World Tour Highlights: 10 Best Fish and Other Underwater Critters

According to the numbers, almost half of the trip has been spent in the tropics. And when we’re in the tropics, we spend a lot of time underwater. Neither of us scuba-dive - we haven’t got the money - but snorkelling costs nothing. I don’t spend quite as much time under the surface as Sheryl does - she’d have gills installed if she could, and live down there permanently - but we’ll still go for epic six-hour swims and not come back to dry land until we’re freezing and starving. And I’m working on my free-diving too - I can get down past 20 meters and stay under for a couple of minutes.

Me in a 20m free-dive, filmed by Mark Kellock; Mariner’s Cave, Vava’u, Tonga.

We’ve gone snorkelling in some of the best spots in the world, and although there are a few big-ticket creatures I haven’t yet run into like whale sharks and hammerheads, there are endless numbers of fascinating, beautiful things down there. So the fifteenth list in the series of World Tour Highlights articles presents, in alphabetical order, my ten personal favourites.

1. Christmas Tree Worms

These things are everywhere in the tropics, and I love them. They’re tiny tube-worms, no more than a couple of centimeters long, and ringed with spiral feathers that make them look, in shape at least, exactly like a fake plastic Christmas tree, or one of those conical green Lego trees. They come in every possible combination of colours, and they cover the rocks and coral heads in a profusion of vivid little points. But their most entertaining feature for me is their habit of reacting to any nearby disturbance by snapping back into their sheltering tubes faster than the eye can follow. Now you see them, now you don’t. It’s endless fun for me, waving my hand over a rock and watching hundreds of brightly-coloured little feathery cones disappear instantly, and then slowly poke back out.

Photo by Jan Messersmith (under CC license)

2. Cowries

Everybody knows these shellfish from the tiny Money Cowrie - domed oval shells with a double row of ‘teeth’ on the underside - but some species can be the size of your hand, and have the most amazing geometric patterns on their shells. They’re Sheryl’s obsession, not mine, but I got interested in the course of trying to find them for her. They like to hang out on coral heads or just under the edges of a reef. They’re distinctive and easy to spot, but the problem is that the animal secretes a particular slime that keeps its shell free of crud, algae and barnacles, so if you spot a nice shiny one it’s invariably still occupied. I’m strictly catch-fondle-and-release, so it didn’t bother me much, but Sheryl collects shells and got a little frustrated by this. But in the end persistence paid off and we found some nice vacant ones for her to mail home from Fiji.

3. Crown-of-Thorns Starfish

I like starfish, I think they’re pretty neat animals. So I was in awe of the Crown-of-Thorns Starfish when I first encountered it in Tonga’s Vava’u group of islands. They grow huge, more than half a meter across, with up to 21 thick arms, and they’re covered in long, thick spines like an urchin, that shade from their various body colours to blue or green at the tips. They’re strong, and surprisingly fast movers for starfish - I saw them crawling a couple of meters in a minute. And their spikes are dangerously sharp (and poisonous) as I found out when trying to turn one over to see what it looked like underneath. Overall, fascinating creatures, but the problem is that, having spread beyond the range of any of their natural predators, they’re breeding out of control in many waters. At one spot, floating above a reef in Fiji and turning a full circle, I counted more than 20 in sight. And they’re massively destructive, chewing through coral like a lawnmower. And naturally, being starfish, they’re practically impossible to kill - chop them up and each piece regenerates - so population control is difficult. One village we visited on the island of Taveuni in Fiji, near the spectacular Vuna Reef, has taken to offering a starfish bounty to the local kids.

Photo by Simon Spear (under CC license)

4. Giant Clams

Okay, I heard the same stories you did, about the divers that drown when a giant clam closes on their fin underwater. So I don’t stick my feet in them, when I see them, and that seems to work fine. I can never get enough of the vivid, almost iridescent coloured stripes and spots on the frilled lips of these creatures. And I admit I have the bad habit of snapping my fingers in front of them to watch them snap closed. They’re not really giant clams - they couldn’t swallow you whole, like you think when you’re a kid - but these guys can get over a meter across, which is pretty impressive for a clam. In the South Pacific they eat them, fishing them up from the bottom by letting the clam snap closed on the boat’s anchor chain and hauling them up with a winch. Giant-clam half-shells, bleached white in the sun, are the most common garden planter-box and walking-path border decoration in Tonga.

Photo by Phil Camill (under CC license)

5. Humpback Whales

By far the prize of my underwater explorations. Sheryl and I waffled for days over the question of Samoa vs. Tonga as a destination, and the fact that it was the humpbacks’ calving season in Tonga at that time settled the question. They are unbelievably stunning, incredible animals. We got the chance to swim with a family of three in Tonga’s Vava’u islands. The male was breaching high out of the water and splashing down with great crashes (nearly onto me, but that’s a different story), and the mother and month-old calf let us watch them for a moment, floating suspended in the water, before calmly and effortlessly flicking their tails and vanishing in the blue. Without a word of a lie, it was one of the most incredible, joyful experiences of my life. I was shivering and grinning like a madman when I got back on the boat.

A few days later, taking a rest on the rocks from snorkelling around some of the nearby reefs, Sheryl spotted a spout in the shallow channel between the two islands on either side of us. I looked, and sure enough the broad back and flukes of a lone humpback broke the surface. We took off after him and tracked him by his spout, but never got close enough to see him underwater. But still, where else but Tonga can you go out for a day’s casual snorkel and see a whale?

6. Jellyfish

I still love jellyfish, despite a huge swarm of them trying to kill me in Sumatra. They float along, pulsing so peacefully, upside-down half the time, in all their different elaborations of form and structure. I could watch them for hours. And I always feel sorry for them when I see them washed up on the beach, and I put them back in the water if it seems like it might not be too late.

7. Lionfish

This is the only actual fish on the list, I realize now. Lionfish and their cousins the scorpionfish are fascinating, distinctive, and deadly. They’re not big, maybe 20 or 30 centimeters, but they look much bigger because of the great spreading feathers of their dorsal and pectoral fins, which are vividly striped and flutter in the currents. I always wanted to see one, and they’re not at all uncommon, so I was getting quite frustrated when, after so many days snorkelling in the tropics I still hadn’t found one by the time we reached Tonga. But then I discovered that they like to hang upside-down on the undersides of rocks and coral heads. Once I knew that, I seemed to find them all over. Their venom can be deadly, but they seem to be quite calm and placid fish, and I was able to examine them at quite close quarters without either party getting upset.

Photo by Albert Kok (under CC license)

8. Manta Rays

This is another creature I’ve always been fascinated by. They’re magnificently strange animals, with their great diamond-shaped wings and the furled horn-flaps of skin beside their mouths. I always wanted to see them, but I never thought I’d get to swim with them. But when we were staying at a little place in Vava’u, Tonga (which we’d chosen for the great snorkelling offshore) the owner came to me one day and said he’d spotted some mantas playing in the surf on a reef he’d gone out to with a fishing charter. He said the fisherman hadn’t been interested, so he was going out the next day to try and find them again, and if we wanted to come we could all take turns minding the boat while the others swam. I didn’t hesitate for a second, didn’t check with Sheryl, just said hell yes. It was a dream come true for me, after all.

When we got there the next day it took us awhile to spot them. First there was a group of six very deep, in a very strong current, on a mission and swimming too fast for me to keep up. But then we saw two more on the surface doing a strange looping barrel-roll, breaking the surface with their white bellies up, then diving down, circling around vertically and rising upside-down again, one following the other around and around. We jumped in and joined them. They came to investigate me, swimming right for me and then veering off gracefully with a flick of a wingtip. Their strange rectangular mouths were wide open and I could see right in and through their huge gills to the blue water behind. They let me play tag for a few minutes, following them just above and behind them almost close enough to touch their backs. In a weird confusion of the senses it felt for an instant as if I was flying with the huge creatures, pulled along in the slipstream of their wings, twice as wide as my height. Magic. They swam away and came close in ever-increasing ellipses until finally they vanished in the distance, leaving me feeling like I’d had a religious experience. It was incredible, and I owe a great big thanks to Kurt of Lucky’s Beach Houses in Vava’u for making it happen.

Photo by Steve Dunleavy (under CC license)

9. Nudibranches

Nudibranches and sea slugs are odd animals. They’re mostly variations on the basic slug shape, but occasionally fluted and elaborated with fluttery feathers and protuberances. They come in all manner of bright, vividly-coloured strips and spots and speckles, and they mostly like to hang around in the corals and sludge at the bottom of shallow to medium-deep water. The best known is the nudibranch called the Spanish Dancer, with its fluttery skirts in rings of deep red and hot pink and its two little devil horns above its eyes. I finally saw my first one off the north coast of Fiji’s main island, rippling along suspended in shallow water near a reef, making its way slowly to the rich mud of the bottom. Later, in other waters around Fiji, I saw even stranger and more vivid sea slugs. And, researching this list, I discovered that the mysterious things I’d seen here and there on the reefs, that looked like rosettes of spiralled fabric in bright pink, were in fact the egg ribbons of the Spanish Dancer.

Photo by Hani Amir (under CC license)

Photo by Ken Tam (under CC license)

10. Sea Turtles

Turtles are one of the best things in the world, and sea turtles are even better. It’s always a huge treat when I see one of them cruising along in the water or hanging around on the bottom. They’re calm, slow creatures, and often they don’t seem bothered if you come close. I love their big black eyes and their expressions of ancient dinosaurian wisdom. And their beaks make them look as if they’re smiling, which is always a plus. I remember one massive old creature in the waters off Gili Trawangan in Indonesia, who was so placid and unworried that I spent five minutes diving down close enough to have touched him, while he munched his way through the reef. I hadn’t realized until then just how destructive their voracious appetites can be - I watched him rip and tear at the corals and anemones with his beak while he shovelled the torn pieces toward his mouth with his flippers. The water around him was swirling with a cloud of organic debris from his grazing. A reef is just a giant salad bar to a sea turtle, I guess.

And baby sea turtles are the cutest thing there is. We got to play with them in Malaysia and again in Indonesia. And naturally, no word on baby sea turtles would be complete without mention of Mister Raisin. I found him washed up on a beach in southern India. Who knows how long he’d been floating, but he was completely mummified. I kept him and brought him around the world through twelve countries, terrified at every border-crossing that I’d be inspected and arrested for trafficking in an endangered species. I finally mailed him home from Australia because the next destination was New Zealand, and they don’t just arrest you for that, they actually hang you right in the airport. Mister Raisin made it home safely and is currently recovering from his exertions in my brother’s curio cabinet.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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