Monday, March 3, 2014

An odd kind of beauty

It is that time of year when Portuguese Man-o-wars wash up on the Atlantic ocean beaches of Florida. Appearing very conspicuous in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, I spot them from a distance away. Their gas-filled pneumatophore looks oddly beautiful in the water and I cannot resist photographing one.

The other day, I saw three Portuguese Man-o-wars (PMOW) as the easterly wind and incoming tide pushed the animals closer to the mangroves. I stayed with one in particular for about an hour, attempting to capture it in various positions. We often don't see these animals in motion as they are usually washed up on shore when we do see one. But in water, they move purposefully and not just at the whim of the current and wind. It appears that its tentacles were clinging to the grasses, maybe on purpose as it attempted to feed, or maybe to anchor itself. A few times, it unattached to the grasses and moved along quickly as the current pushed it. It almost appeared to be swimming on its own.

What I enjoyed watching most was how it moved its gas-filled float around. The movement created some interesting and weird looking positions. Sometimes, the dark blue tip of the gas bag looked as if it was a head with an eye, reminding me of a large seal.

These animals are quite interesting and they are described as being several organisms working together as one. The PMOW consists of the gas-bag (pneumatophore, which serves as a float) which has a crest from end to end. The crest is perhaps the most intriguing part of it as far as photographing goes. The light reflections and textures are amazing. The other parts of the PMOW consist of three types of polyps, one for digestion (the reddish area), one for reproduction (the light blue structures) and one for catching and killing prey (the stinging tentacles that appear that are a darker blue).

Interestingly, the float is made to lean either to the right or to the left, such that some will drift one way and the others drift another direction. This allows for a wider and more even distribution of colonies. There are so many interesting facts about the PMOW but one that is amazing to me is its symbiotic relationship with other animals. Certain fishes are partially immune to its venom and will feed on it while using the tentacles as a fortress against predators. There is also a strange little gastropod called the nudibranch which clings to the PMOW, sucks its venom and then uses the venom for its own defense. Pretty cool stuff.

But the short of it is, the PMOW is probably one of the most appealing animals to photograph and when a photographer can capture it from under the surface of the water, even better.

For many of my images of the PMOW, I remove the surroundings, thereby isolating it. I love the effect of this as it draws all the attention on the shapes and colors of the PMOW.  I got a bonus in some of the images as the reflection of me and my boat could be seen. Enjoy these images of one of nature's most intriguing creatures.

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