Ultra-Rare Fish Photographed in the Philippines for the Very First Time

It is the sole photographic record of the species in Southeast Asia. 

On March 29, diver and marine conservationist Danny Ocampo was visiting his usual underwater haunts at Anilao when something caught his attention. 

“It looks like a juvenile batfish but it looks very unusual,” Ocampo said to himself. Nevertheless, he aimed his camera and took a single photo of the strange little critter seconds before it flickered away. 

He had no idea he just made history in that space of a few seconds. 

The fish he captured on camera is none other than the ultra-elusive Velifer hypselopterus (Veliferidae), and this was the very first time it was documented in the Philippines. 

The fish is so rare, if you google it, you’ll find fewer than 10 photographs of a live one on the internet. 

“It was a bit overcast and visibility was not so good so I approached slowly trying to get a better look at the fish,” Ocampo tells Esquire Philippines

“And it suddenly opened its dorsal and anal fin! I thought it could be a Sailfin tang but I was convinced that it was a different fish. I tried to take a good photo of the fish but it was so skittish and, after two photos, it swam to deeper water and it was gone.”

When Ocampo got out of the water, he quickly uploaded the photo to his mobile phone and posted it on the Philippine Biodiversity Net: Digital Library of Species—a private group on Facebook for scientists and naturalists interested in biodiversity.

“Maybelle Fortaleza commented and identified the fish as Velifer hypselopterus (Veliferidae) and was seconded by Kent Sorgon. Both are fish taxonomists,” says Ocampo. 


Museum Specimens, Super Rare

According to Sorgon, Veliferids are very uncommon and even museum specimens are few. The species has only been collected in Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Australia. None have ever been sighted, more so collected, in the Philippines. 

“As far as I know, no photographic record for this species exists for the Philippines,” says Sorgon. 

Jean Utzurum, a marine biologist who studies the mesophotic zone in Dumaguete, also says: “It seems this is more associated with mesophotic zone (Fishbase max depth 110m). Mesophotic reefs in the Philippines are still a relatively new branch of reef research, so this could be a reason why it's rarely documented and sampled.”

Velifer hypselopterus

Photo by Danny Ocampo.

The mesophotic zone is the depth of the sea between 30 to 150 meters. “There's a lot we still don't know about mesophotic reefs (or this zone, in general) across the Philippines,” says Utzurum. 

The Velifer fish is so rare, scientists know very little about its behavior, feeding habits, and habitat preference. 

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“Was this particular fish feeling a bit adventurous coming up to check more shallow depth or do they move to mesophotic at a later time or stage in life? We don't know. Regardless, it's a very cool find!” says Utzurum. 

Saving the Seas for Filipinos

According to Ocampo, he hopes his photo will raise awareness about ocean conservation. “I hope this can also lead to more interest among Filipinos… Discoveries such as this can help our scientists get more support for research, which is badly needed.”

As someone who grew up watching David Attenborough’s documentaries, Ocampo wants Filipinos to have that same passion for conservation. 

“It is not too late to help protect our biodiversity and raise awareness on the importance of managing our resources and wastes. There are so many things to do but all it takes is that first step and the decision that you will be a responsible Earthling,” says Ocampo. 

Danny Ocampo is a campaigner for Oceana in the Philippines. The organization campaigns to stop illegal commercial fishing in municipal waters and advocates for appropriate policies and reforms for marine and fisheries conservation.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of SPIN.ph as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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