By Chuck Saltsman, Senior Producer, Interpretive Media at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photos ©Monterey Bay Aquarium, photographed by Tyson Rininger
Ten yards in front of me, a 14-foot great white shark churns the water into a pink foam as it chews basketball-size chunks of elephant seal from a fresh kill. The sheer violence of the attack is breathtaking. The tail thrashes the ocean for purchase, levering the head back and forth in a whipsaw motion. The serrated teeth carve out another 20 pounds of seal meat. It's two in the afternoon and I'm having a great day at the office, better than most. Better than that seal to be sure.
I'm here filming the research the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University are doing with white sharks. The day started at 6 a.m. and after a three-hour boat ride I was holding a 25-pound camera on a raised platform in a small skiff that rolls and bobs in a heavy swell. We're about a hundred yards offshore of the Farallon Islands, 25 miles west of San Francisco, California. In the rear of the boat are Sal Jorgensen and Scot Anderson, two scientists who spend a month here each year luring great white sharks close enough to touch, and hopefully attach a scientific tag to. The sharks are longer than the skiff and weigh a ton or more.
Shark tagging in Northern California typically takes place in October and November, a collaboration between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University, next door to the Aquarium. Tagging focuses on three areas: the Farrallon Islands, Point Reyes and Ano Nuevo.
The objective is to learn more about the size of the white shark population in Northern California and its condition. A recent estimate put the number of white sharks in the area at less than 250. “The goal is to really understand how many there are, and whether that population is rising or falling,” says Randy Kochevar, Science Communications Officer at Hopkins Marine Station.”We have spectacular apex predators right here off our shores. But with such a small number, it doesn’t take a large perturbation in the environment to have a significant impact.”
Life Aboard the “Dinner Plate”
Yesterday was a complete bust, and today has been slow. Sal and Scot dictate a research paper to each other and I watch the ocean, trying to stay balanced on the rocking skiff. My attention is focused about 30 feet out on the water where a grey piece of carpet resembling a seal silhouette floats. Today's faux seal is named "Scampi", maybe in hopes that a tasty name will prove inspirational. The idea is that a great white will see it floating on the surface, mistake it for a real seal and strike. If that happens the shark is lured back to the boat and into tagging range without ever letting it bite the decoy. If it bites the decoy, the game is over since the shark will know it's been duped.
Every few minutes what I've come to think of as "the shark detector" beeps a number at us. It's detecting the electronic tags that we've attached to them. Every tagged shark transmits a different number. And there are plenty of sharks without tags as well. We are literally afloat in shark-infested waters. Great white sharks migrate around and at this time of year, our scientists estimate there might be up to a hundred sharks within a few miles of us. Which ought to be worrisome while drifting around in a tiny boat referred to as "The Dinner Plate" but that's not what worries me. What worries me is screwing up at the critical moment.
With no warning, a huge dorsal fin and tail fin roll over on the decoy and it's a scramble on the skiff since we are surprised by the sudden activity. Scot starts furiously reeling in the decoy, Sal makes ready with the tag and I try and keep track of it all while framing up shots. The shark dives under the boat. It is huge, with a head the size of a beer keg. We lose sight of it for moment, then it surfaces at the rear. Sal lunges with the tag, the shark thrashes the water with a three-foot tail and it's gone. High fives all around. It would be the only shark we tag on this mission, but still a success.
Scot yells something about a predation. I ask what's going on. He says, "Put the camera away, I just saw a natural predation and we're heading over there." Natural predation? Ah, a shark attacked a seal. I stuff the camera back in the bag and Scot jams the throttle forward toward whitewater and circling gulls. As we approach, I grab the camera and Scott directs me to line it up with the largest piece of floating seal. I hit the record button and listen to Scot count down 3-2-1. He's been at this long enough to know that the shark is circling under the elephant seal, rising toward it. Action! The camera is steady and rolling as the shark lunges out of the water with the seal in its mouth.
I'm lucky to be here to see it and to share it with others.
Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium often ask, "Where are the whales in the aquarium?" We let them know how lucky we are to be right here on Monterey Bay, a hotspot for over 13 species of cetaceans -- whales and dolphins. At certain times of year they put on quite the show outside our windows.
This month is no exception. After entertaining the residents of Santa Cruz for a couple of weeks, humpback whales are now feeding off the beaches of Monterey and neighboring Seaside, Sand City and Marina. This weekend, without need for boat or binoculars, you could clearly witness the spectacle of feeding humpbacks as their huge mouths appeared without warning to engulf mouthfuls of schooling (and no doubt very surprised) fish!
It's a great way to end the humpback season and await the arrival of the gray whales on their southern migration later this month.
Meanwhile, in Hawaii humpback whales there have teamed up with some of their smaller cousins -- and who really knows what's going on. But it seems like the dolphins were having some fun: practicing some balancing skills, sliding down the whale rostrum. A regular jungle gym for dolphins, as fortuitously captured by photographer Lori Mazzuca!
Surely some of the smartest critters on the planet at work here and a pure delight for the humans who got to witness it!
The sixth great white shark ever exhibited at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is on his way back to the wild.
The young male shark brought to Monterey on August 31 is being transported to ocean waters south of Point Conception today (October 25) by our animal care staff. He was moved out of the million-gallon Open Sea exhibit this morning and will be released offshore this afternoon.
The decision to release the shark after 55 days on exhibit was based on recent changes in how he was navigating in the exhibit, according to Jon Hoech, director of husbandry for the aquarium.
“These decisions are always governed by our concern for the health and well-being of these animals under our care,” Jon says. “It became clear that it was time to release him.”
Like the five other great white sharks that we've kept on exhibit for periods up to six-and-a-half months, the newest shark will carry a tracking tag that will document his movements in the wild. The pop-up tag will collect information on where he travels, the depths he dives to and the water temperatures he favors for the first 180 days he’s back in the wild. The tag is scheduled to pop free in late April and transmit those data back to our research team via satellite.
We remain the only aquarium in the world ever to exhibit one of the ocean’s top predators for more than 16 days. The five other sharks were successfully returned to the wild.
This young shark, a four-foot, eight-inch male weighing 43.2 pounds, was collected outside Marina del Rey on August 18 by our husbandry staff. He was transferred to a 4-million-gallon ocean holding pen off Malibu, where he remained for almost two weeks. Our team observed him swimming comfortably and documented several feedings in the pen before he was brought to Monterey.
The shark gained nearly nine pounds and grew two inches during his 55-day stay on exhibit.
Exhibit of young great white sharks just part of our Project White Shark, a collaboration with several research partners to learn more about and better protect great white sharks in the wild as well as to occasionally bring white sharks to Monterey for exhibit. Since 2002, we and our partners have tagged and tracked 45 juvenile great white sharks off southern California.
Every once in a while an issue comes along that unites everyone around a common goal. This year, that issue was the protection of sharks, and the goal was to end the shark fin trade here in California.
We accomplished that goal October 7, 2011 when California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 376 into law, prohibiting the sale, trade, distribution and possession of shark fins within the state.
A Group Effort
By the time of the Governor’s signature, tens of thousands of Californians had gotten involved in the effort. Dozens of environmental non-profits, Asian-American organizations, animal welfare groups, and aquariums campaigned for the bill, joined by community groups, chefs, celebrities, and policymakers. Leonardo DiCaprio sent letters of support; scientists from all over the world helped with research papers and offers to field questions from the Governor’s office; and elementary school groups in California created websites, organized petitions and letter-writing campaigns and even visited Senate offices at the Capitol! Groups organized rallies and shark-lovers events around the state and editorials boards published stories in every major newspaper in California. Over a hundred thousand individuals sent e-mails, “Tweeted” or posted actions on their Facebook page, and made phone calls to their Assemblymember, Senator and the Governor. People of all walks of life, from architects to yoga instructors, took action for sharks and urged the Governor to sign AB 376.
All Hands On
Here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium our entire staff got involved. Volunteers talked about the bill with visitors; our exhibits team printed banners and constructed an inflatable finless shark for outreach events; and our auditorium programs included calls to action and updates on major milestones—often earning loud applause from the audience! Public relations managed media; membership sent out action alerts; Seafood Watch recruited chefs and advocates; and our policy staff coordinated the campaign, wrote letters, testified in Sacramento and advocated for sharks at every opportunity.
It’s often said that one person can make a difference, and the campaign for AB 376 is a prime example. At so many steps along the way, the balance was shifted due to the voices of only a handful of people. At one point a Sacramento colleague indicated to us that she was 52 percent to 48 percent sure the Governor would sign our bill—that’s a close call and a decision that could have easily been swayed either way by a single phone call, email, or letter to the Governor.
Indeed the global movement to end the shark fin trade began with a small group of people urging an end to the sale of shark fins in Hawaii, and that single action encouraged other individuals and groups to pursue similar efforts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and then the states of Washington, Oregon and now California. With AB 376 California has now made the ban on shark fins complete along the U.S. West Coast and accelerated the global movement to end this destructive trade. Because of California’s action, we are one step closer to ending the shark fin trade where it is most prevalent, in China and Hong Kong. And with individuals like those who tirelessly took action for AB 376 I’m sure we can get there.
A Better Future for Sharks
AB 376 will go into effect on January 1, 2012, after which no new fins will be allowed into the state; restaurants and shops will have until July 2013 to use up existing stock of fins, and after that, the trade in shark fins in California will be completely banned.
Sharks and the ocean will be healthier due AB 376 and the actions of California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the efforts of all the groups and individuals that made this possible.
Our thanks to everyone out there who took action to protect sharks!
Posted by Geoff Drake on October 12, 2011 at 08:55 AM in Aquarium Stories, Environment, Fisheries, Food and Drink, Great White Shark, Ocean Policy, Sharks, Sustainability, Sustainable Seafood | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
An insider’s look at moving an apex predator from the ocean to the aquarium
I wake ten minutes before my alarm goes off -- and my body and mind instinctively know that I have an epic day in store. I skip my normal morning adrenaline run and drive to Malibu Pier, arriving at 7:45 a.m. sharp, knowing that the coming hours will peak my endorphins. Waiting to greet a great white shark is not an everyday occurrence, after all.
By 10:30 a.m. the land-based team is getting restless. We’ve heard that the floor of the ocean net pen, home to the white shark for the past several days, is being lifted by our boat crew and dive team. That means the white shark should be arriving soon, but there is still no “chicken in the coop.” I bite my nails as the minutes pass until finally, at 11:11 a.m., we get the call: “The shark is on board!”
Whew! Everyone flies into action. The shark’s transport trough – the vehicle that will carry him down the pier, from boat to transport truck -- is filled with salt water while the oxygen level is regularly monitored. The team walks briskly down the pier scanning the water for our boat, the Lucile, as two- to four-foot swells build on what had been a calm sea. All reports are that the swell will only grow in intensity for the next several days.
This is not welcome news.
When it’s two miles off shore, we spot the boat racing toward the pier. It’s essential that the crew time the operation when there’s a lull in the southern swells, so people and shark can safely get ashore. Fisherman and passersby gather to catch a glimpse of the action. On the far side of the pier dozens of surfers are hollering and inviting the waves to grow larger. Meanwhile the white shark team is muttering incantations to King Poseidon to pacify the great Pacific, even if only for a few moments, so they can get the shark on land.
The team senses a lull. “Here we go,” yells Joe Welsh, our associated husbandry curator who’s at the helm of the Lucile. I can feel everyone’s heart rate increase. The adrenaline is flowing and transport team coordinator Scott Reid leans over the boat while Manny Ezcurra, our lead shark curator, hands him one end of the stretcher that’s holding the shark. Manny jumps onto the landing, and takes the other end. Water is flowing out of the stretcher as the two navigate their way up a flight of wooden stairs to the mobile trough, holding protectively onto their precious package. The young male great white shark is raised in the air, reminiscent of a baby being baptized, and gingerly lowered into the trough.
“Lid Angela! Help lift the lid!”
I do what I’m told, waiting for my next order.
As the team rolls trough and shark down the long wooden pier, I sprint to where it meets the Pacific Coast Highway, my mind absent of everything except getting the young shark across the street safely and quickly. I hit the button, once, twice…impatiently, five more times… in hopes of getting a quicker response from the mechanically programmed light.
“I already did!” he hollers back.
As I look behind me, I see our veterinarian, Dr. Mike Murray, and a couple of white shark biologists sprinting to catch up with the shark. They reach us, out of breath. Waiting for a green light has never felt so infinite, but at last it comes. We look left, then right, before racing across the highway; dozens of cars and even more eyes looking at this motley group pushing a wooden box across America’s most scenic highway, in the heart of Malibu in the middle of summer. I’m curious what they think of it all.
I watch our team of aquarists, curators; truck driver and veterinarian merge as a well-oiled machine. As they reach the transport vehicle, two men grab the ends of the gurney and hoist the great white shark up the large stairs in a stretcher while another opens the lid on the 3,200-gallon mobile life support transport tank (also known as the finabago) that will hold the shark for the drive north up to Monterey. The sling is pushed down into the water and the four-foot, seven-inch male shark swims in smoothly and freely, ready to explore his temporary habitat.
Now it’s essential that Dr. Mike, the aquarium’s veterinarian, is confident that the shark’s swimming pattern is consistent and relaxed before the team is cleared to drive him north. As a smile creeps across the doc’s face I hear myself take a deep breath. I’ve been unconsciously holding my breath since we crossed the highway. Dr. Mike’s face tells me everything I need to know without having to look through the finabago’s window myself.
“You want a peek?” he asks. Coolly but quickly I walk to the window and lift the heavy white lid.
As the day’s adrenaline starts to leave my body I peer into a blue pool of clear water. In a moment, I’m eye-to-eye with the king of the ocean (well, at this size, maybe a prince).
“You are safe,” I whisper. “In a few months you’ll be released back into your wild habitat. Until then you’ll inspire tens of thousands of humans to protect you and your brethren.” He circles past me, his majestic, prehistoric and predatorial eye grazing past mine.
“Thank you,” I think deeply as I close the window and head toward the car.
The truck heads north, Bobby at the wheel, Manny and Dr. Mike aboard to monitor the shark during the six-and-a-half hour drive.
Time to go home.
For the sixth time since 2004, our husbandry team has successfully brought a juvenile great white shark from the wild to temporarily reside in the million-gallon Open Sea exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He was collected by our team in a purse seine net in waters near Malibu, and arrived at the Aquarium August 31. The young shark, a four-foot, seven-inch male, weighs 43.2 pounds.
As with the white sharks who came before, we hope he’ll be an ambassador for his species while here. We want to encourage more people to learn about the plight of sharks, and be moved to take action to protect them in the wild.
The first white shark was with us for 6 ½ months; the second, for 4 ½ months; the third, for 5 months; the fourth, for 11 days; and the fifth, for over 2 months. All were successfully returned to the wild.
Seen by millions of visitors, these animals have helped us convey their powerful beauty, and educate visitors about the threats they face in the wild. After the first white shark in 2004 drew almost a million visitors, Executive Director Julie Packard called it "the most powerful emissary for ocean conservation in our history."
We'll keep you updated through our Facebook page and this blog, so you can find out how he’s doing. Our number one concern is his health and well-being (and, of course, that of the other animals with whom he will share the water during his stay).You can also check on him yourself when you visit the Aquarium, or on our live HD web cam!
There’s always something going on in the Kelp Forest Touch Pool. Right now you can see the giant keyhole limpet (Megathura crenulata). This is no ordinary snail. The body of a keyhole limpet can grow to be almost 10 inches long (our largest is about four inches). It’s named for the large “keyhole” in the middle of the shell, for excreting waste (visible in the middle of the black area in photo). This intertidal animal is soft to the touch and adheres to surfaces with its large foot. Senior Aquarist Barbara Utter found these limpets, along with other species, while diving in local reefs. The exhibit also contains a juvenile horn shark , juvenile wolf eel, rockfish, scorpionfish, kelp bass, gumboot chitons and a warty sea cucumber.
But it also has an artistic streak. That’s because in the Open Sea’s final gallery, Ocean Travelers, visitors are introduced to artists and activists Chris Jordan, Alyssa Irizarry, Alison McDonald, Bryant Austin – who have devoted their work to conserving the world’s oceans. Each live animal exhibit in Ocean Travelers is paired with an art installation to raise awareness about the threats facing those animals. Visitors learn what they can do to ensure safe passage for the unique fishes, sharks, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals that live in the open ocean. Nearby, short video clips of the artists explain the motivation and passion behind their work.
Photographer Chris Jordan’s piece, Shark Teeth, represents the thousands of sharks killed each year for their fins. Viewed from afar, you see a yin-yang image of two species of sharks encircling a mercury symbol. Move closer and you see the image comprises thousands of fossilized shark teeth.
Sea Turtle Murals
In 1996 a group of artists set out to create a series of sea turtle murals along the 1,000 mile-long Baja Peninsula. Most of the artists were self-taught and in collaboration with the conservation group, El Grupo Tortuguero, agreed to create beautiful sea turtle murals if given paints, brushes and food. Alyssa Irizarry, a Tufts University student, was curious if the murals could help turn the tide in local communities away from consuming sea turtles to protecting them. Her findings showed the murals did indeed help change attitudes and behaviors about endangered sea turtles. Her admonition: “Keep on painting!”
Message in a Bottle
Australian Alison McDonald created Message in a Bottle, a dozen sculptures that examine the relationship humans have with plastic. McDonald’s installation features meticulous cutwork using recycled plastic to create delicate algae. The piece invites viewers to re-shape their thinking about plastic and its often disastrous effect in the open sea and on land.
Giant Whale Photo
Bryant Austin of Santa Cruz, California, creates life-size photographs of whales. In the Open Sea, you’ll be eye-to-eye with a black-and-white composite photograph of the face of an endangered humpback whale calf. Austin captured the photograph on a Hasselblad portrait camera while free-diving in the Kingdom of Tonga. After composing a series of photographs, he digitally stitches them together and produces a profound, life-size representation. Through his creations, Austin and the group Marine Mammal Conservation through the Arts hope to inspire change within countries that continue to hunt or harm whales.
Each artist featured in the Ocean Travelers gallery uses different materials to create their pieces, but the common thread is an awareness of environmental issues affecting the oceans and a clear message of how visitors can help conserve the oceans and ensure safe passage for transoceanic animals.
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