Flamingo Tongues A Gem of the Sea

Click on Flamingo Tongues

Have you ever noticed that you can dive the exact same area several times and see something different each time? What you see often depends upon your frame of mind. On one dive you may hope to see big creatures like sharks, turtles, or rays and so concentrate on looking out into the blue. On the next dive, you may decide to look in all the holes in the coral and under ledges and, therefore, concentrate on looking for smaller things. It is that type of dive that often leads to some of our most fascinating discoveries.

As you are swimming over the reef, you spy a tiny spotted thing attached to a sea fan. While this intriguing creature blends in with the surrounding hard and soft corals, it still vividly stands out to the observant diver or snorkeler. But what is it? You have just spotted one of the gems of the sea, a mollusk named Cyphoma gibbosum, better known as a Flamingo Tongue.

Flamingo Tongues are in the Phylum Mollusca, Class Gastropods, and Family Simnias. Gastropods, or snails, make up the largest and most important class of mollusks, and include more than 80,000 species of which about 60% are marine species. In the Turks and Caicos Islands marine gastropods include some very important species like conchs, whelks, and tritons.

Gastropods do not have a true skeleton, and with the exception of the shell-less snails, enclose their soft bodies within a spiral, cone, or cup shaped shell for protection. The head of the snail consists of a proboscis mouth and two tentacles with the eyes at the base. Look closely at a conch on your next dive, and you can easily see the mouth and eye stalks peering out at you. A muscular pad, called a foot, allows the animal to move across the bottom. A leathery skin mass, called the mantle, covers the head, foot, digestive, excretory, circulatory, and genital organs.

When a Flamingo Tongue is active, its creamy white mantle extends out from the bottom opening of the shell onto and over the shell for camouflage. The mantle is covered with numerous yellowish orange rectangular, oval, or oblong spots outlined in black. When inactive or if touched, the mantel withdraws exposing the glossy shell beneath.

Flamingo Tongue with mantel withdrawn

The animal’s diet and the water conditions, including salinity and pollution, determine the color and pattern of both the shell and the animal so each shell will be unique.

Flamingo Tongue shells range from ¾ to 1 ¾ inches long. The calcium carbonate shell and its glossy finish are both secreted by the mantle. The shell is elongated with blunt rounded ends and has a raised ridge running from side to side across the center of the shell. The shell is yellow, pink, or a reddish cream with a white patch in the center and white around the edges. It has a long, narrow, smooth opening at the bottom of the shell where the animal’s body emerges.

While easily overlooked by divers and snorkelers, Flamingo Tongues are quite common and can be found along the east coast of the United States from North Carolina to Florida. They are also common in Bermuda, the Bahamas, throughout the Caribbean and the West Indies, and as far south as Venezuela and Brazil.

Found typically in depths from 6 to 45 feet, but as deep as 120 feet, Flamingo Tongues once formed large colonies on Caribbean reefs, but they have been seriously over collected in nearly every part of the Caribbean.

Flamingo Tongues live on and feed on soft corals, sea whips, sea fans, and gorgonians. While usually only one or two will be seen on a gorgonian, occasionally groups of seven or eight may be found. They lay single eggs, and the young emerge as free swimming larvae called veligers. The veligers feed on suspended food particles in the water as they are carried by the tides and currents far from their place of origin. During this larval stage, many will become food for filter feeders like rays, bivalves, and corals, and other pelagic animals. After several days, as the growing shell becomes too heavy to float, the veliger will drop to the ocean floor where it will start its life as a bottom crawler. Once the Flamingo Tongue becomes a bottom crawler, it then becomes a food source for crabs, octopus, grunts, porgys, triggerfish, hogfish, spiny puffers, and permits maintaining the reef’s food chain.

So the next time you go snorkeling or scuba diving keep you eye out for these amazing gems of the sea. You might be surprised just how many you can find once you start looking. The Bight Reef, the Grotto on Grace Bay, Magic Mushroom and Coney Island on West Caicos, and Tons of Sponge near Sandbore Channel are all good places to look. And don’t be surprised if you are lucky enough to find a shell that looks like the Flamingo Tongue, but with a mantle with fingerprint type markings—the Fingerprint Cyphoma. Ah, but that is a story for another day! Good hunting!

Lynn Hughes

Goats Underwater?

Click on photo of Yellow goatfish.

Swim over the sandy bottom of the upper reefs of most areas, and you will likely see a group of fish feverishly working their way across the sand rooting into the bottom. When diving at West Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands at Rock Garden Interlude and those sites to the north, clouds of sand can be seen being dispersed in the fishes’ efforts to locate small invertebrates hiding under the sand. Most of these rooting fish are goatfish.

Goatfish are members of the Mullidae family. There are four species found in the Atlantic—spotted, yellow, red, and the dwarf goatfish. All goatfish have two appendages under the tip of their chin, called barbels, which can be retracted into a groove under the throat when not in use. These barbels serve two purposes. They are loaded with highly developed taste cells aiding in the search for food, and they are used to dig in sand and around areas of rubble to locate well-hidden invertebrates. Goatfish have small teeth on the roof of their mouth and in the lower jaw used for crushing.

The two most common goatfish seen in the waters of the Turks and Caicos Islands are the spotted goatfish and the yellow goatfish. Spotted goatfish are the smaller of the two reaching a maximum of about eleven inches although five to eight inches is the average size. Spotted goatfish are typically found in depths of five to sixty feet deep.

Yellow goatfish are slightly larger than spotted goatfish reaching a maximum of fifteen inches with the average being six to twelve inches. Yellow goatfish have also been recorded in all depth ranges from five to two hundred feet deep.

Spotted Goatfish at Boat Cove TCI

Spotted goatfish, when actively feeding, are normally white with a row of three dark, rectangular spots running along the side of the body. Light bluish lines may extend from the head down the length of the upper body. When resting or inactive, the white base color and dark body spots vanish to become a mottled reddish brown allowing them to blend with their background on the reef. Spotted goatfish are common in Florida but are only reported occasionally in the Bahamas, Caribbean, West Indies, Gulf of Mexico, and south to Brazil. On some dive sites, like Whiteface on West Caicos, they are more abundant and may be seen in small groups of two or more.

Yellow goatfish are white with a yellow tail and a yellow mid-body stripe. As seen on the photos, they may have blue shading on the edge of the yellow stripe. The nose may be reddish. With the exception of the tail, all other fins are white or light yellow. Yellow goatfish are quite common throughout Florida, Bahamas, Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, Bermuda, and south to Brazil. The yellow goatfish may feed alone or in groups of up to twenty. When not feeding, they often swim in large schools over the nearby reefs as depicted here.

Click on the school of Yellow goatfish

Both spotted and yellow goatfish appear unconcerned with divers and will generally allow a close approach allowing divers to observe their foraging efforts. All goatfish feed primarily on invertebrates and, in turn provide food for graysbys and other groupers. In some areas they are also highly prized as a food source.

Many fish, including goatfish, have traditional spawning areas on the reefs where hundreds of fish may congregate. Goatfish are considered to be “resident spawners” with their local spawning areas only a few hours away. This group spawning increases the possibility of egg fertilization and may also limit the predation of the eggs. Even though they are classified as resident spawners, goatfish also pair to spawn.

When observing feeding goatfish, scuba divers will often notice many other species of fish including wrasses, porgies, yellowtail snapper, and bar jack in the same area. Yellowtail snapper often take advantage of their similar appearance. These two species are the only reef fishes in the Caribbean with a bright yellow mid-body stripe and a deeply forked yellow tail fin. Although yellowtail snapper typically may be over two feet long, when they associate with yellow goatfish, they will be about the same size as the goatfish. This mimicry allows the yellowtail snapper to be much more successful in capturing those small fishes that normally ignore the feeding goatfish.

When you make your next dive on the reefs around Providenciales and West Caicos, keep your eyes open for these interesting fish working their way across the bottom or swimming over the reef.

Lynn Hughes

Something Fishy?

Goldentail Moray

Our underwater world is an amazing and wondrous place for all divers, but it can appear especially mysterious and alien to a newly certified 11-year old. One such young diver recently asked me after a scuba dive, “Is the brown snake we saw hiding in the coral poisonous?” I had to smile as I remembered my very similar reaction many years ago when I encountered my first moray eels. Fortunately, we don’t have sea snakes in the Caribbean, so there is no reason to panic if you are new to the reefs there! This young diver was fortunate to have seen one of the many species of eels found on the reefs around Providenciales, Turks & Caicos Islands–a small Goldentail Moray.

Spotted Moray Free-swimming

There are 14 species of morays in North America. Moray eels, while resembling snakes, are really fish. While most fish have obvious pectoral fins, ventral fins, and scales, moray eels do not. Most fish also have distinctive and separate dorsal, tail, and anal fins, but on a moray these fins are merged into a long continuous fin beginning just behind the head near the small, round gill opening, continuing the length of the body, around the tail, and extending midway back up the belly. With a thick, leathery skin, the eel’s body is muscular and quite flexible allowing easy access to small openings in the reef. The body is covered with a clear, mucous layer to protect it from burrowing parasites. Morays have extended tube-like nasal openings on the end of their snout giving them an excellent sense of smell. This highly developed sense of smell is very important to a predator with extremely poor eyesight.

Spotted Moray --showing teeth

Most species of morays have powerful jaws and mouths equipped with numerous sharp needlelike teeth with an additional row of teeth angled slightly backward running down the center roof of their mouth. This configuration aids in catching and holding prey. Some species have grinding teeth rather than needlelike teeth.

Spotted moray peeking out of hole

In order to breath, morays must constantly move water through their gills. This requires them to continuously open and close their mouths, making them appear quite threatening to a new diver. While morays can move quite rapidly when distressed or feeding, they are not aggressive unless baited with food or molested. During the day, most morays tend to hide in reef openings with just their heads or tails visible. Most only come out in the open to forage for food at night. However, two species, the Goldentail and Spotted Morays, hunt primarily during the day. Morays stalk or chase their prey and are, therefore, called roving predators. They are also piscivores, a carnivore that eats primarily fish, but their prey also includes crabs, octopus, small crustaceans, and occasionally even other morays.

Goldentail Moray at night

The Goldentail Moray averages eighteen to twenty four inches long while the Spotted Moray may be over 3 feet long. Both are found in depth ranges from 5 to 50 feet preferring shallow to mid-range coral heads.

Identification of morays is fairly easy due to their distinctive colors and markings. The Goldentail Moray’s body is brown with small yellow spots, the tip of the tail is normally yellow to gold, and the eyes are ringed in yellow. Occasionally, a reverse phase color pattern moray is seen with a yellow body and brown spots like the small Goldentail often spotted on Sunday Service off West Caicos.

Spotted Moray looking out

The Spotted Moray is yellowish-white above and white or yellow on the bottom, with tightly spaced, irregular, brownish to purplish-black spots and blotches. They also occasionally show a reverse phase pattern with a dark body and white spots or blotches. Both the Spotted and Goldentail Morays are common throughout the Caribbean, western Atlantic, and the Bahamas but uncommon elsewhere.

Hunting moray at night

Even though they have drastically different color patterns, they both rely on camouflage to blend with the surrounding coral. As a result, they often go unnoticed by divers and appear unconcerned when divers are near. If approached too closely or molested, they simply withdraw into a reef crevice disappearing from sight.

Spotted Moray free-swimming

Some sea bass, primarily Graysbys and Conies, hunt with Goldentail and Spotted Morays, to increase their odds of capturing prey. One to four fish will follow the moray as it moves from crevice to crevice in pursuit of concealed prey in a feeding behavior known as nuclear hunting. I have witnessed this hunting pattern at both West Caicos and French Cay. While the eel searches the interior of a coral head, the fish cover the escape routes waiting for prey attempting to escape the eel. Even though Graysbys and Conies are typically shy, they can be closely approached when they are hunting with an eel.

On your next dive, look closely at those Conies sitting around the reef, and you may also discover an eel in close proximity. If you are fortunate, you may even witness an eel’s run between coral heads. And when that new diver asks about sea snakes, just smile, and remember your first sighting of an moray eel.

Lynn Hughes

Scuba Diving The Underwater World!

Red Hind

Our family and friends have asked to see photos we have taken on our travels.  We have been very fortunate to have traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean and to areas of the Pacific.  Although we currently live in the United States, we lived for several years in the Caribbean.  During our travels and time outside the United States, we gained a new perspective on just how unique each area we visited was as we learned about the cultures and traditions of each area.  Getting off the beaten path so to speak, and away from the usual tourist or resort areas, opens up a whole new world of sights, sounds, and wonderful opportunities for discoveries often missed by many travelers.


While many of our photos are of the serene and ever-changing underwater world, we are also interested in top-side life and scenery so we are including some of these photos too.  We have been fortunate to have had some of our photos published in national and international publications throughout the years.  We hope you enjoy viewing some of the interesting things we have seen on these travels.  Please visit often as we will be constantly updating shots and descriptions.  Welcome to our world!