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Submarine field expedition
by Amanda Bates
12.05.2020

After reaching the seafloor on the Endeavour segment of the Juan de Fuca Ridge 200 km off the west coast of Vancouver Island in the human operated vehicle Alvin, we spent a very focused morning searching for a vent called “Hot Harold” to sample fluids thought to exceed 350ºC. The time ticked by as we circled through a maze of chimney formations, my list of tasks feeling heavier and heavier on my lap as we searched without success. It was a relief when we finally located the vent, obtained our water samples, and then moved on to our next task.

I remember thinking that I had neglected to savour being a junior scientist on similar submarine expeditions, where my responsibilities had included taking pictures and watching out the porthole window for octopus, where I had the time to worry about whether I would have to use my allotted pee-cup in such close company. But I was able to relax for a few minutes as my team members tested some sampling gear. I realized I was hungry and opened a chocolate bar. Scrunched up under a blanket, 2000 m under the sea, I turned to look out my port-hole window to enjoy a literally stunning view of a large black smoker chimney pumping out hydrothermal fluids, shimmering in the submersible lights, and the tubes of worms forming a garden of red and white. The venting fluids and animals were so close and vivid that I felt I could reach out with my hand to feel the warmth. It was this moment when I was struck by how bizarre and wonderful it was that I was sitting on the seafloor with 2 km of ocean above us, brand-new sparkling, black, basalt beneath us and a view like no other, eating chocolate.

Amanda Bates @AmandaEBates

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The strange incident with the giant clam
by Maria Dornelas
19.05.2020


This stretch of the reef between South and Palfrey Islands feels like home. I have been coming here almost every year for the past 12 years. I can draw the contour of the reef crest with my eyes closed. I can tell you in excruciating detail how many species of coral there are here, and how rare or abundant they are. I mostly have my head in the coral when I am here, but I have seen sharks and turtles around. There are rumours of dugong sightings, and photographs of manta rays. But my favourite story about the reef we call Trimodal is about a giant clam. We started calling this reef Trimodal, because of the species abundance distribution of the corals on this reef crest. We counted over 42 thousand coral colonies there in 2005, and the SAD had a funny shape with three modes.

I can’t remember why exactly, but on this occasion we decided to park the boat in the lagoon area, at the back of the reef. We looked for a patch of sand and rubble and dropped anchor. We got our gear on and I braced myself for the swim across the reef flat towards the crest where we were more likely to find the species we were looking for. Because we were anchoring rather than using the mooring we normally used, we checked the anchor before we swam across. This is always a good idea, as coming back from a dive to find your boat gone is not much fun. Much to our surprise as we looked down, we saw that a giant clam had caught our anchor chain and closed up.

We tried to pull the chain out, with no success. I just sat at the surface having a giggling attack. I laughed and laughed and laughed picturing us explaining this to staff at the research station: we lost the anchor because a giant clam ate it. This would take “my dog ate my homework” to a whole different level. Laughing made my snorkeling mask fill up with water, which made me laugh even harder. We took photos and decided there was nothing we could do at this point.

The clam was not willing to let it go, so we decided to carry on with our job, and deal with the anchor on our return. At least the boat was definitely not going anywhere.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and I didn’t even complain much about the long swim. One of my legs is slightly longer than the other because of a motorcycle accident I had when I was 18. You probably won’t notice if you know me, and Ionly notice when I am swimming with my fins on. It makes long swims always interesting. In the British sense.

We got on with our job. Eventually, we were done for the day and headed back to the boat. By then the giant clam had decided the anchor chain was not tasty and had let it go. We headed back with a full day of data and an interesting story. In the literal sense.

Maria Dornelas @maadornelas

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Seagrasses - unsung heroes!
by Jon Lefcheck
26.05.2020


Seagrasses are the underappreciated heroes of coastal ecosystems. As heroes, seagrasses are vital nurseries for many species of fishes and invertebrates, contribute roughly one-fourth of global fisheries production, and store as much carbon as some terrestrial forests! But they are sometimes lost in the public eye: a recent scientific study has shown that of all ecosystems on planet Earth, seagrasses have the fewest songs written about them, fewer than marshes, bogs, or even steppes (can you think of a song that you listened to that mentioned the word ‘steppe’ in it? Well, turns out it appears in 36x more songs than the word ‘seagrass!’)

So, it is my great pleasure to publicize the humble seagrass, and the valuable services they provide. Beyond the services mentioned above, seagrasses are vital to the coastal ‘food web.’ They host a wide array of small and tasty critters, including small shrimps and crabs, that are essentially ‘fish food’ for the many species that utilize seagrass beds at some point in their lives. Which is why our group has been monitoring these animals—and the things that eat them—in their seagrass habitat for 15 years at a place called Goodwin Island, at the mouth of the York River Estuary in Chesapeake Bay, USA. This study has generated thousands of samples and taken dozens of dedicated scientists, students, and citizens to collect and process.

Chesapeake Bay is notable for a lot of reasons—it was, of course, the site of the first British colony in the Americas at Jamestown…ok, well, the first reasonably successful one—but what a lot of people don’t know is that it is one of the most dynamic environments on the planet. I have seen icebergs float by on the river in the same year I have sat in water approaching 35°C (that is as warm as, if not warmer than, your bathwater). Working in such a place presents a unique set of challenges.

My most vivid memory was heading out in one brisk November wearing the thickest wetsuit available, hood, gloves, a hat, and a nice warm float coat, speeding out the field site and then having to jump in the freezing cold water and work until my fingers were numb. On the other hand, the water was crystal clear (a rarity in the heavily populated and therefore polluted Chesapeake Bay), allowing me to snap beautiful photos such as this:

Seeing the healthy grass, especially at a time when nearly one-third has been lost in the last 20 years, was a uniquely gratifying experience. That trip was actually the last time we sampled this grass bed, beginning in 1998 and ending in 2013. It was humbling to be there at the end, given that I was only 11 years old when the survey began. Hopefully, someone else will take up the mantle of monitoring this grass bed and continue our efforts. Until then, we will work hard to learn as much as we can from the volumes of data we have collected, to understand and best conserve this valuable ecosystem.

Jon Lefcheck @jslefche

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The life of a transect tape
by Rick Stuart-Smith
02.06.2020


Laying out a transect line over the reef becomes one of those things you no longer realise you are doing – you hit the bottom, tie it off and start swimming. But when you turn to start the survey, your brain switches on again, and on coral reefs, can overload while trying to jot down the names of everything swimming in the vicinity of the line. Trying to recount the amazing marine life seen along reef transects can be hard to do justice. So many good memories. Instead of the usual tales of mantas, whales and endangered red handfish, this time I’ve stopped to consider the life of the transect line itself. This 50-m long piece of flattened fibreglass goes through more than most people crunching the numbers at the other end would imagine.

To start with, it apparently looks tasty. Sea urchins are notorious transect line-munchers. They hone in on the line during the survey, and start longitudinal tears, stripping pieces off the edges. Reeling the line in at the end of the survey can sometimes require tugging it out of the jaws of numerous urchins, using all their tube feet to hang on to the reef surface without letting go of the line. Parrotfishes are less secretive about their intentions, swimming along the line inspecting it before deciding on a place to have a taste. They take very clean bites out of it, with cookie cutter precision. Herbivores tend to do the most frequent damage, but large triggerfishes probably give the best bang for the bite, adopting more of a smash-and-grab approach. Seeing what they can do to a pretty hardy piece of fibreglass provides plenty of motivation to steer clear of the big ones!

Transect line attack by marine life has never prematurely ended a survey though, that I know of. Anthropogenic disturbance is more serious, and has resulted in abandoned surveys, wasted effort, air and time. Regardless of how isolated a site may seem, other dive groups can sometimes show up. A few times I’ve been swimming along the line to meet a stranger coming back towards me reeling in my line. Who knows if they thought they were cleaning up some rubbish or thought they could use the line for something themselves. But once a situation like this escalated into what was almost my only underwater fight. Surveying a deeper, high current site with only just enough air to safely do the survey and finish the dive promptly, I met a dive guide followed by group of less-than-expert divers. We were on a coral reef, and he had been stripping up my transect line off the reef and had made a huge tangle out of it. He was waving his arms around at me and pointing at the reef, presumably indicating that he thought the line had been damaging the reef, while beneath him the big tangle he had generated in the line was tearing a bit of soft coral as he was aggressively tugging the line up, and behind him his dive group were crashing around the reef like bulls in a china shop. Regardless of his good intentions, the mess he made took me a very long time to sort out on the bottom, fighting the current and watching my air running down. No data could be collected from that site, which was very hard to get to and became a wasted opportunity.

So next time you are using reef survey data, instead of only thinking about the diverse array of fishes and invertebrates represented by the numbers, spare a thought for the charismatic macro-equipment that we all rely on!

Rick Stuart-Smith @RickStuartSmith

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