Hawk fishes are everywhere on the reef, perching on finger corals on shallow reefs, darting around the pinnacles in surge waters or perched motionless on a black coral in deep water.
Wherever you dive on shallow reefs, you will find the speckled hawk fish, also called Falco’s Hawkfish (Cirrhitichthys falco) perched on the finger corals, peering and gulping, poised to flit away. These little guys are colourful, easily spotted, and ready to hang about for photographs so they are a favourite with photographers. Their fleshless lower fins protect them from damage from the coral, and they can even perch on fire corals without being harmed.
Hawkfishes are grouper- like in appearance, and share many of the same features as the Scorpion fish family. However, unlike the Groupers or the Scorpion fish, the hawkfish does not have a swim bladder. Because of the lack of a swim bladder he is less able to adjust his buoyancy than normal fish, and perches in high places, just like a hawk, surveying his kingdom, waiting to dart down and grab a tasty morsel, feeding on crustaceans and small invertebrates.
He relies on propulsion to move from place to place, propelling himself from a higher position to reach a lower goal, and this darting swooping motion gives him his name, as he is quite bird-like in his movements. Normally solitary, you can occasionally find him as one of a pair towards evening, as it is in the evenings that you can find the hawkfish mating. This is quite a romantic ritual, as he waits for a fertile female, and entices her with his snout, cooing and weaving around her, until she is ready to ascend. At the highest point of the mating dance she releases her eggs, and he releases his sperm, which merge and sink down into the rubble bottom, to remain there as eggs until they are ready to hatch.
On deeper reefs you might be lucky enough to spot the swallow tail hawkfish (Cirrhitidae Polyactis). These are almost always found in groups. These little hawkfish are protogynous hermaphrodites, meaning that the largest female with become male once the dominant male dies, and takes over his harem.
In Mauritius we have often hunted for one of the most sought after of the hawk fish species, the rare and beautiful Long Nosed Hawkfish (Oxycirrhites typis Bleeker). Common in the Pacific, this little guy is an absolute jewel in Indian Ocean waters. Searching for him can take you down to 18-24 metres where sometimes, on the crystal white leaves of the Black coral which only grows below 18 metres you can occasionally, very rarely, find him. Coin de Mire in Mauritius is home to at least two of these rare little creatures.
Even more unusual is the Two spot hawk fish, and in 16 years of diving I have only ever seen two of these amazing little creatures. They are very shy, and hang out inside the Staghorn corals, so they are almost impossible to see, and as soon as you do see them they dart away.
The Marbled or Giant Hawk fish (Cirrhitus rivulatus). is caught commercially and sold as a food fish in some waters, but on the East Coast these guys are found in only surge waters, and on the East Coast there are very few places where they occur. They are brilliantly camouflaged, extremely timid and hard to spot.
I have had some of my most exciting dives hunting for these guys, as shallow surge reefs can be dangerous to divers. One of them is on the tightly controlled Quarter Mile reef at Sodwana Bay and hunting the Giant Hawkfish there is almost as exciting as looking for pregnant Ragged Tooth Sharks, who go there in December to gestate.
Words Jill Holloway
Pic David Holloway
Copyright Ocean Spirit