Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Who are these guys?

An interesting little video airing on Current TV (Al Gore's venture to democratize Television).

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pelicans and Silversides

One summer gig I always enjoyed was as a teaching/sail-charter captain down in the British Virgin Islands. The 3-month job was to sail a 50-foot catamaran loaded up with high school kids, who had signed up for a summer of sailing, diving, marine biology and fun. So I went to the program’s website to get in the mood.

That’s when I saw a photo of a pelican and started to daydream roughly as follows:

I remember on one of these jobs a few years back, watching pelicans feed while anchored near Guana Island. I noticed - actually it’s hard not to - that they had a very specific and cyclic pattern. Sitting on the deck of “Gone Native” I observed (and filmed), squadrons of pelicans, flying in perfect formation. Groups of 2 to 20 would circle around in an undeniable “follow the leader” pattern. The lead bird was doing most of the hunting. It would frequently hesitate in mid flap, as if lining up prey. The rest would mirror the leader exactly, right down to the wing beat. Only when the timing was perfect would the leader commit to the classic pelican dive bomb, hitting the water at about 80 mph. Each successive bird mimicked the motions faithfully with the sole difference being that it would impact a fraction of a second later, and almost EXACTLY 2 feet away from the one just before it. The effect was like watching machine gun bullets fired from the deck of a warship as they aimed for a low-flying kamikaze.

See Pelican Video:

I’ve watched a lot of birds. And I’ve watched pelicans feed in different parts of the world. But this is the only place I’ve ever seen this habit practiced with such predictable precision. In Florida for example, I've watched pelicans fly in formation, but have only ever observed them to hunt/dive bomb independently.

Curiosity kicked in. Why do BVI Pelicans exhibit this peculiar behavior?

I’m sure there is a marine biologist or ornithologist out there who has studied the cooperative feeding behavior of pelicans. If you are (or know one) please let me know. But to me this is a completely original idea.

I think it has to less to do with geography and more with prey.

In the Caribbean there is an abundance of small fish called silversides. These little minnow-sized fish roam the shallows, in gigantic dense schools.

At some of the more remote anchorages, “bait balls” form and can dominate entire cove. A bait ball is a special event that happens when huge schools of silversides converge. From above it’s an insanely noisy scene with birds squawking and fish splashing all about (the last clip of the pelican movie). Pelicans and other seabirds such as gannets, gulls, and boobies, make diving assaults. Underneath, massive predatory fish like tarpon dart around with jaws agape, sending the fish boiling up to the surface. When not in an active bait ball things are a bit more calm but still disorienting.
See Silversides Video:

One time, while diving below a school of silversides, I looked up and noticed that the only space clear of fish, was a vertical tube in the path of my exhaled bubbles. Apparently the silversides don’t like bubbles. Maybe they think it’s a predator and are scattering to get away.

It was this radial scattering behavior that got me thinking about pelican feeding behavior. To do a little nonscientific experiment, I devised a simple “Rock Drop Test.”

See Rock Test Video:

I think Pelicans have learned that they can get more silversides per dive if they time and space themselves to the impact of a lead bird.

See diagrams.

Get It?

It could be a wonderful example of how complex, seemingly “intelligent” behaviors can evolve. How things evolve is a topic for another day.

And all it took was a little bird watching, daydreaming, and science.

PS. I had an opportunity to dive into an intensely active bait ball once and the experience blew my mind (unfortunately I did not have a camera). From below it is even more dramatic than above. Clouds of black, swirl around in the inches squeezed between the reef and the surface. At times you are enveloped in a vortex of fish not knowing which way is up. Vertigo sets in and you feel like you are tumbling through space because of the chaotic swarms of fish. Every few minutes the motion becomes even more panicked. Tarpon jaws flash by your face and these big fish actually bump into you. It feels like a brother’s punch.

If you ever get the opportunity to dive or even snorkel into one you should jump right it. It’s amazing. Check out this video.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Tree

In 1964 Shell Silverstein wrote “The Giving Tree” - a tender story about a tree that unconditionally loves a little boy. It’s a moving parable about love and the “serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return” so says the sleeve.

Synopsis: As a child, the boy plays in the tree. As an adult, he harvests its apples for profit. Later in life, he chops the tree down to build a house and boat. Then finally, as an old man, he returns to the stump and sits on it.

As a work of fiction, I know this is not to be taken literally of course. But like any literary scripture, it’s open for interpretation, and I'm hard-wired to do it. So please, allow me to overanalyze.

First, I’m not so sure any activity that involves and axe can be considered “serene”.

Second, as touching as it is, this story never quite sat right with me. Honestly, I think there is a persistent ignorance in there that itself, needs to be felled.

I think this page from the book sums up my point:

The text says "And the tree was happy...but not really"

Ever since I started building surfboards out of wood, I also began to really appreciate the raw material. Now that I'm a professional consumer of lumber, I feel a sense of responsibility to replenish it.

This has been the driving force behind the Grain Surfboards policy to plant ten cedar trees for every board built.

This experience trying to germinate cedars has taught me a lot about forestry and tree horticulture. In my research of forestry and logging, I also began to realize that it’s going to take more – much more.

On a hike through the woods the other day, I came upon yet another “development project”. Instead of agonizing as I usually do, I decided to act and put my “expertise” and enthusiasm for trees to work. Today I’m developing an expanded "Tree Giving" program to be launched soon.

The story is a parable all right.

When we were young, nature gave us everything. We're still chopping it down.

PS – I’m sorry if I beat up on a cherished childhood book. I still love it too. I just wish Mr. Silverstein’s boy could have planted some of those apple seeds. If he had, think how different the world would be today.

The Lorax I think got it right .

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


There is a scene in the movie “The Matrix” where the main character Neo (Keanu Reeves), is brought mentally up to speed on reality after being a life-long fetus. They plug a cord into the back of his head that downloads 1000 years worth of information, plus a boatload of physical agility. He squirms and grunts during the process (apparently they skipped the acting talent module).

Anyway, I only remember this scene so vividly because I always wondered what that would be like. How would that really feel to suddenly have so much wisdom, insight, and perspective, flooding into your psyche?

Stop for a second and really think about that…

Now, to your newly downloaded worldview, add a couple modules of tolerance and compassion for your fellow human beings…. Got it?

That’s how I’ve been feeling the past few weeks – minus the martial arts.

E-N-F-P; the first time I heard these four letters in sequence was just after my 40th birthday a few weeks ago.

I can say without hesitation that those four letters have precipitated some of the most rewarding weeks of my life. Like Neo, I feel like I was born just yesterday. And keep in mind, it’s not like I haven’t already lived a rewarding life, I mean I’ve been way off the umbilical for a while.

Those four letters represent my Myers-Briggs temperament, character, and intelligence. Without going into the details, they say I am an Extroverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiver. And I say they are absolutely right.

This is not astrology or celebrity pseudo-science psychic baloney. This is real science, albeit a bit squishy, based on hundreds of years of empirical psychological observation. So there is an overwhelming amount of data to explore.

Granted, I was turned onto this stuff at a time when I was struggling to figure out what the hell went wrong with a “relationship.” So I had some pretty strong motivation to study (not to mention that my particular type is prone to assigning "deep ethical significance" to ideas like this). But no matter your type, the payoff is bound to be extraordinarily fruitful - if you get yourself plugged in.

I don’t suggest books often but here is one: "Please Understand Me II" by David Kiersey (there is a website too but the book has much more detailed insights). I find his writing exceptionally clear and concise.

The real value here is not what the letters tell me about me (most of it I already knew), but what they say about others AND me. This knowledge equips a person with a keenly revised sense of tolerance. No longer do I see other’s faults, but I see their qualities. Sure in the face of true human complexity, this stuff has it's limitations (thank god) But it's impossible to overstate the value of a little tolerance and compassion - two things the world needs now more than ever.

Try it.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A tug of wonder

On the road to the coast, which I drive frequently, there is an expanse of wetland that has always intrigued me. A little creek meanders its way on shoulders of swamp that stretch off to the mountains. For me it’s a mystical landscape because where there is water, there is life – and in a habitat like this, usually lots of it.

Normally, as I zip over the small bridge that spans the creek, I catch a glimpse of a pond in the distance. In the middle is an island just big enough for two towering white pines to compete. Then for about a mile or so more, I fantasize about the little coves, inlets, birds and animals that call that place home. It’s one of those little pockets of nature I cherish. I always tell myself that someday, I’m going to launch a kayak from that bridge and go exploring.

Today was the day, I succumb to the tug of wonder.

I had only two hours, so set my sights on the island. If I paddled with conviction, I estimated I could get there in time for one of my favorite rituals; a catnap in the sun.

From the bridge I made my way inland. As I paddled through the shallows, I could tell that if I had come here in July or August, the place would be wildly different - steamy, green, and buggy. But this unseasonably warm day seemed to have snuck up on the place. The water was still cold and crystal clear as the breezy sky. I could see small-mouth bass chilling in the shadows. The shoreline was a tangle of striped, tan-colored, defeated reeds - still slumped over where they had surrendered to fall the year before. The bottom was a stinky brown, organic mud. It had all the fixins for the flush of spring life.

The creek zigzagged its way along, offering a little protected cove at each turn. At one glassy spot, I stopped to spy on a couple of courting mergansers. That’s when something different caught my eye.

Have you ever seen a kite boarder? Usually a guy, strapped to board, holding a line, attached to a big kite, skimming across the water. A relatively new human invention - or so it only seems, because a different species had already figured it out. In this case, a quarter-sized spider.

I watched as it skipped along the rippled surface. The only things missing were the board and the kite. The silk string streamed out ahead, pulling him at about half a knot - downwind and in my direction.

Maybe this is a good point to explain my relationship of hypocrisy with spiders. As living things, I love them with an enthusiasm rivaled only by my irrational fear of them. Just writing about them makes me nauseas with the jeebies. Please, never try to scare me with a spider. If you do, I’m apparently willing to punch you (after which I will have to apologize profusely) and the spider will probably pay the ultimate price. Please do yourself, me, and the spider favor - let it be.

As he sailed closer and closer, I felt a twinge of panic. Even so I reached for my camera phone, excited to document this never-before-seen spiderly behavior. But before I could snap a shot, the spider got stuck in the doldrums of the cove. With a sense of relief and disappointment, I watched his string deflate, and drift down onto the glassy surface. He was dead in the water about 20 feet away.

A familiar dilemma arose. Do I just consider my self lucky to have witnessed this and go back to the mergansers in love, or do I paddle over to admire him, and fascinate myself. Of course, the tug of wonder won once again.

As I glided closer I readied my camera. Within a few feet I began to see the details of his striped, tan-colored body. This got me thinking about the shoreline of reeds and how many of him must be lurking in there as exquisitely hidden predators. The thought was enough to get my adrenalin and fears pumping. But although I was in a heightened state of fear, the spider seemed calm enough. Especially given the vulnerability of his situation. There he was out in the open, comiting the mortal evolutionary mistake of contrasting with his environment. And with only a layer of surface tension between him and his predators (the bass), he had much more to worry about than I. His stillness calmed me and we called a truce.

Lost in the moment, and concentrating on taking this photo, I overlooked that my momentum was carrying me right on top of him. At some point I must have invaded his arachnid space, and he my personal, because he jumped. The truce was off.

The effect was catastrophic. All of my suppressed and irrational fears released at a single point in time. When I lost sight of him, my adrenalin exploded. I thrust my hands down on the surface, but the water just pushed aside. My center of gravity rose, my weight pulled me down. This time the it was the tug of gravity that won. Cold water filled the kayak. My hand sank into the mud. I was suddenly face to face with spidey and I FREAKED OUT. I could not get out of there fast enough and splashed around frantically. It must have been a pathetic, hysterical, sight. The mergansers flew away apaulled at the display.

I pulled myself ashore, wet, muddy, embarrassed, and laughing.

I did make it out to the island that day, and the catnap did happen. I lay there drying off in the warm sun with a grin, thinking about writing this story.

Technorati blog directory