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By Julianne E. Steers

Julianne E. Steers is a marine biologist and director of husbandry for the Ocean Institute.

“Head-turning Style, Extraordinary Location. Spectacular Views in Every Direction!” Read the real estate listing. ‘Great!  I’ll take it. Sold.’

And so, began the male Garibaldi’s quest to set up shop, perfect his home and attract the proper mate.

Every spring and summer, Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), our California state marine fish, readies for breeding season. This radiant orange damselfish, prized for its vibrant hue, inhabits the waters of the Pacific Ocean from Monterey Bay to Baja, California along coastal reefs and among kelp forests. Protected beginning in the early seventies, they are common to our backyard waters in Dana Point and the southern Channel Islands.

Growing up to 14 inches in length, the male of the species takes on the task of cleaning the house to show he is ready for the role of caring for the young. In a prime piece of ocean-front, rocky reef real estate, the male uses his attributes to the best of his ability towards clearing all debris by picking up rocks, urchins and even sea stars with his mighty mouth and sending them packing; undersea demolition day, so-to- speak. I’ve observed many garibaldi swimming with vigor, sea star in mouth, away from their nests, to drop the intruder on the seafloor below so they now had squatter’s rights on a section of reef.

With debris removed, it’s time for lawn care. No ride-on mower for this guy. Munching gently at the kelp forest’s understory foliage, he cultivates a beautiful garden of crimson algae, all precisely uniform in length. The red color scheme is key to camouflaging and protecting his future eggs.

With excellent curb appeal in place, he now turns on the charm. A series of jutting and dipping in front of his nicely, tendered yard hoping there are a few gravid female window shoppers passing by his corner of the reef. If that doesn’t suffice, an audible serenade of clicks and thumps created by the fish’s throat teeth are added to the display.

Cruising by each open house, the females gaze, uninterested at most male’s nest and mating spectacle.  With the invested effort in egg production, she can afford to be particular and prefers to deposit her valuable clutch in the nest of the most dashing suitor. Once laid on the red-carpet, the male fertilizes those eggs. If perchance, the female lingers, he will chase her away out of fear she’ll feast on the eggs.

Now, the male Garibaldi will guard the nest fiercely charging boldly in vigorous defense of their territory and physically confront intruders so that their eggs may develop. Meanwhile, the nest is kept tidy and eggs are aerated by the ‘ocean-breeze’ of the waving fins of the father. After a few weeks, the eggs hatch, procuring a bountiful brood of vibrant orange and blue.

So, when you venture out to the sea these summer, take note at the prime real estate market beneath the waves.  All there, so our prized fish can continue to streak brilliant life to our local reefs.

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