Published: May 2005
Les Kaufman

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

As I swam along the reef drop-off near Indonesia's Wakatobi on southeast Sulawesi, I passed through clouds of thousands of tiny newborn fish known to ichthyologists as the convict blenny and to marine aquarists as the engineer goby, though not a member of either the blenny or goby families.

As juveniles, Pholidichthys leucotaenia form vast swarms and appear as black, eel-like little things with glowing white stripes running from head to tail. I passed a swarm over a coral ledge, filling a volume in the water column about equal to an RV. Suddenly they began to merge into a continuous vertical stream of black-white-black and funneled like a tornado into a hole about an inch (three centimeters) in diameter. I hung very still from the ledge and waited quietly to see what would happen next. As things settled down, the vortex of little fishes reversed direction and belched forth once again into the water column and over the reef. Then I exhaled, and my bubbles drove them back into their hole. Quiet, and out they oozed again. After a few minutes of this, I was rewarded by the sight of two large heads just barely poking up above the hole and garbed in the black-and-yellow vertical bars of adults. The parents? These guys seemed to exhibit extended parental care—something very rare for reef fishes. I lingered long enough at the hole to savor the scene, which I've since begun to try to replicate in my home aquarium.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

We had traveled 12,000 miles (19,300 kilometers) to see this reef, but stretching across it was a trail of destruction ending in a pile of crushed coral beneath a cargo ship's stern anchor. How could the crew be so thoughtless?

We reported it to the local police, who returned to the scene to remind the captain that anchoring wasn't allowed in a coral reef preserve. The police were soon sent packing by an angry crew armed with machetes.

The destruction was repeated the next day, and the next. Finally someone suggested detaching the anchor in protest—which we did. The boat was still moored from the bow, the captain and crew had certainly been warned, and nobody would be hurt. What followed was a lesson in Indonesian politics.

We had disrupted an anchorage that had been used by cargo boats in these islands for more than 400 years, the captain relayed to us. Who were we to be upset? In the end, the artful mediation of the local chief plus photographer Tim Laman's mastery of Bahasa Indonesian helped us strike a compromise, and a permanent stern mooring was installed at the spot. We left a bit wiser in the ways of a corner of the world where marine conservation and an underwater perspective were relatively new arrivals.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

My first day in Indonesia also happened to be the day of the transit of Venus. My cab driver had nearly gotten me to where I was supposed to meet everybody else when suddenly I remembered that the fascinating scenes around me were—barring supernatural intervention—being upstaged at that very moment by an event of cosmic significance. Yet, here we were, stuck dead in the traffic of downtown Sanur as our solar system struck a chord that had not rung for centuries.

Following a failed attempt to explain to the cab driver what I was about to do, I leaped from the cab and jumped onto a highway median with my binoculars and a sheet of white polystyrene dive slate. As the traffic honked and steamed around us, I focused the image of the sun upon the slate with the binoculars and peered at the glowing white circle. It took a few minutes, but there it was: the minute shadow of the planet Venus crossing the disk of the sun. Satisfied that all was right with the universe, I returned to the puzzled cab driver who then good-naturedly took me the rest of the way to my rendezvous.