Conservation & Science

Clash of the titans: white sharks vs. orcas

When orcas and white sharks cross paths, only one can prevail as the true apex predator. New research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium published in Nature Scientific Reports details these rare, sometimes brutal encounters — and their ecological implications.

A new study illustrates what happens when orcas and white sharks encounter each other in the wild. Photo © Jim Capwell/www.divecentral.com

It’s a study decades in the making because observations of the two creatures interacting is a rarity.

Scot Anderson, a white shark expert and seasonal researcher for the Aquarium, still remembers one such run-in more than 20 years ago near the Farallon Islands, a short boat ride west of downtown San Francisco.

“The first time it happened was kind of shocking to everybody,” Scot says. “Before we had seen anything like that, people would ask, who’s the baddest predator?”

White sharks are seasonal visitors to the Farallon Islands, where they prey on elephant seals and other pinnipeds. Photo courtesy NOAA

The first scorecard came on October 4, 1997, when orcas killed and partially ate a white shark within view of a whale-watching boat. Scot was heading out from nearby Bolinas when he heard what was happening over the radio.

“We just went straight there,” he says. “We got there right as it was finishing. I saw the two orcas sticking their heads out of the water and squealing like they do when they have a kill. And the shark just sank away.” Read more…

Connecting historical tortoiseshell trade to modern IUU fishing networks

What began as research into historical data on rare hawksbill sea turtles could help illuminate the shadowy modern world of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances. The study also revealed that a dramatically larger number of the critically endangered turtles were killed for the tortoiseshell trade, six times higher than earlier estimates.

The project started nearly a decade ago when Dr. Kyle Van Houtan — then with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now Monterey Bay Aquarium’s director of science and senior author of the paper — was leading a sea turtle research program in Hawaii.

“Our goal was to give hawksbills the attention they deserve,” Kyle says. “Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered throughout their range, mostly due to threats from illegal harvesting.” The turtles can grow to more than three feet long and 150 pounds and are distinct for their beautiful, mottled shells. 

“They also have a long slender neck that allows them to search for food in the cavities between branches of coral in a reef. There they find sponges, algae and other invertebrates,” Kyle explains.

“They can really shape a coral reef, allowing coral colonies and the reef ecosystem to thrive,” says Dr. Emily Miller, assistant research scientist at the Aquarium and the paper’s first author. Read more…

Diving into sea otter recovery in Alaska’s Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska is home to more than twice as many northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) as all of California is to southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Studying the thriving northern species may hold important clues for the future of the recovering southern species. In August, Monterey Bay Aquarium researcher Jessica Fujii spent two weeks studying the Glacier Bay population in the wild.

When she’s not studying sea otters in Alaska during the summer, Jessica Fujii observes otter behavior around Monterey Bay. Photo by Michelle Staedler

Jess is a senior research biologist with the Aquarium’s Sea Otter Program. She studies both wild sea otters and pups raised by surrogate otters so they can be returned to the wild—as was the case with two juvenile males earlier this month.

“Mostly I’m looking at sea otter behavior and foraging ecology—what they’re eating and what that may tell us about the rest of the ecosystem,” Jess says. “It involves a lot of going out in the field and watching the otters from shore.”

This summer, she worked aboard the Alaskan Gyre, a 50-foot U.S. Geological Survey vessel.

“It looks like a fishing boat, but it’s been converted for research purposes,” she says. “What used to be the fish hold is now sleeping quarters and storage.” With six or seven others aboard, “it was cozy; there’s not a lot of extra space.”

The converted fishing boat Alaska Gyre was home base for scientists working in Glacier Bay.

The trip was part of a longstanding collaboration between the Aquarium and researchers with the USGS Alaska Science Center. The two groups sometimes share insights and help each other observe or capture sea otters: “Having that crossover can be really helpful,” Jess says. “It’s also a way to make sure we’re maintaining comparable methods.”

Read more…

Science: the foundation for climate solutions

The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Monterey Bay Aquarium works on multiple fronts to address the ocean impacts of climate change. Here, we present several recent scientific findings on the complex ocean-climate connection.


Science powers the Aquarium’s mission to inspire ocean conservation. It’s the basis of our public education programs, our work to protect vulnerable marine species, and our efforts to address climate change and ocean acidification.

We advocate for policies—from the local to global levels—to reduce carbon emissions, end our reliance on fossil fuels, promote clean energy and mitigate the unavoidable impacts underway. And we believe those policies must be based on the best available scientific evidence.

The Aquarium conducts climate research to help fill those gaps, often in collaboration with our peers. Engineers and scientists at our partner institution, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), are developing new tools to study and monitor ocean change.

To solve the climate crisis, we must invest in science, and use science to inform our decision-making. Here are a few recent studies that might help point the way toward climate solutions.

Read more…

Painting a picture of the ocean’s past

At our new Ocean Memory Lab, Monterey Bay Aquarium researchers are studying the global ocean and marine life in novel ways, to gain insights into a world before plastic and chemical pollutants were introduced to the water. Feathers, bones, teeth, bits of marine algae and other tissues from ocean plants and animals can paint a picture of conditions dating back a century or more.  They’ve already learned how the feeding habits of seabirds have changed since the late 19th century, as PBS NewsHour Weekend producer Ivette Feliciano discovered when she talked with our director of science, Dr. Kyle Van Houtan.

Here’s her report:

We’ll share the latest news and updates about the Ocean Memory Lab in future blog stories.

Learn more about our Conservation Research programs and priorities.

For white sharks, an oasis, not a desert

This spring, a diverse team of ocean scientists headed to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, seeking to explore the vast and mysterious home of one of the world’s top ocean predators: the white shark.

White sharks tagged along the California coast guided researchers to the offshore waters where they spend half the year. Photo by Steven K. Webster/Monterey Bay Aquarium

Guided by the sharks and their need for a steady supply of food, the researchers sailed into the heart of what was once deemed an oceanic “desert.” They discovered that the open Pacific, particularly an expanse dubbed the White Shark Café, teems with abundant and unusual life forms—organisms that may help explain the fascinating behaviors of white sharks on the high seas.

“The Café is far from the desert it was thought to be,” says Aquarium research scientist Dr. Sal Jorgensen. “It is home to an abundance of life that satellite imaging is not detecting. In fact, for white sharks, it is more of an oasis.”

Researchers spent a month at the White Shark Café aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor. Photo courtesy Schmidt Ocean Institute

The White Shark Voyage team embarked from Honolulu for a month-long journey aboard the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s R/V Falkor and traveled east to waters halfway between Hawaii and Mexico.

Headed by principal scientist Dr. Barbara Block of Stanford University, the research team aboard the Falkor included marine biologists, engineers and oceanographers from Monterey Bay Aquarium, Stanford, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), University of Delaware, NOAA, Montana State University and ocean tech innovator Saildrone.

While no one knew what they’d find, everyone hoped to gather insights about what might be driving the behaviors of white sharks, and what role this offshore habitat plays in the lives of these apex ocean predators.

Read more…

On World Oceans Day, it’s time to protect Earth’s largest habitat

As we celebrate World Oceans Day, it’s too easy to forget about the deep sea. It’s the largest habitat on the planet, and is increasingly threatened by human activities. Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists, and our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, are working to understand and protect the deep ocean. It’s a big job—and we’ll need your help.

To bring the message about the deep ocean to a wider public, Executive Director Julie Packard and MBARI President and CEO Chris Scholin shared their thoughts about safeguarding the deep sea in an op-ed column published in today’s New York Times.

“The oceans are the largest home for life on our planet and the blue heart of Earth’s climate system,” they write. “We must use them wisely. Otherwise, we risk using them up.”

You can read the full commentary, and their action plan for the deep sea, here.

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