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Night Snorkel? What could go wrong?


Anemone Decorating Hermit Crab - Paul Hamilton(c)

I’m afraid to write this. I’m worried that if I’m not writing about a jaw-dropping, edge-of-your-seat encounter with large and loveable megafauna, like humpback whales, you won’t care. But it’s the smaller majority of lives, the little, under-loved and over-looked species who hold together our deteriorating ecosystems. If we don’t pay attention to the little ones, we risk not only losing them but also missing something critical to our own human experience. My need to share the wonders contained in hairy-clawed ghost shrimp who you can feed a gift of seaweed, critically endangered sea cucumbers you can gently pet, spikey bright red starfish who turn out to be octopus in disguise, eight-meter long red and white zebra worms crawling around like candy-cane Slinkies©, hermit crabs who decorate their shell homes with living anemones (Yeah, they actually pluck them off the sea floor with their claws and stick them to their homes!) and more is what got me to try a wacky experiment this past month.

We never found the head of this many-meters-long Zebra Worm - Paul Hamilton(c)Worm

Imagine me as an aquatic Lucille Ball dragging Ricky (my Paul) into some hairbrained scheme destined for fiasco. What would happen, I thought, if I just invite community members here in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico to go night snorkeling with me? Nighttime is the right time for all these seemingly weird, creepy-crawly invertebrates to come out from under their daytime hidey-holes but most folks think getting in the water at night is certifiably insane. I mean, you just never know what bizarre beastie is lurking just beneath you. Which, of course, makes night diving and snorkeling such a sublime experience. So, what happened? Oh, it was a gorgeous mess and I had one of my most significant encounters with a wild, curious beast. I’ll get to him in a bit, but first imagine the scene:


One of hundreds of sea urchins who were out feeding - Paul Hamilton (c)

After a sunset briefing on the sand in front of The Soggy Peso bar we aquatic night adventurers grabbed our dive lights and gave ourselves to the black, capricious sea and her even more unpredictable life. Despite my well laid plans, my self-centered worries began immediately. What if someone got stung badly by a blue-tentacled man-of-war despite my avoidance advice? What if someone freaked out in the dark and panicked? What if we just didn’t see much diversity or abundance? Would everyone be so disappointed and/or afraid that they’d never go snorkeling at night again, which was the exact opposite of my intention. Indeed, once I put my face in and shone my light around it was obvious that the protected spot we chose on the west side of Isla San Luis was surprisingly lacking in variety. There were legions of urchins out walking around on their stomachs with their long, iridescent spines waving around to ward of predators. And there were monkey barrel after monkey barrel of super-kinetic brittle stars waving their super-grabby, bristly tentacles around . . . if you could manage to find them under the over-abundant, shag carpet of seaweed.

A female Brittle Star on her tippy-toes releasing her eggs to be fertilized - Paul Hamilton(c)

I managed to find a couple endangered brown sea cucumbers but by the time I got someone’s attention to show them the ‘cukes I lost sight of them. A feeling of worry about letting everyone down was creeping over me. Why do I worry so much about people's judgements, anyway?

Mexico's iconic and endangered Brown Sea Cucumber. Find my adults-only cartoon post "A Holothurian's Revenge"-Paul Hamilton(c)

So, I took a break to float on my back, breathe, and enjoy the stars when something happened. I heard the squealy screams: “OH MY GOSH! What the heck IS that?!” and “Mira! Mira! Look! Look at all the sea urchins moving around! This is incredible!” and “What are these sparky, glowing lights in the water?!” I laughed at my worries as I rolled back over to look down again. It’s like bad pizza or “meh” sex. Even the least awesome night snorkel is still flippin' awesome . . . especially if it’s your first one. I re-joined the gang and let their enthusiastic wonder surround and abrade me of my own egoic disappointment. It seems I was the only one judging.


That’s when I dove down to peer into a rocky crevice and was startled to see about eight pairs of eye shine reflected out at me. I popped up and began frantically calling out for others to come see who I had found. Nine-year-old, aspiring, marine-biologist Axan (pronounced A-shan) and his mom immediately swam over. I showed him where to dive down and peek. Down he went. . . . . . Up he popped, joyously exclaiming “Those are the first LIVING lobsters I’ve ever seen!!! They’re so colorful!” before diving back down for another breath-held study. That’s how I got the honor that night of being with a still-wild-curious, young, human creature, who wants to become a marine biologist and help save marine ecosystems that he expressed sadness about losing, when he saw his first wild lobsters! That’s just so somehow everything important to me.


The bejeweled face of a lobster - Paul Hamilton(c)

Eventually someone’s light burnt out and someone else got a bit of a jellyfish sting and Axan disappeared from his mom for a few frightening minutes and a couple folks got tumbled on the rocks a bit when climbing out . . . so my worries crept back in like lobsters scurrying out of their nook. But, back on shore everyone seemed thrilled about their first night snorkel adventure and eager to go again. As a matter of fact, there were so many people who missed going that night that we had to go out two more nights! We’ve already been asked to lead more community night snorkels when we get back to San Carlos in October. And one of our local first-timers was Emily Bregel, a freelance reporter for Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star who is now doing a feature story on community night snorkeling in San Carlos. I hope she writes about her thrilling experience holding a very energetic, spidery, arrow crab. Emily has the most enjoyable squeals of joyful fear mixed with wild wonder that I’ve ever heard through a snorkel!


Here's a video of critters we typically see on night snorkels...thanks to Paul for the photos!


Starring in order of appearance:

  • Stalked Anemone - out feeding

  • Transparent Ribbon Cniderian (I think) and Me

  • Transparent Cleaner Shrimp - ready to give a manicure

  • Blunt End Sea Hare - helping treat cancer (see my Justice Fighter and Sea Slug post)

  • Sleeping Parrot Fish - in her healing mucus wrap

  • Shy and spikey California Sea Cucumber - feeding

  • Octopus - on the hunt

  • A tiny Decorator Crab in hand - disguised as a clump of sargassum

  • Stone Scorpion Fish eye - master of disguise (see my post Belle of the Undersea Ball)

  • Sea Horse

  • Decorating Flower Urchin - up-close view of her suction cups

  • Sticky Sea Cucumber - feathery mouth parts on the move feeding

  • A cone headed Arrow Crab - also ready to give a manicure

  • Starfish topped by two Nudibranchs waving in the current

  • Heaps of tiny Brittle Stars wrapped around a Gorgonian - they help clean the coral!

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