Thursday, June 21, 2012

Giant and Harmless Basking Sharks Return to the New England Coast

BOSTON — It’s late June in coastal New England, which makes it the silly season for sharks – that time of year when we have a combined giddy fascination and horror with the ocean’s top predators. Wednesday night, Boston TV stations featured prominent stories on the detection of electronically tagged great white sharks off Cape Cod, which is a little early but still a routine event. Apparently seeking to balance out the celebrity obsession with great whites, a member of the region’s largest shark species nearly got stranded in the tidal Pocasset River Thursday morning. Some empathetic and curious by-standers shot some amazing video courtesy of their iPhone.

Basking shark (Photo: M. Rocha)

Ironically, this 12 to 14 foot shark is a juvenile. Adult basking sharks in New England waters are commonly more than 20 feet long and can reach in excess of 30 feet. Greg Skomal, the state’s shark biologist, often jokes that it is a whale caught in a fish’s body! Basking sharks are the second largest fish species on the planet, and they migrate into New England waters early each summer to filter feed on animal plankton called copepods. They can often be seen cruising with their enormously expandable mouths agape very close to shore.

With a prominent dorsal or back fin sticking out of the water and their sheer size, they stimulate epidemic-like enthusiasm among those who see them, from beachgoers to boaters. Most often, people assume that they are great whites. Two years ago this week, a Boston TV station ran video shot by a boater of what they reported as a great white shark in excess of 25 feet off Newburyport. It was in fact a basking shark. Great whites rarely get over 20 feet, they do not frequent Cape Ann often, and the video showed the low-key, passive filter feeding of a basking shark. Basking sharks are the moose of local waters — often in proximity to human habitat and not easily disturbed by our presence — while great whites are quite elusive and very difficult for even scientists to find without the aid of aerial spotting. When someone sees a large shark in Massachusetts near shore, chances are that it is a basking shark.

Great whites and basking sharks can be difficult to tell apart when not feeding. Onlookers should ALWAYS exercise caution around any large wildlife and any species of shark. The basking shark seen today could easily have broken the leg of someone trying to assist it to get back into deeper water as it thrashed about.

Another interesting aspect of today’s basking shark video was the encouraging comments made by the onlookers as the shark struggled to get in deeper water. It reflects the fact that much of the public has come to understand the key role that sharks play ecologically in the ocean.

Some important facts to remember about sharks in New England:
  1. There are approximately 15 shark species that frequent New England waters.
  2. Among the big three shark species that are sometimes a threat to people globally, only one species, great whites, frequent area waters.
  3. There has not been a fatal shark attack in New England since 1936, over 75 years. People are thousands of times more likely to drown, die of an allergic reaction to an insect sting or die in a collision with a deer on the drive to the beach. In the last 15 years, two men have died at Massachusetts beaches after the sand pits that they were digging collapsed on to them.
  4. Sharks are large, unpredictable wildlife. When they are observed, get out of the water and follow the directions of local officials. People need to be careful around any large wildlife whether they be moose, sharks, bears or seals.
  5. Do not swim or surf in the presence of seals. Seals are on the menu of great white sharks while people are not. Yet getting out of the water in the presence of seals minimizes the possibility of a mistaken identity hit.
[Note: Basking sharks have been spotted from the New England Aquarium Whale Watch. Reports with images are here, here, here and here.]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rescued Sea Turtles Released in Mid-Atlantic

Seventeen endangered sea turtles rescued last autumn off of Cape Cod due to hypothermia have completed their rehabilitation at the New England Aquarium and were released Sunday evening near the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula in Virginia. Water temperatures along the Virginia coast range from the low to mid 70’s while the warmest in Massachusetts have just cracked 60 degrees–still too cold for these turtles!

Juggernaut relaxing comfortably during a recent medical exam. Photo credit: New England Aquarium

Since the sea turtles are ready to go, but the local waters are not ready for them, New England Aquarium staff left Quincy, MA very early Sunday morning and drive fifteen Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and two loggerheads ten hours south to more hospitable waters about an hour north of Virginia Beach. There with the assistance of staff from the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, those turtles will be placed in the sand just above the surf where the smell of the open ocean will fill their nostrils, and their flippers will hastily propel them into the water and a return to their home.

Juggernaut at his first medical exam near death last December. Note how beat up his shell is. 
Photo credit: New England Aquarium

The largest among them is an 80 pound loggerhead turtle named Juggernaut. It stranded last December 11 on Skaket Beach in Orleans on Cape Cod weighing much less. The nearly motionless orange-brownish turtle was found by staff and volunteers of the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and transported to the New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Care Center just south of Boston. This older juvenile turtle had an unusual fracture on the lower shell surrounding its rear flippers. The injury might have kept it from migrating earlier in the autumn. Because of the water temperature, Juggernaut’s immediate life threatening medical problems were hypothermia, dehydration and malnutrition.

After several days of slow re-warming and recovery, the long term medical concern for Juggernaut was whether it would ever regain enough strength and mobility in its rear flippers to be able to catch food and escape predators. X-rays showed that there was some malformation in a major long bone in its flipper. Rescue biologist and veterinarians felt that the best long term route was the equivalent of sea turtle physical therapy. They rearranged the in-flow water pipes into his tank to force it to use its rear flippers more regularly and slowly build muscle throughout its pelvic region. Connie Merigo, head of Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Team noted, “Nothing happens quickly with a turtle.”

After six months of rehabilitation, Juggernaut is now ready to go along with 16 other sea turtles. Most of the other soon to be released turtles are juvenile Kemp’s ridleys which are the most endangered sea turtle in the world and also the smallest. They were the sea turtle species most affected by the Gulf oil spill.

The New England Aquarium has rehabilitated and released nearly a thousand sea turtles over the last 25 years and has made a significant contribution to the slow recovery of the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle population.

Check out all the media coverage of the happy event!
Boston Globe 
WBZ Channel 4 Boston
The Patriot Ledger
Associated Press (via the Salem News)
And for a special piece about a dedicated member of our rescue team, check out this article in the Worcester Telegram

Be sure to keep track of the Rescue Blog for a fist hand perspective on the event. The rescue team is on their way back from Virginia right now and they'll be weighing in very soon! In the meantime, learn more about the Aquarium's sea turtle rescue program. And here's a good idea of what a day in the midst of sea turtle rescue season is like.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Climate Change Op-Ed from Aquarium President

Climate change is happening all around us, and there's little doubt that oceans are feeling the heat. With the officially recognized World Oceans Day coming up on Friday, Aquarium president Bud Ris (left) recently weighed in on this pressing global issue in an op-ed piece published online today by the Boston Globe.

From the polar regions to the tropics to the familiar shores of Boston Harbor, global climate change is just that — global. There are steps we can take to slow climate change but "at a minimun," Ris writes, "we all have a responsibility to get educated."

Here is an excerpt from his essay:
As we celebrate World Oceans Day on Friday, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the current state of our oceans and the biggest challenge they face: climate change. This is no longer a problem for the future; climate change is already underway. 
Keep reading.
As Ris explains, climate change and its impact on marine life is a major part of the story we tell along our exhibit path. So come visit sometime and learn how global climate change is effecting Northern fur seals and African penguins. Dig deeper and explore our climate changes resources online, including its effect on ocean animals. Lastly, find out what you can do to live blue for the planet.

Have a happy World Oceans Day.

Coral reef in Fiji.