Conjoined Twins like you’ve Never Seen Before

Do you know the origin of the term “Siamese Twins”? It comes from Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined twins who travelled the world in the 1800’s lecturing and being gawked at. They came from Siam (modern day Thailand). Now their journey might sound logistically tricky but there are conjoined twins in the ocean that take it one step further.

Siphonophores are long stringy animals that were believed to grow (until recently) up to around 30m long. But they are not technically one animal. They are instead a collection of asexually reproduced clone bodies all joined together These clones, called zooids, all have specialised functions, such as floatation, movement, feeding, protection and reproduction. Joined, they behave as a single large animal.

You might think they seem bizarre and alien but there’s one Siphonophore I bet you’re all familiar with.

Blue Bottle Jelly

It’s the Portuguese  Man-O-War, or Blue Bottle Jellyfish. The large blue balloon on top is a single zooid that maintains buoyancy and catches the wind allowing it to sail. The parts dangling underneath are strings of tiny zooids for stinging, digesting and movement (retracting tentacles).

You might also recognise another Siphonophore, this one.


This was spotted by an ROV on a deep sea dive here in Western Australia near Ningaloo. Remember how I said it was believed that Siphonophores got up to around 30m until recently. Well this one was spotted in early April and is estimate to be around 50m long!!! That’s a lot of conjoined twins.


Tomasz Pedlow

A Rubbish Story

I once read a very simple quote.

“Rubbish is a human invention”

It took a moment for me to really absorb.  All those animals, from single celled bacteria right up to tool using chimpanzees, don’t produce any rubbish. They’ve accomplished something we seemingly can’t: They live a one hundred percent sustainable life. Everything they use is returned to nature, whether it’s the tools some animals use or the waste they all produce, even their own bodies, all of it is recycled and reused.

Now some might argue that our society is more technologically advanced then other animals and that necessitates or justifies some rubbish. But there is nothing advanced about producing, for example, a bottle that’ll outlive you by several generations all so that we can have a once off drink of water. Especially when that bottle goes on to poison and kill other animals.

I tend to get pretty passionate about conservation. To that end I spent a long time thinking about how can I effectively communicate that every single one of us (myself included) needs to do better at reducing, reusing, recycling and ultimately eliminating our rubbish.

I could quote all the scary statistics on how eight millions of tons of plastic enter our oceans (, and how that plastic is  likely ending up inside our bodies (https://www.national ).

I could talk about recent recordings in the Pyrenees mountains in France where they found microplastics literally falling from the sky at a rate of three hundred and sixty-five particles per square meter ( microplastics-pollution-falls-from-air-even-mountains/). But people share statistics and facts all the time and it doesn’t seem to accomplish much. Instead I thought I’d share a more personal, local, experience I had recently.

I was down at Lake Monger for a walk one afternoon. It’s one of my favourite spots to go after work. At one point I saw an older couple watching something on the water intently. I’ve sometimes seen turtles and other interesting animals at the lake, so I went over to investigate, and saw this.

Tangled Darter

Now the picture quality isn’t great but that’s an Australasian Darter with what I would later learn is a sock tangled around is beak. It was a thick wool sock and some of the threads were tangled in and around the serrated edges of the bird’s beak. It was alternating between sitting on the shoreline and swimming around thrashing its head around trying to dislodge the sock. It was panicked and clearly exhausted.

Darters are a wetlands bird that likes to live around lakes, rivers and swamps. They can dive under water where they spear small fish with their beak or flick larger ones up to the surface where they can try to swallow them headfirst.

This goes some way to explaining how this all happened. The bird was likely diving, saw the dark shape of the sock in the water, mistook it for a meal, grabbed it to flick up to the surface only to get trapped. Because its beak is serrated, once caught, there was little chance that the bird would’ve freed itself.

Thankfully, I was able to get in touch with the team at Western Australian Seabird Rescue ( who were able to get two volunteers down to rescue the bird, untangle it, and take it away for overnight observation.

Rubbish Story(Without a way to ask their permission to publish their photo I thought it best to keep them anonymous)

As I left the park, I picked up any rubbish I saw.  Rather than thinking about statistics, I was really associating the rubbish problem with that panicked bird desperately trying to free itself, all because someone was thoughtless with their waste. Sadly, I found a lot of rubbish.

Monger Rubbish

To be honest I wasn’t surprised having regularly seen rubbish like this at Lake Monger and other locations. I decided to check out WASR’s Facebook page and found that they’d rescued three other Darters from Lake Monger in the past month (not to mention numerous other trapped birds from all over Perth).

It was depressing to say the least, but in a weird way, that’s sometimes what you need. Numbers and graphs can make you think but they don’t illicit emotion in the same way that panicked animal did for me. One look at the WASR Facebook page reinforced what I’d been thinking for a while, that Perth (and wider Australia) have a problem with rubbish.

We can push for governments to recycle waste in Australia rather than shipping it overseas but ultimately, I think the solution starts with us. By reducing the amount of waste, we produce, through composting or better product choice. You can also get involved with private recycling initiatives like Teracycle ( At the very least we can all try to ensure rubbish ends up in a bin and not out in nature. This can apply to your own rubbish, but it can also apply to something to see out in the world. Every time you overcome that gross factor and pick up that plastic bag or bottle or chip packet you see on the street or in the park, you’re stopping it spending the next several hundred years out in nature potentially poisoning, choking and killing wildlife like the Australasian Darter.

Coral, Whats the Point?

I find when people discuss global warming, the often cited example of its impact is coral reef bleaching. That said I’ve found there’s a gap in the communication when it comes to saying why bleaching is a problem. That is to say:

Aside from reefs being pretty to look at, is there a practical reason we should care about them?

The short answer to that question is yes, and here’s why.

If you look at the photo below, which I took on a reef in Seychelles, you can see a partially bleached coral. This can occur because a coral isn’t a single animal, it’s a colony of thousands of little polyps that look a bit like tiny sea anemones. They’re all joined together forming a thin living skin over the corals skeleton which they produce.

And that’s the critical part, the skeleton.

Because essentially corals function as underwater living apartment buildings. By growing all kinds of interesting and different shaped skeletons, they create lots and lots of habitat spaces for other animals to live in. It’s the same way a tall apartment building can be home to large numbers of people on a relatively small plot of land.

And the fact that corals are living is really important. Over time, storms, strong water current, bleaching and feeding by other animals breaks down and grind up coral skeleton. Without those living polyps breeding and creating more skeleton, the reef would shrink over time and disappear. And no coral habitat means no animals.

Currently, its predicted that if our planet warms on average by 2 degrees Celsius, 99% of corals globally will die. Here’s why you should care.

It’s all about how much habitat corals provide. Corals cover less than one percent of the ocean floor. Yet they are home to over 25% of all marine life. This is what is meant when people talk about high biodiversity. Its lots on animals, living in a small space.

Now globally, its estimated that over 3 billion people rely on the ocean for their food. That’s a little over a third of the global population. Flowing from that, we can assume that over 25% of their food comes from reefs. That means that even if you don’t necessarily eat a lot of seafood, somewhere out there in the numerous supply chains that maintain your life, there are people that need the ocean, and by extension coral, for their food.

That doesn’t even consider the tourist economy or the numerous medical treatments we’ve created thanks to reefs. I think we can all agree currently, new and effective medical treatments are important.

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A Very Unusual Saturday

cover shot

On the morning of Saturday the 4th of August, I had my heart set on a quiet day. There’d be a few late nights recently and I never really sleep well over here so I was loving the idea of a day of laziness. By around 3:30pm that day, this is where I was at. Needless to say my day didn’t go as planned….

It was an strange day guys

We got notified a bit before midday that a mother and calf cetacean had washed up dead at Kleinbrak, fifteen minutes from Mossel Bay. By midday we were deciding to take the interns over to see it. Things got more interesting when we learnt the species. It was a True’s Beaked Whale, a species so rarely seen that my reference guide prefaced every section on it with “Little is known but…”.

True’s Beaked Whale

These species are super rare because they live in the open ocean. They’re only rarely spotted when they surface to breathe or strand on a beach. They’ve been observed of the east coast of North America, off the coast on the United Kingdom, off the coast of Northern and Southern Africa and off the south coast of Australia but we have no idea if thee are isolated populations or part of a larger group. They’re known to dive to depths of around 3000 meters. Little is known about their population numbers or home range. The guide I read about them says of their diet, “they are presumed to eat squid”.

What did I Learn?

Seeing Cetaceans at a distance or on a documentary doesn’t prepare you for the reality. It was somewhat surreal being able to see one up close and touch it. It was incredible to see how evolution has designed these animals.

When the first cuts were made into the animal, I first noticed the thick while layer of blubber. This layer several centimetres thick and covered the entire body. Clearly it’s adapted for life in extremely cold water, Once we cut past the blubber we could see first hand how powerful these animals are.

whale blubber
Blubber insulates the whale in cold waters

Cutting through to the chest cavity meant going through dense red muscle tissue that was in some places was as thick as my hand is long. This means it had the power to dive deep and swim through the open ocean. There was one surprising aspect of its biology however, it had strangely small lungs for an animal that spends long periods of time underwater

As I learnt later its lungs aren’t so much for holding air as for moving oxygen into their muscles for storage. Their muscle tissue is dark red, almost black because they have extremely high levels of myoglobin, a molecule responsible for storing oxygen.

dark muscle tissue
High levels of myoglobin make the whales muscle look almost black

The Whales store as much oxygen as they can in their huge muscular body while breathing at the surface and then dive for long periods of time where oxygen is released from their muscles slowly. This actually makes a lot of sense for deep dives. Under the crushing pressure of a deep water dive, a gas filled space like a lung would be compressed and potentially damaged, So having smaller lungs that don’t need to be filled to capacity is a massive bonus to these mysterious animals.

So why did it die?

Well I wish I could give you a definitive answer on that one. On the day, we removed its lungs, digestive system and numerous other samples for analysis. The first stomach (cetacea have four) looked extremely full. Later analysis showed that what we thought was a large full stomach was all due to inflammation of the inner lining. There were a few squid beaks in there and some parasites but it was clear this animal hadn’t fed in a long time. I may do a follow up post to this if and when I learn more…

Tomasz Pedlow


You made me ink!!

So one of my favourite shifts here in South Africa is taking the interns to survey the tide pools. During these shifts, we head to one of several study sites at low tide. From there we lay out a transect rope that runs from the low tide up to the high tide mark. Every five meters we lay out a 1m by 1m square quadrat and record all the invertebrates we see there. Every shift we get data on how the invertebrate community changes depending on position in the intertidal zone.


Well the purpose is long-term monitoring. The intertidal zone is a pretty extreme place to live. Animals living here spend half their life living underwater dealing with all the usual difficulties of marine life and then the other half of the day exposed to air, an environment they’re not meant for, a place where they’re exposed to extreme temperature, they risk dying out and they can’t readily get food. Living in an extreme environment means that the ecosystem is likely to respond to additional stressers quickly. Changes in the temperature, water quality and human harvesting of species will show up in the data quickly. Its a great way to monitor the health of the local ocean and presents a great way to teach our interns about evolutionary adaptions in the marine environment. We find a lot of cool stuff on our shifts but by far my favourite is the Tuberculated Cuttlefish.

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A tuberculated cuttlefish

Tuberculated Cuttlefish

These little guys grow to about eight centimetres long. They spend their entire lives living in the intertidal zone and are believed to feed on shrimp although their precise diet isn’t fully understood. They’re very clearly adapted to the intertidal zone too. Their eight arms are short and stubby with a slight webbing in-between. This is much better for moving around all the small rock-pools and maneuvering your way through tight gaps between rocks. They still have longer tentacles that they use for hunting. But whats really cool is that their skin.


Its been a fairly regular occurrence on tide shifts that we’ll be counting the species we see and all of a sudden realize there has been a cuttlefish right next to one of us that has gone unnoticed for ten or so minutes. This is because cuttlefish, like most cephalopods have very special skin. Their skin contains special cells called chromatophores, iridophores and leucophores that the cuttlefish can use for camoflage. Chromatophores are little pigment sacs with muscle around the rim, by contracting or relaxing the muscle, more or less pigment is seen. The Cuttlefish’s skin is covered in millions of these cells. that are controlled directly by the nervous system. This means that a cuttlefish can change colour at the speed of thought!!!

Image result for cephalopod wow meme
Like this. but cooler 😛 

Iridophores and More

These are where it gets really cool. Chromatophores are typically red, yellow or brown. While they can combine these, that still doesnt let them mimic all colours. Iridophores are what cover the rest. Iridophores are stacks of really thin cells that can reflect light at different wave-lengths. This means if viewed from one angle they might appear blue, from another they might appear red.

Leucophores are the last piece of the puzzle. These cells scatter light and therefore appear white. Just like the others, the cephalopod has control over these cells and its thought they use them to increase or decrease the intensity of the colour they’re trying to display. Its the combination of these cells that allow cuttlefish and other cephalopods to camoflage so well.

I’m trying to think of an eloquent way to wrap this post up but honestly, I just wanted to share how flippen cool these animals and their weird skin are. I hope you all found it as fascinating as I do. Here is a videos of a tuberculated cuttlefish to finish on 😀


Catchya next time 🙂

Tomasz Pedlow


The ROV in action

We’ve been doing surveys of a near-shore reef to test out the Trident ROV’s new potential as a research tool. Heres an example of what we see. The big schools of fish you’re seeing are Blacktail (with a black dot near the tail) and Strepie.

Whats Shark Research? Part Two

Mako blog photo
A chum trip in full swing (photo courtesy of the Oceans Research media interns)

Hi Everyone.

So last time I went into more detail then I initially planned explaining the ethics of chumming and bait roping. Today I wanted to explain the adrenaline rush that is a chum trip. Chum trip is the term for our boat shifts assessing the shark population. I’ll set the scene.

It’s a quiet morning, the wind is down, the sky is covered in a smattering of grey clouds with random patches of blue sky. You can hear the calls of the seals sounding something like a mix between a goat and Chewbacca, the repetitive lapping of the water against the boat, the random conversation of the interns. It seems like a calm relaxing day, but you’re intensely focused. The noise is all background chatter to you as you watch the Tuna head at the end of your bait rope bobbing in the water. You know at any second, the calm could be shattered. You’re standing on a little platform on the side of the boat with a metal railing against your legs holding the bait rope in two hands.

Suddenly you notice a change in the water. It’s bordering on imperceptible, you don’t even really have time to fully realize whats changed. But in an instant, you know whats coming. In that fraction of a second you yank hard on the rope as the water in front of you explodes. The tuna head leaves the water just as a great white shark bursts from the water a meter or so from you. In under a second you can go from staring at calm flat water to staring one on of the oceans top predators with its body from a half out of the water as it launches for your bait.

Its not always this intense, but this is a recount of one particularly memorable encounter I had with a white shark on a chum trips was like with Oceans Research. What I’m doing with the bait rope is a key part of our white shark population monitoring. It lures nearby sharks to the surface and hopefully close enough to record data on them. My goal is to make sure the sharks don’t get the baits.

What Happens When the Sharks Arrive?

When the first shark comes to the surface the first job falls to an intern working the camera. They’re job is to get a clear photo of the sharks fin for later identification. There are certain types of pigmentation on the sharks fin that persist throughout its life making them a useful method for identification. You can see what I’m talking about below.

Shark fins
On the left you can see an example of white pigmentation, on the right you can see black pigmentation spots (image courtesy of Oceans Research

We never officially record a shark on our data sheets until we get the first photo of it. We always aim to get the best fin shots possible, but sharks don’t always play ball. So we end up taking a lot of photos.

Before we even get the photo, my minds already working. This is likely to be our first recorded shark so I need to be recognize it. In those flashes of time I look first for identifying markers. Scratches, scars, hooks in the mouth and  strange coloration are all things I need to be able to recognize a shark long term.

This helps when you’re up to shark eleven or twelve for a shift and suddenly, your spotters call out “shark threes back, and shark seven”. As you can imagine, it gets pretty fast paced at times.

What happens when we get a photo?

Thats when the shouting starts and the intern recording data gets anxious.


“absent all fin deformities and amputations”,

“Photos one to five are shark one”

“Video one is shark one”,

The person on data likely gets this yelled at them all at once from three different people. The first parts come from the field specialist on shift, its size class information and whether or not the shark has any significant damage to the fins. It’ll change depending on the shark. The third bit comes from the camera person at the front of the boat, so we know later which photos are of which shark. The last bit comes from the person manning the GoPro pole. What this is a long metal pole with a platform at the bottom and a gopro attached to the platform. We use this to work out a white sharks gender.

The only way to tell a white sharks gender is to look for the presence or absence of claspers on the sharks underside near the caudal fin. Claspers means it s a male, no claspers mean its a female. The Gopro pole lets us film the underside of the shark.

Male Shark                                                                       Female Shark

Sometimes these shifts can be incredibly fast paced, sometimes not, it depends on the sharks. But one thing that stays constant is the need for spotters. This is a job for two people who stand up on the observation platform and watch for sharks. As the bait roper, I rely heavily on these two. When I have the bait in the water, my focus narrows to about a meter square patch of water with the bait in the middle. I need the spotters calling out to me where sharks are, if they’re coming at the bait, what direction they’re coming from and how far out they are. Depending on the weather conditions, water visibility can range anywhere from one meter to six meters, So the spotters can definitely have a tough job.

The last job was touched on in the previous post, the chummer.  The intern on chum is mixing a block of mashed up pilchard parts with sea water and pouring scoops into the water, its not glamorous but its important to attract sharks. It creates a scent trail (roughly 150m) as its carried away by the water that nearby sharks will be curious about it and come to investigate.

These shifts run in four hour blocks, twice a day (if the weathers right). The data from this trip has been the backbone of a PhD thesis and has lead several interesting discoveries.

What have we Learnt?

There has been a lot of really interesting science to come out of the chum trip data from Mossel Bay. Almost nothing was known about the sharks that lived there before this research. Now we know that the population is exclusively juvenile sharks and that they must leave the bay when they’re past a certain age. We now know the population is largely female with an increase in males during the winter. This seems to concur with other research around the world that suggests great white shark populations usually display strong gender segregation. In my opinion, one of the more interesting finds is that they utilize different habitats at different times of the year. In Summer and Autumn, they tend to congregate in coastal waters off the coast of Grootbrak and Kleinbrak, two rivers that enter Mossel Bay. In winter they congregate at Seal Island and in Spring they congregate at at Seal Island and another coastal site called Hartenbos. This seems to be likely due to changes in prey abundance throughout the year.

Its the habitat usage patterns like this that make me wonder whether similar research could be useful in Western Australia.


Tomasz Pedlow


What a Shark Scientist Does Part 1

Hi everyone!

Sorry I’ve been a little quiet. I’ve been busy with work and admittedly had a little writers block but I thought it was about time to answer a question I was getting a lot before I came over here:

“I know you’re studying sharks… but what does that actually involve?

It’s a good question with a slightly long winded answer.

Why we do it?

A good starting point is understanding what we’re hoping to achieve. Essentially it’s a population census, yep that thing the Australian government botched a few years back, except its done more frequently and… well…. better.

We’re seeing how the population changes over time. We’re looking at things like the male to female ratio, how many individuals of different size-classes live in the bay? how long do they live in the bay? and is the population increasing or decreasing?


It all takes place during what’s known here, as “A chum trip”. It starts with a field specialist, a boat skipper, and ideally seven interns head down to the harbor and taking a boat ride out to a place called seal island.

Seal island was once upon a time, a penguin colony with the seals instead living on the beach, but then coastal development forced the seals off the beach and they took over the island, the penguin populations are now found in Capetown and Port Elizbeth. But I digress.

When we get on site and anchor, we have several jobs for our interns that I’ll get into later. Two of the keys roles are chum and bait roper. The intern on chum defrosts and mixes a frozen block of pilchards through a large tub of water and periodically pours scoops of this pungent mix into the ocean. The fish oils in the chum create a smell trail that sharks will come to investigate. The last and most exciting job is called bait roping, and as a field specialist, this is my role when I’m on shift. For this, we attach a tuna head to a long line of rope with a small float to keep it near the surface, then we chuck it in the water. The goal here isn’t to feed the sharks, but to create a physical target that they’ll investigate bringing them close enough that we can record data on them.

Sounds ethically dubious?

The short answer is no. But its important to understand why. The two main ethical concerns that arise from chumming practises are:

  1. Aren’t you luring sharks close to beaches where they might endanger humans?
  2. Aren’t you conditioning sharks to come to you for food?

I’m not going to defend all chumming practices everywhere but I firmly believe (based on evidence) that when done correctly, it doesn’t present a problem. Here is why:

Concern #1

We only go where the sharks already are so we aren’t going to lure them anywhere. We have three main sites, seal island and two locations near the eastern coast of the bay. Tagging and tracking has shown that the sharks frequent all three locations irrespective of chumming and Seal Island specifically has been identified as a hunting ground for the sharks. So we only go where the sharks already are, and just encourage them to come a little closer.

Concern #2

By conditioning, what I mean is this. If the sharks grow to associate boats and/or cage diving humans (a neutral stimulus), with eating a tuna head off a bait rope (a positive stimulus). They’re going to learn to associate the two and start interacting with boats and people even when no bait rope is present. Here in the Western Cape, there was a multi-year program monitoring the practice in the cage diving industry to assess the problem. The nature of the different stimuli (positive, negative, neutral etc) was confirmed first by observers noting that the overwhelming majority of shark interactions with the boats were specifically targeted on the bait rather than other non-edible stimuli like the boat or dive cage.

They noted that in Mossel Bay, individual sharks could be positively identified for periods lasting up to around 60 days. This would mean they would be exposed to boats long enough to a conditioned response to arise… if they were positively rewarded. This positive reward is identified by the shark via their senses of sight and smell (remember they can sense electricity too). They found from observing shark interactions with the cage diving boat, sharks only successfully got the bait 25% of the time. During this study, the chumming and bait roping procedure was replicated on a research vessel. They were able to keep the sharks to just a 7% success rate! The next question to ask is then, is this enough to condition them? The study showed that at several of the bays being studied, Sharks spent progressively less time around the boat over time, the complete opposite of what positive conditioning would do. Furthermore, monitoring of tagged sharks in the bay showed that sharks in close proximity to the boat failed to be visually identified nearly 50% of the time! So they weren’t even coming close to the boat when presented with a clear positive stimulus. One possible explanation for this is that the chum slicks typically only travel around 150m without any wind.

This isn’t to say sharks can’t be conditioned. The study noted four sharks that were unusually successful at getting the bait. These sharks did exhibit a positive conditioning response but they were far and away, the exception not the rule. Speaking from my experience with Oceans Research, sharks don’t consistently get the bait, when they do, its rarely the same shark repeatedly and in the rare case that it does happen, we don’t see that shark day after day getting more food. This means that conditioning is a very unlikely to occur due to chumming and bait roping.

With the ethics covered, tune in for part 2 where I’ll go into the detail of what we do out on the water and how to ID a great white shark.


Update: The Hunt for the Missing GoPro

Hi peeps!

So in the last post I talked about how in the process of testing a method for 3D mapping the underwater environment, we lost me GoPro. Well In the days following that little misadventure, there were two different attempts to find it. Both were trips came up empty. We assumed the current or a lucky Scuba diver had taken my camera and I’d even started researching the cost of a replacement. Fast forward to today.

We decided to go back to the same site. We were there because my ROV is going to be used in a study of fish abundance on a reef accessible from that site. We’d been having a slight problem though, we couldn’t find the reef…

We’d planned to do a more thorough search for the reef today. In addition to the ROV, I was going to go snorkel the area and search for the reef. I also wanted to make one final attempt at finding my lost GoPro. So while Mitch and Jesse got more practice on the ROV, I started my search. I found the area where we’d spotted the GoPro the previous weekend and I searched high and low, in among rocks, all over the place and drew the obvious conclusion that it was gone. I then turned to helping the ROV find this disappearing reef. I swam out in the direction I’d been described, and while I saw some beautiful fish in among the Dolos wall, I didn’t find a reef. I decided the last part of the attempt would be to swim the ROV out as far as it could go in the direction I’d just been swimming so see how far it could search.

So I swam back to the entry point where Mitch was sitting. Now there was a bit of surge today and the entry point is a bit rocky, so I was cautious about getting tossed on something sharp. Close to shore now and I suddenly found the water pushing me forward and I almost went face first into some rocks on the seafloor ahead of me. I put my hands out to steady myself, and as my face came close to these rocks, I saw into a gap between them and thought, “you gotta be s***ting me” and sure enough nestled down in between these two rocks sat my GoPro!. I quickly reached in and grabbed it before making my way up to the steps.

Photos or it didnt happen right?

After a whole week, The GoPro had survived intact and still working. I’m yet to analyse the video.

On a side note, after talking to some locals, it looks like the reef may be too far for the ROV to reach it on the 25m tether I have. So we’re going to investigate other options

Stay tuned next week when the Ocean Research crew will hopefully be tagging a great white. I actually have to check with the boss as to whether I’m allowed to saw any more about that though…



ROV Adventures

Its finally time for robots

So a few people have assumed my time in South Africa is all exciting adventures. Its definitely exciting at times but I’m living in a small town with limited money so the weekends can be somewhat quiet. This weekend however was eventful as me and two other field specialists from Oceans decided to go and start getting some ROV piloting practice.

The ROV (essentially an underwater drone) is going to be used by Oceans Research to document the fish population of a near shore reef. The goal is to see how an ROV compares to other methods of data collection for similar projects. The first step was getting good at piloting.


So on Saturday afternoon, Jesse, Mitch and me gathered up our equipment.

Everything a team of amateur ROV pilots need

We headed down to a small public access pier near the main harbor in Mossel Bay and got to diving. Now I figured, being so close to a heavily used boat slipway we wouldn’t see much. We’d genuinely planned it as a chance to get more piloting practice for some upcoming research. Boy were we wrong! we found a small reef and schools of fish all around! Some members of the general public came by curious about what we were doing so we enjoyed a bit of impromptu science communication about the reefs in the area. The kids especially were really fascinated.

There were heaps of fish for us to see and it proved to be a really fun first dive. I’d done some practice dives back home in a harbor. But it was a sandy area with little to see. This dive really opened my eyes to whats possible with this technology. I was really excited!


Mitch, the ROV, Jesse and Mossel Bay at Sunset


Hoping for a repeat performance of Saturdays success we decided to head on Sunday as well. This time we were deploying at a similar site nearby to the first  at the site of a nearshore reef that we hoped to study with the ROV. Today was just a test. But it quickly turned into a bit of a misadventure.

We decided to test out a few new toys for the ROV. In hindsight we were maybe jumping the gun just a little bit. The first thing we tested was a special type of GoPro mount. The mount attached to the bottom of the ROV and allowed the GoPro to face straight down. This would allow us to shoot detailed footage of the seafloor which could in theory be turned into a 3D map of the seafloor.

So we deployed the ROV and headed out. We started alright, but the water was pretty choppy and we banged into a few rocks. When we got further out, we charged out into calmer water, we couldn’t find the reef which was pretty frustrating to say the least. So we figured we’d cut our losses, detach the GoPro attachment and just practice piloting a bit more.

SO I piloted the ROV back into the shore, Jesse picked it up and I’ve immediately said “Oh s***!” when I saw that GoPro was gone.  The GoPro mount I’d 3D printed had snapped during one of those collisions with the rocks. Jesse was about to go jump in to try find it but I had a better idea.

I quickly pointed out that the second ROV attachment I’d prepared to test was a grabber claw. Here is a video of what I’m talking about.

Out of that, a rescue plan was born. Admittedly, it was a wildly optimistic plan: Use an untested grabber claw to search somewhat choppy water for a small camera we hope to grab in rapidly fading sunlight with an ROV we just barely knew how to pilot.

But we’re an optimistic bunch of , and much to our surprise we found the Camera!

And were we successful?

Sadly no, while we were able to find the GoPro (much to our surprise). The water was too choppy for the ROV to make an approach and grab it. It is close to shore so it is retrievable. Yesterday one of the Jesse tried to go for a swim to retrieve it. The visibility didn’t allow it. Another attempt will happen today, cross your fingers for me!