Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Exploring Undersea with Google Earth

Google Earth is a wonderful tool for exploring the Earth. Since version 5.0, even underwater photos and deep-sea videos have a sense a place, because Google Earth can georeference these images to real topographic and hydrographic data. This is a powerful tool for outreach and education because the software literally provides a window on the deep.

Consider the recent Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill event. Anyone interested in the seafloor communities thriving within the vicinity of the spill need only to load the 'Explore the Ocean' layer produced by Sylvia Earle's Mission Blue for Google Earth to witness the fish and corals in the environments surrounding the wellhead site.

The same technology could be used proactively to highlight the potential impacts of unregulated tailings disposal from say, Ramu Nickel Mine in Papua New Guinea, if only we had video of those deep-reef communities. Perhaps this could help.

One excellent example of the narrative utility of Google Earth for deep-sea exploration is here below by NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. The creators mix a slick narrative tour with a geography lesson and live video from the incredible INDEX-SATAL Mission in 2010. The effect is a good one, with good integration of seafloor topography data and 3D buildings on land. Nice work, NOAA-OER. Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Smithsonian researchers dive Substation Curacao

Online friends of Substation Curacao can see a terrific night shot on Facebook of Smithsonian researchers Drs. Carole Baldwin and Lee Weight diving into the Caribbean deep-sea in the new Substation Curacao three person manned submersible. The submersible is a tourist vehicle, classed to 1000' foot depth and insured to very strict and extensive regulations. These types of commercial operations could bring a Renaissance to deep-sea science because they provide access to the deep-sea at relatively low cost.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Guest post at Deep Sea News!

I've been holding out, saving up the good stuff for Deep Sea News, the number one ocean blog on the Nature Blog Network. Go there to learn the mysterious 'Secrets to Flexibility in a Glass Sponge'. 

Seamount comic

This comic at xkcd captures the seamount story pretty nicely.  More than 100,000 large (really big, > 1 km) seamounts are uncharted and unexplored, according to recent estimates based on ship soundings and satellite altimetry data. Up to 25 million small mounds (> 100 m) may be out there, too...

See the full article by Wessel, Sandwell, and Kim (2010) in Oceanography's special online volume "Mountains in the Sea."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Gifts and Gadgets for Christmas

Jingle bells, my friends. Aquanautix looooves gifts and gadgets, and constantly dabbles in technology, so here are a few recommendations to help you shop for good stuff this Christmas season. Nearly all of the recommendations were purchased and used this year, but some are recommended because they are just too cool to pass up. Happy holiday shopping, and Merry Christmas!

Inexpensive Gifts:

1. Flowers - coral-like Amaryllis grow pot from Smith and Hawken, $7
2. Snowglobes - try Tuesday Morning store if you have one nearby - $15
3. Graphic novels - All-Star Superman, All-Star Batman + Robin, The Ultimates - $15 - 25
4. Books - "The Death and Life of Monterey Bay" by Steve Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka - $20
5. Socks - any kind, clean, cozy, private, last a long time - $10 to $40
6. Hurricane preparedness - Hand-crank flashlight/AM/FM/NOAA radio - $30 - 35

Expensive Gifts:

1. Underwater HD video camera - Kodak Playsport - $150

The camera is so easy to operate, edits nicely, and takes beautiful images. The still frames are just fantastic. For video, be sure the press the anti-shake button, because the camera is SO small its hard to operate. Depth rated to 10 feet.

2. Wireless radio - Squeezebox Logitech Radio with color screen (red) - $230

This was a lifestyle upgrade in our home. Squeezebox is wireless radio with exceptional sound quality. Online music fills the room. Squeezebox brings you the ease of radio with the style, simplicity, and custom feel of Pandora and ITunes. Listen to all your own stations, and any others broadcasting online. Highly recommended. Purchased from Amazon.

3. Plane ticket to Roatan, Honduras - ~$300

We all need a vacation, but getting to where you can relax shouldn't be a hardship. Continental flights from Houston to Roatan get you to the tropics within 2 hours, so you can be underwater scuba diving on lush coral reefs by lunchtime. If you looking for big adventure, and you're willing to splurge, try a deep-sea dive in Karl Stanley's Idabel submersible. You'll be amazed!

More gift ideas are welcome. Please share your recommendations in the comment section.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Anthomastus - polyps in, polyps out

Sometimes when you go looking for deep-sea corals you find the darnedest things. This is Anthomastus ritteri, a true soft coral (order Alcyonacea) among the octocorals. The images show one colony with polyps retracted (top), and another with polyps extended (bottom).

"The polyps have a strange diurnal pattern of extension and retraction that varies among individuals," says Dr Erik Cordes from Temple University. The polyps are in and out once day, but not synchronized. Cordes made the observation while he maintained the animals alive in cold water aquaria. Here we see the behavior in-situ.

Images are from Sur Canyon in Southern California near 300-400 meters depth. For more like this see the West Coast Shakedown photo album.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

West Coast Expeditions Go Public

Photos can be posted online almost instantly these days, even from a research vessel. Think of the benefits to science - crowd-sourcing species identifications, plugging into experts from around the world, stimulating research, engaging the public, feeding the media frenzy. It all sounds good, right?

Or does it? Photos and videos are data. They show species, abundance, geology, proximity, etc. Data acquisition is the primary objective of a science career. So, there are disadvantages to data sharing. Someone could publish your data, or misinterpret it. They could scoop you on your big deep-sea story. Or use an image without crediting you. You may be helping your competition by giving it up for free.

Open-access advocates would lead you to believe the benefits of data-sharing outweigh the risks. The theory goes that public information begets more public information. For example, public albums can generate new data through viewer comments and viewer statistics. As traffic routes through the site, you build a demographic profile for your target audience. This new information adds value to the data, and may even supersede it.

To test the open-source idea, NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) is experimenting with two new public data products from their 2010 deep-sea coral and sponge research. The first is a new online Google database from the SWFSC Habitat Ecology Team in Santa Cruz, CA. The database is called a Google Fusion Table. Data and images for Southern California can be viewed in map form or spreadsheet form.

The second is a new Picasa photo album from the SWFSC Phantom ROV team and marine biologist Dr. Peter Etnoyer. The photo album is a narrative slideshow for sharing with National Marine Sanctuary partners on-shore, the public, and the ship's crew of NOAA Bell M Shimada. 

Both image galleries show incredible deep-sea sponges, rockfish, soft corals, and sea stars from 150 to 450 m depth; as well as geological features, and marine debris like a large abandoned trawl net and a discarded cable.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Squid Video: Feeding on lanternfish in Sur Canyon

Watch the 'Sebastes' Phantom remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center descend through the water column above Sur Canyon, CA. The robot meets a school of Dosidicus gigas near 370 meters depth. The Humboldt squid appear to be hunting bioluminescent Diaphus lanternfish in the water column. The squid follow the ROV down to the seafloor at 450 meters depth and strike the benthos, perhaps mistaking the lasers on the ROV for the bioluminescent fish.

The ROV is suspended from the NOAA ship Bell Shimada on a 500+ meter tether. The ROV is controlled by Dr. John Butler of NOAA SWFSC and his team of scientist-slash-ROV-pilots Scott Mau, Kevin Stierhoff, and Dave Murfin. Dr. Peter Etnoyer tagged along with support from Schmidt Research Vessel Institute. The team did a terrific job navigating 5 different sites in 3 different National Marine Sanctuaries along the West Coast last week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ocean of benefits from open-access publishing

Aquanautix is reveling in happiness from a series of marine protected area designations. New MPAs were established last month in the North Atlantic, at Sala y Gomez Island in Chile, and on Saba Bank in the Netherlands Antilles.

Aquanautix has been working for Saba Bank's protection since 2006 under a partnership led by Department of Environment and Nature of the Netherlands Antilles (MINA) and Conservation International to assess marine biodiversity relative to anchor damage from foreign oil tankers. The project culminated in an online collection of open-access scientific articles at PLoS One called Biodiversity of Saba Bank.

One question raised in the mutually congratulatory conversations about Saba Bank's new MPA status was "how important was the publication of the Biodiversity of Saba Bank collection at PLoS One to the declaration of Saba Bank as a marine protected area?"

Saba Bank researchers saw the benefits of PLoS One from the start. The journal is open-access, so anyone can read results for themselves. Readers have access to all the maps and figures online. Everything is freely downloadable at high resolution. The review process is relatively speedy, so timely publications can result, and novel results are not prerequisite to publication.

What we were curious about was the importance of the Collection to the success of the marine protected area effort. So, we put the question to project leader Paul Hoetjes from MINA. His response confirmed the positive:
"The PLoS One collection certainly helped the process along... without it chances are that we might not have been able to get the decree passed in time for the constitutional changes in the Netherlands Antilles, which could have set back the process with a year or more ... so, I think you can say that the collection has been instrumental in getting the decree passed."

There you have it, the PloS One Collection was "instrumental" in the passage of new legislation. Open-access publishing helped save Saba Bank!

Let me add, "where else will you find 200 full-color Caribbean fish pictures freely available online for your downloading pleasure?"

Here's a few images by Jeff Williams at Smithsonian NMNH from the article Biodiversity Assessment of the fishes of Saba Bank Atoll, Netherlands Antilles. The article is a gold mine of fish pictures! I love this part, especially:
"... based on results presented herein, the number of species known on Saba Bank is increased from 42 previously known species to 270 species."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Saba Bank now a Marine Protected Area

There is cause for celebration in the Caribbean - a new MPA is born!
Saba Bank is larger than many of the islands in the region.
Press Release: As of October 2 the Netherlands Antilles passed and published a National Decree (2010, no. 94) designating the Saba Bank as "a protected area in the sense of art. 4 of the SPAW Protocol". The decree prohibits anchoring (by tankers and other large ships) on the entire Bank, both in territorial waters and in the EEZ, with a few exceptions such as hydrographic survey vessels, salvage vessels, search and rescue vessels, and fishing boats from Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten with a permit to fish on the Bank. The Coastguard of the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba will be enforcing this prohibition.
With an ocean area of ~2,500 km2 this makes the Saba Bank the fifth largest marine protected area in the Wider Caribbean after the Seaflower Marine Protected Area (Colombia) with 65,000 km2; the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic with 25,000 km2; the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (USA) with 9,840 km2; and the Alacranes Reef National Park (Mexico) with 3,338 km2. Average depth of the Bank is about 80 ft, and there are extensive coral reefs on the eastern and south-eastern edges. New species of fish, gorgonians and seaweeds have been discovered on the Bank which has been found to be among the richest areas of the Caribbean in seaweed diversity. Much of the area and its biodiversity still remains to be explored. The Bank is suspected to be an important foraging area for sea turtles and may be important to marine mammals such as humpback whales.

An application for Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) status has been sent to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by the Netherlands to be discussed at the next meeting of the environmental committee of the IMO in the spring of next year. PSSA status will allow further regulation of international shipping to protect the Bank.

The designation follows on a scientific volume called "Biodiversity of Saba Bank" at PLoS One, an online scientific journal from Public Library of Science. The collection characterized submerged habitats on Saba, and identified many new species. The PLoS One collection undoubtedly contributed to the success of this marine protected area effort.

Aquanautix was involved in the MPA designation for Saba Bank since January 2006 with Conservation International, under Drs. Mike Smith and Sheila McKenna of CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. For more information see these links below:

Online collection at PLoS One
"Biodiversity of Saba Bank"

Underwater video of anchor damage by Shelly Lundvall

Saba Bank in Google Earth

3D fly-through of unexplored (!) topography in the Northeast quadrant

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Welker Seamount Sponge Reef

A couple of colleagues and I took a sub ride in Alvin down to 850 meters depth on Welker Seamount in the Gulf of Alaska in 2004, hoping to find abundant deep-sea coral gardens. Instead we found abundant deep-sea sponge gardens, with a few sea fans, like the pink Paragorgia bubblegum coral in the frame below.

What impressed most about this reef was that sponge coverage was high, you couldn't see the seafloor in some parts, and the sponges were habitat for hundreds (of thousands?) of small shrimp. The place was just littered with critters. Look closely and you'll see shrimps' beady eyes peeking out from the cauliflower shaped Farrea occa sponge colonies.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Meet Idabel

Has it been a week already? What a whirlwind trip! The flight to Roatan, Honduras was so easy and short that we might as well fly in every other weekend. If I could only convince the boss.......

Our research group stayed in Half Moon Bay at the west end of Roatan. The atmosphere is laid back, with uncrowded beaches, and unpaved roads underfoot. The scenery is beautiful too, with near and easy access to healthy coral reefs. Scuba dives are cheap and quick with spectacular underwater views.

Things get even better once you're below sea level. Elkhorn coral colonies were frequently observed, a sign of good reef health. Young colonies were present. Coral cover is high. Most of the reefs are protected by Marine Parks. This is a good thing because fish abundance was not particularly high in the shallows. The consensus was that Roatan's shallow coral reefs are 'on the rebound'.

Idabel submarine dives regularly to 2100' depth off Roatan, Honduras
Scuba diving was only a small part of the expedition. The real reason we came to Roatan was to dive in the Idabel submarine. "The sub from Johnny Quest", a friend says. Our goals were to evaluate the utility of this tourism submersible for scientific research. Our objectives were to conduct quantitative transects, to test sampling gear, and to brainstorm a research design that will produce meaningful scientific results about deep-coral ecology.

Dr. Tom Shirley, Idabel submarine, and Karl Stanley
Dr. Thomas Shirley of Harte Research Institute (left in photo) flew in from Texas to join me and Dr. Fred Boltz of Conservation International for our exploration of Roatan's deep-coral communities. We met and conspired with  Karl Stanley (right in photo), pilot, designer, and builder of the Idabel submersible (center). The expedition was sponsored by Marine Science and Technology Foundation.

Aquanautix and Dr. Fred Boltz (r) get ready to dive
For background, Idabel is based at Roatan Institute for Deep-sea Exploration (RIDE) in Half Moon Bay. She's capable of dives to 2500 feet for multiple days. We made three 4-6 hour dives 1500-2200' deep, with one dive at night. We rose through the water column at 2 am that night, with bioluminescence 'raining' down upon us. It was magnificent,... and it was Miller-time. We motored towards home for 15 minutes through the shallow bay, arrived at the dock, and walked 75' back to the house to relax and review photos.

RIDE's operation is shore-based. Therein lies the beauty. There is no long transit out to sea, no big ship costing tens of thousands of dollars a day, no hardhats, and no "stand behind the yellow line." Idabel operates at a fraction of the cost of a federal research vessel with few constraints or distractions. Plus, she's got style. You won't find many submarines with leather cushion seats and parts lifted from a '57 Chevy.

Pretty as she is, Idabel does lack some scientific amenities. There's no sonar, manipulators, or surface communications. 'Coms' are a cell phone with a spare calling card. The ride is terrific though, even better than Alvin, in my opinion. You sit upright. Visibility is excellent, thanks to the 4" thick, 30" diameter plexiglass hemisphere and Roatan's crystal clear water. We could see 300' through the water at 300' depth. It all adds up to an unforgettable experience.

Yellow Paramuricea sea fan 2m across at 500 m depth
Some highlights of our experience include large colorful sea fans, healthy Lophelia corals, numerous sea lilies (stalked crinoids), a 10' smalltooth tiger shark that charged and rammed the sub at 900', and a magnificent ride through the thermocline at 300', where we saw several lionfish hanging out. Lionfish are invasive to the Caribbean, and they are voracious. Lionfish eat ~12 small fish daily, but that's a story for another time. Karl says he sees lionfish commonly at 400', occasionally at 500'.

In the next few days I'll try to post a few more details, notes, photos, and videos of the incredible habitat we observed. For now, here's a photo gallery so you can share our fascination, and treat yourself to a close-up glimpse of that smalltooth tiger shark. Please enjoy! Thanks for following along.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Hello and welcome

Welcome to the Aquanautix Blog. Someday when this blog grows up it wants to be a shiny new electric magazine about ocean science and technology. But for now, and years to come, it will be a dog-eared digital ocean adventure log, a coffee-stained composition book with postcards taped-up inside and scribbled over.

Aquanautix has been around a while, even here on the intertubes, but the attempt is made here to reinvent the Aquanautix Concept fresh and new. Its a reflection of a new reality. Aquanautix was a consulting company, then Aquanautix had kids, went back to graduate school for letters, and got a day job with the Man. Now Aquanautix is online pirate radio broadcasting after-hours from a sea-level garage in Charleston, SC. Its another node in the big digital network of ocean minded people seeking a more sustainable ocean future.

Someday, this blog aspires to be a writer's outlet full of meaningful stuff written by people who work hard to make a positive difference all the time. If you are that people, please send it on! I'll put it up. Until then, enjoy this big adventure. Next week we go deep-sea diving in Roatan, Honduras! Hope you can dive along, and share the wonderment.