|Whenever the phrases ‘checkout dive’ and ‘house reef’ appear together, my heart sinks as I imagine barren rubble with nothing left for the ‘bouyantly challenged’ to destroy. So it was with a sense of despondent boredom I stood on the jetty as the guide explained in broken English how very dangerous the site was with its incredibly strong currents (little round fish nibbled nonchalantly at the jetty) and poor vis (less than 30m – Argh!). We dropped in and were immediately surrounded by tens of flute faced trumpet fish, all pretending to be part of the jetty or bits of string – the silver ones were poor at best, but the bright yellow ones had no chance. We followed a rope down the reef wall to some white sand at about 15m. We had been warned to go no further than this without a guide, as we could easily become lost on the obviously sloping sand. I think they were insecure about their position. We passed two large crocodile fish and within 5m were upon the first ‘wreck’. It was basically a pile of wooden planks, but it was covered in life – soft coral crawling with transparent ghost shrimps, a robust ghost pipefish pretending to be a piece of dead eel grass, a little box fish that was like a cartoon bumblebee and several sharpnose filefish, the world’s most annoying photographic subject.|
The guide found us very trying as we photographed everything from every angle, but he eventually managed to persuade us to move on to the second ‘wreck’, a cube made out of speedframe. The metalwork was covered in soft corals, which provided some cover for sleeping lion and scorpionfish – there must have been 5 or 6 of each. The lionfish were mostly upside down and quite sleepy, but it was amazing to see them in such numbers. There were also several small white moray eels living in the hollow metal tubes. They were very cute and came out to have a good look at us.Several different nudibranches were wandering around; the guide almost got punched for ‘discovering’ them for Rob when I was trying to take a photo. After a bit, he managed to coax us into moving up the sandy slope towards the reef again.
|We passed an enormous conch shell gliding around, then the guide pointed excitedly at an amorphous blob. Eventually, I realised that it was a frogfish, which is a basically a big poisonous bogey. The funniest thing about frogfish is the way they walk. They don’t seem capable of swimming, so they flob along on their pectoral fins, it looks like the Moog from Willo the Wisp for those of a certain age. The guide found a second, fluorescent red, frogfish. It was so well camouflaged that I took a photo of the red coral next to it instead. The last thing to be found was a little angry cuttlefish, which soon squitted off in disgust at being poked by the guide’s pointy stick. We made our way back up to the jetty and removed our fins on the steps, surrounded by beautiful nervous crabs. My best ‘checkout dive’ ever!|
|Because it is so close to the equator, night comes to Kapalai at 5.45 sharp. Since there was nothing else to do once it got dark, we had a night dive on most evenings. The house reef, as described earlier, was actually pretty good and not the chaotic death trap described by the work-hungry guides. Entry was from the jetty by the dive centre, down the rope, then left or right along the sand at the bottom. At about 11m, there was an area of broken coral rubble where the mandarin fish lived. These little psychedelic gobies are very beautiful and very, very shy. The only way to see them properly is to rest against the rubble (having first checked it for lion fish, scorpion fish, urchins, stone fish, anemones, frog fish, leaf fish, mimic octopus, etc, etc) without moving from 5.30 until it gets too dark to see. If you are lucky and can hold your breath for 45 minutes, you are rewarded by the sight of these tiny fish battling for a mate (2 seconds), getting friendly (1 second), and finally shimmying 2 feet into the water column as a pair and mating (1 nanosecond). It was worth it – I think. Having survived the endurance test, we moved on along the reef and bumped into a large octopus. The octopus put on an exciting show for us, changing colour and texture many times. Sadly for him, he never moved very far, so we always knew exactly where he was.|
|There were 5 or 6 kinds of urchin wandering about; the octopus flowed right across the top of a big black one with very long spines with no apparent ill effect, though the urchin seemed very cross. Next, we spotted a baby lion fish out and about. It had yet to grow into its adult form, it had a tiny body with elegant attenuated fins. We came across a tiny cuttlefish, no larger than my little fingernail. He was very cute and made himself all spikey to frighten the torch away. On a coral fan, there were two tiny squid, even smaller than the cuttlefish. They were so small that it was difficult to keep track of them, they just looked like pieces of fluff whizzing around. We decided to turn and go past the jetty in the other direction. On the way, we passed 2 more big octopi and disturbed a bump head parrot fish, which was sleeping under a coral table. There were many red boxer shrimp advertising their services under little overhangs, along with very sweet pipe fish which were vertically striped red and white so that they looked like candy canes. We decided to call it a day at an hour and a quarter and returned to the jetty, fighting our way through hundreds of lurking trumpet fish. This dive was so good that we did it seven times (twice during the day) during our stay at Kapalai, never staying down for less than an hour.|