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Fuerteventura Fauna - Marine Life

Fuerteventura Fauna - Marine Life

Article by Alex Bramwell, resident zoologist and author of the upcoming Sunshine Guide to Gran Canaria
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The sea around Fuerteventura is much cooler than many people expect due to the Cold Canary Current, which brings cool water down from Northern Europe. It is this temperate water that gives the island its world famous climate, for without it, temperatures would be much higher and the archipelago much dryer than it is.

Given its position in the Atlantic, close to both the tropics and the Mediterranean, the sealife in Fuerteventura’s waters is a unique mix of the tropical, the temperate and the pelagic.
Species more likely to be found over coral reefs mix with cold water species from Northern Europe and those more typical of the open ocean.
Combined with the spectacular volcanic origins of the island, this diversity of life makes it a unique and very special marine environment. Huge tracts of virgin yellow sand, interspersed with lawns of seagrass exist alongside breathtaking underwater cliffs and jumbles of lava rock.

Whales, dolphins and turtles are frequent visitors and big game fishermen have set world records off its coasts.
Close to the shore, colourful shoals of Parrotfish graze on rocks that harbour moray eels and brightly coloured Wrasse and Damsel Fish. Seahorses live in the seagrass and huge rays patrol the bottom. Octopus and cuttlefish are abundant, along with an almost infinite variety of smaller organisms, such as brightly coloured sea urchins, crabs and sponges.  

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Parrot Fish
Up to 70cm

Spaisoma (Euscarus) Cretense
This is the single most famous fish species around Fuerteventura. A sexually dimorphic species, the female being brightly decorated with red, yellow and blue and the male a drab greyish brown. While juveniles are often seen alone, larger viejas group together, sometimes in schools of several hundred, to feed over rocky bottoms down to 50m.
Feeds on invertebrates and especially crabs, relying on its prominent beak-like teeth.

The most characteristic Canarian fish much sought after by divers and fishermen alike the Vieja remains an important commercial species despite heavy overfishing. A reduction in the use of nasa fish traps has seen an increase in the population around Gran Canaria. Traditionally fished for from small craft using salted crabs on large hooks and a rod tipped with a stingray tail.

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Ports and Harbours

There is a surprising amount of wildlife to be found in even the busiest Canarian ports and they are a good place to search it out. The recreational harbours in Coralejos, Caleta de Fuste and Moro Jable, among others, are excellent sites to begin a tour of the wildlife of the coast.
A good tip is to throw some wet bread into the water. Noisy Yellow-legged Gulls will pick up floating crusts and a wide selection of fish come and feed on the bits that sink. Look out for Grey Mullet with their white lips and the plumper Salemas, with fine yellow stripes. Close to the harbour walls, bright blue Damsel Fish or 'Fulas' and the multicoloured Peacock Wrasse or ‘Pejeverdes’ will be in evidence, along with white-faced Atlantic Blennies and the occasional Puffer or Triggerfish. If you are lucky, you may spot an octopus tentacle protruding from a cave, or even the ugly head of a Moray Eel!

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Golden Mullet*
Up to 50cm

Liza aurata
The most common of several mullet species around the island, the Golden Mullet is often seen in harbours and close to the shore. Large shoals are often encountered and large specimens are found grazing in very shallow water.
An algae and debris feeder, it can be attracted with bread and, while not often consumed in the Canaries, is a challenging fish to catch.

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Up to 160cm

Sphyraena viridensis
The most common large predator in the coastal waters of Fuerteventura, the Barracuda often forms large schools. Most frequent in harbours and by steep cliffs and coastlines but small examples can be found almost everywhere.
A voracious predator of small fish the Barracuda is an important sport and commercial fish species. Barracudas around Fuerteventura are not aggressive and there has never been a single recorded barracuda or shark attack in the Canary Islands.
Large groups of Barracuda, up to a metre and a half long, can often be seen in harbours. They tend to swim in shoals of between ten and two hundred and can be recognised by to their elongated shape and pointed mouths.
They are voracious predators, much sought after by big game fishermen, but never attack humans in Canarian waters.

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Black Damsel Fish
Up to 14cm

Abudefduf luridus
Small but spectacular, the Black Damsel Fish is found almost everywhere but especially over rocky and weedy bottoms in shallow water. Its bright blue colour and trusting nature make it a diving favourite.
It can sometimes be tempted to feed from the hand and is often seen along harbour walls and in rockpools. Males develop orange patches during the breeding season.

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Peacock Wrasse (Pejeverde)
Up to 22cm

Thalassoma pavo
One of the commonest and most beautiful fish in Canarian waters the Peacock Wrasse is often found in mixed shoals along with the Black Damsel Fish and Band-Tail Chromis.
Found everywhere except over pure sand bottoms from the inter-tidal zone down to depths of 200m. Males are larger with more distinctive coloration and, like many wrasse, this species can change sex.

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Manta Rays

At night, giant Manta Rays sometimes come into harbours to feed around lights. A torch shone down the walls will reveal goldfish-like Cardinal Fish and the larger red and white Glasseyes, which have large eyes that glow in torchlight. Black and silver bream or ‘Sargos’ are much more active at night and large, mixed groups can often be located with a torch.

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Up to 30cm

Heteropriacanthus cruentatus
Common but nocturnal, the Glasseye is found hiding in caves during the day and allows divers to approach closely. Common in the cracks and crevices of harbour walls and manmade structures.
Like the Vieja, the Glasseye is susceptible to crustacean parasites. An attractive species with limited interest as a sport fish.

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Cardinal Fish
Up to 10cm

Apogon imberbis
A common nocturnal species found hiding in caves and crevices during the day. The Cardinal Fish is attractive enough to have great potential as a coldwater marine aquarium specimen. Males incubate the eggs in their mouths. A pest for night fishermen, as its large mouth and strong bite make it a bait stealer and nuisance.
A visit to a fishing port in the evening is a good way of seeing some of the deeper water and sport fish landed in the islands. Traditional fishing boats bring in varied catches, caught either with fish traps called ‘nasas’, nets or longlines. Look out for the multicoloured Parrotfish or ‘Viejas’, hogfish and the grotesque but very tasty Scorpionfish. Larger fishing boats and big game boats catch a variety of Tuna fish, sharks, swordfish and marlins, bluefish and large bream and grouper.

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Up to 180cm

Polyprion americanus
A deep sea species found from Gibraltar to Southern Angola the Wreckfish is an important commercial and food fish in the Canary Islands.
Found between 200m and 800m most Wreckfish caught around the Canaries are much smaller than the maximum.

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Up to 65cm

Pseudolepidaplois scrofa
Found on rocky and mixed bottoms down to 150m the Hogfish is an important species for traditional fishermen, even though it is listed as threatened.
An attractive species, it is rarely seen by snorkelers as it prefers deeper waters. Often seen in the mixed catch of small fishing vessels arriving back in port on Fuerteventura.

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The Open Ocean

A trip on an inter-island ferry or a water-taxi can often be a rewarding experience for those looking for wildlife. A variety of shearwaters and petrels will be seen, flying close to the water’s surface.
Some, such as the White-faced Storm Petrel are very rare and breed only on one or two of the Canary Islands. Graceful terns are often seen around the coast, and a group of them plunging into the sea to catch small fish is a beautiful sight.

Dolphins and porpoises are common in our waters and often ride the bow waves of ferries. Among the larger cetaceans, Pilot whales are common and sperm and killer whales are often seen off the Fuerteventura coast along with Risso’s Dolphin.
Several species of turtle visit and are occasionally washed up after becoming trapped in fishing nets or fouled with oil.

Other creatures that are sighted from boats include blue and hammerhead sharks, Portuguese Man of War jellyfish, flying fish and manta rays.

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Greenbone Garfish
Up to 90cm

Belone belone gracilis
Small shoals of this curious fish appear close to the shore around Fuerteventura in the summer months. Rarely seen more than a few centimetres from the surface the Greenbone Garfish is often missed by divers and snorkelers. Good eating despite its slender build and green bones.

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Skipjack Tuna
Up to 103cm

Katsuwonus pelamis
A small, schooling Tunnid that runs in Canary waters through the summer and autumn. An important commercial and sporting species the Skipjack is traditionally caught with rod and line from small offshore craft.
A voracious fish eater that is particularly fond of Bogues.

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Up to 125cm

Thunnus alalunga
One of several large pelagic and epipelagic Tunnid species common in Canarian waters at certain times of year along with the Yellowfin, Big-Eye and Bluefin Tuna. All are important commercial and sport fish and can be caught from chartered sport fishing craft in the South of Gran Canaria.

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Guelly Jack
Up to 90cm

Pseudocaranx dentex
An epibenthic to pelagic species found down to depths of 100m, the Guelly Jack is a powerful predatory fish at the top of the coastal food chain.
Once a common species, it has been overfished to the point where it is rarely seen. Juveniles are sometimes still found around mooring buoys and sometimes “adopt” divers and snorkelers, as well as large fish such as Saddled Bream

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Chub Mackerel
Up to 52cm

Scomber japonicus
One of two Mackerel species present in Canarian waters at certain times of year along with the Frigate Tuna. Both are fished commercially and are good fishing from small craft.
Large schools of small Chub Mackerel are sometimes found close to the shore often in the company of Bogues.

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Blue Marlin*
Up to 450cm

Makaira nigricans
An oceanic species reaching 650kg that is quite common around the Canary Islands and an important sport fish. Several Blue Marlin world records have been broken around the archipelago and the waters of the Canaries are famous for their large specimens. Chartered fishing boats operating from the harbours of the island seek out this species. The physically similar Swordfish is also occasionally caught although it prefers warmer waters.

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Flying Fish

Exocetus volitans
A curious species found in small groups close to the surface. Capable of leaping clear of the water and “flying” up to 100m using its elongated pectoral fins.
A plankton feeder that is hunted by Tuna, the Flying Fish is often seen flying away from boats and ferries around Fuerteventura.

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A wide selection of shells and other objects can be collected from Fuerteventura’s beaches, especially after storms.
Among the most common are cuttlefish bones, well known due to their use as a source of calcium for canaries. They often wash up on beaches and are more often seen that the living creature.
Delicate spiral Ramshorns also come from a seldom seen squid and are very common along the strand line. Also common are the very delicate lilac shells of the Janthinidae, which live under a raft of bubbles, only washing up on the shore after stormy weather.

Stranded jellyfish also wash up, sometimes in large numbers, and should not be handled as they are still capable of stinging.
Common shells to be found empty along the coastline of the canaries include sea urchins carapaces without the spines. These can be green, purple or brown and are as beautiful as they are fragile.

Venus Ear shells are easily recognisable, with one side covered in mother of pearl. The living Venus Ear lives stuck under rocks, emerging after dark to graze on algae.
Limpets, winkles and dog whelks are common all around the Canaries, while cowries, mussels, cockles and scallops also turn up. Goose barnacles can be found attached to almost any piece of floating debris that has been in the water for a decent length of time.

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Rocks and Rockpools

Rockpools are perhaps the best place to see a wide selection of sealife without the need to get too wet. Low tide leaves large areas of rock exposed around the coast, trapping animals that cannot normally be seen without a mask and snorkel.
In general, the less time rocks are exposed to the air, the more life is found on and among them. Especially low Spring and Neap tides expose areas that are usually underwater and these can yield very rich pickings for the naturalist.
Some caution is needed when exploring rockpools, as the tide comes in fast and exposed rocks can be very slippery.

A few of the animals that are found can also cause damage. Sea urchin spines snap off under the skin and cause painful injuries, while the red and white bristleworms to be found under rocks are best avoided, as their bristles irritate the skin.
Brown sea cucumbers exude a white fluid when handled, which is very hard t o remove from skin or clothing.

Small scorpionfish, often trapped in rockpools, have poisonous spines and large crabs can deliver nasty nips with their powerful claws.
It is always best merely to observe any creatures found, as much for the observer’s benefit as their own. Do not forget to replace any rocks that you turn over and make sure any shells you take home do not already have a rightful owner, as hermit crabs are plentiful around Fuerteventura.

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Rockpool Inhabitants

Even the smallest and shallowest rockpool is likely to have fish living in it. Gobies and blennies are small specialists in this particular habitat and, with patience, can be tempted to take bread or squid from the hand.
Baby mullet and sucker fish are also often found in the smallest pool. In deeper pools closer to the low tide mark, the number of fish species to be found increases. Fulas and Pejeverdes are common, while small Sargos, Mullet, Grouper, Wrasse and Scorpionfish are also evident.
In deep pools with caves, Moray Eels lurk, along with larger Grouper and a wide variety of other fish.

Other organisms to be found in rockpools include small, transparent shrimps which will often come and nibble on a foot left in the water, a variety of crabs, including the hairy ‘Jaca’, which is very tasty and much sought after.
Grey Sea Hares, with black circular marks, and sea cucumbers are often found in cracks and caves, along with a wide variety of urchins, sponges and anemones.
A careful search among the seaweed will often reveal small but brightly coloured sea slugs and starfish.

Bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs are easily spotted on exposed rocks, but are very shy. They are caught in the Canaries with bait wrapped in a ball of rough thread, which tangles up their claws.
At night, tubeworms extend their delicate fans and pluck small morsels from the water and crabs come out to feed, safe from the sleeping seabirds.
Perhaps the best way to find rockpool inhabitants is to turn over rocks and stones. This should be done very sparingly and the rocks carefully replaced as many of the creatures found under them are killed by sunlight. Many rocks also have sea urchins underneath them.

Look out for brightly coloured orange and yellow sponges, shy Peacrabs and the highly mobile Bristlestars, which will wriggle off as soon as they detect light.

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Under the Water

While a wide selection of marine life can be seen from above the surface, taking the plunge and joining it underwater opens up an entirely new world.
Snorkel kits are widely available in most shopping centres and are very reasonably priced although, for the sake of comfort, it is often best to spend a little more than the minimum.
There are dive centres in most resorts and they cater for a wide range of abilities, from absolute novices to experienced divers.
In some areas, there are commercial glass-bottomed boats and even submarines, which allow you to experience the underwater world without getting wet and with the added bonus of an experienced guide.

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Snorkelling and Diving

The sea around Fuerteventura is remarkably clear and an ideal site to try snorkelling. A mask and breathing tube allows the swimmer to become part of the underwater landscape in comfort, and to explore features such as caves that are otherwise inaccessible.
From sandy, crowded beaches to rocky shores, the snorkeler is guaranteed to find a dazzling array of life.
In this section, we will take a look at the different ecosystems of Fuerteventura’s coastlines, highlighting the creatures most likely to be encountered.
While the sea around the islands is largely safe, it is always best to stick to defined swimming areas and avoid sites where nobody else is swimming. The number of small leisure craft and jet skis in use makes it advisable not to swim out too far without the use of a dive buoy.
Certain stretches of coast experience powerful waves and strong currents and are dangerous for even the strongest swimmers. This is especial true of the South West coast of Fuerteventura, where strong currents make swimming risky.

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White Sea Bream* sargo
Up to 45cm

Diplodus sargus cadenati
The most common of a number of Sea Breams around Fuerteventura, the White Sea Bream is present almost everywhere.
It forms small shoals of different sized individuals which will often follow divers.
Once heavily fished, especially by speargunners, it remains an important commercial and sport fish, best sought after at night.
The similar Annular Sea Bream is smaller and closely linked to sandy bottoms and seagrass beds.  

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Zebra Sea Bream sargo breado
Up to 55cm

Diplodus cervinus cervinus
The largest commonly encountered Canarian Sea Bream, the Zebra Sea Bream is a spectacular if retiring species, especially when adult.
Small shoals and pairs are often found over rocky and mixed bottoms down to 100m. Smaller specimens are more brightly coloured and are found closer to the shore.
A good, if hard to catch sport fish that has suffered at the hands of speargunners.

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2-Banded Sea Bream seifo
Up to 45cm

Diplodus vulgaris
A common and easily recognised species, the 2-Banded Sea Bream is found over all bottoms.
Usually seen alone or in pairs, the juveniles group together in mixed shoals along with other sea breams. Rarely larger than 20cm in Fuerteventuran waters, it is of limited commercial and sport fishing interest.

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Up to 30cm

Sarpa salpa
One of the most frequently encountered fish in Fuerteventuran waters, the Salema forms large uniform schools close to the shore.
In bright light, they appear blue with fine yellow stripes. A grazing species its abundance may be due to the unpleasant muddy flavour of its flesh.
A good sport fish that is attracted to bread and is not afraid of divers bearing food.

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Up to 35cm

Boops boops
A very common species that has benefited from the overfishing of its predators.
Bogue populations can assumes almost plague proportions in some areas. Rarely eaten as it is traditionally considered a dirty fish that feeds on the corpses of fishermen.
Found in open water down to 250m. An important bait fish for Tunny fishing.

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Rock Goby*
Up to 10cm

Gobius paganellus
One of several goby species common in shallow water and the intertidal zone. Best observed at low tide when they hunt fearlessly in rockpools gobies will happily eat almost anything offered to them.
Of no interest to fishermen due to their small size, gobies are occasionally caught accidentally.

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Montagu’s Blenny
Up to 12cm

Coryphoblennius galerita
Several similar blenny species are found in shallow waters and rockpools around Fueeteventura. More sinuous than the gobies, blennies are also more wary.
Extremely common in some areas blennies are of no interest to fishermen due to their small size.

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Up to 5cm

Trypterygion tripteronotus
A tiny but spectacular species this blenny is found in pairs in shallow water over rocky bottoms. The brightly coloured male is instantly recognisable due to its black head and orange body.
Pugnacious despite its size it sometimes attacks divers’ fingers, especially during the breeding season.

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Rubber Eye
Up to 20cm

Ophioblennius atlanticus atlanticus
The largest of the gobies and blennies around the Canaries the Rubber Eye is recognised by its cream head and almost black body.
Populations can be quite dense on exposed rocky bottoms covered with Diadema sea urchins and on harbour walls.
Aggressive with its own kind, the Rubber Eye is unafraid of divers. It is very seldom caught, even by accident, by fishermen.

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Sandy Bottoms

For most visitors to the islands, sand is an everyday feature of the trip. The beaches around the islands, both natural and artificial, are usually made up of fine-grained golden sand.
At first glance, it is a uniform and seemingly barren habitat that does not look like it supports a wide variety of sealife. However, the life is there and merely needs to be searched out. The trick is to look for features, either in the form of seagrass beds, underwater hummocks or isolated rocks where creatures tend to congregate.
Even the buoys that mark out swimming areas are well worth investigating for the variety of life they harbour. Small pilot fish and remoras often latch on to buoys until a more mobile companion turns up, while juvenile fish use them for shelter.

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Bare Sand

Even areas of completely bare sand support specialist animals.
Small flatfish rise from the bottom if the swimmer gets too close and are well worth observing for their curious form of locomotion. They are often seen in pairs and are surprisingly curious and unafraid of divers. They have a habit of settling on the bottom and disappearing in a puff of sand, leaving only their protruding eyes above the sand.

A more sinister occupant of sandy bottoms is the solitary, sand coloured Weever, with its black and poisonous dorsal spines. These fish, up to about 45cm long, are responsible for most of the injuries incurred in Fuerteventura’s waters, for they inflict a painful sting on bathers unwary enough to tread on them. They are best left well alone.
The very similar lizard fish is harmless and distinguished from the Weever due to a lack of dorsal spines and its enormous mouth. They are not at all shy and confident enough of their camouflage to allow close observation.
Lizard fish are avowed cannibals and will eat anything that will fit into their mouths. There are cases of large ones swallowing smaller examples hooked by fishermen, spitting them out reluctantly when they leave the water.

A curious sand specialist is the pink cleaver wrasse, easily identified by its narrow rectangular head and fierce teeth. It has the almost miraculous ability to disappear in a flash if disturbed; burying itself in the loose sand faster than the eye can follow. It feeds on crustaceans and molluscs hiding in the sand and is in turn hunted by Bottlenose Dolphins.
Other fish likely to b encountered on sandy bottoms include the Herrera, an elongated silver bream with fine black stripes. While it can grow quite large, shoals of smaller examples are more likely to be encountered. They tend to hug the bottom and have characteristic fleshy, white lips.
Other breams, or ‘Sargos’, as they are known locally, are also often seen on sandy bottoms and can form large shoals. They can be distinguished from the less frequent spotted bass by their rounder shape and stripes.

Although not tied to sand, large groups of Palometas, Grey Mullet, Salemas, Bogas, Mackerel, Sardines and other pelagic fish often come in close to the shore for shelter and can form spectacular shoals. Look for them just beyond the surfline.
Wherever large groups of small fish are to be found, the predatory Barracuda, Needlefish and Bluefish are unlikely to far away. A feeding shoal of these fierce fish can be a spectacular, if gruesome sight and the highlight of a swim. Perhaps the most spectacular sight on sandy bottoms are the rays, of which several types are locally frequent. Diamond-shaped Chuchos are the most common and grow up to 250cm long and weigh 250Kg, while the wider mariposa grows up to 50Kg.
Both are equipped with tail stings and should not be disturbed.
The electric ray is guitar-shaped and can deliver a dangerous shock if handled, a fact that has not escaped careless speargun fishermen.
The Angelshark is more elongated and the only true shark likely to be encountered around Fuerteventura: Fortunately, it is a peaceful species and not dangerous at all unless pestered.

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Cleaver Wrasse
Up to 30cm

Xyrichthys novacula
The Cleaver Wrasse is an attractive species linked to sandy bottoms and sea grass beds, where it can be quite frequent. If disturbed it has the ability to burrow into the sand faster than the eye can follow.
A favourite food of dolphins which have been observed burrowing into the sand to capture them. A good food fish with firm, white flesh.

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Up to 40cm

Lithognathus mormyrus
Found strictly close to sandy bottoms, the Herrera can form large schools of similar sized individuals.
Fond of bare sand bottoms exposed to breaking waves it is recognised by its elongated body, numerous pale bands and large white lips.
Large specimens are often encountered close to the shore.
The Herrera is an excellent sport and eating fish aught with rod and line from the shore or from small craft.

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Lizard Fish
Up to 42cm

Synodus saurus
Found on rocky and sandy bottoms down to 100m the Lizard Fish is a voracious predator that will consume anything that fits into its considerable mouth.
Cannibalism is not uncommon and they have been known to swallow small fish hooked by fishermen, releasing them when pulled out of the water.
Easily recognised due to their shape, Lizard Fish are most often observed lying motionless and half buried on the bottom. A similar species is found in deeper waters.

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Greater Weever
Up to 35cm

Trachinus draco
The fish species most likely to injure swimmers in the Canary Islands the Greater Weever lives on sandy bottoms down to 50m. Small specimens are found buried in the sand in shallow water and have venomous dorsal spines that deliver a powerful sting to anyone unwary enough to tread on them.
An attractive species with blue markings and a black dorsal fin that is understandably unafraid of divers.

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Up to 25cm

Bothus podas maderensis
Common on sandy bottoms down to 90m, this is a subspecies endemic to the Canaries and Madeira. Small specimens are often seen in shallow water close to beaches.
Instantly recognisable, the Flounder is unafraid of divers and a charismatic fish. Often caught from small craft by rod and line fishermen fishing on the bottom large examples make for good eating.
The flounder’s local name of “tapaculo” translates as “buttock cover”.

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Seagrass Beds

Seagrass may look like a kind of seaweed, but is in fact the only land plant able to grow in the sea. It forms large lawns in water down to depths of 15m and provides a home for a plethora of small animals.
Cuttlefish, related to the squid and octopus, are common in seagrass lawns. They are masters of disguise, changing not only their colour but the texture of their skin. If you are lucky enough to see two together, you will notice that they communicate through colour, changing from almost jet-black to white instantly, with different shades rippling hypnotically over their skin.
Sargos are common around seagrass, as they are everywhere, as are Red Mullet, a local delicacy. These pink fish make a living digging pits in the sand and eating exposed morsels, feeling for them with a pair of barbells under their chins. A feeding shoal of these fish often attracts others, including the Pufferfish and Triggerfish, both inveterate opportunists.
Among the fronds of seagrass lurk a wide variety of shrimps, small gobies and crabs, along with grotesque sea cucumbers, which do nothing but roll back and forth in the current, siphoning in water at one end and squirting it out of the other.

Among the most remarkable seagrass specialist is the Seahorse, very common in some areas but hard to spot and very shy. Patches of floating seagrass uprooted during storms often harbour its relative the Pipefish, just as shy and very well camouflaged.
Another notable inhabitant in the Culebre, a type of eel that looks exactly like a sea snake. It often shelters in sunken car tyres and is a harmless, retiring fish.
Another eel lives in colonies of several hundred and spends its life half buried in the sand. If a diver approaches too closely, the eels will disappear, emerging when the coast is clear.

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Yellow Trigger Fish
Up to 26cm

Stephanolepsis hispidus
A common and trusting fish the Yellow Trigger Fish is unmistakeable when encountered. While seemingly slow moving it is capable of speed if threatened.
A popular food fish that must have its leathery skin removed before cooking.
Difficult to catch with rod and line due to its powerful teeth and patient nature it is a famous baitstealer.

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Red Mullet
Up to 40cm

Mullus surmuletus
Closely linked to sandy bottoms and seagrass beds, the red mullet is often found digging in the sand for invertebrates.
Indifferent to divers it is recognised by its prominent white barbells and elongated body.
An important food fish wherever it is found the Red Mullet is rarely caught by rod and line fishermen in the Canaries.

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Hippocampus hippocampus
A small and rarely seen species, the seahorse is found in seagrass beds and on weedy bottoms between 8cm and 12cm.
Considered rare, it is so seldom observed due to its excellent camouflage and slow movements that its exact status is unknown.
The closely related pipefish also occurs around Fuerteventura and can be observed around floating mats of seagrass.

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Rocky and Mixed Bottoms

Rocky bottoms are the snorkelling and diving sites par excellence of Fuerteventura. Here the widest variety of algae, fish and invertebrates live and feed, taking advantage of the cover afforded by caves, cracks and attached seaweed.
Large boulders and rock formations attract schools of smaller fish, which in turn draw in predators.
Grotesque scorpionfish lurk under overhangs while Fulas and Pejeverdes abound. Pufferfish and Triggerfish are in their element on mixed bottoms, along with white-faced Atlantic Blennies and a plethora of gobies and other small species.
Rocks covered with algae are home to several species of small green wrasse, which can be very common. A particularly striking, bright yellow sponge, known as Dead Man’s Fingers, is also common on large boulders. It takes many years to grow and loses its vivid colour very quickly if removed from the sea.

Large schools of Bastard Grunts or ‘Roncadores’ are a common site amongst rocks and are locally called snoring fish due to the loud noises they sometimes make. Roncadores are still very abundant around the islands because they do not enter fish traps. They are shy creatures that feel safe in large groups and several thousand are sometimes found together in very shallow water.
Sargos are common and the large and solitary ‘Sargo Breado’, with its broad chocolate-brown stripes is a spectacular sight, growing to over 50cm. They are often seem hanging off schools of other fish and are wary of divers and inclined to flee into deeper waters if disturbed.
Multicoloured Parrotfish are most likely to be encountered on rocky bottoms, browsing on small animals in large, mixed-sex schools.

Once heavily fished as a local delicacy, a reduction in the harvest is now allowing the Vieja to recover and it is returning to its old haunts.
Large examples, up to at least 50cm, are still rare, but shoals of up to 50 of these peaceful fish are becoming a feature of some sites. Where speargunning is banned, they are quite tame and smaller specimens are curious and will come and investigate swimmers.
Viejas are sexually dimorphic, with the males a grey-brown colour with a marked black spot behind the head, while the females are brightly decorated in red, yellow and blue. Both sexes have distinctive protruding teeth in the shape of a parrot’s beak.
The Vieja is susceptible to sea lice and many examples have at least one of these parasites attached behind the head.
The Vieja’s favourite food is crabs and they are caught in large number using salted crabs on large hooks. Fishermen on small boats locate schools using a small glass-bottomed box, fishing for them with cane rods tipped with a ray’s tail.

Caves on rocky bottoms are well worth investigating, as they shelter species that only come out to feed at night. Red ‘Alfonsitos’, looking remarkably like goldfish, and the larger ‘Catalufas’ are common.
Lucky divers or snorkellers will encounter grouper caves, where several specimens of different sizes live together. The fortunate few will find a yellow ‘abae’, a rare morph of this common grouper, usually brown with black marks.
Meros and abaes can become quite tame and soon get used to being hand fed, to the point that large examples, up to 2m long, will pester divers incessantly. The debate about feeding these magnificent fish continues as tame and well-fed examples become easy targets for unscrupulous speargun fishermen.

Caves are also the best place to see sea urchins, in a variety of colours, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, sea hares and sponges. Long-spined black sea urchins are common and have assumed plague proportions in some areas, grazing so intensively that algae has no chance to grow.
Areas of white rock covered in urchins are called Urchin Bights and tend to support fewer fish than areas without urchins. Part of the problem is the overfishing of predators such as triggerfish and triton shells, which keep urchin numbers under control.
Some divers crush these urchins whenever they can in a bid to control them but this is not advisable, as the spines are poisonous. The urchin’s long spines also provide a home for a variety of juvenile animals and small creatures, such as shrimps and spider crabs.

Octopus are perhaps the star cave inhabitant, as they are house proud animals and keep the entrance to their particular cave spotlessly clean. A small cave surrounded by weedless rock, small pebbles and crab carapaces is very likely to contain an octopus.
Rarely completely hidden, they tend to sit at the entrance to their home, watching their neighbours. If disturbed, they slip seamlessly into their cave and block up the entrance using their collection of pebbles.
If pressed, octopus, or ‘pulpos’ as they are known locally, shoot off using their siphons for propulsion and leaving a cloud of brown ink behind them.
In some places they are extremely common and you are seldom likely to be unwatched by at least one pulpo when swimming around Fuerteventura.

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Dusky Grouper Upto 60cm

Epinephelus marginatus
One of the stars of the diving world in the Canary Islands, the Dusky Grouper is easily tamed and will feed from divers’ hands.
Groups of different sized individuals are often found sharing the same cave. An important commercial fish that has is now listed as threatened as it is an easy and attractive target for spear gun fishermen and has been severely overfished.

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Comb Grouper
Up to 90cm

Mycteroperca fusca
A benthic species that found down to 150m and quite common in places. Juveniles are often seen by divers and snorkelers and a spectacular, bright yellow morph is sometimes found.
Threatened by over fishing and indiscriminate spear gun fishing, the Comb Grouper is an important sporting and commercial species.

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Band-Tail Chromis
Up to 15cm

Chromis limbatus
Similar to the previous species but usually found at greater depths the Band-Tail Chromis can form large schools in open water above rocky bottoms.
Males develop purple backs during the breeding season. A common species seen on most dives, often in large numbers.
One of the few species to thrive over rocks infested with Diadema sea urchins.

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Bastard Grunt*
Up to 40cm

Pomadasys incisus
A common species known locally as the snorer due to the audible noises it makes when caught.
Large banks of Bastard Grunts are often found close to the shore and are unafraid of divers.
A good sport and eating fish that is abundant partly because it rarely enters fish traps.
The related Striped Grunt is found in small colonies between 20m and 150m. It is used by fishermen as a marker species as it lives closely linked to underwater reefs.

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Sharpnose Pufferfish
Up to 10cm

Canthigaster rostrata
A common shallow water species that is not afraid of divers, the Sharpnose Pufferfish can inflate its body with water if threatened.
Considered poisonous by some, it is sometimes eaten after careful cleaning.
A major baitstealer and linebreaker due to its powerful front teeth, it is considered a pest by fishermen.

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Up to 50cm

Scorpaena scrofa
One of two similar Scorpionfish fund in shallow water over rocky and weedy bottoms but also down to 200m. Both rely on their excellent camouflage for defence and hunting and have poisonous spines.
Scorpion fish are often caught by rod and line fishermen and are good eating, especially in fish soups.

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Protecting Our Coasts

The sea around the Canary Islands provides a home for a fascinating array of creatures and for this reason alone, should be vigorously protected.
Several very rare seabirds breed on the islands, which also provide a vital stopping point for vast numbers of migratory seabirds and cetaceans. We have already lost the endemic Black Ostercatcher and a population of endangered Monk Seals from Fuerteventura and efforts must be increased to make sure these are the only creatures that disappear.
Overfishing is still a problem, although with the reduction in the number of fish traps, speargunners and nets in use on the continental shelf, it has moved offshore and now mostly affects deep-sea animals.
Few of the fish consumed on the islands now come from their waters as factory fishing interests have moved to the coasts of Africa, where fish are, at least in the short term, still abundant.

Fish farming is becoming an important industry around the archipelago and will eventually be widespread enough to cope with the demand for fresh fish. It has had unforeseen consequences, as several of the species farmed are not naturally found around the islands and have escaped. The impact of these alien species is not yet understood and could seriously affect populations of native species.

Overfishing is, however, still a threat to some species and those that feed off them. Whitebait netting has been banned for several years after these fish were almost driven to extinction and the Jurel, a kind of Jack, has almost completely disappeared from some islands due to its affinity for fish traps.

Factory fishing with lines equipped with thousands of hooks continues and threatens deep-sea species with long life cycles, as well as killing fish with no commercial use. The selective removal of a fish species not only endangers its future, it also impacts all the other creatures in its ecosystem. The overfishing of keystone predators such as Triggerfish, Jacks, Meros and Bream allows their prey to breed unchecked, resulting in Urchin Bights and huge shoals of Bogas. Once these changes occur, nobody is sure whether they can be reversed.
While the Canary Islands have so far been lucky enough to avoid a major oil spill near our coasts, the illegal flushing of fuel tanks by profit-motivated sea captains still kills a huge number of seabirds every year, as well as polluting the coastline itself.
The great majority of sealife deaths due to oil are due to this practice, rather than more newsworthy oil spills. Anybody who has returned from the beach in the Canaries with tar on their feet has these modern day pirates to blame for the mess.

Recently, the impact of naval exercises off the Canary Islands by both the Spanish and NATO fleets has been called into question. Scientists believe that the powerful sonar used during these exercises can disorientate whales and dolphins, which rely on their own form of sonar to navigate. Certainly, large numbers of dead and distressed cetaceans have washed up on our shores during and after exercises. see BBC Article
Because the Canary Islands boast important populations of several whale species and whale spotting has become an important industry, there is a growing movement to ban the use of military sonar in our waters until it has been proved harmless.
The most visible threat to the Fuerteventuran coastline remains the continued development of tourism. Large areas of coastline have been changed beyond recognition due to the building of sea walls, recreational harbours and artificial beaches, although attempts to remedy this with artificial reefs are ongoing.

Rubbish generated by the 10m tourists passing through the islands every year also has a detrimental effect on sealife. Turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and swallow them and along with birds, get tangled in fishing line and plastic rings from drinks cans.
The deforestation of mountain areas and continued hotel development mean rainwater erodes the soil and washes it into the sea, where it clouds the water and prevents light-dependent organisms from growing, as well as reducing visibility for the diver.

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The Future

The islands are confronted with a choice of whether to continue to exploit the sea in an uncontrolled manner and risk losing our unique status as a sealife haven or whether to plump for sustainable industries.
The increase in the popularity of scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, big game fishing and whale watching in Fuerteventura is a positive sign but irresponsible practices continue.
Traditional fishing methods backed up by sensible restrictions on the number and size of fish captured would appear to be the way forward as well as a responsible increase in other activities.
Marine reserves with little or no disturbance are needed and would benefit fishermen in the long term by proving a safe breeding haven for commercially fished species.
An increase in the number of artificial reefs would create new breeding sites for marine life and provide the added bonus of new areas for scuba divers to explore.

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