Snorkeling can be a ho-hum activity if you're just floating in clear water and casually glancing beneath the ocean's surface. It can be a lot more fun, however, if you know where to go and what to look for. If you plan on traveling to the US Virgin Islands, take a look at this quick guide to the St. John sea life so that you have a much more valuable experience.
There are approximately 90 known species of parrotfish that live in shallow, tropical ocean water. You can see them moving through seagrassbeds, coral reefs, and rocky coastlines. They are very colorful and are easily identified by their beak-like mouth which is actually fused teeth. Parrotfish are all around St. John and I spotted them at nearly every snorkel location, noteably at Hawksnest Bay and Trunk Bay.
Parrotfish are responsible for making much of the sand around St. John. When they feed off the algae that lives on coral, they ingest some of both which is then ground up during digestion and excreted. Feeding on the algae is important for the coral to thrive because it helps prevent the reef from getting choked out from algae growth.
This freaky looking fish was undoubtedly the most frightening species that I saw while snorkeling on St. John. I was exploring the underwater trail at Trunk Bay when I turned around and spotted the long, silver barracuda lurking behind me near the surface of the water. The barracuda is known for being curious and following snorkelers around (luckily, this one didn't stick around too long) but they're not aggressive. They'll likely just give you a little heart attack by baring their alarmingly sharp teeth at you while they investigate.
If you see some brightly hued fish that are relatively small in size, there's a good chance they're some species of damselfish. These colorful creatures prefer temperate climates and like feeding on small crustaceans, plankton, and algae. For being so darn pretty, they're actually very territorial and spend most of their day foraging for food and then protecting it from intruders. Damselfish spend most of their life within a square meter of area where they can eat, hide, and spawn. And I thought I was a homebody...
These barbed relatives of the shark are always a thrill when you see one in the water. Their flattened bodies often make them hard to see, especially because they use their thinness to hide themselves in the sand to escape predator's notice. You can also find them near reefs and along grass beds. If you're patient, you should be able to locate one of these guys in St. John--we saw one at Trunk Bay and they're often found near Waterlemon Cay. Keep your eyes out for the much more rare spotted stingray that are the less common variety in St. John.
These fish are recognizable by their tall, thin bodies that allow them to maneauver quickly in and out of small cracks in the coral where they feed on algae and other invertebrates. They stick near the reefs in the warm water of the western Atlantic ocean. Their bodies are most often blue or bluish green with yellow long their scales. The queen angelfish are known to have blue markings around their gills, so if you can get close enough to observe this you'll know what species you have on your hands.
The green sea turtle and the hawksbill turtle (pictured above) are the most common species found around the Virgin Islands. They are always crowd pleasers and are certainly what most snorkelers are desperately keeping their eye out for. While their population is depleted in the some overly populated beaches, you can still find them in spots like Maho Bay and Leinster Bay near Waterlemon Cay. The green sea turtles are vegetarians are often seen by snorkelers grazing along the seagrass beds. The hawksbill turtle uses its beak to scrape sponges and organisms off of rocks and coral or they hunt fish, snails, or crab along the reef.
Keep in mind that some beaches may be closed while sea turtle eggs are set to hatch.
Sea urchins generally range from six to twelve inches and live among rocks and coral in the ocean. The species of sea urchin I observed looked like the picture above--black and with large spines. They don't look alive, but they do have tiny tube feet (hundreds of them) that they use to move. Their spines aren't poisonous but if you do get one in your skin, you want to remove it as soon as possible. I saw sea urchins at nearly every beach I visited on St. John but there were a ton of them around Cinnamon Cay.
Conches are a gastopod mollusk that is found along the shallow waters of the Caribbean. If you keep an eye out along the sand, seagrass beds and coral reefs, you may spot these critters or more likely, the yellow, pink, or orange shell they inhabit. Conches reach their full size at around three years old and can grow up to 12 inches long and weigh five pounds. They are a popular meat in dishes on St. John--I even had some conch chowder at Miss Lucy's. Some of the population is depleted from overfishing but be patient and keep your eyes peeled.
You might recognize this as the species of fish that Dory was patterned after on "Finding Nemo." While variety I observed looked all together less Pixar-worthy, it was still a very lovely fish. They can range from a lighter blue to the deep royal blue we're all more familiar with. Interestingly enough, they start off yellow and change to blue or blue-green as they mature. Like the parrotfish, it also eats algae off of the coral to keep the reef from being denied its oxygen supply.
If you plan to do a lot of snorkeling while in USVI, make sure you try and find all the St. John sea life you can. While the above list is miniscule, it might be a good place to start for the less fish-savy beginning snorkelers (like me!). For additional species, check out the lists on See St. John and the picture gallery over here. What are you looking forward to seeing the most?