Creature Feature: Grumpy Old Men Named Garibaldi

If you’ve ever been diving in California waters, chances are you’ve come across a Garibaldi, or two . . . or two-dozen for that matter. The bright orange color of their bodies is hard to miss and they are certainly not timid creatures by any means. In fact, their attitudes are just about as big as their names.

For some strange reason, the state of California has decided to keep these crotchety fish around. Garibaldi are the only marine fish in California that are protected by law. Perhaps it is because of their trademark presence on California rocky reefs, but I do believe it is due to the fact that the very politicians who voted on the law of protection had found a kindred spirit in these cantankerous little fish. Although most divers typically associated Garibaldi with the state of California, it was only recently (1995) that they became the state fish.

Garibaldi belong to the damselfish family. Members of this family generally have a bad attitude and aren’t afraid of picking fights with divers equipped with loud bubble making devices. On many dives off California I have been struck with the notion that if these fish could talk, I’d imagine that their voices would have a tinge of Italian to them. And every time that they swim up to my face I imagine them, with one fin raised, rattling off, "Are you talkin’ to me?" Though one might believe this attitude is unprovoked it actually serves an important purpose, finding a mate.

Between the months of March and July, male Garibaldi cultivate "nests" of red algae. In a designated area, the males clear away all algal growth with the exception of several species of red algae. Once established, the males defend this nest against all intruders and groom it tirelessly. The algae in the nests are trimmed to a height of one to two inches. Once the males have farmed the red algae nest to their liking, they are faced with the age-old problem of attracting a mate. When a female swims by the nest of a male, he attempts to entice her to lay eggs in his nest. The males do this by making loud clicking noises and performing elaborate circles around the territory, as if to say, "Mmmm, how you doin’?" Like most women, female Garibaldi are extremely picky and prefer to lay their eggs in the largest nests they come across, often in ones in which eggs are already present. Once the eggs have been deposited, the male quickly chases the female away, fertilizes the eggs and promptly begins guarding his newest acquisition.

Juveniles and males have colorations that are distinct from one another. Most likely Mother Nature covered the juveniles with blue spots so that the older male bullies could distinguish them from older males. As Garibaldi mature, they lose this blue coloration and become more of a . . . to quote a crayola crayon . . . "burnt umber."

Garibaldi mostly feed on worms, sponges (but no Sponge Bob Squarepants) and crabs. Size determines age in Garibaldi and a 6-inch Garibaldi is estimated to be approximately 3 years old.