Love at First Sight
Many of my dive buddies tease me a bit about my borderline obsession with Flamingo Tongue sea snails (Cyphoma gibbosum).
They’re absolutely right. No matter how many pictures I’ve taken of them, I always go back for more.
The first time I saw one of these gorgeous little critters, I fell in love.
I was in awe of their unique and dramatic markings, striking colors, and the odd curvy shape of their shells and bodies.
Back then finding one was like finding a little hidden gem tucked into a vast, complex reef. It was my first taste of the macro treasure hunt.
My enthusiasm for macro marine life, and eventually underwater macro photography, started right there with the flamingo tongue sea snail.
Underwater Photography – Practice Makes Better
Flash forward many years, and now I frequently dive and take lots of underwater photos on the reefs of Cozumel, Mexico, where these marine gastropod mollusks are quite plentiful. (Their numbers have rebounded, and these days you can very often find them on gorgonian corals like sea whips and purple fans).
Not only have my diving skills vastly improved, but their flamboyance makes them a relatively easy creature to spot.
They don’t move quickly or get spooked away, so they are the perfect subjects for underwater macro photography – especially if you’re just starting out.
So after shooting them for years, you might think I’m probably growing bored with them at this point, right? Not even a little.
I have thousands of images of flamingo tongues, and no two are the same. If I find one, I always have to look closer. Like with most marine animal subjects, now the fascination is about variation and behavior.
Flamingo Tongues – Variation and Behavior
At first, I’d notice their individual spots and coloration, the wide variety of sizes, new locations along the reef, and how each one’s flesh was exposed or retracted to differing degrees.
Over time I’ve photographed them on gorgonian corals (their most common habitat), but also on lacey purple fans, in and around barrel sponges, and even “strolling” across the open sand. Alone, in pairs, or in even in big messy bunches.
Bigger thrills came later, when I started to find and document many of them mating or laying large, neat rows of translucent white eggs.
Coming full circle, I’ve also found and photographed many even tinier juvenile flamingo tongues (tic-tac size).
The images included here show just a small sampling of the more common Cyphoma Gibbosum life cycle:
First, a standard, somewhat classic portrait. Then one exposed and crawling across a large expanse of sand. Third, a pair of mating flamingo tongues. Next two images showing the laying of neat paths of eggs on the coral branches they had stripped down for that purpose. Finally, a juvenile specimen.
Different Types in Cozumel
The bottom line is, as I grew more familiar with the anatomy and behaviors of this one species, I learned more about them and started to identify patterns.
And to quickly detect variations.
In the category (Allied Cowries – Ovulidae), there are variants to the Flamingo Tongue snail to be found here in the Caribbean – and not just their juvenile variety.
One is similar in size and coloring, but has more of a lined pattern like a fingerprint – hence its name of Fingerprint Cyphoma (Cyphoma signatum) – far more rare to find in this area.
Another similar species resembles a juvenile FT, but a good look at it shows differences. Look close, and you can see the distinctly different skin color, shell shape, and the paler yellow spots that are outlined in a vibrant pink color. I introduce the Pink-Circled Simnia.
[This is a type of Cymbovula, referred to as “sp 3”, according to my best reference book, The Reef Creature Identification book for Florida/Caribbean/Bahamas (Humann, DeLoach and Wilk).]
And finally, another that looks like a juvenile flamingo tongue, but much darker in color and with spots that nearly take up the whole mantle. This is familiarly identified as a Triangular Cyphoma in that same book, above.
As I explored and found these variations, I got a greater sense of the behaviors and typical hiding places. I was in turn able to create more and more compelling images of them.
And that helped me, and other divers around me, understand what we were observing in much finer detail.
I think that’s the real beauty of underwater photography, especially of the macro- variety.
Underwater Macro – the Treasure Hunt
That, and that the treasure hunt never ends. Every dive offers the chance to see something new.
My favorite subject has taught me the same lesson I now slowly apply to other marine species, and just diving in general – the more you look, the more you see.
You never know what amazing images you might be rewarded with if you’re patient. Take another look. As you practice documenting the same species, you’ll also find yourself playing with different lighting, angles, and compositions.
Over time, you’ll learn more, and also see your skills improving in no time.
As a newbie underwater photographer, there are some key things to keep in mind when choosing these test subjects:
- Pick something you find beautiful and interesting – even your early shots will make you happy
Try to take repeat shots of species that are naturally more steady and big enough to find a good focus point
- Pick subjects that are in shallow water. Bonus points if you can find them during easy shore dives, so you can safely practice more easily
- Judge how shy or easily spooked the species is – you definitely don’t want to stress out our marine friends, and you also want to gain confidence in your hobby over time, not endless frustration
- This last one is key: Make sure your diving skills are good enough! You don’t want to be the diver with a camera but poor buoyancy skills and no spatial awareness! If you need to touch the reef or use a hook or bump into coral to get your image? DON’T DO IT. Practice your diving more, practice with photos of wider subjects, and have patience. As your diving skills improve, so will your photography skills.
For me, the flamingo tongue will forever have a special place in my heart. My first macro-crush. I never tire of them, and they never disappoint.