Tag: wildlife

Eye Contact

Eye Contact

SimoneLipscombWhile hovering over a coral reef in the Caribbean, I spot a blenny. The small fish, perhaps an inch long with eyes the size of a pin head, makes eye contact. In the Sea of Cortez, hovering over a rocky outcrop a juvenile puffer fish, also very tiny in size, approaches my mask and makes eye contact. No matter the size of the species, it always feels as if a real connection of some sort is made when eyes of one connects with eyes of another.

SimoneLipscomb (1)One of the most satisfying experiences enjoyed in my life is making eye contact with wild animals. Perhaps not all wild animals would accept it as a peaceful action but those who choose to interact with me like this help me to feel accepted into that other’s life, if only for a moment.

SimoneLipscomb (7)While interacting with a juvenile humpback whale, there was definitely eye contact. Considering the cetacean was over 15 feet in length, she wasn’t the one intimidated. I offered a quiet mind and peaceful heart to this sister and the encounter changed my life. Maybe it changed her for the better in some way, too.

SimoneLipscomb (5)And manatees…they seem to love making goo-goo eyes with me or my camera housing dome port. (Perhaps they are really making goo-goo eyes with the manatee they see reflected in the port). I like to think that when we make eye contact with others…be it wildlife, our domestic non-human friends or even humans…we are making an agreement to connect.

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Sampson, a bobcat that lives indoors in a wildlife rescue center after being surrendered by a human who declawed him and kept him illegally as a pet.

It has been said the eyes are the window of the soul. That’s how I gauge if someone is ‘home’ in their body. It’s how I communicate with other species and with other humans. There is much to learn from looking into another’s eyes.

Cath Steel & Will Kimbrough
Cathe Steel & Will Kimbrough

What about you? Are you willing to take the risk to make eye contact?

SimoneLipscomb (3)Or will you live with blinders, refusing to connect with others around you?

Sea of Cortez IV…Beware the Inner Kraken!

Sea of Cortez IV…Beware the Inner Kraken!

IMG_0372Tuesday July 21st, 2015

The second largest sea lion colony in the Sea of Cortez is located at our current location. The island is dark brown rock and covered with bird droppings that make it appear as thick icing on a cake. Strange metaphor perhaps.

Isla San Pedro Martir is one of the most remote islands in the Sea of Cortez. There are little stone walls built  in the ‘V’ areas of the mountain and after inquiry I find that in the late 19th and early 20th century the bird guano (poop) was mined and shipped as far as Europe to be used as fertilizer. No kidding…there is a LOT of ‘white icing’ on this mountain island.

_TSL5051Diving Pacific waters, even a body of water like the Sea of Cortez, is so different from Caribbean diving. There is no hard coral reef but rather rocks and underwater cliffs. It looks very different yet supports an amazing variety of life, including soft corals and colorful fish.

_TSL5075Taking it easy another day by snorkeling on dive two. I bring along my GoPro instead of The Beast, my big Nikon/Aquatica camera and housing, and finally give up the GoPro to just play with sea lions. As I float and frolic in the 86 degree water in shorts and a rash guard, I am blissed to the max.

_TSL5142Turning somersaults, doing barrel rolls and other silly antics lights up the already playful pinnipeds. The more I play, the more they come play with me. They come so close that our eyes make contact. Beautiful, round, big eyes gazing into mine creates a lot of joy within this two-legged gal.

I watch divers ten feet or so below me for a while as they interact with the marine mammals and decide to leave the protection of the cove and swim along the wall of the island. As I do, nine (yes…9) sea turtles greet me. Because I’m not making bubbles on scuba they come incredibly close and of course my GoPro is on the boat. In pairs, trios or solo they cruise by me. One green sea turtle doesn’t hear or see me and comes within inches of my mask…until I giggle. The sound scares her and she jumps and moves away from the giggling flotsam.

Gil, our dive master, greeting the sea lions.
Gil, our dive master, greeting the sea lions.

The final dive of the day is epic. It’s near the end of the hour-long submersion and the huge male sea lion that has barked the entire dive, rushes our dive master and makes a couple of us gasp at the aggression. No biting or contact but it is an intense rush of big male sea lion energy. We settle ourselves and become very still and the girls dive in to play.

_TSL5156I cannot EVER recall having this much fun. Female sea lions twirling and zooming right up to me, within inches of my own twirling hands and barrel rolling self. I think Zoom is the only speed they know. Completely hilarious and crazy fun. And I am in awe at the lightning fast speed and agility of these creatures. I feel like a complete klutz compared to them.

Photo bombed by a sea turtle
Photo bombed by a sea turtle..well, I never!

Since I’m feeling better I got to do three dives today. While that’s wonderful, I saw bad diver behavior that is worth mentioning…if only to pass along the stories for divers that might be tempted to misbehave.

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A good dive buddy, Eladio, checking his Aquatica housing for video perfection.

Cruising along a wall on dive two, I glance up to see a huge sea turtle swimming very hard and she looked upset. I’ve never seen a sea turtle so angry-looking. And she was flying…never seen one go so fast. What in the world could have scared that turtle? I wonder. A few moments later a guy that had been aggressively swimming after everything that moved came behind the turtle. No excuse for that kind of harassment. Why is it that some humans think because they have two legs and a camera they can behave atrociously toward wildlife? (The remaining comments about his behavior are safely recorded in my journal and not printable).

Never found out which diver this is but she was crushing soft coral without concern...grrr.
Never found out who this is but she is crushing soft coral without concern.

On an earlier dive today I photographed a woman laying on soft coral seemingly without a care as she attempted to photograph some poor creature. I’ll finish my mini-rant with this: If you can’t control your buoyancy, leave the camera on the boat until you can hover without squishing soft coral and the homes of other creatures…or the creatures themselves. Hone your dive skills so you don’t kill more than you photograph. And if you think it’s okay to pull, tug, chase or otherwise harass marine creatures…it’s NOT! But don’t listen to me….one day, when one takes a bite out of your hand or your neck or your leg, please don’t whine or complain.

Me and the Sea...the Sea of Cortez
Me and the Sea…the Sea of Cortez…before releasing my inner Kraken.

(sigh)

My main concern about coming on this trip was it was advertised as an underwater photography trip. Photographers who take their craft underwater can be notoriously destructive and aggressive. I saw those behaviors but I also saw very caring, loving individuals who have total respect for ocean life and have good dive skills as well. Never, ever should ‘getting a shot’ outweigh decent and respectful underwater behavior. I am generally a very peace-loving, laid-back person but don’t mess with sea life because you will awaken my Inner Kraken.

lord_of_the_kraken_by_steveargyle

Sea of Cortez I

Sea of Cortez II

Sea of Cortez III

 

 

 

 

Sea of Cortez–Part Three

Sea of Cortez–Part Three

_TSL5004Monday July 20th

We are motoring south. The engine started at 4am. It’s 7am and we are still near Angel de la Guarda. Two seal gulls are riding on the bow of a panga. A nice way to travel from one place to the next if you are a bird…a smart bird.

The mountain that is this island is persistent in its beauty. More gradual slopes toward the sea on this eastern side of it but still very craggy and tall. Unbelievably tall. The color of rock is more even here with red standing out strongly. There is some striation but not the rainbow colors of the mountains yesterday.

_TSL5006As we draw closer to the southernmost tip of Angel de la Guarda its massive face affects me deeply. Again I am struck with awe…to my core. There is a V in the face that reminds me of open arms.

We move closer and it feels as if we will be consumed by this beautiful mountain. I need to go eat breakfast but find myself unable to leave my perch on the deck. I watch the massive mountain come closer and closer.

Stones and dust fade into wrinkles and colors of earth, sacred Earth, whose face is marked with smile lines created when She laughs at wind, sea lions frolicking and tides kissing Her beautiful self.

These bones bake in the sun and cleanse me in Her reflective glow. Her white-chalk, pock-marked bones  are whiter still from nesting shore birds. Red, pink, salmon, rust, orange, roughened, weathered, ragged by forces beyond control…lay bare these bones.

Layers and layers of color and texture open to elemental forces so powerful only mountains such as this could behold them and manage a wrinkled grin.

_TSL5016The vast, ragged peaks stretch all around me. At first glance they are barren in red, rust and white-stained splendor yet upon closer observation the details emerge. Green patches of life exist in this magical place following lines of finely-ground particles of rock. Tufts of tender, determined vegetation cling to fissures and slides and their roots go deep causing even more breakdown of hard substrate, creating a welcoming home for their offspring. Whether they consciously plan for the future or it it is just the genius of their living matters not.

Only 36 hours after torrential rains fell and already the mountain slopes grow greener. By the hour, these rugged, rocky slopes become robed in verdant softness.

Could it be that I, too, soften as my dry bones greedily suck nourishment from the life-giving waters and the blue heart of the Sea?

_TSL5042A sea lion barks the entire second dive and I learn that they can bark underwater…incessantly. Like a controlling man bellowing at his wife, the males are very protective and territorial with their harem of females. When a female or two escapes his control to play with us I am as happy for the free sea lions as I am for myself witnessing their agile playfulness.

The faces of the female pinnipeds are so sweet. I roll and play underwater and the more I play, the more playful they become. I think how lucky they are that few humans come here to spoil the pristine and peaceful place…and how lucky I feel to be one of the few given the chance to frolic with them.

IMG_0360I’m in the panga now with Juleo…the small-boat captain…while divers are on the night dive. The canopy of stars is brilliant with no light pollution. The Milky Way is breathtaking and grows steadily brighter as the sky darkens. Layers and layers of stars shine like gemstones flickering with stellar fire.

The sea is mostly quiet and still so the black water mirrors the sky as tiny phosphorescent dots drift on the surface. Greenish globs extend into the dark water until they merge with the glade of the crescent moon and disappear into its brilliance.

_TSL5143Nearby the exhalation of a sea lion catches my attention and my heart as she swims around the panga looking at us. Sweet words pour from my heart as I send love her way.

It may take a while to understand how this magnificent sky of stars and galaxies will change me, but without a doubt it will. I feel it deeply in my bones.

The small rock reaching from the sea floor to the heavens, frosted white with bird droppings, is only a silhouette against the setting moon. I, too, reach for the heavens and with a grateful heart bid goodnight to the Sea, stars, moon, krill and sea lions. Sleep well dear ones.

——

Sea of Cortez–Part One

Sea of Cortez–Part Two

 

 

Mermaid Practice…Everything’s Okay

Mermaid Practice…Everything’s Okay

SimoneLipscomb (1)Crystal-clear, warm saltwater caressed my feet and legs. In the gray, pre-dawn light I stood allowing gentle waves to wash away worries, concerns, grief. The Ocean brought me into the present moment.

SimoneLipscomb (5)The morning ritual, while in my Ocean ‘home’ island of Bonaire, is to gather tiny bits of sea glass, tumbled from the constant irritation of sand and movement. It’s a small beach of honey-colored sand, so soft it made me smile with delight. The tinkling sound of bits of coral clinking together was music made by the Ocean…the soundtrack to my morning.

SimoneLipscomb (3)A dry and exposed wall of fossilized coral protected me from the strong and constant winds of this small desert island. I stood gazing into the water and felt someone looking back at me. My eyes scanned the water as movement within a few feet of me caught my attention.

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This is NOT a photograph of a sea turtle…just a nice gathering of corals and sponges.

There, at the edge of the coral and sand, was a small sea turtle. No more than 10 inches across, it was peeking out at me–a lovely little hawksbill turtle.  Mermaid practice started early this morning. The lesson? Everything’s okay. In this moment, at this place…all is well. Time to take a break from planetary destruction, humanity’s hate/humanity’s fighting. Time to allow grief, of loved ones lost, pass into another dimension as the present moment embraced me with such beauty. A juvenile hawksbill friend reminded me of this with her intense gaze from her eyes to mine.

SimoneLipscomb (2)After breakfast I gathered dive gear and headed with my buddy down to the water. It felt magnificent to be submerged again, one with the Ocean, breathing on life-support that would allow me over an hour of communing with my brothers and sisters of the sea.

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Friendly porcupinefish

A friendly and large porcupinefish escorted me for the first half of the dive, looking back occasionally to see if I was still there. One time  he circled back and waited for me when I stopped to look at two spotted moray eels tucked under a coral head. When I turned to head back to the exit point, the sweet, prickly friend waved a fin goodbye. I blew a farewell kiss.

SimoneLipscomb (30)An hour break to hydrate, eat and assemble The Beast–my Aquatica housing for my Nikon D-800 and two massive strobes. I think I should intensify my upper body workouts just to lift the gadgetry.

SimoneLipscomb (22)But once underwater, tools I had only dreamed of in the past became a reality. A big smile erupted from deep within me. This system…this beast of a system…was almost neutrally buoyant…just slightly negatively so. It handled like a dream and produced images with a fisheye lens that made me very happy…finally….I can create images that in some way do justice to the magnificent beauty of this realm, this Ocean of beauty where I find peace.

SimoneLipscomb (12)Before even reaching the drop-off on the reef, three friendly squid played with me and one especially like my dome port. It was a squid dance unequal to any I’ve had in the past. Sometimes they can be shy and evasive but these guys actually invited me to play.

SimoneLipscomb (14)And once again, the larger-than-life porcupinefish met me at our appointed time and posed for a couple of photographs before I turned to head back to dry land….a most challenging proposition for a mermaid-in-training.

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SimoneLipscomb (34)Special thanks to my friends Will and Dolphi for helping me and The Beast into and out of the water. It’s a learning experience…accepting assistance and even asking for it (gasp!). 

Will Tripp dancing with squid.
Will Tripp dancing with squid.

 

Can Science, Common Sense & Compassion Co-Exist?

Can Science, Common Sense & Compassion Co-Exist?

IMG_9945The shell was still warm from saltwater. The perfectly formed brown and cream-colored swirls of calcium carbonate dried quickly in my hand. The empty shell was an unexpected gift, a reminder of the beauty and mystery of life in the sea.

I walked eastward in the pre-dawn light searching along the high-tide line for sea turtle tracks. The calm, clear water of the Gulf of Mexico reflected soft, pastel light that illuminated my early-morning walk with exquisite colors that made me yearn for my big Nikon…left behind on this sea turtle patrol.

IMG_9959The only tracks I discovered were those of a four-wheeled type driven by a biologist and crew who have been studying sea turtles in Alabama since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Over the past five years they have satellite tagged, drawn blood samples, conducted DNA tests and other measurable markers on our sea turtles in an effort to study where they feed and live…and probably gather a little data for evidence in the BP Deepwater Horizon legal case.

IMG_9961A report compiled by the Ocean Conservancy in 2014 stated that 1149 sea turtles were collected during the BP oil spill from April 30, 2010 to April 12, 2011. Of those 613 were dead. Out of the total number of sea turtles collected, 809 were Kemps Ridley’s…a highly endangered species. And 481 of those were dead. “Tens of thousands of sea turtles were located in coastal waters within the surface oil extent and were exposed to oil.” There were 278 sea turtle nests relocated from the Northern Gulf Coast that produced 14,700 hatchlings.

SimoneLipscomb (1)So there is a need to study sea turtles in our area and while the study sounds great, there are some things to consider. First, the satellite tags are attached to the shell with epoxy which gets quite hot as it hardens. There are nerve endings in the shell or carapace so sea turtles so they actually feel the burning of the epoxy as it hardens. When a female has completed her exhausting nesting process–heaving her 350 pound body out of the water and crawling in soft sand, digging a hole with her rear flippers, laying maybe 120 eggs, covering the hole and crawling back towards the water–she is corralled by two-legged beings, ‘burned’ with epoxy, poked with needles and held captive until the ‘glue’ hardens and the scientists have everything they need from her. Then she is released and must crawl back into the water…after being exhausted from nesting and ‘harassment’ by the team.

Harassment, in terms of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is any human-generated behavior that causes a wild animal to change his or her behavior…including feeding, watering, touching, chasing, injuring, changing habitat, etc.

SimoneLipscomb (5)No matter how much good the data does the scientists…or sea turtles…it is a very stressful process for the mother turtles.

According to a report released by the biologist, they have tagged 59 females (that’s perhaps 15% of the Northern Gulf of Mexico population…a large sample for scientists). They concluded that one-third of the small and declining population live year-round in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. They want to continue tracking and studying sea turtles to test whether they revisit the same feeding areas and this gives new possibilities for management and conversation practices.

What if 15% of the total population…the tagged turtles…. are in some way damaged from the very process that is supposed to help the species? How many tagged sea turtles is enough? How much data is enough?

SimoneLipscomb (6)I have attended two of the debriefings done by the scientists after their tagging season here and saw how the data and the drive for more data seemed to overshadow the species they intend to protect. Watching the scientists light up when describing numbers or capturing male loggerheads by jumping on their backs while the turtles are swimming… bothered me. Is collection of data the prize, the goal? How does long-term concern of the individually tagged animals enter into the equation? It’s easy for humans to say, it doesn’t hurt the turtles, but where is long-term research and evidence to back-up that statement?

The government won’t take action against business unless there are very specific and detailed data showing how the species is being harmed from corporate functions (fossil fuel industry as one example, commercial fisheries is another). So scientists have to focus on numbers…the only thing the government seems to understand….or maybe the only thing scientists understand. It could be very easy to lose track of the health of individual animals while wanting to save an entire species. But this only supposition on my part.

SimoneLipscomb (4)For many years I have volunteered with wildlife biologists and most are very dedicated, caring individuals. I have had discussions with some of them about the issues addressed in this commentary. I hope they can understand how their actions might look to those of motivated to act solely out of compassion and love.

Weather in which northern flying squirrels are removed from nesting boxes and processed for data
Weather in which northern flying squirrels are removed from nesting boxes and processed for data

Waking an endangered northern flying squirrel in the high altitudes of the Blue Ridge Mountains during intense cold to weigh them, measure their back leg and tag them seems edgy. But they must have their numbers to justify continued endangered status. I assisted with this research and it bothered me because it seemed to endanger an endangered species…to collect data to justify its status as endangered. (Twisted??)

Sea turtles here in Alabama have been poked, prodded, tagged now for the past several years. Can’t they just be left to nest in peace? But no, numbers are needed…more, more, more numbers.

While earning my undergraduate degree at Auburn University I took a wildlife conservation class and learned the history of this endeavor. Science has evolved through the years and thankfully moved to a more compassionate way of studying species, but I think it has a long way to go.

My theory: Scientists become hyper-focused on numbers and data because that’s the only way they can get the money to fund more studies to prove to the government that the species is endangered, threatened or healthy. I can imagine that their original intention to help wildlife must become a frustration to them as they have to work within a broken system focused on money, money…money.

Last night I was reading a chapter in a book by Jim Nollman. It was about his time spent with orca in Buddy’s Cove, British Columbia.  He describes the non-stop ‘researchers’ who visit the whales and spend hours each day in small boats chasing them or the film crews who are equally aggressive in their pursuit of orca. Their justification is to help orca but in the truest sense, this is harassment. And the government issues permits to allow it.

SimoneLipscomb (3)I totally understand the need to study wild animals in order to provide data that gives proof to the government of what’s supposedly happening so that laws and rules and status changes can be implemented. But a red flag seems appropriate to raise when the welfare of the species they are trying to ‘protect’ comes into question from the research practices. Animals harassed long-term due to research become stressed. Perhaps we need to look at the practices of science that insist on data to prove anything. So it’s not as simple as finger-pointing at the government or corporations or scientists. Perhaps the process of research has never really taken deeper issues of quality of life and respect into consideration.

Can science, common sense and compassion coexist? It is a question yet to be answered. The sea holds many mysteries. Humans who think they can unravel the mysteries without common sense and compassion will never fully understand the very thing they think they are protecting. I wonder if some scientists feel as if they have to sell their soul, little-by-little, as they work within such a warped model to protect wildlife that live in environments highly damaged due to human exploitation.

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Humans can justify just about anything in the name of science. Governments can refuse to take protective action unless there are years of data. Corporations know this and profit from it. And what about the wildlife? Indeed…what about the wildlife.

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