Spring Collecting Trip #10: Pack Day

We're back where we started, at the Jones Boatyard in Miami, where I just heard it from a security guard about my painted toenail.

Yesterday was 'Pack Day,' a long day of packing up the animals we've collected and sending them back to the Aquarium in Boston. It's a nerve-racking process: the fish are booked onto a specific flight, so we need to make sure they make it, but we also don't want them to be sitting in boxes for hours and hours just waiting to go. So we basically have to cut it close on purpose. It makes everybody a little nervous.

Taking a last look at the fish, and knowing that they actually came from the ocean, and weren't created in some laboratory or by an artist somewhere, it was hard not to be kind of awestruck by them, and the fact that things like them even exist - just out there, natural, going about their business. They're amazing. It makes you realize why people go to such lengths to conserve their habitats, and also to try to give other people a chance to see them.

Photo Credit: Russ Haims

Soon enough, though, it was time to get moving. Here's a basic rundown. First, we remove the fish from their wells (starting at 3:30 am):

Using a headlamp in the wee hours of the morning
Photo credit: Steve Winer

Then, we place them into specifically-sized bags which are filled with water, arranged into Styrofoam containers, and then saturated with oxygen for the trip (the coily, yellow wire leads to the oxygen "gun"):

Bagged fish go into the Styrofoam containers
Photo Credit: Steve Winer

The Styrofoam containers are then loaded into boxes:

Styrofoam containers are boxed
Photo Credit: Steve Winer

…and driven off to the airport to be sent off to Boston. It sounds simple, but requires a lot of planning and preparation to make sure that things run smoothly and that the fish aren't too stressed out by the process. All of the trip participants (again, who pay to go on this trip) were completely gung-ho and great, as always.

Yesterday, things went really well - everything was packed up on time, and the fish made it onto their flight without a hitch. We also received word that they arrived at the Aquarium last night, where Aquarium staff opened up the boxes, identified the fish, and began the process of acclimating them to their new environment. We'll see them when we head back to Boston tomorrow. (Here's a taste of what it looks like when the fish arrive at the Aquarium, courtesy last year's collecting trip!)



Spring Collecting Trip #9: Docked!

Right now we're docked at a marina on South Bimini Island, preparing to make the crossing back over to the U.S. The surrounding area looks like a beach resort in a movie. There's even a soft-voiced, head mic-wearing yoga instructor giving directions to a small group of guests on a little pavilion about 50 yards from here. It's a funny digression from the surroundings we've had for the last two weeks. I wandered over and took some pictures.

Where are we?

On Saturday we docked in Alicetown (also on Bimini) for our community outreach program. The Aquarium has been doing collecting expeditions in the Bahamas for about 30 years, and this has only been possible because the Bahamian government has allowed us to do it. It's extremely generous on their part—they absolutely don't have to give us permission to collect in their waters, but they do, and as a result, the Aquarium is able to share really beautiful, unique animals from this part of the world with over 1.3 million Aquarium visitors every year.

It's amazing to think about the journey that a lot of the fish living at the Aquarium have made.
In recent years, Sherrie has been working to make this process more transparent for the people of the Bahamas—to provide them an idea of what's made possible by their nation's generosity, and to give them a glimpse into the entire process of how the fish get from the Bahamas to Boston. (Click here to learn about last year's education program for Bimini school kids.) This year, we organized a community open house on the boat for the people of Bimini, so anybody on the island was welcome to come aboard to learn about what we've been doing. Trip participants and Aquarium staff were stationed at different parts of the boat to talk to the folks as they came aboard.

Although Sherrie had been communicating for months with the local board of tourism and other community groups to publicize the event, people also did some great on-the-spot advertising. After we docked, two trip participants, Russ and Mike, walked off towards town to spread the word. Here's Russ coming back fifteen minutes later:

Mike had paid to rent the golf cart (when they told him the price, I heard he said something like, "We don't have time to negotiate!" and threw right down for it), and then he came back on foot so Russ could load up with the maximum amount of local kids. To see them pull up was this great mixture of touching and hilarious.

Everyone on the boat, from cook to captains to paying participants, completely threw themselves into the event. Here's John showing kids what it's like to wear SCUBA equipment and breathe off of a regulator:

Photo Credit: Steve Winer

And here's Caitlin showing a little guy some of the invertebrates we've collected:

Photo Credit: Steve Winer

It was also fun to see a mixture of people from Bimini and families who were visiting from other places, and to watch them get a chance to interact with each other. Here we're looking at some of the fish in the main wells:

Photo Credit: Steve Winer

The guy in the middle, Chadwick, ended up sticking around for about two hours. We had caught another lionfish, and had it in a little tank so Don could talk to people about them during the event. I pointed at it and asked Chadwick if he knew anything about those fish. He said, in his great Bahamian accent, "They are dangerous, and they don't belong here. But they are good to eat." It made my day. You're the man, Chadwick. (In case you missed it, the divers sampled lionfish and Tim shared some of the reviews in this recent post!)

About fifty people came onto the boat, and I think everybody had a great time. It's nice to feel like we're slowly strengthening the bond between the Aquarium and the people from whose country many of our fish come. Both Sherrie and Deb did a really great job of setting it up, and all of the trip participants were incredible. It was a great day.

We're finished collecting, so tonight we'll go back to Miami to pack up all of the fish for shipping back to Boston. It's quite a process. (Check out the all-nighter last year's group pulled to get the fish ready to ship!) I'll keep you posted.

Go Celtics.

Spring Collecting Trip #8: Eating Venomous Fish

The night dive was quite an experience; as we dove through the pitch-black (with flashlights), Captain John was on the boat piping down music through an underwater speaker. It wasn't very loud, but every couple of minutes, as I was drifting through the dark and seeing the reflections of huge, shiny fish-eyes in my flashlight beam, I'd catch a distant, barely recognizable earful of a 'Barenaked Ladies' album that was popular when I was in high school. It was pretty surreal. This was mostly just a pleasure dive, so we didn't do much collecting.

Yesterday morning we pulled up our first lionfish, although we've actually been seeing them with alarming frequency.

Photo Credit: Steve Winer

I think I've seen at least one, and often more than one, every time we've gone in. They're kind of everywhere. The problem with this is that lionfish don't belong in the Bahamas; they're an invasive species. Getting into the water and seeing lots of them is not a good feeling—it'd be like walking down the street in Boston and seeing dingoes, or hyenas, or some other obviously foreign animal, just trotting around in the park, eating the local animals with impunity. Something inside you just says, "This is definitely not going to be good."

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific, thousands of miles from here. Being as beautiful as they are, though, they're very popular fish for home aquariums. They were first seen in the Atlantic Ocean in 1992, and one theory is that that year Hurricane Andrew smashed somebody's home aquarium in Florida that then swept a couple of lionfish into the ocean.

The initial report of a lionfish sighting in 1992

Since then, it hasn't taken the lionfish population long to completely explode in the Atlantic. (Trip participant and long-time Aquarium volunteer Don spoke to our teen divers program earlier this year about this very problem! Read more in this SEA TURTLE post.)

A map of all reported lionfish sightings as of 2009

Basically, the Atlantic was not ready for lionfish. They reproduce multiple times a year, they're voracious eaters, they eat things as big as 1/3 of their own size, and they're covered in unbelievably venomous spines. Even though lionfish stings aren't fatal, I've heard that people who have been stung by lionfish have actually pleaded to have the affected limb amputated because the pain is so intense, even though they know it's eventually going to go away. As such, no other animal in the Atlantic seems willing to try to eat the lionfish.

For that reason, seeing them everywhere while SCUBA diving is even more disconcerting. They don't sweat you at all; they just slowly drift along, as if they know that nothing in this part of the world can mess with them. As you can imagine, this is a major problem; if left unchecked, lionfish could completely take over this ecosystem in a matter of decades. So, upon seeing one today, trip participant Don did exactly what environmental agencies recommend people start doing. He caught it, cooked it up, and we ate it. (You may remember Don from this recent post, he helped train the rest of us on collecting non-venemous fish!)

Of course, catching lionfish isn't something that you can just jump in and do. Don has been trained in lionfish collecting, and he uses special HexArmor gloves that are puncture-proof.

Don carefully collects a lionfish

Once their spines are properly removed, the lionfish are completely safe to eat. There's no risk at all. It's just like eating any other fish.

When Don was finished, Chef Matt prepared a lionfish ceviche.

And this is a 100% genuine, non-staged Sherrie reaction shot after trying it for the first time.

It really was that good, which is great news—lionfish are one fish species that we'd actually like to overfish, so an ideal situation would be that people start wanting to eat lionfish so much that fishermen begin to actively target them. Again, I can testify that they're actually really good, so next time you're at a seafood restaurant, ask them if they have any lionfish dishes. And if they don't, act kind of surprised and annoyed.

In a couple of hours we'll be docking the boat on Bimini Island and inviting the local folks aboard for a community open house, so everything is buzzing in preparation right now. It should be lots of fun—I'll talk about it more soon.



Spring Collecting Trip #7: Heading Ashore

I didn't manage any pictures of the wreck, but I did make sure to get stung by fire coral so I'd have something to remember from the dive. Mission accomplished. (Learn about fire corals and other hydrozoans here.)

Yesterday we took a different tack on collecting - we anchored the research vessel at a site called Dollar Harbor, and took inflatable boats out to a nearby beach:

The sun sets on Dollar Harbor

The amount of plastic that ends up on the shore of a tiny, secluded beach like that is pretty shocking; I saw everything from plastic water bottles to oil containers to the entire front bumper of a car. Moments like that one can be effective reminders of how long plastics stay around, and how far they can travel. Although being diligent about where one's trash goes is obviously a positive thing, I think it's always good to try to think of ways to actually reduce one's plastics use altogether, because it's very hard to be sure where those things will end up. I don't think many people toss their plastics directly into the ocean on purpose, but over time they often just get there. Seeing that much plastic on a beach as secluded as this one definitely drove this point home for me.

As we were getting off of the boat, we were told that there would likely be jellies in the water, so most people wore full-length clothes to cover their skin. Deb's Catwoman costume, of questionable purpose up to this point, proved a perfect melding of style and function for this type of event.

When we reached the beach, we unfurled a 100-foot long seine net about 100 feet from shore, and then walked it in to the beach, effectively corralling in the fish in that area. I should point out that we're very careful about only taking fish that aren't considered threatened or endangered, and that we're specially permitted by the Bahamian government to perform collecting practices like these. Sherrie is very conscientious about the entire process; she personally inspects every fish that we bring up to make sure that only those with healthy wild populations come aboard, and that none of them are too stressed out when they do. She made her way all the way up and down the seine net making sure that we only ended up with fish that fit these criteria, and everything else was let go. It was a lot of net to cover:

We did end up with several needlefish this way, and now they're safely
on board:

Needlefish are thin, surface dwelling fish who are closely related to flying fish

Mangroves were growing on the beach, and submerged mangrove roots often serve as a sort of nursery for younger fish, because larger predators can't reach them there. Back in the Boston area, salt marshes serve a similar purpose, and both habitats are very important for that reason. We did a second round of seine netting in a smaller cove, and I couldn't believe how many young, 12 to 18-inch barracudas we found in the net. We were reaching in by hand and pulling them out, and there must have been fifteen in there. It was like they were swimming out through the bottom and then swimming back in. We decided to keep a small pair of them. (Click here to meet a barracuda back in Boston who made this same journey from the Bahamas!)

Now we're back in Bimini, and tonight we'll be doing our first night dive. I'll try to get another post up tomorrow.



Spring Collecting Trip #5: Power of the Boat

This trip does funny things to people. It kind of reminds me of being a bunch of kids at a summer camp run by their favorite celebrity—like, imagine if Michael Jordan were running a camp for kids, and during the first few days of setting up he asked something like, "Who wants to help me move this table?" You can picture the way that 20 kids would run over there to try to pitch in however they could—10 cramming together to lift the table, some just running along with their hands touching the table, 5 running ahead to open doors, 5 more hovering around to direct traffic or look for anything else that needs doing.

It's just like that here, except that we're all adults and nobody is a celebrity. Everybody, Including the paying participants, is completely up to do everything:

Waiting for a net to come up

Looking through new findings

Watching the new fish get used to things on the boat

This attitude comes in handy when we need to do less glamorous things, like mending our nets and catch bags. Last night, as the boat was rocking and rolling on our way back to Bimini, eight trip participants sat alongside the staff with needles and dental floss, patching up holes in our gear that might allow caught fish to slip away (which actually happened to me yesterday, and it's pretty rough).

Don wearing a classic Don shirt

We're taking our newly refurbished nets to dive at a wreck site today, so hopefully I can get some good shots of that to show tomorrow.



Spring Collecting Trip #5: Bringing the Fish Aboard

Right now I'm sitting out the day's fourth dive to try to give some blisters a chance to heal. I'm 90% sure that I won't get a hard time for this, but it's tough to tell. Last night we traveled east for about nine hours until we reached the Berry Islands, where we'll collect for a few more days.

I realized today that I had forgotten to mention another great and important aquarist innovation—the catch bag:

If you can't tell, it's a Tupperware container with flaps sown into the lid (so hands can go in but fish don't come out), and the bottom has been cut off and connected to a plastic and mesh net. Everybody dives with one of these clipped onto them:

Deb with her catch bag

If you do manage to get a fish into one of your hand nets, you quickly reach in with one hand and try to gently get a hold of the fish without its being able to wriggle out (and without spiking your thumb too badly on its dorsal spines). Then, you transfer the fish to your catch bag, where it'll travel with you for the rest of the dive. Sherrie is so good at collecting that whenever she swims by, it looks like she's traveling around with a little Aquarium attached to her.

Fish, like us, can't just shoot up to the surface immediately, because the pressure differences can be hard on them—so at the end of everybody's dive, before coming to the surface, they place their catch bags into a barrel that's hanging off the boat about ten feet above the bottom. Then, the barrel is brought up five feet every ten minutes to give the fish a chance to acclimate, until it finally comes all the way out:

John with the decompression barrel

Once the fish are up, everybody springs into action. Sherrie can ID all of the fish species by sight, which is amazing, so she identifies them as they come up and tells the rest of us where to put them on the boat.

We also have the task of keeping the fish healthy and comfortable while they're on board, and some of them are there for weeks at a time. Thankfully they have lots of comfortable places to stay.

Some of the ship's holding wells

In addition to the fish, we're also collecting some invertebrates on the trip. On today's first dive, I had the luck of stumbling upon Deb's favorite critter, a banded coral shrimp.

I think she was excited. More tomorrow.



Spring Collecting Trip #4: Heartbreak and the Art of Fish Collecting

I'm enduring an emotional low right now after coming back from a dive with an empty catch bag. (Unlike the success of my first dive.) Even though all of us on the trip are working towards the same goal, there's definitely a sense of pride about personally having a successful dive. Afterward, you find yourself walking around asking people what they caught in hopes that they'll ask you the same question, although sometimes they don't, and then you tell them anyway. Coming up empty-handed can be hard, though, and the fish don’t make it easy on us.

What am I doing wrong?

We have a very specific list of fish that we're looking for on this trip, which means that to get them, we have to actually dive down and find them. This is difficult because 1) we need to memorize what lots of different fish look like, and 2) fish are much better at swimming than we are. This second fact is actually one reason that scuba diving is so much fun: the fish are well aware that they're great swimmers, so they let us get really close to them without worrying about it too much, since they know that they'll be able to scoot off in a second if they need to. It's relatively easy to see cool fish for this reason—catching them, though, can be really hard.

Some of the participants on this trip are very experienced divers (one, named Steve, has been diving for 50 years—I picture him walking on the ocean floor wearing one of those big spherical brass helmets, while two guys on a boat pump air down to him with a bellows). Many of them, though, have never collected fish before, so on the first night, Sherrie and Don (who's an experienced participant and an Aquarium volunteer, he recently gave an interesting talk on lionfish to budding teen Aquarium divers) gave us a demonstration. These pictures take place in the boat’s salon, where we do most of our meeting.

Each diver goes down with two nets. Mesh can hurt the fishes' skin, so we use big plastic nets that are gentler on them. Carrying these underwater is kind of like trying to swim while holding two open parachutes, so we need to fold them up against our bodies as we go:

Once we've found a fish that we're interested in, the goal is basically to surround him with our nets without spooking him so much that he swims away. This requires a lot of communication and teamwork, which can be hard underwater. We basically need to move really, really slowly, until the edges of our nets are touching each other and the fish is boxed in.

I was surprised to find out that it doesn't occur to the average fish to just swim upward and away in a situation like this, so they'll usually swim into one of our nets once they've been surrounded. It might sound simple enough, but it takes a lot of practice and finesse. Some people are amazing at it—the ship's cook, Matt, is not only an excellent cook, but also one of the best collectors. He also does all of his diving in jean shorts, which is awesome.

There's a whole other process that needs to take place once the fish have been caught, which I'll talk about tomorrow. Here's what Sherrie was sneakily doing to me as I was typing the previous paragraph, oblivious.

Here’s how she felt about it.



Spring Collecting Trip #3: And we're off!

When I sent in this earlier blog post, I was sitting with my laptop on the asphalt at the Jones Boatyard in Miami, picking up a wireless internet signal being broadcast from a yacht docked nearby. All of the trip participants arrived soon after that--there are four paid Aquarium staff, two captains, a cook, and eight paying participants. The participants are SCUBA divers who are interested in taking part in the expedition, so those spots are available to anybody who’s SCUBA certified and willing to pay their way onto the trip. (More info here!)

After spending last night on the boat, today we traveled up the Miami River and over into the Bahamas--about 60 miles in total. Bridges had to come up just for us when we passed under them. I think it made all of us feel pretty important.

Right now we’re anchored a few miles offshore of Bimini Island. Earlier we did our first collecting dive, and had what Sherrie seemed to think was a surprising amount of success for a first try. Here are some highlights.

One participant caught these balloonfish:

Another got this trumpetfish:

Here are my first catches—two banded butterflyfish and a bluehead wrasse. I feel an embarrassing amount of pride about having caught them.

There’s really nothing quite like catching a fish using the methods that we do on this trip. It’s really, really hard, but so, so fun and exciting. Soon I’ll post about how it’s done.



Spring Collecting Trip #2: Fun with ingenuity

It's day 2 at the shipyard, and trip participants (including my boss, Deb) have started to arrive this morning. It's fun to see how excited the new folks get as they come aboard.

I noticed an interesting thing today. Being out on a boat for long periods of time can provide some unique challenges--collecting and housing fish can be an unpredictable business, and if you realize that you need a certain piece of equipment while out at sea, you're limited to what you have available on the boat. Aquarists are some of the most creative people around when it comes to taking the objects at hand and turning them into workable solutions to problems, and the boat is full of really neat examples of that creativity.

Here's a top and bottom view of a barrel lid that's been created out of pieces of stretchy but firm wetsuit fabric to keep objects in, but allow quick access to a reaching aquarist :

Many reef fish are shy and reclusive, so during their time in the boat's holding areas, it's helpful for them to have places to hide to keep from getting stressed out. There's lots of PVC pipe available on the boat, and some people have used heat guns to turn pieces of pipe into great little refuge spaces to put into the fish pens:

My favorite so far, though, is the makeshift splint that Sherrie created for herself this morning after hurting her thumb:

The best thing about this is that we're still docked at the shipyard, and equipment and medical supplies are still relatively easy to come by. I think aquarists just do this stuff because they like it. It's kind of a part of their nature. I bet she'd do the same thing at home. There's a great 'roll with it' attitude and sense of ingenuity on the boat, and it's really contagious. Right now I'm trying to rig up some kind of contraption to make my frequent collisions with the boat's door-frames less painful:

That's the expert hand of Captain John, one of our two captains for the trip. Short hair is nice and low maintenance on a trip like this, but it doesn't provide great cushioning for the tall and absent-minded. I'm sure somebody will come up with something.

- Tim

Spring Collecting Trip #1: Getting Settled

The last 36 hours have been so busy that I think we all feel a little bit strange about the mini-break we're taking. People are still half-looking around for things to do even as they're sitting and chatting with each other. We're at a shipyard in Miami, on board the Research Vessel Coral Reef II, and right now the only people on the boat are the four Aquarium employees: John, the Aquarium's dive safety officer; Caitlin, a biologist with the Aquarium's penguin colony; Sherrie, a senior aquarist for the Aquarium's Giant Ocean Tank; and me. Tomorrow, the rest of the participants will arrive, and today the four of us have been getting the boat ready to embark on a 10-day trip to the Bahamas to collect fish for the Aquarium's exhibits.

Our home for the next two weeks

Sherrie, the expedition leader, is the kind of person that really makes you want to work hard to make sure that everything runs smoothly. We had a huge amount of work to do today, and everyone approached it with the kind of enthusiasm that a kid might put into helping his older cousin do some really mystical task, like working on a motorcycle. The boat is equipped with pens to hold all of the fish and invertebrates that we'll collect, and the 12 hours of cleaning and hauling equipment and fixing plumbing that we did today didn't really feel like work at all. Even yesterday at the airport, although it was discouraging and a little stressful when our flight to Miami was delayed for 2 and then 4 and then 6 hours, it was fun just to be able to pass the time together. Sherrie has done a number of these trips, and she mentioned that one great thing about them is getting to spend time with people with whom you may have worked for years, but haven't had a lot of opportunities to actually get to know. I think we've all enjoyed that so far.

Expedition leader Sherrie practices decision-making skills during an airport delay

John and Caitlin listen attentively as Sherrie lays down the law

John emerges from checking equipment in the lazaret

Everyone is tired, but looking forward to tomorrow when the participants will arrive and we'll start preparing for the collecting to begin. On such a unique and exciting trip, it's easy to get caught up in one's own experiences and momentarily lose track of the fact that we have a long list of animals to collect--and catching fish with hand nets can be very difficult (learn about fish collecting by reading this conversation between Aquarium president Bud Ris and diver Sarah Taylor during a previous collecting trip). There is a definite art to the practice, and I'm excited to watch some of the more experienced fish-catchers really get into their elements. The boat is so quiet right now that it's hard to imagine its eventually being full of people and animals, but soon that'll be the case. More to come tomorrow--for now, I need to investigate the chatter and pizza smells coming from the kitchen.

- Tim