Flipping Starfish in the warm blue Caribbean Sea.


(repost request)
By Stephen Weir

As spectator sports go, Antiguan Starfish Flipping has a very small fan base. That is because you have to be a certified scuba diver, have the patience of Job and a high tolerance for low jokes to appreciate watching a Oreaster Reticulatus turn itself inside out.
Antigua is a small vibrant island of 67,000 English-speaking people. Situated on the Eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, the former British colony is within sight of the islands of St. Kitts, Nevis, volcanic Montserrat and its political partner Barbuda.
Although this popular scuba diving destination is not blessed with an abrupt deep coral wall drop-off, it does have a rich healthy ring reef system that is close to shore. These shallow reefs are almost untouched and are filled with unusual sea life including a vast number of bottom dwelling starfish.
“ If you came back from a dive and said you didn’t see anything, then you didn’t really dive, you just got wet!” explains John Birk, the outspoken owner of Dive Antigua, the island’s longest established dive operation.
“Consider the lowly starfish” he continued. “Most people think it is a rigid unmoving life form. However, when motivated not only can a starfish walk, but also it can actually turn itself inside out. Today we are going to motivate starfish!”
Standing on the stern platform of his 35ft long twin engine dive boat, Mr. Birk straps on an extra large weight belt around his waist – Big John is a big man! While he gets his underwater dive gear ready he reels of a number of jokes to his five paying customers.
“People always ask me if I take charge cards. I say yes … but the police always make me give them back!”
The boat is moored just a hundred yards offshore from Pillars of Hercules. The crashing seas have pounded out a series of what seems like crude Doric columns into the side of a looming cliff. Approachable only by water, the pillars look like the ruins of a Greek temple transported to this popular Caribbean island.
“People in Canada all have watches because they are stressed for time,” chuckles Big John, as he lifts his aluminum scuba tank over his head and straps it on his back. “In Antigua we don’t need watches -- we just have time.”
There divers are on the boat, not to hear his jokes, but, to learn about the sea. Big John, an ex-pat Canadian, has been diving for almost 40 years and is regarded as a world authority on Antigua’s underwater eco-system. He may be big, but he knows small,
Within moments of the boat’s anchoring everyone has jumped into the warm blue water and swum through a swift surface current to the dead calm sand bottom 40 feet below the boat. With Big John in the lead the group headed seaward past a number of large boulders (which fell off the nearby cliff) towards a small coral reef covered in colourful seafans, soft corals and teeming with fish life. As they swam along the bottom two large stingrays cruised by, slowing only briefly to study the underwater tourists.
On the reefs edge the divers settled onto the sand bottom. Big John pointed to a group of starfish sitting on the sea bottom near by. Just because the divers were underwater, didn’t mean that their guide didn’t have anything to say. He pulled a pencil out of his dive vest and began to furiously write on an underwater slate.
“ Starfish aren’t fish,” he wrote. “They are marine invertebrate of the class Asteroidea – and there are over 1800 different starfish species.”
The divers lay on the sand and watched as Big John put aside his writing gear and picked up an orange-brown starfish from the seabed. On top (the aboral side) it had a hard spiny surface and five distinct stubby arms. Turning it over to look at its oral side one could see the creature’s mouth and five radiating grooves filled with tiny sucker-tipped feet
This starfish was surprisingly rigid. Big John, explained, through his writing, that when threatened the starfish tightens itself up through a series skeletal plates that are imbedded in its flesh. Blunt spines project from these plates offering protection against predators.
“The starfish has no eyes, ears or nose,” wrote Big John. “This fellow relies on its legs for almost everything. “
Placed on the ocean floor with its feet pointing up towards the surface, the starfish appeared to be totally helpless. However it didn’t take long to realize that the Cushion Starfish had everything under control.
The first thing that happened was that two of its arms started to curl inwards towards its mouth. It took about a minute for the now rubbery arms to actually reach over its mouth and touch the sand bottom below.
As the starfish arms began to reach towards the sand, the middle part of the body began to fold in the same direction. The starfish had actually folded itself in two, with a pair of arms touching the sand downward, while the three remaining arms reached upwards.
“ The three upward arms will now fold backwards,” wrote John Birk. “At this point it is safe from attack because its vital organs are once again protected.”
Sure enough before another 60 seconds had passed the starfish had curled its three remaining arms upwards. The creature had flipped itself inside out and once again gone rigid.
The Cushion Starfish has an internal hydraulic system that allows it to move in any direction simply by sucking seawater through a number of holes on its surface. This one hit the seabed running and was beating a hasty (for a starfish) retreat from the circle of divers.
Now not all divers want to spend their whole vacation watching a Cushion Starfish try out for a role with Cirque do Soleil. There are many other exciting dives that can be taken in the warm shallow waters around Antigua.
Antigua sits atop of a shallow bank and as a result most of the diving is shallow, though on the south side it is possible to get below 100 feet. Unlike most of the other islands where the diving is on the fringing reef Antigua has real coral reefs on the north, south and east sides. Both Boons Reef to the north and Cades Reef to the south are dived. There are a few wrecks, some of them sunk intentionally that can also be seen by scuba tourists.
“Boons Reef is also a favourite spot for diving,” said Mr. Birk. “But, when the weather is right and the seas are calm we like to rock and roll in Eric Clapton’s back yard,”
Guitarist Eric Clapton has built an estate on an empty point of land. The rolling hilltop home overlooks a seaside bay. John Birk’s Dive Antigua boat will take divers to a site that puts the rock into rock and roll. In the water below Clapton’s house there is a huge rock – it is the size of a city block. The boulder’s top is just 3 feet below the surface, and it slopes seaward to a depth of 70 ft. The rock is fertile grounds for gorgonian corals, barrel sponges and purple sea fans. In amongst the many crevices that intersect the rock divers can find schools of blue tang, shy nurse shark and oversized black marhates.
Dive Antigua is located on Dickenson Bay on the north end of the island. There are also dive shops in the nearby capital city of St John’s, at Jolly Beach and English Harbour (a restored shipyard built in part by Horatio Nelson). All of the dive shops provide reef diving but Big John is the only dive master who offers starfish flipping dives!
TOP LEFT: Big John Birk
TOP RIGHT: Dive Boat makes stops along Dickenson Bay picking up customers!
BOTTOM: A Starfish flips itself over - Underwater PHotography by J. Francis
(Diver Magazine 2004)



Nice photos.. I would love to explore the Blue Waters of Antigua too.

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