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Sunday
Feb202011

Saving bluefin - in one year?

Image: aboutmyplanet.com

A new website wants you to know how grim the situation has become for Atlantic bluefin.  It includes the stark statement that in all probability, the last bluefin will die in 2012, so we best get cracking on trying to save them.  Is it possible?  Certainly it will take a concerted effort from all nations that currently exploit this species, and a total dismantling of a subsidised tech-heavy industry.  To achieve that in just 12 months, well, forgive me if I wax pessimistic…

That aside, the video is nicely animated and quite information dense, touching on many aspects that plague modern fisheries management like the economies of extinction (when an exploited species becomes ever more valuable, the rarer it gets), tragedy of the commons , bycatch, subsidies and the wasteful nature of feeding cultured predatory fishes.  So, it’s worth your time, and if you live in an EU nation, it’s worth your contacting your country’s responsible ministry to ask what they are doing to help avoid the extinction of one of the oceans noblest creatures.  Finally, it’s worth rejecting bluefin at the market level (in sushi restaurants may be the best place) to help reduce demand. 

Maybe it’s already too late for bluefin, and that’s a tragedy, but the story doesn’t end there.  As we continue to fish down the food web, the crisis will move from bluefin to the next most threatened species and the cycle will reiterate until all that’s left is jellyfish and harmful algal blooms.  If that vision isn’t enough to inspire action, I don’t know what is.

Wednesday
Feb162011

Mother nature still owns our sorry butts

If you need any convincing, check out Hawai’i’s Pu’u O’o erupting slowly and captured on timelapse by USGS scientists

http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/kilauea/update/archive/2011/Jan/PuuOo_20110206_small.mov

Wednesday
Feb162011

As you do...

Apropos of nothing, this picture is in the Boston Globe’s excellent Big Picture series this week.  A man wanders down a ruined street in Mogadishu, Somalia, carrying a large shark over his shoulder, as you do.  It’s just so random, I love it.  The photo was awarded 1st prize in the World Press Photo competition for the category “Daily Life”.  I try to imagine a world where doing this counts as “daily life”; it makes you realise just how different lives can be.  See the rest of the series here.

Monday
Feb142011

The wedding of the waters

Our colleagues at the Florida Aquarium have a group visiting the Amazon at the moment.  Check out this video of Allan Marshall explaining  - in melodramatic fashion - how the waters of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes meet and don’t mix.

Friday
Feb112011

Love is in the air...er...water...

As we go into the season of that most manufactured of holidays - Valentine’s Day - I want to share with you a simple but powerful message.  For every crazy sexual fantasy you have ever had, some creature in the oceans is already doing it.  Whether it’s a solo effort, or a one on two, or a two on one, a three on six or a “countless hordes on untold numbers”, and whether it involves a he, a she, a male, a female, a shemale, or a whatthehellsisthat?, there’s already a species in the oceans to whom it’s old hat.  And however kinky and twisted and perverted you can imagine, nature has already devised and instituted (often to ruthlessly efficient ends, I might add), something even more risque and alarming.

How do I know this?  Well, a couple of years ago Georgia Aquarium asked my wife (who also works there) and I to come up with a talk we could give publically about love in the oceans.  Sure! we said, No problem! It’ll be fun!  Little did we guess the depths of smut and depravity to which the research of our newfound assignment would take us.  But like good company minions, we answered the call, and now, three years later, the talk has become something of a regular thing.  As an aside, I can tell you that our Googling efforts in support of the project attracted the attention of the IT department; I guess we typed in a few too many of the trigger words in the company internet filter - oops!  We had to get special exceptions on my IP address so we could keep working (and I swear I have never used it since….ever).

OK, I’m talking a lot of smack.  How about some concrete examples?  Fair enough.  How about this tiny snippet? Fairly self-explanatory; it’s exactly what it looks like.  Needless to say, a warning that it’s NSFW.

That clear enough for you?

One of our favourite parts of the talk is an homage to George Carlin where Trish and I fire off ever-more suggestive fish names in rapid succession.  There’s so many wonderful names to choose from, but some  of my personal favourites are the cavernous assfish (this is actually the closely related abyssal assfish, I guess the cavernous assfish was just too embarrassed to have his photo taken):

 Three related and almost identifical fish: the rode harder, the keep harder and the diklip harder (and yes, they are a type of mullet):

and how could I not include the hairy hotlips?

There’s dozens more, but to hear them (and see the rest of the walrus video) you’ll have to come to the talk

In my final example, I want to claim some primacy over Ricky Gervais.  You see, we were talking about blowhole sex in boto dolphins long before he put it into his act.  That’s right, lonely male botos will, from time to time, penetrate each other in the blowhole, which is really a nostril.  Nasal: its the new anal…

 And thats just the beginning.  Cross-dressing, orgies, role playing, dom-sub BDSM, genital mutilation, piquerism, even post-coital cannibalism, its all going on every day in the oceans (and you’re swimming in it!).  So, next time you’re blushing at the thought of some new saucy idea that sneaks into your mind sideways when you should really be working on TPS reports, just relax, we humans are actually kind of vanilla.

Thursday
Feb102011

To go boldly, or go remotely?

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.  - RW Emerson

In early 1962 Deke Slayton was diagnosed wth a heart condition, which was lucky for Scott Carpenter, because Pilot Slayton was withdrawn fron the Mercury mission, clearing the way for Commander Carpenter to become in May 1962 just the 2nd American to orbit the earth after John Glenn.  After only  three laps of the earth, the Mercury 7 capsule returned, landing over 250 miles off-target.  But the job was done, Americans had entered the space race and begun to explore near space in earnest.

The original 7 Mercury astronauts, including Scott Carpenter

All of this is, of course, very well known to many Americans, and the names are even household (we’ll come back to Cmdr Carpeneter in a minute), especially for the Baby Boomer generation.  But, two years before Mercury, two other pioneers achieved what I consider in many ways an even more profound achievement.  Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh went to the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, over 35,000ft down in the crushing hadal depths of the western Pacific Ocean, onboard the bathyscaphe Trieste.  Why was it more significant?  Perhaps because it was done without the same sort of social/political zeitgeist as the space race (married, as it was, so inextricably to the cold war), and the tremendous resources that came along with that.  And perhaps also because the technical challenges are no less daunting.  While astronauts had to deal with the vacuum of space, the aquanauts had to deal with incomprehensible crushing pressues of the deep ocean.  These challenges are so profound that they contribute in large part to why we have never been back to that inky place.

I’ve had several opportunities recently to consider ocean exploration and to do so in light of space exploration and the achievements in both spheres over the last half century.  In Brazil a few weeks ago I had the good fortune to watch engineers from Harbor Branch deploy one of the most well-traveled of all submerisbles, the Johnson Sea Link II.  More recently, I participated in the first annual meeting of the Cooperative Institute of Ocean Exploration Research and Technology in Fort Pierce Florida.  There, some of the brightest minds in ocean exploration discussed all sorts of aspects of modern exploratory oceanography, including HOVs (Human operated vehicles), ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), AUV’s (autonomous underwater vehicles), buoys, landers and sundry other engineering marvels that are helping reveal a deep ocean far more diverse and wonderously engaging than we ever thought possible (like the Okeanos Explorer).  Consider that hydrothermal vents, methane seeps and brine pools were unheard of just a few short decades ago.  The biology uncovered at these sites has revolutionised the way we think about how animals work, especially the unexpected abundance of chemosynthetic organisms - indeed, entire ecosystems  - depending on chemical energy and not the power of the sun.

The NOAA Aquarius Reef BaseTowards the end of the CIOERT meeting we were treated to a terrific session where Bill Todd, the project lead for NASA’s underwater training and research program gave an excellent and thought-provoking talk about the parallels of space and undersea exploration.  After it, he and the aforementioned Scott Carpenter and HBOI associate director (and CIOERT principal) Shirley Pomponi held an impromptu panel discussion with the other CIOERT investigators.  In addition to his space missions, Carpenter was also a SeaLab II aquanaut in the 60’s; one of very few people to both orbit the earth and serve a lengthy mission living at depth, so he’s qualified to speak to both topics.  The session was a real treat.  Todd, who is a dynamic and convincing speaker, argued that many of the stated reasons for exploring both sea and space (tech development, resource prospecting, naional defence etc) are little more than smokescreens for the real reasons (to be first, to make a mark, to satisfy curiosity) and yet the real reaons are somehow so much harder to defend against the scrutiny of the uncurious and unscientific.  He also didn’t shy away from the incongruous difference in perception between astronauts as national heroes (thoroughly deserved, of course!) and the unsung status of essentially all undersea explorers.  His best example was that the astronauts with the most hours in space are recognised with uniforms, titles and medals, whereas the aquanauts with the most hours (the ones who maintain the NOAA Aquarius Reef Base off the coast of Florida, the only permanent undersea research station left in existence) are still referred to as “hab techs” (habitat technicians) and fill a service role in support of visiting scientists.

The now-defunct Isis ROV (Southampton UK)At the end of the session I asked the panel the perennial question that now plagues exploratory research in both space and sea: manned or unmanned?  The outrageous success of NASA missions like Cassini, Spirit, Opportunity and Hubble and the near-uquiquity of ROVs and AUVs in modern oceanography (and the dwindling number of HOVs) argue for staying home and letting technology do the hard work.  Somehow though, this just doesn’t sit right with me.  The inspiration of watching Brazilian scientists return from their first dives on Abrolhos just a few short weeks ago simply doesn’t gel with the idea that ROV’s can take over for manned missions to the deep.   Yet the trend is undeniable in both sea and space.  To my relief, Commander Carpenter answered that of course it is a false dichotomy; it’s not an either/or situation.  We need HOVs and ROVs to explore the depths, and AUV’s, and landers, and anything esle the boffins can come up with; we need to do it all, because there’s a lot of ocean yet to explore.  Just the same, we can’t allow space exploration to become the exclusive realm of robots and probes.  At some point there is no substitute for astronaut as geologist-with-a-rock-hammer.

While I agree with Commander Carpenter I am rapidly becoming a shameless HOV fan.  At a time when science so often loses the struggle against the vapidity of pop culture and when so many folks - bloggers included - talk so much game about inspiring young people to pursue careers in science, the human aspects of exploratory research cannot be ignored or allowed to atrophy because of budgetary concerns or rigorous adherence to logic.  There are hardly any active HOVs operating now compared to the explosion of ROVs in recent times, and yet we can’t expect the next generation to be as besotted with technological solutions as we have allowed ourselves to become.  Why should they?, they grew up with technology.  No, there is still room for people to explore, not just machines, and for the Cousteaus, the Piccards, the Links and the Carpenters to inspire the rest by showing us that the emotional/aspirational reasons for exploratory research can compliment the objectivity of the research itself, because they lie closest to the truth of human nature.

Thursday
Feb102011

The best little conference around

Every year there’s a great secret shared by about 130 clever folks with an interest in the health of aquatic animals.  Its the annual Eastern Fish Health Workshop and this year it’s in charming Charleston SC March 28-Apr 1.  What makes this meeting so terrific is the breadth of topic matter and the diversity of folks who come.  There are sessions on finfish, elasmobranchs, molluscs and even corals, and also more thematic sessions like Aquarium animal health or fish surgery, and the people are a mix of state and federal science folks, hatchery people, DVM’s and of course academic researchers in fish health.  Its small enough that the agenda is filled without the need for concurrent sessions, and big enough to be interesting and diverse.  It really is one of the best meetings on the calendar if you like aquatic animal health.  Here’s the 2011 highight sessions and their moderators:

Emerging dsDNA Viral Diseases of Fish and Amphibians - Tom Waltzek

Keeping ‘em happy, healthy, and in those aquaria – Shane Boylan

Probiotics: a SCAT-er-gun approach – Sally Molloy

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the lab: shark health – Alistair Dove

Pondering the realities of antibiotic therapies -  Mark Gaikowsky

The Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and environmental health – Greg Lewbart

Seeing in toto: the ecology of disease – Karen Burnett

Coral Ecosystem Health – Cheryl Woodley

The Aquatic Detective: Unusual and Perplexing Case Reports

If you’ve got any interest in attending, contact Rocco Cipriano at the National Fish Health Labs and submit an abstract.  I’d love to see you there!

Wednesday
Feb022011

BMW and Buzz Aldrin's epic shark FAIL

BMW has a promotional docu-video thing out that opens with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin talking about how he once took a ride on a whale shark and how that’s the kind of effortless transport mechanisms we need these days.  Actually, what we need these days is for people to not promote the harassment of marine life, for former astronauts to stick to being former astronauts, and for BMW to not promote and disseminate this kind of misinformation.  I don’t use the FAIL meme all that often, but this one earns it fair and square…

If you want “mobility” Buzz, stick to a Hoveround

 

Tip of the ol’ astronaut’s helmet to Jim Tharpe

Wednesday
Feb022011

Tropical Cyclone Yasi

As if Queensland hasn’t had a bad enough year already, the half of the state that was spare the flooding earlier this month is now about to be hammered by one of the largest tropical cyclones (read hurricanes, US friends) ever recorded.  In this post I just want to gather together a couple of bits and pieces I’ve seen about the web.  If you want to follow it as it unfolds, the best Twitter hashtag is #TCYasi and the ABC (Australia’s nationally sponsored TV network) has a live blog here.

Here’s Towsville 6hrs before the storm crosses the coast:

 

 Here’s the predicted storm track from the Australian Bureau of Meterology.  It has Mt Isa - a dusty inland mining town in the middle of nowehere, getting a Cat 1 cyclone hit, which is surely a first!

Here’s the most recent (at time of writing) WeatherChaser satellite image of Yasi. Click the image to embiggenate:

If you struggle with the scale on that image, here’s what Yasi would look like sitting over the US.  It is a truly gargantuan storm.  Click the image for comparisons to Asia and Europe.

Here’s the final press conference given by Queensland premier Anna Bligh before the storm comes ashore.  Its quite long and raw.  She starts speaking at 3:24.  In it she states that the city of Townsville has lost power, which is where several evacuation centers.  She also passes on a little science; talking about the unreliability of wave buoy readings off Townsville, where the buoys are being swamped by waves.

Thursday
Jan272011

Attenborough and deep sea corals

There’s a new website up that talks about deep sea corals, including one of the species the science team has been studying here in Brazil - Lophelia.  Its even called Lophelia.org and was put together by some Scottish scientists who discovered Lophelia reefs off the coast of Scotland in 2003.  It’s very comprehensive and well worth a visit, and it’s recently earned an endorsement of the doyen of nature documentaries, Sir David Attenborough.  One of the weird things to think about when you click on over is that the same corals that form those reefs in Scotland are forming deep reefs here in Brazil.  How is that possible?  I mean, one is in the chilly North Atlantic, while the other is in the tripical south Atlantic.  Well, if you think about it, once you go deep, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s always gloomy dark and cold!  For example, even though the surface temperature was in the high 20’s (low 80’s for the US readers) here in Brazil, the temperature down where the sub was going was 7-9 dgrees (around 45).

A Dendrophyllia alternata (originally mislabeled here as Lophelia) colony collected from the Abrolhos platform

The new website is a great resource for learning more about Lophelia and other deep coral reef species and just maybe it will help us all broaden our horizons to start considering coral reefs in a context broader than the insanely colourful shallow reefs that most easily comes to mind when you hear the phrase.

Wednesday
Jan262011

Who's nourishing the deep reef?

As we were steaming along yesterday, we encountered a mysterious yellowish slick along the surface.  Sometimes it formed into filaments stretched out like cobwebs on the surface, but in other areas it was thick enough to make the water surface totally opaque.   What could it be, so far off the coast?  fish spawn? coral spawn? algae? oil, maybe? So we slowed the ship and took a bucket sample from over the side (thanks Maurice!).  The culprit? Trichodesmium.  This blue-green alga is common in the nutrient poor waters of the tropics, and occasionally forms huge blooms like this.  How can it bloom when nutrients are so scarce?  The answer is that it makes its own nutrients; Trichodesmium is a “nitrogen fixer”.  This means it can take nitrogen from the air and incorporate it into its own molecules and tissues, a relatively rare feat (the best known example on land are legumes like peas and beans).

If Trichodesmium blooms like this, then the impact can ripple through the ecosystem because, once fixed, the nitrogen is available to the rest of the food chain.  This can make Trichodesmium a key species.

All of that brings us to Dr. Paulo Sumida from the University of Sao Paulo.  Paulo is on this expedition to study organic matter, like the products of all that Trichodesmium.  He’s especially interested in what’s happening on and just above the bottom, where the sub is visiting.  One of the biggest questions: is the organic matter in the sediment of the dark deep made by organisms on the bottom elsewhere and transported there, or is it made by plankton in the water column above (like Trichodesmium), and then rains down like nutrient snow?  One of their other hypotheses is that the southern part of Abrolhos is more productive than the north.  In other words, that more organic matter is produced there by greater numbers of organisms.  To work out the answer to these questions, Paulo looks for clues about how much organic matter there is, what “quality” it is and who made it. 

Dr. Paulo Sumida peers out of a porthole on the JSL sub

Measuring how much organic matter there is is relatively straightforward with an instrument called a CHN analyser (C = carbon, H = hydrogen, N = nitrogen, the key ingredients of organic matter).  To measure quality, Paulo looks at how much of the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll is present.  If the organic matter is old, most of the chlorophyll will have broken down in a process scientists call diagenesis, leaving behind waste products called phaeopigments.  The relative amounts of chlorophyll and phaeopigments can be used as a measure of the quality of organic matter.  Perhaps the coolest part, however, is trying to work out who made the stuff.  To do that, Paulo uses a rare tool at the University of Sao Paulo, called a GC-IR-MS (gas chromatograph isotope ratio mass spectrometer, say that ten times fast).  This instrument can look for chemical signatures that tell you who made the organic matter.  For example, phytoplankton might produce organic matter with certain carbon isotopes in it, while benthic algae might produce a certain sterol compounds that, when Paulo sees them, he can say “Aha! Now I know that this organic matter was made by this group or that group”. It’s a great bit of detective work.

Taken together, all this information tells Paulo and the other scientists about how nutrients move from water to sediment and back again (properly called “flux”) and therefore how tightly life on the bottom is connected (“coupled”) to life in the water column.  It also speaks to how connected different parts of the bottom may be, especially if organic matter proves to be made somewhere else and then transported to the dark zones.    So what’s the answer? Is it produced on the bottom or in the water column?  By algae or by phytoplankton?  Unfortunately, we don’t know yet, because this is just the sample collection phase; his research is just beginning.  I hope in a future post I can tell you about the results of Paulo’s work.

Wednesday
Jan262011

The Briny Deep - a post by Kristie Cobb Hacke

Yesterday morning on a tour of the bridge of the Steward Johnson following the deployment of the submersible, we had the opportunity to chat with some of the sub crew and a pilot. During our chat they were sharing stories of other dives. One in particular was incredibly interesting to me because it continues the idea of worlds within worlds (the sneeze theory). Craig Caddigan was mentioning that he piloted the submersible to a location in the Gulf of Mexico that contained an “underwater lake.” The lake was a dense brine pool, made up of water with an incredibly high density due to salinity and found at over 2000 feet depth. Craig described landing the sub on the lack and bouncing along the surface and creating ripples. The brine area has its own waves and “beach”, in this case surrounded by a 10’ ring of mussels. The mussels use methane as their primary food source. The submersible was unable to descend into the brine lake because it was too dense, but they did take along some tools that could sample the contents.

A brine pool in the Gulf of Mexico

What is amazing to me is that this brine sea is contained within the ocean. Do the animals that live around this area know that they are living in a sea within a larger ocean? When I sit on the beach am I merely sitting on the edge of a pool within someone else’s greater ocean. Am I at risk of being someone else’s sample? These big thinking questions are what keep me going but the scientists aboard the Abrolhos are focused on the small things that make up the ocean. Right now they are collecting small coral samples, sediment, rock, fish and other items. During the cruise other members of the HBOI staff have been creating maps so that the scientists can use them for future trips or they can clearly note the location of sample and sediment collections. The CTD collected water at the same locations where the submersible was deployed, so that bacteria and viruses can be measured and identified in the water column. The hope is that each of these small pieces can create a larger overall understanding of the structure and biology of the Abrolhos reef.

Wednesday
Jan262011

The moonpool

Generally-speaking, holes in ships are A Bad Thing, but in the center of the R/V Seward Johnson there is a hole, a really big hole, that’s both deliberate and critically important.  It’s called a moonpool and it’s used to deploy the device that allows the Com-Track (see previous post) to talk to the sub: the transducer.  This acoustic tool (basically a combination speaker and microphone) could just be dangled over the side, but the hull of the ship would interfere with the signal, so they lower it through the moonpool well below the ship.  It’s a lot like putting up an antenna, only upside down.  As I stared down into the blue glow, Sully the Com-Track officer was using the transducer to speak to the sub pilot, 800ft further down into the depths below…

 

PS - If you’re wondering why the water doesn’t rush up through the moonpool it’s because the water in the moonpool is level with the surrounding sea level, so there’s no pressure to push it up into the hull.

Wednesday
Jan262011

Poseidon smiles

The swells died away this morning and the science crew was thrilled to make it back in the water.  As I type, lead scientist Rodrigo Moura is in the sphere and geologist Alex Bastos is in the back and they’re 800ft down on the south edge of the Abrolhos Platform.  They’re exploring a steep sandy slope (like, 45 degrees steep) expecting sponges and fishes and collecting sediment samples for the geological context and to measure the quantity and origins of the organic matter, which is important to understand how much the ecosystem there relies on plankton above or on its own productivity at the bottom.

 

In the photo above, Jim “Sully” Sullivan sits at the Com-Track for the submersible, while Brazilian scientist Paulo Sumida (U. Sao Paulo) takes notes.  Com-Track is a station on the bridge of the ship, where sub crew staff and scientists can track the position of the sub and communicate with the scientists onboard.  Its not that straightforward, though, because there’s no cable to the JSL and radio and other EMF frequencies don’t travel through water.  Instead, communication takes place embedded in acoustic signals, with limited voice coms and a system of “pings” to serve as acknowledgement/agreement.  The whole shebang is tied into the GPS system for the ship, which is what made it possible for Bill Baxley to embed the sub track in his lovely 3D model.  If all goes according to plan, I’ll send an update on what they find later today