#74: Our Reef Residents - Mero the warsaw grouper

One of my favorite reef residents in the GOT is Mero, our warsaw grouper, Epinephelus nigritus. In the 40 years that the GOT has housed fish, this is the only representative of this species to have lived here.

According to fishbase.org, warsaws can reach a length of 230 cm or over 7.5 feet. In our tank, this individual seems to be a slow growing fish. Although we have hosted this fish in the GOT since 1993, it is only about 3 feet long. In comparison, the other large Caribbean grouper species that we have here at the Aquarium, the goliath grouper, seems to grow much faster. It can be found in our Blue Hole exhibit.

Mero loves to eat tiny silversides!

Mero is interesting because he came to us as a Gulf Stream orphan (GSO) at least 18 years ago. Gulf Stream orphans ride the Gulf Stream north from the tropics to New England while still in their microscopic egg or larval stages. At some point they drop out of the stream close to shore and grow into miniature tropical fishes. We start seeing them up north in August. Since these tiny tropical fishes can't swim all the way back down south, they usually succumb to the dropping water temperatures by October. Mero was less than 3 inches when collected and was practically indistinguishable from the baby snowy groupers that are a much more common GSO species. It wasn't until years later that this fish could be recognized as a warsaw and not a snowy.

At a certain size, one way to ID the warsaw grouper is by its extra long second dorsal spine. Here Mero shows off his.

More than any other in the tank this fish loves to be scratched. The divers can make his day by dropping sand onto his skin and into his gills. Mero will open his gill covers wide to encourage this activity.

But what is really happening here? Mero is responding to the touch of the sand the same way he would to the touch of a cleaner fish. Cleaner fish are tiny fish that hang out in particular sections of living coral reefs referred to as cleaning stations. Larger fish like Mero are attracted to these stations. The cleaner fish eat the parasites off of the skin and gills of the larger fish. The cleaner fish get a free meal and the big fish get healthy glowing skin and fresh feeling gills. We don't have tiny cleaners in the GOT but next time you visit the Aquarium you are likely to see this activity with neon gobies involved in cleaning duties on the goliaths in our Blue Hole exhibit. Say hello to Mero while you're here!

-Dan L



It only gets better!

My second underwater dive session was most definitely a life-changing experience.

Evan getting his tank set up

When I was underwater, I was comparing myself to everything from a small seahorse to a seal. (The Aquarium has seahorses AND two kinds of seal, Northern fur seals and Atlantic harbor seals!) I even felt like an astronaut.

I have to admit that when we're geared up (literally from head to toe) my team and I look pretty good...

Lookin' good...

Buddied up and ready to roll, we're all in our own lil' worlds, exploring the world of water even though we're only in a shallow pool. When we moved through the skills and jumped into the bigger pool it got even more exciting. Breathing underwater is amazing! (Read what another SEA TURTLE thinks of breathing underwater here.) I love the feeling.

What a feeling!

- Evan


Fish don't hold their breath underwater. Now I don't have to either :)

I always thought that my life was amazing in many ways. My friends, family and youth center was always there to back me up. But for the last year and a half there has been another supporter: the staff whom I work with closely at the New England Aquarium. As a coworker once said to me, "The Aquarium loves you!And I love the Aquarium.

Jane is feeling okay!

Thanks to the New England Aquarium I have learned so much about animals and myself. And recently I learned that I can BREATHE UNDER WATER (dun dun dunnnn...). SEA TURTLE has turned senior year of high school into the most exciting year ever. Aside from worrying about college financial aid, now I have something to look forward to!

Jane waves hello

The SEA TURTLE pool sessions have been amazing. Sunday, February 7, 2010 completely made my week. Waking up early in the morning was totally worth it. Learning to set up the equipment was easy enough, learning that a tank filled of air is amazingly heavy was ironic but learning that breathing under water is the most calming thing you can experience was ultimately magical.

I can't wait for our next class!

- Jane

(Click here and here to see how just how much Jane has progressed throughout the program!)


#73: Exams during school vacation? If you're a sea turtle!

It's February school vacation here in Massachusetts. It's always an exciting time to visit the Aquarium but we decided to make it even more special this year. We thought visitors might like to see how we care for our animals so we scheduled sea turtle exams this week. First up, our two Kemp's ridley sea turtles, Scute and Ari.

We started by swimming both sea turtles into our turtle removal box.

Then we attached the box to the crane so it could be lifted out of the water.

Our Animal Health Department checked their eyes, nostrils, and mouths...

...and performed ultrasounds.

They also took blood samples to send away for testing.

And our visitors got to have front row seats!

After getting a clean bill of health, the two sea turtles were put back into the turtle box.

And were returned to the GOT safe and sound.

A special thank you to Mariah Shore who photographed the exams and provided all the images for this blog post. Click here to read about a turtle exam on Myrtle, our 550-pound green sea turtle.

- Sarah


Diving In, Literally!

My name is Tori and I have been a volunteer in the Education department at the Aquarium since 2007. I am now a part of a team of ten students selected to learn how to scuba dive and then travel to the Bahamas on a learning and research expedition.

Tori carrying her steel tank.

The second Sunday session was one of the most fun, productive, and rewarding days. This was the first day that we were able to use the scuba tanks and buoyancy control devices (BCDs). Regulators, as well as a pressure gauge and a tube to connect to the BCD, are attached to the tank. One regulator is for primary use, while a second regulator (usually colored bright yellow) is a backup and can be used if a buddy diver needs to share air. The pressure gauge lets a diver know how much air is in their tank.

The BCD fits like a vest and can inflate to obtain positive buoyancy, or deflate and work with either integrated weights (weights inside the BCD) or a weight belt (weights connected outside the BCD), to obtain negative buoyancy. The goal of most divers, however, is to obtain neutral buoyancy, so the combination of these pieces of gear is very important. Once we all got our wetsuits on, we were all given our BCDs and tanks, and we learned how to use them and correctly set them up.

Tori sets up her gear.

Then, we entered the water!

We weighted ourselves down and took our first breaths underwater -- an incredible feeling! After we were comfortable swimming around and breathing underwater, we started to learn some skills, such as removing our regulators underwater or taking our masks off underwater. Taking my mask off underwater was one of the scariest things that I had done so far. After a while, though, I got used to breathing without a mask on and was able to complete the skills.

After a much-deserved lunch, we entered the water again...this time, to the large pool! While in the large pool, we practiced sharing air with a buddy diver, and practiced ascents and descents (going up and going down in the water).

Students practicing air sharing skills.

At the end of the day, we took a group photo underwater with our gear!

Group photo in the deep end of the pool.

Scuba diving for the first time was certainly an exciting, and somewhat overwhelming experience. I most definitely cannot wait to scuba again!

- Tori


It's all in the family

My name is Alex Bailey. Both of my parents are divers and they both work at the New England Aquarium. (You can read some of my father's past blogs here.) I have been hearing about their diving adventures since I can remember, and I have always wanted to go on an Aquarium collecting trip to the Bahamas. When I heard about the SEA TURTLE program, I knew that I wanted to apply.

Alex practicing the mask removal skill

I am already scuba certified and have been diving in open water a few times. But, I like reviewing the skills I have learned and even more so with the SEA TURTLE team.

I really look forward to seeing everyone and hanging out together. My favorite part of the pool sessions is definitely when we are down on the bottom of the deep end just having fun and learning the all the scuba skills with our gear on.

Alex does some heavy lifting

And, lunch, don't forget about lunch, that part is good, too!

- Alex


#76: St. Patrick's Day in the GOT

While revelers were teeming through the streets of Boston in search of all things Irish on St. Patrick's Day, Sarah brought a little more green to the GOT -- as if green moray eels and Myrtle the 550-pound green sea turtle weren't enough green for one tank!

Hope everyone had a Happy St. Patrick's Day! And if you need a little more green in your life, come by the Giant Ocean Tank at the Aquarium to visit Myrtle, our moray eels and the hundreds of other animals living on this Caribbean coral reef.

We came, we saw, we DOVE!

The SEA TURTLE team got up bright and early again Sunday to go to the pool. For some reason everyone was awake and didn't seem even a little bit sleepy. I think it was because everyone was excited to PUT ON SCUBA GEAR FOR THE FIRST TIME AND SWIM UNDERWATER!

After we suited up and gathered our gear, we learned how to set up our tanks, regulators, and BCDs (buoyancy compensation devices).

SEA TURTLEs setting up gear.

We entered the shallow pool first so the students could swim around and get used to their new gear.

Kylie is ready to start!

We started our skills after everyone was feeling comfortable underwater. Students have to pass specific set of skills before moving onto more challenging ones. Basically, the instructor (me) would talk about a skill and demonstrate how to do it. Then the students would give it a shot (and get any needed help from our three amazing Divemasters - Barbara, Bill, and Samantha).

We started with the basics like breathing with a regulator and clearing a partially flooded mask. Eventually we built up to taking off our masks underwater for a full minute before putting them back on properly.

Here I demonstrate mask removal and replacement (not upside down!) before asking the students to try. (Yes, they all passed!)

We also learned how to inflate and deflate a BCD, how to ascend and descend safely, how to remove a weight belt, how to recover a regulator, how to breathe from a buddy's alternate air source, and a lot more.

Students properly ascending from the bottom.

I'm very happy to report that the students exceeded our expectations (which were very high for this group anyway) and everyone passed with flying colors. We even had some extra time to practice a little synchronized swimming...

- Sarah

#72: The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D meets the GOT

The Giant Ocean Tank is a spectacular Caribbean coral reef exhibit. The water is about 75 degrees year round with vibrant tropical fishes and other warmer water animals, like cownose rays and green sea turtles. Even though we swim in tropical waters every day, we divers still can't help but get excited about a taste of the Pacific Islands.

On Friday, The Ultimate Wave Tahiti 3D is opening at the Simons IMAX Theatre. Chris and Enrique are shrugging off any mid-winter blues by bringing a taste of Tahiti to the GOT. Watch them go about their routine feeding with some tropical flair!

We hope you come by to watch the new flick. Make sure you leave time to see Myrtle and the hundreds of other animals in the GOT, too!



#75: Many People Ask - Actually, they never ask...

The Giant Ocean Tank - what a beautiful and imposing exhibit. Impossible to miss during a visit to the Aquarium, the GOT rises four stories through the very center of the Aquarium, the pristine Caribbean water contained within bathing the Aquarium in an azure light.

Wait, what? Caribbean water? Isn't the New England Aquarium in the very heart of New England, home to Nor'easters and the Red Sox? Where does this warm, clear, and decidedly non-New England water come from?

Good question! (Well, of course I asked it, but still...)

The short answer is, we create it.

But that answer is unfair, it short-changes the truth. That crystal clear water is created through the dedication of an entire team of skilled technicians, men and women who work literally day and night to make sure the water that flows into, throughout, and out of the GOT is absolutely the best water the exhibit's inhabitants could ever hope for.

Like the wizard pulling levers behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, the Mechanical Systems Operators (MSOs) are the wizards behind the Giant Ocean Tank. Or maybe I should say below the GOT, for much of the magic happens in the very bowels of the Aquarium, far from the inquisitive eyes of the visitors.

The long corridors in the basement of the Aquarium, with its complex network of piping everywhere, reminds me of a submarine.

Mark, one of the MSOs, recently took me on a tour of what really goes on down there, and helped me connect the dots from when water enters NEAq, to when it bids it farewell.

MSO Mark surveys everything from his command post

Yep, that water starts its journey into the GOT straight out of Boston Harbor. Of course, it has to clean up its act before it's allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the GOT. It's just too cold, too filled with algae and sediments, and too - well, it's just not ready for the big time. But we all gotta start somewhere...

The intake pumps

Powerful pumps periodically draw water out of the harbor and into holding tanks in NEAq's basement via two massive intake pipes. I've been SCUBA diving down to the 'business end' of those intakes, out on the seafloor of the harbor, and it's pretty creepy to think about accidentally getting sucked into one of them. Luckily, we have a very strict safety protocol to ensure that could never happen!

If I ever was sucked into the intakes, you'd find me inside this giant strainer (the thing I'm leaning on). Fortunately I'm only standing next to it.

Once it's brought into the Aquarium, the water spends a good amount of time in "H2O charm school", where it's steam heated and filtered, filtered, filtered. I won't bore you with the technical details of the many styles of filtration we employ, just suffice it to say there's a LOT of filtration systems within the footprint of NEAq.

One of the GOT filter rooms.

Even Barbara, Husbandry Operations Manager, gets into the act. She's getting a little water time in one of the filter beds. Believe me, that's not an easy place to get into.

Once the harbor water has been made Caribbean-ready, it's finally allowed to mix with the GOT water. This water, which includes the 200,000 gallons inside the tank as well as about another 50,000 gallons that flows throughout the GOT's life-support system (LSS), is circulated every ninety minutes. That's right - the entire volume of the GOT is replaced every ninety minutes.

Here's a view of the main GOT pump and its backup

Powerful pumps draw this water out of the GOT, through yet more filtration, and push it all the way up to the fifth floor, ABOVE the top of the GOT, where - yes - it's filtered again.

Protein skimmers, part of the GOT LSS, a floor above the top of the GOT.

At this point the water is treated with ozone gas - a gas that's basically created by man-made lightning! Ozone is just one of the tools we use to help break down organic waste (aka 'fish poo').

This is the ozone generator dedicated to the GOT. It makes a big scary noise about every thirty seconds.

After protein skimming and a healthy dose of ozone, the GOT water thunders into a 26,000 gallon tank called the 'head tank' on the fourth floor, helping to oxygenate the water (fish need oxygen to live, just like us humans). This tank provides a reservoir for the GOT LSS, and because it's located four stories up, it enlists gravity to help propel the water back into the GOT.

This is where the water is dumped into the head tank.

Here I am at the entrance to the head tank (that black hole behind me). The pumps have been turned off so Dan and I can do an inspection dive in the tank.

That's Dan crawling down into the tank.

I brought an underwater camera with me to inspect the tank. The sound is pretty cool.

Once out of the head tank, the water flows down another pipe, all the way into the basement, where it then flows UP into the bottom of the GOT. That's right - the entire weight of 200,000 gallons of water, and four stories of tank, sits above the machine shop of our facilities guys.

MSO Matt in the machine shop under the GOT. He's standing beneath over 1.6 MILLION POUNDS of water! Those big red pipes going into the ceiling are the intake and discharge lines for the GOT.

Well, that's about it. Harbor water gets dressed up, introduced into the world of the GOT, then after a good long stint circulating within the Aquarium, it's treated and released back into the harbor, probably cleaner then is was when it came in.

I suppose if you think of it like that, NEAq is kind of like a health spa for water...

So next time you visit the Aquarium and marvel at the Giant Ocean Tank, you'll know a secret. There's a team of wizards busy behind the scenes pulling levers and pushing buttons to make it all happen.

Safe diving.

- John



Questions, corals and inspiration!

There are lots of great things about working at the Aquarium, but one thing many of us enjoy is working with people that do amazing research and conservation work all over the world. And if you can manage to catch our scientists in Boston between trips to a research spot, you can convince them to talk about their work and show some great pictures!

Randi answering a question for our SEA TURTLEs

Such was the case when Dr. Randi Rotjan came to speak with our SEA TURTLEs about her research on corals, the scientific process and how she got to where she is today. (Learn about Randi's research in the Red Sea here.) It was a fantastic lecture with many students commenting on how much they learned and were inspired to do something to help our oceans. Here two SEA TURTLEs, Oriana and Nick, respond to the lecture.

Oriana taking some notes

Oriana's words:
It was so amazing to learn how Dr. Rotjan devotes her life to answering her own questions through her research!! It was really interesting to hear about everything. Her talk made me want to learn more about corals! One of my favorites things she said was "the only constant is change." This inspired me to keep exploring, learning more and to think about (and answer!) my own questions. I cannot wait for the next class!

Nick posing a question about potential frustrations

Nick's thoughts:

It was an incomparable to discuss corals and marine ecosystems with someone with not only an impressive aptitude for the subject but also with a person who possesses a deeply inspiring passion for our world's oceans and all of its hidden treasures. I left the discussion reassured that we, as "stewards of a blue planet", have the power to establish a fighting chance for the natural world and in motivating our peers to care about the ocean. I was amazed and grew very excited about my upcoming adventure!

Pretty powerful words from our SEA TURTLEs! Things could not have worked out better. Everyone learned about corals, the importance and power of being able to ask your own research questions and became inspired for the future. Clearly Dr. Rotjan made an impact on our young ocean stewards. And as both Oriana and Nick both expressed, I cannot wait for the next class and for the upcoming adventure!

- Jo


SEA TURTLE hosts its inaugural guest speaker

Did you know that Anthozoa means "flower animal" or that corals have symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae inside of them that give them much of their color? Dr. Randi Rotjan knows this and so much more about corals. She is a coral reef research scientist/Principal Investigator at the New England Aquarium. She was SEA TURTLE's first guest speaker at Wednesday's night class.

Dr. Rotjan describing the structure of corals.

Dr. Rotjan's journey on her quest to become a marine biologist/evolutionary ecologist took 15 years of post high school education. She explained that the reward for all this time and effort is being able to ask her own scientific questions and then use her knowledge, creative thinking and experiments to find the answers. She described the process as "CSI: Marine Biology".

I really enjoyed Dr. Rotjan's description of coral reefs...they are like underwater cities, with each coral analogous to an apartment building. The corals are the engineers, the architects, and the workers. No corals, no reefs, no reef creatures.

Reefs with and without corals

To measure the health of a coral reef, she will gather information by measuring things. Dr. Rotjan will set up a transect, a system for measuring a specific area and recording the animals living in that area. She will also photo document the site using underwater video equipment.

Randi using a transect

By doing this, she is measuring diversity, abundance, biomass and the general condition of the reef. The health of the reef can be measured by revisiting the site to see how the corals have changed over time. Dr. Rotjan traveled to the Phoenix Islands in 2009, and the good news there is that the health of the coral reefs is improving.

New coral growth

She says being a good diver, a good citizen, staying curious, challenging yourselves and others to find solutions and living blue are all ways to help the coral reefs. And, she cautions not to fall prey to shifting baselines, which means a failure to notice slow, chronic change around you.

For more information on Dr. Rotjan and her research, please visit the Phoenix Islands Expedition Blog and the Global Explorers Blog on the Aquarium's website.

I know one difference between Dr. Rotjan's research expeditions and SEA TURTLE's expedition - our mantra will be "eat-dive-eat-dive..." not "dive-eat-dive-eat"! I can't wait to get under water and visit the coral reefs of the Bahamas!

- Barbara