An Appreciation of the Anglerfish
A recent sighting has got me reminiscing about one of our more spectacular Great British fishes.
“I’d certainly suggest you go macro.” I confidently respond to Alex Mustard’s question on what our second dive is best suited to. In my defence, all I had on my mind were the scores of tiny nudibranchs I’d seen coating the Preveza plate on my last dive in Chesil Cove. It was of course, the dive in which we found an anglerfish, and not just a small one -but a whopper I’d not seen the like of in years. Well, I doubt it’ll be the last time I embarrass myself underwater this year.
The anglerfish, scientific name Lophius piscatorius, also known on your plate as the monkfish, goosefish if you’re feeling a bit American or sea devil if you’re feeling unkind, is amongst the most beautiful of our ground-dwelling fishes. This is of course in spite of the rather impressive cutlery set at the front end. Mottled green and brown tones and leafy protrusions of skin make it almost undistinguishable from the rocky, weed strewn ground divers often encounter them in. Broad circular pectoral fins seem to grip the seabed like clasping hands on either side of the massive, dustbin-lid head. Ahead of a decreasing series of weed-like dorsal spines, the anglerfish wafts its distinctive lure or ‘illicium’ to entice unwary prey into its ‘cavernous mouth’. As Travis Jenkins, the author of my rather antiquated ‘The Fishes of the British Isles’ (1925) notes:
‘Whether there is anything really sufficiently attractive in the flap of skin attached to the first dorsal fin ray, to make it useful as ‘bait’ for other fish, is doubtful. But anything moving in the water will attract fish that hunt by sight, so that doubtless this flap of skin does attract other fish and so may serve as the same purpose as bait. Any fish swimming near the ground is liable to touch the tentacle of an angler, which cannot be distinguished from a frond of seaweed or a zoophyte, and to touch it certainly means sudden death.’
The teeth are recurved, pointing backwards into its not inconsiderable gullet and further reducing the options of any prey item that happens to end up on the wrong side of them. A few years into my scuba diving career, I seem to recall watching a youtube video wherein a pair of Russians surfaced from a dive, one of which had a moderate specimen attached to his arm. His whole hand and a reasonable portion of forearm was (I don’t quite know how) inside the angler, and because of those inward curving teeth, it looked a very painful experience for everybody involved extricating the limb, least of all the angler, who certainly didn’t relinquish its hold whilst alive. I made a mental note not to tempt the displeasure of one, but I must admit I discounted the idea of seeing any, as I associated them with deep murky water where shallow water divers like myself seldom ventured.
This preconception was brought up short in May of 2017 when I swam over a funny-looking boulder in Chesil Cove. I’d just popped in for a quick post-work dive with a colleague from the maths department, we had made my then-typical run out past the ‘sled’ and back over the reef and were picking our way through the large rocks and gullies of the cove when I saw it. It was huge, easily 5ft long and by far and away the largest thing I had seen in just 7m of water up to that point. I swam around it a couple of times, venturing as close as I dared. I was lucky to have a gopro with me to get some shaky footage, but sadly this was still early days for me UWP-wise and prior to my investing in video lights, so the whole business remains rather green. The encounter is still on my youtube page and at one point I do try to give a sense of its ridiculous size by moving the camera up to Peter swimming above.
It wasn’t until June the next year, and a memorable dive on the SS Baygitano in Lyme Bay that I was to encounter another. This time we were spoilt with not one but three distinct anglerfish, albeit medium-sized and my first Dorset sighting of a crawfish. You can see why they’d hang around a wreck like the Baygitano, which seems perpetually covered in shoals of silver and bronze bib, any single specimen of which would make an angler fish’s day, possibly week if he got one of the larger pollocks. Indeed, the indication seems to be that they eat relatively seldom when they’re older, moving from a more frequent diet of crustaceans and small squid when younger to more a more sedentary, opportunistic hunting behaviour for larger prey items when older. Like other fish in the genus, L.piscatorius has a highly extendable stomach cavity and has been known to take and slowly digest prey near as large as itself.
That day, myself and buddy Colin Cowell were lucky enough to find one on sand on the port side, one on the broken plate starboard of the boilers, and finally one on the sand out to starboard just where we put up our DSMB to end the dive. Just lovely (if you’ll forgive the smug self-indulgence). Apart from a brief encounter with a titchy one in Chesil Cove in 2019, that was to be it until this year.
Back to Easter of 2021, and after a fairly thorough swim through the seagrass in the north of Portland harbour cruising for nudibranchs and sea hares, myself, Georgie and Alex went in Chesil Cove for dive two. As I mentioned above, I gave Alex a bit of a bum steer regarding choice of rig, but we certainly spent the first fifteen minutes of the dive getting our shots of the nudibranchs all over the Preveza, followed by some stalked jellyfish. I then happened upon a chonky sea scorpion, which I waved a bemused Alex over to appreciate.
It was whilst I was swimming back towards Georgie that I saw the massive, thick tail and lost all dignity. Squeaking ‘Alex, Alex!!’ through my regulator I frantically waved him over, probably blowing so many bubbles into the water that the poor man probably thought I was having a seizure. I took five quick snaps of the angler, then went to find Georgie, who as it happened was already on her way over to see what we were up to. The angler was, as the last one I’d seen in the cove, neatly settled into a gap between the rocks and well out of any current. We let Alex do his thing (remarkably, despite the macro setup- just check out his Instagram) and then he waved me and Georgie back in to take a couple. Alas, Georgie’s battery had just died on her Canon, but she took some of her own on my rx100 rig which we were able to take out later. It was just wonderful seeing one up close again, you do forget the greenish tint to the spectacular eyes and the patterns around the iris.
Whilst I did put a few pics up on social media, I didn’t like to advertise (at that point) that there was a large angler present in Chesil Cove. The last time I saw one posted on UK viz reports the spear fishermen were all over it in five minutes, “Just out of interest” (of course) when challenged but the sad fact remains that there are plenty of folks who would rather drive a spear through it then take a photo and leave it to its thing.
I appreciate I run the risk of fairly rank hypocrisy here; for many a year I have myself previously speared a plaice or sole whilst night diving or unceremoniously stuffed a lobster or brown crab into a goody bag. Education and my conscience eventually got the better of me and I don’t do it anymore. I don’t like to lecture friends who don’t see the harm, but there are exceptions.
For example, our friend the anglerfish was such a large size, it seems possible (well, definitely 50-50) that it was a she. Whilst such fish are an attractive prize for sport fishermen, repeatedly taking large animals out of the gene pool hurts any population. With marine creatures these are frequently the most effective breeders, with a knock-on impact on overall stocks that is hard to simply shrug off. Whilst anglerfish are currently situated as ‘least concern’ on the IUCN list, they surely won’t remain that way if current commercial fishing- especially if large-scale bottom trawling continues apace in UK waters. Females do not reach sexual maturity until eight years, males six. The generational span is currently estimated to be eighteen years, making them vulnerable to overfishing. As is the general trend, stocks today do not come close to catches a hundred years ago, where Jenkins notes annual catches of 1800 to 2000 tons. It would be such a shame if one day, through our own inaction and greed, there were no such beautiful fish left in our waters.
Even the way they breed is fascinating; females spawn immense gelatinous sheets of eggs resembling bubble wrap, which are up to ten metres long and hold the larvae and egg sacs until a quite developed stage:
‘This spawn has been discovered off the American coast; in Scotland in the Firth of Forth; and in England off Mevagissey in Cornwall, where it was taken by Dunn. He saw it from the cliffs as a dark patch on the water, and the next day, taking a boat, he found and brought it ashore. It was far advanced in development, and the young fish, being black in it, could be seen “like currants in a cake,” struggling to get out.’
These sheets hold each in excess of a million larvae, themselves an important food source for the deep-sea environment they hatch into. Upon hatching, the tiny anglers are pelagic, and during their time in the water column they develop large pectoral fins, beautifully illustrated by Martin Filipe here:
These fins naturally shorten as the larval fish attain a length of approximately eight centimetres and sink to the seabed to begin their life there. The whole process starts again:
‘There is also present just behind the head a short thick tentacle arising from the protuberance of the body. Thus, the tentacular fishing fin ray begins to appear.’
So yes, in conclusion, long live the anglers! Happy fishing my dudes.
The Fishes of the British Isles, J.Travis Jenkins D.Sc.Ph.D., Frederick Warne & Co. ltd. 1925 p57, illustration photographed taken from plate 66
British Sea Fishes, Dr Francis Dipper, Underwater World Publications ltd. 1987 p42
Great British Marine Animals, 3rd Edition, Paul Naylor, Sound Diving Publications, 2011 p250
Thanks to Peter Scott, Colin Cowell, Jerome Saget and Georgie Bull for buddying with me during my encounters with these remarkable creatures, the latter doubly so as she suggested this topic as the next focus for the blog. Cheers dude.