Tag Archive: western flyer


deeply weird

11870643_885828668158338_5476581250463218594_ntoday’s theme is gelatinous octopuses.  i never expected us to see any of these guys, let alone enough to make a ‘theme’, but over the past few days we’ve seen three: the Cirrothauma above, and two of the bolitaenids pictured below.  i’ll tell you a little about them, as they are pretty remarkable.  Cirrothauma murrayi (above) is a blind, finned octopus that seems to live in deep seas around the world; this one was 2.6 km below the surface when we saw him.  (i say ‘him’ because he appeared to have a hectocotylus [modified reproductive arm found only in males]).  mbari encountered another, much smaller specimen on a cruise this past july so it will be very interesting to see whether they are different growth stages of the same species.

the second taxon is a bolitaenid–we think probably Japetella diaphana (lovely name) but it’s pretty hard to tell the two species in this family apart (so it could be Bolitaena pygmaea); you almost have to have them side by side to compare (the difference is in the size of the eyes and the length of the eye stalks on which they are set out from the brain).  this one was found at 690 m.  it’s an amazing animal to watch because, in addition to being able to transition from transparent to red (or anything in between), it also has iridescent cells (iridophores–you can see them below in the funnel, under the eye) set throughout its body that make it sparkle blue and green depending on the light.  when mature, it also develops a large ring-shaped light organ around the beak (thought to play a role in reproduction/communication), which i would love to see (neither of our specimens had it yet).

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here come the squid

IMGP0386-1day 4 out with mbari.  this guy is one of my absolute favorites to observe: Taonius borealis.  a small cousin of the colossal squid (same family, cranchiidae, or ‘glass’ squids), it’s one of our best insights into what the colossal squid might look like alive, and what it looks like is, quite simply, remarkable.  almost every part of the body is completely transparent, with the exception of a few viscera and the eyes, the silhouettes of which are masked from underneath by the ink sac and very large light organs on the eyes.  the squid can change from transparent to dark red within in a split second and has a wide range of appearances in between, with incredibly fine control over each individual pigment cell (chromatophore) on its body.  this one was at about 468 m when we found him, hanging out in the classic ‘cockatoo’ pose (see images and video link here).

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holy mola!

DSC_0400-1i know, the photo is not that spectacular… but we were treated to a Mola mola (ocean sunfish) sighting this morning under rather difficult conditions to capture well.  all was grey and the fish (two of them actually, surrounding by ogling albatrosses) were about 50 m from the boat.  they were small by mola standards, maybe a metre from fin tip to fin tip, meandering around in their strange sideways fashion, occasionally poking an eye out of the water to stare back at us, flapping their fins awkwardly and just generally looking like a pretty unlikely animal.  in addition to the black-footed albatross, some ?shearwaters (positive ID to follow) and northern fulmars were dabbling nearby.

tomorrow, photos of undersea creatures!

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whale, whale, whale

DSC_0289-1what have we here?  i’m back at sea!  i’m out on mbari‘s western flyer once more, ready for a week of deep-sea squiddy goodness.  we’re just getting ready to put doc ricketts into the water, but already we’ve seen some spectacular wildlife: the summer-resident humpback whales (plus otters, dolphins, sealions and murres) put on quite a show to send us out to sea!  more soon from far, far below the waves…

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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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