Monday, April 13, 2009
I recently was asked why California doesn’t have as many “cool-looking fish” as places like Hawaii or the Caribbean. That question surprised me, because I think the answer is very different!
I asked my friend to explain what she meant. She really liked the variety of shapes, sizes, oddities, and colors of fish from Hawaii or the Caribbean. For example: the long noses of butterflyfish, the brilliant pink and purple colors of anthias, and the playful clownfish who live among anemones (as seen to the right).
She felt that local fish were just browns, silvers, and grey colors. She pictured some rockfish and surfperch, which aren’t always brightly colored.
I had to agree with her, that fish found in Southern California waters are sometimes less brightly colored and more like a football or cigar shape. The reason for the difference is pretty interesting though.
In the warm tropical waters of Hawaiian reefs, there are lots of fish fighting for a limited amount of food in the same area. To survive, the different species of fish had to adapt to get food sources that other fish weren’t eating. This is one reason fish like the copperband butterflyfish grew long skinny noses. To get at food sources other fish couldn’t reach, inside cracks and crevices or among the long tentacles of other animals and coral.
The fish among these warm water reefs all congregate together and fight for food in the same confined areas. Remember, you’ll mainly find those fish around coral reefs, which are only found along warm water shores and islands - which are very few in the huge Pacific Ocean. Now let’s picture the cooler waters around Southern California, along Catalina and Los Angeles, for example, the picture below.
Here the waters are in a wide relatively shallow basin filled with fish like the African Serengeti is filled with a huge variety of animals. Food is plentiful here, the fish don’t have to fight quite as hard to eat. This is partly why many local fish are of a more “generic” look - the football shape and the duller toned colors. They didn’t have to adapt to find food so specifically like the copperband butterflyfish, since food was so plentiful.
However, the point I would like to make, is that our fish here can be just as brilliant looking and interesting as fish anywhere else in the world!
My two favorites, for example, are the Catalina goby and the Garibaldi. The Catalina goby is a brightly colored fish with complimenting colors of blue stripes and a reddish-orange body. It’s only found here in the Southern California waters and it is one of the prettiest colored fish you’ll ever see.
The Catalina goby (also sometimes called the blue banded goby) is a small fish, often no more than 2 inches long. They are bottom dwellers who live among the piles of rock and coral along the sea floor. You can often find them hanging out safely among the spines of sea urchins.
The Garibaldi is one of my favorite fish in the sea. It’s also the state marine fish of California. You’ll know when you see a Garibaldi - it’s neon orange color is impossible to miss! They can get to be about a foot long. They are a rough and tough species, known for their fearlessness. A male defending his nest will even strike at human divers to protect the eggs in the nest.
As a juvenile, Garibaldi are even more visually stunning. Their orange color is less bright than when they are adults, but they are spotted with sparkling blue dots. The color pattern is beautiful!
If you get the chance to visit us, you can find both these fish in the Southern Baja California Gallery of the Aquarium of the Pacific. They are just an example of some of the bright colors and various shapes and sizes of fish you can find here in Southern California. A few others you can spot at the Aquarium of the Pacific or in the waters offshore are the male California sheephead - a cool red and black guy, the halibut - a flat fish that lives on the sea floor, and the immense giant sea bass.
Don’t be fooled by the plentiful surfperch and other fish you find along our California shores. Those fish are beautiful in their own right (and a great food source for other fish in the sea), but we also have an interesting variety of colors, shapes, and sizes to match anything found elsewhere in the world! Keep your eyes open for all the jewels of our shores!
I’d also like to extend a special thanks to those members of the Aquarium of the Pacific pool on Flickr.com who allowed their photos to be used in this article: froitrish01, Jazzie B., and .Mike Photos.
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