Humpbacks, Hammerheads, and Mylar Fish

Written by on November 2, 2015 in Marine Life

By Bridget Altman

On Friday October 23, I was given the opportunity by San Diego Whale Watch to go on a whale watching boat, The Privateer, and observe sharks. Seems a little strange, I know, but recently, the boat has been reporting sightings of hammerhead sharks, mobula rays, and even a whale shark! This is an El Niño year, meaning warmer waters from the tropics are moving up along the Southern California Bight. El Niño is responsible for a lot of animals being spotted outside of their usual range. Victoria Vasquez of Moss Landing Marine Lab is working on a citizen science project to collect data about the appearance of hammerheads in the Southern California Bight. She asked me to help her collect data by going on as many boats as possible and recording whatever I could about the sharks found.

The crew pulling a mylar balloon from the water. Photo credit: Bridget Altman.

The crew pulling a mylar balloon from the water. Photo credit: Bridget Altman.

Though I did not see any sharks on my excursion, I saw something even more unexpected. I was standing on the top deck with Cristin Kelly, the captain with San Diego Whale Watch, chatting about our mutual fondness for sea lions when she stopped mid-sentence and called out “Mylar Fish, 10 o’clock”.

My first reaction was, “a mylar fish, I’ve never heard of that, I guess I need to brush up on my fish guide”. But then I realized, it was Cristin’s code for a balloon. Jeremy, the lead naturalist on board, grabbed a long pole with a hook on the end, and headed to the port side of the ship. As Jeremy proceeded to pull the Disneyland balloon out of the water, another naturalist got on the loudspeaker explained the threats balloons pose to our oceans. This happened again with a birthday balloon about thirty minutes later.

Many sea animals fatally ingest these balloons, as the balloons block the intestinal tracts of the animals, causing them to become malnourished and starve to death. Sea turtles are especially at risk since balloons look like jellyfish, a sea turtle’s favorite treat. When a balloon is released in the air, it floats up and will eventually start to deflate; often winding up in the oceans. Mylar balloons persist in the water for years without biodegrading. Ultimately the balloon could end up circulating within an ocean gyre, threatening sea life along its path.

San Diego Whale Watch crew. Photo credit: Bridget Altman.

San Diego Whale Watch crew. Photo credit: Bridget Altman.

The 100 passengers on board The Privateer got to witness firsthand the impact balloons can have in the oceans. They can now share this experience with their friends, and spread the word about why balloons shouldn’t be released in the air. While balloons remain one of the primary ocean polluters, environmentally friendly citizens and groups like San Diego Whale Watch can make a difference by pulling balloons out of the ocean and disposing of them properly.

By the way: We also got to see a humpback whale breach consistently for about 35 minutes. This behavior is not typically seen from Humpback Whales off the coast of San Diego. It makes for an awesome photo opp.

Humpback whale breaching. Photo credit: Bridget Altman.

Humpback whale breaching. Photo credit: Bridget Altman.

To learn more:

Bridget Altman is a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography studying Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. She hopes to help the world understand the importance of ocean stewardship. She has a passion for all ocean creatures, specifically apex predators. She ultimately wants to become a PR agent for sharks.

Copyright © 2015 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

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