Wednesday, December 16, 2009

#15: Clam farms in Fiji are back up and running

The Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition left Makogai last spring, but the expedition members continue to be closely connected to the Makogai people and developments in Fiji. Recently, the Namena Marine Reserve and the crew of NAI'A were featured in a Discovery photo essay called "Coral Success Story" by Emily Sohn. The story highlights successes of Marine Protected Areas around Fiji, and it's definitely worth checking out.

Detail photo by Keith Ellenbogen.

There have also been reports that the Makogai clam farm is back up and running. During the expedition, it was reported that equipment malfunctions and lack of funds stalled the farm, but since then the Fiji Government has asked for restoration of project funds and now the only Tridacna farm in all of Fiji is back up and running!

The 100-year-old generator that powered the Makogai farms was out of fuel at the beginning of this year. Photo by Bruce Thayer.
The clam farms are growing two different species: Tridacna gigas and crocea juveniles. They are reared for distribution to the reefs in protected areas all over the country. According to reports, these large healthy specimens produce prodigous amounts of gametes and innoculate surrounding areas that are pretty much devoid of clams.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

#23: An end to the seadragon adventure

After a spectacular 4+ weeks in Australia it's time to say goodbye to all the wonderful people I've met and all the beautiful sea life I've observed.

I'm looking forward to applying what I've learned while in Australia back at the New England Aquarium and hope that through the continued work of those in Australia and in aquariums around the world we will soon unravel some of the mysteries that still surround these iconic creatures.

Weedy seadragon (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Leafy seadragon (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Now, I think it's best to end by letting the pictures and videos speak for themselves.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

#22: Nudibranch, squid, fish and habitat photos from South Australia

I spent my last two dives in Australia searching for leafy seadragons, but unfortunately couldn't find any. Regardless, it was good to see the diverse types of habitat that leafy sea dragons typically use and how these are comparable and different to what weedy seadragons prefer. For example, leafy seadragons tend to hang near these long pieces of algae above large mats of sea grasses whereas the weedy's I saw tended to prefer to be where the sandy patches meet the sea grasses.

Habitat (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

As I previously mentioned, regardless of whether or not you see seadragons the diving here is always spectacular.

The temperate waters of southern Australia may not get the recognition that the tropical reefs like the Great Barrier Reef does, however, the colors and diversity of fish, invertebrates, and algaes are absolutely magnificent.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

#21: Seahorses, pipefish, squid, octopus and more from the South Australian coast

I headed to a new location along the South Australian coast with a local expert to see if I could find some more leafy sea dragons. Unfortunately, the first dive of the day yielded no leafy seadragons, but we were able to spot two other syngnathids--This short-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus breviceps) and this pipefish

Seahorse (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Pipefish (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

I did a night dive at a spot that is renowned for its spectacular nocturnal species and I wasn't disappointed. It was likely one of the most spectacular dives of the trip. I saw striped pyjama squid (Sepioloidea lineolata).

Pyjama squid (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

There were lots of hatchling blue ring octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) that were likely only a few days old.

Juvenile blue ring octopus (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

and this pipefish hiding in the grass.

Pipefish (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

#20: First sightings of leafy seadragons!

I went out for another dive in search of leafy seadragons and lucked out as we spotted four throughout the dive. Two were juveniles (probably 1 - 1.5 year olds) and two were adults.

Leafy seadragon (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

One was even a large male with eggs on its tail.

It's quite remarkable to see how thick the males tail gets when it has eggs (even wider than the male weedy seadragons), and how many eggs it can hold (anywhere from 150-300 eggs).

Leafy seadragons are exceptionally well camouflaged and look so much like a floating piece of algae when they swim that I've heard stories here of how divers have missed them as they swam right in front of their mask. As you can imagine spotting them is much harder than finding weedy sea dragons.

Even without seeing dragons the dive was exceptional with a rich array of colorful and beautiful fish and inverts like this orange biscuit star (Pentagonaster dubeni) and this moonlighter (Tilodon sexfasciatus)

Biscuit star (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Moonlighter (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)


Saturday, November 7, 2009

#19: Strange sights in Australia...

Since I'll be away for the next few days hunting for leafy seadragons along the coast of South Australia I likely won't have access to email so it may be a day or two until you hear of my journeys.

So, I thought this might be a good opportunity to show you a photo of an interesting, head scratching, thought provoking and down right humorous item I've come across while down under. Hope you enjoy.

High-heel fin (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)


Friday, November 6, 2009

#18: Finding hidden seadragons for science

For being such an iconic and extraordinary looking fish, our knowledge about seadragon life history is surprisingly limited. This is largely a result of their cryptic nature. You can imagine trying to undertake something as simple as trying to do a census to understand how many dragons there are in a given area.

Weedy seadragon in weeds (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Just spotting a cryptic species like a seadragon is a challange (just look at the photos above) let alone making sure that you get an accurate count of all the animals living in a given area.

Several years ago there was a program called Dragon Search (which we highlighted on one our graphic panels adjacent to our exhibit at the aquarium) that employed the help of local divers and beach goers to report seadragon sightings. While this wasn't a "scientific" assessment it did provide lots of valuable information about what habitats, depths, and locations sea dragons were being found in and what times of the year eggs were being seen and where/when juveniles were being spotted.

After this program ended there was still interest about reporting sea dragon sightings and the program still continues under Reef Watch's Feral or In Peril program. All the information gathered from Dragon Search has now been compiled and can be accessed through the Reef Watch website.
If you're interested in learning more I urge you to check out their website for more information.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

#17: Giving a talk and taking old wife and bullseye videos in South Australia

I got to do my first dive in South Australia today. Unfortunately the visibility was pretty bad do to a fairly strong swell and therefore there was little chance of finding a leafy sea dragon. It was still quite a fun dive though and I got to see several interesting fish and invertebrates like this old wife:

And this bullseye:

In the evening, I gave talk sponsored by Reef Watch entitled, "In Search of Dragons." I talked a little about the New England Aquarium, our seadragon exhibit, and the efforts that many public aquariums are taking to breed sea dragons in captivity (a very big challenge at this point in time, especially since there are still many holes in our knowledge about seadragons). The talk went well and nearly 40 people attended. The attendees were a good mix of local divers interested in seadragons to local marine biologists who were quite knowledgeable about sea dragons.

Tomorrow I'm off to do a dive at a place that is a pretty reliable leafy seadragon site (fingers crossed). Then I'm off to spend the weekend diving in search of leafy sea dragons and some other unique syngnathids that are native to South Australia.


Monday, November 2, 2009

#16: Connecting with Reef Watch in Australia

I arrived in Adelaide, South Australia to a leafy seadragon reception at the airport. I spent my first day here at the Reef Watch Marine Creatures Expo.

Leafy sea dragon display at airport

Reef Watch is a community based monitoring program that utilizes "citizen scientists" to do systematic surveys at local reefs and intertidal areas to assess the health of these rocky reefs and contribute to adaptive management of the local coastal areas (similar to the Great Annual Fish Count that Aquarium divers reported on here).

In addition, they play a vital role in educating and engaging the public about the bounty and beauty of the South Australian marine environment. This expo was a way for them to let the public know about the important programs they're working on and to expose people to South Australian marine creatures and some of the marine scientists that research them.

Leafy seadragon (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

The expo was broken into several stations detailing their programs on invasive/feral species, in peril/'of concern' (or rarely seen species such as leafy seadragons), and showcasing the diversity of local invertebrates, fish, and algae. Overall, it was a very informative day and I learned a lot about the beauty of South Australia's temperate reefs.

I'm looking forward to experiencing more of it first hand in a couple of days when I do another dive.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

#15: Exploring Tasmania

I spent the last couple days exploring the majestic natural beauty of Tasmania as well as learning about some of its unique animal life. I took a walk at Cataract Gorge and spent some time walking around Dove Lake near Cradle Mountain.

I also visited the Platypus House which in addition to displaying everyones favorite egg laying mammal, conducts research on a particularly devastating fungus that has ravaged the platypus population in Tasmania.

 Platypus (Photo: Stefan Kraft via Wikimedia Commons)

And what trip to Tasmania is complete without seeing the infamous Tasmanian devil.

Tasmanian devil (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

It's now time to say goodbye to the beautiful state of Tasmania and head to Adelaide, South Australia where I will meet with members of the conservation group Reef Watch and conclude my trip with some diving to see the magnificent leafy sea dragons.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

#14: Rock lobster, anemone, thornfish and more seadragons

I went out and did another dive today, although this one was in a rocky pool. All my training looking for the cryptic seadragons is paying off since I'm now more a tuned to cryptic species like tiny thornfish.

I also spotted this swimming anenome. At night these agile anemones move high up on the plant and extend their tentacles to catch floating prey and during the day they collapse and looks like a sack of beans.

Swimming anemone photo (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Like many of the dive sites where I saw seadragons, this dive location was also teeming with mysis shrimp. These tiny shrimp are primary diet of sea dragons and a popular food item for many other fish as well. In this video you can see hundreds of little mysis shrimp (all the white specks) swimming in the water column.


Friday, October 30, 2009

#13: An Aquarium visit and more dive photos featuring invertebrates

Today I visited a small aquarium called Seahorse World located in Beauty Point, Tasmania. They display over seven species of seahorses in addition to other local fish and invertebrates, and actively breed thousands of pot-bellied seahorses for research.

Pot-belly seahorses (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

I also got the chance to do a dive to see a deep water temperate reef that was very similar to the habitat that we display our sea dragons in at the aquarium. The invertebrate life was pretty spectacular. There were loads of sponges and ascidians in addition to hundreds of butterfly perch and southern hulafish. Both species of fish we currently display in our exhibit. It was difficult to get a good photo of the general habitat since it was relatively dark and the visibility was low, unfortunately.

Tomorrow I head out for another dive.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

#12: Last dive with weedy seadragons

I did my last dive with weedy seadragons today and was once again moved by how amazing and beautiful these creatures are. I am certainly going to miss my daily dives with dragons. It's difficult to describe how remarkable it is to see these creatures in their natural habitat so with that being said I'll leave you to enjoy some of my favorite weedy seadragon photos and videos.

Weedy seadragons (Photos: Jeremy Brodt)

Next stop Tasmania!


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

#11: Spider crabs, soldierfish and Australian fur seal footage

Our first dive today wasn't sea dragon related, but we still came across some great animals like this group of spider crabs (there must have been 50 or more on the surrounding stumps) and this soldierfish.

Spider crabs (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

We did yet another sunset/evening dive in an attempt to catch some weedy sea dragon breeding behavior, but unfortunately the water visibility wasn't very good so it was harder to find dragons. We did find a few, but they often became distracted by our presence and would swim away.

Regardless, the dive was quite eventful thanks to a curious juvenile Australian fur seal that became interested by my presence.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

#10: Seeing seadragons doesn't get old...

Even though I've been fortunate enough to see at least a dozen weedy seadragons each dive (starting here, and more here and here), it truly never gets old. Seeing such extraordinary animals in their natural habitat is truly awe inspiring.

On our dive today we were blessed with great visibility and therefore got an even better look at the dragons.

Weedy seadragons (Photos: Jeremy Brodt)

Not only was there an abundance of weedy seadragons, but we also saw a fiddler ray
and some cowfish. However, my favorite sighting of the day was this snail that was apparently in quite a hurry based on the trail it left behind.


Monday, October 26, 2009

#9: A new seadragon location with stargazers, leaffish and cuttlefish

Today I dove at a new location to see seadragons. Although, near the beginning of our dive we came across a stargazer buried in the sand, and a Forster's leaffish hidden in the weeds. Then we stumbled upon more weedy seadragons!

We did another dive just before sunset and saw lots of seadragons. Nearly all the males we saw had eggs on their tails and there were lots of juveniles that appeared to be popping out of the weeds.

In addition to all the dragons I got lucky and caught this large cuttlefish on video as it was swimming by.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#8: Diving among the seadragons and stingrays

Today I went to a site that was filled with weedy seadragons. Again, I must have come across at least 15-20 dragons and again nearly all were males with eggs on their tails. Here are a couple of my favorite dragon photos of the day.

Weedy seadragon (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Weedy seadragon (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

As I was swimming along the pier I came across a school of globe fish. I was also pleasantly surprised when I looked up from having my heads in the weeds looking for seadragons to see a beautiful wedgenose skate swim by. Then I was surprised again when a very large (probably close to 7' long from tip to tail) smooth or black stingray swam by again.

It was quite an exciting dive and I even went back for a night dive at the same spot to try to catch some sea dragon mating behavior which typically occurs right at sunset. We saw lots of dragons (and lots of juveniles that were likely 6-8 months old), but most of the adult males already had eggs. I did stumble upon one pair near the end of my dive, but they didn't come together to court before I had to get out of the water.

Hopefully tomorrow will yield another eventful sea dragon dive!


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

#7: Seeing flounders, gobies, leather jackets, sea stars and more...

During today's dive I was hoping to come across pot-bellied seahorses, but unfortunately I wasn't able to find any. However, while looking hard I did come across some other interesting cryptic species like flounder and gobies. I also spent quite a deal of time chasing this blue-lined leather jacket around a pillar in an attempt to get a full body photo, however, I had to settle with a "hide and seek" photo.

In addition to all the great fish there are lots of very beautiful and colorful invertebrates. These Australian biscuit stars are my absolute favorite. They come in a variety of different colors. In fact, it seems everyone that you come across is unique. There are also many large eleven-armed sea stars that are often 12-15" in diameter.

Eleven-armed sea star (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Tomorrow I head out for another good seadragon site.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

#6: Dragons! First seadragon sightings of the expedition

I saw my first weedy seadragon today! Not even 10 minutes into the dive I saw my first dragon! I saw about 15-20 dragons total throughout my dive. It was quite a spectacular thing to witness. They are such beautiful fish and are quite graceful.

(Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

One of the primary reasons that I came to Australia when I did was because it is spring here which means that its sea dragon breeding season. In fact, many of the seadragons I saw were males carrying eggs on their tail.

Like other syngnathids (seahorses, pipefish, & sea dragons) the male actually takes care of the eggs. With seahorses, the eggs are deposited by the female in the males brood pouch. With seadragons the female deposits the eggs on the males tail which becomes thick and spongy to receive the eggs.

Here are some other neat fish that I saw during my dive:

(Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

Tomorrow's dive won't likely yield many seadragons, but we may get so see some seahorses so stay tuned.


Friday, October 16, 2009

#5: A visit to Phillip Island during the seadragon expedition

On the way to Phillip Island I stopped at the Koala conservation center to see one of Australia's most famous marsupials up close.

Koala napping (Photo: Jeremy Brodt)

The penguin parade was incredible! We weren't allowed to take photos of the penguins as they came ashore (so as to not scare them with flashes), however, here's a picture from their website.

Little blue penguin under a boardwalk (Photo: Phillip Island tours)

Now that I've had some time to get settled in and have some fun around Melbourne it's time to get down to business.

Tomorrow I head south of Melbourne to meet with a local seadragon expert and hopefully get in my first dive.

Here's hoping my next post will be about my first seadragon sighting!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

#4: A visit to the Melbourne Aquarium

I toured the Melbourne Aquarium today and got to observe their seadragon display.

Seadragon exhibit

After seeing their dragons and other local specimens I am now even more eager to do some diving this weekend.

Here another highlight from my aquarium visit:

King Penguin

Tomorrow I take a trip down to Phillip Island to see the "penguin parade."


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#3: Australia! Starting the seadragon expedition...

I've now arrived in Australia! I've spent the last day and a half getting acquainted with Melbourne. Here are a few photos of my travels throughout this beautiful city.

Flinders Station

Seadragon exhibit at the Melbourne Museum

I saw my first weedy sea dragon in Australia today, however, it was just a preserved specimen from the Melbourne Museum. Tomorrow I visit the Melbourne Aquarium.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

#2: The really long plane ride

I begin my journey today. It'll take me over 24 hours to get to Australia to begin the seadragon expedition. Yep, I'll lose an entire day of my life. I leave on Saturday and arrive there on Monday. My first stop will be Melbourne where I'll spend some time getting over my jet lag and visiting the Melbourne Aquarium.

 Bags packed and ready to go

So with my iPod charged, plenty of reading material at hand, and the anticipation of a remarkable journey ahead, I'm off!


Monday, October 5, 2009

#1: Getting Ready for the Seadragon Expedition

In just under one week I will be heading "down under" to the Southern coast of Australia to do some diving to observe weedy and leafy seadragons in the wild. These remarkable fish are related to sea horses and are endemic to the temperate waters of the southern coast of Australia.

A weedy seadragon in the Aquarium's seadragon exhibit

Here's a video I took inside the exhibit:

While in Australia I will spend a week diving with a local seadragon expert near Melbourne to see weedy sea dragons, then travel to Tasmania to visit an aquarium called Seahorse World, and finally I will travel to Adelaide, South Australia to meet with the conservation organization Reef Watch as well as do some diving to see leafy sea dragons. Right now I am solidifying my plans and testing out some new gear to bring along.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Searching for Seadragons

This fall Senior Aquarist Jeremy Brodt will be exploring southern Australia's temperate reef ecosystems in search of threatened weedy and leafy seadragons. You can follow his posts on this blog by subscribing to the RSS feed or connecting with the Aquarium on twitter or facebook.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

#14: Underwater Fiji--Discovering small details

Guest Post by Keith Ellenbogen, Parsons School of Design

From nudibranchs to crabs to fish, the underwater world of Fiji is renowned for all manner of small creatures that defy imagination with their exotic shapes and colors. They are often lost to the eye in the riot of visual activity of the South Pacific coral reef. Macro photography allows the underwater photographer to focus on small animals, making their beautiful subtle details as noticeable to human observers as the similar easily-seen attributes of larger animals.

Reef Crab, Paraetisus sp.

Spotted Shrimpgoby, Ambiyeleotris guttata

A great example-
When photographing the Spotted Shrimpgoby Amblyeleotris guttata head on, the animal appears to be aggressively staring right at me. However, in reality, its eyes point sideways and the 'front facing pigmented eyes' are a disguise, illusion or impression to scare away unwanted predators. As a diver you might not notice this unless you are able to get very close; a tough thing to do because the fish retreats into its burrow when feeling threatened.

Nudibranch Chromodoris Iochi

Longnose Hawkfish, Oxycirrhites typus

Underwater, when looking at many fishes the coloration of their bodies at a distance appears to be one solid color. However, upon closer inspection, I've often noticed that colors may be a blend of many tones or hues. Case in point--the coloration of the Longnose Hawkfish Oxycirrhites typus, with its red bands around the nose and eye include a blending yellow and orange and even a little accent of green. From a distance, a diver has the impression of one red solid color; as can be seen in this photo, hardly the case!

I find the art of macro photography inspiring as it opens a window into the complexity of an animal's composition that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

For macro photography I use a Nikon D200,Nikor 60mm or 105mm lens, Sea&Sea underwater housing and YS-250 Strobes.

-Keith Ellenbogen, Parsons School of Design

Thursday, April 9, 2009

#13: Makogai Village visit, 2009

Guest Post by Bruce Thayer

The people of Makogai

I wanted to share a few of my thoughts regarding our special village visit to the island of Makogai, but first a disclaimer and a compliment.

During the recent Joint Aquarium Fiji expedition, I saw the efforts of those dedicated bloggers among us, putting aside personal time and sleep to share their Fiji experiences, both wet and dry. In real time, they shared their joy. Today, I have the luxury of time without that real time sacrifice.

Also, this is the first dive trip in over ten years that I have gone below to 'blow bubbles' without a camera of some kind in my hands. I did watch the skillful actions of those who did venture below with photo gear, and I can tell you how hard it is to bring good images back to the surface.

So, a tip of my fins to the bloggers who have gone before, and the SCUBA-endowed photographers, whose dedication and generosity have already been displayed on this blog.

Makogai Village visit, 2009
Makogai island is unique as a former leper colony, and much more. The 12-foot-tall concrete steps to the old hospital still remain, as does the original cemetery.

The island is the unlikely site of the South Pacific's oldest outdoor movie theater. Dating to 1911, the concrete projection building (above) overlooks a grassy 'theater,' having projected movies onto a solid concrete wall.

The building wall and the almost 100-year-old Lister Company electricity generator (above) remain to this day. In today's world of planned obsolescence, and expendability, I am impressed beyond belief that this generator still works.

Chief Watson (above), like that British Lister generator, is a force to be reckoned with. He recognizes that the health of his island and its people are intimately connected to the health of the surrounding coral reefs. His vision led him to start a series of reef initiatives to bolster reef health and diversity.

Serving Kava to guests (left) Steve Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (right)

In conjunction with the University of the South Pacific and the Fiji Ministry of Fisheries and Forests, Chief Watson launched aquaculture projects including tridacna (giant) clam rearing pens, a hawksbill sea turtle farm, coral propagation, and fish grow-out facilities. The intent was to release these species onto surrounding reefs, rather than to harvest them commercially. In this way, the island acts as a kind of marine reserve that replenishes ocean species.

Connecting with the village children

Other chiefs have succumbed to officially or unofficially selling commercial fishing rights--or not paying attention at all to marine encroachers, resulting in the decimation of top of the food chain species, notably sharks and other pelagics. Although our Nai’a hosts carefully showcase our Joint Aquarium expedition the very best that Fiji has to offer (wonderful reefs indeed). Others around the globe, including many of the unseen and unprotected reefs are in various stages of decline.

Fiji smiles are legendary for their all-embracing warnth. The Makogai children are exemplars that bring me into the immediate moment, and to joy. What a gift that is. They are everychild, and they are wonderful. Chief Watson recognizes that, as well as the lure of the big city (Suva) to island children. He is working hard to keep the children on the island and out of Suva, and is focused on preserving their childhood, education, and their natural heritage. In no small part, Makogai's research and repopulation projects were intended to provide a platform for learning, challenge, and higher purpose, -a future for the island's children.

Oh, you've noticed I refer to the projects in past tense. For our most recent visit, they were 'on hold' (dead). The current Fijian government (outcome of the recent coup) has for one reason or another suspended deliveries of diesel fuel to Makogai, essential to run the water pumps supporting the island's marine enterprises.

Up close and passionate

It is not known whether the fuel was suspended for budgetary reasons, political, or due to bureaucratic error. Attempts are being made to get to the source of the problem in hopes of restoring the flow before the project's training and confidence are totally lost.

Best Bubbles -till next time,

Bruce Thayer
Iowa City, IA
Unofficial Dive Capital of the World