“I like fish” said National Geographic photographer and writer, Luis Marden, after his close encounters of the fishy kind here in the Seychelles when he was the underwater photographer—specializing in color—on Jacques Cousteau’s legendary dive team. This is also the place where Luis realized that fish liked him too.
In his article for the February, 1956 issue of National Geographic magazine, Luis describes how he would leap backwards with surprise when grouper, with heads bigger than his own, would suddenly appear right in front of his mask and then accompany him for the whole dive, staring at him closely with huge eyes in “uncomprehending fascination.” Much to the amusement of the Cousteau divers, Luis had a lot of trouble photographing the grouper as they were always too close—they just would keep coming closer until they bumped into his camera lens.A page from the February, 1956 National Geographic magazine shows divers crossing the equator for the first time by swimming below a trail of yellow-green dye traced out by their boat on the surface. (Photo by Luis Marden/National Geographic)
Grouper are known widely for their curiosity and attention to divers and swimmers, and NG Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle has said that a grouper has as much personality as a dog.
As I prepared to dive in the very same waters as Luis at Assumption Island on our current Pristine Seas expedition to document the diverse and abundant marine life in these nearly untouched waters, I hoped for similar experiences. Would these charismatic creatures be that interested in us?
Sure enough, to my delight they were.
Descending through the water, just at that point where the reef features become clear, ten large grouper led by a huge one came up off the reef to meet me. Just as with Luis they joined me in mid-water and we descended together in a happy streamlined formation to the reef 60 feet below the surface.
When diving, fish of all kinds will swim right up to you and nibble anything they can, in order to get a better idea of just what you are. It’s common practice to tuck away long hair and keep your fingers balled up to avoid having them nicked by passers-by. Grouper seem to take this habit to another level.
Once on the bottom I understood Luis’ perspective as the large fish came even closer—the biggest one tasting my pressure gauge first, then swallowing it a little before gently spitting it out; then putting his massive lips on my mask before turning sideways so one of his remarkably mobile eyes could swivel onto mine. We then just stared at each other—to use Luis’ words again—in “uncomprehending fascination.”
I swam along the reef and the school came with me. The smaller ones stayed a little way behind, making occasional forays between my legs, in front of, and next to me. At the same time the big one enjoyed rubbing his body along my shoulders and even made a spectacular move, stretching his mouth over the top of my head. This is a strange way to dive because it means that it’s impossible to see anything else.
Further along the reef I found our chief scientist, Alan Friedlander, engaged in a farcical battle: Alan uses a hard plastic slate to record his fish observations and the large groupers were having fun tasting, biting, and pulling his slate, camera, and arm around so much that I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised if Alan’s fish observations had just said “Grouper!”
Next up was Kike Ballesteros, our algae scientist, who was engaged in exactly the same battle with his slate and a grouper, except that Kike was also repositioning his compass and watch on his wrist at the same time. I figured it was only a matter of time before the grouper had swallowed this nice collection of expensive dive gear.
We love this fishy place and feel privileged to experience it by following the great Luis Marden’s fin kicks.
This expedition is led by National Geographic in collaboration with the Seychelles Island Foundation (SIF), the Island Conservation Society (ICS), the Islands Development Company (IDC) and the Waitt Foundation.
Thanks to Pristine Seas sponsors Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.