It’s 5 a.m. and the sky is fast warming in the east with a thin waning crescent moon; the stars are hanging on in the western sky and the water is lapping against the dock. I’m here in Malakal, boarding a boat with Dari Divers about to go and see one of nature’s spectacles and a hope for conservation across the world.
The boat swiftly transports us to the dive site and we wait while our guide Lee assesses the situation. For all the chaos in the world, nature and its clocks can be amazingly accurate because we are here three days before the new moon at sunrise at high slack tide. Below us the reef is still quite dark but large shapes are assembling, these shapes belong to Giant Bumphead Parrotfish (Bulbometopon muricatum), the largest of the parrotfish family. Hundreds of these square-headed meter-long fish are now gathered; the males occasionally butting heads in some ritualistic behavior that makes a sound somewhat similar to two 4x2 pieces of wood being smacked together.
This many fish in one place is in itself something that is rarely encountered in this modern world but what they are about to do is even rarer. The Giant Bumphead has long been sought for its valuable meat and as such its population has diminished drastically across Indo-Pacific range. Here in Palau the populations were targeted so much that a local fisherman, upon seeing the decline, sought help from their traditional leaders. In the mid-90s the Marine Protection Act was enacted into law, which imposed a moratorium on the taking of the Bumpheads and other heavily fished species. What this did was vital, because the best thing you can do for nature is to just leave it alone.
Fish do what fish do: they swim, eat, avoid being eaten and they make babies. Gradually the numbers began to increase. Action had been taken before it was too late. Gradually they returned to pre-exploitation levels and they were again noticed by fisherman, but these fishermen now worked for certain dive shops. And instead of killing them, they took divers to see them do what Bumphead parrotfish do when they make babies.
Many liken this spawning event to fish porn — an orgy of fish even. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of fish gather together from across miles of reef for the sole purpose of copulating. The fish now assembled have already undergone a dramatic color change, with their blunt heads now bleached white. They are in effect dressing up for a date — a date with hundreds of other individuals that start with foreplay consisting of head-butting.