01/21/2015, Raja Ampat, Indonesia
The oddest and most mobile sea cucumber we have ever seen.
Rebecca and I have seen thousands of Sea Cucumbers laying on the sandy bottoms of coral atolls and reefs throughout the Pacific. They are generally a dark drab color. The cylindrical shape is about a foot long and 3 inches in diameter tapering at both ends. Since they are mostly made of water, they are soft and spongy when squeezed. There is some color, texture and size variation to the different species. Sea cucumbers don't crawl fast. A sea star or sea urchin or conch could easily out run a cucumber. If there is a current or surf, or fan it with your hand, a cucumber will roll around out of control. They have no fins, arms or jointed legs. Their feet are like that of the sea star. Usually, cucumbers just leisurely move along sifting through the sand for "nutrients" dropped by all the other aquatic animals. With a diet like that, few marine animals would think of eating a mature cucumber. But if so, the cucumber has defenses. They can lay down a trail of incredibly sticky substance which would clog up the feet of a pursuer. Plus there are toxins which can be sensed by hungry marine animals. But of course, what most of nature will not eat, the Chinese will consider a delicacy and will pay a high price for dried and smoked cucumbers. In most Pacific nations, because of over fishing, cucumbers are now on the do not take list. Even the natives we met who harvested cucumbers for the Chinese market would not eat them..."They taste like what they eat." So when I now see a sea cucumber on the bottom of a reef tending to some else's business and filling an important roll of cleaning up the environment, I am happy to see he missed the gathering bag and drying rack of a native, and there will be no smiling Chinese wispping a bad breath.
But one day, in snorkel gear, Rebecca and I were flipping our way over a very remote yet colorful reef in the Raja Ampat area of Indonesia. Coasting over a sandy area in 6 feet of water, I could not have been more startled by a sea cucumber than if I had seen a toothy crocodile. We have seen some amazing marine life found only in these parochial waters but never could I have guessed a sea cucumber would be able stand on its tail end and wave its upper 2/3 into the gentle current. It really looked like an over weight cobra minus an Indian fluter. The cucumber didn't seem to mind me swimming around it taking pictures with a strong flash. Certainly, this species is the highest technological generation of cucumbers. We found out it is the Graeff's Sea Cucumber and it is debated when it is standing up into the current, whether it is feeding on plankton or propagating. But this image shows one of the many feeding pads extending from its mouth indicating feeding....but then, is it sniffing for a girlfriend? When maneuvering around the bottom, several of the white round pads extend from its mouth to feel around in the sand and alternately retrieve food.
Like most of the world, Indonesia is overpopulated with people. If the natives could eat coral there would be only sand left on the reefs. But there are protected areas which have been preserved for so many years that now some of these reefs are teeming with more fish than we have seen anywhere else in the Pacific. One afternoon Rebecca and I came upon a 250 pound grouper. In all the reefs of Florida or the Bahamas I had never seen a grouper a third that size. But Rebecca said that fish was the small one compared to the grouper she had seen the day before. We have seen so many 100 pound Hump Head Wrasses that I was wondering if there were any small ones. But it isn't just more fish, it is the species and diversity found only here.
I fell into a new hobby of photographing nudibranch. These are colorful and unique marine snails which have no shell. Fish do not bother Nudibranch as they sense how poisonous they are. Better still, all this is found in waters with a tropical temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit.
A while back we picked up a SeaLife DC1400 under water camera. The whole kit cost $500. There are plenty of programmed and manual settings with a 14mb memory. A year ago October, I used the camera to take all the images for our annual Blue Water Sailing article, called "What Worked, What Didn't", to demonstrate its capacity to take magazine quality images. It is all I need for the photography I intend on doing in a wet environment.
I will stop rambling and just put more under water images in a folder called Raja Ampat Underwater to the right. Raja Ampat means King Four apparently the name has something to do with the four kingdoms which once existed in this part of Indonesia.
01/05/2015, Gam and Waigeo, Raja Ampat
The Red Bird of Paradise
If only I had a Howitzer length lens for my Minolta, like native porters carry around for those photographers at National Geographic.
Rebecca and I had watched both the National Geographic and BBC specials, about all the expense and trouble their photographers went through flying half way around the world, trekking forever into the high jungles, carrying tens of thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, setting up camouflaged blinds, then all the sitting for days to capture images of the most beautiful birds in the world, the Bird of Paradise.
There could have been a much easier way for those photographers. All they had to do is jump on a sailboat and cruise to a spot in Indonesia, 27 miles south of the equator, and anchor near us. To photograph the birds, along with some cruising friends we simply woke up and by 5AM, dinghied ashore on the island of Gam, in Raja Ampat. From the beach, our guide signaled with a flashlight where to land and pull the dinghy onto the beach. With dim lamps strapped to our foreheads we could just keep from stumbling over shadowed tree roots and slippery rocks. There were 6 of us cruisers chugging our way up the steep, jungle enclosed, trail. It was a heart thumping, lung pumping climb but no one balked. There seemed not to be a competition to win but a competition not to be the first to fall behind, out of line, or ask for a break. I could hear our physically strong friend, who still smokes cigarettes puffing heavily at the humid morning air. We had to be at the blind before sunup at 6AM. In 45 minutes of tramping our shirts were soaked with sweat but relief was just ahead as we could see a clearing at the top of the mountain.
It was dark but the sky to the east was brightening. We had 15 minutes to settle in behind the canvas and brush blind before we would become silent, serious, bird watchers. I parked on a rough lumber plank set on log supports. With my camera resting on a solid tree branch, I had the perfect support for stability and rotation to follow the action to come.
With excited eyes and a mute voice, our guides outstretched arm tracked something in the trees to the east. In one area high and not quite over head, all the branches were void of leaves allowing a clear view through the limbs and out to the brightening sky beyond. What he saw no one else did. But in a few moments, what began as a flitting of a dim object across the opening, punctuated by a few bird sounds, was soon fueled by the brightening sky. Red Bird of Paradise soon made a racket of noise and whirled about the branches full in our view. It wasn't just one but many birds in a full on display of hopping, shimmying, fanning, dancing and all the things Birds of Paradise do for the game of "who gets the girl". All the bright males must have been exciting studs as there was nothing fussy or inhibiting about the girls. Everything quickly became a wild party of mix and match, swap and swap. 45 minutes later, with the sun full above the horizon, all the Red Bird of Paradise suddenly went home, and so did we. With only a 300mm lens, the images would need to be exploded to a grainy rendition but would be our scrap book memory of one of the most rare natural sightings we have witnessed while circling the world.
A week later at the island of Waigeo, Raja Ampat, Rebecca and I again made an early morning rise, but this time at 3AM and hiked nonstop for 2 hours high into the mountains of Sapokren. When we made it to the top, Rebeca wondered how she would ever make it back down again - it was an arduous and fast hike to get there on time. This time we were hidden from view from the Wilson Bird of Paradise. The colorful male bird clears an area of ground free of branches and leaves for his stage show to lure in an attractive lady. Males came and went but only one did his Chip And Dale Routine, and only briefly. I almost got the picture of a life time but without a steadying branch or tripod to rest the camera, it is an amateurish blur. So close to such an incredible picture! If I were a professionally motivated photographer, it would have been so easy to spend more mornings in this spot and get the National Geographic quality image even with my stunted camera lens. But there will be more animals, more sights and more photo practice as we continue through Indonesia.
Indonesia has proved to be one of our favorite cruising grounds. In part it is so good because it is not visited by masses of cruising boats which inundate more traditional areas like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.