The Daily Bucket – coral reef drama: playful dolphin, grumpy loggerhead turtle, pushy sharks

April/May 2024

Turneffe and Lighthouse Reef Atolls, Belize

In my last Bucket I shared a variety of reef fish and their busy, complicated lifestyles. Most of these fish are small and as divers drift around the reef they will see any fish they encounter in person, usually not the same as other divers in the group. Everyone explores this wild ecosystem individually, although sometimes your dive buddy is close enough to show you something special.

However, some creatures are so big that everyone sees them.

It’s usually a very peaceful, meditative time, wandering around the reef and looking at that world. Just float and float. Visitors to the reef. But on rare occasions, reef creatures choose to communicate with us in their underwater world. For this Bucket I share a few unusual encounters.

Videos show the action.

(Re the color in the following videos: As a commenter noted in my previous Bucket, the colors in photos/video of wild reefs are not as bright as you will see in an aquarium, in full light and up close. Water absorbs light, especially the red end of the spectrum, and in the wild there are particles in the water too.)

Playful dolphin

It is not uncommon to see dolphins from a dive boat, or sometimes even hear them talking underwater. But this was the first time I’d ever been underwater with it, and I’ve been diving for almost 30 years.

On this dive, our group of six and the divemaster hung out at fifteen feet for the required three-minute safety stop (precautionary decompression, so the body can gradually expel dissolved nitrogen from the blood and tissues without forming bubbles, which can lead to “the bends”, a serious condition). Suddenly a bottlenose dolphin buzzed into our group, darted past us all, circling around and around, occasionally veering up to catch a quick breath on the surface. There was absolutely no practical reason to visit us, so I have to assume we were just toys for it. In general, marine animals aren’t fond of air bubbles, but I don’t think the small streams of it we exhaled were too offensive.

My own camera had a dead battery at the end of that dive, but another diver in our group captured some footage, which was an impressive feat considering the speed at which the dolphin swam by. And when we look up, it is in the light, just as there is glare on land. But the videographer did a good job following the dolphin’s path.

I’m in the blue fins at the beginning of the video with Mr O in the black fins and double tank strap, near me.


Grumpy Loggerhead

We saw quite a few turtles on this trip, mainly loggerhead turtles, with a few hawksbill turtles and greens. One time we were about 20 to 25 yards to the edge of a wall when a large loggerhead turtle came around the corner and swam purposefully into our group.

I made a 5½ minute video of this entire encounter using my footage and that of Joe, another diver. There are three clips of me and one of him edited together. You can read the play-by-play before or after the video.

Clip 1 (mine): Turtle approaches and passes me and Mr. O (cleaning his second stage hose) and other divers. He then heads over to Joe, who is filming it, using his GoPro and dual underwater lights. I stopped filming at this point because I generally prefer the nature I see to other divers.

Clip 2 (Joe’s): He films the turtle passing me (in blue fins), Mr O (black fins, double tank strap) and others, and then approaching him. The turtle moves away at first, but then turns around and attacks his camera equipment! One light bite off! Simon the diving guide (in blue patterned wetsuit) intervenes. Joe continues filming as Simon fends off the turtle.

Clip 3 (mine): The altercation from my point of view.

Clip 4 (mine): A few minutes later the turtle returns and heads towards Joe again. Simon blows some huge bubbles on it, and the turtle rises to swim over us, avoiding them. But then it turns around again. As it approached yet another diver, Simon again intervened and decided to end the dive, sending up the DSMB (delayed surface marker buoy) to show the boat captain where we were. We had done a drift dive, so the captain followed our bubbles, but the DSMB tells him we will surface in a few minutes. The dive was a bit short, but Joe had clearly burned his air by then, breathing heavily during the encounter, and the rule is that we all go up when someone is low on air.

Here’s the video:


Some thoughts on this meeting. First, the turtle appears to blink and squint when it comes close to the lights. Maybe the turtle didn’t like strong lights underwater, although I’ve seen plenty of occasions where other people filmed them with lights. My second thought is that maybe this is just a grumpy turtle having a bad day. Animals in the wild are individual, unique creatures, each with their own personality and mood. One turtle (or fish or dolphin, etc.) is not interchangeable with another, and they have their own motivations, feelings and behavior. I am also filled with admiration for Simon, and all the dive guides we had during our trip and dive guides in general, for his skills and professionalism. These guys deserve a lot of thanks (and generous tips, in this poor country).

Pushy sharks

Sharks are opportunistic carnivores and an important part of the coral reef ecosystem. They are generally aloof, solitary and not numerous, making seeing them a real treat for divers. Like other wild animals (think birds, coyotes, snakes, etc.), they prefer to keep their distance from humans and pose no threat to us unless we threaten them or look for food, as surfers and swimmers sometimes do (they are mistaking the sea for seals). surface). That’s why it was surprising to see so many sharks hanging around us during our dives, both at Turneffe Atoll and Lighthouse Reef Atoll. It was especially surprising to see nurse sharks so active; they are nocturnal and usually sleep on the bottom during the day.

In this 1 minute and 15 second video, the first few clips are of nurse sharks, the last two are Caribbean reef sharks. Notice how the nurse sharks swim among divers, including Elroy the dive guide who showed us a box crab shark. He almost hit him in the face with his tail!


The reason all these sharks lurk around divers is because some tourism organizations feed them to give their customers a thrill. Chumming is illegal in the marine reserves of Turneffe Atoll and the national monument areas of Lighthouse Reef Atoll, the places with the best diving, but some operations do it anyway, despite rangers doing their best to prevent it. I saw a ranger boat crewed by Belize Audubon, which manages the national monuments at Lighthouse Reef Atoll, stationed at the Blue Hole and literally keeping an eye on every tourist boat that stopped by for some fun. But enough cops get away with it, so for the local sharks, a boat motor is now a dinner bell.

Lionfish. Native to the Pacific Ocean, devastating to Caribbean reef fish

Another reason why sharks hang around divers is because well-meaning divers have been spearing invasive lionfish to feed the sharks (and moray eels). The hope was to teach sharks and eels that lionfish are good to eat. Problems arose when eels became aggressive and attacked divers (that happened to me in Honduras 15 years ago). I don’t know how much is being speared in Belize these days. Blackbird Caye Resort, where we stayed, is no longer in business (ten years ago it was speared, cleaned and made into a nice ceviche). We did see fewer lionfish on this trip than in previous years, about ten out of 34 dives. One of our dive guides said he has personally seen nurse sharks catch and swallow lionfish themselves, so hopefully the extremely destructive effect of these Pacific fish will diminish, at least in this area. Coral reefs need all the breaks they can get.


Here at home in the Pacific Northwest islands, temperatures today are in the 60s with a light breeze.

The Daily Bucket is a nature reserve. We amicably discuss animals, weather, climate, soil, plants, waters and note the patterns of life.

We invite you to notice what you see around you in your own part of the world, and to share your observations in the comments below.