/charming French accent on “Can there be true friendship between fish and man?” /French accent of, Captain Cousteau asked in one of his early films about the underwater world. The Captain thought so, and certainly I do as well.
This Saturday, I did two really nice dives with two friends in Botany Bay off Kurnell, near Sydney, very close to the site where another Captain, James Cook, first landed in Australia back in the days. The dive site is not very deep, and we are all experienced divers, so midway through the dive we separated and proceeded diving in the same-ocean-buddy system.
After some searching for macro life around the rock bommies at a depth of about 10 meters, I went a bit deeper to look what was living among the kelp fields. What I found was a small group of Yellowfin Leatherjackets (Meuschenia trachylepis). These are mid-sized fish, and they often travel in groups of around 5-10 fish, searching for food among the seaweed. The leatherjackets are very good at changing their skin color, and use this ability to blend in with the green kelp leafs. It was a true pleasure to observe them going about their daily routine. Good buoyancy and calmness of mine surely helped to stay close to them without scaring them. One fish in particular got used to me and did his fish thing right in front of my lens. I always try to give the marine life some space when photographing; not blast them with my strobes at brief intervals, but to observe, and then take a good shot once in a while. I don’t stick as close to the fish as I can all the time; I give him some privacy, and in this way I will be much more likely to observe natural behavior.
Then came Operation Underwater Sandstorm. Three “divers” who were really less swimming along, but more crawling through the sand. Which of course stirred up an incredible amount of sediment, and destroyed the already pretty mediocre visibility. Annoyingly, they had to do their underwater crawl right next to where I was diving. I had not seen such poor diving skills since I had left Japan (where most divers think of depth-charges as role models). Then, only a few meters away from me, Operation Underwater Sandstorm sat down in the sand for a minute or so, for reasons unclear to me. Eventually they decided to move on. One of them tried to get up, but due to his poor distribution of weights, flipped backwards while hectically flailing his arms around in a counterclockwise motion. He rose up about two meters from the sand in his slow-motion backflip before he eventually assumed a regular-ish diving position, and, fortunately, together with his crawl-buddies moved on. If I ever had an epileptic seizure underwater, I wouldn’t stir up that much sand! I think there should be a two thousand dollar or swift-kick-in-the-balls fine per incident, whatever is deemed more painful, for the dive shop which had ‘trained’ such crawlers.
In any case, my leatherjacket friend did not appreciate Operation Underwater Sandstorm either, and had hidden under a leaf of kelp. Once they had left, he came out again and restarted feeding on the small clams on the rock surface next to the kelp field. The water was still too sandy to take good photographs, but it was enjoyable to observe the filefish. He kept subtly changing his skin color. Another way of showing body language for filefish is to erect their thick first dorsal fin spine; this is akin, I believe, to the chest-thumping of gorillas: ‘I am here, I am big’.
By now the leatherjacket’s brown lines on the body side were saturated dark, presumably a sign of well-being. This changed very quickly when he came a bit too close to the territory of a white-cheek, a large damselfish about the size of the leatherjacket, but bulkier. The damselfish angrily charged the intruder, and the leatherjacket dashed off a few meters back into the kelp field. All of a sudden the brown stripes were very pale again! What a day! First Operation Underwater Sandstorm, now an angry territorial damsel (damselfish often fearlessly protect the algae gardens they feed of).
I calmly followed the leatherjacket back to the kelp, and by now the visibility was good enough to photograph him again. I stayed a few more minutes with the fish, watching him search for more edible invertebrates. When I first encountered him and his group, he would choose a green skin color and swim in-between the kelp leafs to look as inconspicuous as possible. Now Mr. Filefish had realized that I am his friend, and he was presenting himself in white with brown stripes, with some brilliant blue dots on his face. Beautiful! Eventually I took off when the air in my tank necessitated an ascent. I really felt I had spent some quality time with that fish. When was the last time you met someone human and got friendly with him or her to the point that they were comfortable with you photographing them during their daily life, their job, family life or them eating dinner? You would definitely say that you had developed a friendship with a person you have come so close to, I think. I certainly feel that the filefish had become my friend yesterday afternoon.