The flamboyant cuttlefish is usually brown-grey but its sudden vivid colour displays are thought to be a warning to predators - with reason, as it emits the same toxic saliva as the blue-ringed octopus
Flamboyant when roused
MOST RECREATIONAL DIVERS have a wish-list of creatures they long to see, and more often than not we are disappointed. Catching a glimpse of the elusive flamboyant cuttlefish had evaded us until recently, when a trip to the Philippines gave us something we had only ever dreamed about.
It was not the best time of year to dive these sites, and we risked poor visibility and lack of natural light on the reef, but changing winds gave rise to some excellent diving, and our expectations rose in anticipation of seeing a wide range of reef life.
The black sand of the Atlantis Dive Resorts house reef at Dumaguete was used for the check-out dive. It looked uninspiring and nondescript. Its muck environment, a slope of sand and grasses, led to an open area with a 6m-tall coral block, which a group of common lionfish had claimed as their home and hunting grounds.
What was not immediately apparent were the two tiny figures scuttling around beneath the lionfish, making their way around the open sand as if on rails. Surprised, we moved in closer to see that we had finally found our jewel.
These were Pfeffers flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi), a pair quite undaunted by our presence.
The male was following the bigger female diligently, as if connected by an invisible rope. Their rather drab exteriors were a surprise, however. Where was the strikingly bold, colourful creature we had heard so much about
AS WE SETTLED TO OBSERVE their movements, it was obvious that the cuttlefish were becoming agitated. We thought at first that this might be because of our presence, but it turned out that we were not alone. Another male was closing in to give the original two some unwanted attention.
We then saw a dramatic change in the outward appearance of the pair. Clearly a couple who resented intrusion, they registered their disapproval with an immediate change of camouflaged exterior to an outstanding array of brilliant white, dark chocolate, intense yellow and a vibrant vermillion red.
Pfeffers flamboyant cuttlefish are found mainly in sandy and/or muddy habitats, and unless provoked their predominantly brown-grey colouring matches the background. An easy target in daytime, the display of colour acts like that of the nudibranch to warn off predators.
The dutiful male was suddenly transformed into protector and escort, coming between the female and her new suitor to ward it off.
We watched as he performed his moves and flashed his dramatic colour display. Then the pair resumed their exploration of their surroundings, and we headed elated to our safety stop.
We returned to the site later in the hope of a similar encounter, and found the pair again, although this time there was no outsider to be seen.
The cuttlefish would not move away from their home territory of some 200sq metres. They busied themselves foraging, occasionally displaying to each other, or when they ventured near us.
It was a treat to be able to spend so long with them, close enough to make out every incredible detail, from the special outline of the W-shaped eye to the exquisite shimmering pale blue that forms the fin around the body.
Their hues and tones, changing before our eyes, are unique to cephalopods.
We watched the cuttlefish feeding, using a darting pair of feeding tentacles. This specialised tongue, the radula, strikes with fantastic speed and accuracy. The prey is broken and chewed by two beaks that form part of the mouth, before being swallowed and digested.
A few days later, further inspection of the area revealed two places where the female had laid eggs - 26 in all.
They had been carefully positioned to the underside of coconut-shell halves but, surprisingly, at different ends of the pairs territory. We suspected that there would be more locations around their domain but could not see them.
The eggs are secured in the chosen nursery by an adhesive produced by the female, until its time for them to hatch.
After several more dives over the week, we concluded that the pair were no longer there, bringing home the fact that death after breeding is inevitable.
A disappointing conclusion No, we had been privileged to see so much of these wonderful creatures, and at such a period of their life that we presume few people have experienced.
Adjoining dive sites hosted many other flamboyant cuttlefish but, as individuals rather than pairs, they were more wary and less co-operative. Maybe we were just lucky first time out.
Atlantis Dive Resorts, www.atlantishotel.com