Category Archives: News

Don’t Worry It’s Just Ambergris…It’s All Natural

Today, we are going to learn all about whale vomit called ambergris and why a massive glob of waxy whale waste has been a hot commodity all over the world for hundreds of years! Ambergris has many common names such as “The Black Pearl, Floating Gold, or The Treasure of the Sea” this is because it’s a highly desired natural marine resource due to its chemical makeup that holds on to scents. However valuable ambergris is, it just may be one of the strangest natural resources because of where it comes from!

Sperm whales are the major producers of large ambergris balls; this is because the sperm whale diet mainly consists of cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish. These cephalopods are member of the Mollusca phylum, which are distinguished by having a soft body, however a few hard parts such as the beak and pen can be found within the squid and cuttlefish. These hard parts are made up of a protein called chitin. The hard parts made up of a chitin protein that is indigestible by the sperm whales. It is believed the hard parts are passed to the digestive track where they bind together forming a large mass. It is unclear if the sperm whale strictly regurgitates or passes the ambergris through its rectum; nevertheless the odor of fresh ambergris is described as a strong fecal smell! After an extended period of time exposed to air and through the process of oxidation the fecal smell of the ambergris fades and becomes more of a musky earthy scent. This is where the irony of the ambergris story unfolds. The masses of floating gold have been used for century’s because of its ability to harness and hold onto scents longer. The way ambergris is utilized is by extracting an odorless alcohol called ambrein that is then used to make perfumes of high quality because of its capability to hold onto scents longer. 

You may be asking yourself does this natural resource put the sperm whales at risk for predation by humans? The answer is not any more! Whales, dolphins and porpoises are protected internationally making it illegal to collect ambergris directly from the organism. However there is a grey area for collecting ambergris that has washed up into the beaches or floating at sea because according to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) it is a natural waste product from sperm whales making it legal to collect. The good news is science has come a long way so we can still smile and smell fresh. Researches at the University of British Columbia have been able to recreate the ambrein alcohol synthetically in a lab. Technology like this helps protect the marine animals we care for.  



Sperm whale feeding on a giant squid.  

Ambergris Whales

Ambergris ball washed onto shore. 



Endotherms vs. Ectotherms!

Have you ever wondered what difference is between endotherms and ectotherms?In general, if an organism uses energy to regulate its body temperature internally, then it is considered endothermic. If an organism instead relies on external environmental factors to regulate its body temperature, then it is considered ectothermic. There are pros and cons to each of these methods of regulating body temperature.

To be endothermic, an organism must produce its own body heat through metabolism. This means that the endothermic organism can maintain internal homeostasis regardless of the external environmental temperature. This ability is commonly referred to as being warm-blooded and probably sounds familiar because of the fact that mammals are warm-blooded, thus making us endotherms. An example is seen in the image below, the young kitten. This is why during winter or summer temperatures, humans will maintain an internal body temperature of around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once we understand that we are endotherms, we can then understand better why we sweat or shiver when we are hot or cold. These actions are regulatory reactions from our body trying to maintain internal homeostasis while being exposed to differing external temperatures. The sweat we produce during hot days is actually helping to cool our bodies down and we shiver during cold days to keep our bodies warm. Being an endotherm allows an organism to survive in many diverse environments, but can be extremely energy demanding.

On the other hand, an organism that relies on the temperature of the environment around them to regulate their internal body temperature requires much less energy. This type of organism is called an ectotherm and commonly referred to as being cold-blooded. Great examples of ectothermic organisms are reptiles and fish. In the image below an example reptile is shown. Since these organisms rely on the environment for body temperature regulations, they exhibit different behaviors in reaction to changing external temperatures. In order for an ectotherm to warm up it would bask in the sun, or if it needed to cool down it could burrow or seek shade. These are physical interactions with the environment since the ectothermic organism can not rely on physiological processes like the endotherm (such as sweating and shivering).


So depending on if an organism is and endotherm or ectotherm, it will exhibit varying behaviors in order to survive and function at optimal level in their environment. Some examples are:

-Fish migrating to warmer/colder water as needed during season changes.

-Lizards coming out of burrows to bask in the sun in order to warm their bodies.

-Humans shivering during a cold night hike.

-Sea lions holding their flipper out of the cold ocean water to warm up.

Hopefully this has helped to clarify the main difference between endotherms and ectotherms. There is much more to be learned about these organisms and I hope this information helps encourage you to learn more about them.

Written By: Ryan McDuff

It’s World Oceans Day!

Happy World Oceans Day! The ocean brings us all together, it can teach us, it can heal us, it can inspire us, it can entertain us, and it can protect us, but it turn, we need to love our ocean back. Unfortunately, we are in a place in society where our monetary desires have come before valuing the health of our planet and our ocean. Today is a day reserved to cherish and celebrate our blue planet while combining international efforts to preserve this amazing ecosystem and resource.

Roughly 71% of our Earth’s surface is covered in water and it contributes limitless resources toward our survival and wellbeing. Most importantly, the ocean is the major contributor of the oxygen that we need to breath every second (70%). Phytoplankton and algae are continuously producing more than double the amount of oxygen that comes from our terrestrial plants and without it, we would be hurting. The ocean also keeps our atmosphere clean; it stores the majority of Carbon Dioxide and other harmful gases that contribute to the depletion of our ozone layer. Aside from making the air that we breathe, the ocean provides us with many of the chemicals and pharmaceuticals that heal us when we are sick. It also keeps us healthy in sustaining us by cleaning the water we drink and supplying us with nutrients in food. Unlimited benefits can be sourced back to the big blue and we owe it to the ocean to give back.

Today on World Oceans Day, be aware that YOU can be the change that helps our oceans rebound from the damage that we, as a society have inflicted.

According to the World Oceans Day foundation, we can all contribute to the cause by following these steps:

  • Change Perspective– Discuss the ocean with your friends and family, see what their knowledge of the ocean is and how they perceive our impacts.
  • Learn– Research and discover the wonders of the blue and consider how we can change our behavior and benefit our oceans for a better future.
  • Change Our Ways– It isn’t as hard as you think to change your individual influence on the ocean. If you are aware, participate in your community, and inspire others to do the same, your actions will be felt for years to come.
  • Celebrate– Spend time at the beach and in the water, enjoy what the ocean has to offer and celebrate it! Even if you are far from the ocean, you still benefit from the ocean’s bounty; be aware and be thankful.

Happy World Oceans Day!

Hydrothermal Vents

Life was once thought to be completely dependent upon our closest star, the sun. Even in the deep, dark depths of the ocean where no light penetrates, organisms ultimately rely on the productivity from the sun-bright shallows above for their food. In 1977, scientists discovered that this belief was wrong. At the bottom of the Pacific ocean, near the Galapagos Islands, a team tasked with photographing the Galapagos rift found something no one thought was possible. An abundance of life. An area that was thought to be akin to a desert now resembled a rainforest. How was this possible? 

hydrothermal Chemosynthesis. When orghydrothermal ventsanisms use energy from chemical reactions to create food. These chemical reactions are spewing from the ocean floor—from hydrothermal vents.  A hydrothermal vent is a fissure, or a crack in the planet’s surface. The vents are created when seawater meets magma. As the cold seawater is heated by magma a series of chemical processes take place. The water becomes acidic and metals begin to leach from rocks, as this new fluid rises and reaches the ocean—cold and oxygen laden—once more, chemical reactions quickly begin to occur and create compounds like hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. These compounds are absorbed by bacteria who then use them to chemosynthesize. These bacteria are the base of the food chain for the hydrothermal vent ecosystem. Mussels, clams, giant tube worms, and crabs flourish here. 

hydrothermal vent


The latest data from NOAA explains that there are potentially 550 hydrothermal vent sites around the world. Only 5% of the ocean’s floor has been mapped—who know what else we might find down there.

World Penguin Day

Although Wednesday, April 25th is officially World Penguin Day, it’s never a bad day to celebrate these charismatic flightless birds! Penguins’ distinct waddle, fluffy feathers, and stout body shape make them one of the most objectively adorable animals on our planet. But they aren’t just cuddly organisms. On the contrary, they are efficient predators and are resilient in the face of some of the most challenging climates on earth.

Out of the 17 species in the penguin family, one of the most well-known is the Emperor Penguin. The largest of all penguins, Emperors live year-round in arguably the most unforgiving environment on our planet: the Antarctic. To survive in temperatures as low as -76°F, Emperors live socially, partitioning duties to ensure the continuity of their species. After laying a single egg, females will embark on a two-month journey in search of prey. During their hunting trip, these females will dive down to 1,850 feet for as long as 20 minutes in search of fish, squid and krill. They are aided by their dense bones and stiff flippers, which make flying impossible, but allow the Emperors to dive and swim with high efficiency. Meanwhile, males of the flock remain huddled together for warmth, carefully protecting their female’s egg. These males will rotate through outer and inner positions in the flock, allowing some to warm up in the middle while others bear the brunt of the cold in the outer flanks. Upon the females’ return, they will regurgitate food for their newborn chicks, and the males will swap out, now having their chance to take to the ocean in search of food. Without the cooperative tendencies that Emperor Penguins have developed over thousands of evolutionary years, their species would be long gone in such a trying environment.

While Emperors tough out long winters in the Antarctic, every other species of penguin either leaves during the coldest months, or simply occupies a milder climate year-round. The smallest of all penguins, reaching an average of 13 inches in height, is the Little Blue Penguin, which can be found along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania. Unlike the Emperor Penguin, Little Blues dive in short spurts of about 35 seconds at a time, reaching a maximum depth of 230 feet. But although Little Blues are small, they are mighty. Little Blues have been known to escape from their primary natural predators: skuas, gulls, and sheathbills. Unfortunately, human-sustained predators like rats, dogs, and cats have taken their toll on Little Blue numbers.

Anthropogenic threats to penguins don’t end with predation on Little Blues. Perhaps the most imposing issue for these flightless birds is global climate change. As air and water temperatures warm in the Antarctic, vital ice sheet breeding grounds that Emperor and Adelie penguins need are melting away. A study conducted by the World Wildlife Foundation in 2008 predicted that in 40 years, 50% of Emperor penguins could be wiped out due to the impacts of climate change.
Penguin Day

So, what can you do to help out our feathery friends on the other side of the globe? Well, start by celebrating World Penguin Day! Then, think of ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint in order to slow global climate change. Maybe try biking to your friend’s house instead of catching a ride, or reducing the amount of meat you eat! Any little effort helps, because just like the Emperor penguin, if we all work together, we can ensure the continuity of an entire species!


Full Moon and the Tide

 Picture this: A crab scuttles into a damp rock crevice.
Snails chug along rock faces, secretings mucus along the way.
Barnacles, glued in place, retreat into their protective shells.
An aggregation of anemone’s grab little pebbles with their tentacles. Hugging them close. All in an attempt to retain moisture and avoid desiccation — these critters all call the intertidal zone their home.
In other words, they are all reliant on the ocean’s tides: the daily rise and fall of the sea’s surface.
These organisms have all developed unique adaptations to help them deal with air exposure for several hours in a given day. Lucky for them, tides are predictable. In simple terms, tides are predicted by our understanding of the lunar cycle. The gravitational pull between the sun and the moon, and consequently its affect on the ocean, is dependent on positioning. When the moon is full, the orientation of the sun, the earth, and the moon look like this:
Moon tides
They are aligned with one another. This is when gravitational pull is at its strongest and causes the oceans to bulge. Right after a full moon the difference in height between a consecutive high and low tide, called a tidal range, is at its greatest. Another phrase for this effect is called a spring tide.
moon tides 1

Sunrise and Shine!

If you have ever seen a sunrise or sunset then you can appreciate the beauty of seeing the sun peek over the horizon at 6 am or fall under the horizon at 6 pm. The peace and serenity of these moments allow us to see the sun in a whole new light then during the middle of the day. Sunrises and sunsets are characterized by seeing blazing red and orange colors filling the sky compared to the blue sky that we are so familiar with. Today we are going to explain why the sky in the early morning and evening is just so darn beautiful!

First off, let’s explain why the sky is normally blue in the first place. The sun produces the light that we see during the day, as the sun passes through our atmosphere it encounters many gasses that it bounces off of. In the electromagnetic spectrum of the visible light that we can see, think ROYGBIV, the colors span from red that has the longest wavelength to blue and violet which has the shortest wavelength. As the light that we see passes through our atmosphere blue light reflects off of the molecules of gas that fills our sky. Furthermore, when blue light is reflected it is then portrayed in the sky and produces the sky blue we see every day. Red light has a much longer wavelength and is thus able to pass right through the gasses. This phenomenon is called Rayleigh Scattering which also explains why the sun is yellow in our sky.


Now, how about the red color you get from sunrises and sunsets! Well in the middle of the day the path for the light to reach us is short and therefore only blue light is reflected and is seen. But at dawn and dusk the path for the light to travel is much longer and has to pass through much more air causing the blue light to be completely scattered. This allows red and orange light to make it through because of that large wavelength. If there are clouds on the horizon then you get an even more beautiful setting as they can reflect the red and orange light as well.

sunrise 1

Another reason why you could get glorious sunrises and sunsets are from the presence of natural and manmade aerosols in the atmosphere. Aerosols are solid or liquid particles in the sky that come from natural sources such as forest fires or volcanic eruptions or from manmade sources like pollution. These aerosols provide for the very dramatic bright red sunrises and sunsets that one would see over a large city such as Los Angeles!

All in all, the phenomenon called Rayleigh Scattering is responsible for the beauty of the sky both the blue in the middle of the day and the red and orange at dawn and dusk. Natural and manmade aerosols are also responsible for brilliant sunsets and sunrises. Now all you have to do to enjoy these sunrises is to wake up early enough!


Diatomaceous Earth

All of you know what earth is. Many of you know what phytoplankton are. Some of you know what a diatom is. But what in the world is diatomaceous earth?! First, let’s define what the “diatom” in diatomaceous earth means: diatoms are microscopic phytoplankton, which are incredibly common in all bodies of water. This plankton has been an important part of the food chain and the earth for millions of years! When prehistoric diatoms would die, they would fall to the bottom of their habitats, be it rivers, lakes, oceans, or ponds. Diatom cell walls are made up of silica, and after millions of years of these little guys stacking up on each other, they formed white, chalky, silica deposits that we call diatomaceous earth.

Diatomaceous Earth

On Catalina Island, we have these silica deposits located in some of our trails! In fact, if you have ever hiked our shrine loop, you can see some right from the trail. To look for diatomaceous earth, just look for white rock that is chalky and crumbly. This means that the land that you are hiking on was once underwater and surrounded by tiny phytoplankton! Whoa!

Now that we know what diatomaceous earth looks like, let’s learn about some of its uses. Scientifically speaking, it is amazing evidence that many islands came from the ocean and is a great indicator of how productive and nutrient-rich the oceans were at the time that these islands were formed. Today, humans have found a multitude of uses for this algae-turned-stone. One popular use is as an alternative to pesticides to kill insect pests. Diatomaceous earth can be easily ground into a powder and used to dehydrate insects as it can soak up moisture and oils from the insects’ exoskeletons. Furthermore, we use it many beauty products such as face washes and toothpaste as it is abrasive and can gently scrape off dead skin and plaque. Amazingly, this ancient algae chalk is edible! Farmers feed food-quality diatomaceous earth to their cows and other animals to combat parasites. We can eat this stuff as well. In fact many bakers put it in their bread, as it helps to preserve the grain. Many believe that this stuff makes you live a longer life by cleansing your colon and ridding you of parasites too!

Diatomaceous Earth 1

All in all, diatomaceous earth is quite an incredible mineral. Millions of years ago this earthen material used to be alive and well, floating and producing oxygen in all the earth’s waters. Then when they died, they stacked up on each other and were transformed into an edible, bug killing, life lengthening rock that we can see on Catalina Island… how cool?!

For more:


Mine, All Mine! – The Mining Boom on Catalina Island


Catalina Island has a very long and unique history, from the Native American peoples who lived on the island for thousands of years, to the European settlers of the 16th and 17th centuries, and even the movie stars of the mid 1900s. One brief part of Catalina’s history that is often overlooked is the mining boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Mining 1

Catalina had a brief mining rush that actually predates the California Gold rush. In the 1830s, a sea otter hunter and fur trapper named George C. Yount claimed to have discovered gold-bearing quartz in the hills of the Cherry Valley cove. Most people at the time didn’t take the discovery as lightly as Mr. Yount: he only returned to Catalina three times in search of gold, but news of his discovery eventually led to a mining boom on the island.

Mining 2

George C. Yount, or should we say… “The Goldfather?”

Many prospectors flocked to Catalina in search of riches, and found it quite easy to stake a claim and squat on the mostly-uninhabited island. The chances of striking a motherlode on Catalina seemed high, with many prospectors finding traces of silver and hoping it would lead them to a vein. Unfortunately for most miners, there weren’t any veins of pure silver ore, but instead major deposits of galena, which is a combination of Lead, Zinc, and Silver.

Mining 3

A combination of galena (silver) and quartz (white), a likely find in a mine like Black Jack (

Galena itself did have some value, but not to the average prospector — and the mining boom on Catalina faded fairly quickly. Some mines on Catalina continued to operate throughout the years, mining for galena at places such as Black Jack Mountain and Silver Peak, the second and third highest points on the island.

The name Black Jack itself comes from another mineral that is usually found in association with galena, sphalerite. The nickname “black jack” comes from the dark appearance of this “junk” mineral that was often found attached to more valuable lead ores.

Mining 4

Galena with sphalerite (zinc sulfide or “black jack”), quartz, and pyrite (

Mining 5

When the stock market crashed in the 1920s and the Great Depression hit the United States, the last of the mining operations ceased and mining on the island disappeared, leaving nothing except for a few holes in the ground as evidence of the Catalina boom.

Mining 6

If Penguins have wings, why can’t they fly?

Penguins are an interesting species of bird that are found in the southern hemisphere of our planet. There are around 17 different types of penguins, and these species are all non-flying. They have a semi-aquatic lifestyle and several characteristics that are very different than other types of birds we commonly know. While other birds have adapted wings for flying, penguins have adapted flipper-like wings to help them swim through the water.

Penguins 1

A large group of penguins in the water is called a “raft” and a large group on land is called a “waddle.”

A penguin’s body is constructed perfectly for aquatic life. They have long, streamlined bodies that help propel them through the water. They spend around 75-80% of their life in the ocean, but will mate, lay eggs and rest on land. Spending this much time in the water puts penguins at a high risk for predators, such as the leopard seal. Penguins’ wings play an essential role in helping them to escape from predators in the water, but not so much on land. This is because there are several differences between birds that use their wings for flight and our non-flying penguin friends.

Many flying bird’s wings are constructed of delicate, lightweight bones that help to lift the bird off the ground to reach flight. However, some species of birds such as the penguin, ostrich, and emu have heavy solid bones that make it harder for them to stay in the air. A penguin’s wings are designed perfectly however for gliding through water. They are often referred to as flippers because of their shape. The wings are super stiff and penguins can actually rotate them in different directions at the same time! This helps them act as the perfect paddle to help catch their prey. They can even reach speeds of up to 22 mph and some species can hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes!

Penguins 2

A penguin using its wings as flippers to glide through the water!

Some scientists believe that a penguin’s inability to fly comes from where they are located. Since penguins have always lived near water millions of years ago, they had to rely upon the ocean for their source of food. Over time they adapted to become more so an aquatic bird, exchanging true wings for “flippers”. Other scientists suggest that getting off the ground took too much effort for a bird that spent so much time in the water. They have over time adapted to their surroundings and decided to become expert swimmers instead of flyers.

Written by: Brooke Fox








We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit for additional information. Happy Reading!