EACH TIME, I DIVE FLOWER GARDENS BANKS NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY, I APPRECIATE IT MORE. After my last trip, I realized I had seen at least four fishes and two invertebrates I had never observed anywhere else. They’re presumably present elsewhere – but in 700 dives over 23 years, I’ve never seen them. And I focus on the marine life wherever I dive.
1) REEF SCORPIONFISH
I only found this little guy after the fact in a photo I took of sea urchins and coral banded shrimps. At first I thought it was some kind of sea shell but the Fling divemasters instantly recognized it as a scorpionfish – just not one they were familiar with either. We found it in the Reef Fish Identification book. It turned out it was included in the sanctuary’s list of species, but without a photo.
Like its fellow scorpionfishes, Scorpaenodes caribbaeus likes to lie stationary on the sea floor, apparently well camouflaged, waiting for unsuspecting victims to pass overhead – only to be gobbled in a lightning strike. Like its fellow scorpionfishes, venomous spines can cause an unwary diver who disturbs it severe pain.
On the other hand, the reef scorpionfish is only two to four inches long, so perhaps it’s easy to overlook. And I found it on largely bare-rock Stetson Bank, which lacks the thick coral and algae cover found on coral reefs.
2) REDSPOTTED HAWKFISH
The little redspotted hawkfish (Amblycirrhitus pino, 2 – 3½ inches long) is listed as the only member of the hawkfish family to be found in the Atlantic basin. Usually perching on a substrate, it’s found in South Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Gulf, and as far north as Bermuda and as far south as Brazil. It’s popular with the aquarium trade and according to one aquarium site it swoops like a hawk on its prey of presumably small shrimps, fishes and plankton. Also, other small inhabitants of aquariums.
3) SCRAWLED COWFISH
As it turns out, the scrawled cowfish (Acanthostracion quadricornus, generally 8 – 15 inches long) looks a lot like the scrawled filefish, except cowfish shaped. I’ve seen a lot of scrawled filefishes but it took me a while to realize that this time I was looking at cowfishes. Like other cowfishes they can change color and or paler or darker. They generally blend in with their background and are found throughout the Florida/Bahamas/Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico range.
As best I can tell from Reef Fish Identification, Atlantic creolefishes (Paranthias furcifer, 4 – 8 inches long) change color a lot. Colors can range from olive to reddish brown, so it’s quite possible I’ve seen them before – but not with such a orange hue. Members of the sea bass family, the ones I saw hovered just above the reef catching plankton. Reef Fish Identification says they prefer deep reefs (Flower Gardens Banks are in the 70 to 80 feet range) but often hang out in schools high in the water column.
Mostly, the echinoderms I’ve seen in tropical waters have been brittle stars hanging out on sponges, sea cucumbers, feather stars and a few basket stars (lots of basket stars coiled up on sea plumes during the daytime). From boats over sandy, shallow bottoms I’ve seen more traditional sea stars in the Asteroidea class – the five-armed, central disked animals that people always draw when then want to represent a sea star.
But I’ve never seen an Asteroid at 70 feet, which is where this guy was on our Stetson Bank night dive. I’ve also never found a species for it. In the usual sources, anything that looks remotely like it generally lives in shallow water or in the Pacific basin. Considering the things on his arms, for the time being I’m calling it my “warty” sea star. All suggestions are welcome but if it’s a new species, I’m hoping I can name it after myself.
The Reef Creatures Identification book says these guys (Eucidaris tribuloides) are “common to uncommon, Florida, Bahamas, Caribbean,” but I don’t believe I seen them in my diving in Bonaire, Belize or Honduras. It’s similar to a class of sea urchins I’ve seen often in the Pacific basin, although the colors and classification are entirely different from the Pacific’s slate pencil urchin. This guy was found mostly on Stetson Bank, at about 75 feet.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Reef Fish Identification Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Reef Creature Identification, Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Reef Creature Identification, Tropical Pacific Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach: Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Image Library, http://flowergarden.noaa.gov/image_library/images.html