Tag Archives: ocean

An Unusual Ecology in Patagonia

An Unusual Ecology in Patagonia

In Península Valdés, clever kelp gulls have learned to feed on the living flesh of southern right whales. Learn more about this strange interaction through my latest photo essay at Sage Magazine. 

 

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Life by the Sea: Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Almanecer

The sun rises at 8:45 am here. I start a run towards the coast, four blocks away at the end of my street. It’s a quiet ocean, low, gentle rolling waves. Some days it more closely resembles a vast and endless lake. A soft scent of sea air fills the atmosphere. Dogs chase each other on the beach, barking enthusiastically as their owners run along the sandy shore.

Lonco

Here, the dogs are their own masters. They navigate the streets, playing with school children, begging scraps from kind strangers, and following always in my shadow.

Southern Right Whale Breaching by Puerto Madryn

And there, amongst the sheet of blue, the dark shadow of a whale. A poof of spray breaks the horizon as she powerfully exhales. With luck, you may see a much larger flash of white break – the sign of a goliath breaching, soaring towards the sky. And then again. And again. Always in a successful pattern.

Sea Lion by La Muelle

The pier offers some of the best whale watching, as bystanders can watch whales breach right next to it or venture underneath it during high tide. Occasionally, a curious sea lion can be found basking in the sun right below. On this pier, untamed marine wildlife and curious urban dwellers can meet face to face, exaggerating the land-sea interface of this region.

Illegal Fishing Ship

The growing urbanization of Puerto Madryn and nearby cities, however, places pressure on its neighboring marine ecosystems. Further from the coast, large commercial fishing fleets line Argentina’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waiting to illegally plunder her bounty of marine life. Squid, hake, and prawns are three commercially important fisheries in this region, each one sought by Argentine and international fishing fleets. The Argentine navy, challenged by bribery and the vast expanse of the EEZ zone, is responsible for the prevention of illegal and unregulated fishing. During my visit, the navy hauled in Spanish and Chinese fishing ships caught illegally fishing in Argentine waters. Both sat on the pier for weeks until their respective governments paid millions of dollars in fines to release their crew and return their ships.

Puerto Madryn

I continue my run along the coast, passing dive shops, other runners, and various cafes. Statues commemorate the arrival of the first explorers – Welsh settlers – among other things. Tributes to the bounty of marine mammals that live here cover the town –wall murals, gift shops, and endless entrances to tour companies offering exciting excursions.

Peninsula Valdes is home to southern right whales, South American sea lions, Southern elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, and dusky dolphins, the list goes on. Once almost hunted to extinction, the southern right whale is now a national monument. Even the locals, who watch as these whales arrive each year in early June and depart by December, stop and stare in awe as a whale ventures close to shore, splashing in the surf and raising its tail to the skies. Here the sense of wonder for nature persists, a sentiment too seldom lost, or too obscured, by the consumerism of North America.

Playa

I arrive towards the center of town, passing by the tourism office and shopping mall, and begin my walk onto the pier. Here, local boys and older men come to fish recreationally. A few government vessels and a local cruise ship dock at the pier. Occasionally, a whale passes by. I can see lines of sail boats on the other side of the pier, taking advantage of the mountain winds that sweep through Puerto Madryn. I pull my jacket closer and approach the end of the pier.

I hear a powerful exhalation – a spray of water through the space of time. I turn and see two whales nearby. Others on the pier have turned to look too. We all stop, frozen in the same moment, caught by the same sound. She spy hops, looking back at us. The callosities adorning her head and mouth set her apart from others. Each has their own unique pattern of these whale lice and flesh configurations.

Ballena Franca Austral

I turn around. Time to work. I grab my surveys and my computer, packing a bag for a trek in the other direction. With the city center to my back, I walk a good half-hour along the coast to CENPAT, the regional research institute. I spend half of my walk with my head turned left towards the sea – eyes straining for a glimpse of a whale. They seem to appear less frequently on this side of town, but still I manage to see a quick flash of black as one passes through.

I start my work in a cubicle, greeting the other student researchers in the room. I am but one economist among a center of biologists, but all are curious of my work, and more than happy to help in any way.

Puesta del Sol

As the skies darken around 5pm, I pack my bags and begin the trek home. By 6pm, the sun has set and my nine hours of daylight have ended. Sometimes, I walk through town, finding a café to sit in and watch as people pass by. At this moment, the town is quiet, filled with more locals than wandering travelers and visiting families. The shop owners stand bored behind their counters; today there are no tourists to buy souvenirs. Still a month remains before national vacationers and international tourists arrive. I too wait for this day to start my surveys.

Casita

In my apartment, I can hear the gentle patter of rain against the roof. The sound is calming; it fills the empty space of this small house. I play some music and experiment with cooking pasta in a kettle, as my skeleton kitchen lacks most cooking tools. Without the luxury of Internet, I sit here and write, sketch a drawing, revise my survey, read a book, watch a television show. Simple distractions to pass the time until sunrise.

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 Days 3 – 4

Originally Written October 2012

Day 3: Darwin’s Arch

IMG_1335
Darwin’s Arch initiated another breath-taking series of adventures. Since the beginning of our journey, the dive masters spoke of seeing Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus). The largest fish in the sea, these gentle giants actually feed on plankton and other small organisms. The thought of seeing one was well beyond the scopes of my imagination, but much at the heart of my deepest desires.

Green Sea Turtle
The Islands had spoiled us – we had grown accustomed to seeing fleets of hammerhead sharks, lurking moray eels, sociable sea turtles, and schools of fish. On my previous dive trips in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida coast, I considered it great luck to see just one sea turtle, or one shark, or one school of fish. Our eyes searched the blue for more, for the greatest prize yet – the Whale Shark.

It happened so fast – I almost forgot why I was being pushed forward, but responded automatically with an additional effort to propel myself forward into the blue, leaving the safety of the reef.

And then it all made sense. The frantic motions of the dive master. The effort our small group exerted into exploring the unknown ocean blue. White dots began to materialize in front of me and there she was – a whale shark nearly the size of the bus!

Whale Shark and Diver
The moment was so fleeting, gone before I could catch up with her. Fortunately, I would have a second chance (and many more). For now, we returned to the boat, where hot chocolate, warm towels, and excited exchanges of photographs and stories awaited us.

Silky Shark
In between dives, we snorkeled with silky sharks. Without our clunky scuba gear, we were more like awkwardly swimming and free diving sea lions, driven by curiosity to venture close to the equally curious sharks. Having never snorkeled before (a shock, given my enthusiastic entrance into the world of scuba diving), my skills were untailored and yet I still managed to find myself among five circling sharks. One swam by, pierced by a hook with a lengthy fishing line still attached, trailing along like some tattered streamer. A few others were decorated with similar signs of accidental, or failed, fishing attempts.

Silky Sharks
Unlike the hammerheads, these sharks moved with purpose and intent to check out these strange, fumbling creatures on the water’s surface. In the background, a sea turtle gulped for air, unnoticed by the sharks. Although not territorial or aggressive, like bull sharks, the silky sharks do have a tendency to check out what may be edible. In my case, this led to a five minute experience both exhilarating and slightly terrifying. But rather than instilled a sense of fear, I gained a newfound respect for these efficient predators, sleek and streamlined in their movements.

Another top predator of the sea soon appeared in our second dive. In an effort to encounter whale sharks, we ventured into the blue, keeping the distant view of the reef to our left while our eyes strained into the vastness in hopes of seeing those white spots.

Tuna School
Instead, we saw a shimmering light, moving as one patterned unit. It was a school of tuna – another popular fishery target and food item for consumers worldwide. Yellowfin, Big Eye, and Skipjack are the main species targeted for the fishery.

Originally, foreign fleets were allowed access to these fisheries, even in the marine reserve. Since a Special Law passed in 1998, this has no longer been the case (A Brief History of the Tuna Fishery in the Galapagos). However, the fishery continues to exist outside of the marine reserve, and, occasionally and illegally, within it. Nonetheless, government efforts are striving to limit this fishery to account for the overfished nature of tuna worldwide.

Bottle-nosed Dolphin

Another curious megafauna approached us during a dive. Usually, we could just but hear their echolocation against the steady current and sway of the waves above. Occasionally, their quickly moving shapes could be seen in the blue. But never did one venture close enough to clearly photograph, much less stay to investigate these strange creatures exploring its home. However, this bottle nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) circled our group and stayed at our level, giving us each a good look over, before joining his pod in the shadows.

Sunset at Darwin Island
And so we pressed on. Remembering the evolutionary beauty of what we saw and looking forward to new and familiar sites in the days that followed.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 30 m / 100′

Dive Time: 50 min

Visibility: 10 – 18 m

Temperature: 22-25 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 3, Morning

Originally written October 2012

Day 3: Wolf Island, Shark Cove

Hammerhead Sharks

“Diver’s Paradise.” “The Golden Grail of Diving.” “One of the best diving sites in the world.”

These phrases, among others, have been used to describe the underwater experience associated with Islands Wolf and Darwin.

Both sites are world renown for dense schools of Scalloped Hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini).  As you can see from the photo, these guys pose a minimum threat to humans. They tend to be shy and would often dissipate into the surrounding blue whenever we, a group of noisy bubble-makers, tried to approach.

This apparent abundance can be deceiving – these creatures are listed as endangered and are threatened by shark finning and by becoming entangled in nets meant for other fish. Fortunately, these sharks, among other species of sharks, were recently protected at the CITES conference in Bangkok this past March 2013.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Other members of the shark and ray family filled the site. Schools of Silky Sharks, Galapagos Sharks, huge stingrays, and even fleets of spotted eagle rays crossed our paths. Spotted Eagle Rays (Aerobatus narinari) can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and other tropical seas. Their dark coloring with white spots distinguish them from all other types of rays. Like other rays, they eat mostly crustaceans, shellfish, and other creatures that can be found on the sea bottom. Their strange looking snouts even help them dig in the sand in search of food!

While the undulating bodies of the hammerheads seemed graceful against the ocean blue, and the gentle ‘flying’ of the eagle rays made them appear like flocks of birds, the almost militant march of the silky sharks was both heart-stopping and intimidating. As I lay against a rocky outcrop, I watched as a formation determinedly swam in front of me, less than a meter away. Minimizing my breathing, I hid against a rock waiting for the silkies to venture closer.

Silky Sharks
I eventually did have a close encounter with Silky Sharks, needless to say I felt less brave without the ‘protection’ of my noisy scuba gear.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 30 m / 100′

Dive Time: 50 min

Visibility: 10 – 18 m

Temperature: 22-25 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 2

Originally Written October 2012

Day 2: Cabo Marshall, Isla Isabela

Isla Isabella

The island of Isabela lies east of San Cristobal. We journeyed overnight to the northern point, which would provide an ideal point of departure the following day for the islands of Wolf and Darwin.

After a dive briefing, we prepared for the first dive with a range of gear. Some wore 5 mil wetsuits while others donned semi-dry or even dry-suits. Nearly every diver made a final safety check on camera and video equipment, hoping the o-rings would hold. The mere review of signals for different animals we would see throughout the week left us full of excitement and eagerness to jump into the clear, blue waters.

King Angelfish

We boarded the zodiacs, small vessels that permitted the group of divers to explore the reef in two smaller groups; each led by a local guide and Divemaster.

Yellowtail Surgeonfish
Hard corals and benthic animals dominated the coral reef, providing a strong base of nutrients and habitats for a wide array of creatures. Parrotfish grazed on the corals as scorpion fish, as still as stones, sought to blend into the rocky surroundings. Schools of king angelfish (Holacanthus passer) and Yellowtail surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius) filled my vision.

Barracuda

As I floated weightlessly away from the coral, I found myself in a school of barracuda. Usually curious of shiny objects, such as diving gear, these barracuda seemed unperturbed by my presence.

Manta Ray

Manta Rays glided overhead, following the ocean current in search of plankton and other microscopic food items.

Octopus

A careful eye could spot an octopus hiding in the small holes of the reef, awaiting nightfall. Occasionally, we would come across a white tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) resting amidst the rocks and corals. Non-threatening, the shark would quickly swim away in search of a new resting spot if disturbed by the oncoming group of divers.

White-tipped Reef Shark

Sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem in the Galapagos, and the main draw for tourists and snorkelers. As we soon discovered and Islands Wolf and Darwin, the Galapagos is abundant with schooling hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, and even whale sharks. Although it is illegal to fish them, the abundance of sharks and competitive nature of the economy has prompted illegal shark finning.

This was one of the few underlying conservation issues I discovered at nature’s paradise in the Galapagos.

Moray eel

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 20 m / 66′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 6 – 12 m

Temperature: 19 – 21 C