Catalina Island

Dive Dry With Dr. Bill Lonely… Again?

DDDB 649 whitetail damsel sm (1)

No, not the good doctor. I may be alone (especially when I dive solo), but usually not too lonely (although I continue to seek the mermaid of my dreams). Way back in the early fall of 2012, I reported on the sighting of a tiny baby fish by Ken Kurtis of Reefseekers in ourdive park. He said it looked like a greenish-blue garibaldi, but their babies are orange and blue. He sent me the pictures he took and identified it as a baby whitetail damsel, Stegastes leucorus, also known commonly as a whitetail gregory since there is another species with the first common name. I referred to it as “the lonely damsel” since it was believed to be the first sighting of this species in California waters… and it takes two to tango (or is it tangle?) from what I remember.
The baby whitetail was in just a few feet of water at the base of the dive park stairs. I spent several dives filming it, with the unfortunate divers having to step on my back to get out of the water. My maximum depth on these “dives” was only seven feet (when it flitted out into “deeper” water for a moment), far from my personal record of 201 fsw (feet of salt water). Of course, at these “incredible” depths, my tank would last for hours. The baby damsel was beautiful in color with blues, greens and yellows. Joining it in the small depression in the rocks were several baby garibaldi with their brilliant blues and orange. Looking at it through my camera viewfinder, it looked quite psychedelic (from what I can remember of the ‘60s… because I WAS there).

On last Sunday’s first dive, I descended to about 50 fsw and noticed a giant sea bass in the distance. I dropped down low and slowly swam out to it with my camera rolling. Based on its behavior it was a female. Her mate soon joined us and I was able to film them for 5-10 minutes as they hovered within just a few feet of me. Other divers approached and the gentle giants took off. That was a nice start to the dive.

I dropped down eventually to 96 fsw but didn’t see anything unusual so I ascended along side the wreck of the Suejac to about 60 fsw and did a short safety stop there. I decided I would spend the rest of the dive in the 30-40 fsw depth range and try to find the very cool Guadalupe cardinalfish (Apogon guadalupensis) we’ve been seeing since last summer. I investigated a small rock out cropping but only saw garibaldi and sheephead so I turned away and started off. Just as I did, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a green “garibaldi” swimming under the rock!

I immediately did a 180 and returned to the rock to film this unusual fish. No, it wasn’t a mutant due to radiation from Fukushima. I recognized it almost immediately as a late juvenile or early adult whitetail damsel! Although I had been looking for the Guadalupe cardinalfish, I encountered another visitor from that island since whitetails are known from Guadalupe Island (home of the great white shark diving adventures) south to the Socorros (more properly known as the Revillagigedo Archipelago off Cabo san Lucas) and Mazatlan. If correct, this is only the second sighting of this species in California waters (Ken’s was the first).

I filmed this skittish damsel (aren’t most of them that way when Dr.Bill is nearby?) for about 40 minutes before returning to the stairs. Since I had my video lights on highest power, the batteries were low. I drove home and gave them an hour charge before returning for a seconddive. Dropped down and spent the entire 76 minute dive with the fish.It was even more skittish than on the first dive so I couldn’t get as much video footage. Half way through the dive, a strange amphibious mammal descended and gave me the “cool” hand sign. It was Ruth Harris leading a CDS snorkel tour and I had told her about the sighting after my first dive.

The second dive was a long 76 minutes spent entirely with the lonely damsel (to cheer her up), but I left the whitetail with plenty of air to get back showing on my pressure gauge. Unfortunately, the gauge’s needle may have stuck or my eyes were foggy, because halfway back I ranout of air. I dove in with 38 pounds of lead to keep myself stable while filming on the bottom, and since I was in my thin (3/2mm) wetsuit, I had little buoyancy, especially as the gas leaked out of my BCD (buoyancy control device). Rather than drop my weights and have to retrieve them later, I bounced up for air every few seconds and hopped my way back to the stairs. Bad Dr.Bill! You should have taken your pony bottle for a second source of compressed air. Do as I say, not as I do divers.

Now after decades of training and experience as a marine biologist, I have a fine eye for detail (despite what my optometrist says). I was up until midnight editing all the video footage and noticed one very interesting thing about the whitetail. The baby I filmed three years go and many of the images I’ve seen of adults show a dark blue ocellusor “eye spot” at the back near the tail. This one didn’t have it, but it did have the characteristic yellow margins on the pectoral fins so I felt pretty certain I was correct in the identification.

I contacted Professor Giacomo Bernardi of UCSC who had confirmed my identification three years ago on the baby whitetail. He was ecstatic about the sighting. Although he was in Tahiti counting fish and didn’t have his West Coast field guides with him, he said he was pretty certain the adults of this species may lose their “eye spot” as they age. He also thought it was quite possible this young adult was the same individual as the baby we observed in 2012. How cool if it munched enough in our strange waters to survive!

Unfortunately, unless another one shows up soon, mating is out of the question (for me, too). These damsels are reef-associated, which means they stick close to home once they settle and do not migrate. Their dispersal is as larvae living within the plankton and drifting in the currents. It is highly unlikely a mature adult would reach our island to provide a mate. If the El Nio induced north-flowing counter-current were to bring another whitetail to our waters, it would be a baby. Should our lonely damsel indeed be female, it would have to be a cougar and wait for the little one to grow up. They are reported to live nearly 20 years, so it is possible.

This is why I continue to dive after 53 years… there’s always something new to see! Even if I live and dive another hundred years, I will never see it all… and most likely not the mermaid of my dreams. Sniff.

(c) 2015 Dr. Bill Bushing. For the entire archived set of over 650 “DiveDry” columns, visit my website

Story & Photo credit: Bill Bushing