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Creatures of the Rhone

The wreck of the Royal Mail Ship Rhone is regarded as the premier wreck dive of the Caribbean. One cannot but feel the haunting presence of those who went down with the steamship during a category five hurricane on October 29, 1867. Whether swimming through the bow section or investigating the intricate gears laid open in the stern, touching the signal cannon or wondering at the neat order of the wrenches laid out in the midsection, there is both the feel of history and the feel of the mysterious.

Creatures of the Rhone
Creatures of the Rhone

But for those of us who dive the Rhone two or three times a week over the course of years, the magic of the iron at the sea bottom begins to dim. Yet, there is always excitement on a Rhone dive. Despite the constant flow of divers, many diverse creatures of the deep continue to make their home among the jagged pieces of metal. For those of us to whom the wreck has become little more than the background, the marine life never fails to offer new insights into the underwater life of the Caribbean Sea. The detritus of the great storm has formed the basis for a populous ecosystem.

The impressive amount of sea life on the wreck was highlighted recently when instructors from Paradise Watersports listed 128 species of fish during a month-long period, including two which had not been listed before, the red cling fish and the flying gunnard. And those numbers don’t include all the lobsters, crabs, octipi, shrimp and other creatures which have made the ship’s remains their home. Corals, sponges and algae round out the myriad inhabitants.

In seemingly unexplainable fashion, different species have made their homes in their own particular place of the wreck. Lane snappers have taken the foremast as their domain. Blue striped grunts have taken the rear section of the bow and the exploded boiler as their own. Squirrel fish, many with their alien isopod parasites clinging to their side, seem to think the drive shaft was put in place to serve as a rallying point. One can always count on these guys being in their proper place.

Others are a bit more finicky. Whenever there is a current running through the Salt Island passage, horse eye jacks float above the ribs of the mid and south sections. In numbers from one to 40, they hover in the water waiting for the next meal to be driven by in the current. The big guys tend to wander over the whole area. Fang, the resident barracuda regards the entire area as his fief, and the huge green moray, whose mechanical lookalike was the legendary star of the movie The Deep, is always seeking prey in the crevices from one end to the other.

Meanwhile, the little fellows tend to stay in their protected homes. In corals along the drive shaft, secretary blennies peek out and cautiously look for a meal. The heroes of the feminists, the yellow headed jawfish, whose males carry the eggs in their mouth, hover above their holes, which look like expert masons have crafted the entrances. And it takes considerable twisting to look under scraps to see the different cardinal fish waiting until dark to come out and feed.

A diver displays a West Indian sea egg found by the Rhone; squirrelfish swim through the Rhone
A diver displays a West Indian sea egg found by the Rhone; squirrelfish swim through the Rhone

In the midst of all this activity, we frequently fail to take notice of the great animal colonies represented by the corals. Along the bow, the soft corals wave in the currents. After more than a hundred years, the brain corals and flower corals, which grow only an inch a year, have made homes for themselves. Swimming inside the bow, one must turn over onto one’s back to see the bright orange cup corals, residents who have only arrived in the last forty years after hitchhiking to the region from the Pacific. And to add color to all, as well as providing a hiding place for the short-striped gobies, the sponges soften the curves of the wreck.

And like its namesake soaring in the air over the mountains, the eagle ray can be seen on occasion, looking down in seeming indifference as it glides over the wreck. Even the ungainly hawksbill turtle achieves its own grace as it slowly seeks a sleeping place beneath the twisted metal, uncaring of the divers around it. Identifiable by the scratches on their carapace, the same turtles have made this area their home for years.

The twisted iron hulk still gives us pause to consider the power of nature over man, and the ghosts that still haunt the wreck. But the true message of the Rhone lies in the life which has taken firm hold here. A life which has taken form in hundreds of different colors and shapes. One which allows us to briefly share in the continuing cycle and appreciate the beauty and diversity of our underwater world.

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