Ocean of Hope

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


*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


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!

An Extreme Introvert’s Post Science Online 2013 Conference Wrap-up

Scioctopus, Ollie, & blue marble meet at Science Online 2013

Now that I am firmly ensconced back in my home life, it feels like ScienceOnline 2013 was just a dream. Good thing I have all the Scio13 swag as proof I went! For those who have never heard of it, ScienceOnline is a non-profit organization with a 3 day annual conference for those who communicate science online through social media and blogs (as well as through many other means). Bloggers, students, journalists, scientists, teachers, and librarians are among the folk that attend. It is not about UFO’s and the supernatural, as one stranger asked a Scio13 attendee!

As a newbie no more, I wanted to write this post to encourage all future Scio introverts to give the conference a try. I met dozens of people, and I found a few that I know I could be good friends with if our paths meet again (twitter at least!). It was Bora’s post Scio12 post that mentioned introverts that convinced me to try for a spot. I got in during the first round, which I took as a sign that I was supposed to go! Plus, I am a bona fide cephalopod lover since I’ve taken care of quite a few, which I took as another sign that I was supposed to pack up and go.

I also wanted to write this post to explain about the different shades of being an extrovert or introvert. There are extreme extroverts, the kind that after work need to go to a bar to keep socializing. Then there are middle-of-the-road extroverts that are by all accounts very talkative, but need to unwind with quiet after a day at work. Then there are the middle-of the road introverts, the ones that can appear extroverted in group situations, but it is really taxing on them and they need to unwind after that.

I am an extreme introvert, which means (at least to me) in groups of greater than 3, I clam up. It’s like my brain shuts down, and internally I begin to chastise myself for not thinking of things to say. It’s something I have battled my whole life, but that I have begun to accept about myself. The good news is that it makes me a great listener, as I am always listening, and not thinking about what to interject next. I am fine in small group situations, and I can actually be chatty in one-on-one conversations.

At Scio conferences one will always encounter group situations, especially at all communal meals, which happens over all 3 main days. That is great on the budget, but it leaves extreme introverts like me internally panicking. At longer meals, like this year’s Thursday night at Cypress Manor, it is harder to find an excuse to leave a table or conversation when there isn’t a session about to start, and there is no quiet room (except the bathroom!) around. But hopefully by then one will have met a kindred spirit who is more of a middle-of-the-road introvert (who knows that you are not mute!) and have them do the talking for the both of you in group situations.

I surprisingly only spent a few minutes in the quiet room. I was on my way to another session and I popped my head in. It was nice not having to introduce myself, but somehow the room wasn’t inviting to me. The tables were almost full when I went in, and it felt very dark. Maybe a few couches or chairs around the room would have made it more inviting, but I instead ended up going to sessions early when I was done socializing. Also, I think since the seats at the tables were so close together, I felt more of a personal space issue rather than a social one. I preferred to find a chair in a corner somewhere outside the quiet room. Overall, it was nice knowing that most people at the conference have an understanding of introverts that the general public does not. Plus it’s acceptable to whip out your mobile device and tweet at anytime!

I found a good ice breaker, as I was the one giving out blue marbles. I estimate that I gave out about 3 dozen. I wasn’t brave enough to walk up to random persons to give them out (like at the Figshare Café), but I reserved giving them out to people I had one-on-one conversations with, or at the breakfast or lunch tables.

I wanted to explain a little more about the blue marbles project in case anyone was wondering. It was started a few years ago by sea turtle biologist and outside-the-box thinker Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. There are now more than 1 million blue marbles circulating the globe. For me as an ocean lover, I just want people to remember that we live on that blue marble, and that it is mainly made up of the oceans. It was invaluable to me as an ice-breaker, as every person I gave one to was truly grateful. That’s the other reason for the blue marble project, which is to spread gratitude. Whether or not you give your blue marble away, at least I truly felt gratitude for giving it! Visit bluemarbles.org for more details, and to buy your own.

I wanted to meet Bora to thank him for his Scio posts, and give him a blue marble, but it took until the last day for me to approach the big three. I gave one to Karyn and Anton, and if you (Bora or anyone else reading this) would like one for free, email me with your name and address (ollieoctopus at sbcglobal dot net) or DM @protectoceans

Besides meeting most of the people I identified as ocean people from the “look who’s coming” list, I was also very honored to meet Dr. Bondar. Such is Scio13, as I consider her one of Scio’s stars (she does describe herself as a “Biostarlet”), and I was hesitant to introduce myself as a result . I treat her posts with the reverence I do Oprah’s! When we did meet, I was able to give her a blue marble to film, and we had a fun conversation about our kids.

I had also wanted to talk to Dr. Al Dove about whale sharks, which is one of my favorite animals of the sea (tied with octopuses of course!). We ended up talking not only about whale sharks, but about our kids too. He recommended a BBC show for kids called “In the Garden.” Another example of interesting “things” learned outside the sessions! In other words, even your “idols” at Scio are truly approachable, and there will be various topics you can talk about together.

Scioctopus, Ollie, & Karyn at Science Online 2013

I was also honored to meet Karyn and thank her for all her hard work. I was surprised to learn she was an introvert too, as she seems so at home on stage! In any case, bravo to Karyn for her first wildly successful conference as Executive Director. Everything went smoothly for me, from registration online months ago, until I boarded my flight back home.
Thank you too for making my favorite aquarium animal Scio’s mascot (@Scioctopus)! I have taken care of a few octopuses in captivity, and they really are the most intelligent invertebrate (along with their cephalopod pals). I even taught one (then named Waldo, as in “Where’s Waldo?”) to unscrew a jar to get the live food inside! Waldo is now renamed Ollie, and is forever immortalized as my avatar.

Ollie and Deep Sea News squid Archie meet at Science Online 2013

I had the brilliant idea to take pictures of my own stuffed octopus, Ollie, at all the familiar Scio13 spots, but the idea came during the closing converge. Oh well, at least Ollie got to meet Scioctopus, Deep Sea News Squid Archie, Karyn, and got to use the microphone (and you thought cephalopods couldn’t talk…)

Last newbie tip: Yes, you really can walk up to anyone and they will be friendly. But if you’re an introvert, don’t feel bad if you don’t do that. You will be forced (in a good way) outside your comfort zone, and you will make friends. If I can do it, you can too! As a bonus you may also learn a lot in the sessions too! For me, the workshops (Analyzing Social Media Effectiveness and Maps for Journalists & Scientists) before the main conference were worth the red-eye flight to get there.

Sadly, I probably won’t attend Scio14, not because I don’t want to, but it will take me a couple of years to recover from this year’s experience. Just kidding, but I will be digesting all the material that I learned for several weeks to come. For next year, I am looking to convince my husband (who sadly doesn’t read this blog) to take the family to Cancun again to snorkel with the whale sharks. Seeing whale sharks again is probably the only thing better than a Science Online conference! I could change my mind, but I hope a newbie will take my place at Scio14. I do plan to come to future conferences though. Also let me know if blue marbles or a similar ice breaker makes its appearance at future Science Online conferences!

Ollie the Octopus has his say at Science Online 2013

Post note: This post only tangentially has to do with the ocean (except #ScioOcean coming up in October 2013!), and future posts will go back to ocean only posts.

Blue is the New Green: the Blue Mind Project & Book

BlueMind  Blue Marbles Project
See text for more on Blue Mind and the Blue Marbles Project

Blue Mind

Blue is the new green. Growing scientific research is proving what real estate agents, restaurant owners, and hotel managers have always known; an ocean view commands a premium price. What is it about the ocean that is so magnetic (and no, not those kind of magnets…)?

Dr. Wallace J Nichols

The leading researcher on why we love the ocean is Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, who likes to be referred to as simply “J.” J is a sea turtle biologist by training. His resume is very impressive, but what I am most impressed with is how he worked with locals in coastal cities in Mexico, and got them to become stewards of the sea turtles there. Through Grupo Tortuguero, thousands of people (in over 50 coastal communities) who once poached sea turtles and their eggs are now saving the sea turtles themselves!

Community-based Conservation

The term for that is community-based conservation. I first heard that term while in college at the University of California at Berkeley. My late favorite professor, Bernard Q. Nietschmann, had traveled around the world for National Geographic. He did a lot of work in Central America (among many other places). He really opened my eyes to injustice in the world when he explained what the Miskito Indians of Central America had to endure to get “red gold” (lobster) for the American restaurant chain Red Lobster. The divers there used primitive (i.e. dangerous) diving equipment and often got the bends. Without a decompression chamber nearby, the bends often cause permanent paralysis. Many families were left without a bread winner for income.

Blue Mind

Now back to J, and the phrase he has coined, “Blue Mind.” Blue Mind is his attempt to try and describe humans’ inexplicable draw to the salty ocean by using a new branch of science (he created!) called neuroconservation. For 9 years he has put on a Blue Summit, and speakers of diverse backgrounds have come, including scientists, ocean conservationists, and real estate agents. The last one was in 2019.

Ahh, the ocean…

Simply put, J has concluded that being by the ocean (or for some being on or in it) puts you in a semi-meditative state. Imagine the sound of waves crashing onto the beach, the feel of the ocean breeze on your face, and the gentle cries of seagulls flying overhead; isn’t it relaxing?

Support J and the Blue Marbles Project

To find out more about J and Blue Mind, visit his website, and please consider becoming one of his patrons on Patreon. Since J thinks outside the box, and conventional science is lagging behind on his unique research, he has crowd-sourced his income through Patreon.
Also, read about his Blue Marbles project. Since he started it, there are over 1 million blue marbles circulating the globe, and a blue marble has landed in the hands of celebrities such as James Cameron and his Holiness the Dalai Lama!

UPDATE: Exciting news, J has published a book called, “Blue Mind” out in the U.S. on July 22, 2014! Order your copy of Blue Mind today!

Also see a documentary on one of my role models, Dr. Sylvia Earle! This is a review of “Mission Blue” about her life with breathtaking scenes of the ocean.