A week ago, for reasons unknown, hundreds of Atlantic white-sided dolphins were in danger of grounding themselves near Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Our friend and Notebook collaborator Virginia was on call. She has worked in the past with Allied Whale, a Bar Harbor-based marine mammal research group that, among other duties, assists stranded seals, whales and dolphins along much of the Maine coast. If needed, Allied Whale and volunteers like Virginia were ready to make the long drive to Cape Cod to pitch in.
Though some dolphins did run aground (see news video above), rescuers in Massachusetts were able to handle the situation. Nevertheless, Pamelia and I were so inspired by talking to Virginia that we answered our own marine mammal-rescue call. We spent an afternoon at the College of the Atlantic (to which Allied Whale is connected) at a workshop on rescuing stranded seals.
Those of you who have visited The Naturalist's Notebook may be excited to learn (as we did) that rescued and rehabbed seals are frequently released back into the Atlantic Ocean at Seal Harbor beach, just a few hundred yards from our friendly little shop and exploratorium. More broadly, the workshop gave us not only guidance in how to respond if we find a marine mammal in trouble (step one: call Allied Whale!), but also a better sense of how to identify types of seals. We also came away with an appreciation of the importance of pack ice and land to the survival of these animals, who need time out of the water to rest, give birth and nurse their young.
Take five minutes to watch the video below of the Cape Cod Stranding Network rescuing dolphins that ran aground near Wellfleet two years ago. It's well-narrated and gives you a glimpse of what rescuers do.
Our workshop focused on the four types of seals found most often in Maine's waters: the harbor, gray, harp and hooded varieties. None of these is a fur seal; those don't live in the Atlantic Ocean. Harbor seals are fairly small (4 to 5 feet long) and are known as sea dogs for their facial resemblance to cute canines. We're lucky enough to have a colony of them across the bay from us and we see them regularly when we kayak or when they come to feed in front of our house. Gray seals, by contrast, are much bigger (up to 9 feet) and more aggressive. Because of their longer snouts they are sometimes unflatteringly called "horse-headed" seals or—even worse—"hooked-nose sea pigs."
I must pause to note that the lyrics to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song Grey Seal are considerably kinder to hooked-nose sea pigs:
And tell me grey seal
How does it feel
To be so wise
To see through eyes
That only see what's real
Tell me grey seal
While we've momentarily detoured into music, no, I don't know why the popular British singer Seal—whose real name is Seal Henry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel—was given that first name. His family comes from Nigeria and Brazil, not among the world's pinniped hotspots. I know you're probably more focused on the shocking news that Seal split this week from his wife, former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Heidi Klum...but does anyone out there know why his parents named him for a pinniped?
(Pinniped: a fin-footed mammal. The three types are seals, sea lions and walruses.)
Back to business. Much of the workshop was devoted to harp and hooded seals, which are ice seals—meaning they need pack ice on which to rest and give birth. Because global climate change is affecting the ice cover in northern ocean waters, these mammals are among the species scientists need to watch closely. A lack of pack ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence last winter virtually wiped out pup-bearing by mother harp seals.
Just two weeks ago, Science Daily ran a piece entitled "Harp Seals on Thin Ice After 32 Years of Warming." Here's the link:
You should be aware, before you do anything with a seal, whether it's in danger or not, that messing with marine mammals is a federal crime. This year is the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which was passed largely in response to the clubbing of massive numbers of harp seals and the high rate of dolphins being snagged as "bycatch" in tuna nets. Congress found that every marine mammal species was in danger of being either depleted or rendered extinct by human activities. The act made it illegal to kill or capture any marine mammal or engage in "any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance which has the potential to either: a. injure a marine mammal in the wild, or b. disturb a marine mammal by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, which includes, but is not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering."
In other words, don't harass seals. Don't even paddle your kayak into the middle of a seal colony because it might scare the animals. And if you come across a seal (or whale or dolphin) that you think is in trouble, don't try to take its pulse or drag it off the beach into the water. Study it from afar, then call experts such as those at Allied Whale. The truth is, a lot of reports of seals in "trouble" turn out to be cases of seals on the beach resting.
We learned all this and much more—that satellite transmitters are attached to seals with epoxy glue, for example, and that the milk that mother hooded seals feed their pups on those precious few days together on the ice pack is 85 percent fat to speed up the youngsters' growth. (Eat your heart out, Hagen Daz.)
When our afternoon with the pinnipeds ended, Pamelia and I felt as though an ocean of knowledge had opened up to us. In this busy world, it might seem crazy to drop everything and spend an afternoon in an ice seal workshop. But we couldn't think of a better way to have spent four hours.
Caught in the Web
I can't help passing along a Facebook posting passed on to me by a San Francisco-area friend and former Sports Illustrated colleague. It was posted by a friend of his. And apparently by others before her. It's not clear who originally wrote it (this is the Internet, after all), but the whale incident it describes—and the reactions of the whale and the rescuers—really did happen, back in December 2005. The Naturalist's Notebook didn't exist back then or we would have told you about the whale sooner. Here's the post:
"If you read a recent front page story of the San Francisco Chronicle, you would have read about a female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spiderweb of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso and a line tugging in her mouth. A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands (outside the Golden Gate ) and radioed an environmental group for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so bad off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her. When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around as she was thanking them. Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same. May you, and all those you love, be so blessed and fortunate to be surrounded by people who will help you get untangled from the things that are binding you. And, may you always know the joy of giving and receiving gratitude. I pass this on to you, my friends, in the same spirit."
We All Come From Fish All life on Earth originated in the sea, and the blog Bohemian Cyborg has shown us two wonderfully creative people whose inner fish has surfaced:
Here's the link to Bohemian Cyborg: http://bohemiancyborg.tumblr.com/post/1614869430
If you want to learn a whole lot more about the origin of we creative creatures who paint fish on our faces, you might check out this title: Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin. We sell it at the Notebook and it's one of Pamelia's favorite books from the frontier of knowledge.
The Australian BowerbirdWe've shown you in the past the ultimate mimic of the animal world, the bowerbird, which can imitate everything from pigs to camera shutters to chain saws. This week our Nova Scotia correspondent, Rachel, sent word that the Canadian Broadcasting Company had given the bowerbird some love—by describing how males use optical illusions to help attract and seduce their mates.
Here's a link to a CBC story. It's fascinating, and touches not only on birds but also on optical illusions:
Answers to the Last Puzzlers
1) The answer is a). In the 26,000-foot-deep Peru-Chile Trench, which runs along the west coast of South America, two of the Earth’s geologic plates meet, and one slides under the other. That collision of plates has pushed up the ground along the western edge of the continent, forming the Andes Mountains.
2) The answer is b). A typical raindrop falls at about 7 mph.
3) b). A googol is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes.
1) How many quills are there on a typical adult porcupine?
2) All light travels at 186,000 miles per second. How long does reflected sunlight (which we call moonlight) take to travel from the Moon to the Earth?
a) a bit more than 1 second
b) almost 12 seconds
c) exactly 45 seconds
3) True or false: The word halcyon, meaning a peaceful, happy period ("halcyon days of youth"), comes from the Greek word for a kingfisher bird, which in Greek mythology was given the power to calm the weather and the seas while it laid its eggs.