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Smooth Trunkfish

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: Jim Scheiner of Rainbow Visions).

Cup Coral
Extends Tentacles
Feeding At Night

Soft coral. The widespread gorgonians, a family of soft corals, often resemble plants, including the distinctive sea fans (picture below from Paradise 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.

See Reef Surface Colors.

Denizens of the Reef

A joy to discover, these amazing reef denizens are described by divemaster Randy Keil in Triumphs of the Sea.

AnegadaLobster.jpg (11409 bytes) 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.

Queen Triggerfish

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 bodies.

BaraccudaRhone(ScubaMom).jpg (3960 bytes)Barracuda.
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 company (another 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.

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 Belize.

Sloping 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 Caves.

Porkfish. Characterized by two distinctive black bands on its head, the Porkfish has a high back profile as well.

Colorful Disk and Ovals.
Angelfish. Unafraid of people in general, angelfish appear inquisitive with their expressive rounded faces (as seen in this French Angelfish in Barbados) and graceful bearing. The Queen Angelfish is extraordinarily colorful with a yellow tail and mixed blue-green hues. See Grey Angelfish.

Small Ovals.
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.

Known for 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 fathers.

Moon Jellyfish.
MoonJellyfishByScubaMom3.jpg (7923 bytes)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 not as 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.

See first 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.

To Upsidedown Jellyfish

Segmented Worms & Sea Slugs.
Christmas 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.

Sea Goddess Nudibranch. Other segemented worms and sea slugs are mobile. See the The Colorful Underwater World of the BVI.

Eels, Rays and Sharks.
Everyone is eager to see this group.
EagleRay(ScubaMom).jpg (4526 bytes)Eagle Ray. 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 crustaceans.

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 down.

Nurse Shark. 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 shot and another.

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.

Hawksbill Turtle.

mahoebayestatesreefcrop3icon.jpg (4567 bytes)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 video).

See also Green Sea Turtle.

BVI Reefs

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 pelagic fish.

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.

Dive Wrecks

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 wrecks.

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!

The 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.

Airplane Wreck. 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 apparatus.

"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.

Seagrass Beds

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.

Sea Grasses.
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 picture.

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.

OctopusColors(ScubaMom).gif (33003 bytes)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" habitats.

See also Hawksbill Turtle.

Locations. Good 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 BVI tables.

Humpback Whale.
With its calves, the humpback whale is near BVI waters from January through mid-March. When with a calf, as seen here, the mother must travel near the surface.

Divers should 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 Charters.

To Sea and Shore