The Story of Hef:
Landscape photographers dream of someday shooting Horsetail Falls. Wildlife photographers dream of someday shooting a snow leopard. And underwater photographers dream of someday shooting the courtship and mating of mandarinfish. Well over the years, I’ve actually done it quite a few times. But “Hef”…well Hef was a whole different breed of mandarinfish, with a gift & talent the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Mandarinfish are a 1.5-2”, raucously-colored, reclusive, slow-moving, bottom-dwelling goby. They live in small groups, and will generally mate between 1-3 times almost every evening at dusk. That’s the normal mandarinfish….and then there’s Hef – King of the Mandarins! Hef is a hulk of a man – about 3.5” long, huge by mandarin standards. And a typical ratio will be a male who has a harem of perhaps three females. Hef had at least 15 girlfriends who he defended against male interlopers with extreme violence. And the turf he protected, again, was far bigger than the typical territory – he’d attack other males on sight by swimming over 5’ away.
But his virility was the real thing that made him the most photographable fish of the year. After the first dusk of awaiting the spawning rise (where they swim up in the water column about 8-10” up, wrapped around each other and scatter sperm and eggs – shown beneath them) where I witnessed a record-breaking number of rises, I begin counting on subsequent nights. Over the next 3 weeks, I spent about 14 dusks awaiting the show, and counted 11, 17, 24…even 28 spawns in a single dusk! Disbelief in the spectacle before me kept me coming back dusk after dusk to see if Hef could possibly possess enough stamina to continue, and every night, he would attack the males, and mate with all his females all over again. I’ve never seen anything like it, and while I’ll look for him again when I return to Misool, it’s unlikely that he’ll be there since he was already in his prime, and they aren’t known to live too many years – but I’ll scour his habitat, and if he’s still there, I’ll once again voyeuristically spy on this intimate marathon event every night at dusk while my friends are at dinner.