Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#217: Something "Hot" from the Cold Depths

I must admit I can't name a single song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers even though I'm certain I've heard and enjoyed them playing on the radio. Years ago when I managed the old Antonio's, our great cooks loved to tease me by adding something spicey... very, very spicey... to my dinner! A while back I encountered a chilipepper of a different "temperature." In this case, it was a fish known as the chilipepper... or sometimes as a red snapper (one of several different species with this moniker... and I don't mean Lewinsky).

It had been a while since the King Neptune had visited one of my favorite Catalina dive sites, Ship Rock. On a beautiful weekend day, Captain Tony nestled the boat near this exposed pinnacle. He anchored on the outer side of the rock, near the deep ridge I've had lots of fun exploring over the past six months. A little over an hour before, my first dive of the day at Twin Rocks had been to 160 feet. I hadn't planned on going deep on my second dive, but couldn't resist exploring the deep ridge once more. I descended quickly to 160 feet again, and started working my way up the ridge.

Near the start of my ascent, I saw a fish that I hadn't filmed before. Somewhere from the equally deep recesses of my brain, the word "chilipepper" appeared. At that depth I couldn't take the time to observe the fish for long so I immediately started videotaping it. Once back home, I processed the tape and was able to see the characteristic features of this species. The lateral line, which runs along each side of most fish and is used to sense water pressure, rested within a thin bright red band. Its upper jaw extended to the middle of the eye. At about one foot, this was a relatively small one since they may reach nearly twice that length. Younger ones are pink or tan on their back while the older ones are pinkish-red. Both have lighter colored bellies.

The chilipepper is found from southern Baja up into British Columbia, although they are less common north of California. Although the maximum reported depth for this species is just over 1,450 feet, they display an interesting "partitioning" of depth according to age. The juveniles frequent waters from 100 to about 250 feet, while the adults range from about 150 to 1,000 feet. Although the one I filmed was a solitary individual, they are said to group together either in midwater, over deeper reefs, or along steep drop-offs like the one at Ship Rock. It is said that they migrate although little is known about these movements.

According to Dr. Milton Love, they are 4-5 years old at one foot in length, and may reach 22 inches at the ripe old age of 16. Unlike humans, the ladies mature more slowly than the men, with most reaching sexual maturity at just over a foot in length. However, once they are sexually mature, the females begin growing faster, reach larger size and older ages than the guys. Must be the stress of their jobs. Chilipepper spawning peaks in December and January, but may occur anytime from September through April. An individual female may produce over 500,000 eggs. The young begin life in shallow waters before doing any deep "diving."

Since the name chilipepper is closely related to food (at least in the old days at Antonio's), lets look at where they fit into the food chain... and I don't mean Vons or even Red Lobster. They feed on small fishes as well as invertebrates like krill and squid. In many parts of California they are a significant part of the recreational sport fishery. Commercially they are taken by trawl, gillnet and hook-and-line. Of course anyone trying to catch the one I observed would likely get their line wrapped up in the rocks. Hopefully I will see my new friend on my next trip to Ship Rock.

© 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. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles" or "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Whoops... after this went to press a friend at the California Department of Fish & Game
said she thought this was a bocaccio rather than the very similar chilipepper. The
West Coast Rockfish Expert Dr. Milton Love confirmed it is a bocaccio!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia