Wednesday, December 30, 2015

50 Endangered Turtles Fly South

The first slushy mess of a winter storm on Tuesday delayed the flight of fifty endangered sea turtles from the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy, MA, to a turtle rehab facility in Florida. The recovering Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, like so many wannabe tropical vacation-bound New Englanders, found their dreams of a warm get-away delayed and then cruelly postponed by the injustice of another winter storm!

A Kemp's ridley turtle in recovery at the Aquarium's Animal Care Center

The three- to ten-pound, black-shelled, juvenile sea turtles recovering from hypothermia and other associated medical conditions appeared dejected, but kept their padded, shipping crates packed for another try Wednesday. Because of further weather delays, the journey began at Hanscomb Airport in Bedford, MA. The turtles' five hour flight to Panama City, Florida, will eventually bring them to Gulf World, a marine park that has been a crucial partner with the New England Aquarium in finishing the rehab of a large number of cold-stunned sea turtles over the past two record-setting years.

Rescuers prepare turtles for transport
(Photo via Karen Twomey via Twitter @KarenWBZRadio)

The flight has been arranged by NOAA  and  will be operated by PlaneSense, a private aviation company located in Portsmouth, N.H.  They have also donated part of the cost of the trip. The remaining cost has been covered by a generous, anonymous benefactor from New York.

Boxing up turtles for transport to warmer climes
(Photo via Karen Twomey via Twitter @KarenWBZRadio)

This autumn’s sea turtle stranding season is the second largest in the quarter century partnership between the New England Aquarium and the Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

To date, 287 sea turtles that have washed up on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay have been admitted to the Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital since early November. That number is three times the recent average of about 90 treated each November and December (but pales in comparison to last year’s bizarre record-smashing total of 733).

In any case, the Aquarium’s hospital is over capacity necessitating the transfer of rewarmed and medically stable turtles to other rehab facilities in the South and along the East Coast. In a normal weather year, the sea turtle stranding season would already be over as they rarely survive the normally seasonable water temperatures in the low 40’s, but Cape Cod Bay has been exceptionally warm for most of December with water temperatures in the high 40’s.

The loggerhead rescued by volunteers at Mass Audubon at Wellfleet Bay
(Photo via Mass Audubon's Facebook page

The last surviving turtles of the season are almost always large, adolescent loggerhead sea turtles weighing 25 to 75 pounds. So far this season, only one has been admitted leaving the truly strange prospect of tropical sea turtles stranding in New England well into January.

2015: A Year In Review

It's that time of the year when we reflect on the 12 months that just passed. The year brought much to be excited about: new exhibits, animal arrivals, animal rescues, special recognitions and productive research.

A young visitor gives sea turtle feeding a try with our replica reptiles 

One of the most exciting additions to the Aquarium is the creation of the Sea Turtle Hospital exhibit. With interactive sea turtle replicas, informative videos and engaging displays, it brings the important work of our real-life animal rescuers to visitors on Central Wharf. This immersive sea turtle rescue experience was especially noteworthy debuting after our record-breaking sea turtle rescue season.

Examining coral in the Phoenix Islands Protected area

On the other side of the planet, Aquarium researchers plunged into the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) during an epic El Niño year. Scientists conducted long-planned research and surveys while also looking for signs of coral bleaching amid warming ocean temperatures. The 2015 expedition was documented through many different voices on the PIPA Blog.

Commander, large and in charge

We also welcomed a new arrival—a hulking, hairy new arrival. Commander the adult male fur seal joined fellow fur seals Ursula, Kitovi, Chiidax and the rowdy sea lions Zoe and Sierra. Look for him in the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center. The big fella is hard to miss!

ClimaTeens present at an Earth Day gathering with Sen. Ed Markey,
EPA Chief Gina McCarthy and Secretary of Energy Ernie  Moniz

In the special recognition department, the Aquarium received a Greenovate Boston Award in community leadership for our climate change education efforts, both locally and nationally. One of the projects that was recognized is the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI). We head up a group of eight partners and 100 participating organizations in 30 states with the goal of influencing climate change education at science centers around the country. In addition, our new ClimaTeens group helps local young people develop the skills to communicate effectively about climate change in their communities.

A young Kemp's ridley in recovery in the Animal Care Center in Quincy

Aquarium rescuers are in the midst of another busy sea turtle stranding season—already the second largest in our record books with more than 280 turtles. This year is shaping up to be quite unusual given the warm temperatures and large numbers of turtles still washing up this late in the year. It remains to be seen how many turtles we will treat this year, but our rescuers won't stop until the last turtle is released back into the ocean months from now. We're saving a species, after all!

Researcher Emily Jones does a visual inspection of a recently-hooked fish before its release. 

On the research front, the discard mortality work of John Mandelman, PhD, recently made some news. His team of researchers has been collaborating with recreational fishermen to examine how many codfish actually survive when they are caught and returned to the water. The Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) population in the Gulf of Maine is currently struggling to recover from historic lows and Mandelman's research will help set targets that are grounded in science. Future studies will focus on other fish frequently caught by recreational fishermen: haddock and cusk.

A young visitor immersed in the action of flooded Amazon exhibit

In 2015, Aquarium programs continue to span the blue planet and the Aquarium community is united in our quest to explore, share, learn and inspire. We engage families on Central Wharf with important conservation stories and intimate moments spent with amazing aquatic animals. We work with young people here and in communities across the country to spark constructive conversations about climate change. We have scientists on the water around the world exploring and studying issues from ecosystem change to human impacts to endangered species survival. We are working diligently to give many of those endangered species a fighting chance. Yup, 2015 was a good year.

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 Superlatives: See Who's Most Popular

Who doesn't love a solid best-of list? Our list includes some of the most popular posts on our blogs and social platforms. Turns out our followers are big fans of ocean animals, too.

Facebook Posts (farthest reach)
So incredibly flamboyant! Watch the video on Facebook
  • Earlier this year we launched a gigantic new IMAX film featuring some of the planet's most gigantic animals. Of course the post had to be gigantic! Our post announcing Humpback Whales 3D turned out to be the year's most popular.
  • Another video post followed closely behind, not surprisingly, because flamboyant cuttlefish are entirely hypnotizing! The clip reached nearly a quarter million people.

Instagram Love (most likes)
Our most popular post on Instagram
UPDATE: As of this week, we have a new most-popular post on Instagram! Must have been the sharks in this picture.
Most Popular Blogs (most pageviews)
2015's most popular blog: A tragically entangled Snowball
  • This year's most popular blog by far brought to light the threats facing North Atlantic right whales today. A tragic end to a favorite whale shares the story of a well-known right whale named Snowball who likely died, after being last seen with a severe entanglement in fishing line.
  • Commander in command introduces the newest fur seal to our colony: Commander! He arrived earlier this year after a cross-country trek via FedEx. 
  • In August we celebrated Wharf Festival with our whale watch partners at Boston Harbor Cruises. It was a popular event and so, of course, the blog detailing the activities and contest involved was incredibly popular, too.

Super Tweets (most impressions)
Because your Twitter followers need to know
about penguins knees
  • The ever-popular fun fact about penguin knees returns as our most popular tweet of 2015: And here's your ultimate #funfact in honor of #PenguinAwarenessDay: Yes, #penguins have knees .
  • An arresting picture from our whale watch was another popular tweet in our twittersphere: Wait, who is watching who on this #whalewatch?

YouTube Winners (most views)
Rare whale caught on camera!
  • Myrtle the green sea turtle, our most famous resident, lent her star power to the Aquarium's summer ad campaign with a series of TV commercials where she plays Agent Myrtle. This one was the most watched.

Connect with us through our social media so you can be among the first to see juicy posts like these. We are always sharing pictures, video and links—some posts are funny, some are sobering, some have tips for visitors, some have cute animal pictures that will stop you mid-scroll and some can transport you around our blue planet with information about our research, exploration and conservation updates.

Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Instagram, Google + and YouTube.

The Ice Queen

We often refer to Myrtle the green sea turtle as the queen of the Giant Ocean Tank. After all, she's lived there the longest of any resident, she's definitely the most imposing at 560 pounds and she has a big personality.

This year, the queen has a temporary place of honor on our front plaza as Boston's first ice sculpture of the holiday season!

Putting the finishing touches on the ice queen—Myrtle the turtle

It took a team of sculptors to create Myrtle in her element
Don Chapelle, one of the principle First Night ice sculptors for many years, set about the frosty task of creating this likeness of the Aquarium's most well-known animal. The activity drew quite a crowd on our Front Plaza.

Visitors got front row seats to see the ice sculpting.
Fortunately, the cold weather arrived just in time for this wintry public art to last a little longer. The Myrtle ice sculpture will remain up throughout the vacation week.

The finished work will be up all week! 

Come see Myrtle the ice queen at the Aquarium during school vacation! Here are our top five tips for a fantastic visit.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Volunteer of the Month: December

Every month our Volunteer Office sorts through piles of nominations from supervisors and honors one of our volunteers for their truly stupendous efforts. Meet our latest Volunteer of the Month.

For the month of December we are pleased to award Tammy Tauscher with the recognition of Volunteer of the Month! Tammy has been a dedicated volunteer in the Giant Ocean Tank since 2012, and in that time has donated over 1,000 hours of service to the aquarium. Tammy has continually gone above and beyond to help the Aquarium when needed, and for that we are extremely grateful!

Tammy Tauscher, December's volunteer of the month

Here is what her Giant Ocean Tank supervisor Chris Bauernfeind had to say:

Tammy feeding fish in the Giant Ocean Tank
Tammy is the core of our Wednesday volunteer team. Week after week after week for three years now, she shows up early in the morning and gets the ball rolling with food preparation for the GOT critters. 
Throughout the day, she constantly stays busy, looking for things to do during down time. And she does it all with a vibe of positivity and cheerfulness and humor… even on days when we have to move two pallets of frozen seafood into our freezer. Though she does take the award for clumsiest volunteer (self-acknowledged), I wouldn’t trade her for anybody! 
Please join us in congratulating Tammy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Aquarium Research: What happens to fish after catch and release?

What happens when recreational fishermen have to throw back some of their catch to comply with fishing regulations? Do these discarded fish live to see another day? Can they overcome stress and injury from capture and survive once released? And, what does that mean for the overall population of haddock, cusk and cod?

Researcher Emily Jones examines a fish's condition before returning
it to the ocean. The acoustic tags can be seen on its side.

To better understand these questions, researchers from the New England Aquarium, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology and University of New England have recently received more than $700,000 in research funding to dig deeper. They are in the midst of a string of studies that use acoustic tags to track the fate of discarded fish in the days and weeks after they are released. Eastman’s Docks Fishing Fleet in Seabrook, N.H., and Yankee Fleet Deep Sea Fishing in Gloucester, MA, are the primary fishing operations assisting the research teams with field studies.

Researchers on a chartered fishing boat catching fish for haddock study

Recreational rod-and-reel fisheries are responsible for a growing proportion of the total catch of Atlantic cod and haddock, which are economically and ecologically important ground fish species in the Gulf of Maine. But, very few know how these fish fare when they are discarded alive due to minimum size requirements, daily possession “bag” limits for individual anglers and current bans on harvesting cod by recreational anglers.

Past work funded by NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program (BREP) focused on cod, while newly acquired grants from the New England Fisheries Management Council and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s Saltonstall-Kennedy (SK) Program are enabling work on increasingly important species like haddock and cusk. Collectively, this support will allow continued work gauging the collateral impacts of recreational fisheries and strategies to increase survival of discarded ground fish in the Gulf of Maine.

Mandelman hooks a fish during a day in the field last summer

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to have the best data possible for stock assessments, fishing regulations, and other management processes,” said John Mandelman, Ph.D., the New England Aquarium’s Director of Research and Co-Principal Investigator on these grants.

“Given that the ability to retain catch hinges on the recovery and stability of ground fish stocks, we hope the angling community will be receptive to the outreach stemming from these studies, and that our findings contribute to much larger picture of restoring the health of ground fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine,” Dr. Mandelman said. “We also hope this cooperative research with industry shows recreational fishing fleets, groups and private anglers that research is being done on their behalf.”

The two main goals of these studies are to (1) better understand the mortality rates of these species; and (2) generate best fishing and catch handling guidelines that can be used by conservation-minded anglers to increase the survival of discarded fish. For example, Mandelman said the team can learn a lot by looking at injury and survival relative to how the fish are caught, such as the fishing tackle types used, how long a fish is fought, how long it takes to unhook it and environmental influences such as seawater temperature.

A haddock is examined before it is put back in the ocean.

Adding to the increased need for more research is that with strict past limits and now the present ban on retaining cod in the reactional fishery, haddock are increasingly more important to anglers and recreational fishing operations. Haddock caught in the recreational fishery have accounted up 86 percent of the total haddock catch across fisheries, despite the typical assumption that commercial fishing is responsible for the most haddock catch. Moreover, in 2013 nearly twice the amount of haddock caught were discarded as were kept, so understanding whether they survive after release is vitally important.

By generating data under authentic conditions, the team hopes to provide their findings to fisheries managers to aid management processes, such as stock assessments and the determination of size and possession limits for recreational fisherman. Management is already accounting for results. For example, cod discard mortality estimates from this work have been used in the cod stock assessment updates and to establish 2015 haddock possession limits, which were adjusted from two to three fish per angler per day according to lower than previously held mortality rates found for cod (which are sometimes caught in the same habitats).

Dr. Mandelman's research has been covered in recent news reports. Read them here.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seal training face off with Patriot and 7 News anchor

Several weeks ago, before the injuries started stacking up against the Patriots, star running back Dion Lewis came to the Aquarium to engage in a friendly challenge with new Channel 7 news anchor Jadiann Thompson. Coached by marine mammal trainers Belinda Brackett and Jamie Mathison, the two spent more than an hour learning the ins and outs of working with sea lions and fur seals.

Dion Lewis works with Ursula the fur seal.
7 News anchor Jadianne Thompson and trainer Belinda Bracket looks on.

The lesson was part of a segment that aired on 7 News morning show called "Who Did It Better?" Take a look! Who do you think did it better?

7News Boston WHDH-TV

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Watch Aquarium Animals Eat!

From the top of the Giant Ocean Tank to the chilly water in the Penguin Exhibit, feeding time at the Aquarium takes many different shapes. Penguins are hand fed fish, cownose rays in the Giant Ocean Tank are hand fed squid while the loggerheads are fed squid on a long feeding stick.

Take a look at just a few of the meals happening around the Aquarium this weekend.

Visitors get front row seats to watch these fascinating animals nosh their seafood. After your holiday feasts, plan a visit this weekend to see how the animals do their feasting. Buy your tickets online and skip the line at the Box Office.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Host Your Holiday Party at the Aquarium

More animals. More exhibits. More unforgettable events.

The holiday season is nearly upon us. It's time to plan your company’s seasonal celebration at the New England Aquarium. Give your guests the opportunity to dine privately among penguins, sharks and sea turtles or beside Boston’s scenic skyline. Our event management team will assist you every step of the way – from finding the ideal space for your event to creating the perfect menu.

Please call our Events Department at 617-973-5205, email us at or fill out our online event inquiry form to reserve your selected date today.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Celebrating plastic bans at State House

Women Working for Oceans, Massachusetts Sierra Club and the New England Aquarium invite you to celebrate

Heroes of the Ocean
Boston State House-Grand Staircase
Thursday, November 12, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m.

Join us for an awards ceremony, speakers that will inspire you and light refreshments. We will honor the individuals behind the success of municipal bans on single-use plastic bags, bottles and polystyrene packaging across Massachusetts in the following municipalities:

Amherst, Barnstable, Brookline, Cambridge, Concord, Falmouth, Great Barrington, Harwich, Manchester-By-The-Sea, Marblehead, Nantucket, Newburyport, Newton, Northampton, Provincetown, Somerville, South Hadley, Wellfleet

Lend your voice and raise the rafters to demand additional state- wide legislation to stop plastic pollution from single-use plastic packaging to microbeads.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Petition to Protect the Aquarium and Boston's Waterfront!

Sign the petition to voice your support for responsible development of Boston's Waterfront!

As you may know, the City of Boston is currently planning the development of the Downtown Boston Waterfront, specifically at the Harbor Garage site adjacent to the Aquarium. Having been on the Waterfront for 45 years, the Aquarium is heavily invested in the planning of the area and concerned about any impacts increased development might have on our beloved institution.

The Aquarium supports development that enhances our waterfront as a destination with safe and affordable access and where visitors and residents can enjoy open spaces and walk along the water. And we need your help to make sure that future development is moving us forwards.

We have been working diligently to make sure that our position about waterfront planning is heard, and feel that now is the time to amplify our message.

Can we count on you to join our voices by signing this petition to stand with the Aquarium and support responsible Waterfront development?

Sign the petition and share with your friends.

Special offer for veterans on Veterans Day

In honor of Veteran's Day, we are extending our active duty military discount to all veterans and their dependents on Wednesday, November 11, 2015, and offering a 10% discount to veterans in our Harborview Café. Celebrate this holiday with your family as well as penguins, seals, sea lions, sea turtles and fish.

A fur seal waves a flag in the marine mammal center.

The discount is available for tickets purchased at our Box Office only. Veterans must show proof of former military status (a driver's license with a veteran designation, for example). Adults will receive $10 off admission, and children receive $5 off. This discount does not apply to non-dependent guests coming with military personnel and veterans. Veterans will receive 10% off in our Café on Veterans Day by showing their ticket stub.

Thank you to all our service men and women, veterans and their families.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Aquarium Does Necropsy on 800 Pound Sea Turtle

Media Release — Dead Endangered Leatherback Found off of Woods Hole, Live Leatherback Freed from Entanglement in Truro by Center for Coastal Studies

On Sunday, New England Aquarium biologists and head veterinarian, Dr. Charles Innis, conducted a necropsy on an 813-pound leatherback sea turtle that was found floating Saturday about one mile south of Woods Hole. The necropsy results showed abrasions and tissue tearing on the left front flipper and around the neck that are consistent with entanglement with marine gear. The adult female, which was over 6 feet in length, also had a two foot section of marine rope in her mouth. She appeared to have been dead for at least two to three days. She also had tags that had probably been fastened on her when she had nested on an eastern Caribbean beach. That exact location should be learned Monday.

The necropsy results showed abrasions and tissue tearing on the left front flipper and around the neck
that are consistent with entanglement with marine gear. | Photo: New England Aquarium

On Saturday, while the dead leatherback on the southwestern corner of Cape Cod was being towed to land by a Massachusetts Environmental Police vessel, marine animal rescue experts from the Center for Coastal Studies were busy successfully disentangling a slightly smaller, live leatherback off the northeast side of the Cape in Pamet Harbor in Truro. Click here for more details.

Leatherback sea turtles migrate to New England each summer to feed on the abundant sea jellies found in offshore waters, but these endangered animals also often become entangled in the gauntlet of vertical lines that extend from surface buoys to boat moorings, lobster pots and other fixed fishing gear. In the plankton rich, darkened waters of the region, the leatherback’s enormous 2-3 foot front flippers can come into unexpected contact with a fixed line that then spins the animal, which often results in a wrap of rope around the flipper or the head. Being a reptile and an air-breather, the leatherback must occasionally reach the water’s surface to survive. These enormously strong swimmers can sometimes haul a huge amount of weight to the surface trying to survive. Unless discovered by boaters or blessed with enormous luck, these sea turtles eventually tire and drown.

On Saturday, the good and bad results of this all too common struggle were apparent on the same day on opposite sides of Cape Cod.

Both of these leatherbacks were at the tail end of the leatherback migration out of the Gulf of Maine, past the Cape and the Islands and down the eastern seaboard to tropical waters for the winter. With local ocean temperatures in the low to mid 50’s, leatherbacks are unique among sea turtles in that they are able to raise their body temperatures above the surrounding water temperatures and remain active.

The turtle autopsied by the Aquarium is just average sized for adults of this endangered species.
Photo: New England Aquarium

At over 800 pounds, the turtle autopsied by the Aquarium is just average sized for adults of this endangered species! Leatherbacks are the largest turtle and one of the largest reptiles in the world.

These giant, black, soft-shelled leatherbacks appear to be prehistoric, and that is because they are. They have survived the disappearance of the dinosaurs, cataclysmic climatic events and the Ice Age, but they may not survive the Anthropocene – the very short window that humans have dominated the Earth.

Further research on turtle sight and technical modifications to marine gear might help leatherback populations recover.

Keep reading to learn more about leatherback rescues by the New England Aquarium.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Taking Halloween Underwater

It's beginning to look a lot like Halloween around here. The divers just placed a couple jolly Jack-o-lanterns into the Giant Ocean Tank in preparation for our popular members-only Halloween party this evening. But all day today and tomorrow, visitors can enjoy seeing these festive gourds, nestled amid the corals throughout the 200,000-thousand gallon tank. 

If fish went trick-or-treating... 

Here's how it all went down.

Each pumpkin is weighted so it doesn't bob to the surface. These Halloween decorations will stay put through Halloween tomorrow—that is, unless the angelfish snack too much. You'll notice many of our herbivores like to snack on the pumpkin's flesh (mwah-hahahah).

A French angelfish eyes the pumpkin's goofy grin for a snack

In addition to the pumpkins, educators are dressed in costumes and ready to answer all your questions about the creepiest animals at the Aquarium. So plan to visit this weekend! Buy your tickets online right now—no online service charge—and Happy Halloween from your friends at the New England Aquarium! 

Loggerheads are mostly carnivores, no interest in these happy fruits.  

Volunteer of the Month: November

Every month our Volunteer Office sorts through piles of nominations from supervisors and honors one of our volunteers for their truly stupendous efforts. Meet our latest Volunteer of the Month.

For the month of November we are pleased to award Ming Xu with the recognition of Volunteer of the Month! Above and beyond Ming’s dedication to the Penguin Department as volunteer, he is also a Service Leader with the live blue™ Service Initiative. Ming’s passion for the Aquarium is noticed by so many and we are grateful to have his leadership and dedication on our teams each and every week.

Ming Xu is November's Volunteer of the Month!
Here is what his Penguin Colony supervisor Andrea Newman had to say:
Ming has an enthusiastic energy that is infectious. He is willing to do any task that we ask him to do, and does it with a smile on his face. In fact, I feel like Ming is always smiling. He always has a positive attitude and is quick to laugh and make a joke, even at himself. Someone with this sort of attitude makes whatever job you are doing more enjoyable, and I feel it is an asset to our team. Ming also has an efficiency in which he does these tasks that is unparalleled to any other volunteer I have worked with. Not only does he get things done quickly, but with the attention to detail that we require, ensuring the penguins and their exhibit are taken care of properly.      
Time definitely flies when you are having fun as Ming has been a volunteer for almost a year now, but it feels like it was yesterday when he first joined our team. He has been a dependable volunteer and keeps the team positive and motivated with his positive attitude (and chocolate) that he brings each week.
Additionally, here is what our live blue™ Service Coordinator Brad Pillen had to say about Ming:
Ming leading a service trip
Ming completed his Service Leader training just this past year, but has already been an active leader and advocate for the live blue™ Service Initiative. He has found a strong connection with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and has led three live blue projects with them already over the past few months, all the while continuing to pursue new service projects and opportunities on his own. His attitude, enthusiasm, and unyielding energy have made his service events a popular choice amongst service corps volunteers this summer and fall!

Please join us in congratulating Ming!

Volunteer of the Month: October

Every month our Volunteer Office sorts through piles of nominations from supervisors and honors one of our volunteers for their truly stupendous efforts. Meet our latest Volunteer of the Month.

As the aquarium is busy gearing up for the fast approaching sea turtle stranding season, we are excited to award the October Volunteer of the Month to a dedicated Rescue Rehab volunteer, Kristina Williams! Kristina’s limits to volunteering truly have no boundaries as her supervisor explains below in great detail. We are grateful for her service and wish her the best of luck as she applies to vet schools!

Kristina meets a live penguin at the Long Island Aquarium & Rehab Center

Here’s what Senior Biologist, Katie Pugliares had to say:

I would like to nominate the one and only Kristina Williams!
Kristina Williams
Kristina Williams began as my very first necropsy volunteer for the rescue and rehab department in early 2012. Since then, she has donated well over 1100 hours of service. Over the past four years Kristina has taken on many odd tasks that go along with being a necropsy volunteer. There is the obvious: assisting in post-mortem exams for loggerhead sea turtles, shark-bitten seals or parasite-infested dolphins. Then there is the less obvious and less glorious: creating a searchable inventory of the ancient archives of thousands (literally) of frozen samples of itty bitty pieces of who knows what sort of tissue that have been in our collection since before she was born; or there is also the cleaning of the goo left behind when the carcass freezer breaks and everything inside thaws. Whatever task I ask Kristina to do, she always tackles it with patience and enthusiasm and a big contagious smile. During our busy turtle seasons she jumps right in and fills any role that is asked of her quite seamlessly.  
Kristina quickly became my right-hand woman during post-mortem exams as her attention to detail and organizational skills are incredible. I rely greatly on Kristina to train new volunteers in proper techniques for tissue sample collection. Most recently, she has filled the role of primary prosector in fresh pinniped necropsy exams when I am not available to conduct them myself. She confidently leads a team of less experienced volunteers and interns to assist her in sample collection and data recording. Upon my return to the lab, I am always pleased to see that all of the samples are collected and stored appropriately, quality images of gross lesions are taken and the lab is spotless. I believe in Kristina’s necropsy skills so much that I invited her to travel with me to other partner organizations in New York and Virginia to help process large volumes of dead stranded bottlenose dolphins during an Unusual Mortality Event in 2013. Kristina was beyond helpful and always maintained a professional demeanor when interacting with other staff and volunteers of other organizations. 
Swimming cold-stunned sea turtles
One thing that stands out to everyone in our department is how thoughtful Kristina is. During our busiest turtle season, Kristina offered to come in extra hours in the morning before going to her full time job to help us swim and feed turtles. Her day started very early with us and when she left here at 1PM it wasn’t the end of her day. She was headed to fill the second shift at the vet clinic she works at. Before she hit the road, she ordered and delivered two hot pizzas for the turtle team that was still busily working through their lunch breaks. I think she knew that we could only sustain on a strict diet of Munchkins for so long. Kristina is one of the busiest and most hard-working people I know. In addition to working full time at an emergency vet hospital she is also studying very hard to get into vet school. Yet she still makes volunteering with us a priority. And this effort and dedication to our mission should not go unnoticed. She is a great representation of an NEAQ volunteer. For these reasons, and many many more, I gladly nominate Kristina Williams as volunteer of the month for October.

Congratulations to Kristina!

Monday, October 26, 2015

New Video of a Nearly Unknown Whale Species

First Ever Confirmed Sightings of Omura’s Whales in the Wild

Whales are among the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, so how could a whale species go undetected until recently, much less have never been seen alive in photos or video. Dr. Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and an international team of whale biologists have just released images and detailed descriptions on the first  scientific observations in the wild ever of Omura’s whales, one of the least known species of whales in the world. So little is known about the Omura’s that scientists are unsure of how many exist or how rare the species is.

Adapted from Cerchio et 2015

In a recently published paper in the prestigious Royal Society Open Science journal, the researchers describe the Omura’s foraging techniques, vocalizations and habitat preferences in the shallow coastal waters of Madagascar. This description of the live behavior of Omura’s whales is a first as there had been no confirmed records of sightings in the wild, and little else had been known about this elusive species until now.

Omura’s whales (Balaenoptera omurai) are a relatively small baleen whale ranging in length from 33 to 38 feet. They are from the from whale family called rorquals, which all have long, deep grooves along their throats that can expand when they feed. Omura’s whales are the smaller cousin in this group that includes the giant blue whales and the acrobatic humpbacks.

This species was only first identified as a distinct species in 2003 from the DNA of dead specimens from old Japanese whaling expeditions and strandings in the tropical western Pacific and Indian Oceans. These rare whales had long been misidentified as a dwarf version of Bryde’s whales, which are another rorqual whale averaging in the mid-40 foot range for length.

"Over the years, there have been a small handful of possible sightings of Omura's whales, but nothing that was confirmed," says lead author Cerchio, who led the research while at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “They appear to occur in remote regions and are difficult to find at sea, because they are small and do not put up a prominent blow."

Cerchio and his colleagues had been conducting field research on marine mammals off the northwest coast of Madagascar since 2007. In 2013, they began to make frequent observations of unusually-marked whales that piqued their curiosity. Cerchio said, “At first, we thought they were Bryde’s whales, an understandable mistake because of the similar size and habitat, but then with good photographs and underwater video, we noticed they more closely resembled the description of Omura’s whales.”

The key clue to the mysterious whales was an uneven coloring on the head, a rare characteristic found in only one other whale species – fin whales, which are much larger. “When we clearly saw that the right jaw was white, and the left jaw was black, we knew that we were on to something very special,” said Cerchio. “The only problem was that Omura’s whales were not supposed to be in this part of the Indian Ocean. Rather, they should be in the west Pacific, near Thailand and the Philippines.”

Cerchio and his Malagasy team excitedly suspected that they were observing and documenting the first sighting of Omura’s whales in the wild. To irrefutably confirm their hypothesis, they needed to collect skin biopsies and confirm the DNA signature of the species. They submitted  samples to the lab of Dr. Alec Lindsay at Northern Michigan University (NMU). Sequencing mitochondrial DNA, the NMU team confirmed the field observations. “The DNA evidence was conclusive,” added Lindsay. “The 23 samples collected by Sal’s field team were from Omura’s whales. His field team’s detailed behavioral and ecological observations constitute the very first descriptions of these whales in the wild.”

The research team also observed four mothers with young calves. Using hydrophones, they recorded song-like vocalizations that may indicate reproductive behavior.

Cerchio will return to the field in November to do further study on the whales' vocalizations, behavior and population characteristics. He also hopes to expand the research area in future studies of Omura's whales, working with colleagues at WHOI to deploy Digital Acoustic Recording Tags (DTAGS) and to study the species in other parts of its range.

Cerchio hopes to produce the first estimate of abundance for any population of Omura’s whales with the work off Madagascar. So far, the team has catalogued approximately 25 individuals through photographic identifications.

Additional coauthors of the paper include Melinda Rekdahl of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Boris Andrianantenaina, Norbert Andrianarivelo, and Tahina Rasoloarijao of the Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines, Universite de Toliara, Madagascar.

The work was supported by the International Whaling Commission Small Cetacean Conservation Fund, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and the Prince Albert II Conservation Fund.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Happy Lobster Day!

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared that October 8 is Lobster Day in the Commonwealth. Huzzah, this our kind of holiday! Gatherings are planned at the State House with lobstermen and their legislators. Members from the Division of Marine Fisheries as well as our own live American lobster (traveling with its informative minders, of course) will be there, too. Let's take this opportunity to touch on some of the fascinating facts about New England's favorite crustacean.

Colorful lobster shell mutations

Lobster Shell Colors
While most lobster shells are a mottled dark greenish brown, genetic mutations can turn up some wonderfully colorful varieties. Many of our colorful lobsters were hauled up from the depths by local lobstermen, who called us with their amazing finds. In recent years we've exhibited blue, orange, calico and bi-colored lobsters (who can forget the Halloween lobster!)

Pinchy's stark bi-color shell always draws attention during live animal presentations

Lobster Research
Lobster shell color is one of the topics that our researchers know a lot about here in our American lobster research facility. As Michael Tlusty explains in a video by the American Chemical Society, lobster shell color can be manipulated in the lab through diet. So many of the teensy crustaceans in our lobster nursery have bluish shells.

A youngster in the Blue Planet Action Center

Our researchers are also taking a careful look at lobster shell disease, which is caused by a bacteria that settles on the shells and causes unsightly blotches. The lobsters are otherwise healthy, but their disfigured shells make them difficult for lobster fishermen to sell. In order to study these topics, our researchers have become experts at rearing young lobsters—which means lots of tiny lobsters in the lab! [They even found a conjoined lobster larvae once!]

Michael Tlusty, Ph.D. holds a lobster in the research lab
Talk about tiny!

Lobster Fun Facts
And like all animals from our blue planet, lobsters are completely fascinating. Did you know lobsters communicate by peeing in each other's faces? Or that lobsters molt as frequently as every two weeks when they're young (less frequently when they get older)? Or that it takes about seven years for lobsters to grow large enough to land on your dinner plate?

Learn about lobster life cycles at our Lobster Nursery

Plan a visit to see lobsters large and small at the Aquarium. Buy a ticket online—no service charge. You might be surprised to find these bottom dwellers to be quite endearing!

Then head up to the Boulder Reef exhibit in the Gulf of Maine exhibits to meet this behemoth.