Searching for the Fish That Built the Beach

Bumphead parrotfish, the hidden treasure of our expedition here in the Solomon Islands, are one of the most memorable sights to be seen on shallow reefs—if you are lucky enough to find them, that is.

Picture this: what starts as a single dark blue silhouette slowly drifts towards you, transforming into a herd of giant, beaked, and multicolored fish loudly crunching on their favorite food, coral. Their powerful and prominent teeth grind up the hard exterior so they can eat the tiny animals living within. Many visitors to the region might be shocked to know that the white sand beaches they’ve stretched out on are made of the fine, sandy excrement produced by bumphead and their coral-heavy diet!

Not so long ago, bumpheads grazed in herds a hundred strong, reminiscent of when buffalo roamed the American plains. Over the last few decades rising fishing pressure across the South- and Indo-Pacific have taken a great toll on their numbers, driving their populations unbelievably low and earning their inclusion on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Their disappearance may have unknown and potentially grave consequences for reef ecosystems. Take, for instance, their feeding behavior which clears patches of coral, allowing space and light for new coral to take hold and begin building, much like a forest fire encourages new plant growth. Without this function being played, how will the coral adjust?

Andrea snorkels high above the seafloor. (Photograph by Mikayla Wujec)

The Solomon Islands are one of the last remaining places on Earth to witness these marvelous herbivores. This, plus some of the warmest waters in the world (and the fact that January and February are the coldest months back home in Canada), is why we chose this remote archipelago as our research base. We recently learned that about the same number of travellers visit the Solomon Islands as Antarctica—very, very few.

The crystal clear water enables views straight from the surface to the bottom, with some comical refraction in between. (Photograph by Mikayla Wujec)
The crystal clear water enables views straight from the surface to the bottom, with some comical refraction in between. (Photograph by Mikayla Wujec)

Over the past week we’ve spent hours underwater searching for the elusive bumpheads. While we’ve only spotted three so far, we’ve seen an extraordinary diversity of other marine life. Bold white-tip and black-tip reef sharks chasing brightly patterned triggerfish, butterflyfish, and sometimes our own fluttering fins. Enormous turtles struggling against strong currents, and minute damselfish and angelfish skirting along the surface with ease. Close to shore, playful crabs loved the camera attention.

We set out soon toward the west of Gizo Island to dive a small protected area where bumpheads are rumored to be in abundance. Wish us luck!

Read All Posts by Mikayla Wujec and Andrea Reid

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Mikayla Wujec is a National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee (YEG) with a passion for all things aquatic. Toronto born, she grew up with her toes firmly entrenched in Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada and her nose stuck in countless books of adventure. At age 18 Mikayla travelled to the opposite edge of the world to become a certified SCUBA diver on the reefs of Vanua Levu, Fiji. That experience, and her BA in geography and biology from Concordia University in snowy Montreal, guided Mikayla into her roles as research consultant to international conservation organizations and a LEED-certified ambassador for sustainability in institutions of higher education. These pursuits are on hold as Mikayla now returns to the distant South Pacific as an aquatic conservationist studying threatened fish and the ecosystems that support them. She is using graphic imagery and storytelling as educational tools in promoting the conservation work she is currently doing and illuminating broader themes in sustainable development. On this YEG expedition, Mikayla is teaming up with YEG Andrea Reid who is an aquatic biologist and science communicator based in Montreal, Canada. You can learn more about her work at