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Photographing marine life in the Caymans

by Linda Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 35 (January 1990)

The Cayman Islands, lying south of Cuba, are one of the finest areas for coral reefs in the Caribbean. Tourism draws 55,000 divers and snorkellers per year to Grand Cayman, the largest and most commercialised of the three islands, but far fewer venture to small and unspoilt Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, which I visited to dive and photograph the spectacular marine life.

Barracuda by Linda Pitkin
Barracuda by Linda Pitkin

Tne reefs of the Cayman Islands provide two main types of site for diving, shallow flattish areas and deep walls. The diving is extremely easy whether from boat or shore; the water is warm, visibility is usually very good and there are few currents to contend with.

At first sight none of the reefs have the overwhelming brilliant red and orange hues seen in the Red Sea but there are many lovely pastel shades which look good in photographs and you can find large outcrops of bright red sponges.

Interesting sponges are a feature of the Caymans; some appearing fragile such as the pink vase sponge, others massive like the giant barrel sponge which provides shelter for a variety of fish and invertebrates but is big enough for a diver to sit in.

Horny corals or gorgonians which are few and far between on many other tropical reefs are abundant in the Caribbean and can make beautiful compositions for photography on their own or as a backdrop to divers or other subjects. A variety of species include diverse growth forms ranging from widely spaced branches, straight or tangled, to the fine network of tiny branches fused in one plane of the sea-fans which appear delicate as facework but are sufficiently pliable to withstand wave damage. Corals consist of colonies of tiny polyps secreting the skeleton which is rigid in the case of true or stony corals, the main reef builders. Acropora corals, particularly elkhorn, a species with massive antler-like branches, are common enough to form characteristic zones on shallow reefs; they grow rapidly and become the dominant species in an area simply by overshadowing their competitors.

At night the reefs become alive with a whole new set of animals, mainly invertebrates. Few Crustacea are seen during the day in the Caribbean but many venture out to feed at night including the brilliantly coloured red night shrimp, the tiny red hermit crab, and the largest Caribbean spider crab, the king crab which weighs up to eight pounds. Octopuses are active on the reef by night as is another, very different mollusc, the flamingo tongue snail. This predator of sea-fans has a mantle patterned with startling black-ringed orange blotches extending over its shell which is soon withdrawn back into the shell in the light of a torch or flash. Tube worms can be found day and night with feathery plumes of tentacles extended to filter microorganisms from the water; they are highly sensitive to changes in light and movement around them, retracting instantly into their tubes if disturbed. Tiny worms swimming in the water can make problems for the photographer at night because they swarm to light forming a dense wriggling soup in the torch beam.

Fish in the Caribbean are most prevalent during the day, notably groupers which are abundant, very approachable and easy to photograph. Nassau groupers tend to follow divers around in the hope of being fed; at about two feet in length they are one of the smaller species, the biggest grouper being the jewfish which is built like a tank, weighing up to 700 Ibs. Angel fish are more timid than groupers; these laterally compressed fish usually swim in pairs while handsomely striped yellow and silver grunts gather in large shoals, often sheltering in the lee of elkhorn corals. It is possible to get within a couple of feet of shoals of grunts if you approach them carefully without making sudden movements but if they shy away they will soon come back if you wait. One of the most impressive fish is the great barracuda, up to six feet in length with long jaws and well developed canine and shearing teeth. Barracudas have a bad reputation with divers that is largely undeserved; the fish are inquisitive but rarely attack people. When the dive boats anchor at some sites a 'tame' barracudas will hang around under the boat. They are not easy to photograph well as the silvery scales reflect the flash and tend to overexpose the picture. It is also easy to overexpose subjects on sand, such as stingrays, as a lot of light is reflected in such conditions.

There are five species of turtles in the Caribbean but their numbers have been greatly reduced by commercial exploitation and although the turtle is used as a symbol to promote tourism in the islands all are uncommon. There is now a growing awareness of the need for conservation, and it is to be hoped that the establishement of several marine parks around Cayman Brac will help to maintain and safeguard the future of the coral reefs and their inhabitants.

Reproduced from in focus 35 (January 1990)

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