The Most Photographed Tessellated Blenny in the World

Tessellated Blenny's colorful neck by Ned DeLoachThis is the most photographed Tessellated Blenny in the world and likely the most observed. I am certain of this. I spent hours with this fish and its reefmates –  I think I might have been obsessed. A few days after we arrived on Bonaire for our annual 5-week stay, our friends Allison and Carlos Estape (fellow fish surveyors) stopped by and told us about a site that had Tessellated Blennies (Hypsoblennius invemar) living in the barnacle shells. An abandoned, submerged mooring covered with a complex growth of sponges, barnacles and other invertebrates, this was perfect habitat for Tessellated Blennies. Enchanted by these colorful fish, we visited the site, dubbed the “blenny condo,” again and again regularly finding from 12 to 15 individuals, including one only a half-inch long.

The Tessellated Blenny that started it all Ned DeLoachAbove: another view of the same blenny. Of all the blennies at the condo, this individual had the most developed cirri. It was also the most photogenic, sitting in a barnacle shell that was free of surrounding growth. Over five weeks, Ned and I showed it and the others in the colony to many fishwatchers and photographers – anyone who was willing to spend an hour at eight feet to look at a tiny, 2-inch fish. Although the mooring was attached to the bottom, at a depth of 26 feet, all the blennies I counted were in the top ten feet of water. Looking up, you can see how close the top of the mooring is to the surface:The Bonaire Blenny condo by Ned DeLoach

Hanging out at ten feet could be tough when it was surgy, but we made a number of dawn dives, when the water was calmer and the blennies were particularly active. I was able to distinguish some of the females from the males by their behavior. In many blennies, the nuptial males are colored differently from the females and young, non-breeding males. They are usually site attached, rarely leaving their holes – I think this is because they are either guarding eggs or trying to attract females to lay eggs there. The Tessellated Blennies that never left their holes were the most vibrantly colored and strongly patterned, which led me to believe they were the males. When what I thought was a female approached, the males exhibited a very distinctive head-bobbing behavior, often leaning way out of the hole, like this one:Tessellated Blenny trying to attract a female by Ned DeLoach

I could not tell the difference between the females and young males, but many were running around and getting into frequent fights with each other. When I saw a male going crazy, bobbing up and down like a mini-piston, I was certain the target of his showboating was a female, like this one that tucked itself into a shell after running around the male several times:Tessellated Blenny Female by Ned DeLoach

Ned shot dozens of photos of the Tessellated Blennies on the blenny condo but this is my favorite. I wuv de widdle toofees: The Laughing Blenny by Ned DeLoach

Coming soon: a revised Bonaire blenny map.

Blenny Challenge Week 2

Orange-spotted Blenny Hypleurochilus springeri Ned DeLoach

Orange-spotted Blenny (Hypleurochilus springeri) found in barnacle shells on dock pilings.

We just wrapped up week 2 of the Bonaire Blenny Challenge and we are on a roll! Following a suggestion from our friend, Bonaire naturalist Jerry Ligon, we visited his home reef, Bari and scored with an Orange-spotted Blenny, Hypleurochilus springeri. We first dived with Jerry on a REEF Field survey back in the ’90s and he is still one of the best sources on the island for fish and bird watching (check out his Biological Tours of Bonaire).

Starksia complex Ned DeLoach

A blenny from the Starksia hassi complex

On Bari Reef, we also found a tiny Starksia, from the S. hassi complex, perched in a vase sponge. There have been many interesting developments with the Starksias over the past few years. Seven new species were described two years ago (link to that paper is here) and a number of others are in the process of being described. DNA analysis is revealing that many known species are actually a complex of species with similar appearance and with much smaller ranges.

Medusa Blenny Acanthemblemaria medusa Ned DeLoach

Check out the cirri and spines on the head of this Medusa Blenny.

Team Buddy (Eunice, Christine and Toni) took up the blenny challenge and headed out with me to see how many blennies we could find on the Buddy Dive house reef. Blennywatcher reader, Rick Francis commented last week that he saw Tessellated Blennies on the pilings of the dock when he was here recently. Everyone was keen to look for Sailfin Blennies so we mapped out a route that had us hunting over the expanse of sand between the resort and the reef, back to bounce around in the surge in the rocks and along the sea wall and under the docks. No Tessellated blennies, but we found another group of Orange-spotted Blennies on the dock pilings. We finished up at Medusa Rock, a small rock that has for at least the past five years, been home to a colony of Medusa Blennies, including a lovely green variation of this animated fish. We found 14 blenny species during the 75-minute dive, bringing our species count up to 18. We’ve been trying to get over the windward east coast, a.k.a., the Wild Side, to pick up a few more species and reports say the wind will be down tomorrow so stay tuned! ~ The Blennywatchers

Bonaire Blenny Challenge

Spinyhead Blenny Acanthemblemaria spinosa Ned DeLoach

Spinyhead Blenny (Acanthemblemaria spinosa): Ready for the Bonaire Blenny Challenge

We are in Bonaire and on a blenny hunt! I’m calling it the Bonaire Blenny Challenge. This is the start of our five-week stay, as resident naturalists, at Buddy Dive Resort. In addition to presenting slide shows and diving with fellow underwater enthusiasts, we have many opportunities to explore on our own and I always try to set some goals for the month. One year we set out to record a jawfish releasing its hatching eggs; last year it was to observe and photograph hatching Sergeant Major eggs. This year, we are on a quest to see as many species of blennies as possible.

Mimic Blenny Labrisomus guppyi Ned DeLoach

Another blenny for our life lists! The Mimic Blenny (Labrisomus guppyi)

Our good friends Cassandra  and Franklin Neal emailed to let me know they found Hairy Blennies of all sizes out in front of their home just down the shore from where we are staying so we headed down there for our first dive of the trip. Cassandra had also found a mystery blenny, which turned out to be a Chessboard Blenny, Starksia sluiteri, a species Ned had not yet photographed. We spent two hours in the water, never venturing deeper than 4 meters or farther than 6 or 7 meters from shore. The result? Twelve species of blennies, eleven of which were along a 20-meter stretch of coastline where we spent the first 90 minutes. I picked up the 12th, a Sailfin Blenny, on our swim back to Buddy Dive.

Chessboard Blenny Starksia sluiteri Ned DeLoach

The Chessboard Blenny (Starksia sluiteri): Cassandra found two of these 1/2 inch blennies.

Our mantra is: always go with local knowledge. Not wanting to jinx things after the success of our first dive,  we headed out with our friend, local guide Susan Porter (check out her Bonaire Shore Diving Made Easy) for a dive along the ironshore. My hunt took a 30-minute detour when I called on one of my favorite cleaning stations and happily found it to be still active, including five species of eels hunkered down in this busy place (more about this in a future post). The blenny hunt suffered another setback when Susan found us a Barred Clingfish, another species for our life lists. What a beautifully cryptic little fish! With too many interesting distractions, I gave up on blenny hunting for the day, stopping at seven species.

We have 16 blenny species in four dives this week. I am using common names, but if I have time, will add scientific names and photos. I’ll keep posting with results but this is a call for help: share your Bonaire blenny knowledge. Where can we find more? Can you help me add to this list of blennies? So far we have: Chessboard, Dusky, Goldline, Hairy, Medusa, Mimic, Molly Miller, Pearl, Pikeblenny, Redlip, Saddled, Seaweed, Sailfin, Spinyhead, Two-bar Triplefin and Orangespotted. ~ Anna D.

Death by Ctenophore

Ctenophore captures and engulfs fish Ned DeLoach

Benthic ctenophore on sea star captures and engulfs fish

March 2013, Halmahera, Indonesia ~ Oh no! Right before my eyes, my beloved benthic ctenophores, so delicate and colorful, have metamorphosed from gentle plankton netters to smothering killers of fishes and crabs! Drifting over a black rubble slope off Makian, our guide Yann Alfian points out a ctenophore-covered starfish. During our October trip around Batanta aboard the Dewi Nusantara, Yann asked me why I was spending so much time looking at these things on the starfish. I explained that these colorful invertebrates that look like flatworms are related to the comb jellies that we see floating by in the water column. In the past year, I have found benthic ctenophores on at least four different species of starfish and on several corals. Each one has two feeding tentacles that they cast out to catch passing plankton. I think the delicate tentacles drifting in the current are beautiful and dreamy, so I shoot video whenever I see them (see my previous post and video, “Ctenophores Galore“). “I don’t show them to the guests because I don’t think they find them interesting,” is Yann’s understatement.

Sea Star (Bali) with ctenophores Ned DeLoach

Sea star covered with benthic ctenophores (taken in Bali)

Here on Makian, the starfish is a different color from others I’ve recorded, so I settle to video the ctenophores casting their feeding tentacles into the current. I hear Yann tapping and look up to see his hand signal, “Ghost pipefish” and signal back that I’ll be there in a minute. To my astonishment, in the few seconds that I looked away, a ctenophore has trapped a tiny fish, which is now struggling for its life. I’ve been obsessed with ctenophores for the past year but always thought they ate microscopic zooplankton, so I am shocked as I watch one entangle and slowly engulf the fish – shocked but excited, of course, to witness something so unexpected. This prompts me to go back and examine photos and video from our trip to Bali last year and sure enough, some clearly show lumps – fish perhaps?

Comet star with ctenophores Ken Marks via

The ctenophores on this comet star appear to have enveloped large prey items (from Bali, 2012).

Over the next two days, I seize every chance to visit the rubble slope, which is just below a dry riverbed, so the organic matter deposited after rain makes the site rich with crabs, shrimp and many small fishes. The starfish, about a half dozen, travel rapidly around the bottom in bursts that last about 15 minutes and during those times, I see the ctenophores snag two crabs, another fish and yank a poor tube worm right out of its tube. After giving this some thought, it makes sense, since the benthic ctenophores’ pelagic cousins are dominant carnivores in the zooplankton food chain. Many other divers in our group, forced into ctenophore-awareness by my obsessive chatter, also witness the action and Ned gets a great series of photos of yet another fish in the grips of the ctenophores.

At lunch, we discuss the many ways one could meet one’s end in the sea and decide a smothering death by ctenophore would be one of the worst – we are happy these creatures are small. Back home, we asked Dr Gerry Allen to help identify the fish: possibly Limnichthys nitidus, a sand burrowing fish that lives in dense populations in shallow, sandy bottoms and dart quickly when disturbed. Dr. George Matsumoto, a ctenophore expert, has kindly provided reference material that is serving to fuel the ctenophore flame, so stay tuned for more ctenophore excitement (video is in the works).