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Mission Log: September 22, 2007
Dr. Chris Martens
StarDate 2107 somewhere out in ocean space. Yes, I made a typo on that date but sometimes it does seem that we are in a spaceship headed out to unseen corners of the universe. How about a group of sardines making a perfect halo shape around a giant barracuda as they seek protection from one of the fiercest looking creatures in the ocean (and the universe) to escape a band of marauding blue runners! Or why not go look out of the bunkroom viewport at the 300 lb goliath grouper (Earl) who hangs in the water column like a sister ship while lots of shiny plankton drift past looking like distant stars. We actually go to sleep while this goes on for hours every night! I also like the rugged topography out on the reefs.
Did you know that these Keys reefs only formed several thousand years ago as sea level rose after the last ice age? Not that long ago by geological time standards you could walk from Key West to the Everglades and the evidence is right out there for you to see for yourself! There's lots to learn by just swimming out here and looking around and if you take some time to read some of the research by some of the many fine scientists who have devoted their careers to studying this area you'll be even better prepared to understand what is in front of you. I especially like the work of people such as Gene Shinn, a geologist whose work has led to a better understanding of why the reefs are where they are today. There's no end to new discoveries- recently scientists at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science reported finding one of the world's deepest living coral reefs at about 70 meters depth off the Keys, wow!
Back to our mission: It doesn't matter how many times I put on my gear and head out into inner space, it's always a thrill to spot the first big sea turtle of the day, encounter a fleet of swift permit, cross the path of big groupers chugging along with their roving eyes, or startle a busy herd of goatfish out sifting the sandpatches for food. The problem with this aquanaut job is that I always want to settle down quietly and just watch. When you lay down on the bottom and slow you breathing so as to not release so many bubbles, the fish soon began to go about their business without much concern for your presence. It's so interesting to observe what they are actually up to out on the reef. Many are simply in a constant search for food; the herbivores graze on algae by taking little nips while the bigger carnivores huddle with like kind and wait for opportunities to pounce or run. Others, such as the beautiful Creole Wrasses, seem just be out there for playground activities. They race from point to point as a group with leaders chasing those who don't seem to know their place! We get used to regular visits from the schools that live around Aquarius.
Perhaps the strangest things I've seen are the odd partnerships between big moray eels and various fish. Under one coral head I know that we can usually find an enormous green moray with a 2 ft long puffer fish right next to his constantly flexing jaws. I never stop taking picyures of the two of them. It's even better to be out on the reef by yourself as night approaches- then you really know thaqt you are in a different world- typically things calm down and the fish school and hover up in the darkening water column. One night when I was out working on the instruments next to one of our big barrel sponges, I sensed that something was going on next to me and turned into the darkness. There was a large dark shape beside me and as I turned on my video camera lights I found that I was gazing at a completely opened basketstar perched up high on a coral head. The basketstar spends its daytime hours hiding wherever it can on the reef. When spotted they look just like 6 inch diameter balls of rough brown twine. I've found them curled up inside our barrel sponges frequently; they'll wiggle when you poke at them but reluctantly. This one had opened up just like a peacock spreads its tail and was fishing by catching small fish and larvae on sticky branches that ressembled those of a large fern. As I watched for several minutes, one of the six or so unfurled "branches" rolled up backwards to deliver the captured prey items to the mouth of the basketstar. After another minute the arm unfurled again like an opening fern, yet quickly. I was mesmerized and almost forgot to collect my sponge samples!
Well, it's all quiet here in Aquarius as everyone tries to catch up on some sleep after the workday. Repeated six hour dives make sleeping a real pleasure to look forward to and so I'm going to go sit by the bunkroom window, watch Earl for a while and then curl up like the basketstar in my bunk!