Tag Archives: marine mammal

Diving with Sea Pups: Punta Loma, Argentina

Punta Loma Sea Lion pup

Punta Loma lies to the east of Puerto Madryn, beyond the Ecocentro and the beaches. Like El Doradillo, it is a popular destination for adventurous backpackers looking for a nearby bicycling or hitch hiking destination.

However, unlike my trip to El Doradillo, I arrived to Punta Loma by sea.

Punta Loma

For land-goers, a dirt road leads to scenic overlook of the Gulf and one of the region’s growing South American sea lion rookeries. Since the 16th century, these gregarious marine mammals were hunted by European colonizers for their warm fur coats, meat, and oil. By the late 19th century, many sea lion rookeries had disappeared from the Patagonian coast.

Puerto Piramides Sea Lions

Sea lion hunting is no longer widely practiced in Patagonia, allowing these marine mammals to begin recovering. Rather than being targeted for their attributes, sea lions may be incidentally caught in fishing nets, or even shot by fishermen who view their growing abundance as a pest problem. As a result, populations in Uruguay and Chile continue to decline. Even though some hunting and incidental capture occurs on the Argentinian coast, its local population is actually growing as much as 5.7% annually.

Puerto Piramides Sea Lions

On their own, South American sea lions do not attract many tourists. From a distance, they are a clump of brown and black spots on the rocky outcroppings of Puerto Piramides or Punta Loma. During my surveys with visitors, respondents consistently listed sea lions as one of the last (or least favorite) animals to view in the region. Many tourists told me that they could see sea lions in their home cities of Mar del Plata or had seen them before in other parts of Patagonia.

In fact, when I last visited Peninsula Valdes in 2010, I only recall briefly seeing sea lions in Puerto Madryn or Playa Union. They were hardly advertised or even featured as an element of the region.

Yet, some enterprising entrepreneurs found a way to even make a buck out of the overlooked local sea lion population. When I arrived to Puerto Madryn in June 2013, I could not escape the advertisements for SCUBA diving trips with sea lions. By far the most expensive diving trip offered (nearly twice the cost of a normal two-tank dive!), dive shops gloated of a unique interaction surpassing even the best experiences with sea lions in the Galapagos.

Punta Loma

I couldn’t imagine how diving with sea lions could possibly be more fun, or interactive, than my experience in the Galapagos. One cold morning, I decided to sign up and give it a try.

Even the mate and 7 mm suits couldn’t keep us warm that morning. At 7am, it was raining, and the lack of sunlight and slight ocean breeze sank deep beneath the neoprene into our bones. A few whales, unperturbed by the weather, passed by as we took a small boat to the dive sites. On the horizon, we could see a mast jutting through the surface of the slightly rolling water. This abandoned ship would be our first dive.

Punta Loma

Somehow, even the water felt warm compared to the wintry surface conditions.
Punta Loma

We navigated a quick, 20 minute dive through the ship’s interior, exploring the most closed and overhead environment I had ever been in. Our fins easily kicked up the silty bottom, but, otherwise, the visibility was clear.

Punta Loma

A plethora of microorganisms, starfish, anemone, and kelp flourished on the wreck’s dying body. A few fish lurked in the shadows, none venturing close enough to identify.

Punta Loma

After our brief shipwreck adventure, we took to shallower waters in search of the sea lions. Although only 6 – 12 ft (2 – 4 m) deep, the diving gear helped us stay just below the surface and keep our eyes open for curious pinnipeds. The turquoise blue waters were crystal clear here, making it easy to see the fast moving forms get closer and closer.
Punta Loma

Within minutes of entering the water we were surrounded. I felt a tugging at my fin – a young sea lion was biting at it! Cautious and inquisitive, the young sea lions dashed and twirled around our clunky, scuba-laden bodies.

Punta Loma

The matriarch of the litter was by far more bold and brazen. Like a labrador retriever, she would playfully bite our hands and snorkels, let her belly be rubbed, and swirl around us.

Punta Loma

It was exactly like playing with a litter of puppies – underwater. They seemed to enjoy the interaction as much as we did, but I had to wonder if this was adversely impacting the sea lions in any way. The activity was relatively new and minimally regulated. There were strict time limits on dive time in the protected area, and supposedly a vigilant guard armed with binoculars and a timer, but otherwise little oversight or regulation.

Punta Loma

When I later spoke with marine biologists at CENPAT, I discovered that my concerns were not unfounded. They too are beginning to investigate the human-sea lion interactions and find ways forward to support the conservation of this recovering population and the local livelihoods dependent on this new, and lucrative, tourism activity.

Punta Loma

The day, like many days in Patagonia, ended under a full sun and blue skies. Onshore, my newest travel companion, a street dog I would later adopt, was waiting for me. I enthusiastically stripped off the layers of neoprene insulation and returned to the daily routine of research. There were few tourists around, and I made sure to take advantage of the situation and survey the two other divers in my group.

I was still a few weeks away from the Argentine winter vacations – two weeks in July when whales and tourists abound the coasts of Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes. For now, I would continue to explore the town and the development of tourism in the region.

Punta Loma

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Departure: Galapagos Day 7

Sea Lion

At last, it was time to return to land. Before our final stop in the Galapagos, we would venture to see the island’s symbol of endemic and endangered species: The Galapagos Tortoise. Huge, shy creatures, they could be found throughout “farms” where they are protected from hunting and other threats.

Galapagos Tortoise

At last, with a heavy heart, and the sway of the boat still in our steps, we returned to San Cristobal, where we had embarked only a week prior.

Sea Lion

With a few hours remaining before our flights, we visited a nearby Sea Lion Refuge, full of squealing pups and protective mothers.

Sea Lion pup and mother

When we finally arrived to the airport, we learned our flights had been delayed, although no reason was given. We passed the time reminiscing of the week’s journey, almost in a state of shock that it had already ended. For a week, we had been disconnected from the world, submerged in a place where dolphin speak and waves filled the void and where hand signals convey life-saving messages. As we turned on our phones and electronic devices, connecting to the outside world for the first time since our arrival, we were greeted by news of an impending hurricane in the Northeast United States – the destination of a few of the travelers, including myself.

Yet even that news seemed to hold no meaning – it was of another place. It wasn’t until en route, shaken by the turbulence of the hurricane, that I felt the weight of the world awaiting my return.

A Paradise: The Galapagos Day 5

Originally Written October 2012

Day 5: Wolf Island, Shark Cove and Landslide 

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How do you describe paradise? How can you accurately describe a fleet of eagle rays gliding in perfect formation, as schools of hammerhead sharks pass overhead and a turtle accompanies you?

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How can you begin to imagine the sensation of diving alongside a mammoth whale shark, following her into the vast blue, your air supply depleting as your tired legs and lungs gasp for air, only to find yourself surrounded by nothing more than schools of fish and pure emptiness? How do you describe such an immense amount of biodiversity filling your field of vision?

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What does it mean to playfully roll about in the surf, with Galapagos fur seals as your companions? Their large eyes holding a curiosity equal only to your own.

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Here, even the fish hold their own vanity in showing off their bright hues and fantastic displays of fins and scales. Like dancers of the sea, they are.

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The clear, blue water allowed us to see for meters in any direction, allowing us to accompany as many as 12 whale sharks on a single dive. Throughout the dives, the incessant chatter of dolphins distracted our ever-searching eyes, hopeful for the sight of any kind of macrofauna. Our search was not in vain, as we were rewarded with a show of marine life that put the most impressive aquariums and marine collections to shame. As pods of dolphins played overhead, and even below, a constant stream of hammerhead sharks could be seen in almost any direction. The friendliest Galapagos Sea Turtles also made an appearance, gently gliding alongside our cameras for some photographs before departing into the currents.

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What we saw at Wolf Island during a day of diving goes beyond any expectations, or even dreams, of what we hoped to see.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 25 m / 80′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 8 – 12 m

Temperature: 22 – 24 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 1

Originally Written October 2012

Day 1: Arrival to San Cristobal

Conservemos Lo Nuestro

After a long journey from JFK in New York, to Miami, Florida, and then to Guayaquil, Ecuador – we had finally arrived to our port of departure: San Cristobal.

In total we were eleven divers of the Cousteau Divers Expedition, led by Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the youngest son of Jacques Cousteau. We would be departing for an eight-day voyage on sea to discover the wonders of the Galápagos Islands.

The first underwater encounter occurred just minutes from San Cristobal on the Isla Lobos, a popular hangout for sea lions. Although it was just a short dive to test our diving abilities, we were accompanied by an overtly friendly sea lion.

Like a pet dog, the sea lion playfully swam through our group, contorting its body in unimaginable ways and blowing bubbles at us. Another sea lion soon joined and together, humans and animals, we tumbled through the waters.

Galapagos Sea Lion

Their behavior was so canine, so domestic, it was not hard to see how sea lions share the same genetic roots as domestic canines.

Afterwards, we returned to port to explore the local shops. It was hard to tell if the town was run by people or by sea lions, as the creatures slept on benches, blocked paths, and covered the beaches. Rather than react aggressively to the curious bystander, they seemed happy to pose and show off for the cameras, although a few recently awoken sea lions seemed less than amused by “intruders”.

This brief introduction to the immense biodiversity that awaited us in the Galapagos National Park motivated our team for the upcoming journey.

San Cristobal

The Beluga Whale Controversy

As a child, I loved beluga whales. I always enjoyed seeing them at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut. Their playful disposition and “smiling” faces amused my child-like self. I never thought twice about the implications of putting such social and intelligent creatures in a confined environment.

In fact it wasn’t until years later, when I was in my early teens, that I first saw a whale in the wild. That summer, my father took my sister and me to Cape Cod, where we witnessed humpback whales freely swimming, fluking, and breaching in the bay. Witnessing such raw freedom and power was convincing enough – never again would I spend money to see a marine mammal in captivity.

Although I continue to hold this stance, I have always remembered that it was these captive animals that first inspired me to further explore the ocean and her wonders. If I had never seen a whale in captivity, would I have ever ventured to see one in the wild?

I also recognize that many of these captive specimens would otherwise be dead. In fact, I once helped, for a mere six hours, care for a severely burned and wounded bottlenose dolphin. Through human care and support, the dolphin fully recovered but could never be returned to the wild. This is all too often the backstory of captive cetaceans, including the star of a recent Blockbuster – Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail.

A similar story, told of two young belugas rescued from a small, soiled pool underneath a carousel in Mexico, made me sympathetic to the Georgia Aquarium’s captive collection of beluga whales and whale sharks, which were also rescued. General practice, mostly due to public outcry, dictates that aquariums and facilities like SeaWorld obtain marine mammals from trading with other facilities or by rehabilitating or rescuing individuals that cannot be re-released into the wild.

However, the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 Beluga whales has both shocked and disappointed me. If permitted, it will mark the first time in nearly twenty years that the U.S. has allowed the importation of healthy, wild caught marine mammals. Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) allows for such removal for the purpose of “public display”, it also prohibits the inhumane treatment of marine mammals.

Currently, these 18 Beluga whales are in a holding pool in Russia, where they were captured from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk. This is the primary source for wild caught beluga whales for aquariums and marine parks worldwide, and was previously a popular hunting ground for beluga whales by Japanese fleets. According to the IUCN, which lists the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucus) as ‘Near Threatened’, there is just simply not enough information to accurately assess that status of the wild population in this region.

In order to travel to the United States, these eighteen whales would have to undergo a long and stressful journey, beginning in Russia, then to Belgium, and finally to the United States. The transfer in Belgium must occur because U.S. transport planes are not permitted to land in Russia and, alternatively, Russian planes are not allowed to land in the U.S. because they “do not meet US air and noise emission standards.” In addition, these loud noises may further exacerbate stress levels as the belugas travel from Russia to Belgium. This alone makes the entire ordeal seem unnecessarily stressful and burdensome to both the humans and animals involved.

To better understand the process of capturing beluga whales from the wild and preparing them for shows and public display, I have found a brief video from a documentary on the capture of marine mammals. Rather than focus on the capture, this video shines a positive light on the interaction between humans and marine mammals in captivity. It is an interesting look at the facility responsible for the capture and sale of beluga whales in this region.

The purpose of the Georgia Aquarium’s permit is twofold: education and research and to replenish the captive stock of beluga whales in the United States. On its website, the Georgia Aquarium defends its application to import these Beluga whales, stating that captive populations must be maintained in order to better understand these species, and thus protect them in the wild.

On the first point: there is the question if the display of these creatures will truly serve educational purposes. Opponents argue that facilities such as SeaWorld provide misleading information and often do not accompany shows with any sort of educational message. On the other hand, captive marine mammals allow children and people of all ages to see and attempt to understand these creatures firsthand, which they may never be able to do in the wild.

In terms of fostering a healthy, captive population, most of these whales will not remain at the Georgia Aquarium, which already boasts an impressive collection of four whale sharks, four beluga whales, and eleven bottlenose dolphins. While the Georgia Aquarium may have personnel and medical facilities to support and care for its population of megafauna, the conditions these Belugas could face at other facilities, such as SeaWorld parks, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Mystic Aquarium, seem less likely to be of such high caliber.

There is deep concern on the impacts of captivity on marine mammals. Despite around-the-clock medical care and attention, beluga whales, on average, have shorter lifespans in captivity than in the wild. Critics argue that comparing lifespans is the “key test of well-being” and that about half of captive belugas die around eight years of age, less than half the median age of wild specimens.  These shorter lifespans, as well as a poor record of successful breeding, may further explain why the captive population has shrunk. Only a few months ago, the first beluga whale born at the Georgia Aquarium died within days of birth.

Observations of other marine mammals in captivity, specifically orcas, show signs of aberrant behavior, aggression towards other animals and humans, and even depression and emotional disturbance. Recently, a male orca at SeaWorld suffered a severe looking wound. Although SeaWorld claims the wound was caused by the facility, others say they witnessed a fight among three male orcas and that the wound shows teeth marks.  Prior to this incident, an orca attacked and killed a trainer at SeaWorld. The long-term effects of placing these intelligent, socially complex, and migratory species in confined spaces are both troubling and reason alone to oppose the importation of any additional wild caught specimens.

This begs the question if captive populations can really result in any significant research that could be applied to the conservation of wild populations. It also seems unlikely that the addition of eighteen beluga whales will make the captive population self-sustaining, especially given the scant probability of successful reproduction.

Finally, there remains the question of sustainability and the impact of such removals on wild populations. The Georgia Aquarium and four other “public display” facilities sponsored a study by the IUCN entitled the “Sustainability Assessment of Beluga Live-capture removals in the Sakhalin-Amur Region, Okhotsk Sea, Russia.” Interestingly, the Georgia Aquarium website states “the findings tell us that the acquisition and import of these animals has absolutely zero negative impact on this very robust native population in the Sea of Okhotsk”.

However, this is not the same takeaway that I had from reading the study. The IUCN document, although brief, does not state any clear conclusions other than that more research is needed in order to determine the number of beluga whales that would be considered a “sustainable removal”. The study is hesitant to draw any definite conclusions, stating that survey methods to determine population sizes and characteristics are not entirely reliable.

Furthermore, the study states that the population of belugas in this region was subject to significant, large-scale commercial whaling from 1917 until 1963, supposing that it ended simply due to the sheer depletion of beluga whales in that region. After hunting ended, the capture of live belugas for “public display” began in 1986. According to the document, Russia is the sole regular supplier of belugas to the aquarium and marine park industry. Thus, while eighteen beluga whales from Russia to the United States may not seem like a significant number, this does not take into account the number of belugas that are being caught and sold worldwide to other aquariums and marine parks.

I am also concerned that the allowance of this permit will open the door for other, similar applications, which would potentially exacerbate the worldwide extraction of belugas, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, and other marine mammals for “public display”. It seems that there are enough anthropogenic and natural factors driving marine mammals to shore, which in turn significantly impacts the wild population while potentially providing “rescues” to these facilities.

Up until now, the entire stock of megafauna at the Georgia Aquarium must have been obtained as rescues, either from other countries, such as the two beluga whales, or from within the United States. Thus, I strongly feel that the Georgia Aquarium and other marine parks will be able to continue to have a small population of captive marine mammals that have been rescued, rather than taken, from the wild or from other facilities that are not properly caring for these intelligent, but delicate, creatures.

Despite its attempt at sounding noble, I view this permit as a sheer act of greed and disregard for the wellbeing of creatures whose intelligence, social structures, and needs needs we do not yet fully understand. Rather than spend money to place these marine mammals in oversized swimming pools and pretend the results can be applied to wild populations, research institutes and aquariums should shift the paradigm to support fieldwork to study marine mammals in the wild.

Although a public hearing has already occurred (12 Oct. 2012), the National Marine Fisheries Service has an open public commend period until 29 October 2012. If you feel strongly against this application to import 18 Beluga whales to the United States for the purpose of “public display”, then I encourage you to speak your mind and submit a public comment.

Directions for submitting public comments

Talking Points, prepared by Naomi Rose at the Humane Society International, that you can include in your public comment.

In case you didn’t read the whole blog entry, or you want to read more, check out this summary of the issue by the New York Times.