By-the-wind sailors on the Oregon coast

By Midge Raymond,

When I talked about travel writing at library events in the lovely coastal towns of Pacific City and Manzanita last weekend, I mentioned that one doesn’t have to travel far to write about place — that, in fact, sometimes the most fascinating people, places, animals, and history are right where we are, or closer than we think.

I discovered just how true this is when I encountered a new creature I’d never seen before — the Velella velella, which are also known as by-the-wind sailors. When I first saw a mass of white on the beach, it looked to me like feathers, or maybe plastic.

When I got closer I saw that some of these creatures were also indigo blue in color, and that they were in fact little marine animals. They are about three inches long and look similar to jellyfish but are actually hydrozoan. They get their whimsical name by the little “sail” that sticks up and makes use of the wind to propel them across the water.

By-the-wind sailors live in temperate waters, and so they are common on the coasts of California and Oregon, often washing up on beaches by the masses. They wash ashore bright blue and will eventually perish, dry out, and become white, transparent, and thin as tissue paper.

They feel a bit rubbery when still holding the sea’s moisture, but when they’re dry they’re frail and papery. (I touched them only after learning their venom is not dangerous to humans, but I did avoid touching any who were still living.)

Next time you’re strolling a beach in spring, be sure to cast your eyes downward on occasion and look for these beauties. Sadly, you’ll be viewing them in their final days or hours (and evidently massive numbers of them create quite an odor, which wasn’t the case in Manzanita), but they’re breathtaking to see.



Happy World Penguin Day!

By Midge Raymond,

So far 2018 has been a good year for penguins — a “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered in the Danger Islands, thanks to a drone that was able to find them. This is fantastic news for Adélies, whose populations have been in serious decline on the western Antarctic peninsula, but it doesn’t mean we can breathe easily and assume they’ll be okay. Adélies need ice to survive, and they eat mostly krill — two things that are in danger of disappearing due to climate change and overfishing.

Yet the Adélie penguins, whose total population is about 4 million pairs, are certainly doing well compared to other species. The yellow-eyed penguin population is estimated to be only 2,000 pairs, and numbers for the Fiordland-crested penguins are only 1,500 pairs. Both of these species live in New Zealand.

According to one study, the king penguins — who are widespread, from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic — are being forced to travel farther for food, which means that their chicks will be left on shore to starve (penguin chicks have thick, downy fluff until they fledge, preventing them from foraging for themselves until their waterproof feathers come in).

What can we all do to help penguins?

  • Give up eating seafood, or at least try cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.

 



Meet the Rockhopper Penguin

By Midge Raymond,

After meeting the Fiordland-crested penguin last year in New Zealand, I couldn’t wait to meet more of these crested birds, who are so different from the “classic-looking” Antarctic penguins I first fell in love with and who populate the pages of My Last Continent.

The southern rockhoppers can be found in many places, among them the Falkland Islands, which is where I met them a few weeks ago. And I feel very fortunate to have been able to see them, as their populations have declined more than 30 percent over the past four decades, particularly in the Falklands.

You can see in the photo below how they get their name — these rockhoppers share a colony with the black-browed albatross (whose fluffy chicks you can see in the foreground), and as you can see this colony is very (very) high up from the water where penguins spend most of their time.

Yet the rockhoppers have little trouble navigating this terrain — as you’ll see in the video below, they are actually pretty good at climbing.

Rockhopper penguins nest amid the tussock grass, and their albatross friends offer a lot of help when it comes to shooing away the predatory skuas. Unfortunately, these gorgeous creatures are categorized with the IUCN as “threatened,” with the major threats being global warming and the fishing industry. If you’re a fan of penguins, do what you can to combat climate change, and skip the fish at mealtimes … the more of us who help, the better the chance they’ll have to survive.



The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.

 



“Data as Art” from the British Antarctic Survey

By Midge Raymond,

I was delighted to discover this project from the British Antarctic Survey.

Data as Art shows sea ice, krill (seen below), the ozone hole, and other scientific data as works of art.

In keeping with the British Antarctic Survey‘s mission to “engage a wide range of people in science through a variety of methods,” these works of art — which use real Antarctic data sets that explain important scientific research — are wonderful to look at. Even more important are the stories they tell about this continent and how important it is to fight climate change and increase conservation.



Should we stay home to save the oceans?

By Midge Raymond,

“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” Elizabeth Bishop asks in her poem “Questions of Travel”—the same question I asked myself upon learning, when I was in the Galapagos Islands last year, that more than 200,000 tourists visit this small archipelago every year. These islands, virtually undiscovered until the sixteenth century, are now bursting at the seams.

For all who venture to the Galapagos, it’s the trip of a lifetime—yet it’s also resource-intensive: I had taken 10 flights in 8 days to reach a place that is among our world’s most affected by climate change. And right now another travel season is wrapping up  in Antarctica, another remote and increasingly popular travel destination. Antarctica, which 20 years ago saw fewer than 10,000 tourists, will likely have counted upwards of 40,000 this season, more than 90 percent of whom travel on ships.

According to the World Tourism Organization, international travel increased in 2015 for the sixth year in a row, to a record 1.2 billion tourists, with 1.8 billion forecast for 2030. Only a week after a long-awaited marine protected area was established in Antarctica, the United States elected a president who has called climate change a hoax and seems intent on dismantling the EPA. Can the planet’s most vulnerable places handle much more? Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves whether should do our part for the planet and leave a few of our bucket-list destinations in the bucket.

Instead of traveling to Antarctica—which can be as extreme financially as it is environmentally—perhaps we can get glimpses in other ways. Web-based citizen science programs like Zooniverse offer virtual experiences—a chance to count penguins and identify individual humpback whales in Antarctica, in addition to myriad other adventures. From our computers, we can “travel” the world, see incredible sights and creatures, and contribute to ongoing research efforts.

And even if we do travel to these fragile environments, we can help the oceans by playing a role in conservation and research. The website iGalapagos.org depends on travelers’ photos of the elusive and endangered Galapagos penguins to further their research toward protecting this species. And those of us who love the oceans can reconsider the role of seafood in our diets, as nearly 90 percent of the oceans’ stocks are extinct or depleted.

Not all travel is inherently bad, of course, and if you’re like me and you can far more easily give up seafood than a trip, how we travel can make a big difference in minimizing the impact of our presence—by choosing green hotels, using public transportation, buying local. Even the little things, like packing a reusable water bottle and shopping bag to minimize plastic, help a lot. Those traveling on ships can check out Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Report Card before booking a trip (in its latest report, in 2014, no major cruise line earned a grade higher than a C; most grades were Ds and Fs).

Sometimes it takes visiting a place to fall in love with it and become inspired to help save it—and this may well justify our carbon footprints in the end. Which brings me back to the question: Should we stay home? There is no easy answer. But those of us who have the luxury of asking the question might consider that, for the sake of the planet, the oceans, and for future generations, the road less traveled—or not traveled at all—does make all the difference.



Antarctica is hot (and not in a good way)

By Midge Raymond,

From being a popular tourist destination (IAATO estimates the numbers of visitors expected in the upcoming 2015-2016 will be an astonishing 40,029) to the actual warming temperatures in the sea and air, Antarctica is hotter than ever. And this doesn’t bode well for the future of the continent or the planet.

While on one hand, the increasing tourism could be a very positive thing — but only if visitors return from Antarctica with a new vision of climate change and a commitment to do their part. On the other hand, the more feet on the ground in Antarctica, the more strain on the wildlife and native landscape. (Click here to check out John Oliver’s hilarious anti-tourism PSA).

And regarding the melting of the ice sheet, this article in OnEarth Magazine puts it very well:

If you want to cook something quickly, you heat it from both sides. This is the genius of the toaster. That’s what’s happening to the West Antarctic ice sheet—with alarming consequences…Think of it as the world’s largest panini press.

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In addition to news about the geothermal energy melting the ice from the water below, as well as from the warming temperatures above, is the appearance of king crabs in Antarctica — a species that until 2003 had previously been unable to survive in Antarctica’s icy waters. Now, as this article in The Conversation notes, “[t]hey are seemingly marching up the continental slope and towards the continental shelf, with nothing to stop them…In the Antarctic, the native inhabitants are particularly at risk. These animals have evolved without any major predators for millions of years.”

And this week, former NASA scientist James Hansen has announced a study that outlines a scenario of rapid sea level rise as well as intense storms. As the Washington Post reports:

“If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters,” the new paper says.

It’s all frightening news, and it’s only getting more urgent. So what can we do?