Blog #7: The Catch

11:15 AM: Seacrest Marina, Bimini Harbor. We've spent the last two hours clearing the decks of the Coral Reef II in preparation for our seven-hour voyage back to Miami. All hands are rather quiet, as Capt. John has warned of a rough passage home with small craft warnings and 25 knots of wind dead in our face. We've been cautioned to tie down all our belongings, and you can hear the gulping of dramamine throughout the cabin.

The four main fish wells, each about 3x3x10 feet, have been secured as well, along with the six other tanks carrying our precious cargo. A pumping system will circulate sea water through all of the tanks until we get within an hour or so of Miami. From that point on, the water quality begins to deteriorate (Nice to be back home, huh?) and cannot be used. About ten 50-gallon barrels have been filled with fresh seawater as well. That water will be used to fill the plastic bags within which the animals will be shipped back to Boston.

So, how did we do? 377 fishes, 58 different species; 153 invertebrates, 44 species. We feel pretty darn good about this collection. In fact, everyone is extremely pleased! Among the wonderful animals we'll be loading on to airplanes for shipment back to Boston tomorrow are:

  • 4 indigo hamlets (Hypoplectrus indigo at right) These fish have not been exhibited for several years at the Aquarium. Somewhat rare in the Bahamas, the fish we caught were first spotted by Captain John on a morning dive at Whale Cay, then retrieved later the same day. We all believe, of course, that the four fish were precisely the same fish that the Captain had seen four hours earlier.

  • Two moray eels: a goldentail (Gymnothorax milaris at right) and a purplemouth (Gymnothorax vicinus). Both are about 12-14 inches in length. The purplemouth moray will be new to the Giant Ocean Tank in Boston. It was caught by our soon-to-be-married couple from the Netherlands, Marcelle and Bas. If they are as determined in their relationship as they were chasing fish, we have no doubt they will have a long happy life together.

  • Three trumpetfish (Aulostomus maculates), which will complement the one trumpet now on exhibit in the GOT. The NEAq aquarists on board say this new quartet will hang well together--literally straight up and down -- delighting visitors with their ability to respond to visual targets (a small plastic green cup) during feeding time (shown at right).

  • One cowfish, a juvenile, that we can't yet identify definitively. He's got horns, so we know he's belongs to the genus Lactophyrs. He's about the size of a quarter, now, and ultimately will grow to about a foot. He's destined for one of our smaller tanks in the Tropical Gallery until he's man enough for the GOT.

  • One yellow stingray (Urobatis jamaicensis shown at right) headed for the new temporary "shark and ray touch tank" we'll be installing on the east side of the Aquarium this summer. There, he will be joined by coral catsharks and cownose rays already in holding tanks back in Boston. We were careful not to take a female also seen off Bimini because she was pregnant with pups. Kids visiting the Aquarium will love this new touchtank.

  • Two basket stars (Astrophyton muricatum), fascinating invertebrates with intricate branching arms that fold up during the day and open at night, when they are used to filter plankton. This species can often be found on fan coral. We're not sure yet where they will be found in our galleries in Boston, you will have to come on down to find out!

  • Five red snapping shrimp (Alpheus armatus), each about an inch long (how the other divers found these on the bottom beats me! As a new diver, I could barely find the bottom sometimes.) This species makes a unique clicking sound. Like the other creatures mentioned above, you can find them in the ocean in the Bahamas or the beautiful exhibits at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

4:00 PM. Hey, land ho! There's the Miami skyline in the distance. And did I mention the rough seas? The passage actually turned out to be rather tranquil, with long and peaceful naps enjoyed by all. See you in Boston!


Blog #6: Bull Run, Bimini

Shark Day! Readers looking for a blood-curdling account of our dive with sharks this morning will need to look elsewhere. Rather, the experience was more like entering a quiet sanctuary, some fifty plus feet underneath the water's surface a few miles offshore from Bimini at a small reef called Bull Run.

After a short briefing from Captain John about the strategy for the dive, we donned our wet suits and tanks for the descent. What had taken me 15 minutes earlier in the week, was now happily down to about 5 minutes. We waited on the Coral Reef's dive platform until everyone was ready to head down together. Then we quietly descended, swimming with the current (which made for an interesting swim back). We slowly came upon the reef and then huddled down on the bottom to wait.

Within a few minutes, a solitary reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi shown at right) maybe 6 to 7 feet long came ambling by a few yards away, pretty ambivalent to our presence. With his silver gray undersides and black tipped fins, he was a pretty imposing figure. Ever feel helpless looking at something that is doing what you're doing a whole lot better? That was the feeling I had as I again checked my air, realized I had to get moving back to the surface within 10 to 15 minutes, and felt thankful that the second shark swimming overhead seemed as totally disinterested as the first.

Sharks are the top predator of the oceans. Some say they have become increasingly scarce in the Bahamas; others say a decline isn't that clear. Capt. John, who has been leading collecting trips and research expeditions in the Caribbean for more than 25 years, doesn't think there has been much change. Capt. Lou, our other skipper, actually thinks he's seen more in recent years. John has seen the Taiwanese shark-finning in the area, though, a practice that is wasteful at best, repulsive at worst. Clearly, I'll need to do some research when we get back to Boston.

[Editor's note: Until Bud gets back to do that research, here's a quick read about Bahamian shark populations and shark protection.]

There are about nine species of Requiem sharks in the Caribbean, of which the black-tipped reef shark is one. Most are not considered dangerous to humans, provided they are not provoked. Some dive boats use chum to entice the sharks into their groups of divers, a practice that neither the Aquarium nor the Captains of the Coral Reef II advocate, because arms and legs can easily get confused with chunks of fish bait and because the technique just doesn't seem very organic.

In any event, we ascended slowly against the current back to the Coral Reef II, something that was a bit more challenging than I anticipated. (Fortunately, an astute safety observer on the boat lengthened the floating safety line, which soon came rapidly drifting my way.) Other divers in the group reported seeing several more sharks while they were down. Personally, I was happy to have seen only one or two and I felt fortunate to have experienced them respectfully on their own turf!


Blog #5: Some Secrets of the Sea

Some Secrets of the Sea

7:00 PM. Just pulled into Dollar Harbor at South Cat Cay, Bimini. Not really a "harbor" in the traditional sense, but a wonderfully tranquil stretch of turquoise-colored water bordering a narrow strip of sand. We're the only boat.

Before I get started on today's "catch," a brief word on our chef, Chef Matt, who is just now singing along with Jack Jones in the galley behind me while preparing a Bahamian specialty of yellow tail snapper heavily laden with garlic. This is his first full time job. He graduated from Johnson & Whales Culinary Institute in Miami last year and has now been on the Coral Reef II for ten months. At 21, his talent for cooking is extraordinary, as is his ability to hold his breadth while snorkelling 20-30 feet below the surface of the sea, as are his vocal chords. We are lucky to have him on board.

We spent the afternoon diving at a large wreck called the Sapona, one of Henry Ford's attempts to make something other than cars during World War I. The Sapona along with 11 other experimental ships was made of concrete. By the looks of it, he should have stuck to cars. But his efforts were not for nothing, as the Sapona provides a wonderful artificial reef for thousands of fish and invertebrates.

My wife, Margaret, and I spent most of the dive on the ocean floor watching John Dayton and Barbara Bailey (two of the Aquarium's most experienced collectors), fearlessly probing the underside of one of the concrete panels looking for a small Moray eel, called a goldentail (Gymnothorax miliaris). Wow was he elusive. He bolted back and forth, ultimately escaping altogether after about twenty minutes! The moray have an uncanny ability to burrow deep in a hole or crevice, and I had a feeling that this one had more than earned the right to stay home.

A diver feeds fish at the Aquarium, the future home of our catch today.

Speaking of uncanny abilities, here's another one. The parrot fish (we now have a princess Scarus taeniopterus, shown top right), a stoplight (Sparisoma viride), a redband (Sparisoma aurofrenatum), and a striped (Scarus iserti) on board our burgeoning Noah's Ark. It blows a mucous bubble (sort of like a cocoon) around itself every night to mask its scent. This provides safety against nocturnal predators such as moray eels or nurse sharks. At day break the parrot breaks out of the bubble and lets it float away it (we see the remains of the mucous bubbles floating on the surface in our fish wells each morning)

Here's another: The hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus) and many other members of the wrasse family also now in our holding tanks on the Coral Reef II have the ability to change their sex. Typically, a harem of females is led by one super male. The male is larger and visually quite different from the females. If he gets eaten or dies, the dominant female in the group morphs into a male, and takes the original super male's slot.

One last note that will make our aquarists back in Boston really happy. We collected four indigo hamlets (Hypoplectrus indigo shown at right) on one of today's dives. It's a huge find, a fish that hasn't been exhibited in Boston for quite some time. Come on down to Central wharf and see this really beautiful species!

Coming up tomorrow : Dive with the sharks!


Blog #4: Copper Sweepstakes

Having never been on one of these collecting trips before, I didn't
quite understand how challenging this kind of "fishing" might be or how many different techniques would be utilized. The particular fish we sought today, copper sweepers, a.k.a. glassy sweepers (shown at right), was a case in point.

The copper sweeper (Pempheris schomburgki) lives in 15 to 80 feet of water, spending much of its time hiding from predators in the dark shadows of coral caverns. It's a small fish 3 to 5 inches long that seeks safety by congregating in large schools.

So, how do you collect fish hidden in the dark depths of a coral cavern? You call on Capt. Lou, one of the two multi-talented skippers on the Coral Reef II. Aside from being a very skilled seaman, Capt. Lou is also a very accomplished collector.

At Bond's Cay, Capt. Lou led a small group of divers down to a reef in about 20 feet of water. He headed in alone about went 50 feet back into a coral cavern that seemed to be a likely home to thousands of copper sweepers. It was also a likely home for a few deadly lionfish (shown at right), an invasive species proliferating all too rapidly throughout the Bahamas. Capt. Lou's technique is to watch the schooling sweepers for a short while to see the patterns of their escape attempts, and then block them off by moving in swiftly, but gently, with his two vinyl nets. He's a 6'2" former football player and killer whale trainer. There wasn't a lot of room for the fish to escape out the narrow passageway into the cave.

Having caught five or six fish in one of the nets, Capt. Lou started handing the net out to two waiting divers, Sarah and Lewis. They held a 50-gallon black bag on the sandy bottom. With each net delivery out from the cavern, they would turn the net upside down above the black bag and hope the sweepers would bolt toward the dark depths of the bag, which is their natural response to danger.

And, voila! Five or six deliveries later, the bag was full of copper sweepers.

Now comes the hard part. Ever try swimming in 20 to 30 feet of water with a 50-gallon bag full of water? It's sort of like trying to run a marathon while carrying a water bed.

But they managed, and once they reached the boat, Capt John (our other able skipper) and I lifted the bag up into a large cooler (ever try that at age 60?). Then each fish was gently transferred into one of the many holding tanks on the boat, complete with some synthetic "habitat" to simulate their natural environment.

The final count: 37 fish are now destined for a new home in the Aquarium's dark grouper tank we call "the Blue Hole." There, millions of people will have the opportunity to see a fish that most SCUBA divers will never even knew existed.

Oh, and did I mention today's menu? Would you believe corned beef and cabbage in the Bahamas? Flavored nicely with a touch of garlic and absolutely delicious. It was just what we needed after several dives and two hours working a seine net along the beach looking for needlefish. More on Chef Matt in a future blog.


Blog #3: Fish Collecting 101

To help with today's blog I have asked Sarah Taylor (at right) to join me. Sarah is an Aquarist at NEAq in Boston and the Trip Leader for our current expedition. She is also a very experienced diver.

Bud: Sarah, why do we do these collecting trips every year?
Sarah: We do them to replenish the fishes and invertebrates in our Caribbean reef exhibits. Simply put, we are replenishing species that die off because of their natural mortality rates.

Bud: Do we need a permit to collect in the Bahamas? Are there any restrictions on what we can take?
Sarah: Yes. We work very closely with the Bahamas Ministry of Fisheries. A Bahamian official comes on board during the trip. He monitors our collecting techniques and examines our "catch." We don't take anything on the IUCN Red List - or anything that is endangered or threatened.

Bud: How is the trip going so far in terms of what we want to bring back to Boston?
Sarah: We're happily ahead of the curve! We actually have more fish on board then expected at this stage. Great!

Bud: Are we harming the reef ecosystem by pulling out these fish and invertebrates?
Sarah: We only use nets; no chemicals. We carefully avoid damaging the corals. And, we take only a very, very small number of animals relative to the size of their populations in the wild.

Bud: How will life in captivity for these animals differ from life in the wild?
Sarah: They will be very well fed and very well cared for by the staff in Boston. Generally, they live longer and grow larger than in the wild. And, of course, because any potential predators (e.g. sharks) in our tanks are well fed, their usual prey has a much better chance of surviving longer.

Bud: How does a collecting trip like this one support marine conservation efforts in the Bahamas?
Sarah: We do species and abundance surveys to help monitor the biodiversity of the reefs. We share our data with REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), an organization that is working to protect the reefs throughout the Caribbean.

Bud: And, by exhibiting these animals in the New England Aquarium in Boston, we teach people about the importance of reef conservation.

Today's best finds:
4 Tobacco Fish (4-5 inches) Serranus tabacarius
1 Trumpet Fish (11-12 inches) Aulostomus maculatus (above right)
2-3 Yellowhead Wrasse (5 inches) Halichoeres garnoti
Several Fairy Basslets (1-2 inches) Gramma loreto

All in all, a great day down here in the Bahamas!


Blog #2: Bahamian Grunt Roundup

Temp: 85
Skies: Clear
Seas: Calm
Underwater visibility: Fantastic!

After a check-in dive (to get familiar with the local waters) and a teach-in on the ins and outs of catching fish with vinyl nets on a stick (somewhat like using a butterfly net while 25 feet underwater), we headed to Three Sisters Rock just offshore from Bimini for the major event of the day. The goal: to round up several dozen French grunts (Haemulon flavolineatum) and smallmouth grunts (Haemulon chrysargyreum shown at right).

This was an unbelievable experience for a diver like me, since I was only recently certified. The basic strategy goes like this:

Four to five divers station themselves around the perimeter of a barrier net (somewhat like a seine net). Then another group of divers wielding vinyl box nets in outstretched arms attempt to herd a large--make that very large--school of grunts in the barrier net. It looks kind of like the old safari movies when the "beaters" drive the big game into the sights of the waiting hunters, except our task really is to bring 'em back alive.

Once the grunts are in place, the divers gradually encircle the fish with the net. Then, using the vinyl box nets, five to 10 fish at a time are transferred to the nearby "grunt hotel," about 10 yards away. The experts then select the desired species to share with our visitors back in Boston, while gently letting the others go.

And a good day it was. The tally for the dive: 38 French grunts and 17 small mouth grunts. And a special bonus: one spotted spiny lobster (Panulirus guttatus) and one Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) Both are clawless version of the Homarus americanus we're all used to in back home in New England.

There was another terrific treat upon returning to the boat. We discovered chef Mat had prepared crab rangoon for our afternoon snack. (From sustainable sources, of course!) Very tasty!

Captain John then fired up the engines for the 7 hour trip to the Berry Islands, 80 miles east of Bimini. We look forward to a great day tomorrow, and we'll keep you posted on the "catch."

Blog #1: The Expedition Begins!

This is very exciting for me. I'm heading out on my first diving
expedition with the Aquarium.

My wife Margaret and I took the long road to getting certified for SCUBA last year. We started the certification course at the Newton YMCA in Massachusetts. We did our first open water dives in the Red Sea at a place called Dahab on the edge of the Sinai Desert in Egypt. Then we did our open water dive training in Bermuda, where we got a chance to visit several wrecks on the ring of reefs that surround the island. Finally we took our first dive in the Aquarium's Giant Ocean Tank. So, after traveling all those miles to be trained, I feel ready for Bimini.

Earlier this week we shipped off all of our equipment to Miami and loaded the large coolers that will be used to bring live specimens back to Boston. We headed out at 7:00 a.m. Sunday morning, right after the Aquarium's annual gala, the Blue Planet Ball. Stay tuned for my first report. Hopefully I will have time to take off my tux from the night before.