Return from Lubang

Well, we’ve just returned from Lubang Island, and I’ve never been to a more remote, more rustic place in the world. The boat ride we were told would take three hours ended up taking five, but the sea was calm and we had a beautiful ride out. We saw dolphins, jellies, and tons of flying fish. When we first pulled up at the port, there were probably 50 people who came out to look at us. I have no doubt we were the first Americans many of them had seen—kids were yelling, “Power boat! Look, a power boat!” and running over to check out our relatively modest, 15-foot whaler-type boat. As soon as we arrived, four of us took off in the power boat to scout for the dive locations for the next two days. We looked for rocky outcrops on the end of the island facing the drop-off into the South China Sea, and we used side-scan sonar to find rocky areas in the 200- to 350-foot-deep range. After a few stops, we found a spot to dive, so Elliott and I suited up and dropped into a dive site we named “The End of the World.” We did a (relatively) quick pass on the site—buzzing down to 300 feet on scooters and then taking our time coming back up—the total length of dive was 71 minutes, which is about as quick as you can do a dive like that. We saw all kinds of interesting fish and invertebrates even in that short time, so we knew this was the spot we’d be diving over the next two days. What’s really amazing is that I have no doubt Elliott and I were the first people ever to see this reef. It’s mind-boggling to realize that more people have been in space than have been to this spot on the Earth! We spent the next two days revisiting the site and collecting animals (both live and preserved) to bring back with us. It was a series of really long days, as it took close to three hours to motor from our hotel at the port to this site on the other end of the island. We’d do a dive, then try to motor back in time to beat the sunset so that we could actually see the channel back to the port! We did two big dives there, including my own longest (290 minutes) and deepest (354 feet) dive to date. The surface water was 90 degrees, but the deep reef was 73 degrees, so we really felt that temperature drop on the way down. Brrrrr! We collected an undescribed species of damselfish—a cute little orange-and-white fish—to bring back to the aquarium as well as a bunch of other rare fish. The two guys we’re diving with from Hawaii are really good at catching fish underwater—they got ten fish for every one that I could catch! This morning, we packed up the ferry and came back to Mabini. (We’ve got the fish we collected swimming in two kiddie pools here at the resort where we’re staying—pretty cool that we can build a temporary, portable aquarium wherever we go!) The sea was fairly rough, so we had a pretty bumpy ride for the six hours it took us to get “home.” I’m feeling the rocking right now, and will definitely be rocked to sleep soon! All in all it was an amazing adventure. I was really shocked by the isolation and simplicity of the lives that the people there are living, and the reefs were very healthy, with loads of fish—including some really big and rare species. A few folks on our team saw a manta ray, and we saw several napoleon wrasses, which have been really fished out in most areas. —Bart Shepherd, Director of Steinhart Aquarium

“Like Something Out of a Nightmare”

There are two Academy groups currently in the Philippines for the 2014 Biodiversity Expedition: one from Research, and the other from the Aquarium. Though we’re staying at different locations, we collaborate when we can, like tonight. It all started with a 90-minute night dive at Anilao Pier to try to collect a Bobbitt worm—a creature that lives in the sand, has jaws like a bear trap, and might be several meters long. It shoots up with lightning speed to catch fish and other animals, yanking them down into the muck like something out of a nightmare. In the 1990s, Academy Senior Curator Terry Gosliner named the Bobbitt worm after Lorena Bobbitt (and her legendary attack on her husband), and Academy crews have been trying to collect this animal both for display and for our preserved collection ever since. One look at the photo shows you why catching this animal isn’t easy, but take a look at this video for an even better demonstration. Tonight’s effort was unsuccessful, though I did get my hand on one of the worms—yes, my hand. My wife is less than thrilled about these attempts, but she understands that we have to do what we have to do for science. More efforts are planned, and hopefully there will be success. Hopefully. After the worm hunt, there was a party—a party that started without us. Apparently it began with a whole roast pig (enjoyed by both Research and Aquarium Staff), but by the time the worm hunters arrived, things had changed drastically. Let’s just say that while there was still much fun to be had, there wasn’t much pig. Expeditions like this are an amazing amount of work, similar to running a triathlon. Instead of the events being swimming, running, and biking, the events are collection, processing, and animal care. The endurance needed to put out so much energy every single day is huge, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling when everything’s going well. Tonight’s party was a short break from the draining but rewarding work of the expedition … and the only picture I can find of the event is this one of me gnawing on a pig’s head. Ah, science—we love you. —Rich Ross, Aquatic Biologist
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