Small Worlds

Fingerprint coral shrimp, Coralliocaris sandyi

The idea comes to me while eating chicken satay. "These thin sticks used for skewering bite-sized bits of roasted meat might be just the tools we're looking for," I think as I slowly draw one of the charcoal-singed slivers of wood between my fingers following a late dinner.

Just that afternoon my dive guide, Liberty Tukunang, and I spent several frustrating hours attempting to photograph a community of shrimp that lives exclusively within the intertwining branches of tabletop coral. The shrimp are easy enough to see when viewed from above, but taking an acceptable photograph of the moving targets in such a tangle is another matter altogether. Liberty's attempts to shoo the coral's occupants in my direction sent them ricocheting about the branches like pinballs. Try as we might, all we had to show for an afternoon's efforts were a few blurred images of disappearing tails — not near the quality we needed to include the species in the marine identification guide to the Pacific we've been working on for the past three years. Enter the satay sticks.

Early the next morning I catch up with Liberty as he readies the old green and yellow water taxi we use to travel back and forth to dive sites in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia. Huddled in the shade of the cabin I spin my idea. Never one for words but always quick on the uptake, Liberty simply nods and slips a pair of the sticks into his wetsuit sleeve.

Gerlache’s coral shrimp, Philarius gerlachei
An hour later we're kneeling in the sand beside a Frisbee-sized plate of coral that juts out from a ridge; it's home to a pair of orange and white shrimp of the genus Coralliocaris. With a stick held between the thumb and first finger of each hand, Liberty leans forward and begins to herd shrimp like he was born to the job. Even with his gifted touch it takes half an hour before he finally coaxes a subject into a corner where I can get a clear shot. By week's end the satay-stick trick has helped us capture the portraits of a dozen new coral-dwelling crustaceans, which we fondly dub "30-minute shrimp."

Superb coral shrimp, Coralliocaris superba
During our shrimp hunt we also encountered symbiotic fishes occupying the same tight quarters — mostly gobies, colorful and cute. Dive travel always brings something new, as happened the following year in Ambon, Indonesia. We spent the week at Maluku Divers, a seaside resort fronting some of the best critter-hunting grounds in the region. Making things even better, we were shown around by Semuel Bukasiang, a veteran guide of distinction. On the next to last diving day, Semuel and I prowled the slopes, while Anna struck gold in the shallows, finding redhead coral gobies scampering around the branches of plate-coral colonies. It was exciting news; the fish had eluded us for years, and the current printing of our Pacific fish guide displayed only a yellow variant of the species. We were on a mission.

The following morning we awoke to a freshening gale that at 7 a.m. had already sent spray over the seawall. Word of worsening conditions arrived with coffee. It seemed our only chance to visit the gobies would be during the next couple of hours, and even then conditions would be sloppy. After conferring with Semuel, Anna and I decided to go for it.

As expected, the sandy shallows were awash with surge. Even though we had full tanks and extra weight, the swells had their way, tossing us like leaves. Fortunately we had plenty of space to maneuver between the outcroppings, and within minutes of our arrival Anna spotted a pair of the gobies. Purging the last bubble from my BC, I came to rest inches from their home. Nimble as mice in a maze, the occupants darted off to the far side of their platter-sized world. Noting my predicament, Semuel positioned himself across from me and sent the gobies scrambling back in my direction. There they settled side by side in a hollow with their green-tinged, golden-rimmed eyes starring back at me like puppies in a pound. It was too much.

Redhead coral goby, Paragobiodon echinocephalus
Before I could burrow my elbows into the bottom and focus, the gobies vanished. Semuel waved them back around, but no sooner did they arrive than they were off again. Every time I attempted to hold focus on their fuzzy little heads, the surge swept my legs off the bottom and wrenched my eye away from the viewfinder. All would have been lost without Anna — the best buddy a fellow ever had. She came to the rescue by draping her tank-heavy body across my wayward limbs, just the trick to get the shot.

© Alert Diver —Winter 2013