Before coming to REEF, I thought I was fairly good at fish id in the Tropical Western Atlantic. I used to work as a dive instructor on the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, and could always find the interesting species that guests enjoyed seeing like Moray Eels, Groupers, and Rays. When I started as a Marine Conservation Intern, I was very excited to see how much I actually knew. I was eager to go diving and check off all of the species on my survey slate. Soon I discovered that I really only knew the fish families, and definitely did not recognize any of the smaller fish species.
To improve my fish id skills during my initial internship last summer, I went diving as much as I could and conducted as many surveys as possible. I recently became a Level 4 Surveyor in the TWA, and am working towards Level 5. Before the holidays, all of the surveys I had done were in the Florida Keys. As diverse as the Keys are, there are many species that one cannot find here, including the Fairy Basslet, which is common everywhere else in the Tropical Western Atlantic, but does not occur in Florida. Luckily this past holiday, I was able to travel back to my old stomping grounds in Roatan and do some surveying.
Before my trip I took a look at all the species that I could potentially see while on the island. I also looked at my “Lifelist” on the REEF webpage, which is a list of all the species I have already seen, and how often I reported them on a survey. With this information I created a “Hit list” of all the species I wanted to find during my stay. This included some of the more common species like the Fairy Basslet, Blackcap Basslet, and Black Durgon, as well as some harder-to-find species like the Arrow Blenny, Oddscale Cardinalfish, and Redcheek Goby. I kept my list short but set an overall goal of increasing my “Lifelist”. My starting count was 152 species.
After a bit of a travel snafu, I finally arrived in Roatan. It was the rainy season and I was greeted by thick clouds and washed out roads. The island was a lush dark green with mountains towering over the ocean. I expected visibility underwater to be poor because of all the rain, but I was surprised by the incredible visibility of over 100 feet. On my first dive I was able to immediately cross the two Basslets and Black Durgon off my list. While swimming along the wall and looking in every nook and cranny, I noticed a strange looking fish among a small school of Masked/Glass Gobies. Upon closer inspection I realized it was an Arrow Blenny - another fish I could cross off my list. Arrow Blennies can be distinguished by their curved tail, which is loaded like a spring ready to jolt at its unsuspecting prey. After my first day I was able to check off a multitude of fish from my “Hit list” and add a lot of other species to my count. It was a great start to my trip.
Throughout my trip I was able to find a wide variety of species in several different habitats. I did deep wall dives, checked out sandy bottoms, and dived in shallow seagrass beds. There were a couple species that really stood out to me as highlights. Roatan has an abundance of Hamlet species. I noticed immediately that the Indigo and Black Hamlets are everywhere. I saw a few Barred Hamlets as well, but my favorite one that I found was a Shy Hamlet. It is very similar to the Golden Hamlet but has a black area on its back. I also got to see one of my all-time favorite fish, the Bearded Toadfish. This fish lives in a den and makes a loud croaking noise that can be heard all over the reef. They have a face only a mother could love, with big eyes and large branching barbels. Having seen this fish before, I knew to look for their dens at the bottom of a shallow walls and knock outside to see if anyone was home. When I eventually found one it was a very interesting interaction. As I got closer, he came further out of his den to meet me, letting me get some great close-up photos.
Lastly, in my hunt for the Bay Islands endemic Redcheek Goby, I came across a fish that I was very surprised to see. I had spent a great deal of time looking under every urchin I could find in the shallows as Redcheek Gobies are found hiding underneath them. Instead I was able to find an abundance of Nineline Gobies hanging out underneath the urchins. They are very small, only about half an inch in length and they have nine neon blue lines along the body. This was a very cool find and made up for the lack of Recheek Gobies.
All in all, it was a very successful trip. I was able to cross off almost all of the species I wanted to see off my “Hit list”. The only exception was the Redcheek Goby. It was a great experience to do fish id not only in a new location, but also in a place where I have done the majority of my diving. Diving there has completely changed as there is so much more for me to see while conducting surveys. It makes the diving that much better because I now actually know what one can see. I was able to add over 40 new species to my “Lifelist” including the Harlequin Pipefish, Orangesided Goby, Spotted Soapfish, and many more. I am very excited for my next trip and hope to add more species to my Lifelist.
If you are interested in checking out your own “Lifelist”, simply log in to your REEF account and visit https://www.REEF.org/db/reports/my-lifelist to see what species you have reported on your surveys.