The Beginners Guide To Finding Small Sh*t Underwater
One of the big things customers always inquire about after a dive is, how did you see that little thing and what the heck was it?
To be fair, more commonly they ask me if I was asleep down there. Most recently, I was asked after my dive if I had lost a contact lens...
There have been countless times that I’ve pointed super cool things out to people ( my own perception - I know! ) and their response is to shove their wide angled lens Go-Pro on the end of a selfie stick in the general direction from 8 feet away. It makes me feel like a sad six year old at show and tell whose classmates didn’t appreciate their pet rock, and I dishearteningly think to myself “not a hope sweetheart” and carry on swimming.
Or even worse than that, they can't control their buoyancy and try to get close and start kicking around and I see the poor critter get flipped upside down and caught in a cloud of sand and sediment.
I enjoy the shallower diving along fingered reef in Grand Cayman with the option of discovering the best of both worlds. Reef to one side, and sand to the other. Poking around in the sand you can find the weirdest and most wonderful of creatures.
Although in saying that, one time in the Seychelles I was so engrossed with a rare sea cucumbers bumhole that I apparently missed a whole pod of dolphins swimming over my head. It was a very nice bumhole though.
Alright, enough about bumholes and on to a list of some of our favourite marine friends that like to hang out in our local waters :
Pederson Cleaner Shrimp / Red Caribbean Pistol Shrimp
One of the go-to macro life to point out here locally are the Pederson Cleaner shrimp. These little blue and white twerking fellas are normally found around the bottom of the edge of the reef, or in solitary clumps of coral in the sand at the entrance of a crevice.
You’ll often seen these guys nibbling away at marine life, cleaning off dead tissue, unwanted hard to reach leftover food particles and I guess the fish version of mouth plaque. Yummy. ( Side noted fun fact, Sharks can’t get cavities as their teeth are coated in fluoride )
You may know about the free manicure they offer our human vessels and that if you gently place your hand down in front of them they slowly climb on board the cuticle munching train. BUT, if you peer just behind them, you will see some Corkscrew Anemone and if you slowly push your hand a little further in there, a curious red pistol shrimp will emerge from the darkness and shock your finger with an audible snap. It’s not painful, but it does give you a little jump and a giggle.
A common misconception about the snapping shrimp is that the snapping noise comes from the force of two claws snapping together. What actually happens is one pincer plunges into the socket of the other, forcing a jet stream of water into the surrounding water, at up to 62 miles per hour, creating an area of low pressure behind the stream which causes a gas bubble to form. The pressure from the surrounding water builds so high within nanoseconds, causing the bubble to implode on itself sending a sonic shock wave through the water, which then causes that snapping sound you have become so familiar with.
Another fun fact you can impress your dive buddies with is that during World War II, United States submarines were purposefully kept amid colonies of pistol shrimp or affixed with speakers playing pistol shrimp snapping sounds, so that the sound waves from the loud bubble snaps of the shrimp would acoustically camouflage underwater vessels from detection by sonar surveillance systems. And it worked.
Yellow Headed Jawfish
It’s a waiting game with these little buggers. Cruising low you’ll notice them floating above their burrows in the distance, like baby Caspers in the sand. Motion in the water spooks them out ( pun intended ) and makes them hide away back in their underground caves.
Fun fact about these Jawfish - the males are mouth-brooders. This means that after a couple of trips to the cinema and the third date, the male fertilises the eggs and then collects them in his mouth, protecting them until they hatch and are left to swim off and fend for themselves. Every so often they will open wide and spit out the hundreds of eggs in a ball to aerate them, which keeps them clean and hydrated. Lay down gently in front of them and watch them slowly get braver and peek out, and if you’re really lucky you might get to spot daddy daycare in action.
Banded Coral Shrimp
Look for the long, white whisker looking antennae appearing out of the coral, follow the trail and you’ll find these pretty, colourful bad boys at the end. They are nocturnal feeders, so during the day you’ll normally find these guys hiding under ledges and in crevices in the reef, but they have been found laying low as deep as 689 feet deep. And they call the Hermit crab a loner! Banded coral shrimp typically partner for life, which, at a life expectancy of 2-3 years, that smells too much like commitment for me..
These guys like to hide out in holes in the sand, quite often spotted here just off of the wreck of the Doc Poulson. What’s really cool with these is that if you take a mirrored surface, like the back of your dive watch face, hold it up to the pikeblennys hidey-hole and watch him go for his mirror image arch nemesis. It might sound mean, but it's good spar training.
Flamingo tongues are predators that specialize in eating soft corals. They are very bright and colourful snails that live predominantly on the outside of the shell and are almost exclusively found on their preferred prey species – typically sea fans, whip corals, and other soft corals. Look out for the swaying purple sea fans in the shallow hard pan, quite often you can see a cluster of flamingo tongues hanging out. Keep a special eye out for the rarer fingerprint pattern species.
These tiny cuties are many divers Holy Grail of marine life finds. Pay close attention around big coral heads and peek down inside the holes and crevices for these cute little bumble “peas”
Resist the urge to pet them in all their cuteness though, as the bodies of Boxfish are covered in a toxic mucus which can be released when stressed. Not that you'd have a hope of catching these speed demons, even if you tried. Recently spotted here at Cemetery Reef and Rainbow Reef, so be extra vigilant if you’re in the vicinity ;)
Seahorses (or Seaponies, as we used to lovingly call them at the conversation project I worked on in Cambodia ) are always mystical, magical creatures to encounter underwater. They can be very elusive, especially in Cayman waters. When one appears at a known dive site, the word spreads like wildfire and draws in many the curious diver, in the hopes of getting a little peek at the magnificent beast.
Even when you know one is in the area, they are quite hard to spot. They like sheltered areas where they are well camouflaged. They camouflage themselves by changing colour quickly to blend in with their surroundings and they also allow encrusting organisms to settle on them making them even harder to spot.
Generally the easiest part of a seahorse to spot is the tail, and you’ll find them wrapped around branches of hard coral, or hidden under overhangs or in other sheltered areas. Due to them being bad swimmers, they like to stay in areas with limited water movement. Seahorses really dislike bright light and will shy away from a flashlight or bright camera flash. They also like to eat between 30 to 50 times a day, so we have quite a bit in common.
Just like their seahorse cousins, pipefish are a member of the Syngnathidae family, so it is the Daddy Pipefish that gives birth to their young. Pipefish are the skinny members of the clan, think - long snout and face of a seahorse, body of a crusty shoelace. You’ll find them alone or in clusters sitting in the sand , or just off the edge of coral fingers. When you spot them, don’t touch them, but if you wave your finger slowly in their general area, they will slowly rise and dance and create a relationship with you not unlike a snake and it’s charmer.
Christmas Tree Worms
Luckily for us, these little fellas are in abundance all around Grand Cayman. A Christmas Tree worm is very sedentary, so once they find a place they like, they don’t move much. This means that their form of defence is neither fight nor flight, but to retract and hide safely out of harm's way.
One of my absolute favourite parts of taking people on their first open water dives is spotting one of these worms poking out of some optimally placed coral and beckoning the novice scuba diver in slowly. I make sure that they’re paying close attention, wondering what curious looking creature is resting in front of them. Then I get super close and flick the water surrounding the worm, and there’s nothing quite like the look of surprise and awe in the mask of the new diver when it magically disappears in the blink of an eye.
I like to think of it as playing hide and seek, hopefully they don’t think otherwise..
Well, there you have it. Ten of the most popular macro creatures hiding in our waters. Now you know how, jump on in and start checking them off your list!