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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#516: The "Big Head"

After five long weeks I finally returned to King Neptune's realm after being "sliced and diced" by my surgeon back in early November. He did a great job and even an hour after the surgery I felt no pain and never took anything, not even an aspirin. Wow... the miracles of modern medicine! I must admit my first descent last week was not without qualms. After sitting high and dry for five weeks, my regulator seemed to be filled with spiders and cobwebs, making breathing off it a far greater effort than usual. But it was worth it.

Our little whitetail damsel from south of the border was still in its place. It hadn't grown very much while I was out of the water... but then they don't get much bigger than 4-5" anyway. As I predicted late last summer, the invasive Japanese Sargassum seaweed was everywhere and already as tall as 6-8 feet. Looks like we will have another year like 2007 when the dive park looked like it was a wheat field in South Dakota. Finding subjects to film then and last week was nearly impossible in this thick understory.

I've contacted the California Dept., of Fish & Wildlife (no longer Fish & Game) requesting a permit to control this horrible weed. In response they have asked me to devise a three year experiment to do so complete with monitoring. I wonder who they expect to fund that long-term project. IMHO I don't see why I should bear the brunt for their failure to control this species early on when it was still possible. After all, it is their job and I'm more than willing to help... but not to carry the full load.

I should clarify something. The title of this week's column does not refer to yours truly. I'm the big belly (aka Buddha Belly). I will eventually get to the featured player this week. However, before I do I wanted to add that I was able to watch the documentary on our giant sea bass that the Japanese film crew and I filmed for back in September. Even though I didn't understand a word of the narration, it was pretty spectacular. The crew from Japan Underwater Films got some great video sequences... except for the ones that featured the good doctor. I prefer being off camera.

On to my recent dive... So who is this Big Head I'm referring to? Why none other than the cabezon (which literally translates into "big head), known scientifically as Scorpaenichthys marmoratus. I saw one on my dive, most likely the same one I had seen on my last dives before my surgery. I hear many divers referring to the "sculpins" they see in the dive park. I think they are often confusing scorpionfish for sculpins. The only true sculpin or member of the fish family Cottidae that I see with any regularity is the cabezon. I wonder why other members of this diverse family are not seen often in our waters, at least at this end of the island. Perhaps they have limited dispersal ability.

According to Dr. Milton Love, one of the Spanish priests who headed Mission San Buenaventura wrote about the Chumash catching this good tasting fish out on the Channel Islands, and may be the one who gave it its common name. Cabezon are known from SE Alaska to central Baja California. Their larvae have been collected from depths of up to 758 feet off the Aleutians although Love reports no adults were seen in these western waters.

Cabezon can get pretty big, up to 39 inches and weigh up to 25 lbs. Their coloration varies from brown to red to green with substantial mottling. Some scientists believe females tend to be green while males tend to be red, but others question any gender link to body color. The one I've observed recently was mostly reddish and white so it may be a male.

Females mature at anywhere from two to seven years. They mate throughout the year, although Love suggests a peak in January and February here in southern California. Females lay white, pink, maroon, crimson or blue-green eggs in batches of about 60,-150,000 eggs. The eggs are demersal, that is laid on the bottom thanks to an adhesive. The batches may be a foot and a half in diameter and two inches tall. Cabezon frequently use the same nesting areas year after year. As is the case with garibaldi and giant kelpfish, the male guards the nest until the eggs hatch in 25 to 50 days depending on water temperature. Dr. Love states the eggs are toxic and are generally left alone by potential egg predators. Larvae that hatch drift in the plankton for up to four months before settling, which may explain how cabezon find their way to the offshore islands like Catalina. Successful adults may live to nearly 20 years.

"Big head" usually means "big mouth," and the cabezon live up to that. They will feed on almost anything that comes close and can be stuffed into their gaping maw. This includes other fish and their eggs; crustaceans including crabs and lobster; molluscs such as clams, snails, octopus and squid; and (yummy) worms. In turn they are eaten by other fish including sharks, birds such as the cormorant and bald eagle, and harbor seals. Cabezon might be considered rather ugly in appearance and that apparently diminished their appeal to consumers when sold by early commercial fishers. However, their blue muscle tissue actually tastes quite good and this species is a favorite of recreational anglers.

© 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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Cabezon from the dive park and the offshore oil platforms.

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