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Marine Life & Conservation

Is it anenome or anemone?



Plenty of tongue-twisting words for underwater creatures exist.  Somehow mine for most of my life was simply anemone.  Even as I write this, spell correct just corrected the word anemone.  For me, it remains a conscious effort to say or write this word correctly.  Eventually I realized my mistake but it was only after moving to Norway and while I was learning Norwegian.  I am not exactly sure why I would have ever used the word before I started to scuba dive.  Anemones were not necessarily in my conscience prior to diving, and it was in a pre-Finding Nemo era.   Even then instead of calling him an anemonefish, most people just call him a clownfish, which he is also.

Anemone, however, is not the kind of word that comes up in casual conversation, nor are you going to learn it in language class, not ever.  When you are trying to learn a new language, you will read anything to become proficient (even advertisements are suddenly interesting) but luckily, a Norwegian diving magazine exists.  One of the ways that I would work on trying to learn Norwegian was to read the magazine.  Honestly, I learned some useful words from “Dykking” and among them was anemone.  It was then that I finally learned how to really say the word in English (which is easier to pronounce in Norwegian because of the syllable accent), and if you look at the name Nemo it is in fact a part of the right way to say the word.  In my dictionary it would have been Neno, which of course makes no sense at all.

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I really do not know how my obsession with anemones developed.  I suppose they are easy targets for photography because you can readily identify them on your own as a new diver.  And because of the anemonefish, although it is nearly impossible to take the fish photos as they constantly move.  I like the fish, but I am more enamored of the anemone.  Any kind of anemone.  I will spot anemonefish hanging midwater and feel compelled to see the anemone over which they play.  It must be entirely annoying to the dive guides who are working feverishly to find rare, micro-macroscopic creatures to show me.   At the same time, I am easy to please.  I am probably the only person who has ever shouted anemonefish (rather than whaleshark or manta) at the end of a dive on approach to the liveaboard boat.

Anyone who knows me, knows of my obsession.  “Always looking at anemones,” a guide once said to me.  But even he admitted that they are beautiful.  I am constantly taking photos of them, and yet dive guides will still humor me by pointing out even more.  Sometimes there are some simple scientific principles that I do like to test on them – for example, that color diminishes with depth-because anemones exhibit such natural variation in it.  The strobe will change this depth effect, but by the time I reach the surface, I have often forgotten what their color was at depth!  You can also test your skills at taking dramatic, abstract shots by photographing the mouth because of shadows and variation in color.   Many of these photos end up not so innocent looking though, like a giant Georgia O’Keefe painting of a flower.

The underside scientifically referred to as the column (skirt in common use) of the anemone can be the biggest photographic surprise of all.  Textures are fascinating, and colors defy your imagination.  Sometimes they are even polka-dotted.  Other times the column is wildly uncoordinated with the color of the tentacles.  Purple column, red tentacles; yes, I saw this combination in Panglao Beach in the Philippines.  How does this color combination evolve and who is this anemone trying to attract or distract?

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But what do I really know about anemones?  Not a whole lot apparently.  I only recently discovered that they are related to coral and that like coral, they also have a symbiotic relationship with algae, one that gives them their color.  I was shocked on a second cruise to Komodo within a two-month timeframe, to find a large proportion of “white anemones”.  A cruise director informed me that they were not new anemones (because anemones are known to live a long time – as long as 100 years) but instead bleached anemones.  Bleaching is the loss of symbiotic algae, which in addition to giving anemones color, produce nutrients for them.  I am in complete awe of the array of tentacle colors (even pink, orange, and red), but the color of the column is animal pigment so it is all in the DNA of the anemone.  Not only are anemones a mini-habitat to many different crabs, shrimp, and anemonefish, but a photosynthetic factory contributes to the support of all of it.

For all of that natural beauty though, an anemone is not exactly a hospitable habitat.  Anemones are animals that sting.  They harbor special miniature harpoon-like structures called nematocysts which inject poison/toxin into the flesh of prey, predators, and even other anemones where there are territorial disputes.  The anemonefish, however, manages to live amongst the tentacles unharmed as do a variety of crustaceans.  This ability is currently attributed to the mucus covering the skin of animals, and it is thought to prevent the triggering of the nematocysts.  What magic ingredient within the mucous prevents discharge of the nematocyst remains a secret.  Where the mucus comes from is even of controversy, probably because different species of anemonefish and anemones behave differently, but the protective mucus appears to originate from either the fish or the anemone.  However, it might be a bit like superman and Planet Krypton because the mucus shield is not an all for one.  In the right anemone, fish are protected, and in the wrong one, they can be just as vulnerable as another fish.

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How anemonefish find an anemone to live in is another question with diverse answers.  In fact, some anemonefish are less discriminating in terms of which type of anemone they can live in, whereas others have a distinct species that they inhabit.  It seems that to some degree the fish are attracted by specific chemical signals originating from the anemone and less so by visual cues.  This ability seems to be partly due to genetics, which is greatly enhanced if fertilized eggs are located within close proximity of their typical anemone home.  It is believed then that the anemone makes factors that subtly influence the eggs predisposing them to responding to the cues and thus, finding a similar home when they grow up.

When you look at an anemone, you do not have to think too much about why the fish might want to live there.  It is a beautiful house, you can easily hide in it, and if there is a real threat, the anemone can close itself around you.  But anemones also look like they could just feel nice… as long as you are able to avoid the problem of engaging the nematocysts.  Research actually shows that fish may engage in certain hedonistic behaviors.   Anemonefish in a tank, when isolated from the anemone, for example, will bathe in the bubbles originating from the aerator.  Real scientific measurements have been made, however.  Cortisol, which is an indicator of stress, is actually found to be decreased in fish that are in contact with certain tactile sensations.

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What exactly does an anemonefish do for the anemone?  Apparently other people have had the same question (and fortunately got grant money to study it).  I had zero ideas for the answer to this question so I did what we all do, I literally typed that question into  The first link that popped up was “Dancing Nemo: Clownfish wiggles do an anemone good”.  No joke and who could resist reading an article with a title like that?  This short paragraph led me to the real research article, which has the title “Anemonefish oxygenate their anemone hosts at night”.  The bottom line is that the movement of the fish, which are especially active at night, keeps nutrient and gas flow (oxygen) constant over the anemone.  Hmm, so maybe as an underwater photographer I may actually be helping the anemone because the fish move constantly when I try to take a photo.

Additional reasons have been proposed for why the fish is beneficial to the anemone as well.  The anemone can snack on scraps from the fish, and it is even thought that nutrients from the fish waste are also good for the anemone.  Furthermore, the fish protect the anemone from predators, that I would never have guessed, are the lovely butterfly fish.  Apparently these fish are also impervious to the stinging by anemones, and without the anemonefish, anemones are quite vulnerable in the natural coral reef habitat.  I have myself undergone direct attack by anemonefish (very scary), but I always thought they were protecting their eggs.

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There are a thousand lessons to learn about relationships in nature just by looking at an anemone.   And I am sure there are many others that we can not see.  But this is why there has been so much research performed on them.

The fact that some very violent stuff is taking place within anemones does not change my opinion about them.  Perhaps, their beauty is also viewed by other fish, and it is one of their ways to attract prey.  It seems like that would be enough to attract me to an anemone, but maybe I was just an anenomefish in another life…

What burning question do you have about symbiotic relationships of sealife???

Janice Nigro is an avid scuba diver with a PhD in biology.  She is a scientist who has studied the development of human cancer at universities in the USA and Norway, and has discovered the benefits of artistic expression through underwater photography and story writing of her travel adventures.

Marine Life & Conservation

LAMAVE reports increased injuries on endangered whale sharks in Oslob



A new study published by LAMAVE in the journal Aquatic Conservation, Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems presents the results of some of the work conducted since 2012 to assess the impacts of tourism activities on individual whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu.

The study found that individual whale sharks observed in barangay Tan-Awan, where the butanding are hand-fed daily to enable the tourism interactions, show a significantly higher number of injury, and scars than whale sharks in other non-provisioned (non-fed) tourism sites in Australia, Mozambique and the Seychelles. The study highlights the increased risk for these sharks that regularly visit the provisioning site in Oslob, and underline the urgent need to implement proper management interventions to guarantee the tourism activities do not harm these endangered animals.

The study presents results from photographic images of 152 individual whale sharks collected by the researchers from Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines over a period of 34 months (March 2012 – January 2015) in Oslob, Cebu. The team used photo-identification (photo-ID) to monitor individual whale sharks’ presence and movement and gathered data on the presence, size, type and location of scars on the whole body of these gigantic animals as well as the accumulation of these scars over time. These scarring patterns of whale sharks in Oslob were compared with quantitative studies from Ningaloo in Australia, the Seychelles and Mozambique, other known global aggregations where feeding the whale shark is prohibited and enforced.

The study found that whale sharks in Oslob were significantly more scarred than any other studied population: 95% of all whale sharks in Oslob had scars on their body, with abrasion being the most common type of scar. Most of the scars were categorised as nicks and abrasions and were most likely due to the close contact of ropes, small boats at the provisioning site. Lacerations, which fall into the major category, were observed on 28% of individuals, which is significantly higher than in Ningaloo and Mozambique. These were caused by boat propellers of different sizes and could be facilitated both from the habituation to boats caused by the practice of hand-feeding the whale sharks, as well as the increased traffic of motorized vessels in the surroundings of the provisioning area.

Whale sharks that were observed more frequently in the interaction area showed a significantly higher rate of scarring compared to individual sharks that were seen less frequently in the area; these regular visitors to Oslob accumulated scars over the observation period and suggest a direct causal link between the exposure to the tourism activities in Barangay Tan-Awan and scarring rates. Scars and wounds, even when non-lethal, may pose a serious risk to these endangered species, increasing the physiological stress of the animals, facilitating the contraction of diseases carried by pathogens like virus and bacteria and decreasing overall the health of the affected individuals.

Scars on the head and mouth of a whale shark in Oslob, Cebu at different stages of inflammation and tissue reaction. These scars are caused by continuous contact and rubbing against hard surfaces like outriggers and boat hulls, and are similar to what observed in whale shark kept in captivity in aquaria. Credit: ©LAMAVE

“This study presents evidence of the negative physical impacts of the tourism activity on the whale sharks in Oslob. I have seen myself the wounds on these endangered and enigmatic animals; injuries which highlight the need for an urgent change in Oslob.” – Lead author Luke Penketh

Management solutions to reduce the physical impact of tourism on whale sharks

The high incidence of injuries in the whale sharks provisioned in Oslob is a national concern and there is an urgent need to improve management practices to protect this endangered species. The whale shark is protected by Republic Art No. 9147 ‘Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.’ whereby it is illegal to maltreat and/or inflict injuries on threatened wildlife, and this is further reinforced by the DOT-DA-DILG-DENR Joint Memorandum Circular no.01 series of 2020 (Sect. 8) where it prohibits acts in dedicated interactions sites that would hinder an animals’ health, including injury and distress.  The Philippines is a signatory country to the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), where the signatories agree and recommend the strict regulation, monitoring and enforcement of the whale shark tourism interaction activities to ensure its sustainable management and conservation value as highlighted in the Concerted Action for the Whale Shark (UNEP/CMS/Concerted Action 12.7, 2017).

The results highlighted in this study, when paired with the existing knowledge on the migratory nature of this species and connectivity between the archipelago, where individual whale sharks identified in Oslob have been re-sighted in Donsol (Sorsogon Region V) Sogod bay (Southern Leyte Region VIII), Tubbataba Reef Natural Park (Palawan Region VIa), Misamis Oriental (Region 10) and nationally connected further abroad to Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan, call the National  Department of Tourism, Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture –  in collaboration with the Department of Interior and Local Government to urgently intervene to ensure the sustainable management the tourism activities in the municipality of Oslob, as well as in other Regions, to ensure the long term balance between the socio-economic benefit of the local communities, the conservation of the marine environment and preservation of endangered protected species like the whale sharks.

For more information about the work of LAMAVE visit the website by clicking here.

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Marine Life & Conservation

Review: My Octopus Teacher



Regular contributors, CJ & Mike from Bimble in the Blue, review the Netflix documentary: My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher is the story of how filmmaker Craig Foster befriends a common octopus in the kelp forests off of the Cape Town coast.  Mike and I love to watch all things underwater and nature-based and so eagerly sat down to this documentary film, a new September arrival on Netflix.

Watch the trailer here:

After burning out at work Foster finds fascination and a deep connection with nature when spending time freediving at his favourite local spot.  In a sequence familiar to those who watched the “Green Seas” episode of Blue Planet 2, he comes across an octopus camouflaging itself with shells.  With his curiosity piqued, he begins to seek out the octopus on all of his dives, finding delight in its seemingly strange behaviours, learning what he can from the scientific literature and slowing working to gain the mollusc’s trust on his daily visits to her world.

My Octopus Teacher portrays a very anthropomorphised view of our subject and Foster’s relationship with her.  His conclusions tend to be more emotional than scientific and his eagerness to find similarities between himself and the octopus shows a great sentimentality.  However, you cannot help but be captivated by the incredible mutual curiosity and bond developing before you.  This relationship, and the stunning scenes of the kelp forest with its diverse inhabitants make for a deeply absorbing viewing experience.  There is some fantastic cephalopod behaviour, from the octopus adapting her hunting tactics for different prey, to strategies for outwitting predators and incredible colour and shape morphology.  Foster is also keen to point out how little we know about octopuses and that there is a great opportunity to learn something with every dive.

One of my favourite observations made by Foster at the end of the film is that by going into the water for liberation from daily life’s concerns and dramas, he realised how precious these wild places are.  As he starts to care about all the animals there, even the most minuscule, he comes to find that each one is both important and vulnerable.  Foster finds that his relationship with the octopus changes him and he feels a part of the kelp forest rather than just a visitor, an experience he then shares with his son.  To me Foster’s insight that we must connect with an environment in order to be truly motivated to protect it resonated very strongly.  For those fortunate enough to fall in love with our wilder environments and connect with them, seeing it mirrored in this documentary is quite moving.

Overall we very much enjoyed the film, especially the weird and wonderful behaviours caught on screen and the story as it unfolds.  Though our first reaction was one of pure jealousy (that Foster has such a stunning local dive spot and coastal property!) we soon moved past the envy and found My Octopus Teacher to be a very relaxing and enjoyable evening’s entertainment, which we highly recommend.

For more from CJ and Mike please visit their website here.

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