Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Volunteer of the Month: September 2015

Every month our Volunteer department sorts through piles of nominations from supervisors and honors one of our volunteers for their truly stupendous efforts. Meet this month's volunteer!

Volunteers at the Aquarium have a habit of stepping up when needed. That’s why this month, we’re excited to honor Bob Munson as our Volunteer of the Month! Bob has been with us for a few years now, and has recently gone the extra mile to help out in times of need.

Here is what Bob’s supervisor, marine mammal trainer Vanessa Varian, has to say about Bob:

Bob has been volunteering with us since August 2012. He is reliably the first volunteer to arrive every Wednesday. Each week he brings with him a smile and a story. Bob has been a dependable and vital part of our dive crew whether he’s vacuuming the harbor seal exhibit, or diligently scrubbing the stubborn algae from the walls of the MMC.  
He’s been flexible with all the changes our department has gone through this year. Bob eagerly offered to come help out extra days when we were desperate for dive coverage. This meant that sometimes he was coming in 2-3 times a week to dive with us! He is a devoted and passionate diver, who has truly gone the extra mile to make sure our seals’ homes are in good shape. We really can’t thank him enough for making volunteering with us such a priority. For all these reasons and more, Bob is certainly deserving of volunteer of the month.
Thank you, Bob!

Aquarium president speaks out in support of Cashes Ledge

On Wednesday, WBUR's Cognoscenti featured an opinion piece from Aquarium President and CEO Dr. Nigella Hillgarth. She puts a voice to the Aquarium's support for protecting the local ocean treasures of Cashes Ledge and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

"Just as we cannot imagine New England today without the White Mountain National Forest, the Cape Cod National Seashore or Acadia National Park, we cannot and should not try to imagine an ocean without these pristine and valuable treasures." (Keep reading on WBUR.)

Kelp forests flourish on Cashes Ledge | Photo: © Brian Skerry

Nigella's piece follows a standing-room forum hosted by the Aquarium with renowned National Geographic photographer and our own Explorer-in-Residence, Brian Skerry, alongside some of the region’s most prominent marine scientists. They provided a rare glimpse into the marvels of two of the nation’s most remarkable ocean areas, lying right off our own shores here in New England: Cashes Ledge in the Gulf of Maine and the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts.

Read the full piece at WBUR.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The sea monstah! is actually an ocean sunfish

By now you've all seen the video of local boaters encountering a "sea monstah" (watch the video here on—NOTE: the language is vulgar and may not he appropriate for younger viewers). In fact, that large silvery fish is an ocean sunfish, or Mola mola.

A Mola mola as seen on a New England Aquarium Whale Watch (Credit: Boston Harbor Cruises)

Mola mola are no strangers to local waters. Our whale watches have been seeing them all summer. And our researchers in the Bay of Fundy see these large fish regularly.

Credit: New England Aquarium Whale Watch/Boston Harbor Cruises

So what is a Mola mola? These fish are the largest bony fish in the world. An adult can weigh more than 2,000 pounds! They have no real tail, small pectoral fins, and large, extended dorsal and anal fins. They eat mostly jellies and salps and can be found in oceans around the world. While they can dive several hundred feet underwater, they're commonly encountered basking on the surface. Scientists believe this behavior may be way to thermoregulate, or it allows seabirds to pluck off parasites. Our right whale researchers have described these clumsy looking fish as "wobbling, struggling pancake[s] at the surface."

Credit: New England Aquarium Whale Watch/Boston Harbor Cruises

When basking at the surface, a mola's dorsal fin can break the surface of the water. After a few seconds, the fin (and so the fish itself) will lay horizontally against the water until it rises vertically again. That flapping fin can look a lot like a shark fin. Here's a video that can help you distinguish between the fin of a basking shark and that of a Mola mola.

Video: NECWA1 with Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries via YouTube

Mola mola pose no threats to human. They are frequently caught as bycatch in fishing nets, and they are vulnerable to eating ocean pollution as plastic bags can often be confused as jellies. Do your part to protect ocean sunfish, sea turtles and other marine animals by using refillable water bottles and recycling or disposing your litter properly.

And here's one last fun fact about Mola mola: One of the Giant Ocean Tank divers has an ocean sunfish tattoo on his leg! See the picture on our Instgram. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Have you seen any salps?

From Marshfield to Manchester-by-the-Sea, beachgoers and boaters in the region are reporting jelly-like animals in our local waters. The jellies float in a chain but break apart into little blobs when agitated. So what are these things? Are they safe? Where did they come from?

Salps are often found in chain formation, but can bud off into singular jelly-like creatures when agitated.
Photo: C. Allen via Facebook

We checked with Aquarist Bill Murphy, the keeper of the cold-water creatures in our Gulf of Maine exhibits. He says they're salps! Here's a video of water thick with salms shared by a Facebook follower C. Allen.

Salps are free-floating creatures that feed on phytoplankton—perfectly harmless to humans. Their huge numbers are most likely the result of an algal bloom, though winds and currents can push these creatures into coves and beaches. Our right whale researchers reported so many in the Bay of Fundy last summer that the water almost looked purple in places!

Though these look like simple creatures, salps are actually grouped with humans in the phylum chordata because they have a primitive nerve cord during their larval state. That's a precursor to the backbone! Researchers believe these may be one of the first instances of a primitive nervous system.

The right whale researchers spotted salps during surveys in the Bay of Fundy last year.

Keep your eyes peeled for these interesting animals during your next visit to the beach. Now you can impress your friends with your knowledge of our blue planet.

If you really want to bone up on fascinating ocean facts, come visit the Aquarium! Tickets are available online—now with no additional service charge.

If you want to learn more about salps, check out some of these news articles:

Thursday, September 17, 2015

National Book Award nominee features Aquarium!

Big news for octopus lovers and bibliophiles! Our friend and author Sy Montgomery—who gave an Aquarium lecture last night with Keith Ellenbogen and earlier this year—was nominated for a National Book Award in nonfiction for her book Soul of an Octopus. Congratulations, Sy!

Signed copies of the book are available in our Gift Shop.

Look for this book in our Gift Shop, along with other fun
octopus paraphernalia. 

The Soul of an Octopus is really a love letter to cephalopods in general and a couple of the New England Aquarium’s giant Pacific octopuses in particular.

The first octopus Sy ever met was Athena, who was living in an exhibit at the Aquarium. She was dazzled as the cephalopod used the suction cups on her tentacles to feel and “smell” her. “She seems curious to know more,” Sy writes. “Slowly, she is transferring her grip on me from the smaller, outer suckers at the tips of her arms to the larger, stronger ones, nearer her head. I am now bent at a 90 degree angle .... I realize what is happening: she is pulling me steadily into her tank. How happily I would go with her!”

In a sense, Sy does follow Athena into the water. She delves into myths about octopuses, she travels to visit scientists studying octopus intelligence and she dives in Mexico and French Polynesia in search of octopuses in the wild. Pick up this lovely book at the Aquarium Gift Shop!

Athena was also the subject of a fascinating and lengthy article in Orion magazine, an international nature magazine. On a cold day one winter afternoon, Athena absolutely enthralled Sy, a former Boston Globe columnist and prominent nature writer, with a very interactive visit. Like the book, it is a wonderful read.

With all this publicity and admiration for these eight-armed creatures, there will likely be more fans of octopuses around the world! For that, we couldn't be more excited.