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2014 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

June 6, 2014

A forest of sea fans

One of the goals of our NSF-funded Philippines research expedition was to explore an east-to-west gradient in the Verde Island Passage, an important waterway that separates the open Pacific Ocean from the South China Sea. Part of what makes this area so interesting from a zoogeographic perspective is that the passage has strong currents in some areas, and allows the exchange of ocean water between the open Pacific and East Asia.

Our primary job was to identify differences between the animal communities found in each coral reef region along that gradient; to determine how the species found there are distributed, and why. Along with colleagues from the Philippines and other institutions in the U.S. and Japan, we explored reefs in three areas: southwestern Luzon at Mabini, Calatagan to the west, and further to the southwest around Lubang Island, a place so remote that it was the site of the last Japanese soldier holdout from WWII, who hid in the rugged mountainous forests of Lubang for 30 years before being captured in the early 1970s.

During a series of dives, Bob Van Syoc (Senior Collection Manager of Invertebrates at the Academy) and I explored vertical walls at depths of 100 to 130 feet, finding a virtual forest of sea fans—a kind of large, fan-shaped, highly branched corals (also called gorgonians) that require substantial water currents that deliver food in the form of microscopic plankton. These corals are known as “micropredators”—that is, they use eight tiny, feather-shaped tentacles situated around the mouths of polyps to catch microscopic animals (zooplankton) and various plant-like algae (phytoplankton).

Zoogeographic and other findings will take a while to put together, but some of the more immediate results of the expedition—like these photos—can be enjoyed right now.

—Gary Williams, Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology 

Filed under: Diving,Research — editor @ 10:45 am

May 19, 2014

Return from Lubang

Well, we’ve just returned from Lubang Island, and I’ve never been to a more remote, more rustic place in the world.

The boat ride we were told would take three hours ended up taking five, but the sea was calm and we had a beautiful ride out. We saw dolphins, jellies, and tons of flying fish. When we first pulled up at the port, there were probably 50 people who came out to look at us. I have no doubt we were the first Americans many of them had seen—kids were yelling, “Power boat! Look, a power boat!” and running over to check out our relatively modest, 15-foot whaler-type boat.

As soon as we arrived, four of us took off in the power boat to scout for the dive locations for the next two days. We looked for rocky outcrops on the end of the island facing the drop-off into the South China Sea, and we used side-scan sonar to find rocky areas in the 200- to 350-foot-deep range. After a few stops, we found a spot to dive, so Elliott and I suited up and dropped into a dive site we named “The End of the World.” We did a (relatively) quick pass on the site—buzzing down to 300 feet on scooters and then taking our time coming back up—the total length of dive was 71 minutes, which is about as quick as you can do a dive like that.

We saw all kinds of interesting fish and invertebrates even in that short time, so we knew this was the spot we’d be diving over the next two days. What’s really amazing is that I have no doubt Elliott and I were the first people ever to see this reef. It’s mind-boggling to realize that more people have been in space than have been to this spot on the Earth!

We spent the next two days revisiting the site and collecting animals (both live and preserved) to bring back with us. It was a series of really long days, as it took close to three hours to motor from our hotel at the port to this site on the other end of the island. We’d do a dive, then try to motor back in time to beat the sunset so that we could actually see the channel back to the port! We did two big dives there, including my own longest (290 minutes) and deepest (354 feet) dive to date. The surface water was 90 degrees, but the deep reef was 73 degrees, so we really felt that temperature drop on the way down. Brrrrr!

We collected an undescribed species of damselfish—a cute little orange-and-white fish—to bring back to the aquarium as well as a bunch of other rare fish. The two guys we’re diving with from Hawaii are really good at catching fish underwater—they got ten fish for every one that I could catch!

This morning, we packed up the ferry and came back to Mabini. (We’ve got the fish we collected swimming in two kiddie pools here at the resort where we’re staying—pretty cool that we can build a temporary, portable aquarium wherever we go!) The sea was fairly rough, so we had a pretty bumpy ride for the six hours it took us to get “home.” I’m feeling the rocking right now, and will definitely be rocked to sleep soon!

All in all it was an amazing adventure. I was really shocked by the isolation and simplicity of the lives that the people there are living, and the reefs were very healthy, with loads of fish—including some really big and rare species. A few folks on our team saw a manta ray, and we saw several napoleon wrasses, which have been really fished out in most areas.

—Bart Shepherd, Director of Steinhart Aquarium

Filed under: Aquarium,Diving — editor @ 11:30 am

May 8, 2014

A Return to Devil’s Point Pinnacle

Yesterday we returned to the deep pinnacle off of Devil’s Point, with the intent of collecting live fish for the aquarium. I had my eye on a particularly colorful species from one of my favorite families of fish, the anthias.

Pseudanthias fasciatus, the one-stripe (or red-stripe) anthia, is found on deep reefs in harems of several dominant males and larger groups of females. The males are a gorgeous orange with pink and yellow highlights, and they have a thick, red stripe running down the length of their body.

In order to get fish like this to the surface safely, Steinhart Aquarium biologists Matt Wandell and Richard Ross constructed a fish decompression chamber. The fish are sealed in the hard, plastic container, which prevents a rapid decrease in pressure as they’re brought to the surface. Once on land, they’re slowly “brought up” to surface pressure by decreasing the water pressure on the pump loop.

In a similar manner, in order to get the mesophotic divers to the surface safely, we must spend one to several hours making a long sequence of progressively shallower decompression stops. These stops, which can last from one minute to more than an hour, are a great opportunity to pause, get out the camera, and spend some time snapping photos of the amazing creatures that live in the center of marine biodiversity—like this one I took of a commensal shrimp living on a Stichopathes wire coral.

— Bart Shepherd, Director of Steinhart Aquarium 

Filed under: Aquarium,Diving — editor @ 3:43 pm

May 2, 2014

Twilight Zone Scouting Dive at Devil’s Point

Today we visited one of my favorite places in the Verde Island Passage: Devil’s Point. This dive site has an incredible diversity of soft corals growing on a rock pinnacle that projects out of the surface of the ocean, just at the southwest point of Maricaban Island. The shallow parts of this reef are spectacular—every square meter is completely covered with hard and soft corals, sponges, tunicates, and other marine life.

We dove this site today to scout its potential as a future collecting location for the Academy’s deep (aka “twilight zone”) rebreather diving team. We used scooters to cross a large patch of sand at about 180 feet deep, and found a rock pinnacle surrounded by thousands of reef fishes at about 250 feet deep. It looks like the pinnacle is part of a ridge that continues deeper, but we didn’t have time to follow it today. It was an incredible discovery—one enhanced by the thought that we’re almost certainly the first divers ever to visit this reef.

Once the rest of the deep team arrives in the Philippines, we’ll return to Devil’s Point to collect fishes for the Academy’s research collections and, hopefully, for display at Steinhart Aquarium.

Bart Shepherd, Director of Steinhart Aquarium

Filed under: Aquarium,Diving — editor @ 2:01 pm

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