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Lionfish - Masters of Elegance

Text and photographs by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari


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Common lionfish, Pterois volitans, Pulau Lankayan, Sulu Sea, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, Indo-Pacific Ocean
Common lionfish, Pterois volitans, Pulau Lankayan, Sulu Sea, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia, Indo-Pacific Ocean Image #: 123515

Everybody loves Lionfish. Supremely elegant, draped in flowing, banner-like spectacular fins, these stealthly predators glide slowly among corals, always ready to swallow their prey in a lighting-fast gulp of their cavernous mouth. Belonging to the Family Scorpaenidae, these are small (5 cm) to medium-sized (30 cm) fish, closely related to the bottom-dwelling and much less mobile Scorpionfishes, with which they share the peculiar – and potentially dangerous – trait of sporting hypo needle-like fin rays (pectoral and dorsal) connected by a duct to a venom gland. These venomous fins are used for defense only, and divers will do well in learning to recognize the arching of the back and raising of the dorsal fin which usually prelude to a sudden bolt backwards, in the attempt to impale the offender: this is why – when you try to get closer to a lionfish to take a close-up of it – it will usually turn the other way around and present you with its backview. All Lionfish sport a big, large-mouthed head, a stout, robust body, more or less striped in white and tones of red, orange and brown, and flag-like pectoral and dorsal fins with more or less separate rays. Some specimens – but not all – also carry leaf-like or antennae-like appendages above the large eyes, possibly for camouflaging purposes.

Lionfish are quite common in tropical Indo-Pacific waters, usually in calm waters at low to moderate depth, and are not necessarily restricted to rich, healthy coral reef areas: in fact, at least one species – the Striped Lionfish, Pterois radiata – is much more common on dead coral and rocky bottoms, being apparently quite sensitive to the stinging power of live coral polyps. The species most frequently observed on reefs is also the largest, the Common Lionfish, Pterois volitans, also much loved by worlwide aquarists as it is very easy to keep in captivity (if you can satisfy its enormous appetite); a variation on this species, P.miles, is almost identical but usually found on rubble and muck bottoms. The Common Lionfish is now dangerously colonizing the tropical and subtropical coasts of the US from Ney York to Florida after some specimens were apparently released a few years ago by unthinking aquarists. Less common but particularly beautiful is the Spotfin Lionfish P.ocellata, easily identified by the bright blue ocelli at the basis of its thread-like pectoral fins. Smaller and less commonly observed species of Lionfish belong to the genus Dendrochirus: these are often spectacularly colored and of more nocturnal habits, being often found inside sponges (Zebra Lionfish, D. zebra) or on jetty pylons and man-made structures (the diminutive Dwarf Lionfish, D. brachypterus). The two less commonly observed species are the queer-looking Fu Manchu Lionfish (D. biocellatus) and the exceptionally rare Threadfin or Deep-water Lionfish (P.mombasae). All Lionfish are solitary hunters, mostly nocturnal, being particularly active at twilight (the so called “lionfish hour”, when in a matter of minutes they suddenly appear in large numbers, emerging like miniature vampires from their daily refuges in the reef): they swim very slowly, close to the bottom or the reef wall, using their immense, fan-like pectoral fins to corner their small prey – usually sleeping fish or roving shrimp – and then swallow it whole and alive in one fast gulp, when the sudden opening of the huge mouth creates a vacuum effect. Night divers will soon notice that all Lionfish are very fast in learning to take advantage of dive torches, hiding just behind the cone of light and gulping down all the sleeping fish – stunned by the light – they can surprise. It’s fun and interesting to see it happening, but please do not overdo it – Lionfishes are quite capable to find their food without any help from divers! During the daylight hours they usually rest under overhangs, inside barrel sponges or in crevices, but it is not uncommon at all to find P. volitans and miles or D. brachypterus roving around in full daylight.

Regarding the subject of underwater photography, all Lionfish make great subjects for starters and for pros alike: they are capable of striking incredibly elegant poses, and their deliberate movements – when not harassed – facilitate creative framing. In fact, it is so easy to get carried away with them that one often runs the risk of scratching the housing’s lens dome on the branching corals! Always remember, however, that ALL lionfish are quite capable of inflicting extremely painful and potentially life-threatening stings with their venomous fin tips, as the venom secreted is similar in composition to that of cobras: in the unfortunate case of being stung, always keep in mind that the immediate application of heat (very hot – not boiling – water or hot air from a hair dryer) will usually break down the proteins in the venom injected, bringing immediate relief. Given the variety in size, it’s difficult to say which lens is best: there’s plenty of latitude here, as one can get great shots using lenses at the two extremes of the range – from a 15mm Fish-Eye with larger specimens framed in a reef context, to a 105mm Macro lens for close-ups or very small juveniles. All Lionfish readily “display” when they feel somehow threatened, opening up the broad fan of the multicolored and often ocellated pectoral and dorsal fins to advertise their venomous sting, and this predictable behaviour offers exciting opportunities for wonderful profile, full-frontal or three-quarter side portraits. While Common Lionfish are exactly that – er, common – everywhere, divers interested in P. radiata should take in consideration Thai waters (the boulder-strewn bottoms of the Similans are perfect hunting grounds for this species); those interested in all things Dendrochirus instead will not be wrong choosing well-known macro-life destinations like Lankayan, Mabul, Kapalai in Malaysia or the Lembeh Strait in Indonesia. In this particular last location the seldom observed and absolutely spectacular all-yellow or bright orange Dwarf Lionfish are commonly encountered.