Bahamas Expedition: Sending the fish packing

This guest blog was written by trip participant George Bauernfeind (left), who also happens to be Chris' dad. Stay tuned for one final post from Chris with his favorite pictures from this expedition.

It was 5 a.m. Sunday morning when Chris’ alarm went off.  I was already awake, relaxing in the hum of the boat’s generator and reliving the wonderful experiences of the past week (night diving, learning to catch fish, hunting for moorings, making new friends, hunting for invasive species... I could go on). In minutes the 15 crew members would be up and about, hot morning coffee in hand as “good morning” greetings would be exchanged.

Per usual, we were on a timetable, with this morning’s agenda being packaging of the 300-plus fish and invertebrates we had collected and delivering them to the Miami airport for their flight to Boston. As had been the case every other day, with Captain John barking orders and Expedition Leader Sherrie scurrying about, the 15 of us came together and functioned as one, accomplishing our objective with time to spare.

A compilation of pictures from the morning of fish packing

First, let me back up a bit. The trip started out with a rough Gulf Stream crossing and several days of seemingly endless monsoon-like winds and rain. With no dryer on the boat, wet gear and wet towels hung in futility, extra clothespins and bungee cords needed just to keep the stuff from getting blown overboard.

Even in the rain, of course, once underwater, the wonders of the ocean opened up as only they can to a scuba diver. Swimming with the fish is an experience unlike any other; the quiet and serenity of the ocean floor a welcome relief from the noise and busyness of our normal everyday schedules.

The animals generally were unbothered by our invasion of their world, with one exception — the young green sea turtle who was curious enough to follow us around for a while, even nibbling at a diver’s outstretched fingers.

In our one-on-ones with a fish, more often than not the fish won. An early target was a longspine squirrelfish, and as we clumsily approached with outstretched nets in hand, he definitely had the initial advantage. His sight, and his ability to feel the increased water pressure from the advancing nets, heightened every defensive mechanism he had. But with our advantages of a bigger brain, persistence, and a bit of luck, the little guy soon was in our catchbag. A short stay in the boat’s holding tank, a quick trip to Boston, and before very long he would be entertaining and educating the many thousands of schoolchildren, their families and tourists who come to the Aquarium each year. 

Chris the cook fed us well the entire trip. We all continued to be amazed at the creations he produced out of the cramped little boat kitchen, any thoughts that we had of possible weight loss from a week of good physical activity soon dispelled.

I’ll think back often to the new friends made, that feeling of exhaustion as I climbed into my bunk each night and the many highlights of the trip. Thanks to Captain John and Co-Captain Lou for their leadership and continuing emphasis on safety during the trip. Thanks also to the aquarium staff:  Chris, who also happens to be my son; Shara, the natural-born teacher who had the patience to explain to me, more than once, the operation of my new dive computer; and the amazingly energetic Sherrie who, even after a long day on the boat, found even more energy one evening when we were granted a few hours of shore leave and discovered a place in Alice Town with loud music and a sand dance floor.

One last group shot before the fish head to Boston


Bahamas Expedition: Diving in the dark!

This guest blog about scuba diving at night was written by former Dive department intern, Luigi DiSisto (left). Stay tuned for more posts and pictures from expedition participants and staff diver Chris.

When most people think of scuba diving in the Bahamas, the first thing that comes to mind is definitely not pitch black water and being unable to see two inches in front of your face. However when you jump in the water at 9:00 at night, it is a totally different world than during the day. There are many different types of animals and animal behaviors, and it is a completely different experience overall.

This was my first night dive and I was SO excited for it! As soon as I jumped in, I knew it was going to be a memorable experience. As I started to descend, I felt a little bit disoriented at first. Being surrounded by blackness made it a little difficult to know which way was up and which way was down. As soon as I flicked on my dive light, I was good to go. I descended to a maximum depth of 36 feet in the beautiful 79 degree Fahrenheit Caribbean water. My dive lasted 42 minutes, and during that time, I experienced some pretty amazing things. I apologize for the quality of my pictures, but it is difficult for a camera to focus with no light.  As soon as I turned on my dive light, I attracted a lot of plankton.

Plankton attracted to my dive light

Having all of this plankton swarm around me was really a wild and very different experience in and of itself.  As I approached the reef, one of the first things I saw was a few Sea Urchins and a Spiny Caribbean Lobster!  This was so cool because during the day, these animals are hidden in rocks and coral, but by SCUBA diving at night, you get to witness all of them out and about.

Spiny Caribbean lobster and sea urchins out and about at night!

One of the fish that I learned about on this dive is called a scorpionfish. They are in the family Scorpaenidae, which also includes the lionfish and the stonefish. The beautifully colored fins on this rather ugly fish carry very potent venom. If stung, a person will immediately feel intense pain and have extreme swelling of the area that was stung. Within minutes, a person could experience blood pressure changes, delirium, fainting, heart rate changes, nausea, shortness of breath and even seizures or paralysis (just to name a few symptoms). I saw three scorpion fish on this dive, thankfully, all from a safe distance!

Scorpion fish during the night dive

Now just because we were diving at night, definitely does not mean that the Aquarium’s dive team wasn’t still hard at work collecting fish!

Catching fish at night

One of the types of fish that we were targeting at night was parrotfish. Parrotfish have a very unique biological feature that made them much easier for us to catch at night. When it gets dark out, parrotfish will form a cocoon made of mucus around their body and this adaptation will typically help them in avoiding predation at night. When they are in this cocoon, they don’t move around very much which made it much easier for us to catch these very speedy fish.

Parrotfish in their white mucus cocoon

At the end of the dive, Captain John even accidentally brought up a starfish.  Just to give you an idea of how bizarre some of the animals were that we saw on this dive, here is a picture of the starfish that came up attached to Captain John’s leg!

Sea star attached to Captain John’s leg

Overall, the night dive (as well as the entire expedition) was an unforgettable experience to say the very least.  I enjoyed every minute of every day on the R/V Coral Reef II and look forward to joining the Aquarium again in the future!

-- Luigi


Bahamas Expedition: A first timer's experience

This guest blog was written by Christine (left), an Aquarium volunteer, and former intern in the Dive and Penguin departments. Stay tuned for more posts and pictures from expedition participants and staff diver Chris.

My adventure aboard the R/V Coral Reef II was the experience of a lifetime! We boarded the ship on Friday, April 27, enjoyed a fun dinner together and met all the other participants. Then on Saturday we made our crossing into Bimini, which was one of the roughest crossings anyone had experienced. We faced huge waves and down pour rain.

Smiling despite the rain: Trip participant George with staff diver Chris

Our next couple days in Bimini we faced more rain and very strong currents so we lost just about a full day and a half of collecting. We had such a great group of people on this trip that everyone kept their spirits up and we continued to have fun despite the bad weather.

The rest of the week brought us amazing weather and we brought some really great fish on board. Learning to catch fish with vinyl nets was extremely challenging but working with a fantastic Aquarium staff and ship crew we were able to learn and have a great time with it.

Shara, Sherrie and I diving the Sapona  

This picture was from our very last dive of the trip. It was taken at the Sapona shipwreck. I have never dived at a wreck site before so it was a very cool experience. Parts of the wreck stuck up all over the place along with strong currents so it made for an eventful dive. We were following and catching fish in every crack and crevice of that wreck. We were so determined to catch fish that we banged our heads and came back with rust residue from the ship all over our wetsuits and BCDs.

The night dive 

The night dive in Bimini was another great first time experience! We dove in groups of three. Shara, Genevieve and I dove together, we each had a glow stick attached to the back of our tank so we could always see our dive buddies. We were also were equipped with a flashlight. Once we zeroed in on a fish we wanted to catch, Shara and I had the nets so we dropped our lights and Genevieve held her light on the fish we were trying to catch. It took a lot of teamwork and underwater communication, but we did it! It was a little intimidating at first jumping into the dark waters but by far one of the coolest dives.

This was by far the most unique experience I have ever had. Catching fish while scuba diving, living on a boat for a week and a half, traveling, working, living and hanging out with many people that just a few days ago were total strangers! But I could not have asked for a better group of people to go on this trip with. Everyone worked hard and were just a lot of fun to hang out with. I will be talking about this trip forever and I hope one day to be able to go again because it truly was a fabulous experience.

-- Christine


Bahamas Expedition: Finding the mooring

Chris, a regular staff diver in the Giant Ocean Tank, is on an Aquarium expedition to the Bahamas. Stay tuned for stories from the turquoise blue waters of Caribbean, complete with pictures, conservation notes and a taste of life on board a working boat.

Besides the deep dive to 85 feet to find the sargassum triggerfish (sorry, my camera couldn't go that deep), the most fun thing I have done on this trip is jump off the bow in mask and fins to find the mooring near the shipwreck Sapona.

 Waiting for Captain Lou's signal

 Overboard I go

 Getting situated before I begin looking

Searching the sea floor 15 feet below

Normally moorings have a buoy attached to them, so that freediving down to bring up the line isn't necessary. There were moorings to use here at the Sapona, but the Coral Reef II is too big and hence has to keep its distance to avoid swinging into it due to surface currents.
Once moored, we enjoyed a great dive at this site, exploring the outer perimeter of the Sapona. It was here that I saw a beautiful nurse shark about 6 feet long.


[Read previous posts about diving at the Sapona on this blog. Aquarium President and CEO Bud Ris visited the site in 2008, Emily shares some amazing images here, Nick reports on a night dive at the wreck here and teen diver Lee shares his reports on it here.]


Bahamas Expedition: Invasion of the lionfish

This guest blog was written by Don Stark, an Aquarium volunteer, avid scuba diver and frequent Bahamas Collecting Expedition trip participant. Stay tuned for more posts and pictures from expedition participants and staff diver Chris.

Indo-Pacific lionfish have become an abundant invasive species throughout the tropical eastern Atlantic and Caribbean seas. They are now recognized as one of the most important conservation issues in the world. [We've been talking about lionfish for some time on this blog.]

Lionfish on exhibit at the Aquarium

This is because, lacking any natural predators and with voracious appetites and impressive reproductive skills, lionfish could become the most abundant fish species on coral reefs, displacing many other species that contribute to the health of coral reefs.

An impressive lionfish, photographed at 25 ft on Rainbow Reef, Bimini

Recently, efforts to manage this invasion have taken the form of creating a fishery for lionfish and a demand from the fish eating public. The good news is they are great to eat. [Check out this previous post about sampling lionfish here!] Dining on them can be one way to deal with lionfish, as long as consumers don't develop such a taste for them that they want to keep lionfish around just to eat them. At the end of the day, it will take the hard work of everyone--scientists, conservationists, fishermen and chefs, to help eradicate lionfish from areas where they don't belong.

– Don


Bahamas Expedition: Captain John

Chris, a regular staff diver in the Giant Ocean Tank, is on an Aquarium expedition to the Bahamas. Stay tuned for live updates from the turquoise blue waters of Caribbean, complete with pictures, conservation notes and a taste of life on board a working boat.

For years I'd been hearing about this guy Captain John from my Aquarium coworkers, and I finally got to meet him on this trip. Captain John Rothchild is the captain of the R/V Coral Reef.  He works for Shedd Aquarium, who owns the boat, and is a department head. His offical job title is "Captain of the Coral Reef". He is retiring this year after 32 years, this trip being his last one with NEAq.  Thankfully I was able to sit down with him for a brief interview, to hear what it's like to spend so many days at sea.

Captain John grew up in the Bronx. He now lives in Miami, but has lived in Chicago and has called the Virgin Islands his home. It was there that he met and befriended the crew of the Coral Reef, and a few years later, when they were in need of a captain and their paths crossed in Chicago, they offered John the job. That was 32 years ago. 2 years after that he helped design the Coral Reef II, which is where I currently am while writing this. [Get a taste of live on board the boat with these pictures from a previous expedition.]

I asked him what he loves about his job. "High ooh-ooh quotient," he responded. And sharing his experiences and the wonders of the ocean with all the people who come out on the boat with him. From middle schoolers to PhD students to senior citizens enjoying a cruise on the Coral Reef, he loves to tell them stories of his time at sea and underwater. Some of the stories are more harrowing than others, like the time he was forced to head to a US naval base on Cuba to escape the weather. There are also tales of stowaways, and finding shiny bars 175 feet below the ocean's surface, and many many stories of past NEAq collecting trips.

Why is he retiring? "You know, I have the best job at the Aquarium... but I'm tired. I've put in a lot of hours these past 32 years. It's time." I know I speak for all of the numerous NEAq aquarists and educators that have been on one of these trips over the years that he will be missed.


Bahamas Expedition: Making friends in the Bahamas

Chris, a regular staff diver in the Giant Ocean Tank, is on an Aquarium expedition to the Bahamas. Stay tuned for stories from the turquoise blue waters of Caribbean, complete with pictures, conservation notes and a taste of life on board a working boat.

We made a friend today. A juvenile green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) joined us on a couple of our dives this morning. A friendly little guy he was, and he even seemed to want to board our boat after we were out of the water.

Our new friend in the Bahamas

Eventually he swam off, but I was able to get a few good pics. We dubbed him "Mini-Myrtle." He was a much smaller and slimmer version of our famous Giant Ocean Tank resident in Boston.

Myrtle, undeniably large and in charge of the GOT in Boston

You can find green sea turtles all over the world, including New England during the warmer months. Our blog followers might recall that the Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue team sometimes cares for green sea turtles that strand on Cape Cod beaches in the fall.

Green sea turtles are endangered. That's why it was so special to see one of these beautiful reptiles in the wild, and so important to rehabilitate the cold-stunned juveniles that wash up on the Cape. The species' numbers dipped over the past couple generations due to over-harvesting of eggs and egg-laying females on nesting beaches. To some extent, the destruction of nesting habitat and bycatch in the fishing industry is also to blame. The green sea turtle is a protected species in the Bahamas, so we simply kept our distance (as best we could, he was a curious fella!) and enjoyed its company.