Snowy day view from the office

Most people around Boston aren't at the office today. In fact, the Aquarium is closed and most of the employees are safe at home. But there are a few divers in the office today. Who else is going to make sure Myrtle gets her lettuce?! They make arrangements to stay nearby so they're on hand to feed and care for all the animals in the Giant Ocean Tank. All the while, the storm raged outside. Here's the view from their window.

All quiet at the IMAX theatre
Visibility is pretty limited looking across the harbor at the courthouse.

And inside the big tank, it's all tropical and tranquil.

We're old hands at this snow storm routine. Check out last year's snow post!


How sea turtles are just like us

There are four sea turtles in the Giant Ocean Tank—two loggerhead sea turtles, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle and a green sea turtle. If you stand at the top of the Giant Ocean Tank for any length of time, you'll likely hear the garbled huff and slow intake of one of them taking a breath.

Ari the Kemp's ridley turtle breaks the surface for a breath

Seeing a turtle break the surface to breathe is an interesting way to connect with these giant reptiles. They are the only air breathers inside the exhibit—like us!—so they must return to the surface every now and then for a gulp of oxygen.

But here's something you don't usually see. This is what it looks like from the divers' perspective! Retread—our blind, rescued sea turtle—bumbles her way to the surface for a breath of fresh air.

Sea turtles breathe air into and out of their lungs through their nose and mouth. Our large turtles can hold their breath for several hours when they're resting (don't worry, that motionless sea turtle wedged in the coral is just napping).

Zzzzz. This motionless turtle at the bottom of the tank is taking a nice, cozy nap.

When they're active for feeding or checking on the divers in the tank, the turtles breathe more frequently. Try standing at the top of the GOT for a spell and see if you can see all four sea turtles!

Retread (loggerhead) and Myrtle (green)

The turtles (justifiably) get a lot of time of the blog. Check out these posts for more sea turtle awesomeness!


Identifying Parrotfishes

As you know, we just wrapped up our annual census. Counting all of the animals is surely a challenging task, especially when it comes to the species that have different markings and coloration depending on their age or sex.  Parrotfishes—Family Scaridae—are prime examples!

Parrotfishes are categorized into three phases: juvenile, initial and terminal... and some species even display intermediate phases between the three primary phases.  We have six species of parrotfishes in the Giant Ocean Tank. That's a lot of different fish and phases to ID. Let us help you out a bit. Here are some of the fish you might see during your next visit and their phase of maturation!

Notice the somewhat protruding forehead of this blue parrotfish.  The initial phase has a conical head whereas the terminal phase has a very squared off head.
Blue parrotfish, intermediate phase 

This midnight parrotfish is one of the few species of parrots where all phases are essentially the same in appearance... though I did see some very large midnights in the Bahamas this past October that had more white and yellow coloration around their mouths.
Midnight parrotfish

The thick white body stripe gives away this species, a queen parrotfish.
Queen parrotfish, initial phase

This rainbow parrotfish, in its initial phase, has a distinct squared-off tail and scales that are green in the center and orangish on the edges.  The terminal phase rainbows have an orange-brown head and bright green rear body.  These guys can grow to 5 1/2 feet in length!
Rainbow parrotfish, initial phase

The red belly and white spots mean this is a stoplight parrot in its initial phase.  Remember this guy from the cleaning station?
Stoplight parrotfish, initial phase

And surprising to even us aquarists is how different the terminal phase stoplight parrot looks.  See the yellow spot above the gill cover?  And the orange-yellow crescent on the tail?  That's how you know it's a stoplight!
Stoplight parrotfish, terminal phase

This one's kind of hard to tell, but these are two striped parrotfishes in their initial phases.
Striped parrotfish, initial phase

Look for the linear markings - what I would call squiggly lines - on the tail.  This is a striped parrotfish in its terminal phase.
Striped parrotfish, terminal phase

Stay tuned for more about these fish—videos to come!

With so many parrotfish species and their interesting characteristics, you can bet they've been on the blogs before. Check out these posts:


Time to count some fish!

December is a busy month for all of us in the Giant Ocean Tank. As we try to wrap up projects and meet deadlines at the end of the year we also undergo a massive project that requires all of the staff and volunteers to work together. This project is our end of the year census which involves counting every animal in the GOT to ensure that everyone is accounted for. With over 1200 animals in the exhibit this is quite the feat!

Taking notes
We use underwater slates and pencils to write down our counts during each dive.

Slate with a list of fish. Yup, we use regular old pencils to take the notes.

The census is also an excellent opportunity for us to practice our fish identification skills. It is easy to get rusty on over 120 species IDs if you don't practice.

This year we are also trying something new. We are working to establish an average length for each fish in order to estimate a weight for that species. These PVC sticks are taped with sections of varying lengths to help us make these estimations.

A measuring stick allows us to approximate a fish's length.

At the end of our dives we record the number of fish we counted onto a worksheet which will get totaled and submitted at the end of the month. These totals are then made available to national organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Fancy spreadsheet help when you have lots of fish to count

Having an accurate record of our collection is important because it also helps us better develop our collection plan for the following year. (Check out the blogs from our most recent collecting trip.) We aim to have as minimal an impact as possible when collecting animals and knowing how many individuals we have in the collection helps us ensure that goal.


Happy Holidays!

The Aquarium may be closed today but the animals inside still need to be fed and cared for. Some of our awesome GOT volunteers came in this morning to help care for the exhibit. Thanks guys!

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from the GOT Divers!



The Twelve Days of Fishmas

Maris Wicks recently joined Aquarium divers on an expedition to the Bahamas. She was inspired by her trip, and spending so much time with all those beautiful fish, to create a holiday post for the Divers Blog. Enjoy! And best wishes for a delightful holiday season. — The Dive Team

Greetings humans!  It's me, Maris (previously seen on the Global Explorers blog).

Maris experiencing her very own Fishmas miracle with some salmon.

I was feeling quite festive this holiday season, and I thought that I would share with you one of my favorite carols: The Twelve Days of Fishmas. You heard me correctly: FISHMAS. This song celebrates just a few of the inhabitants of the New England Aquarium's Giant Ocean Tank (aka the "G.O.T."). Enjoy (and please feel free to sing along):

The coral reef habitat inside the GOT is actually made of fiberglass! Even though it's not real coral,
it still provides shelter and a place to rest for many of the tank's residents (including this parrotfish).

There are actually four sea turtles in the GOT: one green sea turtle (Myrtle), two loggerhead sea turtles
(Carolina and Retread), and one Kemp's ridley turtle (Ari).  Shown here are Myrtle and Ari.
Oh, and I would also like to mention that turtles are NOT fish; they are reptiles!

French grunts are often found schooling in the lower area of the GOT (and obviously not
in the above formation...they usually swim together in a group,
but not for any fancy Olympic-style synchronized swimming moves).

Peacock flounder, to be exact!  You kind of have to sing this one "Flooooouuunnnder" to make it work with the song.

What would the GOT be without its divers?  They go into the tank five times a day to feed the more than 1,000 animals that call the GOT home, and to clean and maintain the 200,000 gallon tank.  Oh, and divers are NOT fish; they are mammals!

The green moray eels are some of the largest fish in the GOT.  If you see one, it already looks likes it's
caroling on account of the way they open and close their mouths. They are not actually singing;
they are getting more water to pass over their gills via their mouth.
Follow this link to see how we care for our morays.

Snappers are another schooling fish; look for them hanging out with the French grunts!

There are three barracuda in the GOT, and they are most often found at the surface. Look for their black
spots on their back! Oh, and same with the Flounder, sign this one "Barr-a-cuda" to make it work with the song.

This is a rather utopian portrayal of damselfish considering how territorial they tend to be. The defense of
their habitat is not unjustified; damselfish are often protecting a clutch of eggs and have been
the focus of a breeding program here at the New England Aquarium.

ANOTHER schooling fish, lookdowns are often found swimming higher up in the GOT
(hence the whole "lookdown" part of their name).

Pufferfish, balloonfish, porcupinefish...they all have the ability to inflate when threatened
 (see this article for some recent research about HOW they do that).

The GOT is home to one big black drum that likes to hang out on the bottom. Black drums have little fish-beards (ok, the correct term is BARBELS) that help them sense prey. But that's not even the coolest thing about them; they actually DRUM!  Well, they make a noise like a drum. Listen for yourself. Black Drums make this sound with the help of a specialized
organ called a swim bladder. Normally, the swim bladder is used for controlling buoyancy, but in some species of fish,
it also makes sounds.

I hope that you've enjoyed my stirring rendition of The Twelve Days of Fishmas. May your holidays be filled with hot cocoa damelsfish and Candy Cane Shrimps on a Snowy (Grouper) night!



H2O! Frozen parody features GOT

Our volunteers are a talented bunch, and former intern turned GOT volunteer and Aquarium marathon team runner Lauren Mack is no exception. She created this fantastic parody of the hit song from Frozen, featuring the Aquarium and even some behind the scenes video from our food prep kitchen and dive support areas. Just try not to sing along with this one!

Lauren and our other 30 or so volunteers and interns are the heart of our operation regarding taking care of all of the Giant Ocean Tank denizens.  From keeping the support area spotless, answering questions from the public, feeding our sea turtles and surface fishes, and of course prepping all of the food for over a thousand fishes each day, they work their tails off... and we are so appreciative!

When she's not chopping food for the fish or scrubbing corals in the big tank, Lauren will be training for the Boston Marathon® with the New England Aquarium. She's fundraising to support the Aquarium education outreach programs, which bring ocean programming to local classrooms in underserved communities. So while her video raises awareness about all that goes on at the Aquarium, these outreach classes raise awareness about our oceans and what we can all to do protect them in the community.

When she's not chopping food for the fish, you might find her scuba diving in the big tank

Because as Lauren sings in her song:
I know what I must do
to teach the public how we all live blue
It's cool to be ocean-friendly—like me!
H-2-O, H-2-O
It's the basis of life on earth.
H-2-O, H-2-O
It's a resource with so much worth!
If you liked her video, you can support Lauren's marathon fundraising here.


Feasting, Underwater

Thanksgiving is a time of traditions—turkey, football, family, you know the drill. Here in the Dive Department we have our own traditions. One that's taken root over the years is the holiday blog post. So in honor of all the feasting across the country, we give you feasting in the Giant Ocean Tank.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Hog and Parrot

Following up on the last blog about cleaner fish, I wanted to share something cool I caught on film recently.  I witnessed a stoplight parrotfish and a... well, just watch this video!

The cleaner is a spanish hogfish, known for removing parasites and debris from larger fishes. The cleanee—her patient—is a stoplight parrotfish, a fish that we've been keeping an eye on for a few weeks because of discoloration around its mouth.  But it's still healthy and behaving normally, and we'll continue to monitor it for any changes. This is the only stoplight in its juvenile/initial phase in the Giant Ocean Tank. Stay tuned for more on parrotfish phases!

Juvenile stoplight parrotfish


Cleaning crew: neon gobies!

We are always talking about how BIG Myrtle is, and answering questions like "What's the biggest fish in the tank?" and "What's the wingspan of the southern stingrays" and "How long are the moray eels"... but perhaps one of the most interesting fish in the Giant Ocean Tank is also the smallest resident: the neon goby!  Neon gobies are cleaner fish and congregate in cleaning stations waiting for fish to require their services.  Check out this video of our Nassau grouper at the "neon goby spa".

Neon gobies, Elacatinus oceanops, reside in the Gobiidae family, which has 38 species alone in the Caribbean.  They typically don't grow any larger than 2" long, and as is obvious by their name, are recognizable by the electric blue body stripe running from eye to tail.

Nassau grouper in profile. This fish loves getting its picture taken!

Neon blue goby | Photo: Jmk7 via Wikimedia Commons

Moray eels also like to visit the cleaning station

As do some divers

You'll find neon gobies in another part of the Aquarium, too! Check out this video of neon gobies cleaning the Goliath groupers in the Blue Hole exhibit on Level 2.


Come chat with a diver

There's a teensy bit of graffiti hidden away in the Giant Ocean Tank. And the only way you might be able to see it (besides being a diver in the big tank, of course) is to attend the daily diver presentations at 2:30 p.m.

Visitors can listen to divers speaking underwater while giant high definition video screens (not seen in this picture)
relay scenes from deep within the Giant Ocean Tank

A new diver communication system was one of the high-tech additions during the renovations to this central exhibit. Divers fly a hand-held camera deep underwater, feeding live video to the top of the tank, while wearing a special mask that lets them hear questions from visitors at the top and respond to them—from 23 feet underwater! Not only can visitors find themselves in the middle of feedings or schools of fish, they can ask the divers about their favorite fish, explore those secret nooks that aren’t visible from the windows and even see what visitors look like on the other side of the glass.

Dan models the gear that makes all this possible

The divers speaking underwater require hours of specialized training and some fancy scuba gear. Here are the tools of the trade for divers and educators sharing the insider perspective of the Giant Ocean Tank.

Divers breath and speak through a full-face mask with a microphone.
Without a regulator in their mouth, divers can easily speak.

A vibrating disc near the diver’s ear lets them hear the educator at the top of the tank. Since sound travels easily underwater, divers swimming nearby can eavesdrop.

The hand-held camera is shiny and sleek, about the size of a can of soup. Some of the fish are very curious about it, so they often have cameos.

A long cable connects the camera, earpiece and microphone to the broadcast systems. That’s because water is too dense for WiFi—imagine, no WiFi!

These interactive talks provide: exciting visuals that you can’t get anywhere else, plus an insider’s perspective on the animals and ecology of Caribbean reefs. So if you want to dive deeper and learn more about the Giant Ocean Tank and its residents, check the daily schedule of presentations during your next visit and make sure you’re at the top of the tank for these interactive diver talks.

Bet you never knew there was graffiti inside the Giant Ocean Tank

Oh yeah, and about that graffiti... At the very bottom of the exhibit, in the dark tunnel that cuts through the reef, you'll find the signature of the artists who created this coral reef. Peter Brady tagged the reef the first time in 1984, when the reef was first made. He signed it again last year when the Giant Ocean Tank was completely renovated. Ask your friendly scuba diver with the camera to show it to you during the next diver talk from inside the tank!


A greener green sea turtle

We are sure that most of you have heard of Farm to Table, but how about Farm to TURTLE?

Farmer Erica

This week at the Giant Ocean Tank we had some special visitors. Erica and Dave from Rustic Root Farms in Farmington, ME, brought some of their organically-grown produce down for our favorite vegetable-eating green sea turtle to sample! (That would be Myrtle, of course.)

Along with about twenty Aquarium employees, Myrtle receives a weekly delivery of produce from the farm. They are all members of a CSA, which is short for Community-Supported Agriculture. Being a CSA member is a bit like being a shareholder in a business, except that you get to eat your weekly return! What was on the menu this week?  A tasty salad of zucchini, cucumber, red beets, bok choy, romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, and beet greens.


We knew she’d love the romaine lettuce – it’s a regular staple in her diet here – and were pretty sure she’d like the red leaf too, but everything else was a bit of a mystery for us!  And even we were surprised by some of what the Brussels sprout-loving reptile liked and didn’t like.

Feeding Myrtle at the top of the Giant Ocean Tank 

Myrtle turned her beak up at the beet greens, and would only eat the zucchini and cucumber when stuffed inside a squid! The bok choy was hit or miss. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all? It was Myrtle diving down into the water to chase down the red beets! She gobbled them right down while beet juice squirted all around!

Myrtle on a beet pursuit

Erica and Dave (who is also the Manager of Visitor Experience here at the Aquarium) wanted to bring their vegetables to the Aquarium to show people that you can live blue by eating green (or more specifically, by eating your greens). Here are 10 ways you can make a difference for our blue planet.

Getting your produce locally means that food hasn’t had to travel lots of miles to your plate and is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. So be like Myrtle and buy local and sustainable – and support your neighborhood farmers!