Marine Life Identification

Spiny Skinned and Symmetrical: California’ s Sea Urchins

My introduction to sea urchins — on my first scuba dive — was a learning experience. I learned how easily their sharp, brittle spines pierce human skin. Most importantly, I learned to avoid contact with sea urchins, which is easy because the animals are sedentary, slow moving and not aggressive. Sea urchins are classified as Echinodermata, which means “spiny skinned”. The 6,000-member phylum also includes sea stars, brittle stars, sea lilies and sea cucumbers.  Five is a magic number when it comes to echinoid body […]

Aggregating Anemones: Gangsters of the Sea?

Imagine what Hollywood would do with a film about anemones. Take aggregating anemones for example. They are relatively small, but these carnivores are well armed and can be surprisingly aggressive toward their neighbors, so you might imagine they’d be cast in a gangster movie — with lots of special effects like fiery explosions and crash scenes. Their tentacles can fire venomous miniature harpoons that repel potential predators including anemones unlike themselves. Mother Nature is perfect for the “good cop” role of peace negotiator. In real […]

Giant Sea Bass: Are They Really Back From the Brink?

My first giant sea bass encounter occurred off San Nicolas Island in the 1970s. I sensed something overhead and looked up. A gigantic Goodyear blimp hovered over me.  A cartoon I‘d seen recently popped into my head. Two large fish were face to face. A scuba diver’s legs and fin-clad feet protruded from the puckered mouth of one wearing a sour expression. The other fish was saying, “I told you to peel them first.” I was a new diver and didn’t know if giant sea […]

Swell Sharks

What can I say? I am a sucker for cute and interesting faces underwater (other than divers, of course). And fortunately, for California underwater photographers we have many. But for me, I am especially drawn to our bottom dwelling sharks, specifically horn sharks and swell sharks. What fascinating faces! Of these two sharks I find the swell sharks to have the most interesting faces. Especially striking is the metallic golden colored eyes. Their flat heads spread out their funny “smiles” underneath. “Nostrils” just above the […]

Bat Rays

One fine summer day years ago, a friend and I took a small boat to a shallow cove off Anacapa, hoping to photograph the large number of bat rays that had gathered there. To avoid spooking the rays, my friend advised me to “slither” into the water as silently as possible. He slipped in first and I followed.  Perhaps our technique needed work. First one, then another, then all of the rays — and there were a lot of them — rose from the bottom […]

Nudis and Branchers

Ever see pictures of a critter that seems to have evolved from that box where all the holiday decorations are stored? Chances are you’re looking at a nudibranch.  Nudibranchs (sometimes affectionately called “nudis”) are members of the opisthobranchs, also known as sea slugs. The name nudibranch literally means “naked gill.” Their body shape ranges from oval to long and tapered. All have some form of rhinophores; think rabbit ears, on their front end. Projections of varying heights may be present on the back.  A group […]

Thornback Rays

I couldn’t believe my luck. I had just reached the bottom at 20 feet and was cruising toward the kelp forest in deeper water when I saw a prehistoric looking creature lounging on the sand. It was light brown, with a distinctive flat, heart shaped head and a long tail. There were three rows of spines on its back. The animal, which reminded me of an armored vehicle, was a thornback.  The creature tolerated having its photo taken for several minutes before moving on. (Yes, […]

Encounters with Pacific Electric Rays Can Be Shocking — But They Don’t Have to Be

Last August, a Pacific electric ray sought out the company of divers on more than one dive on Farnsworth Bank’s high spot. While this didn’t happen to me, it did to several people on my trip. They had photos and video of the ray hovering a few feet away from a diver in a relaxed and nonaggressive way.  While doing internet research in November, I found another report of a ray/diver encounter at Farnsworth that took place several months after my trip. This behavior is […]

Chestnut Cowries

Some shells must be cleaned and polished to reveal their jewel-like qualities, while others are perfect gems just as they are found in the ocean. One of the most beautiful shells found in California is the chestnut cowry, and this shell needs no work to show off its inner beauty. Cowries, in general, and chestnut cowries, specifically, have such stunning beauty that they are both enjoyed by divers and prized by collectors. The chestnut cowry is found from Monterey to Isla Cedros, Baja California. They […]

A Giant (Rock Scallop) Mystery

An ex-boyfriend once complained: “I’ve never met a woman who asked so many questions!” At the time, of course, he was trying to avoid answering one. What can I say? The mysteries of life intrigue me. One of them involves the giant rock scallop (Crassadoma gigantea). Everything I’ve read says they have orange mantles but that’s not always the case. Some have black mantles; others have dark green, cream or beige. I know this because I have at least 80 photographs of scallops taken in […]

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