The Importance of the Ocean

I just got back from a trip to Vancouver Island, BC and the Gulf Islands in Canada with my partner. Vancouver and the surrounding area has a very similar climate to the area we live in here in the Pacific Northwest here in the US. Both areas actually have the only rainforests that can be found in North America. However, this year there was not much rain, nor had there been for a while. Wildfires raged, and there were campfire bans both in the US and in Canada. My partner is a Dive Master and works at a scuba shop in the US, and was excited to use part of our vacation to be able to do some diving on some artificial reefs in the Gulf Islands. I don’t dive, but I was able to chat with the Captain and Crew of the dive boat while he dove about the health of the waters and I learned a lot!

Humpback Whales:

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 I went on a whale watching tour and learned a lot about Humpback whales specifically, which I had never seen before. Humpback Whales are migratory, and they travel from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Even though they make such long journeys, they only travel about 7 miles per hour. Humpbacks do most of the eating they’ll do for the year in the Arctic, and that is where they put on blubber. This not only insulates them, but also stores energy for the rest of the year so they really don’t have to eat during the rest of their migration and breeding. This is one very important reason keeping the Arctic clean is crucial.

They spend the rest of the year migrating, mating, and calving. Humpbacks also have one of the largest predator to prey ratio, as they are one of the largest animals in the world, but they are a kind of whale called Mysticeti, meaning they use baleen and not teeth to eat tiny animals called krill. Because of this, they actually have very small throats and can choke on something as small as a grapefruit. This is one reason that keeping plastic pollution out of the ocean is so important.

I also learned that it used to be typical during the 80s and 90s to only see about 6 humpbacks a year in the Salish Sea area, which is the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the Puget Sound, and the Straits of Georgia. However, as time has gone on, those numbers have increased and today it’s far more typical to see closer to 50 humpback per year in those same waters. They think this is due to a combination of environmental protections having had time to take effect, from specific protections on whales, to protections in their breeding and feeding grounds that have kept out pollutants and allowed more krill to flourish. This is a good example of why we should be protecting our environment from harm, whether through government intervention, through local community action, or even by encouraging corporations to be more environmentally friendly in their practices. 

Kelp Forests: 

IMG_20160823_092522I live on the water, so being around the sea isn’t unusual for me, but it was still nice on this trip to get out into into the Kelp Forests. Not only was I able to observe the kelp and the ecosystem it helps to sustain from the surface, but my partner was there scuba diving and took his GoPro down with him. I was able to observe the creatures that rely on the kelp. We saw baby seals who get left by their mothers on rocks and in shallow waters of reefs near kelp so that the mothers can catch fish. We even saw a sea otter from the slowly recovering sea otter population in BC and Southern Alaska area.

Kelp is crucial to the ecosystem here in the Pacific Northwest. Without kelp, there would be no salmon, and many species would have no places to safely lay their eggs or to exist as young. Kelp Forests provide food and shelter for all kinds of young fish, mammals, mollusk, and crustaceans. Also, without those young species, and the shelter it provides for salmon living at sea, we wouldn’t have large animals such as Orca.

Marine plant life creates 80% of the oxygen we breathe. Living in an age where the temperatures are rising, even in the ocean, we need to keep in mind that if the ocean becomes unhealthy we become unhealthy too. If we manage to damage these ocean ecosystems irreparably, it won’t just be something sad where we lost many cute and incredible creatures. It will be the start of us beginning to suffocate. We can protect the oceans because it’s right, because it’s beautiful, or because it’s necessary, but in the end, we must protect the oceans.

Pinnipeds:

Stellar Sea LionsPinnipeds are some of my absolute favorite animals, pinnipeds being seals, sea lions, and walruses. Not only are they super cute like little merdogs, but they are also incredibly important to the environments they live in. Pinnipeds are close to the top of their food chains, the only thing above them is usually Orcas. As predators, they serve an important function, helping to regulate the population of creatures lower on the food chain and making sure those populations don’t grow out of control. They also take in nutrients in one area, and distribute it elsewhere, by eating and then going to the bathroom. It may not seem like this is very important or that they could possibly have an influence, but the impact of predators on their environment is remarkable. They have shown that wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone even changed the course of rivers, and that Arctic Foxes are responsible for fertilizing the only plants that grow large enough for other animals to eat. Pinnipeds influence the ocean ecosystem in much the same way.

Scientists also have developed ways to study the health of the ocean using technology and existing knowledge of pinnipeds’ influence on the environment. For example, scientists had previously studied and tagged fish to learn about where they were born and where they traveled to, and they also separately tagged seals and sea lions to learn about their movements. However, a new research project combined the two to learn more about the eating habits of pinnipeds by having the tags on pinnipeds scan the tags on fish they ate to learn about where they fish originated, as well as other data collected from the fish about the waters they had been in, all of which was transmitted back to scientists. By doing this they were able to see not only what a large influence pinnipeds have on their environment, but also how pinnipeds are affected by their environments by factors such as water temperature, salinity, oxygen content, and other factors that we can now measure.

I really enjoyed our trip and I was really happy to spend some long hours out on the water just observing, writing, painting, and learning. It is always great to be reminded about how special and important the sea around us is.