Diving the Indian Ocean Reefs

Female Ember Parrot fish

Parrot Fish… Did You Know?

The most colourful fish you’ll notice at on your first Indian Ocean dive may well be the spectacular turquoise-green, blue and pink male Ember Parrot Fish, (Scarus Riboviolaceus) which is by far the most common of the parrot fishes seen on our Indian Ocean reefs.

Male Ember Parrot fish

The males are gorgeous, and completely different from the juveniles and females.

Parrot fishes start life in the hard stag-horn corals and branching finger corals as insignificant little striped fish. The juvenile and semi-juvenile just look like any other small striped fish, with only the distinctive beak-like mouth to distinguish them from any other very young fish species.

Semi-Juvenile Ember Parrot Fish

They grow into nondescript rust grey and brown females who inconspicuously cruise across the reef crunching on the hard corals. As young fish they travel in groups, but as they get older and bigger, they feed alone.

Juvenile Ember Parrot Fish

As they grow their colouring develops, and they become more spectacular, with bigger bodies, richer fin outlines and the drab brown begins to bloom with new colour. There can only be one male in any area. One day, when the dominant male in an area dies, the largest female loses her mind and her drab colouring and turns into a peacock-coloured randy male who chases the drab brown females across the reef, mating indiscriminately.

As the male reaches terminal stage, his colouring begins to fade and he dies. We have seen huge terminal male Ember Parrot Fish in the sea-grass beds South of Stringer Reef at Sodwana Bay.

On the shallower reefs, you may be lucky enough to see the rare and beautiful Bridle Parrot (Scarus Frenatus) fish, and if you look carefully at the markings, you may be able to distinguish a Tricolour Parrot ( Scarus Tricolor) fish from a Christmas or Starry-Eyed (Calotomus carolinus) parrot fish, or spot an occasional Blue Moon Parrot ( Chlorurus Atrirunula) fish.

We have seen Blue Barred Parrot ( Scarus Ghobban) fish, and in deeper water, around and occasionally on the staghorn corals on the edge of 2 Mile Sodwana Bay, you might be lucky enough to see the richly coloured dark blue velvet of a female Hump Head Parrot ( Chlorurus Cyanascens) fish, or the ornate green and blue of the male Hump Head.

The Parrot fish family lives on the polyps and algae that make up the hard corals, and they graze continually. Living on hard corals is enormously time consuming, as the nutritious part of the polyp is minute. The parrot fishes are at least partly responsible for containing the growth of finger corals and branching corals.

They excrete a fine white powder which in part makes up most of the world’s powder white coral sand beaches – bio-sand production perhaps?

In Mauritius parrot fish are a delicacy, and the result has been a massive depletion in the variety of species near the main Island.

Under-age sex is the norm among the parrot fish here, with very juvenile females taking on the male role when they are too young. They are breeding a dwarf ember parrot fish, which has become quite prolific as it is too small to eat. I have often seen 8 inch little ember males haring after distinctly under-age females with lustful eyes.

On the outer Islands, the parrot fishes grow to normal size, as the subsistence fishermen cannot take their little boats out to the distant Islands. As the numbers of subsistence fishermen drops with the increase of wealth among the Mauritian population on the Island, perhaps we’ll see the exquisite parrot fish replaced on local menus by chicken.

Words Jill Holloway

Pics David Holloway

Copyright Ocean Spirit

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About Jill Holloway

Jill Holloway lives in Mauritius and at Sodwana Bay Isimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa. A PADI qualified Nitrox diver with over 1,500 dives, she is a passionate observer and preserver of the marine environment, and has a database of over 35,000 fish pics and hundreds of Gopro videos on fish behaviour, which she shares with her readers.