We Brought an Entire Aquarium With Us (and Built a Fish-Sized Hyperbaric Chamber)

When I tell people that we’re in the field collecting saltwater animals for display and research at the aquarium, most of them imagine that the actual catching is the hard part. In reality, the hard work starts after we collect the animal. Keeping animals healthy in the field—and then healthy while en route back to Manila for a 14-hour flight to their new home in Golden Gate Park—entails an entire slew of life-support equipment (LSS). We have that stuff at the Academy, obviously, but right now we’re out in the field. Where it’s too hot. Where there isn’t a store to buy what we need. Where we have to constantly battle a continually moving colony of fire ants that appeared right where we set up our equipment. Fortunately, all the pre-planning we did to prepare for this is paying off. Want the laundry-list of what came with us on the plane? Two 200-gallon inflatable kiddie pools (plus a third, just in case), 220-bolt air and water pumps, rolls of tubing, nets, containers, coral-holding devices, fish-holding cups, seeded biofilters, and an assortment of valves, glue, patch kits, rubber bands, cable ties, etc. We knew we’d need to keep water temperatures down in the pools so the animals could survive (from 94 degrees to a reasonable 82), so our original plan was to give the pools water-changes every few hours, which would have required many trips hauling 5-gallon buckets of water 30 feet back-and-forth from the shore. Luckily, our hosts were able to find a powerful sump pump and modify it so it could stay in the ocean while plugged in. We were also able to connect the two pools via four siphon hoses, basically turning them into one body of water. Then we able to fabricate drains in the pools, which gave us not just cooler temps, but also stronger water flow—much better for the shallow-water corals (which are, as the kids say “money”), two coconut octopuses, and selection of fish we’re caring for (which includes ghost pipe fish and white mushroom coral pipefish). And today we’re going to attempt to collect pigmy seahorses. Many of the fish collected deeper than 300 feet have a gas-filled swim bladder. When they’re brought to the surface, the pressure on them decreases and the gas in the swim bladder expands in the same way a sealed bag of chips does when you take it on an airplane. When the bladder expands, it can damage the internal organs of the fish—which is, well, very bad for the fish. Traditionally, collectors have used a hypodermic needle to relieve pressure from the swim bladder, but that’s a less-than-optimal solution, resulting in unreliable survival. To combat this problem, we designed and built a fish decompression hyperbaric chamber based on some larger designs that have been used for collecting cold-water rock fish. Our design is light, relatively portable, and the collection chamber itself doubles as the decompression chamber. The deepwater team collect the first deepwater fish yesterday, and our chamber is working very well. Tomorrow morning, Aquarium Team One heads home to the Academy with the live animals we’ve collected. Packing and shipping them is a story in and of itself, which I’ll try to write up on the plane. Next week, Aquarium Team Two arrives for more collecting with a focus on the deep-water fishes. I’m looking forward to getting home, unpacking the animals, and seeing what the second aquarium team achieves next week. —Rich Ross, Aquatic Biologist 

“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

Ghost Pipefish in the Bag; Ever-elusive Bobbitt Worm … Still Elusive

Greetings from Aniloa! After three and a half days of collecting in the field, we’ve amassed a nice collection of corals, invertebrates, and fish to ship back to the Academy—here’s a quick overview. The sites we’ve visited thus far include Twin Rocks, Devil’s Point, Bethlehem, Mapating Point, Dari Laut, Matu Point, and Anilao Pier, and we currently have 70 specimens on hand. They come from varying genera—Acropora, Fungia, Turbinaria, Tubastrea, Sinularia, and Sarcophyton—and they’re being kept in a temporary field aquarium set up at the Anilao Beach Club. (Rich Ross will be blogging about that setup later, so I won’t go into it here.) We were also able to acquire three snake anemones while on a night dive at Anilao Pier, and we’ll continue our quest for the elusive Bobbitt worm tonight during another night dive at the same location. Oh, and one more highlight: On this afternoon’s dive at Matu Point, Rich was able to collect a pair of ghost pipefish, which were way up there on our list of acquisitions for this expedition. With a couple more days of diving and collecting ahead, Aquarium Team One should be on track to collect most, if not all, of what we have set out for on this trip. —Seth Wolters, Assistant Curator for Steinhart Aquarium
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