Ocean Currents » marine mammals http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 21 Jul 2016 13:44:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Trove of Marine Life Data Released in the Northeast http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/23/trove-of-marine-life-data-released-in-the-northeast/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/06/23/trove-of-marine-life-data-released-in-the-northeast/#comments Thu, 23 Jun 2016 19:54:43 +0000 Katie Morgan http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=12336

Last month, a collection of maps representing one of the largest known efforts to assemble and disseminate spatial data for multiple species of marine life was released in New England. This powerful new information database characterizes over 150 marine species through map based visualizations.

These data enhance our fundamental understanding of marine species and where they exist in the ocean, bringing us a step closer to a more comprehensive assessment of marine resources. In the end, the goal is to better inform decision-makers who are tasked with improving ocean ecosystems and enhancing our ocean economy.

The New England Ocean Ecosystem

Off the coast of New England lies a beautiful and complex ocean ecosystem. From sandy beaches to kelp forests to deep sea corals, this region is home to thousands of marine species, many endemic to the coastal and marine habitats that range from Connecticut to Maine. The habitat is shaped by the cold, nutrient rich waters circulating around the Gulf of Maine, and the warm influence of the South Atlantic brought north via the Gulf Stream. New England also boasts a huge array of underwater physical features, like mountains and canyons, that influence the biological diversity we cherish so dearly.

However, there are changes occurring in the waters of New England and the culture around it.

From ocean acidification to sea level rise to warming waters, we are seeing rapid changes in ecosystems as a whole, as well as individual species distribution and abundance. Native species are moving north or heading offshore to cooler, deeper waters, while non-native species are extending their ranges into New England from regions in the south as a result of the same warming trends. As ecological communities are shifting, so too are maritime communities that depend upon them for their livelihoods and enjoyment.

The Data: Marine Life & Habitat Characterization

Understanding the distribution and abundance of species, and their interactions with one another and their environment, is critical for better management and sound decision-making. However, our baseline understanding of the marine ecosystem has significant gaps.  To get a more holistic picture of what is going on in our ocean, we need better data. This is especially true at a regional scale.

In response to these data gaps, a group of over 80 regional scientists and managers, with input from the public, have begun to tackle this problem head on.

Through the Northeast regional ocean planning process, scientists participating in the Marine Life Data Assessment Team have focused their attention on enhancing marine life and habitat data; spatially characterizing the mammals, birds, fish, and habitat types of New England’s coastal and marine waters using complex models.

Some of the amazing information provided for the public to view and utilize include:

  • Individual species mapscharacterizing the distribution and abundance/ biomass of:
  • Physical and Biological Habitat maps, characterizing sediment grain type, size, and stability, surface and bottom currents and temperature, primary productivity, wetlands, shellfish habitat, and more.

In addition to individual species and habitat maps, the research team has begun synthesizing information to delineate diversity, species richness, total abundance, and core abundance areas for groups of species that share regulatory, ecological, and stressor-sensitivity characteristics. For example:

  • Regulatory and Conservation Priority Groups: To aid decision-makers, researchers grouped species based on various existing authorities such as Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
  • Ecologically and Biologically Grouped Species: By grouping species based on their life histories, trophic level, spatial distribution, and habitat requirements, these data products can help reveal underlying ecosystem processes that drive observed marine life patterns.
  • Stressor-Sensitivity Based Species Groups: Many species can be affected by a range of human use or environmental stressors. By grouping species based on specific stressors, such as sound frequency (whales) and sensitivity to collision with offshore wind farms (birds), these products can inform important offshore permit applications.

These maps and related information are just the beginning, and scientists are working to finalize all the information available online through peer and public review. Future iterations of the ocean plan could improve upon these data layers and their components to help inform comprehensive ecosystem-based management.

Understanding the limitations of our current understanding of marine life and habitat in the region, the Northeast RPB has identified a range of science and research priorities to begin addressing critical data gaps. To address such priorities, there is an entire chapter in the draft NE ocean plan devoted to laying out a research agenda, identifying key areas of focus to enhance our current database, and expanding upon the work that has already been done.

New England has gained a wealth of new scientific information and data products and has many exciting opportunities for new, regionally-relevant research which are specifically called out by regional scientists and managers as areas of high priority.

We encourage you to read the plan and explore the data for yourself!

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Happy International Polar Bear Day! http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/02/27/happy-international-polar-bear-day/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2016/02/27/happy-international-polar-bear-day/#comments Sat, 27 Feb 2016 13:00:34 +0000 Katie Green http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11531
We love polar bears! And, when we saw that today was International Polar Bear Day—we jumped for joy. While you sit here reading this fascinating blog, polar bear moms are busy caring for their newborn cubs in their Arctic dens.

If you didn’t love these Arctic bears enough already, we’re giving you six more reasons to love them. Join us in celebrating polar bears today!

1. Polar bears have special padding on their feet to prevent slipping on ice.

These bears are well-equipped to handle the slippery Arctic sea ice. Not only are their paws covered with fur, but their feet are also covered with small bumps called papillae. These bumps help create traction for polar bears on the move. Without the help of papillae, polar bears would be pretty clumsy.

2. Polar bear moms don’t really hibernate.

Instead of truly hibernating, polar bear mothers reside in dens to care for and protect their newborn cubs. This usually happens between January and March each year. Mothers go this entire time without food or water. With the warmth of spring, the new families emerge from their dens in search of food together. Talk about dedication!

3. The largest polar bear ever recorded was a male weighing 2,209 pounds!

Male polar bears typically weigh around 1,000 pounds. Females weigh about half of the typical weight of a male polar bear. That means the largest recorded polar bear was more than double the average weight of an adult male polar bear. This giant bear weighed about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle!

4. Polar bears can slow down their own metabolism.

Polar bears’ diets are rich in fat. If an adult polar bear doesn’t eat for ten days, it can reduce the speed of its metabolism to survive. The reduction in metabolism allows polar bears to use their fat reserves until they can find their next meal. This trait comes in handy considering food can be hard to come by in the Arctic.

5. Polar bears have an incredible sense of smell.

Skilled at hunting, polar bears use their keen smell to locate prey. A polar bear can sniff out a seal on the ice up to 20 miles away. That’s right, 20 miles. That’s like smelling your lunch across the entire city of Austin, Texas.

6. Polar bears need to play in the snow.

Polar bears use snow and Arctic ice as a tool to get rid of debris in their fur and to keep themselves dry and buoyant. Polar bears need to roll around in the snow to keep their fur clean and fluffy. Polar bears actually have transparent hair, and the hollow core of each hair strand also helps polar bears’ buoyancy. Playing in the snow looks like a lot more fun though!

These are just a few of the many reasons to celebrate and adore these amazing marine mammals! See more fun photos of polar bears and all other kinds of ocean critters by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Happy International Polar Bear Day!

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What We Know Now About the BP Oil Disaster http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/11/09/what-we-know-now-about-the-bp-oil-disaster/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/11/09/what-we-know-now-about-the-bp-oil-disaster/#comments Mon, 09 Nov 2015 20:00:14 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11026

It takes 635 pages to describe exactly how the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster impacted the Gulf ecosystem. This is what the Trustees released in the “Injury to Natural Resources” chapter of the Draft Programmatic Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan and Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (which totals over 1,400 pages), a plan that will guide the spending for a over $7 billion of the $20.8 billion settlement with BP.

We know that not everyone has the time to peruse hundreds of pages of information, so Ocean Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation partnered to summarize what we now know about impacts. This summary is based on five years of government research, which recently became available when the details of the BP settlement were released last month.

The numbers in the report are staggering. Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, marine mammals and birds died, and many more were exposed to oil. Trillions of larval fish and invertebrates were killed by BP oil discharged into Gulf waters. An area 20 times the size of Manhattan around the now-plugged wellhead is polluted by oil. Deep-water corals, some of them hundreds of years old, were killed. In addition, due to the challenge of measuring the impact to some animals and places, the Trustees describe many of their conclusions as underestimates. What we do know is that the oil disaster affected the entire northern Gulf ecosystem, and the long-term effects are still unknown.

Long-lived or slow-growing animals that were impacted by the BP oil disaster will likely take decades to recover. For example, spinner dolphins are estimated to need 105 years to recover, and slow-growing deep-water corals may take hundreds of years. In light of this, it is essential that restoration is paired with continued long-term monitoring and research to track these animals and habitats to understand if they are on the path to recovery, and to reassess our restoration activities if they are not responding to our efforts.

More than five years have passed since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and as we look back to better understand the magnitude of this environmental disaster, we must also remember to look forward. In addition to identifying the extent of ecosystem injury, the Trustees also recommend a comprehensive suite of restoration approaches to move the Gulf toward recovery.

Learn more about how you can shape this process for the next 18 years.

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Five Reasons to Love Manatees http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/11/09/five-reasons-to-love-manatees/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/11/09/five-reasons-to-love-manatees/#comments Mon, 09 Nov 2015 16:00:28 +0000 Katie Green http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=11006

November is the month for cozy sweaters and cold weather. Sadly, manatees don’t have the luxury of going out and buying warmer clothes to prepare for winter weather. Beginning in November, many manatees make their way from the cooling Mid-Atlantic coast to the warm waters around Florida. That is why November has the honor of being Manatee Awareness Month!

This month got off to a great start with Polar Bear Week, we just didn’t think November could get any better — but it did — with Manatee Awareness Month! To celebrate our favorite sea cow, here are a few reasons why we love these gentle, easy going marine mammals.

1. Manatees are amazing mothers.

Manatees are pregnant with their young for about 12 months (and we thought nine months was a long time). For up to two years after birth, manatee calves are completely dependent on their mothers for food and protection. Although manatees only give birth every 2 to 5 years, sea cow mothers are excellent at the job. Raising their young is quite the time commitment, making manatees some of the most dedicated mothers out there.

2. Manatees are mermaids. 

During Christopher Columbus’s first trip to the Americas, his company recorded a sighting of three mermaids in the waters surrounding the island of Haiti. He reported seeing these mermaids rise from the sea near his route. Later it was discovered that these mythical mermaids were most likely manatees. Manatees have vertebrae in their neck allowing them to turn their heads similar to humans, and can raise themselves out of the water by performing “tail stands” in shallow areas. Sea cows also have finger-like bones on their front limbs which can resemble arms and hands. With these characteristics, we can see why it would be easy to confuse manatees and mermaids. Mermaids are pretty cool, but manatees are just as magical.

3. Manatees know how to relax. 

These calming sea cows live life at a slower pace. Manatees generally swim at a pace of about three to five miles per hour. When they aren’t feeding or traveling, manatees will spend the majority of their time resting. Unlike most humans, they have time to fit in a few small naps throughout the day and night. While resting, manatees can be fully submerged without taking a breath for up to 20 minutes! These are the kind of animals we would want to spend a vacation with, taking it slow and relaxing 24/7.

4. Manatees have exceptional senses. 

Manatees have relatively small eyes in relation to their large body. What their eyes lack in size, they make up for in utility. Manatees have a retractable membrane to protect their eyes while also allowing them to see very well. Although these gentle giants have no visible, outward ear structures, they have large inner ear bones that promote strong hearing.

5. Manatees hate the cold. 

The only thing manatees hate more than a fast-paced lifestyle is the cold winter weather. Manatees head for shallow, warmer water in the colder months beginning in November. Due to their low metabolic rates and low body fat, they are unable to survive in water colder than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite their large size, manatees have very minimal body fat making them extra sensitive to cooling temperatures in the winter months.

Manatees are wondrous and gentle creatures that are, sadly, endangered. Because they are unable to survive in the cold, manatees must make the difficult journey towards warmer water each year. Boat strikes are one of the biggest threats to migrating manatees. November is the month to raise awareness about the declining manatee population and discover what you can do to help.

To help the sea cows, when boating, always obey posted speed zones and go slowly in shallow waters where manatees tend to rest, feed and migrate to. Watch for manatee signs and never throw trash, debris or fishing line overboard.

You can also help on land by picking up trash that could end up in the manatees’ habitats. Spending a few extra minutes at the end of your beach visit to clean up your surroundings can benefit manatees for a lifetime. The most important way you can help manatees is to always be respectful. If you are lucky enough to see a manatee in the wild, never disturb them. Admiring from afar is safest for you and the manatees.

Interested in seeing more awesome manatee photos and learning more about our favorite sea cows? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. We will be sharing fun facts all month long. Happy Manatee Awareness Month! 

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Aftermath of Santa Barbara’s Oil Spill: What’s Happening in the Marine Environment? http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/06/04/aftermath-of-santa-barbaras-oil-spill-whats-happening-in-the-marine-environment/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/06/04/aftermath-of-santa-barbaras-oil-spill-whats-happening-in-the-marine-environment/#comments Thu, 04 Jun 2015 14:37:56 +0000 Greg Helms http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10302

Oil on the beach at Refugio State Park in Santa Barbara, California, on May 19, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Nearly two weeks after a ruptured pipeline spilled 105,000 gallons of crude oil near Santa Barbara, hundreds of tired and oil-soaked workers are still on site working to scoop, boom and skim what they can of the 21,500 gallons estimated to have reached the ocean. As the slick spreads on the surface, and more oil sinks beneath the waves, a complicated environmental, chemical and biological process is unfolding in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel. While every oil spill differs depending on local conditions, science and past history allow us to anticipate some of the long-term impacts to marine wildlife, habitats and communities.

Oil produced offshore of Santa Barbara is particularly heavy and thick, likely worsening the effects of external exposure to marine birds, mammals and fish.  These effects include smothering those animals that can’t move, and impairing the ability of some animals to insulate against cold water.  Marine birds that become oiled may lose the ability to fly, forage and feed their young. Highly mobile birds and marine mammals that frequent the ocean surface, where spilled oil initially collects, are especially vulnerable. They may be exposed to oil in one location only to sicken or die elsewhere.  The spill’s location in shallow, nearshore waters exposes a particularly rich array of wildlife and habitats to damage, including shorelines, sea grass, kelp beds, rocky reefs and kelp forests.

Spilled oil on the sea surface that is not captured by booms and skimmers will undergo changes as it’s agitated by waves and currents, and weathered by wind and sunlight.  Uncollected oil begins to degrade and form the orange emulsion “mousse” that is a familiar visual from past oil spills. During this weathering process, some of the oil will collect in low spots and around reefs and rocky outcrops.  This brings the smothering and oiling effects of the spill to the seabed, where the bulk of the near shore ocean’s animals are located.  This sub-surface oil is less visible and more difficult to clean up, and its effects may be the most persistent and profound posed by this tragic incident.

The weathering of spilled oil releases especially toxic aromatic hydrocarbons that can pass through the gills of fish, and enter nerve fibers causing paralysis. Chemical compounds that weather slowly may persist in the environment for months or years. Some will remain suspended in the water, later forming tar balls and “pancakes” that can continue to foul beaches and shorelines for years to come. Some will sink to the sea floor, where exposure of this decaying oil will threaten the growth and reproductive success of bottom dwellers such as sea urchins and sea stars. Oil buried in the sediment layer decays more slowly and can be re-released over time.

While oil is not entirely foreign to local ecosystems, nature is not accustomed to large volumes of crude oil being released suddenly. Several natural oil and gas seeps, which slowly leak some crude oil into the environment, exist in the Santa Barbara Channel. This does not mean local wildlife is immune to the toxic effects of oil; in fact, scientific experiments show this not to be the case.  However, there are numerous species of bacteria and fungi that have evolved to take advantage of the energy stored in petroleum.


These microorganisms can aid in the long process of recovery by digesting hydrocarbons using special enzymes.  Blooms of these bacteria and fungi in response to the sudden availability of hydrocarbons is among the ways the marine ecosystem will absorb the oil spill over time, although there is much that is unknown about these processes.  The microbiology of marine systems is complicated, and the potential effects of such blooms may be considerable.

The Santa Barbara Channel is one of the most prolific and well-studied marine ecosystems in the world.  Both of these facts may contribute some hope for the eventual recovery from this oil spill.  While the area’s biological richness undoubtedly increases the count of marine animals injured and killed by the spill, scientists believe that more diverse and healthy ecosystems are more resilient and can recover more quickly and completely from damage and disturbance.

Furthermore, because the Channel has for decades served as a marine laboratory for scientists from nearby UC Santa Barbara and elsewhere, we have extensive information on ecosystem conditions before the spill, which will be critical in accurately  assessing the damage, informing mitigation and remediation efforts, and tracking results.  Studies accompanying Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) established in the area in 2012 brought significant additional information of this type to bear. Having this baseline will help guide restoration efforts, and ensure full accountability and compensation by the pipeline operator. Early efforts to survey damage to marine habitats and wildlife are crucial to long term restoration and are as essential as the clean-up efforts of response workers on the beach.

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The Evidence Mounts: Another Study Links Dolphin Deaths in the Gulf to BP http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/21/the-evidence-mounts-another-study-links-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-to-bp/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/21/the-evidence-mounts-another-study-links-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-to-bp/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 12:30:38 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10239

Yesterday, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published new results from a series of studies in which they have investigated the unusually high number of dolphin deaths occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2010, scientists have conducted autopsies on dead dolphins to try and understand why they are dying.

They found significantly higher numbers of dolphins with severe lung disease and lesions on their adrenal glands in oiled areas than in non-oiled areas. Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson described the adrenal disease as forcing dolphins to precariously balance on a ledge which cold temperatures, pregnancy and infection can push them off, resulting in death. The lesions observed in dolphins were “some of the most severe lung lesions ever seen in wild dolphins throughout the U.S.” according to lead Pathologist, Dr. Katie Colegrove. NOAA is decisive in concluding that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster caused the dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf: “The timing, location, and nature of the detected lesions support that contaminants from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.”

These new findings are backed up by earlier studies. One publication reported dolphins in Barataria Bay had symptoms consistent with petroleum exposure that were threatening their survival. Another study analyzed where and when dolphins were stranding, and found areas contaminated with oil in 2010 and 2011 also had the highest numbers of dolphin deaths.

As researchers continue to publish the results of studies, we will further understand the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. We will also begin to understand if impacted animals and places are recovering. Bob Spies, former chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, recently said “If we care enough to understand impacts, I hope we care enough to understand recovery.” This reminds me that understanding the impacts is only the first step in restoring the Gulf. The people who live in the Gulf will rely on it throughout their lifetimes, and long-term research and environmental monitoring will provide us with the tools we need to continue to not only hold BP accountable, but also restore the Gulf.

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NOAA Says Shell Drilling Would Impact Thousands of Marine Mammals http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/03/11/noaa-says-shell-drilling-would-impact-thousands-of-marine-mammals/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/03/11/noaa-says-shell-drilling-would-impact-thousands-of-marine-mammals/#comments Wed, 11 Mar 2015 19:28:33 +0000 Andrew Hartsig http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=9986

Earlier this year, President Obama took executive action to protect some of the Arctic Ocean’s most significant marine areas from the threats posed by oil and gas drilling. Unfortunately, some areas of the Arctic Ocean were left open to oil companies, and oil giant Shell has been gearing up to make another attempt to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released an analysis that details how Shell’s proposed drilling operations may impact whales and seals. The results? Tens of thousands of of animals may be exposed to noise that could disrupt vital life activities like migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, and sheltering. NOAA’s analysis determined that more than 50,000 seals and more than 6,000 whales–including belugas, bowheads, grays, and humpbacks–could be affected by Shell’s proposed drilling activities.

Arctic whales and seals are already feeling the effects of climate change and the rapid loss of summer sea ice; the impacts associated with Shell’s proposed drilling activities would only add to their stress. Drilling activities also present the risk of a catastrophic oil spill, and extreme conditions like changing sea ice, fog, and high winds make meaningful cleanup all but impossible in the Arctic Ocean. A disaster like the Deepwater Horizon in the Chukchi Sea would devastate marine wildlife and jeopardize food security in Alaska Native communities.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will soon decide whether to approve Shell’s proposals to drill in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Join us in taking a stand against reckless drilling: Tell the Secretary of the Interior to say “no” to Shell. Sign our petition, today.

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