Last week our naturalists aboard National Geographic Endeavour spotted an odd bird while preparing to load Zodiacs to cruise along the cliffs of Punta Pitt, San Cristobal Island. With its very pale head and neck coloration, unusual barring pattern on the wings and body, our naturalists knew it was not a normal Galápagos resident. As several of our expedition team are trained photographers with powerful camera lenses, two of our photo instructors were able to get good photographs of the bird. It has since been confirmed by the Charles Darwin Foundation as the first ever sighting of a Peruvian Booby in the Galápagos Islands. Common on the West Coast of South America and endemic to the Peruvian current, it is a mystery how or why precisely this solo bird ended up in the Galápagos Islands.
Galápagos penguins are the only penguins found in the tropics, but this one is especially special—our naturalists and guests spotted him at the island of Genovesa in the far north of the Galápagos archipelago—and there aren’t supposed to be any penguins here.
The sighting was made by our naturalist Patricio Maldonado, who also snapped the photos, and it was confirmed by the Charles Darwin Foundation.
So why is this significant? Our expedition leader Carlos Romero explains:
“This event is very, very rare. We are talking about an endemic vertebrate that by itself is considered rare in number, latitude, longitude, and distribution. This sighting, the first ever on this island is amazing! In all scientific literature and in books like field guides, the distribution range will have to be corrected once this new sighting is formally published.”
It was dark. I mean really, really dark, like being deep in a forest on a cloudy, moonless night. I am quite used to poor visibility while diving, but this was different. The glacier around the corner was dumping so much silt into the water, it was like diving into a glass of freezing chocolate milk. Only ten feet down there was no light at all from the surface and I could see only by the light of the lamps on my video camera. Even their bright illumination reached only about two feet through the murk – a rather claustrophobic feeling.
I was descending a steep muddy slope near Crystal Hill, in the Weddell Sea. More or less feeling my way along, I continued down to about sixty feet, stopping when I was lucky enough to come across a group of Antarctic feather stars. I had just started filming them when something moved among the rocks nearby. It was a scale worm, a flat, bristly creature also called a sea mouse. Very cool! I had only seen a few in the Antarctic and this one was quite large, about six inches long. It was difficult to get a good shot of it in the swirling mud, but I did my best and then moved on, looking for more strange polar marine life to share with our guests on the National Geographic Endeavour.
Back on the ship I tried to identify the unusual worm. According to my reading, all known Antarctic scales worms are quite a bit smaller than this one. What had I seen? Was it a species as yet undescribed by science? In places as remote as the Weddell Sea, it is quite possible to come across unknown animals, but it is also very difficult to know for sure that what you have found is really new. In order to establish a new species, scientists must examine specimens in the laboratory and publish a definitive descriptive paper, called a monograph. In this case there was no way to do that, but it was still an exciting possibility and worth a casual report to some friends in the scientific community.
In the remote and beautiful wilderness areas where we travel on Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic trips, this kind of thing happens every once in a while. For me, the most interesting encounter of all was in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, on a day when I was using our ROV to look at the bottom of Woodfjord, about 300 feet below the surface. The creature I found there looked very much like a small brown mushroom, but as I carefully focused the camera for a better look, it slowly unfolded, opening a crown of branched tentacles that it raised to form an upturned cup. The Antarctic worm was unusual, but at least I knew what kind of animal it was. This was really strange! I had never seen anything like it and couldn’t even guess what it was related to. And, as it turns out, neither could any of the expert marine biologists I have shown it to.
We don’t yet know if either the scale worm or the strange mushroom creature are really new species, but it is certainly both exciting to consider and compelling motivation to keep our eyes open as we continue to explore. One of the best things about traveling to remote wilderness regions like the Arctic and the Antarctic is the opportunity to encounter the unknown, and, through these encounters, to enrich ourselves and contribute to the ever-growing scientific understanding of our beautiful world.
The thrilling history of exploration in the Antarctic is a constant inspiration to the staff and guests of Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic on our voyages to the white continent. The explorers of the heroic age, Scott, Amundsen, Shackelton and many others, left a great legacy of contributions to science, devotion to duty and simple survival, one that is both staggering to the imagination and difficult to appreciate in today’s world of high-tech fabrics and global information systems. It’s always exciting to read their stories and think about their experiences when we visit the places where these adventures played out.
In particular, I am a big fan of the French polar explorer, Jean-Baptiste Charcot. Sailing first in the Français and then in the Por Qua Pas? (the Why Not?), he overwintered at Booth Island in 1904 and then at Petermann Island in 1909, both places frequently visited by our ships today. His expeditions are now justly famous for their attention to the creature comforts of the men, for their successful exploration of then-unknown parts of the Antarctic Peninsula and for their pioneering investigations of the marine biology of the region.
One hundred years after Charcot was there, Petermann Island was the site for the Oceanites field camp, from 2003 until 2009. Oceanites, named for the Wilson’s Storm Petrel, is a non-profit research foundation, which has been studying changes in penguin populations around the Peninsula for more than 20 years. Their partnership with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic allowed them to supply and staff the camp on Petermann and has also helped them reach many other penguin colonies that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Each time the National Geographic Endeavour has visited Petermann Island we have taken the opportunity to do a little exploring of our own, diving off the rocky shores of the island, filming marine life with our video cameras and using our ROV to investigate the greater depths of the adjacent Penola Strait. Over the course of many visits, between 2001 and 2011, we collected quite a bit of footage and recorded many fascinating and beautiful species of seastars, mollusks, anemones and, of course, penguins, living near Petermann Island in the early 21st Century.
Recently, one of the Oceanites biologists, Heather Lynch, was able to gain access to Charcot’s journals. In these, the Frenchman recorded his observations of the marine life around Petermann, one hundred years before our visits. Heather suggested to us that we could help to make a valuable comparison of Charcot’s records with those we had taken more recently. The Antarctic Peninsula region is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the globe and much of Oceanites’ research involves studying the effects of these changes on penguin populations. The opportunity to see how marine communities had changed over a full century could be a very helpful addition to this work.
My colleague Lisa Trotter and I combed through hundreds of shots in our video archive, creating a database of our observations that Heather will use to compare with Charcot’s records. The study is not yet complete, but we are eagerly awaiting the results. How has the marine biology of the Antarctic Peninsula changed in the past century? Can understanding these changes help us to ensure the future of this beautiful region?
We have always enjoyed working with the Oceanites biologists who have accompanied our expeditions, and we’re very excited to have this opportunity, working from the comfort of our modern expedition ships, to add to the body of scientific knowledge begun by heroic men like Charcot.
In almost any human endeavor there is a holy grail, a goal desired, dreamed about, long sought and seldom realized. It’s the kind of thing you think about and hope for, but never really expect to come true. For me it was cold-water coral reefs.
When we think about coral reefs, we usually imagine a tropical idyll, snorkeling or diving in warm, clear water surrounded by shoals of rainbow hued fish. But there are also corals that build reefs in the dark, cold waters in the depths of the world’s oceans. For hundreds of years fishermen in the North Atlantic have been finding broken pieces of limestone coral skeletons in their nets, fragmentary evidence that puzzled scientists of the time. Only in the last few decades, as deep-sea exploration technology has improved, have scientists been able to study these mysterious reefs. We now know that there are a number of species of cold water reef-building corals, found all over the world, and that like their warm water cousins, they support communities of many other kinds of animals.
One of the best places to find cold water coral reefs in off the coast of Norway, a place I have explored each summer for the past 11 years as the Undersea Specialist on the National Geographic Endeavour and the National Geographic Explorer. These reefs are much too deep for me to reach as a diver, but they should be well within the reach of our ROV, the little robotic submarine that I described in my last post. So I have looked for them, and looked, and looked, and looked! The idea of these corals, living under the Norwegian midnight sun, yet in the permanent darkness of the deep sea, really caught my imagination and I knew it would be something very special to show our guests.
Every time I planned an ROV operation anywhere in the North Atlantic, I had the cold corals in the back of my mind. And that’s the way things stayed until the summer of 2010, when we returned to the spectacular waters of Tysfjord, a long, branched fjord, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. A couple of years earlier I had explored a huge submarine cliff there with the ROV, descending to around 600 feet below the surface. This time I was determined to go deeper.
As I controlled it from a Zodiac on the surface, the ROV powered down, past bands of kelp and anemones, and then through a region dominated by large sponges, leaving the light behind. I recorded a few interesting, deep-dwelling fish and pressed on, ever deeper. And, at last, there they were, dense vine-like structures of limestone, clinging to the vertical granite of the cliff, bearing lacy coral animals on their tips! In the spaces between the stony branches were shrimp and squat lobsters, anemones and file clams, all the expected members of the community. These were reefs of Lophelia pertusa, the most common of the cold water corals of the North Atlantic, but the first ones ever discovered in Tysfjord. It was another feather in the cap of our little ROV!
As I had anticipated, the images I took that day were a thrilling addition to the voyage for everyone on board the National Geographic Explorer, and sharing them was a very proud moment for me. So what is the next holy grail for our explorations with the ROV? Cat sharks! I have seen one, briefly, off Corsica. Now I want more!
It was my colleague, Richard White, who suggested the idea. Richard is one of the best observers I have ever known, particularly when it comes to seabirds, whales and other wildlife at sea. Whenever we are cruising from one destination to another, he spends the majority of his time on the bridge, maintaining a keen lookout.
On this occasion, on the National Geographic Explorer, we were making our way north through the tropical Atlantic, following the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between the remote islands of St. Helena and Ascension. Richard had been studying the nautical charts of the area and noticed that our course would take us near the summit of Grattan Seamount, an underwater mountain that rises to less than 300 feet below the surface. He suggested to me that we might be able to make a mid-ocean stop and use our Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to have a look at this unexplored submarine mountaintop.
The ROV is a small, unmanned submarine about three feet long. Powered by electric thrusters, it descends at the end of a thick cable that carries the operator’s commands down and the video signal back up to the surface. As the operator, I sit in a control station in a Zodiac, looking into a monitor that shows the images from the ROV’s camera, and “flying” it with a set of joysticks and toggle switches.
It’s not easy to drop the ROV onto a small mountaintop, far below the surface, in the middle of an ocean, but I was determined to give it our best shot. We sent it down through the clear blue water with our fingers crossed. On the surface the Zodiac was pitching and rolling on the mid-Atlantic swells, which made staring into the monitor rather uncomfortable, but before long I could see the summit of the seamount coming into view. We had found it! Sea conditions completely forgotten, I gently touched the ROV down on the sand and began to explore.
The first thing I noticed was the geology: Grattan Seamount is a guyot, an ancient volcano that has had it’s top eroded into a flat plateau by waves. As I carefully flew the ROV toward the edge of the summit platform, formations of more recent, jagged volcanic rocks came into view, a better habitat for small fish. Though I had seen an unusual crab on the flat part of the summit, the number and diversity of fish increased dramatically in the area of the rocks. There were butterflyfish and damselfish, bigeyes and jacks, and best of all, sheltering in a small cave, a beautiful fairy basslet.
Back on board I worked to research what I had seen. It soon became apparent that the images I had just shot were the first ever taken of Grattan Seamount. And the beautiful basslet turned out to be a very rare fish indeed; after a lot of searching I was finally able to confirm that it was Holanthias fronticinctus, the St. Helena basslet, previously known only from St. Helena island, 640 miles to the southeast! Not only that, but to the best of my knowledge the only time the species has ever been photographed in the wild.
I was elated! Our ROV is a very powerful tool; using it had allowed all of us traveling on the National Geographic Explorer to participate in an exciting discovery that we are now sharing with the scientific community. And the potential for further exploration is enormous; every time we put it into the water, the ROV allows us look into another small part of our planet that humans have never seen before.
The seas around the Antarctic Peninsula are quiet and still. Storm winds and waves are left behind as you slip beneath the surface and, once you get used to the bone-chilling temperature, it’s a very peaceful place. There are no schools of fish in these waters, just occasional bottom dwellers that flick out of sight almost before you’ve seen them; for the most part there is very little motion.
So when a big, fast-moving shadow whipped by me about 50 feet down the rocky slope of Booth Island, it brought me up short right away. The previous week I had encountered a leopard seal at the same site and, although they are not usually aggressive, those large predators always bear close attention. But this was not a leopard. As I watched, and brought my camera up as quickly as I could, it made a tight turn and streaked back toward me, joined by two more sleek shapes; a group of crabeater seals had found me and were coming in for another look. Crabeaters, which eat krill, not crabs, are the most numerous of Antarctic seals but are very seldom encountered by divers. After I got over my initial shock, I was delighted to have the opportunity to shoot some rare footage of them underwater.
The encounter lasted only a few minutes before the seals went on their way, but I was very happy – dives like this don’t come along every day and I knew that the guests back aboard National Geographic Endeavour would be thrilled with what I had shot. For the moment, I continued exploring the steep cobble slope, shooting more common subjects like orange anemones and small crustaceans. Finally I worked my way up into shallow water and that’s when things got really interesting. Over a shallow shelf, among some smallish icebergs, I found another crabeater seal. Unlike the first group, this one seemed unconcerned with my presence and continued to make shallow dives, rubbing itself on the rocks of the bottom and making some very strange warbling sounds.
Crabeaters were then thought to be mostly silent away from their breeding areas; even there they were known to produce only a simple grunt. The noises I had heard were very different, complex and variable. I was very curious about these vocalizations, so as soon as I returned to the ship I sent some excerpts from the tape to Dr. Jeanette Thomas, a researcher in Illinois who has studied Antarctic seals for more than 30 years. She wrote back right away to say that she had never heard these sounds from a crabeater and found them very interesting!
Dr. Thomas passed the recordings along to one of her graduate students, Laura Howell, who then used them as the basis of her Master’s Thesis. Laura’s analysis revealed not one but four previously unknown vocalizations on the tape. After two years work, she and Dr. Thomas published their study in the journal Aquatic Mammals and the strange sounds I had discovered became part of the scientific literature on Antarctic seals.
For me, this was as good as it gets. A fascinating encounter that I was able to share with the guests on National Geographic Endeavour and with the scientific community. Our expeditions explore some of the most remote wilderness on the planet and by keeping our eyes and ears open we can often make discoveries of real importance. This one was one of my proudest moments.
“What on earth is that thing!?”
Hunching closer over the joysticks and toggle switches that control our Remote-Operated Vehicle (ROV), I stared into the monitor that showed what the little robot submarine was seeing on the floor of the Arctic fjord, hundreds of feet below me. Gently urging the ROV forward a few inches, careful not to disturb the soft mud and silt of the bottom, I trained the camera on the little mushroom-like creature and zoomed in for a better look. It did look a great deal like a small mushroom (not something you ordinarily find deep below the surface of the Arctic Ocean), but as I watched it slowly opened, unfolding a crown of delicate branched arms that formed a lacey up-turned cup about two inches across. This was something new, something I’d never seen before in a decade of exploring these freezing waters! There was more work to be done with the ROV that day, recording the strange marine life of the fjord for the guests on our expedition, but suddenly I was very eager to return to the ship and try to learn more about this strange creature.
My name is David Cothran and I am an Undersea Specialist for Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. I think the best way to describe my job is to say that I act as the eyes of the expedition underwater. It’s my responsibility to record, collect and present to our guests the incredible marine life in the water beneath our ships, all around the world. To accomplish this I use a variety of really cool expedition technology, including underwater HD video cameras, plankton nets, hydrophones and of course the ROV, to record, sample and remotely explore the hidden world beneath the sea’s surface, all with the primary goal of making it a part of our guests’ experience.
Before I joined the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic team, I worked as conservation biologist, studying seabirds, elephant seals and other amazing species in an effort to gather information that will help us to preserve the wild animals and wild places I love. I am a scientist and so the opportunity I have to use the tools of expedition technology to explore remote and beautiful places like the Antarctic Peninsula, Svalbard and the Mid-Atlantic is a huge thrill for me. And, although my first priority is always to share what I discover with the guests on our ships, during the twelve years or so that I have been doing this, my colleagues and I have made some observations that have proved to be very important to other scientists working in these areas. We work hard to share what we learn with researchers who will find it valuable and we are very proud of the contributions we have made to the understanding of these amazing places.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of entries on our blog, describing some of the more significant milestones in science aboard the Lindblad/National Geographic fleet. We’ll be looking at strange creatures and exciting projects in the seas of both poles and the tropics in between. I hope you’ll join me.
And the weird mushroom-creature from the Arctic? We still don’t know what it is, and we’re still working to find out. I love a good mystery!