Thursday, January 22, 2015
In the last blog I wrote about the killer whale pod, the CA51’s, being back again on the 6th of January, and guess what? They were back the following day on the 7th! So we had TWO days in a row with these whales and were very, very spoiled naturalists. Great shots from these moments by our photo ID interns are featured with these whales and the killer sunset we had that afternoon. After this sighting, we have not had the pleasure of seeing them since, which is pretty normal for this pod. But you never know, maybe they will make an appearance again! I have been writing about them since November of 2014 when they were first sighted after being absent for most of the year from our coast.
The killer whales have had their days to steal the show but the consistent show stealers have been the multitude of grays we have been seeing! We have still been breaking records this year and according to the American Cetacean Society annual gray whale census we have seen over 868 southbound adult gray whales with 33 calves and already 6 northbounders! During our trips, we have sighted some pretty tiny calves that look like they were born just a few days earlier. Recent studies have suggested that gray whales have been having more and more calves along their migration before they reach Baja, which may be connected with global climate change. These big grays need to find food in colder waters and as of late, they need to spend more time and in some cases, travel further north in order to create that 10 inches of blubber they need in order to make the arduous 12,000 mile journey. The success rate in calves born in the lagoons of Baja is also a lot higher than those born along the way which makes them more vulnerable to predators and the cold. Along with several calves, we have also seen some single adult and juvenile whales exhibiting some playful mating behavior as well. This kind of behavior is really interesting to watch since the whales will roll around each other and show pectoral flippers and their ventral sides. We were lucky enough to get several shots of these moments!
As in earlier blogs, I have been highlighting some of our new and seasoned naturalists as we take a glimpse into their experiences on the whale watches. Eric Yee has been with the Aquarium for almost three years and spends most of his spare time travelling to experience nature and wildlife. This is what he has to say:
” Searching for wildlife has always been a major part of my life. From hot & humid Central America to the cold waters off of the Pacific Northwest, I’ve searched for animals. Being a naturalist at the Aquarium of the Pacific has allowed me to share my passion for wildlife and inspire others to get out there and do the same. Watching our guests see a whale for the first time is a thrill, many just live blocks away from the dock and never knew whales can be seen off their own coastline. Most of us don’t need to travel far to find amazing marine mammals such as gray whales, fin whales and the largest living creature on earth, the blue whale. Some of our guests are from landlocked areas and seeing their expressions when we hit the open ocean is a blast! Sometimes even tears of joy appear when they see a whale. Sharing facts about our ocean and its inhabitants during our whale watch trips is a great hands- on way to educate our guests. “
We are also featuring some great photos from budding photographer and Harbor Breeze deck hand, Erik Combs along with the always fabulous Tim Hammond and our very own Aquarium of the Pacific photo ID interns!
Fin whales, humpbacks and lots of dolphins have also been sighted recently. The weather has been so perfect and so have the sunsets, so come out on an adventure with Eric Yee and the rest of the naturalists on a truly unique wildlife experience!
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Shark Training with Senior Aquarist Nicky and Fern the Zebra Shark
To a lot of people, being in the water with a large healthy shark conjures up the sounds of the JAWS theme in their minds. “Duh Duh, Duh Duh.” However if you’re in the water with Aquarium of the Pacific Senior Aquarist Nicky and Fern the Zebra Shark it’s more likely to bring up the theme from TOY STORY. “You got a friend in me.”
Fern’s training has come a long way since the day Nicky decided to use positive reinforcement to train the large shark to participate in her own health care as a way to reduce the stress of medical examinations. Just like with our sea lions it all began with simple target training with a target pole and food as reinforcement. To read about Fern’s early training click here.
Today it has progressed to the point where Nicky can be in the water with the free swimming shark and perform health exam procedures such as girth measurements and tactile examinations. Nicky can cradle Fern in her arms during these exams and turn her over. When turned over Fern then voluntarily enters a sleep-like state of “tonic immobility”. This allows for a thorough examination with reduced stress for the shark. Who knew you could cuddle a shark?
Check out the video of one of Fern’s training sessions. Aquarium of the Pacific Intern Mackenzie helped shoot the underwater scenes in the video
Thursday, January 08, 2015
It’s getting hard to keep track of all of these killer whale sightings! The majority of them have been the same pod, the CA51’s. There is a good reason that these killers are called ‘the friendly pod’ because though they are incredible stealthy hunters and always seem to catch what they are after, they are very curious and friendly to us human animals. Right after Christmas we had this pod on the 26th of December and then YESTERDAY, January 6, 2015, they were back again! Though I spend a lot of time working on projects and teaching within the walls of the Aquarium, I do get to go out occasionally and train new naturalist staff on the boats. Lucky me, and everyone else on-board, that we got to have one of the best sightings I have ever witnessed on the 12pm whale watch tour. Our Aquarium crew consisted of Maggie, our photo ID intern, and two fellow educators who I was training, Stacy and Megan. We also had whale enthusiast, researcher, and expert on-board, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who follows and researches these particular individual killer whales among other whale species. Captain Chris raced the Triumphant straight to the whales and we even passed two southbound gray whales and a couple groups of pacific white sided dolphins to spend as much time with the CA51s as possible! We made it to them in no time and spent almost 1.5 hours in awe. They had just killed a California sea lion before we got there and they were very active, dodging sea birds who were picking at the carcass, tail lobbing, breaching, kelping (playing in kelp), rolling and playing with the carcass. The guests and the crew were amazed at how close these whales were getting to the boat and other boats around us. They were always doing something different so we all had to keep on our toes because we never knew where they were going to pop up! We even heard some of them vocalizing and saw them blowing bubbles underwater.
Every time I get to spend time with these hunters I am always learning something new about them, especially when there is someone like Alisa on-board giving us information about the individuals. The pod consists of one matriarch (the mom CA51) who’s known as Star and her three offspring, two teenage males Orian and Bumper and one young 4 year old female Comet. The boys are quite larger than mom and were the most antisocial. Mom and youngest daughter, Comet, spent the most time with us celebrating and playing with their kill and swimming and playing around the boat. These whales are primarily found in the Monterey area but have been seen as far North as British Columbia and as far South as Dana Point in Orange County. Since I have seen these whales before and have written about my first hand experience, I wanted to give our naturalists in training, Megan and Stacy, a chance to express what it was like seeing killer whales in their natural environment for the first time;
“In one word, amazing! I could not have felt luckier to be seeing Orcas in their natural habit off Southern California! The weather was gorgeous, and it allowed us to see them clearly not only when they breached, but also in the water. They are without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and majestic animals I have ever seen! ” -Megan
“Seeing those majestic animals in their natural environment for the first time was incredible. I am so fortunate be have been able to watch them and it made my love for the ocean grow so much more.” -Stacy
Along with the killer whale excitement, we have also been having record breaking numbers of south bound gray whales, friendly humpback whales, fin whales and lots of Pacific white sided, common and bottlenose dolphins!
The weather has been fabulous, the ocean has been calm and we have had some phenomenal sightings, so come on out and spend the beginning of 2015 out on a whale of an adventure!
UPDATE! As I write this we JUST saw the CA51 Pod AGAIN! Two days in a row (January 6 and 7) with a gorgeous sunset. This makes seven sightings now since November of 2014!
Tuesday, January 06, 2015
Whales live in a world full of sound. The ocean was a noisy place even before humans started making a ruckus underwater with boat engines, blasting, construction, drilling, and seismic air gun noise; surf smashes against the beach, underwater volcanoes erupt, wind kicks up foamy white-capped waves, fish grunt, shrimp snap, dolphins click and whistle, and the list goes on. In the midst of all this racket, male humpback whales are trying to stage a romantic serenade. They pose half on their heads in the water, swim very, very slowly, and sing. Within a population (population: noun. a group of animals that live in a particular place), each year, every male humpback sings the same song – the 2014 hit single, if you will. The song changes from year to year, and is passed between populations. How did the song travel? Who carried it? Who listened to it? How did it change? Does being exposed to seismic air gun noise affect their singing? What does that teach us about the whales? Answering these questions may help us better protect whales and understand when, where, and how that protection is most needed.
It’s mid-afternoon on the ocean a few kilometers offshore from BRAHSS project headquarters at Peregian Beach. The research vessel Proteus, a small “tinny,” a metal-sided boat, bobs up and down on the waves, held in place by the sea anchor. A scientist sits cross-legged on the boat’s deck, grinning with her eyes closed. Large headphones cover her ears, and she’s holding the end of a long, black cord, no wider than a pencil. Dangling over the side of the boat, the cord terminates in a waterproof black cylinder, only a few inches long. This is a hydrophone (“hydro” meaning water, “phone” meaning sound). It’s recording a singer, an adult male humpback performing his solo, and playing the recording through to the headphones, giving our girl on the deck such a broad grin.
This year’s whale song would not sound like Frank Sinatra to you and I; personally, I think it sounds spooky, both beautiful and sad, with occasional comical squeaks. But it’s just what the female humpback whales are listening for, along with the BRAHSS acousticians (acoustician: noun. a scientist who studies sound). Recordings of whale song are made with the hand-held hydrophones, like the one we’re using today on Proteus, and with hydrophones attached to the big floating buoys, pictured below. Back at headquarters, these recordings will be run through a computer program that turns the song into a picture. This picture is called a spectrogram; it’s essentially the sheet music of whale song. Studying these recordings and images, the acousticians can work out the pattern of the 2014 Australian east coast humpbacks’ song. Next year, if things go as usual, another group of humpbacks will sing this pattern, and the population here will sing a new song, transmitted to them from another ocean.
Back on the deck of Proteus, the scientist wearing the headphones opens her eyes. “It’s getting fainter,” she says. “He’s about to surface.”
Everyone on board, skipper, scientist, deckhand, and research assistant, looks for signs of a whale surfacing. A few long moments pass.
“Blow! Eight o’clock!”
Our singer has swum a fair distance away in those few minutes. Quickly, we reel up the hydrophone, and Proteus motors to the new location, marked by a still patch on the water’s surface. The hydrophone is deployed and we begin recording again. This time we are lucky, and are very close to our singer. He is deep enough that we can’t see him, but his song echoes up through the water, resonating through the metal hull of the boat. We sit in awed silence and listen.
Thursday, January 01, 2015
An Aquarium of the Pacific Volunteer's 2014 Photo Album
As we head into the New Year I thought we’d take a look back in pictures; this is a husbandry volunteer’s 2014.
Working a regular job that can take me cross country on a regular basis really makes me appreciate spending my weekends this past year at the Aquarium of the Pacific. I’ve found that volunteering around critters like pinnipeds, penguins, sharks, and sea otters on Saturdays and participating in the Aquarium’s sea turtle research on Sundays revitalizes my mind and body for the week in my “other” world of tech and business.
Check out some of my favorite Aquarium images from this past year in the photo gallery.
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