Carnival on the Reef
At Wakatobi, it’s easy to get caught up in the show
Remember the excitement when the carnival came to town? On the midway, you are enveloped in a blurring parade of festive colors and frenetic activity. Show-stopping beauties steal the limelight, roving bands of juveniles flit in and out of the crowd, and there are plenty of everyone’s favorites: the sideshow freaks. With a little imagination, the reefs of Wakatobi can be transformed into an underwater carnival, complete with a cast of bizarre characters and amazing acts. The show begins the moment you arrive at the reef, that underwater equivalent of the midway. Marvel at the sights made possible by Wakatobi’s clear waters, and don’t be in a hurry to rush off to the next attraction. Slow down, and look closer, because many of the best entertainers are on the small size.
Working the crowd
Much like carnival barkers working the crowd, you can almost hear the cleaner wrasses calling out to passing fish with their own version of ‘Step right up.’ Cleaner wrasses feed on the parasitic isopods that cling to fish. Those isopods can become a big irritation as they take nutrients from their host. When fish have had enough, they become willing clients for the cleaner wrasse’s attention, and will hold motionless and allow these small neon-blue striped fish to move freely over their mouth and gill cavities, nipping and tucking until all is clean.
Beauty in the eyes
Any good carnival sideshow will offer some G-rated titillation in the form of an exotic dancer from the East. The striking facial coloration of the Blueface angelfish is certainly reminiscent of the crocheted veils worn by Egyptiaon Baladi dancers. Outstretched pectoral fins add the illusion of swirling capes as this colorful fish undulates with the current. Though not shy, these performers do seem to prefer the shelter of a coral grotto or a crevice in the face of the reef.
No sideshow venue is complete without its collection of oddities, and the mantis shrimp draws top billing in the world of weird and bizarre. Mantis shrimp are considered to have the best eyesight on earth, and have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. A unique trinocular vision allows the mantis shrimp to perceive both polarized light and multispectral images at the same time, detecting up to 100,000 colors along with 12 color channels, including the ultraviolet range. By contrast, we humans can only detect up to 10,000 colors, with 3 color channels. Just watching a mantis shrimp’s eyes move around independently of each other will leave you wanting more. Because the eyes also move in all directions there’s no sneaking up on this guy. There are more than 400 varieties of mantis shrimp to amaze and entertain the spectators.
While we are on the subject of creepy looking peepers, step into the underwater equivalent of the reptile pit and check out the eyeballs on the crocodilefish. A member of the flathead family, crocodilefish sport a flat, elongated crocodile-like snout and an earth-tone body that serves as camouflage amid sand and rubble bottoms. Their camouflage coloration doesn’t end there, the eyes of the crocodilefish have frilly iris lappets, which help break up the black pupil of the fish, and thus improve its concealment. Like their reptilian namesake, they are lie-in-wait ambushers, attacking unsuspecting prey with a sudden lunge upwards. When it comes to finding crocodilefish for that interesting eyeball shot, Wakatobi is never in short supply.
Send in the clowns
Everybody loves a clown, especially divers and snorkelers. These brilliantly colored little fish are downright delightful to watch and photograph as they perform the seemingly death-defying trick of hiding among the stinging tentacles of an anemone. Clownfish, or more appropriately anemonefish, are a subfamily of damselfish, which currently includes twenty-five listed species in the Indo-pacific. Close to half are found in Wakatobi’s waters. Their social group normally consists of one large dominant female, a smaller, sexually active male, a few even smaller males and some juveniles. No clowning around here—when the female dies the dominant male will change sex to take her place over the harem.