13 observations in 8 expeditions
Expeditions Contributed to
The window for me had closed and I needed to get back to California. I left my Trident behind as it sounded like the weather was going to clear up on Monday. The team, now well trained and equipped, seemed to have some great success finding grouper on East End. I will let the video do the talking. Even though we didn't get to hit the SPAG during a spawning event to do a full population survey we were able to more or less confirm that these "dead" sites are still so. This makes the work to protect the active sites even more important for the folks at REEF and the DOE. The Trident seemed like it could really help in this mission again. The active sites, even through we didn't catch it mid-spawn, was definitely showing lots of grouper activity which is a good indicator that we were in the right place but just at the wrong time. I will definitely get down there next year. I'm going to upload the second half of the amazing dive highlights in just a bit along with some ways you can help out too, for now it's time to sign off. Massive thank you to REEF for making this possible and to the DOE for their tireless work and hospitality.
DAY 3 - TRAINING AND GROUPER SIGHTINGS As the weather would prevent us from working out on East End, it was decided that I would leave the Trident behind with the DOE team to try later in the week if the weather permitted. Today, we could use to get them trained up as pilots and practice our freeboating skills. We set out in the mid-morning from the south-end docks and motored to West End. Everyone got a chance to fly, manage the tether, and drive the boat. All required a unique set of timing and micromanagement skills. We really started to click after a few deployments. A few lessons learned: *When freeboating, reversing the boat towards the direction of the tether seems counter-intuitive but was actually quite effective. It allowed the boat to steer more like a car and kept the tether visible to the person running the tether. *How much tether is in the water is directly proportional to the amount of steering authority the vehicle has. Paying out too much can have a big effect. The ideal amount of tether in the water seems to be roughly twice your depth. Keeping the boat over the Trident is necessary for this to work. *When the pilot needs some emergency steering authority to chase something or get a look at something the tether op can throw about 5m into the water. Keeping 10-15m on hand for emergencies is very important. *Even if there appears to be a good deal of slack in the line, pulling the tether affects the steering of the ROV even across a big area. It's best to notify the pilot when you're pulling some in so they can tell the difference between current and the tether being pulled in. The exception to this is if you can back the boat up just by the tether to create actual slack at which point the tether op should take this opportunity to pull in as much as they can to increase the steering authority of the ROV. *The tether op and skipper need to keep in verbal contact to avoid pulling the tether into the prop. The best practice is to back up with the tether down current slightly as if you were parking beside the tether. *Having a daylight readable screen was very important. Finding a good, low-cost one is high on my to-do list now. After some practice runs we went up to the Northeast end of the Island where we managed to find quite a surprising number of Grouper. No Nassau's but there were some spectacular Tiger Groupers in the area. Check out the video! I was really sad to be leaving before getting some video of the Grouper in full-colors at a SPAG...but as Bradley said, the bad weather is probably the best thing for them. Nobody fishing or bothering them so they can do their thing.
DAY 2 - HEAVY SEAS ON THE EAST END The wind and seas were still looking quite bad for a deployment out to "East End" but it was going to get worse so the decision was made to go. The windward side of the island is not only subject to stronger on-shore winds and groundswell but also has some notorious currents where the deep ocean hits the "wall" of the shelf surrounding the island. Perhaps because of the regularly rough conditions this is also where our Nassau grouper spawning aggregations are still active. The tricky part is discovering exactly where. The importance of these aggregation spawns is something that seems to be of growing importance the more I hear about them. Of particular interest in finding them with Trident is so that we can get some good survey videos of the area for a population estimate. If this is one of the last SPAGs in the area, then it stands to reason that all the individuals in the area will be in one place and easy to count. The challenge of open-ocean deployment in heavy seas and nasty 3-dimensional bottom currents was apparent from the first dive. The boat had a very hard time reversing into the wind with person-high rollers crashing over the back of the 29-foot boat. Meanwhile, being the pilot, I had to wrap my arm around the upright of the welded metal Bimini top that was providing meager shade for the tablet to keep me and the tablet in the boat. The most effective thing we found was to get slightly ahead of our target area and use the 1-2 minutes it took to be blown over the area to dive the Trident straight down at full speed. Once near the bottom, we could then take a quick look and get hauled back in. The practice from yesterday was really crucial to getting this right as it required 4 people to coordinate. Paul would manage the tether, which required quick and deft spool out to get as much tether in the water to keep up with the straight dive while not throwing any kinks or twists over. Bradley would drive the boat backwards to slow down the drift while turning into the rogue windswell set waves that would approach at 90 degrees and rattle the DOE "Pegasus" maliciously. Claire was watching an external monitor we hooked up to my tablet to keep an eye out for Grouper which was a good idea since I had to try to keep the Trident on course, stay in the boat, and not loose my lunch...which I wasn't very good at it turned out. In the end we did find a few Nassau groupers which was very encouraging but they always seemed to move just out of reach or just before running out of tether as the current pushed the Trident off the shelf. There were some amazing dives out there though, the best are captured in the video.
DAY 1 - A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DOE AND THE NASSAU GROUPER / FIRST DIVE ON SOUTHWEST POINT Bradley explained that the area we'd be surveying is an old spawning aggregation site (SPAG) that had been "fished out." He expected to find other fish like snapper and perhaps some other species of grouper but that today would be more or less a training day to test the equipment and get used to the chaotic orchestra that is freeboating while running transects in the open-ocean He went on to explain that the Nassaus are picky about where they show up. They come from all over the island and previous population surveys indicate that there's a large population in and around Grand Cayman. The juvenile fish join in the SPAG as well and importantly this is how they learn where the sites are and more or less how to get down to it once they are there. These sites are often too deep to monitor and this is why there is still so much unknown about them. Because sites can become "fished out" it indicates that fish who spawn at one site don't know about the other sites and further indicates that protection is needed for the few remaining SPAG sites. It wasn't until recently that it was known that something needed to be done and just how easy it was for a few number of fishermen to hit a SPAG site and really deplete the population. Things were starting to get really critical before the DOE was able to get regulations in place to protect the remaining sites. Currently there's reason to believe that some of these sites might be returning but that it may also be the case that these sites are gone for good. We launched the boat from the put in and motored up to a shallow mooring to do a systems test. Mostly went well but getting a hang of putting in and pulling out the tether was challenging. After a few dives we got our confidence up and motored to the area around the SW point that we wanted to survey. As you can see by the video there was a lot going on down there but no grouper to be seen. Lot's of black durgon, snapper, and a few surprise visitors (see video).
DAY 1 - Morning Breifing Morning Briefing. 9AM at the DOE building. Bradley, Research Officer at the Department of Environment was leading the mission. Paul and Claire would be on hand to provide support. The plan was to check out the Southwest Point. The weather was quite bad and heavy seas and strong winds would prevent us from getting out to the other sites on the perimeter of the island. These areas would be between 25 and 50 meters depth. Most of the sites would be at the edges of walls or steep drop offs. The bottom would be mix sand and rock with some structures up to 2-3 meters proud of the bottom to avoid. Any rock would be covered with sensitive corals, fans, and sponges so it would be crucial to have good tether management and keep well off the bottom and we'd either have to use the existing moorings or maneuver the boat above the ROV using the motor to compensate for the current/winds. Called, "freeboating" this can be quite tricky. In terms of what to film we primarily wanted to see if there were any Nassau grouper in the area. At this time of day, close to a spawn, if we were in the right spot we would see them sort of sparsely hanging out near the bottom. The idea would be get Trident onto the edge of the wall and either drive over it and survey down, nape of the earth style flying, and record any grouper sightings. Often time other grouper besides Nassaus can be a giveaway too that you're in the right area. I gave a brief introduction on Trident and went over some of the basics of operating Trident. We loaded up the boat. Made a run for sandwiches and launched the boat.
Adventures often start with a phone call. This one was with Brice Semmens at REEF.org. Brice wanted to see if I could get a Trident and a pilot down to Grand Cayman for the weekend to see if I couldn’t use it to help find evidence of an annual grouper spawning aggregation. I had plans to go check out the super blue blood moon eclipse which was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing here in San Francisco--but so might a chance to use Trident to see something like that in person. I learned that there’s a group of folks from REEF that volunteer their time in the Cayman Islands to help the authorities assess the population and general health of the Nassau population during these spawns. More specifically, on Grand Cayman, there’s the need to look evidence of any rebound of the Nassau Gropuer spawning aggregation sites that are supposed to be dormant or possibly rebounding. The challenge is that the sites are often quite deep so divers can’t stay down long and can’t visit that many sites. They’d be interested to explore the possibility of using the Trident to see if it can help. It seems that the super blue moon wasn’t just interesting to us...but for the Nassaus as they attend these spawning aggregations on the first few days after a full moon in January. “You’ll love working with the DOE guys,” he said. “Sounds good. Can’t wait.” Packing list: *Two Trident beta prototype units, “Argon” and “Potassium” (all are named after elements) *1 25m Tether *1 100m Tether Topside wifi modules, cables, and tablets *Snorkel/Mask should the need arise *GoPro *Dramamine. It was supposed to be quite rough.
The Nassau grouper is one of the Caribbean's most iconic fish. They are friendly, curious, and huge draw for divers from all over the world. Each year during a winter full moon, the usually solitary grouper travel to specific sites to spawn. These spawning aggregations, (SPAG) have been their downfall as fishermen lucky enough to find them can remove huge amounts of fish. In the Cayman Islands, there used to be five Nassau grouper spawning sites and all but one is dormant and depleted. Tireless work by conservationists, environmentalists, and volunteers have led to regulations that have been in place for some time and this expedition is to take a look to see if some of those dormant sites have been revived. The expedition is made possible by the wonderful people at REEF.org who I have had the pleasure of working on a previous expedition. This expedition is under the direction of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment. There's a great documentary about this by Changing Seas: For further reading: http://www.reef.org/groupermoonproject http://doe.ky/marine/grouper/ (photo credit: REEF.org)
Apologies for slow reporting, but let's get right back to where we left off. When last we left our heroes they were rushing to catch the boat to survey deepwater targets to assist in data collection on lionfish. The original plan was to attend a workshop get some good intel before attempting anything in the field. Since we are still cutting and editing video from that dive, let's jump ahead (or back depending on how you look at it) to the lionfish workshop and some general background on the invasion, species in question, and important background details. We met the good people at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at DEMA. Their website is full of useful information and if you are gearing up to help out with this expedition or go on one of your own lionfish trips, I'd recommend heading there. To get you casual observers and landlubbers up to speed here are some quick facts: Background on the Invasion First found in Dania Beach in 1985 Suspected to be a result of the aquarium fish trade (60k Lionfish Imported Yearly to US) Can now be found nearly everywhere in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic Some Facts About Lionfish The current invasion has two species of Lionfish, Pterois volitans and P. miles They can tolerate a wide range of depths (1000ft to shallow mangroves) They can tolerate a wide range of temperatures (as low as 52F) Spines on their bodies are venomous Currently no significant predators in the affected regions Have been known to exceed 18 inches long but typically are less than 15 inches This Is Bad Because Lionfish eat many native species reducing their biomass by 60% in 2 years (some areas up to 90%) Lionfish are becoming the most abundant fish in the area This invasion will impact the ecology and economy greatly We arrived at the workshop at the Reef.org HQ at about 7pm. We were running a bit late and awkwardly shuffled into seats unoccupied by the 12 to 15 people who had gathered. There was a mix of biologists, fishermen, and volunteers. Most of them locals. The room was focused on Lad Akins, who stood before a projector showing a side-by-side of the infamous two species. The lionfish are some very tough fish to say the least. There's even one theory that since they came through the aquarium trade that only the toughest bastards survived the trip from live capture to eventual release and that they have bred a super-lionfish that are even tougher and more resilient than the native Indonesian individuals. The workshop went into the extent and affects of the invasion. Gasps and shaking heads punctuated each slide. The bottom line -- this is the most dangerous marine invasion in the area and there's no way to stop it. So, sounds pretty bad, no? It's been hard to listen and see some of the data and not feel absolutely hopeless about the situation. But it's not hopeless. There is a strong sense of stewardship and never-say-die attitude among the volunteers and workers we met. They are all quick to point out that the lionfish does have one predator in the region--us. There is no daily limit or commercial limit on lionfish. They can be collected by any technique that can be used on other species in the same areas. The workshop moved to talking about the different tools and techniques that can be used. We watched and practiced the use of Hawaiian slings, gloves, and collection tubes. Surprisingly the lionfish can be caught with a pair of hand nets quite easily. Folks who aren't fishing can help too! If you're diving or snorkeling you can report lionfish sightings on the app iOS / Android or on the website here. Sadly, one thing humans are really good at is eating things into extinction. But, this might be one of the most effective things we can do. A fun article called "Eat the Enemy" has some more information. Next, we are going to finish doing some editing and get you guys a short interview with Lad.
I got a call early this morning from Lad saying the weather was looking properly bad for the dates we picked for a potential deployment to test out Trident. Long story short, we need to pack up, load the car, and drive to Key Largo right now if wanted to test out Trident on this trip. Updates on our meetings at DEMA will have to wait as we are looking down some rough seas already. Wish us luck! Zack / Dominik / Pierre
The DEMA show in Orlando was indeed the perfect place to find what we were looking for--people who knew where and how anybody with an underwater robot and access to a boat can help. The first person I wanted to touch base with was Lad Atkins, the director of special projects at Reef.org. Before the show he and I had talked on the phone and came up with the idea to possibly use Trident for a deepwater survey. During one of the breaks I went over to their stall and got the low-down on how bad the problem with lionfish actually was. I had a great conversation with some of the volunteers and picked up this little guy for my girlfriend (see picture) Lad invited us down to their headquarters in Key Largo to attend a collection and handling workshop where we could learn a lot more. The team and I are really looking forward to it. If you’re living around here you should definitely check this out. http://www.reef.org/lionfish/workshops. My next stop was the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's stall. These are the guys who are on the frontlines of the invasion and where I got a ton of information that I will share soon but they did have an excellent book about what to do with the lionfish after you catch them (see picture). My next post will be about what I learned at the workshop and some of the takeaways from the conversations with the FWCC’s representatives. At this time, however, I’d like to invite everyone who is in Florida to come out to the dive day we have planned in Riviera Beach, FL on Sunday 11/12. https://www.facebook.com/events/1312646045511541/ We will be test flying the Trident beta unit that we want to use for these surveys and if you can make it, I’d love give you a chance to take control and see some of the amazing fish aggregation in the area. Lastly, I realize it’s only a matter of time before I spell them loinfish so I’m going to get out ahead of that one and get it out of the way here. All the best and looking forward to meeting all of you at the event! Zack / Dominik / Pierre
The background on this expedition will be coming in a series of posts, and the rest of the team and I learn more about the lionfish infestation from experts and volunteers along our journey. For a brief primer on the problem and a terrifying time-lapse of sightings, head over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions page here. The plan as it is now is to get to know more about the groups of researchers, volunteers, and fishermen working to understand and confront this growing and devastating blight. I think a great place to do that will be to head to DEMA (Diving Equipment & Marketing Association) show in Orlando. From there we are hoping to find out how to use our new Trident prototypes to help out.
After pulling anchor, making a sandwich, and relocating the the east side of the island it was time to test out the 2 series in similar conditions. The 2.8 got dragged along with the currents and waves quite badly but was able to find some great wildlife footage at depth. Closer to the rock formations, the current was more manageable. There was a ton of sea life of all shapes and sizes...especially of the shark shape and large size. You gotta see how close we got to the locals... Video below:
The first test we conducted was an open water test of the Trident. Trident was designed to operate in currents and traverse long distances so it seemed like a good testing grounds for the unit. The video was captured using a GoPro mounted to the bottom of the ROV with the same configuration that would be used for mapping / 3d modelling. The simulation included about 30m of neutrally buoyant tether. Check out the video