Two male longsnout butterflyfish fighting over territory
The Coral Triangle—the area roughly bounded by the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste—is a “must-dive” region in the minds of experienced divers around the globe. The area is home to roughly 2,200 fish species, more than 500 of the world’s 800 species of reef-building hard corals, numerous marine mammals, and a staggering number of invertebrates. Even when compared to other diving meccas, these are mind-bending numbers and the list of what many consider to be “must-see” species is far too long to mention here.
The opportunity to see and photograph the jewels of the Coral Triangle was a powerful magnet when I jumped at the opportunity to become the Photography Ambassador for Atlantis Dive Resorts and Liveaboards in the Philippines almost a decade ago. With diving-dedicated resorts in Puerto Galera and Dumaguete and a liveaboard that enables divers to explore the reefs and wrecks of the Sulu Sea, the Atlantis properties call the Coral Triangle “home, sweet home.” Through my dives over the past decade, I have learned a lot, not only about how to identify routinely encountered marine creatures, but also about where and how to find them, specific behaviors to look for, the benefit of some pre-trip or pre-dive research, and how valuable insight from dive guides can be.
In addition, I have grown to understand the benefits of applying a “the slower you go, the more you will see” approach to my dives. The combination of these factors has allowed me—and it will empower you—to take advantage of wonderful opportunities to see and understand a wide variety of behaviors, ranging from courtship and mating to cleaning and predation, that convert “checklist sightings” into magical opportunities for underwater photographers.
In the remainder of this piece, I am going to use a variety of examples to illustrate how you can maximize your photographic opportunities by applying the insights I have gained while diving with the guides at Atlantis.
1. Ornate Ghost Pipefish Traveling in Twos
Without question, ornate ghost pipefish are one of the region’s iconic species, but there is often much more to see and photograph than simply getting “a shot.” A little reading and carefully listening to dive guides in pre-dive briefings will likely reveal that ornates are often seen in pairs with the larger fish being the female.
A simple ID shot of an ornate ghost pipefish (top) makes for a much less compelling image than a carefully executed capture of a pipefish pair (bottom)
Knowing your guides’ hand signals—indicating male, female, courtship, mating, eggs, and so on—can be the difference between totally missing the essence of wonderful photographic opportunities and telling a more impactful story. Simply capturing a pair of ornates in a single frame helps share a deeper story than a simple identification shot of a single fish does. This is not to suggest passing up a portrait of a single fish, but to say there are far more commonly encountered, but often overlooked, behaviors to be aware of.
Sometimes, you can take it one big step further by knowing the pouch on the belly of the female is where she holds fertilized eggs until they hatch. While carrying the eggs, the female regularly widens and almost closes her egg pouch to bathe the eggs with oxygenated water. In the process, the eggs and developing embryos are exposed long enough to get “the shot.”
A female ornate ghost pipefish oxygenates the eggs in her belly pouch
2. Anemonefish Enjoying a Good Clean
The words of noted marine naturalists/photographers Ned and Anna DeLoach advise us to “stop and watch fishes be fishes to learn what they do and how they go about their business.” While their advice might sound too simplistic to be helpful, following it has opened up a world of fish behavior to my eyes and photographic opportunities for my cameras.
It can be challenging to make a dive at either Atlantis Puerto Galera or Atlantis Dumaguete without seeing anemonefish. Camera-carrying divers often swim right up to the anemone while being entertained by the defensive antics of the anemonefish as they repeatedly rush the divers to get them to move away. The photographic result of these encounters varies from an anemonefish with flared fins staring at a lens to one hiding amongst the tentacles of their host anemone.
What might get missed are at least three often available opportunities: first, anemonefishes protecting, cleaning, and oxygenating their eggs, which are often present on the substrate or an object at the base of an anemone; second, close-ups of the developing embryos; and third, an anemonefish being cleaned by a cleaner shrimp or wrasse.
Saddleback anemonefish protecting eggs in nest
Eggs of saddleback anemonefish that are almost ready to hatch
Pink anemonefish being serviced by a cleaner shrimp
3. Frogfish Fishing
The reefs bordering the Verde Island Channel are believed to be home to more frogfishes than anywhere else in the world. Frogfishes are among the species that dive guides are much better at finding than the rest of us are. With “faces that that only a mother could love,” underwater photographers too often approach them a bit too recklessly. They might end up with lovely profiles and facial close-ups, but a close, less-than-deliberate approach routinely causes frogfish that are attempting to lure prey by “fishing” to stop that effort. The result is a wonderful opportunity lost. On the other hand, a slow, thoughtful approach utilizing minimal movement and good buoyancy control can yield an opportunity to capture images of frogfishes trying to lure prey.
Clockwise from top left: Painted frogfish (red phase); giant frogfish (aka Commerson’s frogfish); hairy frogfish (aka striated frogfish); warty frogfish
A warty frogfish “fishing”
Encountering two frogfishes next to each other is not uncommon. Usually, one is considerably larger than the other. The larger fish is almost certain to be a female. When in pairs, the odds are the male is trying to “get lucky.” Stop and watch, and if fate is kind, you might see the male nudging the female in an encouraging fashion. Or you might see several males pursuing a female across the bottom as was the case with these hairy frogfish on the sea floor in front of the resort at Atlantis Dumaguete.
Two male hairy frogfish pursue a larger female
4. Mr. Mom Taking Control
“Mr. Mom” is a term that is often used when referring to the adult males of a variety of fishes in which the males hold the fertilized eggs of their mate in their mouth or “glued” to their underbelly until the eggs hatch. A nice shot of one of these males with eggs is guaranteed to capture the attention of viewers.
With the yellow-barred jawfish, an image revealing the big mouth and bulbous eyes makes a nice photograph of these burrow dwellers. Add a visible clutch of eggs in the mouth and you have a special opportunity. But just seeing a male with eggs doesn’t guarantee that opportunity. These fish can be very wary with an approach that is too fast or that involves too much motion can cause them to quickly with draw into their burrow.
A yellow-barred jawfish sans eggs makes a great portrait (left), but as Mr. Mom, he’s an even better catch (right)
My suggestion is to stop anytime you see a yellow-barred jawfish at the mouth of its burrow. You might want to back away just a little. Then, consider how close you need to be with your camera setup, and establish your camera system settings for that distance so you can minimize your movements when you are in your shooting position. Next, mentally map out an approach that allows you to get into position to make a pleasing image. Be patient, as still as possible once you are in position, and wait for the right moments to shoot. Patience might well be a key to your success, as the fish might turn away from you. Rather than attempting to move, try waiting for the fish to get into a more favorable position.
Capturing a shot of a jawfish maintaining its burrow by repeatedly spitting out mouthfuls of debris collected from inside its burrow is another behavioral opportunity
Orange-banded and banded pipefish often provide another chance to photograph a Mr. Mom. Males of these species with a clutch of eggs glued to their belly can routinely be seen and photographed if you know to look carefully and work at getting your shot. I can’t provide exact numbers, but in my experience at least one out of 10 males is carrying eggs. For years, I did not see the eggs because I was not looking as closely as I needed to. But once I saw the first clutch, I began to see them a lot. These pipefishes often hide in small caves and below overhangs, behavior that can make acquiring a clean frame challenging. But success can often be enjoyed if you keep trying.
Orange-banded pipefish (top) and a male orange-banded pipefish with a clutch of eggs “glued” to his belly (bottom)
Another Mr. Mom that you won’t want to overlook is the ring-tailed cardinalfish. Males hold a clutch of eggs in their mouth for roughly a week before the young hatch. Aggregations of ring-tailed cardinalfish are common in reef communities in both Puerto Galera and Dumaguete. The initial challenge is finding a male with eggs in a large group of fish is not as difficult as it seems like it would be. Find a fish that looks like it bit off more that it can chew or that has the mumps, and that’s your man.
For reasons I don’t understand, when I have approached an aggregation of these cardinalfish, many move away, but a male with eggs tends not to go as far. Better yet, these males often turn around and come right back to almost the same spot where they were hovering when first seen.
Once you are in position, my suggestion is to hold your ground and see if the male will come back to you. Capturing the photographs you want is likely to require the use of a 100mm or something close to that focal length. If you find a male ring-tailed cardinalfish with a mouthful of reddish eggs, the eggs are a few days away from hatching. So, if you want repeated opportunities over the course of those days or need to change a lens, the same fish is often easy to locate if you return to the same spot.
As the larval fish develop, the yolk in the eggs gets absorbed and the eggs begin to turn gray. If you see distinct eyeballs in gray eggs, the eggs are close to hatching. If you return the following day and can’t find the male, he might be there, but he no longer looks like a fish with the mumps.
A ring-tailed cardinalfish looking like it has the mumps (left) and male ring-tailed cardinalfish with a mouthful of eggs (right)
5. Cleaner Wrasses and Cleaner Shrimps
Cleaner wrasses and cleaner shrimps servicing their clients presents some terrific photographic opportunities. Once again, patience, making a calm, deliberate approach, and being ready when an opportunity arises are usually keys to success. It is easy for newer photographers to see a cleaner at work, capture a few frames, and move on while thinking they “got their cleaning shot.”
My suggestion is to stay and work a cleaning opportunity. Cleaning photographs make an impact, but the difference in impact between a shot of a cleaner working in or around the mouth of a client as compared to mid-body can be the difference between a great shot and a good shot.
You will quickly see the difference in impact of these two photographs of a white-spotted pufferfish being cleaned by a bluestreak cleaner wrasse
If you stop and watch, you will sometimes see that a hierarchy exists among the fishes being cleaned. Bigger individuals often “cut in line” to receive service before smaller fish. You will also see how cleaner shrimps advertise their availability to hovering in the water column above an anemone or other prominent feature on the bottom. Cleaner wrasses also display to make themselves obvious. And clients often alter the color and patterns of their skin and their orientation in the water to indicate their desire to be serviced—and also when “enough is enough.”
A variety of puffers are routinely encountered while they lay motionless on a sandy bottom. See one of these fishes and the odds are good that the fish is being cleaned. Approach wisely and a great opportunity often awaits.
This manybar goatfish is in a head up/tail down orientation while making skin color bright red to request service and create contrast between its skin and ectoparasites, dead tissue, fungi, bacteria, etc. on its skin. The two cleaners are bluestreak cleaner wrasse
6. Shrimp Gobies with Bulldozing Shrimps
The relationship between shrimp gobies (aka shrimpgobies) and nearly blind partner shrimps is worth a dedicated photographic effort. In this relationship, the shrimp maintains the burrow it shares with the shrimp goby, while the shrimp goby (aka watchman goby) keeps its eyes out for potential predators. The shrimp is nearly blind, so it keeps an antenna in physical contact with the body of the shrimp goby. If the fish detects a threat, it rapidly retreats into the burrow and the shrimp is quick to follow. On the other hand, when the coast is clear, you will want to capture images of the shrimps “bulldozing” debris out of their burrow along with shots of feeding shrimp gobies.
Banded shrimp goby with partner shrimp
Partner shrimp “bulldozing” debris out of its shared home burrow
Feeding flagfin shrimp goby
7. Flamboyant Cuttlefish Feeding
As their common name suggests, flamboyant cuttlefish put on dazzling displays by rapidly changing the colors and patterns of their skin. My advice is before getting too eager to acquire a portrait, look to see if the cuttlefish is feeding. Get a feeding shot and maximize your encounter. One of three species of venomous cephalopods, flamboyants feed on myriad small fishes, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Many of their prey items are very hard for divers to see. But what you might see is the hunter extending one or two elongated feeding tentacles as it assesses its opportunity. The suckers at the end of the tentacles are equipped with numerous hooks that are used in conjunction with the clubbing action of the tentacles to capture prey. Getting shots of the extended tentacles or of captured prey in the mouth of a flamboyant are shots worth working for.
Flamboyant cuttlefish make for colorful subjects (top), but a flamboyant feeding tells a more interesting story
Flamboyant cuttlefish often provide another opportunity. Females routinely lay eggs in coconut husks and other places where the eggs can be seen. A close look sometimes reveals an opportunity to make a photograph of the developing embryos. If fate is especially kind, you might have an opportunity to see a cuttlefish hatch. Only seconds after hatching, flamboyant cuttlefish take on the appearance and feeding behavior of adults—so don’t swim away too soon.
Alongside the eggs with their developing embryos, freshly hatched juvenile flamboyant cuttlefish are instantly recognizable
8. Miscellaneous Performers
Although you are more likely to have more opportunities to capture behaviors with smaller animals, you shouldn’t overlook the behaviors of larger creatures. Green sea turtles and hawksbills are routinely seen in reef communities and seagrass beds where many dives begin and end at both Puerto Galera and Dumaguete. Many of these reptiles have habituated to divers and are easy to approach, even when they are feeding.
Upon first consideration, you might think that photographing a feeding turtle requires a wide-angle lens—that is not necessarily the case
Want to photograph an array of spectacularly colorful nudibranchs? Atlantis Puerto Galera and Dumaguete offer opportunities on almost every dive. If you pay attention and spend some effort looking for mating or egg laying, chances are good that you will have some opportunities over the course of a week-long trip.
If you see two nudibranchs next to each other, they are likely to be about to mate, mating, or separating after mating. Nudibranchs are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning an individual animal is a sexually functioning male and female at the same time. Mating, therefore, is a case of boy meets girl meets boy meets girl. Their sexual organs are on the right side of their body, so when they mate, the pair will be facing in opposite directions. When documenting mating, you want to be especially careful to compose your shots in ways that allow you to see the coupling, not just two nudibranchs next to each other.
A mating pair of crested Nembrotha nudibranchs
Mandarinfish dives are offered at sunset. These dives take place in very shallow rubble areas where mandarinfish are regularly seen. Being on time to start the dives is critical, as any mating takes place within a narrow time window. Dive guides will give a detailed briefing beforehand and will place divers in positions where the guides think there is the best chance to see and photograph the activity. Many seasoned photographers suggest using a red dive light or one equipped with a red filter to minimize any impact a bright light would likely have on behavior that naturally takes place in dimly lit areas around sunset.
The “money shot” is capturing a male and female as they rise above the substrate together to spawn. A willing female releases her eggs as an accompanying male emits sperm into the water column. Prior to the main event, males display to intimidate competing males and impress the females of their desires. Males display in front of and nudge females to encourage them to ascend and mate.
Mandarinfish are members of the dragonet family, and other species of dragonets are sometimes encountered while courting and mating during sunset dives and night dives. So, if you see activity that bears some resemblance to mandarinfish courtship and mating, you just might have an opportunity to capture the “money shot” from a different species.
A pair of spawning mandarinfish
Although not a shrimp but a stomatopod, the crustacean commonly referred to as the peacock mantis shrimp is a highly desired subject for many underwater shooters. Mating produces a clutch of bright pink to reddish eggs that the female carries on the forward end of her body so she can protect and clean them. Peacock mantis shrimps are capable of mating several times over the course of a year, so it is not uncommon to encounter an egg-carrying female. Although the female will sometimes pause in the open and allow an approach, it is best to advance in at a slow pace.
An egg-toting female peacock mantis shrimp is the shot most shooters are after
The crustacean known as a porcelain crab may not be a “true crab” but it can make an excellent subject. They are routinely found on anemones, yet it is not always possible to get a clean shot as porcelain crabs take cover in the tentacles. While porcelain crabs at rest have a rather dramatic appearance relative to their size, one shot to get is that of an individual feeding. These filter feeders rhythmically extend feathery-looking hair-like structures into the water column so the structures are perpendicular to the current. This positioning helps the crabs “comb” plankton and organic particles from the water.
A porcelain crab uses its hair-like structures to catch food
9. Final Thoughts
These are just a few of many prized opportunities to capture behavioral shots when diving out of Atlantis Puerto Galera and Atlantis Dumaguete. It simply isn’t possible to discuss or even list numerous others. What I hope you take from this article is the knowledge that while the sheer numbers of species you might see can feel overwhelming at times, if you do a little pre-dive reading, listen to your dive guides during dive briefings, approach subjects in a thoughtful manner, stop and spend time with the creatures you encounter, and do what your guides suggest, you have an excellent chance to create a portfolio of highly impactful behavioral images.
About the Author: A recipient of a NOGI Award in the Arts presented by the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, DEMA’s Reaching Out Award, the California Scuba Service Award, and an Emmy for his cinematography, Marty Snyderman has worked as a still photographer, cinematographer, film producer, author, speaker, book publisher, and photography instructor for almost 50 years while specializing in the marine environment. He also serves as the Photography Ambassador for Atlantis Dive Resorts and Liveaboards in the Philippines. www.martysnyderman.com
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