Life’s a Carnival
There’s a show of marine life at Wakatobi.
It’s been said that life is like a carnival. This certainly seems true when you are diving at Wakatobi. The show begins the moment you arrive at the reef, that underwater equivalent of the midway at a festival. There, 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. Ever had a close look at the eyes of a mantis shrimp?
This underwater carnival offers something for everyone, and all are invited to enjoy the show. Marvel at the vistas made possible by Wakatobi’s clear waters, but 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.
Just like the hawkers working the crowd, you can almost hear the cleaner wrasse 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 subjects for the cleaner wrasse’s attention, and allow this small neon blue striped fish to move freely over their mouth and gill cavities.
The striking facial coloration of the Blueface angelfish gives it the appearance it is wearing a mask. The question is which can be construed as its mask? The blue band, which looks like a full beard or the solid yellow covering over its eyes? What a beautiful sight is this species, which inhabit reefs where coral growth is prolific such as those at Wakatobi.
Everybody loves a clown, particularly divers and snorkelers. These brilliantly colored little fish are down right delightful to watch and photograph. 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.
No sideshow venue is complete without its collection of oddities, and the mantis shrimp is everything advertised when it comes to the world of weird and bizarre. Mantis shrimp are considered to have the best vision 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, you must 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.
The “bearded lady” of the reef carnival is the ornate ghost pipefish. The snout and body of this fish sport a covering of short skin filaments that resemble whisker bristles. They rank among the most exotic creatures inhabiting the reef yet very little is known about their natural history. While they are likely to be found in male/female pairs, they are also seen in small groups. They can be highly colorful, which seems to relate to their surroundings. A good place to look for these little wonders is near crinoids, where they will often hover head down amongst the arms.
Speaking of hairy little creatures, there is of course the pink hairy squat lobster. Seeing one of these cute little guys up close makes you want to laugh out loud as they look like they’re having a very bad hair day! Not a true lobster, this marine crustacean is also known as the ‘Fairy crab’ (Lauriea siagiani). Talk about freaky this crab is a decapod crustacean, meaning they have ten appendages (legs), unlike true crabs, which have eight. These two extra legs are well hidden under the rear portion of the fairy crab’s shell, together with the respiratory organs or gills.
Fairy crabs are tiny, typically measuring no more than 1.5 cm in length; their body is near translucent with a florescent pinkish-purple coloration. The standout feature is the long white hairs covering their entire body. To find this particular hairy little… well, fairy crab, the best place to look is among the Giant barrel sponge’s (Xestospongia testudinaria) convoluted surfaces, which abound on the coral reefs in Indonesian waters.
A parade marching through the midway provides a mesmerizing show, especially when you swim with the procession. Schooling fish are usually of the same species and are often around the same age and size. Fish school for many reasons, including protection from predators, finding better feeding grounds, and locating a mate.
While the carnival, with all its bells and whistles, will provide you with many memories, the underwater world seems to leave you wanting more. There’s always one more corner to go around, another ledge just a little deeper to look under, one last jutting crevice to peek into. The thrill of discovery combines with the sheer beauty of the ocean to create a riotous carnival of experiences, all wrapped up in one breathtaking package.