Underwater Photography

The 4 Best Secret Spots to Find Major Underwater Macro

The dive sites of Cozumel, Mexico are loaded with photo opportunities. You’ll come face to face all year round with larger animals, including turtles, stingrays, tropical fish, nurse sharks, and – in the winter months – our beautiful eagle rays.

Green Turtle

Each dive is ripe with the possibility of cool encounters on a reasonably large scale.

Nevertheless, even here, some divers and underwater photographers who only appreciate the “big stuff” occasionally feel they’ve come up short.

Major Underwater Macro in Mexico

On the other hand, in Cozumel – as in pretty much every place I’ve gone diving – the macro photography enthusiast in me is never at a loss for subject matter.

Give me any patch of reef and I can find something to shoot – be it a grouchy-looking little blenniefish shouting at me to ‘go away!’ or a serene Still Life with Sponge.

The trick is to work with your surroundings and learn the likely spots where the little guys take shelter.

Next time your dive starts to feel like slim pickings, remember these secret hiding spots and you’ll be pleased with what you can find.

Location Location Location (and Luck!) for Underwater Macro

When you are scouring the reef for some cool tiny critters, it helps to identify the key places these animals tend to hang out. Of course, there are no guarantees, but more often than not, you’ll find someone lurking if you start to frequent the best hidey holes.

Sponges

There are sponges of all colors, shapes, and sizes along Caribbean coral reefs. With their high walls and cozy, hollow forms, it makes sense that a wide variety of small creatures use them for protection and sheltering spots.

The most common animals you’ll find on/in reef sponges are Brittle Sea Stars and Arrow Crabs.

They’re both ubiquitous on purple and blue-gray vase sponges. They also make fantastic subject matter for underwater macro shots – especially for beginners, thanks to their clean lines and sharp patterns.

Plus, they don’t move all that much!

Giant Anemone

There are several types of anemone along the Mesoamerican Reef, including Giant, Corkscrew, and Sun.

Each kind provides shelter and some symbiotic relations to specific smaller species that are not affected by their inherent toxic ‘sting.’

These critters – usually certain small fish (think “Nemo”), as well as crabs and shrimp – are protected within the stinging arms of the anemone, and in turn, clean the anemone (and other hovering fish) of stray algae and parasites.

The most common, though, and by far the easiest to find when you’re starting out is the Giant Anemone (condylactis gigantea).

If you do find one, there’s probably a 98% chance it’s home to a Banded Clinging Crab, seen here.

Banded Clinging Crab

These crabs are fickle – sometimes they hang out and seem happy to pose for a portrait, but most often they’re shy and will quickly dart behind the flesh of the anemone.

So approach with care – use your buoyancy skills to pause and move slowly, or you’ll scare them away.

The giant anemone also offers a nice nest to the occasional Spotted Cleaner Shrimp.

This variety of shrimp isn’t ultra-rare, but it is still a real treat when you find one.

Spotted Cleaner Shrimp

Better yet, they tend to be curious and brave, often traveling down the length of an anemone arm right toward your camera – so you can both get a better look!

Gorgonian Corals

Alcyonacea soft corals (familiarly known as Gorgoninan corals) are plentiful in the Caribbean, which is good news for us macro nerds. Lots of reef animals lurk among the branches of the various gorgonians, including sea snails like the Flamingo Tongue, and “Basket” stars – both extremely small and very large.

The Flamingo Tongue has long been my favorite macro muse in Cozumel, and these days they’re found in great numbers and on almost every dive.

Flamingo Tongue Sea Snail

You can also get lucky and find either clusters of small, vibrantly colored Sea Rod Basket Stars clinging to the arms of one coral, as seen here:

Sea Rod Basket Stars (usually in large clusters)

Or you might encounter the intriguing Giant Basket Star resting up for its night shift.

The Giant Basket Star curls up into a slightly sinister-looking tangle during the day, as shown below. Then at night, the long arms unfurl into a large ‘net’ for catching various nutrients that flow by in the ocean currents.

Giant Basket Star, by day

Sandy Bottom

When I started diving, I thought the trips across the sandy bottom from one reef section to another were almost ‘wasted’ dive time. I hurried over them with some frustration, wondering why we were moving away from the coral reef in the first place.

Well, terrain routes and dive guide expertise aside, the fact is I was (of course) dead wrong.

The sandy ocean floor is chock full of surprises, perfect for macro photography. But be forewarned! The funkiest finds are often true masters of camouflage.

Flounders are among the most interesting of the bottom dwellers that beginners will find with some ease – once you can actually spot your first one or two, more will follow. And as you sharpen those skills, you’ll start looking for and finding the miniature – and adorable – juvenile founder fish.

Juvenile flounder blending in with the sand (about the size of a postage stamp)

Another sand-dwelling favorite is the Pikeblenny fish.

This skinny, diminutive fish darts below the sand in a flash when startled, so approach with care. You’ll sometimes find them out on the sand, and perhaps even flaring a dorsal fin, as part of its interaction with a potential mate.

But more often, the pikeblenny stays hidden, with only its tiny snout and face above the sand line.

You need a keen eye, but also to know where to look in the first place, to catch a good shot of this little guy.

Yellowface Pikeblenny

Secret Spots for Shooting Tiny Sea Creatures

As you can see, there are lots of little nooks and crannies, or wide-open sandy spaces, where you can search for your underwater photography subjects. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

By all means, keep your head up some of the time so you don’t miss your chance at the majestic rays and turtles and sharks. But don’t forget that each dive is a chance to also up your macro photography game!

If you continue to peek and peer among these 4 familiar locations to recognize the frequent hiding places, there will always be something to find. You’ll learn to look, and in the process, get your macro photo experience kicked up a few notches with each and every dive.

Rachel Schreck

Rachel Schreck is a freelance writer with an underwater photography habit, splitting her time between the U.S. and Cozumel, MX. After a loving split from NYC, she sold it all to follow fish with her minimal set up and endless enthusiasm for diving and macro marine life. Check out more at www.divetripgoods.com and on Instagram @schreckrachel
Rachel Schreck

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2 comments

  1. John Scheschareg March 12, 2020

    Wonderful article, Rachel! So true, that in Cozumel there is another world from one coral head to another.
    And don’t leave out the “Christmas Tree Worms” and rare “Mantis Schrimp”…

  2. Susan F. April 2, 2020

    I love seeing your work & diving with you Rachel! Great article–informative & concise! And of course, I think your photography is amazing!

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