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I left the warmth of the sun, and plunged beneath the surface into sixty feet of crystal clear water accompanied by my daughter Jessica and son Alexander. We had tied the boat up on the mooring at a renowned dive site on the Grand Cayman’s north wall, called Tarpon Alley.
It took us a while to swim west along the wall to a spot where a massive school of tarpon was idling, close to the bottom between protective coral walls. About two hundred individuals were gathered in a loose aggregation looking like globs of mercury that shimmered and flashed silver with each turn of the body, or flick of a tail. The 3-foot long tarpon were not at all perturbed by our presence, and allowed us to pass right through the school, barely moving aside.
I began taking lots of shots of these fish; head shots, side shots, close-ups, details of faces and fins, scales and tails that would form the basis of a painting later on. Mixed in with the tarpon were some horse-eye jacks, and the occasional permit came and went. An enormous barracuda hung motionless nearby.
It seems the tarpon hang out in numbers in various locations in the coral caverns and gullies around Grand Cayman in the daytime to avoid their predators.
These include large barracuda, and a variety of shark species including the Caribbean reef shark, the great hammerhead, and the tiger shark.
The tarpon is considered by many anglers to be the king of game fishes. Some enthusiasts try to catch the tarpon that linger at the fisherman’s beach in George Town, whereas others prefer to try their luck in the lake on Little Cayman. If you are there for a dive trip, take a morning or evening fishing trip with local fly fishing guides and have a blast.
The tarpon is a large herring-like fish with a legendary ability to jump in the air when hooked. It is reported to reach 400 pounds, but most of the fish encountered are less than 150 pounds.
Tarpon have a lung-like gas bladder and when “rolling” at the surface they take in air. This enables them to survive in waters with low oxygen content, such as in several ponds and quarry pits in Grand Cayman and in Little Cayman which you would consider unsuitable habitats for such a large fish.
Tarpon are shallow water inhabitants, and feed actively at night on a variety of fish including mullet, pinfish, sardines, needlefish, crabs and shrimp.
When tarpon are actively foraging, particularly in shallow water, there is no mistaking their intent. The noise and the splashing of a marauding school is nerve-wracking, especially when they work under mangroves. The very limbs shake as the water turns to foam.
Many local restaurants now feed fish scraps to tarpon at night to the delight of patrons. Another good spot to see them without getting wet is by the public fishing beach in George Town where local fisherman clean their catch on a daily basis, and the tarpon compete with the frigate birds for the leftovers.
When the silversides show up in big numbers in the coral caves around the Cayman Islands, the tarpon and other predators are mixed in with them providing tremendous photographic opportunities; showers of baitfish being harassed by bucket-mouth tarpon in a classic predator-prey interaction that has been going on for millions of years.
Today, the tarpon remains a favourite of sport fishermen because of its size, strength and durability. Tarpon are pursued wherever they are abundant, by fly fishermen and those with conventional fishing gear. There are many locations in the southern USA, and in Central America where lodges specialize in tarpon fishing. In a few of these locations tarpon are consumed by artisanal fishermen, but generally their flesh is not considered to be good to eat. This fact alone has certainly prevented the tarpon from being overexploited by local fishing communities.
Thankfully the tarpon has become a senior statesman in the catch-and-release fishery throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and generates significant income for communities that conserve this species for recreational fishing.
Scientific research on the tarpon has been centered in Florida and has focused on movements and coastal migration, as well as age and growth studies. Concerns for the health of tarpon populations in developing countries stems from the loss of mangrove habitat due to coastal development in Florida, and pollution, particularly seen in the southern Caribbean in Lake Maracaibo.
Here in the Cayman Islands we see a healthy tarpon population, with many juveniles less than 15 inches long found in canals around Grand Cayman, and larger individuals out on the coral reef caves in the daytime for the delight and enjoyment of anyone who dives.
It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and maintain the biodiversity of the planet. Dive safely, fish responsibly!