Friday, May 8, 2015

Marine, and other, mammals

Perhaps it was the presence of a friend that changed the dynamic on Limantour Beach. Perhaps it was his intense desire to experience Pt. Reyes National Shoreline again (American, he's lived in Geneva for 25 years). Perhaps, in a random universe, magical thinking has nothing to do with it...but, arriving at the south end of the beach, we saw humpback whales cavorting at the waveline just beyond the beach.
Magic happens.
There appeared to be at least 6 whales, 3 of whom were clustered together. Humpbacks have unusually long pectoral fins and knobbly heads and the reputation for breaching (jumping up and out of the water), spying (poking their heads and balleen above the surface of the water), and slapping the water with tails and pectorals. These whales did all of these, plus the whale-usual sounding.
Rather late in the season for whales migrating north, this was a wonderful and unexpected sight. Moreover, this was the only whale pod seen this day. It was glorious!
(Click to enlarge.) Limantour Beach in Drake's Bay. (Photo: S. Galleymore)
We continued walking south along the beach and, just beyond a freshwater outlet to the sea, we discovered a large, almost intact skeleton. It's tough for laypeople to identify a skeleton whose skull is missing...and with 15 pairs of ribs (most mammals have 13 pairs)...and very large cervical vertebrae. Three intelligent observers pondered: What could this have been? Deer? Maybe: one remaining body part looked almost like a broken horn...then we decided it was the dead critter's gullet. Or, are the remains those of a mountain lion? Hard to tell as the front legs and tibia of back legs appeared to be missing. Then, do mountain lions have such heavy-duty cervical vertebrae? Moreover, there was something un-mountain lion-like about the hips. Still pondering, we walked on.
A short distance away, we noticed what looked like drift wood but, on getting closer, we realized that it was a seal...a seal that, lying on very dry sand facing the cliffs, looked dead.
Of course, the skeleton belonged to a seal. Now it all made sense. (See Pinniped skeletons.)
We came within inches of this seal, thinking it had died very recently. Then, it made a feeble swot at the sand! It was alive....though just barely... and definitely ailing. 
This is not my beautiful life. How did I get here? One not-so-happy seal. (Photo: Andy Lichterman.)

I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a cell phone signal to call the Marine Mammal Center. Then, when my two companions, heavy hearted, elected to walk on, I turned back to find a place where phone service was restored and I could call.
I returned to the seal and told it, "Hold on,, fella, I'm off to get some help. Meanwhile, would you like a drink of water?"
The seal responded by turning to me and opening its mouth. I poured the rest of the fresh water from my bottle into its mouth. (The inside of this 4 or 5 foot long seal's mouth was pink and not too dry - a good sign, I thought.) Then, realizing seals probably prefer sea water over fresh, I dashed into the very cold surf (about 100 feet away) and filled the water bottle with sea water. The seal seemed to like this. I returned to the water's edge for more water and, on turning back to the animal, noticed that it had maneuvered itself around and was now facing toward Drake's Bay. Galvanized by the animal's apparent revitalization, I dashed to and from the surf and provided half a dozen more bottles of sea water, pouring each into its mouth, over its head, or over the upper half of its body.
Each time, the seal flopped a little closer to the water's edge.
Then, it reached the water.
At first, it seemed too weak to negotiate the waves...but, when the water was deep enough for the seal to work its flippers, it did just that ...and took off into the waves. I never saw it again.

I'm not sure but this animal seemed to be ailing (what wild seal allows human so close unless it is incapable of protesting or it is in physical trouble?) and I hope I didn't supply an easy meal to a foraging shark. Then, if the ill animal was easily hunted and eaten by a shark, at least the seal died in its natural environment...a natural part of the cycle of life and death.
Nevertheless, in case it shows up on a beach somewhere else, I called Marine Mammal Center and left the seal's tag number with the hotline: an orange tag and a blue tag, both #174.
Long live seals and other marine mammals.
(Read my 2010 article on events that increase the pressure on the marine environment and its inhabitants: "Dumping the Navy Way." Also read, "Stranded sea lion pups fall victim to California's 'ocean deserts' " I'm no Pinniped pro so I'm not sure if we interacted with a seal or a sea lion. Looked like a seal to fact, in hindsight it looked like a young, female, elephant seal.)

What ails the trees?

First thing anyone observant notices about Pt. Reyes in the spring of 2015 is that that the pine trees are ailing.
(Click to enlarge.) Pine trees in distress at Pt. Reyes due to pine pitch canker.  Distress is particularly noticeable in the treeline in the background...and, to some extend, in the pines, middle ground, right. (Photo: S. Galleymore.)
There is a serious drought in California, so serious that, in parts of northern California, wells have dried up and communities must have water trucked in for residents to survive. Naturally, drought was the first thing to which we ascribed the many hundreds of acres of visibly distressed pine trees throughout the park. Then, since the pines seemed more distressed than the other trees around them, and drought would be an equal opportunity stressor, we ascribed the problem to a pine tree virus.
After photographing several different areas along the road in Pt. Reyes and then along Coast Road at Limantour Beach, each showing evidence of severe distress in the pines, I researched possible causes. I found that a canker and not a virus is to blame.
"Pine pitch canker, a non-native plant pathogen, has recently been confirmed in bishop pine forests at Point Reyes National Seashore. ...This pathogen is a non-native fungus which was first identified in California during the mid-1980's. It is currently found throughout central coastal California, primarily on Monterey pine. Symptoms of pine pitch canker include the wilting of pine needles and branch tips, large amounts of resin or pitch on infected branches, and eventual die back of entire branches or trees. From a distance, infected areas of young bishop pine forest appear as patches of brown, dead or dying trees.There is no effective known treatment for trees infested with this disease. The Seashore is currently monitoring spread of the disease and working with the U.S. Forest Service to develop strategies for disease containment. Visitors should be careful not to move any plant material within or outside of the Seashore. " (Read the blog article.)

 Landlubber-centric thoughts

The incident with the skeleton on the beach surfaces an interesting phenomenon about the tendency of well-intentioned, intelligent people to think "inside the box". That is, to think within the realms of what is familiar rather than the larger context.
My friends and I discovered a large skeleton on a Pacific Ocean beach at the western edge of the United States. Given the limits of our ability to make assumptions about skeletons (none of us is trained in biology or similar science) we considered the creature may have been a ... deer, or a mountain lion. In other words, a land-based animal, a landlubber, like ourselves. Despite the evidence around us in the environment -- a beach, a beach strewn with shells, a pod of migrating whales -- none of us thought the creature might have been an ocean creature.
What does it mean about peoples' tendencies to project their particular, familiar contexts upon unfamiliar environments?
How might this play out in the world?
(By the way, each of us is or has been engaged in progressive issues for years -- cumulatively for more than one hundred years -- we are writers, thinkers, a lawyer, an international trade union official, etc. We pay attention to what's happening...and, as we gazed upon this dead creature, not one of us thought: "water creature.") 
Perhaps this explains a lot about the state of the world?

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