“Ugly? Are you kidding me? They are fantastic!”
That was my response after fielding questions following my first dive with a batfish (Ogcocephalidae family). I know, I know… they are flattened like a flounder, have a strange bulbous head, lure like a frogfish and walk on modified fins, so how can anyone find them fantastic? Well, I do; and I believe this fish is so outrageous it must be photographed upon every meeting!
Batfish are unique in many aspects. They belong to the order of fishes known as anglerfishes (Lophiiformes) and therefore have a lure ("esca") to attract prey. They also have a nose-like projection ("rostrum") that protrudes from between their eyes.
Their unusual ventral fins have evolved into a tool allowing them to walk along the bottom. Pectoral fins shoot out to the side like arms to help hold them in place. The fins are also used to help burrow downward and project sand onto their bodies for camouflage. Batfish are found throughout tropical waters in the sandy and rubble bottom.
Red Lipped – Galapagos Islands
I first encountered the bizarre-looking batfish (red-lipped batfish – Ogcocephalus darwini) in the Galapagos Islands. How appropriate! This strange creature fits in well among the land of giant tortoises, marine iguanas and scalloped hammerheads. The bright red lips are the distinguishing feature but the body shape is unmistakable.
Polka-Dot – Blue Heron Bridge, Florida
An early morning dive in one of the best muck-diving locations in Florida yielded me a polka-dot batfish (Ogcocephalus radiatus). This light brown to white colored fish is covered with small spots from the pectoral fins and onto it’s back. Six to twelve inches in size they are found from the surface to 230 feet.
Shortnose – St. Vincent
Another wonderful batfish location is the beautiful Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Photographers can distinguish the shortnose batfish (Ogcocephalus nasutus) by both its small rostrum projecting from between the eyes and two dark bands on the tail. This species can be found in very shallow water to below safe diving limits (down to 1000 feet).
Batfish vs. Batfish
The three batfish species I have been referring to are from the family Ogcocephalidae. The common name “batfish” is also used for the family Ephippidae in the genus Platax. Fish in this genus are also flattened, but do not lie on the bottom.
They have elongated fins, appear more vertical than horizontal, and swim higher up into the water column. The common names are the only similarity, as a diver would never visually confuse the two families.
- Finding batfish is often the hard part. Swim off the reef and hover over the sandy bottom looking closely for movement.
- Approach the subject slowly and shoot up at the fish if possible. A photo taken downward on this fish will have little contrast so you will need to be flat on the bottom for a good shot.
- They will try to turn away, but approach them from the front of the fish to get a head-on or three-quarters turned shot.
- As with most portrait photos of fish, the closer the better.
Author Bio – Eric Riesch is the photo editor at New World Publications on their series of marine life identification books. For more information on these batfish and other odd-shaped bottom dwellers see Reef Fish Identification – Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas and Reef Fish Identification – Galapagos by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach.