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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.

whale watching volunteers

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.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle: Behind-the-Scenes Update

In early January 2015, visitors to Birch Aquarium will be able to see a rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle that was recently transported to San Diego from South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina. To learn more about the history of the turtle and find out how you can help support its ongoing care, visit the aquarium’s website. We will be blogging updates on the turtle’s story, from its arrival in San Diego to exhibit preparations in the Hall of Fishes and the turtle’s behind-the-scenes care.

Previous post: Meeting our Loggerhead Sea Turtle

After a wonderful send-off from the staff and volunteers at South Carolina Aquarium, the Loggerhead Sea Turtle’s journey continued with the help of Delta Air Lines and the coordinated efforts of staff at Charleston International, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta, and San Diego International Airports. Since the East Coast was experiencing a cold snap during the trip, and Loggerheads are accustomed to more moderate climates, Birch Aquarium husbandry experts and airport personnel worked together to ensure a safe and comfortable cross-country journey for the turtle.

Precious cargo aboard!

Precious cargo aboard!

Since arriving in San Diego, the turtle has been busy adjusting to its new surroundings. We are pleased to share that the turtle’s acclimation to life in San Diego has been going quite well!  The husbandry team at Birch Aquarium has been making sure the turtle is receiving the highest quality nutrition and care.  One way they do this is through target training (the red triangle in the photo below is the “target”). Using this technique guarantees the turtle will get critical vitamins and food when it moves to the Hall of Fishes in January.

Target training

Target training

While behind-the-scenes, Husbandry and Animal Health teams worked together to assess weights, measurements, and baseline blood values for the turtle. These routine evaluations help aquarists monitor and care for the turtle as it grows—at about one hundred pounds, the turtle is currently only a juvenile!

Loggerhead turtle during routine physical

Loggerhead turtle during routine physical

Additionally, with the help of UC San Diego Health System, the husbandry team was able to utilize a CT Scan (Computed Tomography) at Thornton Hospital in La Jolla to view the turtle’s scoliosis, skeletal structure, and importantly, the flippers.  The information from the scan helps aquarium staff provide the care needed to keep the turtle healthy for years to come.

Arrival at Thornton Hospital in La Jolla

Arrival at Thornton Hospital in La Jolla

We are very grateful to our UC San Diego Health System for helping us get an important “closer look” at our turtle.

CT scan

CT scan

On January 6, 2015, visit Birch Aquarium to see our Loggerhead Sea Turtle in the Bahía Magdalena tank in the Hall of Fishes!

SEA Days: Understanding Ice

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

Each 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.

What do you think of when you picture the world’s water content? You may imagine our oceans as vast bodies of water that span most of the globe. However, a large amount of the water on Earth also exists as ice. For example, the ice on the continent of Antarctica alone accounts for 90% of the world’s ice, and 70% of our fresh water. Now that’s impressive! Understanding all that ice is important. For example, researchers study ice to help predict the rate of sea level change around the world and to learn about microscopic life in other areas of our solar system.

Our visiting scientist for December’s SEA Days is Sasha Peter Carter, Ph.D., a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has the opportunity to closely observe and participate in a variety of research projects that study the incredible phenomena that take place in ice. Below, Sasha answers questions about his experience in the field and gives advice to future scientists.

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Where did you go to college?

I started by taking college classes as a high school student at UC Riverside, then completed four years of College at UC Santa Cruz.  Following that, I spent seven years at the University of Texas, Austin completing my Ph.D.


What is your area of research?

I study the river systems beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.  They are as complex and varied as any of the rivers you may know, but buried beneath hundreds if not thousands of feet of ice.  We now know that these systems harbor life, which bears similarity to that we might expect to find elsewhere in the solar system.  These rivers are also of critical importance for how fast ice flows into the ocean, which matters if you want to predict sea level changes.


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

I always loved being outdoors, and I was concerned about pollution and change to the environments.  I saw studying science as a way to make the world a less polluted place.


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

Never forgetting to play.  


What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

Flubber, a material that like glacial ice, is solid, but flows under its own weight.  


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

Look around you. Then look deeper.  


What are your favorite ocean organisms?

Penguins.

 

 

Join us on Saturday, December 20 for SEA Days: Understanding Ice—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!

 

Meeting Our New Loggerhead Sea Turtle

In early January 2015, visitors to Birch Aquarium will be able to see a rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle that was recently transported to San Diego from South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina. To learn more about the history of the turtle and find out how you can help support its ongoing care, visit the aquarium’s website. We will periodically blog updates on the turtle’s story, from its arrival in San Diego to exhibit preparations in the Hall of Fishes and the turtle’s behind-the-scenes care.

Birch Aquarium aquarists Kylie Washer and Fernando Nosratpour went to Charleston to meet with the team and turtle at South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

In order to ensure a smooth transition to its (we won’t know if the turtle is male or female for a few years) new home, the experts in South Carolina showed Kylie and Fernando how they have been caring for the turtle. Here they are with Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson learning about the turtle’s history and behavior.

Birch Aquarium aquarist Kylie Washer and South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson

Birch Aquarium aquarist Kylie Washer and South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue program manager Kelly Thorvalson

The staff at South Carolina Aquarium worked with the turtle to help it know when to go to the side of the tank for feeding. Due to competition from the other animals in the tank, and its rear flipper paralysis, the turtle will be able to eat more easily when it is guided to the side of tank. This training will also help staff move the turtle for routine physical examinations.

In addition to learning the turtle’s routine, habits, and health history, Fernando and Kylie took time to observe and introduce themselves to the newest member of the Birch Aquarium animal community.

Kylie says hello!

They also had the opportunity to meet some of the other animals currently being treated at the Rescue Program. They even assisted with collecting a blood sample from a Green Sea Turtle that was recently stranded in South Carolina.

Fernando assisting with collecting a blood sample from a Green Sea Turtle

Birch Aquarium is grateful to the staff at South Carolina Aquarium for rehabilitating the turtle and showing it so much care during the time it was at the Sea Turtle Rescue Program. The team even wrote “good luck” notes on the outside of the crate to wish her well on the next phase of her journey—the trip across the country to Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

Staff at South Carolina Aquarium sending well wishes off with the turtle!

 

SEA Days: Kelp Kornucopia

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

 

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.

What’s so spectacular about kelp? Well, all the protein shakes in the world can’t get us to grow as fast as kelp does. The type of algae known as Giant Kelp is, under the right conditions, able to grow anywhere between 12” to 24” per day. Now that’s impressive! Furthermore, kelp forests harbor a greater diversity of plants and animals than almost any other ocean community.

Pacific fish at Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Our visiting scientist for November’s SEA Days is Christian McDonald, the Diving Safety Officer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has the opportunity to closely observe and participate in a variety of research projects that study these amazing communities. Below, Christian answers questions about his experience in the field and gives some advice to future scientists.

1. Where did you go to college?

I studied marine biology and graduated from UC Santa Cruz.

2. What is your area of research?

As the Diving Safety Officer, my job at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego involves training our faculty, staff, and students who wish to use SCUBA to conduct their research and education. I’m also able to help facilitate the science our researchers pursue by providing expert advice, technical support, or project oversight when needed. This allows me to participate in a wide variety of research projects.

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

I grew up in the Central Valley of California. Though I spent a lot of time in the water (pools), I was fairly “landlocked.” Much of my early inspiration to marine science came from Jacques Cousteau documentaries and a natural history TV show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I was later inspired by NASA and our space program to explore extreme environments such as space and the ocean.

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

There are many avenues a scientist could pursue (academia, research, science education, non-profit, etc.). Whichever trajectory, it takes a lot of schooling and a lot of hard work to become a scientist. Truly being curious as to how the world works and passionate about understanding these processes more will help one remain inspired through all the hard work.

5. Why is your research topic important?

Our researchers work very hard to study and find solutions to complex problems. When that work involves going onto and into the ocean, my job is to help them do it as safely and as effectively as possible.

6. What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I’ll be bringing a poster showcasing our historic Scientific Diving Program and the science we are able to support. I’ll also bring along some SCUBA equipment and some of the tools our researchers use to collect data underwater. 

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

Spend time on and in the ocean in whatever capacity is available to you. Look around you. Ask questions about what you see. Learn to snorkel. Learn to dive. Explore.

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8. What is your favorite ocean organism?

I do like “charismatic megafauna.” Sharks and particularly, manta rays.

Join us on Saturday, November 13 for SEA Days: Kelp Kornucopia — 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!

SEA Days: All Shook Up!

by Rasheed I. Al Kotob, Volunteer Programs Assistant

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 the spirit of the annual Great California ShakeOut which was held October 16, and as part of Earthquake Safety Month at Birch Aquarium, this month’s SEA Days theme focuses on the science behind earthquakes and other tectonic plate activity that is responsible for many different natural phenomena that affect land and marine ecosystems alike. Our visiting scientist for the day is Ekaterina “Katia” Tymofyeyeva,  a Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who conducts research in the field of geophysics. Below, Katia answers questions about her experience in the field, and gives some advice for future scientists.

Where did you go to college?

I got my undergraduate degree in physics at The College of New Jersey. I originally wanted to become an experimental physicist, so I focused on optics, photonics, and electronics. I spent two years after that working at Princeton University doing atomic physics.

What is your area of research?

My area of research is called satellite geodesy. Basically, we use data from satellites to look at small movements on the surface of the Earth. We then use our observations to create mathematical models that can enlighten us about important processes, such as ones that cause earthquakes.

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

When I was in college, I took just one geology course, and it made me realize I wanted to be involved in geophysics. What inspires me about geophysics is the beauty of being able to look at the Earth and describe it with mathematics. It is also wonderful to work in a field where the long-term goals may have a positive impact on society, such as earthquake prediction.

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

Curiosity and creativity are the most important, because curiosity provides inspiration, and creativity is essential for solving scientific problems. Patience and optimism are also important, because research can be hard work, and things almost never go as planned.

Why is your research topic important?

In general, it is important to learn as much as possible about the planet we live on. But also, geophysics has applications that are important to society, such as the prediction of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. The more we understand about how the Earth works, the more we can use that knowledge to take better care of it, and of ourselves.

What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I will be bringing pictures and hands-on activities to teach people about the Earth, earthquakes, and Earth science.

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

If you are curious about something, remember that most scientists love to talk about their research, and will be happy to answer your questions. Don’t be intimidated or afraid, and get involved as early as possible.

Katia and team


What is your favorite ocean organism?

Because I am not an ocean scientist, I can’t provide a very meaningful answer to this question. Instead, I will tell you about my favorite rock. It is called a “pseudotachylite,” and it is pretty rare. It is produced when a rock experiences an earthquake somewhere deep in the Earth’s crust, and part of it melts. Many years later, it becomes exposed on the surface. These rocks are sometimes nicknamed “fossil earthquakes,” because they tell a story about deep earthquakes from long ago.

Join us on Saturday, October 18 for SEA Days: All Shook Up! — there’s something for everyone!

SEA Days: All Shook Up!  is generously sponsored by  Time Warner Cable  as part of  Kids Free in October.

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!