Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts by The Marine Detective

Wild Whales Don’t Play Rugby

Wild whales don’t play fetch with rugby balls and . . .
Belugas do not live in Antarctic waters. 

Likely many of you have seen the video of the Beluga Whale “playing fetch” with a rugby ball.

The following is a screen grab from one of the many, many news agencies that enabled this video. I added the text “What on Earth is going on here” and posted it on social media on November 8th to try to stop the very erroneous information being spread.

 

My initial text accompanying the post was: “This one makes my head and my heart hurt. Likely you’ve seen it, the video of a “wild” Beluga playing catch with a rugby ball? Two points not being addressed by those reporting this: (1) This is being reported as being in Antarctica but Belugas don’t live in Antarctica. (2) This is not natural / spontaneous behaviour. This is a whale habituated to humans and boats which is anything but heart-warming.”

Then I went digging. The pieces came together very quickly as they would have had news agencies been able to fact-check appropriately. I also received information from organizations and individuals in Norway confirming details.

I am now sharing the information here as it better allows me to provide sources and update when further information becomes available.


What I learned:

The video is from near Hammerfest, Norway.

The whale is “Hvaldimir” the Beluga found off northern Norway in April of 2019 with a harness marked “Equipment of St. Petersburg” (as confirmed by the Hvaldimir Foundation). This whale has been referenced as “the Russian spy whale”. Likely Hvaldimir’s training would have included being rewarded with food when retrieving objects.

There are efforts to have Hvaldimir adjust to being in the wild. Initially this included the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issuing official approval for the Norwegian Orca Survey to feed him since he was malnourished. I found a Norwegian news item that referenced that he has been hit by a boat at least once. 

The boat in the video is a “Gemini” (made in Cape Town, South Africa), is the tender for the vessel the “Danah Explorer”.  The vessel is currently still in Norwegian waters. 

Danah Divers, are a research body linked to the Save Our Seas Foundation. There is email correspondence to the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries apologizing for recent misguided behaviour while in northern Norway. These actions perpetuate habituation of the whale and reduce his chances to feed for himself and, as aforementioned, are contrary to Norwegian efforts to rehabilitate the whale.

The identity of the person initially throwing the ball is known to me but I am choosing not to share the identity. The logo on the jacket is from Danah Divers / the Danah Explorer.

 

Above: Screen grab from the Hvaldimir Foundation’s website – solid resource for the history on this whale and the efforts to rehabilitate him to the wild.


How did this get erroneously get connected to South Africa and Antarctica?

I cannot find the original posting of the video. I did originally see if with very little text but that version now seems to have been deleted. Where it really seems to have taken off is when re-uploaded (without credit / source) on Facebook by two non-associated people:

November 7th, initially posted with the text “Playing fetch with an Irrawaddy Dolphin as you do. How sweet is this?” Yep, the Beluga was referenced as being an Irrawaddy Dolphin by the person who re-uploaded the video from who knows where. She then edited the text to: “Playing fetch with a Beluga Whale as you do. How sweet is this?!” A further edit added the text: “The video is of a South African crew enjoying the company of a Beluga whale, while sailing near the North Pole. I did not take this video, nor do I know who took the video, but wanted to share an extraordinary moment caught on camera.” Since November 11th, the post has been updated to acknowledge the whale is Hvaldimir.

November 6th, someone used the video to associate it with South Africa winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup on November 2nd. He framed the video as being: “Beluga Whale celebrating the Springboks victory somewhere close to the South Pole! Spot the Cape Town build Gemini Craft and the South African accents.” The accents and jargon of the people on the boat are indeed South African, the brand of the boat is South African and the ball is indeed a 2019 official Rugby World Cup ball. But, this was NOT filmed near the South Pole. 

Above: The range of Beluga Whales – only in Arctic seas, NOT near Antarctica. Source: Delphinapterus leucasThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017


Why is this important?

I understand of course that the video would have appeal to many and that not all would immediately realize that this cannot be wild behaviour.

As stated so well by some on my social media post:

Thanks for that info. People, like myself, cannot help but want to imagine some sort of kinship and bond with animals and we go all mushy when we see this sort of thing, but nevertheless, this story did tickle my brain as being somehow off or wrong. Thanks for scratching that tickle.”

and

I am a land person. I don’t know much about marine creatures, but learn a lot from following scientists and researchers on social media. I know wild land mammals play with things (the foxes in my yard jump on the neighbor’s trampoline and play with his dog’s toys, and we’ve caught the bear playing on the swing set.) so while playing fetch seems unlikely, for someone who knows little about these animals (where they live, what they do etc) I didn’t know to be outraged or even concerned . . .

Why I have made the effort to “solve” this however is because truth, science and facts are at risk. This is an example of that reality and of the atrophying of fact-checking by media agencies. A very quick search for the range of Beluga Whales would have led to the “clue” that this was false information.

Therefore, there is the dire need for critical thinking. We live in a world of overwhelm and “fake news” being using as a defence rather than a truth. There are dizzying news cycles where so much is just a tweet and/or share away. Compounding this is that technology allows us to photoshop reality to further misguide, misinform and manipulate.

If we do not realize this to be current reality, we are unwilling participants in the spread of misinformation. Where we need to be a force insisting on fact-checking and quality reporting, instead we inadvertently fuel media being under-resourced, under-researched and prone to “click-bait. We become complicit in feeding the misinformation monster and how that shapes attitudes and actions.

I also believe it is important to understand that interactions with humans as shown in this video cannot be spontaneous nor natural and to realize how such content promotes the want of proximity that does not serve wild animals.

This is a further attempt to stand for facts in a time that it is critical to do so.


Further information: 

Colleen Gorman of “The Orca Project”:
“Remember that video of the beluga going all over the Internet chasing a football yesterday? Well my friend Colin or Quad_Finn on Twitter, a marine animal researcher who I reached out to right away, and I, were right the whole time. This is a whale from Russia that was trained by the military and then got loose. The girl . . .  got 700K+ shares and millions of views copied (stole) the video with no credit given – for attention. She should think twice before stealing video and spreading it around. It’s not cute and it’s not funny . . .  they should know better than playing around with a beluga and trying to make it seem like they’re out to play with humans. They never travel alone . . Hvaldimir the Beluga is like Luna (L98), the orphaned juvenile Southern Resident orca who also sought out humans for social interaction instead of his conspecifics. As with Luna, such familiarity and dependence on humans will all but inevitably end in tragedy.”  Source: Facebook post November 8, 2019

TimesLive:
The voices in the clip are clearly South African . . .The man throwing the ball for the beluga is wearing a tracksuit with the logo of the Danah Explorer, a marine research vessel which is currently in Norwegian waters. TimesLIVE tracked down the vessel to the harbour at Tromsø, Norway — but not the people who created the video. A number of South African divers and researchers work with the Danah Divers, a research body linked to the Save Our Seas Foundation. The SoS-linked Danah Explorer and Danah Divers share a logo.
The boat from which the ball is thrown is a small landing craft with the logo of Cape Town boatbuilding company Gemini Marine visible. Gemini marketing manager Gerhard Neethling has said he would investigate the boat’s possible links to his company.” Source: TimesLive, “Bok gees has even reached a beluga whale in the Arctic Circle“, November 7, 2019

Quad-Finn, November 9, 2019 in a Twitter post: “The Danah Explorer is a yacht owned by Abdulmohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh. He’s the founder of the Save Our Seas Foundation. The logo on the back of jacket of the man throwing the rugby ball to Hvaldimir is that of Danah Divers”

IFLScience!; November 11, 2019; “That Viral Video Of A Beluga Whale Playing Fetch Is Probably Not What It Seems

NRK Finmark, September 12, 2019, “Hvaldimir is ill and has been injured: – Several have thrown planks and other things after him” (translated article on the negative impacts from human interactions with Hvaldmir)


 

Captivity Matters . . . Rework of Bohemian Rhapsody with Video

Let me frame the following with the quote: “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane” (Jimmy Buffet). 


I recently had the great joy of being the keynote speaker in Alaska for the Sitka Whale Fest.

This multi-day festival is aimed at making marine science more accessible to the public and to increase action for our oceans. It includes a film fest, art show, science workshops and . . . a musical event called “The Grind”.

I dared participate in this with my talent being rewriting lyrics of songs to have a marine theme. Yes, I’m the Weird Al Yankovic of marine science (believing very much in the power of humour to educate and enlighten).

Photos were taken. I then also dared share the photos on social media. Here they are.

The text accompanying the photos was:

“Not a stoic scientist. 
Photos are from #SitkaWhaleFest where I sang my adapted lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody = “Captivity Matters”.


Includes:

Is this the real life?
Here in captivity?
Caught in a big net,
Taken far from my family.
Open your eyes,
Admit all the lies and see . . .
I’m just a poor whale, I need my liberty.
Because I’m easy come, easy go, jumping high, sinking low.
Anyway this whale blows captivity matters to me
To me. . .”

So grateful that, last minute, I did not have to sing this solo. Thanks so much David Harvey for the spirt and humour! And oh the absolute joy resulting from around 200 people singing along.”


The response to the post was overwhelmingly “Show us video!”

So for those of you not on social media, here you go. I would not want you to be deprived.

Text accompanying the video:

“You asked for it. Here is my rework of the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody to be about Orca in captivity. As a result of posting photos of this performance at Sitka’s Whale Fest, there were many requests / demands to see the video. One has surfaced from the audience. It’s a little shaky due to laughter. It is a little off key due to my skills as a singer. The topic is not a laughing matter but humour is a powerful tool. Video by Mollie Fisher and Tony Thompson. Accompaniment by David Harvey.” 


 

 

Below, another of the many brilliant ways that #SitkaWhaleFest made science far more accessible, understandable and fun. All we scientists wore sashes so that people could identify us and chat. This is so important in a time when science, truth and facts are at risk. Of course, as a woman, it is also so powerful to me to wear a sash in this context rather than the historic / typical way. Oh the joy of a world where you get to be a scientist AND wear a sash.

Back to Ground – Reflections on the vital importance of salmon.

How powerful to see salmon spawn; to know their importance; to reflect on their journey and the perfection of their lifecycle that holds together so much life.

Back to ground.

Back they come from the sea to the rivers in which they were born, guided by forces we humans do not fully understand. Those that did not perish along the way (nourishing marine species) fight their way upstream but only once the river runs high enough.

More succumb along the way, the journey made all the more onerous when waters are too warm to supply sufficient oxygen.

The way home.

Males fight to mate, genes invested in future generations in a way we humans cannot replicate with salmon enhancement. Then they die where they were born, following the pattern of thousands of salmon generations before them.

Through death they deliver the nutrients from the sea even hundreds of kilometres upstream to fuel the ecosystem in which their offspring will be born – feeding trees, bears, insects, rodents, song birds, deer, human cultures, etc. etc.

Circle of life.

Through the death of the adults, the viruses, bacteria and parasites they carry will not be transmitted to their offspring. For that is Nature’s rule – that salmon smolts will not be in contact with adult salmon (a rule that is broken with open-net salmon farming).

To grasp the perfection and fragility of what has sustained this coast for so long, is to do better by our own future generations.

For the flow of salmon is . . . the flow of life.

All photos are of spawned Pink Salmon near Squamish; ©2019 Jackie Hildering.


Related blog with further detail on the importance of salmon, their lifecycle, how salmon feed trees (and other vegetation) and my attempts at a Seussian style poem is at “A World Without Salmon?” at this link. 

Forever Changed . . .

Forever changed.

That’s what I want of myself after experiences like this.

Yesterday, while sampling fish in a little bay, we realized a Grizzly Bear mom and her two cubs had emerged from the forest. The trio sat and listened to the blows of Humpbacks resounding off the rocks, and also raised their heads alert to the exhalations of Steller Sea Lions going by. After sniffing and listening possibly to judge safety, mother bear determined they were to swim to the other side of the bay. The cubs appeared trepidatious. Mother swam back to escort them. Then, after back on land, and having shaken off the ocean water from their fur, they were again absorbed by the forest.

I want to be changed for the better at the very level of my DNA whereby witnessing this make me understand better how to make it count. I want to share with you so that it may translate into your lives. Not in a “I want to see this too” or “I am envious” way. But to know of this wild and this perfection and the privilege, beauty and responsibility that comes with knowing these are the neighbours with which we share air, land and sea.

Thereby, please see the series of photos below. I hope that it is apparent that all photos were taken at a distance (telephoto and cropped) with the intent of not disturbing the behaviour of the bears whereby we could watch them, as if we weren’t there.

Emerging from the forest.

Listening and smelling their surroundings

This was so extraordinary – they were listening to the blows of the Humpbacks.

Decision made by Mother to cross the bay.

Cubs appearing trepidatious about the swim.

Follow your mother.

Mother turning back to her cubs.

Mother turned back to then swim right beside her cubs.

Back on land.

Back into the forest. Would briefly re-emerge to flip large rocks and feed.

 

This was experienced while doing fieldwork for our Marine Education & Research Society with dear colleagues Christie McMillan and Jasspreet Sahib. 

More photos from this remarkable day will be on our page at www.facebook.com/mersocietybc.

Photos have been shared with those who might know the IDs of the bears. Will report back with anything I learn about the individuals. Believe these cubs are three years old but I have little Grizzly Bear expertise.

How Will We Look Back in Another 55 Years?

Yesterday, I had reason to stand beside the Ocean with tears in my eyes.

I again stood exactly where Moby Doll was harpooned and brought into captivity in 1964 at East Point, Saturna Island.

 

Unthinkable now, but back then, who we were and what we believed is that there were too many Orca.

We vilified them, shot at them, and thereby there was social license for the plan to have an artist harpoon an Orca and then make a sculpture of it for the Vancouver Aquarium. The artist / harpoonist, Sam Burich, sat at this very spot from May 22 to July 16, 1964. A young Orca was then harpooned and the artist could not bring himself to kill him. The whale was brought into Vancouver Harbour at the end of the harpoon and only lived for 87 days.

He was nicknamed “Moby Doll” because we did not even have enough knowledge to discern juvenile male and female Orca. He was to be “The whale that changed the world” helping us know how wrong we can be but how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear and . . . when our values change.

On that point, my reason for being on Saturna Island was another source of emotion. There was so much evidence of change.

In my role with our Marine Education & Research Society I was there to help launch the #ForTheWhales movement with Saturna Island Marine Research & Education Society.

The intent is that this hashtag be used to increase awareness of the multitude of actions we can undertake to reduce impacts to whales – as consumers, energy-users, voters, neighbours, educators and boaters. This is with emphasis on the plight of the endangered Southern Residents, Moby Doll’s lineage who now number only 73 whales.

It is essential to realize there are still many ways to kill a whale through disconnect; entitlement; absence of precaution; perceiving societal / environmental health in only election cycles of 4 years; associating using less as being about loss rather than gain (less disposables, fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals); and the overwhelm that comes from not realizing the common solutions to socio-environmental problems.

How will we look back in another 55 years? Will we reflect on how the whales again moved us forward with values that better serve our own futures as well? Or, will we acknowledge that we had a critical window in which we could act, and did not.

The whales – indicators of environmental health and barometers of human values.

Care more. Use less.

DO MORE . . .   #ForTheWhales.



Sources and additional information about Moby Doll:

CBC The Current, December 27, 2016, How Moby Doll changed the worldview of ‘monster’ orca (includes audio and video)

Colby, Jason M., and Paul Heitsch. 2019. Orca: how we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator.

Francis, Daniel, and Gil Hewlett. 2007. Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the struggle to save West Coast killer whales. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Pub.

Leiren-Young, Mark. 2016. Moby doll: the killer whale that changed the world. Greystone Books.

The Tyee, May 13, 2008, They Shoot Orcas, Don’t They?

The Walrus, August 5, 2016, Moby Doll – How a bungled hunt turned killer whales into star attractions—and launched the modern conservation movement

Werner, M. T. (2010). What the whale was : orca cultural histories in British Columbia since 1964 (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0071537

WILD 2020

It’s August 1st – the first day of a new month and how it makes me smile to think of people around the world flipping to a new page in my WILD calendar.

I’ve made these calendars for more than 10 years now with the intent of creating further awareness about the diversity and fragility of life hidden in our cold, dark, life-sustaining seas.

Thank you again to all who put these calendars into the world and what that might mean for education, connection and conservation.

Below, see my images for the 2020 WILD Calendar. The selection process for which photos end up in the calendar includes voting on social media. But I also reflect on the biodiversity that must be represented i.e it can’t be all whales, fish or nudibranchs.

And yes, I softly say, the 2020 calendars are now for sale. Details at the end of this blog.

For the wild  . .  .

Above: Cover of my 2020 WILD Calendar.

Above: January image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: ” Above all: What is hoped with these efforts, is that we move further out of the dark in understanding our marine neighbours. May we look at our dark ocean and envision colour, fragility, and biodiversity rather than having a bias to thinking there is more life in warmer waters.Thereby, undervaluing and disconnecting from what is so extraordinary and precious.This cold ocean is dark because there is more plankton = more fuel for the ecosystem = more life, and many giants.The life in this image includes Giant Plumose Anemones,Yellowtail Rockfish, Keyhole Limpet, Red Soft Coral, Crimson Anemones, etc!

Above: February image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “Tiny predator: Diamondback Nudibranch,Tritonia festiva to 10 cm.Feeds on octocoral species like Red Soft Coral.See the beautiful “frontal veil” on the right?This is extremely sensitive.Allows them to find food and detect if it is worth the effort i.e.“used for locating expanded polyps of their prey and for carefully positioning the mouth over these in preparation for a surprise attack.The ensuing attack is swift, as the nudibranch lunges into the colony and bites off polyps before they can contract into the protective cover. . . will NOT attack contracted colonies.” (Source: Sea Slug Forum).”

Above: March image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “Sea Otter in the rain: Sea Otters were completely wiped out in British Columbia by 1929. From 1969 to 1972, ~89 were translocated from SE Alaska to the outer coast of Vancouver Island. Now there are more than 6,800 off the coast of BC. Even with super dense fur, they need to eat up to a quarter of their body mass/day to survive in the cold Ocean. This leads to some of us perceiving them to be competitors who eat “too much”. Importance includes being a keystone species; maintaining kelp forests by eating the urchins that graze on kelp.”

Above: April image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “One Ocean: No matter where you are on Earth, you are near the Ocean. No matter how far you travel, you never left. The Ocean is on our mountains as glaciers; it flows through our streams; it builds our trees and it comes out of our taps. Indeed, the water on the planet now is that which was here even before there was life on Earth, perpetually morphing between gas, liquid and solid states. Stream is sea. Sea is stream. All life on Earth connected by Ocean.”

Above: May image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “Remarkable reproduction: This tiny Proliferating Anemone expels fertilized eggs within a bath of mucus and she may have fertilized the eggs herself! Cilia move the mucus-covered eggs down the column where they become attached, enfolded, and will hatch and benefit from the protection of Mom’s tentacles for about 3 to 4 months, till siblings make them shuffle on. In this species, the young on the column can be of different ages (Epiactis prolifera to 3 cm).There is a larger species which also has babies on the column but these hatch inside the mother (Brooding Anemone, Epiactis lisbethae).”

Above: June image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “One family: Ripple (A43) born in 1981 to the threatened Northern Resident population (inshore fish-eating Orca who stay with their families their whole lives). Knowledge about her family, the A23 matriline, includes that at least 3 were hunted and captured (2 released after capture but Corky has been captive since Dec 1969) and at least another 3 have been hit by boats (2 survived).They were shot at too when that was our way and we did not understand how few there were and that there are 4 distinct populations off BC. Greatest threats now are the synergistic effects of prey availability / disturbance / contaminants.”

Above: July image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “In the forest: Bull Kelp swaying in the current, sun dancing down from above, everything in motion. Nereocystis luetkeana to 36 m and can grow up to 10 cm/day to better photosynthesize nearer the sun. So many reasons to value the kelp forests – oxygen, food, habitat, carbon dioxide buffering, navigation aid . . . and being so very, very beautiful.The Ocean’s algae produce 50% or more of your oxygen.”

Above: August image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “Orange Peel Nudibranch: Take a moment to think about it? While you are up here walking around, doing what you do, this is one of the thousands of extraordinary species crawling, swimming, swaying in the dark, rich NE Pacific Ocean.The Orange Peel Nudibranch is one of the world’s largest sea slugs at up to 30 cm (Tochuina gigantea). It’s such an appropriate common name for the species. This individual is amid Short Plumose Anemones (Metridium senile).”

Above: September image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “Trap-Feeding: This Humpback Whale is “Moonstar” (BCY0768).Through the work of our Marine Education and Research Society, we know that he was born in 2008 to “Slash” (BCY0177) who has very serious scarring from a boat propeller. He is one of the first Humpbacks we ever documented using a novel strategy we have dubbed trap-feeding.When juvenile herring are in less dense concentrations, and are being pursued by diving birds, some Humpbacks have learned to hang at the surface like this and trap the fish. See www.mersociety.org for our published research.”

Above: October image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “Along for the ride: Cross Jelly covered with amphipod hitchhikers. Hyperiid amphipods are tiny marine crustaceans and they may have species-specific relationships with jellies. Includes that they may parasitize the jelly, embedding in its tissue.These appear to be atop the jelly, certainly well-positioned to get good access to plankton snacks. Plankton = all the “drifting” organisms, from microscopic larvae to huge jellies. Cross Jelly is Mitrocoma cellularia, diameter to 9 cm.”

Above: November image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: “At the haul out: Steller Sea Lions males up to ~1,100 kg; females ~300 kg. Can be very difficult to discern juvenile males from females. Males sexually mature at ~age 7. Continue to grow to ~age 10. The big boys compete for females at rookery sites further to the north on BC’s Central Coast. Size needed to posture, fight and have an energy store if needing to defend territory. Eumetopias jubatus is a species of Special Concern in Canada.”

Above: December image, 2020 WILD Calendar. Caption is: ” Let there be light: See the jellyfish, and the trees? The algae and the anemones? Feel the connection between it all? “Our destiny as a species is interlocked with the destiny of the sea . . . .” (Quote: James Cameron). No divide. Directly connected. Directly dependent. Directly empowered to care more, and consume less. Power to you for caring, understanding, and undertaking action as you do.”

Above: Back cover, 2020 WILD Calendar. Striped Sea Star, Creeping Pedal Sea Cucumbers and so much more. And, for the first time ever in my calendars, there is a picture of my head. 🙂

Above: Sample of what the month pages look like in the WILD Calendar.


These are large calendars printed on sturdy paper, coil bound and with a hole to hang them.

They are 33 x 26.5 cm closed and 33 x 53 cm open (13 x 10.5″ closed /13 x 21″ open).

They are mailed in biodegradable, transparent plastic envelopes.

For information on purchasing on line, please click this link. 

They are also available at:

  • Alert Bay – Culture Shock Gallery
  • Port Hardy – West Coast Community Craft Shop
  • Port McNeill – Island Dawn’s
  • Telegraph Cove – Seahorse Gallery

Further retailers to be announced. Looking for locations for Vancouver and Victoria.


Abseiling Sea Snail

Go ahead, say that 5 times “abseiling sea snail, abseiling sea snail, abseiling sea snail . . .”

Now that you’ve warmed up and possibly developed a lisp, here are some details about a marine snail species that can climb, has an incredible sense of smell, and can deter much bigger predators.

Meet the Wrinkled Amphissia. No, I do not make up these names.

Amphissa columbiana can be up to 3 cm long, and is also known as the “Wrinkled Dove Snail”. 

 

Climbing

In this species, a gland near the foot secretes thick mucus that allows them to climb up and down and suspend themselves in the sea.

See the two photos below. I know it is so difficult to see the mucus strand.

Scavenging

Where are they abseiling to?

These marine snails are big time scavengers and are very active, using their long siphon to smell out the dead (photo below shows the siphon well).

It appears they can detect the chemicals of decay incredibly well in the water. Often a pile of them are scavenging together.

Wrinkled Amphissa amid Fringed Filament-Worms. If you look really closely you can even see some of the snail’s eggs attached the shell of the snail in the foreground. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

From Braidwaithe et al 2017 regarding feeding. “They appear to locate food resources primarily through chemosensory cues, often following conspecific mucus trails and sometimes congregating around actively feeding sea stars. The chemical cues that draw A. columbiana to food act as feeding stimulants; the addition of scent from a damaged animal induced the snails to feed on healthy prey. The ability to sense chemical cues from damaged animals, including those being consumed by feeding sea stars, creates scavenging opportunities other gastropods may be unable to exploit.”

 

Wrinkled Amphissa aggregation scavenging on a dead Rat Fish. The much larger snails feeding here are Oregon Tritons (Fusitron oregonensis to 13 cm long).The Tritons might follow the scent trails of the Amphissas to the food!

 

Photo above and below. Wrinkled Amphissas and Oregon Tritons snacking on a dead Lingcod. Nothing is wasted in the wild. ©Jackie Hildering.

Biting

They also have a wicked defense against sea stars where they insert their mouth parts (proboscis) into one of the grooves on the underside of the arms of predatory sea stars, biting a nerve.

From Braidwaithe et al  2010″The injury, which generally repelled the attacking sea star, immobilized the affected arm, rendering it useless for several days. The biting defense appears to be effective against several sea star species and may reduce predation on A. columbiana.” Some crab species do feed on them. 

Such remarkable adaptations in a sea of remarkable organisms which means I will be writing blogs and allotting abundant alliteration for a long, long time to come.


Adapting over thousands of years

I am sharing the photo below to give a sense of the diversity in the mollusc phylum to which snails belong.

“Mollis” means soft in Latin and the molluscs are our soft-bodied terrestrial and marine invertebrate neighbours. Their phylum is the second largest (the insects take first place). Note that all the organisms in this photo start off as larvae in the planktonic soup of the Ocean.

You can imagine how excited I was to chance upon  5 highly diverse marine mollusc species in one small area.

 

Details about the species in the photo:

– To the left of the Wrinkled Amphissa is a Keyhole Limpet who makes its own hat-like shell and grazes on rocks (preferred diet is bryozoans). Limpet species need to suction down hard on a flat surface because they do not have a shell to cover its underside. The individual here is in a risky position as a predator could easily flip and consume limpet. Too cool not to share with you is that engineers have found that the “teeth”  of limpets (the radula) are made of the strongest biological material ever tested (and the teeth are less than a millimetre long)! Note that marine snails like the Wrinkled Amphissa are protected not only by a shell, but they have an operculum which serves like a door to close the entrance to the shell when the snails withdrawn into its shell.

– Below the Wrinkled Amphissa, a Blue-Lined Chiton. Chitons make 8 plates to protect themselves. They are grazers like limpets. They too need to be able to suction down to protect themselves but do not need to be on a flat surface since the plates allow them to “contour” onto the surface.

– To the right of the Wrinkled Amphissa is a species of sea slug known as the Pomegranate Aeolid. It has “naked gills” and is therefore in the group of sea slugs known as “nudibranchs”. Sea slugs are marine mollusc without ANY shell or plates for protection. They are protected by feeding on animals with stinging cells (nematocysts) which become incorporated into those structures on its back (they are called cerata and also function as the naked gills for respiration). Specifically, Pomegranate Aeolids feed on Raspberry Hydroids which were only acknowledged as a new species in 2013. Scientific name is “Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus” and again, I do NOT make up these names. 🙂 See photo below.

– Below the chiton, if you look very carefully, is a very tiny sea slug species. I believe this is a Sea Cherub – a type of sea slug that swims and does not have naked gills (and therefore is not a nudibranch).

Not in the photo but to be considered too in the incredible diversity among marine molluscs is – octopuses!

Pomegranate Aeolid feeding on Raspberry Hydroids. ©Jackie Hildering.


Sources:

Anita Brinckmann-Voss & Dale R. Calder (2013). Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus (Cnidaria, Hydrozoa, Tubulariidae), a new species of anthoathecate hydroid from the coast of British Columbia, Canada” (PDF). Zootaxa. 3666 (3): 389–397.

Lee F. Braithwaite, Anthony Rodríguez-Vargas, Miles Borgen, Brian L. Bingham  (2017).”Feeding Behavior of the Wrinkled Dove Snail Amphissa columbiana,” Northwest Science, 91(4), 356-366.

Lee F. Braithwaite, Bruce Stone, Brian L. Bingham (2010). “Defensive Behaviors of the Gastropod Amphissa columbiana,” Journal of Shellfish Research, 29(1), 217-222.

Whales that Were

Whales that  . . . were.

I stumbled across this photo today and it made me take pause.

It dates back to 2009 and is of members of the threatened population of Northern Residents – mother Tsitika (A30, born ~1947) and one of her sons, Pointer (A39, born 1975). Both whales are now dead.

 

Tsitika died in 2013 and Plumper died in 2014. It’s known that they are dead because inshore fish-eating populations of Orca (known as the Northern and Southern “Residents”) stay with their families (matrilines) their entire lives. So, when truly missing from their family, they are known to be dead. (There are two notable exceptions – the calves Springer and Luna). The daughters do sometimes split off with their offspring and this appears to be related to availability of Chinook i.e. reduced prey availability appears to be a catalyst for matriline splitting (Stredulinsky, 2016).

Below is a photo of my beat-up old catalogue showing the A30 family composition back in 1999. This version of the ID catalogue was by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Ken Balcomb who continued the work begun by the late Dr. Michael Bigg in 1973 to study Orca as individuals. That work continues to this day, whereby the Orca off the coast of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other whale populations.

My having the privilege to learn from Orca began in 1999 as a naturalist, and so much was learned from the A30s.

 

I share the image of the tattered page to give a sense of how often I used this resource because this family was so frequently in the Johnstone Strait area – A30, her sons, daughters and grand-calves – always together. They are “the A30s”.

The families are named for the eldest female*. Orca females can live well beyond their reproductive years e.g. A30 lived to approximately age 64 but she was only reproductive to age ~40.  It is believed the post-reproductive females are the teachers and decision-makers and hence, this is why the families are named for them. The rationale is that, if females live longer than they can have babies (thereby no longer directly contributing to the bank of their family’s DNA), they must be doing something so important that they are indirectly benefitting the DNA of their kin e.g. teaching mothering skills and how and where to hunt. They also share food with their family. These activities would be of benefit by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate, thereby passing on the family’s genes.

Mothers sharing food with their sons in particular would enhance the chances of the family’s DNA getting passed on i.e. big, strong boys might have more luck with the ladies (Wright et al, 2016).

The sons’ reliance on their mothers appears to be so strong, that research has found that they have a greater chance of dying if their mother dies. From Foster, 2012: “For a male whale over 30, a mother’s death meant he was 14 times more likely to die within the year. For his female counterparts, a mother’s death only boosted the risk of death by just under three-fold. And daughters under 30 saw no change to their survival rate when they lost their moms.”

Indeed, Pointer died within the year after Tsitika died. His older brother Blackney (A38) died ~4 years after she died. Big brother “Strider” had already gone missing in 1999.

 

Mother and son, Tsitika and Pointer in 1999. ©Jackie Hildering. 

 

What made me take pause today however was not this science, at least not directly.

That image of mother of son, of Tsitika and Pointer, so often side-by-side for those many years, it triggered in me the knowledge that it is through these whales that I have come to a much deeper understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of this coast. It has been pivotal in how I live my life and essential in my evolution into becoming a Humpback researcher.

Through the extraordinary privilege of learning to recognize whales as individuals, I have broken free of thinking of whales as populations; as numbers of animals. Whales are not randomly moving / blundering along our coast. Their culture has been passed on through generations.

A30’s ancestors would have pursued the same runs of salmon (and rubbed on the rocks of the same beaches). Let me emphasize this. The same lineages of Orca have been following the same runs of salmon spawning in the rivers of their birth . . . generation . . . upon generation . . . upon generation . . . upon generation.

A30 came here as a calf with her mother, A2 (Nicola). Her daughters A50 (Clio) and A54 (Blinkhorn) continue to come into the area with their offspring and grand-offspring, in search of salmon (with their greatest reliance being on Chinook). Once the salmon have spawned, they are far less likely to be in the area.

A30 and A34 matrilines near the Bere Point rubbing beaches in 2016. In the foreground, Cedar (A75, born in 2002). She is A30’s granddaughter and a mother herself. ©Jackie Hildering. 

 

I have come to better understand the longevity of these lineages. Not all rivers are the same to salmon. Not all salmon are the same to Orca. And not all Orca should be perceived to be the same by we humans.

Too many of us don’t even know that there are different kinds of Orca off our coast with different diets, languages, histories and relationships. All are at risk and no, they really will not mate with one another nor will they switch their diet (see below for information on the four BC Orca populations).

Too many of our children know more about kangaroos and elephants than they do about the whales off our shores.

This absence of knowledge is very problematic – for the whales and for the ecosystem upon which our lives also depend. One of the most powerful lessons learned from Orca is how very wrong we can be (having vilified them, presumed them to be abundant, shot at them, put them into captivity, etc) BUT how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear.

We could learn so much about our sense of place through the whales’ sense of place.

We would do so much better by respecting those whose lineages and cultures date back 1000s of years.

And, understanding the whales of the past, would certainly help us with our futures.

 

*The A30 matriline is now comprised of sisters A50 and A54, their offspring and grand-offspring. Note that the matriline is still referenced as “the A30s” because there are two surviving daughters. Were a mother to die and there was only one surviving daughter and her offspring, the matriline would then be named for that daughter e.g. the A12s are now the A34s. See this link. But when there is more than one surviving daughter; only surviving sons; or son(s) and daughters(s), the matriline retains the name of the deceased mother. (Clear as mud right? 🙂 ) Source: BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.

 


Northern “Resident” Quick Facts:

  • N. Resident population; ~302 whales (2018); threatened population.
  • There are 4 populations of Killer Whales / Orca off the coast of British Columbia. They do not mate with one another, having distinct cultures.
  • In addition to the N. Residents, the other 3 populations of Orca off the coast of British Columbia are the “Southern Residents” (also inshore fish-eaters; endangered population of 73 whales, August 2019); mammal-eating Bigg’s Killer Whales (aka Transients, threatened population) and offshore fish-eating “Offshores” (threatened population whose diet includes sharks).
  • “Resident” type Orca do not stay in one area as the name suggests. They are inshore fish-eating Orca. They are highly reliant on salmon, especially Chinook. Thereby, matrilines are more predictably sighted when salmon are spawning i.e. predictable salmon returning to the rivers of their birth = predictable predators following them.
  • Residents stay with their mothers, siblings and offspring their whole lives. The families are known as matrilines. They share their catches.
  • Mating happens when different N. Resident matrilines come together IF they are not closely related. Each matriline of N. Residents sounds different; aiding in determining degree of relatedness and avoiding inbreeding. Ultimately, males leave with their family and females leave with theirs. The calves are of course raised by their mothers who nurse them. Nobody leaves to mate.
  • Only the N. Residents (and a few families of resident type Orca in Alaska) have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for video and information on beach-rubbing.

Please see previous blogs for further detail:


Sources:

Enough Carbon Monoxide to Kill a Chicken ?

If you live on the West Coast, you may have heard someone say . . .   “There’s enough carbon monoxide (CO) in Bull Kelp to kill a chicken”.

Recently, while teaching a marine naturalist workshop, I was asked if this was true. And oh what a rabbit hole this took me on, leading not only to chickens, but elephants! Actually, just one elephant but it’s a whole menagerie of facts. You’ll see.

I knew that carbon monoxide is a byproduct of respiration in some brown algae like Bull Kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana). I also knew that carbon monoxide is one of the gases found in the float-like structure called the “pneumatocyst”, keeping the kelp buoyant so that the fronds can better photosynthesize, nearer to the sun. The stem-like structure, the stipe, is also hollow and directly connected to the pneumatocyst and, thereby, must contain some carbon monoxide too.

However, I had never checked if the amount of carbon monoxide could indeed be measured by the official scientific unit of “chicken killer”.

The fact-finding mission took me all the way back to 1917 and the research of Seth Langdon who discovered that there was carbon monoxide in Bull Kelp and then exposed the concentration to various animals. And yes, he killed chickens. So it’s true.

But it gets even more interesting.

Bull Kelp float (pneumatocyst) and fronds. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Jump ahead to 2013 and the Masters thesis of Lauran Liggen. How thrilled I was to learn from her work that, not only is there enough carbon monoxide in Bull Kelp to kill a chicken – there’s enough to kill an adult man (don’t worry, she did not use Langdon’s lethal methods to prove this).

Specifically from her research: ” Earth’s atmosphere contains only a small amount of CO (~0.000025%) whereas pneumatocysts contain an average concentration of 1.6%  . . .  A study conducted by Landgon (1917) determined whether or not the concentration of CO was at a toxic level by exposing pneumatocyst gases to animals and measuring their physiological effects. Subsequently, the statement familiar to most phycologists [cool people who study algae], that the pneumatocysts of Nereocystis have enough CO “to kill a chicken” was a product of Langdon (1917). Without harming any animals, data collected during this study can further support this statement. 1.6% CO is a potentially toxic amount given that concentrations of CO greater than 100 ppm (0.01%) could kill or render a person unconscious (Suner et al. 2008). Given that an average adult male has a lung capacity of 5800 ml and the largest recorded pneumatocyst in this study (725 ml) had a CO concentration of 1.6%, if an average sized man inhaled the gas inside the largest sampled pneumatocyst, then in one breath he would ingest 1500 ppm of CO, 15-times greater than the maximum concentration a person could tolerate before passing out.”

Wow. Just wow. That’s a lot more than one chicken.

 

So where does the elephant come in? 

While trying to source the chicken and Bull Kelp story, I came across the following about Bull Kelp in the book “Pacific Seaweeds” by super phycologists, Louis Druehl and Bridgette Clarkston: “Ronald E. Foreman, in pursuit of his PhD (University of California, Berkley, 1970), discovered that the float, which may have a volume of up to 3 litres . . . has carbon monoxide, an infamous poison as one of its buoyancy gases. Some years ago LD [Louis Druehl] had the opportunity to test the herbivore’s ability to detect the kelp-packaged carbon monoxide. While teaching a seaweed course for the University of Alaska, [he] shared an apartment complex with Bo, a circus elephant [say WHAT?!] and once presented Bo with an entire fresh bull kelp. Bo’s response was to yank the plant from [his] hands (poor table manners) and eat the blades. Then, to Louis Druehl’s surprise, Bo stomped on the float, releasing the gas before he ate it. Does this behaviour suggest elephants once lived in association with kelp and learned to avoid the poisonous gas?”

Let me answer that. No! This is a sample size of ONE with a circus elephant who lived in an apartment complex in Alaska. This may not have been the wildest of elephants but possibly a pretty wild apartment complex. 🙂

Can’t make this stuff up and it’s great to be able to report that naturalists didn’t. Those who have been saying “Bull Kelp is kept afloat with enough carbon monoxide to kill a chicken” are right. In fact, they’ve been low-balling the amount. (I would suggest that there is more valuable messaging around Bull Kelp and its great importance as habitat, fuel for the food web, oxygen production and carbon dioxide absorption.)

And once again, with this blog, I feel like I have fulfilled part of my calling by providing essential, factual, life-enhancing information. In this case, involving kelp, chickens and an elephant named Bo.

You’re welcome.

 

Note: The genus for Bull Kelp, “Nereocystis”, is Greek  for “mermaid’s bladder”.


For more on Bull Kelp, please see previous blog “Journey Through Kelp” at this link. 

Sources:

All photos in this blog ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Phenomenal Feather Stars

Phenomenal?  Yeah they are.

The lineage of “feather stars” (members of the crinoid class) goes back 485 million years, give or take a million. They crawl around. They swim in the most extraordinary way. You’ll see. 🙂

Another non-scientific name used for feather stars is “sea lilies” but I avoid that. As pretty as the name is, I believe it adds to confusion. These are animals, not plants. They are echinoderms, relatives to sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Also “sea lily” is a name more often used for the crinoid relatives that have a stalk into adulthood. Only juvenile feather stars have a stalk. Then, get this . . .  they detach and crawl down their own stalk to perch directly on the bottom! (Source: A Snail’s Odyssey). See below.

 

 

There are many feather star species in the world but the detail here is about the species commonly found in shallow water off the coast of British Columbia – Florometra serratissima (range is from the Aleutian Islands to Baja California).

Feather stars have 5 feathery arms that split to form 10 or more arm branches that are used to gather bits of organic matter (snacks) out of the water. With arm’s outreached, Florometra serratissima is up to 25 cm wide and they are up to 31 cm tall. Feather stars also use their arms to swim as recently captured in this video by dive buddy, Brenda Irving. They swim as if “walking up an invisible staircase” (quote from Lamb and Handby).

Phenomenal – right?

The following detail on their locomotion is largely compiled from the brilliant resourceA Snail’s Odyssey by Tom Carefoot, Professor Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia.



How do they swim? 

“Florometra serratissima is the only swimming species of crinoid on the west coast of North America. It swims by graceful undulation of its arms in 3 sets, each set moving successively but overlapping. Thus, while about one-third of the arms are in power stroke, another third are in recovery, and the last third somewhere in between. During the power stroke the arms extend out maximally for greatest frictional resistance, while during the recovery stroke they bend inwards to minimise resistance.”

“The sets comprise two triplets and one quadruplet, are their composition with respect to specific arms is invariable (see sequence below). In the scenario shown, swimming is initiated by the blue triplet making a downstroke, followed 1sec later by the green quadruplet, and 2 seconds later by the orange triplet. An entire sequence is completed, then, in about 3 seconds, and the pattern may be repeated for up to 30 seconds.” (Source: A Snail’s Odyssey).

After several strokes to move vertically (to a mean height of 29 cm at an average speed of 5.4 cm/sec), individuals often turn 90 degrees and swim horizontally. If there is current, they will swim with the current. Horizontal swimming is achieved by the 5 arms furthest away from the bottom making stronger downward pulses than the arms closest to the bottom. (Source: Shaw and Fontaine. See Figure 3 at this link if you wish to better understand the horizontal movement).

Swim speed was found to occur in “short, repeatable bursts of 10 to 30 seconds. Continuous swimming beyond 4 minutes provokes a refractory period lasting 5 to 17 minutes during which individuals are incapable of swimming.” (Source: Shaw and Fontaine).

Feather stars end up back on the ocean bottom by stopping movement, and then “parachuting” down (as can be seen at the end of the video above).

Swimming and crawling can be stimulated by current and touch from predators such as Sunflower Stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) and crabs. Research supports that if touched by a Sunflower Star, there is about a 5 second delay followed by “several power strokes carrying the stimulated individual 1 to 3 metres away.  This cycle can be repeated several times and capture by a sea star is actually thought to be rare.” (Source: A Snail’s Odyssey).

Particles of food are captured by the pinnules, moved by tube feet and cilia and form a bolus, which is moved down a “food grove” toward the mouth. This delicate looking animal has to be strong enough to be in high current areas as that’s where the feeding is good. The cirri hold on to surfaces and allow the Feather Star to crawl. ©2019 Jackie Hildering.


Yes, they also crawl! 

Crawling has been found to be feather stars’ main means of getting around with swimming being only in response to a predator or touch.

“Stalkless crinoids such as Florometra serratissima anchor to the substratum [ocean bottom] using flexible cirri [these have been described as holding on like bird’s feet do]. The cirri are jointed and can slowly bend and straighten. . . . ” (Source: A Snail’s Odyssey).

The arms are also involved in crawling around. The 10 arms attach to the bottom with small hooks, the central part of the feather star’s body (the calyx and cirri) is lifted. “The arms then contract and extend on opposite sides of the body, which moves it in one direction or the other. Repetition of this behaviour will gradually move the individual to a new location.” (Source: A Snail’s Odyssey)


What a remarkable species with relatives dating back 485 million years and defences including: (1) being able to regenerate arms; (2) having a body that has little nutritional content, is hard, and may taste bad AND; (3) is strong enough to withstand the current that delivers snacks, but light enough to allow swimming as an escape response.

 

Above: Feather star near Telegraph Cove at about 10 m depth. Species reported to be from 10 to 1252 m. Believe this to be a female! From A Snail’s Odyssey: “Studies on feather stars Florometra serratissima at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, British Columbia mostly have separate sexes, but a small percentage is hermaphroditic. Breeding is continuous throughout most of the year and “dribble” spawning is the norm. Gonads appear as swellings on special pinnules of the arms, known as genital pinnules. Genital pinnules occur on all 10 arms, but concentrate in the lower third of each arm. Male individuals can be recognised by the creamy white colour of their genital pinnules, and females by pink or orange-coloured pinnules.” More detail on reproduction of feather stars at this link. Photo ©2019 Jackie Hildering.

Above: This remarkable photo by Neil McDaniel shows an individual with eggs (orange) and allows you to see the incredible fine details of the “feathers” – the pinnules of Florometra serratissima. 

Above: Another fantastic capture by Neil McDaniel.  Florometra serratissima climbing down his/her stalk to live an an adult, moving around on its cirri and swimming.

Round Lipped Boot Sponge (1 m tall) near Powell River, festooned with feather stars (Florometra serratissima). Also, see the juvenile Giant Sea Cucumbers?

 

Feather stars at the same site as the individual in the video – the Knight Inlet Sill. Animals to the right are brachipods. ©2019 Jackie Hildering.

 

Above: Dive buddy, Brenda Irving, just before taking the video above. Here with the coral Primnoa pacifica which is usually found at great depth but the upwellings at this site in Knight Inlet lead to it occurring much shallower too, up to ~15 m. The animals on the coral in this image are Orange Hermit Crabs. Detail on this species of coral and this extraordinary site can be read at “A Proposal to Create a Marine Refuge at the Knight Inlet Sill, British Columbia to Protect Unique Gorgonian Coral Habitat” by Neil McDaniel. Click here.


Sources: