By Bob Halstead
While you were all snug in front of your TV sets watching the weather update, I was out in it.
In Cyclone Guba, to be precise, which went from PNG to the Coral Sea in November 2007. Dinah and I were finding weird fish for BBC cameraman Peter Scoones for the next of the wonderful Blue Planet/Planet Earth series.
November weather in the Coral Sea is supposed to be calm. Many consider this to be the choice time of year. But the BBC and we were in a cyclone. I hasten to add that this storm had nothing to do with Global Warming. Forty years ago Cyclone Adele also formed in November and went from PNG into the Coral Sea. It has all happened before.
The growing cyclone appeared unannounced early one morning while we were aboard the good ship Marlin 1 anchored in Nuakata Bay. Our owner-skipper was Wayne Thompson, a very experienced man of the sea who understands the principle of anchoring. He had lots of heavy chain out. I expect the yacht anchored close by failed this essential as she started to drag across the anchorage.
We had strong winds for a while, nothing too serious, but then it rained, rivers and creeks flooded and a brown slick spread across our dive sites. The visibility, down to depth of10 metres, was disgusting. It was clearer below, but dark, and we never saw the sun for the remainder of the expedition. Nevertheless we found the fish Peter was after and he shot some beautiful High Definition digital behaviour sequences.
Our main subject was to the “Convict Fish” (Pholidichthys leucotaenia). This fish looks very much like the common tropical catfish but does not have barbels. The juveniles, one to 10 cm long, swarm over the reef during daytime feeding on plankton. In the evening they go to bed in a burrow maintained by one or two large adults.
The adults clean the burrow by picking up sand and rubble and spitting it at the burrow entrance. The entrance is easily recognised by the fresh sand apron around it. In the morning the juveniles leave the burrow and start feeding again. What the adults feed on is uncertain, as they never leave the burrows. I like to think they are cannibals.
Unfortunately, this time it was far too dirty and dark for me to take good still photographs.
Which reminded me.
In 2000 I was diving with Peter from the dive boat Golden Dawn. We had been asked to find the fabulous Flamboyant Cuttlefish, one of our famous muck diving critters for the BBC film series “Blue Planet”. Flambo, as it is affectionately known, is a small cuttlefish that grows to about 12 cm. It is found on leaf and other debris where its dark phase colouration is a perfect disguise.
Instead of swimming, Flambo walks along the bottom on two of its tentacles and flaps of skin under its body. If disturbed, or courting, it flashes the most amazing rippling colours along its body. At the same time it creates fin-like appendages that could have been models for a 1950’s Cadillac catalogue.
I found the cuttlefish, and Peter started to film. During the course of the next four days he not only filmed the remarkable colour variations of the beast, he managed to film it mating. Without a doubt this was the most erotic sexual behaviour I have witnessed with non-humans under the ocean.
The male makes the first moves, doing a little dance and presenting his rod of joined tentacles to the larger female. After a while she gets turned on and – I blush to write this – faces the male, whips her tentacles up like a skirt, and presents her privates for the world to see. The male jumps at his chance, does his thing, and backs off accompanied by a puff of excess sperm.
This is very different from squid, octopus and other cuttlefish matings I have witnessed, which you would hardly recognise as sex unless you were told, or brought up a puritan.
Now here is my problem. I know you would love to see a photograph of the mating, but I have to tell you that I made the ultimate, but professional, sacrifice and did not pull the trigger on my perfectly set up camera – on both the two occasions that I witnessed the mating.
I was not going crazy, but Peter was filming and my strobe’s flash would have ruined his film sequence. Yes I had the right lens, film in my camera and fully charged strobes!
When Peter graciously offered the third opportunity for me to shoot my pictures, the male could not perform. He was shagged out! You can watch the mating sequence in the Blue Planet DVD. When you do, just remember I was right there repeating to myself “If You Cannot Take A Joke, Do Not Take Up Underwater Photography.”
I have never had another opportunity to shoot the mating Flamboyant Cuttlefish, but Peter returned to dive with us again. In spite of the cyclone, we had another great adventure, he got some wonderful footage of the Convict Fish and I shot – nothing at all!