New Jersey Scuba Diving
Ocean Bottom Fishes
These fishes are most likely to be found on or near the bottom out at sea, either resting or swimming around. In addition, many of the types more often found in the rivers and inlets may be found out at sea.
Many of the types presented here are representative of entire families of similar related species. While some are closely related, others are not. These particular species are the most common in our area.
to 7 1/2 ft and 90 lbs., usually smaller
The Conger Eel closely resembles the American Eel, Anguilla rostrata, but is distinguishable by its longer snout and the very large dorsal fin that originates much closer to the pectoral fins. The Conger is also larger, frequently attaining a weight of 10 to 20 pounds and a length of 5 to 7 feet. Its European cousin, Conger conger, is even more spectacular, occasionally tipping the scales at 130 pounds and measuring over 12 feet in length. The American Conger is gray above and white underneath. The dorsal and anal fins have broad black margins. Overall, the Conger appears much lighter than the freshwater eel, thus the common name Silver Eel. The species is distributed from Massachusetts to south Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico westward to Mississippi.
Spawning probably occurs offshore during the summer. The only information available on fecundity is old and pertains to two European specimens that contained 3 million and 7 million ripe ova. Like the American Eel, young Conger metamorphose through an intermediate, ribbon-like leptocephalus stage. When searching for food, the Conger Eel is a night stalker. It feeds during the hours of darkness on fishes, crabs, worms, and other bottom-dwelling animals that it stealthily approaches and grabs.
This is all you see of them most of the time.
A big Conger Eel resting in an abandoned lobster trap.
Although they can appear threatening with their large size and gaping mouths, Conger eels are inoffensive, and retreat from any approach. Conger eels in New Jersey waters generally have very high levels of toxins in their tissues, and eating them is unwise.
For many years, Health Advisories were issued for this fish, but apparently no longer.
Northern Sea Robin
Sea Robins are distinguished by the three free rays of the pectoral fins, with which the fish can actually walk across the bottom. They make frog-like croaking sounds when disturbed. Sea Robins have razor sharp gill covers and spines, and are best left alone - there's not much meat on them anyway.
Sea Robins are generally found inshore in harbors and inlets, in 30-40 foot depths, but move out to deep waters in winter.
The Sea Robin uses its "legs" to walk across the bottom and even turn over small stones.
Nose to nose with a baby Robin in an aquarium.
Divers can appreciate these extraordinary creatures, although fishermen revile them.
to 25" and 7 lbs.
The fleshy tabs around head and ragged-looking dorsal fin are identifying characteristics of Scorpionfish like the Sea Raven. The eye is also very strange looking. These fishes prefer cooler waters, and disappear when it warms up. Tropical and Pacific relatives including the introduced Lionfish have poisonous spines, but our species is harmless. Some people eat them, but I find them to be among the most interesting and obliging photo subjects in our waters.
Sea Ravens in several color morphs - red, yellow/brown, yellow, and almost black. Males adopt startling shades of yellow, orange, and red during mating season.
to 48" and 50 lbs.
Also known as Headfish, these are a living nightmare in appearance, although they are actually rather docile, provided you don't get too close to the hungry end. Like alligators, the will snap at anything that comes within range, which makes for a number of hair-raising but amusing stories. The tails of these toothy monstrosities are excellent eating, and are served in restaurants as "Monkfish" ( also known as "Headfish" and "All-mouth". ) they are extremely slimy. Females are larger than males. A related species in Europe grows to 100 lbs !
The last thing you want is one of these things taking an interest in you. Stay away from the business end, and Monkfish are pretty docile, but get too close, and ...
The family Lophiidae includes large, flat-headed fishes with enormous mouths and tapering bodies. They are unlike any other fish in the region, and it would be difficult to confuse them with other species. Also referred to as Monkfish, All-mouth, and Anglerfish, Goosefish have their first dorsal spine modified for a special purpose. The spine possesses a flap of skin atits tip which acts to lure prey when it is wiggled back and forth like a worm on the end of a slender reed. Behind its head, the Goosefish has a group of short dorsal spines that are connected by a black membrane. Another, more southerly species, the Blackfin Goosefish, Lophius gastrophysus, lacks the interspinous membrane and has longer dorsal spines. The Goosefish is dark chocolate brown above, sometimes mottled, and light tan below. It is a benthic species occurring in coastal waters and out to depths of at least 1,500 feet from New Brunswick, Canada, to northern Florida. Goosefish inhabit sand, mud, and broken shell bottoms in waters ranging from about 32 to 75°F.
Spawning occurs offshore from spring to early fall, depending on the latitude. Reproductive activity commences as early as March off North Carolina and as late as September off New England. The pelagic eggs are deposited in huge gelatinous masses. These ribbon-like egg veils are seasonally observed by sea-going fishermen, for they may be 20 to 36 feet long and 2 to 3 feet wide. The purplish-brown eggs, numbering 1 to 2 million, are clustered in small groups of several ova, each in compartments within the floating mass. Hatching takes place in continental shelf waters that are 41 to 65°F.
Goosefish are among the most gluttonous of all fishes. Not only do they ambush small prey, aided by their fishing appendage, but they also engulf large food items. Foods identified from Goosefish stomachs include Spiny Dogfish, skates, eels, herrings, Weakfish, Tautog, Butterfish, puffers, Cod, Haddock, flounders, sea birds (loons, seagulls, scoters, and mergansers), lobsters, crabs, worms, shellfish, sand dollars, and starfish. One Goosefish contained 21 commercial-size flounders and a Spiny Dogfish; another had eaten 75 herrings; and a third consumed 7 wild ducks.
A voracious Goosefish downs a Sea Bass. See the entire sequence.
to 22" and 20 lbs.
Don't expect to see these fishes very often - they live buried in the sand, with just their eyes protruding. The eyes are directly atop the flat head, and mouth is almost vertical. Of course, they are ambush predators. If you flush one from its hiding place, it will clumsily swim a short distance, and then rebury itself in just seconds. Stargazers are capable of producing weak electric currents from organs located behind the eyes. I doubt that it is enough to be dangerous to a diver, although it might be startling ! Midshipmen are similar but smaller, with a continuous dorsal fin and luminescent spots instead of electrical organs.
The way I came across one was that I was exploring out away from the wreck, and digging a furrow in the sand with my hand to mark my path*, and ran right into it, flushing it out into the open. Otherwise it would have let me swim right over. I also saw one in the Shark River once.
* Note: this is a terrible way to navigate, and I am not recommending it. I was very familiar with the site, otherwise I would have run a reel over the sand.
Ocean Pout (Eelpout)
to 42" and 12 lbs.
Huge mouth with drooping lips. Anal and caudal fins continuous. Apparently, these are edible, and at times there is some effort on the part of commercial fishermen to catch them. Too ugly for my tastes, though. Pouts like rocky bottoms and structure, from water's edge down to 180 ft. Gregarious.
Pouts are gregarious, and don't mind sharing a hole.
Rock Gunnel (Butterfish)
Very slippery, hence the name. Found in coastal waters and inlets, near shore.
I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.
Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted
since August 12, 2016