Written by Shaun Swartz
Welcome back to The Surface Interval!
We’re gathering articles from sea to sea about ocean optimism, environmental intrigue, and newsworthy content to keep you updated on what’s happening in the world of marine biology. Let’s dive in and take a look at three articles that caught our eye this week.
Divers swim alongside, touch massive Great White Shark
(Photo: ©Juan Oliphant/One Ocean Diving)
The Internet has been going absolutely BANANAS lately – and let’s be honest, so have we – over the most recent spotting of what is being called potentially one of the largest white sharks ever recorded. Deep Blue, an estimated 50-year-old female white shark, was recently recorded feeding on the carcass of a dead sperm whale off the coast of Hawaii, much to the enjoyment of a few well-known divers and ocean activists.
While the interaction between the shark and the divers is certainly incredible, the video has drawn criticism from scientists and conservationists. As Dr. Michael Domeier explains:
“Many people…may wonder: ‘Hey, what’s the big deal…the sharks weren’t hurt by people riding them.’ Let me give you a bit of background on white shark life history. Females only give birth once every two years, and sometimes the process is so energetically taxing that they will skip a breeding cycle. All 3 sharks observed feeding on the whale were female…and there’s a 50% chance each one was pregnant. In fact, Deep Blue is almost certainly pregnant since she has been pupping on odd years recently. Pupping time is just 4 months away, meaning these big girls are currently feeding about 500 pounds of babies in their uteri! These sharks spend almost their entire 18-month gestation in the deep offshore waters between the mainland and Hawaii, where food is very, very scarce. I led the very first expedition to that area, sometimes referred to the White Shark Cafe or Shared Offshore Foraging Area (our preferred moniker), and we found almost nothing that we would recognize as white shark food. We did find quite a lot of sperm whales, so maybe the occasional encounter with a dead sperm whale is the majority of the caloric intake for these huge sharks! Harassing a pregnant white shark while she is trying to feed could cause her to leave the meal…impacting her ability to successfully carry her pups to term or reproduce the next cycle. Did you know that the very next day after all the videos went viral there were about 60 people floundering around that dead whale in hopes of having their encounter with a white shark? Guess how many sharks were observed: ZERO! Don’t you think all those people in the water might intimidate the sharks?? And if they try to come in and feed they have people climbing all over them, all wanting to be like O. Ramsey? Think about that…
Is it ethical to interact in this way with megafauna? Decide for yourself in this interview with Ocean Ramsey.
Slime, Slime, and more Slime. Image via Smithsonian
If you haven’t heard of the hagfish before, they are – far and away – one of the most bizarre fish in the sea. Hagfish are deep-dwelling, eel-like creatures that date back hundreds of millions of years, and, like many deep-sea creatures, have adapted over time to living under immense, crushing pressure and in total darkness. Adaptations like minimized bony structures and flaccid, naked skin that protects the hagfish from attack while absorbing nutrients rank the fish pretty high in the bizarre category, but perhaps the most unique adaptation of the hagfish is its ability to produce copious amounts of sinuous, expanding slime when they become stressed. As Ed Yong explains in The Atlantic, “It [the hagfish slime] expands by 10,000 times in a fraction of a second, it’s 100,000 times softer than Jell-O, and it fends off sharks.” If you watch one video today, watch this video of a hagfish releasing hagfish slime in the Vancouver Aquarium.
The European Parliament Ban on Single-Use Plastics
Plastic pollution is wreaking havoc in the marine environment. At this point, it’s no secret that plastic – once considered a miracle-product for its lightweight versatility and universal application – is having profound impacts on marine wildlife and humans alike. Annually, thousands of marine creatures die as a result of plastic ingestion or entanglement, and now microplastics are working their way through the food web and into the food we eat.
Efforts to ban single-use plastic are beginning to take hold in many countries in the form of plastic bag bans and recycling awareness campaigns, but there is still so much work to be done in the fight against marine debris. In light of this crisis, the European Union has introduced restrictions on single-use plastic products like plastic forks, plates, cups, and straws, among other items.
As Forbes magazine explains, plastic production is at an all-time high. “The global production of plastics has not stopped to increase since 1960. According to the European Commission, in 2015 the global production reached 322 million tonnes and it is expected to double over the next 20 years. In Europe, around 25.8 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated every year and less than 30% of such waste is collected for recycling.”
Efforts to eliminate plastic pollution are complicated, to say the least. Inevitably, the question arises, “Is this a supply or a demand problem?”, and inevitably, the conversation deteriorates into a game of finger-pointing between companies who claim to supply the products consumers demand and consumers who claim that companies have a responsibility to create better products that don’t harm the environment.
Regardless of your stance on the issue, one thing is clear: we all have the opportunity to make decisions in our daily lives with regard to plastic usage. Do we really need to buy single-use water bottles? Do we really need to use plastic shopping bags?
As far as I’m concerned, it’s 2019 and options abound for those willing to make a little extra effort for the planet. Next question.
And last but not least – Surprise, Surprise: Hitting golf balls into the ocean is bad for the environment. Image: Alex Weber, The Plastic Pick-Up
Ever feel like you’re too young to make a difference? 18-year-old Alex Weber, a California-based teenage scuba diver (hyperlink NPR article), is in the news this week for discovering thousands of golf balls in the ocean. One day while free diving near her home, Weber noticed a “blanket” of golf balls on the ocean floor; Over 50,000 golf balls, to be specific. Her discovery sparked a two-year-long project to clean up the stray balls, but the work is far from done. Additionally, the impacts are still yet to be understood. As the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin explains, “golf balls are coated with a thin, polyurethane shell that degrades over time.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Weber is now a published author in a scientific journal with plans to study marine science in college. In the meantime, Alex continues to clean up golf balls as they enter the ocean. “If a person could see what we see underwater, it would not be acceptable,” she explains.
What interesting Marine Biology news have you seen bobbing around lately? Do you have any more information on the efforts to ban single-use plastic, or any more cool facts about sharks and hagfish slime that you’d like to share with us? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with the title “The Surface Interval” & let’s nerd-out together about anything that lives under the sea! Until then, look at the horizon, take a giant stride forward, and dive, dive, dive.
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