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Marine Life Blog » Behavior, Bonaire, Coral Spawning, Fish Spawning » A Night on Bonaire’s Wild Side and the Annual Coral Spawn

A Night on Bonaire’s Wild Side and the Annual Coral Spawn

Shortly before our annual September stay in Bonaire, Anna and I receive an e-mail invitation to go night diving just outside the Lac Cai cut with a gentleman named Bas Tol. As it turns out Bas is part of a small group of dive guides, known as BASdiving, that specialize in taking small groups to unique dive sites around the island. In our case, Tol wanted to show off a set of unique night creatures he has staked out just outside the tide channel feeding a mangrove lagoon located on the island’s eastern shore. Now anyone who knows a whiff about Bonaire diving realizes I’m speaking about the “wild side” of the island—an unpredictable coastline ruled by the wind—far removed from the gentle surf lapping the sheltered western shore.

Red Clingfish, Arcos rubiginosus

Red Clingfish, Arcos rubiginosus

Between busy schedules and a pesky easterly breeze, we’re on the island for two weeks before Bas finally calls with an optimistic weather forecast. We’re on for the following evening. Our rendezvous is set for 7 pm outside Buddy Dive’s reception. I like the hour: between the sun setting at 6:30 pm, and calculating in the 20 minute drive and our time suiting up, we won’t be in the water until well after dark. The later hour gives critters plenty of time to creep out of their hiding holes before our visit.

On the drive to Lac Cai we pick up a bit about Bas and his troupe of animals. Thin, roughed and focused, Bas looks every bit the part of a young man who has chosen life on a tropical island and goes diving every day. Bouncing along behind the wheel of his worn pickup you can almost feel the intensity of his blue eyes pulsing as he talks about the animals he has recently encountered. His tales just happen to include species Anna and I have been tracking for years.

By the time we veer off the asphalt and onto the sand, images of rare fishes and shrimp dance in our heads. We come to a stop in the dark just past a mound of conch shells. Without a hint of moonlight, I can just make out the outline of the cut only steps away from where we gear up in the dim glow of a flashlight. With a short walk and a splash we’re underwater riding a warm current out to sea. Just that quickly we’re in another world.

We follow Bas’s lead past a field of pink and white tentacles, over a forest of sea fans, across a stretch of sand and tumble of rocks before breaking to the right at 30 ft. and tucking into the lee of a cliff. This is our goal – Bas’s prime hunting grounds – and almost immediately he begins finding animals. First to show up is a Red Cling Fish clinging to red rock, followed by a bizarre tonguefish inside a crevice. On the sand below, his beam spotlights a snail, the size of my fist, gliding past with its mantle spread, followed by a giant hermit crab that bursts onto the scene toting its conch shell home.

Tonguefish

Tonguefish

Giant Tun, Tonna galea

Giant Tun, Tonna galea

 

Giant Hermit, Petrochirus diogenes

Giant Hermit, Petrochirus diogenes


While Anna and Bas continue hunting the cliff, I’m watching the translucent polyps of Flower Coral filling with gametes—a harbinger of the annual coral spawn expected during the nights to come.

Flower Coral, Eusmilia fastigiana, tentacles filling with gamete bundles.

Flower Coral, Eusmilia fastigiana, tentacles filling with gamete bundles.

Just as I begin thinking things can’t get any better we hit the mother lode. Inside a crevice at 40 ft. Bas’s light picks out a rare Circled Shrimp making its way along the wall. Only seconds later, a pair of undescribed boxer shrimp appear in his beam.

Circled Shrimp, Gnathophyllum circellum

Circled Shrimp, Gnathophyllum circellum

Whiteclaw Coral Shrimp, Odontozona sp.

Whiteclaw Coral Shrimp, Odontozona sp.

As afterthought, my eyes dart to my air gauge. It can’t be, the needle signals we’re at our turn around point. In disbelief, I check the time, what seems like 20-minutes has somehow turned into an hour and a half dive.

Our adventure with Bas reinforces a couple of time-worn tenets of critter hunting: Don’t be afraid to explore alternate habitats, and whenever possible go with those in the know even if they might now and then lead you to the “wild side”.

Two nights later finds the annual coral spawn well underway. Traditionally, in Bonaire many species of stony and gorgonian corals spawn during days six through eight following the full moons of September and October—a big bonus for visiting Bonaire during the early fall. Making the period even more rewarding, the same cues that trigger corals to synchronize their reproductive behavior, also seem to put fish and critters in the same mood. Although most spawning takes place after dark, sponges start things off releasing great clouds of gametes during the day.

Touch-Me-Not Sponge, Neofibularia nolitangere, smoking gametes.

Touch-Me-Not Sponge, Neofibularia nolitangere, smoking gametes.

But it is the first few hours following sunset when most of the action takes place. Over the years, beside several species of coral, we have seen sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea stars, fire worms, crinoids, Christmas tree worms, clams, several fishes and even sea spiders spawn during the magical evenings. Traditionally, things get started as brittle stars slink out of the reef and inch their way up to high ground where on tiptoes they liberate their annual cache of eggs—yellow, red or black depending on the species. Males, drawn by the same ancient rhythms, release clouds of sperm from surrounding rocks. With luck their gametes will somehow find each other in the night.

Female brittle star releasing eggs.

Female brittle star releasing eggs.

Male brittle star releasing sperm.

Male brittle star releasing sperm.

By the third night there are so many excited divers prowling the 30-foot coral crest at Buddy Dive Reef, I drop down to relative solitude at 60 feet. Just off a sand channel, I notice two soapfish together—odd behavior for the solitary predators. Within seconds they are rubbing, nosing and darting about—sure signs of courtship. As I hover above watching, the female’s belly swells to the size of a tennis ball. Following a bit more cavorting and several false spawning rises, the pair finally blast off side-to-side headed for the surface with me trailing close behind. At 20 feet I lose pace as the fish continue up another ten feet where, bathed in my light, they explode in a shower of gametes.

Greater Soapfish, Rypticus saponaceus, courting.

Greater Soapfish, Rypticus saponaceus, courting.

Cavorting

Cavorting

One of several false spawning rises.

One of several false spawning rises.

And they’re off, heading toward the surface.

And they’re off, heading toward the surface.

With a belly the size of a tennis ball, the pair join for a spawning rise.

With a belly the size of a tennis ball, the pair join for a spawning rise.

Thrilled, I catch up with Anna to show off my soapfish in the camera’s display. But before she has a chance to glance at the screen, she rockets away toward a mound of Mountainous Star Coral snapping on her video lights as she goes. Moments later the coral begins releasing what quickly becomes thousands upon thousands of BB-sized bundles of genetics filling the sea like a snowstorm—without question one of the greatest shows on Earth.

Boulder Star Coral, Montastraea annularis, releasing mixed-sex gamete bundles.

Boulder Star Coral, Montastraea annularis, releasing mixed-sex gamete bundles.

A mass coral spawn—one of nature’s greatest wildlife shows.

A mass coral spawn—one of nature’s greatest wildlife shows.

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Filed under: Behavior, Bonaire, Coral Spawning, Fish Spawning · Tags: , , , , ,

2 Responses to "A Night on Bonaire’s Wild Side and the Annual Coral Spawn"

  1. Chip Roy says:

    Those soapfish spawning shots really are amazing. We met briefly during your book signing in Bonaire, my girlfriend and I were the ones filming the frogfish spawning. We just finished putting it together with some footage from SE Asia into a 20min short documentary that we are submitting to film festivals. We would love it if you and Anna would have a look at it. All the best.

  2. […] “Just as I begin thinking things can’t get any better we hit the mother lode. Inside a crevice at 40 ft. Bas’s (nb. Bas Tol, Basdiving Bonaire) light picks out a rare Circled Shrimp making its way along the wall. Only seconds later, a pair of undescribed boxer shrimp appear in his beam.” (The Marine Life Blog. Town Pier in Bonaire, The best night dive in the Caribbean, now closed, but hopefully not for long. http://fishid.com/marinelifeblog/bonaire/) […]

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