Fish Orgies in Palau (and how to find them)
It’s 5 am and the sky is fast warming in the east with a thin waning crescent moon, the stars are
hanging on in the western sky and the water is lapping against the dock. I’m here in Malakal
Palau boarding a boat with Dari Divers about to go and see one of nature’s spectacles and a
hope for conservation across the world.
Bumphead Parrotfish when adult grow over a meter long and can weigh in at over 100lbs.
During a mating aggregation over a thousand fish, each one with a bleached white head can
assemble together in one place, filling the water with eggs and sperm.
The boat swiftly transports us to the dive site and we wait whilst our guide Lee assesses the
situation. For all the chaos in the world, nature and it’s clocks can be amazingly accurate
because we are here 3 days before the new moon at sunrise at high slack tide. Below us the
reef is still quite dark but large shapes are assembling, these shapes belong to Giant Bumphead
Parrotfish, (Bulbometopon muricatum) the largest of the parrotfish family. Hundreds of these
square headed meter long fish are now gathered, the males occasionally butting heads in some
ritualistic behavior that makes a sound somewhat similar to two 4x2 pieces of wood being
This many fish in one place is in itself something that is rarely encountered in this modern world
but what they are about to do is even rarer. The Giant Bumphead has long been sought for it’s
valuable meat and as such it’s population has been reduced drastically across it’s Indo-Pacific
range. Here in Palau the populations were targeted so much that local fisherman saw the
decline and sought help from their traditional leaders. In the mid 90’s the Marine Protection act
was put into law which imposed a moratorium on the taking of the Bumpheads and other heavily
Ulong Channel on the western part of Palau’s reef is a hotspot for spawning fish and is
protected as part of Palau’s conservation efforts. It is also a hotspot for divers.
What this did was vital, because the best thing you can do for nature is to just leave it alone.
Fish do what fish do, they swim, eat, avoid being eaten and they make babies.
Gradually the numbers began to increase, action had been taken before it was too late.
Gradually they returned to pre-exploitation levels and they were again noticed by fisherman, but
these fishermen now worked for certain dive shops. And instead of killing them, they took divers
to see them do what Bumphead parrotfish do when they make babies….
Many liken this spawning event to fish porn….. an orgy of fish even. Hundreds maybe
thousands of fish gather together from across miles of reef for the sole purpose of sex .
The fish now assembled have already undergone a dramatic color change with their blunt heads
now bleached white, they are in effect dressing for a date.
A date with hundreds of other individuals that starts with foreplay consisting of head-butting……
Once the unseen cue is given, the bumpheads leave the reef and proceed in a huge procession
of horny fish out into the open water where they mingle about a bit, unsure of themselves or of
each other I’m not sure, maybe just waiting for the right time… then just when you start to think
it’s a big tease they begin….one gives another a wink the only way a fish with no eyelids can,
and the cue is spread throughout the aggregation. A female is the instigator as she starts to
swim rapidly through the school, she is quickly followed by a group of males all vying to be there
at the moment she releases her eggs, she often ascends rapidly up through the water column,
right up into the top 20ft of water, her and her suitors reach their “moment” at which point huge
clouds of eggs and sperm are released. The whole process from initiation of the spawning rush
to the release is only about 5 seconds, but with hundreds of fish all involved simultaneously the
scene resembles a fireworks display with multiple rushes going on all around you. The water
rapidly changes from a clear blue to a more…milky hue and the action ceases in that area only
to resume in a clearer volume of water nearby. This fish orgy will last for as long as an hour
filling the water with gametes (eggs and sperm), these drift away with the outgoing tide where
they fertilize, grow and drift as larvae with the plankton.
The adults having spent themselves with this orgy then lounge around and have a smoke and a
short nap… ;-)
Eventually after a while the larval survivors (for many are eaten by plankton feeders like Manta
Rays and other fish) get large enough and return to the reef where they settle and continue to
The spawning dives as they are known are a relatively new attraction in Palau’s already
remarkable diving itinerary. Several species of fish are regularly observed at different phases of
the moon at different times of the year. Very often these aggregations also draw in considerable
numbers of predators including otherwise rarely seen Shark species like Oceanic Blacktips and
Veteran divers like my guide Lee know where to find them and Dari Divers will take you there in
comfort and style.
The Palauan traditions of conservation have secured many areas of reef (like the Ulong
Channel area (above)) and subsequently many species from over exploitation, these areas are
now some of the most productive in the world.
For more information find them here: http://www.daridiverspalau.com