Fish Tales: Encounters with the Napoleon Wrasse

by B. N. Sullivan

Imagine that you are on a dive boat in the Red Sea. The boat has just tied up to a mooring at a place called Jackson Reef in the Tiran Straits. All geared up, you jump off the stern platform of the boat and begin your descent. As you drift down gently through the water column, something off in the distant blue catches your eye. At first all you can make out is a hulking shape that looks vaguely like a Volkswagen beetle, and it is moving toward you. As it lumbers along, the shape tilts this way and that, and as it gets closer you are able to make out pectoral fins, big eyeballs, and huge fat lips. You realize it's definitely not a Volkswagen; it's a great big fish - A Napoleon Wrasse.

Cheilinus undulatusEarlier this week, for Wordless Wednesday, I posted a photo of a Napoleon Wrasse. Readers commented on the size of the fish, on its shape, and on its prominent eye.

These guys definitely are big: adults usually are close to four feet in length, although I read somewhere that there have been reports of older males of the species occasionally reaching a length of about six feet. Females tend to be smaller. In any case, they are said to be the largest species in the Wrasse (Labridae) family.

They are heavy-bodied, and weigh several hundred pounds. Because of their bulk, they usually lumber along, but make no mistake - they are capable of very quick speeds, too, at least over short distances.

Their eyes are large, and each can move independently. The eyes protrude and rotate in a way that might remind you of the ball turret on a World War II B-17 aircraft (without the gunner). When they are close to you, they tend to tilt to look at you with one eyeball, much as a chicken would.

The common name, Napoleon Wrasse, arises from the prominent bump that protrudes from the foreheads of fully grown adults, giving them a profile that is reminiscent of Napoleon Bonaparte with his hat. Another common name for the fish is Humphead Wrasse -- take your pick -- but in either case, the scientific designation for the species remains the same: Cheilinus undulatus.

Cheilinus undulatusThese fish can live for thirty years or so, and they seem to have long memories. When we first began to dive in the Red Sea a few decades ago, dive guides there sometimes would entertain their clients by hand feeding boiled eggs to the Napoleon Wrasses. After awhile, once everyone finally realized that this was not an ecologically sound thing to do, this practice was banned.

Unfortunately, no one sent a memo to these fish to tell them not to expect boiled egg handouts from divers. For years after the practice of feeding them boiled eggs had stopped, the Napoleons still converged near dive boat moorings as soon as they heard the sound of the boats' engines approaching. There they would lurk until they spotted divers descending, at which point they would approach the divers at quite close range, hoping for a free snack.

Sometimes the Napoleons would do more than wait. If a diver reached into the pocket of his vest for any reason, the Napoleon would quickly swim right up to that diver in anticipation, sometimes nudging the diver with those great big fat lips. We've heard countless of stories of divers who had to physically push a Napoleon away from them repeatedly before the fish finally got the message that they had no eggs to hand out.

In an extreme case that we actually witnessed, a friend who was diving with us lost an important piece of gear to a Napoleon, and almost lost his hand as well.

For the benefit of our non-diving readers, let me first explain that these days, scuba regulators (the device that reduces the pressure of the compressed air in the cylinder so that it can be breathed) usually have two second stages, i.e., the part that includes the mouthpiece. The primary one will be used by the diver to breathe underwater. The secondary one, though fully functional, is a back-up. As such, it is usually attached to the diver's vest by a clip or similar means, or stuffed into a pocket.

So then, on this particular dive, the clip that usually held our friend's back-up second stage had broken. Rather than let the device trail behind him, he held it at waist level, cupped in his two hands, as he swam. Now, these devices come in a wide variety of colors. Our friend's happened to be white. (Can you see what's coming?)

Cheilinus undulatusAlong came a Napoleon. It saw the round white shape cupped in our friend's hand and apparently mistook it for an egg. First the fish swam back and forth excitedly around our friend. Then it nudged him. Annoyed, our friend put out one hand to push the aggressive fish away. At that instant, the Napoleon lunged and snapped the white regulator out of our friend's other hand -- or tried to. The regulator was attached to a hose, of course. When the Napoleon bit, the hose partly detached and it began to froth like crazy from the rapidly escaping compressed air. That scared the fish, which went zooming past us with our friend's glove hanging from its mouth!

That was the end of that dive: time to initiate emergency procedures. A fourth diver who was with us immediately handed off his back-up second stage to our stricken friend so that he could breathe. Meanwhile, Jerry swam around behind him to turn off the valve on his cylinder, stopping the uncontrolled flow of air. Then, with the two divers sharing air, we all swam back to the boat.

Once on board, we inspected the damage. The hose had to be replaced, and although the white second stage that had been bitten probably could have been repaired, our friend announced immediately that he would replace it -- with a black one! No one ever saw the glove again, but our friend was happy enough to have relinquished it, since he still had his hand.

By the way, we have seen Napoleons elsewhere -- especially in the waters around Malaysia and Indonesia -- but only the ones in the northern Red Sea were so bold. The ones we saw in other places tended to keep their distance from divers. Apparently they had not been fed by divers. In fact a dive guide in Indonesia told us that Napoleons had been a favorite target of spear-fishermen there until quite recently; thus, they had learned to be wary of humans underwater.

About the photos on this page: Each image shows a different individual Napoleon Wrasse, and each was photographed on a different dive. I took all three photos in the Red Sea: the top photo was taken at Jackson Reef in the Tiran Straits; the other two photos were taken at Ras Mohammed, near the tip of the Sinai Peninsula. And in case you are wondering, the Napoleon in the third photo is not about to bite the leg of the diver on the left. It's an optical illusion created by the wide angle lens. The wrasse actually was positioned between the two divers.


  1. So then fish are like bears and other creatures, I take it: not to be fed because they'll start expecting handouts and become aggressive.
    What an adventure you had! This would be an excellent illustration of why one should never dive alone.
    The Wrasse in the second photo, in particular, looks like an illustration from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine film.

  2. Hi Lavender - You are right on both counts. Feeding animals in the wild can have all kinds of unintended consequences, one of which is illustrated by this story.

    Regarding your comment about not diving alone, generally that also is true, although there are circumstances in which diving without a partner may be appropriate, and in such cases there are things that can be done to mitigate the potential danger, e.g., having a fully redundant air supply. On the other hand, diving with a poorly trained or careless dive partner can be as fraught with risk as diving alone. I probably should write about this issue.


  3. Kinda like dealing with a two hundred pound squirrel, except the squirrel won't drown you, everything is complicated when you go beneath the surface isn't it !!

    Great images as always Bobbie !!

  4. Wow, that's a reminder to never forget the "wild" when dealing with wild animals!

  5. Great post. Your stories and photos are always so very interesting! And I guess now I know how you managed to get that macro shot since they come right up to you looking for eggs.

  6. @ Bernie - I'm trying to imagine a 200 lb. squirrel! And yes, things are a bit more complicated for underwater photographers, but I daresay more fun, too!

    @ A Free Man - You understood the message. ;-}

    @ 2Sweet - Thank you. The macro shots you refer to were taken after egg-feeding was banned -- but the fish still did come in close to divers.


  7. Hi Bobbie - in the first pic he kind of looks like an underwater airplane! I can't imagine having to push such a big fish away.

  8. Hi Kathy - Now that you mention it, it does look a bit like an underwater airplane.


  9. Hey man I totally agree with you that the wild animals should not be fed and I keep on doing that every time and will surely remember that and the important tips you have given about not to dive alone.

  10. thank you for the story. loved it!

    such beautiful and intelligent fish. otherwise, very gentle, social, and inquisitive.

  11. hey hi its a nice post the suggestion and information given is mind blowing :) thanks for sharing :)


We welcome your comments and invite your questions. Dialogue is a good thing!

Bobbie & Jerry