Fish ID :: The Basics

Welcome to our Fish ID Course!

I’ve decided to refer to this as a course because that’s what it feels like it is to me. Not because it’s boring or tedious or you’ll have lots of homework, but because you’ll learn lots of stuff, and that will make you a more confident, capable, interesting person/diver (which is what I think learning is all about, really).

Throughout these pages, you’ll meet a bunch of the ocean’s most common fish and learn how to identify them. I’ll show you some basics, let you play around with the material yourself, then give you some quizzes so you can see how you’re doing. While the heart of the course is about fish ID, you can also learn a lot more if you choose. You’ll have opportunities to study beautiful images, watch videos of fish in their natural environment, learn underwater sign language and discover interesting (and sometimes unsettling) facts about each fish as you go along. 

This course is designed for anyone interested in learning more about the underwater world (divers and non-divers alike). I’ve attempted to create a virtual learning environment where even the most landlocked fish lover can feel like they are seeing these creatures in their natural environment. If you are at all curious about what lives in our incredible oceans, you’re sure to find something here to tickle your fancy.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

I suppose the first thing I should clarify is that I’m going to start out with fish –as opposed to sea creatures. Fish generally look like this.

Sweetlips
Sweetlips

Things that don’t generally look the photo above are likely sea creatures.  They can look like this:

Nudibranch
Nudibranch

 or this

Mantis shrimp
Mantis shrimp

or this

Red-lipped batfish
Red-lipped batfish

Gotcha! That last one is actually a fish! See what I mean by generally?

Secondly, as this is a beginner level course, we’re not going to learn every fish there is in every ocean. We’ll focus mainly on tropical fish, i.e. those that live in the region shown on the map below. There are many fish who live outside of this area, obviously, but 1) the tropics are incredibly biodiverse so they give us a lot to work with and 2) quite a few species outside this area are simply colder-water versions of their tropical cousins – which means this course can still help you identify them.Map of the tropicsLastly, rather than getting caught up on individual species like the queen angelfish, emperor angelfish, blue face angelfish or peppermint angelfish, we’ll focus first on the families. So – for right now at least – these are all simply angelfish. As we add higher level courses, we’ll look at these differences more (and for you star students out there I will write the full species name on photos to help you get a head start).

Ok, back to Red Lips up there. If a freaky, Rocky Horror Picture Show creature like that is considered a fish, then what exactly is a fish? Let’s look at the essential elements that define our fishy friends.

Introducing :: The Fish

Quick vocabulary list of fish anatomical elements (barbel, dorsal, pectoral, ventral, anal and caudal fins)

Fish come in every shape and size you can image. However, they all share some basic features – the most telltale being fins and gills. If you see something that doesn’t have fins and gills, it is not a fish. Gills can be tricky to see as they are usually covered by a protective plate, but fins are pretty easy to spot. Our batfish friend above doesn’t seem to have anything resembling fins in the photo, but if you watch it swim around it starts to look a lot more like a fish.

Here’s a breakdown of the different fins and their names. Take some time to get familiar with the vocabulary as I’ll use these terms to describe fish throughout the course.

Basic elements of fish ID (fins, gills and snout)

Once you’re familiar with these basic elements, you’ll will become more aware of variations in their shape. For example, some fish have big, round snouts and some have thin, pointy ones. Some, like sharks, have distinct dorsal fins. Others’ fins are nearly invisible. By knowing the basic shapes for each feature of a fish, you can start to deconstruct them, which makes identification much easier.

The surgeonfish below, for example, is the only one with a continuous dorsal fin, crescent tail fin, oval body shape, downward pointed mouth, and special feature near its tail (more about that later!). Taking note of the variations in the boxes below will help you break down individual features, making it easier to identify your mystery fish. 

Surgeonfish broken down into ID elements

In addition to the shape of its features, the markings on a fish can help you identify them. Common places for markings are around the eye, along the body or on the tail fin – basically anywhere on the fish, I suppose. The location of the marks and the orientation (vertical, horizontal or diagonal) can sometimes help you narrow down the family or even the specific species. They can also tell you about where the fish is at in its developmental process, as some change their markings drastically from babies to adults.

Examples of markings on Fish
Top: bluestripe surgeonfish, left: juvenile harlequin sweetlips, right: blackback butterflyfish

Now that you know the basics about what makes a fish a fish and how their features can vary, it’s time to dive in and meet some in person. We’ll start with a few you’re likely to see on nearly every dive.

button_first-up-angelfish

Regal angelfish

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Fish ID :: Where to Start

When I first started diving, I was blown away by the number of different creatures in the ocean. It was exhilarating seeing so many new animals, but also overwhelming because I had no idea how to talk about them – either underwater (a finger pointed at “that one”) or above the water (“the fish under the rock that was kind of blue but with the stripe about halfway down and the grumpy face”).

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name - ConfuciusChris had been diving for a while already and I felt very behind in my ability to talk coherently about what I had seen on our dives, not to mention totally dependent on him to fill out my logbook with any type of accuracy.

I started trying to teach myself (lowering my aims pretty quickly from Every Fish in Every Ocean to The Fish I Am Most Likely to See), but even at a beginner level, I struggled to find good resources that would help a newbie diver (or scubi newbi, as I will henceforth call them) gain this knowledge on her own. I relied almost exclusively on experienced divers to either tell me the name of a fish or point me in the general direction where I could start my hours-long web search. This is how everyone seems to learn this stuff; go on a dive, find something weird and ask the guide about it.

While it’s great to learn from experts (and obviously really helpful), there are two things I don’t like about them being my only source of information: 1) Guides can be wrong – sometimes just a little wrong but others incredibly wrong (at least for someone like me who is a fiend for accuracy). 2) Having someone tell you the name isn’t as helpful (or, for me, as memorable) as having to figure it out based on your own logic, reason or study.

Ever the dedicated, over-achieving student, I wanted to learn how they knew it was the fish they told me it was. Surely if I learned their logic I could start to figure these things out for myself and not need them to tell me, right? Right.

A while back, I decided to make a little outline, initially just for myself, that would help me learn how to identify the fish I was seeing on our dives. That grew into an idea for a fully-fledged course that could help other scubi newbies (it’ll catch on, I just know it) feel more knowledgeable about the creatures they start to discover. It’s the resource I really wished existed when I started diving myself.

So without further ado, may I present our Fish ID Course!

The handy ocean-blue button below will take you to the Basics page, where we look at the two key elements that make a fish a fish. From there, you’ll move on to individual snapshots of the most common reef fish and how you can easily identify them while you’re diving, snorkelling, watching a nature documentary or visiting an aquarium (though their little signs are usually pretty helpful). Casual visitors can dip in and out for whatever morsels they find useful, while more dedicated academics can challenge themselves with quizzes and puzzles.

I sincerely believe there’s something here for everyone, diver and non-diver alike.

Enjoy!

 

Original art by Sketched Out
School of Fish – Original art by Sketched Out a brilliant illustrator with a passion for puns. 

Episode 4: Desert Diving

Last time on Mobilis Divers: Noelle and Chris realised they had to go to opposite sides of the world for an unknown amount of time. It made them sad. Now they’re working on pushing their dream forward together while they’re apart. 

Salt Lake City, Utah

Despite coming to a landlocked, desert state (in the winter), I always planned to carry on diving while I’m here (ideally for free). My ultimate goal is to finish the Instructor course before we try to start our own place. It’s the next step on the professional ladder and it would be helpful for both of us to be at that level when our shop is up and running (Chris already has his certification). There are two catches though a) it’s very expensive and b) it’s something I feel under-qualified for, since I’ve mainly been guiding – not teaching – in the water.

Don’t worry though. I have a plan! I want to start assisting with classes so I can get more practice with that while I save up enough to take the course. Ideally, I would even get paid while I am helping out (I’m over this whole working for free malarky).

Good news is, it looks like that all might be happening – soon! Until this summer I had no idea there were thriving scuba centers here. I knew people did some diving in the mountain lakes or down in the desert, but that’s about it. Turns out there are four dive shops in town (who take people not only all over the state for fun dives but all over the world on diving trips). One of these plainly stood out as the best, so when I got back to Utah in November the first thing I did was pop in there and tell them I wanted to be friends.

The conversation that ensued totally blew my mind for two reasons:

1) Did you know the only warm water diving destination in the continental US (according to their site) is in Heber, Utah? The Homestead Ranch has a hot spring that is a constant 96°F/35°C. People literally ski all morning just around the corner then come here to warm up again. In January, when the temperatures can reach -18°F/-28°C outside, I could come here and dive in a t-shirt and shorts. How nuts is that!

Homestead-crater-natural-wonder
The Homestead Ranch hot spring

2) More bizarrely, did you know there is a mini ocean in Grantsville, Utah? Really! No, seriously! With sharks and angelfish and all that jazz. I know! I had no idea either. I’ve called this state home my whole life and I knew nothing about this, but it’s real. At Sea Base, there’s another hot spring (not quite so hot as the first) that joins up with part of the Great Salt Lake. The resulting salinity is roughly that of the sea. So someone dug out four big pools and filled them with this oceany water and a bunch of rescued aquarium fish (along with both nurse and bamboo sharks!). Really!

When I planned to do some diving in Utah, I figured I would be spending my time in a tepid swimming pool or a freezing lake with crap visibility. I had no idea there was the possibility of t-shirt diving and bamboo sharks! I seriously can’t get over it.

Ok, they aren’t all tiny babies, but I would die of happiness to see this.

Needless to say, at the end of this chat I immediately asked where I could sign up. And I’m happy to announce I will be diving with them starting tomorrow! This first few times will be an “I’ll check you out while you check me out” kind of situation with them, but I’m pretty confident it will be the start of a fun time exploring what there is to see around here – while also getting myself ready for this next big step. I’m pretty excited!

There is one part, however, I am not excited for: the Americanisms. Out of the 265 dives I’ve done, 263 of them have been outside of America. That means as a diver I was raised in the metric system – and let me just say, as a user of both, metric is SO much better! It really is. Not because of any scientific relevance or improved accuracy, but because it is designed for lazy people. Europeans couldn’t be asked to spend their time working out 12ths and 7ths and crap like that! They had beaches to sit on, wine to drink and women to seduce. So they invented a system that made math a small and simple part of their life. America should consider doing the same.

Alas, as we are not there yet I will have to learn the conversions from metres to feet, bar to psi, Celsius to Fahrenheit, and litres to cubic feet (as well as metres to meters, and litres to liters). Sigh. I’ll also have to shift my perspective from sea level to altitude. Lots to learn! Luckily, I like any excuse to play in Excel, so I whipped up a few cheat sheets yesterday so it’s easier for me to remember. (Side note: Because I couldn’t find anything as clear and simple as what I made, I uploaded them to a new Resources page here in case they’re useful for anyone else!)

not a nurse shark
Taken at Sea Base. Not a nurse shark, as the site claims, but one of my dear leopard shark friends!

I’m really looking forward to getting my feet wet again this week. I’ve been out of the water more than a month – something I don’t think I’ve done since I started diving. I’ve really been missing my fishy friends from Muscat lately. But, if the internet can be believed, I might be able to visit one of their cousins right here in Utah!

Leafy-Sea-Dragon---Rapid-Bay-Smaller_WEB 2

 

 

 

Episode 3: Strange Dreams

Last time on Mobilis Divers: The Possibly Perfect Place started to look like it could be a real thing, but with some challenges. Noelle got anxious about the challenges. We modified the plans. The universe ignored us completely. 

“Some people get a strange dream, then that dream opens a new future or new life or new connections with other people” – Dalai Lama

So there we were, making plans to take a little breather in Utah before jumping head first into this strange dream of ours. I was busy selling things off, packing what was left and getting the cat ready to go. My friends and family at home were busy finding spare rooms for us to live in, looking for job opportunities, and planning holiday parties.

Then Chris got an email.

You see, the first day after we returned from our Summer of Three Places, we started talking to people about our interest in the Possibly Perfect Place. We wanted to get a feel for it from those who have actually spent time on the ground, so we reached out to people who live there and people who have travelled and dived there. In the process, one of Chris’s co-workers casually said, “You’ll never find a job there!”

The idea of either of us getting a job hadn’t really crossed our minds. We were always focused on the idea of starting our own business, not working for someone else. But the suggestion of it made Chris curious. It could help us out a lot with some of the challenges we felt like we were facing. For example, getting a job would mean earning money instead of spending it while we check the place out. It would also give us more time to explore it in depth: looking into the logistics of setting up the business, finding potential sites, making contacts and getting a really good lay of the land before we jump into anything.

Chris hopped online to see if his colleague was right about jobs being so rare, and what would you know but a position had been posted that day in exactly his area of expertise? We certainly didn’t expect that! In a mad dash, he updated his resume and sent off his application. Then we heard nothing. For weeks.

I can’t say I was totally heartbroken that they hadn’t replied. The opportunity sounded great and all (you can’t deny the freakishly good timing), but I was really looking forward to us having some time together for a few low-stress months, something I don’t know if we’ve ever really had before. I knew he was probably the most qualified person applying for the job, but as the weeks rolled by without a peep, I relaxed more and more into the reality of our Utah plans.

When he got the email requesting an interview. I was not wholly enthusiastic. To put it truthfully, I dissolved into a snotty, teary heap. It felt like once again the plans we made were being ripped up in front of our eyes. I knew I could not go with him, I just didn’t have it in me. I still needed rest and that still needed to be in Utah because it’s simply the easiest place for me to go. A small, annoyingly excited voice inside of me did keep twittering that, despite my anger and frustration over the timing, this job presented a really great opportunity for us and our future. I wanted to punch that voice, but I was forced to give it the stink eye it instead.

freaks-geeks-stink-eye

When he got the email offering him the job, I would like to say I was prepared and excited and ready to accept this crazy twist of fate. But no, I dissolved into a snotty, teary heap. Now that it was a real possibility, I started thinking about how our day-to-day lives would look, and I didn’t love it. The Possibly Perfect Place is far from Utah, so far it is actually nearly an antipode. With the time difference (if we’re both working typical hours) one will be working while the other is sleeping, which means we’ll probably only be able to talk to each other on the weekends. And knowing the American system, I was keenly aware that once I got a job I would not be able to go visit him because I simply would not have the time to. His job offer felt like the last nail in the coffin of our relaxing, refreshing time together. Because it was. And it totally sucked.

On the other hand, when the emotions subsided and I let that small, annoyingly excited voice actually say its piece, I couldn’t deny the coincidence. What are the chances that we would say “Let’s go check out this place in January” and a job in that exact place (a pretty remote and unknown one) at that exact time would magically appear? Although it will be really hard for us to be 8,000+ miles apart (for we don’t know how long), in terms of our big-picture hopes it certainly makes more sense for Chris to be there, checking out the possibilities, than in Utah spending his days doing crossword puzzles while I’m at work. Plus, every relationship needs a time where you have to communicate through long-form letters in lieu of face-to-face time, right?

Once we accepted the new state of affairs, things continued to slot into place without us doing much. We managed to sell off nearly all of the things in our house and one of our cars without actually trying. And Chris got a surprise week off, which he was able to use to go back to the UK to visit his family (he had planned to in January but wouldn’t be able to with the new job starting then). All too easy… It feels like, after so many years of trying to land somewhere and make things work, this opportunity is simply – and tenaciously – presenting itself to us on a silver platter.

very-good-sir

 

I suppose the Dalai Lama is the renowned and respected man he is because he happens to understand how the world works. He simply accepts that strange dreams can lead to new futures, new lives and new people. We, on the other hand, didn’t have His Holiness’ wisdom to recognise that once we voiced our dream it might take on a life of its own and we’d just be along for the ride.