Woods Hole Field Trip

A few months ago, (sorry, I got busy!) my Marine Biology class went on a field trip from Dartmouth to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, along with the surrounding marine labs, aquarium, and ocean! We left school at 6 am and got to the docks around 11, at which point we promptly jumped aboard what looked like the fishing boat out of every kid’s picture book. Decked out with chains and fishing lines and nets and otter trawls and those quaint-looking and questionably effective life preservers, the Gemma was in fact one of the boats that picks up experimental organisms for the researchers at Woods Hole. IMG_0294 We set out on the Gemma with our “tour guide” (the marine resources provider, aka creature-catcher for the Woods Hole institutions), his son, a BIG friendly german shepherd, and a somewhat less-talkative captain and first mate. It was a beautiful day- chilly, with winter not yet out the door but summer not far away. The water was still cold but the first of the spring fishes had been spotted at the southern end of Cape Cod, and our plankton trawl turned up all manner of life, plant and animal and the things that blur the lines in between, all gearing up for the productive days ahead. IMG_0305 This was the real treasure trove of the day, however: this miniature bottom trawl, a baby of the type much-despised by conservationists and clams, dragged along behind the boat for a few minutes (doing apparently little long-term damage to the often-disturbed sandy bottom) and when winched up, spilled a glittering, gleaming, hopping mass of undersea jewels. IMG_0324 Clams and clam shells, alive and dead, poured out of the net along with purple urchins, snails, smooth rocks, scallops, algae, and hundreds of knuckle-length pointy-faced shrimp. Some of the rarer organisms were pulled out for more careful stowage (meant for later scientific research) or more careful observation- a slightly battered pipefish, a few massive whelks, some compact and irritated hermit crabs, and a massive long-limbed crab that perched on our youngest crewmember as he searched the pile of treasures. IMG_0309   After a good morning’s trawling, we went indoors to check out the labs and holding tanks for all the scientific organisms. My favorite parts were the squid tank (squids are very hard to photograph…), the baby skates, and this GIANT HORSESHOE CRAB. It had never occurred to me that they could grow to be this size, or anything even close. IMG_0387 IMG_0403 IMG_0379

Fun class, great field trip! Everyone at least once should get tickles from a giant horseshoe crab.

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Puddles and Lil’ Booger

Puddles is what we have decided to name our new friend. He’s not as dear to me as Nacho (see one of my posts from Monteverde for the story of Nacho the Science Dog) and he was not as lingering a companion, but Puddles is very beautiful nonetheless.

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See why we call him Puddles? Tyler found him under a giant lump of dead coral, and we coaxed him into one of our sampling buckets to get a better look at him. He was obviously unhappy, so we didn’t hold on to him for too long- just long enough to watch him change from bright turquoise to green and red and back again.

Puddles might have been the reason we didn’t find any mantis shrimp in that section of the beach, though- octopuses are listed as major predators of the formidable mantis shrimp. Seems like “squishy” would not be the best strategy for tackling the smashers and spearers of the stomatopod world, but cephalopods are supposed to be very smart, so maybe there are some secret plans and clever tricks involved…

I still doubted, however, that this little lady could take on our mantis shrimp:

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BABY OCTOPUS

 

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She was just so weensy, and so floppy that it wasn’t, in fact, difficult to imagine that Tyler had just sneezed her right out. Hence her nickname, Booger.

When they’re that young, it’s hard to ID them to species, but she (it, he, I don’t really know…) is likely the same type of Caribbean Reef Octopus as Puddles. Which is good, because that species is not known to be venomous, and this little Booger bit Tyler quite hard with her teeny little beak. 

Booger actually managed to escape captivity all by herself, but not before I got this shot of her post-battle pose:

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If I were a witch (I totally am not, please do not be suspicious in any way because IT’S NOT TRUE I SWEAR) my familiar would definitely be an octopus. The inconvenience of carrying around a bucket of seawater would be far outweighed by the awesomeness of their square pupils, the wiggliness and versatility of their soft bodies and extendo-sucker-arms, and the constant reminder of the Beatles’ song “Octopus’ Garden,” which I have loved since I was small. Plus according to Zak, one of our TAs, they’re GREAT conversationalists.

 

Turning Over Rocks

You know how sometimes you really need to go looking for the good stuff? Like, the best and cutest hostel on Cape Cod, or the tastiest hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, or the awesome snarky humor that your quiet friend can express just with eyebrows and three-word sentences: none of this stuff is flying banners or running newspaper ads or leaping out of the water to attract your gaze (dolphins are SUCH attention-seekers…). But you have to take the time to peek into the little jewel-boxes of the world, and you have to pay close attention to the AWESOME STUFF that lives in and under the algae-encrusted rocks right at the waves’ edge.

Seriously, there is a ton of stuff down there! At first glance it looks like just a pile of moldy rocks- cast-off and dead coral chunks, bits of limestone, and old cracked conch shells- but under all the rocks there’s a zoo and a half of biota. Everything from sneaky hidden anemones to sea urchins, flatworms to crabs and suckerfish and sea stars… 

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I was a big fan of this little guy- we found him on the underside of a big slab of limestone. I think he’s a Stippled Clingfish- an algae grazer. 

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This one wasn’t technically under a rock, but more washing over them in the edges of the waves. I honestly have no idea what it is, beyond the vague inkling that it’s a cnidarian (jellyfish) of some kind. It didn’t seem to sting me, but its tentacles were very delicate.

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This last pretty lady was inside of a conch shell- when I picked it up, all these legs came wriggling out into my hand.

Don’t miss the little stuff! Go and pick up some rocks, and look behind those doors you’ve always wondered about. There could be some pretty schweet stuff in there. 

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.

 

 

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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