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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.

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!

California Science Center Coral Triangle Lunch

Review of the luncheon by Marilyn T. Fordney:

We recently attended another “lunch and learn” at the California Science Center, in Los Angeles, because of our annual support of environmental education. Thanks to the hard work of the California Science Center Foundation, both children and adults can visit its incredible interactive and educational exhibits for free and learn throughout the year. The topic for the “lunch and learn” was “The Coral Triangle” and Dr. Paul Barber, a professor and evolutionary and conservation geneticist from UCLA was our speaker. The information we heard about the Coral Triangle is only just beginning to be introduced to the public but it’s importance to our planet is vital!

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Founder Marilyn T. Fordney with Dr. Barber

If you’ve never heard of the Coral Triangle, you aren’t alone. . .  The Coral Triangle is a very special area on our planet. It is the largest and most biologically diverse marine system area of the earth and is known as the Amazon of the Ocean. It is the global epicenter. There is incredible biodiversity with over 500 hard coral species across an area encompassing 6 countries and covering 6 million km2Biodiversity means a variety of forms of life within an ecosystem, biome, or planet and the Coral Triangle is an incredible example of a biodiverse marine system! For example, in the Carribean, there are two coral species known as staghorn coral and elkhorn coral. In the Coral Triangle, there are over 100 species!

Continue Reading →

Wilderness Journal: Bolsa Chica Observations

Hello everyone! Today I wanted to share with you all my latest wilderness experience. I am hoping to make this wilderness observation journal a more regular posting on the blog, and I hope you will enjoy the different wilderness explorations as much as I do!

Just this morning, on Columbus Day October 12th at 9:03 am, I embarked on a wilderness exploration in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. I wanted to make sure to go in the morning because it has been so incredibly hot lately here, and because most animals are active in the morning. As I walked from my house to the wetlands I walked along a suburban road of houses, blacktop, and manicured yards. Even in the suburban housing tract which backs up to the Bolsa Chica Wetlands I could hear the trilling and calling of different unidentified bird species.Black Phoebe Over the hum of a lawnmower and the far off roar of a large jet, these birds chattered and went about their lives arguing and singing—not all that different from the lives going on in the human houses along the same road.
When I came to the place where the sidewalk ends and the gravel wilderness paths through the wetlands began, I took a deep breath. The smell of the salt water was crisp in the already warm air around me. Another scorching day was ahead for us in Huntington Beach. But it was only the beginning of the nature observations ahead of me. The gravel path crunched under my feet and I could still hear the sssssing sound of a sprinkler in a backyard nearby. It’s amazing how close our lives come to such an incredible suburban (or perhaps even a little urban) wetland. A dragonfly flitted lazily across my path and off in the distance birds lined the little shorelines created by pools of saltwater in the estuary. A phoebe flicked her tail at me before bobbing away into the blue sky. Continue Reading →

The Cheapest Eco-tourism Trip Ever: Wet-lands

Great Egret with Lizard

Great Egret with a tasty snack at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Many times when we think about incredible wildlife or biodiversity we think about exotic places. If only we could go there if only we could visit places that are in the travel magazines and National Geographic and get to see those amazing animals ourselves. But one of the greatest and most diverse ecosystems in the world today exists very close to us. In fact we don’t have to hop on a plane or pay that much to get there. All we have to do is pay attention. Wetlands are known today as an incredible home for many different kinds of animals.

And even though the Bolsa Chica Wetlands is just down the street from me. . . it may not be for you and honestly, there are little “wetlands” far nearer than that. Now not all wetlands are the same, but wherever there is wetness, moisture, or water there is life.
Water provides a basic need for all living things from little tiny animals you see under a magnifying glass or microscope, to larvae of different insects, microorganisms, algae, to animals you can see with your naked eye–amphibians, fish, birds and all the larger animals that come to the water sources to drink: house-cats, dogs, sparrows, hawks, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, rabbits, wasps–and these are just to name a few (and a few more typical of Southern California). But wherever there is water there is overcrowding, amazing biodiversity, and large amounts of animals living next to, on top of and inside of one another.

Continue Reading →

Wisdom of Sailors: Understanding the Ocean’s Influence on Predicting Weather

If you have ever lived in a coastal city you will have heard the phrase “Red sky at night sailors delight. Red sky at morning sailor take warning,” used in casual conversation to predict the upcoming weather.

Understanding weather patterns has been crucial for sailors

Understanding weather patterns has been crucial for sailors over centuries

This phrase has existed for hundreds of years and has been referenced by many famous historical figures including Shakespeare. Like many folk lore or old wives tales this saying does come from a very basic interpretation of the world around us. This phrase is based on scientific principles relating to the materials that make up the earth’s atmosphere, how we see visible light, and how weather or storms are formed.

So how does this work? Let’s break it up: visible light (what we see with our eyes) is basically made up of the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (ROYGBIV). Simply put, the colors that we see in the sky are created by rays of light that are being broken up into those specific colors by bumping into little teeny tiny objects in the atmosphere: dust, water droplets, you name it! Now in this situation, of “red sky” instead of our normal “blue sky,” there are a lot more the dust particles or water droplets in the atmosphere. This larger amount of dust and water in the air is generally a sign of a change in air pressure.

Continue Reading →

Seabirds and Shorebirds

Sanderlings

Sanderlings

Last week we explored urban birds, who they are, what they eat, and where they live. We learned a little about mallard ducks, a bird that spends a lot of its time on water, but we didn’t get into all the other birds that spend the majority of their time out at sea or use the shore as a feeding ground. These are our seabirds and shorebirds.

There are a few distinguishing characteristics between seabirds and shorebirds. The main difference is that seabirds are pelagic, meaning they spend most of their life out at sea, while shorebirds are migratory birds that run along the shore looking for food.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Since seabirds spend most of their life out at sea, they have different adaptations that help them survive their native habitats. Some seabirds have webbed feet that help them move throughout the water. This adaptation also helps to provide traction when the birds take off for flight from the water. Other seabirds have claws to help them grab hold of fish under water. Seabirds also tend to have more feathers than other birds that help with insulation and waterproofing. The feathers on their back are dark and the feathers on their underside are light. This is an adaptation known as countershading, which is common in many mammals, reptiles, birds and fish. Countershading is a type of camouflage that helps the animals avoid detection from predators as well as prey.

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Seabirds have different strategies when feeding. Some seabirds do what is called surface feeding and dunk their heads into the water to capture prey below. Seabirds such as penguins have the ability to dive underneath and pursue their prey called “pursuit diving.” Some seabirds try plunge diving. This is when they dive from high in the air, building enough momentum on the way down to plunge into the water and go deeper than normally allowable due to air between their feathers that makes them more buoyant. This is a highly skilled tactic that not all seabirds have mastered. Gannets, boobies, tropicbirds, some terns and brown pelicans all specialize in plunge diving. Seagulls and skuas try the plunge dive but are less skilled and successful at it.

Marbled Godlet with Willets

Marbled Godlet with Willets

Shorebirds, also known as wading birds, spend less time in the water but rely on the sea and other wetlands for food. Common shorebirds are avocets, black skimmer, oystercatchers, plover, sandpiper, and stilt. These birds have longer legs and pointed beaks allowing them to wade in the water and poke their bills into the sand for food. Most shorebirds are migratory and are known for their distant travel each year. Some shorebirds travel an astonishing 15,000 miles each year, while others can reach altitudes of 10,000 feet and reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Almost two-thirds of the shorebirds that breed in North America journey from their arctic nesting grounds and go all the way to Central and South America for winter. In the following spring they return to the Artic.

Stilts

Stilts

One of the most common enemies to these birds, other than their predators are what are called “introduced species.” These are species that aren’t necessarily native to the habitat but have been introduced to the environment and are able to survive. The survival of these introduced species throws off the life cycle of native species. An example of an introduced species that poses a threat to these birds are feral cats. A feral cat is a domesticated cat that has returned to the wild, usually left behind by travelers and then breeds on the land. Other introduced species can have a different affect, such as goats, rabbits and other herbivores. These animals aren’t predators, but eat the vegetation that would otherwise help them to protect their young.

Birds are an incredible species, with so many different adaptations to help them survive. The slightest increase in length of their legs and bills allows them to strategically plant themselves in shallow waters to feed, while the adaptation of webbed feet or more feathers helps them survive conditions presented by the sea. As climates change, and habitats evolve, new adaptations will occur in order for these seabirds and shorebirds to survive.

 

Marine Mammals

Common Dolphin

Common Dolphin

Southern California is home to over 200 different mammals. Within driving distance, we can reach the desert, the mountains and even forests, getting us closer to the local wildlife. We’re also fortunate to be near the coast, which exposes us to a whole other set of mammals; marine mammals. Marine mammals are similar to other mammals, like having warm blood, giving live birth, secretion of milk by females to their young. The only difference is that marine mammals have adapted to living all or part of their life in water.

In the United States, all of our marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and unfortunately, many of them are on the endangered species list.

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale

The largest mammal in the world happens to be a marine mammal; a whale. If you’ve ever gone whale watching, hopefully you caught a glimpse of these enormous creatures. In California, we have the opportunity to see 5 types of whales: Humpback Whales, Orca Whales, Gray Whales, Blue Whales, and Fin Whales. The latter 3 are on the endangered species list.

Whales are known for migrating long distances. Gray whales migrate an incredible 12,000 miles round trip every year. They travel between their southern breeding grounds off Baja California, Mexico and their northern feeding grounds off Alaska. Whales feed in colder waters and stock up on food for their journey to warmer waters where they mate and give birth. They breed in warmer waters because the calves don’t have thick layers of blubber yet to protect them from colder waters.

Orca Whale

Orca Whale

For whales, a little discrepancy starts to grow when it comes to teeth, so let’s back up for a second. Whales are a part of the marine order Cetacea, which includes dolphins and porpoises. A lot of whales don’t have teeth, called baleen whales. They have bristle-like, brooms, in place of teeth that act as filters, catching smaller fish and sea creatures. Whales that have teeth fall into a suborder called, Odontoceti, which means toothed whale. Orca whales and dolphins are a part of this suborder and belong to the delphinidae family, making Orca whales, dolphins. A grey area builds because “Orca whales” are actually dolphins, and dolphins are apart of the suborder for “toothed whales,” so some scientists consider dolphins to be a type of whale, while other scientists do not.

Seals

Seals

Speaking of dolphins, in southern California you might see 2 types of dolphins – common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins. These creatures are very intelligent, and have many strategies of getting food. One way is they follow behind big whales or boats and eat the fish that get tossed aside. Another way is hunting for prey in groups. They surround schools of fish and pack them in the center. They each take turns eating while the other dolphins prevent the fish from escaping. Another way is cornering the fish against coral, called “corraling,” and repeating the process described above.

Some marine mammals spend time on land. These are marine mammals from the pinniped order meaning “fin-footed, which is comprised of walruses, seals and sea lions. These semi-aquatic animals spend most of their lives in the water but go ashore to mate, give birth, and escape predators. Seals are divided into two families – otariidae and phocidae. Otariidae are the “eared seals” and sea lions, while phocidae are the “earless” or true seals. Most animals shed hair and skin throughout the year, but pinnipeds shed it all at once called molting. This process of shedding skin and hair also takes place on shore.

Sea Lions

Sea Lions

The slight differences between marine mammals is fascinating, where each adaptation leads to a different approach to survival. If you want to get a close look at some of these animals, try going on a whale watch tour, or visit our local Channel Islands.