Tag Archives: mandarinfish

Waters off Palau are home to treasure trove of sea life

Published November 17, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

A mandarinfish in Palau. ©2014 Susan Scott

On the last day of my week in Palau, I asked five snorkeling companions to name their favorite part of the trip. The fact that we were evenly divided in our choices is testament to the wide variety of stunning marine life in this island nation of Micronesia. We were two for Ulong Channel, two for Jellyfish Lake and two for mandarinfish.

Ulong is a long, narrow island in western Palau, and the channel that runs near it has strong currents that nourish an astonishing number of coral species. Every shade of blue, pink, yellow, green and brown shaped like fingers, tables, bubbles, fans and flowers dazzled us as we drifted a few feet above the reef. Since our boat driver followed us in the deep part of the channel, all we had to do was gape, float and be awed.

To the two Hawaii island members of our group who were particularly interested in corals, Ulong Channel was such nirvana they asked our guide to go twice. There were no objections.

The other favorite, Jellyfish Lake, is a must-see for snorkelers worldwide. The golden jellyfish, often called by their scientific name Mastigias (ma-STIJ-ee-us), are found in a single land-bound lake. Fissures in the surrounding limestone island are the lake’s only connection to the ocean.

Each morning, an average of 5 million pulsing jellies swim to the east side of the lake and gradually move west with the sun, continually rotating their bell-shaped bodies. The traveling and twirling give the algae living in the jellies’ tissues enough sunshine to manufacture the carbohydrates that feed the jellyfish.

The symbiotic system is so efficient that the jellies, ranging from fingernail-size babies to teacup-size adults, no longer need to eat live plankton and therefore have no stinging tentacles. To drift among these graceful rhythmic creatures is to feel the heartbeat of Palau.

I loved the Ulong corals and golden jellies, but when I got so close to several tiny mandarinfish that I could take halfway decent pictures, I nearly wept with joy.

Only 2 to 3 inches long, the paisley-patterned mandarinfish are found only in the Western Pacific, where they hide among coral litter. The uncommon little fish are hard to find, but if you’re as lucky as we were and have a great guide as we did, the fish can sometimes be spotted at dusk when they emerge to mate.

For us the little darlings practically posed for our cameras. To be eye to eye with a curious mandarinfish in 2 feet of clear, calm water ranks at the tippy top of my list of superb snorkeling experiences.

I’m happily home on Oahu now, but Palau’s Crayola-colored corals, gilded jellyfish and decked-out mandarinfish will sparkle in my mind forever.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott

Dragonet ‘discovery’ proves ocean’s teeming surprises

Published August 5, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

A longtail dragonet is camouflaged in two feet of water off Waia­lua. ©2013 Susan Scott

I had a grand moment recently when I discovered a new fish. Well, not discovered discovered. Other fish enthusiasts know this species, but it was new to me and that made my day.

I prefer to snorkel in water 2 to 4 feet deep because the light is good and it’s easy to brace myself to shoot pictures. Shallow water is where I’ve had countless memorable moments. As long as they’re under it, many fish and invertebrates don’t seem to care whether the water is 3 feet deep or 30.

My shallow-water habit paid off last week when I saw the sand beneath me move, and as if shedding Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, a fish appeared. It had big knoblike eyes that moved independently as it watched me. Fins stuck out all over the place, and the fish’s tail stretched out nearly as long as its body.

The 10-inch (with tail) beauty eyed me warily for a minute, allowing me to take its picture. Good thing I got proof of my rare sighting because as quickly as the fish appeared, it disappeared.

Even with a photo, I didn’t know where to start researching this odd fish. So I emailed my photo to John Hoover, author of my favorite local fish guide.

“Do you know what it is?” I wrote.

“Longtail dragonet,” he wrote back almost immediately. “Page 86. Nice find!”

Dragonets (sometimes spelled dragonettes on the Internet) are a family of about 160 species of bottom-dwelling fish found in tropical and subtropical seas. Of Hawaii’s eight dragonet species, seven, including the longtail, are found only here.

Longtail dragonets’ sand-colored camouflage is one reason these fish are rarely seen. But besides matching the sand and rubble they call home, dragonets also rest beneath it. When alarmed, they can bury themselves in the blink of an eye.

I thought I had never seen a one before, but upon reading about this family, I realized I had seen one in Palau. The mandarinfish, about 2 inches long and arguably the most colorful fish in the world, is also a dragonet. Type mandarinfish in your search engine and prepare to be astonished.

The longtail dragonet, which reaches 12 inches long, is a real dragon compared with its kin. Most dragonets are less than 3 inches.

If you’re wondering how a woman can study marine biology at UH, snorkel and dive Hawaii’s waters for 30-odd years and still find a fish she can’t even look up, well, that’s the charm of the ocean. I stick my face in it, and like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, I never know what I’m gonna get.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2013 Susan Scott