The Beacon: Meghan Bartels's blog

Brian Skerry Showcases His 'Ocean Soul'

Photographer Brian Skerry calls his new National Geographic book, “Ocean Soul,” a love story – and he clearly means it. Seeing his photographs and listening to him speak, it’s obvious how deeply he cares about the oceans and their condition.

At a sold-out National Geographic Live event in DC last night to officially mark the book’s publication, Skerry showed photographs from around the world and shared some of his experiences working for National Geographic documenting some of the 98% of the world’s biomass that lives in the oceans.

And experiences he has certainly had, from living on the seafloor for seven days straight to being the first photojournalist allowed on a Canadian seal hunting boat in over a decade.

And even more striking was Skerry’s clear enthusiasm for the oceans and all the life they contain. He talked about ocean photography as peeling back layers of mystery. Surrounded by chaos, he said, his solution is to “focus on individual behavior” while striving to be an “artistic interpreter of all I see.”

Part of that interpretation is to tell a more complete story by showing not only the beauty of the oceans, but also the troubles they face. Photographing bluefin tuna, Skerry said his goal was to foster “wildlife appreciation” rather than just document seafood. About overfishing, he said, “The ocean’s not a grocery store, we can’t continue to take without expecting consequences.”

During the talk, Skerry showed photographs he has taken of harp seals, lemon sharks, right whales, leatherback sea turtles, and humboldt squid, in addition to reef fish, shrim, and tunicates.

He ended with images taken in marine reserves, where he said his goal is to show the abundance, diversity and resilience of the oceans when they are protected. “At every level, it seemed to be in harmony,” he said of one such area.

You can see photographs from “Ocean Soul” and watch another talk by Skerry. Video from last night’s event will be posted by National Geographic.


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Marine Monday: Bignose Unicornfish

bignose unicornfish

The bignose unicornfish. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

The bignose unicornfish gets its name from its large, rounded nose, but you might be disappointed to learn that this fish doesn’t have a horn.

Others, like the spotted unicornfish, have a clear horn, and some, like the whitemargin unicornfish, have at least a stubby horn. The bignose unicornfish is also a member of the surgeonfish family, which means it has ‘cutting keels,’ or perpendicular bony plates near its tail that can act as knives to protect the fish.

This fish is typically yellow-brown, although it can change color when being groomed by a cleaner wrasse. It also has a long blue hair attached to each end of its tail.

The bignose unicornfish lives in deep reefs in the Eastern Indian and Western Pacific Oceans. Although they are typically found alone or in pairs, these fish sometimes form larger groups while feeding on zooplankton.

These fish are widespread and not facing any serious threats, though they are occasionally eaten and are caught for inclusion in aquaria. Even better, they have seen population increases in and near marine protected areas, where fishing and other harmful activities are severely regulated.

Learn more about the bignose unicornfish and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine encyclopedia.


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Thursday Trivia: Sea Otters

sea otter

A sea otter relaxes in Morro Bay, CA. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

By popular demand, this week we’re discussing sea otters, the smallest marine mammal.

Native to the northern Pacific Ocean from Russia to southern California, this charismatic critter was seriously overhunted for its fur – almost to extinction. It has been protected by international law since 1911 and its population is starting to rebound, but it is still considered endangered. Now 90% of sea otters live off the coast of Alaska. Sea otters can sometimes be found in large groups of either males or females, known as rafts.

The sea otter can spend its entire life in the ocean, including sleeping anchored to kelp beds to keep from drifting away. Because it spends so much time in cold water and has no insulating fat, it relies on its fur, which is the densest of any mammal, to stay warm. It blows bubbles of air into this coat, with 100,000 hairs per square centimeter, to keep water from penetrating to its skin.

The pictures you’ve seen are probably of sea otters floating at the surface, but they are highly adapted to life in the water. Sea otters have a large tail to steer and large hind feet that act as flippers. Sea otters can swim as fast as 9 kilometers per hour and stay underwater for almost six minutes while diving.

Sea otters also eat in the water, hunting invertebrates like mussels, snails and crabs. Otters often become "specialists" in one type of prey, depending on their skills and what is available. The otter stores its prey in skin pouches under its forearms while it returns to the surface, where it uses its chest as a table and pounds frees its tasty morsel using a rock. This makes it one of only a couple of non-primate mammals known to use tools. Sea otters often keep using the same rock for multiple dives, and have been observed washing their prey. Males are known to steal food from females.

Sea otters have voracious appetites; in fact, their hunger can be crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems. In some areas, otters act as ‘keystone species,’ which means that they keep populations of their prey, such as sea urchins, strictly under control. Without sea otters present, urchin populations could grow rapidly and eat entire kelp forests; with sea otters present, kelp can live long enough to form forests.

Threats to sea otters include oil spills, killer whale predation, which is increasing as other prey options are becoming scarcer; infectious diseases, particularly toxoplasma; and being caught as bycatch, particularly in fisheries that use gill nets.

Learn more about the sea otter and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine life encyclopedia.


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Offshore Drilling Plan Offers Mixed Tidings

oil rig in gulf of mexico

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. © Oceana/Eduardo Sorensen

This afternoon, the Department of the Interior released its plan for oil drilling for the next five years, and it’s a mixed bag.

Bad news first: Today’s decision opens the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico to drilling, despite the facts that the Gulf is still experiencing the effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and that safety regulations have improved little since this disaster.

The decision also leaves the Arctic open to drilling. Fortunately, there’s a small bright spot here: The administration has announced that lease sales in the Arctic will be continued only after more research and monitoring has been conducted. Today’s decision also promises to respect special areas within the Arctic and acknowledges the recent report that found gaps in Arctic ecosystem science.

The best news, however, is that the administration will not permit offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific, or the parts of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico currently under a drilling moratorium.

“The administration’s new five-year plan is good news for Atlantic coastal states, especially Virginia and Florida.  However, the Arctic and the Gulf are still in harm’s way,” said Jackie Savitz, Oceana senior campaign director.

“As we watch the BP oil continue to foul the Gulf of Mexico, it’s crystal clear that fundamental, industry-wide safety and response failures must be addressed before moving forward with such an aggressive program in the Gulf.  The economy and health of the Gulf may not survive the next disaster,” Savitz added.


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Marine Monday: Leafy Seadragon

leafy seadragon

A leafy seadragon. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Underwater masters of disguise, leafy seadragons take their name from their greenish coloring and their many appendages that look like seaweed.

They belong to a group of fish closely related to seahorses and are found exclusively along the southern coast of Australia. Like their more famous cousins, seadragons have armor-like exoskeletons, and fertilized eggs are tended by the male. But seadragons have longer snouts than seahorses and cannot use their tail to grasp onto their surroundings.

Leafy seadragons are weak swimmers, so they avoid predators by blending in with their surroundings. They also move with the waves just like seaweed, which makes them even more difficult to spot.

Scientists aren’t sure how well leafy seadragons are doing these days. Unlike seahorses, they are not sought after by the traditional Chinese medicine market. There are anecdotal reports of seadragons accidentally caught by fishermen, but no estimates of how many fish this affects.

The more pressing concern is habitat loss: seadragons live in only a small strip of Australian waters, and their habitat is being destroyed by sewage from nearby cities. On the other hand, local governments have enacted several protection measures, and leafy seadragons, which are an important ecotourism draw, are the official fish of South Australia.

Learn more about the leafy seadragon and other fascinating animals at Oceana’s marine encyclopedia.


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Victory for Vulnerable Porbeagle Sharks

porbeagle shark

This porbeagle is pleased. © Doug Perrine / WWF

October was a month full of shark protections, and we’re excited that the trend seems to be continuing into November.

Today, the EU has announced important measures that will protect porbeagle sharks, which are threatened by overfishing.

The new laws will protect porbeagles throughout EU waters, where previous regulations only applied in certain areas. Today’s measures make all fishing for porbeagles illegal and requires that any sharks caught accidentally be released immediately.

Porbeagles are heavily fished for their fins and meat, and because they take a long time to reproduce, they recover from overfishing extremely slowly. Estimates suggest that porbeagle populations in the Mediterranean have declined by 99% since the 1950s.

While this is great news, there is still more to be done to protect vulnerable porbeagles. “The protection of porbeagles by the EU represents an important step for the conservation of this species. However, given its highly migratory nature, if porbeagles are to recover, similar actions must follow at the international level,” said Dr. Allison Perry, wildlife marine scientist with Oceana.

We’re particularly excited about the timing of this measure because it comes right before this month’s meeting of ICCAT, an international commission with the authority to enact shark protections across the Atlantic Ocean.

We want the U.S. to call for international protections for porbeagles and other vulnerable shark species. You can help us by speaking up for sharks!


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Thursday Trivia: Whale Shark

whale shark

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The whale shark is the largest fish in the world and can fit a human inside its mouth. But don’t be afraid: this huge fish eats only plankton and small fish, which it gathers by pumping water over its gills.

The whale shark is one of three sharks that filter feeds, and the only one that does so actively rather than relying on simply swimming forward with its mouth open. Despite this, the whale shark has about 300 very small teeth, the purpose of which is unknown.

In addition to being the largest species of fish on the planet, whale sharks also have the thickest skin of any animal – about four inches thick. This skin is decorated with a pattern of yellowish white dots that is unique to each shark.

Whale sharks are usually solitary, but they can feed in groups. One particularly striking example of this behavior occurs around April off Australia, when immature males gather to feast on particularly plentiful plankton. Throughout their travels, whale sharks often cross entire oceans.

Whale sharks are considered vulnerable. One of the most important threats they face is shark finning – although their fins are not very popular to eat, because they are so large, they are highly prized for displays. In 1999, just one whale shark fin sold for around £11,000. Other threats include hunting for liver oil and meat and being caught accidentally as bycatch. It’s not all bad news, though! Some areas are protecting whale sharks in order to foster ecotourism.

Oceana’s shark campaign focuses on reducing shark bycatch, establishing shark finning bans, and implementing species-specific shark management.

You can learn more about whale sharks from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia, watch Oceana spokesperson January Jones swim with the gentle giants and take action to protect them.


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This November, Celebrate Oceansgiving

Happy November!

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and while we love turkey and pumpkin pie as much as the next guy, this year we're also doing something special to give thanks for the oceans -- and we want you to join us!

Here’s how: Starting today and all month long, we’ll be sharing some of the reasons we’re grateful for the oceans over on our Twitter page using the hashtag #oceangiving. Follow us, add your own reasons to the list, and see what other ocean lovers have to say.

But wait, there’s more -- You can take it one step further and sign up with HelpAttack! to donate a little bit every time someone tweets with #oceangiving – no Twitter account needed. You can share your pledge to inspire your friends to join you in supporting the oceans. Ten or 20 cents may not seem like a lot, but every bit adds up and will help us keep working to protect everything you love about the oceans.

Thanks to you, and a big thanks to the oceans we all love!


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Marine Monday: Vampire Squid

vampire squid

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Halloween, ocean lovers! Today’s featured marine animal is one of the spookiest in the sea: the vampire squid.

This deep-sea cephalopod’s nickname comes from its dark color and red eyes. Although it’s only the size of a football, the vampire squid is a deadly predator – it catches food by drifting until it senses prey nearby.

Like many other deep-sea creatures, vampire squid can produce light, called bioluminescence, to avoid predators. They use a technique called “arm-writhing” to disorient predators, which have trouble following all the lights on their arms.

If a vampire squid is threatened, it can curl its webbed arms around its head to protect its most vulnerable parts and reveal the darker parts of its body. And here’s the kicker -- if the vampire squid does decide to flee, it can release a cloud of mucus that can glow for almost 10 minutes. Then, it uses a twisted escape route to confuse the predator even further.

The vampire squid has proportionally the largest eyes of any species—a six-inch squid’s eye is about an inch in diameter – the better to see you with, my dear. (Its relative, the giant squid, is the animal with the largest eyes of all, about the size of basketballs.)

Learn more about the vampire squid and other fascinating (and freaky) ocean animals at Oceana’s marine encyclopedia.

What ocean animal do you think is the spookiest? Tell us in the comments!


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Ted Danson's 'Oceana' Nominated for Books for a Better Life Award

Exciting news from the book world! Ted Danson’s book, "Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What You Can Do to Save Them," has been selected as a finalist for the Books for a Better Life award, presented by the Southern New York Chapter of the National MS Society.

"Oceana" is a great read that tells the story of how Ted became an ocean activist, his passion for more than 20 years. The book is also chock full of gorgeous photos, helpful infographics, and Ted’s own description of the state of the oceans, as well as Oceana's work to save them.

The Books for a Better Life award, now in its sixteenth year, raises funds to support services and educational programs for people living with MS. The awards recognize self-improvement authors in ten categories who inspire people to live their best lives. "Oceana" is a finalist in the Green category. You can purchase the book here (also available in Kindle format).

Winners will be announced on March 7, so keep your fingers crossed for Ted and we'll let you know if "Oceana" wins!


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