Monday, September 30, 2013

Basking shark tag recovery

Andrew Westgate, wandering tag in hand.

Last week, an old friend emailed an offer I couldn't refuse.  A basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) tagged off Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy, had gone on walkabout.  The pop up tag, designed to float free after a few days recording the shark's behavior, was phoning home.  Andrew Westgate, from UNCW and the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, was on a quest to get it back.  And I got to ride along.  (Dory stayed at the doggy hotel, having her spots polished, as Damon likes to say.  He was at Kent Island.)

Basking sharks, bizarre and extraordinary, are the second largest fish on the planet.  And they grow to such great lengths -- 40 feet -- not through spectacular and gruesome acts of predation, but through filter feeding.  The "basking" in basking shark comes from their habit of spending so much time on the surface (Andrew's tags indicate they can spend as much as 40% of their time there) and the leisurely pace of their swimming.  In the Gulf of Maine, basking sharks concentrate there foraging on Copepoda, using modifications to their gills called rakers.  (Want to see more?  Check out this nice documentary.)

In an apparent case of convergent evolution, basking sharks are remarkably similar to right whales.  (Which gets me wondering what mechanism prevents them from competing for the same niche while they are in the Gulf of Maine.)  Both are ponderously large, slow-moving, surface dwelling plankton eaters.  It's no surprise, then, that basking sharks face many of the same threats as right whales:  over exploitation, entanglement in surface fishing gear, and ship strikes.  So learning more about their behavior is an important step towards conservation of the species.  

Andrew's group started researching basking sharks in the Bay of Fundy in 2008; deploying tags that record behavior on a short time scale; other tags that record location over several months; and conducting aerial surveys in the Gulf of Maine.  They also are assembling a photo-id catalog of dorsal fins, because it turns out you can track an individual over time through the unique fins (as you can bottlenose dolphins by they fins, or humpback whales by their flukes).

The tag we were hunting for was floating some 40+ miles southeast of Mount Desert Island, sending its location up to satellites.  Andrew chartered Osprey, the College of the Atlantic's outstanding new research and teaching vessel, to go after it.  We lucked out with the weather -- a late September's day was never so fair as last Saturday:  70 degrees and northwest winds 0 - 5 knots.  It wasn't quite a Beaufort 0, but it was close -- nearly flat calm.  We left Bar Harbor under the shadow of two enormous cruise ships and headed out past the cliffs of Acadia.  Lobster bouys peppered the water until we reached Mt Desert Rock, where they slowly petered out.  Cadillac Mountain, a looming monster on land, grew smaller and smaller, then was no more.  Herring gulls grew less common and pelagic birds flew by to check us out.

College of the Atlantic's amazing research and education vessel.

Osprey's crew.

Andrew and Captain Toby Stephenson discuss the plan of action.
It might seem like finding a tag the size of a cucumber would be the proverbial needle in the haystack, but we found the tag with no problem.  A couple of miles from where we expected to find the tag, Andrew donned his headphones and tracking gear to pick up the radio signals the tag was emitting.  He was able to pick up a good signal and point the boat towards the tag, which we simply scooped up with a net.  (The tag was entrained in a raft of seaweed, just as Andrew said it would be.)  I'm sure it was a moment of relief for Andrew when we brought it aboard.  He never expected a shark would carry it so far offshore or so far from home.

Andrew listening for radio signals with a "yagi" antenna.

Quarry captured.  Phew.

Explaining how the tag works.

I'd call, wouldn't you?
 Beyond the tag, it was a spectacular day for wildlife.  Humpback whales, white-sided dolphins, pilot whales, two -- yes two -- encounters with Mola molas, and a blue shark.  I rarely get to head so far offshore, and never on such a nice day.  With the seas so calm, we could see disturbance on the water far in the distance -- a hint that wildlife was probably there.  One of the pleasures of the day was spending time with a crew who was as fascinated by the animals we encountered as we were.  Any little hint of a whale sent us off to investigate.  Osprey was a sweet ride with a terrific crew.

Taking photos of humpback flukes for photo id.

Looking the fluke catalog to determine who it was.

Pilot whales.

Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Mola mola!  MOLA MOLA!

One of our humpbacks.
 Alas, it had to end.  We steamed into Bar Harbor (past an enormous cruise ship on its way out) just as the sun was falling behind Cadillac Mountain.  It was a satisfying day all around -- tag recovery, amazing wildlife, and a visit with an old friend.  Any other old friends want to let me "tag along" -- just call me.  I'll drop my grading and be right there.

Tourists on a sunset cruise.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sunday in the Park with Dory (and a very quiet Five Islands)

With Damon away, it was girls gone mild in the house.  We did some porch construction (building the corners of the hand rails, a tricky business) until the power went out, finished a long run around the Maquoit Bay loop, took a power nap, and ate pancakes for dinner very healthy meals just like I do when Damon is here.  Sunday saw me grading while cheering on my Pats (3-0, but an ugly 3-0) after a cold front brought morning rain.  By 3 the weather was beautiful and the grading wasn't getting any more compelling, so Dory and I hopped in the truck and headed over to Reid State Park on Georgetown Island.

Looking west from the rocks.  That surf looks small here but was not.

Calothrix (blue-green algae):  slick enough for its own sign.

I've only been here during the depths of winter, when a walk on the beach wasn't too pleasant, so I was looking forward to a stroll on the sand.  Alas, it was not to be.  No dogs.  The dog was not amused, but she found this dead bush to take her frustration out on.  We managed to get some good strolling in around the parking lots, but this left much to be desired.

Poor Dory, as usual, got the short end of the stick.  I found a shady spot and left her in the truck for a little nap while I ventured out for a short jaunt on the beach.  Last time I was here I didn't know enough of my Maine geography to know what I was looking at, but from RSP you can see Damariscove Island on the horizon to the east, and Seguin off to the southwest.  There was some great surf from the morning's storm, and ocean spray softened the setting sun's light looking west.  I really loved the rocks at the eastern end of the beach -- the trail to the top affords a great view of the beach and nearby islands.  Worth the (minimal) climb.

Once the guilt about abandoning the dog grew too strong to ignore, she and I headed over to the village of Five Islands.  You know how I like fall because the crowds are gone?  Well, sometimes that also means the restaurants are closed, despite saying they are open.

That little sign says "Fall Hours Sat-Sun 11-7", at 6:15, when it was clearly closed.
 Even without a lobster roll to enjoy seaside, I loved checking out the working waterfront down here.  This looks like a very protected little harbor, and I imagine the place is hopping all summer.  I can't wait to get back when I can pick up lunch and enjoy the view.

Some news from the marine world is disappointing but not surprising:  Gulf of Maine shrimp are in trouble.  My husband and I buy this shrimp in frozen one pound packages (well, we used to before converting to a mostly plant-based diet).  It's great for making pasta or shrimp cakes, and I think it's sweeter than Gulf shrimp, with less umami flavor.  Unfortunately for the shrimp and the fishermen, their numbers appear to be at their lowest ever, suggesting the fishery may be completely shut down this winter.  Shrimp appear to be another victim of climate change in Maine, although overfishing is probably part of the issue as well. One of the frustrating things about marine conservation is the multiple issues that play into problems like this one.  It's the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

I guess after that cheery note, I'd better lighten up.  So here's a pic from my drive home -- Georgetown is cool because so many marshes and tidal creeks bisect it.  It was a lovely way to end the day for Dory and I.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

An Autumn Evening in Harraseeket

The chill of autumn is upon us here in Maine, and the first of the leaves are falling.  But summer is resisting, and the sun is still warm.  My work week was particularly busy, with the ramping up of labs for marine bio.  We spent Sunday out at Giant Steps, and Wednesday and Thursday we collected data at Ocean Point in East Boothbay.  I love these two labs -- when the weather is good, students positively glow with enthusiasm.  Despite the busy week, I was able to sneak out for an evening at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster, in South Freeport, a favorite spot for lobster rolls.

More tartar sauce?
A great part of fall is that all the spots that were too crowded in summer are now mostly left to the locals.  On a summer's evening, this window would be crammed with people ordering clam baskets, hamburgers from Wolfe's Neck Farm, and a bowl of chowder.  This time, I was the first (and only) person in line.

Enjoying the view of the Harraseeket River
Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster is right on the water -- the way a good seafood dive should be.  To me, a lobster roll is a lobster roll (which is why I don't understand this).  The ambiance is where it's at.  If I can stroll the docks before hand, watch the catch being unloaded as the fishing crew discusses their evening plans, and smell the salt air while I eat, then I'm where I want to be.  

Live and cooked lobbies.
Hanging on the edge of the Harraseeket River, overlooking the docks and moorings, the Lunch and Lobster fits the bill for me.  Parking is a pain in summer, but not on a Tuesday in September.  And no credit cards, which is fine unless I forget and have to "buy" my money from a private ATM.  But I love the fact that this place hides just beyond the reach of LL's crowds, like so much of Freeport does.  And BYOB is fine, an added bonus.  (But alas, no dogs permitted.  Durn says the dog.)  So for the next weeks, while the weather's still fine if crisp, I'll be looking for any chance I get to go down to the water, and if there's a lobster roll involved, I'll be all the better for it.

This man was carrying 8 sacks of steamers up from the public dock.  That's where they come from!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Two Upcoming Oceans Events to Our South

University of New Hampshire’s Ocean Discovery Day Saturday, Sept. 21, Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory on the UNH campus in Durham and UNH’s Judd Gregg Marine Research Complex in New Castle. The free event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Ocean Discovery Day is hosted by the UNH Marine Program, N.H. Sea Grant, the UNH Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, and the UNH Marine Docents. For more information, including directions, parking, and schedules of activities, go to

The Boston Harbor Educator's Conference Saturday Sept 28, UMASS Boston.  For more info, go to

"Dear Janet, Congratulations on being SAIL's Letter of the Month winner!  We hope you enjoy some SAIL swag."

Monday, September 16, 2013

Linekin Preserve

The fog crept along the hillside, and I should have taken it as a warning.  But I didn't; I kept hiking down to the Damariscotta River.  Then it started to drizzle.  Then pour.  I wasn't expecting it, and I was in no way prepared.

Despite the soaking, I was pleased to find Linekin Preserve in East Boothbay.  It's amazing that amongst the old family summer cottages and new McMansions there remains any undeveloped land.  The Boothbay Region Land Trust is responsible, as they are for many more great sites in the area.  Not only are these properties breathtakingly beautiful, in many cases they are dog-friendly as well (the Dog approves).

The Linekin Preserve protects 138 acres along the shore of the Damariscotta River.  Trails wind over a heavily wooded ridge.  Ann and Walter Levinson donated the land to the trust in 1994, and allow hikers to cross the land they retained for family use.  William and Lina Burley gave another portion of land to the trust to expand it substantially, saying "the people should be able to walk the land”.  I think I would like them. Once you hike in to the river, the trail skirts along cliffs as a moderate surf surges along the rocks.  (The site is relatively open to the ocean's influence.)  There's no place to safely get down to the water, so it'll have to be enough to enjoy views of the river and South Bristol.  The fog was thick during my visit, but I imagine the view would be lovely on a clear day.

To get there, take SR 96 south from East Boothbay.  Look for Ally Rd on the right; then watch for the small sign on the left.  There's plenty of shaded parking and trailmaps at the entrance.  This trail is pretty wet, so waterproof footwear is essential, and I would call the trails moderately strenuous.

A trip to East Boothbay to enjoy this trail is well worth it.  Just check the radar first.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mola mola!

In July, I took an advanced sailing course through Women Under Sail.  Mid morning on our first day we were sailing east  in Casco Bay just off the tip of Bailey's Island, when Jane Parker, the First Mate, cried "A porpoise!  Oh!  It looks like it's in trouble!  What's wrong with it?"

A poor photo of Mr. mola

If you look carefully, you can see his little mouth!
What's wrong with it was it wasn't a porpoise at all.  It was a Mola mola, or ocean sunfish.

Now, I have a thing for Mola molas.  Even their name is awesome.  (Their name in German, Schwimmender kopf, swimming head, is even more awesome.)  So I had a little fit when I got up from the cockpit and realized what we were seeing.


(Jane Parker reenacted my reaction several times during the course, just to remind me how geeky I am.)

There it was, a Mola mola sunning itself along the surface of the Gulf of Maine.  Molas are gigantic -- the largest bony fishes known, reaching 5000 pounds and 10 feet long.  Their German name -- swimming head -- is appropriate, as they have no "tail", just a big body with large dorsal and ventral fins they use to propel themselves through the water.  For a long time molas were thought to feed exclusively on jellies (from looking at their stomach contents), but recent evidence suggests their diet may be more varied.  Molas are considered plankton -- they can't swim effectively against currents, so drift through the oceans.  

Bigelow and Shroeder, in their seminal work Fishes of the Gulf of Maine (written in 1948), had this to say about the mola"When these unlucky vagrants are sighted in our cool northern waters they have usually been chilled into partial insensibility. They float awash on the surface, feebly fanning with one or the other fin, the personification of helplessness." But it's likely that molas are more than occasional visitors in summer, and that their visits are due to more than chance.  Molas may come north in warm months to take advantage of the high concentrations of jellies, but head south with the onset of autumn.  Potter and Howell recently published this paper on satellite tagging of molas, and they found the molas they tagged in New England moved south for the winter, some all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.  They also found evidence that what we think of as "basking" -- lying on the surface of the water -- may not have anything to do with sunbathing.  Molas didn't bask more in cold water than warm.  That leaves us with the question of just what are they doing?  (Posing for a photo?)

No doubt, I'll be watching for my next encounter with Mola mola -- my favorite fish. Unfortunately, it was hard to get decent photos under the conditions.  Sailing along on a giant boat that's hard to maneuver isn't the way to take amazing photos of the sea.  We came about several times and got a good look, then went on our way (to Damariscove Island, a story for another day).  It was a real highlight of the trip and shows you never know what you're going to see out there.

So keep your eyes open.

Jane Parker, best First Mate ever.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Loving the Ocean

Today was a great day.  I found an article I submitted to a sailing magazine was accepted -- after only 2 days in the hopper.  So I'm feeling like I should expand my horizons, and this blog is it:  An Ocean Lover in Maine.

Evening on the Harraseeket River

Two things happened when I moved to Maine:  my friends from Florida, our last home, put me into the "crazy" category; and I discovered I was in ocean bliss.  I've always loved the ocean, despite growing up in Pittsburgh.  My first real job was on Cape Cod (I had the choice between the Berkshires and the Cape, a tough call but there are no tidepools in the mountains).  I was never trained as a marine biologist, but that first job led to a series of career transitions that always involved the ocean.  I've worked at the New England Aquarium; studied dolphins in Florida; trudged around the marshes of North Carolina catching diamondback terrapins to tag and measure them, caught countless estuarine fish in the Neuse River, and gathered data on whale behavior.  My current job, teaching labs at Bowdoin College, is particularly fun -- I mean seriously, they pay me to take people to the beach.  I would do that for free (but don't tell them that)!  It's allowed me to really get to know the ecology of Maine's oceans, and helped me find the special places along Maine's coast. I've waded in more marshes than I can count; herded students into tidepools all over the state; and seen some things I never thought I'd see.  Mola mola in the Gulf of Maine?  Check.  Nudibranchs attacking sea anemones?  Check.  Seagull eating a baby puffin.  Check, and gross.

An Ocean Lover in Maine is my place to share with you not just the amazing coastal places in Maine, but to discuss why they are amazing.  I'll try to add in some of the biology and ecology that make Maine's coastline so spectacular.  I hope to have a good time exploring new sites as part of this blog.  Join me for some quality time along the coast of Maine.