Diving the (Almost) Most Biodiverse Reef in the World

Montage of Solomon Islands marine life. (Photographs by Mikayla Wujec)
Montage of Solomon Islands marine life. (Photos by Mikayla Wujec)

Here in the Solomon Islands, searching for the elusive bumphead parrotfish, we spent this week diving in waters that boast some of the highest fish biodiversity in the world, second only to Sipadan, Malaysia.

The aptly-named Grand Central had fish rushing off in all directions including schools of red-bellied fusiliers (Caesio cuning), titan and redtooth triggerfish (Balistoides viridescens and Odonus niger), as well as lone grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) and great barracudas (Sphyraena barracuda).

Shallower in the water column, giant clams (Tridacna sp.), false clown anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris), and Christmas tree worms (Spirobranchus giganteus) retreated into their homes.

Despite the staggering number of creatures, the odds were still not in our favor and we spotted only a single bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), the animal we’ve come all this way to observe.

At first, the looming outline looked more like a shark in shallow water. We froze and then frantically bumped our fists to our foreheads–our underwater signal for our bumpheaded friends; its genus Bolbometopon is Greek for “onion-brow.” Seemingly unphased, the bumphead turned and left before we could catch it on film.

A school of redtooth triggerfish plunging down the water column. (Photograph by Andrea Reid)
A school of redtooth triggerfish plunging down the water column. (Photo by Andrea Reid)

At our first sighting, we had had jumped off our boat without our masks, fins, or snorkels, eager to see the bumpheads down below, but the fish had vanished almost as soon as we saw it. Apparently, after generations of spear-fishers on snorkel, bumpheads are often skittish around any kind of swimmer.

Diving with scuba gear the next time allowed us to settle into their habitat fairly unnoticed, so much so that a meter-long giant came up close and stuck around. From experiences like this on our initial surveys, we’re getting the impression that bumpheads here occupy deeper waters than those in areas where they have been fished less.

A lone bumphead parrotfish lurks along the seafloor. (Photo by Andrea Reid)

We’ll soon be heading southeast to more remote (and less fished!) reef systems surrounding the town of Munda, known for its World War II relics and world-class diving.

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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 www.andreajanereid.com.