I’m heading back in to shore after a recent snorkeling trip to the artificial reefs off of Perdido Key, looking over a bed of thousands of small, brownish sand dollars, when a curious little critter catches my eye.
It’s about eight inches long, shaped like a lot of other fish, but with fins and short spines protruding every which way, including small leg-like appendages on either side of its shovel-shaped mouth that the fish is using to root around in the sand and drag itself along the bottom.
I hold as still as the current will allow and observe the strange creature, the first “walking” fish I had ever seen. Its body is roughly the color of sand and a few dark spots on its back help the fish blend in surprisingly well with the sand dollars. It would be easy enough to miss even with snorkel gear if I hadn’t seen it moving.
Finally the fish gets spooked (or just bored) and takes off, spreading a pair of wing-like fins that begin just behind the digging fins and soaring over the underwater sand ripples into the haze.
Back on land, a phone call to Bob Shipp, chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of South Alabama and chief judge of the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, helped confirm that what I had seen was likely a sea robin. The name comes from the wing-like fins which the fish can flare out to intimidate predators, but usually stay folded alongside its body.
Shipp said there are about a half dozen species of sea robins in this part of the Gulf, and that they are a strange but common sight along the coast.
“There are certainly no issues population-wise, they’re very abundant and they’re very interesting,” Shipp said. “Sometimes people keep them in saltwater aquariums mainly because they are so doggone ugly, and so unusual-looking.”
Sea robins are a category at the ADSFR’s Roy Martin Young Anglers Tournament, though only two were registered this year.
“Kids fishing from piers with small hooks, fishing for pinfish and things like that, occasionally they’ll catch a sea robin,” Shipp said. “When they bring them up to the dock, they flare their fins and it makes a little bit of a show, so they’re kind of fun for young kids to catch.”
Shipp said that sea robins are edible, but are so small and hard to clean that most people don’t bother.
The fish mostly stays on the bottom, rooting through the sand looking for crustaceans or smaller fish to eat. The sea robin has bony plates and non-venomous spines around its head to discourage predation and can bury itself in the sand or use the large wing fins.
Return of the sea robins
About a week after the first sighting, I returned to that reef and around the same bed of sand dollars, I spot another head shaped like an upside-down shovel and those feeler fins protruding from the sand. Though most of the fish was buried in the sand, those feeler fins were unmistakable now that I’d seen them once.
I swam overhead and before I could hit record on my underwater video camera, not one but two sea robins emerged from under the sand. The larger of the pair had a yellowish tint to its tail and its wings. The smaller one was nearly all white. I was able to follow this pair around for nearly a minute, as they plodded along the sand, swam with their tales in a wriggling motion and twice displayed their full wingspan.
The video above starts with this later encounter and ends with my first sea robin sighting. The photo gallery below contains still shots from those video clips.
More information about sea robins and other Gulf fish is available in Shipp’s book, “Dr. Bob Shipp’s Guide to the Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico.”