Hawaii - just for the yellow tangs

Unfortunately sometimes you just have to travel to Australia or New Zealand. This involves whiling away the time on two twelve-hour flights until you know the Chinese version of all the video films by heart and you’re still only halfway there. However, if you study the flight options carefully, you will find there are flights via Hawaii that allow you to stop there without paying extra. From California, it is only a little over 5 hours to the 50th US state, in the middle of the Pacific.

Even on a big plane, you'll almost certainly be the only person on board flying to Hawaii for a few yellow fish. Most of the others want to do dull stuff like climbing volcanoes, riding waves as high as a house, whale watching or lying pointlessly under palm trees. That's what we manage on the side.

Approaching Pearl Harbour

If you’re in the window seat as you approach Honolulu you may be able to get a glimpse of the island of Oahu’s tragic history, known to us as the Pearl Harbour disaster. To this day the sunken battleship USS Arizona lies aground in the harbour and you can see the whole ship from the air through the crystal-clear water.

Hawaii is more than one island. It consists of eight large and many tiny islands. For us seawater fans, Maui and Big Island are best. If you want to experience a bit of volcanism as well, try Big Island, because Kilauea is more active than Haleakala on Maui. However, those who briefly interrupt their onward journey to Big Island or Maui in Honolulu can visit the well-known seawater specialist Julian Sprung, who is the curator of the large public aquarium in Waikiki.

Even though Hawaii is one of the South Sea Islands, the American way of life makes it very different from the islands of French Polynesia. This means that booking a hotel room in a lodge or a rental car online is no problem at all and works smoothly. Unfortunately, Hawaii proves as expensive as finding our yellow tangs is difficult.

Off we go to the yellow tangs

After the check-in formalities at the hotel, we are of course quickly drawn to the water. Grab your goggles, snorkel and fins and off we go to see the yellow tangs!

Our first look underwater is sobering: no beautiful coral reefs and not a single yellow tang! The songs of the humpback whales compensate for the somewhat barren underwater landscape, but the lack of yellow tangs is massively frustrating. It’s probably caused by the well-frequented hotel beach. The next day, I had an invitation to join Mike Severns, Maui's best-known diving company. Then maybe I’d get to see some yellow tangs. Or is it true what the animal rights activists claim: that seawater aquariums are taking away all the fish?

At the crack of dawn, Mike Severns' team arrived at the harbour with trailer and boat, because the swell increases so much during the day that afternoon diving on the offshore reefs is no longer possible. On the boat trip to the crescent-shaped crater island of Molokini, the dive guide asked the exciting question of what we wanted to see. The usual requests came, such as whales, manta rays, sharks (sorted by size). When it was my turn, my wishes were punished with nasty looks from the other divers: yellow tangs, dragon morays and harlequin shrimps. Worse than the looks of the other divers, was the answer of the friendly dive guide: yellow tangs are not to be found at Molokini, maybe in the shallow water directly at Maui. He hadn't seen any dragon morays in 1000 dives and the one pair of harlequin shrimps he knew had disappeared for the past 2 years. Great - a 12,000 km flight for nothing!

The water around Hawaii is among the clearest of all oceans

As the swell was still within limits and only half of the divers had provided the sea with “pre-digested food”, we started on the outside of the crater. I will never forget the dive guide's comment about the phenomenal visibility of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii: "When you jump right in and sink, keep an eye on your depth gauge. When you hit the bottom with your butt, you'll be at 60 metres..."

And it was no joke. The water around Hawaii, which is at least 4000 km away from any mainland mass, is among the clearest of all oceans. The clear water allows the sunlight to penetrate so freely that at a depth of 60 metres we still think we are just below the surface! Absolutely world class! Less world-class were the coral formations, which were almost non-existent. Rugged rocks from the surface to the seabed, hardly any vegetation, only a few black wire corals, flat porites coral formations and of course no yellow tangs. Instead, there was a rock wall behind me that had not been there until just now. When the rock face moved, it became clear that it was not an earthquake, but a humpback whale that had not noticed me hanging in front of it at the rock. An encounter I won’t forget in a hurry - especially since I had a macro lens mounted on the underwater camera. From that moment on, I never went back into the water with just one camera!

This side of Molokini crater, facing the open sea, is a perfect example of the adaptation of marine organisms to really rough seas: two shallow-growing hard coral species, not even soft corals, and only fish species easily identifiable by their forked tail fins as fast swimmers. Pufferfish, pipefish or filefish would feel like they were in a washing machine here.

The second dive took us to the sheltered inner side of the crescent. And finally there was a coral reef to marvel at - no yellow tangs, of course, but we did find the beautiful butterflyfish Chaetodon quadrimaculatus, which has the same distribution area as C. flavescens and actually occurs more rarely. At least there were many typical Pacific reef dwellers and a gruesome spectacle that showed me the brutality of nature very clearly at a distance of only a few centimetres. It began completely harmlessly: A pair of damselfishes had discovered their love for each other and spawned on a dead coral. After some time, the act of love was completed and the proud parents guarded their clutch. Out of nowhere, a vagabond horde of butterflyfish approached, in which a trumpetfish was half-hiding. Due to its elongated body shape, its tail section was still sticking out of the top of the cloud of butterflyfish. The Chaetodon miliaris ambushed the (still) happy parents and ate the entire clutch. The parents had no chance at all, fought with the courage of despair and to exhaustion against the superior force - but in vain. To make matters worse, the trumpetfish approached under the protection of the butterflyfish and devoured both parents one after the other! We can complain about compulsory mask-wearing in supermarkets, but there are definitely worse things...

Around noon, our boat returned to the harbour before the sea raised the waves to house height. Divers out of the water - surfers into the water. I'm not really afraid and feel quite comfortable in the sea even with currents and waves. But the height of these waves, which can build up unchecked in 4000 to 6000 km of open ocean, are absolutely awe-inspiring.

With the rental car, I got compressed air tanks from a dive shop and the next morning I drove along the coast in relatively calm seas to look for a place where I could go into the water undisturbed and keep looking for my yellow friends. While doing so, I avoided driving over high mountain ridges, because after a dive you’re not supposed to drive over 1000 m in altitude to avoid diving sickness problems with nitrogen bubbling out in the blood. A road led directly along the sea to the south and I had the choice between scenic and very beautiful diving places. I opened the boot, put on the clothes and dived into the seemingly endless Pacific. Under water, the songs of the humpback whales welcomed me again and I almost felt at home. Here too there were only a few coral formations but...finally the first yellow tangs. And not just a few. A large group of around thirty, almost a swarm, swam through the large reef blocks in just ten metres water depth. What a magnificent sight! Thirty fish times €80 would be €2400. But the correspondingly sized aquarium would need a base area of about 20 by 20 and a height of 5 metres. In such a reef section, the group Zebrasoma flavescens moved for a long time before moving on to the next reef section. They avoided crossing larger sandy areas, some of which were overgrown with Halimeda pennyweed. I could even spot a white specimen in the surgeonfish's group. White or even partially white animals with abnormalities in their yellow pigmentation are occasionally observed, though they are rare.

Just like in the aquarium, the yellow tangs tirelessly plucked algae and other unidentifiable objects from between the reef rocks. The reef was also much more diverse and species-rich than out at Molokini Crater. Here on the coast, they simply move on along the offshore reefs. Was the small reef at Molokini too cramped for the social animals? Not a single yellow tang lived there and the way from the crater to the fringing reef near the shore was long and deep, probably with some large sandy bottom areas below. In fact yellow tangs don’t just live on Maui, they live on all the Hawaiian islands. On the 2019 JBL Expedition we were able to detect yellow tangs as far away as the Ryukyu Islands in southern Japan, about 6000 km northwest of Hawaii. Zebrasoma flavescens also live on the Marshall Islands, 4000 km away. In any case, I am relieved to say that we aquarists have not decimated the population, because I later found yellow tangs on every coastal stretch around Maui and Big Island. Moreover, they were first bred in 2015 and the demand is higher than the supply, despite them being about 1/3 more expensive than the wild-caught ones. We have to bear in mind that no species has ever been threatened or even wiped out by pet keeping. Even the most radical animal rights activists have to admit and acknowledge this.

Even in water depths of only ten metres the air supply eventually runs out, so we headed towards the shore. A lone manta ray passed by, circled me three times and moved on. It was very interesting to observe sea turtles patiently having their shells grazed of algae by surgeonfish (Ctenochaetus strigosus?). Seeing all the turtles made me think of how the Hawaiians many years ago saw a clear connection between the many turtles and tiger sharks. Tiger sharks eat sea turtles because their special saw teeth (only tiger sharks have them) can saw through the turtles' shells. So the islanders proceeded to round up all the turtles to give the sharks no more reason to visit the coastal waters of Hawaii! When people are scared, they often do strange things...

By the way, the yellow tangs hardly took part in the shell-cleaning activities. They left that to their colleagues, the bristletooth tangs, whose teeth were much better suited for scraping the shells. The pointed mouth of the flavescens is better suited to picking algae and other things out of the crevices of the reef. Both species eat the same, but in different ecological niches. Despite the many turtles, (unfortunately) not a single tiger shark turned up and now there was one more item on the to-do list: a night-time visit to the reef and a look into the animals' bedrooms.

Finally night in the reef

When dusk falls I like to wait a while until night has really fallen on the reef. Many animals are crepuscular and there is as much life in the reef as in a pedestrian precinct just before closing time. But when the shops really close, the precinct is suddenly deserted and the nocturnal inhabitants come out of their hiding places. In the reef, the many shrimp species come out first and moray eels swim around outside their holes. Moray eels are basically lovable creatures, but short-sighted like tunnel thinkers. That's why they have these tubular olfactory proboscises that help them detect any octopus or fish, no matter how well hidden. They can't really recognise our finger in front of their mouth, so they might bite into it. But once they have learned that this fuzzy whitish worm sometimes brings food, they can become extremely trusting and affectionate!

At first glance, we often think we have discovered new species of fish at night. But unfortunately, it's only familiar species in their pyjamas hanging around among the corals. We should publish a book with the day and night colours of the fish...but who is really interested in that?

My time in Hawaii flew by far too quickly. Hawaii offers little coral interest, but fascinating fish and whale encounters under water if you're lucky, and it never gets boring above water either. There are endemic land plants that only live on top of the volcanoes, such as the silversword. Botanists feel they’re on a permanent high in Hawaii! There are so many plant species that have made a triumphal march around the world, but originated in Hawaii. Only the very specially adapted ones, such as the Hawaiʻi silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense), can never be transplanted. They die if you try to move them from their habitat on top of the volcano to another location. But we have sunflowers where we live - and they are related to the silver sword!

© 09.10.2022
Heiko Blessin
Heiko Blessin
Dipl.-Biologe

Tauchen, Fotografie, Aquaristik, Haie, Motorrad

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