Heal the Bay Blog

Author: Apryl Boyle

Apryl Boyle, our chief aquarist, celebrates a misunderstood species in our local waters. 

If you’ve spent significant time in Santa Monica Bay during the summer, you’ve probably seen or bumped into a ray in the ocean shallows.

At times I’ll be surfing, look down, and see several swim by that are looking for their next meal. Their graceful stride reminds me of a bird in flight and is mesmerizing to watch. Among the animals you’ll see in the Bay: stingrays (Urolophus halleri), bat rays (Myliobatis californica), thornback rays (Platyrhinoidis triseriata), and the shovelnose guitarfish (Rhinobatos productus).

At the Huntington Beach Pier, I saw a man who had caught a very large shovelnose guitarfish and had it laying out in front of him. As the animal gasped for air, I attempted to kindly convince the man to release it back to the wild. The breeding-age animal surely deserved better treatment.  I tried to explain that larger fish keep our oceans healthy and in balance. He wasn’t having it. Some primordial fear had this man convinced he was doing the world a service by killing this creature. The incident continues to haunt me.

Rays are higher-level predators that hunt and consume mollusks, worms, crabs, and other small fishes. They are in the same group as sharks, as they have a skeleton made of cartilage rather than bone. They’re the most diverse of the cartilaginous fishes, with approximately 600 species around the world.

They range in size from a human adult’s hand to those with a nearly 20-foot wingspan, such as the manta ray pictured below. They can be found all over the world’s ocean, from Antarctica to tropical water (although they’re more abundant in warmer water). Because they have such a wide diversity and distribution, rays are critically important to nearly all marine ecosystems and have distinct niches where they live.

Fossil records indicate that stingrays existed as far back as 150 million years ago but over 100 species are threatened today. Humans pose a real threat to their existence through overfishing, habitat loss, and accelerating climate change.

Like sharks, they are feared and largely misunderstood. They’re not normally aggressive and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some that had amazing personalities and would greet me whenever I was near. Yes I had food for them, but they were always quite friendly.  I’ve even been “hugged” by rays.

But what about being stung?

Stingrays do not indiscriminately sting humans without provocation. Sometimes people accidentally step on a ray as they walk out into the ocean. The animal’s instinctual reaction is for the tail to come up as protection. The tail has a stinging mechanism, or barb. It is jagged and has a fish hook-type shape. If you try to take the barb out of your skin carelessly it will rip more of the flesh than when it entered. If you are stung, you need to immediately soak the area in water as hot as you can stand and seek immediate medical assistance.

How can you avoid being stung? Try shuffling. No, not the Super Bowl Shuffle of the 1980s, the timeless Stingray Shuffle.  Shimmy your feet as you enter the ocean. This creates a vibration that alerts rays you’re near and they need to move. Trust me, they don’t want to be stepped on. I surely wouldn’t want a creature exponentially larger than I am stepping on my back. I would definitely react defensively and that’s what they do.

Want to see a ray up close? Come visit the round stingrays at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

Heal the Bay staff-members are still buzzing about Al Gore’s recent Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, held at the end of August in Los Angeles. Key members of our outreach team attended the conference, learning how to talk to people about how the climate crisis affects them personally.  The training included discussions with business leaders, scientists, nonprofit leaders, students, entrepreneurs and innovators from across the globe.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti offered a tutorial on how to best engage with elected officials to effect change. Here are his tips, as relayed to us by Apryl Boyle, an attendee and chief aquarist at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium:

Know your stuff. Don’t look unprepared. It always pays to be better educated on an issue than the elected official you are meeting. Thoroughly do your research and become a subject matter expert before you meet with policy makers. Determine what they’ve worked on, their education, and what their allegiances and goals are. You need to come off as an intelligent and confident citizen. Impress with your knowledge and poise.

Be specific. Don’t ask someone to save the entire world. Come with a finite ask on a specific program, e.g. supporting a piece of legislation. Do you want the oil well removed from your neighborhood? Would you like to see the smokestacks by your residence out of commission? Ask for a very specific action.

Be flexible. Get a small victory, bank it, and march forward. Advocates simply can’t get all their goals achieved exactly the way they envisioned them right from the start. However, if you can get a foot in the door, you can start moving closer to the seats of power. Think big, but start small.  A wise person once said that it’s better to have three-fourths of a loaf of bread than none at all. We have to settle for slices at times.

Be inclusive. Stop feeling special, entitled or smug as an environmentalist/activist. Give other stakeholders a break. Understand that most of us have the same goals, but differing opinions on how to reach them. You aren’t better than someone else simply because you work for a certain organization, marched in a particular march, or wrote more letters to your politicians for a certain campaign. Recognize where there is common ground and build from there. Don’t be divisive.

Be proactive. Lay out a plan. This again is part of doing the research. Simply bringing problems to anyone without a proposed solution isn’t adequate. You simply look like you’re complaining. If you want a solution, be the solution. Gather metrics, have goals, meet deadlines and ask for deadlines.

Apryl Boyle, Heal the Bay’s resident shark guru, says that when it comes to apex predators all you need is love!

When people watch the 1975 movie “Jaws” one of two things usually happens. They become completely terrified to go in any body of water, including their bathtub, or they are motivated to learn more about sharks. I am part of the latter group.

I don’t recall exactly when I first watched this classic tale. But I do remember my instant identification with the shark researcher character, Matt Hooper. Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper as a laid-back, unaffected rich kid fascinated by sharks. He’s the voice of reason and remains calm, which is opposite of the salty boat captain, Quint. He assists protagonist Chief Brody in finding and dealing with the great white shark terrorizing the New England island in the movie.

The film turbo-charged Steven Spielberg’s career and became a worldwide box office hit. It also became a cultural touchstone that catalyzed a global fear of sharks. It sparked sequels, spin-offs, and a “justifiable” reason for people to be afraid of going into the ocean. The filmmakers effectively created a suspenseful thriller by accentuating the fear of the unknown, hidden natural world. After all, who knows what really lurks beneath the waves? The creators tapped into an anxiety that is unmatched by immersion into any other natural environment.

When you swim in the ocean, you cannot see everything underneath or around you. You cannot breathe under water without aid. And the inhabitants of the ocean are far better swimmers than you and I will ever be. For many people this is terrifying, but for marine lovers it’s a source of wonder and excitement—not fear.

From a young age, I have been enamored with all creatures, regardless of their size, shape, or teeth. But the common myths about sharks seemed to always be at odds with my unwavering passion. When I was in college I was actually told that my last words would be, “That shark won’t bite me.”

Fast-forward a few decades.

After receiving my master’s degree in Biomedical Science and working at various aquariums throughout the U.S.,  I’ve become an expert in the shark research field. I’ve been a part of the well-known “Shark Week” programming on Discovery Channel. I’ve been tapped as an expert in the media not only for sharks, but also for marine research.

A great white shark observed by Apryl in Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Watch the video.

In my travels to Fiji, Peru and Mexico I’ve observed beautiful sharks of all types. My trips have even brought me face-to-face with 18-foot great whites, as well as blue sharks, white tips, tiger sharks, nurse sharks, and many more species. I’ve never had an aggressive encounter with sharks over the decades of countless dives.

Now, as the Associate Director of Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, I get to take care of three types of shark and a host of other ocean inhabitants and get paid to do it. This is my job!

I guess you could say that I’ve become a real-life Matt Hooper. And the kid in me is just as excited about sharks as when I first saw “Jaws.”

Apryl speaks at EcoDive Center’s Dive Club to get the group excited for Coastal Cleanup Day, which features underwater cleanup locations in Santa Monica Bay and helps to keep the local marine habitat clean for sharks and other aquatic animals.

The bottom line is that sharks need our protection. As apex predators they keep marine populations stable and thriving. They help regulate the health of the world’s ocean, which is a major source of oxygen on our planet.

Despite these benefits, humans kill an estimated 11,000 sharks every hour (!) and mostly in the horrific practice of finning. A shark is taken out of the water, its fins are cut off for use in shark-fin soup, a supposed “delicacy.” The butchered animal is thrown back into the water, where it can take up to three grueling days to finally suffocate and die.

Slowly, popular culture is starting to replace fear with facts. Peter Benchley, the late creator of the book and screenplay for “Jaws” realized the harm he had done with his product and, together with his wife, spent the rest of his career as a shark advocate. Programming during “Shark Week” has also become less alarmist since its early days. Effective nonprofits have been formed to help protect sharks locally and globally. Legislators have taken action to try and curb the atrocity of shark finning, such as California lawmakers forbidding the importation of shark fins in our state.

I’ve been surfing at El Porto in the South Bay during what I call “baby white shark season” – the time when newborns and juveniles are migrating. I’ve seen juvenile sharks in the lineup and they want nothing to do with surfers. They’re looking for one of their favorite food, stingrays. Young-of-the-year, or infant great white sharks, are born at around 4 feet long. They’re not bullies and don’t try to pick on anything their size or larger (aka humans).

Even 18-foot great whites don’t want to eat humans. We simply aren’t their food. They’re actually picky eaters and prefer the dense fat of seals and sea lions. There is no such thing as a shark “attack” – no great white is out to deliberately stalk and target human beings with some kind of premeditation or vengeance. In the extremely rare case of a shark encounter, it’s usually the case that a splashing swimmer or surfer is mistaken for a shark’s normal prey – a distressed animal.

To underscore how rare it is for someone to be seriously harmed by a shark in the ocean, you may want to remember some of these factoids. More people die each year from eating hot dogs than by shark bites – by far! You are 25 times more likely to be killed by a random strike of lightning than by a shark encounter.

What can you do to help these 400-million-year-old species?

Become a shark ambassador and educate yourself. Speak up for shark-friendly protections. Come visit Heal the Bay’s Aquarium and see our shark nursery and learn why we need to safeguard these special animals.

Sharks are essentially dinosaurs that have survived mass extinctions, but now face such great pressure from the human population that they may not survive for much longer. Whether or not you have a fear of these animals, you need to be concerned about their survival because their survival mirrors the health and biodiversity in our precious seas.

A swell shark lays eggs at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

Want to get an up-close view or our local sharks? Come down to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium for our Shark Sunday programs