Conch Eyes are Hilarious

I can’t stop looking at them. They are so bizarre. 

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I keep staring at their googlyness. 

What are they thinking about behind those googly, googly eyes?

A bit of natural history: The Queen Conch (Strombus gigas) is a really big mollusk that eats mostly plants (turtle grass, algae of various kinds) and occasionally some poor sessile animal that can’t get out of the way of the conch’s ever-questing mouthparts. They’re harvested commercially for food and for their incredible shells, over a foot in length at maturity. And their eyes are SUPER GOOGLY.

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Doing Science- Marine Biology is Hard

In part because of this little guy: 

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It’s a turtle grass anemone, growing on (you guessed it) turtle grass, in the big lagoon where we were surveying conch and algae populations. Any attempt to walk through the turtle grass with any exposed leg skin resulted in many unknown (and very painful) sting marks and even blisters… the less painful stings were usually from hydroids also growing as epiphytes on the seaweed. Meanwhile, if we weren’t walking through the grass towing all our gear, we were swimming, clearing masks, clearing ears, diving for conches, taking notes, swallowing water, losing fins, and floundering away from alarmingly large tarpons and barracudas. 

People did not evolve in the oceans. It’s a foreign environment for so many reasons, but a compelling and attractive one for many of the same; so much is left to be explored, and so much is left that is still new to individuals and to humanity in general. There aren’t any answers for so many of the questions I have about underwater systems yet. And there’s so much neat stuff to see!

During our marathon 5-hour lagoon research session (don’t worry, we drank lots of non-salty water afterwards to make up for any losses sustained in the morning), we ran into a number of exciting creatures, among them the aforementioned tarpon and barracuda. Similar-sized fishes (aka HUGE), the tarpon and barracuda are both solitary predators that were cruising the lagoon presumably in search of some mid-sized fishes to chomp on. While startling, these guys didn’t present as much of a threat to us as the spiny sea urchins and stinging anemones in the grass.

Almost as surprising as the appearance of a six-foot-long fish in a five-foot-deep lagoon was the banded coral shrimp, a cleaner of larger fishes (like Jaques from Finding Nemo, anyone?). It had set up its cleaning station on a small bit of rock surrounded by sand and turtle grass, and was working on a two-year-old Nassau grouper when we swam by and scared off its client. They’re so cute! This one came out to play with me:

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Worth it? I think so. I’m exhausted, many in our group are sunburnt or dehydrated or both, and we’ve all felt the stings of the anemones and hydroids along with the more mental sting of knowing that we’re ill-suited for our study environment especially in comparison to the sleek predators sharing space with us… but the adventure, as always, continues.

Diving Day

I got the go-ahead to bring my camera on our dives today! Apparently I have proven my buoyancy  control and lack-of-flailing underwater to a sufficient degree to be granted the opportunity of further distractions. Huzzah! 

It’s not actually that bad. In fact, I think it means I have even more incentive not to use my hands to steer and swim underwater. I also think it’s easier to take photos of things underwater rather than while snorkeling, because there’s so much less wave surge and I’m so much less buoyant. Anyways, it was awesome giving my camera housing a deep-water test drive- no leaks, lots of fun photos!

Turns out some of the most entertaining fishes down there are my fellow divers, who have no end of patience for posing underwater (if only I could get them to do so on land…)

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Some actual fishes also posed, or at least came flying at my camera to investigate its shininess. This one’s a parrotfish- an algae and coral-eater that contributes lots to breaking down marine calcium carbonate structures (like coral heads and algal skeletons) into the lovely white sand we’ve been so lucky to hang out on. You can see it releasing some of this sand in the form of lovely white poops that we have hopefully not been experiencing too directly on the beaches.

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Here’s a brittle star and an awesome sponge (both animals, actually- sponges are very simple-bodied but have complex methods of channelling water through their bodies in order to more effectively filter-feed, and brittle stars are closely related to starfish). 

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It was a pretty awesome day of diving. Everyone comported themselves well, and the sights on the reef were spectacular as always. Can’t wait to spend another nine hours in the water tomorrow! 24/7, salty all over, just the way I like to be. 

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Squidnappers and Octopossies: the Wild Wild Wet

Okay, that title might have been a bit too much, but science puns are fun! Science! Yay?

Anyways, the point is that I went on a night snorkel last night and it was AWESOME. Little tiny blinky lights in the seagrass, the moon full and high above the water, the reef dark and looming ahead of us… We (three of us, me, Molly, and Ellen) swam out into the darkness with our little dive torches, ready to explore the now-familiar reef in front of the LCRC in a completely unfamiliar light (or lack thereof, as it were).

It’s a different place after dark. Coral polyps compete with anemones (invisible or hidden during the day) for the title of “wiggliest sessile animal in these parts here’bouts” and giant spiny lobsters assure one another that the reef is certainly not big enough for all of them. Meanwhile, Billy the Squid is sneaking up from behind with glowing spots and tentacles drawn:

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As the parrotfishes all slept in their warm mucus blankies, the predators were on the prowl, thieving and snatching and generally causing very quiet but very effective mayhem on anything unlucky enough to get caught out after the curfew set by the sun. This octopus is bank robber #1 out on this reef, reaching tentacles into reef hidey-holes and swapping disguises to blend in with the background and escape notice from the good townsfolk of the reef.

IMG_9406The water is dark and the visibility is limited- but the rewards are great for those who dare to venture forth to the frontier of night. Invertebrates galore, bioluminescence, and all kinds of stealthy hunters and skittish prey… never a dull time out in the wild, wild wet.

 

 

I’m a Pebble, I Swear

Remember that scorpionfish from a few days ago? Well, it’s certainly not the only thing hiding in plain sight in the rocks and corals and sea grasses around here.

I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of flounders before… but I gotta tell you, they’re harder to find in real life unless you scare one up out of the sand. Can’t you just see him willing you not to notice that he isn’t a patch of sand? Willing himself actually to become the sand? So zen’d out into his environment… “Become the sand. Feel your graininess and be one with the sand…”

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Here’s another sneaky little guy- a box crab. I love these for so many reasons. Crabs, first of all, are generally awesome. Their eyeballs are super cool, their legs are fun and tickly, and they have a general attitude that appeals to me on cranky days. Box crabs are special because they fold up into perfect little packages, claws and legs and all, and will themselves into pebble-dom, which of course appeals to me as a Rockapella (my a capella group at Dartmouth calls its freshmen “Pebbles” because they’re baby Rocks, get it?) and as a lover and collector of smooth stones and general cute things. 

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Imagine the amount of evolutionary pressure these cryptic little guys must be under (from batfish, stingrays, sharks, and all kinds of other predators) to evolve to look exactly like the stone and sand on which they live. It’s incredible, and incredible fun to solve the eyeball-puzzles they present out in the water! 

P.S. Hi Rockapellas!

I Like Invertebrates

Don’t get me wrong; I like fish too. But there’s something about the inverts of the sea that fascinate me. 

Take squids, for example. Cephalopods, they are over-developed mollusks (yeah, like snails and slugs and clams, only awesome-er) and are usually predatory. They swim “backwards,” using jet propulsion to push themselves through the water, tentacles trailing behind them. And their eyes are awesome. 

ImageThat’s not to discount the worms, though- these guys, segmented worms or annelids known as “fireworms” due to their stingy white side bristles, resemble strips of bacon when they swim or crawl across the sand and coral. 

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Inverts are so interesting- so many different forms and colors and weirdo ways of living. Expect more mollusks and crustaceans in the coming days! 

We’ve got another dive (actually, two) tomorrow, but the camera won’t go with me yet. Still making sure I’ve fully got my bearings and my buoyancy underwater before I add more distractions. But maybe tomorrow I’ll post some pictures from my night snorkel, to commence directly after this blog ends… LIKE NOW.

 

Slow and Steady Finally Shows Up

Remember all that running around on dark beaches that we did back in Santa Rosa at Playa Naranjo, looking desperately for nesting or hatching turtles? Well, I do. A total of four sleepless hours without moon, just red flashlights searching the jaguar-infested sand for little baby turtles… we saw lots of interesting crabs, but not much else.

But today, the turtles finally found us. Or at least this one did:

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He came swimming in over the reef, straight toward Seth, who was very pleased with his find, and Jill, who could not contain the awesomeness:

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Not sure why he was in so close to shore, but I’m glad he came by for a visit. I’ve loved sea turtles since I was little, on the beach in Hawaii.

This one was a new species for me: a hawksbill turtle, Eretmochelys imbricate. These turtles aren’t herbivorous like the Chelonia mydas (green sea turtles) that I know from Hawaii, but prefer to eat reef sponges. Since the coral’s taken such a hit from disease and acidification of the oceans, sponges have proliferated along this reef- might that be beneficial for the CITES-listed, once-hunted, critically endangered Hawksbill?

All in all, a very beautiful and successful day at the beach- we had our first dive (camera-less, sorry, didn’t want to have to think about that plus all the gear on my first dive in two years) and everyone checked out with skills, and we made plans for a night snorkel tomorrow after dinner! We’ll be figuring out research projects to start on tomorrow as well- post any reef questions or comments that we might be able to investigate in the comments!

Life is pretty sweet. The adventure continues.

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