Category Archives: Gulf of Mexico

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Whale Sharks

It’s Shark Week!

The most anticipated week of wildlife programming is upon us via Discovery Channel and we are sure to see lots on great whites, bull sharks and other potentially dangerous creatures.

I want to start off with something different-the gentle giant of the Gulf of Mexico and other warm seas-the whale shark.

Here are five facts you probably did not about about these under appreciated beauties.

Fact #1: Whale sharks are filter feeders and a big part of what they eat are fish eggs. As spawning approaches on reefs and other fish-rich areas they have been documented waiting for the eggs to appear and then moving into gorge themselves.

Fact #2: Whale sharks hatch their own eggs inside their bodies. The mother will hatch out about 300 babies but very few make it to maturity. And even when they do it takes upwards of 25 years to be able to reproduce. That is why the death of a whale shark can have a big impact on the species.

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Fact #3: Speaking of making babies, no one has ever observed whale sharks mating. Well, at least no one in the scientific community has. They spend a huge portion of their lives on the open sea where few eyes gaze upon them.

Fact #4: The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the only facility with an opportunity to swim with captive whale sharks. They have four and a portion of what they make on the encounters goes to field conservation.

Since 2004, the Aquarium’s field research focused on the many whale sharks that visit the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, the largest gathering of its kind in the world.

“By using satellite tags, aerial surveys and photo identification software, Georgia Aquarium and its partners have studied and tracked over 1,000 whale sharks known to visit this area to feed on plankton and fish eggs every summer. The future focus for field research will be to explore connections to populations of whale sharks found in more remote places on Earth.”

Fact #5: Whale sharks sometimes beach themselves or enter shallow bays when sick. When I was eight years old, a medium-sized whale shark entered Sabine Lake, a bay on the Texas/Louisiana border near my home.

This is from United Press International in a story dated July 10, 1982.

A rotund 26-foot whale shark knicknamed ‘Gums’ died an unusual death in an oyster bed in Sabine Lake, a biology professor says.

Dave Bechler, Lamar University assistant biology professor, said Friday the shark was a rare find along the Texas coast because it does not normally inhabit Texas coastal waters.

‘There was probably something already wrong with it,’ he said. ‘Whales and whale sharks sometimes beach themselves. We really don’t know why they do that.’

Whale sharks are incredible creatures that deserve our adoration. They are certainly not frightening and get far fewer headlines than their carnivorous cousins. They are however the largest shark (and fish) in the ocean. That should count for something.
Chester Moore, Jr.

The Truth about the Blacktip Shark (Attacks and more)

My first encounter with a blacktip shark came while soaking a big hunk of cut mullet behind a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

I will never forget seeing the streamlined fish burst from the water like a wayward rocket and achieve an almost marlin-like tail walk on the sandy green surface. To my fishing hosts, this was just another annoying shark but to this young angler it was an amazing moment.

These sharks are popular and important for sport anglers on the Gulf Coast, yet they are greatly misunderstood.

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The author with a large blacktip shark caught and released near Venice, La. in Oct. 2012.

For starters, all “blacktips” are not necessarily blacktips.

Young bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for blacktips by novice anglers due to the black markings on their fins but on closer inspection, the rounded nose and bulldog like appearance of the bull is a striking contrast to the sleek blacktip.

The spinner shark however is much more difficult to differentiate from blacktips. In fact, many veteran anglers and biologists have a hard time telling the difference at first glance.

They are very similar in body shape and size and both are quite acrobatic when hooked although the spinner twists like a tornado as the name implies while blacktips do more straight jumps.

The best way to tell them apart is the anal fin on the spinner is black whereas the blacktips is not. In reality, the spinner has more black on its tips than the blacktip in most cases.

If you were to ask anglers if these species were dangerous, most would answer with a resounding “No” since they are not in the lexicon of deadly sharks.

In fact, the Discovery Channel produced a highly rated program about the top 10 most dangerous sharks and neither made the list, while both the oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako did.

Those species rank far below both the blacktip and spinner in terms of unprovoked attacks on humans according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

ISAF data show blacktips are responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provoked attacks (think feeding, harassing, etc.). Spinners have been responsible for 15 unprovoked attacks, and one on the provoked side.

For comparison, the oceanic whitetip committed five unprovoked and three provoked attacks, while the shortfin mako dished out 8 unprovoked attacks and 15 provoked.

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Photo courtesy NOAA

In the network’s defense, its list featured numerous factors, including fatalities, size, and likelihood to encounter humans, which would obviously put species like the great white above many other known attackers, but in terms of raw attack data, blacktips and spinners deserve our respect.

They are also species humans are likely to encounter in shallow water along beaches, where anglers tote stringers of speckled trout and other sport fishes, not to mention the scores of swimmers.

It is also possible blacktips and spinners are responsible for more attacks than ISAF can accurately list.

“Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult, since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the ‘heat’ of the interaction,” according to George H. Burgess of ISAF.

“Tooth remains are seldom found in wounds, and diagnostic characters for many requiem sharks (including blacktips and spinners) are difficult to discern even by trained professionals.

“Realistically, almost any shark in the right size range, roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) or greater, is a potential threat to humans because, even if a bite is not intended as a directed feeding attempt on a human, the power of the jaw and tooth morphology can lead to injury.”

This does not mean you should start worrying about becoming a blacktips next meal. After all, shark attacks are rare no matter the species. However, you might want to give them a bit more respect because the statistics don’t lie.

They deserve it.

Chester Moore, Jr.

NMFS Sea Turtle Facility

Yesterday our journey through the “Wild Gulf”-our summer long quest to raise awareness to wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico paid a visit to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sea turtle facility at Galveston, TX.

Since 1978, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been participating in an international Sea Turtle recovery program. Currently the NMFS Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is participating in a variety of projects including injured and sick turtle rehabilitation, satellite tracking of wild turtles and numerous studies involving Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).

We will post more on sea turtles later this month but for now here are some photos from yesterday.

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Kingdom Zoo’s Rachel enjoyed seeing the one-year-old loggerheads.
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Loggerheads are the most abundant sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico but that doesn’t mean their populations are healthy. They are down to around three percent of estimated historic levels.
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Erin and Abby learned what to do if they find a sea turtle stranded on a beach and were impressed with the amount of effort that goes into conserving these endangered marine reptiles.

For more information on the facility click here.

Deadly jellyfish found in Texas-Gulf waters!

One of the most dangerous of all sea creatures is the box jellyfish.

They are famously abundant in Australian waters where fatalities are reported on an annual basis.

They are also present in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the Gulf, we have the four-handed box jellyfish, a species I was made aware of by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist Jerry Mambretti in 2014.

“Our gulf sampling crew caught four-handed box jellyfish, Chiropsalmus quadrumanus, a member of the class Cubozoa, in 3 separate trawl samples about 2 miles off McFaddin NWR beach,” Mambretti said at the time.

“Box jellyfish are known for the extremely potent venom produced by some species, including this species, which is normally found in the west Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. Their sting is very venomous and dangerous to humans, especially children.”

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Box jellyfish from the Caribbean. Public Domain Photo

A study by William Guest noted the species has been known to be abundant in the Matagorda Bay system in the 1950s and their presence has a lot to do with salinity levels..

“The development of a large population coincided with drought conditions and high bay salinities along the Texas Gulf coast. When bay salinities dropped considerably in 1957 the jellyfish disappeared. The jellyfish were found to be living on or near the bottom at all times and preferred areas of soft mud.”

TPWD recommends for most jellyfish stings to splash the area with salt water.

“Then apply a paste of unseasoned meat tenderizer. Don’t press the skin. The pain should go away within an hour. Regular vinegar or a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water also work to alleviate pain.”

If you think you have been stung by a box jellyfish however seek medical attention immediately. Encounters are rare but the potential for serious problems exist if you do happen to bump into one of these tiny creatures.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Pink albino dolphin jumps in front of boat (video)

The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is the most frequently seen marine mammal in the Gulf of Mexico.

Seeing a pink one however is extremely rare.

That is why we were excited to see this clip provided by Matt Metzler. It shows a pink albino dolphin jumping in front of a boat off the Louisiana coastline. The action begins at about the 17-second mark.

In 2013 we captured footage of a pink albino dolphin in the ship channel near Cameron, La. This particular dolphin with the obvious nickname “Pinky” has been thrilling fishermen who encounter it for at least a decade after Capt. Erik Rue began photographing the creature on his charter trips.

Here’s the clip we captured that day while out with our friend Scott Bandy in his bay boat.

An article in The Guardian back in 2009 reveals some interesting things scientists have observed about this creature.

Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: “I have never seen a dolphin coloured in this way in all my career.”

“While this animal looks pink, it is an albino which you can notice in the pink eyes. Albinism is a genetic trait and it unclear as to the type of albinism this animal inherited.”

Some believe there are several “Pinkies” in the vicinity but little research has been done on the subject.

I have interviewed two people who claim to have seen pink dolphins from the ferry in Galveston, TX a three hour boat ride (in calm waters) from Cameron, La. The animal could certainly make that trek but there also could be more of them out there.

We will investigate more and let these video clips serve as a reminder of the beauty and mystery contained in the Gulf of Mexico. If you see such a creature by all means shoot photos and video but don’t chase or harass the animal.

This summer The Wildlife Journalist (R) is partnering with our Kingdom Zoo children’s ministry to raise awareness to the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. We are calling the program “Wild Gulf”.

 

We’ll be making treks from the Florida Panhandle to Port Isabel to document by photo and video the unique species that inhabit Gulf waters.

“The Gulf of Mexico and its species do not get enough attention in the national and world spotlight,” said Kingdom Zoo’s Lauren Williams, an eighth grade wildlife conservationist.

“We are going to do our best to change that and at the same time let kids in our ‘Wild Wishes’ program take part in these adventures.”

“Wild Wishes” grants exotic animal encounters for children who have a terminal illness or have lost a parent or sibling.

Be on the lookout for much more on from the “Wild Gulf” and for those mysterious pink dolphins along the coastline.

And if you happen to come across a stranded or sick marine mammal call  1-800-9-MAMMAL. The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network will give you instructions and if the situation is serious they will take action to help the animal.

Chester Moore, Jr.

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Texas Tentacles

A 1972 Robalo sportfishing boat pulls up to an oil platform off the coast of Corpus Christi, TX.

As the waves rise and fall around this giant manmade structure, Capt. Bill Sheka lowers a big hunk of cut bait seeking out snapper, grouper and other sport fish common to the area.

Suddenly he feels tension on the line so he sets the hook.

There is something on the other end but it is not moving.

At all.

“There were some deck hands on the rail of the rig and they were watching me. When I got it up it turned out to be a gallon glass mayonnaise jar, obviously pitched overboard by the rig’s cook,” Sheka said.

The men on the rig laughed at the strange catch and fired off some snide remarks.

“Got some bred for that mayonnaise?”

“Nice catch bud!”

But the jar was not empty.

“Inside was an octopus that took my bait and scurried back to his ‘home”in the jar,” Sheka said.

“I took my small wooden billy club and hit the jar breaking it to reveal the wiggling, twisting octopus. Now the crew was silent and I then asked them if they knew any octopus recipes,” Sheka said.

He had a good laugh at his naysayers before releasing the creature alive and well.

Octopus in the Gulf?

Absolutely.

The Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) is the the most observed and studied habitat in the Gulf and according to FGBNMS research coordinator Emma Hickerson there are at least four octopus species there.

These include the Caribbean two-spotted octopus, common octopus, white-spotted octopus and mimic octopus.

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Caribbean two-spotted octopus at Flower Gardens Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy NOAA.

“I filmed a Caribbean two-spotted octopus quite a few years ago out and about scooting around the reef during the day,  but otherwise typically they are tucked away in the reef.  You can sometimes find their “middens” which are piles of shells from their meals.  One particular octopus I filmed was big enough to be feasting on large queen conch and slipper lobster at Stetson Bank,” she said.

Kristi Oden encountered caught one while diving off of an oil platform off the Gulf Coast.

“It was a feisty thing,” she said.

“It kept grabbing my dive knife and pulling on it. I got it into my dive bag and took it back up to the boat because I wanted to look at it. It was really neat. When I got it out of the bag and it changed colors to match the floor of the boat. I looked at it for a little while and then put him back in the water.”

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Angler Henry Pongratz caught and released this common octopus at the Port O’Connor Jetties.

Most encounters with octopus off the Texas coast are around oil rigs and at the FGBNMS but some divers reporting seeing them at the jetties in Port O’Connor, Aransas Pass and Port Mansfield.

Finding octopus along the beach jetties and even in the bays is a fairly common occurrence on the Gulf Coast of Florida but in the western Gulf they remain mysterious.

The common octopus can grow to impressive sizes with specimens as large as 4.3 feet and weighing upwards of 20 pounds. And although it is difficult to measure the “intelligence” of animals, octopus are without questions brainiacs of the marine world.

Octopus not only have the largest brains of any invertebrate but they also have an impressive number of neurons which are the measuring stick science uses for thinking potential.

The common octopus has around 130 million.  A human has more than 100 billion but that numbers not bad for something that makes its living in the cracks and crevices of reefs, rigs, jetties and yes, even mayonnaise jars.

The more we understand about the Gulf of Mexico, the more we can appreciate it.

And I can’t imagine someone not being able to appreciate the uniqueness of the octopus and the fact Gulf coastal waters are home to these amazing creatures.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Guy Harvey and the Gulf’s missing shark

A long time ago in the far, far reaches of the Gulf of Mexico...

The contrasting bars of the pilot fish create a striking image in the cobalt blue waters just beyond the continental shelf. Swimming in unison they dart, twist and turn in natural aquatic harmony.

Suddenly, from amongst the motion a strong form emerges.

Swimming with focus and purpose, the white bars on its fins reveal the ocean’s wanderer: the ocean whitetip shark.

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Photo by Johan Lantz/Wiki Commons

It continues its trajectory at a slow but determined pace. Cruising just beneath the surface, it is set to prey on anything it might encounter.

Pickings can be slim in this desolate environment.

Once considered the world’s most common large animal (over 100 pounds) they are now  deemed critically endangered. This is especially true for the Gulf of Mexico.

In a 2004 study, researchers Baum and Myers noted a 99 percent decline of oceanic whitetips in the Gulf since the 1950s.

“Scientists there once considered this species a nuisance because of the prevalence around vessels. Nowadays it is rarely seen,” they noted.

In hundreds of trips in the Gulf out of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi this writer has never seen one. And neither have dozens of veteran Gulf anglers I have interviewed.

And that concerns ocean art icon and conservationist Guy Harvey.

“The oceanic whitetip is a truly remarkable shark and due to the high demand of fins from large shark species they have declined dramatically,” Harvey said.

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Currently the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF) and its partners are engaged in a study to track and analyze whitetip populations. They are studying the stock structure of oceanic whitetip sharks on a global scale by using genetic techniques, and migration patterns of this species in the western Atlantic with the aid of satellite tracking technologies.

Information gained on the whitetip’s movements can help create better management strategies to save the species.

When Harvey called the species “remarkable” that is not a generalized statement. He has firsthand knowledge having spent time in the water with the species and producing a documentary about their plight.

“They are bold and have no problems approaching a diver which makes for great interaction and observation,” Harvey said.

Harvey’s works with whitetips has allowed him to create stunning works of art showing the declining species in all of its glory.

Art captures the mood and feel of a natural scene better that photography and Harvey’s instantly recognizable style has resonated with an ocean-loving public in a way that connects them to wildlife.

“Things happen so fast down there and you have limited time. Painting allows to create a way to raise awareness to species that otherwise might not get much attention,” Harvey said.

The oceanic whitetip is one such creature.

If they disappeared tomorrow few anglers would notice.

Beachcombers never see these open water dwellers anyway so that only leaves wildlife journalists like myself, researchers like Harvey and his crew and a handful of shark fanatics who would even notice their demise.

But to the ocean it does matter.

An intricately woven food chain has already been disrupted and if they were to vanish forever, the balance would be upset.

And the world would lose a beautiful, cunning predator.

We should do our best to support research like GHOF are doing and all efforts to ensure shark populations not only survive but perhaps one day thrive like they did so long ago in the Gulf and beyond.

Chester Moore, Jr.

 

Pink Albino Dolphin (Video)

Among the most incredible animals I have encountered in my life in the wild is a super rare pink albino bottlenose dolphin appropriately dubbed “Pinky”.

I first encountered it while filming a television program on Louisiana’s Lake Calcasieu in 2010 and returned with a group of children to capture it on video in 2013.

We are planning another expedition to photograph “Pinky” and the other dolphins of the area. We will post our results here.

Until then enjoy this clip.

Chester Moore, Jr.

 

 

“Teeth” in the Gulf

“Teeth”!

“That is next movie they need to make. We’ve got one about a killer shark but they need to make one about a killer gar,” said my Dad.

“Wouldn’t that be cool?” he asked as we sat on the side of the road between Bridge City and Port Arthur, TX fishing for alligator garfish.

At eight-years-of age I thought that would be epic to say the least and if any of the producers of such high art as “Sharktopus” are reading this blog, it very well could become the next SyFy Original.

Just sign those royalty checks to “Chester Moore” please.

Dad always liked to make me laugh and that certainly did but there certainly are not a bunch of garfish attacks to report.

There is however something quite interesting.

15240140_10153905413465780_2058860035_nWhile “Jaws” is on the minds of beachgoers in Texas (our variety-bulls, lemons, blacktips) “Teeth” is soaking up some of the same salty waters.

Angler Marcus Heflin caught a sizable alligator garfish while fishing the surf at Sea Rim State Park at Sabine Pass along the Texas-Louisiana border.

This was the first gar I have heard of on the beach anywhere along the Gulf Coast although I have long suspected they are there.

As a child I had a collection of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazines and one of them had a profile of Sea Rim State Park-where Heflin caught the gar pictured above.

It had fishing hotspots and there were several marked for garfish in the surf.

Garfish are considered a freshwater species but do well along the Gulf Coast. I grew up fishing for them in Sabine Lake and surrounding waters, a bay that at its southern end is only seven miles from the surf.

Mobile Bay in Alabama is a hotbed of alligator garfish activity and they are present in numerous salt marshes along the Louisiana coast.

Still, you can find almost no references to garfish in the surf.

The question is just how common they are in Gulf waters and how far out do they go?

These are very mysterious fish with little known about their life cycles or habits in comparison to America fish for comparable size.

So, if you’r ever at the beach and see something that looks kind of like a mutated alligator swim beside you don’t worry.

You just have had an encounter with “Teeth”.

There is no danger to be concerned with except in my eight-year-old imagination where a ravaging gar seemed like an intriguing proposition.

And to be perfectly honest it still does.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Manta Ray found just off TX beach (Video)

Last week readers Andy Allen and Reggie Begelton captured this video of a large manta ray swimming a mile west of the Sabine Jetties, just off the beach at Sea Rim State Park out of Sabine Pass, TX.

Manta rays are present in the Gulf of Mexico but sightings are rare and sightings with a mile of the beach are virtually unheard of in Texas.

According to Wikipedia, swimming behavior in mantas differs across habitats: when travelling over deep water, they swim at a constant rate in a straight line, while further inshore they usually bask or swim idly around. Mantas may travel alone or in groups of up to 50. They may associate with other fish species as well as sea birds and marine mammals. Mantas sometimes breach, leaping partially or entirely out of the water. Individuals in a group may make aerial jumps one after the other. These leaps come in three forms: forward leaps where the fish lands head first, similar jumps with a tail first re-entry or somersault. The reason for breaching is not known; possible explanations include mating rituals, birthing, communication, or the removal of parasites and remora.

“Manta rays have broad heads, triangular pectoral fins, and horn-shaped cephalic fins located on either side of their mouths. They have horizontally flattened bodies with eyes on the sides of their heads behind the cephalic fins, and gill slits on their ventral surfaces. Their tails lack skeletal support and are shorter than their disc-like bodies.  The dorsal fins are small and at the base of the tail.”

“The largest mantas can reach 1,350 kg (2,980 lb). In both species the width is approximately 2.2 times the length of the body; M. birostris reaches at least 7 m (23 ft) in width while M. alfredi reaches about 5.5 m (18 ft). Dorsally, mantas are typically black or dark in color with pale markings on their “shoulders”. Ventrally, they are usually white or pale with distinctive dark markings by which individual mantas can be recognized. All-black color morphs are known to exist. The skin is covered in mucus which protects it from infection.”

Chester Moore, Jr.