Ocean of Hope

Guest Post-Whale Watching: Southern California Style!

Humpback whale mother & calf
Humpback whale mother & calf flukes photo by: Vaishali Shah

My name is Vaishali Shah and I am a volunteer Naturalist for the Cabrillo Whalewatch Program sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter.

I have been a volunteer for 5 years and it has been an amazing experience. Currently we have over 100 volunteers who join the whale watch boats on their daily tours from December to April. They educate the public on the variety of marine life found in the Santa Monica Bay, CA.

These months (winter and spring) are when the Pacific Gray whale migrates from Alaska to Baja, Mexico and back again. Being right in the migration path, whale watching boats rarely have go out more than 2-3 miles to see these amazing animals. This particular season has been an epic year for gray whale counting. All along the west coast of US, people count the number of gray whales going past. Volunteers, including Whalewatch naturalists, take part in this activity at the Point Vicente Interpretative Center in Palos Verdes, CA as part of the Gray whale census that lasts from 1st December to April, dawn to dusk every day.

This year has been a record year for the Southbound migration of gray whales as 1900 whales have been counted. This is an all time high in the 32 year-old census. This made for many exciting whale watch trips. Each trip lasts for 3 hours and we would see anywhere between 10-16 whales at the peak of migration. This year was fantastic for me as I got to witness my first breaching whale, (when the whale comes right out of the water and splashes down) a truly breath-taking experience.

The captains of the boats are extremely sensitive to the behavior of the whales and will respect them by keeping their distance. By law all vessels, including paddle boarders, have to stay at least 100 yards away from any whale. On numerous occasions, the captain has shut off the boat engine only for the whale to approach and check us out! One time a Humpback whale came so close, I got covered in whale snot!

We see many other types of whales too. Southern California has a variety of different species. This year in the bay we have had resident humpbacks including a mother and calf, and finback whales (the 2nd largest animal in the ocean). There are already sightings of blue whales (the largest animal known to have lived), which usually come to visit us in summertime to feed. Every now and then we get the very rare chance to see orcas, pilot whales, false killer whales and even sperm whales have been sighted.

Common dolphins seen while whale watching
Common Dolphins photo by: Vaishali Shah

The whales with their gigantic size are what people come to see on the whale watch, but it is often the smaller cetacean species that make the trip worthwhile! Dolphins. There are up to 5 species of dolphins in Southern California and the most well known being bottlenose dolphin (Flipper was one). However, my favorite are the common dolphins. On a good day these animals will jump, leap, tail slap and bow-ride the boat. They can be seen in mega pods of thousands. They come close to the boat. It is truly something when you look down into the eye of a wild dolphin.

Last but not least, a typical whale watch is never complete without seeing California Sea Lions. Whether they are resting on a buoy or porpoising behind the boat, children and adults love them. How could you not with those big surly eyes!

Hope you have enjoyed a brief glimpse of a whale watch trip in Santa Monica Bay.


This is a link to the Cabrillo Whalewatch Program Facebook page, come join us!


I also take photographs on the trips, you can buy
matted prints at my Etsy Store: CreatureCurious

Guest Post: World’s Most Fabulous Diving Hotspots

World’s Most Fabulous Diving Hotspots by Angel Jessica

For some international tourists, a leisure trip would not be complete without engaging in some form of fun activity. For such tourists, planning a vacation includes identifying locations that can be described as sporting destinations. These locations are either naturally or artificially designed to support various sporting activities. Countries with long and safe coastlines are bound to offer some of the best diving experiences. Indeed, most divers prefer areas that will allow them to explore their beautiful fantasies of the underwater world and at the same time, allows underwater photographers to take stunning underwater pictures. Depending on the main reason why one wishes to go diving, they can choose a location that suits their needs. However, with scuba diving becoming increasingly popular, diving enthusiasts are looking for new locations. Here are some of the World’s Most Fabulous Diving Hotspots.

Cocos Island, Costa Rica
For those who wish to visit this island, they must take the long journey from Puntarenas, the mainland port. Indeed, the beauty of the island is worth the trip and any tourist who decides to go to the island will have great fun. However, only experienced divers are allowed to dive the waters of the four mile-long island. Divers visit the island by means of a live aboard.

Magnetic Island, Australia
Many people have praised this famous diving hotspot for a number of reasons. First, anyone who jumps into the water will be in a position to see beautiful underwater wildlife. At the same time, divers enjoy great visibility at this diving spot, making it easy to make the most of the diving experience. Apart from the amazing marine life, another factor that makes this spot attractive is the fact that it is accessible from the sheltered beaches of Townsville. For international divers who are keen on travelling to Australia, they must ensure that they obtain an Australian visa with them.

Ambergris Caye, Belize
Belize, home to the second largest reef in the world, is also renowned as a great diving spot. What makes this spot stand out is that the diving depths are shallower in comparison to those of other diving spots. The area has more than adequate accommodations, so visitors will not have to worry. All that will be left is for tourists to enjoy the splendours of the area.

Red Sea, Egypt
The best diving spot in Egypt is at Yolanda Reef, which is located in Ras Mohammed National Park. The best kept national park in the country also has a number of other great diving spots. For this reason, divers can also explore Abu Nuhas and Woodhouse Reef diving sites.

Baa Atoll, Maldives
The fact that this atoll has featured on several television documentaries is a clear indication that the location is a great and popular diving spot. Indeed, while the atoll offers tourists a chance to indulge and have fun, the same place allows scientists to conduct scientific studies on animals such as manta rays and whale sharks.

Guest Post: Cuttlefish by Grant Stirton

cuttlefish
Cuttlefish photo by Grant Stirton

The Cuttlefish

There’s one cryptic reef dweller, whose superior intelligence, curiosity and charisma has always captured my heart. With over 120 species worldwide, the cuttlefish is both an adaptable and resourceful predator. They belong to the taxonomic class of Cephalopods and their morphology is closely related to octopus and squid. I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter them many times over the years as they are common throughout the tropical coral reefs of South East Asia.

Why Are They So Interesting?

Behind their curious looks lies a relatively large and well developed brain. Scientific analysis has shown that their cognitive abilities can approach that of a two-year human child, making them the most intelligent of all invertebrates. In my experience, many seem to revel in an encounter with divers, so long as they are approached slowly and in a non-threatening manner. I’ve even put out my hand and had a particularly interested individual swim over and sit down for a short visit. Often they will look directly at you, examining and investigating, until they satisfy their natural inquisitiveness.

One of their most unique adaptions relates to their eyes and how they see. Shaped like the letter W, each eye has two pupils, allowing them to see forward and backwards at the same time. And although they are colour blind, they can detect the polarization of light, which significantly enhances their perception of contrast and ability to spot well-camouflaged prey.

Using a combination of specialized skin cells and pigment, they can also instantaneous change colour to match their surroundings, as a means of camouflage, to communicate or to ward off predators. In one study, biologists were able to train them to produce shapes on their backs as a form of communication when they desired food. Normally, if they feel threatened or are being aggressive, they will change colour to a dark reddish or brown. As you can see from the picture, our little friend was quite calm and happy, even though I was less than twelve inches away with a big camera. He was intent on having a very good look at his reflection in my lens and completely ignored me.

Although they are a mainly a predator of crabs and small fish, they are also prey for larger marine animals including fish, sharks and eels. As a means to defend themselves and escape an attack, they possess, as do octopus and squid, the ability to shoot out a trail of ink that creates a pseudo smoke-screen. Interestingly for photographers, many old sepia-toned prints were made using their ink. Fortunately today, this traditional ink has been replaced with less environmentally destructive synthetic varieties.

All this intelligence, adaption and cleverness requires a solid engine. As a result, the cuttlefish has three hearts in order to ensure orderly circulation. This is a necessity as they do not have the iron containing protein hemoglobin in their blood that vertebrates do, but rather hemocyanin, which is a copper containing protein that is less efficient in the transport of oxygen.

The cuttlefish also uses a form of jet propulsion to move through the water column, allowing them to swim both forwards and backwards effortlessly. An internal structure called the cuttlebone, which is porous and made of aragonite, allows them maintain perfect neutral buoyancy at depth via pumping gas into the structure. Even the United States military has borrowed from this concept and adapted a similar design for maintaining the buoyancy of their nuclear submarines.

If you do come across one of these amazing creatures while diving, here are a few suggestions that will help ensure a memorable, safe and unique photographic opportunity:

1. Always approach them slowly and calmly. A very slow approach from below or at eye level is best, as this is much less threatening than a big, loud diver dropping right in on top of them.

2. I always make sure to leave them an easy way to escape, so that they don’t feel cornered and decide to retreat. This also ensures I don’t end up being sprayed in the face with foul tasting ink.

3. Photographically, they make great subjects, however any erratic movement is likely to scare them. It’s best to back away slightly and ensure your camera settings, composition and frame before slowly getting into the right position for a good shot. It’s much better to get one good shot than a series of mediocre ones. I haven’t found flash to be much of an issue in frightening them, however, I do try to keep it on the lowest power setting possible given the light and conditions. Blinding an animal with a powerful flash is not only poor practice, but also lessens your chances for a follow up shot.

The accompanying photo was taken on the reef slope next to the USS Liberty Wreck located in Bali, Indonesia. We came across this cuttlefish at the end of our dive as we made our way up the shallow reef slope back to shore. This individual was so curious that we ended up spending almost a full ten minutes with each other. This allowed me the chance to get very close with my macro lens and take a memorable picture.

Our oceans are full amazing creatures and for many we are only beginning to understand their lifestyles and importance in the overall eco-system. The cuttlefish is a perfect example of an animal full of personality, but that has also provided us with a wealth of knowledge about the delicate balance of our marine environments.
[100mm macro lens, 1/100 sec @ f/4.0, ISO 200]

Grant Stirton
Grant Stirton

Grant Stirton is a passionate Canadian photographer, writer and avid adventurer who specializes in marine environments, culture and travel. He can be reached at www.grantstirton.com, twitter @grantstirton, Facebook www.facebook.com/LuumbaTribe .

Sex in the Sea: Uncovering the Mating Behavior of the Giant Sea Bass

Sea Bass
The Giant Sea Bass: photo by Orange County Register

Brian Clark is a graduate student at California State University Northridge. He is currently crowdfunding his research project “Sex in the Sea: Uncovering the Mating Behavior of the Giant Sea Bass” Here is more from Brian (aka JR) Clark:

The GIANT SEA BASS, Stereolepis gigas, is the big and beautiful goliath of the eastern Pacific. This is a fish that is not only important to its ecosystem, but has been seen as a trophy to fisherman up and down the California coast. Over the years they have been fished to almost extinction and no one was ever able to do scientific research on them. Recently, they have started being spotted in southern California so I thought it would be the perfect time to finally learn a little something about GIANTS. I’m part of Dr. Larry Allen’s Ichthyology lab at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) but we have picked up the nickname as the “Giant Sea Bass Lab.” We are trying to get a well-rounded view on the basic biology and increase the conservation efforts for this endangered fish.

I am looking into the reproductive behavior of this fish and I believe that this study is critical to their preservation. This study will be the first to look at the behavioral aspects and strategies for the fishes within their family, Polyprionidae. Giant sea bass are thought to breed in shallow waters where other species in their family are thought to spawn at extreme depths, making observations not feasible. If you are interested, you can learn more and donate to research here: experiment.com/savethegiants

JR Clark
Brian Clark

A little about myself, I grew up living close to the beach and couldn’t get enough of it. I was always in the water but never really knew what was going on beneath the surface. In school we were only taught about the “beautiful” tropical fishes and never really learned about the beauty of the temperate water fishes, but it was something I was always curious about. So I decided to dedicate my time to studying the temperate waters of California. I started my career as a Marine Biologist at San Francisco State University. While I was there I worked in an evolutionary development lab that focused on fish where I found out that genetic work is not the life for me. I was then given the opportunity to do some research out on Catalina Island and studied dominance behavior of leopard sharks, Triakis semifasciata. It was an awesome project and during the study I realized that I wanted to do observational research on marine organisms, mainly fishes and sharks. Currently, I am a graduate student at CSUN and am extremely excited to be studying Giant sea bass behavior.

As a grad student I don’t have much free time, so when I can, I like to spend the afternoon playing disc golf or just bumming around at the beach. I also recently moved to the Valley and I have made it a mission of mine to try every taqueria in the area (there’s about 10 within a mile of my house). Tacos here are cheap and really really good, so it’s been a fun adventure that my friends and I can partake in!

Guest Post: Interview with Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry National Geographic photographer width=
One of National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry's iconic images of a Southern Right Whale

The following is an excerpt from True to Me Too’s interview with National Geographic photojournalist, Brian Skerry. Brian discusses some of his iconic images in depth, as well as the changes he’s witnessed over the course of his career. The interview covers his desire to protect the oceans fragile ecosystems and provides examples of successful sustainable fish farms, the resilience of marine protected areas, and the urgent need to protect endangered species. Brian also provides a variety of career opportunities for people interested in working to protect our oceans.

True To Me Too is an educational based career website that highlights interesting people in unique fields who have turned their passion into a career. The site will also feature Dr. Barbosa from The Marine Mammal Center in California. Both interviews will provide readers with first hand accounts from people who are working towards building a better future for our oceans.

Brian Skerry: “I saw a lot of degradation, I saw far fewer fish in the places where I had seen many fish in the early days. I saw far fewer sharks, I saw dead habitats and ecosystems, corals that were dying, things that I didn’t think most people would know about. I felt a real sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to begin telling these stories as well.”

To read more of the interview with Brian Skerry click here

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