Research Education Outreach
Research Education Outreach
Last week, as Eleuthera basked in the brightness of the full moon, the Cape Eleuthera Institute welcomed an eclectic group of coral scientists and aquarists for our second annual Coral Breeding & Restoration Workshop. The program was led by Secore International and supported by The Nature Conservancy as a part of their Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub, as well as the Perry Institute for Marine Science.
Excited to learn from these experts, aquarists from Minnesota Zoo, Aquarium of the Pacific, Avanqua Oceanográfic S.L., Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, traveled from the United States, Canada, and Europe to participate in the twelve day workshop at CEI.
On the first day, participants attended a Carribbean Coral Identification talk to help them properly identify Boulder Brain Coral (Colpophylia natans) and Mountainous Star Coral (Orbicella faveolata) ; the species we were most interested in collecting gamete bundles from.
This presentation was followed by a dive briefing to explain proper technique for placing “collectors” - or mesh cones - over coral colonies, as well as how to handle glass jars once filled sufficiently with gamete bundles. These skills would be employed during upcoming night dives.
The next day, all hands were on deck preparing Secore’s iconic seeding units, commonly referred to as “tetrapods”, for the arrival of coral larvae later on in the workshop. Over the years, Secore has gone through various seeding unit designs - experimenting with overall shape and groove placements to optimize larval settlement. Another way to encourage settlement is through biofilm. A few months ago, our resident coral researcher Valeria Pizzaro, from Perry Institute of Marine Sciences, submerged trays full of seeding units in our boathouse cut to accumulate bacterial biofilm. This step is crucial because bacterial communities emit cues to coral larvae, which attracts them and triggers settlement.
Once all of the conditioned seeding units were pulled out of the water and loaded onto the boat, the coral team strategically deployed them into structures resembling inflatable pools in the marina. The hexagonal pools were uniquely engineered by Secore to keep coral larvae contained, yet still allow for waterflow. In an assembly line fashion, some team-members carried trays to the floating dock, where others handed them down to divers, who in turn shuttled the seeding units to the pools. The marina was deemed an ideal “holding area” for coral larvae since the water quality closely resembles that of the sea, but is more protected from the elements.
With the pools and seeding units in place, the anticipation for spawning grew stronger but was short-lived. The very next night, six distinct mountainous star coral colonies spawned, and roughly two million eggs and sperm were collected. As soon as divers returned to the boat, they mixed the contents of all of their jars into one container to initiate fertilization and optimize chances of cross-breeding. Collecting gamete bundles from as many different colonies as possible is key for encouraging genetic diversity so the team was content with their collection.
Around 2:30 am, fertilized eggs were transported and released into Secore’s pools for in situ rearing, and Cape Eleuthera Institute’s wet lab to begin ex situ rearing. The next day, mid-day, the fertilized eggs - now larvae - were observed through a microscope and seen “swimming”. This behavior indicated that they were progressing into pelagic planulae, and on the right track to eventually settling onto the prepared seeding units.
While most coral larvae were placed in the pools at the marina, others were kept in our wet lab to monitor their development. In the lab, the coral team is able to track, more or less, what is going on in the pools without interfering, and conduct additional research.
In addition to the workshop participants, coral researchers from The University of Miami’s Coral Reef Futures Lab and Shedd Aquarium also joined the group. Their ongoing research focuses on the algal symbionts that live within the tissue of reef-building stony corals. Through photosynthesis, these symbionts provide their sessile coral hosts with vital nutrition. Under stressful conditions, like changes in seater pH and temperature, corals expel these symbionts in a process known as “coral bleaching” which, if prolonged, can be fatal. However, certain symbionts are more tolerant of stressful conditions, and less likely to be expelled.
Throughout the workshop, these researchers conducted experiments to test if newly settled coral recruits could be manipulated to take up thermally tolerant symbionts (Durusdinium trenchii) from the very beginning of their lives. Because D. trenchii has been found to help its coral hosts resist bleaching during high temperature stress, these researchers are investigating whether it could enhance the survival of juvenile corals in the face of climate change and ocean warming.
“By rearing coral larvae in a relatively controlled environment like in the pools, Secore increases rates of settlement and survival compared to what we usually see in nature. The goal for our ongoing research is to determine whether seeding newly formed coral colonies with thermally tolerant symbionts can further increase their survivorship by making them more resilient to temperature stress.” - Liv Williamson, Ph.D. student at the University of Miami
In a few weeks, after the batch of coral recruits from this experiment have established symbiosis, they will be outplanted to local reefs and monitored over time for survival, growth, and symbiont community changes. If proven successful, this technique may be applied to more coral recruits in future breeding and restoration workshops.
Exactly one week after gamete bundles were collected from the wild, the coral team observed pelagic planulae begin to settle and metamorphose in the lab!
Approximately one week after that, these recruits began what will perhaps be their most crucial transformation: becoming primary polyps. Once a polyp, with fully formed tentacles and a mouth, they will be able to filter-feed and ingest photosynthetic symbionts. These nutrients will bolster their growth and eventually allow them to turn into colonies.
Once these settlers complete their transformation into true primary polyps, and once seeding units are seeded with juvenile colonies, the coral team will boat them out to nearby reefs and reintroduce these colonies into the wild. A subset of the seeding units will be monitored periodically to track the persistence of the seeding units and survivorship of the new polyps, though the very small size and slow growth rate of this species makes getting quantitative field data challenging.
The Cape Eleuthera Institute is proud to have been able to bring together such passionate people from around the world for the betterment of coral reefs. The Coral Breeding and Restoration Workshop is an incredible way to spread scientific knowledge, fieldwork strategy, and tangible solutions to help restore coral reefs near and far. “Many of these corals I had only seen in tanks so it was amazing getting to see them out on the reef. That being said, it was also very sobering because we inevitably saw newly dead or bleached colonies as well. This experience allowed me to see the whole picture, and highlighted the role aquariums may need to take in preserving coral reefs through “ark” type projects.” - Lindsey Condray, Aquarist at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
Thanks to the help of the 13 aquarists who participated in the workshop, we were able to rear about a million larvae in total, giving us all a little more hope for the reef ecosystems here in Eleuthera and the wider Caribbean.
Make sure to follow along on our social media and subscribe to our newsletter, as we will be outplanting these colonies onto the reef very soon!
Capturing a Live Giant Squid on Camera for the First Time in US Waters
On June 18, the Cape Eleuthera Institute was part of a great moment in the history of deep sea exploration!
Dr. Nathan Robinson, CEI Director, and Dr. Edie Widder, Co-Founder and CEO of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), captured the first-ever footage of a live giant squid in U.S. waters. This animal, which has inspired countless myths as the “Kraken of the deep,” has only been seen in the wild once before, seen in the wild once before, also by Dr. Widder, in Japanese waters.
We have known that the giant squid has existed for centuries, as once or twice a year a dead carcass of one of these animals will be caught and brought to the surface in a deep-sea fishing net or found stranded on a beach somewhere around the world.
However, seeing these animals alive in their natural habitat has proven to be one of the biggest ecological challenges of our time. This is largely because giant squid live hundreds of meters below the water’s surface in the deep ocean. Furthermore, to explore these depths, we commonly use cameras with bright lights to pierce the inky darkness of the deep. Yet herein lies the problem. Giant squid appear to be highly visual predators that likely see our lights long before we see them. Not knowing whether or not these mystery lights are a potential threat, the squid likely avoid them and remain hidden from cameras.
To address this issue, Dr. Widder developed a unique camera system that would be perfect for recording giant squid undisturbed in their natural habitat. The camera system, called the MEDUSA, is fitted with a low-light camera that is able to function in the dimmest of lights. For illuminators, the MEDUSA uses low-power LEDs that shine only in red, a color that many deep-sea organisms cannot see. Lastly, the MEDUSA is fitted with an optical lure, called an eJelly, that mimics the bioluminescent display of a deep-sea jellyfish.
Dr. Widder and Dr. Robinson deployed this device a total of six times in the Gulf of Mexico in June, recording about 144 hours of footage, before they finally caught a glimpse of the giant squid.
This footage is already helping to reveal countless mysteries about the behavior of one of the largest, yet least known, animals on this planet.
Eleuthera, The Bahamas — Beginning June 25, OceanX, the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI), Florida International University (FIU), Microwave Telemetry and the Haiti Ocean Project (HOP) launched a new research and media mission to study bluntnose sixgill sharks and oceanic whitetip sharks in Caribbean waters. The mission will connect critical data on sharks from the Bahamas to a wider effort in the Caribbean to protect the ocean’s apex predators throughout their lifecycle.
This three-week mission aboard OceanX’s research vessel Alucia is a partnership between OceanX, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative, The Moore Bahamas Foundation and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to create “One Big Wave” of ocean exploration and protection globally. Additional One Big Wave partners include the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and CEI.
“We’re excited to partner with the local scientists and conservation groups in the Caribbean working to protect endangered shark species and support their efforts with our exploration and research capabilities,” said Vincent Pieribone, Vice Chairman, OceanX. “Our mission will focus on researching the behavior patterns of the bluntnose six gill and oceanic whitetip sharks and help secure critical data that will enable us to better understand these sharks and implement the protections necessary to ensure their survival and repopulation.”
“As the climate crisis continues, it is critical that we have a strong understanding of ocean systems,” said Antha Williams, Head of Environmental Programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “This latest mission with OceanX is providing data needed to develop science-based conservation strategies. This is important not only to help protect endangered sharks, but to ensure that key ocean ecosystems – and the people dependent on them around the world – can survive and thrive despite growing threats.”
Recognizing the tremendous asset of these apex predators to the tourism industry, which contributes roughly $114 million USD to its economy, the Bahamas banned commercial longlining in 1993 and subsequently the commercial trade of sharks throughout all 630,000 square kilometers of Bahamian waters in 2011. Establishing this Bahamian Shark Sanctuary was a conservation milestone that firmly positioned the Bahamas as a world leader in shark conservation, research and tourism.
Two sharks that have benefitted from these forward-thinking policies are the bluntnose sixgill and oceanic whitetip.
The bluntnose sixgill, a large, deep sea predator, has yet to be properly studied in its natural habitat, often being accidentally captured and pulled to the surface where its behavior patterns are altered post-captivity. Once captured, bluntnose sixgills are often killed under the assumption they will not survive if released back into the ocean.
Utilizing OceanX’s deep-sea submersibles, scientists will travel hundreds of meters into Caribbean waters and attempt to attach a satellite tag to the bluntnose sixgill at depth for the first time ever. The tagging will allow scientists to study the movement patterns and natural behavior of this shark species and shed light on the impact of accidental capture on its lifecycle. Documenting these effects will be critical in encouraging the live release of bluntnose sixgills from commercial fisheries.
The oceanic whitetip (OWT), while abundant in Caribbean waters, is in massive decline globally, listed as “critically endangered” in the western Atlantic. An iconic and pelagic (open water) shark with a storied history and photogenic presence, lawmakers are only now starting to take action to protect these enigmatic fish on the global stage.
Based in part on data gathered over almost ten years by a group of researchers at the southern tip of Cat Island, where adult oceanic whitetips congregate in numbers reminiscent of their past abundance, this species was recently added to Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, an act that enforces the trade and commercial capture of these sharks around the world, as well as to the Endangered Species List in the United States. A recovery plan for these sharks was initiated in 2018, with much information still missing that is critical to the conservation of the species – even in the Bahamas.
"Despite the fact that the Bahamas is a shark sanctuary, there is still a lot that we don't know,” said Eric Carey, Executive Director at the Bahamas National Trust. “Globally, their populations continue to decline and are under severe fishing pressure. We believe there are more questions to be answered."
For nearly a decade, researchers from CEI, Microwave Telemetry, FIU, WCS, University of North Florida, New England Aquarium, and The Moore Bahamas Foundation have deployed more than 90 pop-up archival satellite tags on OWTs here. These tags record depth, temperature and location for up to one year, at which time they self-detach from the shark and report their data to orbiting satellites.
The scientists have also collected samples and conducted ultrasounds of female sharks to identify pregnancies. Satellite tracks of pregnant sharks have revealed a hotspot of activity in the Windward Passage, a straight between Haiti and Cuba that connects the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
“When we started this project, we had no idea that it could amass such a body of data, and become this example of excellent research collaboration,” said Lucy Howey, scientist and manager at Microwave Telemetry, and veteran member of the Bahamas Cat Island expeditions. “Even still, one major question has remained unanswered: where do oceanic whitetips give birth in the western Atlantic?”
Now, on the Alucia, the international team of scientists will follow oceanic whitetip mothers to an area where they may give birth and where pups might spend the first few years of their lives. Confirming these pupping grounds is a first step towards promoting the recovery of this species.
“After years of research on adults in the southern Bahamas, we now have a unique opportunity to follow pregnant mothers to the Windward Passage, a place where they may give birth to the next generation—the future of this population,” said Edd Brooks, Executive Officer of Cape Eleuthera’s Island School. “Studying these juveniles may provide insights that directly inform the conservation of the species."
“Sharks are legally protected in the waters of the Bahamas, but that alone won’t safeguard the survival of severely depleted, and highly migratory species such as oceanic whitetip sharks as they leave these safe waters to feed, grow and reproduce,” says Luke Warwick, Associate Director, Sharks and Rays Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, a partnering organization. “This project works with local groups and fishers on the ground in Haiti once the initial research is complete, to use that science to reduce the number of juvenile sharks being killed in fisheries, an approach WCS uses to protect sharks and rays globally.”
International efforts will be required to conserve the OWT across every life stage. The Bahamas provides the starting point for expedition—and an example of policy— that can pave the way for shark conservation in the wider Atlantic and Caribbean.
“OceanX has provided us with a unique opportunity to build upon years of research and drive conservation outcomes,” said Trevor Bacon, Marine Program Manager, The Moore Bahamas Foundation. “We hope to fill in a critical piece of the puzzle in the effort to protect one of the oceans most threatened and iconic species; once one of the most abundant shark species. The key will be increasing official and local community support for improved education, effective protection and sustainable management.”
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We’d like to join you in welcoming Dr. Nick Higgs to the Cape Eleuthera Institute as our new Assistant Director!
Greetings from Cape Eleuthera,
I would like to introduce myself as the new Assistant Director of the Cape Eleuthera Institute. It feels good to be back on Eleuthera, having grown up in Spanish Wells at the northern tip of the island. I previously worked as Deputy Director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth in the UK, where I lived for the last 5 years with my wife and two small children.
I come from a long line of Bahamian fishermen and farmers and many of my family still work in the lobster fishery today. The Bahamas spiny lobster fishery is the largest and most valuable fishery in the country. Recently, it was certified as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council, the only such lobster fishery in the Caribbean region. I am proud to have played a small part in achieving this milestone. My future research at CEI will focus on helping the fishery meet its sustainability targets. Island School students will be at the forefront of this research starting with my first IS research class during the upcoming spring 2019 semester.
In addition to the lobster work, I want to explore the relatively unknown deep water ecosystems of the Bahamas. My doctoral research was on deep-sea ecology, working at the University of Leeds and The Natural History Museum in London, where I am still an honorary Research Associate. I think there are innumerable new species and discoveries just waiting to happen on our deep-sea doorstep at Cape Eleuthera.
I am excited by the sheer talent that we have here at the Cape Eleuthera Institute and am committed to supporting our staff in producing world-leading research. We are also determined to make sure that this research is relevant to our Bahamian partners, so a big part of my job will be meeting with them to work out how we can best work together. Most of all, I am proud to be applying my skills and experience to ensure a sustainable future for The Bahamas.
Thank you for joining us in this exciting journey.
Dr. Nick Higgs
This fall marks the beginning of the Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub! Based out of Cape Eleuthera, the hub aims to upscale coral reef restoration in the Bahamas, develop new technologies, as well as educate, train and engage local Bahamians on the importance of coral conservation. Key hub members include The Nature Conservancy, The Perry Institute for Marine Science (PIMS), SECORE International, SHEDD Aquarium and the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI).
As an archipelago of over 700 islands and cays painted in clear, popsicle-blue waters, it’s no secret that coral reefs are vital to Bahamian culture, economy and ecology. Still, live coral cover is lower in the Bahamas than any other Caribbean nation. Over the next five years, the Bahamas Coral Innovation Hub will develop one of the largest coral reef restoration projects in the Caribbean, as well as tackle the following cutting-edge research questions:
1 – How can we use sexual coral recruits and microfragmentation to grow and farm corals on a much larger scale than what we see today?
2 – How can we maintain genetic diversity of our reared coral populations, so that they might be more resilient to climate change?
3- How can we raise awareness about the importance of corals and coral restoration technology? In particular, how can we involve local communities and Bahamian youth in our reef-rebuilding work?
“By working together, we plan to grow and plant thousands of baby corals onto Bahamian coral reefs each year,” said PIMS and CEI coral researcher Lily Haines, “as well as offer experiential education opportunities in coral restoration to hundreds of students in the Bahamas.”
By Nathan Robinson
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to swim through the ocean like a sea turtle? We certainly have, and the idea of seeing the world through the eyes of a sea turtle inspired us to start the ‘TurtleCam’ project.
The TurtleCam is made from a camera, a small radio transmitter, and a couple of recycled foam buoys. Each of these items are glued together to create a device that can be mounted directly on the shell of a free-swimming sea turtle. These devices, or TurtleCams, are fastened to the turtle’s carapace using corrodible links that detach within a few hours allowing us to recover it and the footage it contains. These TurtleCams are providing us with a first-person (or should it be first-turtle?) perspective of how sea turtles see the world around them.
Animal-borne cameras have been utilized by scientists and film-makers for many years to reveal the secret lives of wildlife. While this footage never fails to captivate an audience, perhaps the most exciting videos have come from marine animals. This is because most marine animals spend the majority of their lives far beneath the waves and out of sight to humans, meaning that even their most typical behaviors can be a mystery to us. It is therefore of little surprise then that scientists have excitedly deployed these cameras onto an ever-increasing range of marine animals, including whales, sharks, crocodiles, and sea birds. We are now adding to this list by deploying animal-borne cameras, for the very first-time, onto the juvenile green sea turtles of The Bahamas.
Perhaps the most interesting discovery that we have made so far is that juvenile sea turtles appear to be extremely social. Contrary to most prior conceptions of sea turtles being solitary animals, juvenile sea turtles spend large amounts of time interacting with each other. Sometimes this can involve short chases, flipper biting, or even a behavior that can be best described as nuzzling. We have also been using the footage to help us determine in which habitats turtles spend the majority of their time. By identifying such critical habitats for sea turtles, we can begin to develop conservation management plans that ensure that these habitats remain free from threats, such as boat traffic or entanglement in fishing gear.
The clear value of this footage from a scientist’s perspective is furthermore complemented by the ability of these videos to capture people’s imaginations. We truly believe that these videos, which allow you pretend for a minute that you are like one of these turtles swimming through the ocean, can help inspire countless people to live more turtle-friendly lives; and this can be easily achieved regardless of where you live. Indeed, each year countless sea turtles are accidentally caught and killed by fisheries that are hunting for commercial species, such as tuna or swordfish. Those that are not caught by fisheries often suffer a similar fate, after choking on plastic bags and other plastic waste that is ingested after confusing it for a jellyfish prey.
These issues of unsustainable fisheries and plastic in the ocean are global problems, and we all have a responsibility to help against these. By supporting fisheries that fish in a smarter and less wasteful manner or reducing our use of single-use plastics, you too can help create a more turtle-friendly world.
We hope that you are as inspired by the TurtleCam footage as we are and we can only imagine what fantastic discoveries this project will uncover in the future!