Archive for June, 2011

The Underwater Underground

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Many reef residents prefer a shady crevice where they can observe without being noticed.

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Sometimes you have to share a crevice, and a whole community of cave dwellers may develop in a choice hole.

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Octopods suffer a constant struggle between shyness and curiosity. They love to watch us when they think we don’t notice.

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At first they put a bit of sand color on their “alcove red” and spy from every opening.

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With a little room and a 20 minute acquaintance the shyness abates and the octopus crawls up to the mezzanine level to meet a fellow sentient.

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Other troglodytes make their cover wherever the sand accumulates…

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and stay hidden until it’s time to come out and fight (or flee).

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When security and house cleaning become too much for one sand dweller there is always the option to get a roommate. This goby/shrimp arrangement works well. The shrimp goby watches for trouble while the goby shrimp shovels armfuls of sand out of the pad.

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We’re not sure who does the digging when everybody seems to be loafin’ on the front porch.

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Trigger fish just need a thin crack where they can squeeze in and extend their trigger spines for maximum wedging action.

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They make nervous circles at the front door until the intruder has gone.

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The smallest residents fit in the smallest holes.

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Sometimes just a comforting overhang is adequate.

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This huge babyfaced porcupinefish had a great dark cave with a clean sandy floor all to itself. 

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10°20.60′N 169°58.00′E 26-June-11 22:30 UTC

One More Reef Before We Go

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

Ailuk atoll is bounded on the west by a string of small islands that stretch for 15 miles.

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There are channels between each pair of islets that are fed with cool clear ocean water that comes with the surf crashing over the barrier reef on the offshore side.

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These channels are like mall-sized aquariums with crystal clear water and thriving coral communities.  A perfect spot for a last snorkel before we leave the tropics behind us.

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There was a fair amount of current and surge due to the breakers that feed the channel but it wasn’t going to slow us down in our last days of remote atoll fish watching.

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There were lots of new fish for us. This tiny yellow boxfish looks nothing like the adult he will become.

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The mature version is about 12 inches long with bizarre fins and a hinged snout.

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These tiny juvenile leopard wrasses were pretty exciting until we realized that they were very common in Ailuk.

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There were lots of skittish clown corises.

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Others were uncommonly friendly. The local clan of peacock groupers were almost domesticated.

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The stately freckled hawkfish  (or as we call him, a frecklefaced coral sitter) is always a good subject.

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Lots of these fish showed little fear of humans. This normally means that they have little exposure to spearfishing or that they carry ciguatera fish poisoning and are not taken for consumption. Some are consistently off the human menu for toxicity and are almost always tolerant – like this black spotted puffer.

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We try to look around in spite of all the near field action and take in the reefscape.

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There were some really excellent reefscapes.

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There were corals we’ve never seen…

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and lots of perfectly framed aquarium sized coral portraits.

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But then something new would swim by and attract all the attention. Like a leopard wrasse.

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Or a three spot wrasse.

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The dependable stalwarts of the fishwatcher still claim their share of airtime. These longnose file fish were doing a crazy three dimensional spiraling tango.

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Juvenile checkerboard wrasses are hard to ignore.

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Who doesn’t  love a bird wrasse/goat fish combo.

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We’ll always stop for a group shot of some pan-pacific little guys.

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In the fun category we have big hermit crabs,

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and a pillow star.

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The weird award goes to this juvenile rock mover wrasse. He swims around like a drift leaf and confuses predators with his confusing antenna fins on the top of his head that emit some kind of defensive jamming signal (we think). 

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10°21.00′N 169°58.00′E 26-June-11 00:00 UTC

The Tibnols of Ailuk

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Traditional Marshallese sailing canoes are still working hard  in Ailuk.

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All but four families of the 300 people who live in the atoll live on Ailuk island. The remote settlement is 15 miles north and there is a daily of fleet of commuting tibnols that ply the lagoon, moving people, coconuts, pandanus and fish into the village.

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Some of them are really fast.

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Others are heavily loaded with families of gathers and all the fruits of their labor.

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Of course we are fascinated with these little boats and their speed. We were trading heavily with the villagers, unloading lots of useful stuff from Khamseen that we wouldn’t need on our crossing and back in the Pacific Northwest. It didn’t take long to reach a special level of gratitude from the acting mayor.  Amai could see our interest and offered to take us out for a couple of hours. Marshallese sailing requires the efforts of numerous small boys.

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Patrick was our serious minded helmsman.

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We accelerated over the shallow reef on the beam reach inside the flat water of the protected lagoon.

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The ama outrigger started to pop out of the water and soon we were scooting past the atoll islands at 13 kts.

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There’s a universal and ancient expression of the face of a sailor when the wind pulls the mainsheet tight and the boat surges out of a drift and up to the speed it was built for. Even if you been doing it since you were six.  All of us on Amai’s boat wore this same smile.

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We were miles away from the village before we knew it and soon it was time to tack. This requires moving the rudder and the forespar from on end of the tibnol to the other!First the mainsheet gets passed aft (forward).

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Then the single shroud is untied (we never do this).

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There’s a crazy ballet as the heavy spar is shifted to the new bow from the old bow without furling the sail. Then the rudder is unshipped, floated down the hull and locked into the new stern.

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Before we knew it we were back on the beach. An army of young men materialized to de-mob the boat.

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Little girls came out to add atmosphere and sing Marshallese little-girl songs.

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Aimai’s tibnol was parked under the palm tree before you could say ‘coconut’ and then we were out to Khamseen for a crew lunch of breadfruit and chicken.

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10°14.00′N 169°58.00′E 25-June-11 00:00 UTC

Lucky Ailuk

Friday, June 24th, 2011

We anchored among some beautiful patch reef just off the village of Ailuk where 300 residents live the atoll life.

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There was a visit from the Minister of Justice and the Chief of Police. After a nap we wandered down the clean swept sand streets of the village looking for Amai, the acting mayor.

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We found Amai at home and he sat us in the shade of his garden and whacked up some drinking coconuts. We discussed various trade goods and came up with a list of things we could part with. He sent us off with some of his wife’s topshelf basket weaving as collateral.

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We wandered down the beach and met a cast net fishermen in a Star Wars Phantom Menace shirt.

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He was after schools of careless convict tangs who strayed too close to the shore.

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Then S made a friend named Raimie.They traded canned milk, phoofy creams and lotions, baby powder and tea for coconuts and weavings. She tried to throw in a rooster but we declined.

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These people were living closer to the land than any we’ve ever met. Each organic scrap goes to the pigs, chickens or the lime tree mulch.

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Breadfruit is a large part of the diet and reef fish are always out to dry.

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The church was the center of community life like all the remote islands we visited in the Pacific.

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And the dead were characteristically venerated in beautiful grave yards.

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Feeling the pressure to continue our homeward journey, it wasn’t an easy decision to stop at Ailuk but it was a major highlight of our circuit through the Pacific.

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10°13.40′N 169°58.70′E 23-June-11 00:00 UTC

A Few Marshallese Reef Dwellers

Monday, June 20th, 2011

We took two days to visit an island in the Majuro lagoon where awesome free moorings had been set up by Cary and Karen on Seal as part of a UNDP-GEF small grant.

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Time was short but  we saw several new and long lost specimens.

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The feather worms were long and slender.

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Strangely finned dart fish darted above the bottom.

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Bizarre rock moving wrasses spy-hopped from behind corals to evaluate our intentions.

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The much maligned crown of thorns starfish is still arguably one of the most beautiful starfish we see.

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Tiny inch-long trigger fish were lurking above tiny holes.

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Their elders peeked at us over brain corals.

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A rare juvenile yellowtailed coris engaged in a little synchronized grazing with one of its wrasse cousin.

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There was yet another flavor of spotted damsel.

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We finally found colonies of the special three-banded clownfish that live only in the Marshalls.  They were very brave and swam right up to us to tell us to get lost.

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Then S found a pair of octopods.

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K used his octopus whispering skills for a close up portrait.  They did’n’t seem to mind.

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07°07.70′N 171°18.42′E 21-June-11 22:30 UTC

Republic Of the Marshall Islands

Monday, June 20th, 2011

After a glorious sunny day of sailing between 5 and 7 degrees north, the ITCZ caught up with us again as we were closing in on Majuro.  By the time we got through Calalin Channel we’d had near about enough of squalls. S was considering a change of hobby.

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The final straw was 35 kt haymaker just inside the atoll, 2 nm from the anchorage. We were making 0.4 kts with the engine maxed out and the bow submarined more times than we could count in the short choppy breakers.  We’ve had so much rain that it has changed our daily routine. Need a drink? Just hold your cup outside. Got a drip on your head? Deploy the blue bucket.

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It was so wet on this passage that the flying fish couldn’t tell if they were in the water or in the boat. We found one mummified specimen tucked under some gear where he had been for several days. The fact that we never smelled him made us realize how funky things must’ve gotten in the cabin.

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It took us over three hours to cover the final ten miles from the pass to the mooring field in blinding rain and hull-pounding chop. But we were warmly welcomed by the resident yachtie fleet.  John of Hawkeye had answered our call asking about conditions in the channel, Patrick of Brick House came out in the rain to help us tie to a mooring, and Cary of Seal made an appointment for us with Customs and Immigration that afternoon and even came to pick us up in his dinghy so we didn’t have to moblilize ours.

That evening we met several other yachties at the Mieco Beach Yacht Club’s Quiz Night.  We turned out to be pretty good guessers and wound up winning the prize – the honor of making up next month’s quiz questions.

With this passage we traded our parting images of Tuvalu…

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for the the industrial tuna fishing harbor of  Majuro,

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and a busy urban setting with all the trappings of American culture, plus both modern indoor and traditional outdoor plumbing.

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It didn’t take long to make friends.

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And we even got to watch a footrace.

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We met up with some Tuvaluan friends, recipients of the first and last Khamseen mail service for the Funafuti-Majuro searoute.

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The girls exchanged email addresses, and we hope to keep in touch.

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Along with meeting a bunch of new friends, we were delighted to find our old friends Leigh and Richard of Before, who were literally our next door neighbors back in Shilshole.   Leigh, Richard, and their schnauzer Koziko (terror of all bow-perching noddies) joined us aboard Jody and Bruce’s Ca Va for a delicious going-away pizza dinner, complete with wine-tasting.

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Majuro was a good stop, a great place to meet terrific people, reprovision, and get ready for our big hop home.

07°06.50′N 171°22.64′E 20-June-11 22:30 UTC

North!

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

We are back in one of our home hemispheres (the ‘homepshere’ ) although we still dally on the east side of the dateline. The first few days of sailing out of Funafuti were fast and often pleasant. It just got better the farther north we got and we started allowing ourselves to think thoughts of an early arrival in Majuro.

Our escort of seabirds could overhear comments from the cockpit like, “The northern hemisphere is so much calmer than the southern one,” and “That Neptune ceremony at the equator last year was good for a round trip, right?” The forecast was bright? perfect trade winds for 1,000 nm with a nice blending of wind direction between the southeast trades and the northeast trades.

Then the wind died and a long thin line of light squalls marched overhead. We maneuvered to intercept a small shower and S applied her feminine talents calling, “YooooHoooo, you big strong rain shower.” She was really chatting him up. “Why don’t you come visit your sweet little salty-cakes so we can get all sweet again?”

The squall obliged and we motored into darkening skies that the new forecast confirmed as a massive Special Khamseen Edition of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The rainstorms increased in number, size and intensity. The radar showed squalls in long lines and squalls in clusters. There were even squalls in the dreaded four-pack cloverleaf configuration, but worst was a Flying Wedge with a big one in the middle packing 35+ kts and a couple of cleanup flankers on the sides.

These things discharge apocalyptic volumes of warm rain and disturb the sea into raspy combers that snatch at the low sky and rudely slap our hull. Normally we motor through them because it’s calm between squalls and they don’t last long, but S found a big cluster on her watch and we sailed in it for 9 hours.

We’re nearing the northern edge of the convergence now and the squalls have given way to wide bands of relentless rain with no wind. We’ll soon be across this battle-line in the borderland of regionally proud northern and southern weather and we hear that the whole zone will dissipate out of boredom once we’ve gone.

03°23.95′N 173°47.03′E 11-Jun-11 18:41 UTC

Funafuti forever?

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

We just realized that tomorrow is the Queen of England’s birthday. By some stretch of history this cherished event is a public holiday among Tuvaluans, and on this day yacht clearances are going to be hard to get, so we’ll have to delay our departure once again. S is hoping for a parade, ever willing to see the rainbow in the rain.

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In the meantime we’ll connect to the internet and try to avoid a spam attack like the one that was delivered to many of you in our name last week due to the dirty servers at the DHL internet cafe. Tuvalu has an unusual level of internet throughput for its size due to the very desirable and lucrative “.tv” domain name.  Everybody on this island has a laptop.

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It’s a fun juxtaposition. You can sit on your elevated dunnage platform and surf the web while your wife cooks tiny reef fish to a stone age recipe on an open fire.

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Chinese motorcycles are the other remarkable technological development on the island. The density is incredible for such a small place.

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We got to recognize many of these busy commuters as they sped around the few miles of island road all day.

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There is no minimum age and some of the delicate riders looked nervous.  Or maybe it was just that we were nervous for them.  

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Another cool development are the new composting toilets being installed by an NGO. Not considered as stylish as flushers, the composters faced an uphill cultural battle until someone made known the recent rumor that Prince Charles has one. This rumor will soon be evaluated and confirmed by a letter from the Governor General to the palace.

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While all this web surfing, motorcycle riding, and poop composting has increased the pace of daily life there is always time for an island-time breather.

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It’s a slow an harmonious pace among the dogs of the government house.

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Tuvaluans between 6 and 60 are nearly as relaxed as they pass the hot hours of the day under a shady blue tarp.

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Besides the two crazy gringos lugging their laptop around in a desperate search for a safe internet connection, only an ambitious overachiever would be found out in the mid-day sun, wrangling the livestock…

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or representing the French government on a quick consular mission from the embassy in Suva.

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We’re hoping to clear out on Tuesday, but if that doesn’t work we’ll probably get one of these breezy little houses…

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… plant some papayas…

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… and spend our days enjoying curry samosas and red palm toddy at the airport snack bar.

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08°31.38′S 179°11.85′E 05-June-11 00:00 UTC

Fishquest Falefatu II

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

We were supposed  to be well on our way the the Marshall Islands by now, but we came down with colds the day before we were to leave.   Being sick underway seemed like a bad idea so we quarantined ourselves out at Falefatu for a few more days.

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K had a birthday on Friday and spent a few minutes in a hammock between two palms.

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But 40+ years and a cold couldn’t keep him down when there were foragables overhead. Luckily he packed 40 ft of old spectra in the beachbag.

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Coconut snacks are fun for a few minutes, but then it was back to the reef for a Fishquest Falefatu encore.

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There were a few  primary targets. K had been stalking these Papuan Tobies for several days. Perhaps a little obsessively, according to S.

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They usually come in sets of two, one small and one large.

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A cold may keep the manfish near the surface, but that’s okay because that’s where the good light is – not to mention the needlefish.

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Hours of scouring the shallows along tidal streams of clear ocean water paid off with a few surprises. Like a large moray getting dusted off by a red lipped cleaner wrasse.

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and a huge peacock grouper caught napping just above his lair.

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This Charlie Brown fish (really a juvenile bicolor parrotfish) has been on the wish list for days.

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Some are common but so nervous that you have to surprise them to get a picture.

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Others sit for portraits like old friends.

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The rest are just busy doing fishy things in a hurry.

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and then there are sea cucumbers.  Maybe not so picturesque, but they’re the most cooperative subjects on the reef.

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08°35.20′S 179°06.64′E 04-June-11 22:30 UTC