By Zamin Syed
Photo by Venessa Mignon
Today, I’m going to talk to you about my favourite species of whales: Humpback Whales
Whales or Cetaceans are marine mammals, they are split into two general types, “Odontocetes” which include the toothed whales and dolphins and “Mysticeti” which are the Baleen Whales. Humpback Whales are baleen whales that range in size from around 50-62 ft, Females are usually larger than Males! They live in seas and oceans around the world and carry long migrations of about 25,000 km each year from where they feed in polar waters in the summer to waters around the equator in the winter to breed. They have a life span that ranges from 45 to about a 100 years! Their diet consists of krill, small fish like herrings/sardines and plankton. Humpback Whales also have different techniques to trap fish such as Bubble net feeding. They gulp enormous mouthfuls of their prey and seawater. Using their baleen plates, they then filter out the water. Due to their size humpback whales need to eat a lot of prey to survive. In fact, an adult humpback whale can consume up to 1360kg of food each day! Please watch this video of humpbacks performing bubble net feeding off the coast of Alaska.
Photo by Hawaii Wildlife Fund
Humpback whales are quite easy to identify because of their long pectoral fin, the prominent hump and their Tail Fluke. As Humpback whales are mammals and not fish, they breathe air when they come to the surface of the water through their blow holes. Humpbacks are considered a whale watchers favourite species because they tend to dwell on the surface of the water for long periods of time and have distinctive behaviour such as breaching, and fin-slapping. I had the opportunity to go whale watching along with my class in the Bay of Fundy, just off Brier Island, NS and got to witness these beautiful animals.
Here’s a picture we took of a male humpback whale breaching
Other than their natural beauty itself, my favourite characteristic of Humpback whales are their “vocalizations” that range from low whistles to high pitched squeals and rumbling. Whales have no vocal cords like us humans, so they produce sound through a structure in their throat. Although both male and females can vocalize, males are the ones that produce complex songs which travel long distances through the ocean. Studies have shown that males may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Another interesting fact is that whales within a large area, sing a single song. For example, all North Atlantic humpback whales sing the same song and North Pacific whales sing a different song. Scientists still don’t know the exact purpose of these whale songs, but they think it is to attract females or communicate with other males. Click here to hear a beautiful male humpback whale song.
By Kayla Hamelin
There are a lot of interesting creatures living out there in the ocean. Some of them, like jellyfish, we can see floating in the water. Others, like periwinkle snails, we can find clinging on our rocky shores. Today, I will introduce you to an amazing group of creatures that you might not have seen before – they’re called flatfishes!
(Pro Tip: How do you make the word “fish” plural? If you’re talking about individuals from the same species, you can just say FISH! If you’re talking about individuals from different species, you should say FISHES!)
Hippoglossus hippoglossus, also known as Atlantic Halibut!
The flatfish group includes a whole bunch of different species such as flounder, plaice, and halibut. They have one thing in common – they have a unique flattened shape! Some fishes that have a flat shape, like skates and rays, are “dorsoventrally flattened”, which means that they look squished flat on their bellies. The flatfishes that I am writing about today are different because they are “laterally” flattened, which means that they are flattened side to side.
Flatfishes are typically predators and their favourite foods include crustaceans, molluscs, polychaete worms, and smaller fishes. These flat friends are mostly bottom-dwelling and they usually prefer a soft substrate (that means a squishy bottom like mud or sand). Because of their shape, when they are resting near the bottom, they aren’t resting on their belly like a skate or ray – they are lying on their side!
Hippoglossu hippoglossus (photo by Charles Hendron)
Flatfish always look on the bright side… because both of their eyes are on the side of their head facing up into the water, rather than down towards the ground! This makes their face look a little bit funny. However, they aren’t born with this shape. When they’re young, they start swimming around like a regular fish and then they eventually start swimming tipped over on one side. As a result of swimming on their side, the eye on the underside of their body migrates around to their upper side! As a fully developed fish, they swim on their side with both of their eyes looking upwards, while their underside is “blind”. Some species become “right-eyed” and some are “left-eyed”, depending on which side of their body faces up.
Smile! (Hippoglossus hippoglossus, photo by Charles Hendron)
My favourite flatfish is the mighty Atlantic halibut. Here are my top 3 Atlantic halibut facts:
1)Atlantic halibut have a really fun scientific name: Hippoglossus hippoglossus. Try saying that 5 times fast! Hippoglossus is Latin for “horse tongue”, which apparently refers to the shape of the fish.
2)Atlantic halibut is the largest groundfish in Atlantic Canada! They can be more than 2.5 m long and can tip the scales at more than 300 kg. That’s a big fish!
3)Atlantic halibut are really deep… literally! They are most abundant at depths of 200– 500 m in deepwater channels between offshore banks and along the continental shelf.
While you might not be able to go out into the deep sea to find an Atlantic halibut, the fishermen in our area certainly know about them! They are one of the most commercially-valuable fish harvested in Atlantic Canada. You might be able to spot one of their smaller cousins, like a flounder, right here in Halifax harbour. Keep your eyes peeled for these fishy friends hanging out near the seabed next time you’re out for an ocean adventure!
by Leah Robertson
“What are those jellyfish in the water?!”
Every spring and early summer, Nova Scotia gets a group of fabulous visitors in our waters. I have seen so many people hanging their head over the side of the Halifax boardwalk trying to get a better look at these tiny mysteries. But today we are breaking the mystery for you. So what are they? They go by many names including ‘disco jellies’, ‘ctenes’, or ‘comb jellies’, but their mouthful of a scientific name is Ctenophora. [Pronounced “teen-OH-four-ah”]. Now these extravagant little jellies are many things but the one thing they are not is jellyfish!
Sea Gooseberry Ctenophora (we have these in Nova Scotia too!) (photo: copyright Kare Telnes from seawater.no)
While Ctenophora may have the gelatinous form we are used to seeing in ‘jellyfish’ (which is classified scientifically at Cnidiarians), there are a few hallmark reasons that make them their own phylum and a very fun animal to observe:
Don’t fear! Ctenophora can’t sting you. This is one of the most noteworthy differences between Ctenophora and Cnidarians (aka jellfyfish!). They do not have what are called cnidocytes which deliver the stringing feeling we get when we touch the tentacles of a jellyfish. However, even though they can’t sting you we still recommend observing them at a safe distance. Since ctenophora have a soft jelly-like body it is very easy to injure these little wonders.
How do they get around? I am so glad that you asked! Ctenphora are the largest organisms that move by ‘cilia’. Cilia are very tiny hairs that typically bacteria use to move around. Ctenophora have eight rows of the cilia attached to their body which move in tandem to help them get around. Slow and steady wins the race with ctenes! See how they move here.
Lobed Comb Jelly (Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium)
Hey! Why do they look different? Both of these pictures are ctenophora, but are different species. Ctenophora really do come in all shapes and sizes. Ctenophora have lots of different species and some have beautiful long tentacles and some are nice and oval shaped without any additional appendages. Often in Nova Scotia, we have multiple different species of ctenohpora in our waters at the same time.
What is the RAINBOW? Ctenophora are often mistaken are being “bioluminescent” which is the process where organisms give off their own light. Now some species of Ctenophora are biolumensect, but most often if you are seeing beautiful rainbow colours it is from the light refracting off the tiny beating cilia! We love to call them disco jellies for this reason! What do you think their favourite disco song is to synchronously move their rows of cilia to? (My bet is on Stayin’ Alive!).
Ctenophore inside another ctenophore, ctenophore are sometimes eaten by larger fish, or larger ctenophores (photo: Magali Grégoire)
They are CARNIVORES? Yes! While tiny and innocent looking, ctenophora do eat other animals (albeit animals tinier than them). They generally eat small zooplankton. But comb jellies themselves are often eaten by larger fish!
You can watch this video to see them engulf food.
So next time you see a comb jelly in the water, make sure you tell a friend all about these often-mistaken but amazing animals!
by Kayla Hamelin
When you live in Nova Scotia, it is obvious that fishing is an important part of the culture and economy of Atlantic Canada. Fishing vessels fill our harbours. Folks head down to their local pier – rod in hand - to cast a line and see what bites. Seafood restaurants and markets abound. People fish for fun, for food, and for work.
As I begin my PhD research in fisheries science, I am gaining a greater appreciation for the wide range of species harvested off our shores. Out there under the “big blue blanket” are incredible invertebrates like the gangling snow crab, and formidable flatfish like the massive Atlantic halibut. However, there is one species that has really charmed me – the Atlantic mackerel, also known as Scomber scombrus. The more I learn about these fin-tastic friends, the more I am hooked!
Mackerel are a marine, pelagic fish, which means that they live in the open water column of the ocean, rather than on the bottom or at the shore. They have beautiful bodies well-adapted for camouflage in the ocean, with shimmery blue on their backs, silvery undersides, and squiggly stripes down their backs and flanks. You may notice the tiny finlets (mini, nonretractable fins) on their caudal peduncle (a funky name for the area where the body meets the tail fin). These finlets help with their high-performance swimming and are a feature shared with some of the larger members of their Scombridae family, including the mighty tunas and bonitos.
Mackerel are relatively small, measuring up to about 40 cm (a bit more than a foot) in length and about 1 kg in mass. However, there is strength in numbers, and these schooling fish like to swim together in large groups to stay safe from predators. Fun fact: unlike many of their relatives, mackerel do not have a swim bladder, the gas-filled organ that helps many fish to control their buoyancy. Without a swim bladder, mackerel must follow Dory’s advice and just keep swimming!
Atlantic mackerel can be found on both sides of the Atlantic, so we share this special species with our friends in Europe. Here in North America, they range from the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in the north all the way down to North Carolina in the south.
Mackerel always play an important role in the marine ecosystem. They are known as “forage fish” because they act as an important food source for larger animals such as marine mammals, sharks, and other larger fish. Mackerel themselves prefer to eat small invertebrates such as zooplankton. As a result, they act as an important link in the ecosystem, passing food energy up through the food web to the top marine predators. Humans like to catch mackerel, too! You may be familiar with mackerel if you enjoy fishing as a hobby. Since they spend time in our coastal waters during the summer and early fall, they are a popular catch (and meal!) for recreational fishers from around Atlantic Canada.
Unfortunately, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has classified mackerel in the critical zone, meaning that the stock has declined and needs rebuilding. However, we still don’t know a lot about the biology, ecology, and fishery operations for Atlantic mackerel. I think this seems like a great oppor-tuna-ty for fishers, scientists, and government officials to unite and work together to ensure that an abundance of these creatures can be found swimming our seas for years to come. If you’re interested in chatting all things mackerel, feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!
by Meghan Borland
It is hard to believe that another Touch Tank Hut season is around corner! Well, maybe it’s still a couple snow melts and freezes away, so to tide us over, I thought I would share some highlights from our 2019 Touch Tank Hut guest book.
As you read on, you will notice that I have sprinkled this blog with some quotes from the guest book that are guaranteed to turn any day from crabby to fin-tastic! I mean, just look at the letter below from one of our many sweet, ocean-loving visitors, Solomon!
Before we dive in, let me just say that we had an amazing 2019 season. We loved seeing familiar faces from the previous season and many new ones too! The guest book is a great way for us to gain an understanding of where our visitors call home and what the highlight of their visit was. Keep in mind, the fun facts that I have included in this blog are based on the information we collected in our guest book and do not reflect all 2019 visitors.
Staff is exemplary, great volunteer work, patient, informative and kind.
– Tara, Chad, Karaghen and Jax, 2019 Touch Tank Hut Visitors
This season we had visitors from not only across Nova Scotia, but across Canada and the globe! After going through our guest book, I learned that in 2019 Touch Tank Visitors came from 35 communities across Nova Scotia.
Map showing the communities across Nova Scotia that 2019 Touch Tank Hut visitors who wrote in our guest book came from.
Outside of Nova Scotia, we had visitors from 57 communities across 9 Canadian provinces. If you visit us from Manitoba or a territory, make sure you sign the book so your province is represented next summer!
We even had visitors from 10 countries outside of Canada (yes, you read that right)! We like to think that these individuals travelled such a long distance just to visit us… 😉
We had visitors from the United States, Bermuda, New Zealand, France, Spain, Australia, Japan, India, Germany, and Lebanon.
The wonderful thing about the hut was knowing about the biodiversity under the sea. Now, I can imagine why we value diversity…
- Adam and Leslie, 2019 Touch Tank Hut Visitors
Thank you to everyone, near and far, who visited the Touch Tank Hut last season. We are humbled by the support we receive. Your positive feedback confirms why we are working so hard to open a community aquarium!
Psst! If you haven’t already heard, a couple weeks ago we announced a call for feasibility vendors. This is a fancy way of saying that Halifax is one step closer to getting a community aquarium! You can read our press release here.
“It was so awesome. Definitely need an aquarium in HRM.
- Lindsay, Lara and Austin, 2019 Touch Tank Hut Visitors
By Alex Tesar
We here at the Back to the Sea Society hate to be accused of favouritism. When it comes to marine life, we love it all, from anemones to zooplankton. Jellyfish: yes. Whales—whale, of course. But there is one group of animals that may be entitled to bear the crown of nature’s most perfect creature. I speak, of course, of crabs.
To understand why, we must first look at some things that aren’t crabs. Sorting the crabs from the crab-nots can be complicated. Consider, for example, the hermit crab: protruding eyes on stalks, a shell, and the trademark claws that suggest the quintessence of crabbiness. You would be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at a crab.
However, despite their name, hermit crabs aren’t actually crabs. Though they resemble “true crabs,” hermit crabs are in fact a different kind of crustacean that happens to look very similar. And they are far from alone: among those living in disguise are the king crabs, which may have themselves evolved from hermit crabs (known, delightfully, as the “hermit-to-king” hypothesis), as well as hairy stone crabs and porcelain crabs.
The king crab is not a crab, but it is a king.
Photo credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Gulf of Mexico 2017
The theory that crab-like crustaceans tend to evolve from non-crab ancestors is known as “carcinization.” The word literally means to become cancer-like, but think of the astrological sign, not the disease. The phenomenon was first described by a man named Lancelot Alexander Borradaile, who has perhaps one of the best names in the history of science. Borradaile coined the term while studying the evolution of the humble hermit crab, describing it as “one of the many attempts of Nature to evolve a crab.”
Why does Nature want to evolve a crab so badly? Well, we know that evolution “selects” for traits that are particularly well-suited to a given environment, and there seems to be something about the crab-like shape that works very well when it comes to surviving and thriving in the water—so what works for “true crabs” might also evolve in other species that aren’t close genetic relatives. This is called parallel evolution.
There are other examples of this in nature, too. In Australia, many marsupial species have evolved separately from mammals in the rest of the world but still look strangely familiar because they’ve faced similar evolutionary pressures—like the flying phalanger and the flying squirrel, which both glide from tree to tree.
It appears that nature likes to get crabby. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect animal in evolution, only the creature that’s best adapted to its time and place. But when you come to the touch tank this summer, you can get hands-on and decide for yourself whether you are simply holding a hermit crab or touching a miracle.
Via Twitter, @PattonPray
by Kaitlin Burek
This weekend was marked by crowds and bustling bodies as humans vie for gadgets to fill their homes and hermit crabs vie for homes to fill.
If you have ever made the acquaintance of a hermit crab in the ocean or the Touch Tank Hut, you will know that they are an incredible lobster-like animal with ten legs, two claws, and a whole wack of weird and wonderful associated facts. For example, hermit crabs can grow up to 16-inches, have algal and anemone friends, and can move between oceanic and land environments! As amazing as these facts are, hermit crabs have an even weirder trick up their shell…or should I say shells.
Even though hermit crabs require a shell to protect their soft abdomens, they are unable to create one. The hermit crab’s solution to this evolution irony is to inhabit shells created by snails and other animals. As the hermit crab grows, however, the too-tight-jeans feeling takes over and the hermit crabs need to find a bigger shell to call home. This is where the Black Friday analogy comes in because changing shells requires speed, knowing what you want, some *light* shoving, and a whole lot of determination as a bigger shell is the desire of many.
When it is time to change shells, hermit crabs can do one of three things – steal a shell, find a vacant shell, or trade shells in a mass event. Although the mass event is nothing short of madness, there is some etiquette to trading shells, specifically:
Even though mass events do lead to a lot of happy hermies (the internet taught me this term), some hermit crabs will undoubtably be left without a shell and will be forced to steal or find an empty shell.
Although we do not condone stealing as part of our shopping-shell swapping analogy, we do support the hermit crabs’ teachings of etiquette and identifying needs – a clawsome reminder as we exit a consumer-heavy weekend and enter holiday shopping season.
by Sarah Holleran
As we are into August already, it is safe to say that it has been a successful season for the Touch Tank Hut thus far. With many new eager volunteers, visitors and amazing animals, the Touch Tank Hut has been running smoothly! With only a handful of weeks left to the summer, make sure you take time to come visit and see some of the special creatures that lurk in Nova Scotia's waters.
Two visitors holding Horse Mussels at the Touch Tank Hut
Goodwill Bot Wrap Up
It was a night filled with laughter, games, prizes and a few sea friends at this year's Goodwill Bot event hosted at Good Robot. A huge thank you to all the amazing volunteers and to the people who generously donated prizes to make this night possible for us. We are so thankful for the opportunity to spread awareness about our society, and to raise money in order to keep our Touch Tank Hut running all season.
A special thank you to Good Robot for hosting the event and to all those that participated! The Back to the Sea Society is beyond grateful for the opportunity to have raised $550 at this event.
From left: Touch Tank Hut Coordinator Sarah Holleran and Program Coordinator Aki Nisbet at the Goodwill Bot event.
From left: Aki Nisbet showing off a Sea Star to visitors at Goodwill Bot
Any camps or day cares that would be interested in attending a private program at the Touch Tank Hut, please email our Program Coordinator Aki Nisbet and fill out the booking form on our website for any inquiries.
We offer a 1 hour program on Wednesdays and we have separate programs for ages 5 and under, as well as 6 and above. There are only a handful of weeks left in the summer so book your groups ASAP to experience this unique and educational opportunity at the Touch Tank Hut!
Founder and Executive Director Magali leads a program group
A fun and healthy way of supporting the Back to the Sea Society is by purchasing from Stoke Food Supply. This company is dedicated to creating yummy protein bars with grass fed whey protein and no additives or preservatives.
Support Back to the Sea Society by purchasing a dozen bars from Stoke Food Supply. They will forgo the plastic by wrapping the bars in compostable parchment paper and the total packaging saved amount will be donated to Back to the Sea. To check out all their delicious flavours, visit their website.
Delightful Raspberry White Chocolate bars made by Stoke Food Supply
Sea Suds Soap
Are you interested in wonderful all-natural handcrafted soaps? If the answer is yes, you should stop by the Touch Tank Hut and check out our selection of amazing soaps from Sea Suds Soap. This company is a mother and daughter duo who create all natural hand-made soaps and are committed to reducing plastic pollution through the use and promotion of natural bar soap.
Sea Suds Soap has generously donated some of their wonderful soaps to us which are on sale at the Touch Tank Hut. When purchasing the soaps through us, all proceeds go directly into supporting our society.
We invite you to come visit the Touch Tank Hut this summer before our season ends. You will be amazed by the many animals that can be found in our own backyard. Best fishes to all!
Sarah Holleran is our Touch Tank Hut Coordinator and Executive Assistant. Read her bio here
by Sarah Holleran
It was a successful and sunny opening day on June 8th (World’s Oceans Day) at our miniature marine interpretive centre - the Touch Tank Hut! We were happy and proud to once again be a part of Oceans Weak HFX, which ran from June 1st to 9th. We were thrilled to welcome returning friendly faces, as well as meet new individuals who were experiencing the Touch Tank Hut for the first time. It was a day full of education, engagement, crafts and smiles. With a total of 300 visitors, it was a special day to kick off our season.
Two claw-some volunteers manning our crafting and face painting station!
Touch Tank Hut Grand Opening
We are pleased and excited to offer another season at the Touch Tank Hut, educating people of all ages and audiences from locations within and outside our province of Nova Scotia. With a brand-new species this year, the toad crab, we cannot wait to educate our visitors about the animals we showcase.
We were also pleased to have special guests MLA Claudia Chender, MP Darren Fisher and Councillor Sam Austin come by throughout the day.
From left: Executive Director Magali Grégoire, Touch Tank Hut Coordinator Sarah Holleran and Member of Parliament for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour Darren Fisher on opening day.
MLA for Dartmouth South Claudia Chender, pictured here with one of her daughters, has been very supportive of the Touch Tank Hut over the last two years!
This summer season, we will be open Wednesdays 3pm-7pm, Saturdays 9am-5pm and Sundays 10am-6pm. While we have introduced new admission prices to ensure we can continue to run all summer long, every last Wednesday of the month will be by donation/pay-what-you-can. We look forward to continuing on our journey of sparking curiosity for local marine life, and working towards our goal of a permeant community aquarium in the HRM.
Oceans Week HFX
Oceans Week HFX is a growing community that is dedicated to creating awareness and engagement about the importance of the ocean in our lives, and the lives of future generations. This community strives to recognize how crucial it is to protect the ocean, as it is a valuable yet vulnerable resource we as humans have access to.
Thanks to local volunteers and an array of organizations, Oceans Week HFX includes a wide range of both recreational and educational activities that attracts a vast audience. Activities included beach clean-ups, trivia nights, guest speakers, outdoor recreational activities and also our grand opening. We were so thankful to be a part of this amazing week for the third year in a row!
As part of Oceans Week HFX, Vandal Doughnuts dedicated a charity doughnut to the cause, with a portion of the sales being donated all week long. The team of Oceans Week HFX selected the Terranaut Club and Back to the Sea Society to be recipients of this donation! I hope some of you got to enjoy this yummy donut decorated with marine organisms. Our sincere thanks to Oceans Week HFX and Vandal Doughnuts for this support.
Our first volunteer training of the season held on June 6th!
The Back to the Sea Society would not be able to function the way to does without the help of our amazing and dedicated volunteers. If you have a passion for the ocean and would love to express that passion to others, consider volunteering with us. We are always looking for new volunteer interpreters for the TTH. We are having our second volunteer training and orientation of the year on Tuesday June 25th from 6pm-8pm in Downtown Dartmouth. If you want to educate others on local marine life, consider filling out a volunteer form here
We invite you all to come and see what the Touch Tank Hut is all about this summer - it will be a fin-tastic time!
by Alisha Postma
When you live and breath scuba diving, sooner or later you’re going to get the opportunity to dive into some pretty neat spots all over the world. Iceland, Greece, Egypt, Florida…
My exotic scuba diving list is pretty extensive, but truth be told, as beautiful and picturesque as these dive destinations may be, as a Canadian diver, there is no place like home.
For the past 6 years, I have lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Located on Canada’s east coast, Nova Scotia is the second smallest of ten provinces. It’s also a peninsula that is pretty much surrounded by Atlantic ocean. For cold water divers it’s paradise, and guess what? I’m proud to say it’s my paradise too!
When you first look out into the North Atlantic it can be a bit unsettling. Cold, darkness, less than ideal visibility are a few things that immediately come to mind. But it only took me a few dives to figure out why when looking into our own backyards we can’t see the bottom - it’s because it’s so full of life.
Ready to have your mind blown by the Canadian North Atlantic?
It’s common to spot sculpin and sea ravens in the waters of Nova Scotia. This ruby red sea raven was photographed at the Paddy’s Head dive site, a favorite among the locals.
With their dainty colors and itty-bitty bodies, nudibranchs are always a fun subject for macro shooters. While you can find nudi’s to shoot in Nova Scotia if you look really hard, they are much easier to find on Deer Island, New Brunswick.
When photographing in Nova Scotia, I like to look for small critters like this funky little spiny lumpsucker. It gives the dive site some personality.
Keep your eyes peeled because you never know what you will spy in the plant life. This rock crab decided to peek out for me on the green dead man’s fingers (scientifically known as Codium fragile).
Striking red and pink colours are a sight for sore eyes in the cold productive waters of the Bay of Fundy. Here you will find brightly coloured anemones of all different shapes and sizes, with tentacles out trying to catch some food from the water column!
Nothing spells Nova Scotia better than a close-up view of a lobster. You can find these arthropods all over the east coast scavenging the bottom on the hunt for their next meal. I love grabbing macro shots of these guys with a focal point on their beady little eyestalks.
Plant, animal or lifeless rock?
Chitons, also known as sea cradles, are a species of mollusk found exclusively in marine environments. On top of having the incredible power of surface adhesion, chitons have 8 separate shell plates that overlap and protect their otherwise soft body.