Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sea lions found shot

Sea lions (file photo)  
The BBC reports:
Fishermen regard sea lions as pests because they prey on salmon
Eight sea lions have been found shot dead in the US state of Washington in the past few weeks, wildlife officials have told a local TV station.
The bodies of seven sea lions with bullet wounds were recently found on the Nisqually River, KING-TV reports.
An eighth sea lion was found dead in West Seattle on 23 January. The Seal Sitters conservation group said it, too, had been shot.
Fishermen regard sea lions as pests because they prey on salmon.
The Seal Sitters say the eighth dead animal was a California sea lion, a mature male. The species is protected under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"Evidence of a 'penetrating' wound, suspected to be that of a bullet, was found deep in the tissue and tracked back to the entrance wound," the Seal Sitters said on their blog.
The sea lion's remains were analysed by a biologist from the Washington Department of fish and wildlife.
The examination also revealed a wound from a shark bite and the sea lion's intestines were twisted, the Seal Sitters said.
One of the animals found on the Nisqually River was a Stellar sea lion, protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Both the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are investigating the deaths, KING-TV reports.
"California sea lions are sometimes viewed as a nuisance by commercial fishermen and there are records of stranded sea lions with gunshot wounds and other human-caused injuries," the NOAA says on its website.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rehabbed seals released

The Marine Mammal Center released four rehabilitated animals at Leffingwell Landing in Cambria today: two Northern fur seals, one Guadalupe fur seal and one sea lion. They were all young animals. The two Northern fur seals were eager to escape back to the ocean as soon as the truck arrived. They left their cages and headed right for the ocean. Both bobbed their heads up several times as they swam away.

 The sea lion seemed a bit intimidated by the crowd. About 30 people had assembled to witness the release.

We all lined up giving the animals several feet on each side and a clear route to the ocean, but it all those people must have been strange. He stopped and the Guadalupe fur seal exited his cage and caught up with him.

They lingered, sniffing each other and looking around for several minutes. Then they hit the waves.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Leatherback turtle habitat gets protection

Federal regulators designated nearly 42,000 square miles of ocean along the West Coast as critical habitat for the Pacific leatherback turtle Friday, far less than originally proposed but still the largest protected area ever established in American waters.
The protected area is the first permanent safe haven in the waters of the continental United States for endangered leatherbacks, which swim 6,000 miles every year to eat jellyfish outside the Golden Gate.
The designation, by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, was a bittersweet victory for environmentalists, who have been fighting to protect the marine reptiles from extinction.
The 41,914 square miles that the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service protected along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington did not include the migration routes the turtles take to get to the feeding grounds. That means 28,686 square miles of habitat originally proposed for the designation was left unprotected.
"It's a big step in the right direction, but we want protections for migratory pathways," said Ben Enticknap, the Pacific project manager for Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to protecting the world's oceans. "I guess we've got a lot more work to do to get there."

How protection works

The regulations will restrict projects that harm the turtles or the gelatinous delicacies they devour. The government will be required to review and, if necessary, regulate agricultural waste, pollution, oil spills, power plants, oil drilling, storm-water runoff and liquid natural gas projects along the California coast between Santa Barbara and Mendocino counties and off the Oregon and Washington coasts.
Aquaculture, tidal, wave turbine, desalination projects and nuclear power plants will have to consider impacts on jellyfish and sea turtles. For instance, the repermitting of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, in San Luis Obispo, will probably come under scrutiny.
The regulations are a response to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco in 2009 by the nonprofit environmental groups Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana. The groups had been trying since 2007 to establish critical habitat for leatherbacks under the Endangered Species Act. They accused the government of failing to protect the reptiles from gill-net and longline fishing, oil drilling and a variety of other activities, including wave-energy projects.

California habitat

The new ruling covers 16,910 square miles along California's coast from Point Arena (Mendocino County) to Point Arguello (Santa Barbara County) to a depth of 9,000 feet. The remaining turtle habitat stretches from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Cape Blanco, Ore. seaward to a depth of a little more than 6,500 feet.
The only other critical habitat established for leatherbacks in U.S. waters is in a small area along the western end of St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands. There is also some critical habitat in Puerto Rico for green sea turtles and hawksbill sea turtles, but nothing as large as the new designation.
Turtle advocates are worried that the decision to leave out migratory routes will leave the giant sea creatures vulnerable to long lines and drift nets dragged by oceangoing vessels, which often mistakenly hook and entangle marine mammals and turtles.
Both longline and gill-net fishing are banned along the West Coast during leatherback migration, but Teri Shore, the program director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said the fisheries service is considering plans to expand gill-net fishing for swordfish.

More threats

"Threats to these turtles are increasing, not diminishing," said Shore, whose organization also goes by its Web name, "We don't want to see the leatherback turtles go the way of the grizzly bear and disappear."
Leatherbacks, known scientifically as Dermochelys coriacea, are the largest sea turtles in the world, sometimes measuring 9 feet long and weighing as much as three refrigerators, or more than 1,200 pounds. Their life span is not fully known, but biologists believe they live at least 40 years and possibly as long as 100 years.
The worldwide population has declined by 95 percent since the 1980s because of commercial fishing, egg poaching, destruction of nesting habitat, degradation of foraging habitat and changing ocean conditions. Listed as endangered since 1970 under the Endangered Species Act, there are believed to be only 2,000 to 5,700 nesting females left in the world.
Pacific leatherbacks leave their nesting grounds in Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea and swim across the Pacific Ocean to forage along the West Coast in the summer and fall. It is the longest known migration of any marine reptile.

Golden Gate jellyfish

They are often seen feeding on jellyfish in the shipping lanes outside the Golden Gate, in Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay. Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, said Friday that he will introduce legislation designating the leatherback as California's official marine reptile in an attempt to call attention to its plight.
The newly protected zones will extend 200 miles out to sea, but they won't protect the slow-moving creatures from floating plastic bags, which look like jellyfish. A recent study found plastic in the intestinal tracts of 37 percent of 370 leatherbacks that had been found dead.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
NOAA's press release and map of the protected area is here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Arctic Ribbon Seal visits Seattle

A Seattle resident recently got a big surprise when she discovered a strange-looking furry visitor on her property, reports OurAmazingPlanet.

"She woke up and it was lying on her dock, hanging out and sleeping — just chilling," said Matthew Cleland, district supervisor in western Washington for the USDA's Wildlife Services, and the recipient of a photo of the bizarre intruder.

"I thought, 'That's an interesting-looking creature,'" Cleland told OurAmazingPlanet. "I had no idea what it was."

A quick glance through a book in his office soon revealed it was a ribbon seal, an Arctic species that spends most of its life at sea, swimming the frigid waters off Alaska and Russia.

Somehow, the seal turned up on the woman's property, about a mile from the mouth of the Duwamish River, a highly industrialized waterway that cuts through southern Seattle. In 2001, the EPA declared the last 5.5 miles (9 kilometers) of the river a Superfund site — an area contaminated with hazardous substances in need of cleanup.

The sighting was "pretty exciting," said Arctic seal researcher Peter Boveng, leader of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory's Polar Ecosystems Program. "It's really unusual."
Ribbon seals, named for the unmistakable stark white markings that ring their necks, flippers and hindquarters, typically shun dry land.

Boveng said the animals spend only a few months per year on sea ice, to molt and give birth, and have almost never been seen so far south. "So it's a surprise, but knowing the species, it's not a complete surprise to me," he said. "They're good travelers."
The ribbon seal, which Boveng identified as an adult male, "looked to be in really good shape," he said. "We don't have any way to rule out other possibilities, but I'd say it's almost certain that it swam there."
Satellite tracking studies have revealed that ribbon seals do sometimes make it as far as the north Pacific Ocean, south of the Aleutian islands, but much about the species remains mysterious. Because they spend so much of their lives in the open water, it's a challenge to track them.
"Unfortunately we don't know a lot about their numbers," Boveng said. "There's never been a reliable survey."

A conservation groups has made efforts to list ribbon seals as an endangered species because of concerns about disappearing sea ice in the Arctic. So far the federal government has declined to do so, but is continuing to review the case for listing.

The Seattle ribbon seal appears to be only the second on record to make it so far south.

In 1962, a ribbon seal showed up on a beach near Morro Bay, Calif., a town about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Los Angeles, about 30 miles south of Piedras Blancas. According to contemporary reports, the seal was in good shape, but totally bald except for hair on the head, neck and flippers. It died a month later at the local aquarium.

The Seattle ribbon seal's story is unknown, but one could be forgiven for thinking it a harbinger of things to come. This week, cold winds from Alaska helped create a record winter storm in Seattle, slamming the metro area with 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of snow.

The ribbon seal hasn't been seen again since it was first spotted last week.

"It stirred up a lot of interest," Cleland said. "There are a lot of people out here looking for it."

Monday, January 16, 2012

How do they know where to go?

The January 2012 Scientific American examines the role of the earth's magnetic field:
  • Dozens of animal species, from ants to whales, have well-documented abilities to detect the geomagnetic field and use it for orientation and navigation.
  • After some false starts, researchers may have now located the organs for this magnetic sense, and they are finally understanding the physics that underpins it.
  • Some animals may use microscopic magnetic particles to detect magnetic fields; others might harness quantum effects on certain pigments in the eye.
Subscription required to view online or you can buy the issue.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


I photographed a birth today! The mother-to-be was laboring restlessly when we arrived about noon. We settled in to observe.

She had dug a deep trench on one side of her, but as labor progressed, she moved around more.

She stayed in the same general area. That's her, center right top. The beach is pretty crowded.

She moved herself out of her trench.
 At one point, a male came near her, as he evaded another bull. She barked him away.
 The pup in its sac bulged out.
 She looked huge as she strained with contractions.
Finally her water broke.
The birth proceeded quickly after that.

 The pup arrived flippers first. They come headfirst about 60 percent of the time, flippers first 40 percent.  All the births I've seen before were headfirst.

 She seemed like a good mother. She turned to the pup right away.

She chased the gulls away but didn't go nuts at them.

When we left, mother and pup were resting comfortably.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pup season

Plenty of pups on the beach. Several births this morning, but I wasn't in the right place to photograph any of them. Visitors were delighted.
The tide was pretty high, 6.2 feet, covering the rocks where the harbor seals rest. One showed up on the beach, resting with the elephant seals. He looked healthy and happy and soon returned to the water.

A scrap of the sac clings to this newborn.

The USGS Wildlife biologist reports that numbers are less than on the same December date in 2010, about the same as they were in 2009, but the season isn't in full swing. He'll do a definitive census at the peak of the season, in late January. As of December 28, there were just under 200 females on the beach at Piedras Blancas.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Gray whales heading south

Gray whales cruise through Southern California waters every winter, but this month the migratory giants have shown up so early and in such numbers that they are astounding many longtime observers.

Whale spotters stationed at Point Vicente in Rancho Palos Verdes have logged a record 163 sightings so far this December, more than they have seen at this point in 28 years.

Although the gray whale-watching season doesn't typically start until the end of December, the unprecedented number of early arrivals is delighting tourists, boaters and divers as the animals travel south along the coast to Mexico.

PHOTOS: Gray whale migration

Volunteers for the American Cetacean Society/Los Angeles Chapter Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project work from sunup to sundown between Dec. 1 and May 15, using binoculars and high-powered spotting scopes to find whales and log their numbers from an overlook at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center.

"I've seen some pretty good years but never anything like this," said Joyce Daniels, a volunteer who heads the whale census from noon to dusk. On Monday, when there were more than two dozen sightings, "We had whales everywhere. So many I was having trouble figuring out which whale was which," she said. "It's a real adrenaline rush to have so many whales."

After spotting them by their spouts, the eagle-eyed observers determine whether they are indeed gray whales by their mottled coloring, the shape of their flukes or the gentle notches in their backs. For each confirmed sighting, they note the whale's location and what direction it was swimming and add it to a running tally on a dry erase board. Visitors are offered binoculars to scan for the creatures themselves.

By this point in December last year, the observers had spotted 26 gray whales. The previous record was 133, spotted in 1996.

It's something of a mystery why so many gray whales are passing through Southern California this early in the season. But it could have to do with climate, food supplies or other conditions far away in Arctic waters, where the huge mammals begin their annual journey to the shallow lagoons and bays of Baja California to give birth. It's also possible that more are being spotted because they are venturing nearer to shore.

More than 20,000 gray whales migrate each year from the Arctic to Baja California and back again in the spring. Their population, once depleted by commercial whaling, successfully rebounded and was taken off the endangered species list in 1994.

The influx of gray whales has sightseeing vessels off to a busy start. Already, divers have captured dramatic underwater video within an arm's reach of a juvenile gray whale in Laguna Beach.

On an excursion Tuesday out of San Pedro's 22nd Street Landing — the first of the year for the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium's Whalewatch program — a small boatload of whale seekers crowded along the bow of the ship, marveling as a gray whale spouted and surfaced over and over again a few miles from the Port of Los Angeles.

Gray whales, which can grow up to 50 feet long, arrive so predictably each winter that decades ago, even as other species struggled, they became a reliable draw for sightseers, said Bernardo Alps, a volunteer naturalist for the Cabrillo Whalewatch program.

"They're really the species that started whale watching here in Southern California in the 1950s," he said. "The idea of watching them instead of hunting them."

Though it may take months to learn if the gray whales' strong showing this month is part of a larger, seasonal uptick — sightings typically peak by the end of January — their admirers are hoping it means the animals are healthy, well-fed and reproducing.

"It's really incredible. It may very well be the whales are coming earlier or coming in closer," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director and coordinator of the whale census. "To me, it's a very good sign that things are going very well with them."