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Looking for Mandarinfish, Palau

April 11, 2010

I got my first opportunity to photograph mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus) during a quick four-day media trip to Palau courtesy of new airline Pacific Flier, thanks Shane and Reg (and please excuse the plug but they were really helpful).

I knew the fish were small and only came out from hiding at certain times of day, but I didn't expect to have quite such a frustrating time trying to get a decent photo of one.

I say decent because after my first go all I got was a photo of a tail fin or half a face (see below).

A mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)

Mandarinfish takes bucketloads more patience than any other animal I've photographed.

Of course, I had to spot one first.

The guides at Fish 'n Fins assured me there were heaps of mandarinfish in the small outcrop of coral just off the dock.

Every day between 5 and 6pm they come out from the cover of the reef, such a brief window to spot and snap such a tiny fish.

But as I swam around scanning each piece of coral, the minutes ticked by and my hour-long window was disappearing.

I felt pretty inadequate for not being able to spot my own fish, but I wanted to get a photo so I came up for help and one of the guides was nice enough to change out of his dry clothes and jump in the water with me.

Within 20 seconds, literally, he was pointing at a mandarinfish.

Damn, I thought, I really must be blind.

The fish was smaller than I'd imagined and hiding deeper in the coral than I expected.

The guide left me to stalk the fish he'd pointed out and in my excitement I probably got too close and spooked it, because it never came out of the coral.

The next day I was determined to get more than glimpses of blue, green, red and orange.

This time I was going to get my photo. Since I was flying home the next day I was happy with just a full-body shot. A mating shot was not going to happen, I had to be realistic.

So I set my sights on the wire fencing along the dock wall, where Fish 'n Fins owner Tova told me I'd have more luck.

I moved slow and looked for movement, after about 10 minutes I spotted my first mandarinfish! (all by myself, too)

It flitted back and forth between the rocks and never swam out into open water, but it did come out from cover a few times – enough for me to get my precious shot.

I saw another mandarinfish a bit further along the wall and tried to keep an eye on both, but it was too easy to lose track of them. 

So my wish for a pair of mating mandarinfish wasn't granted, but at least I got a photo and a better understanding of these cute, but photographically challenging fish.

A mandarinfish (Synchiropus splendidus)


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