Thursday, April 16, 2015
You may have read in the local news that we recently had a deceased fin whale wash ashore near the port of LA in San Pedro on Friday, April 10th. With the response from the NOAA West Coast Stranding Network and some initial observations, it looks like the whale died from blunt force trauma and suffered internal injuries. The researchers concluded that this was the result of a ship strike and the whale may have been struck, and then dragged into the harbor. The whale was on the shore near the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium where it was recently being necropsied, a kind of animal ‘autopsy’, and studied.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time this has happened. One of the major reasons is the close proximity between the ports, the shipping lanes, and the animals’ feeding areas; the urban ocean. Because these incidents are not just happening in our own backyard (four blue whales were killed in the Santa Barbara channel back in 2007, and five more whales in 2010), researchers have come together to study these ship strikes. This is where the Aquarium of the Pacific comes into the picture! We have collaboration with Cascadia Research Collective which is where all of our photo processing, GPS coordinates and behavior data the whale photo ID interns collect all year round goes. With these data and other data collected by researchers, it was proposed to move the shipping lanes away from the trajectory of the whales back in June 2013. One of the leading Cascadia Researchers that we work with, John Calambokidis, thinks this is a good first step in saving these endangered whales. Though these ship strikes make our hearts ache, there is good coming from it: we can study large baleen whales more closely and tissue samples may help us correlate their health and our local ocean’ health, more awareness is made for these whales, and more cases are reported for the potential movement of more shipping lanes.
Locally, the whales that are reported to be struck the most are fin whales. Fin whales are found year round off of our coast and will often be feeding on krill and small fish near the shipping lanes, and other deep water area, during our whale watch trips. We have actually been seeing tons of them! I was lucky enough to be out on the boat a few days ago while the fin whales were feeding among other marine animals. When we spot these frenzies from afar, we first see LOTS of splashing from marine birds ‘dive bombing’ for the fish, then we usually see small dorsal fins of dolphins, brown bodies of sea lions, and sometimes even sharks and whales feeding all in the same place!
Along with the fin whales, we have been seeing a lot of northbound gray whales with new calves in tow! We have also been seeing humpback whales, a few more blues, and lots of dolphins! We have some great photos featured this week by the always talented Harbor Breeze staff, Tim Hammond and Erik Combs, along with our Aquarium photo ID interns. We would love to have you on board if it is your first time, or your tenth, so come on out and have an adventure with us out on the ocean blue!
Thursday, April 09, 2015
Maggie the Sea Otter's Unique Talent
Amongst all the sea otters at the Aquarium of the Pacific Maggie has a unique talent. She has learned how to take cups and stack them together. These cups are of progressively larger diameter which allows them to be stacked into each other. It’s the same type of toy that human kids play with.
For an otter however it takes a little more effort to master than for a human youngster. For one thing otters don’t have opposable thumbs so it’s harder for them to maneuver the cups around. Try stacking your kitchen cups together wearing a thick pair of winter mittens and using your belly as a table while floating on your back in the water. Not that easy.
Maggie however, like all otters, has a trait that helps her stack cups. She is extremely persistent when it comes to trial and error. If the cup doesn’t fit one way she’ll keep trying different approaches until it does fit. Kind of a nice trait to have. The cups act as an enrichment device as it stimulates an otter’s basic instincts for problem solving.
Check out the video below of Maggie stacking cups during a recent training session. Caution. It’s kind of cute and you might want to watch it over and over again.
Thursday, April 02, 2015
According to local whale watchers our first confirmed blue whale was sighted last week a few miles off of the Mission Bay area in San Diego! Since then the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project at Point Vicente spotted one as well on March 26th! The next day, we were lucky enough to encounter our first blue whale sighting during our gray whale watches! When we all heard the news we got super excited and we hope that this means we are going to have a good blue whale-filled summer. Usually, we will see blues as early as February coming in to ‘scout’ for krill and see what the goods are like off of our coast. I hope they report back to the others that we have plenty! UPDATE: Our most recent sightings of a blue whale was just on April 2nd!
This season is still pretty up in the air since we are officially in a NOAA certified El Niño. During an El Niño season, our water temperatures warm and the bottom of the food chain species move to colder waters and their predators follow. This is also true for whale species since they do feed on smaller prey items. Blue whales exclusively eat krill off of our coast, which are usually in abundance here during the summer upwelling and prefer colder water. Basically, we don’t know what the blue season is going to be like and this will be very interesting for me since it is one of the first El Niño seasons I will be experiencing since I have been working on the boats. I am very interested to see how it is going to pan out.
We are still seeing lots of grays! Just a few south-bounders are still trickling in and our total southbound count according to the American Cetacean Society Gray Whale Census is now 1895; still at an all-time high. North bounders have been going super strong with 1,413 already and 16 calves! Note that this census breaks the northbound and southbound into two different groups though some of those individuals could be the same since the whales are making a roundtrip migration. We have some photos of our gray whale encounters from the last few weeks along with the other wildlife we have been seeing from our photo ID interns, Tim Hammond, and Eric Combs!
The gray whales are still going strong and with the excitement of the first blue whales, humpbacks, fin whales, minke whales, and of course tons of dolphins, now is a great time to come out! So, if you are looking for a perfect way to spend your spring break with friends and family, look no further. We have the most amazing wildlife right off of our coast and they are very accessible! Join us on a whale watch or a harbor cruise to enjoy the sunshine and the time off from school or work!
Thursday, March 26, 2015
A Hugh Haiku:
“Grand Shark in my Arms. You’re more Disney than Shark Week Sharks are Friends not Foes.”
It was an offer I could not refuse. Senior Aquarist Nicky asked if I wanted to participate in a training session in the water with Fern, a large Zebra shark. Oh course I said yes and donned a wet suit.
As I waded around chest deep in Shark Lagoon the first thing I noticed was a large shark fin slicing through the surface of the water towards me. Before I started volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific a sight like this would have elicited primal fear responses in my body and a nervous rendition of the “Jaws” theme in my mind. “Duun dun. Duun dun. Dun dun dun dun…..!” Now it just brings a smile to my face. I knew it was Fern coming over to check us out.
Just like with sea otters and sea lions, positive reinforcement training had made this large Zebra shark a willing participant in husbandry behaviors like the one she and I were about to perform together. A tactile session. Or as I like to refer to it, Hug-a-Shark.
At first Fern swam around our legs in figure 8s like an affectionate cat looking for attention. Nicky then brought Fern to the surface and had me hold her. Soon after I had her cradled in my arms Nicky gave Fern her food reinforcement. This positive reinforcement built up the idea in Fern’s mind that good things will happen when people hold you.
The first thing I noticed while holding her was the characteristics of her skin. When I ran my fingers from front to back the skin felt smooth but when I ran my fingers from back to front it felt like an emery board. Shark skin is covered by layers of dermal denticles which are more like tiny teeth than fish scales. They all face the same way thus one direction feels smooth while the other feels like sand paper. To me shark skin felt a lot different than the slick cetacean skin that I had prior experience with during my dolphin and whale rescue days years ago. Compared to dolphin’s skin, shark skin felt almost armored-like.
Fern was surprisingly calm while I held her. Nicky had trained her well. After a bit we turned her over onto her back. These behaviors were trained so that the Aquarium staff could get a good close look at her body during veterinary exams. It actually seemed like Fern was taking a snooze while we had her upside down. At this point I was thinking she reminded more of Sherman from the comic Sherman’s Lagoon than JAWS.
Even though I had known Fern since the early days of the Aquarium of the Pacific and had even hand fed her back in the days when the mammal staff regularly helped out the aquarist staff with their duties, this was the first time I had ever held her in my arms. And she’s a lot larger now than 15 years ago! I love the fact that Fern’s training dispels many of the web and television stereotypes of sharks being just mindless killing machines. Me being in the water holding her so close is proof enough.
You never know what kind of experiences you’ll have as a volunteer at the Aquarium of the Pacific. I can now add shark hugging to the list.
A couple more Hugh Haikus:
Memorable day. I hugged a great gentle shark. Love volunteering!
Thursday, March 19, 2015
There has been a lot of commotion in the local world of whales since the sighting of the false killer whales! On March 11, there was a report of false killer whales, or Psuedorca, in the area near Redondo Beach. The gray whale census at Pt. Vicente, along with the local whale watch companies in Redondo, headed out to catch up with them. There was a reported 40 plus false killer whales, breaking off into smaller groups, who were feeding on very large white sea bass. Those who were able to find them got some great shots and some even got some underwater footage! The people who were lucky enough to get this footage were nice enough to share it with us, so big thanks to Eric Martrin and Newsflare! The underwater footage shows them blowing ring bubbles and ‘dancing’ underwater. Unfortunately, our boats were not able to reach them, but we were very excited to have them in the area. This is a pretty rare sighting and we are still keeping our eyes and ears open in case they return.
Psuedorca are large dolphins that can reach lengths of up to 15 plus feet, weigh around 1,500 pounds, and are dark in coloration with a large round melon instead of a beak. They almost look like a small pilot whale. They usually range in deep, temperate to tropical waters and are highly studied and sighted around the Hawaiian Islands where large pods are found.
In gray whale news, we have been continuing to see high southbound migration numbers. According to the census numbers are up to 1,884! On our trips, we have finally begun to see a bunch of northbounders heading back up to their feeding grounds in Alaska. I am sure they are eager to get back up there to EAT! So far, the census has counted over 1,000 heading north. I was fortunate enough to be on the last few whale watches and just on ONE trip we saw seven grays, all headed north. We even had one breach right in front of the boat several times! We have some great shots of that one shared above.
Of course, it would not be a complete blog if I did not introduce our third new photo ID intern, Ami! Ami was born and raised in Chandler, Arizona and moved to Long Beach in 2008 to attend CSULB. She graduated in 2014 with BA in Environmental Science & Policy with half of a degree in Marine Biology. She really has had a passion for the ocean and marine mammals for as long as she could remember and her dream job would be to rescue/rehab/disentangle marine mammals. She is also a manager in training at In-n-Out Burger (YUM!) and has been with the company for ten years. Ami has had her eye on this internship since before moving to Long Beach and mentioned that “I am extremely grateful and blessed to be working with an amazing team!” We are so glad to have all of our photo ID interns on our team and they are such a great addition to our whale watch programs, as guests get to see science in action while the interns are photographing and collecting data during the majority of our trips. We have some great shots by Ami that are also featured in this week’s blog, so check them out! We are also featuring, as always, the photography skills of Tim Hammond and Erik Combs of Harbor Breeze.
The weather has continued to stay warm this winter and I am sure we will have a lovely beginning of spring as well, so if you are looking for something to do during spring break or the upcoming holiday weekend, come on out and see these large animals in their natural habitat!
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