Ask the WWM Crew
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What could be more fun than creating a given marine biotope; studying what lives there, the habitat, gathering and assembling the disparate elements, living and not, to replicate the physical environment and biota of that slice of the sea?
Well, actually going there or both traveling to and making such a captive world would be/are my choices. What better way to gain an understanding of the currents, lighting, physical make-up and interactions betwixt the life there?
Shades of Jeopardy:
In the category Geography, what are the three longest "Peninsulas" (from the Latin "paene" and "insula", meaning "almost an island"), in the world? No, not Italy or Florida… they're the Malay Archipelago, Aleutian "island" chain and Mexico's Baja California! Take a look, Baja is BIG as well as long, about 55,000 square miles, approximately the size of Illinois, or England and Wales combined.
The two Estados (States) that make up Baja stretch some 800 miles south of the United States San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Baja California's long finger is actually the result of ongoing tectonic spreading/splitting of the San Andreas Fault, fronting the Pacific Ocean on the west and making the Sea of Cortez (elsewhere/times labeled the Gulf of Mexico) to the east… to tie the place and origin of Baja to a common geographical/geological known.
Some folks consider the Gulf a caricature of geology. Supernormal tides to the north, a tremendous 5k deep trench in the middle… The varied habitats of the Sea of Cortez allow for a enormous diversity in fish fauna with some 550 or so described shallow water species; 73 % of which are tropical Panamic, 10% temperate (from the north) and 17% endemic (only found there).
The Lower Gulf:
The "world's largest fish bowl" which is the earth and life science make-up of the Sea of Cortez itself is divided quite distinctly into thirds. The upper and middle gulf we'll leave off with as they both represent fauna and non-tropical conditions of little interest to the intended readership (you!) and the preponderance of "fun-travel" in Baja is centered about the Lower Gulf, in particular the Cape Region (San Jose del Cabo & Cabo San Lucas). This lowermost faunal zone is the most tropical (68-86 F. water) and on the Baja side extends from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas.
The near shores of the lower portion of the Sea of Cortez is a patchwork of rocky reefs and occasional speciose poor stony coral aggregations and sandy bottoms (Photos 1,2). To my experience quite similar in many ways to parts of the Caribbean. Even more alike in appearance and abundance are the fish and invertebrate groups found there.
Many of the species hailing from the area should be very familiar to you as they are considered transpacific and often make their way into the trade for points west: Table
Some Trans-Pacific Species found in Baja's Lower Gulf
Scientific Name Common Name Slide #
Scarus ghobban Blue-barred Orange Parrotfish A
Scarus rubroviolaceus Ember Parrotfish B
Hemipteronotus taeniourus Dragon Wrasse, Rockmover C
Thalassoma lutescens Yellow, Sunset Wrasse D
Oxycirrhites typus Longnose Hawkfish E
Acanthurus nigricans (glaucopareius) Gold-rim Surgeon F
Zanclus canescens Moorish Idol G
Forcipiger flavissimus Longnose butterflyfish H
Gymnomuraena (Echidna) zebra Zebra Moray Eel I
Alutera scripta Scrawled Filefish J
Arothron meleagris Guinea Fowl Puffer K,L
Ostracion meleagris Blue and Black Boxfish M,N
Family/Species Accounts of Fishes Suitable for Aquariums
Of the Lower Gulf of the Sea of Cortez
Morays, family Muraenidae. Worldwide there are more than one hundred species of moray eels in twelve genera; of these only one of the six genera and sixteen species found in the Sea of Cortez are suitable for captive use. The crustacean-eating zebra moray (Gymnomuraena zebra, Photo 3) is a hardy, peaceful species that I've seen kept in many types of marine systems, even reefs.
Squirrelfishes, family Holocentridae. Sometimes the two species of squirrels found here are collected and sold in the trade. The Panamic Soldierfish, Myripristis leiognathos is quite similar to the Tinsel Squirrelfish, Adioryx suborbitalis (both in Photo 4), except for color; the former is quite red and the latter is more aluminum-foilish. Both make good, though secretive aquarium specimens. Two things to keep in mind with holocentrids, very spiny and large-mouthed. Watch your handling of them and make sure tankmates are more than mouth size.
Basses- family Serranidae. Many of the twenty two reef basses of the Gulf would make attractive aquarium additions. I've only regularly seen juvenile gold spotted (Paralabrax auroguttatus, Photo 5), leather bass (Epinephelus dermatolepis, Photo 6) that get big, fast and the under-rated pacific Creolefish (Paranthias colonus, Photo 7). It's a great shame that so many of the larger serranids grow to large (picture 8 of two gulf groupers, Mycteroperca jordani) for all but the largest aquariums. The beauty and intelligence of the golden variety of the cabrilla, Mycteroperca rosacea (a normal or leopard grouper morph, Photo 9 and a gorgeous fiberglass cast of a golden variety, Photo 10), is amazing to behold.
Snappers, family Lutjanidae. The yellow snapper, Lutjanus argentiventris (Photo 11), would make a beautiful, albeit secretive tankmate in a large (hundreds of gallons) fish-only set-up. Of the nine Sea of Cortez lutjanids, the only one sold as aquarium specimens is the blue and gold snapper, L. viridis (Photo 12).
Goatfishes, Mullidae. When offered, usually in the mysterious "miscellaneous" species of goats, I prefer the yellow-striped Mexican goatfish, Mulloidichthys dentatus (Photo 13) over the red goatfish, Pseudopeneus grandisquamis, which is not as tough in captivity.
Pomacanthidae, Marine Angelfishes. All three species of pomacanthids found here are valued as aquarium specimens, particularly small individuals (2-3") to sub-adults (less than six inches).
The most expensive, least available, most range-restricted angel is the bright orange clarion, Holacanthus clarionensis (Photos 14-17), as good an aquarium specimen as they come.
Not to shortchange the other two. As the Atlantic's got it's queen the Pacific's has a King or Passer Angel, H. passer (Photos 18-22) that is just as gorgeous and hardy. Likewise the Cortez Angel, Pomacanthus zonipectus (Photos 23-27) is considered sympatric with the Caribbean's French and Gray angels (P. paru and P. arcuatus), and tends to become drab with age/growth as the latter.
These angels almost always do well, even when procured at very small (2") sizes.
Butterflyfishes, family Chaetodontidae. Of the four species of butterflies hailing from the lower Gulf only the barberfish, Johnrandallia nigrirostris (Photos 28-30) is suitable for tropical aquariums. When young, the barber-fish is a handy facultative cleaner of other fishes.
The three banded Chaetodon humeralis (Photo 31) fares poorly, and the deepwater scythe-marked B/F, C. falcifer (Photo 64) requires cooler water (below 70 F.). The longnose butterfly (Forcipiger flavissimus, Photo 32) is hardier and cheaper from elsewhere (e.g. Hawai'i).
Pomacentridae, the Damselfishes. The thirteen species of damsels here show a typical range of beauty and hardiness (great to dismal). The biggest of the group (to a foot in length), the aptly named Giant Damsel, Microspathodon dorsalis is occasionally imported as a juvenile with it's brilliant blue dots(Photos 33-35).
Other species that are colorful (e.g. the beaubrummel, Eupomacentrus flavilatus, Photo 36) when young can't compete with the much cheaper damselfish imports from the Indo-Pacific.
Hawkfishes, Cirrhitidae. Generally sold as the notorious "miscellaneous", Mexican or Cortez, the smallest of three species (to 3") of cirrhitids in the Gulf, the coral hawkfish, Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus (Photo 37), makes up the bulk of sales. The giant hawkfish, Cirrhitus rivulatus (Photo 38) is a real beauty and as curious as the rest of the family. Unfortunately it gets to two feet, a little to big for most tanks. The last species, the longnose hawk, Oxycirrhites typus (Photo 39) is a winner wherever it comes out of, but is deeper water and hence much more money out of Mexico.
Wrasses, Labridae. There are some sixteen wrasse species in seven genera in the Sea of Cortez though only three are utilized for pet fish, the others being too big, like the cooler water Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher; to 3 feet (Photo 40). Others are just too plain to make the cut, and some are fine, just unknown, like the Wounded Wrasse, Halichoeres chierchiae (Photo 41). My favorite, the Rockmover, aka the Dragon Wrasse, or Clown Razorfish, Hemipteronotus taeniourus (Photo 42) is cheaper from the Indo-West Pacific.
The Mexican Hogfish, Bodianus diplotaenia is regularly offered for sale in the trade. Be aware that this hog attains 2 ? feet (Photo 43).
The two wrasses of the genus Thalassoma that occur here are big sellers. Males and females (Photo 44) of the Cortez wrasse, T. lucasanum (the former often sold as the Lollipop or Paddlefin Wrasse Photo 45), and the Sunset Wrasse, T. lutescens (Photo 46), do very well in captivity. Be aware that unfortunately the Sunset is also often labeled as one of the labrids known as the Christmas Wrasse; partly understandable from its greenish body and pink wavy head bands.
Jawfishes, Opistognathidae, are abundant species (8) and number-wise once you locate their sandy to gravelly substrate habitats. The turquoise blue spotted Opistognathus rosenblatti (Photo 65) is the big dollar draw. Hardy, but one to a tank please.
Few Blennies, Suborder Blennioidea and fewer Gobies, Family Gobiidae are collected for our interest and that's a great shame, for the reefers amongst us. As an example, the red headed goby (gobio de cabeza roja), Elacatinus puncticulatus (Photo 47) is small (about 2") but a tough and beautiful facultative cleaner.
There are many other suitable species and a few to be avoided such as the sabertooth blenny, Plagiotremus azaleus, and the very territorial Panamic Fanged Blenny, Ophioblennius steindachneri (Photo 48), guaranteed to bite your other fishes, maybe you too.
Surgeons (Acanthuridae) and the related Moorish Idol (Zanclidae) have not often been shipped out of Mexico. The convict tang (Acanthurus triostegus, Photo 49) and Cat, Powder Brown or Gold Rim Surgeon (A. nigricans, nee glaucopareius, Photo 50) are cheaper and better from elsewhere, and the Purple Surgeon (A. xanthopterus, Photo 51 ) and Yellowtail Surgeon (Prionurus punctatus, Photo 52) get too big (1-2'). The Moorish Idol (Zanclus canescens, Photo 53) does not often live in captivity for any length of time.
Balistidae, Triggerfishes. Of the five found here, most species are too big (e.g. the Blunthead Trigger, Pseudobalistes naufragium, at 2 ? feet (Photo 54), mean, even ugly (my old roomie, Gary Okonowski (no, he's good looking, the fish) and a Fine Scale Trigger for soup, Balistes polylepis, (Photo 55) for aquarium use. The orange scale trigger (Sufflamen verres, Photo 56) is about the only suitable one, having a handsome orange lower and post flank and max.ing out at about 15".
Puffers: Ostraciontidae- puffers that don't; are encased in a hard dermal shell, i.e. don't blow up. The blue (male) and black (female) boxfish (Ostracion meleagris, Photos 57, 58) are occasionally offered from here, hardy as anywhere.
Tetraodontidae- puffers that blow up with small prickles. There puffers are excellent for larger fish-only systems. The Guinea Fowl Puffer (Arothron meleagris, Photos 59, 60) as a black with white spots, golden or blotched/mix is an aquarium standard.
Subfamily Canthigastrinae. The diminutive spotted sharpnose puffer, Canthigaster punctatissima (Photo 61) is an eminently suitable pet fish for non-invertebrate systems.
Family Diodontidae- puffers that blow up with large spines. Both circumtropical Diodon species occur in the Lower Gulf. The four-saddled non-spotted D. holacanthus and profusely spotted with no dorsal bars D. hystrix (Photos 62 and 63). Both are fine for home aquariums when small.
Notes On Availability:
Collections, shipping of aquatic livestock from Mexican waters is currently restricted. Unfortunately the last several years to date have seen a moratorium on the gathering of ornamental aquatics in Mexico. There are indications that this may soon change but thankfully many of the key species listed here are available from countries further south having eastern Pacific exposure.
A final word on going to Mexico; GO. It's about next door if you live in the United States and a travel bargain. Just considering the Lower Gulf, there are weekly to daily flights to the capes and La Paz and inexpensive accommodations to be had year round. It may not be as scenic or beautiful underwater as the Indo-Pacific, but the people are friendly, honest and genuinely glad to show visitors their land and water.
Bernhardson, Wayne & Scott Wayne. 1994 3d ed. Baja California, A Lonely Planet Travel
Survival Kit. Lonely Planet Productions, Hawthorne, Australia. 295pp.
Brusca, Richard C. 1977 2d printing. A handbook to the Common Intertidal Invertebrates of
the Gulf of California. U. of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ. 427pp.
Fenner, Robert M. 1998. The Conscientious Marine Aquarist, A Commonsense Handbook
for the Successful Saltwater Aquarist. Microcosm, VT. 432pp.
Fenner, Robert. 1997. Put a tiger in your tank; keeping snappers. TFH 2/97.
Fenner, Robert. 1996. The wrasses we call hogs. TFH 10/96.
Fenner, Robert. 1996. Jawfishes. TFH 8/96.
Fenner, Robert. 1996. An introduction to squirrelfishes. TFH 6/96.
Fenner, Bob. 1995. A diversity of aquatic life: Creolefishes, Paranthias. FAMA 8/95.
Fenner, Robert. 1995. Three amigo angels from Baja. TFH 7/95.
Fenner, Robert. 1995. El barbero, the butterfly from Baja. TFH 6/95.
Fenner, Bob. 1995. A diversity of aquatic life: The family Serranidae. FAMA 5/95.
Fenner, Robert. 1995. Moray eels of the family Muraenidae. TFH 3/95.
Fenner, Robert. 1995. The jumbo damselfishes; notes for the conscientious aquarist. TFH
Fenner, Bob & Cindi Camp. 1990. Diversity of aquatic life series. The hawkfishes, family
Cirrhitidae. FAMA 4/90.
Thomson, Donald A., Findley, Lloyd T. & Alex N. Kerstitch. 1979. Reef Fishes of the Sea
of Cortez, The Rocky-Shore Fishes of the Gulf of California. Wiley-Interscience,
Dealers Source for Specimens:
Very unfortunately, there continues to be no collection/shipping of marine livestock from Mexico. <Newsflash! Collecting has resumed as of early 2000...!> However, many of the specimens discussed here are traded out of countries to the south. A starting source for distributors and dealers is the transshipper Dolphin International, 1125 W. Hillcrest Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90301, 310-776-2352, fax 310-337-1393, email@example.com.
Graphics Notes/Clever Captioning:
1& 2) Two shots of a typical near shore rocky reef in Baja's lower gulf. Notice simple, non-
colorful stony coral heads, broken rubble and large rock, sand patches. These pics
3) "Look ma no chompers", members of the moray genus Gymnomuraena bear crushing
plates in their jaws, a specialization for crushing crustaceans and molluscs which
make up the bulk of their diet. This is a zebra moray, G. zebra in captivity.
4) The two species of squirrelfishes found in the Sea of Cortez, the Panamic Soldierfish,
Myripristis leiognathos (red), and Tinsel Squirrelfish, Adioryx suborbitalis
5) Juvenile gold spotted bass (Paralabrax auroguttatus), about four inches in length. A
secretive, fast attack predator on smaller animals.
6) The leather bass (Epinephelus dermatolepis), a two foot specimen here. They get bigger.
Good looking, but best to keep on a restricted diet. We had one in a store that used to
snap down all food items faster than the eye blinks.
7) The Pacific Creolefish (Paranthias colonus, Photo 7). Not surprisingly this fish is a ringer
for its Atlantic sympatric species, the Atlantic Creolefish, P. furcifer. Both make
good captive fare for large (hundreds of gallons) fish-only systems.
8) Two for dinner. A pair of shootable Gulf groupers, Mycteroperca jordani. You wish you
had a tank big enough for these bad boys.
9 & 10) A sleeping regular color morph of the cabrilla, Mycteroperca rosacea. Some
individuals of this species take on a vivid golden hue (like the cast here) and "lead"
hunting forays in the shallows.
11) The yellow snapper, Lutjanus argentiventris; gets to three feet, twenty delicious pounds, but gorgeous as an individual.
12) L. viridis, the blue and gold (striped) snapper. Best kept in small, odd numbered groups.
13) Mexican goatfish, Mulloidichthys dentatus in a casual feeding association with a wrasse
and jack species. Though this species is always found in association with others of its
kind in the wild, acclimated specimens fare well as individuals in captivity.
14-17) The clarion, Holacanthus clarionensis, from 3", 4", 5" and a foot in length. First and
last photos taken in the wild, middle two in aquariums.
18-22) The Passer or King Angel, Holacanthus passer. Tiny (1 ?"), small (3") to sub-adult
(5") to adult (8"), and a collector's dream of sub-adults grouping together.
23-27) A series of age/sizes of the Cortez Angel, Pomacanthus zonipectus. From 3", 4", 5",
7" and about 9 inches total length.
28-30) An individual barbero, Johnrandallia nigrirostris and two pix of cleaning
station/feeding aggregations. All wild shots.
31, 32) The three banded Chaetodon humeralis (Photo 31) fares poorly. The longnose
butterfly (Forcipiger flavissimus, Photo 32.
33-35) The Giant Damsel, Microspathodon dorsalis. Two small individuals (about 2") and a
one foot honker. "I want some Tetra Min, NOW!"
36) Get em' while they're young and cute! The beaubrummel, Eupomacentrus flavilatus.
37) The coral hawkfish, Cirrhitichthys oxycephalus, the most common hawkfish import
from the area. A scrappy, but not terrible tankmate.
38) The giant hawkfish, Cirrhitus rivulatus often is too curious and frequently shot by
39) The longnose hawk, Oxycirrhites typus. Fragile looking but very tough from all locales.
40) Better on a plate with rice, the Sheephead, Semicossyphus pulcher; to 3 feet
41) The Wounded Wrasse, Halichoeres chierchiae being offered here in one of my favorite
LFS, Tis Tropicals, Fountain Valley, California.
42) The Rockmover, Dragon Wrasse, or Clown Razorfish, Hemipteronotus taeniourus,
cheaper from the Indo-West Pacific.
43) The Mexican Hogfish, Bodianus diplotaenia, this one about half size at 15".
44 & 45) A male and female Cortez wrasse, T. lucasanum (the former often sold as the
Lollipop or Paddlefin Wrasse) Like other members in this genus they live in haremic
46) The Sunset Wrasse, T. lutescens (also one of the labrids sold as a/the Christmas Wrasse.
Blennies and Gobies
47) The red headed goby (gobio de cabeza roja), Elacatinus puncticulatus a small (about
2") but tough and beautiful facultative cleaner.
Surgeons and the Moorish Idol
57, 58) The blue (male) and black (female) boxfish, Ostracion meleagris, good pet fish as
long as they are not so upset as to release their deadly toxic body slime.
59, 60) The Guinea Fowl Puffer, Arothron meleagris, in a "regular" black with white spots
color and a golden variety.
61) The Spotted Sharpnose Puffer, Canthigaster punctatissima is an eminently suitable pet
fish for non-invertebrate systems.
62, 63) Diodon holacanthus and D. hystrix are both fine for home aquariums when small.
Keep them just fed.
C) A mid-size (8 inch) Hemipteronotus taeniourus, the aptly named Dragon Wrasse (for it's
D) A stock fish store offering, Thalassoma lutescens, the Yellow or Sunset Wrasse is a
relatively hardy labrid member.
E) Oxycirrhites typus, the Longnose Hawkfish makes a very tough marine aquarium
addition when you can be assured of receiving an initially healthy specimen.
F) Is a Cabo specimen of Acanthurus nigricans (formerly glaucopareius), the Gold-rim
Surgeon, which is the toughest coming from the eastern Pacific. Otherwise, I'd
encourage you to consider the much hardier, similar appearing White-Cheeked
surgeon, A. japonicus.
G) Zanclus canescens, the Moorish Idol, is generally doomed from starvation and transport
trauma coming from elsewhere. Carefully collected and shipped specimens from the
lower gulf are far better, more than half living about three months.
H) Forcipiger flavissimus, theLongnose butterflyfish. Surprised to find it here? This is a
good aquarium species throughout its wide pan-Pacific range.
I) Gymnomuraena (Echidna) zebra, the Zebra Moray Eel. Perhaps the best species of it's
family for ornamental use. I've seen specimens of this hardy crustacean eater
successfully kept in full-blown reef systems (without shrimp and crabs!), and had
them in service accounts for more than a decade.
J) Alutera scripta, the Scrawled Filefish; more often kept in public aquariums than private
owing to its large potential size (3 feet).
K & L ) Arothron meleagris, the Guinea Fowl Puffer occurs as xanthistic (golden), mottled
and black with white spots color varieties. All are excellent, all be it big size/eating
animals of comical appearance and behavior.
M & N) Ostracion meleagris, male and female Blue and Black Boxfish respectively.
The Physical Environment: Getting There and The Land
I & II) You can drive to it from here. The one road to Baja's Tip. Transpeninsular Highway 1 was finished in 1973 and gets better (wider, less crowned, more guard railing…) every year. If you live, are traveling anywhere near the U.S. southwest you might consider driving on down. Gas is generally in good supply, and plenty of interesting sights, especially geological, botanical and ethno-historical along the way. Both pix show specimens of the worlds largest, Baja endemic cactus, the Cardon (at up to seventy feet+ tall). II's near Catavina, remarkable for the huge blasted boulder that ended flipped up on its remaining half, and a mysterious rock painting of the Virgin Mary nearby…
III, IV) And yes, they even have indoor plumbing. You can fly to La Paz or the corridor including San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas either in Mexico's private and nationalized airlines (AeroMexico and Mexicana) or private planes. Airfields are well made, out of towns, and serviced by several "foreign" national carriers as well.
V) A pic of downtown La Paz, The Peace, the largest town on the continents west coast for four hundred years… gone outta biz by a pearling crash earlier this century. Plenty of modern accommodations, diving services, even a Montgomery Wards!
VI) Including one of the three Baja-based ferry landings. You can come/go to Topolobambo, Puerto Vallarta, or Mazatlan aboard one of these European built beauties a few times a week. Even your car can hitch a ride!
VII-X) The lay of the land and water.
VII is a typical campsite, replete with sand, chaparral, and high and dry clouds.
VIII a rocky shore shot near La Paz. Doesn't that water look inviting? With plenty 'o tropicals around those shallow water rocks.
X is a mangrove conglomeration in La Paz. Don't miss a chance to snorkel around these fantastically productive areas. Many forms of life, and mucho of it.
IX) one of favorite places on the Earth to dive. A southward peak from Punta Pulmo along Cabo Pulmo to Punta Frailes (around the corner is Frailes proper on over to San Jose del Cabo…). This is the closest real coral reef to the U.S. west coast. Part of the ancient reef actually comes up dramatically onto the shore.
X) BYOB, Bring Your Own Boat. Though there are many places where a wanna be pet fish person can get an eyeful from the shore, but ideally you can secure motorized transport to get out to the many scuba sites. There are many dive boat operations all along Baja's lower gulf thankfully, unlike the mid and upper Sea of Cortez. The author in a thinner year.