Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Craft's Creatures

My fellow marine biologist, Jonathan Craft, is an enthusiastic scuba diver and photographer. He has taken a lot of underwater pictures and video from dives we've done together near Fort Pierce. Here's a gallery of some of my favorites...

This "Flying Gurnard" was resting on the bottom near the beach. He has a surprise for you at the end of the video.

The nearshore reef here is not built of coral, but rather by the sand-encrusted tubes of a special kind of polychaete worm that lives in dense aggregations. This type of worm reef only forms where there is a lot of wave action and sediment moving around. The purple thing in the center is an urchin. Jonathan takes lots of pictures of urchins because he's studying their ability to eat algae that is poisonous to other organisms.

This is a closer-up picture of an urchin that shows the flexible tube-feet in between the hard spines.

Here's a different type of urchin.

This is a spiny lobster. It's a good thing these guys reproduce rapidly, because they are heavily harvested by divers. (We haven't taken any yet, but it's tempting.)

Some of the fish that hang around the worm reef are extremely well camoflaged. The next two pictures are poisonous stone fish. Can you see them?

Other fish are more obvious, like this cute green blenny (not it's scientific name).

Or these juvenile fish. (I like how the background looks on this one.)

This young grouper is pretty big for a baby.

This is what a cowrie shell looks like when it's alive. The mantle (soft part of the animal) wraps all the way around from the aperture in the bottom of the shell to cover over the back. The head is on the right hand side of this picture. This individual was about six inches long! (Picture taken from an aquarium back at the lab.)

This is a polychaete worm tube, but of a different kind of worm than the one that builds the reef. This kind, a "Diapatra sp." lives alone.

Most places we've dived the visibility in the water has been pretty good, but sometimes we'll run into a phytoplankton bloom like the one obscuring me here.

Mixed in with the worm reef are a lot of neat algae and "sessile" (not able to move) organisms like this orange sponge...

...and this blue tunicate (colonial seasquirt).

Oh, I promised my buddy Scott I would put a cool picture of him in my blog since the last one I put in here was goofy and unflattering. So here's Scott as a super studly scuba diver. Fierce.

And here's Jonathan the photographer. Jon got a weird infection on his neck where his dive vest was rubbing him. The infection turned into a hideous, swollen abscess that had to be drained. Don't click HERE if you don't want to see the nauseating picture.

More of Jonathan's pictures later, perhaps.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Moral Equalizer

When I was in the dry tortugas last month I read a really interesting article in a Miller McCune magazine that someone brought on the research boat. It was by this guy named Jonathan Haidt who studies people and sociology and stuff. Basically, Haidt was ranting against the way liberals (like me and like himself) tend to be self-righteous and smug, considering themselves to be intelligent and moral, and conservatives to be just a bunch of stupid jerks. He said that comes from the fact that liberals recognize only the first two of the five "pillars of morality" that underly all human societies. The pillars are (quoting):

Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.

Different cultures across the world place more or less emphasis on different parts of morality, and the analogy Haidt uses to describe this is that it's like tuning the sound levels (bass, mid-range, treble) on an audio equalizer. Of course liberals have harm / care and justice / fairness turned way up and the others turned way down. A muslim jihadist has in-group loyalty and purity / sanctity turned way up and the others turned down. Conservatives have things pretty even across the board. You can see where YOUR morals are by taking a psychology survey on the website http://www.yourmorals.org/.


Haidt explains it all better himself in this 18 minute video...

This doesn't make me think that conservativism is always the "correct" attitude, though. Yes, it does take some respect for authority, patriotism, and shared ideals to hold a society together, but it also takes some irreverent liberals to cry foul when the system becomes oppressive or corrupt.

Formula and Stuff

The last few days in Florida have actually had some decent wind from the West in the 10 - 20 mph range. The conditions have been perfect for windsurfing on a flat, blue ocean with my newly-acquired formula board and cheaply-acquired 8.7 meter squared sail. The black strap in the back center of the board is the "chicken strap". Putting your back foot there instead of in the outer strap helps tame the board when you're blasting deep downwind.


The sail has 5 different kinds of tape on it repairing rips in the monofilm. Clear packing tape, black gorilla tape, grey duct tape, opaque medical bandage tape, and West Marine spinnaker tape. I think I'm going to get a newer sail in the 9.5 range with a more durable construction.



I wouldn't have been able to kiteboard safely in these conditions because of the offshore wind direction and gustyness, so that says a little something about the advantage of windsurfing gear.

Sunday my colleagues from the Smithsonian Marine Station had a "beach day" organized by two visiting scientists from Germany (pictured on the jetski).


I set up my Kona longboard with a 3.5 sail and the Germans both windsurfed impressively.


It was a cool day.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cool Scuba and SUP Sessions

This weekend was cool because I got to do interesting water activities with my Florida friends.

Each morning started with scuba. On Saturday we had a great dive at Kimberly Bergalis Park, near my house. Here's my dive buddy Scott suiting up.


And here's my other dive buddy Jonathan cooling off in the water. Check out the total lack of wind and waves on the Atlantic. Jonathan took some underwater pictures and videos of our marine life encounters - hopefully he'll post them online so I can embed them in another post.


Saturday afternoon I taught some friends from out-of-town how to stand-up paddleboard on my Kona longboard. I think SUP is a good share-with-friends sport that isn't too hard the first time around. It might be a good back door into learning windsurfing for less gung-ho people, because it lets them figure out their board balance before adding the complication of sailing. Hmm...

The paddle I'm using for SUP is a cheapskate home-made affair. It's the head of a kayak paddle shimmed with duct tape, fitted into the aluminum rod from a pool skimming net, then duct taped some more around the outside of the joint. The handle knob (not pictured) is also duct tape. It's not pretty, but the price is right, and I was able to make two with one kayak paddle so Scott can go, too. If you're thinking about making your own SUP paddle, remember the length from the end of the blade to the top of the handle should be equal to your height plus about ten inches. Since I'm 5'10", my paddle is 6'8".


Red Green would be proud...

Later Saturday afternoon my jetski-owning neighbor Bill invited some people out for wakeboarding. Bill has never wakeboarded (he has a bad back) but he likes to tow people because he's a sadistic bastard... uh, I mean a generous gentleman. I found wakeboarding to be an intense mixture of scary, thrilling, exhausting, and painful. Kinda cool but not exactly my cup of tea. I'm more of the "ease into it at my own pace" kind of person than the "charge into it rough and tumble" kind of person.

The pinnacle of the weekend was finally getting enough wind for a planing windsurfing session on Saturday evening. A month ago I might not have hassled with rigging the 8.7 sail and the big yellow shortboard, but this time I was more than grateful for the opportunity. Awesome. :)

There wasn't any wind Sunday, but a dive session at Bathtub Beach in Stuart and another round of masochism behind Bill's jetski were enough to thoroughly satisfy my watersports quota.

Today I was responsible and worked until 6:30, but still got out for an amazing sunset SUP session at Fort Pierce inlet. I crossed the inlet to the North Jetty side, where the water was crystal clear and I could look down 15 feet to see snook, jacks, barracuda, and other big gamefish stalking around the rocks of the jetty. I even had a sweet, blue-planet style encounter with a giant manatee. He came RIGHT UP under the board and sniffed around it for about five minutes. I was crouching down on the deck, so we were like, face to face at water level. COOL! Actually, I think there were multiple manatees, because the close-encounter one had a series of prop scars on his back and the one I saw paddling back from the beach didn't. Next scuba dive will definitely have to be from the state park at North Jetty.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Wind Withdrawal; Dealing

Since I started windsurfing regularly in fall 2002, in Virginia, I've been seriously hooked. The first couple years in VA I took the winters off; no sessions between Thanksgiving and April Fool's day. As the addiction deepened, though, I started using more neoprene and doing it 12 months a year. I dealt with Virginia's lighter summer winds by using big sails, formula boards, and longboards, by taking trips to the Outer Banks, and by doing lessons and local races with the William and Mary and regional windsurfing clubs.

Here in East Central Florida, it's different. Ironically, while the weather is warm year round, Florida's "off season" for windsurfing is MORE pronounced than it is up north. From mid May until the end of summer there are no frontal systems of any significance, and no thermal winds besides a piddling, 5-10 mph seabreeze. Check the next week's iwindsurf forecast for my home spot... The horror, the HORROR!


In these winds, planing is not possible on typical windsurfing gear, which requires ~15 mph, and is rare even with formula gear, which requires ~10. My new kiteboard gear needs ~12, but with fickle wind changes, the constant threat of thunderstorms (think Benjamin Franklin), and no experienced kiters at the beach to help launch and land when the wind is that light, kiting really isn't a workable summer option. The majority vote in my "when will I get to use my Evo 83 waveboard" poll was "not until an August / September tropical storm system". I'm afraid that's about right, and it may be similarly long before I can do any kind of shortboard windsurfing or kiting. Sigh.

So, what am I going to do about it, besides whine and blog? Here's what I'm thinking:

1. Work. I'm busy with seagrass research in the Banana River Lagoon, and trying to publish various chapters of my grad school dissertation in science journals. I hate to admit it, but the lack of wind is helping.

2. Scuba dive. No wind means no waves, which means good visibility near shore in the Treasure Coast region. Last Sunday I dived off Pepper Park on North Hutchinson Island, and Tuesday I dived off Kimberly Bergalis Park on South Hutchinson. It was neat to see firsthand the submerged reef that waves break on in rougher weather. It's a mix of limestone ledges (fossil coral; the exposed foundation of Florida) and big boulders of living "worm reef". It rises from a sandy bottom about 13 feet deep to within 7 feet of the surface. Last time out we saw a big nurse shark, and a mix of tropical and warm-temperate fish species. Plus some whopper spiny lobster that might be fun to catch when the season opens.

3. Teach. Maybe if I can get some of my friends and colleagues comfortable windsurfing in this summer's 5-10 mph I'll have some partners in crime for fall's 10-20 mph. I also made a long paddle for SUP and I'm sharing that around, too.

4. Leave. When my seagrass experiment is done I'm going to take a trip to Washington State to visit my folks and windsurf the GORGE. That will be 8/18 - 8/27 if you're going to be there then and want to windsurf with a world-famous blogger. :P

Saturday, June 6, 2009

CO2, Acid Oceans, and Coral Reef Loss

I assume everyone reading this blog has heard of global warming. You know the story. Burning fossil fuel releases greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2), which build up in the atmosphere and make the planet hotter. Before the year 1850 the CO2 concentration was about 285 parts per million. Now it's 390 ppm, and forecast to be 760 or more by 2100 if we keep burning fossil fuel! That's a huge change!

This graph shows how the CO2 level has changed since the 1950s. The little squiggles show yearly ups and downs caused by plants growing in summer (which sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere), and decaying in winter, which gives off CO2. But beneath that natural oscillation is a long-term increase that's definitely caused by humans.


Global warming isn't the only bad repercussion of the rise in CO2. There's also ocean acidification. Here's how that happens:

1. Pollution puts more CO2 into the atmosphere.
2. Some CO2 from the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean.
3. The dissolved CO2 reacts with H20 (water).
4. The reaction releases H+ ions, the cause of acidity.

Acidity is measured as "pH", and the more acid something is, the LOWER its pH is. In the 1950s the ocean water pH was 8.20. Now it's down to 8.07. That might not seem like much, but it actually means there are 25% more H+ ions in the water than there used to be. I.e., the ocean is 25% more acid than before! If the pH drops to 7.8, as is predicted for the future CO2 increase, the ocean will be 250% more acid!

That's not enough to burn your flesh or anything, but it's definitely enough to mess up the body chemistry of animals and plants that live in the ocean. Particularly, it makes it hard for them to form shells and skeletons out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), because the CaCO3 disintegrates in acidic water. It's the same idea as when you put a tooth (also made of calcium carbonate) in a glass of coke.


Coral skeletons are made out of CaCO3, too, and the continued existence of coral reefs is dependent on the rate of accretion of new coral skeleton exceeding the rate of breakdown of old coral skeleton. Acid in the ocean is a double whammy for reefs because it slows down the growth of new coral AND increases the dissolution of old coral.

Even if we weren't doing anything else that was bad for reefs, the CO2 acidity increase could completely destroy them within a few decades. Add to that several other negative impacts humans are having on reefs, such as nutrient pollution, overfishing, and climate change, and the corals are basically screwed. It's not like a "this might happen in the future" thing, either. It's already well under way. The average coverage of live coral on Caribbean reefs used to be 50-60%. Now it's less than 10%, with most of the space taken up by dead, dissolving coral overgrown with algae, bacteria, and weedy sponges. Diving in the Dry Tortugas last month I saw some of the best-protected reefs in the Caribbean... and even there the live corals were few and far between.

The situation is definitely bad. In an excellent article for the public, reknowned coral reef expert and conservationist Dr. Nancy Knowlton put it this way: "If people don’t change the way they’re doing things, reefs as we know them will be gone by the year 2050. It’s actually really depressingly unbelievable." Yikes! Time to get way more serious about curbing emissions, and reducing nutrient pollution and overfishing. No bull.

FYI: Much of the information for this post came from a seminar given at the Smithsonian Marine Station by Dr. Chris Langdon, a coral reef expert from the University of Miami's Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.