Deep Sea Canyon Rangers, Guardians of Ocean Realms

Far out on the Atlantic Ocean, about 160 miles southeast of Nantucket, the morning light revealed that the sea had changed from cold gun metal gray to a deep Mediterranean blue.   Looking out through the pilot house window, I saw a sperm whale. The rectangular black portion above the water reminded me of a railroad box car.  The blowhole was forward on the left side of head, on top just behind the perpendicular descent of the whale’s front. The back was flat and smooth no sign of a backbone, no dorsal fin. The expanse of back turned to knuckles that stepped down the tail disappearing into the water.

This was a very different beast than the whales of whale watching, the humpback, fin and minke whales. Their wheeling behaviors had become familiar. Head breaks the surface, followed by paired blow holes, ridged steeply-sided back followed by dorsal fin and sometimes lifted tail.

The sperm whale was still in the water; waves lapped at its square black brow. There was no exhalation of atomized water droplets rising in a diagonal column to fall clear of the whale. This whale was dead.

I turned around in the pilot house to see the captain stripped down to his shorts standing on one foot while maneuvering the other foot into a wet suit held spread by his two hands. The Captain was also a jeweler with an interest in scrimshaw. He was preparing to put on scuba gear to get some whale teeth.

There I stood, the curator of natural history of a Massachusetts museum who had brought a bit more than a dozen patrons on a three-day cruise off the continental shelf on a sperm whale watch. The dead whale was unexpected. And then, the only one who knew how to operate the boat was about to jump ship to take a quixotic swim to pluck teeth from the largest toothed jawbone in the animal kingdom with what looked to me like a Bowie knife. How could things have gone so wrong?  How could this distant ocean realm be better managed so one would no longer find one out of three whales sighted floating dead?

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From Earth Day to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues

A pub sing is held at the Somerville Armory second Thursdays and fourth Tuesdays.  The rule is any song is welcome as long as it has a chorus that all may join in on.  Last Thursday, the songs ranged from Tom Paxton to songs of courtship and rum.  A woman led us through a rare version of the sea shanty Spanish Ladies.  It had explicit instructions for sailing the English Channel from across the Atlantic.  Here is the chorus.

“We’ll rant and we’ll roar, like true British sailors,

We’ll range and we’ll roam all on the salt seas,

Until we strike soundings

In the Channel of old England.

From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis thirty-five leagues.

Ushant is a French island off of Brittany, the north-western point of France. Ushant marks the mouth or bottom lip of the English Channel.  The 180-foot light shines brightly; it is the most powerful lighthouse in Europe. The Isles of Scilly are off the southwestern tip of Cornwall, the most southerly and westerly point in the United Kingdom.  The isles look like giant granite dice, coarse-grained with porphyritic crystals of feldspar, tossed from Lizard Point.

Grayhound, a three masted lugger, sails from Brittany past Ushant for the Isles of Scilly with a cargo of French Bordeaux and Muscadet, Bretton coffee and tea, chocolate and Bretton Honey on June 14, 2018. Passage: www.classic-sailing.co.uk

Sailors, having been at sea for months or years, must have belted out this penultimate homeward-bound song as each landmark hove into sight.

“So the first land we made, it is called the Deadman,

Next Rame Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland, and the Wight,

We sailed by Beachy,

By Fairlight and Dungeness,

And then bore away for the South Foreland light.

The Deadman, or Deadman’s Point, is today known as Dodman Point, the highest headland on the south Cornwall coast. For a weary sailor, this is the first landfall looming out of the horizon.  South Foreland Lighthouse is at the other end of the Channel, beyond Dover, alerting ships to beware of the Goodwin Sands.

A league is three nautical miles. A nautical mile is 1.15 statute miles. From Ushant to Scilly is actually 112 miles or 97 nautical miles or about 32 ½ leagues.  For the sailor longing for home, thirty-five leagues may be more correct due to wind and tides.

Sailors use nautical miles because it is one minute of latitude.  Sixty nautical miles or twenty leagues is one degree of latitude.  Most fists held aloft at arm’s length span ten degrees or two hundred leagues.  Each of four knuckles represent 2.5 degrees.  When the north star appears one knuckle higher in the sky a northward-bound sailor knows fifty leagues has been traveled.  In the Atlantic, when the pole star, around which all others turn, is 49 degrees high, put the rudder hard over to turn the ship to the  right.  Steer due East by the compass in the binnacle.  This course will take one between Ushant at 48.46 N and the Isles of Scilly at 49.56 N.

Setting stunsails on the bark Europa out of Bay of Islands, Newfoundland.

“Let go your shank painter, Let go your cat stopper, Haul all your clew garnets, let tack and sheet fly.”  This is how a square-rigged ship furls sail; that is, lash them up against the spars.

Man in doorway tending La Jument Lighthouse, Ushant, December 1989. Photo Jean Guichard

Nowadays, with eyes tacked down  we fist cellphones to navigate city blocks and country miles. Channels are on the TV, and leagues play sports. When Earth Day comes around each April 22, most people are mindless to where we’ve come from and clueless to where we are.  We moan about the latest perturbation to our chores of tending house, keeping habitats, and stewarding the planet.

The principles and practices of Earth Day are not kept alive in song.  When we go astray or bump into an obstacle, we wring our hands, blame and curse.  We need to recognize the channel markers and navigational aids for conservation and restoration; get back on course, stay the course, and persevere.  The way forward is slow.  You can not rush a democracy; all must be on board. Our future depends on knowing the right course to take recognizing if we attempt to sail straight into the winds we won’t get there from here.

Earth Day 1970, to quote Barry Commoner, “was irrefutable evidence that the American people understood the environmental threat and wanted action to resolve it.”  That we remember once a year. Commoner was a biologist who upset the applecart of academia by jumping disciplines and going into social science.  With his Baby Tooth Study in the late 1950s, he demonstrated that the presence of Strontium 90 in children’s teeth was a direct result of nuclear fallout. He put it succinctly: “The greatest single cause of environmental contamination of this planet is radioactivity from test explosions of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.”  As the result of speaking irrefutable truth to government, above-ground nuclear testing ceased.

Our work was just beginning. “Environmental pollution is an incurable disease.  It can only be prevented.”  Commoner debated those focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems.  He observed that poverty “initiates the rise in population,” not the other way around. Rapid population growth of the developing world is the result of not having adequate living standards.  He postulated that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures.  For example,  child labor using hand tools in Congo cobalt mines to keep rechargeable lithium-ion batteries cheap is wrong on so many levels.

In his 1971 bestselling book The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability.  He argued that polluting products should be replaced with natural products.  He believed in technology.  But, above all, he believed that it would take social developments to achieve a natural decrease in both population and environmental damage.

“If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way.”

The fog of excess carbon and too much greenhouse gasses has dimmed the light.  The distance is vast that we need travel from the first Earth Day to the other shore of sustainability and no poverty.  Yet, no matter whether you are caring for your car, your home, your place, or your community, there will always be work to do.

We must steadfastly stay the course of compassionate stewardship and not pollute.  Along the way, look up and with fist held high, remember to count the digits as the leagues go by.  If you care to raise  your voice, please join the chorus.  We’ll rant and we’ll roar together in harmony for a healthier planet.

The Deadman or Dodman Point, Cornwall. Photo: megalithic.co.uk

Ocean River Institute display to come down and depart Harvard Square.

Last week, while I was sailing on the tall ship Europa from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, I was informed by email to remove the Ocean River Institute’s exhibit in the display window by the Mt Auburn Street Post Office in Cambridge. When I was hauling on halyards, I was directed to clear away the ducks and ocean images from the streets of Cambridge. I was up to date on monthly payments. However, after many years of occupancy, the last display window contract of eighteen months had expired during the winter. And now someone else is interested in the space and likely had agree to pay more rent per month.

   

The Ocean River Institute display window is a Harvard Square amenity. Inside the post office I over hear Dads saying: “after we finish with all this, then we’ll go see the ducks.” Once I found a woman looking intently at the one of the fish sketches by Dina Chapeau. She was France and wanted to know what we called monkfish so she could order it off a menu. The irony is we were all introduced to monkfish by Julia Child, who discovered it in France. I like the monkfish served at Parsnip on Winthrop.

Watercolors by Harper Dangler illustrate three ecotones, the Atlantic Ocean, Estuary and Coldstream River. At the bottom of the ocean may be seen four habitats, muddy, sandy, gravel and boulder reef. Each ocean floor has its own inhabitants who are identified by Dina’s legend on the right.

For me the most poignant image is up high on the wall. A vibrant and clean Boston Harbor with cat boat, tug boat, tall ship and people lolling about on the harbor walk. Across the bottom of the harbor image is written: Together, we are protecting environments not for self but for all.

When we’ve got a harbor of pride with marvelous animals dwelling within, it should be displayed. Must the amenity on Mt Auburn Street by the Post Office be gone because of a lapsed contract?

Offshore Watchmen on the Frontline under Global Warming Assault

President Obama favored lobstermen before solar-cell industrialists when he protected a 4,900 square mile ocean refuge 150 miles east of Cape Cod.  The Antiquities Act was used to go around a grid-locked Congress to establish the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument.  The designated ocean wildlife refuge features three canyons (Oceanographer, Gilbert, and Lydonia Canyons) incised into the continental shelf on the south side of Georges Bank, and four seamounts (Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever) that rise up ten thousand feet off the Atlantic Ocean’s abyssal floor. Permanently protected are seven sea places – essential ocean habitats like no other.

The solar-cell industry has expressed interest in mining these seamounts. Summits of the four volcanic seamounts are more than one thousand feet below the surface, in complete darkness. Seamounts are made of hard basalt rock with a remarkable porosity of 60%. Gnarly with much surface areas, seamounts sponge out of seawater rare earth minerals (cerium, europium, lanthanum, and yttrium) and high tech metals (tellurium, cobalt, bismuth, zirconium, niobium, tungsten, molybdenum, platinum, titanium, and thorium).

High tech metals are refined and combined into alloys. Tellurium combined with bismuth becomes an alloy that is being tested as a next-generation computer chip that is more efficient and immensely faster than existing chips. Tellurium is combined with cadmium into an alloy that is considered the best material for production of multi-terawatt solar-cell electricity using thin-film photovoltaic technology.

Ancient seamounts in the mountains of China are currently being mined. China refuses to export rare earth minerals and high tech metals. Companies must instead manufacture in China. Similar mines could be opened in Californian mountains, where many new jobs would be costlier for industry. Thus the president acted to make sure the wrecking ball of high-tech metal mining will never destroy the unique assemblages of marine life living deep below on Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever Seamounts.

The ocean refuge has also been protected from overfishing. Prohibited are trawling and purse seining for Loligo squid, whiting, and mackerel, and dredging for scallops and shellfish.  Out over the seamounts, gill netting and long lining for swordfish, yellow fin and skip jack have been banned.

Unprecedented for a national park or refuge, some people of this seascape may stay and continue to work there. (For them, there will be no mustering of a Mariposa Battalion.) For seven years, lobstermen are permitted to trap lobsters on the ribbon of ocean floor less than 500 meters deep that wraps the northern ends of the three ocean canyons and connects the intervening continental slope waters.

Unable to see beneath the sea’s face, for the most part, there is no more immediate reassurance of a healthy ocean than a working lobster boat. Though the wood pot frames invented by Ebenezer Thorndike in Swampscott (1808) have been replaced by plastic-coated metal, the pursuit of lobsters has not changed over the generations.  These deep water trappers are the undersea canyon rangers. With intimate knowledge of this ocean realm, they are the eyes on the resource. At no public expense, these watchmen serve far offshore on a continental frontline under assault by the effects of Global Warming.

Voyage with the Ocean River Institute, become a savvy guardian of the commons, defender of the wild.   Make a donation and champion social justice for all living beings.

minots-light

Port tack offshore of Minot’s Ledge Light, Scituate, Massachusetts