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.

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