Sunday, February 28, 2016

Seal of Approval: Riverhead Foundation Seal Cruise!

     This Saturday I took my parents and my husband on a seal watching trip in Hempstead Harbor in Nassau County, NY. This is something that involves: 1. Being on a boat, 2. Being outside in winter, and 3. two hours of your time. My mom, I could see her doing this, she is fairly adventurous-- My dad, well, I tried to really just pitch this trip to him in the most positive light possible.
     When it comes to my father, he is, as he would say--"fascinating!" I know he is going to read this, because he is my father and always looks at and shares with his friends, these posts and the pictures I take. So to really make this trip worth his while, I told him that if he comes and pretends to have fun that I will golf with him, 9 holes, with him and my husband. I now barter with my dad and use golf and my husband as currency.
     Go figure... the weather was great, the waters were calm, we saw lots of seals, and dad had fun-- not pretend fun, real fun. I still owe him 9 holes of golf... don't worry dad, I plan to bring my binoculars to not only help me find my ball-- but also some birdies (not the golf kind). It was a super great day with the family and I was so happy to share the experience with them! I'm really lucky to have such great parents who will try new things with me- they are pretty fantastic people.

Some Handsome Great Black-Backed gulls watched as we just barely passed below the Meadowbrook Parkway.
Aside from these gorgeous gulls, we also saw common loons, long-tailed ducks, greebe sp., brant, canadas geese, and a peregrine falcon.
Rear flippers as a seal dives underwater...
A group of harbor seals hauled out, resting on the marsh in the harbor.
Harbor seals come here in the winter and spend the summer up North in places like Maine where they birth their pups.
Harbor Seals have a very puppy dog-like face. On land, when dry, their short fur appears fuzzy- when they are wet, they appear slick and hairless. These are marine mammals, and like mammals they are covered in fur, are warm blooded, and feed their young with milk produced by the female.
The boat kept its distance from the group and crew instructed us on board to remain quiet so as to not spook the group. It is important to remember that seals and other marine mammals are protected with strict laws and you need to maintain very specific distances, 50 yards to be exact as per the NOAA guidelines for viewing marine life.
Despite their absolute cuteness, it is important to remember these are wild seals- approaching these animals and disregarding regulations can result in a hefty fines and injury as wild animals will protect themselves. Please always remember to be respectful of wildlife.

In these waters these seals are feeding on the fish to help maintain that layer of blubber that insulates them well and helps to keep these animals warm despite cold temperature sin the water and air.
The group was hauled out next to a large group of gulls that out of nowhere flew up all at once, catching the attention and alarm of the seals as they all stretch their necks to look out at the commotion.
The flight of the flock resulted in all seals fleeing into the water...
Take note of the second seal from the left-- sporting a neck injury.
Injuries like this are signature of entanglement in monofilament lines that are not disposed on properly- they can get caught up, cut into the skin and cause painful lesions that can become infected and severely put the seal at risk. It is so important to be smart about trash, making sure it goes to the right place where it will not end up in places where it can harm wildlife.
Seals are pinnipeds- this group of mammals includes true seas (like this guy), eared seals (like fur seals and sea lions), and walruses. Marine mammals is not an actual taxonomic group, but its a term used to describe a few groups including all pinnipeds, all cetaceans, all sirenians (manatees/dugongs), one mustelid (the sea otter), and one ursine (the polar bear).
Unlike the sea lions we see at zoos and aquariums, harbor seals are true seals. They have small front flippers, so they cannot stand on them or propel themselves forward with them in water. They use their powerful rear flipper to help them move through the water, basically wiggling their hips to swim. 
True seals also have small openings for their ears- as you can see. Sea lions have ear flaps, and are pinnipeds known as "eared seals." 

These seal cruises are operated with folks from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research & Preservation on board, I highly recommend the cruises. Your small fee of $26 per person helps support their rescue & rehabilitation efforts. They are the only marine mammal and sea turtle rescue for NY State. I used to intern in their hospital and I have to say, they run a great place with only THE very best intentions for every animal that comes into their care. I highly suggest a tour and also to learn more about them and supporting them in any way that you can!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Tropical Escape: Puerto Rico - The Last of it All!

     In the photos to follow we will revisit 3 locations, Crash Boat Beach (on the NW section of the island), Parque de Cavernas del Rio Camuy, and my favorite part of Old San Juan, Plaza de las Palomas.
     A rental car was the best as it allowed us to see and experience so much. I really enjoyed the trip, despite our camera issue and also sad news from back home. I love travel, especially when it is with my husband Tim, because no matter where we are I feel at home when we're together exploring a new place, seeing new sights, tasting new flavors, and the experience of something new.
     So please, enjoy the last of it all and safe travels if you are planning to explore somewhere new in the future!
At Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, or anywhere in PR-- there are no gulls. Pigeons stroll the beach, picking up scraps. At this beach though, pelicans plagued tables like oversized pigeons, pestering picnicking people (how's that for alliteration!). Brown pelicans were the species patrolling this beach.
Reminders on the beach about manatees in these waters! (Look but don't touch is pretty much what the title states)
So I had this idea to jump off the pier... I immediately regretted that idea as I of course became terrified. At this beach there are no life guards, so that made me nervous-- but did not scare me enough to rent some (kind crappy) snorkel gear and swim around for an hour so so. Sergeant Majors, those striped fish, were very plentiful.
I was SUPER STOKED to see this guy, a spotted eagle ray-- a shark relative and damn gorgeous. If it wasn't swimming out to sea, I would have followed it forever!
The pier people were jumping off of was home to various small coral and these guys-- sponges! Sponges are animals- they are sessile (don't move) and filter feed. They are favorite foods of animals like some sea turtles, which I did not see. Not all sponges are soft and luxurious, many contain silica spicules, which provide support to the structure of this spongey creature. So you don't want to just grab a wild sponge and start scrubbing... owwie.
A cruddy picture, but check the foureye butterfly fish! With eye spots, they can fool potential predators in the way many animals like butterflies do with false eyespots.
I was excited to see what I thought was a triggerfish, I found that this is a whitespotted filefish, a close relative of triggerfish. These fish feed on sponges, so this place was a buffet for him!
The pelican that almost bit me-- these birds were very much a product of improper interaction with wildlife-- someone has habituated these animals to getting food from humans.
The guy was hand feeding pelicans, had them on his arm and offering folks photo opportunities with the birds. It bothered me a bit, this is how accidents happen, no thanks! 

We arrived to the caverns at Parque de Cavernas del Rio Camuy early. Which seems like the best thing to do as many reviews reveal this place can get VERY crowded, making it not as enjoyable. There were 10 of us in our tour group and our guide was great. With a bit of a wait before the tour, I cautiously flipped leaves and looked for anoles. Under one leaf I found this assassin bug!
Stalactites reach down from the ceiling. Formed by limestone deposited by water leaking from the roof of the cavern. These caverns and caves were formed by an underground river, running below where we were. 
This place was very beautiful, eerie, and powerful all at once. The natural ways the earth can be sculpted is a pretty amazing thing, it makes me feel like such a measly thing- I am nothing against such forces!
Formations of rock and limestone are all made possible by water!

Natural springs bring crystal clear (and delicious) water out into the open from these exposed cliffs.
These cave crickets made the ones we found in the basement of my parents house look like child's play. These were HUGE.
We found that Tom Otterness- the same guy who has (very similar) sculptures on Roosevelt Island and in the 14th street subway station on the ACE line, he donated some small sculptures to the park!
Our Final destination was San Juan, we walked much of Old San Juan and found my most favorite creature! The Green Iguana! This one reminded me so much of my late Spike, in his size and coloration. He also gave us a lovely headbob, which resulted in squeaky noises from myself...
And we also saw plenty of anoles and even the ground lizards too!
My favorite plaza was Plaza de las Palomas.... plaza of the doves. It was hopping with pigeons and people feeding them, from vendors who sold cracked corn for the pigeons.
Pigeons covered trees but also occupied cubbies that seem to have been made just for them and their little chicks.

I love pigeons, and there were all different color varieties, ages, and different people coming here to enjoy this little plaza.
Puerto Rico treated us well, it was super enjoyable and we would recommend a visit- we didn't get to do everything we wanted, so I suppose one day we will need to return! If not for the wildlife but for the good coffee, food, piƱa coladas, and the vibrant culture!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Tropical Escape: Puerto Rico - Southern Coast

     On our third full day, we drove to the city of Ponce where we walked the vacant blocks of buildings that appear cute and picturesque but surely show the toll the economy has taken on them. We did visit the Parque de Bombas, a small fire fighters museum that sits between two plazas. We stayed in an AirBNB in a little neighborhood  in Ponce that was perfect and near the boardwalk where we found kiosks to enjoy dinner and people watching.
     We also stayed in Ponce so we could do some snorkeling with Paradise Scuba in Parguera. What a great decision it was to go with these guys. They knew the reef, the life that thrived in the reef, and are all certified divers- so you feel very safe. I recommend them for first timers and the experienced! While the weather took a turn for the worse, canceling our trip to the Bioluminescent Bay, we were still super satisfied with our snorkel in the reef. We may have called this day our favorite of them all, because honestly, nothing beats snorkeling, swimming, and mermaiding out in the middle of February, while New York was experiencing its coldest temperatures of the winter!

Pigeon on the left, totally sunning itself -- oh yeah, I adore pigeons!
I didn't realize this guy had one leg, what tough nugget! He hopped around, seemingly doing alright, and I really liked his plumage.
So, since I dropped my good camera into a stream, I am using a small, water proof point and shoot-- but still, HOW CUTE IS THIS GROUND DOVE?! 
Just for comparison sake-- this pint sized dove is just so darn cute! 
After roaming around a very warm Ponce, we checked into our place, donned our bathing suits and got on a boat to snorkel the offshore reefs!
A cnidarian, the upside down jellyfish. These dudes pulsate, upside down on the floor of the reef, I have only seen them in aquariums, it was so cool to see one in the wild. Our guide showed this guy to us before letting it scoot back down to the bottom. What a gorgeous, cool creature!
Jellyfish have no eyes, they have one opening to eat through, they are as prehistoric a creature you can get. They have no face, they have no central nervous system, and they have been here for millions of years! Amazing!
A very squishy sea cucumber. This animal is an echinoderm-- like urchins and sea stars. They might not be the most attractive of creatures, but this guy was super squishy and I don't think anyone else other than myself and husband were willing to gently handle and touch this guy. The squeemish factor among the other snorkelers was pretty fun.
Soft and hard corals, the sea fans were so pretty, swaying in the little current that there was. Oh yeah-- these are animals, cnidarians, like the upside down jellyfish. Doesn't it blow your mind that what most people think are pretty rocks or plants are actually creatures, animals!
A brain coral and a longspine squirrelfish. The squirrelfish can vocalize, making grunts and short "staccato" sounds. These fish are eaten by people and also popular in aquarium collections.
I am able to ID the yellow and blue fish- both are Blue Tangs! Juveniles are yellow, as they age they turn blue with a yellow tail, until they mature as a fully blue fish.
Another urchin, they told us this is a red urchin, but I need to do some digging and get proper ID on this guy. There are over 900 species of urchin, maybe I can narrow it down...
Brittle stars are also echinoderms, these spiny brittle stars are really mobile, they crawled over our hands with their spindly arms. It looks so alien and foreign from what we know up on land. They have far more spindly arms than the more familiar sea stars. These were fascinating little creatures and so cool to feel them crawl about!
This urchin had short spines and in comparison to my hand, rather fat. It reminded me so much of a hedgehog in appearance- which is probably what helped in putting these animals in the class "Echinoidea." Echino is latin for spiny or hedgehog-- so those folks who categorized and named these guys were onto something!
One thing there are lots of in the ocean... WORMS! There are so many different kinds of worms, far more than the earthworms we are familiar with. I had to do some review from my invertebrate zoology knowledge from my undergrad days, so I am glad I can still utilize and enjoy what I studied in college!
This worm is called a Christmas Tree Worm, well because, honestly-- it's a little tree! These guys usually grow on coral-- here it sits on a brain coral. They belong to a class of worms called Polychaete worms, also called bristle worms. These colorful little bristles are for feeding and respiration. They bore into the corals where they then secret a tube which become their permanent home, as once they are established become sedentary. And if you get too close or brush up against one, they retreat super quick into the safety of their little tube home.
This trumpet fish just hovered over this coral ledge. They open are vertical to blend in with their surroundings. They have an upturned mouth and just like another fish with an upturned mouth, the sea horse-- it is no surprise they are closely related!
How adorable is this little lettuce sea slug? Sea slugs are gastropods, like snails and gastropods are mollusks- like clams, and octopus. The lettuce sea slug mainly eats algae, but can retain chloroplasts (Bio review: those are the things that make plants and algae green and help them turn sunlight, CO2 and water into sugar and oxygen). So by retaining chloroplasts in those frilly appendages, they can actually make their own food as the chloroplasts continue to function. So if food is scarce they still have a source of nutrition. I mean, seriously, if that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what to say. I want that capability! And I am more than happy to have the consequence of having to be green!
Our guide helped me get this photo of 7 or 8 spiny lobsters hiding in a coral cavern. It took me some time to realize that lobster is so popular here... not Maine lobster, but these guys. They are clawless and have prominent spiny appendages in their stead.
Also a polychaete like the Christmas tree worms, these are feather duster worms- you can see some of their tubes they retreat into.
A juvenile yellowtail damselfish- this guy was smaller than my hand, darting out of the coral that clearly he claimed as his. If you got too close to fish's spot, they were willing to let you know by chasing you, no matter what their size!
I think this is a sandfish sea cucumber. This sea cuke was rigid and really looked unappetizing. Honestly it looks like poo. Let's just say he was the least popular one when it came to the rest of the group. My favorite part of my invertebrate zoology textbook was a poem about a sea cucumber...
"A lovely young starfish quite famous
Had a crush on a sesa cuke named Amos.
She thought he was hot
'til she uttered in shock,
"My God! This guy breathes through his anus!"
- Chip Biernbaum College of Charleston

...Yes sea cucumbers respire through their anus via a structure called the respiratory tree.

A juvenile stoplight parrotfish. Now these guys are complicated... this color is called the initial phase. This fish is either male or female AND can change sex if population densities of males to females are low. There is another color phase called the terminal phase, those are always male. Some fish are born male and stay male, while others are born/male female with the ability to change sex. It is amazing and confusing and the Florida Museum of Natural History has more detailed information on all this!
A sea star that I need to find an ID for.

I think this is a red cushion sea star, it was huge! 
Like it is the size of my head big!
A cool reflective photo of the reef. Warm water corals must live in clear, warm water where they have access to the sun. They are also very sensitive to temperature. The slightest fluctuations could mean death for corals as their symbiotic algae can only work so well within a specific temperature range. This algae gives coral its coloration and additional nutrition, coral provides a safe place to live. If temps rise and the algae cannot function and produce nutrients properly, the coral gives it the boot for low productivity- the corals then turn white, a phenomenon called bleaching. This is a serious issue with the average temperature of our world rising along with sea levels. Bleaching usually ends in death for the coral, an animal that may have lived hundreds of years and then died due to our impact on the environment.
I found this little stone crab on my own, I thought he was super cute. Apparently he is delicious too, but I let him go back into the sand I found him in. Instead of eating crabs, we were rewarded on board with empanadas y cervezas. But honestly, what was Ariel thinking, under the sea is surely where things are vivid, awesome, and unique!