Conservation & Science

Safeguarding seamounts: the hidden Yosemites of the deep

At the bottom of the ocean, amid vast, pitch-dark expanses of mud, there are a few exceptional, rocky places: undersea mountains. Here, the muddy seafloor and burrowing worms give way to bedrock and beautiful gardens of corals and sponges.

Seamounts are islands of biological diversity in the deep sea, home to rich marine communities of often long-lived animals. Photo courtesy MBARI/NOAA

Seamounts, as these peaks are known, “are the Yosemites of the deep sea that nobody sees,” says Dr. Jim Barry, a marine ecologist at MBARI—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Under the surface, right off the horizon, is this wonderful world that’s been developing, slowly but surely, like a sequoia forest.”

Some seamounts are covered with ancient corals and deep-sea sponges that stand a meter tall and resemble oak trees. They’re also home to anemones, clams, small crustaceans and all manner of fishes. Many of these creatures rely on smell instead of vision to find food in these inky waters, at least half a mile deep.

Life on seamounts is of interest to marine scientists and to biotech researchers who hope to develop new pharmaceutical products based on properties in sponges, mussels and microbes. Photo courtesy MBARI

Seamounts are a frontier for scientific discovery, both for basic research, designed to fill knowledge gaps, and for applied research aiming to solve practical problems. Biotech companies, for instance, are interested in unique chemicals produced by deep-sea microbes, sponges, and mussels, which hint at pharmaceutical applications from antibiotics to fighting cancer.

Only a few seamounts are legally protected, like national parks are on land. One of those is Davidson Seamount, 80 miles southwest of Monterey and part of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. But the Trump administration is in the process of reviewing Davidson Seamount’s designation, with an eye for potentially stripping its protection and opening it up for new offshore oil and gas drilling. Read more…

Action alert: Help protect our national marine sanctuaries  

Our blue parks are a source of pride for Californians, and all Americans. They are living proof that the sustainable use of our ocean goes hand in hand with robust coastal economies, valuable fisheries and thriving marine habitats.

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A white shark swims in the nutrient-rich waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Photo by Steven K. Webster/Monterey Bay Aquarium

But millions of acres of protected U.S. waters could be opened up for offshore oil and gas drilling, following an executive order issued in April, titled “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.”

Now is the time to speak up in defense of our national marine sanctuaries and monuments. A 30-day public comment period, which opened up in late June, is part of a federal review called for by the executive order.

UPDATE: The deadline for public comments has been extended. We now have until August 14 to make our voices heard. 

1. Add your comment to the Federal Register.

2. Check out our suggested talking points below.

The federal review targets parts of four national marine sanctuaries in California— Monterey Bay, Cordell Bank, Greater Farallones and Channel Islands—along with seven other sanctuaries and monuments in U.S. waters.

American national marine sanctuaries were created with bipartisan support, extensive scientific input and broad community participation. They generate billions of dollars each year, driving coastal tourism and supporting healthy fisheries.

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Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey is one example of the economic benefits of our national marine sanctuaries. Photo ©Steve Kepple

“Monterey Bay Aquarium will do all we can to support our national marine sanctuaries, and to work for policies that protect vulnerable coastal communities from the threats that accompany offshore oil and gas development,” Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard said.

The public comment period is open through August 14. Please lend your voice! Visit the Federal Register Comment Page and tell the White House why the U.S. must continue to protect our precious national marine sanctuaries and monuments.

Here are some suggested points for your public comment: Read more…

Teens tackle an unlikely source of plastic pollution: wayward golf balls

In the chilly Pacific waters off Carmel Beach, Alex Weber was practicing holding her breath and diving in search of jade in May 2016. Swimming down to the seafloor, she instead made a surprising discovery: a trove of lost golf balls. Some were practically new; others might have dated back decades.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston hold a few of the thousands of errant golf balls they’ve recovered from Carmel Bay.

Alex, a lifelong Californian who is now 17, had volunteered in the past for beach cleanups, scouring the shore with a particular eye for plastic pellets.

“I’d been spending so much time in the sand picking up tiny micro-plastics. I thought these golf balls would make such a big difference,” she says.

She decided to make a practice of kayaking and swimming out to collect them in mesh “goodie bags”—the kind she’s since found can hold some 30 pounds of balls each.

Her efforts drew the attention of her 16-year-old high school classmate Jack Johnston.

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston inspired a coalition to carry on the clean-up effort.

“I was at the beach the same day Alex pulled out that first load, and thought, ‘What is happening? Are those just in our ocean?’ I immediately wanted to get involved,” he says.

The two have since collected close to 10,000 golf balls from Carmel Bay. Jack, a Canadian transplant who took to the frigid waters around the Monterey Peninsula long before he acquired his first wetsuit, says—depending on the weather —a day’s haul might range from several hundred to well over a thousand balls.

The Weber family’s garage is now stacked with baskets full of golf balls, which Alex and Jack plan to recycle or transform into an art project. In a testament to how much two determined teens can accomplish, their labors have also rippled into a collaborative undertaking that has drawn together federal officials, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and nearby Pebble Beach Golf Links. Read more…

Partnership for a plastic-free ocean

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Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson supported the Aquarium’s campaign to pass Proposition 67.

The votes are (mostly) tallied. The 2016 General Election was surely one for the history books—in many ways.

In California, voters confronted one of the longest ballots in the state’s history, with 17 ballot measures. The last of those measures, Proposition 67, was a referendum on a statewide ban on single-use carryout plastic bags. A majority of California voters needed to vote YES to uphold that first-in-the-nation law.

And you did!

The Aquarium and our partners invested incredible time, energy and other resources to help win this ballot fight. Many officials, commissions, editorial boards, conservation groups, entertainers and other supporters also endorsed the measure.

Our visitors and online followers chatted about it on our social media platforms. Our neighbors and friends provided encouragement and helped spread the word. Countless people wore our buttons, carried our signs, and joined the movement in one way or another.

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Natalia Hurley of Monterey Bay Aquarium supports reusable bags.

We want to take a moment to say thanks.

Through our collective work, we were able to make all the difference.

The opponents represented a handful of out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers who poured more than $6 million into defeating California’s historic law. In stark contrast, YES on 67 supporters included an extensive and diverse group of people and organizations that have California’s best interests in mind—and at heart.

We’d like to thank those organizations and individuals with whom the Aquarium worked most closely in the campaign to pass Prop 67. (This is not a comprehensive list.)

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…

A healthy coast supports a strong economy

 It’s all one ocean—and we’re connected with it in deep and surprising ways. Today’s guest post by Paul Michel, superintendent of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, addresses the relationship between resource protection and economic vitality in the Monterey Bay region.


The communities of Monterey Bay need a healthy coast and ocean. Our economy relies on tourism, commercial and recreational fisheries, recreation such as boating and surfing, and marine science. Even the ocean-influenced weather patterns here provide for some of the most productive agriculture in the United States.

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Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, goes deep on ocean protection.

In other words, the protection of our coastal and marine resources is essential to our long-term environmental and economic vitality.

The Monterey Bay region has a strong legacy of residents taking action—especially in the late 1980s and into the early ’90s. Oil and gas development, wastewater discharges and uncontrolled agricultural and urban runoff threatened the health and beauty of this beloved stretch of California coast.

Read more…

Conservation tip: Give sea otters space

Kayakers looking to get up close and personal with sea otters – and maybe snag a selfie – may unintentionally be causing harm to these beloved (and threatened) marine mammals.

When approached directly by people in the wild, sea otters often feel threatened and may dive or swim away to avoid them. This evasive maneuver can cost sea otters precious energy – energy they can only recoup by spending less time resting and more time hunting and eating.

Because portions of sea otter habitat are already at their carrying capacity, making up the lost calories can be challenging at best. and life-threatening at worst. It’s an especially big problem for nursing mother otters who are already energetically stressed by the burden of pup rearing.

In honor of Sea Otter Awareness Week, we’re bringing attention to this often-overlooked area of citizen stewardship.

Approaching too close to sea otters is both bad for their health and a violation of federal law. Photo courtesy seaotters.com.
Approaching too close to sea otters is both bad for their health and a violation of federal law. Photo courtesy seaotters.com.

Kayakers and other ocean goers like swimmers and paddleboarders likely don’t know that they’re putting sea otters at risk when they get too close, says Gena Bentall, the program coordinator of Be Sea Otter Savvy, a collaborative effort by the aquarium, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Friends of the Sea Otter to raise awareness of sea otter disturbances by tourists.

“The cuteness of sea otters is their own detriment in a way,” Gena says. “People aren’t really going to try to approach a less charismatic species. They’re essentially loving them to death by getting too close.”

Diving to avoid people in watercraft exacts a an especially heavy toll on nursing mother sea otters. Photo: Randy Wilder
Diving to avoid people in watercraft exacts a an especially heavy toll on nursing mother sea otters. Photo: Randy Wilder

While the occasional run-in may seem trivial, a single sea otter may be forced to evade people several times a day. Gena said the cumulative effect of chronic disturbances can spell “death by a thousand cuts” for some sea otters.

According to Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary officials, wildlife disturbance of sea otters and other animals represents more than 40 percent of all violations recorded each year. (Disturbing sea otters and other marine mammals is a violation of federal law.)

Gena and her team are trying to quantify just how much these disturbances are costing sea otters, while also getting the word out about how to safely observe otters –  from a reasonable distance.

Gena, a kayaker herself, said one of the major problems is that kayakers know too little about the consequences of approaching ocean wildlife. One major step is to have kayak rental outfits provide educational materials to all their customers. She praised one local outfitter that educates its customers in responsible behavior around the wildlife they might encounter, including putting stickers on its rental boats with tips on how to observe sea otters respectfully.

I's possible to observe sea otters and other wildlife, and maintain a respectful distance. Photo courtesy Frank Steube.
It’s possible to observe sea otters and other wildlife, and maintain a respectful distance. Photo courtesy Frank Steube.

Be Sea Otter Savvy is concentrating its public awareness efforts on three hot spots where they’ve observed the most disturbance of sea otters: Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, Cannery Row, and Morro Bay in San Luis Obispo County.

“Our goal is to not scold people or shame people,” Gena says. “We’d rather get them to pay attention to wildlife, think about the ramifications of their behavior, and to have empathy for the animals.”

Be Sea Otter Savvy is looking for volunteers, particularly in San Luis Obispo County, to help monitor sea otter behavior and activity relative to marine recreation activities.

The best thing to do when out on the water, Gena says, is to keep your distance from sea otters as much as possible. When approaching, she adds, it’s better to float the kayak or paddleboard parallel to the animal from a safe distance, instead of paddling directly at them – a maneuver the otter may interpret as threatening. She also suggests putting the camera phone down and just being in the moment.

Cynthia McKelvey

Learn what we’re doing to help California’s threatened sea otter population recover.

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