Day 9: Journey to Cuba's underwater Eden

  • Pederson cleaner shrimp

    Pederson cleaner shrimpA Pederson cleaner shrimp in a branching anemone. Pedersons are common reef inhabitants that clean smaller fishes.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • Indigo hamlet

    Indigo hamletA member of the sea bass family, the indigo hamlet has both male and female sex organs. During elaborate mating rituals, individuals are known to switch roles repeatedly.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • Spiny flower coral

    Spiny flower coralThis uncommon species has some of the largest polyps of any coral in the Caribbean. A yellowline arrow crab and club-tipped anemone can be seen in the upper left corner.Photo by: Ken Marks

  • Common fairy basslet

    Common fairy bassletThe fairy basslet, a popular aquarium fish and part of the “tank gang” in Finding Nemo, can be found throughout the Caribbean. Our quest was to find its cousin, an elusive Cuban variant, which has only a which only has a splash of blue/purple.Photo by: Paul Humann

By Rod Griffin

Finding Nemo: the sequel

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Some divers search for sunken Spanish treasure. Ken Marks, a fish identification specialist, is obsessed with the Cuban fairy basslet (Gramma dejongi).

Cuban divers first discovered this new tiny species off the coast of Trinidad, the historic city 75 miles northwest of the Gardens. It’s closely related to the common fairy basslet (Gramma loreto), an adorable yellow-and-purple fish made popular by the character Gurgle, from the movie Finding Nemo.

In 2009, several Gramma dejongi were caught off Trinidad, and sent to a fish collector in The Netherlands with a batch of Gramma loreto, a popular aquarium fish. Because they lacked the distinctive purple color, he contacted scientists. DNA tests revealed that it was a new species, probably endemic to Cuba. But no scientist has ever observed the Cuban native in the wild.

Ken Marks

Fish identification expert Ken Marks, in a rare moment above water.

Photo by: Kim Ritchie

Marks has spent the last nine days trying to become the first. The 1 ½ inch-long yellow fish lives in 65 to 100 feet of water along reef cliffs similar to where we’re diving today.

Many of the fishes I see here look familiar. It’s a shock to realize that the prettily colored species floating in your dentist’s aquarium are actually wild creatures.

In fact, the ornamental fish trade is a serious problem. Up to 30 million tropical fish and 1.5 million live corals are taken from their natural environment each year.

The majority are destined for the United States, but an estimated four out of five die before they complete the trip.

What’s even more troubling, there are not adequate laws governing the trade.

By the end of today’s dive, Marks has still not found the elusive Cuban fairy basslet. But he did take some spectacular shots of marine life.