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A Diver’s Guide to Spotting Underwater Life

A Diver’s Guide to Spotting Underwater Life

Written by Roy Kittrell 27 May 2023.

I cannot say it enough: the underwater world is an amazing, fascinating, mind-blowing place full of incredible animals with complex relationships, strategies and partnerships. It is the closest thing you will ever experience to seeing life on another world.

The first animals you will probably notice on your own are the larger ones. Sea turtles, sharks and stingrays are always easy to see, and you have likely had your divemaster point them out to you several times now. But if you don’t know how to look for the other animals you could easily miss them altogether!

Here are some quick tips on how to look for the more cryptic critters:

  1. Your divemaster is your best friend. Talk to them before and after the dives, get information about what you might be able to see on each dive sight, and make sure you can get the hand signal details to effectively communicate the different kinds of creatures. If you’re looking for something specific, let them know, and if they see it they can come show it to you. They will also have ways to tell you which way it’s oriented… I remember once shooting a Pikachu nudibranch with my camera and dive light. My dive guide tapped me on the shoulder, pointed at the nudi and then pointed at his own ass… which made me realise the nudi was facing away from me and my camera!
  2. Become a Naturalist. A naturalist is someone who takes an academic interest in nature as well as an aesthetic one. Knowing more about the reef environment and the different animals there will hugely help you with finding critters. There are many ways you can learn about the underwater environment when you’re not diving: documentaries, YouTube videos, Wikipedia, and underwater identification books are all fantastic resources for learning about the reef environment. Facebook underwater photography groups are also an amazing resource for learning about underwater life. Knowing as much as you can about the animals and their lifestyles is not only super interesting in itself (and healthier for your brain than most content on Instagram!).

Here are some examples of the insights you will have:

  • Porcelain crabs live in the same anemones as clown fish, and are normally found on the edges where they can easily hide when they feel threatened. You could easily miss them if you did not know this!
  • Candy Crabs usually only live on Dendronephtya soft coral; so whenever you see this coral growing somewhere you can do a quick once-over to see if any crabs are living there.
  • Humpback Shrimp are similarly only found on specific soft corals
  • Shaun the Sheep is found on elephant ear seaweed
  • Some of the most stunning cowries are too small to see unless you’re up close… so look closely at soft corals to see if any are hiding inside!
  • Xenia soft corals are host to a whole number of different critters- the Xenia swimming crab, and the holy grail of nudibranchs Melibe Colmani are both found on these soft corals with their hypnotic movements.
  • Lots and lots of Echinoderms have very cool and very specific looking shrimp on them… sea stars have sea star shrimp living on them, feather stars have crinoid shrimp hidden away inside, sea cucumbers sometimes have emperor shrimp, sea urchins like the fire urchin have the Coleman shrimp… all of them have life specifically adapted to live commensally on them! So, any time you see an otherwise boring looking echinoderm be sure to take a closer look!
  • Whip corals usually have very highly adapted arthropods living on top of them… the Wire Coral crab and Anker’s whip coral shrimp are both almost always found on these among other cool life forms. Be sure to carefully have a look up and down these and make sure not to damage them.Sea grape seaweed are usually where you find many species of Elysia species sap sucking slugs… they are extremely well camouflaged though so be sure to look carefully!

Photo caption: This stunning Xenia Swimming Crab is very well camouflaged amongst the soft coral, but knowing to look for it in the first place is half the battle in trying to find it!

4. Practice by going to forests and looking for bugs, it will train your eyes and the animals you will see are pretty amazing in and of themselves! This is also a great way to practice photography if you’re planning on getting more serious about doing underwater photography.

5. Read up from identification books! Many species books are filled with amazing photos of all kinds of UW life both big and small, knowing what is down there will train your eyes and help you know what patterns, shapes and sizes to look for. ‘Reef Creature Identification Tropical Pacific’ by Ned De-Loach and Paul Humann is a great resource for SE Asia, and it’s also a fun and educational activity to do with kids!

Hope these 5 tips help you become a better spotter on your next macro dive trip! Make sure to check out our trip to Juara, Sipadan & Lembeh/Bunaken .

Roy Kittrell is an avid naturalist, diver and nature photographer. You can find more of his work on his instagram @roythedivebro

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