April 23, 2006

The Fleshy Colored Hunters of the Night

In this day and age of internet cafes, a television in most households, cell phones in rural villages of East Africa, and the daily newspaper stand on every corner, we are flooded with communication and along with it, advertisements. A person can lose touch with what they really desire and think. The television and daily newspaper bombard us with what we should make for dinner, what type of car we should drive, and what new trendy item we should buy. Walk up the sidewalk in any city in the world and see students texting madly. Then look to the street to see people jabbering on cell phones. There is a constant flood of information and communication in the world today. Life aboard a ship is not part of this world. Until recently, the Ron H. Brown did not have Internet and the satellite phone was too expensive to use for anything but an emergency. There is no cell phone service at sea, no TV broadcasts, no daily newspaper on the front porch. I most enjoy the loss of advertisement. Aside from the image on the soda machine, with an illuminated sign depicting a bright red can glistening with large drops of condensation, saying, "I am cold, I am pretty, buy me and drink me", we are immune to the constant barrage of advertisement. I have not missed the TV commercials, the newspaper ads, or the billboard signs. I have not experienced withdrawal from my cell phone or a desire to know what is on at the movies. The flood of information and constant communication is mostly absent from the microcosm that exists on a vessel at sea. There is a since of freedom out here from the busy world that many of us exist in today. I find it refreshing.

Unlike the constant buzz of life on land, the busy-ness of work aboard a research vessel comes in waves. Today was one of those days. It was a flood of sending plankton nets out, and retrieving nets, only to prep them and send them to the deep again. Samples were pouring in. In the mix of orange and red crustaceans, and the silvery remains of tangled fish, a strange creature caught my eye. It was wispy thin, large, and crystal clear like the fine ice that covers a puddle in the dawning hours of a fall day. It had long spindly legs, with featherlike attachments that were gently stroking the water. Two globular eyes on long stalks were the only way to tell head from tail. It appeared to be adapted for a life of gently floating in the water column and remaining nearly invisible as light rays would shimmer through its translucent body. It is hard to believe that this organism will grow into a fifty pound crimson monster of the benthos. The animal collected today turns out to be the larval stage of a lobster. Most animals living in the ocean spend part of their life as plankton. They drift and grow. They change shape and size, until the day comes when they are ready to sink and compete for space among the other bottom dwellers. You will find an image of the lobster larva in the pictures below.

This evening I had chance to witness even more fascinating biology. I stepped out for some fresh sea air. While leaning against the starboard rail and looking into the sapphire colored waters that were being lit by large halogen lights used for the starboard boom and winch system, I saw what at first appeared to be a red light skip and dance across the surface. It looked as if a cigarette butt had jetted out of the water and then bulleted back. As I investigated further, I noticed flesh colored bodies gliding under the surface. I realized I was watching squid swimming in the ships lights. The squid were about a foot long and had a strange orange internal glow. Apparently this glow is caused my symbiotic bacteria that live in its gut. These bacteria produce an abundance of light. The squid can manipulate chromatophores in their tissues to control the intensity of the light production. I observed two squid moving through the water like a pair of fighter pilots performing aerial acrobatics. The squid would at times suddenly stop and wriggle their tentacles about near the surface. At this same moment, the surface rippled as little fish sprang out. When the fish angled towards the light, they reflected a bright red color. The squid were hunting small fish attracted to the boats hypnotic projection. These little fish were mycostids. What appeared to be glowing cigarette butts, turned out to be the reflection from the eyes of these fish. Looking across the water, many little red reflections near the wavy surface became apparent. The squid were having a feeding frenzy on these little guys mesmerized by the bright lights of the ship. The master hunter of copepods had now become the prey. Such is the harsh reality of life and love, at one moment you are stoked, riding the barrel on one sick wave, and in the next moment you're mullering. You get locked in. When all chaos has cleared you find yourself floating in the soup wondering what transpired. (for translation see: http://www.surfing-waves.com/surf_talk.htm)

Daily question: Why would the photophores and not the eyes of the malacosteids reflect red light, even though these fish have pigments that allow them to see red light?


Figure 1. Ice-like lobster larvae paddling with feathery appendages.

Figure 2. Martin Angel and Tracey Sutton hauling in the MOC 1 net.

Figure 3. Hello to Wyatt from Dad.

Figure 4. View of the bow from the bridge, Ron H. Brown.

Figure 5. Another sunset from the Ron H. Brown (sunrise photo coming soon!!).