The Elusive Barbu

Ned, Anna DeLoach , Paul Humann

Mask and snorkel in hand and still dripping, Kathy caught up with me as I trudged toward the beach bar for a sunset cocktail. “Tony and I just saw a fish we can’t identify, and it isn’t in the I.D. book. Will you help?”

Of course, I would help. If there is anything I like better than hunting for exotic fish, it is talking about them. And walking beside me was a young lady learning to “speak fish” quickly and well. Kathy and her husband Tony were two of 20 volunteer divers attending the 2000 REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) fish field survey on the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica. And although the California couple had been making survey dives all week, including three tanks that day, they were still out at last light searching for new species along the sea cliffs of Castaway Beach.

“What did you find?” I asked.

“Well, they are nine or ten inches long, silvery, with widely separated dorsal fins and cute little rounded snouts. We found them feeding in small groups just off the beach. And the odd thing, when they move along the bottom, something like whiskers shoot out from the sides of their heads.”

That last detail, about the whiskers, stopped me in my tracks. Although I had never seen the species, I knew exactly which fish Kathy was describing. It was the Barbu (Polydactylus virginicus)—a species so elusive that it had never been recorded in REEF’s marine life database or, to my knowledge, photographed in the wild.

The following morning, before the first scheduled survey dive, a half-dozen yawning snorkelers, including myself, camera in hand, followed Kathy and Tony down the beach to where the Barbu were sighted the evening before. And sure enough, there they were, in three groups of a dozen or more, feeding in the sun-dappled surf. And just as Kathy described, distinct fingerlike fans of whiskers (modified pectoral fin rays) flared from their sides.

The Barbu represents one more species that can now be monitored using a new visual identification approach to marine life surveying known as the Roving Diver Technique. This low-impact surveying method, currently used by hundreds of volunteer survey divers, has extensively replaced the more traditional methods of dredging, spearing and poisoning organisms.

It is exciting to think that Kathy and Tony, who were only involved in fish watching for a week, were able to make such a significant contribution to

REEF’s growing map of biodiversity of the Caribbean—an indispensable resource for marine wildlife management that is being built, species-by-species and island-by-island, by recreational divers.