Island life

Dr Lou Luddington is a marine biologist, nature photographer and writer living aboard a sailboat, the Noctiluca, on the move and travelling the ocean in search of stories and adventure.

Words & photograph by Lou Luddington

I float above a shoal of small scad a thousand-strong. They flow under me like a river, morphing into silver funnels and braids. In an instant, they implode to a writhing ball, shining, bristling, flashing as I drift beside them. I dive down to pass through the crowd, then twist around to gaze skyward as a shroud of glinting shards draws over me, thick with eyes, fins and scales. In the midst of this coordinated fervour, I feel part of the flowing rhythm of life. Jolting me from my revelry, a stingray cruises into view with an entourage of fish, actively foraging across the seabed. It stops right next to me and starts to rummage for invertebrates hidden in the sand by flapping its wings, sending up clouds of sediment that engulf it completely. The accompanying fish loiter, waiting for the right moment to pick off any spoils. 

I loiter too, observing the commotion; the ray seems unperturbed by my presence and heads right for me, then steamrolls up and over my camera on its hunting mission. I follow along enjoying the quest, when a green turtle munching on sea grass edges into my peripheral vision. Ambling across the sand it plucks at small seaweeds growing on coral rubble. Having gripped a juicy stem with its jaws it shakes the coral and swipes at it with a fore flipper to tear the frond off at the base. I don’t know where to look or aim my camera – fish shoal, stingray or grazing turtle? I realised I had come to a special place. 

We arrived at Petite-Terre islands by sailboat after a lumpy slog from Guadeloupe against the nort-east trade winds. Lying 10km to the south-east of Guadeloupe, these two uninhabited islands and surrounding waters have been protected as a national nature reserve since 1998. Their importance as a stronghold for lesser Antilles iguanas, nesting area for three species of sea turtles and home to a stand of guaiac trees that have otherwise disappeared from the lesser Antilles were recognised back then. Since that time, hunting, fishing with line, net, trap and spear, and collecting or harvesting of animals from both land and sea have been forbidden, whilst mooring buoys for visiting boats prevent anchor damage to the seabed. With a land area of less than 2km2 and protected surrounding waters of 8km2, it is a reserve of modest size, yet it is teeming with life. 

We stayed for three days. Positioned in the shallow lagoon between the two islands, we could easily hop over the boat’s side into calm, clear water. On our first afternoon we explored the lagoon. Though bustling with life, much of the reef is a coral graveyard; the foundations are a derelict jumble of toppled elkhorn corals, once towering branched structures of limestone that now look like felled trees and are overgrown with seaweed. The lagoon’s bottom is cobbled with fragments of staghorn coral that would have formed complex branching stands. Both species once dominated the shallows of Caribbean reef systems but are now rare and critically endangered. The victims of past bleaching events, disease and ferocious hurricanes have torn through reef systems worldwide. These effects know no bounds and reach far beyond local protection measures. Recent studies have revealed that 50% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost in the last 40 years. I can’t help wondering how this reef would have looked in its heyday when the corals were vibrant and strong.

There is much life to marvel at though; sponges, fan worms, an octopus, fishes and sea cucumbers lying on the sand. We lose ourselves in the details swimming to the far reaches of the lagoon where the waves wash in from the open sea, then back to the calm, bright shallows of the inner lagoon where goatfish forage and chunky Palometa rest. When a chill creeps into our muscles, we head for the island to warm up. Our timing coincides with the departure of the tour boats bringing day trippers from Guadeloupe. The whole island empties but for a few fellow yachties so we walk to the lighthouse, barefoot in our swimsuits. Iguanas litter the paths and bush tops. Rounding a bend in the path we find two fighting; they tussle in the dirt, pausing to flick their tails and toss their heads back in a sort of backwards nod to thrust out the throat flap. Endemic to the lesser Antilles and in severe decline due to habitat loss and hunting they are listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the IUCN. On these tiny uninhabited islands at least, they live openly and in good numbers.

Back on the beach, ruddy turnstones rummage in the strandline of seaweed and seagrass, tossing sand and dried sargassum as they burrow holes in the loose piles to get at tiny invertebrates. In the shallows, young lemon sharks patrol back and forth, their fins breaking the surface. Hunting in water barely deep enough to float them seems like a risky strategy but I’m delighted as these are the first sharks I’ve seen in the Caribbean.  

Swimming back with the sun low in the sky, the scene underwater is luminous. Green turtles rowing for deeper water out-pace us, a solitary barracuda hangs above the reef looking comically menacing with its toothy grimace. Shoals of surgeonfish pour back and forth across the reef glowing blue-violet. Beneath our boat, a sand tilefish tends to its mound of coral fragments then slides into its hole when I dive down for a look. Climbing back aboard with a full heart I give thanks to those who had the foresight to protect this place, a sparkly gem of the eastern Caribbean.

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