We have just returned from our third and final study site in our ongoing search for bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in the Solomon Islands.
At 46 square miles (120 square kilometers) and with zero permanent inhabitants, our last site, Tetepare, is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific (read our earlier posts). Commonly known as the “last wild island,” Tetepare has been largely uninhabited since the mid 1800s, save for a few failed attempts at establishing industry and settlements.
This leaves the waters surrounding the island and its forests nearly untouched by humans, except for the group of local conservationists called the Tetepare Descendants’ Association who take it upon themselves to monitor and protect the island’s extraordinary inhabitants: turtles, crocodiles, seagrass, coconut crabs, forests, fish, and coral, to name a few.
A drone allowed us to get this aerial view of Tetepare Island’s weather coast. (Drone footage by Sly J. Lee)
Our three-day expedition to this astounding site had us underwater for more hours than above. The absence of human stressors has allowed biodiversity to flourish both terrestrially and aquatically. We dove alongside spinner dolphins, dugongs, rays, and the largest snappers, sweetlips, and wrasses our team has ever seen, and at long last we were able to share the sea with herds of gargantuan bumpheads!
After weeks of looking in various places, we finally found groups of adult bumphead parrotfish in the Tetepare marine protected area. (Footage by Mikayla Wujec)
After six weeks of searching for this rapidly vanishing species, it was cause for underwater celebration to finally witness sizable schools of the largest parrotfish species in the world.
During our last dive, in Tetepare’s marine protected area (MPA), we descended into a school of 27 four-foot adult bumpheads travelling largely in single file. We could hear the distinctive crunching noises of their feeding as we dropped down and watched clouds of fine sand (their excrement!) drift over the underwater landscape with the current.
For over an hour we trailed and studied the herd as they fed on corals, interacted with one another and used their distinctive heads to bump against the corals. This head-butting technique makes the coral easier to eat, but a recent study also suggests that larger males also bash together their formidable domes to defend their territory. (Check out this National Geographic Weird & Wild article on the same subject!)
As our expedition nears completion, we are realizing that we are not ready to leave this incredible archipelago that is so rich with history, culture, and biodiversity. We are already planning our return to continue working with the people and local conservation organizations who have played such a key role in making this expedition possible.
In preparation for this expedition, our expectations for finding large bumphead populations were well managed by our project collaborators back at home. Nonetheless, the pronounced absence of bumpheads from the Solomon Sea as well as local fish markets was striking and left us feeling shocked and concerned for the future of this fish. A true source of hope was conducting our final scuba dives in the Tetepare marine protected area as we witnessed the impressive bumphead schools. This underscored our understanding of the importance of MPAs and the ability of bumpheads to thrive when locally-based conservation efforts are undertaken and enforced.
We are excited for the next chapter of our National Geographic Young Explorers Grant experience: to bring home our data and share our stories, media, and results at the upcoming YEG meetup at NGS headquarters in Washington, D.C. this summer.