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Blade runner stalks rocky reefs

Recent flat conditions make for sublime snorkeling, swimming, and diving explorations--water temperatures not withstanding. The place to visit is the submerged shallow rocky reef habitat of the La Jolla Ecological Reserve. Enter either from La Jolla Cove or La Jolla Shores, because the reef extends the length from one entrance to the other. From the Cove, take one step into the water, and you’re there.

Deep red patterning provides choice camouflage for a giant kelpfish and high visual drama to the sightseer lucky enough to discern kelpfish from background. Photo by Judith Lea GarfieldAt the Shores, you’ll need to access the leafy-covered substrate from the Marine Room. From under water, the labyrinth of submerged rocks and boulders are evidence that the cliffs above won’t stand forever. Those who resist change may lament the erosion above the waterline, but the underwater world benefits from the fallout. The boulders themselves may not be alive like corals that make up a tropical reef but for both, the habitat that is formed attracts myriad life.

The giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) prefers to anchor a bit further out; the shorter, tougher algal species prevail in the rocky arena abutting the cliffs, caves, and shore. This setting attracts various red, brown, and green plant or plantlike shrubbery. The lush foliage provides an inviting foundation that attracts other life to come and stay.

Living kelp fronds

One resident ideally suited to make a home here is the giant kelpfish (Heterostichus rostratus). With a sharp, pointed snout and forked tail, the giant kelpfish is impossible to mistake for any other local fish — that is, if you can find one. Though relatively abundant, many long-time divers have never laid eyes on one of these stealth beauties because it travels solo and masterfully blends into the background using a variety of disguises.

Females may be red, brown or green (like the foliage) and grow to more than a foot long. Males top out at about a half-foot long and can’t muster colors beyond brown to olive-green. Both sexes may add stripes, bars, or mottling, whatever best matches the immediate surroundings. Be it patterned or plain, as an added cloaking device, a giant kelpfish body is flattened and elongated to mirror the shape of the weedy blades. Further, ta giant kelpfish orients itself to the angle of the fronds and sways in rhythm with the surge, just like its algal alter egos.

Fecund fronds

Kelpfish spawn year-round, but spring is high season. Each male safeguards his nest of algae to which a female lays eggs that sport entangling threads for adhesion. Males remain vigilant for a couple of weeks until the fertilized eggs hatch. The resulting larvae drift in the sea soup for another couple of weeks, then juvenile kelpfish settle, especially around the giant kelp fronds, schooling with others of their size and ilk while feeding on tiny crustaceans.
Elaborately patterned and multihued, this young giant kelpfish is well-camouflaged to thwart predators. Photo by Judith Lea GarfieldKelpfish coloration follows development. Half-inch-long youngsters are transparent, and inch-long ones are amber-colored with white blotches. Unlike an adult, juveniles remain in clear view within the kelp canopy but once they grow to a couple of inches long, they descend deeper and go it alone. This makes sense, because hanging out with others would likely sabotage the many traits that allow these fish to hide in plain sight.

Fishy fingerprints

If I were to choose a favorite fish, it might be the giant kelpfish, and not because searching for one is like going on a treasure hunt. Each kelpfish is uniquely cloaked; like a snowflake or fingerprint, no two kelpfish are identically hued and patterned. For me, every sighting is a visual surprise because I have no idea what one-of-a-kind outfit a giant kelpfish will be wearing. Au couture!

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to