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Guide to Tropical Marine Life in Puerto Vallarta Mexico

The waters of coastal Puerto Vallarta abound with tropical and exotic marine life. Just below the surface of the water you'll find the most extraordinary realm on this planet, one that is so infused with color, life, and motion that it can take your breath away.

Scuba diving and snorkeling in Puerto Vallarta will transport you into another world where the ordinary is left behind and there is always something exciting to see! We hope you enjoy this brief introduction to the marine life you might encounter in the Bay of Banderas and Mexican Pacific.

MANTA RAY (Man to birostris)

HABITAT: Coastal and pelagic waters, 1-40 m (3-130 ft)

SIZE: Up to 30 ft wide, typically 10-20 ft

DESCRIPTION: Biggest and most spectacular of the rays, completely harmless to humans despite its size and fearsome appearance (which won it the nickname "sea devil" in the past; its common name derives from the Spanish manta for cloak). Characterized by slow, majestic and elegant swimming.Its ventral side is normally white, and its dorsal side is gray-blue or black. There are often darker spots on the under side or lighter ones on the back, their shape and position making it possible to identify indi viduals. Completely black or dark-colored individuals are not rare. By habit crea tures of the open sea, they often approach the reef to feed on plankton massing on the surface of a current. This is a good occasion to observe the highly devel oped cephalic fins that are formed by an extension of the ray's enormous pectoral fins and through which it guides a "soup" of microor ganisms toward its wide toothless mouth. Shaped like shovel blades, these lobes roll up along their own axes when swimming, improving the ray's hydrodynamic shape and assuming the unmistakable look of conical "horns" if the animal is swimming at a certain speed. When it finds itself in extreme shallows, the ray will often leap out of the water or strike the surface with the tips of its pectorals. Solitary by habit, it can sometimes be seen in groups of twenty or more. Generally indifferent but sometimes curious, it will often linger near divers and watch them closely if it is not bothered or frightened.


SPOTTED EAGLE RAY (Aetohatus narinari)

HABITAT: Coastal and pelagic waters, 1-40 m (3-130 ft) or beyond

SIZE: Up to 10 ft wide, generally 3-6.5 ft

DESCRIPTION: A ray of exceptional elegance easily identified by round white spots on its dark gray back and by its long, whiplike tail with one or more serrated, poisonous spines. Often seen in large groups over vast sand flats, it feeds on mollusks and crustaceans that it catches by combing the sea bottom. Very timid, it is a fast swimmer.


HAWKSBILL TURTLE (Eretomochelvs inibricata)

HABITAT: Pelagic waters and coastal reefs, 1-40 m (3-130 ft)

SIZE: Up to 35 in

DESCRIPTION: Easily distinguished by its small size and the overlapping scutes that cover its carapace. The tip of its beak forms a sharp hook (thus its English name) and it can also be recognized by the beauty of its shell, which is marbleized with black, brown and yellow (heavily employed in crafting precious objects, especially in the past). Gravely threatened with extinction through persistent overfishing in various countries, it is primarily carnivorous and feeds exclusively on sponges and soft corals.


INDO-PACIFIC SARGEANT (Abudefduf vaigiensis)

HABITAT: Coastal waters, shallow reefs, 1-15 m (3 - 50 ft)

SIZE: Up to 6 in

DESCRIPTION: A big and extremely common damselfish in a wide variety of environments, from turbid waters in coastal lagoons to oceanic reef slopes. Strongly social in habit and manifestly territorial, it feeds only on zooplankton and algae.


MOORISH IDOL (Zoo cans cornutas)

HABITAT: Coastal and seaward reefs, 1-180 m (3-590 ft)

SIZE: Up to 8.5 in

DESCRIPTION: Found alone, in pairs, or in small groups, it is sometimes seen in big shoals: it feeds on algae and small benthic organisms. Its family, the Zanclidoe, is closer to surgeonfish (acanthurids) than to butterflvfish (chaetodonts). It is the only member of its species: easily identified by the long dorsal fin ending in a very thin tip.


BLACK-BLOTCHED PORCUPINEFISH (Diodon liturosus)

HABITAT: Coastal reefs, 1-90 m (3-295 ft)

SIZE: Up to 18 in

DESCRIPTION: Closely related to puffers, porcupinefish are additionally furnished with scales modified into long, sharp spines that stand up and out when the animal inflates itself. Like puffers, its fused teeth form a powerful structure similar to a beak, which enables it to break open the shells of echinoderms, mollusks and crustaceans.


BUMPHEAD PARROTFISH (Bolbometopon muricatum)

HABITAT: Seaward reefs and deep slopes, 1-40 m (3130 ft)

SIZE: Up to 4 ft

DESCRIPTION: A large species with an exceptionally impressive appearance, it is characterized by big, hard, shell-like scales, a uniform green coloration, and the large, pink-tinged bulge on its forehead, which it sometimes uses as a battering ram to splinter corals. Adults travel great distances to reach their customary pastures, often crossing wide tracts of open ocean and always sleeping in the same burrows, usually large caves and wall fissures. During the and day, they gather in "herds" of ten to thirty individuals and scour the reef at shallow depths, violently and noisily cropping corals with their powerful beaks, a behavior that reminds one of large, wild bovines feeding and justifiably earns them the nickname of "bison fish."


OCTOPUS (Octopus sp.)

HABITAT: Rocky areas, reefs, lagoons, 1-20 m (3-65 ft)

SIZE:Up to 3 ft

DESCRIPTION: Description Represented in every hot and temperate sea by numerous species that are different but are all objectively intelligent. The venomous bite of the blue-ringed octopus, is very dangerous: it is widespread in the central Pacific.


ARROW CRAB (Stenorhynchrus seticornis)

HABITAT: Coral seabeds 1-30 m (3-100 ft)

SIZE: Up to 2 in

DESCRIPTION: This tiny, brightly colored crab is characterized by extraordinarily long and slender limbs and by its pointed cephalic beak. It can be approached without difficulty both day and night; frequently seen on sea fans and inside the calyx-type sponges characteristic of Caribbean seabeds.


LOBSTER (Palinurus sp.)

HABITAT: Coral and rocky seabeds, 1-50 m (3-165 ft)

SIZE: Up to 16 in

DESCRIPTION: The Palinurus genus (often erroneously transcribed as Panulirus) is represented by numerous species in all the world's tropical and subtropical seas. It is a predatory, nocturnal animal with a vividly decorated coat. They are often numerous locally; they linger in crevices (with their long antennas sticking out) during the day and hunt small benthic organisms at night, but they also feed on organic detritus when they happen across it. Lobsters have recently suffered a dramatic demographic decline; entire populations have been annihilated by intensive fishing, especially where tourism abounds.


CHRISTMAS TREE WORM (Spirobranchas giganteus)

HABITAT: Coral seabeds, 1-40 m (3-130 ft)

SIZE: Up to 1 in

DESCRIPTION: The characteristic spiraling and multicolored "little umbrellas" protruding from madreporic colonies (usually Porites) are actually the ruffled gills of a small worm hidden in a tube hollowed out of the coral. Very sensitive to variations in light and water pressure, it retreats into its tube with lightning speed if threatened. It feeds on suspended microplankton.


CONES ANGELFISH (Pomacanthus zonipectus)

HABITAT: Coral seabeds

SIZE: Up to 1 ft

DESCRIPTION: This splendid fish appears to be a hardier species than the king angelfish and can tolerate wider extremes of temperature. It is quite common over shallow reefs throughout the Gulf of California, feeding on sponges-a major diet item-and algae, tunicates, hydroids, bryozoans, and eggs. Since they share the same food source, Cortez angelfishes mix and often swim with king angelfishes in feeding aggregations. The juvenile is often solitary, fiercely territorial, and will attack its own mirror image; juveniles feed on algae and, to a large extent, parasites they pick from larger fishes. An unusual aggregation of about 60 half-inch juveniles joined into a tight cluster was reported in 1979. Spawning occurs from midsummer through early fall; juveniles are common from August through November.


NURSE SHARK (Ginglymostoma cirratum)

HABITAT: Commonly found in very shallow water, down to 100 cm (39 in), always in and around coral and on the bottom

SIZE: Generally 7.5-10 ft, occasionally up to 14 ft

DESCRIPTION: The head is broad and flat, with a small terminal mouth equipped with numerous small cuspidate teeth and externally with barbels that have a sensory function; the eyes are minuscule and there are two large spiracles. The caudal fin is very long (up to a quarter the total length of the body) and basically formed only of the upper lobe; the other fins are large and rounded. The color of the back is uniformly yellowish-gray or beige, the belly white with rosy tints. The nurse shark spends the day resting motionless on the bottom, often sheltered by a jutting arch or in a small cave; at night it actively roams the reef in search of its customary prey (sleeping fish, cephalopods, crustaceans and echinoderms), which are vigorously sucked into its mouth. A complicated ritual of courtship and mating has been fully documented for this species; ovoviviparous, the female gives birth to as many as 28 live young. The shark is by nature shy and tranquil, but because of the great strength of its jaws, it should never be disturbed or molested. Very often, in fact, inexperienced skin-divers amuse themselves by tugging at the tail, which may jut out from the cleft where the shark is concealed. The result can be disastrous, for the animal is capable of very swift and violent reactions.


WHITETIP REEF SHARK (Triaenodon obesus)

HABITAT: Closely associated with the ecosystem of the coral reef, it generally lives in surface waters, from 8-40 m (25-130 ft), but it is possible to sight it at depths of more than 300 m (1,000 ft)

SIZE: Generally 5.2 ft, occasionally up to 7 ft

DESCRIPTION: It is readily identifiable by its slim body outline, the powerful, flattened head and the blunt snout. Very evident, too, at first sight are the characteristic "cat's eyes" and the brilliant white spots at the tip of the dorsal fins and on the two lobes of the caudal fin. The swimming motion appears more obviously undulating than in other species; the first dorsal fin, moreover, is situated very far back in relation to the rear margin of the pectorals. There are two very conspicuous labial folds. The back is gray or gray-brown, often with a visible scattering of blackish spots, and the belly is white. During the day it often rests motionless on the bottom or inside a crevice or cave, either alone or in small groups, or swims lazily along the reef. At night it is more active, preying on sleeping bony fishes, crustaceans and cephalopods, which it pursues with great vigor, often wriggling its way without injury through the gaps in the madreporic formations and even breaking off bits of coral to get at its victim. The whitetip reef shark is often gregarious and strictly sedentary (it operates regularly within a confined area of a few square kilometers), but does not appear to be territorial; as a rule nonaggressive, it may prove dangerous if molested by an imprudent skin-diver. It reaches sexual maturity at 5 years old when 100 cm (39 in) or so in length; the species is viviparous and, although the duration of gestation is unknown, females give birth to 1-5 live young measuring about 50 cm (20 in). The shark may live for about 25 years. It is well represented throughout its range and its survival prospects do not at present appear to be threatened.

A guide to the Mexican Pacific marine life encountered while snorkeling and scuba diving in Banderas Bay and along the coast of Puerto Vallarta Mexico
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