|THE FIRST CORAL REEF I EVER DIVED was the house reef at a dive centre in Eilat, and I thought it was fantastic. I cruised along, taking in the good visibility and shoals of little fish and admiring the overall scene. |
I have since dived many reefs that cast a shadow on that one in terms of splendour of coral, but at the time this was the best.
Hanging off the reef and taking in the big view pretty much set my style of reef-diving for several years. After a while, I developed the habit of occasionally looking out into the blue in case anything big passed by, and Im sure Im not alone in this. Most divers I meet in tropical locations enjoy simply swimming along and admiring the view.
Year by year I would plan each foreign trip to dive on a yet more spectacular area of reef and take in yet another big view.
And that was the problem - eventually I ODd on big views. I would cover a superb stretch of reef and come out having had a nice dive, but thinking it was really little better than the previous location.
Even worse, between the magnificent-scene reefs there were all those that did no more than fill in the gaps. Like any junkie, I was having problems getting enough new thrills.
I started looking for more than just reef. I planned trips to locations where I could see wrecks, manta rays, whale sharks and enormous shoals of sharks. The reef was merely the location at which these big extras could be found. But there were still times when I would be diving a coral reef with no added extras.
How many of you recognise the symptoms Do you go on a holiday to the Red Sea and end up disappointed with all but the few best dive sites
The root of the problem is the good visibility that draws many of us to tropical diving. We tend to cover much larger distances on a coral-reef dive than we would on the average UK outing, and its so easy to get into the habit of looking only at the big picture, we fail to see the trees for the wood!
Everything changed when I joined one of the early Coral Cay Conservation expeditions in Belize. Many sections of the barrier reef were good enough to supply my magnificent-scene fix, but we were surveying the whole area, not simply the reef wall.
While learning to identify and survey corals and fishes, I also learned the trick of getting the most out of the more barren stretches of reef, seagrass beds and even mangroves.
That trick is to ignore the good visibility and get interested in all the things you can find close up. Think of every dive as a night dive, where you look intensively at whatever you can see in the beam of a small torch.
One way of livening up your reef-diving is to study fish behaviour. Start by keeping an eye out for cleaner fish - blue or yellow wrasse just a few centimetres long which might patrol an area of a couple of square metres on the reef. Then float back a bit, hold still and find out what comes along for a clean-up.
As fish approach they adopt a cleaning posture that depends on species - nose-down, nose-up or slightly on one side.
The cleaner wrasse recognises this as a come clean me message and moves in to peck away at its clients parasites and dead skin. Wait long enough and you will see the wrasse enter their mouths or gills to give the insides a good clean-out as well.
Wrasse are the most common cleanerfish, but many other species, particularly in their juvenile stages, do the occasional cleaning job, including angelfish and hogfish.
You might have heard the rhyme: Greater fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite em, and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. Well, the same happens in reverse with cleaning, to the point where, if you are really lucky, you might get to see a fully grown angelfish or hogfish cleaning a shark.
And it doesnt stop with fish. On one dive at Ras Mohammed I felt a peculiar sensation in my right ear. A blue cleaner wrasse had wriggled in and was removing the wax!
Perhaps this was Douglas Adams inspiration for the Babel fish in the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. I should pay more attention to personal hygiene.
There are all sorts of other interesting relationships between fish. Trumpetfish will sometimes follow alongside a parrotfish as it grinds its way along the reef. The parrotfish is used as a mobile camouflage screen, hiding the trumpetfish from the small reef fish on which it preys.
On the sand, goatfish can be found snuffling and burrowing for food. Following them will often be a crowd of wrasse or snapper, hoping to nip in for a free meal uncovered by the goatfish.
Look closely at the sand and you might spot peacock flounders and other flatfish. Also on the sand are co-operative pairs of gobies and shrimp.
The shrimp maintains a burrow, continually bulldozing it clear of sand, while the goby keeps lookout.
You are unlikely to see the shrimp at first, so keep an eye out for gobies resting by small holes, then hang back and wait. Sooner or later a shrimp will emerge, pushing a ball of sand out of the hole. If you come too close or startle the goby, the pair will dart back into their hole.
Shrimps also get involved with cleaning. Large fish such as groupers and moray eels can often be found resting next to a colony of shrimps, which flit out and crawl over the fishs skin while cleaning it. There are many types of shrimp and they all have their preferred locations on the reef, from cracks in the rock to an anemones tentacles.
Having found a colony of shrimps, try putting your hand down next to them. After a while they might come out and start grazing on the back of your hand. There are even stories of dive guides getting shrimps to clean their teeth.
While looking among anemone tentacles for shrimps, look also for porcelain crabs living under the anemone. These small creatures have fine net-like attachments which they wave in the water to sieve plankton.
Many divers cruise along a barren stretch of reef in 20-30m of water feeling a little disappointed, and not realising that if only they had headed up to the shallow corals in 5m they might have enjoyed a completely different dive.
Coral growth in the shallows is more profuse, so there is more of everything, from fish to turtles. I lose count of the number of times I have photographed a turtle above the reef while watching other divers pass many metres below along the wall.
If marine life is not your thing, shallow reef at the top of a wall can also be a good place to find canyons and caves in the coral, though please be careful not to damage the coral as you explore them.
The floors of these cuts in the reef are strewn with coral rubble - perfect stonefish territory, so be careful what you touch and look carefully. Although well camouflaged, their threat behaviour is to spread brightly coloured pectoral fins.
Even with nothing else to look at, the shapes and structure of corals can be fascinating. Those that look alike from a distance often turn out to be different species when you get close to the polyps. Particular favourites of mine are brain corals, where each species has a different structure of ridges and grooves.
The converse is also true. An individual species of coral can take on a number of different overall forms depending on depth, light and wave action. The only way to tell that some corals are the same is to look closely at the individual polyps.
Mountainous star coral, for example, forms lumpy boulders in the shallows, but overlapping scales or plates on a deep wall.
If you really get into coral polyps, you will see that each coral takes on a completely different appearance when the polyps are fully extended and feeding. For most species this is at night, but some corals extend their polyps during daylight.
Away from the reef, there are more opportunities to see something different. On a bed of seagrass, small fish will be loitering among the blades. Some are genuinely small species, but many are juveniles of the larger and more familiar reef fish.
Another haven for juveniles is in among mangrove roots. The water is often less than half a metre deep and the seabed the type of fine silt that easily reduces visibility when stirred up, but it is an incredibly rich ecosystem.
In water this shallow, some divers prefer to snorkel at the surface. I like the flexibility an aqualung offers to get slightly lower camera angles, though I have to be very careful with my buoyancy control to avoid stirring up silt.
Many fish change coloration and even shape as they grow, so it can be challenging to make a positive identification of some of those you find in these habitats.
As they mature, fish move out of the security of the mangroves and onto the nearby reef. Bays and lagoons surrounded by mangroves might have poor visibility and less spectacular coral than an open-ocean reef, but more fish life.
It surprises me that overseas diving operations often play down the quality of diving in such areas because of the viz.
In Papua New Guinea dive operators coined the term muck-diving to describe areas of silty seabed with lower visibility and some incredible small life. A site in the Milne Bay area, Lavadi, is said to be the best macro-life dive in the world, though places such as the Lembeh Straits in Sulawesi would dispute that.
So next time the reef starts to look a bit ordinary and the dive is less exciting than you had hoped, get in close and find something small to look at. Wait and see what happens. It will bring a new dimension to your enjoyment of the reef.
|a blue goby cleans a moray eels teeth |
|another goby - this time the shrimp is busy working on the home |
|a fire urchin is an interesting find, but among the spines are many small triggerfish |
|Caves are likely to be found in shallow parts of the reef |
|a goatfish is digging deep to get at a find in the sand, but a chromis is hoping to pick up some leftovers |
|on a silty seabed John Liddiard didnt see this stonefish until it swallowed the catfish he was following |
|a titan triggerfish attacks an urchin while cleaner wrasse peck at the fishs scales and bigger wrasse try to pick up scraps of urchin |
|Look closely at an anemone and you could also find small porcelain crabs |
|mangrove roots are home to yet more unusual fish |
|at first glance a lump of sponge, but each hole houses a small blenny |
|are these small cardinalfish among the seagrass juveniles or a species in their own right |