Octocorals

The title of this week’s DKHQ Marine Fact sounds like a sci-fi animal; the visual being half coral, half octopus. Although not a sci-fi creature, this animal is a coral.

When I use the word coral in conversation it often elicits responses such as, “Oh, you mean the coral in the Great Barrier Reef?” Yes, the Great Barrier Reef does have a diversity of beautiful corals, but you don’t have to travel to the tropics to see corals. The corals I am discussing today are found in the cooler temperate waters of Southern Australia. You may need to put on a thicker wetsuit to view them, but they are just as beautiful and colourful as their tropical cousins.

Here are some incredibly interesting facts about octocorals:

Fact 1: The ‘octo’ in octocoral represents the eight feathery tentacles found on each polyp that form the coral. The feathery tentacles are attached to the stomach.

Octocorals are beautifully colourful.
Octocorals are beautifully colourful.

Fact 2: Octocorals are filter feeders, meaning they eat microscopic organisms floating in the water column. The feathery tentacles, as described above, act like fingers swaying in the water current, capturing organisms such as plankton (microscopic animals) and phytoplankton (microscopic algae). Each tentacle is hollow, allowing the organisms to travel from the feathery tips down to the stomach.

Fact 3: Octocorals form colonies that are attached to the seabed or other hard structures such as large rocks.

Fact 4: To see octocorals you will need to SCUBA as they prefer to live at depths between 4-50m.

Fact 5: Octocorals are in the scientific Order Alcyonacea and consist of soft corals, gorgonians and sea whips.

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Cuttlefish

Most people associate cuttlefish with domesticated budgies (the bird, not the male swimsuit). This is because budgies are given cuttlebone, a long ovulated white structure, to sharpen their beaks. This beautiful cuttlebone is an important feature of the cuttlefish; it controls their buoyancy while swimming in the ocean at various depths.

Cuttlefish can be found across the globe. They belong to a group of animals termed cephalopods, which also includes the octopus, squid, chambered nautilus and argonauts. Scientifically, cuttlefish belong to the Class Cephalopoda in the Phylum Mollusca. This means cuttlefish are invertebrates and have no backbone.

Cephalopods are considered amongst scientists to be the most intelligent out of all invertebrates; they learn quickly, are able to solve problems, communicate via complex visual communication and can quickly adapt to their local environment. Like chameleons on land, cuttlefish are experts at adapting to the colour and patterns of the environment around them.

Cuttlefish, as well as the octopus, contain special organs in their skin termed chromatophores which are little elastic bags filled with colour pigment. By expanding and contracting, chromatophores display a particular colour. They can be turned on and off which allows the cuttlefish to create a particular set of colours and patterns with its skin. Additionally, skin flaps, termed papillae, can be pushed or shaped to mimic their surroundings, for example, seaweed or coral. These colour and pattern changes are used for: mating and courting rituals, mate-guarding and camouflage to hide from predators.

Here are some more fascinating facts about cuttlefish:

Fact 1: Cuttlefish have very well developed eyes and acute vision. They are colour blind but respond to differences in light intensity rather than differences in wave length (which vertebrates, like humans, use to determine colour).

Fact 2: Cuttlefish are carnivores, that is, they eat meat. They are active nighttime predators feeding on fish, crustaceans, shellfish and worms.

Fact 3:  During mating, the male passes packets of sperm to the female using its modified arm termed the hectocotylus. The females can immediately fertilise their eggs or are able to store the sperm in special receptacles inside their body for periods of time until they want to fertilise their eggs.

Fact 4:  Females attach the fertilised eggs to the seafloor either on or under hard surfaces such as rocks. Young cuttlefish develop with no parental assistance and many hatchings are carried around in surface ocean currents over long distances.

Fact 5:  Cuttlefish have 8 arms and 2 feeding tentacles. All arms have suckers along the length of the arm except for the feeding tentacles which have suckers only on the tip, termed clubs. The feeding tentacles can be pulled back into the mouth.

The Giant cuttle, Sepia apama, is found in southern temperate Australia extending from Western Australia to New South Wales. This species of cuttlefish can be identified by the three flat skin folds behind the eye and adults are often very curious.
The Giant cuttle, Sepia apama, is found in southern temperate Australia extending from Western Australia to New South Wales. This species of cuttlefish can be identified by the three flat skin folds behind the eye and adults are often very curious.

Fact 6: A cuttlefish’s mouth contains a hard beak, similar to a parrot’s beak. The beak is used to kill and paralyse the prey by injecting a poisonous saliva. The beak also breaks the prey into pieces and then it is further broken down with a row of very small sharp teeth.

Fact 7: When scared or irritated, cuttlefish squirt ink into the water column which can be shaped to be the same size as its body. This ink sac sits inside the body near the anus. Cuttlefish are also able to bury themselves under sand, with only the eyes remaining visible, when they want to hide.

Fact 8: Cuttlefish use their funnel and fins to swim. The fins extend out from its mantle (the back part of its body) enabling rapid or slow propulsion.

Many larger marine animals such as seals, whales and large fish eat cuttlefish, however, they are rarely caught in fisher nets. Perhaps this is indicative of their intelligence and being able to problem solve in difficult situations?

Seaweeds

Seaweeds are the plants of our oceans. Similar to land plants, seaweeds play an important role in absorbing large amounts of carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen we all need in order to live.

Most of us view seaweed as that smelly stuff that washes up on the shore, frequently thrown around by rowdy kids and teenagers. A storm or human extractive activities are the root cause for seaweeds to be washed up on the shore. When washed up, seaweeds are dead and decomposing which is why you crinkle your nose to that funny smell.

Dalton Koss HQ Partner, Rebecca Koss, doing underwater monitoring and surrounded by the brown seaweed Cystophora subfarcinata.
Dalton Koss HQ Partner, Rebecca Koss, doing underwater monitoring and surrounded by the brown seaweed Cystophora subfarcinata.

Seaweeds are beautiful and come in a range of colours, shapes and sizes. They provide homes and protection for many ocean animals. Some seaweeds provide food for animals and are the basis for many food webs. Even humans harvest seaweed for food and other products. Here are some more interesting facts about seaweeds.

Fact 1: Seaweeds are plants, scientifically termed macro(large) algae. They are simple plants without roots, stems, leaves or flowers.

Fact 2: Seaweeds grow on the intertidal shore and in subtidal areas. Like land-based plants, seaweeds harvest sunlight for photosynthesis and will only grow at depths where sunlight can penetrate the water column.

Fact 3: There are three major seaweed groups and they are based on their colour: red seaweeds (Rhodophyta), brown seaweeds (Phaeophyta) and green seaweeds (Chlorophyta).

Fact 4: There is a fourth group of seaweed that is often contested to being a true seaweed amongst marine algae biologists (scientists who study seaweeds). This is the blue-green algae (Cyanophyta).

Fact 5: Some seaweeds are very small and grow on other seaweeds when environmental conditions are opportune. These seaweeds are known as epiphytes.

Fact 6: Some seaweeds have long fronds and can grow up to 10 meters in height creating underwater forests, for example, the large brown kelp Macrocystis angustifolia that grows in southern Australia. Other seaweeds are small, encrust hard structures and often look like lichen.

Red seaweed encrusting a snail's shell.
In the above picture, there are different growth formations of red seaweed. One growth form encrusts the snail’s shell (middle of the photo) while another growth form has fronds (top of the picture).

Fact 7: Seaweeds attach themselves to solid structures such as rock and wood pylons using their holdfasts. Holdfasts are like a whole bunch of fingers tightly gripping onto a solid item. However, seaweeds  are smart and go one step further. Holdfasts secrete a chemical that is similar to superglue to ensure the seaweed is permanently stuck to that structure. This allows the seaweed to withstand strong currents, tides, swells and stormy conditions. This super glue like chemical is being researched by chemists as a natural product to be used in human products, e.g. glues that can be used for building houses.

Fact 8: Some seaweeds are harvested globally as food, medicine and as a product for other applications such as toothpaste, ice-cream, soil fertiliser and shampoo.

Fact 9: Port Phillip Bay located in Victoria, Australia has over 200 different types of seaweeds and is one of the most diverse seaweed locations in the world.

While seaweeds might be pretty stinky while decomposing on the shoreline, without them our oceans would be pretty dull and devoid of life.

The brown seaweed Hormosira banksii growing on the rocky intertidal shore.
The brown seaweed Hormosira banksii growing on the rocky intertidal shore.

What the devil……?

Every venture into our amazing marine world provides me with an opportunity to learn something new and to interact one-on-one with some wonderful creatures.

During one dive in Port Phillip Bay, located in Victoria, Australia, the Southern Blue Devil’s iridescent blue colours immediately caught my eye.  Scientifically known as Paraplesiops meleagris, this beautiful fish is endemic to southern Australia. The Southern Blue Devil can only be found in the beautiful waters between Perth in Western Australia to Port Phillip Bay in Victoria to a depth of up to 45m.

The Southern Blue Devil loves to live under ledges and in crevices and caves. They are fiercely protective of their territory, especially during breeding season. My first encounter with the Southern Blue Devil was during breeding season. The male of this species can be a little aggressive if you get too close to their territory, especially if you have any blue colours on your SCUBA kit or wetsuit. My SCUBA mask at the time was made of clear perspex and rubber lined with bright blue rims around the eyes. Thinking I was a competitor for it’s territory, this male Southern Blue Devil told my SCUBA mask in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t welcome.

Southern Blue Devil 1: Dalton Koss HQ SCUBA mask 0.

The Southern Blue Devil on the defensive mode due to my blue rimmed SCUBA mask coming across as a potential competitor.
The Southern Blue Devil on the defensive due to my blue rimmed SCUBA mask appearing to be a potential competitor.

Although quite a visually funny story, here are some other interesting facts about the Southern Blue Devil.

Fact 1. Similar to human finger prints, adult Southern Blue Devils can be individually identified and monitored due to their unique pattern of markings on the lower part of their gill cover.

Fact 2: Adult pairs will stay together during the breeding season, protecting their eggs that are usually laid on rock surfaces in narrow crevices.

Fact 3: The Southern Blue Devil is protected by law across Australia as they are endemic, that is, they are not found anywhere else in the world.

Fact 4: Known to be curious, the Southern Blue Devil will usually interact with SCUBA divers even during non-breeding season.

Fact 5: The Southern Blue Devil loves to eat small crustaceans, snails, worms and sometimes other small fishes.

If you ever have an opportunity to SCUBA across Australia’s southern oceans, look out for the Southern Blue Devil. In fact, it will probably find you first.

The Southern Blue Devil loves living in and around crevices, ledges and caves.
The Southern Blue Devil loves living in and around crevices, ledges and caves.

The Intertidal Zone

Over the past few weeks, quite a number of the Dalton Koss HQ Marine Facts have referred to the intertidal zone. Many DKHQ readers have curiously responded with the questions:

  1. Where is the intertidal zone located?
  2. Exactly what is the intertidal zone?

At Dalton Koss HQ we are more than happy to answer these two questions.

The intertidal zone is located along our coastlines, specifically where the sea meets the land. This zone varies all across the globe. It can be made up of rocky shores with many fun rockpools, mudflats or sandflats, mangroves, salt marsh and seagrass beds, sandy beaches and coral reefs. The intertidal zone can be exposed to the rough and tumble of open oceans or located in sheltered places such as bays and inlets. Some scientists refer to the intertidal zone as the littoral zone.

An exposed intertidal rocky shore at low tide along Victoria's Great Ocean Road. Notice the prolific range of seaweeds adorning the rocks.
An exposed intertidal rocky shore at low tide along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Notice the prolific range of seaweeds and mussels adorning the rocks.

At Dalton Koss HQ we often refer to the intertidal zone being in a liminal state. This is because the intertidal zone is either covered with ocean waters or exposed to the sun and air due to the constant movement of tides. It is never in one state of being within a 24 hour period; rather it is in continuous flux.

Being exposed to two completely different types of conditions means that as an animal or plant living in this zone, one needs to have some incredibly amazing adaptations to survive. Intertidal plants and animals need to be resilient to wave wash, tides and currents, sun exposure, predators and drying out all while trying to photosynthesise/eat and reproduce.

An exposed intertidal sandy flat located along Cape Conran Coastal Park in eastern Victoria, Australia.
An exposed intertidal sandy flat located along Cape Conran Coastal Park in eastern Victoria, Australia.

This makes the intertidal zone a fascinating area to explore and discover the spectacular range of marine animals and plants. To conserve this amazing zone while you explore, please be careful where you tread/snorkel, place rocks back to their original positions when you examine what is beneath and keep all rockpool animals and plants fully immersed in water to reduce their stress.

An intertidal coral reef exposed at low tide located in Fiji's Coral Coast.
An intertidal coral reef exposed at low tide located in Fiji’s Coral Coast.

Chitons

Visitors to coastal shores often come across unusual looking animals hidden in rock crevices. Here at Dalton Koss HQ we strive to help make sense of these unusual sea creatures by sharing our marine knowledge.

Chitons are one of these more unusual finds that many coastal visitors find on the rocky shoreline. With the Ch pronounced as a k sound, chitons have a fossilised appearance due to their numerous armoured plates. In fact, some people call Chitons the armadillos of the ocean as they are able to curl up into a ball using their armoured plates as protection.

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The armoured plates grow from the head to the foot of their body providing protection and camouflage from predators, hence why this animal is also commonly known as the coat-of-mail. The actual animal grows and lives under these armoured plates and its body is not segmented like its armour.

Here are a few interesting facts about chitons:

1. Chitons can only be found in the intertidal and upper subtidal zone of rocky shores.

2. The majority of chitons are vegetarian, grazing and eating seaweeds using their radula (see earlier What creates those circular holes on seashells? DKHQ Marine Fact to find out more about radulas).

3. Chitons can live from 1-20 years or more.

4. All chitons have a girdle around their body and plates.

5. Chitons prefer to move around during dusk and at night to reduce their chances of being prey to birds and other larger animals.

6. Sexual reproduction is often associated with a particular phase of the moon or with a tide, in some instances both.

The most fascinating and favourite Dalton Koss HQ Chiton fact is their homing ability. Chitons are able to have a night out crawling around rocks and feeding, but they are able to return to exactly the same spot before the sun comes up. Just amazing for a creature that has no eyes!

Geoff Wescott is Leading the way in conservation and environmental management.

Geoff Wescott is an Associate Professor of Environment at Deakin University. In addition to his day job, Geoff has a number of executive leadership roles with Zoos Victoria, Victorian Coastal Council, Australian Coastal Society and the Victorian Marine Policy Round Table.

Geoff chats with Dalton Koss HQ about his conservation leadership journey.

My leadership journey started in 1978. I was half way through my zoology PhD at the University of Melbourne when I started to wonder why I was only focussing on pure science. All I really wanted to do was save the world. I was advised by my PhD supervisor at the time to first finish my PhD and then save the world, however, I was too impatient. I left my PhD uncompleted and was accepted onto a Masters in Nature Conservation at the University College London, paid via my own expense.

On completion, I came back to Australia in 1979 with two Master degrees under my belt and no conservation job. I ended up being a tutor in biology at the University of Melbourne, which was a little ironic. However, through sheer persistence and networking, I successfully landed the role of Executive Director for the Conservation Council of Victoria (CCV; now Environment Victoria). This was my first leadership job, responsible for the strategic operations of the CCV and management of 5 staff and 125 community-based nongovernment conservation groups that in total comprised of 125,000 members. The CCV was still quite young, 5 years in operations, comparatively to other organisations.

After three years in this role I realised that trusted and available academic advice was missing from the conservation movement. As the CCV’s Executive Director, I wasn’t able to access or obtain technical information related to conservation and environmental management as credible evidence to inform reports and reviews. This inspired me to go back to study in 1981 and complete a PhD in Coastal Zone Management at Deakin University. To keep my finger on the pulse, I remained a voluntary officer at the CCV for the duration of my studies.

By combining my PhD findings and learning’s as the CCV’s Executive Director, I put together a briefing package and did a tour of parliamentary members. The then Liberal/National Party Coalition picked up my findings and with their election win in 1992, I was appointed to my second leadership role as the Chair for the Coastal and Bay Management Council Reference Group. It was in this role that I worked with a group of wonderful people to help shape, galvanise and push the Coastal Management Act 1995 to be legislated by the Victorian State Government. Through this Act, I was appointed to serve on the first Victorian Coastal Council in 1995, although not as the Chair due to my political persuasions. Simultaneously, I became Head of Department at Victoria College and oversaw the merger with Deakin University. I also enrolled on a Williamson Community Leadership Program (now known as Leadership Victoria) in 1992, where I realised my life long journey and commitment to community leadership.

This flowed on to further leadership roles including: Director of Parks Victoria, Convenor (Chair) of the National Parks Advisory Council, Member of the National Oceans Advisory Group, Chair of National Reference Group of the Marine and Coastal Community Network, Zoos Victoria Board, Victorian Coastal Council Board Member, President of the Australian Coastal Society and Convenor (Chair) of Victorian Marine Policy Round Table. I fulfilled all of the above roles while remaining as an Associate Professor of Environment at Deakin University.

Associate Professor Geoff Wescott is saving our coasts.
Associate Professor Geoff Wescott is saving our coasts.

The six key words I use to describe effective and successful leadership are:

1. Vision: it is necessary to have vision for yourself and your organization. You need to understand where you are going.

2. Energy: you need energy to implement your vision.

3. Integrity: this is critical within any system you are part of. Without it, you have little to no credibility.

4 & 5. Passion and Persistence: these two words are not mutually exclusive. Passion is needed but can be over flogged. Together with persistence, these qualities become omnipotent. These two qualities within the conservation context come and go due to burn out. Conservation is a series of long battles where young people who have a lot of passion become cattle fodder and end up leaving with very few lessons to take-away from their experience. There is a high attrition rate within the conservation field, with very few long-term conservationists staying in the business for more than 30 years. Passion and persistence teaches you self-protection to ensure you survive the long battles.

6Inclusiveness: you need people with on your journey. Make sure that you share the credit and wins with others.

There have been key successes, challenges and failures in my leadership journey:

Successes: Coastal and marine work in Victoria, across Australia and at the global level. 

Challenges: I was brought up in the working class western suburbs of Melbourne. Although I have great street sense, it didn’t teach me the intricacies of leveraging networks such as the old boys club or how to access mentors. I learnt these lessons on the job, which were all very critical during the 1970s, 80s and 90s and even to this day. Although this knowledge can be acquired, there were many people who were, and are, privileged to be in these networks via their school and family affiliations. As a physically smaller person you need to work harder at being a presence in the room. If you do not have a big physical presence, and the charisma that comes with it, you can often be overlooked.

Failures: Although I don’t necessarily see it this way, it is possible to see my day job as a failure. I have been at the same level, at the same institution, in the same continuing position for over 25 years. However, if it wasn’t for this ‘failure’, I would not have been able to fulfill my life long journey and passion for conservation.

I attribute my success to emotional and raw intelligence. I am curious by nature and indulge in extensive and broad reading. I practice integrity, honesty, openness, persistence, and pragmatism in all decision-making. I am a good listener, ensuring I listen to other people and their views across all types of forums. I give my view strongly based on evidence and knowledge. 

I have not used personal funds to financially invest in formal leadership courses.  I am in the lucky position that my Williamson Community Leadership Program and current Company Directors course were paid for by organisations where I have leadership roles. I have invested a lot of personal time in developing my leadership skills and style. It is impossible to quantify and it is not quarantined. I spent a lot of time in many different roles and activities that have allowed me to be where I am now.

I haven’t changed jobs in order to increase my cash flow. I took a job that was consistent (Deakin University) so I could engage in all external leadership activities. I really like the ‘Conservation Catalyst’ idea and lifestyle instead of an evidence based research approach as required by University institutions. By not having job fluctuations, it has allowed me to do ‘ good’ work in the conservation community.

Both major Victorian State Government parties have appointed me because I stayed true to my goal, that is environmental protection and conservation. It does not bother me which political party is in power, as I know why, and for what reason, I am actioning my vision. I stay true to the bigger picture and I have never been opportunistic or offered an alternative view for short-term benefits.

I don’t think I have ever given away my time for free. Sometimes I undervalue my experiences, but I have the view that I am receiving in equal amounts as I am giving. I give enormous time away to the conservation field for less than the market price and experiences listed on my CV, however, I am reimbursed well in my day job. This is part of a big package of one whole. I have a very old fashioned view of being an academic. The pay is reasonable and the freedom is fantastic.

It is important that I maintain my mental and physical health and wellbeing. I go to gym, play tennis and walk everywhere when and where I can. It is important that I get out into nature and keep exercising. Mentally, I need my sanctuaries. One needs to know what one likes and works for them. Nature will always deliver this for me whether it is a creek, beach or wild and remote open natural spaces. A big bonus of being in the conservation field is that you can legitimately go to natural places that are mentally relaxing and reviving. Having a sanctuary is very important. It should be peaceful and allow for self-reflection. To have sustained energy, passion and persistence, one needs that space and place. You will not last if you do not have this sanctuary.

I always assume that I am ahead of the game. A top leadership secret is to stay connected to as many networks and contacts as possible. Keep an open mind and talk to a diversity of people. By nature, people love to gossip and by listening, you learn a lot. Know and listen to your opposition. It is essential that you know what makes them and their industry tick, what is their motivation and why they act the way they do. Read your oppositions work, reports and media stories. I subscribe to the Economist, read widely and extensively and listen to debates.

My top leadership tips are to treat people well, don’t bad mouth or gossip about people and ensure you are loyal down as well as up. You are not a leader if you are not loyal down. Do not think you are better than anyone else. I always treat others as my equal and this is a good place to start.

For those who want to join conservation organisations it is essential to first understand your conservation objectives and then join organisations whose objectives align with yours. Don’t just be a member, offer your services. You never know what you might learn. For example, I joined the Victorian National Park Association (VNPA) during 2nd year university and the Australian Conservation Foundation during 3rd year university as their objectives aligned with my desire and objectives to save the world.

My advice would be to attend leadership presentations, hear talks by people who are leaders. Sometimes you will be disappointed, but more often than not you will learn something new.  Take time to smell the flowers; it is an old expression but relevant to having a mental sanctuary where you can self-reflect. Do not underestimate luck and be mindful when it happens. To be successful and to climb high you need some luck. Last, always question your own point of view

To learn more about Geoff’s conservation leadership journey, read: Conservation Catalysts. The Academy as Nature’s Agent. 2014. Edited by James N. Levitt, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, USA.

Associate Professor Geoff Wescott (on the right) presenting his Conservation Catalysts Chapter at the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.
Associate Professor Geoff Wescott (on the right) presenting his Conservation Catalysts Chapter at the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.