I HAD GONE TO DIVE THE HOUSE REEF of Malapascua Exotic Dive Resort in the Philippines, to photograph its now-famous thresher sharks, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the resort had set up a house reef just 500m from its frontage.
House reefs appeal to divers because they are close to the resort (sometimes shore-entries are all that are required) and usually in shallow water. Whats also attractive is that they can be protected from fishing and other activities that damage marine resources.
This particular house reef had been in existence for about 18 months, and consisted of two large passenger 4x4s and a small banca (a native Philippine fishing boat). Residents already included three different schools of trevallies, rainbow runners, broadclub cuttlefish, a flamboyant cuttlefish, a 1.5m great barracuda named Dick (the owner of the Exotic resort is Dik), several frogfish and a school of about 200 bigfin reef squid.
The squid were mostly around 15cm long, with a few males reaching a good 45cm or half a metre. It was a treat to see them hovering around the man-made structures at relatively close range, because squid are normally hard to approach during the day. But this population was not inclined to wander very far from the reef it called home.
I watched the squid on the first dive and knew that I would have a good opportunity to photograph them during the day. But as I dived the house reef again and again, it became apparent that these animals were doing more than merely hovering. It was starting to look like the set of a porno movie and I was getting excited. The thought of catching squid on film, making babies, got me... well, never mind.
On the first couple of dives, I noticed that pairs of squid would approach the artificial reefs bamboo structure. The larger one would hover as if guarding the area and the smaller one would get right next to the cluster of eggs and extend one or two of its tentacles into them.
As this was happening, the larger one would seem to light up and display an array of pigmentation. I am not a squid expert, but this seemed to be the male guarding the female as she deposited her fertilised eggs into the cluster. After this happened a few times, the pair would swim off together, the male on top of the smaller female.
Their pigmentation would change and both would seem to be entangled in some sort of underwater tango.
This dance would last no more than 10 to 15 seconds, and from what I have read the male at this point inserts his sperm packet into the receptacle below the females mouth, using his specially modified tentacle. The fertilisation of the egg happens internally within the female, and this forms the egg capsule.
The capsule is then attached, together with other eggs, to either a man-made structure (as in this case) or else to the seabed. As with many others species of squid, the females die after spawning.
I dived the house reef for three days straight, but there didnt seem to be a particular time of day at which the squid spawned. I was able to capture images at 10am, 2pm and 5pm, sometimes with a current running, sometimes not.
One thing was certain: when not spawning, the squid were almost impossible to approach, but when things started to heat up I was able to shoot them with my 13mm fisheye lens, something that I would never have thought possible.
I had captured squid on film before but mostly at night, and not while mating. This time I was getting some of the dream images on my long list. Next time I think of ordering calamari, I will recall the strange and beautiful process it took to produce it - and probably just order the chicken instead.