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Sanibel Sea School

Birds of the Sea

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Birds of the Sea

From the tiniest sea slug to a walloping whale shark, our teachers have so many favorite sea creatures. But our obsession with marine inhabitants is not limited to the slimy and scaly. We're also extremely passionate about our warm-blooded, feathered friends  birds!

When we think about birds, we often imagine a radiant cardinal perched in an old oak tree, or perhaps the buzzy song of a warbler comes to mind. But in Southwest Florida, many birds are a vital link in the marine ecosystem. Great Egrets nest and raise their young in the mangroves, Ospreys pluck fish out of the ocean, and Snowy Plovers comb the Gulf beaches for tiny crustaceans. It’s really amazing to see how birds bridge land and sea, and it's something our educators love to explore.  

Check out some of the fabulous bird photos below, all captured by our staff:

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The Curious Beachcomber

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The Curious Beachcomber

Recently, while scanning the beach on Sanibel, we tend to see one particular ‘ocean debris’ that spikes curiosity in the minds of beach-goers. Is it some kind of snake? Is it man-made? Is it even a part of this planet? After big winds, mysterious capsules of all shapes and sizes wash up on our shores.  We'd like to share a little bit about these cases and what comes out of them!

Maybe you've made this face after coming across these long snake-like strings on the beach! 

Maybe you've made this face after coming across these long snake-like strings on the beach! 

Lightning Whelk 

The lightning whelk is a common sea snail here on Sanibel but has a shell that is not typical of most shells - it actually spirals and opens to the left side instead of the right, so we call it a left-handed shell. Covering its spiraled shell are vivid lightning-like markings that give this snail its name. Other than having a beautiful shell, it also lays the famous long snake-like egg clusters that we find washed ashore. The spiraled cluster of small disc-like pods can be over a couple feet long and it is the most common egg case washed up in the wrack line on Sanibel.  

Here's a lightning whelk egg case tangled among algae in the wrack line.

Here's a lightning whelk egg case tangled among algae in the wrack line.

Pear Whelk 

The pear whelk is a medium-sized shell and is not as common as the other snails we often see in this area. This smooth shell lacks horns like the lightning whelk and is not as colorful. These snails also lay long snake-like chains of egg capsules that are very similar to the lightning whelk. If you happen to be lucky enough to find these egg cases, compare the size with the lightning whelk egg cases - the pear whelk cases are much smaller in size, which includes the disc diameter and the length of the chain. The discs also have many projections along their margins - another key characteristic. 

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  Here you can see how similar these two egg cases are - the left is the pear whelk case and the right shows the lightning whelk egg case.

Here you can see how similar these two egg cases are - the left is the pear whelk case and the right shows the lightning whelk egg case.

Florida Horse Conch

The Florida horse conch is the state shell of Florida and one of the largest snails in the Gulf. Surprisingly, the massive shell often covered with algae, is not the first thing most people notice but rather, the bright orange soft body of the animal. Female conchs deposit egg cases that resemble a cluster of yellow flowers on hard objects on the ocean floor, such as rocks and shell debris. These egg cases can sometimes be confused with the banded tulip snail egg cases, but horse conch egg cases have 4-6 rings that run along the length of each individual capsule.

Banded Tulip Snail 

The banded tulip is a brightly colored, medium-sized shell that is named for its resemblance to a tulip flower blossoming.  Much like the horse conch, the female tulip snail lays its eggs on hard-submerged objects. The egg cases also resemble a bouquet of small yellow flowers but differ from the horse conch cases because they are smaller and lack the rings on each individual capsule. You might even find these eggs laid on other snail egg cases, which is another clue that they are tulip eggs!

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  If you observe the individual capsules in these two egg cases, you can easily tell them apart.  The horse conch is shown on the left (notice the rings) and the tulip is on the right (a smooth capsule). 

If you observe the individual capsules in these two egg cases, you can easily tell them apart.  The horse conch is shown on the left (notice the rings) and the tulip is on the right (a smooth capsule). 

Now it's time to get out to the beach and explore - next time you're at the beach, see if you can identify any egg cases that you find! Happy beachcombing! 

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How Many Sand Dollars Are There On Sanibel?

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How Many Sand Dollars Are There On Sanibel?

At Sanibel Sea School, we've always wondered how many sand dollars are buried under our feet on the sand bars. Sometimes you can't seem to wade through the water without stepping through piles of them and other times, you can search for hours and not find a single specimen! One of our longtime students set out to find the answer to this puzzling question. Check out her cool findings! 

 

By: Alice Toussaint Pittman

My Questions

From the middle of January to the end of February, I studied sand dollar population density off the coast of Sanibel Island, FL. My two big research questions were: on average, how many sand dollars are there per square meter; and, what is their average age, which is believed to correlate with size.

Methods

My method for counting sand dollars included using a quadrat, which is a 1 meter by 1 meter square of PVC pipe; a basket wrapped in a pool noodle; a ruler; and a small waterproof notebook. I would walk out to the sand bar in a specified area on Colony Beach between 2 designated boardwalks. I would then close my eyes and throw the quadrat. Once it landed in the water, I would walk over to it, hold it on the ground with one foot, and twist my other foot all around inside of the quadrat. If I found a sand dollar I would put in the basket. Once I had churned up all the sand in the square I would pick the quadrat up and throw it again. This procedure would be repeated 20 times. After I had collected all the sand dollars, I would mark how many I found, measure them, record all of the numbers in my book, then, throw them back in the water.

Results

I found a total of 93 sand dollars, and most of them were between 84 and 98 mm in diameter.  The smallest sand dollar was 71 mm. The largest I found was 110 mm. The average size was around 86 mm. I believe that the sand dollars in the area are almost at their maximum size. 

Here is the frequency histogram that shows the size distribution of the sand dollars sampled. You can see that the average size was around 86 mm. 

Here is the frequency histogram that shows the size distribution of the sand dollars sampled. You can see that the average size was around 86 mm. 

I didn’t answer my population density question because I realized I was using a faulty method. For example, if you wanted to measure the population density of red ants in your backyard,  you could throw a quadrat randomly 100 times and end up not landing on either of the 2 highly populated ants nests that exist on the property.  If this happened, you may find very few or no ants at all.  Your data would seem to reflect that there is a very low or no population density. But that would be incorrect.  There are ants,  just not evenly distributed. I suspect the same thing happened with me and my sand dollars. 

This frequency histogram shows the size distribution of sand dollars using size intervals. This shows that I did not find any sand dollars that were under 69 mm or over 110 mm - possibly indicating that most of the sand dollars were around the same age. 

This frequency histogram shows the size distribution of sand dollars using size intervals. This shows that I did not find any sand dollars that were under 69 mm or over 110 mm - possibly indicating that most of the sand dollars were around the same age. 

What I Learned

I learned a lot about research trial and error.  Sometimes things don’t always work the first time in science and you have to try different methods and procedures to accurately collect the data you are looking for.

I also learned about some of the obstacles that scientists have to work past, like bad weather and high tides. One time this year, we had a big storm and we suspect all the sand dollars got buried under a ton of sand. It was really difficult to sample so we had to postpone the project for a week. 

Sampling sand dollars during high tide is easier said than done! 

Sampling sand dollars during high tide is easier said than done! 

In addition, I learned how data could easily be influenced by a scientist’s bias. For example, I was aware there were a lot of sand dollars in one area and I could have collected more data by always throwing there, but I tried to throw randomly throughout the entire area to give a true sampling. If for some reason my motivation was to show a high or low population density I may subconsciously tend to throw in one direction or another. 

Although I did not find the population density, I am happy I was able to set a baseline for further study of the sand dollar life cycles in this area. I believe that the sand dollars in the area are almost at their maximum size. Scientists will be able to use my data to compare with size data from other months and hopefully learn more about the life cycle and size/age correlation of the sand dollar around Sanibel Island.

sand dollars.jpg


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We're Expecting!

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We're Expecting!

It was an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at Sanibel Sea School – a sunny, late winter day in the midst of high season. The teachers were bustling around the campus preparing for class and cleaning up the backyard when one of them heard something a bit strange behind the building. Curious about the rustling coming from the leaf litter, they went to investigate the noise. They discovered that the odd noise was our resident female gopher tortoise plodding around her burrow, and she was not alone!  Our teachers were surprised when they saw two tortoises near the burrow, because this species can be quite territorial -  they immediately postulated that it must be a mating pair! 

Our resident female gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) peeking at us from her burrow. 

Peering through the surfboard racks with binoculars in hand, the teachers watched as the male tortoise tried to pursue the female. Many tortoises use a series of head-bobs and swings to try to get the female’s attention, but in this case the female was unimpressed. Even with no reaction from the female, the male continued to swing his head and approach her a little quicker with every step. After a few courtship shell-nips, the male decided to try his luck at passing on his genes. Alas, the male was a little over-ambitious on his first attempt because the female suddenly charged and flipped the male over onto his carapace – what a show this was turning out to be!

The bottom half of a turtle or tortoise shell is called the plastron. Notice the indented plastron on the male above. This is how we differentiate between a male and female tortoise - the male plastron is indented and the female plastron is flat. 

Usually, we try not to interfere with nature, but when gopher tortoises are flipped upside down, they are unable to right themselves and can become stranded. It's a good thing we have a herpetologist on staff, because he was able to gently right the male gopher tortoise.

This was good news for the persistent male. He immediately continued to pursue the female with some more head-bobs and the two successfully mated – right before our eyes! 

Tortoises are oviparous, meaning the female will soon deposit 5-15 eggs into the soft sand near her burrow. The eggs will incubate in the sand for about 80-100 days and the tiny tortoises will use their "egg tooth" to break through their shell, beginning their new life on Sanibel Island.

In 2007, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission listed gopher tortoises as a threatened species because of their drastic population decline - these tortoises are protected on Sanibel and even have their own management plan to ensure stable populations in the future. 

You may have snapped a photo of these road signs during your visit to Sanibel - an important warning to drivers indicating gopher tortoises may be nearby! 

At Sanibel Sea School, we have a protected gopher tortoise area to allow a safe place for these tortoises to burrow and plenty of native vegetation to eat. You can help out too by landscaping your backyard with gopher tortoise-friendly vegetation – check out the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (http://www.sccf.org/) for some great native plant suggestions!

Our summer campers helped create a gopher tortoise garden during Sea Turtle Week last year - we love to protect creatures from the land and sea! 




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The Arctic - A Really Cool Place!

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The Arctic - A Really Cool Place!

By: Emily Sampson

As winter slowly creeps upon us, and the wonderful days of holiday camp are approaching, we thought it was most fitting to shed some light on one of the coldest places on earth – the Arctic.  Our first week of holiday camp will be all about the Arctic, but why is the Arctic such a fascinating and cool (literally and figuratively) place to learn about? Here are just a few of the many reasons we at the Sanibel Sea School love the Arctic.

The Sea Creatures

The Arctic is teeming with unique sea life, as these creatures must adapt to living in such cold and changing environments.  Polar bears rely on the sea ice for hunting, as their food sources of whales and seals are found in breathing holes scattered among the icy landscape. Seals, such as the ringed seal, create these breathing holes by scraping the ice with their clawed flippers, and will continue to do so all winter long in order to have access to air and the icy land for breeding.  Walruses will also create these breathing holes using their large tusks, in addition to using these enlarged canines to haul their heavy bodies out of the water and onto ice, or onto land during the summertime when little ice is available. It is fascinating to see how these marine creatures, among many others, learn to survive within such a harsh habitat!

The People

Could you imagine living in the Arctic?! While some people here in Florida grab their sweaters at the slightest chill, there are people in the world that live in temperatures reaching 32 degrees centigrade below zero!  Among these people are the Inuit, a group of indigenous people living in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  The Inuit have learned to adapt to the harsh living conditions of the Arctic, where they live half the year in darkness during winter and the other half in daylight.  During the dark winter months, singing and storytelling become an important part of the Inuit culture and lifestyle.  They reside mostly along the coasts, where they rely on marine mammals for food and clothing.  

The Science

There is still SO much we don’t know about the Arctic.  This makes the region a popular destination for scientists who are yearning to unveil new discoveries.  As the climate is changing, the Arctic is an important place to study how climate and weather interact with the environment and how warmer temperatures will ultimately influence the wildlife and landscape of the Arctic, as well as the rest of the world.  The excitement of the unknown and our eagerness for answers continues to draw us deeper into the Arctic, and we hope this desire for exploration never dies.

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Tunicates Take Over Sanibel Beaches

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Tunicates Take Over Sanibel Beaches

Imagine yourself enjoying a stroll down one of Sanibel’s beautiful beaches, taking in the fresh air and soaking up the sun, when all of a sudden you feel something squishy between your toes. When you look down and realize that a lumpy, brown blob is squeezing through your toes, your first reaction may be utter disgust. After taking a closer look at the wrack line, you realize that there is not just one of these strange blobs – the whole beach is littered with them!
 

The wrack line inundated in sea squirts - a common sight on Sanibel lately. 


The brown, wrinkly blobs in question are actually sea squirts, referred to as tunicates in the marine biology world. Tunicates are animals that house their tiny body in a thick covering that resembles a tunic – that’s how they get their name. Individuals have the ability to form dense colonies, which often end up looking like the irregular blobs we are now familiar with. These animals attach to docks, mangrove roots, and live shells, and spend their days filter-feeding plankton. The species you may have encountered recently (if you're on Sanibel) is the sandy-skinned tunicate (Molgula occidentalis), which is often covered in sand and bits of shell.

Up close and personal with Molgula occidentalis - the sandy-skinned tunicate.


It’s hard to believe that tunicates are animals, but they are fully equipped with siphons for feeding, a stomach, and even a small brain. What is really interesting to us is that tunicates are closely related to vertebrates because they begin their life with a notochord, a row of specialized cells found in all animals with a backbone. But unlike vertebrates, the tunicate’s notochord disintegrates as it matures into an adult. 

When the tunicates wash ashore, they often die off shortly after being stranded on the beach. 

 
Last month, Sanibel Island was getting high winds from the North and West, which resulted in the tunicates becoming dislodged from the substrate and pushed up on our beaches en masse. Even though these creatures are quite unsightly, they aren’t harmful – they might just squirt out a little water if you handle them, which we encourage!

More windy weather this week deposited a fresh batch of tunicates near the lighthouse. 

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5 Citizen Science Projects you can Join

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5 Citizen Science Projects you can Join

In a rapidly changing world, there is much to be learned from our natural environment. Scientists and conservationists work around the clock collecting data on every imaginable species that may be impacted by habitat loss, pollution, over harvesting, and even climate change. With a plethora of data to be collected and a lot of ground to cover, scientists are actively recruiting citizens to pick up their binoculars, venture into the field, and contribute to science. Here are five studies you might want to become a part of: 

Tarpon Genetic Recapture Study

The Silver King is a prized catch here in Southwest Florida and anglers from all over come to try their luck at catching this fierce fish. In order to understand tarpon migration patterns, reproductive habits, and growth rates, we need to first gain knowledge about individual fish. With the help of Mote Marine Laboratory, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has created a program to encourage local fisher folk to collect tarpon DNA. By obtaining a sampling kit you can easily collect DNA by taking a swab of the tarpon’s jaw. With this information, scientists are able to assess Florida tarpon populations to ensure healthy stocks are here for anglers to enjoy for generations. Find out more information at:http://myfwc.com/research/saltwater/tarpon/genetics/faq/.

 

Audubon Christmas Bird Count

The annual Christmas Bird Count presented by The National Audubon Society is part of a huge conservation effort to protect and monitor bird species across North America – it’s the longest running citizen science project in the world!  Every December 14th through January 5th,avid birdwatchers spend chilly mornings counting every bird they see in forests, parks, and along roads.  Scientists use this data to understand long-term populations of birds and how their habitat can be protected. Christmas Bird Count locations for this year will be posted this month – stay tuned at http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count-find-count-near-you.


Horseshoe Crab Nesting Monitoring

After roaming the seas for over 400 million years, horseshoe crab populations have recently declined from habitat destruction and over harvesting - it is crucial to curtail these threats before local populations are lost. The Fish and Wildlife Research Institute is encouraging people to report horseshoe crab mating to biologists, so that critical breeding grounds can be protected. Scientists aren’t able to cover all of Florida on their own, so they need help reporting these sightings. Horseshoe crabs mate during full moons in shallow water, and you will see the smaller male clinging to the larger female’s back. If you observe this behavior, please report it here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=f8QN2JV2JBVp4TIiJ61IE2SMDiXDaIm0rDWbe7aJ7xY=&.


Florida Butterfly Monitoring Network

Who doesn’t like watching butterflies dance through the air? It’s even better if you get to watch them for a good cause! The Florida Butterfly Monitoring Network (FBMN) has partnered with citizens of Florida to protect butterflies from habitat loss in our rapidly urbanizing state. All you have to do is commit to monitoring a designated site 6 times a year and FBMN will train new volunteers on species identification and the field/data collection methods needed for the project. This study enables biologists to track population trends to determine if certain species are declining in Florida. Find a county near you that participates in butterfly monitoring: http://flbutterflies.net/locations.jsp.


FishBase/SeaLifeBase

Ever wish there was a source that contained all of your fish identification needs? We are happy to share that FishBase is exactly what you need! With 32,900 species recorded and 54,800 photos, this website is sure to give you a positive fish ID. The goal of this database is to collect taxonomic, behavioral, and distribution of fish across the globe by publishing submissions from the public. If sea creatures are more your style, check out SeaLifeBase, which houses information on all marine creatures aside from finfish. Sanibel Sea School is a close collaborator with FishBase, so if you have a photo you would like to submit, send it our way! All we need to know is where the fish was spotted and what species you think it is. Try this great tool here: http://www.fishbase.org/search.php.

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5 birds to keep your eye out for this fall

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5 birds to keep your eye out for this fall

Sanibel Island’s warm subtropical climate is perfect for birds to thrive in all year long. Here are five fascinating birds that you may see roosting in the mangroves or relaxing on the sand flats this fall. We would also like to give a special thanks to Lillian Stokes for allowing us to share her beautiful photography! All images are copyright Lillian Stokes. 

 

Roseate Spoonbill

The first time you see a spoonbill flying overhead with its pastel plumage and trailing legs, it is almost instinctual to think it's a flamingo, but it's easy to tell the difference upon closer inspection.  Roseate Spoonbills inhabit Sanibel year-round, but the cooler fall months are a great time to spot them foraging in mucky water around low tide. The spoonbill is a very tactile feeder, and it wiggles its spoon-shaped bill through the water until it senses an unlucky crustacean to snack on. If you would like to see a spoonbill, a visit to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is your best bet.

 

American White Pelican

The arrival of the American White Pelican in the fall months is a highly anticipated event for birders on Sanibel. These birds are much larger than the familiar Brown Pelicans that we see year-round, and have a striking black and white plumage. Journeying thousands of miles from the Rocky Mountains and Northern Canada, these birds almost always arrive on Sanibel in October, right on schedule. You don't have to look too hard for these giant birds – you can usually find them feeding along Wildlife Drive in Ding Darling or soaring over the island showing off their 9-foot wingspan!

 

Black Skimmer

Even though the Black Skimmer can be spotted on Sanibel's Gulf Drive beaches throughout the year, the fall is a great time to see both adult and juvenile skimmers. It is hard to describe a skimmer without comparing them to a Muppet character - you can often see these birds waddling along the beach on legs that are just long enough to support their top-heavy frames. If you look at their bright orange bill closely, you will notice that the top half is slightly shorter than the bottom. Strangely enough, the skimmer uses this uneven bill as it flies just inches above the ocean, dipping its lower jaw into the water in hopes of catching a fish. When the bird feels a fishy texture on its lower bill, it quickly snaps its mouth shut and flies off with the unsuspecting fish. You can find this aptly named bird on almost any Gulf beach from Sanibel to Captiva, as well as at Bunche Beach Preserve in Ft. Myers.

 

White-crowned Pigeon

This lesser-known pigeon is always a treat for bird watchers on Sanibel because it doesn’t visit our neck of the woods very often and is actually a threatened species in the state of Florida. Standing just taller than a Mourning Dove, this pigeon is mostly black and as its name suggests, has a white crown. It is often heard before it's seen, calling out a soft hoo-hoo-HOOOO. The White-crowned Pigeon is a rare occurrence on Sanibel but may be seen October through April, if you're lucky – so keep your eyes and ears open this season! White-crowned Pigeons have been previously spotted in Ding Darling on Wildlife Drive and along the Shell Mound Trail nestled in between mangrove branches.

 

American Oystercatcher

About the size of a backyard chicken and with striking plumes, this shorebird is sure to stand out from the crowd. You may find oystercatchers standing extremely still waiting for the tide to recede or you may see them actively foraging in shallow water in search of oysters, clams, and mussels. These birds put their spear-like bill to good use by quickly stabbing open bivalves to sever the adductor muscle that is used to keep their shell closed. With no way for the clam to snap its shell shut and no other escape route, the soft-bodied animal is quickly devoured by the oystercatcher.  If you happen to be on a boat, you can see oystercatchers feeding on Little Sanibel (the sandbar East of the causeway), or they can be seen from land at Bunche Beach Preserve in Ft. Myers.

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Phytoplankton Friday

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Phytoplankton Friday

By: Elizabeth Farnham

Plankton are the most abundant organisms in the ocean and every time we enter the water we are covered head to toe in these fascinating creatures. It's easy to take these tiny creatures for granted, but it is important to understand their vital role in the marine ecosystem. 

The word plankton was derived from the Greek adjective “planktos”, which means wandering or drifting.  This is fitting for plants and animals that spend part of, or even all of their life drifting with the motion of the ocean. 

Plankton are broken down into various sub-groups based on their lifestyle or ecological niche. Examples of these groups include phytoplankton, which are plant-like plankton, and zooplankton, which are animal-like plankton. Today we will focus on the importance of phytoplankton on our blue planet. 

Let's begin by looking at the types of phytoplankton - diatoms and dinoflagellates.  

This diatom is encased in a cell wall called a frustule.

This diatom is encased in a cell wall called a frustule.

Diatoms are the most common type of phytoplankton but their elegant glass-like, silica rich cell wall makes them unique. Diatoms are classified by structure into two types: pennate diatoms, which have bilateral symmetry and centric diatoms that have radial symmetry. 

Here is a photo of a diatom taken with our microscope camera. 

Here is a photo of a diatom taken with our microscope camera. 

Ceratium longipes  can be seen twirling around under the microscope - one of our favorites to observe!

Ceratium longipes can be seen twirling around under the microscope - one of our favorites to observe!

The word dinoflagellate comes from the Greek word “dinos”, which translates to whirling and the Latin word “flagellum”, which translates to whip.  These phytoplankton are slightly more active than diatoms because their flagella assist with locomotion. Many dinoflagellates are mixotrophic, meaning that they obtain energy in different ways - either through photosynthesis or by engulfing their prey!

Some species of algae may result in harmful algal blooms or HABs. This species of dinoflagellate is a target species for HABs because it can negatively impact fish respiration. 

Some species of algae may result in harmful algal blooms or HABs. This species of dinoflagellate is a target species for HABs because it can negatively impact fish respiration. 

Now that we have discussed some of the basics, why should we care about these invisible creatures? Here are three important reasons:

1.     Phytoplankton are the base of biological productivity in the ocean and support the marine food chain.

2.      Phytoplankton provide at least 50% of the words atmospheric oxygen and some scientists estimate that it may contribute to up to 85% of the world’s oxygen.

3.     Phytoplankton absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into usable sugars for energy. This process plays a role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing an enormous amount of CO2 from the atmosphere and transferring it to the ocean.

So next time you find yourself in the water, take a moment to think about the massive impact these microscopic organisms have!

 

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5 Types of Jellies in the Gulf of Mexico

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5 Types of Jellies in the Gulf of Mexico

By: Emily Sampson

When it comes to jellies, sometimes we feel their presence before we actually see them.  While this may be a bit unnerving to humans, these fascinating creatures have been drifting in the seas for over 500 million years and are an important link in the marine food chain. Many sea jellies pack a powerful sting, so it is important to know the difference between the harmful and the not so harmful.

 Here is a list of 5 sea jellies (or jelly-like creatures) that you may encounter around Sanibel and in the Gulf of Mexico:

Moon jellies are easily recognizable by the 4 petal-like reproductive organs that can be seen through their bell. 

Moon Jelly - Aurelia aurita

 Moon jellies are the most common species found around Sanibel. Like all jellies, this species isn’t an excellent swimmer but is able to pulse its sac-like body called the bell, through the water. Moon jellies have short tentacles along the outer margins of the bell that are packed with nematocycts, or stinging cells. Jellies use these cells to aid in capturing prey and for the moon jelly, is zooplankton. Not to worry though, their stinging cells aren’t strong enough to penetrate human skin and will only cause a very mild irritation. 

 

These graceful jellies mostly consume zooplankton but their powerful nematocysts allow them to consume larger prey, such as minnows and small crustaceans.Their sting can also produce a moderate irritation in humans. 

These graceful jellies mostly consume zooplankton but their powerful nematocysts allow them to consume larger prey, such as minnows and small crustaceans.Their sting can also produce a moderate irritation in humans. 

Atlantic Sea NettleChrysaora quinquecirrha

Sea nettles possess several long tentacles and long, trailing oral arms. What's interesting about these jellies is that their colors vary depending on salinity levels and therefore may appear transparant or white when found in brackish waters on the bayside of Sanibel. When found in the saltier waters of the Gulf, red and brown streaks radiate from the center of the bell.   

The cannonball jelly has tiny "warts" located on its bell that are packed with stinging cells. 

The cannonball jelly has tiny "warts" located on its bell that are packed with stinging cells. 

Cannonball Jellyfish Stomolophus meleagris

Also known as the cabbage head jellyfish, it’s easy to guess where these jellies get their name.  When floating, cannonball jellies take on a spherical shape with multiple, stubby oral arms peaking from underneath the red-fringed bell.  Cannonball jellies play an important role in the marine ecosystem because they are the preferred prey for the endangered leatherback sea turtle. In addition to being a food source, they also form symbiotic relationships with fish and juvenile longnose spider crabs.

 

Drymonematidae is the name of the recently added family of jellies and thanks to the pink meanie, it is the first new family of jellies since 1921.

Drymonematidae is the name of the recently added family of jellies and thanks to the pink meanie, it is the first new family of jellies since 1921.

Pink Meanie - Drymonema larsoni

A newly described jelly, the pink meanie, was initially observed about 15 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico during a massive moon jelly bloom. When scientists took a closer look, they noticed that this jelly was feeding on the moon jellies and that it was drastically different than anything that had seen previously. It was so distinct, that they created a new family just to classify it! These pink meanies were collected for study near Dauphin Island, Alabama but are extremely rare elsewhere. While they may not be seen commonly in the waters near Sanibel, you never know what could drift along the currents and surprise us all! 

 

Comb jellies have a simple, gelatinous body much like true jellies but they aren't in the phylum Cnidaria. Instead, they are classified as Ctenophores because they lack specialized stinging cells. 

Comb jellies have a simple, gelatinous body much like true jellies but they aren't in the phylum Cnidaria. Instead, they are classified as Ctenophores because they lack specialized stinging cells. 

Comb JelliesCtenophoroa

These jellyfish look-alikes are not taxonomically related to jellies but we think these creatures are too interesting not to share! Their beautiful ovoid bodies are lined with thousands of tiny hair-like structures called cilia that they use to propel themselves through the water, often illuminating with bioluminescence. Even though these jellies may look similar to jellyfish, they have a major difference that is perhaps in our favor – they don’t sting! That’s right, these gentle jellies do not have nematocysts. Instead of using a powerful sting to capture their prey, they use colloblasts, which are sticky cells that essentially glue their prey to their tentacles.  So, have no fear in handling one of these delicate creatures!

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Fun Fish Friday - The Seahorse

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Fun Fish Friday - The Seahorse

Now that the excitement of summer camp is over, we think it's time to reinstate Fun Fish Fridays. This week we are going to learn about a very unique fish that doesn’t look much like its cousins – the seahorse. That’s right, the seahorse is actually a highly modified fish in the class Actinopterygii, or ray-finned fishes. The seahorse belongs to the genus Hippocampus, which literally translates from Ancient Greek to “horse” (hippos) and “sea monster” (kampos). This horse-like fish is prevalent in the waters around Sanibel and Captiva; we actually have 3 species that inhabit the region: the dwarf seahorse, lined seahorse, and longsnout seahorse.

The dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) is common in the seagrass beds in Florida and throughout the Caribbean. 

Let’s start with the basics. Seahorses have the same basic fins as most other fish: a dorsal fin and paired pectoral fins. However, instead of a caudal fin (tail fin) the seahorse has an elongated, prehensile tail that it uses for stabilizing itself in the ocean currents. It wraps its tail around seagrass or coral and hangs on tight, helping it save energy for other uses. We've even observed a seahorse catching a ride on an arrow crab's back!

Notice the curved prehensile tail of this lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus). This species can grow up to be almost 6 inches!

Like many other fish, seahorses are voracious, carnivorous predators, but because they have no true stomachs, they have to constantly eat to meet their energy requirements. Some seahorses may consume up to 3,000 brine shrimp in one day!  To chow down on so many crustaceans, they have a specialized mouth. Their jaw is fused, creating a straw-like shape that enables them to ambush and quickly slurp up their prey.

One of the seahorse's favorite meals, the brine shrimp, is an aquatic crustacean that is only slightly related to true shrimp. 

There is one aspect of a seahorse’s life that differs quite drastically from other fish. When seahorses are ready to reproduce, the male and female engage in an elegant courtship dance to seal their bond. Soon after, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch where they are fertilized and incubated for up to 25 days. The male will then give birth to hundreds or thousands (depending on the species) of baby seahorses that are miniature copies of the adults. Scientists aren’t exactly sure of the biological advantages of Mr. Mom, but one theory is that it could allow the female to begin producing eggs as soon as she delivers her last batch to the male. Check out the courtship dance of one of the seahorse's closest relatives, the Weedy Seadragon:

Because seahorses are so unique and sensitive to environmental changes, scientists are studying them to better understand how to improve the overall health of our oceans on a global level - find out more here: http://seahorse.fisheries.ubc.ca/why-seahorses

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What’s washing up in the wrack?

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What’s washing up in the wrack?

The ever-changing wrack line can be a very dynamic environment. Originating from the Middle Dutch word “wrak”, meaning something damaged, this place may look damaged but is far from it! Technically, the wrack line is the place on the beach where marine debris is washed up and left behind by the most recent high tide. The wrack line may be teeming with life, full of stinky algae, or a treasure trove of seashells – it just depends on the day! Today, let's explore some of the more curious items we often find in Sanibel's wrack line. 

Sea pork

Is it a plant? An animal? A fungus? This mysterious blob is actually a colony of animals called tunicates. These teeny-tiny animals protect themselves with a sac made of cellulose and spend their days filter-feeding. Sea pork can be found in various colony sizes and be colored pink, purple, black, and even orange.

Purple variation of sea pork. 

Purple variation of sea pork. 

 Gastropod egg cases

Like sea pork, these paper-thin structures can come in all different shapes and sizes. Gastropods (live shells including whelks and conchs) are responsible for creating these elaborate structures to house their eggs in until they are ready to hatch as young shells. We often find these washed up on the beach after many of the eggs have hatched, but sometimes if you tear open one of the capsules, you can find some of the tiny shells that didn’t hatch. Give it a try next time you happen upon one at the beach. 

Lightning whelk egg case entangled in red drift algae. 

Lightning whelk egg case entangled in red drift algae. 

Parchment worm cases   

These hollow straw-like structures were once home to a marine polychaete worm that looks somewhat like a centipede. The worms build these housing tubes and attach themselves to various substrates or burrow beneath the sandy sea floor. These creepy tubes also provide a home to a couple different species of commensal crabs. Next time you find one on the beach, tear it open and you might discover these crabs!

Empty parchment worm housing tubes washed up on the beach.  Photo: iloveshelling.com 

Empty parchment worm housing tubes washed up on the beach. Photo: iloveshelling.com 

Sea anemones

Sea anemones are cnidarians that often resemble flowering plants, but beware of their beauty – they are armed with capsules of stinging cells called nematocysts for protection. Most of the anemones found around Sanibel don't have potent nematocysts and aren't dangerous to humans, but they do have an additional defense mechanism that makes you wonder if they might be a creature from outer space. When sufficiently irritated, they will release defensive threads called acontia that are neon orange and packed with powerful stinging cells.

Here is a sea anemone attached to a gastropod shell. Those vibrant acontia are hard to miss!

Here is a sea anemone attached to a gastropod shell. Those vibrant acontia are hard to miss!

 Pig bones

At first glance, you may think these are human artifacts or remains of a large marine mammal, but they are in fact just pig bones. Unfortunately, these don’t come from a rare species of marine swine but rather, pig parts that are used in crab traps as bait.  Crabs are attracted to the pungent aroma of the meat and enter the trap to chow down. After the bones have been picked clean, many of them wash out of the traps and end up on our beaches.

A pig bone found washed ashore.  Photo: iloveshelling.com 

A pig bone found washed ashore. Photo: iloveshelling.com 

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5 Great Beaches Around Sanibel

Photo taken by Elly Rundqwist at Captiva Island. 

Photo taken by Elly Rundqwist at Captiva Island. 

A guest post by Elly Rundqwist, one of our summer camp CITs. Thanks Elly!

When searching for the perfect place to spend the day on Sanibel Island, the right beach is always just around the corner!  Whether you’re looking for a crowd of colorful beach umbrellas or a sliver of paradise left peaceful and undisturbed, there’s something for everyone here.  Here are five local beaches and why we love them:

 1. Beach Access #7

Grab your bike and head to the west end of the island, because Beach Access #7 on West Gulf Drive is the perfect stretch of beach to spend an afternoon. Fringed by leaning palm trees, you’re sure to find plenty of shells to fill your bag to the brim here, and it’s a great spot for sunset viewing.  If you’re a water bug, try looking for large horse conchs in the shallows! Check out the other West Gulf beach accesses as well!

 2. Lighthouse Beach

The Sanibel lighthouse was built in 1884 and is still functioning. People come from all around to picnic, fish, and float in the water at this beach. Since it’s located at the easternmost tip of the island, you can see gulf transition to bay. As you loop around, look for a distinct change in water color. It’s also a great beach for shelling and observing live shells on the sandbars at low tide.

3.  Blind Pass Beaches

Also known as Turner Beach – it’s the area around Blind Pass, which is located between Sanibel and Captiva.  You can island hop as much as you please, listen to cars echo as they drive over the bridge, or cast a line off the seawall.  Due to fast currents, there are many shells, and during storms it’s a popular spot for surfers.

4.  Bunche Beach

Located on the mainland just a mile or so before the causeway, Bunche Beach is one of the best natural mudflats in our area.  With mangrove forests, long beaches, and salt flats, the area is a great place to see wildlife at it’s finest – birds, fiddler crabs, and King’s Crown conchs abound.  Be sure to bring water shoes and a camera, for you never really know what you’ll wander upon.  

5.    Bailey Beach

Bailey Beach has one of the best views of the causeway Sanibel has to offer! Perfect for spotting dolphins and fishing, there is always an adventure in store here. Being one of the only beaches on the bay side of the island, it offers unique sand and shells.  Keep an eye out for the resident gopher tortoises while you’re here! 

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Fun Fish Friday - Atlantic goliath grouper

What animal is as large as a refrigerator, spotted and striped, and enjoys dining on spiny lobster? That’s right – The Atlantic goliath grouper! This fascinating giant is next up in our “Fun Fish Friday” series because they are one of our favorite fish here at Sanibel Sea School. Here’s why:

Atlantic goliath grouper are huge. As their name suggests, these fish can reach lengths of 8 feet and weigh up to 800 pounds – that’s about 100 pounds per foot! These hefty fish aren’t afraid to use their size to their advantage either. By contracting the muscles around their swim bladder, they are able to stun their prey with a sonic blast. In addition to lobsters and other crustaceans, they like to chow down on octopus, small sea turtles, and stingrays. Goliath grouper also have 3-5 rows of teeth that aren’t used for chewing, but instead for catching prey and keeping it in their large mouth!

A SCUBA diver with a goliath grouper.

A SCUBA diver with a goliath grouper.

Grouper (and their cousins the sea basses) have a unique characteristic to their family in which they spend part of their life as both male and female. This is called sequential hermaphroditism. When environmental cues are just right, female grouper transition to male, but we aren’t positive when exactly this occurs during development, or why. Once the males and females mature, a massive offshore spawning of over 100 individuals occurs where eggs and sperm are released into the water for fertilization.

Due to its popularity as seafood and as a target for sportfishermen, the Atlantic Goliath Grouper declined rapidly in past years, and is now a federally protected species listed as “Critically Endangered” by the World Conservation Union. It is illegal to harvest this fish and if accidentally caught, it is to be returned quickly and unharmed to the sea. We are optimistic that these strict regulations will bring the population numbers of these outstanding fish back up, so that we can enjoy their beauty for generations to come. 

A small goliath grouper caught (and promptly released) by a Sanibel Sea School staff member!

A small goliath grouper caught (and promptly released) by a Sanibel Sea School staff member!


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5 Ways to protect sea turtles

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5 Ways to protect sea turtles

This week's post is by high school intern Adam Tardif, in collaboration with Nicole Finnicum. Thanks Adam!

Here on Sanibel, we all love our sea turtles, and we want to make sure that we are good neighbors to them. As the sea turtle nesting season begins, it is important to realize that humans can sometimes disturb the nesting process without even realizing it. Here are five things you can do as an individual to help in the effort to protect sea turtles:

1. Don't litter. Large pieces of litter can act as a physical barrier to sea turtles searching for the perfect nesting site. Also, trash floating in the ocean (plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic bottles, fishing lures, etc.) can resemble common sea turtle food items, and if ingested can cause turtles to choke or experience digestive disturbances – not much fun for these magnificent creatures. But perhaps the best reason not to litter is that you will feel good knowing that you have helped to make Sanibel a safer place for wildlife.

Plastic bags floating in the ocean may resemble jellyfish, a common prey item for leatherback sea turtles. To help solve this problem, opt for reusable bags when you shop.

Plastic bags floating in the ocean may resemble jellyfish, a common prey item for leatherback sea turtles. To help solve this problem, opt for reusable bags when you shop.

2. Turn your lights off at night (especially if you live on the beach). Artificial lights can be distracting to adult sea turtles that are nesting – they have the most nesting success in just the light of the moon. Also, hatchling turtles will crawl towards the brightest light they see, which is usually the moon reflecting off of the ocean. Artificial light can be very confusing to a newly hatched turtle and may expose them to predation or cause them to become disoriented or lost.

3. Dispose of fishing materials in designated bins. Sea turtles are good swimmers and their front fins are very powerful. However, since sea turtles move their front fins in a circular motion, they frequently become entangled in fishing lines and ropes. Sanibel Sea School has placed monofilament recycling bins near popular fishing spots on Sanibel – please look for them and use them when you are fishing!

A sea turtle is found entangled in a buoy line...

A sea turtle is found entangled in a buoy line...

... is freed by a fisherman ....

... is freed by a fisherman ....

... and swims safely back into the ocean.

... and swims safely back into the ocean.

4. Leave the beach as you found it. We love spending a day at the beach, lounging in a beach chair and digging sand castles. But, sea turtles are clumsy on land and obstacles like beach furniture and holes are difficult for them to maneuver around, and could block them from reaching an ideal nesting site.

 

5. Don't drive on the beach. While driving on the beach can be lots of fun, vehicles pose a threat to nesting adults, and tire tracks in the sand can make traveling to the ocean much more difficult for recently-emerged hatchlings. While we are on the topic of transportation – watch out for sea turtles in your boat as well!

If you are interested in the most up-to-date information on local nesting sites on Sanibel and Captiva, click here

 

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5 Edible Plants on Sanibel Island

The abundant sunshine and year-round warmth on Sanibel allows for the growth of rich and diverse plant communities. Because we have great access to this native vegetation, our island is a perfect place for foraging - the practice of finding wild plants that can be gathered as food. Foraging is a fun way to get in touch with nature by learning about plants and then searching for them. Here are five edible and easily identifiable plants that can be found on Sanibel.

Note: Please be sure that you have identified edible plants correctly, as many plants may be toxic. We recommend carrying a field guide or doing some research online, so that you are sure you have properly identified the plants – if you’re not 100% sure, don’t eat it - ask an expert!

1.     Seagrape. Just like regular grapes, you can eat the ripe, purple grapes right off of the tree, however, many people think they taste pretty awful. So, we recommend making jelly or juice out of the grapes, which makes them much sweeter and more palatable. You can try these easy recipes here: http://sseminolefarmandnursery.com/recipeseagrape.html

*The seagrape tree is protected in the state of Florida, so it is illegal to harvest from public trees. When harvesting grapes, make sure you have permission from a private owner.

( Photo: www.eattheweeds.com)

( Photo: www.eattheweeds.com)

 

2.     Cocoplum. This shrub is often trimmed into hedges for landscaping around yards, but can also be found along beaches and swamps. Cocoplum shrubs have egg-shaped leaves and bear a small round fruit that can be purple, white, or red. These colorful berries can be eaten raw or made into yummy jams and jellies.

( Photo: www.eattheweeds.com)

( Photo: www.eattheweeds.com)

 

3.     Sea Purslane. You can find this salty snack growing in masses along the dunes on any beach. Top off your salad with a few of the salty leaves or nibble on some while you are at the beach. Here’s a recipe that we are definitely going to try: http://norecipes.com/tomato-purslane-salad-with-white-peach-dressing/

(Photo: http://www.seestjohn.com/flora_sea_purslane.html)

(Photo: http://www.seestjohn.com/flora_sea_purslane.html)

4.     Shepard’s Needle. You have probably seen this daisy look-alike growing in your lawn. Often considered a weed, this power-packed plant is an important source of nectar for pollinators and is edible for us! You can use the raw leaves in a salad or sauté them up with other veggies in a stir-fry.

(Photo: www.floridasurvivalgardening.com)

(Photo: www.floridasurvivalgardening.com)


5.     Saw Palmetto Berries. Widely cultivated for their medicinal purposes, these berries were used medicinally by Native Americans and are still used as a supplement today. The dark, olive-shaped berries can be eaten right off the tree and are rich in protein and minerals

( Photo: www.eattheweeds.com)

( Photo: www.eattheweeds.com)

For more information on foraging and edible plants in Florida, visit www.eattheweeds.com. Happy foraging! 

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What comes out of those mermaid’s purses?

About a month ago, one of our students found a mermaid’s purse in the Captiva seagrass beds. We often find these egg cases washed up in the wrack line and are sometimes lucky enough to see a tiny creature wiggling around inside. We usually toss them back into the ocean, but this time, we decided to bring it back to our tanks to see if we could find out what exactly would hatch.

We know that some sharks and skates house their eggs in mermaid’s purses, but we weren’t exactly sure which species we had on our hands. Skates are related to sharks and rays, and look very similar to the latter; they have a cartilage skeleton, flattened body, and enlarged pectoral fins. Unlike rays, however, skates lay their eggs in a small pouch made of collagen proteins that protect the developing embryo for up to 12 weeks. During this time, the skate will grow into a fully developed and independent juvenile, ready to take on the ocean.

Here is a  mermaid's purse, or skate egg case. Sometimes if you hold it up to the sun, you can see the baby skate wiggling around inside. If the skate has already hatched, then you will see an opening at one end between the two "horns". 

Here is a  mermaid's purse, or skate egg case. Sometimes if you hold it up to the sun, you can see the baby skate wiggling around inside. If the skate has already hatched, then you will see an opening at one end between the two "horns". 

After about a month in our seagrass tank, we saw no changes, but we were still hopeful that we would have a newborn skate soon. To our surprise, this past weekend our patience finally paid off - we came in Saturday morning and discovered a baby skate on the bottom of the tank! Hatching at a length of 5” and almost double the size of her egg case, this was no tiny baby! We determined that the species of our hatchling was a Clearnose Skate, due to the transparent skin on her nose, a common trait of this species. We plan to keep our baby skate in the safety of our seagrass tank for a couple of weeks, then we will release her back into the ocean so that she can live a happy and healthy life in the Gulf of Mexico. 

What look like eyes on the ventral (belly side) of the skate are actually nostrils. You can also see how the snout is semi-transparent, indicating that this is a clearnose skate.

What look like eyes on the ventral (belly side) of the skate are actually nostrils. You can also see how the snout is semi-transparent, indicating that this is a clearnose skate.

Clearnose skates can be found from Massachusetts all the way to southern Florida! They enjoy life on the soft, sandy seafloor and eat mostly crustaceans, bivalves, and squid. 

Clearnose skates can be found from Massachusetts all the way to southern Florida! They enjoy life on the soft, sandy seafloor and eat mostly crustaceans, bivalves, and squid. 

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Microbeads - The Invisible Pollution

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Microbeads - The Invisible Pollution

Try to imagine what ocean pollution looks like. What is the first image that comes to mind? Oil, plastic water bottles, maybe fishing nets? We often conjure up images of tangible objects, such as things we have seen bobbing along in the water or washed up on the beach, but there is an even larger culprit that is actually quite small.

Microbeads or sometimes referred to as nurdles, are tiny bits of plastic smaller than 5mm long. Microbeads were initially designed to be used in biomedical research but have recently been utilized in personal hygiene products as a skin exfoliates. These tiny particles are often found in face wash, hand soaps, and even toothpaste. This concept was seemingly a convenient idea – having a built in scrubber for a squeaky-clean feel. However, after these particles disappear down the drain, they are unable to be filtered out by sewer treatment plants – ultimately ending up in our oceans, rivers, and The Great Lakes.

Here’s the problem: microbeads are composed of polyethylene, a plastic that is not biodegradable. Once they enter the ocean they are consumed by plankton and then passed through the food chain to larger fish or mistaken as fish eggs by other sea creatures. We’re unsure how exactly these particles are affecting the digestive system of these the animals, but we do know that they are increasingly accumulating in our waters.

Luckily, this global issue is already being addressed by states in the US pushing to ban the sale of these products; even large companies like Unilever, are now committed to phasing-out all microbeads from their products by 2015. You can make a difference too by following these 3 simple steps:

1.     Discontinue the use of personal products that contain polyethylene beads.

2.      Download this app to determine if your personal products contain microbeads.

3.      Look for products that contain natural exfoliates as an alternative, such as crushed apricot shells and walnuts. We recommend Burt’s Bees or St. Ives, both use 100% natural exfoliates. 

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5 Sustainable Seafood Choices in Florida

It's an important part of SW Florida culture to eat and enjoy fresh seafood from our local waters, but it's also our responsibility as good stewards of the ocean to make wise choices and avoid eating species that have been overfished. At Sanibel Sea School, when it comes to seafood, the general rules we follow are "eat less, eat local, and eat low on the food chain". Here's a quick list of suggestions if you're in the area and looking for a sustainable meal:

1.     Cobia (US Farmed). These fish grow quickly and efficiently, and require less protein in their feed than other farmed species. They are rarely fished commercially, so wild populations remain healthy. Cobia filets are mild and buttery, with a meaty texture - often available at Publix thanks to their new partnership with Open Blue, a Miami-based farming operation. (http://www.undercurrentnews.com/2014/03/13/open-blue-cobia-penetrates-publix-super-markets/)

2.     Florida Oysters. Apalachicola Bay, located in the panhandle, provides 90% of Florida’s oysters that are sustainably grown and hand harvested. The rich Apalachicola estuary is one of the last areas where wild oysters are harvested from small boats. Oysters and other shellfish are usually a great choice, since they are filter feeders that clean the water as they eat. 

3.     Mahi Mahi (Troll or poll caught). This popular game fish is fast-growing and spawns early in life making it a great alternative to grouper and Chilean sea bass, which are vulnerable to overfishing. Additionally, Mahi Mahi caught using troll or pole fishing methods reduces the chance of by-catch, which keeps our sea turtles and sea birds safe.

4.     Tilapia (US Farmed). Tilapia is a fast-growing, easily cultured omnivorous species and is extremely versatile in the culinary world. Sarasota Organic Tilapia Farms and RoyalTila based in Punta Gorda are both committed to producing sustainable, eco-friendly, organically fed fish. These facilities are among many in Southwest Florida that are supplying local tilapia to restaurants and grocery stores.

5. Your Catch. Perhaps the most sustainable way to consume seafood is by catching it yourself – we think it’s the most fun too! Be sure to check your local fishing regulations for size limitations and seasons. Here’s a link to recreational fishing regulations from FWC: http://www.myfwc.com/media/2714988/Coastal-species-quick-chart.pdf  

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A great white weekend!

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A great white weekend!

Blog post by Caitlin Smith and Leah Biery

Duunnn dunnn... duuuunnnn duun... duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn…. Betsy!

If you’re a local, you’ve probably heard the news - a great white shark named Betsy “pinged” about 70 miles off the coast of Sanibel last Friday – around 10 PM on the night of April 25th!

Betsy is a 12’7” 1400 pound immature female white shark. She was originally tagged off of Cape Cod in August of 2013. Since being tagged almost a year ago, she has traveled out into the Atlantic and then moved down the coast and around the bend of Florida. Betsy has traveled over 3492 miles altogether in a year. White sharks can swim up to 35 mph, but normally cruise at much slower rates. Betsy is the first tagged white shark to be tracked in the Gulf. 

Betsy is a 12’7” 1400 pound immature female white shark. She was originally tagged off of Cape Cod in August of 2013. Since being tagged almost a year ago, she has traveled out into the Atlantic and then moved down the coast and around the bend of Florida. Betsy has traveled over 3492 miles altogether in a year. White sharks can swim up to 35 mph, but normally cruise at much slower rates. Betsy is the first tagged white shark to be tracked in the Gulf. 

As far as scientists know, great whites only occasionally visit the Gulf of Mexico, usually preferring cold waters inhabited by large marine mammals. So the ping was an exciting story in itself, but things get even more curious. The next day, a group of divers spotted and captured video of a great white about 80 miles offshore from Sanibel. But it wasn’t the same shark! The great white spotted by divers did not have a tag, which means there were two sharks roaming the same general area over the weekend.

Watch for a Sanibel Sea School guest appearance!

So the big question: are great whites more common in the Gulf than we thought? Maybe – it could be that they’ve always been here and we just didn’t see them often. The development of new tracking technology and a growing number of divers with cameras could lead to more verifiable sightings.

An alternative hypothesis is that the oceans aren’t as healthy as they used to be, so the sharks are expanding their range to search for food. It’s hard to say, but the events of the weekend pose many interesting questions about these powerful and fascinating creatures for scientists to examine in the near future.

We’ll be sure to keep our readers posted on the latest research – and please let us know if you hear anything interesting related to this topic!

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