2012 Features
"We saw this enormous dark blob; it was scary!"
Finding "The Needle" "
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Joan and Lou met on Saba in 1984 when Lou was working with Ed Arnold at Saba Deep.The three of them were enjoying the dive site Third Encounter when something caught their eye.
Click on the video to the left and enjoy Joan's recounting of what it was like to find Saba's iconic "The Needle". Joan and Lou Bourque are the original owners of Sea Saba Dive Center, started in 1985.
The Needle was also rated one of the "Top 10 Dive Sites" by Sport Diver magazine. Learn more about this pinnacle (Dive site #2 on the 30+ Dive Sites page of this website) as well as all of Saba's dive sites on both the Marine Diversity page and 30+ Dive Sites page of this website. Wanna learn even more? When visiting Saba, be sure to plan to be at The Brigadoon restaurant on Mondays at 5:30 p.m. Our weekly free slide show starts with the history of the island--from its volcanic origins through European colonization to the present day. We also explain how this history effects your diving today; why the Saba Marine Park is successful; normal and unusual things to see on Saba and more. Don't miss the fun! Join us!
Special thanks to Mark Thorne for this video. View more of Mark's work.


Feeling Sluggish?
Saba's bottom crawlers are worth a look by Sea Saba guides Becca Knight and Vicky Gabriel
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Another Sea Saba Difference...our guides will help you focus on the ‘good things that come in small packages' Many of Saba’s divers come to see ‘the big stuff" on our renowned pinnacle dives. But there's a great variety more...at Sea Saba, we don't discount the entertainment value of a dive based on the size of the sightings. Our guides are equipped with a 10x magnifier so that we can show you the wide variety of nudibranchs, sea slugs and other mollusks which can be found by the discerning critter seeker.

Slug Brown Line Eysia by Clark Burton

Mollusks are so named for their soft bodies (from the Latin name Mollusca) and lack a ‘true skeleton’. Many mollusks are enabled with the ability to create a protective external shell by secreting calcium carbonate from their mantle, a specialized layer of the creature’s outer tissues.  Nudibranchs, Sea Hares and Sea Slugs are all shell-less snails in the sub class Opisthobranchia.  They typically have a thick, elongated oval shaped body—some easy to find with a length of 2-4 inches but a number of species smaller than your thumbnail.  Distinguishing a stunning solar-powered slug from a nebulous nudibranch is easy if you look for some of the following features.

Lettuce Leaf Sea Slug

One of the most common examples of these critters around Saba is the Lettuce Sea Slug (above) – a Sapsucking Slug of the Sacoglossa order.  They can be distinguished by the many skin ruffles (parapodia) on their back and a single pair of rolled

  Using a magnifier to see great small stuff--another Sea Saba Difference

Rhinophores (sensory tentacles) on their head.  They can vary in hue from creamy white to vivid shades of green, lilac, blue, orange or red; and if you’re lucky you may catch a glimpse of their beautiful spotted undersides.  They breathe by absorbing oxygen through their skin, a process made easier by the parapodia which increases the absorption area.  They are herbivorous and feed on algae; but have cleverly evolved to harness the photosynthesising power of plants – check out Sea Slug Forum for more information on ‘solar powered slugs’.

Christmas Tree Hydroid Nudibrach Mays

Nudibranch is Latin for “naked lung”.  The naked lungs or external gills, are the anatomical feature to look for to differentiate a nudi from a slug.  The external gills often form crown or feather-like appendages on their back near the anus (anal gills).  Like slugs, they have rhinophores but they also have a second pair of oral tentacles, though these are not always obvious due to their diminuative size.  Like the Sapsucking Slugs many have skin ruffles or fringed areas on their back (cerata) to increase the skin’s oxygen absorption area.  Unlike many of their vegetarian look-a-likes, Nudibranchs are carnivorous--their food sources varying from sponges or hydroids to other nudibranchs.  The Christmas Tree Hydroid Nudibranch (recently spotted by Vicky on Diamond Rock) uses the undischarged stinging nematocysts from its prey for its own defence by relocating them to it’s cerata instead of digesting them.

Swallowtail Headshield Slug by Mark Mitchell
  Hot Springs has recently been a hotbed for Swallowtail Headshield Slugs.  These luridly striped cannibals can be found in the sandy patches which abound in Ladder Bay.  They can be recognised by their distinctive shield shaped head and ribbon-like rear, but you’ll have to look close as they only reach a maximum of 1 inch in size.

King Helmet

Torsten was delighted to spot a King Helmet at Tent Reef.  This more typical snail with a hard, cone shaped exterior shell is a rare sight in most areas due to over collecting (not a problem here, thanks to the Saba Marine Park rules).  These 4 – 6 inch gastropods usually burrow into the sand during the day, exposing just the tip of their shell, and only come to forage for their prey (sea urchins) at night.

Miniature Melo

This summer, we had a number of sightings of the unusual Miniature Melo (above) in the sand.  These tiny, delicate looking gastropods usually hide amongst the reefs and rocks during the day, only coming out at night to feast on bristle or polychaete worms.  Like the Christmas Tree Hydroid Nudibranch, these cunning cuties incorporate the worms’ toxins into their own tissues as part of their defense mechanism.

These are just a few examples of Saba’s tiniest residents, so next time you’re in the sand or rubble, take a closer look.  But remember, don’t touch!  Good things may come in little packages, but poison also comes in little bottles.


Saba's dark side of bizarre exhibitionism
Bioluminescent Ostracods
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Edie Widder-Smith ostracod

  When is the last time you went in the water
and were shown something that blew your mind? 
Let us take you out after dark for an Avatar-like experience. Dr. Widder-Smith, along with 12 other scientists, were invited to attend Sea & Learn 2012.
Her new discovery on Saba's night dives is just
one of the remarkable examples of the value of the annual Sea & Learn program...

As the sun lowered on October 2nd, Captain Aaron decided the dusk/night snorkel trip was best planned in the calm waters of Hot Springs.  When it comes to night dives, it’s always a toss-up for Sea Saba’s crew whether to dive Tent Reef—prolific night and day—or Hot Springs, a guarantee for great Nurse Shark interaction. As we waited for the sun to actually set, Dr. Edie Widder-Smith explained a rare phenomenon that used to be common to witness throughout  the

  ostracod image courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Caribbean.  Her “hands on” marine field project as part of the annual Sea & Learn on Saba program attracted 10 interested snorkelers on Sea Saba’s boat who hoped to see bioluminescent ostrocods.  But our chances were slim.  Although there are 13,000 living species of ostracods, these tomato-seed-size crustaceans have not been seen in Caribbean habitats for the last 20 years…exceptions are a few remote places off Belize.  Pollutants from runoff, poor waste management, and light pollution are just a few known factors linked to the absence of these tiny marine creatures.

octracod mating display; no photo credit on blog site  

As we got closer to shore, it was hard to tell who was more excited, Dr. Widder-Smith or the participants.  “This is the most amazing display I have ever seen!” were her first words as she boarded Sea Dragon.  Hundreds of displays were suspended in the water—if you’ve seen Avatar in 3D, that’s the best way to explain it. Ostracods are found in all oceans, fresh water and even on land. 

But only in the Caribbean do they use ioluminescence to attract a mate.  Male ostracods in the Caribbean have specialized their mating behavior as a visual light show.  Using a mucous secretion, the horny boy spits out a “string of pearls” with each pearl being a light emission. Deciphering the distance between each pearl, the calculating female can determine if this ostracod is the same species for a successful reproduction.  Some males prefer to work as a gang and send out the signal of an orgy—looking for a bad girl who can’t be satisfied by just one guy.

Though an accomplished scientist, Edi is no nerd sitting in a laboratory all day long. Instead this real life action figure continues her quest to share her knowledge with others.  Her adventures started with donning a WASP suit to explore the seafloor.  She has since accomplished more than 250 submersible dives to the ocean floor to depths greater than 3,000 feet.  Her research involving submersibles has been featured in BBC, PBS, Discovery Channel and National Geographic television productions.  She has worked with engineers to develop cameras to discover and document what’s really living down there and why it’s important to understand more. 
  Edie Widder-Smith emerging from vessel

Dr. Widder resigned from her 16 year post at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to cofound the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA), a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of marine ecosystems and the species they sustain through development of innovative technologies and science-based conservation action.

Hands on Learning
Samford University students dive in to an eco immersion
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Boyles law demonstrated by Samford Uni

  What would you do...
If your parents told you that you had to take two weeks away from your normal circle of friends, step outside your comfort zone, and come back with a clear understanding of Boyle’s physical law of pressure, coastal geomorphology, and how commensalism differs from parasitism, you might instead offer to give up your smart phone!

In January 2013, eight students will eagerly dive into these subjects.  Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama encourages all students to travel at “Jan Term”. But their parents don’t have to threaten them…they sign up.  Dr. Jennifer Rahn’s Scientific Methods program takes the concept of hands-on learning to the Caribbean island of Saba where the classroom setting ranges from Mt. Scenery’s verdant tropical cloudforest to Third Encounter, a famed underwater geological formation. 

Over 14 days, the participants will engage in a unique experiential learning program going beyond just hiking and learning to scuba dive.  The multi-faceted program provides students with the opportunity to utilize scientific methods in various hands-on learning situations from measuring beach slope and cloudforest humidity levels to topographic map reading, GPS naviagation to how an octopus uses camouflage as one of several defense mechanisms.

  Samford beach measuring
Samford compass navigation But before you can broach underwater research, you must first understand how physics affects your body under pressure and what scuba equipment and techniques we use to compensate for those physical laws.  Learning skills from compass navigation to buoyancy control will allow the students to safely discover inner space while at the same time explore the reef with a new awareness.  Each student works in a small team with a mentor on a specific PADI National Geographic underwater assignment.

The 2012 program focused on four topics.  One team studied Transformations, and recorded examples of the changes certain species undergo to adapt to their surroundings.  Another team examined Defense Systems utilized by fish and reef creatures including the camouflage of the Frogfish, the self-inflation of Porcupinefish.  Another small group addressed the problem of Invasive Species (both on land and underwater) and how these can negatively impact their invaded environments.  The fourth topic, Balance on the Reefs, investigated examples of symbiosis, commensalism, parasitism, and other relationships between reef creatures.


Samford mentor and student