Coral rubble in the shallows was not what had drawn diver Scott Tuason to the Pacific island of Yap, but then he discovered the moonlit mating grounds of the mandarinfish
I had gone to the magical kingdom of the manta rays in hopes of catching these amazing animals on film - even to capture them in their mating underwater ballet. Unfortunately, the weather hadn't co-operated and conditions were considerably less than favourable. Add to this the fact that the incoming tide at Mi'il Channel was not in synch with our morning dives, and the trip was starting to be a recipe for disaster, photographically speaking. However, Yap has far more than just mantas to offer, including great walls with 50m-plus visibility on the outer reef, grey reef and blacktip sharks and shoals of reef and pelagic fish. The small critter life is generally not as good as in South-east Asia, but there is an exception in the shape of the most colourful fish in the sea - the mandarinfish. These psychedelic leftovers from the '60s are part of the dragonet fish family and range in size from 3 to 7cm. Under pressure from the aquarium fish trade, mandarinfish have become a rare treat to divers, especially as they come out only after 5pm and are found in 3-5m of water in coral rubble - not the sort of place where we spend a lot of time. I have been to several locations in South-east Asia to find mandarins, and to date the highest concentration I have seen is in the island of Yap. How ironic: I travel to a remote island in the Pacific looking for a 5m animal, and wind up spending more time with a 5cm fish. But don't get me wrong - I did see mantas almost every day. The dive is an easy one. Five minutes from the Manta Ray Bay Hotel by boat is a small island where Mandarinfish Reef is located. There is hardly any current, and you don't have to go any deeper than 6m to see the action. At first, when you get into the water it looks as if there is nothing there but pyjama cardinalfish and shrimp. But within minutes of the dive, the little mandarins appear from nowhere to start their nightly ritual of feeding and mating. It reminds me of the line from the movie Scarface: 'Is this what it's all about?' Most of the smaller females are going about their business of eating while the considerably larger males start looking for a willing partner to make baby mandarins. At times one male can be surrounded by about five females as another male comes along and tries to muscle in on the action, only to be chased away. This can go on for as long as an hour, until the suitable female has finally chosen her mate. From there the two break off from the group, come together side by side and start a spiralling motion up and away from the reef. As the spirals get tighter and tighter, the fish stop for a split second, the female releases her eggs and the male releases his sperm, and both scamper back to the reef like a couple busted for necking at a drive-in movie. All that is left is a faint cloud of dust, and this may be repeated once or twice again. One observation I made for the first time was that after the mating, the female would swim off the reef and hover in mid-water for about two minutes. She didn't appear to be feeding; she just hovered there motionless, alone, doing nothing. The mandarinfish seem to repeat this ritual every night, but from what I have observed through the years, it seems to reach a peak during the full moon. So if you're in the mood for a little voyeurism, Yap is the place for mating mandarinfish.