Thursday, October 06, 2011

Zebra Shark and Squids Doin' It (with other squids, not with the shark. that would be weird.)

We're anchored off of Ha'ano island in the Ha'apai group of Tonga and we love it here. The island looks pretty nice but it's the underwater scenery that we're really excited about. In fact, we haven't actually gone ashore yet but we've been snorkeling a lot. There are really cool coral pinnacles everywhere that shoot up from 30 to 50 feet deep in vertical walls and there are little caves and swim-throughs all over the place. It's definitely the most dramatic live coral formations we've seen so far. The range and quantity of critters is quite good as well. It's not quite as pristine as what we saw in the Tuamotus but it's probably the runner up for what we've seen since we left California. There are snappers, groupers, and unicorn-fish in the 2 plus foot range. Basically there are all sorts of tasty fish that were much more rare in the Vava'u group. We've even seen a couple of sharks and that's twice as many shark sightings as we had in all of Vava'u.

One of the sharks we saw here was one we hadn't seen before and was especially cool. It was a zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). The shark had spots all over it (apparently the juveniles have stripes and that's where the name comes from) and a ridiculously long tail fin. Ryan (from Shalimar) saw the shark first while we were out spearfishing and pointed it out to me to see if I knew whether or not it was dangerous. I immediately recognized it as a zebra shark because Christine had found it in our fish ID book a long time ago and said, "That's cool, I want to see one of those." I knew I'd be in trouble if we scared off the shark before Christine had a chance to see it so Ryan and I backed away and left it sitting on the sandy bottom between coral outcrops in about 50 feet of water. I popped my head out of the water and yelled at Christine and got her to swim over to us. Our shark friend was still parked in the same place so Christine dove down to take a picture but her ears weren't clearing well and she couldn't make it all the way down. I borrowed the camera from her and was able to get to the bottom and get a couple of shots. The shark apparently didn't know we were friends so the second shot is of the shark swimming away from me. I'm not sure how rare these critters are but it was the first one we'd seen and it was pretty cool looking so we were excited.

Today we went snorkeling again to see if we could bother the zebra shark some more. We didn't find him but we found something that I think is even better. We found a group of about 20 bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana). These squid are close relatives of the caribbean reef squid that I spent three months studying (and harassing) in Bermuda. We've seen the bigfin reef squid in Vava'u but those were individuals of fairly small groups (like 3 or 4). The group we found here was made up of fairly large individuals ranging from about 8 to 12 inches long and they let us swim up within a few feet of them. They didn't actually pay too much attention to us because they had something else on their minds. They were doing their whole mating thing. There were large males battling it out by flashing different colors and bumping into each other and there were males passing sperm packets off to females with their special modified arm. I floated around with them for around an hour. Basically, until I was to cold to stay in one spot any longer. Then, while swimming along with Christine, she pointed out another pair of squid to me in a different place. There was one really large one (over a foot long) and a smaller one. They were near the bottom in about 40 feet of water near the edge of the reef. As I watched, they sank down to the bottom and the big one waited while the smaller one scooted under a ledge of coral and popped back out again after 30 seconds or so. I'm pretty sure the smaller one was a female and that she was laying her eggs under the coral while her mate was guarding her. I've spent all sorts of time reading about squid reproductive behavior (what, doesn't everybody?) so it was really cool to see it in action. The only bummer about the whole thing is that we hadn't brought a camera. Christine's camera housing has been fogging up a lot lately and our little video camera is only good down to about 10 feet so I didn't want to bring it and be stuck at the surface the whole time.

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