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A Ringside Seat for the Greatest Show Underwater

By: John Chandler

Date Posted: 2001-01-19

We never forget our childhoods, and I always remember the thrill of going to the circus. There were always the exotic zebras, the frightening lions, and of course clowns with foot wide smiles.

Reef diving has replaced the circus for me and I thought that this week I would introduce a few of the characters that star in the "Greatest Show Underwater!"

Introducing the always provocative and equally dangerous "Zebra lionfish" (Dendrochirus zebra). This little beauty can be as painful as it is pretty. You should know that the Zebra lionfish is NOT aggressive and will gracefully glide by. These underwater circus stars are usually found in the backs of caves or up under ledges. Only at night will they come out to go dancing across the reef. These Zebras feed by calmly setting in ambush waiting for their prey of small fish and crustaceans. Their stripes help camouflage their positions. Their patience may belie their speed because when motivated by a small basslet swimming near their hide they can move with the speed of light while opening their wide and very large mouths they suck their prey straight down their gullet. What a great performance but it was over almost as fast as it started.

The ever present and always captivating Clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) can entertain you for hours as they jump up into your mask or dart in and out their anemone. The anemone is almost like a circus tent where the Clownfish performs for passing divers. The anemone is actually a living animal, not a plant, and can be deadly to small passing fish by firing a really small but nasty poison filled nematocysts (mini dart) into the victim. This either stuns or kills the victim and the anemone's tentacles then gently sweep the food into its oral disc. The clownfish gets to enjoy leftovers of that snack or munch on zooplankton that are floating by the anemone, or even better has landed on the anemone's tentacles. Obviously, the anemone and the Clownfish enjoy a wonderful relationship. The Clownfish, while growing up in the anemone, develops and immunity from the sting of the anemone's tentacles.


The Clownfish, members of the Anemonefish family, have an interesting sex life too! It seems that the largest fish in the clan is the Alpha Female and she is the ONLY female in the anemone clan that can number up to 15 fish in each anemone. All others are lesser in size and are male. When the female dies the next largest fish, a male, changes gender and becomes the female. So this is a female dominated culture.

The Underwater Circus is open for your enjoyment 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

See you at the beach. I am the guy with the cotton candy and popcorn. To see more of the circus that never ends, drop by my website at www.jwchandler.com.

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