Eating pizza pie on the river that flows by our Matapouri home, Jan and I heard the phone ring. I poled the river boat ashore and ran to the receiver.
"That ship You've been waiting for is coming up the harbour," said a neighbour from over the hill. I phoned Customs in Whangarei city to warn them about El Torito. For an overseas ship to enter New Zealand at the tiny harbour of Tutukaka was a rare event. A few rules had to be stretched. I finished mid-river lunch with our friends as it would be some time before the ship was cleared.
On board, who should we find with Janice and Walt but our New Caledonian friend, Georges Aima. Walt had stopped by at Noumea and invited him along, together with Terry Hannagan who had flown from Sydney to rejoin El Torito.The reunion was a wild and happy one. Before long we were talking about the Poor Knights Islands. Walt was interested in making a film in a temperate region which, with those made in the tropics, would present a spectrum of ocean life over a broad climatic range. The Poor Knights, a wild-life reserve, are a perfect location for this purpose. Ten years earlier Jan and I had shifted north to live as close as possible to them.
Fourteen miles off the Northland coast, at 35 degrees latitude, the islands (Map) offer ideal conditions for a great range of invertebrate life and over 120 species of fishes. Many of the coldwater forms are found there, although more abundant in southern waters. In addition there are many warm-water species, from tropical and subtropical families. This is probably due to the influence of the warm East Auckland current that flows offshore along the coast of north-eastern New Zealand, originating as an offshoot of the Tasman current which in turn derives from the subtropical East Australian current. This explains the correspondences I see between the Lord Howe Island fish fauna and that of northern New Zealand.
The Poor Knights are probably additionally favourable to subtropical species because of the great variety of deep-water habitats, caverns, archways and tunnels that riddle the islands, offering unusual ecological niches not utilised by local species. Although uninhabited, the islands are similar to Catalina Island off the California coast, and deep-water islands in the Mediterranean or Southern Japan. Standing near the edge of an ancient string the continental shelf they are remnants of volcanoes that once erupted along the fault line off New Zealand's coast. When the ice ages froze so much of the world's water that the sea level changed, the surf pounded rocky beaches now 150 to 300 feet down, creating vast sea caves, tunnels and archways in the softer portions of the volcanic rock.
Today steep cliff faces plunge sheer through the surface to depths as great as 300 feet, broken by ledges, caves, fissures and overhangs. At 150 feet there is often a sandy plain, shelving away gently before a second slope carries on to greater depths beyond scuba range. Such submarine topography offers the diver a wide range of depths within a short horizontal distance. He can glide gently down a giant staircase from sea level to an ice-age beach fifteen storeys below.
Encrusting sea life is at its most prolific on vertical rock faces where wave energy is reflected with very little turbulence. Deep-sea cliff faces are like huge vertical cities whose inhabitants depend on imported food supplies. Many feed on the currents which day and night bring them rich streams of planktonic food; others gather detrital particles, stored energy from the life processes in the sunlit waters above them, or they eat one another.
The chemical food factories which provide energy for the cliff-dwelling community may be thousands of miles away where coral reef communities release millions of larval animals on the ocean currents. Energy may be derived from microscopic plankton plants drifting near the surface over thousands of square miles of marine pastures; from the faecal wastes and decaying bodies of animals living in the water column adjacent to the cliff, or on the sunlit reef crests above them; from leaflike sea plants dislodged by wave action overhead or fragments torn loose by grazing herbivores such as sea urchins feeding in dense kelp forests in the upper levels.
All this oceanic life is ultimately dependent on energy radiated by the sun. On land and sea, plants are the only living things which can convert this energy into organic compounds, a form of stored energy assimilable by other life forms. As sunlight passes through sea water its intensity is reduced. Beyond 150 feet photosynthesis plays a small role in the ecology of the cliff dwellers. To tap the energy flow along the sea cliffs, many of the inhabitants adopt the simplest life style of all: they just attach themselves firmly to the rocks to maintain position an d filter the dilute planktonic soup passing by. This is the first link in a complex food chain. The very existence of these filter feeders provides opportunities for more advanced invertebrates and fishes to move among them and devour them. The cliffs also offer safe refuges for clouds of plankton-feeding fishes which feed in the water currents by day or by night, depending on which "shift" they are adapted to.
In the middle of the night I surfaced from a filming session beneath El Torito at the Poor Knights, and stepped into a hot shower. The dream of a diving lifetime - living in comfort so close to my favourite underwater world. Above us the sky was solid rock. The huge vaulting roof of Rikoriko Cave dwarfed our 100-ton ship moored in one corner of its vastness. During the four months Walt spent in New Zealand filming The Islands of Friendly Fishes, Rikoriko Cave was to be our refuge from rain and wind, our safest anchorage.
The cavern was the scene of the "Cave Jams", rock music sessions with our Maori friends from over on the coast, who provided on the spot soundtrack music for the film. During our first filming session out there I had the chance to show Walt all my favourite diving sites and introduce him to the group of fishes which have become so tame since I began photographing there five years earlier for my books Beneath New Zealand Seas and Fishes of the New Zealand Region. Once so hard to get near, they now let my wife Jan pick them up and stroke them for Walt's movie lens.
In the Northern Archway Walt was amazed to see and film a squadron of ten large stingrays flying up and down the walls of this 120-feet deep undersea keyhole like giant butterflies. His mind quickly jumped to an exciting thought: like the dense schools of pink and blue maomao there, these rays are probably feeding on the plankton which sluices through the archway. Such behaviour would be most unusual for stingrays which normally feed over mud and sand bottoms, crushing shellfish in their grinding jaws. For them to spend hours swooping around cliff faces, soaring and banking like delta wing bombers, is very strange; plankton feeding is the likeliest explanation.
Walt returned to the arch with a powerful movie flood. Blue maomao (kyphosids) fluttered around the light, their dorsal spines standing out like needles in silhouette, the edges of their bodies burnished copper. Walt filmed incredibly dense masses of fishes seething around us against a vivid backdrop of orange, sulphur yellow and scarlet sponges encrusting the rocks. As we left they streamed out of the archway in a blue river, pouring past Walt's lens for five minutes – a rope of fishes.
Next I took Walt around to Airbubble Cave on the weather side of the Knights. There was still quite a surge running but we managed to enter. From recent heavy weather the first airbubble was brimful, a vast silver plate or a pool of mercury in the cave roof. I prefer the second dome, further in and about a foot above the level of the outer one. In that airbubble we can stand clear of the water, with five feet of air around our heads, just our knees in the sea.
"Look at your depth gauge, Walt."
"Well I'll be damned - twenty-five feet down. It's extraordinary - a natural underwater house."
At our feet a strange turquoise radiance glows through the surface. From the great low portal arch light bounces across the floor of the cavern, glancing off bright coloured fishes like jewels and shining up into the airbubble. A shadow flits across the light - a torch beam gets brighter and brighter and Janice Carson surfaces alongside me with the powerful movie light. The air dome is illuminated, its walls intricately plastered with a delicate filigree of calcareous encrustations. As the beam shines on the edge where water meets rock it burns with a weird green fire - a special trick of the light hitting the meniscus. Clouds of vapour come and go, pulsing with the rhythm of the surge outside: increases of pressure are causing a cloud chamber effect -we can watch meteorological phenomena beneath the sea.
Later we returned to Airbubble Cave to film a synch-sound sequence. We anchored my aluminium boat near the cave. Walt stayed topside, fully suited up, wearing headphones, sunglasses and scuba gear - a freaky sight as Janice and I slipped over the side. I took the hydrophone down on a cable and showed Janice the way to the airbubble. When we got inside we were to do a recording level test. Then Walt would leave the Nagra tape recorder going and join us with the movie camera and floodlight.
Down in the airbubble it was magically peaceful after the turmoil topside: white water, schools of trevally and maomao, foam and the roar of the sea. Cut to a tranquil, luminous underground lake, muted colours, fish silhouettes and sculptured sponges. As we surfaced in the airbubble I said to Janice: "I've always wanted to get you alone in a cave from Walt. Now I'm going to rape you."
My voice boomed in Walt's earphones as he sat up there in the pitching boat and we stood there in the dark dome our ears clicking with the pressure changes and vapour clouds swirling around our heads. Janice screamed and said: "If that was rape, do it again."
Walt got the message, set the sound level and joined us. He filmed us discussing the depth of the cave, the vapour clouds and their cause and the origin of the airbubble. I believe that the air gets into the cave during heavy weather when the exposed side of the Knights gets a thrashing. The sea in the cave is charged with tiny bubbles, which percolate upwards and displace the water in the dome. After long periods of calm I have found the bubble much diminished: gas under pressure dissolves into the water.
To introduce to the area a marine scientist of Walt's experience was the realisation of a longterm ambition for me, after years of observing and wondering at the strange things out there. Each dive I showed him an aspect which had mystified me for so long and he would come up with a solution.
At 175 feet in Landing Bay some years earlier we had discovered a colony of garden eels. These animals spend their lives in sand holes, their heads and half their slender length extended up into the water column. Swaying like strange plants in the current, the eels have adapted to feeding on tiny particles of plankton. Garden eels have never been recorded in latitudes such as these and they are very likely a totally new species.
My diving friends and I had several times tried to capture specimens using quinaldine (a fish anesthetic), but always failed. The eels withdraw into their burrows no matter how silently we approached and when the narcotic agent was pumped into the burrow the drugged eel just remained within. Though Walt is an expert with the tiny, multiprong fish sampling spear a diver at 175 feet is narcoticised too - by the high pressure of nitrogen his scuba delivers to him. Performance of delicate tasks and precise thought is very difficult. When Walt saw the eels he held his breath, silently gliding over the seabed. He fired his spear with smooth precision, so that it hit the sand an inch in front of the eel's body. The first garden eel specimen taken in New Zealand was transfixed through the neck as it withdrew into its hole. Walt told me topside that he had nitrogen tremors. It was a matter of getting into "synch" with them and firing while on target.
Walt felt the film theme was developing spontaneously: a comparison between the Poor
Knights situation and the tropics. Here in place of corals were lush kelp beds and other marine plants. The abundance of life was surprising; probably it equalled the best tropical situation but the diversity of life forms was much reduced. Countering the lessened variety of fish species was the enormous abundance of individuals of each species: the huge schools of maomao, trevally and demoiselles; even pufferfishes, triggerfishes and blennies swam in schools and there were dense populations of scorpionfishes, morays, goatfishes and serranids. This, Walt felt, was the unique aspect of the Poor Knights islands. On a coral reef it is harder to concentrate on a particular species for an in-depth behavioural film study over an extended period. Another factor facilitating such a treatment was the surprising absence of many big predators.
While there was some predation by kingfishes and sharks this was nothing like the scale on which predation occurs on a coral reef. For this reason the Poor Knights fishes were much tamer and more approachable than in the tropics. They do not flee from the diver, accustomed to seeking refuge in the reef at every large shadow, and their behaviour can be observed much more easily.
The film would bring out these aspects, starting with the intensity of planktonic life and portraying the complex food chain linked with it: the encrusting invertebrates on the cliff faces, the fishes, and the seabirds that nest on every inch of the islands, sharing their burrows with the prehistoric tuatara lizard. Even the island's forest canopy owes its luxuriance to the plankton, from which it gains nutrients through seabird droppings: an ecosystem that is energised by the oceanic plankton, just as earth life receives energy from photons radiating through space.
The film would show Howard and Tony as scientists working in the field of wrasse or labrid biology. It would depict my wife Jan and me as laymen seriously involved with the marine life and its recreational aspect: the fun of watching and recording fish behaviour; whose enthusiasm had attracted El Torito to these islands of friendly fishes.
Cross section: Right now Howard is beneath the ship measuring kelp plants along a transect line and counting sea urchins. Tony is sitting motionless in his study area, mapping on a plastic slate every movement that his cleanerfishes make, every interaction and response. Ian is grooving after three years' absence from the Knights. Walt and Janice have the projector rigged up to see rushes of the Laulasi film; I'm pen pushing.
On the way out today Walt was reading Steinbeck's Log of the Sea of Cortez and passed it to me suggesting I read a passage discussing creativity and anarchy. It applied very well to El Torito: "We thought that perhaps our species thrives best and most creatively in a state of semi-anarchy, governed by loose rules and half-practised mores ... There is no creative unit in the human save the individual working alone ... In pure creativeness, in art, in music, in mathematics there are no true collaborators. The creative principle is a lonely and individual matter."
Howard surfaces, showers and joins us. On the Australian Great Barrier Reef Howard had done extensive research on tropical parrotfishes, or scarids, on which he is regarded as a world authority. These fishes are extremely abundant on coral reefs, although algal growth there is nothing like the luxuriant growths of sea plants found in temperate regions.
I raised a problem that had been bugging me for some time. In the past year El Torito had gone north from Lord Howe on an island-hopping run through the tropics to the Solomons and now back to my home range, the Knights.
"How is it that with all the big kelp forests down here we've only got four species of herbivorous fish, when on a coral reef, where it's all grazed down to a thin algal film, herbivores are among the most abundant species?"
Howard: "Yeah, why can't one scarid make it here when we've got all these tropical labrids and serranids."
Walt: "You know what it might be? It may be physiological. For a herbivore to digest plant material it's a pretty complicated process and takes a very long gut. It's a slow process compared with digesting protein. Carnivores have very short guts, the shortest of all being the vampire bat which has a little straight tube because blood is so readily assimilable." Howard: "The other major difference is the size of the algae. On the coral reef the average stalk size is about two inches. Here it's several feet."
Walt: "Interestingly, at Lord Howe you had not many herbivores and there you’ve got a lot of tropical algae, growths several feet high - acres of the stuff. It's really striking to see tropical algae like that."
Howard: "Yes, in temperate areas like New Zealand, much of the herbivore biomass goes into echinoids (sea urchins) and invertebrates."
Walt: "It's going into animals that have a lot lower metabolic requirement - they just sit there. Even if it takes them three days to digest algae it doesn't make any difference because of their low energy needs. But a fish has got to move around a lot. To keep that higher metabolic rate fuelled he must be able to get enough nutrition out of his diet. Apparently enough energy can't readily be obtained from algae at lower temperatures."
Howard: "Evolutionarily it seems you were better off being an omnivore, As a herbivore it's difficult metabolically. The animal must make sacrifices in a lot of directions. What the Ecklonia is doing evolutionarily is interesting. The kelp is an opportunist: it finds a suitable area and covers it, growing rapidly to maturity and reproduction before being cleaned off. If it is not chewed off it can probably live a long time as my tagging experiments in deep water here indicate."
Walt: "In the tropics you could never get an alga that had to grow that high before it reproduced -it would be eaten beforehand."
Howard: "On the reef there are many little filamentous red, green and brown algae and they produce spores when they're only a few centimetres high."
Walt: "The mouth of the parrotfish seems best suited to getting at the stubble left by the other fishes."
Howard: "I think that production-wise the amount of algal material grown on a coral reef is probably about as much as it is here. It must be plentiful here to support all those herbivorous fishes. In the tropics the situation is quite different: since an alga is eaten quickly it reproduces as rapidly as possible otherwise selection would weed out the ones that had to grow higher before reproducing."
Me: "Maybe the weed-eating niche isn't being thoroughly exploited here because the area is relatively young from an evolutionary point of view. Has there been time for many species to adapt to the problems of being a cold water herbivore?"
Walt: "The coral reef is such a stable and ancient system. The Poor Knights, like all temperate rocky reefs, are very transient structures geologically. These islands are going to wear down and erode away in a few million years whereas a reef keeps replenishing itself and persists as a reef for a great time. We know the age of some modern coral reefs: they are Eocene structures; there are no other habitats that stable. The coral reef is the most stable environment on earth."
Howard: "Yes, the Eocene fish are very like our present-day fauna. Most of the Eocene mammal families are extinct, whereas most of the Eocene fish genera are still going: scarids, serranids, siganids. Reef fishes have developed to a maximum degree of flexibility. They aren't highly specialised like freshwater fishes which reach maximum performance in a narrow area, say, one particular river tributary of the Amazon."
Walt: "This is also a factor that has made coral reef communities so stable over long periods of time. No one function is performed by a single entity which,. if removed, makes the whole system collapse. You have overlapping habitats, so if one species gets knocked out for any reason, half a dozen are already taking its place. What he was feeding on is fed on by others and those feeding on him have other things to eat and that takes up all the slack. On the reef you don't have these chain relationships taught so often to students. Most of the basic concepts in ecology come from intertidal and terrestrial communities of temperate regions."As soon as people start trying to apply that type of thinking to the reef community they come up with absurd ideas such as with the crown-of-thorns/tritonshell relationship: the shell is removed and the starfish devour the reefs and the east coast of Australia is washed away! Jack Randall and I were studying the Diadema urchin in the Caribbean. We found that twenty different fishes are predators on that urchin and gobble it up, spines and all. I'm sure that a number of things can eat the crown of thorns. Triggerfish, puffers and the big Maori wrasse do. When small many could be devoured. On the reef there is no tight 1:1 relationship. Nothing feeds exclusively on it, such as is suggested by some of the ridiculous control proposals for the crown of thorns problem: releasing millions of painted shrimps."
The crown of thorns problem was a perfect example of science being caught with its pants down. Knowledge acquired from pure research does not have much immediate monetary value and gets very little financial support until something goes wrong. Then we find we are casting around blindly in all directions for a solution to something which, viewed on a long-term basis, may not really be a problem at all. The coral reef system is not likely to be destroyed permanently by a starfish plague even though, from an economic viewpoint, the loss to the tourist industry from a temporary devastation may be of enough social consequence to warrant attention.
Community of Fishes
Both man and fish are vertebrates, at different ends of a broad scale. Man has long been reluctant to acknowledge that he is an animal while, at the same time, his intraspecific behaviour has been both less than human and beyond the behavioural codes of the fish communities we have observed.
My wife Jan assisted Walt with the fish behaviour footage. They concentrated on a wrasse species called Sandager's parrotfish, Coris sandageri named after the lighthouse keeper who discovered it last century. The popular term "parrotfish" used in New Zealand for this family is a misnomer as these fishes are not tropical parrotfishes or scarids, with fused teeth like a parrot's beak, but members of the worldwide labrid family which have needlesharp teeth.
The Sandager's parrotfish is polymorphic like many labrids all over the world. (The cuckoo wrasse in the Mediterranean is very similar). The juveniles, females and males, are quite different in colour and form. Up to about 150mm long the juvenile has a white body, a golden yellow median stripe and a black dot at the base of its tail. During this period it has the role of a cleanerfish, removing parasites from the bodies of other fishes with its tiny sharp teeth. Between 150 and 200mm the juvenile makes a transition to the female form: the median stripe breaks up into two dark coloured patches on its body and the black dot fades away. The fish no longer cleans and has become a functional female. In loose aggregations of from ten to twenty accompanied by similar numbers of juveniles, female fishes forage for small marine animals over rock faces and across the sand at the foot of the reef, spending their entire lives wandering within one small area. Somewhere within this area will be a deep-bodied blunt-headed male, usually over three pounds in weight. This is an extremely handsome fish in comparison with the slender and milkywhite, twin-patched females. His grape-coloured body is embellished with a multicoloured saddle; alternate pairs of white and deep maroon bands, a wedge of saffron yellow, a red pectoral base and mauve cheeks. These proclaim his masculinity to the females in his area and to all other males. No male can enter his territory without provoking a vigorous aggressive display, although injuries are seldom inflicted.
Since Sandager's parrotfishes all start life as females there are no small males. Each male maintains a territory and usually there are many females within it. The male is always dominant over these females. If the females are released from male domination then the dominant female among them changes sex and becomes a male. This is under hormonal control and not just a matter of growth. Sex change involves transitions in behaviour, colour and physical form.
Aboard El Torito Dr Howard Choat did a series of experiments on these fishes, injecting females of varying sizes with a male hormone so that the process of sex transition could be studied. Regardless of size, once their hormone balance was altered, sex change occurred. Day by day Lois Labrid was filmed as she assumed male characteristics.
Eventually Walt was able to record the complete sequence of sex transition, until Lois became Lewis.
"Walt," I speculated chauvinistically, "in these days of Woman's Lib, could it be that if women aren't repressed they start to change sex too?"
"Well, perhaps there is a parallel here with what is going on in our own culture. As our society becomes more liberal and sex roles are less rigidly defined, females are being released from male dominance. The more aggressive among them show signs of changing sex pyschologically at least. All these new females' are creating a lot of extra competition for less dominant primary males and only the most dominant are still managing to maintain a territory."
At this point we realised that there was perhaps only one organised group that we hadn't offended, and so this conversation is concluded...
My wife Jan describes her experiences with these fishes. "We anchor near the Sand Garden, the spot we have chosen to film. I dive down and immediately fishes belonging to the labrid family - Sandager's parrotfishes, banded parrotfishes, combfishes and other species such as the leatherjacket and moray eel - all flock around, waiting to be fed. I break open a sea urchin and they are all in - a mad feeding frenzy kicks up great sand clouds and the water becomes murky with urchin particles.
"One very big wrasse nips in, snatches up a piece of urchin, swims off with it and hides it under some seaweed a little way off, much to my amusement. Then back it comes and tries to boss and bully all the other fishes to drive them away. While Walt is filming this, a moray eel swims up and nuzzles the dome on his movie camera. He films it at pointblank range.
"The big male Sandager's parrotfishes are extremely attractive and let me stroke them and even hold on to them. Each male parrotfish maintains as large a territory as possible. Females that feed there are 'his' while within it. If any other male swims across this territory he is chased and attacked.
"We thought we would like to watch their reactions if we placed a male in a plastic bag and carried it into another male's territory. I put an urchin inside the plastic bag and immediately the male Sandager's swam in. At one time I had one male and three unwanted females in the bag. Walt filmed this and then I carried the bag away to another territory and let the male go. Of course we got the reaction we expected. As soon as the resident male sees this strange newcomer in his territory he makes an aggressive display by erecting all his fins and darting towards the new male in a very menacing manner, chasing him until he crosses over the fringe of his territory. The male we let go doesn't waste any time in taking to his heels and swims out of attacking range back to his own area. Whenever I swim away from the area or back to the boat all the fishes follow me in a great stream and I feel like the Pied Piper.
"The Sandager's parrotfishes are unusual in that at night they go to sleep under several inches of sand. While I was out there I decided to study this and for three nights running I watched for them to go to bed. just at sundown they begin to gather around rocks where the sand goes right -underneath.
"At intervals they go down under the rock ledges to inspect their intended bedroom. On one occasion-when I was watching they would disappear beneath the rock and then come out at a great rate. I had a look and there was a large scorpionfish under the rock. He wasn't letting anyone else into the dormitory.
"Eventually they all disappear under the rocks, each male seeing all the females to bed first before bedding down in his special sandy alcove in the rocks. The largest female of the group seems to bully and dominate the smaller ones in the group to keep them in order and let them know who's boss, just like the pecking order in birds.
"Before my air ran out I took a last look under the rock and all I saw was one male that had not yet gone to sleep. I pushed my hand into the sand and sure enough the others were there because all of a sudden there was a great wriggling and rippling of the sand and out popped the females. I enjoy it immensely: being able to run your hand over these fishes and to hold them. It feels so good to touch a live fish. They don't feel at all slimy.
"In another experiment a male Sandager's was brought from some distance away and released in the Sand Garden. In a fast runabout, Wade and I went down to Labrid Channel, at the other end of the island where we knew there were many Sandager's parrotfishes. Soon after I got in the water I was met by a particularly beautiful male which we have nicknamed Sammy. He has a real personality of his own and we have become very attached to him. Before enticing him into a bag I swam through Maomao Archway which is a great treat to me with the light rays filtering through on dense schools of blue maomao swimming to and fro. Sammy followed me all the way there and back again to the boat. I didn't even need an urchin to get him in the bag. He just swam in.
"Before catching a fish like this it is important to swim as near to the surface as you cap get it to follow because, when you take a fish to the surface quickly from depth, the swim bladder expands with gas, making the fish very sick.
"Wade placed him in a large plastic rubbish bin full of sea water and off we went flat stick back to the El Torito near the Sand Garden. Howard tagged Sammy and let him go in this alien world,
Walt filming the reactions of the other males to this stranger.
"There was an immediate attack on Sammy by a male who had come up to investigate me. Then Sammy started cruising around the Sand Garden, at a steady pace, over the rock patches, along sandy valleys and through kelp glades. Wherever he went nest-guarding demoiselles (Chromis dispilus) attacked him furiously.
"These are equally interesting little reef fishes. For most of the year they feed on plankton over open water near the cliff faces but in high summer the female lays her eggs on a rock surface and the male guards the brood. Only the size of your hand, demoiselles are very brave and go to great lengths to protect their eggs. If once a fish violates their nest the truce is broken: every fish in the vicinity swarms in and the eggs are looted. Once Wade placed his knife across a nest and filmed the little fish moving it off by taking the blade in his mouth and pushing with all his might. Anyway, Sammy was constantly harassed by the nesting demoiselles, which was strange as it didn't happen to the other males in the area."
Howard and Walt afterwards talked this over.
Walt: "Once the Chromis have chased off a male Sandager's they may recognise him as an individual. Even though he is cruising overhead, he's not going to do any harm because he has been warned not to get too close. But if Sammy comes into the area the same distance may provoke attack because they realise Sammy is a stranger who may blunder on their nests. It's amazing how much individual recognition we're finding amongst these reef fishes."
Howard: "Yes, I saw the same on the Great Barrier Reef. A lot of pomacentrid species are selectively aggressive to other species. They must have a card index in their heads to recognize all the subtle variations in colour pattern. Within an area the size of this room will be scores of other pomacentrids, scarids and acanthurids: some they leave alone, others they attack."
Jan resumes: "We took it in turns to observe Sammy in the Sand Garden. Gradually things settled down and aggressive displays between him and other males diminished. He was not driven away from the area, but nowhere was he accepted. When a large female chased him, he ran. It seemed as though he was settling in, but as a pariah. We were planning to return him to his home territory when one day he disappeared.
"The exciting part of this experiment was discovered- when the boys went back to Labrid Channel a week later. Beside Maomao Archway Wade jumped in - and who should come swimming up all happy with his little tag streaming out behind but Sammy. Walt filmed him greeting them. They were so pleased because Sammy had managed to find his way back, all one and a quarter miles of it from the Sand Garden to Labrid Channel, to his own territory and his own females, that they went round breaking open urchins to give him a big feast, stroking and handling him.
"But Sammy didn't bother to eat. He just kept charging off like an excited puppy and rushing back to be stroked while other fishes ate his food offering and Walt's camera purred."
In further experiments more fishes were tagged and observed. Using mirrors we provoked aggression to establish the pecking order and patterns of dominance. A model range was set up rather like targets in a shooting galley, wooden replicas of various species and formalin preserved fishes were drawn on strings over territories to test visual acuity and pattern recognition.
Most research on the learning ability and memory capacity of fishes has been done in aquarium studies with freshwater fishes. We were amazed to find how much greater is the capacity of reef fishes. We still cannot explain how a territorial fish which spends its entire life within one small area, could navigate a complex, rocky course to relocate its home. One thing seems clear. Sammy had a very powerful drive to return to the only space on the reef where he was accepted.
To round things off we decided on one final experiment, more to demonstrate visually and dramatically what we had been learning.
"What would happen," I suggested to Walt, "if we shifted a whole tribe?"
We made plans to move a group of parrotfishes from their home territory to that of an adjacent group. Would they find strength and dominance in numbers, whereas individuals like Sammy had fled? The sub would be ideal for the transfer and we could easily film the interactions this would elicit when they were released.
The submarine swung down through the surface of Labrid Channel. Heading away from El Torito's hull she hummed through the blue towards Maomao Archway. Walt was inside. Janice Carson with movie, myself with Pentax and wide-angle lens, took up positions at the tunnel entrance. The yellow submarine came in steadily towards us, silhouetted against the eastern portal, and flew close over our heads through a maelstrom of fishes.
For the next sequence we had to get to the western entrance. Walt delicately adjusted the ballast tanks in the wings. The sub was poised and motionless in mid-cave while we swam to our positions. We waited. The whine of the electric motor could be heard, but no sub. I swam back through the cave to the other entrance. There, in the narrow canyon, a weird sight: the yellow machine was tilted down at 45 degrees. Walt inside was juggling the control levers. She would nudge forward and bump the canyon wall. Reversing upward at an incline Walt was trying to get the sub lined up on course to go through the tunnel. He had only a few feet within which to manoeuvre. It was like parking a car in a narrow gap. I swam up, grabbed the sub nose and pulled it on course. (Later I learnt that, while hovering the gentle current had swung the sub at right angles to the tunnel, an awkward position.) Walt gave her power and she flew off into the dark cave.
I still had to get to the exit and grab my pictures. I seized one wing and hitched a ride through the cave, my camera gear flapping. With the entrance in view Walt slowed down. I finned furiously to get ahead of him, sank to the bottom and squeezed off some silhouette shots as the sub buzzed close overhead. Then she banked prettily and flew out into the channel, sunlight glinting on the wings; the plexiglass cockpit like a weird bubble reflecting the golden kelp forest panoramas as it whizzed by. The cockpit lid folded back and Walt tossed out another movie camera. Janice finned up, grabbed it and passed him the other; all the while the sub was flying towards a broad expanse of white sand on the channel floor. Walt glided down and landed gently there amidst a wild crowd of fish fans which swarmed excitedly all around this huge alien fish. A group was readily lured into the cockpit with smashed sea urchins and the top was closed. There inside was Walt with his captive cargo of labrids.
I swung the sub nose clear of the bottom and the propeller drove it up and over the reef crests. Inside, fishes circled around Walt's head. Many more followed the sub in an excited procession, until it left their territory. There they turned aside, for these fishes have strict ideas about where they live, and where they should not go.
Walt glided down on to a patch of sand. I smashed up an urchin near one wing to call up the local parrotfish gang. Once they were all frenziedly tearing into the urchin, Walt opened the cockpit lid. Janice's camera was whirring. The prisoners came to the edge of the submarine cockpit and stared out. They hesitated, torn between the urge to join in the feast and the fear of entering the strangers' territory. With amazing discretion they decided to cool it and slunk within the sub. Repeatedly they came to the exit and paused. Eventually individuals summoned enough courage to make a dash for it: one by one the fishes fled past the alien revellers and streaked for their home territory.
During this time Tony Ayling, in the final stages of his doctoral thesis was studying a tiny labrid with a very different biological and social system. At the Poor Knights there is a very abundant fish cleaner, the crimson cleanerfish. Like the Sandager's parrotfish, Pseudolabrus [*Now reclassified as Suezichthys aylingi - author] all begin life as females, but sex transition for them is not determined behaviourally: some physiological process ensures that, at the end of their second year between the months from December to March, females undergo a sex transition. When population densities are low, transitions are early. Late reversals occur when density is high.
The annual sex transition causes some amazing adjustments in the social patterns of these fishes. Normally each male maintains a small territory and with him live one or more females. However, when these females change into males, a great social conflict ensues as young males fight with each other and their former "husbands" to establish their own territory. Fortunately for world peace, Pseudolabrus only live as males from six to eighteen months at the longest and many old males die off during the period of intense territorial conflict. Fighting, however, is mainly ritualised and little injury is inflicted before one of the fishes establishes dominance.
From a reproductive viewpoint sex reversal has certain advantages for territorial reef fishes: by the time a fish has survived two years as a female and changes into a male there has been quite a selection of the fittest ones.
In the Sand Garden Tony has selected an area about twenty metres in diameter, which encompasses several Pseudolabrus territories. For two years he has been studying those communities, at all seasons, to build up the bulk of knowledge we can now present. With El Torito's arrival he had the facility to do a prolonged and intense series of observations right at the period of sex transition. Tony had just broken his wrist; but nothing could deter him from this opportunity: he dived, plaster cast and all. As he came aboard from a dive, Walt filmed a discussion between Tony and me.
"What are you doing down there, Tony?"
"Well there are four territories down there. I have a map on my slate of the whole area, which I made from careful measurements. I follow each fish for twenty minutes at a time, plotting with a continuous line everywhere it goes. That way I can tell what the limits of its territory are, and what relationships it has with other Pseudolabrus within its territory and adjacent to it."
"Is this winding pattern the path of one fish on the eighteenth of February?"
"That's Crosstail, a male. I learn to recognise each fish by some small feature. See, he starts off here and goes right around the outskirts of his territory. Over here is another territory. The sets of lines get a little confusing just here because two females are in the process of changing sex. The transitional males have both female and male characteristics. They are starting to defend the areas they're in. This one is having heavy strife with his neighbour so he's concentrating a lot of time in this sector of his territory, trying to organise things. Where there's a cross, that's a border interaction. Occasionally they get a bit carried away. A male will pursue an intruder across several adjacent territories. At this point the fugitive recovers his dominance and turns on the pursuer. All along their path other males defend the territories they cross during the chase. At this stage there were four of them cavorting around. Then eventually this one, finding himself so far from home ground, took fright and fled back, chased by two of the others and they gradually settled down."
"Do you start to see patterns in their interactions?"
"Yes, there's a lot of individuality. As cleaners some prefer to clean a particular species of reef fishes and will service no other. Others will not clean at all. When it comes to the winter-time spawning period, some Pseudolabrus court other males, a few even mistake the juvenile Sandager's parrotfish (which has a yellow median stripe on a white body instead of the Pseudolabrus white stripe on a crimson body) and turn on a courtship dance for them or attack them."
"Maybe this is faulty imprinting when they are young. Does any particular behaviour pattern lead to increased interaction?"
"Border conflicts often occur because one male tries to get another's female. He crosses the border and the other blocks him. At the moment there is little of this. They have very few mature females as larval settlement and recruitment for the past two years has been poor. So that's why I'm pleased to see this year an incredible recruitment of young ones. There must be forty-five tiny juveniles in this area."
Later as I sat in my cabin trying to put together the gist of our conversation, Walt was in his, composing a tape. To film producer Bob Stabler in Hollywood, he sent an outline for a proposed series of TV programmes.
Bob wrote back, saying that while he liked the tape very much and planned to use it as a sales tool in talking to distributors "I must admit, the most intriguing thing you describe was lying on a bunk in El Torito with a cave wrapped around you and a bad storm outside. Throw in a couple of bottles of vodka and a pretty girl and I'll be right there."
With a lot of questioning, twisting and turning, the basic consensus of our yarn went like this:
Sandager's parrotfishes, Pseudolabrus and other fishes can provide simple models for explaining the basis of human social behaviour. From this foundation we can start to understand its complexities.
Our species, as a social animal, establishes a hierarchy through the exercise of aggressiveness. This ensures status in the group, access to mates (hence the best gene transmission) food supply and territory. For modern man territory has come to include access to raw materials such as phosphate, oil and iron.
For all vertebrates, from fish to man, the basic drives of fear, aggression, hunger and sex seem to be really much the same. We're just part of a continuum but with us it becomes complicated by our symbolic behaviour. A lot of the things we do are nothing but sublimated or symbolized basic drives.
Status seeking takes many forms in our society but it is basically sublimated aggression: trying to establish a higher position in the pecking order. You get a bigger car, a new house, a yacht and so on. Different groups accept quite different achievements for social ranking in the pecking order. As Walt said: "Instead of fighting a guy for your status you can cheat him or exploit him and use the money to buy a bigger and better home. This just satisfies the same drive as Pseudolabrus has. There's this age-old debate over whether behaviour is all learned or basically a result of inherent drives, now represented by the controversy between the American behaviourists and the Lorenzian ethological school.
"Behavioural psychologists deny the existence of virtually all instinctive behaviour in man. I can't see how these men can exist without experiencing drives and these do alter your behaviour. You may, through your learned experience, satisfy a drive in some other way than the direct obvious satisfaction that most animals take. In animals you can find the same thing. The demoiselles out here: you go up to one of the bastards when he's nest-guarding. He's ready to tear you apart, but he can't. You're so much bigger. So what does he do? He attacks a pebble on the bottom. He redirects his attack like a guy pounding his fist on your desk instead of your face.
"Individual animals can learn from experience or force of circumstance, to satisfy their drives in a different way."
"The domestic dog for example."
"Sure, instead of going out and hunting for his food he comes up and licks your hand, barks, wags his tail: he's learned you are the source of food - just like Sammy Sandager did. The hunting drive is still there but he doesn't satisfy it, by attacking prey; instead he pleases his master.
"If you have several conflicting drives at one time, that leads to displacement behaviour. You may be able to satisfy sex and hunger drives at once if you're hungry enough. The old strawberries and cream routine. But generally one of them is stronger than the other at any given time and you follow that one. Occasionally fear and aggression drives coincide-and you displace them by doing something else.
"There are some experimental minds especially attracted to varieties of experience or expansion of consciousness. Once man has satisfied his basic needs, cultural items, sciences and arts occupy and enrich his mind.
"While scientists and artists can break social norms and still retain their status, their role has a status in its own right. They can be just as aggressive when a colleague encroaches on their tiny territories.
"If people understood their drives they could sort out their own conflicts and resolve intraspecific tensions. For the educated man this is possible if he seeks to change his consciousness or awareness. A large part of the species does not appreciate how to do this as yet. Our educational systems don't transmit these ideas.
"Some fields of behavioural pyschology deny all this, placing man in a different category from other animals, maintaining that behaviour is learned, not acquired and denying that the aggressive drive is instinctive. They believe that in the ideal environment man grows up without aggressiveness. The ideal territory would certainly reduce displays of aggressiveness but in a crowded world this is rare.
"Inability to cope with ego conflicts leads people to transfer their feelings of inadequacy and self criticism to others. A failure to adjust the ego to the real self leads to a lot of problems which are groundless. The resultant fantasies can become a considerable strain on others."
I could see that for Walt it was pretty hard to have an ego trip, with no peer groups around in whose eyes he could role play. This explains to me why he can be so unselfconscious -an ego hang up in itself.
We were put in mind of Laulasi by a comment made by Graham Gilbert, a Maori of the local Ngatiwai tribe who had made a study of their history. Much of it was lost, he said. The tribe had been very powerful in the region. Such was the pride in their feats that they did not deign to maintain a tribal history, but felt that their tribe's deeds would be sufficient in themselves to convey the sense of the past. They could not foresee that in conflict with a literate Western culture, they lost their identity without a recorded history. Today there is a powerful movement among young New Zealand Maoris to regain it rather than assimilate with a culture in which they see so much which is emotionally bereft. Graham could see a close parallel between the situation f his people and the American Indians.
When the Gilbert brothers, Peter and Dave played their guitars on El Torito's deck I could see hat loving pride, what the Maoris call aroha."How nice it is," Walt said, "to find so many people here who have such a strong sense of their own individuality that when you meet them, you must adjust to them as they are, arts and all, because they don't give a damn. If we don't agree, we can give them credit for being able to make up their own minds on such things. So often I've seen a man play a one-upmanship game by pointing out something critically in another which is as evident to the person under scrutiny as pink eyeballs."
"Yeah - bad human relationships are a prison."
"Hell, yes," said Walt, "that's very true. And you forgo your freedom as long as you have to conform to other people's illusions about you. Real freedom in a relationship exists when there is o sense of role playing - of the whole thing collapsing into nothing if you do something that does not fit the role."
After reading John Lilly's The Human Biocomputer, we discussed the differences between a elf-righteous attitude and one modified by a sense of humour. In the latter case one can step side from the "ego program" or "metaprogram", the role one is playing, and see it in relationship o that of other people. One becomes conscious of the ambiguities in all things, the many perspectives or possible ways of seeing things. In a self-righteous position, role play or the metaprogram is locked into a single frame of reference and refuses to adapt to others.
Walt said that he had long been fascinated by the ambiguities in ways of perception. The same thing can appear very different from different viewpoints and the same viewpoints can be produced by different things. This sense of ambiguity, sense of humour and perspective he enjoys in others when they too are aware of it.
"How do you reconcile the conflict between the behaviourists and the Lorenzians?"
"To my way of thinking the behaviourists are just a carry- over from the medieval Christian concept: man in a separate category; by special creation different from all other animals. They are unwilling to admit the animal nature in man. So what they're saying is that, all human behaviour is learned. To admit instinctive behaviour leads to lines of thought which they don't wish to admit. It conflicts with Christianity and with modern, liberal attitudes. Once you admit instinctive behaviour then you also admit things like innate differences and aggressive instincts which have to be controlled. The more you can attribute to learning, the more you can attribute to environment. Their idea is that all our social problems can be solved by changing the environment - by improving society.
"The other school of thought leads to ideas like innate racial differences in intelligence which makes the behaviourists froth at the mouth - they just will not accept even the remotest possibility of that.
"But surely, if you have all sorts of physical and physiological differences, there's no reason why you can't have intellectual differences. This doesn't mean that one is superior to the other. It just means that there are differences which may lead to a higher score on what we at presently use as intelligence tests. This is because one type of intelligence evolved in one environment to solve particular kinds of problems and others evolved in totally different environments and are probably superior for solving problems in that environment."
"Doesn't this fear of admitting racial differences come from fear of aggression and the consequences of large scale conflict?"
"Yes - it's saying that aggression is something we learn. Through refusal to admit its existence, it just persists. If you understand it, then you can take steps to control it. Pretending it doesn't exist is not going to make it go away. You can sublimate a given drive in various ways. To do this though, you need to understand the drive, not pretend it doesn't exist."
The day the band came aboard it was blowing thirty knots onshore. Tutukaka harbour entrance was a chaos. Huge ocean swells were piling up the cliff faces and smashing over the reefs. The local charter boats seldom put to sea in such weather, but since the Maori boys were all assembled with their sound gear we decided to go.
To finish off the film we thought it would be fun to make music in the huge echo chamber of Rikoriko Cave. We could film the band with synchronised recordings for use on the sound track of the Poor Knights' film. We'd already made recordings of forest bird songs mingled with wave patterns, and hydrophone recording of fish sounds. Some cave music would fit nicely.
Thirty people made the fourteen-mile trip out to the Poor Knights without disaster. El Torito punched her way comfortably through the big seas to anchor in the calm of the cavern. On the foredeck the boys rigged up their drums on the bow platform of the skiff which was on deck; they set one big amplifier beside the submarine, the other by the decompression chamber.
The first notes rang out like the cries of some surviving prehistoric animal, a troglodytic giant in Rikoriko. Spaced around the deck Dave, Pete, Johnny Mackie, Tama Renata and Pete Munro let it go all - a wild flow of attenuated notes, prolonged echoes, reaching out into the furthest recesses of the cave and vibing back to the microphones. Double echoes set up a weird feedback which the guitar chords could block, distort or modulate. Smoke rings of sound and pulsing coronas. A single note dropped in that great sonic pool radiated spectral ripple patterns fading and returning to infinity. Orgasmic crescendos and plaintive wailings; such power in the cave-space that the whole island seemed to dance on its volcanic foundations, revving up to the cataclysm of its birth throes. With Beaulieu and movie flood Walt zoomed in on the band. They were together as they'd never known. The mathematical structure of the prolonged echoes gave a new sense of timing and co-ordination to their jamming. When night closed in we started projecting Poor Knights colour transparencies on the cave walls - the curving white dome made an excellent screen. The musicians began exploring the green forests, they dived down sea cliffs to black coral trees, swooped through schools of fishes and gazed at the Poor Knights on a calm summer's day.
Someone discovered the fun of taking a rowboat ride around the music ship and through the cave portal to the open sea. From out there it was another reality: the steep island silhouetted against the starglow; within its high cliffs at sea level, a dark funnel, a cyclone of sound energy skeining out as from a huge trumpet, and at the centre of the cyclone, a dancing pool of light - space ship El Torito and her searchlight beam.
Beneath the ship two movie floods were suspended in the clear cave water. We leapt over with scuba gear to see what the band sounded like from below. The lights attracted huge swarms of fishes which circled them slowly: silvery trevally and electric-blue maomao moving in twin cylinders, one within the other.
Directly under the hull, beneath the feet of the musicians we hit the music - it was physical – a column of sound focussed by the hull shape, slamming into all the air cavities of the body. On the rocky bottom sixty feet below, the sound column expanded into a cone and the volume level rose as the waves hit the rocks and bounced around. In a cave at night, weightless, surrounded by fishes and music each in tune with the other; I found myself recalling the day when, diving alone in Rikoriko, the whole cave had filled suddenly with dolphins, a circus of graceful forms dancing around me.
An outrage in time and space, the cave jam blasted the mind from its familiar axis orbiting off through spiral cycles of ocean history to enter an ancient piscean culture hardly changed in sixty million years; a population probably older than the cave in which it sought night shelter; a flexible equilibrium of living things such as once the Earth only knew, until there evolved transitional forms of consciousness capable of interfering but unaware of balance in the total system.
"It's all happening Mr and Mrs Jones," Walt told the telescreen.
With just a few hours' sleep in the early morning hours the band played for two days, the girls on board went diving, the men barbecued steaks on deck, and the last footage for the Poor Knights film wound through Walt's cameras.