Blue Maomao Arch (pt3) Poor Knights

Blue Maomao Arch (pt3) Poor Knights

By Wade Doak

Two months later, at the beginning of June I return. In the foyer a pair of red pigfish are courting in earnest. His white patch is radiant; his dorsal is tautly erect, displaying its ocellus: a black spot rimmed with electric blue. His pelvic fins are thrust down like twin keels. And she responds, all fins erect, curving tightly around him and standing on her tail mid water. The day her eggs are ripe and ready, they will spawn.

Within the arch the scene is hectic. It is crammed with fish: dense masses of demoiselles and blue maomaos. It seems a grand ball is in progress! I call it the ‘fusion dance’. Spheres of fish hover near the walls. Then a movement begins. Bodies almost touching, utterly uniform in colour (they usually vary in tone) the demoiselles move across the arch as a cohesive unit. Just like a flock of birds, coordinated at every turn. A solid wall of fish, each one pectoral sculling with slight jerks of its body. There is no wave motion with this style of swimming. This gives their dance an uncanny aspect. With no undulation the impression of a super organism is heightened. Superfish!

The grey wedge advances across the portal, tapering at the base to form a tornado cloud. The upper layers accelerate while those below rise until they all form a massive horizontal column. The wings of the column fold down and curve back to the centre. The upper layers are mixed with blue maomaos that rope out through the entrance.

Another wall of fish expands from the centre to both left and right. The central mass extends like a flat sheet to infinity. Now both living walls of grey-silver converge. They mill around; they rotate, fold, swell; they avalanche over a rock. Two phalanxes diverge to reveal an oval of blue at their centre. The blue maomaos above them have gleaming white bellies. As individuals they are much bigger and they mill about at random, zigzag angles, tails and bodies weaving in a tight triangular cloud.

I return in October. The ocean hallway is deep blue and almost empty. No trace of the expected springtime plant plankton bloom. And all the demoiselles are outside in a column extending from the east portal right out the big submerged pinnacle in front of the Southern Archway. They are all feeding actively on animal plankton – a river of individuals, darting about with scissor tails, jaws snapping, twin dots agleam.

In the arch just a few gangs of blue maomaos like devoted billiards men are skimming on their favourite rocks. Among the rocks in dark spaces, I noticed dense masses of newly settled baby big eye swarming.

A visit in December: once again the arch is full of demoiselles with blue maomaos beneath. But there is no cohesion. No dance.

In late February there are no blue maomaos around. The demoiselles are out feeding. Others are nest guarding or huddling beneath ledges.

I have never seen such a fusion dance again. Only in the context of dives at every turn of the year and over many years, can I appreciate how special that performance was. And how complex the lives of fishes really are. As with flocks of birds was it some sort of ritual the meaning of which I may one day comprehend?

On a spring day when most of the archway fish are outside in the canyon gorging on plankton, I set out on a special mission. Below the window a group of archway rocks receive a shifting patch of sunlight. Above them the surface ripples with deep blue. halos of white swirl around the sill. These influences act like lenses and filters so that all the rock crest sponges and corals shimmer and glow. A male green wrasse crosses my path as I swim down to them. My camera is adjusted for ultra close up. First I will try filming by natural light – then with floods. The wavering pulses of sunlight create a moody, dappled effect. For the life forms here direct sunshine is a rarity. So are windows in caves!

Grape-like clusters of purple stalked ascidians; a lime green nudibranch crawling over a lattice of bryozoan; a brown variable nudibranch sliding over a yellow sponge; a clown nudibranch on orange sponge, its magenta gills and feelers swaying. White anemones with apricot centres are feeding: I see tentacles fold down and stroke the mouth slit, transferring entrapped food particles like a bear fingering honey. Amongst delicate bryozoan floss crawls a minute sea slug palping its way with the four feelers on its head, waving processes (cerata) on its back.

Arrays of graceful flask sponges; spikes of white sponge like jagged needles of ice; golden tan feathery hydroids; fragile snowflake bryozoans furred with wispy white defensive bristles; a tubeworm with a yellow and orange trapdoor or operculum, surrounded by a web of mucous it has exuded to snare food. Close up views of richly textured encrusting sponges in chrome yellow, vermilion or emerald;  pocked with craters, sprigged with soft prickles or riddled with mine shafts. Orange clusters of pencil-thin Steganoporella  bryozoans nicely patterned with double helixes. Cup corals with all their translucent tentacles fully expanded, so I can discern  tiny white spots that are their stinging weapons: nematocysts. Suddenly my scene is invaded by a curious triplefin that pounces into the middle of a rich setting, gazing up with fey, blue-ringed eyes. I am lucky because it is hard to achieve such intimacy if I stalk this tiny creature with my camera.  Nearby a golden Yaldwyn’s triplefin in winter courtship colours peers up at me inquisitively with its flexible head.

I have hardly moved. I can see no reason to shift. There is so much happening within an arm’s breadth. I am only a body length below. I have plenty of time and an infinity of subjects to record. Each time I return something new has developed. In March I encounter group sex: two pairs of clown nudibranchs in a row. Either side of them, pink, clockwise spirals of egg clusters.  Each individual is a hermaphrodite, able to produce eggs or to fertilise those of its bisexual companion.

Can life anywhere reach a greater diversity than in an ocean corridor with a constant flow of nutrients?  Blue Maomao Arch is modest by comparison with its grand neighbours, but it is by no means the least.

Extracted from Poor Knights Library. Website –

Recommended reading: Poor Knights Wonderland by Glenn Edney. Available through the Dive New Zealand store.

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