Changing Planet

Reef Napoleons and an Unexpected French Import

All of the islands we’ve visited on this expedition have gorgeous corals and lots of fish. But every island is different. The architecture of the reef is most spectacular at Millennium, and minimalistic at Flint. Malden has the largest abundance of sharks, Millennium of parrotfish, and Vostok of soldierfish. However, one of the most striking characteristics of Millennium Atoll is the abundance of the Napoleon wrasse fish, Cheilinus undulatus.

The Napoleon is the largest of wrasses and one of the largest of reef fish, olive-green to bluish-green with vertical dark stripes, thick fleshy lips, and a big hump on its forehead. It can grow to more than two meters (six feet) in length and weigh up to 190 kilograms (about 420 pounds). Manu and I saw one particularly large Napoleon this afternoon, swimming 20 meters (66 feet) below us. We looked at each other and put our hands on our heads in amazement. Back on the Zodiac after surfacing, we joked “Did you see that school bus swimming down there?”

Napoleons can become so large that they have their accompanying fauna: The largest are commonly seen swimming with a jack fish next to their bellies.

The Napoleon wrasse has been hunted throughout the Indo-Pacific, and its abundance has declined dramatically almost everywhere. At Millennium, we’ve seen several on each dive, which is a good indication of the low fishing pressure here—though not a total absence of fishing, since yesterday we saw fishing lines and hooks tangled on some corals.

We have all been very excited about the Napoleon wrasses. But they are wary, and do not allow us to approach them closely enough to satisfy our curiosity. The closest I’ve gotten to one was when I turned around looking for my diving buddy and, surprise, there she was. As soon as I made a move to grab my camera, however, the Napoleon wrasse moved slowly but decidedly out of my shooting range. The photographers and videographers are trying hard to get a good close shot, to no avail. And they become crazy when the scientists tell them stories of how close they got to them while counting fish or corals. I joke and say that the wrasses are too shy of professional cameras, and that the media team should use disposable cameras. If their looks could kill…

The scientists went into the lagoon today, and saw a sailboat on top of the reef flat. There was a Frenchman, a sort of hermit, on it. But he deserves his own blog entry. We’ll talk about him very soon.

Marine ecologist Dr. Enric Sala is a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who combines science, exploration and media to help restore marine life. Sala’s scientific publications are used for conservation efforts such as the creation of marine protected areas. 2005 Aldo Leopold Leadership Fellow, 2006 Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, 2008 Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum.

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