Saturday, December 31, 2011

Protecting the Coast

Catherine Ryan Hyde summarizes the struggle Cambria has had with its own governing body, the Community Services District, to protect the local environment. The area is legally protected by state and federal law, but the CSD board of directors has pursued invading it to build a desalination plant. The full text of her summary includes video of some of the players and meetings.
For about three years, a small, committed group of Cambrians have spoken loudly, factually, and often eloquently against drilling on the beach, at the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek, in pursuit of desalination.The creek/lagoon is a highly environmentally sensitive area. In fact, it is a protected natural preserve. It would stand to reason that a careful environmental impact report would be prepared for any project in such an area. Or, better yet, that no project be done there at all.
So that's what the Cambria Community Services District did, right?
Well . . . no. Their original plan was to categorically exempt themselves from any CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review. (Cambria Activists_and_Mercury_Put_Desal_Plan_in_Retrogade.pdf ) In January 2010, the CCSD called a special meeting to announce that, together with the Army Corps of Engineers, geotechnical drilling would take place in front of Shamel County Park and on Santa Rosa Creek Beach—very fast. Within two months. The meeting announcement was poorly timed (over the New Year's weekend), given on unusually short-notice, and the work strangely immediate. It all gave the impression that they hoped the public would have no time to object. (They have never explained, to this very day, how, when, or by whom the site was chosen.) When lots of people showed up and registered lots of objections anyway, the CCSD withdrew that tactic and tried instead for a Negative Declaration — far from ideal in the opinion of most environmentalists, but at least it's a type of CEQA review. As such, it involves allowing both citizens and public agencies to respond.
Citizen letters aside, the project received detailed comments from such agencies as the State Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Native American Heritage Commission, and the County Air Pollution Control District, to name just a few.
Their concerns included public safety, endangered species, mercury hazards, loss of public access, loss of access to a children's playground, construction on the beach, vehicles on the beach, and piecemealing environmental review by separating the drilling plan from the actual desalination plant.
Those are big hurdles to any project.
So what did the CCSD do? They announced that the geotesting (drilling for paleochannels under the sand that might support a subsurface desal intake) was not their project at all, but the Army Corp of Engineers' project. Completely. Retroactively. I'm not sure exactly how that works, but it seemed to involve careful phrasing. They were not "turning the project over" to the Army Corps of Engineers. Rather, they contended, they'd discovered the overlooked fact that it always had been the ACE's project. Oh, right, and that it's not a "project." It's only an "investigation." One envisions the Army Corps going down to the beach to ask the sand a few questions.
In truth, it was a bit more invasive. It involved drilling a number of wells — as deep as 150 feet — and lining them with PVC pipe, which would later have to be augured out. As much as could be augured, anyway. The bulk of the thousands of pounds of shards would then be sifted out of the sand. Oh, and then the plan was to build a desal plant nearby, but the two objectives were artificially separated at this point, because there's no way to make Cambria's desal plant federal.
Having federalized the project to their own satisfaction, the CCSD then abandoned CEQA review. Because CEQA is a state process. The ACE would now conduct a NEPA review, the federal version. Except all the ACE did toward an environmental impact report was simply to grant themselves a categorical exclusion from NEPA.
The next sound heard around Cambria was that of heads exploding.
I want to note that I've read the NEPA handbook for citizens. Categorical exclusion was intended for such minimal-impact projects as outhouses and hiking trails, or changing all the light bulbs in a public building to more environmentally friendly ones.
Now, you can imagine that concerned Cambrians felt we'd been the victim of an end run around California environmental law.  21,000-pound drill rigs were about to roll onto a beach that's so delicate it won't even tolerate my 15-pound leashed dog. (And, being a law-abiding citizen, I trust that this rule exists for a reason and don't take her there.)  Our last line of defense seemed to be the California Coastal Commission, which had been stripped of its jurisdiction to grant or deny a coastal development permit, since this was being passed off as a federal project. The CCC could only declare the "investigation" consistent or inconsistent with the California Coastal Act.
In May 2010, the commission conditionally allowed the drilling. I'm not entirely sure what happened, though I attended — and spoke at — that meeting. (Although we later found out that only the CCC staff — not the commissioners — had seen the agency and public letters of objection.) Also unsure as to what had happened was Commissioner Esther Sanchez, who spoke eloquently against allowing the project.
When I emailed later to thank her, she sent me a rather stunning personal reply that stated, among other things, "It was as if no one wanted to listen to the problems that I saw with this item.  I took the time to look at the record — specifically searching for the information upon which staff would have relied in making recommendations that the drilling was consistent with our state's laws — and found the record wholly lacking. It was as if we were supposed to take staff's 'word for it.' I was equally disappointed that some of my colleagues seemed to just want to move on and not take the time to ensure that in fact there was a basis for a decision of consistency.
"I believe it was and is incontrovertible that this is an environmentally sensitive area. I wonder if staff had not been so openly controversial whether others would have joined me. I have discussed the matter with the executive director, as I do believe that staff, including the commission's attorney, interfered (perhaps unlawfully) with a constitutionally protected right, a right guaranteed by the Coastal Act."
That seemed to say it all, yet no one was listening.
What could have been a huge environmental loss took an unexpected turn when Nick Franco of State Parks refused to grant the ACE a right of entry permit. I was there at the meeting of the State Parks Commission when he stated, simply but importantly, "No CEQA, no right of entry." The State Park commissioners were 100% behind him. In fact, one commissioner's jaw dropped, and she remarked, "You mean they thought they could go out on that state beach without CEQA?"
Yeah. Amazing, isn't it? That's what we thought.
Another crucial puzzle piece fell into place at that meeting. The waters off that section of Cambria coast were declared California's first marine park. We were elated, yet did not know how crucial to the story that decision would later become.
The CCSD was not pleased. In fact, director Muril Clift drew a line in the sand at the next CCSD meeting, blustering that they (State Parks) are "no friend," and that we should consider that in all of our dealings with them. His short speech [see video below] speaks volumes to the CCSD's stance on environmental laws, which it seems to regard as little tricks up the sleeves of its enemies. It also seems wrong to brand someone an enemy for not giving you what you want, especially when they've determined that what you want is not procedurally legal and correct. But I guess that's another rant for another day.
Questionably, in my (and many other peoples') opinion, County Parks granted right of entry. The ACE rolled onto the beach in front of Shamel Park  . . .  and promptly hit bedrock at 24 feet(75-foot channels had been predicted there). Eyes turned back to the sensitive lagoon area of the state park beach. This part of the story gets really interesting and . . . dare I say . . . funny.
State Parks managed to prove that the area was a protected natural preserve. (Then-president of the CCSD, Greg Sanders, had insisted on referring to it as "the so-called natural preserve.") It was protected all the way down to the mean high tide line. And no motor vehicles are allowed in a natural preserve.
Here's where it gets funny (except for the level at which it's too disrespectful to be funny). A plan was devised for Amish work horses to be trailered in. To pull a drill rig onto the sand on a type of sled. Know how you can tell I'm not making this stuff up? Because you can't make up stuff like that, that's how. I'm a fiction writer, and even I couldn't have made that up.
Word had it that someone with State Parks in Sacramento was considering going over Nick Franco's head. But when the CCSD/ACE came up with the idea to hover over the beach with a helicopter and lower a drill rig, patience seemed to run out in the state capital as well.
Did it ever occur to anyone on the pro side of this project that drill rigs are motorized, and do far more harm than the tires of a pickup truck? And that maybe Amish work horses pulling a sled weren't listed as prohibited only because no one had the imagination to envision that such a threat even existed?
But back to my story.
So the CCSD gave up. Right? You don't know the CCSD very well.
The CCSD and the ACE came back with a plan to drill below the mean high tide line. Which put it in our new marine park. Where it doesn't appear legal to try to place any sort of wells or desal intake/outfall systems.
Undeterred, the CCSD — oops, I'm sorry, I mean the ACE (I keep forgetting whose project this is) — headed off for a brand spanking new Coastal Commission consistency determination.  They had scaled the project down considerably. On the one hand, it could be argued that this made the investigation slightly less harmful. It also raised the argument that the investigation might now be quite useless.
[Note: This is an admittedly brief history of a very complex situation. It may be hard to do it justice in so few words. I hope if you're interested you'll go out to the Cambria Water Watch website - Cambria Water Watch - and read up on the background of this mess. The Water Watch site (disclaimer: I help maintain it) links its statements to source material. If it says there was a letter from Fish & Game, for example, it links to a PDF of the letter. The page entitled "More Information" is a particularly rich source of documentation.]
The consistency hearing was scheduled for December 9th. On December 8th, the ACE got together with Coastal Commission staff and lined out most of the stipulated protections. In retrospect, that might have been pushing the envelope.
The project was unanimously denied by the 11-member Coastal Commission.
But even better was the way it was denied. Not only did the commissioners (a couple of whom generally support desalination) call the site inappropriate, they suggested this was an end run around California environmental law.
Right. Exactly what all us "crazy" Cambrians have been saying since the play was run.
Commissioner Steve Blank asked, "Is this an end run around our process?" and "Isn't this just a way to take it out of our jurisdiction?" He suggested, "  . . .  raising red flags with our legal staff and thinking about what the issues are here, because I think they're bigger than—much bigger than—Cambria." Other commissioners said, "There's just no way around that this site — this beach, this creek mouth, is an environmentally sensitive area by any standard," and, "In my mind, there isn't a section of Chapter Three  [of the Coastal Act] this doesn't go against." And, "This project represents an avoidance of proper procedures." And, "The risks of the testing alone are substantial." And, "Page after page of conditions that are almost standard conditions in any action we take . . .  we want to make sure that the public is safe and the noise is diminished, and all of those were gone." And, "It really smells of going around the system."
It was a wonderful moment for the Cambrians who have been shouting these same words for several years now and feeling as though no one cared to listen.
At the December CCSD meeting, district engineer Bob Gresens claimed there had been some confusion among the commissioners, and some kind of disconnect of logic in their decision. I think it goes without saying that the logic involved in this story disconnects somewhere, but I don't agree that the problem took place at the Coastal Commission level.
But don't take my word for it. Complete video of the commissioners' comments are available on the home page of Cambria Water Watch. Watch and listen, and decide for yourself if the commissioners seem confused or if they seem to have an excellent grasp of what's really going on.
Cambria Environmentalist Mickie Burton sent this Christmas card to those who
had worked to protect this beautiful and important piece of coastline. (Photo by Joe Johnston)
The animals rejoice. And so do we, on their behalf. At least for the time being.

Porpoises return to San Francisco Bay

Like the elephant seals to Piedras Blancas, porpoises are recovering and returning to San Francisco Bay. NPR reports:

Something that has been missing from San Francisco Bay since World War II appears to be making a comeback: Harbor porpoises are showing up in growing numbers, and researchers are trying to understand why they're returning.
The walkway across the Golden Gate Bridge is almost always packed with people taking photos. But Bill Keener isn't here for snapshots of the stunning views. He's aiming his massive telephoto lens at a dark shape in the water 200 feet below.
"There's a porpoise right there, coming very, very close," he says. "Here's a mother and calf coming straight at us." Keener is with Golden Gate Cetacean Research, a nonprofit group focused on studying local porpoises, whales and dolphins.
Harbor porpoises have dark gray backs, and they're about 5 feet long — smaller than most of their dolphin relatives. Keener spots one turned on its side and spinning.

The porpoises, feeding in the middle of a busy shipping lane, spin as they go after schools of herring and anchovies. Seeing this behavior is huge for Keener because harbor porpoises are notoriously shy in the open ocean. But the fact that they're here at all is what's most remarkable.

Keener and his colleagues have identified 250 porpoises with their photos by looking for unique scars on the animals. When the team first started working on the bridge, the patrol officers took notice.
"We're staring down at the water for hours," Keener says. "They start getting worried about us. But they know us now; they know what we're doing."
Bill Keener (left) and Jonathan Stern search for porpoises under the Golden Gate Bridge. Water quality has dramatically improved since the 1970s, which may be bringing the porpoises back.
Enlarge Lauren Sommer/KQED Bill Keener (left) and Jonathan Stern search for porpoises under the Golden Gate Bridge. Water quality has dramatically improved since the 1970s, which may be bringing the porpoises back.
Porpoises In Decline

The big question, though, is why harbor porpoises disappeared in the first place. Keener says the bay has always been porpoise habitat. Sightings were common until the 1930s.
"We don't really have reports from around World War II, and there were a lot of things going on during World War II that could have caused [the decline]," he says.

San Francisco Bay became a wartime port. It was a major ship-building center. One newsreel reported that 14 warships at one time sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. And the Navy strung a seven-mile-long net underwater across the opening of the bay to keep out Japanese submarines. Hundreds of mines were planted in the waters outside the Golden Gate.
Keener says all of this certainly would have disturbed the porpoises. But there's a bigger change that may have driven them away: water quality.

The bay waters today are a far cry from those of the 1950s and '60s. As the region boomed, so did water pollution. Keener says raw sewage used to flow right into the bay.
"I remember coming across the Bay Bridge when I was very young, and it would just smell," Keener says. "It would stink."
A group of harbor porpoises in San Francisco Bay, photographed from the Golden Gate Bridge. Harbor porpoises haven't been seen in the bay since the 1930s. Researchers believe World War II activity may have contributed to their disappearance. The Navy strung a seven-mile underwater net across the mouth of the bay to keep out enemy submarines.
William Keener/Golden Gate Cetacean Research A group of harbor porpoises in San Francisco Bay, photographed from the Golden Gate Bridge. Harbor porpoises haven't been seen in the bay since the 1930s. Researchers believe World War II activity may have contributed to their disappearance. The Navy strung a seven-mile underwater net across the mouth of the bay to keep out enemy submarines.

Rediscovering The Bay
After the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, the bay's water quality began to improve. But it took time for the food web to come back. San Francisco State University whale researcher Jonathan Stern says maybe the porpoises had to rediscover the bay.

"Over 60 years, we're talking about a number of generations of porpoises," Stern says. "So it's quite likely that San Francisco Bay as a habitat was out of the institutional memory."
Stern and Keener glide over the bay waters in a 22-foot boat, slowing down as they pass under the bridge.
"There's porpoises between us and the south tower at 200 yards," Stern says. Keener and Stern have a special permit to approach the porpoises. They wait, listening for them to surface.
"I just heard one here," Keener says. "Here's a cow-calf pair close to the boat, and we'll hear this puff. The old-time sailors used to call them puffing pigs. That's the exhalation."
The porpoises seem calm around boats in the bay, which Stern says will let researchers study their life cycle and social structure.
"It's one of those very few good-news environmental stories. And it's in our backyard. It gives one hope," Stern says.
It also gives researchers a chance to study how porpoises will react to the America's Cup race, which comes to the Bay Area in two years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Whale songs

Welcome to the Whale Song Project!

You can help marine researchers understand what whales are saying. Listen to the large sound and find the small one that matches it best. NPR reports on then project and how it works.

Marine biologists are turning to citizen scientists, sitting at home in front of their computers, to help unlock the secrets of whale songs.

In Pixar's aquatic adventure Finding Nemo, Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, attempts to communicate with a whale to find the missing title character. She speaks in a loud, slow drawl to the whale, but when that fails, she says, "Maybe a different dialect."

"We actually know that killer whales do use dialects," marine biologist Peter Tyack tells Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish. Despite the tongue-in-cheek depiction of whale songs, Tyack says the film got it right.

"We don't know what the sounds mean, but each killer whale family has its own set of calls, like a dialect in human language," he says.

Tyack, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews, is also a coordinator of Whale FM, a new online experiment that's recruiting citizen scientists to study killer and pilot whale calls from around the world.

"The experiment is the first step in understanding how these whales communicate," he says. "The first thing we need to know is how to categorize their calls."

His research team needs help to sort through almost 15,000 different sound recordings and group similar ones together. That's where you, the citizen scientist, come in.

Tyack's team is counting on whale-song lovers to log on to Whale FM and listen to sounds of various whales calling to each other.

Tyack says much about whale communication remains a mystery for scientists, and he hopes crowdsourcing this new study may lead to some answers.

"We share a mammalian hearing system with killer whales and we think that lots of people, just using their own ears, should be able to make good matches of these calls," he says. "And the more people who decide, the better sense we get of how reliable their judgments are."

In the end, Tyack says, one of the major parts of the crowdsourcing concept of the project is to promote the fact that anyone can take part in science.

Monday, December 26, 2011

New research on deep diving marine mammals

December 21, 2011, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reports:

Source: Media Relations

Any diver returning from ocean depths knows about the hazard of decompression sickness (DCS) or “the bends.” As the diver ascends and the ocean pressure decreases, gases that were absorbed by the body during the dive, come out of solution and, if the ascent is too rapid, can cause bubbles to form in the body. DCS causes many symptoms, and its effects may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death.
But how do marine mammals, whose very survival depends on regular diving, manage to avoid DCS? Do they, indeed, avoid it?
In April 2010, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Marine Mammal Center (MMC) invited the world’s experts in human diving and marine-mammal diving physiology to convene for a three-day workshop to discuss the issue of how marine mammals manage gas under pressure.  Twenty-eight researchers discussed and debated the current state of knowledge on diving marine mammal gas kinetics—the rates of the change in the concentration of gases in their bodies.
The workshop resulted in a paper, “Deadly diving? Physiological and behavioural management of decompression stress in diving mammals,” which was published Dec. 21, 2011, online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“Until recently the dogma was that marine mammals have anatomical and physiological and behavioral adaptations to make the bends not a problem,” said MMC Director Michael Moore. “There is no evidence that marine mammals get the bends routinely, but a look at the most recent studies suggest that they are actively avoiding rather than simply not having issues with decompression.”
Researchers began to question the conventional wisdom after examining beaked whales that had stranded on the Canary Islands in 2002.  A necropsy of those animals turned up evidence of damage from gas bubbles. The animals had stranded after exposure to sonar from nearby naval exercises.  This led scientists to think that diving marine mammals might deal with the presence of nitrogen bubbles more frequently than previously thought, and that the animals’ response strategies might involve physiological trade-offs depending on situational variables. In other words, the animals likely manage their nitrogen load and probably have greater variation in their blood nitrogen levels than previously believed.
Because the animals spend so much time below the ocean’s surface, understanding the behavior of diving marine mammals is quite challenging. The use of innovative technology is helping to advance the science.  At WHOI, scientists have used a CT scanner to examine marine mammal cadavers at different pressures to better understand the behavior of gases in the lungs and “get some idea at what depth the anatomy is shut off from further pressure-kinetics issues,” Moore said.   For other studies, Moore and his colleagues were able to acquire a portable veterinary ultrasound unit to look at the presence or absence of gas in live, stranded dolphins.
There’s still a lot to be learned, including whether live animals have circulating bubbles in their systems that they are managing.  If they do, says Moore, noise impacts and other stressors that push the animal from a normal management situation to an abnormal situation become more of a concern.  “When a human diver has some bubble issues, what will they do?  They will either climb into a recompression chamber so that they can recompress and then come back more slowly, or they’ll just grab another tank and go back down for a while and . . . and just let things sort themselves out.  What does a dolphin do normally when it’s surfaced?  The next things to do is to dive, and the one place you can’t do that is in shallow water or most particularly if you are beached.”
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent, non-profit organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.

Pups on the beach

About a dozen pups are visible from the South boardwalk at Piedras Blancas. The first was born December 17. Re liable reports say additional pups have been born on beaches near the lighthouse. Although the beach isn't very crowded yet, two of the mothers were caring for two pups each already. As usual, a certain amount of confusion reigns.

This pup and his mother barked at each other, perhaps getting acquainted.

This pair were happily settled in.

Friends of the Elephant Seal are moving forward with plans to place a Webcam at the viewpoint. "We have reached our financial goal to place a live camera in the rookery," says the latest newsletter. "The equipment has been purchased and shipped to California State Parks personnel for installation. State Parks has informed us that they expect the installation to be completed early in 2012--in time for the peak of the birthing season. When the camera is installed, images of elephant seal behavior can be accessed by anyinternet-capable computer from anywhere in the world."

A Webcam is no substitute for being there, but it will be a welcome addition. Visitors who have been enchanted by seeing the seals can keep track of them from home, where ever that may be. And others who have never been to California can whet their appetite for witnessing this phenomenon.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

More senior males arrive daily

Lat week's few have become many. This mixed group of males tussled with each other. The largest adults take little notice of the subadults as they wrangle on the beach. Perhaps they are conserving their energy or are too burdened by the weight of gravity to rouse themselves.

At least one female tried to settle on the beach, but the attentions of a subadult were more than she could endure. She escaped back into the water. After she evaded this one, an even younger male harassed her. She'll find a place for herself soon.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ebony and Ivory

This pair seemed to be assessing the food possibilities of a large crowd of visitors.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

S.S. Montebello

On December 23, 1941, the S.S. Montebello, loaded with a cargo of 73,571 barrels of crude oil and carrying 2,477 barrels of bunker fuel oil and an unknown quantity of lubricating oil, was torpedoed by a Japanese Imperial submarine and sank in federal waters. The wreck is located approximately two miles south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and is 6.5 miles off the coast of Cambria, California. It is completely submerged and laying upright in approximately 900 feet of water, adjacent to an un-named submarine canyon.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded two investigations (1996 & 2003) to assess the vessel’s integrity using a manned submersible. Several dives were conducted and the observations made concluded the hull was “remarkably intact” and the torpedo did not penetrate the cargo and bunker fuel tanks.

Robert Schwemmer, West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, presented his historical research on the Union Oil Company tanker S S Montebello at a meeting in Cambria December 2. He also shared  underwater imagery of the sunken ship that sits in 900 feet just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.  Schwemmer was part of the science team that rediscovered the wreck in 1996 in the two-manned submersible Delta.  In 2003, Schwemmer returned to the sunken tanker along with a science team from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and State of California to continue the visual survey of the Montebello.   

In 2009, the Montebello Assessment Task Force was established at the request of California State Senator Sam Blakeslee to coordinate a risk assessment to determine the likelihood of a release of the cargo of more than 3,000,000 gallons of Santa Maria crude oil that potentially could be onboard. In 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard awarded a contract to Global Diving & Salvage to conduct an assessment of the condition of the sunken tanker and determine if the oil was still onboard.  Schwemmer served on the taskforce and was on board the OSRV Nanuq during the U.S. Coast directed assessment serving as a technical advisor.  “The history of the Montebello is still deeply rooted in the communities of Cambria, Cayucos and Morro Bay, for these citizens took heroic action to launch a sea and land rescue for the Montebello’s crew of 38.  Today, 70 years after the sinking, of the Montebello people are just learning about the little known history of Japanese submarines attacking and sinking American merchant ships within site of the California shoreline” said Robert Schwemmer

Schwemmer encouraged the community to seek listing for the site on the National Register of Historic Places. Perhaps to commemorate the 75th anniversary? He has helped retrieve this event from lost history. Such a listing would do Cambria proud.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Life on the beach

This young male showed up with a fresh cookie-cutter shark wound on his side on Sunday, November 13. It's a nasty wound, deep. Shows how these small sharks prey on the much larger seals. Although they are less than two feet long, they can take a big bite.

Monday, November 14 attracted more sea lions to the white rock for which Piedras Blancas is named than I've ever seen out there. 

Plenty of long-billed curlews on the beach.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Piedras Blancas weather

Weather varies dramatically along the Central Coast. Last Monday I left Cambria warm and sunny but Piedras Blancas was very windy. By afternoon, the wind was strong enough to blow coffee mugs off the sale table.

A local supporter living in state parks employee housing about a mile north of Piedras Blancas Light Station near the old PB motel has installed a weather station on the roof of his house, about 60 feet above sea level and 100 feet or so from the edge of the bluff above the beach. Data is posted up to the minute on the web site. The wind increased from 6 mph to 9 mph in the time it took me to write this post!

Thanks for this helpful information.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Elephant seal rescued from plastic

Marine Mammal Center vounteers were able to remove a severely embedded plastic strip from a young elephant seal's neck last week. Friends of the Elephant Seal docent Joan Crowder took these photos of the rescue. Additional photos are posted on The Marine Mammal Center's site.

Every year, countless numbers of marine mammals find themselves entangled in ocean trash, all thanks to human negligence. On November 10, a large 700 lb. elephant seal was spotted at Piedras Blancas viewpoint with a green packing strap wrapped tightly around his neck. Many entangled animals are initially strong enough to escape rescue attempts and because they continue to grow, their entanglements become even tighter. In many cases, these animals die as a result of the entanglement restricting their ability to swallow or hunt effectively. As you can imagine, it can be a very slow and painful death.

Fortunately for "Green Tie," as he was nicknamed, his rescuers from The Marine Mammal Center were able to help him before it was too late!

Lisa Harper Henderson, site manager and rescuer for The Marine Mammal Center’s San Luis Obispo operations, gave this account:

"State Park rangers notified us on 11/8 that this big male elephant seal was on the beach in San Simeon and had a nasty entanglement. We knew low tide would be our best chance of getting him before he made a break for the water, and that low tide was to occur in the late afternoon on 11/10. A volunteer went back to the location on the 10th to see if the animal was still there. He was, so veterinary intern Dr. Michelle Barbieri headed down from Sausalito to meet us and make a plan of exactly how we would approach this big animal and safely capture and restrain him. We estimated him to be just over 700 lb. – the biggest animal we’ve responded to so far his year! "

It was quite the challenge to get the rescue net over this animal! After he was in it, he managed to escape through an opening and almost made his way back to the water. Fortunately, we were able to get to him before that happened and get him back into the net. Once secured, Dr. Barbieri sedated him, and in a few minutes was able to cut away the entanglement. She then thoroughly cleaned the wound and saw that new skin was already growing over the wound - a good sign of recovery! We put a flipper tag on him (on the left rear flipper since he was a male,) took a blood sample, and named him "Green Tie" after the green plastic packaging strap he had been entangled in. About 20 minutes or so after he was sedated, Green Tie woke up and went back into the water, lounging in the shallows nearby. He will be sporting a scar around his neck for his lifetime, but at least he now has a second chance at life, entanglement-free!"

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sea Turtle release in Florida

After five months of rehabilitation at The Turtle Hospital, Karsten, a 109-pound subadult loggerhead sea turtle, was released off of Sombrero Beach in Marathon, Florida Keys, and quickly swam away. Pictured releasing Karsten are Mike Puto and Turtle Hospital staff Jo Ellen Basile, Tom Luebke, and Richie Moretti (in blue shirts), along with several members of the Society of Environmental Journalists (photo by Larry Benvenuti). Twenty of the journalists were visiting the Keys this week and scheduled time to visit the Hospital and help release Karsten. Note elephant seal docent Gordon Heinrichs, in baseball cap, fourth from left, carrying Karsten's case.

Karsten was found floating on May 24, 2011, in a local canal by homeowners and was named after their young son. He had a fishhook in his jaw and another in his esophagus. The fishhooks were expertly removed by our volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Doug Mader of Marathon Veterinary Hospital, using an endoscope and grabbing tool. Karsten suffered from lockjaw as a result of his injuries and infection and could not open his mouth to eat.  Animal care staff stretched his jaw daily and fed him squid using a tube to place the squid down his throat. After months of this labor-intensive therapy, Karsten began to open his mouth a little on his own and was able to eat a few small squid.  He passed his big test recently and was able to catch and eat a live lobster: a sign that Karsten was ready to go home.   

There are 24 sea turtle patients at The Turtle Hospital, all available for viewing by joining one of the Guided Educational Programs offered at 10:00, 1:00, and 4:00 daily. Eleven permanent resident turtles cannot be released due to their injuries, most of them because of boat hit damage.  Other reasons turtles are under rehabilitation here include fishhook and debris ingestion, fishing gear entanglements leading to flipper amputation, infection, and, primarily in the green turtle population, a debilitating tumor disease called Fibropapillomatosis.  For more information or to make a reservation (recommended), please call (305) 743-2552.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

New docents

Sixteen new elephant seal docents got their blue jackets at a ceremony Saturday October 29. They completed hours of training and study to qualify and have spent at least three shifts on the bluff with experienced docents. They are ready for the busy season, when  the seals have their pups and breed on the beach.

Supervisor Adam Hill presented the certificates. The docents play a significant role at the bluff, helping the public understand and enjoy the seals. As volunteers, they have helped make the rookery a tourist attraction. Tourism is a major commercial interest for San Luis Obispo County and word of these unusual seals is spreading. They are becoming one of the reasons visitors come to the county from around the world.

There are never enough docents and we can't talk to everyone, but these sixteen add to the team. Welcome!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Killer whales off the coast

Preparing for the Society of Environmental Journalists conference next week in Miami, I was at the day spa yesterday. Two of the women there were excited about seeing Killer whales the day before from their windows. Their shop looks right out over the ocean just south of San Simeon pier.

They often gaze out over the waves. Brittany said when she’s shampooing hair, it’s a nice way to occupy her eyes. They are all accustomed to the various critters they regularly observe out there. The kelp forest grows in the shallow area, and where the bottom drops off is where whales often swim.

They noticed unusual splashing in the water. Experienced observers acquire a sensitivity to the nuances of splashing, between otters and whales, sea lions and elephant seals. Judy went out with her binoculars to see if she could tell what was going on. She observed for a while, then returned to the shop. She was confident she saw black dorsal fins. As unusual as the sighting was, she was sure it was a group of killer whales.

Nancy Black, Marine Biologist and Owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, has observed killer whales in the Monterey Bay area for years. She has posted her conclusions online, as well as publishing them in professional books and journals. She identifies three different eco-types of Killer Whales occur in Monterey Bay: Transient Killer Whales (mammal hunting); Resident Killer Whales (fish eating); and Offshore Killer Whales (feeding on fish, sharks, and squid).

Black reports that individual offshore killer whales have been identified and reported as far south as Southern California. It’s possible that what Brittany and Judy saw was indeed a pod of killer whales feeding.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sharks and seals

Sharks are a major predator of elephant seals. Some arrive at Piedrs Blancas with the scars to tell the tale of the encounters they survived. Understanding more about them fills out the picture of what life is like in the open ocean. 

Joe Mozingo of the  Los Angeles Times profiles 'Shark Publicist' William Winram, who tags great whites for scientists and captures images of them that confound us. He wants to show that humans' natural fear of the so-called man-eater has been blown way out of proportion. This photo of him and a tiger shark is by Fred Buyle.

The great whites stopped nosing around the boat, but they were still out there.

The captain could see them on his depth finder, on the bottom more than 200 feet below.

On the dive platform, William Winram strapped on a low-volume mask and long-blade fins, as did his two friends. Tall and wiry, with cool, narrow-set eyes and sandy-blond hair flecked with gray, Winram is a champion free-diver, capable of holding his breath for eight minutes. He once stroked to a depth of 295 feet and back without oxygen or fins.

He planned to go meet the great whites today. No shark cage. No spear gun or knife. Just his camera. Photos and video would document the event.

The three jumped into the cool water. The blue was endless, faint rays of sun wobbling into the twilight depths below, bits of sediment and plankton glinting like stars in a pre-dawn gloom.

Winram, 46, was calm, looking down, taking long, deep breaths through his snorkel, filling his lungs to capacity.

He descended slowly to 60 feet and hung there, gently sculling his hands to stay in position. This was his Zen zone, weightless, heart rate slowed to near 30 beats a minute, his mind clear as the sea.

His friends Fred Buyle and Pierre Frolla acted as lookouts, treading on the surface.

Winram couldn't see anything below. He waited for two minutes, then headed back up to get more air, looking to see where the boat was, then scanning all around.

Great whites always come from behind.

At about 40 feet below, he heard the throat-pulsing sound that the divers make to signal one another. Mmph-mmph-mmph.

He turned around to see an adult shark coming at him faster than he'd ever experienced. Normally, they were cautious and skittish. This one, weighing well over a ton, looked like he was considering a bite.

Winram was too far from the boat to get there in time. And even if he had tried, the shark's instincts would lock down: prey.

So he turned straight at it and flared his legs wide to look bigger. Then he took three shots with his Canon.


In the last few years, divers like Winram have been debunking the sinister reputation of the so-called man-eater.

Certainly, a great white might take a taste of you if you're not looking, which might in turn kill you. It happens once in a while. But face-to-face — for the rare person with the disposition to desire such a meeting — they are wary and shy, if not a bit curious. Once comfortable with you, they might let you touch them, even hang on to their dorsal fins and ride them. They'll show you when they're angry by head-bumping you, or hungry by rushing you, but usually a good thwack on the nose will send them reeling in shock.

A South African named Andre Hartman is often credited as the first diver to leave the cage to interact with great whites, a.k.a. "white death." But commercial divers and shark researchers have been quietly coexisting with them for many years, as have untold surfers and swimmers who never knew they were being checked out from below..

"Most of the time they're pretty wary," said Ron Elliott, a sea-urchin diver who harvested the cold, rough waters of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge, for 15 years.

The islands are a feeding ground for great whites, and Elliott encountered one on about every other dive. "They don't want to get injured. They're all scarred up by elephant seals. They're kind of the sneak-attack type. Sometimes they come up at you exercising their jaws. You got to go around and poke them. Usually, if you show some aggression, they back off.

"I had one instance where there was going to be a serious attack. He was going to speed-rush me. But I looked at him and he broke off."

Elliott accepted them as a manageable hazard of doing business in their world. Others, like Hartman, saw them as business themselves, taking tourists down with him.

Winram grew to love them.

The Vancouver, Canada, native tags the animals for scientists and captures images of them that confound us. He wants to show that humans' natural fear has been blown way out of proportion and convince people that the creatures deserve protection.

His business card reads: "Shark Publicist."

On a recent night he was speaking to about 120 "shark aficionados" at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco. On the wall above him was a photo of the shark nosing up at him, off Baja California's Guadalupe Island in November 2009.

"It stopped. You're not prey. What are you?" Winram recalled. "Sharks pick up on your vibe."

The Natural Resources Defense Council had invited Winram to speak to ocean-minded groups in the Bay Area as part of its campaign to pass a bill that would ban the sale of shark fins in California. An estimated 26 million to 73 million sharks are killed for their fins every year, and a third of shark species are nearing extinction.

Leila Monroe, an attorney with the environmental group, hoped Winram's photos would give people a more realistic portrait of sharks than they get watching teeth-baring monster shots on cable TV.

"The photos showed something nearly beyond belief," Monroe said. "Once I was assured the photos and setting was real, I was completely taken by the majesty of the sharks."

Winram seeks to meet the sharks in as natural a state as a human can. He doesn't chum the water with blood to attract them. He doesn't wear a noisy scuba tank or sit in a shark cage or carry a spear gun or an explosive-tipped "bang stick." He descends again and again until they are comfortable enough to come close.

"I have never seen a shark gaping its jaws like you see on TV," he said. "These shows don't show all the stuff they do behind the scenes where they are chumming and baiting and pushing these animals to exhibit this kind of behavior."

He does not deny that they kill humans. They make international news when they do; this month two people were killed in the Seychelles and two were maimed in eastern Russia, causing panic and closing beaches in both places. In the U.S., there is one shark fatality on average every two years. (More people die at the beach getting buried in holes they dig in the sand.) But sharks are not simply killing machines looking to bite humans every chance they get.

Winram first got an inkling of this in his 20s when he was spear-fishing off Baja Sur and a tiger shark started shadowing him. Images of "Jaws" ricocheted through his brain. In a panic he dropped his spear and then lunged to grab it. The sudden movement scared the shark and it darted away.

That's not what's supposed to happen, he thought.

Now, in tagging and photographing them, he has touched them, held their fins, swam alongside them, even squared off over territory with them.

"I was swimming with a big female. She was rolling her belly at me. From what I know from scientists, she was showing me she was bigger, which is higher status. She was trying to get me to cede the surface to her. Sweetheart, you're 1 1/2 tons, I get it. But I need to breathe. She was coming at me, gnashing her teeth. The next thing they will do to another shark is rake their teeth across it. So I fired the shutter of my camera. And she was off."

Even the great white's dynamic with seals is not what you might suspect in the open water, Winram said. Sharks attack injured seals or sneak up on them as they enter the water from the beach. But once the seals can see them in the open water, they are too agile for the sharks to catch.

"I've seen them swim all around them and nip the shark in the tail."


Chris Lowe, a marine biology professor who runs the shark laboratory at Cal State Long Beach, has free-dived with tiger sharks in Hawaii and found it exhilarating. "If you're in the water and see a shark, that should be an awesome experience," he said.

He conceded that seeking to swim with tiger and great white sharks, among a few other species, is dangerous.

"Look, people do a lot of crazy things," he said. "They go hang gliding. They climb mountains. My philosophy is just know what you're getting into. Somebody might get bitten. Just like somebody might fall off the mountains."

Lowe said it is still not clear when the creatures will get aggressive and why, but that scientists are learning from the interactions. "As people spend more and more time in the water, either free-diving or using re-breathing technology, we're going to get more insight into shark behavior."

Dan Cartamil, a postdoctoral researcher at the Graham Shark Lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, isn't as certain. "It's really risky and carries the risk of backfiring. A lot of these people who play with fire do get burned."

Winram exudes none of the messianic mania of some self-proclaimed animal whisperers, like Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers communing with grizzly bears in Alaska before being eaten by one in 2003.

But he watched "Grizzly Man," the Werner Herzog documentary on Treadwell, in part to see how he himself might be perceived. When the Daily Mail of London ran some of his friend Buyle's photos online, there were plenty of comments like: "Idiots, they are lunch just waiting to happen."

Winram says he studies every situation before he jumps into the water and manages the risk by always having others watching his back. But he knows the hazards; adventures, by definition, are fraught with them. Even without sharks, free-diving often involves pushing the human body to an invisible outer line, and plenty of people have died crossing it.

His biggest fear remains the most inexplicable and mundane. Just before heading up to the podium in San Francisco to speak, his face is tense. "I'd rather cut my arm open and dive in with a great white than do this talk."

In politics, California gave sharks some protection when Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill on Friday that bans any sale, trade and possession of shark fins. The bill, which will come into effect on Jan. 1, 2012, was promulgated to protect the dwindling shark population.
“Researchers estimate that some shark populations have declined by more than 90 percent, portending grave threats to our environment and commercial fishing,’’ said Brown. "In the interest of future generations, I have signed this bill.”
“The practice of cutting the fins off of living sharks and dumping them back in the ocean is not only cruel, but it harms the health of our oceans,” the governor said in a statement.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Twilight tours of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

The Piedras Blancas Light Station is just north of the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewpoint. The old lighthouse no longer has its lens, which was removed when the Coast Guard was dismantling the light station. The intention was to shove the lens over the cliff into the ocean, but the Cambria Lions Club stepped up and saved it. The lens is now on display in Cambria. At night, it's lighted and revolves as it did years ago to guide sailors. 

The Piedras Blancas Light Station is initiating a Twilight Tour on December 10, 2011. Tours begin at 3:45, 4:00, 4:15, and 4:30 and last 2 hours. Reservations are required: 805-924-1807. Fee: $15 for adults, $5 for ages 6-17, no fee for age 5 and under.

The Twilight Tour includes historic enactments, guides in period attire, and sunset viewing. Meet at the former Piedras Blancas Motel 15 minutes prior to your tour time. Transportation to and from the light station will be provided.

Call now to reserve a spot on this exciting new tour opportunity at Piedras Blancas Light Station Outstanding Natural Area. 

Regular daytime public tours of the Piedras Blancas Light Station are offered September 1 through June 14 on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 10 a.m. From June 15 through August 31 tours are offered Monday - Saturday at 10 am. There are no tours on federal holidays.

Tours last two hours and include the historic lighthouse, support buildings,
wildlife viewing and spectacular scenery along an easy ½ mile interpretive trail.
Wear comfortable walking shoes and dress warmly. No pets!

The price is $10 for adults, $5 for ages 6 -17, no fee for children 5 and under.  Reservations are NOT required for tours of less than 10 people.
For special arrangements, or for groups of 10 or more please call 805-927-7361 or e-mail

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Robot vehicles improve shark tracking

Sharks are major predators of elephant seals, but surprisingly little is known about them. This news from
Cal Poly  about its new shark tracking system may help us to know more.

SAN LUIS OBISPO – Tracking the movements of sharks may become a bit easier soon thanks to a project involving students and faculty from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and CSU Long Beach.
Cal Poly Computer Science Professor Chris Clark and Marine Biology Professor Mark Moline are collaborating with CSU Long Beach Marine Biology Professor Christopher Lowe on the shark tracking project, which involves using Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) from Cal Poly. The AUVs, which resemble torpedoes, gather and send data to scientists.

“We’ll save hundreds of thousands of man-hours that go into collecting information on sharks and gather huge amounts of data from the new technology,” said Chris Lowe, a Long Beach State University shark expert working with the Cal Poly computer engineers, in a Tribune news story..

The work is being funded by a three-year, $490,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Robust Intelligence program.

Until now, technology required scientists to follow sharks in small boats to track electronic signals sent from tags on the fish. The AUVs can be programmed to follow tagged sharks and then return to researchers. The underwater marine robots have the potential to allow scientists to follow sharks across longer distances and for longer time periods.

The AUVs are equipped with sensors that detect and report on the sharks’ surrounding ocean environment, providing information about factors that may influence their migration patterns.
For the project, Clark and a team of students working in Cal Poly’s Lab for Autonomous and Intelligent Robotics (LAIR) are advancing robotics technology, specifically in the areas of new estimation and control theory, Clark said.

This summer, Clark and Lowe worked with Cal Poly computer science students Christina Forney and Esfandiar Manii, Harvey Mudd student Chris Gage and CSULB student Mike Farris to test the AUVs and track a leopard shark off the coast of Long Beach.

The team caught a 1-meter long leopard shark in Sea Plane Lagoon, tagged it with an acoustic emitter and released it. They then used an AUV to track it. Following the successful test, the team is comparing the information generated using the AUV against earlier data collected by CSULB researchers who followed a leopard shark by boat.

The research may also indicate whether shark behavior is affected by tracking methods.
Clark credited much of the experiment's success to the engineering and computer programming done by Forney and Manii.

Leopard sharks were chosen for initial tracking experiments because of their limited speed and distance traveled.

The AUV was equipped with a stereo-hydrophone system that determines a direction to the tagged shark based on differences in acoustic signal arrival times at each of the hydrophones. The AUV also runs a filtering algorithm, developed by students, that allows the AUV to estimate the location of a shark in real time.
For more details on this and related AUV projects see Other shark tracking research conducted by Dr. Lowe can be found at the CSULB SharkLab:
To find out more about Cal Poly's Center for Coastal Marine Sciences, visit

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Manatee Insanity

South Florida resident oddballs and eccentrics have inspired two of our modern Mark Twains, Carl Hiaasen and Cave Barry. In Manatee Insanity: Inside the War over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species (University Press of Florida, $27.50), St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman succeeds in serious reporting of the follies and issues surrounding the manatee, an unlikely marine mammal that became the emblem of the divisions and conflicts that characterize Florida. He documents their raw material with a straight face. The issues are serious business, involving devastation of Florida’s natural resources and landscape and political corruption, the themes of the 21st century. It’s just that, in South Florida, the characters are so outlandish that it’s impossible to overlook the humor even in desperate situations.
He establishes the background against which the weird dramas play out. The dramatis personae of Manatee Insanity are real people he brings to the reader in all their personal quirkiness and corruption.

Issues facing us in our relationship with the oceans are as overwhelming and hair-raising as the sea monsters that terrified sailors of the past. Garbage gyres covering hundreds of miles in plastic trash, acidification corroding coral reefs and shifting the biodiversity of entire ecosystems, the wholesale disappearance of fish that were once so abundant they seemed unlimited. Into this maelstrom swims the manatee, a creature whose unlovely appearance contrasts with its peaceful nature, a slow-moving hulk that munches on the watery greens of ocean pastures. It’s so inoffensive that it possesses no resistance to the pressures of frenzied Florida development, yet its whiskery face and sweet nature attracts powerful feelings in human hearts. What better critter to become the charismatic megafauna of conflict?

Even scientific research to establish the natural history and population of the manatee, which was included on the first Endangered Species List in 1967, becomes fodder for wrangling and disagreement. Many are killed in accidents with boat propellers. Boating accidents are so common that scientists use the scars on the survivors’ backs to identify individuals. Boaters and their business advocates fight regulations that would limit the number of boat docks and marinas built to enhance residential developments and require boaters to drive at lower speeds in manatee locations.  

Craig Pittman witnessed these battles between development, greed and self-interest vs. conservation and describes them here. He teases out the history that leads each participant to the arena, the internal politicking of local, state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations and follows the story where it leads. It’s as convoluted as an air-boat ride through the Everglades, but he gets us there.

Manatees hang on in South Florida’s warm waters, finding sanctuary in the warm-water discharge from power plants and man-made canals. The burst of the real-estate bubble in 2008 thrashed the liars’ loan-fueled development market, taking some of the financial motivation but none of the intensity out of the conflict. 

The Florida Humanities Council added Manatee Insanity to its list of essential Florida books every Floridian should be familiar with in 2010. The council said "Manatee Insanity" belongs on this list because, "In microcosm, the saga reflects the decades-long struggle between development and wildlife, and how one has impacted the other during Florida’s booming growth." 

Pittman’s account of the players and the history is invaluable to watching the story unfold into the future.