Beginning Snorkelers Guide To Caribbean Reef Fish

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Although there are many, many species of fish in the sea, chances are these ten types will be the first to greet the first time snorkeler in the Caribbean.

The waters of the Caribbean can be pretty intimidating for the first time snorkeler. With too much influence from Hollywood about mythical attacks by Great White Sharks and Stingrays, every movement beneath the surface of the water will seem like certain death for some.

For the most part, if you’re out in the water during the day, in the bright sunshine, there is nothing at all to fear. What you will find in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean is a barrage of ocean life that will simply amaze.

The variety of tropical fish life is abundant enough to fill a large guide and still not be complete. What follows is ten of the most popular species that can be found close to shore in water depths less than twenty feet. It is more than likely that you will see all these ten species during your first venture beneath the surface.

The Sargeant Major is a fish that will find you before you find it. A small deep fish with five distinct vertical black bands on its sides, its length rarely gets past six inches. The Sargeant Major runs in large schools and suffers from what has been dubbed ‘Wonder Bread Lust’. Because so many snorkelers and SCUBA divers feed the fish with bread, many go in search of swimmers hoping for a free meal. The Sargeant Major is the most guilty of this. You will soon be surrounded by these little curious fellows.

The Yellowtail Snapper is just as abundant as the Sargeant Major but longer and larger, albeit not by much. The Yellowtail Snapper can reach up to two feet in length but is typically no longer than a foot. Looking somewhat similar to a Smallmouth Bass, the Yellowtail Snapper is sleek in design with what looks to be a yellow racing stripe down each side, culminating in a yellow tail. These guys typically hang out with the Sargeant Majors and are just as curious.

The Blue Tang brings beautiful contrast to the black and yellow of the Sargeant Major and Yellowtail Snapper. The Blue Tang is a deep oval fish coloured in a deep shade of blue. An identifying feature of the Blue Tang is a yellow spine one each side at the base of the tail. The Blue Tang is quite abundant and can reach up to 15 inches in length. Typically, the fish is much smaller at around 6-8 inches.

Your first experience with a school of Ballyhoo will most likely bring fear or, at least, surprise. Ballyhoo are typically around a foot long and run in schools. The Ballyhoo is slender and silver to the point of almost seeming opaque. They have a long needle-like snout that looks like it could easily pierce right through you. Because the Ballyhoo normally swim close to the surface, they often go unnoticed by snorkelers who tend to always be looking down and have their peripheral view obstructed by the mask. Even though they are relatively small, because they sneak up and circle around snorkelers, looking for handouts, they at first look larger and much more dangerous than they are. First reactions of new snorkelers is that they are being surrounded by Barracuda or Shark!

Butterflyfish are what you’d see in a tropical aquarium. The Banded Butterflyfish is not as colourful as some of its relatives. The fish is deep and thin with a body that rarely is longer than five inches. The Banded Butterflyfish has two wide distinct vertical bands down it mid-body with typically another prominent band through the eye and down the tail.

Porcupinefish can be another find that can make the first time snorkeler feel a little fear. Although docile, harmless and awkwardly cute, the Porcupinefish conjures up images of poisonous puffer fish that will inflate and stab anything near it. The difference between it and other puffer-style fish you might come across is the longer length, at up to three feet and the spots that continue from the body and onto the fins.

The Hogfish is a little more rare and tends to be a loner. In its initial, or younger, phase, the Hogfish is plain coloured with three distinctive spines sticking up from near the tops of its head. As it reaches its terminal, or adult, phase, the spines bend back closer to the body and black colouring develops along the top of the fish and tail with the rest of the body turning white. The Hogfish can reach up to two feet in length and tends to stay in deeper water.

The Bluestriped Grunt is a fish that has a ‘wow’ factor when snorkelers see it for the first time. The fish has alternating bright blue and yellow stripes down its body from the mouth to the base of the tail. The body is somewhat slender and similar in size to a Largemouth Bass. The fish can reach lengths of a foot and a half but is typically in the one foot range.

Parrotfish are just like their namesake. There are several varieties of Parrotfish that you will come across and they are all spectacularly coloured in a pallet that is similar to the Parrot. Parrotfish are found in abundance in shallow water near marinas where the docks provide food and protection.

The Great Barracuda lets you know that there is still some danger to these waters. Consider yourself lucky to come across one of these ‘beasts’ of the sea. This is another fish that will most likely find you before you find it. The Barracuda is a stealthy stalker and will follow a snorkeler with an ever decreasing distance. These fish are harmless to humans but one look at their teeth that are disproportionate to the rest of their bodies and your heart will pump a little faster.

Although environmentally unethical, an incredible experience is feeding the ‘Wonder Bread Lust’ of these fish. Take a few dinner buns and seal them in a water tight zip lock bag. When you’ve swam out to an area where the fish are numerous, hold the back above the surface of the water, open it, break off tiny pieces of bread and throw them in the water around you. You will no longer be able to see your own hand for the fish. You will really wonder just where they all came from as schools of several species of fish thrash around you.

All photos were taken by the author. Headline image credit


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