I glided over the ledge of the reef towards a cluster of bread-loaf sized rocks lying in the sand.
As I got closer, it appeared that one of the rocks had small beady black eyes. The eyes emanated a hypnotic stare, which seemed to say, “stay away, stay away.”
Ignoring the stare I inched closer and came face to face with a spotted scorpionfish (Scorpaena plumieri), the master of camouflage.
I thought “wow, you don’t see those every day.” If fact, I have gone hundreds of dives without seeing any.
I wanted a good close-up image and carefully moved some of the rocks lying near the scorpionfish to get a better shot. The fish bristled a bit but then settled down giving me its “I’m not bad but the bad don’t mess with me” look.
I muttered, “chill dude” and snapped off a few shots before swimming away to follow two divers being led by dive instructor and retired Marine officer Mark Birk.
Now, some folks are horse whisperers and others are dog whisperers. Mark is a spotted scorpionfish whisperer. Hang out with Mark on Pleasure Reef and you have a good chance of seeing a spotted scorpionfish. After seeing the first fish, Mark found two more – Ooh Rah! Maybe ex-marines have a special bonding with scorpionfish. Being an ex-Army infantry grunt, I wouldn’t know.
Back on the dive boat, I complimented Mark on his scorpionfish finding ability. He sagely nodded and said: “You know, you were making the scorpionfish angry.” I thought, “How can you tell, the fish looks angry all the time?” But then, Mark is a spotted scorpionfish whisperer.
The next dive I was on my own. An old song by the Coasters ran through my head:
“I've been searchin' (gonna find her)
A-a searchin' (gonna find her)
Oh, yeah, searchin' every which a-way yeah, yeah (gonna find her)
Oh, yeah, searchin' (gonna find her)
I'm searchin' (gonna find her)
Searchin' every which a-way yeah, yeah.” From “Searching” a song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for the Coasters in March 1957)
I didn’t find a spotted scorpionfish.
But, that is not unusual. They are well camouflaged and can be mistaken for a piece of coral or sand covered rock to blend in with their surroundings to go unnoticed by prey or predators.
According to Lad Akins, director of special projects for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), “Even though you could swear they have algae growing on them, it’s actually their skin.” He adds, “The spots aren’t normally seen as they are on the backside of the pectoral (on either side behind a fish's head) fins.”
Spotted scorpionfish hide on the bottom in cervices and other places near coral reefs and rocky areas. They can be found from approximately 16 to 180 feet deep.
Spotted scorpionfish are the largest and most common of the scorpionfishes in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. They range from Bermuda to Massachusetts, and the northern Gulf of Mexico to southern Brazil.
“There are more than 200 recognized species of scorpionfish hiding among the ocean reefs and in artificial aquariums around the world.” http://a-z-animals.com/animals/scorpion-fish/
The spotted scorpionfish is a spiny-headed, robust fish with a dorsal (back) fin having 12 spines and nine and a half soft rays and the pectoral fin with 18-21 fin rays.
The maximum reported length of the spotted scorpionfish is 17.7 inches; The average size is 7 to14 inches. The maximum recorded weight is about 3 1/2 pounds.
The spotted scorpionfish is not a hunter. Its camouflage enables it to lie in wait to ambush small fish and crustaceans. Its large mouth creates a vacuum to quickly suck in and swallow prey during a nearly imperceptible split-second movement (15 milliseconds).
Scorpionfishes are not aggressive, but if threatened they raise their dorsal spines. If the perceived danger continues, they quickly swim a short distance away to settle and “freeze.”
Predators of the spotted scorpionfish include the schoolmaster and mutton snapper, sharks, rays, moray eels and people.
Females spotted scorpionfish produce thousands of greenish transparent eggs. During spawning, the eggs and sperm are released and the fertilized eggs then float near the surface in a gelatinous mass.
The eggs hatch in about two days and the tiny scorpionfish try to remain near the surface of the water until they reach nearly an inch in length — at which time they swim down to the reef.
The dorsal spines of spotted scorpionfish, although not as long and sharp as those of a lionfish, are venomous. Their main purpose is to protect the fish from predators. But, they can cause a painful sting to the diver that accidently places a hand on its back. If stung immediate medical attention is recommended.
Akins advises to use the same treatment for both lionfish and spotted scorpion fish stings, “hot water.”
Spotted scorpionfish are not considered a game fish but are edible. Usually, they are unintentionally caught by line, in traps, and shallow water trawls. There has been at least one reported case of ciguatera poisoning from the human consumption of the fish in the Virgin Islands.
There doesn’t appear to be any regulations relating to catching spotted scorpionfish. But, it is a good idea to review regulations relating to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary before doing any fishing in sanctuary areas. (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/regs/welcome.html)
A distant relative of the spotted scorpionfish, the lionfish, is an invasive fish harmful to the reef. Folks are encouraged to catch and eat lionfish. The REEF organization even has a cookbook containing recipes on how to prepare tasty lionfish dishes. (http://www.reef.org/catalog/cookbook)
Regulations pertaining to taking lionfish and be seen at: http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/lionfish/
Many divers quickly fin around mesmerized watching the unchoreographed ballet of colorful tropical reef fish. Sometimes the divers are jolted from their reverie by seeing a large eel, ray, occasional nurse shark or turtle.
If the divers slow down and look into the cracks, crevasses and overhangs of the reef, they may spot other critters like lobster and crab.
If they slow down even more and look very carefully, they might even find the master of camouflage — the spotted scorpionfish.
But then, they could also request the underwater safari guide, the scorpion whisperer Mark Birk, to show them one, two or even three spotted scorpionfish.
The spotted scorpionfish is not listed as endangered or vulnerable with the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.
For more on spotted scorpionfish see: https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/discover/species-profiles/scorpaena-plumieri/
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at email@example.com.