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A Shark’s Tale— Why This Ancient Species is Often Misunderstood (Hint: Hollywood)

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In the summer of 1998, executives over at the Discovery Channel introduced the world to Shark Week, a week-long block of television programming dedicated to the mysteries and science surrounding sharks. Since its inception 30 years ago, Shark Week has become a staple of summertime television in America, attracting an average of 20-million viewers each season while earning the title of the longest-running cable TV programming event in history.

At its inception, Shark Weeks programming was designed to increase conservation efforts and defuse some of the social stigmas around sharks. Lately though, the cultural phenomenon that Stephen Colbert joking deemed “one of the two holiest of American holidays,” has been generating criticism from the scientific community and shark advocates who believe that contemporary shows like Caged in Fear, Bloodline: The Spawn of Jaws, and Megalodon: The New Evidence, move further away from conservation and instead promote the dangerous fear-mongering that paints sharks as villains of the sea.  

As Shark Week comes to a close, we at HWF think this might be the right time to shed some light on these ancient creatures of the deep.

Deep beneath the ocean waters swim one of the world’s oldest living species— sharks. Predating the dinosaurs by 200 million years, sharks have roamed the seas for over 400 million years, surviving five mass extinctions! To better understand the evolution of one of the ocean’s top predators marine biologists study the existing fossil records that take the form of shark teeth and scale impressions spanning hundreds of millennia.  Fossilized teeth can provide an astonishing amount of evidence about the lives of prehistoric sharks— from their environment, to their diet, to their size. Since sharks shed thousands of teeth throughout their lifetime, these fossils are abundant.  The oldest confirmed shark fossils are a set of scales found in Siberia that date back to 420 million years ago!!!

Check out this interactive timeline from the Discovery Channel to learn more about the evolution of sharks!

Caribbean reef shark. Photo by: Albert Kok. Wikimedia Commons

Caribbean reef shark. Photo by: Albert Kok. Wikimedia Commons

Unlike other fish, whose skeletons are made of bone, sharks are one of the elasmobranchs (a subclass of marine animals that also includes skates and rays) whose structure is made of cartilage— the firm but supple material that is found in the human ears and nose. Cartilage weighs much less than bone and offers sharks an advantage when it comes to speed, agility, and energy conservation in the water.

Though most people conjure an image of a wide-mouthed, sharp-toothed human slayer (thanks, in part, to the popularity of the Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, whose star, the Carcharodon carcharias aka a great white shark fits this description) the reality is that over 400 different species of sharks exist and the diversity among them is widespread. From habitats, diets, and personality to shape, color, and size, the variance among different families of shark species is vast.

Of the 440 species known today, the largest (whale shark) measures 60 feet (18 meters) while the smallest (dwarf lantern shark) can fit into the palm of your hand.  Though immensely popular, great white sharks actually make up a very small percentage of the world’s sharks. Yet the fascination with them and fear of them seems to persist so long as the occasional human attack can be reported. Although publicity about shark attacks can be great for generating fear and popular headlines, humans are not a preferred food for sharks. Most large sharks prefer to eat marine mammals like seals, otters, and sea lions while other filter-feeders eat plankton, krill, and fish eggs from the water around them.

Great White Shark by Terry Goss at en.wikipedia

Great White Shark by Terry Goss at en.wikipedia

Most shark attacks occur when a swimmer either looks or smells like a common prey species and has been mistaken for food.  It is relatively rare for sharks to attack a swimming human being, but when dressed in a wetsuit or when spearfishing, it is not unreasonable to be mistaken for a seal or a bleeding fish. As media stories and television programming continue to promote sharks as the villains, conservation efforts become increasingly difficult. In 2013, National Geographic estimated that over 100 million sharks are being killed each year— a staggering number that promises to have a major impact on future marine ecological systems if the pattern continues. While sharks are being vilified on television and in movies, individuals are taught to fear them and illegal shark fishing can continue without much social concern.

Perhaps it is time to reframe this inaccurate characterization of these magnificent creatures. Sharks do not pose a threat to human life unless humans encroach upon their space. Even then, the likelihood of a shark attack is extremely low. According to data from the Florida Museum of Natural History,  sharks spark approximately 82 unprovoked attacks around the world each year, with just eight of those resulting in death. Which means that your odds of dying from a shark attack are 1 in 3,748,067!

These 10 shark facts from the Smithsonian’s Shark Girl might help illuminate some of the awesome and impressive qualities that sharks have. 

The Havasi Wilderness Foundation works to create an understanding of the need for environmental education and awareness among world citizens. It is our job to help preserve and protect our planet and all those who live here. If you would like to help support our work, please make a donation to us today.

 

Sharks, Scrub Jays, and Lobsters— Studying the Wildlife on California’s Coast

On Wednesday morning, students at Cienega Elementary school excitedly greeted Havasi Wilderness Foundation founder, Marilyn Fordney and HWF Media Communication Specialist Lola West at a presentation of scientific study participation medals that took place in their school library.  Surrounded by heavy traffic on two of its four sides, Cienega Elementary is centered in Los Angeles’s bustling urban environment. Children from the school recently paid a visit to Malibu Lagoon where they learned about the 110 acres of wetland, salty marsh, and tide pools being protected on the California coast. For many of the students at Cienega, this trip offered them the opportunity to see the beach for the very first time. By the end of their field studies, students were well versed on the animals and plants that live in the area where the ocean meets the shore.

After an animated “good morning” greeting from two second and third grade classes, the 50 students gathered in the library were asked to tell us about their favorite experience at the Lagoon. Hands shot up in the air—waving frantically— as eager kids seemed unable to contain their excitement. Little learners expressed their enchantment with the wetlands as they described seeing scrub jays, horn sharks, and lobsters while participating in a scavenger hunt.  Following the discussion around wildlife at the lagoon, each student was awarded a HWF medal and a bookmark. Their enthusiasm to learn more about the coastal environment at Malibu Lagoon, has inspired us to highlight interesting facts about some of their favorites— namely horn sharks, lobsters, and the scrub jays.

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Horn Sharks

Growing to a maximum length of just 3.3 feet, the horn shark is a slow-moving, smaller species of shark that seeks the shelter of dense kelp or sea caves during the day and hunts at night. Once a horn shark finds its home, they pretty much like to stay put. According to available research, the longest distance a horn shark is known to have traveled is just over 10 miles!

Though small in size, horn sharks are fitted with a powerful jaw that helps them consume prey like starfish, sea cucumber, invertebrates and bony fish. Marine biologists have discovered that horn sharks seem to have a particular fondness for crabs and sea urchins— some sharks will eat enough sea urchins to stain their teeth purple!

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Lobster

Lobsters are a type of crustacean (covered by a hard shell or crust) that can be found somewhere between the continental shelf and the sandy shorelines of all the world’s oceans.

A lobster’s body is comprised of a rigid exoskeleton (shell) that must be shed each time they increase in size. This process is known as molting. Before molting begins, lobsters absorb a large amount of water, causing the new shell to swell and eventually breaking down the old one. Without its shell, a lobster is soft, squishy and more vulnerable to attack, so the molting process usually takes place in the safety of their burrows or hiding places.

In the first five to seven years of its life, a lobster will molt somewhere around twenty-five times! After age seven, lobsters shed their shells once or twice a year. The largest lobster ever caught weighed over 44 pounds— now that’s A LOT of molting!

Like the horn shark, lobsters are bottom dwellers that hide in crevices during the daytime and come out to feed at night. Their diet consists of fish, snail, other crustaceans, worms, and plant life. Lobsters are hunted by a number of other species, including the bull shark. When escaping predators, a lobster will swim backward by curling and uncurling its abdomen.

Presently, lobsters are in high demand for fish eaters, and certain measures have been passed to protect the larger “breeding” lobsters from overfishing. In Maine—where lobster fishing is incredibly popular— any lobster over 5” must be returned to the ocean to help maintain the population.

Spiny Lobster by Ed Bierman from CA, usa

Spiny Lobster by Ed Bierman from CA, usa

 

Scrub Jays

Commonly confused as the blue jay, the California scrub jay is an eye-catching blue, gray and white bird that is often spotted flying around the Pacific seaboard. It enjoys spending time in dry shrublands, wood areas, and backyards from the Olympic Peninsula to Baja California.

California scrub jays are known to be rather mischievous— stealing acorns from a woodpecker’ stockpile and even from their fellow jays. In addition to acorns, scrub jays eat ticks and other parasites. If you’re lucky, you can catch the birds standing on the back of a mule deer and picking off its ticks.

The oldest known California Scrub-Jay lived for over 15 years! Tagged in California in 1932, the elderly scrub jay was found in 1948 in the same state (allaboutbirds.com,2018).

 

Art from Cienega student

Art from Cienega student

As we prepared to present students with their medals for excellence in wilderness studies, one young girl asked Marilyn where her interest with nature began. “I grew up surrounded by trees and spent a lot of time outdoors, so I’ve always had a special relationship with nature.”  The importance of spending time out in nature —among the trees, seas, and fields of bees— cannot be overlooked.

We at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation are always grateful to spend time with the next generation of consumers, producers, and wilderness experts. It is important to remember that each and everyone has a connection to the world around us. The harder you work to understand that connection, the better the health of the planet will be. Until next time, remember to GET OUTSIDE AND EXPLORE YOUR WORLD! 

Special thanks to Principal Kimberly Wright, teachers Nina Goebert and Ana McVay, student-teacher Molly Tuthill, parent volunteer Millie Dunbar, and librarian, Phyllis Mcreary for inviting us to meet with the students at Cienega Elementary School. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit!  Thank you to all the students who handed in assignments; we are thrilled to learn about your adventures at the Malibu Lagoon.

Cienega students at the Malibu Lagoon

Cienega students at the Malibu Lagoon

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!

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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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