Elephant Seals, El Nino & Domoic Acid Poisoning

By , November 17, 2015 4:11 pm
elephant seal

Newborn Elephant Seal photo by: Charmaine Coimbra

Help us do science and win a $50 Amazon card! See end of post for details.

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.

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!

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

By , October 18, 2015 2:47 pm

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!

By , October 10, 2015 7:49 pm

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!

Book Excerpt Part 2-Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham

By , September 19, 2015 2:49 pm

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching © 2015 Charles Costello

Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage From Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas is available in independent bookstores now or at Amazon

We spent four more days like that, looking for whales, watching them on the surface, and getting into the water with them.The stormy seas passed, and the waters calmed. Humpbacks are notorious for their playful acrobatics.We saw them breach and extend their heads out of the water to have a look at us (“spyhop”), and slap the surface of the water with their flukes (“peduncle throw”). A peduncle throw can mean many things. It can mean “bug off, fella,” if a female is tired of a male’s advances. Or a male that has established himself as a female’s “escort” might use it to discourage another male’s advances.
“Sometimes the calves,” Gene told us,“when they get playful, will get a little wound up and wander off and get a little bit too far from mom. They can get separated quite quickly and then mom will fire off a peduncle throw like,‘Hey, Junior! Get back here!’ ”
Once when we were in the water with a mother and calf, the mother rose vertically in the water to breathe. Straight ahead of us, forty-five feet of whale vertical beneath the sur- face. A gentle, living, breathing creature over four stories tall.
And well, I haven’t told you about all of us in the tender. The gear stowed at the center of the boat included small fins and masks and wet suits a third the size of ours. Gene’s partner, Cloe, had come with her daughter, Lucaya, who was six years old. And Dave, a friend of Gene’s since high school, was there with his wife, Suzanne, and their daughter, Eva.
There was a contagious mirth that we couldn’t have replicated without our younger boat-mates.When the humpbacks were “pec slapping,” slapping their pectoral fins on the surface to signal to each other, Lucaya and Eva leaned over the railing and squealed, “The whales are waving! The whales are waving!” (They were right.The whales were waving.)

There was an alcove in the front of the tender, above the bow, that mariners call a dodger. Eva and Lucaya made it into a clubhouse, draping a sarong across the small opening to make a curtain. They filled a bucket with water and made a mini-aquarium with seaweed and baby crabs and shrimp.
And there was “whale time,” when our banter ceased, and we’d silently scan the surface for a breach or a fluke or a blow- hole. One afternoon Lucaya slept on one of the benches, her head nestled on a rolled-up windbreaker. As the boat rocked gently, small waves made lapping sounds. Cloe sat with her, seeming to doze a bit too. But even when her eyes shut mo- mentarily, her hand stayed on her daughter’s shoulder, should the boat lurch and Lucaya be in danger of rolling off the bench. Down below, the whale calves had their own way of settling in with their mothers. Charlie told me he’d seen a calf hover just below the mother’s belly and the mother wrap her pectoral fins around her calf to tuck it into position. The humpback’s long gray-and-white fins are not stiff like oars. They’re like our arms, with highly mobile shoulders, elbows, wrists,
and long finger bones.
Occasionally we’d see the other tender from our boat. It was being used by a film crew from Brazil.Why were they on the Silver Bank? Because the whales in Brazil wouldn’t let pho- tographers near them underwater, due to the long history of whale hunting there. It was only in 2008 that Brazil declared all Brazilian waters a safe sanctuary for whales and dolphins.
The sanctuary encompassing the Silver Bank had been in effect for almost thirty years. Established in 1986, it was the first humpback whale sanctuary in the world. Like some whale Shangri-La, it had eluded the harpoons.This breeding ground, “delivery room,” and cradle had remained a safe haven.
Whales sleep, but they can’t do it for long, otherwise they’d drown. It’s believed that, like dolphins, only one hemisphere of the whale’s brain sleeps. So they rest, but they’re never completely asleep the way we are. We breathe automatically, but whales are conscious breathers, slipping to the surface intermittently, even as they rest. Inspired by that, Gene had named his operation Conscious Breath Adventures.
The mother, Gene told us, “nurses her calf to the tune of fifty gallons of milk a day, which is very, very thick, very rich milk.The whole time that the females are down on the Silver Bank—and the males, for that matter—they are not feeding, they are fasting.” By time the mother reaches the northern latitudes to feed with her calf, she’ll have lost a third of her body weight.
One more thing—subtle, but unmistakable. Having kids on the boat changed our behavior. Somehow we were more polite, generous, and positive. The girls brought out the best in us. It was as if we’d shined up the chrome bumpers of our personalities because there were kids on board. There was more patience, more kindness, more sharing. More “best.”
We all think we do our best. But children bring out an even “better best” in us. They push the seesaw in the direction of hope, encourage us to take responsibility not just for our lives but also for the future. And no matter how many times a pandering politician utters the same words disingenuously, the bottom line is it’s true.Truth never wears out. It’s inextinguishable.

One of the best spots to sit was on top of the dodger, just above the bow. It had a great view. Eva was sitting up there one day, and I scrambled up to join her. She was wearing my red fleece jacket to stay warm.The oversized sleeves squished into a thick, cozy wrap around her small arms; the collar rose up above her ears.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Seven,” she said with a precocious glance, like, Couldn’t you make more interesting small talk?
We quietly looked out at the horizon, searching for whales. Charlie leaned his forearms against the top of the dodger behind us, his camera poised, should a whale suddenly breach. We were all lost in silent, ripe waiting.
There are questions in life you don’t answer with words.You answer them with how you live. For me, the biggest one had always been,“What truly is love?” Now I had another to guide me:“What if I lived as if my voice mattered?”
The horizon was ultramarine blue, speckled with light. I looked back at Charlie.The wind blew his thick black hair up and away from his forehead. He looked up at me and winked.

Remember the garage? When I wanted to quit the book?
And I’d swung this deal with myself that it’d be like some wild motorcycle ride, and that I could ease up on the throttle when the journey came to an end?
I sighed. The book’s finishing, but this journey, this love of ocean, this deepened love of life, I’ve barely begun ….
“B-r-e-a-c-h!” Eva squealed, pointing to the horizon. The burst of water looked like a depth charge. Forty tons of whale leaping completely out of the water and plunging back cer- tainly would mimic that.
“It’s a rowdy group,” Gene called out. It was a group of male whales competing for the attention of a female. As we got closer, the water seemed to boil with energy.At least nine or ten whales swiftly crosscut each other. Looking downward, I noticed elongated slivers of turquoise moving underneath our boat.
“Gene,” I asked,“what’s that?”
“The fins.”
They were the bright white of the sixteen-foot fins seen through the tinting of the bank’s water. It was actually more than twenty whales that had gathered. At any one time, only half of them came to the surface to breathe.
Whales in a rowdy group will breach on top of each other and rub the tubercles—the knobby protrusions on their chins—raw. We could see scuffs and cuts on their dorsal fins and skin from their oceanic barroom brawl. And while it was all rough-and-tumble, they were very precise about whom to push around.The lady they were competing for was off-limits, easy to identify because of her unblemished torso. And not once did a whale bang up against the side of our tender.
“They don’t have arms to throw punches, but they have pec fins and their big tail flukes,” Gene said.“They also have what’s called the anvil, that bony knob on the bottom of their chin. They hit each other with that.”
The energy whipped up, higher and higher, whales swirling and banging into each other and breaching and diving be- neath our boat. “Just think of it,” Gene called out ebulliently. “There’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of raging humpback whale all around us!”
They were hot on the trail of that millennia-old tradition that never runs dry: mating.The unit of measure for testosterone levels would not have been milligrams—more like gallon jugs. It was late spring, and many of the females had already mated and left for the northern feeding grounds.The mothers will often be the last the leave, lingering until they deem their calves fit to make the journey north.
But single females? Fewer and fewer as you get later into spring. “The competition,” Gene said, “can be fierce.” There was a computer programmer from Texas, Bryan Hager, on the boat. He leaned back, stroked his thick beard, and chuckled with a self-deprecating, mock-Texas drawl,“Da girls … dey all get purdier at closin’ time.”

The last night on the Silver Bank I slept fitfully. My throat felt tight when I woke. I climbed up to the top deck. The night before, a group of us had lingered there and gazed up at the sky. Freed from the glare of urban sprawl or even buoys or light- houses, the sky lay naked above us. I’d never seen stars so bright.
Sometimes change happens so fast you don’t see it, and then suddenly it hits you all at once. In the morning light, all I could see in all directions was the steel-blue horizon. But it was no longer flat. It wasn’t the straight edge that so many thought Columbus would sail right off of when he sailed west from Spain.
It was curved.
If my travels had done anything, it was that I could really feel that curve now—it was as vivid and tactile as the metal railing beneath my hands and the gusts of wind on my fore- head. I turned my back to the just-risen sun.To the west, the earth made an arc to our home in California, and farther still, Papua and the Malay archipelago of Indonesia. To the north, an arc led to the Turks and Caicos and, farther on, to where I was born, New York City. To the east, another arc stretched thousands of miles to the Mediterranean and North Africa.
You know those toys for toddlers with round and square pegs that fit into matching holes? It was like that: the cognitive leap when the round peg fits in the round hole.An irreversible moment.
I’d finally gotten the shape of things, the mystery at the edge, the one that flickered through blinds that always seemed to snap shut too soon.That mystery, that beauty, it was calling me to a deeper, truer home. I’d finally come home in a way that would have been unfathomable before. It was “the place.”
It was a little spinning sphere with a thin glaze of water held to it by gravity, punctuated by archipelagos of islands and mountains and tundra and plains and deserts. And that fluid, transparent medium, intermingled with sun and oxygen, that carved riverbeds through mountains and circulated through seas and pulsed through our veins: that gives birth to life.
Our clapboard house with musical instruments and travel photographs on the walls, where our dog likes to stretch out in a sunny spot on the oak floor and our greenhouse teems with seedlings—our little home—it was nested inside that bigger home within layers and layers and layers of life.
I’d learned to let a mystery be a mystery and a longing be a longing. Better to be inarticulate, but true. So I won’t try to explain it too much except to say that I’m so glad I kept trying to listen to that mysterious longing. It brought me home and closer to others in ways I never would have imagined possible. I’ll keep feeling that mystery, keep longing for it. I’ll never want to extinguish it. It’s life longing to be, to connect, reconnect, beat the odds, and push forward anew.

“From Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2015 by Liz Cunnigham. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”

Book excerpt: Part 1 of Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas by Liz Cunningham

By , September 7, 2015 5:46 pm
Humpback mother calf

Humpback mother and calf © 2015 Liz Cunningham

Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage From Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas is available in independent bookstores now or at Amazon

“…With genuine emotion and great pragmatism, Cunningham makes
passionate pleas for the continued health of the planet.”
—Publishers Weekly

In Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest
to Save the Seas
, Liz Cunningham shows us how people around the world
are practicing “hope in action” and why it’s time for all of us to
join them.

After Liz Cunningham was nearly swallowed by a rogue wave in a
kayaking accident in which she was temporarily paralyzed, she was left
with a sense of despair and alienation from the waters that she had
always turned for solace and healing. As she recovered physically,
Cunningham vowed that she would reconnect with the ocean and recover
hope—hope for herself and for the planet’s ailing waters. In Ocean Country:
One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas

(Foreword by Carl Safina, North Atlantic Books, September 8,
2015, Paperback), Cunningham shares her two-year global journey to
discover how communities and individuals are fighting to save the
marine world that every living being depends on and how they are
creating hope through action in dire times.

From a former “dynamite fisherman” in Indonesia who walked away from
heftier profits to save the ocean ecosystem his community relies on
for subsistence to a culinary school in Paris that teaches sustainable
cooking practices, people are rescuing our oceans and coming together
to fight the destruction that can seem inevitable. And they are
effecting change—though we rarely hear about. Recently, Bluefin tuna—a
species all but declared extinct—has seen in an uptick in their
stocks. This turn-around is a result of massive, coordinate effort
across industries and communities. It is one of the remarkable stories
of people practicing what Cunningham calls “hope in action.” From the
San Francisco Bay Area to the Turks and Caicos Islands to Sulawesi,
Indonesia to Papua, New Guinea to French islands in the Mediterranean,
Cunningham shows us how people throughout the world are beginning to
see that we can have hope, that we must act, and—most importantly—that
the two are interdependent.

Ocean Country is an adventure story, a call to action, and a poetic
meditation on the state of the seas—but most of all—it is a story of
finding true hope in the midst of one of the greatest crises to face

Twenty-one percent of royalties will be given to the New England
Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF), which aims to
protect and promote ocean biodiversity through funding of small-scale,
time-sensitive, community-based programs. This amount was chosen to
highlight the percentage of oxygen in each breath we take and that the
fact that over one half of that oxygen comes from marine plants and
algae in the ocean.


LIZ CUNNINGHAM is the author of Talking Politics: Choosing the
President in the Television Age (Praeger), which features frank and
probing oral-history interviews with top television journalists such
as Tom Brokaw, Larry King, and Robin MacNeil. She has written for
Earth Island Journal, East Bay Express, the Marin Poetry Center
Anthology, The Outward Bound International Journal, Times of the
Islands, and The San Francisco Chronicle. She has collaborated with
institutions such as the Academy for Educational Development, the
Constitutional Rights Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the
Smithsonian Institution. She also serves on the board of Outward Bound
Peacebuilding and holds a B.A. in Human Ecology from College of the
Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. Visit her at: lizcunningham.net.

The following is Part 1 excerpt “From Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2015 by Liz Cunningham. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”

(Chapter) Song
I woke suddenly and lunged for the bathroom. The vomit came out so fast it was if a pressurized jar had burst open. When I came out, Charlie was up, vomiting on a rolled-up sheet in our cabin.

We went outside to get some air. The boat lurched in swells the size of small hillsides. It was early morning, and we were on a boat eighty miles southeast of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Overnight, the boat had crossed from the Dominican Republic over a fourteen-thousand-foot oceanic trench to a seamount just fifty to ninety feet below the surface—the Silver Bank.

Normally the passage is quite calm. Just our luck: it was the roughest crossing they’d had in two years. I’d wanted to come to the Silver Bank because every winter, some three thousand to five thousand humpback whales go there to mate and give birth and nurse their young. Many of these whales skirt the Northwest Point in the Turks and Caicos when they migrate to and from their northern feeding grounds, which stretch from Stellwagen Bank, just off of Cape Cod, to Newfoundland. Lizzie, at the School for Field Studies in South Caicos, had told me that the whales came through the cut between South Caicos and Grand Turk Island.

It was early spring, and some of the humpbacks had already started to migrate north. About a half hour later, we crossed onto the Silver Bank.The seas settled dramatically in the shallow waters.We motored smoothly toward a mooring on the northern side of the bank. For as far as I could see, there was only ocean, and the windy seas did indeed have a silvery sparkle.

The humpbacks come to the Silver Bank because the shallow, calmer waters are an easier place for a mother whale to give birth and for a calf to take its first breath and build its strength before undertaking the long migration north through open water. And because the bank is so shallow, there are fewer opportunities for predators, such as orcas, to attack calves from below. Soon the air filled with the loud rattling of a mooring chain, and the engine stopped.We went upstairs for a briefing in the galley. “Okay, little bit of rough ride, but we’re all here,” Gene Flipse, our captain, said. He was tall and lanky, and curly brown hair graced his forehead. I bit off a piece of toast, cautiously chewed, and swallowed it as if I had a goiter in my throat.

“So, we go out,” Gene said enthusiastically, “and we cruise around and look for whales.” There were two small boats, called “tenders,” which we’d use to go out and search for whales.

The ideal situation would be a mother and calf that are resting.“The mothers and calves have very, very close relationships with each other,” Gene explained. “They are almost always in direct physical contact, except when they are separated to breathe. So if you see a calf on the surface circling, that means ‘mom’s just below,’ and the calf will go down.”

Gene held up two small plastic replicas of humpbacks, a mother and a calf. As he talked, he simulated the diving and surfacing behavior.The mother breathes every twenty minutes or so, but a newborn calf needs to breathe every three to five minutes. So a mother will rest below while the calf comes up, takes a breath, and then, Gene said, moving the calf model back down to the bigger one,“after it is finished breathing, it’s going to dive back down and nestle up next to mom.”

Gene explained a phenomenon called “whale time”—of patiently following the whales’ breath cycles and reading their behavior to see if it’s a good opportunity to get in the water with them. If the whales are deemed suitable for a “visit,” Gene explained, then he or our other guide, Elisa Buller, would prompt us to quietly slip into the water and float “like harmless seaweed or jellyfish,” and “present ourselves” for an encounter. “The whales use their hearing as their primary sense out here,” Gene said.“They are very highly attuned, and they hear us coming.”

We wouldn’t position ourselves any closer than thirty to fifty feet from a whale.That was the “stop point” for our approach. The Silver Bank was part of the Dominican Republic’s Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals, in which whales were protected by law against aggression.The sanctuary had, Gene told us,“a very conservative definition of aggression, which is that if you are moving toward the whale closer than that stop point, that’s considered an act of aggression.”

But, should the whales come closer to us, well then, by all means, “Come say hello!” “You just have to stop and stay in position,” Gene told us,“and wait for the natural curiosity of the animals to bring them to you.” So in terms of the tone of the interaction, our little expedition could be termed a “swim with humans” encounter for whales.

We went down to the main deck to put our gear in order. My fins suddenly seemed so small. The scale of the creatures we were about to encounter had finally registered. I remembered Ms. Blue, the blue-whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab that was almost ninety feet long. Okay, a full-grown humpback whale is smaller—only forty-five feet long, just a little longer than a school bus, and, shall we say, one of the “lightweights” of the family, maxing out at fifty tons.

There were dark clouds on the horizon. A storm was blowing in. It was too rough to go out. Charlie went up to the galley in search of some sea-sickness medication. Exhausted and queasy, I lay down in our cabin and closed my eyes.

My innards were dizzy. For the last stretch of my research, I’d wanted to go to three regions of the world in the course of one year, immerse myself.Well, I’d done it, but something was missing, some nugget. Some understanding I was searching for still eluded me.

Ever had a conversation in which someone said to you,“I had this feeling …”?You know, about a man or a woman or a house or a job? Well, I had this feeling that my journey would bring me to a certain “place.” But that place? I hadn’t gotten there.

Our cabin had a big picture window. Rain started to pelt against it. Maybe it will just be that way, I mused. Maybe it’s a mystery you accept. Maybe that’s part of the magic, it lures you for- ward. We would have just five days on the bank. I tried to resist wondering how long the stormy weather would last.

I was so tired, long-term tired. The fatigue had been building for months. I thought it’d be great to come full circle, back to seas that were just a day’s sail from the Turks and Caicos. But I didn’t realize that no matter how strongly anchored you are in a sense of purpose, it doesn’t insulate you from grief. Our flight to the Dominican Republic passed through the same airport gate I’d taken to fly to the Turks and Caicos.The sense of déjà vu was so strong, the sadness I’d felt when I witnessed the coral reef bleach.When we boarded the plane, I burst into tears.

I’d urged Charlie to come with me.This was the last stage of the journey, and I wanted to share this experience with him. Now we were both seasick, and I was exhausted.

I rolled over on my side and looked out onto the surging seas and thought,“Did we really need to come here? Couldn’t it have been enough to write about the whales?”

No, no, no!

The whale thing was too much about the ocean not to do it.The story of men and whales is the story of the civilization and the ocean writ large. From the ancient Babylonian myth in which the god Marduk slays the sea-monster Tiamat to Melville’s Moby Dick to the ultramodern, explosive-laced harpoons launched from factory ships, whale hunting is symbolic of epic battles with nature—slaughter for survival.

Whale oil literally greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine? Whale oil. Watches? Whale oil. Sewing machines, railroad signal lamps, altimeters, microscopes, textile factory looms.Whale oil. Known for its exceptional stability and low viscosity, it was the preferred lubricant for everything from the gears of trains to fine mechanical instruments. By the mid-1960s, the global population of humpbacks, that some estimate was once over a million before commercial whaling, had been whittled down to about 1,500. So what happened? Why weren’t they hunted to extinction?

The environmental movement. All that public outrage and uproar, all the demonstrations, sit-ins and petitions and legal actions worked. Despite that victory, whales need increased protection today. As of 2014, Iceland, Japan, and Norway still hunt whales with industrial-age equipment, defending their practices with thinly veiled assertions that they hunt a limited number for “scientific purposes.” Whales are also greatly at risk from collisions with large ships, entanglement in fishing gear, and chemical contamination. Still, humpback whale populations are now coming back, increasing by about 5 percent a year.And humpbacks, in particular, became the poster child of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s and the push for a worldwide moratorium on whale hunting in 1986, in large part because of one trait: they sing.

In 1967, biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whale songs have a complex syntax, with phrases that repeat in patterns known as “themes.” Each song has two to nine themes, which are sung in a specific order. It’s still debated why humpbacks sing, but it is generally the males that do the singing. And they usually sing at night.
Payne released a recording, Song of the Humpback Whale, with his then-wife, Katherine Payne, and his colleague Frank Watlington. It sold over thirty million copies. The rhythmic sequences gleaned from nighttime recordings made from a small boat in the North Atlantic galvanized the Save the Whales movement and the environmental movement as a whole. Some unexpected, emotional connection was forged.

So I wanted to see these inspiring creatures with my own eyes. Get some rest, I told myself. I dozed off.

A bell rang. Loud. “Okay, everybody.” It was Gene’s voice.
“Weather’s better. Let’s go!”

It was still windy. The tender bobbed as we loaded our gear. We motored away, eyes glued to the horizon. Gene stood in the stern of the boat, mask on his forehead, alert, searching.

A half hour later we spotted a mother and calf resting. Gene started timing their breath cycles. After about twenty minutes, the driver brought the boat close to where the mother had last descended.

“Okay, I think we might have an opportunity here. Let’s get geared up,” Gene bellowed over the wind and surging seas. He stood balanced on the handrail in extra-long fins, one hand gingerly holding one of the support poles for the sun tarp, as the boat rocked back and forth. He was the corollary to the British term “proper sailor”—a proper man-fish. He was filled to the brim with excitement and energy, like a conductor leading an orchestra through a favorite symphony. He knew the routine so well—time breaths, fins on, mask on, into the water, approach gently, signal to the driver.

Gene slipped into the water, moving his fins so they did not break the water’s surface. Every few moments, the sun burst through the dark clouds and the waves glittered. A moment later, he signaled to the driver, and we got the go-ahead to slip into the water.

I didn’t see anything. Then I realized I didn’t see it because it was so big. A dark bluish shape so fully filled the field of my vision that I couldn’t comprehend what I was looking at. Even at forty or so feet away, I wasn’t looking at a whale. I was looking at … part of a whale.

It was motionless. Excuse me, she was motionless. Just above her, nestled in the crescent of her back, was her calf.The mother turned and circled us three times in slow motion. Her calf swam with her in synchrony, always staying just a few inches from that snug arc in her mother’s back.

I didn’t touch my journal that evening. The beauty of the whales so exuberantly defied what I thought was possible, their gentle grandeur, that I was dumbstruck, beauty-struck.

Guest Post-9 Things You Can Do to Reduce Garbage in Our Oceans

By , August 26, 2015 10:41 am
Plastic Ahoy! Book

Plastic Ahoy! by Patricia Newman

Today’s guest post is by Patricia Newman. She is the author of Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Millbrook Press), winner of the Green Earth Book Award, one of the Bank Street College’s Best Books for 2015, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and finalist for the AAAS/Subaru Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Her goal is to help kids become ocean stewards.

9 Things You Can Do to Reduce Garbage in Our Oceans
Don’t you love the sound of waves lapping the shore? The salt breeze cooling your face. Treasures that wash ashore with the tides. But what if the tide washed in hundreds of pounds of plastic on your favorite beach?

I wrote Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch because tons of plastic float in our ocean and wash up on our beaches each year—5.25 TRILLION pieces. The book is my way of persuading you to rethink the way you use one-time plastic—things like cups, water bottles, yogurt containers, plastic bags. It’s no longer enough to simply recycle. We have to use less plastic because we’re drowning in the stuff!

Plastic Ahoy! Book

10 Plastic Waste Facts to Curl Your Hair

The news is bleak, but that’s where you come in. My challenge to you is to choose two of the following action items and pledge to reduce your one-time plastic consumption:

1. Skip the straw. Every day restaurants drop 500,000,000 straws in our drinks—enough to fill 46,400 school buses every year—and virtually none of them are recycled. REFUSE boxed drinks with plastic straws, and REFUSE the straw in every restaurant you visit. In fact, try to get the restaurant to serve straws only on request—or better yet—do away with them all together.

2. Bring your own bags. And not just to the grocery store. Everywhere. Toys R Us. Macy’s. Target. WalMart. Bed, Bath and Beyond. If you forget your bag, simply do without one.

3. Buy eco-friendly school supplies. Lunch boxes without plastic. Pencils made from recycled newspaper. Pens made from recycled water bottles. Recycled paper. You can find them online.

4. Ditch the single-use plastic water bottle. Instead of purchasing large flats of single-use water bottles for parties, school or the office, fill a big urn with water and let people refill their reusable bottles preferably made from stainless steel. If you absolutely need individual servings, consider boxed water.

5. Refuse plastic OJ bottles. Plastic manufacturers are beginning to make PlantBottles. I see them in the orange juice cooler in my grocery store. Yes, they’re an improvement over regular plastic. Yes, they come from sustainable plants. But so far, they are only 30% plant. And it’s unclear if recycling companies will accept them. I still prefer cartons.

6. Refuse plastic to-go boxes. Insist on cardboard boxes or aluminum foil for restaurant left-overs or take-out.

7. Recycle every bit of plastic you can. I recently checked the recycling rules in my hometown and we can recycle a lot of different kinds of plastic. Double-check the rules for your hometown and start filling up that recycling bin!

8. Sign up to participate in the September 19 International Coastal Cleanup.

9. Read Plastic, Ahoy! for other ideas.

Guest post-10 Fun Facts About Northern Elephant Seals

By , August 16, 2015 7:46 pm
elephant seal

Elephant seal (weaner stage) photo by: Charmaine Coimbra

This is a guest post by Charmaine Coimbra, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, who writes and edits two marine-focused blogs, Neptune911.com, and Neptune911forkids.blogspot.com. She also writes for local publications. Since 2008 she has volunteered as a docent for Friends of the Elephant Seal in San Simeon, California

Ten Fun Facts About Northern Elephant Seals

1. Elephant seal pups must be born on a beach because they can’t swim or hunt yet.

2. When an elephant seal mother weans her pup from her rich milk, the pup is now called a “weaner.” The weaner will live off of its fatty blubber for several months—until the day it leaves for sea and catches its first food. Elephant seals eat squid, octopus, hagfish (slime eels), rays, skates, small sharks and hake.

3. When weaners leave their birth beach for the sea, they remain alone until they return to the beach in late summer or early fall. All elephant seals stay alone when they leave the beach for the sea. They do not swim in pods, herds or groups.

4. It takes eight years for a male elephant seal to grow to full length, including his elephant-like nose. He may eventually weigh between 3000 to 5000 pounds (1350-2267 kg.), and measure 14 to 16 feet long (2.5 to 3.5 meters).

5. A female elephant seal doesn’t grow a long nose. She is also smaller than the adult male. She will weigh between 900 to 1800 pounds (408 to 816 kg.) and measure between 9 to 12 feet long (2.5 to 3.5 meters).

6. A male elephant seal’s roar is so loud that you can hear it from one mile away.

7. Male elephant seals from different rookeries (beaches where elephant seals go to twice a year) have their own dialect.

8. Adult elephant seals can dive below 5,000 feet (1.524 kilometers) to the bottom of the sea.

9. Elephant seals can stay underwater for almost 2-hours.

10. Elephant seals migrate two times a year. They swim about 12,000 miles a year.

Guest Post-Marine Conservation is Everyone’s Business

By , August 3, 2015 6:12 pm
Green Sea Turtle Honu

Green Sea Turtle photo by: Ken Muise

This is a guest post from Ken Muise of snorkelstore.com. Ken is an active duty Soldier stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. He believes he is best snorkeler in the world, although many disagree with him. His website helps people make good choices on snorkel gear, appreciate and respect the marine environment, and gives tips on keeping safe in the water.

Marine Conservation is Everyone’s Business

The planet Earth is bestowed with a spectacular existence of plant and animal life. The charm and grace of the planet is almost beyond description. The many creatures on land and at sea add to the attraction.

Ecosystem processes are designed to support the planet’s life, which includes the human species. These processes include filtration and pouring of the water basin, pollination, flood moderation and renewal of soil fertility. These natural processes are largely overlooked and not given the value they deserve.

For example, let’s look at the contribution of pollinators to the production of fruits such as blueberries, melons, and apples. According to experts the estimated value of pollination services, which are carried on by insects, is about $ 217 billion each year.

The world has been moving towards rapid industrialization and urbanization. Humans, to satisfy their materialistic desires, began ignoring natural habitats. This has affected the natural habitats of different creatures. Now various species of terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals are on the brink of extinction.

Habitat conservation, both on land and at sea, for wildlife is amongst the most vital issues confronting the environment. As the human population expands, area utilization increases. Wild species have less space to call home.

The surface of the Earth has changed due to human actions, such as severe deforestation, loss of topsoil, and biodiversity extinction. Some species can’t live outside their own living space without human mediation, such as zoos and aquariums. The conservation of their natural surroundings is crucial to their protection. Transitory species are more vulnerable against environment devastation, especially along their migratory routes. Changing a creature’s living space can bring about a domino effect that can undermine an entire ecosystem.

It is important for people to actively participate in repairing the ecosystems that have been widely damaged due to human intervention. Volunteer efforts in conservation projects aim to remedy this loss of biological resources. People are able to take an active part in preventing the extinction of certain species and help maintain ecosystem integrity.

Marine conservation has gained momentum. Aquatic beings are faced with various dangers. Coral reefs are an epicenter of biodiversity. They provide various marine animals with food, protection and shelter. In addition, coral reefs are important to humans as a source of the food (i.e. fish, shellfish, etc.) and for eco-tourism.

Unfortunately due to human impacts on coral reefs, they are increasingly degraded and in need of conservation. The greatest threats include overfishing, destructive fishing practices, sedimentation and pollution from land. Along with increased carbon in the oceans, coral bleaching and diseases, there are few pristine reefs worldwide. In fact, up to 88% of coral reefs in Southeast Asia are now threatened, with 50% of those reefs “high” or “very high” for risk of extinction.

Coral reef degradation is harmful to island nations such as Samoa, Indonesia and the Philippines because many people there depend on coral reef ecosystems to feed their families and earn a living. Many fishermen are unable to catch as many fish as they used to. They use cyanide and dynamite fishing, which further degrades the coral reefs. One solution to stop this cycle is to educate the local community about why conservation of marine areas is important. Once the local communities understand the issues, then they fight to preserve the reefs. Coral reef conservation has many economic, social and environmental benefits, not only for the people who live on these islands, but for people worldwide as well.

Government agencies and other organizations have been working hard to alleviate the problem of coral reef decline. With various laws, acts, and campaigns, they aim to educate people. There are various programs that facilitate marine conservation. Marine conservation can be accomplished if people join hands to achieve this goal.

MarineBio Conservation Society is deeply committed to marine conservation. It is based on the idea that by sharing marine and maritime life, people will be inspired to protect the oceans. I hope people will consider becoming members of the MarineBio Conservation Society. Pollution free oceans will then be enjoyable to all when diving with snorkel gear.

Children’s Book Review-Larry the Lazy Blue Whale

By , July 20, 2015 7:54 pm

Larry the Lazy Blue Whale

Larry the Lazy Blue Whale

Children’s Book Review of Larry the Lazy Blue Whale by Burt Kempner

Larry the Lazy Blue Whale: A Mild Wild Story by Burt Kempner is a children’s book about a blue whale making his way to his winter feeding grounds. He takes a nap. Little does he know that two pirate ships are about to lay claim to him as land!

The rest of the book is about the two pirate ships, their fighting and eventual resolution. I won’t give away the ending, but it is satisfying and has a good moral.

I liked the introduction to the blue whales, but lost some interest when the pirates came along. The pirate part is written fine. I was just expecting more about the natural history of Larry.

The illustrations by Stephanie Richoll are outstanding and help move the story along.

If you like children’s pirate adventure books, then this is the book for you. If you’re expecting to learn just about Larry’s life history, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like blue whales and pirate books, then this is definitely the book for you! It’s a book you won’t mind reading to your children over and over.

10 Facts About the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish

By , July 13, 2015 9:30 pm
Lion's Mane Jellyfish

Lion's Mane Jellyfish photo by: NOAA

Note: Since Jellyfish aren’t really fish, I will now refer to them as Jellies instead…

1. The Lion’s Mane Jelly is the largest Jelly in the ocean. Its bell can reach up to 8 feet in diameter, and its tentacles up to 120 feet long (that’s longer than a blue whale!).

2. The Lion’s Mane Jelly lives in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Arctic Oceans.

3. The Lion’s Mane Jelly is bioluminescent (glows in the dark!).

4. Like all jellies, the Lion’s Mane Jelly has no brain, blood, or nervous system.

5. Like all jellies, the Lion’s Mane Jelly is 95% water.

6. There are 200 species of True Jellies.

7. All Jellies are radially symmetrical.

8. Jellies have no eyes, but rather eye spots that detect light and dark.

9. Lion’s Mane Jellies have nematocysts in their tentacles that they use to sting their prey. Nematocysts are barbs (sharp points) filled with venom.

10. A Jelly can sting you even if washed up on the beach so be careful! Jelly stings on humans can be treated with vinegar to lessen the pain.

Happy World Oceans Day!

By , June 8, 2015 7:41 pm
Clark’s clownfish Wakatobi Indonesia

Clark’s clownfish photo by: Cherilyn Jose

Happy World Oceans Day! Each June 8 I stop and ponder the state of the oceans. It’s not a pretty picture as there is overfishing, pollution and climate change effects to worry about. Since I last wrote this post, “The Three Most Pressing Issue for World Oceans Day”up to 80% of the world’s fisheries are now exploited, up from 53% just 2 years ago. Over 1 billion people rely on fish for their primary source of protein. What are they to eat once there are not enough fishes to catch?

Ocean acidification has become more of a hot button issue, as the effects of it are already being seen on commercial shellfish and pteropods (a marine snail). Ocean acidification is a ticking time bomb for coral reefs. There are a few studies on places with naturally lower pH and the corals there survive, but overall it’s a bleak picture for coral reefs as far as ocean acidification is concerned. There’s also coral bleaching due to higher seawater temperatures. What is to become of the coral reefs that house 25% of the ocean’s wildlife?

More people are now aware of the problem of plastic in the ocean. If it was just plastic water bottles and plastic bags, then it would be easy to clean up. Unfortunately most of the plastic, over 90% of it, is microscopic-sized. The plastic is small enough for plankton to eat. The plastic bioaccumulates up the food chain. The little fishes eat the plastic and the bigger fishes that eat the little ones also get a dose of plastic and so on until you get to the top level predators such as sharks and humans that get an even bigger dose of plastic. Humans carry around several pounds of plastic in their body!

Phew, fortunately there are things you can do to help the oceans (taken from a previous post):

*Marine protected areas (MPAs) can help fisheries become sustainable by being a nursery for the fish caught right outside the MPA borders. Unfortunately only 1% of the oceans are protected.

*You can help by eating only sustainably caught seafood. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide as a start.

*Curbing carbon dioxide emissions (i.e. using less fossil fuel) by using other alternative energies will help tremendously in slowing down ocean acidification.

*Driving less and using public transportation are great ways to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also consider getting solar power for your home or workplace.

*Plastic pollution is preventable, especially by cutting down the use of single use plastic bags. Please bring your own bags to the grocery store! Support local plastic bag bans. Pressure manufacturers to use only recyclable packaging. Recycle as much plastic as you can.

Every little action counts in the big picture!

Zale’s Tales-A Children’s Book Review

By , June 1, 2015 8:08 am
Zale's Tales Book Review

Zale's Tales by Everett Taylor

Zale’s Tales is a children’s book written and illustrated by a husband and wife team under the pen name of Everett Taylor.

Zale’s Tales follows the adventures of a boy who picks up a special pearl on the beach. Instantly he is in the ocean and is transformed into a sailfish! Zale loses the magic pearl (fish don’t have any pockets!) and has a long journey ahead to retrieve the pearl. His journey is filled with transformations into animals such as a mako shark and a giant squid.

Zale’s Tales is a beautifully illustrated and innovative children’s book. I enjoyed the illustrations, and my 5 year old daughter enjoyed Zale’s adventures in the ocean. This book is a great introduction to the ocean world and its inhabitants for young and old alike. I highly recommend this book to any ocean lovers, or to those who would like to nurture the next generation of ocean lovers.

Note: I did receive a review copy of this book, but I reviewed it as honestly as possible.

Guest Post- Jane Cui and Southeast Asia Diving

By , May 26, 2015 12:13 pm
National Geographic Raja Ampat Indonesia

Scuba Diver in Raja Ampat, Indonesia Copyright National Geographic

5 Amazing Places to Scuba Dive in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian waters contain the Coral Triangle, an area that comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and East Timor.

The Coral Triangle has the largest amount of marine biodiversity in the world, including around 500 species of coral, according to the WWF foundation.

Scuba diving in the Coral Triangle is world-class. More than 3000 species of fish live there in a range of habitats that support almost 25% of marine life on Earth.

This is a list of 5 fantastic places to scuba dive in Southeast Asia:

1. Raja Ampat, Indonesia

“Raja Ampat” means “Four Kings” in Indonesian, and refers to the four islands that surround the reef and surrounding ocean.

Raja Ampat is number one on this list because it has the some of the world’s healthiest reefs. You can see a high density of hard and soft coral all around the four islands. Marine surveys by Conservation International has shown that the marine diversity here is the highest recorded in Southeast Asia.

Raja Ampat, located in a strategic position between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, is remote and undisturbed by human interaction. It is a top priority region for conservation due to its function as a fish larval dispersal area.

2. Sipadan, Malaysia

Sipadan Island is the place to see large pelagic fish such as barracuda, jackfish, and groupers. The island sits on the remnants of an extinct underwater volcano. The nutrients from the ashes of the volcanic eruption has given life to a large coral reef which covers the underwater wall next to the island.

More than 3000 species of marine life have been classified in Sipadan. Unfortunately, Sipadan has been affected by coral bleaching in the past, and the remnants of this damage remains.

Recent conservation efforts by the Malaysian Government has stopped development of resorts on the island.

3. Republic of Palau

The coral reefs in the tiny nation of Republic of Palau are unique. They are located in an area where 3 major currents in southeast Asia meet. The dive sites here are home to more than one thousand identified species of fish, and over five hundred species of coral and anemone. Because of the high current, scuba diving here can be rough, but the visibility can extend 20-30 meters.

Palau is also the home of Jellyfish Lake, a marine lagoon connected to the ocean through an underwater reef system. The jellyfish in the lake have been isolated for 12,000 years, and have evolved to lose their stingers. Only snorkeling is allowed in the Jellyfish Lake. The bubbles from the oxygen tanks of scuba divers harm the jellyfish.

4. Similan Islands, Thailand

The Similan Islands Marine National Park, located west of Thailand, are made of granite boulders formed by the eruption of an ancient volcano around 65 million years ago. The sea slopes down, dropping around 70 meters, and are covered by coral. The scuba diving hilight here is the cavernous underwater topography. The currents at the Similans can be strong.

The Similans also have a turtle hatching program, as several marine turtle species lay eggs on the islands. Several Thai marine biologists have blamed excessive tourist activity for the damage to coral reefs around the popular Tachai island. As a result, a few islands are now closed to the public.

5. Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India

Located in the ocean between India and Myanmar, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are in a remote location far from human activity. The Andaman Islands are a chain of over 500 mostly uninhabited islands and are an extension of the mountain range of Myanmar.

Due to the isolation of Andaman and Nicobar islands, the marine and terrestrial life have evolved over thousands of years in a unique way. Ten percent or more of the life here is endemic.

Thus, the scuba diving here is pristine and untouched. Some of the dive sites here have a clear visibility of up to 30 meters. Andaman offers hard black coral that are rare in other Southeast Asian waters.

Biography: Jane Cui is the owner of Down Under Scuba. Follow her on twitter @janecui11 for information on scuba diving in Southeast Asia.

Interview-Tim White & Shark Finning

By , May 18, 2015 8:08 am
Timothy White Hopkins Marine Station

Tim White building his housing

On April 18, 2015 I attended MARINE’s (Monterey Area Research Institutions’ Network for Education) Ocean Colloquium. There I heard Tim White of Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University speak about shark finning in a remote Pacific island. This interview was conducted by e-mail:

1. Tell me a little about yourself and how you came to be at Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University.

After graduating from UCLA with a degree in biology, I was lucky to become involved in a few different marine experiences. I spent one autumn interning as a research diver within the National Park Service , and that following winter I worked as a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea. After a few months on crab boats it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t stay at that gig forever. Very cool learning experience, but it was time to search out other opportunities. We would stay out at sea for a few weeks, and then have spend a busy 24 hours in port offloading crab before heading back out to sea. During one of those offloads in Dutch Harbor, I searched through online conservation job boards, found a posting for a research technician position through Stanford/Hopkins Marine Station, and it worked out!

2. What is shark finning?
Shark finning is a harmful fishing practice that is driven by the demand for shark fin soup. Sharks are captured, their fins are cut off, and the carcasses are often dumped back into the ocean. The fins end up being used in shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy in some cultures. In the fishery that I ended up studying the fishermen would actually keep the carcass, but the motivation to hunt sharks still stemmed from the fact that shark fins can be incredibly valuable. The arbitrary and extreme value of shark fins has senselessly put them at great risk – much like the plight of rhinoceroses and their horns.

3. How did you become interested in shark finning?
My overarching motivation is to study the ways that humans impact the ocean, so that we can mitigate and minimize impacts as needed. My involvement with shark finning began once I was hired at Stanford, but I’ve been interested in marine conservation and fisheries ecology for years so the topic has always been loosely on my mind.

4. Where did you study shark finning? Briefly describe your exciting journey getting there.
We studied shark finning in the country of Kiribati, which is an island nation that spans thousands of miles along the equatorial Pacific. I spent three months on an island that is located 1000 miles south of Hawaii. Getting to this remote location was challenging but necessary; one objective was to study shark finning in a region with minimal external/industrial fisheries, and the island of Teraina certainly fit the bill. I flew into an island called Christmas Island and was lucky enough to join a sailing cargo ship that was passing through the region. That fantastic ship dropped me on the island of Teraina and said goodbye. I was certainly happy to see their sails along the horizon three months later – I hadn’t seen another ship since they dropped me off!

5. How did you communicate with the natives?
This project was made possible by some really meaningful partnerships between some Stanford researchers and the communities of Kiribati. My advisors have been working in the region for nearly a decade. In Kiribati, they primarily speak a language called Gilbertese and their English proficiency varies by island. On the particular island I stayed on the prevalence of English was very limited. I began learning Gilbertese on the sail over to the island, so I still had lots to learn! After a few weeks of charades and lots of translation help from a few English-speaking friends, I became competent in the day-to-day essentials like fishing terms, foods, pleasantries. Being 100% immersed in the language certainly helped – I spent nearly every day aboard Kiribati fishing boats that exclusively spoke Gilbertese, so it was a sink or swim scenario.

Timothy White Hopkins Marine Station

Tim White measuring a shark

6. What were the main lessons you learned there?
We tried to take a broad, interdisciplinary look at shark finning. While I was there I collected data on the motivations of shark finning, the species involved in the trade, the impacts on shark populations, and the benefits to local fishermen. It was no surprise for us to learn that shark finning appears to be having really drastic impacts on local shark populations, though this was an important trend to measure. Sometimes folks assume that these tiny, remote islands are in relatively good shape, but this showed that even traditional technology (canoes/single hooks) could have really devastating impacts on shark species in a short time frame.

7. How do you think we can solve shark finning, especially as consumers?
As consumers we need to be sure to absolutely avoid unsustainable shark products. Conservationists have approached this problem from a number of ways. From the conversations I’ve had, it seems like one of the most effective strategies to reduce shark finning is to reduce consumer demand. Conservation groups have launched awareness campaigns in regions of high shark fin consumption, such as Hong Kong. It appears that the general public demand for shark fins is decreasing as people become more aware of the damage that the practice can cause.

10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Sea Sponges

By , May 6, 2015 10:23 am
blue vase sponge Wakatobi Indonesia width=

Blue Vase Sponge photo by: Cherilyn Jose

1. Sea Sponges are animals, not plants.

2. Sea Sponges have been in the ocean for 500 million years.

3. Sea Sponges don’t move, but they filter lots of water for food (plankton) and oxygen.

4. Sea Sponges are among the most simple of multi-cellular organisms.

5. There are about 5,000 species of sea sponges worldwide.

6. Some sponges are found in freshwater lakes and rivers.

7. The smallest sea sponges are 1 inch long (3 cm) (or flat against a rock), the largest over 4 feet tall (1 m).

8. Sponges do not have heads, eyes, brains, arms, legs, ears, muscles, nerves or organs!

9. Sea Sponges have pores that filter water in for food and oxygen, and pores that push out waste.

10. Sea Sponges have few predators other than sea turtles, and fish because some produce toxins.

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