Day 88: Snorkeling with puffers, day and night

I had the pleasure this weekend, along with Brad, Nora and Jake, to make the acquaintance of a very large white-spotted pufferfish during an afternoon snorkel. He and I first locked gazes underwater, his black eyes encircled by bright white rings and stark toothy beak in a wide O, as surprised to meet me as I was to spot him, perhaps? He was hovering in a small cave at the base of a large rock in the center of a pool in the ocean side reef. I could see his face peering through one exit to the cave, and his entire left side – at least 18 inches from beak to tip of tail – was visible through another hole in the rock.

Floating about four feet above him, I swished my snorkel flippers to hold my place in what was becoming rough water as the tide came in. He held himself nearly motionless, pectoral fins circling, circling, perfectly balancing him in the center of his dark hidden hole.

Reef fish in the tide pool
Small reef fish darting in and out of the coral in the tide pools

I dove down and held onto a hunk of rock at the bottom of the pool, now eye-level with the oddly-shaped fish. A puffer’s shape reminds me of a deflated football with a pectoral fin on either side, one dorsal fin near the tail along the spine and what seems like a limp caudal fin. Puffers use all four fins for balance, and even then, their swimming speed doesn’t shift past first gear. Probably because of their lack of swimming prowess, a puffer’s defenses include inflating when they feel threatened (to really look like a swimming football) and a toxin that coats their skin. Some species even have spikes that stick out like a pincushion when they inflate.

On my puffer this weekend, white dots formed a pattern along its back and sides, and underneath the spots a mottled white and brown camouflaging pattern helped the fish blend into the sand and rocks. With its four front teeth fused into a round beak, he appeared either scared or grumpy. Large puffers always seem particularly crotchety and reluctant to move or share their space, so I kept my distance from Mr. Pufferfish, hoping to show the big guy to the rest of my family before he moved somewhere else.

I was pretty certain this was the same puffer another (human) acquaintance had told me about. She told me that she and her dad like to go night snorkeling in the last tide pool on the ocean side behind the dome homes because they have a “pet puffer” who, at night, lets them pet him while he sleeps.

One sleepy fish: checking off Mom and Dad’s Kwaj list

While Mom and Dad were visiting last month, we went for a night snorkel in the pool, too, hoping to find this puffer who likes to be petted. On the night we went in, clouds were covering the sky, blocking all hope of moonlight reaching the pool. We had brought flashlights wrapped in Ziplock bags, using duct tape to seal them, so we turned them on and pointed them toward the pitch black water. The beams illuminated coral, rocks and a few fish at the bottom of the shallow tide pool. Putting on our brave faces, Mom and I volunteered to check out the pool first. We waded in up to our shins, pulled our snorkel masks over our faces, and pushed into the water. Later, we would both admit we were terrified.

Mom in the tide pool
Mom scopes out the tide pool during the day. At night, our first look in the pool was much darker.

After scoping out the pool, Mom and I signaled to Dad, Nora and Brad to join us. With five flashlights, the three-to-five-foot deep water was brightly lit, so we began inspecting the coral along the bottom and sides of the pool. When we had snorkeled in the lagoon earlier that day, fish immediately darted under a rock or into some coral at our approach. At night, however, the same kinds of fish – bright pink damselfish, black and yellow moorish idols and long-nosed orange and black filefish – were adrift in the water. They didn’t seem to even notice we were there, shining our bright lights into their faces and kicking up sand.

Hoping to find the big white-spotted puffer, I circled the pool a couple times, pointing my light deep into caves and marveling at the sea life caught in the beam. But no giant puffer. Disappointed, I returned to the group, where I found that Jake had joined us in the pool, too. I floated with him and Nora, who was starting to feel cold. Soon, I noticed that Nora had made a fishy friend – a two inch little guy we later identified as a honeycomb toby, a member of the puffer family – and he was sleeping in her armpit. Jake scooped the small fish away from her and held him in open cupped hands underwater, the odd brown covered in bright blue reflective dots bobbing gently in Jake’s hands before swimming awkwardly but directly back to Nora’s armpit. Again, Jake moved the fish away from her, only to watch it head straight back.

Nora underwater
Nora thinks it’s pretty funny that a fish wanted to snuggle in her armpit.

Nora began giggling underwater, a bubbling, gurgling sound with a chirp. We finally just let the fish choose where to float, and he stayed tucked up against Nora’s life vest next to her arm, having found was was apparently the perfect napping spot. While I was disappointed not to pet a big puffer, watching a tiny toby snuggle up next to my daughter more than made up for it.

When Nora got too cold to stand the water any longer, we all got out of the tide pool and dripped our way back home, agreeing that the spot would be a good place to snorkel during daylight, too, especially to compare the experience at night and try to find where the large puffer hangs out.

Family, meet Mr. Pufferfish

So Sunday, after finding the cave and properly introducing myself to the long searched-for white-spotted puffer, I excitedly turned and kicked my way to Brad, Nora and Jake on the other side of the tide pool. I popped out of the water and asked, “Want to see a huge puffer?”

I got a thumbs up from all three, so I guided them back to the rock. Treading water, I told them, “There’s a small cave at the bottom of that rock. I’ll point at it, but you have to let your eyes adjust to the light in the cave before you’ll see him.”

Brad was already back in the water, looking the wrong way.

Brad underwater
Brad looks for interesting creatures. He calls himself the “yellow submarine” when we snorkel.

Under the water again, I jabbed Brad’s arm and turned him toward the cave, pointing at the puffer’s secret home. After a few moments, I heard a watery, “Ohhhh!” from Brad and a “Holy crap!” from Jake as they both spotted the hidden fish. Nora gave an approving sound, too.

Now that we are acquainted, we’ll be back to visit Mr. Pufferfish again soon, maybe even at night. After all, we have to visit Mr. Honeycomb Toby as he sleeps, too.

***

Sometimes, I leave my camera at home so I can enjoy an experience without the hassle of a camera. So Sunday, I did not get a shot of Mr. Pufferfish, to my deep regret. Please follow the links in the articles above for some beautiful shots of white-spotted puffers and honeycomb tobies.