Underwater encounters – dancing sharks and moody fish

For the second post in this series I interviewed a special guest. Let me introduce Paul Baskys, a dive instructor who lived and dived in Papua New Guinea for three years. I sat down with Paul and asked about his most memorable underwater encounters. Here’s what he told me…

Titan Triggerfish

Paul’s first story takes us to the Pai 2, a wreck dive south east of Port Moresby, PNG. This old Japanese fishing boat was purposely sunk in 1982 to form an artificial reef dive site. It’s a great dive, you slowly swim around the boat, which is bursting with life. Schools of glassfish smother the wreck. Colourful sponges and soft corals decorate the rusted steel hull.

While Paul was exploring Pai 2 his dive buddy swam up to him and began gesturing. In strange underwater sign language his buddy, Mitch, pointed at the stern then crossed his arms in a big X shape. Paul nodded, don’t go near the stern, got it! He looked over but couldn’t see what Mitch was so worried about and continued exploring the wreck.

Everyone was running low on air so it was time to head back to the boat. Paul swum back over the wreck, past the stern, heading towards the reef where the boat was waiting. Something caught his eye. A titan triggerfish! These large fish have a sharp beak for crunching through coral and sea urchins. Their eyes are enormous and independently rotate to follow your every move. They’re one of Paul’s favourite species and he hadn’t seen them on the Pai 2 before.

The triggerfish looked like it was feeding. Its snout nudged around in the algae growing on the wreck. Paul swam closer to shoot some video. The fish tensed its body like an athlete at the start of a 100 metre sprint. It turned away, then suddenly spun and swam straight at Paul. He quickly retreated. The triggerfish snapped at the camera, spun around, and lunged at the camera again. Satisfied the human was far enough away the triggerfish went back to its business.

Paul finally understood what Mitch was warning him about. Mitch had seen the nest of triggerfish eggs, a pink gelatinous mass, early in the dive. Both male and female triggerfish will aggressively defend their nests. On a dive a few months later Paul saw a nesting triggerfish under a boat mooring. Having learnt his lesson, he was able to steer a group of divers away from a similar attack.

Grey Reef Shark

The second story also took place in PNG when Paul was leading a dive off Fishermen’s Island (aka Daugo Island in the local language). The dive is on a coral wall near the edge of the continental shelf, where the ocean floor drops down to 600 metres. Divers jump in and drift along the wall, meeting the boat at a rendezvous point.

Looking away from the wall Paul spotted a shark. It was an adult grey reef shark, about two metres long. Normally sharks propel themselves forward using their tail (caudal fin) which makes their head slowly wiggle from left to right. This shark’s movements were exaggerated. It was bending its head almost 90 degrees to each side. Paul looked back at the divers obliviously staring at the wall and decided to keep an eye on shark that was still about 40 metres away.

The divers continued to drift along the wall. The shark arched its back and dropped its front (pectoral) fins. Paul decided it was time to move the divers on. He got the group’s attention and signalled it was time to head to the rendezvous point. One diver got excited, waving at everyone, and pointing behind Paul. All nine divers swam past Paul straight towards the shark. This was bad as dive leader it would be his fault if something happened, but also good because there were now nine other people between him and the shark.

The shark continued its threat display and swam closer. It was now 15 metres away. Paul herded the group back towards the boat. Out of the water everyone was excited about the shark encounter. One diver remarked, “Wasn’t that an awesome dance the shark was doing?!”. Paul dived the site again over the coming months and saw many grey reef sharks but luckily none were ‘dancing’.

Paul’s stories highlight the incredible natural behaviours we can witness up close underwater. These stories also serve as a warning to learn a little about the creatures you may encounter so you know what they’re really trying to tell you.

To read more about shark threat displays check out R. Aiden Martin’s article https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10236240601154872

Underwater encounters – shallow water secrets

I’d like to share a little secret. One of my favourite encounters occurred in water that didn’t even reach my knees. Let me explain. I was on holiday last year at Lissenung Island, a speck of paradise to the north of mainland Papua New Guinea. Every day we’d hop on a boat and head to dive sites, speeding through mangrove lined shallows to get to coral walls that dropped off into deep water. Now don’t get me wrong, these sites were amazing. Fish swarm the walls in constant, colourful motion. Turning around you’re faced with an expanse of deep blue ocean. Also alive, with schools of large silver trevally that shimmer past. Occasionally a turtle lazily flapped by. Hanging in mid water staring into the abyss you could watch a reef shark curiously circle above divers staring obliviously at the coral wall.

Between dives at sites like this the crew would take us to sheltered spots for the dive interval. This gives us an hour topside to let the nitrogen levels in our blood drop so we could stay down longer on the next dive. On one of these breaks the boys took us to a sandbar. I munched on fresh coconut and soaked up the tropical sun while staring absently at the green mangroves. Someone brought me back to reality saying, “I think there’s a clownfish next to the boat”. The dive snacks were forgotten. We donned our masks and slipped over the side to float in the shallows. The ocean was as warm as bath water, like those shallow rockpools you come across that have been soaking in all the sun’s heat. Beneath the surface seagrasses waved lazily. Small coral patches and anemones littered the sand.

In every crevice there was something alive, a crab darted into a crack in the coral. Small yellow fish schooled amongst the seagrass. But the clownfish were amazing. In such shallow water we saw three different types. My favourite was the Clown Anemonefish (Amphiprion percula). It was my first time seeing these cuties, shaped like a typical Disney Nemo but with more black colouring. A cool thing about these clownfish, the amount of black pigmentation changes depending on which species of anemone they live with. You see, anemones are happy to host lots of different anemonefish species. Clown Anemonefish are picky, they’re only happy to call three anemone species home. If a Clown Anemonefish doesn’t find a magnificent, gigantic or leathery sea anemone to live in it will perish quickly. This relationship is called a symbiosis. The fish are protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging tentacles (like living in a jellyfish). In return the fish bring snacks to bed, dropping food offerings into their anemone host in return for this safe haven.

“Come look at this!” Robert, one of the crew called us into even shallower water. He pointed at a brownish blob well camouflaged in the sand. “Devil scorpionfish, very dangerous, don’t step on him” Robert warned. We all peered at the scraggily brown blob that blended perfectly with its sandy surroundings. This ambush predator waits for a meal to come to it. While seemingly lazy, they speedily lunge and inhale smaller fish when they swim too close. When feeling threatened Devil Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus) lifts the venomous spines along their back, revealing why it is one of the world’s most venomous fish. If you step on a scorpionfish you can be in severe pain for up to 12 hours. Luckily it can be treated with hot water, which can be found even in the most remote locations. Naturally my dive buddy and macro enthusiast boyfriend, Mitch, had to get a shot. We all laughed at him lying in the shallows.

With so much to see the dive interval was over before we knew it. The dive crew grinned as we suggested we do the next dive at the sand bar. A little reluctantly we all hopped back on the boat to go to the next ‘real’ dive site. With so much to see in shallow water, I’d learnt to check out any puddle, rockpool or barely flowing river I came across from then on. Let me be the first to tell you, you don’t need much water to have a cool aquatic encounter!