The Beacon

Blog Tags: Marine Life

Sperm Whales Prefer Squid to Plastic Bags

sperm whale

© Oceana/Juan Cuetos

Plastic is one of the most common pollutants that end up in the ocean, but the properties that make it ideal for shopping make it deadly to marine life.

Plastics are durable and do not decompose easily, which means they can stay in the ocean for decades. And because they are so lightweight, plastics can float in the ocean where sea turtles and marine birds can get entangled or even ingest them by mistake. For example, plastic bags in the ocean closely resemble jellyfish, which are a common food for sea turtles.

Plastic can also have serious effects on marine mammals, including sperm whales which are some of the world’s smartest animals – possessing the largest brain of any known species.

Sperm whales typically feed on squid, sometimes diving more than a mile below the ocean’s surface to find food. But plastic trash is becoming more and more a part of the whales’ diets. Each year, sperm whales eat more than 100 million tons of seafood using suction, which makes them more vulnerable to ingesting plastic. And because sperm whales are at the top of the food chain, they are the most likely to be affected by pollution.

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Marine Monday: Antarctic Krill

What do blue whales, penguins and salmon have in common?

They all have the same diet. Much of the ocean is fed by a two-inch crustacean: krill. Antarctic krill congregate in huge masses in the Southern Ocean, dense enough to fill the belly of a blue whale, the world’s largest animal.

Penguins will march hundreds of miles to feast on krill, building up blubber that will help them survive their cold months on land. Even flying seabirds will dive in and partake of the abundance.

Without this tiny creature, the ocean would starve. But like so much else in the ocean, krill’s future is in danger. It is also a popular food for salmon, giving the fish’s meat that distinctive pink color. When humans build fish farms for predatory fish like salmon, we need to feed them. And that means that humans are now fishing krill to feed our farms, taking away potential meals from whales, penguins, and other wild creatures.

Oceana is working to prevent the overfishing of krill and the other small creatures that keep the oceans’ food chain going. To learn more about marine animals like Antarctic krill, visit our marine wildlife encyclopedia.

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Belize Government Rejects 8,000 Anti-drilling Signatures

Last year, our colleagues in Belize traversed the small Caribbean nation to gather more than 20,000 signatures on a petition against offshore oil drilling off Belize’s coast and beautiful protected areas. They discovered that almost everyone they spoke to was against allowing oil rigs to invade Belize’s crystal blue waters.

According to Belizean law, those signatures should be sufficient to trigger a national referendum on the issue. But this week, the government threw a wrench in the works by rejecting more than 8,000 of the signatures. According to Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai, the signatures were turned down primarily because of poor penmanship. 

Oceana’s Vice President for Belize, Audrey Matura-Shepherd, spoke to a local radio station about the news:

“At the moment what I feel is that Belizeans should just come out to the streets and protest. Belizeans need to get more agitated. They need to realize that their voices are being shut down…But not only that, we need to organize and make a mass movement. To set the agenda as it pertains to our resources, especially as it relates to our marine resources.”

Oceana is not backing down in the fight to stop offshore drilling from ruining Belize’s incredible marine heritage. Stay tuned!

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Marine Monday: Tasseled Wobbegong

tasseled wobbegong

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Some sharks are fearsome predators, all sharp teeth and angular fins. These are the sharks that inspire epic monster movies and give the word “shark” its fearsome connotations.

And then there are sharks that look like a pile of seaweed. The tasseled wobbegong is a flat reef-dwelling shark with leafy tentacles and a name that’s just as ridiculous as its appearance.

But appearances can be deceiving. The tasseled wobbegong settles down on a rock or reef, blending in perfectly with the sand and seaweed. When a tasty fish swims by, the shark comes to life, opening its jaws full of sharp, respectable teeth and snapping the poor swimmer up. Its tasseled face may look rather silly, but this shark is just as efficient a predator as its more fearsome brethren.

Sadly, we don’t know much about the tasseled wobbegong, but we do know that this sneaky hunter is in trouble thanks to overfishing and the destruction of the reefs it depends on.

Oceana is committed to protecting the habitats of tasseled wobbegongs and all the other strange and mysterious creatures of the deep.

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Marine Monday: Olive Sea Snake

olive sea snake

An olive sea snake in Australia. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

When you think of ocean animals, snakes are not usually the first thing to come to mind, but they live as comfortably underwater as they do on the ground. Today’s Marine Monday features one of these swimming snakes, the olive sea snake.

Olive sea snakes live in corals in the waters above Australia. Divers should be cautious around these olive-brown snakes, as they will swim right up to anything that catches their curiosity, and they will bite if they feel threatened. An olive sea snake bite is venomous and can be fatal.

But don't worry, beachgoers have little to fear from this snake. Olive sea snakes live and hunt within their own small territories in coral reefs and rarely enter open water.

One cool thing about olive sea snakes is that they have a nine-month gestation period and give birth to live young, just like us! But their babies come in litters of five and are the size of a human finger, plus they grow up to be venomous sea snakes, so the similarities end there.

Want to learn more about cool marine creatures? Check out Oceana’s marine encyclopedia.

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Marine Monday: Giant Clam

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot more to clams than clam chowder. Sure, they just look like a hinged shell with squishy stuff inside, but make them a little bit bigger—or a lot bigger—and you can see how complex they actually are.

We don’t even need science fiction to do it. The giant clam can grow up to five feet long. Unsurprisingly, it’s the world’s biggest bivalve. It lives on reef flats and shallow lagoons in the Indo-Pacific, and it’s one of the most amazing clams you could ever hope to see.

Like its smaller cousins, the giant clam is a filter feeder, surviving off of small particles in the water. But it also has another trick up its shell. It farms out algae inside its shell, giving the big bivalve a constant flow of nutrients.

The giant clam is immobile, but luckily its soft body is safely incased inside its huge shell. Sometimes larger clams can’t close their shells all the way, which gives us a glimpse of their surprisingly colorful—and beautiful—body linings, called mantles.

You can learn more about giant clams and other cool creatures from Oceana’s marine wildlife encyclopedia.

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Hairy-chested ‘Hoff’ Crabs and Hybrid Sharks

hoff crabs

Piles of the newly discovered "Hoff" crabs. © NERC Chesso Consortium

Happy New Year! Hope all you ocean lovers out there had a relaxing holiday. And what better way to start off 2012 than with some fascinating new ocean discoveries?

First, scientists have identified the first-ever hybrid shark off the coast of Australia, a result of mating between the common blacktip shark and the Australian blacktip shark.  The discovery indicates that some shark species may respond to changing ocean conditions by interbreeding.

And more humorously, scientists in the UK have found a new yeti crab species on the Southern Ocean floor that they have dubbed "The Hoff" because of its hairy chest – a la David Hasselhoff.

The researchers found hundreds of the crabs lying in heaps around hydrothermal vents – as many as “600 individuals per square metre." “Baywatch” and crustacean fans alike are rejoicing, and Mr. Hasselhoff himself even tweeted about the discovery.

If you could have a marine animal named after you, what would it be?

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Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen on '60 Minutes'

On Sunday "60 Minutes" aired a great piece by Anderson Cooper on one of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, the Gardens of the Queen (or Jardines de la Reina) in Cuba.

Diving in, Cooper is not disappointed – he is surrounded by colorful corals, large sharks and a 200-lb critically endangered goliath grouper.

Oceana’s research vessel, the Ranger, sailed to the Gardens of the Queen in 2008, and documented a wide variety of marine life including sharks and sea turtles.

Check it out:

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Marine Monday: Blue Buttons

Blue buttons are just one of the many small critters that live in the oceans. They are often mistaken for jellyfish or colored plastic when they wash up on beaches, but they are actually free-floating colonies of hydrozoa.

Blue buttons have two main parts: the central disk, which is about an inch across and yellow brown, is a hard flattened bubble that holds gas to keep the blue button floating. Attached to this disk are a type of bluish stinging polyp, which act as tentacles, although the blue button itself does not have a powerful sting—it can only cause minor skin irritation.

In the center of the disk, a larger central polyp acts as a mouth for food intake and waste removal for the entire blue button colony. Blue buttons eat live and dead small fish, eggs, and zooplankton.

The blue button cannot swim; it relies on drifting on currents and wind to move through the ocean.

Pretty cool, huh?

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Thursday Trivia: Puffins

puffin photo

An Atlantic puffin. © Oceana/Concha Martinez

Puffins are curious and charismatic birds that live in the North Atlantic ocean, where their orange beaks and feet make for a colorful sight.

Atlantic puffins can swim as well as fly. Like a plane taxiing for take-off, a puffin runs along the surface of the water to gather speed for flight.

Puffins spend the summer in clifftop colonies and they winter at sea. Once a year, the puffins moult, and are left temporarily flightless.

Each year, Atlantic puffins return to breeding grounds, where they perform rituals like bill-knocking and marching in front of burrows. Burrows are sometimes re-used between seasons. Each pair of Atlantic puffins incubates a single egg, and when the chick hatches, they bring it small whole fish, which they are able to carry by using their tongues to hold the fish to the roof of the beak. Chicks are fed for six weeks, then abandoned; after several days the chicks leave to hunt for themselves.

Atlantic puffins currently have large and fairly healthy populations. However, they have been targeted by human hunting for meat and feathers, and they are also vulnerable to attacks by gulls, rats, cats, dogs and foxes. One of the most important risks they face is overfishing of species like sand eel and capelin, which Atlantic puffins rely on for food. Puffins are also vulnerable to the effects of oil spills.

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