The Beacon

Blog Tags: Seals

Swine Flu Discovered in Marine Mammals

Swine flu: Not just for pigs anymore Photo: Mike Baird

Scientists have recently published a paper  revealing that Northern elephant seals in California contracted swine flu (H1N1) during the epidemic that affected thousands of people in 2010.  This is the first time that this virus has been discovered in marine mammals, establishing Northern elephant seals as vectors for human pandemics and determining that this strain of influenza can travel between species.


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Close Encounters with Pinnipeds

Generally you should keep your distance from wild animals, especially in the case of marine mammals, as the failure to do so can result in a hefty fine. But there are those rare times when wild animals won't leave you be. In that case, having a camera rolling can make for some amazing scenes, like the above.

Sea lions and seals are pinnipeds, carnivorous mammals with fin-like flippers that come ashore to breed, give birth, and nurse their young. It's a group that also includes walruses and is more closely related to such land animals as bears, dogs, raccoons, and weasels (all belonging to the order Carnivora) than to cetaceans like whales and dolphins, which took the plunge millions of years earlier in evolutionary history.

Like all animals though, sometimes they're just looking for a free ride.


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Seals Sleep with Only Half of Their Brain at a Time

Hey sleepyhead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you've ever seen a clip of a seal being ambushed by a great white you might understand why they only sleep with one half of their brain at a time. With enemies like The Man in the Gray Suit it's always advisable to maintain at least a marginal degree of 'round-the-clock alertness.

A new study led by scientists at UCLA and the University of Toronto, and published in the February Journal of Neuroscience, investigated this phenomenon of half-brain sleeping.

"Seals do something biologically amazing — they sleep with half their brain at a time. The left side of their brain can sleep while the right side stays awake. Seals sleep this way while they're in water, but they sleep like humans while on land. Our research may explain how this unique biological phenomenon happens," said Professor John Peever of the University of Toronto.

The researchers found higher levels of an important brain chemical, acetylcholine, in the waking halves of the seal brains than the sleeping halves. The discovery could aid in the understanding of human sleep disorders, the study's senior author Jerome Siegel of UCLA's Brain Research Institute claims.

"About 40% of North Americans suffer from sleep problems and understanding which brain chemicals function to keep us awake or asleep is a major scientific advance. It could help solve the mystery of how and why we sleep."

Sleep tight seals, and don't let the great white sharks bite.


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Shell Gets Green Light to Harass Marine Mammals

Bowhead whales would be affected by Shell's drilling. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shell now has the green light from the government to harass marine mammals and put them at risk of a major oil spill in the region.

The Arctic Ocean is home to an abundance of wildlife. In the spring, consistent and extensive polynyas—stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice—create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead whales, seals, and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of productivity created by summer’s constant daylight.  

For millennia, this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, these animals and ecosystems are at risk. Despite the lack of basic scientific information and demonstrated ability to clean up spilled oil in Arctic conditions, our government is poised to allow companies to move forward with offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. 

Whales, walrus, and other species are protected by laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may permit small numbers of marine mammals to be “harassed” by industrial activities by issuing the company an “incidental harassment authorization” or “letter of authorization.”

So what, exactly, is allowed?  According to the government, Shell’s plans will result in “Level B” harassment,” which means the activities have:

the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.

According to the government documents, Shell’s drilling activities would result in harassment of thousands of marine mammals such as whales and seals

Of course, it is difficult to evaluate these numbers, or what they might mean for these populations because we are missing basic information, such as good estimates of the numbers of seals and walrus. A fuller understanding of the food web, ocean conditions, and changes due to warming would allow us to better understand the impacts of this harassment and Shell’s proposals more broadly.

humorous website is drawing attention to the impact that Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling program will have on marine mammals, but this is no joke. For its part, Shell continues to push aggressively to drill this summer even as it backtracks on commitments to protect clean air, argues with the Coast Guard about how strong its response barge must be, and loses control of its drill ship. 


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Baltic Team Finds Dead Seals

grey seal

A grey seal in the Baltic. © Oceana/Carlos Suarez

Our Baltic expedition came upon a sad sight this week: a dozen baby seals lying dead on the seafloor.

The team found the bodies while diving in Bogskär islet off of Finland, home to a small grey seal colony. The dead seals were about six months old, and one was found near a dead adult. The cause of death is a mystery—there were no visible injuries and the rest of the colony appeared to be healthy.

The deaths are being investigated, and hopefully we will find an answer to this tragedy. It’s possible that the seals were accidently caught and drowned in nets and then dumped back into the sea. They may also have suffered from a viral outbreak. Whatever happened, here’s hoping that it was an isolated incident and that the colony is able to recover from the loss of so many young seals.

Our team documented the dive on video (warning: graphic footage), and more details can be found in our press release.


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Tell Obama: Turn Shell's Ships Around

Every day brings Shell a little closer to drilling in Arctic waters, home to seals, whales, and polar bears.

With that drilling comes the risk of an oil spill, which could be devastating to the ocean ecosystem and those dependent on it. But it’s not too late—there is still a chance for President Obama to turn Shell’s boats around and insist on good science and demonstrated response technology.

Drilling in the Arctic isn’t like drilling anywhere else. Stormy seas, freezing temperatures, and a lack of infrastructure create a dangerous and possibly deadly trifecta. If an accident occurs, it would be impossible to clean up the spilled oil and keep the water safe for the whales and seals who live there.

Oceana and its partners gathered more than one million signatures seeking good decisions about our Arctic Ocean resources. These signatures are being delivered to the White House today asking President Obama to turn Shell’s ships around and keep the Arctic safe.

But there is still more to do. Today, we’re asking you to call the White House and ask President Obama to stop Shell until we have the science and response capacity needed to make good decisions. We’ve made it easy for you—you can just dial 202-456-1111, or check out our handy form with talking points here. And then let us know how it goes!


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Threat of Arctic Drilling Looms Large

polar bear photo

A polar bear in Alaska. [Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

Troubling news for the Arctic: This week the government decided to uphold its 2008 decision to lease parts of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea for oil and natural gas drilling.

The decision comes despite an environmental impact statement, released in August, which stated that the approval of Chukchi Sea development will harm subsistence activities, air and water quality, threatened and endangered species, wetlands, and a multitude of mammal, bird and fish species.

We are continuing to fight against unsafe Arctic drilling by filing litigation, raising grassroots support, and conducting further research into the possible effects of oil drilling and spills in the Arctic. You can help by donating now.

Another recent study, conducted by the US Geological Survey for the Department of the Interior, found serious gaps in the scientific knowledge about the possible consequences of Arctic drilling.

Dr. Chris Krenz, Arctic Project Manager for Oceana, said of the decision:

“If corporate oil giants will get to make trillions of dollars from the nation’s oil in the Chukchi Sea, we can afford to spend a few million dollars on science to understand how the Arctic Ocean functions and make sure development is done right.

We know the Arctic is home to such iconic species as polar bears, walrus and beluga whales. We know the bounty of the Arctic seas supports the subsistence way of life for coastal communities. Yet we know very little about how the different components of this ecosystem fit together. With receding sea ice, the Arctic is becoming more accessible.

 Just because we can now reach this place doesn’t mean we should develop it. The science simply is not yet there to determine if this kind of industrial activity is feasible without destroying the remote and fragile offshore Arctic.”

Just over a week ago, we delivered nearly 33,000 signatures from our dedicated activists, asking the government to delay Chukchi lease sales until more detailed research can determine whether and how Arctic oil drilling can be accomplished safely. 

Please donate now to help save the people and marine life of the Arctic from dangerous drilling!


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A Sea of Football Fans

Hey there ocean fans… are you ready for the NFL playoffs? No? Well even if you aren’t, the animals at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the New England Aquarium sure are ready for the first round when the Baltimore Ravens play against the New England Patriots this Sunday afternoon.

Jen Bloomer, the Media Relations Manager for the National Aquarium and good friend of mine, just sent me an email with videos from each aquarium rooting for their respective teams.

Check out some of Baltimore’s other birds (Margaret and Louise) showing what they think the Ravens will do to the Patriots.

“We know the Ravens aren’t the only birds in town that like to destroy things,” Jen told me as we exchanged some pro-Ravens emails today. “Margaret and Louise love to show off for our visitors and the camera, and apparently love to support their fellow birds!”

 

Not to be outdone, the Harbor Seals at the New England Aquarium fired back with a message of their own.


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Oceana Adoption Center Open for the Holidays

Oceana Adoption Center

© Oceana

Have you ever tried to gift wrap a shark? Put a bow on a polar bear? Wrangle a penguin into a gift box? Thankfully, you don’t have to actually wrap up an animal to give an Oceana gift. I’m so excited to tell you that the Oceana Adoption Center is open for business!

All the familiar creatures are back this year - sharks, sea turtles, octopuses, polar bears, penguins, seals, dolphins and whales - and we've made a special addition too. We are now offering The Casey Kit, a deluxe limited-edition sea turtle adoption inspired by Casey Sokolovic, a young ocean hero who has been baking and selling cookies to support the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles.

Until wrapping paper comes in rolls large enough for a hammerhead, Oceana’s adoptions are the best way to give the ocean-lovers on your list the perfect holiday present. Make sure to order before December 15 to get free holiday shipping. Your tax-deductible donation is not only a thoughtful gift to a lucky friend or family member, but it helps us here at Oceana do our work – protecting the oceans all over the world.


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