Last week, I was in Newport Beach, CA where we held our annual Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop, which profiles the research done in the Southern California Bight during the previous year.  This is our 3rd year of supporting this meeting (with thanks to the Pacific Life Foundation) and it is a unique meeting both in its geographic focus, and in that it is multi-disciplinary.  We are very proud of the cross pollination that has come from bringing together acousticians, genetic, biology, and behavioral scientists, as well as rescue and rehabilitation veterinary medical specialists.

This year, over 100 scientists, grad students and one fisherman registered. For some inexplicable reason each year the grad students get younger, and the professors get older.  And, once largely the province of white men, the field of marine mammal research and rescue is diversifying more each year.

This year’s meeting covered:
– Interaction between fishing fleets and marine mammals, and the need for more collaboration and communication between marine mammal researchers and fishers
– Training in the use and benefits of photo identification, and passive acoustic monitoring
– A panel on climate variability, and the ways in which it adds additional stressors for marine mammals and many new unknowns for those who study them:
+ warmer seas (affecting migrations of mammals/prey, phenological changes for prey, and increasing risk of disease),
+ sea level rise (changes in the geography affecting haul outs and rookeries),
+ souring (ocean acidification affecting the shell fish and other prey of some marine mammals), and
+ suffocation in so-called dead zones in estuaries all over the world (which also affects the abundance of prey).
– Finally, a panel on integrating data on marine mammals and their ecosystems to address the gap between environment data which is plentiful and available, and the marine mammal biology data that needs to be made more available and integrated.

The uplifting conclusion of the meeting included highlighting four positive outcomes from years 1 and 2 of this workshop:
– The creation of the California Dolphin Online Catalog
– A set of recommendations on vessel routes in California waters to reduce incidental collisions with whales and other marine mammals
– New software for faster and easier aerial observation of marine mammals
– And, a graduate student who, at last year’s workshop, met someone from Sea World who helped her obtain a sufficient quantity of samples to complete her Ph.D. research, thus moving one more person into the field.

As I headed to the airport, I carried with me the energy of those who have become enchanted with our mammals of the sea and who strive to better understand them and their role in ocean health. From LAX, I flew to New York to learn about the conclusion and findings of researchers who are enchanted by the smallest of the sea’s diverse life.

After two years, the Tara Ocean Expedition is on its last two legs home to Europe after a few days in NYC to share the outcomes of its research.  This Tara Ocean Expedition’s framework is unique—focusing on the ocean’s smallest creatures in the context of both art and science.  Plankton (viruses, bacteria, protists and small metazoans such as copepods, jellies and fish larvae) is ubiquitous in oceans, from polar to equatorial seas, from deep sea to surface layers, and from coastal to open oceans.  Plankton biodiversity provides the base of the oceanic food web.  And, more than half of the breaths you take carry oxygen produced in the ocean into your lungs.  Phytoplankton (oceans) and land-based plants (continents) produce all of the oxygen in our atmosphere.

In its role as our largest natural carbon sink, the ocean is receiving much of the emissions from cars, ships, power plants and factories.  And, it is the phytoplankton that consumes great quantities of CO2, of which the carbon is fixed in the organisms’ tissues through photosynthesis, and the oxygen is released.  Some of the phytoplankton is then absorbed by zooplankton, the key food for tiny sea crustaceans to giant majestic whales.  Then, dead phytoplankton as well as zooplankton’s poop sink into the deep ocean where part of their carbon becomes sediment on the sea floor, sequestering that carbon for centuries.  Unfortunately, the significant accumulation of CO2 in sea water is overwhelming this system.  The excess carbon is being dissolved in the water, decreasing the pH of the water, and making it more acidic.  So we must quickly learn more about the health of and threats to our ocean’s plankton communities.  After all, our oxygen production and our carbon sink are at risk.

The main objective of the Tara expedition was to collect samples, count plankton, and to figure out how abundant they were in the many different ecosystems of the ocean, as well as which species were successful in different temperatures and seasons.  As an overarching goal, the expedition also was intended to begin to understand plankton’s sensitivity to climate change.  The samples and data were analyzed on land and organized in a coherent database that was being developed while the expedition was underway.  This new global view of the smallest creatures in our oceans is breathtaking in its scope and critical information for those who work to understand and protect our oceans.

Few expeditions expand their work when they come into port, seeing it instead as downtime.  Yet, the Tara Oceans Expedition achieves so much more because of its commitment to meeting and working with local scientists, educators and artists at every port of call.  With the goal of increasing general awareness about environmental issues, it shares scientific data for educational and policy purposes at every port of call.  This Tara Ocean Expedition had 50 ports of call.  NYC was no different.  One highlight was the standing room only public event at the Explorer’s Club.  The evening included magnificent slides and videos of the micro-marine world.  Inspired by her time on the Tara Expedition, artist Mara Haseltine unveiled her latest work—an artistic rendering of a phytoplankton that in the sea is so small that more than 10 of them could fit on your pinky nail—wrought in glass and scaled to the size of a bluefin tuna to showcase its smallest details.

It will take a while to synthesize all I have learned in these five days—but one thing stands out:  There is a rich world of scientists, activists, artists, and enthusiasts who are passionate about the ocean and the challenges before us and their efforts benefit us all.

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