July 29, 2005
Northern California: Coastal Wilds & Verdant Redwoods
Some pictures from my vacation along the Northern California coast with my parents. The redhead in these pictures is my younger brother Nathan. I was just messing around with panorama software for 10 minutes, I haven't had a chance to sort through my pictures and post some of my better ones, but these are at least kinda interesting. I don't normally take pictures of people, but I thought this killed two birds with one stone - giving me some new pictures of my 6ft tall "little" brother and showing the massive size of the redwood trees of California.
Nathan At Base Of Uprooted Redwood Tree
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
Nathan At Base Of Uprooted Redwood Tree
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
Seals On The Coast
MacKerricher State Park, California
Van Damme State Park, California
Bigfoot Debunked: Just Fuzzy Bison
What is it with Edmonton? Their golfball-stealing squirrels clearly weren't garnering enough media and tourist attention, so they've fallen back on the age-old myth of Bigfoot. Earlier this month, several Sasquatch "sightings" occured in a town called Teslin in the Yukon, but this time someone gathered fur samples and sent them in for DNA testing. The results, I must say, were less than shocking.
EDMONTON - Perhaps he is still stomping around somewhere, but a DNA test has confirmed that it was not Bigfoot roaming the Yukon earlier this month — it was just a bison.
As it's the height of tourist season, I suppose I shouldn't sneer too much at this kind of publicity stunt. Let's hope the DNA results haven't killed the economy of the little remote town.
I'm certainly not saying there aren't lots of species yet undiscovered... I just think it's rather fishy that local residents can't tell a buffalo/bison from some sort of walk-upright primate. Thus I must conclude that either they were pulling a stunt or operating under impaired judgement.
It's reminiscent of drunk hunters shooting at John Deere tractors back home.
"Hehheh, I saw a deer!"
July 27, 2005
Down Under: Cheap & Flexible
Now I'm not usually one to talk about commercial travel. I prefer to talk about destinations and what to do once you get there. But I ran across this deal and I'll admit, it's terribly tempting. QANTAS is offering an Airpass - starting at very reasonable prices ($999 for Southeastern Australia, $1199 for Northeastern, and $1399 for the West) you can fly from Los Angeles to Australia, as well as take three flights within the country (more for another $100 each).
Normally, I'm not one to want to take flights within a country, I'd much rather drive - you see more that way. But Australia is a continent. It's HUGE. In order to get a nice sampling of the country, some flights would not go amiss. Pricewise, I don't think it can be beat. You might find a package deal but you'd be stuck in their itinerary and only able to go at certain times. This promotion should be around for a while, since Australia is currently trying to promote tourism pretty aggressively.
That said, I'd still want to go Roadtrippin' Oz once I got there... If you decide to go, make sure to drop me a postcard ;)
July 25, 2005
More Pets == More Animal Neglect
Following up on last week's topic of Preposterous Pet Pal Passions, it's also important to note that with the huge number of pets people have nowadays, this also means greater numbers of neglected pets.
One would think that forgotten Easter bunnies would have been among the worst kind of cases, but it seems dogs are suffering the most.
Not giving the animal access to fresh water!
The RSPCA is calling on the government to strengthen animal cruelty laws after it recorded a rise of more than 70% in cases of owners neglecting animals.
While this is a UK statistic, the Human Society has posted similar findings on their website.
Animal cruelty is a hot topic lately, especially regarding some websites of questionable taste like Bonsai Kitten and Save Toby. Frankly, I can't seem to get very upset about these kinds of websites. I suppose some websites may very well promote violence and such, but these guys seem to be mostly joke websites in the line of Bunny Survival Tests, only with real animals. You'll note that Toby was supposed to be eaten earlier this summer, but now they're doing some kind of book.
July 24, 2005
Birds As Carriers: From Avian Flu to Toxic Poop
We took a short vacation to Hong Kong a ways back. We spent Shane's birthday in and around our lovely room in a Kowloon hotel. A few weeks later, SARS hit the news, with 7 cases at a Kowloon hotel. Shane had been suffering from a post-vacation cold and for a bit we were concerned, but then we were at a different hotel, and about a month too early to be in the right time frame anyway. Still, we were relieved to find he was just suffering from the common cold (quite normal for March). Still, we listened as the media and community made a lot of gloomy predictions of pandemics and such, none of which materialized.
When I started hearing about bird flu, I gave it about as much consideration as I did a case of SARS... Because I no longer commute, I don't get to listen to NPR and the BBC news on the radio as much, so when the topic came up on a family vacation, I decided I had better read up a bit on whether I was giving bird flu its proper consideration.
What's a pandemic?
Well, let's look at the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Here is another case of when a completely new influenza virus subtype emerged and spread around the globe. It was:
- The most devastating epidemic in recorded world history
- Killed between 20-40 million people in a one year period
- Considered a global disaster
- Killed more people than in the 4 years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague
- Killed more people than World War I
- Dropped the average life span in the US alone by 10 years
- Mutated, causing new waves for two more years, killing an estimated 40—50 million persons
Why Bird Flu?
Bird flu is more technically known as avian influenza. It is a highly contagious virus that occurs mostly in fowl - especially the kinds we like to eat (chickens, ducks, turkeys), but also in many other kinds of birds. Avian influenza was first discovered in 1878 in Italy. The disease was then known as "Fowl Plague". According to the CDC, at least three of the great flu pandemics of the 20th century were the result of bird flu viruses becoming incorporated into human flu viruses, which led to a far more dangerous virus, which had worldwide repercussions.
There are currently two forms of the bird flu virus - a highly contagious one and a mildly contagious one. Over time the virus has mutated and formed for than 20 different strains, leading to considerable concern that the virus, while tolerated by most birds as a particularly bad cold, could be devastating if a highly contagious strain mutated into a human-catchable form.
A virus jumping from an animal strain to a human strain was once considered an alarmist's notion. Now it seems that most of the worst viruses of the past two decades have been the ones that have developed human-catchable forms that humans have no built-up immunity to.
Viruses are masters of interspecies navigation. Mutating rapidly and often grabbing the genetic material of other viruses, they can jump from animals to humans with a quick flick of their DNA. Sometimes, as in West Nile fever, the transfer occurs through an intermediate host such as a mosquito. But viruses can also make the leap directly.
Since the 1980s, the list of diseases that have hitchhiked directly from animals to people has grown rapidly — hantavirus, SARS, monkeypox and, most recently, avian influenza, commonly called bird flu. With the exception of HIV/AIDS, perhaps none of these illnesses has more potential to create widespread harm than bird flu does.
More at: Mayo Clinic: Bird flu
So is this a serious threat or a lot of doomsday prophesizing? Well, the "Fowl Plague" has reared its head numerous times in the past century, most recently in Asia. These outbreaks have been largely caused by a highly contagious and virulent strain, known as H5N1.
The H5N1 virus, a subtype of the avian influenza virus, is found in poultry. Scientists at first believed it was impossible for birds to directly infect humans with the virus. But an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997 that killed 6 of 18 people infected with the virus proved the contrary.
Since then outbreaks have forced the slaughter of millions of chickens, ducks, and other birds across Asia. This year there have been 44 confirmed human cases of H5N1 flu in Thailand and Vietnam. Of these, 32 people died. There is not yet a vaccine for the disease.
Meanwhile the virus has undergone huge genetic changes and become even more pathogenic. It now affects not only birds, but also cats, pigs, and even tigers.
Experts fear the disease will mutate into a form that can leap between humans and sweep populations with no immunity. The adaptation could occur through a few genetic changes or what is known as "re-assortment" of the genes of the avian strain and the human strain. Domestic ducks and pigs are seen as likely transmitters.
But for the moment H5N1 is only slightly infectious to humans. Also, it cannot be transmitted between humans - only by direct contact with an infected animal. The virus is killed by heat, among other things, so proper cooking works as well as hygienic handling. For now, you really need to be handling raw guts or feces, so most commercial meat products aren't a huge concern. Many of the human cases have been poultry farm workers and others who came in contact with contaminated market stalls, etc.
According to the CDC, bird flu is spread through the birds' saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Other birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated excretions or surfaces that are contaminated with excretions. Scientists think that the few human infections to date have resulted from contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces. These human cases have all been in Asia.
Health agencies like the CDC and the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) focus mostly on preventing the spread of disease in domestic farming - especially poultry farming of ducks, turkeys, chickens and geese.
The importation of the disease is also a serious consideration, and the United States has also imposed an Embargo of Birds from Specified Southeast Asian Countries in order to keep infected birds out. This is certainly a good idea, but as we know, the black market trade on exotic animals is considerable at several billion dollars a year.
Wild birds and migratory spread of infection seem to be given less consideration in the numerous headlines regarding the bird flu. Perhaps this is because it's such a terrifying possibility with no good solution under our control. There's no way we can monitor every bird flying in and out of the country.
Migratory birds, including wild waterfowl, sea birds, and shore birds, can carry the virus for long distances and have, in the past, been implicated in the international spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza. Migratory waterfowl — most notably wild ducks — are the natural reservoir of bird flu viruses, and these birds are also the most resistant to infection. They can carry the virus over great distances, and excrete it in their droppings, yet develop only mild and short-lived illness.
Birds As Carriers - Not Just The Flu
People used to use birds like falcons and pigeons for correspondence, and perhaps this is just another message. Birds aren't just carrying the flu, either. They carry all sorts of other nasty things as well, including pollutants. It's no longer just about making sure to cut up the plastic rings from your soda cans and making sure you throw away your plastic bags so that these items don't end up in the water, choking poor gulls and baby seals.
Now birds are eating and walking in polluted areas and then migrating to some of the most pristine wilderness areas left in the world and depositing the pollutants there. Areas like the Arctic are showing increasing levels of pollutants not just from the currents, but also from the migratory species - especially birds.
The birds, it seems, are eating carrion, squid, and other marine animals from persistent organic pollutant contaminated seas. The flyers then return to their coastal home and deposit their contaminated prey—in the form of excrement—in local ponds, which see their persistent organic pollutant levels skyrocket as a result.
Now I look at the shorebirds flying around the county landfill and I think about what they're eating and where they're going. I see the ducks that stop at the playground pond, which has always been beyond filthy, and the little toddlers chasing the birds around on the grass. I wonder where the ducks have come from, and I feel uneasy.
This is one of those topics that makes you feel completely helpless. Millions and millions of birds are being culled at the first sign of some avian flu - often in Southeastern Asia where, frankly, they could really use the meat and the money in trade. I think of how someone with WHO or whomever would try to explain to some poor starving family why so much food is being thrown out and not eaten, "wasted". At the same time, I feel less for the birds than I feel I should - like the fear of a pandemic has distanced me from nature. I don't know which part is worse.
And it's not like we can control where every bird lands and keep them out of the pollution or the garbage. Sure, we can pay more attention to closing lids and covering refuse, but somehow all these little tasks seem rather futile, and almost laughable sometimes. But don't worry, I'll still keep doing them anyway.
Then I think of the poop, and I am really frightened. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that with the highly pathogenic form of avian influenza, a single gram of contaminated manure can contain enough virus to infect 1 million birds.
I live on the seashore, just as over 4 billion others do - that's more than 2/3 of the world population.
July 15, 2005
Hard Decisions: Koala Killing - A Kindness?
Australians are struggling with the delicate problem of how do deal with the uncontrollable overpopulation of some island koalas. The cuddly-looking marsupials have few natural predators (dingos, dogs and mostly humans), and their numbers have grown such that they are destroying their habitat and decimating their food sources. Efforts to curb reproduction using sterilization have been expensive and not successful enough. Now even conservationalists are lobbying the Australian government to cull the population in order to avoid the mass starvation facing this marsupial. This has, of course, stirred up a lot of debate.
BRISBANE, Australia -- July is "Save the Koala Month" in Australia. So it may come as a surprise that conservation groups in the state of South Australia want some koalas shot.
The groups, led by the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia, are lobbying the state government to cull the teddy bearlike marsupials overpopulating an island south of Adelaide. They want the government to stand up to international pressure and abandon a new $3 million sterilization and relocation program.
"No one wants to see animals being shot, but we need to be thinking more about sustainable ecosystem management rather than appeasing international tourists," said Matthew Turner, a scientific officer with the Nature Conservation Society.
Once hunted for their soft fur, over a five year period (1919-1924) approximately 8,000,000 koalas were killed for their coats. Today, the koala is considered at low risk of extinction with estimated populations around 100,000. Conservationalists still keep a close eye on the numbers, since one major concern is habitat destruction: little of the eucalyptus forests are left and those that are tend to be private land, and not protected. Zoos have begun breeding programs to ensure that the species survives.
Now the island in question is called Kangaroo Island, one of Australia's most popular wilderness holiday destinations. Koalas are not indigenous to the island, however, the species has been crowded out of its territories on the mainland. Aggressive koala management programs have tried sterilization and planting more trees, but the population is eating and reproducing so fast, that any steps taken have not been given enough time to be successful. Culling (the killing of a percentage of the population to promote the survival of the rest) is only one option on the table - but the price tag is right. Relocation of some animals has happened, but there are so few habitats left that can support the koala that few other choices seem to exist.
Some are threatening to boycott Kangaroo Island as a tourist location if a cull happens, but no one has been able to come up with any other workable solutions. One can only hope that someone will come up with some more pleasant alternative before culling becomes the only option in order to ensure the longetivity of the Kangaroo Island habitat.
One wonders if introducing them into places like South Africa or California, which have been overrun with the water-hogging eucalyptus, would work. Sadly, of the 600 kinds of eucalyptus trees growing in Australia, koalas will only eat from a handful of species.
July 14, 2005
Saving Poster-Friendly Species: Perhaps More Strategic Than We Think
It's a fact that making the public aware of threatened and endangered species is very much a PR problem. Conservation is not just about responsible behaviors like careful development and recycling and such, it also requires political and economic support for recovery programs and scientific research.
The first really successful conservation efforts to gain broad respect in the 1980's were focused on intelligent marine life - especially whales. Foundations like Save The Whales educated the public and provided "adoption" programs (preying on our pet-craziness) to help funnel financial support to the animals. Whales were an excellent choice for a poster-species: they're regarded as intelligent, not scary but cute, and in the United States, very few people can argue that protecting them will result any significant negative impact financially or otherwise. Soon other conservation institutions followed suit and raised awareness of other marine mammals. You had your dolphin-safe tuna, among other things.
Land mammals, especially predators like wolves and bears, may be photogenic, but they come hand in hand with some challenges to conservationalists. Farmers need to protect their herds and crops, hunters don't want to forego the opportunity of the "bag of a lifetime", and developers don't want to rearrange their plans at great expense just to avoid the potential of habitat destruction. Still, the efforts to protect animals like the Gray Wolf and the Grizzly Bear have been somewhat successful in raising public awareness and promoting scientific research of these animals. You'll notice that on the front of each of their webpages, they have cute pictures of cuddly baby animals. Can we blame these good causes for playing any cards they can?
If you think about it, every animal needs some form of advocacy nowadays. By educating the public, especially our children, about nature, we are fostering the next generation of scientists. Most young adults considering the marine biology major seem to be mostly interested in marine mammals - not fish, invertebrates, or ocean ecosystems. Admittedly, after the initial weeding-out process that inevitably takes place on freshmen, those still studying in the major do eventually end up with a variety of specialties. Similarly, most bio majors don't get into the field to study some obscure form of fungus or some little-known variety of catfish that exists only in a river in Thailand.
All this leads one to question if conservation movements have become addicted to the money that can be raised with the cute poster-genic mammals, neglecting all the plants and obscure animal species - especially the cold-blooded ones. Campaigns like FrogWatch USA tend to result in raised eyebrows and some mumblings about "those weird herp-lovers", like only the class nerd would admit to interest in that sphere. That said, I guess you could say that conservation-oriented entertainers like the crocodile hunting family, the Irwins, have helped educate the masses about snakes and lizards, although most people still think Steve Irwin is a nutcase, albeit an amusing one.
Well, now studies are showing that focusing on the charismatic species - which are generally predator mammals at the top of the food chain - to attract support which generally results in funding for those specific species is not altogether a bad thing, ecologically speaking.
A new study shows that top predators are consistently associated with higher biodiversity than species lower down the food chain.
The study, which will be reported tomorrow in the journal Nature, suggests that conservationists are justified—on ecological grounds—to use top predators to attract financial and public support.
That said, when was the last time you saw a campaign to protect a plant variety? It seems another problem altogether.
July 13, 2005
Endangered Species Act Could Become Extinct
Some days it's hard to be a Californian. It's bad enough that we have to live with everyone laughing at us about our Hollywood governors who have trouble with the English language and presidents who star in movies with chimps named Bonzo. Now House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) is trying to sink the Endangered Species Act(ESA), which protects flora and fauna threatened by extinction. Pombo has made the "modernization" of the ESA, as he calls it, his primary task in office. His idea of modernization includes sweeping changes in legislation that will make it more difficult to list plants and animals and to protect their habitat. It also calls for the program to end entirely in 2015, probably because there will be nothing left to protect after his new changes.
A staff discussion draft of the bill, leaked to various interest groups, suggests the committee may add more requirements for listing a species, extend deadlines for critical habitat, beef up the requirements for recovery plans, require payments for property owners whose land is affected by the law, offer exemptions for invasive species and cut the entire program in 10 years.
We learn about the Endangered Species Act as school children, and we are proud of the fact that our government is willing to place some importance on the protection of our environment. It's the kind of legislation that sets our country apart, right? We're no third world country struggling to feed our children and such. Sure, the policies of the ESA may occassionally cause some annoyance to construction plans and such, but that's the price we have to pay to protect our country's natural heritage. Blaming the ESA for getting in the way of development irritates me - people seem to think they're entitled to do anything. Well, I can't set up an oil refinery in my backyard because it's zoned for residential, so why should you be able to set up a polluting marina on an area zoned as salmon and steelhead breeding grounds?
It all comes down to money. The ESA gets in the way of easy money. And by that I mean that I am highly skeptical that the ESA blocks development so much as makes it more expensive. Developers either have to find alternative plots they can build on, or comply with environmental protection policies - like building the fish elevators and stairways that help fish migrate past dams.
I'm all for reform of the Endangered Species Act, but I think it needs more PR and more straightforward classification processes. Congressman Pombo argues that the ESA doesn't work because species are never taken off the list. My take on it is if the ESA even performs well enough to keep some species from complete extinction, then it's worth keeping it, despite it's annoyance to developers. I'd rather we put our time, effort and funding into making it a more effective act than scraping it altogether. Anything is better than nothing in this case.
What's shocking to me is the number of potentially endangered species candidates that are put forward every year compared to the number actually accepted by Congress and listed. For example, of the over 300 species that made the candidate list in 2002, only 11 actually made the Endangered Species Lists. A claim of endangerment is not like a claim of innocent until proven guilty - if you can't provide undeniable proof of threat or endangerment and the elements which threaten the species, your species is not going to make the lists. Getting onto the lists appears to be a matter of careful statistics gathering, filing all the right stuff, and a bit of luck. PR for the animal doesn't hurt either - your cute little sea otter is more likely to make the list than some obscure form of snail.
As of July 13th, 2005, the US Fish and Wildlife claims 1264 species under the protection of the ESA - 518 animal species and 746 plant species.
July 12, 2005
Preposterous Pet Pal Passions
People are always asking us if we're going to include our pet rabbits in our wedding ceremony. The answer is unequivocally No. They'd hate it and we're not that cruel.
What is it about our furry little friends that inspires us to perform silly and foolish cutesy acts? We've seen everything from yappy little dogs in sweaters to chimps in diapers. We've laughed at owners that resemble their pets, seen the TV commericals that target the pets watching with their owners and heard about the pet spas and resorts popping up.
People will spend money on anything!
Pets are big business. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), more than 63% of U.S. households own a pet - there are more pets(360M - MSNBC) in the United States than there are people(296M - CIA Factbook). The APPPMA estimates that that Americans will spend about $36 billion dollars on their furry little friends this year, splurging on everything from vet visits and gourmet vittles to specially formulated pet vitamins, salon products and designer fashions.
"My dog has a carrier, and it happens to be a Louis Vuitton. Does he know it's Louis Vuitton? No. But I definitely do."
Cattle Wedding A 'Mooving' Spectacle
Thai Farmer Wangboon has taken things a bit further. Last weekend he escourted his beloved Thong Khaow down the aisle in a gigantic wedding ceremony with more than 2,000 guests. Thong Khaow, whose name means "white gold", was resplendent in a bright orange garland of jasmine flowers that set off her lovely pale complexion.
Thong Khaow and her new mate, Thong Kham, a pair of rare dwarf Brahman cattle, were married Sunday morning in a traditional Thai ceremony featuring a banquet for more than 2,000 human guests in central Sa Kaew province.
The animals wore silk outfits and jasmine garlands. Other beasts, including goats, also attended the wedding.
Well, you have to admit, they are really cute. I suppose they were glad not to be served at the banquet, though. Our rabbits would feel the same way, and probably eat those garlands.
July 6, 2005
Great White Sharks One of Many Victims In Multi-Billion Dollar Wildlife Black Market
Great white sharks finally made it onto the Endangered listings at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2004. CITES is an international agreement that aims to combat illegal trafficking of endangered plants and wildlife with 167 member countries. Policies are enforced using permits and monitoring in individual countries. For example, in the United States, the Fish & Wildlife Service enforces CITES policy.
Despite being one of the most recognizable fishes in our oceans, the great white shark is still a mystery of marine biology. Only recently have scientists begun to show an interest in studying this apex predator. Right here in Santa Cruz, the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation has been studying the local great whites, as well as other shark species in the Monterey Bay. Then this past year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium made significant leaps in their White Shark Research Project, including the unprecedented catching and exhibiting of a great white. The young female shark spent 6 months on exhibit in the giant Outer Bay tank before being re-released into the wild. For the past three years, the Wildlife Conservation Society have been conducting a tagging project off the coast of South Africa. National Geographic just reported on on their tagging techniques and has provided some great footage for all to see.
Wildlife Conservation Society researchers began their shark-tagging project with "small" great whites, which still measured an impressive six to seven feet (two meters). The team has subsequently fitted animals measuring nearly 13 feet (4 meters) and weighing 1,650 pounds (750 kilograms).
The sharks are caught on a hook and line, and then maneuvered into a specially designed metal "cradle," which lifts them out of the water for three to seven minutes.
"As we started going to larger and larger sharks, they [became] very difficult to get into the cradle. But once in the cradle, they also became [quite] tame."
Great white jaws can fetch up to U.S. $10,000 each (even before being listed), making them yet another in a long list of lucrative blackmarket items. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, wildlife smuggling ranks second only to drug trafficking at the border.
The contraband is part of a global trade in endangered wildlife estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at $4.2 billion a year, second only to illegal drugs.
More at: Exotic birds, reptiles, an elephant
July 5, 2005
The Ultimate Canadian Roadtrip
Lots of people want to go to vacationing in Alaska - beautiful majestic mountain ranges, wild countryside, eskimos, glaciers, grizzly bears... But it's quite a long flight to get to The Land Of The Midnight Sun. What I don't understand is why more people make a shorter trip to Canada. After all, they have all the same stuff and they're a hell of a lot closer! At worst, Florida and Southern California are about a 24 hour drive from the Mexican-California border to the Canadian border, and most people are significantly closer.
After a quick jaunt into the Canadian Rockies last year, I decided it would be fun to plan the Ultimate Canadian Roadtrip. I use the term "roadtrip" loosely - as I'm willing to use any form of transportation necessary to visit all the most exciting wildernesses. After doing some research, I decided that the most efficient way to see Canada is actually to break up the trip into several smaller trips, using different forms of transport, depending on the area visited. These trips could be done all at once, or singly over the course of a couple of years.
By land, by sea, by air - the Ultimate Canadian Roadtrip (UCR) covers the best of the Canadian national parks and wildernesses. It makes the most of the seasons while stretching the Canadian National Park pass as far as it can go. It's designed with the idea that your time is precious, so you shouldn't be wasting it, but that you're more likely to "experience" things when you're off the beaten path.
The Canadian "Triplets"
Yukon & The Northwest Territories [BLUE]
Queen Charlotte Sound & The Alaskan Inside Passage [RED]
The Canadian Rockies & Prairielands [GREEN]
The Canadian Arctic [YELLOW]
Eastern Provinces & The Gulf Of St. Lawrence [PINK]
I'll be posting specific itineraries and details of this exploration of Canada in the coming weeks. I'll be talking about island hopping by ferry, driving the Alaskan Highway without being eaten by a grizzly, hiring a bush pilot, and more. Hope you enjoy!
July 1, 2005
Das Boot: A Brief History of Submarines
I was reading aloud the back cover of a Dirk Pitt novel on which author Clive Cussler mentions how he and his National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) buddies once raised a Confederate submarine, the C.S.S. Hunley, from its watery grave.
"Confederate submarine?!" Shane exclaimed, disbelievingly. "What Confederacy are they talking about?"
"Ours, I presume," said I. "Kind-of like Old Ironsides or whatever that submersible floating can was."
"I thought the Germans had the only ones in the War, thus the name U-Boat," replied Shane.
"No, I'm pretty sure subs have been around longer than that. I think it had more to do with the fact that Britain had the misfortune of being an island, and the U-Boats were able to prey on supply caravans of ships and such. It was their tactics, not a monopoly on subs, that made the German U-Boats so successful."
Thus we decided that I should follow-up on my cryptography article, which featured the German Enigma machine used on German U-Boats, with a brief history of submarines to resolve this confusion.
Now clearly my naval history sucks. Old Ironsides is the nickname for the thick-skinned naval ship the USS Constitution, a large frigate that won its notoriety in the War of 1812 and is currently moored in Boston on display. Oops on that one. But silly nicknames aside, I was right about the history of submarines. They are a lot older than World War II.
Discounting Robin Hood and his clever use of river reeds, the first seeds were sown in the 1580's. Englishman William Bourne, whose drawings put one in the mind of Da Vinci's helicopter ideas, is considered to have had the first inklings on the construction of a working submersible, and he was followed by others.
However, it's the Americans who are credited with building the first real submarine. In 1776, David Bushnell built a one-man sub which was actually able to attack an enemy warship, albeit unsuccessfully, since he was unable to penetrate the British ship's hull. About 25 years later, Robert Fulton had better success with his Nautilus, and coined the term torpedo.
It wasn't until February 17, 1864, that a submarine ever successfully sunk a warship. The CSS Hunley attacked USS Housatonic, but then mysteriously disappeared with all hands. It was not found again until 1995, presumably by Clive Cussler and his NUMA buddies. It had sank within 1000 yards from the scene of action.
For the next 50 years, submarines and torpedoes got bigger and better. By the turn of the century, the sub shape we have all come to know was becoming a reality, but a lot of problems had to be overcome, including power, pressure, fresh air, safety, and underwater navigation. Naval military agencies of the United States and Europe as well as private contractors continued to work on sub construction.
In 1906, the first German U-Boat (U-1) was launched. In fact, the Germans did not jump at adding submarines to their naval forces. By the time they added a second boat, U-2, to their fleet, the French navy had 60 subs, and the British had about the same. But by the time the Germans had 40 subs, they were making significant leaps in sub design. Their newest line carried multiple torpedoes and a range of almost 8000 miles. But it was the Americans with their E-Boats (diesel) that first crossed the Atlantic in 1912.
On the eve of World War I, the stage was set for subs to get their first real opportunity for use in battle. However, with submarine naval tactics being a fledgling concept, navies had a very hard time finding qualified personnel to man the ships.
Submarine-history.com provides some great stats on the naval usage of submarines at the beginning of WWI:
Largest Fleet In The World
Prior to the war, the submarine was more of a nautical curiosity than a weapon of destruction, but by the close of the war the usefulness of the submarine had been proven beyond doubt. The first Battle of the Atlantic gave everyone a chance to test out their submarine technology - and pointed out some of the innovations needed. Sonar, used for underwater navigation and ranging of targets, was one such invention. Many of the successful crews would become the "experienced" crews in World War II, including German U-boat skipper Karl Doenitz.
The Treaty of Versailles didn't just demobilize the German standing army, it also crippled their navy. The Treaty explicitly stated that no submarines were to be included in their military. The only way that the Germans were able to keep up with submarine technology was to design and develop commercially for the international market. These efforts would also serve as the prototypes for the newest fleet of U-Boats. The Germans continued to operate in a clandestine fashion up until the beginning of World War II.
Meanwhile, Karl Doenitz was developing new submarine tactics for the German navy like "Wolf Packing" (gangs of subs converging on a target - the more defenseless, the better) and "Tonnage War" (targeting of merchant ships). These tactics, combined with an heretofore unheard-of implementation of cryptography in the form of the German Enigma machine, would render the German navy almost unstoppable during the Second World War.
There is no one reason why the Second Battle of the Atlantic eventually ended in the favor of the Allies. The German sub tactics worked exceedingly well early on when convoys were often unprotected. Later, American military vessels accompanied the convoys as military escort. The Allies also began sweeping the Atlantic with sea-scanning radar and Leigh Lights - which were basically high powered flashlights fitted onto aircraft - which could spot U-Boats when they emerged at night to recharge their
However, the most significant element to the Allied victory in the Atlantic was the cracking of the German Enigma code. The German tactics had been formed on the assumption that the Enigma code was absolutely unbreakable. By 1943, the code had been broken and more and more German naval traffic was being decoded. The Allies knew where the packs were forming and sent in the anti-sub ships to destroy them. The fact that the German Navy closely directed their U-Boat operations over the wire and didn't believe their messages could be deciphered became a fatal flaw in tactics.
The hunters became the hunted and the German U-Boat fleet began to experience heavy losses. Despite the fact that U-boat losses dropped every time a new version of the Enigma policy was introduced, the Germans did not catch on to the fact that their code had been compromised. Over the course of a couple of months, the vast majority of the U-boat fleet was sunk.
And that, my friends, is a brief history of submarines up until the Cold War Era. And that is for a different day.
Much of this information came from a couple of websites on submarine history.
The images above are from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Catalog (PPOC).