Saturday, September 17, 2011

Monterey Bay Aquarium tour

Monterey Bay Aquarium invited Friends of the Elephant Seal docents to come visit the aquarium and meet their docents. MBA docents have a daily briefing, to keep them up to date on changing exhibits and news. We spent last Thursday with them at the aquarium. It was a fabulous experience!

We were greeted by Simone Mortan, manager of Guide Programs and the Guest Experience greeted us and led one of the two Behind the Scenes tours. Our group of 16 was divided into two groups of right for that tour.

We began with the docent briefing, led by Karin Wagner, senior trainer for the Guest Experience. She gave the update for the Hot Pink Flamingo exhibit, which was a temporary exhibit. Those typically stay for two years but often last for six. It will be replaced by an exhibit on Jellies. The aquarium has a new white shark on display, 4’3” long and 47 lbs. They had been concerned about whether he was eating but several feedings have been confirmed.

A docent reminded the group of upcoming activities for which volunteers are needed, such as the Halloween events. Fun activities for docents: a trip to Costa Rica in 2012, informational meeting.

Basking Shark Enrichment

She introduced the Basking Shark enrichment with a discussion of the differences between sharks and bony fishes. Basking Sharks are planktonivores, the second largest cold water fish, the equivalent of the tropical whale shark, the largest fish.

Instead of a swim bladder, the basking shark has a large liver, as much as 23 percent of body weight. Sharkskin samples to feel the dermal denticles. On basking shark, the denticles go in all directions rather than a single direction.

Shark reproduction may be by live birth or via egg case. Not all sharks cannibalize each other before birth, but sand tiger sharks will eat other embryos. Some will eat other fertilized eggs. Researchers found out when a researcher got bitten while dissecting a dead shark.

Reproduction is different between skates, which lay egg cases, and rays, which bear live young. To remember that, one docent suggested that you need a case for your skates., basking shark feeding video by Dan Burton, 37’ long shark. She mentioned a Youtube video of whale shark/basking shark comparison, but I wasn’t able to find it. However, this site gives a good comparison of humans to whale sharks,

Their gills almost surround the head when they are feeding. They can filter one third of a million gallons per hour. Their coloration, dark and light patches, may indicate that they spend time at surface, but no one knows for sure. They molt their gill rakers in the fall and re-grow them in the spring. Researchers don’t understand how they feed during that time, or if they do.

Local history of basking sharks in Monterey Bay: when one died and washed ashore in the past, locals would take advantage of it to charge money to see the Sea Monster. This was a recent stranding of a dead shark in Long Island, from Animal New York. The way the carcass deteriorates makes it look even more like a monster. They were hunted for their livers, the flesh was eaten, the hide was used. The bodies were used to conceal Chinese immigrants in the stomach of the dead fish. A lot is not known, but gestation is thought to be three to five years.

They are related to other sharks, the Mackerel sharks, which include the White sharks.

They have a large range. They are a Species of Concern under CITES, protected. The first that was ever tagged was tagged in San Diego,

Docent training

Docent training is heavy on marine biology, one day a week for six months. The main caveat is to be willing to say “I don’t know” when you don’t. Questions are welcome and a record is kept of all questions for reference. Questions are submitted through the Information Desk and are recommended to make contact for aspiring researchers.

From the web site: “Our 12-week Apprentice Guide program is a great way to "get your feet wet" and see if guiding is for you. Apprentice Guides take a six-day training course, then work with a mentor Guide. Many Apprentice Guides choose to take the more in-depth guide training course (held once each year) to become full-fledged Guides. The Apprentice Guide training is held twice a year.”

Docent training at Point Lobos is done by docents for docents. It now requires three to four months of training every weekend.

We enjoyed cookies and chatted with our counterparts at the aquarium. We then moved on to the Behind the Scenes tour.

Behind the Scenes Tour

Our guide, Joe Bova, recommended that everyone read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row before visiting the aquarium. The Ricketts lab down the street from the aquarium will be refurbished by a nonprofit. The boilers inside the aquarium were restored with partial state funding so they can be viewed without entering the aquarium. Those people are escorted!

The history: most sardine canneries went out of business in the 1950s. Hovden leased back the cannery for $1 a year from Hopkins Marine Station, which bought it for $250,000 to protect their interests in keeping tidepools available. Hovden had low overhead as a result and was able to continue canning until the 1970s. Hopkins Marine Station relied on Ed Ricketts book, rather than books about species, because Ricketts’ book focused on habitat.

A quote from Terry Tempest Williams greets guests at the entrance: Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.

In the Kelp Forest tank, the school of anchovies and sardines appeared to be swimming in time to the music. Sardines have dots on the sides, while anchovies scissor their tails when they swim. Water temperature now is 55 degrees. In summer, it’s 48 degrees off Elkhorn Slough, because cold water wells up from the two-mile trench off the coast.

The aquarium opened in 1985, celebrating 25th anniversary in 2010.

We saw the tank truck used by John O’Sullivan, Curator of Field Operations, manager of the Aquarium’s White Shark Project and a senior collector at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to transport animals for the exhibits from Southern California. He spoke in Cambria a few months ago. Animals are kept in quarantine tanks, whether entering the aquarium or being released into the ocean. Sharks are exempted from quarantine, because they have no scales to harbor parasites.

We watched as divers suited up to clean the tank. MBA has 1,200 volunteers and 500 paid employees. Of the 300 divers, half are volunteers. All divers at the aquarium must have the rescue certification. They now have a Jacuzzi in which to warm up after spending time in the tank. They didn’t have one at first. Repeated requests for a Jacuzzi were turned down in the budget. When it was requested as a Thermal Recovery Unit, it was granted.

I met a docent in the ladies’ room running water over her hands to warm them from the tide pool exhibit. She was complaining about a light crowd, how the time moved slowly, and laughed about having such a thing to complain about!

Zoos and aquariums share and exchange animals on a barter basis. No money changes hands, except for shipping costs. Fed Ex is the preferred shipper.

Sea Otter Research and Conservation keeps samples from all sea otters that come to the aquarium. Karl Mayer, animal care coordinator for SORAC, spoke to Morro Bay’s Marine Mammal Center volunteers recently about the aquarium’s surrogacy program to raise otter pups for return to the wild. He told the story of Otter Pup 540, whose five-month birthday was the day we visited. She and her surrogate mother Joy were on display.

The octopus are kept in dark tanks. They have a five-year lifespan, dying after their eggs hatch. They are released as they age so that they can reproduce in the wild. The aquarium’s octopus are from the Seattle area. Tank tops have to be lined with Astroturf, which the octopus don’t like, to keep them confined. Otherwise, they are capable escape artists that can fit through any opening large enough to allow their beaks, the only hard part of their bodies, to fit through.

The aquarium’s food bill is $500,000 annually. All animals are fed human-grade food. One of the employees passed us carrying a slab of salmon that she was taking home. Recipes for the various animals’ feedings are posted. The kitchen is like a restaurant kitchen, without any cooking facilities. Aquarium animals eat their food raw. Otters on display don’t get any food with hard shells, because they use the shells to scrape the glass display windows. They can have shrimp in shells because those shells are too soft to damage the glass.

Sunflower starfish are included in the predator exhibit. As adults, they have 23-24 points, which grow back quickly when one is lost. They are born with five points.

Aquarists rotate to different positions at the aquarium annually, to bring new ideas to every department.

The aquarium was initially established by Nancy Packard and has been presided over by Executive Director Julie Packard since it opened. Both are daughters of David and Lucile Packard. The control room is entirely equipped by Hewlett-Packard electronics. For the first five years of operation, the aquarium was not automated, to insure that all systems were understood and could be operated manually. The aquarium is now fully automated.

The sand dabs camouflage in response to their surroundings, becoming dark on dark sand and light as needed. Blue tarps are used to cover tanks for deep water animals. Fences are built around the tanks to prevent fish from jumping out at feeding time.

Tuna research is done at Hopkins Marine Station next door to the aquarium. Barbara Block leads the tagging program, which established that tuna in the Atlantic and tuna in the Mediterranean are the same fish, and must all be protected. See her talk at TED at

Elephant seals have been coming to the Harbor Seal rookery in Monterey. We’ll await future reports as to whether a new colony becomes established there.

The kelp forest tank has a figure 8 configuration to allow the sharks, which swim constantly, to exercise both sides of their bodies. A boat is used to change the lightbulbs. An elevator is now installed to allow divers to exit the tank. In the past, one diver was left in the tank for more than an hour.

The veterinary facility includes an examination room and an operating room. When fish are operated on, water with anesthetic is pumping over their gills. A Mola Mola had an eye operation and an egg-bound rockfish was successfully operated on. Mike Murray is the senior veterinarian, with a background in avian and exotic animal medicine.

Birds enjoy privacy on the roof. A Laysan Albatross ate from the hand of a keeper. She is used as an interpretive bird, to tell the story of how birds mistake plastic garbage for food and feed it to their chicks, killing them. She’s somewhat temperamental and isn’t pressured to leave her cage if she isn’t willing to go. A few murres awaited their next destination with some white and scarlet ibises.

We thanked our hosts for their hospitality. Simone looks forward to bringing Monterey Bay Aquarium docents back to Piedras Blancas for future elephant seal visits.

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