Six months ago we reported that we were using Nitrox to explore the dive site "Texas" off the western tip of Roatan island. This site is a gradually descending plateau of coral ridges and sand patches chock full of some of the most amazing underwater life to be found on Roatan.
With currents converging on the area from both sides of the island, the area is nutrient rich which brings congregations of fish to feed. Upwellings on either side bring predators like groupers lining up along the brink of the wall for an opportunistic meal. There are clouds of the bright blue Creole Wrasse, along with schools of Jacks and Permit. There are some unique denizens in this area such as the Sargassum Triggerfish which has only been observed at this site, and the area is also a breeding ground for the Oceanic Triggerfish (you wouldn't think they are related) and the endangered Nassau Grouper.
Nitrox dives on Texas are always popular, and the dive planned for last Friday brought together the loosely associated regular dive team of Mickey, Kal, Marty, and myself along with Manon and her group of divers. Mickey, Marty, and Kal have an on-going friendly competition for the best images and the plan today was to use wide angle lenses, and the subjects would be sponges. There would be a lot of neglected fish.
It is hard to get an idea of size in some underwater photos, and with subjects like this a diver in the photos would be a good size comparison. The obvious choice would be one of our most attractive instructional staff, but they were all obligated to teach courses and lead dives, so we ended up asking Bugs. Keeping a yardstick outta work, he accepted.
The predominant sponges on Texas are the Giant Barrel Sponges (Xestospongia muta). Living at depths in excess of thirty feet they are seen virtually on every dive site on Roatan. For those of us who dive here regularly they are used as landmarks because of their size and the unique forms they can take.
It turns out these sponges are quite old, and they live up to their nickname the "Redwoods of the Deep". It can take 25 years to grow to the size of a five gallon bucket, and a modest sponge the size of a kitchen garbage can could have been growing for the last 100 years! The "Big Sponge", a monster that is a popular landmark on the Texas dive site is easily 1000 years old! It was a mere puppy of a half a millennia old when Christopher Columbus took his first Caribbean vacation.
Incredulous you are? Skeptical? "Unbelievable" you say? Understandable because I had the same reaction. However Dr. Joseph Pawlik, professor with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington has been studying these sponges since 1997 and has developed a sponge age calculator which we have been using to determine how old these guys are. The good Professor has a very interesting and informative website devoted to these sponges with great photos and information you don't need a degree in Marine Biology to understand.
Normally these sponges live up to their name and resemble the shapes of barrels, cylindrical and vertical, standing on hard substrate above the surrounding coral and other sponges. On Texas however currents are the norm and the sponges take on unusual shapes formed by the constant pressure of the water. They bend and deform like alpine trees subjected to harsh mountain winds.
The exploration of Texas continues. The consensus is that we may have seen 30% of this incredible dive site so far. We continue to dive it regularly, and we are constantly amazed.