Eco Snorkeling with Captain Richard

Native son Captain Richard Barone, a passionate viequense naturalist, educates islanders and visitors alike on the underwater wonders of his birthplace. If you have any interest in sea life whatsoever, don't miss his three-hour eco-snorkeling tour, Vieques Nature Tours, s 787-741-1980, in Esperanza. The tour starts right off the Esperanza pier, in Captain Richard's glass-bottom pontoon boat, the Sea View, which he designed himself. With a natural capacity for storytelling, he explains the life-and-death drama taking place a few feet away, as the boat's glass-bottomed viewing area passes over several distinct ecosystems. Sea grass beds, with dark, noodle-like turtle grass and green strands of manatee grass, are thick with queen conch, which start life as a male and undergo a sex change about midway through life. Here you're likely to see mackerel, jacks, cowfish and, with luck, a green or hawksbill turtle. So-called blowout zones - sandy patches between sea grass beds and the coral reef- are thriving with life, ifyou know how to look for it. Creatures such as urchins, jawfish, burrowing eels and big hermit crabs all leave the relative safety of the reef to graze the sand for algae. Southern stingrays and diamond-shaped spotted eagle rays burrow in these sands to suck down hidden clams or worms.

Before visiting the reef, Richard will take the boat past the tambolos - submerged sand bars - between Cayo Tierra and the mainland, which are home to, among other things, two curious species of seahorses: the lined and the long-snout seahorse. Passing over the coral reef in a glass-bottom boat is an excellent way to observe coral heads and the life around them, sometimes no more than inches from the viewing area. Star coral, finger coral, gorgonian soft coral, fans and giant candelabras form unearthly cities made up of millions of individual polyps, which look like tiny glass flowers with algae photosynthesizing within their tissues. Here you'll begin your snorkel tour, with coaching from Captain Richard for anyone timid in the water. Look for lizard fish prowling the bottom, snappers and grunts, rainbow-colored parrot fish, schools of whiskered goatfish, queen angels and rock beauties. Focus on small amounts of underwater territory and you may see strange creatures emerge from their camouflage, such as the long-lure frogfish, which possesses a horn sticking out from its nose like a fishing pole, and actually fishes with a little white ball dangling in front of it like a lure. Unlucky fish attracted to the ball find themselves quickly gobbled into the giant mouth of the frogfish. The three-hour trip usually begins at 11 a.m. to accommodate day-trippers from the main island and costs $30 per person, including the use of top-quality snorkel gear.

SHARING IT WITH LOCAL KIDS

The son of a local fisherman, Captain Richard learned about marine biology from experience, library books and a few mentors, not by earning university diplomas. He sets aside 10% of all tour fees to pay for trips he regularly runs for low-income families and children, mostly from Vieques. "Everyone should have the chance to appreciate the magic of the nature around them, and this is one way we can all give back to the people who live here," Richard says. "It makes everybody feel good. Tips go in that jar, too."

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