21 January 2014 – The thrill of the chase

Fiona hovers carefully over the reef.  Her breathing is slow; her concentration, intense.  She spots a small shoal of parrotfish.  Five stripy juveniles, biting the algae-covered surface of a dead coral.  Those are of a species she will have to capture for her research when she returns to Eleuthera in the spring.   Those are the ones she wants.  This is Fiona’s first attempt at catching fish, and she is guided by her experienced lab mate, Luis.  Fiona signals to Luis, whose gaze becomes fixed on the targets.

Minutes earlier, both divers had set a small-meshed barrier net in a semi-circle between two coral heads.  The idea now is to herd the fish towards the net.  The divers look like gianHuntingt butterflies, each holding two hand nets, arms spread wide, swimming slowly towards each other with the shoal in between.  The fish sense something is amiss.  They stop their grazing and start swimming.  Luis and Fiona’s nets gently block their intended route, so the fish – as one – turn in the direction of the barrier net, some 20 metres away.  Then, it’s a slow, slow swim by fish and divers.  An almost perfectly choreographed dance by Luis and Fiona.

The pace accelerates, with the fish eager to escape the perceived danger, and the divers finning faster to keep up.  The fish are 3 metres from the net.  Jerky motions or premature sprinting by the divers at this distance, and all would be lost.  But Luis and Fiona keep calm.  Another metre, two metres, and it’s mayhem.  The fish have seen the net, try to evade it, but the divers rush them forward.

The fish bounce off the net repeatedly. The smallest one goes right through the mesh; another one slips away through a hole torn in the barrier.  The larger ones seem as good as caught, as the divers raise their hand nets to secure the fish against the barrier.  But then, one finds an opening, when the base of the net wasn’t buried.  It escapes, swiftly followed by the other two.   Outwitted by parrotfish!Fiona capture small

But it’s not a complete defeat. A small sharp-nose puffer was inadvertently rushed with the parrotfish, but it’s too rotund to go through the mesh and too slow to swim around it.  Fiona places her hand net over the fish and catches it.   Her eyes beam with excitement, and her grin makes her mask flood a little.  She gently releases the puffer, which scoots away, unharmed but unimpressed.

The divers catch their breath.  Everything happened so fast – two minutes at most.  This is a training exercise so the divers regroup and try again.  Same strategy, but different target.  A dense school of several hundred small French grunts shrouds the reef 30 metres away.  Perhaps these will be easier to catch.

School

 PS  They were!

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