Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Aquarium Autopsies Young Humpback Whale in Duxbury

The fresh carcass of a thin, twenty-seven foot long, humpback whale yearling washed up on to Duxbury Beach about 35 miles south of Boston late Monday afternoon. On Tuesday morning, the young whale was moved by heavy equipment to higher ground on the peninsula. Then a New England Aquarium team of veterinarians and biologists conducted an animal autopsy of the black-colored whale with its enormous white side fins.

Heavy earth-moving equipment was used to move the carcass to higher ground.

This female whale was noticeably thin. The body did not have marine gear on it or significant entanglement scars. The Aquarium staff and volunteers methodically dissected the whale, removing tons of blubber and tissue to look for clues that might indicate what contributed to its death. The whale’s stomach and GI tract were largely empty of food. The necropsy team examined the head area closely to look for evidence of some kind of injury that might have impeded the whale from feeding properly. They also took dozens of tissue samples for further testing to see if there was underlying disease or health conditions that contributed to the animal’s demise.

Aquarium staff took measurements and painstakingly dissected the animal for
clues as to what caused its death.

This juvenile animal was most likely 14–16 months old, but also could have been a two year old if its growth had been compromised by chronic illness, injury, or poor nutrition. It was probably born from December of 2014 to February of 2015 off the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, the preferred calving waters for humpback mothers from New England. As a newborn, it would have been 14–15 feet long and weighed two tons! Mother and calf would have spent the winter nursing in the blue waters of the Caribbean. Early last spring, they would have swum up the East Coast, and the mother would have started voraciously feeding on small schooling fish, primarily in Massachusetts waters. Last summer, there was a bumper crop of their favorite food, sand lance, at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, about 25 miles east of Boston and just north of the tip of Cape Cod. Like most mammals, the mother would have started slowly weaning this yearling in the late summer and early autumn. Eventually, by late autumn or early winter, they would have drifted apart, and this yearling would have been on its own. For most wild animals, the first year of independent life is a highly vulnerable one with increased mortality. If this yearling had survived to adulthood, it could have reached 40 to 50 feet in length and weighed 40 tons.

The actual name or ID number of this juvenile whale might be able to be discerned. Pictures of its tail fluke will be sent to the Center for Coastal Studies, which will attempt to match its unique markings to a known animal in its humpback catalog.

The Aquarium would like to thank the Duxbury Beach Association for its great and efficient logistical support and to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) for sending experienced staff from Cape Cod to assist.

Humpback whales are the stars of local whale watches, noted for being the acrobats of the whale world for their athletic leaps from the water. Population estimates for the region are around 800. NOAA, the federal oceans agency, recently proposed to remove humpbacks from the Endangered Species List as they have been a conservation success story. That proposal is still under review, but all whales would still remain protected in U.S. waters under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Friday, April 22, 2016

6 year old makes Earth Day donation to turtle rescue

When Jasper Rose of Watertown, Mass., turned 6 years old earlier this month, the kindergartner decided he didn’t need any birthday gifts. Instead, he asked for money that he could donate to the Aquarium’s sea turtle rescue program. He raised $550!

Jasper holds his check collection in honor of his birthday — and in lieu of birthday gifts!

Jasper presents his check to the Aquarium's president and CEO Nigella Hillgarth

Jasper's hand-written envelope with the check for the Aquarium's turtle rescue program

Nigella thanked Jasper and talked about the importance of his support 

Jasper's check presentation came with a treat — for him and for Myrtle the turtle.

Jasper got to feed Myrtle her morning meal!

Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts were on the menu.

For the past three years, the Roses have been Aquarium members. Now, Jasper knows all of the turtles’ names and stories. Over the winter, a family friend gave the family a tour of the sea turtle hospital in Quincy. That visit solidified Jasper’s obsession with sea turtles. He even wrote and illustrated his own 10-page book about a sea turtle’s adventure.

Alongside his mom, Jasper shows off the book
he wrote about a sea turtle named Shield

Jasper's shirt featured Myrtle the turtle, especially appropriate today!

Thank you to Jasper for his generous donation to our sea turtle rescue program. Even more, we appreciate his passion for sea turtle rescue and this opportunity to raise awareness for sea turtle rescue! Happy Earth Day, all.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Octopus is in the Building

It's been several months in the making, but the brand new Olympic Coast exhibit is now open and its star resident has arrived! The debut of the octopus and her new home is just one part of the exciting Tentacles Take Hold program that will officially launch throughout the Aquarium tomorrow, April 15 — just in time for April school vacation.

The giant Pacific octopus immediately started exploring the exhibit.
This video captures the very moment the octopus makes her grand entrance to her new exhibit. After aquarist Bill Murphy gently opens the lid to her transport barrel, she slides out to a round of applause!

Visitors and staff alike were lined up to witness the moment. She then explored all corners of the exhibit and finally settled down into a nook up front to rest after all her travels!

The aquarists believe that the new arrival is a female, they will carefully observe the octopus in the next couple days to make a final determination. They can tell by the number of suckers on one of the arms whether it is male or female.

Do you know how many suckers a giant Pacific octopus has on its body? Have you met their tiny cousins, the red octopus? Have you ever seen a cuttlefish snap its tentacles around a snack for a quick meal? These are just some of the things you can explore, learn, and see when you visit the Tentacles Take Hold program at the Aquarium. Buy your tickets today.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Mystery of the Charles River Seal - Partially Solved!

The mystery of the seal galavanting about the lower basin of the Charles River over the past ten days has been partially solved as an adult harbor seal popped up in one the locks of the Charles River Dam early Monday afternoon. The DCR dam and lock complex below the Zakim Bridge allows for the passage of boats between the differing water levels of the freshwater Charles River and saltwater of inner Boston Harbor. Dam operators noticed the plump, gray-spotted seal swimming at the water’s surface, took some pictures and called the Aquarium. Aquarium staff identified the species, its approximate age and good body condition and then asked DCR to open the harbor-side gate to release it.

Adult harbor seal cruising the locks on Charles River
Photo: Bill Gode, Mass. DCR

First spotted by staff at the Museum of Science on April 1, he was seen in the lower basin of the Charles over several more afternoons. Last week, it adventured further up river and was seen among the docked yachts on the Cambridge side of the Charles and later all the way to the BU Bridge. At the time, all of the images were from a long distance, and the seal’s species or approximate age could not be discerned. Among the likely suspects was a yearling harp seal visiting from Canada for the winter or a juvenile grey seal from Cape Cod. Young, inexperienced marine mammals are often prone to wrong way adventures, but the images of a relaxed adult harbor seal might change that story line in an unexpected way.

Plump harbor seal after an easy meal?
Photo: Bill Gode, Mass. DCR

This seal most likely entered the Charles in a school of spawning fish that swam through the locks. It would have later discovered that large freshwater fish like carp, bass and perch were easy pickings as they would normally have no fear of a larger predator in the river. A seal can remain healthy in freshwater for a couple of weeks or more, but with a prolonged stay its blood chemistry could go out of balance as it would lack the salts that it passively ingests from sea water.

To add to the mystery is that another unidentified seal was believed to have passed through the locks from the Charles to the harbor on Saturday. There could have been two seals, but with Monday’s animal being an adult, a local resident species and acting quite relaxed while caught in the lock, Aquarium staff speculate that this seal might have figured out that there is a regular, good food source on the other side of the dam. Just the way humans queue up in their cars on the overhead Zakim Bridge to make their living in Boston, it is possible that this harbor seal is willing to wait for the locks of the Charles River dam to open so that it can make a better, easier living  as well.

For walkers, joggers and boaters along Boston’s Esplanade or Cambridge’s Memorial Drive, spotting a seal in the Charles need not lead them to question either their eyesight or sanity.

Aquarium officials would like to express their gratitude for the alertness and skill of the DCR dam operators in spotting the animal and successfully moving him through the dam complex. They had done the same for a fat, adult, male harbor seal in October of 2010.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

April School Vacation Visiting Tips

Getting to know the mysterious and mesmerizing tentacled animals at the Aquarium is a great way to add some family fun to your school vacation. Here are the ultimate insider tips to help make the most of your visit:

The giant Pacific octopus will return
just in time for school vacation!
1. Buy your tickets online
Buying your tickets online means you can skip the line! Simply print them at home or show your e-ticket on your smartphone in the Main Lobby.

2. Avoid peak times
The middle of the day is our busiest time. If you want plenty of face time with the new red octopuses or cuttlefish, plan to arrive when we open a 9 a.m. or later in the afternoon after 3:00 p.m. Be sure to check the website for any last minute changes to our schedule.

3. Take public transportation
Find tentacles all over the Aquarium starting April 15
— from jellies to cuttlefish to nautilus and more.
Taking public transportation is the blue thing to do! The Aquarium stop on the MBTA's Blue Line is just a few steps from our Front Plaza. If you're driving, check out nearby parking options,—prices vary. Here's some more information about accessibility at the Aquarium.

4. Get even closer with our Animal Encounter programs
Perch on top of the four-story Giant Ocean Tank to feed the animals. Touch a seal. Go behind the scenes of your favorite exhibits. The New England Aquarium's immersive Animal Encounter programs take your visit to a whole new level. Who knows, you might even get to see cuttlefish growing up behind the scenes!

Galapagos 3D: Nature's Wonderland is our most popular
IMAX movie right now. Find out why!
5. See the world in IMAX 
Galapagos 3D: Nature's Wonderland continues to wow audiences with stunning footage of penguins, marine iguana, whale sharks, and more! But you can also find epic IMAX footage in the massive splashes in Humpback Whales 3D and the intimate moments in Secret Ocean 3D. See a tremendous variety of ocean animals — large and small — on New England's largest screen at the Simons IMAX Theatre.

Still have questions, like: Can I leave and return to the Aquarium during my visit? Is photography allowed? What about food options in and around Central Wharf? Poke through our FAQs for answers to these questions and more.

After you visit, don't be strangers! When you get home or even from your phone, there are plenty of ways that you can connect with the Aquarium online. Follow our blogs for more about the Giant Ocean Tankmarine mammals, exhibits throughout the Aquarium and more. 

Share your pictures with us on FacebookTwitterTumblrGoogle+Instagram and Pinterest.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Seals Belong on the Beach!

People Moving and Approaching a South Shore Seal Pup Stresses It Out

A healthy, three month old grey seal pup resting on a Marshfield beach Friday had to be moved by the New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue Team to a more secluded location after well-intentioned but ill-informed beach-goers tried moving it back into the water.

A stressed-out three-month-old grey seal pup tries to rest on a Marshfield, MA, beach after people tried moving it back into the water and repeatedly approached much too close. It was relocated by New England Aquarium staff to a secluded beach.

The approximately 40 pound female had also been closely approached by many other people and dogs. When Aquarium biologists arrived, the young seal was shivering with fear, had labored breathing and showed signs of major stress from all of the unwanted and unneeded human interactions. Aquarium staff relocated the weaned pup to a quiet, private beach in the area where it can rest and not be disturbed.

A three month old grey seal pup is released and relocated by New England Aquarium staff on a secluded South Shore beach after it was unwittingly harassed by well-intentioned but ill-informed people. The green dye on its head and tail will allow biologists to easily identify the pup over the next few days as it is monitored.

This grey seal pup was most likely born in January on a small offshore island south of Cape Cod. Its mother would only have nursed her for three to four weeks and then left on its own. This post-weaning period when the pup is learning how to forage and find its own food is a critical period when the animal’s health is highly vulnerable, and it needs lots of rest. Unlike other marine mammals like dolphins or whales, seals regularly haul out of the water to sleep and soak up the sun. When first seen in the morning, the pup was alert and bright. By the afternoon with continuous and too close human interaction, it was completely stressed out. For a wild animal on the edge of survival, this kind of event can directly lead to its demise.

Grey seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Harassing them intentionally or unwittingly is a violation of federal law.

More importantly, seeing seals at the shore is a relatively recent occurance and a great opportunity for a life-long memory. People can easily share the beaches with seals by knowing a few rules.

  1. Stay 150 feet from resting seals.
  2. Be quiet.
  3. Leash your dogs. 
  4. If concerned about the health of the animal, call the Aquarium’s stranding hotline at 617-973-5247 or call your local animal control officer which can contact the Aquarium or the local stranding group.

In the spring and summer, the vast majority of seals in prominent public locations are pups newly weaned and just learning to be on their own. They mostly need to be left alone. Getting too close has real health consequences for the seal pups. Enjoy one of nature’s wonders from a safe distance for both you and the animal.