Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#356: I Can't Believe I Tried to Eat the Whole Thing!

This week's column will generally avoid the topic of Mating in favor of Munching... for the most part. Both are not only critical behaviors in healthy ecosystems, but also quite controversial to many. However, I do have to pass on the mating-related news that in another 10-12 years I will be acquiring a new dive buddy! Yes, my son Kevin and daughter-in-law Mary recently announced that "practice makes perfect" and I will become a grandfather next May. I'm just wondering if their offspring will be born with gills or not.

On to Munching... last week I did a few more night dives to capture footage for a future high definition video on "The Night Shift" at the Casino Point Dive Park. When Kevin and my nephew David joined me on earlier night dives, they frequently pointed their dive lights out to sea in case "The Landlord" was approaching. When I first moved to Catalina in the late 60s, I was quite fearful of great white sharks, but the only time I've knowingly had one swim past me was a few summers ago when I was buddied up with the great marine artist Wyland. I no longer fear these magnificent fish, and this column will not describe an episode of Munching involving them... and me. Whew!

I've written previously that at night the cast of characters in the underwater world changes quite a bit. Fish like the garibaldi, blacksmith, sheephead and other wrasses seek shelter in the rocky reef. Predators like the lunker kelp or calico bass come out to feed, as do herbivores like the black or Coronado sea urchin and scavengers like lobster (unless they've seen a calendar and realized bug season has indeed begun). The blacksmith, which spent their day picking plankton out of the water column... and being attacked by cormorants submerging from the surface, seek shelter in the holes and crevices of the Casino groyne (breakwater).

Now one really can't talk about Munching without mentioning its byproduct. As I taught my Toyon students decades ago, "You are what you eat, minus what you excrete." The blacksmith which munched all day on copepods, ostracods and other plankters, defecate in these sheltered nooks and crannies at night. This establishes an important link in marine food webs because these "byproducts" provide fertilizer for the many algae that grow on our rocky reefs and even our giant kelp.

These blacksmith, members of the damsel fish family like their garibaldi relatives, probably feel fairly secure in their nocturnal shelters. However, nothing edible is ever truly safe. Along comes Dr. Bill with his HID (high intensity discharge) video lights and the rules of the game change drastically. The lunker kelp bass, which have come out to feed under the cover of darkness, can now see the cowering blacksmith and attempt to munch on them. Likewise the moray eels, which have pretty poor eyesight to begin with. Neither of these "vicious" predators are above taking a garibaldi or two despite their protected status and the fine.

I was filming a small cluster of blacksmith frantically finning in a small cavelet in the breakwater when I sensed something below my camera's field of view. I started to point the housing down when two fish swam up into my viewfinder. The first was a modest sized kelp bass of perhaps twelve inches in length. The second was a blacksmith about 6-7 inches long... stuck in the kelp bass' mouth! The bass tried to swallow the damsel for about 15 seconds before finally releasing it. I suppose it had a grandiose vision of what it could munch on. Fortunately for the blacksmith, the kelp bass lacked my appetite. After all, I once set the record for the most prime rib consumed at Marmac's all-you-can-eat prime rib in Westminster... 13 pounds of delicious medium-rare beef, beating the record set back in the 1970s by one of the Los Angeles Lakers!

Some may find the images of the "poor" blacksmith being nearly consumed by the bass hard to view. I am reminded of many who claim to "love nature," but are horrified at images of lions downing and slowly eating a live gazelle, or great whites and orcas killing sea lions and seals. Get with it... this is what nature is all about, Munching (and Mating). I called Nature "the Mutual Eating Society" when I taught biology, and that is truly the case. Other than primary producers like plants, all life consumes the flesh of other living things including scavengers like lobster and decomposers like bacteria. This flow of protoplasm through terrestrial and marine food webs, and through evolutionary time, is what keeps ALL of us alive. The flesh you eat tonight, plant or animal, may well have been part of a dinosaur or pteradactyl millions of years ago!

Most of us are simply far too insulated from our sources of food to truly realize this. We pick up our protein in the form of plastic-wrapped beef, pork, chicken and fish... or harvested vegetables from the produce section... with nary a thought about the fact these were once living organisms. When I taught at the Toyon school in my first career here on the island, we required students to eat fish caught in the ocean, pigs that were "harvested" by the faculty (and an occasional bison from the Conservancy), or vegetables for the vegans and vegetarians from the organic garden I started as a class project. We felt it was important for them to realize that food was once alive and munching itself (well, except for the veggies since we grew no Venus flytraps or pitcher plants).

Individuals of most species require Munching to ensure that they can survive and grow. Unfortunately some of us have done a bit too much munching for our own good and have grown more than we should have. Either that or my wetsuit shrank over the past year! And why is this important? Well, for humans and other sentient species capable of actually enjoying the experience of being alive, that is a substantial reward in and of itself. After all, you get to sail the seas, hike the hills and read this column because you had a good healthy breakfast this morning (unlike my pan dulce). Oh, and the other reason relates to our population and species as a whole... the need to reproduce to create the next generation. But this soon-to-be grandfather said he wouldn't go there... at least not in today's column!

© 2009 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 and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The modest-sized kelp bass wrestling with the "too big to swallow" blacksmith
until it had to release it to swim another day.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2009 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia