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Entries in Yucatan (18)


Tis the season of sailfish!

This time of year sailfish gather to feed off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  One day I’ll go and see it in person, but in the meantime, David Attenborough will have to do:


Can you ID this jellyfish?

In Mexico this summer we came across a nice jellyfish and scientist/videographer Bruce Carlson caught some footage.  I admit that Scyphozoans are a real weak point for me.  Can anyone identify this for us?


Elegant little thing, right? See more videos on my YouTube channel


Man vs. Fish - amazing remora video

Most people consider remoras to be no-good hangers-on, sponging off well-meaning marine megafauna. But on one of our research trips to Mexico to study whale sharks this summer, one of the staff divers, Elliott Jessup, had an incredible encounter with one of the most inquisitive fish any of us have ever seen, and scientist/videographer Bruce Carlson caught the whole thing in HD. The waters were full of whale sharks and their attendant remoras, when this little guy took leave of his usual hosts and instead took a real liking to Elliott, even attaching to his butt, and eating his hair.  Learn more about our whale shark research here and you can follow my YouTube channel here and the Georgia Aquarium channel here.

The footage is copyright 2010 Bruce Carlson/Georgia Aquarium and used with permission. 


Cross your fingers for the Yucatan

Long time readers will know that I have a lot of colleagues in the Yucatan part of Mexico, mostly in the northeastern tip in the state of Quintana Roo.  That area is in the firing line for Hurrican Paula (yes, its still hurricane season!).  Cross your fingers in that ever-futile-but-nonetheless-self-soothing symbol of good luck for our colleagues and friends down there, especially the folks on Isla Mujeres, which is pretty exposed.  The map below shows the forecast cone for hurricane force winds in the next 24 hrs.  The cone for tropical storm force winds is MUCH bigger.


Whale Sharks on Nat Geo Inside Wild

Some of the work we did in Mexico this summer will be featured on the National Geographic blog Inside Wild over the last quarter of this year.  The latest installment penned by Jodi Kendall, who accompanied us to Mexico, can be found here.  Check it out, and watch that space for future installments!  Learn more about Georgia Aquarium whale shark research here.


A photo post from field work in Mexico

Sorry things have been a bit quiet on the blog lately.  Our field work season has reached a crescendo, with several back-to-back trips to Mexico where I and others from Georgia Aquarium are studying whale sharks that aggregate annually in the coastal waters of the Yucatan, and thats left little time for writing.  To learn more about the whale shark project, go here.  Its been a real treat lately, with hundreds of sharks feeding in the area east of Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres.  Between the boat work, which focuses on photo cataloguing and ecological sampling, and aerial surveys, which focus on counting and distribution, we’ve been gathering a ton of data that will help shed light on why these aggregations form, and how to better protect them in the future.  Rather than write about it, I figured I’d let the pictures do some talking.  Required legalese: all these images are copyright 2010 Alistair Dove/Georgia Aquarium and may not be reproduced without permission.

Flating mats of Sargassum are home to all sorts of things. These baby jacks were seeking shelter from me and caught a red reflection off my rashguardThis is what we came for: a whale shark feeding east of the Yucatan.Any port in a storm: this tiny 2 inch barracuda was hitching a ride with a moon jelly

Most filefish live on rocky and coral reefs, but this one was vigorously defending a little bit of SargassumIts hard not to feel like the whale sharks are checking you out sometimes

Georgia Aquarium senior aquarist Marj Awai wielding the 7D and housing: stills AND HD video *drool*People are the biggest threat to whale sharks. This male had a close encounter with a boat but luckily came away with only shallow scrapes. We see deeper cuts from propellers sometimes, and utmost caution is warranted when moving among the animals.The most common view of a whale shark. Even though they seem to swim effortlessly, keeping up with them is only possible for short distances. This is the last one we’ll see until next years field work season. Adios amigo!


Hola de nuevo, México!

Headed back to Quintana Roo in light of a good weather forecast and a chance to finish some chemical ecology sampling we aimed to do last time but were denied due to weather and other concerns.  What’s chemical ecology?  Its the study of how animals interact with the chemicals in their environment and shape their behaviour accordingly.  In this case, we’re especially interested in what whale sharks can smell, what sort of “odor landscape” they live in, and how they exploit this to find food.

Unlike a lot of “big” marine scienctists that work off ships in the UNOLS fleet, we actually work from small boats close to the coast, so weather is a key factor.  Do me a favour and pray to whatever deity or natural force works for you, in order that we get some favourable conditions to finish this work so we can move on to other things, OK?  Me?  I’ll be praying to Chaac, the mayan rain god, not for rain, but for no rain.  More importantly, I’ll pray to the head honcho of all Mayan gods, who also happens to be the wind god - Kukulcan - for no wind.  I may as well pray to Joe Pesci, but it can’t hurt.


If you have to go, go big!

When you want to learn about the biology of a charismatic species, any species really, sometimes you end up learning about the grosser side of life too.  Thats kind of how I came to take this picture last week in Mexico, where I and several others from the team at Georgia Aquarium have been doing research on whale sharks lately (see several other blog posts heareabouts).  It was taken during an aerial survey we did from an altitude of 1,500 ft in a Cessna 206 and shows a whale shark that has just defecated.  Now, whale sharks tend to do everything on a giant scale, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised, but I estimate the animal to be between 8 and 11m (25-35ft) in length and so, based on that estimate, thats a cloud of poo behind him thats over 30ft in diameter!  Its unusual to see wild sharks in the act of pooping, but this group of animals was so numerous and feeding so heavily, that you could actually see several clouds like this at any given time.  Whats feeding heavily got to do with it?  Well, unlike mammals, which tend to have a relatively fixed gut passage time for food, a lot of cold-blooded critters can, well, sort of push it out the back end, simply by pushing more in the front end.

Far from being a trivial observation of one of life's less savoury moments, it could actually become a really important research opportunity if we can manage to catch some of that magical egesta in a container of some sort, for analysis back at the lab.   Scientists can do all sorts of stuff with poo, like looking for parasite eggs or other pathogens, sequencing the DNA of both the shark and its prey species, or comparing nutrient values of food (from plankton tows) and comparing them to values from faeces to work out how much nutrition they are gaining from their food.  Its a great way to learn a lot in a short time and do it in a totally non-invasive way.

Mostly though, its a cool photo to gross people out at parties...


The latest from the Whale Shark Festival in Isla Mujeres

I am down here with other folks from the aquarium as well as other scientists, government folks and ecotour operators for the 3rd annual Whale Shark Festival in the beautiful Yucatan location of Isla Mujeres.  Here's some short videos that might give you the flavour of whats been going on.

Here's Beatrix and Rafael de la Parra from Proyecto Domino explaining the importance to Isla Mujeres of whale shark movements to and from Utila in Honduras.  The audience is mostly ecotour operators and members of the public.  Bob Hueter from Mote spoke about threats to whale sharks, while Darcy Bradley from ECOCEAN talked about their program and I chimed in for a talk on whale shark research at Georgia Aquarium

Check out this inflatable whale shark from the festival parade - that thing is made of awesome!  Later that night they illuminated it from the inside and it watched over the stage show and the Ms Whale Shark awards, where they elected a grandma as queen of the festival!

This is Teatro del Mar, and educational puppet show that Amigos de Isla Contoy have shown to thousands of school kids to improve ocean literacy.  The kids were completely rapt!

And I couldn't resist putting in this clip of turtle hatchlings at the state run hatchery in Isla Mujeres.  There's a lot of problems there with beach erosion and disturbance, so when turtles nest, they excavate the eggs and bring them to the hatchery, where they have a cool fenced off area where the eggs are reburied and incubated until they hatch.  Warning, cuteness overload a distinct possibility...

You can follow along on Twitter too


Fieldwork here we come!

Things will probably get a little irregular around here over the next couple of weeks.  I'm part of a group of Aquarium folks leaving for Mexico tomorrow to participate in the Whale Shark Festival on Isla Mujeres, just near Cancun, followed by some intensive field work with colleague Rafael de la Parra, who you may remember from previous posts.  We'll be tagging animals, photographing their spot patterns for the ECOCEAN project (their spots are like fingerprints!), collecting plankton samples and sampling the chemistry of the water to look for differences where they are feeding and where they are not.  I'll try to post some stuff as we go along, even if its only a picture or a video here and there (there wont be much time for writing, unless the weather closes us out)

All of this is part of our partnership called Project Domino, which aims to understand and protect whale sharks in Mexican waters.  Its bigger than that, however, because many of those same animals travel from the Yucatan to the Caribbean, the West Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico; sharks dont pay attention to sovereign borders.  Obviously concerns are running high for any animals that travel into the GoM, due to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Keep your fingers crossed that those animals avoid the affected area and that this latest attempt to cap the wellhead is successful.


Whale shark news roundup

Photo: Bruce Carlson/Marj Awai

There’s a heck of a lot going on in the world of whale sharks right now, so I thought a news roundup was in order.

Blogger GrrlScientist has a nice blog post up about whale sharks right now, over at Scientist Interrupted

Sad news about a whale shark that was trapped in fishing nets in Pakistan and died. I have no idea what the scientist is talking about when he describes them as “inefficient swimmers”; as far as we know they are paragons of efficiency. I also have my suspicions about whether this animal was actually dead when it was brought back to shore. In a different story about the same event, it described the animal as being alive when the fisherman found it, tail-looped it and dragged it back to the beach, and how its illegal to fish for them, but legal to use them as you like if they die accidentally, hmmm....  Without witnesses, I guess we'll never know.

Our collaborator Bob Hueter from the Shark Research Lab at Mote Marine Laboratory is following an animal dubbed Sara in the Gulf of Mexico, who has been affixed with a real-time satellite tag. So far she is avoiding the worst affected area of the BP oil spill, which is a relief. Follow her movements here.

Unfortunately, other whale sharks don’t appear to be avoiding the pollution. NOAA scientists last week observed whale sharks among ribbons of surface oil, not 4 miles from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. If whale sharks are unable to avoid the oil, it’s a potential disaster because the anatomy of their gills and filter-feeding apparatus are superbly susceptible to fouling, as I discussed in a recent blog post.

One of my projects is getting a bit of press this week. Georgia Aquarium has entered into a collaboration with the Core Sequencing Facility at Emory University to start sequencing the genome of the whale shark. It’s a huge job, but the lab at Emory, led by Dr. Tim Read, are up to the task! They’re using Roche 454 pyrosequencers to generate a survey sequence right now, from DNA we isolated in the lab at the aquarium. Its exciting stuff and was picked up on the AP wire. Read an example here, or just google “whale shark genome emory”

University of Southern Mississippi research Eric Hoffmayer was lucky enough to observe an aggregation of about 100 whale sharks off the coast of Louisiana last week, accompanied by legendary marine explorer and Nat Geo guru Sylvia Earle.  Eric has been working with that population for some time, but as far as I know thats the most he's ever seen in one place.  Lets hope they are animals avoiding the oil spill.

And, finally, the 3rd annual Whale Shark Festival is scheduled to get underway in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, next Friday the 16th.  I'll be there with other scientists including Bob Hueter and Rafael de la Parra, talking publically about whale sharks in the Gulf and the other amazing marine biology of the Yucatan.  There's also going to be a film festival and cultural activities highlighting Quintana Roo.  Did you know that "shark" is one of the only English words with a Yucatec Indian origin?  Its comes from the Mayan "Xoc".  Hope you can join us!


Two videos from our recent Mexico sojourn

Below are two short videos showing some of what we got up to on a recent lightning fast trip to Mexico, footage that our AV folks spliced together from a FLIP camera I took along.  We had heard word of whale sharks gathering at one of our research sites, so I threw together a quick trip and Jeff Reid, the Aquarium's DSO, and I went down to scope it out.  It wasn't hard science this time; mostly a reconnaissance boat survey and an aerial survey, and getting to grips with the logistics for the big trips that will happen later this summer (more about those in future posts).  But at least they give a sense of what its like down there.  Next time I will try to hold the camera a bit more steady, but in the meantime - enjoy.


Testing, testing...

I'm posting this video I took of a whale shark in Mexico, to test the embedding of YouTube videos in Blogger posts.


The water is ALIVE!

Its easy to get discouraged about the plight of marine ecosystems and the future of all those incredible marine species that we love so much. This is especially so of late, with all the bad news about the oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico and the impacts that it may well have on several habitats. Consider this post, then, as your good news story for the week. I am here to tell you that there is still amazing stuff to see in the ocean. Incredible stuff. Stuff that will blow your mind. I can tell you this with supreme confidence, because for the last two days, that’s exactly what I have been seeing. As part of the research program at Georgia Aquarium, I am with colleagues in Quintana Roo, Mexico, studying whale sharks and other species that live in the azure waters of the Yucatan peninsula. Jeff Reid, who is the aquarium’s dive safety officer, is here and our main colleague in Mexico is Rafael de la Parra of Project Domino, who has been working on whale sharks and other marine species in the area for many years. This is a remarkable part of the world, with a lot of great terrestrial activities (can you say Cenotes, anyone? No? How about Mayan ruins?), exceeded only by the marine life, which is truly spectacular.

Yesterday Jeff and Raffa and I spent the day boating around the northeastern tip of the Yucatan along with videographer Jeronimo. Now, when you’re on a boat, you can only see a small strip of ocean either side of the vessel, and yet over the course of the day we saw lots of mobula (devil rays), turtles, flying fish, manta rays, spotted dolphins and whale sharks. We snorkeled alongside some of these animals and, in the case of whale sharks and mantas, took samples of their food for later analysis. They dine on the rich plankton soup of this tropical upwelling area, much of which consisted of fish eggs, which hints at other fish species – yet unseen – taking advantage of the plankton to start their next generation by spawning in the surface waters. Snorkeling next to a whale shark in the natural setting was a special thrill; I’ve been lucky enough to work with the animals in the collection at Georgia Aquarium since 2006, but this was my first encounter with them in the wild. Except for the slightly different “faces” (we do get to know our animals pretty well) and the parasitic copepods visible on the fins of the wild animal, it could have easily been the very same sharks Jeff and I have been working with in Atlanta.

Today, Jeff and Raffa and I joined Lilia (from the Mexican department of protected areas CONANP) and pilot Diego for an aerial survey of the waters around the northeastern tip of the Yucatan. In contrast to the boat, you can’t get in the water from a plane (its not advisable anyway), but you can see a whole lot more at once and cover a much greater area in a relatively shorter time. From the air, lots of sharks, cownosed rays, manta, dolphins, fish schools and whale sharks were all visible, and I am told that flamingos and manatees can be seen at other times too. The manta rays, which numbered in the hundreds, were especially impressive and included at least two species (see my post about taxonomy of mantas). The sheer number of cownosed rays, called chuchas in the local slang, was staggering (muchas chuchas, if you will). They formed huge schools that looked for all the world like the rafts of sargassum weed that accumulate on the wind-lines at the water’s surface offshore. Many of the turtles and mobula seemed to be in the mood for love; most turtles were in pairs (or a pair being followed by other hopeful males), whereas the mobula followed each other in lazy tandems, their wingtips breaking the surface with every stroke. Whale sharks were also there – lots of them – with their attendant flotilla of tourist boats and tiny orange specks of snorkelers in life-vests, doing their best (and largely failing) to keep up with the gentle giants.

When you have experiences such as those I have shared with my colleagues over the last two days, you are reminded why we do this stuff in the first place. Its not just for the papers, or the salary or the glory of new discovery (yeah, right!), its for those moments working with animals when you and a colleague become friends because you shared an experience of the oceans that most folks will never have. We should seek to share and recreate those moments with everyone we can, whether its in an aquarium or on the open ocean. I am pretty sure that if we could all do that, then public empathy for the plight of the oceans would skyrocket, and many of the threats that face them would be addressed quick smart.