Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition 2010

Once again, the time has come to turn our attention to the archipelago of islands in the South Pacific that make up the Republic of the Fiji Islands. The Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition is returning to Fiji in a matter of days! The last expedition took place in February and March of 2009.

Photo by Keith Ellenbogen during a previous expedition to Fiji.

The Joint Aquarium Fiji Expeditions have, over the years, assembled some of the most field tested and experienced critter minds from the New England Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium and a coalition of other research and conservation organizations. Expedition members build working relationships with the people of Fiji and explore the complex biodiversity of the area.

Bailey on the lookout (left) and Keith Ellenbogen with his photography equipment during the 2009 expedition

The New England Aquarium's Curator of Fishes, Steve Bailey (Bailey), is a point person for this expedition, which has included many participants in the past: Conservation International's Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist Greg Stone, Senior Marine Biologist Steve Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, New England Aquarium Board Members and long-time supporters Alan Dynner and Sandy Prescott, and Gerry Allen, a revered coral reef fishes taxonomist at Conservation International and the Western Australian Museum.

Dr. Tim Burke and Bailey taking photos during the 2008 expedition.

This year Dr. Steve Webster is back on the expedition (read his post from the 2009 expedition here), as is diver, photographer, and Phoenix Island explorer and supporter, Bruce Thayer (see his amazing photos from a Makogai village visit here). New members of the expedition include Dr. Les Kaufman of Boston University. He's the Principal Investigator for Conservation International's Marine Management Area Science program (readers can check Dr. Kaufman's posts from the Phoenix Islands here). Also joining the expedition is Dr. Stacy Jupiter from the Wildlife Conservation Society. You'll be introduced to both of their work and some additional expedition members as the blog gets going.

Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition group photos from 2008 (left) and 2009 (right)

This year we hope to continue to strengthen our connection with the people of Fiji and collect data on the health of Fijian reef systems. We'll be visiting the Namena Marine Reserve again (more about that location in Ellen Garvey's post from 2009). In addition, we hope to learn more about the status of the clam farm run by the people of Makogai. Word from Dr. Jupiter indicates that the only tridacna clam farm in Fiji is back up and running.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

We're preparing to leave now, and look forward to sharing reports from the field with you as soon as we arrive on board NAI'A.

This expedition blog is being cross posted on Conservation International's website.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Coming Home

Dave Allen, Delaware Expedition

The big day! Chris got up around 2 am to partially drain the holding tank. The rest of us got to sleep in until 4. The first step was to fill up the truck's tank with water at a nearby boat launch. Since the truck is equipped with a generator and heavy duty water pump, this only took a few minutes.

Jackie running the hose to the water. Notice the sand filter, generator and most importantly, the caffeinated beverage!

With the water level of the tank lower, I got my first good look at the rays!

The rays were collected from the tank with a large hoop net...

... and slightly less effectively with plastic collecting bags ...

... and then hand delivered to Jackie who was waiting in the back of the truck.

Now that all the rays were in the truck, all that was left was to drain and clean the holding tank. Watching Chris and Brian scoop out sediment and uneaten ray food (quahogs) I started thinking about all of the hard work that our aquarists put in to make sure we have amazing exhibits and healthy animals. They are at once marine biologists, explorers, plumbers, truck drivers and educators. Above all, they don't seem to mind getting their hands (or feet) dirty.

Notice all of the sediment (among other things) that was left in the bottom of the holding tank.

Since the rays would be in the truck for up to ten hours, whoever was riding in back had to monitor water quality. The Star Trek tricorder-like thingy that Jackie is holding is used to measure dissolved oxygen and tell us to add or reduce the O2 coming from the cylinders. Temperature, ammonia from the rays' waste and pH were also monitored. When the acidity increased, pre-portioned bags of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) were added.

Here the water comes very close to the edge. Notice the design for the transport tank doesn't include a watertight cover. My experience in the back of the truck reminded me of being on a log flume ride: At some point, no matter what you do, you are going to get wet. So you might as well just enjoy the ride.

Fast forward about ten hours; we arrived at the Duxbury holding facility where the other rays were being held. Before they could join the others, the cownose rays were treated with anti-parasite medication and given a five minute freshwater dip.

Despite the stresses of being collected and driven in a noisy truck for most of the day, the rays began schooling as soon as then joined the other rays. I feel really fortunate to have experienced this leg of the collection trip and now I'm really excited for our new shark and ray exhibit to open next year.

Here is an underwater video of our cownose rays is Duxbury. If you look closely you may spot an Atlantic stingray and a southern stingray.

- Dave

Friday, September 3, 2010

The MERR Institute's bone yard

Dave Allen, Delaware Expedition

Since we had gotten to Lewes too late to see the rays the night before, we were anxious to check them and their holding tank out. I volunteered to ride in the back of the transport vehicle to prepare myself for the long trip home.

Rays holding tank

Unfortunately, I would have to wait to see the rays. The water in the holding tank and the nearby Delaware Bay was dark brown. Much of this color comes from sediment running from nearly 350 square miles of salt marshes into the bay.

Next door to the holding tank was the MERR Institute, a non-profit stranding response and rehabilitation organization that works with marine mammals and sea turtles.

The MERR Institute's bone yard. Like the New England Aquarium, they use biofacts—preserved animal parts—to help educate the public.

Biofacts don't magically appear white and clean. First they have to be prepared. Here MERR executive director Suzanne Thurman shows off her compost area where she uses manure to strip the bones clean of soft tissue.

Here two of our teen interns Libna (left) and Sheena (right) show off our impressive collection of biofacts. Biofacts like this sawfish rostrum and bull shark jaw allow visitors to physically interact with animals that are otherwise kept behind several inches of glass or acrylic.

Tomorrow we pack up our rays and head back to Boston. Better get to bed early because it's going to be an early morning.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Dave Allen, Delaware Expedition

When asked if I wanted to go to Delaware to assist with the Aquarium's cownose ray collecting trip on short notice I immediately said yes. I had never been to Delaware nor had it ever crossed my mind to go there (sorry Delawareans) so this would likely be my only opportunity to see The First State.

My view for the next ten hours. Little did I know that getting to Delaware would take nearly ten hours and take me through six states!

On Monday morning I met up with aquarists Brian Nelson and Jackie Anderson on the Aquarium plaza. Our mission was to drive to Lewes, Delaware and transport fifteen cownose rays back to Boston. The rays had been caught earlier in the week (read Megan's blog about ray collecting here) but there had been too many to take back in one trip. Our secondary mission was to also bring back aquarist Chris Payne who had stayed in Lewes to tend to the rays.

Chris made a lot of friends during his time in Lewes, like this diamondback terrapin.

I had heard that it was going to be easier to transport fifteen venomous fishes across six states and safely back to the Aquarium than to get Chris back to Boston. After spending the better part of the week in a sunny beach town, he had likely "gone native."

Though empty in this picture, the back of the Aquarium's transport truck would be filled with fifteen cownose rays and two humans for the long ride back to Boston the next day.

The holding tank can hold as much as 660 gallons of water and the back of the truck has all the life support systems needed to transport marine animals over long distances, including a sand filter and tanks of oxygen. This truck has even transported goliath groupers for our Blue Hole exhibit all the way from Marathon, Florida back to Boston.

We got into Lewes, Delaware late tonight. Hopefully tomorrow, I'll get to see some more of the area and a peek at our new cownose rays.