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an unexpected party

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the elf and i like to go walking some afternoons in a beautiful and unexpected patch of forest called smith’s bush.  the 1km-long loop boardwalk weaves between many different kinds of native trees, some of impressive stature, and none more than the giant puriri (Vitex lucens) that tower over one section of the walk.  these trees are always amazing, with their knots and gnarls and resident giant puriri moths (which i have never seen but keep hoping to), but in this bush block they have reached a size i never previously knew was possible.  one group of four trunks in particular, all part of a single tree, is simply too massive to be imagined without standing next to them.  the canopy of these trees is also full of astelias (or ‘tank lilies’, or ‘widow-makers’), making standing around too long in any one place perhaps unwise.

we were making our way around the loop late last week in the slow, thorough stroll of new walkers who intermittently want to be carried, or perhaps practice walking backwards, or touch all the leaves close enough to the boardwalk (glad nz doesn’t have native cacti or skin-irritating climbers), when we discovered something new.  and rather than try to describe our whimsical find, i think i’ll just show you.

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you will be astonished to hear, no doubt, that in among the sea and jungle and sky photos… there are spiders!  not as many as i’d like, but i did see a few of these guys, and my new little point and shoot (thanks, dad!) did a pretty good job with them.  this is Gasteracantha sp., a ‘spiny’ orb weaver, apparently an invader of the hawaiian islands (or perhaps adventive?) and the subject of some taxonomic disagreement, since some sources call it G. mammosa while others consider it a synonym of G. cancriformis (of necklace fame).

anyway, the title of this edition is perhaps overly dramatic; the bishop museum of hawaii lists it as a ‘bad guy’ for being non-native (not clearly explained) and goes on to say that it’s more harmless than it looks, although i have also read that it will bite if the web is disturbed and may be poisonous.  others seeking online IDs have come up with similar info, and whichever species it is, it’s very interesting to look at.  the spiderlings are cute, too, although they don’t look much like their parents.  we tended to see them in large webs along the edges of sidewalks, and i was surprised at the spider’s smallish size given the span of the web — often the spider was right in the middle and looked like a small amorphous blob of detritus; that’s probably the point (no pun intended, i swear).

it was a little tricky to shoot these guys as the webs danced in the breeze, so i don’t have a huge number of images of them, but from what i saw they had lovely coloration and very interesting sculpture on the abdomen (both dorsal and ventral) and i’d love the chance to look at them more closely sometime.  alive, of course, not encased in a drop of acrylic!

a lot of my current web traffic (sorry) seems to be spider-related, so it’s only fitting that my 4ooth post be (of) arachnid(s) in nature.  spider on!

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kanaloa smiled on us

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while the views of the hawaiian landscape were mighty fine, some of our best memories are from the water.  we were able to snorkel right in front of our hotel on oahu, and it was warm enough to be in for an hour or more comfortably.  little pockets of reef hid darting butterflyfish and wrasses, staring triggerfish and bumbling boxfish, and even a white-mouthed moray eel.  large, intensely blue trevally wandered past while we dove down for glimpses of the shadow-dwellers, and it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that i could happily have spent all day, every day in the sea.

luckily there was also a chance to show its wonders to the elf–we were walking distance from the waikiki aquarium, which offered arguably even better views of some of the same fish, plus seals, jellies, hermit crabs, and even the elf’s new favorite word, an OPOTUS!  (so.  proud.)

on kauai we also took advantage of a wide range of swimming opportunities, from a glorious snorkel along the na pali coast (one of the best i’ve ever done, and of course the camera was at home charging, so i can’t show you the sapphire depths or large sea turtle we ran into) to dark intrepid swimming holes in the forest, accessible by rope swing or zipline.  we kayaked up the huleia stream past the menehune fishpond (its alleged origins make a good story) and spent an afternoon playing with the elf in the shallows of another estuary.  some days we woke up, put on swim suits, kept them on all day never really got properly dressed…

perfection.

 

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oh, HI

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as usual at the moment, new material here means: recent travel!  we went to hawaii for our fifth wedding anniversary, bundling up the elf (well, actually, stripping her down since it was pretty warm, but holy CRAP does traveling with toddlers require a lot of luggage) to journey up to the sandwich isles, where we also met up with my mom and aunt.  we spent three nights in oahu — one of them not really a ‘night’ since our plane was delayed 5 hours and we got to the hotel at 4am — and four on kauai.  and it was BLISS.  lush forests, craggy mountains, dense and jungly vines, sparkling seas.  a little kid to introduce to sand and waves; babysitters on hand for when we wanted to to other things.  fresh fruit.  coffee-flavored everything.  shave ice!

i think i’m going to split the photos into a couple of batches, so i’ll start with what we saw on land.  we did some driving and some hiking, taking us along coastlines, through forests, and up mountainous terrain, so we got a nicely varied tour of both islands.

 

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what’s it like, then

Imagewell, the vampire squid is a hard act to follow.  although we did see some more very beautiful things, they’re all going to seem a little anticlimactic. so i’ll show you some nice photos of another squid anyway, Chiroteuthis calyx, which is more photogenic even if it doesn’t have the vampire’s notoriety, and i’ll tell you about something less sciency: life on the boat.

you can get a feel for the vessel itself, the western flyer (technical specs here) by taking a virtual tour.  my overall impressions, compared to other ships i’ve been on (the rainbow warrior and academic ioffe), are that it feels very stable (although it has an interestingly unpredictable pattern of rolling, which we experienced during the first two days as the wind gusted up to 30 knots; still, nothing like the conditions that inspired me to write full tilt in 2004, reposted at the bottom of my ‘about’ page) and runs very quietly, although the noise from the hydraulic equipment for the ROV is significant.  the common areas feel comfortable and spacious, while the cabins are extremely economical on space—the non-bunk floorspace in the double cabin i share is less than 2x2m, and that includes a sink and a desk.  toilets/showers are shared between two cabins, so four people, but we’ve never had any timing crises that i’ve been aware of.  maybe i’ve just been on the right side of the door.

the daily schedule goes something like this: ROV into the water around 0630, camera on and filming begins immediately.  observers trickle into the control room to watch what’s going on any time over the next few hours (and drift in and out in the meantime); the live camera feed can also be viewed in the dry lab (where everyone’s computers are), the mess, the bridge, and on monitors in each cabin, so if you see something exciting come into frame, you can rush to the control room to share in the mass hysteria.  breakfast is at 0730 and lunch at 1130; those operating the ROV (navigator, pilot, camera operator and video annotator) swap out about a half hour into each meal so everyone gets to eat.  the food is consistently superb, unlike on some other voyages.  the dive usually runs for 8–12 hours, depending on the goals for the day (sometimes there are two shorter dives), and that time is spent somewhere between  300 and 3000m on this trip, although doc ricketts can go to 6000m, with the entirety collected on film.  during this time the ROV operators take shifts and the science  crew are involved if data for their projects are being collected, or if they want to watch what’s going on (who doesn’t?!).  dinner is at 1700 and the ROV is usually back on deck shortly thereafter.  in the evening we’ve also been setting a short trawl down to 300–500m to collect pteropods, shrimp, jellies, and fish and squid that come to the upper layers as darkness descends.  the net is hauled somewhere between 2000 and 2100 and then anyone with samples to process takes care of those.  most people head to bed reasonably early after that, but i’ve been up late most nights, partly reporting here and partly because in my head it’s four hours earlier and it doesn’t make much sense to get readjusted for just a week.  that does mean that the early mornings begin really early though; i confess to arriving at breakfast one morning to hear that i’d already missed five squid sightings by ‘sleeping in.’  a mistake i have not repeated.

so that may give you an idea of what life is like out here.  it doesn’t convey—because words simply couldn’t—the overwhelming awe that this whole operation inspires, with its smooth running amid extremely advanced technology, innate expertise of those involved, and easy camaraderie among scientists and crew alike.  it is an incredible privilege to be here, and photos like these, that can almost convey the magic of seeing these animals alive, will serve as a reminder for me (long after we’ve returned to the shore) of this wonderous week.

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i vant to suck… a dead jellyfish

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today we saw one of the holy grails of deep-sea cephalopod research: the vampire squid, Vampyroteuthis infernalis.  this animal is a living fossil, sole occupant of its entire taxonomic order (Vampyromorpha), and has changed very little in millions of years, still possessing many of the traits that ancestral octopuses and squid would have had.  it lives in the oxygen minimum zone (one of the few cephalopods to spend most of its time there with apparent success) and has recently been shown to be the only known cephalopod detritivore (eating mostly marine snow, the bits of organic stuff that rain down from shallower waters), making a small mockery of its name. it also has some very interesting defensive behaviors, which you can watch here.

the one we saw was at about 800m, and fully grown, about the size of a large grapefruit.  but i should say, the first one we saw, because a half hour later we saw a second!  these were the first sightings of this species in the monterey canyon in about a year and a half, and here were two of them.  what’s more, the second one was a baby, which was apparent not only from its size, but its second pair of fins.  baby vampires (how many people will find this post accidentally by googling that phrase, i wonder) first grow a pair of fins right at the end of the mantle, which they flap in a similar pattern to a swimmer doing elementary backstroke.  then they grow a second pair of fins closer to the head, which they flap in the more standard up-and-down motion, but for a short while they have both pairs at the same time (see here for more info on the transition), and this one was in that ‘puberty’ stage.  and mighty cute it was, too.

you may remember that we also encountered vampire squid on the mid-atlantic ridge in 2009. that was pretty cool, but they were small and in poor shape after being trawled from the depths.  in contrast, the sighting today (a good ten minutes of beautiful, clear video footage) ranks as a lifetime highlight.  thanks for showing yourselves, little vampires who aren’t really!

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whoa, mama!

everything we see out here is fairly incredible, but this morning we saw something especially cool: a mother gonatid squid brooding her eggs.  this behavior was first reported in 2006 and it made quite a splash, since extremely little is known about reproduction and egg-laying in deep-sea squid. shallow-water squid tend to lay egg ‘mops’ with several hundred fingers of a few large eggs (jellybean sized), attached to the bottom, or to kelp, but the egg masses of open-water squids are virtually unknown, and those that have been reported seem to be large, free-floating masses of different shapes (like this 2m-diameter ball for Nototodarus, a commercial species in nz, or these strange coils—a bit like the water tentacle from the abyss!—for the diamond-back squid, Thysanoteuthis). so observing female squid carrying the eggs in their arms was pretty sensational, never mind the fact that these eggs were laid in a single large sheet, infused with ink, which the mother likely holds for months (until they hatch like baby stars—watch the video! it’s worth it).  during brooding she waves the sheet gently to keep fresh aerated water flowing over it, and she likely does not eat again once the eggs have been laid, since her mouth is behind the egg mass.  spawning is the final life event for almost all cephalopods, so once the eggs are out, the end is nigh, but how nigh is one of the still-unknown pieces of information, especially for brooders.  in any case, we were extremely lucky to see her, and although the frame grabs are again of lower quality than i’d like, you’ll get the idea.

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in control

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today was another deep-diving day.  we went back down to about 2800m to retrieve the respirometry system deployed yesterday, and spent a bit of time looking around down there for a variety of things, mostly crustaceans.  on the way back up, i got my first chance to ‘drive’ the camera: the pilot controls the ROV, but the camera driver is in charge of spotting interesting things, calling out when to stop, and focusing on them.  during my time in The Chair, we didn’t see any squid, but we did see many beautiful Lampocteis comb-jellies (a kind of ctenophore), which are about the size of a fist, a dark blood-red color, and they have strips of cilia along the sides that ripple and refract the ROV’s lights prismatically, sending brilliant flashing rainbows along their sides.  you can see more photos here, but no still photo does it justice.  we also ran across a stunning Tomopteris polychaete worm (go look!).

these images are screen grabs from my little video camera, which was filming the live on-screen video feed of a couple of cephs we saw yesterday.  they aren’t as clear as the nice shots i get in the lab, but they’ll give you a feel for how the animals look when we encounter them at home in the deep blue sea.

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further into the deep

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this morning the ROV descended to about 3000m to search for mysid shrimp, to measure their rate of oxygen consumption.  after collecting enough to fill the test chambers, we hung the whole set-up on a mooring at about 2800m and left it, to be collected tomorrow when 24 hours of data have been logged.  this whole process astounds me.  drop casually down to 3km below the surface, maneuver an ROV the size of a small bus to catch individual shrimp smaller than your little finger, and then attach the whole set-up to a pre-existing cable and just come back later.  i mean: wow.

from there we headed up to relatively shallow depths to search for squid and other exciting creatures.  on the way up, we happened across this Galiteuthis at 1075m (still very respectable!), but then had about two hours of seeing absolutely nothing. fair enough, i guess; the ocean is huge and the deep sea is a pretty challenging environment.  but just as we were losing heart, we asked the magic 8 ball (i’m actually not kidding) whether we might (1) see Octopoteuthis sometime soon, and (2) see anything interesting within the next ten minutes.  it answered DEFINITELY YES to both questions, causing us to scoff a bit.  but then?  within three minutes a Stigmatoteuthis dolfleini swam directly in front of us (one of the largest histioteuthids, a beautiful family of ‘jeweled’ squids, and a species that they’ve only seen out here three times in 16 years).  and then, a half hour later, we encountered not one, but two Octopoteuthis deletron.  i did not get the chance to photograph these as the aquarium folks whisked them straight off to comfy dark boxes, but i can assure you that they were stunning.  and magic 8 ball, i’m sorry i ever doubted you.

let there be squid!

just so there’s no suspense: today was amazing.

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the ROV was in the water by about 9am and spent the morning and early afternoon doing transects of 10 minutes, every 100m down to 1000m.   these videos will later be annotated, databasing every animal encountered, contributing to a time series that’s been gathered here for sixteen years so far.  we saw jellies, krill, giant larvaceans (the size of your finger, which is huge for a larvacean), and yes, squid.   first a beautiful Histioteuthis heteropsis, all bejeweled and twinkly; then a few zippy little Gonatus; several ponderous Taonius paused to ogle us with their eerie alien eyes; and finally a similar-looking Galiteuthis, with lovely little hooks on the tentacle clubs.  we also visited ‘octopus rock,’ a site in about 1400m of water where deep-sea Graneledone are often spotted, and we were in luck: three of them were home!  i can’t fully explain what it means to someone who’s used to looking at these animals preserved in jars, opaque and shrunken with time (sometimes collected several centuries earlier), to have the chance to watch them drift by under their own power, flashing their chromatophores and light organs and watching you right back.  i think i could fall in love with them again every single day.

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