Bumphead Wrangler

Bumphead Parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum

Solomon Islands, Bilikiki Cruises ~ After a week of smooth sailing we wake at 6 a.m. to overcast skies and threatening seas at Kicha Island, the westernmost stopover on our Solomon Islands’ itinerary. All I can make out of our anchorage through the cabin’s rain-splattered porthole is the shadowy silhouette of a craggy volcanic island being battered by surge—I roll over and groan. The idea of squeezing into a still-wet wetsuit to make the unusually early morning dive on a dark submarine wall in sloppy seas nearly keeps me in my bunk. But eventually the smell of coffee entices me above deck where I’m greeted by zombie-eyed shipmates clutching steaming cups beneath a dripping tarpaulin. In the distance waves crash, and above, the ship’s pennants pop in a freshening breeze. The skiffs, already secured to the dive deck for loading, buck at their ropes like broncos. My mind fumbles for an excuse, any excuse, to stay aboard and enjoy a second cup of coffee. But when a handful of friends start gearing up I relent and add my name to the dive manifest. 

A half hour later, at 40-feet, the wall is even gloomier than imagined. Dismayed, and second-guessing my decision, I swim back up the slope, slip over the crest and cut toward the island in the hope of finding some light. But instead, I swim into a barren moonscape of black rock stretching all the way to shore. Just as I’m thinking of signaling the skiff driver for an early pickup, something big moves off in the haze. I drop to the bottom like a stone. Shadows steal past on my left, and others to my right.

Suddenly I realize that I’ve blundered into a herd of Bumphead Parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum. Dumbstruck by luck, and well aware of the burden of such a great opportunity, I hunker down and try to figure out my next move. I‘ve dived with these giants before, but have never been able to get anywhere near this close. Suddenly it dawns on me: the parrotfish are waiting for their turn at a cleaning station and reluctant to leave.

In the center of the grand affair is the largest bumphead I’ve ever seen, a four-foot colossus hovering above an outcropping with it fins outstretched like royalty being attended to by a bevy of parasite-picking hogfish. That’s the photo I want. The trick will be getting closer. As soon as I make my move, the already edgy herd begins to swirl. Unnerved I press my luck, angling up until I’m eye level with the brute, but my move is early and awkward, causing the great fish to bolt for open water. Realizing I’ve blown the shot, the dive, and the day and not knowing what else to do, I race after the fish with no particular result in mind. Reaching the wall the fish turns, paralleling the ridge. 

Out the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of friend, Christina Rudman, leisurely heading my way. I wave like a madman, catching her attention as the parrotfish streaks in her direction. As if born to wrangle bumpheads, Christina cuts off the path of the speeding fish, turning it on a dime, and escorts the amazing animal back along the wall in my direction. At that moment a second cup of coffee is the furthest thing from my mind. ~ Ned DeLoach, November 2009