Science merges into art in new studies of biofluorescence, in
which researchers identify colorful marine creatures that glow in
the dark. Their ultimate goal is to figure out why.
Biofluorescence is essentially the “black light” effect, in
which organisms absorb a narrow frequency range of blue light and
transform it into other colors, such as green and red. In deep
water, blue is the only frequency of light that makes it
Until recently, there was no technology to capture images of
fluorescent fish in extremely low-light conditions. Artificial
light ruins the effect, and older low-light cameras were too bulky
to travel underwater. New cameras developed at Yale University
changed the ability of research divers to capture colorful images
of sea creatures and bring them back to the surface for further
study. So far, more than 180 biofluorescent fish species have been
David Gruber, John Sparks and others are trying to figure out if
there is a reason that some fish produce a glow. They would also
like to know which of the other creatures are able to see them in
the darkness. Check out the article in the journal
PLOS ONE published Jan. 8.
Gruber notes that camouflage fish — those able to blend in with
their surroundings in regular white light — are often those that
stand out brilliantly in fluorescent light. He speculates that fish
of the same species are better able to see them, offering
advantages in communication and mating. For the sake of these
glowing fish, it would be nice to learn that their predators cannot
spot them so easily.
The natural beauty of these fluorescent patterns is not
overlooked by Gruber and his associates.
“I just find a real serenity and beauty being on the reef at
night,” Gruber says in the first video on this page. “And now when
we add on this kind of fluorescent layer, it’s like being on
Last month, “Yale Environment 360” announced the winners of a
video contest with a focus on environmental themes. I found the
videos fascinating and very well done, although they may not fit my
normal definition of “amusing.” I think you’ll enjoy them.
“Yale Environment 360,” or
“E360” for short, is a thoughtful online publication published by
the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental studies. It is filled
with reports and opinions on many environmental issues.
Clicking the image on this page will take you to the
second-place winner in the contest, titled “A Red Dirt Town: An
Enduring Legacy Of Toxic Pollution in Southern Waters.” Producer
Spenser Gabin tells how the community of Anniston, Alabama, has
been forced to cope with a legacy of PCB pollution from a Monsanto
plant located upstream.
Gabin focuses on two main characters, Frank Chitwood, the Coosa
Riverkeeper, who is attempting to get the rivers and lakes posted
with warnings, and David Baker, a community activist who was one of
the first to begin cleanup at the Monsanto site. Baker’s brother,
who played in a PCB-contaminated area as a child, died at age 16
from cancer of the brain and lungs.
The winning video in the contest is
“Badru’s Story: Inside Africa’s Impenetrable Forest,” an
account of Badru Mugerwa, who manages a network of cameras to
document the loss of biodiversity and effects of climate change on
Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The film was produced
by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele.
The contest rules prevent the entrants from showing their videos
anywhere but on “E360” for at least 60 days, So I’m not able to
embed the videos at this time.
Contest judges included “E360″ editor Roger Cohn, “New Yorker”
writer and “E360″ contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary
filmmaker Thomas Lennon.
Another fascinating video produced for “E360″ is
“The Colorado River: Running Near Empty,” which takes
award-winning photographer Pete McBride back to his home area in
Colorado. From there, he follows the Colorado River until it runs
dry short of its historic delta in the Sea of Cortez.
“Raise the River or Move the Ocean” blog from earlier this
year? It featured Robert Redford and Will Ferrell feigning a debate
about the future of the Colorado River. I still get a laugh from
those videos, which manage to help educate us about the issue.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an
increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson,
a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has
been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.
Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been
on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly
over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which
has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to
come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the
whales than when operating from a research boat.
“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We
have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a
UAS (unmanned aircraft system).
Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to
study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their
populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on
the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote
In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to
test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed
Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a
high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and
still pictures, including those on this page. See also
One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale,
including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the
water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy,
underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to
Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John
Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance
Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females
who seemed to be pregnant.
They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those
animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that
they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however,
is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales
suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them
to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?
Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale
and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its
Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for
the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal
Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be
worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to
collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.
A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad
told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress
hormones, potential pathogens and other things.
“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build
individual health profiles and begin to understand when something
is going wrong,” Hanson said.
Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside
the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end.
Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces
from the water.
If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can
be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near
In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep
the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included
some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No
obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.
One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in
Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a
certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations
of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.
The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries
and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22
marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.
Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate
unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around
wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And
anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of
other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act
or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.
The GoPro action camera is the force behind hundreds of amazing
videos. Thanks to this unique camera, we have raced across the
land, soared into the sky and dove beneath the waves.
We have not only followed people closely as they’ve undertaken
wild adventures, we have traveled with a variety of animals through
their natural habitats. One of my favorite videos, shown first on
this page, includes some of the best animal shots taken by many
photographers and compiled by the producers of Tastes Like
The GoPro is no longer the only compact, rugged and mountable
high-definition camera around, but the name has become synonymous
with the type of videos I’d like to highlight today. The history of
the GoPro was the subject of an interesting “60
Minutes” segment, in which Anderson Cooper mentions
that the GoPro has been used again and again to capture video for
the television program.
If it’s action shots you like, check out the second video, a
compilation by GoPro, created as a promotion for its Hero3 camera.
If you’re like me, you will be intrigued by the time-lapse photos
in this video and transfixed by the action shots.
How about some more great animal shots? Of course, all these
videos should be viewed full-screen:
Jellyfish Lake: Photographer Nana
Trongratanawong of Bangkok, Thailand, shot this amazing video in a
lake in Palau. She used different music in the video she posted on
Humpback whales: Drone photographer Justin
Edwards captures some amazing shots of a young humpback whale and
its mom swimming off the coast of Maui in February of this year.
About halfway through, you can see the baby riding on its mom’s
Shark Riders: Free divers Roberta Mancino and
Mark Healey create a dreamlike video that tells a story of becoming
one with the ocean and its creatures.
Teaching a pelican to fly: After a storm, a
young pelican was found stranded on a beach in Tanzania>The
staff of the nearby Greystroke Mahale resort adopted the animal,
named him “Big Bird” and reminded him how to fly. With a GoPro
attached to his beak, the pelican investigated the waters, then
swooped back around to the beach where the flight instructors were
I want to recognize the Kitsap Sun’s editorial cartoonist Milt
Priggee for capturing the feeling of the moment last week when the
final piece of a dam on the Elwha River was blown up. See Water Ways, Aug. 27, 2014.
The video below was recorded on that same day by Anne Shaffer of
the Coastal Watershed Institute while snorkeling in a kelp bed in
western Freshwater Bay, not far from where the Elwha River flows
into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Watching this video and the large number of herring gives me a
feeling of optimism, although I recognize there is no scientific
basis for this. Someone please tell me the herring are doing
“We couldn’t think of a better place to be the day the last dam
went down,” Anne said in an email to members of her listserv.
Watershed Institute has been monitoring the nearshore
area, where the Elwha River has been dramatically transforming the
delta. Sediment, unleashed by dam removal, pours out of the Elwha
and builds up in the estuary.
Roorda, an aerial photographer, has been documenting
the transformation with thousands of pictures he has taken over the
past several years.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Alvin, a deep-sea vehicle
that has made some incredible scientific discoveries over the past
The latest issue of Oceanus magazine is a special edition that
takes us through the history of Alvin, including its part in
locating a lost hydrogen bomb, investigating the Deepwater Horizon
oil spill and documenting the remains of the Titanic.
What really drew my attention to this issue is a photo feature
Animals.” It was posted as a slide show in the online version
of Oceanus. It registered high on my amusing meter, and I encourage
you to click through the buttons that take you from one odd-looking
creature to the next.
One of Alvin’s most significant discoveries came in 1977, when
the submersible traveled to the Galapagos Rift, a deep-water area
where volcanic activity had been detected. Scientists had
speculated that steaming underwater vents were releasing chemicals
into the ocean water. They got to see that, but what they
discovered was much more: a collection of unique clams, worms and
mussels thriving without sunlight.
These were lifeforms in which bacteria played a central role at
the base of a food web that derives its energy from chemicals and
Since then, other deep-sea communities have been discovered and
documented throughout the world, with hundreds of new species
examined and named.
The Oceanus article also describes in some detail the
just-completed renovation that has given Alvin new capabilities.
The people responsible for various aspects of the make-over are
interviewed in this special edition.
The first video on this page is by Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution celebrating Alvin’s 50th birthday. The second is a
walk-around the newly renovated craft by Jim Motavalli, who usually
writes about ecologically friendly automobiles.
This amazing photo of a humpback whale chasing a massive school
of herring was taken in Prince William Sound by Rich Brenner of the
Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Rich took the picture in April during an aerial survey of
herring. He says he has observed many humpbacks feeding on herring
during the spring survey, but this whale was not having much luck,
probably because the water was so clear. As the whale approached,
the herring kept moving away, creating odd patterns in the
“As I was watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think that the
whale was expending a lot of energy and not receiving much in
return,” Rich wrote me in an email. “But the shallow depth and
clear water probably did not favor it.”
In the weeks prior to the flight, a large algae bloom covered
this area near the village of Tatitlek. If the bloom had continued,
the whale and much of the herring might have been difficult to see,
“Thus, we were very pleased to get such a clear view of the
situation and observe the movement of the herring along with the
whale. The herring school undulated away from the whale, and they
were able to keep a gap between them. Only once did we observe the
whale lunging forward and getting under the school.”
The second photo, below, shows the whale lunging upward and
possibly getting a mouthful of herring. The platform in the top
photo is part of a frame for a net pen used to hold hatchery salmon
before their release.
The spring herring survey measures the extent of the spawn along
the shoreline, which is used to estimate the overall biomass in
Prince William Sound.
Rich said he estimated that herring in this massive school would
amount to several hundred tons. GIS experts will map the school to
help construct a formal estimate of the biomass.
The state has not approved a commercial herring fishery in
Prince William Sound since 1999. During the 1980s and early 90s,
large numbers of herring were caught commercially, Rich said.
Sometime around 1993, the population crashed and has never fully
“The reason for the depleted biomass, relative to the years when
we had a commercial fishery, is a subject that has been hotly
debated by scientists and others for the past 20 years,” he
“Preliminary spawn estimates (from 2013) are 20.7 mile-days
(south of Knowles Head) and 5.5 mile-days (north of Knowles Head),
and 3.2 mile-days (Montague Island) for a total of 29.3 mile-days
of spawn. This is fewer mile-days of spawn in PWS than in any year
in which commercial fishing occurred since 1973.”
In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke
Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not
appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was
born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is
likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for
As far as I can tell, the other information below is
“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told
me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”
The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was
swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s
“The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”).
And the name “Joan” stuck.
The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally
about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four
or five months.
Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new
individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which
may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.
Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most
mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The
coolest whales are the minke whales.”
A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale,
accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan
Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to
say about it:
“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and
I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other
researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer,
and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot,
especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling
with their mothers, but never a newborn.”
Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael
Harris of Pacific Whale Watch
Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of
Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be
“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve
never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely
interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is
Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley
captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island
Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in
our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near
Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.
Michael added his own perspective:
“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our
resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in
the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also
makes its home out here, the minke.
“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just
been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave
these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special
occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a
lot of clues to researchers.
“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped
we are to protect every creature out there.”
Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:
“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales
with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very
little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the
ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows
are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making
it difficult to spot – and to study.
“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults
reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a
good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most
beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark
on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter
gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their
back and a white band on each flipper.
“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish
Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like
Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the
ongoing series “Taking
the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a
half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more
than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are
grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between
500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or
A couple years ago in
Water Ways, I described how I used to spend a great deal of
time recording and mixing sounds. As a child, I was fascinated with
sound effects, and I’ve always loved music.
At the time I wrote the blog entry, I had been playing around
with a website called Nature
Sounds for Me.
I encouraged everyone to create their own sound compositions,
and provided some examples of what others had done, including
I recently discovered what seems to be a related website that
allows you to add photos to the mix. The site is Go Mix It. (Notice how the web domain is
used in both links.) The site contains most of the same nature
sounds, but includes a “photo panel” for choosing pictures to watch
while the sounds are playing.
I think it would be better if I could toss my own photos onto
the screen. I can’t find a way to do that, but there are many
photos to choose from in the library, which can be searched by
topic and added to the sound compositions.
Take a look at the site, and feel free to share your
compositions in the comments section. A couple I threw together
quickly are called Majestic Forest and Wild Ocean.
I find myself returning again and again to videos that surprise
me with scientific phenomena, such as a droplet of water bouncing
at least three times before it gets absorbed into a glass of
Using videos to reveal something visually exciting is a thousand
times more rewarding than watching a science teacher explain the
properties of matter. I wish that teachers would have had some
amazing videos available when I was growing up. But considering
today’s technology, maybe teachers find it more challenging to
surprise their students.
Anyway, check out the first video on this page, which shows a
couple of goofy guys fascinated with the idea that water can
bounce. The value of this video lies in the fact that these two
“Slo Mo Guys,” Gavin Free and Daniel Gruchy, seem to be having a
good time exploring this feat of nature.
That first video is fun and all, but is it enough? If you’re
like me, you want a little more. You know that this relates to the
surface tension of water, something the goofy guys never seem to
mention. So I found another video, which has even better
photography — plus a mathematician able to explain what’s going on.
Check out the second video by Molecular Frontiers, a
nonprofit group of scientists dedicated to spreading an
appreciation of science. Maybe they’re a bit more professional than
the Slo Mo Guys.
Finally, getting farther afield from where I started, a company
called Ultratech has created two amazing videos about its
super-hydrophobic product called Ultra-Ever Dry. It shows how
treated products cannot get wet or dirty. See Ultra-Ever Dry 1,
Nov. 12, 2012, and
Ultra-Ever Dry 2, Jan. 31, 2014.
Ultra-Ever Dry is a product based on nanotechnology, and the
formulation is mostly proprietary. As amazing and useful as
nanotech products can be, I should point out that some concerns
have been raised about potential long-term effects on the
environment if they were to come into common use.
The Slo Mo guys, featured in the opening video, have also played
around with a super-hydrophobic surface, as well as tiny particles
of metal in a liquid. Believe it or not, they were invited into
General Electric’s Global Research Lab in New York, where they felt
free enough to bring along their playfulness for a
video they made there.
These two guys also got invited to use a more advanced camera to
watch what happens when they shoot a gun underwater. In the
video of the bullet launch, the prime segments come between
2:20 and 3:30 and between 5:25 and 6:32.