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!
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Ellie, a vision-impaired harbor seal, really impressed me during a recent training session at the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Years ago I had trained Ellie to retrieve using her whiskers instead of her diminishing eyesight to locate her retrieval object. Harbor seal whiskers are very sensitive. The wavelets from an object thrown into the water produce a target for her whiskers to hone in on. For a look at how and why I trained her to do “blind” retrievals check out this blog from a few years ago.
During this particular training session the ball she was supposed to retrieve got sucked into the trough of the exhibit’s skimmer. The skimmer takes in surface water and sends it through filters for cleaning before it is recycled back into the exhibit. I’ve seen sea lions give up on retrievals in this same situation when a ball gets into the turbulent waters of the skimmer trough. You would think that with her disability retrieving the ball was now a lost cause. But Ellie is a tenacious and intelligent little seal.
Ellie first found the ball using her whiskers. She then lifted her chin up on top of the ball to roll it back out from the walls of the skimmer. Not an easy task as she had to roll it out in-between the surges of water and over the edge of the trough. It took about three cycles of surges before she finally had the ball in calmer waters. She then nosed the ball around with sort of a muzzle backhand. This got the ball to a point she could then push it towards me.
I was constantly talking to her to give her encouragement and also an audio target to home in on. Following my voice she brought the ball back to me.
Ellie loves doing retrievals and it warmed my heart to watch her put so much effort into overcoming this obstacle to bring this ball back. I think she was actually having fun with the challenge of this retrieval. This is why I once nicknamed Ellie the seal with abilities beyond her disabilities. She doesn’t let a perceived disability keep her from enjoying life. I find her quite inspirational.
Thursday, March 05, 2015
Like I have been mentioning in the last few blogs, we are counting more southbound whales than ever which raises the question; why? Are there actually greater numbers heading south or are we just seeing greater numbers off the coast during the annual gray whale census?
Many have speculated that the migration path may be changing over time, not that there are more whales per capita. Within the last few years, we have been seeing the whales coming earlier and earlier past our coast. But even though some of the whales are leaving earlier, many calves are still born along the way. If a gray whale cow has her calf too early, it could succumb to the cold water or exhaustion from the journey ahead. This also puts extra pressure on the cow as she will not only need to get her newborn to Mexico safely, but also nurse throughout the journey as well. This puts extra stress on both parties in an already stressful environment.
So is their migration route and pattern changing? According to Alisa Schulman-Janiger with the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, there is still not enough data to have any solid conclusion on what is really happening. There are three routes that these whales usually take; the coastal, between channel, and outer channel routes. Because anyone counting these whales is usually shore-bound, we only have the resources to count the whales that are nearest to the shore. Alisa also mentioned that there are probably a myriad of factors to consider when researching their migration including arctic food availability. Basically, there is probably no one easy answer.
At this point in gray whale research there is no way of telling if there are more whales total, more whales headed south, or whales just changing their migration routes. According to the census, we are now at 1,854 southbound grays. This count includes 49 calves born before having reached Mexican waters. These numbers are just adding to this already record breaking southbound migration.
When doing my own investigation, it seems that previous years have had anywhere between 3-60 southbound calves with a peak of 106 between 1997 and 1998. The last few years, though, have had far fewer southbound calves by this point in the migration. I am very interested to see how many northbound calves we see this year in comparison to previous years. This would mean that those calves, no matter when they were born during the migration, have successfully made it almost halfway back to Alaska.
Helping to collect vital data about these whales and their path, along with the census, are our new whale photo ID interns! I wanted to introduce another one of the three interns, Kristin! Kristin is originally from New York and one of her proudest accomplishments is winning the ‘Whale Expert Award’ in second grade. Growing up near the ocean gave her a deep love and appreciation for marine life and conservation efforts. She studied film and photography at Ithaca College and hopes to one day work on marine life documentaries. She stated that “We’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the life in our oceans, and the more we know the better we can protect our planet’s amazing marine environments.” We are also featuring her photography talents in this week’s blog, so check out her shots!
Of course, we are still seeing tons of dolphins and other species of whales and we are excited to start seeing our northbound mother and baby whales! So come on out on an adventure while we are still having our sunny California winter. Hopefully we see you this winter or spring on a boat adventure!
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Preparing the Sea Otter's Daily Diet
When our Aquarium of the Pacific education staff mentions that our sea otters are given restaurant quality food what they mean is that the clams, squid, shrimp and other otter delicacies are of the same high quality that you would find at any good human restaurant. What they may not mention is that the preparation of the otter feast is also of the same high quality of the finest sea food restaurant chef. At least I feel that way when I prepare the otter’s daily diet during my weekly volunteer shift.
Check out the time-lapse video of the sea otter’s daily diet being prepared by yours truly and of a sea otter enjoying being served this fine meal. A feast fit for a king! Or in this video Charlie the sea otter.
Taking care of these endangered orphans is expensive. It costs the Aquarium several tens of thousands of dollars a year per otter to feed them. Your visits to the Aquarium of the Pacific, memberships, adopting a sea otter in our Adopt an Animal program and your generous donations help pay for the care of these wonderful critters. For the sea otters, I’d like to thank you for your support.
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