Elephant Seals, El Nino & Domoic Acid Poisoning

elephant seal
Newborn Elephant Seal photo by: Charmaine Coimbra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Cool Facts About Blue Whales

Blue Whale by NOAA
Blue Whale photo by: NOAA

1. Blue Whales are the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth. They are larger than any dinosaurs were.

2. Blue Whales can grow to 100 feet long (30.5 meters) long. That’s as long as 20 school children laying down end-to-end!

3. Blue Whales weigh as much as 26 adult bull elephants (about 200 tons).

4. Blue Whales eat up to 40 million krill (a small kind of shrimp) a day, or about 8,000 pounds (3,629 kg). That’s the equivalent of eating 32,000 quarter pound hamburgers a day!

5. A Blue Whale’s heart is the size and weight of a compact car. It pumps a whopping 60 gallons per beat.

6. A Blue Whale can live over 80 years.

7. The deep rumbling sounds from a Blue Whale can travel for thousands of miles under the sea.

8. Before whaling, there were 250,000 Blue Whales on Earth. Now there are less than 10,000.

9. A Blue Whale calf (baby) gains 250 pounds (113 kg) a day just from its mother’s milk!

10. Central California, USA has the largest concentration of Blue Whales in the world. There are about 2,000 there seasonally.

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

Meet the Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

Vaquita Porpoise Gulf of California
Vaquita photo by: Chris Johnson courtesy of http://vaquita.tv

Hello, my name is Vance, and I am a Vaquita. I am also known as the Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise. I live off of Mexico in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). There are only 30 of us left (as of 2018), making us the most critically endangered small cetacean (whale) in the world. Eek, that’s a lot of pressure on us, just trying to stay alive. I’d hate to go extinct just because we live in a limited range.

We are the smallest cetacean, reaching lengths of 4-5 feet (1.2-1.5 meters) and weights of 65-120 pounds (30-55 kg). We are hard for humans to study because we avoid boats if possible. It’s nothing personal, except that we’ve had so much trouble with humans setting out fishing nets (see below). We hang out in pairs, but sometimes we get together in groups of 7-10. We eat schooling fish such as croakers and grunts, as well as crustaceans, squid and octopus

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Our greatest threats are through commercial fishing. Gillnets are miles long, and are used to catch shrimp for export to places such as the United States. Shrimp is the most popular seafood of choice there. Gillnets catch anything and anybody in its path, including us Vaquita.
There is also a fish called the Totoaba, whose swim bladders are exported to China for a medicinal soup. This is an illegal fishery, and Vaquita get caught in these nets too.

The bad news is that cetaceans worldwide are caught as bycatch in fishermen’s nets. 300,000 cetaceans die a year, or one every two minutes, just to satisfy human’s demand for seafood.

The good news is that there is a moratorium on gillnets in the Gulf of California for two years. If it gets enforced regularly, then my population of Vaquita have a chance to recover. Females have calves every other year, and the calves already born will have a chance to grow up.

For now, it’s time for my morning meal. It’s time to celebrate!

For more on the Vaquita, visit Vaquita, Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise
NOAA Fisheries Page about the Vaquita

Photos and video taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/847/08 ) from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instiuto Nacional de Ecología (INE).

10 Cool Facts About Dolphins

dolphin mother and calf
Dolphin mother and calf Photo by: Cherilyn Jose

1. Dolphins are mammals and breathe air through the blowhole at the top of their head. Their blowhole doesn’t shoot out water, only air.

2. Killer Whales, or Orcas, are the largest dolphin and grow up to 23 feet (7 meters) long.

3. The most common and recognizable dolphin is the Bottlenose Dolphin.

4. Some Bottlenose Dolphins use a tool, a sponge on its snout, to help flush out fish on the bottom of the ocean.

5. Dolphins mainly eat fish, squid and crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters) that they swallow whole.

6. Female Dolphins are called cows, males are called bulls, and babies are called calves.

7. Dolphin calves are born tail first.

8. A Dolphin can “see ” by using sound waves bouncing off objects in the environment (called echolocation).

9. Dolphins are very intelligent and can recognize themselves in a mirror (like humans, chimpanzees and elephants).

10. Dolphins have signature whistles which are like human names.