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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#582: In the Mood... for Valentine's Day

One problem with writing my columns in advance of publication is that sometimes they are not sent in timely. This is one I wrote to be published around Valentine's Day but forgot about it. Of course Valentine's Day is just another of those Hallmark, Godiva and Teleflora opportunities to bilk us unsuspecting males of what little dough we have left after spending a fortune on an elaborate dinner and not even receiving a kiss. Okay, so I'm a cynic about true love. After living on "The Island of Romance" for 45 years now, it just hasn't seemed to work its magic for yours truly! Besides, I'm generally a solo kind of guy anyway.

Speaking of solo, I spent my Valentine's Day weekend doing six dives in our dive park. That actually tripled my number of dives for the entire year! Just too much video editing and not enough time underwater working off the "bioprene" that builds up when I sit at my computer for long hours. I discovered that Valentine's Day weekend was an exceptional time to dive for someone dedicated to bringing you the best of "munching" and "mating" in King Neptune's realm. Read on.

On my way out to the wreck of the Suejac at the south end of the park, I noticed a green abalone (Haliotis fulgens) out in the open. I stopped to film it and went to move an upside down wavy top snail (Lithopoma undosum, formerly Astrea undosa) so it wouldn't be in my frame. As I reached my hand out, I noticed there was a stream of white, viscous fluid being emitted from beneath the operculum ("trap door") of the snail. OMG... it was spawning! I'd never seen that species of snail spawn before, and wondered why it was doing so at that very moment. There were no other wavy tops nearby, so it couldn't have been triggered by the release of gametes from a neighbor. I've always thought this species, like many snails, actually mated rather than spawned.

Another question was why it would do so during daylight when they are usually clamped down tight on the rocks to prevent hungry sheephead from munching on them? Why not wait til dark when they become more active and search out a nice algal salad for supper? And I really couldn't comprehend why it was spawning while it was resting on the reef upside-down. Maybe that is one of the suggested positions in the snail edition of the Kama Sutra? I didn't ponder the answers to my questions for long, preferring instead to document this behavior while it lasted.

On my return from the wreck, I filmed another green abalone... and discovered a wisp of white emanating from its shell when I viewed the video footage. Apparently it had just finished spawning. A short while later I was poking around under the dive park stairs when I noticed a billowing cloud of creamy "stuff" being emitted through the holes in the shell of a pink abalone (Haliotis corrugata). Although the surge in the shallows there made it difficult to stabilize my camera, I did capture several releases of the gamete stream.

When I returned to the surface where you landlubbers prefer to be, I mentioned my find to Robert of Catalina Divers Supply (CDS). He had just taken a visiting diver on a guided dive in the park. He said they had seen several warty sea cucumbers "standing" nearly straight up with one end holding on to the reef and the other upright in the water column. I knew from past experience that this was their spawning position since there is a different edition of the Kama Sutra for echinoderms. So four species were spawning in the park on the same day. I hope those gametes don't get all confused by one another and create something that looks like a Fukushima mutation!

Of course as the inquiring scientist that I am, I pondered the question of why so many species would be spawning on the same day. I couldn't identify any specific environmental triggers. Water temperatures have been unseasonably high this winter, but there hadn't been a recent change that I was aware of (and my "holey" wetsuit would allow me to detect such things quickly). In none of the above cases was a member of the spawner's species nearby to trigger the release. I did notice that the male garibaldi were establishing their nest sites and becoming more aggressive, but I could attribute this to the "warm" water since it was above the 58 F temperature point that usually causes Gary Garibaldi's mind to turn to thoughts usually associated with... ahem... spring.

I guess this event will remain one of those unanswered mysteries that keeps many humans intrigued by life. It became even more intriguing the following Friday when Ruth Harris, a friend and CDS instructor, asked if I'd join her on a night dive before the Harbor Clean-Up. She wanted to relocate the great white she had discovered a few years ago... white abalone that is... and she did locate it. I filmed while it munched on a 20 foot section of Agarum (a deep water kelp)... quite the salad. On our return, I spotted a black urchin (Centrostephanus coronatus) out on top of a rock. I couldn't believe it when I noticed small clouds of white being emitted from between its spines! It, too, was spawning... a first for Ruth and me.

For several years I spent my winters in the Sea of Cortez working as a marine biologist and underwater videographer for Lindblad Expeditions, I was diving Isla San Francisco near La Paz on Christmas Day back in 2003 when I noticed "smoke" in the water. Following the plume down I located the origin... a brown sea urchin! At first I thought fire and wondered where I could find an extinguisher underwater. Then my rational mind kicked in and I realized the urchin was spawning. Then I looked around and noticed many of the other urchins were responding in kind. Now when is it my turn?

© 2014 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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Pink abalone spawning (see arrows); wavy top snail spawning and brown urchins from the Sea of Cortez spawning.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2014 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia