Thursday, December 21, 2017

12 Days of Christmas in the Deep Sea off Tobago

In 2016, Jahson Alemu took us to the Buccoo Reef for creatures to represent ‘12 Days of Christmas.’ To celebrate the 2017 season, marine scientist Diva Amon takes us into the deep ocean! One and half kilometers deep, off the east coast of Trinidad and Tobago, we'll find creatures you can't imagine. Marvel at this Christmas tribute to twelve deep sea inhabitants. There are more wonders lurking in the deep ocean than we know! (All photos courtesy the Ocean Exploration Trust.)

On the first day of Christmas:
One swimming sea cucumber (Enypniastes eximia)
 Enypniastes eximia is a deep-sea species of sea cucumber (or holothurian) that, unusually, spends a large portion of its life swimming!

On the second day of Christmas,
Two chimaeras (Hydrolagus affinis)

Hydrolagus chimaeras are also known as spookfish or rabbitfish and are closely related to sharks and rays. They have a venomous spine in front of the dorsal fin. This particular individual also has a large white parasite just behind the pelvic fin on its left side.

On the third day of Christmas
Three serpent stars (Asteroschema sp.)

Asteroschema serpent stars are closely related to brittle stars and basket stars. They get their name from the sinuous movement of their long thin arms as they coil around the branches of deep-sea corals.

 On the fourth day of Christmas 
Four eelpout fish (Pachycara caribbaeum)

Pachycara caribbaeum is an eelpout fish known only from two small deep-sea areas in the Caribbean (the El Pilar methane seeps off Trinidad and Tobago and the Von Damm hydrothermal-vent field in the Cayman Trench). These are known to predate on the numerous shrimp also found at these chemosynthetic locations.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
Five siphonophores (Erenna sp.)
Siphonophores are a group of colonial organisms that includes the well-known shallow-water Portuguese Man o’War. While this siphonophore may appear to be one organism, it is actually comprised of small individual animals known as zooids. They catch prey using sticky stinging cells.

On the sixth day of Christmas
Six octopuses (Graneledone n. sp.)

This is a new species of Graneledone octopus known only at the El Pilar seep sites off Trinidad and Tobago. Although not very much is known about this species yet, a close relative found in the Pacific, Graneledone boreopacifica, has the longest egg brooding or pregnancy period of any animal: a whopping 53 months!
On the seventh day of Christmas
Seven tubeworms (Lamellibrachia sp.)
Lamellibrachia tubeworms are found only at chemosynthetic habitats. They have no mouth or gut and instead rely on internal bacteria that use sulphide-rich chemicals seeping from the seafloor to create food. They can grow to two metres long and it is thought that they can live to be hundreds of years old.

On the eighth day of Christmas
Eight Golden crabs (Chaceon fenneri)

Golden Crabs (Chaceon fenneri) are known from as far south as Brazil and all the way up to the Gulf of Mexico. They are one of the main predators found at the El Pilar seep sites, where they were observed eating Bathymodiolus mussels. They were also observed mating, with the individual pictured laden with eggs.

On the ninth day of Christmas
Nine deep-sea corals (Plumarella sp.)

Contrary to what you may think, the deep-sea harbors the highest diversity of corals in our oceans. Unlike the shallow-water coral reefs like those found at Buccoo Reef, these deep-sea corals do not rely on sunlight and lack the symbiotic photosynthetic algae that produce food. Instead these catch particles passing in the water column. Deep-sea corals are extremely long lived (possibly thousands of years old) and provide complex three-dimensional habitat for many invertebrates and fish.

On the tenth day of Christmas
Ten deep-sea sponges (Haplosclerida n. sp.)
These deep-sea sponges are thought to be a new species and are only known from the El Pilar methane seeps off Trinidad and Tobago. They form a zone peripheral to the mussel beds, which are closest to the areas of hydrocarbon-rich seepage, where they number in the thousands. Next to nothing is known about these sponges but it is suspected given their location that they derive some benefit from the seepage.  

On the eleventh day of Christmas
Eleven methane-seep shrimp (Alvinocaris muricola)

Alvinocaris muricola are one of the most well known deep-sea species. They are found at methane seeps in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and have even been found living on a whale skeleton off Brazil! They are often seen within tubeworm bushes and mussel beds and are thought to have a varied diet (bacteria, marine snow and meiofauna).

On the twelfth day of Christmas
Twelve giant mussels (Bathymodiolus childressi)
Bathymodiolus mussels are the most conspicuous species at methane seeps. They rely on methane-rich fluid seeping from the seafloor, which is used by internal bacteria to create food, but can also filter feed on particles. These mussels are ecosystem engineers that modify the physical and chemical environment at chemosynthetic habitats, as well as provide hard substrate and shelter for many smaller species.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

St Giles and the Bird of Paradise

Meet the birds of Tobago’s offshore islands with Faraaz Abdool
This feature was published in Tobago Newsday, December 14, 2017
(All photos courtesy Faraaz Abdool)
No, we’re not talking about Giles the Hermit – but something that has a similar level of secrecy and a whole lot more majesty. The islands of St Giles at 11.34 degrees north latitude form the northernmost land mass that falls under the jurisdiction of Trinidad and Tobago. Located just off the north-eastern tip of Tobago, this gathering of rocky offshore islets is an ecologically important site for a host of different creatures. So much so that the critically acclaimed (not to mention mind-blowing) documentary series Blue Planet II features a segment that was filmed in the waters just off St Giles Island.
After being the property of Charlotteville Estates for one hundred years, the St Giles islands were deeded to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1965 – under the condition that they be designated a sanctuary. This proactive move more than fifty years ago has ensured that today, we can all enjoy observing the wildlife that frequents these rocky islets – in particular the seabirds that rely on a safe place in order to nest and raise future generations.
Adult Laughing Gull in breeding plumage, Little Tobago
A short distance around the north tip of Tobago lies an island that was formerly known as Bird of Paradise Island – after its introduced population of Greater Bird of Paradise. After the passage of Hurricane Flora in 1963, the Birds of Paradise were not able to recover and today, they can no longer be found on Little Tobago. We also know a lot more about the perils of non-native species – so although the intentions were noble, it is absolutely beneficial to our native species that the population did not survive. The Greater Bird of Paradise still lives on each TT hundred dollar bill though!
Brown Noddies with first year juvenile Laughing Gulls on St Giles
Open-ocean birds lead a vastly different lifestyle than the feathered friends we’re accustomed to. Sometimes for days, weeks, even months at a time they live with no land in sight. Some of these birds rest bobbing on the surface of the water; others get their shut-eye on the wing. When it’s time to nest, it’s a different story.
Bridled Tern and young on a crevice on St Giles
Pelagic terns such as Bridled and Sooty Terns can spend their non-breeding months almost anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean, although they do tend to follow warmer water. Both species breed on the islands of St Giles as well as on Little Tobago. Superficially very similar, the Sooty Terns tend to prefer the slightly more gentle cliffs of Little Tobago, almost as if they prefer the elbow room of an open nest; while the Bridled Terns will nest in crevices that will make anyone’s palms sweaty.
During their nesting period, the noisy Sooty Terns jostle for position among the hundreds of equally noisy Laughing Gulls that also nest on Little Tobago.
Laughing Gulls are not ocean going birds; they are a common and familiar sight around seashores on both Trinidad and Tobago. Around April each year, they all gather and migrate en masse to Little Tobago and St Giles to raise their young, whether they were spending their time in Plymouth or Point Fortin. Not only do they change location, they also change their appearance drastically. The rush of hormones that accompanies the courtship and breeding period transforms each adult Laughing Gull from a plain, drab bird to a striking black-headed specimen with a bill that seems to have been dipped in blood. Bright white crescents around their eyes complete their fresh, dressed-up look.
Another member of the family Laridae (that includes gulls and terns) is the Brown Noddy. Evidence of the relation is clear in the similarities in body structure. Brown Noddies do sport a silvery-white cap that looks like it has been carefully airbrushed on. Relatively social birds, they not only nest colonially, but will associate with other seabird species while feeding. It has been noted that when they arrive to a colonial nest-site for the very first time, they always do so under cover of darkness.
While on the topic of darkness, there is a bird that nests on these islands but only visits its offspring at night. Audubon’s Shearwaters do sometimes nest in crevices like Bridled Terns, but they also nest under dense vegetation or even in an underground burrow.
The breeding habits of all these birds make one point abundantly clear – populations are extremely susceptible to human interference. They are at their most vulnerable while they are raising their young – as are the chicks themselves – an activity that takes place at ground level. The reason these seabirds choose offshore islands to lay their eggs is simple: no terrestrial predators. This is why responsible human behaviour is mandatory at these special sites around the world in order to ensure their survival. A single cat or rat that makes it onto any of these islands can have disastrous consequences.
Sooty Tern jostling for space among the Laughing Gulls on Little Tobago
These birds endure untold hardships on a day to day basis: Sooty Terns rely on ocean predators to force small fish to the surface, Bridled Terns must find and follow the boundaries between ocean currents in order to eat. It isn’t easy to be covered in feathers that must be kept dry while your food is underwater!
The waters off of Tobago must, in no uncertain terms, be kept rich in order to continue to provide food for the next generation of graceful seabirds. And we have discussed here only half the recorded species that can be seen with relative ease at the correct time of year. Between April and August, you have a good chance of getting great views of these species.
If you want to visit these bird sanctuaries, be sure to go with a knowledgeable guide: Zolani Frank of Frank’s Tours is both expert boatman and birder, two necessary skills for an unforgettable experience.
Audubon shearwater chick in a nest burrow on Little Tobago. All photos by Faraaz Abdool

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Migrating to solar energy in Tobago

Ruben Smith of SM Solar, continues his discussion about how the villages of tiny Tobago could set solar power in motion, by asserting characteristic solidarity and co-operative approaches. TTEC has the power to facilitate the process while helping itself to new future business.

 “The only true and sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity.”

Why should Tobago turn on solar power? Because it can, and if it did, would be in the vanguard of sustainable small islands.

If we were to look at how a small Tobago village, say a Castara or a Charlotteville or even a Cove Estate, would migrate to using solar power, it might be less difficult to envisage an empowered future. One of the keys to optimum benefit from an alternative energy source (such as solar or wind) is the co-operative. Villages and residential developments able to foster a strong and effective community ethos are the most likely to succeed. Some of the newest residential developments, industrial estates and mall complexes are excellent candidates for solar power.

Any existing cooperative such as the Castara Tourism Development Association or Charlotteville Estates with a membership structure could negotiate and secure financial arrangements on behalf of members; in this case, with TTEC and financial institutions such as banks, mortgage or lending agencies.

Public sites like the museum at Fort King George are eligible candidates for sustainable energy installation.
The relationship with TTEC is based on the fact that they have created the grid. We are fortunate indeed in the distribution system that has been installed over most of the country; and which will facilitate the next step towards the use of renewable energy. TTEC must approve designs and the installation of equipment for the distribution of any energy supply in our country. Most TTEC meters are bi-directional, so it should be simple to develop a net metering system. There is nothing to stand in the way of negotiating with the utility towards use of an alternate supply, like solar.

An important step would be financing of the system from traditional sources such as banks, mortgage companies, credit unions; or even non-traditional sources, say a green fund or small grant provider. At this time, the financial industry needs to be educated and open to the possibility of new business. A solar system is a fixed asset. It may be considered a home improvement project, but it is in effect a long-term investment. Most solar panels have 25-year warranties; so you are looking at plans that may be structured along the lines of a mortgage.  It would be interesting to see which local bank is first to take up the challenge to finance solar systems.

Improvements in technology for solar panels and the “balance of system” (kiosks, circuitry and storage batteries) have resulted in sturdier and smaller storage systems; automated to respond to fluctuations or intermittencies in sunlight. They can be monitored and controlled remotely and wirelessly, from your phone or computer. When such a system is installed, members of the community need to become educated, empowered in their own interest.

Servicing the loan, maintenance and operation of a solar system are jobs that belong within the community/ co-operative. The system can be expanded to new houses or buildings for new members of the village. The co-op can sell electricity and find ways to ensure the sustainability and expandability of the system. Of course, individual householders can choose to install solar systems for their own use. However, the advantages of a co-operative approach are many and should be obvious: collecting the sunlight, sharing the risk and responsibility and reducing upfront cost to the users.

Advances in solar systems are happening so quickly now that it is estimated that by 2019, the tariff of electricity generated from this would be close to TTEC’s current domestic rate. Saule Technology in Poland is currently working on technology that offers solar foil that can be applied like contact film, ultra-thin, flexible, efficient and will adhere to almost any surface. The advantages are obvious for old or existing structures.

The Eco-Industrial Development Company of Tobago (E-IDCOT) at Cove Estate could easily aim to generate 50% of its energy needs from the sun over the next two years, thereby reducing electricity from natural gas.

Tobago, in effect, might be the place where TTEC could introduce and promote alternative energy generation and supply, creating a model for its sustainable business of the future.

Scientists around the world agree that renewable energy sources can result in a cleaner world. “The International Solar Energy Society (ISES) envisions a world with 100% renewable energy for everyone used wisely and efficiently.” ISES has been in existence since 1954. Solar Energy International (SEI) was established in 1991 to educate and empower technicians in the development and installation of renewable energy sources. The University of Trinidad and Tobago with the support of SEI and the ISES regional representative is currently developing courses for the general public in photovoltaic installation with the participation of the government agencies. It remains for the energy sector companies in our country to expand the definitions of their businesses. 

Ruben Smith advocates alternative energy sources for sustainability.