Big Pacific – Passionate Pacific

Watch the fourth episode of Big Pacific, “Passionate Pacific,” on your local PBS station at 8pm Eastern, Wednesday, July 12th. The companion book is available now from Princeton University Press.

The largest ocean on planet Earth, the vast and unfathomable Pacific is inhabited by an extraordinary wealth and diversity of animal life. This multitude of species is united by a common drive—the need to reproduce—but that drive is expressed in ways as different as the creatures themselves.

Clownfish and Anemone

A clownfish lurks amid the fronds of a poisonous Anemone.

The home life of the clownfish is unusual—these small, brightly colored fish live out their lives amid the fronds of sea anemones, exuding a mucus-like covering that protects them from the anemone’s poisonous sting. Up to a dozen clownfish may live in the embrace of a single anemone, protected from predators by their host’s venom. In return, the clownfish consume parasites that could harm the anemone, and their movements as they swim help waft food towards the stationary anemone. All clownfish are born male, but within each of these miniature colonies, one of these males will become dominant and develop into a female. In turn, this female will select one and only one of the remaining males as a mate, leaving the rest to live out their lives in cloistered celibacy. The chosen male has the tasks of fertilizing the hundreds of eggs released by the female when she spawns and of guarding them without respite until they hatch ten days later.

Grunion run

Grunion carpet the shore during their mating run.

The reproductive life of the Gulf grunion is more hazardous and dramatic, played out in the liminal zone where the ocean meets the shore in the Gulf of California. Riding the high tide produced by the full moon, a wave of female grunion pitches onto the beach, digging into the sand to find a place to lay their eggs. That wave is followed in quick succession by the males, who wrap themselves around their half-buried mates to fertilize the eggs. Though the process takes only minutes, the fish quickly returning to the water to avoid suffocation, it leaves the grunion vulnerable. The beach, densely carpeted with silvery bodies, is an open buffet for predatory birds such as gulls, but the sheer mass of grunion ensures that plenty survive. The grunion hatchlings remain buried in the sand until the next full moon tide allows them to make their way back into the ocean.

Seahorses with tails entwined

Pot-bellied seahorses entwine their tails for a mating dance.

The Pot-bellied seahorse prefers a more relaxed courtship. Having identified a potential mate, the male seahorse brightens his stomach pouch to a vivid yellow. The female responds with her own display of color, and the two entwine their tails for an underwater dance that can last for up to twenty minutes as the seahorses pirouette and twirl around the warm, shallow waters in which they live. At the consummation of the dance, the two belly-to-belly, the female squirts her eggs into an opening in the male’s pouch and the two separate. Once the eggs hatch, the male carries his hundreds of offspring in his pouch for up to a month, before releasing them to float away.

Big Pacific – Voracious Pacific

Watch the third episode of Big Pacific, “Voracious Pacific,” on your local PBS station at 8pm Eastern, Wednesday, July 5th. The companion book is available now from Princeton University Press.

The inhabitants of the Pacific Ocean are united by the need to feed, the constant quest for sustenance. Many of these inhabitants feed on each other—only a handful of the largest and most dangerous are free of the threat of becoming somebody else’s lunch. Any evolutionary adaptation that makes it easier to acquire food confers an advantage in the battle for survival, and the Pacific showcases many remarkable adaptations and specializations.

Double-crested cormorant

A double-crested cormorant dries its wings after a dive.

The double-crested cormorant dives for fish, plummeting out of the air to plunge into shallow coastal waters. The light, hollow bones that make it easy for other birds to soar would make it difficult for the cormorant to remain submerged; instead it has evolved with heavier bones, lower body fat, and feathers that absorb water, allowing it to swim underwater for up to thirty seconds at a time, propelled by its wings and webbed feet. After a dive, the now waterlogged bird will need to dry its feathers before it can fly again, and they can be easily spotted on rocky shores, standing with wings outstretched to dry in the sun. These cormorants are so well adapted to hunting underwater that their young will sometimes take to the water even before learning to fly.

Peppered moray eel

A peppered moray eel slithers across the rocks in search of crabs

If the Pacific is home to birds that hunt underwater, it is only fitting that there should also be fish that hunt on land. Moray eels have long been known as effective predators, possessed of powerful jaws from which few victims escape. Morays typically lurk in crevices or holes in underwater reefs, waiting for an unsuspecting meal to swim by, but the peppered moray takes a more proactive approach. These eels will slither out of the water at low tide, dipping in and out of rock pools to avoid suffocation, searching for crabs. The peppered moray is the only member of the moray family known to leave the water in this way.

Nomura's jellyfish

Nomura’s jellyfish is one of the largest jellyfish, but feeds though hundreds of tiny mouths.

Paradoxically, some of the largest denizens of the ocean feed on the smallest prey. The blue whale is the largest animal on the planet – a full-grown blue whale can reach a hundred feet in length and two hundred tonnes in weight—but it feeds on krill, small crustaceans barely an inch in length, filtering vast draughts of water through baleen plates in its mouth to trap the tiny krill. Manta rays feed on smaller fry still, sweeping up plankton as they glide through the water on wing-like fins that can span 23 feet in width. But perhaps the most extraordinary is the Nomura’s jellyfish. These giant jellyfish start life as a polyp the size of a pinhead with a mouth barely a millimeter wide but in the space of a year they grow to some six feet in diameter and more than 400 pounds in weight. Their mouths do not grow with them; instead the jellyfish develops hundreds of tiny mouths, allowing them to filter an Olympic swimming pool of water for plankton every day. Voracious indeed!

See dazzling footage of these animals and many more in the next episode of Big Pacific.

Big Pacific – Violent Pacific

Watch the second episode of Big Pacific, “Violent Pacific,” on your local PBS station at 8pm Eastern, Wednesday, June 28th. The companion book is now available from Princeton University Press.

Drowned Forest

The stumps of these spruce trees are remnants of the forest drowned by the 1700 earthquake

Although its name suggests calm and tranquility, the Pacific Ocean is riven by powerful natural forces: violent tropical storms, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes are common occurrences across this mighty ocean. The ocean sits within the Ring of Fire, a zone of intense tectonic activity where multiple plates meet, grinding and driving against each other with sometimes cataclysmic results. Running in a horseshoe shape from New Zealand along the western Pacific to the Aleutians and back down the western coast of the Americas, the Ring of Fire is home to 90% of the world’s earthquakes. All but three of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions in the last 12000 years have occurred in the Ring of Fire, the eruptions of Tambora and Krakatoa among them. The power and destructiveness of these eruptions and quakes is monumental—in 1700 an earthquake in Cascadia caused the coastline to drop by as much as ten feet in a matter of seconds, instantly submerging wide swathes of forest beneath the water. The shockwave took only ten hours to cross the thousands of miles of ocean to reach the coast of Japan in the form of a massive tsunami.

humpback whales

The long pectoral fins of the humpback whale can be used as weapons by battling males.

The life of animals in the Pacific can be no less violent. The struggle for survival manifests both as competition within species, and between species. It is easy to think of humpback whales as placid animals, drifting through the ocean in search of the minuscule plankton on which they feed. Their mournful song is a cliché of New Age relaxation tapes. But competition between male humpbacks over females often turns to battle: during their “heat run” contending males will swipe each other with their long pectoral fins, ram each other, and even breach the surface of the ocean to land on each other. Despite the huge bulk of these animals, mature males weighing in at up to 36 tonnes, they can move surprisingly quickly, reaching speeds of 18 miles an hour. The impact of their collisions is comparable to that of fully-loaded eighteen wheeler trucks. The victorious male earns the right to mate with the female.

Shedao Island pit viper

A Shedao Island pit viper claims another victim

But the archetypal struggle in the animal kingdom is that between predator and prey. Evolutionary adaption has made the predators at the top of the food chain near-perfect killers. The Shedao Island pit viper is found only on one tiny island in the Yellow Sea off the coast of China, where it has so effectively dominated the ecosystem that it is estimated that there is one viper for every square meter of land on the island. The sole source of food for these snakes is migratory birds: twice a year, in spring and fall, birds use Shedao Island as a staging post on the journey to and from their breeding grounds in Siberia. These two six-week periods are the only point in the year at which the viper eats. Motionless and near invisible on the branches of a tree, the viper waits for a bird to land. Its strike is near instantaneous and its victim quickly succumbs to the snake’s powerful venom. The viper will slowly swallow its meal whole, then seek another; it must consume several birds to survive the long fast between migrations.

Discover more of the violent side of the Pacific in Wednesday’s episode of Big Pacific.

Big Pacific – Mysterious Pacific

Watch the first episode of Big Pacific, “Mysterious Pacific,” tonight on PBS at 8pm Eastern. The companion book is now available from Princeton University Press.

The scale of the Pacific Ocean is almost incomprehensible. This single body of water covers a greater area than all six continents combined; its deepest point, the Marianas Trench, lies far further below the surface than the summit of Everest stands above it. Much of this vast realm is unexplored, inaccessible to the human eye, and even the shallow waters with which we are familiar are home to many strange and mysterious things.

Horseshoe Crab

The horseshoe crab – one of the planet’s “living fossils”

Among them are species that predate humankind, and indeed all mammals, by hundreds of millions of years. The four species of horseshoe crabs are the last remaining members of a family that first appears in the fossil record some 450 million years ago. Horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, being more closely related to arachnids such as spiders and scorpions. Despite their long tenure on this planet, horseshoe crab populations are in decline. Pollution, overfishing, and development along the Pacific shorelines where they mate are all taking a toll on these living fossils, and efforts are underway to protect them and improve their survival rate.

Nan Madol

The abandoned city of Nan Madol

Even the short span of human history presents enigmas. Off the eastern shore of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei lies the magnificent complex of Nan Madol. Comprised of over ninety artificial islets linked by a network of canals, Nan Madol is thought to have been home to the political and religious elite of Pohnpei. Construction of the complex was a monumental task: some 750,000 tonnes of black basalt were transported from the far side of Pohnpei to build monumental structures with walls up to 49 feet in height and 16 feet in thickness. More remarkable still, it seems to have been achieved without even the benefit of simple machines such as pulleys or levers—the building methods used remain unknown. Despite the enormous efforts that went into the building of Nan Madol in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the site was abandoned in the sixteenth century after the Saudeleur dynasty was toppled by invasion from without. Today it is a UNESCO heritage site.

Pufferfish circle

The tiny white spotted pufferfish at the center of his circle

Recent years have brought to light a smaller but no less fascinating construction project. In 1995 divers off the coast of Japan noticed unusual circular patterns in the seabed. Formed too perfectly to be the work of chance, these circles featured concentric rings of sand with furrows radiating from the central point like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It was not until nearly twenty years later, in 2013, that the mysterious architect of these circles was identified. Despite the scale of the circles, up to six feet in diameter, they are the work of a species of small pufferfish, only a few inches in length. The male pufferfish works diligently, fanning the sand with his fins or using his body to shovel it aside, in order to construct his circle, which he then maintains carefully in the hope of attracting a mate. Even if he is successful in doing so, the female pufferfish does not stick around to admire his homemaking skills—having laid her eggs, she quickly departs leaving the male to care for and defend them.

With the vast depths of the Pacific largely unexplored, we can be sure that it has many more mysteries to offer us.

Watch the trailer to learn more.

A sneak peek at BIG PACIFIC, companion to upcoming PBS series

The companion five-part series on PBS: Big Pacific will air Wednesdays on PBS, June 21-July 19, 2017

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific by Rebecca Tansley breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before.

Illustrated in full color throughout, Big Pacific blends a wealth of stunning Ultra HD images with spellbinding storytelling to take you into a realm teeming with exotic life rarely witnessed up close—until now. Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers. Take a sneak peek here: