This Doesn’t Look Like Kansas



Dive boat after the afternoon dives

Cathy and I joined friends and preeminent underwater camera shooters Howard Hall and Marty Snyderman celebrating their 70th orbit of the sun with a group diving splurge  for ten days at the Atlantis dive resort at Dumaguete, on Negros Island in the Philippines.  Having previously only flown over the Philippines, this provided an opportunity to put sandals on the ground and fins in the water.  At 9 degrees north latitude, Dumaguete boasts an unchanging weather pattern of 78F at dawn rising to 87F by mid afternoon, drifting cumulus clouds, the occasional passing rain shower, and an ocean temperature stuck at 80F.  A two mil spring suit for me and a 3 mil long suit for Cathy tells the tale.

Diving up to five dives a day, we were pretty tuckered out by the time we finished dinner, so collapsing into slumber was 9-ish early, which meant that we were back awake before dawn, allowing us to savor both ends of the day, which began and ended more or less like this:


Dumaguete dawn


Negros and Apo island sundown

The mango daiquiri or alfresco dinner view before trundling off to the land of nod:


Moon glow

Ambulating the Atlantis Resort is by flagstone pathway meandering amongst the comfortable rooms dotting the lush tropical greenery past the pool and full service spa leading to the bar and adjoining restaurant.  There’s an extensive dive gear area and dedicated underwater camera room.  Meals were large, delicious and beautifully presented.  Filipinos have always seemed friendly and smile-prone.  The resort staff has been selected and trained with that solicitousness exuded at every interaction.  By the end of the first day they unfailingly knew and called us by our first names.  Everyone did.  Let me introduce you to Seraphim, the groundskeeper with an aptly angelic smile and twinkle in his eye, who stopped me early on my first pre-dawn morning stroll to ask my name and shyly offer his hand.  This is him raking the beach, proudly doing his part to ground our stay in decadence:


Seraphim—his given name— raking the beach

The very first picture above shows the sort of dive boat which took Cathy and me to numerous dive sites within the Dauin marine sanctuary.  It fascinates me that in so many global regions, watercraft of a specific local design DNA evolve to prevalence—the Chinese junks, the Indonesian long sailing craft, the dhows of equatorial Africa come to mind—and these pointed prow vessels with bamboo outrigging in the Philippines.   We would come aboard and leave by the ramp you see leading to the sand bottom next to the shore.  For our dive water entries we scissor-stepped in full gear the off either side of the bow to a splash-in some four feet below before almost immediately dropping below the surface alongside our dive guides Art, Genie and Wing-Wing.  Our return aboard was by an angled stairway, facing aft and lowered into the water for each of our dives, just observable at the eight o’clock position in the unclear frame below, taken, my head  bobbing at the surface, with the water still sloshing over my underwater camera lens housing—the outriggers on the right, the boat’s hull on the left.  Dark below in the water, but a nice twilight for our return to the mother ship.  For each dive return, Captain Ernie, or boatmates Mario and Bahil would meet us on the stair at the waterline to relieve us of our tanks and buoyancy vests and help get our fins and camera gear so that we could walk up the stairs to the deck where we’d partake in snacks of cookies and fruit during a surface interval and often passage to the next dive site.  A couple of dives in the morning.  Return to the resort for a three course lunch, then repeat in the afternoon.  Night dive later?  Happy hour at the bar, or along the shore’s edge, then three course dinner.  Collapse into sleep.  You getting this?


Just-surfaced view at sundown

Given their preeminence in the underwater film and stills universe, Howard and Marty’s friends are seriously into getting good imagery in the can and have the requisite equipment and skills to accomplish the job.  This is several hundred thousand dollars of camera and housing gear before leaving the resort for the morning’s dives.  Gear fit for a lunar exploration or a full Hollywood production.


Serious camera gear for serious dive shooters

Hearing a different drum beat, I chose this year to embark upon my own pathway to relative simplicity, modest size and light weight, acquiring specifically for this trip and the future a uniquely capable fully professional palm-sized Olympus TG-6 camera in an underwater housing with Sea&Sea strobe and focusing light.  Which is segue enough to get to the point about what was a significant point of this trip—what’s down yonder.

What lurks below in the tropics is generally off-the-charts colorful and bizarre in appearance and function.   You should know that I get positively giddy about nudibranchs, the undersea version of our garden slugs.  They are regularly quite small, often an inch or less in length and absurdly gaudy.




George Lucas-like, without any scale it could be Jabba the Hut’s cousin about to devour a space speedster.  In life, about an inch long.PC110645P8290009.ORF

And this is a fit place to discuss the focusing ability of my new camera and the capturing of images generally.  The camera can focus so close in macro mode that the front of the lens can essentially touch the subject.  For these frames, the front of the lens port—the part of the waterproof box housing the camera that the lens looks through—was maybe a half inch away, the lens itself maybe another half inch behind the glass of the port.  First you have to find the subject critter, with most of the shots on this trip taken somewhere between 25 and 70 feet down, which is one way in which the local dive guides really earn their keep.  But first they aid in keeping you safe.   For instance, Art came to my immediate aid at about fifty feet down when I developed an instantaneous debilitating charley horse in my right calf, him grabbing my right knee and pushing it down straight-leg while simultaneously pulling the “toe” of my fin up toward my corpus, providing instantaneous relief to absolutely debilitating severe pain in the calf.  Don’t try this at home.  But dive master guides also know the local sites and where one is likely to find this or that specimen.  Sometimes they were in the open and I could actually discern them myself, but oft times they’d be hiding under this or that overhang or in some crevice, and you might be head down trying to position your body and camera to frame  and nail that shot, getting in close, not banging into and harming the coral or yourself, not stirring up any sandy bottom to cloud the whole scene, not to mention bending the strobe arm so as to have the light illuminate the critter, not some other spot off scene.  You gotta have light on the subject to get tight focus and to reveal the magic of their color in a world where the water medium skews everything to the dim blue end of the spectrum.   It is an attention-riveting experience.


Speaking of nudibranchs, here’s a rosette, a batch of a gazillion nudibranch eggs attached lightly to corral, wafting in the surge for all the world like a red rose, its petals waving in a breeze.PC110538P8290009.ORF

I have no idea what this creature is, but it looks like some huggable kid’s toy or a bubblehead in a car’s rear window.  PC060219P8290009.ORF

Not something to hug, but delightful just the same.  Carapace about four feet long.  Chilling out while munching coral.PC050115P8290009.ORF

Things big, and things small.


Candy Crab on soft coral

Art really helping out here.  We dove with aluminum pointers about 18 inches long and the diameter of a Ticonderoga pencil.  Besides a pointer, these underwater devices can be used to fend off a slow-motion collision with a reef, or to push down into the sand to lock yourself in position against current to keep on station while framing and capturing a shot.  This is a minuscule-sized candy crab at the nine o’clock position, almost dead center in the frame, looking like it is standing on the pointer, it’s red bug eyes atop its yellow body looking straight back into the lens.  Perfectly camouflaged for the soft coral where it lives with its maybe 3/16ths of an inch body size.

Camouflage, often the rule for survival.


Ornate Ghost Pipefish in situ

Hiding rather effectively amongst the arms of a crinoid above, male and female adrift in the clear, below.  The larger is the male, and the belly bulge below the pectoral wings, only hinted at in the frames, is the result of him carrying their young like joeys in a kangaroo.


Other creatures also use look-alike camouflage, and also have the males carry their young in belly pouches.PC060169P8290009.ORF

Something like three inches tall.PC060180P8290009.ORF


A tiny shrimp colored to disappear amongst its surroundings.  Twelve o’clock in the frame.


Masters of camouflage are the octopus, one of the undersea’s smarter creatures, fast when the mood moves them, and with the ability to change their coloring and texture to reflect their surroundings.  In my previous experience, octopi have been stealthy, preferring to hide in holes and under rocks, more prone to come out at night.  But here they could be found on open debris-covered sandy slopes.PC060195P8290009.ORF


Below, the rock to the right is an octopus.  Then, the same one, moments later, having scooted to a new spot with less rocks to look like.  The bodies of all of these are about the size of an adult human fist. tentacles much longer.



You see this fish, right?PC090310P8290009.ORF

Or these two, different versions of scorpion fish?  The dorsal spines are to be avoided.  The one on the left has spike-claws beneath its ventral fins, and moves about with small movement of its fins and actually placing the talons forward and walking into the new position.  The one on the right looks like it has the ducted fans of an UAV.

Hiding comes in other ways.  The anemone tendrils are toxic, providing protection from predators not immune to the sting like this crab.


Anenome crab

I caught this one in the open, it constantly turning to face me, its claws up provocatively like a boxer in the ring.  Carapace maybe 5/8ths of an inch across.


Another form of concealment is clearly to disappear from view including being truly shrimpy diminutive in size.  When I was an elementary and junior high school kid we used to free dive for abalone off Point Loma and La Jolla.  I remember how improperly named was Jacques Cousteau’s captivating “Silent World.”  The undersea with shrimp in it was downright noisy to me with the scraping and clicking of their pinchers.  Now, after  multiple tens of thousands of hours of jet engine noise, I hear none of that.  Quite lamentable.PC060190P8290009.ORF PC080115P8290009.ORF



Then there are shrimp that are decidedly more colorful.


Sexy shrimp—so named because it dares to raise and shake its booty

Harlequin Shrimp.  Iconic beauty.PC090315P8290009.ORF

The name says it all.  When you’ve got it, why not flaunt it?  Besides the kaleidoscopic color, as to this shrimp, maybe eight inches long, researchers tell us that those two amethyst colored eyes can turn and gaze independently, have individual hemispheric stereoscopic vision, and depending on the sub-species can see between 11 and 16 colors.  Our paltry human vision is composed of mixing only three colors—red, green and blue.  Can you image the brilliance of this creature’s visual world?


Peacock Mantis Shrimp

On a more domestic and prosaic level, there’s this mantis shrimp.  She’s carrying a mouthful of her eggs.  And this subspecies proved itself positively pugilistic on this trip, proactively attacking me by launching itself to collide, clanking noise and all, with the lens hood of my camera, and doing so on that particular dive, to two other diver photographers. PC110617P8290009.ORF

Not behaviorally aggressive but a creature deserving of your hands-off respect are the lion fish.  Presumably named for the mane-like aura of its spiny fins, which are  magnificently beautiful and exceedingly toxic.  In my limited experience, they are often found with their heads away in whatever milieu they inhabit, pointing their posterior outward.  I suspect that is because this means a predator has to go past all those poisonous spines to get at the body. PC120746P8290009.ORF


Frog fish, a creature whose appearance only a mother could love.PC100464P8290009.ORF

They are mostly sedentary, sitting on those ventral fins as if they were hands, and moving about when they do, as much by walking on them as by swimming with their tail.  This must be a boring existence, because every so often they open widely in an enormous yawn.  Did you know that I was once a zoology/pre-dental major at SDSU?  I’m forever glad that I took up wings over mouths.PC100468P8290009.ORF

This was an especially uncommon experience.  Art, Cathy and I swimming along, and here before us was a conclave of frog fish.  Three in one spot at the same time—green with garlands on the left, brownish in the center background, and black, dourly scowling on the right.  Like the fellow above, each of these is sized somewhere between a football and a basketball.  Butt-ugly, but a fascinating niche holder in the undersea world.PC080233P8290009.ORF

As peculiar as the large variety above, there are also miniature frog fish, their size making them seem much cuter.  These are all about an inch long.


Miniature frog fish



Closing in on the end of this missive.  There’s a remarkable symbiotic behavioral relationship of what is known as the shrimp goby pair.  The goby fish and its buddy shrimp share a hole in the bottom.  The fish comes out and surveys their domain, on predator watch, perhaps, while the shrimp busies itself tidying up their hole home, pulling up and pushing outside debris not to its liking.PC110664P8290009.ORF

The flamboyant cuttlefish is a most extraordinary creature.  We came upon this one, about two inches long, which dive guide Wing-Wing recognized was not a gray blob of bottom dirt.  As soon as we took an interest in it, it changed to this amazing technicolor dreamcoat. Like its fellow cephalopod, the octopus,  the cuttlefish can change its color, and skin appearance at will, and likewise jet about on streams of water pushed out as with a jet engine.  One moment it was this or that combination of colors, and a moment later those shades and hues would change before your eyes in real time.  And the more fascinating part is that the colors would race fore and aft along its body like the advertising signs on the Goodyear blimp.


Flamboyant Cuttlefish.  The name couldn’t be more apt.

I shall close with a couple iconic anemone clown fish shots.  Ubiquitous, but always fascinating to watch, and often very capable of striking just the right pose.PC070036P8290009.ORF

Nemo lives!PC100450P8290009.ORF

Great trip.  Great friends.  Great diving.  Great escape from winter.  Great to share.

Yours, truly.  Tom





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