BlennyWatcher’s 2016 Review

Emblemaria atlantica, Banner Blenny - Blennywatcher's 2016 Review
A new blenny for our life lists: Emblemaria atlantica, Banner Blenny in Bermuda

BlennyWatcher’s 2016 Review: We didn’t post as much here last year as we would have liked though as diving goes, 2016 was a pretty good year. We added quite a few species to our life lists (including a blenny or two) and in our continued commitment to making at least one dive trip a year that is out of our comfort zone, we ventured into the cold water in the Azores. That led to a new experience – dry suit diving – something we never thought we’d try.

Our first dive trip of the year was to Anilao, in the Philippines. In 2015 we asked our guides what their favorite time of the year was and they said February/March, “More nudibranchs,” so we added this trip onto the front end of our 2016 trip to Indonesia. Off to a good start at Aiyanar Resort, we posted Anilao Portfolio, a collection of Ned’s favorite images from that trip. Our guide, Kim Manzano and our friend Dave Dempsey’s guide Hydee Bantugon, worked as a tag team; we asked them to show us anything they found interesting even if they had shown it to us before.

Anilao is well-known for its fantastic number of nudibranchs. In my opinion they are much better recorded in still images than video. Most nudibranchs don’t move much and most (I have to qualify this so my nudi-loving friends don’t get all upset) people get bored watching a video with a lot of non-moving stuff. I asked Kim to not be offended if he showed me a nudibranch and I passed on shooting it. I’m glad he persevered because the Thecacera he showed me was gorgeous and there was action – mating!

Late one afternoon, we encountered three Snake Blennies, Xiphasia setifer, out swimming around each other. I’ve only ever seen a single Snake Blenny on a dive, so three was unusual. I’m guessing there was courting going on. They are also known by the common name Hair-tail Blenny but I never knew why until I noticed the largest and most active of the three had streamers on its tail. Over the years, I’ve seen quite a few of these swimming out of their burrows but this was the first with an actual “hairy” tail.

A few other “new” observations for me included an Okenia rhinorma nudibranch that I noticed when an unexpected current took us sailing along a sandy beach. At another site, Kim and Hydee pointed out a tiny Pegasus Seamoth wandering around on a shallow slope. Adult seamoths are a mottled brown but this little half-inch beauty was bright green. I shot video but we were never able to find it again to show it to Ned and Dave. They also pointed out a two-inch-long flounder that I think is a juvenile Cockatoo Flounder, Samaris cristatus.

Our friend William Tan, on holiday from Singapore, joined us for dinner one evening. As he shared images of things he had seen over the week, one, an image of a stalked hydroid with many small polyps caught my attention. Intrigued, I started hunting for them and found several with pulsing polyps.

One morning, while Ned and Dave were busy shooting nudibranchs, I got bored hunting for hydroids and decided to follow a pair of Flamboyant Cuttlefish. We never get tired of Flamboyant Cuttlefish, do we? Earlier in the week, the female was laying eggs under a coconut shell as the smaller male guarded her. I followed on the chance I might see them mating but they were busy feeding and even grabbed something from right under my camera.

After twelve days in Anilao, we traveled on to Indonesia, where we boarded the Dewi Nusantara for a long-anticipated return to remote Triton Bay. We posted Ned’s portfolio, Ambon to Triton Bay here on the blog, along with a couple of other short observations about Bulbonaricus pipefishes and How the Earred Blenny got its Name. I wrote another short piece about our quest for Jamal’s Dottyback, that will be posted soon over at the Bird’s Head Seascape site.

We also wrote a post for the Bird’s Head Seascape site about our exciting dives at Flasher Beach. We were able to time our dives at Flasher Beach for late afternoon, when the males are flashing brilliant colors to attract females. This dive site had the densest population of fairy and flasherwrasses we’ve ever seen and the most fish fights, including this dramatic sparring between two male Nursalim Flasherwrasses:

Bonaire, June 2016 ~ Every year, since 2004, Ned and I have spent anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks in August and September at Buddy Dive Resort in Bonaire as the resident naturalists. Ned gave slide shows, we taught fish identification classes, dived with guests on the boats and took them snorkeling in the mangroves. For years, we’ve put many topside trips off, saying we’d wait until we were too old to dive. Well, we’re getting older and we’re still diving so we decided we’d best be getting on with the other things on our list. Our friends at Buddy Dive, always gracious, invited us for a shorter stay during a time that would work better for our travel schedule. So off we went to Bonaire for two weeks in June, which just happened to coincide with Buddy’s Coral Lovers Month.

Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire coral nursery - BlennyWatcher’s 2016 Review
Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire coral nursery trees are a hang out for quite a few fish.

Anyone who has been diving almost anywhere over the past 20 years has certainly noticed the degradation of coral reefs. There has been much discussion about the multiple causes and possible remedies that include building new reef structures and/or growing corals. Of the projects we’ve seen firsthand in both the tropical western Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific, the most successful at growing and planting new reefs seems to be run by the Coral Restoration Foundation, based in Key Largo, Florida. We wrote about founder Ken Nedimyer and his family’s involvement in growing coral in “How Does Your Garden Grow?” published in the August 2008 edition of Scuba Diving Magazine. Ken mentioned that one of his dreams was to take his successful program from the Florida Keys into the Caribbean. Not long after that, at the DEMA trade show, we introduced Ken to Paul Coolen and Augusto Montbrun at Buddy Dive, who with the backing and support of the rest of the Buddy Dive management and owners, formed the Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire.

Coral Restoration Foundation Bonaire's rebar nursery - BlennyWatcher’s 2016 Review
One of the coral nurseries in Bonaire.

Over the years, we’ve watched the coral nursery project grow and this year Ned and I took the Coral Restoration Diver specialty course at Buddy.  I participated in one of the nursery maintenance expeditions with the STINAPA Junior Rangers and other CRF Bonaire members from Harbor Village and Wannadive. Quite a few fishes have made the nurseries their home and the team told us about tiny red “shrimp” that live in the holes drilled for the monofilament hangers. Those shrimp turned out to be tiny, oh-so-cute amphipods that would scurry out when we cleaned algae off the coral trees:

The cutest red amphipod in the coral nursery on Bonaire - BlennyWatcher’s 2016 Review
The cutest red amphipods are living in the coral nursery.

Ned has been making the occasional night drift dive in open water for the past 15 years but the only ones I’ve been willing to try were in Bonaire where, for the past three years, the Buddy team has taken us out to drift at night in the channel between Bonaire and Klein Bonaire. This year we also tried it during night shore dives, hovering in midwater off the reef – there was a lot of interesting plankton but the inshore waters had so much particulate matter that it was difficult to pick out individual animals. I did finally get the nerve to take my video camera:

Emboldened by my Bonaire night drifts, I finally screwed up the courage to join one of the blackwater dives off West Palm Beach with the gang from the Blue Heron Bridge. Captain Dean Schuler and his crew at Pura Vida Divers make it effortless – I can see why everyone is hooked on these. Watch for an article in an upcoming issue of Alert Diver Magazine.

At the beginning of August, we headed to the Azores with a survey team from REEF, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation led by Drs. Brice and Christy Semmens. Christy, at the invitation of the Azores government has been working for several years with local partners to establish the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean (EAM) REEF Program. Ten of us spent a week counting fish and exploring the beautiful islands of Faial and Pico. In preparation for the trip, Christy sent us the REEF survey materials and lists of species to study and Dr. Peter Wirtz sent us copies of his identification book, Madeira, Canary Islands, Azores Fishes. Members of our group located other books and resources, even going as far as creating fish flash cards to help us learn our fishes. The main draw for this group of fishwatchers was the opportunity to see species that we hadn’t seen before.

REEF Surveryors in Faial heading out with Norberto Diver
REEF Surveryors in Faial heading out with Norberto Diver

Diving with Norberto Serpa, owner of the dive operation, Norberto Diver was quite an experience! In addition to juggling a fleet of diving, snorkeling and whalewatching boats out of a small waterfront shop, Norberto personally guided our group, ensuring we would see every species possible (and having worked at the University many years, he knew his fish). He also hosts a weekly cookout for his guests and local friends and one day between dives, escorted us over to Pico Island for a memorable meal at a local cafe and a visit to his home (where he once entertained Anthony Bourdain for an episode of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations).

Tidepooling in the Azores - Blennywatcher 2016 Review
Tidepooling in the Azores

Most divers go to the Azores for the whales, sharks and mobula rays. They are indeed splendid dives and we met divers who were going out on those trips and we saw the images from them. But we went to count fish, which meant hunting for blennies, gobies, eels and the exquisitely beautiful Anthias anthias. Ned’s  favorite images will be included in an upcoming Alert Diver article. I did not take my video camera on this trip – I was surveying fish and learning to dive in a dry suit so I opted for an abundance of caution. I did add quite a few species to my life list including this Red Blenny, also known as Portuguese Blenny, Parablennius ruber. Check out the cirri on this blenny!

Red Blenny, Parablennius ruber - Blennywatcher's 2016 Review
The Red Blenny, Parablennius ruber, sports quite a set of cirri!

Tidepooling around Faial was a highlight of our topside adventures. Peter Wirtz had advised me that we could find several blenny species in the tide pools, so we had a mission. When Doug Camp sat down to take photos, tiny shrimp and blennies began crawling all over his feet. Just like in the cleaning stations out on the reef, these tide pool inhabitants have evolved to take advantage of any possible source of food – even if it arrives in the form of a human foot! We all sat down for pedicures:

Shrimp and blenny pedicures for everyone! - Blennywatcher 2016 Review

Our last dive trip of 2016 was a REEF Field Survey in Bermuda. Reconnecting with our old friends on the island is always a joy – Judie Clee, Ron Lucas and Chris Flook always go out of their way to show us a grand time. Judie is one of the best ocean advocates I’ve ever met and the Bermuda REEF project is what it is today because of her mentorship and outreach efforts. Thanks to Judie and company, we received passes to the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute and the National Museum in Hamilton (including a guided tour by Dr. Deborah Atwood). One of my favorite museum displays in the world is in the stairwell of the National Museum. It is a charming mural by Bermudian artist Graham Foster, that depicts the history of Bermuda. Every time I visit, I something new, this time, it was an Oarfish. I keep thinking I’ll find a blenny if I look long enough.

Graham Fosters mural in the National Museum of Bermuda
One of the panels that winds up the staircase – there’s an Oarfish in there!
Deep Sea exploration on the mural at the Bermuda National Museum
William Beebe exploring the deep off Bermuda
Detail from Graham Foster's mural at the Natonal Museum of Bermuda
There are sea cucumbers! Could there be a blenny somewhere?

We also enjoyed a wonderful evening at the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo, including a behind the scenes tour where no visit is complete without a visit with aquarium ambassador, Darth Vader the Black Grouper. When visitors arrive on the upper deck of the main tank, Darth Vader shows up for a rub. He even flaps a fin to splash water if he isn’t getting the attention he wants. We’re instructed to gently rub the base of his fins and he stays as long as there are people willing to oblige. I met Darth Vader on our first visit to the aquarium in 2009 – he was well established king of the tank – and it was fun to see him again.

Chris met us at the dock one afternoon after our dives with buckets full  of things he had been collecting from the sargassum seaweed as part of his job at the Bermuda Aquarium. I think I read that there are over 125 species of tiny fishes and invertebrates that make their homes temporarily or permanently in the floats of sargassum.

REEF team looking at sargassum animals - Blennywatcher's 2016 Review
Chris Flook from the Bermuda Aquarium shows us the sargassum animals he collected.
Bermuda juvenile needlefish - Blennywatcher's 2016 Review
A half-inch-long needlefish from the sargassum

Of special interest to our group was the Bermuda Creole Wrasse, now considered to be a separate species from the Creole Wrasse in the Caribbean. A distinctive feature of the Bermuda Creole Wrasse is the streamer on the top and bottom of the tail fin, not present on its Caribbean cousin:

Bermuda Creole Wrasse - Blennywatcher's 2016 Review

We were also on the hunt for the Yellowfin Chromis, another Bermuda endemic that is normally found quite deep. Over the past few years, there have been occasional sightings in shallower waters but we had no luck this time. We did, however, finally see the Banner Blenny, Emblemaria atlanticayay! The first image, at the top of this post is the blenny. I have looked for this fish on every one of our four trips to Bermuda and by the last day of this trip we had still not found one, so I figured I was going home “skunked” again. I called Judie, hoping for any tidbits of info. She pored through the sightings database and suggested we try the northern end of North Rock. After diving with our group for a week, Captain Heinz of Dive Bermuda was all about taking us wherever we wanted to go to “get the fish.” Within five minutes, I found the blenny in a rubble field just beyond the reef.

Hurricane Matthew was heading for Bermuda and we were the recipients of the calm before the storm. The water was so glassy and flat that we could even identify fish as we passed over them on the ride out to North Rock.

Clear, calm October 2016 waters of Bermuda
On the way to North Rock – our view from the boat

Calm, clear seas – that is probably the best way to end this 2016 Review. For 2017, Ned and I will be diving in Dominica this June with Buddy Dive and will be back in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia in October with Eco Divers for another Fish & Critter Hunt. I think there is still room on those trips if you want to join us.

We’re off to Australia for out first dives of 2017. I’m hoping for exotic sea dragons and handfish – fingers crossed that we’ll see them.