Did you know what we add to our garden affects the ocean?

It’s officially day 4 of the “We affect what goes in our watershed” week (see posts on marine debris, oil, and pharmaceuticals). This time it’s all about fertilizers. Researchers whom published in the February 2011 edition of the journal Environmental Research Letters pointed out the human use of phosphorous, primarily in the industrialized world, is causing the widespread eutrophication of fresh surface water. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never noticed that I dump phosphorus down any drains or waterways. But, did you know that phosphorous and other harmful nutrients are in the fertilizers we use to keep lawns fresh and sprightly each spring (right around the corner!)? While these nutrients may nourish our gardens they also cause the fast growth of algae (i.e., algal blooms). The algae then feed bacteria, which deplete the waterways of oxygen ensuring that many animals and plants do not survive. Also, the fast growth of the algae will block out essential light needed for photosynthesis. This epidemic of eutrophication can be a very costly and damaging to our rivers, streams, lakes, and even ocean. Below is an image from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (a division of NOAA) comparing places that have a high (right) and low (left) frequency of eutrophication.
healthy-eutro-diagram_coastalscience.noaa.gov
Want a way to ensure you don’t add to the eutrophication? I like the green manure method from Down to Earth for my garden, but McGreary Organics has a good one for lawns as well. I think I’ll be depressing just one more day and ask once again, besides fertilizers, marine debris, petroleum, and pharmaceuticals, what are some other ways fish or aquatic life are affected by what we put in our waterways?

10 brief facts on bioluminescence

We all get excited thinking about bioluminescence in nature. Ironically, that excitement is only one of the reasons animals glow like an elf in Middle Earth. Here are some ‘basics on bioluminescence’ you can share with your friends and family the next time you all ogle a firefly and wonder ‘why?’.

    1. Insects (e.g., fireflies, glow worms) and deep sea ocean animals (e.g., squid, hatchetfish) aren’t the only ones that emit light. Many plants (e.g., jack-o’-lantern mushroom, algae) also produce bioluminescence.
    2. Bioluminescence is light emitting from a living organism. Bioluminescence is produced through a chemical reaction, which is what sets is apart from fluorescence or phosphorescence.
    3. Luciferin and luciferase are the two chemicals that must be present for an organism to luminesce. Luciferin produces the light and luciferase is the catalyst. Life in the sea most often use coelenterazine, a type of luciferin.
    4. Sailors commonly saw waves glowing in the wake of ships. This was caused from dinoflagellates, a single-celled algae, which glows when its startled.
    5. Anglerfish use a long illuminated appendage, called a protuberance, to attract young and vulnerable prey. Luring prey is one way bioluminescence is used to an animal’s advantage. They may also use it to stun prey or to attract or recognize a mate.
    6. Conversely, many animals use bioluminescence as a defense mechanism. They’ll cleverly create smoke screens or burglar alarms, as well as counterilluminate or startle predators.
    7. Some animals that luminesce use it defensively and offensively.
    8. Sperm whales, the deepest divers of all the whales, depend on bioluminescence to help locate food. Echolocation is also key to locating food.
    9. The U.S. Navy tapped into the science community for help to develop products that monitor bioluminescence because bioluminescent algae have been known to endanger military missions.
    10. The pulsing light of creatures found in the deep sea is “perhaps the most common form of communication found on our planet”. That phrase was from a video (below) which takes us on a visual journey of what the first deep sea explorer, William Bebe, described in 1934 from his expedition off the coast of Bermuda. This video was produced by National Geographic.

10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip

It’s my favorite time of year. This is the best time to explore the beach. It’s still sunny and warm, there are frequent storms (you’ll see why that matters later), and there are few people on the beach. For another six weeks along the mid-Atlantic (before it gets too cold), I encourage you to spend some time getting to know your local shoreline. Here are 10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip.

10. What to bring. Here is a list of some items you may want to remember so you’re prepared for any situation.

  • Often the beach is considerably cooler than inland so bring layers. You may want to wear hiking pants and bring a zippered sweatshirt so you’re equipped with lots of pockets for some other items that might be essential.
  • Make sure to have some appropriate soles. Sure it’s our instinct to be barefoot, however if you want to venture out along the jetties or rocks make sure you have some old sneakers or those water shoes with some decent grip (After all, you don’t want to ruin your adventure with a puncture to some sharp object). Also, the water might be a little cooler than you’d prefer and some good foot cover will allow you to wade into a tide pool.
  • Make sure to have a watch.
  • Even during the off-season the sun is shining and is strong enough to give you a burn. Make sure to bring along a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
  • It’s always a good idea to bring a shovel, grabber sick, or even a metal detector so you can gently investigate inside crevices and below the sand.
  • You are going to want to cherish the moments so find that camera and try to make a neck strap so it’s always handy. You can take pictures of items you find and want to learn about later. You’ll also want to catalog those smiles in the sun.
  • Take along a small (i.e., not heavy) identification book so you can learn more about what you find while on your outing.

9. Be hands free. One more item that you’re going to love me for suggesting is a backpack. This way you can investigate a little bit further from your base and your items are quickly at your disposal.

8. Leave important items behind. Don’t ruin the day by losing a credit card or your phone. If you’re active and in the moment you might lose something and it’s going to be difficult to retrace your steps. I won’t say “I told you so”. On the same note it’s important to leave animals, plants, rocks, and seashells where you find them. If you want to have a little bit of the beach in your home check out these great books by Josie Iselin.

7. When to go. To get the optimum experience for beachcombing you’ll want to check on when low tide is at your beach spot. The best time to go beachcombing is 2-3 hours prior to low tide or an hour or so after (This is why a watch is important, you don’t want to get stuck on  shoal during high tide). Many intertidal animals live under the water in the sand during high tide, but come out to play (and seek out food) during low tide. If you can time it so you get to check out the beach after a big storm you’ll be in for a real treat. The strong wind and wave action of storms will wash up a fossils, bones, seaweed, and lot of other interesting treasures from the ocean floor. Also, keep in mind that dawn and dusk are difficult times to identify beach treasures. Although this is a great time to spot birds as many fish tend to come up to the surface at these times.

6. Where to go. My favorite spot to beachcomb is the Stone Harbor Point in NJ, but it’s not always easy for me to get there these days. I like to remind myself from time to time that I don’t need an ocean to beachcomb. There is a lake and creek in my neighborhood and these spots are a great place to spend the afternoon. After all, these waterways eventually lead to the ocean.  No matter where I decide to spend some time beachcombing I always make sure to note the general water quality.

5. Be careful. This is just a reminder to not tamper with obviously dangerous items. Fish hooks, metal canisters, and needles often wash up on the beach. While I am going to also suggest doing your part and picking up marine debris it’s also a good idea to err on the side of caution and when poking around. Also, some rocks look very steady but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. If you are feeling like having an adventurous day it’s might be a good idea to make sure you have someone else with you. One last thing about being careful,even though the dunes might look like an interesting place to check out – it’s important to know that those grasses are incredibly brittle and can crack easily. It’s also against the law to walk on the dunes. The dunes are an important part of the beach ecosystem as they protect our homes from storm surge.

4. Leave it be. Each rock that you turn over is part of an ecosystem. A rock might be an essential part of an animal’s home as it helps pool water during high tide. Rocks also protect them from predator as well as the sun. It’s important to always remember to not take animals out of their natural setting – especially if you see them in a tide pool. Many animals are naturally attached to rocks for survival and you could be risking their survival.

3. Play. You might not want to go home, but you also might be in the company of some people that just don’t have a very long attention span. Even more frustrating is repeating the phrase, “No, you cannot go in the water today” over and over again. Build a sandcastle. Look to the horizon for dolphins or porpoises. Make a sand angel. Look up to the sky for cloud animals. Check out my ebook for other beachcombing adventures.

Image (c) Marine Debris Tracker

2. Bag it and track it. It’s always nice to be prepared to be able to do your part. I prefer to take along a hefty canvas bag that can fit in a backpack so I can tote marine debris back to a garbage can. You might even try to acquire one of these nifty bags with holes for sand to percolate through from the Green Bag Lady. When you head back to the car you can even do some citizen science and log your marine debris on the Marine Debris Tracker.

1. Don’t expect too much. It’s important to remember to relax and respect the area you are exploring. All of the ideas above are simply suggestions and ideas to ensure you get the most out of  a beachcombing adventure. Please don’t hesitate to share your favorite stories, spots, and other ideas for a great day. You can comment below of email me at info@beachchairscientist.com.

A little dose of ocean conservation inspiration

This is a whimsical – yet still direct and profound – image I wanted to share from from my Ocean Conservation Inspiration Pinterest board. Do you have a particular phrase or image that drives you?

When I cannot escape seaside, I am grateful for Josie Iselin’s unique eye

“Brilliant and captivating images of raw, earthen materials collected from the beach coupled with phrases of a scientific or contemplative nature always reinvigorate my psyche when the beach is near or far.”

It’s no secret that it’s tough to get to the beach sometimes. When life affords me the extravagance of a weekend of nothing to do and some extra comp time I can usually make it up to south Jersey where my husband and I grew up and we still have family. However, since DC is my home base these days, I sometimes find my beach meditation and inspiration in the form of books. I grew up an avid reader and find the tangible qualities of a book incredibly relaxing. Piles of books can be found in each of the rooms throughout our house and when looking for our first home I was unyielding that we be no more than a short bike ride from the nearest library. What this introduction has to do is express how much I value books and, in particular books that inspire me about the sea. With that I would like to share with you the collection of books that I find so dear to me from the artist and author Josie Iselin.

Josie Iselin is the photographer, author, and designer of six books (Beach Stones (2006), Leaves & Pods (2006), Seashells (2007), Heart Stones (2008), Beach: A Book of Treasure (2010), and Sea Glass Hearts (2012)) that focus on the breathtaking forms found in nature, concentrating on those treasures found seaside. Josie’s mission is to “produce enticing, original, and well-designed books that combine art and science, leaving the reader with new information and an appreciation for the world around them”. You can tell why I am so enamored with her work as sharing information in a unique and approachable manner is a big part of my mission on this blog.

Understanding the process that Josie takes to create such beautiful and classic images is fascinating. For almost twenty years she has used a flatbed scanner and computer to generate her images of the treasures she collected along the coast. She has noted that, “She is still captivated by the fluidity with which this technique allows her to render and design with three-dimensional objects”.

The most comprehensive of Josie Iselin’s ethereal catalog of maritime wonders is Beach: A book of Treasure. The over 100-page book published by Chronicle Books has images of seaside plants, oyster, clam, and scallop shells, igneous rock, fossilized seashells, crab exoskeletons, and sea glass displayed with such care that you cannot help but be in pure amazement with the design of Mother Nature. Nowhere else have I been able to view the skull of a seagull in a manner that suits me (often times I get intimidated by text found in captions of extensive ornithology books and that ultimately suppresses my examination). The text is remarkable in that it interweaves first-hand experiences of tossing a Frisbee with the explanation that the beach we play on is also known by scientists as “the first extension of the benthic zone”.

This book also revels in the colors that are the ocean ecosystem. Upon Josie’s placement of light with the scanner, sea urchin tests and multicellular algae are given the proper stage to display brilliant, bright colors and patterns. I also, appreciate the fact that the author took the time to recognize that often times not everything found on the beach is a treasure. As she noted, “We know that its (a pictured object of marine debris) production used a great deal of heat both in its formation and in making the materials it is composed of. This represents a net loss of resources for our environment. In contrast, the self assembly of the oyster shell, a durable and hard thing, occurs with no energy expended and without detriment to the maker’s environment”.

I optimistically encourage you to take the time to review Josie Iselin’s collection of beautiful books and, just like the author, I hope you will enjoy “celebrating the ordinary wonders we find at the beach and will bring thoughtfulness and stewardship to this extraordinary place of discovery”.

Colorful coquina clams sign of healthy beach

Those tiny, colorful clams with two siphons poking our of their shells that emerge quickly once the waves wash gently ashore are known as coquina (ko-KEE-nah) clams. These bivalves rarely exceed an inch long and are indicators of a healthy beach. If eroding beaches are constantly being renourished, coquina clams, as well as other sand dwelling invertebrates (i.e., mole crabs), could become buried under the extra sediment. Many beaches have to be renourished because the natural supply of sand from rivers and other sources from the mountains have been impeded by dams and reservoirs. Coquina clams can usually recover their populations if a beach has not been renourished in a year or two.

They tend to feast upon single-celled detritus or algae. Fish, shorebirds, and humans tend to feast upon them. That’s right, coquina clams are found around the world and are enjoyed steamed with butter or even as ‘the basis for a great potato puree‘. In Australia there is a commercial fishery for the meat (God help those processors).

In Florida, you can visit one of my favorite places, Blowing Rocks Preserve, and see the coquina rock outcrop. The coquina rock is a soft rock that is made up of the coquina clam shells (as well as other materials). But, what makes this rock outcrop so unique is that it is part of the largest section rock, known as the Anastasia Formation, from the Pleistocene epoch (2.576 million years ago).

Jim Gaffigan on whales

For a little humor over the weekend. I hope you enjoy the list of their top predators!

Don’t underestimate the utilities of algae

A reader recently asked where to find a field guide to seaweed of the northeast Atlantic and also wanted to know in particular “which species is edible, how to prepare it and what historical uses were of specific seaweeds”. I am going to do my best in answering and encourage you all to continually challenge me with questions. Please feel free to comment anywhere or simply email info@beachchairscientist.com.

It seems as though the most thorough resource with the most concise information online for Atlantic  coast species would be from the Field Guide to Algae from Acadia National Park. A much more extensive online reference would be the AlgaeBase (The World of Algae was absorbed into this database) produced be the Irish Seaweed Research Group. And, of course, there seems to be a gaggle of print books out there as well which are always nice to have while beachcombing.

For the second part of the question I am going to take the time to elaborate on my previous post about edible seaweeds found in ice cream. Here are 10 utilities for algae that you may or may not know about. There are plenty more but I have to leave a little something for you to research with the resources I found (also there is a collection of recent news article below).

  1. In general many seaweeds can be used as your garden’s best friend. Check out this great article from Earth Easy on How to Use Seaweed to Mulch Your Garden.
  2. Algae can be used to make a biodiesel.
  3. Blue-green algae are used as a dietary protein, as well as in aiding weight loss, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, among many other others issues (check out the image of the gentleman drinking some below – yum?).
  4. Dulse (Rhodymenia palmata) is a favorite food of those living in Canada, the UK, and northern Europe.
  5. Irish moss (Chondrus crispus) is a food addictive and is the source of carrageenen which thickens and stabilizes foods, including ice cream and beer.
  6. Laminaria seaweeds (also known as Saccharina seaweeds) are thought to stimulate cleansing, reduces water retention, and tone thyroid action.
  7. Nori (Porphyra) is popular in Japanese cuisine and is known for its high nutrient value.
  8. Sargassum seaweeds are thought to disperse accumulated phlegm and water.
  9. Sea lettuces (Ulva) are enjoyed raw in salads and cooked in soups in Scandinavia, the UK, China, and Japan.
  10. Toothed wrack (Fucus serratus) is used as a bath soak in Ireland and is thought to help with arthritis.

If you or anyone you know swears by drinking algae as a supplement please share your experience below. I’d love to read your perspective!

Image (c) gotalgae.com


What they’re into … with David Helvarg

This is a series I will be featuring each Tuesday this summer to get a special sneak peak at the different personalities behind the scientists, activists, and educators (including bloggers) who play an integral role in the marine science conservation field. It’s essentially an extension of the overwhelmingly popular and well done Tumblr blog, This Is What A Scientist Looks Like, (BCS was featured in April!) which sets out to illustrate that scientists are not just crazy haired nerds in lab coats. I’ve sent a list of 15 random questions to some folks I know and asked that each person share at least their answers to 5 of them. This first week we’re starting off with the one and only David Helvarg.

David is an author and Executive Director of Blue Frontier Campaign.  has written: Blue Frontier, The War Against the Greens, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, Rescue Warriors and Saved by the Sea. His next book, ‘The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea’ will be out in early 2013. He is editor of the Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide and organizer of ‘Peter Benchley Ocean Awards’ and ‘Blue Vision’ Summits for ocean activists. He has worked as a war correspondent in Northern Ireland and Central America, covered a range of issues from military science to the AIDS epidemic, and reported from every continent including Antarctica. An award-winning journalist, he produced more than 40 broadcast documentaries for PBS, The Discovery Channel, and others. His print work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, LA Times, Smithsonian, Sierra, and Parade. He’s done radio work for Marketplace, AP radio, and Pacifica. He has led workshops for journalists in Poland, Turkey, Tunisia, Slovakia and Washington DC. David is a licensed Private Investigator, body-surfer and scuba diver.

Here are David’s answers to his chosen questions:

What is the last thing you bought that you shouldn’t have?
A 12-pack of Coke.

What is your favorite Sunday breakfast?
Huevos Rancheros, fresh OJ and the Sunday New York Times, ideally on a porch with friends and a water view.

Are you a night owl or a morning person?
Can’t say I really give a hoot but neither do I wake up with a smile on my face.

What is your favorite room in your home?
My home office – just a 10 second commute from the bedroom.  If you work hard you get to play hard. 

What is your favorite scent?
The iodine and slightly kelpy odor of a living sea.

What is your favorite sundae topping?
Anchovies.  Only kidding.  Chopped nuts, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, it’s all good.

What is your favorite pastime?
Bodysurfing, diving, or snorkeling depending on conditions.

What three things would you take with you to an island?
Dive gear, my girlfriend and a boat.

How superstitious are you?
I believe in evolution and anthropogenic climate change so not very but I have given the occasional agnostic prayer for friends and loved ones in trouble.

What is your favorite day of the week?
Whatever day of the week I’m on a beach.

Are you a cat person, dog person, or neither?
Thought I was a dog person till I ended up in a 20-year relationship with a tabby named Poose, the finest small furry predator I’ve ever known or am likely to.

If you were a geometric shape, what would you like to be?
Elliptical.

Thanks to David for playing along and I hope you’re relaxing on the beach enjoying an ice cream sundae with plenty of chopped nuts, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream somewhere. To the dear rest of you, please keep an eye out for more to come from other amazing ocean conservationists this summer and please don’t forget to participate in the Summer Sustainability Creativity Challenge!

April is National Frog Month

Yes, that is correct – April is National Frog Month. However, this is not a post about the amphibian, but is all about the frogfish! Contrary to popular belief, it’s easy being green if you’re a frogfish. First of all, you can change colors from green to black, or red, or orange, or yellow, or brown, or white, or purple, or even blue! These colors help the frogfish mimic corals, sponges, algaes, or even rocks. Often a trusting fish become prey all too easily as they go to hide in the ‘coral’ or ‘rock’ only to then get eaten by the frogfish that has transformed . Frogfish gobble up their prey in 6 milliseconds. Frogfish actually have the fastest mouth in the sea. Their mouth is able to expand 12 times its size and they can easily eat prey 25 percent longer. They’re opportunistic and eat whenever possible. They tend to feast on smaller fish, crustaceans, or even other frogfish!

Another amazing mechanism of the frogfish is an antenna that dangles from their head. They’ll mimic the actions of a smaller animal (e.g., a worm or shrimp) with this antenna so that their own prey will swim right up to them. Don’t worry though, the lure will regenerate if eaten.

Frogfish do not have a swim bladder, but do have modified pectoral fins enabling them to ‘walk’ along the seafloor. See the video below to see this in action.

Frogfish live in the tropical and subtropical areas in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.

It is the original footage from these hairy frog fish walking on the sand was made by Daan van Wijk in Indonesia. These scenes are from the movie Impressionesia”.