Three years ago I was diving solo at Bare Island in Sydney. (As an aside, I like how we name things in Australia. If you want to go skiing you go to the snowy mountains. Flathead fish have a particularly flat head. And Bare Island is pretty bare. Although it does make me think twice before going for a dive at shark point.). It was an overcast day with only a little bit of swell, a perfect day for a dive to take a few pictures.
My plan was to dive the west side of Bare Island. On the west side you can see pygmy pipe fish, sea horses, port jackson sharks (depending on the time of year), lots of nudibranchs, red indian fish, and anglerfish.
Twenty minutes into the dive I was nearing the first cave as shown in Marco Bordieri’s map below when I spotted two black leatherjackets.
The two leather jackets were dancing together in the water column, heads pointing to the surface, tails pointing to the sand. Twisting around each other, moving slowly up towards the surface, and then slowly down. I was keen to take a photo but have always found anything black difficult to photograph. So I stopped and knelt on the sand and started to adjust the settings on my camera. It took some time for me to do as the fish being in the water column meant the background would be black. Black fish on a black background. I was also further from them than I would have liked so needed to consider how a weaker flash would impact the photograph.
Now I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you know someone or something is looking at you. This feeling started to come over me, really strongly. I finished adjusting the camera, and slowly turned my head to the left and looked over my shoulder. About 10 cm from my face, staring back at me, was a Blue Groper. I suspect he’d been there for some time, watching me do the camera adjustments. Now I say “he” because Blue Gropers have an interesting life, being serial hermaphrodites. All are born female. Then a few of the juvenile females become males. The males become large bright blue fish and the females’ smaller reddy brown fish. What was looking back at me was a big bright blue male. He slowly swam behind me to the right and to my front. By now the leather jackets had finished their dance and had wandered off so it was me and big blue alone for some quality time.
There are a few things that stand out for me about this fish. One is that they are really friendly. Every diver in Sydney has had the experience of a blue groper seeking them out on a dive and following them. Another is their eyes. These fish really check you out. Their eyes operate a bit like a chameleon’s, swiveling around independently, taking in everything you are doing. But probably the trait I like best (and you’ll need to forgive me here as I apply a human trait to them) is their personality. When a blue groper gives you their attention, it's undivided, until they get bored and move on. I’ve seen one excitedly doing figure eights between the legs of a diver standing on the sand for what seemed like minutes, then swim off without looking back like he’d realized he’d left the fridge door open. The females are the complete opposite, always keeping a safe distance between themselves and a diver.
The blue groper on this dive followed me for a bit more, then like a friend with severe ADHD, swam off for a new one fish only adventure. Before and since this dive I’ve had many encounters with these fish and every encounter gives me real pleasure. As I often dive at the same spots some feel like old friends and if I don’t see them on a dive I get worried that something has happened to them.
This video (apologies for the quality) gives an example of the inquisitiveness and “friendliness” of this fish.
For those of you that live in Sydney and want to experience an encounter with a blue groper, if you go for a snorkel around Clovelly you’ll more than likely spot one. For the divers, pretty much anywhere…
What a beautiful city we live in....