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Dolphins & Porpoises

DolphinsDolphins are marine mammals of the suborder Odontoceti (the toothed whales) from the family Delphinidae. Their close "cousins" porpoises, are in the family Phoconenidae. There is not much difference between these (porpoises have shorter snouts) and it is more sensible to describe dolphins and porpoises as "small cetaceans with a dorsal fin" the way a standard guide by Leatherwood et all does. Cetaceans were flourishing in the oceans in much the same form some 9 million years before humans ever arose on the planet.

Of the twenty or so species found in the central and northern Pacific, nine are most likely to be seen in Monterey Bay: killer whales, false killer whale, Risso's dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, northern right whale dolphin, Dall's Porpoise, harbor porpoise, bottlenose dolphin, and common dolphin.

Humans have historically "bonded to" or "loved" dolphins. And it has not been a one-sided affair. Many species of these small cetaceans -- "dolphin/porpoise" -- approach humans and love to ride the wakes of boats, though not all are so folksy. Common dolphins are less likely to jog along with boats than Dall's porpoise. Risso's dolphins are exceptionally wary of approaching craft and will bunch together in defense. Among the most curious and friendliest seem to be bottlenoses.

Locally, a pod of about 40 bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen ranging through the area. Many early morning beach-strollers have described groups of them tagging along as the people strolled, just beyond the surf, as if the dolphins were "human watching".


SharksSharks are referred to as Elasmobranchs, or "strap gills", in science, a reference to their gill slits, which are different in kind from the gill structures of the teleosts, or bony fishes -- the critters we commonly think of as "fish". World -- or ocean -- wide, there occur over 250 species of sharks comprised several families, like Squalidae, Alopiidae, Lamnidae, and Carcharhinidae. Sharks have a low reproduction rate, are long lived fish, and many populations and species are in danger from overfishing.

In our region of Monterey Bay, one can expect to find blue sharks, thresher sharks, smoothound (grey and brown) sharks, spiny dogfish, leopard sharks, basking sharks, sand sharks, great whites, mako (or bonito) sharks, and a rare salmon shark or so. A respectable shark ranges from 4-feet in length up to 30 feet for basking sharks.

There are many fascinating things about elasmobranchs, such as the fact that not a single bone is to be found in a shark's body. All their skeletal structures are cartilage. or gristle. Their skin is made of the same stuff and design as their teeth; placoid scales covered with dentine. Their teeth are always being replaced in rows.

In sharks, the olfactory lobes of their brains are dominant, not the optic ones. Their habits are informed by what they smell more than what they see. A shark is able to detect a trace of blood in several thousand parts of water. Their sense of hearing is also pronounced; able, it appears, to hear low frequency noises of thrashing wounded fish from long distances. Sharks also have lampulae lorenzini sensory structures in their noses that allow them to detect electrical fields around bodies.

Everybody likes to marvel about great whites, the biggest baddest beast in the ocean. And there are a number of them in our central California coastal area; quite possibly more than ever before. The great whites, it is said, are attracted by the increasing populations of elephant seals and sea lions especially in the Ano Nuevo area midway between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

For all the talk one hears about sharks from visitors to the Wharf, there has never been a shark attack here. If you would like to learn more about elasmobranchs, don't miss the Wharf Shark Festival this summer!

Mola mola or Ocean sunfish

Mola mola or Ocean sunfishA strange thing about the Mola mola is they are commonly called by their Latin scientific name, which must rank among the rarest of events in the animal kingdom.

The Mola mola, or ocean sunfish as it is also called, looks like it started out to be a spaceship, thought better of it, and became a fish. They can get enormous; up 13-feet long (a picture of one hangs in Gilda's Restaurant), but are more commonly seen at about 5-feet long. Somedays there are a lot of them lounging at the surface on their sides, as if they have just put on the oil and are soaking up the rays.

They can be found basking at the sea surface on calm days from British Columbia to South America. They are a flat fish, eyes on both sides (unlike halibut), with a long dorsal and anal fin positioned at the rear of their round bodies looking more like fins on a Cadillac, or a spaceship, than anything a fish could use. Their small mouths seem formed in a perpetual pucker. With it, they eat only jellyfish.

Because Mola molas are not very tasty, they are generally left alone by fishers. Actually, there is a section of them deep within them that has a strange jelly-like consistency, which when fried up, changes into a meatier form, and ends up tasting much like abalone.

They are very curious animals and will often come up to a small boat for a while to watch or let a small boat approach very close without getting startled. One local fisherman even thinks it's bad luck to catch them. "They're peaceful, man. It's bad karma to catch Mola molas. They only eat jellyfish -- they're peaceful, man."

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Under the Wharf Magazine & Photography, 831-469-0443

Last updated: 8/3/2009 3:46:06 PM