Creature Feature

Caribbean Spiny Lobster

Taking a look at the “bugs” of the sea.

Story & Photos By Kelly Currington

When people hear the word “lobster” they generally think of a tasty entrée on their dinner plate, most likely the large-clawed Maine version. In the Turks & Caicos Islands and the rest of the Caribbean, our lobsters don’t have any claws and there is much more to these crustaceans than meets the eye.

Caribbean spiny lobsters get their name from forward-pointing spines that cover their bodies to help protect them from predators.

Caribbean spiny lobsters are quite the odd-looking lobster. They range in colors from purple to red and orange. Their presence is a sign of a healthy and bio-diverse reef. As with every creature in the sea, they are critical to a balanced ecosystem. 

It takes a spiny lobster between two and five years to reach sexual maturity. They cannot be legally harvested in the Caribbean until their carapace (hard outer shell) is 3 1/2 inches. They can spawn up to four times a year and depending on the size of the female, she will produce anywhere from 80,000 to 500,000 eggs per cycle. That’s a lot of baby lobsters! 

The male deposits sperm packets on the underside of the female, which she then scratches to release the sperm simultaneously as she releases her eggs. She carries the fertilized eggs under her tail for nine to twelve months. Once the eggs hatch, they will spend another nine to twelve months as planktonic larvae known as phyllosome until they transform into puerulus, the post larval stage. At this point they are miniature versions of mature lobsters—free swimming and becoming benthic (bottom dwellers). They make their way to the reef and start their life as lobsters. During this two-year journey from fertilization, they feed on plankton and algae. 

Once they reach the juvenile stage, between two and three years, they start to feed on snails, crabs, clams, and other bottom dwelling organisms. They will eventually inhabit coral reefs, bays, and estuaries, but during migration periods can be found in seagrass and soft bottom areas at depths ranging from the shallows to around 90 meters.

Lobsters grow by molting, a process in which they grow a new exoskeleton under their existing one and break free. It takes about a day for the new exoskeleton to harden, a time in which they are extremely vulnerable to predation. They go through this process up to 25 times in their first five to seven years of life, and then slow to only once per year as they age. It is difficult to age these crustaceans, but the estimation is that a ten-pound lobster could be upwards of 50 years old. 

Because spiny lobsters are easily susceptible to diseases, which can be caused by shifts in the ecosystem conditions, their assemblance in large numbers can be detrimental to sizable portions of the group. Many predators feed on juvenile and adult spiny lobsters, including groupers, snappers, sharks, skates, turtles, and octopus, but their biggest threat—as with most species—comes from humans. According to the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund, over 800,000 pounds of lobster are caught annually in TCI waters, which is very near the maximum sustainable yield. Since records started being kept, the average lobster size has decreased from 3 to 0.7 kilograms. 

Though they can’t see images well, these crustaceans excel in sensing motion.

Spiny lobster are nocturnal, so during the day they stay hidden in their dens and wait for cover of darkness to forage for food, which starts about two hours after sunset. Since they do not have actual claws, they rely on smell and taste, using their front set of walking legs to pull food towards their powerful mandibles, proving they are formidable hunters. 

These are interesting lobsters with a multitude of color variations, and they have colorful personalities as well. If you are diving or snorkeling during the day and you see long spiny antennae sticking out from underneath a coral head, slow down and watch the owner of those antennae. Lobsters are curious creatures and if you approach them slowly and at a respectable distance, you can usually get a good view—and sometimes they will even come out a little to investigate you. If startled though, they will retreat backwards quickly. 

I have had lobsters come out and feel my entire face with their antennae and then duck back into their dens. These encounters are special and emotional because you know that they are communicating with you. You never touch, it’s always on their terms, and if they aren’t interested, you go about your dive and leave them in peace. 

If you are night diving, you will most likely see lobsters out foraging for food or strolling across the sand. Again, if you slow down and watch, you may be lucky enough to see them snag dinner!

Spiny lobster are nocturnal creatures and walk around at night when they are foraging for their food.

I am very happy that in the Turks & Caicos Islands there is a specified “season” for catching lobsters and minimum size requirement so the species can survive.The exact dates vary, with lobster season typically from August 1 to March 31. The minimum carapace length is 3 1/4 inches, the minimum tail weight is five ounces, and no egg bearing lobsters or moulting/soft shelled lobsters can be taken.

My ever-present hope is that if you slow down and pay close attention to the creatures in the sea, the way they go about their lives, their interactions with other creatures (and humans), and notice that they are thinking, living souls, that maybe you’ll learn to see them as more than an entrée on your dinner plate. Always respect the creatures who are so important to reef health and never harass, chase, or touch them. We are visitors in their home, and they need our protection.

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