October is Here – Time to Enter our Photo Contest!

This dynamic photo – an entry in one of our past months’ photo contests – is a reminder of what autumn can bring to our New England shores. The title says it all: “October 2011 Nor’easter.”

This is just one example of the many amazing pictures submitted for our last few photo contests, but we are hungry for more!

Let the unparalleled New England fall beauty inspire you. Head to the beach with your camera and send us what you capture. There is lots of time left to enter our October contest.

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO2012”. Find out more here.

Each month’s winner will receive a signed copy of Brian Skerry’s beautiful book, Ocean Soul. 

Announcing our August Photo Contest Winner!

Congratulations to our “Hope” photographer! We love the golden light in this photo, the symmetry of the oars with the horizon and the untold story of this vessel and its flag. As a commenter posted on the Flickr™ page, “This is dreamlike. Looks so historical. It could be a hundred years ago or the future of our New England coasts if care is taken. It makes me want to know more about the story here! A real Ocean Odyssey I think!”

Check out our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll be posting the honorable mentions over the next few days.

If you have pictures to share, there are still a few days left in our September contest!

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO2012”. Find out more here.

Each month’s winner will receive a signed copy of Brian Skerry’s beautiful book, Ocean Soul. 

We look forward to seeing your photos!

Basking Sharks – A Big Fish Story

We’ve shown some amazing pictures of predatory sharks this week, but the biggest shark in New England’s waters is a gentle giant, feeding on tiny crab-like creatures called copepods. The basking shark, so named because it is often observed feeding near the surface,“basking” in the sun, is not only big, but is still a huge scientific mystery.

I recently caught up with one of our New England ocean celebrities, Greg Skomal, noted shark expert and Senior Fisheries Biologist with the State of Massachusetts, who filled me in on the state of basking shark knowledge.

Robin: How often do you encounter basking sharks in your work?

Greg: If we’re actively working on them, we find them frequently.

Robin: How do you know where to find them?

Greg: We use a spotter plane. Also, fishermen and whale watchers will help us figure out where the sharks are.

Robin: Have you spent much time in the water with basking sharks?

Greg: I have – some of that work has been to tag them underwater using a pole spear, but I’ve also filmed and photographed them.

Robin: How do they behave around humans?

Greg: They are generally shy, but I see two kinds of behavior. It’s either one or two sharks moving in straight line, searching or going someplace – cruising. If you want to dive with them you get the boat to put you right in their path, but they tend to get out of your way pretty quickly. The other kind is group behavior – small to large aggregations. You just jump into the water with them. Individuals will start to dive, but the group as a whole continues to feed.

The best way to dive on basking sharks is to find a group of them.

Robin: Do you ever feel any threat from them?

Greg: No, but I will say it’s an overwhelming experience because of their sheer size, so there’s some anxiety about just being in the water with such a big animal.

Robin: How big do they get?

Greg: They’ll get in excess of 30 feet long. I’ve seen two that big – beached animals. Much of what we know about basking sharks comes from beached animals.

Robin: What can you say about the shark in this photograph?

Greg: Here’s the fascinating thing about this picture – the snout on this animal is more pointed than on the average basking shark, which tells me it’s a juvenile and probably not very big. Basking sharks are born with a pointed snout, and they lose that over time and it becomes more rounded.

Robin: Why does that happen?

Greg: We don’t know a lot about the biology of these critters – about the changing of morphology and shedding of the gill rakers. For the second largest fish on earth we know amazingly little about its natural history.

Robin: What do you mean by shedding of gill rakers?

Greg: Gill rakers are used to sift plankton – like baleen in a whale. Basking sharks shed their gill rakers over the winter. Because of this, and their disappearance in the winter, scientists in the 1940s and 50s hypothesized that the sharks went to the bottom of ocean to hibernate.

This theory was published in a scientific journal, and was accepted for many years, until we started tracking them recently. It wasn’t until the turn of century that we started tagging these sharks and found out where they do go.

Previous scientists were correct that the basking sharks in the eastern Atlantic go deep and move off the shallow shelves, but they don’t go far. They just move to deep water where they don’t interact with humans and so were not encountered. This was discovered by David Sims and his crew in tagging studies. He was the first to demonstrate that they don’t hibernate.

So, we did same studies here on the western side of the Atlantic, but found that our basking sharks do something very different. They go to deep water, but they also go really far away. We published a paper in 2009 showing that they move to tropical areas: the Bahamas, the Caribbean, even south of the equator to Brazil. They make very broad migratory movements – some of the greatest ever described by science for a fish. But they still stay at great depths (3,000 feet or more) when they move.

Robin: Why do they go so deep?

Greg: You just asked the best question there is. We don’t know why. We hypothesize that movements of fish are driven by food and reproduction. We know they could go somewhere besides the tropics to get all food they need, so they might be traveling there to reproduce. They might come to the Gulf of Maine to mate, and then pregnant females might move south to gestate.

Robin: So they might be like right whales?

Greg: They do show up where right whales go, but they also go much further south. They go from the Gulf of Maine to south of equator. It must be energetically beneficial to do this, otherwise, why do it? But we can’t prove it yet.

Robin: Have you noticed a change in their numbers or distribution over the years?

Greg: It’s tough to know. The general thinking is populations are down in the Pacific, and perhaps the eastern Atlantic. But we don’t know about the western Atlantic. We don’t have populations trends here because we don’t have the data.

Robin: What are the greatest threats to basking sharks?

Greg: Bycatch, right now. They are sometimes taken by fixed gear as bycatch, in lobster, conch, or any other kinds of traps. Sharks inadvertently get wrapped in lines. Sometimes they get caught in bottom trawls and gill nets.

We don’t know what the implications of climate change will be. Maybe there will be a shift to the north, or a shift vertically in the water column. If you can determine what’s going to happen with the copepods they eat, you’ll have better sense of what might happen to basking sharks.

It’s an amazing species – phenomenal to be in the water with. I’ve put a lot of time into studying them and hope to continue to do so.

Are you ready for some sharks?

We are excited to bring you some amazing new pictures from Brian Skerry this week. Brian has been diving all summer off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island so we can show you some of our biggest fish. This week we will not only be showing you these pictures but also bringing you an exclusive interview with Brian about his shark diving experiences, and his thoughts on shark conservation. There will be tons of shark stories, shark pictures, and shark love this week. So come back tomorrow and meet some of your saltwater neighbors!

Atlantic Wolffish – Cool as Sharks, Hotter than Shark Week

Some people are enraptured by the fearsome predatory nature of sharks. The image of the omnipotent king of the seas, roaming the deep and preying on any hapless creature small or large, holds a permanent niche in the American psyche. Sharks are cool, there is no doubt. Just look at the media celebration known as Shark Week, which happens every summer. Don’t worry, we get shark fever too, and Brian Skerry has some incredible new shark photos, which we’ll be debuting soon.


However, let’s not allow the annual shark-mania to block out the real glamour of other denizens of the deep, which reside at Cashes Ledge and in other spots across the Gulf of Maine. My favorite creature is the Atlantic wolffish, also known as the sea wolf. (This animal is so cool they named a whole class of attack submarines after it and the sports teams at a New England college.) If there is an animal that illustrates both the wonderful diversity of New England’s ocean and the need for protecting habitat for ocean wildlife, it is the Atlantic wolffish. If there is a special place in New England’s ocean worthy of providing better and more permanent protection it is Cashes Ledge.


We’ve talked about these toothy fish before, but they merit lots of discussion given how important they are to our Gulf of Maine ecosystem and how much they need our protection. Atlantic wolffish population numbers have taken a perilous decline since the early 1980s. The threats from commercial fishing practices – especially bottom trawling gear –has not only decimated wolffish populations but destroyed the type of rocky underwater habitat which they depend upon. For a species that absolutely needs rocky outcrops and small cave-like structures, the impacts to their habitat are particularly harmful.


By 2006, Atlantic Wolffish populations across the Gulf of Maine had declined to a point where serious action was needed. Then the Conservation Law Foundation and Dr. Erica Fuller prepared and filed a petition to protect the wolffish under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The petition received enough attention for this “gruesome fish” that the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually placed a complete restriction on harvest and possession of Atlantic wolffish across the North Atlantic. This falls short of the full protection warranted under the ESA, but since the wolffish can be successfully caught and released, this temporary fishing regulation gives the wolffish population enough limited protection to recover while further studies are done.


The rocky slopes of Cashes Ledge provide excellent habitat for the wolffish, and Cashes Ledge is an even more important area since the destructive bottom trawling gear has been banned year-round there since 2002 through fishery management regulations put into place by the New England Fishery Management Council.

Enter the My New England Photo Contest: Ocean Edition

Do you have gorgeous photos of New England’s ocean gathering digital dust in your camera? If so, we at New England Ocean Odyssey want you to share them with us and our growing audience of ocean lovers. Each month, renowned marine photographer Brian Skerry will choose a winning photo from among the entries and provide some expert insight into why that photo got his pick. And, each month’s winner will receive a copy of Brian’s new book, Ocean Soul. So, when you’re out on the water this summer, get up close and personal with the creatures, people and places that make New England’s ocean special and enter your share-worthy photos in the My New England Photo Contest/Ocean Edition!

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO2012”. Find out more here.

We look forward to seeing your photos!

Dive Log: Cashes Ledge

Here they are! Some of Brian’s first ever pictures of Cashes Ledge. Every picture tells a story – but we are lucky enough to have some real stories to tell about these awesome pictures. We caught up with Brian shortly after he visited Cashes Ledge and asked him about the dive. Brian filled us in on some of the exciting details of this bona fide ocean odyssey:

Robin: You’ve never dived Cashes Ledge before, what were your first impressions?

Brian: As always when I am diving in a new place for the first time, all I see is chaos when I first get on the bottom, but over time I begin to zero in on specific behaviors to start making order and begin to put the puzzle together.

The kelp is beautiful, the stalks are 6-8 feet high, then they have fronds that lay horizontally for probably 10-15 more feet. They create this sea of kelp, literally a bed of kelp that you see when you first come down from the surface that looks like the bottom but isn’t. The descent line we sent down just disappeared through it. You’d follow it down to the kelp bed then you’d have to go another 6 or 8 feet to get to the bottom. It’s a false bottom of kelp fronds. It’s a lovely golden amber color, and there’s another species of kelp that’s sort of reddish, growing on the amber ones. It all looked good and lush and thick – very colorful and healthy looking.

There were lots of fish circling around. We saw quite a few red cod. There are a lot of pollock and quite a number of cod mixed in, and some of the cod are more traditionally colored, but some have the distinctive red/orange iridescent coloration.

Robin: What other kinds of wildlife did you see?

Brian: Besides pollock and cod, there were a lot of juvenile fish. We found out later they were cunner. They are bright orange when they are small, quite stunning, like the garibaldi in California. We saw quite a few whales on the surface, minke whales porpoising and coming up for air, but not close enough to photograph. There were invertebrates on the bottom, on ledges below the kelp. It’s definitely worth a lot more exploration. This is clearly a unique habitat.

Robin: Was this dive different from your expectations?

Brian: I’d heard about the Cashes Ledge kelp forest for years. People always say it’s not like California, so I expected an area that was covered in kelp on the bottom, but the brown kind that I usually see inshore, just a lot more of it – low-lying, a foot off the bottom. I didn’t expect anything like this. Stalks of kelp that were 8 feet high and long strands at the top that made this golden bed. It was very unique. The fish stayed localized, always in the area. They weren’t passing schools; they sort of hung out there. The kelp forest is probably a square mile or so – it’s a big area. But the fish were always there – in the background, silhouetted. It was very different from what I expected.

Robin: Did you see evidence of human activity in the area?

Brian: There was a tremendous amount of fishing gear out there. We tried to dive away from gear. But everybody on the trip remarked that there were a lot of fishing buoys on the surface. I think they were lobster traps, but I’m not sure. They were everywhere. This was surprising. Nobody expected this.
A friend of mine remembers diving Cashes in the 80s, and said the fish used to be so thick that you couldn’t see your dive buddies. It’s not like that today, so the biomass must be down. But there was a good population of fish. I think a place like this with proper protection could come back to those levels that my friend observed 20-30 years ago.

Robin: Were there any unexpected difficulties?

Brian: No, but the currents got quite strong on Sunday and we had trouble getting to the dive-line buoy. Wearing a dry suit and 120 pounds of equipment you have to swim really hard against the current. We couldn’t get to the buoy, so the boat picked us up and we tried again and made it.

Robin: What was the water temperature?

Brian: Pretty warm for New England, probably 50 degrees.

Robin: Did the weather cause any problems?

Brian: No, the weather was really good. It progressively improved. Early Saturday it was fine, small waves, a little bumpy, but it got better and by Sunday was really calm. If the waves are big it’s hard to get back in the boat after the dive.

Robin: Was visibility low from the recent northeaster?

Brian: I don’t know why visibility was low. It was very typical of New England conditions. Turbid, but not terrible. Visibility was 20-25 feet, but hazy, not crystal clear. I tried to work close in and make some pictures that would still come out well.

Robin: Will you do anything differently next time you go to Cashes?

Brian: Not necessarily. I would like to have more time. To produce pictures in these conditions takes a lot of repeatability and serendipity. My M.O. is to dive a place over and over and keep working it, if I can. I could spend hours and hours working those fish. I’m very intrigued by the red cod. They are highly unique and beautiful with the golden kelp backdrop and green water. I would just like to do more of it.

Are you intrigued by the red cod, too? We will give you a look at those fascinating fish soon. In the meantime, enjoy some of these other sublime pictures Brian made in this vibrant special place in the Gulf of Maine!

Cashes Ledge Dive Marks First for Brian Skerry as the New England Ocean Odyssey Gets Underway

“I didn’t expect anything like this. Stalks of kelp that were 8 feet high and long strands at the top that made this golden bed… This is clearly a unique habitat.”

Success! After two prior attempts foiled by bad weather and rough seas, last weekend Brian Skerry at last reached Cashes Ledge and was able to explore this extraordinary, ecologically important seascape – a first for the peripatetic Skerry. For two days Brian and his crew swam in Cashes’ unearthly kelp forests, among its waving amber fronds and remarkable red cod, making pictures that will reveal the mysteries and beauty of this unique New England treasure so far unknown to most.

About 80 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Cashes Ledge is a submerged mountain range that nearly pierces the surface of the ocean and is home to the deepest kelp forest in the North Atlantic. Fields of anemones and brightly-colored sponges produce a fascinating marine landscape surrounding Ammen Rock, the highest peak of Cashes Ledge and New England’s underwater equivalent of Mount Washington.

Cashes Ledge is important not only to marine organisms but also to people hoping to learn about the history of New England’s oceans – many scientists believe that Cashes Ledge represents the best remaining example of an undisturbed Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

We will be sharing some of the extraordinary pictures Brian made – and the stories that go with them – next week. Stay tuned!