Dominica July/August 2011 - It is as pretty a setup for critter hunting as can be imagined: two weeks exploring the southwestern shore of Dominica with the Wilk family of ReefNet fame along with Ben Victor, a larval fish scientist with a penchant for gobies and blennies. Although Anna and I have collaborated with Les and Any Wilk and sons Kris and Keri on numerous projects, and have long mined Ben’s notable taxonomic knowledge for details, this will be the first time we’ve dived together. Like I said, a pretty sweet trip, and sure enough things get off to a rousing start.
It is the end of our first dive and most of our group has headed back up to the boat leaving our guide Imran and me near the mooring finishing our safety stops when Imran points to the midsection of a monstrous segmented worm making its way across a crevice. The large centipedelike body belongs to an inhabitant of the inner reef, notorious in these parts for a long curved set of retractable, rip-your-face-off cutting jaws. Since they were kids, local islanders have heard tales about the frightful sea creature they have come to call “The Thing”.
The animal in question, given the scientific name Eunice roussaei in 1866, belongs to the family Eunicidae, which consists of just under 200 species worldwide varying in length from a quarter inch to 20 feet. Over the decades I have encountered family members on dozens of occasions from a small Florida species enticed from sand burrows with strands of Sargassum weed to brawny characters in Indonesia that surged out of the sand with their serrated jaws splayed to snatch fish heads dangling from sticks.
In a moment of mischief I slip my stainless steel rod beneath the worm and slowly lift a U-shape section of the inch-wide segments. Surprisingly, there is little resistance, and in less than a minute I have the six-foot beast completely out and sliding across my hands as placidly as a pet corn snake. Up close and in the light the animal’s color turns chocolate brown and shimmers with an otherworldly iridescence. With the nasty mandibles tucked away its eyeless head appears more cartoonish than threatening. A minute later the released worm slips slowly back inside the reef.
Hearing that we are heading for a grass bed on our second dive Imran, still buzzing about our encounter with The Thing, makes an ambitious request: “Would someone please find me a pipehorse.” It seems that he had been looking for the rare little cross between a seahorse and pipefish without success since he began diving eight years ago.
With a splash we’re over the side and heading for the grass—a shallow sea meadow of turtle grass and feather algae spreading as far as the eye can see. Within minutes the squeaking of Anna’s plastic video light arm draws attention. In the distance we can see her kneeling at the edge of grass with her eyes locked fast. Arriving at her side, I follow the direction of her finger to a pert little pipehorse with its tail looped in a lasso, swimming along the edge of the grass.
Like Anna and I have noted so often before, after having been introduced to the hunt and given the opportunity to slow down and survey a reef properly, local guides exhibit talents that far exceed those of city-raised expats. And such is the case with Imran. In the last two dives he has changed from a fly-up-and-down-the-reef-in-45-minutes tour guide to a critter hunter extraordinaire.
We find the grass full of Yellowface Pikeblennies. These soda-straw thin two- to three-inch bottom dwellers, which typically take up residence in abandoned worm tubes, are endlessly entertaining especially at times such as these when their population numbers near an annual peak prompting reproductive juices to flow. Coy females out and about and slipping through the forest of grass like shadows seem to derive the greatest pleasure from driving the guys nuts. When approached the males rise from their tubes and snap their spendid dorsal fins taunt like sails in a gale. Repeated encounters can put suitors in such states of competiveness that they attack neighbors. One male becomes so addled that Anna’s bobbing finger solicits a nip.
Over the weeks our grass safaris reveal a trove including decorator crabs, seahares, juvenile lobster, grass anemones, frogfish, and a rare Mutton Hamlet. But our strangest discovery comes when Imran finds a mole crab along the shallow inshore edge of the meadow.
Taking advantage of such amiable company, at dinner one evening, Anna throws out the idea of producing a short episode for her upcoming release of Blenny Week spoofing the Discovery Channel’s annual blockbuster Shark Week. Everyone readily agrees so Anna tasks the group with crafting a script. Over breakfast the following morning ideas fly. Before the last cups of coffee go down a short sketch entitled the B-Team (Blenny Team) has been hashed out.
Our logistics in Dominica allow for plenty of time underwater. Residing at Castle Comfort on the southern outskirts of the coastal capital of Roseau, each day our party of ten makes two extended morning dives on a private charter operated by Dive Dominica, leaving the afternoons and evenings open for unlimited shore diving from the resort’s pier. Although the slope fronting the property lacks the island’s splendid coral- and crinoid-spangled reefs, it offers an enticing array of alternate habitats. The bottom near shore begins with a tumble of breakwater boulders separated by a towering gorgonian thicket from a sand and grass incline that merges at 80 feet into a field of silt studded with coral and sponge islets—fertile grounds for two-hour plus dives. The terrain features a circus of oddball animals, especially after dark when seldom-seen night creatures venture out from hiding to feed. On my first night dive I’m greeted by a shoal of four juvenile arrow squid that briefly linger in my light before disappearing back into the night.
Here and there I catch glimpses of a small night prowling fish skimming the grass tops. These are the first Bonnetmouths I’ve seen since this, and a closely related species, the Boga had their family status unceremoniously altered thanks to the brave new world of DNA. For decades the two striped plankton-pickers had exclusive rights to a family all their own, the bonnetmouths, Inermiidae; and so it stayed until genetic analysis recently revealed bonnetmouths to be long-lost members of the grunt family, Haemulidae.
I had heard rumors about a pair of batfish inhabiting the house slope. And sure enough I happen upon one of the morphological wonders shuffling across the sand. Making the encounter even more remarkable a short rod, tipped with a fleshy tab, extends from above the mouth and wiggles like a fishing lure.
Crustaceans, in the form of crabs, shrimp and lobster, less fearful for their lives after dark when predators have bedded down, emerge from the grass to feed. First I find a purse crab, the size of a nickel that burrows backward into the sand, followed by the largest decorator crabs I’ve ever seen. Even under the cover of darkness the fine fellow wears a bouquet of sponge on its back to disguise its presence.
What a treat to find Orange Ball Corallimorphs growing in profusion between the boulders near the dock. During the night, these close relatives of anemone display one of the most striking polyps of all the cnidarians. Unfortunately, the animals abhor light, closing within seconds of being hit by my beam.
The dock also makes it convenient to be underwater at dusk when marine animals tend to coordinate reproductive activities. Although I didn’t witness much hanky panky, an unidentified burrowing sea cucumber did poke out of the sand and broadcast a creamy ribbon of gametes.
Late one calm afternoon splintered light from the setting sun silhouettes a solitary Reef Squid in grand fashion.
On a morning dive off the township of Soufriere I catch a glimpse of gold and magenta stripes darting across an opening at 80 feet. The pattern is too distinctive not to be a Candy Basslet, one of the Caribbean’s most beautiful and reclusive fish, and a species I’ve seen only once before. So I settle a few feet away and wait, and wait as the time on my decompression meter plummets. The basslet never shows another fin, but remaining still underwater for a period of time always pays dividends. In this case a cryptic Red Face Moray, the width of a chopstick, emerges from a nearby crevice.
On my way up to the shallows I find a Golden Crinoid Shrimp living in the only place it can survive—on the spiky arms of a Golden Crinoid.
I finish the dive under the boat watching a territorial dispute between two blennies battling for control of abandoned worm tubes near the top of a coral mound where the richest plankton currents flow.
For some unexplained reason an unusual influx of pelagic Sargassum piles up on Dominica’s wind swept east coast; random patches of the vegetation make it around to the island’s lee where we’re diving. These floating rafts harbor a splendid macrofauna of about one hundred species from eleven phyla. The problem comes in finding and photographing the remarkably well camouflaged animals. Even in calm seas, the combined movements of a diver and a raft of weed bobbing on the surface, creates a real challenge. I come up with a simple solution that had to this point eluded me. Instead of dealing with the floats near the surface, I take a patch to the bottom where the maze of vegetation is stabilized with a rock.
Ben Victor is a one-man show. Armed with an aquarium net and baggies he’s off and gone the moment he hits the water. If we do happen to catch a glimpse of him underwater, his modus operandi is always the same—head down near the substrate and oblivious to anything larger than an inch. For the most part he is after gobies and blennies. On our trip he concentrates on the most recent of his many passions—blennies in genus Starksia, which according to recent studies probably includes far more species than previously imagined. In my decades of underwater hunting I had only sighted two species of the small elusive fishes. Under Ben’s tutelage, which sets me up with a search image and insight, I find during our two weeks what he perceives to be six different species. Two of the individuals Ben believes might be new species.
Ben also reintroduces me to the handsome Red Banner Blenny, a hole-dwelling species with a distribution from Dominica south to Venezuela.
Although a fish man first and foremost, Ben shows me an unfamiliar red shrimp found under a rock that makes my day.
One morning I notice a large Sand Diver, a member of the lizardfish family, perched on the edge of a rise with its torpedo-shaped body angled up toward an aggregation of Brown Chromis feeding in the currents. In the psyche of fishes the location and size of eyes are invaluable indicators of perceived body size and intended direction of movement for both predators and prey. For this reason it makes fish uncomfortable to be approached directly from the front, which invariably causes a subject to turn or move away. Each time I near the predator it darts to one side, only to return to the same position after I’ve backed off. After five slow and deliberate approaches, with my eyes averted to the side, the fish, out of complacency or frustration, allows me close enough to snap its portrait.
Toward the end of a pinnacle dive I come upon two humongous Spotted Scorpionfish lying on the bottom a few feet apart. The situation instantly brings to mind stories I’ve heard over the years about the fish locking jaws in territorial disputes that have been reported to last for hours. After a few minutes one of the frying pan-sized bruisers turns and makes a break with its rival in close pursuit. In a maneuver so fast that if I had blinked it would have been missed, the pair faceoff and lock jaws in a massive collision. A quarter-hour later as the needle on my air gauge approaches empty, I reluctantly leave the motionless pair still locked together with unblinking eyes warlike and uncompromising.
I make the last dive of the trip off the dock in the early afternoon. With plenty time on my computer I swim pass the gorgonians and grass and drop down the slope farther than I had previously gone to see if I can pick up a deepwater species. Through the chalky haze at 140 feet a sea pen appears, only the second I’ve ever seen in the Caribbean. Close inspection reveals a flattened shrimp clinging to the stalk. My find turns out to be a symbiotic Wire Coral Shrimp, the first of the species reported to inhabit anything other than wire coral.
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