Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Marine mammals dead in Peru

From Hardy Jones' BlueVoice site:
The Peruvian government has released a report on the mass mortality of at least 900 dolphins along the coast of Peru that states that “natural causes” and “evolutionary forces” were the cause of death.
BlueVoice, which has funded extended and extensive research conducted by Peruvian veterinarian and marine mammal expert Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos, believes that conclusion is nonsense. We present here a narrative history of the mortality event and Dr. Yaipen Llanos’ hypothesis that acoustical trauma followed by rapid ascent leading to catastrophic decompression is the most likely cause of death. Dr. Yaipen Llanos makes no assertion that seismic testing for oil is associated with the dolphin mortality. However BlueVoice suggests that this form of extremely loud testing makes the seismic tests a primary “element of interest”. Seismic testing was taking place in approximately the same time frame and geographical location as the dolphin mass mortality.

We stress that Dr. Yaipen Llanos has made no assertion that the mass mortality event was caused by seismic testing by oil companies.
It should be noted that some highly regarded experts who question Dr. Yaipen Llanos’ conclusion of acoustical trauma/decompression syndrome, freely admit that they have very little information to assess. Neither do they have an alternative hypothesis."

Acoustic seismic testing is what PG&E has proposed for the Central Coast to map the earthquake faults in the area, with regard to relicensing Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant. Their idea of mitigation is to fly an airplane over and stop the 18 airguns, firing every 15-20 seconds 24 hours a day if they see any marine mammals in the area.

This is the ocean. There are always marine mammals of all kinds here. The fact that the 'seismic testing' is exactly the same as searching for oil is not coincidental. The draft EIR and comments are under consideration by the  California Land Commission. PG&E plans to start in August.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cayucos, the otter

Mid-February, I took a science-themed trip to Chicago. I absolutely had to visit the new orphaned baby otter adopted by the Shedd Aquarium. I also could not turn down a chance to offer a one year happy birthday greeting to the two toed sloth born at Lincoln Park Zoo last year around Valentine’s Day.

Shedd Aquarium's otter pup is bottle fed

First, we will meet Cayucos, John G. Shedd Aquarium‘s new arrival. A behind-the-scenes visit included dipping the bottom of my shoes in a pan of disinfectant followed by a brief rinse in water to prevent tracking in diseases that could be harmful to the sea otter pup. I was able to view her through a window looking into her pool built specifically for the purpose of nurturing otter pups, full of artificial “kelp”, which you will see in the brief video just below. Cayucos decided to nap while I visited, so the cute frolicking we are used to seeing of otters is just not there, but take a look anyway! You will hear my voice and that of Executive Vice President of animal programs and training, Ken Ramirez, explaining how long sea otter pups usually rely on their mothers.
Before Christmas 2011, three southern sea otters, a species hunted to the brink of extinction for their fur, subsequently added to the endangered species list and making a comeback, were separately found stranded on beaches in southern California by wildlife rescuers. Cayucos was found (and named) in Cayucos, California. After a short stay at Monterey Bay Aquarium, where trainers assisted with her intensive care, she was released to Shedd by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Read more.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service determined the three otters should be raised in differing locales. The two who were not in good health would be raised by humans for eventual display for the public (Cayucos at Shedd and the other at Sea World (see her video here)) and one would be raised by a surrogate mother, like Toola, the world’s first surrogate otter mom, who passed away this month.
When an otter is raised by humans, there are many skills they need to learn, including how to feed themselves, groom themselves, and to sleep in the water. Unfortunately, once they are habituated to humans, they will not gain the skills needed to hunt, so cannot be released into the wild. On the other hand, the otter raised by the surrogate will gain all necessary skills and may be released to the wild in the future.
Here is a video of Cayucos being groomed at the Shedd, courtesy of Shedd Aquarium (no audio):
From Shedd’s website: “Keeping the pup’s thick fur clean, dry and fluffed is essential to her survival. Sea otters are the only marine mammals that aren’t wrapped in an insulating blanket of blubber. Instead, they have about 1 million hairs per square inch of skin, divided into an outer layer of thick guard hairs and an inner layer of dense, wooly underfur honeycombed with millions of tiny air pockets. The layers work together to keep water out and body heat in. If the fur becomes matted or fouled with pollutants such as oil, cold sea water penetrates to the otter’s skin and the animal can quickly succumb to hypothermia. Otters shed their fur gradually and throughout the year so that they are never without this vital protection.”
I was curious how experts like Ken learned to care for otters, and how to help hand raise them. He shared that most of his experience came when he and others from Shedd Aquarium were called on to help over 2,000 otters who were affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 to help clean them for the reasons stated already. It should be noted that Shedd sends out teams of animal specialists to assist with other oil spills including the recent Gulf Oil spill.
Cayucos is a permanent addition to the Shedd Aquarium and will probably be ready to be introduced to some of the more docile otters already there as summer approaches. If you visit the Shedd Aquarium this summer, you might just get to see Cayucos playfully showing off for visitors. In fact, I will most certainly return so I can see her do more than tumble into the water for a nap!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Elephant seal prey

Humboldt Squid are one of the elephant seal's prey. National Geographic magazine reports in the August 2011 issue that this large species, up to six feet long and weighing up to 80 pounds, is expanding its range. The likely reason is warming ocean temperatures. They prefer warmer waters but have now been found as far north as Alaska. This map shows their range in 1984, 2001 and 2005.

More squid could mean additional prey for them, but the relationship is always more complex than that. Ocean temperatures warming and the effects of acidification due to absorption of CO2 present unknown challenges. A varied ecosystem is always stronger and more resilient than one dominated by fewer species.

The changes reflect research by Dr. William Gilly of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, He led the squid dissection we participated in two years ago at Camp Ocean Pines. His research helps to establish what is happening now and monitor changes. NASA's JPL posts maps of ocean temperatures.

National Geographic has a video about them. Truly, this is the definition of a sea monster.

Danna Staaf blogs about squid at Squid a Day.  Everything you could possibly want to know about squid and their world!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Environmental blogger under attack

This relates to ocean health because the greenhouse gases and ground water pollution associated with natural gas fracking impact the oceans. GHGs increase CO2 in the atmosphere, which is causing ocean acidification. Sharon Wilson has fought the gas companies tirelessly and is now dragged into court and facing possible jail. She has been subpoenaed in a Texas lawsuit  in a way that sets a very dangerous precedent for anyone opposing irresponsible drilling practices.

Range Resources is suing a landowner, Steve Lipsky and an environmental consultant he hired for $3 million for "conspirancy to harm its reputation." In 2010, Lipsky hired Alisa Rich to test his slick, foamy tapwater; she notified the EPA of the methane, benzene and other contaminants that she found. 

And then Lipsky sent Sharon Wilson a video of flames shooting from a garden hose attached to his wellhead, which she posted on her blog. It's what she does: since 2003, she's shot pictures and video and posted them, along with other evidence, on her blog and on YouTube to document pollution and harm caused by drilling for natural gas. She also calls 911, local health departments, elected officials, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the EPA, and alerts the newspapers to push for greater government oversight as she advocated for & helps the people who are the collateral damage of the growing “gas rush.” Her work has extended beyond the Barnett Shale to become national in scope.

Now Wilson needs OUR help.

Wilson has been a thorn in Range's side for years, and Range has retaliated. In a subpoena, the company has demanded that Wilson turn over every email she has with the word "range" in it dating back to 2005 (five years before this case even began). “That would include emails about free range chickens,” she notes. “But it would also include emails from people who have been harmed by Range or those opposed to irresponsible gas development. I will give them the emails that pertain to this case—but I will not turn over emails from people who are innocent victims. I will go to jail first.” 

The Rick Perry-appointed judge in the case threw out her request to be removed from a case she has nothing to do with--and demands that she turn over all emails by this coming Friday 5/25. His decision mimicked (almost verbatim)  Range's Powerpoint evidence that was presented in court last week by a team of SEVEN lawyers.

Wilson shouldn't have to go to jail--she's done nothing wrong. But there's also a broader issue here: the gas industry can't get away with this level of intimidation or be allowed to add to their databases of  targeted "opponents" in this way.  

Wilson needs:
2. Publicity! If you have any media connections, please send this email to them!

PLEASE HELP in any way you can, and PLEASE forward this on to anyone you know who might be able to help. With a high-profile lawyer and national attention, it wil be much harder for Range and the heavily-influenced Texas judge in the case to push this through.

Thank you!

Elephant seal oceanographers

Dan Costa, who talked to us here in Cambria about his research last year, has published his study about Elephant Seals as Oceanographers.  He told about one female seal who was tagged when she was six or seven years old as part of the first tagging in 1995. Through some kind of serendipitous chance, the graduate students read a tag incorrectly and tagged her again in 2006. Seals that old weren't supposed to be part of the study. She was at least 17 at that time. They were surprised to find that she followed nearly the exact same route, far out into the Pacific, past the tip of the Aleutians.

In 2010, the last time they looked for her, she had another pup and was still going strong. This photo is a representative seal, not her.

His team has also tagged other species, which have produced additional information. I look forward to publication of those results.

ScienceDaily (May 15, 2012) — Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who pioneered the use of satellite tags to monitor the migrations of elephant seals have compiled one of the largest datasets available for any marine mammal species, revealing their movements and diving behavior at sea in unprecedented detail.
A new study published May 15 in the journal PLoS ONE focuses on the annual migrations of adult female elephant seals, with data from nearly 300 animals. The results show elephant seals traveling throughout the entire northeast Pacific Ocean on foraging trips in search of prey such as fish and squid.
"This work is unprecedented in terms of the number of animals tracked. For the first time we can truly say that we know what the elephant seal population is doing," said Daniel Costa, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and leader of the elephant seal research group at UC Santa Cruz. "This represents the efforts of a large number of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and undergraduate volunteers who have all worked very hard to make this happen."
The researchers found that individual seals pursue a variety of different foraging strategies, but most of them target one oceanographic feature in particular--a boundary zone between two large rotating ocean currents, or gyres. Along this boundary, the cold nutrient-rich waters of the sub-polar gyre in the north mix with the warmer waters of the subtropical gyre, driving the growth of phytoplankton and supporting a robust food web. Presumably, this leads to a concentration of prey along the boundary, said Patrick Robinson, a postdoctoral researcher in Costa's lab and lead author of the paper.
"The highest density of seals is right over that area, so something interesting is definitely going on there," Robinson said.
Previous studies by Costa and other participants in the Tagging of Pacific Predators program have shown that this boundary zone is important for a wide range of marine predators, including elephant seals, sharks, tuna, and albatrosses. A surface feature associated with the boundary zone, caused by blooms of phytoplankton, is detectable in satellite images, but it moves seasonally as much as 1,000 kilometers to the south. The deep-diving elephant seals do not follow this surface feature, but continue to target the deep boundary zone between the two gyres.
Smaller numbers of female elephant seals feed in coastal regions, pursuing bottom-dwelling prey along the continental shelf, or in other areas outside of the boundary zone such as around seamounts. Among these is a large female that feeds near Vancouver Island and holds the record for deepest recorded dive by an elephant seal. The data analyzed in the PLoS ONE paper include one dive to 1,747 meters (5,765 feet, well over a mile), and the same seal dove even deeper on a more recent foraging trip, reaching 1,754 meters (5,788 feet), Robinson said.
Female northern elephant seals make two foraging trips every year. After the breeding season in February and March, they head out to sea for two months before returning to the rookery to molt. Then they leave on a long post-molting migration that often lasts eight months, from June to January. The amount of food a female is able to find on these foraging trips directly affects her breeding success and, if she gives birth, her pup's growth rate and chances of survival.
"If foraging is not good, the pups are smaller at weaning because the females produce less milk," Robinson said.
In addition to tracking the foraging migrations, the researchers monitor the health of the seals and track birth rates over time. Tags are attached harmlessly onto the animals' fur and recovered when they return to the rookery. Before and after each migration, the researchers get weights and blood samples from the tagged seals, which always return to the same rookery. The tags used today are far more sophisticated than the first ones deployed by UCSC researchers in the 1980s. Current devices, used on a subset of the seals in this study, can capture an animal's location, swim speed, and depth and duration of dives, as well as the temperature and salinity of the seawater and how that changes with depth.
Most of the animals in this study were tagged at the rookery on Año Nuevo Island, where UCSC researchers have been studying elephant seals for decades. But the study also involved a collaboration with researchers in Mexico to tag elephant seals at Islas San Benito, which is 1,150 kilometers (690 miles) southeast of Año Nuevo. "A lot of those animals travel much further to get to foraging areas in the north, so they might spend an extra week traveling, and we wanted to see how that affects them," Robinson said. "The animals from San Benito that do go up to feed at the boundary zone do fine, but we also found that many of them stayed closer to home, feeding along the continental shelf, and they were successful too."
These findings highlight the adaptability of elephant seals, suggesting that they may be able to withstand environmental perturbations such as climate change because the population is not dependent on a single foraging strategy.
This research is also providing valuable oceanographic data. While ocean surface temperatures can be measured by satellites, oceanographers have limited temperature data from deep waters. Costa's group has organized the temperature data collected by the elephant seals into a format that oceanographers can use and uploaded it to the World Ocean Database, providing millions of ocean temperature data points not otherwise available.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Morro Bay Aquarium -- What's the future?

Our local independent weekly, New Times, featured Morro Bay Aquarium on its front page this week.

It’s been called “Morro Bay Seal Penitentiary,” “Seal Guantanamo,” “the worst aquarium in the world,” “torture chamber,” “fish dungeon,” and “the saddest aquarium on Earth.”
In the dimly lit room of the Morro Bay Aquarium, a woman wiped away tears as she passed one of about a dozen tanks.

After passing through the gift shop, visitors to the Morro Bay Aquarium can spend $2 to visit a harbor seal, sea lions, and a variety of aquatic creatures floating in tanks that bear disclaimers such as, “This particular eel likes to lay on his side. He has been doing this for months.”
“These animals belong in the ocean,” she muttered.
There wasn’t anything special about this visitor; she just happened to be one of about a dozen people who paid the $2 entrance fee and spent a recent Saturday at the aquarium.
The Morro Bay Aquarium looks like a living anachronism, harkening to a time when aquatic animals could be put on display like circus attractions. You can hear the bellows and barks from the parking lot, or the occasional smacking sound of a sea lion slapping its flipper against its side and begging for sardines flung by gawking tourists. The noise echoes behind the chain-link fence and barbed wire.
Qualifiers seem common at the Morro Bay Aquarium, the type of place where animals are frequently mislabeled and sometimes excused in writing.
“Wolf Eel is not a very active ocean creature,” reads a bright orange sign pasted to the side of one hexagonal tank. “This particular eel likes to lay on his side. He has been doing this for months.”
Many of the non-mammalian animals lay listlessly in their tanks. An eel rested at the bottom of its metal enclosure, staring blankly through the glass.
The entrance to the aquarium is actually a gift shop, fronted by doors smeared with novelty bumper stickers: Glittery gung-ho “America Born Free” stickers are displayed next to others like “Praise God,” “Plan Ahead Repent!,” and “Save A Whale harpoon a fat chick” as well as “Save A Whale harpoon a fat dude.”

Two dollars will grant any visitor access, and another 50 cents purchases a small paper bag of fish parts to feed the animals. Past a swinging porthole door, visitors are greeted by an up-close encounter with three belching and cackling California sea lions and one silent harbor seal. Maggie, the oldest sea lion (she’ll turn 25 this July), is by far the crowd favorite. Smacking a flipper at her side to attract tourists, she spends much of her time splayed out on one of a few wooden platforms that have been bolted to the wall and perched above each of the three shallow pools, none of them any larger than your average backyard Doughboy pool. 

The story continues, but you get the picture. It's a troubling story, but one I hope will have a happy ending. Following is the letter I sent to the newspaper, with copies to other parties: John Alcorn is the current operator.
To all concerned parties:

Morro Bay Aquarium has our full attention now. With its focus on commercial fishing and tourism, Morro Bay is the ideal community to improve this site. Let's get together and do it. Mr. Alcorn, are you willing?

Morro Bay's resources for fishing and marine mammals are among the best anywhere. Sausalito's Marine Mammal Center has an outpost facility here. They rescue stranded elephant seals, among other critters, which are the focus of Friends of the Elephant Seal. For seals in trouble, this is the place to get help.

Morro Bay Aquarium is located on a premium piece of Embarcadero property. Tourists can't help finding it as they stroll along the harbor. Mayor Yates, what can the city do to improve this business? Harbor Director Endersby, how can these community organizations work with the city and the business to create a win-win?

Let's brainstorm: How else could this property be used? What would make it even more inviting to your customers, Mr. Alcorn? Perhaps it could be converted into a display for rehabilitated wildlife from Pacific Wildlife Care that can't be released to the wild?

Could those tanks become an educational display for Morro Bay's ecology? Could the Natural History Museum work with them on creating something special, unique and exciting? Cal Poly's Engineering Department has stepped up to help the community on other occasions. Can you help, Cal Poly? Or refer this effort to other resources? Could the Civilian Conservation Corps play a role?

When the aquarium was built, it was with good intentions. That was years ago. When we know better, we do better. This is an opportunity to showcase a local business and the way our community works together to help each other.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Shark attack off Cambria

Kathe Tanner, our faithful local reporter, covered the latest shark attack story for The Cambrian:

It was a dramatic weekend for kayakers in waters off Cambria: A Paso Robles fisherman escaped an attack by a great white shark Saturday, although his kayak didn’t, and another Paso Robles kayaker was plucked from the 51-degree-water Sunday in time to save his life.
Joey Nocchi, 30, of Paso Robles, had the big-fish tale to tell, after his kayak was upended and bitten by a great white shark.
Nocchi and friends James Byon of Paso Robles and Matt Kerschke of Los Osos were fishing for rockfish at 1:30 p.m. Saturday near Leffingwell Landing off Moonstone Beach.
“We’d just about limited out on rock cod, and Matt caught two halibut,” Nocchi said. “We were cruising along together and talking.”
He was reaching for his knife when “I got hit from underneath and started coming up out of the water. My buddies said I came out of the water 4 to 5 feet — it flipped me over the side. The shark rolled the whole kayak over, rolled me out of it, and he went over the top of it. He swam across me — his tail touched me.” His friends estimated the shark was 12 feet to 14 feet long.
Nocchi’s buddies told him “the shark came all the way out of the water, jaws open, extra eyelids closed like they do when they’re making a kill strike.
“I swam back as fast as I could and got back on the back of the kayak. I didn’t even think to turn it back over.”
Kershke told him, “The shark knows it made a mistake. You’ll have to get off, turn the kayak over, and get back in. I’m going to go get the paddle, and I want you in the kayak when I get back.”
Nocchi said, “I did, and I got back to shore as fast as I could, even though the kayak was taking on a bunch of water from the bite. The bite looks to be around 20 inches long, more than 22 inches wide.”
Nocchi said he was glad he did not fish alone, and added he’d likely stay out of the ocean for a while. “I’ll be bass fishing for a while, probably from the shore.”
Signs were posted along Moonstone Beach warning beach goers about the shark attack. ##

Locals and scientists have speculated as to whether the great white shark population will increase in our area, following the increase in elephant seals, one of their prey. Local otter researchers have documented increased shark attacks on otters, as much as a 30 percent increase in the past year.

An increase in great white sharks is not a bad thing. The presence of top predators is important to the health and resilience of the entire ecosystem. That's been established in other places: otters in Monterey Bay, wolves in Yellowstone. More sharks means that the whole system is functioning well.

That said, humans can turn into prey or collateral damage, like the sea otters. It's definitely worth considering is you are an ocean sports person.

You don't see me out there. I can see what I want from the shore.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Local fisheries need support

Community Organizer Brett Tolley writes:
"A fisherman recently told me he paid $.80 per pound to lease fish quota, or the rights to catch fish. That same day he only got paid 60 cents per pound when he landed the fish at the dock.
"He actually went into the red.
"And the worst part, he said, was knowing how that fish would end up being sold somewhere for $8-15 per pound to a customer who would believe a large chunk of that price went into the fisherman's pocket. "They will never know I lost money to catch and deliver that fish," he said. I wish they knew because if they did know, I'm certain our policies and discussions about 'sustainably' caught fish would be quite different. 
"Family fishers increasingly feel the squeeze from all sides; markets that do not pay a price to cover the true cost of overhead, policies that place disproportionate hardships on the small and medium scale fishing operations, and unpredictable as weather stock assessments. All these challenges lead to shrinking profit margins, fishers taking on more risk and debt, and forcing many to either scale-up and catch more fish or sell out. If we are serious about protecting the ocean and rebuilding fish stocks scaling up is not the way.
" 'The management strategy of attack and exploit the resource and then buy out the struggling day-boat, is quickly paving the road to a big boat only fishery,' said a Massachusetts fisherman during a recent comment period
"And he's right. When it comes to the business of removing fish from the ocean, the fishers that bring the most value to our communities, ecosystem, economy, and food system should be given the priority. Unfortunately current management policies do the opposite; they favor high volume fishing where whoever can catch the most, in the shortest amount of time, and at the cheapest price will win out the day. We are stuck in this old model that focuses on the lowest cost of producdtion as its foundational value. It's time to re-think our definition of efficiency and create a management system that inherently supports the fishermen who bring us the most overall value. 
"When it comes to fishing in the red, of course we realize that sometimes fishers make money, sometimes they lose money, and at the end of the year you hope it all evens out. But the frequency of shrinking profit margins is increasing. As a case in point, another fisherman told me that last year his overhead cost to lease quota was between $30-40,000. For a fisherman of 25 years this was a new expense, and one that nearly exceeded his yearly income. "How am I supposed to make a living like that," he said. According to today's fisheries policies the answer is to scale up and catch more fish.
"But getting big or getting out should not be the only options for today's family fishers. We have learned from the industrialization of agriculture that a 'lowest cost of production' model does in fact bring us cheap food, but at the expense of poisoning our land ecology, displacing family farmers, and undermining a healthy food system. Let's ensure we do not repeat these mistakes and instead seek a new model that recognizes the full value that our producers and harvesters bring to the quadruple bottom line; social, environmental, economic, and food system."

I support local fishermen. For one thing, I feel it's the only way I can be confident that I'm getting what I think I'm buying. Oceana released its report on seafood fraud, Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health. The organization found that 20-25 percent of fish is typically mislabeled and on some occasions, as much as 70 percent, substituting cheap fish for expensive ones and overfished species as plentiful ones. The NY Times featured the report and added its own research.

The giant fishing companies and their factory ships and miles of nets have caused many problems for the oceans and the fish and seals that live in them. Small and local are the best ways to conserve ocean resources and promote responsible stewardship. They know that taking every last fish means fishing themselves out of a job. Corporate leadership doesn't care.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Seal Lullaby

We attended a concert by the Cuesta Wind Ensemble for Mothers Day today. One of the pieces the group played was The Seal Lullaby by Eric Whitacre, performed here by California Lutheran University Choir. Conductor Jennifer Martin explained that Whitacre wrote it for Disney, when that company was considering making an animated film of Rudyard Kipling's The White Seal, from The Jungle Book.

I wasn't familiar with the story, but it is a wonderful one. No Disney required! It stands on its own, and now has this wonderful music to accompany it.

  Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
        And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
      The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
        At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
      Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
        Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
      The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
        Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!
                                 Seal Lullaby

Friday, May 11, 2012

Tagged seals -- and scars

Yesterday was as good day for spotting tagged seals. There's a color-coded system. Seals are tagged with a small, inch and a half, plastic tag on their hind flippers. It's so small, it's difficult to see. When they fold their flippers up, it isn't visible at all.

The numbers sometimes rub off in the abrasive sand, so that's another challenge.

But I was able to read two of the yellow tags. That's the color given to San Miguel Island, off Santa Barbara. It's a large colony.

All tag colors show up on Piedras Blancas beach. One of the tags I saw yesterday was orange, the color given to rehabilitated seals. It's always of interest what happens to seals that need to be rescued.

It was faded and I could only get three digits of the number. I recorded it in the office anyway. Perhaps it will give a scrap of information about a seal that came into care and was released.

Other than that, it was just a good day to be on the beach. The sun was warm, so the seals moved closer to the water, to sleep on the cool, wet sand.

This one was lucky to be there. He shows a great white shark scar on his belly. I don't know how they survive such devastating wounds, but there he is.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

America's Underwater Treasures

Holly Lohuis, producer for Jean-Michel Cousteau's underwater video team at Ocean Futures Society, gave a great presentation at the Hearst Castle Theater last Saturday. night. She was so energetic and positive, the video she showed was so electrifying! Her message touched hearts in the audience and started changing the world. She, her son Gavin and I are standing in front of a 16th-century tapestry, with men in boats, that decorates the lobby.

Her subject was the National Marine Sanctuaries, the 13 ocean areas that are now under federal protection. These areas become the nursery for fish and other ocean life, places to reproduce the fish and shellfish that are being taken by commercial fishing. They are places that allow for recovery of natural ecosystems. Four National Marine Sanctuaries protect the ocean along the California coast. The Piedrass Blancas elephant seal rookery is covered by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

I had goosebumps as she showed video of herself swimming with sharks, climbing up into the boat and bubbling with excitement, eager to return to swim with them some more. That energy and enthusiasm connected with her audience. I felt connected to her and her passionate cause, saving the oceans.

The video of plastic garbage on Laysan Island and in the Pacific Garbage Gyre, killing birds that eat it and feed it to their chicks addressed an unpleasant reality. It's always difficult to present the sad parts of environmental stories. Focusing on ugly truths doesn't make anyone happy. Holly's upbeat attitude carried that message to her audience's hearts without raising their guilt. She inspired them to make the changes that will change the world.

Several people in the community have commented to me about how the presentation has already changed their behavior. One told me that she'll never buy an individual bottle of water again. She had a refillable bottle with her. Another is thinking about opening a store to sell products in bulk, so that plastic containers can be re-used. Charmaine Coimbra, who attended the event, finds her Neptune 911 blog is getting hundreds of hits, especially when she posts about plastics in marine mammals.

Thanks, Holly for that night and your continuing work. You're the kind of leader who will help us all be the change we need to save the world.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Gray whale freed

The entangled gray whale who has been swimming north along the coast was freed from entanglements by crab fishermen. Here's the Associated Press version:

SAN FRANCISCO — Crab fishermen working off the Northern California coast have managed to free a gray whale that was tangled in a large fishing line and that had disappeared after a previous rescue attempt, federal wildlife officials said.
Fisherman Mark Anello was out on his 48-foot wooden crab boat Thursday about 3½ miles off the coast near Bodega Bay, located about 67 miles north of San Francisco.
A fourth-generation fisherman, Anello noticed something odd near his boat: three buoys floating nearby were moving. He motored closer to investigate.
Anello and two others on his boat the Point Ommaney found the orange and white buoys connected to a whale that measured close to the length of his vessel, said Tony Anello, Mark’s father.
“They come up slowly alongside the whale, and the whale started fighting at first,” the elder Anello said. “Then the whale decided to calm down.”
Using 12-foot, bamboo poles with hooks on the end, Mark Anello and his crew spent 90 minutes freeing the 40-ton mammal, which had been nicknamed “June” by rescuers who had earlier tried to free the marine mammal.
Once the creature was free from the ropes, nets and buoys it took a lap around the vessel.
“The whale circled the boat, surfaced and took off,” Tony Anello said. “It was like it was saying thank you.”
The whale was first spotted off the Orange County coast April 17, hundreds of miles from where it was ultimately rescued, dragging several buoys attached to a net.
Rescuers attempted to free it at the time, but it went missing until it was spotted off the coast of Monterey County.
Monica DeAngelis, the federal marine mammal biologist who led earlier rescue attempts, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a network of volunteer disentanglement teams trained to rescue animals in distress.
She said the captain and the crew that rescued June were not part of the network, and that in general she would advise anyone who encounters a tangled whale to report the animal’s location and stay with it but wait for trained rescuers to arrive, not least because such a massive animal can be dangerous.
“They’re actually quite fortunate that they did not get injured,” DeAngelis said. Still, she called Anello a “steward of the sea”: “I’m not going to rain on their parade. They did something amazing, and they probably did save the life of this animal.”
Generally, tampering with whales qualifies as a federal offense under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But DeAngelis said Anello and his crew were exempted under the law’s “good Samaritan” clause.
Tony Anello echoed DeAngelis’ fears, saying his son and crew could have been hurt by the large creature. But he also said while fishing gear was the cause of the whale’s woe, many fishermen care deeply about the sea and a sustainable fishery.
“There are fishermen who care about the ocean,” he said. “We are stewards of the ocean and want a sustainable fishery.”

Thanks to these brave fishermen for doing what they were called to do, under unusual circumstances.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Healthy oceans

More bad news about the oceans today, that investigators find more plastic deeper in the oceans. It's discouraging, but the value of the Piedras Blancas site is that people connect with the ocean there in a personal way that touches their hearts. That may be the step that changes behavior.

The site is free, emphasizing to visitors that it belongs to them. Californians appreciate that this is here for them to enjoy any time. Visitors from other parts of the country and around the world appreciate that this ocean touches their shores, that this beach and the seals that spend part of their lives here are part of their world.

California is known for expensive, glamorous spectacles. Disneyland and Hollywood are major attractions. They have their appeal, if at high cost to vacationers.  Hearst Castle is an emblem of power and wealth. Visitors who happen on the elephant seal rookery find something unexpected. It's not a packaged experience. It's wildlife, unscripted, a complete contrast, a natural site where seals live their lives ignoring Highway 1 and its traffic.

The beach is crowded, with seals edging toward the water to stay on cool, wet sand. Others make themselves comfortable on their companions, like this peaceful pair.

We're not untouched by the problems brewing off our shores. But this place shows how it can be, if we take care of it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Claudio Campagna,  wildlife biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, visited the Piedras Blancas rookery March 17 with fellow elephant seal researcher Burney LeBoeuf. He spoke to our group about his work with Southern Elephant Seals in Patagonia. 

Today, this appeal arrived. This person isn't willing to pay a volunteer, but for a young person who has enough money to get to Argentina and wants some adventure, it sounds like a great opportunity:
"My name is Agustin Ayuso, I own with my wife a ranch in the Peninsula Valdés (Patagonia, Argentina). In our place we are dedicated to sheep farming for the last five generations, and to wildlife tourism from eleven years ago. For almost twenty years now we have a project with Dr. Claudio Campagna (researcher at the Wildlife Conservation Society) to study the colony of southern elephant seals living on the beaches of the ranch as well.

"We have a small lodge - with only 8 rooms - for the guests who come to visit the area to see all the animal species who live or come here for their reproduction season (elephant seals, southern right whales, south american sea lions, orcas, etc), you can see our ranch link in:
I was reading an article Claudio Campagna wrote with Burney Le Boeuf and sent me, about wildlife viewing spectacles, and the way you manage the tourism on the seals colonies of California, and I get your web site from it.

"My question is if you think there is the possibility to find of a young person volunteer interested in coming to help us in the season to lead tours inside the ranch as experience."

It would be worth checking with Burney as to the reliability of this story, but it could be true. If I were 20 years old...