Duane K. McCullough

Image of marine life
Marine Life sample images

If the shallow bay waters are not stirred up by strong wind and wave activity or by large schools of bottom feeding fish, much marine life can be easily seen in the waters -- such as fish, mammals, plants, sponges, crabs, insects, jellyfish, Sea stars, and many other smaller creatures with long Latin names. We could even see crocodiles in the bay -- but they are a very rare site.

The most common fish from small to large are the minnows being chased by the long Needlefish that stay near the surface -- who in turn, are being chased by Barracudas. The Needlefish can grow over two feet long and when threatened, travel out of the water nearly 30 miles an hour like a flying torpedo for almost 100 yards.

Although a few bayside Barracudas about 5 feet long can exist in the bay, most of the Barracudas along the mangrove shoreline of the bay are only a foot or two in length. Occasionally, a small shiny moving object will catch your eye in the shallow water only to learn that it is the side of a small fish shining in the Sun just caught in the mouth of a Barracuda.

Even tropical reef fishes can sometimes be seen in the mangrove creeks like colorful Parrot Fish or Spadefish schooling together. Strange looking Triggerfish and Filefish sometime swim around the shore areas of the bay and creeks while looking for food and seeking protection from the elements.

Southern Stingrays and Spotted Eagle Rays are quite common animals to see while cruising the bay. Sometimes we can see a Spotted Eagle Ray jump out of the water several times trying to shake off the Remoras that attach themselves to the animal. The Spotted Eagle Ray have a black triangular shape body with many small white spots on the top and a white bottom. A very long narrow tail will trail behind unless it has been cut short by a predatory animal or by the prop of a motor boat.

Southern Stingrays are usually tan brown and are shy or wary like many wild animals of the sea. They can be very friendly -- in fact some places exist in the Florida Keys and elsewhere where people swim with them. If you ever visit these places to swim with the Stingrays, make sure you keep your fingers of your hands closed because the teeth of the Stingray can act like a grinding tool that will rip some skin off. Also be careful not to grab its tail because it has a dangerous barb within.

I once read that the most common marine accident throughout the world is stepping on a Stingray -- whereby if you ever walk along a shoreline with poor visibility of the bottom, make sure you shuffle your feet to scare away any possible Stingrays. If you do not do this action, you run the risk of catching a painful barb from the base of the Stingray's tail that can release a very toxic venom. The barb is like a fish hook and can not easily be removed.

Speaking of animals that can cause harm, the two most popular sharks we can see out here in the bay are the Nurse Shark and the Bonnethead Shark. Mako Sharks are also seen but are not as numerous in the upper bay area. Most all sharks are small -- no more than three or four feet, but can reach larger sizes in rare encounters. Actually, the most dangerous animal in the area is a human improperly operating a power boat -- but that's another story.

Nurse Sharks usually can be found trying to find shade from the hot Summer Sun under the mangrove roots but are also seen slithering over the sea grass areas. They are tan brown in color and pose no real harm to anyone -- unless some idiot tries to grab their tail to tease them.

Bonnethead Sharks look like Hammerhead Sharks -- but the eyes are not as spaced as far apart. With a smaller heads and bodies than Hammerhead Sharks, Bonnethead Sharks are just as curious about you as you are about them -- until they see you are larger than them, and then they swim away.

Near the mangrove roots of some islands we can see small Mangrove Snappers darting along just under schools of Minnows that number in the thousands. Silvery-olive colored Snook are also found among the Mangrove Snappers in the deeper creeks and can be seen in groups hovering together over the bottom.

Look to our left at 9 o'clock -- there's some Porgies. These little fish have a V-shape tail and can dart off very fast -- and stop as fast. They seem to have some kind of built-in gyro stabilizer in the way they can stop and move so fast. The biggest I've seen is about a foot long -- but they can get larger than that.

I did see a 3 foot Nassau Grouper in Grouper Creek recently which is rare these days because fishing activity over the years has removed most all of the larger fish. Groupers are all born female with eggs and, later in life, a few become male for some reason. I know some people like that also, but they need doctors to do that kind of change...

A seabass relative of the Grouper is the Jewfish -- also known by some as the "Goliath Grouper". Jewfish used to be numerous in nearby creeks such as Jewfish Creek and have been know to be measured some 8 foot in length. They can sometimes get very curious about visitors to their area.

I remember a few years ago while touring a small mangrove creek, there existed a three foot curious grouper that entertained hundreds of visitors over the years when it came up to see the boat. Then one day after a busy weekend of boaters in the creek it disappeared. Whether it was caught by some fishermen or it just left the creek I don't know -- but in any case, observing wild animals in their natural habitat can have a greater value to our minds than just their food value to our bodies.

Still found in the creeks and over the sea grass meadows are the Tarpon which can get up to eight feet long. Full of bones and blood like the Bonefish -- which are almost transparent over the shallow sandy bank areas of the open bay, Tarpon and Bonefish are not good eating fish like the Mangrove Snapper and the Snook. However, some people like to play games teasing the fish with hooks in their mouths for personal entrainment -- so the Tarpon and the Bonefish are the most popular "game fish" found in the bay area.

While touring some mangrove creeks, I have to say that I am appalled by the ignorance of some people who leave behind fishing line and hooks in the tree branches -- or trash like chum boxes after their visit. Most visiting fishermen are responsible and only want a good time on the water while hunting for fish as food -- but some people are just "takers" and were never taught to respect our environment like they should have.

Some "takers" do leave a few things behind -- seeing a beer can or bottle on the bottom of some creeks is a visual reminder that much environmental education still needs to be learned by some.

Look just ahead -- there are some Manatees over by the shore. Three main clues to help boaters spot Manatee activity are as follows: The first is seeing what appears to be a small rock on the water, but is in fact the nose and head of a Manatee breathing. The second clue is seeing a boulder-like rock appear on the water -- which is their back as they bend over while diving. And the third clue is the path of flat water area created by them while they swim just under the water. Other clues can be that Manatees are usually dark against a lighter background or light against a dark background.

The West Indian Manatee can be found in family groups or couples -- and even a lone swimmer can be seem roaming over the bottom chewing on the grass or mucking around in muddy lagoons. Unlike the Indo-Pacific Manatee called the Dugong that have a split whale-like tail, the West Indian Manatee has a beaver-like tail and weigh about twice as much -- sometimes as much as a ton or more.

Manatees are related to elephants -- which are known for their memory abilities, and like elephants, have no incisor teeth. As plant eaters, they are harmless to humans -- but the same can't be said in how humans have treated manatees.

Like people, some Manatees are curiously friendly, some don't mind you looking at them, and some don't want any communication from humans at all -- especially if they have been recently run over by some power boat prop. Many manatees have some kind of boat prop damage to their body and tail, but what is killing most manatees in Florida is the concussion effects of when a large boat moves over or near them and knocks them out. And when they get knocked out, they don't come up to breath -- so they drown.

The latest estimated manatee count in Florida was over about three thousand. However, they are not being born as fast as they die -- so they are an endangered species and have a special protective status. It is unlawful to feed or touch a wild manatee in the State of Florida -- to do so cane bring a $500 fine if caught.

As we coast near them with the motor off, there appears to be four of them. If you look closely, you may notice that the Manatee's arms have small fingernails in the hand region. Manatees have finger bones, hand bones, wrist bones and arm bones like many land animals. Unlike other land mammals, their mammary glands are located in their armpits instead of the chest area.

This group of Manatees have one small one in the herd that follows mama's movements. Like free ranging cows these sea cows sometimes like to hang around sources of freshwater -- however, because many of the natural springs of the area aren't as numerous or do not exist anymore, many manatees hang around man-made docks trying to drink from water hoses at the dock.

Several problems exist with feeding manatees from freshwater dock hoses -- one is that the poor quality of water found at boat docks, and the feeding action invites boat prop damage to the manatee over time. Another problem is that too much freshwater within a manatee's body can make them float higher in the surrounding saltwater of the area and they consequently become easier targets to be hit by boaters.

Manatees can actually swim pretty fast when they feel threatened -- however, they can't tell the directional sound of a moving boat easily and sometimes swim in the wrong direction and into the path of a high speed boat. If you operate a fast boat where manatees roam, you may have but just a second or two to take evasive action when you see splashing movement in your path.

Oh no, speaking of movement in our path, I see big bubbles coming out of that manatee which means we should hold our breath for a while or smell some fowl wind rising. I think we need to move on...

Most of the sea grass meadows of the bay area is Turtle Grass which has flat blade leafs and a long root system that sprout more nodules of leafs. Manatee Grass has thin round blades like wires with root clusters that also spread out to grab the mud and sand near the faster flowing currents of the mangrove creeks.

Among the sea grasses and on the mangrove roots are little round cup-like plants called Mermaid Wine-glasses. I guess late at night the small mermaids come out and drink wine from their glasses...

What looks like rocks on the bottom of bay with black spots on top are not rocks, but are Ball Sponges -- also known as Loggerhead Sponges or Volcano Sponges. Look -- there's one now growing on the bottom to our right.

Unlike the popular yellow cartoon character known as "Sponge-Bob Square-pants", sponges are actually a colony of very small animals that vibrate together to suck nutrient particles out of the water column and feed as a group unit where their wastewater is pumped out the top hole or holes -- somewhat like how a volcano pumps material upward and out its top hole crater.

A gallon size Ball Sponge can pump almost 20,000 gallons every 24 hours -- which is a very remarkable feat for any animal colony. Along the shore in calm waters out of the wind ripple, what looks like spring water boiling to the surface is just a large sponge doing its thing.

I have seen Ball Sponges out here in the bay as big as four feet in diameter. There was one near the shore of Key Largo that I would take visitors to see until it was ripped in half and destroyed by a large boat. Wave activity from large storms can also destroy these sponges -- or move them around like a tumble weed in a open field. I read once that the age of some sponge colonies can be dated to thousands of years ago -- if true, then some of these large remarkable filters of the sea may be more unique and rare than we realize.

Other types of sponges can be found growing on the mangrove roots and can take any shape or color. These sponges are the Fire Sponges and, together with other strange tube-like animals called Tunicates can take most any shape or color. Look -- there are some rusty orange and purple sponges all over those mangrove roots.

I learned an interesting lesson about fire sponges long ago. When I moved down here aboard my sailboat, the first week I swam out to collect many of them for a sponge garden I thought would look nice under my sailboat. They looked beautiful -- bright orange, blue, green and purple, just laying on the bottom like soft colorful rocks. Then, after about thirty minutes of gathering them, I noticed my hands were numb -- and they stayed numb for three days! Needless to say I will not do that again.

Some pharmaceutical companies have recently discovered that certain deep water sponges can make a chemical substance which if extracted and placed on cancerous tumors, will restrict blood flow to the tumor and destroy it. I am sure other chemical elements from the sea can be used as pain blockers or healing substances and are awaiting discovery someday.

All along the bottom near some quiet mangrove shoreline areas and out of the prevailing wind can be found round flower-like objects of many sizes called Upside-down Jellyfish. Also knows as Cassiopea Jellyfish, these jellyfish lie usually on the bottom upside-down unless the current picks them up and they can be seen frolicking in the water column.

Unlike the notorious jellyfish of the open Ocean such as the Portuguese Man-of-war or the Box Jellyfish of the South Pacific, the Upside-down Jellyfish are not that toxic. The only real problem they pose to humans is that if you ever go swimming over them in shallow water, don't stir them up because you will begin to feel a sense of itchiness in your armpits and other sensitive areas of your body.

All jellyfish can release little packets containing microscopic glass-like hairs as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened -- and if the membranes of these packets are broken, these glass hairs, like itching powder, will be of great nuisance to the swimmer when they embed themselves into the soft skin areas and aggravate the normal cell structure of the skin.

Upside-down Jellyfish appear all about the same in structure but have different colors and geometric patterns in their makeup. It is believed that, like Coral polyps, they have a symbiotic relationship with plants that live within their body tissue. By exposing their body to the sunlight while sitting upside-down on the bottom, the plant grows better and the animal absorbs nutrients from the plant.

Many types of Anemones can be seen among the mangrove roots with the sponges. Much like a large coral polyp animal, they reach out into the water column from their home site and try their best to capture nutrients floating by.

On the bottom of some deep mangrove creeks can be found small areas and pillars of Star Coral. Existing mostly on the Oceanside of the Florida Keys, many types of corals thrive along the submerged coast that is exposed to much more movement of seawater with more variety of absorbable nutrients than what Florida Bay has to offer.

Perhaps the most common animal of any significant size we will see crawling over the sea grass meadows of the bay is the Horseshoe Crab. Related to prehistoric sea spiders and trilobites, the Horseshoe Crab animal is a species of arthropod with an exoskeleton body that is older than the dinosaurs. Their blood is blue because they use copper as an oxidizer -- while our blood is red because we use iron.

Inside the Horseshoe Crab's blood are many unique antibodies that have evolved over the millennia and are used by certain pharmaceutical companies to test if medical equipment is contaminated by dangerous microscopic organisms. For example, if during the testing process there is a reaction between the crab's antibodies and suspected organisms, the area will coagulate -- which means the medical equipment needs cleaning.

If we see a single one crawling by itself we will pick it up with the net and examine it. Horseshoe crabs do not bite or sting -- however, they will fold up and expose some sharp edges along their back sides for defensive reasons that can result in harm to your hands if handled improperly.

When the Horseshoe Crab is ready to grow and shed its exoskeleton skin shell, a seam along their front bottom sides opens up and the animal crawls out while leaving its old body shell behind. Before the new shell hardens, the animal is vulnerable to bites from larger fish like small sharks.

Sometimes when we see them teamed together we refer to them as "love-crabs" and well, then we will leave them alone. We don't want to disturb their engagement activity. The males have scorpion-like claws he uses to hold onto the female while the female does not have these claws or need them because she does all the work crawling. You know how it works in nature, the ladies do all the work while the guys just go for the ride...

Speaking of crabs, some years ago during a tour, before I learned that nobody is allowed to walk within less than 100 feet of any island shoreline in the park, a lady asked me if there were any dangerous animals in the shallow clear water near a small sany beach where we used to walk offshore -- and I replied there was none that I was aware of. Well, no sooner after just after saying that, we found a Blue Crab crawling along the bottom and while we were looking at it, another Blue Crab got my little toe -- and I began a short embarrassing dance with my foot in the air trying to shake off the little crabby beast.

Caribbean Spiny lobster can be found crawling around the bay bottom and sometimes can be seen trying to hide among the roots of mangrove trees. Unlike some large lobsters of the northern Oceanic waters, Caribbean Spiny lobsters have no claws for pinching objects.

They are however full of many sharp horn-like protrusions for defensive reasons. These underwater "bugs" are protected here in the Everglades National Park from sport and commercial fishermen while in some other areas in the Florida Keys a gauntlet of commercial traps and sport divers take them by the thousands in season. It's amazing that these animals continue to appear every year in the numbers needed for reproduction. They are however perhaps the best tasting bug out here one can eat...

Although saltwater crocodiles can be found in Florida Bay, they are hard to find in most of the bay. They prefer the shore area near the mainland where small sandy beaches exist so that they can build their nest. Occasionally, crocodiles -- and even four feet long Iguanas, can be found basking in the Sun on someone's boat ramp near the man-made canals of Key Largo. The Iguanas are believed to be runaway pets that have since colonized many waterways in the Keys and southern Florida.

Alligators are not usually found in the salt water areas of Florida Bay because they prefer freshwater areas in which to roam.

Recently a Florida Panther from the Florida mainland was seen swimming between some islands in the upper bay. A very rare sight today in the bay, but a hundred years ago Florida Panthers lived on Key Largo until they lost their habitat or were killed off by humans. A wild cat should have no problem finding food out here in the bay -- it could just raid a bird rookery for food. But finding freshwater to wash the bird down in the dry season nowadays -- that would be a problem for a wild cat.

Oh -- look to our left near that island at ten o'clock -- I see some dolphins! They look like a pod of five or six. They are the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin -- and one seems to be just a baby. I can almost hear the theme song of "flipper" as we approach. We have to be careful not to change direction too abruptly because they may not realize how dangerous our boat prop can be.

Dolphins are absolutely wonderful animals of the sea -- they represent the very act of freedom as they move through the water. In the shallow waters of Florida Bay they seem to fly just off the ground. Their hunting abilities are actually better in shallow water than in deep water because a target in shallow water is easier to follow. I have seen a pod of them chase and trap a school of Finger Mullet fish up against an island shore where they fed on the fish.

I even saw a pair of dolphins once leave the family pod in shallow water only to stir the bottom up as they swam to create a corral of murky water wherein the fish were ambushed at the "gate" by the family pod.

Not to be confused with the marine fish also called a Dolphin, these Dolphins are Cetacean mammals like Whales, which exhibit the unique ability of remembering concepts and ideas similar to humans. This unique ability is called intelligence -- and Dolphins, like some humans, use it to find food.

Dolphins also have a gift that humans do not have -- they use a bony parabolic structure within their head to focus and transmit sonic energy out to underwater objects whereby the rebounding sound signal is received or "seen" with their teeth and jaw. This "eco-location" ability uses the off-centered array layout of their teeth as an antenna device to notice eco signals from their left or right side -- therefore they can judge direction and distance of the target object without visually seeing it.

The sonic ability of Dolphins to send out sound signals from their head can also be used to stun fish hiding in the sand. Recent studies have shown that Dolphins use their sonic abilities as a "stun-gun" tool to temporally paralyze fish that have escaped into shallow sand wherein they are caught.

I once saw a pod of about twenty Spinner Dolphins in Little Buttonwood Sound jumping high out of the water, but like these dolphins by the boat, the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin are what we see in the bay most of the time.

Well, it looks as if they want to swim off in that direction and we need to go in this direction. Encounters with wild Dolphins can leave a wonderful feeling in the mind and body.

Someone once asked me what was the strangest animal I've ever seen during my tours -- and I have to say that although there are many small strange creatures that live in the sea grass meadows like Flatworms and Sea Slugs, I did see once two strange animals which were attached together that was a very odd sight.

A foot long Scrawled Cowfish was sporting a large slender Remora fish as a beard on its bottom side. Cowfish are already strange looking fish with their hollow triangular geodesic bony skeleton frame and horns over their eyes, but together with a long Remora fish attached underneath it using the sucking disk on its head -- it was a strangest animal encounter I've ever seen in Florida Bay.

Let's now run the small fishnet over the sea grasses and collect some "goodies in the grass". We can see small Seahorses and Pipefish -- which have a head of a Seahorse with a body of a Needlefish. I have caught 7" Seahorses in the bay, but most are just only an inch or two. They have a prehensile tail and like to grab onto objects -- even Pipefish I place in the aquarium. What's funny to see is a Seahorse riding a Pipefish -- a horse riding a horse is a sight to remember.

Look, there's a little Seahorse in the net -- a pregnant male. In the Seahorse species, the female gives the male her eggs and he goes pregnant for about a month. Now that's Mother Nature working in strange and mysterious ways...

There's some Crustaceans -- a couple of Hermit Crabs and a Shrimp. If we put these Hermit Crabs in the small aquarium they will find each other like magnets and start fighting -- or maybe they are just communicating. Either way it's interesting to watch.

And if we look close here's another Crustacean -- a Copepod. These little roly-poly bugs are perhaps the most numerous animal on planet Earth -- there are bazillions of them throughout the Oceans and are a major food source for many larger animals.

Here's some Mollusk without shells -- or "snails without shells". One is a Long-horn Nudibranch and the other is a Lettuce Sea Slug. And there's even a small Flatworm. They all look much better swimming in the aquarium than laying in the fishnet.

Wow -- look, a good size True Tulip snail and a small Fighting Conch snail. Conchs were really decimated by human hunters in the Florida Keys long ago, but seem to be returning in numbers because of their protective status -- it's illegal to take Conchs in the Keys. Large Snails perform as important cleaners of the sea grasses to rid the plants of smaller parasitic animal activity.

There are several dark green Oysters in the net glued to a few grass blades. I call these "hairy oysters" because they have these stiff hairs protruding from their shell like a Spiny Fileclam. And there's a Scallop and a small Clam. When these Mollusk are placed into the aquarium we can see their little multiple eye sensors along their opening as they slowly open. Sometimes the Scallop or the Clam will start dancing in the aquarium water by making jerking motions as it tries to move about.

Next to this small brown Rope Sponge is a Orange-ridged Sea Star -- also known by some as a Starfish, but I guess since it is not a fish, scientist like to call it a Sea Star. This animal has no brain -- no central processing unit. I know a few people like that, but that's another story...

And of course many small types of fish can be found wiggling in the net. Some are juvenile fish that grow larger while most stay about the size we see them in the net.

I have caught 3 inch Toadfish before that will make strange grunting sounds from the net to the aquarium. I even caught a small Balloonfish once and made the mistake of allowing it to puff up with air instead of water -- because when we let it go, the poor little fish floated away like thorny balloon on the water. The scene looked stressful to the fish so next time if I catch one, I will keep it in water before letting it loose.

Small wrasses have been caught that are quite pretty to look at. I've heard that on the nearby coral reefs there exist the Supermale Bluehead Wrasse fish that has a harem of about a half a dozen yellow female partners wherein if something happens to the male partner, one of the female partners will change her sex and become the new harem male. Again, Mother Nature works in mysterious ways...

Anyway, after looking at these small animals in the aquarium for few minutes we will let them go back to the wild sea grass meadows to play and work for food again -- and perhaps they can meet some new friends and discover a larger world beyond what they knew before.

And if they meet some of old friends, they can tell them about the adventure up above onboard one of those "big things in the sky" -- which, of course, their friends will just laugh at them and say -- yeah, right, "big things in the sky", I'm not eating with you any more -- you're crazy!

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