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Humuhumu Nukunuku Apua’a

There was frost on the ground this morning. That always gets me thinking of warmer places. I have a picture hanging in the bathroom of my favourite fish; Humuhumunukunukuapua’a or the Latin Balistapus Rectangulas, or Picasso fish affectionately known as Humu. This reef trigger fish is the state fish ofHawai’iand always seems to be the first and last thing that you see when you go snorkeling. Humuhumu means small trigger fish, nukunuku means small snout and apua’a is Hawai’ian for pig; so…small trigger fish with a small snout that sounds and looks like a pig. Very unflattering name but one must admit they are strange looking creatures. The fat body looks like a stepped-on rectangle. The tiny mouth has a set of blue teeth and the puffy lips have a blue moustache. The eyes are set well back, almost on the top of the rectangle with blue and black stripes across the forehead between them. A black band runs from the eye down to the pectoral fin which has a lovely red stripe. The black extends aft in a widening band outlined in yellow. Forward of the tail is a black triangle also outlined in yellow. The back is orange and the nose and belly are a duller orange and blue. This is just one species of trigger fish. Others have their own bizarre patterns. When caught in a net and brought out of the water, they make grunting noises like an apua’a. They are not tasty and are bony. Humu is also aggressive and will not allow another trigger fish in their territory. If threatened, they dive into a small hole in the reef and raise a very bony dorsal fin (the trigger) that prevents them from being pulled out. They are not afraid of snorkelers and stay at a safe distance, keeping an eye on you. Humus feed by shoveling up a mouthful of sand and sorting through it in their mouths for edible bits. The sand is spit out

Hawaii fish

Humuhumu Nukunuku Apua’a

My first trip toHawai’iwas in the early eighties, camping on the beach parks of theBigIsland. My kids turned into wild beach rats and I wasn’t far behind. My days consisted of walking a few miles to a small town for food and beer, snorkeling, reading, snorkeling, snoozing, snorkeling… you get the picture.

The reefs were thick with amazing fish and I couldn’t get enough of them. I had a shell necklace, a pair of shorts and flip flops. Reality was a long way off.

One night, a group of us were discussing the upcoming Christmas Day communal dinner. I mentioned that I had had a close encounter with a huge moray eel and knew where it lived. It was decided that I would spear this creature and it would be one of the signature entrees. I think it was bourbon that influenced us all that night. A fruit platter was our family’s contribution and the huge moray and I were spared our confrontation. We flew home. A few days later I was working on the bow of a ship leavingPrince Rupertin a snow storm. The shorts and shell necklace were gone and reality was back.

A few years ago, the long haired one and I had a spectacular holiday on the southern part ofHawai’i. Turtles are protected now and they were everywhere but the fish are not. There seemed to me to be less than half the numbers I remembered. Humu was there but just grunted and spit sand at me when I asked him where everybody was. AnIslandnaturalist told me that the fish are depleted because of collectors that supply tropical fish to aquarium dealers. A solution of bleach is released that immobilizes the fish that are then scooped up and sold to dealers. The fish are damaged by this solution and many die. Those that do make it to the pretty salt water aquariums are not in the best shape. What does the solution do to the coral? There is pressure on the Hawai’ian government to protect the fish. Other than golf and hula girls, it is one of the reasons that people go there. Why would you not protect your reefs? Your assets?

We found a bay where spinner dolphins came to rest and we spent many hours lying face down in the water, watching them lazily swimming and playing.

I said aloha to Humu on my last day and told him I would be back. He is always there on my bathroom wall to remind me of my promise. Say aloha to him for me if you go this winter. I’d go with you but I can’t find my shell necklace.  To comment on this article visit


About the author: Rob Pinkerton

Rob Pinkerton