Forty-two years now I have been going to Bonaire—an arid mountain tip of a southern Caribbean island with the best shore diving on the planet. The rocky 25-mile stretch of her protected western coastline grants us the rare freedom to access marine life on our own terms. And best yet, even after 30 extended visits spanning four decades Anna and I are only beginning to scratch the surface of what the island’s waters have to offer. Allow me to present a few images from this year’s annual September visit as testament to Bonaire’s unending capacity for underwater discovery.
Longhorn Blennies at Last
I have long thought of our series of marine life field guides as bountiful wish lists for incurably curious naturalists with an appreciation for weirdness. Flipping through the pages over the years my eyes have repeatedly been drawn to the image of a perky little blenny with cirri extending from its head like a pair of telephone communication towers. But search as we might over the decades, we never once laid eyes on the elusive Longhorn Blenny. That is until we were enticed to explore the island’s “wild side” with Bas Tol, premiere dive guide and king of Bonaire’s lionfish slayers, with a promise of finding our long-sought prize hiding in the surge-swept shallows lining a blustery bay.
It takes two weeks before the winds calm sufficiently for us to tackle the shore entry into the rocky cove where the blennies make their home. Burdened with air-heavy tanks and extra weights we stumble our way through the shallow minefield of ankle-twisting rocks until we can at last plunge into the relative safety of waist-deep waves. As the bubbles clear we find ourselves swimming over a field of algae stretching as far as our eyes can see. Within ten minutes we find our first blenny poking its head out of a rock hole half hidden among the billowing fronds. But such glimpses are brief as swell after swell lift us up and away kicking and tumbling and struggling for control. Fighting our way back to the holed-up blenny we cling to a nearby rock waiting for a snippet of calm to focus our lens before being wrenched away once again. We find the blennies semi-common at depths from three to ten feet. With three of us hunting we locate one about every ten minutes. An hour-and-a-half later we make it back to shore safe and sound and only slightly worst for wear. As things turn out, our blenny hunt is the perfect mission with conditions hovering at the edge of do-able, yet sufficiently daunting to make for a lively tale. Three days later we’re still a bit bruised, stiff, but happy—fond reminders of a calm day on the Bonaire’s wild east side.
Check out Anna’s video of the dive at the BlennyWatchers Channel:
New Camera, New Images
Hardware is not my long suit. What I know about photographic technology could fit comfortably inside a thimble. Patience, persistence and a bit of knowledge of animals are more my game. However, after years of satisfactorily using a Canon 5D camera sporting 12.8 megapixels, I made the switch to a Nikon D800 with 36 megapixels, providing almost twice the image area. I seldom need such capacity for enlargements; what I need is the ability to occasionally crop an image radically to show detail. So off I go to Bonaire with my new toy encased in a diamond-bright Ikelite housing outfitted with an indispensible Nauticam 180 degree viewfinder and my tried and true, ol’ faithful Sigma 50 mm macro lens (Almost the only lens I ever use underwater.) Let me share a few results from the switchover.
Only days after fertilization a Sergeant Major nest explodes with new life 30 minutes after sunset. The brood’s patriarch, exhausted from continually nursing and guarding the clutch of poppy seed-sized eggs from predators, will take a few days off before advertising for a new set of brides to refill his nest.
The release of gametes from sea rod, brain coral and star coral.
For two months before jetting off to Bonaire I spent much of my time chained to a computer laying out an enlarged edition of Reef Creature Identification. I’m not complaining, it’s a joy piecing together an ID book, watching it grow animal-by-animal and word-by-word. Here are a few portraits of some new invertebrates taken this year in Bonaire that will appear in the pages next fall.
A Chain Moray makes it home on the pilings supporting a small dock fronting a condo complex.
For some time now I’ve wanted to photograph a Viper Moray’s dramatic set of teeth.
Cherubfish, one of the world’s smallest members of the angelfish family, typically live below 60 feet. Occasionally the one-to-two inch beauties are found as shallow as 25 feet in Bonaire.
Juvenile Coney sea bass wear one of two wardrobes: either a solid gold suit or a white and brown coat patterned with bold back and white markings. Evidently this little fellow just couldn’t decide which look it liked best.
Cleaning gobies, immune from predation because of their beneficial parasite-picking habits, are about the only creatures that would dare dance around this set of teeth.
A pair of Sharpnose Puffers duke it out for the rights to romance a female watching the brawl from the wings.
A pair of eyes catches my eye as they peer out from a sponge. After a brief wait the eyes attached to a Reef Octopus slip out and dash away across a rainbow encrusted pier piling.
Hermit Crab Revisited
Eighteen years ago, under the same cargo dock and almost at the exact spot where I’m presently kneeling among a jumble of abandoned truck tires, I photographed a hermit crab dragging a long-dead coral remnant. The elongate branch struck me as such an awkward choice for a home. I watched the hermit labor with its burden for some time until, out of the blue, it tilted the coral piece skyward and pranced away effortlessly. My photos of the innovative hermit, published in Ocean Realm magazine, elicited several amused comments. Yet here I am nearly two decades later at the same dive site watching the same curious event, which I have never seen elsewhere. Like I love to say, “The sea never ceases to amaze.”
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