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Last Of The Reef Buffalo

Text and photography by Doug Perrine


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Giant Humphead Wrasse or Napoleon Wrasse
Giant Humphead Wrasse, aka Napoleon or Maori wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus, Layang Layang Atoll, Malaysia, South China Sea Image #: 000449

Even the victim was laughing, but Dr. Steve Oakley was not amused. He’d spent hours waiting for the perpetrator at its "love nest" that morning, then gone down to one of its nighttime hangouts to look for it in the afternoon. Sure enough, as soon as he left, the "Spratly Killer Wrasse" was back at the "bachelor pad," and everybody had seen it but him. Some of the divers got a little closer look than they were expecting. One of the guests, a gentleman from Scandinavia, described how the giant humphead wrasse had responded to the discharge of photo strobes by dashing forward and striking him in the chest so hard that it knocked the wind out of him, and splitting his head open with its fang-like teeth. I might have thought he was exaggerating, if he hadn’t shown me the three-inch gash on his bald pate.

Lest anyone doubt that this "cute" fish with its expressive eyes is a tough character, let me refer the reader to Randall, et al.’s 1978 paper on "Food habits of the giant humphead wrasse, Cheilinus undulatus (Labridae)." First, let it be noted that the suspect also goes by the aliases "Maori wrasse" and "Napoleon wrasse." It is the largest wrasse in the world, reaching a length of 2.3 m and a weight of 191 kg. (For the record, that’s about three times what I weigh, with my shoes on). According to Randall, the stomach contents include molluscs, crustaceans, echinoderms, fishes, coral, algae, sponges, and foraminifera – in other words just about everything on the reef, although the last four items were considered to have been ingested incidentally. Specific items consumed include sea hares, which exude a noxious chemical when disturbed, and boxfish, which exude a poison so strong that it often kills all the other fish kept in an aquarium with them. Also eaten were cone shells – snails that hunt fish with a poison dart armed with venom strong enough to kill several humans. Other dietary items included sharp-fanged moray eels, prickly long-spined sea urchins, and crown-of-thorns starfish, which are both spiny and venomous. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Napoleons are not above smashing apart coral with their powerful jaws to get at cowries and other prey hidden inside. Hard-shelled molluscs and crustaceans are easily pulverized by the "grinding mill" or "pharyngeal teeth" – a second set of dentition inside the fish’s throat.

However, Oakley was not tracking the fish because of its destructive feeding behavior or its attacks on humans. He was investigating sexual acts with multiple younger partners. In the preceding days he had become the first scientist to witness the spawning behavior of this species. He had even managed to collect some of the fertilized eggs and raise them for a few days in a crude running seawater system at his campsite on Layang Layang Atoll. During the course of weeks of patient underwater observation, hanging on a drift line in the current, he had managed to get the dominant male Napoleon on Layang’s reef habituated to his presence. Then, when the moon entered the correct phase, he had a ringside seat as the male spawned with its harem of smaller females. Other scientists had observed a male "parading" with females, but no one had seen an actual spawning before, much less swim into it to collect eggs.

Oakley, a biologist and professor at the University of Malaysia at Sarawak (UNIMAS), was less interested in the spawning behavior of the fish than in the fate of the eggs. The spawning site was located at a point on the reef where strong currents flush the eggs offshore. He believes that the eggs do not return to Layang Layang, an isolated atoll in the Spratly Archipelago of the South China Sea. Instead, they are carried away by the gyre current that spins counter-clockwise around the South China Sea for most of the year. The larval life period of humphead wrasses is not known, but Oakley suspects it is prolonged. After the eggs hatch, the larvae may drift in the plankton until the current deposits them in the islands of the Philippines. In years past, the spawn from the Spratlys would have up and matured in the Philippines and spawned there. Those larvae would be carried by the currents around the South China Sea to the next stop, which might be Thailand or Vietnam. Those fish would have matured and spawned, and the offspring of the third generation might be repatriated to Layang Layang, or other Malaysian reefs, completing the cycle.

That was in the days before the live fish trade. With the explosive economic growth of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other countries with large Chinese populations, food fetishes that were once the exclusive domain of decadent mandarins came within reach of the burgeoning bourgeoisie. Dishes such as shark fin soup, which had been derided by the communists as symbols of corrupt capitalism, became de rigeur at weddings and other events where it is considered important to impress others with one’s wealth. High on the list of status plates are reef fish, displayed alive until just before (or in some cases just after) they are eaten. And among the trophy fishes, the most valued is the humphead wrasse. Specifically, it is the lips that are said to bring a price of over $200 per plate in upscale restaurants. To me, it sounds as appealing as ripping off Mick Jagger’s lips and chewing on them, but then I’ve never developed a taste for sea cucumbers or tiger penises either. The next snippet of information I wish to share with you I will quote directly from a 1995 report by Johannes and Reipen, lest you think I am making this up: "Large humphead wrasse are sometimes sold by the piece in Hong Kong markets. So that customers can be sure that the fish is alive, it is carefully sliced open in such a way as to expose the heart, which will continue to beat even after large portions of the flesh are removed."

As you can imagine, catching fish the size of a Napoleon live and undamaged is not an easy proposition. I once saw a fellow try to lift a fairly small one, about 8 kg or so, out of a display pond in order to film it. The wrasse decided that the best defense was a good offense. By the time the filmmaker was able to jump out of the pond, "Killer Wrasse Junior" had made a bloody mess of him. The video will doubtless be someday broadcast on "Malaysia’s Funniest Home Videos." The "solution" to the problem came from the aquarium fish trade. A solution of sodium cyanide pumped into the coral head tranquilizes the fish so that a diver can put a hook into its mouth, pull it out, and carry it to the surface. Sometimes a fisherman just dumps a 55 gallon drum of cyanide over the whole reef. One estimate is that over 6,000 cyanide divers pump 50,000-kg of dissolved poison onto 33 million coral heads annually. Sometimes it is necessary to bust the coral head apart with crowbars to get at the fish. The target fish is usually revived. The smaller fish, coral, and other invertebrates in the area die fairly quickly. The fisherman takes a while longer. And as for the final consumer – who knows?

The popularity of cyanide-laced live fish has been such that the humphead wrasse was recently added to the IUCN red list (of endangered species). Actually, because of its life history, this fish was in danger in many areas even before the recent blooming of the live fish trade. The reefs of the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have essentially been scoured clean of this and other prized species. If a larva drifts in from Layang Layang, it will only grow to a small size before it is captured. The Napoleon has a known life span of at least 20 years, but Dr. Robert Johannes has proposed that larger individuals may be over a century old. Juveniles prefer shallow lagoon habitats where they hide among branching corals. They are paler in color than adults and lack the hump on the forehead. The size at sexual maturity is estimated at 50 cm by Dr. Yvonne Sadovy of the University of Hong Kong. Other estimates put it at more than a meter. It would take at least five years to reach a length of 50 cm. As in many species of wrasses, at least some females later reverse sex to become males. (Other fish may start life as males). In larger males the hump on the head becomes more pronounced and takes on a vivid blue coloration. The squiggly patterns on the face (by which individual fish can be identified) become more intensely colored. (These patterns are said to resemble the facial tattoos of Maoris, hence the name "Maori wrasse.") A dominant male is bigger, brighter, and more aggressive than other wrasses. Interestingly, Randall, in his paper, notes that "C. undulatus is among the most wary of Indo-Pacific reef fishes. Furthermore, the larger the individual, generally, the more difficult it is for a diver to approach it." Writing in 1978, Randall had no experience diving reefs where the fish had become used to divers with benign intentions. The difference in behavior between wrasses in protected and unprotected areas is one indication that they may be nearly as intelligent as the bulging forehead makes them appear.

Not much is known about reproduction in this species, but in some wrasses, most of the spawning is done by terminal males or "supermales," which are generally sex-reversed females. In most of the Indo-Pacific area, however, humpheads no longer survive long enough to breed even once, let alone reverse sex. Even if a female produces eggs, there may be no males to fertilize them. Sadovy reports that the vast majority of humphead wrasses in the live fish markets of Hong Kong are immature, and that only immature fish are being exported from the Philippines. Although there are a number of marine parks in the South China Sea, the only effectively protected areas are at Layang Layang Atoll and Sipadan Island, both under the jurisdiction of Malaysia, although claimed by other countries as well. On the surface, the wrasse populations on these reefs might appear to be healthy. However, Dr. Oakley has counted only one juvenile at Layang Layang. Since the 3-generation replenishment pattern has been cut at two places, the chances for new additions to these two last populations are slim. As the fish age and die, no recruits will take their place, so the population will steadily decrease towards oblivion, in spite of the best efforts and intentions of divers, divemasters, park wardens, etc. The only thing that can preserve the species within this sea, according to Oakley, is a series of marine protected areas in all the countries bordering the South China Sea. These would serve as spawning areas for a variety of reef fish, and could greatly increase the productivity of fisheries outside the protected zones, as well as re-connecting orphaned populations like the wrasses of Layang Layang and Sipadan. Dr. Sadovy has also recommended a complete ban on international trade in this and other species that are highly vulnerable to overfishing.

If the scenario is reminiscent of the last days of the great herds of bison on the American plains, the analogy is even more appropriate for another fish – the bumphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum. The comparison to a herd of buffalo munching across the prairie is inescapable to anyone who has observed this spectacle of a school of bumpheads grazing over a reef, right down to the noise and clouds of dust. The noise comes from the demolition of coral – both living and dead – as it is bitten off by teeth fused into parrot-like beaks, and then crushed by the impressive mills of pharyngeal teeth in the throat. They have been rumored to smash coral for feeding by ramming it with the impressive forehead hump, which becomes red in large individuals, but researchers insist that this is not the case. The function of the hump, if any, remains unknown. Dr. David Bellwood of James Cook University estimates that each fish consumes between 4-5 metric tons of reef per year, half of which is live corals – enough to have a significant effect on coral community structure. By eating the fast-growing Acropora corals, the parrotfish may allow the slower-growing corals more room on the reef, according to Dr. Nick Dulvy of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. "Dust" clouds the water as the coral is excreted out the other end of the digestive tract. It comes out as pure white sand, after the extraction of nutrients from algae and invertebrates. Eventually piles of this fish poop wash up on shore for tourists to lounge on.

As with the Napoleon wrasse, bumpheads are often described in published references as "wary." Until recently I would have considered this term an understatement with regards to both species. The early part of my diving career was spent in islands where both were highly valued as food fish. In Ponape, the humphead wrasse was royal food – to be presented to the Namwarki, or king, in the rare event that one was captured. By day both species were only seen as phantoms at the very edge of visibility, so the only way to capture one was at night. The wrasses sleep well tucked into caves in the coral. If found, they were easily speared, but only extracted with great difficulty (in the pre-cyanide days, of course). The parrotfish present a different problem for the fisherman. Although smaller than the wrasses, attaining a size of 1.3 m and 46 kg to perhaps as much as 61 kg, they are more heavily armored. The massive scales will deflect a spear even fired at point-blank range, bending the shaft without penetration. With little fear of predation, the parrotfish often sleep right out in the open, on patches of sand or coral ledges. Native divers learned to capture them by cupping one hand over the forehead bump, cradling the body with the other arm, and just swimming them up to the surface and throwing them into the canoe. If spearing one was hard, the thought of getting a good underwater photo of such a fish seemed an impossibility.

That was before I saw the great herds of Layang Layang and Sipadan. Completely protected from any form of fishing, and exposed to dozens or more non-lethal divers each day, these fish have developed an equanimity – a zen-like acceptance of clumsy camera-toting, flash-firing bipeds – that has to be seen to be believed. This is not to say that they can’t be scared away. I’ve frequently seen them calmly but effectively remove themselves from the presence of agitated divers blasting them with clouds of exhaust bubbles. I remember vividly an explanation given to me by "Rambo" – a divemaster at Borneo Divers on Sipadan – as to why we hadn’t seen the bumpheads at the usual place on our morning dive. He had seen another group of divers arrive at the bumphead spot before us. "They charged the parrotfish like hungry tigers!" he said, animatedly pantomiming the crazed photo divers. Bumpheads will also abandon their sleeping spots if a torch is kept on them for too long at night.

In the absence of tiger-like charges from ravenous divers, the bumphead parrotfish of Sipadan have a fairly predictable routine. In the evening the school disperses, and each fish selects a nook to sleep in on the coral drop-off in front of Borneo Divers resort. In the predawn, the fish shake the sleep out of their eyes and move a little ways down the reef lip to school up at a particular spot between the drop-off and Barracuda Point. They take turns hovering next to a barrel sponge inhabited by small cleaner fish, which come out and groom them. Shortly after sunrise the school moves up onto the reef top and spends the rest of the day circling the reef in a clockwise direction converting coral into sand. At low tide, the guides can spot them from the boat by their dorsal fins breaking the surface of the water.

The bumpheads of Layang Layang have a similar routine, but are less predictable. Occasionally we see individuals swimming around in the blue water outside the drop off, at depths down to 30 m or more. What are these fish doing by themselves out where there is no coral to eat, and plenty of sharks? The only answer I could think of is that it might have to do with reproduction. Many reef fish, like the Napoleons, do their spawning at places where currents will sweep the eggs away from the reef, and all the hungry mouths that live on it. Only one observation of spawning by bumphead parrotfish has been recorded, and it was of a single spawn by a pair of fish that rose out of the school. The fish we see alone in the blue might be ones that have just spawned and are finding their way back to the reef and the school.

But what about the bumpheads of Sipadan? After they leave their cleaning spot, they spend the day in shallow water. They can be observed at any time of day or night, yet nobody has ever seen them spawn. The published observation reports that spawning occurred near the reef edge about an hour after sunrise. It may be that the bumpheads aggregate at that particular place not just to be cleaned, but to spawn. It may also be that the arrival of multiple groups of divers each morning shortly after sunrise interferes with that ritual. Nobody knows if this species spawns once a day, once a month, or once a year, although once a month is suspected. If the giant parrotfish of Sipadan do spawn, Oakley believes that the eggs and larvae will not remain around the tiny pinnacle tip that is Sipadan, but will be swept off to a place where they have no chance of surviving to adulthood. Biological parameters for this species are mostly unknown, but "best guess" estimates are that they live up to 30 years, with sexual maturity not arriving until 6-10 years, at a size of 55-78 cm. They are usually caught at a smaller size, and therefore don’t reproduce. Nick Dulvy believes that the species cannot sustain anything more than medium pressure subsistence fishing. He feels that any level of commercial fishing will drive a population to extinction, as has already occurred in Guam, parts of Fiji, and other areas. I once heard a complaint from a divemaster in the Philippines that there had been only 3 bumpheads left on his island, and the fishermen had just killed one of them. Since this is one of the few types of parrotfish where males and females do not differ in appearance, it was impossible for him to know the sex ratio of his remaining population of two fish. There is some hope in the observation that the Sipadan school contains some small fish. There is replenishment coming in from somewhere at some level.

Recent scientific studies have shown that marine reserves are among the most effective methods of preserving biodiversity in marine environments, and also of managing stocks of commercial fish. Some scientists now believe they are the only effective method of managing fish stocks, at least in the tropics. Without the reserves, there is no reproduction, leading to a complete crash of populations. Even though fishing is banned within the reserves, maintaining them creates a spillover effect from larvae drifting outside, raising fishermen’s catches outside the reserves to much higher levels than before protection. Some fishermen have reported that their catches doubled in ten years after a section of their former fishing area was closed to them. Oakley’s concern is that a reserve in isolation may not do the trick. It may take a series of reserves to protect the resources within an area. Concurring with this view, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released in February a statement by 160 academics recommending the establishment of networks of marine reserves as a "central management tool." Sadly, many developing countries lack the resources and/or the will to develop and enforce such systems. Dulvy also points out that only very large reserves provide effective protection for big fish like humpheads and bumpheads that can roam over extensive areas.

The reefs of Layang Layang must be among the best-protected in the world. They flourish in splendid isolation miles from any serious sources of pollution or populations of fisherfolk. The entire atoll harbors only a dive resort, with a strict hands-off policy, and a Malaysian Navy base. The navy boys do a bit of fishing to supplement their own rations, but they make sure that no fishing boat comes anywhere close to the atoll. No cyanide or bleach touches these pristine coral heads. Sipadan’s reefs are nearly as secure. And yet, fishermen in the Philippines and elsewhere may be slowly killing off the great herds of bumphead parrotfish that thrills visitors to these reefs. The great blue-headed killer wrasse struts his stuff, spawning with one female after another, attacking smaller males and even divers that enter his territory. Yet his efforts to continue his line are in vain. His progeny sit in glass walled tanks in Hong Kong, waiting for a diner to point the finger that will end their lives, and his bloodline. Once again the ocean reminds us that all things are connected, and as we destroy each part of it we are surely killing the rest as well.