Battle on the Nine

Several weeks back I was able to join my good friends at SD Expeditions on a trip out to the Nine Mile Bank off the coast of San Diego, CA. The Nine as most call it is a high spot situated nine miles off the coast.

We were out to find and photograph some blue, mako or hammerhead sharks. The blues and makos are the usual suspects but with elevated sea surface temperatures this year due to the current El Nino event hammerheads have been around.

Although the warm water has been good in the sense that new exotics such as hammerheads, blue marlin, wahoo, mantas and whale sharks have been around it has also forced much of the normal life north to cooler waters. As we motored around the water was pretty void of life. No whales, bait fish, marine mammals or an abundance of sunfish (Mola mola) that can often be found on the Nine.

But as we searched around we found a large amount of birds dropping down to feed. It was then we saw a sea lion thrashing around and as we got closer we saw the fins of a mola mola.

Mola's are the world's largest bony fish and can reach 15 feet across weighting nearly 5000 pounds. Mola's don't have a great deal of predators due to their incredibly rough/tough skin and their massive size as adults. As juveniles mola are prey for  bluefin tuna and mahi mahi (dorado) but as adults mola are predated on by orcas, sharks and sea lions. In Monterey, California sea lions are regularly seen hunting mola for sport where they will rip the fins off molas but won't consume the meat.

A Mola mola, the world's larges bony fish

The number one threat to molas off the coast of California is their interaction with the drift gillnet fishery where they become entangled in the nets.

A gillnet scar on the face of a mola

As we slipped into the water we were sure to stay back and observe from a distance but as we watched this epic event unfold the sea lion became more and more comfortable with us and seemed to actually bring the mola closer to us.

The sea lion begins to break the mola's skin

Sea lions are notoriously smart. And, when you consider the anatomy of a mola (photo below) you realize that the sea lion was very strategic about where and how he entered the mola. With such tough skin and bony underparts the entry point makes sense. 

Mola mola anatomy. Credit: Gregory, W. K. & Raven, H. C. (1934)

This past year has been extremely hard on California sea lions with limited prey causing thousands of them to die or become stranded. New research suggests many of the newer standings could be due to sea lions eating crabs that have consumed a toxic algal bloom. But anyways, with limited food availability sea lions have had to take advantage of all the prey they can find, including molas. 

By the time we left the mola was chest deep in the mola pulling out the remainder of the guts and stomach. I have been asked several times now how I could watch or photograph this event. And while I do love molas the event would have taken place whether I had been there or not and my job is simply to document what goes on in the ocean. 

For more of my work you can check out

Coco The Caretta: the first loggerhead sea turtle telemetry off the west coast of the United States.

This year California has seen an increase in sea surface temperatures (SST) as part of the recent El Nino event occurring that is predicted to last into 2017. El Nino events are part of oceanographic variations called El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that take place in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. An El Nino is defined as an episode when the 3-month average sea-surface temperature departure exceeds 0.5°C in the east-central equatorial Pacific [between 5°N-5°S and 170°W-120°W].

These warmer waters have brought a variety of uncommon species to the Souther California Bight.
 During a swordfish research cruise with Pfleger Institute of Environment Research we stubbled upon a huge floatopia of juvenile loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). Using this information and others provided from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cruise scientists were able to predict where they would be able to find these juveniles and attach satellite tags.

These images are from that cruise where scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) were able to attach the first satellite tag to a loggerhead off the West Coast of the USA was attached. This information is not only extremely important to help understand the “lost years,” the early years of a sea turtle’s life when their migration patterns were mostly unknown, of these turtles but also to help inform fisheries management officials. To help protect sea turtles, NOAA created the Loggerhead Conservation Area off the coast of Southern California that shuts down the gillnet fishery when an El Nino event occurs. This information will show if turtles are using the same area as swordfish (targeted with gillnets) and if a closure is always needed.

The first turtle to be released was named “Coco” by scientists and can her movements can be tracked here.

All images were taken under NMFS permit # 14510

Using a small patch of neoprene allows scientists to attach the transmitter in a way that expand     with the shell growth. This will allow the tag to transmit for roughly 6 months before falling off. Attaching a transmitter without neoprene would fall off much sooner.

The sat tag is set into place.

NOAA scientists Jeff Seminoff and Tomo Eguchi, who tagged the turtle, watch as Coco swims away.

The next six months of satellite data will allow scientists to better understand how loggerheads are using the SoCal Bight.

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama

A beautiful archipelago known for its crystal clean waters and beautiful beaches. Bocas is a highly popular tourist destination that offers cheap diving certifications and a good night life. The years of unchecked development has played its toll on the island. With little to no infrastructure there is no means to handle the heaps of trash and sewage left behind by thousands of visitors. Trash that isn’t thrown into the ocean is collected and burnt in the mountains. I only know this because during a bikeride over the center of the island, I heard an explosion. Turns out they burn everrrrything. The reef has certainly felt the effects of runoff and bad divers. Most inner reef sites had coral in bad condition, limited fish, but still had some good macro invertebrate life. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has a facility on Isla Colon of Bocas and is currently working on many of these issues. 

Though there are a plethora of environmental problems, Bocas was very kind to us for the week we were there. 

A coral mound. 

Pederson Cleaner Shrimp (Ancylomenes pedersoni) 

A Menacing Beauty. 

"The introduction of lionfish into the Atlantic Ocean is now recognized as one of the major ecological disasters of the last two decades. Today lionfish are found in nearly all marine-habitat types along the Southeast United States, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean. Densities of lionfish have surpassed some native reef fish in many locations. The ecological impacts of this invasion are far-reaching — from disruptions to the structure and function of reef communities to impacts on commercial fishing and the tourism industry."- James Morris
Lionfish are generalist predators that voraciously devour native reef fishes. Introduced to the Caribbean in the 1990's around Florida and first seen in Panama in 2009, these fish have little to no natural predators in their new introduced zone. They have become highly invasive and been documented reducing native reef fish populations by 90% (STRI). Programs now exist to eliminate their enormous populations. Not easily caught on hook and line, lionfish are almost always caught in fishing derbies. A derby can see up to 1,400 fish caught in a single day. But, this can be easily replaced by the 200,000 eggs a single female can lay in a month.

 Banded coral shrimp (Stenopus hispidus)

She feeds by waving her antennae to attract fish. When the fish arrives, she will remove all the parasites from the fish's skin and eat them.

 The entrance to La Gruta on Isla Colon. A cave of religious and ecological importance. Home to thousands of bats which roosts in its limestone rocks. A donation of $1 is asked to enter the cave which locals use to manage the cave.

"Daly and Myers (1967) and Myers and Daly (1983) initially characterized the great variation in color and patterning in Oophaga pumilio in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. This has sparked an incredible amount of research on sexual selection, behavior, and genetics in this species (Prohl et al 2007, Prohl 2002, Rudh et al 2007, Maan and Cummings 2008, Siddiqi et al 2004, Summers et al 1997, Summers and Kennedy 2004, Tazzyman and Iwasa 2010, Wang and Summers 2009, Wang and Summers 2010)." - STRI

Trash that is not thrown in the ocean makes its way to the mountains where it is weighed (left side of the picture) and then burnt (right side of the picture). In the 30 seconds I was there there were two explosions. Apparently, they burn almost anything. 


Playa Estrella "Starfish Beach" near Playas del Drago on Isla Colon. A highly tourist beach where thousands of starfish

Photo taken in Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. Created in 1988 and Panama's first national marine park.