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Trigger happy_Sydney’s Ocean Log

To beat the sod soaker expected later today, I paddled (saying dog paddled would be redundant, right?) out to the rocky reefs to see what was what and discovered two finescale triggerfishes (Balistes polylepis) meandering among the sickly strands of giant kelp. (Kelp covets cold, and the formerly thick stands of kelp have been annihilated by the long stretch of warm seas.).

Check out the fully exposed trigger atop the back of the triggerfish <em>(Balistes polylepis)</em>.Talk about sticking out like a sore paw, these tropical fishes could in no way hide in the middle of resident fish schooling above the carpeted rocks. It’s not color that detached the triggers from the fishy crowd because the foreigners blended in with the drab locals. It was the triggers’ big, rubbery fins—one atop the back and set near the tail, the other directly opposed on the body’s underside—that gave them away. A trigger’s fins flop first to one side and then the other as the languid traveler navigates through its choice of three dimensions.

“Kiss me you fool, after which I will tear your flesh with my incisors and stab you.”

Triggerfishes don’t worry about speed since they come fully loaded with, for one, weapons of masticating destruction. Despite having a sweet little mouth shaped as if ready to smooch, inside the perpetual pucker are uppers and lowers of small, pointy teeth that make for a classic bait-and-switch lure: “Kiss me you fool, after which I will tear your flesh with my incisors and stab you.”

Stab you? Oh yes. The fish carries more arsenal—a switchblade hidden in its top back pocket to be activated as needed. Triggerfish also use water as a weapon when the dinner bell rings for urchin. In fact, I think the water-as-tool technique elevates urchin hunting to an art. As an urchin ambles along the bottom using its needle-thin tangle of suckered legs, a triggerfish sidles in and blows spurts of water at the base of the urchin until the spherical, spined one is literally bowled over by jet force. Once on its side with soft belly parts exposed, the trigger dives in.

Urchins aren’t only what’s for dinner when triggerfish are peckish. Crustaceans are popular, too. I recall a number of years back during an El Nino when the warm water brought with it a half-dozen triggerfishes that clustered under several buoys. The draw wasn’t the buoys but that they were heavy with barnacles. It took the triggers a week or two traveling from buoy to buoy, like a progressive dinner, to complete their repast, all the while crunching the hard shells of the barnacles to get to the goodies. With the exception of the shell part, that's the kind of party I’d like to go to. But even though the triggers were near the surface, they were so skittish, I couldn’t get near them.

The trigger was like a stray dog following her home or a human waiting for the precise moment to attack.

That's a different trigger story than the ones relayed by my faithful swim companion who spent time in the Azores islands of Portugal. Apparently, the species there are seriously aggressive. Near one of the islands, a trigger swam up to her facemask, stared for a few unnerving moments, then zipped in to repeatedly bite the plastic nose part of her swim mask. Talk about barking mad!

Then, off another island, a triggerfish seemed to have adopted her on a skin dive. The trigger was like a stray following her home or a stealth human waiting for the precise moment to attack. My swim buddy, deciding not to wait for whatever the trigger had in store, kicked in her afterburners and finned away. In canine parlance: Holy Shih-tzu!

So what’s the take-home message? Other than during an El Nino, don't expect to see triggerfish in San Diego waters. If you want to see triggers for sure, head to the Azores where triggerfish are not only plentiful but will even hunt you down. And humans worry about sharks.


Sydney the Golden Seal is a retriever-husky who has logged miles of ocean swims. She writes her column, “Sydney’s Ocean Log,” about the wonders of our watery world. When not dog paddling or opining, Sydney pursues archaeology research in her backyard. Write to Sydney using the Contact page, and put Sydney the Golden Seal in the Subject line.

— 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