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Showing posts from 2022

Mystery in the mesophotic

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Our goal for this project was to document three shipwrecks and associated hard-bottom sites - that was the bar for success. By the end of the day on the Hamlet , we had reached that bar, and we still had an extra day at sea. We transited a few miles back toward land and set about investigating a new shipwreck.  Sonar image of the unknown wreck  The mystery wreck looked like a fishing vessel from the sonar. There were doubts that it would be historically significant, but it still represents an important component of the Gulf coast's Blue Economy: fishing. As the ROV descended, we could see the shipwreck's bow come into view on the sonar. The metal V-shape was clear, even through the murky water. As we approached, the organisms living on the wreck came into view. There it was: Tubastraea coccinea , the orange cup coral. Tubastraea coccinea is not native to the Gulf of Mexico. It comes from the Indo-Pacific and has spread across much of the Gulf and Caribbean since its arrival. I

The Hamlet

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Our dives today were focused on a shipwreck named Hamlet . The Norwegian oil tanker MV Hamlet was transporting a load of crude oil from Beaumont, Texas to Liverpool, UK in 1942 when it was struck by a torpedo from the German U-boat U-753 in the Gulf of Mexico. Along with the CP Baker , it's one of the historically-significant wrecks we're investigating - and another one associated with the oil and gas industry. This photo is from a reconnaissance last year, when the visibility was much better. Check out the corals on that gun! The dive on the Hamlet did not go perfectly, I have to admit. For a start, the visibility was horrible . We had actually encountered the "murk layer," as Evan calls it, during our dive on the hard-bottom site earlier that morning. It was impossible to see anything unless it was directly in front of the vehicle. Just brown, turbid soup.  We found the shipwreck thanks to the magic of sonar and approached it from the stern. Of course, we didn'

CP Baker

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Yesterday was an amazing day. We had a little touchy conditions in the morning - swift current, some waves - so we delayed launching the ROV until right after lunch. Once we got in the water, though, oh man, did we find cool stuff.  My sea fan (or black coral?) specimen We started on the hard-bottom site. It was a little knoll in the middle of the mud. We started at the bottom of it and worked our way up the slope, past rocks with crustose coralline algae, encrusting sponges, and sea fans. I'm not actually sure about that last identification - I've been calling it a sea fan, but it might be a black coral. One thing is for sure: it is everywhere. The ROV doesn't have a manipulator arm to collect specimens, so I was starting to disparage my ability to identify the species. As it turns out, no manipulator arm was necessary! The ROV's thruster got some strands stuck in it, so I was able to save the specimen for identification later. I'm excited to do the full analysis b

Wreck and boulder patch

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We have done it! We had a successful dive yesterday and were able to collect data from both a shipwreck and its nearest natural hard-bottom habitat.  Sonar image of the shipwreck and the hard-bottom site. I was the scientist in charge for the hard-bottom site. I sat beside the ROV pilot in the shipping container that serves as their control van on the deck. Radio in hand, I communicated with the navigator up in the lab, the captain on the bridge, and the pilot beside me. We surveyed the site by flying over it with the ROV and collecting video. We really weren't sure from our preliminary sonar data what we were going to find at the hard-bottom site. It just looked rough - it could have been mussels, rocks, or just clumps of mud. It turned out to be basalt boulders that had probably ended up on the seafloor through a geological uplift.  There wasn't a ton of stuff living on the boulders, but then again, we were pretty deep - about 80 m. I noted crustose coralline algae, some oran

Shakedown

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Preparing to deploy the ROV on Sea Scout. The vehicle itself is in the cage, and they're  both lowered over the side with the winch.  In ocean science, we frequently refer to a "shakedown." It means the first attempt at something, when you identify all the problems and get your procedure set. Well, yesterday was our shakedown on the Sea Scout .  The day started with the ROV team and videographers working together to integrate their systems. As I mentioned, the ROV we're using isn't typically used for research, so we added an extra camera for data collection at higher resolution. Whenever you try to integrate systems, there will inevitably be a thousand tiny things that go wrong and have to be addressed, and that was definitely the case yesterday. It took a long time.  My major goal for the day was to get the ROV wet - just put it in the water, I didn't care how deep. We were eventually able to dive in the evening, although that was a shakedown of its own. The

Dragonflies

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My favorite thing about the South is the bugs. No, I'm not talking about the mosquitoes that swarm around your head or the flies whose bites hurt as much as they itch. I'm talking about lepidopterans. I'm talking about coleopterans. I'm talking about arachnids. You know - arthropods. There is such incredible biodiversity in the southern United States.  Dozens of dragonflies flitted around the ship. Their long, needle-thin bodies gleamed and glimmered in the sunlight. A brown-and-white-striped spider darted out from under a box and caught a moth to munch on. A beetle climbed the side of the ship as I ascended the ladder. A large grasshopper rested atop the bow spotlight at dusk.  MV Sea Scout in Amelia, LA. Photo by Calvin Mires. Friends, I am in on board the MV Sea Scout  in rural Louisiana. When we arrived, the ship was unassumingly parked alongside a grassy field in a bayou. It was a rather surprising place to find a ship, if I'm honest. Calvin and I boarded, go

Time series

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It's hard to believe I've already been home from Palau for three weeks. The first week was lost to sleep - ask my husband, I was a lump. The second week was mostly paperwork and digging myself out from under the mountain of things that had accumulated while I was away. And now, here we are.  It is definitely summer. Woods Hole is full of tourists, and all the visiting scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory down the street from WHOI are noticeable around town with their signature teal lanyards. WHOI has its own summer crowd too, although they're not quite so numerous or conspicuous. I actually have a summer student of my own this year, named Kimberly. She's a Cell and Molecular Biology major at the City University of New York, and she's been wonderful to work with so far.  Kimberly's project is an investigation of temporal patterns in an Arctic deep-sea community. She's actually continuing a project that I worked on back when I lived in Germany 10 yea

Strawberry milkshake: part 2

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My last night in Palau, Cas insisted we go to Bem Ermii. It's the food truck across the bridge in Airai that serves burgers, fries, and milkshakes. He needed a strawberry milkshake , he said, to make sure we got more spawning. After working in the ocean for the last 12 years and monitoring coral spawning over the last month, I have to admit that I understand why sailors are stereotypically so superstitious. Events seem so random sometimes, you try everything you can to gain control. Strawberry milkshake it was.  Maikani "Selfie Queen" Andres got all four of us and the  sunset in a single image. We ate our dinner on the dock and watched the sunset - that was Maikani's idea. It was beautiful. Not just the sunset, but sitting on a boat trailer with my team, passing around the squeeze bottle of mayonnaise, eating in relative silence, just enjoying each other's company and the natural world around us. I needed that time to zoom out and appreciate the moment.  It feels

Spawn watch 2022: part 2

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Eggs being released from Porites lobata .  Photo by Maikani Andres. I had just gotten into the water when I heard Maikani's faint voice. She was exclaiming about something. Matt heard her better than I did. "They're spawning?" he shouted back to confirm.  I didn't really hear the answer, but the fact that Matt took off running was a good sign. I climbed out of the water, doing my best not to scrape my legs on the sharp oyster shells, and followed them both over to the tank room.  Yep, we got spawning! Two individuals gave us their gametes - one male, one female. From the lineage we needed the most, from the site we needed the most. It was what we had been waiting and wishing for. Cas said we manifested the spawning by putting our desires out into the universe. Maikani insisted the corals spawned because she had played them a Marvin Gaye song earlier in the night. Matt wanted to know which song it was, because apparently a species he's worked on in the Caribbea

Spawn Watch 2022

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One of our coral parents sitting in its tank during the nightly spawn watch. This photo was taken using a blue light and a  yellow filter, so you can see the red and green fluorescence. Friends, it is that time again: the week after the full moon. It is coral spawning time.  This is our second full moon in Palau. Last month, a few individuals of our study species spawned, and we got enough  larvae  for one experiment . We didn't have enough individuals for our full transplant experiment, so this month, we're hoping for more.  We collected all our parent corals from our study sites and set them up in seawater tanks at PICRC. Every evening, we isolate them in small tanks to keep the eggs and sperm separate if they do spawn, then check them every half hour between 7 and 11 pm. We call this part of the day Spawn Watch. It usually involves Cas, Matt, and me sitting in the wet lab for four hours, quietly working on our own computers. One of us gets up at the top and bottom of the hou

Pestzilla

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Phestilla lugubris . Photo by Matthew-James Bennett. We were leaning over the tank together. Matthew illuminated the coral nubbins with a red filter on his phone's flashlight.  "Do you know what this is?" he asked.  My first guess was a polynoid polychaete - a scale worm. If not that, probably a mollusk of some kind, maybe a nudibranch. Whatever it was, it was surprisingly large, and it was definitely eating our corals.  "How do we get it off?" Matthew queried.  I shrugged. "Scrape it off with a scalpel," I offered, digging in the back of my mind to remember if I had packed forceps. "Make sure you get underneath it, because otherwise, it might break."  Matthew wanted to keep the animal alive, so he ended up using a zip tie as a very gentle tool to pry it away from the coral nubbin. Once we had it in a petri dish, we stuck it under the microscope. It had a muscular foot, so it had to be a mollusk. Its shape and number of dorsal tentacles sugg

Fun dives

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The team on the dive boat Every trip to Palau must include at least one day for fun diving - it's basically the law. Our team had one more day off this week before things get busy, so we reserved spots on a dive charter headed out to Palau's barrier reef. It was a great chance for all of us to enjoy being in the water together.  Diving on Palau's barrier reef is actually pretty challenging because the currents are incredibly strong. Most dives are drift dives, which means you drift with the current and then the boat picks you up wherever you end.  Our first dive site had an incredibly strong current. We drifted along a vertical wall covered in corals and then rode the current to the top, where we anchored. That's right - we anchored ourselves into the reef. There are these things called "reef hooks" that are metal hooks attached to long fabric lines that clip to your dive gear. You find a dead coral on the reef (never hook into live coral), place your hook aro

Chasing waterfalls

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"Don't go chasing waterfalls, just stick to the rivers and the lakes like you used to" - "Chasing waterfalls" by TLC We blasted that song in the car. Maikani had it on her phone, and we managed to stream her music through the rental car's speakers. A part of my mind flashed back to the early 90s - suddenly, I was 7 years old again and listening to the radio with my sister. Maikani at Ngatpang Waterfall. Photo by Matt Bennett. We had a day off today - one of the few this trip. I offered the team a few options for fun activities, and the clear winner was chasing waterfalls.  There are a number of waterfalls on Palau's northernmost island, Babeldaob. I found one with Kharis last November , and we had an amazing hike. This time, I wore a swimsuit under my clothing so I could not just hike but swim in the river below the waterfall. Others followed suit.  We actually ended up going to two different waterfalls on the western side of Babeldaob. We hiked down the

Shipwreck day

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"In the early part of the 20 th century, the United States and Japan engaged in a federally-funded, large-scale joint effort to create artificial habitats across much of the tropical Pacific Ocean. This ecological experiment is most commonly referred to as World War II." I once started a proposal with those words. My maritime archaeologist collaborator vetoed it.  Corals on the port side hull of one of our wrecks Here's the thing, though: WWII shipwrecks do constitute a massive ecological experiment.  By the end of 1945, the U.S. and Japan had each sunk thousands of ships and airplanes on the seafloor. They're all primarily composed of metal, vary in size and structure, and were sunk within a few years of each other. Most are located in shallow lagoons or nearshore habitats surrounded by coral reefs. They actually serve as the ideal natural experiment for studying biodiversity on anthropogenic habitats. I love shipwrecks . You know this, friends. So when my research

Airai

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I watched the screen of the GPS eagerly as we drew closer. 100 m, then 50 m. I scanned the coast around me - it looked familiar. 40 m, then 30 m. The bow of the boat bounced in the waves, and I did my best to brace against the motion. 20 m. I asked Matthew to prepare the anchor. 10 m. 9 m. 8 m. We were within the resolution of the GPS for a moving boat, so I gave the order to cut the engines and drop the anchor. We were here.  "Here" is a rather random spot on the eastern side of Palau. It feels just like the middle of nowhere - you're not in the bay or on the barrier reef. The water transitions from calm coastal water to wave-driven offshore water, but you're not really in either water mass. It's just this random spot where the seafloor gets a little shallower. We come here because a previous research team from WHOI sampled here in 2015.  A baby coral at Airai (person's fingers for scale) I wanted to use the site, Airai, for our transplant experiment, but whe

Palauan snack foods

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Tama Every time we go out on the boat, MJ and Maikani, the two team members who live locally, bring with them Palauan snack foods to share. There's a culture in Palau of swinging by a convenience store in the morning to buy the pre-made food that will constitute your lunch for the day. I've even heard MJ ask Maikani "Where did you get your bento today?"  So in the spirit of local cultural flavor (literally!), I'd like to introduce you to a few Palauan snack foods. Matt, Cas, and I having abrabang on the boat Tama are small spheres of fried bread - basically savory donut holes. You eat them in the morning, and they're apparently great to dip in coffee. I've had plain and banana versions. The banana tama was like deep-fried banana bread!  Abrabang are also donut-like, but savory. They're disc-shaped, fried, and filled with a reddish bean paste. The flavor reminded me of raspberry jam, if raspberries were naturally low in sugar. Abrabang are extremely f

In the plankton

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My favorite pictures from plankton samples I've collected in Palau this trip. Enjoy! A nectochaete - grows up to be a segmented worm I think this must be a sponge larva Sponge larva I think this might be a young Muller's larva, but I'm not entirely sure. A mix of snail and clam larvae from one site, Outer Taoch