For much of the world, the underwater realm was a great mystery until the advent of SCUBA diving. Finally, the oceans were no longer a place of unknown danger or a source of mythological wonders. The early Hawaiians didn’t wait for Jacques Cousteau to introduce them to the life undersea, they had a deep and intimate connection with the waters surrounding these islands since the moment they landed on their shores. The Hawaiian people were dependent on the ocean and the life it sustained not only for subsistence, but for transportation, tools, and an essential element of their culture. They relied on the ocean for their physical and spiritual health, and were careful not to abuse or waste any part of it.
Filefish are just one example of a marine animal that was used for more than just food. Dried filefish were burned for oil, and the fish’s rough skin, where its common name comes from, could be used as an abrasive. Filefish had an important role in the Hawaiian culture as well. Periodically, great numbers of filefish would appear and sometimes would wash ashore. The early Hawaiians believed this phenomenon prophesied the death of a member of the royalty. Oddly enough, millions washed ashore on the southern beaches of Oahu during World War 2, for reasons still unknown.
The scrawled filefish, one of seven filefish found in Thai waters, has brown and blue spots and markings all over its olive-colored body. The scrawled filefish is also called the scribbled, broom-tail, or longtail filefish, the latter two referring to the tail that is almost 1/3 of the length of its body and looks like a broom. The variety of common names used to refer to this one fish may be due to the fact that this species is found all over the world in warm, tropical waters.
In Hawaiian file fish were called ‘o’ili, which means “make a sudden appearance”. At this point, it is still unclear whether this refers to the fact that, at certain times, file fish were very rare along the reef and sometimes they would appear in great numbers, or from the long dorsal spine that pops straight up over the fish’s eyes, on the top of its head. The scrawled file fish is known as loulu in the Hawaiian language, referring to an endemic fan palm that has a similar color. File fish are closely related to trigger fish, and have similar dorsal spines, although there are conflicting reports over whether the file fish’s spine can be locked in place, as the trigger fish’s can. The spine of the file fish is longer than that of the trigger fish, and their bodies are narrower.
Scrawled file fish are among some of the larger reef fish, growing up to 3 feet long, and are rather slow swimmers. Luckily, they can use their amazing camouflage to escape predation by rapidly darkening their skin to blend in with various backgrounds. They are very alert to danger, and often are found hiding in the reef. File fish are primarily vegetarians, but eat a wide variety of food. They are some of the few fish that can safely ingest stinging corals, sea jellies and anemones, and can be seen searching for food by hovering head-down over the sand. Unlike many reef fish, scrawled file fish can also be seen schooling in the open ocean, away from the safety of the reef. They swim in an interesting fashion, by undulating their soft dorsal (top) and anal (bottom) fins, and can move both backwards and forwards with ease.
The early Hawaiians had an intimate knowledge of the land and sea, and not only knew how to use what they had available to them, but knew how to preserve it with an extensive kapu (taboo) system. Hawaiians were excellent conversationalists, taking care to replenish forests after taking plants, not fishing during times of spawning, and taking other precautions to ensure a sustainable future on their islands. Although Hawaiian residents can now purchase food and other products from the rest of the world, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to?