Caribbean A-Z
There's a whole lot going on in this massive diver magnet - John Bantin sums it up in words and images

The largest of the jacks, often found in pairs around wrecks and on the seaward side of reefs.

Grey, French, blue and queen angels can each be seen quietly browsing the reef, usually in pairs, and make delightful subjects for the underwater photographer.

Artificial Reefs
A number of small wrecks have been intentionally sunk as a haven for marine life and an attraction for divers, notably in the Bahamas, Grenada and, in the shape of an ex-Russian destroyer, renamed the Captain Keith Tibbetts, off Cayman Brac.

Atlantic Spadefish
Not to be confused with the batfish of the Indo-Pacific region, these attractive-looking fish, silvery with dark vertical bars, gather in large schools in midwater over reefs
and wrecks.

Not within the Caribbean Sea, but the islands of the Bahamas get the benefit of the Gulf Stream currents and are a good location for reliable sightings of larger marine predators such as sharks. They are considered part of the Greater Caribbean area.

Toothy silver-sided predators that can grow to great length, they are usually seen as solitary individuals and often hover motionless beneath the hull of a dive boat.

A coralline low-lying island that sits to the east of the Windward Islands, well out into the Atlantic, it has become a popular destination for the very rich as well as ordinary British winter sun-seekers.

Barbados Sea-Turtle Project
An ongoing programme to capture, number, tag and release turtles that visit Bajan waters. Its intention is to establish the number as well as the migratory habits of the turtle population.

Bay Islands
Roatan and Utila are probably the best known of the Bay Islands. Part of Honduras, the people are Spanish-speaking but serving a predominantly English-speaking American customer base. Whale sharks frequent the area at certain times of year.

White sand, turquoise water, azure sky and a gentle breeze rustling the leaves of the casuarinas - islands in much of the Caribbean offer a perfect beach-holiday environment at the right time of year.

Bianca C
An Italian cruise liner that caught fire and sank outside St George's harbour in Grenada in 1961, this wreck lies in 33-50m and is the biggest in the Caribbean Sea. Damaged by the intense heat of the fire before succumbing to the depths, the wreck's metalwork is now fairly flimsy, so penetration is not advised. Strong currents sweep the wreck at times and you'll often see eagle rays here.

Bloody Bay Wall
Fringing Little Cayman island and one of the most famous dive sites in the world, the reef drops from around 8m deep at the top to several thousand metres deep. The walls are covered with sponges and corals and all manner of marine animals, including rays, turtles and the occasional shark.

Blue Holes
Ice-age cave systems, complete with stalactites and stalagmites, that were flooded when prehistoric sea-levels rose. In places their ceilings have collapsed, betraying their presence by deep blue holes in the otherwise turquoise seabed
of the shallow water that covers them. They are recommended for certified cave-divers only. Inland blue holes are the main source of fresh water for the Bahamas.

Once offering little more than salt-pans, this island's steep coral walls are covered in colourful sponges with access directly from the shore.
It is famous for the freedom to do unlimited and unescorted shore-diving - just hire a 4x4 and go.

Brain Coral
So-named because its shape and pattern often resembles a brain, some of these structures grow to vast dimensions, notably in the waters of Tobago and St Lucia.

Bull Shark
Often enjoying the brackish water at river mouths and in harbours, these awesome-looking animals are impressive in their girth and the breadth of their mouths rather than their overall length.

Caribbean Reef Shark
Probably the most commonly encountered shark of the area, the females can grow to impressive size. A type of requiem shark that frequents shallow water, they are regular attendees at staged shark-feeds, notably in the Bahamas.

Meaning 'Land of Reefs' in the original Arawak language, Carriacou is the little sister-island to Grenada and less often visited by divers, but is known for its proliferation of soft corals. A regular ferry or a plane ride of only a few minutes connects the two islands.

Cayman Islands
Three tiny islands in the middle of the Caribbean Sea - Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman - this may be the last British Crown Colony, but the culture is definitely American.

The Spanish-language equivalent of 'blue hole', these underground cave systems are usually flooded with pure fresh water that has filtered down through the limestone, and can penetrate far inland. The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is popular with divers who wish to explore cenotes.

A name often loosely applied to any number of large sea-snails. Its meat has been part of the staple diet of Caribbean islanders in the form of fritters and salads, and its discarded pink-lined shells have been used as building materials as well as tourist souvenirs.

The most populous island nation in the area, Cuba has an Atlantic coast to the north and the main island is huge by Caribbean standards at nearly 800 miles across. New cars may be in short supply, but dive centres are state-run, often on an impressive scale. Bull-shark diving on a wreck at Santa Lucia is just one stand-out.

Willemstad, with its unique Dutch-style architecture, is the capital of the largest island in the Dutch Antilles. The part of the island across the Queen Juliana Bridge is relatively undeveloped, with some 60 dive spots identified and similar to those found in nearby Bonaire.

Falling coconuts cause serious injuries to more people each year than suffer from scuba-related activities. Mind where you sunbathe!

Coral Health
In 2005, the coral reefs of the Caribbean suffered a severe bleaching event that resulted in extensive coral death and the loss of great swathes of shallow elkhorn coral. Coral-bleaching is associated with a variety of stresses, including increased sea-surface temperatures.

Apart from around Tobago and islands at the southern end of the Windward Isles, strong currents are the result of wind and surface conditions rather than tidal flow. Often there is no current at all.

Dive Boats
These tend to be fast aluminium craft purpose-built for diving. It is customary to do two-tank dives in the morning with a short surface interval between them, then the option of a single afternoon dive. Often the turn-round time is such that those who take lunch can't make the afternoon departure time.

Dive Centres
The diving industry in the Caribbean is generally well organised and, because it has a 365 day-per-year business, often with well-heeled customers, good facilities are the norm. Anything less, look elsewhere.

Pan-tropical spotted dolphin are indigenous to the Caribbean, while bigger Atlantic bottlenose dolphins rehabilitated from dolphinaria are an attraction to divers in Grand Bahama. Jojo, which frequents the waters of Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos, is the only truly wild dolphin to have been studied by scientists.

A mountainous island in the Leeward chain, it has no international airport, so is less visited by the excesses of tourism. Colourful reef-diving, whale-watching and inland nature-related activities are its major attractions.

Dominican Republic
Sharing the large island of Hispaniola with Haiti, this populous Spanish-speaking country has become a popular destination with holiday-makers on a smaller budget. Divers use it as a base to visit the Silver Banks.

Common to the Caribbean area, black durgon are actually triggerfish that feed in mid-water on zooplankton and often gather under the hull of a moored dive boat.

Dutch Antilles
This group includes Aruba as well as Bonaire and Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela, plus St Eustatius, Saba, and part of St Maarten. The ABC islands are known for their dramatic underwater topography, covered in colourful sponges and soft corals. Look out for seahorses and frogfish.

Among the numerous different species found in the area, a wide variety of moray eels, some of considerable size, snake eels and garden eels are relatively common. Snake eels are found mainly by muck-divers.

The historic wreck of this 18th Century Royal Navy frigate lies 18 miles from Salt Cay at a site known as Endymion Rocks. Artefacts from it form the major exhibit in the museum on Grand Turk.

Fire Coral
Not a real coral, this is a parasitic hydrozoan that takes over other corals and can deliver an irritating burn-like sting if touched by skin unprotected by a wetsuit. It can be reef-like, branching or crenulated as in the hard corals, or simply attach itself to other corals, which soon die.

Looking like a large, bristly centipede, these large segmented worms are hazardous to handle.

Flying Gurnard
Commonly found around sea-grass and sandy areas, this strange-looking 'winged' fish will expand its iridescent cape to ward off predators, but it cannot fly.

Goliath Grouper
Often called a jewfish, this, the biggest of the groupers, feeds primarily on crustaceans such as lobsters, but will take on a small turtle or sting ray.

Green Moray
The green moray is the largest of the moray eels and is often called a giant moray. It is easily approached, but dangerous if interfered with. It gets its colour from algae that live commensally with it on its skin.

Green Turtle
Once common in the Caribbean area but subjected to industrialised slaughter for its fatty meat, it is only slowly making a comeback.

A former British colony with strong ties to the UK, and a mountainous spice island often thought to be the most beautiful in the Caribbean, this is a popular holiday destination with Brits (see separate feature).

Congregating in large inactive shoals by day, these fish demonstrate a territorial behaviour in the form of a mouth-to-mouth shoving match akin to kissing. Often confused with snapper.

Hawksbill Turtles
Now protected but once a regular victim of those who wanted its pretty pie-crust shell, these charismatic reptiles are making a welcome return to Caribbean reefs.

A product of increased surface sea temperatures, hurricanes are often very localised but highly destructive weather systems with rain and strong winds that travel across the Caribbean in the later part of the summer. Islands in the Hurricane Belt (all but those in the south) are at risk from June to late October.

Cuba, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic, Dutch Antilles, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Saba, St Lucia and Trinidad all have hyperbaric facilities.

A medium-sized fish, often reddish-brown, that can usually be seen grazing among patch reefs and gorgonians, searching for the molluscs, crabs and sea urchins on which it feeds.

Horse-eye Jacks
Usually found schooling in numbers, these silver fish hover around wrecks and are recognisable by their bright yellow tails.

Inter-Island Flights
With international airports located on only the more popular island destinations, connection to less-often visited islands is made by light aircraft. Baggage weight can be a major consideration, so check limits in advance.

The Caribbean Sea is bordered by the chain of Leeward Islands (Virgin Islands to Martinique) and Windward Islands (St Lucia to Grenada), with the giant islands of Hispaniola and Cuba to the north.

There are many different species of these land reptiles living in the Caribbean area. The green iguana often grows to impressive size and is a prized delicacy among the locals on some islands.

Jardines de la Reina
A large area that forms a bay to the south of Cuba, it's well-known for its pristine coral formations and bull shark dives. Its name translates as the Gardens of the Queen.

With a name derived from Arawak folk-hero Johnnie Canoe, this is a colourful carnival held in the Bahamas. Carnival is an important celebration in the West Indies too.

King's Town
Loyalists who abandoned America at the time of the War of Independence named many of the capitals of Caribbean islands in honour of King George IV.

These vessels tend towards the luxurious, with high standards of cuisine and service because they satisfy a demanding American market. Benign sea conditions mean that pick-up boats are rarely needed.

Sometimes called a sand diver, this voracious predator waits on sandy substrate to ambush small fish.

It's not indigenous to the region, but in some areas a growing population
of lionfish, descended from two original creatures thought to have been dumped into the sea by thoughtless aquarists, now threaten the population of smaller fish on which they prey.

Macro Life
Thanks to the popularity of small digital cameras that can record extreme close-ups under water, divers are starting to appreciate the vast range of tiny animals that live both on coral reefs and on less auspicious parts of the seabed.

The Caribbean coastline of Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, the island of Cozumel and the resort of Cancun, has a burgeoning diving industry that predominantly serves the US market.

The recent discovery that muddy and mucky seabeds can provide a location for many weird and often bizarre small animals has led to an interest in diving in places that were otherwise avoided by divers. St Vincent is an example.

Nassau Grouper
The keynote reef predator of the Caribbean, this attractive fish is always ready to pose for the underwater photographer. It grows only slowly. A 60cm-long fish might take 25 years to reach this size.

Nurse Shark
They might look lethargic, but these large sharks can vacuum up small and benthic creatures from the seabed that they locate with their sensitive mouth barbells, and can accelerate quickly when they need to. Incriminated in more attacks on scuba divers than any other shark, this is probably because they often suffer intimidation and provocation at the hands of the thoughtless.

An inhabitant of reefs through the world, this intelligent mollusc is a master of camouflage, but more often is spotted by divers on the less complex reefs of the Caribbean area than, for example, in the Red Sea.

Very different to the similarly named species of the Indo-Pacific region, Caribbean parrotfish tend to be smaller, with less pronounced beaks. The stoplight parrotfish is so-called because of its red and green coloration.

Pillar Coral
Usually standing alone from other corals, and often up to 2m tall or more, colonies of pillar coral are almost unique in that the polyps are often seen feeding during daylight hours.

Pirates of the Caribbean
This popular series of movies with, among others Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush and Keira Knightley, was shot at outdoor locations, first around St Vincent and latterly in St Lucia and the Bahamas.

Many of the hotels in the Caribbean area offer accommodation of the highest quality and price, although judicious choice of location can make the cost of staying quite attainable for those visitors on smaller budgets.

Otherwise known as shark-suckers, these fish hitch a ride on larger fish, even other bigger remoras, and are opportunistic feeders, picking up the leftovers.

The wreck of this Royal Mail steamer at Salt Island near Tortola in the British Virgin Islands was used as the underwater location for the filming of Peter Benchley's novel The Deep, starring Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in 1976. It is the first and only marine park in BVI.

The tiny island situated in the centre of an area that incorporates the Dutch Antilles, Saba has few beaches but is a popular destination with divers. It includes some outstanding pillar sites.

Probably the most abundant species of snapper in the West Indies, these fish tend to cluster near gorgonians and in deep recesses of the reef, or even on a wreck during inactive daylight hours. They reflect a brilliant golden light from their scales.

Shark Feed
It has become common practice in areas north of Cuba such as the Bahamas to stage shark-feeds, so that divers get a chance to see predators at the top of the food-chain in extreme close-up.

Southern Sting Ray
The most common big ray of the Caribbean, and one species that stars at organised sting-ray feeds in Grand Cayman, Gibb's Cay near Grand Turk, and at some small cays in the Abacos, Bahamas.

Spiny Lobster
Without the claws of its North Atlantic counterpart, this lobster is still quite common and is found hiding under overhangs in daylight hours. It forms a prized food source among marine predators and humans alike.

St Lucia
Black sand (if it's white, it's imported), sometimes strong currents and massive barrel sponges distinguish this volcanic island from many of the others in the Caribbean.

St Vincent
This island has recently been rediscovered by divers who have found an interest in marine life in places other than the coral reef. It is now being sold as the 'critter capital of the Caribbean'.

Once thought to have been uncommon here, macro-photographers have revealed that they are often encountered attached to sea-grasses or gorgonia.

Soft Coral
The soft corals of this area tend to be more plant-like and less colourful than those of the Indo-Pacific region, and are found swaying in the sea-surge on top of the reef.

The reef walls of many islands, including St Lucia and Bonaire, are adorned with these sedentary yet colourful filter-feeders, often in tube, vase or barrel form. Some achieve substantial dimensions.

A brightly coloured orange- or pink-striped fish that hangs about in dark corners of the reef singly or in groups during daylight hours.

This Greek freighter that caught fire in the early 1970s was intentionally sunk in Barbados in 1978. The wreck sits upright on the seabed in 40m, but its mast still reaches to within 6m of the surface, making this a dive with convenient access to a safety stop. Turtles are common visitors.

Mobs of little bright blue tangs pass along the reef like a marine flock of sparrows. Blue tangs are surgeonfish that start life as yellow juveniles.

Large silvery fish that can tolerate both fresh and salt water, tarpon can live in oxygen-poor conditions by breathing air into a lung-like bladder. Large schools, such as those found in Tarpon Alley in Grand Cayman, can frequent the same spot for many years.

Tiger Shark
Up to 6m in length and the biggest of the tropical shark species, the tiger shark has a wide diet in that it will eat almost anything, and as such must be considered the most dangerous of all tropical sharks. However, keen shark enthusiasts can almost be guaranteed close encounters with these animals during liveaboard safaris in the Gulf Stream near Grand Bahama.

The smaller island incorporated into one nation with Trinidad, Tobago is largely undeveloped, and offers some spectacular diving in nutrient-rich water often affected by the outfall from the Orinoco river. Sometimes strong currents can provide some exciting dives.

Turks & Caicos
A separate island nation south-east of the Bahamas, the reefs here feature vibrant marine life untouched by fishing and, in the case of Grand Turk and Salt Cay, stupendous wall dives.

With a name derived from the old English word for hedgehog, the once common sea-urchin of the Caribbean is becoming rarer, as black sea-urchin plague epidemics have wiped out 98% of colonies.

Venomous Animals
The Caribbean area has its share of venomous marine creatures, including scorpionfish, cone shells, lionfish and electric rays. However, more holidays are spoiled by accidental contact with fire coral than with poisonous animals.

Virgin Islands
The British and US Virgin Islands are favourites with those who like to cruise the Caribbean by boat and passenger liner. With more than a dozen main islands from which to choose, the diver is well served, especially for wall diving.

A number of islands in the West Indies are volcanic in origin. Some still have active volcanoes, notably Montserrat, which suffered a devastating eruption in 1998 (see separate feature). Others with visibly active volcanoes include St Lucia, Grenada and Saba.

The deep walls of the Caribbean are lengthy too, so few divers get to see them all. Unless, that is, they hire a diver propulsion vehicle (DPV) and do a bit of 'wall-flying'.

Humpback whales are often seen around the Caribbean and they go
to an area known as the Silverbanks north of the Dominican Republic to calf each year. Sperm whales are also in evidence.

The water of the Caribbean Sea is generally warm enough that only a lightweight wetsuit is needed to protect from stings and abrasions. The colder Atlantic of the Bahamas might demand a 5mm wetsuit in the winter period.

Quite a few wrecks litter the waters in this part of the world - this is the Stavronikita in Barbados. Many wrecks were placed intentionally, while others were obsolete vessels seeing out their last days before they came to grief.

It's the only X we could find, but if you fly to the Caribbean you have to expect your luggage to be fully X-rayed. If you pass through Miami, expect your bags to be manually searched by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) too.

Yellow Goatfish
Adding a splash of colour when these fish congregate in inactive groups during daytime, at night they extend their barbells to search out small prey in the sand.

Yellow-tail Snapper
Found in midwater, these distinctive fish will follow a larger animal such as a scuba-diver in the hope of an easy meal of leftovers.

The territorial marine life of the sub-tropical Caribbean area has evolved entirely separately from that of the far vaster Indo-Pacific region - and it's well worth a look.