Day Five – Vista Mar (Steps) – 6 December 2013

Today’s dive was literally around the corner from our resort (five minute boat ride), compared to the 60 minute commutes we have been making searching for the great, good spots. We had turned our noses up at the prospect that such a close in spot, so near to the base of a bay, could hold much of interest for our group. Our assumptions were of course, wrong, as we found a really dynamic and healthy reef at 80-90m, below an incredibly silty and dirty steep slope. Again, clouds of deep anthias and damsels darted to avoid our lights, and caves held cardinal fish, unusual shrimp and small groupers. Richard and Brian chased a number of interesting fish, while I tried to record each species we encountered. We were joined today by Sonia, a Gorgonian / soft coral specialist, who rapidly filled her collection bags to overflowing with interesting and perhaps new species of various invertebrates.

Sea Moth (Eurypegasus draconis )

Sea Moth (Eurypegasus draconis ) [Yes, that is a fish!]

Brian was able to finally collect a specimen of the deep sand perch (Parapercis) that we have seen on several occasions deep.

Unidentified (for now) sand perch (Parapercis sp.)

Unidentified (for now) sand perch (Parapercis sp.)

It looks very similar to a super common sand perch that is very wide-ranging across the Pacific, and probably why it has been over looked in the past (if it indeed is a new species). Once collected, and before preservation, Brian and the other Ichthyologists (fish nerds) preserve a tissue sample for DNA analysis and/or stable isotopic analysis. The DNA helps figure out if the organism is a new or known species by comparing sequence data. The isotope analysis is pretty cool in that the process can determine exactly what plants or animals the specimen is feeding on to place it in the greater food chain. Pinning out and photographing the fish is the final step before fixing the specimen with a preservative before transfer at the museum to the final preservative which is usually an alcohol

mixture. The imaging is best done as soon as possible after collection, to capture the true colors of the animal. Once preserved, the fish tend to turn a drab shade of tinted brown, which can drive future researchers crazy trying to determine the coloration of the live animal.

Randall's Shrimpgoby) Amblyeleotris randalli and shrimp

Randall’s Shrimpgoby) Amblyeleotris randalli and shrimp

In order to collect DNA samples, we need to have the animal in hand, and fish don’t

exactly jump into the collecting bag. I spent almost the entire decomperession of three hours, spearing our target fish with a three prong spear. I have found over these

expeditions that the skills to track a fish with a video camera, anticipating its movements serve me well with a spear. The hard part is always making sure that the fish I am about to spear is exactly the species of fish that the genetics lab needs. This involves some almost comical underwater scenarios where I stare down a little butterfly with a nine foot spear cocked to fire, deciding that it is indeed the Blackback butterflyfish (Chaetodon melannotus), not the look alike Spot-tail butterfly (Chaetodon ocellicaudus).

Unfortunately for the little fellow, I know the fish pretty well enough, and into the bag he goes in the name of science. For those who are squeamish about spearing pretty reef fish (myself included), I often quote the famous naturalist John Audubon who said “any day I don’t kill at least 100 birds is a day wasted”, and his society is now the poster child for

conservation efforts…

Garden eel (Heteroconger hassi)

Garden eel (Heteroconger hassi)

Fishing weight

Fishing weight

Posted in Anilao | Leave a comment

Philippines Day Four– 5 December 2013

Rich hanging in current

Rich hanging in current

Day Four – Epic currents (Kirby’s Rock)

We finally found our first deep, clean water – clean because the area is a washing machine of currents spilling through the Verde Island passage. Over the course of our descent and ascent, we had, in order, a strong down current, a left to right mild current switching to a screaming right to left current, and then a quite strong up current on ascent. So strong, that Richard in the lead couldn’t come down to me (20 feet lower), to try to collect a new sand perch that we have been seeing deep across this area of the Pacific.

Cookeolus japonicus

Cookeolus japonicus

Currents are generally to be avoided for the style of diving we are doing; drop in the shallows, check gear, and navigate generally straight down the slope looking for reefs and structure among the sand/silt and rubbish. After some lateral movement at depth, we try to come back up the same general path we took down, to allow us to find the boat easily. Cross currents obviously can throw off our navigation in both directions. Up and down currents can be a little more insidious, either pushing us deeper than we want to go or hindering our return to the surface, or in the case of an up current, make our safety stops to decompress more difficult to hold. The benefit of this current turbulent site, was the cleanest water we have seen, clearing the silt and sand, revealing excellent tall boulders with under-hangs, full of deep reef fishes.

We collected a number of beautiful anthias and damsels, and recorded a rich population of deep sea fans.

Possibly a new Halgerda - a genus of nudibranch

Possibly a new Halgerda – a genus of nudibranch

Additionally, I collected a beautiful white and black nudibranch at 90m, that may be new to science, or if a known species would be the first time it has been imaged alive. We will definitely return to this site, as we saw during the deep phase of ascent, large walls and structure around 80-90m that were teeming with clouds of fish.

Descent and ascent was also unique to me, in that the thermoclines we typically encounter were multiple and not necessarily in descending order. A distinct line of much colder water is generally a good

Gold Ey Jawfish (Opistognathus randalli)

Gold Eye Jawfish (Opistognathus randalli)

indication that we have passed through a “faunal shift” to new habitat as we descend. The more layers the better, as certain deep fishes prefer the colder tropical water habitat. In today’s case, we sometimes would enter a cooler water band and then a much warmer band deeper and then another cold band. An oceanographer would probably have a field day determining the cause of such turbulent, mixing conditions – conditions that made for an exciting, dynamic dive.

Map Pufferfish (Arothron mappa)

Map Pufferfish (Arothron mappa)

Decompression for this type of dive is generally around 2.5-3.5 hours, which is a perfect opportunity to search out interesting fish and film them, taking the deliberate steps to get good images, rather than the smash and grab techniques used deep where minutes are precious. Folks on expedition always like to see pictures of “pretty fish” – I guess not everyone can get excited about a new, drab, darting fish, just because it is new. Clownfish in anemones, clown triggerfish, butterfly and angel fish abound throughout the shallows in Anilao, and make for “the pretty picture”.

Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)

Clown Triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)

Posted in Anilao | Leave a comment

Philippines Day Three – 4 December 2013

Notes from the field.


Brian Greene, Robert K. Whitton and Dr. Richard Pyle – heading out to collect and survey deep reef fishes in Anilao, Batangas Province.

Philippines Mesophotic Reef Bio-diversity Survey

We are still searching for deep, clean water, ideally around 100-110m (330-360ft) on a wall or slope. This depth is our ideal target depth for discovering and documenting Mesophotic (low light) coral reef eco-systems. Ideal for us in the fish world, because relatively little is known about these habitats, and uncommon to rare (and possibly new) species are found there. The wall or slope setting is also ideal for a number of reasons; firstly it allows us to explore without committing to a certain depth and time profile, a type of diving that rebreathers systems are perfectly suited for. Secondly, a slope or wall allows us to decompress over the bottom, which has interesting things to look at and take video of, which beats sitting in blue water waiting to clear decompression for two and a half hours.

Peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus) and fire urchin (Asthenosoma varium)

Peacock mantis shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus) and fire urchin (Asthenosoma varium)

Our team is once again a multi-disciplinary one, which makes the evenings interesting, as each group reveals the treasures of the day. The Bishop Museum is most focused on fish – documenting which fish are found at what depths and in what habitats, but this trip we have an additional scientist with us, Dr. Sonia Rowley, a sea fan / soft coral specialist (gorgonians). She is documenting and collecting tissue samples of gorgonians on the Mesophotic reef, but also some of the more interesting (less studied) shallow water species.

Dendrochirus zebra

Dendrochirus zebra

The University of Hawaii is collecting DNA samples of reef fishes, also both in the deep water and shallow reefs, for later analysis and comparison to local populations, as well as comparison to sites ranging across the entire Pacific ocean.

Finally, the California Academy of Sciences team are collecting fish for several research programs, as wells as for the very cool Steinhart Aquarium that is within their San Francisco facility.

Brian Greene collecting fish at 60m

Brian Greene collecting fish at 60m

The rebreather units have been performing well so far, and everyone is pretty much set up with their final configuration of gas mixtures, rigging and bail out bottles. The sheer volume of equipment is still astounding to me at times, when compared to a simple SCUBA unit or some of the snorkeling surveys I did this summer in the Marianas. Still, the gear is what allows us to explore these very cool eco-systems, so gear fondle we must.

Chaetodontoplus mesoleucus

Chaetodontoplus mesoleucus

The past three reconnaissance days of diving have been somewhat murky and barren, but not without reward. The high level of nutrients in the water that clouds up the visibility and makes the deep areas somewhat spooky also attracts high numbers of plankton feeders, so lots of schooling fishes and soft corals and fans feeding. We also did a night dive last night which is not a common event for me on a rebreather. Anilao is famous for it’s “muck” diving, with little creature treasures to be discovered in the apparently barren sandy mud and rubble. We will be doing more as the trip progresses.

Juvenile rabbitfish (Siganus sp.) at night

Juvenile rabbitfish (Siganus sp.) at night

Brian and Rich hand net collecting

Brian and Rich hand net collecting

Posted in Philippines - December 2013

7/24/2013 – Tinian Turtle towing and East Side dives

Kev - relaxed turtle surveyor  

During the last two days, we have circumnavigated Tinian, via snorkel, towing, SCUBA and trolling. We have been very fortunate with the weather, as the east coast of Tinian is mostly inaccessible due to strong trade winds and swells. Turtle towing on the south and west lee shores, with glassy conditions is really a pleasure. We recorded many turtles, both Hawksbills and Greens, which kept the recorders busy, and makes fish species diversity surveys much stronger, as we cover much more geography than a few dives every could.

rock island trees

The east side of Tinian has dramatic cliffs and blowholes, including the tragic Banzai cliff where once the outcome of the invasion (liberation) of Tinian by the US became obvious, hundreds of Japanese and Okinawans threw themselves onto the rocks below, rather than suffer under the rumored horrific American occupation. As we passed by, we could see the memorials on the cliff tops with tourists (mostly Chinese and Japanese) under parasols.Rob filmingfull moon

The fish survey continues to mount – over 250 species for Tinianflying fish

Posted in Marianas Cruise 2013 | Leave a comment

7/21/2013 – Tinian Reefs and Cliffs


Jesse surveying turtles

Cliff line surveys for turtles over “convoluted” limestone


Kevin negotiating limestone


Kevin with parasol

I switched gears today, after four straight days of reef dives and snorkels, and joined the Turtle Team to conduct cliff surveys for sea turtles.  Cliff surveys sound kind of relaxing – perch on a sea cliff with some sea breeze and shade, and observe turtles frolicking in the sea foam below.   The reality today was quite different – hike in the mad dogs and Englishman’s noonday sun, bushwhack through the humid tropic jungle, teeter over razor sharp “convoluted” limestone and then stand (because the limestone is too sharp to sit) and stare into the glare looking for a brownish green turtle against brownish green rocks.

We surveyed four beaches, and each one competed with the last as the most un-hikeable, unforgiving terrain.  I have hiked on some perilous tracks around the pacific, and the sea cliffs of Tinian now rate as some of the most challenging, inhospitable terrain I have encountered.  Before we complain too much, I think about the young US Marines 69 years ago, slogging over the same terrain under Japanese fire, and shudder.  Today is Liberation day, celebrated by the Chamorro people on Guam and the CNMI, to recognize the defeat of the Japanese occupation force by the Americans.

Jesse with coconut

Jesse feeding us coconut water after a hot hike

A huge highlight for me was drinking fresh coconut water after two hours on the rocks – Jesse selected the right nuts, and shaved them open with a razor sharp mini-axe he carries with him.  Everything always tastes sweeter and more intense after vigorous outdoor activity, and we had that in spades.

Fairy Tern

Fairy Tern distracting the turtle surveyor


Guam Micronesian kingfisher (Halcyon cinnamomina cinnamomina)


Noddies circling over feeding fish

As turtle surveying techniques go, I think cliff-line surveys are pretty low on my priority list.  I didn’t help my own enthusiasm, I finding exactly zero turtles for four surveys.  I did see one, but Kevin spotted it first, and it was right in front of me.  My problem may be related to my keen interest in fish and birds, and my results from the day include some nice shots of the common birds around Tinian and the feeding fish that hit the surface and excite the birds and fishermen.


Shrimp goby fluffing up


Sand perch – Parapercis clathrata


Chaetodon unimaculatus

Our dives have been lengthy and numerous along the northwestern coast, which is riddled with tubes, caves and undercuts.  Our fish count is over 215 for Tinian – I hope to get into the water over the next few days, around the harbor and a few southern beaches to sample some different habitats.

Sunset transport

Posted in Marianas Cruise 2013 | Leave a comment

7/18/2013 – Tinian Commuting

Small boats

A pretty unique daily commute – Saipan Wharf to North Tinian and back


We are underway again, pulling away from the wharf after completing repairs, heading south to Tinian.  We have been commuting to Tinian in the small boats, about an hour each way.  Conditions have been very calm, allowing for a pleasant ride between islands.

blenny hole

Blenny – Blenniella chrysospilos

Blenny vertical

Blenny on Algae – Blenniella chrysospilos


My fish species list has been reset from Pagan (total around 270 species), and over the last two days I have been hard at “work” filming and accounting for the fish species of Tinian.  Yesterday, we did a combination of SCUBA in the morning, and towing to record turtles in the afternoon.  I towed behind the turtle team looking for fish (as well as any turtles that may have been missed), and had great luck seeing fish in a variety of habitats, that would have been challenging to get to on this dive trip.  The majority of our team’s work is focused on a relatively small area, in shallow water, which will make for a challenge to get to the same variety of habitats that we had in Pagan.

Soap fish

Grammistes sexlineatus – six lined soapfish


Kev towing Tinian

Kevin towing for turtles on Tinian’s east coast


Tinian pocket beach

Pocket beach on Tinian’s protected coast



So far, we are seeing a small shift in species present here in Tinian, that we didn’t encounter in Pagan. I would be interested to see a comprehensive list of all fish species from each of the Mariana islands including Guam to see what species appear and disappear based on the latitude change, similar to the questions we are asking about the Northwest Hawaiian islands.

Tinian Coast


Tinian has a very protective coastline – small seacliffs with jagged coral limestone cover the coast.  There are a few pocket beaches interrupting the cliffs, where a few turtles navigate the breakers and shallow reef flats to nest.  Small buses bring tourists to look at the sand and blowholes, but not swim.  Tinian has a hotel/casino, but relies on small planes and boats to bring tourists over from Saipan – the island economy is very small and life seems slow with few options.  During World War II, Tinian served as a major airfield supporting the bombing campaign against Japan, including launching the B-29 Enola Gay in August of 1945.

Posted in Marianas Cruise 2013 | Leave a comment

Farewell to Pagan, Transit Day 7/16/2013

Wild Pagan Cow

Paganian bull surveys his surf break

Concluding six days of continuous operations on Pagan, we have fired up the boilers, and are heading south to Saipan, where the ship will conduct a few repairs, and resupply – we are out of beer and toilet paper, you can imagine future morale without timely resupply. Pagan was a great host for our expedition. After the tropical storm cleared the weather systems in the area, we were able to work all sides of the island, including the north and east facing shores which are usually inaccessible due to trade wind driven swells.

blow hole

One of several small blow holes around island beaches

flame hawk

Flame hawkfish – Neocirrhitus armatus

After exploring around Pagan for about 10 days, I think this is one of the really cool places; active volcano, brackish crater lakes, wild cows, no development, 269 species of shallow reef fish (by my current count), dramatic geology, blow holes, great fishing, coconuts on cliff faces, sea arches and pinnacles.  There are also some enticing underwater drop offs on the west side, that call out for a deep rebreather expedition, with warm water, good visibility and multi-level diving.



Young hawksbill turtle – tripod from a run in with a gobbler

There is also a healthy population of green and hawksbill turtles, which I finally filmed during a night dive a couple days ago, and yesterday off the east coast.

Peacock mantis shrimp

Peacock mantis shrimp

porites and buster

Large porites coral heads dot the east coast of Pagan

We should arrive Saipan by morning, in time to launch the small boats to start survey work on Tinian next door while the ship conducts repairs and resupply.  I will start the fish counting all over again – the team is teasing me that I am on a Big Year – from the birding movie of the same name, and they keep asking for count updates at meal time.  I left some unfinished business with the garden eel – we were unable to capture one to determine if it is a new species, despite some creative attempts.  The Spanish Inquisition plotters would have had competition with this crew in terms of designing diabolical devices to dispatch the eel.

Heterocoger hassi

Heterocoger hassi – Garden eel – not to be confused with the Gorgasia eel we failed to collect

shrimp and goby

Shrimp and shrimp goby

I am working from a series of lists to try to describe an accurate count of the fish both on Pagan and Tinian.  The latest is a Fish and Wildlife survey from 2010 with 245 species.  I didn’t find all of the fish their team recorded, but have come up with a few more, as I am trying to get to as much habitat diversity as possible.  I also believe that using high definition video is really a helpful tool, as I am constantly recording species that are in the video clip, that were accidental recordings when they swam into the frame.  I also really believe in having proof or evidence to back up my assertion that an organism is present, to allow future researchers to make their own conclusions.  I would have liked to have had that ability when reviewing the Fish and Wildlife list.


No gear feels good after four dives a day

final pagan sunset

Farewell sunset as we return south


Posted in Marianas Cruise 2013 | Leave a comment