Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#322 A Giant... Among the Clinids

Despite the fact that I finally purchased a new wetsuit to replace my religious one (you know, the "holy' wetsuit I've been diving with for many years), I've really spent little time underwater recently. Since I now pay for the air in my tanks, thanks to the "economy" (or lack thereof) I have to conserve my meager financial resources so I can afford food... especially my favorite "health food," pan dulce from Vons. For many of us, the greed and lack of discipline in both investment and other banks, and too many in the general public, has diminished our own resources. However, there is another reason I'm not getting wet as often. I've been editing the past eight years of underwater footage into more episodes for my proposed "Munching & Mating in the Macrocystis" cable TV show and my growing collection of DVDs on marine life. After all, I have to pay the mortgage somehow!

My latest episode is on the fish family known as the clinids. You may know them better as the kelpfish, pikeblennies and fringeheads. If these names aren't familiar to you, I strongly suggest you buy my next DVD. Heck, why not buy all of them while you're at it! One of my favorite species in this fish family is the giant kelpfish. Some call this fish the iodine fish, butterfish or kelp blenny but I don't. Its common name "giant" may originate from the fact that, at a maximum size of about 24" (but more commonly less than 16"), it is much larger than its other kelpfish relatives. Females tend to live longer and reach a larger size than the males. However, many believe that the name derives from the "giant kelp" (Macrocystis) that is often its favorite habitat.

Clinids all have long dorsal fins on top that usually begin just behind the head and extend to just in front of the tail. The giant kelpfish can be distinguished from its relatives due to its forked rather than rounded tail. Like other kelpfish they have flattened, almost eel-like bodies. Their swimming motion is described as anguilliform or "eel like." Their heads are also flattened with long pointed snouts.

The giant kelpfish is a common species in southern California. It can also be found south to Cabo San Lucas and north into British Columbia, but it is much rarer in its southern and northern range. They have been observed down to 132 feet, just past the depth limit for recreational SCUBA divers. You often see these fish locked onto a kelp plant with their bodies matching the orientation of the giant kelp blades. This often renders them nearly invisible... unless you have eagle eyes like Dr. Bill! Giant kelpfish also frequent other kelps including the southern sea palm, various red algae and even the obnoxious exotic Japanese kelp Sargassum filicinum that appeared in our dive park three years ago.

Because they may be found against backgrounds of varying color, the giant kelpfish has the ability to change both color and the pattern of stripes and blotches on its body. Females posses the ability to adaptively camouflage better than the males. They may be observed in shades of yellow, yellow-green, green, green-brown, red-brown, brown and lavender with varying patterns of blotches, bars and spots produced by the dark pigment melanin. Males are much more limited in color, and can't achieve red or true green. I find this interesting since it is the male who tends the egg nest rather than the female.

Giant kelpfish are sexually mature at a length of about 7-8 inches and just over one year old. They reportedly spawn year-round, but mating activity peaks off Catalina from January to May. The male establishes a territory which they defend. They then entice females into the algal nest to lay their pink to greenish eggs in numbers as high as 1,200. These eggs have tiny threads extending from their surface which allow them to attach to the alga. Dr. Milton Love states that only one female lays eggs in the nest, but I have observed several cases here in our dive park in which multiple females are enticed into the nest to lay eggs. Each female may spawn several times during the year.

Women's liberation appears to have been perfected by several fish species including the giant kelpfish, its smaller relatives and the garibaldi. Once they have laid their eggs, the female is free to leave and frolic in the kelp forest. The poor male is stuck with the child rearing duties for as long as 17 days. When the eggs hatch, the larvae drift in the plankton for a relatively brief two weeks. They then settle in shallow (5-30 foot) water during the spring and summer. Due to their tiny size and vulnerability to predators, they school with others for protection. When the little ones reach about 2-3" after 2-4 months, they develop their adult coloration and begin a largely solitary life. I knew there was a reason I identified with these interesting fish!

However, they do not share my love of pan dulce. Instead, they prefer crustaceans such as shrimp, mysids and amphipods; molluscs and small fish including kelp perch, senorita and clingfish. That's not very kosher of them since senoritas often clean kelpfish, removing parasites from their gill cavities and bodies. Speaking of kosher, giant kelpfish are so categorized by my friends in the Jewish community... along with garibaldi I might add. I have never spoken to a human who has eaten one (at least to my knowledge), but have heard that some fish for them. Since a mature fish may weigh only a pound before it is filleted, it is hardly a meal for a manly man like myself! More frequent predators include cormorants and terns.

© 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!

Red giant kelpfish female against red alga, green-brown giant kelpfish; brown striped male enticing brown
patterned female into nest, a Ménage à trois in the algal nest with a brown male and red and yellow females.

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