Orange fish swimming in blue ocean.

©Brett Seymour, National Park Service

Scientific Name
Hypsypops rubicundus

The garibaldi, a member of the damselfish family, is the California State marine fish and its possession is illegal. It is easily identified by its bright red orange coloration. The garibaldi is found in temperate waters off the California coast from Monterey Bay southward and northern Baja coastline waters of Mexico. The Channel Islands, and in particular the southern isles, are the more predominant habitat for this species.

Quick and Cool Facts

  • The species is one of the brightest colored fishes off the southern California coast. Adults are bright orange
  • The garibaldi gets its common name, garibaldi, from the 19th century Italian leader by the same name whose famous army wore flashy red/orange colors into battle.
  • One reason the garibaldi is protected in California is its popularity as a salt water aquarium fish, for which a law was passed to make it illegal to remove them from their habitat.
  • The male garibaldi is the housemaker of a mating pair. It not only selects the nesting area, but also prepares it meticulously for the laying of eggs by the female.
  • Being fiercely territorial, it is not uncommon for the garibaldi to chase away divers from its nesting area.
Garibaldis are round, plump fish with flowing pectoral and tail fins, and staring yellow eyes. Swimming through dark reefs and brown kelp, they're a jolt of glowing orange, a reminder that garibaldis are relatives of coral-reef damselfish. Juvenile garibaldis are deeper orange, with sparkling spots of blue and blue-trimmed fins. 1

The garibaldi is primarily found off the coast of California. They have a home range from Monterey Bay down to the Baja California peninsula, and around the Channel Islands as stated by Eschmeyer, W., E. McFarland, J. Chess in their 1983 work, the field guide to Pacific coast fishes of North. However, the northern Baja coastline of Mexico, as well as islands such as Guadalupe, is home to this species.

In contrast to most other species of the damselfish family that have tropical reefs as their habitat, the garibaldi lives in cooler temperate waters. Their habitat ranges from the shallow subtidal regions down to depths of approximately 100 feet. The garibaldi occupies shallow rocky reefs near where the intertidal and subtidal zones meet. Here they swim in and around the kelp forests that are prevalent in this habitat. These kelp forests are a critical habitat element as they provide potential protection from predators, are a source of food, and are important for reproductive success for this species.

Garibaldis have a clear idea of exactly where their territories end, and two males may be seen peacefully grazing less than two feet apart—as long as each remains on his own turf. Female garibaldis tend to be less protective of their territories, perhaps because they contain no eggs. Territoriality seems to be tied to the rocky reef—periodically, garibaldis gather without drama in the waters above the reef. These "kelp socials" seem to be a way for garibaldis to investigate each other and may help females choose their mates.4

The garibaldi feeds during the day on a diet of primarily bottom-dwelling invertebrates including worms, small anemones, sponges, bryozoans, crabs, shrimps, small shellfish, and sea stars. Given the opportunity, females eat their own eggs. Their diet of sponges may contribute to their bright colors.5

According to observational research conducted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is discovered that much of the work of raising babies is handled by the male. Upon becoming an adult, a male garibaldi picks out a promising stretch of reef—a sheltering nook plus a smooth expanse of rock wall—where he will live for the rest of his life. Each March, males work feverishly to tidy their nest areas, by removing debris, carrying away sea stars or urchins that wander along, and biting away all the plant growth except for a few species of red algae. These he trims so they're about an inch long—perfect places for thousands of eggs to rest.4

Once a male's nest is perfectly trimmed, the next challenge is attracting the attention of female garibaldis. Beginning in April and lasting until fall, females ready to lay eggs make outings to look for good nests. They signal their interest by swimming with their fins sticking straight up. Males try to entice these females over by swimming loops with their bright orange bodies. At the same time, they thwack together the teeth in their throat to make a thumping sound that (they hope) the female can't ignore. If she takes notice, he swims straight over to his nest, hoping she will follow. Females are very choosy, often visiting 15 nests or more before making up their minds. The Monterey Bay Aquarium states that the male garibaldis are fiercely protective of their territories and they don't get sentimental after attracting a mate. As soon as a female has laid her eggs, the male chases her away before she has the chance to munch on any other eggs in his nest, then fertilizes the eggs by scattering his sperm over them. He also chases off any other creatures that venture too close.4

In the end, it seems to make little difference how well tended a male's nest is or how well he swims loops. Females are reluctant to lay their eggs in an empty nest—they look for a nest with eggs from at least one other female (and up to 20 females). This means male garibaldis have to work hard to attract their first females; after that, many others come—sometimes lining up to lay eggs at a popular nest. Females are also picky about the age of the eggs in a male's nest. They prefer to deposit theirs alongside other freshly laid, bright-yellow eggs. Garibaldi eggs hatch in two to three weeks, so eggs with just a few days' head start would hatch earlier and have an advantage over younger hatchlings. In a bizarre turn of events, males sometimes eat the older eggs in their nests (gulping down 200 at a time), gambling that they'll attract even more females in the next day or so.4

Conservation Status
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), there are no major threats known for this species. However, this fish was historically exploited by the aquarium trade (Moe, 1992). Conservation actions have been taken by the State of California to fully protect the species and it may be present in some Marine Protected Areas in Mexico and United States as shown in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA 2006).3

References and Additional Information

  1. Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
  2. Cabrillo National Monument
  3. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
  4. The Monterey Bay Aquarium
  5. Aquarium of the Pacific

Last updated: November 18, 2018

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