Great photo capture of flamingo tongue sea snail on the sand, and raising up to show it's underbelly and detailed anatomy. Original by author,

Flamingo Tongue Sea Snails: My Cozumel Macro Photo Muse

The Sea Snail that Started it All

Many of my Cozumel scuba diving buddies tease me a bit about my borderline obsession with Flamingo Tongue sea snails (Cyphoma gibbosum).

They’re absolutely right. No matter how many underwater photos I’ve taken of them while diving in Cozumel, I always go back for more.

The first time I saw one of these gorgeous little critters, I fell in love.

I was in awe of their unique and dramatic markings, striking colors, and the odd curvy shape of their shells and bodies.

Back then, finding one was like finding a little hidden gem tucked into a vast, complex reef. It was my first taste of the underwater macro photo treasure hunt.

My enthusiasm for macro marine life, and eventually my love of underwater macro photography in Cozumel, started right there with the flamingo tongue sea snail.

Practice Underwater Photography in Cozumel

Starting out with an underwater camera can be frustrating. 

Lots of overly blue frames, blurry fish, and “just missed” frames. 

Flash forward many years, and now I frequently dive and take lots of underwater photos on the reefs of Cozumel, Mexico, where these marine gastropod mollusks are now quite plentiful.

Their numbers have rebounded, and these days you can very often find them on gorgonian corals like sea whips and purple fans.

Not only have my diving skills vastly improved since way back then, but the flamingo tongues’ flamboyance makes them a relatively easy creature to spot.

They don’t move quickly or get spooked away, either, so they are the perfect example of choosing easier subjects for underwater macro photography – especially if you’re just starting out.

For more tips and tricks if you’re just starting out with underwater photography, you might enjoy this related post on how to get started without getting too frustrated.

So after shooting them for years, you might think I’m probably growing bored with them at this point, right? Not even a little.

I have thousands of images of flamingo tongues, and I can safely say no two are the same. 

If I find one, I always have to look closer. Like with most marine animal subjects, now the fascination is about variation and behavior.

Flamingo Tongues – Variation and Behavior

At first, I’d notice their individual spots and coloration, the wide variety of sizes, new locations along the reef, and how each one’s flesh was exposed or retracted to differing degrees.

Over time I’ve photographed them on gorgonian corals (their most common habitat), but also on lacey purple sea fans, in and around barrel sponges, and even “strolling” across the open sand.

Alone, in pairs, or in big messy bunches.

Bigger thrills came later, when I started to find and document many of them mating or laying large, neat rows of translucent white eggs.

Coming full circle, I’ve also found and photographed many even tinier juvenile flamingo tongues (tic-tac size).

Flamingo Tongue Snails’ Life Cycle – Original Photos

The images included here show just a small sampling of the more common flamingo tongue (cyphoma gibbosum) life cycle:

Flamingo tongue sea snail out in open on sandy bottom of Cozumel Marine Park
Classic Flamingo Tongue portrait
Pair of two yellow and black spotted flamingo tongue sea snails on top of each other in mating position. Photo by author in Cozumel.
FT pair, mating
Author's lovely shot of a Cozumel flamingo tongue allied cowrie laying neat rows of eggs agains a deep blue water background
Snail depositing neat row of eggs
Close up image of underside of flamingo tongue sea snail that is laying translucent white eggs on thin coral branch in Cozumel. My original photo, taken while diving.
Snail leaving eggs on coral
Topside shot of Cozumel flamingo tongue sea snail laying eggs and showing much of its mantle and skirt anatomy. Original photo by author.
Flamingo tongue w/trail of eggs
Very small juvenile specimen of flamingo tongue sea snail clinging to think gorgonian coral branch in the Cozumel marine park. By Author.
Juvenile flamingo tongue specimen

Different Types of Allied Cowries in Cozumel

The bottom line is, as I grew more familiar with the anatomy and behaviors of this one species, I learned more about them and started to identify patterns.

And to quickly detect variations.

In the category (Allied Cowries – Ovulidae), there are variants to the Flamingo Tongue snail to be found here in the Caribbean – and not just their juvenile variety.

Fingerprint cyphoma sea snail variation with black and yellow markings that resemble human fingerprints
Fingerprint cyphoma – rarer
Pink-circled simnia sea snail that is related to flamingo tongue but has whiter flesh with pale yellow spots that are circled in rosy pink
Pink-circled simnia sea snail
Small dark variety of marine sea snail closely related to flamingo tongue snail but with darker compact brown spots
Triangle cyphoma – less common

Fingerprint Cyphoma

One is similar in size and coloring, but has more of a lined pattern like a fingerprint – hence its name of Fingerprint Cyphoma (Cyphoma signatum) – far rarer to find in this area.

Another similar species resembles a juvenile FT, but a good look at it shows differences. Look closely, and you can see the distinctly different skin colors, shell shapes, and paler yellow spots that are outlined in a vibrant pink color. 

Pink-Circled Simnia

I introduce the Pink-Circled Simnia.

This is a type of Cymbovula, referred to as “sp 3”, according to my best reference book, The Caribbean Reef Creature Identification book for Florida/Caribbean/Bahamas (Humann, DeLoach and Wilk).

Reef Creature Identification - Florida Caribbean Bahamas

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Triangle Cyphoma

And finally, another that looks like a juvenile flamingo tongue, but much darker in color and with spots that nearly take up the whole mantle. This is familiarly identified as a Triangular Cyphoma in that same book, above.

As I searched for and found these variations, I got a greater sense of the behaviors and typical hiding places. I was in turn able to create more and more compelling images of them.

And that helped me, and other divers around me, understand what we were observing in much finer detail.

I think that’s the real beauty of underwater photography, especially of the macro- variety.

Underwater Macro Photography – the Treasure Hunt

That, and that the treasure hunt never ends.

The hunt for fresh finds and new Cozumel marine life behaviors is half the fun. 

Every dive site in the Cozumel marine park offers the chance to see something new.

My favorite subject has taught me the same lesson I now slowly apply to other marine species, and just diving in general, which is: the more you look, the more you see.

You never know what amazing images you might be rewarded with if you’re patient.

Notice aberrations. Take another look. Capture something that goes way beyond a stock photo. 

As you practice documenting the same species over and over, you’ll also find yourself playing with different lighting, angles, and compositions.

Over time, you’ll learn more, and also see your skills improving in no time.

Cozumel Macro – Tips for Beginner UW Photography in Cozumel

As a newbie underwater photographer, there are some key things to keep in mind when choosing these test subjects:

  • Select something you find beautiful and interesting – even your early pictures will make you happy. Try to take repeat shots of species that are naturally more steady and big enough to find a good focus point
  • Pick subjects that are in shallow water. Bonus points if you can find them during easy shore dives in Cozumel, so you can safely practice more easily
  • Judge how shy or easily spooked the species is – you definitely don’t want to stress out our marine friends, and you also want to gain confidence in your hobby over time, not endless frustration
  • If the notorious Cozumel current is strong on a given dive, don’t drive yourself mad trying to take macro photos. Fighting the current will make you go through your air too fast, and you’ll very likely touch and damage the very things you’re trying to honor. Just wait until the next day – there are plenty of FTs in this part of the world
  • This one is the MOST IMPORTANT one: Make sure your diving skills are good enough before you introduce a camera into the mix. You don’t want to be the diver with a camera but poor buoyancy skills and no spatial awareness!
  • If you need to touch the reef or use a hook or bump into the coral to get your image? DON’T DO IT. Practice your diving more, practice with photos of wider subjects, and have patience. As your diving skills improve and you’re free of any crutches, so will your photography skills.

For more insight and ideas on getting into underwater photography and some good subjects to select on your next dive trip to Cozumel, check out this post with lots of tips and tricks on getting the best results. 

**All photos in this post were taken by yours truly with the easy-to-use but excellent TG-6 camera by Olympus. See the end of the post for a link to our full review and recommendations for a complete beginners’ UW photography setup. Perfect if you’re just starting out.

Flamingo Tongue Fan Girl – Guilty

For me, the flamingo tongue will forever have a special place in my heart. My first macro-crush and what led to my Cozumel underwater photography hobby and huge library of original images of Cozumel marine life. I never tire of them, and they never disappoint. 

Send me your photos!  I’d love to see them and add them to this post.

OK, now let’s go diving…

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