Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Kangaroo crossing signs dot the roadways, but it’s a myth that water drains the other way around. I’m in Queensland, Australia, on the northeastern coast of the continent. My name is Karen Backe, and I’m an educator with the Aquarium of the Pacific. I flew from Los Angeles to Sydney and traveled 15 hours north by land along the coast. Along the way, by bus and train, I met up with more and more whale researchers. We were easy to spot if you knew what to look for – hiking backpacks, whale tail necklaces, t-shirts that read things like “What genius decided to call them ‘killer whales’ instead of ‘sea pandas’?” and an air of excitement – we were all headed for Peregian Beach, and a project called BRAHSS.
BRAHSS [pronounced like ‘brass’] is an acronym for the Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys (more on the exciting work being done here coming soon). All told, 93 people have converged on a small surf town, including chief and project scientists, project coordinators, boat skippers, marine mammal observers, computer and communication specialists, acoustic scientists, whale taggers and biopsy collectors, data and equipment specialists, party chiefs, a health and safety officer, and an army of volunteers from all over the world. Together, we are embarking on one of, if not the, largest and most complex whale behavioral study ever undertaken. There are five small boats, a large ship which will be the source of the sounds produced during parts of the experiment, two land-based observation stations each supporting three separate observation teams, an acoustics lab supported by five recording buoys listening to the trials and the whales, analyzing the world beneath the waves, and a headquarters from which the trial director will conduct the massive symphony of research underway.
With this many people to house and feed, the BRAHSS project has filled a big piece of Peregian Beach. The locals know and recognize the bright blue sun hats, huge research buoys being assembled in the yard, and the parade of boats parked in the streets. Living at the volunteer (or “vollie” as the Australians say) base station is a hoot and a half – we are housed in groups in a series of units along adjoining streets, and all food and cooking are communal; this means everyone is constantly in and out of everyone’s kitchens and living rooms, talking over the data collection, relaxing and swapping stories of field work and other adventures.
As the ice is broken and project systems begin coming online, an air of excitement hangs about the place. Even on our time off down at the beach mother and calf humpback whales can be spotted just beyond the surf, and everything is being readied for the huge research project about to begin - BRAHSS 2014.
Stay tuned for more updates!!!
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Happy October everybody! This month has been flying by and even though we have ended our blue whale tours we are still seeing them! That’s right, the blues are still here and they are not the only stars of the show lately. Humpback whales, several at a time, have been sighted, feeding and being very curious with our boats and our guests onboard. We have had some amazing trips earlier this month with humpback whales coming right next to the boat, rolling, fluking, and even breaching super close.
I was on a whale watch earlier this month where we ended up encountering 5 humpback whales in one area, and three were traveling and feeding together! These moments with the humpbacks are very special since we do not see them often. Usually during blue whale season, in the summer months, we will get a few humpback sightings since we have a large stock that travel up and down our coast. But now that it is October, we are super excited to have so many sightings! I can’t even remember the last time we had so many humpback sightings during this time of year!
Not only are we getting amazing humpback whale sightings, but blue whales as well! The blues are sticking around, for now, and seem to keep feeding on that krill and cruising around the boats. Dolphins have also been a highlight since we are also seeing our seasonal Pacific white sided dolphins, which are not seen usually until winter and spring. These high energy dolphins ride the wake of the boat and are so beautifully different than our local common and bottlenose dolphins with their interesting grey and white color patterns. Smooth hammerhead sharks have also been making an appearance along with hundreds of flying fish gliding next to the boat!
Our photo ID interns have been doing an amazing job capturing the images of these animals before they take the photos for processing after the trip. I would like to highlight another one of our newest interns, Maggie Snelgrove, who took most of the photos featured in this week’s blog. She has a talent for capturing the animals just below the surface of the water, giving us a unique perspective.
The ocean is full of life and we would like to show you our local marine life! Come on out and join us on a whale watch this month and maybe I will see you out there!
Thursday, October 09, 2014
A sea otter's personal playground
It may be called the BP Sea Otter Exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific but to one particular free spirited sea otter it’s her own personal playground that I like to call “Olliewood”. This month marks Ollie the sea otter’s fourth year at the Aquarium.
Ollie the southern sea otter came to the Aquarium of the Pacific as an orphaned pup back in October of 2010. She arrived with much fanfare and videos of her growing up filled the web-o-sphere.
I was one of her first overnight caretakers at the Aquarium and I could tell right away she had a unique personality. Very free spirited and curious, nothing within paw’s reach is safe from her investigation. She is also extremely smart and methodical. When she wanted to know what was under a drain cover she proceeded to unscrew the nuts bolting the cover over the drain. These are the same nuts that a human has to use a wrench to loosen. Ollie did it with just her paws. Near as I can figure she just kept trying to turn the nuts little by little. Each day the nut was just a bit looser. It may have taken her a few days or a week but she finally managed to loosen two of the four nuts before we discovered her activities. Persistence, thy name is otter.
She continued being free spirited after she was introduced to the exhibit. By then the staff knew to make regular “Ollie checks” on everything in the exhibit looking for signs of Ollie-tampering.
Ollie in the exhibit is a blur of fur as she is constantly in motion either checking out her surroundings, interacting with the guests watching her or playing with the other otters. You can’t help but notice Ollie whether you’re watching from inside or outside the enclosure. That’s why I nicknamed the exhibit “Olliewood”.
The otter you see doing a backflip above the water seemingly just for fun? That’s Ollie. She learned that she could change directions faster by doing that backflip.
The otter that just suction-cupped a frisbee to the window a foot above the water? That’s Ollie. She placed it there to keep it out of the reach of the other otters.
The otter that kept pace swimming underwater with the penguins marching outside the glass. Yup. Ollie. Ollie takes in and tries to interact with everything that goes on in her neighborhood.
That spooky moment when the door knob on the exhibit door starts to jiggle but there’s no one in the exhibit. No not ghosts. You guessed it! Ollie again. She watched the mammalogists turn that knob so she figures she has to try it too. Fortunately the door is locked from the outside.
Ollie didn’t play with the knob because she wanted to be on the other side of the door. It’s just because her curiosity made her do it. It’s Ollie being Ollie. It reminds me of the innocent curiosity and resulting amusing mayhem of the main character from the old comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. That Calvin-ish mindset and her free spirit-
ness, intelligence and just plain spunkiness is what has endeared this otter to me and others. I’ve enjoyed my 4 years with her. Hooray for Olliewood!
Check out the image gallery of Ollie as a pup and today.
Thursday, October 02, 2014
Blues, fins and minkes lunge feeding at the surface!
Often times, people ask me what my favorite sighting has ever been and I always reply with the first time (and pretty much every time) I ever saw a blue whale lunge feed at the surface. Usually, when we see a blue milling about, you see a portion of the dorsal, or back side, of the animal; maybe a dorsal fin and a fluke if we are lucky. But when I first saw a blue expose its full head, ventral pleats, huge mouth, baleen and virtually the whole side of its body, I was BLOWN away. I remember when I first learned about the existence of blue whales when I was a little girl; it was always one of my dreams to see one someday. Even when I was in college studying the marine sciences, blue whales were almost the things of legend. We are lucky that we are even getting to have these leviathans grace us with their presence every year AND they are accessible to the public!
This is what we have been waiting for! We have ended September with incredible trips with numerous blues and lots of action. Huge bodies breaking the surface with gaping mouths getting as much food as they can. An adult blue whale eats about four tons of this small shrimp-like plankton, called krill, every single day! Not only have we been seeing multiple blues per day propelling their bodies out of the water, but minke whales and fin whales have been joining in on the plankton party! The average whale sighting per trip has been about 6-7 individuals spanning different baleen species. The photos posted here of these awesome blues are from one of our newest photo ID interns, Aurielle Modster!
Minke whales and fins have also been out there taking advantage of the krill. The krill has been so abundant at the surface that many of the naturalists are reporting actually seeing the krill in the water in the form of red patches at the surface.
Dolphins have also been everywhere probably because the krill bring their favorite fish to the surface so they can feed as well. The sea is full of life and there is no telling how long it is going to stay like this so come out on an adventure! See you on the water!
Thursday, September 25, 2014
A Penguin Chick's Voice Change
The great thing about being around the June Keyes Penguin Habitat’s colony of Magellanic Penguins is that I learn something new about them nearly every week.
This year’s chicks are all friendly and like to hang around staffers. Most have matured past their chirping stage. When newly hatched, Magellanic Penguins have a distinct chirp that sounds like a chicken chick’s peep. They eventually grow past this stage and start to vocalize more like adult penguins. A guttural call that sounds a lot like a donkey braying.
However one young chick is still in the transition from chirping to braying and it’s adorable to listen to. Patsy and Noodle’s chick, affectionately nicknamed Paddles while she awaits an official name, is a very friendly penguin who likes to strike up a conversation with the staff whenever they’re in the exhibit. Recently one Saturday I spent the morning hanging around with the penguins. Sure enough up pops Paddles out of the water ready to converse. She’s very animated when she talks, shaking her beak from side to side as if to emphasize her statements. Although it look like she’s begging for food what the penguin caretakers tell me is that she actually just wants attention.
Well she got my attention fully as I had to stifle a laugh when her chirps ran headlong into her brays. At this point her brays sound more like honks. It’s hard to believe that both sounds are coming out of the same chick at the same time.
Check it out in the video below and try not to smile.
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