#7: What's Happening - First Contact

Standing on the dive platform above the clear, warm water of the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT), creatures of all shapes and sizes circling below me, one question I'm often asked by the visitors surrounding the top of the exhibit is, "How do you get to dive in that tank?" Indeed, it's a question I myself once asked when I was visiting the aquarium as a kid, some twenty-odd years ago.

Though there are a variety of ways certified SCUBA divers can experience the GOT as a guest diver, such as through the New England Aquarium Dive Club, raffles or auctions offered through charitable organizations, or even participating in annual NEAq collecting expeditions into the Bahamas, the majority of divers seen swimming alongside the six hundred plus inhabitants of the GOT are NEAq Scientific Divers. These divers, both Aquarium staff and volunteers, perform a wide variety of tasks critical to the success of such a large and complicated exhibit. They also undertake a wide variety of diving activities for the Aquarium in both local waters and at points scattered all across the globe.

The first step in becoming a Scientific Diver for the New England Aquarium is a wet one--it's the dreaded, and so very exciting, checkout dive. A prerequisite for Scientific Diver candidates is to be SCUBA certified, and one of my jobs as the Aquarium's Diving Safety Officer is to ensure that these candidates are adequately comfortable and competent underwater.

What better way to test this then to bring them into the GOT and have them perform all the basic SCUBA skills they learned in their Open Water certification class--but with a twist.

This time they have to do these skills while 300lb sand tiger sharks circle overhead, loggerhead turtles creep up behind them, and literally hundreds of spectators watch their every move only inches away.

Not many divers get the unique experience of buddy breathing while a young child drinks in every detail, wide-eyed in wonder.

Wide-eyed, that's the expression I see in basically every candidate splashing into the tank for the first time, as they experience a sense of sensory overload. And I'm proud of every one of them as I watch that expression morph into one of elation as I shake their hand at the completion of the skills review.

They have to get past me, and the GOT, before they can start their education as a Scientific Diver for the Aquarium, but with that first contact I know that NEAq has gained another valuable diver.




#6: Our Reef Residents - bluehead wrasse

This is the first entry in a series we're going to call: "Our Reef Residents." Each entry will profile one of the species in the Giant Ocean Tank's tropical reef!

This entry is the bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum). Blueheads live in the tropics and are found around coral reefs and in seagrass beds. We collected several specimens (along with blackear, bluehead, dwarf, rainbow, and yellowhead wrasses) on the recent Bahamas Collecting Expedition.

Wrasses are fast swimmers and it is an exhausting process to catch them underwater. Although challenging, it is worth the extra effort to bring these beautiful fishes home to Boston and introduce them to the Giant Ocean Tank.

Wrasses belong to the Family Labridae which contains over 600 different species. Many members of this family, like the bluehead, have an interesting reproductive biology. Blueheads are typically born female. Males are produced when a female sexually reverses after a dominant male is predated upon or dies. This process is called protogyny. The "supermale" wrasse maintains reproductive control over a smaller group of females, or harem, while also keeping geographical control over a certain area. The male has striking coloration and is referred to as a terminal phase male.

Females are less brightly colored and are called initial phase wrasses. Occasionally, a bluehead will be born male; it is also considered an initial phase wrasse. These smaller males will never become dominant and will not change sex. They are also called "sneaker" or "streaker" males because they quickly move into a supermale's territory to mate with his females. This helps to ensure a high level of genetic diversity. Blueheads are pelagic spawners and release eggs into the water column for dispersal by ocean currents.

The illustration above shows both the terminal phase and initial phase of the bluehead wrasse. The terminal phase bluehead has a bright blue head, two vertical black bars separated by a white bar, and yellowish-green body. It can grow up to six inches long. The initial phase bluehead pictured is a juvenile and has a yellow back, white underside, and black spot on its dorsal fin. The appearance of initial phase blueheads varies depending on the age of the wrasse and its geographic location. They range from one to four inches in length. Both the terminal phase and initial phase blueheads reside in the Giant Ocean Tank here at the New England Aquarium.




#5: Dive Buddies - The Summer Interns

Each summer, we bring on a small number of interns to assist us in taking care of the Giant Ocean Tank (G.O.T) and its many inhabitants. They come from all over, from North Carolina to Vermont, as well as from local Boston schools. We've even had one from Portugal. Having them is a great boost for us, and it's a great opportunity for them to get some hands-on experience in marine science.

Our interns are responsible for prepping the many pounds of food for over 600 G.O.T. creatures, doing surface feedings, helping with animal acclimation and sea turtle exams, and much more.

SCUBA certified interns also have the privilege of diving in the G.O.T., where they become part of the team that maintains the tank, scrubbing algae off of the artificial reef, vacuuming the gravel, and cleaning the windows so that the visitors are able to see inside. Along with this, they get to feed some of our animals underwater, a coveted privilege. They dive 1 of the 4 feeding dives, at 2:30, when we target feed our southern stingrays and cownose rays their favorite food, shrimp. We couldn't survive the summer without them. Meet Sam, Cara, and Christine... our interns of Summer '08.

"Working as a Giant Ocean Tank intern is a work experience like no other. Every day brings new and exciting adventures and challenges. Whether feeding Myrtle, a 548-pound green sea turtle, or scrubbing coral, everything is a blast ... and then you get sprayed in the face by squid guts!" -Sam

"My experience at the New England Aquarium has been a remarkable and life-changing opportunity. I have always been enthralled by marine life but my internship experience has allowed me to focus my knowledge towards specific marine species and habitats. I have fallen in love with this job and cannot imagine any other career path for myself after just three months at NEAQ." -Cara

"Hey! My name is Christine and I am one of the trio of magnificent interns diving in the Giant Ocean Tank this summer. My experience at the aquarium has been nothing short of amazing and I am already sad to be leaving this job (How could you not miss diving with sharks and giant sea turtles everyday?!). The staff is an entertaining and wily bunch and working with them has made this great job even sweeter. It's a dream come true for any intern to work for people who treat you like an equal staff member and not just the newbie to give the dirty jobs to (though there was no shortage of that!). In short, this has been one of my best summers and has inspired me to consider a career in marine sciences and especially aquaria. Any chance I get to dive is OK with me!" -Christine



#4: What's Happening - Annual Sea Turtle Exams

There are seven species of sea turtles in the world; all are recognized as endangered or threatened. Six of the seven species are found in U.S. waters. Every fall hundreds of tropical and sub-tropical sea turtles end up in Northern waters along the Eastern seaboard. It is not entirely clear why this occurs, but there are two possible theories. Some scientists believe that New England provides an important foraging ground for young sea turtles, and their migration here is deliberate. Others believe small juvenile sea turtles get caught up in the Gulf Stream and their arrival here is involuntary. Either way, when water temperatures drop, many of these turtles suffer from hypothermia, and in some cases severe frost bite. The New England Aquarium's Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is a member of a stranding network that rescues these cold-stunned turtles. Our goal is to nurse them back to health and eventually release them back into the wild.

The Giant Ocean Tank offers a unique opportunity for endangered and threatened sea turtles that have been classified as non-releasable. This 200,000 gallon, 23 foot deep Caribbean reef exhibit provides sea turtles with an ideal habitat in which to live out their lives. Over the past 30 years, loggerheads, Kemp's ridleys, hawksbills, and green sea turtles have thrived in the Giant Ocean Tank. We currently have four sea turtles; two loggerheads (Carolina and Retread), one Kemp's ridley (Scute), and one green sea turtle (Myrtle).

Like all of our animals, they benefit from excellent water quality, sound nutrition and first-rate veterinary care. To ensure the good health of our turtles, we conduct medical exams every summer. This year's exams took place on Wednesday, August 6 and Thursday, August 7. Completing the annual sea turtle exams is an enormous effort, requiring the participation of many individuals from a variety of departments.

Staff biologists (the divers) from the Fishes Department collect the turtles from the exhibit and make sure everything is in place for the exams. Veterinary staff and biologists from our Animal Health Division perform all the diagnostic work, and our Educators interpret the entire procedure for our visitors. The procedure starts with the "turtle catch." Two divers enter the exhibit and gently grasp the turtle under the fore flippers. The turtle is swiftly escorted to the surface of the exhibit and placed into a large box designed specifically for sea turtle removal.

The box is then lifted out of the exhibit and into an adjoining support area with an electronic hoist. The turtle is lifted out of the box and onto a small exam table. Both loggerheads weigh well over 100 pounds, so it can take up to four individuals to accomplish this. Once the turtle is settled on the table, the veterinarians and biologists begin their work.

They begin by weighing and measuring the turtle. They carefully examine the eyes, mouth, flippers and shell, looking for any abnormalities. A blood sample is taken from a vessel on the top of the turtle's neck. The exam is concluded with an ultrasound which enables the vets to get a heart rate and determine if there is any egg development. The turtle is then placed back in the exam box, and returned to the exhibit. Staff divers monitor the animal's behavior for several hours after the exam.

Myrtle, our green turtle weighs around 550 pounds, and is too big for the exam table. Her exam is conducted in the box at the surface of the exhibit. Our loggerheads weighed in at 196 (Retread) and 152 (Carolina). Scute, our little ridley, weighs only 52 pounds. All four turtles are in good overall health, and will likely grace the Giant Ocean Tank for many years to come.




#3: Meet the Divers

Thanks for visiting the New England Aquarium's GOT divers! Here you'll be able to read about marine biology from the perspective of divers who feed and care for hundreds of ocean animals. In the coming weeks Sarah, Sherrie, John, Chris, Mike and many others will be posting videos, photos and explanations of exciting events such as the annual sea turtle medical exams.

See you underwater!