The surface ultrastructure of viruses is more common in nature than you think

The year 2020 will be long remembered as the Year of the Coronavirus.  The corona or halo of this virus envelope will be the most enduring image of this troublesome year as it flashes all around the newsrooms and as a backdrop of almost all government updates on the Covid-19 pandemic.  This seemingly alien structure has captivated the imagination of mankind with a kind of awe and shock.

This out of this world image of coronavirus seems even more fascinating when one looks at the surface ultrastructure of many other deadly viruses.  In Huffington Post, Jacqueline Howard wrote about the unique yet deadly beauty of viruses as seen in atomic resolution through cryoelectron microscopy with 3D reconstruction.  See photos of these viruses in three-dimension reconstruction.

These 12 Viruses Look Beautiful Up Close But Would Kill You If They Could

But, are they really that unique and alien-looking?

Adult male and female Nothobranchius guentheri, native to the island of Zanzibar, Tanzania. Males are about 5 cm in length while the colorless females are much smaller at 3.5 cm.

In a recent Science Blog article in Sulu Garden,I showed how the corona, the most salient external feature of the SARSCov virus, resembles the corona of the outer envelope of the embryo of the annual killifish.  This rare fish belongs to a class of Cyprinodontid fish that live in temporary pools of fresh water in Africa and South America that dry up during the summer season.  The population survives as embryos buried in the mud that hatches during the rainy season.  They survive through a process called diapause wherein the embryo enters states of suspended animation, very similar to many instances found in insects.

Convergent evolution of the surface micro and nano structures in coronavirus and annual fish embryo.  Thoughts while under “enhanced community quarantine” in Miag-ao (Iloilo Province, Panay Island, Philippines).

Despite the difference in size (annual fish embryo at 1 millimeter and coronavirus at approximately 120 nanometers), both the coronavirus and fish embryo share similar surface topology.  Hence, I suggested that this might be considered an instance of convergent evolution

“Convergent evolution is a process wherein two unrelated organisms independently develop the same traits or characteristics to address a similar environmental problem.  An example of convergent evolution is the adaptations to flight.  Different animals developed wings independently of each other to enable flight, such as bats, butterflies, pterosaurs and birds []. The spikes that coronaviruses and annual fish embryos possess were developed independently to solve each of their own ecological situations.  It is interesting that the annual fish embryo is 1 mm in diameter while the diameter of a coronavirus is 60 to 140 nm or about 1/100,000th of the fish embryo   So far away from each other as species goes, yet they created the same evolutionary solution to a similar problem.  Although the coronavirus is technically not a life form, but simply a single strand of RNA (ribonucleic acid) particle, it does mutate often and is evolving faster than animals or plants do.”

Other species of marine animals also show a diverse array of surface spikes, depending on the survival requirements.  Some that need to attach to surfaces show spike patterns while others with different ecological issues show different morphology.  For example, here is a photo of the zooplankton copepod that represents 80% of the zooplanktons in the Yellow Sea.  It does show its own style of spikes on the surface of the outer egg envelope.

Pollen Grains

This corona-like pattern is not only confined to marine and freshwater species.  Perhaps the most striking diversity of surface structures can be found in pollen grains.  A cursory search of pollen grain images in Pinterest and other websites demonstrates a vast array of surface modifications to allow pollen to attach to different substrates.

Here are some examples for you.

For those suffering from pollen allergy, the spikes make it possible for the pollen grains to attach to the nasopharyngeal passages and skin more efficiently.

Interested in seeing more? Here are the links to see these images:

Surface structure of Insect eggs

Even insect eggs show a diverse, alien-like surface structure to attach to leaves of plants and other insects


The ‘bangkal tree’ is an example of diversity of structures that even higher plants demonstrate.

Though viruses seem out of this world, their surface morphology is more common in nature than we think.  What is shown here is just a glimpse of how diverse these microscopic surface structures can be.  I am sure one can find even better examples in the web.

The virus is an ancient entity whose origins remain in debate to this day.  But everyone agrees that it likely predated or co-evolved very early in the evolution of life as we know it today and continued to mutate through each stages of evolution.

Perhaps, the evolution of the intricate surface structures in seeds, pollen grains, fish eggs and even some plants might have originated from viruses?


Jonathan R. Matias
Poseidon Sciences R&D
Miag-ao, Iloilo 5023 Philippines

June 16, 2020

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Shark Tales: JFK, Mercury 7 astronauts and shark repellents

This seems such an odd topic from the start, but I thought it’s worth revisiting in celebration of today’s 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight around the earth.  John Glenn and Scott Carpenter (who will be celebrating his own 50th anniversary in May) are the last surviving members of the original seven astronauts of NASA’s Project Mercury.  Though two other Russian cosmonauts had orbital flights before his, John Glenn’s flight was America’s first and its success changed the momentum of the race to the moon to America’s favor.

Looking back 50 years, I am always amazed at the significant advances mankind has made as a result of the space race with Soviet Russia — calculators, computers, internet, among many.  Mankind seems to excel when in competition, whether at war, in commerce or in the arts. The rudimentary equipment half a century ago could not even compare with the precision of our digital age.  Many of the technologies we now take for granted were pioneered by the men and women of Project Mercury.  Those that followed in their wake made American pre-eminence in technology possible.

Space travel was a fascination for me long after the Mercury astronauts had made their mark in history.  I was only aware of them through later documentaries.  As a young boy in the 60’s, there was certainly the thrill of watching the spaceships blast off to space.  Yet, I was more keenly interested in the splash down when the capsule plunges into the sea on its return trip.  There was that unexplainable excitement at seeing the helicopters hover around the capsule to retrieve the astronaut and the tiny space capsule.  What seemed odd at time were the other helicopters hovering around with sharpshooters on board.  It wasn’t till later when I got interested in sharks that I learned why.

So, this is my “Shark’s Tale’ for you. And it’s not about saving the shark from extinction, who got bitten lately or about shark fin soup.  Before I tell you the rest of the story, I would like to tell you a little bit more about shark repellents first.

Between sports fishing, by-catch from longline fishing and the Chinese penchant for shark’s fin soup, mankind has devastated the world’s shark population to the point that sharks are becoming endangered.  But the fear of sharks remains with us.  It is a visceral fear.  More people die of bee stings than shark bites.   With bears or lions, the fear is also there, but tempered by the fact that we can always carry a gun, can run off in a jeep or simply hide inside a house.  With sharks the fear is magnified because there is really not much one can do in the water if the shark decides to take a bite, mostly by mistaking us for a seal or a big fish dinner. 

In North America prior to 1916, there was never a fear of sharks simply because there had been no documentation of sharks attacking human beings in temperate waters.  In 1891 Hermann Oelrichs, a banker/adventurer, even put up a reward for anyone who can document a shark attack in the temperate waters of North America.  Everything changed in 1916, detailed in Richard Fernicola’s book entitled “Twelve Days of Terror,” when, in over a span of just 12 days, four people along of the shores of New Jersey were killed by a shark, most likely a bull shark rather than a Great White (a story that inspired Peter Benchley’s book, “Jaws.”)

The idea of a shark repellent was not new.  It was suggested way back in 1895.  However, serious work on the idea started with the US Navy during World War II when airmen and sailors inevitably find themselves in shark infested waters.  The sinking of USS Indianapolis, a destroyer that carried the atomic bomb to the tiny Pacific island of Tinian, by a Japanese torpedo made that need imperative.  The mission was so secret then that no SOS signal was transmitted even as the ship sank with over a 1,000 sailors in the water.  When they were finally rescued 4 days later, only 316 remained alive, the rest were eaten by sharks.   

The Navy developed a shark repellent, called the “Shark Chaser.”  It was ineffective, yet given to sailors more for morale to allay fears of sharks rather than as a true protection.  Shark research continued after the war through the Office of Naval Research (ONR) through the 1960’s with not much success either.

Eugenie Clark, a world renowned shark expert, discovered in the 70’s that a flat fish in the Red Sea, aptly called Mose’s sole (Pardachirus marmoratus), can repel sharks.  Sharks have a powerful bite and when committed to a potential meal, would not likely stop.  When the fish is about to be bitten, the shark stops at mid bite and run’s off like a scared rabbit.  It was found later on that the flat fish has glands along its sides that secrete a venomous cocktail of peptides and steroidal compounds, presumably not meant to frighten sharks, but to repel/stun organsims as it glides along the sandy bottom of the Red Sea.  It is the Mose’s sole’s fast food drive-in! Like our quick trip to McDonald’s for a fish sandwich.

When purified, this 33 amino acid peptide repellent was called pardaxin, a term coined by Naftali Primor, an Israeli scientist funded at the time through ONR, working in one of the laboratories at New York University.  As my research team at NYU Medical Center tended to work long hours, Naftali often came by for a short visit at night, the first time to get some of our ‘extra’ mice for his pet snakes.  We talked often about sharks, snakes, Israel and Chinese food.  During this period, he was able to demonstrate pardaxin’s mechanism of action. This peptide create pore channels through the gill membrane that causes a sudden rush of sodium ions through the gills. Likely, it is perceived by the shark as an ‘unpleasant” or perhaps a painful experience.  Naftali used to go out to the fishing port in Montauk Point at the end of Long Island to remove gills from sharks caught by fishermen.  It took a day’s hard work to get enough for his research.  One night, he came back totally disgusted and exhausted.  The cooler was just open for a moment and seagulls rushed to eat all the shark gills he collected.   By then my interest in pardaxin got stimulated.  Yours truly‘s contribution to shark science was helping him dissect late into the night the opercular cells out of the killifish, Fundulus heteroclitus, to use a model system to validate the concept. Certainly beats hanging around fishing ports for shark gills and fighting off seagulls! He told me one night jokingly that Orientals are the ones with the patience for this kind of work.  I just chuckled because I knew he was right! 

My real interest was to develop a gadget, a release mechanism that would enable dispersion of pardaxin or pardaxin-like analogues around the person in water upon seeing the shark.  Great idea, if we only had enough repellent.  I did manage to develop a prototype for the device that still sits on my desk till now with many fond memories.  But, back then the cost of synthesizing the active compound and the liability issues (if the person who have the device got bitten) in a litigious society like United States made the project at that time quite daunting. 

Dr. Naftali Primor holding a restrained venomous snake( Daboia palaestinae). Its venom is being used for the production of a life saving anti venom.

Naftali eventually returned to Israel, but continues to work on venoms.  This time his interest is turned on to new exciting research on the analgesic effects of small peptides from snake venoms.  This new concept, called Zep3, is a promising technology for relief of chronic pain and treatment of various skin disorders, such as  those caused HSV viruses.  This scientific adventure started me on the path of studies on repellents, leading to the development of barnacle and insect repellents called MR08.  All these new body of work and long-term friendship started on a chance meeting at the corridor of NYU Medical Center 25 years ago.

There had been continuing work on repellents from many other scientists.  That pardaxin also behave like surfactants led to new work on molecules, like SDS (sodium dodecyl sulfate), that can ward off sharks.  SDS did not meet the Navy requirement of a non-directional surrounding cloud-type repellent at 100 parts per billion.  It would require a barrel full of SDS to ward off sharks around a single person.  It is likely useful as directional type repellent where one squirts directly on an oncoming shark.  Not likely a viable option for a swimmer in panic.  Other products include the Shark Shield, a Navy led research on bag type product with a floats where one climbed inside to avoid being detected by shark. There is also a similar concept of bubbles created around a swimmer to deter sharks. There is always of course the shark cage to hide into.  A patent was issued for the Shark Stopper, an acoustic device to ward off sharks.  Wet suits with surface patterns to mask the silhouette of a man underwater are also being developed. More promising areas of work these days involve semiochemicals, associated with decaying shark carcasses (Shark Defense Technologies) that act as small molecule messengers that modulate shark behavior.

JFK and the Mercury astronauts

Consider this scenario:  America sends a daring young astronaut, the cream of the crop of military pilots (immortalized in the book and movie entitled ‘The Right Stuff’), the best among the best, in a space ship to outer space at a cost of billions of dollars in today’s money; against all odds, the ship survives re-entry and the tiny capsule comes back to Earth, lands in the ocean; the astronaut comes out alive from the tiny space capsule, swims to be rescued and then eaten by a shark in full view of journalist and shown on live television all over the world!  This was President John F. Kennedy’s and NASA’s nightmare scenario; hence, the sharpshooters on board the helicopters.

The image of an astronaut being eaten by shark was not out of irrational fear and dark imagination.  Prior unmanned space capsules brought of out the water occasionally had embedded shark teeth on the heat shielding tiles.  Like all ships of the period, Project Mercury’s Friendship 7 came with standard military survival kit and included a shark repellent device that shoots out of the capsule ahead of splash down.

Years after my shark science with Naftali, I reluctantly went with my wife one night to attend a marketing conference in Connecticut, sponsored by Arbonne, a cosmetic company.  The after dinner speaker, to my great surprise, was Scott Carpenter, who recounted his days as a Mercury astronaut.  In his dinner speech, he related the story of NASA’s preoccupation with sharks.  As the NASA-US Navy liaison officer, astronaut Scott Carpenter took the NASA- approved shark repellent device and sent it to the Navy’s shark experts for validation testing.  Scott related that as he was preparing to embark on his first space trip, he received a letter from the shark experts essentially saying that “the electronic shark chaser device was interesting with all the lights and sounds, but appeared to be mildly effective against sharks in either the on or off positions!”  Later, after the Mercury Mission, Scott became part of the Sealab Program to develop underwater living habitats — the only austronaut who also became an aquanaut. 

As we celebrate John Glenn’s and Scott Carpenter’s 50th anniversaries of their space flights, America should be grateful that JFK’s nightmare of his astronauts being eaten by sharks never came to pass.

The most eloquent sentence in space travel to date was by Scott Carpenter before Friendship 7’s lift-off:  “God speed John Glenn”


Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences Group    [email protected]

Dedicated to my children who are on their own unique adventures.



Lazarovici  P, Primor N, Loew LM Purification and Pore Forming Activity of Two Hydrophobic Polypeptides from the Secretion of the Red Sea Moses Sole (Pardachirus marmoratus). J Biol Chem. 1986.  261:16704-167123

Primor N. Pardaxin produces sodium influx in the teleost gill-like opearcular epithelia. J exp Biol. 1983. 105:83094

Primor N. Pharyngeal cavity and the gills are the target organ for the repellent action of pardaxin in shark. Experientia. 1985. 15: 693-695

Primor N, et al.  Toxicity to fish, effect on gill ATPase and gill ultrastructural changes induced by Pardachirus secretion and its derived toxin pardaxin.  J exp Biol. 1980. 211:33-43

Sisneros JA,Nelson DR. Surfactants as chemical shark repellents: past, present and future.  Environmental Biology of Fishes. 2001.  60:117-129

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Searching for seagrape seaweed in Indian waters: a nun-scientist’s tale of passion and perseverance

This is not your usual technical article on seaweed biochemistry or biology.  This topic is quite different.  It is the untold tale of discovery, repeated thousands of times around the world by scientists from all disciplines.  It is the chase, the hunt for something new, something useful.  Starting with a hunch, proving an idea and fulfilling the passion are all the ingredients that make scientific discovery a unique experience.  And this story is not about me.  This story is about Sister Avelin Mary, a Roman Catholic nun, a marine scientist of India and her relentless effort to find seagrapes, a strange, odd-looking seaweed considered by experts as ‘extinct’ in Indian waters.

For thousands of years, seaweed has been harvested from wild beds and some cultivated artificially for food, primarily in Asia.  It is only in the last century that a portion of the world’s seaweed harvest has served as natural resource for ingredients used in cosmetics and other industries.  This nonfood use has great potential.  Just as an example, a recent paper in Science described the use of engineered microbes to convert brown seaweeds (kelp) into biofuels.  Seaweeds produce two times more ethanol than sugar cane and five times that from maize given the same area of cultivation.   Given the increasing demand and great interest for new ingredients derived from the marine environment there has been a flurry of research to identify new seaweed resources.  However, harvesting from the wild is a problem, partly because the ingredients derived from them may vary from one season to the next.  Moreover, companies are wary of using resources from wild harvest since they can be affected by seasonal fluctuations of availability, quality, pollution and over-exploitation of sensitive marine habitats.  The cosmetic industry, in particular, looks for marine resources that have both a great marketing story and renewable through artificial methods called mariculture.

Anyway, that was my ‘scientific’ excuse for initiating a worldwide search for new exotic seaweeds.  But beyond the science and the capitalistic expectations, there is always a thrill in the hunt. Sister Avelin Mary, the heroine of the tale, and I always refer to such scientific adventures as ‘treasure hunting’ (in a biological sense).  Sister Avelin is a marine biologist and a Roman Catholic nun belonging to the Congregation of the Mother of Sorrows Servants of Mary.  After her PhD in zoology, she went on to do her post-doctoral work at Osborne Laboratories (New York Zoological Society) and Duke University Marine Laboratories (Beaufort, North Carolina).  She returned to India to establish her own independent research group in 1988.  Established in the port city of Tuticorin and with permission of the Mother General of her Congregation, this nonprofit research institution, called Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre (SHMRC), became one of the premier marine science research centers where Sister Avelin studied the biology of barnacles [1].

Why of all things barnacles? That was her area of training and focus of interest while at Duke University and the research program was conceived at the time when there was an urgent need to find alternatives to the toxic tributyl tin (TBT) widely used in marine paints to prevent barnacles from attaching.  TBT is a nonspecific organotoxin and among the most toxic man-made chemicals in use.  It kills all marine life on contact!  She identified one such non-toxic natural anti-barnacle chemical from soft corals called Juncellin, named for Avelin and the octocoral, Juncella [2].  My collaboration with Sister Avelin began in 1994 and continues today, the longest, productive and continuous scientific collaboration Poseidon Sciences ever have had.

In 2007, I posed the question to Sister Avelin about the presence of Indian seagrapes (Caulerpa lentillifera), a unique edible seaweed delicacy grown in Okinawa.  It is found mostly in the Pacific Rim and commonly referred to as sea caviar, as nama in Fiji, as lato in Philippines and umi budo in Japan.  Highly priced as a delicacy, seagrapes really are succulent miniature grape-like seaweeds.  Upon biting on the seagrapes, the salty interior bursts in your mouth.  However, this marine plant is seasonal and available only during the dry season.  This seaweed requires normal seawater salinity to grow and die when salinity drops during the rainy season.  SHMRC’s research site in Tuticorin (Tamil Nadu, South India) is ideal for cultivating the seagrapes since it has two short monsoons, not in the path of cyclones, with stable salinity and temperature year round.

I thought seagrapes ought to be naturally occurring along the coast of India.  This question led us through several years of an exciting quest and I would like to share this story with you.

There was a 2004 article by Mantri [3] that described seagrape found in the Gulf of Kutch on the northwest coast of India.  However, the discovery was not well received by the experts in marine botany who suggested that it was merely an error in identification. Further literature research on the topic indicated that seagrapes, for reasons unknown, had been declared extinct in all of India for over half a century, according to the experts.  The last survey showing presence of seagrape beds was in 1955 and subsequent surveys yielded no specimens [4].  We consulted botanists and was told not to waste our time looking for it.

India has a vast coastline.  We could not imagine that the ‘experts’ have explored all of its 7,517 km coastal zones exhaustively to make such a definitive declaration of extinction.  And, as we have seen in the last decade, other species once thought extinct, seems to turn up all the time, found accidentally or through sheer persistence.  Take for example the story of the Hula Painted frog that was also declared extinct 50 years when its swamp habitat was drained totally to get rid of malaria in the Hula Valley of Israel.  Rehydration of the swamp brought back the species. Another example is one species of giant Galapagos tortoise, Chelonoidis elephantopus, once declared extinct for the last 150 years and just recently found again.  There are many more examples just in the last year alone.

So, we thought it is just a matter of looking hard enough for the ‘treasure.’  All we need is some luck and determination.  We decided on a hunch that it is not extinct and that maybe seagrapes were just simply hard to find.

The last known location of seagrapes was in Krudasai, just about 100 miles in front of our marine station in Tuticorin.  However, the site has long been converted to a protected marine reserve and off limits to harvesting of any organism.  Beyond the reserve is a vast area and we have sent divers to search beyond the exclusion zone.  Seagrapes can survive in a wide range of habitats, from rocky subsea outcrops to muddy-sandy substrates where it attach.  Our own surveys covered a wide area from Tuticorin (Toothukudi) to Mandapam.

Months of treasure hunting yielded nothing!  It was like looking for the Titanic without the benefit of sonar and a GPS unit.  Our broad, methodical sweep, looking for a natural bed of seagrapes was a failure.  But, Sister Avelin, one of the most optimistic people I have ever known, persisted onwards.  In an India Today magazine article, she said that “there is no magic in the world [of science] except the magic of hard work.”  That very much sums up Sister Avelin.

Then came the hunch–the seagrape bed still exists; it is simply not accessible and that fragments wash out of the bed during monsoons, some of them spreading to the shore.  We thought it is was a wild hunch, but Sister Avelin was persistent and thought that it was worth one more try.  This time, instead of looking deep underwater, we simply instructed harvesters to take a few kilogram samples from near shore beds of seaweeds and bring it to the lab.  At the same time one of our company’s biologists from Athena Biosystems in the Philippines, Araceli Q. Adrias, went to India to help sort and identify the seagrapes from the mass of mixed species of harvested seaweeds.

Sorting the seaweeds manually to identify fragments of seagrapes (top left), Seagrapes found compared to mass of other seaweeds collected from near shore (top right), an entire fragment of seagrape (bottom left), close up look at a single ‘grape’ and a schematic of the grapes on a branch (bottom right).

And, indeed the wild hunch paid off!  After hours of exhausting work, we found 16 grams of pure seagrapes embedded in the mass of other seaweeds, such as C. racemosa (a related species with almost similar physical characteristics), C. sertularioides, Enteromorpha flexuosa and C. peltata.  Our seagrape collection represented less than 0.01% of the total mass collected from the near shore.  With much effort and overcoming the objections of other marine botanical ‘experts,’ the seagrape manuscript describing the find was published in 2009 [5].  This Indian species represents a new sub-strain; smaller ‘grapes’ and more spaced than typical specimens found in other countries. And, yet tastes just like the Okinawan variety too!

Young shoots of seagrapes on the palm (top left), growth pattern of cultured seagrape showing 15 days doubling time in mariculture (top right), raceways used for artificial culture (bottom left), Sister Avelin showing the harvest from one tank after months of culture using the 16 g collection as starting point (bottom right).

Certainly the find is of significant academic interest but not enough was collected to be of practical use.  We asked, “Can we culture the seagrape we collected?”  Within six months, Sister Avelin’s team artificially grew those 16 grams to a mass of over 12 kilograms.  With a doubling rate of 15 days, it is possible to build an entire mariculture program to support a new industry using land-based culture technologies we now refer to as the Javelin Mariculture Program. This natural, sustainable approach is one that can supply vast amount of seagrapes for food and industrial applications.

Why culture this seaweed on land in seawater tanks and raceways? 

This approach represents an opportunity to grow pure strains of the seagrapes under controlled conditions on a year-round basis that maximize production of the required active ingredients.  Mariculture also makes it possible to make productive use of non-arable sandy coastal zones and avoid the need to harvest from the wild, thereby protecting the fragile marine ecosystem of the Indian coastal zones.  And, more importantly, one will avoid the temperamental sea that can easily destroy man-made structures on the sea surface or below.

The senior research team: Jonathan R. Matias (top left), Sister Avelin (top right), Araceli Q. Adrias (bottom left), and Sister Vitalina (bottom right).

Seagrapes have already been shown to have higher absorptive capacity compared to activated carbon.  It has anti-oxidant, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties! []. Ongoing research is yielding interesting findings that will have unique applications in cosmetics.  It offers a unique opportunity to formulators for an ingredient that is natural, sustainable, reproducible and rare.  With a renewable, secure, year-round supply, Sister Avelin’s seagrapes, she prefers to call in Tamil as kadalthiratchai, may soon yield new and exciting products for cosmetics and other industrial applications.

Our ‘treasure hunt’ at sea continues.….

Jonathan R. Matias, Executive Director


Email: [email protected]


  2. Mary, A. Sr., Mary, V. Sr., Rittschof, D. and Nagabhushanam, R., Bacterial barnacle interaction: potential of using Juncellins and antibiotics to alter structure of bacterial communities. J. Chem. Ecol., 1992, 19(10): 2155-2167.
  3. Mantri, V. A., Current Science, 2004, 87, 1321-1322.
  4. Chacko, P. I., Mahadevan, S. and Ganesa, R., Gulf of Mannar Contrib., Marine Biological Station, 1955, pp 1-16.
  5. Mary, A. Sr., Mary, V. Sr., Lorella, A. Q. D. and Matias, J. R., Rediscovery of naturally occurring seagrape Caulerpa lentillifera from the Gulf of Mannar and its mariculture. Curr. Sci., 2009, 97(10): 1418-1420.
  6. Pavasant, P., Apiratikul, R., Sungkhum, V., Suthiparinyanony, P., Wattanachira, S., Marjaba, T. F., Bioresour. Technol., 2006, 97, 2321-2329.
  7. Barbier, P., Guise, S., Huitorel, P., Amade, P., Pesando, D., Briand. C., Pevrot, V., Life Sci., 2001, 70, 415-429.
  8. Ara, J., Sultana, V., Qasim, R., Ahmad, V. U., Phytother. Res., 2002, 16, 479-483.
  9. Ganesan, P., Kumar, C. S., Bhaskar, N., Bioresour. Technolo., 2008, 99, 271-273.
  10. Nicoletti, E., Della Pieta, F., Calderone, V., Bandecchi, P., Pistello, M. Morelli, I., Cinelli, F., Phytother. Res., 1999, 13, 245-247.

Thoughts on that fateful September 11th from a man who wasn’t there

     There is so much going on in science and technology every day, yet I am compelled instead to write about this singular event of the decade—September 11th.    Where were you on 9/11?  This is a most often asked question posed to any New Yorker traveling overseas or just going across the State lines.  I wish I can say how terrifying that day
was,.  How the acrid smoke and the dust filled my lungs.  How much anguish it had
been to see the Twin Towers disintegrating right before my very own eyes.   I could not say those words.  I wasn’t there.  I was 6,000 miles away, watching the events of
that fateful day unfold in the safety of a hotel lounge far away from home.

     I belong to that minority of New Yorkers who were not home on 9/11.  It was about
3 pm in Athens, Greece and I just started giving a lecture at a marine science symposium at the University of Piraeus.  One of the organizers came to the lecture room and whispered to me as I was giving my talk that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers.  And I continued on, thinking that it was just an accident.  Certainly those massive Towers can withstand any plane.  A similar accident also occurred before long ago with a plane hitting the Empire State Building and nothing catastrophic happened.  A few minutes later, he came back to tell me that a second plane hit the other Tower.  By then almost everyone in the conference room were rushing out by the coffee area, watching the events on CNN.  I rushed back to the hotel and became glued to the TV, just like the rest of the billions of human beings on that day.

Though I felt less concerned because my family lived miles away in Queenboro, that concern heightened when it was impossible to reach anyone by phone. Because air travel was restricted indefinitely, I ended up by accident in the Greek island of Ydra, spending a week there, mostly drinking wine and watching the Greek sunset along with a dozen fellow stranded Americans.  A week later, I got onboard a plane to
Singapore and from there finally to NYC.  Hardly an adventure worth recounting when someone asked where I was  on 9/11.

The World Trade Center was memorable to me, not simply as an icon of New York City. I had my wedding luncheon at Windows on the World, a restaurant on top of the Towers.  I had New Year’s celebrations there many times over the years.  I often go for a drink there and have lunch or dinner meetings with colleagues visiting New York
for the first time.  In 2000, I looked at several floors at the Twin Towers for Poseidon Sciences as home office.  Only the high expense of the lease and the longer subway ride talked me out of it. The Twin Towers was never pretty, but it exudes power and presence.  Not having enough money and being lazy to take a longer subway ride saved me from that disaster just a year later.

Not being home on that unusual day bothered me.  For inexplicable reasons, I
never came close to the ruins when I got home; the closest was 10 blocks away to see if my friend, Eugene, was fine.   And that was weeks after the event.  I can
sense the doom and gloom of downtown Manhattan as soon as I stepped out of the subway station.  I can feel the dust settling on my skin.  The distinct overpowering smell
that came from the combination of chemicals from plastics, cement, paper… and of
human bodies still burning underneath the rubble, filled my lungs.   As a
scientist, curiosity should have drawn me closer, but did not want to.  I felt I did not deserve to be there.  I did nothing.  Perhaps, I felt that pang of guilt for being
so far away then.  In fact, I had not gone to see the makeshift memorial after the attacks or even came close to the ruins to this date.

In a study published in JAMA in 2002 entitled “A Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11″ examined the effects of the World Trade Center attack on the national psyche.  In this article, Roxane Cohen Silver, who lead the nationwide study noted:

“This research dispels a number of myths …The effects of a major national trauma are not limited to those directly affected by it, and the degree of response cannot be predicted simply by objective measures of exposure to or loss from the trauma. This fact has not been adequately acknowledged by some mental health professionals….. We believe it is important to recognize that potentially disturbing levels of
trauma-related symptoms can be present in individuals who are not directly
exposed to a trauma, particularly when it is a massive national tragedy such as
the 9-11 attacks….Rather than seeing these symptoms as evidence as psychiatric
disorders, however, their presence is likely to represent a normal response to
an abnormal event.”

New Yorkers, in general, are very resilient mix of peoples.  Perhaps, it is the cultural
diversity that makes them less immune to major catastrophes even in their own
backyard.  The study in 2004 led by Joseph Boscarino and published in Journal
of General Hospital Psychiatry
showed that New Yorker’s use of mental health services only rose slightly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.  In fact mental health providers were prepared to provide mental heath services to the thousands of New Yorkers anticipated needing those services, but the expected need never really materialized.  Must had been the NY attitude thats hard to fathom at times!

CPT Jennifer McIntyre briefing troops before next mission in Iraq

What I think happened instead was the overwhelming need to do something.  Some as big as joining the armed forces to fight overseas or as little as helping those in need, big or small.  The disaster galvanized people to do something then as therapeutic journey to solidarity.  And, on this 10th anniversary, those who had done little, like yours truly, have some soul searching to do.  I am not sure if many feel the same way.    As a scientist working on marine science issues seemed out of place here, my work irrelevant in many ways.

Jenny enjoying Nat Sherman cigars I sent for her ‘boys.’ Just one of the few pleasures in the desert of Iraq.

This asymmetric warfare,  a war between a high tech nation and a low tech enemy, has a common thread repeated thousands of times in thousands of wars over the millennia– that young men (and now women too) go to war and young people die. The basic common thread is always the human element.

Though I had served my time in the army back in the Reagan years, and as I ponder this 10th anniversary of September 11th, I come to realize that I am also fighting this war (and this anger) in a different way–through my own two kids.  My daughter, Jennifer, joined the army after college and had already served two tours in

Airman Jason Matias with the Predator drones in Afghanistan

Iraq running convoys through IED infested highways in and out of Baghdad.  As an army captain, she is now again getting fresh troops ready for her third tour, this time in Afghanistan.  My son, Jason, joined the US Air Force and served his tour in Jalalabad, Afghanistan with a Predator surveillance squadron.  We, as a nation, fight wars through our children.  This is nothing new in the history of mankind, but something new and personal to me.

A Christmas card from Jason’s team in the Afghanistan airfield taken at 10,000 ft by another Predator surveilance drone

Today, as the 10thanniversary of that fateful day unfolds, perhaps it is time for me to finally come to terms with my own “post-traumatic shock,” see the Memorial and think about what I can do next for my adopted country.

Jonathan R. Matias, Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

Lunar eclipse, Christopher Columbus and the Teredo worm. A convergence of astronomy, history and biology.

       Native Americans (such as the Pomo, the Ge, the Serrano and Hupa), the Vikings and the Chinese all have their own myths about the lunar eclipse.  The Vikings believed that the moon is eaten by Hati, the wolf; the ancient Chinese says that the dragon ate the moon; the Serrano Indians thought that the dead spirits did it too.  There are two common themes—that something ate the moon and it takes loud noises to make these things give it up.  For the Chinese, the moon is represented by the mirror and during the lunar eclipse, millions of Chinese beat mirrors to make the dragon give back the moon. 

      My lunar eclipse experience did not involve making a lot of noise, though I can hear my teeth chattering from the cold.  After all it was after midnight in New York City and my neighbors might call the cops on me if I started beating mirrors.  I suppose New Yorkers are not ancient enough yet to develop lunar myths and, if we ever do, it is not likely to involve making loud noises.  Maybe a sudden rush to Starbucks for the new ‘moon latte’ is more like it.  I was among the perhaps 1.5 billion people on Earth that watched the lunar eclipse unfold last Tuesday, December 21, 2010.  I seem to have been the only crazy one in my neighborhood to stay through that 3 hours and 38 minutes outdoor viewing event at 30 oF.  But, I had to see it. 

       Though lunar eclipses are reasonably common, this one is particularly rare because it comes at the precise time of the solstice.  For those like me who are unfamiliar with the term, solstice (from Latin sol meaning ‘sun’ and sistere meaning ‘to stand still’) occurs when the Sun’s apparent position in the sky from an earthbound observer reaches its northernmost or southernmost extremes at which time the movement of the sun comes to a stop before reversing direction towards north or south.  I am sure you are still a bit confused by this explanation, but the story must go on ! 

       I was told that the previous eclipse occurring at the same time as the solstice was in 1638 and the next one won’t come till 2094.  Unless someone discovered Ponce de Leon’s ‘Fountain of Youth” or some scientist finally figure out how to stop aging, I don’t think I will make it to the next moon show.  Even if I did, I will probably be just as happy to be breathing and the last thing I would want is to be outdoors at 30 oF ever again watching the moon turn red. 

       As I was thinking of tropical themes to keep my mind off the morning freeze (for instance–sunset by a tropical beach, sipping margaritas at 85 oF under the coconut tree and attended to by exotic young maidens wearing a sarong), I remembered reading before about Christopher Columbus being marooned on his fourth voyage to the Caribbean, spending a year under coconut trees and warm beach of Jamaica, watching the lunar eclipse too—exactly how I would have wanted it.  His lunar encounter was at least more interesting as you will read later on—so don’t go away.  Finally getting my dose of astronomical adventures for the year, I went back inside to read more about the voyages of Columbus—and that’s because there was nothing good on TV at 4:30 AM for insomniacs like me. 

       So how the voyage of Columbus relates to the eclipse and Teredo worms?  Science and history always converge at some point, often in unpredictable ways, sometimes taking me along for the ride as well.   And, before I tell you about it, I think you need a short course on Teredo first.

The terrible Teredo, termites of the sea

Teredo worms inside an infested wood being collected in Batan, Aklan Province, Philippines. Photos by Coleen P. Sucgang.

       Anything that’s long, slimy and ugly is always termed a worm (as long as it doesn’t bite, which would automatically get the label as a snake) .  However, this doesn’t apply to shipworms, also called by mariners as the ‘termites of the sea.’  Scientifically, they belong to the genus called Teredo, the most notorious of which is Teredo navalis, originally native to the Caribbean Sea.  It is actually a clam, though looking at the pictures here, one would hardly believe that.  But it is!  And the male Teredo is one lucky stud.  There’s 1 Teredo male per 1,500 females.  Must be one very exhausted male and probably don’t live very long.  For the male Teredo, this phrase certainly applies:  “….live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse behind.”   Just in case you are curious where it came from, the phrase originated from the 1947 novel by Willard Mothley about juvenile delinquents (turned into a 1949 movie with Humphrey Bogart) entitled “Knock on Any Door” and also often quoted lately to describe rock and movie stars dying young from drug overdose.

       After fertilizing the eggs by the overworked (and maybe overjoyed) male Teredo, the developing eggs are protected inside the female until they develop into free swimming larvae.  Then, the little terrors meander in the high saline sea until they find fresh wood (They don’t like old wood) to settle on, unless

A Teredo worm taken out of the wood and close-up images of the tri-lobed shell and siphons. Photo credit: Coleen P. Sucgang, Poseidon Sciences.

they get eaten first by something else.  Then it starts burrowing through the wood as it grows, parallel to the grain, only turning to avoid any knot on the wood or if there is any obstruction.  By the time it reaches adulthood, it is already at least a foot long and half inch thick.  If you think this is big for a worm, its Sumatran cousin, the Giant Teredo, grows to six feet long, but lives in the muddy bottom of the sea rather than inside wood.  Unlike other typical clams, the shell covers only a tiny portion of the Teredo and used more like a drill bit to burrow a circular hole through the wood.  The tube-like home is capped at the opening of the burrow with a secreted calcareous cover, with protruding siphons that allow the animal to breathe, feed on plankton and excrete wastes.  Inside its burrow, the Teredo‘s color is pinkish white.  When removed out of its home, the color changes to a lighter blue shade in just a few minutes.

The good things about Teredo 

      Before I tell you the bad reputation of shipworms, it is only fair to describe a few good things about them.

Brunel's original design of the tunneling shield (top). A modern tunneling shield

First, the tunneling behavior of the shipworm inspired Marc Brunel, a French engineer, to devise a method, which he patented in 1818, to tunnel under the Thames River in England, the first of its kind ever built under a muddy river bed.   His technique called the “tunneling shield” made use of his observations while working on a shipyard on how the shell with fine ridges were used by the Teredo to drill through the wood while protecting itself from being crushed.  The Teredo also secretes a calcium-rich framework that coated the inside surface of the tunnel, keeping it stable and crush proof. 

Second, the cellulose that makes up the wood is not sufficiently nutritious as food and the shipworm cannot normally digest it.   It overcomes this limitation through a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, Teredinibacter turnerae, in its gills that secrete enzymes, called cellulases and nitrogenases, breaking down the cellulose and fixing nitrogen to build amino acids.  By the way, cellulases are the same enzymes, derived from fungi, used to create your stonewashed denim jeans by breaking down the cellulose on the outer surface of the cloth.  Now, it is also a major ingredient in most laundry detergents to improve cleaning efficiency.  The potential of Teredo-derived cellulases is in its future use in biofuels because it is likely more efficient than fungal cellulases in converting paper-mill cellulose waste into ethanol or methanol.

Third, Teredo worms serve an ecological purpose by degrading the wood materials that end up in the ocean.

Benedetto archtop guitar made from Sitka spruce with Teredo holes. Bottom shows close-up of the guitar with the holes made by Teredo.

Fourth, Teredo-infested Alaskan Sitka spruce used as log floats back in the 1950’s and 60’s, when transformed into a 16” traditional Benedetto archtop guitar, becomes a unique, spectacular and most expensive archtop guitar at the hefty price of US$ 52,000. 

And lastly, Teredo worms make a special Philippine delicacy called tamilok, appreciated only by natives of Palawan Island and Aklan Province in Panay Island.   It is prepared raw as a ceviche or kinilaw in the local language, with vinegar, chili peppers and onions.  Must be a scary delicacy and certainly not for the timid.  Think of your appetizer as a moving, living, half-inch thick spaghetti.  But, then again Teredo’s only known predators, the Palaweňos and the Aklanons, are probably more adventurous epicurian diners than the rest of us.  I had been in both islands, had heard about it, but never did have a chance to sample this squirming dish.  Maybe, I will try tamilok on my next trip down that way.   

Tamilok: Teredo dish.  Delicious, isn’t it?

My affair with Teredo

      One of our long drawn out research project has been to develop a nontoxic repellent against a wide variety of invertebrates.  Many years ago we have successfully developed one, called MR-08 that repels barnacles, mosquitoes, ants, flies, termites and even leeches.  This is a food grade derivative of menthol with a propylene glycol side chain that reduced the menthol smell by 95% and increased the repellent effect many fold.  So confident that it will work against Teredo, I asked our long time research collaborator, Sister Avelin Mary at Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre in India, to find areas with Teredo worms.  We soaked fresh wood with MR-08 until we were confident that it has absorbed all the way into the wood and then immersed them for a few months in Tuticorin Bay in South India.  No luck.  Teredo just ate through that wood samples as if there was nothing there.  So far, it is the only invertebrate organism that seems to have no reaction against our repellent.  

       I just gave up on MR-08 but I have a new idea for an ecofriendly, bioactive natural chemical that will prevent the Teredo from burrowing.  So, just for the moment, Teredo wins the first round! 

Now for the bad news      

       Shipworms have been a bane to ancient mariners until the advent of copper clad ships by the 18th century and modern marine coating on steel hulls.  These boring clams weakened the wooden hulls of ships to the point that they break apart in the open sea without any warning.  The Greeks and the Phoenicians certainly knew about them since 3,000 BC, lathering the hulls of their ships with wax and tar to keep them away.  The Romans used combinations of lead, tar and pitch to cover their boat. 

        Unbeknownst to Columbus, his first voyage to the Caribbean Sea in 1492 exposed his ships to the world’s most Teredo-infested waters, likely due to the higher salinity and higher seawater temperature of the Caribbean.  The ships that arrived later brought back Teredo navalis to Europe, where they can be found even as far away as the North Sea, having adapted to the cold environment.  Hundreds of ships had been lost at sea just because of Teredo worms.  These same worms caused the collapse of the wooden supports used in the dikes of Holland in 1731 causing flooding, 250 years after the first voyage of Columbus.  Only the timely replacement of the outer surfaces of the dike with stones prevented more catastrophes.

        In modern times, we have yet to escape the wrath of the Teredo.  Wharves, piers, jetties and pilings started collapsing in San Francisco Bay between 1919 and 1921, resulting in almost 20 billion dollars worth of damage in today’s money, all because of Teredo.  The mouth of the Hudson River of New Jersey and New York was once considered a ‘dead’ waterway, devoid of fish life because of the overwhelming industrial pollution since the 1930’s.  Ship captains used to sail their boats through NY harbor just to kill off shipworms and barnacles.  That’s how polluted it was.  In 1972, the US Federal Clean Water Act limited discharge into the rivers and proactively revitalized the waterways.  By the 1990’s fish had returned.  And so did the Teredo, with a vengeance.  During this period also saw the voluntary ban by the lumber industry on the use of creosote and CCA (chromated copper arsenate) to prevent further leaching of the toxic chromium and arsenic to the environment.  These wood preservatives prevented fungi from rotting the wood away and also quite good at killing off termites and shipworms as well.  These good deeds had unintended consequences—piers and piling along the Hudson River that no longer used preservatives started collapsing, hollowed through by Teredo worms.

Christopher Columbus

       After discovering the New World by accident in 1492 (He was trying to reach India and China by going across the Atlantic), Columbus had undertaken three more voyages back to the Americas, mostly in search of riches in gold and silver to recover the cost of the previous voyages.  But the Caribbean was not particularly rich in anything but warlike Caribs and Arawaks.  Though forbidden by Queen Isabela of Spain to get involved in slave trading, financial pressures from investors forced Columbus to disobey. On his second voyage, he obtained 1,200 Arawak natives captured by the Carib tribe and transported 560 of them to Spain, 200 of whom died en route.  Though the Spanish monarchs at the time disapproved of slavery, 200 of these natives were used as galley slaves nonetheless while the rest were returned back to their native lands.  Though not widely known, Columbus’ second claim to fame is to start the slave trade in the New World. 

       In the province of Cicao in Hispaniola (now Haiti and Santo Domingo), to fulfill his promise to investors to fill his ship with gold, Columbus instituted a tribute system whereby each native above 14 years of age must pay in gold every 3 months. In return each received a copper token to be worn as a necklace (not quite a fair deal).  Anyone caught without a copper token was punished by having their hands cut off.  Though it failed to yield the riches he expected, that started the gold rush (his third accomplishment, if one can call it that) to the New World that destroyed the civilizations of the Incas, the Aztecs and the many other indigenous tribes in the Americas.

        His fourth voyage was not particularly successful either.  He went to Panama upon learning from the natives about more gold to be had and a strait connecting to another ocean.  One of his ships was stranded in the river called Rio Belen and by the end of his voyage the garrison he built there was attacked; more ships damaged.  More bad luck came on his way to Hispaniola in 1503 when a storm damaged his remaining flotilla and the hulls almost breached because of the Teredo worms that infested the wood.   Most certainly, the ships would have broken apart had he went further.  No choice but to beach his vessels in St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica.  Waiting for relief ships to come to his rescue, Columbus and his sailors had to rely on food and help from the natives who were momentarily awed by the presence of the new arrivals.  As months go by, the natives got weary of the Columbus and his men.  Angered by the occasional thievery and bad behavior of the sailors, the natives began refusing to send food to the point where his sailors wanted to invade the villages to take what they needed by force.

Map showing the four voyages of Christopher Columbus (top). Print with Columbus showing the natives that God is taking their moon away (bottom).

        Columbus thought of a better way and summoned the village chiefs for a talk at sunset on February 29, 1504.  Opening the discussion with the announcement that God was not pleased with the way the people were treating the sailors and that God would show his disapproval by taking the moon away were met with disbelief and laughter by the chiefs.    No one controlled the sky as far as the natives were concerned.  As the moon rose up in night sky, the bright full moon dimmed, lost half of its light. This loss of light continued until the moon dimmed completely, turning to amber color.  The natives began to wail, begging Columbus to beseech the Almighty to return the moon.  Frightened by the display of this ultimate celestial power, they promised to bring food once again to the sailors in return for forgiveness and giving the moon back to them.

       Columbus told the chiefs that he would consult with the Almighty in his hut for a while to see if God is in a forgiving mood, likely just checking his hour glass and waiting for the right moment.  Then Columbus returned after 48 minutes to declare that God had forgiven them and was returning the moon again.  And God promptly did.  Soon after his declaration, the lunar totality was completed and the bright moon reappeared once again.  The lunar eclipse saved Columbus and his men from starvation and saved the villagers from rampage by the sailors.

       How did Columbus know about the lunar eclipse?  He kept a copy of the Ephemeris by the great German astronomer, Regiomontanus, with him on his voyages. 

Regiomontanus and a page from the Ephemeris

      The Ephemeris (from the Greek ephemerios  meaning ‘daily’) is similar to what we consider now as the almanac.  Johannes Müller von Königsberg (6 June 1436 – 6 July 1476), more widely known by his Latin name Regiomontanus (It was fashionable at the time for famous scholars to adopt Latin names), was a mathematician, an astronomer, translator of Ptolemy’s writing and famous for his astronomical tables and instruments (sundials, astrolabes) in the 15th century.  A precocious boy, he went to the university in Leipzig at age of 11 and received his degree of ‘magister artium’ (Master of Arts) at 21 in Vienna in 1457.  His astronomical and mathematical works were the best of his time and his Ephemeris considered one of the first applications of mechanical computers.  A moon crater is even named after Regiomontanus.

        The Ephemeris was a printed table of values that gives positions of the objects in the sky at any given time using a spherical polar coordinate system of right ascension and declination.  Regiomontanus went to Vienna in 1475, a year before his death, to help Pope Sixtus IV to reform the calendar and along the way managed to finally print his Ephemeris, a copy of which was carried by Columbus two decades later on his voyages.

This story is truly a convergence of many unrelated events:

  • Teredo worms destroying Columbus’ ships
  • The total lunar eclipse happening while Columbus was stranded and his trouble with the natives
  • Regiomontanus publishing the Ephemeris and Columbus having a copy with him on his voyages.

The voyages of Columbus were full of accidental discoveries and his survival on that last voyage showed that, despite his misfortunes as a ‘get-rich quick’ fellow, he was still a one very lucky seaman in the end.

        And, the Teredo still reign as the world’s best little terror of the high seas.  Who knows, 200 years from now the Teredo may even evolve to burrow through plastics, paint and steel.  Then, we will be in real trouble!

Jonathan R. Matias, Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

Suggested Reading:

For interesting stories about the Teredo, please read the articles by Jerilee Wei and Kristin Cobb below:

Jerilee Wei. Teredo. The terrible shipworm that eats wood.

Kristin Cobb, Science News, Aug. 3, 2002.  Castaway: the gripping story of a boring clam – shipworm.;col1

Balanghai, Borobudur, Phoenicia and the Morgan: Reconstructing and celebrating our ancient maritime heritage

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking

“Sea Fever” by John Masefield (English Poet Laureate, 1878-1967)

       Standing at the base of a statue in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, my eyes wide open, gazing out to see far in the horizon, I remember the long wait under the blazing July sun for the most fascinating parade I have ever yet to see.    Not a parade of men and machines.  It was a parade of the Tall Ships, fully rigged sailing vessels – schooners, brigantines, brigs and barques.   All 16 of the 25 remaining tall ships around the world, led by the USCGC Eagle, came to view, sailing past the Verrazano Narrows Bridge into NY Harbor, along with hundreds of other sail boats and ships of all sizes and shapes.   That was the 4th of July, 1976, the Bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence and Operation Sail.   For a young immigrant like me and the rest of the 5 million watching along the Hudson River on that day, the parade was truly awe inspiring.  Even the Soviets, at the height of the Cold War, had their tall ships, Tovarishch and Kruzenshtern , joined America for this display.  For the Soviet cadets on the tall ships, this parade was their first contact with the United States and their first real understanding that “Americans were not devils…”   On that day, New York City’s struggles–race riots, economic woes—just simply faded away.

The Italian tall ship, Amerigo Vespucci, in NY Harbor, 1976

That parade got me hooked on sailing vessels, small and big, forever. 

The Morgan

      Every time I look at a sailing ship, my mind drifts to the images of that day in 1976.  The reason these memories came back again weeks ago was a NY Times article on the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving wooden whaling vessel that once numbered over 2,700.  A small army of marine scientists, engineers, historians, graphic artists and shipwrights, aided by the latest in modern technology, are helping forensic specialists to decipher the way the ship was originally built back in 1841 in New Bedford, Massachusetts.   New Bedford was once the bustling seaport for whaling ships that supplied the world with whale oil for lamps, with baleen (the tough part of the mouth) for buggy whips and corset stays.   Later, when petroleum became the cheaper alternative to whale oil and when horse drawn carriages were made obsolete by automobiles (and no need for buggy whips), the Morgan came to rest in Mystic, Connecticut as a museum piece.  That was where I saw the Morgan a long long time ago, docked along the wharf.  Not a soul was interested enough to board her except me on that summer afternoon.

       The Morgan was not majestic like the tall ships  It was hulking, somber–looking and utilitarian.  It is an example of a bygone era popularized by the 1851 novel, Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession to hunt the great white whale.  The future author, Hermann Melville, came on board as a whaler on a similar ship that same year the Morgan was built.  The novel was authentic in every detail, down to the processing of the whale meat since Melville lived through it while 18 months at sea.  Though a fantasy, the novel had some basis of truth.  Captain Ahab’s death was mostly how whalers died during the hunt and the ship being sunk by a whale did happen on an actual whaling ship, the Essex, rammed and sunk by a sperm whale.  Whaling back then is like drilling for oil in the open sea, just infinitely more dangerous, without the comforts and the safety we know today.  You can feel the danger by simply reading the cenotaphs (Greek meaning empty grave) inside the Seamen’s Bethel, the non-denominational church for the whalers of New Bedford.  The cenotaph was a tablet placed on the side walls of the church as a memorial by the families since there were no bodies to bury when the whalers died of accidents, drowning, sharks and diseases far away from home.

The whaling ship, Charles W. Morgan, docked in Mystic, CT

        For those who have no feeling for a ship, the walk on its deck is just like walking on any other decrepit ship waiting mercifully for the barnacles and shipworms to eat through the hull.  For me, as an amateur historian, it was a walk through history, not of great sea battles or great discoveries, but a walk through the history of simple, tough and courageous men of the sea.  Long before American naval power dominated the oceans, it was men on ships like the Morgan that projected the growing American economic power of the 19th century.

       What I see beyond the restoration of the Morgan is the ever increasing awareness and appreciation of maritime history not just in the United States, but also around the world.   Discoveries of near perfectly preserved trading vessels in the depths of the Black Sea, reconstructions of Greek and Roman warships built two millennia ago, the 400 year old Virginia (a sailing vessel used by American colonists), Scandinavian long boats used by the Vikings and many more.  In Italy, the Lake Nemi ships built by the Roman Emperor Caligula had bilge pumps similar in operation to our modern ones, piston pumps that pipe in hot and cold water throughout the ship (only re-invented again in the Middle Ages), ball bearings to turn statues (Thought to be first conceived by Leonardo da Vinci during the Renaissance and patented by Sven Gustaf Wingqvist in 1907)) and iron anchors that only came to use again a thousand years later.  What we thought of as modern inventions turns out to have more ancient beginnings.

 Admiral Zheng He

        During the Ming dynasty from 1405 to 1433, the 300+ ships of the Chinese Admiral Zheng He comprised 7 expeditions, that took this huge armada all the way to India, Africa and Saudi Arabia.    Extensive written accounts of the voyages tell of 5-masted ships, 200 to 400 feet long, carrying 28,000 men, traversing the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean reaching as far away as Madagascar in Africa and up the Red Sea to Jedda.  The expeditions sought a rival emperor who fled (considered the longest maritime manhunt in history), suppress pirates in the South China Sea,

Comparison of the size of Admiral Zheng He's treasure ship and the ship used during the voyage of Christopher Columbus

explore new worlds, establish trading colonies and project the power of the Chinese Empire.  The Admiral fought a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte in Ceylon and brought back emissaries from 30 states to pay respect to the Emperor.  As a Muslim from Yunnan Province, Zheng He also expanded the range of Chinese Muslim influence in Asia, with contemporary scholars crediting Zheng He with the Islamic beginnings in Indonesia and Malaya.  Life-size replicas of such magnificent ships are yet to made and we can only wonder how such ancient leviathans managed to make this trek multiple times. 

 Borobudur, Phoenicia and Philip Beale

      While many working replicas of ancient ships continue to be made and sailed, perhaps the more recent expeditions on the Borobudur and Phoenicia by Philip Beale’s team are great examples of the passion for high seas adventure. 

       Borobudur Temple is considered the world’s largest Hindu stupa (Sanskrit meaning “heap”), a mound-like structure considered holy because of the presence of Buddhist relics.  Located in the island of Java in Indonesia, Borobudur was built during the 8th century and considered the inspiration for similar structures found in Cambodia’s Anchor Wat centuries later.  The intricate artwork within this vast spiritual complex includes over 1460 reliefs on its wall, 11 of which described the maritime events of the time.  Of these 11, five are reliefs of a previously unknown ship design, later called the Borobudur ships.  The saga describes Indonesian seafarers on ships laden with spices venturing far out beyond the archipelago to the Indian Ocean and to Africa centuries before Borobudur was built.  Pliny, the Roman historian of the 1st century AD, described seafarers from the East coming to Africa on ships and modern historians agree that Indonesians did venture as far as Africa to establish trading colonies. 

      Philip Beale, an Englishman who became captivated with this story, joined the ranks of inspired modern mariners who took it upon themselves to build the exact replica of the ship.  The ship, fitted with outriggers as shown in the carving, was built the same way ships were constructed during the period, with Indonesian hardwood and wooden pegs instead of nails.   When finally built, the ship captain, Alan Campbell, recalls,

“Some ships, when you first see them, you’re not sure which end is the front and which is the back.  When I first saw a picture of this ship, I wasn’t sure which end was the top.” Yet when she cuts through the water, the Borobudur possesses an undeniable majesty. “

His Borobudur Ship Expeditions had taken the exact replica of the ship through the Indian Ocean and to Africa in 2004, proving that ancient Indonesian mariners could have accomplished this feat with the Borobudur ships in the past.   

       Beale’s passion did not end with Borobudur. The next obsession was to build a Phoenician ship to validate the ancient story of Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa 3,000 years ago.  Phoenicia (also referred to in Latin as Punic) comprises city states along the coasts of the Mediterranean, from North Africa and extending to Syria today.  Its power rested on commerce due to its vast fleet that roamed the Mediterranean basin at will.  Because of its naval might and trading power, Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the early Greeks, then by the Etruscans, the Romans and eventually to become part of our modern alphabet.  Herodotus, the Greek historian, wrote the story of King Necho II of Egypt who commissioned the Phoenicians in 600 BC to circumnavigate Africa, previously considered an impossible task.  Like all mariners, Phoenician mariners rose to the challenge, built the ship in Egypt, sailed it through the Red Sea and eventually returned via the Mediterranean three years later.

      Could the Phoenicians have really accomplished it?  Since written records were made in papyrus that disintegrated with age, the only way to settle this question is to build a Phoenician ship and sail it around Africa.  After assembling his team of ship builders and marine archaeologists in Syria, Philip Beale built a replica based on archaeological artifacts, shipwrecks and descriptions available in the historical records.  Last October, the ship, Phoenicia, circumnavigated Africa, returning to dry dock in Syria last October, 2010, finally proving that it can certainly be one.

On the Galleon Trade

       This is a great year for ship reconstructions and expeditions.  The replica of the galleon, Andalucia, was made to highlight the celebration of the Galleon Trade between Manila and Acapulco, a period of over 200 years when goods from Asia came to the New World, not via the more famous Silk Route, but by ships built in the then Spanish colony called the Philippines.  The replica of the Andalucia, though not the life size working model, was thought to be the first ship that traversed the entire world.  Besides bringing the riches of Asia and plundered wealth of the colonies to the West, the Galleon Trade brought Western goods and historical connections between people over those two centuries.  Even now Mexican coastal families carry the last names of native Filipino seafarers that likely had jumped shipped (perhaps, becoming the first Asian illegal aliens in Mexico).  There are coastal communities in Mexico where the favorite alcoholic drink is called tuba, derived from fermented sap of coconuts, popular only in the Philippines.  Likewise, Filipinos came to like the Mexican champurado (chocolate rice porridge) and tamales.

       On my first visit to the island of Panay in the Philippines in 1994, I was struck by how denuded the mountains were and was told that the island only had less than 5% remaining of its virgin forest cover.  My first thought was that more recent uncontrolled harvesting of wood for timber and firewood were the root causes of the deforestation.  Only after talking with a local historian that I came to know the center of shipbuilding was in the old city of Iloilo in Panay because of its natural harbor and thick forests.  The Spanish colonial government had consumed all the big hardwood trees 200 years earlier to build the ships that served the Galleon Trade.

 My obsession with the balanghai

      Having lived and worked in New York City all my adult life, I often dreamed of living in a tropical island, a house by the sea, with coconut palms and beautiful sunsets.  My wife and I visited many islands in SE Asia and did chose the island of Panay and the town of Miag-ao, where I continued research on totally new directions—barnacles, spiny lobsters, endangered clams, eels and tropical abalone.  What captivated me on my first visit to Miag-ao was the view of the small fishing boats going out to sea at night with lanterns and the hundred or so boats racing to market in the early morning to sell the night’s harvest of fish.  It’s the delight of seeing the same boats on a different season, slowly moving parallel to the beach, with kerosene lamps lit up, catching squid; of local tales of a shark that once roamed the bay, keeping the fishermen from venturing out to sea, of wild tales of mysticisms and night creatures of ancient legends.  There were many reasons to be there, but it was the sight of fishing boats that kept me often by the sea .

Views of Miag-ao. Villagers helping pull fishing nets towards the shore at sunset. Fishing boats sailing towards the shore during the Salakayan Festival. Photo: JR Matias

       During the five year sojourn in Miag-ao, I also learned about the local customs, the local stories, the issues of being foreign having lived in another island in my youth, speaking a different language altogether.   I also learned about Maragtas, a tale written by a local islander, Pedro Alcantara Monteclaro,  a revolutionary figure during the Philippine Revolution against Spain.  Maragtas tells the story of the Ten Datus of Borneo, escaping a harsh ruler on their long boats with their families, searching for a new home in distant lands.  It tells of them landing in the island of Aninipay (now Panay) within the shadow of the mystical Mt. Madia-as, the negotiations with the local Negrito tribesmen for the datus to occupy the lowlands and the Negritos the highlands.   It was a tale of maritime adventure, of love stories and of many things.  But, I was most captivated by the vision of the boat called the barangay or balangay that the datus used for their escape.

       The word barangay refers not only to the boat, but also the village.  Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who accompanied Magellan in his voyage to circumnavigate the world, called these boats by the Europeanized version of balanghai.   Pigafetta was one of the 18 survivors that returned to Spain on the ship Victoria out of the original 241 that constituted Magellan’s 5-ship flotilla.  The biggest balanghai, measuring 25 meters, can carry the entire village.  They are also war canoes used to raid neighboring islands.   Much of that maritime history was lost when the Spanish Conquistadors came, after Ferdinand Magellan landed in 1521 (and killed in battle with a local datu, Lapu-lapu) in the nearby island of Mactan.   

       The later conquest of the islands was made possible not by Spanish warships.  They were too big, too slow and the draft too deep to navigate close to the coast to make effective use of their cannons.  The ships of the Conquistadors were mostly anchored in the natural harbors of Cebu or Iloilo from where they boarded hundreds of balanghais, referred by the Spanish as caracoa, manned mostly by native allies to attack the next island.   After consolidating their conquest, the colonial government banned the building of balanghai, preventing interisland communication and trade except through permission of the colonial government.  The control was so total that even the first letters of the adopted Spanish last names were given according to the island of birth, thus enabling the government to track origins of people.  The natives were then redirected instead to build churches, forts and serve in the mines and plantations.  Boat building skills were lost, except in the unconquered territories of the southern islands where the same boat building tradition continues to this day in remote islands.

       In pre-colonial times, the city of Butuan in the island of Mindanao was the center of commerce, with ships coming from the Sri-Vijayan Empire of Java and from China and India.  In the late 1970’s, nine balanghais were found purely by accident, buried and preserved for centuries in the mud , the largest estimated at 25 meters.    While 6 boats remained buried in their original waterlogged condition, radiocarbon dating placed one of the three excavated balanghai to year 320, the second in 990 and the third in 1250.  These are the oldest, pre-colonial wooden boats found in SE Asia thus far.

The working replica of the balanghai in Batan, Aklan. Photo by CP Sucgang.

        On December 13, 2010 the replica of a balanghai, built by Arturo Valdez and his team of former Everest mountaineers , completed its 14,000 km odyssey, through the South China Sea, taking this boat to Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, finally berthing on its home base in Manila.  Like the Phoenicia and Borobudur expeditions, the journey of the balanghai also proved the ancient accounts that such boats had roamed throughout the archipelagic countries of South East Asia and perhaps beyond. 

        The balanghai is especially interesting to me because I had the same passion that began in 1997, yet was never fulfilled.  I visited the National Museum to see one of the balanghais on display and discussed with Rey Santiago, the senior archaeologist, on the possibility of building such a working replica in the future.  What developed in 1998 was a concept to build such an exact replica to sail around South East Asia in the same way that Art Valdez was able to successfully accomplish a decade later.   Finding the enormous hardwood tress needed for the planks and the carvers with the abilities to build one were daunting tasks.  And, new challenges of the times distracted me from chasing that dream.

      A Nova Pacific newsletter I wrote in 1998 while I was in Miag-ao discussed the balanghai in more detail and thought the excerpt below from that publication might be illuminating:

       Folktales handed down from generations tell of entire communities migrating from distant lands to settle in our islands aboard a legendary ship called the balanghai.  And, upon landing in their new found land, the voyagers continued to carry on the traditions of their homeland.  The legendary adventure of the ten Bornean datus, led by Datu Puti, and their settlement of Aninipay (now called Panay Island) in the Visayas spoke well of our ancient maritime heritage..  The advent of the Spanish era in the 16th century destroyed much of our seafaring legacy and, with its loss, much of our cultural identity as a people.

What is a Balanghai? 

      The term balanghai came originally from the Italian spelling of Antonio Pigafetta’s 16th century writings about the barangay.  What we really knew about the balanghai came from Francisco  Ignacio Alcina’s 1668 manuscript which described life in the archipelago for the Spanish King.  He described the balanghai as a 15 meter long plank built wooden boat propelled through the sea with a square sail on a tripod mast.  Its rowers, numbering 10 to 20 men, sit on platforms along the outriggers (2 to 3 rows on each side).  These ancient mariners paddled from “sunrise to sunset” at high speeds in unison to the songs and chants about heroes and their deeds.  Aboard the balanghai, the most important person was not the datu but the crier or singer whose songs, not drums like in Chinese or Japanese boats, set the rhythm of the rowers.  When traveling before the wind, the balanghai was said to go at a speed of 12 to 15 knots compared to the galleon’s 5 to 6.

     The balanghai is not just a ship for long voyages.  It is also a warship, highly maneuverable, versatile vessel best

Balanghai as a war canoe. Watercolor rendering from a print by Noe Trayvilla, artist, Miagao. In the JR Matias collection.

suited to the shallow waters of the archipelago.  Other than ancient writings and folk tales, there was no real proof of the balanghai’s existence until 1976, when by sheer luck, a Butuan City Engineer named Proceso S. Gonzales, unearthed planks of an ancient boat buried in the mud.  The National Museum dispatched archaeologists to the site and discovered a national treasure of several balanghais, which when carbon dated ranged in age from the 4th to the 13th centuries. 

      These ancient boats, whose construction remained unknown for over a thousand years, lay buried under the mud in Butuan City. What the archaeologists had unearthed corroborated much of Alcina’s detailed descriptions of the balanghai.  Having been a master shipwright himself before coming to the Philippines and have built such vessels during his travel through the Visayan islands, Alcina’s writings of the balanghai had the details only an expert could have provided.  The construction is unlike our more modern technique of boat-building where the keel and the ribs are laid first and from which the planks are fastened with nails or spikes.  The construction of the balanghai involved building the planks first and then fastening the ‘ribs’ after the ship has taken shape.  This same technique was employed in the building of Viking ships.  Each plank is carved expertly from a tree with an ax and fitted edge to edge perfectly with wooden pegs–a no mean feat for a boat the size of a balanghai.  Caulking was made up of fibers and resins.  Alcina’s description of the balanghai was indeed proven true by the archaeological findings in Butuan.

What makes the balanghai so important?

     The balanghai, with its various names, the biniday or barangay, is not just an ancient ship. It is the term from which our basic sociopolitical unit was derived.  Before the Spanish era, it refers to a community or settlement led by a monarchical chieftain, the datu, chosen for his wisdom and valor.  The renaming of this political unit into a barrio during the American occupation has symbolically subverted the Filipino psyche from an independent society into that of a conquered one.  In 1974, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 557, the term barangay used to describe our community was again adapted as a reaffirmation of our national identity.

    Just like the Viking ships of Scandinavia, our balanghai is a symbol of the maritime heritage of our civilization that links us with our Southeast Asian neighbors. It can be a common link between the islands and its diverse cultures; a means of creating a national unity.

     For centuries, our balanghai had been a myth. To most Filipinos, the balanghai remains a mere symbol and few understand its true value.  To transform the myth and the symbol into a recognizable truth one must therefore bring the symbol into reality. To draw the balanghai from the abstract into the realm of the senses, one must bring the true balanghai to life.

From: JR Matias, Nova Pacific newsletter, 1998

The oceans as the ultimate freeway

       Seafaring legacies are aplenty.  Visit any nation that has a coastline, talk to any of the older villagers living by the sea and you’ll see what I mean.  Seafarers are among the most vibrant and adventurous people I know.  When they leave the comforting sight of land, dangers lurk in every wave, every change in the weather.  That has always been so for millennia and have not changed much even with our modern technology.  For mariners, beyond the national territorial limits, the ocean is like an autobahn, a freeway without lanes and without borders.  Unlike the Silk Route, where a traveler needs permission to pass through kingdoms and fiefdoms, the ocean was free, unfettered access.  And for thousands of years, it was the communication highway, the ocean the equivalent of our modern Internet.


      The maritime tradition of the Philippine Islands continues today, though most of this tradition now lay in more distant oceans under many different flags.  There are about 100 maritime academies in the islands, sending 230,000 seamen to man the world’s tankers, bulk carriers and cruise ships.  Of the 1 million seamen worldwide, 25% of them are Philippine seafarers.  So, it is not so surprising that every time a ship is hijacked off the Somali coast, invariably there would be a number of Filipino crewmembers taken hostage, more than any nationality.  There was a time in 2008 when one Filipino seaman was captured on foreign ships every 6 hours.

      Why so many Filipino seamen?  It can’t simply be explained by economic terms when there are so many more island nations with similar economies, yet with little participation in the maritime industry.  Perhaps, the Philippine psyche is still tied with the sea despite the 400-year ban that Spain imposed on its former conquered territories.  The thousands of years of riding the balanghai cannot be erased by such a brief interlude; it was just simply lying dormant, biding time to re-express once again.

Or, perhaps it is simply in the blood !

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

New York, NY USA

Additional reading:,9171,480337,00.html

About the whaling ship, the Morgan

On Frank Braynard, founder of OPSail and maritime historian

Tara Oceans: a scientific odyssey in the tradition of HMS Beagle


The expeditions of HMS Beagle (1831-36) and Tara Oceans (2009-12). Charles Darwin and Capt Robert Fitzroy.

His Majesty’s Ship Beagle is among the most celebrated of all British warships, commissioned in 1820 as a Cherokee Class, 10-gun brig-sloop. I always thought that it was odd to name a ship after a dog,  unless of course there was an actual Mr. or Mrs. Beagle around back then who was worthy of such a recognition.  But I could not find anything about how the name was selected other than that it was named after a breed of dog.   The other warship captains must have had a fun time teasing the first captain of the Beagle.   Can anyone tell me a famous (or even not so famous) American or French ship named after a dog?   Considering how the English (and the Irish too) name their pubs– Pig & Whistle, as an example—it maybe not be altogether outside the realm of imagination for the British to choose a dog. 

Why choose the beagle for a warship’s “nom de guerre?”  That’s hardly the kind of name that instills a sense of awe, power and danger. The beagle is generally described as even tempered, merry, amiable, non-aggressive and poor guard dogs. The word beagle has many possible origins, but I like to think it came from the Gaelic word beag, meaning little.  The only reason I can find, from reading about beagles, was that the beagle, as we now know as a breed, was developed in Great Britain about the same period when the ship was commissioned.  The beagle was so well liked that it had been depicted in art and written in the popular literature long before the commissioning of the ship, as far back as the Elizabethan period.  Even in this century, the British named its Mars landing spacecraft, Beagle 2, in honor of HMS Beagle.  Or, maybe they just have yet to outgrow their fondness of beagles.  Guess who is the most popular dog in the whole wide world?  Snoopy. And, he’s a beagle, of course.  So now you know!  

I am digressing from the important topic of the day, but I can’t help but finally settle this nagging question in my mind (and yours too I’m sure). 

Now back to some science. 

In the previous blog entry on Charles Darwin, I briefly mentioned the ship.  I think it is time to at least take a moment to devote some thoughts about HMS Beagle.  After the fanfare of being the first ship of the line to cross the new London Bridge in celebration of the coronation of King George IV, the ship remained moored until later when it took part in three survey expeditions.   The Beagle itself was not a highly regarded ship of the line by its sailors who referred to it as a “coffin brig”–more likely to sink to the bottom than sail around the world. The duties of the first survey were so lonely and yet so stressful that its first commander, Lieutenant Pringle Stokes, committed suicide in Cape Horn.  On the second voyage, Stoke’s nephew, Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy was appointed captain.  In this forthcoming second voyage, Captain Fitzroy needed to avoid the same fate as his uncle by cleverly bringing in a paying passenger-naturalist who would conduct the surveys of  the land so that the ship’s officers may attend to the more important military task of ‘hydrography.”  This young man, Charles Darwin, on his way to becoming a clergyman, became that naturalist.  And the rest is history.  

HMS Beagle 

On this second voyage, initially planned as a three year survey that became five years (1831-1836), HMS Beagle circumnavigated South America and then the globe.  It was a magnificent feat of seamanship, using 22 chronometers and with only 33 seconds of error.   Though largely forgotten, HMS Beagle also had its place in world history.  It was one of the three ships that helped the British take the Falklands Islands from Argentina in 1883, eventually leading to the Falklands War between the two countries a hundred years later.  The Beagle Channel and the Beagle Islands of Tiera del Fuego, in South America’s southernmost tip, representing one of the three gateways to the Pacific, were named after this ship.  Conflicting claims to those islands also almost led to a war between Argentina and Chile in 1904.  Aptly named the Beagle Conflict, this arose because of Argentinean claims to the islands and Chile’s refusal to accede.  It took mediation by the Vatican to resolve this issue 80 years later.  Argentina accepted the papal decree of 1984 making the Beagle Islands and the Beagle Channel as territories of Chile. 

Yet, history barely remembers the Beagle and its captain.  Instead, history took note of the Beagle’s paying passenger and would-be clergyman whose ideas, formed during this voyage, became the foundation of our understanding of the diversity of life on earth. 

The tale does not end there.  One of Darwin’s most ardent detractors and one of the champions of anti-evolution crusade turned out to be none other HMS Beagle’s own Captain Fitzroy.  Their opinions of each other, though strained during the voyage, diverged dramatically long after the expedition.  It is ironic that the aspiring clergyman came up with the idea of evolution that shook the foundations of the Church teachings, while the military man, duty bound to vanquish all enemies of the Crown, became one of the Church’s most vocal champions. 

Tara Oceans 

Scientific expeditions, whether on land or at sea, always have a romantic appeal.  Expeditions meant adventure and excitement.  One can only imagine the thrill and the foreboding that Darwin felt as he embarked on this naturalists’ dream of exploration.  That same sense of adventure, despite all the sophistication and the trappings of our modern digitally enhanced world, still remains today.  

The marine ecosystem is still poorly understood; we only see bits and pieces of it.  But each ecosystem is not isolated but part of a larger system; each part impacting the whole.  Within that complexity is the diversity of life, interacting often in unique and often unfathomable ways.

Despite mankind’s technological prowess, it is not an easy task to understand this complexity.  To solve this puzzle, we do need to start at the bottom, the very basic life forms of each ecosystem and somehow integrate this into the wider knowledge of our planet’s water world.  What can be more basic that the bacteria, zooplanktons, phytoplanktons, microalgae and viruses that make up 30% of the primary biomass of the ocean and the source of 95% of the respiration of our planet.  This is what makes Tara Expeditions a unique, singular maritime adventure of our time. 

Tara Oceans is a specially designed 118 ft. aluminum schooner, sponsored by the French Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and many other marine research institutions.  Its principal partnerships include the United Nations Environmental (UNEP) program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  Its main purpose is to conduct surveys of marine ecosystems as it travels on its 3-year voyage around the world.  Tara Oceans has a 5-man crew and room for 7 scientists. Their task is to examine marine plankton and other microbial life in the oceans and near coral reefs as it travels along its 100,000-mile route.       

Tara Expeditions started in 2003 because of the vision of its patron, Agnes B, founder of one of France’s most prominent fashion brand, Agnes b.  Her dream was to understand and make a significant contribution to mitigating the effects of the warming oceans.  Since the acquisition of the schooner, Tara, that vision has already taken the ship and its research teams through 7 expeditions in the Arctic, Antarctic and the seas around Patagonia and South Georgia.  

In 2009 (coincidentally the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origins of Species) Tara Oceans embarked on this new 3-year odyssey to study the basic life forms that drive the diversity and productivity of our oceans.  As a moving platform, complete with sophisticated imaging and biological research facilities, Tara Oceans brings together an international team of scientists to conduct over 20 major projects.  Today, Tara Oceans is in the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean on a coral research project, prior to sailing to Cape Town, South Africa.  

While there is not enough room in this article to talk about all the research programs during this expedition, it might be of interest to just mention a few to give you the flavor and the sophistication of this voyage.  TANIT (TAra OceaNs ProkaryiotIc FuncTioning and Diversity) is a consortium of scientists investigating the functioning ecology and biodiversity of bacteria in the oceans.   Virus hunters from the Université de la Méditerranée (Marseille, France) shall examine the genome of the MimiVirus, the largest known virus, from the group of giant viruses, called Giruses, which infect a wide range of marine life forms.  The hunt for new ocean viruses will provide a better understanding not only of the genetic diversity but also the role these organisms play in the overall health of the oceans.  The Tara Oceans Marine Biology Imaging platform (TAOMI) integrates all of the data from the research teams as a “tool to extract functional correlations between genes, the diversity of organisms present in a given region and the physical environment.” 

How does Tara Oceans manage to attract such a wide range of scientists from the world’s premier institutions?  That I don’t know.  But, just to impress you, here is the array of acronyms of all the scientific organizations involved: 

CNRS / ENS, Paris, France; NOC, Southampton, UK; CNRS/UPMC, Paris, Roscoff, Banyuls, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France;  Stazione Zoologica, Naples, Italy ; Marine Biology Laboratory, Woods Hole, USA ;  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, USA;  University of Washington, Seattle, USA;  University of California, Santa Cruz, USA;  Flinders University, Adelaïde, Australia;  JAMSTEC, Kanagawa, Japan;  ICM-CSIC, Spain; Bigelow Laboratory, USA;  CNRS/IMM /IGS, CNRS /OOB, CNRS / UPMC, Paris, Villefranche-sur-Mer, France;  Centre Scientifique de Monaco University of Milan, Bicocca, Italy;  MNHN, Paris France;  James Cook University, Townsville, Australia;  Museum of Tropical Queensland, Townsville, Australia ; CORDIO East Africa, Mombasa, Kenya ; University of Warwick, Coventry, UK ; Nova Southeastern University, Florida, USA;  Tara Expeditions, Paris, France; University of Maine, Orono, USA;  ACRI-ST, Sofia-Antipolis, France;  LEGOS/CNRS, Toulouse, France; GIP Mercator Océan/CNRS, Ramonville St Agne, France; METEO France, Toulouse, France; Satlantic Inc., Halifax, Canada;  Hydroptic Ltd., Lisle en Dodon, France; WDC-MARE/PANGAEA®, Bremen, Germany;  IFREMER, Brest, France; University of Hawaii, USA; LOG, Wimereux, France; EMBL, Heidelberg, Germany;  University of Washington, Seattle, USA; Genoscope, Evry, France;  EBI, Cambridge, UK ; IOBIS/Cmarz/Census of Marine Life, Washington, USA. 

And, as of June 17, 2010, the newest member of the team—Poseidon Sciences

I am sure you are dying to know why we are part of this.  In my previous blog entry on Darwin, I wrote about Darwin’s 8-year passion to classify barnacles.  Unfortunately, I caught the same, perhaps nastier ‘bug’ and now on my 15th year of the same obsession.  This time, there is an urgent concern by environmentalist and the maritime industry about invasive species carried by ships on their submerged hulls.  Because Tara Oceans will sail to various oceanic environments and stop at different ports of call, it is now possible to critically examine what kinds of biological hitchhikers are present in different regions, how long they remain attached and the succession of different biofouling attachments as the ship sails through different waters.  This is an unprecedented opportunity to look at this issue, with marine biologists on board, supported by Poseidon Sciences’ marine research stations around the world.  Tara’s TAOMI system will integrate the data and enable a continuous look at the biological processes at play on a ship traversing all the oceans. 

To make this program meaningful to the maritime industry, the Tara-Poseidon program shall encourage industry participation by enabling marine coatings companies to paint 1 m2 patches on the underside of the hull to measure the performance of their coatings against fouling attachments while comparing those results with uncoated patches along the hull.  There has been a proliferation of coatings with claims of performance against fouling attachments in the absence of TBT (tributyl tin, a toxin outlawed by the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations) and copper.  This is a unique opportunity to validate the performance of such systems (copper-free and low copper) under the challenging conditions of Tara’s expeditions. 

There is one similarity between HMS Beagle and Tara Oceans.  Both ships are the tools to answer questions relevant to people of their time.  The Beagle’s mission of hydrology was crucial to maintain the British dominance of the high seas during the 19th century.  Tara Ocean’s mission, likewise among the most important of our time, 178 years later, is to understand the organisms that are crucial to support the diversity of life in our oceans and sustain the atmosphere on earth.  And, from that gained knowledge, find ways to plan for its remediation, as the founder, Ages B, had envisioned. 

As in most scientific expeditions, it is the chance of discovery that fuels the excitement.  In the case of Charles Darwin, his ideas on evolution might not have formed without the convergence of Darwin and HMS Beagle at that point in human history. 

As Tara Oceans sail through the deep blue sea–who knows.   Among us might be the next human being that could be the instrument of change in the ocean’s future. 

Welcome aboard! 

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences

June 28, 2010 New York, USA 

PS:  Just a little more about Captain Robert Fitzroy, the forgotten pioneer 

After the Beagle expeditions, Fitzroy made it possible for weather observation equipment to be available in every ship in English ports.  This accomplishment and his precise hydrological charts had saved countless sailors from heavy storms. The first scientific weather forecasting station was devised by Fitzroy, using the telegraph as the method to transmit data from far flung weather stations.  Despite the publication of his Weather Book in 1862, which became the inspiration for the very first daily weather forecast in the Times of London, he received little fame.  In poor health, depression from lack of recognition and losing the fight against Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Captain Fitzroy went the way of the previous captain of the Beagle.  He committed suicide in 1865.  It is only recently that the British government and the world’s atmospheric scientists recognize the pioneering work of Captain Robert Fitzroy in weather forecasting. 

The object lesson:  Be nice to the captain of Tara Oceans.  He has a lot to worry about. 

For further reading: 

About the Beagle 

The Tara Oceans scientific program 

Poseidon Sciences

Charles Darwin’s other passion: rediscovering the origins of barnacle research

Barnacles attached on the surface of a scallop shell

This blog entry has its origins from a company newsletter I wrote in 2009 for scientists working on marine coatings. 

Darlene Brezinski, the editor of Paint & Coatings Industry magazine, liked the topic so much and asked me to take excerpts from that newsletter into the article that appeared in the magazine on the same year.  I share with you excerpts of that article here as a prologue to my next blog on HMS Beagle and Tara Oceans.

Why bother studying barnacles?  Marine biofouling is such a multi-billion dollar problem because attachments on the bottom of the ship causes drag and increased fuel consumption.  It is estimated that a supertanker from Saudi Arabia to Los Angeles port would cost an additional 1 million dollars worth of extra fuel if barnacles are present in the submerged portion of the hull.  The barnacle, Balanus amphitrite, is the most ubiquitous fouling organism that tenaciously attach to the surface.  It is perhaps one of the earliest  invasive species since it is present in practically all major ports, around the world, having been a hitchhiker on ocean going vessels for over 3,000 years.  To get them off the ship requires expensive dry docking, sand blasting. and re-painting.  Prior to the 1990’s, all marine paints contained toxins to kill barnacle larvae before they settle on the bottom of the ship.   That use has since been legislated out and the search is on for less toxic biocides and preferably nontoxic paint chemistries or repellents.  

Barnacles and an oyster attached on a submerged surface in tropical waters. Photo by Sister Avelin Mary.

So, here is the excerpt from Poseidon Marine Science News and PCI magazine.

“Having been in fish biology in my earlier years and a biomedical scientist in my middle ones, my own passion for barnacle research did not come until later after meeting Dan Rittschoff at Duke University,  Ron Price at the U.S. Naval Research Institute and Sister Avelin Mary at Sacred Heart Marine Research Centre (Tuticorin, India) in the early 1990’s.  Barnacles are not exactly the cute furry creatures one can get so passionate about.  I do have to admit that the interest was partially clouded by my capitalistic pursuits.   Like many of us in this business, we write scientific articles about the biology of the barnacle, Balanus amphitrite amphitrite Darwin, and yet did not spare any second thoughts about why Darwin’s name came to be part of it.  So, let me tell you why.

The Charles Darwin we are all familiar with is the English naturalist who wrote The Origins of Species and Natural Selection, which has since become the foundation for our understanding of evolution and the unifying explanation for the diversity of life on earth.  He wrote about his theory in 1844, then quickly shelved it inside his desk drawer, specifically instructing his wife to release it for publication only if he died unexpectedly.  Darwin was a modest man who shied away from controversies and he knew his theory will be so controversial, and even remains to be so on this 150th anniversary of writing the Origins

Charles Darwin

For 20 years, the paper remained hidden until he received a letter from a young English naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, then living in an island of what is now Indonesia.  In a malarial fit, Wallace remembered reading Thomas Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population (which coincidentally also inspired Darwin) and reached his own Eureka moment totally independently.  He quickly dispatched a letter to Darwin describing an almost identical theory of evolution.  In the typical Darwinian sense of fair play, he presented Wallace’s ideas and his own at the same time during the meeting of the prestigious Linnean Society, giving equal credit to the ideas of Wallace and the share of the controversy as well.  Yet, Darwin is credited with the theory of natural selection because his ideas were written while Wallace was yet in his teens, over 20 years before. 

Then, you may ask, what did he do for 20 years?  Besides dealing with his failing health and the tragedies in his life, he was consumed by the passion of cataloguing barnacles.  His interest in these tiny, ugly creatures began during his famous round the world voyage in HMS Beagle.  Then, at the age of 26, young Darwin was exploring the Chilean coastline looking for biological specimens when he came upon a conch shell riddled with tiny boreholes despite its thick shell.  Inside the hole was a microscopic creature, attached by its head to the shell and waving six tiny legs.  Darwin was fascinated, knowing that it is a barnacle, but without a shell. It has never been described by any naturalist before.  He was a disciplined taxonomist and organized the chaotic nomenclature of this organism, numbering over 1000 species, which were often misnamed during his time. Upon his return to England and immediately after writing his ideas on natural selection, at great expense to his health, he began his day and night obsession with barnacles that lasted for 8 years (1846-1854) cataloguing the collection from his voyage and from the hundreds more sent to him by mail from around the world . 

What drove this passion about such a mundane organism?  Perhaps a clue comes from the earlier anonymous publication of a controversial, incendiary, speculative book, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (later confirmed to be the work of Robert Chambers, a Scottish medical journalist).   Widely panned and mocked for its evolutionary ideas even by Darwin’s friends, the failure of the book was a great personal disappointment because Darwin expected the same response to his own ideas in his theory lying inside his desk drawer.  Even his best friend, the noted botanist Joseph Hooker wrote, “no one has the right to examine the origin of species who has not minutely described many.”  Perhaps, one reason for this obsession was indeed to “minutely observe a distinct part of the natural world and in so doing earn his right to question their origins.” 

Whatever the reason might be, Darwin started us all on a path of research towards understanding barnacle biology and the commercial opportunities that follow in its wake.  As for me, at least I have someone else to blame now for my current obsession with barnacles — Charles Robert Darwin.”

–Jonathan R. Matias,    Poseidon Sciences

Excerpted from:  Poseidon Marine Sciences News, Subsea testing

Also, read the book Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott.  It is an engrossing story of Darwin’s passion for barnacles and the mystery of Darwin’s 20-year wait to publish his theory.