An avid diver and photographer recounts his experience with a gorgeous Maori Wrasse female in the deep coral reefs off the Red Sea coastline. These magnificent sea creatures are highly vulnerable to the live reef-fish trade predominant across parts of Asia.
A Maori legend explains that the northern island of New Zealand emerged when the demi-god Maui yanked it out of the depths of the ocean with his magic fish hook, believing it to be a giant fish. Thanks to the same legend, the southern island was dubbed, ‘Te Waka a Mãui,’ or the waka (canoe) of Maui, while Stewart Island, at the southernmost tip of New Zealand was called, ‘Te Punga a Mãui,’ or Maui’s anchor.
To those who have glimpsed at the wonders that lie under the sparkling waters in that part of the world, it should come as no surprise that the ocean should take centre stage in Maori mythology. Slip into the deep blue and you’ll find Maori warriors, complete with painted faces and bodies just like their human counterparts; stunning Maori Wrasses that display intricate blue-green-orange patterns on their faces and bodies and black markings behind their eyes.
And with so many men off to war, it’s interesting to see how the ladies adapt. In the absence of a dominant male in the area for a long time, females will change their colours–literally–and develop more prominent humps so as to signify a change of gender.
Mick Jagger also flaunts his moves behind this fluid curtain, or, at least a fish with those famous pouty lips…but wait, that could just as easily be Napoleon Bonaparte, with that humped head undeniably evocative of the famous commander’s hat, hence its also known as the Humphead Wrasse or Napoleon Wrasse.
I was fortunate enough to encounter several such beauties recently during a dive in the Red Sea, and it was an overwhelming, emotionally uplifting experience, one that reminded me why diving had blossomed into such an obsession for me.
Eager to capture these marvels of nature, we dived in equipped with our new underwater camera system. But just like a good book, it took a while for the action to start. A few pages later, the excitement really gripped us. One of us spotted a really large male Maori Wrasse fish. Bluish green and yellow with one of the largest humps I had ever laid eyes on, he looked positively regal under water.
Armed with the knowledge that he had neither predators to fear nor enemies lurking behind seaweed, he swished around boldly, unchallenged. The business of finding food required his urgent attention and he was not to be seen again during our dive. Hard-shelled molluscs and crustaceans are favoured by His Highness; it is one of the only species that feeds on the most destructive coral inhabitant, the Crown-of-thorns starfish – a king must protect his kingdom, after all.
Like paparazzi who had caught a rare glimpse of a star, we got snapping quickly and managed to get a few quick shots of this majestic creature, one of the largest reef fishes in the world.
But it was his companion, the resplendent female Maori Wrasse, with war paint prominent and exquisite, bright orange eyes, electric iridescent colours and patterns, who had hitherto been hovering in his shadow that eventually stayed with us throughout our dive. What a perfect hostess! As curious as we were, she glided up close, just an inch away from my mask. Here, with her eyes looking straight at me, she made a sudden U-turn and moved away sharply.
She swam through the space between my feet, which I very gingerly and nervously parted; eventually moving on to each diver present, as if to offer a personal greeting. Here was one sharp female! Her innate intelligence and absolute awareness were undeniable. One could see it in her eyes. It’s actually not unusual for Maoris to form a bond with divers and even to seek them out whenever they’re in the vicinity.
Maori Wrasse Fun Facts
» Maori Wrasses are over fished to a large extent, and rarely to be seen in Far Eastern waters anymore.
» Prices for their flesh are up 100 USD for a kg and the lips go for over 400 USD.
» They are mainly shipped to Hong Kong and then onwards to China which is the biggest market.
» As the diners want fresh fish, illegal fishing boats have netted pens under their boats where these fish are kept and then made to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles from different shores to reach Hong Kong or China.
The Game of “Catch” with Maori Wrasse’s
One avid diver’s account mentioned an episode when he got into the habit of playing an underwater version of ‘catch’ with one such fish. He wrote that he would carry a golf ball underwater and chuck it, prompting the Maori to swallow the ball and then spit it out forcefully toward the diver.
This game would go on tirelessly throughout the dive. The idea developed probably because divers used to regularly feed boiled eggs to the Maoris earlier. This practice has now been banned for a while. Our radiant beauty, meanwhile, seemed to love the spotlight.
She gave me ample opportunity to test my new camera gear every now and then, frequently coming as much as just a few millimetres away from me. I had an 8mm fisheye lens, which translates into a 16mm wide underwater, so looking at the pictures one can imagine how close these encounters were. So awed were we by the experience that at the end of the dive, we sat around in silence, just absorbing what we had had the privilege to see.
For me it was much more than that; an interaction full of communication and a silent understanding that I still cannot fathom or explain. We burst into an animated discussion of how each one of us had perceived our personal interaction with this majestic ocean dweller. It was with a sense of déjà vu maybe that I jumped into the water the next day. And lo behold, there was Josephine (I decided we should be on a first-name basis with her now) swimming with us, seeming even friendlier than before.
Was that a glint of happiness I saw in her deep intelligent eyes or was it me, a vain human trying to express what I experienced, I wondered. My heart wrenches with pain to imagine that her clan features on lavish menus in the Far East and other places in the world. If only they could experience such a rendezvous with Josephine…!
First Appeared In: Saevus Wildlife India Magazine, Tete-a-Tete, Vol.3 Issue 4, June 2014
Text and Images: Digant Desai