Furry Aviators – Bats

Not every animal that flies is an aviator. June bugs and mosquitoes fly without any particular destination in mind; they just seem to flit around, hoping to detect a random meal. In my way of thinking, to be called an aviator you have to navigate, to use the air as a travel medium with a destination in mind, either consciously or subconsciously. By definition, navigation is not random; it is purposeful. Migrating Monarch Butterflies qualify as navigators and aviators, and so do migratory Bats.

While visiting Austin, Texas, I searched the front pages of the Austin Telephone directory for points of interest. No. 1 on their list was the nightly bat show at the downtown Congress Ave. Bridge.

I was just one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists waiting on and around the bridge to see the show that night. Once downtown I was told that about half of the 1.5 million strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony had already migrated to Mexico for the winter, but the remaining bats might put on a good show at sundown. They did.

Bats exiting the Congress Ave. Bridge, Austin, TX. From: http://joyridevideos.com/567/ignite-your-senses-in-austin-tx/

Once the skies had fully darkened, I saw what looked like a soundless horizontal waterfall of bats erupt from underneath the crevices of the bridge structure. Can you imagine 1000 planes a second leaving a major airport at the same time, using all available runways, with no controllers and no collisions? That’s how it seemed.

I watched with morbid fascination as a very fat bug made the biggest mistake of its short life by blundering near the bat departure pattern. At least five bats peeled out of the pattern and within milliseconds honed in on the hapless target. The first bat to the target must have gotten a meal because the squishy bug disappeared out of the traffic pattern with nary a puff of smoke. No NTSB investigation needed.

Walking up on the bridge for a different view I saw an even more incredible sight. Every once and awhile a bat jetting up the departure pathway would make a high speed 180° turn and head straight back into the torrent, without getting hit, best I could tell in the midst of the furiously flinging wings. It made the head-to-head passes of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels look like child’s play. Why they did that I don’t know; maybe just for the adrenaline rush.

On the other hand, even the best aviators can screw up. I saw evidence of this back in Panama City while looking out at my pool one evening. In the dim light I could see ripples in the usually glass smooth surface of the pool.  On investigating, I found a Little Brown Bat in the pool, spreading its wings to support itself by the surface tension of the water. They really were — dare I say it — water wings. But it was clearly tired and in danger of drowning.

Had his bat radar gone on the fritz? Or did he just mess up like the occasional seaplane pilot who becomes disoriented by a glassy water surface. On the one hand, bats can maneuver safely through a storm of oncoming high velocity fellow bats, but could be foiled by something as innocuous as a still water surface. Strange.

I guess even great human pilots have messed up for lesser reasons.

A frightened Little Brown Bat.

I scooped up the bat in a net and laid the wet furball on the ground to recuperate. Oddly, after a minute’s rest, the bat started crawling forward towards my foot using the hooks on its wings to pull himself along. Then he climbed onto my shoe. My Granddaughter who was watching the whole scene thought that was very strange. I did too.

But then the little water-soaked bat started climbing up my slightly nervous leg. I assure you the sensation of having a bat crawl up your leg can be discomforting, but my sense of curiosity was far more compelling. I was trusting he wasn’t looking for a place to bite me. However, as he got closer to my most sensitive region, that thought began to really concern me.  Fortunately all he wanted to do was climb, to safety from predators I assume. At least he didn’t consider me a predator. Maybe he thought I was a tree: I was, after all, standing oh so still.

As he approached my neck I began to wonder whether he was a werebat, looking for a succulent neck. Then it occurred to me that fleshy earlobes might be ripe for biting — like fat bugs perhaps, in a bat’s mind. Yet strangely I didn’t feel threatened, even when I could feel his hooked wings gently grab a “handhold” on my neck.

I then realized that once he reached the top of my head he had nowhere to go. And the thought of a bat sitting on my head for a while was not all that appealing. I wasn’t about to pick him off my head without a thickly-gloved hand. They do have teeth.

So I choose a non-confrontational course of action. I leaned my head into a tall pine tree trunk, and sure enough the soaking wet little bat kept on going. The photo below taken from behind him shows him (or her) continuing the ever-so-slow climb.

Water-logged Little Brown Bat climbing up a pine tree.

I have mixed emotions about the fact that my granddaughter did not take a picture of me leaning my head against the tree — with a bat on my head.

Moral of the story for human aviators? The little guys are absolutely awesome fliers, with unbelievably fast reflexes, unerring navigation, and the best possible terrain avoidance equipment. But even they can screw up. And when they do, their survival depends on the help of others; others willing to take a risk to help the fallen air-critters.

I was pleased to share this Nature moment with my Granddaughter. After all, it’s not every day you get to watch a bat climb your Grandfather, from his toes to his head.

Below is one of the most endearing videos I’ve found of a Little Brown Bat. The teenager in the video is clearly enthusiastic about one of nature’s smallest aviators.  (Video borrowed from http://www.chesapeakebay.net/fieldguide/critter/little_brown_bat.)

[youtube id=”E4Kxcr7kq14″ w=”525″ h=”439″]










The Littlest Aviators: Monarch Butterflies

Every fall I look forward to the current of Monarch Butterflies coursing their way across our local roads and beaches in Panama City Beach, FL, searching for one last refueling stop before heading out across the Gulf of Mexico to overseas destinations. They know where they are going en masse, so casually it seems, not in the least concerned about the doubtful safety of single engine flight over vast stretches of unforgiving water.

While over land, most fly low, at human shoulder height, perhaps looking for food. It makes for an almost magical walk outside — continuously being passed by little animated flying machines. When crossing roads, most of the migrating butterflies, but not all, climb to safer altitudes, and increase their speed.  I like to think that strategy is deliberate, but it could in fact be nothing more than the effects of buffeting by the wake of passing cars. Nevertheless, their success rate at crossing roads seems to be better than that of squirrels, which are arguably larger-brained animals. But then squirrels are dare-devils, not aviators.

I have walked to the water’s edge, watching how the little aviators behave as they approach the beginning of their long leg over water. They do not hesitate, but fling themselves forward into whatever awaits them.

Whenever I witness this sight I want to cheer them on, like Americans must have cheered Lindbergh as he set off across the Atlantic for the first time. It seems like folly for them to attempt such a journey, but amazingly, millions of them make that transit every year.

Image Credit Flickr User Texas Eagle

The scene during their return in the spring is even more emotional. Walking on the beach at that time, you see the surf washing in the numerous bodies of those aviators who almost made it, reminiscent of the beaches at Normandy. And like the scenes of war, dragonflies lie in wait at the water’s edge attacking the weakened Monarchs soon as they cross over the relative safety of land.

I have been so infuriated at the sight of such wanton attacks that once I chased a heavily laden dragonfly with a Monarch in its grasp, and caused the little Messerschmitt to release its prey.

The Monarch I saved did not thank-me by landing on my shoulder to take a breather. It was too dangerous to stop, and it had places to go, places far away from the sea, driven by a genetic memory of fields of milkweed.

Oddly enough, experts seem unsure as to whether there is actually a migratory flyway from the Panama City area to Mexico, the over-wintering grounds for most Monarchs. To me the answer is obvious; even though the flight of roughly 800 miles over water with no place to feed is almost unimaginable. The little aviators make that trip, spring and fall, as proven by the millions of orange and black-rayed butterflies crossing the white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and by the surf-washed bodies of those brave aviators who died in the attempt.

Migration map from Queen's University Dept of Psychology

The Fashionista Mum and its New Winter Colors

This Christmas there is a fashion war going on in my front yard. It is a war of colors.

The harsh grays and whites of winter are invariably followed by a vernal bloom of pastel colors which ease our eyes away from bleakness, preparing us slowly for the cacophony of intense color we know as summer in the garden.

Fall, even in Florida, gives us one last chance at vibrant colors shortly before those Chrysanthemum blooms darken to become lifeless cocoons settling in for the cold winter.

At least that’s how it is in most parts of the world.

December in the Florida Panhandle gives us a reprieve from an immediate garden death sentence. Bouts of warm weather, following spells of cold, entice Azaleas to bloom, haltingly perhaps, not with abandon as in the spring, but celebrating in a measured sense the pleasure of 70° degree Florida sunshine.

Locals tend to say the flowers and shrubs are confused, but I don’t think Florida plants are as mindless as many gardeners think. I feel they are simply taking advantage of another opportunity to re-experience their glorious youthful days of summer. Don’t we humans do the same thing when the chance presents itself?


This fall we planted both Mums and Gaillardia, and when both were in full bloom in October we noticed we seemed to have a bit too much yellow. The yellow Gaillardia were scarcely ten feet away from the yellow Mums. Both flowers had yellow petals and maroon centers. Whereas true gardeners would consider that a travesty, we, being somewhat more tolerant of our foibles, simply decided the flower colors complemented each other. And that is how it would have to stay until next year.

I have always been one to give flowers a chance to bloom again, and so as any caring husband would do, I asked my wife to prune off all the dead blossoms from the yellow mums, just to see if they would bloom again. There appeared to be nascent buds hiding beneath the green foliage.

It did not take long for us to realize that the trio of Mums appreciated the deadheading and repaid us with December blossoms. But much to our surprise, all three plants decided, in unison, to change their colors.

Now, true Fashionistas would proclaim underneath their breath that they would not be caught dead wearing the same wardrobe as the gaudy Gaillardia next door. And so they didn’t.  They reversed their colors, wearing a winter coat of maroon  accented by yellow centers.

When a Christmas visitor comes up our walkway, they are no doubt inspired by the clever combination of fall colors that still adorns our flower beds.

But I am confessing to you that we, the flower guardians, had absolutely nothing to do with it.  The Mums managed a magical switch in color that we were powerless to even conceive, never-mind enact.

And I must profess, there is a certain aesthetic logic that the Mums demonstrated. After all, dark colors are more in keeping with the relentless slide into winter that will, sooner or later, catch up with northern Florida.

The Gaillardia blooms, on the other-hand, are optimistically  unchanging, blithely unaware of what is coming. The first killing frost will, I fear, catch them quite by surprise.

Once the Gaillardia and Mums finally decide to rest for the winter, I wonder what color schemes they will be dreaminbg about. Will next year include even more surprises in the fashion competition between showy species, each trying to out-compete the other?

I can hardly wait to see.





Saving Poncho Villa

I called him Poncho Villa. He was an animal baby who stole my heart.

Our time together began as I was walking past the eaves to our Florida home and I heard an unusual scratching and distinctly animal sound. It didn’t sound like a rat or a squirrel, but whatever it was, it didn’t seem happy where it was. And I of course didn’t want it there either. I followed the sound around a corner, and saw that whatever it was, was trying to enlarge a small break in the eaves so it could get out.

It didn’t take me long to get a ladder and rip out a section of the eaves, and when I did, I saw the face of a baby raccoon. But as soon as I saw it, it disappeared around the corner again.

I would have to be patient.

Thinking that perhaps it could climb down the ladder, I decided to leave the ladder in place through the night. Hours later as I was pulling a car out of the driveway, my headlights shown on a nondescript little furry thing in the yard, several feet away from the ladder. I put the car in park, and leaving the lights shining on whatever it was, walked over to investigate. It was a baby raccoon, lying fairly motionless even as I approached. I assumed it was the one I had briefly spied earlier.  When I saw how small it was I knew he must have fallen, hitting the ladder on the way down, for he was much too small to climb down the ladder.

His fall must have just happened because he had not moved far, and none of the local dogs and cats had found him yet. He was completely defenseless, and did not resist when I picked him up by the scruff of his neck, as I assumed his mother must have.

Fortunately I had a large metal cage we’d once used to house guinea pigs, and it made a secure place for him to spend the night while I researched what to do with him. As shown by one of the first photos I took of him, stretched out on a pool skimmer net, he was small.

I learned two things right away — he was far from being weaned, and he could barely see. One eye was covered in pus, and the other was barely open. I think that contributed to the fact that he did not scamper away from the base of the ladder; he was essentially blind.

I thought I was in luck because a veterinarian lived next door, and I quickly told him what I’d found. Surprisingly, he seemed very disinterested. I later learned he felt the baby had no chance of survival. But I was determined to give it a go, in spite of the odds.

The Internet taught me that he could be sustained by artificial puppy milk (Esbilac) given to him from a dropper. Sure enough, he avidly drank as I squeezed it out of the dropper. At that point I committed myself to raising him till he was weaned.

Like any baby, he fed frequently, and seemed to be thriving on the ersatz mother’s milk. I started taking him outside as often as I could just to give him a break from the cage, but he never wanted to stray more than a foot away from me. He had fully accepted me as his caregiver and protector.

He’d only been home a couple of days when it occurred to me to get a can of pressurized saline from a drugstore and wash his eyes, which had been undoubtedly damaged and infected by fiber glass in the attic. A gentle pulse or two of saline was all it took to wash away the pus from one eye and cleanse the matted goopiness from the other eye. He now seemed to be able to see.

But when I took him back outside, he looked up and froze. Instinctively he seemed to realize that he was exposed to predatory birds  — he seemed the most afraid of any time I’d had him, which made him stick even closer to me when outside. So we spent more time inside than out.

It helped that my wife was out of state so she didn’t seem to mind the thought of a baby raccoon housed in the bathroom of our now grown children. But she explained he would have to be gone by the time she got back. That didn’t leave me much time to get him weaned.

We developed a routine; I’d feed him at midnight and morning, and go home at lunch to feed him again. He’d get more feedings in the afternoon and evening. Whenever I got home I’d find him hanging upside down on the top of the cage, making baby raccoon sounds, eager to be fed again. He was gaining strength.  I’m sure he’d nurse much more frequently from his mother, but somehow my work schedule and his feeding schedule just had to work out. And it did.

I started trying him on grapes, with only very limited success. Other solids didn’t really interest him, but he loved simulated puppy milk. He was a messy drinker, just like a human baby, and much of what came out of the dropper went down his chin and neck. So sooner or later it was bath time, in the bathroom sink.  Although he was not happy about it, he did not resist. After all, his body was the size of the palm of my hand, so he accepted the frustration of being washed with the same confusion and passivity as a newborn human baby.

Now that he could see, he became interested in new toys, although he was not up to playing with them like a puppy or kitten. I suppose that was too much to expect. He also was reluctant to leave his cage, and only with some trepidation did he sniff around when I pulled him out of it. To him the cage was security, where he slept and was fed.

It wasn’t long before I saw the mother raccoon, sticking her head up through a hole in the roof. A 100-foot tall pine tree had dropped limbs on a portion of the roof, breaking the plywood, and allowing water to enter enough to begin softening the wood. The pregnant mother coon had been looking for a roof weakness to exploit, and finding it, she literally ripped a hole in the plywood enough for her to enter and raise her offspring.

Apparently Poncho Villa, being mostly blind from infection, had strayed far from the nest in the attic and became trapped in the eaves. The access to the eaves was too small for his mother to squeeze in to return him to the nest. Had I not found him, he would have perished.

It was summer, and when my wife returned I had to move Poncho outside into the heat. As much as I hated it, at least his cage was in a shaded, covered porch, which had to be much cooler than the attic where he had begun life.

During one of my visits during lunch on a hot day, he taught me a lesson in regulating body heat. I found him sleeping soundly on his back with his almost bald stomach exposed to the air, and with all four limbs outstretched stiffly and all fingers and toes splayed widely. It looked like he was using his stomach and non-furred paws to act as radiators, transferring heat out of his body. Clever little baby coon.

Eventually he was very close to being weaned, and it was time to find him a more accommodating home. Fortunately, our local zoo had received a rescued raccoon baby the year before, and was excited to see Poncho. As shown in the final photo, Poncho was as uncertain about leaving his human mother, me, as I was at leaving him with the zoo.

I had grown fond of the way he would cling to my chest and stomach with his baby claws as I carried him around the house, and eventually the zoo. I would soon miss the chittering sounds he made, evident in the video at the bottom of this posting. I felt like a parent to him, and he responded as I suspect a raccoon kit (baby raccoon) would to its mother. Except for the nursing of course.

But at least the zoo gave him a physical checkup, vaccinated him, and groomed him for a role in fund raising for the zoo, a noble cause I believed. In fact, he quickly became a radio station celebrity. He never had much to say, of course, but the local radio personalities carried on about him as the zoo used him for promotion.

After a brief stint as a celebrity, he was taken to the farm of his zoo caretaker and was slowly transitioned for release into the wild, a wilderness that, unlike most raccoons, he’d never known.

Ironically, right after I saw the mother raccoon, and made a futile attempt to locate the nest, the raccoons left. The playfulness of his siblings led to their eventual undoing. I woke one night hearing chittering and scampering sounds in the walls of the house where I believed the nest to be, far out of my reach. As I stood in the room trying to localize exactly where the sound was coming from, one of the kits broke a wire in the wall that triggered  the whole house alarm. The horn was situated in the attic near where the nest was, and as loud as it was to me in the room below, it must have been deafening to the raccoons.  After that night, I never saw or heard from the family of coons again. I’m sure the mother moved them to a quieter neighborhood.

The video below is a fair representation of the sounds Poncho Villa made when I would come to feed him.  The raccoon kit in the video appears to be a little older than Poncho was when he graduated from puppy formula to, of all things, animal crackers!


The Mysterious Physical Attraction of Slash Pine Seeds to … Anything

Pine cones are falling from the sky and smacking the roof with a thud, with all the earnestness of a piece of reentering space debris. The sound reverberates among the rafters, giving the impression of a large falling limb, sending us scurrying outside searching for damage to the roof.

It is October in the Florida Pan Handle, the time of year when pine cones eject their winged pine seeds.  Once emptied, the cones are rejected by their parental trees like useless appendages.

Those seeds had begun their race towards destiny high in the outstretched branches of 100-foot tall slash pines, being nestled by the overlapping leaves of their natal cones. But once ejected from their nest, they were on their own, distributed by gravity, winds, and those always tricky helicopter aerodynamics.

Walking outside this morning I could see those seeds helicoptering down to the ground, or the pool. Those landing fruitlessly, without hope on the concrete were distributed forlornly like bodies on a battle field. But those landing in a pool, being swept towards the uncaring maw of the pool skimmer, did something interesting.

It reminded me of illustrations of the attempted fertilization of human eggs by sperm; all lined up, jockeying to be the first to the prize. The heavier seed end of the wing seemed to be attached to the pool ladder as if by magic, although I suspected some subtle electrical charge interaction with the metal.

This was not occurring in still water; there was a considerable flow carrying unattached seeds swiftly past those clustered around the ladder.

Click to enlarge.

But then I saw the seeds clustering around other objects, the walls of the pool, and in an almost Oedipal fashion, a pine cone floating in the pool. One cluster of seeds were touching their ends together as if in some group incest.

Keep in mind, each seed fluttered down on its own, singly. Yet when they met in the water they had an unexplained physical attraction, literally.


The last two photos made me suspicious that the attraction was not based on electrical charge, but on surface tension — somehow. In the photo of the pine cone you can see dimples in the water around the wings and seed, an observation that positively screams surface tension.

Just how surface tension works to orient these seeds in the way they do is unclear to me. However, I see an evolutionary benefit.

Concrete pools are not of nature. In nature, seeds falling in water might be benefited if surface tension orients the seed end towards the edge of whatever stream or pond the seeds fall into. If the seed ends can touch the soil of the earthen banks, then they have a chance to germinate.  If the seed ends pointed away from the soil, they would eventually become water logged and sink, thus drowning the potential pine seedling.

In the following short video clip we see the strange maneuvering of three separate seeds, unattached except through some invisible force, moving to and fro in the eddy behind a pool ladder in a relatively swift current.

[youtube id=”CDmWVLZOpu4″ w=”525″ h=”439″]


One of the many joys of being human is discovering the beauty and mystery in nature. You don’t have to understand it to appreciate it.






A Frog Drowned in My Pool

Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens). Photo credit: Bill Sutton

The little fellow was fast, and wily.

I was chasing him around the pool with a skimmer net, trying to herd him to the side of the pool where I had some chance of scooping him up with my hands. As the net approached he would kick to the eight foot deep bottom and then gracefully glide, legs in trail, along the contour of the bottom and sidewalls up to the edge of the pool. In dark water that tactic worked beautifully because his enemies could not see where he was going. But since he was in clear pool water I could see exactly where he was headed.

I’d sneak around the pool edge, out of his sight, and then grab for him as he floated at the surface. But he’d invariably see me in time to flip over and kick to the bottom again.

I had to admire his strength, speed and agility. He was clearly in his element. And besides that, he could breathe through his skin, absorbing oxygen from the water. Neat trick I thought, as I remembered various attempts by engineers to create artificial gills for humans — attempts that have all failed — so far.

Tadpoles have gills, but those gills are lost as the tadpoles metamorphose into frogs. Instead, frogs use a combination of lung breathing and skin breathing, called cutaneous respiration. Breathing through their skin allows them to remain underwater for months during the winter, when they are hibernating. However, when frogs are actively swimming, their oxygen demands are quite high, as you would expect. As the chase continued I had no idea how much or how little oxygen he could extract from the pool water.

For cutaneous respiration to work, frog skin has to stay moist, hence their desire to be close to water. But this frog was in the wrong water. I was about to pour chlorine into the pool, and if he didn’t get out of the pool, he wouldn’t survive. The chase was really in his best interest, but he didn’t know that of course; he was simply trying to avoid becoming my lunch.

So basically he never had time to take a breather. I figured at some point he’d grow tired from all the exercise and would allow me to catch him in the net and lift him out of the pool.

I was wrong. Before he quit swimming he apparently ran out of oxygen, in spite of the fact that he was getting oxygen from the water through his skin. But he wasn’t getting enough; he passed out.

Well, that sure made it easy to scoop him up.

Once I got him in my hands, I started frog CPR. No, I did not give him mouth to mouth ventilation. But I did give his little chest tiny squeezes, thinking that would do him some good. Apparently it didn’t; he never regained consciousness.

I buried him in my garden with all the solemnity due a frog, and vowed over his little green body that I’d do better with keeping the chlorine levels up so future frogs would not be attracted to the pool. Of course that was for my benefit as well, because where frogs are, water moccasins are not far behind.

I think it’s tough being a frog.

I mostly kept to my promise, but inevitably, another leopard frog or two attempted to take up residence in my concrete lined pond.

Being a scientist, I decided to conduct an experiment. I repeated my earlier, potentially deadly chases, but this time I reacted instantly when the frogs passed out. Soon as they went limp I scooped them up with my net and laid them in the grass. Before long they recovered and started frog-hopping away. Speed was of the essence in their rescue, and quick reactions on my part worked to keep the frogs alive.

So yes, frogs can breathe through their skin, absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, but only enough to support resting needs. When they are active, they must supplement gas exchange by gulping air into their lungs. Now I know.

(The loss of the first frog was an accident, not animal cruelty! Do not repeat this in the name of science, because it also is not science.)

I’ve since learned that I’m not the only person with frog-in-pool problems, and conveniently, small animal escape devices are available. Here’s a video of one that allows frogs to self-rescue without being dependent on any near-death escapes foisted upon them by me. (I’m not associated with the manufacturers or dealers in any way.)

[youtube id=”NlNbpBDRuMc” w=”500″ h=”400″]











Battle of Titans: Orcas vs Gray Whales

It is an ageless story, mothers banding together to protect their young from instinctive killers. The fact that it was a battle between behemoth Gray Whales and Killer Whales (Orcas) made it all the more epic in scope, and worthy of the telling.

A fellow scientist and I had driven south early one springtime morning from Anchorage, Alaska to Seward. At 11 AM our glacier view cruise boat left the docks at Seward and headed for the glacier fields at the Kenai Fjords National Park where the glaciers sliding slowly down from the mountains calved into the Gulf of Alaska.

Heading south from Seward.

From there we motored on until we were attracted to a near-shore area by the blowing of water and foam from a group of migrating Gray Whales. The rapid pace of their exhalation was a sure sign that something was wrong. We had stumbled upon a battle involving another type of calf just as the combatants were taking their positions on the battlefield.

A female Gray whale weighing between 30 to 40 tons had birthed her baby during the winter in Baja California and now the mother, quickly growing baby, and two female caretakers (often  called “aunties”) were almost through with their migration to the Bering Sea. But as they swam beyond Prince William Sound, not far from their final destination, they were attacked by two adolescent transient Orcas who wanted that baby whale.

Our boat stopped far enough from the battle to not hinder the fight, but close enough for us to witness the events. Our biologist guide warned us that if we had a weak stomach we might not want to watch because often times the Orcas succeed in killing the baby Gray.

I don’t think anyone on the boat averted their eyes as the three massive females arranged themselves head to tail into a triangular defensive formation, with the baby in the middle. There was no way for the Orcas to get past the females on or near the surface, so they made repeated dives trying to enter the center of the triangle from underneath and attack the baby. But with each dive, the wily Grays maneuvered to block the Orcas.

The Orcas were nothing if not persistent. Perhaps sensing that, the whales started moving closer to a rock cliff face, and then they did something clever, but potentially risky. There was an opening in the rock wall and the baby whale had been nudged into that opening. One whale, probably the mother, was completely blocking that opening with her body. The Orcas tried repeatedly to find a way past her to the baby, but between the blocking action of the other two Grays and the blubbery plug of the cave entrance by the mother, there was nothing the Orcas could do.

We of course saw the riskiness of that defense. It looked to us like the baby was trapped underwater. Even a whale has to breathe sometime.

The other boat was too close to the action, but provides scale for the "cave".

But as I look at the photo I realize now that the cave was tall enough and just deep enough to allow the baby to breathe even with water access cut off. Obviously, the Gray Whale mother had made good use of her 4.3 kg brain. Nevertheless, from our elevated vantage point we could see over the mother whale, and we saw that the baby remained submerged. I’m guessing it was wedging itself in as tightly as it could. The anxiety on our boat grew perceptively as the minutes ticked down with us knowing the baby was holding its breath.

The tactic worked, for the Orcas eventually tired of the game, and after making one or two leaps out of the water they moved away from the whales and headed north toward seal colonies we passed on the way south. The seals would be easier pickings than those highly protective Gray Whales.

There was jubilation on our boat. I think we’d all been holding our breath like the baby, at least a little.

When the coast was clear, literally, the Grays moved back into the open water near where the battle had begun and caught their breath, heaving great geysers of watery air as they panted. They had obviously been very stressed, but their cleverness and strategic cooperation saved the day, or at least the moment.

Two Orcas. Copyright by Rolf Hicker. Used under fair use.

Things could have been different, both better and worse. Local Orcas were so-called residents who don’t attack Gray Whales. Residents tend to be fish eaters. Fortunately for the Gray baby, the more lethal transients were not as experienced with the local geography. They were also adolescents, not as experienced as adults, and there were only two of them. A pack of them, with adolescents being guided by adults, might have been more succesful. Transient Orcas, genetically different from Residents are reported to kill a third of the baby Gray Whale population each year.

Interestingly, the Grays seem to know where transient Orca populations are the most active, and in those regions they tend to stay close to shore. In this case that strategy paid off by allowing the baby to be protected by a rock wall and its mother.

On the boat we celebrated all the way back to Seward; we had witnessed a frightening conflict with, for us and the whales, a happy ending.

To learn more about Orcas attacking mother Gray Whales and their calves, see the excellent photos and story at the following website. http://creagrus.home.montereybay.com/MtyBayOrcaattack.html

Scalloping – What If the Tide Turned?

It’s scallop season in the fertile waters of the Florida Panhandle. Almost completely surrounded by a peninsula called Cape San Blas sits a shallow body of clear water and sandy bottom that is an ideal location for bay scallops. Unfortunately for the scallops, the shallow water makes a yearly harvest of scallops by boaters and waders almost too easy.

Recently my extended family of eight descended on the unsuspecting bivalves as if our lives depended upon them. We spent most of a day in a hunter-gatherer mode, reaping the benefit of a bountiful crop, imagining an earlier day when local tribes did in fact depend on the local scallops and oysters for their survival.

I had been scalloping in Saint Joseph’s Bay once before, but this year the scallops were larger, and seemingly more bountiful. They attempted to hide in the sea grass, and I suppose those that hid well were passed over. But fortunately for us, many could not hide from the practiced eyes of determined snorkelers.

Usually scallops react to being picked up by snapping their shells together in an attempt to protect their vulnerable innards. However, one large scallop which had apparently lived long enough to be the equivalent of a wise scallop, or perhaps simply an inquisitive scallop, started to close his shell, and then stopped. We remained locked in a gaze, me with my green eyes staring through a diving mask, and it staring at me with its multiplicity of luminous, iridescent blue eyes.

Photo credit: Bill Capman, 2002.

I know this is blatant anthropomorphism, but it seemed like it was saying, “Well, hello. What’s this? Are you a deity? I’ve heard about you, but you’re not at all what I was expecting.”

I must admit I stared back quizzically, surprised by this little fellow’s bravado. He truly seemed to be checking me out.

It was bad luck for him that his telepathic powers of communication didn’t make a dent in my determination to eat him, or at least to eat his adductor muscle after discarding the rest. So into the bag he went with the growing collection of other scallops. In the end, his bravado did him no good at all.

It was somewhat of a pitiful sight as the captives were poured in a heap on a wooden platform just above the water of the bay. I bet they could smell it, the safety of water so close, and as the cliché says, so far away. They all tried to escape, to jet away, sounding like a chorus of  castanets. Of course, in air, jetting just doesn’t work for them. They were stranded. I could almost sense their collective panic.

I suspect the mechanics of scallop butchery came as quite a shock to this little guy. I’m just glad that this year I didn’t have to do it — my son took my place at the sacrificial altar. After all, shucking is, at its best,  tiring and a little bit gross. Beer helps of course.

In the unlikely event that now jaded scallop had seen me, had watched me with its sixty or more eyes as I began to take a shucking knife to it, could I really do what my family was expecting of me? Probably, but I don’t know for sure.

Well, I didn’t have to face that, and I will confess, I felt only pleasure, no guilt, as I finished off the last of those pure white scallop muscles, sautéed with butter, garlic and a dollop of lemon juice.

It was about 48-hours later, when the delicate flavor of those fresh scallops began to fade from my memory, that I had a sobering thought. Could those bivalves in fact be more sentient than we assume? After all, I’ve been mistaken before about the intelligence of invertebrates.

I’ve heard that scallop eyes can’t really see shapes, only shades of light, and movement. Arguably there is not enough neural matter for them to generate anything like a thought — at least in human terms.

But what if we’re wrong? Even worse, what if a highly advanced alien species, hungry after traveling interstellar distances, encounters humans? Would they consider us with the same lack of respect that we consider scallops? Could we be considered to have too little cerebral grey matter to create an organized thought — at least in alien terms? Would we be considered insentient and therefore unworthy of pity as we’re “shucked” and sautéed for dinner?

In Stephen Hawking’s opinion, that is a real possibility. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece

So, maybe we shouldn’t be trying so hard to attract the attention of extraterrestrials. If they show up hungry, maybe our communication, telepathic or otherwise, would do us no more good than it did that inquisitive scallop.

He sure was tasty.

How to Teach Ice Diving When the Arctic Is Melting

In 2007 Michael Lang of the Smithsonian Institution’s Scientific Diving Program sponsored a spring-time ice diving course in the high Arctic at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, in an area generally called Spitzbergen.

Ny-Ålesund, an international Arctic research town situated at 78°56’N, 11°56’E, is the most northern continuously operated community. It sits on the shore of a fjord called Kongsfjorden. In the springtime, the sea ice on the Kongsfjorden is usually several feet thick, providing an inviting platform for ice-diving operations.

North Pole Hotel, Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard

However, during the last decade the sea ice has been becoming thinner and sparser. By the time we arrived, there was virtually no ice on the fjord. The closest ice source was a glacier over two miles away. With no ice, polar bears could not capture their ringed seal prey, and were thus hungry, leading undoubtedly to the polar bear encounter described in an earlier posting (April 12).

It also left the course instructors, and I was once of them, in a quandary. It was expensive transporting diving scientists to the high Arctic to learn ice diving operations, and there was no ice to be seen. It appeared to us that the Arctic really was melting, surprisingly early in this case.

Although we had a few frigid days during our week-long stay, frigid enough to remind us we were close to the North Pole, one memorable day was almost balmy, reaching 0° C (32° F). Looking out over the fjord I saw mini-icebergs, recently calved by the rapidly melting glacier a few miles away.

Mini-icebergs, born on an unusually warm day

The word went out to launch all divers.

Dry land and underwater cameras, and high-definition video were working overtime to record the encounters between divers and ice. The result was some striking photos of delicately scalloped floating ice, with divers getting into the frames — just to prove they were indeed “ice-divers.” Unfortunately, that was not the type of experience that had been planned for those scientists.

Transparent glacial ice

As you might imagine, the water in the fjord was still bitterly cold, so the part of the course designed to teach about human and equipment survival in cold water was fully accomplished.

However, due to the growing sparseness and unreliability of the Arctic sea ice cover, the Smithsonian Diving Program has now moved its training and testing operations to McMurdo Station, Antarctica (see April 11 and May 26th posting). There, at least for the time being, lies plenty of thick sea ice covering the Ross Sea during the austral springtime.

I had not been impressed by the global warming rhetoric before I traveled to the Arctic. However, having seen the consequences first hand, at least in the far North, I get the strong impression that there are undeniable local climate changes occurring. Whether it is a truly global change, and whether man is somehow responsible, is an area of speculation that I will not venture into.

Only time will tell.

Outsmarted by an Octopus

Jim Duran and I started a night dive in about sixty to seventy feet of water several miles off the beaches of Panama City, FL. I was wearing double 80 tanks, held a collecting bag and lights, and fully intended to capture an octopus, alive.

At the time I was working in an invertebrate physiology laboratory at Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Greenberg. I had been impressed by the reputed high intelligence of the octopus, and was also interested in the effects of high pressure. The Navy base at Panama City had a new high pressure chamber, capable of simulating deep-sea pressures. Since I was in training in the combined Navy and NOAA program called the Scientist in the Sea, it seemed logical to me to catch an octopus, and study it to see if it would be a suitable candidate for testing in the Navy’s  giant hyperbaric chamber.

It sounded like a reasonable plan to me, and Jim Duran was willing to follow along as my assistant critter catcher. And to begin with, the plan worked. We spied our quarry only a few minutes into the dive. The gray-brown octopus was crawling over the sandy bottom, and initially seemed unaware of our intentions. But as the two of us closed in on him, specimen bag flapping in our self-generated current, he sprang off the bottom and squirted away.

But we were strong swimmers, and our quarry was in the open, maybe eight feet off the bottom. He had nowhere to hide – silly thing. Keeping our lights on him, and stroking like mad, I began gaining on him, at which time he let loose with his ink. I was prepared for that, and continuing to kick I soon caught up with him and got my hands on him, trying to stuff him into my bag. But he would have none of that.

Off we went again. What we didn’t realize was that the clever invertebrate was constantly turning to our right. We of course were too intent on capturing him to notice his strategy. And besides, invertebrates were incapable of strategic planning – or so we thought.

Apparently the octopus was determined not to be touched again, or else we were tiring, for we never quite caught up with him. So close, and yet so far away.

And then a curious thing happened. He collapsed his tentacles upon themselves, streamlining his body shape, and shot like a rocket from our depth to the sandy bottom. Once on firm ground again, he spread his tentacles as wide as he could, and his entire body turned white. I froze in shock.

In another instant, before I could recover my senses, he collapsed his body down to the width of an apple and slithered into his hole in the sea floor.

He was gone.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that the chase had started near his home, and he had led us at a furious pace in a large circle, which ended precisely where it had begun. He had maneuvered us to within striking distance of safety.

Humbled, and now growing low on air, and embarrassingly empty-handed, we headed back to the off-shore platform where our dive had begun.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Who knew that two graduate students would be outsmarted by an invertebrate.

Below is a link to a video showing an octopus’ ability to disguise itself, and some of the defensive behavior we witnessed.

[youtube id=”PmDTtkZlMwM” w=”500″ h=”400″]