I have talked before about members of Scorpaenidae family, the lionfishes. In this next post in my series on Hong Kong marine life, I’d like to introduce three more members of this poisonous family, the masters of camouflage that are generally known as scorpionfishes. These fishes are common in Hong Kong in areas of sand and boulders or coral and you have a good chance of spotting one or two on a local dive if you keep your eyes open.
1 The weedy stingfish 鬚擬鮋
This is probably the most common scorpionfish Hong Kong divers will encounter. It tends to lie motionless on algae-covered boulders looking exactly like an algae-covered boulder itself due to its slightly shaggy appearance, and whiskers which look like bits of weed (which explains its common name). It occurs singly and grows to 23cm.
The weedy stingfish is actually a very beautiful fish upon taking a closer look. At first glance it may look khaki or brown, but photographing it with a strobe (or simply observing it with a torch) reveals a delicate patterning in many warm colours, the markings a little different on each fish. I find that its head with its bulging eyes, protruding snout and whiskers makes it look a bit like a Chinese dragon!
2 The false stonefish 毒擬鮋
The false stonefish (also known as devil scorpionfish) is not to be confused with the famous ‘stonefish’ (Syanceia) which is related but belongs to a different family. The false stonefish is a master of disguise too, its bristly skin making it look as if it is covered in silt or algae. It is a squat, bulky fish, with a big, bony head and can grow to up to 30cm. Its upturned mouth makes it look a bit like a toad.
It is less common than the weedy stingfish, but perhaps that is because it is often so well hidden. Its colouring is drab and ranges from pale whitish or sandy-coloured to a darker pinkish brown, matching the tones of the rocks in Hong Kong. If disturbed, this fish will zoom off, flashing the undersides of its pectoral fins which are bright yellow. This startled me on one occasion when I passed close and hadn’t realised the fish was there!
3 The Mozambique scorpionfish 莫桑比克圓鱗鮋
While the two fishes above are fairly easy to see and distinguish, the Mozambique scorpionfish is much more cryptic. It is a small, shy fish which hides during the daytime and hunts at night. It looks a lot like the weedy stingfish, similar in shape and pattern, but it only grows up to 12cm long. I have only once have I spotted it conclusively (below). It was hiding in silt at about 10 metres’ depth at Lamma Island.
So, how can you tell if the fish you have spotted is the Mozambique scorpionfish and not the weedy stingfish? Well, firstly, the Mozambique scorpionfish is a very small fish: the weedy stingfish can reach almost double its length. Secondly, the Mozambique scorpionfish has a spine curving forward on its forehead and usually has prominent tentacles above the eyes. The snout is also blunter than in the weedy stingfish. Finally, I noticed that the Mozambique scorpionfish has very striking oval-shaped eyes: perhaps because the fish is small, the eye stands out.
These fishes can be found at pretty much any reef site in Hong Kong which has rocks and boulders. I must reiterate that all the members of this fish family have venomous spines and can cause a very painful and potentially deadly sting. They must be approached with the utmost respect and caution.
Having said this, scorpionfishes are also a treat for photographers because they stay very, very still, hoping you haven’t seen them. They are so good at this that they are also very easy to miss, or spot only when you are nose-to-nose with one. This is why you should avoid touching anything during a dive and if you do need to put a finger down, look very carefully where you plan to do so first.
Once you have spotted a scorpionfish, you can gently approach it and it will not move away. Members of the scorpionfish family tend to be nocturnal hunters and remain quite inactive during the day. You may therefore have more of a chance to see one moving around on a night dive.
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