Category Archives: Oceans

Amusing Monday: To survive, penguins have adopted odd behaviors

One of the strangest animals on Earth is the emperor penguin, a bird that exhibits some remarkable behaviors to help it survive under the harshest conditions.

One might wish that the penguins would fly away to a warmer area when the frigid cold of winter strikes the Antarctic each year, but this bird doesn’t fly at all. Instead, groups of penguins huddle together on open ice during the long winters. They take turns moving into the middle of the group to escape the worst of the chill winds and to warm up just a little.

Females lay a single egg and quickly abandon it, leaving the males to care for the egg while the females go hunting. For up to two months, the males will balance the egg on their feet, keeping the egg warm in a feathery “brood pouch.” During this time, the males will eat nothing while the females travel many miles to the sea to gorge themselves on fish, squid and krill. When the females return, they are ready to feed their newborn chicks some of this partially digested food, while the males are free to go and find food for themselves.

While these unusual birds can’t fly, their skills under water are quite amazing — and amusing. Their unique physiology allows them to dive much deeper than any other water bird, stay under water for more than 20 minutes, and eventually zoom back to the surface at an incredible rate, as shown in the first video on this page.

BirdNote, a regular program on many public radio stations, recently focused on penguins and the research of Jessica Meir, who wanted to know how penguins were able to swim so deep. Here’s the audio:

      1. 181010-Deep-diving-Emperor-Penguins

In an article in U.S. News and World Report, Jessica wrote, “One study revealed that diving emperor penguins have heart rates significantly lower than that of their heart rates at rest, During one emperor penguin’s impressive 18-minute dive, its heart rate decreased to as low as three beats per minute, with a rate of six beats per minute lasting for over five minutes during the dive. As heart rate is a very good indicator of how much oxygen is utilized, decreased heart rates during dives correspond to conservation of oxygen, enabling the animals to dive for a longer time.”

By the way, Jessica built upon her interest in science and expertise in physiology to become an astronaut in NASA’s space program. She tells her story in the video posted at the bottom of this page.

For other interesting tidbits about the life of emperor penguins, check out the website “Just Fun Facts.”

In a previous discussion about penguins, I talked about the large number of cartoon artists who decided that penguins should be friends with polar bears. This became an interesting and off-the-wall partnership, considering that polar bears and penguins never get together in the wild. These cartoonists have simply ignored the fact that polar bears live in the Arctic on the top side of the world, while penguins live in the Antarctic on the bottom. See Water Ways, Aug. 1, 2011. (Some of the attached videos have been removed from YouTube since that original post.)

On another occasion, I wrote about an orphan penguin found alone on a beach in New Zealand, more than 2,500 miles north of its home in Antarctica. I recounted the story of this penguin, dubbed Happy Feet, while following its rehabilitation and return to the wild via the Internet. See Water Ways, June 26, 2011.

The second video is a compilation of humorous situations involving penguins. Again, the video below shows Jessica Meir explaining at the USA Science and Engineering Festival how she made her life transition from science kid to professional biologist to future space explorer.

Nautilus submarine ‘can send your soul to the bottom’ — Bob Ballard

It is rather amazing to watch live video from a submarine creeping along along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast, and I wanted to remind everyone that this is something they can experience right now via the Nautilus Live webfeed. The live commentary from the operators can be amusing at times, but I didn’t want to wait until Monday to let you know what’s going on.

Exploration Vessel Nautilus, with its remotely operated submarines Hercules and Argus, has been exploring deep-sea vents off Oregon the past few days, marking the beginning of a six-month expedition along the West Coast and around Hawaii. The ROVs were launched Sunday as the weather allowed, and the mother ship is now moving up the coast. I’ve embedded the video on this page, but more information and alternate channels are provided on the Nautilus homepage. One can also send questions to the research team.

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World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

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Europe may soon launch wide-ranging solutions to plastic pollution

Taking on the enormous problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, the European Union is on track to ban single-use items made of plastic, while communities in Washington state slowly adopt bans on plastic bags.

Straws are listed as a problem plastic.
Photo: Horia Varlan, Wikimedia Commons

The European Commission is targeting specific plastic products that constitute 70 percent of the items found among marine debris lost in the sea and along the shoreline. Cotton swabs, plastic cutlery, plates, drinking cups and straws are among the items that would be banned outright, because non-plastic alternatives are available.

The proposal announced this week goes well beyond those items, however, calling for a 90-percent reduction in plastic drink-bottle waste, possibly through a deposit system. In addition, plans are underway for new waste-disposal programs, ongoing cleanups, and educational efforts designed to reduce the purchase of and encourage the proper disposal of food containers, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons and fishing gear. Manufacturers of plastic products would help fund those various programs, according to the proposal.

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Students reflect on impact of marine debris in annual art contest

NOAA’s annual Marine Debris Art Contest continues to attract creative students able to spread the message about how loose trash can escape into the ocean and harm sea creatures.

Zilan C., a Michigan second-grader, was one of 13 winners in this year’s Marine Debris Art Contest.
Image: Courtesy of NOAA

“The ocean is the ocean animals’ home, not a trash can,” writes Zilan C., a Michigan second-grader who drew the first picture on this page. “Everyone should keep the debris out of the ocean and save the ocean animals’ home!”

“Plastics, rubber, paper and other lost or discarded items enter the ocean and lakes everyday,” said Yufei F., a Michigan fifth grader who created the second piece. “Everyone can do our part in reducing and preventing marine debris. We can also join in cleaning the beach and clean our streets. When everyone takes action, we can keep our ocean clean.”

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Rainfall pattern returns to normal across the Kitsap Peninsula

After two years of near-record rainfall across the Kitsap Peninsula, precipitation has returned to a more normal pattern.

Halfway through the water year, which begins in October, rainfall in Hansville, Silverdale and Holly are all within 10 percent of the average for this time of year, according to weather instruments managed by Kitsap Public Utility District.

This near-average total for the first half of the year comes about despite a very wet November, when Hansville broke the all-time record for precipitation for that month. Since then, the monthly rainfall numbers have been mostly below average, except for a wet January when Holly nearly broke the record for that month.

As we’ve seen time and again, the amount of rainfall decreases dramatically as one travels from south to north on the Kitsap Peninsula. That’s the general pattern for all times of the year, although the amount of precipitation can vary wildly.

Hansville received 25.5 inches for the six months ending April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 23.1 inches for that period. Last year, the six-month figure was 7 inches higher at 32.5 inches, and the first half of 2016 went down in the record books with a total of 37.0 inches.

Silverdale posted 35.1 inches of rain by April 1, compared to a 28-year average of 38.1 inches for this time of year. Last year, this Central Kitsap area received 51.7 inches by April, and in 2016 the number was 52.3 inches, second only to 1999 with 69.8 inches.

In rainswept Holly, residents experienced 68.7 inches by April 1, compared to a 27-year average of 65.0 inches. By April 1 last year, Holly was practically swimming with 95.9 inches, driven by 24.0 inches during the month of October 2016 and 21.8 inches the next month. But nothing compares to the first half of water year 1999, when Holly received 120 inches for the first half of the year. Following a fairly dry summer, water year 1999 in Holly ended with 127.5 inches of precipitation.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has projected somewhat higher-than-average rainfall through the end of this month in the Pacific Northwest, followed by fairly average conditions going into summer. Forecasters rely heavily on observations about temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which influence a natural cycle known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. See video this page.

A very strong El Niño during 2015 and 2016 (associated with the much-discussed “blob”) shifted into a weak La Niña in 2017. Conditions have now reversed course again and seem to be headed toward neutral. La Niñas are generally associated with cooler and wetter weather for our region of the country, while El Niños suggest warmer and dryer conditions — although it does not always turn out that way.

Neutral conditions are expected to arrive by summer, and some forecasters predict that the warmer El Niño could arrive toward the end of the water year in September, according to information released today by the Climate Prediction Center.

“Some of the computer models are forecasting development of El Niño by next fall,” noted research scientist Emily Becker in a new post on the ENSO Blog, “but there are a number of reasons why we’re not completely taking the bait right now.

“First, forecasts made this time of year tend to be less successful,” she continued. “Another reason is that, while elevated subsurface heat content in the spring sometimes precedes the development of El Niño in the fall, some recent studies have found that this relationship has not been very reliable over the past two decades.”

Researchers observed a warming trend in March among subsurface waters in the Eastern Pacific. Those waters are expected to rise to the surface over the next few months to potentially neutralize any cool surface waters that remain. The outcome is likely to be the end of the current La Niña and possibly the beginning of a new El Niño, featuring warmer ocean conditions.