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Baja California Whale Adventure: Discovering More Than Just Whales

By Lisa Gilfillan, Education Specialist

Our annual Baja California Whale Adventure, a collaboration between Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Andiamo Tours Mexico, is a naturalist-guided adventure to the lagoons of Baja California. Guests witness gray whales playing, resting, and investigating their curious visitors before heading north to their Arctic feeding grounds.

Guests get up close and personal with a mother gray whale and her calf in the carefully regulated lagoons in Baja California, MEX

Guests get up close and personal with a mother gray whale and her calf in the carefully regulated lagoons in Baja California, MEX

Greetings! My name is Lisa and I’m an Education Specialist with Birch Aquarium. This means that after many years of sitting in marine science classes I landed my dream job that allows me to share my “nerdy” science AND my outgoing educator side. My “day job” involves developing and implementing public programs, running our summer High School Internship program and training our 400+ volunteer staff. As wonderful as those things are, the highlight of my career occurred a few weeks ago.

Education Specialist Lisa with a gray whale.

Education Specialist Lisa Gilfillan with a gray whale.

From February 18 to 23, 2015, I traveled as a whale naturalist with 36 Birch Aquarium members through Baja California Sur, Mexico, on a mission to see gray whales in the Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio Lagoons. I thought I’d share my experience through pictures. What follows are my Top 5 Reasons Why You Need to Visit Baja California Sur, Mexico. Enjoy!

  • The food is amazing. During this trip we were exposed to a wide variety of authentic dishes of the regions we were traveling through. Flavors were rich, fish was fresh, and cold cervezas were abundant.
  • The people are wonderful. On our journey we covered a lot of miles and visited quiet towns such as San Vicente, San Quintin, Cataviña, and San Ignacio. The people of these towns were vibrant, kind, patient, welcoming, and so hospitable. At one stop, we were treated to a cultural presentation from the local middle school students.
Cultural presentation from Baja California, MEX middle school students.

Cultural presentation from Baja California, MEX middle school students. Credit: Lisa Gilfillan

  • Exploring local desert habitats is fun. Baja California is home to over 4,000 varieties of plants (650 of which are endemic), and as we drove south, we had opportunities to walk around the Boojum Desert. Our knowledgeable guides enhanced the experience by pointing out flora and fauna.
The unique and beautiful deserts of Baja California, MEX. The Boojum tree is an endemic species and is the tall bristley "tree" in the center to the left.

The unique and beautiful deserts of Baja California, MEX. The Boojum tree is an endemic species and is the tall bristley “trees” in the background of the photo. Credit: Lisa Gilfillan

  • You will make lifelong friends. At the start of the trip, we were strangers who agreed to share an adventure and by the trip’s end, e-mail addresses and hugs were exchanged. It is amazing to build friendships with like-minded, whale-loving people.
  • Seeing a whale up close will change your life. The gray whale behavior in these lagoons is very different than that of the whales during their migration. In these protected lagoons, you are primarily encountering moms and new calves. Scientists aren’t sure why, but these duos will often freely choose to approach the boats and even allow you to touch them. Obviously they are wild animals and this is not guaranteed, but if it happens you will be humbled by their size and deeply appreciative that you shared that moment with them.    

Can’t travel to Baja California to see the gray whales? Go on a whale watching cruise right here in San Diego with Birch Aquarium and Flagship Cruises and events. Download a coupon for $5 off whale watching at aquarium.ucsd.edu. 

A curious adult female gray whale interacts with guests. Credit: Lisa Gilfillan

A curious adult female gray whale interacts with guests. Credit: Lisa Gilfillan

A grey whale calf takes a good look at guests in the birthing and breeding lagoons in Baja California Sur, MEX. Credit: Caitlin Scully

A grey whale calf takes a good look at guests in the birthing and breeding lagoons in Baja California Sur, MEX. Credit: Caitlin Scully

SEA Days: Ocean Love

by Lisa Gilfillan, education specialist

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft. 

Our visiting scientist from February’s SEA Days was Tessa Pierce, a graduate student and researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Tessa is investigating how the California Market Squid will respond to climate change. Below, Tessa answers questions about her experiences and gives some advice to future scientists.

Tessa Pierce

Tessa Pierce is a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Where did you go to school?

I studied biology at Stanford University and am currently in graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

What is your area of research?

I work on the squid Doryteuthis opalescens, the species we eat as “Calamari.”  This squid is such an important fishery that the common name is the “California Market Squid.” I’m interested in how this species will respond to climate change – in particular, how developing squid embryos may cope with low oxygen and low pH conditions. I study this at the genetic level.

If you consider that your DNA – all of the genetic material it takes to make you, you, is an encyclopedia, a ‘gene’ can be thought of as a single page of information. You don’t need to read all the pages at once – you spend time using each page when you need it. Similarly, animals can turn some genes on, some off depending on the conditions they’re experiencing. Since our squid are surviving in low oxygen and low pH waters, I’m trying to figure out what genes they may be using to cope with these harsh conditions.

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

I got into marine biology by accident – one of our core biology courses was taught at the marine station in Monterey, and I thought “why not?” I learned to SCUBA dive and found that a whole world existed below the surface –great big forests of kelp, colorful sea slugs (nudibranchs), bright orange sea cucumbers and patchwork decorator crabs. I was hooked.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Enthusiasm: I think scientists come in many types, but a unifying factor is our enthusiasm for uncovering something new about the world we live in – whether that’s how something works (like how we learn and remember) or how environmental conditions affect animals in the ecosystem (like how squid might respond to low oxygen).

Determination: Enough said, really. Discovering something new takes hard work and dedication!

Creativity: Expanding current knowledge requires a deep understanding of what we already know coupled with the ability to take a creative leap to figure out the right questions to pursue.

Squid Eggs

Squid egg capsules attached to the sandy sea floor. Credit: Navarro

Why is your research topic important?

Squid are a major prey species for marine mammals, fish, and birds. Squid aggregations form in different places depending on oceanographic conditions, and squid population numbers may fluctuate wildly from year to year. Without access to sufficient squid (in addition to other prey items), the animals that depend on them may not get enough to eat.  These squid are important to humans as well — the fishery is the largest in California, bringing in over $70 million a year!

We know that oceanographic conditions will be affected by climate change, but we’re working to figure out how these conditions might affect squid populations. Our work will hopefully inform how the species that depend on squid – and the California fishery – might be affected in the future.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Get out there and experience the ocean. See how the limpets clamp down on rocks when a big wave hits. Struggle with the surge, and think about how the creatures that live there may have adapted to that environment. When you’ve found that feeling of wonder, hold on to it, and use it to drive yourself to study hard – get a solid foundation in everything from math to physics to computer science to biology. The skills and knowledge you acquire at school will be invaluable in becoming a great scientist. And lastly, don’t be afraid to really go for it! Don’t let people discourage you from following your passion.

What is your favorite ocean organism?

Oh wow – so many. One of my absolute favorites is Boltenia villosa, a small tunicate that basically looks like a spiky orange club! Tunicates, sometimes called sea squirts, are chordates, a group of animals that includes vertebrates. Even though they look completely different, they share some life history characteristics with us! This tunicate lives in rocky subtidal habitat from San Diego to British Columbia.

I saw my first Boltenia villosa while diving in Monterey, and it’s a reminder to me of how many amazing creatures are out there that I was completely oblivious to before learning about kelp forest ecology. What other creatures am I missing – in the amazon, in coral reefs, in the deep ocean? Nature is incredibly rich and diverse, and it’s hard to believe how much of it we’re unaware of in our everyday lives.

 

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you in March!

Aquarium Internships Inspire Future Careers

This post was written by Natalia Romero, a student from High Tech High School, who interned with Birch Aquarium’s Education Department for three weeks.

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High Tech High School Intern, Natalia Romero, had the opportunity to teach visitors about marine science at weekly Explore-It activities.

Being an intern at Birch Aquarium was an experience like no other. I had amazing opportunities offered to me here. For example, I got the opportunity to go whale watching for the first time. I was extremely fortunate to see a megapod of common dolphins. These animals were friendly and energetic. It was a sight to see the dolphins swim along the side of the bow of the boat. I also saw two humpbacks and a couple of grey whales breach.

I was also able to go tidepooling at Dike Rock. This was a first-time experience for me. A lot of the marine life that instructors and fellow volunteers would talk about at the aquarium were very evident at the tide pools.

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A Birch Aquarium Naturalist holding an ochre star at the Dike Rock tidepools. Credit: Natalia Romero

But I wasn’t doing these kinds of experiences every day. At my school, having an internship is a graduation requirement. For my internship I was required to have a main project. I revised the craft curriculum for two weeks worth of Pre-K to K camps. Along with this, I also had an ongoing project with my mentor in which I evaluated “floor programs” that are held every week in the aquarium’s galleria.

Sometimes, I would help out with school programs that are held onsite. This included teaching kids how to interact with animals in an appropriate manner and handling animals to show them to students. This is something that I looked forward to because I have been passionate about animals ever since I could remember. Getting the opportunity to be able to interact with animals and educate others about them has made me appreciate marine life so much more than I did before my internship. This experience has shaped my outlook on the career path I wish to pursue.

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Gooseneck barnacles and mussels are common in San Diego tidepools. Credit: Natalia Romero

Love is in the Water

By Naturalist Alexx Robles

Alexx Robles attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and majored in Environmental Studies with a minor in Geology. When not whale watching or teaching classes at Birch Aquarium, she likes to spend her time surfing, practicing yoga, or hiking.

Last week, while aboard Flagship Cruises & Events’ Marietta, we had the opportunity to see a few whales that couldn’t wait until Baja California to start their breeding process. The whales were spotted only a few miles outside of the San Diego harbor. Typically, while on the search for whales, the first thing we spot is the whales’ blows or even their flukes. However, on this particular Thursday, the first thing we saw were several large flippers above the surface and splashing, suggesting mating could be occurring.

Although scientists are still trying to fully understand the breeding process of gray whales, what they do know is that males don’t engage in combative or aggressive behavior while mating. Typically, gray whales engage in group mating where two males (bulls) will court with one female (cow). The gestation period for the gray whale is 13 months and females give birth every other year (or less often).

It's often hard to tell how many whales you are looking at! How many do you think are in this picture?  Credit: Caitlin Scully

It’s often hard to tell how many whales you are looking at! How many do you think are in this picture?

Guests aboard the Marietta enjoyed the experience of getting to see the courtship behavior of the gray whale firsthand. We spent about 20 minutes watching these whales and then continued on to see two more whales during the trip. The second set were displaying sounding behavior and gave the guests a nice chance to observe their flukes, as the whales dove deep under water for about five minutes. We also were privileged to see the charismatic common dolphin on our trip. The dolphins are always a crowd pleaser as they ride the boat’s wake.

Every time we leave San Diego Harbor in search of whales, we never know what amazing sightings we are going to see. Every day is an adventure, so be sure to join us before the season’s done! Book your whale watching cruise today.

Common Dolphins are fast moving and energetic! Credit: Caitlin Scully

Common Dolphins are fast moving and energetic! Credit: Caitlin Scully

Ocean Love Spotlight – California Sheephead

February SEA Days: Ocean Love

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft. 

In February, love is in the air, and the ocean! It’s the time of year when whales are calving, birds are nesting, and fish are spawning. Join us Feb. 21 for this family-friendly event as we learn about ocean “love” from experts at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

California Sheephead: A Unique Love Life 

California Sheephead have one of the most unique “love lives” of any local fish. These kelp forest residents change from female to male over the course of their lifetime and researchers still don’t fully understand why.

All California Sheephead are born female and spend much of their lives as a pinkish color with light undersides. Males, on the other hand, have large black bulbous heads and black tails with a reddish band. This coloration makes the male California Sheephead one of the most recognizable fish in the kelp forest. Both male and female sheephead have characteristic white chins and protruding teeth.

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A male California Sheephead swims through its kelp forest habitat. Credit: NOAA

The Change From Female to Male is Still a Mystery

Most research on California Sheephead agrees that there are various environmental factors that contribute to the change from female to male. There is great variation in the timing of the switch depending on location, and it is generally accepted that females become males some time from five to 14 years of age. Male sheephead are very territorial during the mating season, when the waters warm in summer and early fall. They will also vehemently defend their spawning territory from other males looking for mates.

Vulnerable, But Protected

California Sheephead are listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN. Their population decline is contributed to commercial fishing, recreational fishing, and capture for the live fish trade. Luckily, many live in Marine Protected Areas such as the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve in La Jolla, CA. This reserve is a “no take” area, meaning that all species are protected from fishing. Great news for the vulnerable California Sheephead!

Our male California Sheephead can be seen in the Kelp Tank

Our male California Sheephead can be seen in the Kelp Tank

Quick Facts:

Scientific Name: Semicossyphus pulcher

Habitat: Kelp forests and rocky bottoms from Point Conception, California to the Sea of Cortez, MEX

Diet: Carnivorous – preying mostly on invertebrates with hard shells such as crabs, lobsters, sea urchins, and mollusks

Size: up to three feet in length and weigh up to 36 pounds

At Birch Aquarium? Yes! You can spot both male and female California Sheepheads in the Kelp Tank on your next visit or look them now on our live Kelp Cam 

Gray Whales Bring Spouts of Joy

By Birch Aquarium Naturalist Delanie Medina

Delanie Medina earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology with an Ecology concentration from California State University San Marcos. When she is not whale watching or educating at Birch Aquarium, she enjoys snorkeling San Diego’s coast or venturing to museums in Balboa Park and painting with her friends. 

The Eastern Pacific Gray Whale’s migration pattern has been studied by scientists throughout the years and is quite predictable. They begin their journey in their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas in the Arctic, and swim along the coast down to lagoons in Mexico, making a 10,000 to 14,000-mile roundtrip migration. Though their migration pattern is predictable, the Gray Whale has proven time and again to be a magnificent creature, particularly when it exhibits behaviors that excite guests aboard the Marietta.

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On one recent whale watching cruise, we journeyed out of San Diego Bay on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in search of whale blows on the horizon. We were fortunate enough to spot three distinctive blows about two miles out in the distance, and were thrilled to get a closer look. Upon approaching, these whales were performing a series of sounding dives. Sounding dives are when the whale takes three to five breaths accompanied by short, shallow dives, and then ends with one last large breath and a sounding dive where their tail fluke breaks the water’s surface and is shown in a beautiful fluking display.

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Along with this display, we began to count more whale blows within this group of three originally spotted whales. The guests, along with myself, gasped as we counted one, two, three, four, five whale blows. Then, out of the corner of our eye, two more whale blows just a few yards to the left. We had come upon a group of seven gray whales swimming in synchronization with one another!

It is uncommon for gray whales to swim in these large numbers on their migration. Guests were astonished and knew they were experiencing a once in a lifetime opportunity with these whales. This experience is just one of several this season that guests have had the opportunity to encounter, and we are confident that this season will continue to bring numerous spottings and incredible behaviors from these whales.

 To see the amazing Gray Whales for yourself, schedule a whale watching cruise with Flagship Cruises & Events today!

Whale Watching: Always a Surprise

By Birch Aquarium Naturalist Kate Jirik

Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Flagship Cruises & Events are celebrating 15 years as whale watching tour partners. You would think we’d seen it all, but gray whales continue to surprise us.

We are just a month into the gray whale watching season, and we already have some exciting notes to pass along…

One afternoon, a gray whale turned sharply and approached a floating patch of kelp. Gray whales often swim along the edges of Point Loma’s kelp forests, but it’s rare to see them investigating drifting kelp farther out from shore. This gray whale rolled onto its side, turning the kelp over with its broad tail – perhaps it was playing, or perhaps enjoying how the kelp felt on its skin.

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This gray whale calf is very young, probably just a day or two old. It is resting on it’s mothers back – can you see her light gray flukes below the calf? Photo by Caitlin Scully

Additionally, several mother gray whales and their calves have been seen traveling south with a second adult whale. In one instance, a calf swam ‘sandwiched’ between the two adults. Any benefit to the calf—whether to protect it or aid its swimming—is unknown, but this behavior is not seen often. Behaviors like these make every tour unique.

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The characteristic heart shaped blows of gray whales. Photo by Caitlin Scully

Last week, I met a couple who has been coming whale watching with Birch Aquarium and Flagship every year for the past 10 years. It’s one of their winter traditions. When asked why whale watching holds special appeal for them, they said it was simple: whales inspire them.

This couple’s feelings likely resonate with many people. Whales speak to our deep relationship with the sea, and in San Diego, we have wonderful opportunities to witness gray whales on their epic migration. The whales navigate from Alaska to Mexico, join with mates, give birth to calves, and rest. Each winter the journey is renewed, inspiring and reconnecting us to the beautiful and challenging world we share with these animals.

SEA Days: Whale Tales

by Lisa Gilfillan, education specialist

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography or UC San Diego researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft. 

Identifying and classifying animals is no easy task, but fortunately it has become more accurate over time. “Modern” taxonomy was revolutionized in the 1700s by Carl Linnaeus. Whereas his work focused on grouping organisms based on observable physical characteristics, today’s classifications are based on molecular genetics, or DNA sequences. By determining an organism’s genetics, scientists are able to better understand its genes, heredity and genetic variation…all of which will allow us to better understand populations and how to help them thrive.

Our visiting scientist for January’s SEA Days is Matthew S. Leslie, a graduate student and researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Matthew is investigating the genetics of whales and dolphins to try to determine the number of populations that exist and how these species are related. Below, Matthew answers questions about his experiences and gives some advice to future scientists.

Matt Leslie

Where did you go to school?

I went to undergrad at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I am currently attending graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

What is your area of research?

I study whales and dolphins, and specifically my research focuses on the following themes:

Population Genetics: How many populations of whales and dolphins are there?

Systematics: How are species related?

Taxonomy: What do we name them?

Ecology: How to they make a living?

Conservation: How do we make sure they stick around?

 

Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?

About all you can do to beat the oppressive heat of summertime in Oklahoma is go to the lake. I learned to swim at age three and by age seven I was waterskiing. Almost all of my summertime memories are set at the lake. Then, when I was about eight, my family went to Boston on vacation. Looking out from the beach at Cape Cod and I remember a dizzying feeling when I realized I couldn’t see the other shore across the ocean; the enormity left me aghast. I had never been unable to see across the lake. On that same trip my parents bought me a button with a photo of a humpback whale. “What a weird creature!” I thought. This probably planted the seed.

Several years later, bored to tears while grocery shopping with my mother, I found a coffee table book by Jacques Cousteau called Whales. I couldn’t put it down. My mother bought it for me as an early birthday or Christmas gift, or just out of guilt for dragging her poor son grocery shopping.When I finished the book I wrote letters to scientists and aquaria for more information. I was constantly asking my Dad for stamps. In a roundabout way, I suppose it was the combination of my love for being underwater, and a feeling of curiosity about whales – they were so alien to my existence as a boy from Oklahoma – that drew me to study them.

What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?

Curiosity, creativity and persistence.

Why is your research topic important?

Most whale species were brought to the brink of extinction by industrial whaling. Many of these still haven’t recovered. The lack of knowledge about the number of species (and populations within species) is a serious stumbling block to efficient and sustainable conservation strategies that promote adaptability.

Our oceans are rapidly changing and these animals will have to adapt or they will go extinct. My work helps identify species and populations, so we protect them and allow them to adapt. 

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

In addition to my infectious enthusiasm, I will bring skulls, books, and biopsy gear.

What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?

Study hard. Get involved. Be responsible for your own fate and ensure a high quality of work. Oh, and always play nice with others. 

What is your favorite ocean organism?

I can’t choose just one…

Join us on Saturday, January 17 for SEA Days: Whale Tales—there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!

SEA you there!

Explore More of the Shore: Tidepooling Tips

By Danny Beckwith, education specialist 

Winter in California is a great time to explore a unique place where the ocean meets the land–tide pools. Tide pools are an incredible ecosystem where animals and other organisms have adapted to a life of crashing waves, constantly changing water levels, exposure to sun, and potentially dry conditions.

 

Tide pools are home to a plethora of fascinating organisms. Many of these organisms are invertebrates, or animals that do not have a backbone. From sea stars to neon-colored sea slugs, tide pools teem with life and diversity. Even the algae that helps feed or conceal small animals comes in all sorts of bizarre shapes, sizes, colors, and textures.

 

Here are some tips to having a wonderful tide pool experience that will help protect these magical places for future generations. Remember, it is up to us to protect and preserve the habitats and ecosystems we depend on. Practice these tips whenever you are out exploring the natural world.Tidepooling Tips

 

Want to learn more? During a Birch Aquarium Tidepooling Adventure, aquarium naturalists introduce participants to this rocky habitat and its denizens. Explore the mysteries of this sometimes-hidden ecosystem while learning about the astounding adaptations tide pool critters have to survive. We will also give more tips about how to protect this one-of-a-kind environment. Tidepooling Adventures for 2015 are currently sold out, but check back next winter to sign up, and in the meantime keep the above tips in mind if you go out on your own to explore “between a rock and a hard place!”

 

‘Tis the Season for Gray Whales

By Audrey Evans, whale watching coordinator

Earlier this December, Birch Aquarium’s team of naturalists and volunteers attended their pre-season meetings, training sessions, and lectures. As they brushed up on current whale research and shared experiences from past seasons, both experienced and new whale watchers began preparations for an exciting new season. Birch Aquarium is proud to have a dedicated team of eight naturalists and more than 80 volunteers aboard Flagship’s Marietta for the fifteenth season of whale watching.

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During the first week of the season, which began on December 14, guests were treated to 34 gray whale sightings, dozens of energetic common and Pacific white-sided dolphins, and a special visit from an unlikely guest: a brown booby perched on the Marietta’s railing for over 30 minutes. This is quite impressive for a season only 1/18 of the way through!

Juvenile Brown Footed Booby

Interested in seeing the action for yourself? Carve out some family time to spend with the whales this holiday season. Tickets can be purchased through Flagship Cruises & Events at 619-234-4111 or http://www.flagshipsd.com/whale-watching.

Gray whale tail off San Diego.