ENDANGERED SPECIES, ABACO (3): NASSAU GROUPER


Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

ENDANGERED SPECIES, ABACO (3): NASSAU GROUPER

The Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus is one of a number of grouper species found in Bahamian waters. Of these, only the Nassau grouper is on the IUCN Red List, as Critically Endangered. When I last wrote about them they were in the lesser category ‘Threatened’.

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba

In order to sustain a viable population, it is vital to maintain numbers and preferably to increase them year on year. Once it became clear that year-round commercial overfishing was a prime component of the steep decline in the population, a 3-month closed season during the breeding period was imposed. This has ensured that at the most critical time in the lifecycle of the species, the groupers are left alone to breed in peace and to perpetuate their species.

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

The closed season operates from December to February to maximise the chances of breeding success. As with some other fish species, reproduction occurs around the full moon. The fish gather at spawning sites and the process is at its height around sunset.

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

10 CONVENIENTLY COLLECTED NASSAU GROUPER FACTS

  • An adult can grow to more than a metre long, and weigh 25 kg
  • They tend to be solitary daytime feeders, eating small fish & crustaceans
  • Their large mouths are use to ‘inhale’ or suck in prey
  • The colouring of an individual can vary from red to brown
  • These fish have little black spots around the eyes (I’ve no idea why).
  • Their habitat is in the vicinity of coral reefs, from shallows to 100 m deep
  • Spawning mainly occurs in Dec & Jan during a full moon
  • Large numbers gather in a single location to mate in a mass spawning
  • These groupers are slow breeders, which compounds the overfishing problem
  • They are easy mass targets at spawning time; hence the need for a closed season

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

A Nassau Grouper glumly contemplates the possibility of extinctionNassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

RELATED POSTS

BLACK GROUPER

TIGER GROUPER

RED HIND

CLEANING STATIONS

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahamas Scuba (1, 2, 3, 5, 6); Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco (4, 7)

SEA URCHINS: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (11)


SEA URCHINS: PICTURE PERFECT ABACO (11)

Sea Urchin, Abaco, Bahamas (Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco)

As every swimmer knows, or eventually finds out the hard way, it’s not only Blue Suede Shoes that should not be stepped on. But however painful the consequences of a misstep, it’s hard not to find some beauty in an urchin living in a thriving reef environment. The wonderful anatomical diagram by Alex Ries shows everything you could conceivably want to know about one of nature’s most proficient foot-stabbers (if only all such diagrams were presented so simply and clearly).

Sea urchin anatomy (Alex Ries)

The internal organs depicted resemble a bad trip in the bowels of a vacuum cleaner; or (narrow your eyes) an experimental painting from one of the less successful schools of early c20 modern art, soon to be swept aside by Cubism. Note that the mouth is located where you might expect to find the opposite end, and vice versa.

I photographed the urchin test (skeleton) below at Delphi. It was large and almost entirely undamaged (very rare in my experience). The bright faintly greenish white is set off by the palest of pinks. Whatever your view of how creatures came to exist, imagine the creation or evolution of calcium carbonate into a small symmetrical structure as beautiful, detailed and complex as this. If you are short of a lockdown recreation, maybe try to draw it.

Sea Urchin Test / Skeleton, Abaco Bahamas (Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco)

Photo credits: #1 Melinda Rogers / Dive Abaco; #2 Anatomy Diagram, Alex Reis (5 stars for making it available free on Wikimedia); #3 Keith Salvesen / Rolling Harbour Abaco

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?): THE FROGFISH


Frogfish (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

The Astoundingly 5* Strange Frogfish (Adam Rees / Scuba Works)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?)

A COMPENDIUM OF SUBSURFACE WEIRDNESS

A SERIES OF 15 OF THE STRANGEST SEA CREATURES IN BAHAMAS WATERS

INTRODUCTION

WTF? stands for ‘What’s That Fish’? But it might also be your exclamation when you come across one of these creatures. The WTF? series highlights some of the unusual, curious, weird and downright extraordinary fishes that inhabit the waters of the northern Bahamas. Some represent local forms of a species found elsewhere in the world; others are in their own evolutionary cul-de-sac. Just as I think I have seen it all, so another oddity crops up somewhere that demands inclusion. 

The WTF? series, put together over several years, is intended to be the most direct route to an underwater menagerie of piscine strangeness, with some great photos to whet your appetite to learn more about these fascinating denizens of the ocean. 

1. THE FROGFISH

* CLICK ON THIS TITLE TO BE TRANSPORTED TO THE STRANGE WORLD OF THE FROGFISH *

Frogfish (Adam Rees, Scuba Works)Credits are given in the individual articles. Thanks to all those that have provide the photos, without which this type of illustrated, unscientifically scientific poke around in the ocean depths would not be possible.

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 17: YELLOWHEAD JAWFISH


Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

WTF? (WHAT’S THAT FISH?) 17: YELLOWHEAD JAWFISH

It’s been a little time since I added to the WTF? series, in which some of the more outlandish reef denizens come under close scrutiny. Jawfishes (Opistognathidae) come into this category, not least because of their interesting ways with their eggs. Also, they tend to stick upright out of the substrate, which is not especially fishy behaviour.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

More than 50 species of jawfish are found around the world. In the Bahamas, you are most likely to encounter the Yellowhead (or Yellow-headed) variety. And if you think they look slightly… primitive, that’s because they are. In fact, their forebears (forefishes?) originated in prehistoric times, specifically the Miocene era (a lot of million years ago, I didn’t count exactly).

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

These rather extraordinary little fish superficially resemble certain types of BLENNY. Their modus operandi is to burrow down into sandy, gravelly or other loose substrate. They do so by cramming their mouths with sand and spitting it out to one side. By this means they form a tunnel of sorts in which they can live, and from which they can emerge, or half-emerge and take a look around them. As they do so, they hoover up passing food, mostly plankton and suchlike.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Virginia Cooper / Grand Bahama Scuba)

If something looks threatening while they are feeding or having a look around, they can simply duck down into their burrow for safety. They guard their patch against rivals, and behave ‘territorially’ in the jawfish community. One method is to ingest and and then eject sand or gravel at a would-be intruder.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Michael Wolf Wiki))

YES, BUT WHERE IS THE REAL ‘WTF?’ FACTOR HERE?

Good question. With a good and original answer. These little creatures are so-called MOUTHBROODERS‘, meaning that they carry their eggs in their mouths. Depending on the species, females, males or even both parents (don’t try this at home) will do this at or after fertilisation. In effect the eggs are safely incubated until they hatch as fry. Then they are on their own.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

ARE THERE ANY DRAWBACKS TO THIS UNUSUAL GESTATION METHOD?

Apart from accidentally swallowing the occasional potential junior, the eggs need aeration from time to time. This is achieved by expelling the eggs from the mouth, and quickly sucking them back in again. Try this very short video to see this rather improbable behaviour in action. It’s only 8 seconds blink and you’ll miss the action. The eggs hatch into fry in 8 – 10 days, after which both parents can relax. Until the next time.

Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)
Photo Credits: all images from Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba except (4) Virginia Cooper / GBS; (5) Michael Wolf / Wikimedia; video, Alan Keller. Research: magpie picking, not excluding yet not limited to Wiki…
Yellowhead Jawfish (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

PURPLE VASE SPONGES: BAHAMAS REEF ORNAMENTS


Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

PURPLE VASE SPONGES: BAHAMAS REEF ORNAMENTS

The Purple Vase is an unmistakeable sponge, a colourful reef creature (for they are animals, of course) that stands even out amongst the bright corals that surround it. And like corals, sponges are vulnerable to all the usual threats (mainly human-generated).

Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Catch them while you can in the clear waters of the Bahamas while stocks last. I say this because as study after study concludes, the prospects of reef-mageddon get closer each year. When the corals die off, so in all probability will the sponges and anemones…

Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

After such a depressing intro, let’s move on to take a positive look at the purple vase sponge. As with all sponges, once a newborn sponge is wafted by the current to a place on the reef, it takes root there throughout its life. There, these attractive sponges exist by filtering the water that surrounds them, separating out plankton to feed on. Static filter-feeders, if you will.

Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

You’ll notice that in some of the photographs, the sponges have guests. These are BRITTLE STARS, and they are often found on – and indeed in – purple vases. This is a form of symbiotic relationship known as commensalism, in which one species benefits and the other is neither benefitted nor harmed. The brittle star gains a shelter and a safe base for feeding; the vase gets a harmless companion. Small fishes benefit from the vases in a similar way.

Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

Besides the impact of damaging human interventions (which may be permanent), extreme weather events also affect reef life and the static inhabitants adversely. Storms and hurricanes can cause localised havoc, but the damage is not necessarily permanent. The reef can in time repopulate naturally and flourish again. Humans can even promote this recovery. The photograph above shows a purple vase sponge that was detached from the reef by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Melinda Riger in effect replanted it on the reef and it reattached itself and grew. In due course it even acquired its brittle star occupant. 

Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

*JIMI AND ‘PURPLE VASE’ – A VOLUNTARY MUSICAL DIGRESSION

In an interview with NME Hendrix is reported to have said that Purple Haze “was about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea.” Originally the song was intended to be ‘Purple Vase’, and reflect the psychedelic experience of life on a coral reef. Realising he was getting bogged down by sub-aquatic imagery (he was a non-swimmer), he toked for a while and then ‘Purple Haze’ emerged almost fully formed. He was always far happier kissing the sky than wandering about under the waves. Most covers of the song are pale imitations of the original, but here’s a rather unusual take that succeeds by trying a different approach…

Credits: Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba for all great photos; magpie pickings for bits and pieces, with a shout-out to ‘Critter Squad’ for its informative site aimed at kids. And amateur grown-ups can benefit too… commensalism in humans; Friend ‘n’ Fellow audio

Purple Vase Sponge, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / G B Scuba)

REAL THREATS, ALARMING PHOTOS: OSPREYS IN PERIL


THE THREATS ARE REAL AND THESE PHOTOS SHOULD ALARM YOU!

I rarely – in fact almost never – lift an entire article from elsewhere and plant it wholesale here. I make an exception today. Ben’s article is so relevant, so well put together, so compelling and so scary in its implications that it can’t be ignored. No individual is to blame. We all are. Mankind generally – and pretty much all of it in my lifetime. Walk any beach in Abaco, however secluded. There it all is, under your feet. Find a dead seabird? Chances are it will have significant amounts of plastic inside it. Seen those wretched images of turtles with plastic bags hanging out of their mouths? It’s going to get worse…

Now see how things are with our bird partners in New Jersey and their beautiful ospreys.

DOCUMENTING THE PRESENCE OF PLASTICS IN OSPREY NESTS

by Ben Wurst, Habitat Program Manager http://www.conservewildlifenj.org

U.S. Coast Guard assists NJ Fish & Wildlife with recovering an entangled osprey on a channel marker in Cape May Harbor, Summer 2018. photo by Kathy Clark/ENSP

BEN WURST WRITES As I work to finalise data from this summer’s osprey surveys, I wanted to look back and highlight an important observation: more plastic is being found and recovered from active osprey nests. I guess it’s no surprise when you hear that “18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions.

The alarming trend is also becoming more deadly for ospreys, and other marine life who ingest it. While it might not seem like a lot, this year a total of four young ospreys were found dead from being entangled in plastic. In my books, one dead osprey is too many! This is not a natural cause of death! Luckily, there were several other entanglements that were prevented, but this trend is likely to get worse. We hope that these photos will help you to do all that you can to help prevent it from becoming a growing threat to ospreys and other marine wildlife, who might ingest plastics.

Ospreys are an indicator species. We can’t stress that enough. The health of their population can be directly linked to their surrounding environment. When we poisoned the land with persistent pesticides, the ospreys told us. When we overfished menhaden, the primary prey item of ospreys during the nestling period, the ospreys told us. When we use and discard plastics with no care, the ospreys will tell us…

From the land, where they collect nesting material, to the water, where they forage for prey. The growing presence of plastics on land and in water, highlights need to restrict single use plastics, balloon releases, and for any single use plastic fee to directly fund cleanups of plastic waste. It’s no surprise that ospreys use plastic items in their nests. It’s now become a common resource for them which looks similar to natural nesting material and collects in the same areas where they gather nest material. The more plastics in the world means more plastics in osprey nests!

When out on the marsh or on the beach, if you look around you’ll find plastic. According to the Clean Ocean Action 2017 Beach Sweep report (for the first time since the sweeps began in 1985) 84.45% of items collected on the beach were plastic (including foam). Another alarming trend is the growth in balloons found on the beach. In 2017, a total of 4,137 were found. Next time your down the shore, try to determine the difference between a white single use plastic bag and bleached sea lettuce, or white balloon ribbon and bleached eelgrass… Please don’t ever release balloons!

The most deadly piece of plastic litter for ospreys this year was monofilament or fishing line. The four ospreys that were found dead died from being entangled in monofilament. Fishing line is typically brought into a nest while attached to a stick or branch. It then becomes part of the nest and can easily get wrapped around a nestlings leg, foot or wing. This is not an isolated event. It happens throughout the range of ospreys (here are just a few that made the news). Please dispose of your fishing line appropriately! Single strand monofilament can even be collected and mailed to Berkley (a manufacturer of fishing line) for recycling/reuse!

Sadly, this is only the beginning. Plastics don’t biodegrade and this is becoming a chronic issue. Almost all osprey nests in New Jersey contain some type of plastic (next year we are planning to add data fields to our nest survey datasheets to keep better track of how many nests contain plastic). It’s still too early to see the effects of plastics as as they bioaccumulate in the food chain of predatory animals, like the osprey, but we hope that we can prevent this. We can all help by reducing our use of single use plastics. Here are some simple ways that you can help:

  1. Never release balloons! Talk to your friends/family about where balloons actually wind up.
  2. Reduce your dependence/consumption of single use plastics: bring your own reusable bag, water bottle, and coffee cups. Buy beverages in glass or aluminum containers. When eating out or getting take out, ask for no single use plastic items and/or bring your own container for leftovers. Support a Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Restaurant!
  3. Reuse or repurpose things that can’t be recycled. Opt into free recycling programs for hard to recycle items through Terracycle, a NJ based waste reduction company.
  4. Pick up plastic litter. Participate in coastal cleanups (the next COA Beach Sweep is on 10/20!). Dispose of trash responsibly.

Thank you to all of our volunteers, especially our Osprey Project Banders, and those who’ve helped to reduce plastic debris in our environment!

CREDIT: Ben Wurst and his team at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org for the article. Photos as credited in the text. We are Bahamas partners of this organisation in Piping Plover research on the shores of Abaco and our annual Abaco Piping Watch

https://www.facebook.com/Abaco.Piping.Plovers

MANATEES IN THE BAHAMAS? WE GOTTEM!


MANATEES IN THE BAHAMAS? WE GOTTEM!

Not so long ago, most people had no idea that the waters of the Bahamas in general – and Abaco in particular – contained a small population of these curious, gentle, trusting creatures. When I first wrote about them and their adventures, there was surprise – maybe disbelief. A few years later, all that has changed thanks to the BMMRO and an outreach program that raised awareness – and consequently the sighting and reporting – of manatees. They are now widely recognised as they nose their way round harbours, docks and landing stages – and quite rightly they still excite delight and a degree of wonderment. 

You can find out more – lots more – about Bahamas manatees on my page HERE. I have a post in progress about recent manatee developments with a rescue one but alas I have found I have already run out of week through some kind of bizarre time / space continuum dislocation (specifically, flagrant time-mismanagement). So I am posting a few adorable images to be going on with. 

And remember, if you happen to see one, please do report it to the BMMRO or let me know. Useful data includes date, location and a description if possible of any damage – notches and nicks – to the paddle (= tail). It’s a good method for ID. Photos a bonus.  Every sighting adds to the database of knowledge about these strangest of creatures of the Bahamian seas. And you’ll be pleased to know that they are undoubtedly managing to breed in the Bahamas: there are baby manatees to prove it…

All photos: BMMRO

CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS: SEASONAL SPIROBRANCHES


Christmas Tree Worm (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS: SEASONAL SPIROBRANCHES

music-notes-clip-art-png-musicDeck the Reefs with Worms Like Christmas Trees… Fal-La-La-etc-etc ” is a traditional Carol familiar to all. Well, most. Ok, some, then. Oh right – maybe with different words? Anyway, now is the perfect time to take another look at these remarkable subsurface symbols of seasonal good cheer (nb they are animals not plants).

christmas-tree-worm-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

10 CHRISTMAS TREE WORM FACTS TO PONDER

  • The 2 colourful spirals are not the worm, but complex structures for feeding & respiration
  • The spirals act as specialised mouth extensions for ‘filter-feeding’
  • Prey is trapped by the feathery tentacles & guided by cilia (microscopic hairs) to the mouth
  • The tentacle things are radioles and act as gills for breathing as well as prey traps
  • It is not believed that prey slide down the spiral to their doom, like on a helter-skelter

Christmas Tree Worm (Neil Hobgood Wiki)Christmas Tree Worm (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

  • The actual worm lives in a sort of segmented tube, with extremely limited mobility skills
  • It contains digestive, circulatory & nervous systems – and a brain in the middle of it all
  • The worm also has a tiny drainage tube (I think I have this right) for excretion etc
  • They embed themselves into heads of coral such as brain coral. And stay there
  • And yes, the Christmas trees are retractable… (see below for some action)

spirobranchus_giganteus_orange_christmas_tree_worm-nick-hobgood-wiki

HOW DO THE WORMS… YOU KNOW…  ERM… REPRODUCE?

This is a delicate area. They don’t tend to talk about it much, but as far as I can make out they eject gametes from their what-I-said-above. There are mummy and daddy worms, and their respective gametes (eggs and spermatozoa) drift in the current and presumably into each other to complete the union. The fertilised eggs develop into larvae, which settle onto coral and burrow into it, build their protective tubes and the process begins again.

christmas_tree_worm-nick-hobgood-wiki

YOU DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THESE CREATURES, DO YOU?

I won’t lie. I found it hard to work out how the CTWs function in practice. There are plenty of resources showing them in their full glory, but that only takes one so far. Then I came across a short video that shows it all brilliantly simply (except for the reproduction part).

The worms, in their coral burrows, hoist their pairs of ‘trees’. You can easily see small particles – possibly zooplankton – drifting in the water, and the radioles swaying to catch potential food. Suddenly it all makes sense (except the repro bit – I haven’t found footage of that).  Next: the New Year Worm (there is no Easter worm).

A WHOLE FESTIVAL OF CHRISTMAS TREE WORMSChristmas Tree Worms (Neil Hobgood Wiki)

Credits: Melinda Riger (G B Scuba); Nick Hobgood; Betty Wills; Video by ‘Super Sea Monkey’;Reef Collage by RH; MarineBio; Wikibits & Magpie Pickings

Happy Christmas to all those who put up with RH with such fortitude
blue_christmas_tree_worm-betty-wills-wiki

NASSAU GROUPER: ENDANGERED… AND PROTECTED


Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahamas Scuba)

NASSAU GROUPER: ENDANGERED… AND PROTECTED

Most creatures need some space for creative activity of one sort or another. Especially one particular sort, namely breeding. And for vulnerable and endangered species, this is especially important in order to maintain a sustainable population, and preferably to increase it year on year. Which is why there are closed seasons for certain fish, ensuring a time when they can be left alone to breed in peace and to perpetuate their species.

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahamas Scuba)

The Nassau grouper Epinephelus striatus is just one of a number of grouper species that inhabit Bahamian waters. They are mostly found in the Northern Bahamas but only the Nassau grouper is on the IUCN Red List as an Endangered Species in need of protection.

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahamas Scuba)

WHY ARE THESE FINE FISH ENDANGERED?

Sad to say, mankind is the main cause of the population fragility that has led to the official listing, and the imposition of a strict closed season for 3 months between December 1st and February 28th. Scientific studies have shown that commercial overfishing has reduced a thriving population to fewer than 10,000 mature fish. That may sound plenty to be going on with… until you consider that a net annual loss of only 10% would lead to extinction in a decade.

Nassau Grouper Infographic (Royal Defence Force)

10 CONVENIENTLY COLLECTED NASSAU GROUPER FACTS TO PONDER

  • An adult can grow to more than a metre long, and weigh 25 kg
  • They tend to be solitary daytime feeders, eating small fish & crustaceans
  • Their large mouths are use to ‘inhale’ or suck in prey
  • The colouring of an individual can vary from red to brown
  • These fish have little black spots around the eyes (I’ve no idea why).
  • Their habitat is in the vicinity of coral reefs, from shallows to 100 m deep
  • Spawning occurs in Dec & Jan during a full moon
  • Large numbers gather in a single location to mate in a mass spawning
  • These groupers are slow breeders, which compounds the overfishing problem
  • They are easy mass targets at spawning time; hence the need for a closed season

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahamas Scuba)

Department of Fisheries information sheet (interesting if you have the time)

A Nassau Grouper glumly contemplates the possibility of extinctionNassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahamas Scuba)

RELATED POSTS

BLACK GROUPER

TIGER GROUPER

RED HIND

NASSAU GROUPER 1

CLEANING STATIONS

Nassau Grouper (Melinda Riger / . Grand Bahama Scuba)

Credits: all photos, Melinda Riger; Infographic by Royal Defence Force (tip o’ the  hat to Char Albury); Info Sheet, Dept of Fisheries

BELTED KINGFISHERS: PROFICIENT PISCATORS


Belted Kingfisher (Phil Lanoue)

BELTED KINGFISHERS: PROFICIENT PISCATORS

The belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) is an unmistakable winter visitor to Abaco. With its impressive crest and an adult wingspan approaching 2 ft, these fine birds are far larger than the irridescent kingfisher species found in Europe.

Belted Kingfisher (Phil Lanoue)

CARL LINNAEUS himself first documented the belted kingfisher in the mid c18, giving the specific name ‘alcyon’, a word of both Latin & Greek origin. The familiar phrase ‘Halcyon days‘, meaning a time of calm, is used more than once by Shakespeare; it references a calm period of weather supposedly occurring at kingfisher nesting time.

Belted Kingfisher (Phil Lanoue) Belted Kingfisher (Phil Lanoue)

The breeding grounds of the belted kingfisher are in Canada and the northern US, on coasts or near inland waters. They migrate further south in winter, to the southern US, Central America and West Indies. However vagrants have been found as far afield as the UK.

Belted Kingfisher (Phil Lanoue)

WHERE CAN I FIND THEM ON ABACO?

I have seen BKs when fishing out on the Marls, either perched on dead branches looking for fish, or in the mangroves, or in flight. There’s quite often one to be seen at Gilpin Pond, but always – for me, anyway – on the far side and out of practical range of my somewhat modest camera… Sandy Point is another place I have seen them. But these are common birds in winter, so anywhere near water where there are good perches to prospect for fish could be promising for a sighting. Sadly I’ve never actually seen a kingfisher on Abaco plunge-dive for fish, let alone eating a fish. And NB they are exceedingly hard to photograph at the best of times, especially in flight. Which is why I am very pleased to feature some more wonderful shots by photographer Phil Lanoue.

Belted Kingfisher (Phil Lanoue)

GENDER IDENTIFICATION

The kingfishers shown so far are all males, and basically blue and white. The (slightly) larger adult females can easily be identified by their very visible russet chest band. This colouring in fact extends under the wings, where it is harder to see in a perched bird.

Belted Kingfisher (Teddy Llovat) Belted Kingfisher (Michael L Baird)

AUDUBON:  A GUIDE TO THE BELTED KINGFISHER

Birding folk are familiar with the excellent presentations of individual bird species in the go-to guides such a Sibley and Peterson. However it always interests me that the images in my small and incredibly cheapo book of Audubon illustrations often give a very good depiction of a particular bird. He was the first naturalist to portray birds in action as opposed to rather stiff poses. Check out the plate below with the photos here.

Belted Kingfisher (Audubon)

BIRDORABLE’S TAKE*

Belted Kingfisher (Birdorable)

Belted Kingfisher (Bruce Miller)

* BIRDORABLE cartoons are seriously good at reducing birds to their essentials. Try out their many warblers and you’ll see what I mean.

Photo Credits: Phil Lanoue (1 – 6), with thanks as ever for use permission; Teddy Lovatt (7); Michael L Baird (8); Audubon (9);  Bruce Miller (10); Birdorable – Cartoon

DOLPHINS: JUST AS SMART AS YOU ARE…


Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

DOLPHINS: JUST AS SMART AS YOU ARE…

Anyone watching David Attenborough’s astounding new Blue Planet 2 series will already have got the strong message that dolphins are smart, sociable, and joyous creatures. Brian Lockwood from Porquoson VA – and recently become an Abaco resident – knows a smart way to get out on the water to watch them at close quarters: a jetski. Here are a few of the outstanding photos he has recently taken of dolphins doing what they love to do, and what humans love them to do. 

Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

Bottlenose Dolphin (Brian Lockwood)

The hint of a quote in the heading of this post is based on something the inimitable Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, once claimed: “When I see a dolphin I know it’s just as smart as I am…”.  The only slight problem with this comparative assessment is that there may have been times when the good Captain was conceivably on, or adjacent to, a different planet. Times when the dolphins might actually have got the intellectual upper hand.

Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood) Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood) Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood)

OPTIONAL MUSICAL DIGRESSION FOR THE WEEKEND

There are plenty of excellent songs name-checking dolphins somewhere in the lyrics. Rather fewer with ‘dolphin’ in the title. Yes, there’s the Tim Buckley song (or the Beth Orton version of it). The insipid Firefall one? Nah! Then I remembered the Byrds and their ‘Dolphin’s Smile’. Never a single. Originally buried on “Side 2” of Notorious Byrd Brothers. Slightly obscure? Makes a change, so here it is, complete with its evocative yet synthetic ‘dolphin chatter’ intro.

Credits: all the wonderful dolphins taken by Brian Lockwood, with thanks for use permission

Bottlenose Dolphins (Brian Lockwood)

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO WATERS


Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALES IN ABACO WATERS

It’s hard to believe that the seas around Abaco and its cays are home to a number of whale species, from huge sperm and humpback whales down to so-called dwarf or pygmy species. In the middle of this range come the beaked whales, the most common being the Blainville’s Beaked Whale. I say ‘most common’, but in fact they are rare in the world, being found in only two other main locations on earth. 

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

These whales are carefully monitored by the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO), and there is a tagging program to keep track of them. As with dolphins, individuals are identified by markings on the dorsal fin, which vary for each whale. The one above has distinctive scarring at the tip. There are also striations on the body, and conspicuous circular marks that are healed wounds caused by cookie-cutter sharks.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

To the untrained eye, there are no noticeable marks on the dorsal fin of the whale above. However, the whale’s back has a prominent pattern of scarring and healed cookie-cutter wounds. The whale below really looks as though it has been in the wars, with long deep healed wounds behind the head.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

I can’t tell without seeing the head, but I wonder if it is a male and the scars have been caused in a fight with another male – adult males have prominent tusks with which they do battle. Here is an photo that I took from the research boat on a different occasion. The tusks protrude upwards from the lower jaw, and are often covered in barnacles. They are capable of causing serious injury.

Blainville's Beaked Whale male, Abaco (Keith Salvesen)

Blainville’s beaked whales are amongst the deepest divers of all whales. But that and other whale topics will have to wait for another day… My computer malware / virus has been removed professionally with no data loss, and I have some catching up to do. Cost in terms of panic and stress: huge. Cost in real terms: $90.

Blainville's Beaked Whale, Abaco (BMMRO)

All photos BMMRO except the tusked male, Keith Salvesen

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)


Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

ONE GOOD INTERN DESERVES ANOTHER (Part 1)

Four years ago a young English friend of ours, Oscar Ward, was lucky enough to be offered an internship with the Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation (BMMRO). At the time, he was post-school, and waiting to start a degree course in marine biology at university. He had no practical experience at all, so he had to progress from the menial tasks (scraping barnacles off the bottom of the research boat) to the more adventurous (whale poop-scooping) to the scholarly (collection and analysis of samples and data, including audio file matching of whale calls for identification). The need for hard work, concentration and accuracy were made clear from the outset… and as you will see, Oscar’s short internship has stood him in very good stead during his university course.

Oscar weekending at Gilpin Point – self-sufficientBMMRO Internship - weekend off (Oscar Ward)

From a promising start on Abaco, and with 2 year’s study behind him, Oscar is currently spending the 3rd year of his 4-year course in Australia, working with The Australian Institute of Marine Science. He has been involved in a number of complex projects focussed on corals and reef life – as we all know, a matter of huge concern – and the projections for the future of the reef systems in a time of warming seas and raised acid levels. Oscar also assists PhD students, for example examining the damaging effects of parasitic worms on coral; and the effect of changing light conditions on corals.

Nurse Sharks, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Much of Oscar’s time has been spent doing fieldwork. Often he is at sea, monitoring and collecting samples in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, diving two or three times a day. This work is often carried out in restricted or preservation zones, and with ever-present manta rays, sharks and sea turtles around him.

Manta Ray, Great Barrier Reef (Oscar Ward)

Right now Oscar is involved with the investigations into the recent bleaching events, work that is at the forefront of serious concern for the GBR and far beyond. I have recently corresponded with him – he has definitely not forgotten that his grounding for the fieldwork and studies that he is engaged in – and very likely his career – came from his time on Abaco and the lessons he learned during his time with the BMMRO at Sandy Point.  (In part 2: another good intern, currently at Sandy Point)

Coral reef research, Australia (Oscar Ward)

All photos: Oscar Ward (the header image is taken from a research vessel – no idea how, maybe a drone with fish-eye lens?)

TURTLE BREEDING SEASON & A SMALL POEM TO PONDER


Sea Turtle - Adam Rees / Scuba Works

TURTLE BREEDING SEASON & A SMALL POEM TO PONDER

The turtle lives ‘twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle 
In such a fix, to be so fertile.

Sea Turtle - Adam Rees / Scuba Works

Anyone unfamiliar with the works of OGDEN NASH (1902 – 1971) would do well the check out his inimitable poetry, in which he takes extreme liberties with both rhyme and scansion to great comic effect. The poem above is a good example of Nash’s neat way with words. It always makes me laugh, anyway. So simple, looks so easy, but a very difficult trick to pull off consistently as Nash effortlessly does.Sea Turtle - Adam Rees / Scuba Works

As the turtle breeding season moves forward, I though this would be a good time to show a few of the great turtle photos taken by Adam Rees of ‘Scuba Works’.Sea Turtle - Adam Rees / Scuba Works

Sea Turtle - Adam Rees / Scuba Works

All photos: Adam Rees / Scuba WorksSea Turtle - Adam Rees / Scuba Works

BLUE TANG AS REEF FILM STAR


Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

BLUE TANG AS REEF FILM STAR

Last summer, the big motion picture sensation for the bird world was, of course, Pixar’s ineffably adorable creation, Piper – the ultimate ‘Chick Flick’. This little ball of cartoon fluff was not, as some thought, based on a piping plover but on a sanderling – a type of sandpiper (clue in name). This 6 minute ‘short’ preceded the main event, the hugely popular Finding Dory. You can read all about the film Piper and the birding aspects of the film HERE

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Finding Dory is not about a fish of the dory species, of course. Voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, Dory is in fact a species of surgeonfish Paracanthurus, the familiar blue tang found on the reefs of the Bahamas. To see these fish in Abaco waters, Fowl Cays National Park is always a good bet.

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Dory can be identified as a maturing juvenile: blue, with a yellow tail. In due course – in time for the sequel film – she will become blue all over, with perhaps the odd flash of yellow (see photos above).

In real life, a baby blue tang is in fact entirely yellow, except for blue rings around the eyes. In Pixarland, however, Dory is just an adorbs miniature version of her youthful self.

Blue Tang juvenile, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Blue Tang are lovely to watch as they cruise round the reefs, sometimes in large groups. Their colouring ranges from pale to dark blue. However, these are fish that are best looked at and not touched – their caudal spines are very sharp. When the fish feels in threatened, the spine is raised and can cause deep cuts, with a risk of infection.  

Still from a crummy video taken at Fowl Cays some years back to illustrate a group of blue tangBlue Tangs, Fowl Cays Nature Park, Abaco Bahamas (KS)

Blue tangs are inedible, they apparently smell unpleasant, and they can cause ciguatera. However they are popular in the aquarium trade. This is a distinct downside of highly successful films such as Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. In defiance of the well-meant and broadly ecological message of both films, the trade in clown fish and to a lesser extent blue tang was boosted by their on-screen portrayal as adorbs creatures desirable for the entertainment of mankind… ‘Nuff said.

Blue Tang, Bahamas (Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba)

Credits: All excellent photos by Melinda Riger / Grand Bahama Scuba; one pathetically bad still from a low res video, me; cartoons purloined from an online aquarium somewhere or other

ABSORBING SPONGES ON THE BAHAMAS REEFS…


sponge-melinda-riger-gb-scuba

ABSORBING SPONGES ON THE BAHAMAS REEFS…

A while back I showed a collection of colourful sponges – one that you might come across with minimum equipment. Snorkel, mask, flippers. Oh, and a coral reef, if you happen to have one handy. I suspect that to quite a few people the word ‘sponge’ means soggy yellow thing, as found in the proximity of a bath. Or a scratchy nylon-based equivalent. Well, here are a few more sponges to enjoy. Some I can give you the names of, some I don’t know and am too idle busy to look up… Sorry.

sponges-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

Candelabra Songe (with brittle stars attached)candelabra-sponge-melinda-riger-g-b-scubasponge-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

Black Ball Spongesblack-ball-sponge-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba-copy

One for Valentine’s Dayheart-shaped-sponge-melinda-riger-gb-scuba

Vase Spongesvase-sponge- pink-melinda-riger-gb-scubavase-sponge-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

sponges-and-coral-on-the-reef

Spawning Brown Encrusting Spongebrown-encrusting-sponge-spawning-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

All photos: Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba

CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS: FABULOUSLY FESTIVE


christmas-tree-worms-adam-rees-scuba-works-copy

CHRISTMAS TREE WORMS: FABULOUSLY FESTIVE

music-notes-clip-art-png-music“Deck the Reefs with Worms Like Christmas Trees… Fal-La-La-etc-etc ” is a traditional Carol familiar to all. Well, most. Ok, some, then. Oh right – maybe with different words. Anyway, now is as good time as any to take a look at these remarkable plants creatures and subsurface symbols of good cheer.

christmas-tree-worm-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

10 CHRISTMAS TREE WORM FACTS TO PONDER

  • The 2 colourful spirals are not the worm, but complex structures for feeding & respiration
  • The spirals act as specialised mouth extensions for ‘filter-feeding’
  • Prey is trapped by the feathery tentacles & guided by cilia (microscopic hairs) to the mouth
  • The tentacle things are radioles and act as gills for breathing as well as prey traps
  • It is not believed that prey slide down the spiral to their doom, like on a helter-skelter

christmas-tree-worms-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

  • The actual worm lives in a sort of segmented tube, with extremely limited mobility skills
  • It contains digestive, circulatory & nervous systems – and a brain in the middle of it all
  • The worm also has a tiny drainage tube (I think I have this right) for excretion etc
  • They embed themselves into heads of coral such as brain coral. And stay there
  • And yes, the Christmas trees are retractable…

spirobranchus_giganteus_orange_christmas_tree_worm-nick-hobgood-wiki

HOW DO THE WORMS… YOU KNOW…  ER… REPRODUCE?

This is a delicate area. They don’t tend to talk about it much, but as far as I can make out they eject gametes from their what-I-said-above. There are mummy and daddy CTWs, and their respective gametes (eggs and spermatozoa) drift in the current and presumably into each other to complete the union. The fertilised eggs develop into larvae, which settle onto coral and burrow into it, build their protective tubes and the process begins again.

christmas_tree_worm-nick-hobgood-wiki

LOOK, YOU DON’T REALLY UNDERSTAND THESE CREATURES, DO YOU?

I won’t lie. I found it hard to work out how the CTWs function in practice. There are plenty of resources showing them in their full glory, but that only takes one so far. Then I came across a short video that shows it all brilliantly simply (except for the reproduction part). So maybe I should have just posted this first and saved you (and me) some trouble…

The worm, invisible in its coral burrow, hoists its pair of trees. You can easily see small particles – possibly zooplankton – drifting in the water, and the radioles swaying to catch potential food. Bingo. It all makes sense! Next: the New Year Worm

Credits: Melinda Riger (G B Scuba); Adam Rees (Scuba Works); Nick Hobgood; Betty Wills; Absolutely Wild Visuals; MarineBio; Wikibits & Magpie Pickings

blue_christmas_tree_worm-betty-wills-wiki

SILVERSIDES: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (32)


silversides-school-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

SILVERSIDES: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (32)

I have no idea if there is a collective noun for a large group of silversides. ‘Frenzy’ would cover it, but that is reminiscent of ‘feeding freezing’ which has a specialist meaning – and anyway, silversides are crazy even when they aren’t feeding. 24/7/12/365 as far as I can make out. I think ‘a panic of silversides’ might be the answer. They are just… all over the place at high speed. Sometimes swirling around pointlessly, other times moving in unison and suddenly all changing direction simultaneously, like a single creature made of tiny shards of silver.

silversides-school-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba-copyfish-frenzy-melinda-riger-gbs

There are quite a few silverside species around the world. The ones in the Bahamas are Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia), also known in the north east of the United States as ‘spearing’. They seem to exist for two purposes. The main one is to be breakfast, lunch or dinner for larger fish, sea birds and shore birds. The other is for their usefulness in scientific research because of their sensitivity to environmental changes. 

silversides-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba-copy-2silversides-school-melinda-riger-gb-scuba

In one sense they are easy prey for predators. A determined fish will always manage a snack by swimming into the middle of a panic and (probably) simply by opening its mouth wide. On the other hand, their sheer numbers coupled with the speed and randomness of movement mean that a single may find a degree of safety in numbers. It’s hard for a predator to target any individual fish in the general melee and confusion. Silversides also favour seagrass beds, which give some shelter and protection – and a reasonably safe place to spawn. Or, as some of these photos show, they will hang around wrecks or squeeze into rocky spaces in the reef.

silversides-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba-copysilversides-melinda-riger-g-b-scuba

A panic of silversides apparently pouring like a waterfall down through a gap in the reefsilversides-waterfall-abaco-kay-politano

WHAT DOES A STATIONARY ATLANTIC SILVERSIDE LOOK LIKE?

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Some time ago we used to go to the reef at Fowl Cay Marine Preserve with Kay Politano, and I would snorkel with a small and very basic lo-res underwater camera. I was hampered by being a disgracefully feeble swimmer; by not having snorkelled for a length of time calculable in decades; and by being a complete novice at underwater photography.  Despite these not inconsiderable disadvantages I managed to cobble together a few short movies on my computer (I was new to that too). Here’s one that nearly works, in that it gives an idea of what happens if you ‘swim with silversides’. I know you scuba guys all swim with sharks, but cut me some slack here please…

Photo Credits: Main photos Melinda Riger of Grand Bahama Scuba; Silverside Waterfall by Kay Politano; motionless silversides by FISHBASE.ORGMusic: Goldon Giltrap, ‘Fast Approaching’

HOGFISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (31)


Hogfish at cleaning station ©Melinda Riger @GB Scuba

HOGFISH: BAHAMAS REEF FISH (31)

Hogfish. Fisherman’s delight… getting ‘high on the hog’. This wrasse species Lachnolaimus maximus is a reef denizen, especially where gorgonians are found. It has the distinction of being the only known member of its genus, and because it is IUCN listed as vulnerable, there are strict regulations governing bag, size, and gear limits to protect the species from overfishing.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

The hogfish gets its name from its long ‘pig-like’ snout, coupled with its rootling behaviour on the sea floor for crustacean prey.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba copy ed Hogfish foraging ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

GENDER STUDIES: IT’S COMPLICATED

The hogfish is a sequential hermaphrodite, meaning it changes sex during different life stages. Juvenile hogfish are female, but mature into males at around 3 years old.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B ScubaHogfish ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

Hogfish social groups are organized into harems, where one male will protect a group of females in his territory and mate with them.

Hogfish ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba Hogfish with isopods ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

CAUTIONARY NOTE Capt. Rick, a loyal follower, has made another of his pertinent comments: “A bit of caution is necessary here! There is some history in the Bahamas of mild to severe Ciguatera poisoning from Hogs. Our M.O. was to only eat Hogs no larger than 5 or 6 lbs. Temporary or permanent blindness, paralysis, and even death is possible with bigger Hogs”. Ciguatera is also a problem with, for example, ‘cuda on Abaco. Those caught on the Marls (west) side are ok to eat; those from the east side have to be treated with circumspection…

Hogfish (with isopod above eye) ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

Credits: all fantastic fish fotos – Melinda Riger at Grand Bahama Scuba

SPONGES ON THE REEF: A COLOURFUL MISCELLANY


Brown Tube Sponge ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

SPONGES ON THE REEF: A COLOURFUL MISCELLANY

It’s time to take an up-close look at some of the sponges you may find as you snorkel or scuba round the reefs of the Bahamas. I am always amazed by how bright and colourful they are, and by their many different shapes and sizes. Even the unpromising sounding (slightly medical, even?) BROWN TUBE SPONGE turns out to be fascinating to examine closely. Here are some more sponge species. 

CANDELABRA SPONGECandelabra Sponge ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba copy

STOVE PIPE SPONGEStove Pipe Sponge ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

PURPLE VASE SPONGEVase Sponge, purple ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

BRANCHING TUBE SPONGE WITH ROPE SPONGESponges - Branching Tube Sponge with rope sponge ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

PURPLE TUBE SPONGEPurple Tube Sponge ©Melinda Riger @ GB Scuba

PURPLE SPONGE WITH GIANT ANEMONEPurple Sponge : Giant Anemone ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

VASE SPONGEVase Sponge ©Melinda Riger @ G B Scuba

The above sponges represent a fraction of the sponge varieties found on Bahamas reefs. I’ll post some more quite soon. All this has made me want to go for a snorkel. But right now I am 30 miles from the sea. And I have no gear…

HANG ON A MOMENT! WHAT IS A SPONGE WHEN IT’S AT HOME?

It’s really very simple: if you are ever asked the question, just reply “a sponge is a primitive sedentary aquatic invertebrate with a soft porous body that is typically supported by a framework of fibres or calcareous or glassy spicules. Sponges draw in a current of water to extract nutrients and oxygen”.

AND WHAT, PRAY, IS A SPICULE?

You’re having a laugh… if you seriously want to know, read the abbreviated version about them HERE. And admire this microscopic collage of ‘demospongiae spicule diversity’ made available by the wonders of Wiki and the research of about 20 credited scientists.

Demospongiae_spicule_diversity

All photos: Melinda Riger, Grand Bahama Scuba. Tip of the hat to Wiki and scientists