cher chow 周馥溢

Bangka Island: House Reef

November 11, 2018

There are days when I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. And these past two weeks, I had an entire ten-day “pinch me” trip. I still cannot believe that I get to call the things I get to do my job sometimes. It just will never get old. At the end of October, I was part of the team from the State Key Lab of Marine Pollution to join Reef Check Italia’s annual course/workshop in Tropical Reef Monitoring Methods at the Coral Eye Research Outpost in Bangka Island, North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Whew! I know that’s quite a mouthful. 

Basically, Reef Check is a global organization that gathers scientists with the wider diving community to conduct reef monitoring annually. All locations in the world uses the same consistent Reef Check method, so this system is really useful in making sure we know what’s going on with our coral reefs. There are regionally specific animals we look out for, so that is the reason we went to Indonesia for tropical reefs. On top of that, North Sulawesi is smack in the middle of the Coral Triangle– the biogeographic area spanning from the Philippines, Solomon Islands, to Indonesia, and houses the world’s highest coral diversity.

To say the least, compared with the non-reefal coral communities I work with in Hong Kong, the reefs I saw at North Sulawesi were breathtakingly stunning underwater cities. From the arrival to the crystal clear waters at Bangka, my jaw couldn’t not stop dropping, especially waking up to still crystal waters each day. I did my best to exercise editing control, but there are still so many photos to share. So I’ll be writing about this 10-day trip in a few posts and try to be as succinct as I can. Try 🙂

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After an overnight layover huddled in my sleeping bag at Singapore’s Changi Airport, my fellow underwater visual census diver, Jeffery, and I finally landed at Manado City. We spent a night here before the early morning transfer to Bangka Island north of the city. Manado reminded me a lot of the back streets in Bali where English menus didn’t exist, which to an extent is refreshing to be in a city not catered to tourists.

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The transfer to the island took about two hours, so it was quite a long morning for us. But we finally got to meet our fellow professors and participants from Reef Check Italia once we all got to Coral Eye at Bangka.

Coral Eye itself functions both as a research outpost and vacation resort, which for traveling scientists like myself, I’d likely kill two birds with one stone if I ever had the future luck of doing research here again. Because, just look at it, how could you not? It immediately made me nostalgic of North Island, Seychelles seeing the indian almonds and scaevola by the turquoise water.

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As a resort/research outpost, Coral Eye sticks to a minimal footprint in terms of its design, with the architecture well connected with the surrounding flora. Not a ton of artificial lights, scheduled midday electricity shutdowns, and natural AC from the nightly storms. It is such a contrast from living in the city that although we were working and tired from diving, this pared back environment gave me a “forest bathing” effect.

We settled in pretty quickly to get right into lectures on the Reef Check method, monitoring programs for coral reefs worldwide, and coral taxonomy the first couple days. The gear check dive and practice dives/snorkels to get familiarized with the indicator species at Coral Eye’s house reef around the jetty also doubled as some of our only down time in the water.

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Stylophora sp. coral at the house reef.

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A cuttlefish I chased to these soft corals to around 3.5 meters deep on a snorkel free dive. It had been so long since I had done free diving while snorkeling (and without weights, gasp) that I felt like I had run a couple miles after.
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A blue spot stingray I’d found right beneath the jetty pillars. Free diving to get the perfect position for this blue guy gave me a nasty hydroid sting on my thigh, but it was definitely worth it for this beautiful flatshark.
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Razorfish, or shrimpfish, are seriously funny and cute fish to follow. They feed with their long tube mouths on top of corals and swim perpetually vertically so in groups up to a dozen. I had to follow this group quite a while on one breath until they finally stopped perfectly on top of this coral.
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Our central communal dining table/lecture hall.
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Very fortunately so, we were scheduled some fun night dives at the House Reef (finally photos of fish not barred from posting because of copyright!). Night photos are always a mixed bag– you never know what you might come across, but you get full lighting control. For a photographer who shoots like a portrait photographer even when I’m in the field, I had to flex some serious studio-like light while trying to avoid people’s fins. Tricky but when you get the shot, it feels better than anything else.

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I generally prefer to fall to the end of the group to avoid paparazzi crowding, and I found this gorgeous mantis shrimp while everyone had passed. 
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Even a fish I see quite often in Hong Kong like this Richardson’s Moray Eel are far less shy and pose well for photos.
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Frogfish were one of those bucket list fish I was hoping for, and the divemaster found him within ten minutes of the dive! This one wasn’t shy and stayed nice and still for me. Unlike the orange frogfish, the next frogfish we found that night was not about the intense photographic attention and leapt away to sulk in a hole. The pipefish below was also less than cooperative and preferred darting in all four directions.

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Sea pens don’t look particularly interesting until you take the time to look closely at them with the right lighting!
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I think my mind was brimming with coral taxonomy and anatomy, so when I saw this Montastrea all I thought was, “ooh! look at that extratentacular budding!”
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And of course, as a Reef Check diver, you have to notice the banded coral shrimps! Their fun antennae and coloring lends to the high desirability for aquarium trade, so seeing them in the reef serves as a good indicator of lower harvesting impacts.

Keep an eye out for the next post of photos from the other dive sites!