Natural History

Something’s Fishy

Marine creatures may or may not have a sense of humor, but sometimes they’re downright funny!
Story by Suzanne Gerber ~ Photos and Captions by Barbara Shively

Make no mistake: Scuba diving is serious business. To get certified, you have to study a fair bit of science, including the physics of gases, and be able to calculate atmospheres and air compression. You have to understand how to read Navy dive tables and use them to plan dives. You have to pass a written test and prove your skills 30 feet beneath sea level. And yet once you’ve got your “C card” and are officially a diver, you should be prepared to have the most fun one can have, legally.

Sure, the underwater world is beautiful and peaceful and relaxing and exotic. But the thing you don’t hear often about scuba diving is that sometimes it’s LOL–funny down there. Divemasters blowing “water” rings, couples goosing each other through their wetsuits, kids of all ages playing Hangman on their dive slates during safety stops: Good stuff, but that’s human humor. Barbara’s and my favorite way to crack up underwater is by observing the odd, amusing and always entertaining behavior of the critters themselves. Hunting and mating are two activities you can count on for high entertainment value, which is one reason to slow down in the water. Why rush off to the next hunk of reef? Stick around, work to achieve neutral buoyancy, where you are perfectly still in the water and neither bobbing up like an apple nor sinking like a brick. Move slowly, gracefully . . . keep your eyes peeled and pay attention. Because just when you least expect it, a fish is likely to do something to make you smile. And trust us, to do that while breathing through a regulator and not swallow water takes practice!

Exhibit A: the whitespotted filefishWSF2---WhiteSpottedFilefish

The tropical Pacific Ocean lays claim to the ever-popular clownfish, but we think the whitespotted filefish is every bit as cute — plus, at a maximum length of 18 inches, there’s a lot more of him to love. With its colorful orange and black markings, bright yellow accents and white spots that appear during its first phase of life (not to mention its fat tummy and pucker-up white lips), this funny fellow could be the honorary clownfish of the Caribbean.

Viewed from the side, you can’t tell how slender this fish really is. And in the water, he moves slowly and in one plane; he doesn’t undulate like many softer-boned species. You can always spot one (so to speak) from a distance by his angle — almost always at 45º (lips up or down). But when it’s time for a gill cleaning, or better yet, some dental work, this handsome guy can practically hit 90º! We especially love their pre-mating rituals, when they circle one another back and forth and create the loveliest patterns. There’s a reason I have longed for fish-patterned swimsuits. Mother Nature is the ultimate artist!

If the whitespotted filefish had a Facebook page, his profile might read something like this:

Networks: Shallow coral reefs
Status: Usually in a relationship
Great at camouflage
Not a great swimmer (blame my small fins!)
Fave foods:
Algae, seagrass, small invertebrate or coral
Fun fact:
Humans used to dry my skin and use it to finish wooden boats.

Exhibit B (Confiscated by TSA?): jackknife fish

This pair of 8-inch-long jackknife fish are the only ones we’ve ever seen in the reefs off Grand Turk. They were first seen several years ago at the base of a shallow coral head, where they took up residence until a bad storm blew in. Talk about riding shotgun! Next time they were seen was at a completely different coral head. But after a hurricane in 2007, they disappeared for good. Denizens of Florida and the Bahamas, jackknife fish are quite rare in the Caribbean. When you do spy one, you usually get double your money’s worth because they tend to stay in pairs. In fact, that’s one of the easiest ways to distinguish this elegant little guy from his cousins the highhat and the spotted drum (especially the adorably hyperkinetic juvenile, which is actually smaller).

Check out his Facebook page:

Nickname: Jack
Fave color: black and white (duh!)
Height: 3–4 inches
Atlantic or Caribbean: Atlantic!
Fun fact: I’m one of the few fish not in Wikipedia!

Exhibitionist C: grouper

G3---GrouperFace“Lazy” isn’t a word typically used to describe fish, but that was exactly the first word that came to Barbara’s mind when she spotted a Nassau grouper apparently catching some zzzz’s on a large sponge in Grand Turk. Later she learned he was neither snoozing nor double-parked while the wife ran in to pick up dinner; he was at a cleaning station, the very common (and commonly missed by new divers) arrangement fish have with one another to get parasites removed from their skin, gills and mouths by a class of little critters called cleaner fish. (It’s fun to identify a cleaning station: Look for small yellow fish flittering in small groups above the corals. But keep your distance. The cleanees are vulnerable, and when they sense our presence, they skedaddle.)

Barbara says despite groupers’ rep for being anti-social, she’s known some to be very curious. “When diving at Coral Gardens off Grand Turk, my usual routine is to hang around with the other divers at first to photograph them gently interacting with Alexander, the resident grouper greeter. After a few minutes, I will swim off on my own. I was really startled the first couple of times that I got bumped by something. When I looked around, I saw it was a grouper — who seemed to want its picture taken.” Fair enough, she thought, but apparently shooting a fish is about as easy as photographing a puppy. As Barbara says,“You try to explain to an overly friendly, three-foot-long fish that it needs to stay at least 16 inches away for you to focus!”

Alexander is as much a fixture at Coral Gardens as Snoopy is at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. And he always wants to be petted. He and Barbara go way back. Of her friend she says, “This large Nassau grouper actually enjoys having his chin scratched by legendary divemaster Smitty (Algrove Smith, owner of Grand Turk Diving). For those of you who might be concerned about the ethical question of making ‘pets’ of wild things by feeding them, let me say that I have never seen Smitty or anyone in his dive group feed any marine creature.”

There must be something about groupers. I have personally witnessed this phenomenon at three other dive locations outside the TCI: always Nassau groupers, usually more than one, and always at the same popular shallow site. I agree with Barbara: It’s not about food. They genuinely like the attention and affection. See, we told you fish were funny!

Sometimes it isn’t the fish per se that’s amusing but his choice of swimming partner. Trumpetfish, those long, slender fish that change color before your eyes and dip 90º headfirst into soft coral, love tailgaiting. They’re frequently seen with jack, but occasionally you’ll see one hovering directly above a plump grouper like a shadow — or a halo. Whither goeth the grouper, so goeth the trumpetfish. They’re the Jack Sprat and his wife of the sea. We can only assume he’s waiting for the grouper’s leftovers.

On deck: shortnose batfish

Talk about a master of disguise: Even the most sharp-sighted diver can swim back and forth over a batfish and never see it. This shallow-bottom-dweller blends in perfectly with the color and texture of the sand, plus it can make dark, irregular spots appear to further disguise itself among the small plants that inhabit its favorite sandy areas. This wacky fish, typically about a foot in length, actually walks along the sandy ocean floor, but it can muster a burst of speed thanks to a pair of what look like jet-propulsion holes in its lower back.

G2---SmittyPetsAlexOn my last trip to Grand Turk, for my last dive, we requested a “muck” dive with Smitty, meaning we’d forgo the colorful coral in search of the more unusual, and more exciting, creatures that live in the sand and “muck.” Old Eagle Eyes started leading us further and further away from anything resembling life (plant or fish), and for the briefest of nanoseconds I thought he had gotten off the scent. (After all, I wasn’t seeing anything.) Suddenly he stopped kicking his fins and indicated we should stop, too. With his eyes, he pointed about 40 feet away in the Sahara-like sand. OK, he’s definitely losing it! I thought. Then, in super-slow-mo, he led us directly to three batfish, about six feet apart, gloriously ugly. Because we had approached so slowly and had “surrounded” them, they stuck around, hopping in the sand and giving us the show of the week.

By the way, do you know that divers use hand signals to communicate underwater? There’s thumb and index finger together in a circle, other three fingers straight (“okay”); thumb up (“ascend”) and so on. We also have signs for many of the fish. Can you guess the sign for batfish? Yep, you swing an imaginary bat. Here’s a thought: Maybe the fish find us as batty as we find them!

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

Avid underwater photographer Barbara Shively discovered Grand Turk diving in 1997 and has returned every year. It is her passion to share the coral reefs’ beauty through her photographs, many of which can be viewed and purchased at A variety of her prints are on sale at Art Provo, located in The Regent Village, Providenciales.

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