Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Horror and Hope in the World of Whales

A Day at BlueVoice.org
Monday, August 26, 2007
By Hardy Jones

Though the BlueViews Blog will more often than not concern our work in the field I want to give a picture of some of what we do on a daily basis – the issues that cross my desk, the actions we take on involving dolphins and other marine mammals and sometimes observations about the state of the planet in general.

First thing this morning I received a report that whale watchers in Japan spotted a Baird’s Beaked Whale off the Northern Island of Hokkaido. To their horror they saw that the whale had been harpooned by a catcher boat. People voiced their pity for the whale. Japan is still hunting whales despite enormous international condemnation but small whale watching companies are trying to turn whales into money in a non-lethal way. BlueVoice.org - http://bluevoice.org/ shows the work we are doing to stop Japan’s horrific plan to hunt humpback whales in the Antarctic this November.

PETITION FRENCH POLYNESIA TO HOLD OFF BLASTING UNTIL HUMPBACK MOTHERS AND CALVES LEAVE BREEDING GROUNDS. We received word from an old friend, Pascal Rohde, in Tahiti, that the local government plans to blast a larger hole in the reef opening into the harbor at Tahiti. This time of year the waters around Tahiti are home to pregnant females and their new born calves. We sent off an email on behalf of BlueVoice’s membership. You can add your own by emailing: Attention Mme la Ministre of Environment and Tourism Maina Sage at email secretariat@tourisme.min.gov respectfully asking them to put off the dynamiting until November when the humpbacks will have left for the Antarctic.

EXCELLENT NEWS – Iceland has announced it will not issue new whale – hunting quotas until market demand for the meat increases. Japan has not issued Iceland an export agreement so a huge market for Icelandic whale meat has evaporated. As you can see, Japan is the lynchpin that propagates whaling far beyond its own shores.

In late October or early November we will again send a team to Futo and Taiji, Japan to attempt to stop the slaughter and capture of dolphins that takes place there. We have test results showing extremely high levels of mercury in dolphin meat but this year we will test the fish caught at Taiji and Futo to determine mercury levels. We expect them to be high and publication of these figures at the time of the worldwide concern for food safety will jolt the villages where dolphins are hunted. Exposing the toxic levels of their fish products will threaten the economy of these villages and hopefully bring additional pressure to end the barbaric practice of hunting dolphins. We will be webcasting live from the scene.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dolphins Control Hammerhead Shark

July 2, 2007 - BlueVoice Among Dolphins - Week 2
Day 8: Boarded Shearwater at 5pm last night and headed out at 3am. I awoke at 7am and went to the bridge to scan for deep-water animals. None sighted but it’s worth looking and I love the feeling of crossing the Gulf Stream, this vast torrent of warm water which controls so much of the earth’s climate; something I’ve been doing since I was 16 years old.

We reach the dolphins area around 1pm and cruise quite a while finding nothing. But at 4:15pm we find two subgroups in close proximity. They are playing and continue to play as we approach them. We then have over three hours among the dolphins. They do engage us a bit but my feeling was that mostly they were playing in our vicinity. There were senior adults and perhaps seven younger dolphins in ages ranging from two or three years old to perhaps six judging by their spotting patterns. The spotters are gunmetal gray when born and add spots as they age. The two subgroups join and then intense play breaks out among all the twelve dolphins. It’s a privilege to witness the lives of these animals in the wild.

Our traveling companions are delirious from this unique experience, which occurred, in late afternoon through evening in the most beautiful late afternoon light.

A particularly interesting observation was made by several – a single adult dolphin above a group of five young dolphins in the water column. The large dolphin had its mouth open and seemed to be talking to the group of youngsters as though they were students in a classroom. The youngsters were answering back with mouths open and seemed to be talking in a human way. But dolphins do not communicate mouth open so this was something else.

Mouth open can be a threat but it can also be an indication of roughhouse playing.

Later that night we anchored in the Gulf Stream and a few dolphins showed up to grab the flying fish and squid attracted by our boat light. More arrived as the night progressed until there were perhaps 15 dolphins chasing their dinners with exhilarating bursts of speed. Boat Captain Jim Abernathy caught the entire day in a series of 85 wonderful photographs and the groupings will be interesting to study. Overall an astonishing day with a total of more than six hours of close contact with the dolphins.

Day 9: Dove the Sugar Wreck in the morning. As usual it proved to be one of the world’s most beautiful shallow water dives with colors visible due to the shallow depth and myriad fish of many species, including a lion fish – a Pacific fish now proliferating in the Atlantic.

Two days of somewhat rough weather and sparce contact with dolphins.

Day 11. A wonderful SCUBA dive early this morning to 65 feet. Large grouper and reef sharks. Clear water and a crevice to swim through. I emerged stoked. We then hit a massive thunderstorm and deluge of rain. But in late afternoon we hit perhaps fifty dolphins working a ball of yellowtails. This is something I’ve not seen in 29 years out here though I know it is how many marine creatures feed. The dolphins easily outswam the fish and had no trouble taking what they wanted. Some dolphins formed a barrier to escaping fish while the rest attacked vertically. We had 6 – 8 divers in the water and the terrified fish sought shelter near us, clinging to our shoulders, running into bathing trunks, into arm pits and down the fronts of women’s swim suits. The dolphins pursued the fish into their hiding places, in one case threatening to remove the bathing suit of one of the women from our boat. For the yellowtail it was sheer terror and fight to survive. The dolphins never let up reducing the school to a fragment of what it had been by the time we withdrew from he water due to darkness. A few of the yellowtail abandoned the school and streaked off into the deep blue of the sea alone – perhaps to meet up later or perhaps be taken by predators in the night. I looked into the eyes of the fleeing fish and saw sheer terror.

Among our divers delirium reigned. We had been in the midst of a primordial event - as raw as it gets but we were not threatened. We were witnesses within the massacre, untouched.

July 6:. Arrived Riviera Beach, offloaded the boat and said good-bye to the wonderful group of people with whom we had shared this unique experience.

Next year we will seek out other schools of friendly dolphins in the Bahamas. Details at www.bluevoice.org as we finalize plans.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Algae Blooms Threatens Gulf Coast

The Blob has come to Florida
By Hardy Jones
August 9 and 10, 2007

The federal government spends $2-billion dollars a year to subsidize an industry which causes massive environmental damage to a vast area of Florida and its coastal waters, destroying fisheries and now threatening real estate values and the tourist industry on the Gulf Coast. The Feds (and that means out tax dollars) then spend billions of dollars more to try to alleviate this unfolding catastrophe. The industry receiving our tax dollars in such a profligate abundance is sugar – always referred to in Florida as “big sugar” because of its huge political clout.

Of course sugar can be grown more economically in nations that really need a sugar industry. But vast swaths of Florida north and south of Lake Okeechobee have been subjugated to this crop and the pesticides and fertilizers required to grow it. The consequences for other parts of the state are calamitous.

On August 9 and 10 I drove around, flew over and traveled by boat around Lake Okeechobee, down the Caloosahatchee River, through Pine Island Sound and Red Fish pass and out into the Gulf of Mexico, returning through San Carlos Pass. At Lake O I saw mountains of contaminated muck just dredged from drought-lowered lake, endless fields of sugar cane and ultimately fifty square miles of the Gulf covered in an algal bloom that seems on the verge on developing into highly toxic red tide.

Greg Rawl, an independent water consultant, and Andy Powell, head of a construction company that had just finished demucking parts of Lake O, guided me along the Calahoosahatchee pointing out the vast engineering works that have distorted the historical flow of water from the big lake, creating land dry enough for residential housing, farming and other human enterprise.

Lake O, today suffering through one of its worst droughts in memory has seen its water levels drop to their lowest levels since recording began in 1932 – 8.8 feet at on July 1. The low water levels exposed large areas of the lakebed and made it easy to bring conventional earth moving equipment in to remove two million cubic yards of sludge that had accumulated on the natural lake bottom. The idea is that by removing the muck they will restore natural sandy bottom that will support move natural vegetation and fish life.

At first they thought they would give the sludge to farmers but then learned a lot of it contains pesticides, arsenic and other heavy metals so piles of the stuff just sit around the circumference of the lake. No one is quite sure what to do with these mounds. Some have suggested they may spontaneously combust, eliminating the problem on the ground but transferring it to the air.

The other great problem of Lake O and waters downstream is that fertilizers used in agriculture and droppings from cattle have rendered a phosphorous poor environment, to which plant life had adapted, into a phosphorous rich water system which promotes the intrusion of exotic vegetation such as cat tails which wipe out the native flora. Removing the muck removed some of the phosphorous.

Nitrogen also adversely affects the waters of Southern Florida, fresh and marine.

Friday August 10
I met Greg at his Cessna 182 and we took off heading back over the land we had seen by road the previous day. Flying conditions were ideal, the sky a blazing blue, few Cumulous clouds in the distance – not even hinting they might produce rain. From the air you get a sense of the massive engineering that has gone into bending nature’s design to something more amendable to human demands such as agriculture, housing and marinas.

There’s a lot of algae on the lake and the area devoted to sugar cane is staggering.

We then flew the Calahoosahatchee past Fort Myers over Pine Island Sound and out into the Gulf. We flew for miles north and south seeing blotches, rafts and strands of an algae called Tricodesmium covering fifty square miles of water, some of it reaching with two miles of the shoreline of Sanibel Island.

In the afternoon Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah Joined us on a boat provided by Sanibel – Captiva Conservancy Foundation and we ran through Pine island Sound, and through Red fish pass on the course we had followed by air earlier in the day. Greg spoke of the days when one of the world’s largest Tarpon fishing tournaments took place near here. No more – the tarpon are gone because of poor water quality.

We easily found the algae Tricodesmium matted into huge rafts on the surface of the bay and when we had cleared Red Fish Pass and run a couple miles out to see we hit the heavy concentrations.

We also found an algal form called Lyngbia. Gary and Ray were appalled at the size and density of the algal blooms and both felt a red tide would follow bringing fish kills such as happened last year.

They’ve been fighting to improve waters quality in the area for years and lately have achieved some successes. They have strong allies now – owners of very expensive homes who have seen their property values drop as masses of Red Tide accumulate on the beach, giving off noxious odors and a gas byproduct which stings the eyes and burns the lungs. And tourists are now abandoning the lovely islands along Florida’s Gulf coast because of he foul waters.

How bad do thing have to get before societies take remedial action. It would seem that if a harmful algae was growing out of control producing noxious gasses harmful to large numbers of people that citizens and government would act to restore a healthy eco-system. But that doesn’t seem to be the way humans work.

What has happened in Florida as in so many other places in the world is that immediate profit prevails over long-term interests. The huge federal subsidies to Florida Big Sugar have led to the destruction of habit supporting fisheries which has in turn contaminated fish and driven the price of fish in general up several fold. Who hurts from that – the fishermen and the consumer. Not to mention all the other animals who depend on fish for food, dolphins for example.

And by the way, there is an algal bloom on the east coast of Florida off Palm Beach threatening plants, deep water reefs and marine life.

Meanwhile the Bush administration has had The Everglades removed from the UNs World Heritage Committee endangered list and the president has announced he will veto a $21-billion water preservation bill that contains $2-billion dollars for Everglades restoration.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Return to Dolphin Friends

June 24, 2007 - BlueVoice Among Dolphins - Week 1
By Hardy Jones
“North of Grand Bahama on the Little Bahama Banks there’s a place I’ve been going for more than twenty years and up there you’ll find dolphins that you can spend hours with. They’re just incredibly friendly and curious.”

Those were the words of treasure diver Bob Marx in 1978 and they propelled me into a new universe of adventure, discovery and just plain mind-blowing encounters with dolphins in the sea 40 miles north of Grand Bahama Island. So as I sit here today waiting to clear customs at West End I can say “North of Grand Bahama Island there’s a place I’ve been going for more than 29 years and I have found Atlantic spotted dolphins that I could spend not hours but weeks and months with. They have been incredibly friendly and curious.” I’ve come to know many of them personally and have known one of these dolphins for 28 of the 29 years.

Day 1: In a few minutes we’ll head north to the dolphin grounds. There are eight BlueVoice members aboard as well as Deborah Cutting, my wife and BV director of marketing, who put the complicated logistics of this whole venture together.

Within three hours I spot a pair of frigate birds, often a good indicator of dolphins, and sure enough there are several, feeding and playing in the water below. We spend the next five hours with them. At first the dolphins just swim past us. We’re not bothering them but neither are we interesting them. This changes late in the day as the sun moves toward the horizon and the warm, saturated colors that filmmakers call “magic light” emerge. Now the dolphins are playing games like pass the seaweed. Our group has learned that dolphins can sometimes be interested by seaweed so every piece of Sargassum in the area is grabbed and presented to the dolphins, who to the delight of everyone, swim over and take the offerings of the divers. In several cases the dolphins complete the circuit – take the sea weed, pass it from their rostrum to pectoral fin, to tail fin, to another dolphin. The circuit is judged complete when that dolphin returns the seaweed to the person who had offered it.

Our fellow passengers, many of whom are true novices when it comes to being at sea and for whom this is certainly their first experience with dolphins in the wild, are thrilled but have no clue that this is not an every day occurrence.

Day 2: we have short encounters with dolphins in the morning but then nothing so we move down to the sugar wreck, truly one of the loveliest “small” dives in the world. Strewn across the bottom in only fifteen feet of water are the remains of a steel Molasses carrier that sank in the 1870s, The wreck is a riot of colorful fish, phalanxes of barracuda, sting rays, parrot fish, hordes of yellow grunts, blue runners and countless other fish. The water was running strong off the banks in what the Bahamians call an “off mon” current. Visibility was low in the green water but often it is crystal clear when the “on mon” current

Last night I played “Dolphin Adventure” for the passengers and crew. There were hoots of laughter at my long 70s hair-style. I felt sadness for all the years that have passed and the innocence of those days. And I marveled at how many times I’ve come out to these remote shallow banks to be with the spotted dolphins. But I feel that so much more is behind me than ahead of me.

My relationship with these dolphins is still a thing of wonderful innocence.

Day 4 - Wednesday. We had lots of ins-and-outs with the dolphins today. Spotters in the morning. Bottlenose later and then spotters again. No prolonged contact but lots of opportunities for people to take pictures. A massive hammerhead was found with a group of mothers and calves. When our eight divers entered the water the hammerhead headed off. It passed the Shear Water and I was awed by its size. It looked like a whale shark. What was it doing? Stalking one of the calves? It certainly took off when the divers entered the scene and had clearly been dominated by the dolphins prior to our arrival.

Wendy’s report of the hammerhead incident. During mid- afternoon Wendy sighted a great hammerhead, estimated by several at being 13 – 14 feet in length and having a huge girth, being held over the bottom by four dolphins, two fully mature and two younger and smaller. The dolphins were swimming over the hammerhead and somehow controlling a beast many times their size and weight. The divers’ appearance broke the relationship. The shark proceeded away from the dolphins and humans. On the periphery of that group there were two other larger dolphins. The dolphins seemed completely in control.

Day 5: weather rough, cloudy and choppy. Rained often. Plenty of white caps. Too strong to go to the WSR. Several people snorkeled. But it was an uncomfortable day. We headed for Florida early and en route John spotted some false killer whales. The seas were quite rough but we stayed with them for a quarter of an hour. This is not a rare species but it is unusual to see them because they are deep water animals. I love imagining what goes on out in the Gulf Stream but we normally cross at night so we don’t see some of the big marine mammals out there.

Day 6: We cleared customs back into the USA at 9am.