Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bimini, Bahamas Collecting Trip 2013

Aquarium husbandry staff took to the seas and to the tropical waters of the Bahamas this fall. Despite the postcard beauty of their surroundings, the team worked for nine days as part of a multi-facility, permitted initiative. AZA-accredited facilities have developed a relationship with the Commonwealth of the Bahamas to help manage natural resources through research and sustainable practices. Keep reading for trip highlights documented by Aquarist Julie Johnson, illustrated by photos and videos from Aquarium Curator Hap Fatzinger and Dive Safety Officer Brian Germick.

Day 1
After deciding that it would be wiser to get on the road sooner rather than later, we loaded up our Outreach vehicle and headed south late Saturday night.  With some rain and mist to battle, we drove 12-plus hours to sunny Miami.  Meeting up with the folks from Albuquerque and New England we unloaded our gear and started preparing the Coral Reef II, a research collecting vessel, for the trip.

Day 2
Began the day by re-bedding two sand filters in the lazzarete (in the boat hull), and then cleaned out the holding tanks.  We disinfected the tanks and drained them.  They will not be refilled with saltwater until we are out in the open ocean.  Our productive morning was soon slowed down by some heavy downpours.  There is only so much you can do on a boat in the rain.

Day 3
As it turns out we are leaving port late this evening after the arrival of some of the trip’s private sponsors.  So we took the opportunity to do a little research for an upcoming exhibit and visited Tradewinds Park Butterfly World.

Day 4
We left port at 3:30 a.m.  Can’t say we saw much because it was dark once we left Miami and sleep seemed to be the better choice.  When we woke up it was a beautiful day, with the dark blue ocean surrounding us. 
The boat passed a lot of Sargassum mats, thankfully not full of trash.  Once we cleared customs in Bimini and received our safety information, we headed over to Bimini Road.  We did our check out dive there and took the opportunity to collect some specimens.  Since the weather turned on us we stayed and did a second dive.  On the list of specimens brought up were glasseye snappers, squirrelfish, sharpnose puffers, trumpetfish, foureye butterfly, spotted scorpionfish, and hogfish.  We observed a sharksucker hanging out. They are rather interesting animals and look rather odd without a “host” to hang on to. 
Then we moved spots and dove in some nasty current and rain.  This site was just teaming with fish, including several species of butterfly fish, chromis and cardinalfish.  We observed lionfish, spiny lobster, a large cushion star and barracuda. 
After each dive we carefully identify the animals and then record how many there are and what holding tanks they are placed in.

Day 5
We returned to the reef we dove yesterday afternoon, and fighting against a decent current, collected more squirrelfish, chromis, etc.  Then we moved to a shipwreck and did three dives on this site. 
The first dive proved challenging as we attempted, unsuccessfully, to corral several hogfish.  Not to be beat by the fish, we dove again this time concentrating on bluestripe grunts.  In between dives, hook and line fishing proved to be productive.  We caught grunts and, unfortunately, several ocean triggerfish (beautiful, but not something we wanted to keep and several broke the line). 
Lastly, we ended the day with a night dive.  We managed to catch angelfish, hogfish, filefish and several crabs, all the while trying not to disturb the sleeping loggerhead sea turtles. The barracuda that were present during the day had all gone.  The ocean triggerfish were tucked into any hole they could find.  A nurse shark was slightly annoyed at our repeated presence throughout the day.

Day 6
After a quick check on our charges, a light feed, and a backwash, it was time to get to our first dive site.  A section of rocks/corals were our location for the day.  After an interesting first dive, we moved sights to catch copper sweepers, which are known to inhabit an overhang.  So with a game plan in place we descended upon this school of several hundred fish.  Divers were placed at every hole to catch fish, while other divers waited with back-up collecting nets.  Within 15 minutes we had our animals, as we did not need many.  We spent the rest of the dive looking for other animals on our wish list.  We spotted several sand tilefish.  So our third dive we enlisted the help of Captain Lou and chased down several sand tilefish.  That may not seem like a lot but each fish was at least 5 to 10 minutes of corralling.  Our last dive was in the same location. We managed to get some banded coral shrimp, black barred soldierfish and triggerfish.

Day 7
Today we started out with a seining trip.  This involved a one hundred foot seine net, several coolers with bubblers, and 15 people being transported to a stretch of beach.  After three very successful pulls of the seine, which included beaters (people making a lot of noise and splashing the water to keep fish in the area), we collected some mojarra, flounder, parrotfish, and filefish.
 Then we moved offshore and did two amazing dives.  The first was on a wreck with a wicked current.  It was a struggle but we managed to catch several blackfin snapper each requiring 2-3 divers to herd, some angelfish and cardinalfish.   Our second dive was on a beautiful reef called Frank and John’s Reef.  We collected pygmy angelfish, a balloonfish, and several others.  Many of the fish on the reef were species we had already cataloged.  It was tricky collecting as there were many crevices for the fish to dart into.  There were yellowtail snapper present, which were caught on hook and line. 
The day ended with another seine trip which produced doctorfish, barracuda, some grunts and several small scorpionfish.  A lemon shark managed to get itself caught up in the net after trying to steal some fish.  The shark was easily freed and left without its stolen meal.  Then several of us took a quick snorkel and saw a large school of bonefish, catching them proved futile.

Day 8
As the trip nears the end, our dives become more focused on specific animals.  Our first dive of the day started with looking for Sargassum triggerfish, a beautiful fish prone to ducking in a hole and locking itself in, at almost 90 feet down. This limited our dive time.  We did manage to catch several.  Due to the depth, the animals were put in a barrel and brought up slowly over the course of an hour to allow them to adjust to the pressure.
 Our second dive was for Creole wrasses which school over a certain section of reef.  We had to work together to herd them.  The third dive produced a random collection of blackfin snapper, black durgon and chromis.  We ended the day with a night dive on the shipwreck, the Sapona, which is only in 14-feet of water and much of it is above the water.  Unfortunately we had to fight a heavy current to get to it.  We were able to catch 2 very nice-sized porcupinefish, a bunch of cardinalfish and butterflyfish.

Day 9
On our way to clear customs in Bimini, we stopped to say hello to some friends who joined us.  Two adult spotted dolphins and their calves.  They seemed just as interested in us as we were in them.  The mothers appeared to be doing some hunting behaviors in the sand, with the calves mimicking them. 
After a quick half an hour on land, the first time in a week, we went to go do one last dive.  Although we were through collecting, the captain took us to a spot known for sharks.  We saw several Caribbean reef sharks at the site among many other fish.  We also took the opportunity to do a fish count as part of PADI project AWARE.
Julie, Hap and Brian

After lunch we set out for Miami.  About two hours into our crossing we came upon a large mat of Sargassum.  Not to pass up any opportunity, we stopped and several of us snorkeled in it.  It was beautiful, with a large school of rainbow runners under it, and many fish in it.  When we cleared customs, it was time to pack fish.  We started at 10:45 p.m. and finished around 2 a.m.  Then it was off to the Fort Lauderdale Airport to ship Albuquerque’s fish. Our long trek home followed.  When we reached Kure Beach, it was after 9 p.m. Although the end of the trip was exhausting, it was an amazing experience.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Name Me!

Meet CM06. Wait. What?

Peek into the Cape Fear Shoals, the Aquarium's largest exhibit, to see this gregarious green sea turtle. One minute, the juvenile turtle is observing visitors at the windows. The next it's using a rocky outcropping to give itself a back, er, shell rub. Yet, despite its antics the turtle has officially been known as CM06 for several years.

Obviously, CM06 doesn't stand for "catchy moniker." CM actually stands for Chelonia mydas, the scientific name for greens. The 06 refers to the number of the hatchling when it was excavated from a late season nest found on Emerald Isle in 2010. At that time the animal was suffering from a respiratory infection and additional medical issues. Aquarium staff treated the animal and in their care it has thrived. Now you have a chance to give the sea turtle a name with some character.

Aquarium staff selected three names for the public to vote on: Emerald, Jade and Sheldon. You can vote for your favorite until August 5 here.

Visitors to the Aquarium can also cast a vote for their pick through a monetary donation. One dollar equals one vote and benefits Aquarium conservation and education efforts. The winning name will be unveiled during an Aquarium dive show the week of August 5.

Learn more about CM06 and its early days here.

Here are a few facts about green sea turtles you may not know:
  • Green sea turtles are threatened in North Carolina and endangered in other parts of the United States.
  • Greens hold their breath longer than any of the seven sea turtle species.
  • Greens love to bask in the sun. These turtles can often be seen sunning on the beaches in Hawaii and Australia.
  • Adult greens live on a vegetarian diet. Eating only plants turns their fat a green color. This is why they are known as greens.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Seeking inspiration

What inspires you? Is it an experience, a person, an idea? Is it nature or art? Is it something else? I believe the natural world enhances the experience of being human. For me, beauty in nature inspires awe, wonder and curiosity. Experiencing nature connects me to a better, fuller life. Nature is at the core of the Aquarium; each animal and exhibit offers a glimpse of the wild.
North Carolina Aquariums’ mission statement reads: “Inspiring appreciation and conservation of aquatic environments.” Is an Aquarium visit inspiring?  
When you step in to the first Aquarium building at Fort Fisher a waterfall, trees and free-roaming birds greet you. Does the transition change how you feel? Are you more attuned to life around you in a new way? Watch as little kid faces press against exhibits, reaching to get closer to life on the other side. Eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose people connect with animals at every turn. Are they inspired and if so, to what end?

As you move from freshwater swamps and rivers, to the coastal and marine building does the change in lighting and sound affect you? Again and again visitors share stories of special shared moments touching animals and engaging with staff. What is it about connecting with animals that is so compelling and appealing? Is the experience as powerful if it isn’t shared?
Standing next to a wall of water teaming with fish, joined occasionally by a curious green sea turtle, do you feel transported to an underwater world? Is it calming, frightening, inspiring? What is it that draws you to glimpse under the surface of the sea?
Answers to the question of why you visit, if you visit, the Aquarium at Fort Fisher surely varies and I’d love to know. For me, the connection to animals and people - visitors and staff – improves my quality of life and inspires me every day.

-Peggy Sloan

Director, NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher