Sailfin Sculpin, Nautichthys oculofasciatus
by Scott Boyd
Sailfin Sculpins are a common site for divers venturing into our lush emerald waters at night. During the day, these graceful fish hide in the shadows and rarely venture out where divers can observe them. Typical specimens range from a few inches to a length of about 8 inches. These sinuous swimmers do not seem to move very far, and one can generally find them very close to the same location where they were first spotted when returning for subsequent dives.
Ranging from Southern California to the Bering Sea in Alaska, sailfins can be found in shallow depths around pilings down to about 400’ of depth. This sculpin swims over the bottom by holding its body stiff while undulating is dorsal and anal fins independently in a series of graceful, continuous waves. Colored a mottled white to dark brown, they often hold their distinctive “sail” fin vertically just prior to gulping down a small shrimp or other invertebrate.
This sculpin is a bit skittish although it tends to remain in one place unless approached too closely. They also blend in very well as they typically hide in protected crevices surrounded by barnacles of the same basic colors. During the spring, female sailfin sculpins lay their sticky egg masses in small clusters of distinctive orange amongst the mussels in the intertidal zone.
As mentioned above, your best chance of spotting these nocturnally active fish would be at night where they might be right out in the open. Even then, they still like to hide underneath something. They tend to remain still unless you get within touching distance, and then they flutter away to settle down somewhere else nearby. I’m usually able to consistently spot sailfins at the Les Davis Marine Park (~45 fsw ) or on the deep end of the barge at Owens Beach (~100 fsw).
Click on either picture for a larger version of the Sailfin Sculpin photo.