The Coral Spawn: A Personal Chronicle - August 2010

The full moon of August had arrived, and the Honduras Bay Island of Roatan began its coral spawn watch.  Tides, temperatures and ocean activity were monitored and shared via emails. Coincidence or not, during the week prior to the spawn, the ocean was alight with beautiful Moon Jellyfish - perhaps foreshadowing the spawn which is timed by the phase of the moon.  In my 1,000-plus hours of diving these Roatan walls, I had never seen such an abundance of Moon Jellies.

The ocean was alight with beautiful Moon Jellyfish.

Night dives became the order of the day for divers aroused by the possibility of viewing this event seen by most only in documentary films. My dive buddy, Carolyn, and I did night dives much of the week in an attempt to observe the spawn.  We would nap after dinner; then get up to dive from 11:30 PM -1:30 AM or from 10:00 to midnight.  We talked about the exhaustion that was building, but we kept the vigil.  And it paid off!

When I think of a coral spawn, I envision what I have seen on documentaries - corals expelling clouds of sperm and eggs.  And then it's done.  And yes, in part, that is what happened; each coral type displaying its own particular behavior.  Some emitted a cloud of sperm which at times so heavily permeated the water with reproductive offerings that visibility was reduced to less than 15 feet. 

Visibility was limited by the reproductive stew.

Others held onto their spherical eggs, releasing them with the effort of birthing. Some coral rods were wrapped in a winter overcoat of film that methodically peeled off the rods and floated into the water column as a clear sheet of eggs.  

The egg-laden film peels from the top coral rod.   The bottom rod is still encased in the film.

There, all done. The coral had completed its annual spawn.

Ah, but how naive we were.  The spawn is not just a coral event; it is an orchestrated ocean happening. The ocean was electric with energy.  Creatures moved about with atypical boldness, sometimes mania, engaging in strange behavior and activity. Everything seemed to be either eating or reproducing. We were mesmerized by the show for two hours.

Creatures that normally hide from our flashlights, remained unaffected by the lights and wandered the coral in a type of frenzy.  Octopi, lobsters, crabs, Green-, Spotted-, Chain-, and Sharptail eels.  One huge Channel Clinging Crab, either trying to escape the octopus stalking him or intoxicated by the spawn, actually got too close to the reef's edge, dangled precariously on the precipice for a minute,

The crab dangled precariously from the precipice.
Then fell to the ocean floor in a full protective flair.

and then fell off.  He drifted to the ocean bottom doing a classic, full-body flare to slow his descent.  (Did he attend the Open Water Dive Course to learn that?)

There were starfish by the number.  I had only seen groups of starfish in Roatan once, and that was on the West End in an area far from traditional dive sites.  But suddenly they were here, boldly admitting their presence.

The hormone-crazed starfish thrusts toward the stars.

Sea cucumbers, typically lumbering their way across the ocean floor, were crawling the walls - literally and figuratively.  These great globs seemed ready to take on Mt. Everest.

A fish/critter, dancing too fast above us to be identified, continued its frenetic behavior until we grew tired from just observing his antics and moved on.  He swirled, jittered, twisted, jived, and tumbled-about like a kitten on a mega dose of catnip.

Clusters of Brittle Stars held orgies, not in the privacy of their coral hideouts, but entwined like a toupee atop coral heads.  Typically scurrying to shelter with a strong aversion to our dive lights, tonight they were oblivious to even sustained light, much too engrossed in their primal activities.

Brittle Starfish leave their sheltered lairs and congregate to participate in the annual ritual.

And the Brittle Stars that were not in convention clusters, behaved indecently, perhaps to gain the attention of others or to prepare for their private contribution to the evening's reproductive stew.  Some produced a cloud of what we presume was sperm.   They stood up on their long, spindly legs, lifting their bodies to the moon, then undulated to music we did not hear.

They stood on spindly legs,lifting their bodies to the moon,
then undulated to music we did not hear.
Note the cloudy, white secretion coming from the body of the Brittle Starfish    

The small Reef Urchins also abandoned their sheltered homes and moved to communes on coral heads to give homage to the moon.  An occasional Brittle Star lay tangled in the urchins' spines - eating, being eaten - hard to tell.

Eating, being eaten - hard to tell.   

A 3-inch Tasseled Nudibranch, only seen occasionally in the Caribbean, survived its fall after a rowdy octopus knocked it from the coral wall.  Then it delighted us with its red and orange net pattern and branched cerata.

The Tassled Nudibranch is seen only occasionally in the Caribbean.

And the worms - absolutely thousands of them in every color and size - were far more persistent than the No-See-Ums.  

Only ones's masked eyes and nose were free of the worms' insistence.

Above them were schools of small, silver-gleaming fish dining on a gourmet meal of Coral Eggs Con Worms.  At times it was difficult to see the coral through the veil of worms. And they were not forestalled by neoprene hoods, wetsuits, or vests.  Only one's masked eyes and nose were free of their insistence.  They wiggled in and around ears and in cleavage and were found in our hair when we showered after the dive.  It was enough to pull the faint of heart from the ocean, but we were too hooked to leave.

So yes, we saw the coral spawn.  It released clouds of sperm and spherical eggs.  And then it was over - and we were changed!  Carolyn and I returned to shore after midnight, starry-eyed - or more accurately - moonstruck.  We tittered into the wee hours about the incredible experience we had just had, and then we grew quiet in our own thoughts and the anticipation of much-needed sleep.  But only minutes would pass before one of us would pop up to share yet another recollection of the experience and another giggle at our good fortune.   Not a problem, we could nap tomorrow!

And then it was over - and we were changed!

August 2010

Post Script:

In 2011, my Roatan trip was not scheduled during the projected spawn week.  But, as fate would have it, during one night dive, I happened upon 'late-bloomers", so to speak.  The Tigertail Sea Cucumbers decided to share their secrets with me.   These creatures, generally horizontal and extended out from under the coral, stood proud and purposeful, and joined the ocean renewal project.


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