Thursday, November 20, 2014
Just when you thought it was safe for apples to go back up onto trees.
The staff at the Aquarium of the Pacific placed apples and pears up onto a favorite perching tree in Lorikeet Forest. To capture the birds feasting upon this cornucopia of hanging fruit I placed an iPhone 6 in time-lapse mode on a tripod facing the tree. The results were amazing to watch. The scenes from this feeding frenzy would make even the sharks in Shark Lagoon nervously laugh.
Check it out below.
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Roughly 23,000 humpback whales are making their annual southbound migration along Australia’s east coast to feeding grounds in the Antarctic. Mother and calf pairs swim south together from the breeding and birthing grounds inside the Great Barrier Reef, escorted by the male humpback whales who are famous for their songs. 93 humans have also gathered in Peregian Beach, preparing for a huge coordinated season of research studying these whales in a project called BRAHSS (Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback Whales to Seismic Surveys).
During the coming weeks, BRAHSS will be asking questions about how humpback whales respond to sound – specifically, what they do when images of what’s under the seafloor are created using something called a seismic array. A seismic array is a set of high-pressure air chambers towed behind a boat. When fired, the array releases powerful sounds. Those sounds travel through the water and down through layers of the seafloor. The sounds bounce off of different layers of material and reflect back toward the surface. Measuring the angles of the reflections creates an image, a map of what may lie under the ocean floor. These seismic sounds are often used in the search for energy resources.
Sound travels differently in water than in air, and whales are highly dependent on sound. We know that humpback whales communicate with each other, although the jury is still out on what they are saying. Males sing songs that change from year to year, and pass from one group to the next, like a hit pop song. All humpbacks, even the non-singing females and calves, make social sounds. There is even evidence to suggest that when the weather is windy and the ocean is noisier, whales might communicate more by leaping clear of the water, slapping back down with their heads, their long flippers, their tails, or, impressively, their entire bodies.
What whales do when humans add sounds to the ocean is a big unknown. It depends a lot on the species of whale, the kind of sound, how loud and how far away the sound is, and how quickly it gets loud. Imagine walking into a noisy room, versus being in a room that slowly gets noisy. Imagine spending a day in a cafe, or five minutes in a rock concert. As people and technology increasingly make noise under the waves, researchers all over the world are designing questions to tackle pieces of the ocean noise pollution puzzle.
Here in eastern Australia, there is a very predictable migration of humpback whales. It has been studied for decades, making this population of whales well-suited for asking new questions. Peregian Beach itself is a good location for studying underwater sounds. The seafloor here is simple and sandy, so sounds travel underwater in a way that’s relatively easy to measure. It lies along a long straight stretch where the whales migrate within sight of the shore. In total, there’s a big population of well-known whales, an area of ocean where sound travels in as simple a manner as can be asked for in nature, a predictable window of time in which the whales appear, and a straight stretch of land from which to watch – it’s the perfect set-up for a huge whale study. The area is tried and true – scientists have been doing whale work here for years, from land and sea. During BRAHSS 2014, an international team of researchers will muster daily to the field to gather the data and analyze it as it comes in, preparing it for study in the months and years to come.
The first week of BRAHSS is all about gearing up. 93 people disembarked from planes and trains, cars and buses. Backpacks were dropped into closets, boats were parked in the streets, and introductions began. Leaping straight into training, we volunteers are getting to know the gear, the data collection, and each other. To the north, humpback whales are swimming their way south toward Peregian Beach.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Humpbacks galore and blues too!
The blue whales have still been making some cameo appearances, with around 40 sightings, even though the season has ended. Though we are seeing a few blues still perusing krill, the show stealers have continued to be the humpback whales! Just in the month of October, we had a total of twenty four humpback whale sightings with lots of exciting humpback behavior like tail lobbing and breaching. Just this past weekend we had a juvenile humpback breach right in front of the boat, twice! This trip got even better when I got to see my first hammerhead shark swimming right at the surface! I can’t even remember the last time we had that many humpback sightings in one month, and even shark sightings for that matter as mentioned in the last blog. We will see humpbacks throughout the year and many people onboard reminisce with me their experiences with these whales in Alaska or Hawaii. According to NOAA Fisheries, the most up-to-date count of the ‘stock’ of humpbacks that migrate between Alaska and Hawaii is about 5,833. Our local humpbacks that can be seen off the coast of California, Mexico, and Costa Rica are estimated to be around 2,000 strong. Not many people know that you don’t have to travel far to enjoy these acrobatic whales!
Another star of our whale watches have been the pods of Pacific white sided dolphins, also referred to as lags. These little toothed whales are seasonal and we usually start seeing them around the fall. They travel from the North Pacific to areas off of our coast throughout the winter and the spring. They are very energetic and quite beautifully patterned with their grey, black, and white painted skin. They love to porpoise in the wake of the boat and bow ride as well. Their dorsal fin is uniquely shaped compared to other toothed whales we can find in our area, and are very wide and falcate.
Most of the amazing photos that are showcased in this week’s blog were taken by yet another new photo ID intern, Jennifer Huynh! She is the third member of the new intern party, including Aurielle Modster and Maggie Snelgrove, who were mentioned in last two blogs. They have been working hard to take photos of the whales and dolphins and process them in order to identify these individuals and even match some from previous years. Some other great photos in this weeks blog were taken by Erik Combs, one of the whale watch deck hands for Harbor Breeze.
Our regulars, the bottlenose and common dolphins, have also been sighted almost daily. If you would like to come and check out our amazing wildlife that our local waters have to offer, come on out and have an adventure with us and meet our naturalists and photo ID interns too!
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Otter Party Days at the Aquarium of the Pacific are here! For the past several Saturdays, the mammal staff have been turning one of the public otter training sessions into an otter enjoyment session. Enjoyment for the otters and enjoyment for the Aquarium guests watching. Using piles of ice and treat-filled toys the sea otters of the Aquarium of the Pacific are given a frozen enrichment landscape in which to party in. And they do party!
The ingredients for a successful Otter Party Day are:
- One to three piles of ice. Preferably the highest pile being under the skylight where the beam of sunlight shines on the ice and sea otters like a scene from a Disney or DreamWorks Animation movie.
- A children’s playground play set for the otters to crawl over and through.
- Restaurant quality clams and shrimp buried in the ice piles or scattered about.
- Pre-frozen or freshly made otter ice toys.
- A good amount of enthusiastic guests watching.
Finally add half a dozen otterly cute and playful southern sea otters and you’re ready to party down Enhydra lutris-style! Many of the otters will take their frozen treat-filled toys to the viewing window. There they will bang the plastic toys against the glass inches from the faces of smiling guests to get to the treats inside. A natural otter behavior that they also use with shellfish. It’s pretty fun to watch. Our mammalogists do this randomly throughout the week so the otters get a special surprise enrichment session.
Check out the time-lapse video of our sea otters enjoying their playtime.
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!!!
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