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Walking with Jellyfish

Summer by the Sea


It’s no big surprise, but some of the best days of summer seem to come toward the end. Last week was an example. It was warm and beautiful and made you long for more. When I walked from Ellwood to Devereux, I experienced the overwhelming heat everyone else in the country has been feeling all along, and then the relief of ending up with my feet in the cool water at the beach.

Cat Neushul

As I walked, I looked over and saw a group of dolphins swimming along next to us. It seemed as though they were so close that I could have touched them. I found myself mesmerized as we continued to walk next to them for quite a distance.

It’s not unusual to see dolphins. Surfers often end up next to them in the waves. Dolphins do like to surf. But each time I see them it’s a kind of reminder. Just when I start to forget what makes Santa Barbara so special, I see something incredible, and remember not to forget.

I realized then that I’d never even wondered what kind of dolphins we see off our coast or where they come from. After a little research I found out: We can find the common and bottlenose dolphins in the Channel Islands and surrounding areas.

Dolphins have become a symbol of what needs to be saved. I’ve never looked at dolphins the same way after seeing The Cove, a documentary about the slaughter of dolphins near a Japanese town. It was so disturbing that I couldn’t watch the whole thing. By the time the dolphin meat from the slaughters ended up in markets in large cities in Japan, relabeled as something else, I had seen enough.

You can see ocean life in a less disturbed state by heading out to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which harbors all sorts of fascinating animals. You might even get to see a shark up close and personal. Better there than while surfing at Sands, though I do know people who have swum with sharks—by accident rather than design.

Another incredible thing I experienced at the beach this summer was a view of jellyfish, tons of them. One not-so-warm day, we went down to the beach and saw dead jellyfish lying along the shoreline. If you walked out just a short distance you could find tons of live ones swimming in the water near the shoreline. They were at least a foot in diameter. To say it was a beautiful sight would be an understatement. While I was intrigued, I did try to keep my distance. I wasn’t interested in getting stung.

When I start to think about all the wonderful things we get exposed to in the Santa Barbara area, I also start to worry about who is protecting these beautiful things. I decided to start with the dolphins, searching for groups involved in protection efforts. While I came across references to many groups doing research in other parts of the world, I found few people studying dolphins here.

One of the names that came up as a local organization was Protect Our Dolphins (POD), a group directed by Toni Frohoff, a researcher who focuses on environmental issues and is cofounder of a nonprofit called TerraMar TerraMar Research. The recently formed POD is going to focus on the plight of the bottlenose dolphin in one of its first projects. Research goals include identifying the size of the population, which may be as small as 350 individuals in our surrounding waters, and finding out what is causing the lesions and contamination plaguing these dolphins. If you are like me, you are horrified to learn that there are as few as 350 bottlenose dolphins in our surrounding water, and, worse, what’s harming them may well be our overconsumption and polluting ways.

Researchers at UCSB are also working on ways to protect the aquatic environment. At the Marine Science Institute (MSI) at UCSB, there are researchers looking into all sorts of ocean-related issues. Among other things they are identifying where fish live and how they reproduce. Some are looking into the effects of the offshore oil platforms on ocean flora and fauna. (Much of this research takes place in the Love Lab, named after Milton Love, a research zoologist.)

In another project at MSI, a researcher is looking into ways to protect the marine ecosystem and fisheries. In 2003, Dr. Steven Gaines received a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship to study the implementation of a statewide system of marine reserves. Since then he has been researching how best to evaluate how reserves affect marine populations. He is also looking into population and species movement in response to climate change.

With all the beauty we have around us, it might be time to stop just looking and start thinking about how we are going to make sure that our kids’ kids get to surf with the dolphins and swim with the jellyfish.

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