Listening to Humpbacks with Gotham Whale: Fall Whale Watching in New York City

 

Artie Raslich shooting for Gotham Whale and Maurice on the American Princess. October 18, 2014

Artie Raslich shooting for Gotham Whale and Mourrice Papi on the American Princess. October 18, 2014

“You think we’ll see some whales today? I ask. “I know we will,” says Artie. Of course I believe him. He’s charismatic enough to be written up in the New Yorker, and judging from the shots he’s getting out here, he knows a thing or two about these whales.

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We are on the American Princess with a greyed-haired Captain named Tom, Artie Raslich, the official photographer from Gotham Whale, and a couple of researchers trying to record the underwater musings of humpbacks. Kristi Collom, the graduate researcher from Hunter College determined to listen in on the whales is also certain; “We saw 75 common dolphins and 3 humpbacks last week. I’m sure we’ll see some more.” Aboard are other “citizen scientists” keeping their eyes on the water, ready to witness, photograph, record and otherwise delight in the antics of marine mammals.

We boarded this Princess (the only NOAA certified boat in New York) at Riis Landing, an unassuming dock in Queens in front of Breezy Point, and shortly after noon we are heading around the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula into the open waters five or six miles off New York City’s coastline.

Kristi starts working, getting technical help from her partner Mourrice Papi, and they rig a hydrphone with a long lead cord able to descend to a depth of at least 30 feet.DSC_0125

We were taking wagers (no money involved) on the exact timing of our would-be encounter. We have a while to wait. Passing the time I ask Artie how he got his celebrated shot of the humpback he named Jerry, surprisingly framed within the outline of the Empire State Building. He was trying for a better composition, he explains, with the whale between the Empire State and the Citibank building. But Jerry breaching the water straight under the Empire State made an indelible impression that turned Gotham’s visiting marine mammals into celebrities. At one point, Artie gesticulates, “He was four feet from the boat with one big eye looking at me. I think he wanted to see who was blasting the Grateful Dead this loud out here.” Clearly Jerry was curious about a Dead Head in a 26-foot long boat. The whale was too close for Artie to get that shot; he couldn’t change lenses fast enough.

After three and half hours most of the predictions are well out of the running, as are some seasick passengers. But 2:30 proves to be the magical moment. Artie scrambles to pick up his camera. Mourrice somehow contains his shock of dark corkscrews in a knitted cap for warmth, and the rest of us tumble out onto the deck to see two humpbacks gliding alongside the boat, about 100 yards to the south of us. They appear intermittently, their sleek dark bodies revealing distinctive spinal notches when their backs peek rhythmically on the surface. Another whale joins them, and they come considerably closer.

Photo by Guy Robinson

Photo by Guy Robinson

The whales twirl, repeatedly heaving their long white flippers out of the choppy waters. Once in the air they hold them straight up, pausing to point to Far Rockaway, clearly in view off the starboard side. As the humpbacks flirt with our 95-foot boat we wait for the next flipper to slap onto the water with a huge, loud splash. As it does a group cheer of admiration rolls off the boat and over the water. Artie clicks furiously and we rush from port to starboard following their spouts and shimmering footprints as they surface and re submerge in a synchronous duet.

Everything about the whales visiting Gotham is exciting and mysterious. Though they are thought to be solitary animals, Artie recognizes our two companions; “Those two have been hanging out together here for more than two weeks.” A decade ago only a couple of whales would be spotted, “Now we’re seeing 8, 9, 10 every year.” Captain Tom tells us. “The numbers keep going up.”

Environmental activism and regulation have reversed the long history of maritime exploitation, and the once depleted fisheries in and around New York have rebound. The biological food chain now supports a diverse ecology including marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales

DSC_0280They’ve attracted fans and watchers, and the group of citizen scientists tracking their movements and surprising behaviors calls itself Gotham Whale.

University based scientists are also on the trail of Gotham’s humpbacks. Kristi is working with PhD candidate Eric Angel Ramos out of Diana Reiss‘ lab where she studies animal behavior, cognition and communication.

The unusual mixing of maritime adventure, animal encounter and marine mammal DSC_0273research is somewhat disarming when Captain Tom cuts the engine and we sit several miles off shore in 80 feet of water, rocking in the long, rolling swells finally reaching us from a southern storm. Engine sounds would overpower the ethereal, underwater utterances of the whales. After the excitement of the humpbacks, this extended quiet is eerily calm. Kristi and Mourrice plunge the hydrophone as deep as they dare beneath the water’s choppy surface. We wait and hope their ingenious rigging will let us all in on the private conversations of our curious companions.

We’re late getting back. The whales follow us for a time but as the boat heads toward shallow waters, Captain Tom instructs over the PA, “Say goodbye to the DSC_0266whales.” On cue, waving, an entire boat full of people do exactly that.

Our weekend was to be the last excursion for the season, but because the whales are still visiting you’ve got another chance to see them this season. The American Princess will go out again Saturday and Sunday, November 1st and 2nd, 2014. Be at Riis Landing to board at least ½ hour early, by 11:30, and shove off at noon.

 

 

Taking on the Invasive Lionfish in the Waters off Grand Cayman

Photo by Elliott Jessup

Photo by Elliott Jessup

 

It’s not surprising to meet an unusual cast of characters at a diving lodge, especially an ecofriendly one, but as we chat that evening, occasionally looking up from computer screens, the three divers tell me they are spearing lionfish and emptying out the contents IMG_3805of their stomachs. The culling part makes sense, many divers are gleefully bringing up lionfish on the end of their spears, selling them to local restaurants, or filleting them on their own. They are beautiful but invasive fish, with no natural predators, feasting on indigenous reef fish and doing an untold amount of damage in the Caribbean. But tearing out their guts to take a look? I hadn’t heard that one before. When I ask why they tell me, “We need to know what they’re eating.” So, they’re curious about their food—and I wonder why.

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Photo by Elliott Jessup

I discover that the team is from the California Academy of Sciences, and their research will reveal if the culling efforts by divers to clear the invaders from the reef is working. The team wants to know if the lions are feeding in shallow waters, or deeper down the reef walls. If the fish can easily change depth, they can avoid the culling efforts done in shallow waters. They want to know if the larger fish they see in deeper waters move up to shallow areas, or stay at lower depths and breed there.

Elliott Jessup the Diving Safety member of the team is the one who documents their IMG_3877underwater adventures, and has the wonderful title of “explorer.” His experience with deep water diving began when he trained in Egypt’s Red Sea. Now managing the highly specialized diving equipment—the closed circuit re-breathing units—he explains how they can plunge much lower than average recreational divers. They are collecting lionfish at depths ranging from 200 to 400 feet.

I ask the ichthyologist on the team Luiz Rocha, why he wants to know what the lions are eating. “We need to know the species of fish,” he tells me. The prey fish the invaders are going after will need some protection. Know what fish they are eating will also give them information about where they are feeding.

These science divers are also taking DNA samples of the fish back to the lab in California. Lionfish most likely arrived in the Caribbean after being released by private aquarium owners. DNA testing will show where the fish actually come from.

I’ve seen lionfish on the menus of Cayman’s finest eaters, and some chefs are joining in

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

Cobalt Coast Diver Lodge, Green Globe Certified

the culling efforts, providing a market for what is said to be a fine light, white fish. But I’ve never tried it.

“We’re giving the fish to the lodge and they’re going to serve it tonight,” Elliott tells me. Indeed, lionfish turns out to be the catch of the day at dinner at the Cobalt Coast. I’ve never tried it before, but I’m willing to take a chance.

I order lionfish ceviche and it is spectacular; the perfect balance of texture and flavor.IMG_3866

In case you find some fresh lionfish on your travels, here is a cookbook created especially to turn lionfish into a culinary delicacy. Creating a demand for it may encourage more large-scale extraction of the fish, the strategy most likely to be effective at removing the unwelcome invader from the waters of the Caribbean. So eat up!

 

Turtle Whispering at the Cayman Island Turtle Farm

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I didn’t know turtles could be so much fun before we visited the Cayman Island Turtle Farm. They are large, enchanting creatures that live up to 150 years and can grow up to 600 pounds. They put all that weight on with a diet of sea grasses. At the Turtle Farm they eat three times a day; they crowd together and spout water through their noses when they do.  You’re allowed to handle yearlings at the Touch Tanks. That was the real treat.

 

Benny, our guide, showed us how to hold a young turtle by the shell with both hands and DSC_0987rub under its neck with your fingers at the same time. My once wriggling little ball of flapping fins was transformed into a docile, contented little tyke. I felt like a turtle whisperer.

 

It’s also fascinating to see them in the many “ponds,” where young turtles in different stages of development hang out together.

 

When sighting Little Cayman and Cayman Brac in 1503, Columbus was struck by the DSC_0980abundance of green sea turtles in the surrounding waters, and so the Cayman Islands were first called Las Tortugas (The Turtles). In 2004 the green sea turtle was listed as an endangered species, and the turtle farm is a major conservation effort and the only one of its kind in the Caribbean.

 

We also met Sparky, the grande dame of the farm; a 65-year old female who laid 25,684 eggs during her long reproductive years, and now hangs out in a tank with the little ones in her retirement. (I wonder what she’s telling them?!)

 

Over 31,000 turtle have been successfully released into the wild from here. The educational center explains the history and development of the farm’s hatchery and release programs. Another mascot is the famous Sir Thomas Turtleton, who was released (with a tracking devise) after 30 years at the farm and made it all the way down to Honduras.

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Over the years this unique park has added meandering garden trails and multiple exhibits about Cayman heritage, wildlife and island ecosystems. You can swim in Breaker’s Lagoon and hide under its cascading falls; snorkel in the salt-water Boatswain’s Lagoon, which meanders though the property and contains a rich sampling of coastal sea life. Get a thrill in front of the viewing panels that reveal Predator Reef where you’ll see barracudas, tarpons, and grey sharks that glide ominously on the prowl.

 

DSC_0050_2In the aviary there are birds from all over the Caribbean.  The Cayman Islands’ National Bird is the Green Parrot and they like to squawk. The small busy colorful Honey Creepers might fly over your head, and the striking Scarlet Ibis; the National Bird of Trinidad certainly made its presence known.

Cayman cultural and social life is also part of this “farm.” In fact, the wooden rafters of the high ceiling in the reception building are reminiscent of the ribs of an upside-down catboat, a traditional boat used by local fisherman. Cayman Street, a street with replicas of Caymanian wooden houses, complete with the “caboose,” an outdoor kitchen.

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Some people call this place a marine park, others a living museum, and still others a zoo. DSC_0054_2Caymaninas call it the Turtle Farm, and you can see why they love their turtles and are devoted to their conservation and their island ecosystem.

 

 

The Art of Recycling: Glass Blowing at Maho Bay Eco-Village, St. John, USVI

The tent village at Maho Bay is one of the best examples of green travel in the Caribbean. The wood-framed canvas tents surrounded by forest are breezy and light, and have no DSCN5478running water. Most refreshing is the lack of bottled water. We filled our big container with drinking water from a communal spigot everyday, and walked to the bathrooms and showers around the grounds. Recycling is always a problem, especially on an island and it was a relief not worry about where the constant stream of plastic water bottles (so prevalent at tourist destinations) would end up. But I hadn’t expected that glass recycling would be so much a part of what makes Maho Bay a prime example of sustainable travel. It was a main attraction most evenings, and certainly part of the entertainment.

As you know or can imagine, glass blowing is an art that requires many talents – from DSCN5378creativity to courage. Working with dangerous amounts of heat, fire and molten sand takes a certain kind of temperament. Blowing into a long metal tube at the exact moment when the glowing, undefined blob at the other end is the most pliable requires equals measures of faith and experience.  As we sat in the reflected glow of the furnace watching the glass blowers, I learned that knowing how to dance is also part of the skill set.

The movements of the three glassblowers were confined to a small radius from the stove’s door with its sporadic roar of flames when opened, to the low table holding the shaping tools across the concrete floor. DSCN5390A slight amount of wiggle room was available on either side. A sink and cooling oven formed the boundary on the back wall, and we, the spectators sat in front and watched. A molten chunk hung to the end of an impossibly long rod each time it was pulled out of the furnace. Getting it to the other side involved a choreography of stepping back, balancing and reeling around so that the chunk ended up 180 degrees from where it started. The process demanded a smooth, fluid movement, one able to convince the unformed glass to stay attached to the other end of the pole. Of course the young, agile women could not open and close the oven door, and so she must also avoid hitting her teammate, the door opener, with the dangerous, unwieldy thing. For his part, the door opener would twist slightly and step back following her lead, the long wand serving as a conductor’s baton. They waltzed around the floor that way for the better part of an evening. 

The third member of the team was actually a visiting artist sharing his expertise as a temporary Maho Bay resident. Most of the time he sat in an iron arm chair and rolled the DSCN5385pole along the arms, coaxing a design out of the chunk and instructing the young woman when to give it more air. A blowtorch also helped coax the molten sand into a desirable shape. For its part the piece of recycled art rose and fell, was fashioned and refashioned, expanded and contracted and transformed many times before it achieved its final form as a flower surrounded in its own vase. Video: Click here for a quick peek at the action.

By the way, the furnace is heated using recycled cooking oil.

Visiting the Eco-tents at Maho Bay


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After hearing for so long about Maho Bay, I’m finally visiting the eco-tent camp during what seems to be its last couple of months. Opened in 1976 by Stanley Selengut, it has served since the first nails were hammered into the wooden boardwalks, tents and gathering areas, as an eco-lodge innovation that it is now a classic icon of sustainable travel. We didn’t venture far from camp our first day, instead we decided to get acquainted with the place. The northeastern storm had followed us down from New York, and Jason at activities, advised us that the swell it brought with it would affect conditions at Little Maho Bay more than Big Maho. Continue reading