Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#501: Making the GSB TV Stars... in Japan

This has been one heck of a summer! No, no summer loving... that continues to elude me here on the "Island of Romance." During the 50th anniversary year of my first dive on SCUBA, I spent much of the warm months submerged. In fact, in August I set a personal best of 80 SCUBA dives bringing my total for the year to over 200. Not bad for someone who was "landlocked" in Florida for much of the first half of the year. Now that I've absorbed so much nitrogen, I may have to enjoy a few topside attractions to off-gas! After all, the bikini-clad seasonal amphibious mammals will soon be leaving our beaches until next year!

I won't stay dry for long. September will be a busy month as well. I will be filming giant sea bass (GSB), Stereolepis gigas, with a crew from NHK (Japan's public television station) for a documentary to air there later this year. It all began with a bit of confusion. I knew that a Japanese cinematographer, Koji Ozaki, was interested in bringing a team out to Catalina to film these incredible fish. He asked for DVD copies of several of my cable TV show episodes and liked them very much. Then I began hearing from folks who I assumed were part of Koji's crew, so I worked with them on this project. Later I discovered, thanks to William Flickinger, that I had created "an international incident!" It turned out the other folks were competing with Koji's crew for the NHK bid to film the GSB with me. Fortunately Koji understood and I will start with the other crew the middle of this month.

My regular readers already know that these "bass" (actually members of the wreckfish family rather than the sea bass family) were nearly wiped out in SoCal waters by the 60s and 70s due to commercial take, recreational harvest by rod-and-reel and speargun, and incidental take by gill nets. As early as the 1910s Charles Frederick Holder, co-founder of Avalon's Tuna Club, worried that these giants (then called black sea bass) were in trouble of disappearing and got the State legislature to approve a marine reserve around the entire island in 1913 that excluded commercial fishing. Unfortunately, it was overturned the following year due to lobbying by the fishing industry. In the early 1980s when the numbers really dwindled, the State of California imposed restrictions on the commercial take of GSBs and later banned the take of them recreationally as well. We have slowly been seeing an apparent recovery of this species both here and in mainland waters.

Scientists feel reasonably certain that giant sea bass, like many other marine species, come into the warmer, shallower waters in spring and summer to spawn. Warmer waters accelerate the development of eggs and embryos. Females begin to mature at 7-8 years with all believed to be able to reproduce at 11-13 years when they are 50-60 pounds. A 320 pound female was estimated to have ovaries containing 60 million eggs. Adults gather at sites that are often used from year-to-year. Here males compete for the attention of the ladies, just like I witnessed at El Galleon last weekend. Once pairs have formed, the male spends much of his time watching over his mate. He will chase competing males away... and often me as well! To the best of our knowledge, no one has seen them actually mate in the wild. Some scientists believe it may happen at night, and the NHK crew wants to see if they can capture it on film.

This year the GSB appear to be behaving a little strangely. I have only had two encounters with paired mates in the dive park all summer. During some years I'd have as many as three on a single dive. This year the bass seem to be hanging out elsewhere and the ones we see in the dive park are mostly swimming through on their way to somewhere else. Of course this limits the opportunity to film them and their behavior. The latest sequence I shot was a whopping 16 seconds when a GSB came from Descanso Beach, checked me out at about 50 ft without stopping and swam on towards the harbor mouth. I've talked to divers elsewhere around the island and they've observed the same phenomenon.

In the past a trip to Little Italian Gardens, or even a snorkel in Lover's Cove would usually result in several sightings. Then it seemed that the bass at the first site moved towards Twin Rocks and Goat Harbor while those in Lover's Cove headed down to Garibaldi Reef and Blue Car Wreck just north of the East End Quarry. Were these GSB being "harassed" by divers who wanted to touch them or didn't have good skills to approach them slowly without erratic movements? Maybe the GSB just wanted a little more privacy during their courtship! You can hardly blame them for that.

The GSB have found a way to deal with pesky divers though... by taking a dump on them! The first time it happened to me I was kicking furiously to follow and film one that was swimming pretty fast. I got about 2 min of footage (and a real cardio workout). When I got home and edited the video, I discovered the GSB had let loose a load that I hadn't noticed while looking through my tiny viewfinder! Then I heard of two accounts from divers on the mainland where GSB did the same to them, only the fish swam over and above them to release their payloads! Recently while diving in the dive park, I filmed a hovering GSB let loose. There was no current so the "bomb" fell straight down through the water column... onto a class of new divers. I wonder if they knew what hit them!

© 2012 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. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). 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!

To return to the list of ALL of Dr. Bill's "Dive Dry" newspaper columns, click here.

Two close encounters with GSB, one relatively free of parasites and the other full of them; courting pair of GSB
in the dive park and one GSB letting loose its payload on the divers below.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2012 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia