Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dolphin Extremes

I wasn't sure how I felt about a trip to swim with wild Atlantic spotted dolphins. Here in the Puget Sound, we must stay 200 yards from orcas and with the number of boats following them every day even that seems too close to me. But after my time in Taiji, I thought getting close to dolphins might be an antidote to the horror that I saw there. Lisa and I booked as soon as Samantha Whitcraft posted information about her Dolphin Defense Workshop & Eco-Cruise on Facebook.

Half of us arrived at the boat in Bimini four hours later than scheduled due to a paperwork mix up with the airline. This meant we missed the tide and were unable to leave that day. A potential dolphin day was lost. The next days were spent wandering around Bahamian waters looking for dolphins and running from the remnants of Tropical Storm Emily. I was surprised how few boats we saw on the water. Maybe they were smarter than we were.

On the last day of the trip, we finally found dolphins. We followed a mother and calf for hours and they didn’t try to evade us but instead, played in our bow wake and rode waves near the boat. It was wonderful to see this pair after days of nothing. With all of the close interaction, spyhops and breaching, I was satisfied when they swam away. I’d hoped for five solid days of swimming with them but this was fabulous. The boat continued in their direction in hopes that we’d find them again.

A short while later, we heard, DOLPHINS! Another pair appeared; mature dolphins this time. Soon, we saw six more. A little bit later, they were everywhere. Our dolphin spotter, Bradley, counted tirdee-tree (33). It was a wonderful sight. The original mother and calf were in this group. They had led us to their pod. I was asked if this was the antidote to Taiji I hoped for. I realized then, that there is no antidote for what I saw in Taiji. This experience was separate and special and would have been even better if our captain had stopped the boat and let us in the water.

The captain announced that the dolphins needed to “chill” and that we needed lunch. It wasn’t up to us but it appeared that the dolphins were completely chill and none of us would rather have mac and cheese than swim with dolphins. But that’s how it went down. We were like little kids trying to scarf down a meal while we watched our friends play outside. By the time we got in the water only a few from the pod were left so the captain put out the ropes to drag us through the water to catch back up to them. It worked and I had my first in water experience with dolphins. I don’t know the words to describe what it was like. But to have an animal swim inches from you and look you in the eye… it’s very special. There’s someone in there and I’m honored that they swam with me.

On a second drag through the water, the captain yelled to get off the ropes and swim forward to the front of the boat. My human pod got ahead of me as I watched two spotted dolphins swim toward me. One stopped and whistled something and then started clicking. I can only imagine what he was thinking, why doesn’t this watery eyed, meat puppet answer me? While I was enjoying this moment, my captain was screaming at me to stay with the group. I think Sam Kinison is alive and well and driving a dolphin watch boat off the coast of Bimini. When I caught up to my pod, they were watching bottlenose and Atlantic spotted dolphins share an intimate moment. It was pretty wild and I learned later that this type of inter-species interaction is considered rape by some. It looked consensual to me.

When I got out of the water, I scanned the horizon for other boats. There was one lone sport fishing boat off the bow and a tug off port that was on the horizon every day, like a catcher in the rye. It seems, in these waters, this kind of interaction is fine and is really on the dolphins’ terms. It wouldn’t work in the Puget Sound as every yahoo would be chasing orcas and trying to jump on their backs.

I wish the fisherman of Taiji would spend a week in the Bahamas, have close interactions with dolphins and learn how to run a trip like this. I think it could open their eyes to a new possible revenue stream that might be more lucrative than what they are currently doing. If the Taiji fishermen keep moving in the current direction, the dolphins will be gone and so will this alternative form of income. Don't the people of Japan deserve the an opportunity to enjoy a close connection with these glorious beings?

For the souls of the oceans

Sunday, April 24, 2011


A friend asked, “Where are you going on vacation?”
“Maui”, I replied
“Oh no, what are they doing to animals on Maui?”
“It’s just a vacation. I’m unplugging this trip.”

I find it ironic that I’ve been actively looking at the plight of animals for all of 6 months and it’s already the way people see me. On this trip, I really wanted to savor nature and step away from the advocate roll for a few weeks. What I found is that while you can say that’s what you want, once you open your eyes to what’s going on, you can’t not see it.

On a drive up the west coast past Kapalua, we saw a mongoose. Pulling over to take a closer look we found that he was eating the remains of a skinned and gutted feral pig. So a hunter removes one invasive species but leaves food for another invasive species. The mongoose was brought to the islands to help control the rat population but it is now taking its toll on the indigenous bird population. I’ve been to Maui a few times and have never seen mongoose before. On this trip, we saw several.

I love snorkeling and body surfing. Coming back from a long float with the fish and turtles, I swam around a corner of the reef to a spear pointed in my face. This was just a little unsettling. I swam around the woman brandishing the spear to see her friend, standing on coral yelling at her to spear the fish as he chased them out to her. I didn't say anything because I was really trying to unplug and this is a situation where I knew I would just start screaming at these people in very colorful, inappropriate language. Fighting back the anger, I swam back to shore. Later, bobbing in the waves, I overheard a man tell friends that he saw a lobster in the reef. (I would love to see a lobster.) “Why didn't you catch it?” a woman asked. “Should I go get my spear?” asked another. Why do we feel the need to conquer and kill everything? Another day, I swam past two spear fishermen towing two tiny convict tangs whose bodies were pierced. I just don’t get the taking of these. It certainly couldn't be for food.

The number of fish on the reef was way down from past years. I don’t know if it’s the spear fishing or the fact that sand was washing back on the beach. In the two weeks we were there, we watched the beach sand increase by two feet. I enjoyed watching the rebuilding process. I was also pleased that I never saw anyone come out of the water with any big fish. Several times we swam with several very large crevalle and the fisherman love crevalle.

It really was a great trip. One night we took a full moon cruise and heard whales singing in the moonlight.

On one murky snorkel, I was floating out past the reef looking for turtles when I noticed something large swimming toward me. It was a manta ray passing within arm’s reach. We watched each other swim by. I love that I am not the top of the food chain in the ocean and the crevalle and rays seem to know that I’m not. The little reef fish and turtles know it too and they let me share their space.

I’m rested, recharged and looking forward to what’s on the horizon but enjoying what’s here now.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Taiji in Nevada

“Hey, I'm heading to Wells NV to watch the BLM gather Mustangs and burros. I think this might be similar to what is happening in Taiji but I'M paying for it. wanna come?” email to Matt Lorden

I’d heard about the wild horse “problem” for years but paid no attention to it. I assumed our government was doing what they had to, ridding the land of these pesky over breeders. I saw a news piece on the wild horses after I returned from Taiji. I searched and found that the truth I held about the horses may not be true. On the Bureau Land Management (BLM) website, I found a list of “gathers” and sent an email to the kind folks at the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. They gave me specific information and how to meet-up with Deniz Bolbol, their person on the ground. A warning: if you show a little bit of interest in a cause, you will be recruited. All you have to do is show up.

My Brother Matt and I hit the road, driving through Wells to Ely, Nevada. During the two-day, sixteen hour drive, we saw thousands of cows, a few deer and antelope, but no wild horses. We didn’t see any mustangs until our drive into the “gather” when we passed a film crew watching three beautiful horses on a hillside. At 6:15AM, we met with the BLM, all 4 cars of them, off of State Route 93. They asked us to sign in, similar to the police asking for my ID at the cove in Taiji. No passport was needed but it’s odd having a government official asking you for your information.

The waiting started. The contractor needed to get setup before we could move into the area. At one stop, we hopped out of the cars; the air, so cold and crisp, filled with the smell of sage. I asked one of the BLM guys what made the big hoof print on the dirt road. He said, “I have no idea.” I thought that was strange; this man worked for the BLM for 9 years and didn’t know animal tracks.

We finally got to the viewing area. Laura Leigh, Matt and I were escorted in by 5 BLM employees. Two were BLM Rangers with guns. Animal advocates are known to get unruly. We got to pick between two viewing areas. (I always gave my kids two choices when neither option was good.) Our view was obstructed by large junipers and we were kept at quiet a distance, similar to the drive fishery in Japan. Soon the helicopter drove the first band of horses toward the chute. The contractor used the terrain to hide the trap and to help guide the animals toward it. In Taiji, banger boats drove the dolphins to a natural channel in the rock that leads to the cove. We can’t see the chute. It’s in a gully. Our view of the pens was blocked by the contractor’s horses.

It was frustrating trying to get clear photos but the whole experience was new and interesting so I didn’t complain too much. The crew that was filming the horses on our drive in, arrived at the viewing area. It was Emmy Award winning film maker Ginger Katherns and her interns. I was inspired by the work of Louie Psihoyos. His movie The Cove motivated me to go to Taiji. Now, I’m sharing a viewing box at a mustang roundup with the film maker of Nature’s Cloud Series. At one point, Ginger discussed the finer points of the roundup (she refuses to use the word “gather”) with a BLM employee. When she was done explaining helicopter technique, trap placement, pen size, all things that made the horses’ experience better, I blurted, “why are they rounding them up in the first place?” She quietly said, “That’s a discussion for a different time and place.” She’s been at this for 18 years. I have much to learn. Looking down, someone asked what kind of rock was on the ground all around us. None of the BLM employees knew.

The BLM PR people are very nice and don’t let you out of their sight. When I needed to go back to the car, I got a friendly, “I need to go too. I’ll go with you!” I would have to grab my rocket launcher another time. As we walked back to the viewing box, we heard the helicopter working behind a hill. Once it was in view, we watched it drive the heard back and forth across the horizon for more than 45 minutes. It was painful to watch. Even the BLM representative seemed upset by the amount of time the helicopter chased the band. Finally the pilot abandoned the chase and flew off to refuel.

An announcement came over the BLM radio that the trap was moving. Matt and I took this opportunity to drive into the hills and explore. These public lands are, well, public and you owe it to yourself to visit them and stop and smell the air and look at the plants and terrain.

Matt and I caught up with the others and drove to the new trap site. I thought we were just going to see the setup and leave for the day so I didn't bring my camera bag or coat or... they started driving in a band right away. We needed to get in the taped off area and stay down. This trap seemed to work much better as they caught two bands pretty quickly.

Just like in Taiji, we cheered when one got away.

The similarities to Taiji kept showing themselves.

Both dolphins and mustangs are wild animals that live in family groups.

Both travel miles each day.

Both are seen as pests.

A helicopter is used to chase the horses, where banger boats are used to herd the dolphins.

Both driven into a netted area.

The public is kept at a distance and view is restricted.

The sounds of bodies hitting boats and bodies hitting the walls of the trailer are eerily similar.

The pretty ones are selected out for a life in captivity. In Taiji, the dolphin that aren't selected are slaughtered and their meat is sold. I guess this is where things are different. The wild mustangs that are captured, that aren't adopted, are taken to holding pens to live out their lives. There are now more mustangs in holding pens than there are in the wild. In the 1800's there were over 2 million wild horses roaming free in the USA. Today, there are less than 30,000 by BLM estimates.

The BLM didn't know what kind of animal made the tracks. They didn't know what kind of rock surrounded us. But, they did know the wild horses needed to be removed from the land.

Contact your legislators and tell them to save our tax dollars and let these wonderful symbols of American freedom live free.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Yesterday, the Hunt Resumed

After a long holiday break the fisherman of Taiji returned to work. In this video Nicole McLachlan captures the selection process. You can see dolphins in slings taken away to perform and others dragged off by their tails to be slaughtered. Nicole's blog is very powerful and worth a read.

Tim Burns captured the following video

For the souls of the oceans

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Years – A Time to Reflect

A video of a teenager beaten on the streets of Seattle aired again recently. It amazes me that no one stepped in to stop it including security people. When do we choose to do the right thing? Is it only when we know someone is watching? I’ve been handed too much change and in my younger, poorer days, struggled with it but now it’s easier to say, “You gave me too much” and return the extra. It might be a stretch to compare watching a beating to receiving extra change but the core is the same to me. It’s right or it’s wrong. Not everything is this clear and learning more about issues sometimes clouds things up. Often it’s easier not knowing. Like the bystanders watching beating in Seattle, sometimes people just look the other way.

I went to Taiji to witness the dolphin slaughter and I was forced to look at myself. This blog and Facebook have introduced me to animal advocates and a world I knew was there but chose to ignore. Now, when I make the choice of what to have for lunch, I have friends around the world who are ‘with’ me and influence my decisions. The dolphins, in my mind, are intelligent beings that need our protection and respect. For some Japanese, dolphins are food and pests who eat deteriorating fish stocks and need to be eliminated. The same thing happens here in Washington State with sea lions that eat salmon at the locks or dams. The state killed dozens of them and is considering killing more.

When you open up, new information comes flooding in. I think it’s important to research and weigh all sides. Whether you believe in global warming or not, anything we do to reduce climate change just makes the planet a cleaner, healthier place to live. So, I will work to reduce my carbon footprint. My challenge now is to figure out how much to take on without burning out. People are working on so many issues that it’s hard to keep up. I’ll keep following the dolphin hunt in Taiji and other issues but my focus will be local. Depending on the Bonneville sea lion decision, I may make a trip to photograph their fate.

For two weeks, no dolphins were killed in Taiji. It’s a small victory and probably a planned break for the fisherman. Yesterday, a small group of fishermen left the harbor and performed a ceremony. I assume it’s a sign that the killing will continue. I would love to be in Taiji when they have the ceremony ending the hunt. I would gladly spend my vacation dollars to see that. Until then, I’ll be writing letters, making phone calls and not looking the other way.

For the souls of the oceans