May 17, 2022

Scuba diving in Fiji aboard the Nai'a

For the last part of this six-week trip, I did a ten day cruise on the Nai’a in Fiji. This was a “Dive With Steve” trip organized by Karen Doby for Steve Webster. It was my 15th trip to Fiji with a Nai’a cruise.

I arrived in Fiji two days early with my dive and travel buddy Heidi and about half of the group. We stayed at First Landing Resort outside Nadi. We did a snorkel just off the resort one morning, where I saw some in-shore species like Crescent-banded Grunter that I didn’t see later on the scuba portion of the trip. We had to take a COVID rapid test 48 hours after arriving, which everyone passed. Then a bus picked us up to take us to the Nai’a which docks in Lautoka, a half hour drive north of Nadi.

Of note at the Lautoka docks was the superyacht Amadea, berthed right next to (and dwarfing) the Nai’a. The yacht is owned by a Russian oligarch and there’s pressure on the Fijian government to seize it, though at the moment it is in “protective custody” while its fate is debated. While we watched a Cayman Islands flag was raised on the boat (that’s where it’s registered) and there were ethnic Fijian security people around it.

The Nai’a did only sporadic trips for locals during the pandemic, resuming regular trips in February. There are new cruise directors on board, Bel and Mike, who came from Utila in the Caribbean. They are learning quickly about Fiji, the Nai’a, the dive sites, and the creatures there. Though at this point, several people in our group had more experience here than they did. They are friendly and helpful and will serve well. Among other things Mike is an experienced dive equipment technician, and kept very busy on this trip with more than half of us having equipment failures. Sitting dry for 2 years wasn’t good for our gear.

The 18 guests were all from the United States, but from many different parts of the country. It was surprising to have two unrelated parties from Iowa. I was the only one with a big still-photo rig, though there were a couple of real video cameras and several people had smaller still or video cams.

We followed a typical liveaboard schedule. Up at sunrise with a cold breakfast and then a first dive at 7am. That’s followed by a hot breakfast, a mid-morning dive, lunch, and an early afternoon dive. A snack is offered after that dive rather than a full meal, and we often had a marine biology lecture during that break. Steve Webster did several, and I did one on fish identification. Then a late afternoon dive, dinner, and often a night dive is offered as well. The food was very good with two or three options for each meal that we got to choose the day before.

The diving is all done from skiffs, two small rigid inflatable boats (zodiacs) that take us from the ship to the dive site and then pick us up at the end of the dive from where ever we surface. That is so much easier than the way diving is done some other places where you have to navigate back to where an anchored or moored boat is waiting for you. The weather was mostly good, but the last couple of days there was a lot of surface chop, which made getting in and out of the skiffs challenging.

We dived a variety of different kinds of sites. Many were small pinnacles (called bommies in Australian fashion) that rose from a 60 to 90 foot plain to near the surface. We dived a few walls, both steep ones that dropped into the abyss and slopes. Two sea mounts, E6 and Mount Mutiny, are favorites of mine. These large pinnacles rise from water over 1000 feet deep to within a few feet of the surface. There are a few channels as well, passages through the fringing reef from the open ocean to a lagoon. These are particularly interesting for the fish that sometimes show up in them, not just sharks and mantas, but sometimes small reef fish from the Coral Triangle.

We did a village visit to Somosomo on Gau, where I have been several times before. It’s in a remote location where they do a small amount of farming and fishing for themselves, and also grow kava to sell and some of the women weave grass mats. We brought a lot of gifts for the visit (mostly clothes, medical and school supplies) that were much appreciated as they have had few visitors in the last two years. Most of the Nai’a guests joined in the dancing.

Continuing a trend of recent years, the currents have become unpredictable. Even with the help of experienced crew members for timing dives with the tides, we had several dives with the currents not going in or out as expected. When we dived the Nigalli Passage at Gau, usually a highlight of the trip, there was no current at all rather than the expected strong incoming current. So it was a long swim and few sharks or other large animals were seen.

There were scattered large animals on the trip. The expected reliable manta cleaning station at Wakaya had no manta rays when we dived it. But on another dive at Makogai we had ten mantas. One group got to see a pod of pilot whales. White-tip Reef Sharks were seen on many dives, and Grey Reef Sharks put in occasional appearances, especially at Grand Central Station in Namena. I saw a few tuna and mackerel. And I had a handful of sea turtles, both Green and Hawksbill. For the first time to my knowledge, a Tiger Shark was seen cruising by at Wakaya. That might explain the lack of mantas when we were there.

The reef fish were plentiful as always. Many sites had clouds of purple and orange anthias swimming above them, and schools of striped fusiliers above those. I’ve gotten to where I recognized nearly all of the damselfish we saw, even the dull grey and brown ones. On this trip I was trying to pay attention to juvenile wrasses and parrotfishes. While a photo in isolation is often hard to identify, during the dive there are often interactions with older members of their species that make it clear what they will grow into.

One day the engine failed on one of the two skiffs, and the spare outboard was not on board as it was being serviced. The engineer was able to diagnose the problem, but we had to return to Viti Levu for parts. That was an opportunity for a muck dive, though instead of diving in the harbor close to town, they took us out to a sandbar where the species seen weren’t that different from what I had been seeing on the outer reefs. That location was probably a good compromise for keeping the other divers happy, but I was hoping for a true muck dive. So only three dives were offered that day.

I had a great time on the trip, and am already planning my return to Fiji. I did every day dive offered and one night dive, for a total of 34 dives. I took 2165 photos while logging 490 species, 3 of which were new to me. Some of my photo highlights can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72177720298881372

Posted on May 17, 2022 15:49 by maractwin maractwin | 2 comments | Leave a comment

April 16, 2022

Scuba diving in Palau

I’m not back, but I’ve just completed a scuba trip to Palau. This one was planned and paid for originally for March of 2020, and postponed multiple times due to the pandemic. It was organized by Josh and Liz of Undersea Productions. Ultimately only 12 of the 16 of us made it, mainly due to airline problems with very limited flights at this point in the reopening. I was paranoid about getting all of my testing and documentation right, and got both a PCR test and a rapid test before leaving Boston.

On what was ultimately the fourth set of plane reservations I made, I traveled from Boston via Chicago, Honolulu, and Guam to Palau. The flight from Chicago left nearly an hour late, but they held the Guam flight for us since there were 27 people making that connection. During the layover in Guam I discovered that 9 people of our group were on the flight. On arrival in Palau, we were each given green wristbands and told to report to the hospital in 4 days for a followup COVID test. We were supposed to have limited contact with locals during those 4 days, but businesses that catered to tourists were given training and exempted from quarantine, and it wasn’t too limiting.

My travel and dive buddy Heidi was supposed to be on the trip, but dropped out because of a number of complications in her life right now, so I ended up with hotel rooms and a cabin on the boat to myself, a real luxury. We spent our first two nights at a hotel in town. On our free day I walked around, looking for birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other wildlife. I found a number of them, but nothing new to me since I have been here before.

The next morning we should have boarded the Ocean Hunter III for 12 days of diving. But as we had learned just a day before starting this journey, it was still in the Philippines in dry dock. The dock kept pushing back the start date for the work, but finally started in what should have still been time. Then the main winch cable broke while re-floating the boat. So it wasn’t clear exactly when it would be available for us, as it is a couple of days of around-the-clock cruising from the Philippines to Palau once it was released, then they had to clean and provision it for us. So we started diving on day boats out of the dive shop that manages the liveaboard. The owner was really trying to do everything within her power to make this right. They moved us to the nicer hotel closest to the dive shop so we could walk between them (though they shuttled us in vans when it rained). They covered all of our meals and even alcohol during the days we were doing land-based diving. We were able to get in 3 dives a day that way, rather than the 4-5 that is usual on a liveaboard. Mid-way through out third day we did move onto the boat.

When we finally boarded and got the boat briefing, Josh told us that he had negotiated a non-typical schedule for us. Rather than 4-5 dives a day that are often limited to 45 minutes to an hour each to fit them all in, we would do longer dives, typically 75-80 minutes, leaving us with just 3 day dives and a dusk or night dive each day. My air consumption isn’t great, but they had a few 100 c.f. tanks, and with that, I was able to manage dive times along with everyone else. The membrane on the boat compressor wasn’t working, so they couldn’t make nitrox (a breathing mix for scuba with more oxygen than air, which allows longer bottom times) on board. Rather than make us dive on air, they shuttled tanks between the boat and the dive shop each day so we had enough. Apparently the scuba industry can’t get oxygen membranes right now because hospitals are snapping them all up to make oxygen for COVID patients.

The diving was good, but not as good as I remembered it from my last trip here 8 years ago. Reef fish were plentiful. Much of the coral was in good shape, though a few sites had cyclone damage in places. We did see large fish like Grey Reef Sharks, Napoleon Wrasses, and Bumphead Parrotfish most dives. But the sharks weren’t in the numbers they were on my last visit. Part of it was the luck of the currents: we did Blue Corner several times, one of the best sites of the area, and each time there wasn’t as much current as expected, so we didn’t just hook on to the reef and watch the show. A couple of times we encountered groups of juvenile reef sharks (don’t say “baby shark”) which were interesting.

A highlight for me was seeing spawning Bumphead Parrotfish. These are one of the larger fish on the reefs, at about 4 feet long each. We were up at dawn on the spring new moon for this annual event. We motored over to the site, then waited over an hour for the tides and parrotfish to be right before starting our dive. As we moved from the reef into blue water, I was excited to see a few hundred Bumpheads, more than I’ve ever seen before. They were just milling about at 60-100 feet deep. Finally they started, and groups of 5-10 fish with form a tight group and dart upwards, sometimes to within 20 feet of the surface. And this went on for perhaps half an hour. At some point I realized that there were now many more fish here, well over a thousand of them.

We did three dives specifically to see Manta Rays. There’s a well-known Manta cleaning station at German Channel. Twice we went there to see them being cleaned, where we formed a circle around the cleaning station at 60 feet and got to watch for a long time. Sometimes they would circle overhead, coming quite close. We planned to watch Mantas feeding in late afternoon in the same area, but couldn’t find any Mantas that dive, though we later learned from the skiff driver than four of them were circling the boat for much of the time we were in the water.

Other large animals encountered included Eagle Rays on several dives, sometimes feeding in the sand or cruising by. Large stingrays were seen several times. I saw two Nurse Sharks, a new species for me, one tucked into the reef sleeping, the other resting in the open on the sand. I also finally saw a Leopard Shark, though it was cruising 50 feet below us so not a great view. Turtles were plentiful, both Hawksbill and Greens, seen on more than half the dives. One memorable dive had ten of them! Only a few large groupers were seen.

Cephalopods were well represented. A saw 6-8 of the common Day Octopus, though most were shy and would hide in a crevice and warily watch us rather than moving about. We found a Wunderpus in the sand under one of the shipwrecks. A few smaller octopodes were seen as well, including a tiny juvenile that stuck to me during a night dive. And on the last day dive of the trip, we finally saw a Broadclub Cuttlefish who hung around for everyone to get a good look.

I spent a lot of time looking at and identifying the smaller reef fish. While the colorful Anthias are not as plentiful here as some other places, there are some spectacular examples like Princess, Bartlett’s and Randall’s that are nice to see. And I puzzled through the many damselfishes and wrasses that many people overlook. A rare one that was nice to see in numbers was the Big-lip Damselfish who is drab brown with comically large lips that look like it’s kissing the coral as it feeds.

I also lucked into a nice selection of tiny gobies. As my eyesight has worsened with age, I now wear glasses all the time and dive with a prescription mask. There are dozens of goby species less than an inch long, which I can’t see well enough under water to identify. So I shoot pictures of them and figure them out later, never sure what I’ve seen until after the dive.

One morning we visited Jellyfish Lake, a saltwater lake on an island filled with millions of non-stinging jellyfish. It’s a really interesting place to snorkel. Scuba is not allowed in the lake, as the deeper parts are dangerously acidic. Another atypical outing was a dive at Chandelier Cave which has various places where you can pop up to look at caverns filled with stalactites. Being the fish geek that I am, I enjoyed the silty bay outside the cave for the fish it had more than the formations in the cave.

We had hoped to get in a number of dives at Peleliu, the southern-most island which has slightly different topology and fishes. We moved down there one day, but the water was too rough. A few people were seasick and things were falling over, so after just one dive we moved back to more protected waters. There was a tropical storm a thousand miles north of us, and this was definitely affecting conditions where we were.

I took about 3000 photos in Palau, logging 487 species of fish, including seven new ones! A few of my favorite photos from the trip are at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72177720298040329 And I am gradually adding many here on iNat.

I'm writing this in Hawaii, where I'm visiting before going to Fiji for another postponed dive trip.
    -Mark

Posted on April 16, 2022 20:24 by maractwin maractwin | 5 comments | Leave a comment

August 07, 2021

Massachusetts Butterfly Big Year update 5

Yesterday's trip out west to Bartholomew's Cobble scored two new species, the first I've had in a while. A couple of weeks ago some additional rarities were reported there, but my schedule and the weather conspired to not let me visit right away. When I got there, they were finishing turning one of the good meadows into hay...

Things have really slowed down. My count is now at 83 species. It's pretty clear I will not break 100 this year, as I have missed a few species that I thought I would be able to get, the most widespread one being Striped Hairstreak. The late season butterflies are starting to fly now, and southern strays will be appearing soon, but I would be surprised if I get more than ten more. We'll see.

Posted on August 07, 2021 11:53 by maractwin maractwin | 1 observation | 0 comments | Leave a comment

July 07, 2021

Massachusetts Butterfly Big Year update 4

This has turned into a lot more effort than I thought it would. I've made several trips that I thought were sure things, and have not found my targets. We're now at mid-summer when a lot is flying. Many of the current species are widespread, but some I have to be lucky to run into. Others, like many of the hairstreaks, will be a challenge.

Out of town guests for the Fourth of July weekend made for 4 days in a row when I didn't get into the field. But I'm not abandoning family and friends for this.

My count is now at 74 species. I doubt I will be able to break 100, but I'll see what I can do.

Posted on July 07, 2021 21:58 by maractwin maractwin | 5 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

June 23, 2021

Massachusetts Butterfly Big Year update 3

I seem to have picked a particularly bad year to try this. I've missed several species that are well known to be plentiful at certain times and locations, having to scramble to find alternate places for them. Everyone is commenting how few butterflies seem to be around this year. I just drove across the state and back today and struck out on all four target species. The only new one for the year that I got today was European Skipper, an invasive that is widely common, just now starting to fly. I was at the summit of Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, and struck out on the high-altitude specialists there. I suspect they will be there on a second try, I'm just slightly early and the weather was cooler than expected.

My count is now at 60 species. Mid-June is always slow here, and hopefully things will pick up soon. Of course, the utility company doing transmission line work at one of my favorite spots isn't helping...

On the plus side, I'm getting out in the field more this year than I usually do, and seeing a lot of interesting things besides butterflies too. Today I had a bear cross the road in front of me (but too quickly for a photo). Bee-mimic robber flies yesterday. A family of Ruffed Grouse last week.

Posted on June 23, 2021 22:08 by maractwin maractwin | 3 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

June 11, 2021

Massachusetts Butterfly Big Year update 2

Today I hit 50 species, half-way there to my goal. Of course, I've already gotten a lot of the easy ones, in addition to the early spring difficult ones. My next challenge is getting the hairstreaks when most of them start flying in a couple of weeks. There are only a few habitat specialists to worry about at mid-summer, like Bog Copper and Dion Skipper. I've written off a second species, Cobweb Skipper.

Posted on June 11, 2021 21:19 by maractwin maractwin | 4 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

June 03, 2021

Massachusetts Butterfly Big Year update 1

As the early spring flyers are winding down, it looks like I've missed two of them: Hessel's Hairstreak and Early Hairstreak. I am also in danger of missing Cobweb Skipper, as the usual site for these has been decimated by the power company doing maintenance. I've got a few other places to try for these, but I'm running out of time. I'm otherwise in good shape for those species that fly in June, with my total now at 39 species.

Posted on June 03, 2021 21:25 by maractwin maractwin | 2 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

May 28, 2021

Massachusetts Butterfly Big Year

I'm trying to see as many butterfly species as I can in Massachusetts this year. It should be possible to break 100 species. The list of expected species is 112 long, with occasional southern strays that aren't on that list. I have previously seen 105 species in Mass, but not all in one year. There are 8 species on the state list that I haven't seen here (though I've seen most of those in Texas).

This is something I have thought of doing for several years, but I usually have some trips planned that get in the way of flight periods, making it really difficult to see everything. Thanks for the pandemic canceling all of my planned travel, I'll probably be here for the entire season.

At this point (5/28/2021) I've already got 33 species this year, with photos of 31 of them. I failed to photograph the one Mustard White I saw last week or either of the Spicebush Swallowtails I've seen so far. I'm sure I'll be able to photograph a Spicebush later in the year, but I might not manage to see another Mustard White. I have already gotten all of the Elfins and all of the Whites. I didn't do well on anglewings in the early spring, so I will have to be really lucky to get those.

Even if I don't manage to get 100 species, it's getting me out in the field. I've been somewhere every day this week. Gotta push to get all of the spring flyers before their seasons end, then I've got a breather before the next set end at mid-summer.

Posted on May 28, 2021 23:38 by maractwin maractwin | 2 comments | Leave a comment

July 21, 2020

Comet Neowise

Today I observed something in nature that I couldn't post as an observation here on iNat. My first comet. Exciting to actually be able to see it, even with the naked eye once I figured out where it was with my binos. We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes or I would have stayed longer and tried to get photos. I may try again later this week.

Posted on July 21, 2020 02:58 by maractwin maractwin | 1 comment | Leave a comment

May 09, 2019

Burma Rd Butterfly Walk (Trip)

Walked Burma Rd through Fowl Meadow looking for butterflies, hoping for Compton's Tortoiseshell (didn't find it). Also noted many birds, and a few reptiles and other insects.

Note that I basically went in a straight line for a mile and a half, then back. Of course, this tool maps circles...

Posted on May 09, 2019 14:01 by maractwin maractwin | 30 observations | 7 comments | Leave a comment

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