THE GREAT MANDARIN HUNT
PHIL SLOSBERG, 1997

5:30AM. Sulawesi, Indonesia. I'm not sure if it was the nightmare or the rooster that woke me. My heart still races from the dream. Countless Mandarin Dragonets stretching toward the horizon…..pounding fins….I'm drifting under the herd for the last time….

The sun is rising and today is the big day. The Great Mandarin Hunt will begin in less than twelve hours! This isn't my first Hunt. I've been there before, but never came home with the trophy, the big one, the "killer shot".

We are staying at Kunkungan Bay Resort on the Lembeh Straits where the wily Mandarin Dragonet roams wild and free. The diving has been great; Ribbon Eels, nudibranchs of every color and description, DevilFish, Frog Fish, Ornate Ghost Pipefish….an endless variety of all the great macro stars of the Straits, but only a rare glimpse of the Mandarin. Tonight all others will be ignored as we hunt for the Mandarin alone.

Breakfast is the usual friendly affair but a bit more quiet than usual. The tension is already beginning to build. Two great dives in the morning and afternoon….new critters and good shots, but tonight's hunt is never far from anyone's mind.

The sun falls behind the mountains and afternoon shadows engulf the resort. We gather near the boat with our gear. Three of us will go out tonight: Phil Strub, who has walked the corridors of the Pentagon without a hint of fear, but will soon realize that not even the years in that strange environment has prepared him for what he would face tonight. Jan Wassmann, "Hamburg Wassi", the most experienced member of the group. This is his first Mandarin Hunt, but he is a battle-scarred veteran of hundreds of other hunts, having stalked critters from the icy depths of the Baltic to the Blenny infested waters of the Indian Ocean.

We load the dive gear and "big guns" onto the boat. Shining housings contain their deadly loads of Nikon 90s, long black ports sheathing the 105 and 200 caliber lenses.

I look into the faces around me as the motors crank up and we head toward the dive site. A half smile is playing across Phil's lips, but the tension is there, burning behind the eyes. He will be going out as an unarmed spotter and observer. God knows I would never have the guts to face the Mandarin without "Big Tussey" in my grip. I guess government service breeds that special brand of courage.

Wassi's face is impassive, but his fixed gaze on the horizon and the rhythmic twitching of his trigger finger gives away the inner tension. Wound as tight as an E flat viola string, Wassi is ready for anything that may come.

Our trusty guide and spotter, Samuel, is perched on the bow. He is already slipping into his wet suit. What could be going through his mind? A veteran of hundreds of these affairs, is he calculating our chances of survival? Wondering about a lost love? Trying to understand why they cast Mel Gibson instead of Sylvester Stallone as Hamlet? We will never know, his smiling face gives nothing away.

The boat pulls into the passage at the base of the lava flow, Batu Angus. Samuel slips quietly over the side to secure the craft. There is none of the usual pre-dive banter or fooling around. Gear and weapons are double-checked and the three of us join Samuel in the water. A quick glance at my watch reveals two facts: 1) we are right on time, and 2) The watch is leaking again as a small tropical rainstorm has developed between the crystal and watch face. Time becomes strangely irrelevant as we enter into The Hunt. (Air supply, on the other hand, is still pretty damn important).

Samuel guides us over the pristine corals as the reef and its' inhabitants begin to settle down for the night. Neon lights flicker on here and there and the corals are suffused by the unearthly glow of hundreds of tiny television sets tuning into prime time viewing as darkness falls on the reef.

Sure, you see an occasional Mandarin during the day, but the glimpse is only momentary and getting a clean shot impossible. At twilight, near Batu Angus, the Mandarin Dragonet comes out to feed and we will have the rare chance to face the little buggers on even terms.

Expansive coral gardens give way to a rubble-strewn bottom as we arrive at the site. We head in different directions and approaching a likely spot, I dump what little air remains in my BC, settle on the bottom and begin the long wait. I look over my weapon for the hundredth time. "Big Tussey" aluminum housing, N90s with a 200mm lens and 6T diopter…a deadly combination at short range, but tough to aim. The red lights on the strobes glow warmly in the rapidly fading light.

I close my eyes and begin to chant the mantra that has always settled my mind and nerves…a mantra given to me by a very wise guru in the Holy City of LaJolla, Master Chet: "Tussey is great, Tussey is good, Tussey cloaks my Nikon from all evils, my faith rests in Tussey." At last I am fully prepared for the hunt. The tremor in my hands has stilled and my air consumption has dropped to somewhat less than that of an average adult sperm whale.

I slowly open my eyes in the gathering darkness and a small green face is looking back at me. It is the Mandarin Dragonet! Somewhat smaller than a charging, heat crazed African Rhinoceros, but larger than the deadly Tsetse fly, it makes up in cunning, stealth and evil humor what it lacks in size.

A chill goes through my body as our eyes lock and I begin to inch forward to take a shot. I lift the housing to my eye and as I look through the viewfinder, the evil little green face comes into focus. Pectoral fins twitch and tiny fish lips move. I swear the words "Do you feel lucky today, punk?" come from the little green mouth. A few more inches and I'll have a clear shot….I glance at the LED and everything is ready to fire…I turn back to……AN EMPTY VIEWFINDER! The quarry has fled.

The Mandarins begin to take shape all around me as the minutes pass. I take a few shots, knowing in my heart that none will be "trophy quality". Suddenly, a barrage of flashing lights to my right announces that Wassi has run down his prey. I fin quietly over, wanting neither to spoil his shot nor be cut down in a stroboscopic crossfire. By the time I arrive, it is all over and Wassi is swimming toward me. One look at his beaming face and I know he has taken his trophy for the night. I give him a "thumbs up" sign and head back into the gloom.

A small green flash catches my eye and I am mask to nose with a Mandarin Dragonet peeking out from a cave. Swinging the viewfinder to my eye, I pan quickly and the face reappears. Head held high; a small fish sneer on his face, the little devil is arrogantly posing for the shot. I face the eternal dilemma: take the shot now or move in closer for The Great Shot? I feel lucky tonight…..I move closer. The viewfinder quickly fills with smiling Mandarin face and I am there! Perfect position! I gently pull the trigger …. And ….. NOTHING! No click, no flash, no musical fanfare. What could be wrong?!? A cascade of thought rushes through my head: "Out of film?" "Strobes not on?" "Did I leave the kitchen stove on back in Florida?" A quick glance at the viewfinder LED shows plenty of film and the ready flash lightening bolt is glowing encouragingly. Understanding dawns! I'm shooting in S mode and the camera will only fire when the autofocus is perfect. As the realization spreads across my otherwise dormant frontal lobes, both strobes go off with a blinding flash. Night vision returns slowly and I find myself staring into an empty viewfinder as the Mandarin flees the scene!

Swimming through the warm, dark Indonesian waters, the adrenaline begins to ebb and my mind wanders. I have no idea how the shots will look, but I know that tonight I met the infamous Mandarin Dragonet eye to eye, refused to back down and lived to tell the tale. That is enough for any diver.

 


Phillip Slosberg.
Copyright 1997 All rights reserved.