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Ocean

By Anthony Petriello

A decomposing beaked whale, not
typically seen near shore, found in Miller Place July 19 caused a stir on social media. Photo from Andrea Costanzo

Pictures of a carcass of a mysterious creature that washed up on the beach in Miller Place discovered by a resident July 19 have been circulating around the local community on Facebook. The photos were provided to TBR News Media by Facebook user Andrea Costanzo, who said they were taken by her father. According to the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the creature has been identified as a beaked whale, a type of whale typically found in the deep ocean, although the exact species of beaked whale is yet to be determined. When found, the whale was in advanced stages of decomposition, making it difficult to determine what exactly it was, conjuring thoughts of the Loch Ness monster or other mythical creatures on social media.   

The SPCA speculated that the whale had gotten sick and swam into the Long Island Sound seeking shelter. The whale was taken off the beach and transported to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in Hampton Bays. According to AMCS Executive Director and Chief Scientist Rob DiGiovanni, very little has been determined as to why the whale became sick or how exactly it ended up on the Miller Place beach due to the advanced stage of decomposition of the animal, making it difficult to ascertain many facts. It was determined through necropsy, however, that the whale did not die due to the ingestion of marine debris such as plastic or metal.

Beaked whales dive for an hour, sometimes two, and surface for just a few minutes to take a series of rapid breaths before diving again, according to New Scientist, an online science and technology magazine. They routinely reach 3,200 feet beneath the surface, while some have been measured as far as 10,000 feet down.

William Belanske sketches while waiting with his luggage to embark on a journey with William K. Vanderbilt II. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum archives

William E. Belanske already had an enviable job as an artist and taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) when he got a call from William K. Vanderbilt II.

The year was 1926 and Vanderbilt was preparing for an expedition on his yacht Ara to collect animal and marine life. The voyage would take him to one of the most scientifically diverse and remote places on earth — the Galápagos Islands, on the Equator off the coast of Ecuador. He needed an artist to record the live specimens he would bring back to his private museum in Centerport. To Belanske, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, which marked the 65th anniversary of its official opening on July 6, has created a new exhibit honoring Belanske’s work.

On display in the Memorial Wing of the museum, the installation features a recreation of Belanske’s studio on the Vanderbilt Estate and includes some of the detailed paintings of the numerous marine specimens Vanderbilt collected from the oceans of the world. Large illustrated panels detail Belanske’s work, on the expeditions and at the museum.

Kirsten Amundsen and Brandon Williams of the curatorial staff came up with the exhibit concept and design.

“The ship’s artist, Mr. William E. Belanske, has been with me since 1926,” Vanderbilt wrote in 1932. “He makes accurate paintings of rare fish. With every scale carefully drawn, every shade, every nuance of color exactly portrayed, his reproductions are true, lifelike, and of value to science.”

In 1927, following the Ara expedition, Vanderbilt requested Belanske’s services full time at his museum, and Belanske chose to resign from the AMNH. He served as Vanderbilt’s curator and lived in a cottage on the estate from 1928 to 1945. His work included taking part in around-the-world cruises on the Ara in 1928-1929 and on the Alva in 1931-1932.

Notably, Belanske collaborated with the renowned painter Henry Hobart Nichols (also of the AMNH) to create the Vanderbilt Habitat in 1930, nine stunning dioramas that depict animal life from several continents. The centerpiece of the room is a 32-foot whale shark, the world’s largest taxidermied fish, caught off Fire Island in 1935.

Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs for the Vanderbilt Museum, said, “On the Ara, they placed fish in holding tanks with saltwater to keep them alive. Belanske would paint the catches immediately in order to record the colors accurately.”

Before color photography, Gress said, the beauty and vibrant hues of the collected marine specimens could only be captured with an artist’s hand. Belanske’s perfect color images of the specimens were displayed in the Marine Museum next to the faded, fluid-preserved specimens.

When he returned to his studio, the artist began the time-consuming task of creating his final images. He used his notes, measurements and rough sketches to create fully accurate, detailed fish prints worthy of scientific publication, she said.

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. Through Sept. 6, the museum will be open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Activists, politicians, volunteers taking closer look at declining population of Long Island’s ocean life

Horseshoe crabs have been on Earth for almost 500 million years, but their future is uncertain. Researchers like Matt Sclafani, a marine educator from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, said he believes that the species is in an alarming decline.

“It’s a very important issue for a lot of reasons,” Sclafani said during a horseshoe crab monitoring session at West Meadow beach in Stony Brook on Monday night.

Horseshoe crabs are a valuable species to human life, Sclafani said. Their blue blood is used for pharmaceutical purposes. Fishermen use them as one of the most effective sources of bait that exists.

Sclafani called Delaware Bay the epicenter for horseshoe crab spawning activity, with Long Island coming in as a close second as one of the most important areas to the species on the East Coast, he said.

Sclafani and his team of volunteers take to the local shores when the tides are low, usually in the middle of the night, to count and tag horseshoe crabs that come up to the shore to spawn. On Monday, Sclafani was joined by Frank Chin, the regular site coordinator for West Meadow beach, along with Grace Scalzo, a volunteer, and Karen Papa and her sons — 12-year-old Zachary and 8-year-old Jonah.

North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski
North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We get a lot of volunteers for this program,” Sclafani said. “That’s the part I think is really great, too. We get people involved in their backyards. There’s not a lot of marine life that you can get involved with and handle this directly — that comes right out onto the beach for you without a net or fishing pole.”

In all, the team tagged 55 horseshoe crabs over the course of the night, though that is nothing compared to the night on the South Shore when Sclafani said he and a team of about 35 volunteers tagged about 800 crabs. The process requires measurement, drilling a small hole into the shell, and then applying a round tag that has tracking information on it which is recorded.

“I think the entire population up and down the East Coast is in trouble,” Larry Swanson, associate dean of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said of the horseshoe crab population in an interview last week. “It’s in trouble for a variety of reasons including people overfishing the population, but also certain birds, including the red knot, are particularly prone to using them as a food source.”

Sclafani said the consequences could be dire, if the crabs are not saved.

“Their eggs are really important to the ecosystem,” Sclafani said. “A lot of animals feed on them, including migratory shore birds.”

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) divulged plans to urge the Department of Environmental Conservation to expand restrictions on harvesting horseshoe crabs in May, to the chagrin of fishermen. Those plans have since been tabled.

“I’m just a man, but I’m a vital part of the food chain and I think I’m at the top,” Ron Bellucci Jr. of Sound Beach said in an interview last month.

Horseshoe crab harvesting is a vital part of his income, he said. Local fishermen have also questioned the validity of claims about the declining population.

North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski
North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski

The idea that the species may not be declining is not an encouraging sign to Malcolm Bowman, professor of physical oceanography and distinguished service professor at SoMAS, Stony Brook. He is also the president of Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy and the Friends of Flax Pond, two environmental advocacy groups.

“We know in nature that things go up and down, and up and down, but you have to look at long-term trends; 10 years, 20 years,” Bowman said in an interview last week. “I’ve worked with fishermen a lot. They have to make a living, I understand that, but it’s important to keep communications between the scientists and say the fishermen with mutual respect, and that way we can learn a lot from them. We scientists are trained to have a long-term view. It’s not just this season, this summer, this breeding season. It’s a long-term view. I think that’s so important.”

More restricted areas, which Romaine is pushing for, could simply result in overharvesting in areas without restrictions, both Bowman and Sclafani said.

There has also been some experimentation with extracting the blue blood while the animal is still alive, then rereleasing them into the water. This process is called biomedical harvesting.

“That’s becoming a more and more controversial topic,” Sclafani said. “The biomedical companies have maintained that it’s a low mortality rate — about 10 percent … they might even be as high as 40 or 50 percent.”

He also mentioned that there are concerns about the horseshoe crabs’ spawning activity after this process is completed.

Bowman stopped short of saying that the extinction of the horseshoe crab would have a drastic impact on human life, but it’s not a good sign.

“I was reading some very important news that’s coming out about the extinction of species on the planet,” Bowman said. “Species are going extinct at a huge rate. The cumulative effect is going to have a very bad effect on human civilization, far greater than we can imagine. We only see a little piece of it.”

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