Bumphead Wrangler

Corralling a skittish giant bumphead parrotfish.

After a week of sun and calm, we wake to overcast skies and a rising breeze at Kicha Island, the western-most stopover in our Solomon Islands itinerary. The dreary conditions coupled with an unusually early 7 a.m. dive schedule almost convince me to remain aboard the Bilikiki for another cup of coffee in a cozy bunk. Prospects dim further when we drift down from the dinghy toward the drop off, where low light and poor visibility force me to angle in toward shore to try my luck over the island shelf. Thoughts of that second cup of coffee haunt me as I round a towering pinnacle and confront an unpromising moonscape of rock bathed in thick shadows.

Suddenly, my outlook improves when off in the distance, at the edge of visibility, I spy the faint movement of something big. Instinctively, I drop nearer the bottom, straining to focus through the haze as I creep forward. Before long, there is motion off to both the left and right of me. As the massive forms take shape, I discover I am in the midst of a hulking school of giant bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum). At that instant, as if heralding the rare encounter, the first rumble from Kavachi, a submarine volcano located some 20 kilometers away, barrels through my body. I vaguely remember being forewarned the previous evening about the possibility of hearing eruptions underwater, but I had not contemplated the otherworldly explosions' stimulating effect or intensity.

The parrotfish aggregation, numbering in the dozens and now aware of my presence, begins to swirl, demanding the return of my focus. Dumbstruck with luck and sensory overload, I freeze, trying to decide my next move. I know the great fish, exploited to near extinction in many parts of the western Pacific, are understandably wary, but they don't swim away as I'd expect. Glancing around, I begin to sort out the situation. I finally realize that the exotic beasts are cued up at cleaning stations manned by parasite-picking juvenile hogfish, and they are reluctant to move. I back away slightly, which seems to calm their edginess, just as another wave of underwater booms from the volcano rolls over me. A second cup of coffee is now the furthest thing from my mind.

I begin easing in the direction of the largest fish, a 4-foot-long, 100-pound colossus. Soon, I'm just beneath where it hovers above an outcropping, attended to by a bevy of busy cleaner fish. Pushing my luck, I rise up until almost eye to eye with the brute, but it's too much; it bolts toward the blue. The sudden flight of the big bull sends the school scattering in all directions. I follow close behind my target. After reaching the wall it abruptly turns, paralleling the ridge. Out the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a fellow diver, Christina Rudman, leisurely heading my way. I wave, instantly catching her attention, as my quarry swims into her view. As if born to wrangle giant parrotfish, Rudman glides in front of the oncoming fish, turns it on a dime and escorts the amazing fish back along the wall in my direction. How cool is that?