When it comes to the rare fish game, there are only two players that immediately come to mind. Hong Kong and Japan. Together these two are undeniably the largest absorbers of rare fish, and have been consistently spitting out amazing specimens for decades. These two Asian powerhouses as brazen as they may seem in their brandish advertisements, are actually pretty sly. For every amazing specimen they procure lies three more unannounced. The facade can only be broken when one takes the time to roam the streets and absorb the culture, and we did just that this weekend.
Hong Kong is a short four hour flight away from Singapore, and is one of the shiniest territories to visit for a fish geek. Being in the epicentre of all the action means that travelling to such places can be done on a whim, and on a budget. We’ve covered some stories from HK in the past before, but it would be foolish to assume we’d be featuring the same old material. Indeed, the mystical land of the orient holds many surprises, and every trip is a new eye opening experience.
As mentioned before, despite the glitz and glamour and the constant hype surrounding these countries for their ability to procure the rarest of the rare, Hong Kong is actually a pretty secretive place. In the seedy underbelly of the fish world, many age old reefers prefer adopting a low profile modus operandi. Secrets in the form of photos and messages plague the phones of reef enthusiasts, whose constant thumb twiddling has little to do with idle chit chat. A quick glance at the photo gallery of a high profile reef keeper in HK is something of a marvel, and as a fish geek, I could only stare in stunned silence, with mouth ajar.
On this particular trip, by word of mouth and whispers on the street, we managed to hook up with Mr. Wong. Mr. Wong is an unassuming elderly, but a superstar in the local scene. A wealthy glass manufacturing magnate, Mr. Wong has been in the hobby for decades, and have been keeping fish even before I was sucking my thumb. As with almost all other reefers of HK, Mr. Wong is a lover of butterfly and angelfishes. The locals care not so much for wrasses and basslets, but angels and butterflies are the rose-gold rings that adorn their tiny asian fingers.
Mr. Wong escorted us to his house, and at the end of the room sat two fish only tanks. Both heavily featuring butterflyfish. From a distance the familiar sight of two demigod butterflyfish species were unmistakable – Roa excelsa and Prognathodes “basabei”. Needless to say I asked him how long has he had them for. In a very zen and collected manner, he proceeded to flip open a copiously thick scrapbook. Mr. Wong has a book of every ReefBuilder’s rare fish article ever written, neatly bounded and kept in pristine condition. He flipped to this article on April 5th, 2012, and pointed at his tank. The excelsa and basabei butterflies have been around for more than 2 years, and were the same ones from SeaLife we wrote about in 2012.
It’s definitely good news that these touchy species are still around, and there was for a moment, a rather unexplainable feeling. Standing in front of something in the present that you’ve seen and written about in the past is quite interesting. Like deja vu but not quite, like a small world big coincidence scenario but not quite as well.
That aquarium, although filled with many thousands of dollars worth of fish, is kept very simple. An almost cringe worthy old school blue oyama adorns the back panel, and artificial live rock only sparsely decorated around the centre. Yet the fish are kept in pristine condition and are some of the healthiest I have ever seen. A combination of stringent quarantine and copper, and reduced temperate goes a long way for butterflyfish. This Prognathodes guyanensis for example, is in the pink of perfection.
Apart from the various Prognathodes and Roa, this tank is also home to a few other butterflies. Chaetodon marleyi is a rare and difficult species to obtain from Africa, and is expensive. It is similar to C. robustus and C. hoefleri but can be easily separated by comparing the barring against the other two.
In C. robustus, the two vertical bands are thick and are coppery brown, with an orange slate. Both bands are wide and straight, with the distal band wider and covering the caudal peduncle such that no base beige coloration is revealed, as in the case with C. marleyi. C. hoefleri is similar to C. marleyi but has the bands thinner and more orangey. It also lacks the spot on the distal band.
A hybrid C. tinkeri and a wrought iron butterflyfish also call this tank their home. The WI butterflyfish (C. daedalma) has got to be one of the most striking and unique species in the family. No other species, maybe to a lesser extent excluding C. litus from the Easter Island, has the same gun metal base coloration adorned with flecks of silver. The network of shiny silver on a matte black base colour is a splitting replica of a wrought-iron chain mail.
In a separate tank right across from that one, is another with its own collection of butterflyfish. The show fish, and by show we mean freak show, is a large adult Heniochus acuminatus with a split in its dorsal fin. It’s not unusual to find slightly malformed dorsal filaments for this species, but one with a three way split is quite rare.
The three way split gives an illusion that the fish has three separate streamers, but in fact it has only one, with two addition dorsal spines anastomosed to the first at the base. Like it or not it’s definitely eye popping enough to warren a second, or third (pun intended) look. Apart from this fanfare banner fish, the tank mostly houses shallower water species such as a pair of C. flavirostris, C. nippon, C hoefleri and various other assorted anthias such as a stunning Odontanthias fuscipinnis, and a lone male Pseudanthias ventralis.
Many of the fish has been with Mr. Wong for a long time, and so are either grotesquely large or slightly off coloured. Because we didn’t stay for long, we didn’t manage to get photos of every single fish species. We however tried our best to get photos of the more interesting ones, like this large burly O. fuscipinnis from Hawaii.
In this tank, the genus Roa is featured again, but this time by the HK native R. modestus. All members are deepwater fish with the same pattern template of brown and white vertical bands. Of which, R. modestus is the commonest and can be found in the South-China Seas and Japan at depths of up to 400ft. In Hong Kong however, they can be found in waters as shallow as 5-10m during winter. R. excelsa is similar, but has a richer burnt yellow coloration and white bands that taper toward the dorsal fin. The ocelli is also oblong, versus circular in R. modestus. The other members are very seldom seen because of their similar penchant for deep waters. R. jayakari is sometimes seen as trawl-fishing by catch.
Perhaps the most unusual and stunning fish in this tank is a hybrid between Chaetodon xanthurus and C. pelewensis. Hybrids of C. pelewensis are common, but are almost exclusively between the very similar and closely related C. punctatofasciatus. It is therefore, very unusual to see it hybridising with C. xanthurus. Likewise, C. xanthurus occasionally forms hybrids with the rather similar C. argentatus, and seldom with other distantly related species. We have on one occasion, found a hybrid of C. xanthurus with C. guentheri.
If you think we’re done with Mr. Wong, well, you’d be Mr. Wrong. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one. In tomorrow’s part two, we take a look at some of his oldie but goodie memories from the reefing scene way back when.