I've been out of the water so long that it is hard for me to remember all the critters I used to pal around with in Davy Jones' Locker. Every so often one flashes into my meager memory and I go "oh yah." This afternoon it was the somewhat skittish local member of the tilefish family. No relation to the beautiful Catalina tile that used to be produced on our island, but then it wouldn't be a proper subject for one of my columns. Tilefish are often called blanquillo in other parts of the world.
I'm thinking of the ocean whitefish (Caulolatilus princeps). I hadn't seen many of these the past few years and have speculated they may have gone deeper during our warm water episode. However their geographic range from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, down to Chile suggests warm water should not pose a problem. In fact Dr. Milton Love says they are especially common in the waters off central and southern Baja.
They may grow to lengths of over a yard and weigh close to 14 pounds. Their bodies are fusiform which means they taper at both ends. Although most of the ones I have seen in the dive park are whitish in color, they can be brown or tan on the upper side with white bellies. I have seen darker ocean whitefish on my dives at night, but don't know if this was an artifact of my video lights or a true nocturnal color change. The dorsal and anal fins are very elongated and all fins may show a touch of yellow or even blue.
Most ocean whitefish I observe have been over soft bottoms, especially sand. I rarely see them swim very far up in the water column. The fish I've watched are bottom feeders and are quite messy eaters. They dive headfirst into the sand to grab a mouthful. Then they "winnow" the contents, dribbling sand grains and debris out the mouth and swallowing any tasty morsel mixed with it. You know, delicacies like worms and clams. However Milton Love indicates they will also feed mid-water on fish, squid and coelenterates or on crabs, shrimp, octopus, scallops, etc.
Usually the ones I see are swimming solo, although occasionally I see aggregations of them. Since they can't simply clone themselves, it will take at least two of them to reproduce. Dr. Milton Love mentions interesting studies that indicate females have been captured with ripe eggs during the warmer months. However, there doesn't seem to be any actual reproduction here in SoCal. No larvae have been found in our waters.
Are the males on strike? Why would they do something stupid like that? Dr. Love suggests that the reproductive failure here in SoCal may mean that all our whitefish (and the ones further north?) may be arriving from south of the border where larvae are observed regularly. They could swim here as adults, especially during north-flowing currents that occur during El Niño events. Perhaps the water here is below the minimum necessary for procreation... but isn't it when it's cold that critters of both genders like to cuddle?
I have heard many suggestions that one should not eat ocean whitefish because they, like many other tilefish, are bottom feeders. Ingesting sediments increases the chance that toxic materials may also enter the digestive tract. However, whitefish are common in Mexican fish markets and Milton's excellent (and very heavy) guide to the fish on our coast indicates that whitefish were eaten both by the native peoples and by early residents of southern California. Of course this was before the EPA was around to warn us... and Trump's pick for head of that agency, Scott Pruitt, better leave well enough alone! Oops, a mild political rant from me. Do you want to know how I really feel? I didn't think so.
© 2017 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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Tilefish displaying elongated fins and one mid-water; feeding on soft bottom habitats and a darker individual filmed at night.
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Dr. Bill Bushing.
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