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The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

May 2, 2011

First week of the Expedition

After a nice long redeye across the Pacific Ocean we touched down just after sunrise on Luzon, the largest of the more than 7,000 islands that make up the Republic of the Philippines.

Arriving in Manila

Arriving in Manila

Our team of seven researchers spent two full days in Manila dealing with logistics, picking up last minute supplies for our work at the field site in Mabini/Anilao, and interacting with local officials and scientists.  Walking and driving around this modern bustling city it was easy to comprehend that more than 11 million people live within Metro Manila.  With so many autos on the roads (and the associated traffic gridlock) the government has instituted a coding system in which cars with certain license tag numbers may not drive on particular days of the week.

Jeepneys, brightly painted military-style jeeps commonly used as mass transit (a tradition held over from the post-war period) and the tricycle taxis made for a very colorful excursion through the city to our destinations.

Jeepney on the streets of Manila

Jeepney on the streets of Manila

We “divided to conquer” with half of us heading off to meet with government officials to confirm permits and the other half setting off to organize the 46 large boxes of field supplies that we’d shipped to the Philippines National Museum from San Francisco (which somehow now seems like a galaxy far far away).

Philippines National Museum

Philippines National Museum

Loads of supplies!

Loads of supplies!

Visiting museums is always fascinating…but it’s even more interesting for museum workers to learn how other collections are curated. We met with the Curators of Crustaceans, Sponges, Fish, and best of all…Polychaetes (marine bristleworms have their own department here).  We also had the opportunity to meet with the new Director of the National Museum, who expressed his full support for this expedition and future collaborations between our institutions.  We do hope to be back!

meeting with curators and Director

Meeting with Curators and Director

Once everything was squared away in Manila it was finally time to head out to the field.  We piled ourselves and our equipment into three tightly-packed vehicles and headed south through lush farmland and lovely countryside towards Mabini.

Our first view of the ocean was exhilarating…now THIS was what we had come to explore!  We arrived at the field site and got settled in right away, everyone working to load our supplies down the steeply sloping property using a series of stairways.  One of our outrigger dive boats was on-hand at the shoreline when we arrived to complete the idyllic view from the field site.

one of our dive boats

One of our dive boats

It didn’t take us very long to get underwater….just a quick lunch and a dive briefing and soon-after we plunged into the waters just offshore to test out our brand new Oceanic gear.  I was amazed by how diverse the reef appeared right off the resort area!

We were even more amazed over the next few days as we explored several dive sites in the region.  Beautifully colored walls of corals, feather stars, huge vase sponges, pipefish, sea snakes, lionfish seemingly under every ledge, huge mantis shrimp scuttling furiously to reach their burrows, and vibrant nudibranchs just about everywhere you look (at least more than I’ve seen before on one dive).  And so many species still to be described!

Anemone fish

Anemone fish

Night diving is an entirely unique experience since different animals are active at night than during the day.  We spent some time “muck diving” the other night in an area near a sulfur springs with a mixture of sand, gravel, and mud.  As you might imagine, muck diving can be quite fruitful for someone who studies worms.  Sure enough, two fireworm species resulted from this dive.

Most species of fireworm remain hidden under coral rubble or rock during the day but can be found crawling across the sand at night in search of food. While many fireworms are “slow” carnivores that feed on sedentary animals such as corals, anemones, and sponges…the fireworms we’ve encountered so far are in the genus Chloeia and are actually thought to feed on carrion.

the fireworm Chloeia fusca

The fireworm Chloeia fusca

Fireworms can present a bit of a challenge to work with, as their bodies are equipped with long, very brittle bristles that lodge themselves in your fingers if you touch them and will remain embedded there for days producing severe  irritation.  Studies suggest that the bristles of at least some fireworm species may be filled with a mild neurotoxin that enhances this irritation.

We get around this by not handling them, obviously.  Forceps or a nearby rock are always handy!

We found a second species in the genus Chloeia during the same night dive.

another fireworm Chloeia flava

Another fireworm species Chloeia parva

Stay tuned for more images and news from the field over the coming weeks.  We’ve just gotten started!

Filed under: Piotrowski,Shallow Water — cpiotrowski @ 4:51 am

April 30, 2011

Collaboration in the Philippines

With a solid couple of days of discovery behind us, patterns already begin to emerge.  It is always that way when a group of like-minded people get together on a mission, especially one for which a major purpose is to gather expertise in an intense environment of exploration.  So when I say “like-minded”, I mean this in only the general sense of wanting to explore and disseminate information about biodiversity.  From here on in, the joys and value-added are all in the synergy of squeezing together people with less like-minded backgrounds and different expertise.  Collaboration.  Different search images, different approaches.  The result is always greater than the sum of the parts, and the 2011 Philippines Biodiversity Expedition has this firmly in mind as part of its design.

The natural world is like this too.  Organisms with very different evolutionary backgrounds come together to encourage systems and interactions in ways we have still to try and figure out.  One thing is very clear.  In the sea, everything lives on everything else.  Or nearly so.  Some organisms use others as substrates to which to attach.  Others find protection among stinging bits of the host.  And so on.

A seemingly minor observation about a strange and not very well studied little sea biscuit (a flattened sea urchin closely related to the sand dollars, family Clypeasteridae) serves to illustrate not just inter-organismal collaboration, but that among scientists with very different interests in being here in Mabini.

I have had a long-time interest in sea urchins, sand dollars, and relatives such as the sea biscuits, and my earliest work was to study how these animals feed, and upon what.  Turns out that things like sea biscuits really like to eat sand and the things living in it.  So while I was here finding specimens of one species, Clypeaster reticulatus, I couldn’t help but notice that in the hollow space around the mouth on the underside of this little sea biscuit, there were dozens of odd little stars packed in like tiny little medieval mace heads:


This photo, taken today, shows a Clypeaster reticulatus flipped over onto the sand (by me) in order to show the tiny little stars in a depression around the mouth, which is obscured by the stars.  I had never seen anything quite like this before, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was food of some kind (not baby urchins), being stored for consumption by the Clypeaster.  Michele Weber (UCLA), who is a visiting expert on single-celled algae that live symbiotically in corals and other organisms (yet another example of synergies set up by collaboration), immediately recognized these as calcarinid foraminifera.

Whoa.  What are those?  Well, it turns out that sand, especially coarse sand, is full of life.  One of the forms of this life is a group of tiny, often microscopic amoeba-like forms called foraminifera.  They are single-celled, and live in minute houses made of limestone that they secrete around themselves, much like a snail makes a shell.  In the case of these little calcarinids, the house has big spikes on it, making it look like a little star.

The “nature nugget” thing here is that calcarinids of this type are also symbiotic with tiny, single-celled plants called diatoms, which are usually the natural food of sand dollars and sea biscuits.  Diatoms, being plants, make their food by photosynthesis, and therefore need access to sunlight.  So the calcarinids themselves need to be close to the surface of sand, which puts them within detection range of the little sea biscuits that like to eat them.  The sea biscuits carefully and deliberately select them from the rest of the less-interesting and presumably less nutritious sand grains, and pile them up in the unusual depression around the mouth.  In Clypeaster reticulatus, this depression is unique among the 40 species of the genus in having almost no spines, making more room for the much spinier calcarinid foraminifera.

The calcarinid-diatom collaboration makes a whole new set of relationships possible.  The collaboration among scientists such as Michele and myself on the Expedition makes it more possible to understand some of these relationships right here, on the ground.


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Shallow Water — rmooi @ 9:48 am

First days of research diving in Mabini, Philippines

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition dive team has completed a very successful first few days of research SCUBA diving in the Mabini area of the Philippines. The team traveled with 4 trucks and vans from Manila, through Batangas, Anilao, and finally to Mabini.

Shortly after settling into accommodations, an orientation and dive safety briefing was held.  This included location and review of our automated external defibrillator (AED), 1st Aid, and oxygen units (brought on each dive boat), review of the dive plan, and equipment configuration overview for the Academy research divers who are using new backplate/wing buoyancy compensators and regulators and more thanks to Hollis/Oceanic.

Equipment Configuration Briefing

Equipment Configuration Briefing...

Air sharing demonstration with a 7' long hose

Air sharing demonstration with a 7' long hose...

Equipment assembly

Equipment assembly...

After the orientation, we did shore entry check out dives, getting comfortable with equipment, proper weighting, practicing a few skills, and then some collecting.  The conditions were are superb with 75-100′ of visibility in flat calm 80 degree water – perfect for a first dive!

Getting in the water

Shore entry for the first dive...

Nitrox and Carbon Monoxide Analyzers

Nitrox and Carbon Monoxide Analyzers...

Since we’re planning multiple days of repetitive diving, we decided it would be best to dive on Enriched Air Nitrox to extend our bottom time and also reduce our nitrogen exposure.  Enriched Air Nitrox is a mixed gas composed of higher levels of oxygen than air (which is composed of 21% O2, 78% Nitrogen, and 1% trace gases).  Specifically we’re diving on Nitrox 32% which is the most common and versatile mix for our use.

The last two days were packed with scientific diving involving quite a bit of collecting along with photo and video documentation. All of the collecting requires a great amount of processing lasting late into the night.

Research team processing collections...

Research team processing collections...

More to come, time to get ready for another night dive!

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Diving,Jessup,Philippines,Shallow Water — ejessup @ 3:26 am

April 28, 2011

Getting a taste for marine discovery

At last, the vans are loaded with box after box of equipment, dozens of pieces of luggage, leaving just enough room for the dozen of us. As I write, we are on the highway south to Batangas at a slightly more snail-like pace than most of us would like, as eager as we are to get into the water for the first time.


Bob questions the driver about his light foot on the throttle

The highway from Manila to Batangas has been greatly improved in recent years, but we seem not to be taking full advantage of that. However, given the tonage of stuff in the trucks, maybe this nudibranch-like speed is more appropriate than the usual way I drive on 280, the autobahn of San Mateo.

We have been joined by two students from the Marine Science Institute (MSI) at the University of the Philippines. Much to my personal delight, both of them have a passion for sea urchins, and I expect lots of happy conversations with them during our hunt for the wily echinoids that form the focus of my work here.

I am certainly not the first to make the observation that in order to keep on learning, you need to have students. Already, I am learning from Inggat and Bryan. They work with a species of sea urchin harvested (and in some places, cultured) here in the Philippines for food. Aficionados of sushi will recognize this as uni, and it is best explained as the roe of sea urchins. It is, judging by the nose-upturning of some, an acquired taste. But I love it.

The local Philippine species, Tripneustes gratilla, produces uni of high quality, sweet with only a hint of the marine to it, and a slightly nutty finish. One of my aims here is to taste-test as many species of urchin as I can to make a sort of admittedly subjective assessment of tropical urchin flavors. I kind of pride myself in thinking that I have eaten roe of more species of urchins than just about anyone else (hey, everyone needs to be proud of something).


Tripneustes gratilla, interesting to look at, and fun to eat


Diadema savignyi, with spines that demand respect

So I laid out this plan to my newfound MSI student colleagues, saying that I was particularly interested in trying Diadema, the long-spined black urchin that is so often the bane of unwary divers who very quickly get the point of that protective spine cover. I figured that I might be among the first to try eating this formidable living pincushion. As usual for me, I’m behind in the game. Bryan tells me that Diadema is even better than Tripneustes.

I can hardly wait.


Filed under: Mooi,Philippines,Shallow Water,Uncategorized — rmooi @ 8:08 am

April 27, 2011

Getting ready

Getting organized for an expedition takes literally a year of planning. Even when you arrive there are days of checking in with collaborators, securing the final permits that allow you to do research. Part of our team spent most of the day meeting with government officials, arranging final details with our collaborators at the University of the Philippines and securing the final permits necessary. Meanwhile, the rest of the team was at the Philippine National Museum unpacking the supplies we shipped in advance with great facilitation from the U.S. Embassy. The team also met with our other collaborators and with the Director of the Museum. Elliott mentioned that we needed to find a place where we could fill our emergency oxygen tanks for scuba diving. After asking several local divers who have been on trips with us previously, we located a source. Most business is transacted via text message so we texted Nathan who was incredibly helpful and we were trying to arrange how to drop off the oxygen tanks to get filled. We got the following text from Nathan: “Hi, Terry. You can just leave the tanks at our place any time. Just look for Rasty. He sleeps in the warehouse. I will look at the tanks when I get in around 10″. We were hoping to meet Rasty but found another source right where we are going to be diving. Life here is always filled with people bending over backwards to try to help and come up with creative solutions to solving problems. Rich and Terry

Filed under: Gosliner,Mooi,Philippines,Planning,Shallow Water,Uncategorized — rmooi @ 3:24 pm
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