Sylvia Earle

“Everyone should be literate about the ocean. No child should be left dry!”
–Dr. Sylvia Earle

Today, I want to introduce you to “Her Deepness,” Dr. Sylvia Earle.

In 1935, Sylvia Earle was born in New Jersey, United States. At the age of 13, she and her family moved to Clearwater, Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. Being so close to the ocean, Sylvia heard her life’s calling and soon began learning all she could about the ocean and its creatures.

Sylvia worked her way through college, laboring in college labs to help pay for her schooling. At the University of Florida, she studied oceanography and biology. She went on to study at Duke University, earning her master’s degree and eventually her PhD in phycology (the study of algae) and she has made it one of her life’s projects to catalogue all plant-life in the Gulf of Mexico.

But she didn’t stop there.

She has worked aboard more than 50 oceanic expeditions and clocked more than 7,000 hours underwater—that’s more than 291 days. In 1970, she led an all-female expedition called Tektite II, Mission 6. Sylvia and four women dived 50 feet below the surface of the ocean and lived underwater in a small structure for two weeks. When they resurfaced, Sylvia Earle became a celebrity outside of the science community, and everyone wanted her as a speaker. Since then, she has used her fame and her voice to be a leading advocate for the ocean.

In 1979, Sylvia Earle set a new record off the island of Oahu for deep sea diving. In a submersible, she traveled down to a depth of 1,250 feet. While using a special pressurized suit, she walked along the ocean floor untethered for two and a half hours. As she explored these previously unknown depths, her only connection to the vessel was a communication line; nothing connected her to the world above. Her record still stands today.

Sylvia Earle started two engineering companies, Deep Sea Engineering and Deep Sea Technologies, which design undersea vehicles to help scientists explore the deep reaches of the ocean. She served as the first female Chief Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She is also the founder of Mission Blue, an organization that is dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans.

Mission Blue’s mission is to help establish “Hope Spots” around the world. Hope Spots are areas that are deemed vital to the health of the ocean by providing essential services, areas like coral reefs and seagrass beds. Mission Blue sends out researchers to explore new areas and to gather data that proves the locations’ importance to the ocean, and thereby to us. With the data, Mission Blue tries to convince governments to establish these Hope Spots, or marine protected areas.

Dr. Sylvia Earle is truly an inspiration, a woman I strive to become. I highly recommend looking into her life’s story, at least her career. She has published some books over the years that I would love to read, including her 1979 deep sea adventure! She’s also one of the speakers in the videos on NeMO-Net, the coral-identifying game created by NASA.
Sources:
https://achievement.org/achiever/sylvia-earle/ ⇐very in-depth article into her life and research
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/real-world-geography-sylvia-earle/
https://www.ted.com/speakers/sylvia_earle ⇐if you want to see her TED speech
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sylvia-Earle
https://mission-blue.org/ ⇐if you want to check out Mission Blue and Hope Spots

Alexandrium monilatum

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Prostita
Phylum: Dinophyta
Class: Dinophyceae
Order: Gonyaulacales
Genus: Alexandrium
Species: monilatum

After spending some time talking about the horrors of invasive species, let me throw you a curve ball. We should all agree that invasive/nonnative species are harmful to us and the environments that they infiltrate. However, not all native species are good for their environment either.

How can organisms that are part of the natural balance of their environment be bad for it?

The simplest explanation I can give is this example. Our bodies need potassium to function properly, which we get from food like bananas. If our bodies don’t have enough potassium, then our muscles cramp and we can become stiff and sore. If we consume too much potassium, then it can poison and even kill us. Don’t worry, though; you would have to consume a truck load of bananas in a single day for that to happen.

Like our own bodies, environments need everything in moderation.

Alexandrium monilatum is a single-celled dinoflagellate found in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, parts of the Pacific Ocean, and the Chesapeake Bay. It is a special kind of bioluminescent algae; when agitated, the organism produces its own light in the form of a soft blue glow.

This dinoflagellate can reproduce sexually and asexually, meaning it can use its own genetic material to make copies of itself without the use of other individuals. It can also produce chains of individuals, ranging from 2 to 80 A. monilatum per strand.

A. monilatum uses photosynthesis to create its own food, making it a phototroph. It is preyed upon by small fish and filter feeders, making it part of the base of the food chain. So how can this armored alga be a bad thing? It sounds so productive, and it even glows blue at night when waves stirs the water!

The problem with A. monilatum is that it is considered a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) species. When conditions are right, this species will reproduce faster than it can be consumed by its predators, causing an algal bloom in the water. Blooms are large patches of algae that are seen by the naked eye, meaning there are millions of individuals concentrated in a single area.

Blooms are considered a problem because the water contains a finite amount of nutrients available to the algae. Once the supply runs out, it’ll take time to replace those needed nutrients. So these blooms are extremely productive for a short time, before the algae run out of food and die. When they die, they start to decompose. The process of decomposition takes up a lot of oxygen, and without the photosynthesizers there to replace the oxygen being used, the water becomes hypoxic—or worse, anoxic.

Once the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is depleted, the area becomes a dead zone, and all the fish and other marine organisms either leave or suffocate in the water. Dead zones aren’t always permanent; however, they are still an inconvenience to the marine life and to us and should be prevented at all cost.

It is not my purpose to make Alexandrium monilatum out to be a bad guy, just to show that even native species can harm their environment under certain conditions. Algal blooms, or red tides, can be caused by a steep increase in important nutrients found in fertilizers, which enter the water as run-off from nearby farms, gardens, and agricultural facilities. A boom in available food causes a boom in creatures that depend on it, and that’s true no matter the species.

Bioluminescent algae are fascinating. I was lucky enough to swim at night in a lake full of a species of bioluminescent algae, though I’m uncertain what species it was. It was a magical experience that I will never forget, so I was excited to talk about A. monilatum and to discuss the importance of balance within an ecosystem.

Sources and more info:
https://naturalhistory2.si.edu/smsfp/IRLSpec/Alexan_monila.htm
https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/alexandrium_monilatum
https://www.vims.edu/bayinfo/habs/guide/alexandrium.php
https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/environmental-epidemiology/harmful-algal-blooms-habs/alexandrium-monilatum-hab-in-lower-york-lower-james-rivers-and-chesapeake-bay/frequently-asked-questions-faqs-alexandrium-monilatum/

Mermaid’s Wineglass

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Chlorophyta
Class: Dasycladophyceae
Genus: Acetabularia
Species: Acetabularia acetabulum

Have you ever wondered what kind of glasses Atlanteans drank their wine from? I mean, they were Greek, so they had to love wine. Am I right, Dionysus? Would you say that they’d drink from a Mermaid’s Wineglass?

I know, I know that was a terrible lead in but for some reason I couldn’t resist!

No, Atlanteans would not have drunk wine out of Acetabularia acetabulum (Mermaid’s Wineglass) because the whole species is a little over an inch tall. Though if they could have, that would be the ultimate recyclable glassware—or would that be grassware?

Okay, seriously, I’ll stop.

Mermaid’s wineglass is not a grass, it’s a species of algae that can be found in the Mediterranean, Red Sea, in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Africa, and in the Indian Ocean. Their preferred habitat is around shallow subtidal rocks submerged in water that’s about 50−77°F, so you can spot them if you’re off diving in the Mediterranean Sea.

The Mermaid’s wineglass is aptly named because it’s shaped like a crude wine glass. The stem on the wineglass appears white, kept standing by the encrusting calcium carbonate on the outside, and a small cup like structure sits at the top. This single-celled alga reproduces by creating cysts in the cup. Once the individual dies and everything else decays, the cysts are released into the water to find a nice, dark place to sit for a bit. After napping for a time, they begin to germinate and grow more wineglasses.

I couldn’t find much more information on this species. I mistook it for a different alga that I came across while diving in Jamaica for one of my college courses. The alga I was thinking of is actually called Mermaid’s Tea Cup, which I’ll talk about in a future post.

There is more than one style of wineglass in the Mermaid line, and you can get it in white or green!

In the Atlantic around Florida and the Caribbean, there are two species of Mermaid Wineglasses. Honestly, they look very similar to me but are different for sure on the genetic level. There’s the White Mermaid’s Wineglass (Acetabularia crenulata) and the Green Mermaid’s Wineglass (Acetabularia caliculus) both of which have the same general shape as Acetabularia acetabulum but have different colors. A.caliculus is greener than A. acetabulum.

Sources:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
Reef Coral Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas 3rd edition by Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach

Sponges pt.1

A yellow tube sponge (Aplysina fistularis) growing on a Caribbean coral reef. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard. More can be found at www.amustard.com

“Oooooooooooh! Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS!”

Actually, pineapples are terrible places for sponges to live. If SpongeBob wanted the best place to survive and be successful, he would have lived on top of Patrick’s rock. I know, I know, it’s a show for kids and therefore isn’t accurate, but what better way to introduce the topic than with a relevant pop culture reference?

I just have to say that sponges are weird.

Like coral, they were first thought to be plants, which to be fair is quite understandable. Sponges don’t possess appendages, eyes, noticeable mouths, or reproductive parts, so if I had come across my first sponge without knowing its biology, I would have thought it was a plant too.

Sponges are the simplest multi-cellular creatures of the animal kingdom, and they’re so cool that they have their very own phylum, Porifera. In fact, sponges are so unique that they have no other close relatives.

Like other marine invertebrates, such as coral, barnacles, and oysters, sponges will permanently attach themselves to hard surfaces like rocks or shipwrecks. Some species of sponge will even burrow themselves into whatever substrate they want to call home. Once they’ve attached, there’s no second guessing, so hopefully they picked a good spot!

Unlike coral, sponges are a bit hardier and have fewer requirements to be successful. Sponges can live in a variety of different places that vary in temperature, salinity, and depth. About 2% of sponges can live in freshwater!

Sponges can be found almost everywhere: on rocks, shipwrecks, and coral reefs; they can be found in the tropics and higher attitudes, though a good portion of them live in Antarctic waters. Unlike coral, sunlight is a limiter for sponges. Too much sunlight exposure can be harmful for sponges, so they tend to prefer caves, crevices, and other places that don’t get a lot of direct sunlight.

However, there are a lot of sponges that live in areas with a few feet or less of water above them and in direct sunlight. These sponge species possess a special relationship with a species of algae that will dwell in the sponge. The sponge protects the algae from herbivores while the algae secretes pigments in the outer most layer of the sponge. These pigments act like sunscreen, thereby helping to protect the sponge from the sun.

Like most animals, a good place for a sponge to live will have a steady supply of food. Areas with strong tidal currents can support large sponge populations because all that water movement brings in extra food. Like whale sharks, sponges are filter-feeders, but how they feed is a bit more complicated. I will therefore have a whole post dedicated to how sponges eat!

For being the simplest multi-cellular animals you can find, sponges can be very complicated. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what make sponges unique and what they can do for their environments. But like all things, it wouldn’t be fun or interesting if it were easy!

Sources and fun links for those who want to dive right in to sponges:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.britannica.com/animal/sponge-animal#ref32631
http://www.oceanicresearch.org/education/wonders/sponges.html
http://tolweb.org/treehouses/?treehouse_id=4291
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/sponge.html