Putting a Wrasse to Bed

Bimini, 1995 – I noticed something unusual – a group of Yellowhead Wrasse (Halichoeres garnoti), including several normally solitary terminal phase males swimming together in a tight little group near the bottom. We were making a dusk dive at Turtle Rocks, looking for fish spawning action. We had already spent many afternoons watching the Yellowheads spawn. This little group was swimming with purpose, but it didn’t look like spawning. They swam a regular pattern for over twenty minutes, visiting several different spots, when suddenly one of them buried headfirst into the sand. The others swarmed over the spot, sort of “nosing” the area then continued on. I was astonished and didn’t have the presence of mind to follow the remaining fish. Without thinking, I pushed my fingers into the sand where the fish had disappeared and received a fright, as the equally startled fish came flying back out of the sand. The wrasse had buried itself in the sand for the night and I had disturbed it. I knew of the behavior but had never witnessed it in the wild and now felt terrible for having acted so impulsively. The wrasse rejoined its small group and repeated the pattern of swimming from spot to spot. Then, to my relief, it slipped into the sand – in the exact same location.

Yellowhead Wrasse beds down for the night

Armed with the search image, we returned the next evening, determined to record it on video and film. As a still photographer, the challenge for Ned would be to hit his shutter at the exact moment the wrasse dived into the sand. We found our little group of wrasse and followed for quite a while. There was a lot of nosing and false starts before the first fish finally buried into the sand. Ned was spot on with his timing. Unfortunately, a surgeonfish swam between his camera and the wrasse at the exact moment that he took the shot. The vision of an enraged Ned, chasing and throwing a rock at the surgeonfish (you can imagine how far a thrown rock travels underwater) almost ended the dive for me but I managed to stop laughing and compose myself enough to look for the other fish. One of our goals for that dive was to see what the remaining fish did after the first fish buried itself into the sand. I caught up with the group just as the next fish buried itself. We spent the next week watching little bands of Yellowheads put themselves to bed each night. Sometimes they would even pop back out on their own, before settling back into the same spot. Ned got the shots for the Reef Fish Behavior book and we moved on to other subjects.

Bonaire, 2007 – Twelve years later, while leading a group of divers on a dusk dive in Bonaire, I noticed a small group of terminal phase Yellowhead Wrasse, swarming around a sandy spot near a coral head. We were hunting for spawning Hamlets so I made a mental note to return to that spot the next evening to watch the Yellowheads. I took a couple of friends with me and told them that we were going to put wrasses to bed. The fish were in the same area, we followed them and to everyone’s great delight, we watched them, one at a time, bury headfirst into the sand for the night. Here is a little video from both Bimini and Bonaire: