A Maerl Dive with the Canon G16

Last Wednesday I went for a sneaky worktime dive across the Fal estuary on the Maerl beds between St Just in Roseland and St Mawes. Maerl is a slow growing, calcified type of seaweed (looks more like coral) which forms a unique and quite rare habitat, see these older posts. The water was 17°C so nice and comfortable and it was probably the shallowest dive I’ve ever done, no deeper than 3 meters. I took my new Canon G16 in a Fantasea housing and went all semi-pro by adjusting the white balance first (not that I had a go at any other settings…). I was really pleased with the results, a world of difference to the Canon D30. The beds are an expanse of maerl nodules with very little to break it up, no rocks, no sand, just the occasional old bottle and so it is hard to get any exciting angles. Still there is always something to see. In order: a baby Smallspotted catshark Scyliorhinus canicula, a Spiny starfish Marthasterias glacialis, a (breadcrumb?) sponge, a closed-up Snakelocks anemone Anemonia viridis (a rare sight), a Parasitic anemone Calliactis parasitica, a Fan worm Myxicola infundibulum, a Harbour crab Liocarcinus depurator, a Velvet swimming crab Necora puber and a very well-camouflaged Spider crab Maja squinado.IMG_5729IMG_5738IMG_5743IMG_5754IMG_5745IMG_5762IMG_5707IMG_5753IMG_5734

Hong Kong

IMG_4654Last week I spent a week in Hong Kong for work; of course I had also reserved a couple of days to explore the marine life! My notion that Hong Kong was some kind of city state without any wildlife had already been dispelled after reading the Green Blue Sea blog, which documents Emilie’s (free)diving adventures in local waters (as well her trips to more well-known Asian and Pacific diving destinations). Although Hong Kong is the most vertical city in the world, and one of the most densely populated ones, 40% of the country is comprised of nature parks and the surrounding seas are home to corals. With 84 species of hard corals and 26 soft coral species, coral diversity is higher even than in the Caribbean. However, diversity is lower than in other areas in the region such as Taiwan or Okinawa, which is in large part due to habitat destruction. DSC00195So less than 24 hrs after landing I descended in the warm and murky waters of the Hong Kong Global Geopark, diving of a boat at Basalt Island with diveshop Splash, operating from Sai Kung. My divebuddy was expat Dod, who was so kind to provide some of his photo’s to put on this blog (the one above and the four below; thanks Dod!). The conditions for underwater photography here are about as challenging as they get with the amount of ‘marine snow’; we probably only had two meters of visibility. (I did not attempt to take pictures as I have no strobes and we went down to 18 meters so it was pretty dark anyway.) Large numbers of big, brown anemones hosting clown fish, urchins and sea cucumbers were present. Going a bit deeper, there were lots of black corals around (although they were coloured white) and there were occasional small colonies of one of my favourites, the Sun coral. Large bubble tip anemones, tube anemones, feather stars, a moray eel, pipefish and a lionfish completed this dive, good stuff! As the viz was so bad, we tried the other side of the island the following dive, and we kept it a bit shallower. We saw few fish but a decent amount of coral. Water temperatures dropped from 30+°C to 21°C at the bottom. This was very cold according to all local divers, of course giving me ample opportunity to sneer: 4°C warmer than the warmest it gets in Cornwall! My last dive was in a 9°C sea! All in all a fun and well-organized dive trip. Dod’s photo’s of Sun coral, a Sea apple (a type of sea cucumber), a pipefish (probably a Trachyramphus spp) and a Marbled rockfish Sebasticus marmoratus: DSC00201Back in Sai Kung later in the week I had some more good opportunities to see the local sea life, namely in the display tanks of restaurants. The Chinese definitely lived up to their reputation to being adventurous eaters: I saw Horseshoe crab (not much meat on that!), moray eels, tiny sculpins and the Babylonia snails I only knew from the shell nets sold in seaside tourist shops. Lots of huge and beautifully coloured mantis shrimps, crabs, lobsters, abalones, geoducks, perch and much more. Seafood is also sold from boats along the pier, it was sad to even see cute little filefish cramped in holding tanks in the burning sun. There must be a lot of overfishing going on here.IMG_4511IMG_4512IMG_4626IMG_4507I went back for half a day to the Sai Kung area later in the week. Small Hoi Ha Wan park (photo at top of post) lies next to the sleepy village of Hoi Ha and has a nice beach and a coastal walking trail. Huge orb spiders sat in their webs and there were loads of pretty butterflies. If you are really lucky you can see pangolins (you have to be very lucky probably, sigh). Clambering over rocks covered with razorsharp clams and large numbers of fleeing, cockroach-sized isopods, I had a little snorkel around. I saw a good diversity of fish but there were quite some jellyfish around also, which was tricky without a wetsuit. Some scattered corals can be seen here, but this area was traditionally used for lime extraction from which the corals are still recovering. Again the visibility was very bad; I managed a single nice shot just below the surface of some fish fry.    IMG_5384My last day was spent on the tiny island of Tung Ping Chao, the most easterly point in Hong Kong. Ferries only go in the weekend, and are packed with tourists and ex-villagers (the island is no longer inhabited) packed with supplies to cater for the tourists. I first had a little wander around the island and then checked out the rock pools at Kang Lau Check. Unlike most of Hong Kong, this island consist of sedimentary rock, diagonal layers of which have been eroded by the sea to leave shallow, angular pools. The water in the pools must have been close to 40°C. Unlike Cornwall, but just like in Oregon, there were very large acorn barnacles and clusters of Gooseneck barnacles. The  chiton Acanthopleura japonica was very abundant, as were very cute green-red anemones (have not been able to Google them yet). I took some quick shots using the Canon D30; I hope Emilie or Dod at some point can visit and do a better job; some very cool underwater scenery!IMG_5410 IMG_5422After a rest, I took my new Canon G16 for a snorkel. The corals here looked very healthy, although unfortunately there was quite some garbage as well. Pondering both the surprising diversity of coral life still present here, and the threats they face, I think it would be cool if some citizen science project could be set up to raise awareness. I am pretty sure many Hong Kong residents do not realize what precious marine life they have close to home. Creating reef enthusiasts will be essential to help conservation efforts. What if coral frags could be propagated in local bays and used to stock native Hong Kong nano tanks to be set up in schools as well as restore damaged reefs? Anyway, thinking about those types of projects is my form of escapism! Due to problems with my mask, not having super viz or strobes and being lazy (using the automatic setting only), I just snapped random pictures. I was pleased to see that the image quality was still quite good! Below some shots of different corals: Acropora, Favia, Goniopora, Pavona, Platygyra and two genera I could not identify to give an impression of the diversity in shapes.IMG_5490 IMG_5529IMG_5496IMG_5466IMG_5454IMG_5517IMG_5488

last two dives of the year

IMG_2041Summer is really over and the water temperatures are down from around 17°C to 13°C. We have not made it to any of the wrecks or rocks off The Lizard and the last set of dives was just of the good old Silver Steps in Falmouth. We had set ourselves some goals though: Chris needed Snakelocks anemones for his student projects and I wanted to catch myself some Leopard-spotted gobies for the aquarium. The Snakelocks were collected quite easily as they are so abundant. For the fish, I had bought a cheap foldable trap. The idea was to set it up in a little overhang housing the gobies, weighing it down with some rocks and come back the next day to take it back out. For bait, I had brought a chickenbone leftover from someones lunch at work. Below, a crappy pick of the trap wedged between rocks and below that a snap of some of the catch the next day (I had a two-piece websuit and in combination with an almost empty tank I was getting too buoyant to take decent photos): IMG_2081IMG_2109Three nosy Tompot blennies and also a small Conger eel; no Leopard-spotted gobies. So at least I know that in principle next year I can try trapping fish, but it might be hard for the gobies as they are very reclusive and do not barge into nets as Tompots do. The first dive, the visibility was OK(ish) and we saw a Cuttlefish Sepia officinalis. Although I have seen them before, you never get tired of them!

IMG_2069 IMG_2074No other special finds. The place was absolutely swarming with Spiny starfish and most Snakelocks seemed to have multiple Leach’s spider crabs underneath them. I saw another Blackfaced blenny. Next year it is high time to dive further and deeper and also to finally get some gobies into the aquarium!IMG_2098

a shallow Maerl dive

The weather was not great last weekend and we were too late at the diveshop on Saturday to be back in time to get the tanks refilled for a dive on Sunday but the one dive was (as always) worth the effort! We took dive buddy Chris’s boat from Loe Beach in Feock over to the other side of the Fal Estuary (between St. Just and St. Mawes) to explore the Maerl beds. See an earlier post on a snorkel trip to see this bed of ‘Cornish coral’ for some more background information. After the usual faffing about with equipment on board we plunged in the water. I took a single photo of the boat which turned out quite dramatic:IMG_1869Although we were diving 1-2 hours before high water (the best time, as clear seawater is pushed in the estuary), the visibility was quite bad. After going just a couple of meters down, fields of maerl loomed into view (the dive was really shallow, 5.9 meters max I think!). There were quite a lot of Thornback ray Raya clavata egg cases (foreground first picture) but we did not see the rays themselves. There are two main Maerl genera around here, Phymatolithon and Lithothamnion but their growth forms are varied and there are other encrusting Pink paint weeds that could look similar. We saw a number of golf balls that were completely covered in coralline algae, quite cool.IMG_1946IMG_1871IMG_1945IMG_1989We saw a couple of *very well* camouflaged crabs sitting about. They were completely covered by sponges, coralline algae and seaweeds. There are a number of crab species shaped like this but most of them seem too small. Best guess is the Toad crab Hyas coarctatus the Europan spidercrab Maja squinado in a particular extravagant mood. There are lots of little things hiding in the Maerl; gobies (rock gobies I think), squat lobsters, swimming crabs, hooded prawns and things that hide faster than I can identify them. I noticed a dainty little prawn sitting about which is probably Thoralus cranchii, although it could also be Eualus occultus (second picture is cropped).IMG_1969IMG_1971 IMG_1887IMG_1957 IMG_1957 - CopySwimming crabs were common and probably mostly were the Harbour crab Liocarcinus depurator. The first picture was the only one with flash and shows the Maerl colours a bit better. The second photo shows a Velvet swimming crab Necora puber under a snakelocks anemone sitting on top of a bottle. This species can be very commonly seen rockpooling. Lastly an empty shell of the largest European sting winkle Ocenebra erinaceus I have seen so far and probably the largest sponge I have seen so far too (with a human head for scale).IMG_1927 IMG_1982 IMG_1898 IMG_1995

Diving the mouth of the Helford

A quick post on a dive a couple of weeks ago, my first boat dive in Cornwall. Four divers left from Loe Beach in Feock on the Fal Estuary to find the wreck of the Rock Island Bridge at the mouth of the Helford River. On our way we saw a Harbour porpoise which was a first for me, great! The mouth of the Helford is only slightly deeper (nine meters) than it is off Grebe Beach where we usually dive. There is no eelgrass here, just some Divided net weed Dictyota dichotoma and very large Sugar kelp Saccharina latissima lying flat on the bottom. The seabed is an expanse of gravel covered with quite a lot of bivalves: Great scallop Pecten maximus, Rayed artemis Dosinia exoleta, Norway cockle Laevicardium crassum, Dog cockle Glycymeris glycymeris, Common ottershell Lutraria lutraria, Warty venus Venus verrucosa, Pullet carpet shell Tapes corrugata and Hardshell clam Mercenaria mercenaria amongst them. Next time I will collect shells so I can take a good picture of all of them back on land. The place was swarming with starfish feeding on these bivalves, I’d say 90% Common starfish and 10% Spiny starfish. Below a Common starfish Asterias rubens feeding on a clam, a small brittlestar Amphipholis squamata and a Warty venus and Pullet carpet shell.IMG_1545IMG_1542IMG_1592Although the seabed was relatively featureless and we did not manage to find the wreckage, it was fun to watch the Thornback rays Raya clavata (including a large individual with distinctive black headmarkings) and the many Small-spotted catsharks (or dogfish) Scyliorhinus canicula which are very easy to approach. We also saw a Red gurnard Aspitrigla cuculus (see also this old post). However, it is high time we are going to explore some other, deeper dive sites. With the weather deteriorating, I hope we can find some more good days to dive this year though!IMG_1552IMG_1585IMG_1586IMG_1584IMG_1606

shark!

IMG_1234It has become almost a tradition to go for a dive at Silver Steps (rocky coast) one day and at Helford (eelgrass beds) the next (I rent my equipment for 24 hours, I could squeeze in a third dive maybe but I never really have time for that). So following the Silver Steps dive featured in the previous post, here the Helford one. We found many of the same creatures as described in recent Helford post so I will not get into these. Worth mentioning was the beautiful nudibranch Facelina bostoniensis, but I did not get a shot in focus unfortunately. The highlight of the dive was a Small-spotted catshark Scyliorhinus canicula, around 60-70 cm in length. Very pretty and very easy to approach, I was able to shove my camera almost up its nose!IMG_1271IMG_1283

Black-faced blenny Tripterygion delaisi

Went on a good dive at Silver Steps in Falmouth yesterday.The visibility wasn’t that great, but for the most part we were rummaging under overhangs in gulleys just off the coast. Sweeping aside the kelp reveals many fine red seaweeds, sponges, bryozoans and small Devonshire cupcorals. We saw the ubiquitous Tompot blenny Parablennius gattorugine as well as a Bib (or Pout) Trisopterus luscus. Overhead there were many Sandeels as well as some relatively large Pollock Pollachius pollachius hunting them:IMG_1151IMG_1143IMG_1133IMG_1139However, there was a much more remarkable fish we spotted, namely the Black-faced blenny Tripterygion delaisi. We first saw a male, bright yellow with a black head and beautifully skyblue-lined fins. Only after a while we noticed the inconspicuously coloured female. The male is coured this way only in the breeding season. (We later saw another larger male, no female, although that was probably closeby.) My fish guides tell me that this Mediterranean species was first spotted in the UK in the 70s and that it is currently present in only two or three locations on the South West coast. Some browsing on the web has told me that in recent years they have been recorded in more locations but they still must be relatively rare (and I therefore won’t be attempting to catch them). Global warming will likely extend the range of this species more firmly northwards; one of the very few positive effects of our addicition to carbon… Lastly, I now managed to get a shot of the Candy striped flatworm Prostheceraeus vittatus:IMG_1160IMG_1164

diving in the Helford Passage

A new location for the second dive: Helford Passage between Falmouth and the Lizard Peninsula. This is a shallow, sheltered creek with a sandy bottom and eelgrass beds and can only be dived (well) at high tide. A good site to spot Thornback rays Raja clavata we heard and we were indeed lucky to find several of them. We entered the water at Grebe Beach next to Durgan:IMG_0333

Again, we spotted some cuttlefish, which are not very shy at all. What was very cool were Great scallops Pecten maximus lying around and swimming away for a bit by opening and closing the shell, I will try to film that next time. Many Turban top shells and some large heremit crabs with one or more Parasitic anemones Calliactic parasitica on top. The shells of smaller hermit crabs were covered in the hydroid Hydractinia echinata:IMG_0343

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IMG_0376We got to about nine meters depth (near the buoy) and found a large concrete block. Scattered among it lay the remains of crabs and in a hole dug underneath the snout of a Conger eel poked out. As I had to get close for a better look, I stirred up too much sediment and so I do not have a good picture but I will definitely like to go back and have a better look! Interesting was an old crab pot covered in sea squirts (mainly Morchellium) which was swarming with Leach’s spider crabs Inachus phalangium. Normally they sit under a Snakelocks anemone but there were none attached to the pot, strange. Very common were large Peacock Worms Sabella pavonina and Fan worms Myxicola infundibulum:IMG_0342

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diving at Silver Steps

I am really getting back into this diving thing! Last week, I made another trip to Seaways Dive Centre in Penryn to rent some gear (£25 for 24 hrs) and go out with dive buddy Chris. First a dive at the end of the day at low tide at Silver Steps in Falmouth. A great encounter a minute after we got in with a cuttlefish:

We then set out over the gravel beds towards the open sea. A pretty barren affair, with lots of decaying seaweed. Mainly Spiny and Common starfish and Pulled carpet shell Tapes corrugata, Warty venus Venus verrucosa and Rayed Artemis Dosinia exolata. A picture of the latter being eaten by a common starfish:

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Turban top shells Gibbula magus were on my list to get for the aquarium and I noticed that this species is extremely common (several per square meter) so I took a bunch home. The shells look pretty beaten up with lots of stuff growing on ’em but I think they are pretty cool; truly subtidal so no risk of them creeping out of the tank:IMG_0292We then made it back to the rocky coast and found a nice gully with overhanging rocks with lots of interesting critters. One little cove was home to ten or so shy Leopard-spotted gobies (I plan to go back with my GoPro and leave it there filming for half an hour to pick it up later). We found a big lobster Homarus vulgaris, a beautiful Bispira volutacornis worm (I have already posted pics of these species recently and I will try to show more self-restrainst from now on and not keep posting similar photos). Also for the first time some large Edible sea urchins Echinus esculentus. Probably a really common species when you dive a little deeper but the very first time I saw it. Have to practice a bit more with the new Canon Powershot D30 as I am not completely convinced about its qualities yet (I did not bother to post-process any of the pics btw). IMG_0328

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first dive in Cornwall

A couple of weeks ago I went for a bit of a spur of the moment after-work dive with colleague Andrew (like me a quite unexperienced diver) and his friend Charlotte Sams. Charlie is an experienced diver and natural history photographer, who has her own blog: Charlottesamsphotography, which you should check out. We dove in Falmouth off Pendennis point. The water was not very clear (maybe 5-6 meters visibility) but the temperature was quite nice. We saw (amongst others) Sand eels (do not know which of the two species), Pollack Pollachius pollachius, Dragonets Callionymus lyra, Two-spotted gobies Gobiusculus flavescens, a Tompot blenny Parablennius pararugine, very large Ballan wrasse Labrus bergylta and a beautiful little John dory Zeus faber:

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We also saw some very large Common starfish Asteria rubens and also a nice Spiny starfish Marthasteria glacialis. We dove only to about 5-7 meters, which meant we could stay in quite long, over an hour. At seven meters, the bottom was a sandy expanse, interspersed with mounts of Laminaria Kelp covered in hydroids. In-between the kelp were other seaweeds, such as Red rags Dilsea carnosa but I was more focused on the animals during the dive. In shallower water were enormous bundles of Wireweed Sargassum muticum (also known as japweed but that is not very pc…) and the very long slimy Mermaid’s tresses or Bootlace weed Chorda filum. Snakelocks anemones were very common, and we managed to also see Leach’s spider crab Inachus phalangium, which lives associated with these anemones. All in all a fantastic experience, and I hope to find the time to go diving very soon again!