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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#637: The Mayor of Blue Corner

Palau and the region are noted for the sharks and manta rays divers and snorkelers can observe there. I had no trouble filming LOTS of sharks on my recent trip there to dive with Palau Dive Adventures. I even caught a few manta rays on camera although it wasn't peak season for them. However, one of the other fish I was very hopeful of filming was an old friend. I'm talking about the Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus).

The first time I ever saw this fish up close and personal was back in 2001 while diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef. I was out on a four day liveaboard with Deep Sea Diver's Den based in Cairns. I chose them because when I showed Paul Crottie, their head instructor, my torn-and-tattered SCUBA certification card (c-card), he smiled and said it was a "museum piece." I was pleasantly surprised that he even knew what it was since none of the PADI instructors I'd met on this trip had any idea what a Los Angeles County certification meant. I decided right then and there that his was the shop I'd dive with.

I also thought it was time (after nearly 40 years of diving by then) to get a PADI advanced open water (AOW) certification. My Los Angeles County c-card allowed me to do everything the PADI AOW card did, and it had included rescue diver training on top of that. However, I thought it a good idea to carry a PADI card so less knowledgeable instructors I dove with during my 10 week trip around the Pacific would accept my training.

While out on the liveaboard anchored off the Great Barrier Reef, we did a deep dive (about 100 ft) and Paul had us go through some mental exercises to prove we were narc'ed (affected by nitrogen narcosis). On that dive we also had a finned buddy who came in to watch us on the dive. It was a Napoleon wrasse who was actually interested in an egg that Paul had carried down to feed it. Back then I didn't have any underwater video system. Long before that I had given up on imaging underwater after unsuccessfully using a Nikonos II underwater film camera back in 1970. However, watching this wrasse (a relative of our local sheephead) and a turtle munching on seaweed a foot away from my face convinced me to get one as soon as I returned to Catalina two months later.

One of the classic Palau dive sites is known as Blue Corner. It is often ranked among the top dive sites in the world. Of the 30 dives I did in Palau, six of them ended up there. Much to my pleasure the site is not "ruled" by the dozens of sharks, but by the "Mayor of Blue Corner." Yep, you guessed it... a Napoleon wrasse. I'm not sure if he was democratically elected by the other fish, but you could tell from his attitude that he was top dog there. Jason, co-owner of Palau Dive Adventures, also used the same trick to get him in close... a chicken egg! On one of our first trips there Jason and Kristina, the new bride honeymooning with her husband Todd, were able to bring the wrasse in close and hug and kiss it. Later on our last dive there the wrasse approached me closely and swam slow circles around me giving me a wonderful chance to get some great footage. A few minutes later he realized I had no egg to give him and swam off.

The Napoleon wrasse can be found in a wide range of tropical habitats including the South Pacific, Micronesia, the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and the Red Sea at depths down to about 200 ft. I'll be heading to the Egyptian Red Sea in August and hope to gather more footage of them. One of their distinguishing features is the hump on top of the head, which leads to another common name, the humphead wrasse. It is also called the Maori wrasse. The color is a combination of beautiful blues, greens and yellows. There is a pair of dark, diagonal lines that cross over each eye. These are the largest members of the wrasse family reaching lengths of up to 7 1/2 ft and may weigh over 400 pounds. Their food consists primarily of molluscs whose thick shells they crush with a set of molar-like teeth in the rear of the mouth. They are also known to feed on toxic sea hares and the crown-of-thorns starfish. Yummy!

Of course no "Dive Dry" column would be complete without some of the R-rated details of the species' life. After all, this is all about Munching and Mating. Napoleon wrasse become sexually mature between four and six years... and you thought human children were too precocious! When it's their season, the mature adults move to the downcurrent end of the reef and form spawning aggregations to better insure fertilization. Like many other wrasses, this species is a protogynous hermaphrodite. The "A" students among my readers will remember that this means they all start out as females and then some change to males at around nine years of age. Of course all the stress of mating apparently gets to the poor boys as they are estimated to live a mere 45 years while the ladies (assuming they don't change sex) may make it to 50.

Napoleon wrasse were targeted by fishermen for many years because they commanded high prices in Asian restaurants and markets. This caused them to become a threatened species and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) lists it as endangered. Now I have many Asian friends, but I never cease to be amazed at what some Asian men think will enhance their virility. A dish made from the lips of this fish is believed by some to be an aphrodisiac. I haven't broached the subject with my female Asian friends. However I hope that Asian men will seek better living through chemistry in the form of Viagra or Cialis rather than Napoleon wrasse lips and rhinoceros horns.

In addition to reducing the population of Napoleon wrasses, the method used to capture them involves damage to the coral reefs themselves. Fishermen use sodium cyanide to stun the fish. The dazed fish seeks shelter deep in the coral reef. It is followed by a pair of "catchers," divers who tear apart the coral to get at the poor fish, then give it another dose of cyanide. Given its endangered status, many countries either forbid its catch or regulate its take and sale. I was somewhat disappointed to see that the restaurant sign in the nearby Palasia Hotel featured an image of a Napoleon wrasse but I doubt it was on the menu there.

© 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Obviously "the Mayor" is curious about Dr. Bill, taking a very close look and swimming around me;
Kristina and Jason getting up close and personal with the Mayor.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2014 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia