The Coral Spawn: A Personal Chronicle

Roatan's annual spawn - an orchestrated ocean happening

The full moon of August had arrived, and the Honduras Bay Island of Roatan began its coral spawn watch. Tides, temperatures and ocean activity were monitored and shared across cyberspace.

The ocean was alight with beautiful moon jellyfish, as if foreshadowing the spawn, which is timed by the phase of the moon. In my 1,000-plus hours of diving these Roatan walls, I had never seen such an abundance of moon jellies.

Night dives became the order of the day for divers enticed by the possibility of viewing this event that most get to watch only in documentary films. Carolyn Horton and I did night dives much of the week in attempts to observe the spawn. We would nap after dinner and then wake up to dive from 10:00 p.m. to midnight or from 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. As the week went on, even as the exhaustion built, we kept the vigil.

In the days leading up to the spawn, I envisioned what I expected to see based on what I had watched on documentaries: corals expelling clouds of sperm and eggs — and then it's done.

And yes, in part, that is what happened; each coral type displayed its own particular behavior. Some emitted a cloud of sperm, which at times so heavily permeated the water with reproductive offerings that visibility was reduced to less than 15 feet. Others held onto their spherical eggs, releasing them with the effort of birthing. Some coral rods were wrapped in a winter overcoat of film that methodically peeled off the rods and floated into the water column as a clear sheet of eggs. And in what seemed like an instant, the annual coral spawn was complete.

Creatures displayed strange behaviors.
Ah, but how naive we were. The spawn is not just a coral event; it is an orchestrated ocean happening vibrant and electric with energy. Creatures moved about with atypical, sometimes manic boldness, engaging in strange behaviors and activities. Everything seemed to be either eating or reproducing. For two hours we observed, mesmerized by the display.

Creatures that normally hid from our flashlights ignored the lights and traveled the coral in a frenzy: octopi, lobsters, crabs, green-, spotted-, chain- and sharptail eels.

A channel clinging crab, trying to escape a stalking octopus or intoxicated by the spawn, came too close to the reef's edge, dangled precariously on the precipice for a minute and then fell. He drifted to the ocean bottom doing a classic, full-body flare to slow his descent.

Starfish were more visible and active on the night of the spawn.
There were starfish in great number. I had seen groups of starfish in Roatan only once, and that was near West End in an area far from traditional dive sites. But on this rare occasion, they were here, boldly admitting their presence.

Sea cucumbers, typically lumbering their way across the ocean floor, were crawling the walls — literally and figuratively. These great globs seemed ready to take on Mount Everest.

A critter, dancing too fast above us to be identified, frenetically swirled, jittered, twisted, jived and tumbled about like a kitten on a mega-dose of catnip.

Clusters of brittle stars held orgies, not in the privacy of their coral hideouts, but entwined like a toupée atop coral heads. Typically they scurry to shelter with a strong aversion to our dive lights, but tonight they were oblivious to even sustained light, much too engrossed in their primal activities. And the brittle stars that were not in convention clusters behaved indecently, perhaps to gain the attention of others or to prepare for their private contribution to the evening's reproductive stew. They stood up on their long, spindly legs, lifting their bodies to the moon and undulated to music only they could hear.

Reef urchins left their sheltered lairs and congregated to observe the annual ritual.
The small reef urchins also abandoned their sheltered homes and moved to communes on coral heads to give homage to the moon. An occasional brittle star lay tangled in the urchins' spines — eating, being eaten — hard to tell.

It was a night of rare sights. A three-inch tasseled nudibranch, seen only occasionally in the Caribbean, was knocked from the coral wall by a rowdy octopus. As if in celebration of its survival, the tasseled nudibranch delighted us with its red and orange net pattern and branched cerata.

And the worms — absolutely thousands of them in every color and size — were far more persistent than the no-see-ums. Above them were schools of small, silver-gleaming fish dining on a gourmet meal of "coral eggs con worms." At times it was difficult to see the coral through the veil of worms. And they were not forestalled by neoprene hoods, wetsuits or vests. Only one's masked eyes and nose were free of their insistence. They wiggled around ears and every crevice they could find; they were found even in our hair after the dive. It was enough to pull the faint of heart from the ocean, but we were too hooked to leave.

So yes, we witnessed the coral spawn. It released clouds of sperm and spherical eggs, and then it was over. But we were changed. Carolyn and I returned to shore after midnight, starry-eyed — or more accurately, moonstruck by the incredible experience.

© Alert Diver — Fall 2010