A Day – and a Life – with African Penguins

Filed Under (Aquariums, Penguins, Scientists, conservation) by Alexa & Cindy on 19-04-2009

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Photo © Allie Wilkinson

Photo © Allie Wilkinson

Laurie Macha goes through a lot for penguins.

Sure, it’s her job as supervisor of pinnipeds and penguins at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (MAIFE) in Connecticut.

But she’s also leading a nationwide effort to help researchers in South Africa better understand the rapid decline in the African penguin population, which once numbered nearly two million breeding pairs around 1900. As of the end of 2008, only an estimated 26,000 pairs remained.

African penguins have been through a lot, too.

Last September, Laurie and her research team traveled to Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, and battled stormy weather to take African penguin population counts, weigh and measure birds and monitor their use of artificial nests, as part of their research into why we’re losing African penguins.

Here’s our interview with Laurie, a page from her diary, and some things anyone can do to help save African penguins from becoming extinct:

O4E: What was the weather like while you were in Africa, and did it make your job a lot harder? How?

Laurie Macha: In Cape Town, South Africa in September, it is the end of winter and beginning of spring. There were a lot of storms with high winds up to 65 mph. With the winds, the rain was driven horizontally, and made the days very cold, wet and damp.

The ferries to Robben Island were not running for almost the entire time we were on the island. We had a list of research project items that needed to be done over the 2 weeks and chose the projects according to what activity would adversely affect the collection of data or handling of birds.

So, we did continue to work but would wait for a break in the weather to head out into the field. All in all, we got got very wet and cold!

O4E: What was the penguin behavior like?

LM: The juveniles (yearlings) were the individuals that were rambunctious. During one of the evening observations looking for tagged birds on the highway, several of the birds would gather in a group to cross in larger groups.

As the birds were waiting for more to arrive, the juveniles would stomp around in the puddles, chase the splashes they made, poke the adults and run, or tug on tree branches.

Of course all of this activity seemed to aggregate the waiting adults and they would respond by giving the juvenile a “honk” and a poke with their beak.

O4E: What are artificial nests made out of, and how do the Penguins use them?

LM:There are two different types of artificial nests that I observed during my visit.

One was a tent like structure made of plywood and the other was dome like (like an igloo) and made of fiberglass. The wooden artificial nests sat on top of the ground while the fiberglass nests were dug into the ground and covered by dirt and rocks.

The penguins nested in them just as they would if it was a natural burrow!

O4E: Do you know yet why they are dying?

LM: There are a lot of theories some being competition for food fish with commercial fisheries and other aquatic animals, and lack of food availability due to a shift in the migration of bait fish, oil spills and competition for nest areas with human populations.

We don’t have confirmed results of why the penguins are dying.

O4E: What are you and your team doing to help them?

MAIFE has a penguin task force dedicated to understanding the factors surrounding their decline through assistance with research, education and conservation.

Several research projects have been started at MAIFE to aid field researchers in South Africa with their efforts to understand these factors and fund-raising events to help support South African penguin organizations.

A Day in the Life of an African Penguin Researcher

We asked Laurie what a typical day is like for her on the job, if there is such a thing. Find out for yourself by reading this page from her diary:

    We woke up this morning and the wind has stopped blowing and there is no rain in the forecast.

    The ferries are running today and Mario was able to join us from the mainland.

    Today we set out to catch 30 chicks at least of P3 and greater (which means more than ½ the adult size to nearly fledgling).

    We started walking about in the area of N2 and N1. The measurements we were looking for were length of wing (armpit to tip), length of head (back of head to beaktip) and weight.

    In order to get the chicks from the nest one person had to grab the attending adult (if there was one), another person had to grab the chick(s), one person did the measurements and another recorded the data.

    We watched Peter grab the first adult off of the nest and Barbara and Mario grabbed the 1st two chicks. We used a millimeter stick to measure the wing, calipers to measure the head and a hanging scale to get the weight.

    In order to get the weight, we stuck the chick into a cloth bag and hung it on the scale. The whole time the data was being collected the adult had to be restrained and kept away from the research team.

    Once everything was done the chicks were returned to their nest followed by the adult.

    Well, it was my turn to give a try at grabbing two unattended chicks from an artificial nest. I lied down on the ground and stuck my arm into the nest up to my armpit and could barely get my fingertips on the chicks.

    I stretched and pushed my arm and after a few minutes pulled my first chick out, passed it off and grabbed the second.

    By the time I got up with the second chick I was covered from head to toe with guano and mud. It was amazing!

    Peter had quite a laugh at the site of me with all of the guano, but, the chick I was holding conveniently aimed his rump toward Peter and covered him pretty well. We all laughed together and the team took the measurements and returned the chicks to the nest.

    We continued walking and spotting chicks repeating the process over and over until we reached our goal of 30 chicks.

    Some of the nests where chicks were hiding required us to crawl on our bellies into brush and thorn bushes to get access.

    Everything went well and it was a great team effort. We also were able to identify several more tagged birds that we will add to the data base in the evening.

    Peter also found a tagged bird that was poorly banded, so, he pulled the bird from the brush and Mario and Barbara fixed the tag.

    We had finished all of our work by 12:00 pm, just in time to head back to the house for lunch. Hopefully tonight we will be able to shower? So far, we’ve only had limited cold running water.

    We had a great lunch at the house with Mario followed by a trip back out to N1 and N2 to look for more recaptures.

    Kevin, Michelle and I were dropped off at 2:30 and we were to be picked up at 4:30. We found about 5-6 more tagged birds which we jotted down into our notebooks.

    One penguin was in a gun turret and wedged into a small crevasse. He kept his band to the wall and we were unable to read it. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to check on him tomorrow.

    After our pickup from the retraps we headed out to conduct a game count. To do this we all packed into the “backie” and drove around the island.

    We counted almost 300 Fallow deer (a European introduced species), 1 Steenbok, 2 dozen Springbok and 2 male ostriches (the only 2 on the island!).

    There is also one remaining Eland which we didn’t see. The game count took us about 2 hours. We also just found out that we will be able to go down to the guest house and be able to take a hot shower!

    Our day will end with hot showers, warm dinner and a lot of data entry from today’s adventures.

Photo © Allie Wilkinson

Photo © Allie Wilkinson

4 Simple Ways to Help the African Penguin

Over the last five years, the African penguin population has decreased by 42 percent. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services proposed listing the African penguin as endangered in December 2008.

Mystic Aquarium has responded to the population decline by uniting researchers, husbandry staff, educators, and concerned citizens to develop a Penguin Task Force.

The mission of the group is to save the African Penguin through leadership and assistance in research, education, and conservation efforts.

Below are four simple ways you can help the African penguin species, from MAIFE:

1. Donations –
Donations made on the Aquarium website, through the “Pennies for Penguins” collection at the admission gate, and funds from the Run or Walk for Penguins go directly to support Aquarium penguin programs.

Your generous contributions assist with the care of the Aquarium penguin colony; help maintain a healthy genetic diversity among captive penguin populations through the support of the Species Survival Plan, support research on penguin health including nutrition, hormone function, and immunology, and sponsors staff travel to South Africa to assist in field research.

2. Becoming an Aquarium volunteer –
Whether you are a docent educating the public at the exhibits, assisting with school groups in the education department, or working along side the animal care staff, becoming an Aquarium volunteer help contribute to our mission of research, education, and conservation. For more information on becoming a volunteer or to complete the volunteer application form visit the “Get Involved” link at www.mysticaquarium.org.

3. Participate in Mystic Aquarium’s Penguin Encounter Program –
The African Penguin Encounter Program is a 60-minute session in which participants get the opportunity to interact with an actual African penguin.

Lead by penguin specialists, this program describes these remarkable birds, their care here at the Aquarium and educates participants on the life history of the species and conservation issues affecting these intriguing animals.

Contact the reservations department at 860-572-5955 ext.520 for additional information regarding this exciting program.

4. Participate in the Run or Walk for Penguins –
Participation in the Run or Walk for Penguins is a great way for the whole family to become involved in the conservation of African penguins.

The money that is raised from the 5K run or 2 mile walk goes toward the Aquarium’s penguin research and conservation efforts. Join us on October 17th, 2009 to participate in the walk or to just celebrate the African penguin during the third annual Run or Walk for Penguins.

Visit www.mysticaquarium.org for more information how you can register for this event.

Penguin Facts You Might Not Know

Alexa always wants to know what’s little-known. I think it’s becoming her signature interview question. Laurie doesn’t disappoint – here are three quick, and for some, little-known, facts about African penguins:

    They pair bond for life!
    Have the ability to individually recognize each other – first through sound, second through sight, which gives them the ability to recognize their trainers!
    They have a vocalization that sounds just like a donkey braying.

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How it all Started: the Masked Man, Unmasked (sort of).

Filed Under (How it All Started, Scientists) by Alexa & Cindy on 19-03-2009


O4E: Today’s post is the first in our on-going series about how people from all around the oceans community came to the water – how they ended up with oceans in their lives as an interest, a passion – even a career.

It’s admittedly my (Cindy’s) motivation to show young people, including a certain 9 year-old relative and founder of this blog, what they can do with their love of the ocean as they grow up and how childhood interests can shape their lives (and to not be afraid to let them).

This idea grew out of a conversation with our “masked man” (See 3/15), whom we can now reveal as Mark Powell, whose first encounter with water didn’t go so well – he was swept down the Santiam River in Oregon when he was a toddler (lucky for us, saved by his dad) – but who couldn’t stay away.

Today, Mark works for the Ocean Conservancy organization’s Seattle, Washington office, trying to create and maintain healthy fish populations and educating people on the dangers of over-fishing poses to marine ecosystems around the country.

But that’s just his day job. He has not one, but three blogs about oceans (all of them in our blog roll), a family and an unstoppable passion for bodies of water, in general.

How the heck did this all get started?

Sit a spell, and read Mark’s story.

MP: I live surrounded by water. That says more about me than a list of the whats, wheres, and whens of my life.

My first water embrace scared me for years, but it couldn’t keep me away. I learned to love going underwater and seeing how long I could stay down. I once fetched a friend’s glasses when he dropped them off a boat in the Cayman Islands in 40 feet of water and nobody else would dive that far. Now I’m drawn to swim around Bainbridge Island alone in the cold gray beautiful chilling spooky fantastic water.

I get in the ocean, I swim, I look around, and then I get out. No big deal, but somehow everything seems different. I’ve come unstuck. I live and breathe water now. When I’m on land, I can go back underwater with just a small shift in focus. It’s like having Endless Ocean inside of my head.

It all started with my ocean version of The Matrix.
In The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns to see and surf the crazy dripping megabytes that are the matrix–a computer program that controls people.  His abilities look like superpowers in the simulated world of the matrix, he can stop bullets and fly.  My ocean connection has that feel, an immersion that leads beyond the ordinary world.   

I find a power in the ocean that draws me in and rewards me with a feeling of transcendence.  It’s no one thing about the ocean, not fish or beauty.  The attraction comes from what feels like a flowing current of life and motion that surrounds and absorbs me and gives me strength.   

I’m not sure where or when it started.  I was shy and bookish as a child, and I treasured escapist fantasy.  I’d find it reading, watching ocean specials on TV, fishing, or playing basketball.  The best moments in my life were when I found a sublime focus on what was happening, and the mundane would just fall away and be gone—what author Daniel Goleman calls “flow” in his book Emotional Intelligence.     

Ocean flow was the best flow and I was drawn there, fishing, beachcombing, staring at the waves, or watching Jacques Cousteau on TV.  I grew up an hour away from the ocean and seeing it was a special treat until I moved to San Diego when I was 21 and learned to surf.  My connection was a pure “love the ocean” connection at first, and the urge to “save the ocean” only came up gradually through my 20’s.   

I’m part of the last generation of ocean lovers to grow up without the oppressive burden of ocean decline.  I caught and sold salmon before the great collapse, and when the salmon weren’t biting it was easy to catch huge “bottom fish.”  Those days are gone, and I know that from personal experience. 

Part of my drive now comes from what I’ve seen and what I’ve done.  The fish that I caught, and the things that I’ve seen, like a feeding frenzy of dolphins, fish and diving birds.  But the real attraction for me is my urge to get into ocean “flow.”  Matrix-like, it’s the source of my superpowers.   

An ocean connection can be more grit than glory, especially on Bainbridge Island where I live.  The ocean is mostly cold and gray, and it seems about as friendly as a grouchy grizzly bear.  No problem, the connection is still there.  It may take a bit more effort, but once I get my ocean “flow” on, I’m in heaven.  The connection can be so strong that when I pull myself out of the water and look around, a bizarre question pops up:  “what world is this?”  I’ve put daily life so far behind me that it’s like returning to earth from another planet when I get out.     

A real immersion in a current always feels this way.  It can be strange to get in, and hard to get into, but so strong and sticky that getting out is a harsh re-awakening.  If you can imagine doing part of my Swim Around Bainbridge Island alone in the cold gray water, yet feeling shocked, stunned and disappointed when it’s time to climb out, then you get the picture.   

The more connected I get with the ocean, the easier it is to call on that connection when I’m not underwater.  I may be in a sterile room somewhere, arguing with someone about fishing and trying to push ocean conservation.  And I might start feeling small, outnumbered and in doubt.  If I can just reach deep and find the ocean inside of me, then the superpowers come back, and I’m re-energized.   
My ocean connection all started with discovering the feeling of transcendence that the ocean gives me.  Later, my ocean conservation drive arose when I saw, in my own lifetime, in my own places, the beginnings of the great ongoing collapse.  Thank goodness the connection comes with superpowers.   

Where there is great need, an ocean connection provides great determination.  If the task seems too big, remembering a day underwater brings new strength.  Just like seeing the matrix makes it possible to leap over tall buildings if there are a dozen “Agent Smith” characters trying to block conservation.  Best of all, we don’t have to do it alone, because the captivating power of the ocean makes it easy to recruit others to the cause.  Oceans Forever!  

O4E: Get more from Mark – visit his blogs Blogfish, Swim Around Bainbridge and Carnival of the Blue, home of the ocean blog carnival – all linked at right.

So what do you think - Mark, and we wonder -is the wilderness of the ocean a place, or a feeling?

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