Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#614: The "Big Head" Is Back

On two of my recent dives in the dive park, I encountered an infrequent member of the local ecological community. On the second of the two dives, it was just him and me in the park... alone except for billions and billions of fish, invertebrates and seaweed. I like it when I have the park to myself... but I also like it when there are lots of lovely lady-go-divers (get it?) there too. Heck, I like it when there are lots of divers period since it is a great opportunity to socialize with folks that live "over there" on the "Big Island." You know, in places like Lost Angeles and Sandy Eggo.

Oops, I got sidetracked as usual. Who was this other critter in the park with me. Well, I'll give you a hint... he has a big head. No, I'm not suggesting he has a massive ego like me, just a pretty good sized cabeza. See, I know more Spanish than you thought. After all, one of my favorite songs has been "Spanish is The Loving Tongue" ever since I heard it performed by Ian & Sylvia back in the 60s! You may have heard Bob Dylan or EmmyLou Harris sing it. Although I only sing it in the shower, some day I hope to sing it to "mi amore, mi corazon" (if I ever find her)!

Oh, the species I'm referring to is the cabezon (Scorpaenichthys marmoratus). They reach a maximum length of 39 inches and may weigh as much as 25-30 pounds. These members of the sculpin family (Cottidae) are known from SE Alaska to central Baja California, Mexico. Although the youngsters may be found in tidepools, the wiser old cabezon seek deeper water around rocky reefs, seaweed and I've seen a number of them out on oil rigs when I dive there.

Youngsters tend to feed on small crustaceans but as they age, they prefer to "supersize" their meals. Crabs, shrimp and lobster become some of their delicacies along with fish, fish eggs, snails including smaller abalone, bivalves such as clams, octopus and squid. Predators attack them from the air (eagles and cormorants) and beneath the waves (rockfish, other sculpins and even great white sharks). However, if they are lucky, they may live nearly 20 years. Some say that males are mostly reddish in color while females are green. There is some dispute about this among ichthyologists (fishy people) but if true, the one I saw recently was a male.

Although they are good eating and many were caught by the Native Americans, they are scale-less so I assume they would not be kosher for those of the Jewish faith. Although Dr. Milton Love reports they taste great (but are not less filling?), others may not wish to partake due to the bluish color of the muscle tissue. The color is due to a pigment known as biliverdin. Personally I prefer red meat or white flesh (with turkey and chicken), but I am partially color blind. Early commercial fishermen could not sell them due to the color, but anglers now seek them out.

This encounter reminded me of last December, although the water was quite warm for this time of year. I wasn't with the family so I decided to do a nice long dive in the park to enjoy a White Christmas... thanks to all the squid eggs lying on the bottom over in Descanso Bay. I wasn't disappointed... and this kind of "snow: didn't involve either freezing temperatures (unless you consider 59 F unbearably cold) or a need to shovel the darned stuff! Visibility was great at about 60 feet and I noticed several patches of white on the reef while heading out. At first I thought it might be a sponge left partially eaten by a turtle, but we don't have sponges that big in the shallows and no turtles had been sighted here around that time.

As I approached with camera rolling, I noticed something off to the side of the white patches. The viewfinder afforded me just a tiny image so I took the camera away from my face and, lo and behold, there sat a cabezon. It took a few nannoseconds before things clicked in my brain, but I quickly realized it was a male cabezon guarding its nest of eggs. Yep, just like the garibaldi and giant kelpfish, the male risks life and limb to guard the youngsters while the female swims off to feed and cavort. Hope the ladies of our species aren't reading this week's column too closely!

As you can see from the images, the eggs are laid in large batches and it appears that a single male can mate with more than one lady friend based on the batches I saw in this nest over time. I'm generally monogamous and refuse to guard the eggs myself (although I enjoy playing with my granddaughters)! The poor male watches over them for about a month or more. The eggs which may be of several different colors are toxic and are generally not consumed by potential predators. Once they hatch, the youngsters drift with the plankton in the ocean currents and see the world for 3-4 months before settling down. I'll bet the male is glad to see them depart!

© 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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Recently sighted cabezon and one a year ago guarding nest;
cabezon with bluish-green eggs and a cluster of fresh white eggs.

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