The Five Stages of Courtship

There is arguably much that we can learn about ourselves from observing fish.

Over the course of two dives yesterday, I watched a number of male porcupine pufferfish (Diodon holocanthus) pursue females. The males were keen to mate. The females...apparently not so enamoured with the concept.

After looking through the photos I took, I believe I've identified a 5-step process in prickly piscine courtship (which may, in some respects, merit further consideration in the context of H. sapiens courtship).

Stage One: Shock and Awe
In my initial encounter, I watched a lone female attract the attention of one, two and then three would-be suitors. The males chased her in circles; left, then right; up, then down; around again; up again; down again...until she was literally puffing to catch her breath (as was I).

porcupine pufferfish

While the chase was on, the males bit the female continuously. In what manner the males thought this would make the female happy...I'm not certain. All I know is that I saw bits of skin come off every once in a while.

The males bit each other too, though clearly the inter-male biting was significantly more vicious. In one instance, one fish took a big chunk out of the gut of another, leaving a hole. Ouch.

Stage Two: Hide and Seek
Eventually, one of the males chased the other two away, and he was left to claim his prize...or so he thought.

The female, being ever so wily, hid in a bin, peeking out at me and imploring me not to give away her location.

porcupine pufferfish

Meanwhile, the ever-enthusiastic male (note his eager-beaver smile) scoured the sand for his missing love interest. You would think the male would've looked in the obvious place...but no. It took him a while to catch on...even though I was sitting there looking right at the female.

I had to leave the star-crossed piscine pair at this point, as my no-deco time was up, but after getting back to land for a decent surface interval, I jumped back into the water (at a different site) and picked up another porcupine pufferfish pair engaged in precisely the same "Come here baby"-"Not on your life" discussion.

Stage Three: Delirium
As the sun began to set, matters became more pressing, as the male was overcome by the need to fulfil primordial urges. The amorous look in his eye gave way to something bordering on psychosis, and his smile morphed into an expression more akin to a frustrated frown.

porcupine pufferfish

Stage Four: All-out Chase
Having beaten out rival males and woo-ed the female with all his charm (read: bit her repeatedly until she inflated with irritation) to no avail, the male at some point abandoned all pretence and just flat-out chased the female as fast and hard as he could.

porcupine pufferfish

In response, the female puffed up even more (the theory being...if I may attempt to read the mind of a female porcupine pufferfish...that as a puffy prickly pincushion, she would be less appealing to the male), and swam with all her might.

This particular female made use of me a few times by hiding under my fins, inside my BCD, under my body...all of which worked for a while as the testosterone-fueled male swam in angry little circles looking for his elusive quarry...but eventually, he always found her.

In matter what she tried, the male refused to be denied.

Stage Five: Run For Your Life
In the final stage, the female gave up on playing hard-to-get, and simply swam as fast and hard as she could for deep water, ditch her persistent companion.

On this occasion, I wasn't able to follow in the deep dark abyss, but from previous experience, I know that the female probably relented at some stage, and the pair shot up toward the surface at high speed, pausing at a depth of around 10 to 12 metres to release sperm and eggs into the water column.

Once fulfilled, the male would've swum away, leaving the female in the dark...relieved.

porcupine pufferfish