Every day we sailed in the British Virgin Island (BVI), we went snorkeling, sometimes twice a day. For the most part, the water is a tepid eighty-three to eight-six degrees; occasionally, you swim through an icy patch of water and when it was stormy outside, the water felt cooler. For the most part, swimming around BVI is like being in a sun-warmed swimming pool.
The first few times we snorkeled, I was in so much awe of the fish, coral, and plants that nothing got recorded in my memory bank. I simply swam, observed, and concentrated on my breathing. Inhaling and exhaling out of a tube that’s sticking out of my mouth doesn’t feel natural!
After a couple of days of remembering nothing while snorkeling, I took another approach, dictating in my head what I was seeing in hope I could quickly type up my recollections that evening. It didn’t work. I barely wrote anything because I couldn’t find the right words.
Finally, I implored Rich to help. He came up with the perfect analogy. The reefs and surrounding oceanscape in BVI is like an underwater desert.
Like a desert, there is fine off-white sand with craggily pieces of coral that look like cactuses. The colors are surprisingly muted. For the most part, the coral and rocks are earth tones: Beige, umber, gray, goldenrod, and maroon. The shapes and texture of the coral are interesting, but the colors are depressing!
The color of the water, however, is extraordinary. At low depths, it is dazzling aquamarine. Lapped on the shores, it’s blue like the sky. Through a swimming mask it glimmers like a gemstone as the sunlight streaks at angles into the water. Then you see the coral. Oh dreary coral.
Okay, I’m not being fair. Drizzled on some of the coral and rocks is what appears to be melted, turquoise plastic like gooey blue translucent icing you squeeze out of a tube. There are also giant lacy fan attached to the rocks that wave back-and-forth in the current. Most of the fans are beige, but some are maroon, maize, charcoal gray, and asparagus. Their movement is more intriguing and mesmerizing than their color.
While not a mecca of color, the brain coral is intriguing with random whorls and ranging in size from tennis ball to papasan. Staghorn, elkhorn, and finger coral look like they sound – thickets of twisted antlers of varying widths and colors from pearly white to taupe and ash gray. This picture does a good job of capturing what we saw. Even better check out this site about coral in St. Martaan, which is southeast of BVI and next to St. Martin, St. Kitts, and St. Barts.
What makes snorkeling amazing are the fish. So many wonderful fish and memorable encounters! My favorite fish, without a doubt, are parrotfish. Even though a parrotfish can grow to the size of a large salmon, they are very docile and too silly and beautiful to incite an ounce of fear. They range in color from dullish medium gray with whisper of vibrant colors to full-on rainbow with blotches of yellow, green, pink, and blue. Throughout their lifespan they can change colors and genders!
Their bodies are funky with itty-bitty fins and tails, large, expressive eyes, and large, pouty lips that are usually poised on a piece of coral. Their diet primarily consists of algae from polyps inside coral. They rip off chunks of coral, which they pulverize using grinding teeth in their throats, and then digest the algae. Much of the sand where parrotfish live is actually ground-up undigested coral they excrete.
My next favorite fish were Sergeant Major, which I lovingly referred to as bumblebees. These frisky black and yellow striped fish tended to be in small schools and weren’t perturbed by giant human swimming by their homes. We saw tiny ones – about the size of peas – in a sheltered pool near the shore. We saw larger, plum tomato-sized, bumblebees darted in the reefs, swimming around docks or by our swim ladder. They aren’t opposed to eating cracker crumbs.
The most common fish were varieties of butterfly and angelfish. These elegant, disc-shaped fish came in a multitude of colors and patterns. Most memorable was a small black fish with bright periwinkle spots. Around the peripheral of its body was a stripe of florescent blue. It looked like something that would appear in the Disney Electric Parade.
The large, scary fish that resembled small tuna were most likely harmless Bar Jacks. We saw a couple of them in shallow waters by beaches. And yes, we saw a few Barracuda, but they were fairly small and swam by us. Nevertheless, they have ferocious teeth that even on an 18-inch fellow could remove a finger or two… especially if it has a shiny wedding ring on it.
Grunts – French and Bluestriped – and Yellowtail Snappers were common and always in a schools. Now is a good time to launch into schools of fish. One of the most exciting aspects of snorkeling, aside from seeing a rare or very colorful fish, is swimming alongside or through a school. Some schools comprised a few dozen fish moseying along with each member paying little attention to the others.
Most schools comprise thousands, possibly tens of thousands of fish. Half the time we snorkeled, we swam through or by a school of Silversides. These fish remind me fresh water Tetras because they’re less than two-inches in length and vary in color. Most memorable is a variety is like a slender crystal prism, shimmering as the light changes. They’re so translucent that you can see their organs and spines.
Others are white with stripes of color. Aside from being very beautiful, they swim in unison, following the same path then without warning, switching directions, every head and tail in perfect harmony. They don’t seem to be perturbed by humans and will swim around you, scarcely an inch from your body or outstretched hand. I loved to float with my head underwater, breathing through my snorkel as thousands of Silversides showered past me like rainbow snowflakes. Check out this video on Silversides by Don Stark, a PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor and amazing underwater videographer and producer of www.scubavisions.com.
Larger fish like grunts and tangs usually swim the same direction, but are more likely to look around and act independently as they swim. Check out this amazing video by Don Stark on Blue Tangs. We saw many fish that we believed were tangs, but were most likely angelfish, like the Blue Angelfish or Gray Angelfish. It’s so hard to figure out what you’re seeing because the environment is constantly changing with fishing swim every direction. With every few strokes, you pass by rocks and coral that are hiding extraordinary fishes. Round a corner and a lightly populated area becomes a buzz of activity with three or four schools of different fish.
Whenever we snorkeled, we hoped to see a hawksbill turtle. These shy creatures are lovely. Lovely is truly the best word to describe them. They swim so effortlessly with wise faces, graceful flippers, and mottled shells. Once we spotted one, we’d slow our swimming to minimize startling it and try to follow it, oblivious to anything around us, but this mystical creature glissading through the water. Watch this video about hawksbills.
Seven years ago, we saw several manta rays, swimming in open water. This trip, we saw none. Although, one evening, after eating dinner, we were exploring the area in our dingy and Rich though he spotted a large ray because a large dark gray shadow moved across the sun-speckled water. Like hawksbill turtles, they quietly move through the water, creating as little notice as possible.
The ones we’ve seen in the pass were at least three-feet across, but unlike the Spotted Eagle Ray in this video, they didn’t seem to move their “wings” as aggressively. I found them fascinating, but frightening. I’d much rather see a mellow nurse shark than a ray!
Yes, Rich and I took underwater pictures. However, I was stupidly cheap and instead of investing $100 or so in a mediocre-quality underwater camera, I convinced Rich to purchase two no-quality single-use underwater cameras. The resulting pictures were fuzzy, underexposed, overexposed, and not exposed.
I guess that means we’ll have to return to BVI a third time!