Natural History

Tiny Treasures

Small is beautiful in the underwater realm.

Story by Suzanne Gerber ~ Photos by Barbara Shively

Whether you’re diving, snorkeling or shopping for cars or jewelry, it’s human nature to notice the big, splashy things first. A two-carat diamond or cherry-red Porsche will catch your eye long before that tiny chip of serendibite or a Sunbeam. It’s the same with the underwater world. New divers (and snorkelers, and even aquarium buffs) will gape at sharks and rays and the larger, more colorful fish. And for good reason. Those are exciting critters to watch.

But after their 600th parrotfish, many divers stop looking up and around and start training their gaze onto the coral itself, to see what tiny treasures they can spot. Veteran divers come to love the juveniles of any species – not only are they smaller, but they are usually much more wildly colored and patterned. Sometimes they’re so different you don’t even recognize the baby as the same species as the mature adult. An Emperor Angel, a Pacific Ocean fish, is a spectacular creature, but the juvenile, with its deep-blue swirling rings, is truly a sight to behold. And the Caribbean staple, the smooth or spotted Trunkfish, with its boxy shape and extended puckered snout, is a favorite of many. But the newly hatched baby is like a miniature die, smooth and round with just a hint of its future pout-snout. Finding one of those, for many of us, is better than hitting on a gold doubloon.

There’s a reason why divemasters, many of them with thousands of dives under their weight belt, seek out the tiny and unusual. And while serious underwater photographers love a great wide-angle landscape shot or a perfectly silhouetted reef shark, more often than not they’ve got their macro lens on and can be seen this close to tiny cracks in the reef, scoping out the small and rare critter.

In addition to the juveniles of all the species, there are real prizes among the small set. Worms might not sound appealing to landlubbers (except avid gardeners, that is) but marine species are gorgeous. Ditto slugs and snails. Sounds like something that has you running for the salt shaker, but in the water, these creatures (also called nudibranchs) are among the most sought-after and photographed. Some photographers create posters of their work and only include nudibranchs!

Barbara is one of these photographers, who doesn’t shy away from a killer landscape shot, but more than likely is looking down and squinting for tiny treasures. Together we’re gawked at miniature seahorses, their tiny tails looped around a soft coral. We’re hovered over soft, leafy gorgonian branches trying to find teensy slender filefish perfectly camouflaged within. And we’ve thrilled to find frogfish in the shallows, camouflaged in the coral. It’s always a joy to spot these creatures, partly because it’s so hard to do.

For many divers, this introduction comes from experienced divers or divemasters – or just with time. But we believe that if you get to know a little about their changing appearance, habitat and behavior, you’re more likely to spot them. Toward that end, we’re compiled a small compendium of some of our small favorites.

Fairy basslet

This small, colorful fish usually measures just one to two inches long, though they’re been recorded as long as five inches. It’s hard to believe, but they’re the tropical cousins of the familiar sea bass family. They come in a range of colors and patterns, but in typical animal fashion, the male is the more brilliantly colored.

The most common pattern in the TCI is a purple front and yellow rear. You’ll find fairy basslets close to sponges and corals, particularly in the shade of overhangs. When they’re hungry, they will often emerge from their hiding places in large schools and seek out clear waters where there’s a current running. Because of their vibrant coloring, they are a popular aquarium fish. However, due to overfishing of the species for the sake of collectors (along with pollution and other factors that negatively impact reefs), their numbers are diminishing and this delightful fish could become endangered if practices aren’t reversed.

Indigo hamlet

This species is still being studied – recently it was determined there are 11 distinct types of hamlets, and even more when you take into account hybrid color combos. But this gorgeous little fish (usually 3 to 5 inches in length) is easily recognized by his rich blue color and white vertical stripes. It’s shy and tends to hide in reef holes and under overhangs. While many fish species change genders within their lifetime, what’s a particularly interesting aspect of hamets is that they often exhibit traits of both sexes at the same time. And since they’re not shy about mating in front of humans, many divers have been treated to some memorable under-water performances!


Uncommon as well as hard to find even when you know they’re there, this species is a universal favorite. They are in fact a true fish: their family is Syngnathidae, but it’s the name of their genus that’s worth mentioning, if only for the snicker factor: poophead. In the TCI, they’re found in red, yellow, brown and black – some have white stripes or are translucent! Barbara hears that many locals, never having seen one firsthand, don’t believe they’re real. Perhaps the reason women divers are fond of these two to six-inch critters is that they’re primarily monogamous: they greet each other every morning with mating rituals (and often in the evening as well); and, best of all, the male carries the babies!

Blue chromis

This tiny member of the attractive Damselfish family grows to three or four inches and is a familiar sight on many if not most Caribbean reefs. The adults are highly protective of their turf, and usually settle down into a permanent home around a small hole in the coral where they can hide from predators, sleep at night and raise their young. You can often spot schools of dozens of them, their distinctive forked tails flittering together in the current like tiny electric-blue flags, feeding on plankton, their favorite snack.


Longlure frogfish

This guy is so ugly he’s actually cute. These masters of camouflage (particularly around sponges) are reclusive bottom dwellers. There are few sights in the water as entertaining as catching a frogfish going for a walk. He uses his pectoral and pelvic fins to slide himself along the floor, and in the process he wobbles slightly from side to side in the process. He’s described poetically as “short, fat and globular,” and he seldom grows to more then five inches in length. The three-incher pictured in this article was first spotted by Smitty on Grand Turk about two weeks before Barbara was due to visit. Upon arrival, she immediately asked to be taken to it, and was thrilled to find the little guy had moved only a few feet.

Slender filefish

This cutey is one of the smallest types of filefish in the world, growing to a mere three inches (but most typically found in the Caribbean at about one inch). Another master of disguise, this fish is usually found hiding out in the gorgonians, changing its color and even patterns to blend in with its surroundings. It gets its name from the forward single portion of its dorsal fin. When frightened, the filefish can tuck itself into a crevice and use the fin to lock in place, making it almost impossible for predators to extract it.

Christmas tree worm

Often mistaken by new divers or snorkelers for a coral polyp, this worm is one of most decorous things in the water. They usually grow in groupings on brain coral, and can be pretty much any color in the rainbow. It lives inside a tube, and the part of the creature we see, the head, is actually its radiole, which the inch-high worms use to filter plankton out of the water for food and to breathe.

Though beautiful to look at, they can be very hard to photograph. They’re hypersensitive to movement in the water and can sense creatures in the vicinity. To protect themselves, in the blink of an eye (or snap of a shutter), they will retract into the coral, not to re-emerge till you are long gone.


Social feather duster worm

With crowns (heads) only one inch across, these tiny creatures look like tiny water flowers. (They’ve been seen as large as six inches, but that’s very rare.) Like Christmas Tree Worms, each lives in its own calcium-based tube, about the size of a straw. They get their name from the fact that they look like old-fashioned feather dusters and live in clusters. Also like the Christmas Tree Worms, they pull in their heads when they sense danger. Delicate as the flowers they resemble, they’re vulnerable to divers’ fins and dangling equipment (not to mention anchors) and should be carefully minded by everyone who approaches.

Lettuce sea slug

The ruffles of this critter are so beautiful you’d swear they’re the petals of an exotic flower, but what you’re admiring is actually the tissues of a slug! This animal is a snail without a shell and is usually seen in shades of green and blue – though other colors have been occasionally noted. In this photo, the slug has lovely blue tips on its almost-white ruffles. These exotic creatures are good examples of why divers go nuts for nudibranchs!


Flamingo tongue snail

This beautifully patterned snail is usually about one inch long and found clinging to sea fans and other soft coral, from which they obtain their food. Move slowly through TCI waters and you’re sure to spot at least one on every dive. The pattern you’re admiring is the creature’s mantel, like a clam’s. When frightened, it will retract itself into the shell, leaving a plain cream-colored exterior. It’s called a gastropod (literally “stomach-footed”) because it eats with its feet. But note: this is not considered bad table manners in its social circles.

New York-based Suzanne Gerber writes about scuba, travel and health for a variety of publications. Book your next dive trip at

Avid underwater photographer Barbara Shively discovered Grand Turk diving in 1997 and has returned every year since. It has become her passion to share the beauty of the coral reefs with friends and family through her photographs. See her work at:

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