Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#256: Not at My Mom's Dinner Table!

Now back in the Dark Ages when I grew up, parents insisted on family dinners every night and they ran a tight ship. I'm sure we all rebelled a bit at the time, but in retrospect it was great to have everyone together and sharing at the dinner table. Heck, I always "shared" my peas with one of my sisters... I'd pass them to her under the table when Mom and Dad weren't looking. Heck, she'd eat anything.

However, one "guest" that I'm sure would never have been invited to share Mom's dinner table is the subject of this week's column, the ocean whitefish. No, it's not that she wouldn't serve this species as the entree (if she could have gotten it in Chicago). This fish is one very messy eater, and Mom wouldn't stand for that! After all, we were all taught manners in our home. Fortunately she was never tested, since I only see this fish in our SoCal waters where it is common, or its related tilefish family members in the tropics when I have the money to travel.

The ocean whitefish is found occasionally as far north as central or northern California, and even Vancouver Island. Its distribution peaks in our region, and may be found as far south as Peru. Experts indicate they are especially common around the Channel Islands including Catalina. According to fish specialist Paul Humann, they prefer rocky reefs and occasionally kelp forests, places where there is vertical structure to the habitat. However, here off Catalina I usually observe them over the flat sandy bottom where they are often seen feeding. Humann lists their depth range at 4 to 450 feet, with most in the 80 to 180 foot range. Dr. Milton Love (the "Love PhD!") says smaller ones are more common in shallow water, with the larger ones in deeper water.

Whitefish are light gray to brown on the upper surface, and white on their bellies. They have elongated bodies with small mouths. Their long dorsal, pectoral and tail fins all have yellowish tints to them with a hint of blue. When whitefish hover above the bottom while looking for food, the dorsal fin wavers repeatedly and creates an interesting undulating motion. These fish reach lengths in excess of three feet. They are a foot long at two years, two feet at six years, and may live up to at least 13 years.

Females are sexually mature at 3-4 years with the males maturing a year or two later (making them similar to our species). Dr. Love mentions spawning off southern California from early spring perhaps all the way into fall. I have seen what appear to be large spawning aggregations over the sand at Isthmus Reef on occasion. He mentions a research paper that found no ocean whitefish larvae in our region, but many off Baja California to the south. Now I won't go into his interpretation of these findings. My highly speculative conclusion is that perhaps ocean whitefish, being a warmer water species, aren't as successful at reproduction in our colder waters but are in the warmer waters off Baja.

Now whitefish can be a little skittish, making them difficult to film on occasion. Last weekend I dove the Casino Point Dive Park instead of the King Neptune, and all of my dives were very shallow (above 50 feet). On one of them, I noticed a whitefish feeding in the sand. I sat still nearby and made only slow movements (except when the surge rocked me), and the fish gradually acclimated to my presence. Although it would look at me from time to time to make sure I wasn't carrying a speargun, it felt comfortable enough to come within a foot of me and continue feeding. This gave me the opportunity to get some pretty nice high definition video footage.

When feeding, whitefish hover a foot or so above the sandy bottom. They observe intently, probably looking for signs of movement in the sand. Favorite munchables include shrimp, crabs, octopus, squid, small fish and (ugh) worms. I'd pass those on to my sister if they were served to me. The fish are often seen "blowing" a stream of water onto the sand, which helps expose possible food. They then dart down and grab a mouthful of the gritty stuff, hopefully with a tasty hors d'oeurve in it. They then filter through the sand, spitting it out as they try to separate the "munchie" from the "crunchy." I told you they were pretty messy eaters!

As bottom feeders, whitefish compete for food with the likes of sheephead. I filmed one whitefish biting into the sand only to have a female sheephead came up, chase him away, and started digging to find the food for herself. On clear days, which last weekend was not, it is impressive to see all the bottom feeders spread out over the shallow sandy areas of the dive park, all digging for tender morsels. One interaction surprised me. Twice a garibaldi chased the whitefish away from me, making me wonder why. Garibaldi aren't mating or nesting at this time of year and aren't overly aggressive. I guess Gary Garibaldi was just practicing for when he has to defend his honor, and his nest, next spring.

Whitefish have been caught by recreational and commercial fishers in our waters for many years. The commercial fishery peaked in the 1920's and 1930's, but has declined markedly since then. The Tuna Club's own Charles Frederick Holder wrote back in 1913 about fishing for the "blanquillo" or whitefish off San Clemente Island. He considered them "perhaps the finest [small] game fish of this region." Good thing the one I filmed wasn't aware of this, or it might have hightailed it to deeper water when I tried to film.

NOTE: There is an excellent video about diving Catalina Island that is available over the Internet on the Bloomberg Financial News' website. It features interviews with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Mayor and SCUBA Luv co-owner Bob Kennedy, and Dr.Bill. The video was put together by Matt and Nadja Brandt for Bloomberg. To see it, log onto the Bloomberg web site (, and search the site on the keywords "Cousteau" and "giant sea bass." You can read the accompanying article by Nadja, then to the right of it select the accompanying media "Diving in the Emerald Forest off Catalina." It's a pretty nice introduction to our underwater world and why many of us love to dive here.

© 2007 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," "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" or "Common Fish and Invertebrates of the Sea of Cortez" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Ocean whitefish checking out yours truly; plunging in to sand to take in a mouthful, and filtering out the food from the sand.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2007 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia