The Dive Guru™ — Bucket List Edition: Top Nine Marine Critter Must Sees

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Each dive is unique. Each diver is unique, and the ocean contains the versatility to suit us all – whether you long for sightings of large pelagics or you prefer stalking the oddities found in the muck. I’d love to tell you that all Dive Gurus agree on a list of must-see critters, but the truth is that you must find your inner dive guru and create your own list (yeah, yeah – I’m getting philosophical again – but it’s true). Or I suppose you could just copy my list because it does have some really cool critters on it.

Top Critter Must Sees

So why nine instead of a nice round number like five or ten? I struggled. I tried to cut it down or build it up, but it is what it is. These are the critters — above all others — that will make me complete as a diver – I mean as a Dive Guru. And, if I’m being honest, this isn’t the whole list. This is just the top tier. The A-Team. The cream of the crop. If I add something from the second tier, well, I’ll have to add them all. Then, you’d be reading this forever. So, anyway, here we go:

  1. Octopus. Okay – so maybe I’m cheating here since, really, I’m talking about two octopi. But, even without delving into the specifics of each species, dives with octopi tend to be exciting and memorable, no matter what kind you’re diving with:
    • Giant Pacific Octopus. This massive cephalopod can reach up 9.1 metres/30 feet and weigh more than 272 kilograms/600 pounds. Although, it lacks the flash of some of its smaller counterparts, its sheer size earns it a spot on the must see list.
    • Mimic Octopus. The mimic octopus does exactly that – it mimics all sorts of other animals: lion fish, sea snakes, flatfish and jellyfish. All octopi have chromatophores so they can vary coloration and blend into the surroundings, but these little guys actually position their bodies so that they look like other critters.
  1. Whale Shark. The largest fish in the sea – need I say more? Whale sharks can reach 12.2 metres/40 feet in length, and they glide through the water mouths lazing open to feed on plankton and small fish. Their slow graceful movements mean that even I – as an old and slow (yet handsome and debonair) guru – have a chance of snapping a few pictures with one before it swims off into the blue.
  2. Manta Ray. If you’ve ever imagined your garage door swimming gracefully over your head (and really, who hasn’t?), you’ll understand how mind boggling a manta dive can be. These huge animals move with a grace that belies their size. With a flick of their wing-like pectoral fins, they effortlessly appear and disappear from dive sites seemingly ambivalent to the presence of divers.
  3. Pygmy Seahorse. Although I might need to invest in a bifocal mask (or put some reading glasses on when I hit the water) before I can spot one, the tiny pygmy seahorse is on the list. They can be nearly impossible to spot amongst the sea grasses, soft corals or gorgonians as they typically they range from 14 – 27 millimetres/0.5 – 1.1 inches – even with reading glasses on. But, there is something about an itty-bitty seahorse that calls to me.
  4. Mandarinfish. This shy, splendidly bright dragonet makes the list based on its flash and style. With vivid coloration and quick evasive movements through the coral it taunts underwater photographers. This inner underwater photographer is no exception and craves the perfect mandarinfish picture to use as my desktop or hang proudly on my wall.
  5. Flamboyant Cuttlefish. Another vivid beauty, the flamboyant cuttlefish is an adorable addition to the list. Its bright coloration warns predators that its muscle tissue is highly toxic and would make it a less than palatable meal, which is good because it also makes for a fantastic photo opportunity.
  6. Schooling Scalloped Hammerheads. Seeing one shark is amazing – but swimming with dozens or hundreds would be life changing. Seeing pictures and trying to imagine the sheer number of them is awe inspiring. Plus, how cool looking are hammerheads?
  7. Harbor Seals and Sea Lions. Or, as I like to call them, puppies of the sea. Don’t get the wrong idea. Touching them – no matter how cute they look – is not recommended. But, these playful and curious mammals seem just as interested in divers as divers are in them. I imagine them darting between divers playing a sort of hide-and-seek in the kelp.
  8. Beluga whale. Most of these white whales live in artic seas and are known for their gregarious personalities. They are smaller, stockier animals – think somewhere between your generic dolphin size and their larger whale cousins — that can gather in pods of hundreds or thousands near river estuaries and coastlines during the summer. And, they often let divers and snorkelers have a look.

Each and every ocean critter has distinctive characteristics – body shape, color, personality – that make it a potential on any diver’s must-see list. So, if you’re looking for a unique critter encounter, there’s a good chance that you can find it in your local water – whatever water that may be.

If anything on the list triggered some sort of itch and you haven’t been in the water for a while, make sure you’re prepared. The point is to go see the cool critters, not be uncomfortable because you can’t remember which side the tank faces when you put it into your BCD. (Why bring it up? Because in my early years I had some sort of mental block and would always assemble my gear backwards. I don’t do that anymore. Most of the time. Ahem.) So, if you’re out of practice – consider a Scuba Tune-Up. If you can’t remember what the fish look like, an AWARE – Fish Identification course is the ticket. Want to see Belugas? I’d highly recommend a Dry Suit Diver course. And, last but most important – consider a Digital Underwater Photographer course – after all, you can tell people all about those 17,000 schooling hammerhead sharks you ran into, but wouldn’t a photo be cool? Plus, you can share your finds (and your proof) with the chance to win some killer prizes in the PADI Critter Photo Contest on Facebook. See some cool stuff, brag to your friends, maybe win some cool items? Sounds pretty good to me.

Top Critter Must Sees

No matter what you decide, if you want to check off the must-see animals on your list (or my list for that matter), consider heading to your local PADI Dive Center or Resort. They can help you get prepared and start ticking those boxes.

Can’t get enough of the Guru (or, better yet, the Guru-ette)? Read past installments here: