Graeme Gourlay talks to Alan Powderham about his book which celebrates the biodiversity in the Coral Triangle
Alan J Powderham’s passion is to observe fish – to hang out on a coral reef as unobtrusively as possible and watch the array of life going about its business around him. His stunning book, At The Heart Of The Coral Triangle, is the result of doing just that, in the richest, most vibrant reefs on the planet, for nearly 20 years.
His work as a civil engineer involved with sustainable construction projects in the Far East gave him the opportunity to indulge his love of the marine world, and he has spent thousands of hours underwater intently looking and trying to understand an incredible kaleidoscope of life.
‘I started diving in the Coral Triangle in 2004 and have barely dived anywhere else since,’ Alan, now 75, explains from his home in South London. ‘Obviously, I haven’t been everywhere – the Coral Triangle covers such a vast area, 6,000 square kilometres, from Malaysia to the Philippines, down through Indonesia to Papua New Guinea. But I have dived extensively at its heart in Indonesia, particularly from Bali, up to Sulawesi and across to West Papua.’
At the back of his mind, an idea had been growing to do a book on the coral reefs. Alan had already published a book about the marine world of Venezuela – Venezuela Submarina – where he had learned to dive in 1977 while working for six years on the design of the metro system in Caracas. He had joined a local dive club, quickly graduated to underwater photography, and was soon winning competitions and gleaning magazine photo commissions.
‘I was very lucky,’ he says. ‘Venezuela has more than a thousand miles of Caribbean coastline, which I found irresistible. My style of very non-intrusive diving suited taking photographs, and it grew from there.’
Alan returned to England with his family, but his work involved plenty of travel and he dived whenever he could, building up an extensive network of academic colleagues and friends who shared his interest in the marine world, both at Imperial College where he was a visiting professor and at the nearby Natural History Museum in London.
While working in the Far East, he met up with Bruno Hopff, an inspirational Swiss dive guide who became the co-owner of the Amira liveaboard – a traditional wooden-built Pinisi two-masted boat dedicated to exploring the marine diversity of the region. It was Bruno that persuaded an at-first sceptical Alan to try diving with a rebreather. He was quickly converted.
‘Rebreathers are incredible,’ says Alan. ‘But you can’t really call them user friendly. And it’s not that easy to get high-tech kit to work in the remote places I wanted to go.’
The well-equipped Amira and Bernie’s enthusiasm, plus the boat’s excellent dive guides, working as spotters for his photo subjects, soon changed his mind.
Alan says: ‘One of the things that really upsets the inhabitants of a coral reef is the noise open-circuit divers make plus the visual intrusion of all those bubbles. With a rebreather, you can be completely silent. And you can just observe, which is what I love. I would just go to a particular spot and start looking. Obviously, you are a presence on the reef, but you can become very non-intrusive with a rebreather.’
He also appreciated the added benefit of breathing the warm recycled air of a rebreather rather than the cold, noisy blast of cold compressed air from an open-circuit rig. Nothing scares off fish quicker than a shivering diver getting comfortable. Rebreathers also allowed him to worm his way into places he would never venture into if he was exhaling a stream of bubbles such as under coral heads.
However, it was the ability it gave him to get close to the shyer residents of the reef that fully sealed the deal.
‘I was trying to take an image of a fairy basslet,’ said Alan. ‘I was concentrating hard looking in a certain direction when I got a sixth sense that something’s looking at me and I turned around, and there were about five or six, red groupers looking over my shoulder to see what I was staring so intently at. Normally these groupers are difficult to get within shooting range because they are very wary. But these were sitting like parrots on my shoulder.
‘Often I would return from my dive where I had been off by myself with one on the boat’s truly wonderful guides and hear what the group had seen and realise I had seen six or seven sharks they hadn’t or a manta had come up right up to me and completely avoided them.’
Modern digital cameras and rebreathers are, Alan thinks a perfect mix. In many ways, he preferred the days of 36 frames and you were done. ‘Who wants to spend the whole diving taking thousands of useless images and never actually seeing anything’, he argued.
But he also remembered that all too often experience when he had taken all his shots on a film camera and his elusive prey would appear and happily swim around him.
‘Perhaps your body language changes when you actively stop hunting for your target. You relax and so do the fish. Not great for photography but wonderful for marine encounters.
‘However, with a rebreather and a digital camera you get the best of both worlds. You can stay down so long you are far more relaxed. You can also take as many images as you want but still have time to really look and observe your surroundings. It’s magic.’
As Alan’s portfolio grew with more and more unique images the idea of doing a book on the reef grew more pressing. A marine biologist friend put him in contact with Dutch scientist Sancia van der Meij, an expert of shrimps, and he found the partner he needed to help him hone his theories about what he was witnessing while underwater. They decided to focus on the Coral Triangle using his images to illustrate its awesome but fragile diversity of life.
While the threats to the region such as blast fishing, cyanide fishing, pollution and the impact of global warming are part of the book’s backdrop, Alan is far from despondent.
He said: ‘For reasons the scientist don’t yet fully understand the Coral Triangle is proving far more resilient than expected. You see ever worse mass bleaching in areas such as the Chagos archipelago far out in the Indian Ocean, or on the Great Barrier Reef. However, in the Triangle have only seen patches of bleaching and in a few areas when I returned a year later you could see signs of recovery.’
He points of that the marine reserves that are policed such as Komodo are proving to be effective. And he hopes his book is just one small part of the effort to keep preserving the reefs.
‘I’m used to giving talks about the civil engineering project I’m involved with and I love doing so about the marine world to the locals who are just as passionate as I am about the underwater environment. If the head of a village asks me to take pictures of the reef so they can show the children what is down there, I’m happy to do so and give them a flashcard of my pictures.’
At the Heart of the Coral TriangLE
Photographs by Alan J Powderham
The tiny bearded goby is among the vast number of small fish which account for more than 40 per cent of the fish diversity found on healthy reefs. Collectively they are known as cryptobenthic fish and are thought to provide more than 60 per cent of the fish biomass consumed on reefs.
Related to vertebrates, ascidians have a notochord, a primitive forerunner of a backbone. The lollipop tunicate (left) and the beautiful vase-like Rhopalaea sp, are encircled by smaller Clavelina.
The garish colouring and complex form of the Rhinopias may seem an odd livery for a stealth predator. But we should wary of judging from our perspective. It is a highly effective hunter – perhaps it confuses its prey.
The extremely shy Midas blenny pops its head out of a burrow in an encrusting sponge. The impressive-looking fangs are in fact ‘pseudo teeth’ used to attract females. They feed on zooplankton and graze on algae.
Unobtrusively hanging out at 20 metres on a rebreather, Alan was surrounded by a chaotic shoal of blue-streak fusiliers curious, but not spooked, by their silent intruder. Having checked him out, they returned to hoovering up the abundant zooplankton.
A titan triggerfish takes centre stage surrounded by a feather star and soft corals. A shy red coral grouper can be seen in the background.
Surprisingly, this plume worm did not retract when approached and stepped on by the brown frogfish. The frogfish even extended its lure to hunt. The advantage for the frogfish is that its prey are attracted to the worm’s plumes. The benefit for the worm is harder to discern.
The decorator crab on the right has just completed re-attaching an array of stinging hydroids as camouflage, after moulting and leaving its discarded shell on the left.
It remains a mystery how these Banggai cardinalfish, endemic to the Banggai archipelago in Central Sulawesi, ended up 400 kilometres away in the Lembeh Strait. Equally puzzling is that they seem to have adapted to living around the stinging tentacles of the anemone, crowding out the more usual resident clownfish.
The unique and dramatic dominance of sea anemones across wide expanses of Sumba Strait, Flores, Indonesia presents another mystery. While the surface water temperature of only 22 ºC (six to eight degrees less than the average for the region), caused by substantial upwellings and very strong currents that can reach eight knots, may be key factors, the full reasons remain unclear.
A mass spawning of nudibranchs. While all nudibranchs are functioning hermaphrodites (they each have both sets of sex organs) they do not self fertilise and they need to pair up to breed.