Upwelling

When I talked about the Gulf of Guinea, I mentioned that it was a site of coastal upwelling. There are different kinds of upwelling, depending on how the process occurs. Upwelling can occur off the coast or in the open ocean. Today, I’m going to give a general overview of upwelling.

Upwelling is a process in which deep, cold water is brought to the surface of the ocean. Upwelling occurs when wind pushes the surface water away, allowing the deeper water to rise to the surface. This cold water is typically full of nutrients that are vital for seaweed and plankton growth, creating areas of high productivity.

In this nutrient-rich water, seaweed and plankton population increases drastically, which sets off a chain reaction. The large amount of seaweed attracts herbivorous fish, and the large amount of plankton attracts filter feeders and small fish. Larger fish are attracted by all the small fish. Sharks, dolphins, and even sea birds are attracted by the large amounts of fish in the area.

Areas of upwelling are very important to both the ocean and to humans.

Upwelling provides food for all kind of fish, marine mammals, and sea birds. Think of the open ocean as a desert. It’s so vast and deep that it could be days before a dolphin or a shark can find their next meal. Areas of upwelling in the open ocean are like an oasis, especially for migratory animals who might not encounter a lot of food on their long journeys.

Coastal upwelling covers about 1% of the world’s oceans, but it provides about 50% of all our harvested fish. Some of the most successful fishing grounds occur in or around areas of upwelling. And when something happens and the upwelling stops, like in an El Niño weather event, the fishing industry takes a heavy hit, harvesting fewer and smaller fish.

Upwelling is so important that scientists and businesses are joining together to try and figure out how to create artificial upwelling using technology. So if you’re looking for a job in something groundbreaking, look into artificial upwelling! I have a feeling that it’ll be an important endeavor for years to come.

Sources and links:
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/upwelling.html ⇐ brief look into upwelling
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/upwelling/ ⇐ more in-depth view of upwelling and coastal upwelling
https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/02quest/background/upwelling/upwelling.html

Beach Clean-up

The weather is getting warmer, and people are getting more and more stir crazy. Beaches are starting to open back up to the public. I cannot tell you whether or not it is a good idea to go to the beach, but if you do, I would ask you to do a small favor for me: please bring a small bag or trash bag with you and collect some trash.

Beaches have always been an unfortunate dumping ground for trash, whether it is intentional or not. People can be careless and forgetful, leaving behind their plastic bottles and food wrappers. Sometimes the wind will carry off someone’s trash before they had a chance to throw it away. And sometimes trash will blow onto the beach from the surrounding communities.

However the trash gets there, it does not belong on the beach. Once it gets on the beach it will more than likely get into the water and travel more distance on the waves than any sailor in their lifetime. Or the trash will sink beneath the waves and end up in the stomachs of whales, dolphins, or large fish, never to be digested and slowly starving the animal as it builds in their stomachs.

It’s a harsh thing to say, but it is a reality that keeps occurring.

So what can you do to help?

Bring a trash bag or even a small plastic or paper bag with you whenever you go to the beach. Make sure you collect your own trash in those bags, pin them down with your beach bag or shoes so the wind doesn’t derail your efforts, and take the trash with you when you leave. You can dispose of the bag in a trash can provided by the city, if it’s overflowing with trash then you can dispose your trash at home.

If you’re feeling up to it, you can collect the trash on the beach that is not yours as well. Whenever I walk a beach, I make sure to bring a small bag with me, picking up trash as I go along. Not everyone is comfortable with this for one reason or another. So please do what makes you comfortable.

The easiest thing is to make sure all the items you brought to the beach come home with you, especially sandals and toys that may get left behind. If you want to do more, fantastic! You can use gloves to pick up trash if you don’t want to touch it yourself, or even tongs or something of the like.

I know it may seem embarrassing to collect trash in front of other people, but think about it. If five people see you pick up trash, then it might inspire one of them to start doing it too. And then that could encourage two more people to pick up trash, and so on, creating a domino effect that for once has a positive impact on the environment instead of a negative one.

But it’s all about comfort.

So let’s say you’re only comfortable collecting your own trash, but still five people see you do that. Then one of those five thinks it’s a good idea and now there are two people making sure they keep their trash off the beach. Then you guys tell your friends, and other people see you too, and now there are ten people cleaning up after themselves and telling their friends about it. Again, it’ll help create a cascading event that will lead to the majority of people practicing good behavior on the beach and cleaning up their own trash.

All it takes is one brave person to inspire a movement that will influence a society, even if it seems like a simple, small act.

Whether you choose to pick up only your own trash or cleaning up all the trash you can see, you are making an important impact. That’s one less bag of trash that may end up in a whale’s stomach, never to be digested. And if you never go to the beach, talk to all the people you know who do and convince them to help keep the beaches clean.

Never forget that you are important. Never forget that your decisions and your actions can help change the environment around you.

 

Alexandrium monilatum

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Prostita
Phylum: Dinophyta
Class: Dinophyceae
Order: Gonyaulacales
Genus: Alexandrium
Species: monilatum

After spending some time talking about the horrors of invasive species, let me throw you a curve ball. We should all agree that invasive/nonnative species are harmful to us and the environments that they infiltrate. However, not all native species are good for their environment either.

How can organisms that are part of the natural balance of their environment be bad for it?

The simplest explanation I can give is this example. Our bodies need potassium to function properly, which we get from food like bananas. If our bodies don’t have enough potassium, then our muscles cramp and we can become stiff and sore. If we consume too much potassium, then it can poison and even kill us. Don’t worry, though; you would have to consume a truck load of bananas in a single day for that to happen.

Like our own bodies, environments need everything in moderation.

Alexandrium monilatum is a single-celled dinoflagellate found in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, parts of the Pacific Ocean, and the Chesapeake Bay. It is a special kind of bioluminescent algae; when agitated, the organism produces its own light in the form of a soft blue glow.

This dinoflagellate can reproduce sexually and asexually, meaning it can use its own genetic material to make copies of itself without the use of other individuals. It can also produce chains of individuals, ranging from 2 to 80 A. monilatum per strand.

A. monilatum uses photosynthesis to create its own food, making it a phototroph. It is preyed upon by small fish and filter feeders, making it part of the base of the food chain. So how can this armored alga be a bad thing? It sounds so productive, and it even glows blue at night when waves stirs the water!

The problem with A. monilatum is that it is considered a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) species. When conditions are right, this species will reproduce faster than it can be consumed by its predators, causing an algal bloom in the water. Blooms are large patches of algae that are seen by the naked eye, meaning there are millions of individuals concentrated in a single area.

Blooms are considered a problem because the water contains a finite amount of nutrients available to the algae. Once the supply runs out, it’ll take time to replace those needed nutrients. So these blooms are extremely productive for a short time, before the algae run out of food and die. When they die, they start to decompose. The process of decomposition takes up a lot of oxygen, and without the photosynthesizers there to replace the oxygen being used, the water becomes hypoxic—or worse, anoxic.

Once the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water is depleted, the area becomes a dead zone, and all the fish and other marine organisms either leave or suffocate in the water. Dead zones aren’t always permanent; however, they are still an inconvenience to the marine life and to us and should be prevented at all cost.

It is not my purpose to make Alexandrium monilatum out to be a bad guy, just to show that even native species can harm their environment under certain conditions. Algal blooms, or red tides, can be caused by a steep increase in important nutrients found in fertilizers, which enter the water as run-off from nearby farms, gardens, and agricultural facilities. A boom in available food causes a boom in creatures that depend on it, and that’s true no matter the species.

Bioluminescent algae are fascinating. I was lucky enough to swim at night in a lake full of a species of bioluminescent algae, though I’m uncertain what species it was. It was a magical experience that I will never forget, so I was excited to talk about A. monilatum and to discuss the importance of balance within an ecosystem.

Sources and more info:
https://naturalhistory2.si.edu/smsfp/IRLSpec/Alexan_monila.htm
https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/alexandrium_monilatum
https://www.vims.edu/bayinfo/habs/guide/alexandrium.php
https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/environmental-epidemiology/harmful-algal-blooms-habs/alexandrium-monilatum-hab-in-lower-york-lower-james-rivers-and-chesapeake-bay/frequently-asked-questions-faqs-alexandrium-monilatum/

Estuaries

I absolutely love the written word. Why? Because we can have so many names for the same subject/object and it can confuse those who don’t know all the different words.

For instance, estuaries can also called be bays, sounds, sloughs, or lagoons. Though, a coastal lagoon is different from an estuary, but we’ll get to that in a later post—let’s just agree for now that common names are a blessing and a curse.

Estuary is a very broad term because it includes both fresh and brackish water ecosystems, and there are three types of estuaries: salt-wedge, partially mixed, and fully mixed. Each type of estuary is determined by how the fresh and salt water mix.

Today, we’ll just start with a broad overview of coastal estuaries.

An estuary is an area where fresh water from a large stream or river mixes with the salt water from the ocean. This mixing results in brackish water, a chaotic medium between fresh and salt water. Brackish water is too salty to be considered fresh water, but not salty enough to be sea water.

What do I mean by chaotic? The salinity of an estuary changes with every season, passing day, and cycle of the tides. For instance, at high tide the salinity will be higher than at low tide because there is more ocean water mixing with the river water. During the rainy season, the salinity will be lower because the river/stream will have a lot more fresh water from the land runoff than normal, mixing more fresh water than usual with the ocean water. This chaotic nature makes estuaries interesting ecosystems for organisms to adapt to.

Due to their long, funnel-like shape, most estuaries don’t experience a gradual rise and fall of the tides. Instead, the tides rush into the estuary with such force that they create strong currents and even wall-like waves called tidal bores. With the tide comes offshore sediments that get deposited in the estuary as mud, and with the high rate of sedimentation, this mud builds up and creates special habitats within the estuary. In the tropics, these mud areas are called mangrove swamps; everywhere else, they’re called tidal mudflats and salt marshes—but I’ll discuss these habitats in detail later.

Estuaries are crucial to both the land and the ocean.

Estuaries provide a rich source of food for waders and shorebirds. Various types of migratory birds will stop at an estuary to consume worms and crustaceans that live in the mud before continuing on their way. Estuaries also provide breeding grounds for both land and aquatic animals.

One of the greatest functions of an estuary is that it is a natural water filter, helping to ensure that the water coming from the land is as clean as possible before entering the ocean. The process of filtration is complicated and requires a lot more explanation than I have time for today.

The take-away message for this post: estuaries are highly important to the ocean and the land, and they have recorded high levels of productivity for centuries. A lot of the early settlements of man were found in estuaries, such as the Nile Delta, the Ganges, and the Yellow River valley. Even many of today’s popular coastal centers, like New York City and London, were developed on estuaries. And because they attract us, estuaries are also highly susceptible to pollution and need to be protected.
Sources:
Ocean the Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.britannica.com/science/estuary/Geology-and-geomorphology#ref335485
https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/estuary.html
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/estuary/

John “Charlie” Veron

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Primates
Family: Hominidae
Genus: Homo
Species: Homo sapiens

I want to take the time to talk about the major people that have been involved in the various aspects of marine science. During freshman year of college, my very first class was spent talking about some of the influential people that helped to get us to where we are today, one being Aristotle and his recorded work in marine biology. So many people—naturalists, sailors, and scientists—have done so much for all of the fields in marine science that I didn’t know where to start, but I want them all to be known.

So I went back to why I started this blog, because I’m a coral enthusiast, and I wanted to share my love for them and their world with everyone else, which led me to Charlie Veron, a fellow coral lover.

Born in Sydney, Australia in 1945, Dr. Veron has spent his life dedicated to coral and their reefs, so much so that he has been dubbed the “King of Coral” or the “Godfather of Coral.” How did he earn such a title?

Dr. Veron is credited for formally naming and describing over 100 new species of coral and discovering about 20% of the world’s coral species. He’s worked in Australia, the Caribbean, and every major coral reef area in the world. Many of the species he has found belong to the genus Acropora, the same genus as the Elkhorn coral that I first spoke about!

He’s written several books, including a three volume series called The Coral of the World, and he’s authored more than 100 scientific papers. Even now, he hasn’t put up his hat at over 70 years old!

With the help of many colleagues, Dr. Veron is developing a free website based on his famous three-volume book on coral. The website is updated as information changes and is an amazing resource for students and researchers alike—and I can’t wait to start looking through it myself! He’s also actively campaigning on climate change, ocean acidification, mass bleaching of coral reefs, and so many related issues through interviews and documentaries.

I highly recommend watching some of the documentaries that he’s featured in. I got the chance to see Raising Extinction by Rob Stewart, in which Dr. Veron had had an interview, and he was so interesting to listen to. It’s nice to see that even at such an age, he still has so much love and conviction for the ocean, and I’m thankful for all that he’s done and is still doing. His work is inspiring, whether or not you’re interested in coral!

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
http://www.coralsoftheworld.org/species_factsheets/ (This is the website I was talking about!!!!!)
http://therevolutionmovie.com/index.php/biography/dr-john-charlie-veron/

Seagrass Beds

Fun fact: when you search the Internet for general information on seagrass beds, one of the first things to pop up is shopping for “seagrass” beds. No, I’m not spending this time talking to you about beds you can sleep on—I think that would put us both to sleep.

Instead, I’m going to drone talk to you about seagrass bed the habitat.

Seagrass beds are very similar to kelp forests, which I’ve already talked about. They are both habitats that are dominated by a specific plant, and their roles are crucial to the health of the ocean and coastal communities. Seagrass beds are habitats made up of, you guessed it, seagrass.

Seagrass is the only flowering plant that lives its entire life in the sea. I’ll share more cool seagrass facts at another time!

The habitat flourishes in tropical waters, and the beds are most commonly found in shallow, sandy lagoons or enclosed bays. Basically, wherever the water is really clear and calm, that’s where seagrass beds do the best! They can even be found in polar waters too, though they’re more far common in the tropics.

Like kelp forests, seagrass beds function as nurseries and refuges for many fish that will spend their adult lives elsewhere. They also act as nurseries for some commercial invertebrates like shrimp and cuttlefish—and let me tell you, cuttlefish are one of the coolest groups of creatures you will ever see, so if they live in the seagrass, then those habitats are cool places too!

The seagrass itself is really important to green sea turtles, manatees, and dugongs. For green sea turtles it’s one of their primary food sources, but for the other two it’s their only food source. In fact, seagrass is so important that there is a correlation between the decline in seagrass communities and the decline the population numbers of the creatures that eat seagrass.

Green sea turtles and dugongs are endangered, while manatees have just barely—like since 2016—made it off the endangered species list.

Unfortunately, seagrass beds are highly vulnerable to pollution from the mainland. Large amounts of nutrients and sediments that are part of the land runoff oversaturate the water, making the water too murky for the seagrasses to do well. Suffice it to say, these environments are very important to fish, invertebrates, and larger animals and these habitats need to be protected if we want the communities they support to survive.

I’ve yet to dive at a seagrass bed. I’ve seen small patches of seagrass near some of the coral reefs sites that I swam around in Jamaica, but I don’t think they were quite large enough to support much. I think it would be really cool to scuba dive or snorkel in massive seagrass bed areas because of all the life you can see. I would love to play “Where’s Waldo?” with a bunch of the juvenile fish that will be camouflaged to blend in with the seagrass, and if I saw a manatee or a cuttlefish I’d probably squeal!

Sources and cool links with more information:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://oceana.org/marine-life/marine-science-and-ecosystems/seagrass-bed
https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/plants-algae/seagrass-and-seagrass-beds
https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/southflorida/habitats/seagrasses/life/

Shell Beach, Australia

Not every beach is made of sand.

In fact, there are beaches that are made up of volcanic rocks, pebbles, shells, and coral. I’ve been lucky enough to snorkel from a beach that was made up of dead, broken pieces of coral that were piled up from thousands of years of heavy coastal storms. What materials a beach is comprised of can tell you a lot about the area, including how much energy is involved through wind and wave action, what the waves are like, and the history of the beach—but those are topics for another post!

Today we head over to Australia, the continent of many species that could and will kill you. However, the beach that I’ll be talking about is probably one of the safest places to swim, especially for those who aren’t strong swimmers.

Shell Beach, is found within Western Australia’s Shark Bay, making it an embayed beach. This beach is unique for a few reasons.

The first unique feature is that the immediate water has a salinity that is twice that of the ocean! This occurs because the rate of evaporation is greater than the rate that rain falls, so more water is lost due to the heat than is replaced. When the salt water evaporates, the salt stays behind. Add to this the fact that a massive sea grass bed sits at the mouth of the bay, blocking a lot of tidal flow, and this makes for a super salty environment.

But it’s okay, because this leads into the second unique thing about this place. The salty water conditions have created a safe haven for a specific kind of shelled creature, Fragum erugatum, which is a species of cockle. A cockle is a bivalve—its shell is divided into two halves—and it is very similar to oysters and clams.

The f. erugatum cockle can survive the hypersalinity of the waters of Shell Beach, but its natural predators cannot, meaning that this species thrives in this place. In fact, they’ve survived here in L’Haridon Bight for thousands of years with no decline in their population.

How can we tell? When shelled organisms die, their bodies are consumed or they decay, leaving only their shells behind. So when f. erugatum cockles die, their shells remain in the area, and over thousands of years their shells eventually replaced all the sand and other sediments of the beach.

Today, Shell Beach stretches for about 44 miles and is comprised of only cockle shells, and the shells extend about 26−30ft down below the immediate surface. That’s a lot of shells! The shells even make up the sea bed and stretch quite a ways into the bay. On the back part of the beach there are so many shells that they’ve fused together in places to form large hard shapes, which were mined for a while to make decorative blocks until Shark Bay became a protected site.

I think this beach would be a cool place to go because it is so different. Not a lot of creatures can survive the water, so you don’t have to worry so much about potential animal accidents. And the water is easy to float in, much like the Dead Sea in Jordan, so it’s a great place to relax and float in peace. Also, the beach is a pretty snow-white color and was created in such an inspiring way, at least to someone like me!

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
https://www.australiascoralcoast.com/destination/shell-beach
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/shell-beach
https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/shell-beach

Continental Shelf

How many people believe that wherever the beach ends, that’s where the open ocean begins? When I was younger, I believed that too. While the continental shelf is part of the ocean, it is different from the open ocean.

The open ocean is a massive body of water that goes down thousands upon thousands of feet. Obviously, there’s a bit more to it, and the open ocean is divided into zones that I’ll go over at some point, but at the moment, let’s just call the open ocean a massive body of water.

The continental shelf, by contrast, is a continuation of the continent that exists just under the surface of the ocean.

During the last ice age, many of these shelves were above the water and acted as extra land for species to use. In fact, it is believed that the Bering Strait, which allowed humans to cross from Eurasia to North America, was one of these continental shelves. These areas were exposed to the open air because of the decrease in sea level due to colder temperatures. However, after the ice age, a lot of the glacial ice melted and the sea level rose again, covering up the continental shelves.

Since the last ice age, these areas have been very important to the ocean and to those who live on the coasts of the continents, man and beast alike.

Continental shelves have shallow seas, with average depths between 300‒600ft (100‒200m) that are fed by rivers from the mainland. These rivers carry all sorts of things to the ocean—fresh water, sediment from erosion, and vital nutrients from land run-off—all of which mix together to make for a very productive environment. Continental shelves support all sorts of environments for marine life, like coral reefs, kelp forests, sea grass beds, etc.

The shallow, nutrient-rich water allows algae and other plant life to get enough sunlight and other components for photosynthesis, and from there the environments create themselves. Plants bring in plant-eaters, and the herbivores bring in predators. These areas are also important because their environments provide space for many of the oceans’ inhabitants, such as sharks, dolphins, and various fish, to breed and have their young—so these places act as nursery grounds!

The continental shelves are also important to you because that’s where a lot of the fish you eat comes from. There are all sorts of fish farms and commercial fishing operations that occur off the coast, providing food for the continent’s population, and even to other continents as well, depending on the species being caught or raised.

Even before modern times these areas have provided major support to coastal human populations because of the amount of fish and other resources found there. Now, these places also provide income from tourism because inland-dwelling people want to experience the beauty of the ocean for themselves.

Thank you for letting me share with you what continental shelves are and why they’re so important to us. They harbor so much life, and they provide benefits for not only the ocean but for many of us on land. They contain coral reefs, kelp forests, and various sea bed environments that are so important to the ocean and its inhabitants and, by extension, to all of us!

Sources and other cool links to help you learn more:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History
Ocean: A Visual Encyclopedia made by the Smithsonian
https://marinebio.org/oceans/continental-shelves/
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/continental-shelf/
https://www.britannica.com/science/continental-shelf
*note on the links: they have more of a geological look into the continental shelves like how they’re formed, their layout, etc.*

Kelp Forests

Photo of a sea lion within a kelp forest taken by Dr. Alex Mustard. To see more of his wonderful images visit his website www.amustard.com

When I spoke about sea otters, I briefly touched on kelp forests, which is where a lot of sea otters happen to live, and I just wanted to take the time to expand on these unique habitats. As the name suggests, kelp forests are made up of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) that can grow up to 30m (~98.5ft) long and as fast as 50cm (~20in) a day! These habitats are found along the coasts were the water is cold and nutrient rich, so from Alaska to California, along the west coast of South America below the tropics, and even near the borders of the poles.

The simplest way to describe a kelp forest is to relate them to forest found on land. Both are made up of plants that use photosynthesis to make food and oxygen, which isn’t a gas that plants use so it ends up being released into the environment. Anyways, both land forests and kelp forests are also considered habitats because they provide food and shelter to all sorts of creatures. Kelp forests are used by various species of fish that only go there to give birth to their young, which then use the kelp as a refuge until they reach maturity.

Cool fact: the fish born in kelp forests are typically a different color than their adult selves, using shades of green and brown to help camouflage them from predators like larger fish! Also, kelp forests are pretty important to coasts not only for the food it provides, but because they can also protect the coastline from severe storms by absorbing the intense wave-energy. Without kelp forests, intense storms can wipe out entire stretches of coastline and greatly change the layout of the coast.

Now, why are sea otters important to kelp forests? Well like many land forests, kelp forests can be wiped out and made barren, but not by man. Sea urchins typically feed on fallen kelp; however, if left unchecked their populations can grow to into frighteningly large numbers and can wipe out a whole bed of kelp. Luckily, sea urchins are a favorite menu item for sea otters, so they keep the sea urchin population down, which also keeps the kelp forests healthy and vibrant!

Kelp forests are pretty cool habitats and I think it would be cool to go diving near one, just to see all those fish and sea otters that call it home! And while sea urchins are interesting, I’ll definitely view those guys from a far because those spikes can seriously hurt.

Sources and cool things to check out:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide (American Museum of Natural History)
https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/plants-and-algae/giant-kelp

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/kelp.html