Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bahamas 2014: Divers Down!

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post comes from staff diver Chris Bauernfeind (video by Don Campbell).

So what does it take to get 11 divers into the water to collect fish.  For one, you need buddy teams - usually 2 sometimes 3 per team.  We also designate 1 person as a safety observer for each dive, who stays on the boat, records data like bottom time and tank pressure, and makes sure all divers that go in the water come out.

Dave, giving the safety observer his air pressure

It takes about 10-15 minutes for all the divers to get in the water... or 38 seconds if you take a time lapse video of it:

Scuba divers generally are very happy to be going scuba diving, as you can see by the smiling faces of the participants:

Brian and Alex


Franco and Maris




Wednesday, December 10, 2014

MCAF Update: Where are those manta rays?

The Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) recently provided funding that allowed researchers with the Manta Trust to tag manta rays in the Pacific Ocean. Our Facebook community helped name the two females—Sylvia and Eugenie! This post follows up on Sylvia and Eugenie's whereabouts, thanks to the data from those satellite tags.

Our online naming contest was a great success, and ever since then we've been waiting to find out where Sylvia and Eugenie are spending their time. This is critical information that can help inform conservation efforts for manta rays off Mexico and around the world.

A frame from a beautiful underwater video of Josh tagging the manta rays

Researcher Josh Stewart took time off from his field studies to offer a little background about the project and the Aquarium's involvement through MCAF.

Josh mentioned that he would share the data on Sylvia and Eugenie as soon as possible. Well, the wait is over!

The researchers have gleaned important information from those tags and compiled the data in an impressive interactive map over at DataMares. Head over there to dive into this pool of data. You'll also find helpful tips for navigating the map, including ways to single out Sylvia and Eugenie's movements!

Go to the map

If you want to learn more, check out Josh's guest posts about this manta research:

Explore other projects supported by the Aquarium's MCAF program, all supporting grassroots research around the world to study and protect animals and habitats of our blue planet!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Bahamas 2014 - Creole Wrasse Rodeo

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post comes from trip participant Dave Waller.

creole wrasse, Clepticus parrae

Creole wrasses are beautiful fish that school in open water above reefs.  Seeing them flit around mid water column in the Giant Ocean Tank is enjoyable for staff and visitors alike.  Which is why it's time for a wrasse rodeo!

Getting into position

We had been catching fish by the ones, twos and threes for a few days when Sherrie announced we were going after a school of about 50 creole wrasses. I didn’t even know what a creole wrasse was, but I knew all wrasses are fast and I hadn’t even caught one yet. So Sherrie and Captain Lou brought out the white board and explained their method, which sounded like more of a military operation than a rodeo. We needed twelve divers for this mission, and the most experienced would position themselves at the wings of the formation; the rest of us would swim between them. As the school approaches us, the leftmost wing will gently “herd” the fish in a spiral down into the reef, where Captain Lou will be waiting with his big nets. The divers, each holding fine mesh nets about the size of a butterfly net, will form a closed circle and gently (no sudden movements!) guide the fish into a tight ball, and when the ball gets small enough, the wrasses will try and make a break for it.  Exactly when they broke for it and where they would go was up to Lou, Sherrie and Chris.

"Slow.... slow... slow!" yells Lou underwater

Our first attempt ended rather miserably; we never determined if Lou had swum to a different coral head or whether the whole group just got lost. The second dive didn’t end up much better - we couldn’t find any wrasses at all, so we broke into smaller groups and spent the rest of our air finding other fish. But the third dive paid handsomely! As Lou gathered up his nets, all the divers waited in line to load the fish into transfer bags and swim back to “The Barrel” which was tethered to the ship at depth. Back on the boat, we hoisted the barrel five feet every 15 minutes to acclimate the fish to surface pressure. How many did we finally get? Exactly 50 healthy creole wrasses - just what the “Fish Wish List” called for. 

Lou transfers the creoles into Don's catch bag

Don says with his eyes "Lookie what I found"

Friday, December 5, 2014

Explore the Amazon!

The New England Aquarium would like to share with you a special opportunity to travel with Project Piaba to the heart of the Amazon, Brazil’s Rio Negro. Project Piaba is a community-based program organized by one of our talented aquarist, Scott Dowd. While not affiliated with the Aquarium, participants will have the opportunity to learn more about this unique freshwater ecosystem from one of our knowledgable aquarists!

Canoe ride on the Rio Negro

This expedition will be part of Project Piaba's long term study on the Amazon fishery for the global home aquarium fish trade. It will take place on January 24 to February 7, 2015. Participants will fly from Miami to Manaus, the capitol of the state of Amazonas (airfare not included in the $2500 trip fee). From there, you will board a very well-equipped Amazon river boat and travel up river, exploring the amazing diversity of the Amazon and encountering macaws, Amazon river dolphins, giant river otters, hundreds of fishes and even waking to the sound of howler monkeys.

You will also experience the annual Ornamental Fish Festival of Barcelos, the Amazonian version of the famous Brazilian Carnival. Teams are led by Project Piaba director and Aquarium biologist Scott Dowd, who has been exploring and studying this region for more than 20 years. You will be joined by other international specialists, Project Piaba’s Brazilian colleagues, experienced river guides and local fishers, who will share their knowledge of the area and its culture. You will be part of a long-term project, working to maximize the socioeconomic and environmental benefits of this fishery to the region.

Live-aboard Amazon riverboat
"Buy a Fish, Save a Tree"

Project Piaba was established to foster an environmentally and socially beneficial ornamental fish trade. The mission statement of Project Piaba is to increase the environmental, animal welfare, and social sustainability of the Amazonian aquarium fish trade, to develop and incorporate metrics through which this progress can be assessed, and to provide mechanisms to promote this industry. When communities thrive selling fish for the aquarium trade, local people protect the resource that sustains them. Project Piaba fosters the sustainable trade in wild-caught aquarium fish, encouraging people to safeguard both rivers and forests--and all the creatures they harbor.

Cardinal tetra (Paracheirodon axelrodi), the keystone species of the Barcelos fishery

The ornamental fishery in the Rio Negro is centered around the cardinal tetra. This Brazilian fishery has been in operation since the 1950s, but is now competing on the world market with cardinal tetras being farmed in other countries.  Without a thriving wild-capture fishery,  the economic base for the Rio Negro communities would be destroyed, and would open up a vast area of rainforest to the destructive practices of mining, forestry, and agriculture. The Project Piaba team is working with fishing communities and industry stakeholders to maximize socioeconomic and environmental benefits of the fishery.

When communities thrive by selling fish for the aquarium trade, local people protect the resource that sustains them. Project Piaba fosters the sustainable trade in wild-caught aquarium fish, encouraging people to safeguard both rivers and forests--and all the creatures they harbor.

Here's the trip at a glance:
  • 2 weeks on a well appointed live-aboard boat
  • Visit biological hotspots and fishing communities
  • English speaking guides
  • Participate in the Ornamental Fish Festival of Barcelos
  • Visit ornamental fish export facilities
Learn more about Project Piaba in Discover Magazine. For more details about the trip, see Project Piaba’s Facebook page. You may also contact Scott Dowd directly via email or by calling 617-973-5243.

Look for some of the beautiful fish from the Amazon in the Aquarium's freshwater exhibits. Meet these new kids on the freshwater block! And learn about some more local projects involving Scott Dowd.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bahamas 2014: Meet Maris

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post comes from trip participant Maris Wicks.

Sketch: Maris Wicks

Hello!  My name is Maris Wicks (that'’s me up there). You might be wondering “Why is that a drawing of Maris and not a photograph?” Well, I have an answer for you: I am an illustrator! I spend most of my waking hours drawing comic books about fun science-y things (primatology, human anatomy and physiology, hydrothermal vents …to name a few).  I was fortunate enough to hop onboard the RV Coral Reef II this past October and accompany the New England Aquarium in its collecting endeavors.

Oh, and I should also add: I’'ve been working part-time at the Aquarium for the past seven years as a program educator (teaching programs like this).

I had two objectives for this trip: a.) learn as much as I could about coral reef ecosystems (research for an upcoming comics project) and b.) document as much as I could (via sketchbook). This included helping myself pack for the trip:

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

Since as long as I can remember, I’'ve used illustration as a means to communicate, document and celebrate the world around me. I log a lot of hours behind a desk in my office, and I thought it might be a nice change of pace to do a little field research for my upcoming project about coral reefs. Plus, WHO DOESN’T WANT TO LIVE ON A BOAT AND HANG OUT WITH FISHES IN THE BAHAMAS???

Sketch: Maris Wicks

Speaking of the boat, please allow me to introduce to you the RV Coral Reef II, which is owned by Shedd Aquarium (my home for 10 days!):

Sketch: Maris Wicks

And the interior:

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

I am relatively new to diving; I completed my scuba certification over this past summer. Diving had been a “bucket list” activity for me (pun intended …since we used A LOT of buckets on the boat), and putting my newly-learned skills to the test was super-fun. Here is some of the additional gear that we brought with us on dives:

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

And here'’s a little breakdown of one of the methods we used to catch fish (and some inverts):

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

Okay, now that I’'ve got all my gear, let’s take a moment to explore the reef!  Here is just a fraction of the species I observed on this trip:

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

I should point out that the the term "“honkers"” refers to larger fish…, though sometimes it is hard to judge the scale of things underwater!

Truthfully, I would’ have stayed on that boat forever but, like all good things, the trip came to an end.  My legs sang out in protest:

Sketch: Maris Wicks (click for larger image)

And, once all of our fishy friends were packed up and shipped up to Boston, I had to do the same.

Sketch: Maris Wicks

I didn'’t just get to observe and explore coral reefs and their inhabitants, I got to work along side a group of truly amazing human beings. I went into the trip hoping that it would help make me a better illustrator, but I came out of it feeling like it had made be a better person. So long, everyone, and thanks for all the fish!  Until we meet again….



Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bahamas 2014: Leaving Miami

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post about setting out toward Bahamas comes from Chris.

After 3 days of boat prep and awaiting the arrival of our trip participants, it's time to get the show on the road. So how actually do we get ourselves from downtown Miami to the Bahamas?

We started here (the white dot in the center-left of the map below) at 7:00 AM, heading down the Miami River and out into the Atlantic Ocean.

About 5 hours later, we were in the amazingly blue waters of the Bahamas near Bimini.

Time to start diving!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bahamas 2014: Preparing the Boat / Miami Weather

Aquarium divers have just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect fish destined for the Giant Ocean Tank. Over the next couple posts, they'll share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. Today's post about prepararing for the big trip comes from Jackie.

Tuesday, November 14th, was a day of preparation. I spent most of the day pulling together the last of my gear that I would need for living on a boat and diving for the next 15 days. The majority of the gear, including all of our scuba gear, had already been shipped to Miami in two 55-gallon barrels. Today I was picking up loose things that I had forgotten to put in the barrels, like dive gloves, plastic bags to capture small shrimp and larval fish and an extra BCD in case one of ours fails. I spent the rest of the night at home packing my clothes and personal gear.

The next day, I went in to work first to put everything together, then made my way to the airport with my duffle bag, a YSI (a device to measure dissolved oxygen in water packed in a James Bond style pelican case) and my fishing rods sticking out of my backpack.

On Wednesday November 15th, our plan was to meet at the airport at 9. Because of the expense and fragile nature of the YSI, it had to be taken as a carry-on, and so did my fishing rods. We had a little bit of trouble fitting our stuff into the overhead luggage bins, but made it to Miami with all of our stuff intact, and a lot of interesting comments from people about how weird it is to take fishing rods on a plane.

We made it to Merrill Stevens Shipyard in Miami and got aboard the Coral Reef II just in time for a soaking rainstorm that began to flood through the doors in the shipyard.

Our home for the next week or so

The southern Florida skies opened up just after we arrived

We spent the rest of the evening getting settled into our cabins and unpacking the barrels of gear.

The main deck salon.  Our cabins are below decks.

On the next day, Thursday, November 16th, we began the real work of getting the system ready for fish. After a quick breakfast, we started up the system, which was actually already filled with water from a previous collecting trip by the Albuquerque Aquarium, but had to be broken down and set up again because we had heard that the fish collected on that trip had broken out with a very contagious parasite upon their arrival in Albuquerque, and the parasite could be living in the system water. We started up the pumps and ran the system, them dumped a bleach bomb into all of the tanks. We let the bleachey water run through the system all day and all night, and in the meanwhile we turned our attention to “The Shed.”

The shed is a giant steel railroad car type container in the shipyard where all of our gear for collecting trips is stored. The shed is packed FULL with things like sump pumps, hoses, nets, catch bags, barrels, transport bags, plumbing pieces and screen lids for tanks. The gear in the shed also belongs to three different aquariums, who each have slightly different ways of doing things and slightly different types of gear.  We spent most of the day sorting through this, finding gear that we need for our trip, putting these things on the boat and finding a safe place to keep them while the boat is underway. What started as a monumental mess, ended up being a fairly organized and usable stash of gear on the boat. Feeling very accomplished, we went out to dinner.

Pulling gear out of "the shed"

After a quick breakfast on Friday, November 17, we added sodium thiosulfate to the system to neutralize the bleach, then after letting it run for a while, we emptied the system. It was important to remove all of the water from the system, so after we drained it as low as the pumps could take it, we got in with buckets and a shop vac.

Even trip leaders get wet and dirty
Taking advantage of the Florida sun while on the clock

The next day, Saturday, November 18, we spent the morning making some last minute creature-comfort preparations for our trip participants and shopping for groceries for dinner. Chris and I made a run to the hardware store for some last minute things like WD-40, teflon tape and zip ties, and then we went to a bait shop for some shrimp and fish to feed to the fish we would be collecting. I also picked up some last minute things like fishing weights that I would need for some of the fish we planned to collect by hook and line fishing. We began welcoming our trip participants on the boat at noon and by suppertime almost everyone who would be staying with us for the next 9 days had arrived.

A quick selfie showing how fun these trips can be (left to right: Sherrie, Jackie, Chris)

Off to the Bahamas in the morning!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bahamas 2014 | Heading South

The centerpiece of the New England Aquarium is the 200,000-gallon Caribbean coral reef exhibit known as the Giant Ocean Tank. The massive reef soars through all four floors of the building and hosts hundreds of marine animals—from undulating eels and sleek barracuda to lumbering sea turtles and flitting wrasses.

Giant Ocean Tank
This vibrant ecosystem engages visitors not only with its movement and diversity, we also hope to inspire people to take action to protect vulnerable reefs in the wild—places that many visitors may never be able to experience in person.

Divers hand-feed many of the smaller fish in the Giant Ocean Tank

Many of the animals in this tank have lived here for decades. Myrtle the green sea turtle arrived in 1970. Some of the long-living tarpon, permits and jacks—those huge, silvery fish that race around the periphery of the reef—have been here for more than 30 years. But we occasionally have to add smaller fish to the exhibit to maintain healthy population levels. These are common fish we carefully collect by hand in the Bahamas, under special permits from the Bahamian government. Then the extra-special cargo flies up to Boston to undergo a standard quarantine period in our off-site facility. Finally, they are transitioned into life on a new reef—the Giant Ocean Tank!

Aquarium staff diver Chris Bauernfeind | Photo by trip participant Dave Waller

We've just returned from a trip to the Bahamas to collect some fish destined for the big tank. Come along for the journey. Over the next couple posts we'll introduce you to some new divers passionate about protecting our blue planet, share pictures and information about interesting fish and explain what it takes to transport fish from the Bahamas to Boston. It took months of planning and a lot of hard work, but it's an immensely gratifying experience. And the best part is, we get to share some of the beauty of our blue planet with you!

Stay tuned for posts from staff diver Chris Bauernfeind, aquarist Jackie Anderson and even some guest posts from trip participants.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Protecting sawfishes in Mozambique

This post is one of a series on projects supported by the Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF). Through MCAF, the Aquarium supports researchers, conservationists and grassroots organizations all around the world as they work to address the most challenging problems facing the ocean.  

Ruth Leeney, who is the director of the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project and received a grant from the Marine Conservation Action Fund in 2014 to collect baseline information on sawfishes in Mozambique, writes this post.

Sawfishes are some of the most endangered of all sharks and rays. The five species of sawfish are all listed as either Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A recent conservation strategy released by the IUCN highlighted the urgent need for baseline data on sawfishes throughout much of their range—simply put, we know very little about the historical and current distributions of sawfishes. Yet without such information, we cannot implement conservation and management strategies for these unique fishes.

Largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis (photographed in the Fitzroy River, Western Australia).

This is particularly a problem for much of the African continent. Sawfishes formerly inhabited both the west and east coasts of the African continent, but are now thought to be extinct throughout much of this range. However, in many African countries we do not even know whether sawfish are still encountered and if so, what local threats they face. Research efforts are limited by a lack of resources or expertise, and many African nations must understandably prioritise human health, welfare and education over environmental concerns. Nonetheless, as other nations race to exploit Africa’s natural resources—particularly timber, minerals and fish stocks—the impacts of coastal development, habitat loss or degradation and increased fishing effort all pose threats to sawfish populations.  Given this huge gap in our knowledge, the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project has prioritized collecting baseline information on the historical and current presence of sawfishes throughout Africa. So far, the project has worked with local partners in five African countries: Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and, most recently, in Mozambique.

I was perhaps overly ambitious in my aims to travel the length of the coastline and to collect information from fishing communities in each of Mozambique’s six coastal provinces. Mozambique has a coastline of 2,470 kilometers—that’s about three times as long as the coast of California. Much of the northern coast is accessible only with four-wheel-drive vehicles and involves hours of bumping along corrugated, winding tracks. However, thanks to the collaborative spirit of the regional offices of the Institute for Fisheries Research (Instituto Nacional de Investigacao Pesceira – IIP), I was accompanied in each province by local fisheries officers who knew the busiest fish landings sites, acted as translators and could advise on and sometimes even arrange transport and accommodation. I was grateful for their enthusiasm for the project, which would not have been a success without their involvement, and I am already looking forward to working with the various local teams again.

Martinho Padeira, from IIP’s office in Sofala province, interviews a fisherman in Beira’s artisanal fishing harbor.

In Zambezi province, I was lucky to be able to coordinate my work with some monitoring activities being conducted by the regional IIP team and visited some hard-to-reach places along the coast. In villages such as Maquaquane and Therrebuane, we conducted interviews in the shade of cashew, mango and banana trees, under the gaze of children unaccustomed to visitors. On long, white-sand beaches, we waited while the fishermen hauled in their beach seine nets and separated the catch by hand. Nowhere has it been more apparent to me how closely the well-being of entire communities is linked to the fish they catch, which not only provides the primary source of protein for every inhabitant, but also comprises one of the only sources of income in these close-knit, isolated villages.

Fishermen sorting the catch from their beach seine, Zambezi province.

Group interview with the fishermen’s cooperative in the village of Sakone, Zambezi province.

In total, we conducted 206 interviews, covering all coastal provinces of Mozambique. Three-quarters of interviewees recognized the image of a sawfish and had seen a sawfish at least once in their lifetime. The proportion of recent (2010-2014) sawfish catches was considerably higher (26 percent of all interviewees) than has been reported by other studies of this type elsewhere in Africa, which suggests that sawfishes are still present in Mozambican waters—great news for sawfish conservation in Africa and worldwide. Sawfishes are captured by artisanal fishers using various types of gears including deep nets for sharks, beach seines and hand lines. A considerable number of fishermen working on shrimp trawlers had also observed sawfish which had been brought in as bycatch  (accidentally captured) during trawling activities. During our interviews in June 2014, we learned of numerous recent catches, particularly from two areas. These areas will be the focus of future work to verify the presence of sawfishes in Mozambique, confirm the species present, identify localized threats and highlight specific sawfish habitats in need of protection.

In each region where we conducted interviews, we asked about the names for sawfish in the languages of that region. Most Mozambicans speak one or more tribal languages as well as Portuguese, and many fishermen will know the species they encounter only by their local names. Alternative names for sawfish include cachão (in Zambezia province), piilu or mbiru (northern provinces), papopanga or papa-panga (in Cabo Delgado province; ‘papa’ means shark in the KiSwahili language but is also used as a term of respect for older men, whilst ‘panga’ means knife) and salpanga or sarrapanga (southern provinces). These names can be used in future awareness and education campaigns with coastal communities and when encouraging fishermen to report their sawfish catches to their local fisheries officer. We also asked whether fishermen owned any sawfish rostra—the long, tooth-studded saw so characteristic of sawfishes—or knew where we might find them for sale. We found a total of 13 sawfish rostra from two sawfish species, the majority from largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) but several from green sawfish (P. zijsron). Both of these species were also formerly documented along South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coastline, but are now considered to be extinct in that region.

Sawfish rostra from sawfish captured by artisanal fishermen.

In addition to collecting up-to-date information on sawfishes in Mozambique, this project raised awareness within the IIP and among local NGOs of the critical status of sawfishes and of the need to report all sawfish catches. I trained several IIP staff members in sawfish identification and provided sawfish kits, which included a Sawfish Conservation Society species identification guide, data recording forms, a tape measure and a pencil, to IIP staff in every coastal province. Having collected valuable information on the regions where sawfishes are most likely to be found, the next important step for this project will be to sample, using nets and hand lines, in these key areas in an attempt to document the presence of live sawfishes and to confirm the species and age classes present. Funding is being sought to provide fisheries observers with digital cameras, so that they can record sawfishes and other species of conservation concern (such as other shark and ray species, turtles and dolphins) which are inadvertently captured in trawl fisheries. In addition to this research, I am planning a workshop in 2015 with representatives from IIP, the Department of Fisheries, Eduardo Mondlane University, local NGOs and other marine stakeholders, to develop a national conservation strategy for sawfishes. 2015 will be an exciting year for sawfish research in Mozambique!

This study was made possible by grants from the New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund, the Swiss Shark Foundation and the Rufford Foundation, and was supported by the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Many thanks to Paula Santana Afonso (IIP), Ernesto Poiosse (IDPPE), Prof. Guissamulo Almeida, Karen Allen (EWT), Peter Bechtel, Simon Chitsenga (WWF-CARE), Alice Costa, Nick Dulvy (IUCN SSG), Robert and Niamh Leeney, Andrea Marshall, Simon Pierce and the MMF team, Prof. Anildo Naftal, Simon Wearne, Jeff Whitty (SCS) and all the IIP and WWF-CARE staff who assisted with interviews.

Learn how to identify the different sawfish species, and download an identification guide to sawfishes in your region, on the Sawfish Conservation Society’s website.

Updates on the Protect Africa’s Sawfishes project can be found on Facebook.

Project Puffin 8: Reflections on some cool seabirds

This summer, aquarists Austin Brayton and Jackie Anderson camped on remote islands in Maine to assist with Project Puffin, an Audubon Society project designed to restore populations of these clownish little seabirds. In this post, Jackie reflects back on her trip.

June 25:
Reflections on some cool seabirds

I was supposed to leave Matinicus Rock today, but there are some really large waves crashing against the boat ramp, which would create a very dangerous scenario for the small dory that would be rowing myself and my gear out to the lobster boat that would take Austin And I back to Vinalhaven. The owner of the lobster boat had called us on the radio last night to let us know that he didn’t think he would be able to pick me up. I then called my boss to let him know that I would not be back to work today.

Frank Mayer and Aspen Ellis weigh and band tern chicks during a tern productivity study on Matinicus Rock

In case he reads this blog, I was disappointed to not be able to return to work… but secretly, I loved my time on this island so much that I did not want to leave. I had become so connected to the birds I was observing, so wrapped up in their stories; like the tern in nest 5 of my feeding study who would get angry and attack her neighbors, and the group of female eider that were swimming their ducklings in the tidepools in front of my window, and I wanted to stay as long as possible.

Eider ducklings in tidepools

I also loved the people I met here. There is a common thread that runs through people who are passionate enough about wildlife and seabirds to spend their summer (or two short weeks in my case) on a remote island like this that enables us to be great friends. Most of the people who I have talked to about my experience at Project Puffin asked if it was difficult being off the grid, or not having a shower, or using a composting toilet. Those seemed to be very minor inconveniences for the amount of good that came out of this experience.

Razorbills photographed from the researchers' blind

I learned more about seabirds than I had ever known before, and a lot about field work that I had put aside after college, and I am certain that the work we were doing for this project; collecting data that will be used to draw conclusions about the long term population of seabirds, was a far more important use of my time than going to the beach, going out after work, and eating ice cream. So instead of leaving Matinicus rock on June 25, I spent the day checking up on puffin and guillemot nests, doing one more tern feeding study, entering the data from my field notebook into the database, and doing tern productivity.

Leaving Matinicus

On June 26, a gray and drizzly day on Matinicus Rock, the lobster boat picked myself and another volunteer up, then went on to pick up Austin at Seal Island and brought us all back to Vinalhaven. We rode the ferry back to Rockland Maine, where we were picked up by Project Puffin staff and brought back to the Audubon base camp. Austin and I then drove back to Boston, after making a stop for ice cream on our way home.

One last look at Matinicus

And now, in the beginning of November as I am thinking about my Project Puffin experience this summer, I found an article from the end of August about how seabird populations have been negatively affected by warming ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine and subsequent declines in the availability of their preferred food fish. The data from this year indicates a pretty successful breeding season, with 75% of the puffins on Seal Island and 66% of the puffins on Matinicus Rock successfully fledging chicks, which was a lot more than last year’s 10%, but not as much as before 2012, with a 77% success rate for all of the islands. This success rate appears to be directly correlated with the cooler ocean temperatures we experienced this year.

Razorbill in the early morning light

Just this month I saw a guillemot from the passenger ferry on my way in to work, (it flew by faster than I could get my camera out), and I have begun to see eider ducks in Boston Harbor. This was a good reminder to me that even here in Boston, we are closer to cool seabirds than you think.

A small taste of what it's like to observe the birds on these remote islands in Maine.

All in all, Maine’s seabirds are important animals to monitor as indicators of global climate change, and as sensitive species who were driven away from Maine by human activities in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and recently restored and monitored by the Audubon Society and Project Puffin. Their success depends upon a complex web of ecological cause and effect, and on people caring… people like you.

Learn more about Project Puffin  and to live a more ocean- and seabird-friendly lifestyle.


Learn more about what Jackie and Austin did while volunteering with Project Puffin: