cher chow 周馥溢

Macro paradise in Amed

July 17, 2019

To the small handful of readers of this humble place on the Internet, thanks for sticking around and still paying attention to my rare occasions of publishing writings and photos. A lot has happened in the past few months since I was last able to post! For one thing, I will be going to grad school at the University of St Andrews! Before heading over to Scotland in the fall, I’m going to take it slow and enjoy a little break. I’d left my job at the City University marine lab almost three weeks ago. It was a huge learning experience for me, but I was really burning my candle at both ends. I’d never taken so many photos in my life yet felt so little motivation to even look at them.

I was chatting with a friend recently about feeling that my creative side had burnt to a crisp. My Trello lists are full and ready. But to kick things off for this newfound freedom, I bought myself an underwater camera with all the fixings as a birthday present and planned a 16-day diving trip in Bali. I wanted to backroll into some warm turquoise blue water and just have fun, ya know.

Thanks to practicing my underwater photography skills in Hong Kong, my comfort zone lies mostly in shooting macro, and I found it best to work with still relatively new gear with a more familiar context. So, I chose to head up to the northeastern coast of Bali first– Amed. Amed and the neighboring Tulamben are regularly cited in the classics of macro photographs, for good reason. The mucky bottoms and black sand thanks to Mount Agung lend to a huge diversity of crazy looking invertebrates.

To refresh myself a little before heading up to Amed, I stayed in Kuta for a day (big mistake choosing a hotel near clubs) and walked around with the old point and shoot. Since my last time in Bali, the small charm left of Kuta has rubbed off for the most part. I think it’s overtouristed and turned into some weird drunken playground, but it still has that small element of Bali texture during the day.

I then headed up to Amed via a three-hour car ride, give or take, past some beautiful rice fields up in the highlands. Compared to the horribly loud and bad clubbing soundtrack of Kuta, Amed was pure relaxing bliss. Just the dry season’s monsoon waves, lots of dogs, chickens, and volcanic sand. The town only really sees divers come high season, so it was all quite pared back in a good way. Just dive centers, houses, and restaurants.

I stayed at a spot down the beach that was farther than I’d expected from the dive center (Two Fish Divers, love them!), but a scooter ride from my divemaster every day got that sorted. I got up everyday at around 6:15, and watched the sunrise with the neighbors’ dogs. Then, I’d do either two or three dives that day.

The dogs loved playing with me every morning. They truly really do love everyone.

Lipah and the Pyramids

So the first day was a little chaotic, since I’d gotten into Amed the night before a bit later. My ride never came and I got to the dive center just in time to hop on the boat but not early enough to get my gear prepped. Everything went smoothly after I managed to assemble my camera (tray, arms, handles, floats, batteries… just everything) while hopping over to Lipah. I don’t know how I managed to not lose any of the tiny hardware, but thank god. Field work prepped me for something!

Lipah and the Pyramids are more “conventional looking” sites in terms of dive photography. There are beautiful reef structures with shoals of anthias and snappers for incredible wide shooting. With reef sites like these, large sponges and anemones house crazily-patterned critters.

And perhaps my favorite of the bunch, the purple hairy squat lobster. Not a crab, but a lobster!
Mushroom coral ghost shrimp are also anemone regulars with beautiful stark white faces to make the spotting easier on our end.
Bluespotted ribbontail stingrays (Taeniura lymma) love hiding in crevices and small caverns. The striking blue spots of this ray is a sight that I’ll never get used to. They really are so bright that is confounds your brain.
Ghost pipefish (Solenostomus sp.) like this one swim vertically mimicking dead leaves or mucky algae, hiding impeccably in plain sight. They’re in the same family as seahorses and sea dragons.
I’d chased and chased another whip coral shrimp like a merry-go-round the whip coral, but this one on a bit of rock was quite generous with their time.
Perfect for a portrait. If only my lens magnified larger!
A risky shooting environment! You just curl your fingers up and hope the shot is worth it.

Melasti and Ghost Bay

After the small chaotic start of yesterday, I got fairly settled into the rhythm of things at the Two Fish dive center. For one, it’s absolutely beautiful right at the beach edge. I feel absolutely spoiled spending my surface intervals at a place looking like this! Bayu and the boat crew took my buddy and I up to a small site a few minutes north of Amed for her last dive. For my second dive, I went with just the DMs to the House Reef/Muck for some critter “digging.”

I wasn’t as settled in as I thought, as I pulled a very classic mistake of leaving behind gear. That’s as much as I’ll say. I don’t want to talk about it. Still ashamed.

Lesson from Bayu: always check the feather stars!
Keep waving those pompoms at me, buddy.

In my year and a half of underwater photography craze, I followed a lot of underwater photographer groups and photographers alike. Macro photographers have their very own niche culture, and you’ll see that most in nudis. These sheep nudis, some call them Shaun the Sheep, have the most darling faces and every photographer with a high-enough powered lens would take a crack at them. Each photo looks cuter than the next. There is a reason they are bucket list drool-worthy. I thought they were rare, and my divemaster tried to pull a joke on me that finding them would require some tipping, but I saw them on my night dive at the House Muck on every blade of gingko-shaped algae. The challenge about them instead is that… they. are. so. so. incredibly. tiny. I got lucky and found a “parent-sized” sheep. This macro heaven really gets photographers wanting to keep buying gear, I swear.

The famed Costasiella sheep nudibranch
Tiny! This was already one of the relatively larger ones, likely about to go off to mate.
No one down at the muck was as chic as this decorator crab all decked out with tiny anemone.
Fun fact I learned far too late in my life: orangutan, as in this orangutan crab, is pronounced Aw-rahng-OO-(t)dahn!
An Ambon scorpionfish camouflaging somewhat flamboyantly

If any of you would like to know how rotten my humor has gotten, the moment I watched these porcelain crabs rake the water for plankton, the favorite club hit of “Dynamite” played in my head… ~ I throw my hands up in the air sometimes… singing EYYOOO ~

… gotta let go
Coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus)
Frogfish look like they’re in perpetual existential crisis, and I think that’s a perfect mood for a fish like them.

To spare both our scrolling fingers, I’ll leave it here for now and follow up the next week or more with posts from the other dive sites. There really is nothing like Amed and its critters, but I always like to say that the location is not always what makes the shot. I’ve always felt like shooting in Hong Kong was like looking around one large mucky site. Searching well and a little bit of luck 😉 Stay tuned in the next few days for my post on the rest of Amed, and it gets better!