Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#204: Float Like a Butterfly(fish)!

Recently Captain Tony slid Scuba Luv's King Neptune into the little cove that once housed the crane at the Empire Landing quarry. I was thrilled for reasons I'll go into shortly. First, I've always wondered why people call this the "West End Quarry." While Empire Landing is closer to the "west end" of the island than the East End Quarry, I think most of us believe that the "West End" begins at the Isthmus at Two Harbors. Oh well, what's in a name. To quote Eluard, "a fish by any other name would still know the sea."

I quickly suited up while the rest of the divers received a site briefing. I was anxious to get in the water and search the artificial boulder "reef" here for a seldom seen but much loved fish, the scythe butterflyfish. Diving with this fish warms my innards in the otherwise cool waters of our temperate kelp forests. It takes me away to the tropical coral reefs I've dived in my travels... but in this case I need not pay the increasingly expensive airfare to get to them. Although most would hardly equate butterflies with the ocean, Cassius Clay (later Mohammed Ali) did say "float like a butterfly" (fortunately these fish don't "sting like a bee.")

I have written two previous columns about this fish, but its uniqueness makes it worth another. This species is the only member of the generally tropical butterflyfish family (Chaetodontidae) in our waters. Southern California is the northernmost part of its range, and it is uncommon at best here. It is more common as one travels south to Baja, the Sea of Cortez, Central America and even the Galapagos off South America. Unless airfares take a drastic dip (unlikely), the Galapagos may have to remain on my life list to dive... forever.

I entered the water quickly and swam immediately to the boulder reef created by quarry rock. Years ago Ron Moore had told me to look for this species at roughly the forty-foot range. In the past his advice had served me well. I slowly swam at that depth in the direction of Empire Landing itself . My "eagle eyes" were peeled, searching for a flash of yellow that would signal the presence of these somewhat reclusive fish. On and on I swam with no luck, passing areas I had seen them in previous years.

Finally after 35 minutes I met with success... a single individual swimming out in the open right in front of me. By slowly approaching it, I was able to get some good sequences before it headed into a little "cave" in the boulders for protection. Although well into my dive, I patiently waited for it to re-emerge, which it did. After spending some time with it, I decided I'd better turn around and work my way back to the King Neptune. I didn't want to over-extend my stay underwater and throw them off schedule.

As I swam back, I noticed a few divers heading in the opposite direction so I knew I had plenty of time left. I encountered four more individuals including what may have been a pair. It has been said that butterflyfish mate for life (humans should show such fidelity), although the scientific verdict is not 100% behind that. These fish remained within the little "caverns" formed in the spaces between the large boulders here. When they appeared in front of my camera, my video lights captured their beautiful yellow color without washing it out like the sun does when they are in the open.

I mentioned that this species, and its relatives, are common in the tropics and subtropics. However, that does not mean they are necessarily a warm water species. Like many of us kelp forest divers, they actually prefer colder waters (a bit hard to find this year)! In the warmer southern part of their range, they are found in deeper waters between 120 and nearly 500 feet. Our cooler waters off Catalina allow it to feel comfortable much nearer the surface. Good thing for me, and you my readers and TV viewers, since I couldn't sit for 35 minutes waiting for them to appear at those depths! Bet our butterflyfish are happy summer is coming to an end and the unusually warm (hot?) waters this year will begin to cool.

A few days ago we made a return trip to this dive site. There was little current so the kelp stood upright, exposing their hiding places. It took me little time to find their hiding places. However, this time there were "new" obstacles working against me in trying to film them. It seemed all the garibaldi in the area moved in to see what I was doing. I think they are just used to divers feeding them urchins they kill... a practice I am strongly against, at least in our waters. These @(*% fish kept swimming in front of my subjects or chased them back into their hiding places. Grrr. I'm beginning to think it should be legal to spear the little orange tyrants! Anyone have any recipes for garibaldi? Just teasing... I think.

© 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!

Scythe butterflyfish in their nooks and crannies in the boulder reef along the Empire Landing Quarry.

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