The marine environment of
the BVI is an underwater paradise for diving
and snorkeling on its varied and beautiful reefs.
|Coral. An exotic world even in a tropical paradise, reefs, sometimes miles deep, are
the cumulative calcium secretions of the living hard coral
organisms, called coral polyps. The size
of match heads, coral polyps feed on plankton at night
with tiny tentacle
arms encircling its mouth (photo:
of Rainbow Visions).
Feeding At Night
|Soft coral. The widespread gorgonians, a family of soft corals, often
resemble plants, including the distinctive sea fans
(picture below from
Watersports). See Cistern Point dive and snorkeling site.
Snorkeler Amid Sea Fans
Reef Colors. From an underwater viewpoint, the reef's
colors reef are indescribable, even as the reds, followed by the yellows and oranges,
start to be filtered out at depth. Photographers get brilliant shots by bringing a dive
light, seeking the undersides of ledges and overhangs and shooting up. Good shots can be
had without a dive light by utilizing shallower reefs and shooting closeups with an
underwater disposable camera.
Denizens of the Reef
A joy to discover, these amazing reef
denizens are described by divemaster Randy
Keil in Triumphs of the Sea.
Anegada Lobster (with little
Porkfish) from the Lighthouse
Villas' Nature's Secret, the BVI.
Odd Shaped Fish.
Box Fish. A group of fish catalogued by Paul Humann as "odd shaped
swimmers," box fish, also called truckfish and shellfish, have an exotic triangular
shape (as seen from the front) that forms a hard bony protective casing. These fish
normally propel themselves with a gentle sculling motion, only using the tail fin for
quick bursts of speed. Quite elegant, if unusual, in their varied reef colors and
markings, these fish provide a motif
for gift items.
| It helps to know, when fishing for
the Queen Triggerfish for its edible merits, that
some other odd shaped fish of the boxfish family, produce a poison so strong that the fish
can harm itself in a confined space (photo:
ScubaBob). The Queen Triggerfish (picture) has distinctive lines
resembling a "mime actor's makeup" radiating from its eye and fanciful purple
fins with streaming tips--very exotic!
Puffer Fish. Another "odd shaped" fish, puffer fish draw in water to inflate their
Seen here from the Wreck of the Rhone, these large silvery predators have the unnerving
habit of following people around, apparently out of curiosity, so relax and enjoy their
picture). The knashing of their formidable teeth is simply their
way of breathing and has nothing to do with how delectable you may be!
Tarpon. The largest member of the Herring family, this large, silvery fish feeds at
night on grass shrimp, crabs and small fish in harbours, reefs and shallow flats, where
they often leap in pursuit of their prey. Seen pursuing large "shoals" of fish fry
at Jost Van Dyke's White Bay, large tarpon can be seen at
Saba Rock in the evening.
Jacks. Identified by the black stripe running
under its dorsal fin into the lower tail, a solitary Bar Jack forlornly eyes
the sand-smothered reefscape of post-Wilma Cozumel. And here's a school of young
Horse Eye Jacks in
Head & Tapered Body.
Yellowtail Snapper. A fish's kind of fish characterized by its yellow midbody stripe that extends
into its yellow tail, the sleek and abundant yellowtail snapper swims in loose groups well
off the bottom. See a picture at The
Characterized by two distinctive black bands on its head, the Porkfish has a
high back profile as well.
Colorful Disk and
Angelfish. Unafraid of people in general,
angelfish appear inquisitive with their expressive rounded faces (as seen in this
in Barbados) and graceful bearing. The Queen
Angelfish is extraordinarily colorful with a yellow tail and mixed blue-green hues.
See Grey Angelfish.
Sergeant Major. One of the easiest fish to identify, the Sergeant Major has the distinctive
pattern of five vertical bar stripes on its body (see picture of Sergeant Major
next to French Grunt with yellow stripes). Males become purplish during the mating season.
guarding their purple egg patches, splotched like
abstract art on vertical rock faces such as Ringdove
Rock, males are distracted by schools of yellowhead wrasse, rock beauties or juvenile
striped parrotfish, who then dive in for quick bite of fresh caviar (photo:
Jim Jackson). Gangs of butterflyfishes can be seen following divers, who inadvertently drive off the protective
This beautiful moon-shaped jellyfish has a dome
resembling a translucent, shallow saucer. This jellyfish is generally considered harmless,
and some touch the dome side. Avoid the underside with the tenacles seen here (photo: ScubaMom).
Some individuals are very sensitive to jellyfish stings
from the nematocyst-bearing tenacles. Stings are often treated with vinegar as well as
rinsing with seawater rather than regular water.
Sea Wasp Jellyfish. This jellyfish (carybdea alata), found in the West Indies and Caribbean,
is a potentially dangerous jellyfish, especially to some individuals, although
deadly poisonous as the Pacific Sea Wasp (chironex fleckeri), considered the creature with the deadliest
venom of them all.
The Sea Wasp found in the Caribbean is a box jellyfish with a small,
four-sided, bell- shaped body, up to 2 x 3 inches, though often resembling a one inch
"cube." Its four tentacles average about 12 inches long, one attached to each
bottom corner of the body (photo:
Angelina Cat). See account
of sea wasp sting at The Caves.
aid treatment here. Generally soak area with household vinegar to keep undischarged
nematocysts from firing, which then may be removed. Soak exposed eyes copiously with tap
water. For various symptoms other than pain not bearable after applying ice packs, take
the patient to an emergency room. Get immediate medical help for severe reactions as
stinging may bring about anaphylactic shock.
Sea Wasps are thought to "swarm"
for summer night spawning about 10 days after a full moon in protected areas, such as
leeward shores, sometimes brought in by tides over reefs and "trapped" near
shore in great numbers. See Bonaire 8/24-30/98
report of divers hospitalized from sea wasp stings.
Segmented Worms &
Tree Worm. A kind of marine worm that is fixed to its
substrate, only its feather-like appendages are visible, functioning as gills and feeding
"tenacles" and resemble things like Christmas Trees. See Feather Duster worm colony.
Nudibranch. Other segemented worms and sea slugs are
mobile. See the The
Colorful Underwater World of the BVI.
Eels, Rays and
Everyone is eager to see this group.
Pictured here is an eagle ray, whose enlarged pectoral fins appear as wings in underwater
flight. Unlike their cousin, the Sting ray, these graceful creatures never rest on the
bottom, preferring open water, though they feed in the shallows, using their powerful jaws to crush oysters, clams and various
Sting Ray. Sting rays are flattened, circular-shaped fish with short, thick tails. Spending
most of their time resting on the bottom and covering themselves partly with sand,
electric rays are capable of inflicting a severe wound from the venomous barb at the base
of their tails, not in agression, but as a reflex action when stepped on or handled.
Divers can use the tip of their fin to "land" in sandy areas, before stepping
Frequently seen resting on the bottom under ledges, Nurse Sharks are filter
feeders and are not aggressive.
Other sharks generally avoid reefs in the daytime.
Morey Eel. Preferring dark recesses in
the reef during the day, but sometimes seen with their heads poking out, Morey eels are
not aggressive, but are capable of a nasty bite in self defense. Featuring one long
continuous fin that begins behind the head and continues around the tail partway up the
stomach, Morays have scaleless bodies covered with clear mucus. See
Snake Eel. Another eel, the Snake Eel, resemble snakes, but there are no sea snakes in the Caribbean. Snake Eels have behavior resembling Morays, although they may
at times be seen foraging in the open during the day.
Hatched from one of an average of 157 eggs laid from early May through
November every several years by their mothers singly on any secluded beach where birth
took place, the hatchlings live in the "sargassum sea," seaweed rafts in convergence zones,
before returning to live on reefs (this
turtle is on Mahoe Bay's reef).
The Hawksbill Turtle, named for the resemblence of its beak
to a hawk's, especially likes to eat sponges, and are omnivorous, eating algae, sargassum,
mangrove, fish, barnacles, mollusks, sea urchins, hydroids, and ectoprocts
See also Green
For snorkelers, the most popular sites are Norman Island's The Caves and The
Indians as well as the Chimney at The
Dogs off Virgin Gorda's Beach Coast.
For divers, an interesting mini-wall is Spy Glass near Benures Bay at Norman Island,
but the most spectacular walls are found at Painted Walls. A friendly onshore
seamount is Rockdove Rock at the Bight at
Norman Island while Santa Monica Rock and Peter
Island's Shark Point and Carrot Shoal are
offshore seamounts and rock formations for the adventuresome looking for encounters with
For diving and snorkeling off the beach, there are many
locations. Two famous ones are Anegada's Loblolly
Bay and Virgin Gorda's Devil's Bay at The Baths.
Others usually reached by dinghy or dive boat but possible off the shore are Virgin
Gorda's The Aquarium and Mountain Point as well as Cooper
Island's Cistern Point.
A diving and snorkeling site usually reached from Marina
Cay by dinghy or small boat rental is Diamond Reef.
Other sites are simply interesting in their own right, such
as Alice in Wonderland.
Anegada's Dive Wreck Treasury. The BVI has one of the world's largest collection of dive wrecks. Anegada, site
of the 40-mile-wide Anegada passage, entrance to the Caribbean from the Atlantic trade
routes, coupled with Anegada's 18 mile long Horseshoe Reef, has resulted in some 300 dive
The Wreck of the Rhone. One of the world's most famous dive wrecks, the Rhone is the favorite of divers
and snorkelers alike. Its large propeller is often seen by snorkelers above while missed
by divers below!
Willie T. Once a floating bar/restaurant known for its
laid back ambiance and hard partying by sailors, this old Baltic Trader is now a dive
wreck off Peter Island.
The fuselage of a commuter plane that ran off the end of the Beef Island
runway was sunk as a great dive wreck at The Dogs' Coral Gardens.
Also, see SHIPWRECKS!
for information on more BVI dive wrecks.
Marine Life Dangers
While the greatest danger to humans may be unsafe
practices and equipment related to diving, snorkeling and swimming itself, there are a few
dangers in the marine environment, generally when engaging the organism's defense
"Cautions should be exercised regarding fire coral, long spined sea urchins, scorpionfish, surge
and currents, fireworms, stingrays, jellyfish, hydroids, moray eels, and, of course,
sharks (note that nurse shark, a sought-after sight on reefs,
is a filter feeder and not dangerous). Avoid wearing shiny, dangling jewelry."
For first aid, see
All Stings Considered.
Found in clear, shallow water due to their need for
sunlight, these large beds of underwater grasses, predominately made up of turtle and
manatee grasses, provide productive habitats for a great variety of juvenile fish and
other marine life. See Beyond the Coral Reef, a
great article on snorkeling the seagrass beds.
Turtle Grass. Also called eel
grass, Turtle Grass has broad, green, straight blades and is the most abundant sea grass
in the BVI. Favored by the Green Sea Turtle.
Manatee Grass. Manatee Grass has fine, lighter grey-green, rounded blades.
Black Sea Urchin. With its
long black spines, this sea urchin, while hazardous to humans, is beneficial to
seagrass and reefs where it feeds on the algae. Another urchin, the West Indian
Sea Egg, is also found feeding in the sea grass.
Queen Conch. Born in half million
egg clusters deposited in sandy areas near grass beds, this snail secretes itself one of
the most beautiful of all the Caribbean seashells, up to a foot long. Burying itself in
the sand by day, it comes out at night to feed on the seagrasses (photo:
Nature Island Dive). See
Such a favorite
food of locals and tourists alike, Queen Conch has become commerically threatened.
The conch's "toenail-like" disk door is
used to propel it at a slow pace but slightly faster than the Sea Star or
Starfish, its predator.
Octopus. Another predator, the octopus,
reveals its den by the nearby collection of conch shells, one of which is used to
block the doorway to its den--a fact not lost on the astute diver.
This octopus was filmed changing color by the ScubaMom.
Fish. Heavily "mowed" in
areas close to reefs, the seagrass is also a favorite of parrotfish (the
coral cruncher) and surgeonfish (known for its scapel-sharp fins).
However, neither dares venture too far from the protective cover of the reef, lest the barracuda, who patrols the grass
from above, make a meal out of the adventure.
Green Sea Turtle. This
turtle is often found feeding on the Turtle Grass,
the primary constituent of its diet. Nesting in large numbers at specific times on special
beaches, such as Tortola's Lambert Bay and Anegada's ocean coast beaches
(see swimming turtle), has made
these magnificent creatures endangered by the loss of these "special spot"
See also Hawksbill
places to snorkel seagrass beds, and see green sea turtles and other organisms, include Trellis Bay, North Sound, The Bight at Norman
Island, Deadman's Bay and White Bay on Peter Island,
and Manchioneel Bay at Cooper Island.
Deep Sea Creatures
Blue Water Fish. Pelagic or ocean roaming fish such as yellowfin and blackfin tuna, wahoo,
dolphin or dorado, ballyhoo and the most popular gamefish in the world--the blue
marlin, abound in the Caribbean at places such as the North Drop of Virgin Gorda near Anegada's
Horseshoe Reef, where the deeper ocean meets the "plateau" foundation of the
islands. The upwelling currents feed bait fish that, in turn, attract the larger,
ocean-roaming kinds that provide fresh local fish to
its calves, the humpback
whale is near BVI waters from January through mid-March. When with a
as seen here, the mother must travel near the surface.
listen for their eerie sounds underwater. Boaters look for an exhalation spout like a puff
of smoke accompanied by a deep bass hiss, a light pectoral fin or a dark fluke. Places
where whales are seen include the ocean north of Virgin Gorda to as close in
as The Dogs.
For whalewatching, see Pelican
To Sea and