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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#463: Pipefish: A First (For Me) in the Dive Park

My son Kevin came out a few weeks ago to do some diving on his birthday with his old man (that's me!). Always a pleasure to be able to do something that we can both enjoy together. We got in five dives including one night dive (no Humboldt squid in sight). On one of those dives I almost missed something I'd never seen in the dive park before!

As we were heading back toward the stairs, I glanced at one of those nasty invasive Sargassum horneri plants just beginning to mature reproductively. Somehow my brain processed the fact that the stipe ("stem") on that seaweed was rather thick for its size. I quickly dragged my fins along the bottom to halt my forward progress (in addition to my feeble finning the surge was moving me forward). As a videographer I know this is NOT good practice as it stirs up the sediment and muck on the bottom making for poor filming.

There, entwined in the nasty weed, was a pipefish! Very cool, I thought, and proceeded to film despite the debris swirling around it. The last pipefish I observed was out at Hen Rock several years ago, and I'd filmed several off La Jolla prior to that. About the closest thing to a pipefish I run into in the dive park are the old "pipes" or supports for the diving bell that used to be there in the 1960s. Sightings like this never fail to get the good doctor excited (yes, I know... it doesn't take much). It got my heart pumping much faster than the current issue of Playboy (which I only purchased because it was 60 cents this month). No wonder we scientists are sometimes considered nerds.

In writing this column, I went directly to Dr. Milton Love's new book Certainly More Than You Wanted to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. This fantastic revision of his previous version is a reference book without equal. The only problem with it is I had to pump iron for a few weeks just to lift the darned thing onto my desk! Milton lists three species of pipefish in our waters, all in the genus Syngnathus: the bay pipefish (S. leptorhynchus), the the barred pipefish (S. auliscus) and the kelp pipefish (S. californiensis). He includes three pictures with the caption "I can't tell one pipefish species from another, so here are a bunch of pictures." If Dr. Love, an expert on West Coast fish, can't tell them apart I don't feel so bad.

The bay pipefish is known from Prince William Sound, AK, to southern Baja at depths down to about 60 feet. This species reaches a maximum length of about 15 inches. It comes in at least 14 color variations, unlike Henry Ford's Model T which you could have in any color you wanted... as long as it was black! This species prefers eelgrass beds but will frequent other marine plants including kelp and smaller seaweeds. It is a hardy fish, able to tolerate a degree of freshwater as well as temperatures that hover around 40 F.

Love writes that most bay pipefish only survive a single year, although some may double that lifespan.In warmer waters they are believed to spawn the entire year. I wondered about this poor individual since I have yet to see a potential mate in the dive park (for it or for me). Females produce about 80 to 700 eggs, which the males carry until they hatch. A single male may brood the eggs from three different females. Hmmm... why is it the females of so many fish species have found ways to saddle the males with 100% of the child care?

Bay pipefish munch on a variety of goodies, mostly tiny (and crunchy!) crustaceans such as isopods, copepods, amphipods and small shrimp as well as fish larvae. In turn, Love reports they are eaten by brown smoothhound sharks, spotted sand bass and elegant terns. However, I'm sure there are other potential predators on these small fish since none of those are seen in any numbers here.

Barred pipefish are smaller, reaching a length of about 8 inches. They are found from the Santa Barbara Channel through the Sea of Cortez and down to Peru, and frequent vegetation including eelgrass, sargassum and mangroves (further south).

The kelp pipefish is the big brother of the three growing to 20 inches. This species is known from Bodega Bay to southern Baja from the intertidal to a depth of about 50 ft. Although more common on the exposed outer coast, they may also be seen in bays and occasionally in estuaries. Kelp pipefish are frequently seen up in the canopy and mid-region of giant kelp, but may also be found in eelgrass, surfgrass and around drifting kelp mats. Back in the 1970s we found a few hitch hiking to the island on drifting kelp rafts.

Kelp pipefish are reported to feed on mysid and other shrimp and will add amphipods and skeleton "shrimp" as an occasional variation in their diet. Dr. Love reports that their predators include blue shark, kelp bass, kelp rockfish, seagulls and even fur seals. Ofc ourse none of the kelpfish are harvested commercially or recreationally for food... just not enough meat on their bones!

© 2011 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM 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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Can you see the pipefish in the Sargassum horneri (good, maybe the predators can't either),
swimming free; pipefish in eelgrass flats off Hen Rock.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2011 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia