Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Let's hope not, but it is a real concern. I come from a generation who, even when growing up in the populated suburbs of Southern California, chased the butterflies, ate a little dirt, and dreamed of being an explorer. But today, in our hand sanitized, digital screened, concrete mall existence, there can be a real disconnect between the indoor world and the outdoor world.
From the United Arab Emirates, comes an interesting article written by Louisa Wilkins and published in the GulfNews. In How Nature Can Help Your Child, she writes of the changes in how children experience nature and what that can mean not only to the collective fate of the outdoors but to the health, mental and physical, of coming generations.
"In the same way that children need food, water and sleep in order to grow and develop to their full potential, so they need nature. Not only because an hour of play outside in the elements is more physical than an hour on the sofa, but because there are other, more subtle, consequences of children losing touch with nature. [Author, Richard] Louv says, 'Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.' According to his research, the disorder is not just limited to individuals, but entire families and communities. He says, 'Nature-deficit can even change human behaviour in cities, which could ultimately affect their design, since long-standing studies show a relationship between the absence, or inaccessibility, of parks and open space with high crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies.'"
There is a segment of readers to this blog who are parents and who have thanked me for some of the information I have provided for their children. I am most flattered by this as it is the next generation or two who will really have to move the bar forward regarding conservation, building on the awareness that adults today are trying to generate, and making it the norm. Louisa Wilkins' article is a great read for those parents - and for all of us - as a reminder of how we saw and experienced the outside world growing up and what our children may be missing today.
Read the entire article in the GulfNews.
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
As animals evolved to survive - to eat, breed, take flight or fight - they developed traits that can leave mankind in the dust. The sensory capabilities of, say, sharks or birds as an example, and the intelligence required to process those sensory inputs can far exceed any of our capabilities. So, it's always interesting when we find animals engaging in actions that seem to imply a level of thinking far beyond what we would normally associate with that species. We're always a little surprised when an animal acts like us.
The classic example was the belief that the use of tools was a major divider between mankind and the animal kingdom. At least it was a widely held belief until researchers like Dr. Jane Goodall and others documented chimpanzees and other monkeys and apes not only using rudimentary tools to assist in the pursuit of food, but that they also pass along those techniques to their offspring.
The use of tools is now possibly showing up within a population of dolphins in western Australia. In 2007, researchers from Murdoch University in Perth noted dolphins holding a conch shell, shaking it at the surface. Further close inspection of photographs taken at the time revealed that the dolphin was shaking the shell to drain the water from inside, thereby dislodging a fish that was hiding in the shell, and gaining a meal. A review of data on this population of dolphins in Shark Bay collected over 30 years, revealed a half dozen sightings of this behavior over two decades.
But this year, in just a four month period starting in May, researchers recorded this behavior on seven different occasions. This has scientists from the university wondering if they are seeing the spread of a learned behavior.
"There's a possibility here -- and it's speculation at this stage -- that this sort of change from seeing it six or seven times in 21 years to seeing it six or seven times in three months gives us that tantalizing possibility that it might be spreading before our very eyes," says Simon Allen from the university's Cetacean Research Unit. "It's too early to say definitively yet, but we'll be watching very closely over the next couple of field seasons."
The possibility exists that the dolphins are passing along this specialized hunting technique not just in a vertical manner, as in from mother to calf, but horizontally with other dolphins within the group. However, to prove that using the conch shell as a rudimentary tool, researchers may need to conduct a series of tests to show that the dolphin is consciously choosing to do so.
"If we could put some shells in a row or put them facing down or something like that and then come back the next day, if we don't actually see them do it but find evidence that they've turned the shell over or make it into an appealing refuge for a fish, then that implies significant forward planning on the dolphins' parts," said Allen. "The nice idea is that there is this intriguing possibility that they might manipulate the object beforehand. Then that might change using the shell as just a convenient object into actual tool use."
So, animals continue to surprise and cause us to continually redefine what separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. I say why bother? We are all part of the same global collection of living creatures, each having found a niche in the evolutionary cycle according to our gifts. Mankind may be a greater beneficiary of the evolutionary process in some respects, but I am continually reminded in my travels both on land and below the waves that we need not gloat too long or too loud.
Every once in a while, the walls that separate us from other animals can appear to momentarily come down, as you can see in this video taken several years ago with a researcher making friends with a young elephant seal. The seal's natural hesitancy gave way to curiosity and then a comfort level that looks for all the world as if the seal is taking a real shine to the young woman researcher.
Of course, before we ascribe some human characteristic to this seal's behavior, one must always be aware that these are animals who can think and react to situations in ways very different from us and, therefore, can be unpredictable. What appears to be a brief moment of affection could have turned into something much different in an instant.
But it's still cute as the dickens.
Read about the dolphins in Reuters.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Here's a quick video that briefly shows some of the shark fun the Bahamas are famous for, but also highlights a great encounter that crew member Rob MacDonald and I had with a large grouper. Groupers are popular gamefish with Florida sportfishermen and that's unfortunate because their numbers have declined - just when the marine ecosystem needs them most. With the explosion in the past few years in the number of lionfish, a beautiful but voracious reef fish that is an invasive species to the Caribbean, the grouper is one of only a few large predators that can potentially help keep the lionfish population in check, if only the grouper population itself was in better shape.
The grouper that visited Rob and I was initially interested in our bait crate, which contained some slabs of fish to attract Caribbean reef sharks. The reef sharks knew who was boss and you'll see one dart out of the grouper's way, as groupers are not afraid to butt heads with a shark if need be. With no easy meal available, the grouper proceeded to act like a cat weaving between our legs looking for a good petting. Actually more of a back scratching, as these large fish will attract small, pesky parasites and the grouper won't shy away from an opportunity to dislodge some of these hitchhikers.
The grouper continued to pass back and forth between the two of us for a good five to ten minutes. Then Rob pulled out a hunk of fish from the crate as a thank you to the grouper for spending time with us. And with that, it was on its way.
It's always a treat when you have the chance to safely interact with large animals. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to size up the animal's behavior to ensure, as best you can, that you won't be harassed or bitten. There's always that thought: "I wonder if this big fella is looking for some payback for all the relatives we humans have pulled out of the sea?"
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Add to that, beach goers in Mission Beach, San Diego who hoped to cool off in the ocean have been forced out of the water due to sightings of a large shark cruising the area. Lifeguards twice closed the beaches at Belmont Park when a reported 14-foot shark was spotted, but the park is currently re-opened.
It's at times like these that thoughts of apocalyptic weather, global warming in high gear, and "summer of the shark" descriptors get bandied about and, to a degree, it's understandable. It's human nature and it can be heightened by a feedback loop with the help of the media. After all, in today's crowded information age, the media relies on our emotional hot buttons to catch our attention which, in turn, furthers the public frenzy and round and round it goes.
This isn't meant to diminish the importance of the damage being wrought by Hurricane Irene. While it has lost some of its clout and could even be downgraded to a tropical storm if it continues to lose energy as it makes landfall, it still has delivered high winds, considerable rain, and the threat of high water storm surge which can produce considerable flooding in low-lying coastal areas. And there is the tragedy of at least 6 deaths being attributed to the storm so far.
But scientists will tell you to take a deep breath before attributing our severe weather to global warming. The computer models are definitely there that will show that as the climate changes, so do weather patterns and one of the anticipated outcomes of warming temperatures will be more severe weather, including tropical storms and hurricanes. And there is plenty of historical evidence to show that temperatures are up and we are on that path. As an advocate of climate change, I do not dispute the scientific evidence but the experts will tell you that one extreme summer does not a trend make. At least not yet.
At the same time, one does not want to end up being one of those who ignored the boy who cried wolf until you wake up and find the big hairy brute on your doorstep. So, I wait to hear what the climatologists will have to say and take heart that if a definitive trend does take time, it means we have a window of opportunity to act now and do something about it before it becomes insurmountable.
With regards to recent shark sightings both here and off the coast of Massachusetts, these both could be, like the weather, statistical anomalies. It's certainly not unusual to have large sharks - typically great whites - cruising the California coast. Juveniles feed here and there can be lone adults looking to feed on seals or sea lions while others stick to the siren calls of migration - for San Diego, adults are often running south this time of year to Isla Guadalupe off Baja, Mexico.
As a shark advocate, my initial reaction to calls for a "summer of the sharks" or the media's use of the well-worn term "shark-infested waters" is one of "wouldn't that be nice." If the statistics were to support those labels that would mean that sharks as an ocean species are making a comeback from years of extreme decline due to overfishing. For me, that's a comforting thought, but let's see how the numbers play out over time. In the meantime, as with my optimism regarding taking action to minimize climate change, I will continue to support efforts to protect and conserve are toothy oceanic friends.
So, while my knee jerk reaction will continue to be, "geez louise, this has got to be the hottest ever," I'll try to take that deep breath and see what the trend analysis shows - while I crack open another Diet Coke and settle into the tub.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Below is a great short video from Science Friday, originally put out by the educational arm of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The actual footage was shot over a decade ago by marine biologist Roger Hanlon and I have seen it in other Woods Hole presentations over the years, but it never loses the fascination it generates with the viewer.
Not only is it amazing to watch but it's also mysterious - scientists to this day are still trying to determine how these mollusks are able to do it. How can a colorblind octopus match its color to the surroundings so perfectly? What triggers the type of display the animal will use - a communicating color pattern, a camouflage pattern based on color or texture or both?
Aaah, the mysteries of the deep. . .
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
But it can be altered to provide for greater survivability of the fish through catch-and-release techniques. For conservationists, this isn't an ideal solution by any means. Dr. Sylvia Earle refers to catch-and-release as "torture and release" and to a large extant she has a point. Catching any fish by hook causes stress on the animal. After all, it was swimming and feeding one moment and the next, it's in complete survival mode fighting against some unknown force and slowly reaching a state of total exhaustion before being momentarily manhandled and then once again free to roam.
So, one way to look at catch-and-release is that it is an incremental step, one foot forward towards a greater awareness as to the sustainability and current dwindling populations of, in particular, large species like billfish and sharks. That is part of the philosophy behind the Shark Free Marinas Initiative (SFMI), supported by The Humane Society of America and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation. This organization gets sportfishing marinas to sign up to be "shark free" - meaning no sharks can be brought in to their docks for weighing, trophy photos, butchering, anything. No sharks, period.
Sure, to us hard core conservationists it would be great if all sportfishermen abandoned their rods and reels but, again, the economic underpinnings make it very unlikely that state or local governments will pass the required regulations that would effectively outlaw the sport. In California, legislation to prohibit the possession, trade, and distribution of shark fins is preparing for a final vote in the state senate. Those who oppose the legislation, AB 376, are pushing their campaign for a series of crippling amendments not because they hate sharks or love shark finning but because they see considerable dollars and many jobs that will be lost with its passage. Those who favor the legislation must carefully hone their argument and keep in mind that it is not the moral position or even the environmental position that will likely sway the politicians; it will be the economic rationale. And in today's current economic mess, any talk of lost revenue or jobs will certainly catch a politician's interest.
But I digress. . .
If we concede that catch-and-release is at least one step back from the brink of destruction of a fish, it's not an unreasonable question to ask just how much of a step it really is. Just how traumatic is catch-and-release on, say, a shark? Are there any long-term effects? Does the animal survive for the moment but die some days or even weeks later due to complications?
To better understand the lingering effects of catch-and-release techniques, Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory will begin a one-year study on sharks, aided by a $192 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Assisted by the Florida Aquarium's Center for Conservation and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the study will enlist the services of several sportfishing charter boats and will focus primarily on the blacktip shark, a popular species for shark fishermen because it is known to put up a good fight and often leap out of the water - some of the same criteria that make billfish like marlin popular among sportfishermen.
“For the first time, we’ll take a magnifying glass to sharks’ behavior after release — for instance, we’ll look at how strongly they’re swimming after capture and whether they’re rolling or listing,” said project leader Dr. Nick Whitney, a staff scientist in Mote’s Center for Shark Research. “These measurements go way beyond ‘dead or alive.’ The vast majority of sharks may survive, but it’s important to know if their recovery time varies with different kinds of fishing gear. Our technique will yield new, hard data comparing standard J-hooks with circle hooks, which are designed to be safer for sharks.”
Scientists will enlist the use of accelerometers - the same little electrical devices that sense movement in your smartphone or handheld video game player - along with small data recorders to record the movements of a shark as it is released following a catch-and-release episode. Every flick of the shark's tail or tilt of its dorsal fin will be recorded. The devices will fall off the shark after a period of time and will be retrieved and analyzed to determine the shark's behavior after being caught. By understanding what is being inflicted upon the shark, either temporary or long-lasting, wildlife management agencies can then better determine how best to minimize the effects through regulations and the use of various types of fishing gear.
“The goal will be for the charter captains to use the same practices and gear that Florida anglers normally would, so we can compare the two hooks in a real-world setting and look at how they perform in relation to shark survival and behavior,” Whitney said.
Personally, I choose not to fish. As a diver I stopped spearfishing or taking game like lobster or abalone many, many years ago. But I realize that sportfishing is a popular activity and thriving business in areas like Florida, and that overly-efficient, but indiscriminate, commercial fishing probably poses a much greater threat to overall survivability for many ocean species. So, if I want to sit down with a sportfisherman and have a go at changing his mindset and his hobby, having the scientific facts, as this Mote Marine Laboratory study hopes to obtain, will give me some heft to my argument - and could just maybe help prevent me from getting punched in the nose.
Monday, August 22, 2011
An article in Nature News describes a study published in Nature Climate Change detailing the findings of researchers from the Senckenberg Research Institutes and Natural History Museum in Geinhausen, Germany. The researchers studied several insect species at the mitochondrial DNA level to ascertain subtle differences within species, which they cataloged as Evolutionary Significant Units or ESUs - populations with a species that are genetically distinct from the rest of its kind.
Extrapolating their findings to insects throughout Europe, the researchers came to a sobering conclusion regarding the survivability of their test subjects as to whether they could adapt to higher temperatures or migrate to more suitable (ie: colder) conditions. 79% of the ESUs in the study group, it was theorized, would be extinct by 2080, a much higher rate than species in general. And it seems, the more diverse the species, the greater the chance of lowered survivability - something that runs counter to what some would logically believe.
Now, this may seem a bit arcane as it is a study based on using insects. Can this be extrapolated to all species? Well, it's certainly possible. Populations of any creature - plant or animal - that have evolved within, say, a specific geographic area may not be able to adapt to rises in temperature or just may not have the genetic disposition to migrate. There have been reports of large animals, like moose, that would not be inclined to travel further north into Canada and would therefore face possible extinction. So, the concept of cryptic diversity could be applicable to creatures large and small.
The researchers concede that there are other factors that must be studied further, along with the cryptic diversity theory, like the "dispersal capacity" or potential ability to migrate by various species.
For the most part, scientists overwhelmingly agree on the concept and reality of climate change. But it is a new arena being studied and how nature adapts and whether those adaptations lead to continued diversity or a drastic reduction of the complexity and range of species in nature remains to be seen. Indications, however, point to an inconvenient truth that is not promising and to which mankind has culpability and the responsibility to change the outcome.
"Through our work to determine climate-adaptation strategies, we realize that genetics is one way to get an overall better view of how species are affected by climate change," says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a United Nations-organized effort to develop plans for sustaining biodiversity.
Read more about cryptic biodiversity in Nature News.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Palau is a popular dive tourism location, a site for many scientific studies, and a Pacific island trailblazer having established a shark sanctuary that covers the entire island. But with all this aquatic visibility, no one had ever seen this species of eel before. A kind of half-eel, half-fish, the newly discovered creature has anatomical features that distinguish it from the current 800 species of eel today.
With a second upper jaw bone and only 90 vertebrae, features only found in fossilized specimens from the Cretaceous period, it is also unique because it has a full set of gill rakers - a cartilaginous feature found in most bony fishes - and not eels - that aid in filter feeding. The new species' lineage as a true eel was determined by examining its mitochondrial DNA.
"We believe that such a long, independent evolutionary history, [...] retention of several primitive anatomical features and apparently restricted distribution, warrant its recognition as a living fossil," said Dave Johnson of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research team's published paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The research team likened the eel, named Protoanguilla palau, to the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish known only in the fossil record until living examples were discovered in the late 1930s. The researchers theorized that the Palau eel likely appeared 200 million years ago, at the end of the Triassic period.
Johnson emphasized, "The discovery of this extraordinary and beautiful new species of eel underscores how much more there is to learn about our planet. Furthermore, it brings home the critical importance of future conservation efforts - currently this species is known from only ten specimens collected from a single cave in Palau."
Saturday, August 20, 2011
With the most recent incident - a young man attacked while snorkeling in shallow water - several news outlets are devoting airtime and print space to both, the human tragedy - the attack was witnessed from shore by the young man's newly wed wife - and the ensuing hunt that is currently taking place for the "killer" shark.
The news media is taking every guess, hypothesis, crackpot assumption, and misconception as facts in this attack - I have read it was a white shark (unlikely based on the multiple bites this latest bather received); a bull shark measuring 18 feet in length (a size which would be a modern miracle in marine biology); a "rogue" shark as the culprit (whatever that means, a well-worn rationale to try to explain what amounts to the normal actions of a large predator in its natural environment); and so on.
And then there is the reaction of the authorities, enlisting the aid of local fisherman to deploy hooked and baited longlines in an attempt to catch the specific shark responsible. Now, I can understand their need to be seen as taking some sort of definitive action. They have a tourist trade to protect and perhaps merely closing beaches won't instill confidence for their tourism compared with catching and killing the shark responsible. However, in the end, there will undoubtedly be many sharks and other large fish caught and killed as a result of the shark hunt. And maybe they will succeed in catching a shark that contains human remains, but that will guarantee nothing.
The one indisputable fact is that the ocean is not our playground; it is home to a range of marine life from brine shrimp to blue whales, and every time we dip our toes in the water, we are intruding in their space. Urchins will stick and sting rays sting when stepped on, sea jellies will fire their nematocyst stinging cells when bumped, and sharks will, on very rare occasions, mistake a human as potential prey. This isn't meant to marginalize or dismiss the human tragedy or the visceral impact when a person is attacked by any predator, on land or sea. But it is the one constant whether you are using the oceans for recreation, scientific study, or commercial gain.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
I learned that these mass gatherings of sea jellies of various species were becoming more frequent worldwide. However, scientists were unsure as to the reasons why. There were certainly some likely possibilities including pollution, loss of predators, and climate change, but as far as most scientists were concerned, it was all inconclusive. There's much we don't know about these beautiful invertebrates, so making definitive statements is difficult at best.
But the invasions continue. The BBC News reports of a rise in sea jelly, or jellyfish, swarms in the United Kingdom. And scientists there are beginning to subscribe to the same suspicions I referenced in my previous post.
"It's not only beach-goers who have to watch out. Torness nuclear power plant in Scotland recently had to shut down after moon jellyfish blocked the water intake system. Several tonnes of the creatures had to be cleared out.
Some areas, including the Irish Sea and the east coast of Scotland, have been invaded by so many they now resemble a 'jellyfish soup', says the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). So why do they appear to be on the increase?
According to research there is strong evidence that an increase is linked to three main factors - pollution, overfishing and possibly climate change.
Overfishing means jellyfish do not face their usual predators and competitors, which usually regulate population growth. Large fish, which eat jellyfish, have been drastically reduced by bad fishing practices, says Ocean 2012, a pressure group which campaigns to stop overfishing. So have smaller fish which compete for food with the stingers.
It is argued that climate change can cause more favourable conditions for jellyfish, with their adaptability giving them an advantage over some other sea creatures."
Sea jelly swarms - also known as blooms, like plankton blooms - apparently have occurred in the cold North Atlantic waters from Ireland to Scotland to England. A few research organizations have been conducting tagging studies and surveys to learn more about their distribution, but the sparse data comes in slowly so, once again, conclusions are hard to come by.
Says Dr. Victoria Hobson of Ecojel, a 3-year old research project on the abundance and distribution of sea jellies, "This [the lack of research] also makes it difficult to get a handle on how numbers have changed. Even in recent years people are doing a lot more watersports so are spotting more. With the development of smartphones it is also much easier to report those sightings. It makes it difficult to interpret if there are actually more jellyfish or just more sightings."
Sea jelly invasions can have serious economic consequences. In Nambia, swarms of sea jellies have consumed or pushed out many local fish species, depriving subsistence-level fisherman of any catch whether for sale or for their own consumption. And in developing nations hard hit by either civil strife or severe drought conditions (or both), a loss of a local food source can have grave implications.
In more developed nations, like Japan or Great Britain, sea jelly swarms can spoil entire commercial catches. In 2007, a jellyfish invasion wiped out Northern Ireland's only salmon farm, killing over 100,000 fish.
Beautiful to look at, fascinating to watch, and sometimes dangerous to the touch, sea jellies can be seen as an indicator as to the health of the oceans and whenever they appear en masse, we should all take notice. It could mean a lot more than just the need to be careful where you step on the beach or in the surf.
Read about UK's sea jelly invasion in the BBC News.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
The Wildlife Conservation Society has continued working with their stress test model and in a recent issue of PLoS One, have presented a map of the world's coral reef regions with the stress test applied. The purpose of the map is to identify the types of stress placed upon coral reef regions so that, again, marine management organizations can compare human activities with the kinds of stress already taking place naturally and in so doing decide the most appropriate course of coral reef management to ensure its survival.
The map basically identifies two groups: those with high radiation stress (sea surface temperature, ultra-violet radiation, and minimal wind weather patterns) combined with few stress-reducing factors such as temperature variability and tidal movements - call this a high stress group - and a second group with less intense stress factors and a greater level of stress-reducing ones - call this the moderate group.
For marine management, these stress factors - while not necessarily fatal for any coral region when the reef is left in a pristine, undisturbed natural state - are not something that can be controlled, except on a global level that deals with the larger issue of climate change. However, when you add in man-made impacts like overfishing, pollution, and coastal development, then what the region is able to withstand can be exceeded, and this is where marine management and marine protected areas can then have the greatest impact.
In the high stress group, the researchers included coral reef regions in Southeast Asia, Micronesia, Eastern Pacific, Central Indian Ocean, Middle East, and Western Australia. The second, more moderate stress group included the Caribbean, Great Barrier Reef, Central Pacific, Polynesia, and the Western Indian Ocean.
“When radiation stress and high fishing are combined, the reefs have little chance of surviving climate change disturbances because they both work against the survival of corals that are the foundation of the coral reef ecosystem,” said Dr. Tim McClanahan, Wildlife Conservation Society Senior Conservationist and head of the society’s coral reef research and conservation program.
“The study provides marine park and ecosystem managers with a plan for spatially managing the effectiveness of conservation and sustainability,” said Dr. Caleb McClennen, Director of the society’s Marine Program. “The information will help formulate more effective strategies to protect corals from climate change and lead to improved management of reef systems globally.”Coral reefs are critically important but very fragile marine ecosystems and have already been seriously affected by man-made activities. The more tools we have at our disposal to ascertain the survivability of a particular region the better management decisions that can be made before it is too late.
Map courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Basking Shark Tagging in Monterey
With each new study on sharks, scientists learn a little more about the wonderful world of sharks, but there are still some species that are shrouded in mystery. Take the basking shark, the second largest of all sharks, next to the whale shark, and one not to be feared as it is a filter feeder like baleen whales.
Preferring cold water, the basking shark has been studied in the North Atlantic, but limited studies have taken place in the Pacific. The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation has just started a more detailed tagging program in and around Monterey Bay, CA, utilizing satellite tracking tags that have been successfully used on other species like great white sharks. To date, only basic number/color identification tags have been used. With the use of an archival satellite tag - which can store various position, depth, and speed data for later retrieval via satellite - the foundation can accumulate more detailed and accurate data as to the movements of basking sharks.
Sean Van Sommeran, founder and director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, describes the basking shark as "elusive" and, as they are recognized as threatened, are considered "commercially extinct."
Working in conjunction with Stanford University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Van Sommeran's foundation has tagged one sub-adult basking shark at around 15 to 16 feet in length and plans to tag more.
California's AB376 Anti-Shark Fin Bill Advances
This Monday, California's Assembly Bill 376, which prohibits sale, possession, and distribution of shark fins - much like legislation already passed in Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington - will take the next step on its way to a final vote. The bill will go before the Senate Appropriations Committee and for many of the bill's supporters, the big issue here is whether there will be any amendments tacked on to the legislation that will weaken it and provide loopholes for commercial operations to continue.
You can support and participate in various efforts being staged by a variety of shark advocate groups - Sea Stewards, based in San Francisco, is planning a bus ride tomorrow to Sacramento to make a physical presence in support of AB376. However, one of the best ways to make your voice heard is through direct communication to the members of the committee. Sea Stewards has provided a listing of the members' email addresses and sample email content.
I urge you to vote for AB 376 without amendments. Scientists have testified that the suggested amendment to allow shark fins from domestic fisheries cannot be enforced and will lead to increased fishing pressure on domestic sharks and allow black market fins to enter the market.
Also, the MSC certification of fins is not a viable option. To date there has not been a well managed and sustainable shark fishery. Focused shark fisheries lead to collapse of the population. Sharks are vital for ecosystem health.
For these reasons please support this bill as written.
Read about basking shark tagging in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Read about AB376 and what you can do at SeaStewards.org.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
I had the rare privilege to work with Diana in late April, filming her from an underwater perspective at Pepperdine's Olympic pool in Malibu, CA, for CNN. It was there that I first learned of her goal of making the swim from Cuba to Florida and I saw firsthand the energy and passion that she had in taking on this goal, not only as a competitive athlete but as someone who felt unencumbered by the personal myths and preconceived notions of age. Although of similar age (she is 61 to my 59 years of age), I must admit, I did not know of her prior accomplishments 30 years ago as a world record holder in endurance swimming. A little time spent on the Internet and I quickly realized that I had been fortunate to spend a brief day not with a geriatric hell-raiser bent on some sort of stunt, but with an accomplished and committed professional and a veritable force of nature.
And that was that; or so I thought. Because of both my professional film/video background and kindred relationships with several leading members of the shark conservation community, I was called upon in late June to join her team of safety divers and to film her underwater during her swim. Everyone on the Xtreme Dream Team would be essentially "on call" waiting for the optimum conditions that Diana required to make the attempt. The prime ingredients: warm water temperatures in the high 80's and flat, doldrums-like ocean conditions. This is something that mother nature does not give up easily. July is probably the best month of the year to achieve both such conditions for any reasonable length of time, but this year July had not followed the norm. And so the days and weeks dragged on with email updates flying out to the team covering the latest weather reports or how Diana was feeling, and what she was doing to stay at the physical peak she would need. Laced through all of these communiques was the enthusiasm and encouragement of team members and Diana herself.
The Safety Diver Team (aka Shark Divers)
The safety diver team was headed up by my friend Luke Tipple - marine biologist, dive safety officer on many television productions, and Director of the Shark-Free Marina Initiative. Several other leading pro-shark professionals were enlisted to round out a team of four but due to scheduling conflicts as the weeks wore on, some would have to regrettably drop out and others were called upon to fill in. From the first meeting held to discuss safety diver protocol right up to the moment of the event, one mutual understanding between the divers and Diana existed: in the course of ensuring her safety in the presence of any sharks, only non-lethal techniques would be employed. No harm would come to any shark in the course of our duties.
So resolute were the divers in this regard, that when the New York Times reported on Diana's upcoming swim and erroneously described her safety team as "divers with spears," there was a momentary blow-up and some of the team members chose not to be involved with an endeavor that would have them characterized in such an anti-conservation manner. In the end, while many - including the divers - wanted to downplay the "shark-infested waters" angle and focus more on Diana and the swim itself, eventually Diana laid out her position regarding sharks so that members of the ocean and shark conservation community could be put at ease - despite the media's ongoing fascination with a sensationalistic shark angle.
Her is a portion of what she wrote for CNN's Health blog, The Chart, "Our team has worked hard toward this world record. But it is of paramount importance to us that we achieve the dream in perfect harmony with all the creatures of the sea we encounter . In some regard, I am humbly asking the sharks of this particular ocean to allow me to skim across the surface of their home for about three days. I am duly respectful of them, their habits and their habitat, as is every individual on the Xtreme Dream Team.
We are humbly entering their world, their territory. Yes, let’s not be naïve. There is reason to take intelligent precautions for my safety. But it is imperative to me and every member of my team that those precautions be in the hands of a highly expert, experienced team of four divers who are versed for many years now in using cutting edge, nonlethal technology to deter sharks.
These divers dedicate their lives to raising awareness for sharks and persuading nations around the world to ban shark finning."Of course, in times past, this proactive non-lethal approach would not necessarily have been the case. And I can understand any trepidation that Diana might have had regarding sharks. Consider her environment - constantly swimming, rotating her head to take a breath and check her position in relationship to nearby kayakers and support vessels. She just wouldn't have the luxury that scuba divers or snorklers have of looking around at what might be swimming underneath and that can certainly prey on the imagination.
Add to that, the media frenzy that surrounded swimmer Penny Palfrey, following her Cayman Island swim where she encountered several sharks that were mistakenly reported by the press as having been killed, and it became very clear to Diana that a pro-shark protocol sufficient to protect her and the sharks was needed. We had a range of steps and options with regard to any shark encounter, but rather than detail them here, you can read about them at Luke Tipple's website.
Ultimately, Diana's safety diver team consisted of Luke, myself, Capt. Rob MacDonald, and Capt. Jon Rose. We were ready to go; the August tropical storm/hurricane season was bearing down and the windows of opportunity were narrowing. When tropical storm Emily, which was initially bound for Cuba and then the eastern Florida coast, dissipated unexpectedly, a potential weather window had opened. The word went out: the time is now.
The Dash to Havana
Quickly taking care of my personal affairs, I grabbed my dive and camera gear that had been packed and patiently waiting, and took the next available flight to get me to Key West where the first step - going to Havana - was being staged.
Diana's logistical team had the imposing task of coordinating the arrival of several dozen team members and observers from all across the country and getting them to their assigned vessels for the ride out to Havana - a difficult enough task if they had had a fixed date weeks in advance, but the nature of this event precluded such an advantage. Diana had moved on ahead to Havana and now the rest of the team must quickly catch up. The safety diver team was assigned to the Mirage, a unique type of custom outrigger/catamaran designed for accommodating kayakers on ocean expeditions throughout Florida and the Caribbean. With kayaks and dive gear all aboard and all passengers accounted for (except for our fearless leader, Luke, who was hung up with flight delays), we set off at seven that evening for Cuba. Luke would follow up on another boat leaving early the next morning.
The passage across the Florida Straits was mostly smooth and uneventful with only one period of rougher seas and windy weather - not the kind of thing an endurance swimmer wants to contend with, so we all hoped for this to be momentary departure from the anticipated ocean conditions Diana was counting on. Sunset was quite literally an explosion of color and many of us reached for our cameras to hopefully capture its beauty before the sun disappeared below the horizon. The crossing would have been idyllic but for the oppressive and stifling heat and humidity that is common for this time of year. Many of us chose to sleep out on the open deck. During the night I awoke to see a veritable ocean of stars, a sky alive with constellations and shooting stars, the likes of which I hadn't seen since gazing at the sky years ago in California's high desert.
As we approached Havana around midday, we assembled all the necessary passports and state department letters which Diana and her Havana ground ops team had worked so hard to have for us in time for the crossing. (Diana had missed an opportunity last year at making the swim because of delays in obtaining all of the required paperwork before the optimum weather window closed for the season.) Reaching Cuba were the key vessels, Voyager, Bellissimo, and the Mirage. Other support vessels would meet us out in international waters, just outside the 12-mile limit. We arrived west of Havana at the Hemingway Marina - a nod to the days when Ernest Hemingway would spend time in Cuba, writing, drinking, and fishing - but rather than partake in any of those activities, we settled in for several hours of customs and immigration inspections.
When finally allowed to put our feet on Cuban soil, we quickly had to re-group at the local marina yacht club for a meeting. Diana was there to welcome us all and give us a quick rundown as to what would be happening next. It was a strange mix of excitement and confusion. There would be no settling back in old leather chairs, knocking down a few beers or tasting the local cuisine. The narrow weather window, combined with the time spent being cleared by Cuban officials, only allowed for a quick update from David Marchant, Diana's navigator, as to upcoming ocean conditions followed by one final expression of determination from Diana along with her gratitude to all of those on the team. Just the day before, there was a press conference held, attended by reporters from across the globe. The buzz was in high gear and the Xtreme Dream was real, it was international, and it was fast upon us.
Sunday, August 7th - It Begins
After going through another round of customs so that we could depart, our brief stay in Cuba was over and we positioned ourselves just outside the marina along a seawall where Diana would start. There was a crowd of both American and Cuban supporters awaiting Diana's arrival. It was a curious sight, given the strained relationship that has existed between Cuba and the United States for so many decades. A large Cuban flag was erected at the starting point and many in the crowd shouted, "USA, USA, USA..." For a moment you could sense the walls erected by politicians and ideologies had come down, all around this one event and the determination of one woman.
Finally, at a little before eight o'clock, the moment had come. Jumping into the water, Diana swam out to position herself next to the lead support vessel, Voyager, a small catamaran that she had been working with for some time as she trained for this day. Extended from the starboard or right side of Voyager was a boom holding a long strip of red LED lights and a wide white ribbon of vinyl plastic. Together, day or night, these two would act as, essentially, a visible stripe down an oceanic highway. Diana would follow the stripe and the Voyager would then be better able to keep her on course. Trailing next to her were two kayaks to also help keep her on course. Each kayak carried an electronic device called a Shark Shield. The Shark Shield gives off a very low electrical field that has been shown to be very effective in repelling curious sharks. With each kayaker carrying a shark shield suspended below their kayak, Diana would be swimming inside an electrical bubble, so to speak. Encountering a more determined animal, we safety divers would have to then enter the water and chase it away using poles with padded tips. However, sharks were not foremost on the minds of the handlers and crew on Voyager at the start of the race. What was important was for Diana to find her stride, set a comfortable pace, and concentrate on moving forward. Florida awaits.
Moving Into the First Night
As the sun began to set, the first challenge to Diana's goal reared it's head. Only three hours into the swim, her right shoulder began to bother her and with each and every stroke the pain became more excruciating. But still, she kept up her pace, stopping every 45 minutes for fluids or a high protein liquid meal. When I heard from one of the team that Diana was experiencing some shoulder pain, I immediately recalled her mentioning to me in April, at Pepperdine, she had a previous shoulder injury that she always had to be conscious of not exacerbating. But that was her left shoulder. Her right shoulder compensated and was particularly strong throughout all of her training, so this new development came as quite a surprise to all.
To be in accordance with all the recognized rules and regulations for marathon swimming, crew members have to be extremely careful in how they come in contact with the swimmer. Any extended contact can be perceived as assisting the swimmer through the water, thereby disqualifying the swimmer from any official record. And there were observers on board watching throughout the swim. So, Diana's handlers carefully provided her with Tylenol and an ice pack to use during her fluid/meal breaks to hopefully ease the pain in her shoulder.
In the meantime, with Luke set to arrive the next morning, the safety diver team had to make some adjustments to their original planned schedule of two divers on, two divers off in four-hour shifts. We decided to position Jon aboard the Voyager while Rob and I would follow along in a large, solid keel, powered inflatable - a common fixture found on large boats and luxury yachts. Performing a shark watch at night is the most challenging as your use of any type of searchlight is very restricted. Bright beams of light moving through the water can be very distracting, if not outright alarming to the swimmer. But with the three of us now in position, we settled in for a long night. We would be going non-stop until Luke arrived the next morning. Of course, there was no whining; all you had to do was listen to the rhythmic splash of each of Diana's strokes to remind you who was really doing the hard work - hundreds of strokes each and every hour - focused and in her zone, trying to ignore the searing pain that was racing through her shoulder.
Ocean conditions were changing and not necessarily for the better. There were periods of relative calm, but any stretch of swells or wind-induced chop would work against her, knocking her about and making staying on course all the more difficult. The currents that move through the straits between Florida and Cuba can change direction from predominantly west to east or vice versa, or even double-back and become a mixture of the two. At the start of the swim, currents were basically moving in a northeasterly direction, so either Diana would need to push into the current to stay on her course line or make a series of course corrections, possibly ending up further north of her intended final destination and adding a few more miles to the swim.
As night slowly turned to morning, another challenge raised its head. Diana began to feel her breathing becoming restricted, more labored. She was having an asthma attack! This had never happened to her during all her years of swimming. The difficulty of having to deal with it now only added to the frustration as to why. Why? Was it induced by stress? Or perhaps a reaction the pain medication? Diana only takes Tylenol as she has bad reactions to aspirin or ibuprofen, but she was assured by her physician on-the-scene, Dr. Michael Broder, that she had only been given Tylenol.
Second Day: The Mark of a Champion
That morning, Luke arrived on one of the smaller support vessels and joined the rest of the team. I was now atop the Voyager, watching the waters for any uninvited guests. Schools of baitfish would occasionally boil at the surface or yellowtail would come by to inspect the trailing ribbon that ran underneath Diana, like the arrow on a compass. But for now, there was nothing to worry about as far as sharks were concerned. The safety divers had their job to do and so did Diana's handlers, lead by her business partner and close confidant, Bonnie Stoll.
Bonnie is another strong personality. A bit brusk at times, or in-your-face if need be, she is also Diana's number one supporter and cheerleader. Bonnie is absolutely relentless in her ability to keep Diana focused, to keep her emotionally pumped up. Some of us have that little voice that speaks to us inside our heads, that gets us out of bed and moving. Bonnie is that voice, literally and forcefully, for Diana when she is swimming. And right now, with all that had happened to Diana in the first few hours of the swim, Bonnie was needed more than ever. Rarely have I ever seen a relationship between any two people that is as supportive as what I saw between these two: the swimmer and the clarion supporter.
But it was becoming more and more of an uphill struggle for Diana. The asthma was depriving her muscles of critically needed oxygen, sapping their strength. Dr. Broder had Diana try an inhaler and gave her antihistamines but their effectiveness was being countered by the sheer physical effort that Diana was expending. She couldn't take a break, rest a while on the boat while the medications kicked in - that would end the swim right then and there. So, Diana would soldier on, hearing words of encouragement and support from her handlers, the kayakers, the crew, and of course from Bonnie.
Even in an ideal set of conditions, marathon swimming extracts a heavy toll on the human body. Sleep deprivation, leading to hallucinations; vomiting from the cumulative ingestion of seawater while swimming or drinking; hypothermia; the assault on your entire internal system from the loss of electrolytes, despite continued efforts to replace such fluids. Over so many hours, the human body slowly begins to shut down. Only a determination in mental focus can get a well-trained athlete through it. Diana is just such an individual; but now she is being put to the test. What might have been surmountable over the course of several days has befallen her within the first twenty-four.
In a peculiar way, it was both inspiring and painful to watch. Diana would take a break, floating on her back, bemoaning why these things were happening to her all at once. Drinking fluids and trying to keep food down, Diana would often look at Bonnie or her handlers with a distant, faraway look. Bonnie would be giving her words of encouragement while David Marchant and the other crew members would be discussing her current course and what progress was being made. Perched atop Voyager, I wondered how much more of this Diana could take. And just when I thought she might be contemplating calling it quits, she would roll over and begin swimming again, that rhythmic splash, splash, splash of each stroke ringing across the water. There were times when I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.
During one of my breaks, I prepared my underwater video camera to film Diana from underneath. I needed to have Diana's handlers let her know I would be coming into view from below, so as not to startle her. With camera ready, I rolled over the side of the inflatable with the idea of filming Diana as she ended a fluid break and resumed swimming. I saw her roll over and begin to move forward, so I pushed the record button. Just a mere few seconds into it and suddenly an error message appeared in my viewfinder! A digital media card was malfunctioning and in the classic manner: at the worst possible moment. I returned back to the Mirage to sort it all out, revising the game plan by hoping to film her again tomorrow, Tuesday, as by now the light was beginning to fade.
My next scheduled shift was from eight to midnight that evening. When I was shuttled back out to the Voyager, I could see that Diana's condition had worsened. Her pace was much slower and her breaks were more frequent and lasting longer. Additionally, the current was definitely working against her now. She would swim for a few minutes, still following Voyager's illuminated stripe and bordered on each side by the kayakers. But then she would stop, roll over, and you could see the current drifting her back. After a few minutes, she would roll back over and resume swimming but she was definitely losing ground. Calculations were being worked out and estimates were being discussed. Twenty-four hours into the swim, perhaps a third of the way across, but with her slower pace she could be looking at 60, maybe even 80 more hours. The human body could not withstand such prolonged abuse.
As the evening wore on, Bonnie was there to spur Diana onward. She kicked it into high gear, giving Diana a series of a-atta-girls to snap her out of the hallucinations Diana said she was beginning to have. ''You can do it. You can make it. There you go. That's it," Bonnie called out across the water. When Diana would stop and roll over, Bonnie would go into overdrive to get Diana's attention, asking her questions, keeping her communicating.
Then at one point, Bonnie lowered her voice and talked to Diana as she treaded water alongside the boat. Bonnie talked of options: stopping right now or continuing onward. "Whatever you want to do, I will support you." Tears welled up in her eyes and that strong voice I had been hearing throughout the day was now aching, openly feeling Diana's pain. Diana could only gaze at her, nearly unable to speak. It was one of the most heart-wrenching moments I have ever witnessed: the devotion of two people to each other and to a long struggle for a sought-after goal - all being put to the test somewhere in the middle of the ocean between Cuba and Florida.
Somehow, from somewhere deep inside, that determination which has pushed Diana as a world-class athlete, which propels her to believe what she has accomplished in her younger years is only a prelude to what she can do throughout her entire life at any age, that spark was still alive. Diana rolled over and resumed swimming.
Jon Rose and I finished our shift at midnight, with Luke and Rob coming to relieve us. Diana's pace seemed to be improving. She was mixing in a breast stroke - new to her - along with her usual freestyle. Jon and I motored back to the Mirage and I was thinking that what I saw at eight o'clock was the beginning of the end but what I saw by midnight gave me some encouragement. But it was not to last. I was told that Diana was questioning whether she could go on, that the shoulder pain and asthma would never allow her to finish. Bonnie told Diana it was her decision, that if she took her hand it would all be over. Diana knew it was her decision and hers alone. Surrounded by friends and supporters all inspired and moved by what she had endured over the past thirty hours, Diana took Bonnie's hand and called it a night.
Luke jumped into the water to assist in getting Diana out and Dr. Broder began treating her dehydration, vomiting, and hypothermia. The Voyager headed to the Bellissimo where Diana was brought on board for further treatment. And with that the Xtreme Dream came to a close. All of the vessels set a course for Key West to offload gear and get through U.S. Customs and Immigration.
The Next Step: Moving On
Back at Key West, the news media awaited for Diana to step out from the Bellissimo. With cameras rolling and team members, friends and supporters cheering, Diana emerged to say a few words. It was hard. She broke down several times and you could feel her disappointment. Now she would be faced with the countless interviews where she would have to relive it again and again, something that many athletes have to contend with; finding how to put the loss of a specific goal in context with their overall record of achievement. How does an Olympic athlete deal with years of training and preparation, only to see it gone in a instant? Or a professional football team with a perfect season losing the Super Bowl? How do you reconcile your capabilities with what fate allows to transpire at any particular moment? Dealing with those feelings can be the true signs of a hero and Diana is already showing she has what it takes to put this all into perspective.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported, “It was my decision to stop and nobody else’s,” Ms. Nyad said during a phone interview Tuesday morning moments after arriving at a Key West marina. “I’m deeply grieved and disappointed, but I can hold my head up high. We pictured that moment of me crawling up on that Key West shore. We knew it was my year and my time, even at 61.” Ms. Nyad said she had no regrets. She had concluded that the combination of her injured shoulder and the asthma attack made continuing impossible. “It was over, I knew it,” she said. “My body was at the absolute very end. Willpower wasn’t a part of it anymore.”Before the team left the Key West marina, Diana came out to thank each of us and we thanked her right back for all her enthusiasm and inspiration. I had a brief moment where I said to her, "You may not have reached the 103 miles, but you gained 103 million supporters instead."
From that first day in April when I met Diana Nyad, I have been inspired by her passion in believing you can reach for anything you wish, regardless of any obstacle that the world might put in your way. At age 59, I am pursuing a career in a field populated with many people half my age. But with role models like Diana Nyad, what I wish to accomplish in film and conservation seems well within reach. I am honored to have had the opportunity to meet Diana.
Sometimes life reminds us that a specific goal may be far less important than the actual journey and the people you touched or who touched you along the way. Are you listening, Diana? There you go. That's it.
Read more blog entries posted during the swim at Diana Nyad's website.
Read and watch a series of live news updates from the swim by CNN.
Read Luke Tipple's account of the end of Diana's swim.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
So, no warnings or dire predictions today; just a fun video I found on BBC Nature News. In Great Britain, there are large kelp forests, similar to my local California waters - but a darn sight colder. And for those who don't dive, there's a great way to peer into this wet and wild world: boats designed with large windows well below the water line - a variation on the classic glass-bottom boat - giving passengers an expansive view of what is just offshore from their homeland.
In this video, various sea jellies, local to Britain's waters, are featured. From moon jellies to lion's mane jellies, it's a nice "oooh and aaah" moment.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The Nature Conservancy, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, National Audubon Society, Ocean Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation cooperated to produce the recommendations, entitled a Strategy for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico.
According to PRNewswire, the timing of the work is important. "The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to soon vote on legislation that would provide funding to implement the Presidential Task Force's restoration plans. The Senate bill, the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act, would dedicate 80 percent of the oil spill fines to restoring the Gulf's communities, economies and environments. Under current law, most of the fines will be used for general government spending, rather than being directed towards the Gulf."
"The Gulf is a national treasure and restoring it must be a national priority," said Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute. "Too much time has already passed. We cannot miss this important opportunity to rebuild the Gulf and ensure it continues to support our nation's economy, communities and wildlife."
PRNewswire reported that some of the blueprint's recommendations include:
- Restoration activities should provide both environmental and social benefits.
- Ensure sufficient delivery of freshwater flows to the Gulf in order to maintain ecological health of bays and estuaries.
- Restore populations of endangered marine mammals, where their probability of extinction in the next 100 years is less than 1%.
- Construct and operate a series of large-scale diversions of freshwater and sediment from the Mississippi River sufficient to build and sustain Delta wetlands to provide storm surge protection for people and restore habitat for economically vital fisheries.
- Implement management plans for oyster reefs that support fish production, water filtration, nitrogen removal, coastal protection and other services that benefit both people and nature.
Given the current mindset of Congress following the debt limit debacle, it will be interesting to see how the blueprint fares in light of the political trend towards spending cuts. It remains to be seen whether funding from fines will be directed to the project, thereby offsetting governmental outlays, or whether the fines will be retained to offset the current lack of government revenues.
"We hope our recommendations will help the task force develop its strategy, but the task force can't implement its strategy without the necessary funding that the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act provides," said Courtney Taylor, policy director for the Mississippi Delta Restoration project at Environmental Defense Fund. "That's why Congress must hold the parties responsible for Gulf oil spill damage accountable by passing the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act to ensure that we invest the oil spill penalties to restore the Gulf, or we risk losing this ecological and economic treasure."
We can only hope. But perhaps not. Perhaps we can do more. Let the White House and your Senators know that you want to see the Presidential Task Force and the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act move forward. With the recent debt crisis, they finally acted, in part due to response from their constituencies. Perhaps we can get them to act responsibly again. Wouldn't that be a change of pace.