Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

015: Señoritas or Señors?

Señoritas are wrasses and therefore relatives of the sheephead and rock wrasse in our area, as well as the beautiful cleaner wrasses of the tropics. I've often wondered why they are called señoritas since half of them should be señors. I'm not aware of any sex changes in this species such as those that occur in sheephead.

This species is often described as cigar-shaped with a cylindrical body up to about 12" long. They are yellow, orange or brown in color with a dark spot on the tail fin. Their mouths are pointed and the teeth stick out, making them well-adapted as cleaner fish.

This species tends to prefer warmer water but can be found from northern California to south-central Baja. They expand or contract their range depending on prevailing water temperature (El Niños or cold water periods). During cold water periods they are most common south of Point Conception. They live near rocky reefs and kelp forests and are active during the day. As night approaches they either bury themselves in the sand or form mucus nets around them for protection.

Señorita mature after one year and may live as long as seven years. They spawn from March to October, releasing their eggs into the plankton where they drift as far as 150-300 miles from shore. The young settle nearshore and feed primarily on plankton and will pick food (small invertebrates) off algae as they grow.

Mature señoritas are often seen in their role as cleaner fish, like their relatives the rock wrasse. They will clean almost any fish from the rock wrasse itself to the giant black sea bass (what a feast that must be!) and bat ray. In addition to those hosts, I have observed señoritas cleaning garibaldi, blacksmith, giant kelpfish, halfmoon, opaleye, jack mackerel, and topsmelt as well as my camera (they love the fringes of the duct tape) and even my dive buddies!

While diving in the Dive Park, one often sees large clusters of blacksmith forming "balls" in midwater. If one looks closely, there is always a señorita in the middle of the ball. Usually these clusters form when a señorita stops to inspect a blacksmith for parasites to pick off its body and fins. Other blacksmith see this and rush over to get cleaned themselves. Eventually there are so many blacksmith vying for attention that the harassed señorita swims off... followed by the frustrated blacksmith (yes, I know that's anthropomorphism but this isn't a scientific journal so I can get away with it).

Señoritas are often considered a nuisance by fisherman. I can remember reeling in my line many times only to find that a senorita had carefully picked the bait off the hook! There is no commercial fishery for this species, but I sometimes wonder how they'd taste on pizza... like anchovies, or like chicken? My favorite marine biologist, Ed "Doc" Ricketts (of Cannery Row fame) would probably try one if he were still alive. I prefer Canadian bacon, pineapple and sausage myself.

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Señorita eyeing Dr. Bill in the Dive Park; señorita cleaning school of blacksmith;
señorita cleaning giant kelpfish; señorita cleaning garibaldi

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia