Happy World Oceans Day!

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!

What it’s Like to SCUBA Dive: Part I

manta ray cleaning station
Me and a manta ray at a cleaning station

I have returned from a SCUBA diving trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and I am inspired to share the joy of diving with those that may never learn to dive. PADI, a leading SCUBA diving organization that certifies divers, has certified over 23 million SCUBA divers. That means (assuming most of the certifications from PADI were in the USA) less than 1% of people in the USA have gone diving.

Here’s a description of what it’s like to suit up on a boat dive and actually enter the water:
(This assumes that the gear is already setup, which also takes time to do and will be a part of a different post)

Gearing up for me starts with a fleece-lined dive skin. This layer helps keep me warm, and it helps the wetsuit slide on more easily. Then it’s the farmer john wetsuit layer (think overalls). After sliding it on, I get help with the Velcro shoulder straps. The shortie part of the wetsuit (it covers the chest, arms, crouch and part of thighs) is next. I put on the booties on my feet under the leg portion of my farmer john wetsuit.

It’s time to defog my mask with defog drops (others use spit, dilute baby shampoo or defog gel). I rub them on the inner windows of my mask, and rinse in water. It’s then time to sit down on the bench in front of my gear. I check that my tank and dive computer are on. I put my flippers on. I strap on my BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device) on like a backpack, and clip or Velcro several straps to me. I shimmy my way out of my seat and shuffle to the back of the boat. Take a giant stride off the dive platform, signal I’m okay to the boat, and get camera from crew member.

I let all the air out of my BCD and start to descend. I clear my ears frequently (it’s the same as when you pop your ears on an airplane). Near the bottom I add air to my BCD so I don’t hit the bottom, especially if it’s a coral reef. I always marvel at some point during my dive at how I’m breathing underwater. It’s a weird yet exhilarating feeling. I look around at all the fish and coral, and look around frequently for large visitors such as dolphins and tiger sharks that prove quite elusive.

I usually follow a dive guide so I don’t get lost. More experienced divers, especially photographers, go off on their own. I take lots of pictures even though I know they aren’t good. They serve as a reminder of the fish and coral I’ve seen. I check my dive computer frequently to monitor depth and air consumption. By 500 psi I signal to my buddy and dive guide that I need to surface (a thumbs up) and the guide points up to the boat above and waves goodbye. I do a safety stop for 3 minutes at 15 feet. Then I kick up to the boat’s ladder and take off my fins. I give them and my camera to a crew member on the boat. I haul myself out of the water and waddle over to my spot on the bench. Once the tank is in place, it’s time to unstrap myself and share what I saw with my fellow SCUBA divers!

Tentacles Exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

bigfin reef squid
Bigfin Reef Squid photo by: Cherilyn Jose

The Tentacles exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium contains many species of cephalopods from oceans around the world. Cephalopods include Octopus, Squid, Cuttlefish, and Nautilus. Many species in this exhibit have never been on display before.

I am a cephalopod lover. I have even taught a red octopus to open a jar to get live food inside! So I was thrilled to see species I have never seen in person before, especially the Wunderpus and Bigfin Reef Squid.

I went on a busy Saturday afternoon on April 26, 2014, and the following is the species list that day. The aquarium is going to vary the species list during Tentacles’ run depending on availability. I wanted to review the whole exhibit because I was unsure if I would be able to see each ceph on exhibit given that they are masters of disguise, and many are shy. I am happy to report I saw an animal at each exhibit!

The first tank of the exhibit is the Bigfin Reef Squid. They are housed together in a large tank with many squid visible at once. They are one of the few species of squid that like to school. They school to fool predators into thinking that they are bigger. They were changing colors, and their outreached tentacles looked ready to strike any moment!

Did you know squid and cuttlefish have 8 arms or legs, and 2 long club-like tentacles that strike out to capture their meals?

The next tank was the Day Octopus tank. This ceph was the hardest to find in all the exhibits. That’s a bit ironic as it is supposed to be active during the day, while most other cephalopods are active at night! I saw part of its white body and eye hidden in the reef rocks.

The amazing Wunderpus was next. This is an amazing octopus that changes form to mimic other poisonous creatures, including a lionfish, banded sole, and a sea snake. It was active and crawling along the window so I could see its underside of suckers and mouth.

The Red Octopus is common to Monterey Bay and other cold regions of the ocean. This one was awake and was crawling along the window.

There are 2 tanks of Giant Pacific Octopus. Both were squished into the upper right window corner. One was fully visible, and the other only had some suckers showing. Be careful here, as it is dark and people easily run into each other. The largest recorded GPO was 13 feet (4 meters) long!

I was surprised the Chambered Nautilus tank was so large and full of dozens of nautilus. I have never seen so many at once. I also haven’t seen them stuck to the ledges in the exhibit before.

I love the Flamboyant Cuttlefish, it is worth finding a video about them. I have seen some before at Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences where they were in a tank that didn’t overwhelm them. Here, the tank was much too large and the inches long cuttlefish got lost in the tank. They were visible, though it took most people awhile to spot them. When they are excited, their colors are surreal, and their flashing moves like a conveyer belt along their body. They also are known for “walking” across the sea floor.

I had never seen a Stumpy Cuttlefish. They were small, only a few inches long, and they were camouflaged and hiding in the reef rocks. They were readily visible though.

The last tank was for the Common Cuttlefish, a species I have taken care of before. One cuttlefish even accidentally caught my hand in their tentacles once! There were dozens at the “cute” size of 3-4 inches long. They were floating near the fake sea grass, and the ones buried under the sand were visible to visitors.

It was so busy the day I was there that I didn’t read very many signs, or stop to enjoy the artwork, some of it created just for this exhibit. Overall I give the exhibit an A+. The Tentacles exhibit is worth the trip to Monterey, especially for cephalopod lovers!

Whale Shark Snorkeling off of Cancun, Mexico

whale sharks cancun mexico
Whale Shark: photo by Cherilyn Jose

Snorkeling with Whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico

Last summer (2012), I got the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to swim with whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico. Whale sharks are the largest fish and the largest shark in the ocean, yet they only eat the tiniest denizens of the ocean, plankton. They are as gentle, magnificent, and as large as their namesake “whales.”

I want to share my experiences, and especially the logistics, so anyone seeking out whale sharks (or thinking about it) will have an idea of what’s ahead for them.

More than a year ago, while perusing Shark Research Institute’s auction catalog, I came across a whale shark expedition led by one of the world’s pre-eminent whale shark researchers, Dr. Jennifer V. Schmidt of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I quickly signed up for the 5 day expedition, and I even dragged my family along to Cancun, Mexico (only I participated in the expedition though).


So not only did I get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snorkel alongside whale sharks, but I got to work alongside a whale shark scientist. Dr. Schmidt accompanied our group on the boat. Her lectures every evening were very informative and clear, as my 7 year old son could easily follow along. I have read everything I can find on the internet on whale sharks (most books are out of date), but I learned a lot from Dr. Schmidt, especially about her genetic work with whale sharks. Dr. Schmidt is not only knowledgeable about whale sharks, but also about the Cancun area. I enjoyed all her restaurant recommendations, and had there been time, I would have taken her advice for sightseeing.

The hotel we stayed at, the Radisson Hacienda Cancun, caters to businessmen, and was comfortable and clean. The advantage of not being on the main hotel strip of Cancun was that we were only 5 minutes away from the dock and it was much quieter. If staying on the strip, the van trip to the dock could take up to an hour or more depending on how many stops there were.

The expedition planned for 3 mornings of snorkeling with the whale sharks, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and we only got two trips in. A hurricane passed just south of us, and the ocean near us felt its effects. The two mornings were more than worth the price of the trip (click here for information on this year’s trip).

The wind and waves began to kick up on the second morning, and many of the people on the boat were seasick. This meant my expedition’s party of 3 was allowed to stay in the water longer than the normally 10 allowed minutes per two people per tour guide. There are guidelines for eco-tourists to follow, most notably staying two guests per tour guide, and not touching or riding the whale sharks. But many boats did not stick to the tour guide rule, as we saw many lost tourists looking for their boat. The boats near the whale sharks must be permitted, but often other unauthorized boats will join in on the fun. Such is the price for eco-tourism, but it is better that the whale sharks are being loved, rather than killed for their large fins for shark fin soup.

Upon arrival at the dock (Puerto Juarez), it is quite chaotic with so many people there. In a nearby packed room there is a briefing, sometimes after a long wait in English (and also one in Spanish) of conduct around the whale sharks. They require biodegradable and eco-friendly sunscreens, and they sell some there if you don’t bring your own.

The souvenirs, such as t-shirts and stuffed animals, sold there benefit the whale sharks directly so they are worth buying. Bring along a credit card or American dollars, as they didn’t seem to have change for the pesos I brought. I bought two “I swam with whale sharks” t-shirts, and a stuffed whale shark.

After the briefing, it is a mad rush for tourists to get to their boats, many which are pinned in by other boats. The boat ride takes awhile (up to 45 minutes or more depending on where the whale sharks are feeding that day) and I got rather wet, so dress accordingly. The previous week’s expedition had gorgeous weather and calm seas, but my expedition had the opposite weather. Be sure to bring seasickness medication just in case. I always take a Bonine the night before, and the morning of my boat rides and have yet to be seasick.

Then out of the blue, there are boats everywhere in a boat “convention.” The water crawls with whale shark dorsal fins, and the tips of their tails sticking up out of the water. Then a whale shark cruises by, with its cavernous mouth gulping down water. There are so many boats around that engine fumes abound. The fumes made me more nauseous than the growing waves and rocking boat!

There were not any directions from the boat operators on how to get into the water, or for the order of people entering the water, but basically the first ones ready enter first with the tour guide. A lifejacket or wetsuit is required to enter the water, and they provide mask, snorkel, and fins if you do not bring your own.

Entering the water for the first time is surreal. There is something magical and humbling about seeing a 15-30 foot long behemoth emerge out of the clear blue water. It took several moments for my over-awed brain to register, “oh my, that’s a whale shark!” They are so graceful underwater for something so large (up to 9 tons for a 30 foot whale shark). Sometimes the whale sharks headed straight for me, and it took me several seconds to remember to get out of the way as I was too busy snapping photos. The whale sharks are highly maneuverable, and they will avoid any collisions. It is still a good idea to get out of their way though.

A good tour guide is invaluable, as many times I was transfixed on one whale shark, only to miss another one right behind me or underneath me. The whale sharks passed within inches of me, but never brushed me. They are definitely close enough to touch, but one must resist the temptation to touch them!

Pictures and videos do not compare to seeing whale sharks in person. Their gray bodies are splattered with white spots and stripes. Their spots look as though they were hand painted on with splotchy edges around them. I was mesmerized by the patterns of spots and stripes on a whale shark. These patterns are as unique to each individual as our fingerprints are to us. Scientists photograph an area just behind the gills to identify whale sharks in a worldwide database called Ecocean Whale Shark ID Library (whaleshark.org) Anyone can submit a photo to the database and help whale shark scientists track these magnificent creatures all around the globe.

The sunlight looks as though it is dancing across the whale sharks’ backs as they gracefully glide by. I once counted 10 seconds from when the whale shark’s head first passed me, to the tail passing me. It reminds me of the opening scene of (the original) Star Wars, where the Imperial Star Destroyer passes “overhead” for several seconds.

The whale sharks rhythmically gulp in seawater constantly, as this is how they eat. The water they inhale gets filtered through their gills, and their gills get covered in “food” which they then swallow. The whale sharks are attracted to this particular area because fish spawn here, and the whale sharks slurp up their eggs for an entire summer (May-September).

Depending on how many people are on the boat, one might get 2-3 10 minute sessions in the water with one other tourist and a tour guide. The minutes pass by quickly, and it is exciting to see the multitude of whale sharks from the boat. There were at least 100 whale sharks in the area we were in. It is sad when the boat finally motors off.

The boat I was on, through Caribbean Connection, stopped at a shallow coral reef for snorkeling after the whale shark encounters. They then stopped for lunch (with freshly made ceviche) and anchored off of Isla Mujeres. There the water is chest deep, and many people enjoyed a drink in the water. Then the boat travels back to port.

It was then time for me to go back to my hotel (by van, or you can take a taxi), to reflect on the once-in-a-lifetime experience I just had! Please contact me with any questions, as I would be happy to answer them.

The 3 Most Pressing Ocean Issues for World Oceans Day

dried shark fins photo by Paul Hilton
Actress Sharon Kwok and 30,000 dried shark fins in Hong Kong: photo by Paul Hilton

This World Oceans Day I would like to reflect on the state of the oceans. There are 3 major issues facing the oceans. They are (in no particular order):

1. Overfishing
2. Climate Change
3. Pollution

1.Overfishing

*It is estimated that 90% of all large fish (and many smaller species) have been fished out of the oceans.

*According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion.

Fishing can be too efficient with entire schools of fish being caught at once. Fishing can also be incredibly wasteful with by-catch such sea turtles, whales, and sharks when only one fish is being sought (like tuna).

Shark finning is a prime example of overfishing. It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed a year. They are killed mainly for their fins, which is used to make shark fin soup. Sharks are top level predators, and their naturally low numbers in the wild reflect that. As a consequence, they are slow to reproduce and cannot keep up with the current levels of fishing.


2.Climate Change

Climate change includes global warming, sea level rise, and ocean acidification.

Global warming will cause the oceans to become warmer, and may substantially change ocean circulation patterns. This may disrupt natural feeding cycles and may affect the weather. Some ocean species, like coral, only have a narrow range of temperature tolerance and will die if the oceans become too warm.

Global warming will cause polar ice caps to melt, and sea level will rise accordingly. Some island nations will be flooded out of existence.

Ocean acidification occurs when the pH of the seawater decreases and becomes more acidic (think soda pop). This is because the oceans absorb about a quarter of all carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere. Ocean acidification will make it harder for some animals to build their calcium based shells, and cause many species to go extinct. Ocean acidification has other deleterious effects that are just being discovered.

sea turtle eating plastic
Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish: photo by dep.state.fl.us

3.Pollution

Pollution can come in many forms, like untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, or sedimentation. The worst offender by far is plastic pollution. Every imaginable bit of plastic ends up in the oceans one way or another. From plastic bags, to unidentifiable microscopic bits, ocean denizens at all levels of the food chain are affected.

Possible Solutions
While the outlook for the three problems mentioned sound bleak, there is hope.

*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 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 (bring your own bags to the grocery store!), and by supporting local plastic bag bans. We can also pressure manufacturers to use only recyclable packaging.

So this World Oceans Day, please realize that everyday each one of us can make a difference in the health of our oceans!