Features

More Than Just A Beach

rayStory and Photos by Matt Weedon

Growing up completely landlocked, I dreamed of one day living by the sea. I finally got my chance several years ago after I graduated from college. As fate would have it, I ended up on the tiny island of South Caicos working at a marine biology center, the School for Field Studies.

Although not as green and lush as their Caribbean neighbors to the south, the Turks & Caicos Islands are home to some of the most fantastic beaches in the world. Long stretches of pearly white sand bordered by infinite shades of turquoise water attract thousands of visitors every year. If relaxing on amazing beaches and soaking up rays appeals to you, these islands will keep you happy. If, like me, you’d rather spend your time exploring underwater, you’re also in store for a real treat.

First impressions can make or break a situation. In this case, I was spoiled from the beginning. Fresh off the plane, as un-tanned as humanly possible, we went out for a snorkel. Swimming along a shallow Elkhorn coral reef I couldn’t believe my eyes. The reef was teeming with life and out of nowhere, four HUGE spotted eagle rays swooped in like a squadron of fighter planes. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was instantly hooked on the Turks & Caicos!

So began a long list of amazing underwater experiences that I would compile and cherish over the next 2 1/2 years. During my time on South Caicos and then as a photo pro on the Sea Dancer liveaboard, I had the chance to observe many incredible sea creatures and to interact with thousands of divers discovering the Turks & Caicos for the first time.

What I quickly learned was that there were some pretty fantastic things to be found in ordinary places, even when “Mr. Big” wasn’t cruising by.

As divers, we swim around constantly in search of what excitement could be lurking behind the next coral head. However, no matter how wonderful a place is, sometimes the action is quiet and the reef seems asleep. It’s times like these when it pays to slow down and take a second look.

Although most divers love the beach and sand topside, the mere sight of a large sandy area underwater sends many finning off the other way. Next time you are tempted to retreat, stop and take a second look. Just as a desert seems lifeless, and on further inspection teems with life, so it goes with the sand patch underwater.

After that first snorkeling experience with the eagle rays, I quickly adopted them as my favorite fish and was on a quest for them every time I hit the water. I vowed to learn all I could about these soaring beauties and that’s how I ended up in the sand to begin with.
Eagle rays like to feed on mollusks such as the ubiquitous Queen Conch. One of several Caribbean conch species, the Queen Conch occurs in large numbers in sandy areas throughout the TCI. Although I find them much more exciting as a fritter or in a bowl of chowder than lying in the sand, I knew that if I went where the conch lived I might encounter my beloved eagle ray. Sure enough, I did eventually see an eagle ray or two on their lunch break, but along the way I discovered a bunch of other cool critters.

Although not so graceful as its majestic eagle ray cousin, the brown and round Southern Stingray also likes to hang out in the sand. Armed with a venomous spine on their tail for protection from predators, these stingrays spend most of their day up to their eyeballs, literally, in sand. I know I almost had a heart attack the first time I ever saw one! I was watching a yellow goatfish wiggling its two barbels (whisker-like protrusions from its chin) in the sand looking for food. All of a sudden, not two feet away, a huge five-foot stingray startled by my presence emerged from the sand and bolted off. I’m not sure who was more shocked. Later, I encountered another stingray out feeding, with his own entourage (jacks, snappers, etc.) waiting for a morsel of food he might stir up.

floundI soon discovered that many other fish like to feed in the sand, including those that spend the rest of the day on the reef. Watching a four-foot long hogfish rooting around in the sand definitely qualifies as weird. I suppose a fish with both eyes on one side of its head would also qualify. The Peacock Flounder, at a very early stage of development, starts swimming on its side as one eye moves over to join the other one on top. This flounder, flat as a pancake, waits motionless and camouflaged in the sand for its prey–small fish and crustaceans–to wander past. I then discovered another strange little fish. Nestling down into the sand, the aptly named Lizardfish (also called a Sand Diver) waits with only its eyeballs out to survey the neighborhood. Occasionally, it can also be found sitting on top of the sand, frozen until disturbed.

Several species of fish actually make their full-time home in the sand. One such fish is the Yellowhead Jawfish. Found throughout the Caribbean, but generally overlooked by divers, these little guys are fascinating to observe. They build burrows in the sand, line them with small rocks, and then spend their day hovering up and above their hole maintaining the “yard” around their front door. With yellow heads, white bodies, and large, cute eyeballs, they win big with the ladies, especially since the males go the extra mile and incubate the eggs in their mouth.

Another fish that calls the sand home is the Sand Tilefish. More than a few divers have come to me perplexed, describing a strange, white undulating fish hovering over the sand. Sand Tilefish, reaching a length up to 18 inches, also build burrows like the Jawfish. Instead of backing in when alarmed, they dive in headfirst! Then within an instant, they completely turn around inside the burrow (no wider than their body) and stick their head out to face you.

Garden eels also can be found in huge numbers in some sandy areas. Most people swim right past the little brown eels sticking up 6 to 12 inches out of the sand. Like seagrass waving in the current, they are easy to miss because they instantly disappear upon approach. I’ve spent many a dive lying in the sand trying to convince one single garden eel that I mean it no harm and only want its picture.

As my sojourns to the sand became more frequent, I searched for more elusive critters. One day while unsuccessfully trying to coax garden eels out of their holes, a pikeblenny emerged. Luckily, they are a bit more cooperative than their brown neighbors. Swimming five feet above the sand on your way to the reef, you would never see most of these fish. Looking through my camera lens, I was amazed at the detail and color in this tiny sand dweller that I had probably swam past hundreds of other times.

Not to be completely biased towards fish, there are a lot of other critters I’ve encountered in the sand. Suitably named Feather Dusters are actually marine worms that live in a tube and extend their wispy, feather-like structures upward to catch food drifting by in the water. They instantly vanish if you get too close.

cukeAny diver who has ever even strayed across a sand patch has surely run into sea cucumbers. Like massive earthworms, they inch along the sea floor gobbling up sand and detritus at their one end and depositing it back out the other end sans algae and other nutrients they’ve extracted. There are quite a few species, but two of the most common ones are the Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber (someone nailed that description on the money!) and the Furry Sea Cucumber, which is quite large (over two feet) and appears to have a furry back.

If you’re lucky you might come upon a Cushion Sea Star, a big, orange puffy starfish which likes to crawl around in the sand in search of different types of algae. I’ve also run into brittlestars of various colors. Unlike their sluggish cousins, these guys get up and motor across the sand.

Your best chance of finding them is on a night dive. The sand really comes alive at night! Feeling the freedom of darkness and confident that their predators have gone to sleep, many sand creatures come out once the sun goes down. If you look carefully, you may see an expertly camouflaged octopus or one of the beautiful and delicate tube-dwelling anemones protruding their tentacles from the sand.
I feel fortunate to have gotten the chance to observe so many new and engaging creatures that I had previously missed altogether. It really adds to the overall experience of diving in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Next time you’re tempted to swim past that seemingly boring sand patch, stop and take a second look. Remember that it’s more than just a beach down there!

For more images and photo tips, visit Matt Weedon’s website at www.weedonphoto.com

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Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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