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Critter of the Month Archives - 2009

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December 2009

photo © 2009 Todd Cliff

Cloud Sponge
Aphrocallistes vastus
Porifera Phylum

Description: Part of the Glass Sponge Class Hexactinellida, this fragile, deep water sponge has massive tubular structures that cover rock walls and other formations.
Color: Cloud Sponge colors range from white to dark yellow.
Range: Bering Sea to Mexico
Size: Up to 10 feet (3 m) in diameter
Hangouts/Habitat: In inlets, on rock walls and ledges. Locally in Hood Canal at sites such as Flagpole Point, and in many locations in BC.
Depth: Depths to 80 feet and deeper.
Behavior: Well, it's a sponge enough said. It filters out sea water for food and life.
Growth: Cloud Sponge has a slow growth rate and some live to be very old. Experts suggest some are over a hundred years old.
Comments: Cloud Sponge are delicate animals that need to be given the utmost care when diving near. One misplaced fin kick could wipe out something it took a century to create. The cavities are hiding places for critters such as juvenile rockfish, crabs and various shrimp.
I.D. Clues: If you are below 80 feet and see a massive, white to dark yellow, billowy looking critter than most likely you found yourself a Cloud Sponge or you could be narc'd!

- Contributed by Todd Cliff, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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November 2009

photo © 2009 Claude Nichols

China Rockfish
Sebastes nebulosus
Member of the Scorpionfish Family

Alternate Names: Yellowstripe Rockfish
Description: Medium sized rockfish found along outer coastal areas
Color: Bluish black to black background, with yellow spots and speckles on head and body. A yellow stripe starts from about the second or third foredorsal spine and extends downward in a curve backwards along the lateral line to the tail. The stripe may be broken by some black often near the lateral line.
Range: Southeast Alaska to California along exposed coastlines from about 10fsw to beyond recreational diving limits.
Size: Usually 8"-14" but can be as large as 18"
Habitat: Found usually in rocky inshore habitats along exposed coastlines, preferring rocky outcrops with boulder fields and crevices. Found on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and inland to Neah Bay but not in Puget Sound. Also found along the Washington, and Oregon coastline. They can occasionally be seen along the northern to central California coastline.
Behavior: Solitary and territorial. They do not range far (30-40 feet) from their home. They tend to be fairly skittish and hide in a hole in the rocks when approached. They will perch on rocks with their pectoral fins out.
Prey: They feed on brittle stars, chitons, crabs and shrimp.
Might be confused with: Some less experienced identifiers confuse with Quillback rockfish. Quillbacks have a darker brown to black back including back dorsal and tailfin. Their yellow blotches are only on the front. Although they can have yellow on the foredorsal it does not extend to the tail. Quillbacks have deeper notches on the foredorsal spines.
Other tidbits: China rockfish live to beyond 79 years. They can spawn at age 6. Spawning occurs from January to July with a January peak. Their name came from the supposed preference by Asians along the west coast for these fish. They are popular in Asian markets today. The venom of their spines is mildly toxic to humans.
ID Clues: Think of the yellow marking as a Nike swoosh and remember that Nikes are made in China.

- Contributed by Claude Nichols, REEF PNW AAT, level 5

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October 2009

photo © 2009 Jeanne Luce

Mosshead Warbonnet
Chirolophis nugator
Prickleback Family

Description/color: Very distinctive! Numerous cirri on head to dorsal fin. Row of pale to white, darkly outlined bars on lower sides. Males have about 12 dark, goldish ringed spots on dorsal fin, females have 12 dark bars on dorsal fin. They occur in mottled shads of brown. There is a dark bar below the eye, and several more may occur on gill cover. Have ventral fins. Dorsal and anal fin are separated from a rounded tail by a shallow notch. The long anal fin is about three-fourths the length of the dorsal.
Range: Occasional Aleutian Islands, Alaska, to southern California
Size: 2-4 in, max 6 in
Hangouts/Habitat: Inhabit shallow areas with numerous small protective recesses, including debris under docks. Often perch in small opening with only their heads extended; favorite haunts include tube worm holes, empty shells, small crevices, bottles, and cans.
Depth: 0-260 ft
Behavior: Shy; dart deep into recess when closely approached. May allow close view with slow nonthreatening movements, but, once frightened, rarely appear from hiding.

- Contributed by Jeanne Luce, REEF PNW Advanced Assessment Team

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September 2009

photo © 2009 Mary Jo Adams

Green Sea Urchin
Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis
Phylum: Echinoderm

Description: Has short and densely packed light green spines radiating from the test (skeleton). The threadlike tubefeet are dark purplish.
Size: to 4 inches in diameter
Range: Ranges from Alaska to Washington on the West Coast of U.S. Also found on East Coast of U.S. and in Europe
Habitat: Found in a variety of habitats including rocky shores, areas of soft sediment, kelp beds, on floats, and on pilings
Depth: Intertidal to a depth of 427 feet in Pacific waters. Has been reported to depths of almost 4000 feet in the Atlantic Ocean.
Diet: Feeds primarily on algae, preferring kelp but also consuming green seaweed and diatoms. Uses an interesting feeding apparatus called Aristotle's lantern.
Reproduction: Reproduces by broadcast spawning. This takes place along Washington shores from Jan. to June with peak in March and April
Predators: Sunflower and morning sun stars, Oregon triton, river and sea otters, ducks, gulls, ravens, and crows.
Other cool facts: The tongue twisting genus name Strongylocentrotus means "ball of spines". The species name droebachiensis honors the name of the Norwegian fjord where this urchin was first described.

- Contributed by Mary Jo Adams, REEF PNW Advanced Assessment Team

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August 2009

photo © 2009 Janna Nichols

Speckled Sanddab
Citharichthys stigmaeus
Left Eye Flounder Family

Description: The sanddab has a flat, somewhat oval body with both eyes on the left side, usually resting on the flattened right side. Unique to the flounder family is that shortly after birth, the bilaterally symmetrical fish actually transforms to have both eyes on one side of the head, and for sanddabs, usually the left side. An eye migrates through a slit in the head and settles next to the eye on the other side. (How cool is that?)
ID tips: The sanddab has a straight lateral line (the only left eyed flounder that does), a short pectoral fin that is less than the distance between its base and mid-eye, and is likely to have profuse black speckles and/or blotches.
Color: The speckled sanddab is a master of color camouflage to match its surroundings. That said, it is usually shades of brown, often mottled or blotched with dark brown, and white spots or blotches.
Distribution: Common from southern Alaska to southern California, can also be found south to southern Baja.
Size: 3-6 inches in length, maximum length of 7 inches.
Hangouts: In sand, gravel and/or shell rubble flats. You will find it resting on the bottom, blending its color to match the surrounding bottom material. Occasionally burrow in substrate so only the eyes are obvious.
Depth: Generally between 20 and 60 feet.
Behavior: Speckled sanddabs seem to rely on their ability to blend their color with their surroundings and remain still. However the sanddab will bolt when startled or approached and find a new place to hide within a short distance. If you approach very slowly it might be possible to get a closer look or snap photos.
Spotting Hints: Pay attention to "outlines" in the sand/gravel/shell bottom when diving over those areas in the recommended depth range. Look for a "disturbance" in the substrate with two eyes at one end. Careful not to "step" on them!

- Contributed by Jackie De Haven, REEF level 5

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July 2009

photo © 2009 Pete Naylor

Strawberry Anemone
Corynactis californica
Cnidarian Phylum

Also known as: Club-tipped Anemone
Description: Small anemone with solid color on column and disc - numerous tentacles with less color saturation terminated by white ball-shaped tips.
Color: Varying shades of pink, red, peach, mauve pastels.
Distribution: Northern BC to northern Mexico.
Size: To 1 inch in diameter.
Habitat: Rocky structure in consistently current or surge swept locales.
Depth: Low intertidal to 150 ft.
Natural History: These anemones reproduce by cloning - individuals quickly become surrounded by a vast carpet of others of matching color. Where colonies meet a battle line develops where there is strong competition for resources.
Spotting Hints: Strawberry Anemones are a signature of many coastal sites - inside of Vancouver Island, such as in the San Juans, they are not as commonly encountered. Some popular sites are known for their Strawberry Anemones - if searching elsewhere, consider rocky vertical structure in areas known for heavy current.

- contributed by Pete Naylor, REEF Level 5

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June 2009

Yellowtail Rockfish by Pete Naylor
photo © 2009 Pete Naylor

Yellowtail Rockfish
Sebastes flavidus
Scorpionfish Family

Description: Typical rockfish profile - bass-like body shape with large head and eyes, stocky mid section and powerful tail. Body is compressed horizontally - cross-section is tall and narrow rather than rounded or flattened.
Color: Dark brown/green/grey in base with yellow tint especially on fins. Several pale spots in a row below dorsal fin, and dark speckling on sides.
Distribution: Common to occasional Alaska to central California - rare in southern California.
Size: To 26 inches in length.
Hangouts: In open water around rocky structure and walls.
Depth: Surface to 900 ft.
Behavior: Most commonly seen in compact schools mid-column, but occasional individuals are found resting in rocky crevices. At night the resting behavior is more typical. Schools often intermix with (very similar) Black Rockfish. Generally quite wary of divers, and easily spooked - but a quiet diver who makes efforts to mingle with the school can often hang in the current within arms reach.
Spotting Hints: Seek out rocky structure which interrupts flow in heavy current areas (points, reefs, pinnacles etc especially with kelp nearby) and try drifting by the area - be sure to swim up and away from the structure and look behind you - out into the open water. These fish can be difficult to distinguish from Black Rockfish - with a light the yellow tint should be quite visible - but otherwise look at the rear edge of the anal fin, which will be straight-edged (rounded on a Black Rockfish). When seen schooling together, the differences are obvious.

- contributed by Pete Naylor, REEF Level 5

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May 2009

photo © 2009 Valerie Lyttle

Spot Prawn
Pandalus platyceros
Arthropod Phylum

These are large shrimp (largest amongst the northern shrimp species) with bodies ranging from 2.5 inches up to 10 inches long. Their size and characteristic white spots on the 1st and 5th segments of the abdomen and white stripes along the carapace make these guys easy to identify. Colors are typically the reddish/brownish hue common to many of our shrimp, but juveniles can also be green if they are living in algae/eel grass areas. Their range covers the entire length of the North American coast and they can be found from shallow to deep (past recreational depths) waters, especially at night, when they come out to forage.


  • Whelks to Whales by Rick Harbo
  • Pacific Coast Crabs and Shrimps by Gregory Jensen
  • Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest by Andy Lamb

- contributed by Valerie Lyttle, REEF Level 5

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April 2009

photo © 2009 Janna Nichols

Saddleback Gunnel
Pholis ornata
Gunnel Family

Description: This fish is small and eel-like with a long, laterally compressed (narrow) body. The dorsal fin is long, extending from the head to the caudal or tail fin. The dorsal and anal fins are continuous with the caudal fin. This fish has no lateral line. The saddleback is distinguished from other gunnels by black U-shaped or V-shaped marks along the base of the dorsal fin, dusky or dark rectangular blotches along the side, and a dark bar below each eye.
Color: Variable, ranging from olive-green to brown with yellow, orange, or red ventral (lower) areas. Some fish have orange caudal, anal, and pectoral fins.
Range: Central California to Alaska and Korea.
Size: Typically 4" to 9".
Habitat: Primarily on muddy bottoms, especially in eelgrass beds or leafy algae. Also under rocks or in protective recesses including jars, cans, tires, and other human debris often found near docks or jetties.
Depth: From the shoreline to 120 feet; usually shallower than 40 feet.
Behavior: Secretive and wary. During daytime, entwines itself among marine plants or hides under or in scattered rocks, logs or human debris; retreats into tangles or recesses when approached. Divers should approach slowly and without sudden movements to avoid spooking the animal. More commonly found in the open at night.
Feeds on: small mollusks and crustaceans.
Spawning: occurs in late winter or early spring. The small, round egg clusters are guarded by both parents.
ID Clues: Look for the series of U- or V-shaped dark markings below the dorsal fin on this eel-like fish. Also note the dark bar below each eye, and a row of dark rectangular blotches along the side.
Comments: A handsome fish that adds pizzazz to any dive. Gunnels can be confused with pricklebacks. The latter usually have a longer anal fin (more than ½ the fish's length) or more elaborate structures on their heads such as "cockscombs" or "warbonnets."

Eschmeyer/Herald/Hamman. 1983. A field guide to Pacific coast fishes of North America.
Lamb/Edgell. 1986. Coastal fishes of the Pacific Northwest.
Humann. 1996. Coastal fish identification, California to Alaska.
Hart. 1973. Pacific fishes of Canada.

- contributed by Reg Reisenbichler, REEF Level 5

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March 2009

photo © 2009 Claude Nichols

Orange Cup Coral
Balanophyllia elegans
Cnidarian Phylum

Description: Looks like a bright orange coral polyp with short, nearly transparent tentacles sitting in a calcareous cup. Where did they ever dream up the name?
Color: Bright orange.
Range: Alaska to central Baja California.
Size: Up to about 1/2" high and 1" diameter, solitary within cup but often found in groups.
Habitat: Rocky or artificial reef areas since they attach to rocks.
Depth: Intertidal - 160 ft.
Behavior: They are well behaved and just sit there. They are easy to photograph since they do not move or even close down when approached, although the polyp can retract into the cup.
ID Clues: They are easy to identify but can be confused with Strawberry anemones. Strawberry anemone lack the cup that Orange cup coral have and are more red to pink in color. Also Strawberry anemone tend to be in larger clusters while Orange cup corals are more orange as not as tightly grouped. Orange cup coral could also be confused with the less common (more common in BC and CA) Brown cup coral (Paracyathus stearnsi). The Brown cup coral is larger, oval rather than round and has darker orange-to-brown color.

- contributed by Claude Nichols, REEF Level 5

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February 2009

photo © 2009 Janna Nichols

Pile Perch
Rachochilus vacca
Surfperch family

Description: Has typical deep bodied perch shape with a dusky bar midway along the side of the body. The anterior portion of the dorsal fin is spiny and lower than the soft posterior segment. Look for a dark spot behind the corner of the mouth and a deeply forked tail.
Color: Silvery gray or occasionally brown. Males turn very dark, almost black during mating season
Range: Southeast Alaska to central Baja
Size: to 17.4 inches
Habitat: Watch for this species around rocky reefs, near pilings and other structures, and also among kelp
Depth: While the pile perch has been found at depths to 150 feet, it is most common at 10-65 feet.
Behavior: May be solitary, in small congregations, or less commonly in large schools. Usually retreats from divers.
Diet: Feeds on limpets, mussels, barnacles, crabs, and other hard shelled invertebrates. The pile perch has pharyngeal teeth that allow it to crush their shells.
Predators: Harbor seals, northern elephant seals, cormorants
ID clues: Look for the dark bar on the side, the dark spot behind the corner of the mouth, and a deeply forked tail. There are no other fish in the Pacific Northwest that closely resemble the pile perch but if you dive in California, you may have to differentiate it from the rubberlip seaperch and sargo. Although these species have a similar shape with a bar on the side of the body, they lack the dark spot behind the mouth and the deeply forked tail of the pile perch.
Cool facts: Pile perch can live 9 years. They give birth to live young.

- contributed by Mary Jo Adams, REEF Level 5

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January 2009

photo © 2009 Janna Nichols

Fish Eating Anemone
Urticina piscivora
Cnidarian Phylum

Other Common Names: Rose Anemone, Velvety Red Anemone, Fish-eating Tealia.
Description: This tall anemone sports a smooth maroon column that lacks any other markings, unlike that of its cousin, the White Spotted Anemone (Urticina lofotensis). The oral disk can often be found ranging in color from white to red.
Range: Alaska to southern California.
Size: This anemone can reach a height of up to 8 inches (20cm) and a diameter of up to 10 inches (25cm).
Hangouts/Habitat: This species usually prefers current swept rocky terrain.
Depth: Subtidaly to depths of up to 160ft (48m).
Likes to munch on: Invertebrates and small fish.
ID Clues: Smooth, velvety maroon column with no markings and a red or white oral disk. Can be confused with the Painted Anemone (which has small bumps on the column, instead of being smooth, and shorter banded tentacles).
Other Cool Facts: Juvenile Painted Greenling (Oxylebius pictus) have been known to find safe haven within the protective stinging tentacles of the Fish Eating Anemone, much like clownfish do in the warm waters of the Indo Pacific oceans.

- contributed by Nick Brown REEF Level 5

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