Searching for the Scythe

One of the things that I love doing is looking for unusual creatures in our local waters. And perhaps none is more elusive than the scythe butterfly.

When anyone first starts diving, the sights can be visually overwhelming. There are simply SO many fish it’s difficult, at first, to see who’s who. But as you dive more (and take a fish ID class and get a couple of fish books) you start to get on a first-name basis with our fish buddies.

Eventually, what happens is your mind starts to filter out the common everyday fish and you start to discover the gems that might otherwise remain hidden to your vision. A great example of this can be found in the goby family. Everyone’s probably seen our two most common species of goby: the blue-banded or Catalina goby and the black-eyed goby. But did you know there’s a third species of goby? That would be the zebra goby. They’re similar to the blue-banded but they’re also very shy.

However, if you go on a goby-quest and make a note to mentally filter out all the blue-banded and black-eyed gobies, you’ve probably got a good chance to seeing the zebra goby.

Which brings us to the scythe butterfly.

Normally this fish (and any butterfly) would be expected to be found in tropical (a.k.a. warmer) waters. But for some reasons, some of the fish have migrated up to our waters and taken up residence, presumably adapting the colder Southern California waters over time and/or generations of fish.

For years I’d heard stories about scythe butterflies but had never been able to see one. There were rumors of ones that lived at the base of Windowpane on San Clemente and at the base of Ship Rock on Catalina. But I’d never been fortunate enough to find any of them.

Then I started hearing rumors of scythe butterfly sightings at the Quarry on Catalina. This is a spot just south of the Isthmus, a fairly large cove that’s bordered by Blue Cavern on the north end, Sea Fan Grotto in the middle, the Quarry further down, and Yellowtail Point at the south end. And I was told there was a particular spot, near Crane Point, that seemed very promising.

So one day, on one of our Reef Seekers charters, we made a point to go to Crane Point with the specific goal (at least for me) of finding my elusive quest. And we told everyone on the boat what was going on, figuring that dozens of pairs of eyes were better than two. We also knew that in this area, the fish was being spotted around 30-40 feet deep, so that was the general search area.

I wasn’t the first one in the water, but as my buddy and I started the dive, we passed another buddy team coming back to the boat and they were gesturing wildly ahead of us and giving us a “OK” sign, which we took to mean that they had spotted the target.

Going a bit further ahead… lo and behold… a flash of yellow-and-black caught my eye as my first scythe butterfly darted under a rock overhang. Yahoo! A little patient stalking and some lucky prediction about where the creature would emerge and I was able to fire off a couple of shots.

And the point of all of this is to show that with a little research, a little knowledge of fish ID, an understanding of habitat, and some luck, you can probably spot just about anything that’s native to the area. All you’ve got to do is try.

In fact, the story repeated itself this past Chamber Day. I was on the Sea Bass and somehow the subject of scythe butterflies came up. Captain Drew Martz said he had seen one just south of Blue Cavern and did we want to try that spot? We said sure. We got out a Paul Humann’s excellent Pacific Coast fish ID book and showed everyone what we were looking for. We entered as a group (there were only six of us), descended, took a head count and—in an ending that seems straight out of a Hollywood script—I turned around to start the dive and… there he was: scythe butterfly. Yahoo!

So take a little time to learn our local fish. Seek out the common ones and search for the uncommon ones. Not only will you become a better diver in the process, but you’ll find the entire diving experience to be even more rewarding and fulfilling.

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