March 19, 2016

There is a truly very happy whale of a tale in the recent news.  Determined activists worked long and hard to save the whales once again — this time not from whalers killing them for their oil, but from the adoration of  audiences in the three U.S. Seaworlds that made a lot of money on the misery of the magnificent orca whales.

Following a particularly gory death of a Seaworld whale trainer before spectators in 2010, a movie called “Blackfish” was released on television.  The scenes in the movie haunted viewers like me who sat hypnotized watching the film each time it was shown.    Having spent 12 years of Sunday afternoons as a docent at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach watching other volunteers care for sick and injured seals and sea lions, I felt close to the subject.  From volunteering there, I even knew one of the former Sea World whale trainers who appeared in the film.

One thing all the volunteers at our center had in common was the love of their connection with helping sea creatures.  But the former Seaworld trainers in the film expressed deep pain and regret for having been a part of basically torturing the massive marine creatures they loved.

One of my strongest memories of seeing the majestic orcas was at San Diego’s Seaworld.  As most people, I was so awed by seeing these dramatic creatures up close that I also did not immediately think of their pain at being captives.  What I did notice was that what should have been a proud, upstanding dorsal fin on the back of the orcas was flopped over.  Because I was taking a course in Oceanography, our class got some behind the scenes looks, including watching sperm being coaxed from the male orcas.  Very impressive.

Seaworld fought back against “Blackfish,” pointing out the inaccuracies and bias of the documentary.  For safety, the authorities forced Seaworld to keep all the trainers out of the water.  No longer would the athletic trainers suddenly appear balancing on top of a fast-moving whale.  It had been exciting to watch, but was it right?

No amount of rebuttal from Seaworld could make the lives of the whales seem anything but cruel.  What looked like massive pools to us were but mere bathtubs for these creatures that have oceans to roam.  And the handsome black and white massive orcas audiences grew to love were made to perform repetitive, somewhat silly antics that belied the high intelligence level whales possess.  Whales are very social creatures that live within pods, but these whales had been either born in captivity or put in with strangers.

As Seaworld’s attendance plummeted, they took a new look at what they had wrought.  Seaworld had brought these whales to us, and we loved them.  But we no longer wanted to see them living in unnatural environments and doing silly tricks for laughs.

So, Seaworld has announced that there will be no more captive breeding.  There will no longer be “theatrical encounters.”  Because the “Free Willy” scenario of merely sending them back to sea doesn’t really work with orcas that have had a very limited life in the wild, the orcas still living in the three Seaworlds will live out their natural lives being well cared for and used for “new educational encounters.”

It’s a start.  Will others follow?


I usually return tired, but happy, after my shift as a docent at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.  But today was different.  I returned home even more tired than usual, but also very sad.  Although the beautiful southern California spring weather was gentle and kind, the pathetically thin bodies of a very high number of sea lion pups struggling to hang onto life was depressing.

Usually sea lion pups are being weaned by their mothers 8 to 12 months after their births in the summer.   Although most do fine, some need temporary help to acclimate to life, and fishing for themselves, without mom.  We are used to this pattern.  But this year in southern California is different.  Why?  The best guess from the experts is that the fish weren’t where they used to be.  The mothers have had to go out farther and farther to find the fish, leaving their young pups for longer periods of time, feeding them less often, and then weaning their pups too early.  Warmer waters than usual had made the fish seek cooler water — away from the sea lion moms and their babies.

The result has been an unending stream of  emaciated sea lion pups coming onto the beaches because they have no body fat to help them tolerate the cold southern California sea.  We now have had 12 or more rescues on some days, and the outdoor pens, as well as the heated indoor pens, are filling up rapidly.  Our staff and over 80 volunteers are coming in more often, and staying longer hoping to save as many as possible.

The community is helping with this unprecedented challenge by donating money and bringing in supplies, such as Pedialyte used in the formulas that are fed to those too weak to eat fish.  It is heartening to see how much the public cares about these wild animals when they see the protruding ribs and folds of skin showing starvation.  But I can’t help thinking that this year’s tragedy is linked to the human contribution to climate change, overfishing, and how we’ve polluted the seas we used to consider abundant and too big to change.

The sea lions that have been treated for awhile show progress.  Just looking in the pens with sea lions that have been at the center for awhile clearly shows the difference food makes.  When I point out to visitors that the sea lions that are twice the weight, active, and playful are the same age as the tiny, weak ones, they understand better just how much most of the pups are suffering.

I have been a volunteer docent for 12 years, and have seen other crises over the years from other reasons.  I have also seen very sick marine mammals transformed with care into happy, active, normal animals.  I feel very good about the work our center and volunteers are committed to doing.  But this year tops them all for the large numbers of sea lion pups in dire distress.  Is this a very troubling sign for future generations of sea lion pups?

As sometimes happens when confronted with large numbers of sufferers, my eyes focused on one scrawny pup on his stomach with a little flipper spread out to each side.  He looked desperately tired, but was soaking up as much sun as he could.  Good luck, little one.

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April 21, 2011

Spring is universally the “happy” season of newness, reawakening, blossoming, birth.  But there is something very nasty lurking in parts of the sea off southern California about now.  Pseudo-nitzschia is one type of diatom that can emerge in algae blooms.  Smaller fish like sardines and anchovies enthusiastically dine on the algae blooms.  Higher up on the food chain, sea lions and dolphins eat the smaller fish.  Many female sea lions are pregnant now, preparing for birth in the summer time.  So, they’re particularly hungry.

You can’t see Pseudo-nitzschia without a microscope, but you can see the unfortunate after effects on the mothers-to-be.  Unusual head weaving and bobbing, bulging eyes, mucus from the mouth, imbalance, disorientation, and seizures give away the disease called Domoic Acid Poisoning.

One of the pleasures of volunteering at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, is watching most sick and injured seals and sea lions recover in two to three months and return home to the sea healthy.  But Domoic Acid victims rarely return home to the sea because their brains are literally destroyed.  With irreversible brain damage and no hope for recovery,  euthanasia is the faster and kinder end.

Occasionally, the infants survive their mothers.  We then hand raise these very dependent infants for the first 6 months of their lives.  Unlike seals that have only a brief 4 week relationship with mom, infant sea lion infants and their mothers normally have a very intimate relationship for 8 to 12 months.  Because they will not survive without this intimacy,  the caretakers must treat them like human babies.  They are held, talked to, bottle fed, taught to swim and play.  Without bonding, they will die like a failure to thrive human baby.  But human caretakers cannot teach them how to be wild, and so they are fated to live in captivity in a permanent facility.

Research has shown that Domoic Acid naturally occurs in the sea and is found on both East and West coasts of the U.S., and the Gulf of Mexico.    Some years are worse than others in terms of the numbers of sea lions and dolphins that die from it.  But it is generally agreed that the incidence of this scourge is increasing.  Some scientific assumptions point to the movement of currents and tides and climate shifts.  And yes, humans are undoubtedly adding to the distress through “nutrient enrichment” in agricultural runoff and the transport of algae species in the ship ballast water.

The creatures in the sea have so many dangers to survive — massive pollution, ingesting balloons and plastics in various forms, DDT that is still in the water ever since it was dumped many years ago, getting caught in fishing nets that run on for miles, harassment by humans who don’t like competing for fish, overfishing that depletes their supplies, mercury poisoning.  And, it’s impossible to leave out massive oil spills and radiation dumped into the sea from the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan.   Humans are far more dangerous enemies to sea lions than sharks and Orca whales.

It is a sad time in the sea for sea lions and dolphins in southern California.  And a heartbreaking time for the caretakers of the animals at the marine mammal centers along the coast.

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I’m getting ready to go on vacation for three weeks, first to visit a good friend, and then to spend my granddaughter’s winter break with her when I don’t have to share her with school.   It strikes me as strange to take a vacation from retirement.  After all, isn’t retirement a never-ending vacation?  Your time is your own and how to use that time is totally in your control.

But wait!  Retirement isn’t quite all that free.  First of all, there’s 60 to 90 minutes of exercise 6 days a week required for my self-imposed mandatory heart medicine.  Since I no longer drive, that means taking a bus to get to the fitness center for weight training and cardio, to the gym for aerobics, and to the senior center for yoga.  Of course, I have to fit in a shower at some point in the day to wash off the sweat.

So much for the body.  But then there’s the brain.  How many times have I been told that the brains of seniors must be stimulated to keep it from atrophying?  I have friends who love doing  jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, making up original riddles, doing crossword puzzles, finding the hidden words, and beating themselves on electronic games.  I hate all those things, and always have.  But when I was younger, I didn’t see any need for exercising my brain.  It just happened.  Now, as I regularly forget people’s names and why I walked into a room, I wonder if I shouldn’t force myself to do those brain stimulating games I hate.

They say that learning languages is a good way for an old brain to stay active.  I’ve studied Chinese off and on for years, never progressing past a certain level of survival Chinese.  But a Chinese resident of our retirement community has offered to give a class once a week, so I’m trying again.  Most of what I’ve accomplished so far is just re-learning what I’ve forgotten over the years.

Volunteering has always been a part of my week, so I continue to volunteer for clubs and committees, am the President of a local branch of the National League of American Pen Women, and am entering the tenth year of spending my Sunday afternoons as a docent with seals and sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

I noticed a shift as I aged from “doing” to “being.”  So, I make time for “being,” going down to a pretty creek near my home and sitting in a tree, taking solitary night walks, meditating and deep breathing.  I am usually reading a few books at a time, which is another form of “being” because it brings me to different ideas, new places, stationary travels, without “doing.”  I try, but don’t often succeed, in getting through one Saturday and one Sunday newspaper a week.  I used to get magazines, but they were an expense I’ve had to cut out of my dwindling budget.

Socializing is necessary for mental well-being, and mutual enjoyment.  Since I live alone, I need to allot time for being social and nurturing  friendships.  Living in a retirement community helps by offering many activities, club events, and chances to be with other people.  I won’t say there aren’t any isolated people among the 18,000 of us who live here, but there are numerous, convenient, and easy opportunities to be social.

I used to spend a lot of mental energy on planning what comes next, where to live, where to go next, how to find a job.  Although I like to be thinking a few months or a year in advance of travels, my future planning doesn’t extend too far into the future anymore.  It is in proportion to my lower energy level and my severe financial restraints.

Reluctantly, more of my mental energy seems to be going into physical realms.  Blood pressure and cholesterol and keeping down my food intake are daily thoughts.  There seems to be an increasing rate of “little” problems — strange twinges, tweaks, creaks, and pains that weren’t there when I went to bed.  Of course, Medicare reminds me regularly of all those regular preventive tests they think I should be taking.  It’s boring – and scary – as friends succumb to all sorts of ills.  I count my health blessings daily along with wondering, as I did today, if I really should still be climbing up a ladder to clean the outside of the my bedroom windows.  I still do all my own housecleaning, but it’s more tiring than it used to be.

In fact, retirement is a busy time.  No wonder I need a vacation!

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November 25, 2010

One fine sunny day many years ago, my parents brought me to visit Laguna Beach.  I had never been there before.  As we sat on a bench, a unique feeling came over me.  A little voice in my head said, “I could be happy here the rest of my life.”  No place I had been in the world had ever spoken to me like that.

I spent yet one more totally glorious day at Laguna Beach on Thanksgiving, 2010.  I have already lived 11 years only 6 miles away from the beauty of its coastline.  Each visit over the years has reaffirmed that this is where I feel totally connected to my sense of place.  I have come during many of its moods — foggy, rainy, dark and brooding,  occasional astoundingly colorful sunsets, gloriously warm and sunny.  I have fallen asleep to the lapping of the waves and the barks of wild sea lions on a picturesque rock.  I have vicariously flown with the pigeons, sea gulls, and pelicans.  When I’ve been very lucky, I have seen dolphins porpoising and the spouting of whales.

I have come to the sea for solace during difficult times, and at other times I’ve come to celebrate.  I have smiled at all the white-clad brides and tuxedo-dressed grooms and ushers in bare feet on the sand.  The water changes into many hues of blue and infrequently gray, complemented most often by a placid blue sky.  In all the times I’ve come here, I’ve almost never gone into the water.  I’m a good swimmer and grew up beach swimming in Quincy, Massachusetts.  Sadly, I know this still beautiful blue water is poisoned daily.  As a Sunday docent at the Laguna Beach Pacific Marine Mammal Center, I tell visitors how polluted our precious seas have become and how the creatures of the sea are harmed by their liquid home.

There is diversity at Laguna Beach.  It’s usual to hear many languages, but today’s diversity also includes shorts, tank tops, as well as furry coats.  The day is cool and breezy.  The families at the beach today all seem happy to be here.  It’s unusual to even hear a child cry.  While the birds play with the currents in the air, children scamper over the rocks in flip flops, sandals, sports shoes, or barefoot.  I don’t scamper over rocks anymore.  I’m just grateful I can walk the beach and its paths and find smooth rocks to sit on.

What makes Laguna Beach different from other beaches is the extensive landscaping and gardening lining the cliffs and overviews.    Since Laguna Beach is an art colony, creative and whimsical sculptures unobtrusively join the joy of being near the sea.  Not only do the gardens and sculptures enhance the sea, and the sea enhance the plants, but it is a delicious melding of nature and the humans who sometimes forget they are a part of nature.

Today, toward sunset, on a strip of a less peopled beach under the cliff I am standing on, a lithe woman bathed in a pre-sunset glow dances on the sand.  She is no novice.  She twirls, cavorts, and leaps with the joy of a body that can do such things.  When she dances onto a wet patch of sand, I will myself into her moving reflection to dance with her.

I do not know if I will be able to live the rest of my life as a neighbor of Laguna Beach, but I am very thankful on this day of giving thanks that I have been able to immerse myself, if not in the water, in the beauty and wonder of it all.  I think back to an afternoon when I drifted off to sleep on the green grass above the sea.  When my eyes opened, I saw a deeply blue sky and waving palm trees.  I heard the waves crashing and the cries of the gulls, and smelled salty air.  There was a moment’s confusion as to where I was.  And then I heard my own voice say, “I’m in heaven.”

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July 8, 2010

A month shy of my 67th birthday, I intentionally wanted to add some firsts to my life. The service trip with Road Scholars to Teton Science Schools in Wyoming provided that opportunity.
The first day we learned of the dangers of noxious weeds and how they force out native species. Our task was to weed out an area around a pond where trumpeter swans were kept. Sometimes the noxious weeds were quite beautiful, as well as tenacious. Shovels, short tools, and gloves helped our group of 12 fill trash bags that piled up from our labor. Although I’m used to exercising, I’m not used to manual labor that actually accomplishes something.
Our second day’s task was to check bird houses that had been set up around a certain area, but had not been checked. First, we had to locate the boxes, peek in and see if there were eggs in them, and record many details about the boxes to put into a data base. If the box was unoccupied, we cleaned the old nests out of them. This was one of many programs in an effort to collect data about the bird population with the long term goal of conserving the wildlife.
It was the first time I saw tiny eggs in nests, and in one case, two-day-old mice, but I felt sorry that we had to scare the mother birds (and mother mouse) to get the information.
I observed trained people capturing wild songbirds in mist nets and then collecting data about them before releasing them. Our part, other than observation, was to hold each fragile bird on its back in our open hands before it realized it was free to fly away. It was a brief connection to a wild songbird and I felt good to participate in its release back into the wild.
Another first for me was digging a hole for a post. One of our team of 12, a gentleman of indeterminate age who had spent years in the Forest Service and now spent his time going to service projects, showed me how to maneuver the tool used to make a post hole. He explained how to best angle the tool to dig down efficiently and then pull up the dirt. Our posts for bird perches along a bike trail stood firm and tall when we finished.
Of all our tasks, I suppose the one I least expected I’d ever do is take down barbed wire fences that result in many deaths of animals who get mangled on them. The walk uphill to the fences was steep, but led to a beautiful panorama. Leather gloves protected our hands as we cut the barbed wire from the posts and rolled it up to be discarded.
I never got fast at rolling it up, but learned nevertheless how to roll the barbed wire from side to side so the barbs would catch onto one another. These circles of death piled up quickly. I had read a very vivid description of a swan that was caught on a barbed wire fence, so this contribution to making wild lands safer for wildlife gave me a distinct sense of accomplishment.
While our group was staying at the Teton Science School, there was also a group of 100 Indian children from area tribes. This was the first time I saw Indian children being taught by white people about nature and their connection to it. How sadly ironic!
Although not an Indian, one of our leaders came closest to my idea of what being with an Indian would be like. His knowledge was extensive. And he was inextricably intertwined with nature and wildlife emotionally and spiritually.
I have volunteered as a docent for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, for 9 years to help make a little difference to wild sick and injured seals and sea lions. While volunteering, I have also gained in my personal knowledge and connection to wild creatures. My participation in the Road Scholar service project has extended my progress even further from mostly an appreciator of the wild to a participant.
Beautifully worded on one wall of the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve Visitor’s Center is the essence.
“Mindful of different ways of being,
Our awareness as a species shifts —
We recognize the soul of the land as our own.”

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