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!

My Unforgettable Moment with Mae, the Sea Otter Surrogate Mom from the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Mae, southern sea otter mother
Mae, Surrogate Sea Otter Mom from the Monterey Bay Aquarium

I am very sad to hear of the passing of Mae on November 17, 2012. Mae was one of southern sea otters in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Exhibit. I first met Mae 11 years ago when she was named “199.” She did not have a “real” name yet, because the hope was that she would someday be released back into the wild. Mae was picked up as a 2 day old orphan from Santa Cruz, California.

I still remember the dark and foggy Monterey night on my volunteer swing shift when I held Mae in the palm of my hand. She was only days old, and probably only weighed a few pounds. My hands are petite sized, so she really was tiny!

I had made her “clamshake” formula earlier, and I fed it to her in a warmed human baby’s bottle. I supported the back of her head with one hand while I held the bottle to her mouth with the other hand. Mae guzzled the formula down quickly, and the white formula dribbled down from her mouth and onto her soft brown fur. Sea otter fur is so soft and dense (up to 1,000,000 hairs per square inch versus 100,000 hairs on a human’s entire head!) because the water in which they live is so cold (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round).

I placed Mae in the water trough next to her haul out, and cleaned her fur the best I could through my disposable latex rubber gloves. Sea otter pups cannot sink, so there was no fear of me letting go and her falling to the bottom of the tank. I dried her with bath towels, and groomed her with brushes or combs. I forgot why I picked her up, but as I held her, she nuzzled her tiny muzzle into my hand. In that moment, I knew that the hundreds of smelly tanks I had cleaned as a volunteer was worth it!

Peering through my dark welder’s mask, I could barely make out the black eyes and nose that a sea otter has. Human caregivers in the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program, or SORAC, wear welder’s masks so the pups can’t make eye contact, and wear a large black poncho to disguise their human shape. The idea is to keep sea otter pups from bonding too strongly to humans, and stop them from interacting with humans when released back into the wild. Now the sea otters themselves are the surrogate mothers!

Mae was the first sea otter to raise a previously orphaned pup on exhibit. “207,” later named Toola, was the first sea otter surrogate mom in SORAC’s history. Her first surrogate pup, “217” is still alive in the wild, and he is even a territorial male! Talk about a second chance at life!

Holding Mae in the palm of my hand, I had never felt so close to any animal before. This tiny and frail sea otter needed me at that moment as much as I needed her. It was proof to me that all beings on the planet (furred, scaled, or human) are invariably connected whether we acknowledge it or not. I do not know how long that moment lasted, but it is etched in my memory for a lifetime.

For more on Mae, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blog

For more about sea otters, check out my post, 10 Amazing Facts About Sea Otters

Eew, the Freshwater Eel and Why You Shouldn’t Eat Me!

Monterey Bay Aquarium's seafood watch
Freshwater Eel

Hi, I’m Eew, a freshwater eel. I got my name because, well, humans don’t seem to like eels very much. Maybe it’s because we’re slimy, long, and very snake-like. Maybe it’s because we have a mouth full of sharp teeth, and we open and close our mouths often so we can breathe. Honestly, I’m not that scary! I would keep your fingers out of crevices while visiting a coral reef because our first instinct is to bite. It’s not like we have any limbs to use on self-defense!

Want to know something funny? Even though we are called “freshwater” eels, we actually spend a portion of our lives in the ocean! Eel larvae (newborn eels) live in the ocean, and when large enough they enter estuaries (water in bays that is less salty than ocean seawater), and then finally to freshwater rivers. Adult eels enter the ocean to spawn, the opposite of salmon. Salmon leave the ocean to make the trek up rivers to spawn where they were born. There about 6 species of freshwater eels used in sushi, where it is called unagi.

I’m on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch red list, which means that you should not eat me! That is because the current freshwater eel fishery is not sustainable. About 90 percent of the eel consumed in the United States is farm-raised. While that sounds nice, it doesn’t take in account that young eels are captured from the wild to be raised in farms. These young eels are not allowed to grow up and reproduce, hence the unsustainable part of the fishery. Ugh, I would hate to live in such crowded quarters, with poop and disease everywhere! Besides, since eels are carnivores, farmed eels just end up eating wild caught fish anyways (which is very inefficient if you think about the farm animals humans raise to eat).

So, in short, please do not order unagi with your sushi! All of us freshwater eels thank you!

Please download Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app for information on other seafood not to eat.

UPDATE: Maine’s (USA) eels are being illegally caught to supply Asian market. Read more in this Economist article

Farewell to Joy and Toola, Surrogate Sea Otter Moms Extraordinaire at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Joy the surrogate sea otter mother
Joy the Sea Otter (photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium)

I am sad to hear of the passing of one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter surrogate moms, Joy. It is also a sad day for the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program (SORAC) because they have lost their top two prolific surrogate mothers in less than 6 months. I volunteered at SORAC for 4 years, and for the last 2 years I commuted two hours each way from Oakland to Monterey, California to make my Friday swing shift. It was an amazingly diverse bunch of people to work with, and for you statisticians, not only were the majority the paid workers and volunteers women, but an inordinate (50%?) were left handed!

I met Toola (who passed away March 3, 2012) when she was just “207,” and she had just become the first sea otter mother to adopt an orphan pup (#217) in captivity. SORAC had just installed closed circuit video cameras, and it was a joy to watch Toola so lovingly groom and feed her new pup.

Up to then, orphaned pups were cared for, hands on, by human surrogate mothers (or otter pops as we lovingly called the male workers!). The bond I felt holding that tiny and frail sea otter pup, only days old, in the palm of my hand is only matched by the birth of my own human children! That pup is now an adult exhibit sea otter, which makes me feel quite old. The first creature I ever bottle fed was a sea otter pup, and I had painstakingly hand shucked dozens of clams to make its formula! Every human sea otter surrogate mom would respond promptly to a pup’s signature ear piercing scream, “eek, eek, eek” as they would to a human baby’s cry.

Now onto boisterous Joy: I just remember hearing the radio and telephone calls that Joy was once again interacting with kayakers, and that it was time to pick her up. I occasionally participated in field rescues, but most of the time I was on the receiving end at the aquarium where I helped to cart around (SORAC uses dog kennels), weigh, and help the workers and veterinarian with a physical exam. There is nothing more surreal than seeing, under bright examination lights, a once screaming otter subdued under anesthesia with his or her massive set of chompers clasped around an intubation tube!

Once deemed captive, my only interaction with Joy was to throw food into her tank, and later clean her tank (the stench of which I remember quite well-rotting seafood mixed with sea otter poop). At least with her, we no longer had to use the Darth Vader suit that consisted of a black welder’s helmet and black poncho that we used with releasable sea otters so they did not imprint on humans. I also got to help with a few training sessions with her. Most sea otters adore shrimp and will gobble it up, and will cast aside squid thrown onto their chest!

So I hope both Toola and Joy are receiving all the shrimp they can eat up above, and I wish the next generation of surrogate sea otter moms good luck as they have a tough act to follow!

Great White Shark’s Adventure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

great white shark, Monterey Bay Aquarium
Great White Shark photo by: Cherilyn Chin

Hello, I’m a Great White Shark. My ancestors and I have been roaming the oceans since before there were dinosaurs on earth. We have been the kings and queens of the sea…until now. Humans have made the oceans unsafe for me and my fellow sharks. Not only is the water we swim in dirty with garbage and chemical pollutants, but we are being fished and killed nearly to extinction because of shark finning.

And unlike most fish that are fully utilized, just our fins are cut off. This is because our fins are used in Asia for a delicacy called shark fin soup. To add insult to injury, finned sharks are most often thrown back in to ocean alive to die a slow, agonizing death. What hurts another shark hurts me too, as it is almost unbearable to see a fellow shark alive for days on end, and unable to swim due to missing fins.

Recently, I went on an exciting adventure. I was accidentally caught in a fishing net and taken on board a fishing boat. I was sure I was going to die like many of my friends before me. But I was lucky, and I was taken alive! I first went to a very large outdoor ocean pen where I could swim freely. I was fed fish off a stick. It was quite a treat to not have to catch my own food! How long will this luxury last, I kept wondering to myself.

I was later transported in a large tanker truck to the Monterey Bay Aquarium where I was put into the Open Sea tank. While the fat tuna in the tank looked tantalizing enough to eat, I enjoyed being fed salmon by a pole. I would have preferred to catch my own meals, but it was fun being lazy! I saw many people each day through the aquarium window. I loved the transfixed looks of awe on their faces when I swam past. The flashes were annoying, but luckily they didn’t happen very often (thank you docents!).

I felt myself growing larger each day. One day I sensed one of the yellowfin tuna getting weaker from sickness. Once I smell blood in the water, my primitive instincts kick in and chomp! I bit hard into that tuna. That got many of the marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium worried that I was getting too big for my britches, as well as too large for the tank.

Before I knew it, I was in a stretcher on my way back to the tanker transport truck. They stuck a satellite tag onto my back so they could track where I traveled in the ocean. The tag eventually popped off and sent information back to the marine biologists that told of my travels. But before the tag popped off, each time I felt the tag as I swam through the open ocean I remembered my great adventure to and from the Monterey Bay Aquarium!

Also see 10 Cool Shark Facts: Your Questions Answered!

For more on sharks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium click here