Book Review: Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

“Manatee Rescue” by Nicola Davies (Candlewick Press, 2015) is a middle grade (grades 4-8) children’s book about a rescued baby manatee in the Amazon. In the backmatter, we find out that this book is based on a true-life story.

There are three types of manatees, the West Indian, African and Amazonian. This book is about the ones that live along the Amazon River in South America.

The protagonist is Manuela. She grows up in a culture where killing manatees is a status symbol. She looks forward to the day when she can kill one alongside her father Silvio. Manuela and Silvio succeed in killing a mother manatee, but nothing prepares Manuela for the instant bond she feels for the manatee calf. She secretly vows to raise the calf and return it to the wild.

Manuela and her father take the two-month-old calf home, and Silvio sells the calf as a pet despite Manuela’s protests. Later that night, Manuela and her friend Libia steal the calf and bring it to Granny Raffy’s. Raffy often rehabilitates wild animals.

At Raffy’s, the two girls learn to take care of the calf, from nursing him to cleaning out his pond. Manuela bonds with the calf, who prefers her feeding him his bottle full of milk.

The two girls make a list of things to do, the most important ones (and seemingly impossible) being getting the villagers to care about and never hunt manatees again.

Without giving away the rest of the story away, I will say this book has a happy ending, both fictionally and in real-life.
The backmatter is informative not only about the manatees themselves, but also about the relationship between the natives and the manatees.

Although meant for kids, I think conservation-minded and animal-loving adults will enjoy this quick read (105 pages). It’s a perfect introduction to manatees and community-based conservation for all ages.

10 Fascinating Facts About Manatees

Manatee underwater with algae photo courtesy VisualHunt.com

Manatee photo courtesy VisualHunt.com

10 Fascinating Facts About Manatees

1. Manatees, despite being called “sea cows” are related to elephants!

2. Besides weighing a lot (1000 pounds or 454 kilograms, more or less), both elephants and manatees have fingernails.

3. Manatees like warm water (like off Florida, USA) and will migrate up river to warm springs and the outfall of power plants in winter.

4. Manatee calves nurse under their mother’s flippers and will stay with them for 1-2 years.

5. Manatees can grow up to 12 feet (3.7 meters).

6. Manatees are herbivores and eat sea grass and other water plants.

7. Manatees continually grow teeth throughout life since they wear them down chewing on plants.

8. There are 3 types of manatees-Amazonian, West Indian, and West African.

9. Manatees have prehensile (can grasp) upper lips which they use to get food and to eat.

10. Manatees can graze for up to 7 hours a day because adults eat 10-15% of their body weight a day!

Book Review: Tilikum’s Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell

Tilikum's Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell

Tilikum’s Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell


Tilikum’s Dream (Eifrig Publishing, 2015) is a rhyming children’s book about Tilikum, a killer whale, who recently died (January 6, 2017) in his concrete pool of 21 years at Sea World. It is written by Tracey Lynn Coryell and illustrated by Shelley Marie Overton. I liked Tilikum’s Dream because it is beautifully illustrated and the sparse rhyming prose lends well to the music recording that can be downloaded. It has a strong anti-captivity message not just for killer whales, but for all marine mammals chained for life in captivity. It has a happy ending, unlike the real Tilikum who died never tasting the ocean from which he was born. The short text lends this book towards young school-age children who probably have visited a zoo or aquarium and can imagine Tilikum’s predicament. Proceeds of this book will benefit Blue Freedom, an international non-profit founded by a teenager concerned with Tilikum’s and captive killer whales’ welfare. They have created a film titled “Voiceless,” which is available free on YouTube.

Background on Tilikum:
Tilikum was taken from the icy waters off of Iceland when he was approximately 2 years old. Ever since then he has been in captivity, first at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. It was there that he killed his first human with the help of two female killer whales. In 1991 Tilikum was sold to Sea World, where he has been ever since. He killed two more people there, including his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. He then became primarily a sperm donor, his genes in 56% of the killer whales in captivity at Sea World. He was the largest orca in captivity at 22 feet long and 12,500 pounds. May he RIP.

To read Tilikum’s Dream for free (one book a month for free!) click here

Moana Movie Review-Is it Appropriate for Young Children?

Moana and Maui photo by Disney

Moana and Maui photo by Disney

“Moana” is a coming-of-age story of a girl from a South Pacific island called Motunui. She is the daughter of her village’s chief. She is chosen by the ocean (and guided by her grandmother) to return the green stone heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess. One thousand years ago the demi-god Maui stole the heart, which gives birth to life itself, for his people but instead spread darkness. The island goddess becomes a lava monster. It is up to the modern-day Maui and Moana to return the stone heart after the fish disappear from her island, and coconuts are found spoiled.

My 7-year-old daughter and I both enjoyed “Moana,” though she didn’t like the scenes with the lava monster, which looks like it belongs in Middle Earth (the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings world). As a marine biologist I was disappointed that there were not more marine animals depicted in the movie. I was very happy that one of my favorite animals, the manta ray, has a prominent role.

Moana’s sidekicks are decidedly terrestrial, a piglet and a dumb but comical rooster. It’s true that the open ocean is often called a “biological desert,” but it would have been nice if Disney could have celebrated the diverse life that does live in the ocean. I was hopeful after the scene with a toddler Moana in which she helps a baby sea turtle make it to the ocean, and she looks into the ocean, which parts like an aquarium for her. I was happy though to see South Pacific culture celebrated with song and homages to their wayfaring ancestors. And there is no prince in the movie for Moana to chase after, a first for a Disney “princess” movie.

Disney does show the power of the ocean, from thunderstorms creating big waves that overwhelm Moana’s boat, to Moana being thrown into the ocean deliberately and by accident. A good portion of the movie (at least half?) is just Maui, Moana and the rooster Heihei on Moana’s boat. I would not recommend this movie to toddlers, as during solo songs and other dialogue-driven scenes, the toddler behind me would kick more and his younger brother would cry. There aren’t any unnecessary scenes, it’s just that there is a lull at times.

I was surprised that the relationship between Maui and Moana isn’t more cordial initially, but the story grows in intensity as their relationship becomes stronger and friendly.

I didn’t especially like the scene in which Moana and Maui go to the realm of (unrealistic at least) monsters and steal back Maui’s magical fish hook. The fish hook is pivotal to the story, as it allows Maui to transform into different animals to fight the lava monster. The hermit crab is strange, and I didn’t really hear the lyrics as I was worried about our heroes getting the fish hook. The monsters aren’t realistic with their neon colors and fantastical design, but could still scare young children.

In short, I enjoyed “Moana” and would recommend it to any Disney movie fan. Ocean lovers will appreciate the reverence shown to the ocean. Just don’t expect “The Little Mermaid” when it comes to animals. Almost all of the action occurs on the water, not below.

What did you think of Moana?

Hammerhead Sharks at Cocos Island

Hammerhead Sharks, Cocos Island Photo by Edwar Herreno, Undersea Hunter

School of Hammerhead Sharks, Cocos Island Photo by Edwar Herreno, Undersea Hunter

Ah, it feels great to swim around in a school of Hammerhead Sharks. My name is Sam. Here at Cocos Island, off of the shore of Costa Rica, I can roam free with hundreds of other hammerhead sharks. I used to swim in schools of thousands of hammerhead sharks before the humans came. In other areas of the oceans, populations of all types of sharks have been decimated.

Unfortunately, fishermen target sharks for their fins. Ouch, I need my fins to steer and swim, thank you very much. The shark fins are used in a soup served in many Asian countries, mainly China.

Fortunately, there are shark fin bans around the globe. The United States for instance, has 11 states and 3 territories that ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. Recently, on June 23, 2016 a bill called the Shark Fin Elimination Act of 2016 (S.3095/H.R. 5584) began its call to action in the United States Congress. This bill would ban the selling of shark fins across the entire United States. Stay tuned for updates!

Another reason for hope is Marine Protected Areas or MPA’s. There are over 6,500 MPA’s around the globe that fully or partially protect the flora and fauna that live there. These MPA’s make up less than 2 percent of all the world’s oceans though. Humans can do better than that! In contrast, up to 15 percent of land is protected.

Animals such as giant manta rays and whale sharks sometimes come to Cocos Island. They are protected while here, but once they swim into international waters, they are fair game for fishermen. That’s why it’s so important that scientists tag these migrant animals and see where they go. For instance, it isn’t known where female whale sharks give birth. Once humans find out, it will be important to protect the whale sharks’ pupping grounds.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my lesson today-please come visit me and my friends someday! Cocos Island is one of the best SCUBA diving sites in the world!

Finding Dory Movie Review by a Marine Biologist

Dory from Finding Dory picture by: Disney/Pixar

Dory from Finding Dory picture by: Disney/Pixar

Finding Dory was an immensely enjoyable movie, exactly what I expected from a Pixar/Disney movie. The short animated film shown before the movie, “Piper,” (about a baby shorebird) is worth the price of admission alone! Don’t miss it!

I genuinely laughed and I went through a full range of emotions, from sadness all the way to I’m so happy that I’m crying! The movie takes place at the fictional Marine Life Institute in the not-so-fictional Morro Bay, California.

My only scientific beef with the movie is that the waters of California are a frigid 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Dory, Nemo and Marlin live in a tropical coral reef where the seawater is a warm 70’s-80’s degrees Fahrenheit. The gang couldn’t survive the cold waters off of California. Bailey the Beluga Whale is from the Arctic Ocean so he could survive, but Destiny the Whale Shark needs warmer waters (up to 30 degrees North and South for you geography buffs).

The movie starts with Dory as a youngster, doe-eyed and voiced by a child (not Ellen DeGeneres yet). Dory’s parents treat her short-term memory loss as a disability, a parallel that many human parents will identify with. It isn’t until later flashbacks (yes, Dory will remember some events!) that we see how she and her parents were separated.

The whole movie rests on one memory of Dory’s of “The Jewel of Morro Bay,” which turns out to be the Marine Life Institute. MLI rehabilitates marine animals for eventual release. We have the documentary “Blackfish” to thank for that, as originally the MLI was just an aquarium (that doesn’t release animals).

Ellen DeGeneres does a fabulous job of keeping the audience entertained while keeping you involved in the story. One note if taking young children, my 6 year old was frightened by the squid chase when Dory, Marlin and Nemo first arrive in Morro Bay. She enjoyed the rest of the movie though.

Hank the cranky octopus was animated amazingly, even if his camouflaging abilities were a bit exaggerated for the real world (not out of place in their animation world though).

My new favorite character is Destiny. I didn’t like how she had poor eyesight (anyone who has snorkeled with whale sharks knows that they can turn on a dime in order to avoid swimming into you!) But she won me over anyways with her warm personality.

They didn’t say Bailey’s, the beluga whale, name enough so moviegoers may forget it. The ending is far fetched, but should satisfy most audiences, especially those into animal rights.

I highly recommend Finding Dory. It was well worth the wait, and it will delight fans of Finding Nemo. It can stand alone for those who have not seen Finding Nemo, like young children.

Last note, stay until the very end of the credits for a treat. Hint, we’ve seen them before, somewhere…

Humpback Whales Exhibit Altruistic Behavior Towards Other Animal Species

Hunter the Humpback Whale photo by: NOAA Dr. Louis M. Herman

Hunter the Humpback Whale photo by: NOAA Dr. Louis M. Herman


My name is Hunter, and I’m a Humpback Whale. One day I was feeding on krill in Antarctica. I noticed a pod of Orcas on the hunt. They had a poor Weddell Seal trapped on an ice floe. All they had to do was tip the ice floe over and they would have dinner. I felt sorry for the seal, and decided follow my heart and intervene. I am almost 50 feet long and weigh almost 80,000 pounds so I have a distinct size advantage over the orcas. Orcas rarely get over 30 feet long.

The orcas splashed around the ice floe and got it moving back and forth like a teeter-totter. The moment the seal was about to hit the water, I came up underneath him, my belly up. I lifted the grateful seal out of the water. He was a slippery fellow, and I used my long pectoral fins to push the seal back onto my belly every time he slid down. Sure enough, the orcas lost interest and I released the seal into the ocean. He swam off to the safety of another ice floe.

Humans have witnessed and documented over a 100 times around the globe us humpback whales exhibiting this altruistic behavior. We have saved gray whale calves, California sea lions, harbor seals, and Mola mola (sunfish).

It’s just a few moments out of our lives to save an otherwise hapless animal from certain death. As an adult, my safety isn’t at stake. So I help when I can!

This blog post was inspired by this article “Humpback Whales Around the Globe Are Mysteriously Rescuing Animals From Orcas”

Guest Post-Bob Gorman and Reef Rescue: Five Things You Can Do to Protect Coral Reefs

coral reef and fish

Coral Reef and Fish photo by Greg Goebel via Flickr

Most people think that there isn’t much you can do about what is happening in the environment. After all, you are just one person. Although you would like to help, what could you possibly do that governments and big companies aren’t doing? There are actions you can take to help the plight of coral reefs. Here are five suggestions.

1. Educate yourself about coral reefs

You can’t do much about the problem of disappearing coral reefs if you don’t know what is going on. Educate yourself about them. Organizations not only serve as an information source, but can direct you in ways you can help (see #3).

2. Take the first step

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Don’t litter or dump chemicals down the drain. Those things find their way to the oceans, streams and lakes. Coral reef damage includes direct human contact, excessive soil runoff, sewage dumping, illegal fishing practices (such as using cyanide and blasting), and fertilizer runoff.

3. Volunteer

Make a huge difference by becoming a volunteer with any coral reef organization. Take part in beach clean-ups or spread the word about coral reef degradation.

Reach out to your legislators who can enact laws that will not only protect coral reefs, but also expand marine protected areas. You can even help away from home-by helping the Great Barrier Reef remotely

4. Enact change

A powerful step towards helping preserve the coral reefs is to encourage change. For example, if you have heard about a company that is dumping chemicals into the ocean and is affecting coral reefs, you can encourage them to stop. If they refuse, make it a point to stop purchasing their products and services, and encourage others to do the same.

5. Do it now!

There is nothing stopping a good idea whose time has come. The time to take action in saving coral reefs is now. It doesn’t even mean that you have to give a lot of money. What is important is that you start!

Meet Cooper the Copepod & Learn About Microplastics

copepods & microplastics

Meet Cooper the Copepod to learn more about microplastics photo by Uwe Kils Wikimedia Commons

Hi! I’m Cooper the Copepod. What is a Copepod? Well, I am a tiny animal that is part of the plankton. Plankton are the microscopic plants and animals that make up the base of the food chain in the ocean. I have a teardrop-shaped body and long curved antennae.

I am the fastest and strongest jumper on the planet, even faster than jumping land animals like kangaroos! But while I am only 1-2 millimeters long, I reach speeds of 2-4 miles per hour (3-6.4 km/hr) while jumping. The equivalent in a human would be a 5 foot 8 inch person going a whopping 3,800 mph while jumping! (livescience’s article flea-sized creatures are the fastest jumpers)

I’m here today not to impress you with my stats, but to talk to you about garbage in our oceans, specifically microplastics. Plastic pollution in our oceans is a big deal. 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans each year. You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, one of many garbage patches in our oceans. They are mainly made up of plastic waste such as soda bottles, bottlecaps, plastic flatware, plastic grocery bags, and discarded plastic fishing nets.

But more important and insidious are the microplastics. These plastic particles are less than 5 mm in size. They include microbeads from beauty products (like exfoliants for your skin), microfibers from washing synthetic clothing (polyester and nylon microfibers are not caught by lint traps nor at the filters in sewage treatment plants) and plastic fragments worn down from larger plastic products.

To tiny critters like me, the microplastic looks good enough to eat, and we do that when come across it. Animals larger than us such as fish eat us, and so on up the food chain until we get to predators such as sharks, tuna, sea turtles and humans. Did you know you contain several pounds of plastic in your body?

Up to 8 trillion microbeads enter the waterways of the United States everyday (CNN Obama bans microbeads). But fortunately in December 2015 the U.S. outlawed the use of microbeads in health and beauty products by 2017!

There is still the matter of other micro and macro plastics in the ocean—the best way to take care of them is to reduce the amount of plastic now entering our oceans. For the sake of me and my neighbors, please recycle plastics! Also take part in beach cleanups or even just clean up in your neighborhood—as Gill said in Finding Nemo, “All drains lead to the ocean, kid.”

The Real Animals (and Fish!) of Finding Dory



Finding Dory came out until June 17, 2016. The following was a sneak preview with some corrections now that the movie is out.

Dory is back! Her Mom’s name is Jenny and her Dad’s name is Charlie. She is a Yellow Tail Blue Tang or Blue Hippo Tang or Pacific Blue Tang or Palette Surgeonfish.

Marlin and Nemo are back too! They are Ocellaris or False Percula Clownfish or Clown Anemonefish.

Crush and Squirt are back also! They are Green Sea Turtles, one of 7 species of Sea Turtles. They were named green for the fat on their body, not the color of their shells or skin.

Mr. Ray is back! He is a Spotted Eagle Ray. Fortunately he’s not the type of Stingray shown migrating in the movie or else he’d be leaving his students! There is a specific kind of ray known as the Golden Cow nose Ray that may migrate in groups of up to 10,000!

There is a Beluga Whale named Bailey. Belugas are often called the “canaries of the sea” because of their vocalizations. Their (squishy) fat-filled melons (heads) are supposed to help with echolocation, the sonar that many whales use in the ocean.

Finding Dory, Destiny, Dory, Whale Shark

Dory and Destiny the Whale Shark from Finding Dory Photo: © Disney Pixar 2016

The Whale Shark’s name is Destiny. It’s cute that she and Dory knew each other and can speak whale, but Destiny is a Shark, not a Whale! She’s the largest shark in the ocean, but only eats tiny plankton with her cavernous mouth. Whale Sharks do have poor eyesight because their eyes are so tiny compared to their bodies, but they are not clumsy. Anyone who has snorkeled with Whale Sharks know they can turn on a dime to avoid swimming into you!

The (generic) octopus is named Hank. He is actually missing an arm, so he’s a “septopus.” In real life, the octopus would grow any missing arms back. There are so many neurons in a severed octopus arm that it can move and hunt on its own!

The Sea Lions are named Rudder and Fluke. I’m guessing they are California Sea Lions because part of the movie takes place off of California. If they were both male, then they could be found off of Pier 39 in San Francisco where bachelor males hang out and entertain tourists.

The baby Sea Otters are oh so cute! They are probably Southern Sea Otters, mainly found off the California coast. Sea otters don’t stand up on their hind legs like river otters do, and they couldn’t climb up the poles to the freeway! In some press pictures, it looks like there are baby sea otters in a group. There would never be a group of babies together because a wild Sea Otter pup stays with Mom 24/7 and they rarely socialize with other mother/pup pairs. Even surrogate Sea Otter Moms at the Monterey Bay Aquarium only take care of one pup at a time!

I speculate Becky is a Pacific Loon. Loons may mate for life! They eat mainly fish, crustaceans, and insects.

I loved seeing Finding Dory and here is my review!

For more images of the movie visit Finding Dory Images at collider.com
or
side-by-side (Finding Dory image vs. real animal images) at Mother Nature Network’s Meet the Real Animals Behind Finding Dory

Click here for The Real Fish of Finding Nemo
Click here for The Real Fish of Finding Nemo Part 2

My Manta Ray Encounter

manta ray

Close encounter with a manta ray (notice the plankton in the water) photo by: Cherilyn Jose

My Manta Ray Encounter

From the back of the boat, I made a giant stride into the black nighttime water. Underwater, the cumbersome SCUBA equipment strapped to my back was weightless. Warm water crept into my wetsuit. Exhaling, I descended into the pitch black. Pinching my nose and blowing out through it cleared my ears every few feet, and the pain in my ears felt like when ascending in an airplane. Exhaled bubbles surrounded and reassured me. My only lifeline underwater was working properly. I paused to marvel at breathing underwater.

My descent stopped near the bottom of the coral reef. Narrow beams of light danced around as other divers searched for life on the night coral reef. My highlighted view showed motionless fish sleeping. Multi-legged critters scampered out of my light. A hungry moray eel caught an unwary squirrelfish.

Ten minutes of swimming brought me to the “campfire.” Placed in the center of this underwater campfire was a bundle of dive lights so the insects of the sea, tiny plankton, swarmed together. Swarms of plankton attracted various hungry sea animals including fish, and the guests for the night. Divers pointed their lights towards the surface to attract more plankton. Settling down on my knees in the moderate current, plankton surrounded me. Little white dots darted to and fro in front of my dive mask. My dry mouth came from breathing the arid air from my tank and made me cough into my regulator. My eyes watered from the coughing, then cleared. Something emerged in the distance.

From the muted black darkness, and through the backdrop of the bright Hollywood lights of videographers, came an alien behemoth that glided over the all the divers. She was the star attraction for tonight, a manta ray. Her black back with white patches looked spray painted. Her flattened head and head fins swayed in her swim path. Her head fins unfurled to help funnel water into her cavernous mouth.

Her diamond-shaped body measured at least 6 feet across. She flapped her triangular pectoral fins in unison like a bird’s wings. Each powerful flap of her wings sent her flying within inches of divers’ heads.

The manta ray’s black back contrasted with her stark white underbelly. Her belly was full of black splotches. Splotch patterns are as unique as a human fingerprint and they allow scientists to identify and name individuals over time. The manta ray I saw was named Shirley. She gracefully flew inches over my head. I was reminded of the opening scene from the original Star Wars movie when an Imperial Star Destroyer appears to fly over the audience’s heads.

We divers are not supposed to hold their breath underwater, but in a briefing on the boat we were told not exhale bubbles directly onto a manta ray. I unconsciously held my breath as having Shirley so close to me took my breath away. I looked straight into one of Shirley’s eyes. They reflected such depth and soul that I couldn’t help but feel a deep connection with this alien being. It was like looking into a mammal’s eyes. Only manta rays are fish. They have the largest brain of any fish in the ocean, and a similar brain to body ratio as mammals. There is no doubt in my mind that manta rays are thinking beings. What they are thinking is a mystery to us humans though.

With her mouth agape, Shirley’s wide throat was visible. Her gills reverberated from the passage of water through them. A manta ray’s gills not only extract oxygen from the water around them, but also extract food like plankton. She closed her mouth periodically, presumably to swallow the plethora of plankton caught in her gill rakers.

I watched in awe as Shirley did loop de loops to gather plankton. The barrel rolls that manta rays perform are a magnificent underwater ballet. They are elegant and graceful. I could watch them for hours barrel rolling.

Later, another manta ray showed up. His name was Uhane Nui, which means “Great Spirit” in Hawaiian. Estimates placed his wingspan at eight feet across. Manta rays are the largest rays in the ocean. This one was huge. Shirley stayed in the lights, but Uhane Nui faded into the darkness and emerged from the bright videographer lights. Each appearance was a surprise and delight. The manta rays could come within inches of the divers and never bump into them. They could turn on a dime.

That magical night off of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii was my first encounter with manta rays. Upon arriving home, I devoured all the information I could find about them. I was dismayed to find out manta rays are killed when they get stuck in fishermen’s nets. Historically, fishermen would exact revenge on any manta rays that got stuck in their fishing nets and kill them.

I was later horrified to learn that today manta rays are now being targeted by fishermen. I got involved in the fight for California to ban the sale, trade and possession of shark fins. Now, much like sharks being targeted only for their fins, manta rays are now being hunted solely for their gill rakers. Gill rakers are used in controversial new formulas of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Often those hunting for shark fins will fin a shark alive and toss it back into the ocean to die a slow and agonizing death. Similarly, those hunting manta rays will kill them, cut out the gill rakers, and throw out the rest of the manta ray. Killing them that way is inhumane and wasteful.

A live manta ray is worth more alive than dead. Experts estimate a manta ray is worth one million USD over its lifetime due to ecotourism, but worth only five hundred USD when dead. Globally manta ray tourism is estimated to be 100 million USD annually. I’m hooked on SCUBA diving with manta rays-I will add to that total!

How and Why Do Fish School?

schooling fish

Schooling Fish by: Wikimedia Commons Eric Kilby

How and why do fish school? First off, an aggregation of fish is when a bunch of fishes are together. Shoaling is when a group of fish come together for social reasons. It is more specifically called schooling when the fish also move together in coordination. Half of all fishes shoal at one point during their lives, and one quarter of fishes shoal their whole lives.

There are a multitude of reasons why fish school. These include safety in numbers , easier to find food, swimming more efficiently and easier to find potential mates. Schooling behavior confuses potential predators, which cannot focus just on one fish to catch.

Schooling takes coordination, as each fish senses its position in relation to the other fishes. All fish have a lateral line around their bodies that help. There are tiny holes with sensitive hairs in them in the lateral line.

Most fishes don’t school when it is dark, so they are dependent on their eyesight.

According to some scientists, how they school is dependent on their genes. It’s not a learned behavior. Scientists did experiments on some small fish (see here for details) and cross bred individuals that preferred schooling to those that didn’t. The results told the scientists that there are parts of the fishes’ genome associated with schooling.

Another mystery is how fish somehow know when they are with fish that look like themselves so they can school together. They don’t recognize themselves in a mirror like more intelligent animals, so how do they do it? An odd fish out in a school increases its chances that it’ll be seen by a predator.

They may use their senses: sight, smell (pheromones), and sound. But otherwise a Google search only comes up with conjectures.

What questions do you have about fish? I’ll cover them in future posts.

I consulted the following
Wikipedia article on Shoaling and Schooling Fish

Elephant Seals, El Nino & Domoic Acid Poisoning

elephant seal

Newborn Elephant Seal photo by: Charmaine Coimbra

Hello, my name is Ellie, and I’m an Elephant Seal. I’m excited because I’ll become a mother soon. I’ve been pregnant for eleven months. I’ve come to Ano Nuevo, off the central coast of California, USA. Here there’s what we call a rookery, where elephant seals hang out on the beach. We spend up to ten months a year at sea, so being on the beach is a vacation for us. Well, maybe not for the mothers who have to protect their pups and produce milk that contains up to 50 percent milkfat (human breastmilk is only 4 percent fat).

I feel the pup coming. I push, push and push until plop! My daughter is born! I clean her up by licking her. She’s already vocal, probably because she’s hungry. We have a special call to one another so we can be reunited if separated. The beach is crowded-there’s a lot of elephant seals here.

I worry that some male will bowl over my pup, or my pup will get in the way during one of the dominant male’s battles with rivals. Otherwise our days here will be blissful; sunning ourselves in the sun, nursing, and dozing off. I won’t wean her for four weeks, and after five weeks I’ll mate and finally return to the sea to feed.

Sigh, I’m not looking forward to returning to sea. Sure I’ll be famished, but the food fish just aren’t here. Usually, in a non-El Nino year, there is plenty of food. That is due to something called upwelling, which occurs off parts of the west coast of the Americas. Upwelling is when cold, nutrient-rich seawater comes up from the deep ocean onto the surface. Plankton, microscopic plants and animals that make up the beginning of the food chain, feast on the nutrients. The fish, that I eat, find plankton to eat.

In a non El Nino year, the trade winds blow west warm seawater from the Eastern Pacific Ocean (the west coast of the Americas) to the Western Pacific Ocean (Asia). This allows the cold nutrient dense water that dwells in the deep waters below to replace the warm surface water that was blown away west. This is what causes upwelling along the west coast of the Americas. In contrast, during an El Nino year, the trade winds stop and the warm water stays in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Warmer water means no upwelling, less plankton, and therefore less fish for me to eat.

To boot, once I find food there’s a horrible toxic algae called Pseudo-nitzschia australis in it. Domoic acid poisoning has neurological effects on animals that eat food contaminated with it. According to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, USA, “About three-quarters of the California sea lions at our hospital are suffering from domoic acid toxicity, which primarily attacks the brain, causing lethargy, disorientation, seizures and if not treated, eventually, death.” Recently the Dungeness crab season has been canceled because of this algae. This algae is also responsible for the red tide seen periodically off the coasts that closes shellfish fisheries.

It’s an uncertain world that my daughter will face. I hope she can survive to a few years old to have pups of her own.

YOUR Help Is Needed! Win a $50 Amazon Gift Card & Help a Scientist!

Help us do science! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Ocean of Hope readers. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve Ocean of Hope and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a $50 Amazon Gift Card (100 available, 2 per blog participating!), or a t-shirt! Anyone can participate, even if you don’t regularly read this or other blogs. It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders. Hurry, survey ends midnight CST November 20, 2015!

Thank you Dr. Jane Goodall!

Today I heard Dr. Jane Goodall speak for the 5th time at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco, CA. Dr. Jane is my personal role model and hero. After hearing her speak for the first time at a Bioneers Conference, a light bulb went off for me. I’m to follow in her footsteps, but for the oceans that cover 70 percent of our Earth.

Dr. Jane inspired me to found a Roots and Shoots group at my children’s school, Kitayama Elementary in Union City, CA. We were honored with group of the month many years ago.

I never tire of hearing Dr. Jane’s talks. Each is unique and inspiring. While all her speeches refer to her time studying chimpanzees in Gombe, today she surprised me and mentioned my favorite animal, the octopus. She said to google “coconut octopus” to see an example of tool use in animals.

During her book signing, I asked Dr. Jane her favorite ocean animal. She said, “I suppose whales.” I definitely don’t think she’s been asked that before! I also thanked her for mentioning my favorite animal, the octopus. I gave her a blue marble (see the blue marble project here) and my business card with my blog url on it. I said I named it in her honor (all her books have the word hope in them) and she said she’d check it out. I forgot to mention that I often write from the (non-human!) animal’s POV. I think she’d approve. Thank you Dr. Jane for continuing to inspire me and so many others to save our natural world!