November 08, 2023

Far Northern Great Barrier Reef

I’m back from an adventure of a trip to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. My friend Josh told me about this one, and was one of the 3 people on the trip I knew. It was a “Far Northern Great Barrier Reef” itinerary aboard the Kalinda, starting at Cairns and ending at Tuesday Island in the Torres Strait.

I flew from Boston to Cairns by way of San Francisco and Sydney. I arrived in Cairns the day before the boat departed, to have time to do some exploration and start getting over my jet lag. The botanical gardens there were productive allowing me to see a number of birds and a few butterflies. One of my targets was Cairns Birdwing Butterfly, a beautiful very large swallowtail; I did manage to see one female, but she didn’t stop so I did not get any good photos. The next afternoon we met the boat at the Yorkeys Knob Boat Club, just north of Cairns.

We were aboard the Kalinda, budget liveaboard that is a smaller simpler boat than I usually travel on. It’s a 72 foot wooden boat, with four double cabins up top and two dormitories below. For this cruise there were 9 regular guests, 2 people along doing fish surveys, and 6 crew including the owner Dave as cruise director. The food was good, all served buffet style by cook Liz. Bathrooms were shared rather than in each cabin, and freshwater was very limited. We only got one freshwater shower a day, rather than one after every dive. So we spent much of the time salty, and by the end of the trip everything I brought was covered in salt. Because the boat wasn’t at capacity we used two tables in the salon for camera setup. If the boat had been full this would have been a problem.

Diving was done directly from the boat. They had a tinny for shuttling us to a couple of beaches and for emergencies, but did not use it for regular diving. This meant that other than a few drift dives, the boat was anchored or moored near the dive site and we had to navigate back to it. That’s a skill I hadn’t practiced in a long time and I was rusty, so leaned on Doug as my dive buddy a bit to know where we were. Also, when diving in Queensland many dive safety procedures are codified into law, so they are strict on buddy pairs, tracking air usage and bottom time. The Kalinda wasn’t as picky as my last GBR diving 17 years ago, but still more so than I am used to.

In the early part of the trip we dived the Ribbon Reefs just north of Cairns, some of the same sites I had dived many years previously. The reefs had a lot of small fish: clouds of orange and purple anthias, many damselfishes both drab and bright yellow or blue, black and white striped humbugs, many wrasses. the most common groupers were Leopard Coral Groupers, only medium-sized fish. Discussing after the dive which fish had been seen was confusing, as the Australians had different names for everything, and any fish that is good to eat seems to be called a “cod” or “trout” regardless of what family it is in. Being much more experienced now in both diving and fish watching, I saw a number of species that were new to me. Some of these sites, such as the famous “Cod Hole” (where the namesake Potato Grouper were missing) were looking pretty beat up after many thousands of divers have visited them. There were plenty of fish around, but not many large groupers. While a third of the GBR has been designated no-take “green” zones, down south they are a bunch of small rectangles interspersed with places that allow fishing, so many of the larger fishes are fished out.

We worked our way north. After one rough overnight crossing where no one got any sleep, we decided to put some miles on during the day so we would be well rested, and only did a couple of dives that day. We stopped by Lizard Island and went ashore to watch the sunset from the beach. A dive near there had poor visibility, but a bunch of interesting fish like Red Emperor Snapper, Blackspot Tuskfish, Spangled Emperors, and other fish that weren’t very familiar.

We saw a few sharks on most dives. Unlike everywhere else I have dived in the Indo-Pacific, Silvertip Sharks outnumbered Gray Reef Sharks. I finally got some good photos of these. White-tip Reef Sharks were seen on many reefs. Twice we saw Zebra Sharks and I finally got a photo of one. Some sites faced blue water, and there pelagics like Dogtooth Tuna and Spanish Mackerel might cruise by as well as more sharks than other places. Two Manta Rays were seen on the trip, though I didn’t manage to see either.

Our goal in heading north was the Great Detached Reef, an atoll on the northeast corner of the GBR, a long way from land and seldom dived. The sites here were pristine, with better diversity. But even here the corals often looked stressed, likely due to the warming ocean. The reefs weren’t colorful (unlike the fish) so I did little wide-angle photography.

On the morning of our third day at the Great Detached Reef, we planned to dive a deep pinnacle from a live boat—no place to anchor, so the boat engines would be running and logistics are a bit tricky. We were fully geared up and waiting for the boat to be in position to drop us up-current of the pinnacle, and there were some strange grinding noises from the engine room. We were told the dive would be delayed, they later it was fully canceled, and then we received the news that the gearbox wasn’t working and the boat could no longer move on its own power. There are two engines, but one gear box to connect those to the propeller. They could not get it working, and had to call for help. The rest of the diving (2 days) of the trip was cancelled, and the challenge was getting back to port in time for us to make our flights. Emergency Services would only tow us to a safe anchorage, the boat’s insurance company would arrange a tow back to port. We were now in a very remote area, more than 12 hours motoring from our destination of Tuesday Island. We were assured that they had plenty of food and fuel; the concern was people having to rebook flights if it took 4-5 days to get to a port. Eventually a plan developed. A tug from the Australia Maritime Safety Authority showed up in about 12 hours, and then towed us for over 24 hours to the bay off the small town of Lockhart, the nearest port. Dave, the Kalinda’s owner, arranged a charter flight to take us from there to Cairns in time to catch our flights home. We ultimately only missed a few dives and had a bit of excitement.

The crew was great, and I don’t hold the mechanical failure against them. The boat was serviced just before our cruise. I did miss some of the creature comforts, but had I been better prepared, that wouldn’t have been as difficult. Yes, I might go out on the Kalinda again. It is one of the few ways to get to the far northern Great Barrier Reef.

I took 2,310 pictures during 30 dives where I saw 477 different species of fish, including 25 lifers. The photo highlights can be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/albums/72177720312326523

Posted on November 08, 2023 02:20 AM by maractwin maractwin | 1 comment | Leave a comment

October 13, 2023

One Hundred Butterflies in Massachusetts

For the 2023 season, I decided to do a Massachusetts butterfly big year. That is an effort to see as many species as possible. I had been intrigued by the idea ever since reading about birders doing big years, often for all of North America. That takes an incredible amount of time and money, but I thought a state-only butterfly big year would be approachable.

I often travel a lot, and my travel schedule would get in the way of doing a big year, since many species only fly for a short period. When the pandemic forced me to stay home, I tried to do a state butterfly big year in 2021. But I abandoned that effort about half-way through the year, because I felt guilty about the amount of gasoline I was burning driving across the state. By 2023 I had replaced my gasoline car with an all electric one. My travel has resumed somewhat, but I had no trips longer than four days planned between April and October of this year.

From talking to avid butterfliers who have been watching them in Massachusetts for many years, I know that as recently as ten years ago, it did not take heroic efforts to break 100 species in a year. I only started seriously looking for butterflies here about ten years ago, and in that time several species which were formerly easy to see had become difficult, with a few not seen in several years now. For instance, Hessel’s Hairstreak has not been confirmed since 2015, nor Common Roadside Skipper. Some species have become rare in just the last few years, with Harris’s Checkerspot and Acadian Hairstreak now only known from a few places.

I mostly used the Massachusetts Butterfly Club “Checklist of the Butterflies of Massachusetts” (2015) as my reference list. That list has 111 species on it, or 112 when you count the two subspecies of Limenitis arthemis as separate entries for White Admiral and Red-spotted Purple. I added a few species to this, rare southern strays that have only been recorded a few times but are listed in other MBC publications. I also added Northern Azure (see below). That put 120 species on my list. Surely I could manage to miss only 20 of these, right?

There are several taxonomic puzzles amongst our butterflies. These are still being debated, and this is not a discussion of those, rather how I approached them this year. For tiger swallowtails, I assumed they were all Eastern Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) except for those at high altitude or in western Mass. before mid-July, where I checked field marks for Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (P. canadensis). I assumed all crescents were Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and never checked to see if any were Northern Crescents (P. cocyta). Azures are more complicated. Some club members refer to “form lucia” of Spring Azure, and “A Catalogue of the Butterflies of the United States and Canada” by Jonathan Pelham recognizes Celastrina lucia as “Northern Azure” so I adopted that. Early in the season, those with dusky gray in the center of the wing and gray margins are Northern Azure (C. lucia), those with more crisp markings are Spring Azure (C. ladon). By late May and June, azures with fine black markings are probably Cherry Gall Azure (C. serotina). More heavily marked ones in June and all after that are Summer Azure (C. neglecta). This is an over simplification, but worked for quick field identification. For small dark skippers, the black witches, I attempted to properly identify them, and erred towards calling ambiguous ones Dun Skipper.

I kept myself organized with spreadsheets. One listed every target species (or subspecies), whether I had seen it, and whether I had gotten a photograph. I also noted the start and end of the flight period in the state so that I could sort the spreadsheet to see what is currently flying that I had not seen. I also kept a spreadsheet recording how many of each species I saw on every hike I did. I have been keeping data like this every year for a while now, so I could easily look up when and where I saw various species in past years. I record the time spent in the field and how far I walked as well, to make the data more valuable for scientific analysis in the future.

My Google Maps account has favorites saved of many of the places I go to look for butterflies. This is really helpful in planning each day’s outing. If I am preparing to go across the state to search for a particular butterfly, I can at a glance see what other places are nearby or on my way that might be worth stopping at as well. And because some of these places do not have names or proper street addresses, I also have a list of butterfly sites and the nearest street address, so that I can enter that into my car navigation system to get me there.

I tried to get a photo of every species. My usual method is to photograph at least one of every species I see on every outing. Yes, that means I have many photos of Cabbage Whites and other common species. That keeps me in practice getting photos, and means that I do not forget to photograph common species. I post most of these here on iNaturalist where I am very active both posting and identifying observations for others. I have a butterfly counting app on my phone similar to eBird which I wrote myself. It works pretty well, and one of these days I will polish a few rough edges and make it available for others.

My basic plan for the year was to plan trips for the butterflies with short flight periods or specialized habitats, and hope that while doing that I would pick up all of the widespread species. One problem I ran into was that most of the butterflies flying before mid-summer had their flight period running about a week later than usual. On my first trip down to Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth for elfins almost nothing was flying, but a week later I saw what I was expecting. That happened on several trips, as I was reluctant to just assume they were flying late and risk missing something.

My year started in April, where I found Mourning Cloaks and Cabbage Whites, but failed to turn up an Eastern Comma until July. My first trip to see more than two species of butterfly was April 25, at Burma Road in Milton where I added Henry’s Elfin and two different azures to my list. On May 7, at Myles Standish SF I added three species of elfins and two duskywings. The next day I made my first trip out to western Mass., where I added Mustard White at Darey Housatonic Valley Wildlife Management Area in Lenox, but nothing else new. I ticked off species one at a time as I sought out the elfins and duskywings that fly early in the season. There is a spot in north central Mass. where Bog Elfin is usually reliable, yet I made three different trips there before I saw it, and it was only a brief view and I failed to get a photo.

The first Massachusetts Butterfly Club walk I joined was to Dinosaur Footprints and Mount Tom in Holyoke on May 19, where I saw Juniper Hairstreak and a couple of skippers, as well as visiting with friends I had not seen since the previous year.

By May 22 I had already made four trips to Horn Pond Mountain in Woburn, a favorite site with a lot of diversity that is not far from home. I was turning up very little there, which was worrisome. The electric company had done a lot of work on the power lines there the last two years, and chewed up a lot of the habitat. I thought it would bounce back, but several species that used to be reliable there I have not seen since 2020.

Late May is Hessel’s Hairstreak season. This is a species I have never seen, though I have spent the past few years searching, on my own and as part of the MBC effort organized by Danielle Desmarais. I went to Ponkapoag Bog in Canton, formerly a good place to see Hessel’s, and discovered that the boardwalk is now in such bad shape that even in knee-high boots I could not make it out to the best habitat. I should point out that technically I have seen Hessel’s: two years previously, at Ponkapoag, I was hanging out at the end of the boardwalk with another experienced butterflier, when a lycaenid passed about ten feet over our heads without stopping. I sure couldn’t defend an identification of that one, but given the date and location, Hessel’s was the only thing likely to have been flying. I also visited a couple of other Atlantic White Cedar sites as well this summer, including an invitation outing to a restricted property in Foxboro that was known to host the butterfly 20 years ago, but without luck now. As we reached mid-June, Hessel’s was the first species on my list I marked as “not seen” this year.

I drove west again in late May for Cobweb Skipper in Montague, and while in the area checked a couple of wetlands for some specialist skippers that mostly fly later, and they were not around yet. And then a couple of days later went west again for the annual butterfly club trip up Mount Greylock to see Early Hairstreaks. That club outing was successful, and I also picked up Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and West Virginia White (completing the resident whites), but not Pepper & Salt Skipper which is usually seen on that walk. In a surprise we saw two Compton Tortoiseshells that day, both very worn, and I was glad to get that species that I was not counting on. Nothing was flying at Eugene Moran Wildlife Management Area in Windsor that day so I failed to see Arctic Skipper.

By now I should have seen both Northern and Southern Cloudywings and Indian Skipper, all of which were formerly common on Horn Pond Mountain. A third trip down to Myles Standish got me Indian Skipper and completed the early season duskywings (Juvenal’s, Sleepy, Dreamy, and Wild Indigo). I had not expected to see Persius Duskywing, even though its last confirmed sighting was at Myles Standish. Persius joined Hessel’s on my “not seen” list by mid-June. Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester in the past has also been good for the Cloudywings, but I failed to turn them up there while picking up Hoary Edge.

The first two weeks in June I visited seven different sites in central Mass. looking for Harris’s Checkerspot. I did not find it in its former stronghold of Mass Audubon’s Broad Meadow Brook nor under various power lines in Shrewsbury, Worcester, or Grafton. Someone I didn’t know posted a photo of one to iNaturalist from an obscured location in Fitchburg. I messaged him to ask if he was willing to divulge the location. When he responded the next day, he was helpful, describing where he went to a difficult-to-access powerline cut and mentioning he had just run into a mutual friend from the butterfly club. I bushwacked there the next day, and did not find anything promising. I continued to check out historic sites for Harris’s and likely spots nearby found by studying satellite maps. The same iNat user messaged me a week later when he found another Harris’s at a different spot in Leominster. I shared this information with Garry Kessler, and the next morning we both went there and with Garry’s help I finally managed to see one, the first I had encountered in four years. During this time I also went back to Eugene Moran WMA again and picked up Arctic Skipper and Pepper & Salt Skipper.

On June 21 I made my first trip of the season to October Mountain State Forest in Washington, where I added Atlantis Fritillary, White Admiral, and some skippers. I would keep going back because it is a good place to see some of the rarer wetland skippers and satyrs. And I kept hitting spots in metro Boston that should have had Northern and Southern Cloudywing, but could not find them. I stopped by the lower Mystic Lake in Medford and easily found a Harvester to check that box. A visit to Burma Rd in Milton turned up plenty of Appalachian Browns as it usually does at this time of year.

The first week in July is usually a time with a lot of butterflies and Fourth of July butterfly counts. During this period I used to see bushes with dozens of hairstreaks of four or five species. I only had one trip this year that had more than two species or into double-digits in the count of individuals. I slowly added Edwards’s, Striped, Banded, and Coral Hairstreaks. I got invited to a special trip to restricted areas in Joint Base Cape Cod where we saw dozens of individuals of six species of hairstreak, including Acadian (the target of that trip). I was hoping for Oak Hairstreak which is often seen there, but we did not find any on this trip. Another participant on this trip saw a Northern Cloudywing, which I only saw flying away—my least satisfying sighting of the year. I missed participating in the Concord butterfly count as I usually do because it was the same day as the JBBC trip. I also missed the Essex County butterfly count because of a non-naturalist commitment, so I did not participate in any Fourth of July counts this year. In this period I also saw Bog Copper at Tully Dam in Royalston and Dion Skipper at another site in the area.

I made two trips to October Mountain SF in early July. The first turned out to be cloudy and cool (it wasn’t when I left home, but after the two and a half hour drive, I discovered I should have stayed home), and not much was flying. A few days later I tried again, and saw my only lifer of the season: Two-spotted Skipper. This rare butterfly is a wetlands specialist I had been looking for over several years. I was told where to look for it by a butterfly club member, but had been unlucky actually finding it over many attempts the last few years. This time I not only saw one, I saw three. That trip had all three greater fritillaries (Great Spangled, Aphrodite, and Atlantis), two fresh cooperative Compton Tortoiseshells, Northern Pearly-eye, and many other butterflies. This is why I like the site, even though it is so far from home.

I made my first trip of the year to Bartholomew’s Cobble in Sheffield during this time too. And there picked up a new state butterfly for me, Hackberry Emperor, and saw a few Hickory Hairstreaks. During that trip I saw my first Common Sootywing of the year and did not think much of it, but that turned out to be the only one I saw this year. I was hoping for American Snout, Gray Comma, and Meadow Fritillary there too, but those proved elusive on all three of my trips to Bart’s Cobble this year. My second Bart’s trip was a butterfly club walk, and after not finding any rarities, I stopped by Forest Park in Springfield on my way home, hoping I might find Tawny Emperor there. While I did not see the emperor, I did find a White-M Hairstreak—my second of the year, but the first was not cooperative for a photo.

I was now halfway through the season, and about 80% of the way through my butterfly list! I was feeling pretty good about this, though the remaining species were mostly ones that are difficult to find. It was not until July 17 at the Barber Reservation in Sherborn that I saw any Silver-bordered Fritillaries, having visited several other likely spots without luck. And none of those spots turned up Bronze Copper as they sometimes do. Crane Swamp Trail in Marlboro provided Broad-winged Skippers after striking out on those at a few places closer to home. Eyed Brown was at both Appleton Farm in Ipswich and on the Crane Swamp Trail. While I failed to turn up any Bronze Coppers in July, I was not worried because their September flight is usually more reliable. I made two trips out to Mountain Meadow Preserve in Williamstown hoping for Meadow Fritillary without luck. As long as I was in the area, I drove to the summit of Mount Greylock each of these days, to check for Milbert’s Tortoiseshell.

In August I started focusing on what I had missed in the expected species, as well as visiting sites along the coast that are the most likely for southern strays. I had to admit that I had missed Southern Cloudywing, the only supposed common species I missed this year, and had only the non-verifiable flyaway Northern Cloudywing. Yes, I wrote off Common Roadside Skipper and Oak Hairstreak, but the skipper has not been seen in several years and the hairstreak is not reported every year. I saw Horace’s Duskywing at Francis Crane WMA in Falmouth, completing the expected duskywings.

The southern skippers started arriving early. Zabulons were common by mid-August, and by the first of September Sachems were the most numerous skipper at most sites I visited. A butterfly club member tipped me off to a Fiery Skipper seen at Verrill Farm in Concord; I decided to chase it even though the species is often common in the fall. This was a good move, as that was the only one I saw this year. There were scattered reports of Ocola Skipper, but I was not seeing them at the usual sites (including Sylvan Nursery in Westport where I see them most years) or a day later at places others had reported them. I finally saw Ocola in mid-September at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan.

There are also a few resident species that do not start flying until late summer. My first trip to Naskatucket Bay State Reservation in Mattapoisett was too early to get Red-banded Hairstreak; I had to go back a week later for them. I visited several likely spots for Giant Swallowtail without luck. I only saw that one on my last trip out to Bart’s Cobble. I made several trips to the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain looking for Pipevine Swallowtails, sometimes seen there because of extensive pipevines around their administration building. I did not see that species until a friend in Wareham told me he had one visiting his yard and it stuck around for the time it took me to drive there. That completed the swallowtails.

In September I saw Bronze Copper during their second brood, right on the dike trail of Great Meadows NWR in Concord. I found only a single Leonard’s Skipper at Francis Crane WMA in Falmouth, and good thing I found it there. The other place I usually see them, Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, did not have any when I was on the outer Cape a week later. While in Provincetown for a non-naturalist event that weekend I saw two Cloudless Sulphurs fly by without stopping, and I also had passes like this down in Westport, but never got a photo. I found my first Common Buckeye of the year at Allen’s Pond Wildlife Refuge in Westport. Hopefully it is just an off year for this beautiful southern butterfly, rather than the end of their presence in the state.

I continued going into the field in late September and early October, finding a second Common Buckeye and several Ocola Skippers, but no new species. Long-tailed Skipper was the mostly likely addition at this point, and I heard reports of two of them from earlier in the season, but just could not find one myself. At this time of year, the most common butterflies at most sites are Cabbage White and the sulphurs, which presents the challenge of looking critically at each to make sure I am not overlooking a stray Checkered White or Little Yellow. Alas, I did not find any of those, nor did I hear of anyone else sighting one this year.

I ended the year having exactly hit my goal of one hundred species. But that includes two that I am not happy about. That fly-away Northern Cloudywing that I did not see well enough to identify, though it was clearly seen by an expert I trust. Also that Bog Elfin back in June, seen in the right place at the right time, but my sighting was less than ideal with no photo. I can’t be 100% sure it was not an Eastern Pine Elfin. The other species I failed to photograph was Cloudless Sulphur. But that one I am very confident I saw, and those familiar with the species know that it seldom stops for photos.

By The Numbers

I spent a lot more time on this than I thought I would. I spent 83 days in the field, logging 128 hikes to accumulate 9,036 minutes (over 6 days) hiking 171 miles. From my home in metro Boston, I drove west past Worcester 17 times. I was in the field most weekdays when the weather was good, when possible scheduling other things I needed to do only a few days out when the forecast was for rain. I literally hit all four corners of the state with Williamstown, Sheffield, West Newbury, and Westport. Here is a breakdown of the places I visited by property owner:

39 State
33 Municipal
19 Mass Audubon
9 Trustees of Reservations
7 Federal
7 Commercial
4 Other non-profit
3 Private
7 [not classified, mostly power line corridors of unclear ownership]

The site where I recorded the most species per mile walked was Lime Kiln Farm in Sheffield, with 15/mi. The site with the most individuals observed per mile walked as Mountain Meadow Preserve in Williamstown with 134/mi. The most new butterflies I got for my list on one hike was five, at Montague Sand Plain in Montague. I recorded 4,250 individual butterflies on my hikes this year.

I got one lifer this year: Two-spotted Skipper. I also saw a new state butterfly: Hackberry Emperor. There were only a few butterflies that I only saw a single individual of: Giant & Pipevine Swallowtails, Acadian Hairstreak, Frosted Elfin, Hackberry Emperor, Northern Cloudywing, Common Sootywing, Fiery Skipper, and Leonard’s Skipper. Among the species I did not see were two that I had expected to get: Variegated Fritillary and Southern Cloudywing. Among the others I missed were a few that were reported this year by other observers: Oak Hairstreak, Meadow Fritillary, Long-tailed Skipper, and Variegated Fritillary.

Given how much effort was involved, I probably will not try this again. I am curious if this was an off year, or if more species becoming hard to find is a trend. I fear that populations are continuing to dwindle, and it will become more and more difficult for someone to see one hundred butterfly species in Massachusetts. It will take time to determine that. I like having a challenge, but will pick something easier next time, like visiting every Mass Audubon and Trustees of Reservations property in the state.

Thanks to the members of the Massachusetts Butterfly Club and others who posted their sightings to the MassLep email list and the Massachusetts Butterflies Facebook page. These alerted when and where to look for some of the uncommon butterflies. Also the users of iNaturalist who posted butterflies, as I regularly searched there for species I was looking for. And special thanks to the handful of people who directly sent me information about butterflies they knew I was looking for, and even inviting me to their yards. The communications part of this effort was far easier today than it was 25 years ago before the Internet was in common use. Thanks also to the two commercial establishments that welcomed me to walk around their property. And finally to Brian Cassie for feedback on this article.

Posted on October 13, 2023 09:49 PM by maractwin maractwin | 1 comment | Leave a comment

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 03:49 PM 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 08:24 PM 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 AM 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 09:58 PM 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 10:08 PM 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 09:19 PM 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 09:25 PM 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 11:38 PM by maractwin maractwin | 2 comments | Leave a comment

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