Marine Conservation, Research, & Observations

Biomimicry Thinking; Learning from Nature’s Genius

Biomimicry Thinking; Learning from Nature’s Genius

It is argued that the human species is the most intelligent species to roam the planet. We communicate in depth, we have extraordinary cognitive abilities, and we build and expand like no other species – but, we build our complicated designs and stable habitats in an ever changing environment. There is indeed something that we lack in the way that we operate.

What are we missing?

While we create endlessly fascinating (and endlessly complicated) iPhones, computers and robots, human design is actually missing a giant, and somewhat obvious, piece of the puzzle. Throughout time, the human race has involuntarily created such a deep separation between ourselves and nature that we have forgotten it’s true genius. We have dominated the environment we inhabit to such an extent that we think ourselves separate from it; nature has become a place we travel to, instead of something we are apart of. We have created a separation between the man-made, and what is natural and sustainable. This is where the human psyche falters. We fail to see that nature is the answer. Because of this disconnect, we see it fit to address our challenges with fossil fuels and exploitation and an unnecessary amount of energy. Nature solves complicated challenges every day with ease, and it is time that we looked to her for guidance. “Humans are clever, but without intending to, we have created massive sustainability problems for future generations. Fortunately, solutions to these global challenges are all around us” (Biomimicry Institute 2017). Humans face the same challenges daily that mother nature has been solving with ease for millions of years. The ultimate mentor has been right under our noses this entire time. Why not ask nature?

In 1997, Janine Benyus brought this idea of asking nature’s advice to everyone’s attention with the release of her book based on the concept that nature and technology are not so different. The term for this new science, Benyus deemed, is “biomimicry”. “Biomimicry is learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable design” (Benyus 2012). Essentially, biomimicry is a way for us to make human design something that is innovative as well as something that is sustainable by looking at life’s genius. For example, the shape of a Kingfisher bird’s beak was used as inspiration in creating the high-speed, aerodynamic Shinkansen train in Japan (AskNature 2016), and the ridges of the humpback whale’s pectoral fin were considered in the making of wind turbine blades to reduce drag (Bloomberg 2015). In our everyday lives we face various design issues (as well as flooding, erosion,etc); what can we learn from nature about handling these situations? How does nature do it?

Fig. 1

A key concept of biomimicry is that the design is sustainable. Nature is able to operate to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations; nature does not exploit itself. If we are to look at and learn from nature, shouldn’t we learn to operate sustainably as well? Human design has been known to use what Benyus calls the “heat, beat, and treat” method (CBID 2014), basically meaning that our designs typically use an excess amount of fossil fuels and energy, and also usually create toxic, non-biodegradable products. In order to emulate nature’s brilliant methods, we must also adopt its ability to function with the future in mind. A few things to keep in mind is that biomimicry designs typically follow the life’s principles presented in Fig. 1; its based on evolving to survive, it has integrated development with growth, it has adapted to changing conditions, it is locally attuned and responsive, it uses life-friendly chemistry, and its resource efficient. The life’s principles serve as a guide in creating sustainable biomimicry design, which, hopefully, is the primary design method of our future.

Biomimicry is an incredible alternative to the current way us humans decide to create. As arguably one of the smartest species on earth, we must look at what it was that created us in the first place. If we ask nature’s advice, we will genuinely be able to be innovative and efficient in our work. Biomimicry thinking is something that everyone is capable of; all we need to do is go outside and get inspired.

I happened to go outside and get inspired last year as an intern at the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. On board, we are very mindful of marine debris and try to collect as much as possible during our travels. However, we face the big problem of some not-so-big debris: microplastics. Microplastics are just about impossible to retract from our oceans, and yet they are taking over our waterways. Picking up microplastics, ranging in size from 1-100 nm (Royal Society of Chemistry 2016), with a standard fishing net would be unachievable.

With this in mind, as well as the animals and environment I was there to research, I asked myself, “what would nature do?” (WWND, if you will). There are hundreds of species of filter feeders on our planet that are faced with this task everyday, picking out what they want and leaving what they don’t. Humpback whales, a common species of whale that migrates through our Cape May area each year, are expert filter feeders–so I looked to them for help. In the way that they are able to filter salt water from a concentration of krill, I wanted to filter out salt water from a concentration of microplastics. The natural behaviors of the humpback whale led me to the idea for a filter; a filter based off of the structure of whale baleen. I was also inspired by work done at UC San Diego, where undergraduate researchers built a sustainable surfboard by shaping and hardening algal oils, and also by work done at Cambridge University where they discovered artificial spider silk (hydrogels made from 98% water and 2% silica). I combined these ideas of life-friendly chemistry and applied them to the idea of the baleen filter in order to insure sustainable design. This idea was something that could be implemented as a net, or something that could even be expanded on and placed as a filter in homes or waste-water treatment centers. It all stemmed from simply viewing how nature would solve the problem at hand.

In summary, biomimicry thinking is something both extremely attainable and extremely accessible-all we have to do is ask, “WWND?”. If we open our minds to this idea, we’ll also be opening doors of endless possibility when it comes to human design and energy use. I urge you all to go outside, get inspired, and come up with your own biomimicry projects for your community!

-Alayna Robertson, University of Charleston ’21


Works Cited
Benyus, Janine M. “A Biomimicry Primer.” Biomimicry Resource Handbook, Biomimicry 3.8, 18 June 2012, pp. 1-10.,
AskNatureTeam. “Shinkansen Train.” AskNature, 16 Apr. 2016,
Hennighausen, Amelia, and Eric Roston. “14 Smart Inventions Inspired by Nature: Biomimicry.”, Bloomberg, 23 Feb. 2015,
“What Is Biomimicry? – Biomimicry Institute.” Biomimicry Institute, 2017,
Site by Joy Worthen and Len Yen, softfruit design, Seattle, WA –, CBID. “Biomimicry Explained.” CBID An Innerview with Janine Benyus, 2014,
Alexander-White, Camilla. “The Massive Problem of Microplastics.” Education in Chemistry, Royal Society of Chemistry, 15 Nov. 2016,

How Garbage is Harming Adult Ospreys and Their Chicks

How Garbage is Harming Adult Ospreys and Their Chicks

How Garbage is Harming Adult Ospreys and Their Chicks

Ospreys are one of New Jersey’s largest species of raptors. They have a wingspan of about 59.1 inches to about 70.9 inches, and can weigh from 49.4 ounces to 70.5 ounces (Osprey Life History, n.d.). They are usually easy to spot when flying due to their white underside. They also have a mostly white head with a brown stripe that crosses their eyes, and their backs are mainly all brown. These raptors are very different as compared to many other birds of prey, because they feed almost exclusively on small fish, as compared to other raptors that tend to eat a wider variety of species, such as small mammals and other birds. Due to their diets, of primarily fish, they need to live near water.

Image 1 Adult osprey. Photograph taken from the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center Database.

Ospreys, also known as fish hawks, are a commonly seen bird along rivers, lakes, and coastal areas in many temperate and tropical regions around the world. The population of ospreys that inhabit New Jersey in the summer time months usually nest along the coastlines running from Sandy Hook to Cape May. By looking at satellite transmitters, which were fitted onto a number of individuals, researchers have been able to see that the majority of New Jersey’s population travels to Northern South America in the winter (Liguori, 2003).

Image 2 Osprey distribution in North and South America (Osprey Life History, n.d.).

Due to the ospreys’ need to live close to large bodies of water, this means they are largely affected by humans, especially since about 40% of the world’s population lives as close as 63 miles from coastlines, not to mention people traveling to the coast for pleasure, work, etc. Due to ospreys living in areas where there tends to be larger populations of humans they are widely impacted by human actions. One of the most well known human threats that almost caused the osprey to become extinct was due to the spraying of DDT. DDT was a chemical that was heavily used during the early 1970s in order to control the mosquito populations.

What people did not know at this time was how bad this spray was for the environment, and all of the organisms within it. This chemical was mainly sprayed in areas near bodies of water, because those were the types of environments that the mosquitos would commonly breed. Due to this the DDT would fall into the water, which would then accumulate in plankton, that would then continue to climb its way up the food chain into the fish, and then finally into the ospreys that were feeding on the fish. This caused biomagnification within the ospreys. The build up of this chemical within these birds, as well as many bald eagles, caused the ospreys eggs to become very brittle, and the birds would unfortunately break the eggs when they tried to incubate them (Fears, 2016). Once the research came out that this chemical was causing harm DDT was banned around the mid 1970s. The ban thankfully allowed the osprey population to flourish once again from having only about 50 nests in 1974 to well over 600 nests today in New Jersey alone (Liguori, 2003).

Although DDT is no longer in use, there are still many human threats that cause harm to these birds. Humans continuously pollute the land and water with toxic chemicals, trash, and plastic. Due to people not disposing their trash, plastics, and other objects the way they are supposed to, has lead to many dangers such as different animals choking, getting sick, becoming entangled, etc. Over the years there has been a growing amount of ospreys using this trash to build their large nests, which can be a huge safety concern when it comes to their chicks, as well as the adult nesting ospreys.

Ospreys are mainly monogamous, and mate for life. The breeding pair typically uses the same area, and sometimes even the same nest each year to lay their eggs. They typically make these large nests on top of buoys, artificial nesting platforms, dead trees, and other areas high above ground, and close to the water. The male usually arrives at the nest a few days prior to the female’s return in order to gather supplies for the nest. The nest is often five feet across and two to three feet deep when first built, and they increase in size each year after the male adds to it (Osprey, n.d.). The materials used to make these huge nests usually consist of bark, sticks, and any other material they feel will work well in the nest. Unfortunately this means they may feel that garbage, such as varieties of plastics, balloons, twine, fishing gear, and many other man made materials that they should not be using, and could possibly cause harm to the adults or their chicks.

Since these birds live both very close to humans, and the sea, it makes it very easy for these birds to find plastics and other types of garbage to help build their nests. People tend to be careless with their trash and commonly do not dispose of objects the way they should. People commonly litter without any idea of how harmful it could be for the environment and the organisms that live there. Some of the most common pieces of plastic found in osprey nests are plastic ribbon from balloons and monofilament fishing line (Cirino, 2017). These types of trash are extremely dangerous because both the chicks and adults commonly become entangled in the string. The entanglement can cause them to break a wing or leg due to the struggle of them trying to escape, can cause an infection if the object causes them to gain an open wound, they can be strangled, they can starve to death if they cannot become freed, and many other terrifying scenarios.

Image 3 Osprey nest with twine, taken by Alexandra Blanchet – 2017.

Plastics are made to last. They do not degrade like wood, paper, or other pieces of garbage over time. This makes this type of trash even more dangerous because if it is in the osprey nest it will be there until the nest falls apart, and when it does another osprey may find it to use, or another animal may eat it or become entangled in it.

Fortunately, because ospreys live in areas where there is a large population of people, and since they are also a protected species within the United States, people tend to care about this specie. Especially after the outbreak of DDT, and many people within shore communities that help in building nesting platforms for these birds’ people seem to take interest in them. Due to them being close to where people live, vacation, or fish, if someone sees an osprey that looks like they are having trouble, usually trouble with being entangled, they will contact someone in order to help. This makes it easy to see if they need help, as compared to other species or birds or other animals that do not live as close to humans, and are as easy to see and have access to.  Even when people are able to help an osprey that is entangled that does not always mean that damage hasn’t already been done. The bird could have still broken a wing, or a leg, or have gotten a wound from being trapped. Sometimes the bird it able to get further help, but often times this means it will need to go to a rehabilitation center. If the damage is very sever the osprey may not be able to be released, like in the case of a broken wing, or it could unfortunately die within the time of it being cared for due to infection if it had a wound.

Ospreys can also choke on garbage if they try to ingest it. Even if the bird is able to eat it, it can cause a number of problems after they have ingested it. Some of these problems include the bird not being able to digest the garbage properly, or it can make them very sick. Ospreys, along with most other animals, are not able to digest plastic. This means that if they continue to eat plastic it simply stays within their stomach and it will not be broken down the way food should. If they ingest enough plastic to fill their stomach it can cause the bird to feel full, and will eventually die due to starvation.

Unfortunately, unlike seeing an osprey that is entangled, we cannot see with our naked eye, and without medical equipment, if an osprey has ingested too much plastic. Regrettably in this case, we do not usually see that the osprey has a problem until it is too late.

To help ospreys, as well as other local sea creatures, we need to come together and come up with more ways of disposing trash properly. It is said in the United States alone about 33.6 million tons of plastic is discarded every year. Of that amount only about 6.5 percent of that plastic is recycled, and about 7.7 percent is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities (Cho, 2012). This leaves about 85.8 percent of our plastic not being recycled properly. These numbers also do not represent the amount of the countless millions of pieces of plastic that are not thrown away, and instead are left to sit in the environment it is at until someone comes across it and chooses to dispose of it, or it will simply stay in that spot forever, or even if it is somewhat broken down it will add to the countless amount of micro-plastics that are in our environment, which also adds harm to the food chain.

There are various steps that can be taken to help lessen the amount of plastics and other types of garbage that find their way into osprey nests. One step is to have more trash cans and recycling bins that are regularly emptied at all times of the year on beaches, boardwalks, and other areas close to the water that people commonly go to. There should also be bins on beaches and popular fishing areas where fisherman can safely discard various fishing equipment that they can no longer use, such as torn fishing line. Shore communities should also make an effort to have more beach cleanups at all times of the year, and invite different environmental organizations to help in the cleaning, that way there are more people to help clean the area of objects that can harm the environment and the species within it.

It is also important to consider getting rid of the wasteful habit of using single use plastics, such as plastic bags, plastic water bottles, straws, and plastic utensils. Instead, when you go grocery shopping you can use reusable shopping bags. These types of bags will not only lessen the amount of plastic bags being thrown out into the environment, but they also typically hold more items, and they are more durable and less likely to break than plastic bags. Instead of using plastic water bottles you can invest in a reusable water bottle. There are countless types available, and it is much cheaper to buy one water bottle to reuse than buying a case of water close to every week.

These are only a small amount of solutions that we can take to reduce the amount of trash and plastics within the environment. By taking care of this problem we will be helping this amazing species of bird, as well as so many organisms that are heavily influenced by humans not being able to dispose of trash appropriately. After coming close to losing almost all of the ospreys at one point in time, we do not want to make another mistake in harming them again, and possibly causing them to go into another decline. The only way that we can stop this problem is by taking care of our environment and making smarter choices when it comes to its health, and every other species that lives our coastal environments.

-Alexandra Blanchet, Stockton University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

November 17, 2017

Work Cited
Cho, R. (2012, January 31) What Happens to All That Plastic? Retrieved November 6, 2017, from
Cirino, E. (2017, September 6). More Plastic in the World Means More Plastic in Osprey Nests. Retrieved September 10, 2017, from
Fears, D. (2016, April 6) DDT Nearly Wiped Out These Birds. Now They’re Making a Comeback. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from
Liguori, S. (2003) Endangered and Threatened Wildlife of New Jersey. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press/ Osprey. (n.d.). Hawk Mountain. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from
Osprey Life History. (n.d.). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Sharks: Who is the Real Monster?

Sharks: Who is the Real Monster?

Sarah Caplan

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center



Sharks have become one the most feared creatures of the sea, but are these fears based on false representations of them? Or are they actually cold-hearted monsters who seek the flesh of humans?

Most people have seen the movie Jaws, where a rogue shark goes on a killing spree and the country is thrown into a whirlwind of terror. However, people seem to forget that fiction and reality are two very different things. Of course, like most books and movies that were inspired by true events, there tends to be a little bit of truth hidden behind the exaggerations. But is that a valid reason to fear sharks? It has been said that this movie may have been one of the main causes for the immense decrease of shark populations. For years, sharks have been considered one of the top predators, a deadly monster, and sadly, because of this very notion, their numbers are depleting rapidly. Are these creatures really as dangerous as they seem or have people erroneously made them out to be monsters?

The 1916 Jersey Attacks

There are many horror stories told about the dangers of the shark and their bloodthirsty instincts, however this is a rather new notion. Before the early 1900s many people believed that sharks were harmless. They were nothing more than an animal living off of the basic instincts of survival. The only real issue people had with these animals was their habit of bitting fishing hooks and eating the bait off of their lines. Otherwise, sharks and humans were acquaintances of the sea. It wasn’t until 1916, when a series of five shark attacks left the world in shock, that people initially began fearing of these creatures.

The five shark attacks occurred between July 1st through the 12th, thus being dubbed the “Twelve Days of Terror” for the state of New Jersey. The first attack happened in Beach Haven, New Jersey, when a 25 year old man, Charles Vansant, had his leg bitten by a shark and later died from the blood loss. The next incident happened a few days later, on July 6th, in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Charles Bruder, a hotel employee, went for a swim with one of his friends; he was mauled by a shark. When they brought him onto shore, he was missing both of the lower portions of his legs and had died in the boat, once again from the blood loss, before even making it to shore. Although both of those attacks occurred in the ocean, the next few happened inside a creek in Matawan, New Jersey.

Matawan was a small farming town a few miles inland, where the people would swim in the creek to escape the heat of summer. It was known to many as a quiet, peaceful town where not much happened. However, on July 12th, a young boy was playing with his friends in the creek when one of them, Lester Stillwell, never came back up from the water. The children he was with began screaming about the shark they had seen drag Lester under the water, when everyone showed up at the bank. A young man named Stanley Fisher then dove into the water to try and find the boy’s body. As he was coming back up with the remains, he was then also attacked by the shark. He made it from the water alive and was transported to a hospital that day, however he died that same night due to the injuries.

The fifth attack occurred about a half a mile away from where Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher were attacked. Joseph Dunn and a few other boys were playing in the water, when Joseph felt something bite him. He began screaming, which warned his friends and brother that something wasn’t right. They tried to pull him out of the jaws of the shark, but to no prevail.  A few minutes later a local fisherman came over and successfully got him out of the water. He was the only person to survive any of these five attacks.

The World in 1916

It is, however, important to understand the state of the country and world, at the time of these attacks. In 1916, the United States was in the midst of turmoil. It was the third year of World War One, the president was working to his highest degree, and there was a serious polio epidemic threatening the lives of people. The only escape people had from the problems of the world was the shore. Some saw the ocean as curative, while others just enjoyed the idea of sitting back and relaxing next to the waves of the Atlantic. However, now their haven was being threatening by the creatures that lived in it, so panic was at an all time high.

When the first attack occurred, there was a great initial shock, however within a few days, the talk had died down and people continued with their lives. Even the newspapers and magazines were extremely hesitant to cry “shark” for the fear of making the panic even greater. They used words like “fish” or wrote that the shark was after the dog and not the person. They were doing their best to under exaggerate the incident and maintain the little calm they had left in the United States. By the second attack, people were beginning to worry a little more. Newspapers from the east coast to the west coast reported on the incident. The idea of sharks going on a killing spree were slipping into their minds, however it still didn’t stop people from going into the ocean. But by the last three attacks, where the sharks weren’t just in the ocean now, but a freshwater creek, the country was in full blown panic. These attacks began the initial scientific interest of sharks, as well as the hobby of shark hunting.

A Scientific Year

At this time, there was little known scientific information about sharks and their behavioral habits. Even after these attacks, people were quick to decide that these animals were soulless creatures. This was the first time that people were really aware of the shark’s existence, they understood that these creatures were alive but reported shark attacks were rare. Scientists also questioned whether a shark was even the culprit to these attacks, theorizing that it could have been an Orca or a group of sea turtles. Dr. Frederic Lucas, the director of The American Museum of Natural History, commented that “No shark could skin a human leg like a carrot, for the jaws are not powerful enough….” Even when people began hunting these creatures and displaying them for the world to see, some were not convinced that the animals were even sharks. Although these attacks were a terrible tragedy, they seem to have a started a new interest and fascination in the world beneath the ocean.

Great White or Bull?

To this day, there is still controversy over what kind of shark actually attacked these five people. A few days after the last incident in Matawan, a Great White Shark was “accidentally” caught off Raritan Bay, New Jersey. After cutting the creature open, what appeared to be human remains were found inside the stomach. The two men, Michael Schleisser and John Murphy, who caught the shark, were quick to assume this was the shark that attacked the five people and quickly set off to display it for the country. As years passed, however, more and more evidence began to disprove the possibility that this was the shark. There have been a few books that state the idea that a bull shark was probably the creature that attacked the three people in Matawan Creek.

Bull sharks have been seen in many lakes throughout the world because they are one of the only sharks who can swim in both freshwater and saltwater. Most sharks don’t have the ability to adapt from one environment to the other, however bull sharks use osmoregulation. This is when a creature can keep a constant concentration of water flowing through their body without their weight changing. Most sharks would end up absorbing too much water into their membranes, while losing the salt that they were consistently gaining from their environment, thus essentially killing them. However, bull sharks have somehow adapted to the changes throughout time, making them capable of living in any body of natural water. With this information, as well as their aggressive nature and tendency to eat anything in sight, scientists believe this may have been the kind of shark that was in the creek.   

To this day, many scientists are still unsure of who the real culprit was and they may never really know. There was such little scientific evidence left after these attacks, that finding out what kind of shark actually killed these people is impossible. For a long time people believed it was one rogue shark going on a killing spree, however it’s also been theorized that it was a few different sharks. It seems that in this case, the more we research, the less we actually know.  


As stated previously, these shark attacks seemed to have started a scientific revolution. People began studying these creatures more; searching for the ultimately unexplainable answer to why these shark attacks even occurred. The rogue shark theory has never been but that, a simple theory, with no real evidence to back it up. However, it did prove useful to one of the most well-known movies and books that this country has known, Jaws. In 1974, after hearing about a shark hunter, Frank Mundus, who had caught a 4,500 pound Great White, the author, Peter Benchley, decided to write about this theory. Although, he explained in an interview that the book was not inspired by the 1916 attacks, there are many who believe it was. The book may not have been directly inspired by what happened in 1916, however it is possible that they had a lot of influence on what we think happens during real shark encounters.

For those who don’t know, Jaws is about a rogue shark who terrorizes a small resort town in New York on fourth of July weekend. Although the story of Jaws was not initially inspired by the attacks of 1916, the story may never have been told had the attacks not happened. Frank Mundus, Benchley’s inspiration for the character Quint, started going on shark expeditions to attract customers when he was younger. He called the trips “monster hunting” in order to peak more of an interest in people. This essentially helped him build his career as a well-known fisherman. After the attacks, people’s interest in sharks were at an all time high. They would stand in line for hours and pay, granted at the time it was only a few cents, just to take a look at a shark’s carcass. This would continue for years and is still remotely true today. However, now we can just go to an aquarium and watch the living thing in safety.  

Before Jaws and after the 1916 attacks, people were more curious about these animals than scared. They wanted to know more about the creatures, however at somewhat of a distance or surrounded by the comfort that the animal was no longer dangerous or alive. There was still some animosity towards sharks, but it was more the mystery that scared them. Before, sharks were almost like the bigfoot of the sea, they understood the reality of them, however not many people had seen them in real life. Once there was hard evidence, people became more and more interested in what these animals were capable of, as well as what exactly they were.

On June 20th, 1975, Steven Spielberg released the adaptation of Jaws, which has been said by many to be the movie that changed part of our culture. After this movie was released the crowds seemed to be filled with a mixture of dread, fear, and fascination. Many people were scared to go into the ocean, while some relished in the idea of swimming with danger. This movie started a fad that is still prevalent with movies today. From Sharknado and Jersey Shore Shark Attack to Pirahna and Snakes on a Plane; Jaws started a new movie concept that has stuck with the movie industry for decades now. A lot of people tend to enjoy the fear inducing rush that animal attack movies have, however they don’t really understand the consequences that also follow.

Jaws may have become one of the new movie fads, however, it has also caused a huge danger to the shark populations. After the movie was released the fear and fascination that followed became somewhat dangerous to the animals. After the 1916 attacks people began hunting sharks like crazy, the need for revenge seemed to swarm the psyches of many people. However, Jaws seemed to turn that revenge into a game. The idea of shark hunting went from a need for justice to a need to prove a person’s strength and manhood. People began to think hunting sharks was sexy, a way to rid the oceans of the “beasts” that inhabit them without seeing a real problem with the murder of thousands of innocent animals. This is not to say that shark hunting wasn’t prominent before the movie, however. Jaws just created a more justified reason for people to go out and slaughter these creatures as much as they want. We are now losing around 100 million sharks a year, mostly caused by the overfishing of these creatures due to people’s fascination, hunting, and need for their fins. At this time, there are around 465 species of sharks that have made the endangered lists, many of which were caused by over hunting. However, there is some hope for the animals, yet. Since the immense depletion of their populations, there have been a few attempts to save these animals from extinction or endangerment.

Shark Preservation  

In many countries, sharks are a huge source of income. Shark lovers from all over the world travel to specific areas, where there is a great known shark population and spend money to study, swim, and watch these creatures in their natural habitat. This has initially helped create certain regulations and laws, which specifically protect these animals. From banning shark finning to creating certain safe spaces for the animals or “shark sanctuaries”, the protection of these creatures has begun. They have also changed certain fishing gear regulations so that sharks are less likely to be caught by accident. Shark fin soup used to be a delicacy in Asian countries, it required the hunting of thousands of sharks, most of which simply have their fins cut off and then the body is thrown back into the ocean. This method of fishing has infuriated many conservationists, which eventually led to the ban on shark fin soup at many restaurants, hotels, and official government functions.


Edward O. Wilson, a sociobiologist, once said “We’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.” Like any creature who has the potential to kill us, we have a tendency to mark them as the enemy. Telling horror stories and causing an unnecessary hatred, one that we were not initially born with. Sharks and humans once lived together in peace, however in a series of 12 days, these creatures had become one of our greatest enemies. There may always be a sense of fear that lingers when the word shark is shouted or an ominous “duh duh duh duh” in the back of a person’s mind when they head into the water, however people must remember that we create the monsters. We fear the unknown, we fear the mystery, however is that fear really worth losing 100 million creatures every year? Should the whole population receive the consequences of the actions of one or two sharks? If that is the case, who is the real monster in this situation?  



  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017,
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017,
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017,

The Water Quality in Cape May, New Jersey and its Effects on Bottlenose Dolphins

The Water Quality in Cape May, New Jersey and its Effects on Bottlenose Dolphins

The Water Quality in Cape May, New Jersey and its Effects on Bottlenose Dolphins

Mary Jacketti

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Miami



The purpose of this study was to determine if the Atlantic Ocean or Delaware Bay in Southern New Jersey was clean or polluted. We looked at different parameters of the water quality to see if runoff or carbon emissions had any impact on the bottlenose dolphins that return back to Cape May every year. When either on the American Star or the Atlantic Star, I would take samples of the water after every dolphin sighting. I used the tests strips to test the amounts of nitrites, nitrates, alkalinity, and pH of the ocean. The idea was to see if there was any unusual water quality data and if so, would it have an effect on the bottlenose dolphins. The alkalinity seemed to be the most unusual and changed most often. The oceans keep becoming more and more polluted and a lot more runoff is entering into the water. Even if the alkalinity and pH aren’t too low yet, they will in the years to come and will eventually have a large effect on marine mammals.


In recent years, the world’s oceans, rivers, and bays have been going through nitrification, ocean acidification, and aquatic hypoxia. Nitrification is the biological process that oxidizes ammonia or ammonium to nitrite and then to nitrate. Ammonia is produced from the marine life breaking down proteins into biological waste. The ammonia is then converted to less toxic nitrite from the bacteria in the water and then converted again to much less toxic nitrate. Ocean acidification occurs when too much carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater. The excess CO2 reduces the pH and alkalinity of the seawater. Algae and seagrasses may benefit from ocean acidification because they require CO2 to live. However, calcifying species such as coral reefs, sea urchins, and oysters are becoming at risk. Hypoxia is the term that describes an oxygen depletion in the ocean, river, or bay. When the water becomes hypoxic, it is unable to sustain life and more and more parts of the ocean are becoming dead zones. Hypoxia can occur from limited vertical mixing of the 3 layers of the water. It most often occurs from too many nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous being dumped into the water or entering from runoff. Nitrification, ocean acidification, and hypoxia are only a few of the many problems that our oceans are facing.

I chose a research project that would be able to relate to the issues that the ocean is facing. I wanted to determine whether the waters in Southern New Jersey were clean and nutrient rich and if they weren’t, would the poor parameters have an effect on dolphin behaviors. The dolphins that we see in South New Jersey are Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins. They migrate to Cape May every year during the warmer months to mate and give birth. On every dolphin and whale watching trip, we would record data on the marine life that we saw. Any time we would spot a dolphin, we would record any noticeable behaviors. This experiment entailed trying to see if there was a correlation between the water quality of the ocean and the dolphins’ behaviors and their feeding habits.

I expected to find the water in South New Jersey to be a lot less clean. I was expecting the nitrate and nitrite concentration to be very high and the pH to be very low. I was also expecting the alkalinity of the ocean to already be lower than average due to ocean acidification. The pH, nitrate, and nitrite concentrations didn’t seem to change too often and were what is expected of a clean saltwater aquarium. However, the alkalinity seemed to change more often and there were a few outliers. Overall, my theory was incorrect and the water was cleaner than I anticipated.


For this experiment, we took a sample of the water almost every time I was present for a dolphin sighting. These sightings occurred anywhere from the Delaware Bay in West Cape May, to the shores of Wildwood. The times that these samples were taken differed each day depending on if I was on the boat for the 10:00AM, 13:00PM, or 18:00PM trip.


The instruments that were used for this trip were a cut gallon sized apple juice bottle, string, saltwater aquarium test strips, a GPS, a data sheet, and the Atlantic Ocean/Delaware Bay. The apple juice bottle was cut in half to resemble a small bucket. A hole was cut in the bottle so we were able to tie a string to it. The saltwater aquarium test strips had small patches that measured the nitrates, nitrites, alkalinity, and pH of the water and would change color.


Every time there was a dolphin sighting, we would enter the exact start time, start latitude, start longitude, water temperature, and depth right away. Then, we would take photographs of the dolphins in order to get the best shot of each dorsal fin for photo identification. At the end of a sighting, we would record the end time, end latitude, end longitude, any significant behaviors the dolphins were displaying, whether they were feeding or mating, and how many calves and juveniles were present. However, after taking the photographs and before entering the data, I would quickly grab my apple juice bottle and throw it over the side of the boat, let the water fill up and then pull it back up. Then, the data was entered and afterwards I would quickly place the test strip into the sample of water. After thirty seconds, I would compare the color of the test strip to all the possible colors for each parameter. This same procedure occurred every time we would stop on a group of dolphins when I was on the trip.


The first graph shows pH and alkalinity at each sighting during ebb tide. Ebb tide is when the tide is going out and heading to low tide. The size of the circle represents the total alkalinity of the water from that sighting and the color of the circle represents the pH of the water. All of these sightings are close to shore, except for one that is farther offshore in the Delaware Bay.

This graph below shows the alkalinity and pH at each sighting during flood tide. Flood tide is when the tide is heading to high tide and slowly rising. This graph is the same as the first graph with the color and size of the circles describing the values we got from each sample. Most of these values are from close to shore sightings, except for a few offshore sightings in the Atlantic Ocean.

This graph below is a compilation of both the graphs above. It shows the total alkalinity and pH from every sample taken this summer.

The graph below shows the values we got for the nitrates, nitrites, alkalinity, and pH for every sighting this summer. As you can see, the nitrates and nitrites were consistently zero while the pH and alkalinity seemed to jump from value to value every sighting.

This graph shows the average water temperature, pH, and alkalinity from each sighting this summer. You can see that the water temperature steadily increased and the pH seemed to be more consistent than the alkalinity.



It is desired for the ocean to not have any levels of nitrates or nitrites in it. However, it is very unlikely for that to happen. Nitrates and nitrites mostly come from ammonia and all animals produce ammonia when they break down proteins. Rotting food and dead fish also produce ammonia. The bacteria in the ocean will then convert the ammonia to nitrite and then again to nitrate. The Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay most likely had some levels of nitrites and nitrates, but were so small they could not be detected from my test strips. If any body of water has too much nitrates or nitrites, it will make it difficult for marine life to live. Algae and other oceanic plants use nitrates as a source of food. If the algae have an unlimited amount of food, it will continue to grow. An excess amount of algae will cause a depletion in the oxygen in the water. This will in turn cause smaller organisms to die, then the smaller fish that eat small organisms will die and so on, causing bigger and bigger fish to eventually die. This can affect the dolphins because too much algae will eventually cause the bunker or crustaceans that they eat to die, causing the dolphins to starve and then die themselves. Dolphins recently have also been found to have high levels of nitric oxide in their breath more after eating than after fasting for 12 hours. Having higher levels on nitric oxide in the bottlenose dolphins’ breath was also linked to having shorter breath hold duration. It is a good thing that the waters of Southern New Jersey did not have high levels of nitrites and nitrates in them so our bottlenose dolphins are not harmfully affected.

The alkalinity of the water every time we sampled it was in the “not desired” range. The ideal range for alkalinity in a saltwater environment is from 180-300 parts per million (ppm). The alkalinity was usually closest to 80 ppm, but there were a few times it got as low as 40 ppm or as high as 120 ppm. The pH of our samples was also a bit too low than desired. The ideal pH in a saltwater environment is 8.4. However, got 7.8 most of the time, while occasionally getting a value of 7.0 or 7.4. I believe the reason the alkalinity and pH were both too low is due to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is when carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater and chemical reactions occur that reduce seawater pH, carbonate ion concentration, and saturation states of biologically important calcium carbonate minerals.  Most skeleton and shells of marine organisms are composed of calcium carbonate minerals. Ocean acidification is causing a depletion in these minerals and therefore, affecting the ability of some organisms to produce and maintain their shells. This can affect oysters, clams, sea urchins, plankton, and coral. Like nitrification, ocean acidification will eventually have an effect on the bottlenose dolphins in the Southern New Jersey area. Bottlenose dolphins sometimes go to the ocean floor to eat clams and oysters and if acidification is harming the crustaceans, it is also indirectly harming the dolphins. Also, the food chain will be affected and the fish that eat the clams and oysters will not have any food causing a drop in their population and the same will happen to the dolphins. “Estimates of future carbon dioxide levels, based on business as usual emission scenarios, indicate that by the end of this century the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150 percent more acidic, resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years” (NOAA 1). So far, from the data that we collected, it looked as if the dolphins were not affected yet. They still seemed to be feeding at normal rates and holding their breath for longer durations. If the US and surrounding countries continue to emit high levels of carbon, the oceans are going to turn more and more acidic. Eventually, the dolphins are going to experience a depletion in their food sources.


Before starting this experiment, I was convinced that the waters around Cape May were going to be filthy and have high levels of both nitrates and nitrites due to runoff. However, I was very wrong. It eased my mind to know that a lot of rivers, bays, and oceans are still relatively clean even though the human population keeps polluting them. The water still contains high levels of oxygen and houses many healthy different species of marine life. For future research, I would like to assess if dolphins and other marine mammals are being affected in different parts of the world. Even though the Atlantic Ocean is clean in New Jersey, it may be a lot dirtier somewhere else. To keep the waters clean, we as a whole need to find ways to stop emitting so much carbon and properly recycle more of our garbage.


Gallant, Micah. “Nitrates and Their Effect on Water Quality – A Quick Study.” Wheatley River

Improvement Group, Partnership For Environmental Education and Rural Health,  

Kroeker, Kristy J., et al. “Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Organisms: Quantifying

Sensitivities and Interaction with Warming.” Global Change Biology, vol. 19, no. 6, Mar. 2013, pp. 1884–1896., doi:10.1111/gcb.12179.

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Hypoxia.”

NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 6 Oct. 2014,

“What Is Ocean Acidification?” PMEL Carbon Program,

Yeates, Laura C., et al. “Nitric Oxide in the Breath of Bottlenose Dolphins: Effects of Breath

Hold Duration, Feeding, and Lung Disease.” Marine Mammal Science, vol. 30, no. 1,

2013, pp. 272–281., doi:10.1111/mms.12037.

Shark Encounters of New Jersey

Shark Encounters of New Jersey

Arianna Nixon

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Tampa


The state of New Jersey has approximately 227 km of costal land, commonly referred to as the Jersey Shore. The Shore is known for its expansive and impressive boardwalks that contains: arcades, water parks, amusement parks, and plenty of shops to entertain tourists. Thousands of people flock to the Shore every summer to enjoy the beautiful beaches that New Jersey has to offer, with most tourists visiting from New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania.

With so many people venturing in the ocean every day, one would assume New Jersey has many shark “attacks”. In reality, shark “attacks” are incredibly rare. According to the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF) there have been 50 shark “attacks” in recorded history in the state of New Jersey. The phrase “shark attack” provokes a very powerful horrific, and bloody image. However, not all human-shark interactions that are recorded as attacks are the same. For example, one “attack” might result in no actual human-shark contact, while another one might be potentially fatal. Therefore, the term “shark attack” is very misleading to the public, creating a clear line between the victim and the villain. In reality, human-shark interactions are usually just random acts of nature.

Human-shark interactions are important to study, because they provide us with a glimpse into the sharks’ world. By understanding where and why shark interactions occur, we can help reduce the likelihood of them becoming dangerous. Places such as Florida or Australia have some of the highest numbers of shark interactions, resulting in them being traditional places of study. However, places like New Jersey attract thousands of visitors every summer. Understanding where these interactions are taking places, and why they are happening will help New Jersey maintain high numbers of visitors by aiding education efforts to tell visitors how to avoid dangerous interactions.

GSAF provides unlimited access to their incident log, because their mission is “to provide current and historical data on shark/human interaction for those who seek accurate and meaningful information and verifiable references” (Shark Research Institute, 2015). GSAF incident log provides many different types of data when available, including: date, type, country, area, location, human activity, human/humans involved information, injury, fatality, time, species, and source. The GSAF provides enough information to begin examining the human-shark interactions in New Jersey.

Scientists categorize interactions into different categories to better describe the nature of the interaction. Shark interactions have traditionally been separated into unprovoked and provoked attacks. A provoked attack includes incidents where a shark was caught, trapped, speared, injured, or in some way provoked to attack (Schultz, 1964). An unprovoked attack includes incidents where an “unprovoked” shark made physical contact with the human or their gear (Schultz, 1964). GSAF breaks down their data into four different categories: unprovoked, provoked, boating, and invalid. To be considered a boating incident, the shark must bite, or ram into a boat. Invalid interactions lack sufficient data to determine if the injury was caused by a shark, or the person drowned and the body was scavenged by sharks. For some cases, the evidence suggests that there was no shark involvement (Shark Research Institute, 2015).

According to the GSAF, New Jersey has had 50 different shark interactions. They are broken down into 25 unprovoked interactions, 13 provoked, 7 boating, and 5 invalid interactions (Shark Research Institute, 2015). Figure 1 shows a map of New Jersey and the approximate location of all 50 interactions. The latitude and longitude of the interactions were not given. Some locations were very specific, while other were very broad, such as just giving the county it occurred in. In fact, two incidents are not shown, because the only location given, was simply stated as “offshore”. Therefore, the locations shown are more of a general area, rather than an exact location. This is one limitation to the GSAF data. When available, the exact latitude and longitude should be recorded for any shark encounter. Therefore, from this information, it can be seen that all areas of the shore have encounters with sharks. However, it can also be seen, that Northern New Jersey has had a higher frequency of encounters when compared to Southern New Jersey.

The nomenclature of provoked versus unprovoked paints a very clear image. Provoked attacks are seemingly all the fault of the human, while unprovoked attacks are seemingly all the fault of the shark. This system of classifying encounters is focused on assigning blame for the interactions. Most unprovoked interactions are thought to be the result of shark feeding behavior. However, shark bites may be a result of random opportunity, interference with reproductive activity, defensive, or even if you trespass into the sharks’ space (Neff & Hueter, 2013). In actuality, very few human-shark interactions are the result of feeding behavior. Humans are not part of any species of sharks’ natural diet. This creates problems when determining if an encounter is provoked or unprovoked because the cause may not be easily determined.

Recently, new systems of classification have been proposed to more accurately describe the interactions between sharks and humans (Neff & Hueter, 2013). The term “shark sighting” is used to describe incidents where there is no physical contact between the human and shark. The term “shark encounter” is used to describe incidents where there is physical contact, but no injury. An example of a shark encounter would be a shark biting a surfboard, or bumping a swimmer with their rostrum. The term “shark bite” is used to describe incidents where there is minor to moderate injuries resulting from the shark biting the human. “Fatal shark bite” is used to describe incidents where the injury is serious enough that the human dies as a result. The purpose of this system, is to focus on the outcome of the incident rather than the motivation, thus creating a more objective look at human-shark interactions (Neff & Hueter, 2013). This nomenclature was used to reclassify the interaction provided by the GSAF. Table 1 shows the amount of interactions for each classification in order to compare the two different types of nomenclature.  

Nomenclature #1 Amount Nomenclature #2 Amount
Unprovoked 25 Sighting 0
Provoked 13 Encounter 17
Boating 7 Bite 23
Invalid 5 Fatal Bite 5
Total 50 Invalid 5
Total 50

Table 1: Amount of human-shark interactions for the state of New Jersey using two different methods of classification. Nomenclature #1 is the traditional method used by GSAF, while Nomenclature #2 is a more recent method proposed by Neff and Hueter.


The Neff and Hueter system of classification gives a very clear picture as to the outcome of the interaction. For example, it should be noted that 17 out of the 45 “attacks” resulted in no human injury. The original nomenclature did not allow any clear picture that almost 40% of all attacks did not result in any injury. However, there is no accountability for when humans do something stupid when using the Neff and Heuter nomenclature. For example, many of the interactions listed as bites, were a result of the shark biting a fisherman after they were dragged aboard a fishing vessel. In cases such as these, the bites were purely out of self-defense. Neither system of nomenclature gives a clear picture to these situations. That is why, I propose the use of a mixture of both systems to create the clearest picture possible. The Neff and Hueter method should be the primary method of classification, because it creates the clearest image of the reality of what these interactions look like. However, when describing an interaction, especially to the media it is important to accept blame when it is clearly the humans fault that the interaction was a negative one. Table 2 shows the same 50 interactions, reclassified to fit the newly proposed system. The nomenclature of unprovoked was replaced with unidentified, because the cause for the interaction is still unknown. These interactions could have been a result of curiosity, territoriality, reproduction, ect. While we don’t know why the interaction occurred, this does not automatically mean they were unprovoked. This word unprovoked places blame, when in reality we don’t know why the interaction occurred. However, the interactions with the distinction of being provoked, were a result of the humans unintentionally, or intentionally harming the shark. Therefore, the blame placed was clear and justified. This new system gives a clear picture as to what interactions are needed for further study. Provoked interactions do not require further study, because it was a random event. The unidentified interactions require further study, so that we are better able to predict, and eliminate similar interactions in the future.

New Nomenclature Amount
Encounter (Provoked) 3
Encounter (Unidentified) 7
Bite (Provoked) 6
Bite (Unidentified) 17
Fatal Bite (Provoked) 0
Fatal Bite (Unidentified) 5
Invalid 5
Boating 7
Total 50

Table 2: New Jersey human-shark interactions reclassified under a new proposed system of nomenclature of classifying interactions to more accurately describe what occurred.


When most people hear the phrase “shark attack” they assume that the result was death. However, a fatal shark interaction is incredibly rare. On average, only five people die from shark attacks every year (Handwerk, 2005). You are more likely to be struck by lightning, or killed by a vending machine then killed by a shark. Using nomenclature that expresses this is important, so that we can work to reverse the negative stigma that we have created against sharks. Figure 2 shows a map of the five fatal bites. An interesting thing to mention, is that four of the five fatal interactions occurred in 1916, all occurring in the span of twelve days. The fifth fatal interaction occurred in 1926. Therefore, New Jersey hasn’t had a fatal shark interaction long before modern medicine.

The biggest limit to our understanding of why these interactions occur, is a lack of data. GSAF is a compilation of many different sources. Unfortunately, many interactions occur with no scientists nearby. This means we are relying upon human accounts to be accurate and unbiased. GSAF reports the investigator or source for every shark encounter. This results in many gaps in the data. There are very few interactions that have even a guess of the species of shark involved. Additionally, the exact activities of the human are not always well reported.  For example, for case 1931.08.06.R, the source was the New York Times, and no information was given on the interaction besides the fact that it involved a soldier who survived. This makes it hard to establish what happened that lead to the interaction. GSAF has obtained all possible information on these interactions, however there are many gaps that makes it hard to make conclusions about any of the unidentified interactions.

Historically, sharks used to only be a product of superstition passed down from sailors as nothing more than a legend. In the early 1900’s, most people outside of Australia did not believe that sharks attacked people, even though there was evidence dating back more than 2000 years that sharks did “attack” people (Francis, 2012). The four fatal attacks in 1916 stunned Americans, causing a panic that had never been felt before in the United States. The film Jaws premiered on June 20, 1975, sparking a new-found fear of man-eating sharks (Francis, 2012). Unfortunately, we are still feeling the effects of this fear. The media can now rely on the presence of sharks to attract the publics interest, as long as they have a scary enough headline. Recreational hunting for sharks rose in 1975, with shark killing tournaments becoming increasingly popular (Francis, 2012). For example, there in an annual South Jersey Shark Tournament in Cape May where they compete to catch the heaviest sharks. Unfortunalty, our perception of sharks has always been one of misunderstanding and fear.

Humans are instinctually afraid of anything that we know little about. However, that does not give us the right to kill or harm these top predators. For every human killed by a shark, humans kill over two million sharks (Handwerk, 2005). We have allowed the media and others to dictate the language of human-shark interactions. It is clear that not all shark “attacks” are created equal. If we are going to change people’s fear into understanding, then we need to further understand what these interactions actually look like. The first step, is to change the language. Human-shark interactions need to be described in a way that accurately shows what happens without placing any unjust blame. The victims of many of these interactions were more than just the human. Sharks are victims of our misplaced fear, more than humans are victims of the rarely violent interactions.  


Francis, B. (2012). Before and After “Jaws”: Changing Representations of Shark Attacks. The Great Circle, 44-64.

Handwerk, B. (2005, June 13). Shark Facts: Attack Stats, Record Swims,. Retrieved from National Geographic.

Neff, C., & Hueter, R. (2013). Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”; a proposal for reclassifying human-shark interactions. Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, 65-73.

Schultz, L. P. (1964). Attacks by Sharks as Related to the Activities of Man. In Sharks and Survival (pp. 425-452).

Shark Research Institute. (2015). Retrieved from Global Shark Attack File :

A World of Plastic

Marine debris is any man-made solid material that has been directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed or abandoned into the marine environment (NOAA, What is marine debris?). 60% to 80% of all marine debris is composed of plastic (Derraik 2002). Plastics are lightweight, durable, and cheap synthetic organic polymers. This has allowed them to invade all aspects of our everyday life. The same qualities that make plastic useful also make them harmful. Plastic is lightweight enough that it is buoyant, resulting in long dispersal distances. Additionally, its durability results in it taking 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. Meaning that every piece of plastic made still exists in some form (D’Alessandro, 2014). Finally, its cheap nature results in exuberant amounts of plastic being used and manufactured daily. Unfortunately, the results of our plastic dependency are not pleasant for the marine environment

Massive amounts of plastics find their way into our oceans daily. Approximately 269,000 tons of plastic float on the ocean surface, while four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer cover the deep sea (Parker, 2015). The plastic found includes lost or discarded fishing gear, industrial, and domestic products (NOAA, Plastics). They enter the marine environment through improper waste management, littering on shorelines or at sea, and storm water runoff (NOAA, Plastics). 80% of marine debris enters the water through land-based sources, such as runoff or improper waste management. The other 20% comes direct from ocean-based littering (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Therefore, we are all to blame for the plastic entering our oceans, whether we live by an ocean or not.

The presence of plastic creates many negative effects on the marine environment. 267 species are impacted by marine plastic pollution worldwide, including fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Fatalities can result from ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Marine animals and birds will consume plastic in various forms because they confuse them for food. This plastic can block digestion, accumulate in the stomach resulting in a loss of appetite, or even block airways of sea birds. Many species are highly susceptible to entanglement of marine debris, such as sea turtles or marine mammals. For example, young fur seals will roll in marine debris, tangling themselves. As they grow, they can suffocate, gain infections, or it can impede their ability to capture food and avoid predation (Derraik, 2002).  Unfortunalty, after they die and decompose, the plastic is now free to entangle its next victim. Plastic debris will also transport invasive marine species through ocean currents, including: bacteria, diatoms, algae, barnacles, hydroids, and tunicates. The arrival of alien taxa to a new area can create negative effects across ecosystems. Additionally, it has been estimated that 80-85% of the ocean floor is covered in plastic debris. Plastic inhibits gas exchange between the ocean and the sediment, creating hypoxic or anoxic conditions (Derraik 2002). Plastic debris negatively impacts all members of the marine environment.

Taken by Arianna Nixon at Sunset Beach in Cape May, – 2017

A new area of research in the world of plastic pollution is microplastics.  Plastics that are less than five millimeters long are considered microplastics (NOAA,What are microplastics?). One source of microplastics is the degradation of larger plastic debris into smaller pieces. Another large source of microplastics are microbeads. Microbeads are manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added to health and beauty products such as toothpaste and facial cleansers (NOAA, What are microplastics?). These microplastics will easily pass through water and waste filtration systems and quickly end up in the ocean. The threats of microplastics are still widely unknown, and is an emerging field of study.

The real question, is what can we do about this? Aboard both the American and Atlantic Star, we have created the Clean Ocean Initiative, a part of our NJ-Non Profit; Whale and Dolphin Research Center of Cape May. This means that we collect all marine debris found on all dolphin and whale watching tours. We use the collection as an opportunity to engage and educate all guests on the prevention of marine debris. The most common item collected include: balloons, plastic bags, and rope. However, the elimination of marine debris starts with us at home. The first things to do is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reducing our plastic use should be our first goal, especially single use plastic. The elimination of plastic water bottles, and plastic bags is a great first step in limiting our plastic use. When plastic use is unavoidable, reusing and recycling are additional steps to help reducing our impact.  The most important step to reducing our plastic consumption, is to spread the word to those around us. Educating others to do their part can help create an entire community of people working to reduce our footprint on the world.

-Arianna Nixon, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Tampa

Works Cited
Clean Water Action. (n.d.). The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from
D’Alessandro, N. (2014, April 7). 22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It). Retrieved from EcoWatch:
Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine enviornment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 842-852.
NOAA. (n.d.). Plastics . Retrieved from
NOAA. (n.d.). What are microplastics? Retrieved from
NOAA. (n.d.). What is marine debris? Retrieved from
Parker, L. (2015, January 11). Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Question Remain. Retrieved from National Geographic :

Predator or Prey?

Predator or Prey?

For over 400 million years, sharks have greatly inhabited the ocean’s open waters. However, in a recent turn of events, their populations are beginning to decline due to human’s two greatest instincts; fear and food.

For a long time, humans and sharks lived in peace. The idea that sharks were mostly harmless and that they don’t actually bite people, was the popular belief of the time. We ignored them for the most part and they ignored us, however in 1916, everything changed. A series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey created a nationwide panic, that would soon get the name the “twelve days of terror”. Beginning on July 1st and continuing until the 12th, five people were attacked and only one person survived. This was not only one of the greatest tragedies of the time, but also one of the inspirations for the well known movie and book, “Jaws”. After these attacks, the distrust towards sharks began to increase greatly and thus started their very own century of terror for these creatures of the sea.

There are three main reasons shark populations are decreasing; shark finning, food, and the ongoing fear. After these attacks, people began to see these docile creatures as the fierce man-eaters that these animals are described as today. In a way, sharks became the bogeyman of the sea and everyone was out for their blood. These creatures, once apex predators, have now become the prey. For years now, their populations have been declining and are continuing to do so. It is said that we are losing around 100 million sharks every year, whether for food or simply for the pleasure of hunting them.

One of the methods for hunting sharks is called shark finning. This is when a fisherman will simply cut off the dorsal fin of the shark and throw the leftover body back into the ocean, usually still alive. Because of its cultural significance, the dorsal fin is the most expensive part of the whole body. In quite a lot of Chinese cultures, shark fin soup is a fine delicacy that promotes the status of the families, so their need for shark fins is incredibly high.

We had THREE more sightings of #Hammerheadsharks today!!! #Awesome day on the water! #sharkweek #sharkweek2015 #sharkweekeveryweek #capemay #newjersey

A post shared by CM Whale Watch & Research Ctr (@capemaywhalewatch_researchctr) on

In every ecosystem, there is a certain balance that is needed in order to maintain a successful and healthy world. However, with the decline of these shark populations, scientists are beginning to worry that they may cause torrential consequences for the environment, if it continues. Because of how complicated these systems are, one little ripple or disturbance could completely disrupt everything that the environment has sustained for so long. There have been a few conservation efforts, such as the “2010 Shark Conservation Act”, however, it is important that we make more progress if we still wish to see these creatures in the future.  

-Sarah Caplan, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Roanoke College


  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017,
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017,
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017,

New Ways of Propulsion Discovered in Humpback Whales

Humpback whales have always been characterized by their large pectoral fins. In fact their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to “big winged New Englander,” paying homage to their nearly 15 foot fins. These fins are specifically designed to be extremely hydrodynamic, allowing for easy movement through the water, despite their size. They are so efficient, that many wind turbine blades are designed based off of these fins.

Photo credit: CMWWRC Database 2012

Their pectoral fins are often used in social behaviors known as “pec slapping,” which is when a humpback whale will raise its pectoral fin up in the air while on its back or side, and slap it against the water. This behavior is believed to be a form of non-verbal communication for whales, which can be seen on both breeding and feeding grounds. Though it is unsure why exactly humpback whales pec slap, but there are several hypotheses. One is that it is a way that the whale shows frustration, while others suggest that it is a playful behavior.

Logistically, it has long been thought that the pectoral fins are used for steering, something these 45 foot mammals do exceptionally well, especially when their size is taken into consideration. However, a recent study done out of Stanford University suggests that humpbacks also used them for propulsion.

Photo credit: CMWWRC Database 2012

Using relatively new video tagging technology, researchers were able to study the movement of these whales in an unprecedented way. They were able to find that the whales would occasionally flap their fins like a penguin would while swimming underwater. This flapping would cause a very short boost in acceleration for the whale. The researchers believe that this is not something the whale can do frequently, due to the fact that likely requires a lot of energy, but can be very beneficial to the whale if it needs to travel short distances very quickly.

They also suggest that this propulsion is highly beneficial when lunge feeding, which is when a whale goes through a bait ball in a short burst of swimming with its mouth wide open. Like all other propulsion, it was always thought that this lunge was created by the undulation of the tail. But this study shows that, in some instances, it may be caused by the flapping of the pectoral fins.

The study also notes that it is likely that humpbacks are the only species capable of using this flapping mechanism for propulsion, because they are the only marine mammal with pectoral fins long enough to create such propulsion.

-Andrea Jelaska, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, Wheaton College


Sea Isle City Dolphin Stranding on Wednesday, July 12 2017

On Wednesday, July 12, 2017 there was a stranding of a spotted dolphin on the 49th street beach in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. The dolphin was reported to be seen in the surf around 11:22 am and beached itself not shortly thereafter. Initial observations suggested the dolphin was sick and was trying to beach itself. There was also visual bleeding lacerations to the skin of the dolphin most likely from either a boat strike or from rolling in the sand. Sea Isle Beach Patrol on duty quickly responded to the beaching, cooling the dolphin off with wet towels and buckets of cool water until the Marine Mammal Stranding Center arrived on scene. The dolphin died a bit later and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center is awaiting the results of the necropsy.


The initial interesting point of this case is the species of dolphin that washed ashore. Instead of the usual bottlenose dolphin seen swimming in the surf all along the Jersey Shore, the species that washed ashore was a spotted dolphin. The Atlantic Spotted Dolphin is seen  generally offshore along the waters of the continental shelf. Consequently, this individual spotted dolphin being so close to shore suggests it may have been very ill.

This leads into the next very interesting point as to what could cause such expert marine navigators and swimmers to beach themselves. There are many different factors that can go into a singular stranding, but many scientist attribute most strandings seen today to shipping noise, marine sonar, pollution, shark attacks, and illness. This being said, only about fifty percent of all stranding cases worldwide have a determined cause. In the Sea Isle case this past week, the assumption of illness is the most probable cause. The most common illness for dolphins in the United States is dolphin morbillivirus (DMV). This virus can have detrimental side effects including: skin lesions, pneumonia, brain infection, and  secondary or latent infections. All of this can disorient the dolphin, cause it to beach itself.

All in all, marine mammal strandings do occur all along the Jersey Shore for a variety of different reasons. If a stranding occurs at your beach, it is important to call the Marine Mammal Stranding Center (609-266-0538) immediately. Also remember not to touch or try and move the animals until a professional trained in marine mammal strandings in there.  


-Rachel Sandquist, University of Miami

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Craig, Daniel. “Videos: Lifeguards Rescue Dolphin Stranded on Jersey Shore Beach.” PhillyVoice. Philly Voice, 12 July 2017. Web. 15 July 2017.
Press, Associated. “Stranded Dolphin Rescued by Sea Isle City Beach Patrol Dies.” Press of Atlantic City. N.p., 13 July 2017. Web. 15 July 2017.
Fisheries, NOAA. “Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (Stenella Frontalis).” NOAA Fisheries. NOAA, 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 July 2017.
Borrell, Brendan. “Why Do Whales Beach Themselves?” Scientific American. Scientific American, 01 June 2009. Web. 15 July 2017.
Fisheries, NOAA. “2013-2015 Bottlenose Dolphin Unusual Mortality Event in the Mid-Atlantic.” NOAA Fisheries. NOAA, 03 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 July 2017.

The Importance of Oyster Restoration

Oysters are a bivalve species, which feed mainly on phytoplankton, algae, and other small particles within the ocean. They feed by pumping large amounts of water into their bodies. The water is then pumped over their gills, where it is then, trapped by the mucus in their gills, and then the food particles are transported to the oyster’s esophagus and stomach (Bay backpack). When oysters feed, they filter large amounts of water, which helps in removing pollutants, algae, and other small particles out of the water, and thus helping with the water quality in their habitat. In fact, an adult oyster can filter about 25 to 50 gallons of water a day (Robertson 2015)!
Not only are oysters great for filtering water, but they are also an important habitat for different kinds of fish, crabs, invertebrates, and sea grass! And, as many people know, are commonly harvested for food.

mage of aged, bagged oyster shell that is ready to be used as the hard substrate that the juvenile oysters will attach to during the process of oyster restoration.

Unfortunately in recent years oysters have not been doing as well as they once have. This is mainly because of over harvesting, disease, ocean acidification, and other changes in water quality. Along the east coast of the United States the main threat to the oysters tends to be water quality, and over harvesting. Oysters have been harvested for over 300 years in certain areas, and we are now beginning to notice the decline in oysters in these regions, as well as the deterioration in water quality (Oysters).
With the declining populations of these bivalves, oyster restoration is more important than ever. Oyster restoration is the process of rebuilding or restoring oyster reefs. This process involves taking clean oyster shell and juvenile oysters, typically raised in hatcheries, and trying to grow them onto the shell, so that it will have the hard substrate it needs to survive and grow larger (Technical Aspects of Oyster Restoration). Due to the over harvesting of oysters, it has become difficult for oysters to reproduce because many of the larger oysters that are harvested are the older individuals, which are usually the females (Oysters). This causes there to be less eggs for the oyster’s sperm to fertilize, thus creating less new oysters to colonize the reef.
Over harvesting, habitat destruction, turbulence, and water quality has also made it difficult for juvenile oysters to find another oyster shell, or another hard substrate to attach to, because of the lack of shells that are suitable for them to attach to. Many times after oysters are harvested and eaten, very little of the shells ever go back into the ocean. Many are simply thrown out in the garbage after being consumed. Oyster restoration helps with this problem by recycling used shell, and supplying clean and aged oyster shell, or sometimes other types of shell like whelk shell. Many times the shells come from seafood restaurants, volunteers in the community that collect the shell, or they are bought from fishermen.
The way many oyster restoration projects grow the oysters is by first setting the shell in a tank, and then releasing the juveniles that are just about old enough to attach to a shell. After a few days they will begin to settle and after a few weeks they grow larger and you are able to count how many oysters settled on the shells. Once the oysters are a little larger they are then released in what will hopefully become a healthy reef. Even after the oysters are released the reefs are regularly monitored to see how they are growing, and people are not allowed to harvest them in these areas, which helps with the declining populations as well.

Image of juvenile oysters under a light microscope, taken by Alex Blanchet with Stockton University

With the help of locals in our communities, scientists, and others who are eager to learn, help, and protect our marine ecosystems, oyster restoration can become a huge success. Helping with these projects improves water quality in the area, increase the population of oysters in the area, as well as eventually creating more biodiversity within the area due to the increased abundance of oysters and the quality of the water.

-Alexandra Blanchet, Stockton University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Robertson, J. (2015, August 5). Ode to Oysters (or, Happy National Oyster Day!) [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Bay Backpack. (n.d.). How does an Oyster Filter Water? [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Oysters. (n.d.). NOAA. Retrieved from
Technical Aspects of Oyster Restoration. (n.d.). NOAA. Retrieved from
Other references: