What on our blue planet is going on in this photo?!
Well, this is William van Orden aka “Bilz Rockfish” of Quadra Island. Since 1995, he has been driven to make replicas of NE Pacific Ocean fish species and other marine life. It was my great fish-nerd joy today to spend some time with him and his wife Barb.
Above, William is holding the mould from the exact fish in the image below. This is the King-of-the-Salmon that died near Oak Bay on September 21st, 2017 (Photo is from the Oak Bay News). For more on this remarkable species, see my blog item at this link.
By making moulds of fish and marine invertebrates that have died as a result of bycatch or washing up like this, William can then make exact replicas for the purposes of education, conservation and art. Incredible care is taken to ensure that every detail is captured in the cast and that the painting is as accurate as possible for the species.
Replica of the head of the September 21st, 2017, Oak Bay King-of-the-Salmon.
Replicas of the head of the same King-of-the-Salmon. As a result of this, I learned that the nose can push outward as you see by contrasting the top and bottom casts (from the same fish). Presumably this would be to hunt prey which include “variety of fishes, amphipods, copepods, euphusiids [krill species], fish larvae, polychaetes [bristle worms], squids and octopuses.” Source: Love, Dr. Milton. Certainly More Than You Want to Know about the Fishes of the Pacific Coast: A Postmodern Experience. The fish you see in the background is a 71 cm long Opah (Moonfish). These are fish species that belong in the NE Pacific Ocean but we so rarely get to see them and their awe-inspiring adaptations.
From the Bilz Rockfish website: “Every scale, pore and wrinkle is duplicated. The cast fish are then coloured with acrylic paints using an extensive collection of photos and notes. The quest is to create a permanent three-dimensional record of every fish [species] found along the Pacific coast. With over 400 different molds cluttering his shop, it would appear that the quest has turned into an obsession.”
Indeed, the detail is remarkable (as is his wonderful ichthyology obsession). For example, today I realized why Starry Flounder must be called STARRY Flounder. See all the tiny star patterns on the fish’s skin?
Cast of a 64 cm Starry Flounder.
I also learned something more about the “design” of female anglerfish.
Likely you know that anglerfish females have a lure that contains bacteria which create light (bioluminescence) to attract prey in the deep, dark depths that they dwell. This lure is marked “A” in my image below. What I learned from William is that the lure can be reeled in closer to the female’s mouth and . . . as “A” is drawn inward, “B” gets longer i.e. “B” is the counterweight to the lure appendage!
Speaking of appendages, see the little male attached to the female anglerfish? The male bites onto the female and fuses with her. He gets her nutrients. She gets his sperm. I have included a National Geographic video clip at the end of this blog that shows a mated anglerfish pair.
Below, is a cast of 90 cm Rougheye Rockfish determined to be at least 150-years-old. The age was determined by scientists counting the annual growth bands on this individual’s otoliths (ear bones). Research has determined that the species can even get to be 205-years-old!
Other fish in this image are a Decorated Warbonnet (facing left below the Rougheye Rockfish) and, on the right, a deep-dwelling fish (a clue being the huge eyes to pick up on very low light) with the enchanting common name of Ox-eyed Oreo.
The fish in the image below is a cast of a 137 cm Longnose Lancetfish (who you calling long nose?!). The species is thought to most often be in the depths off our coast. However, William has found shallow dwelling species like sticklebacks and Pacific Spiny Lumpsuckers in the stomachs of individuals he has cast. This suggests that at least those individuals were in the shallows. An additional great quote by Dr. Milton Love is “Longnose Lancetfish are another species for which the term “little is known” fits like a snug shoe.”
137 cm long Longnose Lancetfish. To the left, a male Steelhead (spawning stage). To the right, the Opah (Moonfish). And below, a 10 cm Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker. See him/her?
I have wanted to see William’s workshop for a long time. We’ve been in communication over the years as we have just a few interests in common. 🙂 I have used some of his casts for educational purposes (e.g. his replicas of salmon species) and I might even have a few casts hanging near the shower. Hey! All the cool kids are doing it (at least we marine biology / diver types).
But of course, there is also solemness to seeing the replicas of these awe-inspiring marine neighbours. They are the result of animals who have died.
This struck me the most powerfully with what you see in the image below. These are Ochre Stars with Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, cast by William in an attempt to bring more awareness to the plight of the sea stars.
He had also made a cast a of the species most impacted by the Syndrome off our coast – the Sunflower Star. It made me clench my teeth and hold back tears, understanding fully why he made this replica. Because, it is conceivable that this could become the only way we see this species, once so common off our coast. For more on Sea Star Wasting Syndrome, please see this link.
Deepest of sighs.
Below, more images of Willam’s work and the promised video showing a mated anglerfish pair.
To contact William / Bilz Rockfish, click here. The ideal for rare fish finds (deceased) is that they be of use to science and be cast for the purposes of education and conservation.
Underside of a 51 cm Black Skate.
Grunt Sculpin (species to 9.3 cm).
Close-up on the mould for the King-of-the-Salmon.
Below, National Geographic video of mating anglerifish. Species is the “Fanfin Sea Devil” (Caulophryne jordani).
See below for the extraordinary feeding method of the King-of-the-Salmon by which they extend their jaw. This member of the ribbonfish family belongs off our coast. To date I have not been able to verify if the origin of the name of the species is indeed from Makah legend.
Update September 18, 2020: King-of-the-Salmon washed up at Whiffen Spit (Sooke) documented by Dana LeComte (photo below).
Update July 18, 2020: Live King-of-the Salmon documented by Gary Bodine at Pillar Point, Washington.
Update June 24, 2020: ~1.5 m long King-of-the-Salmon found struggling to stay upright by Al Champ and Wendy Cooper in East Sooke (photo and further details below).
Update June 8, 2020: King-of-the-Salmon documented by Harbor WildWatch in Salt Creek, west of Port Angeles, Washington. They provided the insight that “We speculate that this individual swam too close to shore and was killed by the waves as there was no evidence of predation. These are thin delicate fish adapted to the deep ocean. The tide pushed it up into the creek where it was discovered.”
Update August 2019: King-of-the-Salmon sighted in the shallows in Telegraph Cove, British Columbia on August 19th. Sighting and photos by Greg and Kim Ashton. Photos below.
Update September / October 2017: There have been 4 known King-of-the-Salmon washed shore in southern British Columbia / northern Washington. See details and photos below.
Here’s a finding to enhance your sense of wonder about the sea and how little we know about its inhabitants.
On March 23rd, 2012 Darren and Joanne Rowsell found this dead specimen on the beach at Lady Ellen Point, Port McNeill, British Columbia, Canada. When the photos landed in my inbox, I almost fell off my chair recognizing how rare a find this was. It’s a King-of-the Salmon (Trachipterus altivelis). The adults feed in the open ocean at depths of 900+ m (3,000 feet) so they hardly ever wash ashore and I had never seen one before.
The King-of-the-Salmon belongs to the ribbonfish family (Trachipteridae). You’ll note from Joanne’s photos that the species is indeed very ribbon-like. It is extremely thin and maximum confirmed length is 2.45m (Savinykh and Baitalyuk. 2011). The long, high, crimson coloured dorsal fin is also very reminiscent of a ribbon, tapering down the full length of the fish’s back. These fish move in a snake-like fashion, undulating their long bodies.
The unique common name of the King-of-the-Salmon is said to originate from Makah First Nation legend. The legend is said to be that the fish was believed to be the “king” that would lead salmon back to their rivers to spawn and that to kill one was believed to bring bad luck, causing the death of the salmon. The Makah, like other fisherfolk, must occasionally have caught one on their lines or in their nets. HOWEVER, I have never been able to verify if this is indeed a Makah legend and am currently (September 2020) trying to find out if there is indeed validity to this.
When one of these very rare and unique fish does wash ashore, it usually draws a lot of attention. See the video and photo below for a large King-of-the-Salmon found near Oak Bay, British Columbia on September 21st, 2017. A second one was also found near Oak Bay a few days later on September 26th. A third was found on a beach off Hood Canal, Washington on October 3rd, 2017. And a forth was found in Sidney, British Columbia on October 29th, 2017. (See photos below).
Range: The species’ range is believed to be from the Gulf of Alaska to Chile.
Diet and Feeding Method: Smaller King-of-the-Salmon do feed closer to shore and their diet is known to include copepods, annelid worms, fish scales, and fish larvae. Larger individuals feed on copepods, krill (euphausids), polychaetes (bristle worms, small pelagic fish, young rockfish, squid, and octopus. Part of what makes the species so unique is that they can capture (and process prey) by extreme protrusion of the upper jaw. See photos below.
From Ferry, et al (notably the ONLY research I could find on this species): “T. altivelis does appear to have earned the title of “most extreme”in terms of premaxillary protrusion. The distance to which the upper jaw is protruded anteriorly away from the head exceeds that of any other known species . . .the gut was examined in an attempt to gain further insight into this species’ecology. The gut was empty, but the anatomy was unusual and potentially suggestive of extreme foraging habits. There were hundreds of very small diverticuli lining the gut, which suggest to us a mechanism for increasing digestive surface area and/or efficacy. This species has been described as a deep-midwater forager on crustacean zooplankton (Hart, 1973; Shenker, 1983), which is consistent with such mechanisms.”
Predation: I presume that stomach content studies have allowed science to determine that the predators of the King-of-the-Salmon include the Bigeye Thresher Shark (Alopias superciloosus), and the Longnose Lancetfish (Alepisaurus ferox).
Swimming: From Dr. Gavin Hanke of the Royal BC Museum: “King-of-the-Salmon swim by passing a sine wave down their dorsal fin – they can get a fair bit of speed just by doing that. They can also reverse using the same fin flutter. They slowly turn by putting a curve in the body. However, in the first few seconds of the linked video you can see that they also swim in a more typical fishy way (using eel-like body oscillation) when they need a burst of speed or a really quick turn.” See video below of one swimming.
And THAT appears to be all that is known about the King-of-the-Salmon – yet another one of our remarkable marine neighbours.
From Ferry, et al (2019): ” While much work remains regarding the ecology ofT. altivelis and its relatives, it is certain that this fish holds many surprises yet in store”. No doubt.