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2014 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

May 27, 2014

Amazing Sea Hares from Anilao Pier

Anilao Pier, home to the notorious bobbit worm, is my favorite site in the Philippines for night diving. I first dove here in 2012, during my graduate studies at San Francisco State University and the California Academy of Sciences. The diversity of marine invertebrates here is astounding, especially with respect to sea slugs, snails, and anemones.

I’m particularly interested in sea hares, a group of sea slugs in the order Anapsidea. They’re called sea hares thanks to the horn-like structures on their head, known as rhinophores, which allow them to sense their environment—and which happen to resemble rabbit ears. Like the nudibranchs they’re related to (same phylum, different order), sea slugs have evolved potent chemical defenses to deter predation, since they’re soft-bodied and possess either a reduced shell or no shell at all.

On one of my night dives during the expedition, I came across two beautiful, large, lime-green sea hares crawling through the sand and sea grass about 3 meters down. Overwhelmed with excitement upon spotting them, I actually squealed through my scuba regulator! I picked one up and let it go, watching it swim gracefully with its wing-like dorsal appendages (called parapodia), and later collected both for the Academy’s sea slug collection.

This was my first encounter with a species I later learned was Syphonota geographica, the only species within the genus Syphonota. Despite it being circumtropical (distributed throughout the tropics) and an invasive species in the Mediterranean, the Academy’s Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology, Terry Gosliner, had only encountered this species once before in the Philippines.

I’m thinking about investigating its taxonomy and chemical composition for my PhD, since it may actually represent more than one species and contain variable chemical composition, depending on where it’s found and what it eats. Syphonota geographica in the Indo-Pacific have been reported as feeding on brown algae, while those from the Mediterranean are considered specialists, feeding instead on the invasive seagrass Halophila stipulacea. Representatives from Greece have been studied chemically, but specimens from the Philippines haven’t been researched—offering a great chance to add another chapter to our understanding of the area’s biodiversity.

—Carissa Shipman, PhD student at University of the Philippines Diliman


Filed under: Research — editor @ 11:13 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 7, 2014

We Brought an Entire Aquarium With Us (and Built a Fish-Sized Hyperbaric Chamber)

When I tell people that we’re in the field collecting saltwater animals for display and research at the aquarium, most of them imagine that the actual catching is the hard part. In reality, the hard work starts after we collect the animal.

Keeping animals healthy in the field—and then healthy while en route back to Manila for a 14-hour flight to their new home in Golden Gate Park—entails an entire slew of life-support equipment (LSS). We have that stuff at the Academy, obviously, but right now we’re out in the field. Where it’s too hot. Where there isn’t a store to buy what we need. Where we have to constantly battle a continually moving colony of fire ants that appeared right where we set up our equipment.

Fortunately, all the pre-planning we did to prepare for this is paying off. Want the laundry-list of what came with us on the plane? Two 200-gallon inflatable kiddie pools (plus a third, just in case), 220-bolt air and water pumps, rolls of tubing, nets, containers, coral-holding devices, fish-holding cups, seeded biofilters, and an assortment of valves, glue, patch kits, rubber bands, cable ties, etc.

We knew we’d need to keep water temperatures down in the pools so the animals could survive (from 94 degrees to a reasonable 82), so our original plan was to give the pools water-changes every few hours, which would have required many trips hauling 5-gallon buckets of water 30 feet back-and-forth from the shore. Luckily, our hosts were able to find a powerful sump pump and modify it so it could stay in the ocean while plugged in. We were also able to connect the two pools via four siphon hoses, basically turning them into one body of water. Then we able to fabricate drains in the pools, which gave us not just cooler temps, but also stronger water flow—much better for the shallow-water corals (which are, as the kids say “money”), two coconut octopuses, and selection of fish we’re caring for (which includes ghost pipe fish and white mushroom coral pipefish). And today we’re going to attempt to collect pigmy seahorses.

Many of the fish collected deeper than 300 feet have a gas-filled swim bladder. When they’re brought to the surface, the pressure on them decreases and the gas in the swim bladder expands in the same way a sealed bag of chips does when you take it on an airplane. When the bladder expands, it can damage the internal organs of the fish—which is, well, very bad for the fish. Traditionally, collectors have used a hypodermic needle to relieve pressure from the swim bladder, but that’s a less-than-optimal solution, resulting in unreliable survival. To combat this problem, we designed and built a fish decompression hyperbaric chamber based on some larger designs that have been used for collecting cold-water rock fish. Our design is light, relatively portable, and the collection chamber itself doubles as the decompression chamber. The deepwater team collect the first deepwater fish yesterday, and our chamber is working very well.

Tomorrow morning, Aquarium Team One heads home to the Academy with the live animals we’ve collected. Packing and shipping them is a story in and of itself, which I’ll try to write up on the plane. Next week, Aquarium Team Two arrives for more collecting with a focus on the deep-water fishes. I’m looking forward to getting home, unpacking the animals, and seeing what the second aquarium team achieves next week.

—Rich Ross, Aquatic Biologist 


Filed under: Aquarium — editor @ 7:21 pm

May 5, 2014

“Like Something Out of a Nightmare”

There are two Academy groups currently in the Philippines for the 2014 Biodiversity Expedition: one from Research, and the other from the Aquarium. Though we’re staying at different locations, we collaborate when we can, like tonight.

It all started with a 90-minute night dive at Anilao Pier to try to collect a Bobbitt worm—a creature that lives in the sand, has jaws like a bear trap, and might be several meters long. It shoots up with lightning speed to catch fish and other animals, yanking them down into the muck like something out of a nightmare. In the 1990s, Academy Senior Curator Terry Gosliner named the Bobbitt worm after Lorena Bobbitt (and her legendary attack on her husband), and Academy crews have been trying to collect this animal both for display and for our preserved collection ever since. One look at the photo shows you why catching this animal isn’t easy, but take a look at this video for an even better demonstration.

Tonight’s effort was unsuccessful, though I did get my hand on one of the worms—yes, my hand. My wife is less than thrilled about these attempts, but she understands that we have to do what we have to do for science. More efforts are planned, and hopefully there will be success. Hopefully.

After the worm hunt, there was a party—a party that started without us. Apparently it began with a whole roast pig (enjoyed by both Research and Aquarium Staff), but by the time the worm hunters arrived, things had changed drastically. Let’s just say that while there was still much fun to be had, there wasn’t much pig.

Expeditions like this are an amazing amount of work, similar to running a triathlon. Instead of the events being swimming, running, and biking, the events are collection, processing, and animal care. The endurance needed to put out so much energy every single day is huge, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling when everything’s going well. Tonight’s party was a short break from the draining but rewarding work of the expedition … and the only picture I can find of the event is this one of me gnawing on a pig’s head.

Ah, science—we love you.

Rich Ross, Aquatic Biologist


Filed under: Aquarium — editor @ 6:04 pm

Ghost Pipefish in the Bag; Ever-elusive Bobbitt Worm … Still Elusive

Greetings from Aniloa! After three and a half days of collecting in the field, we’ve amassed a nice collection of corals, invertebrates, and fish to ship back to the Academy—here’s a quick overview.

The sites we’ve visited thus far include Twin Rocks, Devil’s Point, Bethlehem, Mapating Point, Dari Laut, Matu Point, and Anilao Pier, and we currently have 70 specimens on hand. They come from varying genera—Acropora, Fungia, Turbinaria, Tubastrea, Sinularia, and Sarcophyton—and they’re being kept in a temporary field aquarium set up at the Anilao Beach Club. (Rich Ross will be blogging about that setup later, so I won’t go into it here.)

We were also able to acquire three snake anemones while on a night dive at Anilao Pier, and we’ll continue our quest for the elusive Bobbitt worm tonight during another night dive at the same location. Oh, and one more highlight: On this afternoon’s dive at Matu Point, Rich was able to collect a pair of ghost pipefish, which were way up there on our list of acquisitions for this expedition.

With a couple more days of diving and collecting ahead, Aquarium Team One should be on track to collect most, if not all, of what we have set out for on this trip.

—Seth Wolters, Assistant Curator for Steinhart Aquarium


Filed under: Aquarium — editor @ 10:26 am

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

Touchdown in the Tropics

Late last year, Terry Gosliner (our Senior Curator of Invertebrates) mentioned that since I’d recently become scuba-certified, I should join the upcoming Philippine Expedition. I jumped at the chance—as Director of Exhibits, I knew that being part of the expedition would help better inform the way my department talks to Academy visitors about research and fieldwork. I started the process of becoming a Scientific Diver in Training right away, and months later (plus close to 15 hours of flying), I’m finally about to put those new skills to work.

We landed in Manila at 4 a.m., losing a day somewhere between here and San Francisco. We collected our luggage and crates full of gear (24 pieces between six people), then headed out for the three-hour drive to expedition HQ. The roads were bustling in Manila, even at 5:00 a.m.; cars, buses, taxis, jitneys, scooters, and pedestrians were everywhere. When we finally hit the highways, the sights changed to beautiful, tropical landscape mixed with areas of intense development, both high-end and obviously struggling.

Determined to stay awake the rest of the day, we set up some of our equipment and went for a short “checkout” dive. Those of us who were new to the team focused on safety checks, while veteran divers tested equipment and procedures. By dinnertime, the whole crew was falling asleep at the table, waking up just long enough to go to bed at 8 p.m. As grateful as I am to sleep, though, I’m looking forward to getting started tomorrow!

—Scott Moran, Director of Exhibits


Filed under: Exhibits — editor @ 11:47 am

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