Dive Slow and Think Small

Tips for finding cryptic critters.

D.J., a veteran St. Vincent dive guide, floats as still as a statue just above the bottom. With his arms folded across his chest and the tips of his fins resting gently on the sand for balance, thin intermittent streams of silver bubbles offer the only evidence that he is alive at all. Every few minutes he inches forward across a bed of feather algae that blankets the shallow sea floor.

Later in the dive, long after I had lost patience with D.J.'s methodical hunting style and swam off to inspect a nearby reef, I hear a series of sharp taps echoing off his steel tank. When I arrive back on the scene, I find him kneeling almost exactly where I had left him. As he glances up at my approach, I can see success glinting from his eyes. The discovery that he called me over to share is so well disguised that even with his index finger pointing the way, it takes a moment to sort out the broken profile of a two-inch pipehorse concealed among the feathery stalks.

Nearby, we find my lady’s love interest, a pregnant male pipehorse. (Note the bulging egg pouch under his abdomen.)


As if seahorses and pipefishes are not remarkable enough, the rare little pipehorse — a cross between its two exotic brethren — ranks high among the most wonderfully weird animals inhabiting the Caribbean Sea. I give D.J. a high-five. When I turn back, the strange little wisp of a fish is gone. D.J. patiently points back to the original spot, and the fish once again pops into focus.

A few lucky divers, such as D.J., are endowed with eagle eyes — a much admired talent among cryptic critter hunters. Like most mortals, I lack such skills; but because of my keen passion for observing bizarre little creatures underwater, I have, over the years, acquired three indispensable tactics to help compensate for my shortcomings.

Dive slow. Spotting subtle movements, such as a twitching antennae or a flick of a tail, is the best way to detect a hiding animal. And, as any experienced hunter will tell you, roving eyes don't tend to see slight movements well.

Think small. Because of the relentless pressure from predation, many small sea creatures, such as pipehorses, have evolved elaborate camouflage, a survival strategy that, in turn, has engendered some of the most outrageous animals on Earth.

Dive with a patient buddy gifted with eagle eyes — possibly the best ploy of all.