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Coral Crisis- Bleaching on the Barrier Reef

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are in crisis, dying at an alarming rate worldwide. Since 1975, 80-90% of the reefs in the Florida Keys have lost their living coral (NOAA.org). Overall, around 25% of corals on Earth have disappeared and the speed of degradation has dangerously accelerated over the past decade. Marine biologists predict that if deterioration continues at this rate, there will be no active coral to study by the year 2050. If these estimations are correct, within our lifetime we may witness the expiration of some of the most integral members of Earth’s ecology.

Netflix’s original documentary, “Chasing Coral,” highlights the rapid decline of the world’s coral and the cause of the bleaching events leading to its demise. Jeff Orlowski, the film’s director, Richard Vevers, the founder of the Ocean Agency and a crew of passionate scientists, divers, and photographers spent over four months documenting life in and around the Great Barrier Reef to highlight the impact of climate change on coral reefs. As the film points out, prior to “Chasing Coral” much of this devastating loss has been overlooked by the media, largely because people view the ocean as out of sight, out of mind. Vevers, an ex-advertising executive, views this ignorance as an issue with the way the ocean is advertised and hopes that this documentary brings mainstream attention and interest to the travesties happening beneath the ocean’s surface.

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Coral: A Quiet Sophistication

Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the greatest expression of ocean life and the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. A single reef can house over one million animal and plant species and include up to 1000 different species of corals.  Among the 1000 species of reef-building coral, one will find a multitude of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. Some coral species look like large underwater rocks, while others uphold intricate branching patterns that give them the appearance of a delicate fan.

In the film, Dr. Ruth Gates, Coral Reef Biologist at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology, describes that coral is an animal made up of thousands of small structures called polyps. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. The inside of the coral is filled with microalgae (small plants) that use photosynthesis to produce food for the animal during the daytime. At night, the corals come alive and the animal extends its tentacles, catching whatever passes by it. For the intricately connected coral animal and the plants living within, symbiosis is extreme. Without the microalgae, corals are at risk of starvation.

 

Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching is a stress response (like a fever in humans) to warming waters. As the temperature on land escalates, the ocean helps absorb some of that increase. According to recent studies, the ocean has absorbed 93% of the warming created by humans since the 1970’s (IUCN report 2016). When water temperatures spikes above normal range, corals undergo bleaching— a process in which the inside tissues of stressed corals have an impaired ability to photosynthesis and feed the animals. To preserve their polyp and skeletal structure, the animals get rid of plants that are no longer functional and leave behind naked tissues. These bright-white skeletal structures are a far cry from the brilliant corals found in a healthy reef.

During a bleaching event, large swaths of coral reef whiten over the course of a few short weeks. Bleaching itself does not kill the coral. The bright-white pigment pictured below shows the skeleton of a coral that is still alive but without nutrients.  In losing their internal food systems, corals begin to starve. As the coral dies, its surface becomes covered in fuzzy micro algae and the aquatic life surrounding the coral must find refuge elsewhere.

Both shallow (between 3 and 150 feet) and deep (up to 450 feet deep) reefs can be found in nearly every corner of the world. Presently, two-thirds of them are endangered.

 

A Shift In Thinking

Currently, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on our planet, and in 2016, 29% of it was lost. “Chasing Coral” has drawn the attention of the masses, so there’s no doubt that many will flock to the remaining reefs to catch the last glimpse of their beauty before their predicted eradication. But according to the film, losing the Great Barrier Reef has actually got to mean something. We cannot just let it die so that it becomes photos in an old textbook—it has got to be a wake-up call. After watching “Chasing Coral” and pouring through research,  I began to wonder what it would look like if humans viewed the reefs as vital parts of the Earth’s ecosystem rather than as tourist attractions that are marketed to stimulate local economies. What would it mean if each visitor was forced to study the delicate ecosystem in which they are visitors? Would a transition from voyeur to citizen scientist generate enough conversation for people to realize the detrimental ripple effect that consumption, pollution, waste, and exploitation has on our environment? One can only hope.

After the Hurricane- Wildlife Watch

All week reports from a water-logged Florida, Texas, and the Carribean have been pouring in. Torrential downpours and massive flooding have devastated communities as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma passed through.  Many in the world watched in shock as the sea stormed the barriers, rushing through the streets of Miami to climb the lower levels of high-rises and tearing a path through the Carribean. Without discrimination, the maelstrom claimed humans, homes, and history for its own, leaving piles of debris as the only reminder of what formerly stood. Emergency services were called in to rescue evacuated families and their pets as their homes became victims of the flood.

Accounts of the next storm system, Tropical Storm Jose, have made their way to headlines  and the East Coast of the US is bracing itself for its projected touchdown later this week.

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

 

It has been nearly three weeks since Harvey flooded 28,000 square miles of Texas, and almost a week since the Irma struck the Caribbean and Florida. As the flood waters recede, over 200 million cubic yards of debris have been revealed in Texas alone. The extent of damage from Irma, which is still rolling through the country as a smaller tropical storm, has yet to be determined. Today the death toll for Harvey and Irma stands somewhere around 125 people, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage has been reported thus far.

Unaccounted for in the post-storm figures are the wildlife populations that could not relocate to higher ground when flood waters were rising. Over the past three weeks, the World Animal Protection Charity has sent emergency teams to Texas and Florida to rescue and care for wildlife. Teams of professional rescuers and volunteers have spent countless hours locating and rehabilitating injured animals following the storms. While clean up efforts in affected areas are well underway, it will take months for teams of experts to understand the full scale impact on wildlife.

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Pets Rescued From Flooded Homes. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Hurricane Irma Leaves Manatees Stranded 

Last Sunday, Hurricane Irma was still 100 miles away from Tampa when it sucked the water out of shallow Sarasota Bay, an ideal habitat for manatees. The Florida Wildlife Commission had received several calls about stranded manatees, also known as sea cows,  when a passerby and two sheriffs noticed two manatees beached in the newly-dried bay. In a heroic effort to save the protected marine animals, the sheriffs rolled the 1000 pound manatees onto a sheet and dragged them over 100 yards to the sea.

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

 

When a Tree Falls

Trees provide a habitat for already vulnerable species. During a hurricane, high winds can uproot trees and displace the animal tenants living within. Many bird species that use trees as a convenient shelter have the ability to migrate to drier areas, and often times they are aware of a storm before it arrives. Ornithologists describe that most birds can sense even the slightest changes in barometric pressure, which makes them a kind of a living barometer. Once the message has been received that barometric pressure is low, they take flight and head for dryer areas. However, powerful winds can blow the migrating birds off of their course. At best, these birds can reroute themselves back to their homes once the storms have ended, but often they are injured or weakened and have been deprived of food so many do not survive. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma intersected the beginning of the annual fall migration, which according to ornithologists, guarantees some level of bird displacement.

In certain cases, birds do not have the opportunity to migrate away from the storm. Take the red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest for an example.  When Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989, approximately 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished when 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they lived were destroyed. Thanks to extensive rehabilitation efforts, populations have been returned to their numbers in the years since Hugo slammed the state.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

How Are Hurricanes Formed? 

As deep layers of warm ocean waters stoke an emerging thunderstorm into a mature state, a hurricane is born. Sea surface temperature is one of five factors that influence the formation of tropical cyclones, defined as rapidly rotating storm systems categorized by low-pressure centers, the presence of thunderstorms, heavy rain, strong winds, and low-level atmospheric circulation. Specifically, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone occurring in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific Oceans.   The warm water temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico make it a notorious landing point for hurricanes. According to oceanographers, temperatures of the oceans in the Gulf of Mexico are the highest that they have ever been in recorded history and these spikes in temperature can account for some of the increase in hurricane potency. Warm water is only one of the ingredients needed to produce a full-fledged hurricane. Humidity, wind shear, and a generally unstable atmosphere are also required to help craft the “perfect storm.”

Ironically, the “perfect storm” is just that for certain plants and animals that survive its force. While hurricanes can be devastating to many wild animal populations, other animals manage to survive and thrive during and after the event. Orchids, gopher frogs, raccoons, and brown bears are among the animals that are generally positively impacted by a hurricane (so long as they survive).  Orchids use intense winds to spread their seeds, frogs breed in heavy rainfall,  raccoons scavenge for food, and bears use the fallen trees as shelter.

Sea turtles, marine life, small ground animals, livestock, and domestic pets can all fall victim to the destruction of habitats and the scarcity of food sources that are associated with hurricanes.

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Baby Sea Turtle on the Florida Beach. Reuters. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

As another Tropical Storm Jose matures in the distance, rescue efforts are still underway for the countless animal victims of the latest natural disasters. While it’s too early to fully estimate impacts of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma on wildlife, it is important to recognize that recovery efforts will need to extend beyond far beyond human development. Locals in affected areas have begun reporting injured animals to their local officials and people around the world are making donations to support habitat conservation and protection efforts. You can help provide relief for human and wildlife foundations by donating to organizations that you trust.  For more information on individual organizations, click here.

Until next week, remember to appreciate your life, give to those in need,  and keep exploring your world.

Ecosystems: Kelp Forest Part 2

Last week’s adventures took us through the California Science Center Exhibit- Ecosystems. Continue the Journey with us this week as we learn about life inside wild Kelp forests. 


In the wild, the bottom level of the ocean is known as the benthic zone. All bodies of water have a benthic zone where creatures like snails, sea stars, oysters lobsters, and other crustacean reside. Organisms living in the benthic zone are called benthos and play a fundamental role in ecosystem management. Since light does not often penetrate the benthic zone, benthos feed on the dead and decaying matter found on the ocean floor, benthic algae, and young kelp.  Areas outside of the ocean’s benthic zone are either a part of the supratidal and subtidal zones (the areas found on the coastline that are impacted by high and low tide), the neritic zone (the shallow part of the ocean that extends to up to 200 meters in depth) or the pelagic zone (the area between the benthic and neritic zones). Most of the sea life that lives away from land or outside of the benthic zone is found in the pelagic zone.

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Often miscategorized as a plant, kelp is actually a species of brown algae (Macrocystis pyrifera), that grows in dense groupings, similar to the way a wooded forest grows on land.  The strands of kelp found in the controlled environment of the California Science Center grow to an impressive height, but are significantly smaller than the wild kelp forests, which can reach up to 175 feet in length. Kelp is prolific in growth and in ideal circumstances, can gain anywhere from 10 and 12 inches in a single day.

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Kelp. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Much like a buoy, the gas-filled bladders located at the base of the kelp leaf are responsible for holding up the kelp as it spreads from the bottom of the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Once the kelp has reached the surface, it forms a dense canopy that provides shelter and food for thousands of invertebrates, fish, and marine mammal species.

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp forests cross the benthic, pelagic, and neritic zones, and are home to a diverse group of marine life. In fact, the kelp forests found off of the California coast can accommodate over 1,000 species in a single forest, and are among the most diverse ecosystems found on earth!  Many organisms use the dense blades of the kelp to hide from predators and rear their young. Seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, fish, gulls, and other sea birds are some of the many animals found in the canopy’s armor.  Rich in varied food sources, the kelp forest ecosystem offers a perfect example of the hierarchical nature of the food web. As numerous species thrive in the shelter of the kelp, predators have greater access to food.  For example, kelp is eaten by tubeworms who are then gobbled up by birds and fish. Fish are the principal food source for baleen whales and sea lions.  Sea lions become the prey of the ocean’s top carnivores including sharks and killer whales (pictured below).

Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Killer Whale on the Hunt. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal (a Sea Lion). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Like the tubeworm and other small invertebrates, the primary food source of the sea urchin is kelp.  However, urchins present a huge problem in kelp forest management because of the alarming rate in which they consume the algae matter. Sea otters and spiny lobsters are the natural predator of the sea urchin, and as such their role in the ecosystem is vital.  When an urchin population balloons, kelp forests run the risk of depletion and the animals that use the canopy as shelter become vulnerable to predation. In order to manage urchin populations and conserve the delicate ecosystem, California Science Center staff and volunteer divers have joined local forces to remove over 100,000 sea urchins from the Palos Verde Peninsula. Considered a delicacy in fine dining cultures around the world, these sea urchins are often captured and sold to the restaurant industry.

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Close-Up of the Urchin's Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Close-Up of the Urchin’s Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Currently, the California Science center offers visitors the opportunity to pet urchins, sea slugs, eninimes, and other invertebrates. During our visit, I felt like a child who had returned to the coastal tide pools I loved so much as a kid. Using two gentle fingers (as advised), I stroked the back sides of sea slugs, explored the spines of urchins, and shook tentacles with an anemone.

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Throughout history, humans have devised numerous uses for kelp.  During World War I, kelp was harvested to make potash, a manufactured salt that contains potassium in water soluble form. During the war, potash was a major component of fertilizer and gunpowder. Following a German embargo on potash in 1914, American scientists and businessmen turned to the sea to extract potash from California’s giant kelp. By the 1930s, food and pharmaceutical corporations began extracting algin, a thickening, stabilizing, and gelling agent from kelp. Currently, algin is a popular additive used in a number of processed foods.

Visiting the synthetic kelp forest at the California Science center was truly a treat. Now, it is time to put on my fins and explore the wild forests off of the California Coast. I know that not everyone will have the opportunity to dive into the ocean ecosystems, but no matter where you live, some form of wilderness is available to you. Remember to get outside, ask questions, search for answers, and explore your world!

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To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Inside the Ecosystems- Kelp Forests Part 1

The Ecosystems exhibit at the California Science Center is a permanent fixture of their wide-ranging offerings. Visitors of the museum can explore eight diverse environments and ecosystems alternating between the “Extreme Zone” and “Rot Room” to the “Forest”, “Island,” and “River” zones. On Saturday August 26th, 2017 the Havasi Wilderness Foundation was given a private tour of the Kelp Forest exhibition, which has been open to the public since 2010. Dr. William Johns, Director of Life Support Systems at the California Science Center, acted as our personal guide for the day.


Beneath the floors of the California Science Center a deep humming emanates from a complex electrical grid that powers much of the facility. Thick pipes carrying water to and from the 188,000-gallon salt water tank housing the Kelp Forest Ecosystems exhibit line the walls and ceiling of the ground level. The area is cooler, wetter, and louder than most other parts of the museum, but the constant purring of water rushing through the pipelines had a soothing effect on me.

The kelp forest at the California Science Center is home to hundreds of marine animals across dozens of species, ranging in size from a microscopic crustacean to a five-hundred-pound giant sea bass. To feed the animals, on-staff divers and volunteer divers are employed to enter the tanks. Some fish require spot feeding methods (picture a scuba diver using tongs to feed chopped pieces of fish or crustacean to other carnivorous fish) to ensure that they receive the proper nutrients. The marine life in the kelp forest ecosystem exhibit eat and excrete several times a day, generating a sizeable amount of waste. Engineers and Technologists at the California Science Center work to develop systems that manage all of the waste.

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Just around the corner from the bottom floor elevator, sits an intricate filtration system comprised of giant cylinders measuring eight feet round and sixteen feet long. Dr. Johns explained that these tanks are packed with pressed gravel to filter out large and small waste matter from the water so that it can be recycled back into the kelp forest ecosystem. Unlike the Long Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums which discharge their marine exhibit waste back into the ocean, the California Science Center relies on sophisticated equipment to recycle and treat their wastewater. After the wastewater is filtered from the aquatic tanks, it starts a complex process wherein the concentrated salt byproduct from filtered saltwater must be flushed with fresh water to avoid an over-concentration of salts, maintaining the delicate salt to water ratio in treatment facilities.

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Fifteen minutes into the tour, the elevator dings and the doors slide open, inviting us to move on. We exit and begin our exploration of the dark rooms that provide an ideal viewing space for the saltwater tanks that make up the kelp forest installation. The exhibit itself is two stories tall. At the bottom level, visitors discover the ecosystem from the perspective of the marine life inside of the kelp forest.  As we approach the glass, I see two giant sea bass weaving between the leopard sharks and bright-orange garibaldi that surround them. In the corner of the tank, a moray eel pops its head out from behind a rock and floats, one eye locked warily on visitors to its home.  Three large splashes coming from the top of the exhibit indicate that it is feeding time. The divers, who are extensively trained to distinguish between different species of fish, pull out their tongs, grab a chunk of fish meat, and get to work. When we meet with a shivering volunteer diver later that day, he explains that the challenges of spending an hour in 56-degree water include being extremely cold. “However”, he says, “I love coming to the California Science Center to learn more about the marine life that we feed, and cold or not– I would gladly give up a few of my weekends to keep doing it.”

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Stay tuned next week as we explore the bottom level of the ocean floor and take an educational tour through the wild kelp forests.

 

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

 

“Thar She Blows”- a Whale’s Tale

The waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are abounding with wildlife.  A recent whale watching expedition gave the Havasi Wilderness Foundation the opportunity to interact with some of the 27 species of whales from the family cetacean who call the Channel Islands their home.


Somewhere around 26 miles from the Santa Barbara coastline, calls of “thar she blows”, a popular expression among whalers that is used to sound out the appearance of a nearby whale, could be heard from a choir of young children abroad the Condor Express. Spinning around to secure a spot on the starboard side (a nautical term that signifies the right side of the boat), I could see the short geyser of water that jetted from a whale’s spout.  As we readied our cameras, three humpback whales took turns surfacing for air. The sea around the whales was alive with movement. While dolphins and sea lions could be seen jumping enthusiastically out of the water nearby, the whales themselves were not as easy to see. Their large backsides surfaced long enough for a spout of water to shoot into the air before they bobbed beneath the sea again.

Humpback Coming up for Air. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Humpback Coming up for Air. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Cetaceans are a diverse grouping of carnivorous aquatic mammals that are widely distributed through the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  The family includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga, and whales, and is separated into two groups: toothed and baleen whales.  As their name suggests, toothed whales (or odontocetes) have teeth which they use to trap their food. Examples of toothed whales include the great white whale (most famously depicted in Herman Melville’s 1981 biopic Moby Dick), the sperm whale, and dolphins. Dolphins can be found swimming deep in the channel as well as in areas around surfers close to the California shoreline. They are some of the friendlier toothed whales and are renowned for their intelligence, curiosity, and complex communication style. Their sophisticated communication capabilities have been described to sound a lot like a whistle which allows them to exchange information with other members of their pod.

Common Dolphins. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Common Dolphins. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

The baleen whale (or mysticetes) derives its name from the thick stringy layers of baleen that attach to the whale’s gum line. Baleen is made of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails and hair are made of). Unlike toothed whales, who use sonar to track down food and capture prey with their teeth, the baleen whale vacuums gallons of water from the sea and relies on the straw-like baleen to filter fish and krill from the mouthfuls of water that they ingest.  Austin MacRae, a naturalist from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and our guide for the day, explained to us that in one gulp, a large baleen whale can swallow enough water to fill a medium-sized swimming pool! As I absorbed this information, I wondered aloud, how do whales carry and then expel such great amounts of water?  Austin provided the answer: ventral pleats.  Similar to a pelican’s pouch, the ventral pleats that line the abdomen of baleen whales, expand and contract like giant accordions. In one movement, they help push hundreds of gallons of water over the tongue and out of the whale’s mouth. During the expulsion of water, hundreds of small fish and plankton become trapped inside of the baleen where a whale can swallow them whole.

Humpback Whale. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Humpback Whale. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

The boat rocked violently in a moody sea as we continued watching the three humpback whales. Known for their particularly large pectoral fins, humpbacks often use the technique of pectoral fin slapping (commonly referred to as “pec slapping”) to attract the attention of the opposite sex during mating season. When slapped against the ocean’s surface, their fins produce a spectacle of booming sounds and massive waves. Though we did not witness any pectoral slapping on our trip, we were amazed to see one of the more high-spirited humpbacks lift its tail high out of the water and smack the surface of the sea. As its tail plunged back into the dark ocean, Austin explained to us that like the human fingerprint, the humpback’s tail fin (called a fluke) is unique to each whale. Currently, researchers use high definition photography to capture images of flukes and add them to a database managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). These images help identify individual humpbacks, monitor their health, and track their whereabouts. This tracking system is significant because, according to NOAA, Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes and occasionally shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may demolish humpback whale congregation areas.

Humpback's Tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Humpback’s Tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Humpback. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

A Spy Hopping Humpback Takes a Look at the Boat. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Weighing in at a whopping 150 tons, the blue whale holds the record of the largest mammal on the planet. To sustain such a massive creature, 9000 pounds (4.5 tons) of fish and krill must be consumed each day.  Though we did not encounter any blue whales on our expedition, they can be found feeding in the waters off of the Channel Islands during the summertime before heading to the warmer waters of Mexico to have their babies. Austin shared his thoughts about blue whales with me, explaining:

“I always like to talk about blue whales because they are the biggest and heaviest of animal ever to live on the planet! Bigger than any dinosaur even! The heart of a blue whale is the size of a Volkswagen and so, hypothetically, a child could crawl through its arteries. The tongue of a blue whale is as heavy as a bull elephant and their lungs are as big as a school bus. Essentially, they are gargantuan! They weigh 200+ tons and can reach sizes of up to 110 feet long in the Antarctic Ocean.”

Waters off of the coast of California vary drastically from those in the Arctic Circle. A cold northern current and a warm southern current collide in the waters off of the Southern California coast and create large nutrient pockets. These pockets of dense nourishment act as ideal feeding grounds for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals who use the summer months to build up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter.  Like human mammals, whales must maintain a body temperature of 99 ° Fahrenheit (37 ° Celsius). In order to preserve this temperature, they migrate from cooler waters in the summertime to warmer waters in the wintertime.

Sea Lions Take a Break From Eating to Sunbathe. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Sea Lions Take a Break From Eating to Sunbathe. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

 

As humans, we rely on our autonomic nervous system to regulate our breath. This allows us to breathe involuntarily, without ever having to think about it. Unlike human beings, humpback whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe at all times- even when they are asleep. To ensure that they remember to surface for air, cetaceans conserve half of their brain function while sleeping. Researchers studying dolphin and whale populations in captivity have noted that dolphins seem to shut down half of their brain and sleep with one eye open (the eye on the opposite side of the resting brain) for a period of around two hours. After two hours, the opposite side of the brain shuts down and the corresponding eye will close.  It is mind-boggling to think of the evolutionary trait that encourages continual consciousness among cetaceans.

Like dolphins, humans have been historically curious about the world that surrounds them. With less than ten percent of the world’s oceans having been explored,  there are still entire ecosystems that remain a mystery to us.  Rather than succumb to a life of uncertainty, it is important to feed your curiosity, get outside, and explore your world!

Until next week,

Lola


Interested in whale watching? The Condor Express (Click link to view) is an excellent option for a whale expedition. The leave from the Santa Barbara Harbor and guarantee that you will see whales. If for some reason the captain cannot find any whales during your day trip,  then you can return without a fee to go on an expedition until you do see one. Remember that when you’re exploring, you should take plenty of sun screen, a hat that shades, long-sleeved clothing, and (if you tend to get as queasy as I do) find some Dramamine and bring along a carbonated beverage as this helps sensitive stomachs. Take it from me, you should never go out on a boat without having something in your stomach.  

Anchors up and full steam ahead!

Panama Stories Part 1: Feeling Antsy

With its ever-changing landscape and an expanse of tropical rainforests, the Central American country of Panama offers visitors and residents the opportunity to travel from a cityscape teaming with wildlife to the crystal blue waters of a Caribbean paradise in little to no time at all. Millions of years before the formation of Panama, North and South America were two distinct landmasses separated by vast ocean waters.  A shift in tectonic plates and the eruption of several underwater volcanoes aided in the construction of a slender land bridge called an isthmus, which joined together the two American continents. This change took place over the course of millions of years, and at its constitution, the isthmus rerouted the global ocean currents that once flowed freely between continents. As a result, the world experienced a transformation in marine habitats and oceanic species were divided between the Pacific and the Atlantic sides.

The land barrier known today as the country of Panama has provided the backdrop for one of the most biologically diverse spaces in the world.  Join me over the next few weeks as we journey together through the rainforests, jungles, and cities of Panama to explore their wildlife and learn more about a diverse ecosystem that could one day provide a cure for some of humanities most serious illnesses.

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

 

It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.

While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation.  Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us.  Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain.  Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface.  I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.

Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities.  Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.

Hitchiking leafcutter ant, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.

As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight.  picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant,  I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.

Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.

As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!

 

 

 

Big Fish, Small Beak

A silvery light shimmered in the distance, and as I turned my head towards it, I encountered the arched neck of a slender Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret is a medium-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, and though the morning sky at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands was shrouded in fog, one could easily make out the white-feathered frame of its magnificent body and the brilliance of its yellow feet. Sandor Havasi and I approached the bird quietly, hoping to capture the moment on film and further investigate the origin of the shimmer. Standing just twenty feet from the Snowy Egret, we watched as the light bounced off of the silver scales of a flat-bodied fish (see image below).

Snowy Egret. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Though the Snowy Egret is very similar in form to its larger cousin, the Great Egret, their hunting styles could not be more different. Great Egrets patiently perch on one foot while stalking their prey, preparing to strike with a single fluid movement. The more animated Snowy Egret, who uses its bright yellow feet to stir up surrounding waters and herd tiny aquatic animals, can be seen continuously plunging its head in the water. On this particular occasion, a few shakes of the foot secured a fish larger than our Egret friend could swallow. I observed a frustrated Egret who repeatedly tossed the fish up in the air, like a spinning coin, and strained to force the meal down the length of its narrow beak. In the end, the fish was too great a match for the Egret and the elegant bird stalked bitterly away from the rocky shoreline where his abandoned meal lay.

The Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California are teeming with wildlife, including some of the most spectacular avian species I have ever seen.  In addition to the Snowy Egret mentioned above, we saw Great Blue Herons; who look a lot like small airplanes when their wings are fully extended, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets; who, along with the Snowy Egret, are relatives of the Heron,

and several Caspian Terns who allowed us to photograph them while they were hunting for food.

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret "fishing" with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret “fishing” with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Walking through the neatly-carved paths cut from the bluff’s dense shrubbery, I was amazed by the number of birds, lizards, and small animals that call Bolsa Chica their home. Sandor and I spent close to four hours exploring the wetlands, and as we turned to leave he asked, “How many species do you think you saw today.” My honest response was somewhere near ten, but as he recounted each bird, lizard, squirrel, and rabbit, the number quickly surmounted twenty.  The sheer knowledge that such biodiversity exists in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands has inspired me to look to the skies and the grounds and pay closer attention to what I see.  While some of you may have the chance to see Bolsa Chica in your lifetimes, many of our readers are spread across the world, and will not have the opportunity to get there. The truth is that you do not need to travel to a wetland to connect with nature, because the wild is happening all around us. The connectedness that I experienced when exploring my local watershed, can be shared by everyone, no matter their global location.  We, at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, urge you to get outside and explore the world. Peel your eyes away from the phones, laptops, and tablets that have your attention throughout the day, and instead, open your eyes to the wildlife around you. Pull out those headphones or earbuds and listen to the sounds of the wild- it is, after all, a soundtrack that is 4.54 billion years in the making.

In the wake of accelerated environmental changes, nations around the globe are participating in movements that encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Equipped with the knowledge that the safety and conservation of the human environment is a major issue, which affects the welfare of global inhabitants and economic growth throughout the world, the United Nations designated the 5th of June as World Environment Day. To celebrate this day, individuals were invited to get outside, connect with nature, and explore the world around them. This year’s theme for World Environment Day 2017 was “Connecting People to Nature,” and the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is proud to share this message with the world.

This year, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation spent World Environment Day exploring the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California.

 

 

 

Monarch Tagging

Our brightly colored  “Migrating Monarchs,” are a common sight in Southern California. But the real question is how far do they actually go?

MONARCH. THE LITTLE BLACK SPOTS SHOWS THEIR GENDER

Male Monarch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

With so much food available locally and the milkweed along the route being less frequent, it is a high possibility that Migrating Monarchs may be more Local Los Angeles or Southern California Monarchs. But they would not be the first animal to stop its migration because of the climate. Canadian Geese have been observed to remain year round instead of migrating because of the available resources and the warm weather, and certainly many people feel the same, considering the population of California!

Migrating Monarchs

What does a flash of orange and black wings in the sky, a chubby white and black and yellow lump on a leaf, a delicate light green translucent jade container with flecks of iridescent gold trim, and a microscopic light green cone on the underside of leaves have to do with one another? If you have ever seen any one of the three then, you have seen one of the unique life stages of a Monarch Butterfly, an intricate and

Monarch Butterflies taking a rest on their long migration. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

fragile California Native Insect. While the different life stages of a Monarch are fascinating, it is the endurance and incredible distances that this lightweight insect travels that is truly astonishing.

 
Monarchs are a common site in California, and if you’ve ever been outside on a bright spring day in a garden surrounded by flowers, you’ve probably seen one of these taking a sip from a flower, hovering and then gracefully floating on and over the wall aimlessly. But in reality these insects have a greater sense of direction than you would expect. Monarchs have been known to travel from Mexico to Canada! Technically it is not the same individual Monarch butterfly to make the entire trip, but each generation of Monarch picks up where the last generation left off. Talk about a family purpose and vision!
 

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Nature Journal: Ice and Elegant Eagles

This past weekend I was able to see an American icon! It wasn’t at the Superbowl or on the streets of Los Angeles, but at a frozen and snow-covered Big Bear Lake I saw the famous bald eagle.

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

The San Bernadino Mountains were perfect that weekend. I was there for a retreat and the snow had built up perfectly. In the early mornings, you could hear the sounds of the ice cracking on the lake and as the day went on little miniature streams broke open in the ice on the lake and flocks of geese and ducks could be seen far off in the distance paddling around in the frigid water. These birds have amazing insulation and feathers which help to keep them warm and allow the water to roll right off their backs. When I stepped outside to get a closer look, I went downward up to my knees suddenly finding myself in three feet of snow! Continue Reading →