The 3.5-year voyage to the furthest corners of the globe reshaped marine science and permanently changed our relationship with the planet’s oceans.
In the foyer of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England, stands a ship’s painted figurehead. It towers well above head height and depicts an armoured knight with a silver chest plate, a raised visor and a thick handlebar moustache. The knight’s eyes have a faraway gaze in them – and well they might. This wooden statue is the sole remnant of a square-rigged ship that once embarked on a three-and-a-half-year voyage to the furthest corners of the globe, reshaping marine science, unearthing all manner of underwater oddities and permanently changing our relationship with the planet’s oceans. The vessel’s name was HMS Challenger. Continue reading
Plastics have transformed every aspect of our lives. Yet the very properties that make them attractive—they are cheap to make, light, and durable—spell disaster when trash makes its way into the environment. Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution is a beautifully-illustrated survey of the plastics clogging our seas, their impacts on wildlife and people around the world, and inspirational initiatives designed to tackle the problem.
In Plastic Soup, Michiel Roscam Abbing of the Plastic Soup Foundation reveals the scope of the issue: plastic trash now lurks on every corner of the planet. With striking photography and graphics, Plastic Soup brings this challenge to brilliant life for readers. Yet it also sends a message of hope; although the scale of the problem is massive, so is the dedication of activists working to check it. Plastic Soup highlights a diverse array of projects to curb plastic waste and raise awareness, from plastic-free grocery stores to innovative laws and art installations.
According to some estimates, if we continue on our current path, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050. Created to inform and inspire readers, Plastic Soup is a critical tool in the fight to reverse this trend.
Whales and other charismatic marine megafauna are frequently in the news related to discoveries of their mysterious navigational or communication skills, or with bad news about the negative impacts of ocean acidification or other human interaction. It never occurred to us how the decomposing carcass of something that immense can be a biological gift to marine systems that could last centuries.
On the day before Thanksgiving, 2011, Greg Rouse, a trim marine biologist in his fifties, was tidying his lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California. Rouse studies the worms and other small animals that inhabit the deep sea. He was organizing his microscopes, dissection supplies, and jars of deep-sea critters when he received a long-anticipated e-mail.
In the late two-thousands, Rouse and Eddie Kisfaludy, then an operations manager for Virgin Oceanic, had begun meeting with officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the city of San Diego to pitch an alternative approach to the disposal of dead whales. Often, whales that wash up on shore are hauled to landfills or pushed back into the water. Rouse and Kisfaludy wanted to tow one out to sea, sink it to the seafloor, and watch what happened. Whale falls, as marine biologists call such events, create pop-up habitats that may serve as stepping stones for organisms migrating from methane seeps or hydrothermal vents to other parts of the ocean. Precisely how this works, and which species colonize the carcass as it degrades, were open questions that Rouse hoped to answer.
In the e-mail, a biologist from NOAA wrote that a large female fin whale had washed ashore four days previously, on the rocky beach at Point Loma, just west of downtown San Diego. The NOAA team had already moved the carcass to the protected beaches of Mission Bay and performed a necropsy, concluding that the whale had been hit by a ship. Now they were ready to hand it over to Rouse: if he could mobilize the necessary resources on short notice, the whale was his to sink.
Rouse quickly met up with Kisfaludy to strategize. They needed a boat big enough to tow a sixty-foot, twenty-three-ton whale, so Kisfaludy leaned on a Newport-based friend, Chris Welch, for the use of his large catamaran. To sink the carcass, they sourced five tons of rusty chains from Newport Harbor and another two tons of iron shackles from the Scripps scrap yard, in San Diego.
On Thanksgiving morning, Welch set out in his catamaran—rusty chains on board—and sailed south. The next day, he met up with Rouse, Kisfaludy, and a growing group of intrigued friends at the dead whale. It rested on the sand, immovable. At high tide, however, the carcass began to float, and the team made its move. They tied seven ropes around the whale’s tail and sailed west. Several hours passed. The weather was crisp and sunny, and there was little boat traffic. To Rouse’s surprise, the whale had attracted no scavengers, despite its exposed rolls of dark purple muscle draped in white, translucent fat. The team began to consider names for the whale. Someone suggested Rosebud, and it stuck. Continue reading
The United Nations Ocean Conference is underway to support the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
The importance of collaboration between public and private sectors to brainstorm innovative solutions to environmental issues is becoming increasingly clear, as is the reality that states and local governments will be the stronger voices for climate activism.
The health of the planet and our oceans are interchangeable, and Sylvia Earle has been the spokesperson for that truth for decades.
Take the extra 18+ minutes to listen to her 2009 TED Prize Talk here.
Thanks to James Fitzsimons and The Nature Conservancy’s Australia program for this one:
BY JUSTINE E. HAUSHEER
Australia has one the largest systems of marine protected areas in the world, from the coral-covered Great Barrier Reef to the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island. Now, a new book details the lessons learned by Australian scientists, policymakers, and communities during more than 130 years of marine conservation.
The book — Big, Bold & Blue: Lessons from Australia’s Marine Protected Areas — gathers lessons learned from academia, government, NGOs, indigenous communities, and the fishing sector. Continue reading
Thanks to Audubon Magazine for their coverage of this news:
A new federal leasing plan released today outlines where energy companies can look for oil while protecting vital bird habitat.
by Martha Harbison
After months of deliberations, the Bureau of Ocean Management announced its final five-year plan for offshore energy-exploration leases today. In that plan, no drilling leases would be available in U.S.-held Arctic and Atlantic waters from 2017 to 2022, meaning that no new drilling could happen in those areas until at least 2022. Continue reading
Nature Conservancy’s blog,
By Lisa Feldkamp
Traditional methods of gathering fisheries data can take as long as one or two years, costing time and money that many imperiled global fisheries don’t have.Enter FishFace, a new application under development by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Refind Technologies. Similar to facial recognition software used to identify people, FishFace uses artificial intelligence to learn to recognize fish species in photographs. Continue reading
We are happy to see the Antiquities Act again proving so useful, so soon (the clock is ticking):
During the Our Ocean conference later this morning in Washington, D.C., President Obama will establish the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean.
The area of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is the size of Connecticut and has been called an “underwater Yellowstone” and “a deep sea Serengeti.” Continue reading
Sunscreen helps protect us from harmful sun rays, especially during the summer months when we habitually frequent the beach and enjoy the undulating caress of rolling waves. What we don’t usually take into account, however, is the impact that our “protective” sunscreen has on marine life, specifically coral reefs. Studies have shown that ingredients in sunscreen, such as oxybenzone for example, leach the coral of its nutrients and bleach it white. This not only kills the coral but also disrupts the development of fish and other wildlife.
Chemical compounds in sunscreen lotions cause irreparable damage to reefs, which are crucial to the livelihoods of 500 million people in the tropics, scientist and policymakers said at the IUCN World Conservation Congress on 3 September. Hawaii is leading a legislative effort to ban the use of sunscreen that contains oxybenzone or similar harmful agents at its beaches. Continue reading
Almost fifteen percent of the Earth’s land is enclosed in national parks or other protected areas, which accounts for approximately 20 million sq km. This figure is close to an internationally agreed goal to protect 17 percent of the land surface by 2020. Comparatively, ocean conservation only accounts for 4 percent of total surface of the ocean, covering 15 million sq km. In spite of these statistics – which reflect a positive outcome of the increased attention and importance given to land and ocean conservation – there are concerns over how well these areas are managed and whether they effectively protect endangered species, as Seth wrote a few days ago.
A progress report by the UN Environment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) warns that some of the most biodiverse ecosystems are not being protected and that the management of many protected areas is deficient.
Less than 20% of areas considered crucial hubs for species are fully protected, the report states, with countries routinely failing to assess the effectiveness of their national parks nor provide wildlife corridors that allow animals to roam between protected areas.
Sea snakes are interesting creatures, and we’ve written about them before, both as heat-stealers in an article on kleptothermy and as victims of uncontrolled fishing for “medicinal” purposes in the Gulf of Thailand. Science writer Ed Yong discusses one particular species of sea snake that lives so permanently in the Pacific ocean that it barely gets to drink fresh water, apart from what it skims off the ocean surface during rains:
If someone asked you to think about a global animal that has spread over much of the earth, you’ll probably think of something like the brown rat, the rock pigeon, or us humans. You probably won’t think about the yellow-bellied sea snake.
It’s a striking animal—two to three feet in length, with a black back and yellow belly. And it is extraordinarily far-ranging for a snake. It lives throughout the Pacific Ocean, which is already more area than all the continents combined, and the Indian Ocean too. Of all the tetrapods—the animal group that includes mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians—this little-known snake is one of the most abundant and widespread.
Plastic polluting the oceans of the world is something we don’t like to report on, but do anyway, since it’s such a widespread and high-impact issue. Below, Lew Blaustein of GreenSportsBlog interviews the Ocean Conservancy’s Director of Trash-free Seas, Nick Mallos. The Ocean Conservancy works toward science-based efforts to protect the ocean and its wildlife, as well as human communities that rely on healthy marine ecosystems.
GreenSportsBlog: Director of Trash Free Seas. That is one cool job title. How did you get to the Ocean Conservancy and the “Trash Man” moniker?
Nick Mallos: I’ve been working on trash in the ocean for the better part of a decade, with the last six years at Ocean Conservancy so “Trash Man” seems to fit perfectly. Before that, while at Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA), where I earned a BS in Biology and Marine Science, I spent a semester in the Caribbean to study lemon sharks. While on the Island of South Caicos, I saw that massive amounts of trash and plastics were washing ashore on its north side. This got me interested in marine debris and what was needed to do to remove it.
We’ve posted about them before, but did you know that horseshoe crab blood is not only a powder blue color, but also is used in the medical industry to detect any trace of bacterial contamination in humans, even if that infection is only one part per trillion? And that they are more closely related to scorpions than true crabs? Or that they’ve been having the longest-running mass-breeding efforts on the planet, given that they haven’t changed much in hundreds of millions of years? Marah Hardt writes for The Nature Conservancy on the importance of these crawling Chelicerates to their ecosystem:
The lapping waves and silent dunes of the Delaware Bay shoreline create a perfect backdrop for a moonlit summer stroll. But a few weeks ago, this beach was not nearly so quiet. Instead, the silver light of the full moon shone upon jostling crowds of horseshoe crabs.
“If the crabs were rocks,” says Moses Katkowski, marine conservation coordinator with The Nature Conservancy, “you could walk on their backs the entire stretch of beach and never touch the sand.”
A few weeks ago I wrote about the dawn rays at Villa del Faro, when I saw the jumping fish coming out of the water and slap down in almost-graceful belly flops. I finally got a little footage of the interesting behavior in the video above, and I found an article from BBC Earth that covers the topic – in the Gulf of California, no less – while still not providing an explanation for why the rays jump like they do:
Soaring high above the waves as easily as a bird, mobula rays appear perfectly designed for this astonishing aerobatic display.
You don’t have to be a romantic to appreciate the underwater rainbow canvas that is a coral reef and marvel at the fact that these organisms have been spotted exchanging an underwater embrace, a behavior researchers have termed “polyp kissing.”
A first-of-its-kind underwater microscope that can observe coral polyps at resolutions of up to 2 micrometers while still remaining a safe distance away allowed marine biologists to watch coral behavior in real time. Not only did they see two species of coral fighting for territory (a previously observed behavior), but also two corals entwine their gastrovascular openings in the act of “polyp kissing” (a previously unknown behavior). Continue reading
Last time we mentioned sea turtles it was also in the context of protecting them from poaching. These threatened ocean species lay eggs on public beaches and certain people enjoy eating those eggs, or even the turtle meat itself. Thanks to a great project by USAID called the Wildlife Tech Challenge, there will soon be a potential means to tracking where poachers are selling the illegal turtle eggs, as Jeremy Hance reports:
“Every year millions of sea turtle eggs are taken by poachers for sale on the black market. Paso Pacifico’s solution has the potential to reveal the trade routes and destination markets for trafficked sea turtle eggs,” the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said.
The USAID recently awarded Paso Pacifico $10,000 for its idea through their Wildlife Tech Challenge, a contest to tackle wildlife trafficking through technological innovation. The Wildlife Tech Challenge is also supported by the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC.
The shore down below Villa del Faro is known as Boca del Tule, since the Tule arroyo –– a seasonal river in the desert –– runs into the ocean at that point (boca means mouth in Spanish). The beach is public but very few people are ever on it, partly because we’re an hour away from the closest city, San José del Cabo, via dirt road. Now and then you’ll see a couple fishermen, or if the waves are good, some surfers. Last week, Jocelyn and I tried surfing both here at Boca del Tule and also at a better-known surfing beach just twenty minutes south called Nine Palms.
Both spots offered fair surfing for either experienced or newbie surfers, since Continue reading
From the Harvard Gazette, an article by Colleen Walsh on the environmental damage and lack of success in general from manmade seawalls:
For years coastal homeowners have tried to beat back Mother Nature with seawalls, imposing structures of wood and/or concrete intended to fend off angry tides and surging storms. But emerging research suggests that in some areas, biological barriers both better protect against erosion and preserve vital ocean habitats.
Not only have seawalls in certain areas been shown repeatedly to fail when tested, but they pose a threat to the delicate ecosystems associated with wetlands and intertidal areas, Rachel Gittman, a postdoctoral research associate at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, said during a talk at Radcliffe on Thursday. Instead of absorbing energy generated by wind and waves, seawalls reflect that force back into the water, said Gittman, further eroding the shore and erasing important habitats for fish, crabs, and shore birds.
We’ve posted about microplastics before, since they are becoming a problem for oceans’ health. They can be found in sea salts and all over our shores, but also in fish, where the tiny particles stunt growth and alter the behavior of some species that ingest the plastics. Fiona Harvey reports for The Guardian:
Fish are being killed, and prevented from reaching maturity, by the litter of plastic particles finding their way into the world’s oceans, new research has proved.
Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce.
The growing problem of microplastics – tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry – has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.
Ocean health matters to us, and the state of our corals is one of the most at-risk elements of marine ecosystems. So many species depend on coastal communities of these strange lifeforms, and with acidification and pollution of sea waters, the reefs are in danger of slowly but surely dying out. Thankfully, there are efforts underway to conserve coral in an unusual way – freezing and storing their sperm. Julie Liebach reports for Science Friday:
You’ve heard of seed banks—precious vaults that keep plant genetic material frozen for posterity’s sake. But what about coral banks?
For more than a decade, marine biologist Mary Hagedorn has been cultivating the art of carefully freezing coral sperm through a process known as cryopreservation. Her goal is to bank as many species as possible for use in future research and restoration, and to train other scientists to follow her lead.