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Cool Critter Archives!

Bluebarred Prickleback

Photo and text ©2009 Ryan Silbernagel

On Jan. 31st, 2009, I was diving in front of the Yellow House in Hoodsport, WA (South Hood Canal) when I came across this cool guy. It was about 10pm and I started seeing these guys at 100' on the silt bottom evenly distributed about 15-20' apart. They were unresponsive to my light or me, and the only time one moved was when I got a little too close taking a picture (within a foot). It swam off quickly just to settle down 10' to 15' away from were it originally was. I had no idea what they were, so I snapped a picture. On this particular dive I saw about fifteen of them and all were beneath 100'. They were about 8" - 10" in length.

[Note, Rhoda Green also found one of these in South Hood Canal in 2007 - visit the archives for another view of this ultra cool and rarely-seen-by-divers fish]

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Showy Snailfish

Photo and text ©2009 Ed Gullekson

Attached is a photo I took last night at Alki Junkyard of a snailfish. I took the photo at 45 feet, about 6:45 PM. You can tell the size of the fish by the piece of eelgrass in the lower right corner of the photo. My camera is a Canon Powershot. [Note: Snailfish are extremely difficult to tell apart. The more common ones seen by divers are the Showy Snailfish and the Marbled Snailfish. While we think this is a Showy, it's always up for debate - Janna]

- Ed Gullekson

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Rex Sole

photo ©2009 David Jennings

On our first bi-weekly REEF survey of 2009, Rhoda Green and I chose one of the sites we often dive -- Les Davis. Based on the heavy rains the previous week and the high tidal exchange we selected a site that was less current sensitive and also had some depth to hopefully avoid having to dive by braille, by dropping below the low viz layer. This site has proved rewarding in the past for a wide variety of species. Looking into the water before the dive; it was pea soup. We could barely see the bottom even in the shallows. We ended up dropping down to about 80 feet and were slowly searching the silty bottom when I spotted this fellow. He was about 4 inches long, and holding very still. It was obvious from the get-go that it was a species that neither of us recognized. I was able to take a couple of photos before stirring up the silt.

- David Jennings and Rhoda Green

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High Cockscomb

Photo and text ©2009 Jennifer Collins

Since the pilings at Titlow are on the chopping block for removal sometime in the near future, I now bypass the ledges altogether and spend my dive surrounded by life in the "cathedral". After a leisurely, relaxing dive, my buddy and I were slowly making our way back to shore in the shallows poking around hoping to spot a Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker. Instead, I found the most unusual creature with a face only a mother could love. He was tucked into an old rusty pipe in about 8 feet of water. The prominent ridge on his forehead caught my eye as he lay completely motionless. After snapping a few pictures, I tried gently moving the pipe to see if I could get a better look at the mystery critter. He didn't even move a muscle, but I could see that he was around 7-8 inches long and about as fat around as a "Ball Park Frank". I watched him for several more minutes before continuing to shore.

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Photo and text ©2009 MaryJo Adams

I am accustomed to seeing tidepool sculpins, northern clingfish, and gunnels while tidepooling. I've even seen a longfin sculpin and a grunt sculpin in tidepools and plainfin midshipman under intertidal rocks. The rockhead was a real surprise. I found it at Rosario Beach at Deception Pass State Park. It was swimming very slowly when I saw it so it was easy to scoop up into my hand. It was in a rocky high energy intertidal area in about 3 inches of water where the tide was rapidly receding to the -2.3 feet level. This area has thick kelp growth during the summer months that dies back in the winter so we can see a lot more of the intertidal invertebrate life during evening low tides. It was a strange looking little dude. I couldn't figure out the cratered look on the top of its head until Janna pointed out the picture in the Andy Lamb/Bernard Handby book, Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest. That's the great thing about tidepooling and scuba diving; you never know what you'll find!

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Tadpole Sculpin

Photo and text ©2008 Claude Nichols

After sighting five Pacific Spiny Lumpsuckers (our first ones ever), I thought, "what more could you ask for?" Then as we were finishing the dive, I saw a dirty rotten good-for-nothing unidentified sculpin in the shallows. Knowing it was different than anything I'd seen before, I took lots of pictures and hoped I'd be able to identify it later. At least I had evidence that I wasn't making it up! Janna was stumped as well and found its ID in both Hart and Humann's books, then confirmed with Greg Jensen that indeed it was a Tadpole Sculpin. Night dive, shallow (15 ft) off Lopez Island.

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Ling Cod munching a GPO

Photo ©2008 Don Coleman

Don Coleman and his dive buddy Mike had just rounded a corner on the Pinnacle in Hood Canal and stumbled upon this unusual sight. They were in about 60 feet of water on a daytime dive. At first Don thought there was seaweed stuck to the Ling Cod, but soon realized those were tentacles he was seeing, and they were still moving! The ling was about 2.5 ft long. The Ling Cod was acting quite lethargic. Wonder if either will survive?

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Slim Sculpin

Photo and text ©2008 Janna Nichols

David Jennings, Barb Roy and I were on a dive at East Pulali Point in Hood Canal. We were diving off Pacific Adventure Charters' boat and doing diver observations for the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Project. We were down at about 90 feet, on a pretty silty bottom, and it was very dark. David began flashing his light wildly at me. I went over to look, and here was a strange looking sculpin I'd never seen! Long and thin, but pretty obviously pregnant. After looking at ID books and closeups of many photos I'd taken, we ID'd it as a Slim Sculpin, largely due to the prominent nasal spines.

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Marbled Snailfish

Photo and text ©2007 Darlene Stonecypher

The Marbled Snailfish was sited on November 18, 2007 on a night dive at Day Island Wall around 6:30 PM in Tacoma. We were diving north along the wall in 45 feet of water. As I was taking pictures of a baby octopus, my husband signaled me to come over and look at this fish which was resting on a rock at the base of an 8 foot shelf. Taking several pictures was not a problem as he remained still, apparently relying on camouflage. We swam off with him still perched on the rock never moving.

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Smooth Alligatorfish

Photo and text ©2007 Georgia Arrow

We were diving in the San Juans doing REEF surveys at a couple of previously unsurveyed sites. Our second dive was to the north side of Cone Island. My buddy, Tim Renz, and I were at about 50 feet when Tim found this guy. It was tucked up under a rock overhang. We both looked at it and knew we had found something special. My immediate thought was Poacher but I knew it wasn't any of the Poachers I'd seen before. Very excited to look it up in the books and discover that it was a Smooth Alligatorfish!

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Ocean Sunfish (aka Mola mola)

Photo ©2007 Daniel Hershman
Text by Valerie Lyttle

More of Dan's photos of the Ocean Sunfish here

Redondo has been so good to me, so many firsts..... my first 6 Gill, my first skate, my first Northern Spearnose Poacher, my first Blacktip Poacher, my first Pacific Electric Ray...... and today, while doing IDC skills.... my first..... get this... OCEAN SUNFISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yes! An Ocean Sunfish! We'd just dropped down at ~20 feet to do skills when all of a sudden I looked up to find this huge beautiful creature gliding by, watching us with as much curiosity as I did it. I screamed thro my reg, pounded John (the CD) on the shoulder and pointed in great excitement. It was incredible. The critter glided by, circled around us several times, clearly watching us. It allowed me to get quite close, and I was immediately regretting that I didn't have a camera at hand. It hung around us for about 15-20 minutes, circling and coming back and forth. I was captivated by it, clearly more than John was, as we had to sadly get back to work :-( Certainly made my day.

I love Redondo!
August 2007
Valerie Lyttle

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Spotfin Sculpin

Photo ©2007 Sarah Hillebrand

I found this little critter in about 70 feet of water on the north end of the north wall of Sund Rock. I was just turning around to swim back on the wall and it caught my eye. At first I thought it was just an ordinary sculpin, but as I swam closer he raised his dorsal fin and I saw the long front 'spine' on his fin. This was a fish I had never encountered before! I approached and started taking the 'distance shot' and then gradually got closer and closer. He didn't move even when we swam off. After surfacing at the end of the dive my husband told me there was another one right next to this one about half the size that I missed. The sculpin in the photo was approx. 4 inches long. July 2007

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Bluebarred Prickleback

Photo ©2007 Rhoda Green

This one was found about 30 ft 8pm-ish on the muddy muck bottom of Annas bay, near Potlatch on Hood Canal. July 2007

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Silverspotted Sculpin

Photo and text ©2007 Richard Zade

Saw this guy yesterday (7/25/07) at Hudson (Port Townsend) around 40 ft.! First time for me. He is really cool to look at and watch swim! Just wish he would have been a little more cooperative (stood still) and the viz had been better.

My eyes really lit up and my heart skipped a beat when I saw him, It's really cool to spot something new like that especially when it's such an interesting and beautiful fish. I must have followed him for 10 minutes or more hoping I was getting some good shots. He wouldn't stop and settle so I had to keep shooting and hope I was getting good stuff. He was hanging out in the red slimy leaf that is covering everthing right now. Which I might add he matches quite well. Wish I had thought to flip over to video and get some footage..

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Teeny Weeny Critters!
Photo and text ©2007 Karlista Rickerson, Bob Lew

Photo and text ©2007 Karlista Rickerson

Mary Kelly and I were diving the "north" side of the Maury Park, exploring new territory, vis has been bad, we were at 35 to 40 ft of depth just "observing" the marine life. A brightly patterned C-O Sole caught our attention. I wanted a close up of the top side of the fish but all I got was the fin. It was not until I got the photo back that the tiny Bay Pipefish was seen.

Photo and text ©2007 Bob Lew

Last Wed. 5/23/07, I went diving at T-Dock in Mukilteo, WA. Little current and poor VIZ there. I saw something moved and a very tiny clear fish came to my face and look like Lionfish but those are in the tropics only. My hand put a fish to the ground from current. I looked it and that's baby SAILFIN SCULPIN ! About one inch long.

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Juvenile Kelp Greenling
Photo and text ©2006 Janna Nichols

When diving the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary this summer, I came across this unique, brightly colored juvenile Greenling, just sitting on the bottom. I wasn't exactly sure what it was right offhand, but thought to myself it must be a Juvenile Kelp Greenling. Months later when going through my photos, I stumbled upon it, really noticed the large cirri behind its eyes, and had second thoughts about the ID, thinking it was possibly a Juvenile Rock Greenling.

After discussing the mystery fish with some fish ID experts, we wound up back to the original ID of a Juvenile Kelp Greenling. Do you know why? What makes this not a Rock Greenling?

It's the cirri! There is a SECOND SET, much smaller, behind the first larger set on Kelp Greenlings. Rock Greenlings lack this second set. The arrows show you where they are located.

Next time you see a Kelp Greenling (Rock Greenling sightings are very rare!) see if you can pick out the two pair of cirri on its head!

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Bay Goby
Photo ©2006 Valerie Lyttle and text by Georgia Arrow

We dove around the pilings [in Cove 3 at Alki] and saw all the usual critters including a very, very teeny Snake Prickleback. As we were heading back towards the exit swimming over the kelp, I noticed what I thought was another slightly larger Snake Prickleback, but it didn’t look exactly right. I got closer, which wasn’t easy because it was a little skittish, and realized that it had 2 distinct dorsal fins with a black edge on the foredorsal.

Eureka! My first Bay Goby! We were at a depth of about 35’ at the time. This Bay Goby was slightly smaller than your standard Black-eyed Goby and was very mottled & spotted, even more so than a mating female Black-eyed.

It is much easier to get it confused with a small Snake Prickleback than another Goby as I almost did, but the 2 dorsal fins, the black edge on the foredorsal, and the shape of the snout are all good clues as to which fish you are looking at.

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Longspine Combfish
Photos and text © 2006 by Robb Doody

My buddy Jim and I were doing a night dive around 8:00 over in Cove 2; we were on a slow swim back up from about 100 feet. It was around 50 feet that we spotted it lying pretty well motionless on the silt bottom. I hovered over it for a couple seconds and then decided to try and get a picture, it really didn't seem to be bothered at all by me and I was able to get fairly close. After a couple shots I went back to hovering and it didn't bat a fin, just kept still. We watched it for a minute or two then swam off. Definitely one of the cooler fish sightings I've had.

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Pacific Electric Ray
Photos © 2006 by Bob Lew and text by Valerie Lyttle

It was a typical Redondo second dive, spent touring the north side of Salty's. As we were on our way back, between the VW and reflectors, we all looked up at the same time and gave a collective gasp. There, to our amazement and disbelief, was a huge grey creature.

It wasn't skate shaped, but definitely a ray of some kind, measuring about 4 feet across, a uniform grey in color, and very round in shape, with two small dorsal fins along its tail. It swam along lazily, cruising from a depth of 40 feet up to 20 feet and back down, as if it was doing search patterns. We hung with it for the longest time and finally moved on when it disappeared into the fog. As we approached the pilings to complete our dive our friend reappeared, doing his same search patterns.

The thing was quietly massive, swimming about 1-2 feet above the bottom, and completely ignored us. As soon as I could I looked it up in my ID book, and sure enough, it was, (drum roll please...)


Yes, you read correctly, an electric ray in our very own PNW waters! It was seen at depths cruising between 20 and 40 feet over the sandy flats, around 12:15 in the day time, at Redondo on August 4. During all the excitement I was thinking "What a spectacular sighting for my REEF survey!"

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Rhinoceros Crab, Longspine Combfish
Photos and text © 2006 Don Coleman

This one I saw at The Pinnacle last Sunday early afternoon. About 70feet, just up the slope and to the east of where the old mated pair of wolf eels are (they have eggs now). The area is steep rock slope adjacent to solid vertical and overhanging structure. He was sitting on top of a rock, he remained motionless while I took photos.

The Longspine Combfish I found at Flagpole in the silty area between the shallow reef and the Knuckle. Early afternoon, depth was about 60 feet. He was sitting on the smooth sloping silty bottom alone, not much else in sight. He remained motionless while I took a photo, and luckily stayed
there after another diver came by and silted up the area. I waited for the silt to clear a little and he was still there, but I couldn't get a better photo.

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Spiny Lumpsucker, Showy Snailfish, and Blacktip Poacher
Photos and text © 2005 Georgia Arrow

It was only the size of a quarter.

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Mating Squid
Photos and text © 2005 John Williams

8 June 2005: I had the urge to go diving, but the only convenient time when the tide wasn't running like nose with hay fever was low tide. It was a moderately extreme low tide, so I knew that my favorite backyard dive site, Pt. White Dock (Bainbridge Island), would be shrouded in silty, near-zero vis water -- the mud line at extreme low tide often extends far beyond the end of the pier.

So I hied myself to Rockaway Beach instead, where the low tide had also stirred up the silt, but not quite so badly. Still, near shore the vis was so bad and the algae growth so profuse that I couldn't find the rope trail that led out to the reef. Undaunted, I carried my video camera and tripod along, deciding to just have a nice leisurely day exploring the shallows for interesting compositions.

I found a cloud of hundreds, possibly thousands of tiny fish, so I set up my tripod to get them on tape. It was difficult to get a good focus lock on the the ever-changing cloud of almost invisible mystery fish, but I spent 15 minutes giving it my best.

Then, a little chilled from being immobile for so long, I packed up my tripod and swam around a bit to warm up. The rope trail appeared, and a short ways past it, leaping out of the gloom was the bright white of a huge patch of squid eggs -- huge as in ten feet long and 4 feet wide! Surprisingly, above the squid eggs were hundreds of squid, courting, mating, and attempting to deposit new egg capsules on the bottom. I set up my camera to capture this unusual sight, but the squid seemed somewhat inhibited by the presence of a half dozen ratfish cruising their spawning grounds.

I watched this sight until I was low on air, and I returned the next day to find fewer ratfish and even better exhibitions of the squid mating ritual.

A few days later the squid were gone from there. But some scientists and volunteers conducting a beach seine on the north side of Bainbridge Island reported finding a few in their net.

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Bay Goby
Photos and text ©2005 Jan Kocian

This morning I was changing shaft zincs on friend’s boat when I spotted this small fish, about two inches long, it hung around the hull long enough for me to swim back to dock and grab my camera.The fish would hover almost motionless in open water close to the boat’s hull, when I aimed my camera and it tried to focus on it, the fish would start swimming in jerky motion. Of course, the shutter delay on my digital camera then missed the shot :( What looks weird is the cavity where the belly should be. [Note from Janna and Wes: We suspect this little guy was dying and on his way to Goby Heaven]

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Spinynose Sculpin
Photos and text © 2005 Wes Nicholson

Critter: Spinynose Sculpin (Radulinus taylori)
a.k.a.: Taylor's sculpin
Key ID clues: dark five o'clock shadow, smoothly rounded head/nape
Description: Olive brown to dark gray dorsally, lighter ventrally; 4 dark saddles; brown bars on pectoral and caudal fins, dark marking below eye on jaw and gill cover - the 5 o'clock shadow. May have reddish or pinkish colors when hiding in red algae.
Range: southeastern Alaska to Strait of Georgia (Wash.), northern Washington as San Juan Islands, Puget Sound. Local sightings at Keystone Jetty, and at Norrander's Reef and Metridium Wall (Rockaway Beach Park, Bainbridge Island)
Size: Up to 3 inches (maximum recorded) in length.
Habitat: Shell bottoms close to rocks and rocky walls. Sometimes hide in red algae attached to rocky shelves adjacent to shell bottoms.
Depth: from 16 to 165 feet, more usually below 30 feet.
Behavior: Sits still on bottom and will let a diver approach it closely, if the diver moves slowly. Poses well for cameras. May at times bury itself in the shell hash.
Similar species: smoothgum sculpin (Radulinus vinculus)
This and That: This is a very small fish - the maximum recorded size is 3 inches - most are smaller. To look for these fish first find their habitat and then get your nose close to the bottom and slowly scan for the critter. Very little is known about this very tiny fish. Keep your eye out for it and make sure you report where you find it.

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Sixgill Pup
Photos and text ©2004 Jason Goodmanson

My third dive of the year at Seacrest with my buddy Chris proved to be the best dive I have probably ever had. On Wednesday, August 4th, the plan was to swim to the I-beams and see if we could recreate the prior week's sighting of one six-gill shark. Immediately after swimming over the I-beams, we saw one - slightly larger than the one we saw the week before.

A few moments later we spotted our second. After getting a little too close to the second, Chris made the strangest sound I have ever heard underwater - up until that moment, I have never heard someone yell underwater before. I followed his outstretched arm - there he was in about 110 feet of water, slowly swimming around - a newborn six-gill. Words can't even begin to describe the elation I was feeling - not only was I seeing something that I have never seen before, but I had my camera with me to capture the moment. All I kept thinking about was how I hoped the pictures would come out.

As you can tell, the new born six-gill has all the characteristics of a full grown adult - albeit slightly out of proportion - large green eye, one dorsal fin near the tail, and the smiling mouth. And of course, six gills. [Note from Janna: The pup was about 24-30 inches long in size]

What I noticed first was how perfect the body was - no disfigurements or scarring - just a silvery shiny shark.

We were probably only able to spend about three minutes tops with the little one before our air and deco limits were about up. Believe me, I would have loved to spend more time with this one. At least I was able to take three pictures - this way everyone has no choice but to believe me.

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Bad Day to be a Penpoint Gunnel
Photo ©2004 Jan Kocian

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Stubby Squid Eggs
Photo ©2004 Georgia Arrow

photo and text by Georgia Arrow

After doing two dives in Hood Canal that morning, my dive buddy, Annette, and I headed to Seacrest Cove 2 to meet up with the divers that regularly dive there on Tuesday evenings. Bill Ferrell had seen an octopus by Olive's den earlier so he wanted to go there to see if we'd be lucky enough to spot it again. We got to 100 feet and searched around a bit but no such luck. As we turned to head back up to shallower water, I spotted these strange little pearl onion-looking things attached to the side of a stump. I had no idea what they were so I snapped a quick picture and continued the dive.

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Mating Northern Ronquil
Photo ©2004 Don Coleman

photo by Don Coleman

Don was exploring a site between Flagpole Point and Elephant Wall on Hood Canal, when he came upon this guy. Brilliant splotches of yellow and black, as well as white spots on his side, and a light blue anal fin. He was on a steep slope, around 85 feet, and it was mixture of silty bottom and scattered boulders. For comparison, here's what a normal run-of-the-mill one looks like:

photo by Janna Nichols

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Longspine Combfish
Photo and text
©2004 Gray Bryan

I saw it 4/24/04 at around 7:15pm at Redondo at about 80fsw. It appeared to be about 6" long. It was just laying on the bottom and didn't appear to be spooked by me. I took 3 pictures but none were very good. The one I here is the best. When I saw it I knew it was something new to me and something that I didn't really have a clue as to how to identify. It didn't look similar to anything else that I've seen.

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Juvenile Yelloweye Rockfish
Photo and text
©2004 Todd Cliff

Brad Wooden and I took off on a Monday in February to dive with Don and Diane of Pacific Adventure. This would be my first time diving with them and also the first time I would be using an Olympus 560 and PT-017 housing. It was an overcast day, but no rain was in sight as we pulled away from Pleasant Harbor. The first dive of the day was to be on the East Wall of Pulali Point. This would also be the first time for me diving at this site. We descended immediately following the contour down to around 95 fsw. The visibility was excellent and the rock formations were incredible. I was already beginning to see other critters not normally viewed at other Hood Canal sites. We were swimming toward the South point when I came upon a large crack running along the face of the rock wall at around 85 fsw. There were a few Puget Sound Rockfish amongst a small fish I have never seen before. It was red with two white stripes running the length of it. I took a couple of shots before moving on. It was a sighting I knew was special. I found out later on board from Don that what I saw was a juvenile Yelloweye Rockfish and that the adults are rarely seen, because they live at depths not usually frequented by divers. It was definitely a cool sighting and one I will remember for some time.

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Pacific Cod
Photos ©2004 by Robert Lew

Bob Lew and Gray Bryan were diving (night dive) at Three Tree Point (North) in late February and spotted this 3 ft long Pacific Cod. Bob got some great shots. Notice the large whisker coming out from under its chin. This one sure looks pregnant!

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Filet o' Fish
Photo ©2003 by Claude Nichols and text by Mark Dixon

I was diving at Edmonds with Claude near the dry dock and spotted this funny little white fish, about 5 inches long.

I noticed it had what looked like a bite out of it! When I got closer it took off. Every time I approached it closely it would zoom away. It was obvious by it's energetic swimming that it was in fairly good health! After a bit it got tired of this game and settled down and I got some pictures of it.

The "bite" was smooth and did not look like a wound. Most of the fish was translucent with a just a patch scales on it's head and fins that had color. Very interesting! I suspect it just had a birth defect or something.

Giant Nudibranch eats Tube Dwelling Anemone
Photos and text ©2003 by Brad Wooden

Steve Billings and I decided to make a couple of mid-week dives and miss all the crowds. So we headed up to Hood Canal and ended up at Sund Rock. This was the last day in July and it was a beautiful sunny warm day. We had a Bald Eagle fly close overhead as we geared up. Our first dive was at the North Wall of Sund rock. The water temperature was 52 degrees and the visibility was ok once you were below the plankton bloom. We went along the bottom of the wall at 65-70 feet and poked around in the large rubble looking for Octopus and Wolf eels. I ran across 4 Octopus sitting on eggs. A couple of the Octopus were rather large.

I noticed that there were quite a few Giant Nudibranchs out along the bottom of the wall were the sand meets the rocks. It was toward the end of the dive and I had a few pictures left in my camera. So I shot a normal wide-angle shot of the Giant Nudibranch.

After the first picture, I noticed that the Nudibranch was starting to scrunch up and act kind of weird, so I switched to my macro lens and shot a sequence of his weird antics. At first he just scrunched his face. He then rose up and got real thin and made his face like a dragon. I was wondering what in the world this Nudibranch was up too, when all of a sudden he pounced on a Tube anemone that was next to him. I was amazed at the speed at which the Nudibranch attacked the Tube Anemone. I could not tell whether the Nudibranch had latched onto the Tube anemone before it sucked into its tube or not. But one thing was for sure, that Nudibranch was aggressively crawling down that tube trying to get himself some Tube anemone dinner.

This sequence of pictures was pure dumb luck on my part. Nudibranchs seemed to me like they would be vegetarians and very docile. I had no idea that they were fast aggressive predators. So as I was shooting pictures of the unfolding drama, I had no idea what I was shooting.


[Note from Janna: How come *I* can't have such pure dumb luck??? Not Fair!!]

Scrunching up his 'face' like a dragon

Getting ready to pounce

WHAM! Poor anemone didn't know what hit him

Going after a good meal

Manacled and Silverspotted Sculpins
Photos and text ©2003 by Wes Nicholson

Patches of eelgrass rate high on my list of favorite places. A visit to an eelgrass bed will often provide sightings of interesting critters or interesting behavior in critters that you normally see elsewhere. That's why on the fourth dive of the day I was kneeling beside a small patch of eelgrass in 12 feet of water searching the individual blades for manacled sculpins.

We had gone to the Sekiu Rocks Reef specifically to find and photograph the manacled sculpins reported to be common on the abundant kelp in the area. I had aborted my third dive of the day when I found myself underweighted as a result of not correctly adjusting for moving from a steel 95 to an Al 80, dropping my pony bottle and adding the video camera. After telling Janna I was quitting the dive I had headed back towards shore fully expecting to be done for the day. A quick tour of some eelgrass on the way changed my plans when I spotted a manacled sculpin clinging to a grass blade. This was my first ever sighting of a manacled sculpin - Yippee! Too light to hold the camera steady, I quickly surfaced, marked my location relative to the shore and headed in for more weight.

Now comfortably weighted and able to hold my position, I was studying the individual blades looking for the tiny sculpin. A motion to the side of my face caught my attention and I turned to find a silver and brown form settling onto some eelgrass. Not a manacled sculpin but a silverspotted sculpin! Another first for my life list! I carefully maneuvered to capture some video of the critter and was fortunate that it put up with having the camera poked at it for several seconds. And then with a flick of its tail, it was gone.

After its abrupt departure I continued to search for manacled sculpins and started to find them throughout a number of small eelgrass patches in the area. Although a little skittish they also seemed to tolerate being filmed rather well. One thing that struck me was the differences in coloration that I was seeing between individual fish. I found so many of the little critters on the eelgrass that I never got around to looking for them on the kelp. Later dives on the trip showed me an even greater variation in their color when I found them on kelp blades.

I also ran into a second silverspotted sculpin and some juvenile Pacific tomcod hiding in the eelgrass bed. What an incredible dive. Further confirmation that spending time in eelgrass beds is a must for serious critter watchers.

Manacled sculpins (Synchirus gilli) are very small, slender fish. Although they have a maximum size of 3" they are often less than 2-1/2" long. Their background color ranges from light brown, to dark brown, green and maroon - I suspect it varies to match their habitat. They also display a variety of patterns of white blotches and stripes. These patterns may vary between the sexes but I was unable to find a reference that discussed this. Key ID features are: Long slender shape, sharply pointed snout, a variety of white markings on their sides and backs, with most having a short white stripe running from their snout through their eye and some distance onto their sides. They also have fused pectoral fins although I found that this feature is really not useful from an ID perspective. Manacled sculpins can be found in a wide range of habitats and may be more common than has been reported because they are so small and so hard to find. I know that I will keep my eyes open for them now wherever there is kelp, eelgrass or pilings.

Silverspotted sculpins (Belpsias cirrhosus) are also fairly small, with a maximum size of 8 inches. Their background color varies from light golden brown, to dark brown to a greenish or olive color. They are very shy and although they are common in areas with abundant leafy algae growth they are seldom spotted as they hide in the algae. Key ID features are a group of cirri on the head that make them look like a carpenter with a mouth full of nails, a tall fore dorsal fin and a large, rounded rear dorsal fin and a series of silver spots along their sides. Their rear dorsal fin flutters like the dorsal fin on a sailfin sculpin when they move slowly.

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Decorated Warbonnet
Photos and text ©2003 by Georgia Arrow

The day before, we did a dive at Edmonds Oil Dock with horrible viz but then a pretty good one at Seacrest. We decided on Tacoma for the next day to see if the viz would be better further south. We settled on a early dive at Old Town Dock. We got there at 8am and were in the water at 9am. Darice was buddied up with Todd and William and I were together for the first dive.

Since there was no one around fishing that morning we decided to take advantage and see what we could find directly underneath the dock. The tide was out so we were still in only 18-20' of water among the pilings.

There were huge schools of all sorts of perch there-shiner, pile, and striped. It was like diving in a big aquarium. From there we headed straight North from the dock to take a look at the tire reef.

As we came up to the first grouping of tires at about 25 ' I saw a fish with wide bars on it. From a distance of 10 or 15 feet my first thought was, "What is wrong with that painted greenling?" As I got closer and saw the cirri sticking out I realized that what I was seeing was my first Decorated Warbonnet! And that it was huge! It was at least 8 -10 inches long and most of it was visible. It didn't try to move away although it did try to hide behind the plumose anemone. It tolerated me taking several pictures and then watched Darice & me do a little victory dance in the water.

We then continued out to the other piles of tires and saw many very cool critters on this dive and then on our second dive here that day. I saw the smallest buffalo sculpin imaginable, a crescent gunnel, a dying longfin gunnel, rock soles, brown rockfish, and my first penpoint gunnel. All in all it was a great day of diving and very exciting to see all the critters there.

Oh, and we also found a gun underneath the dock! Now that's an unusual critter!

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Opal Squid
Photos ©2003 Steve Billings and text ©2003 by Phil White

Steve Billings and I decided to dive Salt Water State Park Saturday May 10th. The Park itself is nice. While we were there the sun was out and it turned into a really nice spring day. There was little wind and the water was flat with very little current.


Dive One: Max Depth 49 FSW for 69 Minutes. Vis: 20 to 30 feet. Water Temp: 50 degrees
We headed out for the marker buoy almost due west of the little jetty and dropped down to its anchor block. We followed the guide rope (which is about 15’ west of the anchor block) north towards the sunken barge and tire reef. There were a ton of small jellies (Cat’s Eye Comb Jelly, Water Jellyfish, and Cone Shaped Jellies with iridescent filaments). There were many Lewis Moonsnails and egg casings on the sandy bottom. As we explored the sunken barge we encountered: Kelp & Painted Greenling, Crescent Gunnel, Lingcod, Ratfish, Striped & Pile Perch, Sole, Crab, Shrimp, and a variety of Anemones and Starfish.

We continued on past the barge and tires north following the guide rope. Soon we found another fairly large tire reef. Much to our excitement, we encountered a couple hundred Opal or “Market” Squid breeding and laying eggs onto a vertical pipe, which was already covered with hundreds of egg sacks! I’m guessing they were 8 to 11 inches long and where a whitish color. The males would latch onto the females for a minute or two then the females would deposit their eggs into the already massive cluster! A few of the squid shot little ink clouds (not sure if it was because of us or just normal in all the excitement). We knelt on the bottom keeping still, soaking up the action. It doesn’t have to be night for squid to breed after all!

Dive Two: Max Depth 51 FSW for 56 Minutes.
We dropped down and headed north again. I thought the Squid would be long gone, but no, they were still there! We watched them for a long time (until we both got cold and needed to start swimming). The Squid didn’t seem too concerned about us, but they didn’t like my light (which I promptly turned off). They’d get within about 10 feet of us! Really Cool!

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Sharpchin Rockfish
Photos ©2003 Janna Nichols and Wes Nicholson
and text
Wes Nicholson

Reports of a mystery fish in Hood Canal sent Janna and Claude Nichols and myself on a quest to find and identify this critter. The sightings had occurred during night dives to the bottom of a rock pinnacle north of Brinnon. In fact, Janna had even snapped two pictures of it in mid-February. But the pictures were from above and didn't show the details needed for identification and the fish retained it shroud of mystery. Further investigation found that Don Coleman, owner of Pacific Adventures Charters on Hood Canal, had also seen the same type of fish and taken a photograph, but had been unable to determine the species.

Armed with cameras, Janna and Claude Nichols and myself set out on a quest to find and identify this critter. Concerned that the presence of the fish might be seasonal, Janna, Claude and I booked a one-tank night dive with Don and Diane Coleman of Pacific Adventures Charters as soon as possible. We left the Pleasant Harbor Marina at about 8:30 on the evening of May 9th. Surface conditions were great with little wind and warm temperatures. Visibility had been bad early in the week but seemed to be clearing up. We had high hopes for a great dive.

Once in the water, our hopes for good vis quickly vanished in the murk of an algae bloom. We found the top of the pinnacle by running into it as we descended the guide line. Once on the pinnacle we worked our way down the southeast side, hoping that the vis would improve. And it finally did at about 75 to 80 feet.

Almost immediately after dropping below 90 feet we began to see mystery fish resting on the bottom. The fish ranged in size from 5 to 8 inches and were very docile, allowing us to closely approach and take pictures from all sides. They even assumed desired poses with a little gentle prodding. Too soon our available bottom time ran out and we had to surface hoping that our close observations and pictures would let us solve the mystery.

At this point we are 99.9% sure that the fish are Sharpchin Rockfish, Sebastes zacentrus. The identification is based on the overall coloration - light background with red / orange / brown mottling, narrow light colored lateral line running from the tail onto the gill cover, body shape, a distinct knob on the lower lip, and the "<" marking behind the eye.

Sharpchins can grow to 18" in length and it is likely that we observed juveniles. Sharpchins are found in deep waters from Alaska to southern California. They normally lives at depths of 330 to 990 feet and are seldom seen by divers. In fact, the chance of divers spotting this fish was so low that REEF had not even assigned them a species code. Why are we seeing them so shallow? It may be a result of the low oxygen conditions, especially at depth, reported in Hood Canal over the last year.

Plainfin Midshipman
Photo and text ©2003 by Jim Maddalone

It was a day of many firsts!!! First time diving at Mike's Beach Resort, first time taking underwater photographs, and the first time I saw a Plainfin Midshipman.

I just completed an UW Photography class with Janna Nichols, where I learned all the basic do/don't and gotcha's of UW Photography. On the second dive of the day, at about 50ft, a 5-6 inch fish (sculpin shaped) caught my eye. Trying to recall the 4 C's of photography (Color, Contrast, Clarity, and Composition), I slinked ever closer to the odd looking fish. To my amazement he didn't immediately swim off. It hovered about 12 inches off of the sandy bottom giving me just enough time to get one shot.

I didn't give that fish a second thought until I took a look at the photos post dive and couldn't identify the fish! Enter... fish identification guru... Janna Nichols!!! Who used her sleuthing skills to put a name to our mystery fish.

Common name: Plainfin Midshipman
Scientific Name: Porichthys notatus
Location: Mike's Beach Resort
Depth: 50ft, Vis: 8-10ft
Size: 5-6 inches

Comment: This fish is a member of the Toadfish family. It has bioluminescent spots along it's underside and often buries itself in the sand. Nocturnal.

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Spiny Lumpsucker, Giant Nudibranch and Squid sightings
Photos and text ©2003 by Mike Nebel

I have previously seen Giant Nudibranch in BC with Porpoise Bay Charters. Heres one that was easily 12" that we found at 40 feet last November.

I havent seen one since, until I did a dive at Sunnyside beach helping a Divemaster candidate with a mapping project. We were mapping the far left side (toward the ferry) where I had never been. There was very little to see other than bottles, Seapens and an old tire, when I spotted this Giant Nudibranch that was about 6-7" and as you see, more red and gray than white.

Heres a shot of him/her swimming

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One Chilly Critter Watcher
Text ©2003 Matt Branson

©2002 Janna Nichols

I recently got a chance to go up and do a little winter diving in Alaska. All of the dives were in Whittier, which is about an hour drive from Anchorage.

Some of the fish and invertebrates that I saw were familiar: northern ronquils perched on their round pectoral fins, gunnels, sculpins, a decorator crab and one small octopus. I also saw several white lined dirona nudibranchs, a juvenile wolf eel, a few rockfish and some tubesnouts.

There were also creatures that I have never seen in Puget Sound. I saw a bunch of pacific cod with their long chin barbels, one gray squid (possibly an opal squid, he definitely wasn't a stubby). We were followed on one dive by what I believe were top smelt. They acted like perch waiting for us to stir something up to eat. I also saw a huge diamond back tritonia nudibranch feeding on some sea whips.

The most beautiful thing I saw was a swimming hooded nudibranch. He was in about 30 feet of water floating 4 feet off the bottom and at first I thought that he was some sort of bizarre jellyfish. He was translucent white with six appendages that looked like paddles. He wasn't very big, maybe 3 inches long and was gracefully swimming through the water searching for prey.

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Slender Cockscomb
Photos and text ©2003 Mark Dixon

A rare sight in Puget Sound!

"Janna and Claude Nichols and I arrived at Tolmie St. Park at about 11:00 am. We spent awhile checking out the site to find that the best way to the water was down a closed road from the parking lot. We geared up and took a hike down the hill to the beach. Soon after entering the water, Janna was thrilled to find bunches of Eccentric Sand Dollars!

After she got her fill of them we began our surface swim of what seemed like halfway across the Sound! A big metal can buoy marked “artifical reef” designated the location of one of the barges. I found the life growing on the anchor chain to be one of the highlights of the site!


I saw the Slender Cockscomb first near the top edge of the barge. At first I thought it was a Saddleback Gunnel but the markings and colors were not right. At closer inspection, I noticed it had a little crown on its head. I didn’t know quite what is was so I immediately started taking pictures.

The interior of the barge was smooth, sloping, rusty, metal covered with algae. I took 2 pictures of the Slender Cockscomb and it took off down the slope and stopped. I took 2 more and discovered my buddies had moved on so went to find them. I located them and we returned to the spot, but the critter had gone under the tires the littered the bottom of the barge and was no longer visible. The depth was about 45 ft. and the vis was about 15 ft. Water temp was 45 degrees F. "

Slender Cockscomb - Note the little crown on its head!

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