Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ancient Species

This is a photo of my very first Nautilus. It was just this past May, and I was thrilled to finally see a living example of this ancient creature.

Of all places, I was walking in line prior to riding the "Manta Ray" at Sea World, Orlando. I couldn't believe this amazing creature (actually about 8 or 9 of them) were living in a hallway without so much as an identification sign. This tank, by Sea World standards, was small and there were no special decorations or any other living things in the same tank.

The Nautilus is a cephalopod - in the same family as the squid, octopus, and cuttlefish. Their shells are quite recognizable, particularly as cross-sectioned fossils. For this reason they are considered "living fossils"... although I prefer the term "living dinosaur". It's more dramatic. The Chambered Nautilus shown here is the Nautilus pompilius and that beautiful shell also means that humans have harvested them for thousands aof years. Population declines in some areas leads to the banning of imporation from different regions. I like to go with the better-safe-than-damaging concept of not purchasing modern shells. Fossils look cooler anyway if you ask me.

As you work your way through your digital photo albums, it is fun what you come across sometimes. This photo was buried between my son's first Shamu ice cream and the dolphins leaping around with girls dressed up like birds... but that is another conversation.

And yes, in case you were wondering, the Manta Ray is an AWESOME roller coaster too.

Try to take a vacation close to home and enjoy the cool things that lie in your own backyard.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stranded in the Keys-Part II

So, as a follow up to the last post, out of 21 pilot whales that stranded in the Keys last week, only 2 were released and 5 more of those stranded pilot whales survived to have a chance in rehabilitation. 21 whales stranded in that one incident, and all I heard was a snippet on the radio and finally found this article, which provides little information.
I followed the trail to the Marine Mammal Conservancy, the organization conducting the whale rehab for these whales. This link will give you details about the stranding, the whales released, and what you can do to help - including getting trained to volunteer!

Scotland feared a pilot whale pod with over 100 whales was going to strand, and now dead whales are washing ashore in Ireland, presumably from that same pod. The pod numbers are currently estimated at about 60 whales (at least 33 dead whales have already been spotted). The Guardian website in the U.K. seems to be keeping fairly current on this issue (unlike the coverage we get locally):
Since the big questions is always "why" are they stranding, I was surprised to learn about the necropsy report on one of these whales - the lactating female had a diseased melon. The calf was not found (yet). Considering the melon is involved in everything from communication to echolocation, this could be a serious issue if the entire pod is having similar health problems. Not all functions of a toothed-whale or dolphin's melon are yet known.

LinkOn a lighter note, it is "World Turtle Day" - which has existing since 2000. Ironically, it is sponsored by American Tortoise Rescue. Check out for details.

Whether you move slowly or quickly, don't get shell-shocked and have a nice day!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Stranded in the Keys

16 short-finned pilot whales stranded in the Florida Keys on May 5th.
While I can assure that this was not due to partying on Cinqo de Mayo, I'm actually not going to discuss speculation on why this whale pod washed ashore. There are countless sources you can easily access online with better descriptions and answers to your questions than what I can spin together in one afternoon online. Even with my personal interactions on scene with stranded dolphins and sea turtles, both alive and dead, I would research for days or weeks prior to creating a serious article on the potential causes and solutions to such events.
Here is a link to get you started:

I will give a bit of background for you though -
A stranding refers to the presence on the beach of a marine animal in distress. This means a sea turtle coming up during nesting season is not a stranded animal. She is supposed to be on the beach digging her nest and laying her eggs. If something happens so the turtle is unable to return to the water (i.e. she gets trapped on the shore by furniture or trash) then she is now in distress and stranding protocol will be followed. A stranded animal should not be simply pushed back to shore by concerned citizens on the beach. Individuals who have been properly trained by authorized organizations will know how to asses an animal and get the right people on scene so the creature is given the best chance possible for survival. Bear in mind, marine animals are not meant to be on shore for long if at all, and the sheer weight of their bodies not supported by saltwater can cause serious damage to internal organs. So don't go rolling Flipper down the beach and back into the water, Ok?

I DO want to take the time to talk about how rescuers actually work in these bizarre situations in often extreme circumstances.
I have been fortunate enough to have trained and worked in the field with sea turtle strandings all over Florida, but also with dolphin strandings and even marine mammal rehabilitation with the Marine Animal Rescue Society (MARS) and Mote Marine Labs. So I have been through the rigorous workshops on properly assessing and transporting these massive creatures. And yes, it really is as cool as it sounds.

I first heard about this newest stranding via e-mail; I'm still on the MARS network, although I am rarely available to volunteer these days. MARS handles all marine mammal strandings in the southeast portion of Florida, and they operate out of Biscayne Bay. This stranding took place in the Florida Keys and within hours the local stranding unit with the Marine Mammal Conservancy was on scene and coordination with other organizations had begun. They worked with MARS, NOAA, FWC, and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) to get these animals monitored, assessed, and transported. This was splashed all over the news reels that aquaholics and eco-junkies follow, then vanished from much of the media. Most of those blips simply stated the event, and say the standard tag line "the cause of the stranding is unknown".
Uh, YEAH, that's the big debate these days. So let's move on...

The above organizations send an all-call to trained volunteers to show up and help out. So don't ever think that simply showing up is enough to help. You need to sign up in advance and learn about what to do with your group in order to be helpful. A bunch of people standing around not knowing what is going on are no help at all. Trust me on this one from personal experience. You can help with things like calling the proper authorities and crowd control. In Florida, this is Fish & Wildlife (FWC) at 1-888-404-FWCC. Every state has a Fish & Wildlife, so next time you go to a park on Earth Day and they have a booth, take the sticker or a flyer and keep it in your glove box so you have the number when you hit the beach or are out on a boat! If you are out often with junkies like me, then you will have the number memorized and on your cell phone anyway.

Once you are trained in these weekend workshops and get your official volunteer t-shirt (wear it with pride everywhere, not just while working) you get called in at the worst possible times to help out. The lists of volunteers are long, but the list of people who ACTUALLY show up is usually very short, so you WILL get to work! Be prepared to lose sleep, get dirty and stinky, possibly bruised, and definitely sore. Be prepared to do or touch some really gross things as these animals may have injuries and there is no time or space for squeamishness. Eat a granola bar, but not McD's, on your way to the stranding. You may not eat for hours, but you might vomit. Listen to your staff and experienced leaders. I don't care how awesome you were in the workshop, the real animal is super heavy and often scared. The giant inflatable pool whale that you transported in the workshop is NOTHING like the live action sequence. Again, trust me.
Also be prepared to fell AWESOME about yourself later. Whether the animals you assist do well or don't survive - you have helped and interacted with an amazing animal and some amazingly dedicated people. The outfits work on shoestring budgets and even "high ranking" staff make poverty level wages and usually no benefits. Bring donuts when you come in later to help with the rehabilitation of the surviving animals. Oh yeah, you can't just help out on the beach and bail. The personal attachment you might get with a stranded animal is perfectly normal and try to spend some time helping them again later.
Eons ago, at Mote, I was literally dropped into a tank with a pygmy sperm whale who had been in rehab for months. It was a rush no drugs can deliver, and even when they told me, "if she starts breaching, we have to get you out of the water - but don't panic" I was thrilled to able to spend time with "Ami". She had stranded in Miami with her mother "Mia" who did not survive. Ami stayed at Mote, but did not survive through to release. She died October 12nd, 2002 after nearly 2 years at the facility; she had an intestinal disorder. Ami survived longer in captivity than any pygmy sperm whale before. The knowledge gained and the hearts touched will continue to impact this world long after Ami is out of the news. Randy Puckett actually sculpted Ami. That work of art is pictured below. You can learn more about Ami's story here:

The point to this whole segment is that participating in an animal stranding is the definition of being overworked and under-appreciated while still providing a sense of accomplishment. It is the ultimate volunteer opportunity and everyone who expresses a sincere care for the oceans and its life should take part in a stranding at some point in their lives. Getting to be a part of the rehabilitation process and (gasp!) even the release of a stranded animal is perhaps the greatest bond one can obtain with the oceans. After watching your charge swim away, you will feel permanently connected to the waters blanketing this planet.

Have a Happy Mother's Day and try to remember that the feelings and impressions mentioned above are also very much an everyday part of being a Mom. She nurtures, comforts, rescues, protects, and eventually lets go. A deep connection with your offspring is something that cannot be reproduced, only imitated.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: We Bought a Zoo

I purchased We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee back in 2008 when the book was first published. It was one of those "I walked into the book store and there it was" kind of books. But being pregnant and worried about money, I didn't want to fork over the cash for a new hardback book. So instead, it went on my Christmas wish list. I actually got something I wanted that year - courtesy of my awesome husband. (although I must add the disclaimer that he is a pretty awesome gift giver when it comes to me... he can even pick my clothing size for things that I WANT to wear!)

Anyway, I was getting rotund and pregnancy brain (that is a technical term by the way) made it difficult for me to concentrate while reading. With a surprise baby on the way, it was even tougher to read things that had nothing to do with our impending addition to the family. But, ah, not with this particular book.

I was working at a zoo when I bought and read the book, thinking this would be some sort of "how-to" book on running a zoo. Notice the "A Memoir" in the upper right hand corner of the book's cover. NOT an instruction book. There is some irony there though, considering the author made his living as a writer of DIY (Do It Yourself) articles and the like. That does mean, however, that Benjamin Mee is very good at doing research and teaching himself something so that he may write about it and therefore teach someone else. That makes for very smooth and understandable writing.

It is a memoir, but with a beautiful story and setting, particularly for those with a love of animals. Let's face it, many more people love animals than people who actually get to work with animals first hand. So think of the author as someone who found a dream and literally dragged his entire family and their combined life savings into his adventure as well. There are children involved along with general family drama, but don't forget there are crazy animal stories too! Anyone who has had the wonderful opportunity to work with wild animals will have crazy stories to share, but I deeply enjoyed the sincerity and respect by the author to the facility and animals he purchased even though he lacked the formal knowledge of how to care for them.

If you have any doubts about this book, it is now a movie starring Matt Damon and directed by Cameron Crowe. I will actually have to get a sitter and go see this one in the theaters (a precious commodity these days with a 2-year old I assure you). It is set for release in December 2011. Hm, I see another another Christmas gift in the works?

The full price for the hardback copy was well worth the story and I still have it on my shelf. A friend in the zoo-world asked to borrow it and I simply bought her a copy of her own so I wouldn't have to wonder if I would ever get it back. Having said that it's time for the official review:

RATING: ~~~~1/2 waves (out of 5)

STRONGLY recommended for those who want to reach out of the world of fiction and check out a true story for a change without it being a scientific textbook, research based, or anything to do with politics or the price of oil.

I hope to get my time better organized and back on track with reviews, stories, and other interesting or entertaining tidbits.
Happy Mother's Day! So go hug your mom, send her flowers or something if you can't hug her, and if you have lost this opportunity altogether - do something special for that alternate "mom" in your life. Everybody has one!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Skydiving & Beluga Whales

Life is wonderful - and full of distractions.
Aside from my awesome husband and super cool 19-month old son, I have added a new layer to my life by starting a new job. In June of last year, I began working at the River Center as an Environmental Educator. While I love what I do, this new commitment does seem to keep me away from many things I also enjoy - writing, continuing my education, quality time with my family.

So, I've decieded while it is still January, I can catch the "Resolution Train" before it gets too far away for the year. Part of that is to return to my former M.O. of embracing every day of my life. Why is it that so many people fall into the trap of a daily routine that does not make them happy? Everyone should seriously be able to love what they do for a living. We are all so different that every type of job out there makes somebodyhappy. A career choice will excite one person while simultaneously causing someone else in that same room to recoil and wince.

A good example in skydiving:

Person #1 (that's me): Skydiving is amazing! After a jump, I've got a bad case of perma-grin for at least a week!
Person #2: Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?

I actually had that conversaiton with one of my favorite authors, Steve Alten. I was shocked to learn that a writer capable of bringing adventurous thrills to life on paper felt that way about one of my greatest adventures?! Not to worrk, I still acquire each new book of his as soon as they are in print, and have autographed copies of his entire published work. It is possible to share some passions with others without sharing all of them.

To answer the question posed by Person #2, it is not actually a perfectly good airplane. Jump planes typically have no seats (save for the pilot's) and even most of the instruments are gone; after all, you only need an altimeter and a radio to take off, drop your "cargo", turn around and land anyway. No IFR flying in those skies.

I took my husband skydiving for his birthday this past summer. That was my 3rd jump and the moment I stood up and unhooked from the chute I was already bouncing around thinking about my next jump. It's addictive and any instructor you jump with had better love what they do!

But I digress...

I have to remind myself now that even with work and house and family and bills, there must be time to have some fun. My husband is excellent at reminding me how life is only worth living if it is a fun place to live, at least some of the time. The "work hard / play hard" mentality is a great philosophy, and probably how many awesome things have been developed throughout human history.

For my birthday, I was treated to SeaWorld Orlando during a record cold snap @42 F. We suited up (wet-suited, that is) and entered 55 F saltwater for a training session with Beluga whales. I have loved these cetaceans for years, ever since reading the book Beluga: a farewell to whales by Pierre Beland (1996, Lyons & Buford). That was the book that inspired me beyond a love for marine animals and into the world of conservagtion. Before that book, I had only dreamed of being a killer whale or dolphin trainer and did not understand the dangers face by wild ocean animals every day. A full review of this book will be done eventually. I want to re-read the book with fresh eyes and research the current situation of the belugas in the St. Lawrence River. I hate to admit it, but 1996 was a long time ago and we all know things change.

I leave you today with a couple of photos from my experience at SeaWorld. Don't discount my simply because there is a goofy grin on my face, okay? I have decided with this new year that is just fine for me to feel and act like a kid on regular occasion - we are forced to be grownups, facing too much tragedy wihtout enough emphasis on triumph.

Have a great weekend and enjoy the playoffs!