Scientists find news species of carnivorous sponge in deep waters off Southern California

Associated Press

This 2013 photo provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute shows a manipulator arm on Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s remotely operated vehicle collecting a Cladorhiza caillieti sponge growing on a piece of carbonate crust on the seafloor off the coast of Southern California. Researchers at MBARI say they have discovered a new species of poisonous sponge, described as a twig-like carnivore that is able to survive on the dark, frigid ocean floor, just northwest of La Jolla, U-T San Diego reported. (AP Photo/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN DIEGO –  Scientists using a remote-controlled robot submersible have discovered a new species of poisonous sponge in deep waters off San Diego.

Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute were studying bacteria and other life around a methane seep at a depth of 3,340 feet when they came across the strange sponge just northwest of La Jolla, U-T San Diego reported Tuesday ( ).

They described it as a twig-like carnivore that is able to survive on the dark, frigid ocean floor. It is similar to three other sponge species found along the U.S. West Coast and the Mexican state of Baja California.

“Killer sponges sound like creatures from a B-grade horror movie. In fact, they thrive in the lightless depths of the deep sea,” the aquarium research center said in a statement.

The institute said scientists first discovered that some sponges are carnivorous 20 years ago. Since then, only seven carnivorous species have been found in all of the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

Kim Fulton-Bennett, a spokesperson for the aquarium research institute, told the newspaper the sponge was spotted by the remotely operated vehicle Doc Ricketts.

Scientists named the species Asbestopluma rickettsi, in honor of biologist Ed Ricketts, a main character in John Steinbeck’s famous novel “Cannery Row.”

The sponge was living near colonies of clams and tubeworms that use bacteria to obtain nutrition from methane seeping out of the seafloor.


Information from: U-T San Diego,

Sponges likely paved the way for all life on earth
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    Agelas clathrodes or orange elephant ear sponge. (NOAA)

The seemingly lowly sponge, just by its very existence, might have paved the way for the evolution of complex life forms, including our own species, according to a new paper.

Sponges appear to have added oxygen to the deep ocean, creating an environment where more mobile, major oxygen-using animals could have evolved, holds the paper, published in the latest Nature Geoscience.

The research builds on work, presented earlier this year, which found that the most primitive sponges probably could survive in water containing very low levels of oxygen.

“There had been enough oxygen in ocean surface waters for over 1.5 billion years before the first animals evolved, but the dark depths of the ocean remained devoid of oxygen,” lead author Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter was quoted as saying in a press release. “We argue that the evolution of the first animals could have played a key role in the widespread oxygenation of the deep oceans. This in turn may have facilitated the evolution of more complex, mobile animals.”

Several lines of evidence support the theory. DNA analysis finds that the earliest sponges likely first emerged at least 700 million years ago, when the oceans contained little oxygen. Between 700 and 600 million years ago, the oceans gradually became more oxygenated, meaning more enriched with oxygen. Fossils of animals dating to 650 million years ago have been found.

Then there is the way that sponges feed. These multicellular organisms consist of pores and channels that allow nutrient-containing water to circulate through them.

As sponges feed, they filter out tiny particles of organic matter from the water. The particles millions of years ago would have included dead microbial matter, which rots and consumes oxygen as it does so. Sponges therefore helped to clean water of this material. Without all of the rotting going on, the water would have experienced increased oxygen levels, the researchers suggest.

More oxygen in the water then set the stage for even more complex life forms to emerge, such as the first predatory animals with guts that started to eat one another, marking the beginning of a modern marine ecosystem, with the type of food webs we are familiar with today.

It is widely accepted that the first terrestrial animals evolved from marine species. Mammals, including humans, are a class of animals that evolved from terrestrial species.

The jump from sponges to humans is, of course, a long one, but many researchers believe that sponges are the most likely candidate for an “Animal Eve,” referring to a single group of organisms that, through many stages of evolution, gave rise to all animals alive today.

The latest research also helps to answer a chicken-and-egg-type question: Which came first, a lot of sponges, or an oxygenated ocean deep? The answer, at least according to Lenton and his team, is the former.

“The effects we predict suggest that the first animals, far from being a passive response to rising atmospheric oxygen, were the active agents that oxygenated the ocean around 600 million years ago,” he said. “They created a world in which more complex animals could evolve, including our very distant ancestors.”

HMS Bounty sinking — captain sailed into Superstorm Sandy because he was afraid of bad mojo
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    The tall ship Bounty was photographed from a Coast Guard aircraft just before the vessel sank off North Carolina in October 2012, killing the captain and a crew member. (NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD)

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    FILE 2012: file photo, a replica of the historic ship HMS Bounty, is moored beside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, M.D. The National Transportation Safety Board says the former captain of a replica 18th-century sailing ship that sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy made a reckless decision to sail into the storm.

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    Damage to buildings from superstorm Sandy in Seaside Heights seen on aerial tour of the Atlantic Coast in New Jersey taken from helicopter following US President Obama on Marine One helicopter. (AP)

The captain of the HMS Bounty and crewmate Claudene Christian died solely because he made undeniably wrong decisions for inexcusable reasons. That’s what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concludes in its report on the sinking of the tall ship Bounty on Oct. 29, 2012, in the midst of Superstorm Sandy.

Incredibly, the tragedy was prompted in part by the captain’s superstition that leaving port on a Friday brings bad luck.

That is one reason he insisted on sailing into the storm’s track rather than waiting a day for the path to clear, according to testimony of several crew members cited in the NTSB report.

Walbridge chose to sail into Sandy with a ship full of makeshifts, a ship and crew not exactly right.

Captain Robin Walbridge put his ship and his crew up against one of the worst hurricanes of recent memory because he was afraid of some bad mojo.

He compounded that recklessness with astoundingly wrong decisions to proceed in his always-leaking ship even though the ship’s bilge pumps were not working properly and then to cut directly across the path of the storm.

When Scottish novelist John Buchan wrote of the lessons learned by English seamen, he said chief among them was that “the sea endured no makeshifts. If a thing is not exactly right it will be vastly wrong.”

Walbridge chose to sail into Sandy with a ship full of makeshifts, a ship and crew not exactly right.

The easily foreseeable result was that it succumbed to its own poor condition and the battering of Sandy, costing the captain and a crew member their lives. Fourteen others were traumatized by their near deaths.

As I explain in my book, “The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty and a Courageous Rescue at Sea, ” the surviving crew members of the Bounty have been fiercely loyal to their late captain, refusing to criticize his actions even under oath at the hearings conducted by the NTSB and the U.S. Coast Guard. The NTSB report, however, lays all the blame for the Bounty loss on Walbridge, and rightly so.

The NTSB concludes that every fatal decision was made by the captain alone – deciding to sail into the storm, when to sail, what path to take, whether to turn back, and when to call for help. With a pitiful over-confidence now seen clearly, “the captain seemed to believe that he could outrace the storm,” the report concludes.

The only questionable part of the NTSB report is how the ship’s owner, Robert Hansen, is essentially exonerated of having influenced Walbridge to sail into the hurricane.

There has been speculation that, along with the captain’s desire to make a scheduled charity event in Florida, Hansen may have pressured Walbridge into sailing because Hansen was trying to sell the Bounty for $4 million and wanted to gamble on outracing the storm rather than having it battered in port. Hansen pled the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying at the hearings, raising eyebrows but leaving the NTSB with nothing to support that theory.

“No evidence suggests that the captain was under any pressure to risk both vessel and crew” by sailing into the hurricane, the NTSB concludes.

That statement will surely be used by Hansen’s attorneys in settlement talks with the family of 42-year-old Christian, the crew member who died.

Her mother, understandably bitter and seeking a pound of flesh, is suing Hansen and the Bounty organization for $90 million.

The Coast Guard report that is expected soon almost certainly will reach the same conclusion as the NTSB, laying blame on the one man who at several critical junctures had the ability, the experience, and the resources to make the right decision, yet made the wrong decision every time.

The surviving crew of the Bounty will be pained to hear that the man they so deeply respected, and whose loss they still mourn, is being held solely responsible for the tragedy.

One can only hope that they take away the last lesson their captain can teach them: superstition and hubris is no way to run a ship.


Gregory A. Freeman is author of “The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea” (New American Library 2013).

Fla. marine scientists blocked from Cuba research

Associated Press
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    Jan. 26, 2014: A police officer stands guard at the Malecon in Havana, Cuba. (AP PHOTO/DESMOND BOYLAND)

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    Jan. 26, 2014: Tourists ride in a classic American car that serves as a taxi in Malecon in Havana, Cuba. (AP PHOTO/DESMOND BOYLAND)

TAMPA, FLA. –  Marine biologists who study the Gulf of Mexico have a joke: The FBI, the DEA, the CIA — none of them have anything on scientists when it comes to tracking the flow of secretive traffic between Cuba and the United States.

“They have not gotten the memo,” quipped David Vaughan, with Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory, whose international criminals are not spies but spiny lobsters — as well as sharks and dolphins. “They are constantly breaking the travel embargo.”

But one group of scientists isn’t laughing any more, instead watching helplessly as they become the next punch line in marine biology.

Like all employees of Florida’s public universities, scientists are prohibited by a law passed in 2006 from using state money for travel to Cuba.

More than most scientists, though, marine biologists see access to the communist island nation just 90 miles of Florida’s shores as the difference between success and failure in their field.

‘It is more difficult for us in Florida than any other state in the US to work with Cuba.’

– Donald Behringer, an assistant professor at University of Florida

Now, they’re being left further behind as researchers from other states and from private institutions in Florida scramble to take advantage of new signs that Cuba relations are improving: an easing of travel restrictions by the White House, an agreement to cooperate in oil spills, even a tour by the University of Tampa baseball team.

Scientists already have begun collaborating with their counterparts in Cuba on research that could reverse the deterioration of coral reefs, prevent overfishing, and lead to better understanding of the gulf ecosystem.

They’re doing work that could benefit Florida. They’re just not from USF, the University of Florida or Florida State University.

“We are connected,” said Donald Behringer, an assistant professor at UF’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation & Emerging Pathogens Institute. “In order to understand our own ecosystem we also have to understand Cuba’s.

“Unfortunately, it is more difficult for us in Florida than any other state in the United States to work with Cuba.”


Senate Bill 2434, titled “Travel To Terrorist State,” forbids money that flows through a state university — including grants from private foundations — to be used for travel to a nation on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba is on the list.

Sponsored by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, the bill was passed in 2006 without a single no vote in either the Florida House or Senate then signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Florida is the only state in the country with such a prohibition.

Professors can use their own money to travel to Cuba for research, but only on personal time. And it’s an expensive trip.

“I’ve been able to cobble together money for a plane ticket and go to Cuba a few times,” said Behringer, “but it’s hard. Faculty members from other states can use research money to pay their way. This puts Florida schools at a disadvantage.”

An American who worked on a new oil spill cleanup protocol involving five gulf nations, including the U.S. and Cuba, said he is confident this agreement will pave the way for future collaboration on environmental issues between the U.S. and Cuba.

When that day comes, said Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund, protocols will be based on research projects already under way.

The oil spill agreement, brokered and advanced through meetings in Tampa, awaits publication by the Coast Guard before it becomes official.

“There is so much expertise at public universities in Florida,” said Whittle, who directs the fund’s work on marine and coastal ecosystems in Cuba. “It’s a shame their hands are so tied.”


Researcher Vaughan, director of tropical research with the private Mote Marine Laboratory, said new agreements and protocols will be an opportunity for U.S. scientists to make contributions to the environment they once thought impossible because of politics. Vaughan specializes in coral reefs and works with Cuban scientists.

Shut out of these new opportunities, Florida’s public school professors fear losing out on more than a role in new discoveries. Florida may also lose out on attracting the brightest marine biology students.

The University of North Carolina, for example, has an annual student summer expedition to Cuba to study the coral reefs off its shores. The University of Tampa has a marine biology department and though it has no plans to visit Cuba, other departments at the private school and the baseball team have.

“Obtaining knowledge is always important,” said Frank Muller-Karger, a professor at the USF College of Marine Science. “Sure, we can learn what another researcher discovered in Cuba. But top students want to develop knowledge.”

Proponents of the 2006 act said at the time that any travel to Cuba financially supports an oppressive regime.

Gov. Rick Scott, asked about the lingering impact on Florida universities, echoed that sentiment in a statement to the Tribune last week.

“Governor Scott is committed to growing opportunities so Florida families can succeed and live the American Dream,” said John Tupps, Scott’s deputy press secretary, “and he is firmly opposed to the Castro regime that works to oppress such opportunity and freedom.”


State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes the University of South Florida, was part of the unanimous vote in 2006 but says now that times have changed.

“It’s a different world today,” Joyner said. “We need to acknowledge that.”

There are no signs today of efforts to overturn the law, even at the university level.

USF issued this statement to The Tampa Tribune last week: “The University of South Florida stands for the core values of academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge and ideas in the least restrictive environment possible. The current restrictions were enacted in the political process and we recognize that is where they will be resolved.”

Of the six marine biology professors from state universities who were asked for comment on the issue, all agreed the law hurts their institutions, but only Behringer from UF and USF’s Muller-Karger would speak on the record against it.

The others said they were concerned about getting involved in politics.

Muller-Karger had this response: “The reaction you describe shows that people are actually quite worried about how the state may interpret their interest in working these issues, or just worried stiff about speaking about a binding Florida law.”

He added, “This has nothing to do with politics. It is about knowledge, managing our resources and doing what is best for our environment.”

The law forbidding state money from funding trips to Cuba affects other disciplines.

Those studying Latin American art, music, language, politics, geology and history could benefit from visiting the Communist nation. But marine biology stands out as a field where advances in research stand to directly benefit the state of Florida more than any other region on earth.

“So no one else is as affected by what goes on in Cuban waters than Florida” said Muller-Karger.

Marine biologists call it “connectivity.”


For instance, spiny lobsters served in Tampa restaurants could have hatched from eggs laid in Cuba and made their way to Florida in the Gulf’s currents. Much of the snapper and grouper that supports Florida’s fish industry could also originate in or pass through Cuban waters.

To better understand this marine life, scientists track their travels between the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, Florida and Cuba. Learning where each species originates can help in reaching agreements on fishing limits and other protective measures.

Still, coral reefs are the top priority for U.S. marine biologists working with Cuba.

Scientists predict that by 2050, all coral reefs will be in danger from pollution and changes in water temperature and sea levels.

Natural reefs in Martin, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties generate an estimated $3.4 billion in income a year through recreation, education and science.

More importantly, reefs protect coasts by reducing wave energy from storms and hurricanes. And as home to more than 4,000 species of fish and countless species of plants, coral reefs support some 25 percent of all known marine species.

Whether a coral reef is off the shores of Cuba or the U.S., the waters they share suffers from its degradation. In addition, coral larvae from Cuba finds its way to reefs in Florida and vice versa.

So if a reef in Cuba disappears, it has a ripple effect, said John Bruno, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina.

“If the coral babies in Florida come from Cuba,” Bruno said, “then that would be a big problem for the state.”


Bruno’s students travel annually to Cuba and the reef they seek out most is the pristine “Gardens of the Queen,” or Jardines de la Reina.

Most of Cuba’s reefs are in decline, said Vaughan of Mote Marine, but “la Reina” remains healthy.

He believes U.S. researchers can help other reefs by learning its secret to survival.

Cuba, in turn, can benefit from more advanced U.S. technology, said Whittle with the Environmental Defense Fund.

A forum was established in 2007 to formalize this kind of cooperation — the Tri-National Workshop, attended by top marine biologists from Mexico, Cuba and the U.S.

They meet at least once a year on issues affecting turtles, sharks, dolphins, coral reefs, fisheries and marine protected areas.

“We can learn more by working with other country’s scientists,” Whittle said. “We share their knowledge, we share ours, and we work together to find out how we can help one another.”

Mote Marine, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy are private, U.S.-based participants.

Florida’s public universities are not at the table. Neither is U.S., making it the only of the three nations without government involvement.

“We’re working together,” Vaughan said, “to find out answers to things we could not know as individuals.”

Captain made ‘reckless decision’ in sailing HMS Bounty into Superstorm Sandy, report says

Associated Press
  • Bounty.jpg

    The tall ship Bounty was photographed from a Coast Guard aircraft just before the vessel sank off North Carolina in October 2012, killing the captain and a crew member. (NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD)

  • SuperStorm10.jpg

    FILE 2012: file photo, a replica of the historic ship HMS Bounty, is moored beside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, M.D. The National Transportation Safety Board says the former captain of a replica 18th-century sailing ship that sank off North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy made a reckless decision to sail into the storm.

NORFOLK, VA. –  The captain of a replica 18th-century sailing ship that sank off North Carolina in Superstorm Sandy made a reckless decision to sail the HMS Bounty into the hurricane’s well-forecast path, the National Transportation Safety Board reported Monday.

The three-masted wooden sailing ship sank about 125 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras in October 2012 as Sandy churned up the Atlantic seaboard. The newly released NTSB report said Capt. Robin Walbridge’s “reckless decision” to sail into the storm subjected the aging vessel and its inexperienced crew to conditions they couldn’t surmount.

One member of the HMS Bounty’s 16-person-crew died and Walbridge was never found after the sinking off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, an ocean expanse with a history of shipwrecks. Three other crew members aboard the vessel — built for the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Marlon Brando — were seriously injured.

“It was an end to a voyage that should not have been attempted. To set sail into an approaching hurricane introduced needless risk”

– NTSB report

“Although this wooden ship was modeled after an 18th century vessel, the captain had access to 21st century hurricane modeling tools that predicted the path and severity of Hurricane Sandy,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. “The Bounty’s crew was put into an extraordinarily hazardous situation through decisions that by any measure didn’t prioritize safety.”

Superstorm Sandy was one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history. Although it had weakened to a post-tropical cyclone when it made landfall in New Jersey, its enormous size pushed a catastrophic storm surge toward much of the heavily populated East Coast.

Besides “Mutiny on the Bounty” the ship was featured in several other films over the years, including one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. When not in use by moviemakers, the ship was a pierside attraction for visitors in ports and also served as an educational ship that taught people how to sail.

The 108-foot-long ship set sail from New London, Conn., for St. Petersburg, Fla. on Oct. 25, 2012, a day after Sandy reached hurricane strength. The plan was for the Bounty to arrive in St. Petersburg for a Nov. 10 event. But early in the morning of Oct. 29, 2012, the ship sank after taking on more than 10 feet of water. Crew members had to swim for their lives in the dark when the ship overturned.

“It was an end to a voyage that should not have been attempted. To set sail into an approaching hurricane introduced needless risk,” the NTSB report says.

During testimony last February at a Coast Guard hearing in Portsmouth, Va., surviving crew members repeatedly said Walbridge believed a ship was safer at sea in a storm than in port. Before sailing, Walbridge told nervous crew that his plan was to sail the Bounty on a southeasterly course and let the hurricane pass southwest of it.

But as the ship headed south, the path of the storm changed and began heading west. Walbridge, too, decided to head west — directly into Sandy’s path.

“It is possible that the captain may have focused too narrowly on the position of the storm’s eye instead of on Sandy’s total expanse,” said the NTSB report, noting storm winds spanned more than 1,000 miles in diameter, and that the Bounty was heading into an area already under tropical storm warnings.

“Still, the captain seemed to believe that he could outrace the storm,” the NTSB report added.

It said Walbridge had hoped winds around the storm system would push the vessel southwest toward Florida, but that he and senior crew seemingly failed to anticipate the effect prolonged exposure to the storm would have on the wooden vessel.

While the NTSB report details numerous events leading to the sinking, it places the bulk of the blame on Walbridge.

Among other things, it noted that while the Bounty took on water even in good sailing conditions, he gave no order to ensure the ship’s pumps were fully working before leaving Connecticut even though rough seas were expected. Some wood rot also had been recently discovered on the ship, the NTSB said.

The report also says the ship’s parent organization showed a lack of effective safety oversight.

The HMS Bounty Organization is facing a $70 million lawsuit in Long Island, N.Y., from the mother of deceased crewmember Claudene Christian, 42. The lawsuit claims negligence, saying the vessel wasn’t seaworthy and that Walbridge shouldn’t have taken it out to sea. The Bounty’s former engineer, Christopher Barksdale, is also suing the East Setauket, N.Y.-based Bounty organization and its owner for an unspecified amount.

During the 2013 Coast Guard hearing, the owner of the HMS Bounty, Robert Hansen, declined to testify by invoking his Fifth Amendment right to be protected from incriminating himself.

An email to Hansen’s attorneys wasn’t immediately returned late Monday.

Message in a bottle released by Mass. scientist in 1956 found

Associated Press
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    A glass bottle that had contained a message from the institution, which was recovered on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, by biologist Warren N. Joyce of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (AP)

BOSTON –  It was April 1956, and the No. 1 song was Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel.” At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, scientist Dean Bumpus was busy releasing glass bottles in a large stretch of the Atlantic Ocean.

Nearly 58 years later, a biologist studying grey seals off Nova Scotia found one of the bottles in a pile of debris on a beach, 300 miles from where it was released.

“It was almost like finding treasure in a way,” Warren Joyce said Friday.

The drift bottle was among thousands dumped in the Atlantic Ocean between 1956 and 1972 as part of Bumpus’ study of surface and bottom currents. About 10 percent of the 300,000 bottles have been found over the years.

Joyce found the bottle Jan. 20 on Sable Island, about 185 miles southeast of Halifax.

He contacted scientists at Woods Hole and dutifully gave them the time and place information Bumpus had asked for in a postcard inside the bottle. His reward will be exactly what Bumpus promised in 1956 to anyone who returned a bottle: a 50-cent piece.

“I didn’t want the reward, but they said they are sending it to me anyway,” Joyce said, chuckling.

Joyce said the bottle had been sand-blasted over about 75 percent of its surface. He could still read the words, “Break This Bottle,” so he pried off the rubber stopper. Inside, there was a note from Bumpus explaining that the bottle was among many being released to study the ocean.

In those days, there was no other way to study currents, said Steven Jayne, a senior scientist at Woods Hole.

“We didn’t have satellites to track currents like we do now. So the only thing you could do was to see where something started and where it ended up,” he said. “That was a pretty good approach.”

Using the number on the postcard, Woods Hole workers tracked the bottle found by Joyce to a group of 12 released not far off Nova Scotia on April 26, 1956.

Woods Hole archivist David Sherman said three other bottles from the same batch were found within a few months after they were dropped in the ocean: two in Nova Scotia and a third in Eastham, on Cape Cod. There’s no way to tell for sure when the bottle Joyce found washed up on Sable Island, but judging by its sand-worn condition, it may have been there for decades, Sherman said.

Bumpus needed thousands upon thousands of empty bottles for his well-intentioned littering of the seas. In September 1959, he solicited colleagues’ help, writing in a memo: “All hands are respectfully requested (until further notice) to bring their dead soldiers to the lab and deposit them in the box just inside the gate. Whiskey, rum, beer, wine or champagne bottles will be used to make drift bottles. Any clean bottles — 8 oz. to one quart in size will be gratefully received. Bottoms up!”

Bumpus died in 2002. About 270,000 of his bottles remain unaccounted for, Sherman said.

“Some of them were probably damaged, some were probably kept as keepsakes, and the rest, who knows? We may find some more in the future,” he said.

“I think everybody loves to find a message in a bottle.”

Aliens didn’t do it! Underwater ‘fairy rings’ explained

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    Eelgrass circles grow in the shallow water off the chalky cliffs of Denmark’s island of Mon. (JACOB T. JOHANSEN, JOURNALIST)

They’re not the work of World War II bombs or aliens or fairies. Instead, mysterious underwater rings spotted off the coast of Denmark are the result of poison, biologists say.

Striking rings of green eelgrass some of them up to 49 feet wide can occasionally be spotted in the clear Baltic water off the coast of Denmark’s island of Mn. The formations were captured in tourist photos in 2008 and again in 2011, sparking the type of speculation that’s usually reserved for crop circles.

But biologists Marianne Holmer from University of Southern Denmark and Jens Borum from University of Copenhagen assure that the circles have “nothing to do with either bomb craters or landing marks for aliens.” [In Photos: Mysterious Crop Circles]

“Nor with fairies, who in the old days got the blame for similar phenomena on land, the fairy rings in lawns being a well known example,” Holmer and Borum said in a statement.

The biologists concluded that the rings formed because of the radiating pattern in which the eelgrass grows and dies when exposed to toxins. In the mud around the eelgrass, the scientists detected high levels of sulfide, a substance that’s poisonous to eelgrass and can build up naturally in a chalky seabed like the one off Mn (or unnaturally when agricultural pollutants enter an ecosystem).

“Most mud gets washed away from the barren, chalky seabed, but like trees trap soil on an exposed hillside, eelgrass plants trap the mud,” Holmer and Borum explained. “And therefore there will be a high concentration of sulfide-rich mud among the eelgrass plants.”

Though it might resemble a type of seaweed, eelgrass is actually a flowering plant. And when it grows, it expands outward in all directions, creating circle-shaped colonies. While healthy adult eelgrass plants seem to be able to withstand the sulfide in their environment, the old plants at the heart of the colonies drop dead, the researchers said.

“The result is an exceptional circular shape, where only the rim of the circle survives like fairy rings in a lawn,” Holmer and Borum added.

Fairy rings in a lawn are typically blamed on the outward growth of fungi, but other fairy circles on land have long puzzled scientists. A famous example can be found in the desert grasslands of Namibia in southern Africa, where researchers have offered up a wide range of explanations for the vast field of circular patches, from ants and termites to gas seeps and resource competition.

The explanation for the eelgrass fair rings is detailed in this month’s edition of the journal Marine Biology.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Australia approves dumping dredged mud around Great Barrier Reef

How Green
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Australia approved a plan to dump large amounts of mud and sediment into the oceans surrounding the Great Barrier Reef — making room for developers to expand a coal port on the country’s eastern coast on Friday.

Environmentalists say the decision made by the government agency that oversees the Reef will endanger one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems.

“This is a sad day for the Reef and anyone who cares about its future,” World Wildlife Fund Great Barrier Reef campaigner Richard Leck said in a press release.

The federal government in December approved the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland, which requires a massive dredging operation to make way for ships entering and exiting the port. About 106 million cubic feet of dredged mud will be dumped within the marine park under the plan.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt has vowed that “some of the strictest conditions in Australian history” will be in place to protect the reef from harm, including water quality measures and safeguards for the reef’s plants and animals.

But outraged conservationists say the already fragile reef will be gravely threatened by the dredging, which will occur over a 455-acre area. Apart from the risk that the sediment will smother coral and seagrass, the increased shipping traffic will boost the risk of accidents, such as oil spills and collisions with delicate coral beds, environment groups argue.

On Friday, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority — the government manager of the 133,360 square mile protected marine zone — approved an application by the state-owned North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp. for a permit to dump the sediment within the marine park in a location that does not contain any coral or seagrass beds.

Bruce Elliot, general manager for the marine authority’s biodiversity, conservation and sustainable use division, said in a statement that strict conditions would be placed on the sediment disposal, including a water quality monitoring plan that will remain in place five years after the dumping is complete.

“By granting this permit application with rigorous safeguards, we believe we are able to provide certainty to both the community and the proponent while seeking to ensure transparent and best practice environmental management of the project,” Elliot said.

But environmentalists with the WWF were unconvinced that the Reef would be adequately protected.

“The World Heritage Committee will take a dim view of this decision which is in direct contravention of one of its recommendations. Committee members could decide at their June meeting in Doha to list the Reef as ‘World Heritage in Danger,” Leck said.

The ports corporation’s CEO Brad Fish has argued that the sediment has been extensively tested for contaminants and was found to be clean.

“This is natural sand and seabed materials … it’s what’s already there,” Fish said in an interview last month. “We’re just relocating it from one spot to another spot, in a like-per-like situation.”

Rachel Campbell, spokeswoman for the ports corporation, said the group didn’t anticipate the conditions would cause any delays to the dredging plans.

Australia is home to vast mineral deposits and a mining boom fueled by demand from China kept Australia’s economy strong during the global financial crisis. Though the boom is now cooling as demand from China slows, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his conservative government have vowed to focus their efforts on reviving the industry.

In a report released in 2012, UNESCO expressed concern about development along the reef, including ports, and warned that the marine park was at risk of being listed as a World Heritage site in danger.

In response, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said his government would protect the environment — but not at the expense of the state’s economy.

“We are in the coal business,” he said at the time. “If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that.”

Environmentalists were infuriated by Friday’s decision, saying that the reef is already vulnerable, having lost huge amounts of coral in recent decades to storm damage and coral-eating crown of thorns starfish.

“We are devastated. I think any Australian or anyone around the world who cares about the future of the reef is also devastated by this decision,” said Leck. “Exactly the wrong thing that you want to do when an ecosystem is suffering … is introduce another major threat to it — and that’s what the marine park authority has allowed to happen today.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

UK Fears Approach of Rat-Infested ‘Ghost Ship’


By Kate Seamons

  • A stock image of a ship (not the Lyubov Orlova). (AP PHOTO/MATT ROURKE)

The Russian “ghost ship” that was last heard from in March has all but vanished—but a flurry of reports now have it on a potential collision-course with Britain’s coast, and packed with rats.

Experts are warning that the Lyubov Orlova could be headed that way in the wake of recent storms, reports the Daily Record, though all reports are careful to point out that the ship’s current position is unknown.

It’s been quite the mysterious sail for the Lyubov Orlova, which was being towed from Canada to the Dominican Republic to be scrapped when a tug line broke last January, setting it adrift.

It was spotted some 1,300 nautical miles off off Ireland’s west coast about a month later, then disappeared, but signals were received on March 12 and 23.

The signals are thought to come from lifeboats that detached from the ship and hit the water, and while people have speculatedthat the 328-foot vessel sank, the Independent reports that some lifeboat signals remain unactivated, indicating it is still afloat.

The stomach-turning part of the reports: Hundreds of rats are believed to be populating the ship, and while the Independentcalls them “disease-ridden,” most other reports use the word “cannibal,” pointing out that they’ve likely been eating each other for survival.

One salvage hunter on the hunt for the ship tells the Sun, “If I get aboard I’ll have to lace everywhere with poison.” Click for moreon the ghost ship.

More From Newser

‘Excessive’: Marine biologist ends 7-year legal battle with feds over feeding whales


Barnini Chakraborty



Marine biologist Nancy Black was brought up on criminal charges for feeding whales.ALISA SHULMAN-JANIGER

WASHINGTON –  A Marine biologist who for seven years was hounded by federal authorities – after she made the mistake of feeding killer whales in the wild — has finally seen her case come to an end, pleading guilty earlier this week to a misdemeanor.

But her case has caught the attention of advocates who say this is another example of heavy-handed prosecution, making criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people while sidelining their careers.

“I never thought I would spend seven years of my life fighting the government over my devotion to researching marine animals,” Nancy Black, the defendant, told in an e-mail Thursday.

Black, who lives in California, landed on the feds’ radar in 2004, when prosecutors accused her of endangering the lives of humans by feeding killer whales in the wild. In a separate incident a year later, they accused her of doctoring a videotape that showed members of her crew harassing an endangered humpback whale in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and then lying about it.

Although similar instances in the past with other people had yielded fines, the government apparently was determined to make an example out of Black — and so they went after her. Hard. Before she eventually pleaded down to a misdemeanor, the original charges carried 27 years in prison.

“I have had to put my research and my life on hold because of this case but thanks to my legal team, I am able to start putting everything back together and get back to work,” Black said Thursday.

Black is the first person to be criminally charged with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits feeding marine mammals in the wild.

She knows what she did was against the law.

“I made a mistake,” Black told a federal judge before bursting into tears. “I’ve learned a big lesson.”

But critics say the bigger lesson may be in how the feds handled her case – calling it another example of over-criminalization.

The government’s original charges could have carried 27 years behind bars, a $700,000 fine and forfeiture of her research vessel.

The case originally stemmed from an April 25, 2004 incident when Black was on her boat in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

According to court documents, she and her assistants found a place where orcas, commonly known as killer whales, had killed a gray whale calf.

She was observing the orcas as they fed on pieces of gray whale blubber that had been floating in the water. Black and her crew grabbed the blubber, cut a hole through the corner chunk and ran a rope through it. They returned the blubber to the water and repeated the process to monitor the feeding habits of the whale.

Neither Black nor her crew had a permit to do so.

The lingering legal drama has already crippled her scientific career, bankrupted her business and damaged her reputation.

Earlier this week, her legal ordeal came to an end when she pleaded guilty to violating the MMPA. She was sentenced to three years of probation, $12,500 in fines and 300 hours of community service.

Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein who helped negotiate the deal along with Black’s other defense attorneys, says the original charges against Black “certainly seemed excessive” and warns her case is a cautionary tale.

“Providing pro bono assistance to individuals like Nancy Black allows Cause of Action to fight back against overzealous and unfair prosecutions in order to preserve the rule of law and economic opportunities for all Americans,” Epstein said in a statement to “While we don’t understand why the federal government took aggressive actions against her, we hope Ms. Black will be able to quickly get back to her successful whale-watching business and her research.”

Prosecutor Christopher Hale told The Associated Press that Black’s crime raised the danger that the whales would come to associate humans with food.

“When wild animals are fed by humans, they learn to lose their natural wariness,” he said. “That can lead to devastating effect.”

Although Hale said he had never heard of a person being attacked by a whale, he added, “Who wants to be Patient Zero to be eaten by a killer whale because they’re chumming for them.?”

Calls to Hale’s office by were not immediately returned.

For Black, whose work has appeared on PBS and National Geographic, trying to get her life and business back on track is a priority.

“Unfortunately, the toll this case has taken is hard to erase, and I hope no other scientists, or other people for that matter, face similar situations,” she told