Before entering the water, the dive guide explained that the most recent El Niño had caused massive coral bleaching, something that we are studying in the Galapagos in the Witman Lab. However, once I descended into the water, I noticed a bunch of very healthy corals. There wasn’t that much noticeable bleaching at all! There were bubble corals, brain corals, mushroom corals, giant sea fans, and even Porites like the ones I am studying in the Galapagos.
That being said, as we are discovering in our lab, some corals are more sensitive to temperature change than others, and I never got to see what corals were growing before the most recent El Niño event. Maybe there were lots more branch and finger corals before that have since disapeared. On the first dive my guide showed me a Staghorn Coral plantation which was made in response to the El Niño bleaching, leading me to believe that the staghorn corals died during the event. The corals were planted on a sandy shelf and were raised off of the ground by a lattice of metal stakes. I later learned this was to protect it from some of its natural predators like the Crown of the Thorns. The Crown of Thorns is a starfish that preys upon stony and hard coral polyps which we got to see first hand on the dive.
Aside from looking at the corals, I was surprised to see many of the same species of fish that I have been learning to identify in the Galapagos. I saw blue-chinned parotfish nibbling algae and goatfish rummaging in the sand, hogfish and snapper roving above the benthos, and also a few Black-tipped sharks gliding among the rocks. In addition to that, there were giant schools of little yellow fish swimming above the benthos. The variety of fish was truly incredible and there were plenty of different urchins and sea stars as well.
One fish that I was not surprised to see was the lionfish. In the carribean a few years ago I got my spearfishing liscence to kill lionfish as they are invasive in much of the world due to their incredible ability to live in a multitude of pressures and depths. On my Thai dive I only saw one small lionfish hiding in a coral. My guide explained that lionfish are native to thailand, however, and are preyed upon by moray eels, sharks, and snapper, which all were abundantly present on my dive.
Aside from learning a lot about the benthic ecosystem of the Adaman sea, I also learned a new skill! I tried underwater photography for the first time. Just like a normal camera, it was also important to get the right lighting so that the specimens weren’t backlit. I also had a hard time taking pictures of the more active and unpredictable fish because they moved so quickly and didn’t enjoy me pushing a lens in their face. One thing that I had to learn was how to color correct underwater. We brought a white card with us to color correct for white so that the colors weren’t distorted by the water and the depth. I definitely think I’m gonna pursue underwater photography as there is so much to show people and not everyone gets the opportunity to scuba dive. One of the best parts of the experience was showing my mom the pictures afterwards on the boat.