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

Slugs that Fly? The Great Winged Sea Slug.

Here’s a species that deserves the descriptor “Great” without doubt – the GREAT Winged Sea Slug.

I will never forget the first time I saw one of these tiny sea slugs “flying” underwater.  My brain came close to exploding. I did not know of their existence prior to one flapping past my mask.

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson pointing at a Great Winged Sea Slug.

 

Gastropteron pacificum is usually no bigger than your thumbnail. Maximum length is ~2 cm long and with “wingspan” to 4 cm. The species is also referenced as the Pacific Wingfoot Snail and the Pacific Batwing Sea Slug. But, as mentioned, I prefer the reference to their greatness.

Just marvel at how they can propel themselves, as captured in this video.

 

I will ALSO never forget the first time I saw them spawning, so many of them on the sandy ocean floor, their egg masses expanding to be bigger than they are.

I try to document this every year, looking in areas with sand in from late March into May. I have found them, and their eggs, as shallow as 2m depth.

And sure enough, on March 31st, there they were again. They are gathering to mate!

March 31, 2020 – “Beach Camp” near Port McNeill at only about 3m depth.

 

The photos below show you what the peak of the spawn looks like. Photos are from May 26th, 2019. Just look at the number of them! How do they find one another? How many eggs in an egg mass? So many questions!

 

I bet you also want to know how it can be that their masses of fertilized eggs are bigger than the sea slugs themselves. I presume the masses must expand with seawater but  .  . .  I do not know.

As is the case for most terrestrial and sea slugs, Great Winged Sea Slugs are simultaneous hermaphrodites whereby both parents become inseminated and lay eggs. It’s a great strategy to maximize chances of reproductive success when finding a mate is particularly challenging and your babies hatch into the planktonic soup of the ocean.

 

Among my many wonderings about this species is: Why have I never seen Great Winged Sea Slugs swimming during the time they are aggregating to mate?  I learned from research by Claudia Mills in Friday Harbour (published in 1994), that only sexually mature animals swim AND that they were only observed doing so between September and February i.e. not while mating.

Why swim? In may work well to escape annoying divers and/or bottom feeding fish like Ratfish. The timing suggests that it allows for population dispersal – spreading out for food and/or mates. You would think that the fact that hatch as plankton would spread them out enough. Also, HOW do they then assemble in numbers like this? Is it possible that these sea slugs smell one another’s scent trails even in the ocean?

You can see faint trails here.

 

Please know that this species IS a sea slug but it is NOT a nudibranch. Great Winged Sea Slugs don’t have naked gills and adults do have an internal shell when adults. Great Winged Sea Slugs belong to the group of sea slugs known as “bubble shells” of the order “Cephalaspidea”. You can even see the bubble shell in some of these images.  Ronald Shimek creatively described these sea slugs as having “an internal shell that looks quite like a soap bubble and is about as durable.”

The wing-like structures are called parapodia. When the sea slug is not swimming, these “wings” wrap around the body forming a water-filled cavity. See what looks like a siphon? Part of the “head-shied” folds into a siphon directing water into the cavity. There’s also an exhalant siphon.

The photo above is from the first time I ever noted this species. I was able to follow one as it drifted to the bottom and then saw the siphon appear. This added to the sensation that my brain was going to explode with awe. I shared the photos with experts and learned that, at that time (2007) it was not known what any members of the family feed upon. This added to my appreciation / understanding of how little is known about marine species that are even common and in the shallows. Bill Rudman responded with “I suspect they may feed on small flatworms or other invertebrate with no hard parts – but that is just a guess.” Apparently Gastopteron are known to feed on detritus and diatoms but it a laboratory setting, To my knowledge, there has not been confirmation of the diet of the species when in the wild.

I hope, dear reader, that these words and images offer an additional chance to get lost in the natural world for a little bit. It offers me such comfort to see the steady flow of the natural world around me – from the courting of song birds, to the emergence of plants, and the mating of sea slugs.

Know that, right below the surface, there’s a world or greatness  .  .  . where slugs fly.

 


Note that if you see similar egg masses in the intertidal zone,I believe they are more likely to be from a similar species Diomedes’ Aglaja (Melanochlamys diomedea). It’s a fabulously wicked little sea slug that crawls under the sand looking for other sea slugs to snack on. I’ll blog about them another time. 🙂

Diomedes’ Aglaja crawling through the sand in the shallows.


Sources:

 

For an additional blog about another bubble shell sea slug in the NE Pacific Ocean see – “Shelled Sea Slug! A small mystery solved.”

Attempt at sea slug classification ©Jackie Hildering.


 

Preoccupied with Parasites

Preoccupied with parasites!

That’s not usually a good conversation starter is it?

But, read on. It’s worth it! If you are fascinated by adaptations and the interconnectedness of species . . . even when it involves parasites.

These are Transparent Tunicates (aka Transparent Sea Squirts). They are not parasites. They are highly evolved animals with a primitive backbone. They take in food particles through one siphon in their strong “tunic” and expel waste through the other siphon. See the siphons?

 

The dark you see here is the waste inside their rectums. Yep, they are filter feeders and clearly take in some sand too. What’s this then about parasites?

This species gets invaded by a wicked parasite (as opposed to all those gentle and meek parasites out there) . . . the Spotted Flatworm! This species of flatworm curls up, sneaks in through the tunicate’s branchial siphon, unrolls, eats the tunicate’s internal organs over 3 to 7 days and then moves on, leaving behind the empty tunic.

They are species specific parasites, apparently specializing in invading Transparent Tunicates. The following photos clearly show you the Spotted Flatworm presence there and the tunicates are now mere shells of their former selves.

All the internal organs are gone in the heavily invested individual in the photo below.

 

In having the privilege of learning even from individual animals by diving the same areas frequently. I recently saw the progression for individual Transparent Tunicates and the Spotted Flatworms that had invested them. The following photo is from March 1st, 2020. I’ve now added arrows to show the parasites.

The following two photos show you reality  24 days later. The originally invested Transparent Tunicates are dead and the Spotted Flatworms have moved into their neighbours.

Below is another perspective on the same individuals.

 

I truly hope that in these times where our own species is facing extreme challenges, that this information still creates awe, connection and respect for the lives of others. Maybe it’s more important than ever.

Wishing you health, resilience, and strength of community.

Transparent Tunicate = Corella willmeriana to 7.5 cm.
Spotted Flatworm = Eurylepta leoparda to 2.5 m.

Lessons Learned from Whales: Be a “Killer” Female

Three “disclaimers” before sharing one of the very valuable lessons I have learned from whales.
1) For the purposes of this blog, I am referencing the world’s biggest dolphin as both “Orca” and “Killer Whales”. Please know that “Orcinus orca” only camouflages our branding and past misunderstanding of the species as it roughly translates into “demon of the underworld”. Clearly the species did not name itself.

2) When referencing being a “killer” female it is as per this definition: Killer: adjective slang: highly effective; superior; cool; awesome; really badass. I do NOT want to playing into jokes about female rage, especially for those women going through menopause.

3) If you think you’ve read or heard similar content from me before, you’re right. I reference this lesson in presentations and I wrote a similar blog 10 years ago. I am reviving it for International Woman’s Day 2020. I am reviving it because this lesson is of even more value to me now that I am a decade older.


Now here goes . . .

The most valuable lessons I have learned about being female, I have learned from Killer Whales / Orca. For example, it is through my knowledge of these highly cultured whales that I know Nature’s plan for older females.

Let’s face it, human society does not generally help in this regard. As time etches lines into our interiors and exteriors – society does not tell us we are a-okay!  No, the general messaging is about loss, faded youth and endings. Firm up! Dye that hair! Want some Botox baby? We’re sweeping you aside, ‘cause you’re old!

Thank goodness I believe in Mother Nature.

One of my teachers – A12 aka “Scimitar”; born around 1941 and now passed away. She was a Northern Resident (inshore fish-eating) Orca who was the grand dame of the A12 matriline.

 

As I weather the physiological and psychological changes of age, I know there is purpose in all this. Humans and Killer Whales are among the very few animal species where females go through menopause; where they can live beyond their child-bearing years as “post-reproductive females”.

In the case of Killer Whale females, they can give birth between the ages of around 12 to 40 but can live to at least age 80 (life expectancy is not yet certain since Killer Whales have only been studied as individuals since 1973). Thereby, female Killer Whales may live almost twice as long as they have babies. On the face of it, this appears to violate one of Mama Nature’s great laws. That is, if you’re going to use our food, you better pass on our genes.

But Nature makes sense. Therefore, the role of post-reproductive females must be so valuable that it “justifies” their using the population’s resources.

Science in fact believes that the old female Killer Whales are the teachers and decision-makers. These grandmas, wizened by their years and the lessons of the generations before them, are believed to teach mothering skills; how and where to hunt; and they are known to share food, especially with their eldest son. These activities would benefit the population by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate . . . passing on shared genes. Since first posting this blog a decade ago, there has been further science published on this. Please see sources below.

The role of the older females has been acknowledged in science with the convention being that each family group of Killer Whales is named for the eldest female (e.g. the A12s). Also, the collective name for a group of Killer Whales is “matriline” which loosely translates into “follow your mother”.

Female Killer Whales have taught me that I am not less as I age but rather that there is teaching to be done and leadership to be embraced.

Never in the history of humankind have the females of our species had access to the resources we have now. It’s far from equality BUT imagine, imagine my sisters (and brothers) if instead of being manipulated by a paradigm that is aimed at making us feel less, we chose to be more. Think of how we could unite against inequality in its many forms.

Instead of absorbing, and perpetuating, disempowering messaging about being older, imagine a world where older woman rise into their potential. What a force that would be for the DNA of our kind – not distracted by what is not, but working for what will be.

These years are to be lived . . . as a killer female.

Another one of my teachers – A30 aka “Tsitika” with one of her sons, A39 “Pointer” in 1999.
©Jackie Hildering.


 

 

Photo by “:Sealives”.

Me. Age 56. Soon to be 57.

Where once I had rapid access to a brain full of facts, I now have intuition.

Where once I had 20/20 vision, the lenses of my eyes have become far less flexible but, I see more.

Where once I was rubbed raw by our society’s perceptions of success as a woman, I have (largely) found my way.

Where once I fought my body, I now have healed into gratitude for its strength and health; the life it lets me live and how it is the manifestation of the DNA of those before me.

Where once I was unlined, I am weathered. The lines are getting deeper and more abundant, revealing that as I age, I laugh more – openly and loudly – and hide my emotions far less.

Where once I felt I had to prove I could do it all alone, a gift of age has been to reach out to younger generations. Their skills and values helping me. My skills and values aimed at being in service to them.

#IWD2020 #EachforEqual

 


Research on menopause in Killer Whales 


Mystery Worm

The species of necklace-worm in the following two photos has, to my knowledge, not yet been identified by science. My latest sighting of it was yesterday.

I am sharing the images to illuminate anew how little we know even of species in the shallows.

I have only documented this species 3 times and in each case it has been in less than 8 metres / 25 feet  of water. Interestingly, it was near Proliferating Anemones in each case which makes me wonder if the might prey on them. I am perplexed too by the slime encasements evident in the second photo.

I believe it has also only been documented around the Plumper Islands area off NE Vancouver Island.

I have relayed the observations to polychaete worm experts.

 

To be clear, I did not discover the species. 

I have only found individuals of this necklace-worm that has previously been recognized by experts as being an unidentified species.

In Andy Lamb and Bernie Hanby’s “Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest”, it is species AN22. They state: “While diving the Plumper Islands near Port McNeill, BC, we found this mystery necklace-worm. Significant numbers of this small (5 cm / 2 in long) creature were crawling about in the open, completely exposed. Such behaviour would seem to invite predation. Unfortunately, without a specimen . . . accurate identification is not possible. Detailed examination of the palps, teeth, cirri (finger-like projections) and chaetae (bristles) are required for species determination . . . It looks diminutive, but this mysterious worm is actually large compared to most necklace-worms.” Further from their update on KnowBC; “Some interesting observations can be made, however. The tentacular cirri near the head are much longer than their dorsal counterparts in the middle of the body: the latter appear to be shorter than the worm’s body width. It is not clear, though, whether these cirri are annulated (ringed) or smooth. The specimen’s eyes are evident as are some sensory organs located just behind them. Intriguing features are the two faint but obvious transverse structures on each segment that appear to be ciliated (hairy).”

Oh and because truth, humility and self-mockery are virtues I try to stand for, know that I had no idea I had photographed the species yesterday. I only saw it when I was processing my photos of the Proliferating Anemones. There are good reasons I dive with a magnifying glass.

 

Below, please find photos of just a few of the other species of marine worm that I have photographed around NE Vancouver Island.

I am sharing these to add to the wonder of worms found in the NE Pacific Ocean.


#1 Windmill Bamboo Worm
Praxillura maculata to 25 cm long.

This species makes 6 to 12 “vanes”/spokes at the end of its protective tube and then strings a web-like net of mucus between to capture bits of food. After a time, the worm comes OUT of its tube and eats the mucus and food! Yep, it seines for its dinner! See this link for photos by Ronald Schmek of the worm coming out of its tube to harvest dinner.


#2 Basket-Top Spaghetti-Worm
Pista elongata to 21 cm long

The Basket-Top Spaghetti-Worm builds a tube AND A BASKET from bits of debris and extends its tentacles through the basket to feed. So little is known about it.

From Lamb and Hanby: “The lower part of the tube, where the worm resides, is coated with shell fragments and pebbles. Is the purpose of this extravagant tube solely to camouflage and protect the worm . . . or to increase its access to food? The worm extends its long tentacles through the basket to gather food particles selectively . . . The basket-top may also function as a sieve, filtering out particles brought by currents. Elevating the tube above the rocky substrate may provide the elongate, and tree-like branchia (gills), hidden in the basket, with a good supply of oxygenated water.”


#3 Calcarious Tubeworms 

There are a variety of Calcareous Tubeworms species in the NE Pacific Ocean. I believe those in the following photos are “Red-Trumpet Calcareous Tubeworms” (Serpula coumbiana to 6.5 cm long).  You’ve probably deduced that with that large surface area, they dust for plankton snacks with their crowns. These structures also allow the animals to respire.

See the trumpet-like structures (which need not be red as the common name suggests)? That is the “operculum”. It functions like a door that pulls closed after the tubeworm retracts. Thereby the worm is further protected in its hard, shell-like tube of a home

I am always thrilled when I succeed in photographing this species since, with any disturbance, the crown Immediately retracts as of result of they eye spots detecting the change in light / shadow.


#4 Jointed Three-Section Tubeworm
Spiochaetopterus costarum to 48 cm long

Jointed Three-Section Tubworms are filter feeders that create mucus bags inside their bodies through which water is passed due to the beating of cilia. As the water passes through the mucus, plankton and detritus particles are sieved out. The long polyps you see in my first photo below, remove the pellets and keep the opening of the worm clear. Notice how thin the worm is and therefore how spacious the tube it has constructed? The second photo shows you what the pellets look like. 

The nudibranch species in the first images is an Opalescent Nudibranch which is likely feeding on a species of hydroid on the outside of the worm’s tube.

The nudibranch species in the third and fourth photo is Himatina trophina which not only feeds on hydroids on the outside of the tube but also, as you can see, lays its egg ribbons there.


#5 Slime-Tube Feather Duster Worms
Myxicola infundibulum to 9 cm long

This species can also detect shadow and retreat into their mucus homes with lightning speed. All you then see is the jiggly jello-like top of their tubes. (Yes, it took me a long time to get a photo of them!) Where other marine tube-worms make a parchment or shell-like tube, worms of the Myxicola genus secrete themselves a mucus home. “Myxicola” in fact translates into “living in slime” so don’t name your child that . They suspension feed on plankton and other bits of organic bits with their funnel-like crowns ( = “radioles”).


#6 Feather Duster Tube-Worms

It is very easy to see why these are known as “feather duster” worms.  Their crowns have huge surface area to “dust” the ocean for food. They live in parchment tubes and feed on plankton with their bushy crowns.

The banded blue and purple ones with the thicker tubes are the Vancouver Feather-Duster (Eudistylia vancouveri to 25 cm long). The pink, grey and tan ones are Split-Branch Feather-Dusters (Schizobranchia insignis to 15.8 cm long). 

Vancouver Feather-Duster and Split-Branch Feather-Dusters. See the nudibranch egg mass under the biggest Plumose Anemone? Those are from a Monterey Dorid.

 

Split-Branch Feather-Dusters (Schizobranchia insignis to 15.8 cm long). 

 

Vancouver Feather-Duster (Eudistylia vancouveri to 25 cm long).


#7 Sea Nymphs / Nereidae Worms

There are more than 20 species of nereida worms in the NE Pacific Ocean and the one that I am asked about most often is the “Giant Pile Worm” (Alitta brandti). It is indeed giant at up to 1.5 long and causes wonder and confusion; even getting misidentified as being an eel instead of a worm.

The video below shows a male spawning at the surface.

 

Octopuses Shed Their Suckers!

So cool, so cool, SO COOL.

While I was diving today, I saw these structures, like large snowflakes drifting out of a crack between two rocks.

And I knew there had to be a Giant Pacific Octopus there BECAUSE this is the skin at the end of the octopus’ suckers.

Octopuses shed this skin periodically and, possibly, from all their suckers at the same time! The skin grows continuously.

With Giant Pacific Octopuses having about 2,000 suckers (up to ~2,240 in females and 2,140 in males), you can imagine how many of these were drifting out of its den as the octopus exhaled, causing an upward current.

This skin is referenced as the sucker lining or “chitinous cuticle” and you can deduce from the photo below how the skin being shed would be of varying sizes.

 

I could peer into the crack and see the octopus that was shedding but s/he was too deep into the den to be able to get a photo.

How wonderful it would be to be able to provide you video of an octopus shedding its suckers in the wild. But, not surprising, it is easier to capture this with octopuses in captivity.

Below is a video of a captive Giant Pacific Octopus named Marylyn shedding her sucker linings (Video source: Christie Rajcic, “Octopus Shedding Suckers”).

 

I hope this adds to your sense of wonder of our marine neighbours. It also provides a whole new association to the words “So long suckers!” 😉

It’s difficult to explain the joy it gives to not have disregarded these little white bits but to know they were a clue to where there was an octopus.

Oh, and if you enjoyed this, you definitely will want to benefit from my life-enhancing blog “How Octopuses Poo“.


For you super nerds (hello!), the cuticle covers the “infundibulum”. See images below from “A Snail’s Odyssey“.


Sources:

Better Vision in 2020

Hers’s an unlikely combination of introspection and natural history. It’s what results when you bring together a photo of a Giant Pacific Octopus’ eye with the bad word play of “2020 vision” regarding the new year.

Introspection: In a human lifetime, you don’t get to cross the threshold into all too many decades. Like many of you, it makes me take pause . . . wanting to understand where we are and how to move forward with focus. It’s what happens when you want to make sense of a world which appears to have increasing numbers of cartoon-character-like heads of state. It makes me think about the state of heads, and how to find one’s way without despondency, denial and inaction.

 

I write these words largely to solidify my resolve and vision in this decadal transition but share them here in the hopes that they may be of use to you.

Better vision for better futures:

  1. The paradigm: Realizing why there are forces in the world who would rather flirt with the health of future generations than undertake action that would benefit their own grandchildren. They are those who have benefited the most from lack of equality, fossil-fuel use, rampant consumerism, and use of disposables. Despite the enormity of their power, positive change is happening and in the death throes of the paradigm, the very nature of truth is being challenged. When one shouts loudly, it is not likely they are more correct. It is an attempt to drown out the truth. They are the spasmodic utterances of the entitled. The aims are confusion, distraction, discontent (just keep buying more little girl and happiness will be yours), despondency, overwhelm and (of course) the blunt tool of FEAR. The hope is that we shut down and not notice the steps forward toward a paradigm based on greater equality and sustainability.
  2. Less is more: These are words I have shared so often. Above a true level of need, using less is not about loss. It’s about gain. The more we steer away from the myth that owning more and/or bigger is best or that it equates to “success”, the more liberation we have from being enslaved to $. We do know where true happiness lies. It is where there is greater sense connection, health and time for who and what we love.  What a world it would be if more of us saw that gain and realized just how empowered we are to create change through our consumer and voter action. Using less fossil fuels, dangerous chemicals and disposables positively impacts so many socio-environmental issues.
  3. The way forward: You’ve seen it haven’t you? The uprising, the unblinking truth . . . the power of youth who know the way. How excited I am for power shifting further toward them, their technologies and lifestyles fuelled by values of equality and sustainability. In no way does that mean we stand idle and wait for them to be of the age to vote. For me it is to be in service of them, the next generation. It is to help others see the way, to know their place in nature, to know their power, to find their voice, and to shield them from despondency, and fear.  

And here’s the natural history and marine mystery bit relating to the photo of the octopus’ eye (note that she was in her den and that I used a zoom lens).

Octopus vision:

You see that the pupil’s shape is very different from ours. Their retina is very different too.

Octopuses and other cephalopods have only one kind of photoreceptor cell while we have rod cells and three types of cone cells allowing us to see in colour. So how can cephalopods discern colour when they have only one kind of light receptor in their eyes? And they must be able to discern differences in colour. Consider how they signal with colour and how they camouflage.

Research from 2016* puts forward that their uniquely shaped pupils act like prisms, scattering light into different wavelengths (chromatic aberration), rather than focussing the light into a beam onto the retina.  The hypothesis, tested with computer modelling, is that cephalopods can then focus the different wavelengths onto their retina separately by changing the distance between the lens and the retina, thereby separating the stimuli and discerning colour. Note that the sharpness of their vision is believed to be different for different wavelengths / colours.


There, I feel much better now. Bring on 2020.

Here’s to all the colour, marvellous mysteries, clear vision, and solid action ahead.

Happy New Year! 


*See research at www.pnas.org/content/113/29/8206.full

#2020vision
#TheWayForward
#OctopusEyes

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”, Facebook post November 8, 2019:
“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.”

TimesLive, November 7, 2019,  “Bok gees has even reached a beluga whale in the Arctic Circle“:
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.”

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

Good News Network; November 13, 2019; “Hope on Horizon for Escaped ‘Russian Spy Whale‘ After Video of Its Rugby Skills Goes Viral”
“Many conservationists have shunned the more recent viral video as a whimsical depiction of a grim situation—but its online fame has helped to create hope for Hvaldimir on the horizon . . .For the last three months, Advocates for Hvaldimir has been keeping track of the cetacean’s activity in order to make sure that he is faring well on his own. Regina Crosby, who is a co-founding member of the group, says they are now working with two other environmental groups to try to relocate Hvaldimir to a different oceanic region so he can potentially reintegrate with a pod of belugas for a better chance at survival . . .Crosby and Advocates for Hvaldimir have since begun collecting donations from the beluga’s internet fans in order to finance his relocation. Since the Norwegian government recently granted permission to the wildlife advocates to relocate the famous cetacean, they are now hoping to continue working with legislators to transport Hvaldimir this winter.”

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.