Smithsonian Expedition


March 2012 - Blogs by Mission Blue & the Smithsonian Tropical Research Inst.
© copyright by Kip Evans Photography

Who needs a day at the beach when you can have a day in a sub. In this case, a dive in the DeepSee submarine today in Coiba! - Dr. Sylvia Earle

© copyright by Kip Evans Photography
© copyright by Kip Evans Photography

Jenifer Austin Foulkes is blogging for Mission Blue and is Google Ocean's Program Manager.
Eldredge Bermingham aka Biff is STRI's Director and Senior Staff Scientist

March 9, 2012
Hope for Panama’s Marine Biodiversity - STRI Blog
Waking up on day 5 of the Hannibal Bank Expedition, anchored just off Panama’s Bahia Honda coastline and lush coastal mangroves, I am struck by the remarkable compression of marine ecosystems in Panama. Three days ago I was in the DeepSee submersible at 350 meters below the surface skimming across the Hannibal Banks, an undersea guyot that historically has been an extraordinarily rich fishing ground, but is now under increased pressure from a growing fleet of sport fisherman and also from artisanal and commercial fisherman.

In between the mangroves of Bahia Honda and Hannibal Bank seamount we have been diving in Coiba National Park on pinnacles covered with a wonderful diversity of soft corals, hard corals, sponges and anemones and with fish swirling everywhere. Hector Guzman and Ross Robertson, both on STRI’s scientific staff, have catalogued a diversity of fishes and corals in the Coiba region that is unmatched anywhere else in the eastern Pacific. And then 100 miles to the northwest is the Caribbean and our Bocas del Toro marine laboratory with its spectacular array of coral, sea grass and mangrove ecosystems. Nowhere else in the world is such a diversity of marine habitats in two oceans compressed across such a short distance. Panama and the Smithsonian provide an opportunity that is simply unparalleled where we can study, understand and ultimately sustain the marine ecosystems that are critical to our wellbeing and that of the species with whom we share Earth.

We are hoping that Rubén Berrocal, Panama’s National Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation, will join us today. It is our wish — Sylvia Earle, Ricardo Cisneros, Shari Sant, Dave Shaw, Kip Evans and I, alongside our gracious hosts Shannon and Bill Joy — that we will be able to express our appreciation for Panama’s leadership in the sustainable development of the region and to offer scientific support for improved stewardship of the spectacular marine heritage along the two coasts of the Isthmus.

by STRI Director and Senior Staff Scientist, Biff Bermingham
March 8, 2012
Onward and Downward! - Mission Blue's Blog
Today, the wind picked up making the waters quite choppy. The Undersea Hunter delayed heading out to Hannibal bank but once there was able to achieve one spectacular survey, despite the weather.

STRI Director Biff Bermingham and Sylvia Earle led the rest of the Mission Blue team on two dives today. "Washing Machine" was the name of the first site and was a set of submerged rock peaks off Isla Jicaron. Before we descended, we saw what looked to be 6 recreational fishing vessels within the park. How can the few fish schools that remain (as far as what we've seen) have much of a chance against such pressure?

As we descended into the deep, Philippe rang a bell of sorts by clanging a whistle to get our attention. When I looked up from the spiny lobster that I was trying to photograph in a crevice, I was greeted by a huge passing school of jacks circling the rocks in the deep. Every rock surface was covered with life- hard corals, gorgonians, sponges and coralline algae.

Sylvia described a jewel box of coral on the rocks. Brittlestars wrapped their arms around long gorgonian needles in a commensal relationship. She photographed a yellow Commerson's frogfish with such character in his face.

On returning to the dive boat, our local dive expert Kevan said with chagrin that all of the life that we saw today was in pale comparison to what massive schools existed only a few years ago.

The second dive was called the cathedral, a shallow undersea rock pinnacle close to the most western tip of Panama. When we arrived, large swells moved in from the open ocean. It was late in the day and darkening with strong currents. Kip and Biff saw a nurse shark. A tapestry of life emerged from the rocks- red, green and brown algae, white flower like gorgonians, hard and soft corals, sea urchins, and bright orange sponges.

Kip saw three large white tip sharks curled up together under a ledge including a Mommy shark ready to give birth. She slipped out from the crevice where the other sharks rested. Here is this mother shark bringing her baby into a world that's a wasteland relative to what once was. I feel lonely for her and for ourselves. Why can't we have a 100 year plan and put policies in place in every country to sustainably manage our natural resources?

As Al Gore notes, the Chinese symbol for crisis is also a symbol for opportunity. This is humanity's opportunity: enforce Coiba!

by Google’s Oceans Program Manager, Jenifer Austin Foulkes
March 8, 2012
We All Live in a Yellow Submarine- Mission Blue Blog
After sub dive training and a review of a 3-d terrain model of Hannibal Bank, where Hector pointed out what we'd next be first exploring ever, Ricardo and I dawned our jumpsuits and prepared to get in the sub. Ricardo was filled with great enthusiasm, as it was his first sub dive ever and he never thought he'd get to be a real aquanaut! We took pictures as the sub descended into the water. Then we focused on our pilot Arik's descriptions of emergency buttons, air, the line that you could send back to the surface if you got entangled, communications in case he passed out for some reason and more. We watched the sonar screen as we dropped through the thermocline and the surface light grew fainter, all the way until we were surrounded in pitch blackness. A steady stream of bubbles rose toward the surface, and we watched a school of little silvery fish swim by, along with siphonophores, jellies and a tiny squid, as we kept going deeper and deeper until we reached 258 meters down (or 860 feet)!

What surrounded us was a almost moon like landscape but with life poking out here and there- several red scorpionfish, decagon wrasses, tube worms in spaghetti-like mats, black coral, stylaster pink hydrocoral, and white sponge looking material in patches on the ground. In rock outcroppings, there were solitary black cup coral and yellow coral fronds encrusting it. White sea stars, a purple sea pen, and the occasional threadfin bass were at home on the smooth sandy bottom. We saw a small conger eel and another bigger eel that kept opening it's mouth.

We felt as if we were discovering a new planet, and we were, our own mysterious ocean. Back on the Sea Hunter mother ship, we shared our observations with Hector and his team and watched as Shmulik Blum and Arik pulled the sub back up on the deck for the night. As the sun set, Dave headed us back to our own ship, accompanied by dolphins leaping below a full moon. What a life changing experience!

Sylvia, Kip, Shannon, David and Shari spent the day nearer to Isla Coiba surveying the undersea life. The early morning dive was at Wash Rock. The group found themselves in swift surge and in a major thermocline, creating a kind of hot and cold washing machine feeling. It was 82 degrees F at the surface and at 20 meters, the temperature dropped 20 degrees to the coldest water so far. Sea fan paradise spread out along the rocks and a school of barracuda and jellies swam past.

The second dive took the team to Twin Peaks. There were two pinnacles around which the divers made a figure eight. Shari saw a beautiful white jellyfish and then a large gray and a green moray eel poked out to say hello. Shari watched the barber fish carrying out their pick off the parasites of other fish duty. Each wall was covered in gorgonian corals. Kip saw a half a dozen white tip reef sharks on the deepish side. Sylvia saw liagora algae sprouting in tufts along the walls, black tubes sponges and many flowery soft corals. Their third and final dive took them back to the Wash Rock, where it was green, murky and cold, and they surveyed further. Kip who lives in Monterey, California said it made him feel right at home, and he pulled out his daughter's token doll for a quick pic for home.
What magic in the deep!

by Google’s Oceans Program Manager, Jenifer Austin Foulkes
March 6, 2012
The Expedition Begins - STRI Blog
As I write, Héctor Guzmán and I are separated by the great island of Coiba; he is on Hannibal Bank and hopefully in the submersible DeepSee mapping the Banks with Joan Siedenberg, one of the sponsors of our mission. I am on the east side of Coiba with members of the Mission Blue team–Sylvia Earle, Shari Sant and Dave Shaw—talking about marine conservation of this remarkable wilderness area.

Yesterday was a long day. After the drive from Panama City to Puerto Mutis, followed by roughly 3 hours in a small boat, we arrived at Park Headquarters on Coiba Island. Once there, we waited until after sunset for the arrival of the research vessels.

Our time was well spent as Joan and her daughter Karen Tool regaled us with pictures and stories of their deep dives aboard the Russian submersible Mir on the deep sea vents in the Azores, and on the East Pacific Rise at 9N.

Thus it is with great expectation that I await my turn in the submersible DeepSee.

Héctor Guzmán’s stories of discovery were extraordinarily upbeat as he detailed the phenomenal marine diversity of Coiba. Listening to Héctor, one gains the impression that from a marine perspective the diversity is considerably greater than one would encounter undersea anywhere else in the eastern Pacific – including Cocos, Malpelo and the Galapagos.

But some of Hector’s accounts were downbeat. Pressure from commercial and sport fishers is unsustainable, and Hector signals that the fishing declines experienced by the great sport fishing destinations in Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica are already starting to be noticed in Panama. Unless fishers change their behaviors, either as a result of better management and enforcement or because they voluntarily change their fishing practices so as to pass on this vibrant pastime to their children, Hector indicates that Panama will surely lose its abundance of fish, which some say is the origin of the word Panama itself. Moreover, and very sadly, the practice of shark finning continues. Hector shared the frankly unbelievable news that he had even seen the harvested fin of a whale shark.

Research and natural products discovery has played a big role in the creation of Coiba National Park and its designation as a World Heritage Site.

Panama’s Secretariat for Research and Technology–SENACYT, STRI and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the Liquid Jungle Lab share the vision of creating research platforms in Panama’s two oceans –one in the Caribbean in Bocas del Toro and the other here in Coiba. In my view the opportunity to observe coastal zone processes around coral reefs, sea grasses (a naturally rare system around Coiba) and mangroves on two coasts separated by only a narrow isthmus is absolutely unique to Panama.

Certainly a vision that I have for STRI is to use our existing two-ocean platform to transform our study and conservation of tropical seas and their nearshore environments. The islands and coastlines of Coiba, Las Perlas, Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala provide an unmatched opportunity to observe and understand the impacts of environmental change, ocean acidification and overfishing on our wellbeing and on that of the species with whom we share this planet.

by STRI Director and Senior Staff Scientist, Eldredge "Biff" Bermingham
March 6, 2012
Coiba - Today was a magnificent day in Panama! - Mission Blue Blog
Kip Evans and Shari Sant Plummer left early in the morning to rendezvous with the Undersea Hunter support ship for the DeepSee sub. Shari and David Shaw made a 350 foot (120 meters) dive in the sub to explore Hannibal Bank, where they saw numerous stomatopod Mantis shrimp, who mate for life. Kip and Biff did a 120 foot dive to photograph the sub descent. They saw a dead fish carcas at 300 feet being eaten by crabs. They also saw pink coral with white fringes, and a coral that looked like a taco-salad in a flour tortilla bowl. A big ray with false black eye-spots on each wing swam by at 340 feet.

Sylvia Earle and Shannon Joy went on the afternoon submarine dive. Sylvia said it was fantastic and the sub took video transects, performing some of the first ever explorations of Hannibal bank. They went down to a maximum dive depth of 195 meters (640 feet). A beautiful mobula ray swooped in and circled the sub, curious about the light, before gliding away gracefully.

Many pteropod flying sea butterflies and small jellies about 2 inches long pulsed through the water column. The water was thick with plankton like a soup. You could see a green shimmering, where the warm and cold water layers mixed, creating what's known as a thermocline, at about 20 meters.

The sub touched down on the bottom at 150 meters, which is actually the top of Hannibal Bank. This bottom was sandy with scattered rock patches. On the open sand were countless small burrows, like holes on a colander, which were somebody's little homes. There were bright, 6 inch long red scorpion fish clustered near the rocks; one was even a foot long.

They saw a little red octopus with spiked skin on a rock perched near a scorpionfish. A gray moray eel and numerous tongue fish were among the thousands of small animals living on the sea floor. On the rocks, there were black coral, some pale, white soft-corals, a white, solitary coral and beautiful, pink hydrozoan corals as well. White sponges encrusted patches on the ocean floor. They observed a kind of worm that looks like spaghetti with papery tubes as wide as your little finger with red plumes inside. A big ball of fishing line was a jarring reminder of the fishing that still occurs here.

Swimming in the water column were fist-sized ctenophores and a 20 meter long siphonophore- a long, iridescent colonial relative of the jellyfish. It looked like a shimmering chain of gelatinous bodies with long-trailing, shimmering tentacles extending a foot below.

Several large crabs and numerous bright red, deep sea Galatheid crabs, also called squat lobsters, sat on the bottom. Looking up from the bottom, it appeared as if they were in a deep twilight.

While filming the DeepSee, Kip saw at 43 feet a red layer of plankton that looked like smoke along a 10 foot carpet running under water. STRI director Biff Bermingham swam in and out of the red layer.

While Mission Blue divers were in the sub, STRI expedition lead scientist Dr. Héctor Guzmán analyzed data from the previous dives aboard the Sea Hunter. Dr. Guzmán will make his second dive on Hannibal Bank tomorrow morning.

Back on the boat, Ricardo Cisneros and I went with dive expert Kevan Mantell, Philippe and Rina to the Twin Pinnacles, two rock outcrops that stand at the intersection of cold water upwelling and warm water coming down from a stream on the near by island. The currents and water make it just right for a baby fish rookery, and we saw swarms of them swimming and eating plankton.

In addition, there were amazing schools of large jacks, King angelfish, butterfly-fish and damselfish. The wall provides a fish cleaning station, where big fish come in to be cleaned of parasites by the butterfly-fish. Kevin remembers not too long ago, when you'd see at least 50 sharks swimming around the other fish, but I saw none. They've likely all been killed for shark fin soup. Imagine, how much more sustainable tourism dollars could be made if people could come and dive with sharks!

Beautiful coral fans encrusted the rock cliff faces, providing hiding spots for black and bright yellow dog-faced puffers and one beautiful, big Porcupine pufferfish (Diodon hystrix). A beautiful green moray eel was cleaned by a little blue-striped angelfish. He smiled at me, and I kept my distance.

Before sunset, we took an inflatable boat out to watch the beautiful pelicans and shore birds along the beach. This is a time when mother pelicans bring their young here to feed. We took the boat closer to shore, and as we neared the surf line, we saw a crocodile raise up out of the water and then slip back down. It's dangerous to walk along these beaches. Kevin noted that crocodiles have done wonders for deterring snail poaching along the coast. Yay, crocs!

To aid in fish identification, Biff directed me to a wonderful iphone/ipad app that STRI has published. Search on iTunes for "Fishes: East Pacific. An identification guide for the shorefish fauna of the tropical eastern Pacific."

by Google’s Oceans Program Manager, Jenifer Austin Foulkes
back to top
designed by bilderreich