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6 astonishing marine spectacles

by Timber Press on October 26, 2016

in Natural History

The bright colors of this nudibranch warn potential predators that it is covered with stinging cells from its prey, soft coral polyps.

The bright colors of this nudibranch warn potential predators that it is covered with stinging cells.

Nothing is as otherworldly as the strange and beautiful flora and fauna living deep underwater. These are just 6 of the many astonishing marine spectacles that can be witnessed in person all over North America and in the pages of Vladimir Dinet’s Wildlife Spectacles: Mass Migrations, Mating Rituals, and Other Fascinating Animal Behaviors.

1. Nudibranchs are shell-less mollusks that are often so flamboyantly bright-colored that they stand out even on coral reefs. They have pushed the toxic defense method a bit further: many of them feed on stinging polyps and somehow manage to move stinging cells from their stomach to their skin; the cells survive the ordeal and keep working as a sort of shield for the mollusk. Other nudibranchs feed on harmless algae and either are well camouflaged or mimic the stinging ones. Colorful nudibranchs can be found at numerous dive sites of the Pacific coast, from Kenai Fjords National Park, AK, to Channel Islands National Park, CA. They are also common along the coast of eastern Canada. You can sometimes find them in tide pools—for example, in Salt Point State Park, CA.

A giant Pacific octopus hiding under a sunken ship.

A giant Pacific octopus hiding under a sunken ship.

2. Octopuses are nocturnal hunters and are generally shy, so even if you know where one lives, it might take many hours of diving to see it hunt. But it’s worth the effort. A small octopus will sometimes fearlessly leap on the back of a large crab and ride it for a few minutes before wrapping its arms around the crabs’s legs to immobilize it, then killing the prey with a well-placed bite of the octopus’s venomous beak.Small octopuses can occasionally be found while diving or checking tide pools along both coasts, but to see a Pacific giant octopus, try diving around Vancouver Island, BC. The best dive site is called Wolffish Alley, but the most accessible one is Singing Sands in Comox, BC (you can get directions at local dive shops).

 Each humpback whale has a unique black-and-white pattern on the underside of its tail.

Each humpback whale has a unique black-and-white pattern on the underside of its tail.

3. Humpback whales provide the most fun for whale watchers. They are very playful and inquisitive. You can see them jumping out of the water, harassing blue whales, joining sea lions in herring hunts, or sunbathing on the surface, their long flippers up in the air like narrow white sails. They often approach the boat to get a better look at people, to scratch their backs against the boat, or to shoot a spout in passengers’ faces. They sing their long, weird songs that can be heard by dropping a hydrophone into the water. Viewing bubble-feeding humpbacks requires an expensive expedition to the fjords of the Alaska Panhandle, but lunge-feeding is increasingly seen during whale-watching tours in Monterey Bay, CA, particularly in summer and early fall.


A Portuguese man o’ war drifting with sargasso weed.


Violet use foam to travel with winds and currents.










4. One oceanic traveler you are almost certain to see in summer is the fearsome Portuguese man o’ war. From the surface it looks like a blue or purple plastic bubble, shaped like a rooster’s crest. Like the harmless by-the-wind sailor, it uses wind to travel and is actually a colony, with numerous organisms forming tentacles under the transparent float. But the man o’ war is anything but harmless. Below the float are tentacles up to 160 feet long, covered with stinging cells, which cause extremely painful burns. A few small animals have developed resistance to man o’ war venom, and travel with it, hiding between the tentacles. The most beautiful of these hitchhikers, dark blue sea slugs and violet snails, feed on the man o’ war.

 When not migrating, spiny lobsters hide in underwater caves during the day and hunt at night.

When not migrating, spiny lobsters hide in underwater caves during the day and hunt at night.

5. King crabs and lobsters can walk for very long distances; spiny lobsters are particularly famous because their herds move in single file, each animal placing its long antennae on the back of the one in front of it. Seeing spiny lobster migrations is difficult and usually requires mounting a serious expedition; the movements of clawed lobsters have never been directly observed and are inferred from tagging data. Migrating spiny lobsters can be seen by scuba diving in the fall in the waters surrounding Dry Tortugas National Park, FL. The same waters are a major spawning area of Atlantic bluefin tuna; huge shoals can sometimes be seen moving through the straight between Florida and Cuba.



This rare photograph shows the outline of northern right whale dolphins swimming through sea sparkles at night.

6. Sea sparkles are the single-cell organisms you often see as tiny flashes of light in the surf at night. Sea sparkles flash their light when disturbed. In the shallow mangrove bays of Everglades National Park, they sometimes become so numerous that you seem to be swimming through shimmering liquid fire. What’s the purpose of the light? It is a very common natural spectacle, but nobody knows why sea sparkles produce light. Sea sparkles are best seen from July through early September; good places include Channel Islands National Park, CA, Florida Bay, FL, and Padre Island National Seashore, TX.




Vladimir Dinets was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a young man. He has a PhD in zoology, with a focus on animal behavior. Vladimir has traveled and photographed extensively around the globe, becoming the first zoologist to find and photograph saola tracks in the wilds of Vietnam. He is a research assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, where he studies behavioral ecology and its applications to conservation.


Click the image below for a look inside this book.


“With inspired passion, Vladimir Dinets introduces us to diverse wildlife spectacles, the natural history that drives them, and a checklist of amazing experiences—many of which are closer to home than you might think.” —Mark Elbroch, lead scientist of Pumas with Panthera, coauthor of Peterson Reference Guide to the Behavior of North American Mammals

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