Friday, October 29, 2010

The Story Beyond the Headlines: Rare Shark Encounter in Maine

A former Boston TV news editor and a professional outdoorsman for 20 years, Tony LaCasse gets to combine his two great interests in his job as the Aquarium’s media relations director. He aspires to be one of the Aquarium’s journalists and gets to tell many of the great stories here and to interpret events in the wider aquatic world.

This past weekend, a commercial diver off of Eastport, Maine, had a scary and strange encounter with a large shark. Scott MacNichol was videotaping the sea bottom below an empty salmon pen when he saw an 8-foot shark approach and had to eventually fend it off with his camera. He hurriedly returned to his boat. In the mayhem, he shot about 20 seconds of video.

Stills from the 20-second porbeagle shark encounter video. The full video can be viewed on the Bangor Daily News website. (Photo: Mer Assessment Corp.)

The video is not the stuff of shark nature shows, but it offers some clues in identifying the species. Early in the video, you can see a couple of seconds of the shark's full body, which is fairly stout but also has a distinct white patch at the rear base of the dorsal or back fin. This is the key identifying characteristic of a porbeagle shark, which is a cold water shark.

Porbeagle shark rendering (Source: NOAA)

Above all, we are thankful for the safety of Scott MacNichol. He is remarkably composed and insightful. However, there are a number of unusual aspects of this story. Shark encounters are very uncommon in New England but even more so for Maine. Despite its spectacular coastline, shark densities are fairly low there. The most common sharks seen there are blue sharks, seen mostly in the summer, filter-feeding basking sharks and porbeagles.

Porbeagles are truly a cold water shark as they have the ability to maintain a core body temperature many degrees above the surrounding water temperature. That is an unusual physiological capability for a shark. Most shark species visiting New England migrate south as the water cools. Porbeagles actually do not like warm water. Their primary habitat is off the Maritime Provinces of Canada and the cooler waters of New England.

Porbeagles' main diet is herring, mackerel and other schooling fish. Humans are not on their menu, but any large shark can be dangerous. The International Shark Attack Files (ISAF) based out of the Florida Museum of Natural History, collects data from around the world on human/shark incidents.

Porbeagle population distribution map (Florida Museum of Natural History)

ISAF records show that despite the porbeagle's distribution around the cooler waters of the world, there have only been two recorded incidents and interestingly enough, both involve divers in non-fatal encounters in Canada and off of Great Britain. One of those incidents happened in Nova Scotia in 2000 when a diver collecting sea urchins had his harvest bag grabbed by a porbeagle while his hand was still entangled. Their several minute struggle is described on a website about sharks in New England that is maintained by Captain Tom King, a charter boat fisherman out of Scituate. The website is well regarded by biologists, although the squeamish should be advised that it is a fishing website and has many images of landed sharks that are dead. Here's the link.

Explaining the shark's behavior is difficult and at best, informed conjecture. Commercial divers in Maine do see porbeagles and very rarely have a problem. People are way off the size scale of these sharks' normal prey items, and most wildlife have a very clear instinct that human beings can be dangerous to them.

Porbeagles consume groundfish such as flounders (Florida Museum of Natural History)

The diver's colleague speculated that the electronic signal created by the video camera and its flashy metal casing might have confused the shark as to whether the camera was a fish in distress. Sharks, unlike human beings and most other fish species, truly have a sixth sense called electroreception. Sharks have sensory organs that allow them to detect low-frequency electrical fields. This helps them hunt in low light or detect prey items buried in the sand.

The porbeagles in the Nova Scotia and Maine incident reports displayed a common behavior: appearing to be interested in what was in the diver's hand--a sea urchin harvest bag and the camera, possible food items. Divers are often advised to give up perceived food items and to minimize the amount of shininess on any gear so as to reduce the chance of it reflecting light the way that fish scales do. In both of these situations, the divers handled themselves very well. For a comprehensive description of what divers should do around sharks visit the ISAF divers tips page.

Porbeagles are a much more rare sight than they were once were. Greg Skomal, Massachusetts shark biologist, noted in his new book, The Shark Handbook, that Norwegian fisherman targeted the porbeagle population off the North American East Coast in the 1960s, catching up to 18 million pounds per year or 90,000 sharks annually. As is to be expected, the population crashed, and commercial fishing was no longer viable.

Porbeagle shark being caught (Photo: NOAA)

The recovery of a shark population can take much longer than that of most other fish species. Most shark species become sexually mature at much older ages and then have only a few live young born each year versus thousands of eggs dispatched by many other fish species. Overharvested shark populations can take decades to recover. Porbeagles are listed on a global level as vulnerable, and Skomal estimates that the regional porbeagle population is about one tenth of its peak size. There is a still commercial harvest of porbeagles in Canada, and porbeagles are a prized target of recreational and charter shark fishermen in U. S. waters.


Monday, October 25, 2010

More Halloween treat than trick at the Aquarium!

With spooky eels gliding about the Giant Ocean Tank and lionfish lurking in the tropical gallery, let the Aquarium add some spooky to your family's Halloween activities. And there's an extra special TREAT in store for festive families! The New England Aquarium and Boston DUCK Tours based at the Aquarium are teaming up to offer kids 11 and younger in costume and accompanied by a paying adult, FREE admission on Halloween day. That's Sunday, October 31!

Photo credit: J. Fillman

The Aquarium’s four-story Giant Ocean Tank will be decorated with jack-o'-lanterns nestled amid on the corals, and the scuba divers will be in their soggy Halloween best! Aquarium hours on Sunday, October 31, are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Once you've had your fill of the fascinating creatures of the deep, hit the streets with a Boston DUCK Tour! Board a DUCK based at the Aquarium to tour the Hub in one of the weirdest yet coolest vehicles ever made. DUCK drivers, or ConDUCKtors, are in costume and character every day. Free admission is only for chaperoned kids in costume on the Boston tours leaving from the Aquarium, not from any other DUCK Tour sites. Boston DUCK Tours will operate at the Aquarium from 12 noon to 5:30 p.m.

Have a happy and safe Halloween!

Children 11 years old and younger must be in costume in order to take advantage of this special offer. Children in costume without a supervising adult will not be admitted. Free admission is for the Aquarium and the Boston DUCK Tours leaving from the Aquarium only, and does not apply to the Simons IMAX Theatre or Whale Watch.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Harbor seal returns to Boston Harbor

There will be one less spectator at the Head of the Charles this weekend. The curious harbor seal that was cruising about the Charles River basin this week has found its way back to Boston Harbor, thanks to quick thinking from the lock keepers with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. (Check out previous sightings of the seal in this blog post, complete with video of the seal interrupting a sailing practice!)

Knowing that the seal was looking to find its way back to the harbor, the lock keepers had been keeping an eye out for the freshwater visitor. Sure enough, the seal found its way into the locks around 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon.

The locks are just east of the Zakim Bridge and the TD Banknorth Garden

The gate keepers kept the seal in the locks for less than an hour so that Aquarium staff could make sure that it was still healthy and alert. Then it was time to release the floodgates. With a quiet splash and a ripple, the seal slipped into Boston Harbor through the open locks.

Take a look at this video of the seal during the short time it was still in the locks!

The seal definitely made waves in the local media, too. Check out its moment in the spotlight on NECN , here and here, WCVB Channel 5 and USA Today. Look for the healthy swimmer on the local news tonight, too!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wrong Way Seal in the Charles River!

The Head of the Charles Regatta Will Have a Unique Head in the Charles

Cambridge, Mass. - October 21, 2010
Seeing a seal in Boston is not an uncommon event whether on a trip to the Aquarium or on a cruise by the outer Boston Harbor Islands. What is unusual is to see a seal in the freshwater section of the Charles River above the dam and locks that create the beautiful basin that lies between Boston and Cambridge. That has been the double-take experience of Boston Duck Tour operators, the M.I.T. sailing coach and staff at Community Boating over the last several days.

The animal appears to be a young harbor seal that slipped through the boat locks just east of the Zakim Bridge late last week. It was first spotted last Friday afternoon by a Boston Duck Tour operator in the water east of the Museum of Science. The seal was spotted again by Duck Tour operators on Sunday and Monday afternoons. Tuesday afternoon, Matt Lindblad, MIT's sailing coach, was on the water videotaping his practice when a curious head popped up in the middle of the river among his sailors east of the Mass Ave. bridge. Click play to see the head pop up in this video.

Wednesday afternoon, staff at Community Boating, just off Storrow Drive, were pulling moorings from the water when they encountered an unexpected visitor. All of the seal watchers have reported the animal as active, alert and appearing healthy.

With this weekend’s upcoming Head of the Charles Regatta, Aquarium officials are seeking the public’s help in keeping our wrong-way seal safe. Since the animal is vigorous and in good condition, wildlife officials would prefer that the young harbor seal exit via the locks. The regatta will lead to an increased amount of recreational boat traffic on the Charles and increased opportunities for the seal to make his freshwater escape. The Charles River Dam Locks are operated by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), and the state is cooperating fully.

The seal is very active and is moving throughout the Lower Basin of the Charles, well below the location of this weekend's races. The public can help by insuring that the seal is not harassed by either ignorant or well meaning people. Seals are protected under federal law, and people are not allowed to disturb them on the water or on land.

  • Enjoy the seal, but please watch safely from at least 150 feet away.
  • Do not offer the seal food. Unfamiliar food is not good for it.
  • If on the water, do not approach the seal. If operating a motorboat and the seal appears nearby, reduce speed, watch carefully, and cut the engine if the props are a potential hazard to the seal.
  • Do not try to make the seal move.
  • Keep dogs away from the seal.
  • If the seal hauls out of the water which is very unlikely, please call the Aquarium’s Marine Animal Hotline at 617-973-5247. On water sightings need not be reported unless the seal is in distress.
Harassing or disturbing a seal is a federal crime that is enforced, and violators are subject to a large fine. More importantly during the Head of the Charles, Boston has a history of providing great hospitality for tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world. This year, we just happen to have a very unique guest, and we are confident that the public can help in providing this seal with a safe space during such a spectacular event in Boston.

[Note: This seal later returned safely to Boston Harbor. This is not the first time a wild seal has visited downtown Boston. In January of 2009, a wild harp seal visited Central Wharf, less than a block away from the Aquarium.]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tune in to some deep blue science!

Living beneath the waves in a yellow submarine... it's not just a catchy tune, it's real-life science coming live to a computer near you! Students and ocean-lovers around the world are plugging in to Aquarius 2010: If Reefs Could Talk, a series of live webcasts broadcast from the Aquarius lab. And you can, too. Tune in for these unique daily broadcasts from the depths of the deep blue through October 21!

Greg Stone, former Vice President of Global Marine Programs at the Aquarium, looks out of Aquarius in this 2002 photograph. Photo credit: Brian Skerry, National Geographic

This special laboratory is located off the coast of Key Largo, 60 feet underwater in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The scientific researchers or "aquanauts" that live in Aquarius, as well as scientists operating from the surface, will be sharing their experience and intimate knowledge of the ocean while performing their latest mission on board the Aquarius.

Aquarius mit Tauchglocke
Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Check the schedule for broadcast times and topics. See what a day in the life of a reef fish is like, learn what kinds of cool tools researchers are using in their underwater world, tackle tough issues like climate change and threats to our oceans and discover how you can prepare for a career in marine science. You can even post comments and questions on NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries facebook and twitter pages!

If these Aquarius adventures are just whetting your appetite for information about this underwater laboratory, you should checkout this book for kids ages 10 and older! Written by longtime Aquarium Editor-in-Chief Ken Mallory, you'll find fascinating details about what it's like to live underwater, listening to the crackle of shrimp pinging through the walls, as well as gripping photographs by Aquarium Explorer in Residence Brian Skerry.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Vision for a Beautiful Place

A 10-year vision for marine research in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) has been completed!

PIPA, which is widely known as one of the largest marine protected areas and was recently celebrated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has captured the attention of scientists and researchers all over the world. PIPA's remote location and relative isolation make it a natural laboratory for researchers.

With the help of New England Aquarium coral reef researchers Randi Rotjan and David Obura and the rest of the PIPA Scientific Advisory Board, three major research themes to pursue have emerged: 1) exploration, 2) connectivity within the marine ecosystem and 3) reef resilience and recovery.

Previous research has shown that that reefs located within PIPA have demonstrated an ability to recover from thermal stressors. Studying the reef's recovery without the additional stressors of local human impacts will help scientists to determine what is needed to help reefs recover in other parts of the world.

To read more about the research from the PIPA Scientific Advisory Board, check out the Phoenix Islands Blog.