Critter Hunt: The Seamoth

The humble seamoth is burdened with the Latin name Pegasidae, a mash-up of Pegasus, the winged stallion born of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, and Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon. Even its common name calls to mind a Godzilla-style nemesis, one that may explode into the air from the ocean depths, the thunderclap of its terrible wings striking fear into hearts of anyone nearby.

In fact, seamoths are adorable little creatures. Divers will often find them in monogamous pairs. They scuttle across sandy, rubbly substrate and suck eggs, worms, copepods, isopods, and other tiny invertebrates into their snouts.

There are five species of seamoth, ranging in length from three to eight inches (8 to 20 cm). Instead of scales, their bodies are sheathed with bony plates that they molt every week or so to rid themselves of parasites. This rather Medieval exoskeleton has earned them another common name: dragonfish.

So how did the name “seamoth” come about? In addition to their elongated, moth-shaped bodies, they have wing-like pectoral fins, which they unfurl when threatened or when they want to move quickly. They use the tips of these pectoral fins as sort of steadying hands as they amble about on “legs” of scythe-shaped pelvic fins. The overall effect is a bit like a man with stubby legs grasping at seatbacks as he makes his way through a moving train.

Where to find a seamoth

Seamoth habitat spans the tropical Indo-Pacific, including popular dive destinations like Tanzania, the Maldives, western Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and the southern Philippines. Sadly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists at least one species of seamoth as vulnerable. Trawlers sweep them up as bycatch or they are purposely collected for use in traditional Chinese medicines and for sale in the aquarium trade.

You can find seamoths in coastal waters at depths from around 10 to 295 feet (3 to 90 meters). Since they are bottom-dwellers, they prefer sand, rubble and seagrass, where they can rely on their mottled armor as camouflage. For this reason, you’ll see them most often in areas where muck-diving is popular: Lembeh, Indonesia; Puerto Galera, Philippines; Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea; Mabul, Malaysia; Nudi City, Tanzania, and so on.

How to find a seamoth

From far away, seamoths can look like rocks, algae or sea debris. Because of their small size and camouflage, the key first step to spotting one is to dive slowly. Finning quickly around a dive site won’t net much. Become familiar with the shape of the seamoth most prevalent where you’re diving — long and thin for slender seamoths, and chunkier with a long snout for a common seamoth. Ask a local Divemaster for guidance.

Get close to the bottom and maintain good buoyancy. Use proper fin technique to avoid kicking up sand or silt. Look for anything that appears to be an eye or, more specifically, two sets of eyes, since seamoths generally hang out in pairs.

Once you do find one, you’ll quickly learn an annoying seamoth quirk: They skittishly turn away from divers, so you’ll spend a lot of time gazing at seamoth butt. It’s worth the effort, though, to witness these strange creatures “fly” across the sand.

Pegasus Sea Moth from liquidguru on Vimeo.

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

 

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Best Dive Sites in Sipadan and Mabul

Sipadan Island and nearby Mabul are legendary among divers. Off Malaysian Borneo, these islands offer visibility of at least 60 feet (18 m), year-round water temperatures of between 82-86 F (28-30 C) and calm conditions, making most of the best sites accessible to divers of all skill levels. It’s also near-impossible to get lost. Most dives are drifts, either along a wall or a sloping coral reef, so dive with an SMB. Read on for a taste of the best dive sites in Sipadan and Mabul.

Sipadan Island

The crown jewel of the area’s diving, Pulau Sipadan (Sipadan Island) offers a startling diversity of marine life. The island, an isolated seamount with a fringing coral reef, has been a marine park since 2003. Many shark species — grey reef, whitetip reef, hammerheads, the occasional thresher — visit local cleaning stations. Here, electric-blue cleaner wrasses pluck parasites from their bodies. Green and hawksbill turtles circle the island, snacking on coral and (from July to November) mating. Schools of jacks, snapper, surgeonfish, unicornfish, bumphead parrotfish, and others do their best to distract divers from the smaller creatures, such as squat shrimp bobbing their tails, leaf scorpionfish in flamboyant pink or mottled white and nudibranchs laying ribbons of eggs.

Most of the best dive sites in Sipadan are wall dives, with the top of the wall sitting rather conveniently at safety-stop depth. One of the best is South Point. Here you’ll find lots of sharks and the best chance to see a hammerhead or thresher.

Lovely soft corals cover Hanging Gardens, and you’ll lose count of turtles after around 30. That said, Sipadan’s true can’t-miss site is Barracuda Point. There’s simply nothing like being engulfed by a hundreds-strong funnel cloud of chevron barracuda.

Mabul

A number of dive sites have earned the small island of Mabul the reputation as one of the world’s premiere muck-diving destinations.

There is little coral at sandy, rubbly AWAS, which means “caution” in Malay. Instead, fingered dragonets and flying gurnards flit across the mottled sand; skeleton shrimp, delicate ghost pipefish and juvenile frogfish conceal themselves in the seagrass; and pharaoh cuttlefish perform flashy, choreographed mating rituals.

Right next door, Froggie’s (or Froggy’s) Lair is not the best place to find frogfish. Try Artificial Reef instead, a sprawling collection of purpose-sunk wooden boxes and towers that attracts a surprising variety of marine life, including all manner of frogfish. The highlights at Froggy’s, a shallow natural reef, are the baroque resident mandarinfish. At dusk, these notoriously jittery creatures pair up to soar into the water column and release clouds of sperm and eggs. After nightfall, spend time searching the edge between the reef and the sand for hungry crustaceans and cephalopods, including tiny bobtail squid.

Mabul divers shouldn’t miss Sea Ventures, a dive site situated under the dive resort of the same name. The resort, housed in the decommissioned accommodations module for oil rigs, sits on pylons off the coast of Mabul. Its apocryphal origin tale offers the reason. A Malaysian businessman, angry at a rival who bribed his way to the building rights on land he had been promised on Mabul, bought the rig. He towed it from Singapore, painted it garish colors, and planted it directly in front of his rival’s resort. Whether the story is myth or truth, the dive site below, which resembles an underwater junk pile (but in a good way), attracts spectacular macro life, including pygmy seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish and frogfish.

Mabul diving isn’t all muck and junk, however. Eel Garden, a sloping coral reef that bottoms out at around 60 feet (20 m), is a lovely site that lives up to its name. Garden eels, of course, but also ribbon eels and snake eels abound. There are plenty of morays around as well.

Around Mabul

PULAU KAPALAI

Kapalai is not so much an island as a submerged sand bar, ringed by a coral reef, with a resort built atop on pylons. While its House Reef has a few purpose-sunk “wrecks” and other structures, most of the action, critter-wise, happens on the coral reef.

SI AMIL

Don’t let the unimaginative site names fool you. First Beach is a muck-diver’s dream, worth every jarring moment of the one-hour (in good weather) speedboat ride from Mabul to the uninhabited island of Si Amil. The dive site’s ideal physiography — sand, rubble, some mucky parts, tufts of sea grass — attracts all manner of rare creatures. Sea moths, blue-ringed octopus, flying gurnards, zebra crab and wunderpus octopus all inhabit the site. Second Beach and Meditation Wall are more traditional dive sites, but still serve up the variety expected at Si Amil: rare nudibranchs, Halimeda ghostpipefish, octopus, bamboo sharks, and much more.

THE NORTHERN ISLANDS

The northern islands are accessible to divers staying in the rather dreary town of Semporna on “mainland” Borneo; they’re a bit too far from Mabul. But north-island diving can be worth a stopover. For one thing, you won’t see another soul, other than your dive buddies. In fact, Sibuan is the archetypical tropical island, where you’ll wish you were marooned with your celebrity crush. The diving off the shallow side of the island features great macro. The diving on the opposite side, which faces a deep channel, may yield mantas or devil rays. Other northern islands with great diving include Mantabuan, Bohayan, and the Post Box wreck at Mataking, where the first season of “Survivor” was filmed.

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

Introduction to Sipadan and Mabul

Sipadan Island has long featured on lists of top 10 dive destinations. And no wonder – the startling marine-life diversity on the island’s encircling reefs make every dive incredible. A more recent revelation is the equally spectacular macro diving around nearby Mabul Island. This is an ideal base from which to explore all the area dive sites, including Sipadan.

Sipadan and Mabul are part of Malaysia, lying just off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo. Sipadan is a seamount, a half-square mile of dense coconut palm groves and white-sand beaches. A coral reef, which grew over an extinct volcanic cone, surrounds the island.

In 2003, the Malaysian government designated the island and surrounding waters as a marine park, ordering the few resort operations on the island to leave. Because it is a protected area, the reefs around Sipadan have largely escaped damage from destructive fishing and development practices. These isolated, healthy reefs, surrounded by deep ocean, attract all manner of pelagics, plus lots of rays and turtles.

Mabul, on the other hand, has a human population. Other than the employees of a half-dozen or so dive shops and resorts, its population of 2,000 consists mostly of friendly sea-gypsy families living in wooden houses on stilts. Mabul has neither vehicles nor roads on its 240,000-square-yard surface — an area that sounds huge until you successfully walk from one side to the other in full scuba gear and bare feet. Visitors remove their shoes on arrival and only slip them back on when they leave. While divers know Sipadan for big walls and big creatures, they come to Mabul for diverse macro life.

This rare variety of marine life make Malaysian Borneo worth the arduous trip from the Americas and Europe. Plan to stay at least seven days – you’ll want to stay 70. Your reward will be sightings of whitetip sharks and (if you’re lucky) hammerheads, hawksbill and green turtles, reef and flamboyant cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, frogfish, nudibranchs…pretty much any creature pictured on the pages of the iconic Reef Fish ID book.

How to get there

Sipadan and Mabul are in the Celebes Sea, smack dab in the middle of the famed Coral Triangle.

The remote location means getting there is a slog. The first step is to fly in to one of the regional travel hubs of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or Bangkok, Thailand. From there, jump on a cheap AirAsia or Malaysian Airlines flight to Tawau, the main city in southern Malaysian Borneo. From Tawau it’s a 90-minute drive to Semporna, a gritty fishing town from which you can catch a boat to the outlying islands.

Area dive resorts and Semporna dive shops and hotels offer discounted or free transfers from the Tawau airport if you’ve booked in advance. A less-convenient option is to take a public bus into the town of Tawau, thereby traveling 12 miles (20 km) in the wrong direction, and switching to another public minivan to Semporna. This will add two or more hours to an already long journey. Instead of this headache, if you haven’t booked in advance, charm a fellow traveler into splitting the cost of a taxi.

Alternatively, fly to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysian state of Sabah, before making your way south to Semporna. This makes sense for travelers who first want to visit the orangutan sanctuary, take a river trip, climb Mount Kinabalu, or just see the rest of Malaysian Borneo before diving.

Once you arrive, Mabul, a mere 25-minute speedboat ride away from Sipadan, is a logical base from which to experience Sipadan as well as other area diving, including the thrilling macro diving around Mabul itself. Other options include high-end, all-inclusive resorts on nearby Kapalai or Pom Pom.

The diving

With very few exceptions, the diving is accessible to divers of all levels, from freshly-minted open-water divers to the most seasoned dive pros. The calm, comfortable conditions are ideal for underwater photographers and videographers as well. Visibility averages at least 60 feet (18 m). Temperatures range from 82-86 degrees F (28 to 30 C), so a 3 mm wetsuit will do fine for most divers. Strong currents are rare, except for certain sites like Barracuda Point on Sipadan and (less often) Lobster Wall on Mabul.

Most Sipadan dive sites are wall dives, bottoming out at what looks like infinity. If there is no current and the experience level of divers allows, guides often take groups into the blue for part of the dive, in search of hammerheads or other shy shark species. Along the walls and on top of the healthy reef, grey and whitetip reef sharks cast a curious eye. Hawksbill and green turtles snooze or nosh and bumphead parrotfish thunder by. Eagle rays perform their aerobatic shows, and a jumble of reef fish and corals make you feel like you’ve fallen into a kaleidoscope.

On Mabul and the near-dozen other nearby islands, macro is the name of the game. Many sites are sloping coral reefs to a sandy bottom at no more than 65 feet (19 m) or so. Unlikely as it may sound, it is extremely common to see frogfish, blue-ringed octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, ornate ghost pipefish, crocodile flathead — sometimes all on the same dive, but almost certainly within a full day’s diving.

Where to stay and dive shops

Most divers eat, sleep and dive with a local dive shop. Mabul and the other islands don’t have much in the way of restaurants and bars that are not tied to a dive shop, though some resident sea gypsies run little shops under their homes, selling chips and cigarettes and knick-knack souvenirs. (Please don’t buy the shells, coral or other “souvenirs” from the sea.) The exception is Semporna, where some choose to stay for a few days so that they can more easily reach the dive sites in the northern islands of Sibuan, Matabuan, Mataking, and others.

BIG JOHN SCUBA

As you might expect, Big John Scuba is run by a large Malaysian man called John. It’s a small, friendly shop that feels as though you’re diving and staying with a local family. BJ’s offers backpacker accommodation, meals, and a cozy atmosphere. Members of the dive staff, mostly locals, all have eagle eyes.

SCUBA JUNKIE

Scuba Junkie has accommodation and dive shops both in Semporna and on Mabul. It’s an efficient, professional operation with a mix of Western and Malaysian staff. The shop is dedicated to marine conservation. Among other activities, it employs a conservation specialist, runs a turtle hatchery on Mabul, educates the local population about marine life and conservation, and organizes weekly beach cleanups.

Full disclosure: The author worked as a Scuba Junkie divemaster for six months. 

SIPADAN SCUBA

Sipadan Scuba is another responsible, well-run dive shop. Its biggest attraction is an Advanced Open Water PADI course that includes Sipadan dives.

SIPADAN WATER VILLAGE RESORT

A slight step up from other options, Sipadan Water Village Resort on Mabul has some over-water bungalows, more luxurious decor, and a nice cocktail bar, which is open to non-guests as well.

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.

 

 

Dive Site: Barracuda Point, Sipadan

Ever since Jacques Cousteau described the reef encircling Palau Sipadan as an “untouched piece of art,” divers have flocked there to experience its overwhelming diversity of marine life for themselves. Those divers know that any trip to Sipadan isn’t complete without at least one dive at Barracuda Point.

Barracuda Point is the exception that proves a cardinal rule of dive sites: If the name includes a sea creature, i.e. Angelfish Alley or Crab Corner, that creature is unlikely to appear during the dive.

While the near-certainty of seeing a hundreds-strong tornado of chevron barracuda is the defining feature at Barracuda Point, you’ll see plenty of other life as well. For starters, a giant school of jacks hangs out at the top of the wall near the site’s entry point. As you descend through this cloud, look out for a stampede of bumphead parrotfish storming the reef. The wall itself, which extends down hundreds of feet, is alive with vibrant soft and hard corals. Nestled along the wall is an almost comic diversity of reef fish, and nudibranchs of all shapes and colors. Spiny lobsters tuck into small crevasses, and the occasional green or hawksbill turtle snoozes on larger ledges. As on all Sipadan dives, keep an eye on the blue, where you might spot gray reef or whitetip reef sharks cruising by.

About 15 to 20 minutes into the dive, you’ll encounter a channel cutting through the wall to the right. Depending on the current, you might find a swarm of reef sharks here at around 65 feet (20 m). The barracuda tend to be much shallower at around 40 feet (12 m), and can congregate anywhere along the channel. If the current is ripping, position yourself close the swarm, grab hold of the rocky bottom, and enjoy the show for as long as your deco time and air supply permit.

When it’s time to let go, shallow up along the wall on right side of the channel, watching for gray reef sharks resting along the sandy bottom, or the odd eagle ray buzzing by. The channel and sloping wall are full of macro life as well, should you care to slow down and search for leaf scorpionfish, pipefish, crabs or commensal shrimp galore. Complete your safety stop along the top of the reef, which sits conveniently at around 16 feet (5 m). Peek under the abundant table coral and you might find a juvenile shark hidden in the shadows, but beware the titan triggerfish guarding its territory.

Depth: 15 to 130 feet (5 to 40 m)
Water Temperature: 80 to 84 F (27 to 29 C)
Exposure Protection: Rash guard & board shorts or 3 mm shorty during colder months
Visibility: 100-plus feet (30-plus m)
When to go: Year-round. Book well in advance, as daily permits are in short supply
Skill level: Appropriate for new divers if currents aren’t too strong

This article first appeared on Scuba Diver Life.