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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#504: The Bass Didn't Perform

The spectacular weather and great water conditions of the past few weeks have really been a treat. I've been able to take advantage of them by diving with the crew from Japan Underwater Films that is doing the documentary on our giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas) for NHK, Japan's public TV station. As their consultant and additional videographer, I'm getting paid to do things I love to do... dive, film and observe these gentle giants. What a life! Only drawback is that there are no bikinis on board so I'll miss the scenery at the dive park.

Of course it is hard work, too. The unusually warm water this year has driven the giant sea bass (GSB) deeper. They often rest just at the thermocline where there is a rapid change in temperature. To get to the thermocline recently, we've been diving as deep as 100 feet. Of course the deeper one goes, the less time one has to film because air in our SCUBA tanks is consumed faster, and we also may be at depth long enough to go into "deco" due to the accumulation of nitrogen in our bodies because of the higher pressure.

Of the 19 dives I've done with the crew to date, all but three were deco dives requiring me to hang on the anchor line for up to 15 min to "offgas" the excess nitrogen. Being the "geezer" in this group of divers, I have to be a bit more conservative with my "mature" carcass. Yasu and Masa, the primary cameramen for much of our filming are spring chickens compared to this old goat. And their lungs are smaller allowing them to sip air from the tank instead of guzzle it like yours truly!

So what have we seen during this period of intense filming? Well, what we haven't seen is what we really want to see... raw, unadulterated reproduction. That's right, the Japanese TV viewer wants the same thing as the American audience... mating! So our goal is to become creators of fish pornography. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever filmed giant sea bass mating in the wild. Unfortunately so far, we're keeping that tradition alive. It has been assumed that these fantastic fish may only do it in the dark. I've known some ladies like that. However, we've dived at dusk and even early in the morning and so far no action.

In the many years that I've been filming giant sea bass, I've only recorded them doing the other "M" word... munching... once. I was in the Seamobile submarine with my lovely Russian co-researcher touring Lover's Cove when in the distance a giant sea bass turned on its head and sucked in a fish, or a lobster, or some other delicacy. Yes, they are what is known as suction feeders. They suddenly open their gargantuan maw, creating a vacuum inside the mouth cavity which then draws the prey inside. The Japanese film crew actually recorded two examples of feeding... while I was on the mainland for my son's birthday and to take my granddaughter to Disneyland (my first time since 1964).

Unfortunately their food tastes also make them vulnerable to incidental take by anglers. Two of the GSB I filmed had lures embedded in their mouths. One was quite small and didn't seem to be bothering the fish much. Another had a large lure dangling from its lower jaw. The lure looked heavy and seemed to be forcing the GSB to keep its lower jaw hanging down. Since these fish breathe by opening and closing their mouth to pump water over their gills, and suction feed; this lure may be impacting both respiration and feeding for the GSB.

We discussed possible ways to remove the hook, but chances are we'd simply injure the fish more if our methods didn't work. Of course the anglers aren't to blame since I doubt they were targeting GSB. However, I recently heard of one commercial fishing boat that takes its customers to sites where they might hook one up, bring it in for pictures and then release it. Hopefully that is just a rumor... but it came from a trusted source. If I knew what boat was doing that, I'd consider some UDT training and the application of limpet mines for a future dive.

While filming them in the past, I've taken footage of schools of jack mackerel following the giant sea bass and rubbing their bodies on its flanks. I've also filmed the jack mackerel do this with other fish including soupfin sharks. My theory was that the jacks (jack mackerel are in the jack family,. not the mackerel family) were rubbing their bodies on the huge scales of the giant sea bass or the rough skin of the shark to get rid of parasites. The film crew suggested another possibility. According to them, the mackerel that they eat have spines on their bodies. They thought the jack mackerel might be trying to drive off the giant sea bass (which will eat them) like ravens will mob a bald eagle. Of course I'll have to verify our jack mackerel have spines like the mackerel my friends eat.

In the past I've observed and filmed giant sea bass running head on into thick stands of giant kelp, or swimming very close over it. I thought they were just having problems with their buoyancy or were clumsy. However, during this filming I observed at least two different GSBs do this and a light bulb went off. It looked as if the GSB were rubbing their bodies on the kelp to get rid of all the parasites they carry. It was obvious they bumped into the kelp and pushed through it intentionally... not just out of a lack of coordination like me!

Now when I wrote my previous column letting my readers know about the upcoming documentary filming here, I said the film crew was going to make our GSBs stars on Japanese TV. And these incredible fish deserve to be featured in a documentary after their apparent rebound from serious overfishing before protections were enacted in the early 1980s. What I didn't know at the time was that I was not just going to be another videographer capturing footage for the show. I am actually getting a role as a co-star in the production. I guess they couldn't get Matthew McConaughey or Brad Pitt. Maybe once it airs in Japan, I'll have a bunch of beautiful groupies heading over to dive with me... oh, and the bass.

© 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!

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"What you looking at?" and NHK cameramen Yasu and Masa filming; giant sea bass with fishing lure
and one rubbing against giant kelp.

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