Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#712: The Big Not-So-Bad Wolf

Since I'm not diving yet, I'm going to write a column about a fish I've never seen before. I'm talking about a wolffish known as the wolf eel (Anarrhichthys ocellatus). My dive friends in San Diego see it as do other friends up in the Pacific Northwest. Despite descending to depths of 200 fsw off the island, I've never laid eyes on a single one.

Wolfies may be one of the ugliest fish encountered on SCUBA Perhaps that's why I've never seen one since I look for the natural beauty beneath the sea... especially the mermaids. Hmmm, come to think of it, that's another species I have yet to encounter. Wolfies are often found hiding in caves and crevices on rocky reefs down to depths in excess of 1,000 ft. from the Sea of Japan and the Aleutian Islands down to our neck of the woods, southern California and northern Baja. Down here they are usually not found in shallow water.

Wolf eels differ from true eels due to the presence of pectoral fins and paired gill slits. The adults look like they were blasted or chiseled out of gray rock but the juveniles are orange in color. Some adults may be reddish brown or even white.Their species name ocellatus refers to the dark spots often seen on their bodies. Although they have a mouthful of teeth that an orthodontist would love access to, they are rarely aggressive but can crunch down on your fingers. Wolfies may live 25 years, reach nearly eight feet in length and weigh over 40 pounds.

Usually they use their teeth to chow down on sea urchins, sand dollars, mussels and clams, crushing them in their strong jaws. They will also munch on crustaceans, snails, octopus and fish. Rockfish, kelp greenlings and harbor seals will eat wolfies. Native people in the Pacific Northwest called this sacred fish the "doctorfish" but only medicine men were allowed to eat the sweet white flesh which was reported to increase their healing powers. Hmmm... maybe the good Dr. Bill should try some "doctorfish."

Some sources state wolf eels are mostly monogamous, but Dr. Milton Love says pairs may last for months to a few years. The male and female are often paired up in the same hiding place. At about age seven the female begins laying eggs numbering up to 10,000 as she ages. She curls around the egg mass, and uses her body to create a spherical mass about the size of a grapefruit. The male then curls around her for protection. Tending the eggs involves ensuring water circulation to bring fresh oxygen until they hatch about four months later.

The larvae get to see the world for a while, developing in the water column and feeding on animal plankton. As they get larger they adopt a free-swimming life in the mid-depths of the ocean that may last two years. Once they begin maturing, they settle to the sea bed looking for a suitable place to hide as well as a mate. I've tried going there for one myself, but the mermaids always flee before I see them.

© 2016 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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Wolf eels from the Pacific Northwest (images courtesy of my friend Bruce Bray).

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