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
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.
I’ve often wondered if the Hood Canal bridge might be an
obstruction for killer whales, which could simply choose to back
away from the wall of floating pontoons, which are anchored to the
seabed by a confusing array of crisscrossing cables. Old-timers
have told me that orcas used to come into Hood Canal more
frequently before the bridge was built.
What I never considered seriously, however, was that the bridge
could be an obstacle for fish as well. In
Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, I wrote about recent findings from a
study tracking juvenile steelhead by means of implanted
acoustic transmitters. The study was conducted by researchers at
NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
The bottom line is that something is happening at the bridge,
where many of the transmitters either disappeared or winded up
staying in one place near the bridge, continuing to send out their
signals for weeks. The leading hypothesis is that seals or other
predators are eating the young steelhead, and some of the acoustic
tags are being digested and excreted near the bridge.
Why the bridge serves as an obstacle to steelhead remains
unclear. But other studies have suggested that steelhead swim near
the surface. As they move out of the canal, the fish may encounter
the bridge pontoons as a physical barrier, since the concrete
structures go down 12 feet underwater. Also, currents around the
pontoons could be a strange condition for the fish. If a young
steelhead slows down in the process, a harbor seal or other
predator could be waiting to take advantage of the situation.
We’ve all heard about sea lions capturing adult salmon by
hanging out at fish ladders at Seattle’s Ballard Locks in Seattle
or at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Maybe the same thing is
happening at the Hood Canal bridge with smaller prey as the target
of the marine mammals.
I was also intrigued by an
analysis conducted by Tarang Khangaonkar, a researcher at
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle. He told me that
in all the models of circulation in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the
bridge tended to be ignored. Since the pontoons go down 12 feet,
the bridge disrupts the relatively thin low-salinity surface layer
moving out of Hood Canal.
Tarang calculates that the bridge could reduce the circulation
by 10 percent or more, which has serious implications, not just for
steelhead at the bridge but for the ecological health of all of
“We have to examine what the bridge is doing,” Tarang told me.
“It slows the entire system down. Water quality is maintained in
Puget Sound by the flushing effect, which flushes the system out
and maintains a balance. Our preliminary finding is that it could
slow down by about 10 percent. That effect is cumulative.”
The bridge, he said, could effectively create a more stagnant
body of water, where oxygen can become depleted. More study is
needed, he said.
Most of the folks I interviewed for this story agreed that the
first priority for further research was to see what is happening to
the steelhead — and possibly chinook and chum salmon — at the
bridge. Studies could focus on the fish, predators and currents at
The project is gaining support, but it could require a special
legislative appropriation of about $2 million.
Unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, are taking over the
world. At least it seems that way. If you don’t believe me, search
for “drone” on YouTube. You’ll find amateur aviation specialists —
and a variety of professionals — demonstrating what drones can do.
Some of the things are pretty amusing.
I’ll mention some water-related drone stories below, but the
first video on this page shows a hawk attacking a drone owned and
operated by Christopher Schmidt, a 30-year-old software developer.
I think Chris did a nice job of protecting the bird by throttling
down the props on his Phantom FC40 quadcopter. The final result is
a great up-close view of an angry bird, well deserving of a place
in “Amusing Monday.”
Chris was using the drone to get images of changing leaves in
Magazine Beach Park in Cambridge, Mass., last Wednesday, when he
saw a bird circling a good distance away. The circling continued as
the bird moved closer to the drone.
“Overall,” he told me in an email, “I was surprised by how
quickly he moved from 400 feet away to on top of the quad. When he
was very nearby, my initial thought was, ‘Okay, stay still, so he
can avoid it’ — which obviously didn’t work out for me.”
He said he saw no evidence beforehand that the bird was upset or
likely to attack. Over the six months he owned the drone, nothing
like that had happened, except for a few crows squawking at the
aircraft. After he posted the video, he learned from bird experts
that immature red tail hawks have not yet learned to hunt
efficiently, so they may attack anything that moves.
As the hawk attacked, Chris cut power to the props, which caused
the quad to drop. The bird hit the chopper and it flipped. Chris
was unable to recover the flight, still worried about the bird,
though he powered back up at the end.
“If I had done nothing,” he wrote, “I expect the quadcopter
would have done the flip (which it did) and immediately recover —
possibly losing about
10 feet of altitude. My fear in that case was that the hawk would
see it as a threat and come back a second time. Well, really, it
about a half second, so I was not really thinking that much through
“I still would do the same thing if I had to do it all over,
even if it might have put the quadcopter at less risk.”
As it turns out, the quad sustained almost no damage from
falling out of the sky and hitting the ground, except for a
slightly bent landing gear. And the hawk was no worse for wear.
Lots of media have been using the footage that Chris took. Based
on a suggestion from a coworker, he is donating any money raised
from YouTube ads to the American Audubon Society. Thanks to Gene
Bullock of Kitsap Audobon for alerting me to this video.
OK, so what are some other odd things that drones can do? How
about helping out with an ALS ice bucket challenge? In the second
video, Austin Hill of Spark Aerial uses a massive DJI S1000
Octocopter to lift a bucket of ice water and pour it rather slowly
on his head.
It was only a matter of time before someone got the idea to use
a drone for fishing — no matter how inefficient that might be.
Check out this 7-minute video by
NightFlyer (the action starts about 5 minutes in) or this
shorter 1.5-minute video by
RYOT. Both these guys now have fish stories to tell. But, after
all that work, even they would admit that the fish they caught are
On a more serious note, there are many legal issues related to
drones, which are not yet approved by the Federal Aviation
Administration for commercial use, and there are many concerns
related to privacy. People also are raising questions about whether
drones should ever be used for hunting or fishing. Michael R. Shea
tackles the subject for
“Field and Stream” magazine.
If sportsmen are thinking about using drones, game wardens are
not far behind, as they consider how drones might be used to catch
“National Geographic” looks at the use of drones in high-seas
Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington vetoed a bill that
would have limited the use of drones by law enforcement. He then
set up a task force to look at the entire subject. A representative
of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in one task
force meeting that there could be applications for enforcement and
research by the agency. The
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force is expected to make
recommendations before next year’s legislative session.
UPDATE, Oct. 4
Orca Network reported a brief appearance of J pod this week near
San Juan Island: “On Wednesday, October 1, J pod plus L87 Onyx
and a few K pod members shuffled in small groups spread out up and
down the west side of San Juan Island for over eight hours, then
returned around midnight and continued vocalizing near the Lime
Kiln hydrophones for another few hours.”
As chum salmon swim back to their home streams in Puget Sound
this fall, three killer whale pods — the Southern Residents — can
be expected to follow, making their way south along the eastern
shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.
These forays into Central and South Puget Sound could begin any
day now and continue until the chum runs decline in November or
December. The Southern Residents, which typically hang out in the
San Juan Islands in summer, have not been spotted for several days,
so they are likely somewhere in the ocean at the moment, according
to Howard Garrett of Orca Network.
This year, Orca Network has created a map of good viewing sites
to help people look for whales from shore. As the orcas move south
into Puget Sound, Orca Network’s
Facebook page becomes abuzz with killer whale
sightings. Observers can use the information to search for the
whales from shore.
From my experience, it takes a bit of luck to find the orcas,
because they are constantly moving. But the search can be fun if
you consider it an adventure and don’t get too disappointed if you
don’t find the whales right away.
Howie said expanding the network to include more land-based
observers can help researchers track whale movements and
occasionally go out to pick up samples of their fecal material or
food left over from their foraging, helpful in expanding our
knowledge about what they are eating.
Whale reports may be called in to Orca Network’s toll-free
number: (866)-ORCANET, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or posted
on Facebook, www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.
The new Viewpoints Map shows locations where killer
whales have been sighted in the past, or else they lie along a
known route of their travels.
I told Howie about a few good viewing locations in Kitsap
County, based on my experiences, and he said he would welcome ideas
from others as well.
“It’s a work in progress,” Howie said. “They just need to be
locations that are public and accessible.” If you know of a good
whale-watching spot, you can contact Howie or his wife Susan Berta
by email, email@example.com.
If offering a location for the map, please give a clear
description of the site and state whether you have seen whales from
that location or just believe it would work based on the view of
Some people have expressed concern that real-time reports of
whale movements may encourage boaters to go out and follow the
orcas in Puget Sound, disturbing their feeding behavior at a
critical time of year. But Howie says Orca Network has increased
its reporting through the years and has not heard of many
“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,”
Winter weather and rougher seas makes it difficult to find the
whales from the water, Howie noted. As in summer, boaters are
required by federal regulation to avoid interfering with their
travels. See the “Be
Whale Wise” website.
When reporting whale sightings to Orca Network, observers are
asked to list the species, location, time, direction of travel and
approximate number of animals. When reporting killer whales, the
number of adult males with towering dorsal fins should be noted.
Also report any behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or
feeding. Good photographs are especially valuable.
Sighting reports can be found on the Orca Network
page or Twitter
feed. One can also sign up for email alerts from the website, which
includes reports of recent sightings as well as archives going back
to 2001. The site also tracks news and research developments.
As Howard stated in a news release:
“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out
from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting
the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report
sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery
efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”
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.
For this week, let’s call it “Amazing Monday.” When I first saw
this video, I thought it was a fake animation for a science fiction
film. But it turns out that it could be the answer to a troubling
riddle: What is dryer than a desert?
The crack might also be the result of erosion from either an
underground or surface channel following an unusually heavy rain.
Despite the attention in Mexican and U.S. news outlets, I have been
unable to find a good explanation.
The crack is said to be about three-fourths mile long and up to
25 feet deep. Some nice close-in photos were posted on the website
a daily newspaper based in Mexico City. They show people standing
next to the giant fissure. (When watching the video, it’s worth
blowing it up to full screen.)
In a Washington Post story last week, reporter
Joshua Partlow quoted a geologist at the University of Sonora as
saying the crack was probably caused by pumping groundwater for
“The chair of the geology department at the University of
Sonora, in the northern Mexican state where this ‘topographic
accident’ emerged, said that the fissure was likely caused by
sucking out groundwater for irrigation to the point the surface
“‘This is no cause for alarm,’ Inocente Guadalupe Espinoza
Maldonado said. ‘These are normal manifestations of the
destabilization of the ground.’”
I think the geologist’s comments were meant to quell fear and
speculation that started running wild when the crack first opened.
While it may not be cause for alarm, I can’t believe that a crack
this size — which has cut off more than one roadway — can be
considered a good thing. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, and I’d
like to learn more about it.
The sand was smooth and still. Waves lapped at the distant
shoreline. A sign, stuck in the sand, stated, “Do not disturb. Sea
That was the scene on a beach in the Florida Keys for the past
few weeks, as it was in June, when I posted a blog entry listing
cameras that were capturing live action in bird nests as well as
other wildlife locations. A quiet patch of sand was not much to
look at, so I didn’t mention it.
On Friday, that patch of sand came to life, as you can see in
the first video on this page. I thought it was time to share the
brief action, as about 100 loggerhead turtles emerged from the sand
and headed out to sea about 9 p.m. Check out the action in
The camera on the beach uses infrared lights to capture the
images, thus avoiding visible light that could confuse the young
turtles. The project is supported by Save-A-Turtle, a
volunteer non-profit group dedicated to the protection of rare and
endangered sea turtles and their habitats in the Florida Keys.
Meanwhile, some of the young ospreys shown in their nests back
in June have fledged, but there is still plenty of action in the
nest at Missoula’s
Riverside Health Care Center, where the camera is
operated by the University of Montana. Check out the images in
full-screen, high-definition while you can, because these growing
chicks will soon be gone.
Brown bears are now feeding on salmon along Alaska’s Brooks
River in Katmai National Park, according to bloggers on the site. Check out the live video
below to see if you can spot a bear, including a subadult mentioned
You may wish to go back to the June 23 “Amusing Monday: A visit with wildlife via
webcam” to see what other cameras are picking up
activity. You can generally count on Pete’s Pond on Mashatu Game
Reserve in Botswana, Africa, for some exotic animals coming to the
I’ve completed the seventh story package in a 10-part series
examining the Puget Sound ecosystem, with a special focus on
indicators of ecological health. We’re calling the project “Taking
the Pulse of Puget Sound.”
The latest stories, which ran Sunday and Monday, addressed
freshwater quality. The opening piece looked at the huge amounts of
pollution coming into our streams via stormwater — one of the
highest priorities for cleanup, yet one of the most difficult to
As the Puget Sound Partnership’s executive director Sheida
Sahandy told me, industrial discharges are still a concern, but
they are no longer the biggest problem.
“Now we’re dealing with stormwater, which is trickling in here
and trickling in there, and everybody has a finger in it,” she
Solutions are many, and the goal should be to shut off pollution
at the source, beginning with removing dangerous chemicals from
everyday products. Since the sources of pollution are numerous,
everyone needs to play a part — from cleaning up pet wastes to
properly using of household chemicals to reducing the use of lawn
and garden pesticides. (Those who don’t subscribe to the Kitsap Sun
may still find value in the graphics on the
Freshwater Quality page.)
I led off the first story by showing the increased efforts by
city and county governments to better manage their stormwater
systems, such as pumping out their catch basins, sweeping their
streets and converting outdated stormwater ponds into filtration
systems, commonly known as “rain gardens.”
I also introduced readers to the Washington Stormwater
Center, a research facility in Puyallup where scientists are
testing the effectiveness of rain gardens and pervious pavement.
Jenifer McIntyre, a Washington State University researcher, has
demonstrated that stormwater from highway runoff is 100 percent
effective at killing adult coho salmon. Yet that same stormwater
filtered through soil — such as in a rain garden — is cleaned up
enough that fish can survive, apparently unaffected.
Monday’s story addressed the increasing use of benthic
invertebrates — water bugs — to measure the health of streams. The
bugs are doing double duty, since they are both a measurement of
stream quality and a critical part of the food web for the
Some 27 local governments and organizations are involved in
collecting data on benthic invertebrates from about 850 stream
locations throughout Puget Sound. For results, check out Puget Sound Stream
When I began this project on freshwater quality several weeks
ago, I thought it was going to be easier than some of the other
story packages I have done, such as on fish, birds and marine
mammals. If anything, this issue is more complex. I’ll admit that
I’ve neglected this blog while pursuing these issues, and soon I
will be moving into the issue of freshwater quantity.
Overall, I must say that I’ve been impressed by the many people
dedicated to finding answers to the mysterious problems brought on
by pollution and by those finding solutions even before the
questions are fully identified.
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.