Thursday, July 16, 2015
There are just a few animals at the Aquarium of the Pacific that can cause me to have an affectionate emotional response when I look deep into their eyes; sea otters, sea lions, penguins and flamboyant cuttlefish.
In the Jewels of the Pacific exhibit in the Tropical Pacific Gallery is a group of the most amazing creatures I’ve ever seen on land or sea. Although small, their personalities and abilities are addicting and fascinating. At first glance they may look like a tiny herd of colorful neon glowing rhinos or triceratops walking along the bottom of the exhibit. The color and texture of their bodies continuously changing making them look like an electrical light parade float at Disneyland. Then a blink later they can dramatically change their color and blend into their background looking like a rock. They are called flamboyant cuttlefish and they really live up to their names. It’s also really neat how they will interact with you through the glass of their exhibit. They’ll actually come up and stare at you with their mesmerizing alien-like eyes. You really feel like they are analyzing you. You can’t help but feel a connection with these little critters.
I’ve only recently became aware of these cuttlefish so I went to an expert to learn more about them. Janet Monday is one of the aquarists tasked with caring for the flamboyant cuttlefish. She told me that they are found in the Indo-Pacific region from Indonesia to Northern Australia. They have eight arms which are at the front of their bodies and two clear tentacles that they use to capture prey.
An interesting anecdote is how they also use their tentacles to explore their surroundings. The Aquarium of the Pacific is lucky enough to actually breed flamboyant cuttlefish. Janet said that when they are young they are fed tiny mysid shrimp. Later when they are introduced to larger shrimp to eat they don’t immediately capture them. Instead at first they’ll extend their tentacles out slowly and gently tap the shrimp, seemingly asking the question “Is this food?”
Their cuttlebone, which is used to change the animal’s buoyancy, is smaller than other cuttlefish species which is why they spend most of their time walking along the bottom. This leads to the herd-like scenes described earlier. But instead of imaging how it looks, check out the video I’ve put together and watch the flamboyant cuttlefish in action. Janet was kind enough to narrate the video.
Thursday, July 09, 2015
This month has been super exciting so far with about 18 sightings of blue whales and sightings of breaching baleen whales like minkes, humpbacks, and even fin whales! The seas have continued to be full of life and we have been seeing some interesting animals like big red patches of krill at the surface, huge mola mola’s, and sea turtles!
We were lucky enough to not only see these animals during the trip, but also get some really cool photos. Among the blues, fins, and minkes, we have continued to see humpback whales feeding at the surface, more feeding frenzies, and cow fin and blue whales with their calves! Just a few days ago, those on the boat got a whale of a show with a very active breaching humpback! The Risso’s dolphins have also made a re-appearance. They are squid eaters so they may be around because there is an abundance of food available off our coast at this time. We even saw a few loggerhead sea turtles recently, which is rare in this area! Loggerheads are found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea. We don’t see them very often, as many green sea turtles inhabit our local waters and in the San Gabriel River. They have a unique scute pattern on their shell and younger turtles have ridges along their back. Tim Hammond captured some great shots of this turtle!
This week’s blog will be featuring another one of our new whale photo ID interns; Katie! She is currently a junior at the University of Rhode Island, seeking to complete a BS in Marine Biology. In the future, she hopes to work in a research facility working with poisonous and invasive species. She is thrilled to be interning at the Aquarium of the Pacific and partnering with Cascadia Research Collective and Harbor Breeze Cruises. She has already learned so much about data collection and analysis, which is an extremely important part of research. So far, she has seen so many amazing animals.
“My favorite experience was seeing minke, humpback, and a Bryde’s whale while in a pod of an estimated 2000 dolphins. It was only my fourth trip out on the boat and one of the most exciting events to witness. The huge pod of dolphins had driven massive bait balls into an area, creating a feeding frenzy for the whales, birds, and sea lions. I was most excited to see the Bryde’s whale since it is very rare to see one, as there are only supposed to be 12 known whales on our coast. Through this internship, I hope to learn more about research techniques and everything there is to know about our coastal cetaceans.”
We are happy to have Katie on our team and have some of her photos showcased above!
The sun has been shining and more and more blue whales are being seen despite the El Niño season! So, now that the kids are out of school, come out and have an adventure searching for the largest animals on Earth and learning about the animals from our expert Aquarium staff onboard.
Thursday, July 02, 2015
The sea turtle made famous by KPCC and National Public Radio.
Tripod is a medium to small green sea turtle that calls the San Gabriel River near Long Beach and Seal Beach home. What sets this little turtle apart from others in the colony of sea turtles that reside in this urban river environment is that it’s nationally known.
Tripod became part of a KPCC / National Public Radio feature that was about the sea turtles of the river early this year. During the segment on the Aquarium of the Pacific’s citizen scientists turtle monitoring program Tripod was spotted in distress by one of the volunteers. Fortunately the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Dan Lawson was being interviewed at that moment and he made an impromptu rescue of the fishing line-entangled sea turtle while the NPR reporter watched. After being disentangled Tripod was released back into the river.
Why the name Tripod? This resident turtle is missing one of its rear flippers. The entanglement was on its front flipper, not the rear and was not the cause of the missing flipper. This disability doesn’t seem to have hindered the little critter. Case in point: last week my wife Pam and I spotted Tripod in the river near the Second Street Bridge while taking field notes and photo id shots of the sea turtles. How do we know for sure it was the same sea turtle? Well I took one of my ID shots and matched it with a photo of Tripod on land that was on the National Public Radio website and a video of the rescue that was on the KPCC website. The patterns of the scales on its head, which we used for identification, matched.
Right now the Aquarium of the Pacific and NOAA’s photo ID project is mostly being done by myself and Pam. But in the near future we’re hoping to incorporate more people in the project such as the Aquarium’s Citizen Scientists sea turtle monitoring volunteers to help increase the database of ID images of the sea turtles in the river.
Who knows, we may start giving out more nicknames to these urban sea turtles as we get to know them better.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
We have officially started blue whale season as of the 22nd of June and we have been seeing some amazing things in the meantime. As mentioned in the last blog, we have been witnessing some incredible feeding frenzies with multiple species all chowing down on small bait fish like anchovies or krill. Fin whales, humpback whales, minkes, and the blues have been spotted feeding alongside dolphins, sea lions and marine birds! Since we have already been spotting some blues, we hope to be able to see many more in the months to come even during this El Niño season.
Some toothed whales were spotted very recently that we have not seen on our whale watch tours in months: the Risso’s dolphins! We were very surprised to see them since they had not been seen in a very long time. Risso’s dolphins are easy to differentiate from our commons and bottlenose dolphins because of their very long pointed dorsal fin and their white scars and rake marks all over their skin. These rake marks are scrapes from the teeth of other Risso’s dolphins and their white exposed skin can be seen under the water since it refracts as a blue color. I happen to be able to be a part of this tour and was so excited to see them since they are one of my favorite dolphins.
One of the most interestingly unusual sightings we had this time was a juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird! They look like albatrosses and are tropical birds that can have a wingspan of up to seven feet wide! Check out the photo that was captured of this unique pelagic bird.
In the blogs to come, we will be introducing new whale photo ID interns and their work. This week we will be highlighting Gabi! She recently received her Master’s in Marine Mammal Science from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and is also a UCSB alumnus. Her passion is cetacean ecological research - particularly communication, behavior, and sociality - and science that supports conservation and management efforts. She’s been pursuing this career for as long as she can remember and is thrilled to have the opportunity this summer to assist the Aquarium and the CRC (Cascadia Research Collective) with their research on the largest animals on the planet.
“I hope that their work (CRC) helps protect these species against challenges they face now and in the future and that the brief moments I capture of these incredible creatures can help inspire another generation of passionate and curious individuals.” - Gabi
You can see some of Gabi’s photos, along with Erik Combs and Tim Hammonds excellent photos with this week’s blog, so check them out.
The weather is warming up and the tours are now a half hour longer (leaving dock at 12:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.) which gives us plenty of time to enjoy the sun and all of the wildlife our coast has to offer! So, come on out and spend your summer learning and experience these animals in their natural habitat.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
The magic of the target pole
It can transform a sea lion into a back-flipping gymnast. With it, sharks are conjured into docile, huggable critters. Its prestidigitations can make pinnipeds appear behind you for the ultimate selfie photo bomb It is called a target pole and what you can do with it is magical.
The target pole is simply something an animal can concentrate on during training. The mammalogists at the Aquarium of the Pacific use pool lane buoys or other ball-like objects placed on the end of plastic poles of varying lengths as target poles. Using positive reinforcement the animals are trained to touch the target end of the pole with their noses, flippers, or paws on cue. It is a simple behavior but one which can lead to so much more complicated ones.
In the course of training, a sea lion can be taught to pillar, porpoise, and even do a backflip by having them follow the movements of the target pole through the air. Sharks can learn to enter a transport stretcher through the use of the target pole which can then lead to training the shark to be held calmly by an aquarist. Being well trained by aquarium staff on targeting, Charlie the sea otter was able to participate in important hearing research studies. Charlie would hold his nose on an underwater target until he heard a specific audible cue. Important data on the range of sea otter hearing was gained through Charlie.
Using a long target pole our sea lions were even taught to dive down next to the underwater viewing tunnel so that they could participate in “selfies” taken by our aquarium guests during special occasions.
A little known but wonderful part of our sea lion show is when our aquarium presenters turn into Hogwarts-worthy teachers of wizardry by having youngsters take charge of the magic wand of animal training. They then lead a sea lion around the exhibit. These kids are transformed into sorcerer’s apprentices by the power of the target pole.
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