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Monday, October 31, 2011

Leviathan Sanctuary

An interesting, well-balanced article about whale watching in Sri Lanka. Includes views from the tourism industry, whale watch operators and marine biologists. Definitely WORTH A READ because for once the writer, in this case Charitha Fernando, does not solely harp on the promotion of tourism as countless articles do - but highlights the importance of management and being responsible about protecting these resources we have been blessed with. Well done Charitha!

Click on the link to read the full article:

(Published in the Lanka Business Review on 27th October 2011)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Colossal Convergence

A Sri Lankan elephant in Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka. Photo by Yasha Hetzel

A sperm whale flukes up off Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. Photo by Asha de Vos

As a Sri Lankan, I have always been fascinated with elephants. They are part of our past, present and I pray they will be a part of our future. 

One day I happened upon this article that compared the life histories and social structure of two of my favourite species; elephants and whales - in this case, sperm whales. It's an easy to read article and comes highly recommended. The first two authors, Weilgart and Whitehead spent a few years in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s conducting research on sperm whales as part of the 'Tulip' expedition. Some of the results from their research are included in this paper.

Sperm whales and elephants share similar life histories and social structures, which include social females and roving males. Weilgart et al discuss recent results from long-term studies of sperm whales and African savannah elephants, describing an interesting example of convergent evolution and highlighting the vulnerability to exploitation that results from the mode of life that these animals have evolved.

Click on this link to read the full text

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Follow me to TED2012!!

It's just been announced - I have been selected as one of the 25 TED Fellows for  2012! For those of you who aren't sure what TED is it's "a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading -- through www.TED.com, our annual conferences, the annual TED Prize and local TEDx events". The TED talks are like Pringles - 'Once you pop - you can't stop!'

The one year fellowship enables me to attend the TED2012 conference in Long Beach, California and participate in the TED fellows community. Check out the rest of the Fellows class for 2012 - what an awesome group! Stay tuned and click on the link for more...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nat Geo Interactive Blue whale: Give it a try!

Check out this great Nat Geo link that gives you real insight into various aspects of the blue whale. It allows you to compare weights and lengths with things like buses and people, it uses animation to help you visualise how the blue whale feeds under water and you can even listen to some calls recorded off California and Western Australia!


Friday, October 21, 2011

Spot the difference

Each of these dorsal fins belong to a different species of whale. Can you spot the differences? Dorsal fin shape and colouration is useful for identifying different whale species. In some circumstances, that is the only part of the whale you will see...and in many cases you can only catch a passing glimpse. Knowing what to look for makes the task easier. Read on to learn more....

Blue whale: Dorsal fin is small and falcate (triangular) and located 3/4 of the way back on the body. The largest animal to ever roam the planet - this individual was photographed in Sri Lanka and therefore grows to a maximum of about 25 m. 

Humpback whale: Notice the slight hump in front of the dorsal fin explaining why this species is known as the humpback whale. The irregularly shaped dorsal fin is located 2/3rds of the way back on the body. Humpback whales grow to about 12-15 m. This individual was photographed in Mingan, Canada.

Bryde's whale: Dorsal fin is sickle shaped and black. They are located about 2/3rds of the way down the back. Bryde's whales grow to about 12-15 m, but they weigh about half (or less) of a humpback whale. This individual was photographed in Sri Lankan waters.

Minke whale: This whale's dorsal is described as tall and curved. Look at the colour differences between the Bryde's whale and the minke whale....can you see how that might be useful for telling them apart? The dorsal on the minke is located 2/3rds of the way down the body. Minkes tend to grow to approximately 8 m. This individual was photographed in Mingan, Canada.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kayaker captures amazing blue whale footage, above and below the water

I have to thank my mum for finding this little gem of a clip. Watch it but remember, nobody endorses swimming with a blue whale (or any other cetacean for that matter). A mere flick of its tail and you can get really badly injured. The best way to enjoy these leviathans is from a safe distance where you can see them behave naturally without any interference. Click on the link for more...


Monday, October 17, 2011

'Criminal' penguin caught on camera

While I do try to post as many whale-related stories and adventures as possible, I am often distracted by the other amazing animals in the ocean. This is a particularly fabulous clip of an Adelie penguin thief...click on the link for more!


Friday, October 14, 2011

THREATENED: Sri Lanka’s Marine Life

A resplendent isle with much to boast about, Sri Lanka is fast losing its most valuable resources to neglect and irresponsibility. While most of us are too busy berating the authorities, we conveniently forget our individual roles in the protection of our environment.

Death by dynamite

Coral rubble
The mere existence of mankind has had an impact on global marine environments. The oceans are seen as ‘bottomless’ sources of food and natural resources, convenient repositories for trash and poisonous waste, or something to be dredged, filled, or drained when deemed necessary. Although we know better in these environmentally-aware times, misuse continues at home and all around the world, while areas with improving attitudes and practices will remain scarred for years to come.

The Sri Lankan context

Sri Lanka has a total land area of 65,000 km2 and maritime rights to an area of 230,000 km2. Its 1,585 km coastline comprises of 300km of beaches and sand dunes. Fisheries are the major economic use of the maritime area, and the fishery sector contributes nearly 3 percent to the GDP and is an important source of employment and foreign exchange to the country. Of this, coastal fisheries constitute about 72 percent of the total marine fish catch and support nearly 90 percent of employment in the fishery sector while fish provides 65 percent of the protein in the Sri Lankan diet. 100 percent of Sri Lanka’s population lives within 100km of the coast and are directly or indirectly dependent on it.

The threats

The threats faced by the marine environment are both anthropogenic and natural. Some of the primary threats include climate change, fragmentation and habitat loss, overexploitation and pollution.

Natural threats:
Natural threats include coral bleaching, storms and predation. The environmental imbalance caused by human activities has exacerbated climate change effects that have increased the frequency with which coral bleaching episodes and storms occur. However because of the intangible nature of our impact, humans are quick to shirk off responsibility. Moreover, the tangible destruction caused by humans has meant that when natural events such as tsunamis occur, the damage caused is far more prolific.

Coral bleaching which is caused by unusually high sea surface temperatures is the process by which corals lose their colouration either due to stress-induced expulsion of symbiotic unicellular algae or due to the loss of pigmentation within the algae. The massive 1998 global bleaching event had an impact on many of our reefs including those within Hikkaduwa National Park and Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary. Recovery of the former has been much slower than at the Bar Reef because of the added anthropogenic pressure resulting from unregulated visitation.

Anthropogenic threats:
Dynamite fishing is a prime cause of reef damage and mass fish kills, most of which go to waste due to non-collection. Dynamite is also used in the ‘laila’ net fisheries which involve the surrounding of large shoals of fish with nets that hang vertically in the water column and in recent times has led to the demise of pods of Spinner dolphins that associate with the target fish species. Other destructive fishing methods include the use of synthetic vs. cotton nets. Because these nets are visually and acoustically undetectable, by-catch of charismatic species such as dolphins and turtles are frequent. In addition to being undetectable, the fibers are strong and nearly unbreakable thereby preventing animals from escaping once caught. Nets that are lost at sea continue to kill marine life for hundreds of years because of the durability of the synthetic fiber – a process known as ‘ghost fishing’.

The dugong, a large-bodied herbivorous marine mammal, which was once common along the north western coastal waters of Sri Lanka, was taken at a rate of 100-150 individuals per year in the 1950s. They are now rarely seen due to a continued harvest and as a result of the destruction of their primary food source – sea grasses. The illegal harpooning of dolphins around the coast of the country has also led to a decreased inclination to ‘bow ride’. ‘Bow riding’ is the behaviour of dolphins in which they frequently swim or ‘ride’ the crests of ocean waves. As dolphins are frequently used as ‘back up’ species (an attraction in the absence of the target whale species) by the whale watching industry, this reluctance towards a natural behavior may prove disadvantageous.

Coral mining for lime spelt the demise of many of Sri Lanka’s southern reefs. In place of the once live and flourishing corals that provided habitats for fish and numerous other marine organisms lie vast tracts of coral shards and empty spaces. The future for these areas is bleak and the protection of the reefs which once provided the coastline against the high energy waves, is now lost. A direct result of this destruction was the unfortunate loss of lives in Peraliya on the south west coast during the 2004 tsunami.

Harvesting of fish without consideration of sustainable yields has shifted the future of our protein source into the hands of aqua-culturists. Although aquaculture is not without its own problems, it will form the only alternative as more fish stocks begin to collapse. Collection of reef fish and seahorses, also known as ‘cut flower’ species because of their short life span, for the ornamental fish trade also occurs freely around our coastlines and such activities may cause an imbalance in the reef ecosystem. The prolific and unsustainable collection of chank and sea cucumber over the years has lead to the sequential demise of inshore stocks and led to the exploitation of the deeper off shore stocks.

Upstream activities also have an impact on the marine environment. Deforestation inland is one such example. Although the marine and inland terrestrial systems seem so disparate, they are not. The denuding of forests in the upstream catchment areas causes erosion and unusually large amounts of soil to enter the rivers and eventually exit through the lagoon mouths into the sea. Corals being living organisms, are suffocated by the sediment that settles on them and die. Coral destruction causes the loss of habitat for fish and also sources of food.

Garbage and pollutants absent mindedly or purposely tossed into the oceans have many detrimental effects on marine life. Contaminants such as heavy metals and PCBs used in upstream areas also enter the sea via rivers and lagoons and result in a change in water quality. Wastes such as acids, radioactive materials, matter used for biological and chemical warfare and other highly toxic substances are also regularly dumped directly into the ocean despite the introduction of the Ocean Dumping Act in 1972 that renders such actions illegal.  Despite being dumped into ‘isolated’ oceans their sheer interconnectedness and global circulation patterns ensure that the wastes end up on everyone’s doorstep and are incorporated into the food webs. As coral reefs are biological assemblages adapted to waters with low nutrient content, the addition of nutrients in this manner favors species such as algae that disrupt the balance of the reef communities. Pollution such as plastics and polythene are documented to cause the death of many organisms. Many species of marine turtles that feed on jellyfish are known to mistakenly consume polythene bags which block the mouth and throat and inhibit breathing and feeding. Furthermore, if they are ingested they inhibit digestion due to the extended stomach sending confusing signals to the brain causing the turtle to stop eating and ultimately die of starvation. Entanglement in marine debris also inhibits surface breathing of turtles and marine mammals, foraging, predator escape and mating behavior.

All these threats acting individually or in combination result in severe impacts on the biological production of the world’s oceans and the services they provide to billions of people today. With the acceleration of climate change, the impacts on marine life from other stressors will become severely exacerbated and the ability of ecosystems to recover will be impaired. We now live in a world that has to contend not only with so called natural threats, but those posed on the system by our everyday actions. It is imperative that when we live by the philosophy of ‘leave only footprints, take only memories’. Is it not up to us to make the right decisions in an attempt to save our marine life for future generations?

Do you know how long it takes for the following items to degrade?
Glass bottle – 1 million years

Fishing line – 600 years
Plastic bottle – 450 years
Aluminium can – 80-200 years
Plastic cup – 50 years
Plastic bag – 10-20 years
Cigarette filter – 1-5 years
Newspaper – 6 weeks

Now sit back and reflect on the impact they have over their lifespan. Dispose responsibly.

 (Article published in Big Issue magazine in 2009)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Global shipping traffic in prime blue whale habitat

Map of ship traffic on actual shipping routes from Kaluza et al. 2010

This blog links to the previous one where I mentioned the heavy shipping traffic off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. A picture speaks a thousand words...

Ref: Kaluza, P., Kolzsch, A., Gastner, M. T. and Blasius, B. 2010. The complex network of global cargo ship movements. J R Soc Interface, 7, 1093-1103.

Blue whales dine in treacherous waters off LA

This article is really well written and is akin to the situation we face in Sri Lanka. Whales feeding in and around the shipping lanes on the southern coast.....this area has some of the highest shipping traffic in the world as it connects Asia with the EU and also supports general ship traffic. Its a pretty scary situation for the whales!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A brilliant quote from one of the greatest visionaries of our time

"Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on." 
- Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Scientists 'see' ocean floor

Find out how scientists use cameras and sonar near the US Virgin Islands to 'see' the sea floor and find out how fish and other sea life use the underwater habitats, which include coral reefs and sea grasses.