Adventure Chronicles – New England Aquarium Collecting Trip

April 13, 2011

To say that our days aboard the Coral Reef II were busy is a massive understatement.  (I feel like I am still recovering.)  From dawn until dusk (and many days longer than that) we were diving, caring for the fish we collected and pretty much devouring any morsel of food placed in our paths.  The work was hard and the days were long, but the trip seemed to fly by, and before I knew it we were back at port in Miami saying our goodbyes.  Here is a little day-by-day of the adventure.  Hopefully it gives you a small taste of what it was like to find, collect and bring back some beautiful fish for the aquarium.

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Day 1: Heading out to sea

New England Aquarium staff, boat crew and us volunteers, all spent the previous night aboard the Coral Reef II at port in Miami, allowing us to push off in the early hours Friday morning, April 1, 2011.  We traveled an hour down river to reach the Atlantic Ocean and headed out to make our Gulf Stream crossing.

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Miami was gorgeous, and so quiet this early in the morning.

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As we pulled into Bimini we were escorted by a pod of dolphins playing the bow wake.  It was all too perfect.  (I was too busy squealing and jumping up and down to get any photos…I guess some things are better left in your own little memory.)  We cleared customs in North Bimini, and readied the ship for all the fish, which would soon be ours.

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Ship shape and ready for some fish

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Gear, check

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Collecting bags, check

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Fish?…Not yet

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The prospect of having to go down there and actually catch some fish began to feel little daunting.  We had so many empty wells and such a long list of fish.  How was I ever going to collect all those little guys?  As a recreational diver, you adhere strictly to the law of “do not touch” and now I had nets in hand and a collecting bag at my hip…here fishy, fishy.

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Day 2: Dive, dive, dive!

With two dives under our belt and a few slippery dicks (yes that is an actual fish name) in the holding tanks, we literally dove into day 2 with a vengeance.  The team completed five dives that day, including a gorgeous afternoon and night dive at the wreck of the Sapona.

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“Chalk talks” before each dive, prepared us for the site and what fish we may encounter.  Presumable this name came about when chalkboards were used and the name stuck.  Plus, “whiteboard talk” doesn’t really have that same ring to it.

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Some of us were novice at fish collecting, but thanks to the experienced New England Aquarium staff and veteran volunteers, by day 2 we were rolling.

How to catch a tropical fish: (Warning: This next step-by-step, makes it seem deceptively easy.  Those little fish are smart, and they seem to know which one you are going after.)

1.     Surround the targeted fish and approach slowly

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2.     Enclose it between two nets

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3.     Carefully place the fish in your collecting bag.  That is one good looking glass eyed snapper!

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More fish coming aboard!

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We record the fish as they came aboard, to later submit into the computer with their scientific names.  This aided us in keeping an up to day list of what fish we had collected to then later submit to U.S. Fishing and Wildlife.

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Sunset on the Sapona as we ate some dinner and waited for the night dive

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Day 3: What is a seine?

After a late night diving we were up and at it again early the next day.  We started the morning with a beach seine.  This is a netting technique used target needlefish and barracuda.  With the net stretching over 100 feet, it took the whole crew to accomplish this task.

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Barbara directing the group

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Deana on the “float side”

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Steve and Don hard at work

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The labor-intensive task was well worth our efforts as we collected three barracuda and many needlefish.

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We folded up the net and headed back to the boat for some more diving.  No rest for us divers when there are fish to be had.

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Day 4: High seas

Day 4 began with some rough seas that proved to be somewhat of a challenge to work around.

Steve and Patty clinging to the barrel line during their safety stop, amid a strong current

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After our morning dives a storm rolled in, but thankfully our skilled captains found us a safe cove at Gun Cay.

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As the storm rolled out and the seas settled, we prepared for our night dive.

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Day 5 & 6: Round ‘em up

By day 5 our list of fish began to dwindle leaving some particular species in which to target.

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First up was the copper sweeper round up.  I do not have any photos of this, as it was quite an event involving the whole team. Acting as a human SCUBA screen Nichole, Don and myself blocked a cave exit in order to keep the copper sweepers contained, as Captain Lou and Barbara scooped in with their nets.  The rest of the team transferred the fish underwater to two huge bags, until we had collected 30 copper sweepers.  30 minutes later we were done.   Go team!

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Next up was the sponge round up.  Now these animals (yes a sponge is actually an animal, the part we think of as “sponge” is their skeleton) may not be particularly challenging to collect, but distinguishing which species is which was quite difficult.  Thank goodness we had invertebrate expert Kate Hudec on the scene. (Queue CSI Miami music)

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Day 6 began with some cushion stars.  A team of six of us, donned our snorkel gear, headed to a grassy sandbar, and rounded up some beautiful specimens.

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With small mouth grunt and tomtates still on our list we headed to another cavernous spot to gather some grunts.

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Another successful day complete, although perhaps breathing all that compressed air was starting to get to us.

All hail Caesar/Dave

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Day 7: Count ‘em up

With our crossing back to Miami scheduled for the evening, preparations for the fish began bright and early.  A complete list of our fish had to be e-mailed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife first thing in the morning, and fresh Bahamian ocean water had to be collected in multiple barrels for fish shipment.  We did have time for a little recreational diving and some reef surveying.  Splashing in the water without collecting bags, gear and nets for the first time in a week was an odd feeling.  “You mean we are just going down to LOOK at fish?”

Andrea working on a reef survey

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No longer needed, our nets were tucked away.

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We checked on the fish, made some last recordings.

D.O. meter, used to check the percent of oxygen in the water

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Then began the Gulf Stream crossing back to Miami that evening.

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Day 8: Move ‘em out

Day 8 started at 4 am, long before any thought of the sun rising, but we had a lot of work to complete and the fish had to be at the airport at 10:30 am.

Porcupine fish ready for shipment.  See you in Boston!

It was an exhilarating and exhausting 8 days, and the people aboard the trip made it all the more special.  So it was with tired bodies in need of a nice long shower that we all said our goodbyes.  The only thought preventing our parting ways from being so sad, was the promise of getting to see all the fish we worked so hard to collect, soon on exhibit in their new home at the New England Aquarium.

Thank you to all.  It was the trip of a lifetime.

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5 Responses to “Adventure Chronicles – New England Aquarium Collecting Trip”

  1. Liana said

    Incredible pics, as always! Wish I wasn’t such a baby about scuba diving, but I don’t mind living vicariously through you :)

  2. shannon said

    !!! fabulous whole trip – and i’d recognize that porcupine fish anywhere ;)

  3. Wow. Incredible photos! What an adventure!

  4. Although ocean aquaria and fish merely tanks reveal many resemblances, you can find noteworthy variations between your a couple of. This information discusses just what those two varieties of …Aquarium

  5. [...] of you blog readers may remember last year my husband and I went with the New England Aquarium on a collecting trip to the Bahamas.  It is wonderful to see many of the fish we collected thriving in their new home [...]

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