Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tragedy at Sea World

Typically, I try to keep this blog a good place for objective feedback. Today, I'm going to soapbox a bit... a few days ago, tragedy befell Sea World Orlando as one of their trainers was killed by an orca. Part of why I am personally and deeply saddened by this incident, aside from the loss of life, is how it will impact the way zoos and aquariums are viewed by many. More importantly, perhaps, is the reaction people have to animals being trained to perform for human entertainment. And so the debate begins...

I stand on the PRO side for the existence of zoos and aquariums. As an environmental educator, nothing reaches people, especially children, the way a live animal does. In my experience, the closer and more intimate the encounter, the longer lasting the impact is on that group or individual. Not every facility can provide fence-free views like the Australia Zoo's Koala exhibit, nor should they, but each place no matter the size has individual opportunities for a personal experience. In addition, these places often serve as hospitals and rehabilitation centers to rescue and release (when possible) animals that would otherwise die - in many cases directly because of irresponsible human behaviors. These permanently injured animals make for wonderful ambassadors too.
Most people would never see an amazing animal, like a whale, in the wild under any circumstances. Too many never see the ocean or even learn how to swim, so being able to bring a live animal into context for a landlocked individual is priceless. When it comes to conservation, many negative environmental impacts come far from coastal communities; that leaves the mass uneducated completely apathetic to a cause that is as relatable as life on another planet. The ocean and its creatures literally mean nothing to a vast majority of humans on earth, so how else do we make them care enough to protect it?
Also, much of what we know for many rare and endangered species is based on captive animal research. Most AZA accredited facilities are involved in wildlife research and conservation directly as well by funding the researchers, and trust me - when it comes to funding, non-profits and non-medical research becomes cut throat competition for very few dollars.
... which brings us to the "entertainment" portion of the conversation...
The masses want to be entertained, and while this is not a gladiator arena of blood and dirt, training intelligent animals to perform tricks is an attention grabber. People pay good money for it. As discussed before, this money is hard for rescue efforts to come by at all, and Sea World funds many important projects. Take away "shows" and you are reducing the funding and footage for research, conservation, documentaries, and education. There is a trend toward "natural behavior" shows, and THIS will be the future for animal programs. But teaching the humans to forget about the thrill of these spectacular shows as future generations come along will be difficult to do without chastising or dousing the fragile compassion harbored for wildlife (i.e. when I was a kid, we used to ride on the sea turtles backs as they crawled around the beach *gasp!!*).

Check out the article below for details on the accident and the trainer, and let me know where you stand on these issues.,0,6076530.story

I decided to include a photo and video from a performance a couple of years ago because admit it... THIS is why we go to Sea World. You can see great rehabilitation efforts and thousands of fish often inaccessible or too dangerous to be around in the wild... but everyone wants to see the cetaceans vaulting through the air, out of their element and into our lives.

So, knowing the intelligence of killer whales... what does it mean that we as humans keep them captive and teach them to perform tricks on command? As long as they are captive, training keeps an intelligent animal engaged and helps avoid depression; but if an animal can get depressed, should it be captive at all? Personally, I think killer whales need not be captive. If I remember correctly, the sea lion and otter show was just as entertaining and not nearly so dangerous for the trainers, at least. As many little marine-biologists-to-be... I wanted to be a dolphin trainer as a kid, then I thought the sea lions seemed just as smart and way more fun. Now, I am passionate for sea turtles. But the ocean is the calling for me, not the species.

This topic is so deep, I could carry on all day, but instead- I will go watch Planet of the Apes for the millionth time and ponder these questions with popcorn in hand.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sea Tails Vol. 1

Since "green" is the new "black" and supporting local markets is all the rage, checking out local street festivals and events is becoming a fun and enlightening past time of mine. I came across Tim & Sean at Gumbo Limbo's Sea Turtle Day celebration a couple of years ago, and they had an entire truck (former ice cream truck maybe?) painted with the characters. It was so unique, I had to take a picture of it.
Today's focus is Porthole, the Little Loggerhead (2006) written by Sheriee Dardis, illustrated by Sean Kelly, designed by Tim Dardis, and the Sea Tails series itself was created by all three. This children's book takes a different approach with a much longer format, the book is 70 pages. It's laid out specifically for adults to read to a child in multiple sittings- which is a great way to bridge from the standard short books to more in depth books that are separated into chapters. This is also why I love the bookmark ribbon attached to the spine! Instead of chapter breaks, there is "Sloop the sleepy clam" located at the bottom corner of each page that would be a good stopping point in the story; so, you have the option of continuing without pause if desired. The pictures are fun and brightly colored too.
Now, realize the intent of this series is to introduce many characters over many books; I think they have 35 characters in all. Each of these creatures is meant to teach lessons, and in order to be relatable for children, are very human-like in attitude and language. While that does avoid a dry story, it may irritate those of us who want accuracy in all things marine... even a kid's book. But if you can enjoy the concept of young animals playing and "going to SeaSchool" together, it will make this book much more fun for you as a grownup too. Forgive those child focused traits, and it is a creative point of view that should get you and the little one(s) talking about marine life, which is really all we want anyway, right?

Check out the website: to see illustrations, etc.

RATING: ~~~~ (4 out of 5 waves) highly recommended

If you had a choice, what would your kids be interested in? Dinosaurs? Snowboarding? Painting or sculpting? I want to give compliments to those parents out there who managed to support your kid in pursuing their passions... and I really give applause to those whose children actually made it into a lifelong career! I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 10, but my mom says I wanted it even earlier than that. Just a few days ago, she read to me things I wrote about wishing I could read the minds of animals so I could talk to sharks and answer the ocean's mysteries. Whoa. Thanks, Mom.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Impulse Buy

Admit it... we've all done it. There is an ocean related book sitting there on the bargain shelf at Barnes & Noble... you don't really need it, but c'mon, it's only $5. Why not?
My most recent of these purchases (we don't need to explore exactly how many of those I have sitting on my own shelves at home) was The Anatomy of the Sea by Dr. David Ponsonby & Professor Georges Dussart (2005). Part of what drove me into this book was its nice hardcover and small package, about 6" X 8" and "over 600 creatures of the deep" as the cover so gloriously proclaims. I was also piqued by the author's both being employed at a Christian college and wondered what point of view they might have taken.
But, alas, it end up being just that - a useless impulse buy. The book utilizes illustrations that go back hundreds of years and the quality of many of those pictures are nearly impossible to decipher. This also means you will often come across incredibly inaccurate depictions. The informational sections, although more up to date, are equal to the "fun fact" sections of a childrens' book, but without the cool pictures those usually have. If you are in high school and desperately trying to buffer the references section of a research paper, then I guess the book has a purpose. I would probably give it to a smart 11-yr old who wants to be a marine biologist, but even then, it could only be part of the present.

RATING: ~ (1 out of 5 waves) because there really is no reason to actually buy it, but it might be fun to share the old fashioned pictures with people who have seen the real thing & can make fun of it too

Today, embrace the compulsive shopper in you - but be sure to keep a salary cap on it!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blue Planet - The Deep

The Deep is Part IV of BBC's Blue Planet series from 2001. I found it extremely interesting that more humans have visited outer space than inner space; by the latter I mean the deep ocean. Creatures found in this realm are the inspirations for creatures in movies, specifically Aliens and The Abyss... hm, these are both James Cameron films. And, if you have seen his latest creation, Avatar, you probably noticed some really cool plant-like organisms that have a remarkable resemblance to giant christmas tree worms and the seeds of the great eywa tree behave like jellies. I have included a photo I took of 2 little worms seen while snorkeling in the Dry Tortugas.
I'll get the annoyances about The Deep out of the way first. The same idiot who master minded the insertion of ridiculous sound effects in the previous program Open Ocean got his sticky fingers all over this one too. The film could also use some well placed analogies to put size in perspective as well, since there is nothing else in the shot to give scale. For instance, "a siphonophore 40 m [105 feet] in length" doesn't really hit home unless you compare it to something else... like a 10 story building. Overall, this film gives a deep water snapshot of the biota hiding down there; realize there is still so much yet to be discovered. To give a few noted examples from the program - the black smokers (hydrothermal vents) were discovered in 1979, and the brine pools (aka cold seeps) were seen for the first time in 1990. Thank you, Johnson-Sea-Link and HBOI. It can only leave you thinking, "what else is out there?" Maybe creatures that can survive without sunlight in the food chain at all? Oh wait, they found those ecosystems in the deep sea already, didn't they? And that, my friends, is why I rate as follows:

RATING: ~~~~ (4 out of 5 waves) a must see, especially if you want to start a classroom-type discussion

What types of things inspire you? Everyone around you is passionate about something, even the most boring person you know... maybe you should ask what inspires them?

P.S. I totally considered name dropping on this one from the thank you credits... but I choose humility and a smirk instead.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Blue Planet - Open Ocean

Part III of BBC's Blue Planet series reminded me to give a proper shout out of credit to the BBC Orchestra, who plays the opening sequence of music for the series. The extreme talent of those first bars of music really sets the tone, literally, for the show with a sense of majesty and elegance.
Open Ocean will satisfy a few curiosities about the watery desert that covers most of this planet, but in reality only exposes the fact that we still know very little about the largest area of livable space on earth. Think about it... wide open clear blue water... where there is no place to hide, and yet to find life can take days of swimming in any given direction. It is like a crazy game of Battleship where you start out with no idea of where to look, but once your prey is identified, GAME OVER. (insert Pac-Man like bleeps and bloops HERE)
This program really reminds those of us lucky to have actually been in the ocean with a de-fogged mask how different photos are from video when it comes to underwater media. The footage of the shoals / schools (depending on whom you ask) is awe inspiring. The photo to your left I took while snorkeling off a local beach in Boca Raton on a day when all I wanted to do was photograph budding staghorn coral. Needless to say, none of those shots turned out. Now compare that to the video clip below to really get the impact of how many fish are present. Yeah, I took that video clip on the same day so you really can see the difference of still vs. real time; and those darkish spots at the end of the clip are large chunks of rock only about 10 feet down.
The documentary does sport rare shots of animals like the Mola mola, a.k.a. sunfish, coming up from the depths to floating kelp lines that are sheltering cleaner fish. As a very loose storyline, Open Ocean also gives snapshots of the life cycle of the yellow fin tuna: floating eggs, helpless hatchlings, schooling juveniles, and hunting adults. In order for foot webs to really work, there must be massive quantities of the little stuff including plankton, fish eggs, and bait fish just to name a few. This is well explained and shown numerous times in the film.

All is not amazing. The presence of trash, or "flotsam" as referred in the program, is treated as another shelter source, and not, well... trash. It is NOT supposed to be there in the ocean at all, but this is not mentioned as a negative in any way. Disappointment #1. Then, some editor decided the footage of comb jellies requires goofy sci-fi sound effects and a floating crab merits strange and poorly inspired Asian music (I swear you can hear the *gwong* resonating)? Disappointment #2. That is enough in the end to knock the whole picture down a ripple.

RATING: ~~~ (3 out of 5 waves) still worth watching

Enjoy the Olympics and try watching a sport you may have not paid attention to in the past. And I will happily explain the scoring system of "curling" if you are interested!


Monday, February 15, 2010

Perky Pelican washes ashore

Hope you had a happy Valentine's Day (or Singles Awareness Day) and are now enjoying President's Day as well.

For this entry, I am returning to a children's book and find myself in a conundrum over whether or not to expand into more works by this particular author. Let me know what you think...
Perky Pelican: A Tale of a Lively Bird by Suzanne Tate is #18 of a 30 book "Nature Series" as she calls it. The illustrations (by James Melvin) are simple and colorful enough, although not in an Eric Carle sense. Interestingly enough, Tate also has teaching guides and sticker books available for most of her stories too; that's thinking ahead I guess. This story is about a young pelican that hatches, eventually leaves the nest, and must learn to find food for itself, er, himself. Tate has a flair for anthropomorphizing her characters in a way that pushes beyond child-like enthusiasm; compared to many of my scientifically sound friends, I am fairly forgiving in this department. Now, let's be honest... pelicans are funny birds with oddly shaped bodies and c'mon, if you've ever seen one walk, or even "run" it is down right hilarious.
On a positive note, Tate brings up some interesting things about the birds, i.e. chicks sticking their heads into their mother's mouths, the trials of a young shorebird figuring out how to dive and catch fish. As a matter of fact, the book is going on quite well until... Perky Pelican gets lazy.
[SPOILER ALERT!!] Perky decides to start mooching off of the local fishermen's bycatch and the hand feeding and begging behavior begins. I actually purchased this book to teach a class of 4-5 year olds about birds in Florida, and decided NOT to use it because of the downturn on those last several pages. I just could not get myself to pass on the bad practices encouraged by the book. If you are going to buy a kid's book to share with others, spend the extra 3 minutes to finish reading the whole thing before dropping your cash. There are too many good books out there to waste your hard earned money.

RATING: ~ (1 out of 5 waves) ouch... it had real potential and fell to disappointing lows

So here I sit all broken hearted, and wondering if I dare to give Suzanne Tate's many works another shot. I mean, she has written 29 other books, so something has got to be catching on there, right?

Enjoy your greeting card holidays whether alone or with others, and remember to always take a little time off for yourself. And if you are still sad, look on the bright side - chocolates are on sale today!


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blue Planet - Frozen Seas

This evening I was able to delve into the 2nd program of BBC's The Blue Planet: Seas of Life called Frozen Seas. Be prepared for a tighter episode than the introductory program of Ocean World, and I mean that as a good thing. The theme is much easier to follow since, naturally, it focuses on the frozen portions of the ocean. The editors must have used an actual storyboard this time as it flows much better (no pun intended). Perhaps the most interesting term that is only used once though, is polynya, the natural formation of holes in sea ice. I misunderstood Sir Attenborough to pronounce it as 'polenta' and knew that had to be wrong. It took way longer than it should have to figure out what the word was supposed to be, so I have now taken the time to include a definition and an explanation of the process below for your reading pleasure!

Just for fun, let's review: the ARCTIC is the NORTH pole where you will find polar bears, belugas, and all sorts of charismatic macro-fauna. ANTARCTICA is the large, continental land mass at the SOUTH pole. Moms and Dads... you can explain to your munchkins that this is where Happy Feet would have taken place. One of my favorite points made in the film about going down south is how the food chain is masterfully based around krill, who in turn are eating algae off the pack ice. Now that footage is cool, especially when you consider these tiny creatures are facilitating a life cycle that includes huge whales. However, I do not recommend wearing "I like Krill" t-shirts, particularly if your body is on the heavier side or you are opening up for some pointing and giggling.

RATING: ~~~ (3 out of 5 waves) worth watching
NOTE: < ~~~~ if you are using this as a teaching tool; be sure to include it at the beginning of your unit as a fantastic introduction into the biology of both the Arctic and Antarctica>

I also went to the special features section of the DVD to see "the making of..." Ocean World (the 1st program in this series). THAT was a sweet surprise. It focused almost solely on the months of work it took to capture just a few minutes of usable footage that graced the beginning of the documentary. It really puts into perspective how dedicated the crews of documentary work truly are, and it also sheds light into how the BBC put $10million into the making of the entire series.

Wow... that is not exactly chump change, eh? Something to dwell on during tight economic times... how should money be spent? Personally, education and conservation remain fairly high on my list. How about yours?


Polynya or polynia is an technically an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. It is now used as geographical term for seas which remain unfrozen for much of the year. In Russion it means "a natural ice hole" (and haven't we all known a few of those). The term was eventually adopted to refer to navigable waters in both Arctic and Antarctic seas.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Blue Planet - Ocean World

The Blue Planet series was produced in 2001 (released in 2002) by the BBC. They are narrated by Sir David Attenborough, a name you may not recognize but a voice you certainly will if you are a regular documentary watcher. The style of this opening program is very similar to the Planet Earth series, and I would be shocked to find out that Blue Planet wasn't part of the inspiration.
Ocean World gives a very rough representation for the entire series, and therefore does not focus on any one part of the ocean. That means it goes from the blue whale to tides and currents to deep water migrations. So be prepared for lots of video "teasers" that will give extremely basic facts, leaving you wanting more information. I think that is the whole point, but it can lead to this specific documentary being disjointed and your mind might wander off... no disrespect Sir David. This also means the footage is spectacular, and sometimes brutal, so you may not want to watch this with your little one until you have pre-screened it for content. Hey, if your munchkin can handle gray whale calf vs killer whale pod, knock yourself out. No, seriously, knock yourself out because that's just a mean thing to do to a little kid.
There are some great comparisons of ocean animal behaviors to more well known land animal behaviors; this makes it a little easier to digest, particularly for those not so well versed in the ways of the ocean. So, it is a good film for a group without a ton of prior knowledge.

RATING: ~~~ (3 waves out of 5) worth watching

This is a good way to get started for the entire series, and the footage will get your mind primed and ready for future episodes. (which of course we will discuss later!)

Dolphins were probably the original surfers riding the swells far out in the open ocean... think on this when you catch your next wave much closer to shore: who ELSE has ridden this wave?