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On TOPP of the World

We tend to think of alien life as that which may habitate other planets. But the vast, uncharted expanse of our own oceans is, in many ways, just as alien. To get a better idea of the ecology and dynamics of ocean life, marine biologists, oceanographers, and engineers for the past few years have been outfitting sealife of the Pacific Ocean with GPS-like tags. Since February, these Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) researchers have chronicled their sea voyages on a blog, On Topp of the World.

Since 2002, TOPP researchers from Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Lab, the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Laboratory, NOAA’s Pacific Fisheries Ecosystems Lab, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium have tagged more than 2,000 animals belonging to 23 different species, including whales, squid, turtles, and sharks.

This week, a TOPP group from the University of California, Santa Cruz is tagging red-footed boobies on the island of Palmyra Atoll, about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. From as much as 50 feet above, these seabirds plunge into the ocean at amazingly high speeds to prey on the small fish or squid that gather near the water’s surface. The video below shows the clever tool that keeps the tags dry and tightly attached to each bird: a condom.