The mandarinfish – strikingly beautiful, but so very elusive. A favourite subject of many underwater photographers, these members of the dragonet family perform a fascinating mating ritual at dusk and time and time again, curious divers enter the water to try and witness this natural phenomenon just as the sun sets. You might want to hold your horses and read on if you’re planning to do this special dive though; there are some things you need to know before encountering these painfully shy fish.
Get in the water before it gets dark. This gives you time to locate the mandarinfish (they tend to congregate in the shallows around coral rubble beds and finger coral), pick the perfect spot, fiddle with your camera (if you own one, that is), and settle down. Don’t make the mistake of descending after the sun sets. By then, it’s probably a little too late.
Use a red torchlight. Bright lights scare the mandarinfish away so if possible, get a red torchlight (remember: red light penetrates the least through water). If not, you can always use a regular torchlight, but make sure you dim the light by placing your hands over the beam.
Look for a female and keep an eye on it. Once you’re in position and all ready for the show, try and spot the female mandarinfish. They are smaller in size compared to the males and lack the long first dorsal spine that males have. Focus on this one female you find and wait for the males to show up. What you can expect to see eventually is a pair – stuck to each other side-by-side – rise just above the reef before releasing a cloud of sperm and eggs and swimming away quickly. If you’re taking photos and miss it the first time around, don’t fret. This ritual generally takes place several times so you get more than one chance to capture that shot.
Don’t move around too much. Since mandarinfish are such shy critters, they certainly don’t appreciate big, sudden movements. Control your breathing and stay where you are. Photographers, use the zoom function on your camera instead of moving in closer to the subject. This is where a longer macro lens might come in handy.
Where to find mandarinfish in Asia Pacific
A handful of resorts in Mabul and Kapalai have their own house reefs (many of which are home to mandarinfish) so you don’t have to wander too far off to find what you’re looking for.
You could go to a few places to see mandarinfish in Lembeh, but one of the most popular spots is a shallow dive site called Batu Angus.
After seeing the thresher sharks (which you wake up at 4am for), in the evening you can head out to Lighthouse (also sometimes known as Lighthouse Reef) for some mandarinfish action.
Near the entrance to the famous Chandelier Cave dive site is a patch of finger coral, where mandarinfish are known to live. You’ll probably go looking for them right after visiting Chandelier Cave’s five chambers, so you get two different experiences in just one dive.
Tufi, Papua New Guinea
Tufi Dive Resort’s house reef is the place to go for mandarinfish. That aside, don’t forget to come back in the day for more macro fun; blennies, gobies, and nudibranchs can be found everywhere in this little area.