A sea scorpion, also known as the daddy sculpin, father-lasher, goat sculpin etc

Becky Hitchin looks into the tradition of naming sea creatures after notionally similar land animals.

There are many things on land that have an equivalent in the sea. Sea lions, sea mice, sea lemons ... The list is lengthy. And often somewhat strange. 

Let’s start with critters named after mammals. Some seem fairly sensible. One can see that a sea horse resembles, in some way, a horse – at least at the head end. Maybe not so much with the tail, and definitely when considering male pregnancies. Sea cows seem fairly sensible too. Manatees have that same feeling as an ungulant [hooved animal – weird words editor], placidly grazing in the rays of sunshine filtering down through clear waters. 

Some names are not so sensible. Sea mice were so named because they apparently look like a bedraggled house mouse when washed up on shore. Maybe - if the house mouse was segmented and iridescent. With distinctly more legs than a normal mouse. Sea lions are strange too. Lions tend to be tawny, majestic, and live in the savannah. Apparently, sea lions get their name from Steller’s sea lion, a very large sea lion living in northeast Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Northwest. The males are known to have a ruff that resembles the mane of a lion, and also apparently roar. I have not heard this, and await confirmation (or lack of) from any reader who has heard the noise of a male Steller’s sea lion. 

What else? When we get to the deep sea, sea pigs can be encountered. These are sea cucumbers that look like pink blown-up balloons with a bunch of tentacles waving around the mouth. Water cavities within the sea pig inflate and deflate, allowing further tentacles to move. Pink? Yes. Bacon? Definitely not. Mainly water. 

Apparently, sea lions get their name from Steller’s sea lion, a very large sea lion living in northeast Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Northwest

Other animals. Let’s think. Well, we have sea scorpions – fish that seem to have more names than members of the Royal Family. Short-spined sea scorpions are also known as daddy sculpin, father-lasher, goat sculpin, guffy, horny whore, pig-fish and scummy. I don’t even want to know where some of those come from... in BSAC we wouldn’t choose to use some of these historical names today. 

There’s also a scorpionfish called a sea raven. We also have sea robins – gurnards that get their common name from the orange ventral surface of one of the species, and from large pectoral fins which resemble a bird’s wings. I’m not entirely convinced by any of their resemblance to birds. My favourite other animal, though, is the sea urchin. Archaically, they have been called sea hedgehogs - the name urchin being an old word for hedgehog. 

What about fruits and vegetables?  

Everyone is fond of a sea lemon nudibranch, some of which are actually almost yellow and have some surface texture. There is, by the way, also a sponge that tastes of lemon – if you nibble it. Talking of sponges, there’s also a big orange sponge that occurs around the UK that is called, unsurprisingly, a sea orange. Sea grapes are common throughout the world’s seas, generally describing a range of green seaweeds that form small bunches of bubbles instead of leaves. Sea lettuce is common around UK shores. Sea strawberries and sea peaches are types of sea squirt, sea raspberries are a type of soft coral, sea apples are, again, a type of sea cucumber. I can’t find any sea blackberries or sea blackcurrants. Sea bananas, on the other hand, appear to be a delicious sea vegetable from Australia that have a salty and rather spicy flavour.

The lesson from this? A name is everything and nothing. Smile at sea urchins and sea lemons. Record them in logbooks! 

Article ‘What exactly is a sea lion?’ by Becky Hitchin first published in SCUBA magazine, Issue 146 June 2024.

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