Archive for March, 2009

March 31, 2009

Choked Up On Plastic In The Lagoon

Cigar mouthpeices. Cigarette butts. Corona and Bud Light bottle caps scored into the ground by tramping feet. Licorice wrappers. Juice boxes. Florida State Lottery tickets awash in the shallows next to carcasses of catfish. I kid you not.

Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke, Mountain Dew. The fragments of peel away milk jug tops. The serrated rings of plastic left behind from a twenty-ounce soda bottle. Lighters. Slurpee straws with the scooping end still intact. Chinese takeout. And even what might have been a used prophylactic. I didnt investigate that one too closely.

I cannot contain myself. I hold them in one hand, then two, then my jacket pockets are starting to fill. I offload it into the recycling containers and trashcans that are just yards away from the point where land and sea meet. The bins go unnoticed.. or disregarded.

The wind is strong. Brown pelicans are on the ground. A flock of royal terns graces the parking lot. Osprey sit in their nest high up on the telephone poles. Only the sanderlings are out in this racket, weaving inbetween manmade debris and seeking out dinner with slender beaks. They scatter across a plastic bag that has become imprisoned in the estuary mud.

Windsurfers watch me walk by on this resolute mission as they assemble their gear. Their expressions are questioning, but they stay silent long enough to hear the snap of my camera. The purpose of my scratchings in the sand and my shakes of dismay and full pockets seem obvious to me. Its all brutally apparent through my lenses of understanding. Yet it seems that not enough of us have the clarity of mind to look and see, both at once, this overwhelming problem.

March 30, 2009

Monterey Bay Makes An Appeal

SeaNotes posted a video appeal earlier today that atempts to motivate ocean conservation through a very simple and rather compelling narrative. I like it and I think we should try to make it viral. Consider yourself to have just been officially assigned this homework: link to the video and post it to your facebook or myspace or other social networks. We need eyes on the work that all these cooperating organizations, including Monterey Bay Aquarium, have managed to put together.

March 29, 2009

ReefStyle: Anthropologie's Decorative Plates

I’m sure I’m not the only person whose profession follows her home in the form of lithographs, glicees, statues, photos, books, and all other manner of ocean memorabilia. I have an entire wall of diving photos and cool postcards with oceanlife spread out in a large collage. Something really nerdy I caught myself doing just yesterday? Identifying the species of seahorse used for the model of a very large print glicee at a gallery. I’m positive it was Hippocampus barbouri. (Red flag!)

While shopping yesterday I noticed there is a strong trend towards all things reefstyle for home decor, particularly at Anthropologie. My birthday isnt for quite a few months yet, but I’d sure like to stimulate the economy by adding a few of these to the collection.

SideNote: My new phone takes shockingly good photos all things considered, don’t you think? The videos I shot of wild IRL dolphins breaching are less stellar but I fully intend to use this new resource to help make WaterNotes a visual lens from a marine observer’s eye.

March 28, 2009

Right Whales At Dawn

On very ambitious mornings I sometimes like to grab coffee, my swimswuit, a towel, and a camera and head out to the coast to watch the sunrise. I’m not a morning person at all, so this plan – often made at 10pm the night before – doesn’t always congeal into fruition. In fact I once famously planned to watch a sea turtle emergence but overslept, causing my grandfather to endlessly tease me with the question: “What time do the turtles get up?”

This morning, along with the gorgeous sunrise, I was rewarded with sightings of Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, North American river otters, manatees in the underpass beneath the causeway in the lagoon, herons, wood storks, anhingas, and gopher tortoises crossing the road.

Most spectacularly, I also spotted right whale(s) perhaps a football field off the beach. I’ve never seen right whales before today but they are known travelers along the Florida coastline. From December to early March they travel into the warmer water to calve. I am not completely sure if the distinctive blocky head and blow I spotted today belonged to just one cow or a cow and calf pair, but they were a beautiful sight to see and I confess that watching them move along with the sun rising peach and pink and soft yellow in the background definitely moved my soul.

Northern right whales are one of the most endangered of all species of marine mammal and estimates for their population are at the 300 mark. In fact, most of the Florida coastline on the Atlantic from Sebastian Inlet north into Georgia is designated as critical habitat for northern right whales and has held that title since 1994 by NMFS.

I imagine these whales are beginning to travel northwards back to the more temperate waters off New England, the Bay of Funday and the Scotian Shelf where they more routinely feed and nurse in the spring months. I feel very lucky that I happened to stumble across the sighting this morning.. it is very late in their season. Perhaps next winter I’ll remember to make a few day trips to the windy cold beach to purposefully whale watch for these enormous aquatic tourists.

March 27, 2009

Dogs That Sniff Out Orca Poo?

File this under “Are you serious? That really works?!” Mental Floss is reporting a wide variety of uses for the canine olfactory system from drug detection to bootleg DVDs to tracking whale waste for researchers attempting to study killer whale diet and potential health by way of poo. Mental Floss says, “Slimy green whale droppings can be tough to find, though, so specially trained dogs are used. The pups sit in the front of a boat and bark like crazy when there’s whale excrement nearby. It’s a strange system, but it works for researchers at the University of Washington.”

So I moseyed on over to the UW website and came across Dr. Sam Wasser’s Conservation Canines program. Incredibly enough Wasser is using the same sort of operant training techniques used to develop behaviors in other animals (ahem, even marine mammals) to teach dogs to signal out whale waste in what he calls “large remote landscapes” giving them further opportunities to sample excrement and gain data for the research. Its honestly pretty fascinating stuff!

National Wildlife Magazine‘s Phil McKenna also picked up a story this month about the link between dogs and cetaceans – particularly threatened populations of right whales and southern resident killer whales – which is definitely worth a looksee.

What I can’t really wrap my head around is the fact that cetacean waste – by and large – is not exactly solid matter. When the researchers note that orca waste is greenish and slimey they aren’t kidding. Whale poo is a liquified mash of waste that forms dense clouds that slowly dissipate. Its incredible to me not only that the canines can smell this target but that the researchers are also able to gather it for study.

March 26, 2009

Successes for Oohla, Rita, and Sarah

Truffula trees swaying in the breeze at Universal Orlando, FL

I’ve been keeping tabs on a number of topics covered in previous posts here at WaterNotes that I wanted to update:

Rita, one of the celebrity manatees released so far this year, continues to make progress out in the wild. Her satellite tracks show a steady movement around the immediate area near her release point and into larger habitat zones such as Lake Monroe, just outside of Sanford, FL. The Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership also continues to update the status of other released manatees.

Oohla, my intriguingly designed squid, continues to cavort about the interactive pages of the Colossal Squid Exhibition. He’s 85 days old, 25 kilos, and has traveled an estimated 410 kilometers since he hatched. Recently he had a fight with an elephant seal. I don’t know how he survived because southern elephant seals are massive creatures. Males easily reach 20 feet in length and can weigh upwards of 11,000 pounds.

Last week I declared independence from Diet Coke and I’m happy to report that I’ve continued down that path. (It’s almost been a month!) I also started using tumblers for my Starbucks treats and began cutting down on the sugar in my life. I’m not sure if there’s a direct link between sugar and the ocean, but I figure it can’t hurt. So far I think I’ve kept up to 26 two-liter bottles out of the landfill. (And easily 16 aluminum cans.)

This reminds me of a friendly email debate I engaged in earlier in the week. Does a green lifestyle mean that we become ascetics that give up the things that we most enjoy? Should all Diet Coke drinkers kick the habit for fear of the plastic waste? Should we likewise give up anything in life – even if its pleasurable – if it impacts the oceans?

I don’t entirely agree. We need to shift how we do things, make products, and consume resources to make it healthier for ourselves. I didnt give up seafood wholesale, I just began eating ocean-friendly seafood. I’m not counting out every last element of plastic in my life – I like wearing contacts for instance – but I am making a very conscious effort to limit it. (And if you want great ideas and thoughts on the plastic reduction conundrum, definitely read Beth’s Fake Plastic Fish.)

Being green – or going blue – isn’t about giving up our indulgences and getting back to the Stone Age, its about moving out of the Plastic Age and creating a culture that takes care of its life support system – the planet, and especially, the oceans.

March 25, 2009

Sherman On Non-Natives


Sherman’s Lagoon is a definite favorite among the marine conservation crowd. And for good reason. Artist Jim Toomey routinely shines light on conservation topics, like non-native species in the above strip. I thought it was certainly in keeping with my month-long unintentional focus on invasive species.

March 24, 2009

It Started With A Hit of Sardines


“For me it started with one hit of sardines…” says a dolphin in the latest video PSA released as a joint effort between NOAA, Mote Marine Laboratory, SeaWorld, Disney’s Animal Programs, Dolphin Quest, Dolphin Conservation Center of Marineland and several other supporting facilities. Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins is a website that shouldnt be necessary. However, it delivers a succinct and important message; when we interrupt natural feeding behavior for any animal, we put them at risk.

Researchers have documented a slew of negative impacts on fed wild dolphins from resultant shark attacks on caught-unaware-dolphins and serious injuries from boat propellers to competition between calves and mothers that starves calves. Several bites – some very serious – have also been documented and many dolphins have died after ingesting foreign objects and people food. In one of the more tragic cases, dolphin calves being fed in the Indian River Lagoon died after eating native pufferfish that are, on occasion, carriers of saxitoxin.

I love that the video features other wildlife that also face huge risks from consistently being fed by people. While bears are not usually affected by handouts here in Florida, raccoons certainly are as are brown pelicans, manatees, alligators, wood storks and other imperiled wildlife. I’ve even heard of people feeding gopher tortoises, bobcats, and river otters. It doesnt matter if the animal is aggressive, dangerous, gentle, or otherwise. Feeding them doesn’t help, it only hurts. We need to re-establish their natural food sources and restore their habitat areas to truly provide for the future of our marine and terrestrial wildlife.

March 18, 2009

1,825 Plastic Bottles.. Just Awful


When I was little having a soda was completely out of the question. So was most other heavily processed foods and particularly sugary items. Putting an entire American-childhood category of food off limits made it something of a sinfully delicious indulgence when some of the fizzy high-fructose-corn-syrup confection did come my way. And as I became a teenager and was able to make my own decisions, it grew into a full blown addiction.

I used to think that downing at least two Cokes a day was no big deal. A cavity here or there sure, but no big deal. Right? Well, probably not right. At the height of my insomnia in college I was drinking a two-liter per day of the sugary stuff. And worse, to circumvent the weight problems that habit brought about, I made a switch over to Diet Coke in 2004. That may have been the worst idea of my life. Ever since Diet Coke has been an absolute mainstay in my diet and has done nothing for my bones, my teeth, or my conscience when it comes to the environment.

One two-liter plastic bottle per day is a number so shocking over a five year span that when I tallied it up in January I actually became physically ill. PHYSICALLLY ILL! And what is the number? Well, I estimate that in five years I’ve generated a staggering 1,825 plastic two-litre bottles. Which says nothing of the aluminum cans, 20 oz bottles, or other sources of fizz that I’ve consumed along the way.

It doesnt matter that the vast majority of those bottles made it into the recycling stream from my kitchen. Its an unacceptably gigantic number for someone like myself – who passionately wants to avoid drowning the ocean in plastic debris.

And so, after considering all the facts (and reading some very interesting if not a bit eccentric blogs like Sugar Shock! and Killer Coke) I gave up Diet Coke cold turkey two weeks ago. No ifs ands or buts, no weaning off, none of that sissy stuff.

I won’t lie… I wanted to die those first three days. But after two weeks cold turkey with no soda I have to report that so far I just don’t miss it. I’m going to guess that my bones and teeth do not miss the phosphoric acid and I’ve had friends ask if I started using teeth whitening strips. (I haven’t changed anything up, its just a lack of caramel coloring.)

Hopefully this blog won’t come across as me preening over my personal success but its a definite challenge to present to each of you: do you have an unhealthy habit – for yourself and for the oceans – that you should consider giving up or scaling down?

March 16, 2009

Apple Snails Are Invasive Or Native? Both?

(c) DEP Florida / Island apple snail vs. native apple snail egg casings

Another day, another “I thought that was an invasive species” story to tell. This time, its the apple snails in the genus Pomacea that are on the line. At my current teaching spot we have an aquarium setup with Pomacea. They’ve taken to laying thousands of beautiful pink eggs in small casings on the glass sides of the display just above the water line.

A particularly bright college-aged student pointed them out, asked several questions about the eggs, and then told me something interesting: “You realize of course that apple snails are not a native species.” To which I replied, “Um, no I’m pretty sure that they are a native. We have the snail kite in Florida and its a specialist that consumes almost entirely apple snails. The kites are native. It seems odd that their food wouldn’t be… hmmmmm.”

I’m more than willing to be wrong of course, but the information certainly sent me for a loop. I was sent for a relative roller coaster ride this afternoon when I finally got around to looking up the apple snail history. Turns out there are several species of apple snail and while there is definitely a variety native to Florida – and natural prey for those kites – there are also invader species probably brought in through the aquarium industry in the state. And lo and behold those beautiful pink eggs are a dead giveaway that the snails we have are the invading Pomacea insularum, the island apple snail. (In the photo above invader eggs are on the left and native apple snail eggs are on the right.)

Its an explanation so simple I felt pretty sheepish writing it all down for future reference. At least I’ve learned something today: don’t be dismissive of things that you hear from your students, sometimes they know more than you do.