A fun way to increase the pleasure of diving is finding creatures in the Caribbean to observe and photograph. This is basically simple provide you know where to start.
The first step is to slow down and observe. If you are swimming three feet above the reef at cruising speed you are going to miss a lot of activity. Since the creatures we are looking for are extremely small, you won’t find them wandering about on the top of the reef. You will have to look in places where they are likely to be hidden from their predators. Your best aid will be knowledge. Literature on marine invertebrates is available in book stores, your local dive shop and, in many instances, can be found at diving resorts. Make use of these tools before you enter the water and your success rate will be much higher.
White antennae, colorful bodies and delicate features are all characteristic of cleaner shrimps. These creatures are truly worth seeking out and are fairly common. One of the most sought after is the banded coral shrimp. This red and white striped shrimp is large in comparison to other cleaning shrimps but still rarely reaches five inches in length. To spot them, look for several white antennae (the approximate thickness of fishing line) protruding from the underside of small crevices and overhangs. Once you have found the antennae, follow them beneath the overhang. Though the shrimp is now in sight you won’t be able to observe him very closely unless you are carrying a light. If you would like to have a closer look at the shrimp, gently put one hand on each side and slowly bring them together. This results in the shrimp moving into full view.
If you are interested in other cleaner shrimp, look for an anemone. Once you have found one just look between its tentacles and you are likely to find at least one type of cleaner shrimp. Many anemones host Peterson, pistol, harlequin and spotted cleaner shrimps. However, don’t be discouraged if the anemone you just spent five minutes looking for has none. If you continue to keep an eye out for cleaner shrimp you will eventually find one. Once you do, rest your hand near the anemone and wait. Soon the shrimp will come timidly to your hand and begin to clean it.
Crabs found in the Caribbean range in shape and size; their colors reach all corners of the spectrum. Hermit crabs, for instance, can live in a shell the size of a conch shell or in one the size of a flamingo tongue. Of the crabs in this guide, the hermit crab is likely to be the one you will most often find. They live almost anywhere underwater, though most often they are found in sand, on gorgonians and in coral cracks. At first sight only the crab’s shell will be visible. Once you’ve spotted a shell, reach for it. If you can pick it up easily you have probably found a hermit crab. If the shell requires more strength to remove, the snail is still in it. To see the crab within, pout the shell either on its back or at a slight angle. Now it’s time for patience. The crab will eventually come out in an attempt to right itself.
Simple to study, yet hard to find, are decorator crabs, the reef’s best hidden creatures. This is because they are often right on top of a sponge or gorgonian. Camouflage is their secret; they actually attach pieces of their surroundings to their bodies to attain maximum protection. For example, the decorator arrow crab who lives on gorgonians and black corals, will affix hydroids and pieces of algae to its body. This makes the crab virtually invisible because the corals in which it lives also collect such particles. When looking for this crab you will have to peer into the branches of black coral and gorgonians very carefully. Look for a clump of debris that is larger than the others and see if it moves when you put your hand near it.
Decorator crabs, as a whole, are easier to find on a night dive. This is especially true of the sponge crab. It ranges in size from one-half inch to 12 inches. The smaller variety usually has several small fragments of sponge on its body while the larger crabs have a solitary piece on their back that resembles a sombrero. Seeing these critters can be very difficult during the day. At night your odds are increased. Sponge crabs don’t always wear a sponge identical to the one they are living on, often they will be on a sponge of a different color, but it will have the same shape or pattern as the one they are wearing. With the aid of your dive light the color contrasts are much more obvious.
There is a crab that is often mistaken for a spider. This brown leggy creature is called an arrow crab and likes to hide among companions that have longer arms or tentacles than its body. For instance, sea urchins and crinoids both have unpleasant arms that protect the arrow crab from its natural enemies. At the base of these creatures you should find an arrow crab. If you are careful you can reach down and pick it up. It will walk quite comfortably on your arm, but keep your eye on it as the animal will try to crawl to the underside.
Starfish can be found in a multitude of sizes, shapes and colors. The most common starfish you are likely to find while diving in the Caribbean are brittle stars. To see these look for tube sponges or an area of rubble. Purple tube sponges, which are larger than most varieties, house brittle stars within their tubes. On smaller tube sponges brittle stars tend to live at the base of the cluster. If tube sponges produce no brittle stars for you, the next place to look is underneath debris. Brittle stars and named so because of their fragile limbs, so while searching the rubble be careful lifting and replacing rocks so as not to harm the creatures.
The most unusual starfish is the basket star. During the day all you will see of this creature is what appears to be a mass of tangles about the size of a fist within a gorgonian. On closer inspection you will see several little arms wrapped around each other with some gorgonian arms mixed in. At night, however, this small clump of arms turns into a three foot wide starfish. Unlike other starfish, the basket star’s original five arms continue to divide, forming hundreds of arms. You can actually see this creature eat by shining your light at its center.
Though there are many mollusks in the Caribbean only two of them seem to remain in one general area. The first is the flamingo tongue. This creature can be found within or at the base of gorgonians and sea fans. When you touch the shell the spotted mantle will retract. To get a closer look without disturbing the animal, slightly bend the fan or gorgonian in front of it. This will enable you to see the snail’s face. The second mollusk is the ruffle bag nudibranch (lettuce slug). It chooses basically anything that is algae covered (such as dead coral or rocks) for its home. Locating a lettuce slug will depend a lot on luck, for they are not abundant and they blend in well with surroundings.
The most important thought to remember is that small creatures are defenseless when removed from their natural habitats. While observing them you should always be sure to protect them from predators such as groupers, yellowtail snappers and Spanish hogfish. Once your study is complete, return the creatures to their homes.