Sailing through plastics, tsunami debris, and Hawaiian islands to Jack Johnson’s house

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Me at the helm, sailing through some squally weather in the middle of the Pacific. Photo by Marina Garland

It’s been far too long since I’ve updated this blog! So here goes: First, to bring you up to speed, I arrived safely back to shore (in this case, the Hawaiian islands), after sailing from San Diego through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, or as the media often call it “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Here is a very cool summary video of the research expedition by my shipmates Sabrina Schlumberger and Matt Ecklund:

(and if you would like to get more information on the expedition, check out http://www.sea.edu/plastics)

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My shipmate Tommy trying to hook the piece of floating dock!

The expedition was certainly a success: our eclectic crew of 38 came together as a tightly knit team and sampled and surveyed a whole lot of plastic garbage, ranging from tens of thousands of tiny (< pinky-nail sized) pieces, all the way up to a piece of floating dock and a capsized dingy (small boat). We even camacross a refrigerator floating by with food still in the freezer! (Don’t worry, our food supplies on the ship were more than ample, so no one was tempted).

The mid-ocean floating fridge (just before we pulled the food out of the freezer). Image courtesy of http://www.sea.edu/plastics

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Small plastic toy ball with what appears to be a Japanese cartoon character on it, now covered in barnacles and crabs.

Nearly every piece of plastic with discernible markings on it was of Japanese origin and likely ended up in the middle of the Pacific after Japan’s devastating Tōhoku tsunami in 2011. It was a somber feeling analyzing the marine life that had accumulated on a child’s toy ball, knowing that the owner may have been a victim of such a tragic natural disaster. At the same time, I was astonished by how much of this debris made it so far south of Japan, just by bobbing on the surface of the sea.

Tyson, Laura and I examine a Japanese fishing buoy that was covered in a whole slew of critters from thousands of barnacles and hundreds of crabs to giant isopods and polycheate worms. Shocking how much life can occupy so small an object! Photo by Marina Garland

We are now in the midst of processing the expedition data, but in case you were wondering: No, there is no island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! This is certainly a relief, but unfortunately we are not out of the woods , because what we did find out there in the middle of the ocean were countless tiny pieces of plastic. Everywhere! These small pieces are the result of weathering and breaking up of larger pieces of plastic that have been floating around the ocean for who knows how long. What does this mean? What can plastics, small or large do to natural ecosystems in and around the ocean? The answer: We do not know. But we hope that the data collected from this expedition will help shed some light on this mystery.

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My watchmates Cina, Tyson and Whitney. Shortly before this photo was taken, we had a shipboard mock presidential election, in which Tyson and I (“Mike Tyson”) won by a narrow margin. Cina and Whitney were our secret service agents during the debates, hence Cina’s earpiece.

After 32 days at sea with no land in sight, we finally sailed into the Hawaiian islands from the NE and made landfall on the west coast of the Big Island at dusk on November 5th. As I remembered from my previous sailing adventures, setting foot on dry (and more importantly stable!) land after living on a constantly moving–sometimes violently–object is something you never forget. It was a great feeling, and the first steps that my watch mates and I took onto the Hawaiian shores just so happened to be at the very spot where Captain James Cook was murdered in 1779. Not the most cuddly of historical sites, but an important one nonetheless. Fortunately for us, we were not fleeing from aggressive natives but were instead running freely up to the lookout point and then snorkeling gleefully in cool, inviting waters thick in a rainbow assortment of corals and reef fish. It was an impressively healthy system, and it was an absolute pleasure of a stop over. We even got a surprise (and much appreciated) swim call from the captain–finally, we got to jump into the beautiful waters that we had been sailing through for over a month!

Swim call!: We were rewarded by the Captain with a rare swimming opportunity while at anchor in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Photo by Marina Garland

But good things are never meant to last when you’re out adventuring on the high seas, and we set back out on our course after one day at anchor. We departed the bay at dusk, and much to our surprise and amusement, we were closely escorted out by a lively pod of spinner dolphins, complete with hyper babies doing flips and gainers off of our bow wake. So perfect a photo op is difficult to find:

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Baby spinner dolphin does a backflip off the bow as an ecstatic crew cheers him on. (Click to enlarge!)

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Me and Gary Borda (a.k.a., “Gare Bear”, a.k.a. “Honey Butter”), my workout partner on the ship and retired lawyer for NASA. Gary had the energy of a hyperactive 18 year old and really helped bring out the silliness that was A Watch.

Spirits were high as we continued to make our way west through the Hawaiian islands, toward our final destination of Honolulu. The islands were quite a site to see from the ship, and all the more breathtaking since we had not witnessed land in a while. The part of this leg of the trip that was a bit unexpected (though we were forewarned by the captain) was the sea conditions. They were intense! In some areas, the currents really rip around the islands, and we felt this full force. I recall trying to work in the lab during one of the rougher periods, and I (along with a good deal of lab equipment) was getting tossed around like a rag doll. Let me tell you, it is next to impossible to efficiently enter data into a (bolted down) computer under these conditions! Needless to say, it was an exciting passage, and we were able to make one more stop before going to port. We dropped anchor for an afternoon ‘field day’ (which is a euphemism for a top-to-bottom scrubbing of the ship) near the shores of the island of Lanai. Though we never set foot on

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Trent hanging on the quarterdeck and taking in the sunrise as we sail from the Big Island to Lanai.

the island itself, it certainly looked pretty cool from the ship. Actually, it is unclear whether we would have been able to legally enter anyway, since 98% of the island was recently purchased by billionaire Larry Ellison. Either way, we were content with admiring Mr. Ellison’s property from a distance, while we got the ship ready for her public entrance into the harbor in Honolulu the next day.

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The island of Lanai from the bowsprit of the SSV Robert C. Seamans.

The end of the expedition happened very quickly. From the moments when our Captain skillfully guided our 134′ ship into a narrow port space in Honolulu, to our final goodbyes and flights off the island, time went by like a whirlwind.

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The whole crew of Plastics @ SEA 2012: North Pacific Expedition just after making landfall in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Photo by Jon Waterman)

We celebrated our first night on land in 36 days with the whole crew at a local pub. The captain bought the first round, toasting to his crew, before we unleashed our pent-up fury on the bar, with gratuitous acts of group dancing and un-solicited karaoke (including the original shipboard track “Don’t Stop 2-6 Heavin’!”). I’m sure we were a sight for the regulars, but it was all in good fun. The next day, we took in the beauty and culture shock offered by the very crowded but undeniably picturesque Waikiki Beach. That is, until I got a text message from my buddy Trent… Trent is part of “The Four Amigos” (pictured below), who have a rich history of high seas adventure together.

Saily bros: From left to right, Bart, me, Trent and Tyson reunited to once again sail the Seamans across the Pacific Ocean in the name of Science!

Saily bros: From left to right, Bart, me, Trent and Tyson reunited to once again sail the Seamans across the Pacific Ocean in the name of Science!

Over the course of our friendship, Trent has had a history of great things waiting for him at the dock: in Tahiti in 2008, it was his girlfriend holding his surfboard, ready for a campin’, surfin’ safari, and this time it was his parents who decided to come spend some time with their son on Oahu’s North Shore.

Anyway, in Trent’s text, he mentioned that we should join him on the North Shore at Jack Johnson’s house. This seemed like a joke at first, but the North Shore did seem like an awesome place to check out, so a crew of us decided to take Trent up on the offer. Well, he wasn’t kidding, and not only did we get to hang out and have a delicious BBQ at Jack Johnson’s (childhood) house and meet Jack’s mom (who is super sweet by the way) and family dogs, but we got to post up on the most incredible spot on the North Shore–the Bonzai Pipeline.

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Sunset from our secluded spot on the North Shore or Oahu, Hawaii.

No one was around except pro surfers and the women who love them, so the beach was virtually ours! And what a beach–I can see how Jack and others were so inspired by that break in the waves, which was literally right outside of their windows. It made me wish I was a better surfer, and it also gave me a higher appreciation for the skill that these world-class athletes posses. Some of them were just tiny kids with tiny surfboards! Incredible. But instead of surfing, we just kicked back, relaxed and took in the unique scene.

Some of the gang hanging at Bonzai Pipeline on the North Shore in front of Jack Johnson’s house.

Tyson and I stayed in a hostel that night, which was a funny experience that showed us the less appealing side of the surfing culture in the form of a very inconsiderate and heavily under-the-influence ‘surfer dude’ room mate. The next day, Tyson and I held up our long-standing tradition of renting shoddy bikes to ride around remote Pacific islands and had a fun time exploring the beaches of the  North Shore.

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“Mike Tyson” toasting good bye in Honolulu.

Before we knew it, it was time to fly to our respective corners of the world. Tyson and I had a chance for one last toast at the resort hotel where some of our more pampered shipmates had been staying, and then, just like that, I parted ways with the crew of the SEA 2012 North Pacific Plastics Expedition. It’s a strange thing, how the extraordinary conditions of sailing a research vessel across a wide expanse of open ocean can bring a group of people together. I am grateful that I was able to be a part of such an impressively diverse and caring crew of individuals. I know that I’ve strengthened old bonds and formed new, lifelong friendships as a result of this expedition, and once again, SEA has showed me just how powerful teamwork can be. Fair winds to the shipmates (old and new) with whom I’ve been privileged enough to share the deck of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. It’s been a blast!

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The undeniable force that is A Watch (minus Hillary), ready to eat (as always) after running the deck all afternoon. Photo by Heidi Hirsh

Sailing to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Tomorrow, I set sail aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans (a 135-ft brigantine sailing vessel, pictured below), bound for ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. On this timely expedition, I will be working alongside an eclectic group of scientists, educators, outreach coordinators, jounralists and sailors, all with the same simple goal in mind: collect data that allow us to better understand the effects of plastic pollution on our world’s oceans.

I will be leading an effort to use the macro debris (i.e., large pieces of plastic–bigger than your finger nail) we encounter to test one of the most fundamental theories in ecology: the Equilibrium Theory of Island Biogeography. This theory posits simply that species diversity will increase with island size and will decrease with island isolation (from the mainland and other islands). In this case, I we will test this theory using floating chunks of plastic as mobile “islands”, noting their size and position and counting all of the critters we find on them. Though the approach is simple enough, the conservation implications of this work remain extensive: By showing that rafting community diversity on plastic debris increases with increasing plastic island size and isolation, this work would suggest that the larger the pieces and the higher the quantity of plastic we deposit into the sea, the more likely this act will contribute to species invasions into coastal ecosystems around the world. When foreign species invade a new ecosystem, the system is often not prepared to deal with the new species–for example, local predators may not be adapted to eat it. This can lead to explosive population booms of invading organisms and the associated devastation of local organisms and the ecosystem as a whole. This project is one of many aboard the Seamans on this timely expedition–needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us!

Though I will be unable to update this blog during our 37 days at sea, from October 3rd to November 9th, we have a very snazzy expedition website, which will be updated frequently in real time, with exciting finds from the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Please check it out here:

http://www.sea.edu/plastics/

We are also getting weekly coverage by National Geographic here: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/

I look forward to a productive adventure. Thanks for reading!

Mike

Sailing away from an epic summer field season

Well, I am finally back in the US of A, after a 3-month field season in French Polynesia. This was my 6th trip to the island of Moorea and my third summer there, conducting my dissertation research. But on this trip in particular, everything seemed to work out very well, on multiple fronts: several successful (and, as is expected, several not-so-successful) field studies, reuniting with old friends, meeting new friends, and simply enjoying the coral reefs and the islands they surround.

My assistant Julie and I, taking the ferry from Moorea (background) to Tahiti after a very productive field season.

There are sacrifices we make as field researchers, chief among them being away from family and friends for extended periods of time, but we are truly fortunate to experience the world from so unique a perspective. My hope is to share this vantage point with as many people as possible, and in doing so, demonstrate the value of science, ecological conservation, environmental stewardship and education. To this end, please check out (and share!) the following video, commemorating one of the best summers of my life and paying tribute to the wonderful world of marine biology (Also, please keep in mind, we are actually working in these clips!):

I hope family, friends, colleagues and perfect strangers have enjoyed reading some of my blog posts throughout the field season. It’s been a pleasure writing them, and I’m certainly not done yet! I have heaps of data and field videos to process over the next several months, and I plan to keep this blog updated with cool findings (like these) and interesting information along the way. Also, I’ve been given the unique opportunity to join a research expedition to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the center of the North Pacific Ocean, during a 38-day passage from San Diego, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. As you might have guessed, I seized the opportunity (of course!). Soon I will, once again, be working on the SSV Robert C. Seamans (a 135-foot Brigantine sailing vessel) and leading a research project on board, as well as assisting with many other projects that aim to understand the biological and ecological ramifications of plastic pollution in our world’s oceans. We set sail October 2nd–just 3 weeks away! Stay tuned for more info.

Mike

Moorean Creatures of the Deep, Large and Small (Part 2)

Below I’ve included my favorite macro shots that I’ve taken so far of sea life   in Moorea this summer. This particular group of shots was collected while on a night snorkel on Gump Reef, which is adjacent the the research station where I reside and literally 3 meters from my front doorstep. In just an hour of snorkeling around in 1-2 m depths, we encountered some very interesting, although tiny, creatures (Please note that the following photos were all taken with a macro lens, thus, to do them justice, please click each to enlarge):

A tiny puffer fish (~2 in or 5 cm length) snuggles up to a Porties massive coral as I take his/her headshot

Like a deer in headlights, a butterfly fish gasps at the sight of me

A baby (barely post-larval) cardinal fish was attracted to my spotlight, making for a nice and unexpected photo op

A hermit crab is out foraging, while zooplankton (copepods, which look like suspended sediment above the crab in the photo) dart around, entranced by my spotlight

Another hermit crab, complete with anemones that it stuck to its shell for stinging armor, locks its mesmerizing eyes onto my lens

I hope you enjoyed the photos. My experiments are wrapping up nicely, and I plan to post some more updates on my progress as the field season comes to a close. Stay tuned!

Mike

Moorean Creatures of the Deep, Large and Small (Part 1)

Out here on Moorea, we spend our days diving and snorkeling to study the reef, and, as such, we get some pretty incredible photo opportunities. The trouble is, our boat is usually so packed with gear that bringing a clunky dive camera is often not an option (this thing is a bit of a monster).

Me before my second dive with my new camera, trying to hide my fear of flooding the housing…

However, I also use photos to monitor my experiments; for example, I am currently running a long-term study looking at the effects of nutrient pollution on reef communities. The idea is that nutrients enhance the growth of fast-growing algae that can then out compete corals for reef space (to read more: https://michaelgil.wordpress.com/research/). Thus, photos of my study plots to monitor the relative abundance of corals and algae are invaluable to evaluate changes over time.

This is a shot from above of one of my study plots, which I will monitor for the next year to evaluate changes in coral and algae cover. The little knobs are juvenile corals that I epoxied to the cinder block. The three poles are rebar, drilled into the dead coral below to ensure the cinder block is not swept away by a storm in the coming year. The black square is a ‘photo quadrat’ used to keep the scale and perspective uniform among subsequent photos of the same unit, and the color bar allows us to use color-correction software to keep colors uniform.

In addition to being used as an invaluable data-collection tool, sometimes I get to use my camera for entertainment. For the next two posts, I will share some of my favorite underwater shots from this summer, capturing creatures large (see below) and small (see next post).

On just my second dive with my camera, I had some great luck, running into both a hungry hawksbill sea turtle, who couldn’t stop eating in front of us…

A camera-friendly hawksbill sea turtle scarfs down algea and coralomorphs as a frantically try to get a quality close up.

…and a beautiful ~3.5 m (10.5 feet) lemon shark, who was fortunately less hungry than the turtle:

A 3.5 m (10.5 ft) Lemon shark circled us throughout our dive. Normally fearful of people, these particular individuals are used to getting hand fed by local dive tour guides. This can lead to obvious problems…

We were thoroughly ogled by a triggerfish (reminiscent of our GoPro encounters earlier in the season):

Curious triggerfish at our safety stop.

And at the end of the dive, we posed for a group photo:

Julie, Adrian and I gathering ’round the fish-eye dome lens.

Later, while scoping out potential study sites, we had a pitstop at a popular stingray feeding site off the northwest corner of the island. Here, tourists can hand-feed stingrays, who are more than happy to aggregate in large numbers for the event. Though I don’t condone feeding wild animals, especially predators (what happens when you show up empty handed??), the spectacle makes for some unforgettable photo opportunities.

A Moorean stingray swims past me in search of free food.

Yes, the sharks get in on it to. Here are a pair of blacktip reef sharks circling us with a group of needlefish. Everyone, even the turns in the sky, had food on the mind.

And one more (my favorite) stingray shot, for the road:

A hungry stingray studies me as it casts a surreal reflection on the water surface above.

I’m happy to report that these first few plunges with my new camera were incident free (i.e., no flooding!). Please check out my next post, in which I will share some images of the tinier life forms we find out here.

Mike

Magical Moorea: The Stars, the Moon, and, of course, the Fish.

The past few weeks have been intense here in Moorea–tons of snorkeling, diving and science, mixed with rough seas, wet weather and sustained gale-force winds. But I’m happy to report that all of my experiments remain under control (for the time being anyway 🙂 ). And at the end of every storm in paradise, there is a rainbow:

After a stormy transit back to the research station, my assistant Julie (holding camera) and I take time to embrace the little things. This was actually a double rainbow, though the second one was too faint to see here. What does it mean?

I’ve even been fortunate enough to find a bit of time to play with my new DSLR camera (quarter-life crisis gift to myself). This thing is the real deal, and its capacity for quality photos vastly exceeds my own abilities. BUT, you have to start somewhere, right? Please check out the breathtaking beauty that is Moorea, as only timelapse photography and a fish-eye lens can capture it:

First is a night scene of the mountainous backdrop surrounding Cook’s Bay, where I currently reside at UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station-

Second is a similar shot with a better emphasis on the Milky Way, which is often breathtakingly clear here-

I also captured Venus’ Transit across the sun last month with the help of a lot of light filters, but the end result was too underwhelming to post here (white circle with a dark dot on it…certainly nothing like this: http://venturebeat.com/2012/06/06/venus-crossing-sun-hd-video-nasa/). Nonetheless, I plan to have other photography to share before the summer ends, including some underwater shots.

In closing, I wanted to provide a quick update to my last post, by sharing that we’ve had a few more run-ins with the now-infamous GoPro-loving triggerfish of Moorea. Since the initial attack was unexpectedly caught on film at one of my experiment sites, our GoPros have captured three other similar encounters. Perhaps more humorous, these encounters occurred in our vermetid X sedimentation experiment (read a description in this post), so they were captured with photos, shot every 10 seconds for 6 hours at a time. We use these photos to create time-lapsed videos that allow us to look at how our different experimental corals are dealing with the presence/absence of vermetid mucus and/or sedimentation (which we deposit daily—read more about vermetids here). So, as you may have guessed, we captured another curious (and likely hungry) triggerfish:

S/he is clearly not camera shy! Fortunately, our 5 GoPro video cameras (upon which much of our work this summer is based) remain intact, functional, and, most importantly, in our possession (as opposed to, say, that of an octopus).

Thanks for reading/watching! More soon…

Mike

Science Vs Nature!: The Wildlife of Moorea React to GoPros

To pick up where I left off, after the Great Vermetid Surveys of 2012 (see previous posts), for the past few weeks I have been focusing my efforts on deploying several field experiments out here on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. These experiments are part of my dissertation research, and this summer in particular, I am looking at the effects of coral reef habitat loss and isolation as well as nutrient pollution on herbivory. Herbivory is essential on coral reefs, because it helps to control the abundance algae, which can outcompete coral and take over reefs, with drastic ecological consequences (simply put, from teeming coral reefs to slime).

One of our first focuses is to look at the relationship between distance from the reef and herbivory. The assumption is that herbivorous fish are scared to travel across open sand flat to find food, because they don’t want to get gobbled up by a predator or speared by a fisherman. This ‘fear effect’ could have very important implications for reef habitat loss and fragmentation that result from natural and human-driven processes. So, for one of our experiments, we have created an “algae hors d’oeuvre platter” (i.e., a cinder block with a variety of algae tied to it), which we place at 5 different distances from the reef and video tape what happens. This approach allows us not only to get a sense of how herbivory may change with distance but also tells us who is doing the eating—what species, what size, how much eating etc. After a few weeks of running these trials, we are starting to get some interesting results and also some surprises. The best so far happened two days ago, when we returned to our cameras after leaving them for 4 hours. This time, we noticed that one of the far cameras (30 meters from the reef) was now facing the sky instead of the algae hors d’oeuvre platter. This was upsetting, because it meant that we did not get the full 4 hour observation period for that unit, but we were happy that the camera was still there. We assumed that the current, which had picked up that afternoon, could have been the culprit, but fortunately the camera was still recording when we arrived, so we knew that whatever caused the camera to move was caught on video. So, we took the camera back to the lab to analyze the video. This is what we saw (turn up your volume if you can when you watch this for the full effect):

SPOILER ALERT BELOW.

The hungry animal featured in the video is called a triggerfish, a Yellowmargin triggerfish to be exact, and it primarily eats sea urchins and shellfish (hence the impressive/grotesque teeth). As evidenced by the video, these guys can be quite aggressive and bitey—lucky for me, the GoPro camera housing stood up to the challenge, except for a bit of chipped plastic. On a side note, a close but much, much larger relative of the Yellowmargin triggerfish, the aptly named Titan triggerfish (measuring nearly 3 ft long), attacked me during a dive in January.

Stock photo of a Titan triggerfish with his/her gnarly teeth showing. These things can BITE!

Fortunately, the biting was restricted to my fins, but the encounter was a stressful one to say the least.

The next day (yesterday), we deployed the video cameras again, only this time to capture a different experiment. In this experiment, we are looking at the effects of sedimentation and vermetid snails on coral growth. Sedimentation is a big problem for coral reefs around the world, because sediment can smother corals, and increased coastal development tends to lead to increased runoff and sedimentation of nearshore marine ecosystems (like coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and kelp forests). We also know that vermetid snails that use mucus nets to feed can also be quite detrimental to corals (see previous posts for more info). So, we wanted to see how these two stressors together may affect corals—for example, maybe sediment is actually pulled off of the coral by the vermetid mucus net, or, alternatively, maybe the mucus net, being sticky as it is, allows sediment to better adhere to the coral surface, causing more damage. These are the hypotheses we are testing, and to help us understand what exactly is going on, we have been shooting photos of each coral at 10-second intervals throughout the day. Yesterday was one of these days, so we again left our GoPro cameras out in the field for several hours. Upon our return to retrieve the cameras just before dusk, my assistant Julie noticed that one of the cameras was missing from the 5 lb dive weight to which we’d had it cable tied. The cable tie was mangled. She also noticed a very large octopus atop the reef next to where the camera was. When she called me over, I approached the octopus. Yes…he stole our GoPro:

Fortunately, we got the camera back in one piece, and even more fortunately, the camera was snapping photos throughout the ordeal! So we got some pretty interesting shots:

The first is the standard, (now considered boring) shot of our experiment coral:

One of our experiment corals, photographed for a time-lapse to look at sediment and vermetid mucus effects

But then, our Hero is kidnapped!

I particularly like this one, where the octopus seems to want to give back to our research a bit, by shooting his own photo of our experimental coral.

And plunged into darkness…

At this point, it seems the octopus took the camera down into his/her den within the coral. Thank goodness s/he wasn’t down there when we arrived!

And finally rescued. Woohoo!

What a wild couple of days it has been. I can’t wait to see what else these cameras capture over the next two months…

Thanks for reading/watching! More soon.

Mike