Jockeying for photo ops at Black Point

Yesterday Marla and I joined our friend Wendy for a two-tank dive trip with Kohala Divers. As usual, the KD staff was excellent and the dive sites were great. The only trouble was that there were too many passengers with cameras. Due to the virtual absence of tourists on the island these days there were only nine paying divers on the boat, but at least six of them, including Wendy and me, were toting cameras.  With that many photographers in the water, sighting of an interesting fish can result in something resembling a rugby scrum—everyone muscling in for a good shot before the poor, terrified fish bolts. It seems like the people with the biggest, most expensive photo rigs are the worst. I guess they figure that we peons with smaller, less expensive setups will never be able to take a good photo anyway, so what the heck. Wendy and I, with our modest cameras, and our senses of civility, tended to hang back. (Marla is wise enough to not mar the experience of enjoying the fish by carrying a camera at all.)

Kohala Divers, like most West Hawaii operators, tries to mitigate this situation by sending divers down in small groups—in this case one group of four and one of five divers. This helps, but sometimes, especially if an unusually uncommon fish is sighted, the groups will converge.

That said, it was a great couple of dives, with lots of interesting fish at both dive sites. And don’t mind my kvetching—we all had a great time.

Almost immediately on our decent at the first site (Black Point) we spotted this Bandit Angelfish. This endemic species is uncommon to rare here on the Big Island, and neither Marla, Wendy, nor I had ever seen one before. By time I waited out the initial scrum the fish had had enough of us and started moving off. I got this parting shot.

We came across a handful of Ewa Fang Blennies—also endemic. Not particularly uncommon, but so pretty. This one is joined by one of the ubiquitous Eye-ring Tangs.

We came across this Tiger Snake Moray on the second dive at a site called Black Point Caves. Marla and I had only seen this species once before—sans camera. John Hoover calls it secretive and nocturnal rather than particularly uncommon. He also informs us that the species preys primarily on other eels.

A Potter’s Angelfish popped its head out while I was trying to photograph the snake moray. We also saw, but did not photograph, a Flame Angel, and I briefly spotted a Fisher’s Angel. That makes all four of the angelfish species one has any likelihood of running into in the main Hawaiian Islands.

This one was a heartbreaker for me. I’d been wanting to see and photograph a Longnose Hawkfish—a fish that Hoover calls “an unusual find in the Islands”— for several years, but have never encountered one until yesterday’s dive. Once again I was late to the show—the fish bolted right after my arrival and this was the only shot I managed. Oh well, better luck next time. (Don’t you love that plaid pattern?)

So, yeah, a really great trip. I was buzzed for the rest of the day. Maybe I should be more like Marla and just enjoy the dive instead of getting so wrapped up in the goal of acquiring photos. Maybe one day, but for now it’s a fun (okay, a bit expensive, too) way to exercise my inner hunter-gatherer.

Optimism pays off

The plan was to go for a snorkel inside the harbor at Kawaihae. Marla and I entered the water while Hai was still suiting up. We found the water full of gunk. More precisely, it was full of larvacea tests—tiny, clear, gelatinous blobs that are the used-up remnants of the feeding apparatus of free-floating tunicates (more on that in a later post). They were so thick that it looked like an underwater snowstorm. While they’re harmless—don’t sting like some of the blobby stuff you often run into in Hawaiian waters—they’re kind of disgusting, so we decided to scratch the harbor swim.

Marla and I suggested an alternative plan: snorkeling in the less disgusting water outside the breakwater. Hai was unenthusiastic—fish diversity outside the harbor is low, and coral is mostly dead—but for the sake of camaraderie he agreed to come along. As we walked to the alternate entry point I talked him up on the idea, emphasizing that you never know what you’ll encounter on any ocean outing. That’s one of the best things about saltwater snorkeling and diving: the ocean is big, and anything can show up. Hai agreed and in we went.

I was first in the water, and low and behold, within 30 feet I spotted a brown, camouflaged fish scuttling along the bottom in about eight feet of water. It was an Oriental Flying Gurnard. It was only the second time any of us had seen one of these very odd, very uncommon fish. We spent quite a long time excitedly following the fish around getting photos. It turns out there was another gurnard nearby—we’d presumedly found a mated pair.

It’s the promise of encounters like this that keep us fish geeks going out day after day. Any day you find a fish as uncommon and interesting as these is a great day.

Here’s the larger of the two Oriental Flying Gurnards. It was only about seven inches long, small for a species that, according to Hoover, reaches fifteen inches. (Its presumed mate—no photos—was more like five inches.) The “wings” are enormous pectoral fins.  The fish uses the fingerlike spines at the front these fins, along with its pelvic fins, to scuttle around the bottom. If you look closely you can see a small part of the pelvic fin inside the front of the pectoral fin. We watched the fish use those pelvic fins to scratch around in the sand, presumably to dig up tiny prey.

These bizarre-looking fish are sometimes called helmet gurnards. The species ranges widely throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Hai got this photo of the gurnard with its wings spread. The fish swims on these spread pectoral fins when mildly alarmed. When fully alarmed it’s capable of swimming off with surprising speed.


The crustacean hour

We’ve been snorkeling at Mahukona in the late afternoon—just before sunset. It’s a good time to see crustaceans as they start to stir from their dark recesses in preparation for their nocturnal activities.

This is about the biggest Banded Coral Shrimp we’ve ever seen. These shrimp are not strictly nocturnal, but, like most marine invertebrates, they’re much more active, and more likely to be out in the open like this one, at night. They’re usually found in pairs or small groups, but this one appeared to be solitary.

Flat Rock Crabs like this one are abundant on boulders in shallow water. Like the shrimp, they’re not strictly nocturnal, but as sundown approaches the rocks come alive with these pretty, extremely active little guys.

An aptly named Blue-Eyed Rock Crab. These are much less common than their flat cousins, and almost never emerge from hiding when the sun is high. I think the hairy-looking stuff on the crab’s arm may be some kind of algal growth.

The shrimp abides

As I posted in June, Hai and I found an Eyespot Shrimp* hiding in a large coral head in Kawaihae Harbor. We’ve returned to the coral head many times over the summer to try for glimpses and possibly more photographs of this uniquely beautiful little creature. We were mostly unsuccessful, but we’d occasionally get a quick look—enough to conclude that the shrimp was at least a semi-permanent resident. The other day I finally got a good but short look. The little shrimp looked out at me from an exposed part of the coral head for about ten seconds before slowly retreating into the coral’s dark inner recesses—long enough for one quick photo. It’s clearly grown a bit since last time, but it’s still somewhat smaller than its reported maximum length of one and a half inches.

A little Duck-Duck-Going (like Googling, but without the invasion of privacy) revealed that this species is largely nocturnal, which helps explain our low success rate in spotting it. All the more reason to take a night snorkel at Kawaihae. Hai?

This Eyespot Shrimp has been watching the world go by from its coral head since at least May. (But does the rug really tie the room together?)

*On one occasion I thought I saw two shrimp, but it’s not clear if the second one stuck around.

Onebreathmorro? Or maybe not.

Marla and I have been planning to move to the Morro Bay, California area for more than a year. To that end, we just spent over a month in nearby Los Osos feeling out the area and shopping (fruitlessly) for homes. We got back to Kohala last week and we’re still under the State-mandated fourteen-day covid quarantine.

It’ll be really hard to forsake the warm Hawaiian ocean for the chilly—or should I say frigid?—waters of central California. When we move we still want to spend time snorkeling and diving—all we need is to don extra neoprene, right? We brought what little neoprene we own—Marla’s three millimeter full wetsuit, my three millimeter farmer John and Sharkskin long sleeve shirt—on our trip, and vowed to get in the water at least once. So one sunny afternoon we ventured into the fifty-eight (!) degree water at a popular swim/snorkel/dive site in Morro Bay. Man, was it cold! We’re definitely going to need some more neoprene. We only managed to stay in for about fifteen minutes, and, being rookies at this site, we didn’t cover much ground. We did see some interesting wildlife though. Of course the diverse and colorful fish that grace our Hawaiian waters were largely absent, but there were lots of cool invertebrates. I brought my little Olympus point-and-shoot camera along and managed to control my shivering enough to get a few photos.

Lots of gastropods at this site. This one is a Spotted Unicorn, a type of murex. It appears to be actively foraging—you can see one of its antennae and its dark brown operculum (hatch), and sorta make out its mouthparts. I’m a really lousy malacologist and would never have been able to identify this snail without the help of iNaturalist. More on that below.

A large anemone. They’re very common and quite diverse around here.

A couple of nondescript hermit crabs. Again, common and diverse—there were some prettier ones around that I didn’t manage to photograph. That looks like a zooanthid colony on the lower right, or maybe colonial tunicates?

We rented kayaks a couple of times. Here’s Marla checking out a big male California Sea Lion who’s made himself at home on some unlucky person’s sailboat. A couple minutes after this photo a guy came out in a small boat equipped with a hose which he used to squirt the big pinniped off the boat. He told us these guys’ feces (he used a different term) will harden like cement. 

As I mentioned, iNaturalist was immensely helpful in identifying the Spotted Unicorn. All I did was upload the photo and iNaturalist came up with a short list of possible IDs. I strongly suggest anyone with even a casual interest in natural history check it out. Besides identification assistance, the site provides endless rabbit holes into which anyone interested in nature can happily descend. What else do you have to do these days?

The other lepidopterans

Besides being a renowned novelist, Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov was an expert lepidopterist. That means he studied (and in his case, painted) butterflies, right? Well, this is correct for Nabokov, but the term lepidopterist doesn’t necessarily imply the study of butterflies. It can also refer to the study of moths. The insect order Lepidoptera includes both butterflies and moths. Butterflies, showy as they are, get all the attention—it’s always “butterflies and moths,” never “moths and butterflies”—but moths are in fact much more diverse and abundant. As of 2007 (last data I could find) there were over 150,000 described species of moth worldwide, but only about 17,000 butterflies. The moths get less attention because most are rather plain-looking. But not all.

I’m going on about this because Marla and I have been staying in Los Osos, near Morro Bay on the central California coast for a few weeks now. With no reef fish to obsess on I’ve turned my attention to the area’s rich terrestrial fauna. (Flora, too.) Walking among the dunes at Morro Strand State Beach the other day, we came across the beautiful insect shown below. Being pretty lousy entomologists, we were barely able to guess that it was a lepidopteran. (The elongated, sipping, butterfly-ish tongue—or, more properly, proboscis—was the giveaway.) With a little digging on iNaturalist (highly recommended) we found that it was a White-Margined Ctenucha Moth*. (Don’t ask me how to pronounce it, or what the heck it means.)

Who says moths are plain-looking? We found this gorgeous moth and many of its brethren at Morro Strand State Beach. Check out that tongue, er, I mean proboscis.

*Yeah, I know it’s regarded as poor form to capitalize common species names, but I do to conform with the rest of this blog, which intentionally follows the practice of my hero, John Hoover. See this post,  and the “About” section of this blog.

What’s so special about this fish? Not much, really.

The Hawaiian Rock Damselfish is a dowdy little fish. No bright colors, no interesting morphological features. Just a shy little fish. What it is, though, is uncommon. Enough so that when I tried to enter a sighting of this fish into a citizen-science database the computer flagged my entry.

The nonprofit REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) runs an extensive, worldwide network of volunteer fish surveyors. Volunteers are required to take a range of fish ID tests and are given proficiency ranks based on the difficulty of tests they’re passed and how many surveys they’ve conducted. Having only done five surveys to date, I’m still rated as a novice, so red flags went up when I claimed that I’d seen Hawaiian Rock Damselfish at Mahukona. I got an email from the REEF volunteer coordinator telling me my observation had been flagged. The email asked if I was sure it was really a Rock Damsel or if perhaps it was a similar-looking but much more common Hawaiian Gregory. Apparently the Rock Damsel had never been recorded at Mahukona. Fortunately I was able to provide photos.

This fish shows all the standard features of Hawaiian Rock Damsels: pale, indistinct vertical bars; slightly purplish coloration; brown, not yellow, eyes.

This one is a bit less obvious. The vertical bars are pretty much absent and there’s hardly any purple.

Here’s a Hawaiian Gregory photographed on the same day as the Rock Damsel shown above. There are a handful of less obvious differences: the rear lobe of the Gregory’s dorsal fin is more elongated than that of the Rock Damsel; the tail is less deeply forked; and the eye is clearly yellow. Nonetheless, it’s easy to mistake the two species, largely because they—especially the Rock Damsels—never stand still.

Juvenile Rock Damsels are easier to identify that the adults. The distinct dark spot (ocellus) on the rear of the body is missing on the Gregory.

I’ve actually gotten pretty good at identifying the Rock Damsels by their behavior. They spend most of their time in dark recesses between rocks, with brief, nervous forays into the open. (This makes them really hard to photograph.) Gregories tend to behave this way too, but less so than the Rock Damsels. The difference is subtle but quite consistent. By the way, both of these species are endemic.



Diving Dog Pee Beach

Marla and I have been feeling that our scuba skills were getting a bit rusty. Neither of us had dived for almost  year, so the other day we booked a single tank dive with the friendly folks at Jack’s Diving Locker.

We went to a dive site I’d been wanting to visit for a long time. It was a very short boat ride—just a few hundred yards outside Honokohau Harbor where Jack’s keeps their boats. The site has a lot of different names, including Alula Beach, Crescent Beach, Manta Cove, and Dog Beach. The last of these comes from its popularity with dog walkers. So popular that the beach can smell of dog urine. Which is why we, in our typical coarse fashion, call it Dog Pee Beach. The site can be accessed from shore, but that involves a rather long walk over lava to reach the beach, so doing it by boat, while a bit costly, was our preferred option.

We had a great dive. The site had lots of fish, and lots of variety. Here are a few highlights:

The numerous large Yellowfin Surgeonfish at the site seemed very interested in us, sometimes to the extent of interfering with my attempts to photograph other types of fish. I often see these guys while snorkeling at Hapuna Beach, where they’re much harder to approach. I wonder if someone’s been feeding them here.

Another large surgeonfish, the Eyebstripe, or Dussumier’s. These did not seem as interested in us as the Yellowfins. I think these are the handsomest of Hawaiian surgeonfish.

For me, the best fish of the dive was this gorgeous Bicolor Anthias—only the second I’d ever seen. This solitary male was skittish and difficult to photograph.

Lots of Gilded Triggerfish at this site. This one’s a female.

And here’s a male, so you can tell how this species got its name.

I wish I could say I took this photo, but I can’t. It was taken by our most excellent divemaster, Keller. He blew this bubble ring and shot through it to capture one of the numerous spinner dolphins that swam above us during the dive. I gotta learn how to blow those rings.

A Twospot Wrasse, probably not very interesting except to us geeks. The wedge-shaped tail and (I think) red and black triangle at the front of the dorsal fin indicate that this attractive little fellow is a male. This species is one of several small, nervous, deep water wrasses I’m always trying to get a decent photo of. 

And, oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention, Marla and I were attacked by a large shark. Luckily, we escaped.


More tales from the pilings—a patriotic nudibranch

Hai and I spent yesterday morning poking around the pilings at Kawaihae. Lots of interesting nudis.

How about this red(-dish)-white-and-blue nudi for Independence Day? This is one of many nudibranch species with no common name. The scientific name is Caloria species #3. This one, a little less than an inch long, has its mouth parts curled around the hydroid it’s crawling on and eating. (Hydroids are tiny, colonial relatives of jellyfish.) The erect appendages on the animal’s head are rhinophores—sensory organs possessed by most nudibranchs. Most nudis lack the longer, curved appendages you see here. Those are called “cephalic tentacles.”

This majestic (for a sea slug) Gloomy Nudibranch bucks a head current on an exposed piling. Gloomies are the most conspicuous nudibranchs at Kawaihae.

Here’s another nudi with no common name. Scientifically, it goes by Doto species #2. These tiny guys—only about 5 mm long—have only been observed at Kawaihae. They live on, and likely dine on, a different hydroid, probably Pennaria disticha. (I got all this from


An improbable shrimp—the blind watchmaker strikes again

Back in May, Hai and I saw a tiny, leggy creature hiding among the branches of a large cauliflower coral in Kawaihae harbor. It was clearly some sort of crustacean, but it was too small—a little over half an inch in total length—and too far down in the coral to tell exactly what type. I, with my presbyopic  eyes, thought it was a hermit crab. Hai, despite his better vision, wasn’t sure what it was, but he took a few photos and we moved on. Later that day Hai emailed me the amazing photo posted below. It was an Eyespot Shrimp, a reclusive species widely distributed through the indopacific. It appears to be rather rare throughout its range, or at least rarely observed.

We’ve revisited the spot several times since that first encounter, hoping to get better—or at least additional—photos. Turns out there are two of these shrimp living in our coral head, but we’ve not been able to get any more decent photos. The camera-shy little guys retreat deep into the coral when we come by. I’d been delaying posting this until we’d gotten a few more photos, but I’ve gotten tired of waiting, so here it is:

Hai’s Eyespot Shrimp. How (and for that matter, why) did nature come up with this design? The wild array of antennae, furry forelegs, and googly eyes; the crazy-striped walking legs; the polka-dotted body; and that vivid eyespot on the tail! Any one of these would make this shrimp an outstanding find; the unlikely combination is mind-blowing.

Here’s the best I could do since that first day. The shrimp taunts me from deep in the coral. Is that its tongue sticking out at me?

Eighteenth century theologian William Paley postulated the “watchmaker analogy” to support the idea that an intelligent creator was responsible for our unimaginably complex natural world. The argument goes that if one finds a watch lying in the sand at the beach it can be assumed that someone or something had intentionally created it, since it is too complex to have arisen by accident. Variations of this argument still live among the creationist crowd. The argument is robustly (at least to me) rebutted in Richard Dawkins’ 1986 The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins shows with considerable mathematical rigor how the simple process of natural selection can produce results that appear to be impossibly unlikely. No watchmaker is needed. Or, if there is a watchmaker, she is blind. I won’t belabor the point further, but rather refer you to Dawkins. So do you think a watchmaker created this unlikely shrimp? Not me.