The Beautiful Mandarin Dragonet


One of the most singular and sublime experiences I had in the Philippines was watching a pair of Mandarin dragonets do their mating dance.  These tiny fish live among the hard coral reef and spend the majority of their life hiding from predators.  However, in the evening, their instinct for procreation takes over and a fantastic show begins.   This show is only a few seconds long, and may happen only a few times each evening, before the mandarin retire for the night.

A Mandarin Pair begin their spawning ritual

A Mandarin Pair begin their spawning ritual

I arrived on the reef about a half an hour before sunset.  We searched the reef for a few minutes until we found several Mandarin fish swimming through the corals.  This is where I waited, silently and patiently, for the show to begin.

The Mandarin fish begin their slow ascent

The Mandarin fish begin their slow ascent

As I was watching, I noticed a larger (female) Mandarin, and about five smaller (male) Mandarine fish.  They greeted each other deep in the coral.  I waited until just after dusk, for the female to begin her dance with the first male.  Slowly the pair began to ascend, bodies pressed together, above the hard coral.

Continuing to ascend

Continuing to ascend

They only came up a few inches before they suddenly shot back downward into the coral.

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The female ejects her eggs

 Just as the pair began their retreat, the female ejected her eggs, and the male ejected his sperm, leaving the eggs to scatter and settle in the water column.  This whole process took only five seconds.

Shooting back down into the coral, the eggs are left floating above.

Shooting back down into the coral

The female repeated this ritual with each of the male suitors, until just as quickly as it began, it was all over.

Remarkably, during the spawning season, the fish will repeat their mating dance each evening at dusk.  In this photographer’s opinion, they are the most beautiful and romantic fish in the sea.

Thank you to Brian Peterson, who shot this short video of the mandarin fish mating: