Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#203: Shortspined Combfish

After some 37 years of off-and-on diving Catalina, I've recently decided that I needed to increase my yield of species recorded on film... er, digital tape. Continually diving to my usual maximum depth of 100 feet resulted in seeing the same old species all the time... with an occasional surprise of course. I decided there were two ways to increase my "yield" on tape. The first was to dive new locations such as La Jolla Shores and other mainland sites ( as well as tropical destinations!). As I expand the distribution of my "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" cable television show, it will be important to feature more mainland dive sites to interest mainland divers. Of course for now the tropics are well out of my budget.

The other option while diving island locations on board Scuba Luv's King Neptune is to extend the range of my diving depths. About six months ago I started diving deeper than my usual 100 foot limit, and even beyond the 130 limit for most recreational certifications. I now dive frequently to depths in excess of 150 feet down to my absolute basement depth of 200 feet. Beyond this depth oxygen toxicity becomes an increasingly important factor, and I have no desire to tempt fate to that extent. In these depths I have seen a new set of species and ecological relationships dominate in the world beyond the kelp forest.

In August I experienced the thrill of locating a species I had never seen before on two dives at depths of about 180 feet off Goat Harbor. This is a truly "silent world" as first described by Jacques Yves Cousteau in his 1956 film of that name. While diving to these depths I saw and filmed a fish which initially confounded me. Superficially it looked like a flying gurnard, a tropical species I encountered during my diving in Belize two years ago. However the flying gurnard is the only member of its entire fish family, so what I saw was not related to it... or it was unknown to science. I resorted to Harvard classmate Al Gore's "invention," the Internet. I contacted another biologist diver and received a confirmation a few hours later. I had observed a shortspined combfish.

Now thanks to Lourdes and my new haircut, I had little need for a comb... but a combfish was a species I was totally unfamiliar with. No wonder... the SW Fisheries Division indicated that it is a species common in waters deeper than 200 feet... below my maximum depth while diving on air in my SCUBA tank. Perhaps when I master tri-mix or use a deep rebreather, I'll observe and film this species with greater frequency. For now I'm happy having had two encounters with them.

The shortspined combfish belongs in the combfish family. Its only local relative is the longspined combfish which is found in shallower waters. This species is known from southern Oregon to Bahia san Cristobal in central Baja California over soft sandy or mud bottoms. Although very small juveniles have been caught at depths exceeding 6,000 feet, the adults seem to be found on bottoms from 180 to 800 feet so I saw mine at the extreme upper limit of their vertical distribution. Large individuals may be 10" long and 10-11 years old with the largest almost always females.

Their bodies are slender and elongated, and covered with tiny scales giving them a rough feeling. Their dorsal spines are quite prominent and are marked with alternating dark and light bands. Since most of you will never see this species, at least in their natural habitat, you'll have to be satisfied with the pictures I've included.

The shortspined combfish prefers polychaete worms, but will also eat crustaceans including euphausids, isopods, mysid shrimp and amphipods as well as small fishes and fish eggs. In turn they are eaten by deep dwelling rockfish and other predators. When they are brought up to the surface in trawl nets, they assume a horseshoe shaped body posture and act as if they are in a trance.

This fish spawns in the fall and winter. The female lays demersal eggs, which stay on the bottom until they hatch. They then begin life as larvae drifting in the plankton, usually within about 50 miles of the coast. The larvae are most abundant in our waters from October until April.

© 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," "Belize It or Not: Western Caribbean Invertebrates, Fish and Turtles" or "Gentle Giants: Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Several shots of the shortspined combfish off Goat Harbor.

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