Barracuda bonanza

Today, after a one-day hiatus, we were back in the field, or rather, back on the reef. On Thursday, Noelle and I suited up and dove down to Aquarius on Conch Reef, the world's only undersea research habitat, where I interviewed her about being a woman in science, from the bottom of the ocean. The whole experience was, in Noelle's words, "pretty freakin' cool." Friday we were expecting to boat out to Conch Reef again to use the AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, a robot that swims on its own), but the robot (called Fetch) somehow woke itself up in the middle of the night and ran down its battery. By the time the battery was charged up enough it was already 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and too late for it to be worth going out on the water.

So today, Saturday, we traveled back to my new favorite reef to make up for lost time. For the first 4 hours we ran AUV ops, taking side-scan sonar and video of the coral and seafloor, and then Dr. Patterson (my dad) and Noelle went on a dive. I mostly snorkeled, avoiding the moon jellyfish (some of them were annoyingly large), and taking underwater footage of schools of fish and Fetch.

Oh, and the barracuda. They floated silently in the shadows under the Life Support Buoy (it sends power and air down to the Aquarius habitat), and at any one time were 15-20 barracuda. Most were 2-3 ft long, but there were some monsters as big as me. Barracuda, I have to say, are really nasty-looking fish. They hover in place, or swim by slowly, the whole time eyeing you and sizing you up, as if they're thinking, "Hmm... Is that a snack? Maybe not...  a little too big."

With their size, cold stare, and gaping mouth with clearly visible teeth, barracuda really do have a fearsome appearance. In reality though, they're all bark and (mostly) no bite. Barracudas, like sharks, have a (mostly) undeserved bad rap; they rarely attack humans, and when they do they leave the person alone after the first bite, since humans are not their normal food source. Barracuda can be territorial, but will generally just leave people alone, and the only things that really attract them are blood and shiny objects (do not wear jewelry around them, because barracuda are the underwater equivalent of a magpie).

From the moment we put Fetch in the water and it started swimming on its own, the barracuda took an interest in the robot. Perhaps they thought it was the biggest barracuda, or perhaps they were just curious; regardless of the reason, 20 barracuda schooled behind Fetch, and followed the robot wherever it went. It was like a fishy game of "follow the leader": the barracuda swam after Fetch, matching its speed.  It was both unnerving and hilarious to see Fetch suddenly appear out of the gloom, followed by a fan club.

At one point Fetch swam directly under the LSB and narrowly avoided the lines that tether the buoy in place. As Fetch passed through the barracuda's territory, they dispersed, and then even more joined Fetch's growing train of admirers.

All in all, the day went well; data were collected, the robot ran, the underwater casing for the HD video didn't flood, and nobody was eaten. Plus, I got to see barracuda up close and personal for the first time. I'm looking forward to going back to Conch Reef soon.