Stories from Martinique : A curious gathering of the ocean's stars
It was in late March 2019, down at 20 metres of the coast of Grande Anse, Martinique, that we first witnessed this “star studded gathering” of the beautifully named “Etoile de mer des Caraïbes”, better known as the West Indian Sea Star or simply Cushioned Star, due to its unmistakeable padded body.
As you can see from the video footage, originally more than 10 minutes long, the sea-bed was literally crawling (very slowly admittedly) with this majestic congregation of stars.
Every video angle was filled with stars, stars of different size, shape and colour, but all there apparently for the same reason; this jaw-dropping phenomenon signals the search for a mate!
To understand the rarity of this social-gathering, you first have to understand that starfish are usually solitary creatures; live alone, hunt alone, eat alone … you get the picture. So, seeing hundreds on the spots we were diving that morning was just amazing; another reason to get out the camera! And we did, and we shot one image after another, after another …
Privileged to witness this intimate part of the life of the sea star leaves one in total awe of the marvels of nature and leaves behind the knowledge that we are aware of little that goes on beneath the surface of Mother Earth’s waters.
Etoile de mer des Caraïbes (FR), West Indian Sea Star (UK) Oreaster reticulates (scientific name)
Geographic zone: Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, tropical west of the Atlantic, Cape Verde, West Africa
Depth: 1 to 40 metres - course sandy bottoms, grassy seabeds & calm lagoons in warm waters between 22 & 27°, juveniles preferring the quieter areas such as in the muddy mangroves, dense grass and fine sand.
Family: Echinoderm belonging to the Oreasteridae family
Size: 26cm diameter (average) can reach 50cm
Description: This rigid starfish is recognisable due to its large padded body giving way to 5 to even 7 thick arms. The hard body is covered in blunt spikes and varies in colour: from shades of red and orange, to yellow & brown, some even close to a shade of white. Juveniles can be recognised both by their size and their greenish brown colour and mottled markings which help them to camouflage easily in the seagrass meadows they prefer. Markedly different in shape to other star fish, this cushioned specimen is not to be confused with other stars as its ventral disk is considerably more elevated than others & is light in colour in both adults and juveniles.
Diet: Omnivorous: Eating both animal & plant; some of the main dietary delights of the cushioned star include sponges, epiphytic algae, sea cucumbers, small invertebrates, urchin debris, and even, yes other star fish. Not very skilled in hunting most of their food is found in their immediate habitat, in fact in their path! If you are a little squeamish, the way in which starfish eat and digest their food may be a little belly churning! Firstly the star extends its stomach outside of its body via its mouth over the digestible parts of its prey. Once partially digested into a chowder-like soup the meal is scooped back in where the rest of the meal is enjoyed! Bon appetite!
Reproduction: The reproduction of this starfish, as seen in the video adjoining this article, is carried out in a mass gathering of star individuals. Fertilisation takes place externally with males releasing their spermatozoa which fertilise the gametes also released by the females into the open sea. Once fertilised the eggs are dispersed here & there via currents. The larvae will then flourish on a diet of plancton for around 23 days until they transform into the star we recognise today!
Lifespan: Although this varies from one species of starfish to another, this cushioned star tends to live around 35 years. It is thought that larger stars have a longer life expectancy than other smaller of the species.
Natural predators: Even though this star has a rigid and spiky body, it is still an appetising meal to many other animals. From bottom feeding sharks, to sea turtles, to other large bony fish and even other starfish, the cushioned star is an appetising meal to many! However, this ingenious creature has a defence on its side - as an echinoderm, the starfish has super powers of regeneration. What that means: while trapped in the mouth of a hungry predator, the star can drop one of its arms providing it with escape & then have the ability to regrow that arm - a true magical power when you find yourself on the menu!
Special note: Unfortunately man can be added to the list of predators as can be said unfortunately for many marine animals. It is our duty here to remind you that while plucking a starfish from the water for your holiday snapshots might make a “lasting souvenir” for you it means certain death for the creature! Please respect the don’t touch rule and only photograph underwater from an unobtrusive & respectable distance!