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Creatures of the Muck

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Janice 1Muck diving.  “Le” muck diving.  There is no pretty way to say muck diving even if you are French.  In fact when you do muck dive for the first time and look out over a silty, sandy slope, or a pile of coral rubble, it seems that a hopeless hour underwater searching for some form of life, including your dive buddies, is ahead.  I was especially worried about unfairly judging muck diving at Maluku Divers in Ambon because my trip there immediately followed a boat trip through Raja Ampat which is so full of color and life everywhere.  But with a beautiful Balinese meal sitting in front of me at the end of the first day of diving on Ambon, my thoughts were that, perhaps all of the previous 15 days of travel, including three international flights through four countries, two domestic flights, and a liveaboard trip of twelve days, was just to arrive at Maluku Divers on Ambon.

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Although we took one of the longest, but most scenic, ways to get to Ambon, once we arrived there, our traveling was over.  Our first dive at Laha I, along the southern coast of Ambon Bay, was reported to be an absurdly long interval away from the resort when in fact it took less than five minutes – barely enough time to be introduced to Jamal, our experienced dive guide from Lembeh, Mo our boat driver, and Hafez, a young Indonesian king who helped us with our equipment on the day boat.  Topside, this dive site happens to be a small but active wharf area where people seem to both live and work on their boats.  The children are especially intrigued by the foreign divers.  They wonder why we use our money to travel so far just to see the fish right under their boats.

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Janice 3We did a backward roll into the warm water and swam to a pile of rubble directly under the boats.  It was noon so I was completely surprised when it was a mandarin fish colony that we were on a mission to observe.  My previous encounters with mandarin fish were to watch them having sex at 6:30 in the evening, but they were also busy scampering about at noon, just ignorant of the opposite sex and yet brilliant against their colorless home.  I was so focused on getting that perfect photo of a mandarin fish that I almost missed just how many other creatures inhabited this rather small rubble complex.  Banded pipefish were just hanging in the water, and very long white antennae revealed the location of the largest banded coral shrimp that I had ever seen.  One of the oddest-looking fish, an estuarine stonefish, was lying there like a sunken shipwreck.  With the exception of the stonefish that seemed cemented into this habitat, I found it difficult to understand that out of the entire ocean these creatures chose this noisy, close to shore site, and yet they live here together at least during daylight, harmoniously.  These were my first 30 minutes in Ambon.

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As we continued on just this first dive, it became apparent that there is no comparing the diving here to that in Raja Ampat because muck diving is just simply an entirely different sport. While in Raja Ampat we were more on a guided tour of mountaintops and walls underwater where classic coral underwater scenes were plentiful; in Ambon we were encouraged to stay in one spot, maybe one where there was just a pile of unremarkable rocks, and look for anything moving.  Jamal’s mere thoughts seemed to bring forth different creatures, at an exhaustive and uncontrolled rate, like he was a genie in training, but I forced myself to pause and try this alternative dive style approach.  I had incredible luck finding creatures.  In the Laha area, sea urchins of many types are serious diving hazards everywhere, and you are tempted to overlook them, but this is a mistake.  I initially was compelled to look at the fire urchins because of their vibrant colors, but then I started to see other animals living within them.  I discovered that they harbor all sorts of crustaceans and are like a mini habitat that transports squat lobsters, zebra crabs, and the beautiful pairs of spotted Coleman shrimp across the sand.  This “wait and see” method was quite useful to practice, because in Ambon, as you are waiting to peek at some main event creature, which was often, you could say so what, and find something else nearby that occupies your attention, like a solar powered nudibranch because you wonder which end is doing the driving.
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When asked, divers who come to Ambon immediately respond that they want to see histiophryne psychedelica, the new species of frogfish that was re-discovered by a novice diver in 2008.  It disappeared though or so they say, but when the other dive group from the resort returned from their first dive at Rhino City with photographic evidence of the celebrity fish, we were hoping to be his next human visitors.  I did not want to miss this fish so I followed Jamal closely on this dive.  The psychedelic frogfish had not been disturbed, because Jamal was able to lead us directly to it.  This fish was identified as a frogfish ultimately through DNA analysis, but it has features that distinguish it from typical ones.  Most notable is its flat forward looking face, but it also has no lure.  Like any unusual looking creature, this fish deserved a few minutes of quiet inspection without movement or flashing lights, but I was attracted to it in an unexpected way.  Often fish have physical features that advise the onlooker to keep away, but this fish has a soft, fleshy appearance that really tempts you to touch it.  As if to remind me not to do this, was an eel, a sort of bodyguard to the frogfish, living in the same crevice.

 

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The psychedelic frogfish’s coloring was also a bit of a mystery to me.  It is usually obvious why a frogfish looks as it does; generally I am not sure that I have actually seen one when I have seen it because they imitate their habitat so well.  Although the overall color of the psychedelic frogfish allows it to blend in with the sand of Ambon, there are vibrant white lines that extend radially from its eyes and then swirl around over the main part of its body.  It was not until I read about this fish, where these patterns were shown to parallel those from certain hard corals, that I could begin to see how the fish evolved to mimic its environment.  However, the lines also have a sort of hypnotizing affect on the viewer, and perhaps have a dual purpose in distracting as well any prey so that it loses concentration for a moment.

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Histiophryne psychedelica was an amazing fish to see, but what was additionally fascinating is how many other unusual “what was evolution thinking” kind of creatures were on the same dive and within meters of the shore and surface.   There is a resident giant black frogfish in about two meters of water at one end of the dive.  We also found a rhinopias scorpionfish hiding in the halimeda algae.  A white leaf scorpionfish and an army of hinge-beaked shrimp occupied the coral bommie across from the psychedelic frogfish.  It was also a place for finding all sorts of nudibranchs that seemed big enough for the nearly blind to see.

Janice AThe dives in Ambon rarely went below twenty meters.  Only once did I find myself at twenty-five meters and that was to watch a flamboyant cuttlefish that we had inadvertently chased to this depth.  Most dives occurred on this same coast, just different sections of it.  Even though the landscape was somewhat similar overall, sloping sandy, I was starting to feel that there were different neighborhoods.  The Laha dives were where the harlequin and bumblebee shrimp, pipefish, and assorted frogfish lived in the rubble and the sand.  Further west, the landscape becomes more covered with corals and especially crinoids.  Here there is also a jetty, Air Manis Jetty, where a different lifestyle is in development.  There is quite a bit of human refuse where eels and giant banded coral shrimp could find a home.  The crinoids here have space to move about the sand like ladies in 17th century ball gowns and were sometimes escorted by a matching ornate or long nosed ghost pipefish.  Octopi displayed themselves openly in daylight, and fat nudibranchs were busy chewing the sponges that covered the pilings of the pier.

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Unexpectedly by day, I was really becoming a confident diver in Ambon.  I was filling my log book with the description of creatures many of which I actually found myself:  a xenocrab on an isolated whip coral protruding from the sand, a curious long armed shrimp by a tree anemone, a pair of leaf scorpionfish that I nearly drowned myself in excitement over and no one around to show, lots of pygmy cuttlefish, shrimp in crinoids, and shy long snout seahorses bobbing about as if they were drunk.  I found that I could spend most minutes of a dive looking at a single anemone.  All varieties exist on the sandy slopes of Ambon, bubble anemones in different colors, carpet anemones, and tube anemones.  So many different types of shrimp and crabs could live in one single anemone.  Especially at the anemones if you waited long enough, the animals would begin to crawl out from hiding.
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But who comes out for the moonlight?  I boldly proposed to postpone dinner one evening for a night dive on the house reef.  An hour and a half later we returned to the resort with a whole new set of images in our heads.  It is not clear what you are looking at sometimes during a day dive in Ambon, but at night it takes some special imagination to identify an animal and where its eyes might be.  This is especially true with the crabs for which there seems to be an endless parade of.  It is a bit like dropping in on Alice in Wonderland’s underwater tea party where everybody’s hat mimics his own favorite piece of underwater habitat, but sometimes it looks ridiculous and awkward for the crab to live with.  One case in point was a decorator crab with long thin pink vertically growing sponges on its head.  It looked to be performing some sort of balancing act, and so perhaps, I thought it is with a bit of pride or personality that each animal adopts its headgear rather than merely for survival.  There were open soft corals, a giant pleurobranch, many kinds of nudibranchs, and a bobtail squid that buried itself up to its eyeballs in the sand to escape while peering at us.  We were nowhere near finishing our air on this dive; it was actually hunger that drove us back to the shore after one and a half hours.

Janice 8Each hour underwater at Ambon went by like lightening for me.  I am not sure what kind of rating system one can apply to diving in Ambon.  A star rating system does not seem accurate because it conjures up more typical images like corals and blue water and big animals and whether there is current or not.  Things are not swimming around much and if they do have fins they can also have legs attached to creep around, and sometimes your photos of an odd creature inadvertently advertise Coke.  I am a scientist, and I cannot help but think of evolution when I am under the water.  All sorts of ideas pop into my head, like what exactly was evolution thinking, and how genetically different am I really than the rhinopias scorpionfish?  To me it seems that Ambon is a collection of evolution’s experiments or abandoned ones in addition to the usual animals, and perhaps a rating system should correlate to remarkable skills of evolution at work here and your confidence level as a diver when you leave.

Janice Nigro is an avid scuba diver with a PhD in biology.  She is a scientist who has studied the development of human cancer at universities in the USA and Norway, and has discovered the benefits of artistic expression through underwater photography and story writing of her travel adventures.

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Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 1)

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In June we were incredibly fortunate to be invited to dive in Alonissos, a small Greek Island in the Sporades island chain located in the North Aegean Sea.  While I have long been a big fan of the Greek Islands as a great holiday destination, I had not had the opportunity to do any diving on previous visits and Mike and I were extremely excited to see what Alonissos had to offer both above and below the surface!

The Sporades are easily accessible via the airport in Skiathos (the first island in the chain), which is served by Jet2 flights from all major UK airports from May through October.  Numerous ferries and charter boats make island hopping from Skiathos Town a breeze.  After an hour boat ride, the picturesque port of Patitiri was a wonderful introduction to Alonissos, where we were met by our gracious hosts Kostas of Albedo Travel and Dias of Alonissos Triton Dive Center.  Mike and I were delighted to be staying at the Paradise Hotel, aptly named for its stunning views over the sea and great location for walking to the waterfront.

Alonissos is beautifully situated in the National Marine Park of Alonissos and the Northern Sporades, the largest marine protected area in Europe.  The surrounding seas offer fabulous marine life, including incredibly rare species such as the Mediterranean monk seal.  They boast deep walls covered in gorgonians and sponges, stunning topography with caverns, swimthroughs and pinnacles, and the first accessible ancient shipwreck from 500BC!

In locations where historical sites have been reported, the waters are largely restricted, but with collaboration between government, underwater archeologists and dive centres, incredible underwater museums are being created for a truly unique diving experience.  Alonissos is home to the first of these, the Ancient Shipwreck of Peristera Accessible Underwater Archeological Site.  The chance to dive into history (along with reports of healthy reef life and amazing underwater topography) meant Mike and I were keen to get in the water.

Our introduction to the diving around Alonissos was at the Agios Georgios Pinnacles, in the channel between Alonissos and Skopelos.  This fantastic site was named “The Chimney,’ and proved to have a huge amount to see.  We got to a decent depth here (over 25m), and marvelled at a colourful reef wall with a wonderful swim through whose rocky walls were absolutely covered with life.  As well as brilliant topography there was no shortage of macro life here.  We saw numerous nudibranchs, five different species in total.  The second dive at Mourtias reef nearby was a shallower dive along a nice wall with lots of crevices. Several moray eels and grouper called this site home.  We enjoyed looking in the crevices for lobster and smaller benthic life, such as cup corals and tunicates.

Our itinerary allowed us two dives a day with afternoons left to explore the island with our hire car and evenings to enjoy the famous Greek hospitality.  This proved to be a lovely mix of in-water and land based diversions.  

The next days diving to the Gorgonian Gardens and Triton’s Cave was to be even better!  These two stunning sites are nothing short of fabulous.  The Gorgonian Gardens was a deep wall near to the Agios Georgios islands.  The ever-present currents in this deep channel meant that the sea life was amazing … the namesake Gorgonian sea fans dotted the wall at a depth of 30 to 50 meters, getting ever larger the deeper we went.  Above 30m was by no means less beautiful, with sponges, corals, scorpionfish, moray eels and some rare and colourful nudibranchs.

The second shallower dive of the day was to Triton’s Cave or the Cavern of Skopelos, on the east side of that island. The spectacular rock formations had wild striations both above and below the water making a truly epic topography.  The cavern entrance was at 14m, and big enough for a buddy pair, winding up to 6m and passing two beautiful windows out into the blue.  Emerging from the cavern, the light at the shallower depths and the incredible rock formations made for a fantastic gentle swimming safety stop and we all surfaced by the boat with massive grins. 

Check out our next blog :Alonissos: The complete diving destination (Part 2)” to hear about our amazing dive on the 2500 year old Peristera Wreck!

Thanks to:

Alonissos Triton Dive Center https://bestdivingingreece.com/

Albedo Travel https://alonissosholidays.com/activities/

Paradise Hotel https://paradise-hotel.gr/

Alonissos Municipality https://alonissos.gr/en/

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Mamma Mia! Diving Skopelos (Part 2)

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Our second days dive itinerary was to the famous Christoforos wreck! This is arguably the best dive in Skopelos and though only open to divers with deep diving experience, this 83m long wreck is well worth the visit.  

The Christoforos sits in 43 meters of water with the deck at 32 to 35 meters.  A 30m dive can give an impressive view of the wreck, though such a large wreck needs a few dives to truly do it justice.  Given its ideal location just a 2 minute boat ride from the dive centre dock it is an excellent first dive of the day.  The sheltered site is also diveable in all but the absolute worst weather so although deep, the water is usually clear with little to no current making it a very pleasant dive.  The site is superb for technical diving and a great training site for the Tec 40 and 45 programs, offered by Skopelos Dive Center.  

The Christoforos wreck was originally a collier ship built in 1950 at Grangemouth shipyard under the name “Thomas Hardie”.  In 1976 she joined the Greek merchant fleet as “Christoforos”.  On the 2nd of October 1983 the Christoforos was carrying 2600 tonnes of cement from Volos to Piraeus Port. During the voyage the weather turned, resulting in the ship developing a 7 degree list, whereby she changed course for safe anchorage at Panormos, Skopelos.  The ship reached Panormos at 16:00 with a list of 17 degrees and water ingress to No. 1 hull.  Though attempts were made to right the vessel, the crew were ordered to abandon ship at 22:00.  The captain, lieutenant and the quartermaster remained to try and save the ship, but had to abandon the attempt themselves and the Christoforos finally sank at 05:30 on 3rd October 1983.  She now sits upright in 43 meters of water less than 200m from shore in Panormos.

Diving has only been allowed here since 2018, so the wreck is very well preserved and a real treat to dive.  Permission to dive here was granted by the authorities after lots of incredibly hard work by the Skopelos Dive Center staff.  Having a fantastic wreck in such an amazing location and in excellent condition is a real privilege.

Of all the sites in Skopelos this was the site Mike and I were most keen to experience.  Having kitted up and zipped across the bay to the mooring, we left the surface and followed the descent line until the wreck emerged spectacularly from the blue at 15m.  She is a big and beautiful wreck, sitting as though calmly continuing her journey along the seabed.  With most of her original features still intact there were points of interest everywhere, including the anchors, winches, ships telegraphs, the wheel and RDF antenna.  

We found that aquatic life had colonised the ship, with schools of fish, electric blue nudibranchs, a large moray eel and the resident scorpionfish lurking inside the bridge.  The Christoforos was truly a stunning wreck and despite maximising our time at depth we eventually had to say our goodbyes and begin the slow and steady return to the surface. 

After a superb morning dive we had the afternoon to do a little sightseeing of the island, with a trip to the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri made famous by the blockbuster movie “Mamma Mia!”. Mike and I spent a happy afternoon pootling around in our little hire car before meeting up with Lina from Skopelos Dive Center.  An underwater archeologist as well as a dive professional, Lina had offered to show us a rather special attraction, the Christoforos shipwreck Digital Spot public information and awareness centre.

A fantastic initiative made possible from the collaboration of the government and hard work of the staff at Skopelos Dive Center is the “Digital Spot” in Agnontas port.  This information center has a number of displays on the history of the Christoforos wreck, the process by which the wreck was allowed to be opened to the public for diving tourism, other sites of historical interest in the area, a video of the wreck and the best bit, a virtual reality dry dive experience!  The beauty of the VR system is that non diving members of the family can see what you have seen on the wreck, or you can see areas that you may not have explored during the dive due to time or depth limitations.  It was a truly immersive experience and a great addition to the dive itself.

After a wonderful day we celebrated our last evening on the island with an exquisite meal in Skopelos Town with fabulous views over the town and bay, washed down with the excellent local wine.  The lamb with lemon and potatoes was a meal which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life! 

Skopelos is an island that truly has it all.  The diving is excellent, the landscape is beautiful with plenty of non diving activities, the locals friendly and the food and drink superb.  Given how accessible it is as a holiday destination it has avoided becoming overcrowded and even in peak season offers a fun yet relaxing atmosphere.  We highly recommend giving Skopelos a visit.  We will certainly be back again!

Thanks to:

Municipality of Skopelos (https://skopelos.com/

Skopelos Dive Center  (https://sporadesdiving.gr/)

Ionia Hotel (https://www.ioniahotel.gr/en)

Dolphin of Skopelos (https://dolphinofskopelos.com/)

Ta Kymata restaurant (@takymata)

The Muses restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/TheMussesMousses/)

Aktaiov resturant (https://skopelos.com/listings/aktaion-taverna/)

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