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Damsels dress for success and excess

With winter in full swing, many local divers dispatch their wetsuits to the garage and flee to warmer waters. Descending in seas 25 degrees warmer than California waters is tempting, I’ll grant you that, but warm water doesn’t necessarily equate with hotter-looking marine life.
In other words, if you can get past our, um, brisk conditions, the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park presents an environment not found in tropical seas. And it’s a little-known fact that the best underwater visibility off our coast typically takes place during winter months. Dive in and see our feisty, florid damselfish, the garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), which far “outblings” its dowdy little-sister damsels found in Hawaiian waters. And taking into account the many more damsel species worldwide — which are brightly hued — not one can measure up (literally) to our garibaldi, the giant among damsels.

I recall snorkeling in Hawaii to see the dusky Pacific gregory (Stegastes fasciolatus), a petite damselfish that grows to only several inches long. It spawns mostly from December to March and feeds primarily on algae, which is maintained and guarded as a small algal patch within its domain. Conversely, the flame-colored garibaldi grows to more than a foot long and spawns from April to July. Our damsel-on-steroids enjoys a varied take-out diet that incorporates both animals (sponges, worms, crabs) and vegetables (algae). Due to fierce territoriality (viewed in human terms as a cranky disposition), both tropical and temperate damsels lead a solitary life. Our garibaldi patrols unkempt seaweed-smothered rocky reefs while the gregory guards its own crack or crevice, usually defined by natural formations like coral heads or clumps of weed. Both damsels are found in near-shore environments and have distinctive yet familiar nesting and spawning behaviors.

A gregory male spends a fraction of time nest-building on its coral domain compared to a male garibaldi, who toils for about a month each season (to be fair, the garibaldi doesn’t tend a year-round algal garden like the gregory). There is nothing like eavesdropping on a male garibaldi once the ceremony begins: He uses his teeth to bite off a thicket of brown algae and tiny animals (such as snails and bryozoans) from the face of a rock. All that remains is an oval patch of red algal undergrowth — the nest — that resembles a perfectly manicured, just-plowed plot of mauve Bermuda grass. To entice the female, the male performs a “dipping” dance, flitting about in acrobatic loops to attract a “damsel” damsel’s attention. Once she lays her yellow eggs, which stick nicely to the groomed algae, he chases her out and then fertilizes the brood.

I witnessed a pair of spawning gregories while freediving around Black Rock in Ka’anapali, Maui. In water about 10 feet deep, a 3-inch-long male swam and dipped within the small boundaries of his coral domain. Shortly thereafter, a female swooped in and released eggs. During these several seconds, the male nervously paced nearby to safeguard his clutch from potential interlopers. In no time, with the male nipping at her heels, so to speak, the female dashed out of the nest, leaving the male to fertilize the freshly laid eggs. As with all damsels, the male’s work is not done. He continues to groom the nest and care for the eggs until they hatch and enter the plankton realm as tiny larval fish.

Most of the world’s 240 or so damselfish family members are less than 8 inches long and are found on tropical reefs in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans. Certainly, Hawaii’s damsels have benefited from their small size and bland appearance, a dress-for-success tack that allows them to be easily overlooked or purposely ignored. Not so for the garibaldi, who has been penalized for dressing to excess by wearing a flamboyant color, having outsized physical dimensions and defending its territory to its death. By attracting the wrong kind of attention, the garibaldi’s status has been one of damsel in distress for being an easy mark among spear fishers and collectors in the aquarium trade. To raise awareness of the garibaldi’s beauty and plight, it was proclaimed California’s official state marine fish in 1995, which has provided some protection from human hunters.

I‘ve spent a considerable amount of time traveling to the tropics, so I can’t argue that, in general, warm-water fish are more richly variable and patterned than species found off our coast. However, this doesn’t make what lives off our coast one of the ocean’s poor relations. For one, we can claim the Cadillac of damselfish, Southern California’s garibaldi, which is only one example of what makes diving in our temperate waters a singular experience.

— 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