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The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

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

April 26, 2011

1st Stop Manila

The first group of researchers have arrived in Manila, with most research expeditions comes a need for permits. While Dr. Gosliner was out arranging the necessary paperwork, Dr. Catania, Dr. Van Syoc, Dr. Piotrowski, V. Knutson, and myself ventured into the bustling metropolis of Manila to secure a local cell phone, we made a stop at the local supermarket and found some interesting specimens to add to our collection:
"Sundried Sap-Sap"

Catania and Knutson dig deeper…

Does your local market have a section devoted to dried fish?

Does your local market have a section devoted to dried fish?

And then onto the “wet” section…

Biodiversity Begins

Fresh Catch?

Fresh Catch?

Now time to get our DAN Emergency Oxygen units filled.

Not without getting a sniff from the curious K9

Not without getting a sniff from the K9

Finally a parting shot of the Jeepney we may utilize next as our means of transport to Batangas

Thank you to everyone involved for making this happen, more posts on the diving side to come over the next few days as we get wet!

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Jessup,Philippines — ejessup @ 10:22 pm

April 20, 2011

First Blog Entry for the Hearst Expedition to the Philippines

The first wave of CAS researchers are leaving for the Philippines in only 4 days. Myself and a few others depart on May 7. In preparation for SCUBA diving, I have had to renew my Scientific Diving certification and satisfy CAS diving requirements. This includes a battery of medical tests, X-rays, a physical exam, refresher dives, and the DAN “Diving First Aid for Professional Divers” course  - Thanks to Elliott Jessup for holding the course here at CAS.

I am also assembling supplies for collecting, snorkeling, SCUBA, underwater photography, hiking and processing specimens.

-Simison post #1

Filed under: Academy,Philippines,Simison,Uncategorized — Brian Simison @ 4:34 pm

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