Drumming up a storm

archive – Marine LifeDrumming up a storm

Underwater photographer CATHY LEWIS has developed a serious addiction to Britain's painted gobies, and reckons you could too

CHANCES ARE THAT MOST UK divers have seen painted gobies but haven’t given them a second thought. They’re small (around 6cm long), dull mottled beige and, at first glance, thoroughly unremarkable.
However, if you spend time getting up close to these little critters, they can become addictive.
As a photographer, I enjoy searching out the small stuff. I first became aware of painted gobies on the wreck of the Hera off Falmouth in 2009.
Being more of a critter-spotter than a wrecker, I spent my time on the calcified algae maerl beds around the wreck, where I noticed gobies darting to and fro.
With a little patience I got some shots and discovered that, once you look at them close up, far from being boring they have characterful faces, subtle but beautiful coloration in pearlescent shades of silver and gold, and strangely feisty personalities. I was hooked.
Painted gobies (Pomatoschistus pictus) are extremely common all round the UK and Ireland except for the east coast of England, and are usually found in areas with sand, shell or gravel seabed. They blend perfectly into their surroundings, making them hard to spot except when they hop about.
There are a number of other small gobies in UK waters, but the painted goby is unique in having a row of black spots on the dorsal fin. Males in particular can look very vibrant during the breeding season between April and July, with flashes of orange and electric-blue stripes on the fins.
They lay their eggs in empty bivalve shells or under rocks, chosen and then guarded by the male. Life for a goby is short, however, because both parents die in their second year, once the eggs have hatched.
Painted gobies are insatiably curious and bold, and it is this trait that makes them fun as diving companions.
The secret to getting close is to hover over the seabed and dip your finger or camera base into the sand.
By disturbing the substrate, there’s a fair chance that you’ll uncover all sorts of edible goodies such as small invertebrates.
Like robins following a gardener in the hunt for worms, it doesn’t take long before the fish come close looking for tidbits.
So close, in fact, that one problem I regularly encounter is that they perch right in front of my camera lens, making it impossible to focus on them.
My most productive goby dives have been during early summer, when the males are particularly colourful and territorial. By devoting the whole dive to photographing them I’ve been rewarded with some striking shots that have done well in competitions – proof, if needed, that cute, characterful faces and interesting display behaviour make for eye-catching pictures.

EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT a photographer, it’s fun watching these fish inching towards you, like children playing grandmother’s footsteps, darting for food and interacting with one another.
Painted gobies have a curious and unusual habit – the males use thumping and drumming sounds to communicate, rather like a gorilla beating its chest. When they do this they open their mouths wide, but it lasts for longer than a yawn.
I’ve seen this behaviour quite frequently, and it creates ideal opportunities to photograph them with their mouths agape.
I’ve never heard their drumming, but that’s probably not too surprising while contending with a thick neoprene hood and exhaust bubbles.
Digging around, I’ve tried to find out more about this fascinating behaviour. It seems that the fish emit sounds both to attract a mate and during territorial disputes.
Territorial males emit a drumming sound during displays that involve darkening parts of the body, rising up on their fins and quivering with their mouths open. I witnessed this once on a dive in the Helford Estuary when two large, well-matched gobies faced off against each other, sparring for the opportunity to get first pickings on food stirred up by my camera.
During courtship displays the males produce low-frequency drum pulses. The more rapid and loud the drumming, the more likely they are to attract a female. It seems that for a female goby, beauty is in the ear of the beholder, not the eye, and a large, well-built male that displays moves worthy of Elvis Presley doesn’t cut the mustard if his drumming isn’t up to scratch.
There is just one small cloud on the horizon for these serenading percussionists. A study shows that increasing water temperatures caused by climate change could alter the tempo of the males’ drumming, making them less attractive to females.
Even worse, the subtle difference in drumming could attract confused females from a completely different species. After all that effort, love-struck gobies would have nothing more to show for it than a disastrous date.
Interacting with naturally inquisitive marine creatures is always a privilege, be they as big as a seal or as small as a painted goby. So, next time you’re on a dive and you see little brown fish hopping over the seabed, take a closer look and you could just find yourself becoming hooked on these wee fellas.

Appeared in DIVER October 2016


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