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Finding Nemo in New Caledonia
New Caledonia

There's this colony of clownfish that lives just on the crest of the fringing reef at Mato. Two species of clownfish (also called anemonefish), each with their respective species of anemone live practically (but not quite) on top of each other. Amphiprion melanopus is the bright orange anemone fish and Amphiprion clarkii is the very dark orange clownfish with two vertical blue-white stripes. Clarkii gets chummy with about 10 different species of anemones but Melanopus is partial to the bubble tip anemone Entacmaea quadricolor - but will pair up with a couple of other species in some areas. You can see the brown bubble tipped anemone tentacles amidst the coral branches on the Melanopus side of the sphere. 

The usual photos of clownfish show them nestled down into the tentacles of their partner anemone, and there is a lot written about their intimate relationship with their anemone partners. But actually these colorful little fish are normally out swimming around, nibbling on plankton or sometimes on algae and generally having a good time on the reef. But when a human comes by they make a dive for the protection of the sea anemone. They also tuck into their anemone at night to sleep.

To take this sphere image showing how the anemone fish behave when nobody is around to bug them, I set up my underwater robot camera between the two colonies of clownfish. It was so calm that you can see the reflection of the surrounding reef on the mirror-like surface. The front of the camera dome was only about 4 cm from the surrounding coral on each side and about 20cm from the blue coral on the bottom. As I set up the camera every single anemone fish (and in fact all the pretty tropical fish) were hiding. Most of the fish, even the little tropicals, took off the instant Freddy and I approached. We believe this is because the aquarium trade is pretty active in Noumea and collectors - both private and commercial - harass the little tropical fish on the reefs even in remote places like Ilot Mato. So they have a good reason to make themselves scarce when they see a human approaching. Nemo has learned his lesson in the New Caledonia lagoon.

While getting everything ready I thought about the fact that these little guys might be as much as 10 years old, maybe older, so they have seen a lot of people - and collectors - during their lives. I also thought about the fact that their life spans in aquaria are a lot less than that - sometimes only a week or two in a poorly maintained aquarium. Even the ones bred in captivity only live half the life expectancy of the wild fish. I have to say, I don't like the idea of capturing little fish because they are beautiful and selling them to people who may or may not be able to keep them alive.

Freddy and I swam off and let the camera and the clownfish get to know each other. The famous Aquarium in Anse Vata - the old one set up as a marine laboratory by Rene Catala back in 1953 - was an exception to my general dislike of aquaria. Rene was a biologist and the aquarium he created was phenomenal - undoubtedly the very best marine aquarium I had ever seen. His goal was to create miniature habitats in the laboratory so he could closely study and photograph the behavior of the marvelous sea creatures of New Caledonia. Nowhere else had aquaria been able to keep corals alive and growing - they even settled naturally on the aquarium walls and grew there! That alone was a key indication of the biologically tuned ecosystems he created. He was a dedicated, talented, and concerned scientist and - almost magically - the sea creatures thrived in his care.

The old aquarium is gone - turned over to the city of Noumea back in 1975 and now reincarnated as a much larger, architectural masterpiece, filled with dying creatures - constantly replaced by divers - and plagued with the usual sorts of technical and biological difficulties that infect aquaria large and small around the world. Difficulties that make professional fish and coral collectors happy and rich. Difficulties that make the smallest of tropical fish on the coral reefs of New Caledonia dive for cover whenever they see a human coming. Except - I should add - in the excellent New Caledonian marine reserves where there is absolutely no collecting allowed. Like Ile aux Canard, Ilot Maitre, and Ilot Amedee. There, you will actually be surrounded by tropical fish while you snorkel. Proving my point that the stark terror exhibited by fish of every size and description - even sharks - when they see a human in the water is justified by ongoing human attacks.

As we returned to the robot camera I hovered just on the edge of visibility and could see the little clownfish clowning around, even peering into the camera case. Now, here on 360Cities.net, you have a chance to see them face to face - and they are still (I hope) safe and snug in their little anemones surrounded by their mates at Ilot Mato.

Oh, and don't forget to find the live cowrie shell in this underwater sphere image.

Copyright: Richard chesher
Type: Spherical
Resolution: 13916x6958
Uploaded: 15/04/2011
Updated: 26/05/2014
Views:

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Tags: aquarium noumea; lagoon new caledonia; nemo; clownfish; amphiprion melanopus; amphiprion; amphiprion clarkii; tropical fish; aquarium fish; aquarium trade; new caledonia tropicals; underwater; diving; snorkeling
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More About New Caledonia

New Caledonia is the closest South Pacific Island to Australia and New Zealand. It is a French Territory and although the official language is French the culture is a blend of Melanesian, European, Polynesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian, and more. There is one large mountainous island called Grande Terre and 6 smaller islands - the three Loyalty Islands, Belep and the Isle of Pines.The islands are remarkably unpopulated and there are vast areas of wilderness. There are hundreds of kilometers of walking treks, camp grounds, more than 42 parks and reserves, and crystal clear rivers with sparkling waterfalls. Almost one third of the population is located in the capital city of Noumea. Nickel mining is the primary industry and is the major contributor to the high standard of living in the country. Grande Terre is surrounded by the second largest barrier reef in the world and the protected lagoon created by this barrier reef is the largest in the world. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008, the lagoon is 24,000 square kilometers and supports a diverse and luxuriant fauna of fish and invertebrates.The vibrant, clear and rich colors are one of the first things that visitors notice when they arrive. Noumea has a complete range of hotels, resorts, restaurants, and activities to welcome visitors.