Category Archives: Education

Amusing Monday: Mermaids-to-be take lessons in special schools

A couple years ago, I was intrigued that a number of young women were making a living as professional mermaids. (See Water Ways, Jan. 27, 2014). Since then, the idea of becoming a mermaid for a day, a week or longer has caught on, with mermaid schools opening throughout the world.

Crimson Resort and Spa in the Philippines claims to be the first mermaid school in the world, but others were soon behind.

In New York, World of Swimming, a nonprofit corporation, inspires young people to become swimmers through lessons, swimming camps and other activities.

The first short video on this page features young mermaid swimmers accompanied by music as they swim about by swishing their tails. In the second video (also below), ABC News reporter Sara Haines takes the plunge in a first-person report to see what it is like to become a mermaid. The piece made the airwaves on Good Morning America.

In Vermont, reporter Sarah Tuff Dunn goes to mermaid school for the online publication “Seven Days” and is thoroughly enchanted after putting on her mermaid tail with its built-in swim fins.

“I felt the tail rise as if magically,” she wrote. “I released my hands from the wall and began to swim … like a mermaid. A doggy-paddling mermaid, mind you, and one who momentarily panicked when she realized she couldn’t scissor-kick her legs.”

Sarah, who soon catches on to swimming like a dolphin, discusses the risks of drowning with one’s legs tied together, and she explains why mermaid schools tend to emphasize safety.

What I find interesting about this mermaid trend is that children are getting excited about swimming. Being a mermaid or merman expands their confidence as they hold their breath under water for longer periods of time while building up their muscles for what could become a lifelong interest in aquatic sports — or at least some basic survival skills.

For those who operate or would like to operate a mermaid school, there is a newly formed International Mermaid Swimmers Instructors Association.

Other mermaid schools:

Amusing Monday: Cats can be trained to enjoy water and other things

I grew up with cats and have lived with cats for most of my life. I can’t recall that any of my feline friends were fond of water. But then nobody I know has ever taken the time to teach them to surf on the back of a dog, ride the waves with a human or even learn the basic command to “stay.”

These things are exactly what long-time dog trainer Robert Dollwet has done after deciding he wanted to train cats. After moving from California to Australia in 2010, Robert went to a local animal shelter and adopted a lively kitten he named Didga, short for Didgeridoo. As he proceeded through the training, Robert began sharing his methods on a YouTube channel he named “CATMANTOO.” Later, he added another kitten, Boomer, to his family.

The first video on this page shows Didga performing a stunt that Robert calls “Ice surfing.” That’s because the dog (who belongs to a client involved in dog training) is named Ice. Robert says many of the feats shown in his videos take weeks or months for the animals to learn.

“Please don’t try the things you see at home,” he says in a note attached to the video. “I’d feel bad if your cat was hurt or forced into doing something they don’t want to do. Watch my tutorials to learn how to teach your cat.”

The second video, released in April, shows Boomer riding on a surfboard on a river, as Robert gently paddles around.

“We’ve been doing this since he was a kitten,” Robert writes in the notes. “I gave him lots of food while he rides on the surfboard. He’s 11 months now, and he is so comfortable, it’s about that time to take his surfboard riding skills to the next level — by actual surfing on a wave in the ocean (with life vest, of course). Stay tuned.”

The third video is an amusing story called “Didga Dreams BIG,” which actually shows off this cat’s repertoire of tricks and stunts. I like the way Robert demonstrates his cats’ abilities by telling little stories in some of the videos — such as Didga’s skateboard trip around the beach town of Coolangatta, where he lives in Australia. See “World’s Best Skateboarding Cat!”

Other water-related videos:

You can check out the helpful YouTube tutorials on CATMANTOO to learn some basic cat skills that I believe might be helpful in daily life:

By the way, you can follow Robert and his animals on his Facebook page, also called CATMANTOO.

Canary rockfish likely
to be removed from Endangered Species List

One of the three species of rockfish listed as threatened or endangered in the Puget Sound region is about to be pulled off the Endangered Species List, following recent scientific findings.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish
Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Genetic studies carried out with the help of fisherfolk from Kitsap County have determined that canary rockfish are not a discrete population from those found off the Washington Coast. An official comment period on the delisting is open until Sept. 6, as described in the Federal Register.

I first discussed early evidence of this genetic finding a year ago. Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, confirmed that limited genetic samples of canary rockfish from coastal areas appeared no different from samples taken from Puget Sound. Kelly wanted to review analyses from additional samples before drawing firm conclusions. See Water Ways, June 18, 2015.

Removing canary rockfish from the Endangered Species List will have no effect on yelloweye rockfish, listed as threatened, or bacaccio, listed as endangered. The change also is expected to have no immediate effects on fishing rules, which are designed to protect all rockfish in Puget Sound.

Rockfish are considered an important part of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Understanding the causes of their decline and finding ways to rebuild their populations could help with the recovery of a variety of other marine species, experts say.

A five-year review (PDF 15.1 mb) on the status of the three species of rockfish was due last year, but it was delayed until April of this year to include the new genetic information. In addition to a proposal to delist canary rockfish, the report discusses the difficulty in gathering population data. The authors were able to report:

“The data suggest that total rockfish declined at a rate of 3.1 to 3.8 percent per year from 1977 to 2014 … or a 69 to 76 percent total decline over that period. We did not find evidence for subpopulations with different population growth rates.”

Those involved in the scientific effort expressed appreciation to the anglers who went out with them to track down rockfish and take fin clips for genetic sampling. The effort also included information from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, where researchers surveyed rockfish areas with divers and remotely operated vehicles.

“Without the expertise of experienced fishing guides, anglers, and WDFW’s rockfish survey data, it would have been difficult to find the canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish to collect the fin clips needed for the study,” according to a question-and-answer sheet from NOAA Fisheries (PDF 534 kb).

The local fishing experts were able to take the researchers to the hotspots where rockfish have always been found.

During the sampling, fishers were careful to release the rockfish with “descending devices” to get them safely back to deep water, where they reside. That is a technique recommended for all anglers who catch rockfish while fishing for other species. For details, see “Bring That Fish Down” (PDF 673 kb) by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Among those helping with the survey were Ray Frederick, a longtime leader in the Kitsap Poggie Club, a local fishing group, and Randy Jones, a charterboat operator from Port Orchard.

Ray recalls catching rockfish decades ago while fishing for salmon and other fish. “I considered myself lucky if I caught a rockfish and brought it home, because they’re really good eating,” Ray said in a story written by Ed Quimby, a former NOAA writer. “I prefer salmon,” Ray added, “but my wife likes rockfish better.”

Efforts to develop a recovery plan for rockfish continue for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio as required by the Endangered Species Act. Details can be found on NOAA’s webpage “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”

Amusing Monday: Students produce videos about climate concerns

How high school and college students view climate change shine through clearly in new video productions submitted in a contest organized by the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

The school is a unit within the UW College of the Environment. This is the second year for the contest, supported by the Denman Endowment for Student Excellence in Forest Resources.

Contest rules describe climate change as an issue that unites all the research interests within the school, topics that include sustainable forest management, biofuels, wildlife conservation, landscape ecology and plant microbiology.

“Much of the responsibility for finding sustainable solutions will fall on the younger generations,” the rules state. “That’s what inspired us to host this video competition — to spread awareness and hear your voices on the issue.”

The first video on this page is the 2016 first-place winner in the high school division. The second video is the 2016 first-place winner in the college division. The third video is last year’s first-place winner in the high school division.

Judging was conducted by a panel of climate scientists, artists and filmmakers. First-place winners received $5,000; second-place, $1,000; and third-place, $500.

Here are this year’s winning videos, with links to the top three in each division:

High school students, 2016

First Place: Yuna Shin, Henry M. Jackson High School, Bothell.

Second Place: Suraj Buddhavarapu, Naveen Sahi, Allison Tran and Vibha Vadlamani, Tesla STEM High School, Redmond.

Third Place: Luke Brodersen, Shorewood High School, Shoreline.

Other finalists: Julci Areza, Chloe Birney and Tanaya Sardesai, Redmond High School in Redmond, and Aria Ching, Jesselynn Noland, Emily Riley and Emily Weaver, Lynnwood High School in Bothell.

College undergraduates, 2016

First Place: Audrey Seda and Tommy Tang, Eastern Washington University and University of Washington – Bothell.

Second Place: Ben Jensen, Charles Johnson and Anthony Whitfield, University of Washington.

Third Place: Aaron Hecker, University of Washington.

Other finalists: Kennedy McGahan, Gonzaga University, and Malea Saul, Madeline Savage and Bethany Shepler, University of Washington.

Here are the top winners from last year, with links:

High school students, 2015

First Place: Leo Pfeifer and Meagen Tajalle, Ballard High School, Seattle.

Second Place: Teri Guo, Caeli MacLennan, Kevin Nakahara, Ethan Perrin and Nivida Thomas, Tesla STEM High School, Redmond.

College undergraduates, 2015

First Place: Michael Moynihan and Sarra Tekola, University of Washington.

Second Place: Erfan Dastournejad, Shoreline Community College, Shoreline.

Amusing Monday: Some birds just make us laugh

The common murre, which can be spotted in Puget Sound especially in winter, may be considered “nature’s laugh track,” according to Bob Sundstrom, writing for “BirdNote,” a two-minute radio show heard on public radio stations including KPLU.

Common murre Photo: Dick Daniels, carolinabirds.org, via Wikimedia Commons
Common murre
Photo: Dick Daniels, carolinabirds.org

I wasn’t sure what he meant until I heard the call clearly, and then I wanted to share this amusing sound with readers who missed the program.

“The Common Murre’s guttural call carries well over the roar of the waves, a natural laugh track, far richer than human laughter canned for a sitcom,” says narrator Michael Stein in the following sound clip.

      1. Common murres on Birdnote.

To learn more about the common murre in Washington state, check out Birdweb by Seattle Audubon or read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s report, “Biology and Conservation of the Common Murre in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia
” (PDF 10 mb).

For other amusing bird sounds, I pulled a YouTube video created with the help of Nick Lund, who writes a blog called “The Birdlist.” This video was posted on National Public Radio’s science program “Skunk Bear.”

Andy Jeffrey of Earth Touch Network points out that the bald eagle’s less-than-intimidating chirp may not be the strangest call, but it may be the most surprising. For films and such, Hollywood producers have dubbed in the screech of a red-tailed hawk to give the eagle a more imposing sound.

We can’t leave the topic of funny bird sounds without taking time to listen to the lyre bird, known for its ability to mimic all sorts of sounds. And who better to sneak with us through the underbrush and explain this odd bird than the BBC’s David Attenborough. Check out the video.

While all of these bird sounds are amusing, who would you say is the most amusing bird? The question is open to debate, but I always get a kick out of the thievery of the various species of sea gull. The compilation video below offers a sampling of this clever bird’s antics. As you’ll see, a few other clever birds also are featured.

Amusing Monday: Ten new species with their own stories to tell

An international team of taxonomists has chosen the “Top 10 New Species of 2016” from among some 18,000 new species named in 2015.

They include a hominin in the same genus as humans and an ape nicknamed “Laia” that might provide clues to the origin of humans, according to information provided by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York, which compiles the list each year.

The list also includes a newly identified giant Galapagos tortoise, two fish, a beetle named after a fictional bear, and two plants — a carnivorous sundew considered endangered as soon as it was discovered and a tree hiding in plain sight, states a news release from ESF.

The annual list of the top 10 new species was established in 2008 to call attention to the fact that thousands of new species are being discovered each year, while other species are going extinct at least as fast.

“The rate of description of species is effectively unchanged since before World War II,” said Quintin Wheeler, ESF president. “The result is that species are disappearing at a rate at least equal to that of their discovery.

“We can only win this race to explore biodiversity if we pick up the pace,” he said. “In so doing we gather irreplaceable evidence of our origins, discover clues to more efficient and sustainable ways to meet human needs and arm ourselves with fundamental knowledge essential for wide-scale conservation success.”

The top-10 list, compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration, is a colorful sampling of the new species being named by taxonomists. The list comes out each year around Mary 23 — the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century botanist considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Descriptions of the “Top 10 New Species of 2016” are taken from information provided by ESF, which permitted use of the photographs. Additional information and photos can be found by following the links below.

Giant Tortoise

Chelonoidis donfaustoi

Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise Photo: Washington Tapia
Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise // Photo: Washington Tapia

A research team working in the Galapagos Archipelago of Ecuador has discovered that two species of giant tortoises — not just one — co-exist on the island of Santa Cruz. The discovery comes 185 years after Charles Darwin noted that slight variations in the shells of tortoises could distinguish which island they were from, which is among the evidence Darwin used in his theory of evolution.

Giant Sundew

Drosera magnifica

Giant sundew Photo: Paulo M. Gonella
Giant sundew // Photo: Paulo M. Gonella

This particiular giant sundew, a carnivorous plant, is the largest sundew ever found in the New World. It is believed to be the first species of plant discovered through a photograph on Facebook. It is considered critically endangered, since it is known to live in only one place in the world, the top pf a 5,000-foot mountain in Brazil.

Hominin

Homo naledi

Homo naledi Photo: John Hawks, Wits University
Homo naledi // Photo: John Hawks, Wits University

Fossil remains of at least 15 individuals makes this the largest collection of a single species of hominin ever found on the African continent. Once the age of the bones is determined, the finding will have implications for the branch of the family tree containing humans.

Photos and description

Isopod

Iuiuniscus iuiuensis

Isopod Photo: Souza, Ferreira & Senna
Isopod // Photo: Souza, Ferreira & Senna

This tiny amphibious crustacean, discovered in a South American cave, represents a new subfamily, genus and species of isopod with a behavior never seen before in its family group: It builds shelters of mud.

Anglerfish

Lasiognathus dinema

Angler fish Photo Ted Pietsch, University of Washington
Angler fish // Photo Ted Pietsch, University of Washington

This two-inch anglerfish — with its odd fishing-pole-like structure dangling in front — was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration while assessing natural resource damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The dangling structure, called an esca, is home to symbiotic bacteria that produce light in the darkness of the deep ocean and is presumably used to catch prey.

Photos and description

Seadragon

Phyllopteryx dewysea

Ruby seadragon Image: Josefin Stiller, Nerida Wilson and Greg Rouse
Ruby seadragon skeleton
Image: Josefin Stiller, Nerida Wilson and Greg Rouse

The ruby red seadragon, related to sea horses, is only the third known species of sea dragon. At 10 inches long and living in relatively shallow water off the West Coast of Australia, it is notable for having escaped notice so long. The ruby seadragon was first identified while testing museum specimens for genetics, then the hunt was on for a living sample.

Beetle

Phytotelmatrichis osopaddington

Tiny beetle Photo: Michael Darby
Tiny beetle // Photo: Michael Darby

The scientific name of this tiny beetle, just 1/25th of an inch long, comes from the fictional Paddington Bear, a lovable character in children’s books who showed up at Paddington Station in London with a sign that read, “Please look after this bear.” The researchers hope the name for the new beetle will call attention to the plight of the “threatened” Andean spectacled bear, which inspired the Paddington books. The beetle is found in pools of water that accumulate in the hollows of plants in Peru, where the bear also is found.

Primate

Pliobates cataloniae

Artists recreation of new primate Image: Mar􀀯a Palmero, Institut Catalá de Paleontologia Miquel (ICP)
Artist recreation of new primate // Image: Marta Palmero, Institut Catalá de Paleontologia Miquel (ICP)

An ape nicknamed “Laia” lived about 11.6 million years ago in what is now Spain, climbing trees and eating fruit. She lived before the lineage containing humans and great apes diverged from a sister branch that contains the gibbons. Her discovery raises the prospect that early humans could be more closely related to gibbons than to the great apes.

Flowering tree

Sirdavidia solannona

Open flower and buds on new tree Photo: Thomas Couvreur
Open flower on new tree // Photo: Thomas Couvreur

Found near the main road in Monts de Cristal National Park, in Gabon, this new tree species had been overlooked for years in inventories of local trees, which tended to focus on larger specimens. The tree grows to only about 20 feet high and is so different from related members of the Annonaceae family of flowering plants that it was given its own genus.

Damselfly

Umma Gumma

Male damselfly Photo: Jens Kipping
Male damselfly // Photo: Jens Kipping

This new damselfly, called the sparklewing, is among an extraordinary number of new damselflies discovered in Africa, with 60 species reported in one publication alone. Most of the new species are so colorful and distinct that they can be identified solely from photographs. The name Umma Gumma was taken from the 1969 Pink Floyd album, “Ummagumma,” which is British slang for sex.

Orca Awareness Month includes many activities

June is Orca Awareness Month in the Salish Sea. And, as we’ve seen in recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales are not around to help kick off the month-long celebration.

Logo

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, typically moves in and out of Puget Sound through the winter and into spring, but none of the whales have been seen in inland waters since May 18, according to Orca Network. On May 24, the same groups were seen off the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Let’s hope they are finding plenty to eat, then come home to the San Juan Islands in time for Orca Sing at Lime Kiln State Park on June 25, when people will gather to serenade them. Meanwhile, plenty of other events will be held during Orca Awareness Month.

Another annual event, planned for this Saturday, is EcoFest, which has been revamped this year as a more active festival, rather than a lineup of information booths. Organizers are calling the event in Kingston “a community science and nature festival.”

EcoFest

A nature walk followed by tips on bird watching, solar power, medicinal plants and green construction techniques are part of the festivities, along with music and food. For information, download the press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center or visit the Stillwaters website.

The following day, this Sunday, is the kickoff celebration for Orca Awareness Month, including a Baby Orca Birthday Bash at Alki Beach Bathhouse, 2701 Alki Ave. SW in Seattle. Live music by Dana Lyons (see Water Ways, Jan. 25), face painting, orca bingo and other activities are planned.

For the remainder of the month, activities include an informational webinar June 9, a discussion about the toxic threat June 16, “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop June 18, a march for endangered orcas June 24, “Orca Sing” June 25, “Oil, Orcas and Oystercatchers” forum June 25, and “Orca and Salmon: An Evening of Storytelling” June 29. These and several events yet to be scheduled can be followed on the Orca Month website or the Facebook page.

Orca Awareness Month was started 10 years ago by Orca Network and has been adopted by Orca Salmon Alliance, made up of organizations working to expand awareness of the relation between killer whales and salmon, both considered at risk of extinction.

Orca Awareness Month is recognized in Washington state in a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee (PDF 474 kb). In British Columbia, a proclamation was issued for the first time by the attorney general and lieutenant governor. For BC residents, a new Facebook page, Orca Month BC, is available.

Northwest stayed warm in May; new graphics show long-term trends

After warmer-than-average temperatures for much of the past year, May suddenly turned cooler across the nation — except for the Northwest, which remained warmer than normal.

Temp anomaly

Although it seemed cool recently, at least compared to April, Western Washington had the greatest deviation with temperatures between 3 and 5 degrees higher than the 30-year average. See first map.

It seems ironic to write about cooler temperatures after last month’s teaser headline at the top of the Kitsap Sun’s front page: “Earth getting HOT, HOT, HOTTER!”

The big story earlier this month was that worldwide temperatures had broken all-time heat records for 12 months in a row, and April’s record-high temperature was a full half-degree higher than the previous record.

The average temperature hasn’t been below the 20th century average since December 1984, and the last time the Earth broke a monthly cold record was nearly a century ago, in December 1916, according to NOAA records.

“These kinds of records may not be that interesting, but so many in a row that break the previous records by so much indicates that we’re entering uncharted climatic territory (for modern human society),” Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler wrote in an email to Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.

Temp outlook

El Niño, which is now fading, was blamed in part for the unprecedented heat worldwide. But climatologists say the onward march of global warming lies in the background. Last year turned out to be the hottest year on record, easily beating 2014, which was also a record year.

The first four months of this year were so much hotter than 2015 that 2016 is still likely to set another record. NOOA’s Climate Prediction Center says La Niña conditions are on the way, with a 50 percent chance of La Niña by summer and a 75 percent chance by fall.

Summer temperatures are expected to be above average except in the Central U.S., while both coasts are expected to be the most likely to exceed normal temperatures. Check out the second map on this page.

Speaking of the onward march of climate change, computer graphics developers keep coming up with new ways to show how global temperatures are increasing in concert with rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

New normal

Climate Central has combined data sets from NOAA to produce the orange graph,which shows the advance of a trailing 30-year temperature average from 1980 through 2015. To put it simply, we continue to adjust to a new normal.

Others have used animation to depict temperature change. One graphic (below) received a lot of attention this month. Temperature change is represented as the distance from a “zero” circle starting in 1850. Each month, a line moves one-twelfth of the way around the circle, completing 360 degrees each year. The line gets farther and farther from the center and really jumps outward in 2015.

Ed Hawkins, professor of meteorology at the University of Reading near London, created the animation. He credited an associate, Jan Fuglestvedt, with the idea of a spiral.

Jason Samenow, chief meteorologist for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, called it “the most compelling global warming visualization ever made.” His blog post also includes some other visual depictions of climate change.

Another animated graph, by Tom Randall and Blacki Migliozzi of Bloomberg, show similar data depicted as a moving line graph.

NOAA Visualizations plotted temperature differences at various locations on a world map. Over time, it is easy to see how the Earth has gotten generally warmer, accelerating in recent years.

One of the most intriguing graphics, in my opinion, is one that purports to show the various factors that affect global temperature — from volcanic activity to man-made aerosols to greenhouse gases. The designers, Eric Roston and Blacki Migliozzi of Bloomberg, ask viewers to judge which factor they believe leads to global warming.

Since this is a blog about water issues, I would probably be remiss if I didn’t point out that the consequences of rising greenhouse gases is not just an increase in the Earth’s temperature. We can’t forget that a major portion of the carbon dioxide is being absorbed into the ocean, causing effects on marine life that are far from fully understood.

Amusing Monday: Baby river otters must be taught how to swim

Baby river otters appear to be reluctant swimmers when they enter the water for the very first time. As you can see in the first video, the mother otter pulls, pushes and practically wrestles her offspring to begin a swim lesson at Columbus Zoo in Ohio.

The second video, from Oregon Zoo in Portland, features otter keeper Becca VanBeek, who provides us some details about the life of a young otter. Shown is a baby otter named Molalla. The mom seems a bit rough with her baby, but she’s just trying to teach a diving and breathing pattern.

If we want to be formal about it, what should we call a baby otter? A baby walrus is called a calf, and a baby sea lion is called a pup. So a baby otter is called a ______? If you said pup, you are right.

Now for the parents. If a male walrus is called a bull and a male sea lion is also called a bull, what is a male otter called? The answer is boar, but please don’t ask me who comes up with this stuff. Correspondingly, female walruses and female sea lions are called cows, while female otters are called sows.

Thirteen kinds of otters exist in the world. Some, such as the sea cat of South America, are so endangered that almost nothing is known about them Read about all 13 on the h2g2 website.

In the Northwest, many people confuse the sea otter with the river otter. Both are related to the weasel, and both have webbed feet and two layers of fur to maintain their body temperature in cold water. But there are many differences:

  • River otters spend more time on land than water. Sea otters almost never climb up on land.
  • River otters live in freshwater and marine estuaries. Sea otters live in seawater, including the ocean.
  • River otters generally grow to 20-25 pounds, sea otters to 50-100 pounds.
  • River otters swim with their bellies down and expose little of their back. Sea otters generally swim belly-up and float high in the water because of air trapped in their fur.
  • River otters have rounded webbed paws, front and back. Sea otters’ rear paws are elongated like flippers with webbing going to the end of the toes.

Sources: Sea Otter Recovery and Aquarium of the Bay

Other otter videos worth watching:

Below is one of the two live cameras in the sea otter exhibit at Seattle Aquarium. The cameras are in operation from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visit the aquarium’s Otter Cams webpage to see both cams and read about the otters.

Monterey Bay Aquarium also has a live otter cam, which is in operation from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit the aquarium’s Sea Otter page for feeding times, when the otters are introduced to the audience and a live discussion takes place with otter experts.

‘Sonic Sea’ movie takes us to the underwater world of sound

“Sonic Sea,” which will air Thursday on Discovery Channel, will take you down beneath the ocean waves, where sounds take on new meaning, some with dangerous implications.

Humans spend most of their time in air, a medium that transmits light so well that we have no trouble seeing the shapes of objects in a room or mountains many miles away. In the same way, water is the right medium for sound, which shapes the world of marine mammals and other species that live under water.

The hour-long documentary film reveals how humpback whales use low-frequency sounds to communicate with other whales across an entire ocean and how killer whales use high-frequency sound to locate their prey in dark waters.

Michael Jasny
Michael Jasny

“The whales see the ocean through sound, so their mind’s eye is their mind’s ear,” says Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environment group that produced the film with the help of the production company Imaginary Forces.

“Sonic Sea” opens with Ken Balcomb, dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, telling the story of how he learned about 16 beaked whales that had beached themselves in the Bahamas, where he was doing research in 2001.

“Animals that I had grown to know over a 10-year period were now dead,” Ken says during the movie, recalling the horrifying day when one whale after another was discovered dead or dying. “They were trying to get away. I was driven to find out why.”

Ken Balcomb
Ken Balcomb

Thanks to Ken’s presence during that stranding incident, experts were able to prove that Navy sonar could be deadly. It took two years for Navy officials to overcome their denial.

As I watched the film, I wondered if people would identify with the idea that hearing to marine mammals is like sight to humans. Would people see how much humans have invaded the underwater world with noise from ship traffic, oil exploration, military training and shoreline construction?

“I listen to the world, and to me song is life,” said Chris Clark, a bioacoustics expert at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,. “It is the essence of who we are, and it joins us all. The problem is, in the ocean, we are injecting enormous amounts of noise, so much so that we are acoustically bleaching the ocean. All the singing voices of the planet are lost in that cloud of noise.”

Chris Clark
Chris Clark

This type of human invasion is different from wiping out habitat as new construction changes the land, but the effect can be equally devastating to some species.

In September of 2001, a group of researchers on the East Coast were collecting fecal samples from right whales to check for stress hormones. Stress levels were running high among the whales, except for a few days when the levels dropped dramatically. That happened right after Sept. 11, when ship traffic in the area was shut down following the bombing of the World Trade Center. It still isn’t clear what that constant stress is doing to the animals, but it can’t be good. See Duke University press release.

The good news, the film tells us, is that ships can be made quieter, with an important side benefit: Quieter ships are more efficient, which makes them cheaper to operate. Ships can also reduce noise by going slower, saving on fuel. Beyond shipping, people can find ways to operate in the ocean with less sonic harm to sea life.

The Navy’s viewpoint, as represented in the film, appears to be a more enlightened approach that I have seen until now. Of course, protecting Navy ships against enemy attacks is the priority, but the need to accommodate marine life seems to be recognized to a greater degree.

“It comes down to what we value,” Clark said. “We value a living ocean. We are putting the ocean at risk. And if you put the ocean at risk, you are putting all of us at risk.”

The first video on this page is the trailer to “Sonic Sea” as provided by the producers of the film. The second is the trailer provided by Discovery Channel.