Text and Photos by Emilie Novaczek
Spoon Cove, Newfoundland
There’s lots to see while SCUBA diving the North Atlantic coast; long-toothed wolffish, scowling eelpouts, graceful winter skates, fields of magenta coralline algae, and if you’re lucky, a glimpse of a humpback whale in the distance. In all that diversity, the sea urchins are some of my favourites – and it’s all about the hats.
The most common urchin in Newfoundland, and throughout the Maritimes, is Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, a bit of a mouthful for the unassuming green urchin. We see hundreds of green urchins on every dive, and in the shallows, we find them covered with anything they can get their tube feet on: rocks, shells, even the odd golf ball.
St. Thomas Cove, Newfoundland. Photo by Christopher Power
Echinodermata refers to the phylum of animals that includes seastars, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, crinoids, and our hat-wearing urchins. Echinoderms share a few key features, including a couple that sound like superheroes: Wolverine’s regeneration and Spiderman’s ability to scale smooth surfaces at any angle. We’ll get back to regeneration later on.
Echinoderms move around the seafloor (or simply move food to their mouth) using hundreds of sticky tube feet. These feet are part of the water-vascular system, a network of seawater-filled tubes. Urchins move using the tube feet on their ventral side by contracting small muscles that force water into the tubefoot to take each step. The end of each tube foot is very, very sticky. They are often described as suction cups, however recent research indicates that echinoderms likely use a bio-adhesive, rather than suction, to achieve their Spiderman-like climbs.
Urchins also use these sticky tube feet to pick up and hold onto rock, shells, golf balls, and other treasures.
Spoon Cove, Newfoundland
Behavioural ecologists call urchin hats “covering behaviour”. That name is related to the first and most prevalent hypotheses about the phenomena: the urchins are covering themselves to provide shelter from sunlight, predators, or both.
Experiments conducted on Paracentrotus lividus, the purple sea urchin common to the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, confirmed the light hypothesis. Researchers in Ireland found that when the urchins were exposed to full spectrum UV light, more individuals would pick up their hats and/or move to the shady corners of their tanks to avoid harmful UV radiation.
Around the same time, another scientist in California was studying covering behaviour of Pacific rose flower urchins, Toxopneustes roseus. The rose urchin study wasn’t conducted in a lab; instead urchin behaviour was observed in their natural habitats. What they found was that at the sample site with the greatest wave energy, there was also the most covering behaviour among the urchins.
Harbour Grace, Newfoundland
So which is it? Sun safety? Or are these hats more like seat belts and kneepads, weighing urchins down and protecting them from wave damage?
On this side of the Atlantic, researchers tested several factors simultaneously to trace the covering behaviour to it’s source. In a laboratory, green urchins were exposed to common predators, wave surge, waving algae blades, and sunlight. As it turns out, the predators were a bust: their presence had no significant impact on the rate of covering behaviour.
The hats are not camouflage.
Urchins may have some scary looking spines, but they still have predators!
Like the Irish purple urchins, green urchins exposed to UV light were found to cover up more. However, UV exposure wasn’t the most important factor. This study found that green urchins on the east coast of Canada, like rose urchins in California, wore more hats when they were exposed to wave surge, and/or in contact with moving algae blades.
Not all urchins wear hats though; the Canadian study found that smaller urchins were more like to cover up.
Seastars can regenerate lost arms, sometime many at a time (see? I told you we’d get back to this). Though it’s less dramatic, urchins are constantly regenerating lost and broken spines. But regeneration takes energy. It may be a safer bet, particularly for a small urchin who is vulnerable to dislodgement and damage, to pick up some extra weight and a little sun protection at the same time.
Bacon Cove, Newfoundland
 More information on tube feet: http://echinoblog.blogspot.ca/2013/01/echinoderms-dont-suck-they-stick.html
 Verling et al. 2002: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs002270100689?LI=true
 James 2000: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs002270000423?LI=true
 Dumont et al. 2007: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347207000796
Emilie is a marine conservation biologist and PhD candidate at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is also the Chair of the Biology Graduate Student Association at Memorial. Emilie knows all about catch-and-release aquariums as she has been a volunteer scientific diver for the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium for the past four years. t: @maptheblue
Thanks so much for writing this post Emilie. We can only hope you'll be able to join us on a Back to the Sea dive one day!
P.S. Another thing we love about Emilie are her awesome pictures, like this one of an urchin's mouth, known as Aristotle's Lantern.
This month we wrote a blog post for the Canadian Network for Ocean Education. Click below to read it!
Interpreting at the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium in Newfoundland.
by Magali Grégoire
2016 is the year that the Back to the Sea Society was officially born!
I have been slowly working towards the idea of opening a "mini aquarium" in or around Halifax since the start of 2015. I began to spread the word as I worked with my mentor, Founder of the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium, and other advisors to build local relationships and put a plan in place. However, it wasn't until March 2016 that I welcomed my first official Board member, Maggie Sutherland.
Maggie was quickly joined by Courtenay Parlee and, a few months later, we added Greg Sheffer's name the team. Rodrigo Menafra completed our Board of Directors team for 2016 when he joined us in the fall.
These individuals bring to the table an incredible amount of knowledge and, above all, passion! Want to get to know them a little better? Read there bios here.
A huge thank you to these four wonderful people who have been among the first to believe in the proposed Back to the Sea Aquarium. Your hard work has already paid off!
From left: Magali, Maggie, Courtenay and Greg. Not pictured: Rodrigo.
Our biggest accomplishment of 2016 has been the Touch Tanks Days!
We created this event series as a proof of concept for the proposed aquarium. We wanted to obtain community feedback, spread the word and begin our mandate of ocean education.
And it was a huge success!
With a target of 500 visitors, we tripled this goal and saw over 1,500 people of all ages!
Touch Tank Day visitors with volunteers Ronnie and Candace.
We hosted a total of 7 Touch Tank Days, with 5 of them being in Fisherman's Cove. We received extremely positive responses from the surrounding communities, making us confident in our decision to establish the aquarium in this location.
Our thanks to Hope for Wildlife and the organizers of the Sustainable Oceans conference for inviting us along to their events.
Getting some help putting the animals away at the Hope for Wildlife Open House and some curious kids and parents at the You, Me and the Sea program.
Thank you to all the organizations and individuals that helped us in 2016. We look forward to continuing these partnerships and working together in the coming year!
Dalhousie University played an integral part in our Touch Tank Days. After experiencing some delays with our collection permit, John Lindley was able to ensure that we had some animals to show all of those who were anxiously awaiting our touch tanks.
Since we don't yet have a permanent tank system set up, we were able to keep our animals happy between Touch Tank Days thanks to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Paul Fraser set up our holding tank and ensured we could access the animals whenever we needed.
Some behind the scenes - Sometimes this work requires collecting seawater at night! We also need to collect kelp to feed our urchins.
Our Touch Tank Days had a home thanks to Board member Greg, his wife Catherine and their son and daughter in law Scott and Jenna.
It felt so great when we made those first few brush strokes in our signature colour!
It was through the Touch Tank Days that we welcomed our very first F(l)ounders, The Image Salon and Eyes on Optometry. As our first big donors, we will forever be thankful for their support!
Every donation is special and goes a long way, but it's extra meaningful when it comes from your target audience. We strive to inspire and educate young children and, in September, we received their vote of confidence!
After being nominated by 10-year-old Grace, the members of 100 Kids Who Care voted for us as their non-profit of choice. Each child in attendance brought $10 of their hard earned money and we received a donation of over $300.
We had such a wonderful time attending their following meeting in December to publicly thank Grace for her nomination and presentation and to show the kids some sea critters!
We had a blast participating in a few other ocean-themed events in 2016!
In June, I attended the Ocean Literacy Conference: Ocean Optimism and hosted a workshop titled A Catch-and-Release Aquarium for Halifax Metro: Come be Part of the Adventure! It was inspiring to hear what the participants had to say about their relationship to the ocean and how it has changed throughout their lives. I also received many great ideas for our future aquarium!
And last but not least, we wrapped up the year at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Their second annual Family Fun Day was titled Fish out of Water, the perfect event to have our touch tanks! We saw over 350 people at the museum that day!
See our Events page for photos of all the events we attended!
Pier 21's mascot, Fenton, with two of our volunteers, Jessica and Joana (right of Fenton).
We had the chance to both start and end the year with some media coverage!
I did an interview on Mainstreet in January about small-scale aquariums and CTV Morning Live covered the Family Fun Day in December. But no need to go into the details here, we have Media page for that now!
We had a wonderful year and we can't wait to see what 2017 has in store for us!
We'll be working hard on our fundraising efforts to make the Back to the Sea Aquarium a reality (with a goal of opening in June 2018) and we look forward to keeping you up to date with our progress.
Thank you to all our advisors, volunteers, donors and to our consultants Ocean to Eye Level - we could gush about you all day long!
And finally, thank YOU!
Thank you for reading and thank you for your support! Every e-list subscription, Facebook like, Twitter and Instagram follow and touch tank visit makes a difference in this journey.
You've made it clear that you want to see a catch-and-release aquarium in Nova Scotia, and together, we will make that happen!
By Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark
This guest post is brought to you by Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark who is the University Veterinarian as well as the Director of Animal Care in the Department of Psychology at Dalhousie University. In an interview on CBC's Mainstreet program, Dr. Harvey-Clark spoke to the success of small-scale aquarium such as the ones found in St. Andrew's, New Brunswick and Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. We reached out to him following this interview at which point Dr. Harvey-Clark agreed to serve as one of our valuable advisors. He has taken the time to tell us more about one of his areas of interest in the post below.
People might be surprised to know that a big marine predator that kills fish using electrical shock is coming in increasing numbers to shallow waters around Nova Scotia!
This late summer visitor is the Atlantic torpedo ray, Tetronarce (formerly Torpedo) nobiliana, a large, enigmatic member of the skate and ray family (the Batoids) found from tropical to temperate waters on both sides of the North Atlantic inshore and in deep waters. By far the largest of 17 species of electric rays worldwide, the torpedo ray can weigh 90kg and have a body disc diameter approaching 2m in mature females.
This species uses electrogenic organs comprised of modified muscle cells in the lateral margins of the body disc to generate controlled DC current bursts in excess of 200 volts. This shocking power can snap the back of a mackerel in tetanic convulsions and is also used for discouraging predators. A friend of mine who was shocked by this species while diving lived to tell the tale and likened the sensation to putting your finger into a dryer socket.
Dr. Fred Whoriskey views the first ever satellite tagged Atlantic torpedo ray
Photo credit: Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark
The electrogenic tissues of torpedo rays have been extensively studied at the cellular and molecular level, with thousands of citations in the scientific literature. Some of the earliest work on the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and its effects on muscle tissue were first characterized in torpedo ray tissues. It is a paradox that despite extensive study at the cellular level, little is known of the ecology, movement and behaviour of T. nobiliana. In fact, decades of fishing for use in neuroscience research depleted local populations of this species in the vicinity of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole Mass.
The fact remains that virtually nothing is known about the basic biology of T. nobiliana. The size and age structure of the Atlantic population, depth, substrate and temperature preferences, onshore/offshore movements of this species, prey preferences, longevity, reproductive parameters and life cycle are all poorly known.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List indicates the species is data deficient, in common with the majority of sharks, skates and rays. In this respect, our knowledge of T. nobilana resembles the former state of knowledge of many large charismatic species such as sharks, tunas, sea turtles and many marine mammal species prior to the development of modern electronic tracking technology beginning two decades ago.
Like the curious case of the dog that failed to bark in the night, the fact that this species is rarely reported as bycatch despite intense commercial fishing within its known range begs the question: where do these animals go? What is their role in the seasonal summer assemblage of large pelagic and forage fish species that occurs in boreal seas around Europe and North America annually?
The habit and habitat of this species remains a mystery. Observations exist of occasional individuals in shallow water sand and mud bottom habitats from Nova Scotia to the Florida keys and from northern Scotland to West Africa, into the Mediterranean, usually from fisheries bycatch inside continental shelf depths. Fishbase and similar database sources cite depth data for this species from shallow water to 800 meters and report their presence as rare fisheries bycatch in the Mediterranean. Several references claim the rays are benthic bottom dwellers when younger and become more pelagic dwellers as they get older, but there is little evidence in the primary scientific literature to support this claim.
In the fall of 2015, Dr. Fred Whoriskey and myself tagged a female Atlantic torpedo ray with a satellite tag near Halifax, NS. The tag was programmed to pop up to the surface 95 days later, and report its position and other data to a geosynchronised satellite. I had theorized that the rays were following the shallow continental shelf migrations of forage fish like herring and mackerel - north in the summer and south in the winter. Imagine my surprise when the tag reported 95 days later from an offshore location over 900 km out in the North Atlantic, from an area where the bottom is in excess of 4000 m. This single record indicated that in at least one case, this species does in fact act as a pelagic animal, quite amazing for a ray we had found dug in to the bottom while scuba diving in 20 m of water.
This discovery has led to plans for a more extensive study of the movement and behaviour of this species. Volunteers interested in helping the torpedo ray tagging team can contact me at Dalhousie University: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Magali Grégoire
If you're following us on Facebook or have browsed this site even a little, you'll know that we plan to launch an event series called Touch Tank Days in the near future. And if you haven't done either of those things, do it now! (Or at least, right after you read this post.)
We're almost ready to launch the Touch Tank Days, but we're still missing one important element - the animals! The little critters we'll be showcasing are still chilling in the ocean for the time being. Why is that? Because we want to do things right, and that includes collecting our animals in a safe and ethical way.
Desta Frey, 2014 Curator of the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium collecting
animals prior to the start of the season.
We've applied for a collection permit that we're hoping will also allow us to release the animals back to the ocean where they were collected from.
This allows for a close to zero environmental impact, the fondation of the catch-and-release philosophy.
In terms of the Touch Tank Days, this means we would like to release the animals at the end of the event series in early October.
A sea star returning to its home! Photo curtesy of the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium.
But what does catch-and-release mean for the proposed Back to the Sea Aquarium and the other "mini aquariums" in Canada?
Due to our East Coast weather, the Back to the Sea Aquarium will have a short season similar to the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium. At this aquarium, all the animals are collected in May so they can be in the exhibits when the doors open in early June. After their summer-long vacation away from predators, they are released in mid-October with the help of local children and families. This is called the Release Party and it's BYOB - Bring Your Own Bucket!
Children handing off an urchin at the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium's 2015 Release Party
Things are a little different on the West Coast. For example, the Ucluelet Aquarium is open from March to December, making for a much longer season. Although this aquarium still hosts a release party at the end of the year, animals are also periodically released and caught throughout the season.
Some of Ucluelet Aquarium's animals being released back to their permanent home.
As soon as we receive our required permits, we'll be hitting the water to collect some animal friends. Can you guess what animals we'll be collecting? Leave your answers in the comments!
By Ruby Banwait
I’m a west coast girl to my core. I grew up in what was at the time, a small fishing and farming community in the mouth of the mighty Fraser River. I spent countless hours playing in tide pools and splashing around the emerald sea. Few things give me greater joy. However, in 2012 when I traveled across the country to discover the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean around St. John’s, Newfoundland, I realized just how easy it is to fall in love with any Canadian coastline. So when I had the opportunity to travel to the Maritimes in June of this year, I simply couldn’t pass it up!
Ruby spotting her first iceberg in St. John's, Newfoundland
Halifax is a fun place boasting more pubs per capita than any other city in Canada. Visiting from Vancouver, which caters to foodies and desperately tries to be the country’s “greenest” city, I was elated to find organics receptacles beside every garbage and recycling bin as well as some great vegetarian restaurants. My only regret is not dining in Nova Scotia before becoming a vegetarian. I’m sure I missed out on some of the best lobster dishes around!
The invitation to visit Halifax and stay with good friends in their seaside home combined with scouting out locations for a new mini aquarium while adventuring around the beautiful province couldn’t have been a sweeter combination for this fish geek.
Nova Scotia is rich in maritime history yet there are few places where you can meet live marine animals that call this part of the world home. What better location for the Back to the Sea Society to build a mini aquarium than within the greater Halifax area? As the founding curator and general manager of the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium in Newfoundland, I felt honoured to be included in the search for potential homes of the Back to the Sea Mini Aquarium! I couldn’t be more excited to see the perfect location that Magali has found for her seasonal, hands-on, conservation and education based facility. Stay tuned!
Interpreting a tank at the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium
One of the highlights of our trip was an extensive private tour of Hope for Wildlife, an animal rescue and rehab center located in Seaforth, Nova Scotia. I watch the show on the Knowledge Network and even PVR it so I don’t miss any episodes. Yes, it’s true. This fish geek is just a lover of all animals. Thanks to Alison Dube for an absolutely wonderful tour. I got to cuddle a three legged skunk named Maxwell and discovered I have a great love for porcupines. Special thanks to all the staff and volunteers at Hope for Wildlife for your dedication to animals and passion for better wildlife education!
Look out for the Back to the Sea Society’s marine animal touch tanks at the Hope for Wildlife Open House on August 28th.
Hope, Ruby and Maxwell the three-legged skunk
My time in Nova Scotia was entirely too short and I was already looking forward to a return visit before I even left. This is a province not to be missed!
Ruby Banwait is an Aquarium Biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium and was the founding Curator and General Manager at the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium. She is one of Back to the Sea's valuable advisors. We are so thankful to her for taking time during her vacation to scout locations for the future Back to the Sea Aquarium and for contributing to the blog.
By Magali Grégoire
Early in June, I visited Darren Porter's weir fishing operation located on the mudflats of the Minas Basin, located at the end of the Bay of Fundy. Darren is one of the few fishermen still using this ancient technique, one of the oldest known methods of fishing as well as one of the most sustainable. Other than my curiosity and sincere interest in this fishing method, I visited the weir to see if it might be a collection method for the Back to the Sea Aquarium. I discovered that the weir would in fact be a great collection method and that Darren was happy to say he would be willing to help out!
The weir is a fascinating method of fishing! It is approximately 700 meters long and made up of wooden poles about 2 meters in height with netting in between. Shaped as a semi-circle, the fish are directed towards the trap as the water pulls back with the tide. The weir must be harvested twice daily, no matter at what time of the day the low tide occurs. The trap holds mackerel, herring, shad, flounder, skate, squid and will often trap less common fish such as striped bass, sturgeon and dogfish. Darren's daughter Erica, who works the weir, told me her most exciting find was an adorable lumpfish!
Sturgeon being carried out to the pool to be released
This year, it took Darren and his team approximately 100 low tides to build the weir and they will spend over 400 consecutive tides harvesting the fish from May to August before tearing it down. Talk about hard work! Keeping the mackerel, herring, shad, squid and flounders, the other fish caught by the weir's trap get released downstream where they land into a "pond". The fish remain in the pond (except for a few unlucky ones who make a yummy lunch for some bird predators!) until the tide comes back up allowing them to swim away.
The catch-and-release philosophy of the Back to the Sea Society means that we plan to catch all the animals in the spring prior to the opening of the Aquarium and release them all in the fall at the end of the season. The animals will be collected by various methods, including scientific diving, beach seines and with the help of fishermen such as Darren. The weir will be a great opportunity to collect animals that should do well in captivity as they are accustomed to the harsh conditions of the Minas Basin, that is, the huge variation in temperature and salinity that comes from the world's largest tide.
A huge thank you to Darren for allowing me to spend the afternoon with him and his team observing the workings of the weir and to Matt Grégoire who organized the trip for me and took me out to Bramber!
Navigate through the slideshow below to see more pictures from this day out in the field!
By Magali Grégoire
On Saturday June 11th, Back to the Sea Society will be leading a workshop as part of the Ocean Literacy Conference 2016: Ocean Optimism being held in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This second annual conference is lead by the Canadian Network for Ocean Education (CaNOE). Our workshop, titled A Seasonal Aquarium for Halifax Metro: Come be Part of the Creation!, will engage participants with hands-on and interactive activities that will get them to think creatively, reconnect with their inner child and unleash their imagination.
This workshop will allow participants to contribute to the making of the Back to the Sea Aquarium. We will be inviting participants to think big in terms of how we can all approach ocean conservation. The group will be invited to think outside the box, beyond the containment of an exhibit tank. Our exercises are sure to generate surprising ideas that will be valuable contributions to the Back to the Sea Society as well as bring insight to other ocean-related work that the conference participants are involved with.
The deadline to register for this year's conference is June 1st, so be sure to register today if you are interested in attending and participating in our workshop.
I attended last year's conference held in Vancouver and was blown away by all the top notch presentations! I am positive that this year's conference is sure to please all educators, researchers and other ocean enthusiasts.
If we don't see you there, be sure to check back here for an update on how it went!
By Magali Grégoire
On January 18th, myself and Melanie Knight had a great time on air with CBC Radio One to discuss the concept of mini aquariums. We told listeners all about the catch and release philosophy and how these seasonal educational facilities can spark curiosity for local marine life.
"Why doesn't Halifax have an aquarium?" is a question that come up time and time again in Nova Scotia. Both locals and tourists are surprised that this coastal city is without an aquarium. It's time for that to change!
We received positive responses from this interview, a great sign that we are moving in the right direction and working towards a goal that we all want to see happen in greater Halifax.
If you would like to hear the interview, submit your email below.
Thanks to Melanie for phoning in from Vancouver to join in on this interview. Melanie is the Founder of the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium and CEO of Ocean to Eye Level Consulting, one of our valuable advisors.