Expedition to Galapagos

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Carole's Q&A
With Answers to Frequently Asked Questions:


1) How did you become interested in marine biology?

2) Where did you study to be a marine biologist?

3) When was the Galápagos film made, and how long did it take to make?

4) How did El Niño affect the Galápagos Islands?

5) What are some of the challenges involved in making a 3-D IMAX film in a remote location such as the Galápagos?

6) Where did you live while in Galápagos making the film?

7) What was your favorite animal in Galápagos?

8) Charles Darwin's theory on the origin of new species by natural selection was based on the uniqueness of terrestrial animals in Galápagos, especially finches. Are the marine organisms unusual too?

9) How does scuba diving in Galápagos compare with other places you've been diving? Where else have you studied marine life underwater?

10) Weren't you afraid of being so close to so many hammerhead sharks in Galápagos?

11) What was with those moray eels?!

12) What does a marine biologist do?

13) Why should anyone except systematists care about documenting the diversity of life forms on Earth?

14) Why has so little of the earth's oceans been explored?

15) What was it like in the submersible?

16) Why did you suck the animals up off the bottom instead of leaving them alone?

17) How did the animals survive the trip to the surface through great pressure changes?

18) Do you think the Galápagos Islands are in danger because of the increase in tourism?

19.) In your mind, what makes the Galápagos Islands so unique?

20) In your mind, what makes the Galápagos Islands so unique?The film is dedicated to the memory of Bill Raisner and Noel Archambault. Who were they?


1.) How did you become interested in marine biology?

I grew up in coastal South Carolina where I developed a great fondness for the ocean. When I was entering my junior year of high school, my family moved away from the coast, to southwest Virginia, and my twin sister and I became focused on sports, which I thought over time I'd figure out how to make a career of! But when I got to college (James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA), an enthusiastic biology teacher reawakened my interest in the natural world. Once I realized that it was biology I wanted to major in, I toyed with the idea of pursing a career in medicine, but then I think my childhood experiences on the shore came into play, and I knew very clearly that marine biology was what I wanted to pursue.

2.) Where did you study to be a marine biologist?

After completing a B.S. degree in biology at James Madison University, I received a Master of Science degree in marine biology at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) in 1986 and a Ph.D. in marine science at the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, VA) in 1992. I came to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History immediately upon completing my doctoral work in October of 1992.

3.) When was the Galápagos film made, and how long did it take to make?

We spent 14 weeks in the Galápagos Islands making the film, June and July of 1998, and most of February and March of 1999. The return trip (1999) was necessary because during the summer of 1998, El Niño was taking a heavy toll on the islands, and many things the producers wanted to film simply weren't there.

4.) How did El Niño affect the Galápagos Islands?

Both positively and negatively. Because El Niño is accompanied by heavy rainfall in Galápagos, the land plants flourished, and, likewise, birds and other animals that rely on plants or seeds for food thrived. The effects on the marine realm, however, were devastating. The upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that typically bathes the islands and provides the basis of a food chain that supports an incredible amount of marine life was suppressed during El Niño, and a mass of warm water moved into the islands from the west. The result was a disruption of the entire food chain, and in the summer of 1998, we saw many examples of dead or dying marine iguanas, fishes, sea lions, sea birds, etc. When we returned to Galápagos in February of 1999, the islands were experiencing one of the driest periods on record (a similar dry spell occurred after the 1982-1983 El Niño event as well). Now the vegetation on land was suffering, which would presumably affect the expanded terrestrial bird populations. But in the ocean, upwelling had resumed, and where in 1998 we had seen no marine algae, now we saw huge beds of healthy algae. The marine iguanas (which feed on the algae) were abundant and fat, colonies of birds were reforming, and fish schools, which probably scattered to deeper waters during El Niño, were present in amazing numbers. As a marine biologist, it was heartening to see the recovery of the marine realm in such a short period.

5.) What are some of the challenges involved in making a 3-D IMAX film in a remote location such as the Galápagos?

The size of the camera system is one of the biggest challenges. The camera weighs about 260 lbs., and because the 3-D technology works best when the camera is moving, minimally a dolly track but usually a giraffe crane was set up at each filming site. All of this equipment together weighs thousands of pounds, and in Galápagos, it had to be hand-carried across rough volcanic terrain and up and down volcanoes, often in 100+ degree temperatures. When the camera is put into its protective underwater housing, the system weighs nearly 2000 lbs.! Deploying and retrieving the camera was tricky, because as soon as the weight of the camera was lifted off the ship (using a davit on the stern built just for this purpose), the camera system would start swinging if there was any rocking motion of the ship from waves. Many days, we sat on the ship unable to film simply because we couldn't get the camera into the water.

Another challenge of filming in 3-D is that the camera only holds about 3 minutes of film at time, and then it takes approximately an hour to re-load. And each 3 minutes of film that runs through the camera (there are two film strips - one for the left eye and one for the right) cost about $4,000! You don't do a lot "takes" in this type of filming...

6.) Where did you live while in Galápagos making the film?

We lived aboard ships most of the time. On the first filming expedition, we lived on a 200 ft. research vessel, the Seward Johnson, from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce, Florida, or on a 70 ft. local Galápagos tourist vessel, the Daphne. The Seward Johnson carries on its stern the research submersible that we used in the film, the Johnson Sea Link. It is a very comfortable, air-conditioned ship, with excellent cooks, a lounge with a VCR and a big library of movies on tape, laboratories, an exercise room, and comfortable living quarters, each with bunk beds and a small bathroom. Small boats from the Seward Johnson would transfer people and equipment to and from shore for filming on land. The scuba diving operations and underwater filming were launched from the Daphne, and because I was involved with filming both on land and underwater, I rotated between the two ships. On the return trip to Galápagos, we worked solely off the Daphne. With about 20 people on board and tons of equipment, it was one crowded ship! But the Ecuadorian crew members were very friendly and helpful and even volunteered to help carry film equipment over the volcanic terrain. The top of the Daphne was an open deck where we hung our laundry and stored gear. I would often go to the top, put on my headphones, put the CD of Lord of the Dance in my disk player, and do aerobics! Imagine dancing and jumping around on the top of a ship in the Galápagos Islands with dolphins jumping around you, blue-footed boobies doing their kamikaze dives into the water, double rainbows stretching across the sky, etc.

At the end of both trips to Galápagos, we filmed on the Island of Santa Cruz and stayed in hotels in the town of Puerto Ayora. Santa Cruz is the only Island in the archipelago that caters to any large extent to tourists, and there you can sample Ecuadorian cuisine, shop for souvenirs, visit the Charles Darwin Research Station, or relax in one of the rustic but very comfortable hotels.

7.) What was your favorite animal in Galápagos?

All of them are captivating, in part because you can get so close to them. The terrestrial animals have evolved in Galápagos in the absence of any naturally occurring large mammals (top predators in most ecosystems), and thus they seem to have little fear of humans. It's very much as though this is their world, and you're the visitor. But I was probably most fascinated with the marine iguanas, the big black lizards that bask on the lava rocks and go into the ocean once a day to feed underwater on marine algae. Charles Darwin called them the "imps of darkness," and they blend in so well with the lava rock that it's difficult to see them unless they move. In some coastal areas, you can encounter thousands of these iguanas basking together. If you approach them cautiously, you can sit right beside them, an effort for which you're rewarded by being bombarded with salt crystals shot out from their nostrils! But this is just how they rid their bodies of excess salt taken in during feeding.

8.) Charles Darwin's theory on the origin of new species by natural selection was based on the uniqueness of terrestrial animals in Galápagos, especially finches. Are the marine organisms unusual too?

Every major group of plants and animals that occurs in Galápagos includes some species that don't occur anywhere else in the world. Scientists call these species endemics. But the percentage of endemic species varies considerably among different groups, in part based on how mobile they are in, on, or over great spans of oceanic water. Thus, in marine fishes, most of which have a pelagic larval (young) stage for dispersal, only about 10-20% of the species that occur in Galápagos are unique. In terrestrial reptiles, however, about 86% of the Galápagos species are endemic. Similarly, approximately 20% of Galápagos sea birds are endemic, whereas 54% of land bird species are unique to the islands.

9.) How does scuba diving in Galápagos compare with other places you've been diving? Where else have you studied marine life underwater?

Scuba diving in Galápagos is an extraordinary experience! But it's not without its challenges. The currents are strong, the water is cold, and a diver may encounter large numbers of large animals in very close range. It's really the last of these that makes diving in Galápagos such a memorable experience. Relative to other tropical areas, the diversity of underwater life in Galápagos is not that high. But the numbers of animals are astounding. And, like the terrestrial animals, the underwater creatures seem to have little fear of divers, possibly because divers in Galápagos are a relatively recent addition to the ecosystem, and divers there aren't allowed to shoot or spear fishes. Large pelagic fishes such as jacks typically stay well away from divers in, for example, the Caribbean, whereas in Galápagos, these fish come so close that you can reach out and touch them. Often, you find yourself encircled by enormous schools of fish. While this can be unnerving depending on what species is encircling you, it is also exhilarating and mesmerizing.

Most of my underwater research has been carried out in the Caribbean, at a Smithsonian research facility at Carrie Bow Cay in Belize, Central America. The station is operated by the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. I first learned to dive in Charleston, SC, and I've participated in diving expeditions to the South Pacific and in the kelp forests off California.

10.) Weren't you afraid of being so close to so many hammerhead sharks in Galápagos?

I'd never been scuba diving in really "sharky" waters, so I was a bit concerned about this part of the filming. At times, there were as many as a hundred hammerheads around me, and some were probably 400-500 lbs. One shark came within about two feet of me before turning away. That was a scary moment on the one hand; on the other, I got the most incredible view of the hammerhead's head! You'd think a large rectangular head would make it difficult for a shark to glide through the water, but when you look at the animal head on (like I did!), you see that the head tapers to a thin edge in front. So, water isn't blocked by the head but instead flows up and over it easily. Hydrodynamically, the design works well. Also, we know that hammerheads have sensors on the underside of the head with which they can detect electromagnetic signals. This is how they locate their prey, since all living things emit weak electric signals. The advantage of the hammerhead's head is that the larger the head, the more sensors it can hold. I never saw the hammerheads feeding in shallow waters where we were diving. They apparently feed in deeper waters, and they may be entering shallow waters to be "cleaned." I observed small king angelfish "cleaning" the hammerheads by picking things, presumably parasites or other epifauna, off the sharks. This "cleaning" behavior occurs in numerous fish groups (e.g., gobies clean groupers) as well as in birds (egrets clean cattle, and I saw one of Darwin's finch species cleaning a marine iguana), and animals that are being cleaned assume a less threatening, more docile behavior. After a few dives with the hammerheads, I became quite comfortable in their presence. You can't help but be impressed with their size and power!

11.) What was with those moray eels?!

My encounters with the large, fine-spotted moray eels were probably more nerve-wracking than those with the sharks. Moray eels are typically very reclusive fishes in that they hide in caves and crevices in reefs or rocks and only dart out occasionally for food. In Galápagos, these eels were swimming around in the open, and, as is shown in the film, they would come right at me, more often than not towards my face. Perhaps they were attracted to the hand-light I held, or perhaps to the bubbles escaping from my regulator. Once, when I had my head close to the ocean floor trying to collect a little fish hiding in a sea urchin test, I looked up and found that I was face-to-face with a huge moray eel! They perhaps look more menacing than they are, because they have strong jaws, sharp teeth, and they're constantly opening and closing the mouth as a means of forcing water in and over the gills. Also, their long snake-like but very thick bodies are constantly undulating, and perhaps it's our innate fear of snakes that makes us feel afraid in the presence of these eels. However, divers have been bitten by morays before - usually when they stick their hands in caves or crevices in reefs searching for spiny lobster or other secretive animals. Bites are apparently extremely painful. Fortunately, I don't have any first-hand experiences with this to report!

12.) What does a marine biologist do?

A marine biologist studies life in the marine environment, i.e., along coastal areas, in estuaries, and in the open ocean. Because there are many different types of life in the ocean, a marine biologist typically specializes in one or more groups of plants and animals. My specialty is fish, and thus I am an ichthyologist (ichthyology is the study of fishes). Even within ichthyology, there are many different types of studies (ecology, fisheries biology, physiology, etc.), and technically, I'm a systematic ichthyologist, systematics being the study of diversity (different kinds) of life forms and how organisms are related to one other genealogically. My particular areas of research interest are tropical reef environments and the deep sea. I try to document what species occur in a given place, and describe and name new species that haven't previously been discovered.

Then, by figuring out how various species are related to one another, I can create what are known as phylogenetic trees or cladograms. These are much like human family trees in that they're based on ancestry, but instead of individuals, I deal with species or higher taxa (such as genera, families, etc.). From the trees, I can make hypotheses about the history of a particular group, e.g., did a species of fish in Galápagos evolve from one that arrived from Panama or from the western Pacific? Did deepwater fishes evolve from shallow-water fishes, or vice versa? Do fish that have leg-like appendages, such as the batfish and goosefish that are shown in the film, have them because they evolved from the same ancestral species or did they acquire them independently as similar adaptations to a similar environment?

Unfortunately, many questions about the evolutionary history of marine life cannot be answered at present because our trees of species are incomplete. Imagine your own family tree: if half of the individuals are missing, what kind of picture about your family history are you really getting? We don't know how many marine species we haven't discovered yet, but probably more than we already have discovered. On the Galápagos expedition, we used the submersible on 15 days, and it looks as though we have about 15 new species from those dives (see Scientific Significance of Galápagos Expeditions). So, that's a new species every day we took the sub into deep water! And it's indicative of just how little we know about our oceans. About 70% of Earth is ocean, and the average depth is about 12,000 ft. And we know that life occurs from the surface down to the deepest trenches. Without a doubt, the deep ocean is the largest uncharted territory on Earth.

13.) Why should anyone except systematists care about documenting the diversity of life forms on Earth?

In part because humans are, by nature, curious animals! And it's clear from the success of natural history shows on television and films such as Galapagos that people are curious about the life forms with which we share our planet. Life comes in so many different interesting, beautiful, ugly, bizarre, or cute forms that we're overwhelmed but at the same time want to know "what else is out there?" It would be unfortunate if future biologists and paleontologists had to try to understand what lived on Planet Earth in 2000 from fossils. Since we now have the technology to explore all corners of the earth, we need to focus on finding people, time, and funds to get out there and just do it! Exploring the diversity of life on Earth may also lead to the discovery of new food resources or medicines. And to best decide where our conservation efforts should be focused, we need to know what lives where.

14.) Why has so little of the earth's oceans been explored?

Technology for studying underwater life hasn't always been available, so marine biologists are now playing "catch up" to the terrestrial biologists. Even so, scuba gear and submersibles have been around for enough decades that one might expect we'd know more about the ocean than we do. In fact, in The Universe Below, a book written by a science writer for the New York Times, William Broad, it was estimated that humans may actually have only seen one/millionth of the ocean! I'm sure that one reason so little of the deep ocean has been explored is that, relative to putting on scuba gear and diving into the water with a hand-net, submersibles are expensive. The Seward Johnson and Johnson Sea Link submersible cost about $14,000 per day. This may seem like an extraordinary cost, but relative to, for example, the cost of a mission to the moon, it's not much at all. But funds for exploration of the oceans have been limited. I believe that part of the problem is the lack of information the public receives about the deep ocean. We can look up into the sky every day and night and see stars, the moon, other planets. We see depth, and we see change. But what the average citizen sees of the ocean are the margins (the coasts, beaches, etc.) and the surface. I doubt most people even realize that earth is about 70% ocean and the average depth is about 12,000 ft. In the Galápagos, we went to 3000 ft. in the sub, so we didn't even make it halfway down to the average depth! One important message that I hope audiences take away from the film is the reality that the largest domain of our planet is full of life that we haven't even begun to explore.

15.) What was it like in the submersible?

The submersible dives were unquestionably the most adventurous thing I've ever done. In fact, it was the chance to make some dives in a submersible that enticed me to be part of the Galapagos film project. I had studied deep-sea fishes for many years based on preserved, museum material - which is fantastic, and our collections of preserved organisms here at the Natural History Museum are unparalleled - but still, I'd never had the chance to see any of these animals alive and in their natural habitat. So, into the sub I went! The Johnson Sea Link Submersible (JSL) holds four people, the pilot and a scientist in the front "bubble" compartment, and another sub staff member and a scientist in a rear chamber that you don't see in the film. From the front, you have a sweeping view of the underwater world from the acrylic sphere; from the rear, you have only two small portholes from which to look. If you're riding in the back, you enter the sub through a hatch in the bottom of the sub; if you're riding up front, you climb a ladder and climb in from a hatch on top. Once you're in the sub and the hatch doors are closed, the sub is hoisted up and back off the ship and into the water. As soon as the sub hits the water, the sub staff member in the rear uses a flashlight to check the lower hatch door for leaks. When assured there are none, he communicates to the sub pilot in front "We have a seal." The pilot then requests, via radio, permission from the ship's captain to dive, and when received, he flips switches that flood the ballast tanks with water. This makes the sub heavy, and it begins to sink. It takes about 30 minutes to reach 3000 ft., and usually we'd make the descents with all the lights in and outside of the sub turned off. This way, we could enjoy the spectacular light show of bioluminescence, which is so stunning that it's hard to put into words. Imagine a starry sky at night - but much closer - or imagine that it's raining a billion fireflies... When you realize that each speck of light that you see represents a living organism, you are visually confronted with the fact that the deep ocean is teeming with life!

Once on the bottom, we'd begin cruising around in the sub, photographing organisms with the still and video cameras, and collecting specimens. We're looking for creatures that are important to our individual research projects, species that are poorly represented or not represented in our preserved collections in museums, and species that may be new to science (i.e., that haven't been named or described). As is described on this web site under "Scientific Significance of Galápagos Expeditions" we found numerous new species of marine life on the sub dives. After about 2.5-3 hours on the bottom, the radio call from the surface comes all too soon telling us it's time to wrap things up and begin our ascent. It is hard to leave the bottom. The work is so fascinating that the hours seem to fly by in an instant, and you can't believe it's time to leave. But you still have the 30 minutes of upward flight through the mesmerizing luminescent soup, and you are once again awed by this magical journey. Popping up into the bright light of day is like exiting a dream, and you somehow feel different for having traveled into a world that few have ever seen. For a moment, you're not certain to which world you belong. But then it's time to see what you collected! Pulling each bucket off the sub and examining its contents is much like opening Christmas presents - you know what's in some of them, but there are always surprises!

16.) Why did you suck the animals up off the bottom instead of leaving them alone?

First, it is very difficult to determine if a particular organism represents a new species unless you collect and preserve it (first in a formalin solution, then in alcohol) and study it in detail in the lab. In the case of Galápagos marine life, we have to compare specimens collected there to specimens of previously described species from many other geographical areas. This is because the Galápagos Islands are influenced by several major currents coming from different directions (e.g., northeast, west, southeast), and all of these currents can carry organisms from far-away places to the Galápagos. Only by comparing what we find in Galápagos to species from the coasts of Central and South America, other eastern Pacific oceanic islands (e.g., Cocos, Malpelo), and species from the western Pacific can we be sure that we've discovered something new. For fishes, detailed examinations often involve making x-rays of the fish (to study internal bony structures), and using a microscope to make counts of scales and fin rays, observe patterns of teeth in the jaws, and study other details of the anatomy. Secondly, by collecting representatives of species and placing them in a permanent archived (i.e., cataloged, as books are cataloged in a library) collection, such as the Fish Collection here at the National Museum of Natural History, we have a record of the existence of species, even if they were to go extinct. Preserved museum specimens also have many other uses, including serving as a valuable source of educational material for exhibit and display by scientists in educational endeavors.

17.) How did the animals survive the trip to the surface through great pressure changes?

Unlike most shallow-water fishes, most deep-sea fishes lack a swim bladder, which is a gas-filled organ that helps shallow-water fishes control buoyancy. Deep-sea fishes solve the buoyancy problem by having a reduced skeleton and/or less dense musculature. The swim bladder is what causes problems when trying to bring fishes up to the surface, because the gas inside expands under decreasing ambient pressure (the pressure in the ocean increases 1 atmosphere for every 10 m [ca. 30 feet] of depth), and the fish can literally explode. In Galápagos, we had better luck bringing up a fish from 3000 ft. that lacks a swim bladder than one from 300 ft. that has a swim bladder We kept the fishes in a chilled (but not pressurized) aquarium, and most lived several days.

18.) Do you think the Galápagos Islands are in danger because of the increase in tourism?

Certainly the islands have been impacted by man's presence, most detrimentally from the non-native species of plants and animals that man has introduced (e.g., goats, cats, rats, quinine plants, etc.). Introduced species compete with native species for food and space, and if the introduced species are better competitors, the native species may suffer. Some tortoises, native rats, and many plants have become extinct or endangered because of introduced species. (Darwin's "survival of the fittest," but not a fair game when man's activities bring together species that otherwise may never have competed.) Having said that, I would compliment Ecuador for steps they have taken to preserve the islands. There is a long list of rules that visitors must follow when visiting the islands, and naturalist guides from the Park Service accompany tourists on their journeys around the archipelago to ensure that the rules are followed. And many islands are completely off limits to tourists. It is desirable for people to visit Galápagos, both because it helps the Ecuadorian economy and because tourists hopefully leave the islands with a new or renewed sense of the wonders of nature and the fragility of certain ecosystems. My biggest concern regarding the archipelago is the marine realm. On our trips there, we saw many examples of illegal fishing activities and a few oil slicks from tourist vessels. It is difficult physically to police the entire marine environment of Galápagos because there is so much of it, and maintaining a large enough staff to police the entire archipelago would be expensive, likely more expensive than the Park Service can now afford.

19.) In your mind, what makes the Galápagos Islands so unique?

It is definitely a combination of features that makes them so special. They are volcanic in origin, and because the islands have formed while a plate of the earth's crust moves roughly eastward over a hotspot in the earth's mantel, the westernmost of the islands are the youngest, and some volcanoes on those islands are still active. In fact, the Cerro Azul volcano on Isabela Island erupted in September, 1998, about a month after we left Galápagos after the first filming expedition. The islands also are geologically very young, and of course they're well isolated from the mainland of South America. They're also unique in that they're located on the equator, yet the water surrounding the islands is cold. And the currents are strong and come from many directions, bringing both tropical and cold-water species to the islands. So, you have young, volcanic, isolated islands that are home to numerous species that occur nowhere else in the world, and the animals there are tame. It's a fascinating combination of characteristics!

20.) The film is dedicated to the memory of Bill Raisner and Noel Archambault. Who were they?

Bill was an ultralight pilot hired to do the aerial photography for the film. He'd worked with producers Dave Clark and Al Giddings previously in Galápagos for a Discovery Channel program about the islands. Bill, originally from North Carolina but living in Colorado with his wife, Deb, was passionate about flying ultralight aircraft. He arrived in Galápagos about 2 weeks into our first expedition, and he and his assistant unloaded pieces of the plane equipment from a box on board the Seward Johnson and put the plane together on deck. Noel Archambault was an IMAX stereographer from Vancouver and was a pioneer in the new IMAX 3-D technology. He was very highly respected in the large-format film industry, and he was a gentle leader of those who worked with him on the Galápagos project. Noel flew with Bill in the ultralight, Bill as pilot, Noel as camera operator. After making several successful flights over a couple days in which they filmed some coastal areas of Galápagos and got some beautiful shots of the Seward Johnson at sunset, they took off early one morning to film the crater of the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island. The back-up filming location for them was the volcano to the west of Sierra Negra, Cerro Azul. Bill and Noel never returned. The ultralight crashed near the top of Cerro Azul, and Bill and Noel were killed.

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