FOR MANY OF US, DIVING IS ZEN, A MEDITATIVE EXPERIENCE. For me, communing with our fellow travelers under the sea is a major part of it. Spending time on the sandy bottom contemplating a queen conch while its (somewhat eerie) conch eyes contemplate me is a part of that.
Some places are better for conch fellowship than others. I’ve found friendly conchs at Little Cayman, Roatan and in the Bahamas (this queen conch specimen was in the Bahamas). This may have much to do with the proper habitat – sandy bottoms, seagrass. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any at one of my other favorite dive sites, Bonaire. But, then, Bonaire is more about coral than sand.
Queen conchs (Strombus gigas) feature the standard mollusk elements of shelled gastropod body design – a soft, fleshy body inside a hard protective shell, a long narrow muscular foot for locomotion and a head with eyes at the end of long stalks. A proboscis, a muscular tube-shaped mouth, projects from between the eye stalks. The proboscis is armed with a radula, a chitinous strip of small teeth used to rasp food, often algae, off surfaces.
At the end of the foot lies an operculum, a horny, sickle-shaped plate that, in many mollusks, is a kind of “trapdoor” that the animal can use to close itself inside its shell. S. gigas’ trapdoor isn’t quite large enough to do that trick, but it aids in locomotion and, possibly, in self-defense.
With one large, single foot that really is the base of its body, conchs move along in a series of slow, jerky movements, often leaving a distinct groovy trail behind them in the sand.
And, they have mantles, a thin layer of tissue that secretes the calcium carbonate to construct their shells, creating a coiled, cone-shaped design, with an end spire and short, blunt spikes.
You don’t see much of the soft-bodied part of conchs. After all, that’s the point of the shells. Conchs are probably best known for their beautiful shells in orangey, peach and yellow tints. Well, the shells are beautiful when you see them polished in gift shops or being blown as horns by Tahitian natives in movies. Underwater, they tend to be covered with algae and debris.
You’re most likely to see the eyes, and they are something. Conch eyes are located on the tips of long, mottled brown eyestalks that extend out from under the lips of their shells. They’re very striking, with distinct pupils with golden rings. Each eyestalk also has a fleshy tentacle branching off it, most likely used to detect odors.
Spotting a pair of conch eyes, approach carefully. Conchs can be shy. Get too close, too abruptly and they’re likely to withdraw. Remain patient, settle down on the sand and wait (always a good idea when watching sea life) and the little conch eyes that belong to a curious conch, will reappear.
Okay. There is no conversation. Just looking at each other. I can’t say what the conch is thinking, assuming conchs think. I like to surmise that he just wants to get to know this giant fellow traveler that came down to visit. Hence, his singular, eyestalked conch eyes, stare back at me.
For myself, I find peace in conch contemplation. They don’t immediately shut up on you. Like thorny oysters do when you approach them (I admit, not too many divers probably care about this). They don’t nip at you like might happen with a threespot damselfish, another reef denizen I find myself eyeball to eyeball with on occasion.
My conch friends don’t sting, don’t screech, they just contemplate. The world would be a far better place if more of us contemplated instead of screeching.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Reef Creature Identification, Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Reef Creature Identification, Tropical Pacific, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; The Conch Book, Dee Carstarphen, Pen & Ink Press; Marine Biology, Fourth Edition, Peter Castro, Michael Huber; Lobatus gigas (AKA Strombatus gigas), Encyclopedia of Life.