Friday, September 16, 2011

September 15, 2011 - Ocean Sunfish Rescue in Wellfleet

Ocean Sunfish Rescue off Wellfleet Harbor - Jan Albaum and Harry Cerino

Note from Krill: Not very often do you meet a couple like Jan Albaum and Harry Cerino. They were so concerned about an ocean sunfish that was in the process of stranding off their beach, that they didn't take "no" for an answer. With persistence, they talked to someone who gave them my phone number and this allowed Jan and I to connect.

When Jan called me, I was teaching a Biology laboratory at Bridgwater State University. While the students were working on the lab, I listened to Jan's story about a sunfish that was stranding, as we spoke, just off her beach. The animal was still in a few inches of water so time was of the essence.

Never having met Jan or Harry, I had no idea if they could do what was needed to save this animal. But with a leap of faith, I asked them to push the ocean sunfish back into deep water if they could do so safely.

Not many people would have heeded my instructions, for ocean sunfish are an odd and unusual looking fish. And they have lots of slim covering their bodies, making the idea of touching them very unappetizing. But Jan and Harry stepped up to the plate and did what was needed to save this animal. They pushed the sunfish into deep water and stayed with it until it swam away. Their dedication and fast action saved this animal. If the ocean sunfish had stranded high and dry, they would not have been able to move it and it would have died a slow and certain death.

I love people like Jan and Harry for I admire their spirit, their love of all things wild and their tenacity and perseverance. They saved this animal even though they had never undertaken anything like this before. They listened to my instructions and words of encouragement and they proceeded on their own and by themselves. The joy they must have felt when they saw the sunfish swim away must have been overwhelming.

People like Jan and Harry redeem my faith in mankind and they remind me of the power of the human will and the strength of the human spirit. They cared enough about another creature to try and try they did. I hope I get a chance to meet Jan and Harry in the future for they are one amazing couple.

Best to you both and thank you for caring enough to act, Krill

From Jan Albaum:

A few days ago my husband Harry Cerino and I had never heard of an Ocean Sunfish. Harry saw one for the first time when he was taking photographs off of Wellfleet town pier and a fisherman told him what it was. We had never seen a fish swimming the distinctive way that Sunfish did.

Then yesterday morning over early coffee on the front deck where we were staying on Indian Neck right near Burton Baker Beach, we were looking out towards Great Island and saw that distinctive fin of another Sunfish come around a jetty for about a ½ hour. It was swimming parallel to the shoreline and it got caught in a strong combination of ½ tide rising and onshore bay wind and it got beached in shallow water right in front of us. It was not the same fish as the day before, its fin had a clear notch in it.

No one was around during this off-season time and we felt alone and helpless. I first called Wellfleet Audubon but the director wasn’t there and it felt like there wasn’t time to wait for a call back. Audubon gave me some other numbers to try and I next left a message with Krill Carson (who I learned was an expert on Sunfish) and then spoke with someone from IFAW Marine Mammal Stranding and at the Wellfleet Harbor Master office. They said once it got beached and was out of water it was unlikely that there was anything that could be done. This was discouraging to hear. We did not want to give up on this poor living creature and had run out of people to call.

Fortunately Krill called back in just a few minutes. She said based on my description it was a young fish (but it must have weighed a few hundred pounds), that we should definitely try to push it out into open waters, and that we needed to act fast. Her encouragement made all the difference to us. Krill told me to try to find some gloves to get a better grip on its slimy skin and that it wouldn’t hurt us. It was on its side, barely covered with water, flapping it fins but not able to get free from the sand. It was about a 15 minute struggle but we finally dislodged the fish and pushed it into water we thought was deep enough. But it still wasn’t enough for it to right itself and even when we got it out further it was still horizontal. So we kept pushing it deeper and deeper until finally it could get vertical.

Once in that position it floated there for a while barely under the surface. Its large sad eye stared at us. Finally it became more aware that it was in deeper water. In another moment or two it flapped it fins and swam off. We watched its dorsal fin as it rounded back around the jetty. The only thing that we could do was clap and cheer as it swam off into Wellfleet Bay. No one saw what we had done and we were encouraged on by a disembodied voice on our mobile phone but it all felt quite wonderful.

Jan Albaum and Harry Cerino


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011 Seabird & Whale Tales Excursion

Date: Sunday, September 11, 2011
Trip Duration: 10 am to 6 pm
Boarding Time: 9:30 am
Boarding Location: Town Wharf, Plymouth MA

Trip Status as of Sunday, September 11, 2011: Good morning. The trip is a GO! We have a great marine forecast and all is ready for an amazing day of wildlife viewing. Please be down at the Town Wharf ready to board by 9:30 am. It will be wonderful to see you again. Best, Krill

Tickets are still available. If you want to join us, go to our Constant Contact Event Website (click here) and register online. Pay through PayPal on that site or bring a check/cash with you to the boats and give to Krill when boarding. But everyone must register through the website.

Ticket Price Update: Tickets are still available so spread the word if you know anyone who may be interested in joining us offshore. Due to power interruptions caused by Hurricane Irene, the ticket price will be frozen at the $90 level.

Galley: Our galley will have lots of great food for purchase. Breakfast items include: muffins, donuts and bagels. Lunch items include home cooked foods such as chili and chicken noodle soup. We will have deli sandwiches including turkey, roast beef and ham. You can also bring your own food, but please no alcohol or glass containers of any type.

Marine Forecast: (You can never believe them!) Continue to check here for any additional updates. The only reason we will cancel the trip is due to extreme weather and the decision to cancel is made by the captain either the day before the trip or the morning of.

Marine forecast for Stellwagen Bank - click HERE

Free Onboard Raffle: We will once again be offering our free onboard raffle of items with a nature theme. If anyone would like to donate a photo, or a new/gently used item to the raffle table, that would be wonderful. Just give the item to Krill as you board the boat.

Thank you for your continued support and interest in our all day trips. We expect another fabulous day offshore filled with amazing sightings of seabirds, whales and other unique coastal marine wildlife. And we look forward to seeing you once again and spending some quality time offshore.

Feel free to call or email using the contact information below.

Sincerely, Krill

Krill Carson
New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA)
cell: 508 566-0009

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

First Ocean Sunfish Necropsy of the 2011 Season

Conducted at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, New Hampshire

On Monday morning, I received a call from Steve Engstrom, Senior Aquarist at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, NH. Steve informed me that a small ocean sunfish had stranded on the shores of the Science Center just the other day. He had heard that NECWA was interested in ocean sunfish sightings and strandings and so had tracked me down.

I was very excited to hear about this fish and made arrangements to drive up to Rye the next day and lead a necropsy with the help of the Science Center's staff and volunteers. And Leah, one of our long-term staff members, was going to assist with the necropsy as well. This would be Leah's second ocean sunfish dissection. Her first was last December 5th when we necropsied the largest ocean sunfish we had ever seen. This fish stranded on the shores of Mants Beach in Brewster MA. This recent fish in NH would be a stark contrast to the huge carcass we examined in 2010.

Staff and volunteers looking on.
When we arrived at the Seacoast Science Center, we met Karen, Nikki and Steve as well as lots of other staff and volunteers. There must have been over 20 people in attendance as many were eager to examine this unusual fish in more detail. We noticed one other person in attendance who had very colorful boots. Time for a fun "boot" photo!
Steve and his son watching the proceedings.
Fun and wacky boots!

It was clear that this was a small fish that could be picked up by 3 or 4 people. So we decided to load the fish in my truck and bring it to Seaport Seafood Market to have it weighed. The staff of Seaport Seafood Market were wonderful and really into this very unusual and stinky fish. The carcass weighed 170 pounds and this was very exciting since this is the first accurate weight we have collected from any of our carcasses.

Weighing our ocean sunfish.
Seaport Seafood Market, Rye NH
Most of the time, we are necropsying ocean sunfish carcasses that have washed ashore on isolated beaches of Cape Cod. Getting any type of weight measurement on these carcasses is impossible since the animals are too big to carry back to the parking lot and most beaches do not allow vehicle access. So this weight was a thrill for all of us and helps to fill in a gap in our data set.

Collecting external body measurements.
Jason collecting external body measurements.

One of the Center's staff, Jason, was very interested in assisting with the necropsy in a hands-on manner. Jason has done many necropsies of seals and other marine wildlife, but never an ocean sunfish. Always great to work with someone who is really "into" the necropsies and who gets "into" the work at hand. And these fish really smell, especially after a few days on the shore.

Measuring the length of the animal.
Measuring the girth of the animal.
So with Leah and Jason by my side, we started the process of photographing the carcass and documenting any unusual external features. When we started the necropsy, we worked with the carcass with its left side up. From this side, we saw one extensive cut through the dorsal fin indicating a possible boat strike.

But when we flipped the animal over on its right side, we observed a series of propellor cuts along the dorsal surface of the animal as well as lower sections of the dorsal fin. Now it became more clear that a possible boat strike was the cause of this animal's demise. We then collected skin and muscle tissue for future genetic analysis and examined internal organs for parasites and injuries.

Carcass now left side up.
Propellor scars on the right side of the animal's body.
We collected quite a few photographs to document the propellor scars and other body features visible on the outside of the animal. After taking a number of body measurements, it was time to sample and examine the animal internally.

Testes of the ocean sunfish.
Our first order of business was to determine the sex of the fish. This animal turned out to be a boy for we found the testes just posterior to the digestive tract. As we continued to open up the animal, we realized that this carcass had only a thin layer of reticulated collagen under the thin, rough skin. The function of the reticulated collagen is not clear, but what is clear is that this material completely wraps around the body of the animal. This is why I refer to ocean sunfish as the "ocean coconut of the sea!"

We worked methodically through the animal's digestive tract and measured as many organs as possible. Staff and volunteers with the Seacoast Science Center did a wonderful job of transcribing the data and taking the majority of the photographs.

Nematodes (roundworms) in the liver.
As we continued our internal examination, we observed that the liver had quite a few nematodes (roundworms) visible on the external surface and some were clearly embedded in the inner tissue. This is not unusual for ocean sunfish as they carry a large parasite load not only internally, but also externally.

Measuring the length of the entire digestive tract.
When examining the digestive tract, we unraveled the entire tract to measure its length and boy was it long. We also cut into the stomach to look for any type of blockage and to see if we could discover and identify any prey items. As in most of the carcasses we examine, we found nothing to suggest cause of death nor did we find any jellyfish or other gelatinous critters lodged in the digestive tract.

Knife is pointing to the pharyngeal teeth of the ocean sunfish.
Pharyngeal teeth of the ocean sunfish
We examined a number of internal organs including the heart, eyes, gills and throat. In the throat, we found the pharyngeal teeth that come in a set and are located on the upper part of the throat or pharynx. These hard, pointy structure are used to help keep slimy jellyfish, ctenophores and other gelatinous critters down after swallowing. It is interesting that one set of pharyngeal teeth had 3 rows of teeth while the other had only 2 rows.

Ocean sunfish eye.
Gills of the ocean sunfish with parasites.
We were also able to collect the entire vertebral column, another first for us today. By the end of the session, we had a large collection of data, tissue samples and photographs from this carcass. All of this data will be added to the NEBShark database in an effort to better understand this the largest of all the bony marine fish.

Collecting the vertebrae.

Marine food chain model.
After we cleaned up from the necropsy, Leah and I spent some time exploring the Science Center. One of the most impressive displays is the skeleton of a humpback whale that hangs down from the ceiling. This whale is Tofu, the young female whale that was hit by a boat just a few years ago. Captain Jonny Dennen and I found Tofu floating dead on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank two years ago. I assisted with the necropsy of this whale that was conducted in the Bourne landfill and the bones found their final resting place in the Seacoast Science Center.

Skeleton of Tofu, the humpback whale.
It is very sad when a known humpback whale is killed offshore. We had been watching Tofu for many weeks before her death and she was a beautiful animal. Her ventral tail pattern was very white and that is how she received her name, Tofu. But seeing her skeleton displayed so majestically from the ceiling reminded me that her death was not a waste. Not only did we learn much during the actual necropsy, but we also collected a lot of tissue and organ samples for many scientists around the world. And her bones remind others of the immense size and wonder of these rare and endangered marine animals.

A model of Tofu's beautiful ventral tail pattern.
After our tour, Leah and I decided to call it a day. We were very tired, but still "flying high" after a full day of adventure and exploration. It is good to be a biologist and to find wonder in such an unusual and not well understood fish. And we made many new friends today in New Hampshire and look forward to future collaborations.