Drawn to the Sea

When Patrick Rynne contacted me on December 11th of last year, he explained that one of Waterlust’s initiatives was to showcase ocean scientists’ fundamental research interest and juxtapose the topic with their personal passions. He said “Obviously your name jumped up immediately. We’d love to produce a piece on you that contrasts your love of freediving with your research”. I was stoked about the idea of a snapshot documentary. I thought it could be a very artistic and powerful way to communicate science to the general public. Drawn to the Sea, the Waterlust 4-minute long video was launched 6 months later, coincidently during the International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) which takes place only every four years, and I could not be happier with the outcome. It’s making was a very educational and amazing journey that I’d love to share.

The short video is composed of three major parts: the narration, the footage, and the soundtrack.

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The Narration

Being familiar with my research on fish larvae, Patrick had a story board already in mind, but he asked me of I would prefer to do the narration myself. As far as I remember, water has been my sanctuary and since I am very passionate about my work and about freediving, I found it easy and fun to write the narration below. The hardest part was to make the story short enough to be told in 3-4 minutes. It took however coaching from Patrick to speak into a microphone and many repetitions alone in my office late at night, with complete silence to get it right!

I have always been drawn to the sea. As a kid, I imagined the magic of the aquatic realm and found comfort underwater, mesmerized by the sounds of waves on the shoals and of my heart beat slowing down.

I am a biological oceanographer and a free diver. The ocean is where I push my mind and my body. I study the earliest days of a fishs life, what we call its larval stage. All fish, even those that grow to become very large, begin their lives very small. They may be tiny, but weve learned they are far from defenseless. They are strong and self sufficient having evolved to survive the pelagic life. Like the mantra ek ong kar, they and the ocean are one.

Despite this, they must still find their way through the oceans currents to a safe home like a coral reef where they can live and grow. At first we thought some would find a suitable habitat by chance, while others would be lost in the vast ocean. But today we are discovering a different story. Fish larvae are skilled swimmers and work together by using the light from the sun, and the smells and sounds in the ocean to find their way home. Even when young, they are connected to the sea in ways we dont entirely understand. When I observe them, I cannot help but think they know something about this blue world that I don’t.

Unlike a fish, I cannot extract oxygen from the water. But with long, deep inhales, I have learned to fill my lungs with air and slow the beat of my heart. Underwater, I find peace listening to my pulse slowing down and the sound of water over my body. I sink as pressure increases and I feel the water running faster over my face. I imagine that I am just like the tiny fish I study.

I explore the ocean with others like me, learning how to hold my breath and extend each visit below, just a little bit longer. But no matter how hard I train.my body will eventually force me to leave and return home to the air. Sometimes.in my dreams, I imagine I could hold my breath forever. I feel free. I wonder if I could, would I ever come back?

The Soundtrack

The music actually came after the narration. Despite personal preference for cello or violin, I had to agree that the piano soundtrack chosen by the Waterlust team was perfectly in tune with the narration. They have a lot of experience putting together amazing videos with beautiful soundtracks so it did not take long for them to find the perfect fit.

The Footage

Most of the footage was the result of a weekend session done with the Waterlust team in the Florida Springs. We had a great time freediving with them and their creative angles. Before that, I started organizing all my footage together and Patrick reviewed it and figured out what more was needed. The video needed field and lab footage of larval fish. I had some unique video of groups of damselfish larvae navigating taken by my husband Ricardo (RSMAS Alumni) and I on the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago. This study was recently published in PLoS ONE in December 2015. However, the field of larval fish behavior is relatively undocumented. So Patrick came to my lab and took some radical video of mahi-mahi larvae (generously donated by my UM Rosenstiel School colleagues, Daniel Bennetti and Martin Grosell) with a macro lens shooting at 240 frames per second!

The video also needed freediving clips from travel or from competitions. My first competition was at Deja Blue in October 2013 and my latest trip was at the Dean’s Blue Hole this April 2016, where I regularly service an acoustic pressure instrument that records sounds in a marine sinkhole. However, we still needed some footage of the meditation practice that is part of my freediving training, and of course of the fun part of the freediving with “others like me”. We asked Waterlust Ambassador, Ashley Baird, to join us on that endeavor. Ashley is from central Florida and also a competitive free diver and a great friend, so she was perfect for the role and she kindly accepted!

The best part of making the video was hanging out with the amazing Waterlust team,at Ginnie Springs around a fire camp and freediving under the moonlight. It was my first time visiting the Florida springs. I could not believe that after so many years in Miami, I had missed such natural beauty in Central Florida. The freshwater is so clear that you can see the refraction of the hammocks on the Snell’s window from the bottom of the sink holes.

I hope you enjoy the video and that it will inspire more documentaries of our scientific research at RSMAS and of our passion for the ocean.


Claire Paris, Professor – Department of Ocean Sciences, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Claire Paris-Limouzy leads the RSMAS Physical-Biological Interactions Lab and is a champion free-diver.



Connecting Fish and Corals

A new study by UM Rosenstiel School researchers tracked the dispersal of coral and fish larvae on Caribbean reefs and found that fish populations are generally a more interconnected, cohesive unit on reefs than coral populations, with a few exceptions. The UM Rosenstiel School-led study is the first-of-its-kind to use a numerical modeling approach to address connectivity – the exchange of offspring and larvae between geographically disconnected populations – for multiple species with very different life histories.

Trunkfish in the Dry Tortugas. Photo Credit: Jiangang Luo/ UM RSMAS

Trunkfish in the Dry Tortugas. Photo Credit: Jiangang Luo/ UM RSMAS

Understanding connectivity is important for the management of species and networks of marine protected areas. Connectivity enhances resilience of the ecosystem to harmful events, such as bleaching, overfishing and hurricanes, by providing new recruits from distant locations to the damaged reefs.

“The study was motivated by the complexity of conservation efficacy for coral reef ecosystems that are composed of so many different species,” said Rosenstiel School Professor Claire Paris, corresponding author of the paper. “Larval connectivity models contribute valuable information for the protection of marine habitats, especially as the potential for further reef fragmentation and other physical changes to the environment alter both the habitat and the biology of coral reef organisms and their larvae.”

Using the Connectivity Modeling System (CMS), a Rosenstiel School open source numerical model developed in Paris lab, the study tracked larval exchange between more than 3,200 reef areas in the Caribbean for five different species of fish and coral over a five-year period. The researchers found that fish populations are generally more connected than coral populations, with the exception of reef-building corals, which share similar connectivity dynamics for some specific Caribbean regions. For these regions that were identified thanks to high-computing techniques, management can be similar for all species and reef conservation may rely on regional connectivity networks.  This is not the case for other regions that require more species-specific management practices, typically at more local levels as well.

Elkhorn Coral  Photo Credit: NOAA

Elkhorn Coral
Photo Credit: NOAA

The study was published as a Special Feature article in the March 3, 2014 issue of the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series. The paper’s authors include: UM alumni Daniel Holstein, currently a post-doctoral research associate at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, and well-known reef ecologist Peter Mumby.

A Bull of a Challenge

RSMAS Researcher Assistant Professor Neil Hammerschlag is one of 10 finalists in the Ocean180 video challenge. His research video, ”Bite Size: Bull Shark Predation of Tarpon,” delves into a recent study on the movements of bull sharks and tarpon in South Florida waters. Through satellite tracking, the study reveals some unique behaviors by the large predatory fish in order to avoid becoming bull shark prey.

Sponsored by the Florida Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence (COSEE Florida) and funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Ocean 180 Video Challenge was designed to inspire scientists to communicate the meaning and significance of scientific research with a broader audience.

Over 40,000 middle-school student judges from around the world are now reviewing the top 10 video abstracts. The winners will be announced in late February 2014.

RSMAS Science Highlights of 2011

RSMAS was a busy place for cutting-edge science this year. Here’s a look back at the top research studies that made headlines in 2011 and the latest science and education from Virginia Key and beyond.

Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s study of one hammerhead shark’s lone journey to New Jersey made headlines in early 2011 as did Dr. Lisa Beal’s ongoing research on the Agulhas Current and its link to global change change.

Coral reefs made news this year, including from a newly published study by Dr. Diego Lirman that showed Florida’s reefs cannot endure a ‘cold snap’ and from a study of Papua New Guinea reefs by Dr. Chris Langdon that suggests ocean acidification may reduce reef diversity.


Before the year closed, Dr. Shimon Wdowinski presented a new study at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco that showed tropical cyclones could trigger earthquakes.

RSMAS scientists and student were part of many new and ongoing research expeditions. Researchers and students from RSMAS joined an international team on a six-month field campaign in the Indian Ocean, known as DYNAMO. They are studying how tropical weather brews over the region and moves eastward along the equator, with reverberating effects around the entire globe. Follow the ongoing work from the scientists.

Meanwhile, it was a busy end of the year for Lisa Beal and her research team who embarked on a month-long expedition to the waters off of South Africa to understand how one of the world’s strongest ocean currents – the Agulhas Current – is both affected by climate change and also has an effect on climate change.

On the academic side of RSMAS life, the Masters of Professional Science program was in full swing this year and the newly acquired Broad Key Research Station welcomed its first cohort of students to study the coral reef ecosystems of the Florida Keys. Finally, joint degrees in law and marine affairs was launched at UM to provide students with a unique educational opportunity to tackle environmental issues.

As 2011 comes to a close, RSMAS faculty, researchers and students are looking forward to another busy and exciting year in 2012 filled with new scientific discoveries and educational opportunities.

Tell us about your research plans for 2012.

One Tiny Fish’s Struggle for Survival

The most important fish in the sea is facing an uphill battle for survival.

The Atlantic menhaden—a type of herring—is highly sought after by both fish and fisherman. Menhaden, also known as “bunker” or “pogy” to many anglers, is being fished at unsustainable rates and its population has plunged down below 10 percent of historic levels.

RSMAS Marine Biology & Fisheries Professor Jerry Ault is worried about these little plankton-eating fish and the ripple effect their dwindling numbers could send through the entire U.S. Atlantic coast marine ecosystem.

The coastal migration of menhaden schools intersects with the movements—and stomachs—of many larger and more highly valued predators. In Florida, the “Silver King” (Atlantic tarpon), king mackerel, sharks, cobia, and birds like brown pelicans, bald eagles, and ospreys, as well as Royal and Sandwich terns all rely upon these tiny fish to fuel their migrations.

“Wherever they travel, Atlantic menhaden feed on plankton, converting it into fatty, high-nutrient tissue that larger fish then readily consume to fuel their own migrations,” Ault explains. “All of these larger fish need the rich menhaden flesh for sustenance and reproductive power.”

In Chesapeake Bay, they are the primary diet for striped bass, bluefish and weakfish. As they head south for the winter, they cross paths with Atlantic tarpon off the Florida coast. When they head north again in late spring and summer, as far as the waters off Cape Cod, they become prey to bluefin tuna as well as many other ocean giants.

“If allowed to continue unchecked, the unsustainable fishing of menhaden could create a domino effect that cascades throughout east coast fisheries, potentially forcing the collapse of not only this fishery, but also other economically critical fisheries,” says Ault.

More of these tiny fish are caught per ton than any other fish on the East Coast, all for their rich, nutritious meat. Hundreds of millions of menhaden are hauled in annually, ground up, and reduced to fish meal and oil for human dietary supplements, such as like omega-3 fatty acid pills or processed into pet foods, fertilizers, and feed for agricultural animals, as well as farm-raised fish.

During a critical meeting in November, Ault urged the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the inter-governmental body that manages the fishery and sets fishing levels, to support the science to better protect the small but mighty fish that plays a vital role in keeping our oceans healthy.

In an overwhelming vote of 14 to 3, the commission took the first step by agreeing to reduce harvest of Atlantic menhaden by 37 percent compared to 2010 levels.

“The action by the commission sets limits on the fishery and with the new reference points they adopted over the next few years the amount of menhaden left in the ocean will quadruple,” said Ault.

Watch this video to learn more about Ault’s fisheries research in the Dry Tortugas.

Annie Reisewitz
Follow Annie on Twitter @annelore

Cobia Leave For Panama; Mahi Added to Line-up at UM Aquaculture

It’s hard to believe it’s already November. Time flies at the UM Experimental Hatchery (UMEH) when you’re busy making babies… fish babies, that is! The Aquaculture crew wrapped up this summer with an impressive total production of 100,000 cobia fingerlings. A large part of these fingerlings were shipped over to Open Blue Sea Farms in Panama to grow out in cages about seven-miles offshore. We are proud to say that two of our own students, Dan Farkus and Pat Dunaway, were also “shipped over” to Open Blue Sea Farms. They were recruited to work there incorporating UMEH hatchery technology that has been developed for cobia within Open Blue Sea Farm’s facilities. A big shout out to them for the first 25,000 cobia production run at Open Blue Sea Farms, definitely a success story to write home about!

Meanwhile, here at RSMAS we have added a new and very familiar species to our aquaculture lineup, the famous mahi-mahi (dolphin). This most recent addition brings us to five species at the hatchery: mahi-mahi, blackfin tuna, goggle-eyes, Florida pompano, and cobia. The mahi-mahi have been successfully spawning and the mahi fingerlings are growing day-by-day at the hatchery, a must see if you have not yet stopped by UMEH. Trials will be run on the mahi-mahi looking at metabolic rates and energy budgets for this species in relation to aquaculture feasibility. This will aid in the development of the technology to sustainably raise fish in captivity, such as mahi-mahi, to meet growing demands for seafood.

Cobias are also being extensively worked with for nutritional trials, which will continue through the winter. UMEH students and post-docs are replacing a percentage of the fishmeal that goes into cobia feed with soy meal replacement. This will help solve many problems that are inherent in Aquaculture such as environmental sustainability (heard of Fish In–Fish Out?) and improve economics when providing nutrition to the fish. The goggle-eyes, which is a well-known and expensive baitfish is also getting a very nice upgrade soon to a 30-ton brood stock tank. As of right now UMEH are the only ones working on bringing this coveted baitfish to the aquaculture industry.

This semester has brought in new eager personalities to the RSMAS Aquaculture facilities. Good thing too as we needed extra hands to help organize a tour at the Aquaculture facilities for the Society of Environmental Journalists 2011 Conference. UMEH hosted about 30 journalists from around the globe on a guided tour of UMEH facilities, including the research stations mentioned above before hunkering down in the seminar room for a conference with RSMAS Aquaculture Director – Dr. Daniel Benetti, as well as Lisa Krimsky – Florida Sea Grant Agent (Miami-Dade), and Mike Sutton – Director of the Center for the Future of Oceans (Monterey Bay Aquarium).

It’s been an exciting start to the Academic year at the UM Experimental Hatchery… we’re all looking forward for what more is to come… stay tuned!

— UM student Melissa Pelaez
Follow Melissa on Twitter @BlueAquaculture