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New Jersey Scuba Diving


New Jersey Scuba Diving

Puffers & Allies


Although it looks unlikely, these fishes are all related in the Order Tetraodontiformes. Common characteristics include:

They are all also possessed of rather higher intelligence than most fishes.

Gray Triggerfish

Puffers & Allies

Balistes capriscus

A Profile
by Stacey Reap

The Gray Triggerfish is found on both the eastern and western Atlantic coasts. Along the Atlantic coast of North America, it ranges from Nova Scotia and Bermuda to Argentina, including a presence in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Most of the approximately 40 other species in the Balistes family can be found in tropical seas world wide.

Typically ranging between 12 to 16 inches in length, the Gray Triggerfish can reach lengths of nearly 20 inches. The world record catch of the species was a 13 lb. 9 oz. fish caught in Murrells Inlet, S.C., in 1989. The maximum age for gray triggerfish lies in the vicinity of 13 years, although they cannot be aged like most fish by counting the lines on their otoliths ( ear bones. ) Instead, a method of aging triggerfish has been developed using sections of the dorsal spine, but the accuracy of this technique needs to be verified.

Food and Feeding:
Gray triggerfish dine on bottom-dwelling invertebrates, such as crabs, shrimp, sea urchins, sand dollars and mollusks. With large, strong, canine-like teeth arranged in a beak-like formation in their small mouths, Gray Triggerfish can dislodge and crush its often hard-shelled prey.

They have been observed employing a unique strategy when feeding on sand dollars and sea urchins. Orienting themselves perpendicular to and a few inches above the sea floor, the fish direct a stream of water at the surface to reveal sand dollars hidden beneath. After finding its victim, the fish grabs it in its front teeth, raises it approximately 6 feet above the bottom, and drops it. The process is repeated until the sand dollar lands upside down, at which point, the triggerfish once again assumes a vertical position above it. With its jaws shut, the fish then thrusts itself down onto the sand dollar, crushing its center. The result is a soft, tasty treat found inside.

The trigger mechanism that locks the spine erect is visible here, as well as a nasty
buck-toothed set of choppers. These fish can give you a good nip.

Adult Gray Triggerfish are commonly found in depths up to 65 feet, associated with natural and artificial reef environments, as well as sand or grass flats and rocky bottom. The fish's first dorsal fin is comprised of three stiff spines, which can be locked in an upright position. When seeking protection, triggerfish can wedge themselves in reef nooks and crannies by locking their dorsal spines and erecting their pelvic bones. For those wishing to "disarm" the fish, the second dorsal spine or "trigger" acts as the release mechanism for the locked fin, and when pushed, permits all three spines to lay down along the fish's back.

After young fish hatch, they travel to the water's surface where they often make their home in mats of sargassum, a floating seaweed that hosts a variety of species. Juvenile fish, at 5 to 7 inches, leave the sargassum habitat and move to the reef habitat at the bottom of the ocean.

Gray Triggerfish spawn from July through September, after water temperatures reach 70°F. Females lay their eggs, which have an incubation period of two days, in hollow nests scooped out of the sandy bottom, and the male fish aggressively guard the nests.

Recreational and Commercial Importance:
This species used to have no attraction for recreational and commercial fishermen, but that is beginning to change. Long considered a bait-stealing pest by many fisherman targeting other reef species, the gray triggerfish is now becoming an intentional target as people discover their value as an excellent eating fish. As close relatives to filefishes, their rough, leathery skin also makes them a bit tricky to fillet, but their mild white meat is incentive enough to learn the proper method.

Gray Triggerfish can put up a great fight with their flat, round shape and care must be taken once they are on board to avoid their sharp spines and strong teeth. A small ( 1/0- 2/0 ) very sharp hook, baited with squid, is recommended to nab this unusual-looking fish's small, bony mouth.

Seems wrong that such a colorful fish is merely called 'Gray'.

This article first appeared in New Jersey Reef News - 2003 Edition

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Planehead Filefish

Puffers & Allies

Stephanlepis hispidus

Size: to 10"

Habitat: wherever the current takes them

Notes: Baby Filefishes of 2"-3" may be found drifting along with clumps of Sargassum weed. They are also found inshore.

Filefish are similar to triggerfish, but have only two spines in the "trigger", rather than three. I kept a filefish in an aquarium for a long time. It was a fascinating pet, until it outgrew its quarters, and I had to give it away. They are quite intelligent ( for a fish. )

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Ocean Sunfish

Puffers & Allies

Mola mola

to 10 ft long, 11 ft tall, 4400 lbs,
but usually 4-5 ft long

Open ocean, usually basking near surface. This giant, slow moving creature flaps along at the surface, propelled by its oar-like dorsal and anal fins and steering with the stump of its tail.

Ocean Sunfish are not as rare as you might expect. I have sighted them numerous times from the boat, and once had the pleasure of swimming with a large pair, an encounter that ranks right up there with anything the tropics can offer ( well, almost anything. )

You would think that an animal that flaps around all day and eats jellyfish for a living would not have much need for brains. Yet Sunfish share their Triggerfish cousins' intelligence and curiosity, and are drawn to investigate anything unusual, including boats, anchors, buoys, shadows, noises, bubbles, and divers themselves.

Despite their ungainly looks, a sunfish can easily can easily outpace a diver. Their skin and bodies are visibly riddled with parasites, and for this reason they are inedible.

An Ocean Sunfish lazily flapping along on its side.
Note the photographer's shadow for scale.

This one has obvious propeller scars on the mouth and back.

A Sunfish circles the inlet buoy off Manasquan.

Another one swimming deep on the Mohawk.

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Mola Preservation Society

Puffers, Burrfishes & Trunkfishes

Puffers & Allies

Northern Puffer - Sphoeroides maculatus
to 14", usually much smaller

Puffers are highly intelligent, traveling in schools, and hunting cooperatively. They prey on anything they can dismember with their powerful parrot-like beaks, including other fishes and crabs. The body is short, fat, and stiff, with a disproportionately large head.

The tail is used primarily as a rudder, and the puffer displays remarkable agility and quickness using its other fins. The skin is covered in tiny prickles, and feels like sandpaper. All members of the order Tetraodontiformes seem to be possessed of above-average intelligence for fish.

A baby puffer huddles against the bottom. They also bury themselves at night to sleep.

Rapacious puffers feed on a smashed clam. ( Some scenes may be staged. )

Burrfish are very similar to Puffers, except that instead of a covering of minute folding spines, they are covered with a battery of erect spikes. Burrfish are extremely slow swimmers, and make no attempt to escape from you; instead they just inflate into spiky balls and wait for you to go away.

All of these fishes are found in bays, estuaries, protected coastal waters. Sometimes the rivers are full of puffers. For fun, catch a puffer with your hand and give it a gentle squeeze ( don't hurt it ! ) and it will puff itself up into a ball.

Trunkfish - Lactophryus trigonus - to 18"
Think of it as a puffer in a suit of armor.
I've never actually seen one, but it is possible.

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine



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 2016-09-11