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Killer Triton attacks Crown of Thorns
Memory Bubble February 7, 2013 - Ilot Mato, Great Southern Lagoon of New Caledonia.
The water is clear, sea birds glide over the glowing turquoise water, and we are anchored in the middle of a maze of vibrant, beautiful coral reefs. It's experiment day. I've devised a new system for taking underwater sphere images with my teeny little GoPro Hero 3 and today is the day I give it a go. Freddy and I suit up and I slide into the sea - it is perfect, just the right temperature and good visibility. Freddy hands me the camera pole and the GoPro in the little pano-head mount I made this morning. Freddy comes in with her underwater camera and we swim leisurely towards the nearest patch reefs; she looking for any cute little critter to take close-ups of, me looking for the right "spot" to try a sphere image.
The corals are a spectacular mix of species, forms and colors. Just seeing all that vibrant life fills me with joy. Ahead is a big sphere of coral topped with a little yellow branching coral and blue fish flashing iridescent in the rippling sunlight. Just for fun I dive down and peer into a cave under the coral head to see what might be lurking in the shadows. And what do I see but a big Triton, Charonia tritonis! Wow. It is the third Triton Freddy and I have found in over 30 years of diving around New Caledonia.There was one at Ilot Maitre and another at Ilot Mbe Kouen.
The reason Tritons are so rare, of course, is that people can't resist killing them because they are so beautiful. Just about every diver that sees one will grab it. Tritons are protected, now, in New Caledonia and if the "Protection of the Lagoon" patrol boat catches someone with a live Triton on the boat they could be fined 1 million CFP and have their boat confiscated. But unfortunately people don't know, don't care, or think they can dump it over the side should they spot a patrol boat coming. Just this morning, on the way to our dive spot, I saw a group of spearfishers in the anchorage and one of them was holding up a spear with a tiny fish on it. If they saw this triton I am absolutely positive it would be taken.
This is the largest triton we've found - I'm amazed it survived this long.
The triton is sound asleep in it's cave. They sleep during the day and then go prowling at night, searching for starfish to devour. Tritons are important predators of the infamous Crown-of-Thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci). We go way back, the Triton, the Crown-of-Thorns, and I. Way back to 1969 when I was chief scientist for a special Department of Interior survey of the Crown-of-Thorns starfish in the tropical north Pacific. I had discovered a massive infestation of the Crown-of-Thorns starfish devouring Guam's coral reefs from the intertidal zone down to the depth limit of coral growth - a massive front of them advancing at one kilometer per month. The survey was to try and discover why the infestations were happening and what should be done about it.
Mr. Triton, sound asleep under the coral head, is a protector of all the beautiful and lush coral that surrounds us; a hero.
I carefully remove him from the cave and set him on a little platform of dead coral and then I take a sphere image of my hero with my Hero3 camera. Very apt. But the triton looks kind of inert, either still asleep or scared out of it's little wits. So I return him safely to his cave and Freddy and I swim around taking photos of everything that looks interesting or pretty. We keep an eye out for a Crown-of-Thorns starfish but they are not common in this part of the lagoon. The starfish are having a resurgence in many areas of the South Pacific this year; the experts now estimate that the Crown of Thorns has killed 40% of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef and a friend of ours in Vanuatu has begun waging a war on the Crown of Thorns on the western side of Efate. There have also been some starfish blooms here in New Caledonia, with hundreds of the beasts forming mini-plagues.
Back to the dinghy, chilled and happy, we strip off our snorkeling gear, put the cameras away, and bask in the sun. Then we pull up the anchor and motor slowly around the edge of the deeper portion of the coral reef just to see what's there. The water is calm enough that we can see the corals clearly in 10 meters of water.
"There's a Crown-of-Thorns," says Freddy, pointing down into the depths, "a real monster!"
Sure enough I can see it - a black circle with 18 arms spread out on the bottom.
"Let's offer it to the Triton and see what happens," I say staring down into the depths.
"How are you going to get it back there?" Freddy the realist points out, "You don't have any gloves, a sac, or even a knife!"
I look back; we are now about a half a kilometer from Mr. Triton. "I'll tie a line around it and we can tow it back."
I untie our stern line, get my gear on and dive down, holding the camera pole in one hand and the line in the other. The Crown-of-Thorns is flattened out on the bottom, it's stomach extended, eating a coral. It really is a huge monster, a little over a half a meter in diameter. I pry it loose and it promptly rolls into a sphere with a zillion needle sharp venomous spines pointing in every direction. I juggle the pole into the nest of 18 arms and slowly push the starfish towards the surface. There is a fair current running here and a little surge, too. I realize I'm not going to have an easy time getting the line around the spiny ball, so I push it over into the shallows on top of the reef and find a bare area where I can stand. This proves to be a big error as the floating sphere of spines moves with the current and surge but I don't. I do a wild fandango of a dance - splashing - trying to get the noose around the monster while keeping my tender fingers away from the spines, and ignoring Freddy's laughter from the dinghy. Finally I untie the noose, lay the line on the bottom and push the monster against the line. Then I loop it around and tie it off. For luck I do another turn and knot. Got it. I tow the monster back to the dinghy and Freddy holds the line while I slither over the inflatable's tube.
"Careful, don't let it touch!" I have visions of multiple little spine holes in our dinghy. You have no idea how sharp the spines are. I once saw a scanning electron microscope image of an Acanthaster spine and the point is a single molecule of calcite - it will go into a finger, or an inflatable dinghy's tube, without the slightest pressure.
I slowly motor back to the Triton's lair with the spine ball towing behind. We anchor, gear up and sploosh in with great expectations. I drop the Crown-of-Thorns on the sand and invite Mr. Triton out for lunch.
As soon as I put the sleepy Triton on the sand next to the starfish, out come the tentacles and eye-stalks and then the whole mollusk. The Crown-of-Thorns senses the Triton and begins running away as fast as it's thousands of tube feet can carry it. This is tremendous. Freddy and I take some images as the Triton begins to ravage the monster, it's long proboscis snaking out to bore into the disk of the starfish.
But wait, it would be much better to get a sphere image of the Triton attack! So I pick up the Triton with one hand and use my camera pole with the other hand to move the starfish over to the lovely little coral home of the Triton. I put the starfish down in a likely spot, center stage, and look down at the Triton. Freddy is laughing, her mask filling up with water. She takes out her snorkel and says, "You can just see it saying, 'let me at em!'"
True, the Triton is fully extended from it's shell, feelers waving, teeny little eyes bulging, foot reaching for the sea floor. I put it down and it literally leaps onto the starfish - I barely have time to get the GoPro Hero 3 operational and in position to start my sphere. For luck I take the sphere four times being very careful to keep the camera in exactly the same spot. It is close to the bottom and only inches from the tips of the arms of the Crown-of-Thorns. I am not sure of how close the camera will focus or what the angle of view is underwater but I do know that the branching corals surrounding the arena where we have fed the Crown-of-Thorns to the Triton will be impossible to stitch if there is too much parallax error.
When Freddy and I get back in the dinghy I am in a state of absolute silly bliss. What a day! We look all around at the absolutely gorgeous tropical splendor and both of us have the same goofy grin on our faces. The whole world glows with a special beauty. Freddy starts giggling again, "Lemme at em! I could just see him saying that," and she reaches out her arms mimicking the Triton's zeal.
The whole episode made me feel terrific and this memory bubble image will always bring back that feeling, "Yeah, this is really living." along with the realization that special moments of satisfied happiness are the pearls of our lives.
Technical note: I took hundreds of images of the Triton Attack and, back aboard our yacht Moira, I use Kolor Autopano Giga to stitch the best selection. I took three rows of images - up, mid, and down - and the final sphere is made from 55 shots. It is something of a miracle that Autopano (after some adjustments recommended by Kolor support) stitched it nearly perfectly in less than a minute.
New Caledonia is the closest South Pacific Island to Australia and New Zealand. It is a French Territory and although the official language is French the culture is a blend of Melanesian, European, Polynesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian, and more. There is one large mountainous island called Grande Terre and 6 smaller islands - the three Loyalty Islands, Belep and the Isle of Pines.The islands are remarkably unpopulated and there are vast areas of wilderness. There are hundreds of kilometers of walking treks, camp grounds, more than 42 parks and reserves, and crystal clear rivers with sparkling waterfalls. Almost one third of the population is located in the capital city of Noumea. Nickel mining is the primary industry and is the major contributor to the high standard of living in the country. Grande Terre is surrounded by the second largest barrier reef in the world and the protected lagoon created by this barrier reef is the largest in the world. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008, the lagoon is 24,000 square kilometers and supports a diverse and luxuriant fauna of fish and invertebrates.The vibrant, clear and rich colors are one of the first things that visitors notice when they arrive. Noumea has a complete range of hotels, resorts, restaurants, and activities to welcome visitors.