Marine Life

^From the acrobatic, migrating humpback whale that comes to feed and breed in warm waters between February and April and the bizarre manatee that slumps into warm estuaries on the North and South coasts, to crabs, sponges, starfish and anemones and tropical fish, Puerto Rico has a host of incredible marine life waiting to be discovered. Divers and snorkelers can expect to see schools of blue tang and black triggers - sometimes called Caribbean piranhas by locals. Queen angels, parrotfish, lionfish and squirrelfish are common on offshore reefs, and regular underwater visitors will also be treated to squid, octopus, moray eels, puffers, barracuda, nurse sharks and sea turtles. It's not uncommon to find yourself surrounded by dolphins playing in a boat wake if you're out cruising. Around the deep trenches and shelves of the Atlantic and the Mona Passage, game fish such as yellowfin tuna, mackerel, dorado (mahi mahi, or dolphin fish), marlin and sharks abound.

Manatees

It is speculated that the myth of the mermaid came about as sailors of yore brought home tales from the tropics of a strange sea mammal that nursed its young like a human mother. Though no beauty (gray, wrinkled and blubbery, and commonly called the "sea cow"), the manatee shares endearing qualities with other marine mammals, frequently nuzzling each other and forming strong family bonds. Unfortunately, past hunting and present development of coastal areas has severely reduced the numbers of these loveable creatures, and all of the manatee subspecies are in peril of extinction. Shy and bulky (they can grow to 12 feet in length and weigh 1,200 pounds or more), manatees frequent warm, shallow water and feast primarily on sea-grass near freshwater estuaries.

TIP: If you hope to glimpse a manatee, one of the best places to try is the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (see page 253-254), although tracking devices have pinpointed them in spots all around the island.

Turtles

Increasingly, conservation groups in Puerto Rico are stepping up efforts to protect endangered species, and several offshore cays and the island of Culebra have been designated as refuges for sea turtles. The hawksbill, leatherback, loggerhead, and green sea turtles all visit various Puerto Rican beaches to deposit their eggs. Birds, mongooses, marine predators and human disturbances all contribute to the high mortality rate of turtles hatched on the sands of Puerto Rico and elsewhere - only one in 1,000 or more hatchlings survives. These ancient creatures have changed little since the time of the dinosaurs. One of the most spectacular, the leather-back turtle, which nests on secluded beaches of Piñones, Isla Mona and Culebra, can weigh up to 1,400 pounds. Conservation programs are run by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in Guaynabo, s 787-749-4402, and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources, s 787-724-8774.

Coral Reefs

The coral reef is neither fully plant nor animal nor mineral, but is one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. Think of it as a city, built up of many individuals, which functions as an organism. Coral survives on the photosynthesis of the algae within its tissue, and then returns the favor by exhaling carbon dioxide. Coral reef is found only in shallow waters, where it can receive sunlight, at temperatures above 72° Fahrenheit. The basic organisms of coral are cylindrical creatures called polyps, which have small mouth-like openings - the hungry inhabitants of the city. Besides using photosynthesis, coral also feeds on plankton and other minute sea life, by seizing prey between tiny tentacles and then stunning its victim with small poisonous spears called nematocysts. They may look harmless enough, but two-thirds of coral species are toxic and can have a nasty "bite."

CAUTION! Beware the orange-colored stinging coral, a.k.a. fire coral, which looks like a small, leafless tree tipped white and crawling with delicate feelers.

The reproductive methods of coral are also somewhere between plant and animal, and they vary widely depending on the type of coral, of which there are many dozens. Some bud asexually, while others do it sexually with male polyps releasing millions of spermatozoa to fertilize female polyps. Individual polyps may live up to 1,000 years, making them some of the oldest creatures on earth, and their survival depends on maintaining huge numbers in vast colonies. When a polyp dies, it releases limestone, which forms the core structure of a coral reef. New coral polyps affix themselves to the limestone structure, literally building a living space atop a growing burial mound. The ecosystem is precariously delicate, however, and sub ject to environmental changes such as global warming, water pollution, coastal development, over fishing and destruction by boat anchors and tropical fish hunters. Once the number of live corals on a reef decreases past a critical point, the entire reef system is almost certainly doomed to die. According to the environmental activist group Action Atlas, an estimated 90% of coral reefs around Florida and Jamaica are either dead or dying, largely due to the effects of mass tourism and improperly treated sewage.

WHAT MUST THE NEIGHBORS THINK?

The release of clouds of coral spermatozoa, which can travel thousands of miles, is the only breeding pattern on Earth that can be seen from space.

So far, Puerto Rico has been spared the worst destruction. Next to the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico has some of the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean, particularly on the West and Southwest coasts. Here you can see coral in some of its most delightful forms, many of which resemble familiar land objects. Fields of fan corals have a delicate filigreed skeleton, and grow in purple and turquoise clusters that sway in the current. Vase corals seem only to be missing bouquets of flowers, giant brain corals look like they were seized from a neurosurgeon's operating table, and elkhorn coral appear to have been lifted off the head of a stag. As you dive or snorkel, enjoy these surreal and complex creatures but, to avoid damaging them, don't touch them. As all good dive schools will tell you, when you visit a coral reef system, take only memories, and leave only bubbles.

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