Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#173: Calimari Concupiscence, Part I

Regular readers of this column are well aware of the emphasis I place on "munching" and "mating" in the biological world. Without question, these are the two fundamental activities of all species. My loyal audience is also well aware that I get much too much of one, and way too little of the other. One New Year's resolution is to lose the extra pounds I gained over the holidays, the other is... censored by community standards of decency.

Recently I was reminded of how dangerous sex can be while diving. No, I'm not referring to humans and the possibility of infection with the HIV virus (although definitely a potential threat for some). Nor am I referring to joining the "Six Fathom Club" (the underwater equivalent of the "Mile High" club). I'm thinking more on the lines of sex between black widows. They don't call her the black "widow" for nothing... she kills her mate (as a tasty treat) instead of smoking a cigarette afterwards. Much better for her health, but certainly not his! Actually, this case is more like the story of Romeo and Juliet... "til death do us part" and all that. Not my kind of romance either, but for this week's species it is their fate.

Thanks to SCUBA Luv and the King Neptune, I was able to do something I've never done before. No not that, shame on you. I was able to finally dive on, and film, some of the most "romantic" sites around this Island Of Romance... the scenes of mass orgies of market squid! 'Tis the season. I'm sure many of my readers have noticed the brightly lit squid boats around the island the past few weeks. Back in the "old daze," I remember the Toyon school buying mass quantities of squid directly off the squid boats offshore. We'd bring 'em in in 55 gallon trash containers and feed the school. It kept our food budget within line... but helped turn a few students into vegetarians.

We covered the coast from Bird Rock to Hen Rock as I searched for evidence of this most erotic of events (well, at least for the squid, not sure it's my cup of tea). I searched "high" (about 50 ft) and "low" (read on) for them. In pursuit of these interesting molluscs, I once again broke my record for deep dives off Catalina... this time down to 153 ft (where it was a comfy 53 degrees). I might add that 150 ft is a favorite cruising depth for the "landlord" (you know, the star of the movie "Jaws") so I was a little nervous down there, but fortunately not noticeably narced. I was able to take my video without any obvious impairment due to too much nitrogen.

That dive was off Sea Fan Grotto, usually a shallow dive for me so I can film the cave and sea fans. This time I dropped to 70 ft which was the depth I was finding squid in at adjacent sites like Yellowtail Point. There wasn't a squid to be seen, so I dropped down to 100 ft. Despite the fact we were diving adjacent to the Empire Landing Quarry, my quarry eluded me so I continued down to 120 ft. There I started seeing the dead bodies of squid littering the bottom, but no eggs so I continued downward in the increasing darkness. I gave up at my maximum depth and started working my way upwards along the steep sloping bottom. Using my video light I was able to get footage of the bat stars and Kellet whelk snails feeding on the corpses, but still no eggs.

Hen Rock turned out to be the best site for me to film the squid with their eggs. On two dives there this past weekend I had good luck at the outer reef. The first dive was planned for 65-75 feet, but I didn't see any squid there so I descended to 85-95 feet where I discovered a massive carpet of white egg clusters covering the bottom. Well, they would have been white had the light not been so dim... and green. Yes, green during winter. Apparently we've had another plankton bloom due to the recent storms washing soil and nutrients into the water, followed by several days of warm (even record) temperatures and sunlight. Everything had a green cast to it at this depth.

What I saw down there really surprised me. I had "always" been told that nothing eats squid eggs. Much as I love calimari steaks, I've never tried a calmari omelette myself. On these six dives I didn't notice anything feeding on the eggs until now. There, at 92 ft., was a school of a few dozen blacksmith (the garibaldi's closest relative in our waters) trying to munch away on a mass of egg capsules! Although the light there was very dim, I filmed them and got documentation of this unexpected addition to my knowledge of the local food chains off Catalina (and I'm not referring to the likes of McDonalds). After filming, I worked my way in towards the King Neptune's anchor line. When I reached 65 ft, I again found carpets of squid eggs, and the lighting was much better in the shallower waters so I filmed the eggs, as well as the dead and dying squid and a hairy hermit crab feeding on them.

I was looking forward to a second dive at Hen Rock the following day. Unfortunately I had just done my really deep dive so I was sure I wouldn't have a lot of bottom time to film before I went into decompression mode. I immediately dropped down to 65 feet and found that the visibility had declined overnight to a mere 10-15 feet. In that relative darkness I was glad to find I had 25 minutes of bottom time to film. The egg masses were still there... and much more! I saw at least 100 squid swimming about over the egg masses and actually mating. I filmed them expecting expecting the footage to be marginal, but it came out surprisingly well with little of the green cast I expected.

I was able to observe as many as 5-6 male squid going after a single female. Reminded me of our own "Horny Corner" in Avalon, although these males seemed much more aggressive than our local youth. I watched as one male entered the fray with four other males already grasping the poor female in their tentacles. This male must have been smarter as he seemed to devise a strategy. He would grab a male, and work his tentacles down its body towards the head region. Then he would pry that male loose and cast him aside. Eventually he got rid of his competitors and prepared for marital bliss with his new lady friend. I wonder if he realized that both would die shortly after they mated. Fate saved him for the time being as another male swooped in and took his babe as he was gloating in his success!

Speaking of swooping in, I noticed a dark shadow over me while I filmed. Gulp. I knew there were a number of torpedo (electric) rays feeding on the squid along our coast. I didn't want to lift my head and bump into one. That would have been "shocking" to say the least. Of course other sharks enjoy the calimari buffet and the music from "Jaws" played in my brain. When I finally looked up, I saw a young sea lion hovering upside-down a few feet overhead to watch me film. Whew! He did some acrobatics to show off his diving prowess and then departed (to be continued).

© 2006 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Look for my new DVD on the giant sea bass to be released in January.

Dead squid... the consequences of ecstasy, blacksmith school feeding on squid eggs;
hairy hermit crab (L) and bat star (R) feeding on dead squid.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2005 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia