Finding Nemo, an Iconic Character

Probably most of us have watched the movie Finding Nemo, or at least know that the story is about a little clownfish growing up on a coral reef. Clownfish are an iconic coral reef species, so named because of their bold color strokes on their “faces”, sort of like, well, you know, clowns! There’s something about looking at a clownfish that makes me smile, though I don’t always smile when I see a clown. (Sorry, nothing against you clowns.)

False Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

Nemo is a type of clownfish known as a False Clownfish. It is distinguished by its vivid orange color and bold white bands with black outlines. A more appropriate name for a clownfish is anemonefish, because, yes you guessed it, they live with anenomes. And while anemones have lethal stingers, anemonefish have a symbiotic relationship with their anemone and are protected from its’ stingers by a mucous coating on their skin. Anemones provide safe a refuge for anemonefish to live, and anemonefish in turn help to remove parasites from the anemones well as protect it from predators as well. Win-Win!   You may notice the anemone in the lower picture looks a little different.  Here, the anemone is partially closed, meaning it is not feeding like in the image above.  It’s a rare treat to see anemones closing; they’re almost always feeding!

False Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

Don’t let the small size of anemonefish fool you – these little fish have big personalities! Did you know that anemonefish are all born male? Then as they mature, they pair off with another anemonefish and the dominant one becomes female! The change is irreversible. After the female lays eggs, both parents defend and aerate the eggs until they hatch.

The bold Saddleback Anemonefish guarding eggs
The shy Pink Anemonefish

Around the world, there are over 30 known anemonefish species, found in the Indo-Pacific region. There are no anemonefish in the Caribbean, Mediterranean or Atlantic. So while I do most of my diving in the Caribbean because it’s a heck of a lot closer than the Indo-Pacific, I always look forward to watching anemonefish do their little dances over their anemones when I dive in Indonesia.

Our most recent trip to Indonesia was to the location known as Wakatobi in SE Sulawesi. There I saw six of the nine different species of anemonefish that inhabit that region, including Nemo, the False Clown Anemonefish!

False Clown Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

With so many species of anemonefish, it can be difficult to distinguish between them, especially as they are dancing around their anemone or hiding amongst its tentacles.  Also, there are color variations within the species and size differences, with the female being the biggest.  If you want to try to ID them, take a few minutes to observe them and keep a few questions in mind:

  1. First look for the white to bluish face bands.  How many are there and where are they located on the body? 
  2. Next, does it have a stripe running along the back and how far does it extend to the lip? 
  3. What color are the tail and the ventral fins?
  4. Finally note the body color(s) and size.  Though these can vary, it can help in making an ID.
  5. And, if you can take a mental (or actual) picture of the anemone, that too may help ID the anemonefish.

Clark’s Anemonefish is fairly common and bold- in fact they have sharp little teeth and will nip you if you look like a threat to them.

Clark’s Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018
Clarks’s Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

Saddleback Anemonefish look a lot like Clark’s, except they have a more pronounced “saddle” on their “backs”. (This fish-naming business is pretty easy isn’t it?) They’re pretty feisty too, see the teeth? Here’s one guarding eggs.

Saddleback Anemonefish guarding eggs

I think my favorite anemonefish is the Pink Anemonefish. We saw quite a few, despite them being quite shy and preferring to hide in the tentacles of the anemone if you move in to get a closer look.

Pink Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018
Pink Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

The Orange Anemonefish, below, is distinguished most easily by the white stripe running along its back all the way to the lip.  This one is also quite shy, preferring to nestle in the safety of the anemones’ tentacles and not stray too far from home.

Orange Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

And finally we saw some Spinecheek Anemonefish in Wakatobi. This species lives in this really beautiful type of anemone known as a Bulb-Tentacle Anemome.

Spinecheek Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indoneisa June 2018

In Lembeh, another region of Indonesia, we saw two additional species of anenomefish.  They each have a single white bar down the side of the head but can be distinguished most readily by the color of the pelvic fin.  The Red and Black Anemonefish, below, has black pelvic fins (underneath the body) and a yellow tail fin.

Red & Black Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

The female Tomato Anemonefish shown below is dusky red with black sides and red pelvic fins, though they are hidden in the anemone in this picture.

Tomato Anemonefish, Wakatobi Indonesia June 2018

If you are heading to the Indo-Pacific for diving or snorkeling, have fun watching their behaviors!  Share what kind of anemonefish you have seen.  Where did you see them?  I’d love to here your comments!    Good luck finding Nemo and his/ her cohorts! You will find them snuggling in the tentacles of their host anemones!

If you are heading to the Indo-Pacific for diving or snorkeling, have fun watching the behaviors of anemonefish and good luck finding Nemo and his/ her cohorts!  You will find them snuggling in the tentacles of their host anemones!

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