Friday, June 25, 2010

Steph and Dan: Mangroves, Microscopes and Parrotfish


I wish my dive buddy back home could experience these reefs! I am sure that he is crazy with jealousy right now. Last night's dive was amazing, but to see it during the day… whoa, but enough from me.

Steph and Dan write:

Hello all who are jealous of our small crew of current and future scientists aboard the Pirates Lady currently residing in the warmth of the Bahamas. Reporting to you right now is Steph: part of Team Thalassia (seagrass project). The morning started off with a quick piece of fruit and then right into the nice warm water to wake everyone up. The dive site was the same location as our first night dive, but an entirely different experience. Even on the first dive of the morning we were busy researching by doing R.E.E.F. (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) surveys of the amount and variety of fish at our dive site, the aptly named "Thrown of Whoaa". Then after an amazing and filling breakfast by the great chef Charlie we were all whisked off to the mangroves so we could start collecting thalassia for Steph and Sam's parrotfish feeding project.

As Randi lead Steph and Sam to scout sites, speeding up and down the mangroves to collect the thalassia leaves, the rest of the bunch got to experience a nice leisurely swim through the mangroves to see all the creatures unique to this location like upside-down jellyfish (see pictures of these jellies on this previous blog) and yellow fin mojarras.

Experimental thalassia seagrass blades partially grazed by parrotfish.

After Sam and I collected all of our thalassia leaves for our project, we were ready to get going. We started putting all the leaves out on the reef for parrotfish to munch munch munch!! After struggling through one site, we finally found our sweet spot thanks to Randi!! The parrotfish started munching away!! And from this experiment we will be able to determine whether the parrotfish prefer one type of seagrass to another, based on field observations in the mangroves. For example, we noticed that they seemed to enjoy the dead parts of the grass with epibionts. So we will compare grasses live versus dead grasses with and without epibiont communities to determine parrotfish preference. So, once the fieldwork is done, we will analyze the data to determine what the reef parrotfish enjoy!!!

Sam and Steph observe parrotfish grazing from afar.

Hi Mom! This is Dan, part of Team Canthigaster (sharp-nosed puffer fish) aboard the Pirates Lady reporting about my day's activities. The day started off much like Steph's did, with an amazing breakfast and a dive to get some REEF survey work done. I was one of the people Steph mentioned who got to lounge around in the mangroves while she was hard at work on her project, and it really was an awesome experience.

When we hit the boat, I had just enough time to check my cell phone and see that I had no service. Not that I use my cell phone often but just seeing how disconnected we were felt awesome! Next, we were off to a new dive site near Diamond Key. On our first dive, my research partner Tyler and I went diving with Dan and Charlie (no, not the chef) to catch a few sharpnose pufferfish for our experiment. Catching fish underwater is no easy task, but we quickly became experts - with four people to catch three 4 to 5 inch fish, it took only fifteen minutes! This is a great catch time considering Tyler and I had never collected fish before.

After returning to the boat we examined the gut contents of the pufferfish under a microscope with a blue light on it. The blue light causes certain things that the pufferfish eat to fluoresce (think 60's black light poster), which makes them much easier to identify. No one knows exactly what these puffers eat and that makes this experiment incredibly interesting to everyone involved. Well its 10:00 PM right now and I can already feel the boat rocking me to sleep so goodbye for now from the Pirates Lady.


All I can say is that the dives are rockin' and the science is talkin'! Every day we are seeing and learning more about these amazing reefs and the creatures that live on them.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sam and Tyler report from the Bahamas

Hello everyone, this blog brought to you by Sam and Tyler.

Tyler will go first… In the morning we got up around 7. Not too bad (I have some of the only working AC on the boat and my bed is also bigger). Dan Elefante and I could not participate in the first few dives due to projects to do and miscommunication. No big deal. I'm over it. We did get to dive on the site that we were parked on, which was called Devil's Horn located near Hoffman's Cay. This site had massive elkhorn corals that were just awesome.

Healthy stand of Acropora palmata elkhorn corals and Acanthurids (surgeonfishes)

I didn't get to do a lot of diving in this location so sadly all I can really tell you is that the elkhorn was huge. Dan and I successfully caught and dissected some more sharp-nosed puffers and examined their gut contents under fluorescent lighting. The fact of the matter is that Dan and I found a lot of stuff in the gut; stuff that we can't identify.

Catching (left) and examining (right -Tyler) puffer fish! (click to enlarge)

After the work we got a great little nap while the boat sailed over to one of the many areas where the famous big blue holes can be found. I swam back to the boat and got to see upside down jellies and various fish along the way back. I ended the night returning to my double-bed, air conditioned bunk.

Science in the ship salon – surrounded by bunks!

I'll let Sam talk about her day since we had very different days and then we will describe the big blue hole for you.

My day also began at 7 a.m., but unlike Tyler and Dan, I got to get right in the water. Steph and I had prepped our equipment for our experiment the night before. We went down in Devil's Horn to try to find some grazing parrotfish to see what sea grasses that we collected from the mangroves the day before they preferred. The first spot did not work out too well so we moved on to another that seemed to work out better. However, we were running out of air, so we decided to set up our grasses and surface for a half hour to eat some breakfast. After breakfast, we geared up again and headed down to see how much the parrotfish had eaten.

The majority of our tests were ready to be collected but some were still uneaten so we laid down in the sand and watched. Soon there was a group of parrotfish around our experiment. We watched as they looked at and judged the sea grasses, tilted their heads and took out a bite. In no time at all we were back on the surface with all of our samples, ready to lay them out and photograph them so we could determine the area of each sea grass eaten, and from that, parrotfishes' preferences. After our photographs, we set sail for the big blue hole, where we had a lot of fun. Then it was back to the boat for a delicious dinner and a good night's sleep. So by now I'm sure you are all wondering what this big blue hole is and what exactly we did there.

A short ride in the dingy and a small trek over some land and we found ourselves looking over a 25 foot drop into a super mega huge hole in the Earth. This sight was amazing, and although we couldn't SCUBA dive in it we were able to jump the cliff and free dive/snorkel the hole. Most everyone jumped off the cliff into the water. We got pictures and videos.

Mata got some palm fronds and tried to fly. He was successful at falling gracefully except not. Laura managed a graceful high dive. We all got to stay in there for about 45 minutes. You couldn't see the bottom of the hole no matter how far down you swam. The water was probably 95+ degrees on the surface and chilled rapidly at depth. Once we all started getting stung by itsy-bitsy jellyfish we got out of there and went back to the shore where mostly everyone accidentally stepped on upside down jellyfish. We were attacked.

We are sad to realize that today has come and gone already and the trip is half over … but for now, we are off to enjoy the rest of our class. It's a lot of work, but hey--it's worth it!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A 4-dive day in the Bahamas

Roger Williams University Students Leland and Val report:
Our first full day on the boat began with the loud clinging of the breakfast bell. As with all the food here, it was amazing. A mixture of our great chef being on a boat with the ocean air can make any meal awesome. Right after breakfast we jumped in for our first dive of the day (of course waiting the 30 minutes, making every good mother proud). We circled a patch reef, seeing huge schools of all kinds of fish, ranging from chromis to jacks and areas on the bottom were covered with Caesar grunts. This was our first opportunity to put our fish identification knowledge to the real test underwater, where we couldn't bring field guides or our notes with us. (Click here to learn about our first above-water test in the Bahamas.) It was an extremely rewarding dive to be able to successfully identify most of the fish we saw on the reef.

Mata with his hat

The highest adventure of the day came with the second dive of the day. It started harmlessly running a transect in a site called "Deep Sea Gardens," which ranged in depth between 50 and 60 feet deep. I, Leland, was about half way along and in swooped a remora. (See video of a beautiful remora shot by an Aquarium diver during a previous trip to the Bahamas!) I quickly became aware of this as my hair was ripped out of my head as my dive buddy yanked it back to show me the circling creature. Its friend came to join it and that's when the trouble really began. The transect line and measuring pole were quickly abandoned as the other pole was used to fend off our unwanted guests. I was subsequently used as a shield as we worked our way upward. They circled in and in, closer and closer, seemingly unphased as they were hit by the pole. Air was quickly being drawn down as breaths became quicker and closer together. A third one joined in the fun and the safety stop could not end fast enough. A quick swim to the back of the boat got us away from them for good. Although ending lower on air then we probably should have, the dive ended with everyone safe and Randi was nice enough to go pick up the discarded gear.

The EVIL Remora

I, Valerie, also saw my first wild lionfish, which was highly exciting, as I’d heard about them and seen them in aquariums and seemed to be the only person who hadn’t seen one yet. This dive was also interesting because we, along with Randi, determined that a type of algae (which we have tentatively identified as Microdictyon marinum), seems to be the dominant algal cover on the reefs.

Lionfish at Deep Sea Gardens

Microdictyon marinum

The third dive of the day was a shallow dive. This was my, Leland, first sighting of Andy’s infamous shrimp. One cluster of tube sponges I found had shrimp in 5 of the 6 tubes in the cluster. They did not come all the way up to the top, but they did dance angrily at me from inside the sponge. I also came across a lobster who came shooting out of his hole to make sure I knew he was not happy about me being there. I, Valerie, also got to see my first spiny lobster.

Sponge with Andy's shrimp

Spiny Lobster

We then took the boat to the beach, or as close as you can get a sail boat to shore. Everyone was glad to set foot on land again, after many of our first times being on a boat for over 24 hours. We swam in and toured an old abandoned lighthouse, at our own risk. The paths were covered in hermit crabs and geckos making the walk that much more exciting. Back on the beach we searched for some shells in the shallow water, finding a few sea stars which Mata put all over his body. The swim back to the boat was longer than the swim in as we had to carry our treasures we had dug up in the sand.

The lighthouse was literally falling apart!

Dinner was again amazing and it was for the first time my job to do clean up. It is a very small kitchen for two people to fit in, but the dishes got cleaned up until it was time for the fourth and final dive, THE NIGHT DIVE! We went in larger groups, staying together using the colors of the glow sticks on our tanks to determine who was in our group. It was eerie and amazing all at once to dive at night. The best spot of the night was under a rock overhang was a turtle chilling right in front of a Nassau grouper. Also spotted were a slipper lobster and a couple spotted moray eels.

Trying to identify the fish we had seen aboard The Pirate's Lady

Overall, everyone is enjoying their time on the boat. Although very busy and tired most of the day, we are learning a lot and honing our diving skills all at once. And who could ask for a better place to take a class and get college credit than the Bahamas?

-Leland and Val

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tropical Math 101

From Charlie:

The humidity is the first thing that hits you when you wake up in the Bahamas. It hits you like a shower – only not nearly as refreshing. However, what is truly refreshing is the perspective of the students as they get their first taste of the tropics. Today Alyssa and Audrey are going to share their experience with everyone.

Alyssa and Audrey write:

After staying at a local hotel in Cable Beach, we woke up at 7:30 to 90 deg weather… and oh yeah, an exam! We learned many things today. The first: sun + computer screens = horrible glare, and a need to finish the exam after dinner.

Taking an exam in the glaring sunlight in Nassau

After our morning test session, we headed to the boat through downtown Nassau.

Pirates Lady is run by Blackbeards Cruises, and we have 7 crazy/amazing characters onboard. Full of anecdotes and advice, we are sure they would help us have a productive and fantastic week (Jimmy Buffet, anyone?). Our next lesson was learned after the first dive. Mata + ipod + SCUBA = broken ipod. But, all in all, the first dive was breathtaking – a much needed improvement from Rhode Island diving. No wetsuit = happy Audrey.

We were also happy to see: each other, the surface, the bottom, at least 60’ in all directions, and marine life!! The trumpetfish are Alyssa’s favorite, and Audrey found the first shrimp (Andy’s favorite study species). After some relaxation, amazing dinner, and some more downtime, we were able to finish our fish identification test by flashlight. We went to sleep in our air conditioned bunks while some of our classmates opted to sleep on the deck under the stars.

Alyssa and Audrey on their first dive

From Charlie:

So, the equation for happiness this side of the equator: 18 divers in + 18 divers out + 18 big smiles = 1 terrific first day. That just about sums it up (pun intended). See you tomorrow,


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bahamas Research Expedition - We have arrived!

With no travel problems whatsoever, and after breezing through customs, we arrived at Nettie's Place - a wonderfully rustic island hotel.

Leah (Course T.A.) writes:

Our day began at 5:30 a.m. for myself, Andy, and the gang. We caravaned up to Logan Airport from the Roger Williams campus. Shortly after, Randi, Charlie, and Joe arrived, we checked our mountain of luggage and dive gear and made our way to the gate. Dan was MIA for quite sometime--it turned out he was waiting for us curbside and couldn't understand why WE were all so late!!!

During our layover in Ft. Lauderdale, Andy, Joe, Dan, Charlie, and Randi headed out to track down some last minute dive gear (and a nice lunch) while I was left watching "the kids. "They studied hard for tomorrow's exam, but also relaxed and played some games. We enjoyed the airport as much as anyone can, but we were all eager to get to the Bahamas.

The hop over to Nassau was very quick, almost as fast as our run through customs! With gear and group packed into two vans, we headed for our hotel. After dropping our bags in our rooms, we immediately hit the pool, disregarding the "pool closed" sign. What a relief to finally be here!

Dinner at the hotel lounge was delicious; our first taste of Bahamian cuisine. Tomorrow the students take their exam on fish identification, then it's straight to the dock to meet up with our boat. I can't wait for our first dive!

Back to Charlie:

Stay tuned for more adventures of our Bahamian Expedition! Photos coming soon...


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bahamas Bound

Welcome to our blog of the New England Aquarium/Rogers Williams University Bahamas Expedition!

This is the first of what we hope will be many collaborative expeditions with Aquarium staff and RWU's students. We are heading to the Bahamas with RWU professor and researcher Andy Rhyne, 13 RWU students, Aquarium researcher Randi Rotjan, Aquarium staff Joe and Dan, and me, a field volunteer with the NEAq.

We began our adventure last week, when we met at the Aquarium for a series of classroom presentations and activities to prepare the group for our week on Blackbeard Cruises' Morning Star, a 65' live-aboard dive sailboat. On this expedition we will be focusing on giving the students field experience in the areas of Caribbean fish identification, Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) surveys, fish collection techniques, and last but not least, assisting Andy and Randi with six of their ongoing research projects.

Our day started with John (Aquarium Dive Safety Officer) and Joe (Sr. Aquarist) explaining scientific diving procedures, followed by Dan discussing REEF surveys and fish ID. During lunch, the students conducted a REEF survey of the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT), then Sherrie, a GOT diver gave us a hands-on presentation on fish collection techniques and transportation procedures. (It should be noted that we will only be practicing fish collection techniques during the expedition. We will not be transporting any fish back to the Aquarium for display.) Randi and Andy then gave us the rundown on the six research projects that we will be working on while in the Bahamas, and Dan rounded out the classroom learning with additional training on fish ID.

We concluded our day with another walk around the GOT searching for the fish that we will be studying in just a few short weeks in their natural habitat! It was also the perfect opportunity for a group picture in front of the GOT!

Friday morning, we gathered for a second day of presentations, but this time, we met down on the Roger Williams' campus. Everyone received CPR & AED certification training, and International Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) training in the afternoon.

The next time we get together will be on our departure date, and I know I speak for everyone when I say ... that day cannot come soon enough!

I hope you stay tuned for more posts from our trip,