Published in Grist
“I have an unhealthy — or, I would like to say, healthy — obsession with poop,” says marine biologist Asha de Vos. Specifically, she’s stuck on kind that comes out of blue whales living off the coast of her homeland, Sri Lanka; in fact you could even say she built her career on a pile of this shit.
When de Vos found the red, gloopy stuff floating at the surface of the North Indian Ocean, it was her first clue that this population of whales behaves very differently than previously thought. While a student, de Vos was taught that all blue whales are migratory, feeding at the poles and coming to the warmer waters in order to breed and give birth. But blue whales are still a mysterious bunch — especially the ones near Sri Lanka, since no one studied that particular population until de Vos began to in 2008. After repeatedly coming across blue whale poop at sea, she realized that the local population actually stays there year-round.
For a woman growing up in Sri Lanka, marine biology was one of the most unorthodox fields de Vos could have chosen. “Most people are encouraged to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, or business people,” she says. But “as a child I wanted to be an adventure scientist. I wanted to be the one who discovered things and saw things that no one else saw, explore places no one else would go.”
After becoming the first Sri Lankan to get a PhD in marine mammal research, de Vos has become a pioneer in the study of blue whales, making discoveries that have been recognized across the globe. “My parents just said, ‘Do what you love and you’ll do it well,’” she says. “And I do what I love.”
We talked with de Vos about her smelly passions, the biggest threats to whales today, and why the Save the Whales movement needs a makeover. Here’s an edited and condensed version of what she had to say.
Published in Grist
On an early October morning in 1997, on the west side of the island of Kauai, 18-year-old Mike Coots got in the water with his bodyboard, as he had done hundreds of times before, and started to paddle out. He and his friends went about 300 feet from the shore until they reached the surf break, in water that was 30 to 40 feet deep. They were quickly rewarded by a set of good waves, each about four feet high. Everyone in the group caught one right away. Except for Coots.
It was just Coots and one other surfer still waiting when the last wave of the set came in. “I remember looking at him and we looked at each other wondering who’s going to catch the wave,” Coots recounts. “[A]nd I got on my board and started paddling.” And then, without warning, a tiger shark emerged from the depths and latched on to his leg.
The animal thrashed back and forth with his leg in its mouth. It finally let go when he punched it in the nose. Coots got on his board and began to paddle like mad back to the shore. When he felt his leg spasm, he feared the shark had taken hold of him again; it wasn’t until he looked back that he realized his leg was, in fact, gone. In its place, a raw laceration spurted out blood with every pump of his heart.
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We’ve had plenty of reasons to get scared about sharks. From the recent “summer of the shark” attacks in North Carolina to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week to this nightmare, close encounters with the infamous marine predators seem to be cropping up left and right lately.
In the midst of the media mania, scientists continue to try to reassure the public that the odds of being a shark attack victim are in fact incredibly small. You are orders of magnitude more likely to suffer a drowning incident, get killed on yourbicycle, or meet your end in a collapsing sand hole than in the jaws of a shark.
Yet sharks continue to be one of our favorite things to feel horrified by. Those furtive fins gliding above the water! Those huge, lithe, cartilaginous bodies! And let’s not forget — though how could we? — those rows upon rows of teeth.
Before his attack, however, Coots spent little time thinking about sharks. “I never really had any fear of them, even though I’ve been around them my whole life,” he tells me. “It was just a thing that’s in the ocean that you’ve got to respect and be careful of, but all in all they just do their own thing.”
But after the incident, Coots did fall into to a certain shark obsession — though not the way you might expect. The Hawaii-based surfer and photographer turned his experience into a call to action. Except that, rather than fixate on the harm sharks present to us, Coots is more concerned with what we’re doing to them.
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Eating the right seafood can be a tricky thing. You don’t have to look too far to find examples of species that have been overfished to satisfy our hunger, or creatures that are unintentionally threatened by our nets, or our bad habit of shuffling species and ecosystems together. But ocean advocate Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly still wants you to indulge in the good stuff — so long as it comes from the right sources. She’s the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, the country’s leading program for sustainable seafood.
Seafood Watch is based on the premise that consumers, armed with the right information, have the power to drive change. The SFW website, app, and handy pocket guides provide info so that shoppers and diners can decide what seafood to order based on its environmental impact. Kemmerly’s not asking you to give up lox for breakfast or sushi for dinner; she just wants you to ask where it came from.
“Change happens when people are persistent,” Kemmerly says. “We want people to make a little noise and show the business community that this is an important issue. Ask where that seafood comes from. Ask if they have a sustainable seafood program where you shop. And if they do, say thank you.”
We got Kemmerly to give us the scoop on sustainable fishery management, the rising role of aquaculture, and how, in the face of wide scale ocean woes, we fish eaters have the power to turn the tides. Here’s what she had to say.
“Ocean explorer” sounds like a pie-in-the-sky job description, like “adventure archaeologist” or “Jedi.” But for David Gruber, it’s his actual title. A 2014 National Geographic emerging explorer who studies bioluminescence and fluorescence, Gruber hones in on the areas of the world that are still big unknowns and dives deep into them — way deep. Over the years, as Gruber has studied what goes on hundreds of meters below the surface of our seas, he has discovered hundreds of species and even identified entirely new marine phenomena, including some that could lead to breakthroughs in medical research.
A deep thinker, Gruber brings a philosophical approach to his science. He was first drawn to study bioluminescence because it was “an area that was artistic and beautiful to me, and that was really unknown.” Plus, he has an eye for the big picture: “It’s not like we’re just looking at it right now at this moment in time, we’re seeing the ocean as a compilation of genes and organisms that took millions of years to get to this place we’re at now.” And that, he says, gives us a context to understand how we’re changing things now.
We talked with Gruber about his explorations and discoveries, what it’s like to see in a primarily blue world, and what it means that we’re still, today, plumbing the unknown depths of our oceans. Here’s an edited and condensed version of what he had to say.
Long Beach, Calif., where I spent my first 17 years, has had many notable contributions to the world. Snoop Dogg. Cameron Diaz. Sublime. Some not-so-classic Paris Hilton music videos. I’m proud to have grown up there for more substantial reasons, too, like the fact that it makes the top five in America’s most diverse cities, and has one of the best public school districts in the country.
But when it comes to living green, Long Beach’s pedigree leaves something to be desired. Oil is big business. The city was designed with cars in mind and little attention to transit alternatives. And, being in the desert, Long Beach has to take half of its water from the Colorado River or Northern California’s Bay Delta Region (neither of which are exactly well-supplied with the stuff themselves).
To further illustrate: As I walked down the beach near my father’s house when I visited in February, I saw far more bits of colorful plastic than I saw seashells, more dead animals than live ones, and the view looked out onto oil drilling sites and a fleet of tankers lined up to enter the harbor. When I came back, the bottoms of my feet were covered in splotches of tar.
New Mayor Robert Garcia, elected last June, wants to clean up Long Beach’s environmental rep. At his first State of the City address in January 2015, Garcia issued an urgent call for global warming adaptation. “That means changing the way we produce and use energy, supporting transportation that is not reliant on fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, creating green space, and looking at every way we can to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said in his address. He’s already commissioned the Aquarium of the Pacific to craft a Climate Change Action Plan — i.e. suggestions on what the city should do in order to get ready for everything from sea-level rise to heatwaves. The plan is due at the end of this summer.
The orca iconography in Puget Sound tourist gift shops borders on sappy, but for those lucky enough to have seen an orca in the flesh, the love of these whales is not so hard to understand. Yet the whale tourism industry may also come with a darker side: Are we literally loving the Southern Resident killer whales to death?
The Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance — a non-profit dedicated to reducing the mortality rates of Puget Sound’s endangered local killer whales — thinks we are, through the demand to see orcas via boat-based whale watching tours. So the organization is pushing for the establishment of a whale protection zone on the west side of San Juan Island, where the orcas frequently hunt and rest.
As Mark Anderson, the group’s founder and chairman, explains, disturbance noise from boats interferes with the sonar the whales use to communicate and to hunt. “It’s like a loud piece of music, right over the frequencies they use,” Anderson says. Putting further restrictions on boats within this zone “would be like giving them a dining room they can use without harassment.”
For National Geographic Daily News
The Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont, aims to shift how we think about our own waste. They want to "close the nutrient cycle" by using our urine to grow what we next consume.
Today, most human waste in the U.S. flows down the pipes to a facility such as DC Water's Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest facility of its kind in the world. Blue Plains receives an average of 370 million gallons of wastewater, 94 percent of which is from residential sources in the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia. This includes what washes down the kitchen drain, fills up washing machines, and flushes down toilets.
Once at Blue Plains, it all goes through a multistage process in which it is passed from pool to pool of various hues of reddish brown, where the liquid is stirred, bubbled, fed to algae, and filtered until it is clean enough to get dumped back into the Potomac River.
Much of what this process is doing is removing nitrogen and phosphorous, elements that can be pollutants when too much of them get into our rivers and oceans. But they are also essential nutrients for plant growth—and thus, two of the basic components of fertilizer.
For National Geographic Daily News
Note: I reported and wrote this story in about four hours.
As the ice storm that pummeled much of the United States on Thursday continues to lock the country in a deep freeze, some areas may be more ready than others to deal with the consequences.
That's because a new index is under development that can be used to categorize expected damage from ice storms, dangerous phenomena that occur when rain freezes on contact with the ground or other surfaces. (Read more about weather and natural disasters.)
Scientists didn't actually kill the world's oldest animal, a clam, just to find out how old it was.
For National Geographic Daily News
Consternation over the death of the world's oldest-recorded animal, a 507-year-old clam nicknamed Ming, has earned marine researchers unhappy headlines worldwide.
But a closer look at the story—"Clam-gate," as the BBC called it—finds the tempest over Ming a bit overblown. (Also see "Clams: Not Just for Chowder.")
News of the clam's death, first noted in 2007, took on a life of its own this week after researchers led by James Scourse, from the United Kingdom's Bangor University, reanalyzed its age and announced the 507-year estimate.
Contrary to news reports, the researchers say they did not kill the elderly clam for the ironic-seeming purpose of finding out its age.