Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#320 Have You Spotted the Spotted Kelpfish?

The past two weeks have been a wonderful example of how to survive a southern California "winter." I spent the past weekend basking in the sun at the dive park talking to the many diver friends who had come out. In fact, I enjoyed the warmth (both weather-wise and personal) so much that I never even donned my new wetsuit and took a dive. Of course the current state of both the global, and my personal economy and the $6 cost of filling my tank for an hour of sheer enjoyment were also factors. Besides, until I can rob our local bank enough times to scrape up the $350 to buy a new battery for my underwater video lights, there aren't many subjects I can film effectively.

Although I haven't been diving since a great dive with new buddy Annie the previous weekend, I have been "immersed" in editing my old video footage into new DVDs and episodes for my proposed cable TV show. My current projects include an episode on our giant kelp and two on the Clinids. No, these are not alien residents of another planet. The clinid family includes some of my favorite fishies... the giant kelpfish and its "lesser" relatives, and the orangethroat pikeblenny. I've already written about the giant and island kelpfish and the pikeblenny so my "victim" this week will be the smaller kelpfishes of the scientific genus Gibbonsia.

One well-respected and current field guide states that there are four small kelpfish in this genus. They are the striped, spotted, crevice and scarlet kelpfish. However another highly regarded field guide states that the deep water reddish fish formerly called the scarlet kelpfish are actually just a variant of the crevice kelpfish. Personally I have difficulty telling them apart anyway. Fortunately I am told by the experts that it is hard to do so without a microscope. I have enough problems carrying my video camera underwater and don't have a spare arm to take a microscope with me! The distinguishing features relate to the nature of the rays in their fins and whether there are scales present on the tail or its base. I'll leave such detailed investigations to those biologists still imprisoned deep within the belly of museums and laboratories where they rarely see the ocean... or even the light of day.

The geographic ranges of two of the three species extend from up in British Columbia down into Baja California. The most restricted range seems to be that of the one I most commonly see, the spotted kelpfish. It is known from Point Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle down to Magdalena Bay on the Pacific side of Baja. The maximum depth ranges of these species go from a mere 30 feet to 185 feet where the spotted kelpfish may be seen on occasion.

All three species frequent rocky reefs, especially those with adequate nooks and crannies to hide in. They prefer reefs with significant growth of smaller seaweeds which they often hide among. For this reason they are not always easily noticed. Coloration may be highly variable, allowing them to camouflage with their surroundings for defense. Some individuals are uniform in color, others striped, some are spotted and others have less distinct blotches. In the crevice kelpfish, colors can be quite variable and be linked to the depth they are living at. Individuals found in shallower water range from brown to reddish brown, gray or lavender. Those below about 65 feet are more often red, scarlet or pink.

The one I see most frequently, at least when I think I can determine the species, is the spotted kelpfish. I often see them hiding in the algal turf often in the surge zone where they are bounced back-and-forth sometimes mercilessly. Of course when I try to film them, I am experiencing the same motion... and my footage is often rendered unviewable by the washing machine action.

These three small kelpfish have a maximum size of between 4 1./2 to 9 1/2 inches. The spotted kelpfish has one to three spots on its upper sides, usually one above the pectoral fin and the other towards the tail. The pectoral fin itself is longer than in the other species, extending almost to the anal fin. Body coloration may be gray to tan, brown, maroon or green. In addition there may be barred, striped or blotched markings on the body.

Now I don't know much about their sex life. It appears most other marine biologists don't either as I've seen little written about it. I guess they just keep those intimate aspects private. I do too... but that's because mine are non-existent! It is known that the males guard the eggs, which are attached to the algae. This is consistent with its relatives the giant kelpfish and orangethroat pikeblenny. The females are free to frolic, leaving the poor male with the task of guarding and defending the eggs. I am quite relieved that although I have gills, I am not a clinid!

Over the past three years divers, and our native fish, have had to contend with the growing infestation of the exotic Japanese Sargassum filicinum which has invaded our waters and now extends from one end of the island to the other on the leeward coast. Giant kelpfish often use the smaller native kelps to hide in and build their nests in. However, I rarely see them using the Sargassum for those purposes. This invasive Sargassum overgrows everything in its path and completely swamps out the smaller algae that the spotted and other small kelpfish use.

No scientific studies of the effects of this Sargassum on our various kelpfish species has been conducted to my knowledge. However I can speculate that the impact, at least during the colder months when the exotic alga is most obvious, may be significant. I should develop that speculation into a scientific hypothesis and write a grant for a few million to fund the study. Then I could easily afford the $6 to fill my SCUBA tanks and dive with the frequency I have over the past decade. I'll have to include funding for a research assistant as well. Hmmm....

© 2009 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 and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Can you "spot" it (upper left)? Kelpfish in the genus Gibbonsia among the algal turf jungle.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia