Sam Friederichs ’07 is a consultant for National Geographic Society Remote Imaging program and heads the organization's National Geographic Crittercam billfish program. And it's good work ... if you can get it. His office is aboard large fishing boats, and his work attire consists of shorts and flip-flops as he travels the world to tropical billfish hotspots.
"Everyone wants one of these," he said, tugging at the collar of his camouflage shirt emblazoned with the National Geographic logo. The snug-fitting Under Armour shirt isn't sought for its famous ability to showcase built physiques; rather, its affiliation with the widely recognized and respected organization opens doors to coveted research opportunities, like the Crittercam program, which uses audiovisual research tools designed to be worn by wild animals to capture imagery of their behavior.
In May, Friederichs visited St. Thomas to present his research to a class of biology students and to explain its purpose: to promote billfish (a.k.a. swordfish) conservation and gain funding for conservation efforts. These enigmatic species are well-known throughout popular culture, such as in Ernest Hemingway's work and Disney's "Finding Nemo," but few people know much about them. As a result, Friederichs said, their populations have started to decline rapidly due to overfishing. "It is not too late to stop the declines, but researchers need more information about their lives, which poses certain difficulties," he stressed.
Billfish are top-level predators in the open ocean, which means they are not overly abundant, and, combined with their abilities to traverse oceans in a matter of months, it is incredibly difficult to learn anything about them and subsequently conserve their populations.
"It's not feasible to protect the entire ocean," he noted. "We need to protect one specific area at a time. Right now I'm looking at a spot off the coast of Guatemala where thousands of billfish converge. We know they're there, but there's no research on why they're there, though common sense tells you that there has to be a reason. Most likely breeding."
Through Crittercam, however, Friederichs believes their private customs will be revealed. Billfish populations, he said, have declined 90 percent in 20 years, but there hasn't been a means to gather quantifiable, scientific evidence to support conservation until now.
"A diver with a camera can't get the footage that I can with Crittercam; the fish simply won't allow it," Friederichs said. "Now we can gather visual evidence of what billfish are doing below the waves without interfering with their natural behavior. This is going to lead to valuable behavioral insights, such as mating, that will allow for better protection."
For just over two decades, Crittercams have provided scientists with an intimate look into the uncharted lives of these creatures. It's a look that is impossible through human observation. The first prototype on what would become Crittercam was deployed successfully on a sea turtle in 1987. Since then, the program has grown to include grizzly bears, emperor penguins, sea lions and many other animals and fish. Friederichs is National Geographic's sole billfish expert working in the program.
To date, he has deployed 30 Crittercams on five species of billfish in five countries: Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and Cape Verde, Africa. His goal is to deploy the cameras on every species – seven in all – in the next two years.
How it works
The cameras Friederichs works with have a 10-hour battery life and are preprogrammed to capture footage as long as they are wet (i.e., riding on the back of a fish).
Though Friederichs has fished most of his life, fishing for predatory ocean fish that can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and measure longer than 13 feet pose tougher challenges than catching walleye. He recruits the help of world-class anglers who share his penchant for conservation. They are often happy to offer him berth during their personal catch-and-release billfish expeditions.
"Nobody else does this, so we make it up as we go," he said. By "we," Friederichs means himself and a handful of individuals in the National Geographic Remote Imaging Lab.
On the water, he is oftentimes a one-man operation. But one man, he stressed, cannot pull off this kind of research. He is in constant contact with the engineers at National Geographic to perfect these camera systems and make them more user-friendly and easier to deploy.
Where the actual capture of the fish is concerned, "It's not an Old Man and the Sea all-day saga anymore. With world-class anglers, whom I often use, they can catch a 300-pound billfish in less than an hour, often in minutes," he said. Once the fish is finally coaxed alongside the boat, the anglers subdue it as best they can from their perches inside the boat.
At this point, Friederichs' job begins. He "deploys the camera," which is to say he attaches the Crittercam into the tissue that surrounds the fish's dorsal fin via a small, moldable resin mount with four barbed hooks that he designed. It's a process akin to having one's ears pierced. No harm is done to the fish, and it can quickly resume its normal activities.
Because each Crittercam costs $5,000, Friederichs doesn't play guessing games to determine if he attached the mount securely; he gets wet. After jumping into the water alongside the temporarily subdued fish he visually inspects the mount for stability. If it's secure, he gives the anglers the go-ahead to carefully release the fish. If it's not, he removes it by hand.
Once the deployment time expires, a preprogrammed MacGyver-like system releases the camera from the mount: A small blade attached to the outside of the camera disengages and strikes a zip tie that holds the camera to the mount. The camera then is free to float to the surface of the ocean on a vertical bob with a beacon, which emits a radio signal that Freiderich's can track up to 12 miles.
The radio transmitter will bring the boat to within 50 yards of the camera, at which point the bright orange camera housing and bright orange tape attached to the beacon helps him and the anglers spot it amidst miles of blue.
The cameras are designed to be reusable, assuming they are retrieved – a process fraught with anxiety, Friederichs attested.
As a fail-safe, the camera is preprogrammed to dislodge when the battery life reaches 2 percent, if it doesn't dislodge after the preprogrammed deployment time. But that's a 10-hour wait – a long time to be twiddling his thumbs at sea and not always possible due to sea conditions; so, Friederich's has yet another measure to ensure that the camera always will reach the surface even if the technology fails. It's a creative, last resort measure in which he jury-rigs a water-soluble, temporary zip-tie made with a Jolly Rancher to every mount. The candy dissolves in salt water after roughly five hours to release the camera.
"For some reason, the cherry flavor dissolves the quickest," he noted.
Findings and goals
Friederichs showed the class a retrieved video from January taken from a female sailfish being courted by two male sailfish. Or so it seemed. The guys gave chase while the sides of her powerful body lit up in intermittent flashes of iridescent blues and greens. The males made repeated passes at the female, which Friederichs called "mobbing behavior." Unfortunately, the camera stopped recording after only a minute into the encounter. Such is the luck of filming wild animals.
On another video, a male sailfish relentlessly pursued a female fish to no avail. "This is his version of Tiff's night," Friederichs commentated. "He's just not taking the hint!" Friederichs is confident that one day he'll record the first-ever billfish courtship on video, deciphering the "why" behind mobbing behavior and other yet-to-be-witnessed customs.
"They won't let divers with cameras follow them to discover these things," he said. "The goals of our program is to fill in those life history gaps ... to locate their feeding and breeding areas and protect those small spots of the ocean that they use for these behaviors in between their vast migrations."
Eventually Friederichs would like to produce a documentary on his research to help build awareness for creatures, whom he's fond of calling "Hemingway's giants," after the epic struggle between man and marlin made famous by Hemingway in his novella Old Man and the Sea.
"I want to gather as much information as I can on billfish so I can show what they are and why they're worth protecting," he said. "We're going to know a lot in 10 years. I want to take this and make a behavioral catalogue. I want these guys to be like the sea turtles. They're huge, they're powerful – they can fight sharks! – they're worth protecting. We think we know billfish, but we really don't know them."
While most people may be able to identify the swordfish in "Finding Nemo," they may not realize that it is actually a blue marlin. What is even more disheartening is that the tuna you eat may result in countless dead billfish as bycatch, which sells for next to nothing compared to more-valuable tuna.
Deploying the camera is as treacherous as it is tricky. "It's a lot of work to tag these fish. A lot of work," he emphasized. "It requires a team of people, a lot of patience and quite a bit of luck. These are incredibly large, powerful fish that can cause a lot of damage to both person and boat if underestimated."
A YouTube video of two tiger sharks attacking a broadbill swordfish reminded him recently of the dangers of dealing with billfish. The sharks succeeded in killing the swordfish, but their conquest came at a great cost and without the reward of a hearty meal.
“Sharks can’t just chomp down on a swordfish and … game over. Typically they try to bite off its tail so it bleeds out. Then they’ll go in for their meal,” he explained.
But in this instance, one of the sharks made a fatal error. “It went in too early, and the swordfish turned quickly – they’re that strong and agile – and eviscerated the shark. The other one, you could tell, thought to itself, ‘I’m not messing around with this. I’m outta here!’ and swam away. That’s how badass swordfish are. They're nasty critters if they choose to be.”
Though Friederichs does not lack in size and believes "I pretty much know what's safe and what's not because I can read their body language," he respects the natural hierarchy of the sea, where humans fare near the bottom. Swordfish, along with the other 11 species of billfish (various types of marlin, sailfish and spearfish), are apex predators, which means they have few to no predators hunting them.
On one of his first in-water experiences with a billfish, Friedrichs jumped into the water after he had successfully released a 60-pound sailfish. He casually patted the fish on the tail to send it off as it slowly came to its senses. But as soon as he made his gesture the 8-foot fish spun 180 degrees, it’s rapierlike bill pointed directly at Friederichs. He doesn’t know why it turned – "There are many things we don’t understand about the way billfish think," he said, but the confrontation served as another warning of how vulnerable and outskilled humans are in the ocean.
From St. Thomas to the sea
After he earned a B.S. in biology from St. Thomas in 2007, Friederichs immediately enrolled as a graduate student in biology at Purdue University and graduated in 2009. His master's thesis investigated how sailfish migrate in relation to ocean conditions, such as temperature.
Despite his passion for his topic, he admits, "I didn't know what I wanted to do after grad school." But he knew "it'd be hard to go from something like this (conducting research from a boat in the middle of the ocean) to go to work in an office."
After Purdue he took the logical route and moved back home, to St. Paul, where he found employment with the Department of Natural Resources and Fisheries. But the ocean beckoned him, and soon after he moved to Costa Rica, a country he first visited as a volunteer on a J-Term trip his junior year.
Connections he made over the next two years led to his first gig with National Geographic, guiding student expeditions in Latin America and the Galapagos Islands. During a bus ride through the Andes on one of these trips, he struck up a conversation with Greg Marshall, founder of Crittercam.
Two years working in marketing for a Costa Rican sports fishing company helped Friederichs hone his business communication skills, which in turn paved the way to his current role.
"Networking is key. It's all about who you know," Friederichs explained. "You can't go out and find a grand for most of this," referring to the rough cost of one day's fishing expedition if he has to charter a boat. At the moment all of his trips are privately funded by fishermen to whom he was introduced as early as his master's work through the Billfish Foundation and the International Game Fish Organization. Without their generosity, his research, he said, would not be possible.
Friederichs lives in Flamingo, a small town on the northwestern coast of Costa Rica. When he's not chasing billfish across the Pacific, he chases muskies on Leech Lake in northern Minnesota.