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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Odds And Ends

  • Ever wonder how Humpback Whales mate? Scientists do. But now witnesses have actually seen two of these winged giants in flagranti. And there are photos to prove it. (Thanks, Underwater Times).

  • The highlight, the "Narooma News" explains about this landmark bit of lovin', is not the voyeurism of a second bull spectating but rather the mating couple's preferred position:
    What Jon witnessed is called a “heat run”, where as many as 40 humpback males chase down a female, and vie for the right to mate with her.

    After the female chooses her mate, they usually swim off, and until now, humpbacks mating had never been witnessed, let alone recorded, he said.

    The mating took place in a relatively shallow lagoon where he was able to get less than 10 metres from them, fixated by both the mating pair and a huge male located just underneath them.

    He said that all the researchers who saw his images were surprised how the whales mated side by side and continued swimming, rather than belly-to-belly as traditionally was thought how it happened.
  • Bonny Schumaker blogged about Sea Shepherd and friends discovering encouraging signs of life in the Gulf of Mexico over Labor Day weekend, including 21 Whale Shark sightings in all:
  • We spotted 12 whale sharks on Sunday. Again, they were always near or in the middle of a school of jumping tuna and lots of baitfish. Some of those bait balls had tiger sharks with them; we never did see both tiger and whale sharks together. And of course we also were delighted to find more leatherback turtles and dolphins.
    There was also this little behavioral gem:
    We witnessed five dolphins apparently playing with the sub-adult whale shark -- they seemed to be taking turns chasing each other. The dolphins, if not the young whale shark, appeared to be having quite some fun with it all; the scientists were quite excited about this, as it is yet another feature of whale shark behavior about which we know very little.
  • I haven't tracked down the purported "Whale Shark finning" video itself, but maybe that's just as well. I wonder whether the shark's fin properties that are so highly coveted in parts of Asia are even present in Whale Sharks.

  • A Six-Gill Shark is caught chomping a fish head on video nearly a mile down. Can the six-gill's bite be so innocuous, or is that a titanium fish head?

  • A music video inspired by sea life that's just a joy to watch.

  • Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Offline For A Little While

    I'm offline for a while. Little diving expected, I'm afraid.

    My nonfiction reading list includes: Rachel Carson's "The Sea Around Us," Tony Koslow's "The Silent Deep," Philip Hoare's "The Whale" and Jared Diamond's "Collapse," among others.

    Sunday, August 8, 2010

    Marine Miscellany

  • Alvin lives, we are reminded by Scientist at Work; and the Generation-X research submersible is still doing great work. This time, it's for an expedition to Hydrate Ridge to study carbonate rock, deep-sea ecology, protozoans called foraminifera (whatever that is), and other inscrutibles. Okay, it is showing its age sometimes.

  • Alvin's bio courtesy of Jeffrey Marlow:
    The most important member of the expedition, however, is the 35,000-pound, egg-shaped submersible named Alvin. Alvin has been the workhorse of the deep-ocean scientific community for more than 45 years, allowing us to explore unseen worlds thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean. To sweeten the deal, Alvin comes equipped with robotic arms and an array of sample boxes, so we can collect promising samples and continue our investigations in the relative comfort of a laboratory. Faded photographs and dusty plaques commemorating the sub’s prolific history adorn the walls of Atlantis’s library. Alvin helped recover an unexploded hydrogen bomb in 1966, took Walter Cronkite to hydrothermal vents in 1982 and explored the Titanic in 1986. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, however. In 1967, an ambitious swordfish attacked Alvin’s foam outer layer, got stuck and was eventually cooked for dinner by the crew. A couple of years later, the sub sank during deployment and spent 10 months on the seafloor before it could be resurrected.

  • Aw, shucks. Chinese and U.S. scientists at BGI-Shenzhen claim to have tracked down the oyster genome. And it looks like this could lead to a genetically engineered oyster that comes out of the water on the half-shell.

  • Scat-terbrained scientists (that's a pun, not an insult) are still on the hunt for the elusive feces of the Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus). If you think the feces are tough, by the way, you should try capturing their urine.

  • More evidence that beachside resorts and hotels aren't taking the threat to hatchling sea turtles seriously. (hat tip: DotEarth)

  • Oceanographer John Delaney delivered a recent TED talk in which he stumped for "new eyes" (that's a Proust quote) in the ocean through the National Science Foundation's Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Should man really "be present throughout the ocean at will," as Delaney describes it? My mind's not made up.

  • The Talking Head Said...

    I'm a big David Byrne fan. Big. Like in, everything he's ever done has fascinated, entertained, and usually educated me somehow. (I've lived for nearly two decades in the Czech Republic, and, still, his visit to an eastern Czech city's dilapidated ironworks taught me reams of stuff about the place.)

    So when he casually mentioned on his omnibus blog that on the heels of a trip to Stromboli -- the actively volcanic island near Sicily, not the villainous puppeteer who threatens to make firewood out of "Pinocchio" -- he'd relaxed to the "Planet Earth: Deep Oceans" episode, it put me in the mood to do the same. There is some great footage, particularly the sailfish hunt.

    But in case you've seen the Planet Earth series already, here's another great video:

    Thursday, August 5, 2010

    Hooked Marlin Takes It Out On The Photographers

    A massive marlin showed sportfishermen at a Hawaiian billfish tournament what this apex predator can do.
    What he thought might be a tuna turned out to be a Pacific blue marlin estimated to weigh more than 550 pounds. It leaped and started "careening through the air in every conceivable direction, throwing massive walls of water with every move of its huge tail, and leaving car-size holes in the water when it came crashing down," Schwartz recalled.
    "Schwartz" is fisherman/photographer Jon Schwartz. Fortunately, he and a whole gaggle of photographers were on the scene when the hooked animal took on the press boat:
    Now mind you, I am watching all of this through my 300 mm telephoto lens. I was so focused on getting the shot that I probably lost sense of what was really happening in terms of how the fish was behaving. All I knew was that the fish came at us so quickly that soon I was unable to see it through the camera (see shot #4 in the photo above) and I was starting to miss it because my lens was too long! "It must be close!" I thought! "Where's my wide lens?"
    This is the beast that Ernest Hemingway told you about (that's him in the photo, on a dock in Bimini with four freshly landed marlins in 1935). And these fish can swim at upwards of 100 kilometers (62 miles) an hour.

    Then, as if according to script, the maniacal marlin broke the hook and got away. He probably didn't get the memo that said this was a tag-and-release tournament.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    Fun Viewing: Tagging A Great White (UPDATED)

    Watch in this National Geographic video as a team of "Shark Men" researchers hauls a Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) out of the leady waters off Guadalupe to tag it and release it -- perhaps a bit harried but unharmed.

    Show it to your kids and they'll grow up wanting to be ichthyologists, I bet.

    (UPDATE: In response to the subsequent discovery that the same Great White had sustained serious injury and speculation that the injury was a result of Dr. Michael Domeier's catch-and-tag operation. This post could put some of that criticism to rest, concluding:
    The full video clearly shows that Junior’s injuries are caused by intraspecies conflict and not a direct result of the capture method. The concern that the tagging method seriously injured this shark is not supported by the evidence at hand.

    Dr. Domeier’s team was able to attach a satellite tag to Junior during his original capture. Data from that tag shows that Junior is still swimming.
    The direct cause of the mutilation near the tagged animal's jaw appears to have been another shark, then, not infection or other effect of the hauling-out and tagging.)

    Monday, August 2, 2010

    New Trove From Marine Census

    The Census of Marine Life has issued a fresh batch of information, and there are some spell-binding images of creatures from some of the best biological "hotspots" on the globe. A tooth-tongued dragonfish, an undersea Venus fly-trap (Actinoscyphia sp.) from the Gulf of Mexico, a deep-sea "flashing" jellyfish (Atolla wyvillei) from Japan's Izu Islands, a cuddly roundnose grenadier fish (Coryphaenoides rupestris) and a new species of knobbed sea cucumber (Elpidia belyaevi) are some of the most arresting.

    It's part of the run-up to the scheduled release in October of the final summary of a decade of this gargantuan project.

    The title this time is "What Lives in the Sea?" with the focus on "an inventory of species distribution and diversity in key global ocean areas." I'll quote from the press release in a moment, but first take a look at these photographs, and these, and videos from CoML (and National Geographic).

    Here's CoML on the publication of these latest findings:
    Scientists combined information collected over centuries with data obtained during the decade-long Census to create a roll call of species in 25 biologically representative regions -- from the Antarctic through temperate and tropical seas to the Arctic.

    Their papers help set a baseline for measuring changes that humanity and nature will cause.
    They also crown five locations as ocean diversity leaders:
    Australian and Japanese waters, which each feature almost 33,000 forms of life that have earned the status of “species” (and thus a scientific name such as Carcharodon carcharias, a.k.a. the great white shark), are by far the most biodiverse. The oceans off China, the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico round out the top five areas most diverse in known species.
    The video notes researchers have found that some of those top five areas "are also the most threatened" -- the Mediterranean, waters off China, and the Gulf of Mexico. Alas, you might notice that a good number of the species in the slide show reside in the Gulf of Mexico, currently saturated with BP crude.

    I just got "World Ocean Census" -- one of many CoML-related books on offer -- a glimpse into what has gone into this incredible, collaborative scientific effort. I look forward to reading it and others ahead of the October 4 findings.

    Sixgill Shark Siblings' Secret Society

    Genetic taggers team up with other scientists in Puget Sound and discover that the siblings of at least one shark species appear to maintain "loose associations," according to Discovery News.
    Mother sharks return to Puget Sound to give birth to pups, and then these siblings make a point of sticking together.
    ..."What we're interested in is if we can flip this observation around: Are the relationships we're seeing between brothers and sisters traveling together and staying together as juveniles transferable to other shark species as well?" said Christiansen. "We don't know; we'd like to see some effort going into other shark species to see if that's present."
    And while you're at the Discovery website, click through Michael Reilly's slideshow of the latest bizarre finds from the Census of Marine Life.

    (Photo of Blunt-nose Sixgill Shark [Hexanchus griseus] off Seattle by Dan Hershman)

    Sunday, August 1, 2010

    Golden Lobster

    A lobsterman finds a pot of gold off Rhode Island: gold lobster, that is. Says the "Providence Journal":
    “I thought, holy cow, this is unusual. And no one else around here has ever seen anything like it either,” said (lobster fisherman Denny) Ingram.
    It might be tempting to launch into diatribes against ecological destruction, factory effluent, or radioactive sludge (or, barring any of those, a villainous scientist bent on global destruction via mutant lobsters). The local lobsters are in trouble, after all.

    But, in fact, the Providence paper says it's no big thing. Like winning the lottery.
    Yellow lobsters are rare, but not unheard of. When one was brought ashore in Massachusetts last year, several experts said its coloration came from a gene carried by both parents, and it occurs in about one in 30 million lobsters.

    The same figure was cited when a yellow lobster was brought ashore in Maine in 2006.
    And it might be a good thing this one was caught when it was, according to Anne Dimonti of the Audubon Education Center. Funky-colored lobsters are at an adaptational disadvantage, she says:
    “Being born a blue lobster is not so rare; what’s rare is surviving into adulthood as a blue lobster,” Dimonti said. “When you’re a bright blue baby lobster walking around on the ocean bottom, somebody is going to pick you off very quickly.”

    Lobster shells are colored with blue, yellow and red pigments, so genetic variations are expected.
    AP adds:
    It's also apparently good luck for this lobster, who will not be heading to anyone's dinner table.
    Judging by the size of it, it's got no business heading to anyone's dinner table. Instead, it should be out frollicking with other juvenile lobsters.

    Like these guys.

    photo by Steven G. Johnson of yellow lobster at the New England Aquarium.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010

    Jellyfish Scourge: For Whom The Bells Toll

    In the Sherlock Holmes tale "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left no doubt as to the pernicious nature of the jellyfish (although the clever title would mislead anyone unfamiliar with them).

    Aside from the Lion's Mane Jellyfish (Cyanea capillata), other non-human culprits unmasked by the world's best-known sleuth include a "swamp adder" and, of course, a big dog. But Doyle attributed signally excruciating potency to the giant cnidarian (whose nematocyst-laced tentacles can outstretch a Blue Whale):
    As he fell over, his Burberry, which had been simply thrown round his shoulders, slipped off, exposing his trunk. We stared at it in amazement. His back was covered with dark red lines as though he had been terribly flogged by a thin wire scourge. The instrument with which this punishment had been inflicted was clearly flexible, for the long, angry weals curved round his shoulders and ribs. There was blood dripping down his chin, for he had bitten through his lower lip in the paroxysm of his agony. His drawn and distorted face told how terrible that agony had been.
    That was 1907, with Sir Arthur's bell-topped killer vaguely foreshadowing the kind of panic that Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg's classic "Jaws" would spawn more than a half-century later.

    Don't look now; but the narrative of the ravenous beasts is back. Unpopular anyways outside of Asian salads, the deceptively beautiful medusa is experiencing a return to scurrilousness.

    It's more serious than just that rampaging zombie jellyfish that stung 100 or so New Hampshire bathers in late July. (Even in death, they're locked and loaded, as Kevin Zelnio at Deep-Sea News explains in connection with that incident.)

    So has revisited the question of a jellyfish scourge. In addition to offering an engaging boilerplate description of the animals that alone makes the piece worth reading, Abigail Tucker explores how many ill-tempered jellyfish is too many jellyfish:
    All around the world, jellyfish are behaving badly—reproducing in astonishing numbers and congregating where they’ve supposedly never been seen before. Jellyfish have halted seafloor diamond mining off the coast of Namibia by gumming up sediment-removal systems. Jellies scarf so much food in the Caspian Sea they’re contributing to the commercial extinction of beluga sturgeon—the source of fine caviar. In 2007, mauve stinger jellyfish stung and asphyxiated more than 100,000 farmed salmon off the coast of Ireland as aquaculturists on a boat watched in horror. The jelly swarm reportedly was 35 feet deep and covered ten square miles.

    Nightmarish accounts of “Jellyfish Gone Wild,” as a 2008 National Science Foundation report called the phenomenon, stretch from the fjords of Norway to the resorts of Thailand. By clogging cooling equipment, jellies have shut down nuclear power plants in several countries; they partially disabled the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan four years ago. In 2005, jellies struck the Philippines again, this time incapacitating 127 police officers who had waded chest-deep in seawater during a counterterrorism exercise, apparently oblivious to the more imminent threat. (Dozens were hospitalized.) This past fall, a ten-ton fishing trawler off the coast of Japan capsized and sank while hauling in a netful of 450-pound Nomura’s jellies.
    So there's a lot of anecdotal and circumstantial evidence of mounting jelly hell. But disabling and overturning ships? Not even Spielberg depicted his Great White Antihero crippling an aircraft carrier. (That wouldn't come until "Jaws 2.")

    But before you go get a bigger boat, Mr. Mundus, it's important to read on. Tucker is quick to quote experts who say the jury is still out on this possible pestilence and its likely causes, which predictably include human encroachment on their habitat and devastation of the jellyfish's natural enemies (like swordfish, anchovies, bearded gobies, and some sea turtles).
    Steven Haddock, a zooplankton scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), is concerned that researchers and the news media may be overreacting to a few isolated jelly outbreaks. Not enough is known about historical jelly abundances to distinguish between natural fluctuation and long-term change, he says. Are there really more of the creatures, or are people simply more prone to notice and report them? Are the jellyfish changing, or is our perspective? A self-described “jelly hugger,” Haddock worries that jellyfish are taking the blame for messing up the seas when we’re the ones causing the damage. “I just wish that people had the perception that jellyfish are not the enemy here,” Haddock says.

    Purcell, who sports jellyfish earrings the day I meet her in Monterey, says she is disgusted by what she sees as humanity’s efforts to exploit the ocean, filling it with fish farms and oil wells and fertilizer. Compared with fish, jellies are “better feeders, better growers, more tolerant of all kinds of things,” she told me, adding of the marine environment: “I think it’s entirely possible we’ve made things better for jellyfish.” Part of her likes the idea of unruly jellies causing a commotion and foiling our plans. She’s cheering for them, almost.
    So it's not a direct link, but generally, it looks like the worse damage we inflict on our seas, the more we can expect jellyfish to come back and sting us. A GlobalPost headlined "The New Ocean Predator: Jellyfish?" articulated the problem this way:
    Unlike sharks, orcas and other aggressive carnivores, jellyfish thrive in ecosystems damaged by human activity. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Sea of Japan, oceanographers have found a common symptom among places where overfishing, chemical pollution and rising sea temperatures have killed off other species: more jellyfish.
    Jellyfish are hardy indeed. Their fossil remains date back some 500-700 million years. As polyps, they can "sit dormant for a decade or more, biding (their) time," Tucker tells us. Their sting, at 1 microsecond to hit its target, is one of the fastest animal actions in the world. When turtles or other predators chomp off hunks of jellyfish, the animals simply regenerate. The arctic Lion's Mane "continues to pulsate when half its bell is imprisoned in ice, and may revive even after being solidly frozen for hours," Rachel Carson tells us. And on and on.

    While technically speaking they're sophonophores rather than "true jellies," the Portuguese Man-of-War (Physalia physalis) is a jellyfish in most people's minds. And Carson suggested after one encounter that it demonstrated a "strong illusion of sentience":
    The sail, or float, of a Portuguese man-of-war is filled with gas secreted by the so-called gas gland. The gas is largely nitrogen (85 to 91 per cent) with a small amount of oxygen and a trace of argon. Although some siphonophores can deflate the air sac and sink into deep water if the surface is rough, Physalia apparently cannot. However, it does have some control over the position and degree of expansion of the sac. I once had a graphic demonstration of this when I found a medium-size man-of-war stranded on a South Carolina beach. After keeping it overnight in a bucket of salt water, I attempted to return it to the sea. The tide was ebbing; I waded out into the chilly March water, keeping the Physalia in its bucket out of respect for its stinging abilities, then hurled it as far into the sea as I could. Over and over, the incoming waves caught it and returned it to the shallows. Sometimes with my help, sometimes without, it would manage to take off again, visibly adjusting the shape and position of the sail as it scudded along before the wind, which was blowing out of the south, straight up the beach. Sometimes it could successfully ride over an incoming wave; sometimes it would be caught and hustled and bumped along through thinning waters. But whether in difficulty or enjoying momentary success, there was nothing passive in the attitude of the creature. There was, instead, a strong illusion of sentience. This was no helpless bit of flotsam, but a living creature exerting every means at its disposal to control its fate. When I last saw it, a small blue sail far up the beach, it was pointed out to sea, waiting for the moment it could take off again. (p. 150 "The Edge of the Sea")
    Now, she's not claiming that Portuguese Man-of-Wars would recognize themselves in a mirror or blush at buying their clothes off the rack. However, it's not an inconceivable leap from setting a course in the wind to stinging a bather just to watch him die.

    Maybe Sherlock Holmes was onto something. A jellyfish strikes again in that story, after all. But no one's saying it's the same Lion's Mane, right? Right!?

    Sunday, July 25, 2010

    Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Jawbones

    A new study points to an adaptation that allows rorquals, the pleat-throated whales, to engorge huge amounts of food-filled sea water without snapping off their lower jaws.

    When Blue Whales (Balaenoptera musculus) open their mouths to filter-feed, one keen whale observer and author noted in her recent book, it is "the biggest biomechanical event to happen on the planet." And quote possibly the biggest ever to have happened.

    The subject of the study cited by Live Science was Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), lunge-feed thousands of times a year if they're lucky.

    The research involved a type of X-ray technology called quantitative computed tomography, or QCT. Writes Live Science's Clara Moskowitz:

    The scientists discovered that humpback whale mandibles are shaped in a unique way, different from the mandibles of humans and right whales -- the only other species for which QCT data is available.

    In particular, the scientists measured a feature called flexural rigidity -- a combination of high bone density and large cross-sectional area that allows a bone to resist bending. The researchers found that humpback whales' jaws are formed with a unique pattern of flexural rigidity -- highest at the edges attached to the skull, and lowest at the center -- that is optimized to resist the strain from lunge feeding.

    It's like a high-performance tennis racquet, in a way. With a sweet spot for krill.

    Friday, July 23, 2010

    Don't It Make My Brown Sea Blue?

    BP had already demonstrated that it's spectacularly incompetent and irresponsible. Now "Wired Science" shows its latest foray into cartoon-villain territory.

    Thursday, July 22, 2010

    Video: A Killer Whale's Best Friend

    This blew my mind. It's not new, but it's new to me. Friends? Or was that Killer Whale just thinking this was the loudest, ugliest seal he'd ever hunted? (Hat tip: SharkDivers)

    Video: Shark Eats Seal Off Catalina

    And unfortunately the world's worst videographers just happen to be there to witness it. But it's morbidly compelling viewing, in part because of the languidly methodical movements of the shark. And heartbreaking at the 15 second mark, when the wounded and doomed seal peers up at the onlookers.

    The boat's passengers say it looks like a Mako Shark, and that looks about right. I think both Makos and Great Whites attack hard and then wait for their prey to bleed sufficiently to make them easy pickings. There are other videos from other passengers aboard the same boat here and here. (It was a whole boatload of fisherdudes, after all.)

    Calling them shark "attacks" reminds me of the story, by Jacques Cousteau co-writer Susan Schiefelbein in "The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus," of him asking her whether she'd describe herself as "attacking" an egg on her plate. They're just eating, he noted.

    If you decide to watch, note that another seal darts by at one point, seemingly putting itself in some danger and contrary to the flight instinct that one might expect, even if it's a mate getting devoured. One of the boat passengers wonders aloud, "What's that other seal doing there?"

    CAUTION: Graphic scenes.

    If you're into the grisly, here's how BBC recorded a Great White attack on a seal.

    And if it makes you feel any better, here's one where a Great White Shark is out-apexed atop the food chain:

    Monday, July 19, 2010

    Glorious Deepwater Squid Vid

    Some gorgeous high-definition glimpses of deepwater squid from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. (If you want to see it with the various species of squid identified beneath the video, go straight to the same video on MBARI's website. Here's the Monterey Bay Aquarium page with quick descriptions of each species.)

    You're hardly human if don't emerge with a soft spot in your heart for the Cockatoo Squid.

    Friday, July 16, 2010

    Paul The Octopus: Out Of The Paella Pan And Into The Fire

    Octopus just can't seem to get a break. Even cephalopod successes somehow morph into tragedy.

    First there was the wild success of eight-armed prognosticator Paul correctly picking every World Cup football game he tipped. That feat alone should have ensured that Paul could jet off in a cloud of ink to wild cheers.

    But soccer is the hooligan sport, after all, so it can't be that simple.

    And, sure enough, fans of losing soccer clubs like Argentina and Germany were soon calling for the head on a platter of Oberhausen Aquarium Sea Life Center's most storied resident.

    Now an "axis of edible" has heaped saltwater on the octopus's wounds. RIA Novosti says Paul's "brethren" (presumably octopus or its ancestral kin and fellow cephalopod, squid) was served to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Dmitry Medvedev over talk of World Cup action at dinner this week.

    The choice must have gone over well with Merkel, whose countrymen's appetites were whetted when Paul correctly picked Spain to beat Germany in the semifinals.

    But the Russians had better change the menu when Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero comes calling.

    Paul is understandably treated with greater respect by victorious Spain, where the township of Carballino even tried to rent him to be the guest of honor at their annual party.

    Even that invitation is hardly what it seems, however. Carballino is renowned for its annual Octopus Festival, where Paul's "brethren" are the main course. Polbo a feira, anyone?

    Provided it's done sustainably, I have little beef with other folks' eating habits. And I loves me a piece of freshly grilled octopus.

    But I've given up eating octopus ever since I started encountering them on dives and regularly being dazzled by their intelligence. I just can't bring myself to eat them anymore.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010

    Diving A 'Sinkhole' In A Mayan Lake

    In this National Geographic video, it feels like these divers should be following a white rabbit with a pocketwatch down into this "hole" in a Belize lake.

    It takes some fortitude to launch yourself under the bottom like that.

    Monday, July 12, 2010

    Surprising Life Under Northern Ice

    CNN carries a brief video report on underwater photographer Gavin Newman's astonishment at the abundance, appearance and variety of life in the frigid waters of the Arctic.

    The "CNN report" looks like a fig leaf for Greenpeace activism, but that's OK by me. (It's a product of Greenpeace's "Arctic Under Pressure" expedition.) After all, polar areas like this risk being devastated by the Klondike mentality as ice recedes at a breakneck pace and mankind races to exploit what's left behind. (Remember when "glacial pace" used to mean slow? No more, as ice caps and glaciers vanish before our eyes.)

    The receding polar ice is also tempting fishing trawlers into the Arctic's international waters, Greenpeace says.

    "There are some Norwegian and Russian trawlers out here. We asked to go on board one of the Norwegian trawlers to talk to them about where they were fishing, but they declined our offer," Newman said.

    Greenpeace also claims these fishing trawlers are causing damage to ecosystems on the seabed.

    "We've found trawlers are ripping up huge amounts of coral and other important habitat on the seabed. It's like someone's ploughed a field," Newman said.

    Greenpeace found the trawl marks on the seabed at varying depths of between 200 and 400 meters.

    The environmental group has called for an international moratorium on all industrial activities, including bottom trawling in the Arctic Ocean.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    Ode To The Goody Bag

    I remember when I got my first goody bag, the soft nylon mesh bag that was all the rage back when I was learning to snorkel and then scuba in the late '70s and early '80s.

    I felt like we were unwrapping "Certified Collector" badges when my best friend and fellow underwater enthusiast at the time, Brad K., and I got our hands on ours.

    I also recall the temptation that gripped Brad when "slurp gun" ads hit "Skin Diver" magazine, and how badly he wanted to order one of those bazooka-like plexiglass contraptions that suck in unwitting fish.

    I was less committal on the Slurp Gun, perhaps because it looked so ungainly. But more likely, it was because it was so highly specialized. It did one thing, and one thing only. The instructions must have read: Find fish. Aim. Click. Slurp. Repeat.

    And we could only use so many fish, since we had just one 100-gallon, saltwater aquarium between us (technically speaking, it was Brad's, since his parents had bought it, it was at his house, and he did everything to maintain it). Besides, the greatest prize -- the bright orange damselfish known as the Garibaldi, which was even more arresting as an electric-blue-and-orange juvenile -- was California's state fish and therefore off-limits.

    The goody bag presented no such problem. No task was beneath its dignity. Need to cushion your mask en route to a dive spot? Slip it into the goody bag. Don't feel like tucking a pencil and slate with the dive tables on it into the crotch strap of your wetsuit? (And who would?) The goody bag! Happen across a mother lode of abalone? Start prying, because you've got a goody bag.

    It could hold stuff. And the very best stuff that it could hold -- in a 12-year-old's estimation -- was the stuff you found during your dive. And therein lay the problem, the feature that put the goody bag on a collision course with All That Is Good In The World. It was on the wrong side of history, if you will. Now more than ever.

    To survive at all, goody-bag manufacturers had to adapt. And they did. Now they're specialized. You can get a goody bag that shows how big a crab must be in order to keep it. This one's actually turned utility on its head, serving primarily as a gear bag but "doubling" as a goody bag. Another could safely hold the headless corpse of the Creature from the Black Lagoon in it.

    But the reality is that the goody bag's reputation is in shreds until mankind adopts sustainable ways to harvest the ocean's bounty. If it ever does.

    With so-called factory ships filled to the gills, countless tons of "bycatch" heaved off decks and into death spirals, bottom trawlers scarring our seabeds, cyanide and dynamite replacing rod and reel, and drift nets killing everything in their paths for hundreds of kilometers, the thrill of a freshly stocked goody bag is gone. In its place, guilt and regret. With humans having taken so much out of the seas already, what self-respecting diver wants to take anything but photographs now?

    The crew of the "Calypso" could feast on all the fresh lobster and seafood it could gather, and even harpoon dolphins to film frenzied sharks, it's just less cool these days for undersea documentarists to eat their way through their subjects at the end of the day. It seemed way cool 30 years ago when a camp counselor on Santa Catalina Island poached the occasional abalone; now, no respectable campers should put up with it.

    No, the mystique of goody bags has been ghost-netted and left to drown by my generation. Don't get me wrong; I know they still have some important "adult" uses.

    But I desperately hope their salad days return for my children and grandchildren. Because I aspired to learn a lot about those shells, plants and, yes, even animals that I proudly towed behind me as I emerged from the Southern California surf. And those kids should get a chance to do the same.

    She-Whale Companionship

    Since my last post was dedicated exclusively to male genitalia, a link to this item at Carin Bondar's biology blog that sounds straight out of "Sex and the City" is in order.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010

    A New Milton Berle Of The Undersea Kingdom

    Blushing scientists say the male deepwater Greater Hooked Squid (variously known as the Moroteuthis ingens or the Onykia ingens because of a taxonomic squabble) has a giant penis that he proudly shows off at even the most awkward of moments. BBC's Earth News crew explains:
    The male squid's sexual organ is almost as long as its whole body, including the squid's mantle, head and arms.
    Turns out an individual actually got erect and ejaculated after a dissection had begun. So they're kinda twisted, too.

    BBC goes on to quote Dr. Alexander Arkhipkin of the Falkland Islands Government Fisheries Department, one of those who made the discovery and reported it in the "Journal of Molluscan Studies" (that's his photo, above, of The Beast unleashed; the penis is at bottom):
    "When the mantle of the squid was opened for maturity assessment, we witnessed an unusual event.

    "The penis of the squid, which had extended only slightly over the mantle margin, suddenly started to erect, and elongated quickly to 67cm total length, almost the same length as the whole animal."
    But there's more to the story than schlong envy. With protective mantles covering much of their bodies, it's been a bit of a mystery how male deepwater squid inseminate females (shallow-water species just, um -- I'll let explain). Well, if the Greater Hooked Squid is indicative (no puerile pun intended) of other deepwater species, we have our answer:
    That shows how male deep-sea squid inseminate females; they use their huge penis to shoot out packages of sperm, injecting them into the female's body.

    The discovery may also help explain how giant squid mate in the ocean depths.
    I should add that it might also explain how they attract the ladies at depth in the first place.

    Aside from almost inevitably spawning a bustling Chinese trade in squid penises, the discovery earns these prodigiously endowed cephalopods the honor of best-hung moving creatures in the animal kingdom.

    "Moving?" you ask. That's right, because, well, have you ever wondered why barnacles just pick any old spot and then stay there for the rest of their lives (like the guys reclining on the banquettes in the back of the dance club)? To be fair, evolutionarily speaking, I guess barnacles' penises were actually lengthening in response to their sessile lifestyles, rather than vice-versa (unlike the guys on the banquettes).

    But whichever the case, ugly, shrimp-like recluses that they are, barnacles are the true Milton Berles of the animal world. There's an amusing passage about it in Rebecca Stott's riveting book about Charles Darwin's efforts to cut his scientific teeth through extensive work with barnacles, called "Darwin and the Barnacle" (p. 220):
    The minute Arthrobalanus males also had quite the largest genitalia he had ever seen in the barnacle world, he wrote in the manuscript, allowing himself a rarely used exclamation mark:
    the probosciformed penis is wonderfully developed, so that in Cryptophialus, when fully extended, it must equal between eight and nine times the entire length of the animal! These males...consist of a mere bag, lined by a few muscles, enclosing an eye, and attached at the lower end by the pupal antennae, it has an orifice at its upper end, and within it there lies coiled up, like a great worm, the probosciformed penis...
    Talk about the descent of man.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010


    The suspected risks to fish of climbing ocean acidity keep escalating. First, the suggestion was just that anemonefish and others might not get home, although many broader implications of that study (published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences") were left for others to pursue. Now, wiredscience points to more dramatic conclusions from a new, related study in the same journal that suggests, only slightly hyperbolically, that the actual effect is tantamount to a death wish:
    Researchers discovered the potentially deadly problem through a series of experiments on common reef-dwelling fish that were raised in seawater with acidity levels resembling what’s expected by the century’s middle and end.

    “Instead of avoiding the odor of a predator, they’re attracted to it,” said biologist Douglas Chivers of the University of Saskatchewan. “When you take them into the wild, their behavior has changed. We ended up with huge mortality.”
    Five to nine times the mortality, actually! Here's the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" executive-style summary:
    As atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, dissolved CO2 in seawater will increase, and lower the surface ocean’s pH. Previous studies have examined how ocean acidification may impact species that depend on seawater pH to create skeletons and shells, but the consequences for noncalcifying species such as fishes are less well understood. Philip Munday et al. examined the effect of acidification on clownfish and damselfish larvae, at values that could occur this century if atmospheric CO2 continues to increase at the current rate above the present-day concentration of nearly 390 ppm. The authors placed larvae in seawater at 700 and 850 ppm, and observed the fishes’ response to the odor of a predator. According to the authors, half of the larvae that initially avoided the odor were less able to detect it after 4 days in seawater at 700 ppm CO2, and at 850 ppm all of the larvae appeared to become attracted to the scent. When transplanted to a natural coral reef habitat, larvae that had been exposed to the elevated CO2 levels spent more time near predators, and had five to nine times the mortality rate of controls. The authors suggest that by the end of the century, ocean acidification could threaten the sustainability of some fish populations.
    And here's the money shot from that abstract:
    Our results show that additional CO2 absorbed into the ocean will reduce recruitment success and have far-reaching consequences for the sustainability of fish populations.
    On a slightly related note, I stumbled across a factoid not long ago that didn't exactly surprise me but rather fazed me because it was one of those things I simply hadn't pondered. It was this: In all mammals, marine and terrestrial, the sense of hearing was evolved in order to hear sounds in an airborne environment. But it's tempting to flip that point on its head for olfactory abilities: Isn't it the case that olfaction was evolved long before our ancestors wriggled out of the water and thus was tailored to sensing water-borne smells? (I'd put a sperm's ability to smell its way to an egg in its liquid environment pretty darned high on my list of Darwinian "do's.")

    I don't know the answer, but I resolve to find out more about what adaptations the move to land precipitated (pun intended!).

    Of Whale Sharks And Oilmen

    Grrlscientist has a worthwhile post at on Whale Sharks and how they're faring as BP tries its damnedest to replace the Gulf of Mexico's seawater with crude oil.

    In addition to the near-miraculous (100 Whale Sharks feeding en masse in what might be a relatively -- and our standards are pretty low at this point -- untainted area) and the heart-wrenching (three of them swimming right in the thick of the spill), there's this thought-provoking detail from a piece by Ben Raines of the Press-Register:
    "Our worst fears are realized. They are not avoiding the spill area," said Eric Hoffmayer, the University of Southern Mississippi scientist who found the large aggregation last week. "Those animals are going to succumb. Taking mouthfuls of oil is not good. It is not the toxicity that will kill them. It's that oil is going to be sticking to their gills and everything else."

    Whale sharks, the largest fish on earth, feed by filtering plankton and tiny fish from the water through sieve-like mechanisms in their mouths.

    "Based on all the information I'm getting, they are doing the normal things regardless of the oil. The idea that sharks have these evolved senses that will protect them -- well, they haven't evolved to detect oil," Hoffmayer said.
    Now, I got inadvertently doused with gasoline pretty good by an attendant at a Stuckey's gas station outside Denver, Colorado once. And given that unpleasant episode, I'd never really contemplated the notion that any creature could be anything but acutely aware of being immersed in something like crude oil or its byproducts. But that could be the case here.

    Dog Days Of Summer

    If nobody minds, I'll stay away from that Boniface the scuba-diving dog story. I know Russians tend to be thrillseekers underwater. Or attention hounds, I guess.

    Tuesday, July 6, 2010

    Tuning In To Whale Sounds

    Interesting news from the world of cetacean science, where researchers are homing in on why specific sounds come from specific Sperm Whales (not pictured!), physically and perhaps socially.

    Courtesy of Wired Science:
    “The whales communicate by patterns of clicks. The clicks reverberate in the head. If you listen to it carefully, there are these pulses. The time between pulses reflects the time it takes for sounds to reverberate, to go from one end of the head and back. Because the heads are all different length, they have different reverberation times,” study co-author Hal Whitehead, also a Dalhousie University biologist. Until now, “just figuring out who makes which sound underwater was tough,” he said.
    That's the physiological bit. Now for the behavioral part:

    ...While the whales tended to possess the same basic repertoire of “codas” — the technical name for each distinctive series of clicks — one female had a completely different set. She happened to be a mother. The distinctive sounds could be what she used to communicate with her calf.

    Apart from the mom, the researchers found that half of each individuals’ vocalizations followed one of two patterns.

    One pattern is formed by two consecutive, slowly-paced clicks, followed by three faster clicks. It has been found only in the Caribbean. While the pattern varies slightly between groups, this study suggests that it’s consistent within the group. According to Gero, it could function as a family identifier, letting other whales know who is around. “It says, I belong to this family, I belong to this vocal clan,” he said.

    The other common pattern is composed of five regularly-spaced clicks, and has been heard in sperm whales all over the world. Preliminary research suggests that the pattern may vary slightly between each individual, said Gero. If so, the pattern could function as an individual identifier — or, from another perspective, a name.
    There was another, unrelated great contribution to the topic of cetacean sound recently, when TED invited Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Peter Tyack to talk about marine mammal sounds and humans' inability to shut up.

    Tyack talks about dolphins imitating trainers' whistles. OK, parrots can mimic sounds, too. But the complexity and functionality of "vocal" art in cetaceans goes so much further. (Here's a great interactive sampler of whale "Voices in the Sea" courtesy of UC San Diego.)

    In one example, Tyack points out that Humpback Whale populations each have their own distinct sounds; but songs are regularly transferred, with individuals on the move introducing a song that catches on and displaces the new group's old song. Tyack (see from around the 10-minute mark in the video) uses the example of Australian east-coast whales adopting a west-coast whales' song -- and completely, to an individual, abandoning their old song. (But you might also think of The Beatles' famous propagation of their sound across the Atlantic and beyond, releasing "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and utterly transforming the musical landscape.)

    Something in Tyack's lecture -- maybe it was the implied fragility of cetacean songs and sound -- made me think of a "meeting" I'd read of somewhere. Turns out it was a description by David Powell, the Californian diving pioneer and aquarist extraordinaire, of dives in the Revillagigedos off the southernmost tip of Baja California (probably in the 1970s or 1980s, though chronology is an afterthought in his excellent memoirs "A Fascination for Fish"). He describes a "mysterious moaning sound" during night dives that a Mexican fisherman had once laughingly described as the "cry of the hungry tiger shark."

    The morning after one such dive at Isla Socorro, Powell says:
    "[W]e looked out from our cove and were astonished to see a humpback whale leap from the water and come crashing back down with a giant splash. All of a sudden the strange sounds made sense: they must have been the song of the male humpback! We were familiar with the recordings Roger Payne made in the late 1960s in the Caribbean, but what we'd heard underwater didn't sound anything like Payne's record. One striking feature that was missing was the echo of the whale song from the bottom of the deep ocean. Since we were in shallow water next to an island, we must have received the sound directly from the whale, without an echo....

    We later learned that the Revillagigedo Islands are the winter home for a large number of humpbacks, a little-known fact, mainly because of the islands' remoteness. (pp. 136-137)
    Tyack's talking about the potential damage of oceanic noise pollution, for the most part. But it's a fascinating window on the world of marine mammal communication (he deals more with communication than echolocation, which is present among whales only in the so-called toothed whales, as far as scientists can tell).

    It also brings to mind a recent claim that Blue Whales are sliding down the musical scale. The jury's still out on whether it's somehow to escape our deafening racket, keep up with the way sound travels in ever-warmer waters, grab attention among growing populations of whales, get the girl, or for an entirely different reason.

    There are reasons for optimism on the issue of noise from commercial shipping, although there's also a great counterweight in the form of public indifference and obstacles to international cooperation. Tyack points out (at around 15 minutes) that the UN's International Maritime Organization is tasked with issuing standards for commercial shipping noise levels and, hopefully, "quieting down ships."

    Here's some of what the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has to say about it:
    Interference with (or "masking" of) such communications could have significant impacts on marine life. As a result of the potential significance of incidental noise to commercial shipping interests and the marine environment, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has charged its Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) with investigating and developing papers on these issues. GCIL worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service Offices of Ocean Acoustics Program and Protected Resources, NOAA's Office of International Affairs, as well as other federal agencies in developing the U.S. Noise and Marine Mammals Information Paper (MEPC 57/INF.4). The paper notes the ongoing work of NOAA on this issue and invites participation in NOAA’s ongoing dialogue regarding identification of potential adverse impacts associated with incidental vessel noise and the potential mitigation of those impacts.
    Tyack does some of the reasoning for us, and notes that two easy improvements that might even be cost neutral are slightly adjusting shipping lanes and easing up on the throttle. But it's far from a no-brainer.

    "They've already found that by being more intelligent about propeller design, you can reduce that (propeller) noise by 90 percent," Tyack says. "If you actually insulate and isolate the machinery of a ship from the hull, you can reduce that noise by 99 percent. So at this point it's primarily an issue of cost and standards."

    We humans aren't the greatest of neighbors to begin with; and even if we started implementing dramatic changes, the improvements would come only gradually. But alas, it's hard to imagine this particular topic getting its due at the best of times, much less amid the current (and overdue) hue and cry over global warming.

    But the next time one of your dives is spoiled by the liquid-jelly grind of a passing motorboat, put yourself in the flukes of marine mammals trying to doze, woo, croon, mingle, coddle or hunt with the human cacophony blasting away from above.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    Big, Bad Leviathan

    Jaw-dropping news of a major paleontological find: like a heavily armed Sperm Whale on steroids. Behold Leviathan melvillei, brought to you by Belgian paleontologist Olivier Lambert courtesy of "Nature."

    Clearly, it's named after the author of "Moby-Dick" because it seems like something out of fiction.

    Here's a taste of the (pay-to-view) article in "Nature":
    Here we report the discovery of a new giant sperm whale from the Middle Miocene of Peru (approximately 12–13 million years ago), Leviathan melvillei, described on the basis of a skull with teeth and mandible. With a 3-m-long head, very large upper and lower teeth (maximum diameter and length of 12 cm and greater than 36 cm, respectively), robust jaws and a temporal fossa considerably larger than in Physeter, this stem physeteroid represents one of the largest raptorial predators and, to our knowledge, the biggest tetrapod bite ever found. The appearance of gigantic raptorial sperm whales in the fossil record coincides with a phase of diversification and size-range increase of the baleen-bearing mysticetes in the Miocene. We propose that Leviathan fed mostly on high-energy content medium-size baleen whales. As a top predator, together with the contemporaneous giant shark Carcharocles megalodon, it probably had a profound impact on the structuring of Miocene marine communities.

    Here's the video with a quick glimpse at this rorqual eater and its discovery in the Peruvian desert. (The full "Nature" video is here.)

    Discover Magazine brings this monster, which had interlocking teeth on the skull and lower jaw, alive:
    It’s perhaps no coincidence that the biggest shark in history – the mighty Megalodon – also appeared at the same time in the same part of the world. It too was thought to have hunted whales and many of its teeth have also been found at Cerro Colorado. For the moment, it’s hard to say if the two predators were direct competitors, since they may have swum in different parts of the Peruvian seas. Lambert speculates that the adults of either species could have eaten the young of the other but there’s no evidence for this yet....
    The skull is beautifully adapted to capture large, powerful prey. The snout was short and wide, allowing it to bite more strongly with its front teeth and resist the struggles of its prey. Its temporal fossa – the shallow depression on the side of the skull – was enormous and could old huge jaw-closing muscles. The bite would have been the largest of any tetrapod (the animal group that includes mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians). And the teeth were deeply embedded in the jaw bones for each support, and interlocked to give the animal a shearing, meat-carving bite. They were also angled forwards, giving Leviathan a better grip on prey with curved bodies.
    The skull also creates a mystery. Sperm whales have a unique organ in their heads called the spermaceti, and Leviathan’s was particularly large. The spermaceti is full of a waxy substance that was originally thought to be the animal’s sperm (hence the name). Its purpose isn’t clear although there are many theories, all of which must now be considered in the light of Leviathan’s very different lifestyle.
    This is one of those new chapters that are so thrilling to observe from their first moments, and I can't wait to find out more about Leviathan and his place in biological history.

    Sunday, June 13, 2010

    Base Jumping A Blue Hole

    I think some others have done similar stuff, but this one stands out aesthetically to me.

    Monday, May 31, 2010

    Sleight Of Hand(fish)

    Scientists have unloosed descriptions of nine new species of handfish on the world, says National Geographic. Looking something like an anglerfish or a frogfish, they're quite a sight.

    And all of them live off Australia -- which by my reckoning makes Reason #368 why I need to book that Down Under dive holiday. (And no, Reason #367 is not Men At Work.)
    All of the world's 14 known species of handfish are found only in shallow, coastal waters off southeastern Australia, the review notes.
    The organization that issued the study -- "a review of the handfish family by Hobart-based fish taxonomists from the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship, Daniel Gledhill and Peter Last" -- points out that it hasn't always been that way, though:
    "Handfishes are small, often strikingly patterned or colourful, sedentary fish that tend to ‘walk’ on the seabed on hand-like fins, rather than swim. Fifty million-years ago, they ‘walked’ the world’s oceans, but now they exist only off eastern and southern Australia,"Mr Gledhill says.
    They can't be lobe-finned fish, of course, but they certainly are reminiscent of them -- like they're ready to crawl iguana-style onto a rock and sun themselves.

    With their dainty "hands" and slow gait, they look like easy pickings for predators. Except, according to NG:
    Handfish's slow movements and tendencies to stay within tightly confined habitats would seem to make the fish easy targets for predators. But researchers think handfish have a secret weapon: a toxic skin that kills most attackers.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    The Only Sure Bet Is Devastation

    I can appreciate nihilistic humor as much as the next fellow. But it's certainly grating to see that bookmakers at Paddy Power are taking bets on which sea creature will be driven to extinction first in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    The odds-on-favorite was the Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle at 4/5 when I checked today, followed by the Bluefin Tuna at 6/4, then the Leatherback Sea Turtle and the Brown Pelican at 8/1 each.

    Hat tip: Richard Black's Earth Watch blog, which added:

    I wondered, though, whether species extinctions are a suitable subject for gambling. Isn't inviting people to estimate the relative odds of two species taking the dodo trail in the pursuit of cash just a bit - well - tasteless?

    [Paddy Power's] Mr Robertson countered with the opposite notion. It's actually a positive thing for conservation, he said, because punters whose knowledge of the natural world extends to horses and greyhounds might discover a bit more in the process of trying to beat the odds.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2010

    Diver Down: Inside The BP Slick

    While the nut-job reporting detracts from it (I mean, the reporter actually says, "As bad as the pictures have been for more than a month now, you really don't get the full scope by looking at the surface."), this ABC News video is among the first that I've seen dipping beneath the surface of BP's gushing gift to Mother Nature.

    But what it thankfully does is draw attention to the woeful inadequacies of the "dispersant approach" to such spills. Philippe Cousteau sounds like one of those who don't put a lot of stock in the effects of such toxic cocktails.

    Making The Rounds: Anglerfish Dimorphism

    This cartoon's a little salty with the language, but hey, anglerfish can be like that sometimes.

    Monday, May 24, 2010

    Why Dolphins Don't Read 'Spy'

    "The Onion" on dolphin intelligence and why "Spy" magazine never caught on among cetaceans:
    GALVESTON, TX—A study conducted by marine biologists at Texas A&M University has found that bottlenose dolphins, long thought to be among the most intelligent members of the animal kingdom, are "utterly incapable" of pointing out the flaws of celebrities and knocking them down a peg or two.

    What's The Hand Signal For Komodo Dragon?

    A great story of the dive of a lifetime, which nearly cost these five divers theirs.

    In Like A Lionfish, Out Like A Spam

    There's been a lot of talk about the growing number of lionfish in the Western Atlantic, Caribbean and even farther south -- I guess summering off the U.S. coast and wintering Bob Marlin and The Whalers-style. These are places -- oceans, even -- where you're not "supposed" to find lionfish. Aquarium lovers are thought to be the culprits.

    But the result is that they're eating up lots of local fish and crustaceans that aren't used to evading this particular predator, which eats a lot. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey's Nonindigenous Aquatic Species list points out that the lionfish is a fairly undiscriminating eater, or rather one that's happy to go with the flow:
    The species is relatively quick to adapt to novel prey types, and quickly learns to avoid noxious prey (Fishelson 1997)
    They're eating baby lobsters, fer chrissakes! One of the most vexing problems is that there's not much that'll eat a lionfish, aside from a bigger lionfish. So what to do?

    Cue the most ravenous creature that's ever walked, crawled, swum, flown, or dived. NOAA's Renata Lana put it thusly: "They don't belong here, and we should just eat them all." Here's a recent AP video highlighting the problem (Am I missing something, by the way? What does this problem have to do with "going green"?)

    Cioppino, sautee, sushi, stir-fry. Pick your poison. Er, their poison. Sounds good to me...Californian and Russian sushi aficionados are presumably getting bored with their whale meat anyways. Bring. It. On.

    So here's an idea. If you've been night diving around lionfish, you know that these spiny beasts are suckers for a bright white dose of incandescence (see video below; not great quality, but it shows their annoying predilection for your flashlight). And lots of them will stay at it for a long, long least through any no-decompression limits of mine. Restaurateurs could set up shop surfside and, figuratively speaking, let diver-diners with bright torches frog-march their own lionfish dinners into the shallows and the waiting pan of a great chef.

    Friday, May 21, 2010

    Not Just A Gulf Disaster

    CNN quotes Carl Safina saying about the BP oil cataclysm what many people are afraid to admit:

    The damaging effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be felt all the way to Europe and the Arctic, a top scientist told a congressional panel Friday.

    "This is not just a regional issue for the wildlife," said Carl Safina, the president of the Blue Ocean Institute. Safina, who recently returned from the Gulf Coast region, presented several photographs, including one of an oil-covered bird.

    "There will be a nest empty in Newfoundland," Safina said, noting common migratory patterns. Safina warned that multiple forms of marine life in the Atlantic Ocean "come into the Gulf to breed."

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Slugfest In The Philippines

    The California Academy of Science's Terry Gosliner invites us to tag along as he and other mollusca-philes (I made that up) dive in search of new and exciting species of nudibranch.

    Gosliner's post has it all: unbridled excitement at night diving, electric-blue slug sex under the lights, and the thrill of victory. Mama, let your boys (and girls) grow up to be biologists:

    Thirty minutes into the dive, our dive guide Alexis swam over with a plastic box he uses to collect special animals he finds. Inside was a three-inch specimen of Kalinga. Kalinga is a member of a group of nudibranchs that feed on tiny colonial animals called bryozoans. By day it is buried in the sand and by night it comes out and feeds on small organisms living in the sand. You can watch its mouth parts being extended, and it is feeding on something, but we still don’t know what. Each observation opens up new questions. The work is never done. That is biological job security.
    There's also a hopeful passage on a broader topic in Gosliner's first post from his weeklong trip to Anilao in the Philippines.

    Not only that, it is one of the few places in the western Pacific where you can say that the reefs are in better shape now than they used to be. That is in large measure due to concerted conservation efforts by heroic community leaders and recognition that having abundant marine life attracts the scuba divers who flock here each spring and infuse the local economy.

    I vividly remember the underwater dynamite blast that almost blew out my eardrums on my first trip here, and seeing twitching, dying fish next to me....

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    Global Temperatures: Hot Stuff From The NOAA

    By land or by sea, it was the hottest January-April on record -- that is, since 1880 -- according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency.

    Here's the money shot:
    The combined global land and ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for both April and for the period from January-April, according to NOAA. Additionally, last month’s average ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any April, and the global land surface temperature was the third warmest on record.