Thursday, December 05, 2013
Hints and anecdotes for viewing the sea turtles of the San Gabriel River.
The San Gabriel River is one of the main watersheds of the Los Angeles Basin. The waters of the river are unusually warm for about two and a half miles from the mouth of the river at Seal Beach to between the 2nd and 7th street crossings due to the electrical power plants that line the bank. This warm water is what makes the river attractive to the green sea turtles that frequent it. My wife Pam and I have been watching and recording field notes and images on these turtles since 2008 for the Aquarium of the Pacific and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The following are some hints and anecdotes for watching these urban sea turtles.
- First and foremost all sea turtles in the US are protected by Federal Law under the Endangered Species Act and are not to be harmed or harassed.
- The bike path that parallels the river allows access to the banks of the river. However remember that it is a bike path and should be treated like a city street. For your safety always look both ways before crossing the path and always view the turtles from areas that will not impede bikers.
- We’ve seen sea turtles from the surf area at the mouth of the river at Seal Beach to beyond the 7th street bridge crossing near Cal State Long Beach so anywhere along the first 3 miles of the river has the potential for a turtle sighting.
- The size of the turtles in the river range from dinner plate size to ones with nearly 4-foot long shells.
- This is the Northern most colony of green sea turtles.
- The warm water that is released from the power plants is monitored and treated before entering the river. It has created a favorable environment for these turtles in which to forage.
- Although Olive Ridley and leatherback sea turtles are occasionally seen off the coast of LA/Orange County the only species of sea turtles recorded in the river have been green sea turtles.
- Not all turtles in the river are sea turtles. We’ve also seen fresh water turtles in the river. An easy way to tell them apart is that fresh water turtles swim in a dog paddle like fashion while sea turtles swim more like sea lions using their long fore flippers for propulsion.
- The sea turtles in the river stay underwater on average between 10 to 20 minutes while swimming. When they pop up to breathe you can sometimes see them “spout” water out of their nostrils. You can also hear them spout on a quiet day.
- Although while active they surface every 10 to 20 minutes, a resting turtle can stay underwater for over an hour. Back when the Aquarium of the Pacific once took care of 4 green sea turtles I was always amazed how long they could sleep on the bottom of the exhibit.
- There is a posted speed limit for boaters on the San Gabriel River of 5 mph. Although not specifically in place because of the turtles this helps protect them from being rammed or injured by propellers while in the river.
- The best way to see these turtles is to be higher up on the river bank while wearing polarized sun glasses. This allows you to see them swimming just under the surface. Lower down on the bank you won’t see as far underwater.
To learn more about the research done on these urban sea turtles check out the Aquarium of the Pacific’s lecture archive on the Green Sea Turtles and the San Gabriel River.
To help in the research of these turtles check out the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Citizen Science Project.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Meet Heidi and Anderson, the first chicks born at the June Keyes Penguin Habitat. This is their story, from egg to fully feathered juveniles.
Penguin chicks are one of the most adorable things on the planet! I am so happy and proud that Roxy and Floyd became first-time parents to Heidi and Anderson this past June. Heidi hatched on June 19th, followed by Anderson on the 25th. Heidi was already twice the size of Anderson, and to ensure the best health for both chicks and first-time parents, we made the decision to hand raise little Anderson. While taking care of a baby penguin was a dream come true, it was some of the hardest work I have ever done; and yet some of the most rewarding as well.
Magellanic penguin eggs are laid about 4-7 days apart and take 38-42 days to hatch. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the chicks, and have a specialized brood patch to help keep their eggs and chicks warm. A few days prior to hatching, a penguin’s body starts to slow down their metabolism to prepare for the task of feeding their young. The process of pip to hatch for a penguin takes anywhere from 1 to 3 days. Once the chick has hatched from the egg, it absorbs the rest of the nutrient rich yolk sac by way of an umbilicus (like an umbilical cord, but for birds! This umbilicus actually dries and falls off, similar to our belly button.) for about 2 days. Once the yolk sac is absorbed the chick begins to vocalize to get the attention of mommy and daddy. In fact, the chick has a unique call that immediately alerts their parents, and the more loud and obnoxious the call, the quicker the food seems to be delivered. Now its time for the parents’ real work to begin, since a penguin chick will gain about 10 percent of their body weight for the first 35-40 days of life. The parents are put to work by regurgitating delicious fish barf into their babies bills, taking turns hunting for food, and feeding their new chicks.
Magellanic penguins only breed once a year, and will burrow to make a nest, gathering different types of plant material to line their nests. Our breeding season started around March this year, and was the first one in the June Keyes Penguin Habitat. We gathered palm fronds for our birds to use as nesting material, and when the birds became rather obsessed with it I knew that it was breeding time. At the time we had 4 females to the 9 males on exhibit, so I knew that it was time for the soap opera to begin.
- Avery, Kate and Robbie were always hanging out with one another, but when Avery started gathering palm fronds, only Kate was allowed in that burrow. Well, if she were around that is, in fact if she happened to be taking a swim, Robbie would actually be allowed in that burrow to hang out with his buddy Avery. Kate didn’t let this “fly” for long, and soon Robbie was making his own burrow next door.
- Meanwhile, Floyd had started to work diligently on his burrow, and Roxy was very pleased, she seemed to watch him build this burrow from afar until it was up to her standards.
- Shim claimed a burrow for himself and Whatever, but would only build it at night, at the expense of others. He would steal palm fronds from neighboring burrows!
- Noodles also built a nice nest for Patsy, and they occupied it for quite some time.
The fact that this was our first breeding season, made what the birds were going to somewhat of a surprise, so I took copious notes to help understand what those birds were going to do, and to also help with the many breeding seasons to come.
Floyd and Roxy were first-time parents, and did such an amazing job! They both shared the responsibility of incubating the eggs. Heidi hatched first on June 19th, and six days later Anderson hatched. While we were raising Anderson, Roxy and Floyd did a wonderful job taking turns feeding and keeping Heidi warm. Meanwhile, we were raising Anderson behind the scenes. He would get anywhere from 5-7 feeds from us a day, and while he was such a cute little pipsqueak he made a huge mess! We would make a “smoothie” for him every day that had krill, capelin, herring, and vitamins, then we would warm it up and hand feed him. I had hand-raised some of our Lorikeets before, but this was a new challenge. I had to elicit the feeding response, which meant make a “v” with my hand that would be placed around his bill, just like a penguin parent would to get him to start eating. He ate about 10 percent of his body weight every feed, and we fed him on the scale to ensure an accurate amount was given. Once he started to get stronger, we began to give him some yummy fish parts, and he got stronger every day. He learned my voice before he could see me since penguin chicks keep their eyes closed for the first 2 weeks of life. But I learned his voice from day one, and can still hear it some times in my sleep. I loved being able to watch him grow, and am looking forward to this breeding season, but the amount of work that went into being able to enjoy the cuteness will never be forgotten.
Penguin chicks fledge or leave the nest at about 2 months old, and tend to hang out together in what’s called a creche. Heidi and Anderson got the chance to socialize with one another behind the scenes, where they helped each other learn what being a penguin is like. They had the softest brown down that they lost around day 70, at which point you could start to see the waterproof plumage emerge from underneath. At this time, in their natural habitat the creche is given more independence from their parents, and they begin to explore the ocean, where they learn to catch their own prey. We didn’t have to teach Heidi or Anderson how to swim, and they both picked up on how to preen and splash in the water immediately. At this point, we were hand feeding whole or half capelin and herring, and introducing them to various things such as enrichment and husbandry tools such as the scale we would way them on, and a few fun toys. We gave them a chance to grow up, and they made their debut to the exhibit this past September. They both were a bit big for their britches and attempted to take on the largest birds in the habitat! In fact Heidi goosed Henry’s tail from behind and then took off… do I sense a new love connection?
You may wonder where Anderson got his full name from (we also call him Andy for short). He was actually named by the Molina family at our past annual fundraiser Sea Fare.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
It is not ‘no whale November’ folks, even though we are not in an official whale season; we are still seeing whales and having really exciting trips on our dolphin and sea life cruises! One of the big highlights was a November blue whale! As I was saying in the last blog, you never know what is going to happen with our whale seasons! This blue may have been sticking around for a last minute bite to eat on krill before its journey. We also happened upon a humpback whale, several Risso’s dolphins, an elephant seal and the return of the masked booby bird!
The blue was such a nice surprise as we had not seen one for almost an entire month during our trips. This whale was quite large and covered in diatoms making it seem like it had a yellowish tint to its skin. Diatoms are green algae that grow on the whales’ skin, usually on the ventral side, which gave them the name ‘sulfur bottoms’ back in the whaling days. Blue whales, unlike most of their baleen cousins, rarely have parasites living on their skin, most likely because of their speed. The humpback that was sighted on the 17th was a treat to see since dolphins had been the star of our whale watches for the few days prior. This humpback was near Redondo canyon cruising around and showing us its marvelous fluke.
Even though the boobies were our avian highlight of the year so far, we have been seeing some other beautiful birds that we do not typically see during our trips. The surf scooters have been seen scooting around in groups of several adult males and one adult female. These sea ducks winter in temperate coastal waters but are usually found in lakes during the summer. The adult males are quite colorful with beautiful patterns on their beaks, and at first glance, could almost be mistaken for a type of puffin!
The sunsets have been magical if you are on-board a 3:00 p.m. trip and I was lucky enough to witness my first green flash last week! Common and bottlenose dolphins have been energetically entertaining the guests on the majority of our sea life cruises. Gray whale season officially starts on December 1st and many have already been reported! So give the gift this holiday season of spending quality time with your family enjoying nature, learning something new, and looking for marine life with us!
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
It’s that time of year again, when lots of busy hands work to craft, cut, hammer, glue, and build all sorts of wondrous presents. I’m not talking about elves making toys for children…. It’s time for the enrichment volunteers and staff to make Holiday Treats for our Animals!
Every year we have a holiday festival where we give the animals all sorts of festive and delicious treats. In past Holiday Treats for the Animals weekends, many of you have seen the snow and snowman for the otters), the garlands for the Lorikeets, and the ice wreaths for the seals and sea lions.
However, not many people know all of the work that goes into this weekend of fun! Enrichment interns, volunteers, and staff actually start thinking about treats for the animals back in August, when almost no one is thinking about Christmas (except those few people who have their Christmas shopping done in July…). We start brainstorming new ideas, collecting supplies, and crafting as many of the paper decorations as we can ahead of time (though it’s hard to find a place to store everything).
While edible ice wreaths and snow are already animal safe, when we make paper chains, ornaments, and wrapped “present” enrichments they have to be made with safe materials. This means no staples or tape, so we use flour paper mache to create all of the non-edible enrichments in the exhibits. As you can imagine, this takes a lot of time. Groups of enrichment volunteers and interns began gathering in September to sit around and craft paper ornaments and mache chains. So far, I think I’ve mached about 4 times my own height in recycled paper garlands, but I still have a week left to make more!
Just before the big weekend, we have our own version of the “holiday rush” with dozens of helpers freezing buckets and bins full of colored, fishy ice in holiday shapes and other edible treats. It takes some skill to maneuver in our restaurant-style freezer around all of the carefully packed bins of Holiday Treats.
When it comes to the treats, we definitely make the tried and true enrichments that we know the animals will love, like crab legs, stuffed paper mache “presents,” snow, and fishy ice treats. But we do like to try out new enrichments and hope they will be an exciting surprise for the animals. This year we’re trying out recycled paper snowflakes (you sure get funny looks when you start cutting paper snowflakes in August), wiffle-ball snowmen, and raffia ornaments!
We really hope that you’ll join us this year on December 7th and 8th for Holiday Treats for the Animals. Come check out our hard work and share in the fun as we watch the animals play with their “presents!”
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Brook the sea otter experiences a mirror for the first time.
Brook is considered by most of the staff to be the most beautiful sea otter at the Aquarium of the Pacific. A few us us even think she is the most attractive of her species anywhere in the world. Brook does carry herself with a certain grace and poise that has earned her the nickname of “The Queen” of the exhibit. However this queen up until recently had never gazed upon her own beauty.
As an enrichment toy an unbreakable mirror was introduced to the sea otter exhibit and Brook. While the rest of the otters were kept backstage Brook approached the pile of ice where the mirror was stationed to check out the new toy. When she first saw her image on the mirror she stopped for a moment seemingly puzzled. You could tell she wasn’t quite sure who this new otter was. Otter curiosity then took over and she more closely checked out the mirror. Going nose to nose with her reflected image she figured out the other otter was her. She seemed to enjoy what she saw in the mirror. Her breath would fog up the mirror as she turned her head this way and that watching her mirrored image closely. In my mind she seemed to be saying to herself, “Oh My! I’m Gorgeous!” For a brief moment vanity had visited this stately otter.
Then the practical side of Brook kicked back in and she turned her attention back to her trainer and her training session. After all, beauty isn’t everything.
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