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November Talk: The Spice Islands and Beyond (in person speaker)

October 21, 2021 11:37 AM | Rick Dayan (Administrator)


As a teen, Rob started studying marine life in 1967 and did his first scuba dive in 1969 while living in Hong Kong. Graduated from U. Hawaii with a BA in zoology in 1975. Rob also surveyed Oahu fish populations, collected fish for ciguatera research at Johnston and Enewetak Atolls as an assistant to John E. Randall.

Moved to Guam in 1977 to pursue graduate studies at U. Guam Marine Lab. Divided time between studies, u/w photography, and employment; earned MS in Biology in 1984. In 1981, founded Coral Graphics and from 1982 to 1995 worked as a fisheries biologist for government of Guam. From 1993 to 2000, served as a consultant with Sumeria for Ocean Life CD-roms.

Retired in 1995 to pursue photography, writing, research, and consulting. In 2002, moved to s. Florida. Since 2006 has been voluntarily serving with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN aka World Conservation Union, Bern, Switzerland) as a member of the Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) specialist group of the Species Survival Commission for coral reef fishes. Aug-Nov 2011, conducted fish surveys on Guam for CSA International. Aug 2013, surveyed fishes in Palau marine lakes; Sep-Oct 2016, visiting Professor, Univ. of Montpellier, France for initial work on Atlas and database of coral reef fish distributions. Participated in New Caledonia deep reef and seamount surveys (2019-2023 study), but was locked out after initial trip due to covid restrictions. Has written or collaborated on numerous scientific papers and technical reports on the Micronesian and Red Sea ichthyofaunas, and authored or co-authored several books including Micronesian Reef Fishes (1989-1999), Coral Reef Fishes (with E. Lieske; 1993), Coral Reef Guide Red Sea (with E. Lieske; 2004), Dangerous Marine Animals (with M. Bergbauer and M. Kirschner) and three books on Florida shells (with E. Petuch and/or D. Berschauer). Maintains comprehensive spreadsheets of Indo-Pacific and W. Atlantic fish distributions.

Rob is currently dividing time between continued faunal studies of Indo-Pacific fishes and books (with co-authors), specifically a Caribbean field guide, and new edition of Micronesian Reef Fishes and continues volunteer work with the IUCN and related consulting work.

Ambon, the southern gateway to the Maluku Islands has an often brutal history almost as fascinating as the region’s fauna and flora. Our stay there was not originally on our itinerary which was to get to the Damai II for a fabulous 12 day journey that would take us through the tiny volcanic islands of the Banda Sea, the eastern end of the Maluku Islands and on to Misool and West Papua. Once I found out our flights had been rerouted via Ambon, I contacted the newly opened Spice Island Divers to arrange a short stay. Conveniently located less than 10 minutes from the airport, the resort sits on the northwestern shore of Ambon Bay, a 3,000 ft deep bay between two mountain ranges. It is not only a fabulous muck dive site but also dotted with species-rich coral reefs and is an ideal site for blackwater diving, pioneered there by USA’s own Linda Ianniello and Bob Weybrecht. Although we managed only 10 dives in 4 days, we found a treasure trove of critters new to us. Our last day included a special tour of the island with a visit to historical Fort Amsterdam. Of more recent historical interest is the wreck of the Aquila, a Panamanian merchant ship sunk in 1958 by a covert CIA operation with huge cold war implications.

The morning after our tour we flew to Saumlaki, Tanimbar to board the Damai Dua, our base for the next 12 days. Running at night, diving by day, we visited small islands from three distinct arcs, each with its own distinctive geology and reef development as we crossed the Banda Sea. The Forgotten Islands of Dawera and Dai rise abruptly from deep mountain ranges and are capped with ancient uplifted reefs and presently surrounded by fringing reefs with sheer walls and steep slopes. We then moved on to the volcanically active islands of Nil Desperado, Serua, Manuk and Banda Neira, the only inhabited island cluster. Some of these uninhabited islands are home to huge populations of the highly venomous but completely docile Black banded sea krait (Laticauda semifasciata). These recently emerged islands have volcanic boulder slopes variably coated with corals and other marine life. Sea kraits may be found from the surface to the bottom where they are either sleeping or hunting, often accomapnied by predatory fishes, always ready to snap up prey escaping the snakes. Banda Neira, the home of nutmeg and mace has a fascinating history more brutal than Ambon’s that is well-documented in a wonderful local museum.

Our next stop, Koon, is a coral atoll at the eastern tip of the long island of Ceram. Its reefs are more reminescent of those of Wakatobe or Micronesia, with coral slopes bisected by chutes of white coral sand.  After an over night transit across the last deep water gap, we arrived at Misool, the southernmost and largest of the Raja Ampat Islands, all on the relatively shallow West Papuan shelf. These islands are the uplifted remnants of ancient coral reefs, much like the rock islands of Palau. Most are surrounded by narrow fringing reefs and shallow shelves bordered by steep coral walls and slopes that end on a sandy sponge and coral shelf at depths of below 100 ft to about 200 ft. As if the coral reef fauna isn’t diverse enough, by being connected to the continental shelves of New Guinea and Australia, the shelf is a bridge to their unique faunas. The most iconic fo these among fishes are the Epaulete and Carpet sharks, always high on my list of photographic subjects. These coastal shelf waters are a bit more turbid than the deep open sea over abyssal depths but make up for it by hosting the richest reef fauna in the world. The added nutrients nourish vast shoals of slivery baitfish and juvenile reef fishes, which attract feeding mantas that may suddenly appear out of the blue. Our trip ended after a 2-day transit punctuated by a final dive at the Fam Islands. The morning we disembarked I counted 21 live-aboards anchored within sight, in the bay at Sorong.  Another shock was the large modern steel and glass terminal complete with jetways and several waiting aircraft, a far cry from the open shack and unfenced runway of 2004, when over the course of 2 weeks,
only one live-aboard was encountered.

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