We decided to go cruising, because a sailboat is the best means to travel to far-away, remote places with a light carbon footprint. It’s a life in touch with nature and as “green cruisers” we supply our energy demand from alternative sources (solar panels and a wind generator) and try to avoid burning long-dead dinosaurs on passages. We usually keep off the beaten track and enjoy long sojourns in uninhabited places. Even though we have been sailing for quite a while, we still relish each encounter with marine life. Underwater a different, colorful world awaits and we sometimes spend hours watching a single bommie and its tiny inhabitants as they go along with their daily routine, social interactions and search for food. But we have to admit that some species fascinate us even more than the others.
Caribbean Marine Life ‘Big Five’
Turn a dive or snorkel into an extra-exciting experience.
We belong to the generation damaged by the film “Jaws.” Our first encounters with reef sharks in the Caribbean sent us back into the dinghy in wild panic with the title melody ringing in our ears (dum-dum-dum-tuh-duh-duuuuhhh!). In the meantime we have learned that sharks are intelligent marine animals with an interesting behavior and we actively seek out encounters. We know we’ve arrived in a place with an intact ecosystem when meddlesome blacktip reef sharks come by to inspect the hook before it’s set. We love dives where we get the chance to swim with dozens of gray reef sharks who cruise leisurely during daytime, awaiting their night-time hunts. Nurse sharks usually rest on the bottom, but some curious whitetip reef sharks approach closely and only change course when you thrust a camera their way. The far-away shadow of something bigger accelerates the pulse, but so far we have only encountered shy specimen of big sharks, counting ourselves lucky to see a lemon shark, hammerhead or silvertip in the distance.
Stingrays are virtually invisible when they rest buried in sand, only when they swim up you realize with a start that there was a 1.5 m animal hiding close-by. Their barbed stingers have venom glands, but they only use them in self-defense when accidentally stepped on in shallow water, or when harassed on purpose.
Eagle rays swim in groups in the open water of lagoons, their dolphin-like smiling faces make them the cutest rays and quite often they approach us curiously when we are snorkeling.
Mantas are the largest and most impressive rays. They hang out in groups filtering zoo plankton in currents and visit cleaning stations, where cleaner fish free them from annoying parasites. The wow-factor when such a giant with a wingspan of 3 m or more approaches with slow, elegant beats of his wings is just incredible. Looking into the wide, gaping mouth you wouldn’t like to be krill.
Dolphins just want to have fun and the bow wave of a boat attracts them like a magnet, because they enjoy surfing. Whenever we hear their typical whistling calls under deck we rush to the bow to watch those big marine life mammals frolicking in the water. Sometimes they approach boats at anchor in bays and entertain us with jumping competitions, but when we hop in with them, we usually just see them disappear into the depths like gray-white torpedoes.
Turtles sadly have become a rare sight in many areas. They die as bycatch in fishing nets and suffer from habitat loss when beaches and formerly uninhabited coastlines are ‘developed’ for human use. Climate change is also a big threat, as the gender of a fetus is determined by the outer temperature while it develops in the egg—leading to one-gender generations during hot seasons. On top of that they are also still actively hunted for their meat, fat and shells. Only where environmental organizations actively encourage awareness and where illegal hunting is punished with hefty fines populations are slowly recovering. We did get lucky last year and met young green turtles who had never seen humans and approached us curiously, virtually pressing their noses against our cameras.
During winter humpback whales migrate to tropical waters to breed and give birth in protected, shallow waters where the newborns are safe from predators. Last year we spent lots of time anchored on outer reefs and humpback whales were hanging out around our boat day and night. Whenever we could not see them, we still heard their singing. We watched bulls breaching and tail-slapping in courtship and babies boisterously somersaulting until they ran out of energy and had to rest on their mother’s back. We were fascinated, but also a bit worried when the animals came very close, considering that an average humpback whale is about the same size as our 13 m long Pitufa, but at 25 tons double her weight.
Caribbean marine life sightings are truly a natural treasure!