Archive for November, 2008

The UFO Fleet in my kitchen

November 30th, 2008 | Category: Uncategorized

I have completed what I refer to as the kitchen “UFO fleet.” As you can see, there are nine small ones following the mother ship in tight formation:

I used bathroom recessed lights instead of the standard variety because I didn’t like how they burned your eyes when you looked at the ceiling.  Now there is a gentle, diffuse and even light that doesn’t hurt the eye, no matter where it falls.


Dry Suit Diving from Admiralty Beach

November 30th, 2008 | Category: animals,scuba,Travel

Because I get to Whidbey Island on a regular basis, I’ve been diving there. The primary salient fact about the water there is that it’s ball-shrinking cold! I dove there in the summer once, and the water temperature was 48 F. I dove it in a wet suit, and have been dumb enough to do it several times over the years. My latest trip was In November, and it pushed me over the edge – really, is diving in the Puget Sound in November in a wet suit reasonable? I think not. Plus, this was on the heels of a trip to Cozumel, where the water temperature at 90 feet was 86 F. I just couldn’t bear it again, I thought I might crack like an untempered piece of glass. So, it was dry suit time.

But first, what did I see down there? Here are a few images.

This is a sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) showing how these animals can have various colors, the complex texture of their bodies, and the remarkable tube feet. Each tube foot has a little suction cup. unlike many sea stars, this variety lives fast enough for you to see it move. The tube feet slowly quest about as the animal “walks” over the sea floor. If you pick up one of these guys, they can stick to you pretty well! Their top sides are a complex world of structures ( pedicellariae and papulae) which act like velcro, so if you touch that side, you will also stick somewhat. I wouldn’t touch one bare-handed. One thing I can guarantee to you, is that if you dive anywhere in the pacific northwest, you will see one of these things. They are as common as rocks, and thus often overlooked, but they are amazing. The typical specimen shown in the center below looks like the coals of a dying fire.

You will also find plenty of crabs in the area, but some of them are well camouflaged, like this one, which I almost missed. It was wedged into place and making a living by picking plankton out of the water with tiny little limbs in between its eyes. It was fascinating to watch it stabbing out with those miniature pincers, grabbing the almost invisible specks floating by. It was very busy and never ceased.

For images taken at Keystone Ferry jetty, look here.

Of course, there are interesting animals on the surface. I didn’t have my “good” camera, so I couldn’t get a good image of these two young bald eagles. For more pictures of northwest animals, see here, here and here.

OK, back to the story.

I called up Pat at the Whidbey Island Dive Center and got myself into a dry suit class with diver extraordinaire Pete Pehl. Pete is a retired U.S. Navy diver who started out wearing one of these. Now he’s a bit more modern, and he “learned me good.” The final part of my dry suit training (which only took two days) was an open-water dive from the beach at Admiralty bay. This is an area near the Keystone ferry site, but a little further south.

If you have dived at keystone ferry – one of the better sites on Whidbey Island – you’ll probably have noticed the cobbly bottom stretching away to the south, and probably not spent much time exploring it because the Keystone Jetty is so much more interesting. This reasoning is sound. If you dive the almost featureless cobble bottom off of admiralty beach, you won’t be overwhelmed with the scenery. It is good to do it just to know what’s going on under the water, and you may find something that I didn’t. And of course, maybe November isn’t the best time. But the water was clear, the current slack, and the weather fair. It doesn’t get much better than these conditions in November. Air temperature in the mid fifties and a water surface temperature of 48 F.

After water entry, you’ll find that the bottom follows a steep grade over a couple of dozen yards until it bottoms out at about 60 feet (at slack high tide). The grade is so regular it appears to be man made, although I don’t think that this is the case. The bottom composition is exactly the same as the beach – 3-inch or smaller diameter stones, accompanied by the occasional log, small tire reef, discarded toilet, the standard assortment of garbage, and of course (since it’s the pacific northwest) seaweed detritus (although no seaweed forest). All of it is covered with fine silt that can screw up local visibility if stirred up by bottom-crawling divers.

We saw the usual assortment of sculpin, cod, crabs and a small octopus inside the toilet, although there wasn’t that much life. I was too cold to enjoy it. The bottom temperature was 46 F. Despite the dry suit underwear and three pairs of socks, it was fuh fuh fuh freezin’. After 15 minutes I couldn’t feel my toes at all. At 25 minutes I was flexing my fingers constantly to maintain some feeling. When we surfaced at 35 minutes, I had a hard time walking on the slippery cobble surface because I might as well have been a double amputee wearing wooden legs; I had no sensation even though I was mostly dry.

So you might get the impression that I didn’t like it. This is far from true! It was a hardship though. I would like to use better equipment next time, and perhaps choose a dive site that’s a little more worth the trouble. Better equipment would have made me more comfortable. But this dive was my dry suit cert dive, so it’s all good. It was an easy dive, surfacing is simple because you simply follow the slope back up to the top. I was even able to get a few images, and spent some time in the good company of Mr. Pehl. So I can’t complain!

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More pacific northwest animals

November 26th, 2008 | Category: animals,Pacific Northwest,Travel

Here are some animals I saw in the strait of Juan de Fuca lately:

This is a long-tailed duck, which is a specialized “sea duck.”

That’s Mount Baker in the background.

There are more images at

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Read any good books lately?

November 26th, 2008 | Category: Books

So I’m reading a few books. I’ve been thinking for a long time that I should make a list, to keep a diary of books read. I’ll update it from time to time and you can all ignore it, it’s just for me. One thing about my house, is that it’s packed with books. There are books stacked on the bedside table, shelves groaning under apocalyptic quantities of books, books under shelves, on the floor, in boxes in the attic, even in the car. I want them all. Most of them are hard to give up, even after reading. I use the library heavily, but its not enough. I listen to audio books in cars and airplanes. I’d inject them if it were possible.

What I’m reading now:

  1. Twilight in the Forbidden City, Reginald Fleming Johnston. See Spielberg’s “The last emperor” and then try not to read this book.
  2. From Emperor to Citizen, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi. See my note for #1.
  3. Mistress of the Vatican, Eleanor Herman. “The true story of Olimpia Maidalchini: the secret female pope.
  4. Birthplace of the Winds, Jon Bowermaster. An account of a kayak expedition in the Aleutians.
  5. The Dream of the Red Chamber, Author: it’s complicated – many. Classic Chinese literature of the early Ching period. A long and hallucinatory collection of loosely connected stories that caries the flavor of the period, and of the moneyed class that enjoyed it. Not deep enough into this one yet to understand its significance.
  6. Scuba diving explained, Lawrence Martin, M.D. A practical little book that provides answers to some important recreational scuba questions, such as “should diabetics dive?” It does a good job of supplementing the basic instruction you get when you become a diver, and start asking questions not addressed in basic open water class.
  7. Birds of field and shore, John Eastman & Amelia Hansen. Better than your average identification guide, it delves into the natural history, lifestyle, breeding habits, ecology, science and lore surrounding each animal. Wonderful illustrations.
  8. The Chicken Book, Page Smth & Charles Daniel. A serious academic overview of “the chicken’s role in literture and history, the cruel attractions of cockfighting, the medicinal uses of eggs and chicken parts, the details of the egg-laying process, the basics of the backyar coop, recipes, and much more.” Indeed!
  9. Sacred Sea: a journey to lake Baikal, Peter Thomson. A man and his brother travel to lake Baikal. They do a little investigative journalism that reveals more than the average travelogue.
  10. The Ecco anthology of contemporary american short fiction, selected by Joyce Carol Oates. I fell a little mislead by this one; although the stories are sublime, they have this… dark vein running through them. Now I understand that all good literature holds the possibility of being disturbing, but this verges upon horror territory. Not for the faint of heart. I am the better for having read it though.
  11. Pigeons, Andrew Blechman. Eveything you wanted to know about pigeons, with contemporary investigative reporting on the pigeon “scene.”
  12. Feast, Roy Strong. A history of grand eating. Want to know when the fork was invented? Why do we have the dining manners we use? Why is there a dessert, and why is it eaten last? Why will you get in trouble if you eat it first? Read and understand.
  13. Enter the past tense, Roland Haas. Confessional autobiography CIA asassin.
  14. Self-made man, Norah Vincent. A female investigative reporter lives as a man for 18 months and reports her experiences.
  15. The Joys of Engrish, Steven Caires. A compendium of hilariously mis-spelled english which causes double entendres.
  16. Return of the Osprey, David Gessner. Gessner is the Jane Goodall of Ospreys.
  17. The Almond, Nedjma. “An erotic international sensation.” Gives some insight into the love lives of women within repressive Islamic societies.
  18. Adventures of the Mind, Saturday Evening Post. An out of print book featuring essays by literati such as Loren Eisely, Jacques Barzun, Paul Tillich, J Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Schlesinger, Fred Hoyle, Aaron Copland, Bertand Russell…. you know, people like that. Read and understand.
  19. Animal Minds, Donald Griffin. “Beyond cognition to consciousness.”
  20. In defense of sin, John Portman. Well, why not?
  21. Phantom Islands of the Atlantic, Donald Johnson. “Legends of seven lands that never were.”
  22. Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville. Probably the best book about our country ever written, and it stands even after close to 200 years.

Those are just the “upstairs books.”  I’ve got some kitchen books – car books – and of course, bathroom books (Overheard in New York).

I really am reading these, all at once.  I’ll spend a few days reading one, get distracted, leaf through another, or decide to read one in the morning, one at dinner, and another before bed.  Still others are reserved for airport waiting rooms.  Some are heavy reference tomes, not meant to be  read cover to cover, but held against time of need.  The pile of books is churned slowly, composted a bit at a time, and occasionally I’ll see one, idly read a page, and get sucked up and read voraciously through the night until complete, like a man with a stray tie getting sucked into a newspaper press.

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Ferries are the glue

November 25th, 2008 | Category: animals,Pacific Northwest,Travel

Ferries are a unique aspect of life in the northwest corner of the northwest. Two hours north of Seattle and a little westward, it’s all islands. Between Everett – a larger city on the mainland coast of the Puget sound – and Vancouver Island (which does not contain the city of Vancouver, strangely) – lie the San Juan Islands. If you’re on the Canadian side, it’s called British Columbia, but the geography is the same. Beautiful, mountainous islands with wealthy people living on them. Wihout regard to status are the other residents: eagles, hawks, loons, otters, sea lions, and in the deep water, whales and porpoises (in this region, deep water can be six feet from shore). There are few bridges; ferries carry the lifeblood of the region, are the glue that holds it together and unifies it. I know I’ve arrived when i board one of these.

If the weather is good, you get fantastic views from the ferries, specially at sunrise and sunset.

You’ll know envy when you see houses like this one:

Maybe you’ll see a rainbow over the shadowy Olympic peninsula, which often wears a mysterious fog veil…

And you’ll definitely witness spectacular sunsets.

I know this sounds like a ferry advertisement, but you haven’t truly experienced the region if you haven’t spent time on ferries.  there is a comforting feeling leaving your car, being whipped by the bitter northwest wind, and then entering the spacious interior with its rumbling warmth an enormous windows.  Get a cup of hot chocolate and watch the view roll by through the enormous windows, and people watch too.

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Whale watching

November 24th, 2008 | Category: animals,Pacific Northwest,Travel

Every time I come to the San Juans I look for whales. Sometimes its as easy as waiting on the shoreline n a good place (Lime Kiln park on San Juan Island is a good place) but usually it’s better to go on a boat. As of late, I’ve grown a little weary of the scene, as it’s so crowded. In the summer, when most tourists are there, you can be part of a fleet of boats pursuing the whales, and it feels spoiled. But in the fall or winter months, almost nobody does this, and the experience is quite different. Much more peaceful, probably less stressful on the animals and a lot more fun. Usually I see orcas, minke whales, and Dall’s porpoises. This time we didn’t see any orcas. Oh well.

We used Jim Maya’s service, because he came highly recommended as a personable, knowledgeable, and customized whale-watching provider. All of this proved true.

The sun cast a gray light over oily calm waters, the air temperature just right for crisping apples. For half an hour we cast about, finding only the enjoyment of being on a boat with the Olympic peninsula looming indistinctly in the distance like a reminder of unreachable greatness. Every so often we’d cut the engines and stand on deck scanning the water for anything unusual, any telltale signs of activity below the surface. Twenty minutes of nothingness, and my mind began to wander. Threads of ideas – memories of embarrassments years old, people whose names have been forgotten, minor debts owed – and I idly considered things like “I wonder how deep the water is here, and man, it will be stressful to return to work.”

A shotgun blast churned the water beneath the bow into a foaming crown.

J.C. on a popsicle stick! What the hell was that? Okay, maybe it was not a shotgun blast, more like a bowling ball dropped into the water from a height of 3 meters. I pointed to the disturbed water 1 foot away from the bow. “It’s right here!” I called out, realizing the pointlessness of trying to explain what “it” was, since I had no idea. Jim started the engines and eased the boat around in a slow but tight turn. He didn’t look alarmed.

I’ve seen plenty of whales, but they usually show up with plenty of warning, and from a distance. What was this thing? It happened again, but this time I had my camera ready:

Finally, the cause revealed itself more fully, but only while we were under way and at a good clip:

Dall’s porpoises! They are common in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but this was unusual because there were so many, so close, and for so long! The water boiled with these animals, which look like little orcas. They move very rapidly and erratically. They seemed to be about five feet long, and in a group of perhaps 10-15.

All day long, while we looked for larger animals, these porpoises played in our bow wave. As soon as we slowed down or stopped, they abandoned us.

And let’s not forget the true whale we found, or should I say whales. We think there were two or three individual minke whales, but we’re not sure. They can be distinguished by the placement of their dorsal fin, which is oddly close to the tail. They gracefully arch out of the water, only their backs showing:

Finally, here is a picture of me, sitting on the bow of the boat holding my big glass, sneering at the camera (it was cold, and my glasses were sliding off of my face):

Holly also captured some great images and video from this whale-watching day.


In the Pacific Northwest

November 24th, 2008 | Category: Pacific Northwest

Work has taken me to the San Juan Islands, in the very north-western corner of the country. I love this area; it has a fantastic coincidence of sea, mountains, and wildlife that makes it a rare pleasure. When flying over it, is is sensuous; when walking through it, it is rapturous; when sailing through it, it is divine, and when diving under it it is fascinating. I’ll post images of each of these things, but for now, here’s a start:

I arrived at night…

Fir trees - iconic of the northwest

But awoke to the spectacle of Mount Baker.

... but I awoke to this.

Mount Baker dominates the scenery in the region, as does the Olympic range to the west:

With features like this around, you usually know where you are to some extent, as long as it’s not foggy, or you’re not in a canyon – two things that happen regularly if you travel enough here.

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What is a space shuttle launch like?

November 19th, 2008 | Category: Uncategorized

A friend recently asked me what it was like to witness a space shuttle launch (I’ve been lucky enough to see several).  Here is my answer, cleaned up a little bit.

Have you seen a shuttle launch? If you have, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that it is earth-shaking. There are two aspects:

One is the straightforward physical event.  A giant, expensive, dangerous, jaw-dropping thing that makes a noise like bombs constantly exploding, a repetitive noise like someone poking a playing card into the spokes of God’s bicycle wheel, a screaming torch that lights up the night sky like a second sun.

The other thing is awareness of the danger and the drama of a few human beings sitting on top of a pile of flaming explosives that is shooting into space, and the miracle of the fact that – most of the time – they make it. It makes you hold your breath in fear and anticipation, and leaves you with the knowledge that you have experienced one of the defining moments of your era, as if you were an ancient Egyptian watching the completion of the Sphynx.

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Turtles, completed

November 16th, 2008 | Category: animals,Travel

So on our last day in Cozumel, late in the day, we decided to make a trip around the island in order to wring every possible moment out of the place.  After renting a jeep (expensive) we took off to visit the Mayan ruins at San Gervasio in the center of the island.  But more on that some other time.  When we were done, we drove to the east side and then south, so that we’d make a loop and partially circumnavigate the island.  It had occurred to me that we might find some turtles, but I didn’t get my hopes up.  The sun was setting, the mosquitos were fierce, and we were hungry and tired.

Really, it was too much to ask for.

But we received it anyway.

In the distance we saw a truck parked near the beach and a handful of people excitedly looking at the ground.  Could it be…?  Yes!  The truck had a picture of a turtle painted on it.  It was the Cozumel turtle salvation project!  We careened to the side of the road as if responding to an emergency.  We leaped out and approached the turtle workers and the 3 other tourists present.

We were told that yes, it was OK for us to be there, in fact, we were invited to pick up some turtles and put them in the water.  Unbelievable!  In the states this would result in some kind of misdemeanor for handling endangered species or something.  Here, we simply acted like adults, and under the supervision of (supposedly) qualified experts, handled some little turtles. Everywhere we looked, miniature turtles were bursting from the sand and running full-out towards the beach.  I was paranoid about crushing one underfoot.  “Careful, Dan,” I told myself, “That’s just what I need, to know that I crushed a baby endangered green sea turtle while amusing myself on vacation.”

They were all over the place!

They were all over the place!

Little green sea turtles


Be free! Good luck.

Holly clutching a squirming turtle

Holly clutches a squirming turtle

Later, on the Cozumel turtle salvation web site, I found the following:

As more and more tourists hear about the nesting turtles, many climb into cars and head out for the other side of the island just to take a look for themselves. PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS!! Because the volunteers then have double the work. First they have the physically exhausting tasks of tagging and excavating nests and then having to spend valuable time explaining to stray tourists why they can’t walk on the beach or shine their headlights toward the water takes valuable time away from actual turtle monitoring.

In our defense, we were not there when eggs were being deposited, which is apparently the delicate time; you don’t want to scare a mother turtle away from the beach, or attract her with headlights.  We were invited to participate, and donated something to the cause… or at least to the individuals on the beach.  Hopefully it helped.  I like to think that we were less obnoxious than the other lady tourist who insisted on picking up every single turtle she could find and personally putting it into the water, instead of limiting herself to a few trapped or upside-down individuals…  it was annoying.

Unlike many shows i’ve seen on TV, there was no horde of waiting birds to pick up and easy meal.  As far as I could tell, every turtle made it to the water.  Underwater might have been a different story – I’d like to be there with scuba gear sometime, and film them 25 yards from the beach.

All of the pictures from the Cozumel trip can be found at my gallery.

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Turtles! continued: fruitless search

November 10th, 2008 | Category: animals,Travel

Cozumel is an island on which the west side has pretty much been set aside for tourism and the east side is a nature preserve. Our friend and fellow scuba diver Paul learned that it was turtle-hatching season, and proposed that we look for some hatchlings. Being tourists, we were on the west side, so we grabbed a taxi and zoomed over to the other side in order to look for hatching turtles. How cool would that be, to find baby turtles coming out of the sand?

Our cab driver, Martin, was a walking compendium of distorted local history, which he delivered with absolute conviction, panache, and a complete lack of self-consciousness. During the 25-minute drive to the other side of the island, the five of us engaged in a hallucinatory conversation about lost treasure and the “wezils from the mainland” brought in to placate the “pegmys” that live in caves and protect crops.

Eventually Martin stopped at a bar to “wait” for us while we spent an hour looking for the turtles as the sun set.

Holly, Wanda, Paul and Jeff

Holly, Wanda, Paul and Jeff

There is an organization called the cozumel turtle salvation project which is working to increase the popuation of these animals. The project’s members observe the mother sea turtles laying eggs and mark each nest site with a wooden stake, so it was easy for us to see where the turtles should come from. We searched the beach in vain for an hour while the sun set, but were teased by the obvious signs of a turtle hauling herself out to lay eggs, as well as empty eggshells (which have the consistency of soft plastic). You can see the marks left by the mother turtle’s flippers as she worked her way up the steep beach:

Turtle tracks and eggshell

Turtle tracks and eggshell

We didn’t find turtles on this evening, and although the beach was pretty, the mosquitos – so dense they seemed to form a solid – drove us away. Walking back to our rendezvous with Martin, we ran into some other norteamericanos who had only minutes ago been lucky enough to run into the turtle project people, releasing hatchlings on the beach! We had been so close! Oh well.

Next installment: we strike the turtle lode!

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