Many years ago, I was fixing a mooring line and noticed three hairy little bodies hanging tight around a small piece of coral. I had never seen this creature before, never mind a cluster of them.
Little did I know I had found something that scientists had not yet identified. Only years later, they appeared listed as the Caribbean Sea Spiders, eight-legged animals in bright yellow and blue stripes. People still considered seeing them a rare occurrence. In total, I have spotted them four times.
Vincent Van Gogh said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
When we explore under the surface of the oceans, we grasp his quote in its fullness. There is something extraordinary about how underwater creatures gather and live in unique ways and create flowerful gardens of beauty.
As divers, we are naturally attracted to the big creatures of the ocean. We love to see swimming turtles, and gliding rays; we hope to catch a glimpse of a shark. We sometimes measure the beauty of a dive by the quantity and size of the animals we observe.
Our instinct is to hit the water and upon descent to start swimming. We seem to believe that the more ground we cover, the more creatures we will see to tick off our wish lists.
We do not realize that we pass over a minute and intricate world that requires us to sit still and observe.
In this particular place, we find that the creatures move at a rhythm that we are unfamiliar with and constant relationship with each other.
We can sit at the edge of this world, and observe it through our magnifying lens.
Undulating with the water’s rhythm, gentle branches of different corals open their polyps to grab particles of food within their reach; they curl into themselves to open again for the next available one. Confused for plants, these are living creatures, animals, colonies to be precise; they grow and build their homes, in a similar way to the construction of tall buildings in a city, cement block, after block. Different corals are reminiscent of human brains, dunes, and desert roses.
A tablet Van Gogh would have loved more than the one he had available spreads all around the corals in an explosion of shades of purples, reds, oranges, yellows. The different kinds of sponge coat the areas left open by the corals. They insert themselves where space is left, leaving yet more space for other creatures. Giant barrel sponges take the shape of ancient amphorae, and golden zoanthid grows like a crown on the lavender rope sponges. A sudden movement makes a giant tunicate close; it reopens as soon as the perceived danger passes. Branching anemone provides a tented shelter for few squat anemone shrimps and a banded clinging crab. They always hang on the edge of our vision, ready to retreat at the slightest stir; it is a privilege to see them.
The flapping white antennas of the Pederson cleaner shrimps advertise their presence like the Tall Boy outside car dealerships, hoping that the swimming traffic of fish will stop by for a service clean up. A single microscopic claw disproportionate to the owner’s size, together with the delicate red and white striped antennas, reveals the presence of a pistol shrimp. This creature delivers a little click sound and a tiny electrical jolt through the water to ward off intruders.
A peppermint shrimp sticks its head out of the branching vase sponge and shares its space with a few dozen brittle starfish wrapping their delicate tentacles in and out of each tube.
The white beard of a file clam reveals the red hidden behind it only to close too fast for a second look while the Christmas tree worm retreats disturbed by the water movement caused by the clam. One pause, one quiet moment, and everything come out again.
Blue, green and white ruffles crawl slowly in search of sea algae to eat, the Lettuce sea slug camouflage entirely with its food source.
Almost invisible to the human eye, tiny mysid shrimp float in and out of the reaching spikes of long spine sea urchin, the host still tucked in for the day, ready to come out when the sun goes down.
Fish swim in and out and all around; it only takes a little time to spot all sorts of species and behaviors. Parrotfish fight amongst themselves, and butterflyfish gingerly hang around in pairs as they inspect every niche available. At the same time, trumpet fish play the invisible game while hanging upside down along a soft coral or a sponge. A grouper clears its passage, and a squirrelfish hides into a crevice sending out a vibrating warning: do not come any closer!
With a little patience, curiosity, and some skills, we can experience a unique way of diving. Every dive site becomes a new dive site with each visit, and every coral head is always home to different discoveries.
Under the magnifying glass, this world is within arms’ length and yet still full of surprises. The more we look, the more we find, the more we observe, the more we understand.
Images: Lynn Funkhouser. Lynn is a professional photographer with an incredible eye for the small and unique. Her work is exceptional because she is able to not only capture the details, but she knows the intricate behaviors of the creatures in her images. She has the knowledge and patience to foresee the events and wait for the opportunities to capture something special. To listen to Lynn talk about her work and experience is fascinating. We are very thankful for her contribution to this blog. We had so many beautiful images to pick from.