Sonia Rowley swims toward a large rock in the middle of Mant Pass, enveloped in a school of Big-eye Jacks (Caranx sexfasciatus). Photo by Richard Pyle.

Sonia Rowley swims toward a large rock in the middle of Mant Pass, enveloped in a school of Big-eye Jacks (Caranx sexfasciatus). Photo by Richard Pyle.

After my unsuccessful attempt to recover my laptop last Tuesday (leading to a significant slow-down in contributing blog posts, as I need to find time when someone else’s laptop is available for me to borrow), on Wednesday we decided to take a break from deep diving and try something different.  Brian had recommended we check out Mant Pass — a channel on the northeast side of Pohnpei, where he and his wife Bri had done a dive once and seen dozens of reef sharks aggregated in the channel.  As we descended the southern wall of the channel towards the sandy bottom down at a depth of about 150 feet (45 meters), a few small Gray Reef Sharks drifted in from the blue then wandered back into the channel, out of sight.  I swam a bit out towards the blue water and could barely make out a vague dark shape ahead.  As I continued to swim towards it, I suddenly realized that it was an enormous rock in the center of the pass, with a school of hundreds of big-eye jacks (Caranx sexfasciatus) and at least a dozen sharks milling around.  I burst into spontaneous laughter as Sonia was engulfed in the school of jacks, because the scene in front of me was straight out of one of those fantasy underwater landscape paintings.  I had always assumed the images depicted in such paintings never actually existed in nature, and it was pure delight to have seen one in person!

Rob Whitton (left) and John Earle (right) explore the beautiful large rock reef in the middle of Mant Pass. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Rob Whitton (left) and John Earle (right) explore the beautiful large rock reef in the middle of Mant Pass. Photo by Richard Pyle.

After our spectacular drift dive through Mant Pass, we headed over to a nearby dive site known as “Manta Road” for another shallow dive. As its name implies, this dive site is known for frequent sightings of Manta rays, but we saw none on our dive.  Instead, we explored the bottom of the channel at a depth of about 50 feet (15 meters). We were delighted to find fields of garden eels (Heteroconger hassi, to be precise), which are notoriously difficult to photograph because they retreat into their sand burrows when a diver approaches — even with the silent operation of a closed-circuit rebreather. Today, however I was determined to get a decent shot, and it was patience that paid off.  I picked an area of the eel group where there were many eels, set my camera up on the bottom, pressed the record button, then swam 15 feet away and waited.  And waited. And waited some more.  Eventually, the eels determined that my camera was not a threat, and they started coming out of their burrow. I was delighted to see them out in full glory — and even feeding on plankton — right in front of my camera!

Heteroconger_hassi-Small

A group of Garden Eels (Heteroconger hassi) feeding on plankton drifting through “Manta Road”. Photo by Richard Pyle.

While waiting for the eels to do their thing for my camera, I noticed further down the channel a pair of another species that is extremely difficult to photograph, because it is even more skittish than the Garden eels: Ptereleotris hanae. Like the Garden eels, this slender dartfish (in the family Microdesmidae, which is related to gobies) lives in burrows in the sand, and vanishes in an instant when it feels threatened.  After I was satisfied I got the images of the Garden eels, I slowly approached the dartfish. As expected, they vanished into their burrow before I got within 10 feet (3 meters) of them.  However, I was careful to watch exactly where they dived down, and set my camera about a foot away from the entrance to their burrow, and again swam away to hide behind a rock.  Waiting for the Garden eels seemed like a long time, but this shot required even more patience. MUCH more patience! I sat perfectly still, breathing as silently as I could, for more than 30 minutes. But then finally — just as I was about to give up — a small pale head poked up out of the sand.  Then a full body. And finally, the dartfish was hovering right in front of my camera!  Only one of the pair came out, but I was excited nonetheless. Patience had paid off once again! I suppose our multi-hour decompression sessions from our deep dives have given me the necessary practice.  But, to be fair, it’s not too tedious to spend multiple hours on a beautiful coral reef!

Ptereleotris hanae

The elusive dartfish, Ptereleotris hanae, captured on video up close and personal. Photo by Richard Pyle