Playing with Garibaldi

When I have guests over to the house I often find myself showing off my dumb dog George and the few silly tricks I have managed to teach him. On command he will sit up, come, stay, roll over, dance on his hind legs, and even speak.

Did you know you can get a garibaldi to stand on its nose? How would you like to get one to “speak” to you? A bit more coercion and they will freeze and be a perfect model for the camera.

Perhaps more than any other fish in Southern California, the garibaldi is the most recognized, not just for its abundance and bright orange color but also for its antics underwater. It is a fun fish that can make any dive special.

The garibaldi is the California State Marine Fish, not to be mistaken for the California State Fish which is the Golden Trout. As such, the fish is fully protected. No spearing, catching, etc. Protection from spearfishing came decades ago, in a cause lead by spearfishers, to protect the colorful animals from, well, mainly themselves and their total lack of fear of divers. These diving pioneers recognized long ago that the garibaldi without protection would be quickly wiped out by indiscriminate spearfishers. Complete protection (from aquarium collection) came just a few years ago.

The laws don’t say anything about harassment, but we all know that we should not harass marine life anyway. The issue here is 1) trying to keep the garibaldi from harassing us and 2) if they are going to follow us, let’s have fun anyway. Garibaldi are fiercely territorial, more so in certain times of the year than others.

Spring through summer the garibaldi go into their spawning cycle. During this time the males stake out prime real estate, farm red algae in a patch two to three feet in diameter, and guard it from all intruders. This is his nest in which he will attract the female to lay eggs, fertilize them, and then guard until they mature and hatch. During this processes is when you can have the most fun.

Simply approaching the nest will send the male garibaldi into a tizzy. Too close and the garibaldi will take on a confronting posture, head down. Often it will click from its throat. If you put an object into the nest, it will go nuts trying to remove it. If that object is your finger, watch out! You might get bit!

You can illicit a similar response from a garibaldi even if a nest is not present. A bright orange glove worn on the hand and flipped through the water will almost always start a confrontation. It works better in the spring and summer and in shallow. You can get garibaldi to come in from quite far away using this method. You can also often get them to pose just as you’d like with specific hand movements. Pointing your fingers down imitates the confrontation behavior of the fish and the approaching fish will do the same.

Snap your fingers. This imitates the throat clicking and will frequently generate interesting responses. Carry a small mirror in your pocket, set it up in the garibaldi’s proximity and watch the fun. They will sometimes confront their own image over and over. To avoid accidental breakage, use a metal or plastic camping mirror available at most sporting goods stores.

Something I avoid doing is feeding the fish. The common practice of breaking up urchins puts a lot of debris in the water, which messes up photos. Also, I question the ethics of destroying one animal so another animal’s behavior can be altered. And the fish become focused on just one thing — eating, which is not very interesting. Some divers choose to bring other food, such as stale bread or frozen peas, in the water with them. Again, this is not the best choice as these are not the garibaldi’s natural foods.

Odds are your Southern California diving this summer will take place with garibaldi around. Try a few tricks to play on the behavior of these colorful fish and your dive will be that much more enjoyable.

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