Category Archives: Corals and Reefs

Diving Cozumel: the Splendid Toadfish

It had been far too long since I had been scuba diving in Cozumel, so I couldn’t wait to go a few weeks ago (March 2015), and it certainly did not disappoint–especially after this long, cold winter in the Northeast.

Of course, we had our typically wonderful welcome at Casa del Mar, a lovely and friendly resort specializing in dive travel. Plus, it was my first time diving with Cozumel Marine World – a newer dive operation established and run by local experts and good friends who know the Cozumel and Palancar reef areas like the backs of their hands.

As usual, Cozumel was fantastic. We saw many spotted eagle rays – probably on 4 or 5 different dives – and lots of turtles, grouper, nurse sharks, and other large fish.  We even had dolphins swimming with the boat on the first day – always a bonus.

ERAY FACE RS2015MAR

Eagle Ray Face RS2015MAR

More so than usual, though, this time I found myself really focused in on the tiniest critters.  It seemed like there were arrow crabs everywhere I looked, and I got my first decent shot of a pretty little anemone shrimp.

Anemone Shrimp CZM RS2014MAR

Anemone Shrimp CZM RS2015MAR

Arrow Crab RS2015MAR

Arrow Crab RS2015MAR

 

 

 

 

 

 

A trip there also wouldn’t really be complete without a sighting of the endemic Cozumel Splendid Toadfish. I couldn’t find a great source today online, but according to Wikipedia:

The splendid toadfish, Sanopus splendidus, also called the coral toadfish and the Cozumel splendid toadfish is a species of toadfish entirely endemic to the island of Cozumel. Commonly found under coral outcroppings. Dens can be spotted by the sloping sand patch. They are very difficult to coax out in the open.

I’ve seen them before, but these guys turned into the real diving highlight of this trip, for me.  Not only did we see a bunch throughout the week in their typical little hiding spots, like this:

Cozumel Splendid Toadfish RS2015MAR

But on the week’s night dive, our skilled dive masters, Paulino and Jeremiah, also found one out swimming around, fully exposed, so we could see its unique patterning and coloration. We all spent a good, long time with the fish, getting a good look at its markings.  Just beautiful.  I didn’t have my camera that night, but am still hoping we might get a picture from a fellow diver on the boat (a new acquaintance who I’m not in touch with, so…I’m actually not too hopeful…), but then again, I have the memory burned in my brain.  In the meantime, here’s an example of this beautiful fish:

Beautiful Splendid Toadfish; source unknown

Beautiful Cozumel Splendid Toadfish; online-source unknown

That sighting pretty much made our whole night.

Bottom line is, though, any trip to Cozumel is always fun, and packed with great diving, great reefs, and great people. Especially our friends at Cozumel Marine World and Casa del Mar.

I already miss being there, so here’s looking forward to the next one.  Gracias, gracias, gracias.

Diving the WCS and “Beneath the Sea”

This was a good week for Diving the Water Column.

First off, The SCUBA diving market show Beneath the Sea was in town, at the Meadowlands Expo Center in New Jersey.  I headed over on Sunday and met up with my good buddies from Ocean Horizons Scuba in Brooklyn, NY, to take a look around.

BTSIconDanDiveSafetyDayDivers Alert Network (DAN) kindly offered members discounted admission to BtS (thank you, DAN), and the show was jammed with dive travel information, dive gear to sample, and many other scuba-related products and services.

I was happy to speak to some reps from various companies I admire, from the wonderful DAN to enthusiastic and serious instructors from NAUI, product reps from Sherwood, Aqualung and Cressi, among others, and our awesome travel friends from Casa del Mar in Cozumel (see my previous post), Sam’s Tours in Palau (also mentioned here, previously), Palau Dive Adventures, and many others.

Oh, and the Sea Shepherds, too.  One out of three of their booth staff was friendly and informative when I stopped by…and I appreciated her conversation very much.  But then big news hit the very next day, too: congratulations to the Sea Shepherds for their part in the ongoing struggle toward the banning of Japanese whaling in the Antarctic!  Fantastic news.

Monday night, it was on to a sharp panel discussion from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in NYC, called “Saving the Last of the Wild: Protecting our Oceans.”  WCS

The event was short and focused on raising money from the various patrons in the audience, and the panel of speakers was really impressive: Caleb McClennen, Executive Director of the Global Marine Program for WCS; Alisa “Harley” Newton, Senior Pathologist for WCS Zoological Health Programs; and Tim McClanahan, a Senior Conservation Zoologist who runs the WCS Coral Reef Programs in Kenya.

Each gave a good talk on his/her specialty area, and tried hard to offer a fair amount of hope regarding what are generally very troubling topics: Ocean acidification, coral extinction risks, coral and sea star diseases, and fisheries management.

photo 3

WCS “Saving the Last of the Wild” panel (RS, 3/2014)

So…what’s the upshot from the week?  After browsing Beneath the Sea, and listening to the experts, I think it’s pretty much the same drill, at least for myself:

Keep at reducing our carbon footprints, try to contribute to organizations that fight for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and to lessen over fishing and by-catch waste, download (if you haven’t) – and actually USE – the very cool Seafood Watch app seafood watch appto avoid consuming endangered fish species, and for crying out loud, stop with the plastic bags and excess disposable plastic crap.

 

Oh, and…get scuba diving, ASAP, of course.   I know I’m counting the days.

 

 

 

Diving the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef: Roatan, part I

My first SCUBA diving destination trip was in 2006 to Roatan, the “big island” of the 3 Bay Islands in Honduras.

honduras-bay-islands1

from www.Honduras.org

It was a very cool locale to do my check-out dives, and then roll right into my first week of boat diving.  I was able to build on that initial momentum and improve my fledgling skills, while surrounded by a fun bunch of skilled – and generous (and opinionated) – divers. (Good advice, PB!)

So I had finally scored my NAUI Open Water Certification, was on my first big trip, and was very happy. But I was so focused on new skills, not making a fool of myself, not dying, and the new people I was meeting, I didn’t pay close attention to the place, itself. 

That said, a few great things stood out immediately:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

AKR View from Bar 2006

The dive operation at the well-known Anthony’s Key Resort was very good (not that I had anything to compare it to at that point, but my seasoned pals were impressed), and set in a beautiful landscape.

ROATAN AK LAUNCH BOAT DIVE DOCK 2006

Shot from Bungalow AKR 2006

We were situated right along the Roatan Marine Park (RMP) so each day we paid our park fees and received our bracelet tags – as in many marine protected areas (MPA), these need to be displayed on your wrist or your BC at all times to show that you have permission to dive there.  This system helps the RMP in its mission to “protect and provide a healthy and sustainable marine environment off Roatan.”

I was also reassured to know that we were steps away from the only re-compression chamber (or hyperbaric chamber) in the area, at Anthony’s Key’s own Cornerstone Recompression Chamber and Clinic.  In partnership with DAN, the chamber is available to commercial and recreational divers, and in turn, the wider clinic provides general medical care to the local community, who might otherwise not have access to treatment.

ROATAN DIVE SITES SIGN 2006

My first dive site map 2006

May 15, 2006.  It’s hard to describe my first “real” dives, descending over dense coral walls and through the spectacular coral canyons along the southern end of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS) – the second largest barrier reef in the world.

Everywhere I looked I saw one more beautiful, weird, creepy, funny, intriguing thing after the next.  It felt like the closest thing I could imagine to being in space – exploring an environment that I couldn’t comprehend until I was in it.

I wasn’t tuned in to the state of the MBRS (a.k.a. the Great Mayan Reef) back then, but I remember a lot of the other divers talking to the dive masters about it, and being cautiously but pleasantly surprised by what seemed like good size and density of the corals.

They were relieved, I learned, because much of the reef had been badly damaged about eight years earlier, by a double-whammy of weather conditions. First, El Nino effects caused sustained ocean temperature rise and resultant, widespread coral bleaching in 1997-98. Then the destructive Hurricane Mitch struck in October of 1998.  [For more on this period, check out this 2001 report from the United States Geological Survey.]

As for the current state of the MBRS, now another eight years later, I found a good resource in the Healthy Reefs Initiative, and their frequent “Report Cards” that assess the situation. 2012-RC-cover-straight

I’ve been reading their clear and thorough Mesoamerica Barrier Reef’s HRI Report Card from 2012.

As anticipated, the news is not good.

Like coral reefs world-wide, the MBRS suffers the very common but serious problems of:

  1. Urbanization and over-development on land
  2. Ocean acidification leading to coral bleaching (that’s climate change, people)
  3. Over fishing and by-catch depletion
  4. Marine debris from litter and run off
  5. Chemical pollution and marine oil leaks

And then another great threat is our ol’ frenemy, the Indo-Pacific red lionfish, a dastardly invasive species that has spread widely, and increasingly threatens marine ecosystems in the Caribbean and the Eastern U.S.

Pretty but Unwelcome!

Pretty but Unwelcome! Cozumel circa 2010 RS

These beauties live harmoniously in Indo-Pacific Ocean environs, but are now wreaking havoc in places where they don’t belong.  Stay tuned for more on the lionfish problem.

I’ll also have more to come on my (limited) experience in Roatan, but for now – if you have a chance to dive the Bay Islands, definitely take it.  It is a beautiful part of the world, with great diving and important marine conservation initiatives going on, but the reef is in trouble.  (Plus, I’m pretty sure it’s already an “it” market for U.S. & Euro expats to (over)develop, so…better get a move on!)

Have any of you been to Roatan recently?  Or maybe to Utila and Guanaja?  What was your experience?   Please leave a reply – I’d love to know the latest.

Thanks!  Until next time.

 

UPDATE: On Feb. 27, 2014, I came across a new article in Marine Science Today.  The Healthy Reefs Initiative (HRI) has recently released a new report on the state of the Mesoamerican Reef System.  Here’s a quote from this article:

The Eco-Audit revealed that encouraging progress has been made on some issues, particularly with marine protected areas, but the overall pace of implementation of management actions is far too slow.  Since the last Eco-Audit in 2011, 80 percent of the 22 indicators measured in both 2011 and 2014 had no changes; only 18 percent increased. If this pace continues, it will take 50 years to fully implement all of the recommended management actions, which is too long for reefs that are already in danger.