Minding

                                 


I couldn't see what my buddy was pointing at. I shrugged my shoulders, and he pointed more. I stared at the seabed, but still it just looked like a mass of weed and rocks. I think he was getting frustrated at my ocular-challenged efforts to see what was now basically at the end of his finger. I could hardly blame him as he edged closer and closer, almost shaking his hand in rage every time I looked back blankly at him.
 And then, suddenly, a rock moved. I thought this strange, as rocks rarely do that. I say rock; it was actually a massive frogfish. Frogfish I had seen in the past had been tiny, about the size of a china teacup. This one was the size of a teapot.
 I had been searching for a fish I could place on my fingertip, but was shown one I wouldnt want to balance on my hand for fear it would eat it!
 Frogfish are members of the anglerfish family, which prefer to live in tropical waters. There are various species and this was one of the largest - the commerson. The species is spread widely across the Indo-Pacific in tropical and seasonably tropical waters and, like all frogfish, it is ugly and carries a rather formidable set of teeth.
 Unlike many fish species, commerson frogfish come in a variety of colours, from yellow through to a deep orange, as this one was. At 20m, however, its coloration was obscured and the animal, while lying still, looked pretty much like all the rocks scattered about its domain. Frogfish are fairly immobile and remain in one area. Thats how, once spotted, dive guides find them again so easily.
 French scientist PA Latreille first described the commerson in 1804. What the poor chap who pulled one up off the seabed must have thought when he stared at it I can only guess. They look like the by-product of some fiendish experiment to create a master race of vicious fish.
 I stayed with the animal for several minutes, studying and photographing it, and in that time it moved no more than a few centimetres. It was either bold, confident in its camouflage; or perhaps the laziest fish I had ever come across.
 As I changed position, moved my camera closer, changed flash angle and so on, I assumed at some point that I would lose my subject, but it stayed put. It got me wondering first how it got here and, second, how a mate found it.
 What little is known about frogfish courtship has been noted mostly from animals in tanks. They hardly have a mammoth journey to find each other.
 However, after pairing, the female of the pair swells with eggs before mating and becomes so buoyant that she floats to the surface. The male follows and fertilises the eggs as the female lays a raft of jelly-like appearance. This floats for several days as the juveniles develop.
 When the mass inside the raft increases with the size of the juveniles, the raft sinks and the small frogfish hatch and disperse across the reef.
 Commerson frogfish are ambush hunters and use stealth to grab small fish that wander into their bite range.
 This one looked to be doing very well, which is strange, as the last thing with which divers associate Aliwal Shoal is small fish. Ragged-toothed sharks, tiger sharks and big pelagics are generally the high points of the Shoal, which is situated a few miles off the coast of the unassuming town of Umkomaas, just up the coast from Durban in South Africa.
 I had taken advantage of a good exchange rate and a good flight deal from South Africa Airways and, seeing as much of the world was embroiled in potential terrorist activity, South Africa seemed a safe bet.
 I could have taken advantage of the adrenaline thrills of white shark cage-diving off the Cape Town area, but thats a bit overdone for my liking. I prefer to search out new opportunities and Aliwal Shoal seemed to have new experiences in abundance (see my tiger shark article (DIVER November 2003).
 The Shoal was given its name by Captain James Anderson who, in a vessel named Aliwal, almost ran into it. Of course, Anderson Shoal would have given the man a larger place in history. Anyway, Aliwal is a fairly young (80,000 years old) piece of underwater furniture, created by a weather-beaten sand dune. The dunes core was fused by rainfall to create the limestone mass we see today.
 When sea levels rose, the structure, once submerged, was colonised by corals which solidified the structure even more.
 The Shoal now is a rugged edifice that runs roughly parallel to the coastline and rises from the 27m-ish seabed to within a couple of metres of the surface in some places. It is home to a stunning variety of creatures, from large shoals of jacks and barracuda to visiting manta rays, tiger and ragged-toothed sharks, a plethora of the usual reef suspects, and also some of the sort of oddities that people have come to associate with muck-diving excursions rather than here in the deep blue Indian Ocean.
 My commerson is just one example of the things divers usually pass by as they search for bigger fare. The advantage of muck-diving without the muck is that the creatures take less long to find. Take razorfish. You can cover a huge amount of seabed looking for a sea frond containing these diminutive, highly-strung fish. They skit about on their heads pretending to be parts of a plant or a coral frond, and can be a bugger to spot.
 In good visibility, life gets much easier. In a field of fronds it wasnt long before I spotted a small cluster of waving branches not connected to anything. These were Aeoliscus strigatus - razorfish. They are generally silvery with a dark brown to black line running the length of their bodies to break their shape and confuse potential predators.
 They move in small groups feeding on plankton and are fascinating to watch and a joy to find.
 Close by, I noticed a red flash within a huge soft coral tree. I moved closer but couldnt see what Id noticed. The soft coral was a pale lime-green, but was quite dense and difficult to see into.
 I searched hard, keen to redeem myself after the frogfish incident, and eventually caught sight of an eye staring suspiciously back at me. It belonged to a long-nosed hawkfish, so well camouflaged in coral fronds that I had noticed neither it nor its smaller partner.
 The long-nosed hawkfish dresses in tartan, its silvery white body covered in red hatched lines. These fish live within large gorgonian seafans in the Red Sea, but these were the first I had found this far south. Hawkfish also feed on plankton, and use the cover provided by large static coral colonies for safety. A fish the length of a matchbox makes a tasty meal for any reef predator.
 And if the hawkfish was hard to spot, my next subject was almost impossible. I went to a site called the Cathedral, best known for the congregation of ragged-toothed sharks that hang around in the cavern from June to November.
 There were none there, but lying under a cleft was a huge, sleeping green turtle. She stirred only a little as we passed, to see what we were.
 A little south of the Cathedral, the reef is rather nondescript. The sandstone structure simply disappears into the sandy seabed, and apart from a few cracks and crevices the area is unremarkable. In one of these crevices, wafting with pieces of broken seaweed and other algae, was a tiny leaf-fish.
 Deep crimson in colour, this hard-to-spot creature, known to science as Taenianotus triacanthus, simply sways gently with detritus to mimic a fallen leaf, and is thus passed over by predators. Its a wonder they are ever spotted, but as members of the scorpionfish family, any predator would need to tackle its venomous spines before enjoying it as a tiny snack.
 Like its frogfish cousin, the leaf-fishs coloration is variable, from a pale yellow to a dark brown, and covers reds and crimsons. Leaf-fish also moult their skins twice a month, creating an even more diverse appearance.
 I knelt on the seabed watching the to-ing and fro-ing of the tiny fish, fascinated by movements that took it nearer and nearer to its prey - a minute crustacean. All of a sudden, it whipped open its mouth and the shrimp-like creature vanished in one gulp.
 The leaf-fish continued to waft around apparently aimlessly in the gentle water movement. It was fascinating, yet after a while I turned and looked up - to see a manta ray cruise past in the distance. Now, I thought, that doesnt happen when youre muck-diving!
 I had come to Aliwal Shoal to watch big pelagics and ended up looking at some of its smallest critters. I hadnt expected to find anything like it, but was glad I took the time and effort to search.

width=100%

width=100%
A photographers favourite - a tiny long-nosed hawkfish in soft coral

width=100%
Umkomaas Beach, where you have to launch through the swell

width=100%
Looking up from studying a leaf-fish to see a manta ray cruising by - how often does that happen!

width=100%

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Gavin Parsons flew to Johannesburg with South African Airlines and transferred to Durban from there. Umkomaas is about 40 minutes drive from the airport.
DIVING: Umkomaas has several diving centres, all visiting sites on Aliwal Shoal. You need to be comfortable in small boats and large swells.
ACCOMMODATION: There are numerous options, from hotels and motels to small B&B guesthouses.
MONEY: £1 equals about 104 pesos
HEALTH: Regular tropical vaccinations. Malapascua is not a malaria zone.
LANGUAGE: English and Afrikaans.
WHEN TO G : Although Durban is semi-tropical, it has distinct seasonal events. Gavin visited during the South African autumn (our spring), when the water was at its warmest - it varies from 22 to 32°C. To see the small critters as well as the bigger ones, this is the best time.
COST : Flights to South Africa start at around£550. Accommodation and diving can be booked as one package in most places. Expect to pay £15-20 per dive and about the same for B&B accommodation, though you can get places for as little as £10. Food is relatively cheap. Tours to South Africa which include flights, transfers, diving, accommodation and various trips to game parks etc start from around £1100.
FURTHER INFORMATION: South African Tourism 0870 1550044, www.south-african-tourism.org