Richard C. Murphy, PhD

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Murph’s Story

Beginnings (B) and Adventures (A)

Good Start (B)
Real Adventure Begins (A)
My Passion (B)
Transformations in Paradise (A)
Difficult Times (B)
Source of the Amazon (A)
First Travel (B)
Amazon River Dolphin (A)
Spider Webs, Space Stations, and Crystal Chandeliers (A)
Full Circle – Holotropic Breathing (B)
Day in the Life of a Fiji Bushman (A)
Surprises in Fjords and Forests (A)
A Bad Day (A)
Civilization – A Good Idea? (A)
Caves, Birds, and Snakes (A)
Working With The Cousteaus Plus One (A)
Amazon – Low Drama Ending (A)
Land of Fire (A)
Random Stuff (A)
Dynamic Clam Society (Not Adventures or Beginnings)
Biodiversity – A Tale of Two Cities (A)

Good Start (Beginnings)

My shell collection at the Belmont Shore Library.

A mussel shell descends through water, shimmering with iridescence as it wobbles toward the bottom 7 feet below.  Two eyes follow its path.  Then, with the exuberance of a puppy, a small boy dives in to retrieve the shell.  No mask, no fins, just exuberance.  After a couple of tries success.  He emerges with his trophy.  His father nods approval.  This was the perfect place to become acquainted with the ocean – the outflow of warm water from a power plant in Seal Beach, California.

It was 1948, I was 6 years old, and  my dad had driven us here so he could body surf and so I could learn to love rather than fear the ocean.  Those days were happy. My mother had quit her job as a bank teller to be a housewife and take care of me.  My father “settled down” as a truck driver after traveling the world working as a seaman on ships and eventually becoming a “hard hat” diver blowing up coral reefs to make passages for ships to enter harbors in the South Pacific before WWII.  His adventures provided endless stories that captivated the imagination of my friends and me.

Today I would certainly be labeled as hyperactive.   Fortunately, in the late 1940s, I was just a little kid full of energy doing what kids did.  In the late afternoon when my father’s car pulled up I knew that it was time for us to go to the beach.  I rushed out to greet him and then to release pent up excitement and energy I would run around the house two or three full cycles just to calm down. Panting and much calmer I collected towels and sandals for the beach.

Back in the car I had a responsibility.  I was in charge of “chasers.”   While my dad reminisced about faraway places and a more simple life, I was to have a bottle of Squirt open and ready to “chase” his snort of 4 Roses whiskey.  His bottle was kept in the “whisky locker” which I never knew was also called a glove compartment until some years later.  Once, when we had company, I was asked to get a flashlight from the car and after returning I announced, to my mother’s horror, that I had found it in the whisky locker. She had to explain to the others that I meant the glove compartment.  

As my father drank and I chased, I was captivated by stories of sharks, coral reefs, life aboard ship, jungles, native peoples, exotic cities, and strange foods.  He swam the Golden Gate channel and body surfed Ocean Beach, long before wet suits were invented. He worked and dived on islands in the Pacific (Midway, Wake, Guam), traveled with botanists in the Panamanian jungle, and in Shanghai was attacked by a rickshaw driver who tried to rob him.  We both escaped our daily lives and shared in the exploration of the planet.  Reality to him and fantasy to me.  His was of the past and mine was a dream of the future. I was filled with a thirst for adventure, fearless of the unknown, and oblivious to discomfort as I wanted to taste the world in its fullest.  I wanted to be just like my dad – at least in the beginning.  His stories were often punctuated with messages: “Never turn your back on the sea; Remember when you travel you are in someone else’s back yard.  It not your country, you are a visitor, and you had better respect the rules of the culture. Pay attention, listen, and keep your mouth shut.  That’s the way to get along in someone else’s country!”

Back home dinner was waiting.  After dinner my mom, dad, and I would walk to the local fishing pier and look at the harbor and whatever fish had been caught.  More stories of far off adventures.  After the walk I would play with toys or read a book while my parents would sit and listen to classical music. My favorite was the William Tell Overture.  Our house was filled with love – my parents were affectionate, I was adored, everything was perfect. 

My mother with me and my dad.

My dad loved sea food and we went fishing on weekends.  As he fished I would snorkel in tidepools, harassing crabs, sticking my finger in sea anemones, and collecting shells.  When he was cleaning the fish I always wanted to see what they had eaten so opening the stomach was a high point for me.  I also liked the lens of the fish’s eyes, a perfectly spherical, transparent jewel.  I would hold it and see how it focused light – very  cool.  The best was going for abalone.  In those days, one could get a limit of green abalones at low tide without even diving.  My dad taught me how to slice, pound, and fry these delicacies.  The perpetual teacher, he said if you catch it you clean it.  So I soon became good at slicing abalone or filleting fish.  Through some of his frineds I eventually got a job as a deck hand on a sportfishing boat.  The job was nothing special but the big wow was looking over the bow at night when we were in transit to the Channel Islands.  It was one of the most mind blowing experiences of my life in those days.  Greenish blue streaks of light from mystery animals scattered away from the boat.  Some were thin, some large, sometimes a round blobish thing would burst into light.  There was amazing diversity and never could I really see what was making the light.  I knew most of this light was caused by fish, scared by the boat, racing through the water and causing bioluminescent plankton to glow.  But the shapes and streaks and sheer beauty of this underwater fireworks blew my mind.  Instead of sleeping I would watch this spectacle and then end up totally exhausted by the next afternoon when we got back to port.  Based on that I would go to the beach when we had a red tide, fill a couple of bottles of water, put them in my closet, and wait till dark.  I would then have friends over to watch the fireworks as I shook the bottle, causing the plankton to give off their light.

My mom was not as much of an outdoor person as my dad but she was super patient and encouraged me to follow whatever seemed interesting to me. Together we created a shell collection through the local library. We would go into the local bay and along the coast at low tide and collect shells.  Most were alive so we would boil them and then with a pin pull the animal out of the shell.  Our kitchen reeked of dead mollusks and it was not a pleasant smell at all.  The collection was a sort of competition and she helped me name and label each shell in my box.  We got books and looked up information about the animals.  I was also fascinated with fish and she got books that I could use to make my notebook of fish.  The colors, shapes, and diversity of fishes was astonishing.  I still have those notebooks full of my little kid drawings.  I was quite busy! The ocean was my life, my dad was my companion and teacher, and my mom was loving and nurturing.   To this day I have never felt as secure and happy as I did in those early days.

My dad and me with a leopard shark he caught.

Real Adventure Begins (Adventures)

I am in a tiny metal chamber with a number of port holes looking out into the underwater world.  This chamber is attached to the bow of Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s ship.  The ship is proceeding across a shallow reef and I am beyond dazzled with the scenery passing only feet in front of my eyes.  Sting rays fly away from the ship, sea fans wave in the current, colorful reef fish descend into their coral homes.  This is a diver’s dream come true, to witness so much underwater scenery without any effort at all.  What an adventure!  I feel so lucky.

In 1968 I met a lady who was well placed in the ocean community and she agreed to help find me a job.  Eventually she said she thought she had a good fit but would not tell me what the job entailed.  It was strange but I had nothing to lose by going for an interview.  The interview was in Hollywood of all places and I thought this was really weird.  To my astonishment I was interviewed by Jacques Cousteau, the ocean explorer and filmmaker.  I had absolutely zero interest in making films for the public, but I loved to travel, dive, and explore and I needed a break from academics as I had just finished my masters degree on tuna brains.  So, after another interview I was offered the job and took it.  For some this might have been a dream come true but for me it was something that might be fun for a while before I went back to get a PhD.

As I worked with Captain Cousteau I realized there was a formidable intellect behind what the public saw.  Yes, the public films were a bit light but the questions being asked and the other projects the Cousteau teams were involved in were quite impressive.  Initially I was to work with the exhibit designers who were creating a public attraction on the Queen Mary in Long Beach.  Captain Cousteau had already outlined the exhibit subjects and, after lengthy discussions with Cousteau, I was to add the meat to that skeleton to help the designers understand what we were trying to communicate.  Jean-Michel Cousteau, Captain Cousteau’s eldest son and an architect by training, was leading the project and we soon became great friends. In addition, from time to time I was asked to visit the editing room where the films were being constructed.  The film editors never went on expedition and the expedition team seldom visited the editors.  So, having a marine biologist explain to the editors what they were looking at was helpful to them and really interesting to me.

With time my role expanded and I began to travel with the Cousteau teams. My first expedition, in 1973, was to the Blue Hole in what is now called Belize.  This was an amazing place – a perfectly circular hole in the reef platform.  In ages past when the sea level was much lower, maybe 400 ‘ lower, the ancient reef was exposed to the air.  Rainwater, that had absorbed carbon dioxide and become acidic, percolated down into that ancient platform and dissolved away some of the calcium carbonate.  This is the same process that has formed limestone caverns all over the world, including Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the cenotes of Yucatan, and the magical landscapes of eastern China and Vietnam.  Eventually the ceiling of the eroded space collapsed, leaving the symmetrical hole that is now filled with water and looks blue – the Blue Hole!

When I arrived, Calypso was inside the Blue Hole.  Diving in this, seeming bottomless hole, was quite an adventure for me.  From the surface to maybe 50’ down, the bottom was on an incline of approximately 45 degrees, then from 50 to 100 ‘ it was a vertical wall, and below that there were chambers with stalactites and columns.  It was beautiful to look up and see the stalactites silhouetted against the blue of the water beyond and above.  It was there where I saw my first hammerhead shark.  

Calypso in the Blue Hole.

As the expedition ended Calypso made its way over the shallow reef platform on its way to the open sea.  When Captain Cousteau acquired Calypso he created an observation chamber at the bow.  One could climb down a small tube, connecting the deck with the chamber, and then look out into the water through a number of small portholes. When the ship was underway I climbed down into this tiny chamber and had the time of my life.  It was somewhat like my experience on the sport fishing boat watching the bioluminescence years before.  The water was clear and shallow. Here I was zipping across the reef flat witnessing all the wonders of a coral reef inside my little habitat.  Green and brown corals of many shapes, meadows of sea grasses, and a bewildering variety of of fish passed only feet in front of me.  It was a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. For a brief moment I wondered what would happen to me if we hit a large coral head since I was at the absolute front of the ship.  But the rush of witnessing such spectacular scenery made me think, “Who cares this is an experience of a lifetime so enjoy it while it lasts.”  Eventually we got into open water and there the big wow was a couple of dolphins that surfed our bow wave, again inches from my face.  I waved and they smiled back or so I thought.

Back in Long Beach, working on the Queen Mary project, I was tasked with finding experts in the field of each exhibit and getting them to write text for what we called our Science Wall. This was to be a back lit panel of scientific information about whatever subject was the focus of that exhibit.  They included subjects like, light and vision in the sea, locomotion of various animals, sound and hearing, reproduction, diving physiology, coastal dynamics, aquaculture, and pollution.  This was like taking a no pressure graduate level course with some of the most knowledgeable people in the field of marine science.  I learned so much and it was fun.  The public attraction, called the Living Sea Museum, opened and an executive from World Publishing visited and saw our science walls.  He thought this level of information would be perfect for a series of books.  An agreement was made and I found myself again working very closely with Captain Cousteau on the content of a series of 20 books we called The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau.  As production got underway I was designated as the science consultant and I flew to New York often for planning sessions with Cousteau. I would take a red eye from Los Angeles to New York and during the flight create outlines for what I thought the books should contain.  Then Cousteau and I would discuss these, revise according to his thoughts, and submit the outlines to the publishes. The schedule was hectic as we had to produce one 120 page book, that was richly illustrated with photos, each month.  In the early 1970s there were very few underwater photographers so finding the images was a real challenge.  By the time we finished volume 10, the lady who was the managing editor succumbed to the pressure and quit. I was given the position and moved east.  A Southern California diver and surfer was transformed into a suit and tie wearing, World Publishing editor, who had to work closely with, and partly oversee, a team of writers, graphic artists, and copy editors.  Gawd what a transition and what an education.  Just as hitchhiking through Central America gave me an appreciation of life out of cities; living in Midtown Manhattan give an appreciation of what one of the most sophisticated cities in the world had to offer.  I loved the restaurants, museums, theater, and intensity and with the knowledge that I would eventually be returning to life on the beach in Southern California.  I could never survive any extended length of time in a real city like NYC! As a balance to the intensity of work and city life, after work at least 3 days/week I would escape to Central Park and ice skate from 9:30 – 11PM.

The project ended and I happily returned to California.  Back home I could enjoy family life with my wife, Judy (a nurse in the Long Beach Memorial Children’s Hospital who ended up as the Director of Nursing Administration for the hospital), and two kids Greg who was then 5 and Jeanne who was 3.  We lived on the beach and upon arrival home after work I would romp in the water with the kids.  Partly for exercise and partly just for fun, I would throw them as high into the air as I could and then stand back and let them fall into the breaking waves.  They did not know any better and this treatment certainly contributed to their being total water babies.  In the winter, when it got dark early and the weather was cold, we three would sit in a large bean bag in front of our large window looking out onto the beach and ocean, while I had my cocktail hour.  I did not want them to grow up with the limited / myopic world view of many typical American kids and I had a plan. I had a book of the artwork of M. C. Escher, I had poems of Edgar Allen Poe, and I had classical music, particularly the William Tell Overture.  We would sit and discuss the art, think about the poetry, and with the music imagine a storm passing then horses running on the beach.  It was great therapy for me after a long day and commute, as the Cousteau offices were I west Hollywood a full hour drive from home.  I have to believe it did open the minds of my kids to a broader reality than life in Southern California in the 70s.  Those days of life on the beach evolved into weekend adventures where we would load up a trailer with my motorcycle and camping stuff and take off for the desert, nearby mountains, or Mexico. 

Jeanne and Greg – my kids!

Among my most memorable times were in Mexico, south of Ensenada, where we would camp on the beach, ride the motorcycle, surf, and dive for our dinner. I would tell the kids that we had enough food for lunches and breakfast but that we needed to get in the ocean and catch our dinner.  By then Greg was old enough to get some seafood.  Jeanne would hold our catch in a bag. I would get the main part of the dinner, which might include abalone, lobsters, scallops, and fish.  Back at camp, Greg would either surf or ride the motorcycle and Jeanne would help me prepare the catch.  She was interested in biology and we would, together, dissect our catch, to see what the fish were eating and examine the lens of the fish eyes, or look at the radula scraping organ of abalone, or look at all the lobster appendages.  I ended up calling her my “gut girl’ and it was this label she used, years later, in her application essay for med school. 

My kids also joined me on our summer Cousteau educational programs, Project Ocean Search.  I wanted them to understand where daddy went when he disappeared on a trip and what kind of work I was really involved in.  Expeditions were out of the question but these programs, designed for the public from age 18 up, were totally appropriate as the kids were well seasoned to living in nature.  Most of the programs they participated in were in the British Virgin Islands.  In those days I was getting serious about underwater photography and of course wanted subjects.  Pam Stacey, discussed in detain elsewhere, was with us and she and Greg were most often dive buddies. Neither were particularly interested in being my photo subject but Jeanne was happy to be my model.  In fact, a photo of her holding a large lobster molt was on the cover of the Dolphin Log, the Cousteau Society magazine for young people.  As Jeanne and I did our photo thing Pam and Greg explored, swam through caves, blew bubbles, and did underwater gymnastics including somersaults.  We enjoyed the company of people from all over the US  and even other countries.  We all shared a passion for the environment, and we all learned from nature and each other. In addition to the nature and education side, the kids were exposed to the local people and got a taste of another culture with its different way of looking at life. 

Jeanne with lobster molt on Caribbean reef.

Greg eventually became my #1 surf buddy and with him I got some of the best waves of my life in Puerto Viejo Costa Rica, San Blas Mexico, Frigates Pass Fiji, and here in Santa Cruz.  By the time he was in his late teens he was better than I had ever been.  In addition to being a super athlete he has an amazing way with people.  Because of his successes in other community education programs, he was invited to create an “alternate” school program for kids at risk.  This program was a total success and changed the course of many lives.  I feel lucky to know and have as a friend my son Greg

Greg and me hitting the waves in Santa Cruz.

As a kid Jeanne has been a star in many dimensions – theater/drama, music, grades, track, and skiing.  She and I traveled in France, Mexico, Fiji, and the Caribbean.  We are “wired similarly” and when in college she would describe a challenging situation, I would ask her to stop and then say what I would have done in that situation and she would say that was exactly what she did.  We still laugh about our “wiring.”  she is now my ski buddy as Greg was my surf buddy.  She, and family, live in Tahoe and with season passes we get in a good number of ski days each winter.  As an MD she wanted to work with the whole person, not just parts, so her specialty is family medicine.  This is great for me as my body is falling apart as I age and having inside advice is incredibly valuable. I recently had a very weird series of symptoms involving my heart.  Diagnosis by heart specialists was difficult.  As the suite of alternatives was being discussed she said, “I think it might be pericarditis.”  It was not until a week later when the final test was done that the “experts” said I had pericarditis! 

Those early days with the kids were among the most enjoyable and rewarding days of my life.  I continue to enjoy them and their families as my best friends.  And as my father-in-law used to say, “They grew up just fine in spite of all of my efforts.”

The whole family, including spouses and grand kids.

My Passion (Beginnings)

I am at the end of a 150’ ski line behind a boat that is going 30 mph.  Next to me on both sides are 7 other boats all capable of going 75 – 80 mph.  The flag goes down and all 8 boats are at top speed within seconds.  I hear the sound of  dragster engines,  my face is stinging from the boat’s spray, and I know I’m going 70 mph plus by the flapping of my cheeks.  All this along with the acceleration was beyond any experience of my life, then or even now.  This was my life! It was beyond exhilarating and I was addicted. 

In junior high, water skiing and skin diving were my passions.  My 12 ‘ boat was perfect as it could take me the breakwater of Long Beach where I could always spear enough fish for dinner.  Or it could take me to the marine stadium and connecting channels to water ski. 

My first boat and first girlfriend!

I had a few buddies who also skied and they had boats faster than mine.  I discovered that I loved speed, the faster the better!  I was a good skier and eventually would walk along the shore of the marine stadium, where adults with really fast boats came, and I would “bum rides.”  I had a state-of-the-art ski and I got a school buddy who was an artist to create a wonderful creation on it – a hand sporting a spider web between the digits with claws instead of finger nails that dripped blood. I would walk along the shore and ask some guy with a hot boat how fast it would go.  He would brag about it going 60, 65, or 70 and I would say I’ll bet I can take it wide open or full throttle.  Sometimes, on a good day, the guy would say to his buddies, “Hey this kid thinks he can take all this boat has to give.  Let’s go out and dump his ass.”  This was great.  Sometimes the guy would look at me and give me a flat no. And one time a guy said, “You have the gall of a government mule.”  Obviously I did not get a ride from him.  Rejection did not bother me because the good times were really great.  After a really good ride these men thought I was a cool kid and sometimes we would plan to meet and ski again.  I did this for a few years and eventually got connected to people with fast boats who were into racing. This was a dream come true.  My first race was the Catalina race that went from the Long Beach harbor to Catalina and back.  It was open ocean, rough, and long – 52 miles if one went in a straight line, which was seldom the case.  I got 12th place out of 42 skiers, so for my first race and I felt pretty good.  For the next two years I lived and breathed skiing, improving with every race.

Back to being in a race.  The best part of the race was the first straight away.  The water was calm and it was really a boat race.  We skiers could easily handle speed on flat water.  The fastest boats took the lead. Then we came to the first turn.  This was scary as we, the skiers, had to stay on the inside part of the wake of the boat because there was likely another boat or even a skier very close on the outside of the turn.  If I failed to keep the turn tight I could go outside and be in front of the boat or skier to my right. If I were to fall, it could be the end.  I remember the time a boat on the inside of the turn was between my boat and me.  The ski line between my boat and me is a straight line even though I have to take an arc around the turn.  I realized my line might hit the exhaust “stacks” of the boat on the inside and if that happened it would melt my line and I would be detached from my boat. In addition to really paying attention to making this critical first turn I had to hold up my handles to make sure the line was not going to get melted by the other boat.  In another race I remember the line of another skier, whose boat was on the outside, rubbing across my side  I thought if I fall that skier is certain to run over me.  All of this is taking place while we were going above 50 mph.  After that first lap the water would get rough and then it was a race based on skiers abilities not the speed of the boat.  The ski, thanks to friction of the water, wants to slow down, pulling one’s lower body back.  The ski line, attached to the boat, wants to pull the upper body forward.  Thus, one is constantly fighting these opposing forces by having knees bent and body leaning back with most of the tension on the lower back.  The crew member in the boat is always watching the skier and how he is doing.  His job was to tell driver to speed up or slow down.  Thumbs up means faster, thumbs down means slower but the reality is when you are at your limit of not falling it is almost impossible to communicate such directions. So, for the observer, knowing the skier well, is really critical.  By the end of my 2nd year of racing I was improving and ready to be a serious competitor for placing in races.  At that point I had accumulated 16 trophys.  During those first two years I skied at a number of places: Salton Sea, Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, Clear Lake, and a 75 mile race in Lake Mead, among others.

The first race of my 3d year was in Mission Bay in San Diego.  My driver had done a lot of work on his boat so we were positioned to do well. As always I was super nervous just before the race…major butterflies to the point of almost barfing.  I was confident though and ready.  All the boats were off, the skiers up, and the flag went down.  After the first turn I was maybe in 2nd or 3d place and then the engine blew.  The boat was dead in the water and I was just floating there behind the boat, full of adrenalin, and sooo frustrated.  We eventually got towed to shore and the race ended.  I needed to ski. I had so much energy that just had to be released.  So back to the ski bum days. I walked the beach and found a drag boat, not really set up to pull skiers, but obviously fast.  I explained to the owner that I really needed to get out on the water and experience some speed.  He agreed to pull me between other races taking place that day.  Wonderful at least the day would not be a complete waste.

We went out into the bay, I dropped in the water, got up, and we were off.  At about 50 mph I gave him thumbs up and up and up.  I just wanted speed.  As the boat accelerated it was leaping out of the water.  The only problem for me was that each time it landed it created a divot or depression in the surface.  I just bent my knees more and took the shocks.  But as we went faster and faster I lost it.  The jerking of the line and the holes in the water started pulling me forward.  I was tough and not ready to give in.  I should have let go but I did not.  I fell, at what the people in the boat, said was 80 + mph.  What I experienced was just tumbling, like being in a washing machine.  Then nothing, absolutely nothing.  I thought well this is interesting. I see nothing, I feel nothing, I hear nothing. I must be dead.  Ok I guess that’s ok as I feel no discomfort.  Then vision came back and I thought wow I’m alive, this is good too.  Then I saw my arm in the water and freaked out. OMG my arm has been cut off. I reached over and pulled on it and realized it was attached.  I thought, great, everything was fine. By then the boat came to pick me up and the driver and his observer were gushing about how long I bounced over the water and they worried if I was ok.  I said I’m fine but a bit dazed.  We went back to shore and I thanked them and apologized for falling.  In an hour or so I began to feel really weird.  No words to describe the feeling but just not right.  I lay down and my left arm began to tingle.  By the end of the day I was disoriented and feeling really strange.  Pain was minimal but the weirdness was such that I did not feel comfortable driving.

Fortunately, I had friends there and got someone to drive me home in my car.  By the time I got home I was feeling that something was seriously wrong and I got my mom to take me to the hospital.  Emergency room doctors could not find anything wrong.  But the next morning when I awoke I could not speak a full sentence.  Words came out garbled.  My mom was at work and I got a friend of the family to take me back to the hospital to be admitted.  For the first 2 days I could not talk nor keep a meal down.  By day 3 I had lost all sensation in my arm and it was totally paralyzed.  After a number of tests, it was determined that I had damaged the nerves coming out of my neck and going down my arm.  After a week or so I could see that my arm was starting to wither, to atrophy!  Here I was a teenager at the peak of fitness, full of testosterone, and all that goes with it, particularly an appreciation for the opposite sex, with a gimp arm.  A floppy, withered limb was not a real girl getter.  I was majoring in biology and knew enough to understand that paralysis and atrophy could be permanent.  This was starting to get serious and I was not happy at all.    

Three weeks after being admitted the neurologist said there was nothing more that could be done.  When I asked about a prognosis, he said, “Nerves are a lot like women, you never know what they are going to do.”  By that time, I had just begun to get mobility in a couple of fingers so I felt there was hope and my spirits lifted a bit.  I then asked the doctor about when he thought I could get back to skiing.  He responded with an emphatic NEVER!  He explained that the nerve canal in my spine was abnormally small and thus I was prone to spinal damage and paralysis.  He said this time I was lucky; I only paralyzed an arm.  He said next time it could be my legs or torso or entire body.  This was a bomb shell. I asked what about surfing, he said I could hit the bottom or have my board hit me. No deal.  What about snow skiing. He said I could take a hard fall or hit a tree. That was out.  My life was my sports.  All of my friends were pals through my sports.  My identity was water skier, surfer, and snow skier.  That was who I was.  I was devastated.  Who would I be, who would I have as friends, and what girl would ever want to hang out with a floppy armed guy like me?  I was definitely suicidal. I could only think, what good was living if I could not enjoy life.  This was definitely the worst day of my life.

I was to be released the next day.  The following morning as I was getting ready to go home, I discovered I could not move my fingers.  I could move them yesterday and the next day I could not.  In one way this was a catastrophe but in another way it showed me how much one’s psychology and attitude affect one’s physical situation.  I thought if my depression and self-pity could make me regress in my healing then a positive attitude could facilitate my healing. This helped a bit but self-pity and suicidal thoughts were still dominating my consciousness.

At home I began my therapy. I wrapped a towel around my dead wrist, draped the towel over the shower curtain and held on with my good hand. I then pulled the towel down, which pulled the bad arm up.  I was young and healthy and began to see progress within a few weeks.  Obviously I had to rethink who I was and who I was going to be as my life, totally consumed with sports, was over.

Eventually, I did get back into skiing but only slalom skiing as it is much slower and thus less dangerous. When I get the chance I still ski as the image below demonstrates.

Slalom skiing.

In many ways being denied speed skiing was the best thing that could have happened to me.  There was not much of a future in water skiing. Now that all of my favorite sports had been downgraded, I realized I had better take academics and a real career a lot more seriously. Marine biology was my first choice, which ended up being a good choice.

Transformations in Paradise (Adventures)

I’m in the hold of what some might call a tramp steamer.  It’s a small cargo ship and I’m lifting up cardboard boxes of food that will supply our group of students for the month.  The problem is that our boat got lost and we are 3 days late and the veggies and fruit have begun to rot in the humidity, causing the cardboard to disintegrate. So, as my co instructor, Henry Genthe, and I would lift a box up to the crew on deck it would often fall apart showering us with degrading tomatoes, leafy veggies, papayas, and more.  But the real excitement was from the residents of the hold who were happy consumers of our cargo.  Those residents were cockroaches, lots of them. So, as we lifted the boxes, even ones that did not fall apart, we had tens to hundreds of cockroaches running down our shoulders, arms, and torso.  Henry and I had traveled a lot but this was definitely a first and one of the worst experiences of our past adventures.  When each shore boat was loaded, Henry and I would dive off the ship, wash ourselves in the warm tropical sea, then climb aboard and get ready for the next load.  Quite a beginning to our experience in paradise – a tiny island called Wuvulu off the north coast of Papua New Guinea.

A few years earlier Jean-Michel Cousteau and I were on the second plane to land on this tiny island.  It was 1972 and we were greeted by men who looked fierce, with red teeth from chewing betel nut but once introduced their smiles were infectious and disarming.  The owner of the copra plantation had the vision of making this a tourist destination and wanted our ideas about how to proceed. 

People from the two villages worked on the plantation and lived a very simple life with gardens, chickens and pigs, and a healthy reef that provided shellfish and fish for protein.  They were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  This experience reminded me of the best experiences I had in Central America years before.  People with a simple life, living close to nature, and being very hospitable. 

Village hut, Papua New Guinea.

The resort never got built but Jean-Michel and I realized this could be one of the best places to bring students.  It was isolated from the clutter and clatter of civilization.  It had people who retained much of their traditional culture and who lived close to healthy natural ecosystems, which provided them with abundant resources.  They were not materialistic and they were happy.  It was a perfect alternative to city living, which most students saw as the only way to live.  I could not have found a greater contrast to my time in New York, it was a welcome contrast.

With involvement from Pepperdine University in California, we offered an opportunity for high school and college students to experience a totally different culture, healthy coral reefs, and a taste of life without the amenities most of us feel are necessary for survival.  It was a month-long experience and important aspect of this “total immersion” experience was to explore the concept of quality of life where we were deprived of almost everything from our daily lives back home.

Departure from the mainland to Wuvulu Island, PNG.

Few of us knew each other before we arrived on Wuvulu.  We were a diverse group with participants ranging from high school students to college students to teachers.  We the staff were equally diverse with Jean-Michel and myself as leaders along with Jean-Michel’s business partner, Francois Brenot, who organized all logistics for the program.  We also had a couple of medical doctors, another marine biologist – Henry Genthe, and a cook.  We divided into groups and each spent time with the medical team, the marine biologists, or the cook as we had to prepare meals for all 40+ of us. The biologists explored the fascinating karst/limestone geology and reefs around the island from the windward to leeward sides.  We discussed fish form and function, how corals depend on algae living inside them for food and health, the paradox of how highly productive reef ecosystems can exist in oceanic waters that have such low productivity that some consider them to be a biological desert, gelatinous zooplankton, the importance of herbivores and large predators to reef health, and the strange adaptations that enable fish and invertebrates to thrive on reefs.  The medical team worked in the villages, giving participants a real insight into the lives of the islanders.  Another team was dedicated to helping the cook. 

Cooking was initially a predictable operation but when the supply boat did not show up life for the cooking team’s duties got interesting.  They had to fish and forage for food as the village gardens were only designed to feed villagers.  The three groups rotated so everyone got a chance to explore and discover all aspects of life on this tiny island.  Eventually the cooking teams became very competitive with each working to create the best and most interesting meals of the trip.  We fished from an outboard boat.  The process was to search for a flock of sea birds (terns, boobies, frigate birds) that were diving on a school “bait fish” being harassed from below by tuna.  We would drive through the school, hand holding lines with lures, then when we had a hook-up, hand over hand pull in the line with a 2’ tuna.  Our other source of protein was small tridacna clams harvested from the reef flat. This turned out to be far more tasty than the food we would have gotten from the ship so it all turned out ok.  Being environmentally conscious we “recycled” our kitchen waste with our pig, who everyone loved to feed at the end of each meal. 

We took one day off each week and just relaxed but this soon evolved into what we called our “crab derby.” Preparation for each derby was a very involved affair of collecting hermit crabs, feeding them, conducting “training” sessions, and guarding them from competing teams who might sabotage our prime contestants.  We had referees to monitor all of the events and determining winners for such things as tug of war, cross country, high hurdles, etc.  Many hermit crabs were decorated and beauty was another category in the derby.  Although the TV show MASH did not yet exist, this entire event could have easily been one episode.  The cooking part of our adventure ended with the final night having a pig roast – our pet pig!  This ended up being a crisis as many in our group had fallen in love with our pig and eating it was unthinkable.  Others of us, mostly the staff, felt this was the most appropriate way to recycle our garbage – in the form of a succulent pork dinner.  The night of the roast some of us went hungry and some of us had a feast!

Local festival or “singsing.”

We brought a medical doctor and a dentist who spent every day in the villages.  In addition, to tending medical needs they created a medical history on each of the villagers.  One day when I participated in this activity the doctor asked one of the adults who the parents were for the kids that were being evaluated.  For one kid the adults had an animated discussion about who the parents really were.  I was horrified.  How could these people not even know who the parent of a kid was.  Eventually they came up with an answer.  With time I came to a completely different perspective.  In the village almost everyone was related.  Everyone was family and everyone depended on others in the village for survival.  Sometimes if a mother lost her child and if a close relative or even friend had a newborn, she might give her child to the grieving mother who lost her baby.  With a bit more time there were more revelations.  In these small communities everyone knows everyone else.  Theft is not an option as if someone is seen with something new and someone else is missing something then the thief is soon discovered.  If there is a fire or other catastrophe, everyone pitches in to help.  Issues we wrestle with such as cost of babysitting, unemployment, homelessness, isolation, social security, care for the elderly are almost nonexistent as the extended families / communities are the social net that ensures everyone is cared for.  On the other hand, privacy as we know it, living in cities, is almost nonexistent.  No one can be anonymous. Pretty much everyone knows what everyone else is doing.  This was an interesting concept to ponder as none of us had ever experienced life in such a village environment.

For us as a group, this adventure was transformative.  None of us returned home the same people who departed one month before.  I realized such an experience could do far more than just teach marine biology and ecology.  My insight related to how can one’s mind and world view be changed.  We know two proven strategies.  One is a religious experience where a person completely changes their belief system and behavior.  The other is what has been called by some as “brain washing.”  This involves a process of isolation from all things familiar, including living situation, amenities, friends. and family. It also can involve hardship, fatigue, and even life-threatening situations.  And once a person is beaten down by those conditions one is given a vision of a new reality – new beliefs and a different world view.  I realized this latter situation was in many ways what we had just experienced.  Almost all of our students did not know each other before coming to Wuvulu.  We were living on a small, flat island in another culture where nothing was familiar.  We were active, hot, tired, being bitten by insects, eating different food, having totally unique experiences, and as new divers being in life threatening situations.  By the end of our month-long experience our discussions focused more on quality of life, environmental responsibility, sustainability than on parrotfish, corals, or giant clams.  This was a different kind of brain washing but our brains certainly did get washed of old ways of thinking and then refilled with a lot of new ideas and ways of looking at our future.  With distance we could see our lives back home from a different perspective and most importantly we could think about what kind of world we wanted to live in, and even make, when we returned home. 

With time and more programs, we realized we could easily integrate what we were learning about nature with the issues we as a species and society are facing in the future.  We focused on interesting species, asking the question – how do they survive and what role do they play in the ecology of their community.  We would discover that most species do important work that both meets their needs but also makes a worthwhile contribution to the health of the community.  Corals create the buildings of their cities under the sea that provide home and habitat for many other species.  The corals have partnerships with algae that live inside them.  The algae provide corals with food and get a safe place to live and benefitting from the coral’s metabolic byproducts (nutrients/fertilizer).  Cleaner fish act as “doctors” getting an easy meal as they clean parasites from their “patients.”  Sea cucumbers and worms clean up the ecosystems waste.  Sponges filter the water and digest what they catch.  And the diversity of species, each doing its work, keeps the entire ecosystem functioning sustainably.  This is a city that runs on solar energy, has buildings that are alive, recycles its waste, has public health, and depends on diversity to maintain the health of the community.  Years later I published these stories in a book, Coral Reefs – Cities Under the Sea.  Obviously this approach as lessons for those of us who care about our future.  Instead of telling our students what to think, we explore nature, ask questions, and then provide an opportunity for them as individuals and as a group to think about how we can take the wisdom of nature and apply it in the human domain to search for sustainability.

Project Ocean Search environmental education in the British Virgin Islands.

Since those early days in Papua New Guinea, we expanded our programs to a wide variety of destinations.  We have now conducted these programs on the west coast of the US (Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands), French Polynesia, the Caribbean (British Virgin Islands, Antigua, Roatan, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico), Hawaii, Fiji, Mexico, the Maldive Islands, and the Mediterranean coasts of France and Greece.  We continue to meet past students from time to time who say those experiences were life changing and that what they learned continues to affect the direction of their lives today.

Jean-Michel and I would reflect on the two agendas of the Cousteau organizations.  Making documentary films certainly opened minds and exposed the public to new ideas but total immersion experiences like those we had on Wuvulu changed lives and inspired people for a lifetime.

Difficult Times (Beginnings)

I calmly walk into the bathroom where my dad is in a drunken rage, yelling at my mother.  I yell at the top of my  lungs, “I hate your guts.”  The response is predictable and my plan is working.  He abandons my mom and goes after me.  I run and slam a door behind me.  He runs into it, giving me a bit of distance.  I run to my bedroom, slam the door, and jump out of the window, where I had removed the screen.  He is now further behind and is unlikely in his state, to make it out the window.  He is out the front door yelling that he won’t take any crap from a snot nosed kid and that he is going to whip my ass.  I’m laughing and challenging him to catch me if he can.  My mother is at the door, horrified, pleading with us to calm down….think of the neighbors.

One day my mother picked me up from school and said there had been an accident.   While measuring the level of oil in a large petroleum tank, the ladder my dad was perched on slipped and he fell.  It was probably a story or two high and he shattered his leg.  A few days later he was released from the hospital and came home to be strung up in a hospital bed with a trapeze like system that elevated his leg.  Recovery was slow and my mom had to go to work to support the family as we had no insurance of any kind.  The best option was to be an Avon Lady so she could have flexible hours to take care of us.  Eventually my dad recovered but had a limp he called his “flat wheel.”  He returned to driving a truck in construction but things had changed.

After my dad had mobility we returned to the after work beach ritual .  But now, after a few weeks of no income while he was recovering he was different.  The hospital bills, payments on the new car, and an obvious limp seemed to turn this omnipotent and charismatic adventurer into a damaged man leading a mundane life and hating it.  Adventures of somewhere else dissolved into the pitiful reality of a man ill-suited for the relatively sedentary life of a truck driver and construction worker. Rationalizing his plight as a victim of forces beyond his control he became a fallen hero humiliated by his own inability to adapt and succeed in an artificial world called civilization.  He had been able to survive and succeed in the natural world, the real world as he called it, and in other cultures where people lived close to nature.  He was a good survivor, hunting, fishing, and working with local people.  But city life where one needed an “education” was not something he had prepared himself for. 

Drink offered escape into the past where he was a hero who had met challenges and thrived. He was smart and tough.  He took advantage of those qualities to explore the ocean and far off lands.   Now in a city, his skills and experiences were not marketable.  Here his options were limited and he would be reduced to reliving past adventures.  The first few times I heard a story I was captivated but after many reiterations, I grew sick of what seemed to be excuses for the present life.

In those days we still went to the beach to body surf but now as we returned home from the beach the atmosphere was dark and one had to be extremely careful. The smallest misstatement was likely to set off an onslaught of abuse.  This was a time for caution.  My mother could see it in his eyes and we both knew that a difficult night was about to begin.

He had a “short temper” and was explosive in his reaction to just about anything that did not meet his approval.  Yelling, insults, slammed doors, and exaggeration became almost common. In later years I remember coming home from school, seeing his car, and getting the feeling in my stomach one has when one goes into a final knowing one is going to fail. I felt sick. The next morning after one of his vitriolic outbursts he was cheerful and apparently apologetic, even though he never apologized.  If it was a weekend he would be happy to drive my buddies and me to a surf spot from Huntington Beach all the way down to Tressles at Camp Pendleton.  He would  bring his bottle of hard cider and a fishing pole.  If eyebrows were raised by my buddies, he calmed their fears by saying, “Its ok this is only hard cider.”  They thought this was very funny. By the time we finished surfing he was happily intoxicated and entertained us, at least them, with stories of his past.  For me, they were the same old stories I had heard far too many times before.

We were budding surfers in 1958.

In spite of the negative side of his drinking, there was a funny and creative side.  He loved words, as did my mom, and he always had something to contribute.   If it was taking another swig, he might make a toast but instead of salut, to your health, or here’s mud in your eye, it was “Salud a patuse, a viva la pupula fache.  Atostu gotsa.”  I once asked him what does this really mean and he said he did not know.  Another interesting one liner was, “Bosco, the dog faced boy, eats ‘em alive.”  I asked who was Bosco and what did he eat.  He did not know.  One of his favorite poems was, “The boy stood on the burning deck, his feet were full of blisters. He climbed aloft, his pants fell off and now he wears his sisters.”  Another was, “Captain Fadink of the Horse Marines, fed his wife on pork and beans. She pooped all night.  She pooped all day.  And she finally pooped herself away.”

All of this was fun in the beginning then sort of fun with my friends but by the end I hated all of this BS.  But he was the only parent willing to drive us surfing so it was all tolerable and I took advantage of his generosity.  In fact, he loved me and he loved being there to take us off to enjoy the ocean.  My friends were polite and appreciative, and they were a good audience.  At least during those times, we all were winners.

My buddies, my dad, and me on a beach picnic.

Back home it was a totally unpredictable roller coaster.  Would this be a happy evening or a war zone?  We never knew. When I was young my mother was a Cub Scout den mother, she helped me work on my Scout merit badges, and took our den to local industries for an educational experience. She never complained and many times explained to me that my father was stressed and that he did not mean the hurtful things he said.   That was certainly logical but totally irrelevant to a little kid who has had a big bully of a father go off on him.

Often in his fits of rage he would start yelling at me and make me cry.  That would escalate things and he would tell me to quit my sniveling or he would really give me something to cry about.  At other times he would say that if I kept crying he would dress me up in girls’ clothes with a slip, dress, and pink ribbons.  As a little kid, before the teenage years, I really thought he might do this, which, of course, made me cry more.  After a particularly mean and hurtful session, the next day he was happy and nice, apparently as an apology or to get me back as his ‘chum.”  But after a few years of this, I had enough.  I remember saying to my mother that I would not let him back in as my pal. The roller coaster was too much – I just switched off. I could not trust him to stay nice and his gestures of driving us surfing and such were totally inadequate to compensate for the hurt.  After that I hated him and vowed never to give in to his post outrage offers of friendship.  My decision was final – it was over!

Financially things were not good.  I still don’t know why two people with jobs could not manage their finances.  They took out loans, and then loans to consolidate the other loans.  The worst was one evening when the doorbell rang and a guy from some collection company asked if Mr. Murphy was home.  My dad said yes and asked what was up.  The guy said the loans were long past due and as a result he had been hired to take away our furniture.  This really freaked me out, to think that our furniture was going away, and we were to live in a house with no furniture.  An unthinkable future played out in my mind – I couldn’t have friends over, I would have to sleep on the floor, I wouldn’t have a desk to do my homework on, no dinners at a table.. and on and on.  Although this dramatic scenario never took place, the event shook my foundation and made me think very hard about who these people were and what I needed to do to avoid being like them.  I thought they were stupid and vowed never to let myself fall into such a situation. I still can feel the fear, insecurity, and anger.  I made a decision, a decision in concrete, – I was going to get an education, earn a good living, and have economic security.  I wanted to have adventures but after I had taken care of my future. I would never allow myself to fall into the economic pit my parents descended into.

As I got older his going off on me had less of an impact because I had a life outside of home.  By the age of 11 I had a paper route and earned enough money over a few years to buy a boat.  This was my exit strategy to get out on the ocean to water ski, dive for fish, and just hang out with others my age who also had boats.  Since I could not look to my parents for spending money, I realized that the more I could earn the more freedom I had.  This was a major motivation to work, particularly as things got worse at home.

My first real job was having a paper route. I did collections from subscribers and then put that money in a metal box. Part would be mine and part had to go to the newspaper. My dad eventually realized he had a ‘slush fund’ for buying booze where he did not need to get extra cash from my mother. He was stealing my money! It did not take long for me to notice my funds were disappearing and that there was only one explanation. Finally, I got a lockable box and only my mother and i knew where the key was hidden. I could not believe that a father would steal from his son.  What a jerk!

Every few months an emotional cloud would engulf me.  I felt dark and sad.  I felt like there was no hope.  Those words would repeat and repeat, there is no hope.  What is weird is that I was not hoping for anything.  But the loss of hope was the only way I could explain it to myself.  I never told my mom or anyone else about these bouts of hopelessness. 

It was a profoundly depressing feeling that would last for hours to a day or so.  It was never precipitated by anything I could think of.  In the early days when it began all I wanted to do is curl up in my bed.  But that would not make it go away.  Plus, with no external input the feelings were intensified.  I eventually learned that getting outside and being active would take my mind off this feeling.  This mostly worked, at least when I was doing things, but then after the activity was over the feeling came back.  So, I was almost driven to climb trees, turn over rocks to find bugs, explore the nearby beach or bay, ride my bike, do artwork of fish, work on my stamp collection, or roller skate.  I had trouble focusing in school and teachers for almost all of my grade school years added messages on my report cards that I had to calm down and that I was not working up to my full potential.  Much of this was probably the energy of a young boy but some of it was most likely linked to avoiding the cloud.

At the time I made no connection to my life at home but years later a psychologist explained that this was almost a predictable response to that chaos.  He also said I was lucky it was not worse. I the long this hyperactivity may have served me well.

By the time I was in my mid-teens, my dad had quit working.  He went fishing every day and drank a lot.  This really pissed me off because it meant my mom was working to support us all.  What kind of a lazy bastard was he, to do absolutely nothing while my mother worked her ass off to support us? When I was 16 and got a car, I got other jobs and ended up supporting myself except for a place to live and eat.  I paid for all of my clothes, gas, insurance, and other stuff.  Things were getting worse and worse. 

His abuse continued to escalate and one night when he was on a tirade, yelling at my mom, I had enough.  I was still intimated by him physically so trying to take him down was not an option I considered. But I felt the need to get him to stop yelling at my mom.  I made a plan.  First I drove my car a block away and parked it.  Then I took the screen off my bedroom window.  Then I went in to the room where he was having a melt down and yelled at the top of my lungs that I hated his guts.  Predictably this diverted his anger from my mom to me.  Perfect, I succeeded!  As he went to grab me and “whip my ass” I ran to another room slamming the door behind me.  He, being drunk, ran into the door.  Once open, he followed me into my bedroom with that door slammed in his face.  He opened that but by then I was out the window. Chasing me out the window was a real challenge for a drunk so he ran out the front door to catch me. By then I was running down the street yelling to him to “come get me if you can get your ass in motion.”  My mother was at the front door pleading with us both to be quiet, think of the neighbors.  What a pitiful circus.  I slept in my car and the next evening everything was calm.  Neither my dad nor I gave a shit about the neighbors but my poor mom was totally humiliated.  She did not deserve this crap particularly since she was the one who earned the money he spent to buy booze and keep a roof over our heads.

I watched my mom become more and more stressed both from real work and from the situation at home.  She was the nicest and most generous person I have ever met. She never complained, she had compassion for my poor alcoholic father, she loved him, and she did what was necessary for us all to survive. On the other hand, by that time I had zero compassion, infinite anger and resentment, and did everything I could to make my dad as miserable as my mother and I were.  I shunned him and made critical comments whenever the occasion arose.  As he would launch into one of his stories, that I had heard far too many times, I would point out a flaw in his logic or explain that he was incorrect on some fact about the ocean. He did not like being corrected and often retaliated, yelling, “Listen, smart ass, I have forgotten more about the ocean than you will ever know!” I made no verbal response but my face and body language clearly communicated disdain and contempt.  I was generally as obnoxious as a teenager could be (which can be pretty obnoxious).

My first car.

After a few more dramatic episodes I made a decision.  I told my mother that either he was out or I was out BUT I would not live in this sick environment. I said, “He is killing you but I will not let him kill me. I won’t live like this!  Either divorce him and kick him out of the house, or I’ll move out and live on my own. I have a job and will survive just fine.”  Predictably, my mother was horrified and hurt.  But she could see I was very very serious.  What a terrible position I put her in – to have to choose between your son or the husband you still love.  I did not want to hurt her but I felt I was doing this as much for her as me. I had a life outside of home, she did not.  She was trapped with no alternatives that I could see.  I was certain I was doing the right thing for her.  I’ll never forget the day she told him.  He was devastated and so was she.  I felt sick – sick with empathy for them both because they did love each other and sick that he was such a pitiful vestige of the real man he used to be.  There were no winners, we all lost. 

I saw him once after that. I came home from college and found him in my mother’s apartment.  I had a complete melt down and told him to get the hell out and never come back.  By then I was physically comfortable taking him on so my anger had no limits.  He raised some objection and I got in his face and said, “leave now or get your alcoholic ass kicked all the way down the stairs.  Do it now!” As he moved toward the door, I grabbed a carving knife and followed.  Part way down he stopped to give me some more of the old shit I had heard all my life and I put the knife to his face.  Very very calmly I said, “I’m a college boy and you are an old drunk.  I’m just about ready to stick this in your gut.  As you get carted off to the hospital who do you think the police will believe caused this you or me?  Now get your drunken ass out of here and never come back!”  I felt not one iota of remorse! That was the last time I spoke to my father but not the last time I thought about him.

Source of the Amazon (Adventures)

I am in a tent in a sleeping bag with a man on each side so close that we are touching.  It’s about midnight, far below freezing outside, and the inside of our tent glistens with tiny ice crystals.  These crystals are the condensed water vapor from our breath.  Any movement that touches the tent results in a shower of ice.  I sit up a bit and I squeeze a lukewarm packet of Salisbury steak into my mouth.  These packets are supposedly the kind of food that went into space with astronauts and thus we call them astronaut food.  This packet has been warming between my legs for a few hours.  My movement showered my tent mates with crystals.  They wake and demand what is that the horrible smell, asking if I’m sick.  I explain that I’m eating my dinner since the kerosene cook stoves we brought would not light because of a lack of oxygen at this elevation.  I am American and my tent mates are French.  They are horrified that I would be doing such a thing, eating lukewarm food in bed is not the way civilized people should behave. I, thus, have confirmed in their minds the barbaric nature of Americans such as me.  I laughed and reminded them that I am enjoying dinner and they are not.  This is our last night before we reach the top of our mountain destination at 18,300 feet.

Jean-Michel, left, and me, right, at the source of the Amazon, at 18,300 feet.

In 1982 The Cousteau Society launched a series of expeditions to explore the Amazon.  The plan was to produce four one-hour documentaries.  We ended up producing 7 shows because the Amazon was so rich, interesting, and important!  With Calypso, Captain Cousteau was to go up the Amazon beginning in the Atlantic Ocean.  Jean-Michel Cousteau was to lead a team starting at the headwaters of the Amazon on Mt. Mismi in Peru.  I was the photographer and scientist with the Jean-Michel team.  We began our journey in Lima Peru and then ascended the Andes Mountains toward the headwaters.  We had a large truck with a flatbed on which was positioned a small cargo container and a jeep with our Peruvian guide.

Calypso on its way up the Amazon.

After almost two weeks of filming in the altiplano we arrived in Cusco.   During those days we never had a warm water shower and even liquid water was a impossible to find at times.  So a real hotel in a real city was a big deal because we could enjoy hot water, good food, and a clean bed.  In addition, there was an open market with, to my great pleasure, an entire aisle dedicated to ladies who made fruit smoothies.  Since smoothies were my normal breakfast back home, I was in heaven.  We took a day off and I explored the city with its amazing stonework.  The Incas crafted, by hand, buildings and walls where there was no space between large carved stones, not even enough space for a knife blade to fit into.  The feeling of history and craftsmanship was amazing.  Although I’m not religious I do like to see the splendor of churches and set off to explore one not too far from the marketplace.  We had been warned about getting robbed so I was prepared, my hand in my pocket tightly clutching my wallet.  There was a dark area between the outer and inner door of the church. As I entered that space the hands of maybe 5 or 6 kids grabbed me – my legs, torso, and arms.  My reflex was to smack these hands and get them to let go of me.  It worked and the hands withdrew along with their owners along with my wallet.  I was apparently not as ready for thievery as I thought.  In addition to maybe $40 lost I eventually discovered my credit card had been charged with two pair of shoes and some other clothing, for a total of less than $100.  Obviously these kids needed clothes and in retrospect I concluded that maybe this was my contribution to the local culture that had greater needs than mine.  Considering all of the places I’ve traveled, this “donation” seemed quite appropriate.

Two days later it was time to leave Cusco, ascend through the Altiplano to the mountain that was the source of the Amazon, and then descend into the Amazon basin. We all were ready for warmth and green surroundings once we completed the trek to the Amazon’s beginning.

The Altiplano was treeless and somewhat desolate but as we approached the high mountains we saw a large flock of pink flamingos in the distance.   This would be a great visual for our film and we diverted our course to document the birds.  As we approached we found ourselves in a wetland just as our heavy truck descended into mud.  The more we dug and struggled the deeper the truck became stuck.  Our driver left in the Jeep for Cailloma, a small town we passed a day ago that had a silver mine nearby. It was late in the afternoon and we decided to make camp and eat dinner before it got too dark and too cold. The night was beautiful with clear skies and amazing stars.  Next morning, to our great frustration, we discovered the tires completely encased in cement-hard ice.  Obviously this problem would not be solved by our small team armed with a couple of shovels  The jeep arrived the next day with a crew from the mine and a larger truck.  Their efforts were fruitless and we realized we had better modify our plans. 

We were on the land of a local llama herder who was not at all happy with us but he agreed to load some of our material on his two llamas and a donkey to help us get closer the base of Mt. Mismi.  Just as we got everything packed onto the animals, a military helicopter flew over to check in with us.  It, with one of our cinematographers, was to visit us at the top of Mt. Mismi a couple of days later.  To our horror the plane spooked the animals, loaded with our materials, and they took off, running down into a valley.  We watched as the guy ran after them and then, way off in the distance, we watched him unload our material and go on his way – away from us!  This meant our small team could only carry the absolute minimal amount of material – food, tents, kerosene stoves for cooking, cameras, and crampons (spikes to be attached to our boots to prevent slipping on ice).  Oxygen, first aid material, and other things we had previously considered essential had to be left behind.

Most of us suffered from altitude sickness.  The morning of our departure I felt terrible – nausea, splitting headache, and diarrhea.  I had bought some coca leaves and a bit of charcoal in the market some days before as I wanted to see if they had any effect on me.  The leaves were dry and the charcoal were totally unappealing BUT I figured I couldn’t feel much worse so I had little to lose.  I got the call that we were departing in ½ hr and it was time to get our packs ready.  I chewed on the leaves and gnawed at the charcoal then lay down to see what would happen.  By the time I rose to depart all of my symptoms had totally disappeared.  I felt as great as a sea level dwelling creature could feel at 14,000 feet.   As our team of five ascended the lack of oxygen became more and more of a limitation.  We would climb for 10 minutes and then sit, gasping for 5 minutes. The dryness was another issue that increased with time.  By the time this trek ended most of my knuckles were cracked and bleeding. There was another dimension of the oxygen issue.  The kerosene stoves we brought to make coffee and cook our food would not light!! We, being ocean guys, had never thought that our burners would not work.  With the exertion and cold we really needed warmth for our food and drinks.  As an American I could deal with the challenge but our French team was a bit different.  They loved their coffee and would only eat properly cooked food.  That final night on the mountain, with my Salisbury steak dinner between my legs, I was the only one who enjoyed a warm dinner, the others went without.  They laughed at me with their hunger and horror and I laughed at them with my full stomach and rolled eyes.

The next morning we ascended to the top of Mt. Mismi and waited for the plane.  Eventually it arrived and we officially began our part of the Amazon adventure.  We waved national flags in honor of the team members and their home countries – France, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Peru, Argentina, and America. Jean-Michel threw a snow ball east, the water would eventually end up 4000 miles downstream in the Atlantic Ocean.  I, being far lower in the pecking order, threw my snowball west with that water ending up over 100 miles away in the Pacific Ocean.  The entire team released water, not filmed, that would end up in the Atlantic so we all got a chance to mark our territories and make our contributions.

We eventually got back to the truck and learned that had there not been a mine with heavy equipment in the region we may never have gotten unstuck. Apparently both teams had a challenging time, I was happy to have been on the mountain team rather than the mud and ice team.  Now, liberated from the mud, we began our descent following the “river” from its beginning down toward the Amazon basin.  First we walked along just a trickle of a stream, that eventually would be called the Apurimac, one of the many, many tributaries that would converge to become the Amazon River.  When there was enough water we kayaked and after that with even more water we were in inflatable rafts. 

For the next week or so we followed the river and filmed the team traveling downstream. In addition to photography, I was collecting water samples that would document water biota (microscopic plants and animals)  and chemistry from the headwaters all the way to the Atlantic.  I was certain that no one had ever taken samples at these upper regions of the river and it was exciting to think that we would likely make lots of discoveries. I was totally wrong on the discovery part even though we were probably the first people to sample here.  More on that later. ** Eventually we had to stop the rafting as the steep eastern side of the Andes had rapids that were far too dangerous for us and our equipment in small inflatables.

The only road down the eastern side of the Andes in this region was a one-way affair, with alternating days for traffic going up and traffic going down.  The switching time was midnight.  We left Cusco about 10 PM.  At the top of the mountain, just before the one-way section there was a tunnel.  We drove to the entrance and discovered our truck container was too big.  Even letting air out of the tires was insufficient.  No one had told us about a tunnel and now we were stuck.  There was no way to turn around on this narrow road so Jean-Paul Cornu, lead camera man, had to get out and guide the truck as it backed down the road. It was agonizingly slow and frustrating because we needed to get over that pass on that day when the one-way traffic could go downhill!! I was in the jeep and was surprised to see Jean-Paul bending down, and what appeared to be, smelling the flowers.  I was wrong, he was sick.  We had eaten the same food for dinner and soon I was also sick.  We all returned to the hotel and Jean-Paul and I went to our room to purge at both ends.  We were sick all night.  The next morning the entire team worked furiously to condense, repack, and load a smaller container.  We had to get up and over the mountain before midnight. 

Late afternoon we were off with Jean-Paul, our local guide, and me in the jeep.  I agreed to drive.  We made it through the tunnel and began our descent as the sun set.  I turned on the headlights but there was no light and no time to mess around with fuses and wires.  The guide jumped into the truck, leaving Jean-Paul and me to follow in the jeep with no headlights on a narrow road that we had never been on before after a night of barfing and very little sleep.  This was going to be quite an adventure.  Dominique Sumian, expedition leader, was driving the truck and seemed to have zero concern for us in the jeep.  He was in a hurry and it was our problem to keep up.  If the two tail lights were very close together then I was too far back.  If they were far apart, I was too close.  That was my only guide.  The mountain road was quite windy so I could not let the truck get too far ahead because if it went around a turn and I lost visual contact then I could easily drive off the mountain road.  It was by far the most scary and dangerous experience at that point of my life.  The other challenge was just staying awake.  Initially adrenalin was more than enough to keep me alert but I knew that with time I might lose my focus. I made a proposal to Jean-Paul, he would tell me one of his best stories and then I would share one of mine and we would keep this up until we got down the mountain.  As the night progressed the stories got richer and more personal. There were no issues with ego and in many of our stories we did not come out as winners.  We shared stories of our childhoods, loves, successes, failures, dreams, and philosophies of life.  It was one of the most fascinating psychological experiences of my life and one that bonded us for years to come.

Another scary part of this descent was when we would hear our tires going over a wooden bridge that, of course, we could not see.  Based on other roads in this part of the world, often a wooden bridge consisted of two planks to support the tires.  Sometimes we could hear water rushing under the bridge.  I so hoped my tires would be on the planks instead of empty space.  Each bridge brought a shiver of apprehension.  Dominique never slowed and we never ran off the road.  The final challenge of this descent was when we got out of the mountains and onto the flat ground of the Amazon Basin.  The headlights of the truck would warn people, sitting on the road, that we were coming.  But as soon as the truck passed people would jump back onto the road to get the breeze from the truck.  They would not see us because we had no headlights and we almost hit a couple of kids. I had to lean on the horn and hope people paid attention.  That was one of the most nerve-wracking nights of my life, but a great rite of passage and introduction into the Amazon.

The best part was that we were warm.  Eventually we would miss the cold of the Andes but for now this was paradise!  We were in the Amazon – land of mystery, biodiversity, and liquid water!

Our inflatable home as we explored the upper Amazon.

First Travel (Beginnings)

Its midnight in Cartago, Costa Rica and my buddy, Steve, and I are being led to jail. There are no guns and there is no resistance.  The cell door is opened, we each get a bunk, and the door is locked.  We have been drinking so we had no problem getting to sleep.  An hour or so later a really drunk local joins us in our cell.  He was objecting and making quite a fuss.  But in no time the three of us are all sleeping.  The next morning a girl I had been dancing with the night before comes to say hello.  I am so surprised and she is so cute.  She gives me her picture; it says Liliana on the back. She goes off to school and that is the last I see of her.  A bit later the mayor comes and releases us.  We pick up our packs, thank him, walk out to the Pan-American Highway, and continue our adventure hitchhiking south.

This adventure began thanks to pivotal events.  First was my water ski accident.   My mother’s brother, Uncle Walter, was in the oil business in Long Beach.  He was very successful and had two boys, older than I, who also were snow skiers, surfed a bit, and water skied.  So, he understood how important such sports were to us all.  He also understood how valuable a good education was.  At the time of my water skiing crash, I was going to a local junior college with plans to go to a state college and get a degree in marine biology. My grades were ok but finances were an issue so living at home was the best option.

Once out of the hospital my uncle said, “I want you to get a good education from a good university not some local college.”  He offered to pay for my college tuition and books if I went to UCLA.  Wow! I had never even considered a university like UCLA as the cost was far beyond my means.  With good grades getting accepted was not a problem.  By the time I got this news and applied, all dorm rooms were filled so my only option, at a school where I knew no one, was to go through rush and join a fraternity.  I became a “frat boy” and was launched into academia.  I loved science and enjoyed most of my classes.  Others learned faster but I retained what I learned very well so I survived.

I had sold my car because college parking was too expensive and moving my car every day or so to avoid getting a ticket was far too complicated in Westwood. I bought a used Honda 250 Scrambler and that was both transportation and therapy.  The latter involved my having an outlet for those times when I was ready to explode from sitting for hours studying.  I would hop on the bike and race through the beautiful winding roads of Bel Aire.  There was one vacant lot with a view of the entire city below and terraced land that was perfect for jumping.  My excursions kept me sane or as close to it as I could get during those days.  

By the end of my first year, I had figured out how to survive without my generous uncle’s help.  As a “hasher” I served meals in a sorority and eventually lived in a basement room, intended for the cook who lived off campus.  So, I ended up living in a sorority with free room and board, not to mention fringe benefits of female proximity.  

Life in a sorority was quite different from living in a fraternity.  Much of our fraternity fees went to beer busts on Fridays and more elaborate parties on Saturdays.  Sororities were dry and their fees went to good food, far better than frat food.  Being dry was a problem for some of the girls but with two guys living downstairs there were alternatives.  From time-to-time I would hear a tapping on my door.  It was a can opener, hung on a string from one of the girl’s windows above.  I would look out and see a happy face asking if I had beer.  I would say yes and then tie a tennis shoe to the string.  Down would come money and up would go beer.  The profits from this little enterprise kept us in beer so everyone won.  Of course, from time to time there would be pranks and one scenario became quite involved.  It began with my roommate and me discovering that our tooth paste tubes had been punctured with lots of pin holes.  A couple of nights later the cook prepared spaghetti.  For the girls who most likely sabotaged us we put band aids on the plate and then heaped spaghetti on top.  Watching their faces when they discovered what was beneath their dinner was wonderful.  But that was not the end.  Some days later there was a tap tap on our door. I looked up to find a shower of liquid descending toward my head.  I was not quick enough to avoid being doused with perfume.  Apparently the girls pooled their perfume into one full glass and then emptied it on me.  The mixture of many aromas was beyond horrible.  Our front door reeked for days.  There is so much to experience at college.

Now for the 2nd pivotal event.  One day back at the fraternity house an agent came asking if anyone was a good motorcycle rider.  The word got to me since I was the most experienced rider of the group. I responded to the agent and got hired to be a model for new, small Honda motorcycles.  In the mid 1960s Honda was trying to change the image of motorcycle riders from that of  leather clad Hells Angels to middle class Americans.  An ad agent determined that in addition to being able to ride a motorcycle and I had the “right look.”  I was elated because in addition to getting easy money I had just learned that I had the “right look.” 

My Honda Ad.

We met in Griffith Park near the center of Los Angeles the following week and I spent an afternoon riding back and forth for the camera.  It was uneventful except for the fact that to my astonishment, I received $300 for the session!  This was a gigantic sum of money, more than ten times that amount in today’s economy.  In fact, it was large enough to alter the course of my life. 

Prior to this “modeling session” my life experience had given me the impression that I was not a hunk but obviously I had missed something.  As we all know looks have considerable impact on one’s social life and with above average levels of testosterone my “look” could have significant implications on my personal life.  So, feeling extremely good about myself, I inquired what exactly was this “right look” with which I had been blessed.  The response was matter of fact and short, “Oh the look we were seeking was something that anyone could identify with and you look very average.”  So, I happily took the money, put my deflated ego aside, and went back to class. I did eventually get one additional perk, the photo of our Honda ride was on the inside back cover of both Time and Life magazines.  My career in modeling was short.

The $300 could cover all of my next year’s survival needs at UCLA, thanks to living in a sorority.  This meant I did not have to work that summer.  This was the first summer I did not work since Jr. High – what a gift!

My childhood pal, Steve Richardson, and I had dreamed of going to San Blas, Mexico since Jr High.  According to the article in the Sunset Guide to Mexico, it was the most northern place on Mexico’s west coast where there were coconut palms on the beach.  He agreed to take the summer off and we made a plan to hitch hike to San Blas and then on to the Yucatan Peninsula to explore the Mayan ruins.

Steve and I had been friends since grade school, first playing baseball and then as surfers.  We also discovered that we both had a passion for knowledge, the ocean, physics, literature, and more.  This became clear to us when we would walk from our home to the Friday night “canteen” (teen center) where there was dancing.  Our evening would begin with each of us, separately, entering a local market where they put champagne just above the ice cream freezer.  With our large Pendleton shirts and baggy pants, we put a bottle of champagne in our pants, got an ice cream cone, paid for the ice cream and exited.  Then we had about a mile of walking through alleys to the canteen, enjoying our bubbly treat.  It was during these long walks that we discussed Darwin and evolution, Einstein’s E=mc2, how Shakespeare could know and write his plays, and on and on.  Our bible was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.  We could identify with both Mack and the boys who had stepped outside of their materialistic culture and Doc the marine biologist who loved women and beer.

Obviously ours was not the typical teen discussion and each of us felt lucky to have a kindred spirit with whom to ponder such things.  Of course, by the time we got to the dance we were back to being typical teens with unlimited energy and enthusiasm for dancing and girls.  A full bottle of champagne was far too much for our young bodies, so we stashed what was left in the bushes.  It’s great that champagne has a cork that can be reinserted to keep out bugs and leaves.  Then when the dance was over our party continued.  We walked to the local golf course where we finished off the bottle and then at the top of the hill where golfers would tee off, we ran downhill as fast as we could.  Between the night dew on the grass and the steepness of the hill we slipped, tumbled, and laughed all the way down.  Walking home through the park and neighborhoods our bodies often rejected all of that alcohol so we barfed what had not been metabolized.  This was not particularly unpleasant partly because we knew such purging would reduce the hang over as we generally went surfing on Saturday mornings.  The result was lifetime bonding that continues today, particularly after the hitchhiking adventure that I’ll describe next.

Mid-June 1965, my mom dropped Steve and me off on Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach.  We each had $300, passport, mask/snorkel/fins, sleeping bag, and some clothes.  We made it to San Blas but on the way to Yucatan we met two guys in two pickups who were on their way to Nicaragua and needed some help driving.  We thought why not and the adventure took on a new dimension.  In Nicaragua we realized we were relatively close to Panama.  We figured that in Panama we could catch a banana boat, as described by Harry Belafonte in the Banana Boat Song, and island hop up to Florida.  Then we could easily hitch hike back to California.

Steve and me in Seal Beach where my mother dropped us off to
begin our hitch hiking adventure.

Hitchhiking offered amazing insights to another culture that one could never get at a higher level of tourism.  Getting rides was not difficult and the conversations, even in our limited Spanish, were always illuminating.  Sometimes people would stop and ask if we were alright. When we explained we were happily hitch hiking to San Blas or Panama, they could not understand.  Americans were rich so why didn’t we have a car?  We said we were students and we were poor but wanted to see their country.  They were still incredulous.

As we waited for a ride we had time to explore the local vegetation on the side of the road for cool bugs or to test each other’s knowledge of Cannery Row. One of us would open the book at random and start reading.  The challenge was to see how long it took for the other to identify the story unfolding in that section.  We were also a curiosity to local kids who clustered around us trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing.  Our cultural contribution to those kids was teaching them the technique of flipping bottle caps, which in those days all California surfers had mastered.  We hoped that in some future date another Californian would pass through one of these areas and be astonished to see kids flipping bottle caps.  Our vehicle of choice was being picked up by an empty flat-bed truck.  Standing behind the cab of one of these trucks offered built in air conditioning and a fantastic view of the landscape.  The only danger we considered was, not falling off the truck, but instead it was flying scarab beetles.  At 50 mph being hit by one of these beautiful iridescent figeater beetles could be serious.

A few times people invited us into their houses to spend the night. One time a farmer saw us standing on the side of the road and offered us a place to sleep, along with dinner. Since there was no town nearby this was great news.  We slept on the ground in his barn.  The dogs running around and goats making noise were tolerable but the roosters crowing before dawn were obnoxious.  Of course, they were everywhere in Latin America and we never got used to them.   Next morning, our host walked with us to the road where we were to wait for a ride.  There were few cars and after a bit a taxi came by and our host hailed him down.  We explained that we did not have money for taxis and that was why we were hitchhiking.  We preferred to wait.  The host went into his house, went up to the taxi driver, and handed him some money, and he said we could proceed on our way.  Here this poor farmer gave his limited cash to help total strangers continue their adventure.  We hastily said we would pay the taxi and the farmer got his money back.  As soon as we were over a hill, where the farmer could not see us, we got out, paid the taxi, and went back to our preferred means of transportation.  Things like that happened often.  In fact, the less money people had the more generous they seemed to be.  In addition, country people were far nicer that city people.  We quickly resolved to do everything possible to avoid spending any time in cities.

Cartago, Costa Rica was an exception.  Each night around dinner time we had a big decision to make.  Would we go to a restaurant for “la comida,” which meant whatever they were serving as the cheap special of the day.  Or would we go to a bar for a beer, schmooze the bartender, and dine on whatever munchies they had to offer. This night we decided to hit the bar.  We always explained to the bartender that we had been hitch hiking for over a month, coming from California and going to Panama.  This always got a great response and soon we were the subject of interest in the bar.  Politely we commented on how good the munchies were and of course were offered more.  This night someone said there was to be a dance in town and a nice gentleman asked if we would like to go.  With a good foundation of beer and munchies we were ready for anything, particularly if there were girls involved.  As it turned out he was the Mayor.  He offered to put our bags in a closet and ushered us into the dance.  It was a typical teen age dance and we felt quite comfortable.  Eventually we were noticed and then challenged as males of many species do when newcomers invade their territory.  We were surrounded and we either had to leave or find a way to establish ourselves.  A real fight was out of the question, partly because the mayor invited us and he had our bags.  Plus, we are not fighters anyway.  Steve suggested a contest.  His choice was where competitors stand with one foot against the opponents and then each tries to push the other off balance.  I offered to arm wrestle my opponent.  We each engaged in our respective contests and won.  This was great as we were then accepted and free to enjoy dancing with girls, which as was our priority anyway.  Eventually the dance ended and the mayor asked where we were staying.  We said we would just walk out of town and find somewhere to sleep.  He asked if we would like to sleep in jail and of course we said yes.  So, we ended up with a free and safe place to stay and next morning I ended up with a photo of Liliana.

Beyond Cartago the Pan-American Highway was not yet paved but at least it was passable.  At the edge of town, we were picked up by two guys, maybe in their 50s.  They seemed friendly enough and we were off.  They offered us a swig of rum and we happily accepted.  Maybe an hour later we were up in the mountains bathed in mist – it was magical.  Then one of the guys said we needed to pay them and he pulled out a pistol.  We were amazed as Costa Rica was the most friendly of all the countries we had passed through.  In other potentially scary places, we never had a problem but here we were facing a guy with a gun demanding money.  We calmly explained that if we had money we would have taken a bus or taxi.  We had no money.  We were hitchhiking which means we get a ride for free.  Again, the  guy waved his gun and said we needed to give him money. We repeated that we had no money and if they did not want to give us a ride then we would get out but we had no money.  They guy and the driver seemed exasperated.  Abruptly the car pulled over and we were told to get out.  We were more than happy to get out and found ourselves standing on the side of a dirt highway, with no traffic, late in the afternoon, with not a clue as to where the next town might be.  So, we walked till we found a bridge, went under, and had a good night’s sleep.  No beer, no munchies, no water, but happy to be alone in a beautiful rainforest under a bridge.

The next day was even more bizarre.  After a couple of rides, we were standing on the side of the road and a large Cadillac passed, then screeched to a stop, and backed up.  The car was almost full of people but the driver told his passengers/family to make room for us.  We were off and he asked, in good English, if we are Americans.  He seemed pleased and when we told him what we were doing he was beyond pleased.  It turned out he was a wealthy businessman, living in Panama City, and one of his sons was in Michigan going to college.  He almost demanded that we come to his home and stay as long as we liked.  After 2 months of living on the road this was a dream come true.  When we got to his home it was paradise – our own room and bath, a maid to do our laundry who cooked whatever we wanted for breakfast, and a wife, son, daughter happy to show us around the city…. all at their expense.  At dinner we were the celebrity guests and he even threw a party with lots of friends so he could show us off.  Eventually this was too cushy and we needed to get back to our adventure.  We thanked all for such a wonderful taste of culture and generosity and were off.

After taking a train, parallel to the Panama Canal, we arrived in Colon.  We got a room in the local YMCA and were off to Chiquita Banana. At their corporate offices we explained that we wanted to book space on one of their banana boats going north.  They thought we were joking and said they had no such banana boats and asked where we got the idea.  We explained that Harry Belafonte had sung about banana boats, which gave them quite a laugh.  We needed to do some serious rethinking about how to get home.  Hitchhiking all the way back up through Central America to California was almost unthinkable.  Too far, too slow, and not enough money for such an extended period of time.

A look at a map made the solution obvious.  Panama is really not very far from Florida so maybe we could get a cheap flight to Miami.  This was not only possible but a wonderful alternative because we learned that we could make a short stay on Grand Cayman Island at no extra cost.  For $45.00 this was a perfect solution.  Next day we were off and as we walked out of the airport on Grand Cayman we were assaulted by a barrage of taxi drivers.  They asked where we were staying.  We said we would sleep on the beach – which way was it?  They responded that was impossible. We asked was it illegal. They said no one sleeps on the beach.  After at least 5 cycles of this conversation with no good information, we just started walking.  Later we learned this was a high-end destination for Canadians and everyone who came stayed in nice hotels.  As we walked out of the airport one taxi driver said get in, “I think I can get a place for you.”  We explained we had hitchhiked from California to Panama and could not afford fancy hotel rooms.  He understood and took us to a house with a small dormitory where Christian students and missionaries where housed.  The owner was happy to offer us each a bed in the dorm and our normal budget of $2-3/night was below his rate he said we could do work on the property to make up the difference.  Again, local people had been incredibly generous and taken care of us.  Every morning  we found our host and asked what we could do.  His response was, “Boys you haven’t had a chance to see our island, go off and have some fun.  See me tomorrow.”  This went on for almost 2 weeks.  We rented bikes and pedaled around the island,  snorkeling in crystal clear water, exploring healthy coral reefs, raiding mango and coconut trees for our lunch, getting lots of mosquito bites, and frying our skin in the sun.  Finally, we were given some work, to clean out bat droppings from the attic.  It was terrible but certainly fair and we were happy to have had such a great stay.

Getting from Miami to Long Beach was far more difficult than traveling in Central America.  We got kicked out of Lafayette, Louisiana.  As we stood on the side of the road, barefoot because of the infections in our feet from mosquito bites on Grand Cayman, a police car drove up to us and stopped.  He asked what we were doing there.  It seemed obvious to us since we had our thumbs out. But we said we were hitch hiking.  He said we were not welcome there.  We said that was fine and asked if he had been called about us since he drove directly to us and stopped.  He said, “We don’t like outsiders here and if you don’t get out of here I will put you in jail.”  I asked on what charges, he said vagrancy.  I said I am not a vagrant because I have money.  He said get in the car.  He then drove us about ½ mile off the main road and said, “Get out.  When you get to the main road go west away from town.”    We were happy to get out of town and made sure to wear our shoes from then on.

 Freeways were difficult and people just did not see us as savory.  Eventually we arrived home. I had $0.50 and Steve had $5.00!

College was certainly educational and we, of course, benefitted from a real education. But that trip was equally valuable as it taught us things one can never learn in from books or lectures.  We learned the world is a generous place as long one is polite and respectful.  We observed that “poor people” living on simple farms outside of cities had a relatively good quality of life and that these people were often far more generous than city people.  Of course, our host in Panama was an exception.  This trip was a transformative experience – it gave us confidence in our ability to adapt and survive in otherwise difficult and unpredictable circumstances.

After this adventure, I returned to school, graduated, and the following summer got a job working with the California Department of Fish and Game.  I was offered an interesting proposition.  If I would pursue a masters degree at Cal State Long Beach, the Fish and Game would pay me to go to school on the condition that I do my research on a special part of the brain of tuna.  I had intended to pursue a Ph.D. but this was a fascinating proposition because the project would involve the electron microscope, which was new and interesting, and one of the most sophisticated of all fast swimming fish – bluefin tuna.  It, and all fish of the tuna family, have a really weird anatomical feature – a translucent “window” on the head of the fish directly above the brain.  One would assume this allowed light to penetrate into the brain but there was no real evidence for this.  My challenge was to look at the cells and the interior of those cells to see what might be going on.  That first summer I would go to the local fish cannery, pick up a 20 to 40 lb. tuna, and use it to practice identifying and dissecting out the section of the brain of interest.  The brain was a couple of inches long and after dissecting it out I was then left with a perfectly edible tuna.  I would get the tuna on a Friday, take out and preserve the brain, then put the carcass in my trunk, and call ahead to my friends that a tuna was on the way.  We would first enjoy sashimi (ginger, garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce), then have a great BBQ, and end up with a lot of tuna to put in my smoker. Those were major fringe bennies of studying tuna brains.

Some months later, when I was ready to stop practicing on dead tuna, I went out on a tuna boat to get healthy living bluefin tuna for fresh tissue.  I spent 2 weeks on the boat, was seasick the entire time, and then spent 2 years in a dark room looking at a little screen with images of tuna brain tissue. I was very happy to discover that tissue connecting the brain to that translucent window had retinal-like cells and other characteristics that gave insight to how real eyes in higher organisms functioned. Intellectually this was quite satisfying but at the same time the process of living in a dark room was about as far from what I enjoyed as anything could be.  I finished my research, published a paper that was well received, and was ready to move on.  I knew exactly what I did not want to do.  I did not want to be involved with electron microscopy in a lab studying anything even if was a wonderfully edible subject like a bluefin tuna.  But what I did want to do was a complete mystery.

Amazon River Dolphin (Adventures)

I am lying on the bottom in 10 feet of water.  It is the Amazon and nearby is a dolphin, Inia, that has just risen to the surface for a breath of air.  As it descends I reach out and stroke the side of the dolphin.  It does not withdraw.  Rather it shivers and comes to rest on the bottom nearby.  I rise, get a breath, and return to the bottom.  In a few minutes the dolphin rises and again, on its way down, I stroke it.  It hovers and I scratch it.  I rise for air and return to the bottom. The dolphin rises and then to my astonishment the dolphin comes back down and lays on top of me.  I roll over and scratch its underside.  It arches its back, presenting a wrinkled underside, and the scratching continues.  This is a wild dolphin!!! This is an even wilder experience for me!

A self portrait with the dolphin for my kids. Dolphin is voluntarily upside down to be scratched.

This event took place on our Cousteau Society Amazon Expedition in 1983.  A couple of days earlier our helicopter pilot discovered a dolphin in a semi-enclosed bay in a mall tributary of the Amazon River.  He radioed Calypso that dispatched a small team, in an inflatable Zodiac boat, that put a net across the bay.  We then called scientists studying this species of dolphin who were located in Manaus, Brazil a few hundred miles north of our location near Santarem, Brazil. Our sea plane then brought the scientists so they could conduct their research.  Our film team documented this and when they were finished it was my turn.  As the still photographer I wanted to get some photos and also spend an extended amount of time in the water with this totally wild dolphin to observe and explore its response to a human in a tranquil setting.  I had about 36 hours before the ship was supposed to move on.

This Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) was a little bigger than 6 feet (1.8 meters), white and pink, with very small eyes.  She rested on the bottom and came up to breathe every few minutes.  I entered the water with a weight belt on so I could sink to the bottom and just observe the dolphin.  At regular intervals, out of synch, we would each come to the surface to breathe and then go back to our resting spots on the bottom.  Since I did not impose myself on her, I was soon ignored, and the dolphin closed her eyes, presumably taking a nap.  I continued to just hang out for more than an hour.  Then I came to shore and got my camera.  Back with the dolphin I started taking pictures.  The click of the shutter surprised the dolphin and she awoke with a start.  After a while she got used to the sound of my taking pictures and went back to napping.  I spent the last remaining hours of daylight in the water with the dolphin.  The crew brought me some food, my sleeping mat, sleeping bag, bug spray, and a walkie talkie.  I was set for the night.  I wanted to stay with the dolphin to continue the process of our “getting to know each other.”  It was beautiful being alone on a beach in a very remote part of the Amazon with a totally wild dolphin nearby.  The light from the stars and the sound of bugs and frogs were magical.  After midnight I began to hear an eerie rumbling sound off in the distance.  A deep sound like thunder but sort of like moans that would get more and then less loud.  It was really spooky and I wondered if this little adventure was a good idea.  Eventually I realized the sounds were from a troop of howler monkeys far off in the distance.  Of course, for thousands of native people who live in these forests such things are commonplace but for me as a complete outsider it was still weird and sort of scary, particularly since I was alone.  But if those same people were to be plopped down in one of our large cities, they would certainly be even more overcome by sights and sounds even weirder than this was to me.

The next morning, I was back in the water with the dolphin.  It had no interest in me so we just lay on the bottom each coming to the surface to breathe on our own cycle.  I realized the dolphin had not eaten and radioed the ship to catch some fish and bring them to me.  Sometime later the Zodiac arrived with three fish.  Great, now the dolphin could have breakfast. I killed one fish, held it in my fingers and swam out to the dolphin.  I whapped the dolphin on the rostrum (nose) with the fish and let go. Nothing – the fish drifted to the bottom and lay there.  The dolphin was not interested.  I thought, “well it does not like dead fish, so I’ll bring another one alive.”  I did this and when I let go of the fish it swam away.  Immediately the dolphin rose up from the bottom and grabbed it.  I had one more fish left and returned with it in my hand. As soon as the dolphin saw me it lunged toward me and grabbed the fish. I freaked out as I was still holding the fish with my finger in its mouth. But to my relief the dolphin only took the fish and once out of my hand I then heard the crunching of bones.  It apparently knew not to bite the hand that was feeding it.  But adventure was not over!  The dolphin wanted more and it had just learned that at the end of my hand was food.  But there was no more food, I only had 3 fish.  The dolphin went for my other hand.  I put that hand behind me but the dolphin was persistent and kept going after whichever hand was closest.  She put her rostrum near my chest, under my arm, and once directly on my face mask.  This was scary so I started swimming toward shore.  Then all of a sudden I was slammed on my thigh by the dolphin.  I was hit hard by an aquatic creature that was bigger than I and far more powerful, who also had teeth!  She was obviously not happy that I had no more fish.  I, as a terrestrial creature, went back to my environment and waited for over half an hour before returning to the water.

Dolphin looking for another fish.

I entered the water cautiously but the dolphin ignored me so all was well.  We went back to lying on the bottom and coming to the surface to breathe whenever we felt the need.  As described above, I had an experience of a lifetime when I put out my arm to scratch and eventually scrub the dolphin. After a few more cycles of breathing and scrubbing I thought this might be a good photo.  I went to shore and returned with my camera.  The dolphin was quite receptive and eventually lay on its back so I could scrub its tummy.  This was totally amazing and I got the photo of the dolphin, on its back, with my arm around it that you see above.  What an experience to have a wild dolphin become so comfortable with me that it would allow and even invite me to touch and then rub it.

Later that day the Calypso team returned and we opened the enclosure to give the dolphin her freedom.  I was in the water as the boat pulled the net away.  I expected the dolphin to charge for the opening and disappear. But she didn’t!  Surely the dolphin was aware of the net being removed as these dolphins rely far more on sonar than vision in the murky waters of the Amazon.  But she did not immediately swim off.  Eventually she did leave and I was left with a sense of wonder for the opportunity I was given.  In a short period of time this animal came to trust me, allow me to touch it, and even invite my scratching.  It was a powerful lesson that if we are gentle and patient, nature will offer wonderful opportunities to connect with other species and leave us profoundly enriched from the experience.

Not all of my interactions with animals in the Amazon were as “friendly.”  In another part of the Amazon basin we were filming along the shore.  Suddenly one of our guides said there was an anaconda some distance away.  We rushed to get our in-water equipment material organized – underwater cameras, masks, etc.  Being the biologist / photographer, I was to help with the filming.  This was always the deal as our goal was to make a movie and still photos were merely peripheral to the larger agenda.  In fact, photographers were generally a pain in the derrière as they often got in the way of filming and were, certainly, not welcome being seen in the film as it made us look more like tourists than real expedition people.  I had learned early on with these expeditions that I should stay out of the camera’s view and preferably not even be there at all.  The photographer was definitely at the bottom of the expedition team pecking order. So I tried to help in other ways and then have a better chance of getting a few photos while staying out of trouble.

Anaconda and camera, each looking at the other.

We moved toward the snake that was in a foot or so of water.  The anaconda was about 12’ long and really thick, like that of a large man’s thigh.  The cameraman approached and began filming.  Predictably the anaconda began to move into deeper water.  It moved slowly and we got some footage but definitely needed more to make the story viable.  There was only one option.  Someone needed to grab the snake and drag it back into the shallows.  That someone was me.  I waded into water a bit deeper than my waist and grabbed the anaconda just behind its head.  It did not do anything in particular – no dramatic thrashing we have so often seen in movies.  It was heavy and it was a slow slog to drag it toward shore.  In a minute or so I could feel the snake pulling its body forward and trying to wrap itself around me.  Being a constrictor and being super strong, there was no way I could allow it to succeed in getting a grip on me.  I yelled to the cameraman, I had to let go in a few seconds, before it got a loop around my arms.  I released the snake and jumped back, leaving the cameraman to begin filming again.  The snake slowly began swimming into deeper water and the filming ceased.  Again, I said I would grab the snake and repeat the process.  As before, the snake slowly began pulling itself forward to wrap around me.  We made it to the shallows and filming resumed.  This time I said it was my turn as I needed to get some still photos.  My camera was brought to me.  I waded back out into deeper water, dragged the anaconda into the shallows and got ready to shoot some photos.  No one wants images of the tail of a snake moving away.  What we needed was an image of the snake swimming toward the camera.  So, I got in front of the anaconda and with the camera facing the snake began swimming backward.  I got a few great photos and then, all of a sudden, things changed.  I remember looking through the viewfinder and then seeing nothing but I heard and felt something dramatic. It was the teeth of the anaconda grating on the dome port of my camera and the camera being shoved into my face!  Twelve feet of anaconda had lunged forward, mouth open, attacking me! 

I was so lucky to have had the camera between the anaconda and my face.  We went our separate ways and I was left with a new perspective on anacondas.  This relatively large snake was remarkably docile, enduring considerable harassment from us, and only after 3 cycles of being dragged toward shore did it react in earnest.  No drama, no thrashing, no man against beast struggle.  Just a very beautiful and impressive animal doing its best to get away from being bothered by a relatively insignificant irritation – me!

Spider Webs, Space Stations,
and Crystal Chandeliers (Adventures)

A comb jelly in the open sea, about 2″ long.

I am weightless in total darkness – black above, below, and all around.  I only know up from down by the direction of my exhaled air,  my bubbles rise.  My head lamp illuminates strange things, their size ranges from tiny dots to things maybe a couple of feet long.  They are alive and mostly transparent.  They are as alien as anything I have ever experienced. Some look like spider webs, some tiny space stations, and some even look like crystal chandeliers. This is what I have come to see in the open ocean 1 mile from land and above the bottom over 10,000 feet below.  This is the world of gelatinous zooplankton – semitransparent, jelly-like animals that drift in the open sea.  The experience is both exhilarating and scary.

Let me back up.  A few minutes earlier I am standing on the deck of Alcyone (the Cousteau windship) at 9 PM, ready for the dive..  Tonight, there is no moon and I am near Nauru Island east of Papua New Guinea, almost on the equator.  Once I hit the water I swim down to maybe 30 feet.  As my light illuminates those semitransparent things the challenge is to figure out if something big is really something small close up or something truly big.  I swim closer and identify a barrel shaped thing pulsing with jet propulsion to move forward.  It’s a salp (one of the lowest members of our phylum but without a backbone).  Then I see something that looks like a spider web but pulls itself together to become a few little blobs that also pulse away.  Ah yes a siphonophore (a relative of jellyfish that can really sting).  I swim down a bit toward something the size of my thumb that looks like dumbo flapping its “ears” to move.  Yup a pteropod (swimming snail – ptero-wing, pod-foot). Then my light reveals something truly spectacular with bands of shimmering rainbows.  I move my camera to it and the motion rips the delicate membranes apart, destroying this amazing organism.  Sadly, I have killed a comb jelly or ctenophore, which is definitely among the most delicate organisms in the ocean and one of the most beautiful.  Ctenophores are one phylum more advanced than corals and jellyfish.  What I am experiencing is as other worldly as anything a human can enjoy on this planet.  (there will be photos of each of these critters)

The spectacle continues and I think I had better check my depth and air.  Whoa, I’m at 80 feet and the lights of the team are a bit too far away.  I ascend to a safer depth and continue the exploration.  To get the best photographic angle in this three-dimensional world without gravity I turn and twist.  Every now and then I stop and think, “pay attention, this is potentially dangerous!”  I’m weightless and in total darkness.  Since there is nothing I can orient to I sometimes have to look at my exhaled air bubbles to see which way is up.  It is sort of scary yet exhilarating to be in such a state of almost complete disorientation and detachment from all experiences I’ve had anywhere else. 

My fascination with this alien world began in the mid 1970s when Jean-Michel and I led a group of students from America to Wuvulu Island, Papua New Guinea to experience  coral reefs, rainforests, and a totally different culture.  One morning one of our staff, Henry Genthe, came to breakfast gushing about the amazing plankton he saw on an early morning dive.  He too was a marine biologist so he knew what he was talking about.  Next morning, I joined him and saw creatures I had only known through books with black and white drawings.  Henry and I were dazzled to see for the first time in our lives these amazing creatures alive and in their natural glory.  I took a lot of photos and eventually shared them with a couple of plankton experts at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  These well-respected scientists and world experts were not divers and had never seen the organisms they had dedicated their lives to in the natural environment.  It was refreshing to see them as dazzled as we were and I felt so lucky to have been among the few, in those days, to have seen this world first hand.

Then in the 1980s we had our expedition to Nauru Island.  This tiny island isolated in the Pacific was a site rich in phosphate, the accumulation of bird droppings deposited for over hundreds of years.  At that time the per capita income of a Nauru citizen was the highest in the world, based on the sale of that bird guano.  Everyone was rich but that wealth was derived from the actual phosphate-rich land of the island on which they lived. What we observed was bizarre.  The single road around the tiny island of 8 square miles was populated with Mercedes, BMWs and other expensive cars. The grocery store shelves were almost barren.  Eighty percent of the island was totally uninhabitable and unsuitable for farming because the phosphate removal left pinnacles of underlying limestone barren.  There was no topsoil in which to grow anything.  Without the natural vegetation, erosion of what topsoil remained and effects of mining had polluted the local waters and killed the reefs.  So, fishing as an option for protein was lost.  People lived on the perimeter of the island next to the sea where there were coconut palms and a few gardens.  The people were almost totally dependent on the outside world for food. 

The reason we were here in Nauru was because it seemed to be a very good example of what was beginning to happen at a planetary level.  These people had lived on this little oasis in the middle of the ocean for almost 3000 years.  They grew their own food, they fished, they had their traditions/culture, and they lived sustainably.  Then they turned their natural resources into money and got rich.  But people can’t eat money.  When the money either ran out or was lost through bad investments, the people suffered.  Sadly, this story was not unique but it was in the late 1980s and then one of the most dramatic examples of how not to manage a landscape and one’s natural resources.

Nauru had no port or at that time even docking facilities for our boat so we had to stay offshore and make sure not to drift onto the island.  Jean-Michel and I remembered our plankton dives on Wuvulu and thought there might be equally interesting planktonic populations here.  So, he commanded the team to suit up and dive after dinner to see what might be filmed.  This was not met with enthusiasm after everyone had been trudging about this landscape of pinnacles and desolation in the hot tropical sun.  But once in the water we were all amazed at the contrast and wonders.  Here was an island of mostly barren rock surrounded by what most would call the empty open sea of the tropics where productivity was comparable to the Sahara Desert.  Yet taking a closer look at these waters we discovered a wonderland of mystery and dazzling beauty.

Colonial radiolarian with hitch-hiking shrimp.

Generally, the open sea of the tropics is not rich in nutrients and as a result productivity is low, thus food is not particularly abundant.  Yet in this “biological desert” there is richness, not abundance but richness in diversity.  The animals we were observing were mostly water, some maybe 98 % water – they are truly water alive.  With organic material at a premium, residents of this world must be clever to survive at any level.  The life strategy of these gelatinous life forms was to be invisible or almost transparent to avoid being a meal for something else.  Seeing them in the daytime is very difficult because light simply passes through them but at night with artificial lights illuminating at an angle one can see the animals.  Many cannot be observed by divers in the day because they are gone.  They are hundreds of feet to more than one-thousand feet below the surface “hiding” in the twilight zone of the ocean where there is very little light.  Since phytoplankton make their food from the sun, they are largely limited to the surface waters.  So many of the planktonic animals we were seeing swim up to the surface where there is more food at dusk and then descend at dawn.  If one considers the biomass and size of these little animals and the distances they travel on a daily basis, they are part of the largest and longest (per body size) migration of any group of animals on our planet.

Their strategies for survival are varied.  The barrel shaped salps filter smaller plankton from the water as they use jet propulsion to move forward.  The siphonophores use the strategy of a spider, extending delicate stinging tentacles out into a web to ensnare and paralyze what they can catch for food.  This is quite efficient, using very little biomass and energy to cover a relatively large area of water for feeding.  The diversity of feeding and life cycle strategies is as strange as any science fiction humans could think up. 

We continued the nightly dives for a number of days and got spectacular footage.  One additional thing that amazed me was how each night was different.  One night we would see a world dominated by barrel shaped salps in long chains, another night it might be siphonophores with their spider web tentacle arrays, other nights it might be bioluminescent worms and a variety of winged snails – the pteropods.  When one looks across the open sea one sees a monotonous blue stretch of water extending to the horizon.  Even looking into the water presents a blue expanse of seemingly empty water.  BUT this monotony is an illusion.  We observed that there was incredible patchiness as indicated by what was hiding in the currents that passed by Nauru each night.

Years later I was on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles in California and I wanted to explore that region for gelatinous zooplankton.  We have an educational program, Ambassadors of the Environment, there and I enlisted one of the naturalists to be my dive buddy as venturing into the open ocean at night can be a dangerous enterprise, particularly if one is alone.  We had a boat driver and another person whose job was to hold the lights – one light on the boat so others could see us and another underwater so we divers could see where the boat was. My buddy and I swam down to 30 feet and saw nothing of particular interest so we descended further.  We went up and down and eventually found one of the most magnificent of all the creatures of this world.  It was a 9 inch long, pink/purple cone shaped colony of salps.  Each individual is tiny but collectively they make up the body of this thing, with each helping to propel the whole and in the process feeding on smaller creatures from the water they pump.  But the most exciting aspect of this thing called Pyrosoma (fire body) was its bioluminescence.  When touched the individuals gave off a twinkle of blueish light, making the entire colony glow.  I was ecstatic and trusted my buddy was as well.  I got a number of great photos and we ended the dive.  Once in the boat I described the spectacle to the other guys but my buddy was relatively subdued.  Back on land I asked him what he thought.  After a pause he said, “That was the most “blanking” scary experience of my life!”  I guess such adventures are not for everyone but no one can dismiss the beauty of those bits of water alive.

The salp, Pyrosoma, off the coast of Catalina, about 9″ long.

Full Circle – Holotropic Breathing (Adventures)

I am lying on my back in a large auditorium with 50 – 75 people.  We have been divided into pairs with each partner being someone we did not know before.   My eyes are closed and I’m listening to throbbing “shamanic” and classical music.  Within only 10 minutes lying there I hear people in the group wailing and crying. I think, “These people looked pretty normal but obviously there are some real loonies in the group.”  Then after only 10 more minutes I find myself sobbing and sobbing with tears flowing feely.  My female partner asks me if I’m all right and I say I am great.  In fact, I’m wonderful!

Some years before this event I met a man that said I would probably enjoy the writings of Stanislav Grof who was a psychiatrist at John’s Hopkins University.  The book I read first was, The Holotropic Mind, published in 1990. In the 1950s and 1960s Dr. Grof had been using LSD as a therapeutic tool to treat alcoholism and other disorders.  Once LSD became illegal to use he sought alternate ways of achieving the state of ego loss and transpersonal experiences that were so valuable in his treatment of patients.  With inspiration from Joseph Campbell, Gregory Bateson, Fritjof Capra, and others he came up with what he called Holotropic Breathing.  This technique involves elements from “modern consciousness research, anthropology, various depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology, Eastern spiritual practices, and mystical traditions of the world.”

Dr. Grof was scheduled to hold a workshop in Ireland just after an upcoming board meeting of the Cousteau Society in Paris.  My wife, Pam, and I were both going to attend and my son, Greg, on holiday from school decided to join us.

Our experience began with a lecture explaining the history of this “technique,”  how the workshop would be conducted, and what we could expect to experience.  My goal was to have an exhilarating visual hallucinogenic experience and a fundamental resetting of my brain’s perspective of reality, much as I had experienced on LSD years earlier.  I was not at all apprehensive, partly because this workshop would not involve any drugs

A lady about my age, in her 40s, and I found each other and agreed to be partners.  As it turned out, totally separately, Pam connected with her son.  We only learned of this after the workshop.  My son, Greg, partnered with a young woman probably in he 20s.  My partner was somewhat apprehensive, so I agreed to go first.  I lay on a mat and enjoyed the tranquility of a meditative state enhanced with nice music.  Within minutes I heard the wails of a number of people “releasing” and found this somewhat disruptive.  I figured they were experiencing some past trauma and felt somewhat smug that I had no such baggage.  But then my mind wandered to my dad and our “difficult” years.  I knew he loved me but I could not accept his abusive behavior to me but mostly to my mother.  Immediately I retreated into my comfortable and well-worn thought pattern of anger, resentment, and hate.  “That mean, drunken, belligerent, son-of-a-bitch!”  But I got back at him. I did my best to let him know in subtle terms, that would not evoke a beating from him,  how much I detested him and how low my respect for him really was. I tried to make him as miserable as he made me.  My mind wandered to my son across the room.  My perfect son Greg who I loved dearly and would do anything for.  I was so lucky to have such a wonderful kid.  I was filled with emotion thinking of my son.  Then I remembered that some of those words were similar to what I had heard years and years earlier from my dad as he spoke of his love for me.  That bastard!  Yet he certainly loved me.

What if my son ever said the things to me that I said to my dad?  How would I feel?  I would be devastated and experience maybe the greatest hurt of my life!  OMG, what did my dad feel when I was being as hurtful and sarcastic to him as I could possibly be?  How devastatingly painful must that have been!

For the first time in my entire life, I had a sense of empathy as I imagined what my dad must have felt.  Me, Mr. Scientist and paragon of rational objectivity, had never given my dad’s side of things a thought.  How insensitive!  A poor man trapped in a disease called alcoholism suffering such hurt from someone he loved so dearly!

So, for over 30 minutes I simply sobbed.  It was a wonderfully liberating experience because I felt my anger and hatred dissolving away.  At the same time. it was a bit uncomfortable.  My resentment had become a part of me as it had been reinforced over and over for most of my life.  So, the burden, an old friend, was being lifted but there was a bit of emptiness.  I would have to do some reprogramming of the memories and my interpretation of them.  They would remain but the coloring of them in red and orange would need to be modified to more pastel tones.  I still oscillate between the old comfortable anger and my new sense of compassion and empathy.

There remain complications that I’m still working on.  I was so certain that I was doing the right thing to tell my mother that she needed to divorce my dad.  In my opinion, he was killing her as he quit working to spend his days fishing and drinking then coming home and railing on her while she worked day and night to pay the rent and buy food.  Yet she loved him and he loved her. My youthful, simplistic, black and white views did not consider alternatives.  Could I have encouraged her, and even him, to find alternatives or to work together on solutions?  My anger and youth blinded me to anything other than termination.  My mother still loved him when he died in spite of the suffering she endured.  No doubt he suffered, in his own way, as well.  We all suffered!  Life is complicated!

Day in the Life of
a Fiji Bushman (Adventures)

My first sensation of March 26 was a desire to choke one particularly enthusiastic rooster taking full responsibility for summoning the sun to rise.  It was totally dark and the rooster’s biological clock, in my opinion, was way off.  Reluctantly, I accepted the fact that the day I had been anticipating for 4 years was to begin a bit earlier than I had hoped. I was under a large mosquito net hung from the ceiling of my friend Niumaia’s 2nd bedroom.  I was in a wood house perched on the side of a hill where one door opened onto two stairs, another opened onto 7 stairs and the other opened onto a vertical drop of 10 feet.  I had a view of other similar houses, gardens, fruit trees, flower bushes, cassava gardens, and fruit trees on the distant hillside.  This was Nasigasiga Village on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands.

Niumaia was my friend of 9 years who describes himself as a bushman.  I describe myself as a waterman or marine biologist.  A few years before we found ourselves without transportation on the Nasekawa River and ended up walking for hours sharing the similarities and differences in our respective lives.  Niumaia had grown up and spent his life in Fiji while I lived in California and traveled extensively with the Cousteaus.  One subject we shared in common was how we raised our kids.  We both had a great love of nature and wanted to make sure our kids not only appreciated the value of wild things and places but also felt comfortable living in nature, without what some people consider the “necessities” of life.  While Niumaia was taking his kids into the “bush” or rainforest and teaching them how to survive there, 5,000 miles away in California I was doing the same thing but in the sea.  I took my kids camping at the seashore where they learned to dive and how to collect scallops, abalone and fish for their meals. 

As we described the joys and challenges of inspiring a greater appreciation for wild places in the next generation, we each admitted our ignorance of each other’s preferred ecosystem.  It was on that long walk that we pledged to share our favorite wild places with each other.  Niumaia would teach me the ways of a bushman and I would teach him the ways of the sea.  Now I was in Niumaia’s village getting ready for our day in the bush.

I pulled back the mosquito netting and emerged into the dining/living room.  Through the door with no stairs I saw a typical village morning unfolding.  Smoke wafted from cooking houses where women were boiling water for tea.  People wandered toward the stream with men separated upstream from the women downstream.  Kids were busy doing chores or playing.  Here and there a household pig or dog was being fed the night’s leftovers.  One young man waved from his horse as he departed for his garden up the mountain.  Venturing off to the stream, I was hailed by villagers calling out yandra (good morning) or bula (hello).  Boys were already playing in the water when I arrived, splashing, laughing, and doing back flips off a rock. While shaving, I noticed semi-discreet glances which reminded me of how few white outsiders had visited the village.  Drying off I was struck by the beauty of the setting and how lucky I was to be experiencing a lifestyle relatively untouched by the materialism and haste of what we call civilization.  I was reminded of how little one needs when the free goods and services of nature are readily available.

Niumaia’s wife, Adi, had breakfast waiting for us.  We dined on cassava, rice, bananas, tea and bread.  By the time we were finished a group of 6 men and their 15 dogs were sitting outside the door. It was time to go.  I had no idea of what was to come other than the short explanation that we were going into the bush to get wild boar.  Not being a bushman, I decided to travel light, taking only a camera and Swiss army knife.  I wore hard soled rubber dive booties, shorts, T-shirt, and my favorite hat of 20 + years.  Most of the others carried a bush knife, some had a small backpack, two had a heavy iron spear, and no one wore shoes. Niumaia bid farewell to his wife and we were off.  I looked back at her smiling face and searched for the hint of a smirk at this white waterman’s presumption to think that he could keep up with native bushmen on a boar hunt.  My scrutiny was inconclusive.  Oh well, time would tell.

I walked in silence as the rest of the group chatted in their local language.  We proceeded up the stream, crossing it a number of times.  I was glad I had not worn hiking boots which would have to be kept dry.  We were mostly under the dense canopy of the forest.  It was cool and lush.  After a mile or so we stopped under a large banyan tree.  There was no underbrush as the density of the leaves and secondary trunks prevented most light from penetrating to the ground. 

Niumaia with pandanus plant used to weave mats.

It was under this tree that Niumaia explained the strategy would be to proceed toward the top of the mountain, dividing into two groups so the dogs could scour the bush for pigs between the groups.  He then walked some distance away and returned with an armful of leaves.  These were “salusalu” leaves used, as he called it, “to make the dogs hungry for the hunt.”  He then called a dog, held it firmly and buried its muzzle in a handful of leaves.  The dog did not resist.  Subsequently, the leaves were rubbed over its head and shoulders.  The dog was then released.  The procedure was repeated with a number of the dogs.  Niumaia explained that this is only done away from the village to avoid exciting the dogs where they could kill a chicken or pet pig.  He also mentioned that after the hunt, blood of the boar is rubbed all over the heads of the dogs to “calm them down.”  If this isn’t done they will continue to hunt and can, likewise, be dangerous back in the village.  Having completed this ritual, we trudged on in single file up the muddy trail. 

As we proceeded, Niumaia pointed out mango trees, citrus trees, and pineapples planted in years past.  This was done for future travelers and hunters so they would have food during their journey.  He seemed proud that people had the consideration to think of others in this way – a gesture of good will and bonding between the past and the present.  He cut a small pineapple and gave it to me. I thanked Niumaia but wondered how one might thank that unknown hunter of the past who had the courtesy of planting the pineapple in the first place?  Probably, the only appropriate thanks would be to do something comparable for the next generation.  At the time this seemed simple and obvious.  Reflecting on it later the little pineapple episode took on profound implications..… wouldn’t it be wonderful if such things were common in our modern, “civilized” communities.

We had already separated into two groups when we came across the first evidence of boars.   Parts of the ground had been dug up and here and there were faint trails of their comings and goings.  Eventually, in the distance we heard the excited yelps of dogs, presumably hot on the trail of boar.  Our dogs stopped immediately; their attention totally focused on the sound of the other dogs.  They did not receive the command to give chase, as the other dogs were too far away, and we continued on our trail. But our dogs were extremely excited, darting here and there and following the scent of past boar activity.  Yet they were very quiet.  Good dogs are trained only to bark and give chase to really recent, or hot trails, otherwise they just drive the boars further away with no hope of making contact.

It is now hour 3 of our trek and Niumaia suddenly stops and starts examining tree trunks.  He explains he is looking for traditional Fijian war paint.  With a whoop he says, “Over here, I’ve found it!”  He points to a black cone-shaped fungus drooping from a tree trunk.  It is called gumu.  He breaks it off and streaks it across my forehead and cheeks then does the same to himself, exclaiming that we are ready for war!  Certainly, this is a photo moment and we laughingly document two of the least warlike people on the planet trying to act tough.  Continuing, we come upon a wider trail which is the remnant of an old logging road.  It seems that the village leased logging rights to a foreign company to harvest the trees some years ago.  Surprised, I asked what he thought of the project.  He said, “We are more educated now and won’t allow anyone to come and cut our trees again. The forest is more valuable as a forest than just money from trees. When the bush was destroyed we lost hard wood for house frames, places to hunt for boars, medicine plants, ota ferns for eating, war paint, and even fishing.  When the forest is gone the soil turns the streams red and we can’t catch prawns or eels.” 

I asked him to tell me about the medicine plants.  He paused and then walked over to some vines growing in a sunny spot and returned with a handful of leaves which he then squeezed so that the juices could run onto a scratch on my leg.  “This is the mile-a-minute plant.  It is used to soothe wounds.  We have another plant we call the bona bula ma kau plant which is used to stop bleeding.  You see, my family traditionally has been the medicine people of our village.  My father and mother brought me here to learn about plants and healing and this is where I came with my kids.  The forest is important because this is where we teach our children about the ways of our ancestors.  If there is no forest, then how can we pass on our culture?  In the past sandalwood trees were used for chief’s houses.  Now the sandalwood is gone.  Europeans came over 100 years ago and cut them down….. all down.”  He stops talking.  My lesson is apparently over.  Typically, he does not condemn those outsiders who came to exploit Fiji’s natural resources.  A curious culture – once among the most fierce in the South Pacific, now the most hospitable, and apparently very generous.

In the distance we again hear yelps and howls of dogs.  I assume the other group has been successful in their quest for boar.  Our trek continues.  As we begin hour 6 of the adventure it appears that my group may not be successful in the hunt.  On one hand, it would have been interesting to experience completion of the hunt but were I to choose I think learning the ways of the local people, as I have done with Niumaia, would be my priority.

Niumaia points to a cut fern commenting that someone passed here a week ago.  He notices my perplexed look and points to the degree of healing – a clue to the passage of time.  A few moments later he stops and examines some cut bushes.  “See someone just passed by here and they were coming up the hill.”  I ask how he can tell which direction they were going.  “Notice the angle of the cut, you can only make such a cut if you are coming from that direction.” I protest asking what if the person is left-handed.  He matter of factly says, “A left-handed person would have cut like this,” swinging his bush knife and giving it a different angle altogether.

He decided it was time to stop to cook lunch.  Actually, I had thought it time for lunch hours ago but kept it to myself.  But, from my point of view, there was a problem.  Everything was totally soaked after a downpour an hour ago.  In spite of this branches were cut from a dead tree and I sat, smugly thinking, there is no way we are going to start a fire with this wood.  I watched as one of the group pulled a yellowish blob from his packet and began to pile the wood around it.  To my complete astonishment one match lighted the blob which then burned as though it had been soaked in gasoline.  Mystified at this yellow blob, I was told it is the pitch from a certain tree which is highly flammable.  The locals cut these trees from time to time so that the pitch will ooze out and can then be harvested when someone, later, passes.  Soon the wood had dried sufficiently to create a raging little fire.  Gently, a large breadfruit was placed directly on top of the fire.  The leaves of a ginger plant were cut and laid on the ground as a table and reclining mat.  We chatted and dozed as flames engulfed our breadfruit.  Suddenly, we are invaded by a troop of dogs with their masters behind.

The other group’s hunt had produced 7 boars – one probably 1 year old, the other 6 were only a couple of months old.  Three were alive and would be kept for pets and food eventually.  The other three had been killed by the dogs and were destined for our lunch.  Six branches in a “Y” shape were pounded into the ground at opposite sides of the fire.  Then 3 sticks were fashioned then poked through the 3 piglets.  They were turned from time to time over the modest fire.  When the breadfruit was spitting steam, and completely charred into what appeared to be an inedible chunk of carbon, and the meat cooked, we feasted.  The breadfruit,  which I previously thought tasteless, had a delightful smoked flavor – it was delicious. The pork was tender and beyond tasty!  The dogs waited in polite attendance totally focused on our every bite.  They gobbled up whatever we threw them but never fought among themselves and never approached us as we ate.  Finally, we concluded the little feast, leaving the “table” and scraps for the dogs to clean up.  It was then hour 7 and I felt totally rejuvenated.

As we began our trek back down the mountain, Niumaia showed me where some weeks before they had constructed a pig trap.  It consisted of a bent sapling attached to a noose laid on a boar trail.  The mechanism had worked well, yielding a 150 lb. boar.  He showed me how a walking stick thrust into the ground can be used to divert an attacking boar.  We discussed evidence of pigs rooting and their trails.

It was getting dark when we arrived at camp, 10 hours after we left.  Hastily we bathed and got ready for dinner. The women had been back for hours after a successful expedition to the river.  Their harvest consisted of prawns, eels, and water snails.

As the food was being prepared we discussed the day’s adventures and laughed at our various minor misfortunes.  Eventually, my 2nd feast of the day began with taro, cassava, rice, prawns, roasted pork and pork fat “stew” (made with fat, water, salt, pepper and a little flour added for thickening).

After dinner the Tanoa (kava bowl) was brought out and thus began 4 hours of kava fellowship.  As the evening progressed the discussion became more focused on the differences between our two worlds and lifestyles.  Niumaia’s relatives seemed remarkably at peace with themselves and their lives.  Of course, they were aware of the limited technology available to them, but they did not seem so enamored with the toys and gadgets of the outside world that they felt underprivileged or impoverished.

Eventually, as the invited guest of Niumaia, I was asked to tell them my impressions of their lives and how it compared to mine back in California.  I began by explaining that the most fundamental aspects of our lives were similar. We both have grocery stores, hardware stores, drug stores, transportation vehicles, energy needs, and issues of garbage and waste.  But each of these involved very different strategies of operation.  I explained that their grocery stores were the forest and gardens, the hardware stores were the forest which provided wood and materials for construction, and their drug stores were the medicine plants growing in the bush.  The major difference between the native and outside systems was that the shelves of their stores were restocked naturally with very little work and at no economic cost.  And if used judiciously they would continue to be restocked naturally, forever.  I explained that the land I lived on I did not own and if the owner wanted me off of the land, I could be removed even if I did not want to leave.  I said their village land was secure and that although they had less money, they had more security because they owned their land and the surrounding ecosystems that could always provide them with resources.  They nodded and seemed pleased that I saw this difference, which I presume they already knew.

With a twinkle I went on to explain that their village transportation system involved a few solar powered machines.  They looked at me as though I was nuts. I went on that these machines had the remarkable capacity to repair themselves, replace themselves when worn out, and produced fertilizer instead of pollution.  More looks of curiosity.  I said I was talking about horses, which feed on grass powered by sunlight, who heal their wounds and illnesses naturally, who produce colts to replace themselves, and whose manure is good fertilizer.  Niumaia told me to stop and he explained in the local language. All laughed and nodded in agreement.  He asked me to continue and I went on saying instead of expending vast amounts of effort to carry off and pile up garbage as city people do, villages recycle all of their kitchen waste on site by feeding it to pigs and chickens which villagers then eat. I rambled on explaining that these natural living machines and recycling systems are cheaper and have less impact on nature than the city counterparts. 

The following day was Sunday and Niumaia said we were going to church.  I said I did not have good clothes and he told me he had prepared for that and had what I would need.  This was a total surprise but as his guest I had no choice.  As we walked to church, he casually mentioned that he wanted me to address the congregation.  I said, “WHAT!!!! You want me to stand in front of all the village and talk?  You never mentioned this and now you spring this on me!!!  What do you want me to say?”  He said, “You are a good talker just talk to the people.”  Gawd!!!  I was not a religious person but respect religion particularly here in a village where religion is very important.  The service proceeded in the local language, so I had absolutely no idea about what was going on.  I could, though, relate to the beautiful harmony of the hymns.  Eventually the preacher motioned for me to come to the pulpit.  I was far from at ease but tried to appear confident.  I thanked all for their hospitality and related pleasantries.  I explained how impressed I was with the forest, gardens, and how they lived closely with nature.  I said I felt they were living mostly in accordance with God’s wishes, reminding them that it was Noah who dedicated his life to protecting God’s children – all species.  I said I was concerned that I had seen some plastic and trash around the village and that many families had a lot of children.  If there were more and more children then there would need to be more and more gardens and thus less and less natural forest.  I concluded that we all need to live in harmony with nature and make sure what we do does not degrade or destroy nature.  I looked at Niumaia and he seemed content, so I concluded and sat down. 

Next the minister took the pulpit and raved on and on.  I was so offended that these otherwise happy people were being fed fire and brimstone with threats of going to hell and so on.  The service ended and we all went our separate ways.  As Niumaia walked to his house, and out of earshot of others, I asked what the minister was raving on and on about.  He said, as a matter of fact, that the minister was just reiterating what I said, telling people to stop throwing trash and take care of nature.

The 9-hour flight from Fiji to Los Angeles was dedicated to napping and transcribing my notes.  Approaching LAX, I was blissfully wallowing in my memories when culture shock hit.  I looked out the window.  Not only was the entire field of view dominated by humanity (houses, buildings, shopping malls, freeways, etc.)  but there was almost no evidence of non-human living things.  As we circled the airport something jumped out at me.  It was the poorer regions which were virtual deserts while the more affluent areas were lushly vegetated.  Vegetation – an interesting statement about the quality of life.  Vegetation also exemplified how we can form partnerships with the other species with whom we share this planet.  It would seem that, to a very small degree, we retain some of the wisdom of our ancestors, and those like Niumaia, who depended on the free services of nature such as trees and “natural” habitats to provide goods, services and tranquility.

 I wonder, as the price of petroleum continues to rise and as other resources dwindle, will we begin to appreciate these free services more?  Will we form such alliances willingly or will we be reluctantly forced into them? Such things as constructed wetlands to treat sewage, solar power, energy efficient buildings, electric cars, recycling, replacement of plastic by recyclable materials, and industrial waste reduction programs are beginning to be taken seriously.  But are we changing fast enough to protect and restore the natural systems which keep the planet habitable?  I’m hopeful but not totally convinced. Certainly, this adventure in Niumaia’s forest made it clear to me that living gently with nature offers benefits unattainable in any other way.

Surprises in Fjords and Forests (Adventures)

Calypso is anchored in a calm bay/fjord next to towering mountains, totally forested, it is drizzling, and we are ready to dive.  The water is cold (in the 40s), brown in color, and the visibility is only a few feet at most. My enthusiasm is low.  But the water is drinkable so there is one plus to this dive, its freshwater run-off from the towering mountains.  We descend and at about 15 feet the water becomes clear, at least 10 degrees warmer, and salty.  This is a totally weird environment and completely new to me!  Usually in the ocean it is colder the deeper one goes; this was the opposite.  Attached to the underwater cliffs below us are gigantic, really gigantic, bushes of black coral – 6 to 10 feet across! I have only seen black coral colonies in the tropics under ledges a couple of feet across.  This is amazing! On the bottom I am further astonished to see brachiopods.  Some have been called living fossils and I have never seen one alive as many species live in the deep sea.  They are attached to the bottom by a stalk, they have two shells (top and bottom unlike clams that have their shells on each side), and they have been around for 500 million years.  This is one of the weirdest dives of my life!

We were in Fjordland, New Zealand where the absence of wind and currents allowed fresh water to float on the, more dense, sea water below.  The dark color of the water was due to the decaying vegetation (tannins) from the forest above.  The low light was conducive to the black corals that do not thrive in bright light.  Again, I was reminded of how wonderfully diverse is the ocean, just about everywhere I had been there was always a new mystery to discover.

This expedition began in Tahiti and it would require a full week of sailing to get to New Zealand.  Captain Cousteau was on board.  He and I had a date each morning at 9 AM.  I would go to his cabin and we would dedicate 1 hr. to discussing a subject that had been chosen the day before by one of us, we took alternating days.  Many of the subjects were based on books we had both or separately read.  Subjects we pondered follow. Do we humans really have free will or is our subconscious pre-programming what is really driving our behavior? (Beyond Freedom and Dignity – B. F. Skinner).  Is there any alternative to the situation where among competing groups of people the one with the most physical power will always win? (The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution – Andrew Bard Schmookler).  Are we really just the packages the information in our genes has created to store and perpetuate that information? (The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins).  Other subjects included: is a true democracy really workable, is a college education for all realistic or even good, how should nature be valued economically, and what is missing in capitalism that could make it socially and environmentally responsible.  Captain Cousteau had an insatiable curiosity and, at such times as these, always willing to delve into an amazing spectrum of subjects.

Upon arrival in New Zealand Captain Cousteau was interviewed by the press; his responses to their questions provided interesting insights about how he approached our expeditions.  It was not at all what the media had expected and, in some cases, even wanted.   When asked why he had come to New Zealand and what he hoped to find, he responded, “I have come to New Zealand because I’ve never been here before. If I knew what I hoped to find, I wouldn’t have come.”  His response to a question about how he intended to interact with politicians was, “We pay very little attention to politicians they come and go. But we care a lot about the people. Our concern is with public education.”

Welcome from Maori community.

With open minds, curiosity, and a commitment to public education we began our exploration of New Zealand.  Our initial research suggested we would find a fascinating land with a rich history of human involvement.  The statistics back in the 1990s were impressive:

  • A history of geological isolation extending back over  65,000,000 years.
  • The evolution of over 30 species of flightless birds.
  • Only two indigenous land mammals, both bats.
  • Home of the last remaining species of a very ancient group of lizards (Rynchocepalia).
  • Caves whose ceilings are festooned with sticky threads fabricated by fly larvae which use bioluminescent  light to attract their prey (flying insects, even adults of their own species).
  • The largest/densest population of black coral colonies known, in Fiordland.

Some of the best examples of the extreme vulnerability of indigenous species to human impact.  All of the over twenty species of flightless moas (some 15 feet tall) are now extinct.  Eleven percent (318 bird species) of the Global list of endangered species exist in New Zealand – 34 species were extinguished at the hands of Maoris and 14 species after whites arrived.

Species introduction has in many cases drastically altered entire ecosystems.  In the late 1800’s rabbits reached plague proportions, outcompeting cattle and sheep for vegetation and causing extreme erosion from overgrazing.  Predators introduced to control the rabbits (ferrets, weasels, etc.) found it easier to prey on indigenous species such as reptiles and already endangered flightless birds. Australian opossums were introduced and cultivated for their fur but thy gnawed trees, killing them, modifying the forest ecosystem, and eliminating an important source of food and habitat for native birds. Attempts to trap and poison the opossums then resulted further impact to the native bird populations since they too were poisoned and trapped.

The statistics convey but little of what we experienced in New Zealand, the raging weather in some cases, the colors of everything living and nonliving, the animals,  and the forests with giant ferns, and strange rata trees above water and kelp beds below water.   We were heartened to see many areas with very healthy ecosystems where we could observe the myriad of ecological connections – among organisms and between them and their environment. 

After the adventure of diving in Fijordland with the black corals we proceeded south to Enderby Island, which is part of the Auckland Island archipelago.  On the way I had one of the most weird experiences of my life.  I was on watch maybe at 1 or 2 AM and gradually noticed light on the horizon.   We were in the open sea; I checked the nautical charts and there was no land  in our part of the ocean. But as we proceeded the light became brighter, with the appearance of the glow of a city just beyond the horizon.  This was really spooky, and my mind raced through all the possibilities, even an alien invasion.  Nothing made sense.  We woke Falco, the long-time associate of Captain Cousteau and the official captain of Calypso, and we all decided to investigate. We changed course.  Eventually we could see somewhere between 20 and 30 individual points of very bright light.  This was still a mystery.  Finally, we got close enough to see they were boats and then realized they were fishing boats using lights to attract whatever they were trying to catch.  We approached one boat and could see they were squid boats but there was not a single person moving about the deck.  We decided this needed to be filmed and rousted the film team. Eventually we did see someone on board and got permission to film.  This fishing method was a totally “hands-off” operation.  A weighted line with a lure/jig at each end was looped over a stainless-steel rotating drum.  As one end was raised, the motion attracted a squid that got hooked on the jig, and as the squid came up to the drum the barbless hook released the squid into a half pipe where it slid down into the hold of the boat.  That end of the line then descended and the other end, with its catch, came up and released its catch.  This was a surreal scene – squid coming out of the ocean squirting ink, silence other than the squeaking of the turning drums, no people, bright lights, a black ocean, in the middle of the night.  Gotta be one of the strangest scenes of my life!

The next day we arrived at Sandy Beach, Enderby Island.  Our first challenge was to get across a 30-foot stretch of beach strewn with kelp.  The first person who jumped off the Zodiac sunk up to his knees in slippery, decaying algae; the second, sunk almost up to his waist.  When the laughter died down the rest of us took a lateral course to an area with less algae but where there was a colony of endemic Hooker sea lions.  We were told these sea lions would not attack as long as we did not look them directly in the eyes.   We had to keep our gaze down which would denote submission while eye contact would signal confrontation and result in an attack.  As we proceeded along the beach we had numerous opportunities to use this advice.  The first few encounters with the sea lions took considerable self-control to look away or turn one’s back on a few hundred-pound bull or female making nasal hissing sounds and halting charges at us. What an introduction to this island and what a contrast to what we experienced inland.

Inland a low dense canopy of Rata trees (Metrosideros umbellata) created a stunted forest labyrinth of barren, gnarled trunks with almost no bushy undergrowth.  It was so dark that from outside almost nothing could be seen of the inner forest beyond.  The team stopped to film a sea lion and her pup.  Ahead another female appeared and entered the forest.  I followed at some distance and noticed at the forest edge, where a stream emerged, three yellow eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipoda)!  They, and I, watch as the sea lion passed into the forest. I proceeded laterally to film the sea lion at the forest edge with the trees, beach, and Calypso beyond.  But to my surprise the sea lion did not stop its progression into the forest.  As the sea lion and I continued, we crossed relatively open areas covered by a mat of mosses, packed earth trails, and occasional dense stands of small Rata trees.  As contrasted to the shoreline, here there is no wind and the silence was only interrupted from time to time by the beautiful song of the  bellbird (Anthornis melanura).  All was green and brown except for occasional patches of dull red on the forest floor where the blossoms of the Rata trees had fallen.  I felt as though I was entering an enchanted forest from a fairy tale.  The sea lion continued deeper and deeper.  I followed, temporarily giving up on getting any pictures due to the darkness and movement of the sea lion.  After about twenty minutes of progress, we were about 1/4 mile into the forest.

Amazed, I proceed away from shore and found even more sea lions.  Ahead lay a female, sleeping with her pup and nearby four other pups playing together. As the female I had been following got nearer, the pups focused their attention on the newcomer.  Two left the group and approached.  The first to arrive was soundly rejected with a nasal hiss and snap.  The second was accepted.   The female then stopped, and the pup clamored over to what is presumably mom, in search of a meal.  She appeared totally disinterested and bent on a nap, but the pup was persistent. Eventually the female rolled over a bit presenting a nipple, whereupon the pup and mother ceased all activity.  Nearby the remaining three pups played and the other mother and pup napped – an incredibly peaceful setting.  This was an even greater fairy tale setting and I felt transported into a make-believe wonderland.

Filming sea lion pups in the Rata forest.

Rata in Maori means quiet, tame, familiar, or friendly.  Maori legend tells of Rata, a Polynesian demigod, who struggled to avenge his father’s death and needed to build a canoe.   After cutting down a tree he returned the following day to find the tree standing tall and healthy.  Subsequent fellings of the same tree resulted in its reconstitution the following day.  Ultimately, Rata learned from the wood spirits that he had insulted the Lord of the Forests by not recanting the proper invocations before cutting it and these spirits had reassembled the tree each time.  Upon conducting the proper ceremonial ritual, the wood spirits helped him build  the canoe and he went on to recover his father’s bones and slay his enemies.  In the past Maori chiefs where sometimes called Rata Whakatau signifying their role as protector. 

Clearly, Rata is an appropriate name for these trees on Enderby Island.  Here almost to the Antarctic, in the zone where some of the worst weather on the planet rages (the roaring 40’s and screaming 50’s) marine animals seek refuge in a forest.  This strange, dark, stunted, lush forest, with its open spaces and barren trunks, is vaguely reminiscent of the forests in Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty.

Upon leaving the Rata forest Captain Cousteau commented, “When I actually saw sea lions and penguins roaming in a deep forest I was as surprised as if I had met giraffes and ostriches on an iceberg.”

On a global scale sea lions and penguins in a forest do not make the difference between a habitable planet and one that is not.  But they symbolize the connections between all living things.  Their existence is testimony to a few billion years of evolution working against the constant force of chaos (entropy).  From an abiotic planet has come bewildering biological and ecological complexity bringing with it greater opportunities for control, integration, modification, and sometimes stability.  Contrasting this, apparent, global tendency is humanity’s consistent simplification of the landscape, converting self-sustaining ecosystems into subsidy (fertilizer, pesticide, machine) dependent ecosystems and in the process destroying species and natural habitats.

Who can hope to truly understand and appreciate millions of years of evolutionary progress, the complexity of ecosystems, the full impact of man on the biosphere or how we should behave as a species on the planet?  Such ponderous questions are beyond most of us. Yet humanity cannot afford to forget or ignore the connections which inextricably link us to nature.  I wondered, there on Calypso’s bridge far from everything familiar, about reconnecting with nature, about changing humanity’s perspectives, and our collective behavior.  Is there a best course of action?  Must there be personal experience with nature to give us powerful feelings of inspiration and wonder?  Should we have to indulge in reflection that can only emerge from a walk-in nature to ensure that people will protect what they love?  Or should we look to more to science, communicating scientific understanding of the wonders we have just experienced? Or rather ought we focus on our humanity, sharing poetry and searching for metaphor – like penguins and sea lions in the forest? Maybe they are all necessary.

A Bad Day – (Adventures)

I am on a Princess Cruise ship standing in an auditorium facing an audience of mostly elderly people.  They are expecting to see Jean-Michel Cousteau but he was in the hospital so instead they get me. I am his replacement.  Like Cousteau I too have some medical problems – 2nd degree burns on the right side of my face and right arm.  The burn is hidden by a bandage.  The ship’s nurse helped me minimize the size of the bandage for this presentation with tape to keep it in place.  My instruction to the audiovisual guy were to make sure all was working so that after my very short introduction, we could cut the lights, and I could disappear in the darkness to give my presentation.   I hate standing up in public as I had a bad experience when I was a kid.  So, this is really stressful. It is time to begin.  I explain that Jean-Michel Cousteau and I had just returned from Papua New Guinea and he had contracted a mysterious disease and was in the hospital.  I am his replacement bandage and all.  I say that we want to share some stories about our adventures on a tiny island called Wuvulu off the north coast of the mainland.  That is the cue for the AV guy to turn off the lights and turn on the projector.  The lights go off but the projector does not go on! Nothing!  A blank screen!  The lights go back on and there I am standing, emotionally naked, in front of a bunch of people whose great expectations are certainly declining by the second.  AV guy says there is a problem.  Duh, there is a big problem for me. So, I start talking and perspiring.  Within no time the perspiration, under the tape, starts causing my bandage to slip.  I try, discretely, to use my wrist to nudge the bandage back up but the movement just increases the slippage.  I continue for a few more minutes (which seem like eternity), the lights go off, the projector turns on, and I am happily in the dark where I can seriously push the bandage back in place.

Events leading up to this were about as bad as the on-stage fiasco.  In 6th grade my class elected me to be the representative to run for president of the grade school.  There were 4 classes and thus  4 candidates competing.  My mother was very supportive as she believed that being a good public speaker was important to success in life.  She grew up in Iowa on a farm where the main crop was corn.  Eventually the family moved to California with dreams of a new life as city people.  She was sensitive to the fact that they all might be perceived as country hicks so there was considerable emphasis from my mother on grammar, vocabulary, manners, and such things as public speaking.  For a number of years we had season tickets to the local symphony and to series of light operas.  So my mother was more than happy to help me write my speech and to practice giving it to her.  The day came where the 4 of us would stand up in front of the entire student body and give our presentations.  I was ready!  I walked on stage, looked at all of those people, and totally froze.  My mind went blank.  I started saying something but it was garbled and in mumbles. Thankfully my mother gave me a printed copy of the speech and put it in my pocket. I pulled it out and read it in a meek, quaking voice.

For weeks afterward kids would mimic me fumbling with imaginary notes and giving a pathetic speech.  Everyone would then laugh and walk away, leaving me there to suffer.  The predictable lesson from that was – NEVER stand up in front of people and give a speech.  Since I was always drawn to science and the ocean, a life as a marine biologist as I envisioned it then was perfect.  Out in the tidepools or diving in a kelp bed studying fascinating things with the involvement of very few people and then taking samples back to a lab to be catalogued or studied in an aquarium was for me and there would be no public speaking! 

My vow to never speak in public was not a problem when I began working for the Cousteaus.  I got to dive, do science, learn about fascinating things, and travel but eventually  “the issue” raised its ugly head.  At times they expected, and even demanded, that I make a presentation. Of course, I objected saying that I was a science guy and the public wanted to hear from real Cousteaus not some nobody science guy.  My solution to this uncomfortable situation was to learn underwater photography. When I was forced to do something in front of an audience I could turn off the lights, turn on the projector, and have everyone look at the photos not me!  I now love photography and am reminded of how one very negative situation can eventually turn into something very positive.  That is sort of the story of my life – having difficulties that ultimately turned into some of the best aspects of my life.

It was in the early 1970s when Jean-Michel and I returned from our Papua New Guinea adventure.  He and his business partner, Francois Brenot, had just established a relationship with Princess Cruises where Jean-Michel would be featured celebrity of the cruise.  There was, predictably, a great marketing/publicity program by Princess Cruises to make this new relationship a success.  This was to be the first cruise of this new partnership.

So, I was sitting at my desk in the Hollywood office when Francois said Jean-Michel was in the hospital and that I would have to take his place on the cruise. I said this was impossible as I had a wife and two little kids who were at home and because I had just been gone for 1 month in Papua New Guinea I could not go.  My wife was already beyond agitated with my absence.  I said that he, Francois, was French and had been with us and thus a far better replacement.  He said that he could not for reasons I don’t remember. I said then cancel the cruse. He said the company needed the money and that if I wanted my next paycheck that I had to go – period!

So at 3 in the afternoon it was decided that at 10 am the following day I would be on a plane to Vancouver where I would meet the ship and begin my first experience on a cruise ship, doing exactly what I vowed years before never to do.  To hide during  my presentations I would need slides and movies.  The slides were at Jean-Michel’s house in north Hollywood and the movies were at the Canadian Film Board in downtown Los Angeles.  There was very little time to get these resources. 

As I rushed over the Sepulveda Pass from the office to Jean-Michel’s house, I noticed the temperature of the car was almost to boiling. I pulled into a service station and discovered a leak in the radiator hose.  There was no time to get it repaired.  I refilled the radiator and was off.  By the time I got to Jean-Michel’s house the temperate was boiling.  I parked, opened the hood, and loosened the cap on the radiator – stupidly.  The cap blew off and steam exploded onto my face and arm, scalding both. I ran into the house and splashed water on my face. As I looked in the mirror I saw pieces of skin in the water running off my face.  I ran to the kitchen and got a cube of butter and rubbed it all over my face.  Then I got the slide carousels, put them in the car, and went off to get the garden hose to fill the radiator.  It was a few feet short of reaching the engine. I hopped into the car and backed up to get the car near the hose. I left the door open and as I backed up it hit a tree bending it far forward.  I then filled the radiator. Closed the door from the outside since it was so bent I could not close it from inside. Then I climbed across from the passenger seat to the driver seat and was off.

The pain was modest but when the afternoon sun hit my burnt skin directly it was excruciating.  I was reminded of what flatworms must feel when I turn over a rock at low tide on a sunny day.  I am now very careful in tidepools to respect the little creatures that I’m exposing to the direct rays of the sun because I think I know how they feel!

The traffic in downtown LA was not too bad and I made it to the Canadian Film Board just before closing.  At the counter the guy was chatting with an attractive woman.  I was in a hurry and, probably impatiently, asked if he could help me. In a sarcastic voice he said he would get to me when he was finished.  I had kept my burnt side away from him but calculated I might get some mileage out of my disfigurement.  So, I turned my bad side to him again asking if he could help me as I was on my way to the hospital. It worked!  He and the woman were sort of horrified and he got on my order promptly.

Back in the car I drove home to Long Beach and went to a pharmacy.  I asked the guy what was the best ointment for burns and showed him my face.  He said he would not sell me anything and that I needed to go to a hospital. I  said thanks for the advice but for right now I just wanted something for burns. He said no deal. I said, “Look you are in the business of selling stuff, I have money and want to buy stuff, so let’s get focused on our respective realities – you sell, I buy, and I leave.”  He said nope go to a hospital.  I stomped out and called my wife, Judy, a nurse.  I explained the whole story and she said I really did need to go to a hospital.  She is always calm in real calamities and so I did what she said.  By now I had a system.  Show the bad side, ask for something, and get immediate service.  So, at the emergency room I approached the counter with my bad side and said I needed help.  Instantly I was at the front of the line and then into a room.  Quickly, a doctor came in and asked for the story of what happened.  After that he explained the risks of infection from 2nd degree burns such as this, slathered ointment on me, and then began with a bandage. He started on the good side of my head and started wrapping. I said I was to be on a plane tomorrow morning and did not want to look like a mummy so maybe he could cut back a bit on the wrapping.  He said I would not be on a plane tomorrow and that I would be back here for more treatment.  I realized it was easier to agree than fight so I said fine and to just go ahead and wrap.  My wife the nurse could redo this later.  I departed with two eye holes, one place to breathe, and half of my mouth free to eat.

It was a short trip home and I opened the door and called out in a cheerful voice, “Hey, kids I’m home.”  My daughter, Jeanne age 3, came to the top of the stairs, saw me, and burst into tears.  At that point so did I!   I think she thought I was an alien or something from a horror movie.  Greg, age 5, came and with his normal empathy asked what happened.  I gave him the full story.  Eventually, Judy came home and, totally calm, checked out the burned areas and said she could make the bandage smaller the following morning.

Upon arrival at the dock where the ship was berthed in Vancouver, I checked in and explained that I would be Cousteau’s replacement.  Instead of being directed to my cabin, I was told I had better see the captain.  I knocked on his door and explained my situation.  I will never forget his expression.  It was exactly what I would have if I were barefoot and on a warm day stepped in a pile of dog poop!

My first experience on a cruise ship was sequestering myself in my cabin, taking all meals there, and only emerging for daily visits to the nurse for bandage renewal.  Then 4 or 5 days later the Princess Patter (ship’s newspaper) appeared under my door with an announcement that the Cousteau program would be the following day.  I immediately went to the audiovisual guy to make sure everything would go smoothly and quickly the next day. I gave him my carousel of slides and explained that I would give a very brief introduction as I did not want to stand in front of the audience with the lights on for more than a couple of minutes.  Thus, he needed to make sure all was in order ahead of time.  He agreed and I went off to see the nurse and ensure next morning, early, she could make the bandage as small as possible.  She agreed and I retreated to my cabin.

Next morning the audience was mostly composed of people who could have been my grandparents.  After the on-stage catastrophe, those elderly people seemed to appreciate my difficult situation. They were very generous and by the end of the cruise we were all very close.  At that point bandages were almost gone and I was invited to dine with a number of the passengers.  I will always appreciate their generosity and I now try to be equally supportive of young people in a difficult situation.  I was never happier to return home after my first experience on a cruise ship.

Civilization – A Good Idea? (Adventure)

I have arrived in a place where the local people believe that after creation, earth was inhabited by ancestral beings who wandered across the landscape, molding its features by their actions.  A mountain was the site where a being rested; a monolith was a spear used in battle; a gorge was created by the blow of an axe.  This was the time when the echidna got its spines, the emu lost flight, and alliances or animosities developed between species.  These beings were simultaneously animal and human, and they became the totemic ancestors which spiritually link each person to a particular species or natural object.  If someone received the spirit of a particular totemic animal before birth he/she will be linked to that species and to other people of the same totem for life.  One will not kill or eat an animal of one’s totemic clan or marry someone with the same totem.  When traveling, one seeks people who share a totem for refuge and companionship.  This spiritual kinship between people and nature is an important element in their perception of, and respect for, nature. If we consider such beliefs primitive, we need to remember these people have occupied their homeland for over 50,000 years without destroying it and without undermining the quality of their lives.  I am in northern Australia.

Over the course of returning home from our Cousteau Rediscovery of the World expeditions, integrating into life at home became increasingly difficult.  Expedition research and contact with indigenous people raised unsettling questions, even though the cultural contrasts were fascinating–the foods, appearances, architecture, boats, music, dance, crafts, and tools.  The real difficulty, however, lay in the shock of reentry into “civilization” and the contrast in life-styles.  This shock was particularly intense after the Papua New Guinea and Western Australia expeditions.  I was forced to examine some fundamental questions:  Which systems offer a higher quality of life, greater security, more personal freedom, and fulfillment?  Which provides a healthful life-style, more leisure, a greater sense of well-being, and sustainability?  

In Western Australia, part of our expedition focused on Aboriginals.  Surely these people, having almost no material possessions, and living on some of the most unproductive lands in one of the harshest climates on the planet, could not make the benefits of civilization questionable.  Historical accounts from explorers left no doubt that the great western desert was not suitable to human habitation.  Colonel Peter Egerton Warburton wrote of his 1875 expedition “…ants swarmed over everything, and over us; indeed they wanted to take away the cockatoos we had for dinner but we rescued them… deepened last night’s well but with no better results than yesterday.  Started in a north-westerly direction and sunk another… no water; … dug three more wells… same unsuccessful results… last known water already 50 miles away… The heat is now very great and the camels are suffering from traveling during the day over hot sand and steep hills… my riding camel has completely broken down… and we could only get her on her legs again by lighting some spinifex (grass) under her tail… master bull camel has eaten poison, and is very ill… Our position is most critical in consequence of the weakness of the camels… God have mercy upon us for we are brought very low… Our miseries are not a little increased by the ants.  We cannot get a moment’s rest night or day…” It would seem that life for anyone in this environment must as Hobbes’ put it be “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” 

En route from Perth to Broome, Australia, I flew over the western desert, a vast blank expanse as desolate as any region I have seen.  In the Kimberley region (NW Australia), lush by comparison but still marginal, we scouted by small plane. White Australians spoke of heat and summer flies and wished us luck when they learned ours was to be a summer expedition.  We inquired about the traditional people of this region and generally got one of two answers.  There was the nineteenth-century American attitude toward Indians as being unproductive and an impediment to progress.  The other perspective regarded Aboriginals as having a very different culture and value system, as deserving equality, and as undergoing a difficult period of transition toward a future which would likely blend tradition with modern ways. 

We met with scientists and resource managers that were developing programs with a Aboriginals who would participate in the management of their lands, conduct scientific surveys of coastal marine life, and act as park rangers for tourists.  We heard stories of Aboriginal communities which have rejected foreign religion and attempted to restore their traditional culture.  We witnessed the problems of alcohol in Aboriginal society and reviewed a treaty draft, prepared by the Sovereign Aboriginal Coalition, declaring recognition of Aboriginal ownership of Australia, and demanding compensation to the New Aboriginal Nation of $1 billion within four weeks of the establishment of a treaty, along with entry restrictions to Aboriginal sacred sites.  This was 1990.  Our team helped eighty-five-year-old Patsy Lutundu, an Aboriginal woman, return, probably for the last time in her life, to a cave rich in rock art of special significance to her.  One team member described Patsy as having an old appearance, a very young mind, and the agility of a person half her age. 

We learned of scientists who look to Aboriginals for guidance in using fire to manage the land and for information on the distribution of mammal populations.  We explored a landscape inhabited by humans for about 50,000 years but which shows no evidence of their occupation except for artistic carvings and paintings.  I came to appreciate a surprisingly complex culture which embodies greater ecological knowledge and wisdom – more than any I had experienced on previous expeditions.

Because past Aboriginals grow nothing, build nothing and stay nowhere for very long, many whites thought until recently that Aboriginal culture was primitive, simple, savage, and barbaric.  The brutal treatment which Aboriginals have received at the hands of white Australians is testimony to such beliefs.  In comparing cultures, Westerners often pass judgment on the basis of material achievements: pyramids, temples, cities, aqueducts, and architecture but sometimes fail to consider the development of belief systems and survival strategies which meet human needs over time.  One of my lingering reentry questions was:  Can we call a human system, whether it be a civilization or a culture, successful if it creates the potential to bring about its own demise and incurs in its decline greater hardship and misery than existed before its development?  History shows that civilizations are not enduring human systems.  From an evolutionary point of view, the fact that Aboriginals still exist demonstrates that their culture and survival strategies have some redeeming qualities.  Here is some background (quoted from references below) that led to my questioning.


The Aboriginal view of the universe embodies myth, ritual, totems, songlines, and law, all integrated under what is called “Dreamtime,” “The Dreaming” or “Dreaming.”  This “time” is a sacred period long ago when the universe, humankind and nature came to be what they are.  Yet Dreaming also embodies the present and the future; it is “everywhen.”  As a unifying concept of the world, it describes what happened, the character of events which still happen, and the order under which the future will unfold. I found the concept of everywhere and everywhen intriguing.

Artwork of Ainslie Roberts who interprets Aboriginal mythology.


As Dreamtime beings traveled across Australia, they left a trail of songs describing natural features.  These songlines can be used as maps to guide a traveler.  Songlines and totems are linked so that a particular songline is known only by members of its particular totem.  The songlines crisscross all of Australia, traversing lands of many different clans.  Although it is unlikely that one clan member knows the words of an entire songline, the melody would be recognizable, enabling anyone of that songline to position his particular stanza on the entire score.  In western terms such songlines have been described as a kind of vocal map or geographical music score.  Anthropologists have described the songline singing as guttural and nasalized, “punctuated with screams, whoops, grunts, and  falsetto ululation” and “completely different from most other vocal qualities of the world.”  There is great practical value in songlines; since the ancestors often traveled from waterhole to waterhole, the more easily memorized musical map of the desert provides directions to water in regions not previously visited.

The Law

While Dreamtime beings roamed the surface of earth, creating songlines and natural features, the guiding principles of life were established.  These principles, or cultural codes of conduct, include morality, taboos, marriage, initiation rites, etc.  Functionally, such laws serve to perpetuate human life and Aboriginal culture.  These principles also include religious ceremonies relating to the larger system: the spirits, other species and the cosmos.  Since there is no great distinction or hierarchy among species, including humans, it is assumed that all other species also have their own codes of conduct or law.  Responsibility is a key element; each species has free will to act according to its own law, and actions contrary to the law are seen as being against cosmic order and thus against oneself.

Aborigines believe that the existence of such laws is revealed by the predictability of each species being found in its own habitat, the seasonal production of seeds, the nesting of a particular species of bird in a particular species of tree, and the preference of predators for certain prey.  A northern Aboriginal myth about the seasons explains how the law creates order:  The sun lives in the sky, cooks the earth and nurtures the growth of plants and animals.  Rain is a rainbow snake which lives in waterholes and cools and washes the earth.  When the earth becomes too hot, flying foxes retreat to waterholes which signal the snake that it is time for action.  As the rainbow snake emerges, it spits, causing lightning, thunder and rain.  Eventually the rainbow snake becomes dangerous, whereupon other forces take charge.  The wind comes and breaks the snake’s back and the sun burns it, ultimately taking over and initiating a new cycle.  Each of these spirits acts independently according to its own law but all combine forces when necessary to restore order and balance in nature.

Just as each species and spirit behave according to their law, so too must humans abide by their laws.  Yet all is not rigidly fixed.  Anthropologist Deborah Rose describes Aboriginal resource management and responsibility:  “Yarralin people protect a death adder site for instance, trying to assure that it not be damaged because any disturbance would result in an overpopulation of death adders…Reverence for life is a quality which is fundamentally characteristic of Aboriginal life, pervading every aspect of daily and ceremonial life.”   

This web of relationships guided by the law includes those between individuals, such as people of like totems, relatives, husband and wife, parents, and children.  And it extends from  individuals to nature wherein children are part of the region of their birth; everyone is linked to their totemic species, and each person is connected through his or her songline  to geographic features which embody living ancestor/spirits.  “Life then in Ngaringman/Ngaliwurru thinking is the cosmos.  And to be alive is to be conscious – to know and follow one’s own Law, to recognize that other consciousness exist and to interact responsibly with others.  Yarralin people’s environment is alive, conscious, and pays attention.  Human actions are noted, just as humans note the actions of other living beings.  This cosmic awareness is only possible because all `cultures’ (human and nonhuman) are subject to the same moral principles of response, balance, symmetry, and autonomy… The cosmos `works’ not because a supreme deity regulates it, but because all of the parts regulate each other.”

Cosmic Ecology

At some ill-defined time in the past, the Dreamtime beings ceased to occupy the landscape and metamorphosed into other forms such as rock outcroppings, waterholes, hills, or other features.  But they did not die; their spirits remain alive, giving great significance and power to these sites.  Consequently, supernatural beings important to Aborigines do not live out of touch in the great beyond, but rather, they reside among the people, in their homes and places of business.

Artwork of Ainslie Roberts.

Consider the behavior of Westerners in a great cathedral or in the presence of an important religious figure:  One is humble and reverent, speaking gently and behaving respectfully.  In most of us, a strong ethical code makes desecration of a beautiful cathedral unthinkable.  Imagine extending this attitude and behavior to the environment in general as though the entire planet were a temple.  Consider the consequences in one’s sense of well-being and in one’s treatment of the planet.

As might be expected, the Aboriginal relationship to land does not involve individual possession. Land, spirit, and self are inseparable and thus land can no more be sold than can one’s soul; the connections are too great.  The oneness implied in the Aboriginal concept of self, surroundings, and time indicates a belief system with great ecological value.  Rather than superior to nature, Aboriginals see themselves as key elements in maintaining a harmony among the component parts of nature, which must obviously involve an intimate knowledge of natural history.  People must read the tracks and signs of life which indicate that something has recently passed by or lies below the ground. They must know the behavior of animals and the cycles of various plant species to predict where and when food can be found.  As the white explorers learned, such knowledge can mean the difference between life and death. 

Yet the world view of Aboriginals is spiritual rather than ecological.  This may not be surprising since culture has evolved within the constraints of the physical world.  Anything not sustainable in an ecological context would be self-defeating and thus have been eliminated from the culture as those who maintained the culture were themselves eliminated by natural selection.

It would have been presumptuous for any of us on expedition to feel our brief exposure to Aboriginal culture entitled us to comment on the Aboriginal way of thinking.  But the ecological quality of this culture deserves discussion.  Anthropologists have been universally impressed with the Aboriginal way of dealing with the challenges of life and with other members of the community. W.E.H. Stanner, a respected student of Aboriginal culture , states, “…he (the Aborigine) seems to see `life’ as a one-possibility thing.  This may be why he seems to have almost no sense of tragedy.  One may say, their Ideal and Real come very close together… One of the most striking things is that there are no great conflicts over power, no great contests for place and office.  This single fact explains much else, because it rules out so much  that would be destructive of stability… Power over things?  Every canon of good citizenship and common sense is against it, though there are, of course, clear property arrangements.  But what could be more useless that a store of food that will not keep, or a heavy pile of spears that have to be carried everywhere? Especially, in a society in which the primary virtues are generosity and fair dealing.  Nearly every social affair involving goods – food in the family, payments in marriage, intertribal exchange – is heavily influenced by equalitarian notions; a notion of reciprocity as a moral obligation; a notion of generously equivalent return; and a surprisingly clear notion of fair dealing, or making things `level’ as the blackfellow calls it in English… The blacks do not fight over land.  There are no wars or invasions to seize territory.  They do not enslave each other.  There is no master-servant relation.  There is no class division.  There is no property or income inequality.  The result is homeostasis, far-reaching and stable.”  Stanner goes on to reassure the reader that Aboriginals fall prey to all the human failings we know so well but the extent to which they impede social order or bring harm to others is far less than in most other cultures. 

Quality of Life

With no wheels, no metal, no pottery, no fabrics, no domesticated animals, no agriculture, no written language, and no permanent dwellings, the traditional Aboriginal culture has fared remarkably well, if survival for over 50,000 years can be a criterion of success.  But survival says little about what we would call quality of life.  Such cross-cultural value judgments are difficult to make, maybe impossible, and it is probably more appropriate to look at the question in terms of the extent to which the more important human needs are met.      

Having sufficient knowledge of ecology and living within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, Aboriginals harvest natural resources without a sense of urgency. There need be no battle against time or the elements when resources are sufficiently abundant. Hunting and gathering can take as little as twenty hours per week in some tribes. Depending upon the tribe, anthropologists have recorded between one hundred and three hundred species of plants and animals which sustain Aboriginals year round.  This ecological diversity provides Aboriginals with a balanced and healthful diet.   Having spent extensive time in the western desert, anthropologist Robert Tonkinson concludes that the Mardudjara people “suffer few serious ailments and probably have a life expectancy of fifty to sixty years…In terms of mental health, it could be assumed that since these people live in what is probably the world’s most marginal environment for human survival, they are tense, morose, and anxiety-ridden because of all the uncertainties created by the capricious nature of rainfall in the desert.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth…the Mardudjara seem to be very well-adjusted people.  They are every bit as complex and given to behavioral idiosyncrasies as any other peoples, with the same capacity for exultation and despair…[They] have a keen sense of humor that pervades all their activities, including ritual.  There are very few occasions so awe-inspiring or momentous in their religious significance that laughter and joking would be thought out of place…  But the fact that people can maintain such a spirited and positive outlook in an environment as tough and mercurial as the desert speaks volumes for their strength of character and their great confidence in the law, which answers life’s biggest questions and attests that the human spirit is invincible.”   

As with most hunters and gatherers, the older members of society are heavily involved in baby-sitting, educating and nurturing the next generation.  Thus, senior citizens become a resource to the community rather than a liability.  Regarding conflict, “There is no word for either feud or warfare in the language of the desert people.”


Returning home after this expedition was intensely unsettling.  I had no interest in nor was I capable of “returning to nature” Aboriginal style.  Yet I did not feel capable of reentering my own “civilized” world, which involves such effort, insecurity, consumption of resources, impact on the biosphere, and frenetic pace.    

How could our overburdened, anxiety-ridden system have come about?  I wondered how the mentality of a herdsman or farmer, predecessors of civilization, might have differed from that of a hunter and gatherer, and how the world view of each might have influenced the course of their cultural evolution?  In contrast to the hunter and gatherer, a pastoralist, for example, nurtures a species totally under his control with the sole intent of harvesting food and fiber for himself.  The sheep’s life and well-being are considered almost totally in the context of its value to humans.  In the path toward civilization, humankind has subdued, taken dominion over, and controlled other species.  Whether this is good or bad is not the point here.  The fact is that the mentality and world view of early pastoralists and farmers and hunter-gatherers may have been fundamentally different.  As pastoralists and farmers settled, equality among species was likely replaced by a hierarchy of dominant and subordinate, more powerful and less powerful, superiority-inferiority, etc.  History has shown that it is not a great leap to extend such hierarchical thinking to other “non-selves,” including different races, cultures and religions.  The existence and consequences of the resulting prejudices are deeply embedded in our cultures and become especially obvious in the light of such cultural comparisons.  Our “dominion over the earth,” our need to “control animal impulses and drives,” our patronizing attitudes toward “lower forms of life,” “dumb beasts” and even “primitive cultures” attest to the destructive attitudes of separateness and inequality between “them” and “us.”

Exercising control, whether it be over crops, herds or people, requires work.  It is only logical that civilizations and religions based on exploitation and dominion/dominance would promote and hold in high regard a work ethic since, of course, the institution would directly benefit from the fruits of righteous labor.  And what would be the predicted view, in such societies or religions, of nomads who believe humankind is no better than rocks, wombats or weather, and of hunters and gatherers who construct nothing, possess almost nothing and go through life naked?  It is interesting to note that quality of life, a sense of place and belonging, feelings of contentment and inner peace, and an ethic of equality and unity of all things seldom emerge as the key elements in comparisons of “primitive” versus “advanced” societies. 

At the dawn of civilization, the differences between husbanding animals and farming crops as contrasted to hunting and gathering were likely small.  But from our contemporary perspective, it would appear that the implications were enormous.  Which strategy/mentality is better?  Possibly one way to compare is to take each component of the Aboriginal view of himself and the world around him, and our view of life, and extend them into the future, asking whether the consequences of each supports or undermines the vitality of the planet, the quality of human life, and the likelihood that one or the other can continue or be sustainable for 50,000 or 100,000 years.

For Further Reading

  • Chatwin, Bruce.  The Songlines.  Viking Penguin, Inc., New York, 1987.
  • Lofgren, M.E. Patterns of Life, The Story of the Aboriginal People of Western Australia.  Western Australian Museum Information Series No. 6. Perth, 1975.
  • Rose, Deborah Bird. “Consciousness and Responsibility in an Aboriginal Religion.”  In Traditional Aboriginal Society, A Reader.  Ed. W. H. Edwards. Macmillan Co., Melbourne, 1987.
  • Stanner, W.E.H.  “The Dreaming.” In Traditional Aboriginal Society, A Reader.  Ed. W. H. Edwards. Macmillan Co., Melbourne, 1987.
  • Tonkinson, Robert. The Mardudjara Aborigines, Living the Dream in Australia’s Desert. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1978.

Caves, Birds, and Snakes (Advetures)

I am taking a day off from our expedition in Saint Paul National Park, Palawan Island, Philippines.  I have a Swiss army knife, a large mango, mask, snorkel, and fins – that is all.  I am dropped off at a remote beach to enjoy my mango, maybe have a nap in total isolation, and have a nice swim home, maybe a mile away.  With gentle waves behind and a lush tropical jungle ahead I find a nice spot in the shade to enjoy this tropical paradise. As I open my knife mosquitoes swarm.  OK we can avoid this by sitting in the sun close to the water.  Great no mosquitoes.  I open my knife but this time its no-see-ems.  Almost invisible, little flies whose bite stings like a tiny needle prick.  Oh well. I can just sit at the edge of the waves and be rid of these pests.  Not true!  Here I find there are things like horse flies that are serious and really bite.  Ok so much for the paradise beach.  But I remember on the boat ride to this not-so-perfect retreat there was a very narrow cobble beach with steep rock walls on each side.  Behind the beach was a cave, smaller but similar to the one we were here to explore.  I hit the water and snorkel along the coast, enjoying the marine life, until I find the beach.  Great – no forest, no sand, and so small that bugs are not likely.  In spite of no sand I find an area of small rocks and lie down to enjoy a different sort of paradise setting.  Aaaah warmth, isolation, exoticness, and a perfect mango ready to be devoured.  What’s the hurry?  I’m alone and at peace in this natural environment totally devoid of any human evidence.  For a naturalist it does not get better than this.  In this state of bliss I open my eyes and look around.  WHAT!  HOLY XXXX!!! There is a large snake within 2 – 3 feet of my head.  Snakes in this area are venomous and come to these caves to feed on birds that use them as a night-time roost.  OMG this is serious! I need to move slowly and carefully.  Merde! As I swim back to our camp I reflect on what I wanted. I got tranquility, I got isolation, I got beautiful and authentic nature BUT I got a lot more.  An interesting reminder that we exist in a natural world of rich diversity.  This is good but we humans do not rule the world of real nature and to fully appreciate it and enjoy it we need to be careful and respectful.  It is not always welcoming but so what!  It’s worth the trouble, sometimes all works out well sometimes not..  At camp I eat the mango under my mosquito net and enjoy a nice nap.

We have come to the Saint Paul National Park with Dr. Charles Collins who is a specialist on echolocating swiftlets.  This species of swiftlet (Aerodromus vanikorensis) is reported to use sound to orient as they fly into caves to roost but there has never been scientific study to verify and understand this.  Here are excerpts from my journal.

September 16 – 5:45AM

The sounds of morning – surf breaking on the reef, roosters calling, raucous squawking of passing parrots, infrequent chirping of resident geckos. Its good to be back in the tropics.  We converge at the hand pump for a wake up shower.  Dr. Charlie Collings prepares various ropes to serve as acoustic barriers to test echolocation in caves.  Cinematographer and assistant cameraman discuss film stock and load cameras.  Sound man packs recording equipment. I recheck our night vision scope, a system that will allow us to observe and film swiftlets in total darkness using invisible infrared light as a source of illumination. 

7:00 AM

National Parks host announces breakfast.  A thatched bungalow with no running water and a small wood fire is kitchen and dining room.  We descend on our scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes, quasi palatable drink, toast, and coffee.  Cinematographers discuss projects for the day along with where and when the film team and the science teams will converge to film the birds.

8:00 AM

Film team carries equipment to the outrigger canoe with small engine, which will tow the Zodiac one-and-one half miles to the river mouth and entrance to the cave.  We paddle both boats out into the water, attach a tow line, and wait for a lull between sets of waves.

 8:30 AM

There is a lull in the waves, and the canoe charges ahead.  The line goes tight and we then are pulled up and over the waves.  Eventually we reach the cave. The canoe is pulled up on the beach near the cave.  The Zodiac is next.  It has no engine, which would disturb the birds, so we madly paddle our ungainly rubber ducky to shore.  A wave comes over the stern just as we hit the beach, making the Zodiac too heavy to lift and we quickly jump out.   Camera cases and back packs are frantically passed up the beach as the Zodiac fills.  No equipment casualties, thanks to watertight case.  This is not a unique experience for the team.  The Zodiac is drained, and we pull it along the beach and up the river.

9:00 AM

The team regroups at the mouth of the 5 mile long cave.  Charlie and I will work alone in the morning and set up for filming after lunch.  River water is cooler than the sea, the smell from the cave is ‘distinctive” but not as bad as one might expect.  We load the canoe with the night vision system, infrared lamp, still photo equipment, ropes, bells and data books.

9:30 AM

Departure upstream with gas lantern at bow of the boat and headlamps on.  As light dims, passing birds begin to emit distinctive clicking sounds.  The literature describes their vocalizations as having a rattling sound at about 5-20 clicks per second and at a frequency of 2-10 kilohertz (a thousand cycles) per second. Sounds more like clicks that rattle to us.  We will check click repetition and frequency from tape recordings.  Sonographs will be made later.

Arrival at the study site where we have placed two 20-foot bamboo poles at the sides of  narrow passage.  Experimental system consists of vertical ropes hung every 11.8 inches between the poles by a safety pin.  A bell is attached at the lower end of each rope.  The space between the ropes is slightly greater than the wingspread of the swiftlets; if a bird makes contact with a rope, a bell will sound.  These obstacles will serve to test the swiftlets’ ability to echolocate.  Changing the diameter of the ropes from 1/8  to ¼ to ¾ inches will enable us to determine the birds’ acoustic acuity.  We will measure the number of passes and turns away from the rope screen with the night viewing system and by listening to the clicks.  The tickling of the bells will indicate a hit.

10:30 AM

Everything is set up, light off, infrared lamp on.  The night vision system shows an eerie, greenish scene.  The rope screen, poles, bells, and cavern walls are easily observable.  We hear birds passing in the main channel, but not many.  After half an hour we record only seven birds: one hit, three passes, three turns, clearly not enough data to place any statical confidence on the swiftlet’s ability to detect or not to detect our screen.  It is the first sunny day since our arrival, so we assume most of the birds are out feeding.  We decide to explore a bit.

From the main river our passage extends into darkness. We advance to a vertical mud bank extending above the water.  It is pocked with holes, presumably made by crabs, which we see here and here as we labor forward sinking up to our knees in mud.  Ahead the corridor splits: to the left is an uninviting pond of water and more mud; to the right our light beam disappears between gradually converging limestone walls.  Crab holes have now been replaced by a dark gray, shiny carpet of loose, spongy material.  Charlie explains this is undigestible, chitinous exoskeletons – fragments of insects the swiftlets have eaten. Charlie collects a few empty swiftlet nests made of plant materials glued together with the famous saliva that other species of this bird group use to make the nests so highly prized by Asian chefs for bird’s nest soup.

We return through the carpet of exoskeletons to the boat a short distance away. I wade out in chest-deep water and deposit cameras and gear inside the boat.  Suddenly I notice a gentle tickle on one leg, then a couple more on my lower back, then a sudden pinch like that of a pin.  Images of Humphrey Bogart dragging the African Queen and pulling leches off his legs flash through my mind

I shine my light down and see a score of brilliant orange dots – shrimp eyes, of course.  Nature’s sanitary engineers are busy cleaning the cave, consuming whatever organic material is available, including me.

We paddle out into the main chamber and proceed downstream to the cave’s entrance  eventually a faint dot of light appears, and we gratefully emerge into brilliant sunlight and the lush surrounding forest.

12:15 PM

On the beach at the river mouth, film and science teams swap stories of what we have observed as we organize lunch.  Across the river it is lunchtime for a troop of long-tailed macaque monkeys that clamor among the branches of some trees with yellow fruit.  As they tear off branches, make noise, and discard seeds, I realize how little evolutionary distance there is between the two groups of lunching primates on either side of the river.

2:00 PM

Our afternoon plan is to film setting up the rope screen, to test swiftlet echolocation ability, and to record passes, turns, and hits.  Charlie and I, properly wired with hidden microphones, set out paddling upstream as the film team follows.

After the film team schlepps camera and sound equipment through the mud, they scout the area for best camera angles.  For the next two hours, its ‘show time” for a couple of biologists not accustomed to being filmed.  Charlie and I attach bells to ropes, and then we attach ropes to the overhead line, elevate the screen, then take it down and erect it again to give another perspective of the same action.  We try to remember to say the same things we said the first time and nothing additional.

5:30 PM

Finally, as the film team loads the muddy mess of equipment back onto the Zodiac, we reorganize the screen, bells, boat, night vision system, and infra red lamp for some real science.  The Zodiac is positioned behind us so the film team with its night vision system can film us with our night visions system.  We expect to first hear the tinkling as a bird passes if there is a hit.  If not, we will hear nothing but our vision systems will show that a bird passed.  We record the time and the birds as they fly by – hits and silent passes.

6:30 PM

The film team has enough and we turn on our real lights to they can pack up and go.  The light attracts swiftlets in ever increasing numbers.  Soon we are in a war zone of feathery missiles as they fly into the screen and into us.  The clicking become more intense as the numbers increase; we can’t hear the bells anymore. This is little reminiscent of Hitchcocks’ movie, The Birds, only its real.  What a nightmare for an ornithophobe!    After the film team leaves, we are again in total darkness although we hear waves of birds in the channel – strange sensation.

In order to get an idea of swiftlet behavior unaffected by experimental apparatus, we lower the screen and take our final measurements of passes.  This will be the control situation, required any time scientific manipulations are done in nature.

7:30 PM

We emerge into the main channel, it is war zone again. A deafening cacophony of clicks.  We are frequently smacked on the head and chest by the confused swiftlets.  We switch off our head lamps, and Charlie uses the night vision systems and infra red light to guide me as I paddle downstream. We think our regular light might have confused the birds; in total darkness they may be better able to avoid us.  Not so. I continue to be smacked by bird missiles, only now we have no advance warning. I fear I will smell like the cave – “ ‘distinctive,’ but not as bad as one might expect.”

Why are these proven echolocators hitting us? Charlie speculates that the birds may have the cave channel memorized and are not paying much attention to objects as small as ourselves.  On the other hand, it is hard to imagine how an individual bird in the midst of a flock of hundreds, all clicking at the same time and at the same general frequency, could possibly differentiate its own click echo from those of others.  Clearly they have solved this problem just as bats and dolphins have, but exactly how is a mystery to science.  Again I am impressed and awed by nature’s sophisticated systems – there is so much we don’t know.

8:45 PM

Arriving back at camp, we are greeted by the others who have just finished a dinner of fried whole fish, rice and water  Charlie and I dig in.  Its great. For me, at least, a high quality of life is more dependent on the natural environmental and simple lifestyle than on sophisticated amenities and the consumptive support systems they require.

After a bucket bath at the pump, Charlie and I retire to make our journal entries and get some rest before another full day of work in the cave of birds.  In a couple of days we will be finished, take a day off (described above), and then begin packing up. I will miss this place.

Working With The Cousteaus Plus One (Adventures)

I have often been asked what it was like to work with the Cousteaus and the Cousteau Team.  There were three people who had a major impact on me.  Two Cousteaus and one non-Cousteau.

1n 1968 I had finished my masters thesis on tuna brains and was fried from lab work. I needed a new direction but had no idea about what I might want to do.  I decided to take a break from academics and get a real job. I was also tired of being poor.  When I began working with Captain Cousteau and Jean-Michel I did not see it as a career direction.  Of course I knew that Jacques Cousteau had co-invented the AquaLung, had a cool ship, and had even created an underwater city. But I had a very limited vision for my future, all I wanted was just to be a marine biologist.  The plumage of Hollywood and making films were of no interest, yet I liked travel, the ocean, and diving so why not hang out with these French guys for a while until I could figure out my true direction.

Initially most of my involvement was with Captain Cousteau.  He had his ideas on various subjects and I had mine. Having finished my school work, with good results on my exams and a positive response to the paper I published, I was quite confident in what I thought I knew.  From time to time we would disagree on something and I would, politely express a different perspective, to the horror of the French members of the team.  They were in awe of Capt. Cousteau and disagreeing with him was beyond inappropriate.  After our discussion, I would then do my homework and get back to him with a page or two explanation of the “truth.”  Sometimes it was agreeing with his view and sometimes with mine.  He was not offended by this and seemed to enjoy both input and confirmation of what one of us thought.  From these discussions I came to appreciate the amazing depth and breadth of his knowledge and intellect.  He was by far the most well read, intelligent, curious, intellectually thirsty person I had met or ever did meet. We eventually came to enjoy many discussions on a wide range of subjects that I’ll dive into more later.

Captain Cousteau and me working on expedition plans.

I did not get to know Jean-Michel well until we were invited to Papua New Guinea to consult on an EcoResort envisioned for Wuvulu Island off the coast of Wewak.  It was during that trip that I came to see Jean-Michel had a great sense of humor, appreciation of nature, and exceptional people skills.  He was trained as an architect and I was a biologist so what we collectively brought to the development was perfect.  We were on only the 2nd plane to land on the island and had to circle a couple of times to get all the people off the grass “runway” before landing.   With stories in our heads about past cannibalism and a violent culture we were a bit intimidated by the men who looked fierce.  But they were super friendly and sported great smiles of red teeth from chewing betel nut.  Jean-Michel, the dreamer, suggested we bring a group of American students to the island both to call attention to the project and give the students an experience of a lifetime (Transformations in Paradise).

Jean-Michel loved people and loved to engage with them at almost any level.  Capt. Cousteau was not as social as Jean-Michel but of course had incredibly persuasive talents and was a master communicator. In fact, he spoke English and understood grammar and syntax better than most Americans as I learned when we produced the 121 volume series of books entitled, The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau.  An evening on Alcyone, the Cousteau windship, made clear some of their differences.  As after dinner we all enjoyed a drink and lively discussions on varied subjects  Within about ½ hour Capt. Cousteau retired to his cabin and read magazines, typically Natural History, Smithsonian, and Popular Science.  By contrast Jean-Michel stayed up for a couple more hours chatting and telling stories with the crew. 

During those first few years Jean-Michel and I enjoyed amazing adventures in nature and felt that the public would benefit greatly from comparable “total immersion” experiences.  Films were nice but watching 4 one-hour TV shows on a small screen could not possibly have an impact comparable to exploring nature in person.  This is what had transformed us and given us our deep foundation of appreciation of nature so why not create a similar experience for the public.  With the creation of The Cousteau Society in the early 1970s, members were thirsting for more involvement.  Eventually we created a field study program, we called Project Ocean Search,  and initially our focus was students.  The experience ideally involved living on an island which could offer a microcosm perspective of life on the planet, with limited resources and finite space.  Over the years these programs were implemented on islands off California, the Caribbean, French Polynesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Hawaii.

Jean-Michel and me in our different “phases.”

Although the difference between making documentaries and field study programs was quite clear, both Cousteaus were totally committed to public education.  It was just the method on which they differed not the message.  Capt. Cousteau’s belief in the value of pubic education originated, as he told me, with Prince Albert ! of Monaco.  It was in the mid to late 1800s that Prince Albert had a series of yachts that he took into the Mediterranean and  Atlantic to explore the open sea.  He loved the ocean and was fascinated by its mysteries.  He had the financial resources and connections with scientists to conduct pioneering research.  Evidence of this, I found most fascinating, was the engravings that Capt. Cousteau showed me of deep fish the Prince Albert expeditions brought up from the depths.  He created the Insitut Oceanographique in 1906 and built the Museum of Monaco that Cousteau directed from 1957 to 1988.  What impacted Cousteau most was the fact that Prince Albert felt it was important for the citizens of Monaco to appreciate and understand the ocean.  According to Cousteau, Prince Albert would personally go into the factories and businesses to share his stories of adventures at sea and what he had learned.  A head of state mingling with the masses for no other reason than to enlighten his citizenry about the ocean really impressed Cousteau.  He explained he felt compelled to continue on this path.

When I finished my Ph.D. in the early 1980s Philippe had died and Jean-Michel was leading the American side of The Cousteau Society.  I was invited to visit both Cousteaus at their offices in Norfolk, Virginia.  Capt. Cousteau in effect said, now that you are a real scientist what do you think we should do.  I said, first let’s discuss what we should not do and then let’s discuss what we might do.  I explained that the past strategy of involving science on expeditions had not worked very well.  Inviting a token scientist to enrich a film and give credibility was nice but not actually conducting real science had given us a bad reputation with the purists.  Some scientists felt we had stolen the work of real researchers and then given the impression that those discoveries were our own.  Certainly the lines were fuzzy but by not making a clear distinction, we had created some enemies.  In those days the popularization of science was not appreciated or valued by most scientists.

In addition, the film team had a big job to do in making a film.  They needed all the time and resources available to getting the footage to make a film.  On the other hand, a scientist invited to be the expert would, predictably, expect to be the one deciding where to go and what to focus on.  From time to time there had been major conflicts and tough times for all on board. 

My suggestion was that we should dedicate the expedition totally to making the film and then, just at the end of the expedition, invite a team of world class experts to come and do their research. There would be maybe a week of overlap so science could get filmed but then the ship should be totally turned over to the scientists to do whatever they wanted.  In this way the film people could run things first and then the science team would get their turn.  AND the deal would be that the science team had to present their research at legit scientific conferences and publish in peer review journals.  I would then be the person to find the most qualified and compatible researchers to come on board, of course with the blessing of the Cousteaus. In addition I would be on board while all the research was being done to ensure the scientists “appreciated” the French way of doing things, particularly if the scientists were American.  My general approach to the scientists I invited, after doing my homework, was, “How would you like a free ride to paradise to study x, y, z.  We will have a ship, permits, a submarine, divers, a helicopter and we will pay for all expenses for you and maybe a graduate student or two.  We will not pay for working up the samples, analyses, overhead or publishing.  That will be your problem totally.”  This plan worked well.  For the 10 years prior to this approach there had been 12 papers published in real journals or papers presented at scientific conferences, the following 10 years we had 62 papers presented and published.  And our reputation in the scientific community improved immensely. 

It was interesting to watch Capt. Cousteau engage with the various scientists asking questions and offering is thoughts and experiences.  He could keep up with the best of them and, as a bystander, I found these times among the most intellectually stimulating of my life.  Here I was in a remote region of the planet with some of the most knowledgeable people in the world, working shoulder to shoulder with them, and assimilating their knowledge on whatever was our research project.  One couldn’t get a more enjoyable or better education than that!!!!

I was fortunate to be on the maiden voyage of Alcyone, the windship, whose history was quite interesting.  It was determined in the late 1970s that the iconic ship, Calypso, was getting old and would eventually need to be replaced. The question was with what. A petroleum powered ship was not appropriate for a group like ours, concerned about pollution, particularly when wind power was on the horizon….somewhere.  Our team in Paris connected with Bertrand Cherrier, a Ph.D. student working on aerodynamics.  Eventually they came up with what we called the “turbosail.”  This operated like an airplane wing but oriented vertically.  As wind blew across the convex surface lift, or thrust, was generated giving the platform, a ship, power to move forward.  To get even more lift the structure was hollow with holes on one side and a fan at the top to pull air through the holes and out the top.  This dynamic wing / turbosail design enabled a very curved surface to generate a lot of lift/thrust (7 times/square meter than that of a fabric sail) without the air flow having any turbulence or drag because it was conforming to the surface of the turbosail.

Captain Cousteau, Jean-Michel and me on Alcyone’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

Of course there needed to be a demonstration and proof that this design would really work. A catamaran was the platform on which the turbosail was to be tested.  I happened to be in Marseilles the day the definitive test was conducted.  The wind was blowing, the gauges were connected between the boat and the dock, the turbosail fan was turned on, and everyone watched the gauges.  The boat strained at the dock and the gauges showed the turbosail was actually providing power!  Capt. Cousteau said, “Great we will now sail this across the Atlantic,” and, of course, make a film about the adventure.  There was not immediate applause because the engineers had concerns.  They reminded Cousteau that the boat was not made for such a monstrosity as is this turbosail whereupon Cousteau said, well you are engineers – make it stronger.  They said impossible and he said have it ready in so many weeks or months because we are going ahead.  He was not a man to accept no when there was something he wanted.  I was back in the US when the ship began is transatlantic voyage.  Just before reaching Bermuda a storm raged and severely stressed the structure of the ship, causing some of the hydraulic lines to burst and spilling oil all over the boat’s interior.  The description was that of trying to maneuver below decks on ice, everything was so slippery.  The boat was in serious trouble and finally, Cousteau via telex, told the crew to heave to and let the turbosail fall off. 

The Cousteau Society had publicized this voyage and we were speculating on what Capt. Cousteau would tell the media.  Predictably, his statement was unpredictable.  Instead of lamenting the loss, he matter-of-factly said there had been a setback but although the hardware was lost the software was in perfect order.  When asked what he meant, he tapped his head and said this is the software and we will build another ship to prove the technology.  We all thought he was out of his mind, saying we would build another ship?  We had no money for such an undertaking.  To our astonishment he did get that ship built.  He approached an aluminum company, Pechinet, and convinced them to build it!!  I was on that maiden voyage.

Again the pace of construction was too slow for Capt. Cousteau and this time it was the computer team that objected.  In order to run the ship and turbosail, an elaborate analogue computer system had been designed but the final programming took time.  So even though the physical ship was ready the programs were not.  Again Cousteau said, “We are leaving and if the programs are not ready, then we will bring the programmer with us.  He can finish while we are underway.”  The programmer was definitely not an ocean guy and he was my cabin mate.  As soon as we hit the open sea and the ship began to rock, he was sick.  His eating chocolate and other junk food probably did not help but that was his preferred diet. Initially he was on the top bunk but urgent events made it obvious that he needed to have quick access to the door and outside.  I happily moved up.  It was agonizing watching this poor guy head down, hunched over his computer screen, while gripping whatever handles he could attach himself to as the ship pitched and rolled,  trying to write code.  When we reached Bermuda he was off the ship and we never heard from him again.

Calypso, Alcyone and sea plane.

For the following 10 years, with both Alcyone and Calypso, we were able to conduct 4 expeditions and produce 4 documentaries per year.  Most often Jean-Michel would lead the Alcyone expedition and Capt. Cousteau would be on Calypso.  During those years our science teams published papers on global ocean contributions of nutrients from the Amazon, Mississippi, Mekong, and Sepik rivers; echolocating birds in Palawan, Philippines; coral reef productivity in Fiji; chemical pollutants in the Mississippi River; Great White Sharks in Australia; natural fluorescence to measure coral reef and open ocean primary production from numerous sits in the Pacific Ocean; energy systems overview of the Mississippi and Amazon river basins; dynamics of methane and nitrous oxide from Amazon forests; submarine geothermal activity near White Island, N.Z.; community metabolism and deposit feeding shrimp in the Caribbean; and more.

The third person who had a major impact on me was a non-Cousteau – Pam Stacey.  She came from the Rand Corporation to work with Jean-Michel.  She was a writer and her background was art history and literature.  As she came to understand the message of our educational programs she reminded us that we were missing an important dimension of the ocean – the human side.  Our focus was, predictably, science, nature, exploration, technology, and sustainability.  She explained that the sea itself has remained the same throughout history but our perception of it has changed profoundly from respect by indigenous people, to fear during the age of exploration, to a feeling of domestication in Renaissance times, and now a more enlightened view of respect and inspiration.  We had never considered this and encouraged her to develop this into a program that eventually became a major part of our educational activities.  For the participants it was a welcome relief from all that science and eco stuff.  Eventually, Pam became the editor of the Cousteau Society’s magazine, the Calypso Log.  Then, she created a totally new magazine for kids, the Dolphin Log, which was a big success.  Eventually, she was given the opportunity write the narration of an upcoming Cousteau documentary, The Warm Blooded Sea, and received an Emmy nomination for that, the first film she had written.  As a key member of the Cousteau team she joined us on a number of expeditions.  Her humanistic perspective certainly opened my scientific eyes to new dimensions of just about everything.

She softened my, often, heavy-handed approach to parenting. She edited all of my writings and co-authored our waterproof book, Water Alive, and our cartoon book, Treasure on the Reef.  She was smart, clever and witty, energetic, had a great sense of humor, and an incredible ability to “put me in my place.”  Among my favorite quotes are, “I do not need any more unsolicited, constructive advice,”  “Some things are so serious, you can only laugh about them,” and “Murph, that is just a little more information than I really need!”   At times we would be together for two months, 24 hrs per day as we worked on various expeditions.  Our marriage took place on a mountain on Catalina Island where Jean-Michel surprised us by flying over in a helicopter and showering us with a dozen red roses then hundreds of daises. 

Jean-Michel in helicopter, top, Pam and me above.

The honeymoon took place in Papua New Guinea, and her comment was, “I was the only woman with covered breasts within 100 miles of our honeymoon.”  On that trip I wanted to get photos of the local people being natural but that was impossible because when they saw my camera they would stand at attention – posing.  Her solution was to take a photo of women and kids with a polaroid camera and then let them watch as the image developed.  They squealed with delight saying, “Me comin’ up, me comin’ up.”  Other adventures included great breakfasts in exotic places – at the top Huayna Picchu, a very steep peak next to Machu Picchu, that required holding onto a rope to get to the top; fresh fruit in the warm waters of Krabi, Thailand watching ghost crabs create fantastic designs on the sand as they fed on diatoms; and my going to the open market for exotic fruits in Madang, Papua New Guinea, then a swim to wash off where we had a close encounter with a sea snake that freaked out Pam but gave me great chuckles!!  As a SCUBA diver we spent many hours exploring the, then, healthy reefs of the British Virgin Islands, beautiful schools of fish in French Polynesia, incredible biodiversity in Papua New Guinea, kelp forests of the Channel Islands of California, and manta rays in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. 

Sailing adventure with Pam in the Atlantic.

We enjoyed theater in New York and Los Angeles, camped in the California desert with the kids, snow skied Mammoth and Aspen, and in France explored the castles on the Loir River and spent the night on Mont Saint Michel watching an amazing “Son et Lumiere” show inside the abbey.  We had a group of friends we called ‘The Crazies’ and alternated dinner parties among the four couples.  On of my favorite evenings was when all showed up, on time, at our house for dinner.  Pam came to the door in a bath robe and I wore a ragged shorts and an old T-shirt.  We said how nice it was to see them and that we were looking forward to the dinner the next week but wondered why they were here on this night.  They were horrified and fell all over themselves apologizing for getting the date wrong and saying that they would not bother us further.  Of course, we had the dinner table all set and everything ready for the party but made sure they could not see inside the house.  After a few more uncomfortable moments we said, “Since you are here, you can at least come in for a drink.”  We were insistent and they reluctantly agreed to come in for just a moment.  Of course, once inside they could see the joke and a raging party ensued from this great start.  Pam liked to change things in the house and I did not.  As time passed she traveled less and I traveled more.  As light-hearted punishment for my times of  ‘abandonment,’ Pam would wait until I was gone to redecorate or do something else to the house. It became a ritual that upon arriving home after a trip I would walk around the house to see what she had changed. Sometimes the change was obvious, sometimes not.  For years she had wanted to paint dark ceiling beams in the living room and I resisted, not wanting to cover up real wood.  One time, upon arriving home I looked and looked but could not find anything new – furniture in the same places, art on the walls the same, nothing new but there was a different feeling.  I said I could feel there was something different but could not find it.  I could tell from her expression that she was thoroughly enjoying this process, so I knew there was something – maybe something big.  As I remember it, I said that it felt like something had been painted like the ceiling.  She jumped with delight and said, “Murph, you got it!  I did paint the ceiling.”  Of course, she was right, the living room did look much better with the ceiling painted.  On expedition I would get very lonesome for Pam and the kids.  Generously she often organized a care package for me.  This included a batch of greeting cards with an appropriate message for whatever mood I might be in.  Envelopes for those cards were labeled, “Open this if you had a great day. Open this if you miss my cooking. Open this if you feel sick.  Open this if you miss me  Open this if you wish you had a cold beer.” And on and on. Although we are not still married largely because my travel became too much, we still get together for Christmas, share a bottle of wine with cheese and bread, and laugh about all of stories from those wonderful days.

The Crazies and Pam on her 50th birthday.

Amazon – Low Drama Ending (Adventures)

I am wakened by a terrible smell and something gently slapping me in the face. Somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, my mind wanders about searching for orientation. I hear noise, feel cold and realize I’m sleeping on life preservers. I’m in the bottom of a 25′ aluminum outboard boat in the middle of the night. The slapping stink continues and I recoil. Opening my eyes, I see in the dim light that the guy sitting in front of me has apparently found a stinky old towel on the bottom of the boat and wrapped it around him for warmth. The edges of the moldy, sweaty, tropical marketplace smelling towel are flapping in the breeze and caressing my face – yuck!
Now I have a major decision. The problem is that on this side of the boat the guy ahead does not smoke but now stinks. On the other side is a chain smoker. I guess I’ll shorten my life by a day or two with the second-hand smoke rather than being flogged with millions of random microbes that may do all sorts of strange things on and in me. Microbes are on my mind a lot as I’ve had some major conflicts lately, conflicts inside me. Apparently the old critters of my intestinal flora have been invaded by new critters and the transition has not gone smoothly. The first day I just lay in bed every moment we were not working. I had been so smug as everyone else got sick while Don Santee, our expedition leader, and I were feeling fine. A major frustration with this little war taking place inside my body has been poor communication. I decided to take this seriously enough to talk to the warring generals. My issue has been not having advance notice as to whether they are using poison gas or just the normal diarrhea and cramps strategy. Making an error in one direction is ok but an error in the other is unacceptable and that is my problem. In fact, I misjudged twice and that was enough! I told them I was cutting their supplies (not eating) and that it was time to stop the war. I learned that they also wanted to end the conflict but that I was making the situation worse. They accused me of giving them buckshot when they needed cannon balls and nuclear weapons. So I said, “Fine let’s get on with it.” That was yesterday night. So breakfast today consisted of a roll with 3 pieces of salami and 1/3 of a greasy broken yolk fried egg, some juice of a mystery fruit, a sweet and greasy fried banana, a yogurt and 1/2 of a papaya. It all tasted great and after breakfast I edited photos, waiting for what would happen. One-half hour later the battle began with cramps, rumbling and an intense need to sleep. One hour later I awoke and felt much better. So that was the state of affairs until now. I’m awake and things are rumbling…. the question is what is the urge I feel – gas or other, a mistake is unacceptable on this little boat. I’ll have to deal with this later. I crawl up to my seat and see the half moon reflecting on the Rio Negro, I’m 100 or so miles up river from Manaus. Where the water surface is glassy I have a distinct image of the moon, where a breeze ruffles the surface the moon light extends into a million cosmic little lines each perpendicular to the axis of the reflection. It’s hypnotic, kinetic art. The captain lights up and knocks his cigarette on the side of the boat giving me a shower of glowing ashes. Prioritizing my issues, it’s ok, better than the rancid towel

This trip back to Manaus began two days ago when I left a great nature reserve at Xixuau where we experienced caimans, giant river otters, turtles, a boa, and lots of tropical fish like we see in aquaria –neon tetras, discus, and others.  The water visibility was almost 12 feet which is fantastic. I got good pix of a stingray, which the locals are more afraid of than piranhas or caimans.  The highlight of this trip was another anaconda experience.  This time our initial encounter with the anaconda was in a 50 gallon cleaned out oil drum.  The villagers were aware of our arrival and interest in filming wild life.  They had captured and held this snake for us.  It had been in the drum a full day and none of us wanted it to suffer any longer so we were in a rush to release it and get some footage of its departure. 

Our village guide let us know that once the snake was released it would be gone in an instant so we had better get ready for a short window to get our footage.  The anaconda was taken near the stream and we got everything ready – Jean-Michel on position and camera team in position.  The barrel was turned over and we all waited.  Nothing!  We encouraged the snake out and it was reluctant to flee.   We were told that maybe it did not realize it was near the water.  But when it saw or smelled the water it would be gone.  We changed our positions and some of us got in the water so we could get a few moments of it swimming off.  So with more encouragement, it went into the water and immediately returned to shore.  I knew this game from our 1983 Amazon expedition.  I told Matt our videographer to get ready as I would swim the snake out into deeper water so he could get a shot of the anaconda swimming.  As before the snake was totally docile as I swam it from shore.  Instead of swimming off the snake returned to shore and wrapped itself around a tree.  Removing a 14 foot constrictor, that was more muscle than anything else, would be impossible.  The adventure ended with another exception to what many people think about anacondas – that they are ruthless, wild, and dangerous predators.  They certainly have the ability to kill and even eat people but my interactions with them were of a totally different nature.  What is the lesson?  Wild animals are complex and generalizations we often make are not applicable in all cases.


Anaconda safely wrapped around a tree, under water.

A few days after the anaconda event, I took our medium sized boat down river to our “mother ship” where we were to meet another group of our team, including Jean-Michel’s son Fabien, that had been filming elsewhere in the Amazon. They should have arrived mid-day the day before but we got word they had engine trouble. We decided to go looking for them.  There was a problem – which of the many river sections might they have taken?  In both the Amazon and Rio Negro there can be a few to hundreds of islands in the river and thus many options for a boat to chose.  It turned out we passed each other on different sides of an island and thus missed each other completely.  We started asking locals on the side of the river and got two more or less confirmed sightings that the boat we were searching for had passed some time ago.  So we turned around and went back to the mother boat.  They were there and what should have been a 10 hr trip for them turned out to be a 30 hour trip!! 

The reason they were so late was because the boat they hired had two engines and both had died.  In the town where the second engine failed our local team member got out and just started asking if there were someone with an engine willing to go up river.  A guy was found with the third engine and they began slowly, very slowly continuing upstream – with two dead engines and one barely functioning one.  On the big ship we had a real mechanic and he said he could fix the barely functioning one.  Those who arrived said they had enough and wanted no more outboard boat rides.  I said I was on my way home and ready to make the long trip to Manaus no matter what.  They said I was nuts to trust that boat but I really had no alternative if I wanted to get the only plane out of Manaus two days later.  There were no roads, airports or regular transport boats for a couple of days. The regular transport boats, like any bus, stop in all the towns and we all either sleep in hammocks or on the deck.  I decided to take a chance and return in the outboard.

So there I was at 10 PM cold, sort of wet from 100 % humidity, being blasted with either germs or smoke, uncomfortable, somewhat sick and tired.  I had been on the boat for 5 hrs with another 5 to go. I ate a strawberry yogurt that looked and tasted totally artificial.  Later a carrot was the hit of the trip down river.

The sky was cloudless; as the moon set, it’s light was replaced by the splendor of the stars. It was beautiful as we hurtled though the night.  To my total astonishment our boat driver turned off the running lights.  What was I missing? In Brazil and other Latin American countries people turn the lights OFF at night!  Are lights rude, are they saving the bulbs or what?  In the Amazon cities we had visited at least 3/4 of the cars on the street at night had only their twilight lights on.  Very few cars drove with full headlights on.  So now at 1 or 2 am we were running in darkness, invisible to any other boat also running with no lights.  I don’t get it!

Way off in the distance is a faint, very large glow. I hoped it was Manaus.  The engine stopped! I really didn’t want to deal with this, I wanted a bed, a shower and no smells… even mine.  I got out my head light as the chain smoker climbed back to the engine.  Apparently the gas hose came out of the fuel drum.  He searched for the piece of rope that gets tied around the flywheel and he started the engine.  We all laughed at our shared fears and frustrations.  I had not been introduced to these guys, we spoke different languages but we managed in this situation where there were very few options.  Actually, my Spanish is sufficient for the basics. I ate the rest of my dinner, a tangerine, and lay back down.

Around 3 AM we arrived at the dock in Manaus.  I grabbed my two big bags and two small bags and thanked the  driver.  It was low water so I had a bit of a walk across the beach to some stairs that would take me to the hotel a few hundred yards away.

Oooo, that shower and clean sheets felt good.  The next day I enjoyed a great fish lunch and headed home, full of memories and a new microbiome.

Land of Fire (Adventures)

I was walking on a dense mat of vegetation about 15 feet above the forest floor – strange indeed.  Walking on this canopy of a stunted forest was scary.  Scary because if one fell through the canopy one could end up either breaking a limb or not being able to climb up and out through the very dense mat.  I was told that some people had actually died after falling through and not being able to get out.  I was walking on a sort-of bouncy mat of leaves, branches, and giant lichens.  It was weird, interesting, and beautiful.  This was not what I had come to explore, here in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, but it was one of the most interesting of my experiences here.  Our expedition home-base is the Cousteau windship, Alcyone, and one of our goals is to experience one of the most treacherous regions that sailing ships of the past had to maneuver – Cape Horn.

Tiny Alcyone in the waters of Tierra del Fuego

I had the good fortune of being on Alcyone’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic some years earlier.  This was a test platform for a new technology that used the aerodynamics of an airplane wing, rather than a fabric sail, to obtain a supplemental source of power.  An airplane wing gets lift from below because the air flowing over the curved top of the wing travels faster than the air flowing under the flattened underside of the wing.  And as a result the lower pressure above and higher pressure below “lifts” the wing up.  If one turns this imaginary airplane wing vertically, instead of horizontally, the movement of air gives the “wing/sail” a push, which is translated into thrust to move the ship forward.  There are more details that make this practical but I’ll not burden you with them here.

The maiden voyage from France to New York was particularly exciting for me because we would be in the Sargasso Sea, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where there was a unique ecosystem of floating sargassum algae.  The water was reported to be incredibly clear, very low in productivity, and with strange creatures living in the sargassum.  A week or so after our departure from La Rochelle, France we had our chance to dive in this ecosystem.  In order to enhance the ability of our cameras to film divers, we had replaced our black wet suits with silver ones.  The silver would reflect light better and make our divers more visible.  We called ourselves sardines.  Once in the Sargasso Sea we experienced a totally calm, glassy sea surface decorated with Portuguese Man-of- War jellies.  Their sting is very powerful yet they were absolutely beautiful with their pink and purple floats and long stringy tentacles.  We filmed them very carefully.  Later when we found patches of sargassum we got ready to film the mysteries of this ecosystem floating in the middle of the ocean.  The creatures were reported to be small so cinema (no video or digital in those days) and still cameras were set up for close-ups.  We did, in fact, find cool critters perfectly camouflaged to hide in the sargassum. There were nudibranchs, sea hares, and tiny anglerfish.  We all had a great dive.  When complete we hung out at a “safety stop” just below the surface and waited for our Zodiac to come.  Then out of the blue came a large marlin – it was at least 10 feet long. By far the largest non-shark fish I had ever seen in the wild.  It approached us and then stopped.  After some seconds it turned sideways.  Then it flashed a series of vivid, black vertical bars along its side.  This was a large fish with a very pointy bill that could do us great harm and we were in it’s world – not ours.  As it changed color and color patterns I mused, “We are in silver suits and what is this fish thinking?  Are we perceived as prey, mate, or competitor?”  Any of these three could have “interesting” consequences!  Even worse none of us could document this experience.  We all were set up for close-ups.  We returned to Alcyone with a great fish story but zero documentation to back up one of the best fish experiences we all had ever had!

Subsequently we took Alcyone to an archipelago of islands at the southern end of South America – Tierra del Fuego.  The actual tip was called Cape Horn, famous for fierce weather and horror stories of past sailors who struggled against raging winds, freezing weather, and high seas causing sailing ships to sometimes struggle for more than a month to get around the Horn.  It was reported that the HMS Bounty, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, took 31 days to proceed only 81 miles, as it was going against the prevailing winds that go from west to east.  Between the 16th and 20th centuries an estimated 800 ships and over 10,000 sailors were lost trying to “round the Horn!”  Here is one account of what it felt like to battle the weather:

“We dreaded the worst cry of all, which always seemed to come at midnight: “All hands reef the foresail”. Then the watch on deck, already stiff and frozen, would wait its chance until the watch below, also waiting its chance, jumped out of the fo’c’sle door and made for the fore rigging. Up we would go, wearily climbing aloft, to spread ourselves out along the yard, our feet on the foot-ropes so that we lay on our bellies horizontally, feebly clutching at the canvas in the darkness.

This Number One canvas was wet through, icy and as hard as iron. Our frozen fingers could never get hold of it. The wind blew our oilskin coats over heads; the lee yard arm surged swayed close down to the foaming below which seemed to be leaping up at us. Occasionally an extra gust would belly out the canvas, tearing it from our feeble grasp so that we had to begin all over again.

Sometimes, after two hours or so on the yard, the Old Man, gloomily watching our efforts from the poop, would bellow through his megaphone to the second mate to leave it and bring the men down. Sometimes, if he thought he would lose a sail unless we got it safe under the gaskets, he would just leave us there, hour after hour, until we had no more fight left in us. Even if we did manage to save his-canvas for him, when we reached deck again there was not even a hot drink, though I remember one occasion, after a particularly bad night, when the old skinflint told the steward to serve out half a tot of rum to us frozen wretches.

Nothing can exceed the squalid misery of those days. Our half-deck was an iron house which was a furnace in the tropics and an ice house down south. It was continually being battered by the seas which crashed on board so that a foot or two of water was always slopping to and fro under our bunks.

These six bunks were our cells in which we lay when off watch, shivering with wet and cold while the water slopped and gurgled beneath us. Unfortunately, my bunk was six inches too short and I could never straighten my knees.

To be frozen is sheer misery; to be sleepy and yet be unable to sleep because one is on watch is sheer misery too. But to be both frozen and sleepy is indescribable. “ (

One goal of our expedition was to document the rigors of Cape Horn and give respect to those who suffered and died in these treacherous waters.  As a biologist I was also interested in diving the kelp beds of Tierra del Fuego.  This was of particular interest because the kelp there was the same species (Macrocystis pyrifea) that we have in California, where I grew up.  Kelp is a cold-water species and cannot live in the tropics so this species of algae must have been around for millions of years since times when climate and continent positions were very different.

I emerged on deck, ready for my first dive with my wet suit on and camera in hand.  It was snowing!  I’m a warm water kind of guy and this was not what I had hoped for, particularly because we were in the southern hemisphere’s summer.  But considering the plush conditions of living on a safe ship with heat and no sails to manage I felt like a wimp even thinking about my minor discomfort as compared to what so many before me had experienced.  The water was cold and the visibility was poor, thanks to phytoplankton.  I descended and sat on the bottom waiting for the rest of the dive team.  Initially, I felt quite at home with the sun filtering through the green and brown kelp.  But then I realized I was in a very foreign city.  The buildings of this city, kelp plants, were recognizable but all the residents were different.  Some fish were somewhat familiar to what we have in California because they were of the same families, wrasses for example, but they looked different.  I thought how delightfully strange – many of our large human cities look very similar but the native people may look very different from one region to another.  In this kelp bed it was not only the fish that were different but there were small, yellow sea cucumbers and small grey clams living on the fronds of the kelp!  These are never seen in California’s kelp beds.  As we explored further, over the course of a couple of weeks, we discovered centolla crabs living on the kelp plants.  They are the South American version of the Alaska king crab; like their northern relatives they taste great.

I spent some time on shore and explored the vegetation.  What most impressed me were the lichens, gigantic lichens larger than a really big cabbage.  They carpeted the ground in some areas and they even grew on the tops of trees.  It was there where I walked at the top of the forest canopy.  Because of the danger of falling through this layer of vegetation we behaved as do safe divers, we explored in buddy pairs. 

Alcyone from the shore as we explored the vegetation of Tierra del Fuego.

It was here that I came to appreciate the value of studying phylogenetic groupings of organisms, like families, rather than just species.  I knew about kelp because it was the same species as the one I’m used to.  I did not know the species of wrasses, sea cucumber, or clam but I knew about the groupings of these animals (families and classes).  Thus, by focusing on these higher levels of organization I could know a lot about animals I had never seen as long as I could identify their group.  This served me well as I continued to dive on our expeditions because each expedition was to a new place and each had species new to me.

As the resident biologist on many of these expeditions, team members expected that I should know everything about whatever we saw.  Of course, this was impossible because each expedition was a first-time experience for us all and thus there was no way I could know much about the resident species. In addition, in the 1980s there was no internet, which now gives us almost unlimited resources to learn about local or regional species.  In fact, there were very few books about such things.  So I was in a difficult position. I needed to establish credibility with the team and at the same time I had few resources on which to rely to give me information about critters in that part of the world.  Thus, doing my homework on these higher phylogenetic groupings above the species level was the way to go and with that approach I salvaged my respect as a valuable member of the team.  In the long run that approach served me very well and ended up with the foundation concept for my book, Coral Reefs – Cities Under the Sea.  I’ll share that story later.

One day, as we cruised in the Beagle Channel, we heard what sounded like a gun shot.  On deck we looked around and saw off in the distance massive chunks of ice tumbling down a steep side of the Channel.  It was a glacier, maybe 1000 to 2000 feet above, inching forward and as the ice reached the cliff it “calved” and the ice descended.  The event was so far away that by the time we heard the sound the ice was maybe half-way down the cliff.  This was high drama and deserved to be filmed.  We changed course and put two Zodiacs in the water.  We approached the area where the ice fell and waited.  The weather was cold but at least there was no wind or waves.  The question was how close could we be to safely film this?  I was in the filming boat at some distance so we could get a good perspective of the glacier and cliff where the “subjects” (crew) in their boat could be seen in the foreground to give a sense of scale as the ice fell.  We waited and we waited.  Then we heard a crack and watched.  It was spectacular.  Massive chunks of ice began a wild descent.  Some would hit outcroppings and shatter while others maintained their integrity as they fell in an ever-increasing rate.  Then to my horror, as they hit the water, they created a series of gigantic waves that advanced toward our “subject” Zodiac with my friends on board.  OMG was I going to watch my friends die right before my eyes?  The scene went into slow motion as a couple waves of water maybe 6 or 7 feet radiated outward.  Because the depth of the water was great the waves never broke and my friends enjoyed a bit of a roller coaster ride.  I don’t think the footage was ever used because the scale of the mountain and glacier was so big and our tiny boat so small that the drama of the experience would have been lost on screen.  BUT it was certainly not lost on me!

Random Stuff (Adventures)

Migrating birds, venomous snakes, and global connections

I am on Mount Chappell Island, just off the north coast of Tasmania, Australia.  I am with Ian Chapman and we are doing the pre-expedition research before Calypso comes to make one of a number of films on Australia.  This site is of particular interest because it is an impressive example of how everything is connected.  Here muttonbirds (short-tailed shearwater, Ardenna tenuirostris) fly all the way from Siberia to this island to nest.  Then they fly back to Siberia and the Aleutian Islands.  This means that if there is an oil spill or pollutant the birds are exposed to in the North Pacific, those toxins can be transported to the other end of the world by these birds.  So, these birds connect the two polar regions of our planet.  The parents dig a nest in the ground and lay 1 egg.  They are called muttonbirds because the Aboriginals and European settlers harvested these birds for food and oil. The only problem is tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) also feed on the chicks and live in the nest holes.  These snakes are reported to be the most venomous of all Australian snakes, possessing “potent neurotoxins, coagulants, haemolysins, and myotoxins.”  Our guide encourages us, as explorers, to search a bit and actually catch a muttonbird.  His caution is if you touch something fuzzy and its warm it’s a bird, if you touch something cold and smooth it’s a snake and pull your hand back very quickly.  The land is like swiss cheese with holes everywhere that we would sometimes collapse with our standing knee-deep in a place that may have a cute fuzzy baby bird or life-threatening snake.
I look, but do not reach, into a couple of empty holes then defer to our guide who produces a very unhappy chick and then a couple of snakes.  The bird is far more agitated than the snakes.  I report in my journal that this is a great story but probably does not have the visual elements to justify a trip for the full team to visit this tiny island.  This is why we do such research, not only to find the big wows but to also save the team a lot of time and resources and avoid subjects not likely to end up in the final film.

USOs (Unidentified Swimming Objects)

We had spent the entire day in the hot sun on Flores Island, Indonesia filming 250,000 people who had come to see the Pope.  I returned to Calypso and wanted to get back into the ocean where it was cool.  After dinner a small group of us took an inflatable boat from Calypso to a reef a couple of kilometers away.  We anchored and began organizing our equipment.

Suddenly we noticed an area of some distance away glowing with blue-green light below the surface.  “Curious,” I thought, “a fish often creates a trail of light as it moves through the water but never have I seen such a large glow.”  Generally, such light is due to the swimming motion of fish agitating small plants and animals that give off light when disturbed.  But this glow was somehow different from a school of fish, maybe it was a manta ray.  A moment later another dim glow appeared on the other side of the boat.   Then an even brighter light appeared just below the boat.

I directed my dive torch at the glow and it disappeared.  Amazing!  I had never seen anything like this.  If a school of fish had been scared by the light they should have created more light as they swam faster to get away from the light.  Instead the glow just disappeared.

My dive buddies asked me, the biologist, what those lights were. I said I had no idea.  This was not the hoped for answer and I was told, since this dive was my idea, I should to first and report back.  So much for my buddies being buddies!

I entered the water and swam down to the reef.  There were large sea fans, dotted with delicate feather stars.  Orange squirrel fish and iridescent cardinal fish darted about in my light.  Here and there sleeping butterfly fish and damsel fish rested in coral crevices.  They appear strange as though wearing “pajamas” or “night shirts.”  For some unknown reason, these and many other fish, alter their daytime coloration to a nighttime color pattern.  I saw no blue-green lights nearby.

I decided to sit on a patch of dead coral rubble, turn off my dive torch and wait.  Maybe then I would discover the mystery of the glow we saw from the surface.  I felt slightly uncomfortable, totally alone, in complete darkness, on a reef I have never dived before, waiting for something I cannot begin to explain.

Within a few minutes my patience paid off.  What appeared as a glow from the surface became a collection of distinct points of light.  But the lights were not constant,  they switched on and off.  In general, they were moving together and appeared to be coming my way.  I wanted to turn-on my dive torch but feared that I would scare away whatever it was making the lights.  So I just waited.  The lights came closer.  I remained motionless.  Within a few moments I was face to face with this strange phenomenon.

I felt like a child in a theme park, taking a scary ride where unknown things jump out at you and illuminated eyes stare out from the blackness.  At times the lights were paired, sometimes I could see only one.  The shape of the “eyes” makes them look evil.  They were all around me.  I could wait no longer and switched on my torch.

Instantly, I realized I was in a school of flashlight fish, Phtoblepharon sp.  These marvelous little fish (about 5 cm long) possess a light organ, consisting of a patch of bioluminescent tissue, below each eye.  The blinking is accomplished through a flap of skin that can expose or cover the light organ.  Even more remarkable, the light is not made by the fish itself, but rather by symbiotic bacteria that live on the tissue specially adapted for them. Whether the lights were used to illuminate prey or to keep individuals in visual contact with each other, I could not tell.  I saw other schools of flashlight fish and swam with them.  That night I was truly a stranger in a strange land. 

Another big fish story… with no photos

I am diving on Catalina Island, looking for the black sea bass that are reportedly  coming back from being overfished for many years.  They are now protected and have, apparently, leaned that divers are not killers, at least here.  I hit the water and charge down to 98 feet.  All I get is cold.

I swim back up to 55 feet and water a bit warmer.  Also there is more light.  I sit on the bottom wondering where to swim and whether this entire dive will be a bust.  Then, off in the distance I see a large dark mass.  Jeeeeze its a black sea bass – a really big one!!  I frantically get my camera ready and it decides to quit – no shutter action.  Gawd, I bang on the housing, I turn the camera off and back on, and I get zero response…. shit!  I can’t miss this opportunity, so I give up on photos and just have an experience.  I approach slowly.  As I get closer to this really big fish I see weird little things on its head.  Closer inspection shows there are 20 or so copepod parasites hanging on to the head with little tassels, which are probably gonads.  The fish doesn’t move away. Very slowly I move closer and closer.  Finally, I’m within arm’s reach… why not?  I slowly reach out and touch its head and then scratch gently.  The fish doesn’t move but the eye is watching me…. eye to eye with a 300lb + fish… WOW!  It moves out of range by inches and I withdraw.  A couple of minutes later I approach again and with eyes fixed on each other I caress the head.  What an experience, sort of like the Amazon River dolphin, the marlin in the Sargasso Sea, and the finback whale in the Sea of Cortez.  The ocean offers such amazing experiences that deeply connect us to its residents and all life.

Wild nights

I am diving at dusk in the Cayman Islands.  My dive buddy is nearby and I see him motioning to me and pointing. I look and see nothing.  Then I realize he is pointing to something small just beyond his finger.  It is a worm, swimming in an upward spiraling manner.  Interesting, but not that interesting.  Then my buddy flicks the worm and it explodes in a puff of white “smoke.”  He is a good friend and I yell at him to stop molesting these little creatures.  At that moment he points to another and then another and then we are almost engulfed in a mass or wiggling worms all swimming to the surface.  OMG we are witnessing the annual mass spawning of palolo worms. 

These polychaete worms reside on the bottom but then engorge their rear segments bearing gonads with either sperm or eggs when it is time to spawn.  On the special night the behind part breaks off from the rest of the worm body and it wiggles up to the surface.  Here, where there are fewer predators, the worms explode and release their sperm and eggs.  After the eggs are fertilized the tiny larvae drift about for a week or so and then settle back on the reef. 

Polychaete worms exploding to release sperm and eggs in their mass spawning.

I get some great photos of males and females exploding and then retreat to the dive boat to get a video camera and document the mass sex-a-thon.  I put on a hood as the worms were getting in my hair.  This was a bad idea as some of the wigglers get under the hood, then trapped, wiggle into my ears.  A very unpleasant sensation.  The evening ended with a warm shower, digging worms out of my ears and scrubbing sperm and eggs out of my hair.

It is night and I have not had dinner.  Instead, I am on a dive boat putting on a soggy, cold wetsuit,  I look over the edge into the water and see lots of things, maybe thousands of things.  About a foot long, each is a silvery squid with the agenda of having a one-night fling.  None will live long enough to have a second chance the following year. With mask, snorkel, fins, tank, regulator, BCD and camera with light I jump.  Once the bubbles clear this mass, a gigantic squid amoeba of a thousand parts, converges around me.  I see nothing, absolutely nothing, other than squid.  The mating squid are obvious because the arms of the male, grasping the female, have a purple color.  They are beautiful.  It seems to be an arrangement of consensus as I don’t see females fleeing or resisting.

This time was on Catalina Island, off the coast of California – a week before Christmas.  It was the last night of filming for our IMAX show – Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D.  My job was to find interesting subjects to film and to be the still photographer.  This night the challenge was to get images of Jean-Michel and Holly Lohuis (Ocean Future’s marine biologist, educator, and colleague of over 20 years).  This was a real challenge because of the amoeboid behavior of the squid.  I could not get far enough from the two divers to get them in the frame without the squid mass ‘closing in,’ rendering the two divers invisible behind the squid.  Our solution was flailing our arms and my, very quickly, moving away to get a couple of photos before the divers disappear.  The next day was one of the most weird scenes I’ve experienced.  The underwater scene looked like there had been a snowstorm.  The entire bottom had a white carpet, a carpet of thousands of egg capsules, deposited by the females just before they died.  Strewn among these eggs were dead and dying squid.  Death and rebirth, the full cycle of life in one amazing panorama!  From an ecosystem point of view, this is a gigantic enrichment of food for residents of the coastal and kelp bed ecosystems (sea lions, fish, crabs, etc.)  In addition, whether the squid get eaten or not, their dead bodies will become a valuable source of nutrients that will enrich these waters to support the growth of algae and thus invigorate the entire food web.   This night was a great ending to my involvement in this film, which was one of the best film projects I’ve enjoyed.  The film team designed the IMAX camera system to show relatively close-up views of the underwater world.  This meant that a one-foot wide area of the bottom or a critter would eventually be expanded to one hundred-foot wide screen.  This magnification showed us and the audiences spectacular views of things few have ever seen.  A big wow even for me who has done close-up photography for many years!

A Killer Whale Encounter

I’m at the surface and coming toward me is a killer whale.  It comes closer and closer and then at the last minute turns.  It stops.  If I were anywhere else I would  be completely freaked out.  But here in a large aquarium, Keiko – the killer whale of Free Wily fame – is approaching me to play.  I have been given the opportunity to give him his daily exercise session.  My job is to climb aboard and then let him swim me around.  As a definite first of my life this is an exciting opportunity. 

Keiko swims and I balance.  After a couple of turns around the pool, he begins to wiggle. I yell to the trainers and ask what is going on.  I’m told he likes the person to fall off, making a big splash, and calling out.  So off I go.  Keiko circles back and I climb back on.  There are lots of people who believe orcas, and other whales, are aliens who have come to earth to give us humans enlightenment.  I’m not a believer but what do I really know, maybe these stories are true.  So, I lie down on Keiko, rest my forehead on his back, and ask for a message.  I speak softly as I don’t want the trainers to think I’m nuts.  I say, “Hey Keiko, I’m Murph and am ready for anything you would like to tell me.  I’m open to enlightenment, please speak.”  Sadly, I did not receive message but at least I tried.  Next I decided to have a bit more engagement by slowly climbing out on its pectoral fin.  Keiko seemed to get it and stopped swimming.  As I inched out toward the end, I could feel him adjusting to my weight.  I stop to see what will happen next.  Gradually, Keiko begins to raise his fin, making it harder and harder for me to stay on.   Finally, I tumble off with appropriate hollers and splashes.   After this experiment, I realized, if he wanted, he could have flicked me as we do a fly, and sent me flying across the pool.  Fortunately, Keiko did not flick me and so ended my first personal encounter with Keiko.

Me on Keiko during his exercise session.

My second, and last, time with Keiko was in Iceland.  A US Airforce jet, paid for by Fed Ex, transported Keiko from Oregon to Iceland.  This destination was great because Keiko was originally captured near Iceland and there was a large bay/lagoon that we could put a net across and give Keiko a new home where trainers could continue their work.  The ultimate goal was to “train” Keiko to avoid humans, catch his own food, get fit, and go free as a competent whale in the North Atlantic Ocean.  In this bay, I had a chance to dive with Keiko.  The water was cold and visibility limited. I thought about how we interact with Keiko.  Generally, we humans have an agenda and work to get Keiko to do what we want but does anyone ever give him a chance to turn the tables where we do what he wants?  Since we can’t know what he really wants, my idea was to just lie on the bottom and do nothing, absolutely nothing, and let him to whatever he likes.  He will certainly be aware of me with my noisy bubbles even if he can’t see me at a distance.  So there I was, on my back, on the bottom, in cold water, doing nothing.  Eventually I saw a large form above that was descending very slowly down to me.  Keiko came to me and stopped about one foot above my chest.  This was cause for some concern as I have no idea what he is thinking.  Remembering our first encounter, I said, “Hey Keiko, its Murph your old buddy.  Remember you don’t eat your buddy.  How is life here in Iceland?”  No answer but based on our last “conversation” I did not expect much.

Then Keiko came down and touched my chest ever so gently!  I continued reminding him that he should not eat his friend.  This process happened 2 more times and then something even more disconcerting took place.  Lying there, totally bored and cold, I felt a gentle nudge on the back of my head.  Tingling with an adrenalin rush, I looked back to see Keiko exploring me.  This happened twice! All of these encounters suggest he was wondering if I was alive and what was going on.  He could certainly hear my heart beating and maybe perceive other aspects of my being alive.  So Keiko at least had a chance to interact on his terms and I had a very dramatic farewell.

Keiko was regularly taken “on walks” to hopefully interact with other killer whales.  The whales follow fish, capelin, that move from Scandinavian waters out into the Atlantic and around Iceland. We connected with the fishing community and would get communiques when pods of killer whales were approaching Islandic waters.  Our training team would then open the barrier of the bay pen and lead him out to meet the whales.  Sometimes he would ignore the pod, sometimes the whales would ignore him, and once in a while Keiko would hang out with the pod.  The final encounter ended with Keiko staying with the visiting pod and not returning to his bay pen.  Eventually he showed up in Norway and, in spite of all the training to avoid humans, he was seen happily playing with kids in coastal waters.  Scientists determined he had been catching food on his own and his freedom lasted for almost a year before he died of pneumonia.  So ultimately the story of Free Willy, did come true, Willy/Keiko enjoyed the last days of his life in complete freedom.

 A Whale of a Tail and Tale

I tell the boat driver to take me a bit less than a quarter-mile from Alcyone, drop me off, leave, and keep track of me with binoculars.  I want to be totally alone and witness what appears to be a feeding frenzy of marine life in the Sea of Cortez.  What we see in the distance is birds circling and diving into an area of agitated water as indicated by splashing.  We approach and see dolphins, sea lions and even fish wildly jumping and swimming, apparently feeding on something.  Here and there are very large whales swimming on their sides with their mouths open, presumably feeding.  They are finback whales about 70 feet long, second in size only to blue whales.   I want to see this activity from underwater and maybe get some photos of the drama.

Whales, birds, and more in a feeding “pile up.”

I hit the water and see an entire food web before me.  The water is not clear due to phytoplankton, microcosmic plant plankton.  There is a pink mass nearby. I swim closer and see a large school of krill and other small crustaceans.  Then swimming through the krill are schools of sardines.  Thousands of sardines.  Amazing to see this textbook food chain in one field of view.  Now and then I see a dolphin or sea lion in the distance but this is not my priority, I want to get images of the feeding whales.

I am snorkeling for a couple of reasons. The sound of breathing with the scream of air coming from a SCUBA tank will likely keep whales away. I want to be at the surface where I can hear the whales breathing so I can swim and hopefully meet one as it swims by.  The film team has a loud outboard engine on the Zodiac and divers are using SCUBA. I don’t believe they will get any footage, so that is why I’m on my own.

I hear a whale breathe and identify the location.  I try to determine how fast the whale is swimming and in what direction.  I then begin swimming as fast as I can while still holding my camera. I’m hoping to be on a collision course and see a whale underwater.  I consider the possibility that a whale, with its mouth open, could end up with me in its mouth but I’m pretty sure I would get spit out quickly.  A possibility but this is an opportunity of a lifetime so I get my priorities straight and keep swimming, swimming and swimming.  No convergence as the whale spouts ahead and is going away from me.  it’s a pitiful scene, me – a tiny gnat poorly equipped to keep up with a gigantic, streamlined whale barely moving its tail and swimming many times faster than the gnat.  Three more frantic swims, lots of heavy breathing but no encounters.   Then another whale breathes, and I take off.  This time I’m in luck. After a long swim, I see something, its grey-blue and approaching me, directly approaching me!  I dive down and see the head and an eye the size of a dinner plate.  The head disappears and next I see the small dorsal fin.  Up for another breath and back down.  This time it’s the flukes maybe twice as wide as I am long.  Wow what an encounter but what’s this? The flukes aren’t moving.  OMG the whale has stopped swimming.  I swim toward the front and dive down to see the eye.  One big eye and two little eyes, just looking at each other.  “Hello eye!”  I take a couple of photos that are not very dramatic as all one can see is an eye on a grey-blue background.  I swim back to the flukes for a couple more photos.  I wonder if I should grab ahold but decide not to.  The gigantic tail begins to move and what has the appearance of a 747 in fog disappears in plankton rich water.

Finback whale feeding underwater.
Finback whale feeding at the surface.

At the surface I reflect on this amazing experience.  This animal stopped swimming and apparently allowed me to investigate, tiny me.  Very cool!  To the whale I was probably an odd little bug.   But what if the whale treated me like I do an interesting bug? Sometimes I pick the bug up, turn it over, examine it, then drop it back on the ground.  What would I have concluded if I received that kind of treatment?  I would come away believing that whales are vicious, dangerous, hurtful beasts.  Instead, as the gentle giants they are reported to be, I was given a magical experience that immensely enriched my life and my appreciation of nature.  I need to rethink how I treat bugs!!!

Maggot Murph

I am in Pam’s (ex wife) kitchen where she is mopping blood from a hole in my back where Jeanne, daughter, is digging with a scalpel in search of a maggot.  The maggot is a child of a bot fly and it is eating me to grow enough to fly away as a real bot fly. My child forgot the xylocaine, so the pain is significant.  I want to get rid of 4 maggots/larvae because when they climb up the tube they have created in my back to breathe their little pointy legs are quite irritating. I’m now losing sleep as they grow and need more oxygen.  I tell Jeanne to ignore my groans and just keep digging.  At one point she says, “I see it, I see it!” I say, “Grab it.”  She says, “It went back down.”  I say, “Dig deeper and get it.”  The rice grain sized creature is gone.  There are 3 more living in and on me.  Pam has had many years of my “adventures” and apparently reached her limit.  She says she is going to walk the dog, leaving us on our own.  Jeanne then calls her boyfriend who we had intended to insulate from this “personal” dimension of the Murphy family dynamic.  He is watching TV but agrees to come and help.  He walks into the kitchen to see his girlfriend with scalpel in hand, blood running down my back, and me groaning as the digging continues.  After a remarkably short time he says that he is about to either barf or faint.  So, we abandon the digging and resort to Plan B.  This plan is to put petroleum jelly over the holes.  When the larvae climb up to breathe they should get stuck in the petroleum jelly, and we could easily capture them and be rid of these free loaders.  A band aid was put over each one and we agreed to revisit this the following day.

Having spent early December in Belize, I had the pleasure of exploring Mayan ruins, touring remote rivers, avoiding howler monkeys peeing on me (unlike a guy near me on a hike), bird watching, surveying ecolodges, watching a morpho butterfly emerge from its chrysalis in a butterfly farm, and snorkeling on a pristine little cay in southern Belize.  As I explored one beautiful beach, I had to dive into the water from time to time as the mosquitoes were fierce.  I had no idea that the mosquitoes were host to another insect.  The other critters are bot flies that lay their eggs on the mosquitoes.  Once the mosquito lands on a mammal the eggs drop off, hatch, and the larvae dig into their new home.

After a few days I noticed that there were 4 bites that did not go away.  The bites were swollen and sometimes itched.  They were in the center of my back and thus not easily accessible.  In a mirror I could see the swollen bumps but they were not inflamed so I mostly ignored them.  BUT by the time I returned home the itching was becoming a problem at night because that itching would wake me up and getting a good night’s sleep was becoming an issue.

I did some homework and concluded I had bot fly larvae in me.  I contacted Jeanne, who was in med school, and asked her to research this in the medical literature.  She agreed that the bumps were probably due to bot flies (Dermatobia hominis).  She urged me see a doctor. I said she was almost a doctor and that I preferred to wait a week until she came home for Christmas so she could do the surgery and we could share the adventure.  She reluctantly agreed.

The real adventure of this holiday began after a nature hike in the Santa Monica Mts., a dinner at the Inn of the Seventh Ray, and presents at Pam’s.  For me the best part would be the removal of my little room mates.  So Jeanne, Pam and I converged in the kitchen to dig into my back and search for fly larvae.  As Jeanne dug into her medical bag, she said we could not proceed as she had forgotten the xylocaine!  I said this was not acceptable as I did not want to endure another night of interrupted sleep.  I said there probably were not that many pain sensors in the middle of my back so lets get to it.

Digging was exciting for two reasons – I learned that there were lots of nerve endings I never knew I had in my back (unfortunately they were all pain sensors) and for Jeanne it was a fascinating experience of adventure and discovery.  She was actually in 7th heaven, digging about in dad’s tissue.  The adventure was punctuated by her squeals of delight upon seeing the little breathing tube of the larva coming out of a tiny hole in my back.  We discovered after considerable probing that the larvae were way too deep to dig out without a real anesthetic.  The boyfriend tried to fill in for Pam but couldn’t handle the blood and groans.  So, we bandaged up my 4 little roommates, tucking them in under Neosporin, and looked forward to the following day..

There was a family get together scheduled at a relative’s home, so Jeanne and I had to be discrete to avoid eyes, and maybe horror, of “normal people.”  She scanned the house and found an out of the way bathroom to proceed with the fly adventure.  I had Pam put a little plastic fly under one of the bandages.  When Jeanne opened that band aid she saw a black fly sitting there.  She gasped and instantly covered up the bandage not knowing what to say or do.  She was aware of the issue of introduced, non-native species and did not want to let this alien go free.  At that point I was in hysterics.  She got it and acknowledged it was one of the best tricks I had ever played on her.  So went holiday family bonding in the Murphy clan.  We did not discover any flies stuck in the gel so the next day I had to visit a medical clinic.

Eventually, I got to an emergency room, but it was flu season.  The doctor said I was low priority and I asked how long he would be on duty.  He said, “all night” and I said great, “I’ll wait, and you can see me between other patients.”  It was slow going as the Dr. came and went according to others with greater problems.  But we were both happy.  In fact, as we discussed this unique medical experience for both of us he said, “It doesn’t get much better than this!”  It’s so nice to be “special.”  After 4 hours of off and on digging, we got all 4 of my roommates who are now preserved in a vial of formalin.  That vial is sitting on my shelf, sort of like a fisherman who has his stuffed catch on a wall to remind him of the battle between man and beast.

­The Dynamic Clam Society (Not Adventures or Beginnings)

If you have an open mind, read on.  if not, then move on.  In our modern world we take great pride in our self-proclaimed enlightenment, compassion, and political correctness.  Certainly, we have made great strides in addressing cultural prejudice and even the prejudice against certain species but there is one group of organisms still suffering from the ignorance characteristic of our antiquated past. 

You say, ”My god, we now are saving perfectly good tasting whales, protecting endangered butterflies which used to decorate tourist curios, and even advocating for bats that can spread disease and get tangled in one’s hair.  What is left to save?”   Well, my friend have you ever thought of clams?  Probably not and that is the problem.  They are the butt of jokes referring to a person’s wet skin and even used to name bars… like the famed Bearded Clam pub in Long Beach, California.  Humiliating and inappropriate to say the least!  This must stop!  It is a reflection of how far we as a civilization have yet to go.  We need a bit more evolution to truly become a caring and compassionate species, respectful of the dignity of all other creatures with whom we share this little oasis in space. 

Giant clam, Tridacna gigas.

I’ve decided to take the “clam by the shells” and mobilize a bivalve awareness program and create the DYNAMIC CLAM SOCIETY.  This not-for-profit organization will be dedicated to public awareness, political action, and scientific research to preserve and protect the quality of life for present and future generations……of clams.  Bivalves have played a critical role in human culture throughout the ages and even in modern times have contributed greatly to our understanding of ocean processes.  Specifically, the global pollution monitoring program called Mussel Watch involved the collection of mussels world-wide to study pollutants concentrated in mussel bodies.  They are our sentinels, signaling the extent of water pollution, and have dramatically advanced our knowledge of the extent of the pollution problem.  Because so many people eat clams, oysters and mussels, our motto, “Protect the clams and you protect yourself” was our first outreach message, which hit a resonant cord in society and crystallized the importance of these humble bivalves to humanity.  Regrettably, and predictably, our twin-shelled allies suffered another insult as some upstart organizations have now stolen these profound words for their own use, jumping on our clam-wagon, and changing our slogan ever so slightly to avoid a court battle.  “Protect the sea and you protect yourself” is a sad testament of how little respect clams get from the uninformed. 

But THE DYNAMIC CLAM SOCIETY is rising above these insults and proposing to set the record straight.  Our first action will be the creation of a major documentary film dedicated to exploring the fascinating the world of clams.  As a potential founding member of THE DYNAMIC CLAM SOCIETY we are giving you a chance to get in on the soft bottom (ground floor) and participate in this epic adventure.

This subject is as fascinating as it is vast.  Below are a few of the more exciting dimensions of the “dynamic clam.”  But first lets put aside one sore subject which gets under my shell.  Some have said clams are boring… how little they know!  In fact, the term boring is a perfect example of the prejudice referred to above.   Actually, the only boring clams are those who bore into the bottom.  As they tunnel into solid rock they can weaken it, making clams a significant geological force, increasing erosion of the bottom.  These excavations create a perfectly safe home inside rock, but at the same time make clams prisoners in their own homes.  Siphons connect them to the surface where water is pumped across their gills for oxygen and food.  How’s that for excitement… boring they are not!

Actually, how clams, oysters, mussels, scallops and other bivalves feed proves how clever they are.  Gills have many filaments to expose blood to oxygen in the water.  This delicate meshwork is prone to clogging with whatever is drifting in the water.  If this matter is edible then why not take advantage of this byproduct of breathing and have a feast.  Not bad – two benefits from only one structure.  Who says clams are dumb.

Probably the cleverest clam/bivalve is one species that lives in the Mississippi basin.  These bivalves, locally called mussels, and their close relatives, carefully brood their young inside the parent’s shells to make sure they don’t drift downstream.  But what happens when the clam babies are finally released to the water?  There is still the potential to be swept downstream eventually to the sea.  But this Mississippi mussel has devised a fantastic strategy to circumvent this dilemma.  Part of the mantle of the clam, the fleshy tissue which secretes the shell, is designed to look like a little worm.  When a fish comes to bite the worm the clam senses this and shoots out a blast of babies who immediately grab hold and hang onto the fish’s gills.  They immediately become hitchhikers and free loaders.  As hitchhikers they get a free ride and avoid the powerful currents.  As freeloaders they become parasites feeding on the fish’s gills. 

These clams are even important to humans….. in Australia of all places.  Any ideas on the connection between clams in the Mississippi River and Australia one-half way around the world?  Pearl farmers have discovered that pieces of Mississippi mussels serve as the best “seeds” for cultured pearls grown in tropical waters.  So, mussel shells are shipped to Australia, cut into tiny pieces and surgically inserted into pearl oyster mantles where they grow into pearls.  Some of which are shipped back to America for sale!

The story of clams has a more sinister side as some clams are invaders wreaking havoc on local ecosystems.  Introduced zebra mussels and Asian clams have outcompeted other spices, clogged power plant cooling pipes and caused millions of dollars of damage in the United States alone.

We sometimes call money clams and this evolved from Native American’s use of clams for money.  They used the purple hinge of Mercenaria mercenaria, the tasty clam from the east coast, for money.  Recently this humble clam has proven worth more than anyone has imagined.  Researchers have extracted a chemical they call mercenine which has the ability to shrink tumors.  On the other side of the world in Papau New Guinea, bagi is the term for money made from a rock scallop.  There divers harvest the shells for their red margins and then meticulously grind the pieces down into beautiful round shapes which are strung for necklaces and other body ornamentations.  They are extremely valuable ranging up into the hundreds of dollars for an elaborate necklace. The Golden Fleece of Greek mythology is actually the byssal threads of a mussel-like bivalve called a pen shell which lives in the soft sediments.  They live in tropical seas around the world and are now a great tourist item as they shells are beautiful with a black inner layer and outer layer which can be polished to reveal mother of pearl.

Clams have conquered the planet’s water system thriving in polar seas and serving as an important food source for walruses, diversifying in tropical seas, and adapting to rivers and lakes around the world.  Some of those living in the deep sea survive on bacteria living in their gills which use chemical energy from hydrothermal vents for survival.  In this way they become an important link in the chemosynthetic (versus photosynthetic ) food chain connecting bacteria to fish, crabs and other deep sea species.  The most dramatic example of clams benefiting from partnerships is the giant clams (Tridacna sp.) dependence on tiny algae living in their tissues.  These clams are truly farmers, with expanded mantles for the collection of sunlight to nurture their algae gardens.  These clams even have lenses which allow more light to penetrate into their tissue to provide more algae with more light to make more food.  It is these algae which give giant clams their magnificent colors and enable them to hold the record for the largest clams to have ever lived on earth.

I can imagine by now you are asking yourself where do I sign on and how can I help turn this story into a feature film or at least 1 hour documentary.  I share your enthusiasm and offer even more drama to whet your appetite.  Some additional images and subjects might include  swimming scallops to introduce the important the scallop fishery, we might explore “clam city” which is a refuge for giant clams in Palau and has become an important tourist destination, we could witness the spawning and husbandry of these clams for food, the aquarium industry and repopulating depleted reefs, and of course we must show the abstract side of clams as they are as beautiful and mysterious as any modern art with  – greens and browns flecked with black and white streaks, brilliant neon blues, vibrant green and blue. I can envision the camera pulling back to the massive “jaws” of a giant clam followed by a diver inspecting this  3+ foot long clam giving credence to the myth of their being “man eaters.”  Another dimension might be the kinetic brilliant and white tentacles waving, then witnessing them begin “revving-up” as the file shell launches itself from the bottom and swims off into the black abyss.  This might be following a bevy of scallops scuttling across the bottom leaving a trail of “dust.”  The dust might be a segway into the lighter side of clams through clam cartoons (which I’ve collected for many years) and the importance of clams in our own culture through phrases such as clam-up, happy as a clam at high tide, etc.

I’m sure you chowderheads are clammoring to participate in THE DYNAMIC CLAM SOCIETY and support this epic tale of adventure and discovery.  Fortunately, our youth group, which doesn’t suffer from the prejudice of adults, has jumped on the clam wagon and is growing far beyond our expectations.  The girls have formed a committee, called the Clamettes, and are waiting to take your credit card donations.  Just call 800/clamett or look us up on the Internet.

My inspiration and mentor in creating the Dynamic Clam Society!

We look forward to having you as a member and applaud your appreciation for the connections between clams and humanity.  Remember, “Protect the Clams and You Protect Yourself.”

Biodiversity – A Tale of two Cities (Adventures)

City of Trees

I am standing in an analogue of a major metropolitan city.  The “buildings” tower above me.  Residents are busy, completely involved in their jobs, and some are just taking a break and hanging out.  There are the eye-catching residents who are the focus of us who are visitors but in fact some of the most important occupants are not easily seen. This city is a sprawling metropolis covering thousands of miles in South America.  Where am I?  For those who know me, you have probably guessed I am standing in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.  The buildings are trees, the residents are a bewildering diversity of species – plants, animals, fungi, and microbes. Simply focusing on the “rich and famous” are interesting but do not provide much of an understanding of the more important components and processes that keep the city functioning.  I want to examine who works and lives where, what are their jobs, and how all of those jobs collectively create a sustainable functioning community. I am particularly interested in the personal lives of the everyday workers, their skills and their interactions with others which will give us the most powerful understanding of life in this city.  In fact, human cities, coral reefs (dived into elsewhere) and rainforests all have many things in common.  Each must get energy, deal with waste, rely on a great diversity of residents to do important work, and integrate those processes of productivity to keep the system running smoothly.

We have had two Amazon expeditions, one in 1982/83 and another in 2007.  During those adventures we found incredibly charismatic animals and were deeply touched by our interactions with them.  I described (in another chapter) my adventure with the Amazon pink river dolphin that gave me insights to life below the surface. The white Uakari monkey in the Mamirauá Reserve, the largest protected area in the Amazon, showed us what life is like in the treetops.  We learned about how the forest is connected to global climate and how cutting or burning the forest can have impact far beyond the borders of the Amazon. But none of these really address the most important aspect of the Amazon, how it functions and how it maintains its own viability through time.

Python waiting for a meal to pass by.

In addressing this question our approach was to focus on one tree and explore how it supports and is connected to other species. The living building I chose was a strangler fig, Ficus sp, reaching up from the dark forest floor to the sun, collecting solar radiation, converting it into chemical energy and using that energy to synthesize all sorts of useful things.  This living machine grows, repairs itself, adapts to change, and even replaces itself without creating any pollution, all at no cost to anyone (except the tree it strangles) because it runs on free, renewable energy.  It takes up the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and releases life giving oxygen needed by others in the forest. Its flowers and fruit are food to other residents and its trunk and branches are home to thousands of residents.  Its roots are also home to countless more, tireless, almost invisible workers who are the tree’s most trusted allies, doing critical work needed by the tree to stay in business. This is the skyscraper of our city – a self-sufficient, sustainable, solar powered building.  It does not pollute and runs on renewable energy.  Quite an impressive machine!!

Holly Lohuis next to a living sky scraper in the Amazon.

As we sat in our observation perch in the Mamirauá Reserve it became obvious that there was one major difference between our forest and a city.  In this case the highways were not on the ground between the skyscrapers, but at the top of the city, in the forest canopy itself.  Here at rooftop level the Uakari, spider and howler monkeys commuted from tree to tree.  Butterflies and birds fed and rested far above the forest floor, each doing its job. As butterflies fed on nectar they carried pollen from one flower to another, ensuring the reproductive success of plants incapable of physically getting together for the sharing of genetic material. The toucan came to eat fruit, and in the process carried away the tree’s young that were otherwise incapable of mobility. Defecating the undigested seeds not only dispersed them but also cleverly encased them in a packaged fertilizer.  Each species of bird fed on a slightly different suite of fruit and seeds ensuring that the diversity of trees, each with their own characteristics, would be successful in repopulating the forest.  Our guide told us that over 80 % of the trees in Mamirauá depend on animals for seed dispersal.

We saw that each of the 100 or so species of trees in this sometimes-flooded forest was home to a different variety of residents.  Some residents inhabited only a certain type of tree while others were generalists, apparently happy to live on almost any surface.  Lianas, epiphytic ferns, mosses, termites, ants, caterpillars, and a host of other strange life forms called our tree home. Biting insects opportunistically took advantage of our film team as a valuable source of food, decorating our legs with colorful welts.   During our short stay we observed 4 species of monkeys and over 10 species of birds visiting our tree.  Our trained local guides told us that there over 400 species of birds and over 350 species of fish living in the region around our tree.

Descending from the highway level to the basement we were visually struck by the engineering strategies of this community, fascinating elements of structural support. At ground level we could see how our tree cleverly used another tree to reach sunlight with the least amount of investment and in the shortest amount of time.  Our strangler fig began its life at the top of the host tree, as it’s seed was dropped there by a bird or monkey.  From there it sprouted roots and branches, growing up and down at the same time until the roots touch the ground. Eventually this vine became a real tree capable of supporting itself without help from its victim.  The original host tree is now dead; its demise certainly hastened from competition for water, nutrients, and sunlight not to mention possible constriction from the growing trunk of the fig.  Nearby we noticed other species of trees and their structural supports form gigantic buttresses or extensive prop roots that offered lateral stabilizers to keep these massive trees from toppling over. 

Of equal importance to the department of energy and power, at the canopy level, is the waste treatment and recycling department.  In the Amazon, nutrients can be quickly washed from soil by rain, leaving many soils depleted of nitrogen and phosphorus.  These nutrients are essential ingredients in proteins, genetic material. and energy compounds, and required for all forms of life from bacteria to humans.  The solution to nutrient loss is to have these ingredients quickly recycled from dead matter (waste from plants and animals) into the raw materials needed by plants and then returned directly to the plants.

When we dug into the forest floor we did not find a rich layer of earth.  Immediately below the leaves we were met with a dense mat of roots.  In some cases, there was almost no soil at all, just roots.  Only below the roots did we find what one would call dirt. Looking more closely we saw minute threads of white and here and there popped up mushrooms.  These white filaments are the fungi, quietly digesting the leaves, extracting energy for growth and reproduction, and producing as waste nutrients, the raw materials needed by plants. There were direct physical connections between the fungi and roots, enabling the efficient transfer of nitrogen and phosphorous to the plants from the fungi, never giving rain a chance to wash them from the system. 

Fungi that digest and recycle organic matter into nutrients.

We happened to kick a “rotten” log and discovered it was more roots than actual wood.  Apparently this process of fungal-root collaboration had invaded the log.  Fungi digested the wood and roots of nearby plants taking advantage of the new resource of fertilizer.  This was not a dead tree, it was a massive collective of workers, in the shape of a log, busily doing their job of recycling a tree into raw materials from which to make more self-repairing, self-replicating trees.  From the diversity of mushrooms, the reproductive structures of fungi, there was an incredible diversity of recyclers each adapted to working on different batches of forest waste efficiently turning them into useful materials for others in the forest ecosystem.

The more we explored the more profound became the message of collaboration.  Certainly the “red in tooth and claw” aspect of Darwinian evolution was apparent.  Plants competed for sunlight, egrets chased others from their territories along river banks, pink dolphins engaged in fights for mates but at the same time everything seemed to be integrated.  We observed this at many levels. At the species level we watched in amazement as the Amazon water lily opened its petals in one afternoon.  This species actually increases its rate of metabolism at the end of the day to volatilize chemicals that attract a species of scarab beetle.  At dawn the flower closes with the beetle inside. Trapped, the beetle will feast on starchy material, which triggers the release of pollen.  As the beetle moves about inside the flower it becomes coated with pollen.  The following dawn the beetle is liberated to pollinate another flower and spend the night protected from predators as it feasts on the starchy material. Once the flower has been pollinated it sinks to the bottom where seeds develop and eventually float away in currents to create a new water lily.

We were given a clear warning to stay away from certain plants by their collaborative partners.  There are many plant species that grow expanded chambers at the base of their leaves which are then inhabited by ants.  These chambers become nurseries for their larvae and predictably the ants are fierce in protecting their homes and young.  In other plants the relationship involves food as well.  Structures called extrafloral nectarines secrete a sugary fluid for the ants, appropriately compensating them for their protective services. 

Other partnerships involve an animal taking advantage of chemical defenses plants use to deter predators.  The caterpillars of the Heliconia butterfly feed on passionflowers that contain a chemical distasteful to many species. The caterpillar stores those substances in its body for immediate and future protection. Both caterpillar and butterfly thus benefit from chemicals stolen from the larva’s source of food and the butterfly only visits that particular species of passionflower for nectar.  Thus Heliconia is both predator and protector at once, not unlike how we farm species for our well-being.

The concept of farming was taken to its ultimate with the leaf cutter ants we often saw carrying their loads of harvested leaves.  The ants cannot digest the cellulose of the leaves and instead cultivate fungi to do the digesting for them.  Ants simply lick the fungi for a meal.  But we learned that the story is more complex.  As with any crop, pests can be a problem, in this case in the form of bacteria that infect the fungi.  The pest control is on the ants themselves in the form of another species of fungus that can destroy the bacterial disease. So goes the fine-tuning of life and systems in the rainforest on the micro scale.

At a larger level are other integrated processes at work.  The water level of the Amazon can fluctuate over 40 feet during the annual cycle.  Forest above the level of flooding is called terra firma.  A hectare of land here may support as many as 300 species of trees.  Lower forest that is flooded for part of the year is called varzea and it may support 100 tree species. The benefit of being richly fertilized by river water, on the varzea, is apparently not sufficient to overcome the challenge of being forced to live underwater for a few months each year.  Yet a reduction in diversity of tree species does not mean a reduction in productivity.  The pulse of the river is extremely valuable to aquatic life.  Fish and dolphins regularly invade the flooded forest to feed. Some feed on seeds, acting as important agents of seed dispersal, like birds and mammals do on land. In the lower levels of the flooded zone, rich aquatic vegetation supports a vast population of herbivores.  When the water levels descend these fish must return to the river proper and in so doing become a valuable resource for predatory fish.  With lower river levels some lakes become totally isolated and thanks to the rain of leaves from above, conditions below water can become low in oxygen.  Evolution has provided an effective solution for the pirarucu, a fish that can grow to 10’ in length, that lives in these lakes.  Its swim bladder, originally used for buoyancy control, has been modified to become a lung.  These fish gulp air, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide in their modified swim bladder just as we do in our lungs.  In fact, our lungs have evolved from extensions of our digestive tract just as the swim bladder is an extension of the digestive tract of the pirarucu.  Our very distant ancestors obviously faced similar challenges, adapted with similar structures and then continued to evolve and become terrestrial.  This fish is the most valuable fish in the Amazon and as a result has been depleted to the point that in Brazil it is totally protected in all but a couple of carefully managed ecoreserves, such as the Mamirauá Ecological Reserve, where our tree is located. The pirarucu lays its eggs in depressions excavated along the shores of the flooded forest.  The pulse of the river is important for the pirarucu and for the region’s economy.  Where the river level is static, as now exists behind the growing number of dams along the Amazon’s tributaries, this dynamic pulse ceases.  There is no flooded forest and thus the refuge the forest provides for some fish and the bloom of aquatic vegetation that supports those commuting herbivores is terminated with consequences that ripple throughout the entire river system.

Turtles enjoying a sunny float.

From our brief glimpses into the Amazon forest and water system we realized how wonderfully creative evolution has been and how effective have been the systems resulting from this evolutionary blossoming.  Biodiversity begets biodiversity.  Each species has a job, a functional role in the ecosystem.  Most are a complete mystery to us but the more we study the more convinced we are that this principle is universal.  Fine-tuning enables limited resources to be efficiently utilized and the overlapping functions of species ensure that important work will be maintained even if a species disappears. Ecological redundancy is ecological security.  In the economy of nature here in the Amazon we have seen how sophisticated innovation uses renewable energy and does work without harmful waste or destruction to nearby communities.  Our quest for sustainable human communities has much to learn from the Amazon.

Next time we visit our tree it will be by boat.  The buttresses, roots, fungi and other residents of the basement will be under water.  Above water we will search for those who migrate upward and underwater we will discover who has invaded from the river.  Maybe we will see caimans, Amazon River dolphins, nesting pirarucu and piranha.  Maybe we will see nothing if the concentrations of sediments are as we have seen them in the river proper where water visibility is normally next to zero.

If we knew what we were to find on our expeditions, we would not come!

A Coral City

I have just returned from a life-changing dive trip to an absolutely magnificent island chain surrounded by the most beautiful reefs I have ever seen. Immersion in this candy store of luscious treats has given me a deep connection to the miraculous wonder of life on this planet and I want to make sure everyone appreciates what I have experienced. I organize my photos and am showing friends and family a bewildering variety of fishes, corals, sea fans, feather stars, and other weird residents of the reef.  All are enraptured by the beauty and weirdness of marine life.

But my presentation is interrupted by the question, “Pretty pictures of cool critters, but what good are they?”  Annoying though it may be, this is a valid question–what is the value of biodiversity? My response follows.

It’s interesting that so many people struggle with the question of the value of biodiversity.  In your own community, it is quite obvious that you don‘t expect your personal physician to be a great chef, your accountant to repair your shoes, your bank manager to also advise you on the best motor oil for your car, or your gardener to repair your computer’s hard drive.  We appreciate the fact that each of us is good at some things and not so good at others. We respect specialists and pay them well for the important work they do. Collectively, all of us in a community, each doing our own thing, create a reasonably good life for ourselves and contribute to the smooth functioning of society. The value of each occupation becomes quite clear when the garbage collectors or air traffic controllers go on strike.  Diversity is good and even necessary.

Aware of the loss of biodiversity at a global scale, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature launched a program to review the scientific literature on the value of biodiversity.  Scientists from around the world shared their work and this effort was compiled in a book published in 1997 entitled The Work of Nature – How the Biodiversity of Life Sustains Us. It is very readable and I urge any of you who are teachers to get it.  It reviews, ecosystem by ecosystem, fascinating case studies about how the work of different species enables ecosystems to thrive.

Back to the coral reef.  Corals are the builders and architects of the reef itself and corals have partners, algae living inside them that make food by using coral waste as fertilizer.  The architectural designs of these coral buildings often serve to maximize their surface for collecting sunlight. For example, table corals take the shape of flat topped trees reaching up for sunlight or brain corals that look like our own brain with its convolutions that give more surface area for more algae to make more food. 

Table coral as a solar powered building of the Coral City.

Seen another way, these coral colonies are buildings with “roof top gardens” where the waste from below fertilizes plant productivity above.  A diversity of coral species and a diversity of algae in their rooftop gardens ensure that a variety of habitats from shallow to deep reefs will have specialists capable of dealing with the unique challenges of each environment. And in the process these corals create the structure that becomes home to millions of other species.

Larger algae carpet the reef substrate. These solar collectors are another very important source of food for the reef. Again, a diversity of algae, living in different habitats, ensures that the reef maximizes its ability to capture energy, make food and support an even greater diversity of other reef residents, ranging from invertebrates to fish.

Yet algae can become a problem, just as weeds in a garden can overgrow preferred vegetable plants.  So, not surprisingly, there is a diversity of herbivores that graze on algae, mowing the lawn and keeping the weeds in check. This is important because coral larvae prefer a clean, open surface on which to settle. If everything is overgrown with algae, then life is difficult for the microscopic corals beginning life on the bottom.

Again, diversity is important as shown by research conducted in Jamaica on urchins, parrotfish and surgeonfish, important herbivores in the Caribbean.  Reduction of parrotfish and surgeonfish populations by over-fishing in the Caribbean has eliminated part of this community of lawnmowers, but sea urchins were generally able to take up the slack. Then in 1983, a disease swept through the Caribbean, virtually eliminating Diadema urchins as the reef’s lawnmowers.  In this case, ecological redundancy, which is really ecological social security, had already been lost due to over-fishing. The loss of urchin lawnmowers resulted in an ecological disaster. Algae grew wildly, covering the bottom and creating difficult conditions for corals, both young and old. Problems for corals meant problems for the entire ecosystem.  Fortunately, the genetic diversity of urchins, another form of security, was invested in those few possessing immunity from the 1983 disease, and they are now repopulating the reefs, slowly. With the revival of urchins, the ecological balance may return in time, assuming reef management programs allow herbivorous fish populations to be restored.

Other members of the reef clean up crew are important in other ways.  Many worms, sea cucumbers, brittle stars and bacteria eat organic waste (detritus) on the bottom.  Sponges filter the water, extracting plankton, bacteria and organic waste. These creatures perform the function of a sewage treatment plant, taking in waste, cleaning it and returning sediment or water to the environment cleaner than it was before. Not only are they recycling waste but they are also preventing the build-up of material that could become an environmental problem.  As they clean the environment, they grow and become food for other organisms and ultimately release nutrients that can be used by algae to begin another cycle.  Actually, bacteria are the most important of all in regenerating raw materials from waste and again there is a vast diversity of specialist bacterial species.

So in the coral reef, we see surfaces carpeted with solar collectors that make food, buildings where roof top gardens are fertilized with waste, and efficient recycling of waste into useful materials.  Most important, the security of this ecosystem depends on a diversity of species, some of which overlap to ensure there is a back-up system to cover losses of any important work crews.  Just because we don’t know the exact job of each creature, does not mean it has no value.  This is only a reflection of our ignorance.  For more, much more, on this subject you can read my book, Coral Reefs – Cities Under the Sea.

Fortunately, at the highest level of international government we appreciated, some years ago, the value of biodiversity.  The United Nations declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, stating “It is a celebration of life on earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives.  The world is invited to take action in 2010 to safeguard the variety of life on earth: biodiversity.”  (

Now our focus on climate change includes support to protect entire ecosystems, with their diverse populations of residents that keep the systems functioning smoothly.  The loss of rainforests means the release of even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and their protection pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and stores it in biomass and soils. 

We need to keep our oasis in space, our spaceship in the universe, running smoothly by keeping all of the parts.