Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Daily Fiji Photos: Squishy (Sea Jelly)

This is the first post in a series of daily photographs from an expedition to Totoya Island in Fiji by Keith Ellenbogen, an underwater photographer and frequent contributor to the Global Explorers Blog.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Keith's first photo of the day is a species of jelly often called squishy (Cephea cephea). They can grow up to 18 inches in diameter. The species has a wide distribution throughout the Indo-Pacific, including the Red Sea. Here's another shot he sent.

(Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Stay tuned all week for more of Keith's images from Fiji!

More about the expedition
Please join Keith Ellenbogen, underwater photographer, and Dr. Stacy Jupiter, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Fiji Country Program, on an upcoming expedition in Fiji. From June 1 to 8, they will be working with the Pacific Blue Foundation, Wetlands International-Oceania and the Waitt Institute to conduct initial surveys of the Totoya Island reefs. Sections of this remote reef are considered sacred by island villagers and are proposed for formal protection in recognition of World Ocean’s Day. [You and your family can come celebrate World Oceans Day on Sunday, June 5, with free activities, giveaways and seafood tastings at the Aquarium]. Lying in the oceanic waters of the archipelago far from the influence of the central Fijian Islands, the reef holds exceptional value for cultural conservation as well as marine resource conservation. The researchers will also conduct marine and terrestrial resource awareness workshops with local communities.

The expedition will provide a rare insight into a nearly pristine coral region in the eastern Fijian Islands. There is a possibility that unidentified and/or rare marine wildlife will be discovered and photographed. The team will be supported by a high tech research vessel.

Posts and photographs will also appear on National Geographic’s News Watch blog page throughout the expedition.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Belize Expedition: Until next time...

We're home in Boston, and it's always a funny feeling to put on a jacket, wear shoes, sit at a desk, and drive a car (instead of a boat).

Daily commute to the reef from Carrie Bow Caye.

We had a busy but productive 2 weeks. Every day, there were 2 to 3 dives, usually 1 or more snorkels, lab work, data entry, and a hermit crab experiment at night. All of this work will now take a few months to process and analyze, but we'll get through it. Thankfully, we've already done the majority of data entry on-island.

Pete enters data while Walter disassembles algae cages.

Of course, being back home we already miss being underwater and immersed in the ecosystem that we're studying. But it's also great to be home to experience a lovely Boston spring, which is always too fleeting.

Jay and Pete snorkel for algae underwater.

Anyway, since we're home, this is our last post from this expedition. But there are a few people to thank first. This trip was a major collaborative effort with key contributions from everyone on-island, and many beyond. We had a HUGE team this trip - Pete, Jay, Walter, Scott, Zach, and myself - and I just wanted to publicly thank everyone for all of their hard work. Without everyone's constant attention, we never would have accomplished so much. Also thanks to Greg and Joanne (fabulous station managers) and Martha (cook) who kept us healthy, safe, and sound. Finally, thanks to all of you for reading, and for the excellent comments and questions during this expedition!

So, it's cars and shoes for now - but soon it will be boats and bare feet again. Until then,

Randi, Pete, Walter, Jay, Zach, and Scott

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Belize Expedition: Sharks and Rays (from Pete)

Belize Expedition, 2011
Out here on Carrie Bow Cay, one of the questions that frequently comes up is, “Have you seen any sharks?”

The short answer is “yes,” but it is a far less exciting answer than it sounds. We have a couple of nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) which inhabit the reef surrounding Carrie Bow. One of them even regularly resides beneath the dock where we launch our boats.

Moreso than sharks, we have seen a large number or their relatives, rays. Yellow rays (Urolophus jamaicensis) are found in the shallows around Carrie Bow in large numbers. While these animals are not aggressive in the least, we wade carefully through the shallows to avoid stepping on them, and perhaps avoid their defensive barb.

Also found in the shallows are Southern stingrays (Dasyatis americana). While the Southern stingrays that we typically see in the shallows are less than 1 meter in diameter, we have seen some rather large specimens in the 90-foot deep sand channel on the eastern edge of the island; sometimes even hiding in the sand. 

Another ray that we see with regularity is the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari). These striking creatures regularly exceed 2 meters from wingtip-to-wingtip, and seem to be curious about humans working on the ocean floor. As Jay was taking coral measurements on a dive, a large ray maneuvered within a few feet of him, paused for a moment, and then slowly lumbered away. Neither Jay nor I had ever seen a wild ray exhibit such careful scrutiny of a diver. Needless to say, both of us were quite impressed by the encounter.

One of the animals associated with sharks worldwide are the remoras (family Echeneidae). Over the course of the last couple of weeks we have all become very familiar with remoras [photo in this previous post]. Remoras regularly reach two feet in length, and have a disc shaped suction cup on their head. This suction cup allows remoras to attach themselves to larger animals, often sharks and rays, where the remora can then get a free ride around the reef in search of food.

Remoras, sensing large animals, in the water column often break from their typical hosts, and attach to our dive team while trying to conduct work underwater. It can be very distracting and disconcerting to try to count, measure, and identify fish and corals with a 1-meter grey torpedo attached to your leg. At times, during our ascent from the bottom, we would have upwards of 4 remoras circling our team. While they are an interesting and inquisitive creature I have really begun to dislike them.

Aside from nurse sharks, rays and remoras there are a few species of shark that inhabit the waters surrounding Carrie Bow. Each dive we hope to catch a glimpse of a 5-meter great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran), reefsharks (Carcharhinus spp.), or one of the huge whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) that are seen occasionally in the area. Unfortunately, we have not had the opportunity to see these magnificent creatures on this trip, but that just leaves us all wishing for one more dive.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Belize Expedition: Walter's Wrap-Up

We’re wrapping up here on Carrie Bow—packing, cleaning, organizing and making lists of items stored.

All-island group shot: 
Top: Randi, Zach, Walter, Martha, Pete, and Scott. 
Bottom: Jay, Greg, and Joanne.

This past week was an experience I will remember for a very long time. I am so grateful to Randi Rotjan and Pete Gawne—my colleagues at the New England Aquarium—who were so thoughtful to invite me. We worked very hard and I am proud of my contributions helping to establish benchmarks of this reef’s coral and animal health that will be monitored and studied for decades to come.

I will miss Carrie Bow. It’s a beautiful place. In one sense I’m sorry to leave but I look forward to seeing my family, my friends, my co-workers and returning to my real job!

I return with a deeper appreciation of our oceans and the impact it has on our lives, but also for those scientists and researchers that have devoted their lives trying to answer questions that will preserve and improve our oceans. I’m envious of their curiosity. I thank all of them so much.

I’m out of here ---- see you soon on Central Wharf!


P.S. Please stay tuned for more updates from Randi and Pete over the next few days.

Belize Expedition: Many hands make light work

Belize Expedition, 2011

I am so excited to have another guest blogger join us! Below you'll hear from Scott Jones, the Program Coordinator of the Smithsonian Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program, who (along with Zach Foltz, also of SI), have been collaborating on the establishment of a monitoring program for Carrie Bow Caye. Scott is overly kind below - don't let him fool you, he and Zach work just as hard! ;-)


From Scott Jones:

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know we are wrapping up a very busy week here at the Carrie Bow Cay Field Station. Looking back on the past few days, I feel excited to be a part of a great partnership between the New England Aquarium and the Smithsonian’s Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystem Program. We are very glad to be hosting the first official coral monitoring program associated with the newly created South Water Caye Marine Reserve. Environmental and biological monitoring is an important way to support marine reserves. They measure their effectiveness, provide feedback that allows management plans to adapt to changes, and lend support to the creation of more marine protected areas.

As a research program, we are interested in the ecological questions that can be answered by surveying the reef and fishes both inside and outside of the reserve boundary. Coral reefs face many threats, both global and local in scale. Marine protected areas are one of the few immediate changes we can make that may offset the impacts that are affecting coral reefs globally.

A spanish grunt amidst the Agaricia lettuce coral.

On a personal note, I am amazed by how much we were able to accomplish this week, and even more impressed with how hard Randi, Pete, Jay and Walter have worked during their expedition, they just don’t quit! I am very much looking forward to working with them in the future and carrying our new monitoring program forward.

-Scott Jones, Smithsonian Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program

Monday, May 9, 2011

Belize Expedition: What the floc?! Wading through mangroves.

Belize Expedition, 2011

One of my favorite things about Carrie Bow is the opportunity to overlap on-island with other scientists. Last week, we had the pleasure of overlapping with an old friend of mine (Dr. Keryn Gedan) who is now a postdoc at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, MD. She was here with her adviser, Dr. Denise Breitburg, and her labmate, Rebecca Burrell. These 3 scientists were on Carrie Bow to research mangrove ponds on nearby Twin Cays. I'm delighted that they've written a guest blog to share their experience; totally different from ours!

Their work with mangroves is particularly relevant to the Aquarium, since visitor can come experience a mangrove habitat at The Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank. But even though you will see upside-down jellies, you won't have to trudge through floc, I promise. :-)
From Rebecca, Keryn, and Denise: 

 Rebecca Burrell, Dr. Keryn Gedan and Dr. Denise Breitburg

Those familiar with the tropics know that the mangrove forest is an exciting ecosystem, with new and fascinating organisms in every nook and cranny. This is even more true below the water line. If you dip your head into the water for a snorkel to peer at the mangrove roots, you’ll see colors as bright and a community as diverse as on a coral reef growing there. Daunted by the tangle of aerial prop roots that snake across the mangrove forest floor (red mangroves grow aerial roots to enable them to live in very low oxygen soils), however, most people admire the community from the forest fringe. Not us.

We’ve spent the week exploring and studying the interior ponds in a mangrove forest in Belize on the islands Twin Cays. We’re trying to find out what animals can survive in this hostile and understudied environment. Trudging through a sometimes waist deep soft bottom layer of sediment, diatoms, and microalgae, which scientists call “floc,” it’s easy to see why many balk at the challenge. On several occasions, we used a small inflatable boat to approach one pond along Gator Creek, and then entered the water. Our motions stirred up the floc layer into a disturbing murk, leaving us to tentatively wonder the whereabouts of the pond’s namesake. 

The pond waters are still, and they can become scorching hot during the day. On multiple occasions, we documented water temperatures above 100°F in the shallower ponds. Imagine a very warm bath, full of soft, pudding-like mud. Depending on your point of view, this could sound like an expensive spa or the last place you’d imagine visiting, especially with coral reefs so nearby.

And yet, even there, life finds a way. We found a variety of fish species that inhabit the ponds, even during these extreme temperature peaks. Though the fish communities were not as diverse as a reef, we were surprised to find large, predatory fish, including nurse shark, barracuda, stingrays and snappers, in the deeper ponds.

Another common pond resident is the upside-down jellyfish, Cassiopea xamachana, a colorful, flower-resembling jellyfish that lives, bell down, on the pond bottom. Like corals, the upside-down jellyfish has a dinoflagellate symbiont in its tissues that photosynthesizes and provides the jellyfish with most of its nutrition. However, the jellyfish gain additional nutrition in the normal jellyfish way, with stinging cells, which stung us too when we disturbed them to survey their densities in the ponds. 

Upside-down jellyfish Cassiopea xamachana

Despite all the floc, heat and jellyfish stings, the ponds are beautiful and a novel study system. Well worth these trials for scientific exploration and discovery! 

- Rebecca, Keryn and Denise

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Belize Expedition: Shifting Baselines (from Walter)

Belize Expedition, 2011

Bud - I’ve just read your question on the previous blog entry. Let me try to give you what I’ve learned in the few days I’ve been here.

First, the corals I’ve seen are beautiful and I’m not even close to being able to identify their species nor am I capable of making an assessment of their health. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m in a foreign country as everyone else here is speaking a language I don’t know.

Anyway, what I do now know is that coral reefs are healthy when there is diversity in species, they are in abundance and, of course, alive--and you don’t see a lot of disease. In my opinion, I’ve seen very healthy coral here in Belize but the scientists seem to be concerned. Of course I’m seeing it for the first time--and it is beautiful--but those that have been here before have seen a decline in their health. One of the purposes of the work being done here is to determine whether corals around Carrie Bow will benefit from the protected area established just a few years ago. We’ll see. I hope it does.

Did you ever think I’d be answering a question like that? Strange things happen. -Walter

[Note: Dr. Randi Rotjan discussed this issue of shifting baselines in this 2009 post from the Phoenix Islands.]

A healthy Diploria labyrinthiformes brain coral colony with Bluestriped and French grunts. 
(Photo: R. Rotjan)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Belize Expedition: Time heals all wounds?

Belize Expedition, 2011

From Jay Dimond:
One of our primary tasks on this trip is to begin a long-term monitoring project on the local barrier reef system. This monitoring project is designed to ask a fairly simple question: How do coral reefs change over time?

Caribbean coral reefs have changed considerably over the past few decades. Elkhorn and staghorn corals were once among the dominant reef corals in the Caribbean, but now they are rare. A series of events brought on their demise, starting with an increase in coral diseases and some severe hurricanes in the early 1980s. Subsequently, herbivore populations (primarily sea urchins and fish) were reduced by overfishing and disease, which allowed fast-growing algae to overgrow areas that were once dominated by coral. Today, many Caribbean reefs are still covered in algae, and the pace of coral recovery is very slow. [Read more about coral recovery in different parts of the world in this post by Dr. Randi Rotjan about the Phoenix Islands and in this post from Fiji by Dr. Steve Webster ]

Has this sort of scenario happened before? The fossil record suggests that it has not. Cores from Belizean reefs not far from here on Carrie Bow have shown that this recent loss of elkhorn and staghorn coral was unprecedented for at least 3000 years. The cores showed a nearly continuous record of staghorn coral, until it was replaced by algae or lettuce coral within the past thirty years.

Acropora cervicornis staghorn (L) and Acropora palmata elkhorn (R) corals in Belize. (Photo: J. Dimond)

On this and in the previous four trips I have made to Carrie Bow, I am constantly reminded of the past, etched in the rubble of corals that once lived and left behind their stony framework. Meanwhile, small juvenile corals growing among this rubble are harbingers of the future potential of the reef. We can only hope that our new monitoring program will document coral recovery rather than decline.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Belize Expedition: Hello from Walter!

Belize Expedition, 2011

From Walter:
I can’t tell you how tired I am--and this was my first day! These scientists work very, very hard.

A ramora in the crystal clear waters of Belize (Photo: W. Flaherty)

Following three dives in crystal clear blue water and majestic corals, we’re now working late into the evening on a hermit crab experiment to determine whether or not smaller ones recruit others to exchange shells more suitable for their size. Believe it or not, I now know how to identify the type of hermit crab shell--size them, count their legs and assess the damage of their shell. Wow!

Underwater today I helped Randi, Pete, Jay and two scientists from the Smithsonian lay out three 25 meter transects so that area surveys of coral density and animal life could be taken. Scientists will return in several months to determine whether or not improvements in the marine protected area have occurred.

(Photo: W. Flaherty)

It’s getting late and these guys are still working. I’m going to bed! 


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Belize Expedition: Current Affairs

Belize Expedition, 2011

Even on a tiny island in the middle of the barrier reef, we manage to get some world news (mostly by radio). We know that there is a small chance of thunderstorms here. We know the major goings-on in Belize City. And yes, we know about Bin Laden.

But to be honest, the current affairs impacting our lives at the moment are the winds, the tides, and (as titled), the currents. We have been blessed with sun and wind, but are currently experiencing the joys and challenges of diving in extremely rough surge, unpredictable (and sometimes S-T-R-O-N-G) currents, and major surface chop, marked by numerous white-caps. Working in an ever-shifting ocean landscape is all part of the fun, but it's also a serious reminder that the ocean dictates the schedule--not us.

Gorgonian corals bending in the current on the Outer Ridge.

People often have an overly romantic view of marine science: living on a small tropical island, diving on coral reefs, etc. But the reality is that yes, it's beautiful, but we do this because it's a means to an end, an access point to the ecosystem we are trying to study. Even when conditions are rough, we're working in the water (within safety limits, of course). The sunshine is beautiful. But it also means no rain, which is problematic for washing and bathing (though our drinking water is brought in from the mainland). This is typically not a huge problem; normally we gather more than enough freshwater from roof-collected rain water, and even now we are easily able to budget water appropriately. Still, the realities of island living are worth a mention because they determine our daily routine, and we rarely think about these things at home.

Windy palm trees with white-capped seas along the forereef.

Another major difference here (versus at home) is the the lack of news. Being in remote places "off the grid" and then suddenly hearing major news from the outside world is always a jarring experience. Though our work is complex and engaging, here, our day-to-day existence depends on tides. Water. Food. Currents. Daylight. And everything else just seems ..... far away.

Frigate birds soaring above in the wind

Wishing you all sunny skies and fair seas,

Randi, Pete, and Jay

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Belize Expedition: Taking time to smell the (Thalassia) flowers

Belize Expedition, 2011

Yesterday, we had to snorkel out in the lagoon to collect some algae for some nutritional ecology experiments. Along the way, we stopped to admire the beauty of the underwater flowers. Thalassia testudinum is a common tropical seagrass (commonly known as turtlegrass), and it is a true vascular plant (not an alga). It forms thick and beautiful meadows in the shallow waters surrounding Carrie Bow.

One of the amazing things about Thalassia flowers is that they are wave pollinated. There are both male and female flowers (below is a photo of a male flower). It is white (almost clover-like), with 9 stamens. Pollen gets released into the water column and waves then transfer the pollen to female flowers, which will eventually produce greenish/yellowish fruits.

Thalassia is also commonly grazed by parrotfishes - see the semi-circular bite mark to the left of the flower above?

In the past (and later on this trip), we've conducted experiments looking at the grazing rates of parrotfishes on Thalassia seagrasses. You can see the seagrass blades below (L) before deployment; and (R) afterwards. Delicious!

Never a dull moment here, we have to head off to continue our surveys of reef health, measure more hermit crabs, collect more algae, and replace more temperature loggers. But it was nice to take a brief moment to stop and smell the flowers. :-) How fitting - May Day - when all of the flowers at home are also beginning to bloom.

Happy Spring,

Randi, Pete, and Jay