Friday, December 14, 2012

Five of the Coolest Nudibranchs plus a Freebie

I've decided to start posting about some of the coolest critters you'll find in the Oceans, there is a ton of taxonomic and evolution weirdness that is just not talked about nearly enough.

So here is a list of the five coolest Nudibranchs in my opinion. There are definitely more colorful Nudibranchs out there, but in terms of morphological weirdness/interest these are kind of at the top.

1) Tethys fimbria

Photo cred Dominique Horst (
This thing is just weird. It is the only species within this genus, and frankly nothing else looks like it. It is related to the predatory Melibe, itself an interesting animal in that it actively hunts copepods and other tiny shrimp-like crustaceans by enveloping them in their giant oral hood. Like a diabolical fishing net, or an aquatic venus flytrap. Here is a video for you to get an idea of how Melibe hunts.

Creepy. Tethys feeds in the same manner, which would be cool enough by itself. But then you realize how BIG Tethys can get - almost 30 cm. Nudibranchs usually don't get much bigger than 10cm, and the colorful ones are tiny. 30 cm is massive for an invertebrate, especially for a shell-less organism like Tethys. Finally, the thing reminds me of a trilobite. Look at this video; coming up to it, it looks like we are entering a primordial coral reef. Interesting example of convergent evolution in terms of body shape (maybe?) who knows, maybe trilobites used their head to entrap small organisms.
2) Dendronotus comteti

Valdes et al. 1998

I've written about this nudibranch before (Dendronotus comteti), and I am still fascinated by its biology. It's no looker, but it is the only nudibranch to be found at hydrothermal vents (and I think the nudibranch found at the greatest depth - not sure about that one). Anything found at depth and in such an extreme environment is already of special interest, but to have one species representing an entire Order (which is a lot of species) is quite impressive. I believe that there must be more species of Nudibranchs down on hydrothermal vents/cold seeps/what have you, but so far this is all we have.

3) Hermosita hakunamatata

Photo cred Peter Ajtai
 It's a nudibranch named after the Hakuna Matata. Enough said.

4) Onchidoris bilamellata

Photo cred Me. Yay!
 Onchidoris bilamellata is (or was) my pet project/nudibranch species for a while. It is unique in that it can be found in huge numbers here in the Northeast (especially in Maine where I did a project on their biogeography in high school five years ago. I've typed up the entire report on a google site for all to see. Please excuse the layout/scientific methodology used; I was 14 when I started the project Check it out!!) Fascinating life history, and because they have spawning aggregations in such great numbers, it is relatively easy to find them and study their behavior.

5) Glaucus atlanticus

 Any list of any nudibranchs has to cover G. atlanticus. This are undoubtedly the funkiest nudibranchs out there - They adhere to the ocean surface via surface tension (you are seeing the oral side i.e. the belly in this picture - they float upside down) and munch away on Physalia physalis, or the Portuguese Man O' War, an extremely nasty hydrozoan (not a jellyfish as many people think). These nudibranchs are able to avoid being stung and even use the stinging nematocysts found within the Man O' War tentacles to their own advantage by ingesting them and forming their own nematocysts on their cerata. Gorgeous animal, definitely by top 1 nudibranch to see alive. FREEBIE - This organism always remind me of Velella velella, or the By the Wind Sailor (also a hydrozoan - and one of the best names for an invertebrate) because it too has a striking blue/white coloration. Like the Man O' War, it too is pelagic but doesn't have a sting felt to humans. Simply a gorgeous animal.
Photo cred A.F. Julien

Monday, October 15, 2012

One of the blogs I follow regularly, Deep Sea News, recently posted an article about the resurrection of a geoengineering project called Planktos, founded by businessmen Russ George, which you can read here. His company became bankrupt a few years ago after severe pressure by environmentalists and scientists halted the main project of the business, plankton seeding.
    The idea was that phytoplankton, who use Iron naturally found in seawater for photosynthesis, would thrive on a massive dumping of iron fillings into the ocean and cause an algal bloom. This huge bloom would then fix the carbon dioxide in the oceans - boom, climate problem gone. He recently tested it off the coast of British Columbia, where it indeed caused a huge algal bloom (see this article and map from the Guardian). So in theory yes the artificial addition of iron worked in that an algal bloom occurred, although a bloom much larger would have to occur if a dent was to be made in carbon dioxide amounts in the ocean.  So what's the problem?

     Disregarding the UN's international treaty on geoengineering signed by 191 countries a few years ago, we simply do not know what the affects of such radical artificial geoengineering would be. The impact to benthic communities would be hit particularly hard as hypoxia spreads towards the bottom of the ocean as bacterial communities gorge themselves on the billions of dead phytoplankton floating down from the surface because of the rapid increase in phytoplankton population. Unused iron could alter benthic community dynamics, and it is not clear how well the carbon could be contained - in other words, whether the carbon will just cycle back into the form of carbon dioxide within a few years. At the surface, toxic waters (i.e. red tides) could spring up, harming fisheries. And finally, it is possible that this method could even worsen climate change.

    I am not passing judgement yet - I will be interested to see what the affects of the bloom will be on the local fisheries and benthic communities in the next few months to years. So while I do love reading Deep Sea News, I take issue with their current article as it preemptively condemns the 'experiment'. I am in no way justifying George's action, nor am I saying that sound science lays behind it, but I would rather wait for data (even if it is likely to prove the dump was a terrible idea) to come out before it is deemed a failure/crippling blow to the environment.

    Another reason I hesitate to immediately condemn the dumping is the simple lack of solutions. While I believe geoengineering to be the absolute last resort to the climate problem, there simply aren't a lot of companies out there who are in a position to help reduce greenhouse emissions as a primary goal. I think Planktos should have definitely undergone some serious smaller scale experiments are even drop geoengineering altogether - a company that is attempting to help preserve the climate and biodiversity (they have a reforestry project as well that I have not as of yet investigated) using a business model that attempts to make the environment profitable a boon. I know, I've scourged the internet for hours looking for jobs/internships in Marine Conservation - there simply aren't that many. I believe the only way we can fix the climate problem is to make being green (or blue if you prefer) profitable to the right companies while still providing the resources that people need (not want). So while I do not support geoengineering, I am saddened to see another company attempting to profit off of Conservation (in a good way!) go down.

    Investigate Planktos and George for yourself. I think you will agree that while the the events that model provided by George are far from the best, conservation driven businesses can be the thing to reduce climate emissions and preserve biodiversity.


Monday, October 1, 2012

My internship may have ended, but the show of marine awesomeness must go on!

The Ikka Carbonate Columns, Ikka Fjord, Greenland - the coolest underwater geological structures ever. They form from underwater seeps of Carbonate to form a mineral called Ikaite, which form these sweet pinnacles. But they are disappearing fast, most likely as a result of ocean acidification. The pinnacles are essentially dissolving as the surrounding ocean becomes more neutral, so withing a few decades these will be gone.

Put it in full screen, HD. The action starts around 2:00 if you are lazy.

Definitely on my list of top 5 places to dive.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Well two months have passed...I leave for Washington tomorrow bright 'n early. It has been an incredible experience to intern down here in Eleuthera seeing some amazing animals, beaches, and people. In the course of my internship I transferred one thousand juvenile Cobia from three tubs to a huge fish cage two miles offshore, gathered data on reef fish and invasive lionfish populations, logged exactly 50 dives to give me a grand total of 96 (four short of professional ranking), swam in some of the most absurdly blue water I have ever seen (better than any photo), eaten my share of delicious conch fritters and the special Eleutheran Mac 'N Cheese, spotted sharks and eagle rays, punched an over-inquisitive grouper and barracuda on the same dive, and met some amazing people.

   Things I am looking forwards to when I get back home:
  • Air conditioning. I cannot stress this enough
  • Junk food (BBQ, pizza, greek food, french fries...)
  • getting ready for college
  • seeing my family!
  • many others...

Things I am not looking forwards to leaving:
  • Almost daily dives
  • a dorm that is about 10 feet from the ocean
  • the water...
  • amazingly friendly locals
  •  Eleuthera in general...
It has been an incredible experience that I am glad to have taken a part in...I apologize for the infrequent blog updates, sometimes the daily ""grind" here seems not worth reporting, but looking back there is so much I could have written about. The blog will revert back to just a general blog about some of my thoughts on various marine topics...feel free to unsubscribe.

I look forwards to being back home!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

HDR of boat and Conch shell midden
mangroves growing on a conch midden

Cassiopea Upside-Down Jellyfish
Just some more random pictures I've been taking

Also, a film crew from Sweden has just arrived to film a documentary on sharks, which our shark team here will be a part of. One of the most famous names in environmental photojournalism, Mattias Klum, will be joining them - I really hope I can talk with him! Check out his website:
I've been busy this past week taking care of some new critters in the wetlab - Rotifers.

Courtesy UBC - those spheres by the tail are eggs.
These guys are microscopic plankton that we are attempting to culture so we can feed baby Cobia and Mahi Mahi this fall. We have approximately 200 million of these guys in our tanks right now and we have to provide an estimate count of their numbers everyday, a very tiresome task.

Cooling down a car engine, Bahamian style
Add caption
Our rotifers waiting to be put in tubs

finally we got them through security

Our Rotifers were shipped from the University of Miami so we had to go to the Rock Sound Airport to engage in some bureaucratic labyrinths before we could take them back to our lab.

Also, this is my last week here - although I am excited to be going home it will really be quite sad to leave. I'm just trying to soak it all in at this point.

Monday, July 30, 2012

New blog I created with some of my favorite photos I've ever taken - not really Eleuthera related, just thought some people might be interested.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Great morning dive today, saw a huge spotted eagle ray that glided ten feet away from me and a couple of reef sharks. Also broke my depth record, from a previous 109 feet to 112 feet at the wall only a few hundred feet from the cage. It's really amazing there, the seafloor just drops into the deep blue.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Two quick videos i took when I had to do surface support for some divers (surface support means I sit on the boat and make sure it doesn't float away/make sure all the divers are ok) I apologize for the bad underwater shots, I couldn't quite reach far enough the keep the camera in the water all the time.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some news stations in the UK are picking up the Henry story:

Monday, July 16, 2012

So apparently our boathouse mascot, Henry the Pigeon, is a racing pigeon. He showed up one day at the boathouse and hasn't left since, following people around and sleeping in the rafters. We didn't know where he had come from until recently when our boathouse guy Jason learned that phone numbers on racing pigeons were often inscribed underneath the back feathers, so he caught Henry and called the number he found. Apparently Henry belongs to a gentleman in Leeds, England, and Henry had last been seen racing from France to Leeds in what I guess are pigeon races. As far as we can tell he got blown off course and presumably stayed aboard a ship until he reached the Bahamas and showed up at our doorstep. Pretty amazing stuff, he's traveled over 4,000 miles  . He is very friendly and we can even feed him from our hand, as I am doing in the video above. We are not sure if his owner will pay to have him shipped back to England; if not, we get to keep him.

Here are some pictures from when we took some Island School students diving on the cage a couple weeks ago, you can see the amount of big fish that are attracted to the cage.

Students feeding the Cobia through the mesh, Yellowtail Snapper looking on

My hair turns into luscious locks when I dive apparently

Students scrubbing the cage of algae, a freediver at ~50ft, and me photobombing

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Three things - 1) Happy Bahamas Independence Day! 39 years of independence.

2) Just finished two books recently which I want to share some quick thoughts about. First one was Lawrence Durrell's Justine, book one of the Alexandria Quartet. The book has very little plot, as Durrell intended, for it seems to me to be more of a poem than prose, dedicated to the city of Alexandria. Essentially it describes the life of an unknown narrator in Alexandira, Egypt in the 1930s, concerning mainly his relationship between Justine, wife of a wealthy merchant. But the novel deals with so much more than this, focusing on the role of the city as the most important character and the nature of love. Indeed, Alexandria is the only source of energy in the otherwise directionless and listless lives of the human characters. This Guardian eloquently describes my exact reaction to some passages , "There are many passages of such grand inspiration that reaching them feels like emerging from choppy seas into marvelously clear blue Mediterranean waters." There have been very few books that I have read where I have looked up after reading a passage and think "Damn, that was good." It is a difficult book to read, there being no plot that one can easily follow. The real worth of the novel lies in its poesy, mysticism, and allegory. I don't have favorite books, but this is pretty close to #1 should I ever rank them- highly recommended, read an excerpt here.

Also just finished a short article, A Time to Keep Silence (around 100 pages) by Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recommended by Gene Campbell (so its gotta be good). When Fermor was 18 he left to tour Europe for a few years in the 1930s. He ended up walking from Holland to Istanbul, which he wrote about later in two other books, fell in love with a Romanian noblewoman, worked for British intelligence in WWII behind enemy lines in Crete working with the resistance, traveled the Caribbean and Greece extensively, and referenced several times by Ian Fleming in 007 films. Basically the real James Bond.
   A Time to Keep Silence recounts Fermor's time spent living in various Benedictine and Trappist monasteries while he was traveling Europe, as he had no money to live anywhere else. The book elegantly describes why people are attracted to Asceticism, why they were necessary, and the effect the complete tranquillity monasteries had on him.  Also worth reading, especially because it is so short and easy to read.

3) sadly one of the tanks in which we kept our Cobia broodstock (sexually mature fish) broke, dumping our few fish and water all over the wetlab and our only female died after we dumped her into an ice chest and tried to pass oxygenated water through her gills. She was about 3 feet long, and was a delicious lunch.

Monday, July 9, 2012

One of the biggest research activities here at CEI is actually shark research, and we have done some pretty interesting projects on local shark populations. Tonight I watched a presentation that was given to some visiting students and thought some of the information might be worth passing along.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark (Carcharhinus longimanus) - courtesy Eric Chen, Wetpixel
According to some of the latest figures, perhaps 73 million sharks are killed each year (from UN data), and some more liberal estimates based on the fact that over 3 in 4 shark kills go unreported puts the figure at perhaps 150 million sharks killed each year (from independent environmental groups). That is half the population of the US, killed in one year. Almost all of these shark kills are just for their dorsal fin, used in Asian markets to produce shark fin soup, which is a sign of affluence. The shark fin has no taste; the soup itself is often flavored chicken or pork - the only discernible difference is the texture. 99% of the Oceanic Whitetip Shark population have disappeared. That is like the population of the Earth going from 7 billion to 70 million, the population of the UK.  And there were certainly not 7 billion Whitetip sharks to begin with. In fact, CEI is the only research institute that collects data on Oceanic Whitetip Sharks in the world, simply because no one else can find them. Sharks are K selected species, which means they have few young in their lives due what was once a stable environment for them to thrive in - like humans. Fishing sharks is like mining minerals - you fish 80% of the sharks, then you will be stuck with 20% of the population as the new baseline, as long as fishing pressure stays consistent (which it doesn't).

However, there are now many shark reserves in the Pacific and Indian island countries, as well as a very recent one  in The Bahamas. Studying Reef Shark population changes over the period from 1980 to 2011, there has been a marked increase in shark population. China has just recently banned shark fin soup at official functions, marking (hopefully) a new direction in which shark fin is viewed. Ensuring shark survival is not just some Romantic crusade to preserve a set of amazing creatures, increased shark diversity and density has a direct correlation to increased coral reef biodiversity and biomass, as sharks prey on weakened fish or fish whose populations have grown too high. Kingman Reef, a US dependency and one of the last truly pristine reefs in the world, has a predator biomass of 85%, 3/4 of which are sharks (from an old NG article,  highly recommend reading). They are some of the most beautiful and awe inspiring inhabitants of the sea, and they deserve our protection. We can't live without them, but they would chug along just fine thank you very much should human disappear tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

This just got posted today, a video documentation of our Cobia movie - really great, you can see me starting at 1:20. Since there aren't captions, I can summarize what is happening. At :04 you see the juvenile Cobia in their wet lab tank waiting to be transferred, and at :14 we begin to add Clove Oil as a mild sedative. At :34 the Cobia are transferred from their rearing tanks to two blue transport containers aboard a truck, which is then driven to the marina at Cape Powell. The Cobia are then transferred from the truck (:54) to our biggest boat, also named the Cobia. The boat is then motored out to the cage about a mile offshore, and we prepare to send the Cobia down into the cage. At 1:07 you see divers preparing to raise the cage, as the axis of the cage contains an inflatable bladder that can be inflated to raise the structure up. At 1:20 we begin to scoop the Cobia from the totes on board to a tube that drains into the cage, and they pop out at the other end into the net!

All is going well now in the cage, we are feeding them around 3 kilos of feed daily, and scrubbing the cage of algae to increase water flow through the cage. They bite a bit when you stick your fingers through the netting!

Friday, June 29, 2012

 Just had a real nice sunset that I had to share
...and non HDR

Monday, June 25, 2012

Yesterday we interns took a break from the CEI campus and headed "down island" (actually north) to visit the rest of Eleuthera. We first stopped at a cave thirty minutes away from campus, formed by the weathering of limetsone to form a formation called Karst. The place looked exactly like the cave in the first scenes of  Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pictures are below (this will be a photo heavy post).
The coolest part was definitely the roots entering the holes in the ceiling of the cave and descending around 30 feet to the floor.

  We next headed over to Governor's Harbor, about another hour north. This once was the home of the Eleutheran Adventurers (protestant pilgrims sent to colonize under Cromwell), a pirate stronghold of the Bahamas, and later the de facto capital of the Bahamas for a couple of years. Nothing significant from these eras remain, but it is still a beautiful little town.

  After eating lunch in Governor's Harbor we visited an old Naval Base a couple minutes north of Governor's Harbor that was abandoned when the Bahamas gained independence form the UK in 1973. One building had been (was still?) used as a Voodoo shrine after the abandonment, evidenced by the paintings on the wall and the offerings of empty alcohol bottles. In short, a very creepy place that I would not like to visit at night.

The Caribbean
Lastly we visited a formation called Glass Window to the north of Eleuthera. At this point the island narrows down to only a couple hundred feet wide, and at one point a bridge has to span two points because it gets so narrow. The Atlantic to the east is a dark cobalt and crashes into a series of impressive cliffs sculpted by the water, and from the cliffs the land slopes rapidly in a few hundred feet so that it falls slowly into the tepid turquoise Caribbean. The rock here, also limestone, has been weathered into what is called locally "death rock," which I can only describe as razor-sharp rock that has been weathered into a swiss cheese design.
The Meeting of the Atlantic and The Caribbean

Add a little fog and you have a passable backdrop for Frierdrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Glass Window Bridge

An example of Death Rock

Another Death Rock example

Lastly, I managed to take some High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos of the various places I visited.

Glass Window

Glass Window Bridge

Voodoo shrine in naval base