Fish Watching, Down Under: Part 2

As I mentioned in part one of this article, part two is about fish in the Great Barrier Reef. So to all you reef enthusiasts who got bored with the first installment, I hope the wait was worthwhile. If you have never been to a reef, I hope you get the chance to visit one at least once in your lifetime. It is truly an amazing experience.

For people with an interest in reefs, snorkeling or diving in them can be described very easily with just one word: WOW! If you are interested in knowing what you are seeing, or remembering all the details, the above description still applies, followed by “information overload”. Multitudes of incredibly colored fish swimming past an array of coral, anemones, rocks, algae and sea grass or dashing over a sandy stretch as they move from coral head to coral head. It is so dream like that that on my first visit to a reef I shook my head at the sight of two thread-fin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) on their way to a coral formation. Are they real, or have I been in the water too long? They were real, and there was much more to see.

Whether you have just a casual interest in reefs, or you must know everything that you see, I have some advice: get a few of those disposable underwater cameras and use them. You will forget 90% of what you saw by the time you are back home. This is no comment on your memory, but of the overwhelming diversity of life that is to be found in a reef. Over two days I spent about three hours in the water, and took three rolls of pictures. One of the most common fish in the pictures is the six-bar wrasse (Thalassoma hardwicke), a strikingly barred fish that is difficult to miss, yet I don’t recall seeing a single one. The pictures don’t lie. The wrasses were there, I just happened to be more interested in the butterflyfish at the center, or the spawning pair of sergeant majors, or the giant clam, or… So enjoy the scenery and let the camera remember what you see.

My other bit of advice is to relax and have fun. If you are going to snorkel, learn to use your equipment beforehand by practicing in a pool. You don’t want to worry about a leak in your mask or tight-fitting fins when you are on the reef. Also if you wear eyeglasses, you can get your prescription ground on the diving mask, or you can wear contact lenses. Trust me, chasing fuzzy fish hoping for a closer look is a very frustrating and tiring task. Before I got contacts I missed a close look at a sea turtle because I dismissed it as a glitch and had to come up for air. When I realized my mistake it was too late, the turtle swam away.

A last bit of advice is to do your homework. Learn about what creatures are dangerous at the reef and what to do should you run into them; local regulations; the best sites and so on.

Our tour started at Fitzroy Island, where we took a sea kayaking and snorkeling trip that left a lot to be desired, but that’s another story. The island is rocky with beaches of broken coral pieces that make tinkling sounds as the waves roll them. You can watch butterflyfish, sergeant majors, and cuttlefish right from the pier as you arrive. The snorkeling site had a lot of dead coral and the water was a little murky in places. It didn’t look promising, but as I explored further out things got very interesting. There were two Indo-Pacific sergeants (Abudefduf vaigiensis) at the base of a rock. As I got closer, the two dashed away revealing a batch of purple eggs on the rock. That’s when a feeding frenzy broke out as various fish came out to dine on the eggs. I took a picture of the frenzy and left in a hurry as I didn’t want to be responsible for a lost clutch of eggs. The diners happened to be two of the aforementioned “invisible” wrasses (Thalassoma hardwicke), two Jansen’s wrasses (Thalassoma jansenii), some young scissor-tailed sergeants (Abudefduf sexfasciatus), and a gorgeous male parrotfish (Scarus sp.). The parrotfishes are very difficult to identify as the males are highly variable in coloration and the females are very plain. From my pictures I managed to identify two species: the bullet-head parrotfish (Scarus sordidus) and the bridled parrotfish (Scarus frenatus). The males of both species are an incredible turquoise blue with green patches, pink dots and lines.

Along the way I stumbled upon a pair of virgate rabbitfish (Siganus virgatus), that seemed to always be in the same general open area. I also found a blue-spined unicornfish (Naso unicornis) that blended very well with the water. The fish has a greenish coloration that matches the color of the water, making it hard to see in deeper water. Other fish that seemed to disappear in open areas were either sand-colored, in which case I ignored them; or silvery green like the cornetfish (Fistularia commersonii), whose long body (150 cm) would be visible one second and then disappear in the reflections at the water surface, as if it was a mirage.

Noticeable in the sand were goatfishes and I thought there were two species of them. But close examination of the photographs revealed that I had actually seen at least four species: half-and-half goatfish (Parupeneus barberinioides) with a striking half-brown, half-yellow body; Indian goatfish (P. indicus); side-spot goatfish (P. pleurostigma); and black-striped goatfish (Upeneus tragula). The last three are pretty dull, so whenever I saw them they just registered as “another goatfish”. These fish have chin barbels (hence the goat in their name) that they use to dig in the sand.

Going back to more colorful fish, one of the highlights was finding three separate cleaning stations where bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) were busy cleaning other fish. The fish were undisturbed by my presence and it was neat to see larger fish arrive and hang in funny positions waiting to have their ectoparasites removed. Another highlight were two pairs of six-banded angelfish (Pomacanthus sexstriatus) that were determined not to let me get a decent picture of them. Luckily I managed to surprise one of them when I returned from shore with a new camera, and got a nice side view pose. They let me chase them through an area equivalent to half the size of a medium sized swimming pool, but always stayed in the same general area. Angels are territorial, and if that was the size of their territory I pity the marine aquarist who wants to keep them.

After chasing the angels I got a little cocky and started to look for something bigger. The angels’ territory had lots of crevices, so I looked for moray eels and jacks hiding in them but had no luck (the keyword here is look, not probe). While at the surface I saw a crested tern dive for fish nearby, so I thought I’d take a closer look. As I got closer the water seemed very strange and I lost my depth of field. The water was silvery everywhere, not just at the surface, and the rocks disappeared. A moment later my eyes refocused and I realized that I was surrounded by a huge school of small silver fish. They were either herring or anchovies. I thought I might see predatory fish dart at them, but the idea that I was near the center of their school was not a comforting one, so I moved on.

It was time to go back to shore, and I realized I was having too much fun when I caught myself rolling and swimming at weird angles trying to get the perfect shot of a crescent wrasse (Thalassoma lunare). At these times one almost forgets to surface for a breath of air. When I returned to shore, our kayaking guide asked if I had seen anything interesting. After hearing my account with glazed eyes he casually said “you should try the outer reef. You’ll like it”.

The next day we took a sailboat to Upolo Cay, in the “outer reef”. Our guides gave us a quick course in snorkeling technique, good manners and safety on the reef, and convinced us to take an introductory SCUBA lesson. To calm everyone down, we were assured that we had a better chance to see Elvis at the reef than a shark. We saw neither, but we later found out that we could see sharks if we took a second dive and asked one of the dive masters to show them to us.

There was something definitely different about the “outer reef”. The water was much clearer, deeper, the coral was alive and of an incredible variety, and giant clams were common. Butterfly fish were everywhere, along with multitudes of damsel fish. We snorkeled near the boat, took the SCUBA lesson, were ferried to the cay and snorkeled back to the boat.

The first fish seen was the boat’s mascot, a batfish (Platax orbicularis), that parked itself under the stern. It was an adult so it didn’t have the dead leaf shape and pattern of the young fish. As I neared the first reef patch I was greeted by schools of spiny chromis (Acanthochromis polyacanthus) and lots of blue fish, yellow fish, blue-and-yellow fish, black-and-white striped fish, and brown fish. I managed to narrow these down to the many species of damsel fish, though my pictures are not sharp enough to identify which species were present. I did get a great picture of a dusky anemone fish (Amphiprion melanopus) swimming over sea anemones, though.

We were not allowed to carry the cameras during our SCUBA dive, so I don’t remember much of what I saw. We did run into a school of Moorish idols (Zanclus cornutus), more anemonefish, a bicolor angelfish (Centropyge bicolor) with its striking dark blue and yellow colors, more six-banded angelfish and a truly giant clam. As if things weren’t colorful enough, these giant clams are dark green-blue with turquoise spots. Our dive master showed us that you can actually stick your hand inside the clam and not get trapped.

We were then taken to Upolo Cay itself so we could soak up the sun and warm up. The snorkeling on the way back was great, though we were literally herded back to the boat. I inquired about stingrays and turtles. I was assured that chances were very good of seeing rays, though it was the wrong time of the year for turtles. I was told that to see the stingrays I had to dive down in the sandy areas and look for a bump, then disturb the sand around it. “What about the stinger?” I asked, “just disturb the sand” was the reply. So when I arrived at the first sandy patch I promptly dove straight down and, thanks to the swimmers ahead of me, there was a blue-spotted stingray (Dasyatis kuhlii) swimming almost directly below me. I surfaced to point the ray to my wife and went back for a close look.

In the same area I found a Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus aculeatus) with its bizarre patterns looking quite faded. When it approached a dark piece of coral, the colors became much more intense. I also saw a juvenile highfin grouper (Epinephelus maculatus) darting away from me. The fish were very skittish in the open areas.

Last but not least were the many species of butterflyfish. They were the first “coral reef” fish that I recognized from books so I find them rather special. They are difficult to identify at the reef as many species look alike, and the information overload settles in, but the pictures saved the day. Of the white and yellow with black stripes variety there were Pacific double-saddle butterflyfish (Chaetodon ulietensis), black-backed butterflyfish (C. melannotus), vagabond butterflyfish (C. vagabundus) and the thread-fin butterflyfish (C. auriga). Of the yellow variety there were blue-spot butterflyfish (C. plebeius), the raccoon butterflyfish (C. lunula), the latticed butterflyfish (C. rafflessi), the golden-striped butterflyfish (C. aureofasciatus) and the speckled butterflyfish (C. citrinellus). The most striking one, due to its different patterns was the red-fin butterflyfish (C. trifasciatus). The vagabond and black-backed butterflyfish were the most common.

In part one I closed by saying that I was looking forward to keeping rainbowfish. I don’t get the same feeling with marine fish. They range over such an expanse that I can’t imagine them in a home aquarium. I would much rather enjoy them at their home than in my living room. When I read of cyanide and dynamite being used to catch reef fish for the aquarium hobby, I think we are better off protecting their environment and leaving them alone. Even the most spectacular reef tank is a pale shadow of the real thing.


Bock, Kenneth (1992). A Guide to Common Reef Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean & Kenya Coast. London, England: The MacMillan Press Ltd.

Lieske, Ewald, & Myers, Robert (1994). Coral Reef Fishes – Indo-Pacific & Caribbean. London, England: Harper Collins.?