If you don’t love snorkeling (and/or diving) and you live on a boat, you are surely missing out on half the world that you are visiting as soon as you reach the tropics. I had expected to find some amazing, kick-ass snorkeling in the Caribbean and I was not disappointed. The diversity is huge, the shapes, sizes and colours are gorgeous, and I never tire of the spectacle and the grace of the under water world. There is something to see in even the quietest spots and the best ones are as good as a dive. I haven’t taken my camera with me on any dives as yet as I am new to diving and so prefer to concentrate on not dying. In fact I’m so wet
behind the ears when it comes to scuba diving (sorry, couldn’t resist) that the last time I went on a dive I read the manual for my hardly used dive computer carefully the night before only to put it on upside down for the actual dive. Sometimes it’s nice just to enjoy watching the marine life and not to try to capture everything on camera. When it comes to snorkeling, however, I am an aquatic paparazzi for fish pics. The waterproof Fujifilm camera that I use is not particularly expensive but has taken some great pics, even if I don’t have a filter to restore the reds that are blanched out by the blue light. However, a big thank you to Sally for restoring the colour to some of my favourite pics, thanks to her skills with Photoshop. Apologies that most of my pics are of slightly stressed marine life swimming away. It is good exercise, gently harassing fish and turtles, I find. What other pass time is so cheap, environmentally respectful and combines exercise and wonderment? All for the price of an occasional round of antibiotics for an ear infection… so worth it!
I have become a bit geeky when it comes to fish. Not in a PhD in marine biology way. More in a fish version of train spotting way (getting really excited about seeing a buffalo trunk fish, for example). I have a book on reef fish of the Caribbean and I go through it and tick off the fish I have seen, marking the location where I have spotted them. Guess what my geeky dream is? Yes, that’s right… to tick them all off. Even the little gobies and grunts that all look the same and the many fish that hide under rocks. I’m no expert but I have done a little bit of googling about our fun, fishy friends. There are far too many to include in one post that will ever be read (even by me) so I have made a completely biased selection of my favourite marine friends that I managed to get half decent pictures of.
Don’t confuse your trunk fish with your cow fish
The smooth trunk fish is a super cute, boxy fish often used to advertise dives and snorkel sites. Although pretty, it apparently secretes toxins to fend off predators and if ingested, the toxins can be strong enough to kill a nurse shark. This may be why it doesn’t seem to have needed to evolve the ability to swim fast. It hovers and bumps up and down like a badly coded fish in an eighties computer game. Happily, these fish are often unafraid of us swimming monkeys and it is possible to duck dive on them and to get some pleasingly cute pics. There are lots of them around in the south part of the Caribbean chain (think Bequia and further south) and they can sometimes be found blowing up the sand around your anchor (apparently they expell a jet of water to uncover yummy little sea beasties to eat).
The same family of fish seem to be called box fish, trunk fish and cow fish depending on the species and the edition of fish identification book that you buy. Slightly less common is the honeycomb cow fish which has little horns (hence the name) and is easy to identify from his honey comb pattern. Now, I like a logical fish name.
The spotted trunk fish fits the bill as well. As does the buffalo trunk fish with its buffalo style hump. I was particularly excited to spot a couple of these in Mayreau as my fish book informs me that they are rare.
Rays are sharks you know…
Well, close relatives to be exact. Just as well, because the only pictures I have of Caribbean reef sharks are grainy and unimpressive. Is it my fault if the sharks I came across in the Tobago Cays were huge scaredy cats and swam away from me as promptly as a bog standard parrot fish? The only time that I have seen a full size reef shark was in Saba when going for a dive. I didn’t have a camera with me but even if I had, I doubt I would have had the courage to approach, I’ll admit. The sight of a large shark inspires respect.
The southern stingray
The beautiful thing about rays is the way they move through the water. They seem to fly and glide through the water using their flappy bodies like wings. And boy, can they get a move on! Impossible to catch up with one when it makes a getaway. The most common ray in Caribbean waters is the Southern sting ray. They always make me think of an elephant’s head seen from above with their grey, disc like bodies reminiscent of the elephant’s ears. I keep a respectful distance from them because of their tails which apparently can give a nasty sting if stepped on. I have never heard of a case of the stingray using its tail to jab a passing snorkeler but as it has gone to all the trouble of evolving a weapon, it would be rude to encroach, surely?
The spotted eagle ray
Second most commonly seen are the spotted eagle ray. These large rays are spectacular, thanks to their spots. They are chunkier than stingrays with a definite three dimensional body and definite nose. The shape of them makes me think of dolphins with wings. Both kinds of ray are bottom feeders, hoovering up small crustaceans from the seabed (or more precisely, blowing rather than sucking, uncovering their food) but the spotted eagle ray has a kind of duck’s bill. I suppose that ‘Spotted duck ray’ didn’t sound as romantic. Spotted eagle rays jump out of the water occasionally, something I was lucky enough to see in Saint Martin. There are cases where eagle rays have jumped onto boats and even one fatality (a woman in Florida). Having been hit on the shoulder by a mere three inch flying fish, I wouldn’t want to be in the path of one of these guys.
Splashes of colour. Angelfish
The striking Angelfish is rather shy and tends to flit in and out from underneath rocks. They are spectacular in colour and I have done many, many duck dives in my search for the perfect close up picture. I have a very large library of pictures of Queen Angelfish getting away. They are territorial (apparently fiercely so) and so once you have found one (or two) you can always return and pester them by the same rock the next day. The French Angelfish seem to be rather less shy and I have found them in large groups more often. The juvenile is more striking than the adult with its flashy yellow stripes. Apparently they are tasty to eat, but who could imagine spearing such a beautiful fish? I know… fish discrimination.
Cute overload.. the porcupine fish
I was always super excited to spot a porcupine fish. They never fail to make me smile, partly because they appear to be smiling themselves. They are such an unlikely shape and so ungainly in the water that it is difficult not to see them as comical cartoon characters. I have never seen one in defense mode, puffed out with its spines extended like an aquatic hedgehog except in pictures and sold stuffed as an extremely kitsch lamp. However, when I got to the Tobago Cays my porcupine fish delight reached new heights. Huge porcupine fish that swam together doing ballet like movements and appeared unconcerned by me. Very different from the shy fish I had seen sheltering under rocks elsewhere. Then I understood. The beach where they swam in only a couple of centimetres of water was right by the barbecue area. This is almost a petting zoo. As the cutest fish in the water, they were getting the most fish heads and chicken legs from the tourists. Ironic that this creature’s main defence is its ability to puff itself up to look like the death star of fish, spiky and terrifying. I can’t help it if I find them impossibly adorable!
The incredible Flying Gurnard
I will confess that I have only ever seen Flying Gurnards in one location, and that’s in Bequia where they seem to thrive. They are not the most attractive fish at first sight, as they rather look like insects that crawl along the sea bed. However, duck dive on them and they will reveal their secret weapon… luminous blue wings that shimmer under water. Wow factor. They probably deploy these wings as a deterrent. It rather backfired in my case, as I was rather captivated by the spectacle and so kept coming back for more. Another memorable sight is to spot a group of half a dozen of them ‘flying’ along the sea bed. They look like a squadron out on patrol.
What can I tell you about trigger fish? They swim in an unusual way. To quote Wikipedia ‘the anal and posterior dorsal fins are capable of undulating from side to side to provide slow movement and comprises their primary mode of propulsion’. Or to put it in layman’s terms, their top and bottom fins wiggle backwards and forwards so they look as if they are swimming on their sides. I understand that you can’t get that from a photo. Never mind. You’ll have to take my word for it. The Queen Triggerfish is very striking (again, you will have to take my word for it, as the photo doesn’t do it justice) and they can get to be the size of a large rugby ball. However, if you are a super wealthy individual with an aquarium the size of an Olympic sized swimming pool, you might want to think twice about adding one to your collection. Wikipedia tells me that they are very bad tempered. In the wild this is difficult to tell. They just swim around like other fish as far as I can tell. Except sideways.
What can I say? OK, so they’re not fish but I had to finish on a high, so left it to the turtles. The turtles you are likely to meet as you swim around are Green sea turtles, so called because the fat beneath its carapace is apparently green. The turtles that you meet in bays and anchorages are adults. They are vegetarian and eat sea grass and may be as old as 80. Young turtles are carnivorous and stay away from land in the open sea for the first five years of their lives, so are rarely spotted. You can easily tell the sex of a turtle. If its tail is peeping out from underneath its shell, it’s a boy.
These peaceful giants of the Caribbean are often used to snorkelers, especially in places like the Tobago Cays and the French islands where hunting them is prohibited. The advice is not to touch one which seems to be academic, as they can shoot off when they want to. However, I have sometimes seen turtles with a chunk missing out of their shells or even a flipper missing which indicates that they sometimes have a run in (unfortunately literally) with an outboard engine. I am always extra vigilant in the dinghy in bays where I have seen turtles feeding.
Green turtles need to breathe regularly when active although they can stay underwater for up to 2 hours when resting. I noticed that when I duck dived on them, they often surfaced for breath, affording great photo opportunities. Then I read that they need to breathe more often when stressed, and left them a bit more space. You can sometimes see these guys getting friendly with your anchor. Whether this is for a tummy rub or for a different motive is unclear.