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.
Once the unseen cue is given, the bumpheads leave the reef and proceed in a huge procession of horny fish out into the open water where they mingle about a bit, unsure of themselves or of each other — I’m not sure, maybe just waiting for the right time. Then just when you start to think it’s a big tease they begin. One gives another a wink the only way a fish with no eyelids can, and the cue is spread throughout the aggregation. The instigator is a female, who starts to swim rapidly through the school. She is quickly followed by a group of males all vying to be there at the moment she releases her eggs. She often ascends rapidly up through the water column, right up into the top 20ft of water, her and her suitors reach their “moment” at which point huge clouds of eggs and sperm are released. The whole process from initiation of the spawning rush to the release is only about five seconds, but with hundreds of fish all involved simultaneously the scene resembles a fireworks display with multiple rushes going on all around you. The water rapidly changes from a clear blue to a more milky hue and the action ceases in that area, only to resume in a clearer volume of water nearby. This fish orgy will last for as long as an hour filling the water with gametes (eggs and sperm), which will drift away with the outgoing tide where they fertilize, grow and drift as larvae with the plankton.
The adults having spent themselves with this orgy then lounge around and have a smoke and a short nap.
After a while, the larval survivors (for many are eaten by plankton feeders like Manta Rays and other fish) eventually grow large enough and return to the reef where they settle and continue to grow.
The “spawning dives”— as they are known — is a relatively new attraction in Palau’s already remarkable diving itinerary. Several species of fish are regularly observed at different phases of the moon at different times of the year. Very often these aggregations also draw in considerable numbers of predators including otherwise rarely seen Shark species like Oceanic Blacktips and Bulls.
Veteran divers like my guide Lee know where to find them and Dari Divers will take you there in comfort and style.
The Palauan traditions of conservation have secured many areas of reef (like the Ulong Channel area (above)) and subsequently many species from over exploitation, these areas are now some of the most productive in the world. For more information find them here: http://www.daridiverspalau.com
(Richard Brooks is a media producer based in Palau. His company Lightning Strike Productions covers everything from underwater to aerials. You can see more of his work here: www.lightningstrikeproductions.co.uk)