For all you fish enthusiasts out there, I experienced something about as majestic as a hippopotamus ballet today.

For all you people who don’t care about fish past what it tastes like raw over a bed of sushi rice, I get that, I do. I feel the same way about birds. Black bird, blue bird, woohoo, just please don’t poop on me. Give me an ostrich or a penguin though and then we can talk.

This is a story about the dodo bird of the fish kingdom: the humphead parrotfish. 

(Photo found on Google*)

The humphead parrotfish was very cleverly named, because like its name suggests, it has both a parrot-like beak and a ridiculously bulbous head. Whoever came up with that name was a creative genius. What its name doesn’t tell you is that these funny guys can grow up to four feet long. That’s a big fish!

So this morning we were on the boat to go diving, after being told it would be a four-dive day starting at 5:30 AM. Why we were doing four dives starting at the break of dawn was lost in a jumble of Japanese words that my brain wanted to remember but couldn’t. Words.

Right before my scuba-donned, half-asleep body was about to fall overboard, the truth somehow found its way into English that we were here to see the humphead parrotfish spawning. Our Japanese guide had moved his hand over an imaginary lump on his forehead and I had blurted out bumphead with barely an audible parrotfish? tailing after it. The excited expression on his face told me I had guessed correctly.

We swam across a site here that always reminds me of the reef that Nemo and his dad lived on (no, every dive site doesn’t remind me of that reef), and then over some sand. I wondered for a moment if the humpheads would actually show. It’s cool that the guys on this island have been able to find the exact location and phase of the moon when the miracle of spawning occurs, but do the fish really adhere to that strict a schedule every month? Maybe they’re off by a day some months? I could sympathize with that.

And then they arrived. A stream of a hundred or more massive, boneheaded fish all bumbling along with a lot more grace then their clumsy appearance suggested they should have. Imagine a hundred miniature buffalo all parading down the street. In ballet slippers. (No, there’s no such thing as a miniature buffalo, I already Googled it). 

(Photo found on Google**) 

In my head they all talked like the abominable snowman (the Bugs Bunny one) and knew a total of two words.

“Girl fish.”

“Girl fish.”

“Girl fish.”

They all waltzed by, a never-ending stream of beaks and knobby heads and impressively big fish. And then it would happen, two fish would spiral to the top, facing each other like dance partners, several more would join the chase, their surroundings would become a murky haze of sperm and eggs as they reached the surface, and then the group would return to the shoal, mission accomplished.

Humphead parrotfish, despite their impressive size, are corallivores, that is they live on a diet of coral. I know right? I suppose that will be the next fitness fad, gain 100 lbs of body mass with a daily coral supplement (harvested from the northernmost atolls of Palau by free-trade Ethiopian children). You’d need a lot of coral though. A parrotfish can eat up to five to six tons of coral every year! That's the weight of an African elephant. They just chomp off a bite with that beak which is actually their teeth, then ram it with their head to break it up into smaller, more digestion-friendly pieces, and then use a second set of teeth in the back of their throat to grind it all up. Then they poop out the beautiful white sand that forms the beaches you use to suntan.

I know what you’re thinking, my scuba instructor told me never to touch the coral. Why do these fish get to go chomping it to bits? Think of it like trimming the hedges. The parrotfish does the landscaping, and then the reefs are able to withstand vicious storms and sea urchin invasions. All of their excreted sand makes beaches that sea turtles then use for nesting. It’s a win win for everyone.

I hovered there suspended, mid-ocean, just twirling myself in circles to try and catch all 360 degrees of jumbo fish parade. What a spectacle. National Geographic channel will never be the same.

Supposedly humpheads also use their incredibly hard heads to head-butt each other in displays of aggression, making a sound that would put Zeus' thunderbolt to shame. I was looking forward to seeing that but the fish all seemed to be on a mission to make love and not war. I was still waiting when it was time to ascend. 

On all our subsequent dives we saw stragglers from the party, all looking quite pleased with themselves. It was a good day in the humphead parrotfish world. 

*Image source: http://orig05.deviantart.net/4551/f/2008/256/7/2/bumphead_parrot_fish_by_carettacaretta.jpg.
**Image source: http://libutron.tumblr.com/post/85857956842/bumphead-parrotfish-sipadan-sabah.