Sunday, December 2, 2012

Caribbean Odyssey

Just returned from a Transatlantic crossing lecturing aboard the ms Rotterdam.  A great crossing without too much "motion of the ocean!"  We embarked in Rotterdam and disembarked in Barbados.  It was a pleasure to meet so many great folks!  Thank you for attending my lectures and for your support and enthusiasm.   We had the opportunity to meet many interesting creatures in the rainforests and crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.

While in Southampton, we took the opportunity to drive through the New Forest and up to see the Salisbury Cathedral.
Salisbury Cathedral
Curious Donkey in the New Forest near Southampton

Caribbean Delights

If you are ever looking for a wild adventure -- look no further than a rental car on Tortola, British Virgin Islands.  Take North American cars with left hand drive and drive them on the British (some would say 'wrong' side of the road).  Add narrow, twisty roads - often without center lines -- and you have a recipe for excitement!!

We enjoyed some wonderful snorkeling in the waters of Bonaire and Aruba. Bonaire, in particular, is special because the entire reef system surrounding the island is protected within the Bonaire Marine Park .  The reefs are still in fairly good shape, given the threats to corals throughout the world, with ocean acidification, warming oceans, and rising sea levels.
Snorkeling in the Marine Park that encompasses Bonaire
The Asa Wright Nature Centre in Trinidad proved to be a great place to experience some interesting rainforest birds.  I managed to photograph a few of these, including the Golden-headed Manakin (read more about this fascinating species).
Golden-headed Manikin
Green Honeycreeper, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad
Purple Honeycreeper, Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Deep Sea Mystery Circle – a love story

Are aliens creating undersea "crop" circles??  Not aliens -- but a species of fish.

These amazing creations are designed to lure females to the centre of the circle (is that really a surprise to anyone!?)... "Females of what species?"  you may ask.

Here's the male in action:

That's the male puffer fish hard at work creating his artful "mandala."  These “mysterious circles” aren't designed to just make the ocean floor look pretty. Attracted by the grooves and ridges, female puffer fish would find their way along the dark seabed to the male puffer fish where they would mate and lay eggs in the center of the circle. In fact, the scientists observed that the more ridges the circle contained, the more likely it was that the female would mate with the male.
 Read more about this fascinating story and see more photos.

PS: this is the same puffer fish ... or fugu... that provides some diners with a slightly toxic experience -- tingly lips if they're lucky... a coma and even rigor mortis if they select the wrong restaurant!!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Third of Earth's creatures in rock & sediments

Sometimes I wonder why we're so interested in life on other planets.... there's a lot more life on OUR planet than we ever thought possible!!  Marine sediments, for example, comprise a whole new world.... teeming with unknown organisms.
The research submarine Alvin reaches with its mechanical arm to a high-temperature black smoker at the Endeavour Segment, Juan de Fuca Ridge, to study methanogenic microbes. (Credit: Bruce Strickrott of WHOI)

Microbiologist James Holden at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes: "Evidence has built over the past 20 years that there's an incredible amount of biomass in Earth's subsurface, in the crust and marine sediments, perhaps as much as all the plants and animals on the surface. We're interested in the microbes in the deep rock, and the best place to study them is at hydrothermal vents at undersea volcanoes. Warm water flows bring the nutrient and energy sources they need."

See the complete article:
Limits of microbial life in an undersea volcano: Third of Earth's organisms live in rock and sediments

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Incredible Colors of Bora Bora

Bora Bora is a magical place!  The colors are simply magnificent... the seas... the sky... the sand... the greenery... !  The water is crystal clear.  Look at our picnic site above!!

We enjoyed a fantastic day trip with Mata Tours -- skippered by Mata himself and his two sons. Mata started off wearing a sarong -- and once we left the dock he suddenly whipped this off to the surprise of everyone on the boat!  The ladies had to take a second look to check out his loin cloth.  Ellen Degeneres has a clip of her experience with Mata on her TV program.  He sings, he swims like a dolphin, he dances, he has muscles... and he owns a boat.  Ladies... let's face it... he makes the rest of us guys look pretty mediocre... but, hey, who wants to spend the rest of their days on a South Pacific island in the middle of nowhere... right?... right??

The ladies love to Chat with Mata! That's Jan my wife on the right.

 It was a terrific day -- highly recommended.
The colors may look unreal -- but this is a pretty accurate depiction!

The snorkelling in the lagoon is fantastic!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Half of Our Oxygen comes from the Oceans

One of the thousands of species of Diatom via Diatoms are photosynthetic plankton (microscopic algae) ubiquitous in oceans and freshwater systems. They are a major source of nutrients for marine organisms as well as a major producer of oxygen.
Phytoplankton (photosynthetic plankton) play a huge, and largely under-appreciated, role in feeding every living creature on this planet!  And they provide half of all the oxygen we breath.  Consequently -- life on earth depends on these tiny nearly invisible organisms floating by the trillions upon trillions in the oceans around us.

Given this understanding, headlines such as the one below from Scientific American are more significant than they might first appear.

Phytoplankton Population Drops 40 Percent Since 1950

Researchers find trouble among phytoplankton, the base of the food chain, which has implications for the marine food web and the world's carbon cycle.

I highly recommend this very informative Scientific American article to put the decline in phytoplankton into perspective.

Here's a slide from one of my lectures on "Life on the Open Ocean"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Mystery and Romance of Coral Reefs

One of my favourite lecture topics aims to reveal some of the Mystery and Romance of Coral Reefs. Here's my title slide for a version of this lecture that I recently gave onboard the ms Amsterdam while cruising through the Australian Great Barrier Reef.

Coral reefs are threatened by massive changes throughout the oceans of the world: with rising seas, warming oceans, ocean acidification, overfishing of fish that keep the coral ecosystems in balance... We are only beginning to grasp how dire the situation really is.

Here's an excellent short video that does a great job of putting much of this into context: “Polyps in Peril” video from WRI (World Resources Institute) is like a 101 introduction to corals. It features Celine Cousteau and the artwork of Jim Toomey. Highly recommended!!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Future Cities in International Waters?

More and more people are talking about situating artificial islands and floating cities outside of current sovereign territory.  With our current state of technology -- i.e., access to ocean energy -- independent city states are becoming quite feasible.  There are big opportunities... AND huge concerns; who governs fisheries practices, resource extraction, pollution, labor practices...?  Lots to think about.  Remember the Tragedy of the Commons?

For example, Ramon Knoester wants to make a huge island out of the millions of tons of plastics floating in the ocean.  As I've mentioned in a previous post, many folks are amazed to hear about the "Great Pacific Garbage Pile" -- double the size of Texas.  Knoester calls his vision "Recycled Island." Plastics are a big problem in the ocean -- is this part of the solution?

Then there's the idea of anchoring a ship (BlueSeed) outside the 12 mile limit off the shores of California so people can "commute" to Silicon Valley, without having a US Visa.

We're entering a whole new era of permanent "settlers" in international waters.  We better tread-water carefully!!

Peter Neill, Director of the W2O and host of World Ocean Radio, writes:
"Today, the ocean is the greatest commons of all, as more than 90% of its volume lies outside of national interest. The most important geopolitical question we now face is, "How do we govern and manage the ocean outside national jurisdiction to use it responsibly, sustain its value, and assure its potential forever for the benefit of all mankind?" 

In a recent episode of World Ocean Radio, host Peter Neill discusses the obstacles to greater progress in caring for and protecting our ocean and asserts that we have the knowledge, principles and organizations in place to make a powerful difference in our ability to address the deteriorating condition of the ocean commons.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Looking for your Ship??

Lost your mother on a cruise ship??  Wondering where in the world she's off to this time?  There are some excellent resources online for discovering the current location of almost any cruise ship in the world.  One good website is website showing the location of cruise ships around northern Europe in early June 2012.
You can also search for your ship by name and discover it's current location that way.  Here's the current location and track of ms Rotterdam, for example.

If you are at sea, this is also a good way of letting friends and relatives know where you are sailing... send them an email link for your ship; i.e., the link for the chart above is  The last four letters provide the 'call sign' for the Rotterdam: PDGS.  There are a lot of ships named Rotterdam, so the call sign really saves time in finding Holland America's Rotterdam.

This website,, provides a good resource for call signs for most cruise ships.  Go to the link for "Cruise Ships" under "Shiptracker" on the left side, and you'll see the large-scale chart such as the one at the top of this post.  Scroll down below the chart (map) and you'll see a long list of cruise ships by name along with their call signs.

Cruise ships with location and call sign.  There's ms Rotterdam, call sign PDGS.
Good luck finding those long-lost cruisers in your life!!

Friday, May 25, 2012

How to Pay for Your Next Cruise!

While cruising up the Amazon river on the Prinsendam, I lectured on some of the fascinating creatures that live in the river, rainforest, and associated ecosystems. Bullet Ants (named for the pain associated with their sting), Stink Birds, the real story about Piranhas (avoid swimming in small ponds during the dry season), Sloths, Howler Monkeys, Pink River Dolphins to name a few.  And then there's the Anaconda -- one of the largest snakes in the world. 

Anaconda in the Manaus zoo by yours truly.  These snakes are completely at home in the water and often hunt while submerged.  For everything you ever wanted to know about these snakes see the excellent website by biologist Jesus A. Rivas -
What does this have to do with your next cruise??  Well, I told my audiences about the $50,000 Roosevelt Prize, on offer from the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York, for any snake caught alive more than 30ft long. It had remained unclaimed since 1912.

There is a bit of a catch (pun intended!)... the snake must be delivered alive and in good health, accompanied by all necessary permits and paperwork, to the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

The reward was first offered in the early 1900s by President Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend of William T. Hornaday, the Bronx Zoo's director at the time. And the money--initially $1,000, then $10,000, and now $50,000--is still unclaimed. 

So, on your next cruise up the Amazon... be prepared! You too could collect $50,000 if you have the right gear.  I wish I had spent a bit more time wading through jungle swamps -- I might have stepped on a 31 ft Anaconda!!  Of course, that could end badly -- with the collector getting collected!

You can learn a bit more by following this link.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Linking Weird Weather to Rapid Warming of the Arctic

Scientists are discovering links between the loss of Arctic summer sea ice and changes in the polar jet stream over North America and Europe; with the likelihood of more persistent and extreme weather in years to come.

The minimum extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean in 1979 and 2011. Minimum ice extent has declined by 40 percent in that time, which has further increased warming in the Arctic and begin to effect weather in the Northern Hemisphere. (Image courtesy of The Cryosphere Today/Polar Research Group, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
See the article by Jennifer Francis research professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University

Weather patterns seem to be getting weirder during the past few years, with endless snow storms and deep freezes.  Then how about the winter of 2011/2012, with unusually warm and snowless conditions over much of North America? 

Jennifer Francis writes, "In early February this year, the jet stream plunged unusually far southward over Europe, bringing frigid Arctic air and snow to some areas that hadn’t seen those conditions in over half a century. During summer, persistent weather patterns are responsible for droughts and heat. The record heat waves in Europe and Russia in the past several years have been linked to early snowmelt in Siberia, and a sluggish high-pressure area caused last summer’s sweltering conditions in the south-central U.S."

This graphic depicts how the drop in high-altitude winds in autumn over the past 30 years has closely tracked the decline in Arctic sea ice (dashed line). The rapid warming of the Arctic has reduced the temperature difference between the Far North and temperate regions, slowing down the jet stream and leading to more persistent, or “stuck,” weather patterns. (Jennifer Francis, based on data from the National Center for Environmental Prediction, National Center for Atmospheric Research, and National Snow and Ice Data Center)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Plastic trash altering ocean habitats

When I tell people about the 'Great Pacific Garbage Pile' they are often surprised to hear that the '8th continent' on our planet consists of nearly 4 million tons of plastics floating in the Pacific Ocean in an area double the size of Texas!

A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

The new study follows a report published last year by Scripps researchers in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series showing that nine percent of the fish collected during SEAPLEX contained plastic waste in their stomachs. That study estimated that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific Ocean ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.

See the article: Plastic trash altering ocean habitats

Friday, May 4, 2012

Box Jellyfish in Hawaii - not usually lethal

On a recent cruise on the ms Amsterdam through the Great Barrier Reef, I lectured about some of the amazing creatures of the coral reefs and coastal waters of Queensland Australia.  In Australia, swimmers in tropical waters are wearing "Stinger suits" to protect themselves from dangerous jellyfish stings. Some of the tiniest, but most dangerous, jellies are lethal -- including 10 species that can result in Irukandji syndrome.

One of the deadliest creatures on the planet is the "Sea Wasp" Box Jelly (Chironex fleckeri) - a species that can kill a person in a few minutes.  These jellies are found along the shallow coastal waters of Australia.

Box jellies are becoming more visible in Hawaii.  Fortunately they are not the same species as the deadly Chironex fleckeri.  Wakiki Aquarium has posted a very handy online calendar that provides the probability of box jellies on popular beaches based on the observation that they tend to appear between 8 to 10-days after a full moon.

Here's what the Waikïkï Aquarium and the University of Hawai‘i-Mänoa have to say about the species of box jellies found in Hawaii:

Box jellies (also known as jellyfish) belong to the invertebrate Phylum Cnidaria, a diverse group of stinging animals whose members all possess stinging cells for feeding and protection. Jelly/jellyfish relatives include the sea anemones, corals, and Portuguese man-of-war. The box jellies, or Cubomedusae, are named for the squarish shape of their bell-shaped body. Three species are now known in Hawaiian waters, Carybdea alata and a species Carybdea rastoni, and Carybdea Sivickisi. C. alata is the largest of the three, reaching sizes of one and a half to two inches and diameter and three inches in height. The smaller species is about a third the size. Each of these box jellies has four thin, pinkish tentacles that trail from the "corners" of the transparent body. Complex sensory structures are located between the tentacles, just above the bell margin; each contains a balance organ and a light detector that includes a lens. Box jellies are capable of directed swimming toward a light source, and are reported as the fastest swimmers among the jellies and their relatives. They are active predators, capturing small fishes and crustaceans with their potent sting.

As a group, box jellies are found in shallow tropical seas throughout the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. They generally occur in quiet, shallow waters of protected bays and estuaries, and over sandy-bottomed shorelines, though some species have been reported in the open ocean. Box jellies apparently descend to deeper water during daylight hours, but during summer months, adults are often reported at the surface. The tentacles, well-armed with potent stinging cells can inflict a painful sting on unwary beach goers. An Australian relative, the notorious "sea wasp" box jelly (Chironex fleckeri), is deadly. While the sting of Hawaii's box jellies is not usually lethal, it is reported to be more painful than that of the more common Portuguese man-of-war.

If you're planning a trip to Hawaii, the Hawaii Aquarium website is well-worth a visit!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Oyster Die-offs Show Ocean Acidification Has Arrived

The acidification of the world’s oceans from an excess of CO2 has already begun, as evidenced recently by the widespread mortality of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest. Scientists say this is just a harbinger of things to come if greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar. 

Elizabeth Grossman: Yale Environment 360
This graph illustrates the correlation between rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa observatory off Hawaii with rising CO2 levels in the ocean. As more CO2 accumulates in the ocean, the pH of the ocean decreases. (Courtesy of NOAA/Modified after R.A. Feely, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society

Ocean acidification — which makes it difficult for shellfish, corals, sea urchins, and other creatures to form the shells or calcium-based structures they need to live — was supposed to be a problem of the future. But because of patterns of ocean circulation, Pacific Northwest shellfish are already on the front lines of these potentially devastating changes in ocean chemistry. Colder, more acidic waters are welling up from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and streaming ashore in the fjords, bays, and estuaries of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, exacting an environmental and economic toll on the region’s famed oysters.

Read the entire article at: 
Northwest Oyster Die-offs Show Ocean Acidification Has Arrived by Elizabeth Grossman: Yale Environment 360

Here's a link to a scientific seminar presentation providing a detailed overview of ocean acidification. Dr. Chris Sabine presents a seminar on ocean acidification as a part of the “Climate Science 101″ short course sponsored jointly by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), at George Mason University, and NOAA.  This session reviews ongoing impacts of acidification on marine ecology and projections of likely future impacts on marine life if this trend continues.

Jellyfish on the rise in world's coastal ecosytems

During my lectures I enjoy talking about the fascinating lives of some of the less charismatic ocean creatures -- without backbones or brains!! (Or hearts, gills, teeth... etc!)   You know!.... those spineless wonders known as Jellyfish.  As the oceans become more acidic and warmer the jellyfish are happily proliferating