6 Nov 2009

Fishy Fridays ep. 7

Time to peek into our last "temperate" seawater tank at the Liège Aquarium and see who's there... ready for a swim? ;o)

These guys are all pretty much Mediterranean inhabitants, and I've run into all of them on more than one occasion when I've gone through the effort of squeezing myself into a wetsuit and jumping into the water. How about I introduce you to them one by one?

We've got the big guy, who always seems to be taking up so much place in there:

the Grouper (Mero, Mérou noir), Epinephelus marginatus. Good thing he doesn't need to swim much... it's a bit tight in there! Although he looks pretty big now, I saw some that were well over a meter in length during my last dive this summer. These guys have actually been known to reach 1m50 (if they live long enough... oldest known was 50 yrs old!).  Big carnivores with a diversfied diet, which makes them delicious when on our plates (and sell for very high prices in the markets). Unfortunately for him this, added to his tendency to not swim away when approached (but "hide" in some sort of grotto or rocky outcropping), means that underwater fishermen have been having a field day with these guys in the Mediterranean, to the point where in most places it's very rare to see them, and usually a lot deeper than once upon a time. :o(

I keep saying "he", but for all I know ours is a female! Given the size it's more than probable that she is a "she" and not a "he"! Why? Well, remember our gender-switching wrasses? Well here's another species that does a sexual switcheroo! Only in this case it's not a matter of necessity (as was the case of our wrasses: no male for the harem, time to activate the hormone change!), it's a matter of eventuality. If the individual lives long enough SHE will become a HE! I like to tell my "older" visitors that this is because it takes a lot more energy to be a female than a male and so it's better for the grouper to be female when she's young... I usually get some "knowing" looks from the ladies. ;o)

Who's next? How 'bout this spiny individual:

Now that's someone you don't want to put your hand on while diving! a) OUCH! and b) poison!
La "rascasse rouge" a.k.a. Scorpionfish a.k.a. Scorpaena scrofa a.k.a. the indispensible "secret" ingredient for a good bouillabaisse!

Now I know this might be a bit difficult to believe when you look at her (I've decided she's a "her" since Rascasse is feminin in French, probably why I also insisted on calling the grouper a "he", I just realised that now! lol!) - I mean no fish with a body like that could be a decent swimmer - but she is one damn good hunter! Her strategy is to ambush her prey. When you take into account that funky-looking body and her colouring, she's got perfect camouflage for the Mediterranean rocky bottoms. I wish I had a decent under-water photo to share with you... but it's at home in Spain (on paper, needs to be scanned). To give you an idea, let's just say I was taking a picture of a wall, full of sponges and algae and anemones... and didn't notice the fish in front of my eyes until I was back home looking at the printed picture! But back to the hunting (can you tell I'm hungry? need food...), she just sits comfortably atop her rock, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Until a friendly little shrimp swims by. Or a small cuttlefish. Or a crab. And then she pounces! Miam! When you think about it... her preferred dietary requirements are mostly species we pay large sums of money to eat as appetizers, it's no wonder she's so tasty herself! After all, "you are what you eat" applies as much to fish as to us! ;o) And when you look at that body you can understand why she's destined for the soup pot instead of being filleted.

Here's her cousin "la rascasse brune" who shares the lobster's aquarium right next door:

Can you see the family ressemblance? ;o)

And last but not least, we have at least half a dozen of these gals:

Mediterranean Moray eels!!! La murène: Muraena helena.
And I say at least half a dozen... because that's all I've been able to count for sure... always wondering if one or more wasn't still hiding out in those rocks.

Now these ladies have definitely managed to get themselves a foul reputation! You'll sometimes hear divers tell "horror" stories about having been attacked and bitten by a moray. And sure, it could happen. And if it did: OUCH! But I'm willing to bet nine times out of ten it's not the moray's fault, it's the divers (for sticking his hand where it wasn't wanted, lol!)! Why ouch? Well it always hurts when you get bitten (small confession: I've only ever been bitten by a rabbit), so imagine when the animal that bites you has not only one row of teeth... but a mouthful of teeth! And how about if all those teeth are as thin and sharp as a needle? And curved inwards like a fishhook? You get the idea... OUCH indeed! You can't just force open a moray's jaw to have her release you. No, you'll have to tear the head away, including the flesh she's bitten into. Double ouch! And guess what? It gets worse!!!

How's that possible?! Quite simple: morays are scavengers, sea-bottom vacuum cleaners if you will. They feast on decomposing bodies. And what are decomposing bodies covered in? Yup, bacteria!!! And last I checked no one has invented a fishy toothbrush yet (or taught a fish how to use it), so all those lovely bacteria and bits of rotting flesh are nestled quite cosily in between the moray's teeth... What does this recipe lead to? Major infection! So triple ouch!!!

Now why did I say it's most probably the diver's fault? Well a) as scavengers these guys aren't really that brave, it's not like they're going to think you're something to eat and attack. And b), they're nocturnal! So most of the times when you encounter them diving (during the daytime) they're peacefully resting among the rocks. Until some wise-a$$ scuba diver comes and pokes and prods one to have her come out and play (or eat) so he can get a decent photo... Why be surprised when she retaliates? No self-respecting Mediterranean citizen likes having their nap interrupted (I've gotten chewed out by many a friend for calling during "siesta" time in the summer)!

People just need to keep their hands where they belong. Even if you do see one like this (photo by my sister):

she's probably going to swim in the opposite direction from you asap!

More Fishy Fridays in 2 weeks time, tackling the tropical tanks. Get ready for an explosion of colours! :o)


  1. I love the photos of the moray eels - very beautiful!

    The grouper is cool to. We don't see very many of them any more since they have become endangered in our area of the Caribbean.

  2. Awesome! I still prefer looking at your pictures to actually being in the water with them! Especially after that 'p' word... POISON!

  3. Dive Girl, it's actually become quite rare to see grouper in our part of the Mediterranean as well (due to over-fishing, their too easy to catch and too yummy to resist apparently!) unless you dive deep, around 40m or so. This past August when my sister and I saw so many of them it was a) a mid-deep dive (30m) and b) in a marine reserve so the population as been growing back.

    Lily, P as in a "light" poison (unless you're a fish). Nothing to worry about... unless you're underwater of course and the shock of getting stung makes you do something crazy and you drown! :P
    Their tropical cousins (lionfishes etc) are MUCH more poisonous.


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