|The female resh pike blenny is very territorial, aggressively chasing and fighting other females that intrude on her home turf.|
In 1500, the New World's first settlement, Nueva Cadiz, was established on Isla de Cubagua, a spit of arid rock and sand located between the Caribbean coastline of Venezuela and Margarita Island. This uninviting cactus-covered site was chosen because of its proximity to a natural wonder—the richest pearl oyster beds known to the European world at the time. Christopher Columbus had discovered them the year before, on his third voyage to the New World, when he noted Indians in the area adorned with pearls.
By 1530, the bountiful beds were producing an amazing 820 pounds of pearls a month. Harvests were so productive that virtually all the pearls found in the crowns, jewelry and apparel of 16th-century European royalty and aristocracy came from Nueva Cadiz.
The good times ended in 1541 when an earthquake and subsequent tidal wave destroyed the settlement. The once-prosperous outpost was never rebuilt; 40 years of unrestrained harvesting had exhausted the pearl beds to the point of collapse. To this day they have never recovered enough to be a commercially viable enterprise. The collapse stands as the New World's first conservation caveat—if you overfish a marine population, it may never recover.
Five hundred years later, I've also come to Cubagua because of a natural wonder: the most eye-popping collection of bizarre bottom-dwelling marine creatures yet discovered in the Caribbean. The tiny island's undersea world contrasts sharply with the clear, warm, coral-studded waters of typical Caribbean dive destinations. Cubagua's cool, green waters force me to don a wetsuit with hood and squint through visibility that hovers near 30 feet. And the bottom, a combination of dark sand, silt, mud and rock, appears so uninviting that it would send most divers back to the boat early with a tank full of air. But I soon find that for those with a penchant for adventure and a touch of the exotic, the muck diving of Cubagua offers a rich array of wonders.
Two Sites, Many Dives
The known dive sites at Isla Cubagua are limited to only two, a deep 70-foot dive on a silty rock-strewn rise in Charagato Bay and the other on sand in 20 to 40 feet around the wreck of the Santa Anna ferry and the tugboat that tried to rescue her. Perfect for a two- or three-tank day. I asked Magdalena Font, director of the dive operation servicing Isla Cubagua, if she knew of other sites. "We've explored a number of areas and found lots more muck, but none with the abundance of marine life we find at these two sites."
If you're the kind of diver who likes to go slow and look for all the little things, there's enough diving here to fill two or three days. And if you"re a fish and macro photographer, you'll never want to leave.
Los Frailes: Oysters and Barbecue
For divers who want to give muck diving a try, but aren't sure they want to commit for a whole week dive vacation, there is an escape valve. The Los Frailes islets, 10 miles northeast of Margarita, offer some very good reefs in clear water and the remnants of some of those famed oyster beds. Several dive operators make a day of it with a two-tank dive and beach barbecue lunch between dives.
Farrallone Rock: Invert City
Divers can also make a quick couple of morning dives around Farrallone Rock, which offers good shallow diving around several more oyster beds. The oyster beds have a mind-boggling variety of colorful marine invertebrates associated with them. In a single, one-square-foot area, a dozen different species and colors of colonial tunicates can be found, along with several colors of encrusting sponges, green mat zoanthids, green grape algae and a half-dozen pearl oysters.
Dive Drill, Margaritaville
All diving is done out of Margarita Island on day boats. This large island (355 square miles, population 320,000) is home to a thriving, modern tourist industry that caters primarily to Europeans and wealthy South Americans. Beautiful, modern high-rise hotels, excellent restaurants, nightclubs, casinos, duty-free shopping and world-famous Playa el Agua beach combine to make the largest city, Porlamar, an attractive destination for any sun-loving tourist. There are one or more daily flights directly to European cities, but only two direct flights a week to the United States. If you want to fly on a day other than Wednesday or Saturday, you have to go through the hassle of connecting through Caracas on the mainland.
There are several dive operators in Margarita, each catering exclusively to one of the offshore islands. Operators pick up divers in the morning at their hotels, drive to their dive boat's port, and return them after the dives. This service is included in the price of the dives, as is lunch in most cases. They operate European-style, diving only two tanks a day. However, we found with a group as small as four to six we could often negotiate for a private boat with three-tank days. Don't expect the modern dive boats found at most Caribbean destinations. Instead, sturdy fishing boats are pressed into dive service whenever there are customers— however, the boats are comfortable and shaded, and the service is excellent. The fishermen captains seem to enjoy the change of pace, and English-speaking native divemasters are eager to show off their unique marine life.
Cubagua Fish ID
Heading the list of strange inhabitants at Cubagua are two species of toadfish found only in the extreme southern Caribbean. The shy sapo bacon (1) hides in dark recesses, extending only its ugly barbel-chinned head. The sapo cano (2) camouflages itself by burying its body in sand to wait for unsuspecting prey, often leaving only its bulging eyes and mouth exposed to view.
Other unusual fish that are found throughout the Caribbean, but rarely on reefs, include the shortnose batfish (3) and striated frogfish (4). The bandtailed robinfish (5), a foot long or more, uses its modified, finger-like ventral fins to "walk" along the bottom while moving stones to expose prey. Many members of the scorpionfish family are present, including a variety of barbfish (6) that is a stunning blood red.
The black-ringed goby (7), which I consider the most beautiful goby in the Caribbean and perhaps the world, also lives in these waters. It is encircled by black rings, has a brilliant yellow head and neon blue body. Running a close second in a beauty contest is the male red banner blenny (8). It resides in small holes, normally extending only its dull black head. However, when attempting to attract a mate, it extends its body with flared dorsal fin to display its brilliant red, white-edged banner marking. The juvenile (9) of this species is equally beautiful with a translucent body, yellow head and pink cheeks. In its transparent dorsal fin you can see the subtle shading of the red and white banner starting to develop. The highly variable, but attractive chameleon blenny (10) can be red to orange, green, brown or black. All three of these striking species are found only in the coastal waters of Venezuela and Colombia.
Fish are not the sole attraction at Cubagua. There are also many marine invertebrates that are rarely encountered elsewhere. I found two species of nudibranchs and two sea hares that I had never seen before; including the unident sea hare (11). This juvenile ragged sea hare (12), has a beautiful pattern of spots and fleshy tabs extending from its body.