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The Traveling Hobbyist

How Snorkeling Culebra, Puerto Rico, Reminded Me to be a Responsible Hobbyist...

 By 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".

Melones Beach 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.

Punta Soldado (Soldier’s Point) 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.

Carlos Rosario 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 said:

(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! 

About Fishwatching/Travel Adventures on WWM

Related FAQs: About Going Fishwatching/Adventure Traveling

Related Articles: Index of Fishwatcher's Guides, Adventure Travel, Diving, The Cook Islands (Short Version), The Cook Islands (Long Version), Fiji, Australia, The Tropical West Atlantic, Red Sea, the Tropical East Pacific, Hawai'i, Red Sea


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