Christmas Trees, Eels and Batfishes

Snorkeling at Mak Cantik (Beautiful Mother), a dive site off Redang Island, was an unforgettable experience. Not only because of the marine life I encountered there but also because of the number of other snorkelers who were there. There was a carpet of people, literally! Snorkeling near the boat that brought us from the hotel to the site, I had repeat `excuse me, excuse me‘ and tried my best not to snorkel into other people’s feet lest I get a kicked in the face! I pitied the fishes, they must’ve been terrified to see so many bodies in their territory! We did manage to get some peace and quiet from the other snorkelers later though and went further away from the boat so that we could actually have the opportunity to see some fishes instead of other people’s hands and feet.

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A not-so festive looking Christmas Tree worm (The Amusing Planet)

It was at Mak Cantik where I saw my first Christmas Tree worm. I was utterly fascinated with them as I disturbed the water above them and they retracted back into themselves. And if you waited a few seconds, the bristles would emerge from the tubes into which they retracted and they’d fan themselves out. Truly amazing! I also saw many Giant Clams, which I at first thought was a kind of coral because its shell was so crusted, it truly looked like the hard coral that it was sometimes attached to.

Unfortunately while we were gleefully bobbing up and down in the water, we noticed that there were many tiny, golfball-sized transparent thingies (jellyfish???) around us and some of us felt stings which hurt for a little while. When I was stung, I searched my arm for any swelling but when I saw none, I thought it best not to emerge from the water and shout, `Jellyfish! Jellyfish!’ causing a mass panic of hand and feet when I truly didn’t know if they were indeed jellyfish.

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“What are you doing in my backyard???” asked the Giant Moray Eel (Ocean Treasures Memorial Library)

Later that afternoon, we were brought to the Marine Park located at Pulau Pinang (a tiny island off Pulau Redang proper). The park ranger told us that an 8.5 foot Giant Moray Eel was in resident. I remember pretending to be excited but secretly, I hoped it was taking its afternoon nap. After 10 minutes in the water, we noticed something large undulating a few feet beneath us. I looked down and my breath caught in my throat. Apparently, the eel was NOT taking a nap, as I’d hoped. It was elegantly drifting in and around the corals, going into any nook and cranny. Witnessing the eel swimming casually was amazing even though I was scared out of my freaking mind. Generally, eels aren’t that active preferring to anchor the rear portion of their bodies in a crevice and stay hidden during the day. I had a sneaking suspicion though that all the marine life at the Marine Park were there to `work’ – entertaining the tourists, and when the park closed down at night, they would clock out and go to their real homes in a reef far, far away.

Before we returned to our resort, we managed to squeeze in a final 45 minutes of snorkeling at another site, Tanjung Tengah (Middle Cape/ Point). This was where I saw my first Titan Triggerfish, a fish that I’ve been told to stay away from at all costs. When I caught sight of it, I started swimming sloooowly away. Well, actually there were two of us swimming sloooowly away, trying not to make eye-contact with it while also trying not to bump into the corals in our semi-haste to escape. Another colleague though was following it from a distance and we wanted to tell her to move away, but what the hey, we were cowards and we wanted to save ourselves. In the end, nothing alarming happened though which made me realise that the Triggerfish was probably a sweetheart with a bad rep.

Nearing the end, I beheld a mesmerising sight – a school of batfish suspended above a coral outcrop. I was in awe and was so excited that I tried to clap my hands but because I was underwater, it was a slow effort. I watched them in near-suspended animation, flexing their tiny fins a little whenever there was a slight current change. They projected a sense of peace which made me feel at peace too. It was a good day.

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A school of batfish sans capes or batmobiles (Tropical Marine Biodiversity
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