In December of 2010, I began working as a naturalist guide on a vessel that took people on scuba diving tours off the Great Barrier Reef, known locally as the “GBR”. The ride out to the reef took about an hour and a half, so guests were invited to learn about the ecology, history, and wildlife of the “GBR”. Guests were encouraged to join me in a quest to find sea stars, turtles, sharks, and of course, the infamous clown fish. Although nothing beats finding a forging turtle, I found that due to it’s unique physique and important role in keeping the ocean healthy, the most interesting animal was the sea cucumber.
Sea cucumbers act as sort of a specialized recycling vacuum cleaner. They roam the ocean floor sucking up detritus, poop, and algae. Then they break it down into smaller bits, then recycle it back into the ocean ecosystem. A land equivalent to sea cucumbers would be the fascinating earthworms. Sea cucumbers are also echinoderms. Related to sea stars and sea urchins, sea cucumbers can regenerate body parts when necessary. They come in all colors, textures, and sizes.
My personal favorite is the Pineapple Sea Cucumber. The Pineapple Sea Cucumber has textured spikes, which actually feel rubbery and appear to be sharp. So these particular kind of sea cucumbers are not very appetizing to predators looking for a slow moving snack. In general, a sea cucumber’s best defense can be discovered when you touch them. They shoot out white internal organs from their anus. These tubes are super sticky and apparently taste terrible to predators. The myth is that they die after they excrete their insides, but wouldn’t that be a pretty ineffective defense mechanism? Animals that have this tactic can usually regenerate these parts within a few days or weeks.
Most people would just swim right by without a second thought if I didn’t mention these amazing facts. I think we could all learn lesson from the sea cucumber. Although they seem to be mindlessly inching along in life; with every move, they are recycling material and making the ocean a cleaner, and healthier, place for everyone.