Critter Identification off the North Carolina Coast

Thursday, June 2, 2011 10:42 | Filled in Biology

A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore

A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore

When I was growing up, I looked at, picked up and generally harassed anything moving on the beach or in the water. I was inquisitive, trying to understand as much as I could about the creatures. The poor crustaceans, molluscs and small fish who were not quick enough to avoid my grasp were subjected to my careful inspection for what seemed like hours before I returned them to their home.  I spent a lot of my time by the jetties and the mud flats during low tide.  I did not have access to the Internet back then.  I relied on books to classify and identify what I was looking at.  One of the first guide books I owned was A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore by Kenneth Gosner.  I carried this book everywhere and it seems like I read it cover to cover, even though it was definitely not made for casual reading.  Did I mention I was a hardcore geek when I was growing up?

 

One of the main reasons people scuba dive is to see all the cool critters.  It is too often that I am diving with a bunch of people and when we get back topside, someone asks, ‘Wow, did you see that fish/shark/critter?  What was it?’  Unfortunately, the most common response is, ‘I have no idea, but it sure was cool!’    I am the kind of person that likes to know what it was.  I like it even better when I learn what the creature is so that the next time I see one underwater, I know what it is.  Then, when someone asks that inevitable question, I can answer, ‘That was a Bearded Fireworm.  Aren’t they neat?’


 

Bearded Fireworm

Bearded Fireworm

I have my original identification book.  I still use it.  I don’t bring my books on the boat with me, since I do not want them to get wet, but I have an advantage that I am carrying a camera with me.  I can use my pictures to identify all the creatures when I get home.  When I post a picture on this blog, I try to use my reference books to properly name the creatures.  It is more satisfying for everyone to know that the picture is of a Bearded Fireworm and not some unknown Polychaete, right?  Currently, I have four reference books that I use.  They sit by my desk for review whenever I am posting a photo from one of my dives.

 

Forbes' Asterias Sea Star

Forbes' Asterias Sea Star

The first is the original book that I got when I was a kid.  The A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore is a tried and true classic.  It is part of the Peterson Field Guide Series.  It is great for identifying plants and small creatures like echinoderms, molluscs and crustaceans.  Because of the age of my copy, it does not have as many full color pages with images of everything, but it is still a seminal work for creature identification.

 

French Angelfish

French Angelfish

Next, I acquired another Peterson Field Guide.  This book, Atlantic Coast Fishes covers the creatures that the other one does not.  This book covers vertebrates while the previous one covered plants and invertebrates.  One thing I like about the Peterson Field Guides is that they not only describe the plant or animal to you, they point out the distinguishing characteristic(s) that make this a French Angelfish and not a Gray Angelfish.

 

Forked Tentacle Corallimorph

Forked Tentacle Corallimorph

Recently, when I was in Florida, I picked up two more reference books.  They are both written by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach.  They are avid divers and photographers who have spent many years cataloging  and identifying as many creatures in the water as possible.  The first is Reef Creature Identification.  The book is full of gorgeous pictures for all the creatures referenced in it.  I would never have known that this picture was a Forked Tentacle Corallimorph, which is related to corals and anemones, without this guide.  It is hard to imagine the time and effort required to compile such a large library of nice photos of all the creatures in the book.

 

Nassau Grouper

Nassau Grouper

The other book I picked up was their Reef Fish Identification book.  Again, it is full of amazing photos.  Not only do they have the fish in the book, but they also use a strategy similar to the Peterson Field Guides where they highlight the specific points that make that fish a certain species.  This picture is a Nassau Grouper and not a Red Grouper because of the black saddle spot (near the tail).

 

Being able to identify the things that I see underwater and having the ability to share my pictures with accurate descriptions makes scuba diving much more fulfilling.  Looking at and taking pictures of all the neat life under the water is one of the primary reasons we scuba dive.  Knowing what all these things are makes this sport that much more enjoyable.  Here’s to going out and discovering more about whats under the waves.

 

-Frank

 

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