Our eyes met and we shared a brief watery waltz along the steep-edged boulder bank of Isla Carmen’s Punta Perico. I was wearing my drab black wetsuit topped by a ridiculously bright orange and pink beanie to signal caution to my nemesis: oblivious jet skiers. He sported a banded, otherworldly, ephemeral, periwinkle blue underneath scales edged in a striking, rust-in-fire orange. He was big. Almost a meter long, this creature, glimpsed rarely in the Sea of Cortez. But there he was, curious about me it seemed. He spiral-drifted up gracefully toward me from the dark deep. His banding and bright colors seemed at times to recede into the less vivid background of his milky grey skin, but then magically resurface in a flash. Being a human and anthropocentric, it seemed this Blunt Head Triggerfish (Pseudobalistes naufragium) was signaling me. But what I perceived as mutual curiosity could have been defensive behavior. Was I the clueless jet ski in his funnel-shaped nesting territory? What was he trying to communicate?
Here in the Gulf of California triggerfish (usually the common Balistes polylepis, as seen in photos above) are called Peces de Puerco (pork fish) and known as a tasty catch. But males of other species, especially those in the Indo-Pacific, have a reputation with divers as being aggressive if you enter their territory. Incredibly (but not surprisingly) very little is known about the Blunt Head Triggerfish. Like other triggerfish they are probably also adamant egg defenders and adept problem solvers. Since they’re not fast swimmers, using just their dorsal and anal fins to move languidly through the water, they’ve evolved and adopted some special traits and abilities.
Triggerfish have strong teeth (uncannily like human molars) for crunching spiny and venomous critters like Crowns of Thorns starfish and fire-worms (Above left photo); species that other fish leave alone. Triggerfish eyes are set way back along their bodies, far from their mouths, to protect them from getting impaled when they dig into a super spiny meal like a sea urchin (Above right photo).
Behaviorally, triggerfish have learned to blow jets of water onto the substrate to uncover their burrowed, hidden meals. They even shoot streams of water at urchins to turn them belly up and move rocks off hidden prey. Oh yeah, and there’s their namesake. When a predator tries to eat them, they not only erect a very sharp spine behind their head, but a smaller, secondary spine (the trigger) flips up under it to lock the formidable lance in place. If pursued they can even dive into a rocky crevice and use that trigger to lock themselves in place.
Now, if someone would please study the magical color and pattern changing that I witnessed in the Blunt Head so I can understand them better. Was I being warned? Courted? Tested? I can only guess at what that luminous flare of colors and textures meant to the fish. But he did get my attention and gave me a flash of inspiration for a social art project. I just created my first in what I hope will be a long string of found-object paintings that I will be leaving near beaches for fellow travelers to find and keep . . . until they are ready to share them with someone else.
This is my Blunt Head Triggerfish Walking Stick that you can find at the top of Los Frailles peak, at the Southern end of Cabo Pulmo National Park. Come and get it!
*Photo credits: I took the first one of Paul snorkeling over a rocky drop off and the one of my stick. Paul took the rest. The pile of trigger fish skeletons is a modern midden we found near Himalaya Bay, Sonora, Mexico.