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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#538: Marquee Species and the "Commoners"

After 60 dives in 17 days with the water temperature in the mid-80s, I have yet to dive the cooler waters of the kelp forest since my return from the Philippines. I'm hoping my body forgets the comfort of those dives and keeps an open "mind" to the reality of diving here. Brrr. Therefore I have nothing new to report on sightings off Catalina. Guess my readers will just have to relive my exploits in the Golden Triangle for a few more weeks... maybe months... while I wait for our water to warm up and my body to re-acclimate!

Many of the divers who go to Anilao in the Philippines are focused on what I would refer to as marquee species, one that has strong attraction for the public. Here on Catalina we might consider the island fox or bald eagle in that category. Hardly anyone focuses their attention on the native earthworms, mice or even the plants which may have greater impact on the functions of the island's ecosystems. Note I left out the bison despite its strong attraction for residents and visitors alike because it is not a native species.

In Anilao one of the primary groups of marquee species are the colorful nudibranchs and it is sometimes referred to as the nudibranch capitol of the world. Now these shell-less snails are indeed very attractive both to look at and to take images of. My friend Kevin Lee has created an entire gallery of beautiful photos of them. I can easily understand the draw these gastropods have for the photographer. Here in Catalina waters I'm lucky to see even a dozen different species unless I dive in the colder waters below recreational depths. My friend Scott Gietler photographed 100 species in about two weeks of diving in Anilao and there are reported to be as many as 600 species there.

Unfortunately the good "Doc" doesn't have the equipment to image these beauties as well as many of the still photographers I dove with at Club Ocellaris. High definition video with its mere resolution of just two megapixels doesn't have the ability to capture the fine detail seen in much larger resolution still images. The big advantage I have is that video illustrates behavior and is more useful in educational applications.

The great dive guides at Club Ocellaris are used to pointed out the beautiful nudibranchs and other unique and photogenic critters to their clients. I think Ben Castillo, our excellent dive guide at Club O, was surprised to see me filming much more mundane critters like the hard and soft corals, starfish and sea urchins rather than the marquee species most sought. At times I think he just shook his head and moved on as I stuck with a very common gorgonian (soft coral).

As an ecologist, my goal when diving new waters is the same as that when I'm diving the kelp forests I've frequented for nearly 45 years now. I want to get a representative sampling of all the important species in the ecosystem and try to figure out how they function and interact in the new (to me) environment. It is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. Every time I dive and film, I'm trying to reconstruct what is really going on in the waters. Who eats who? Which species interact with each other in more benign ways? How does matter (often in the form of food and feces) and energy flow in the food webs? This is what we systems scientists focus on.

To understand the marine world requires me to look at the common species as well as the unique or rare ones. Often by sheer preponderance of numbers these common species effect a much greater influence on the functioning of an ecosystem. When I film them, it is important to spend time observing to see what they feed on... and what munches on them. After all, it is the Mutual Eating Society that I want to study. Of course in addition to munching, I like to focus on mating as well since, as I've said countless times in my columns, these are the two primary activities of any species (besides "breathing" which in general is a pretty boring behavior to film).

So, yes... I enjoy seeing the marquee species in a region. I marvel at the beauty and detail that many of my still photographer friends capture in their images. My video footage rarely can compete with what they record. But I'm equally or more interested in observing and filming a common coral species that many of the still imagers pass right by. After all, the tropics are where coral is king. They don't call them "nudibranch reefs." It would be like a photographer visiting our kelp forests and taking pictures of everything but the giant kelp! But I will happily rest on the bottom and film a flamboyant cuttlefish as well. I just wish I'd been able to "capture" what in my experience is the rarest of the amphibious creatures in the sea... the bikini-clad "cuddle" fish. Sigh.

© 2013 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. You can also watch these episodes in iPod format on YouTube through my channel there (drbillbushing). Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The lovely nudis of the Philippines and the far more common hard and soft corals.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2013 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia