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SEA Days – Traveling With Turtles

Fri, 04/17/2015 - 4:21pm

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, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

In the closing of our Easter themed month of fun, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is featuring the egg-citing science of Camryn Allen. With a Ph. D. in Wildlife Reproductive Biology, Camryn’s research focuses on the mechanisms that lead to gender differentiation in sea turtles. Like many reptiles, the temperature at which the turtle egg incubates influences if it will hatch as male of female. This is called temperature-dependent sex determination, and it is critical information to understand for  sea turtle sustainability. Below Camryn gives us insight into her research and advice for future scientists!

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Dr. Camryn is a San Diego native who travels the world studying sea turtles and their eggs.

 

Where did you go to school?

I am a local. I grew up in East County San Diego and graduated from Granite Hills High School.

I went to UCSD thinking I wanted to be a medical doctor and decided it wasn’t for me. I wanted to study animal behavior instead so I majored in Bio-psychology.

I then went to Brisbane, Australia with plans to do behavior research on koalas but instead I conducted studies related to artificial insemination. These studies resulted in a Ph.D. in Wildlife Reproductive Biology.

What is your area of research?

Sea turtle conservation.

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

Hmmm. Probably studying abroad in Australia and taking marine biology courses there on amazing islands in the Great Barrier Reef.

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

An inquisitive mind, attention to detail, thinking outside of the box, and a little bit of perfectionism.

Why is your research topic important?

Sea turtles do not have sex chromosomes and their sex is determined by the incubation temperature of the eggs, therefore, you cannot use genetics to determine the sex of turtles. I use hormones (specifically testosterone) to assist us in determining the sex of juvenile turtles. Knowing the sex of turtles is important for determining population sex ratio, sex-based survivorship, and if climate change may be feminizing sea turtle populations (warmer incubation temperatures produce more females).

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What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

Turtle carapaces and skulls. Video of sea turtle behavior in San Diego Bay. Sea turtle ID handouts. Sea turtle info/activity booklets.

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

VOLUNTEER. This is the best way to get experience in marine biology and to see if you even like it.

What is your favorite ocean organism?

The critically endangered Vaquita! There are less than 100 left and they only live in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico. Their numbers decline each year due to drowning in nets used to catch shrimp. So if you eat shrimp that comes from Mexico please make sure it is Vaquita safe shrimp.

Join us on Saturday, April 18th for SEA Days: Traveling with Turtles—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!

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Volunteers Lend a Helping Hand During Whale Watching Season

Wed, 04/15/2015 - 2:52pm

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.

This post celebrates our Birch Aquarium Volunteers for National Volunteer Week!

This past week aboard the Marietta we’ve gotten the chance to see several more gray whale sightings along with playful dolphins, breaching humpbacks, fin whales, lounging sea lions, and birds enjoying the pacific flyway migration route. This year we have seen exceptionally high numbers and more whales at this point in the season than this point in the season last year. Whenever a whale is spotted the naturalist on board is able to announce the direction of the whale and give some facts about what is being observed. While the naturalist is busy sharing information from the wheel house down below several volunteers are hard at work making sure the guests questions are answered and that the are observing all that is happening in the water.

This season we have 83 whale watching volunteers, and each trip, up to four are onboard. Many of them have been doing this for several years. Sharon Parry, also a Birch Aquarium docent, has been helping out on the boats for the past ten years. Her favorite memory was when three gray whales swam right beside the boat, “the water was crystal clear and they were just right there; everyone was in awe.”

Birch Aquarium Whale Watching volunteers  Sharon, Wes, and Shelly. Thank you for all your hard work!

Birch Aquarium Whale Watching volunteers Sharon, Wes, and Shelly. Thank you for all your hard work!

Wes Holland’s favorite memory doesn’t involve whales but instead dolphins. It was about three years ago when he was able to observe three Rizzo dolphins in the wild. Holland, a docent who has been volunteering on the boat since 2008, loves dolphins and has noticed over his seasons of whale watching a decline in large megapods of dolphins.

Sharon, Wes, and Shelly working hard to help find whales!

Sharon, Wes, and Shelly working hard to help find whales!

If you are interested in volunteering during whale watching season, you can find more information here. Whale watching requires general knowledge of marine science, Birch Aquarium, and its programs. People from all walks of life volunteer at Birch Aquarium and go through an engaging training program to prepare for the job. Shelly Hancock, a volunteer of eleven seasons, urges you to check out becoming an aquarium volunteer, “If you think you’re interested, take the training and try it!”

Volunteers are a very important piece to whale watching season and add invaluably to the guest experience. More information about volunteering at Birch can be found here.

 

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Unusual Whales

Thu, 04/02/2015 - 1:03pm

What is that? Is it a big dolphin? That dorsal fin is shaped kinda funny… Is it all black? Did it just jump out of the water?

These are just a few of the exciting questions that guests onboard Marietta as well as at Birch Aquarium were asking in the last few weeks. The warmer than usual waters have brought some uncommon visitors into San Diego’s waters and we have been lucky enough to have some pretty spectacular experiences!

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by  Michelle Robbins of NOAA

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

First, visitors got to see more than sea stars while visiting Tide-Pool Plaza at Birch Aquarium. From this high vantage point, visitors and staff were delighted to see False Killer Whales jumping out of the water just off of Scripps Pier.

A False Killer Whale jumps out of the water near Scripps Pier.

Visitors at Tide-Pool Plaza were able to see False Killer whales jump out of the water near Scripps Pier.

False Killer Whales, are found worldwide in tropical and temperate areas of the open ocean, though they are unusual in local waters. They are almost all black in color and reach lengths of up to 20 feet. False Killer Whales are an important species being studied by researchers at Southwest Fisheries Science Center here in La Jolla. Scientists with special permits went out in small boats to take identification photographs of the whales. These photos help identify individual whales and allow researchers to study different populations of False Killer Whales. The scientists also collected genetic samples from the whales. Dr. Karen Martien, of Southwest Fisheries, told us that that she has several ongoing genetic projects focusing on False Killer Whales. Dr. Martien explained, “We’ll be sequencing the [genetic] samples collected off [Scripps] Pier to see how they fit in with the other Pacific Ocean samples we published on a few years ago.”

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It is unusual to see False Killer Whales so close to Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

Dr. Susan Chivers, of Southwest Fisheries Science Center, told Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Birch Aquarium, “the False Killer Whales’ presence off La Jolla is likely due to the warmer than usual ocean temperatures we’re experiencing, and they likely followed their prey here.” False Killer Whales usually feed on fish and cephalopods (squid). They are fast and agile predators that often work together to take Mahi Mahi, Yellowfin Tuna, and other large fish as prey.

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

False Killer Whales off of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photo taken by Michelle Robbins of NOAA

As if the False Killer Whales weren’t exciting enough, guests onboard The Marietta saw a large pod of Pilot Whales! Educator and Naturalist Meghan Duncan provided us with her account of seeing these spectacular Pilot Whales:

“The waves were rolling and the sun was shining in blue skies as we headed farther off the coast. We had just left a pod of about 60 Common Dolphins when we heard a voice over the radio say they had sighted a group of whales a couple miles from us. As we got closer we could see black dorsal fins, shaped as half crescents, breaking the surface of the water. We could count about 10 from afar, but as we got closer, we realized there must have been at least 30 whales! That closer look helped us realized we had stumbled upon a pod of Pilot Whales.

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Short-Finned Pilot Whales are close relatives of False Killer Whales. Photo credit: NOAA

Pilot Whales have uniquely round heads and almost jet black bodies, which helped us to identify this species. The volunteers, the Captain, and I had never seen these animals in the wild! With excitement, we watched them swim gracefully slow, seeming to move through the water with amazing ease and serenity. As we watched, we could hear the force of their blows as they breathed at the surface. They would all dive near the same time and later emerge to breathe, some together and some intermittently.

It was an amazing opportunity for everyone on board to witness these beautiful animals and we were even lucky enough to get a few glimpses of a calf swimming right against the other whales. We observed the pod for about 45 minutes before we left them to continue on their travels and they left us with a memory we would all never forget.”

There are still a few weeks left of whale watching season, and we can’t wait to see what turns up next!

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Meet the Leader of the Pod

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 1:47pm

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.

With a month left in whale watching season it is safe to say that we have had a wonderful year full of several spectacular sightings! We have seen more than 750 gray whales, 8900 common dolphins and 1330 Pacific white-sided dolphins. We have also seen some less-common whales in the water. Many guests have gotten the chance to witness humpback whales,  several of them breaching! A few lucky whale watchers were even able to spot pilot whales and, earlier this week, our guests spotted the first fin whale of the season.

A fin whale surfaces close to the boat.

A fin whale surfaces close to the boat.

All these incredible sights were only possible due to the effort and dedication put forth by education specialist Audrey Evans, who coordinates the whale watching program for the aquarium. Evans has been working at Birch Aquarium for the past seven years.

It takes a great deal of planning and coordinating in order to make each whale-watching season a success. This includes working with the aquarium’s volunteer coordinator to recruit volunteers, coordinating the naturalist schedule, supporting the partnership with Flagship Cruises & Events, and recruiting speakers for training.

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Audrey Evans, education specialist, in charge of coordinating whale season

Even though all the coordination is a lot of work, it’s also very rewarding. “Seeing everything come together with staff and volunteers and getting to be a part of it is my favorite part,” said Evans. She enjoys her work behind the scenes, but she also enjoys getting to go on the Marietta and see all the different types of whale behavior. When asked to describe one of her favorite days on the boat, Evans recalls a very calm, glassy day at sea. Looking out over the ocean, she could see over 1,000 common dolphins who were being extra acrobatic, flying into the air, feeding, and slapping. The sight of such a large pod exhibiting such interesting behavior was unforgettable for the science educator.

If you haven’t gotten a chance to see some of this planning in action or the amazing whales make sure to get on the boat before the season ends! http://www.aquarium.ucsd.edu/Education/Public_Programs/Outdoor_Adventures/Whale_Watching/

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SEA Days: Turtle Tracking

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 1:47pm

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.

With the recent adoption of our Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is excited to host a turtle expert for our March SEA Days! With more than ten years of marine turtle experience, Sheila Madrak is a conservation biologist interested in studying the movement of marine vertebrates. Her current research focuses on Green Sea Turtles and the effect of warm water on their movement throughout the San Diego Bay. Below, Sheila answers some questions about her experience and her best advice for future scientists.

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Sheila Madrak is a conservation biologist interested in studying the movement of marine vertebrates.

Where did you go to school?

I completed my BS in Animal Science at the University of Vermont, my MS in Biological Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, and I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Joint Doctoral Program in Ecology through San Diego State University and University of California, Davis

What is your area of research?

I study conservation ecology and behavior. I am specifically interested in movement behavior in mobile marine vertebrates. I have studied marine turtles for over ten years.

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

I was inspired to become involved in marine science by spending every summer at the beach in Ocean City, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC. I have always loved animals and the ocean. I first learned about marine turtles through childhood visits to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, NJ. At the MMSC, I learned about the human impacts on marine turtles and other marine megafauna. I developed a desire to make a difference!

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

First and foremost, determination! I think if you are determined enough, you can accomplish any goal – big or small. Becoming a scientist requires many years of education and training. It is certainly not a career that happens overnight. But the persistence pays off through the experiences of working in a dynamic and hands-on field. 

Why is your research topic important?

For my dissertation research, I have monitored movement of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) in San Diego Bay as related to water temperature. San Diego Bay is home to a foraging population of East Pacific Green Turtles. It is near the northernmost extent of the range for these turtles and the Bay has high human use and effects of that use. Until December 31, 2010, a fossil-fuel based power plant operated in the South Bay region of San Diego Bay and released warm water effluent into the environment. Green turtles were shown to aggregate near this warm water in an area we referred to as the “jacuzzi.” My research monitored if/how green turtle distribution and dive behavior changed in response to the loss of warm water effluent in the Bay.

 What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?

I will be bringing the telemetry equipment that I used to track and monitor Green Turtle movement in San Diego Bay.

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

The best way to get involved in ecology is to start my seeking out an internship that can provide you with hands-on experience in the field you are interested in. Explore different paths, make contacts with people in the field, and pursue an education—start general (Biology, Ecology, etc) and become more focused as you move forward with your education.

 What is your favorite ocean organism?

My favorite ocean organism is probably the narwhal! Narwhals are incredible and unique marine mammals. The Narwhals are a medium-sized toothed whale that lives in Arctic waters and has a large tusk-like enlarged tooth that protrudes from their heads and is believed to be a sensory organ.

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Join us on Saturday, March 21 for SEA Days: Turtle Tracking—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!

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SEA you there!

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Baja California Whale Adventure: Discovering More Than Just Whales

Mon, 03/09/2015 - 10:00am

By Lisa Gilfillan, Education Specialist

Our annual Baja California Whale Adventure is a collaboration between Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Andiamo Tours Mexico for 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 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 of Mexico 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 (of which 650 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.    
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A curious adult female gray whale interacts with guests. Credit: Lisa Gilfillan

 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

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SEA Days: Ocean Love

Sun, 03/01/2015 - 10:42am

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.

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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.

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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!

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Aquarium Internships Inspire Future Careers

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 4:58pm

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

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Love is in the Water

Tue, 02/17/2015 - 1:58pm

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.

 Caitlin Scully

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

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Ocean Love Spotlight – California Sheephead

Sat, 02/14/2015 - 1:54pm

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 

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Gray Whales Bring Spouts of Joy

Mon, 02/02/2015 - 9:01am

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!

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Whale Watching: Always a Surprise

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 3:10pm

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.

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SEA Days: Whale Tales

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 8:57am

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.

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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!

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Explore More of the Shore: Tidepooling Tips

Tue, 01/13/2015 - 4:56pm

 

 

 

By Danny Beckwith, education coordinator

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!”

 

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