Ocean Media Institute - Expedition Nautilus: Figi

DWhatley

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Second installment for The Search for the Nautilus Egg Nat Geo Open Explorer Expedition

Bula Vinaka!
Our team is here in Suva, Fiji after the normal "fun" of traveling across the world to get here - wonderful airplane food, better pillows, and even better sleep! Followed by a 4 hour bus ride, although the scenery along the coast of Viti Levu (Fiji's largest island) is incredible! Day 1 Goals:

  • Meet with colleagues Ministry of Fisheries to check on gear
  • Meet with Department of Environment officials
  • Meet with colleagues at University of South Pacific to finalize logistics of nautilus holding aquariums
  • Make a gear list for the next day
  • Get some REST!
All of the above was accomplished, more or less, and we have a good plan in place for a successful expedition all around! Moce mada!
 

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Laucala Bay, Suva, Central, Fiji - Day 2 of The Search for the Nautilus Egg

Day 2 - Suva, Fiji
Bula! We are collaborating with the University of South Pacific (USP) on this project and today, were at work setting up the holding aquariums for the nautiluses. These are perfect sized aquariums to use for this project! We will be holding the nautiluses in the aquarium on the left, so we will be adding a chilling unit to it. The other two aquariums will be to make up saltwater for water changes. Pretty good setup we have here! We also worked on the logistics of boat use and finding some remaining miscellaneous gear items... the most lucky to find was the perfect sized powerhead pump and the perfect sized tubing to fit on it in the only aquarium store in Suva. It's almost like it was meant to be!!! Tonight we will be meeting additional faculty, staff, and students at USP to learn about some of their projects and share the work we will be doing. Tomorrow, it's time to work on finalizing the nautilus traps and if we are lucky, get them in the water tomorrow.
 

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The Search for the Nautilus Egg

Days 3-4: Rugby, Mangroves, and Tidepooling!The last two days have been slow going. We have prepared pretty much everything that we can in the lab to be ready for nautiluses. Now, just going through the logistics of finalizing our traps and boats... In the mean time, we enjoyed some rugby where the Flying Fijians beat the Maori All Blacks in a wonderfully, fun game! Then, we headed out to a local beach for some tidepooling and walked around some magnificent mangroves. Oh, and the restroom artwork was PHENOMENAL!!! (of course it was a nautilus!) But, the fun starts tomorrow as we will be setting our nautilus traps!!! Moce mada!
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Thank you,

Your Open Explorer team
 
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The Search for the Nautilus Egg

Observation:
Day 5: Trap in the Water!! We managed to get one trap in the water today!!! We baited it with raw chicken and tossed it off the boat to sink down to nautilus depths. Now, we wait and see what is in the trap tomorrow... Well, first we wait and make sure our trap is there in the morning and we get our gear back. A wise captain told me years ago that you should just be happy to get your gear back first, then worry about what is inside of it. The ocean is a rough place to work... Each trip is similar but so different in many ways. Nautilus research rarely is a cookie cutter expedition at each location, even at the same location but different times. In a weirdly, frustrating (sometimes) way, that is what makes this kind of work so unique and simply awesome. It is going to be hard to sleep tonight waiting for tomorrow so that we can pull our trap up!!!
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The Search for the Nautilus Egg
Observation:
Day 6: NAUTILUSES!!!Breakfast at 700am. Taxi to boat dock at 730am. Stop and get ice and chicken at 745am. Board the boat at 820am. Head out to sea at 830am. Search for buoys... and... and... we found them at about 840am. Start pulling up the trap at 845am -- and by pulling up, I mean hand over hand/heave-ho pulling up -- which takes about 35-40 minutes. With the trap up at about 920am, what do we see? TWO NAUTILUSES!!!! Such great news! Now, quickly get nautiluses out of the cage around 925am. Into cold-water aquarium on boat at 930am. Reset the trap with new chicken bait at 935am. Head to the university with the nautiluses at 945am. Place nautiluses in cold-water aquariums at about 955am. And take a deep breath and relax a bit! Well, not really. Make some adjustments to the aquariums. Monitor the nautiluses. Process the nautiluses and take shell diameter, shell width, weight, sex, maturity, photographs, and any other notes on each specimen. Then, relax a bit. Nope! Lunch, then back to Fisheries to ready next trap and find some more fishing rope along the way. Then get fuel for the boat, more chicken bait for the second trap to deploy, and head back out to sea. Toss trap overboard. Head back in to finally relax. Nope!! Haha. One more run for fuel for the morning. Then to the university to check on the nautiluses and test water quality. THEN, for some dinner and now to bed. Great day!
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Day 7: NAUTILUSES and... SHARK, maybe SHARKSSSSS!We are starting to hit our stride a bit with the logistics of setting and retrieving traps, building more traps, and maintaining our nautilus holding aquariums. We all headed to University of South Pacific to check the nautiluses first. Then we loaded the boat quickly and Matt stayed behind at USP to work on the nautilus tanks -- test water quality, do water changes, make new saltwater, etc. Whitney, Josiah, and myself headed out to retrieve our two traps. First trap was pretty much in the same spot that we set it, which is great! We started pulling the trap up, and about 25 minutes later it was at the surface with... 3 NAUTILUSES, 2 CRABS, and 1 BULL SHARK!!! The bull shark looked like it was just swimming by getting a closer look at our nautiluses, or maybe the kilogram of chicken in the trap. Either way, there's always sharks in the ocean so I did not think twice about doing our normal thing with the nautiluses. Rather than haul the trap on board with the nautiluses in them, we jump in the water and carefully grab each one out of the trap. Easy. I got in and started to get the door open and out of the corner of my eye, the bull shark (about 8 feet) swims by me to my left checking us out again. I found out later that apparently everyone on the boat could see it swim right below me. Again, it's a shark. It is not going to search me out just to kill me. But, when our Fishery colleagues say I should get back into the boat, I DID. It continued circling our boat while we carefully pulled the trap on board and got to the nautiluses. It probably would not have done anything to me even if I stayed in, but sometimes you just assess the situation and cost/benefit analysis. Nautiluses on board and one of our boats ran them back to USP to get into the larger holding aquarium while we pulled up another trap. The other trap was empty, darn! All in all, another good day of nautiluses, being on the water, and seeing sharks where they should be!

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The Search for the Nautilus Egg
Day 8/9: Rain, Wind, Sun, and Nautiluses!
Days 8 and 9 are kind of a blur, in a great way. It's been a blur because of how many nautiluses we have been catching each day. It just seems to increase with every day and with every trap. It means a lot of measuring, a lot or counting, and a lot of nautiluses to take care of. Which is awesome!!

It also means that the populations here may be healthy when compared to other populations in the Philippines and Indonesia that have been fished without any sort of regulatory structure. Of course, more data and information will help to clear this up. But everything we are seeing here in Fiji points to a population of nautiluses doing better when they are not under pressure from unregulated fisheries and trade.

Soon, we will be deploying our ROV!!! Great trip so far!

Moce!
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DWhatley

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The Search for the Nautilus Egg

Day 10/11: Husbandry Time!After a great day at sea, complete with a rainbow over one of our boats in the distance and lots more nautiluses in the trap, it's time to do some lab work! And with everything going on at sea, in the lab, in meetings, one of our main focuses is simply siphoning and scooping nautilus waste (poop and regurgitated chicken). Like all cephalopods, nautiluses are sensitive to water quality -- all cephalopds have what is called a microvillus epidermis, which means their skin is made up of tiny pores open to the water around them. Great for "good" things in the water but not so great for "bad" things in the water. We aim to keep all of the normal water quality parameters (ammonia, nitrite, nitrate) at zero, especially the ammonia, which is our focus. With all of our movement around the tank and inside the tank, the nautiluses don't seem to pay any attention. They are happy just hanging on to each other and resting a bit. Today is Sunday here in Fiji so no boat trips, but we have some other work to do to prepare for next week!

Day 10/11: Releasing NautilusesMost of the nautiluses we have been catching have been released right back to the wild (a small subset is being collected for research and education). When releasing nautiluses, it is critical to "burp" them and make sure that there are no trapped air bubbles in their mantle cavity. The air bubbles may get there when being measured and weighed out of the water. If the bubbles are not removed, the nautiluses are positively buoyant and will not be able to jet back down to their homes. To do this, we gently roll them around underwater so that their tentacles are facing up. This allows any bubbles to escape out of the hyponome (term for the funnel in nautiluses). Once they are neutrally buoyant and no other air bubbles come out, a quick free dive down a ways, then off they go. We know this method works because we have recaptured ones we've caught in other areas and we have also placed transmitters on others that we follow around on other trips. While I grew up wanting to be a researcher, I never thought that my "science" would involve burping an animal! Haha.

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The Search for the Nautilus Egg - Open Explorer Expedition
Day 13: Trident ROV Time!!!
Between all of our other work, and the weather, we managed to get our Trident ROV out in the water a couple of times. Pretty interesting and also frustrating things to see just below the surface...

Here, we set down in Suva Harbor to survey some of the shallower areas. Right away we came across lost/discarded fishing rope. Lots of fishing vessels come through here. It is interesting that the fishes are using it as habitat. But, the fishing rope provides no other ecosystem-based functions down there. That is an important concept to remember. Ghost fishing (discarded fishing gear still catching organisms as it drifts/sits in the sea) is one of those things that isn't really on our radar but is something out there, just catching and killing as I write this. It is definitely a world wide problem.
 

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