing rays, though it was the wrong time of the year for turtles. I was told that to see the stingrays I had to dive down in the sandy areas and look for a bump, then disturb the sand around it. “What about the stinger?” I asked, “just disturb the sand” was the reply. So when I arrived at the first sandy patch I promptly dove straight down and, thanks to the swimmers ahead of me, there was a blue-spotted stingray (Dasyatis kuhlii) swimming almost directly below me. I surfaced to point the ray to my wife and went back for a close look.

In the same area I found a Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) with its bizarre patterns looking quite faded. When it approached a dark piece of coral, the colors became much more intense. I also saw a juvenile highfin grouper (Epinephelus maculatus) darting away from me. The fish were very skittish in the open areas.

Last but not least were the many species of butterflyfish. They were the first “coral reef” fish that I recognized from books so I find them rather special. They are difficult to identify at the reef as many species look alike, and the information overload settles in, but the pictures saved the day. Of the white and yellow with black stripes variety there were Pacific double-saddle butterflyfish (Chaetodon ulietensis), black-backed butterflyfish (C. melannotus), vagabond butterflyfish (C. vagabundus) and the thread-fin butterflyfish (C. auriga). Of the yellow variety there were blue-spot butterflyfish (C. plebeius), the raccoon butterflyfish (C. lunula), the latticed butterflyfish (C. rafflessi), the golden-striped butterflyfish (C. aureofasciatus) and the speckled butterflyfish (C. citrinellus). The most striking one, due to its different patterns was the red-fin butterflyfish (C. trifasciatus). The vagabond and black-backed butterflyfish were the most common.

In part one I closed by saying that I was looking forward to keeping rainbowfish. I don’t get the same feeling with marine fish. They range over such an expanse that I can’t imagine them in a home aquarium. I would much rather enjoy them at their home than in my living room. When I read of cyanide and dynamite being used to catch reef fish for the aquarium hobby, I think we are better off protecting their environment and leaving them alone. Even the most spectacular reef tank is a pale shadow of the real thing.


Bock, Kenneth (1992). A Guide to Common Reef Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean & Kenya Coast. London, England: The MacMillan Press Ltd.

Lieske, Ewald, & Myers, Robert (1994). Coral Reef Fishes – Indo-Pacific & Caribbean. London, England: Harper Collins.?