Ka Mo‘olelo Moana: The sunrise wrasse lives at depths of about 200 feet

Imagine being submerged in the ocean. As one watches the flickering light penetrate the water, the dancing rays of light seem to make a beeline for the bottom of the ocean, pulling one’s curiosity with it. What is down there? Exploring within the first 60 feet or so, one can easily see healthy living coral and a plethora of colorful fishes darting and poking around like busybodies. About 90 percent of all known marine life is found in the first 600 feet, an area known as the euphotic zone. However, the deeper we travel the less we know about the environment and creatures we encounter. An estimated 95 percent of the world’s ocean has yet to be seen by humans.

Opportunities to see something from such an extraordinary part of the world are so rare and for the first time in Maui Ocean Center history, the aquarium is home to one of these extraordinary creatures. The sunrise wrasse or sunrise hogfish, bodianus bilunulatus, is a striking fish with a radiant yellow stripe running the length of its dorsal, or top side, and a bright orange belly with a black spot on the tail. Surprisingly, this bright coloration may act as camouflage so far below the surface. As light travels through water the colors are absorbed at different depths. Red with the shortest wave length is the first color to be absorbed. This means that deeper down, where light is waning, red would appear brown or gray and that larger dark spot on the tail tricks predators into thinking it is an eye. The sunrise wrasse lives about 200 feet down and only a few have been documented. Very little is known about its range and population, but it is believed to be an endemic fish to Hawaii.

Endemic means found only in one area, a species unique to a region. Hawaii’s coral reef ecosystem is undoubtedly beautiful and with nearly a quarter of the marine life here identified as endemic, this is one of the most unique places on the planet. The sunrise wrasse is one of 18 species of wrasse endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and one of 43 species of wrasse found here. The wrasse family is the largest family of fishes in Hawaii and easy to find. Known in Hawaiian as hinalea, wrasses are mainly a smaller oblong fish with a tiny puckered mouth designed for eating small crustaceans and fish.

Given common names such as psychedelic, ornate, flame and Christmas, it is pretty apparent that wrasses have some rather vibrant attention-grabbing colors and intricate patterns. Think of the colorful main character Oscar, from the movie “Shark Tale,” who is an animated bluestreak cleaner wrasse. Although the bluestreak wrasse is not found in Hawaii, it does closely resemble the endemic electric-colored Hawaiian cleaner wrasse. This small purple and yellow fish is like a neon sign advertising its cleaning services to other animals on the reef.

While most wrasse species in Hawaii live relatively close to the surface, some prefer the cooler, darker waters a couple hundred feet down. Next time you see a wrasse on the reef or at an aquarium, take a closer look at them if you can; their vibrant color pattern and activity make them fun to watch. However, don’t take for granted what you are seeing because you never know when you may come across an opportunity so rare.

* Erin Iberg is the community education manager at the Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.