Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Cleaning, Sex Change and Being "Wickedly Flattered." A Wrasse With A Very Full Life!

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012Today's post about cleaning stations and comes from the Aquarium's curator of fishes Steve Bailey.

In this last post post, you were promised some additional story telling regarding Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition divers getting up close and sometimes serviced by other cleaner animals. This post focuses on one of our other favorites—the bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus).

A Fiji morph bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) servicing a coral trout (Cephalopholis miniatus), dive site: Mt. Mutiny, Bligh Water (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Two Fiji morph bluestreak cleaner wrasses (Labroides dimidiatus) inspecting the gills of the
bignose unicornfish (Naso vlamingii),  dive site: Archway, Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)
This is a handsome wrasse, and in Fiji it often has a vibrant yellow patch on its posterior flanks, where most elsewhere in the bluestreak wrasse’s range it lacks that eye catching lemon color (Fiji endemism and regional color morphs is a whole ‘nother tale to tell in a later post!). The species is pure fish nerd eye candy while holding down that admirable job as a cleaner fish, but it has more, yes, more, to further fascinate.

Normal color phase of Labroides dimidiatus (Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

Fiji yellow color phase of L. dimidiatus (Photo: via Ryan Photographic)

Let’s talk intriguing approach to sex determination: L. dimidiatus, as do many wrasses, have all specimens born as female, with the most dominant individual transforming into the male at the appropriate time. And when that male dies or disappears, then the next female in the hierarchy will ‘ascend to maleness;’ sequential hermaphroditism is the term ichthyologists use to describe this strategy. How slick is that?! Talk about males being in touch with their inner estrogen!

And just because the natural world isn't ever finished working on a theme, the bluestreak has yet another bizarre aspect to its existence—that of imitation not being the most sincere form of flattery. Here's the scoop: A blenny named the false cleanerfish (Aspidontus taeniatus) has so closely adopted (evolved to look like) the distinctive appearance of the wrasse that it is able to pass itself off to a larger fish needing ministration as the genuine article.

The false cleanerfish (Aspidontus taeniatus) | Photo: John Randall, Bishop Museum

Compare the profile of the false cleanerfish to the bluestreak cleaner wrasse in its normal color phase

Once close enough to the host, impressive teeth are used to sever flesh from fins or elsewhere for a meal. The victim is so pained (and outraged?) that it vigorously chases the stealthy blenny back to its wormhole that often acts as a refuge from which to ply its 'despicable' trade! To see the drama unfold underwater is the sort of thing that usually has me talking to myself, which incidentally sounds quite odd with a regulator in my mouth.

False cleanerfish in an abandoned wormhole site. Dive site: Archway, North Save-a-Tack, Fiji
(Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

Check out the teeth in this blenny's mouth! The false cleaner fish has some impressive cutting blades.
Dive site: Archway, North Save-a-Tack, Fiji, Photo: K. Ellenbogen

Bluestreak cleaners do indeed investigate divers when they're passing by the wrasse's station. I've often had one check out my black and gray scuba fins, but never seeming to be fooled for long into thinking that I'm sporting any parasites. No kidding! (I mean the part about me not having external parasites.) I haven't been able to coax them into my mouth though; I won't brush my teeth next time. Hmm, already making the tast list for our next Fiji expedition.

Here's what I'm talking about. Video via YouTube.

Be sure to check out the Pacific Reef Community exhibit in the Tropical Gallery to see the bluestreak cleaner hard at work. Look for the fish's cleaning station down at the East end (left side) of the tank.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Following my ancestors ways

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium supporter NAI'A Captain Johnathan Smith.

Three years away from the helm of NAI’A took me on a 20,000 nautical mile journey; I’m now back onboard again with familiar faces, familiar waters and familiar daily activities like the great Fiji diving that make my life feel more normal, and maybe more sensible.

Captain Johnathan Smith aboard the Uto Ni Yalo, Fiji’s drua in the Pacific Voyagers Project
Photos: Pacific Voyagers Project

I’m on watch, so I stroll through the NAI’A salon on my way to the galley to fetch another cup of coffee. My ears begin to hear the conversations where everyone seems to be intently debating the colors and shapes of fishes and invertebrate animals just seen on the dive. I move more quickly and try not to listen to the Latin names they use, because I consider myself a normal diver. We just know it as a blue fish or orange slug, maybe a grouper, a wrasse, a trevally or a crown jellyfish—no need to argue about its Latin names. I chuckle to myself because it’s always that way when the New England Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium team led by the ‘Steves’ (Webster and Bailey) are aboard and diving the Lomaiviti waters and Vatu-I-Ra passage in Fiji.

I last saw Doc Webster when I passed through Monterey in 2011. He gave me and the rest of the Pacific Voyaging crew a personal tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; it was incredible. We all loved what we saw; it was the first time that any of us had been to a big public aquarium like that, and for that matter, most of my crew, before this voyage, had never been outside Fiji! Our landing in Monterey was one of many stops on the voyage of discovery aboard the drua Uto Ni Yalo. Our Fijian double hulled canoe was part of the Pacific Voyagers Foundation flotilla of seven, it being the multiple South Pacific country project that focused on raising awareness about our dying oceans, embracing the oceanic wandering ways of our ancestors using their amazing celestial navigational methods, and maybe most importantly, some thorough soul searching for many of us Polynesians.
Fiji Flag fluttering with 5 drua in distance
Sunset somewhere in the Pacific

Arriving in Tahiti while in traditional dress

Fijians honoring the traditions of ocean warriors
Photos: Pacific Voyagers Project

Whale tooth blessing of the druas | Photo: Natalia Tsoukala

This all happened to me at a time when I thought I knew everything about the oceans, after all, I had 21 years of sailing aboard many vessel types, ranging from big cargo ships to the 124’ liveaboard NAI’A which singularly focuses on accommodating serious divers in Fiji.  So I take up this offer to skipper an ocean voyaging double hulled canoe kitted out with only the bare necessities, giving up all electronic navigation instruments and tools.  Gone are the GPS, the radar, the weather reports via satellite radio, let alone the phone calls to family.  Our voyages would take our 80’ drua from Fiji to New Zealand, on to Tahiti, the Marquesas, north to Hawaii, east to San Francisco, down coast to Monterey, and Santa Barbara, stops in Malibu, LA itself, on to San Diego, then Mexico’s Ensenada, Magdalena Bay, and Cabo San Lucas, west through the Cocos Islands, continuing to the Galapagos, and of course, finally back home to Fiji.

Sailing route of the first leg | Chart: Pacific Voyagers Project

Life aboard the Uto Ni Yalo: Bathing in salt water, maintaining course with only a steering oar, no shelter from the sun, sea spray and raging seas, broken masts, shredded sails, constantly being wet, cold like no other I’ve known while sailing the latitudes of the 40s east, it all was much different than my prior life on the water.  It all at times made me wondered how I ever got myself committed to this and whether it was punishment that I deserved. The long, rough voyages made you think a lot about life, how we live now compared to the past, and how our ancestors managed to populate so much of the huge South Pacific expanse.

Floating plastic rubbish of every description fetched up by Uto Ni Yalo crew | Photo: Capt. J Smith

Some of the most powerful images in my head are the enormous rafts of plastics and rubbish, thousands of miles from any land.  But foremost amongst those images are my crew and how proud I am of them: all volunteers, ranging from young teenagers to a retired Fijian Army Major and a diplomat, male and female, all with different backgrounds, all with something special to offer, and all having to learn the sailing methods of the ancestors.  The ‘kids’ were the most transformed; often not sure what to do with their lives in the villages and towns, getting into all sorts of trouble and forming bad habits, some not knowing how to read and write; now full of confidence and sailing skills, and many of them training at the merchant marine academy for careers on the oceans.

Uto Ni Yalo crew and family members | Photo: Fiji Times

Shocking was how dependant we are on electrical devices.  There was no fridge aboard, no entertainment luxuries, food was most often fish caught on a trawling line off the stern. If it was too big to eat, it was let go. We only kept what we could eat and not waste. Rain was a real luxury when and if it did pour down. You appreciated every drop of it after rationing fresh water for drinking, and bathing in salt water for weeks grows very old.

A lot of things we took for granted all of a sudden made everyone realize how ignorant they’d been in leading their daily lives. We all came to realize that our societies can still use and adopt practices of the old ways of living, incorporate them into our modern, high tech world; realizing that the mentality of people must be changed soon, very soon, so the healing of our oceans and the surrounding lands can begin in earnest.

Respect for nature was lost when peoples’ lives no longer depended directly on it. One didn’t have to wait for seasons to plant and harvest.  Fertilizers, herbicides and growth hormones make food for some, easy and cheap to have.  Along the canoe’s way, I talked with shrimp fisherman who caught sharks on the side (finning, of course) to have some extra money in their pockets.  Their major complaint was about recent low shrimp catches, not realizing they only had themselves to blame for upsetting nature’s balance-  sharks eat rays, rays eat shrimp; the sharks are taken away, the ray population explodes, rays eat all the shrimp, and then the fisherman have no shrimp. It’s not hard to understand how these animals depend upon one another, but too many humans are ignorant of these simple relationships.

Pallets of sharks meat

Coming upon beaches with dead sharks littering the sand as far as the eye can see, shocked us all. Our drua took us to places littered with skeletons of whales and dead turtles washed up on beaches. An extraordinary day for us occrred when the Uto Ni Yalo was halfway to Cocos after leaving Cabo San Lucas and we encountered a turtle that had a floating plastic bag billowing from its mouth, and thusly could no longer dive or eat. Clearly the turtle had half-swallowed the very large bag and was now quite buoyant, unable to leave the ocean surface, and was slowly starving to death. A couple of my crew jumped in, wrestled with the flailing and frightened turtle a bit, and then passed the nearly exhausted animal to the remaining crew onboard. After a careful and time consuming extraction, we manage to safely remove the entire plastic bag. We were so happy and emotional about saving this one turtle, all the more moving for us after witnessing the days of environmental damage and sea creature death during our voyage

Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) after extraction of plastic bag by crew | Photo: J. Smith

The knowledge gained from our experience during the voyage is something that no text book can teach. I am very confident that the movie about our voyage titled Our Blue Canoe will have an impact on everyone who sees it, and will hopefully help considerably spread the message on the importance of keeping the oceans healthy, and hence improve our chances for survival.

So, here we are on the NAI’A diving in some great locations, healthy reefs, abundant animals, good folks doing good things and caring about our oceans.  There’s a lot to worry about out there, but here there’s hope, and maybe it’ll be that way some day where the Uto Ni Yaso took me on the trail of my ancestors.

Watch the movie trailer, read blogs from the voyage and find pictures of the trip Fiji Islands Voyaging Society.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fiji 2013 | Before and After

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium supporter Tally Lauter.

When traveling long distances from the East Coast to Fiji I build in a few days outbound to ensure I do not miss the not-so-often flight to Fiji. That gave me, Bailey and Don some time to hang out in LA for a few days. How else should we spend our time other than to visit aquariums (or as Bailey calls it- conducting industrial espionage), fish wholesalers and other museums?

Entrance to Santa Monica Pier Aquarium | Photo: Bailey

Famous Santa Monica Pier | Photo: Bailey

We went to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium to see a small but very attractive and kid-friendly aquarium. They have great invertebrate touch tanks, a neat focus tank with a swimming tunicate species and a compact but impressive shark touch exhibit.

Tally and Don meet a seahorse not on display | Photo: Bailey

Touch tank with swell and leopard sharks
(Cephaloscyllium ventriosum, Triakis semifasciatum) 
Photo: Bailey

Invertebrate touch tanks with local invert species
Photo: Bailey

Tally investigates the unusual swimming tunicate Melibe leonine | Photo: Bailey

Don photographs a Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), California’s state marine fish | Photo: Bailey

We also went to see the excellent Kelp Forest Exhibit at the California Science Center; big windows, a walk through tunnel and an interesting bubble window. The CSC’s Diversity Lab tank area had a clever two-spot octopus display

Kelp Forest Exhibit | Photo: T. Lauter

Tunnel through Kelp Forest Exhibit | Photo: Bailey
Two spot octopus exhibit intrigues Tally and Don | Photo: Bailey

Recently, the new Space Shuttle Endeavor display opened at CSC, and it was impressive.

California Science Center’s newly opened Space Shuttle Endeavour Exhibit. Photo: T. Lauter

After our arrival in Fiji there was a great opportunity to visit Nadi town and check out the open air market. There, exotic fruits and spices are plentiful and tantalize the senses. Many things are new to me and broaden my appreciation for the variety of cultures in our shrinking world. One item I found enticing was the fresh water mussels called kai (rhymes with sky) that are displayed by many vendors.

Kai (freshwater mussels) in Nadi town makete | Photo: K. Ellenbogen
I had a chance to taste them later in the trip and, much to my delight, they are delicious.    We had a chance to interact with some of the local vendors and buy some kava (a pepper root traditional drink) for a welcome gift to the crew of the NAI’A. We ate meat pies from our favorite local bakery and shopped for things needed before heading to sea.

Kai on Tally’s dinner plate at the First Landing Resort | Photo: Bailey

After the ten days on the NAI’A there was the opportunity to decompress (and gas off some of our nitrogen!) before boarding the Fiji Airways flight back to the States. The last days were spent at the First Landing Resort, which happens to be the location where the first native people came ashore to settle Fiji from their druas (Fijian double hull canoe).

First Landing Resort entrance from the road | Photo: T. Lauter

Illustration of a drua under way; they could be 30m long and carry 200 | Image via

First Landing Resort; reportedly where the first Fijians came ashore upon encountering the islands
Photo courtesy: First Landing Resort

Lauren investigates some of the mangrove thickets bordering the resort

The views from the resort’s location are nothing but spectacular. There was good food and fellowship that makes us all want to return for the next adventure in March of 2015.

Fiji 2013 | The Fiji Dental Plan

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about cleaning stations and comes from the Aquarium's curator of fishes Steve Bailey.

It’s important to get regular teeth cleanings. This Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition saw most of the first timers get their teeth cleansed of their most recent meal and maybe some left over mainland plaque by an industrious cleaner shrimp species called the scarlet skunk cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis). And imagine, there was no co-pay!

He's got shrimp in his teeth. Don gets a cleaning from Lysmata amboinensis, and at an even better price than the Canadian health care system can muster. Dive site: Tetons, Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

So how hard is it to get a shrimp to clean your teeth? You'd be surprised. If you are a fish, just behave yourself, and good care will be provided. If you are a diver, a bit tougher, but more on that later.   Visiting cleaning stations like those at the dive site named Tetons, Namena Marine Reserve has become standard diving fare in Fiji. Selected species of both fishes and invertebrates will very visibly and boldly provide a much needed tune-up for larger fishes. And on occasion, these busy ‘service stations’ are strategically placed near major fish thoroughfares, much the same way that rest stops/service areas are easy on, easy off for an interstate highway.

The scarlet skunk cleaner shrimp is one of those prominent cleaner species. They predictably occupy the same locations at the same dive sites, year after year. These guys are some of our favorite critters.

A shrimp perches on Lauren's upper lip to get good angle on the remaining birthday cake crumbs.
Dive site: Tetons, Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

This species, as well as several others, are well known to divers and reef hobbyists alike for the services they provide to reef fishes needing dead skin, external parasites, and even parasites within the gill chamber, plucked, picked or otherwise pulled off. The 1.5-inch max sized scarlet skunk shrimp are easy to spot, not only for their aesthetic exquisiteness, but for their harried industriousness.  Darting back and forth into their refugium, waving their antennae wildly (presumably to advertise their services), leaping on and off of host animals needing attention, they can’t help but catch your eye.

Skunk cleaner shrimp (Lysmata amboinensis) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Lonnie Huffman)

Once our intrepid Fiji team finds their clearly advertised station, a diver is simply to hold their breath, remove their regulator, open wide and hold still (It tickles big time!!) to let these fastitious and skilled technicians go to work. Once back on board, the divers eagerly shared their experience and flashed their now sparkling pearly whites at the rest of us. They all collectively agreed they had a great story for the next appointment with the dental hygienist and, of course, the photos to prove it. I suppose being a NAI’A Dive Master means you don’t need to floss as often as us landlubbers!

Allan shares the last of his secret Lindt Chocolate stash with his hygenist.
Dive site: Tetons, Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

Dive Master Mo is diving this site 20 to 30 times a year. He and this shrimp are on a first name basis!
Dive site: Tetons, Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: K. Ellenbogen)

Of course, these shrimp aren't the only species that are reliable cleaners. Another post is coming up shortly with more about one of our other favorite cleaners: The bluestreak wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus).

Plus, be sure to see all the cleaners at the Aquarium on your next visit. Look for porkfish, the juveniles of two species of Bodianus hogfish and three species of angelfishes and, lastly, the oceanops neon gobies in the Giant Ocean Tank. There are also cleaner species in the Yawkey Coral Reef Center, the blue hole exhibit on Level 2, the IndoPacific Coral Reef Exhibit on Level 1, and in the live coral exhibits on Level 1 and in the West Wing.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Fiji 2013 | A Tale of Two Islands

For the past several years, the New England Aquarium has participated in a joint expedition to Fiji, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other conservation-minded groups and individuals. The last expedition took place in Spring 2012

Today's post about the joint aquarium Fiji expedition comes from the Aquarium's curator of fishes Steve Bailey. Photos by Keith Ellenbogen, Bailey and Dr. Stacey Jupiter, Wildlife Conservation Society's Fiji Country Program Director.


Visiting the bird sanctuary on Vatu-I-Ra is always an expedition highlight for the Fiji team, as there’s nothing like seeing first-hand how a protected area can play such an important role in supporting healthy oceanic bird populations. Each of the first six Fiji expeditions have landed the NAI’A’s skiffs, noted species seen, shot thousands of photos, collected the inevitable water borne rubbish that’s come ashore with the rise and fall of the tides and the steadily pushing hand of the wind and left feeling really great about sacrificing a dive for some land trekking and exploration.

Collecting rubbish on Vatu-I-Cake

But this year’s expedition participants would be all in for continuing our theme of embracing as much unexplored territory and untried experiences as possible; naturally that’d mean we’d try going ashore on Vatu-I-Cake (pronounced va’too ee thock’ay), an island that we’ve never dived, let alone set foot.

Northside beach on Vatu-I-Cake

Fiji has 332 islands, more or less, and likely noticeably less these days given global climate change’s rising sea level’s relentless smothering of the Pacific’s low lying islands and atolls. Not having had prior contact with Vatu-I-Cake during the prior expeditions isn’t surprising, as our presence in the Bligh Water and amongst the Lomaiviti islands group has always been a question of carefully and somewhat regrettably choosing a handful of dive sites to strategically fill ten days when there’s likely enough worthy sites in this region to fill 110 days.  

The skiff departs Nai'a

As we approach Vatu-I-Cake, it appears to be nearly a mirror image of the familiar northwestern sister Vatu-I-Ra: no human habitation, thick vegetation, a sandy beach on the south side, rocky peaks, and relative isolation. Those amongst us who know the plight of oceanic birds are hopeful that this time ashore will put big grins on our faces, and we’ll have that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from doing some cheerful service [aka rubbish detail] that we’ve done for years on Vatu-I-Ra.

Birds cluster on offshore rock

Upon closer inspection, Vatu-I-Cake’s north side reveals some birds clustered on an offshore naked rock promontory, but no visible circling or landing birds in the island’s shrubbery and trees. Curiously, we also see large bleached tridacna (giant clam) shells propped upright on bluffs and ledges; palpable negative energy emanating from those, in my opinion. Our entry on this side’s small beach is dotted with numerous shallow volcanic boulders, and a lower tide than we’d prefer.

Looking east

Anxious to get to exploring we all carefully exit the skiffs in short order, cameras—binoculars, rubbish bags in hand—and some hope that the other side of the island has something different happening. Quick assessment reveals gobs of plastic water bottles and containers, used food tins, campfire remains of varied histories, a hastily constructed palm thatch hut, and hundreds(!?) of tridacna shells scraped clean. Many of us exchanged sighs and utterances not fit to print.

Trash found on Vatu-I-Cake

We hiked on an old path lying between the island’s peaks to the other side and were greeted by a low swell rolling in on a blindingly white coral sand beach, black volcanic tide pools, and rustling palms. Our survey of the navigable stretch of shore and lowlands beneath the steep cliffs revealed heaps of rubbish, some long ago crumbled stone foundations, tridacna shells beyond counting, and no visible clusters of bird nests. Within 10 minutes the Fiji Aquarium Team filled its rubbish bags and continued to make piles of everything that didn’t belong there.

Inspecting an empty tridacna shell

From a distance Vatu-I-Cake looks to be like its northwestern twin, a beautiful island, a good candidate for birds to use for furthering their lines and mighty inviting for humans to use. Well, on closer inspection it looks like it hit on two of three and, unfortunately and unlike Vatu-I-Ra, this island isn’t held in high regard and treated with respect. How does that translate for the big picture? Conclusion has to be: the island certainly isn’t being allowed to maximize its role in the local and distant ecosystem’s wellbeing.

Sobering for us all; Fiji is a paradise, but no paradise is ever perfect.

Healthy reefs surrounding Vatu-I-Cake


I contacted our good friend Dr. Stacy Jupiter, WCS Fiji Office Director and veteran of two Joint Aquarium Fiji Expeditions, for some impressions and any background she might provide on Vatu-I-Cake. Surprising, Dr. J had just been to the island for the first time only a few days before our landing.

Stacy had the following to say:
  • “I’d guess the island does have rats [likely Rattus exulans], but don’t know for sure.”  If there are rats predating bird eggs, likely that’s a big part of why the island can’t currently support a bird colony.
  • “..the tridacnid shells are evidence that a lot of commercial fishing licenses have been issued, and fishermen are likely eating the clams for lunch during fishing breaks.”  Clam shells might be selectively placed “for decorating, and probably not any more significance beyond that.” 

Stacy goes on to mention that during her visit she snorkeled about Vatu-I-Cake’s reefs and had the thrill of spending 20 minutes with four eagle rays (Aeobatus narinari), and saw very healthy coral stands. She hopes to have WCS successfully work with the Vuya District leadership to develop a ridge-to-reef management plan. If successful, Dr. J may be on the path to effecting something of a turnaround for Vatu-I-Cake above water.

Eagle ray (Aeobatus narinari)

Stay tuned.

Listen to Dr. Jupiter on this AM’s Radio Australia interview about her work in Fiji on locally managed marine protected areas.

Stay tuned to this blog to follow the team as they dive to collect data on the health of the coral reefspick up trash where they find it, check in with the villagers to see how some conservation initiatives are faring and further develop connections with the people that live on these beautiful Pacific islands.