Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass
Captured in these photos is a common friend of the reefs of the Marshall Islands, the sea cucumber species Actinopyga mauritiana. These cute, cuddly echinoderms are found throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from Madagascar and the Red Sea to Polynesia and Micronesia.
They are common sights to scuba divers, snorkelers and reef combers on the islands of Kwajalein Atoll, where they are usually found in shallow water on reef flats and also in deeper water down to 60 feet in depth.
The life of a sea cucumber isn’t very exciting, but the role they play in the marine ecosystem is important. They pass their time recycling nutrients in seawater by consuming and breaking down organic matter. This is similar to how earthworms on the prairie operate. Look closely at the end of one these soft, cucumber-shaped fellas and you’ll see a ring of small tentacles reaching about the substrate for food. Running along its bottom are distinctly five rows of much shorter appendages that you could call tube feet. A. mauritiana and its sister species use these to scoot around—very slowly—and anchor their bodies to whatever surface they happen to be on when experiencing heavy surf.
Unfortunately, worldwide, A. mauritiana is in trouble. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, A. mauritiana is classified as vulnerable—meaning it’s approaching the point of being labeled an endangered species. Sea cucumbers, in general, have been harvested for centuries for human consumption, and they remain popular—sometimes referred to as a delicacy—in nations like China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Egypt, to name a few. A. mauritiana is no exception. Plucked from the reef, they are left out on tables, where they are dried and often salted for preservation. They later find their way into soups and stews or into sushi rolls.
In many island nations in the western central Pacific region, A. mauritania is among the top sea cucumber species for local subsistence consumption; according to the IUCN, it is harvested in 22 nations throughout this region, from Palau and the Marshalls to Australia in the south and the Cook Islands in the east. Sharp drops in local populations of the species in territorial waters of some nations like Egypt have prompted conservation efforts, but time will tell if these efforts pay off.