High Tech Middle Media Arts teacher Erika Reed (center) and her students get ready to snorkel over Hobihu Reef in Taiwan.
By Fernando Nosratpour, interim co-curator
In 2012, Birch Aquarium at Scripps and our sister aquarium, the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium (NMMBA) in Taiwan, were awarded a highly competitive Museums Connect grant to connect youth from both countries to each other and to the ocean.
Awarded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. State Department, the grant brought together middle school students from Taiwan and San Diego to study coral reefs and also learn about each other’s culture. They were called Coral Reef Ambassadors.
A few of the participating students also had the amazing opportunity to visit each other’s country and explore habitats in person. In late March, I joined High Tech Middle Media Arts teacher Erika Reed and three of her students for an incredible journey to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
In Taiwan, we met with Dr. Tony Fan, a coral researcher at NMMBA who took us to Pingtung County, where the aquarium and research center are located. We visited a local tide pool where an old, dead coral reef once existed. We also snorkeled at two other coral reefs, a first-time experience for some of the students.
Convict Surgeonfish grazing at Nanbay Reef in Taiwan.
The corals and fishes at Nanbay Reef were beautiful and a great opportunity for us to see a live coral reef. The students, as well as myself, had a blast. It was a sunny day, the water was warm (~78 degrees F), and the corals and fishes were colorful. It was really hard leaving the reef!
We went hiking in Kenting National Park and observed some fossilized coral reefs that were hundreds of feet above sea level. The natural beauty of the reefs and forest were very inspiring. The ocean views were spectacular.
The students went hiking in Kenting National Park in Taiwan where they saw fossilized reefs and tropical plants.
But just as inspiring, and even more so, were the visits with students at Checheng and Hengchun Jr. High Schools. We met with students, teachers, and principals at both schools. Erika Reed was able to observe and compare the Taiwanese school system with that of High Tech Middle Media Arts in San Diego.
What a welcome we had! Students came out of classrooms to greet us. At Checheng Jr. High we were treated to a dance performance and Kung Fu presentation. At Hengchun Jr. High we had a great time making crafts with special education students and teachers. The students treated us so well—it was hard to leave!
In a classroom at Chechung Jr. High School, one of the High Tech Middle School students prepares to give a talk about her life in San Diego.
A great visit with students and teachers in a special education class at Chechung Jr. High. Showing off our tie-dye prints that we made during our visit. (Birch Aquarium’s Fernando Nosratpour is standing in the back right.)
During our 10-day stay, our San Diego students visited the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium and learned about aquarium life support systems and coral propagation. They also gave presentations at the junior high schools and shared with their Taiwanese friends a little about their lives in the United States.
In addition, we had the opportunity to try new and exotic foods throughout our visit, definitely a part of the trip we all enjoyed.
Our trip ended in Taipei where both countries’ Coral Reef Ambassadors gave a presentation at the Ministry of Education. In attendance were the Minister of Education of Taiwan, the director of Cultural Affairs of the American Institute in Taiwan, as well as a number of news organizations. That same afternoon we were invited to the American Institute in Taiwan, where we were treated to tea and a visit by the director.
The Coral Reef Ambassadors gather with officials at the American Institute in Taiwan.
Overall, the trip was very successful. We even had quite a bit of press coverage. On our flight back home, we saw a newspaper with an article and photo of our press conference in Taipei!
With the state of coral reefs in danger in many parts of the world, it’s important to involve our youth. This program allowed them to see corals in the wild, to understand the problems they face, to learn a bit about science, to learn how to propagate corals, and to understand aquarium systems that keep them alive in captivity. Additionally, these students were required to give public talks, which gave them valuable opportunities to express themselves about important issues.
Press clipping from the Coral Reef Ambassadors’ visit in Taiwan.
On top of all this—and most importantly—students from both countries got to know each other and create bonds of friendship. International cooperation is necessary when it comes to saving coral reefs. Hopefully, this experience will influence the decisions that these students make when choosing what they want to study, the career path they take, how they treat the environment, and how they relate to and work with others.
As Coral Reef Ambassadors, the students from San Diego and Taiwan will continue to share their knowledge and experience of coral reefs with their families, their schools, and their communities.
Milou van der Lans, a Dutch high school student, recently completed an international internship at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
By Milou van der Lans, high school intern
Sea stars take their stomachs out and make sea star milkshakes of their food.
Sea urchins can give hugs.
Jellyfish are not fish; seahorses are. Male seahorses get pregnant.
I could continue for hours telling you all the things I learned at Birch Aquarium at Scripps in only three weeks. My name is Milou van der Lans and I’m a 16-year-old Dutch high school student. As a part of the bilingual program I follow in school, I got the opportunity to do a foreign internship and was lucky to be welcomed at Birch Aquarium!
My internship consisted of working in both the Education Department as well as with the aquarists. In the Education Department I helped in the classrooms, working with a lot of kids. And every class includes time when children get to interact with live animals, so I also had close contact with these animals every week, learning how to care for them before, during, and after classes.
I got even closer to the animals while working in the Husbandry Department This “behind-the-scenes” work included feeding animals, cleaning tanks, and making sure all the animals were in the perfect living conditions. I was able to learn about many different parts of an aquarist’s job.
I was also given the responsibility of assisting with a specific project in the Education Department: “Explore It” activities on the floor of the Galleria, during which visitors of all ages can learn about science through practical experiments. My project was creating energy with wind turbines, and I spent a lot of time developing and improving the activity for visitors.
Being an intern at Birch Aquarium has been the most wonderful experience. Not only do I know much more about marine biology, volunteering has also improved me as person. I feel more comfortable speaking in public and I learned how to connect with people of all ages.
The American culture has amazed me. In only three weeks I feel like I’ve adopted many local habits, partly thanks to my lovely colleagues. I enjoyed every second at Birch Aquarium. The extraordinary exhibits with such extensive and interesting information along with the exceptional expertise and kindness of the staff have resulted in an experience I will never forget!
By Kate Jirik, Birch Aquarium science educator and naturalist
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is taking gradual steps toward sustainable business practices. Our most recent success involved upgrading 150 exhibit lights to energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. Find out why this facility improvement means so much to us.
Exhibit carpenter Kevin Stephens has been darting back and forth between Birch Aquarium’s exhibit workshop and his desk for the past five minutes. Each time Kevin ducks into his office, he reemerges cradling an armful of empty lightbulb boxes and a couple of bulbs he hasn’t shown me yet. We begin to adorn an acrylic-topped workbench with flood-lights and spotlights, lining the bulbs up to compare new and old designs.
A selection of current and past lightbulbs used by Birch Aquarium. The newest LED bulb (far left) weighs less and is more energy efficient than the halogen bulb (far right). The three bulbs in the center are different generation models of LEDs (newer, left; older, right).
Kevin steps back into his office and rummages through a cardboard box for one last bulb. “Now, this is an early-style LED. Imagine trying to support twenty of those on one lighting track,” he postulates, handing me the weighty 1.6 pound bulb. “We couldn’t use LEDs initially. They were too heavy and didn’t produce enough light for our displays.”
Upgrading to LED lighting has been a gradual process for Birch Aquarium. Over the past five years, the aquarium has switched to increasingly energy-efficient lightbulbs. Energy-sucking 90-watt incandescent bulbs were first replaced with 75-watt halogens, then 23-watt compact fluorescents (CFLs). However, Birch Aquarium exhibit developers were disappointed by the gray light that the CFLs produced and hoped that LED technology would soon catch up with their artistic ambitions. They didn’t have to wait long. “We got excited when we learned that UC San Diego had acquired some money that could help improve our exhibits,” Kevin says. He hands me an example of one type of LED bulb which now illuminates the aquarium’s exhibit galleries.
Exhibit carpenter Kevin Stephens holds up one of the LED light bulbs now in Birch Aquarium exhibit galleries.
Don’t let the stylish look of this LED fool you—it is a remarkable advance in energy-efficiency.
By rotating a powerband ring, users can select from three power level settings (10, 14, or 16 watts) to choose the amount of light that suits their needs. Weighing less than a pound, this LED model is used in 100 of Birch Aquarium’s 150 light fixtures. The remaining 50 fixtures in the Hall of Fishes use an LED model that consumes even less energy—a mere five watts! These LEDs are cutting Birch Aquarium’s energy use by 35,000 kilowatt-hours per year. That’s enough electrical energy to power 4.2 homes for a year!
Painting exhibit spaces with light
Interior lighting creates an aesthetic experience for Birch Aquarium visitors. Lighting effects are used to create a mood, soften transitions between displays, or highlight special objects. Birch Aquarium exhibit developers take pride that new LED lights are providing an enhanced experience for guests. Each LED bulb has three donut-shaped diodes, which disperse light where our staff needs it. “I am impressed with the improved optics,” Kevin observes. “Each diode is like a prism.” The LEDs produce bright white tones, which better match outdoor light conditions. This brings out subtleties in exhibit photographs and gives other graphics a crisper look.
The bright white tones of the new LED lights bring out the vibrancy and details of Birch Aquarium’s displays. Courtesy of Katchen Weaver, EcoGreen Lighting.
The latest model of LED bulb has an ingenious feature: pen point-sized holes in the lens (see photo below). These holes draw air through the bulb and keep it cool, allowing engineers to develop lighter, thinner heat-dissipating ribs on the back of the bulb. Not only do these new LEDs reduce weight on ceiling light tracks, but they keep exhibit spaces cooler, thereby preventing the air conditioning system from being overtaxed. “When we needed to replace the halogens, it was like playing hot potato. We needed a rag to handle them. These new LEDs are easier on the user.”
The holes in the lens of this LED lightbulb help to draw air through it and keep it cool. Also, did you notice the three donut-shaped diodes?
The curved ribs on the back of this LED lightbulb help to dissipate heat.
Saving time and money
Using LEDs is not just energy smart, it’s business smart. More like a no-brainer. Kevin sits down at his desk and thumbs through a stack of manila file folders to find a copy of Birch Aquarium’s recent energy-use assessment. He hands me a sheet of paper with key information highlighted in black boxes at the bottom. I begin reading: Average electrical savings: 77.5%. Energy savings per year: $6,000. Total savings over 5 years: $41,000; over 10 years: $94,000.
“People are often surprised by the amount of energy savings from simply changing how existing systems operate,” says Anna Levitt, UC San Diego’s assistant energy manager. “The energy savings are huge!” Anna would know. Through campus-wide lighting retrofits, her team has helped UC San Diego save an astounding $6.8 million in the past three years (2009-2012). “Because it is a new technology, [LED bulbs] cost more to buy up front. But you have to look at it as a long-term investment,” Anna advises.
Many businesses are doing just that: taking additional costs into account, such as energy use and bulb replacement. LEDs beat incandescents and CFLs every time. Birch Aquarium’s new LED bulbs will last at least five years–that’s five times longer than a CFL and 41 times longer than an incandescent bulb (imagine having to purchase and install a bulb once versus 41 times). Some extreme LEDs have a projected bulb life of 100,000 hours, meaning that if you left a light on without ever turning it off, it could still last 11 years. And with average use? Almost three decades. With more manufacturers recognizing the benefits of LEDs, prices continue to drop. “The price has definitely come down since I began investigating LEDs for UC San Diego,” Anna recalls. “We’re starting to think of them as a standard practice-technology for the campus.”
The bottom line re-envisioned
LED lighting enhances the beauty of museum galleries. Exhibit staff no longer need to scramble up and down ladders every five to seven months to change out “hot potato bulbs.” Compared to other types of bulbs, LEDs waste little energy as heat—they light homes and offices, not heat them. Businesses save money by reducing their energy costs. Another important benefit is that LEDs don’t contain mercury—a drawback of CFLs, which need to be disposed of as toxic waste. And, close to the heart of Birch Aquarium, energy-efficient lightbulbs reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate electricity, helping to mitigate climate change and increasingly acidic oceans. Curbing carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions also reduces air and water pollution.
People sometimes assume “sustainability means sacrifice,” but that’s a mistake. Energy-efficient business practices are a win-win-win strategy, yielding profits while benefiting people and the planet. Of course, using technology to relieve the pressure we exert on natural systems is only part of the solution. But watching the creative strides that people are making in this direction is thrilling. To see scientists and engineers working through ideas, eliminating what doesn’t work and testing what might… What simple yet elegant innovations will make our lives better? The lives of other species better? And how many of those innovations will come dressed, like a lightbulb with cooling lens holes, in understated yet ingenious fashion?
Center for Sustainable Energy, California
San Diego Gas & Electric
Pogue, David. “New reasons to change light bulbs.” New York Times, 20 March 2013.
 Assessment reflects 6% per year cost of energy increase and bulb replacement.
 Examples: http://ledsmagazine.com/news/9/10/5 & http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/10/prweb9965384.htm
 Birch Aquarium’s lighting upgrade will prevent 26 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted each year.
 Often referred to as the triple bottom line, a term coined by John Elkington in 1994. Analysis of this and other sustainable development models helps people to consider the dynamics among economics, environment, and society.
Renowned Scripps Oceanography climate expert Richard Somerville presents “Global Warming: The Latest Word on the Best Science” during a Perspectives on Ocean Science lecture at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
One of the best things about Birch Aquarium at Scripps is its connection to the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Scripps researchers explore the entire planet — from earthquakes, to whale songs, to medicines from the sea, to climate change, and beyond — and our visitors get first-hand access to this cutting-edge science.
The entire world can also access this knowledge through Birch Aquarium’s Jeffrey B. Graham Perspectives on Ocean Science Lecture Series. Monthly recordings of this popular series just hit 10 million online views, a milestone that underscores the wide appeal of Scripps research and the impact of Birch Aquarium’s outreach programs.
More than 130 videotaped lectures can be accessed online through UCSD-TV’s website as well as UCTV’s system-wide YouTube and iTunes channels. Perspectives on Ocean Science is UCSD’s longest-running and most popular science series. Out of more than 350 UCTV series, it is the 14th most watched.
The lecture series, originally called “The Birch Aquarium Presents,” was launched in February 1996 as intimate presentations held monthly in the mornings before the aquarium opened to the public. The series expanded into a popular evening program in 2001 when Scripps marine biologist Jeffrey B. Graham, interim director of Birch Aquarium, wanted to better connect society with the discoveries of Scripps researchers. Graham, for whom the series is now named, died in 2012.
Scripps research geophysicist Donna Blackman presents “Live from Gakkel Ridge” during a Perspectives on Ocean Science lecture at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
In addition to its online viewership, more than 12,000 people have attended monthly Perspectives lectures. Birch Aquarium at Scripps spends more than $25,000 each year to produce the series.
The most popular Perspectivestopics range from climate science to leopard sharks to marine protected areas. At more than 375,000 views, the most-watched lecture is “The American Denial of Global Warming” from fall 2007, featuring UC San Diego scientist and historian Naomi Oreskes. Oreskes’s talk, which has received more than 51,000 viewer comments on YouTube, revealed the history of organized campaigns designed to create public doubt and confusion about climate science and scientific consensus.
Also popular is “A New Imperative for Deep-Ocean Research” featuring Scripps biological oceanographer Lisa Levin, which has received more than a quarter-million views.
For a listing of upcoming lectures and information about ways to support the future of this critical outreach program, please visit the Birch Aquarium website.
Gray whales are on the return leg of their annual migration, heading from Baja California’s breeding lagoons to the Bering and Chukchi seas in the Arctic. Map source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons
A whimsical welcome letter to gray whale calves from the imagined “Bering & Chukchi Seas Dining Services.”
Dear Gray Whale Calf,
Congratulations on completing your first northbound migration!
Welcome to the Arctic Ocean. This is where many gray whales feed during the summer (and soon, so will you). Swimming 85 to 100 miles a day on the northbound migration burns a lot of calories—it’s time for a hearty Arctic meal. Before you know it, you whales will migrate again, so it’s important to pack on the pounds.
Here, in the nutrient-rich waters between Russia and Alaska, there is a seafood smorgasbord! Patches of the muddy seafloor are full of baleen whale delicacies: shrimp-like animals called amphipods, worms, fish eggs, and molluscs. The body fat you gain from these foods will nourish you during the next migration (when you rarely feed).
This is also an exciting time, because shortly, you will no longer need to drink your mother’s milk. This summer, you will begin mimicking how she feeds while accompanying her on dives to the amphipod beds.
Learning to strain prey from the seafloor can be challenging for some calves at first. Most aren’t used to the feeling of mud between their baleen plates. Others worry about their mouths constantly being exposed to frigid Arctic water. But gray whales have special blood vessels at the base of their tongues to reduce the amount of heat that dissipates when you feed. In fact, scientists were surprised to learn that a calf loses more heat through its blubber than its tongue!
Gray whale head and mouth.
If you can’t find enough food, move to another area. Follow the lead of other gray whales, which have been traveling farther north in the past two decades. You can also switch behaviors and feed on another type of prey. Biologists think gray whales are an intriguing marine mammal because you have flexible feeding strategies. Not only can you suction feed, but you can suck or skim swarming shrimp and crab larvae from the water and engulf small fish. Gray whales that spend their summers near British Columbia and Washington use this feeding technique.
Mom will stay by your side for the next few months, but by winter, you will be a fully independent gray whale and responsible for finding all of your own food.
Best of luck and happy grazing!
–Bering & Chukchi Seas Dining Services
(written by Kate Jirik, aquarium naturalist)
Birch Aquarium’s 2013 whale watching season ended April 14. Thousands of passengers experienced this amazing migration with our naturalists and the aquarium’s partner, Flagship Cruises & Events. We hope to see you for next year’s migration, beginning in December!
 Calves are weaned 7-9 months after they are born, typically mid-August through October (swfsc.noaa.gov).
 Dave Weller, PhD (gray whale biologist). Personal communication, 10 December 2013.
 Interestingly, the use of diverse feeding modes may have helped gray whales survive the last ice age (Pyenson and Lindberg 2011, PLoS ONE 6(7):e21295).
 Stelle, LL, WM Megill, and MR Kinsel. 2008. Activity budget and diving behavior of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in feeding grounds off coastal British Columbia. Marine Mammal Science 24(3):462-478.
A female gray whale greets visitors to its Baja California breeding lagoon during a special whale-watching excursion with Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
By Audrey Evans, whale watching coordinator
Earlier this season, Birch Aquarium at Scripps teamed up with Andiamo Tour Mexico to embark on a remarkable expedition to two gray whale breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico. Our lucky participants were met with unique and life-changing experiences as gray whales (called “friendlies” by some) interacted with them—behavior seen nowhere else but in these lagoons.
February and March are prime months to catch more than just a glimpse of these giants in their wintering grounds, where many congregate to mate and give birth. Our adventure to the lagoons began as 37 participants crossed the U.S./Mexico border. We ventured south, listening as our knowledgeable Andiamo guide discussed Mexican culture, landmarks, and history.
The chartered bus ride was a fascinating learning experience, especially as we gazed at the changing Baja California scenery. Sandy sea cliffs turned into rolling green hills that ultimately gave way to an open desert landscape peppered with giant boojum trees and cardón cactus. As we crossed the state border into Baja California Sur, we drew closer to the breeding grounds of the gray whale.
Gray Whale History
The first lagoon we reached was Laguna Ojo de Liebre, which translates to “eye of the jackrabbit,” referring to the shape of the lagoon. “Scammon’s
Lagoon” is another common name. The latter name stems from a 19th century whaling captain, Charles Scammon, who came in search of overwintering gray whales. These whales were hunted relentlessly for oil (used as lamp fuel) and whalebone (baleen), which made products including ladies’ corsets and umbrella ribs.
Whale calf in Baja California.
Gray whales are slow-moving and adhere to predictable migration routes that place them mostly in coastal waters; this made them easy targets for whalers. Overhunted, gray whales have come close to extinction two times in the last 150 years before they were officially protected. Today, the Eastern gray whale population is more than 20,000-strong, estimated to be close to the historic pre-whaling size. It is truly a conservation success story driven by changes in U.S. and Mexican laws as well as our own perception of these remarkable animals.
When peering across a whale-studded lagoon, people no longer see a gold mine. Instead, our modern perspective sparks a fascination with these creatures. Visitors are treated to an intimate look into the lives of a truly wild animal. There is no food or other reward offered to entice these whales to approach humans; their level of curiosity is as mysterious as it is awe-inspiring.
Meeting The Locals
Our first close encounter with the “friendlies” included a cow and calf pair. The cow appeared older, wearing large patches of cream-colored barnacles, which often grow with age. She initially surfaced about 20 meters from our Panga boat with her small, dark-colored calf close in tow. The Panga driver turned off the engine and within minutes the two curiously made contact with us. At this close range we were able to get a good look at the pair.
Eye of a baby gray whale. Photo by Cynthia Parnell.
Calves are typically darker than adults, as they do not yet have the characteristic patches of symbiotic organisms. Up close, we could see the adult’s barnacles attached in clusters. Barnacles start out as free-swimming larvae and then settle onto a firm substrate—in this case whale skin. They eventually create a hard shell as they grow into adults and use feathery legs to filter plankton and other organic material from the water.
The gray whale barnacle, Cryptolepas rhachianecti, is host-specific and can only be found on gray whales. Orange-colored whale lice often surround each cluster of barnacles. These lice feed on dead skin and, like the barnacles, are a type of crustacean (different from the insect lice found on terrestrial mammals).
We appreciated our first-hand look at these tiny hitchhikers. While the calf lacked these organisms, it had noticeably distinct dimples on its rostrum (“snout” area). Each dimple possessed a single stiff hair in the center, which served as an example of the whales’ mammalian characteristics. Each time the cow and calf took a breath, we not only heard the exhale, but were surrounded by the expelled water vapor, feeling it on our faces. Despite some minor bad breath, this was an incredible encounter!
Gray whale calf in Baja California with rostrum dimples.
Only a day later, we found ourselves launching into another breeding lagoon: San Ignacio. This location is a little further south and a bit more remote. Within 30 minutes, we were met by more curious “friendlies.” Two adults traveled back and forth, inspecting our Panga and another nearby. Amazed, we watched as the whales spyhopped (peered with their head above water), returning beneath the surface to swirl their flukes just beneath our boat. Repeatedly, each approached within an arm’s length, again making contact with humans.
On a third outing, we returned to Ojo de Liebre and observed a mating trio. Gray whales typically mate in groups containing two males and one female. Chasing, splashing, and rolling occur before the female ultimately decides to roll with one of the males. Understandably, this group ignored our boat even though they came within 10 meters of us.
During the rest of this final 3-hour tour, we witnessed several whale breaches, more spyhopping, and one whale nearly motionless as it logged (“slept”) just beneath the surface. We were all too pleased to have another cow and calf appear for a close visit. As difficult as it was to leave the whales that day, we were grateful to have made so many priceless memories.
Along our return journey north, we reflected upon our encounters with the whales. Each participant shared personal stories, whale photos, and even email addresses. To have such contact with wild animals is truly unique. To share such experiences with fellow human beings creates another special, perhaps less-anticipated, connection. Each of us now shares a new perspective on the gray whale, one which we’re likely never to lose.
A gray whale greets visitors to its Baja California lagoon during a special whale watching excursion with Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
Whale watching coupon
Local San Diego whale watching cruises with Birch Aquarium at Scripps end April 14. Cruises leave at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. daily from Flagship Cruises & Events at 990 N. Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego. For more information and to download a $5-off whale watching coupon, visit the Birch Aquarium Whale Watching page.
Volunteer Don Ward
Join us in celebrating our April Volunteer of the Month: Don Ward!
Many visitors and staff know Don as a somewhat permanent fixture at the aquarium. That’s no surprise considering he’s been a volunteer at Birch Aquarium at Scripps for the past 12 years, often spending two afternoons per week and even some evenings at the aquarium. In 2012, this added up to 500+ hours of volunteer time.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, Don can be found on his “beat” — making the rounds in the Hall of Fishes and elsewhere, answering questions, and leading tours. He offers invaluable assistance at the tide pools during feeding times, talking with visitors so the aquarists can get to all three pools to feed the critters.
Always proactive and prepared, Don’s natural tendency to be an ambassador for the aquarium lends itself perfectly to his work on our whale watching tours as well. When he’s not doing all this, he mentors our newer volunteers and keeps our entire volunteer team entertained with his quick wit and sharp intellect. Don’t let his wry humor and jokes fool you; Don takes his leadership role very seriously and works hard to ensure that everything is running smoothly.
Staff and volunteers alike value Don’s contribution of time and dedication. He is truly a champion for Birch Aquarium at Scripps and what we represent. Congratulations Don!
Become a Birch Aquarium Volunteer!
Help visitors from around the world discover the wonders of the ocean at Birch Aquarium. Assist visitors, school children, and behind-the-scenes operations as a volunteer.
Study abroad student Phil Shu (right) and two other eager learners investigate gray whale specimens with volunteer naturalist Courtney Ocheltree (left).
By Kate Jirik, Birch Aquarium naturalist
A blanket of coastal fog is clearing as whale watching boat Marietta edges out of San Diego Bay. Higher-than-expected waves catch many passengers off guard, but the surprise seems to bring this group of strangers closer together. Two young men on the bow are engaged in an amusing debate as to whether or not they feel seasick. One of them flags me down for a second opinion.
After chatting for a few minutes, I learn that Phil Shu is one of several study abroad students on board from Grossmont College. “I am from China and am studying psychology in San Diego for one year… I have been to all the major cities in California,” he says, grinning.
As the Marietta motors west, I gaze at the horizon and envision how far Shu has traveled. With an unlimited fuel supply, we could (hypothetically) head west from San Diego, along the 32°parallel, and reach his home country. China is out there somewhere….across this vast Pacific Ocean, which covers one third of the planet and is larger than all the continents combined.
To date, visitors from six continents and 38 countries have joined Birch Aquarium and Flagship Cruises & Events for whale watching this season (see map). They’ve come from all walks of life: A giggly bunch of friends circling the globe. Finnish doctors attending a medical conference in San Diego. An 81-year old widow on a trip that she and her husband wanted to take. All here to see whales…
To date, visitors from six continents and 38 countries have joined Birch Aquarium and Flagship Cruises & Events for whale watching this season.
A mile north of Point Loma, we spot a blow. This gray whale is sneaking along the kelp forest edge, its head barely breaking the surface when it breathes. The passengers are also taking slow, shallow breaths, waiting for the whale to reappear. Everyone clusters together, hugging the rail with cameras at the ready. I walk around the crowd, my ears vigilant for foreign languages. French here, a little German over there. Italian, che bello! Is that Vietnamese? I am humbled by the number of languages I don’t speak. And yet, there is meaning in a warm smile or an arm around a spouse’s shoulders; even squabbles among siblings. These are universals we all understand.
Storytelling is another way we all communicate, and on the boat, accounts of other U.S. states and distant countries are told daily. Through our passengers’s memories, I have worked as a travel writer and dined at some of the finest cafes in London. A blue whale has breathed in my face and a pod of orcas has surfaced behind my boat. I have walked along the shores of Lake Baikal in Russia, where the only freshwater seal lives. Rain has soaked the floor of my house in Mongolia. Perhaps this is why people enjoy discussing travel so much—we get the chance to revel in someone else’s adventure. And, in a small way, that person’s experience becomes part of our own.
Birch Aquarium volunteer naturalist Anne Alcorn (right) explains the structure of gray whale baleen to the Aberl and Marsh families of Paradise, Texas, and Corinth, Mississippi.
Marietta is returning to San Diego Bay. Near the mouth, a bait ball has begun to form, attracting the attention of hungry common dolphins and Brown Pelicans. Overhead, chattering Caspian Terns survey where to dive amidst the commotion. Three excited kids jump up and down, pointing at a V-formation of cocoa-colored cormorants flying in from the south.
At the start of the tour, most passengers had not seen a whale outside of captivity. Some had never been on a boat before. But now they have direct experience with whales and the open ocean. Soon, we’ll approach the dock and our guests will head their separate ways. But these travelers will take stories of the Pacific Ocean home with them—to Argentina, Portugal, Iran, and New Zealand. Whether a person lives in a country with bold conservation policies or weak ones, passengers disembark with a heightened sense of adventure and empathy for ocean wildlife.
Is this appreciation for the living world strong enough to cross state and international boundary lines? Can we reconcile cultural differences for the greater purpose of valuing our common humanity? If Birch Aquarium’s whale watching passengers were a model for the world, I would say: maybe…maybe we can.
Whale watching coupon
Daily whale watching cruises with Birch Aquarium at Scripps end April 14. Cruises leave at 9:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from Flagship Cruises & Events at 990 N. Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego. For more information and to download a $5-off whale watching coupon, visit the Birch Aquarium Whale Watching page.
Birch Aquarium’s coral habitats feature captive-raised coral to lessen our impact on the environment.
A study released this week by marine biologists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego provides the basis for a new, non-invasive way scientists can assess the health of corals in the wild, a discovery aided by Birch Aquarium’s staff and the aquarium’s live coral collection.
Scripps researchers Melissa Roth and Dimitri Deheyn discovered that little-understood fluorescence—or light—produced by corals can be an indicator of stress, and subsequently, their overall health. The new findings will have a significant impact on how scientists monitor the vitality of these unique and productive ecosystems, which are under threat from warming seas and ocean acidification.
To conduct the study, Scripps researchers worked closely with Birch Aquarium’s husbandry team, which nurtures captive-raised coral onsite. Our aquarists supplied the researchers with fragments of Acropora yongei, a common branching coral that builds reefs in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, so they would not need to collect from the wild. Our aquarists also provided critical husbandry expertise throughout the study, such as maintaining lighting and water movement in the experimental tanks.
In their lab, Roth and Deheyn tested the coral under various temperatures and found that fluorescence dropped when the organisms were introduced to cold or heat. Corals exposed to cold temperatures were able to adapt; corals exposed to heat bleached (lost their symbiotic algae).
As the public outreach center for Scripps Oceanography, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is thrilled to be a part of this cutting-edge research and we’re excited to share researchers’ findings with our visitors.
Dr. Andy Nosal poses with a local leopard shark.
Summer is just around the corner, and we have big plans for it! We’re thrilled to announce a new initiative at Birch Aquarium at Scripps and introduce a new member to our team: Dr. Andy Nosal.
As our DeLaCour Fellow for Ecology & Conservation, Andy, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will spend the next three years working with Birch Aquarium and sharing his scientific discoveries with our visitors. Andy earned his Ph.D. from Scripps in December and specializes in shark ecology, with a particular focus on La Jolla’s population of leopard sharks.
July & August 2013 will be “Shark Summer” at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. We’re celebrating our local populations of leopard sharks and their cousins with a new exhibit, dozens of shark-related public programs, and lots of interaction with Andy for our visitors.
Stay tuned for information about these programs and Andy’s research down at La Jolla Shores, where he’ll be flying a weather balloon along the shore this summer to track leopard sharks, research that has important implications for local shark conservation efforts.
We hope you’re as excited as we are to embark on this new initiative!