Toad Ugly

Turneffe Atoll, Belize

Whitespotted Toadfish in a hole under the reef at Turneffe Atoll, Belize.
Whitespotted Toadfish

That is one ugly fish. One can easily see how it got named “toadfish.” They look almost virulent … nasty. Certainly, not something you would want to bite your finger…. (Though I think they don’t really bite — that is, unless you actually stick your finger into its mouth.) Still, we were excited to find this fish on one of our two dives at Turneffe Atoll, Belize.

We were about half-way through a very nice dive. The water was warm and visibility about 80 feet. Conditions were calm and there was very little current. The divers in my group had spread out in a loose line straggling across the reef, approximately following our divemaster, Henry. Henry is young and enthusiastic, friendly and engaging. He’s also a very good guide, and had already found several sights that the casual tourists in our group might not have noticed without his help.

Suddenly Henry stopped. He looped around in a very aerobatic maneuver and hovered, frozen in place, his face just inches from the reef. Then he drew back and pointed eagerly into a dark hole underneath a coral head. He rattled his noisemaker and tried to get everyone’s attention. I was among the closest and just happened to be looking at Henry when he went through his “found something” display. Finning over quickly, I approached the reef cautiously: What could it be? I certainly don’t want to charge in too quickly if Henry was point out a curious moray eel (with needle-sharp teeth)….

There was something in there; I could just about make it out. Some sort of bulbous fish, covered with spots, and with barbels on its mouth. Maybe a toadfish? I had never seen a toadfish, but I had seen pictures and this ugly thing might just be one of those. I had my camera, with two strobes attached. It took some adjusting and fiddling to get the strobes in close enough and at good angles to get their light into the hole. I took a few shots, trying different angles to get the lens close to the fish without blocking the strobes. A couple of the pictures worked out.

Back on the dive boat, Henry explained it was a spotted toadfish. (Aha, at least I guessed that right. Good for me.) He was excited. He said over and over, “That one — only in Belize. You do not find it anywhere else.” We divers looked at one another skeptically. My dive buddies and I discussed in on the boat ride back to our cruise ship (the Holland America line’s Ryndam): Of course Henry would want us to think we had a unique experience. Good for him. It was fun and he was a good dive master. But a fish found only in Belize? Not likely. Belize is a little place and there is a lot of temperate Caribbean reef, most of which is connected. Why would a particular fish evolve and stay in only one little part of the Caribbean’s reef system?

I looked it up when I got home at the end of the trip. It turns out, Henry was right. According to the book “Reef Fish Identification: Florida Caribbean Bahamas” (the seminal fish identification guide by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach, considered by many the most authoritative of such books) the Whitespotted Toadfish is found only off Belize. “Not reported elsewhere.” Son of a gun.

About the dive: I have visited Belize as a port of call on two Caribbean cruises: one with Carnival lines and one with Holland America. Both cruise lines use Hugh Parkey’s Belize Dive Connection. Hugh Parkey’s does a great job. The dive boat picks up the dive group from the ship at anchor, returns to the dive shop for filling out forms, equipment rental, and so on, and then takes the group to Turneffe for two dives. After diving, the boat returns to the resort dive shack for equipment return, logbook signing, and perhaps a beer or souvenir shopping, after which the same boat will return everyone directly to the ship in early afternoon. The divemasters and staff at Hugh Parkey’s are knowledgeable and friendly; the boats are large, comfortable, clean, and well-appointed; there is plentiful water to drink, and a snack is served. Finally, of course, they have a large selection of truly marvelous dive sites nearby on Turneffe Atoll.

[Canon Powershot G9 in Ikelite underwater case with two Ikelite DS-125 strobes, wired for TTL. Integrated lens at 9.9mm, ISO 80, f/5.6 at 1/60 sec.]

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Images and text copyright © Rick Collier and thePhotoTourist. All rights reserved.

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