How Snorkeling Culebra, Puerto Rico, Reminded Me to be a Responsible Hobbyist...
Leah Frances Wade
I’ve been keeping
fish for ten years, but I had forgotten what that really meant until I spent six
days snorkeling in Culebra, Puerto Rico.
Culebra is a true
desert island, with no permanent streams or rivers (water is pumped via pipeline
from the mainland! – making a Coke a lot cheaper than a glass of water).
Found 20 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, its remote location and lack of
runoff make it an ideal snorkeling destination. During my six day stay I
snorkeled at three must-see locations:
All kinds of adventures await
snorkelers in Culebra! The large shell is a "Cameo Helmet".
presented breathtaking views of Luis Pena Nature Preserve; but the real show was
under the gentle waves. Primarily a rocky location, the reef is shallow
and easy snorkeling. We nearly stepped on several enormous long-spined sea
urchins (Diadema antillarum) when entering the water (reef shoes are a
MUST). The abundance of this herbivore bodes well for the health of this
reef. In 1983, 97% of the Diadema in the Caribbean and West Atlantic died
from an unidentified pathogen! These prickly lawnmowers keep coral heads
clear of algae. Their absence allowed massive growth of algae that
decimated coral populations and altered the seascape of the Caribbean for twenty
years. We were glad to see, but carefully avoided, this crucial species
recovering from near extinction.
is surrounded by barrier reef. The snorkeling there was rougher (but just
fine for this beginner). This long curving beach was the perfect spot to
alternate snorkeling with napping in the shade. It offered views of
Vieques to the South and mainland Puerto Rico to the East. We saw many
trumpet fish (Aulostomus maculates) almost four feet long in a variety of
colors. We found what we think was a Clench’s/Cameo Helmet wandering
across the sand (though gastropod identification has never been my strong
point). And we spooked up a small flounder that rapidly changed its spots
trying to confuse us – it worked. Let me tell you, it is really hard to
laugh while snorkeling!
Huge brain corals are a frequent
feature of Caribbean reefs.
was the best snorkeling by a mile (well at least half a mile); it is a 25 minute
hike from Flamenco Beach. Early birds have the beach to themselves and it
is rarely crowded.
At the center of the
beach is a large sand depression ringed by reef. We easily snorkeled the
entire length of the mile long reef and could observe corals and fish to depths
of over 30 feet. We saw brains four feet across and gorgonians five feet
tall and three feet wide. Six foot wide fan corals in greens and pinks
swayed in the soft currents all along the reef.
The fish were too
numerous to mention, but highlights included: seeing a juvenile and adult French
Angels (Pomacanthus paru); following a southern stingray (Dasyatis
Americana) across the sand flats - at a respectful distance of course,
swimming with a school of Atlantic Blue Tangs (Acanthurus coeruleus) that
numbered in the hundreds and spotting a Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas).
We snorkeled from one
coral head to another identifying fish we had seen in the aquarium trade.
I saw the first fish I ever kept; a tiny jeweled damsel (Plectroglyphidodon
lacrymatus). I photographed its twin shyly hiding in a
coral. But I also saw its adult form, all 8 inches of ugly mug. I
was disappointed both with myself for buying it without proper research and with
the fish store that sold it to me for my ten gallon tank. Sadly, he didn’t
last long and I have tried to make more responsible purchases since then.
Sea fans are another common sight on
Caribbean reefs. Some grow quite large. Their rhythmic
swaying in the current is beautiful and hypnotic!
It was thrilling to
see so many familiar faces; but the inadequacies of my fish tanks humbled me.
I have always been proud of my 10 gallon micro reef. It’s been running for
almost ten years and it’s currently the home to a tank raised Psuedocromid (Pseudochromis
aldabraensis), a Hammer Coral (Euphyllia parancora), and a Candy Cane Coral
(Caulastrea furcata). But Culebra emphasized to me how much my tank
pales in comparison to the wild and how aquariums can rarely approximate a good
home for many species offered in the trade. My experience in Culebra
compels me to save my money for more plane tickets (and maybe PADI
certification) rather than a bigger reef tank.
Even on a tight
budget, anyone can experience what our hobby is really about by getting a little
wet. Culebra Divers (PO Box 474, Culebra, PR
00775 – 787-742-0803)
provides gear rental and sales, as well as guided dives. Culebra has
minimal facilities: a few markets, two gas stations, and a handful of
restaurants. Everything there moves at an
ISLAND pace, so there is no need to rush. Visitors can lodge in a
variety of delightful villas or even camp right on the beach. Good
information can be found at
Two things must be
(1) Use more sunblock
than you think you need and snorkel in a tee-shirt
(2) Use a “Don’t
touch” policy on the reef. My husband scratched himself on a coral, and
the wound took weeks to heal.
You definitely cannot
miss this island paradise if you are an aquarium hobbyist!