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.
Friday, June 12, 2015
More and more blue whales are being sighted during our trips and we are so excited to see the season starting off around the ‘usual’ time. Officially, the blue whale season will start later on this month and hopefully the appearance of them is a good sign that we will have a strong season. We have had a few sightings of the individual whales that we see annually as well, including a blue with a very unique fluke nicknamed ‘Delta’. Not only do the naturalists get to know these whales based on their unique mottling or flukes, but they learn their behaviors as well! For example, one is nicknamed ‘bubbles,’ as it blows a ton of bubbles under the water right before it takes a dive. Along with our visual cues of each individual, we also have new photo ID interns who are taking and processing photos in order to match these whales with their official Cascadia Research Collective ID.
Every four months, new photo ID interns are brought onboard and I like to spend a few blogs introducing them and their work. One of our four newest interns is Jannet! Jannet is a graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has always been passionate about the ocean and marine life and she is truly enjoying being out in the field taking photos and contributing to marine mammal photo identification research. This past March, she completed a marine mammal naturalist training program and is really excited to share what she has learned and hopes to inspire those around her to appreciate marine mammals and their ocean environment. Jannet exudes passion for the ocean,
“I enjoy photography and hope that my photos capture the beauty of marine mammals and inspire all of us to engage in conservation efforts for the health of our oceans and our earth.”
Not only have we been seeing blues, fins, and lots of humpback whales, but also another species of whale that we do not see often; the Bryde’s whale! As a matter of fact, looking back at last year’s blog, they were also seen last June as well. I always thought the name of this whale species was pronounced phonetically, but came to find out is it pronounced (/Bru: dә/). They look just like a fin whale, but when you get close to them, they lack the lower white jaw and their rostrum has three distinct ridges in front of its blowholes. We have had a few sightings already and heard that they have been sighted all down our coast recently. I have yet to see one and hope to very soon!
We have some fantastic photos showcased by Harbor Breeze’s deck hand Erik Combs, their photographer Tim Hammond, and of course, our new photo ID interns including Jannet!
Dolphins, whales, and more feeding frenzies have been sighted recently, so come on out and start your summer vacation off right with a voyage out on the open sea!
Thursday, June 04, 2015
A Parallel Universe right under our noses.
It’s a scene of mass carnage at the Aquarium. Hundreds of animals being stalked, pursued and devoured by relentless predators. And it’s all happening nearly invisible to the naked eye. The feeding frenzy of the sand dollar.
Visitors to the Aquarium of the Pacific who take a look into the sand dollar exhibit mostly get a sense of a serene scene of small, almost monolithic creatures peacefully coexisting with all around them. Some lying flat and some standing like cookies wedged into the sand. Many guests assume that they were placed in that manner by an aquarist. Yet four times a day this seemingly placid exhibit is actually the scene of a feeding frenzy that rivals that of fishes and sharks. Its a frenzy that can only be seen when speeded up.
Aquarist JJ, who is responsible for the exhibit, alerted me to the sand dollar feeding frenzy. I set up a time-lapse camera while JJ released hundreds of tiny plankton, the main diet of the sand dollars, into the water. After an hour of recording the frenzy became clear in the video. Sand dollars rise up from the sand like some alien monster to assume their stalking and feeding stance ready to pluck the plankton from the water. Brittle stars move around the sand dollars like creepy spiders eager to join in on the frenzy. This aquarist had opened my eyes to a parallel universe occurring right under my nose. The sand dollars are highly mobile creatures that can move across, bury themselves and stand upright in the sand. They just do it very slowly.
Take a look at the video below. You may never look at these unassuming creature the same again. I know I won’t!
Thursday, May 21, 2015
I’ve always loved watching people play Frisbee with their dogs. The enthusiasm that the dogs show while attempting to catch the flying disk in their teeth just epitomizes the fun people and animals can have together. It makes me a bit jealous of all the fun they’re having since I don’t have a dog. So to make up for being dog-less I make do playing Frisbee with sea lions on the weekend.
For sea lions Milo and Harpo catching the disk acts as an enrichment device during a training session. They get a lot of fun out of jumping in the air and catching the disk while at the apex of their leap. In fact when they see the Frisbee come out at the beginning of a session you can see in their eyes that they can’t wait to play catch. They also get quite innovative in returning the Frisbee to the trainer. If they are close enough they will try to toss the Frisbee back to the trainer while in midair. Other times they will come back on deck and gently place the disk in our hands hoping for another toss. And when they’re feeling mischievous they will swim with the Frisbee upside down in their mouth using the concave side of the disk to scoop up water. When they flip the disk back to the trainer the trainer gets drenched with water. Harpo seems to get a lot of enjoyment out of soaking me that way.
Someday I’ll get a dog to play Frisbee with. But until then the sea lions at the Aquarium of the Pacific make fine substitute disk catching dogs. A fun fringe benefit of volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Come on out to the Aquarium this summer and watch our sea lions play.
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