I dropped my dive computer overboard one day. But in searching for it on a deep reef that no one had ever considered diving, I found instead a beautiful new fish. Of course, I would never have known it was new were it not for the erudite marine biologists and ecologists we dive with.
Gerald Allen and Roger Steene are two such experts that have probably influenced the way we see coral reefs more than any others. A peculiar and often comical symbiotic diving pair for "35 painful years," as they often describe it, Allen and Steene are extremely dedicated professionals and have jointly authored numerous marine books, including Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Field Guide and A Guide to Angelfishes and Butterflyfishes.
Allen and Steene joined the Nai'a marine-research voyage last year with the modest goal of generally surveying reef fish and collecting this intriguing new anthias. But they were unprepared for what laid ahead.
"You've made a believer out of me! Fiji has been grossly underrated by both divers and scientists - just incredible fishes here," Allen said.
"We've come across things well outside their range; things previously only known from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are all of a sudden out here in Fiji.
"The anthias are absolutely superb, and the real surprise package is the Cirrhilabrus, with plenty more to find in both those beautiful groups.
"Fiji is an exciting place, scientifically, definitely worthy of protection - and we're just looking at fishes! I'm sure this translates across the board to unique invertebrates. We haven't even scratched the surface."
The edge effect is a prominent factor in understanding Fiji's marine fauna. On the outer edge of the distribution ranges of major species, weird things happen. Allen, a taxonomist who tends to lump rather than split species, says that it can become difficult to assess whether an animal is displaying a geographical variation or has evolved into a new creature altogether.
Among the new species Allen is examining from his first two weeks here are three wrasses, two damselfishes, a pipefish and an anemonefish, previously thought to be Amphiprion melanopus but with some "strange" attributes in size and color.
"This red anemonefish has haunted me my entire career!" Allen says. "I want to sort out this mystery once and for all and hopefully make this fantastic fish a new species - a Fiji endemic, which it rightfully should be."
Species richness, endemism and rare fauna all score high scientific points on the board game of marine-reserve design. But according to Steene, even these compelling and charismatic animals pale in comparison to the merit of the big habitat picture.
"Any country that has a coral reef has a treasure that should be protected, and that in itself is reason enough for Fiji to look after this place," Steene said. "Fiji is one of the lucky countries."