The most memorable dive from my last trip to Pohnpei back in 1989 was off the western side of Ant Atoll. Randy Kosaki and I had made the long trek from the main island, and we were rewarded with some of the clearest water I have ever been in.  We also found two new records of fishes on that dive: Griffis’ Anglefish (Apolemichthys griffisi) and Burgess’ Butterflysfish (Chaetodon burgessi). Ever since then, I have been looking forward to the day when I would be able to return to this magnificent dive site; and I finally got my chance. I will provide a full account of my 25-year reunion with this dive site in my next blog post, but for now I want to share one particular aspect of the dive that doesn’t involve the deep part, but rather a discovery we made on the shallow reef bench at a depth of about 50 feet (15 meters) during our decompression.

After reaching our 50-foot (15-meter) decompression stop on the way back up, I consolidated all of our unneeded gear (emergency bailout gas tanks, fish collecting nets, etc.), and decided to swim out across a vast expanse of Goniopora coral that dominated the reef bench at this site. As I swam across the coral bed, something caught my eye that required a moment to register. Among the dozens of small reef fishes within my field of view, one particular fish triggered something deep in my brain. I only saw it for the briefest of moments before it vanished back into the coral — an apparition on the reef. But I knew in an instant what I had just seen: the elusive Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia).

Just before sunset, the mysterious Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia) emerges from its cryptic existence to present itself out in the open on the reef. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Just before sunset, the mysterious Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia) emerges from its cryptic existence to present itself out in the open on the reef. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Very little is known about the habits of this mysterious angelfish, because it it is extremely cryptic (it lives deep within the reef infrastructure). Only a few divers have ever seen in alive in its natural habitat, and in almost every case the diver catches only a quick glimpse before the fish seemingly vanishes. I’ve only seen it once before — fleeting glimpses deep within the shallow reefs of Vanuatu. Because of its elusive nature, it is often compared to a ghost, or an apparition. My friend Bruce Carlson once captured a fuzzy photo of one, but other than that, hardly any images exist of it in its natural habitat (a quick search on Google images reveals only photos taken in aquaria).

I quickly alerted my fish-nerd compatriots Rob and Brian, and although they both seemed skeptical of the reliability of my claimed sighting, all three of us hovered for a long time staring out across the field of Goniopora, hoping for another glimpse. Just as we were about to give up, Rob saw another one, about 30 feet (9 meters) away from where I had seen the first one. Over the course of the remaining three-hour decompression, Rob and I managed to catch a few more glimpses and got some fleeting video, but the fishes remained elusive.

The elusive Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia), which is rarely seen by divers, foraging on the reef off Ant Atoll. Photo by Richard Pyle.

The elusive Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia), which is rarely seen by divers, foraging on the reef off Ant Atoll. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Then, all of a sudden, at about 4:45 pm, the fish Rob and I were stalking emerged from the reef on a much more regular basis, and remained in view for longer periods of time (upwards of a minute of more, compared to the one or two seconds of the previous sightings).  As Rob continued to capture increasingly good video, I turned around to scan over the rest of the Goniopora reef and I was flabbergasted to see about a half dozen Golden Angelfish scattered across the reef, out in plain sight.  Over the next few minutes I counted close to twenty individuals, all of which seemed much bolder and visible, and for much longer periods, than anything we had seen in the preceding few hours.

The elusive Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia), which is rarely seen by divers, foraging on the reef off Ant Atoll. Photo by Richard Pyle.

The elusive Golden Angelfish (Centropyge aurantia), which is rarely seen by divers, foraging on the reef off Ant Atoll. Photo by Richard Pyle.

Unfortunately, both my video camera and my video light ran out of battery just then, so I was only able to capture a few short video clips. Nevertheless, I was very happy to have seen so many individuals of a fish that so few divers have ever seen in the wild.  Apparently, the species remains deep within the reef infrastructure during most of the day, emerging only as sunset approaches.  We did not have the opportunity to stay all the way until sunset (we needed to get back to Pohnpei before dark), so we don’t know how long they stay out. Are they only out at dusk? Or, are they perhaps nocturnal?  On a future return visit to Pohnpei I intend to find out!  Meanwhile, I’m very happy with the video clips I did manage to capture during this very memorable dive!