Archive for January, 2010

Whale Bones Rise from Sands of History

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

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Don Lewis Reconstructs Pilot Whale Stranding

Six pilot whales rise from the sands of history, uncovered by scouring storms that battered Outer Cape Cod in December and January.   In a rare moment in time revealed by the natural forces that continue to shape our world today, we capture an epic scene from long ago, frozen in the very sands that are Cape Cod.

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Long-Finned Pilot Whale Skeleton Emerges

As we patroled the west beach of Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet, Turtle Journal came across still articulated skeletons of long-finned pilot whales rising from the sands of what had formerly been an ancient salt marsh, now succumbed to the forces of nature and transformed to a barrier beach. 

Pilot Whales Rise from Sands of History

Imagine … as one hundred, or perhaps two hundred or more years ago, a pod of pilot whales chased bait fish into a flooded salt marsh on the western edge of Horse Island, now Lieutenant Island, in Wellfleet Bay.  Maybe on a day like Monday with gale winds howling from the southwest pushing flood water into the bay, the whales swam high into the marsh where they became unexpectedly trapped and stranded when the ebb tide dropped suddenly beneath them, leaving the animals stuck in the ooze marshlands.


1893 Map of Wellfleet Bay

In those historic days, stranded pilot whales offered survival and a little prosperty to Outer Cape residents scratching a hard living in a harsh and unforgiving environment.  The nearby estuary is named Blackfish Creek in honor of pilot whales, also known as blackfish, that stranded in the hundreds and sustained Cape Codders during the toughest of times.  For more information on pilot whale strandings, see Discovery of Historic Pilot Whale Bones Hints at Cape Cod’s Past.

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Four Articulated Pilot Whale Skeletons “in Formation”

The exposed bones on Lieutenant Island revealed four still largely articulated pilot whales lying two by two at the northern edge of the beach.

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Two More Pilot Whale Skeletons Begin to Emerge

About 100 feet behind this formation of four, two more pilot whales were just beginning to emerge from the moist sands.

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Alive, dead or skeletons, pilot whales are as precious to us today as they were to our Cape ancestors, albeit for different reasons.  Marine mammals are protected under federal law and regulations.  They may be observed and enjoyed without disturbance.


CapeCast January 26 2010

CapeCast, the on-line broadcast of the Cape Cod Times, reports on this discovery today, January 26th, 2010.

CapeCast: Bones on the beach!

On today’s CapeCast: Intrepid naturalist Don Lewis takes us out to Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet on a crazy stormy day to see old whale bones!

Crabby Days of Winter — Lady’s First

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

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Male Lady Crab Found Under Lieutenant Island Bridge

Beautifully colored and comically aggressive, lady crabs (Ovalipes ocellatus), also called calico crabs, are medium sized crustaceans found in sandy, shallow inter-tidal zones along the Atlantic coastline of the United States from Cape Cod to Texas. On Outer Cape Cod thousands of lady crabs populate the shallow tidal flats and submerged sandbars south of Lieutenant Island. 

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Lady Crab Carapace (Note Paddle-Shaped Swimming Legs)

Lady crabs dart quickly across the shallow tidal flats and burrow into the soft sand for stealth and protection.  When confronted in the open, they display fiercely aggressive behavior.  Lady crabs attack whatever comes within reach of their subsurface hiding spots, which provides an excellent and compelling reason to wear water shoes whenever strolling these shores.  The Turtle Journal team has been attacked with great frequency, especially when turbulent surf creates turbid water conditions.

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Lady Crab Bottom; Again Note Rear Swimming Legs

Females have a broad abdominal flap under which they carry eggs; males have narrow flaps, sometimes termed the “Washington Monument.” 

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Lady Crab Molt from Lieutenant Island on Cape Cod

Lady crabs molt as they grow to their full size of approximately four inches width.  As we patrol the salt marsh along the Lieutenant Island shoreline early each spring, we find hundreds and hundreds of molts (empty shells) washed ashore.

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Squid from Wellfleet Bay

These crabs are hunting and scavenging carnivores.  They like fish that may unsuspectingly swim by their hiding spot, as well as clams and crabs.  We inadvertently discovered during a 2008 Mass Audubon Marine Life Cruise in Wellfleet Bay that lady crabs LOVE squid.

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Squid Eggs Washed Ashore on Lieutenant Island

During our Crab Field School in July 2008, we found this large assemblage of squid eggs that had washed ashore on the west coastline of Lieutenant Island where we were sampling crab population numbers and diversity.  See our Crabs 2008 Facebook page for photographic and video coverage of this exciting and unique field adventure.


Love at First Bite: “Off With Their Heads!”

We had collected a lady crab in a scallop drag on the Marine Life Cruise during our Crabs Field School in the summer 2008.  Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on whether you are crustacean or cephalopod or observer, the lady crab and a small squid ended up in the same retaining tank aboard the Naviator.  The video above documents the outcome of that fateful encounter.  Word puzzle of the day:  What does one call a beheaded cephalopod?


Lady Crab Mating Pair: “How ‘Bout a Little Privacy?”

As we patrol the flats in late spring, hundreds of mating pairs of lady crabs scatter across the submerged sandbars … with partner lovingly cradled for protection and possession.


Thousands of Juvenile Lady Crabs Frolic on Tidal Flats

When they reach subadult form and size after a few molts, many thousands of small juveniles swarm across the Lieutenant Island tidal flats in summer. 

One observation we have noted during our diamondback terrapin research in these waters is that the presence of crabs, on any given day, indicates an absence of turtles, and conversely, the presence of turtles presages an absence of crabs on that day.  Not too surprising, since crabs provide the principal staple for the adult female terrapin diet!

Bermuda Expedition: Sun, Science and Turtles

Monday, January 11th, 2010


Scientist, Researcher and Adventurer Sue Wieber Nourse

On the sunny shores of Southampton, Bermuda, even the most adventurous scientist takes a few moments to rest and recuperate from a hectic research schedule.  The Reefs resort of Southampton provides the perfect setting to relax and a great venue from which to prepare for and recover from each day’s adventures.

The Reefs Resort, Southampton, Bermuda

Turtle Journal invites you to join us on our research expedition to Bermuda to confirm the presence of diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) rumored to populate a few salt ponds south of Harrington Sound in and near the Mid Ocean Golf Course.  To hook up with the lead researcher addressing the issue of these cryptic reptiles, Mark Outerbridge, we visited BAMZ (the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo).  A BAMZ researcher, Mark was then conducting fish studies in these salt ponds when he had encountered the turtles.


BAMZ: One of the Best Small Aquariums in the World

We delighted at the prospect of touring BAMZ which we knew ranked as one of the best small aquariums in the world.  We arrived several hours early for the meeting, so that we could wander through the aquarium, museum and zoo.  Right out front in open air tanks swim giant green sea turtles to welcome visitors to BAMZ.


BAMZ Offers Up-Close, Personal Experiences

One of the key assets of the aquarium is the way that it highlights Bermuda marine species with up-close & intimate displays.

BAMZ: Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo

BAMZ: Green Sea Turtle in Coral Reef Tank

While these video clips focus on the aquarium, it’s worth noting that the museum offers exceptional environmental displays and interactive exhibits that brilliantly illustrate the natural history and fragile habitats of Bermuda. 


Don Lewis with Bermuda Diamondback Terrapins

We met the BAMZ turtle team and discussed a host of issues, ranging from diamondback terrapins to methods, procedures and equipment to protect sea turtle nests and incubating eggs.  The Turtle Journal team provided background information on terrapin natural history, morphology and lifecycle; we shared research protocols, as well as data collection sheets and collection procedures.  We arranged to visit the salt ponds within and bordering the Mid Ocean Golf Course the next day with lead researcher, Mark Outerbridge.

Diamondback Terrapins in Bermuda

Mark Outerbridge, Don Lewis & Sue Wieber Nourse

Following our expedition to Bermuda, Mark Outerbridge and colleagues pursued more detailed research on the genesis of this terrapin population on Bermuda.  Their interesting findings are published in “Introduced delicacy or native species?  A natural origin of Bermudian terrapins supported by fossil and genetic data,” which can be accessed by clicking on the title.


Beautiful Terrapins from Bermuda’s Mid Ocean Golf Course

Meeting the only population of diamondback terrapins outside the U.S. proved a wonderful experience for the Turtle Journal team, as did the chance to dive on Bermuda reefs and a sunken wreck, to tour the exquisite BAMZ facility and to enjoy the five-star accommodations of the Reefs in Southampton.  We hope you, too, enjoy this virtual expedition as much as we did in reliving it. 

Winter Freeze Grips Lieutenant Island

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010


Lieutenant Island Bridge at Blue Moon Flood Tide

Wintry weather and high tides combine to thwart access to Turtle Journal’s prime research site on Lieutenant Island.  A weekend-long nor’wester dumped nearly a foot of icy snow, and dangerously low wind chills clogged the shoreline with ice floes.

Waves Flash-Freeze on the Beach

Temperatures have fallen so hard that waves transform to slush as they reach the beach.  As though stuck in DVD pause, waves flash-freeze as soon as they touch super-cooled beach sand.


Lieutenant Island Road Two Hours Before High Tide

With slush and snow, ice floes have begun to form and to pile up each high tide in the salt marshes and channels surrounding Lieutenant Island on Outer Cape Cod.


Turtle Point  Inaccessible Behind Lieutenant Island Bridge

Snow covered Turtle Point on Lieutenant Island looks cold and starkly beautiful behind ice floes, flooded bridge and sunken causeway.  Under the ice, snoozing terrapins are comfortably burrowed in a deep blanket of muddy ooze.  Under the snowy dunes, 2009 hatchlings are buried a foot down in upland hibernacula.  All are fast asleep until spring thaw arrives in late April or early May.