Sunfish pursuits

by Ross Armstrong

This summer up and down the Northland coast there has been an abundance of sunfish. Charter boat skippers regularly reported seeing large numbers of sunfish everywhere. I spoke to divers fortunate enough to encounter these huge fish underwater; something I hoped to experience one day. With so many sunfish about, this summer was my best chance yet.

I certainly saw my share of sunfish on trips to and from the Knights. The large dorsal fin, waving figure eights in the air, is easy to spot as the fish slowly swims along the surface. When approached by boats, sunfish will often dive. However, every now and then one will stay on the surface and allow people to swim with it. Mary Carney told me about an encounter with one underwater, during a dive outside The Tunnel at the Poor Knights. The sunfish remained in the same spot and all the divers on the trip got to see it. This fish did not appear at all bothered by the presence of the divers and even seemed to enjoy the company. A classic case of the ‘You should have been here yesterday’ side to diving!

With so many sunfish around, I spent some time trying to persuade my friend Norm McKinley, skipper of Blue Striker, of the benefits of taking me out with the specific purpose of locating and snorkelling with a sunfish. I almost had him convinced. He was happy if we went game fishing at the same time – provided he did not have any other bookings. Not quite what I was after, but beggars can’t be choosers. Unfortunately, we could never find a day when we were both free. I don’t think it helped matters when I suggested that, if we were lucky enough to actually hook a marlin, and then encountered a sunfish, we could cut the line and pursue the sunfish. I guess some people just have different priorities.

I actually got very close to snorkelling with a sunfish. I was out at the Knights with my friend and fellow underwater photographer Rees Jones on his catamaran Catatonic. We had completed the morning dive and were having lunch and a quick fish on North Reef. I was passing time watching the seabirds skim the waves out the back of the boat. Suddenly, about 100 metres off the stern, a mako shark leaped head first into the air, performed a somersault and splashed back into the ocean. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I had heard of this behaviour but never witnessed it. We were talking about it when we noticed a large sunfish swimming slowly towards the boat. All summer I had been telling people about how I was going to jump into the ocean at the first opportunity I had to swim with a sunfish. Now the conditions were perfect – the sea was flat, the sun was shining and a big sunfish was swimming lazily right next to the boat.

However, I decided that there is always next time. There were three things that influenced my decision: first, my short-term memory is very good, especially for things that have occurred in the last half hour. Second, my imagination is even better than my short-term memory. And thirdly, when my short-term memory and imagination combine, there is no telling what they might come up with. Following this little incident, I modified my vow to ‘I will jump into the open ocean with a sunfish at the first opportunity, provided a mako shark has not leaped out of the water right in front of me in the last five minutes.’ I am now waiting for that situation to occur.

A couple of weeks later I’m back at the Knights. The first dive of the day is at Northern Arch, a real favourite with me. I planned to photograph the brilliant yellow finger sponges that can be found around the 40m mark. There are quite a few sponges to choose from and I spotted two really nice finger sponges growing side by side a few metres below me. I descended hoping to get a quick photograph before my dive computer went into decompression. As I swam down I noticed a large object hovering off the reef below me on the edge of visibility.

I descended a little further to investigate. As I got closer I realised the large object was a sunfish, and it was just sitting there! I couldn’t believe it! I checked my computer, I was at about 45m and my computer had just gone into decompression. I checked my air, I still had over 2000 psi. I checked my camera, plenty of film and a wide-angle lens – just what I needed. But hang on, what about the depth! There are old divers, and there are bold divers, but there are not old bold divers. Well, I thought, I’m not that old! That big sunfish is just sitting there, another couple of metres, a quick photograph and I’m out of here.

I swam down to about 50m. As I got closer I noticed a couple of leatherjackets that appeared to be picking objects off the sunfish’s skin. I was almost close enough for a photograph. Suddenly, with a couple of quick strokes of its fins, the sunfish started to swim away. I was amazed at how quickly it moved from a standing start, and I knew I couldn’t catch it.

Damn, I thought. Actually, it was another four-letter word that I thought, but I am sure you get the idea. Then, just as I gave up hope, the sunfish stopped. Well, by now I was pretty committed (or should have been, you probably think). I checked my computer – hmm! I checked my air – still OK! I positioned my strobes and preset the aperture of my camera to allow maximum light, as it was pretty dark down here. Breathing as quietly as possible, I tried a second attempt.

This time the sunfish allowed me to get within a couple of metres before it swam off. I managed to take three photos in that brief moment. I watched for a few seconds more as it melted into the gloom at the edge of visibility and then started heading up. At that stage I was at 53m and had outstayed my welcome. I completed my decompression stop and spent a further ten minutes watching the marine life bustling about in five metres.

The dive finished, I now had to endure the dreaded wait – to get my film processed. I have this wait down to a well-established routine. It is quite a simple routine. First I picture in my mind the photos from the dive. These are always in focus, correctly exposed and well composed. I imagine this award-winning photo of a sunfish with leatherjackets delicately picking parasites off its skin. Then I get my photos back. This is what I refer to as the ‘back to reality’ stage. I finally collect my photos and can’t wait to look at them. Nice finger sponges, mixture of fish shots, I am always amazed how fish know the exact instant to turn away. But where are the sunfish photos? It turns out that the only three photos that did not come out were those of the sunfish. There goes my evidence!

Later that night, when I view them on my slide projector, I discover what happened to my sunfish pictures. On one of the ‘black’ slides there is a distinct and unmistakable shape of a sunfish in the gloom. My first opportunity of photographing a sunfish underwater, and I blew it. I think that in my state of narcosis I set the camera aperture to allow in minimum light, instead of maximum as I had intended, and ended up severely underexposing the photos.

Well, I guess that’s all part of underwater photography. I did get to see my first sunfish underwater and had a great dive to boot. Next time it happens I might even get that award-winning photo. We all need our delusions to keep us going!

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