13 May 2011 Back in the Gulf: Life Without Wings Posted by: Caitlin Leutwiler | Leave a comment | Share: Skipjack tuna Birds are hardly the only marine life we see during this Gulf study. One morning out at sea I see a shiny, transparent piece of debris bobbing on a wave. Oh no, I think; it looks like plastic, of a size and appearance to pose a real danger to any sea turtles thinking to get an easy meal. But it is entirely natural, a Portuguese man-of-war “jellyfish.” It has a body consisting of a translucent gas-filled, bladder-like float tinted pink, blue, or violet, part of which forms a crest which functions as a sail for drifting movement across the sea. Underneath this float is a cluster of polyps from which hang tentacles of up to 165 feet long. These pelagic colonial hydroids or hydrozoans are infamous for their very powerful, painful stings. One of the Gordon Gunter’s very own crew members was stung fiercely during a swim at the beach last week in Key West. Our crew is fanatical about fish, and fishing. During daylight hours, we trail a line or two far behind the ship while it is underway, hoping to catch our lunch or supper. We are not disappointed. Mahi-mahi (also known as dolphin-fish or dorado) are our most frequent catch. The intense blue, yellow, and green colors of these predators are visible even when the fish is several feet below the ocean surface. In addition to those caught, it is not unusual to see two or three scattered around anything floating, a wooden board, a small plastic float, a patch of Sargassum weed. Spinner dolphins We also catch several wahoo, a torpedo-shaped member of the mackerel family highly regarded by many gourmets. Some wahoo have reached 8 feet in length, and weigh up to 180 pounds. Today we catch a small skip-jack tuna, a fish that schools up and roils the water during its feeding frenzies. And above those frenzies hover birds, numerous and diverse, hoping to seize a small fish being chased by the larger ones. Although not tallied in large numbers, two of the three marine mammals we do see are species I’ve never seen before. In addition to the widespread bottlenose dolphin, we see a small pod of pan-tropical spotted dolphin, dashing in to playfully ride the bow wave of the ship. Compared to their larger cousins, the Atlantic spotted dolphin, the spots on this species are smaller, at times entirely absent, but their upper and lower jaws separated by thin white “lips” on their long beak confirm their identity. And one evening at dusk, another dolphin pod sneaks up on the Gunter from the stern. I notice a very long, erect dorsal fin, not as swept-backward as on most dolphins. Could it be? After one dolphin playfully breaches through the water, doing a double-axel role before splashing back down, there is no doubt: these are spinner dolphins, a species I have long wanted to see. Leatherback turtle Throughout our winter and spring surveys this year, we have seen very few sea turtles in the Gulf. But this day I am rewarded twice over. Not just one, but two huge leatherback turtles. This endangered species is the largest, deepest-diving, most migratory and wide-ranging of all sea turtles. Some leatherback turtles reach 2,000 pounds! One is so close to the ship that I can clearly see the large pink spot on the top if its head, each spot as unique and useful as our fingerprints for determining individual identity. Learn more: Stay tuned for more tales from the Gulf! Click here to read Chris’ other accounts of life at sea. One year later, Defenders continues to fight for wildlife in the Gulf. Click here to learn more about what we’re doing and see what YOU can do to help! Post Your Comment Click here to cancel reply. Name (required) Mail (required) (will not be published) You May also be interested in Wolf Weekly Wrap-Up Helicopter gunning kills 23 wolves in Idaho; Urge Secretary Jewell to abandon gray wolf delisting proposal — Call your representative by March 14; Washington wildlife agency urged to end support for abolishing federal wolf protections; The latest on Governor Otter’s wolf control board. Two Too Many Development Projects in the Ivanpah Valley While these projects most definitely directly impact a species that has been identified as threatened and is dependent on the habitat where they would be built, Silver State South and Stateline’s approval is most troubling for a bigger reason. You see, this isn’t just an issue for the Ivanpah Valley. Developers and agencies need to be conscious of how and where they plan energy projects all across the country. They need to look at renewable energy planning with a landscape-wide lens, understanding that building in the right places and making an effort to minimize environmental impacts from the start are essential. California’s Rim Fire: Opportunities Rise from the Ashes After California’s devastating Rim Fire, will officials take the opportunity to give nature a chance to fully recover?