Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#188: What Turns You On?
(Orangethroat Pikeblenny)

Extreme sports seem to be getting more popular every day, especially among my son Kevin's generation. I'm not referring to backgammon or tiddlywinks here, but "insane" pursuits like sky diving, base jumping, mountain climbing without ropes, and driving the 101 Freeway. Perhaps it's a matter of aging, or as I prefer to call it maturing, but the idea of risking my life doing some of those things is beyond my comprehension. Of course there are those who feel SCUBA diving is an extreme sport. I prefer to think of it as (relatively) inexpensive therapy and a way to encounter some of Mother Nature's incredible beauty.

So what turns me on? Well, I won't go "there" today. I'm thinking, or at least writing, strictly in terms of diving in this week's column. I get excited when I encounter a "new" species, or observe (and hopefully record on video) a behavior in a common species that I've never seen before. I had one of those experiences while diving a short time ago on the King Neptune. For 37 years I've wanted to see a species that had eluded me... the orangethroat pikeblenny. Other divers had seen it and taken nice pictures of it. Dr. Bill had not. What kind of an "ex spurt" could I be?

We stopped at Hen Rock, a site that has increasingly become a favorite of mine... but not for the beautiful rocky reef and kelp forest. For the past 2-3 months I've been diving the sandy bottom there and discovering a lot of interesting critters. This time I was planted on the sand at about 50 ft. filming a speckled sanddab when a slight movement caught my eye. There, just about a foot away, was the head of a small fish sticking out of the sand watching me. I slowly moved my camera into place and started filming.

As the camera rolled, the slender 6" long pikeblenny slowly came out of its tube, swam over less than a foot, captured a small invertebrate and returned, tail first, to its worm hole burrow. Yes... I even got munching behavior of this species on my first try! I was definitely excited, but kept my breathing relaxed to conserve my air. Unfortunately my video light had failed on me the first dive and I could not capture any of the real color of the fish. It came out mostly green as would be expected at depth in plankton rich water. But it came out and I was thrilled.

It took 37 years to find my first pikeblenny, but only a day to find my second! The next afternoon I dropped down into the same area and it didn't take long to locate a pikeblenny swimming slowly just above the sand. When I started filming, it exhibited some great behavior. It kept probing the sandy bottom with its tail, apparently looking for an empty worm tube it could withdraw into for safety. It needn't worry... filet of pikeblenny is not on my menu (just take a look at the images and you'll see why). Eventually it found one and backed right in. Its head extended out of the tube, and I could see it was watching me. Eventually it must have felt safe despite my presence, and it wandered out over the sand again in search of munchies.

When I went to research this column, I was surprised to find my favorite book on California fish, Dr. Milton Love's Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast, did not include a section on it. Time to turn to the Internet. This is the only pikeblenny found in our region, so identifying it is pretty easy (even without my glasses). They range from Anacapa Island to Banderas Bay, Mexico, and the Gulf of California making them a subtropical species. Given my minimum water temperature of 51 degrees F, I hardly felt subtropical during that week's diving. New records of this and other warm water species have been noted in our region during El Nino events.

Pikeblennies live in worm tubes on sandy bottoms at depths down to 75 feet. Given that habitat description, Hen Rock is a perfect place to spot them. I wondered why I had never found one before. Perhaps it is time to put prescription lenses into my dive mask. Some members of this species are unfortunate enough to reside in household marine aquaria since they are actively collected commercially for that purpose. At least they have more space relative to their size than the gargantuan whale sharks in the new Atlanta Aquarium.

Both individuals I observed were females. The males have a higher dorsal fin and exhibit the brighter orange throat. Since the "boys" are "where the girls are," I expect to run into a few in the future to film. Apparently the pikeblennies in southern California have been designated as a separate subspecies from the ones in Mexican waters. Through my research I discovered the "type locality," the site where this subspecies was first collected and described in 1957, was in our very own Avalon Bay. I'll have to keep an eye out for them on the next Catalina Conservancy Divers Avalon Harbor Clean-Up.

© 2006 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. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, " "Playful Pinnipeds: California Sea Lions," or "Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

The orangethroat pikeblenny watching from its burrow and swimming in the open to locate food.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia