Years ago when diving in Bimini, a boat of big game fishermen overheard my group’s excitement after we broke the surface. Our hooping and howling caused them to race over and ask what fish we were hunting.
Upon hearing “blennies” the fishermen flashed perplexed looks and quickly sped away: We laughed for hours.
That excitement still drives me today when finding blennies. This animated group of fishes range from the high dorsal fins of the sailfin blenny (pictured below), the chin barbells of the goatee blenny, the rosy lips of the red lip blenny, the punk style cirri of the Molly Miller, and the striking spots of the tesselated blenny.
So revered by divers that even websites are dedicated to their namesake (if you haven’t checked out Blenny Watcher, you’re missing out!). Blennies are grouped into six families with more than 100 genera and more than 900 species.
A common trait of blennies is that they deposit their eggs in small shelters guarded by the male. This makes seeing them with eggs difficult, but several of them have elaborate and beautiful courtship displays, like the hairy blenny.
The largest of the blennies in the Caribbean, the hairy blennies (Labrisomus nuchipinnis) range from two to six inches in size. Their most distinctive feature is a dark spot on the upper gill cover. Their blunt head and large bulging eyes distinguish them from other blennies. The hairy blenny can range in color from yellowish brown to black.
The normally dark and drab colors of the hairy blenny do not usually attract photographer’s attention. It is their courtship and mating color however that is a showstopper.
The males flash a bar pattern on the back half of their body and begin to turn a greenish hue. When in full attraction mode, their heads turn a flush reddish-orange, glowing to attract a female.
- Get low and shoot face-to-face with the blenny.
- Keep your flash close to the port, shoot with a macro lens and get close. These “largest" of the blennies are still only a few inches in size.
- Patrol the shallows, rocks, rubble, docks and grass beds as they are only found up to 25 feet deep.
- If you spot the blue bars and bluish-green color, stay close and dedicate some time to wait for the change to the bright orange.
Recently, two additional species in the genus Labrisomus have been described that resemble the hairy blenny: the masquerader hairy blenny (Labrisomus conditus, 2009) and the mock blenny (Labrisomus cricota, 2002). The exact range and identification characteristics of both species are still being worked out… so keep your eyes open and the cameras clicking!
About the Author: Eric Riesch is the photo editor at New World Publications on their series of marine life identification books. For more information on the hairy blenny, see Reef Fish Identification – Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach.
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