Send in the Clowns


A Fire clownfish is hiding in plain sight on the Pango Point Reef in Vanuatu. These remarkable fish have developed a symbiotic relationship with anemone and an immunity to their toxic sting. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas

How can a person not smile when in the company of clownfish?

Flying Fish is on the island of Efate in Vanuatu making final preparations for a departure to Australia and points west. I like to make my goodbyes not only to those I have met onshore but also to my friends living underwater.

As I make a final dive on the Pango Point reef, clownfish blossom all around me in their beds of anemone. These clownfish are not here because of baited handouts, as in many tourist-oriented dive sites. They are here because they are survivors having lived through a series of destructive cyclones and the fallout from a Hollywood cartoon character.

All anemone fish, including clownfish, are hermaphrodites. They are born male until the most assertive fish transforms sexually to become female. They make their nests in clusters of anemones existing in a symbiotic relationship that is both practical and sensual. Clownfish acclimate to the venom of anemones after a gentle and prolonged period of touching the sinuous tentacles of the beautiful but predatory anemone. The touch of the anemone generates a protective mucus layer on clownfish that shields them from nematocysts, the harpoon-like stingers on the anemone’s tentacles.

Anemone protect clownfish from all underwater predators, except for those that wear dive gear and net them in the wild for captivity in aquariums.

A surviving population of Vanuatu’s clownfish. All images © Jeffrey Cardenas

After the Academy Award winning blockbuster Finding Nemo was released in 2003 (with, ironically, a pro-conservation message) the worldwide aquarium demand for wild clownfish tripled. Vanuatu was at the epicenter of an out-of-control harvest of clownfish.

By 2006, according to a report by the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries, some 200,000 fish and other marine creatures were being annually exported from the country. The four species of anenome fish in Vanuatu were classified within the archipelago’s top 10 most exported species

At the time, a US-owned company, Sustainable Reef Suppliers Ltd, was fishing the waters around Vanuatu’s main island of Efate for the aquarium market. They were shipping nearly “8,000 wild animals a month from the capital, Port Vila,” according to David Fickling, reporting in the international edition of The Guardian. Clownfish were selling in US and Australian wholesale markets for more than $10 each. According to the report, Vanuatu dive operators said that aquarium firms had over-fished several popular scuba sites, including Eretoka Island where they claim 38,000 fish were taken within one month.

Recognizing that their resource was being ravaged by foreigners, the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries in 2008 set up the Marine Aquarium Trade Management Plan. The Plan limits exporters to only four operators, two of which must be Ni-Vanuatu residents. A total annual catch quota allocation of 12,250 fish was established for Efate. The Plan, however, rewarded Sustainable Reef Suppliers, Ltd with 80% of that allocation.

Not much can be found about the tropical fish exporting company Sustainable Reef Suppliers. There are no business or phone listings for the company in Port Vila directories. Their last Facebook post was two years ago saying, “We suffered through 2 cyclones… This has left us unsettled for potential conditions years forward. We are looking forward to getting caught up and back better than ever.”

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the global value of the marine ornamental trade is $330 million USD a year and it supplies an estimated 2 million people worldwide keeping marine aquaria. Clownfish make up 43% of the global marine ornamental trade. Some 25% of those clownfish are bred in captivity–a positive step–but the majority are still captured from the wild, decreasing clownfish densities in exploited areas like Vanuatu.

Sadly, according to the Aquarium Welfare Association (AWA), many people buy clownfish without knowing how to properly care for them. According to the AWA, hundreds of children, after seeing Finding Nemo and inspired by a line in the movie, flushed their clownfish down the toilet in the hope of setting them free.

Nemo’s cartoon friend Dory, a blue tang, probably said it best: “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.”

An Orange-Fin clownfish in Vanuatu tenatiously leaves her nest to confront a diver with a camera. Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas


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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

19 thoughts on “Send in the Clowns

  1. Thank you again Jeffrey for bringing us along on your adventure. I have learned so much from your sensitive writing and beautiful photos. I hope the Clown Fish are able to flourish in their home waters. Safe sailing. Edd

    Liked by 2 people

    • Despite the overfishing, loss of habit, and debilitating storms nature always seems to find a way to prevail—so far. I am constantly reminded that human beings don’t walk this earth (and swim in these seas) alone. Thanks for reading, Edd.


  2. Capt. Jeff….. Simple pleasures are the best…. Thanks for sharing yours with all of us… I was surfing the other day and encountered two sea turtles that were mating…. They were so engrossed in this activity that I was able to paddle within a few feet of them and watch them for several minutes…. That’s what life is about…. Observing nature ….. You get to do this on a daily level beyond comprehension….Your photography work is exceptional….. Keep having fun and letting us in our your adventures!Long live Clownfish!!!! Dave

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love your photographs of the clown fish. Especially the one where it is looking at you as you are aiming up to the sky. It made me smile. Have a safe voyage to Australia.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are feisty little fish, Bonnie, as I would be protecting my offspring. I love it when they pretend to hide in the tentacles of the anemone. It’s as if they are inviting you to feel the toxic sting of the anemone.


  4. Thank you for sharing, it is truly remarkable. I have learned so much from your adventures. I am also humbled , by the beauty of the oceans and all of nature,
    as humans, we are just a small part of this life circle and we are blessed to have these opportunities.
    Gods speed,
    elizabeth c

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Elizabeth, and thank you for your beautiful sentiment. Like you I am humbled by the world around me. There are so many wonders out here on this ocean voyage, but I think the lesson I will carry back with me will be one of greater appreciation for the often overlooked wonders at home.


  5. Wow,
    Thank you for sharing once again the beautiful photos and your enlightening explanation of the clown fish. Looks like they are flourishing!
    Keep safe and thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeffery, thanks for sharing your experiences in such great detail along with such amazing photos. It is a treasure for me to read your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As always, a post worth reading and seeing. You had me from the first sentence and kept me interested through the photos, to the last written word.
    Honestly, I couldn’t pick a photo favorite…the colors and composition are perfect!


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