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Why Diving on Scuba is Better Than Snorkeling

Underwater photographer Chuck Shipley seen from the other end of the camera. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

My wife Barbara and I have been cruising the Caribbean since January 2007. We have noticed that most of our cruising friends not only enjoy the sights and experiences that can be found above the sea, but also those under the surface, where so many see much less than they could, because they snorkel instead of diving on scuba.

The advantages of scuba are perhaps self-evident, but are worth emphasizing. Except in the shallowest of waters, scuba divers can get so much closer to the sights worth seeing, and can stay close enough for long enough to notice details and behaviors that would be missed on snorkel. Why do so many limit their experience by only snorkeling? For some, there are personal physical conditions that preclude diving. For many, however, I think the problem is fear and a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the difference between the snorkel and scuba experience.

I am well aware of the role fear can play in keeping one from learning how to scuba dive. Barbara and I learned to dive after listening to friends talk about their fascination with the underwater world. I was initially extremely reluctant – I had previously discovered on my first attempt to snorkel that I was even afraid to breathe through a snorkel when my face was under water! I subsequently overcame that fear by conditioning myself in waist-deep water, but I found the prospect of strapping on all of the artificial equipment for scuba diving to be daunting. But Barbara was eager to learn, and so I joined her in lessons designed to lead to a diving certification – the only way to safely learn how to dive. The lessons were graduated, so although each step was scary, I soon found that the skills of the previous lesson no longer caused trepidation. By the time we became trawler owners, we had both become PADI-certified divers, and then Advanced divers, and then NITROX-certified divers.

Surrounded by fish, Barbara swims alongside the keel of Tusen Takk II. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Surrounded by fish, Barbara swims alongside the keel of Tusen Takk II. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

As I write this, our vessel, Tusen Takk II, a Kadey-Krogen 48 North Sea is floating off Kralendijk, Bonaire, in a mooring field that is provided for visiting vessels. The entire island is surrounded, to a depth of 200ft (61m), by a Marine Park that forbids anchoring. Sometimes, without using our dinghy or moving our trawler, we dive right off the boat. But often we take our 12ft RIB powered by a 25 hp 2-stroke outboard to one of the 80-some marked dive buoys in the Bonaire Marine Park.

And what do we see in the clear and warm waters of Bonaire? Beautiful hard and soft corals – more than 57 species. And fascinating sea creatures, large and small – more than 500 species make Bonaire their home. Some of the smallest creatures are the most beautiful.

Sea Life Observed

Delightfully Patterned Blennies

#1 Tessellated Blenny. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Tessellated Blenny. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

Bonaire Box Jellyfish

#2 Bonaire Box Jellyfish. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Bonaire Box Jellyfish. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Squat Anemone Shrimp

#3 Squat shrimp. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Squat shrimp dancing about with its tail up in the air. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Filefish

Whitespotted filefish. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Whitespotted Filefish. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

Behavior of our Underwater Friends

A three-inch male Sailfin Blenny emerges from his hidey-hole in shallow rubble and rises vertically up above the bottom to wave his dorsal fins in a vigorous (if somewhat jerky) display designed to attract mates and intimidate rivals.

A Trumpetfish engages in ‘shadow hunting’, wherein it swims alongside a Red Band Parrotfish – a fish with a much different diet – following its every turn. The idea is to hide behind the Parrotfish and be able to approach prey. When close enough to a small target, the Trumpetfish darts from behind the Parrotfish and gobbles the prey.

A Long-lure Frogfish waits patiently for small prey to be attracted to its lure, an enticing bit of matter attached to the end of a special spine whose other end grows out of the frogfish’s ‘nose’. The frogfish dangles and jigs the lure in front of its mouth. When a small fish approaches to sample the lure, the frogfish gulps down the prey in an instant. The gulp is lightning fast and the result of a wide sudden ‘yawn’ that creates a vacuum that sucks in the victim. When not actively fishing, the frogfish exercises its jaws by performing occasional slow-but-wide yawns.

#4 Frogfish yawning. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Frogfish yawning. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

A Yellow-headed Jawfish exits its den in the sand and suspends vertically while bobbing and feeding in the water column. Get too close, and it somehow manages to swim backwards back into its den. Occasionally we get a bonus – males can sometimes be observed with an egg mass in their jaws. During the five- to seven-day incubation period the males retain the eggs in their mouths, seldom eating and only occasionally briefly leaving the egg mass back in their burrows.

#5 Yellowhead with eggs. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
#5 Yellowhead with eggs. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Colorful Cleaning Shrimp (that reside in anemone or coral and that provide pest control to client fish by removing small parasites), advertise their service by waving elongated white antennae. A client fish approaches and reveals its willingness to be cleaned by assuming a special posture and by flaring its gills and opening its mouth. The cleaner darts about in perfect safety, removing parasites from the skin and gills and even sometimes the insides of the client’s mouth.

Scorpion fish. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Scorpion fish. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)

Learning the names and behaviors of underwater inhabitants has vastly increased our enjoyment of diving. Knowledge enriches the experiences and lifts them from dumb awe at ‘pretty sights’ to informed appreciation. Knowledge enables the excitement of recognizing a rare specimen or understanding the significance of an unusual behavior. My wife and I have gained certifications in fish identification; certification that qualifies us to conduct surveys for submission to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). The mission of REEF is to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers to become stewards of the oceans and to, in effect, become citizen scientists. Whether or not one becomes a member of REEF, learning about the creatures of the sea indisputably enhances the enjoyment of diving. Barbara typically dives with her survey slate; on a recent survey she identified and counted in one dive over 100 different species.

Bearded fireworm. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley
Bearded fireworm. Photo by Charles (Chuck) Shipley

 

Underwater photography has also enhanced my enjoyment of diving. I have specialized in photographing small creatures, because I enjoy capturing images that reveal colorful and intricate details in images that are larger than life. Consequently, I almost always dive with my housed Nikon DSLR, a piece of equipment that keeps me too preoccupied to permit surveying. I dawdle as I photograph. Barbara dawdles as she surveys. The combination works well. Neither gets bored while waiting for the other.

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