Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

031: Cabezon

As I prepare to return to the warmer waters of the Gulf of California, I reflect on my last few dives in our waters off Catalina. Actually the temperature (59 degrees) is warmer than it was when I left in December, if only by a degree. Despite these relatively comfortable conditions, some of our colder water winter residents have returned to the shallows of the Casino Dive Park. One I videotaped extensively on a recent dive is the cabezon ("big head" in Spanish).

Cabezon are large (up to 30") members of the sculpin family and may live up to 13 years (an unlucky fish?). This species is found from Alaska to central Baja, living on hard bottoms to as deep as 360+ feet. They are scale-less and of brown, red or green color with darker mottling. With greater than 90% probability, one can tell the reddish males from the greenish females, although juveniles may be bright red. I hope the cabezon themselves can distinguish one another's sex 100% of the time, if only to ensure this species continues!

Females mature at 3-5 years old and produce about 50,-100,000 eggs per season which peaks from October to April here in southern California. They may spawn more than once during that period in nests on the surface of rocks. The males guard the nests until the eggs hatch into planktonic larvae which drift within 50 miles of shore until they settle as small fish, largely in tidepools. Here the young feed on small crustaceans like shrimp and crabs. Adults feed on larger crabs, fish, octopi and other molluscs. According to Dr. Milton Love of UCSB, the adults are able to knock abalone off rocks, eat them whole and spit out the shell. I guess they don't believe in pounding and breading them first. In turn, cabezon are eaten by sea otters and marine birds including cormorants.

The cabezon is an important sport fish. Although their flesh is blue, probably due to copper compounds in their shellfish food, the color disappears on cooking. They are occasionally sold through commercial markets when caught as bycatch. Cabezon bones have been unearthed in the middens of Native American. The eggs of this species are poisonous to birds, humans and other mammals. No cabezon caviar for me (what starving marine biologist can afford caviar anyway?)!

I find cabezon to be very interesting fish to observe both here in winter and in the colder waters of the northern Channel Islands year-round. They often allow me to approach very closely for good shots of their eyes and the unusual flaps of skin above them (and on their snouts). These fish are so ugly that I doubt even their mothers could love them, but for some strange reason they seem to make excellent photographic subjects. Beauty is in the mind of the beholder (if only the women I meet had similar tastes, I might not be single).

I will miss seeing more of this unusual species here in the Dive Park this winter. However, duty calls me once more to the warmer waters of the Gulf of California. On this set of Lindblad Expedition cruises we will spend several days each trip in Magdalena Bay enjoying close contact with the grey whales in their calving grounds. In addition to being a mammal, I have more in common with that species- we both go south for the winter while the cabezon simply comes up into the shallows... not much for travel I guess.

© 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: Cabezon: the faces even a mother couldn't love

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