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The Odyssey crew enjoy a dive with a friendly Napoleon Wrasse.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

March 14, 2003
Napoleon Wrasse
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

The crew spend most of their time offshore searching for whales, where opportunities to view marine life beneath the surface of the ocean are very rare. The Maldives are renowned for having some of the most pristine and spectacular coral reefs in the world. When we arrived back in port this week, the crew took the opportunity to go diving on North Male atoll.

The crew was taken to a dive sight well known for its stunning pastel colored soft coral gardens, and its abundance of luminous fish species, but it was the 'friendly' Napoleon Wrasse the crew was eager to meet.

The Napoleon Wrasse (also known as a Humphead or Maori Wrasse) is the largest species in the wrasse family, reaching over 1.5 meters in length. An animal 50 years or older may weigh up to 180 kilograms - this is more than twice the weight of the average person.

We jumped into the water, descended 10 meters and had just gathered ourselves together when the Napoleon Wrasse appeared out of the blue. Emerging from the distance, the magnificent fish with the trademark hump head and enormous fleshy lips, headed directly for us. It wasn't until he was actually among us that his astounding proportions became apparent - we were dwarfed by him!

The Napoleon Wrasse is the largest fish in the Wrasse family. A 50 year old fish may weigh 180 kilograms and measure up to 1.5 meters in length.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

He was exquisitely patterned, wonderful squiggled lines radiated from his roving eyes. Apparently these linear facial markings are unique to individual fish, much the same way fingerprints are to humans. His eyes rolled continuously, they seemed to follow and scrutinize our every movement. Once in the center of our group, he gently extended his pectoral fins, effectively putting on the breaks. He hovered silently, suspended in the water column, observing us as we observed him. He seemed to enjoy being stroked and appeared to lean against the pressure of our hands, much the same way a dog acts when it wants to be pet.

Looking into his eyes and interacting with this wild and gentle fish was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. This was an animal very much aware of our presence. When no one was petting him, he would manoeuvre around the group, giving the closest person a gentle nudge or a brush, perhaps to remind us that he still required our attention.

In a few places around the world, individual Napoleon Wrasse, usually older specimens, have become quite well known and are visited regularly by divers. Some have apparently formed bonds with individual divers whom the wrasse recognize and seek out. These 'friendly' fish often appear as soon as divers enter the water and choose to spend the entire dive with them, as did this Napoleon Wrasse today.

After almost twenty minutes of photographing, stroking and exchanging looks with this remarkable fish, we decided we should at least see a little more of the reef before it was time to ascend. We reluctantly left the wrasse behind and followed the reef wall, a tall overhang crowded with soft corals including spectacular gorgonian fans and literally thousands of brightly colored reef fish, each species unique in its marvellous decoration.

After only a few minutes of exploration, I had a strong feeling that something was watching me. I instinctively turned to look behind me and there he was, not two feet behind my right shoulder. The Napoleon Wrasse was not going to be left behind.

The lines radiating out from the eyes of the Napoleon Wrasse are unique to individuals the same way that fingerprints are to humans.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

Swimming with this exquisite fish was a deeply unforgettable experience. We liked to think this fish simply enjoyed our company, and although fish feeding has been banned in the Maldives for over five years - it is likely that he still associates divers with an easy meal.

The Napoleon Wrasse is by no measure an abundant species in the wild. They are a solitary species, although they may sometimes be seen in pairs and prefer to inhabit steep outer reef slopes and deep lagoon reefs. Their diet consists primarily of molluscs, sea urchins and crustaceans while they are one of the few known predators of toxic animals such as boxfish, sea hares and the crown-of-thorn starfish. In the event of a plague of the reef destroying crown-of-thorns, the presence of the Napoleon Wrasse is critical in restoring balance to the ecosystem.

Described as sequential hermaphrodites, Napoleon Wrasse are born male and turn female upon reaching sexual maturity. The sex life of human beings could be described as dull when compared to wrasses. When a vacancy appears in the area for a 'dominant' male, a female in the hierarchy transforms into a 'super male' with a distinctive hump on the head. This hump advertises to others in the area that he is the boss.

This remarkable adaptation, together with almost everything else regarding the natural biology of this species remains poorly understood. What we do know is that time is running out for the Napoleon Wrasse. This species of reef fish are now under threat from extinction as a direct result of the lucrative demand for live Napoleon Wrasse in Asia. The wealthier echelons of society in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan have an insatiable appetite for the flesh of the Napoleon Wrasse. It is popular in this region to advertise one's wealth by paying upward of US$1,500 to dine on a single fish, or up to US$400 for a set of lips. Unscrupulous traders finance operations to harvest this fish with cyanide in Indonesia, the Philippines and most of the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to decimating the populations of wrasses, these people are also destroying the worlds remaining coral reefs.

The Napoleon Wrasse is currently 'red listed' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) - meaning it is a species being adversely impacted by human activity and is susceptible to becoming critically endangered or extinct.

If the current demand for the Napoleon Wrasse by the live reef fish trade is allowed to continue, we may soon lose a very special animal, one that is capable of wilfully associating with humans.

Unfortunately, the fleshy lips of the Napoloen Wrasse have become a high-priced and trendy delicacy on the asian reef fish food market.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

People who visit the Odyssey often ask how they can help protect the marine environment from overexploitation and destructive fishing practices. I would recommend that you choose your seafood wisely and do not patronize restaurants that serve Napoleon Wrasse.

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Maldives, where the reefs are one of the few remaining safe havens for this captivating fish.


  • How can you select you seafood wisely? Click here to find out more.
  • What is the Patagonian Toothfish? Read more about this growing illegal trade.
  • What did the crew of the Odyssey report on one year ago in Australia? Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?

    Written by Genevieve Johnson

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