Pearls of the Sea

The story of “Ollie.”

Story & Photos By Kelly Currington

Anyone who takes a moment to gaze out over the stunning turquoise waters of the Turks & Caicos Islands must wonder about all the amazing creatures that are out there. What lies beneath those beautiful hues of blue?

The Turks & Caicos Islands are home to a true treasure trove of amazing creatures. All the regular residents that are expected and sought out are here, including Caribbean reef sharks; green, hawksbill and the occasional loggerhead turtles; spotted eagle rays; southern stingrays; dolphins; numerous types of moray eels; beautiful reef fish; crabs; lobster; shrimps; and some weird and wonderful odd little critters. 

One of my favorite little fishes is the Yellowhead jawfish. This peculiar creature is a bottom burrowing fish, and one of only a handful of mouth brooding fish—meaning the male incubates the eggs in his mouth until they hatch. I’ve had the privilege of filming these tiny treasures hundreds of times, including the aeration of the eggs. They are always a huge draw for divers who travel to these Islands to dive our famous reefs. 

Author Kelly Currington fell in love with a family of Mottled jawfish in the waters of the Turks & Caicos Islands, most especially a fiesty little fellow she named “Ollie.”

Every once in a blue moon we are fortunate enough to discover a creature we’ve never seen before. This is the story of one such discovery. While guiding a dive, we covered an area of a dive site that we wouldn’t normally see, but we were hanging in the opposite direction due to wind and waves. As we headed toward the wall, one of our crew looked down and saw an unusual creature. It was sticking out of the sand from a burrow, like a Yellowhead jawfish, but it was not. It was a new type of jawfish—a Mottled jawfish. This little beauty is much larger than the Yellowhead jawfish and didn’t hover above its burrow, but just stuck its head up and peered around. As we looked closer, there were five of these gems. This caused quite the buzz of excitement amongst the crew and guests. 

Being an avid lover of Yellowhead jawfish, I starting spending a lot of time studying these new treasures. After a few encounters with them, I felt a very strong connection with the largest one of the family. Its face and jaw were strong and its eyes were striking. I started talking to him or her, expressing my adoration and how honored I was to share space with them. Unlike their smaller cousins, this species allowed me to get very close and did not retreat into their burrows. Each one was full of personality, and each one was different.

One day I went to visit them and got another amazing surprise—the largest Mottled jawfish had a mouthful of eggs! The sight of this handsome boy with eggs moved me to tears. To see him very carefully holding them securely in his mouth, but not too tight, and the precision he took in aerating them is something only Mother Nature could orchestrate.

I made sure to visit this family of Mottled jawfish every single week to study their behavior and how they differ from yellowheads. They seemed less weary, or as I like to see it, more brave than the smaller species. I could get much closer to them with and without my camera. They interacted with each other and wouldn’t retreat into their burrows unless something startled them. They kept their heads fully out of their burrows and looked around, watching the divers, watching fish go by and always keeping an eye out for predators. After many weeks, they seemed to get comfortable with my presence and I started noticing new characteristics and behavior.

One day I looked at the large male as I approached and said, “Hi Oliver.” From that moment he was known as Ollie. I wish I could explain it, but he just looked like an Ollie! His ladies were so full of personality and character that they inspired names as well. The female that was always closest to Ollie was dubbed Sapphire because her eyes were so blue and she was very sassy. The more shy of the larger females was dubbed Emerald because her eyes always reflected a deep emerald green color as she watched us from her den. The smallest and shyest of the family was dubbed Peep, simply because she barely peeped her little head out to watch us. There they were—Ollie and his Lovely Ladies!  

At the beginning of every charter I would be eager to get to Ollie and see how he and his family were doing. I had become extremely attached to him and I worried about him. My excitement as we pulled up to the mooring where he lived was visible to anyone near me—I just couldn’t contain it! I was lucky that my fellow crew understood my love for this little family group and agreed that I always dived this site, whether with guests or in between dives on my own where I could document, study and talk to Ollie. On some days I did both dives.  

“Ollie” carefully holds a mouthful of fertilized eggs for the six to eight days it takes them to mature.

Geared up, I stepped into the turquoise water, descended to the sea floor and slowly made my way to Ollie’s home. There was always a lump in my throat until I could see his head sticking up from his burrow, then that lump turned to relief and I would squeal out his name! I would tell him how happy I was to see him and his ladies. I would go to each one and check on them and note if they had changed burrows, eggs or no eggs, the arrangement of shells around their burrows, and any other intricacies I could see.  

At least once a month, right after the full moon, Ollie had eggs, and most months he had a second clutch immediately following the release of the first one, and sometimes a third clutch. His ladies were definitely keeping him busy! I would look at those tiny babies in his mouth and know they were the next generation of this species and were going to continue to populate our reefs. 

The week before the full moon each month, I would notice Sapphire tidying up her burrow and bringing in new shells and broken coral to line the outside. Ollie would make the outside of his burrow very tight with shells and coral, a reinforcement of debris. When I witnessed this, I always knew that the next week he would have eggs, and he always did. He would move burrows on occasion and I had surmised that he had moved to the burrow of the female he was incubating eggs for—but this was only a guess based on the behavior I had witnessed over months of observation. 

One of the amazing facts about jawfish is that the mating pair have burrows very close to each other, and there is a “honeymoon” burrow not visible from the surface that they share during mating. This burrow is usually between their two individual burrows and all are connected by tunnels.

One day as I approached, I was met with an unexpected surprise.  Emerald had eggs too! This meant that “she” was a “he.” There was a definite and noticeable shift in the entire dynamic of the family group on this day. I witnessed a completely new behavior from Ollie. He would come all the way out of his burrow and posture at Emerald, arching his back high and hovering over him. I could only assume that this was a sign of territory dominance since the behavior only began once Emerald became a viable rival. This was something I had not seen in all the months I’d been monitoring them. I had witnessed Sapphire come out of her den to grab shells and broken coral or snatch a morsel from the sand, but I had never seen Ollie come all the way out. It appeared he was not happy about having another man near his ladies. His displays were quite impressive and undeniable in their intent. With this new revelation, we knew there were at least two males, and we assumed, two females. 

The very next week, I followed my normal routine. With my heart pounding and excitement in my heart, I slipped below the surface and headed to see “my boy” and his family. I saw him from 50 feet away because the visibility was so clear on this day. As I got closer, I could see that there was something different. Emerald was gone, his burrow filled in with sand and shells. I searched the area for him, but he was nowhere to be found. Had Ollie run him off? Had he decided to leave on his own? Had the girls rejected him? What was obvious was that Ollie was now back to his usual calm and humorous behavior. He had a very new clutch of eggs and was quite comfortable showing them to me. I knew the eggs were only a day or two old by their color. 

This Mottled jawfish Kelly named “Sapphire,” for her beautiful blue eyes.

The process begins with the female laying her eggs in one of the burrows (most likely the shared burrow), then the male fertilizes them and scoops them up in his mouth where he will protect them for the entire six to eight days it takes them to mature. Brand-new eggs are a translucent milky color, in a couple of days they turn a mango color, then they start turning silver and right before they are ready to be released they are very silver and you can see the individual eyes of each baby—a beautiful sight! 

On this day, Ollie did his usual thing with me—coming partially out and looking at himself in my camera dome, turning his back to me to check for dangers behind him (this demonstrates a complete trust that I would not harm him), and then rolling his eyes up and around and directly back at me. I set my camera to the side, making sure the sand was clear of any visible life before setting it down. I talked to him as if I were talking to a human. I extended my hand, palm up, to see if he would respond, and to my surprise he did. He would come out and rest his chin on my hand, never losing control of his clutch. I would offer him pieces of broken shell or coral for his den and he would take them from me—and then usually spit them out to the side as if they were not suitable for his home. I apparently needed more work on my design skills! Just the fact that he would interact with me of his own choice was a special gift and treasured bond that always left me humbled and in tears. 

Peep continued to stay low and watch, and would not accept interaction, most likely due to still being too young to have confidence. Sapphire would come all the way out of her burrow and take shells from me. She was a strong-willed and brave girl who showed me her grit each week. She and Ollie made a beautiful pair and I could only imagine how perfect all the little Mottled jawfish they had created would be. 

Then, on what would end up being my last encounter, our time together was different. It started out the same way with me approaching with hope and anticipation, and being rewarded with their presence. But Ollie was much more communicative with me. After capturing some video of him and his girls, I set my camera to the side and talked to him about how much he had enriched my life. I had my arms crossed under my chin and got as close as he was comfortable with.

I watched this little creature that had changed me, taught me so much and most importantly, shared his home and family with me. He came out of his burrow, straight up to my mask, and held onto my rash guard with his mouth and tugged on it. He would come up out of his burrow showing me his entire perfect body and then lower himself back in. He affected me more this day than any other, and I couldn’t put my finger on why, but it was extremely intense. I went over to see Sapphire and she also behaved differently. She came out and approached my mask and nuzzled it with her head and then went back to her den and watched me. I could not explain the overwhelming emotion that rushed through me; I was leveled to tears. In the eight months I had been visiting this family this was the first time they had shown this intimate form of communication. Had I actually earned so much trust that they would visibly show me affection? Was it possible? I went and checked on Peep, but she was still in her burrow with only her face peeking out as usual, but she did not retreat and this was a subtle, but notable, difference.

As I swam away from this encounter, I could not explain the full effect of the experience I had just had. I surfaced and told my captain and fellow crewmate that I wanted them to come with me to see my babies. They geared up, we stepped in, and off we went. Once we were there I demonstrated that I wanted them to extend their hand or a shell to Ollie, and one at a time they did. Ollie came out and shared a moment with each of them—now the feeling was more overwhelming. Did he trust me enough to understand that I would never bring danger to him? Is this why he demonstrated the behavior with them? Had I inadvertently made him trust all humans or was he simply communicating some sort of message to us?

The next week I was going to go see Ollie and his girls between dives so I could get some video of them without distractions, so my crewmate led divers to see them. It was always a stressful time for me waiting for them to come back and assure me that Ollie was fine, so I waited, pacing the deck. My crewmate barely had her face clear of the water when her eyes told me what I did not want to hear. She told me she could not find them.

As I’m typing this, that lump in my throat is huge, my chest tightens, and the tears flow as if it were that day again. I quickly climbed into my gear, grabbed my camera and swam as fast as I could to his burrow. I knew from quite a distance that my heart was about to be broken, and my mask filled with tears. Peering out of Ollie’s burrow was little Peep, with no sign of Ollie. So I went and looked for Sapphire; she was gone as well. I swam all over the area looking for them—nothing. They were gone. It took more than 20 minutes for me to gather myself. I hovered above his burrow crying. What had happened? How had something gotten both of them and not Peep? How? Why? I could not organize my thoughts.  

Then I saw something, and it gave me some hope. Sapphire’s burrow was filled in with sand and rubble, the same as Emerald’s had been when he left. This told me that most likely they were not taken by a predator, but probably left of their own accord. As a mating pair it made sense that they would go together and this would also explain why Peep was still there. It was the only explanation that made any sense, or at least the only one my mind and heart would accept.

Had their behavior with me on my last visit been their way of saying good-bye? Did they know? My heart believes that this special little soul and his beautiful lady were somehow communicating that we had a connection.

The months Kelly Currington spent with “Ollie” and his family of jawfish inspired powerful emotions and this underwater tribute.

I spent the next half hour gathering all the broken coral and shells from their burrows and creating a tribute to the most amazing little creature who had taught me so much, who had allowed me to share a small piece of his world, and who showed me exactly how much one’s heart could connect to another species.  

Remember to slow down and look at all the creatures we encounter, because they are all living beings and they can touch your soul in ways you can’t even imagine. You never know, you might come across one of Ollie and Sapphire’s offspring—they are definitely out there!

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Marta Morton, our go-to photographer for all things naturally beautiful in the Turks & Caicos Islands, captured this peaceful scene overlooking Dragon Cay on Middle Caicos. For more of Marta’s breathtaking images, visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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