Conservation & Science

Our best Conservation & Science stories of 2016

It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We’ve shared how our care for the animals in our living collections—including snowy ploverscomb jellies, ocean sunfish and Pacific seahorses—contibutes to the conservation of their wild kin.

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The Aquarium helps rehabilitate threatened Western snowy plovers.

We’ve visited the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters, explored how sea otters use tools, and assisted scientists working to decode the sea otter genome.

We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Baja, Mexico on a number of conservation missions—one of them involving ancient shark mummies. And we joined forces with U.S. aquariums and zoos to call for stronger protections for the endangered vaquita porpoises of the Gulf of California.

As 2016 comes to a close, let’s look back at the top 10 highlights from this blog:

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A white shark approaches schooling sardines.

10. Camera to Crack a White Shark MysteryOur senior reseach scientist teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalled. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

Read more…

Julie Packard: A bold vision for ocean health

Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard, who also sits on the board of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, offered a powerful vision of hope for the future of the ocean Friday morning at the third Our Ocean Conference convened by Secretary of State John Kerry  in Washington, D.C.

Julie Packard at Our Ocean 2016
Julie Packard at Our Ocean 2016

Julie shared the stage with other leading ocean philanthropists as she announced the Packard Foundation’s five-year, $550 million commitment to advance ocean science, protection and effective management. She held up Monterey Bay as an example of the transformation that’s possible in ocean health with an investment of time and energy to shape a thriving future for this vital living system.

For all their success in driving environmental improvements on land, foundations and philanthropists “over time we realized something was missing—the ‘other’ three-quarters of the planet, 99% of living space on Earth and the most prominent feature on this planet: the ocean,” Julie said.

Lunge-feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay. Photo by Tyson Rininger
Lunge-feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay. Photo by Tyson Rininger

Monterey Bay demonstrates—in dramatic fashion—what’s possible, she said. Its whales, sea otters and elephant seals were hunted to near-extinction, and the sardines that put Cannery Row on the map disappeared in “one of history’s most famous tales of fishery collapse.”

The wildlife is back, the bay’s ecosystems are robust, “Monterey Bay is now one of most studied pieces of ocean on the planet and California continues to be an incubator for ocean and climate solutions,” Julie said.

Read more…

Camera to crack a white shark mystery

The idea seemed like a long shot: Build a video camera that could attach to a great white shark for months at a time, withstand ocean depths of more than 3,000 feet, and sense the shark’s movements to selectively capture footage of its behavior.

But Monterey Bay Aquarium Senior Research Scientist Salvador Jorgensen, a white shark expert, thought it might have a chance if he joined forces with the talented minds at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalls with a smile. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

So Thom and Sal teamed up on a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

Read more…

Untangling comb jelly culture

Try as she might, MacKenzie Bubel just couldn’t satisfy the baby comb jellies.

The aquarist was attempting to spawn a species called Mnemiopsis leidyi—ghostly-looking little creatures native to the Gulf of Mexico—in the Aquarium’s Jelly Lab. She tinkered with variables like water temperature, salinity and light exposure.

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Aquarist MacKenzie Bubel works in the Jelly Lab with lobed comb jellies (Bolinopsis infundibulum).

“We did some wacky stuff to get the conditions perfect,” she says, “but they weren’t doing as well as we’d hoped.”

That changed when our staff aquarists, in collaboration with University of Miami assistant professor William Browne, pioneered an efficient way to culture comb jellies en masse. The breakthrough—which we’re sharing with our colleagues—could eliminate the need for aquariums to collect comb jellies from the wild. It could also pave the way for deeper scientific study of these little-understood animals.

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MBARI’s new ear on the sounds of the ocean

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have learned a lot about Monterey Bay using robotic submersibles to look deep below the bay’s surface. Now they can listen to the bay as well, using an ultra-sensitive underwater microphone. Sounds recorded by this hydrophone have already provided surprising information, including evidence that beaked whales, though rarely seen, are common in the outer bay.

MBARI placed a deep-sea hydrophone on the seafloor using a remotely operated vehicle. The green cable carries power to the hydrophone and data back to shore. Photo courtesy MBARI
MBARI placed a deep-sea hydrophone on the seafloor using a remotely operated vehicle. The green cable carries power to the hydrophone and data back to shore. Photo courtesy MBARI

In July 2015, MBARI researchers installed a broadband hydrophone on Smooth Ridge, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from shore and 900 meters (3,000 feet) below the sea surface. Since that time, signals from the hydrophone have been relayed back to shore in real time, 24 hours a day, using MBARI’s cabled ocean observatory, the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS).

The new hydrophone doesn’t look very impressive. It’s just a metal cylinder about two inches in diameter, mounted on a metal tripod on the muddy seafloor. But it is extremely sensitive and can pick up a vast range of sounds, including those too low and too high for humans to hear.

A spectrum of sound

“We’re trying to characterize the soundscape of Monterey Bay,” says John Ryan, the biological oceanographer in charge of the project. “This means looking at the whole spectrum of sounds that we record and identifying all of the phenomena they represent. This includes biological sounds such as vocalizations of marine mammals, the sounds of physical processes such as wind and rain, and the sounds of human activities.”

MBARI’s deep-sea hydrophone is located on Smooth Ridge in the Monterey Canyon, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from shore. Base image: Google Earth
MBARI’s deep-sea hydrophone is located on Smooth Ridge in the Monterey Canyon, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from shore. Base image: Google Earth

Most adults (at least those who haven’t attended too many rock concerts) can hear sounds from about 20 Hertz (the low rumble of an earthquake) up to 16,000 Hertz (the high-pitched buzzing of a mosquito). The new hydrophone can pick up sounds ranging from 10 Hertz to 128,000 Hertz.

During a recent meeting with underwater acoustics experts, Ryan played a few of the distinctive sounds recorded with the hydrophone.

Here’s a recording of dolphins:

 

And here’s one of humpbacks:

Read more…

Take the plunge: an online guide to deep-sea life

Have you ever wanted to know more about the strange animals that live in the deep waters off California’s coast? A new online tool from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) makes it easy for anyone to search MBARI’s vast database of deep-sea observations, including thousands of species of amazing deep-sea animals. The Deep-Sea Guide provides access to photos and a wealth of observational data that can be used by scientists, students and the interested public.

The black sea devil anglerfish is among the images in the new Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.
The black sea devil anglerfish is among the images in the new Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.

For 25 years, MBARI has been sending robots down into the deep sea. Over that time, they’ve collected over 24,000 hours of video. In an amazing feat of scientific data analysis, MBARI’s video-lab staff compiled a database of every animal and seafloor feature they could identify. Now they’ve put the information into an online tool accessible to all.

The Deep-Sea Guide is a treasure trove of images and scientific information, some of which has never been seen by scientists or the public.

Multiple search options

It’s possible to search for a particular animal by its common name (“blob sculpin”) or by its Latin name (“Psychrolutes phrictus”) – or even for groups of animals (“sculpin”). Users can also search for a geologic feature (“hydrothermal vent”) or a specific research tool (“suction sampler”).

It's possible to learn where the barreleye fish was seen, and the habitats it prefers. Photo courtesy MBARI.
It’s possible to learn where the barreleye fish was seen, and the habitats it prefers. Photo courtesy MBARI.

Animal information typically includes still images and a physical description, as well as background on the range of the animal, the depths it favors and the time of year it was observed. There’s even information about the water temperatures and oxygen concentrations measured when the animal or animals were observed.

The Deep-Sea Guide provides an easy method for searching MBARI’s vast MBARI’s Video Annotation and Reference System (VARS) database. What started in the early 1990s as a box of hand-written notes and Polaroid prints has evolved into an online system that now holds almost five million records.

Sharing the wonder

MBARI scientists and their colleagues have used the VARS database for several years to glean material that has been incorporated into dozens of published research papers. By making some of this information easily available online, MBARI staff hope to expand its usefulness – and improve the contents of the database as well.

Little-known and rarely seen seafloor animals like the harp sponge are included in the Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.
Little-known and rarely seen seafloor animals like the harp sponge are included in the Deep-Sea Guide. Photo courtesy MBARI.

As Video Laboratory Supervisor Nancy Jacobsen Stout explained, “Our hope is that the guide will serve as a tool to foster more in-depth engagement with our colleagues in science and education, and will help us share the wonders of the deep sea with general audiences.”

The database continues to grow and change. Researchers will update names, descriptions and visual information as their knowledge grows. They anticipate that other marine scientists will suggest improvements and explore potential collaborations. They also hope that schoolchildren and members of the public will be fascinated by the diversity of animals and geologic features that MBARI researchers have found in the deep sea.

Quick tips for using the Deep-Sea Guide:

Basic searches:

  • Use the search bar. As you type, the Deep-Sea Guide will suggest relevant words or phrases. (If the word turns red as you’re typing, it’s not in the database.)
  • A search will bring up one or more items that match your search term. For each result, you’ll see a photo (if one is available), a species name and a common name. A “Taxonomy” diagram on the right shows how the term you typed fits into the hierarchy of terms in the database.
  • Click on the photo or the name for more information and more images. Click on items in the Taxonomy diagram to search for those related items.
  • If you just want to search for photos, click the “Image” button at the top of the Deep-Sea Guide, then start your search. However, due to a bug, not all images may show up in these results.

 

– Kim Fulton-Bennett

Learn more about the work of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Tracking avalanches – under the sea

Underwater avalanches and turbidity currents carry huge amounts of sediment, organic material and pollutants down submarine canyons and into the deep sea. Yet geologists know very little about how sediment moves during these events. This month, in what may be the most ambitious submarine-canyon study ever attempted, marine geologists from several countries are placing dozens of sophisticated instruments in Monterey Canyon. The Coordinated Canyon Experiment (CCE) promises to give scientists a uniquely detailed and comprehensive view of sediment movement within the canyon.

Illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Image: Photo © 2015 MBARI
Illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Image: Photo © 2015 MBARI

The project is being led by geologist Charlie Paull of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), in collaboration with researchers from the United States Geological Survey, Ocean University of China and two British instiutions: the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton and the University of Hull.

Paull and his fellow researchers hope to learn what triggers underwater sediment flows, how fast they move and how far they travel. They’ll also study how sediment flows scour the seafloor and reshape the canyon over time.

Beach-ball sized BEDs

In addition to deploying fixed instrument arrays, four beach-ball-sized “benthic event detectors” (BEDs) will be buried in the sediment. When flows occur, the BEDs will be carried along with the sediment. Sensors inside each BED will record how fast they move, how far they go and how they’re tumbled by the flow.

Four BEDs, or Benthic Event Detectors, are being deployed in Monterey Canyon as part of the experiment. This illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Photo © 2015 MBARI/Krystle Anderson
Four BEDs, or Benthic Event Detectors, are being deployed in Monterey Canyon as part of the experiment. This illustration (not to scale) shows the locations of some of the instruments being placed within Monterey Canyon as part of the Coordinated Canyon Experiment. Photo © 2015 MBARI/Krystle Anderson

Unusual instruments such as the BEDs are necessary because the floor of Monterey Canyon is such a dynamic place. The profile of the undersea Monterey Canyon resembles Arizona’s Grand Canyon, with steep-sided walls and a narrow, winding canyon floor. Both have central channels filled with sand.

Sand in the Grand Canyon is moved down-canyon by the Colorado River. After studying the oceanic “river of sand” in Monterey Canyon for 15 years, Paull and his colleagues have concluded that sediment moves down Monterey Canyon in a variety of ways.

PrintSome is moved by strong currents that carry just a small volume of sediment. More dramatic flows, known as turbidity currents, are dense, fast-moving slurries of sand and water that can travel kilometers down the canyon in a matter of minutes. Still other flows occur when sediment on the floor of the canyon becomes unstable and slumps down-canyon. To make matters even murkier, some events could involve all three of these processes.

Unraveling the mechanics of sediment flows

During the Coordinated Canyon Experiment, researchers hope to study all of these different types of sediment flows by gathering detailed data from a variety of instruments over a large area. As Paull put it, “We want to determine not just when sediment moves in the axis of the canyon, but how it moves, how long it moves and where it moves. The point is to cover as much of the canyon as possible, from the head down to a couple of thousand meters depth.”

MBARI-detector in the sediment
MBARI used an ROV to dig a pit on the seafloor to place one of four Benthic Event Detectors. Photo © 2015 MBARI

“We usually measure just a snapshot in time and space, so we’re like the blind men and the elephant – just seeing part of the picture,” he added. “By putting as many instruments in the canyon as we can, all at one time, we’ll get a better view of what’s going on down there.”

The CCE is scheduled to continue until spring 2017. Because it’s so hard to communicate with instruments on the seafloor, the researchers won’t get their first detailed information until April 2016. That’s when MBARI’s underwater robots service the instruments and retrieve the data – following what’s expected to be a strong El Niño winter. If the Central California coast experiences powerful storms and unusually large waves, they could sweep huge volumes of sand from the beaches of Monterey Bay and into the head of Monterey Canyon, potentially triggering underwater avalanches.

Paull is optimistic that the team will collect plenty of interesting data – even if not all of the equipment survives the onslaught.

“There is always a risk in putting instruments in the canyon,” Paull said. “But if we don’t take risks, we’re never going to be able to figure out what’s going on down there.”

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