Creature Feature: Fairy Basslet

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Common Facts:

Scientific name: Gramma loreto

Diet: Small crustaceans, parasitic organisms found on larger fish, plankton

Size: Up to 3 inches

Range: Western Atlantic Ocean—Florida to northern South America and the Caribbean Sea

Despite their tiny size, Fairy basslets are hard to miss. With their bright purple and yellow bodies, it’s easy to spot these darting flashes of color. Fairy basslets are coral reef inhabitants and can generally be found under ledges or in caves.

“Fairy basslets are known to swim upside-down under ledges and along cave ceilings. They live in colonies and defend their territory from other species and even from other fairy basslets. Male fairy basslets guard and care for the eggs and the nest.”

Males find and establish nest sites before they participate in spawning activity. They find small crevices and holes in the reef and line them with algae, to cover the opening. Then, at dawn, female basslets will come to the nesting sites and deposit their eggs in a nest. After 10-11 days, the male’s guard duty is complete and the eggs hatch. “Then the larvae are believed to proceed to the planktonic stage until they are sufficiently heavy to resettle on the reef.”

Something interesting about Fairy basslets is that they are all born female, but can change sex to male. Males are more colorful than females and darken when they are ready to mate. Males also become a little bit larger than the females.

Fairy basslets are a beautiful and fun fish to observe! Take the time to admire them if you ever happen upon them.


Written by: Kari Shirley, intern


Creature Feature: Spotted Handfish

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Common Facts:

Scientific name -Brachionichthys hirsutus

Size – 10-15 cm

Diet – Small crustacea and worms

It’s not often that you find a fish that would rather walk than swim. But that’s exactly how it is for the Spotted Handfish. These rare fish, prefer to use their pectoral and ventral fins to pull themselves along the sea bottom, rather than swim. Hence the name, Spotted Handfish.

It’s ‘paired fins’ are not the only feature that make the Spotted Handfish a distinctive species. They are pear-shaped, cream colored and have an array of brown and yellow-brown spots—each individual fish has a pattern that is unique to them. They also have a lure above their mouth that is thought is be used a way to entice prey, but this has yet to be proven.

“The Spotted Handfish is a bottom dwelling fish that lives in coarse to fine silt and sand at depths of 2-30 metres.” They typically reproduce during the months of September and October by laying up to 250 eggs on objects connected to the bottom of the sea. The female Spotted Handfish will then stand guard over the eggs for 7-8 weeks until they hatch. Once they are hatched, the new fish are on their own. But they don’t venture far—they normally stay in the same area they were born for the rest of their lives.

The Spotted Handfish is one of the most endangered marine fish in the world. They have undergone a massive decline in recent decades. “Although unproven, it is thought that the introduction of the northern Pacific seastar to Tasmania at this time may be the key to the decimation of the hand fish population.” The seastars are predators of shellfish and many believe that they may eat the handfish eggs or the sea squirts where the eggs are sometimes attached. “This species is under added threat from its vastly reduced population, limited dispersal, restricted distribution and low reproductive rate.” Conservation efforts are currently underway.


Creature Feature: Leafy Sea Dragon

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Common Facts:

Scientific name –Phycodurus eques

Size – Up to 16 inches long

Diet – Krill, mysids, sea lice

Range – South and Western Australia

If you were scuba diving along the rocky reefs of Southern and Western Australia, you might never spot one of the beautiful Leafy sea dragon! For a couple of different reasons. First, these fish are rare. And second, they are camouflaged to blend in perfectly with the seaweeds and seagrass around them!

Leafy sea dragons are related to sea horses, and have a similar body type—except they don’t use their tail to grip things like sea horses do. And they have some extra frills that seahorses do not. “Sea dragons are some of the most ornately camouflaged creatures on the planet. Adorned with gossamer, leaf-shaped appendages over their entire bodies, they are perfectly outfitted to blend in with the seaweed and kelp formations they live amongst.”

Leafy sea dragons have small dorsal and pectoral fins that they use to awkwardly swim through the water. Although a lot of the time, they enjoy just letting the current carry them, like the seaweed they are mimicking.

Something interesting about Leafy sea dragons is that the males are the ones that do the child-bearing! The females deposit their eggs on a brood patch the males have on the underside of their tails. The eggs are fertilized in this process, and then the males carry them for 4-6 weeks until they hatch. Luckily for the parents, the work is then done. Baby sea dragons are independent from birth.

Due to their excellent camouflaging skills, Leafy sea dragons have very few predators, outside of humans. Humans love to catch them and keep them as pets because they are such beautiful creatures. Australia currently has a ban on hunting/fishing/disturbing Leafy sea dragons in the hopes that their numbers will increase.



Written by: Kari Shirley, intern


Creature Feature: Mimic Octopus

Common Facts:

Scientific name – Thaumoctopus mimicus

Diet – Small fish and crustaceans

Size – Up to 2 feet long, with 25 centimeter arms

Life span – Said to live for around 9 months

Initially, if you happened upon a Mimic octopus, you would think that it was just a normal, slightly small, octopus. But the Mimic octopus is not your typical octopus. These sea creatures have LOTS of tricks up their sleeve.

It is the behavior of the Mimic octopus that makes it stand out and gives it it’s name. “Mimicry is commonly used as a survival strategy in nature. However the mimic appears to be able to take on the appearance of not just 1 other species, but of several.” Not only that, but all of the other species that the Mimic imitates are venomous, making this a deliberate and evolved tactic of survival.

The Mimic octopus can make itself appear to be a Lion fish, sea snake and a sole/flatfish. It bends and shapes it’s body to look just like theirs. Below is a video showing the Mimic octopus in action.

The Mimic octopus also has a lot of the same physical characteristics of other octopus species have. They have the ability to change the color and texture of their skin to blend into their surroundings to protect themselves. They have “8 arms, a mantle containing 3 hearts and other internal organs, and a siphon used for jet propulsion. The arms have 2 rows of suckers, each sucker having a touch sensor and a chemoreceptor, allowing the mimic effectively to feel and taste its food before it eats it. It has a large brain but lacks the sense of hearing.”



Written by: Kari Shirley, intern

Creature Feature: Beluga Whale

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Scientific Name: Delphinapterus leucas

Size – 13 to 20 feet, 2000 to 3000 pounds

Life span – 35 to 50 years

Diet – Fish, crustaceans, and worms


Beluga whales are born to stand out—with their unusual white color, they are easy to spot and recognize. They aren’t always this color though. Baby Belugas are born gray or brown, and then fade to white as they mature sexually.

Compared to most whales, Belugas are small, ranging from 13-20 feet in length. They are also unique because they lack a dorsal fin, something most fish and marine mammals have. There are several other things that make Belugas special. They have a more complex way of communicating with one another, utilizing clicks, whistles and clangs, along with other sounds that they sometimes mimic.

Beluga whales can be found in the coastal waters of the Arctic Ocean, and in subarctic waters as well. Belugas almost always live and travel in small groups call Pods. They migrate south when the ocean begins to freeze over and have to move quickly, otherwise they could be trapped under the ice and suffocate—or become an easy target for predators, like Polar Bears.

You might wonder why Beluga whales live in such a frigid environment. They have a thick layer of blubber (which can be as thick as 5 inches!) to help keep them insulated and warm. They also have a hard dorsal ridge along their back and a tough forehead, which helps them to swim through the icy sea water.

Beluga whales are truly amazing and beautiful creatures. Should you ever be near arctic waters, take some time and see if you can spot these fantastic white whales! They are worth the wait.


Written by: Kari Shirley, intern

Creature Feature: Spinner Dolphin

Common Facts:

Scientific name – Stenella longirostris

Diet – Small fish and squid

Size – 6-7 feet, 130-170 pounds

Lifespan – up to 20 years

Most of us are familiar with dolphins—the fun and playful porpoises that can often be seen leaping out of the water to socialize with each other and with humans. One type of dolphin that you may not be as familiar with is the Spinner Dolphin.

Spinner dolphins are named after their above the water theatrics—they love to leap out of the water and spin a few times on their body axis while doing so. Some can spin as many as four times around in one leap.

These dolphins love to stay together and are usually found in huge groups. They do their hunting at night, feeding mainly on mid-water fishes and deep-water squid, and then they rest during the day time.

Spinner dolphins can been found all over the world, mainly in tropical and subtropical oceans. For some reason, Spinners tend to follow groups of Yellowfin Tuna around. Because of this, fishermen seeking Tuna will often track the dolphins in order to get to them. Oftentimes, the dolphins are caught in the nets with the tuna, and because of this, their population is decreasing.

Thankfully, “Fishing methods for tuna imported into the U.S. under the Dophin-Safe program do not allow fishing practices, such as setting on dolphins.” The Spinner Dolphin population is at a stable number right now.

So if you are ever in a warm and tropical area, close to the ocean, stay alert to see if you can see any Spinner Dolphins. If you do, you are in for a show!

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Written by: Kari Shirley, intern

Creature Feature: Sunfish


Common Facts:

Diet – Jellyfish, small fish, zooplankton and algae

Size – Up to 14 feet

Weight – Up to 5,000 pounds

Habitat – Open Waters

Sunfish, also known as Mola, are one of the largest fishes to be found in the ocean. Out of all the bony fish, they are heaviest. The largest Sunfish have been known to reach 14 feet vertically and 10 feet horizontally and can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Which is a little shocking for a fish that looks so much like a pancake.

“Sunfish, or mola, develop their truncated, bullet-like shape because the back fin which they are born with simply never grows. Instead, it folds into itself as the enormous creature matures, creating a rounded rudder called a clavus.” Their odd shape makes them awkward swimmers. They use their dorsal and anal fins to move and steer with their clavus.

Sunfish can be found in the warm and tropical oceans around the world. They love to rest just below the surface of the water, so that they can bask in the sun, hench the name Sunfish. Sometimes, when one of their big fins sticks up out of the water, people mistake them for sharks. But don’t be alarmed, Sunfish are not a threat to humans.

Oftentimes, Sunfish become infested with skin parasites. When this happens, they allow small fish and sometimes even birds to peck at their skin and get the parasites out.

Sunfish love to eat jellyfish, it is their main source of nutrients. Unfortunately, at times, they mistake plastic bags floating in the ocean as jellyfish, and have been known to choke on the bags. So be aware of your surroundings when you are at the beach! If you see trash, pick it up! You may be saving one of these beautiful, gentle creatures.

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Written by: Kari Shirley, intern


Creature Feature: Bat Ray

Common Facts:

Scientific name – Myliobatis californica

Habitat – Sandy seafloors

Range – Eastern Pacific from Oregon, to the Sea of Cortex and near the Galapagos Islands

Diet – Molluscs, crustaceans, small fish

Size – Female can reach wingspans of 6 feet and weights of 200 pounds, while males are smaller

Life Span – Up to 35 years

The Bat Ray is an animal that we see often at the Marine Science Institute because many of them live here in the San Francsico bay! These graceful creatures get their name from not only the way they look, but they way they swim. They swim by flapping their pectoral fins (which have a strong resemblance to wings). They love to hang out in muddy and sandy bottomed bays, kelp forests and near coral reefs.

Bat Rays use their “wings” for more than just moving around. They flap their fins to stir up the sand on the ocean floor to expose potential food sources. Once they find something to eat, like a clam, they can use their snout to dig them up. Bat Rays have teeth that are fused into plates. This enables them to crush almost any clam shell. They crush the shell, spit out the shards and get the soft and fleshy parts. And lucky for Bat Rays, their teeth are constantly growing! So if a tooth ever breaks, they have nothing to worry about—it will be replaced soon.

Bat Rays tend to be lone riders, except when it’s mating season or time to feed. Female bat rays carry their babies for 9-12 months before giving birth. And they can give birth to 2-12 pups! Depending on how big the mother is.

If you’re ever swimming and see a Bat Ray, it would be better to keep your distance. These creatures have 3 poisonous barbs on their tails that they use to defend themselves from predators. And they won’t stop to ask if you are friend or foe before they use them!

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Written by: Kari Shirley, intern

Creature Feature: Great White Shark

Common Facts:

Scientific name – Carcharodon carcharias

Diet – carnivore

Size – 15-20 feet

Weight – 5,000+ pounds

Protection Status – Endangered

What is the first thing you think of when you hear the name, Great White Shark? Jaws, shark attack, predator, etc. While the Great White IS a top predator and carnivore, that deserves respect and space, Great Whites are not as scary as society has portrayed them to be. They are not predators of man.

Great White Sharks are the largest predatory fish in the world. And they definitely have an intimidating look to them. They can reach up to 20 feet in length (sometimes even more!) and over 5,000 pounds. Great Whites have gray upper bodies that help them blend in with the ocean floor, but they get their name from their white bellies. “They have a conical snout, pitch black eyes, a heavy, torpedo-shaped body, and a crescent-shaped, nearly equal-lobed tail fin that is supported on each side by a keel.”

Great Whites are built to hunt. “Their mouths are lined with up to 300 serrated triangular teeth arranged in several rows, and they have an exceptional sense of smell to detect prey.”  Free-diving with these guys is not encouraged, but there are those that have done so and lived to tell the tale. Great White Sharks prey mainly on sea lions, seals, small toothed whales and even elephant seals.

Most attacks on human are not to eat or kill. Great Whites are curious and most “attacks” on humans are just out of curiosity to see what we are/taste like and most incidents are not fatal. Not the most comforting thing to hear, but it’s good to know we are not a normal menu item for Great Whites.

While experts are unsure on the size of the Great White’s population, it is agreed that their numbers have been dropping because of overfishing. They are considered a endangered species, so if you catch one, let it go!

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Written by: Kari Shirley

Creature Feature: California Sea Lion

Common Facts:

Scientific name – Zalophus californianus

Average life span – 30 years or less

Diet – Fish, shellfish, squid

Size – 5.5 to 7.25 feet

If you’ve ever been to Pier 39, then you have seen (and heard) a California Sea Lion. These sea lions are fun, have playful personalities and are very smart. They are also a force to be reckoned with in the wild.

The California Sea Lion is a fast and sleek animal—faster than all other seals and sea lions! They can swim up to 25 miles per hour. They can also remain underwater for up to TEN minutes before they have to come up for air. This makes hunting much easier for them, since their primary food source are animals like fish, squid and shellfish.

California Sea Lions can be found all along the western coast of North America and are known to live near the Galapagos Islands as well. Males gather harems of females and huge groups of sea lions will gather on the shores to breed and give birth. California Sea Lions are very social creatures and can almost always be found in groups.

Thankfully, the population of California Sea Lions is growing. There are approximately 238,000 of them right now. So if you are ever in the Galapagos or near the western coast of North America, keep an eye out for these fun animals. Maybe even buy them some fish if it’s allowed where you are at. They love that!



Written by: Kari Shirley, intern

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