May 19, 2006
I'm going to take a break for the next few weeks due to "real life" workload. Naturally Speaking, the blog, will resume after my wedding and house renovations are settled, just after we get back from our California Redwoods family camping trip the week of July 3-8. Hopefully there will be lots to share then! Please check back soon!
May 18, 2006
Brit Bunny Terrorizing Carrot Cultivators
The huge success of the recent Wallace & Gromit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit has made giant rabbits the hottest new pet. But like I've seen countless times before now, don't get a bunny unless you know what you're getting into. Every year, thousands of domestic rabbits are abandoned in the wild and parks, usually within about 5-8 months of purchase, when the novelty of the cute baby rabbit has worn off and in it's place is an unwanted responsibility. Many of these rabbits will die but some, the enterprising ones lucky enough to be able to feed themselves, will become part of the ever-growing feral wildlife population.
Veni, vidi, vegi: I came, I saw, I had a salad
Now Felton, a little farming village in Northumberland, is suffering from the attentions one such rampaging rabbit. Dubbed Bugs Bunny by the locals, the elusive lagomorph has helped itself to the prize-winning produce grown by the gardeners of the area. It's ravaging their radishes! Terrorizing their turnips! Laying waste to their leeks! Obliterating their onions! Crucifying their carrots!
I think you get the general idea.
An enormous rabbit is laying waste to vegetable plots in an English village, according to reports.
The news was first dismissed as an April Fool's joke. But residents of Felton in northeast England have confirmed that a huge, floppy-eared creature is leaving behind giant paw prints and a trail of destroyed carrots, leeks, onions, and turnips following nighttime raids.
The reportedly black and brown, dog-size bunny could be an escaped giant breed of pet rabbit, experts say.
In the Oscar-winning movie, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, advocate humane pest-control methods.
The real-life rabbit—Bigs Bunny, as it's been called—faces a shoot-to-kill policy.
"The first time I saw it I said, 'What the hell is that?'" Smith told local newspaper the Northumberland Gazette.
Yes, We May Have No Bananas
When we drove up to Kahakuloa Head on Maui, we passed a little stand that has been claimed to have the best banana bread in the world. Now, I don't know if I'd call it the best, but it was certainly very good.
I cannot imagine a world without bananas. After all, it's the world's most popular fruit crop. According to wikipedia, bananas rank fourth after rice, wheat and maize in human consumption. It's considered a staple food in some cultures, providing much-needed vitamins, fiber and nutrients like potassium and iron. It's used medicinally for everything from blood pressure and stroke to constipation and PMS. There's no question that eating bananas is one of the most dietarily efficient ways to get your daily doses naturally.
One large banana, about 9 inches in length, packs 602 mg of potassium and only carries 140 calories... 2 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber... 2 mgs of sodium. ... 36 grams of carbs...Vitamins and minerals are abundant in the banana, offering 123 I.U. of vitamin A ...B vitamins are present with .07 mg of Thiamine, .15 mg of Riboflavin, .82 mg Niacin, .88 mg vitamin B6, and 29 mcg of Folic Acid...13.8 mg of vitamin C. On the mineral scale Calcium counts in at 9.2 mg, Magnesium 44.1 mg, with trace amounts of iron and zinc.
More At: Nutritional Benefits of Bananas
Having spent much of my teenage years reading ingredient listings during a phase when I hated bananas, period, I may be slightly more aware than the average consumer on how many things actually contain them. You'll be hardpressed to find a smoothie that doesn't contain bananas. They're often used as a low-cost filler ingredient in things with other tropical fruits, like Häagen-Dazs tropical fruit sorbet and other fruit juices. You'll find them not only in desserts and as raw fruit snacks, but in curries, dried as chips, and fried, boiled, baked, sauteed, not to mention set afire.
But now the banana may be under threat.
Go bananas while you still can. The world's most popular fruit and the fourth most important food crop of any sort is in deep trouble. Its genetic base, the wild bananas and traditional varieties cultivated in India, has collapsed.
Virtually all bananas traded internationally are of a single variety, the Cavendish, the genetic roots of which lie in India...threatened by pandemics of diseases such as that caused by the black sigatoka fungus. The main hope for survival of the Cavendish lies in developing new hybrids resistant to the fungus, but this is a difficult and time-consuming task because the seedless modern fruit does not reproduce sexually and has to be bred from cuttings.
More At: A future with no bananas?
Now while the actually extinction part may be a bit overly dramatic, it is true that the genetic diversity of the banana has suffered over time, and diseases have caused a lot of trouble especially in third-world nations that depend on the banana crop to stay cheap and sustainable.
For instance, in central Africa, people eat about 1000 pounds of bananas per year. For reference, according to the US Census, Americans eat about 275lbs of fruit - all fruit including OJ, apples, etc.
Ugandans use the same word "matooke" to describe both banana and food.
In the past, the banana was a highly sustainable crop with a long plantation life and stable yields year round. However with the arrival of the Black Sigatoka fungus, banana production in eastern Africa has fallen by over 40%.
More at: Wikipedia: Bananas
It's not surprising that the more common a crop becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes with regard to diseases and fungus and other plagues of that sort. This news on the banana is interesting on its own, but it also got me thinking about another aspect of the situation. If you were paying attention above, you might have caught the fact that it's difficult to breed new disease-resistant hybrids because the seedless modern fruit does not reproduce sexually.
We live in an age where we're trying to control produce. We don't just want it bigger, we want it uniform. We grow mangoes and apples so they fit into those plastic boxes perfectly. God forbid we have misshapen fruit, because no one will buy it. We grow citrus with thicker skins so they last longer on the way to market. Strawberries are bigger and more beautiful than ever, even if they taste like sour lemons.
A common and popular type of agricultural control are the "seedless" varieties. Seedless grapes, watermelons, and oranges are very popular. They're easier to eat. I love my seedless clementines. It takes careful breeding of plants to get those species in the first place. The more popular they become, the more likely they are vulnerable to the same problems that the bananas are having now. Losing banana crops is bad enough, but imagine grape and citrus crops suffering from something similar. Now you're effecting the wine and OJ market, much closer to your home and your wallet.
May 16, 2006
Maui Marine Life
Now keep in mind, I'm no fish expert, so I had to rely on hand-drawn book diagrams and bad pics to id some of these guys. Sorry the pictures are so grainy, but they were taken with a bunch of crappy underwater disposable cameras I bought on ebay for $20 because the film in them had recently expired. Not to mention, in case you didn't know, it's bloody difficult to take sharp photos underwater while snorkeling without a decent photo rig.
Honolua Bay Reef, Maui
Black Sea Urchin
Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse
School of Mullet
Slate Pencil Urchin (See the face in the coral?)
A Submerged Car (Pollution)
Here's a great reef fish chart you can download and laminate yourself! For a more extensive list with great photographic detail, check out Fishpics Hawaii. You can also check out some of my other underwater photography of great white sharks.
Check out our Maui, Hawaii podcast - a video program that highlights this beautiful place!
May 12, 2006
A for Air? C for Cancer? F for Fatal?
Chances are, you know someone who's died of lung cancer.
My grandfather smoked for most of his life. By the time he quit, it was already too late. He died of lung cancer and complications about 17 years ago. He never got to meet all his grandchildren. My brothers and younger cousins have no memory of him, which is a real shame. He was a grumpy old guy who loved playing cribbage and fish for trout.
He loved babies. He'd call my grandmother in from the kitchen if the Michelin baby commercial was on the TV, because it was so adorable. I was old enough, a teenager, when he died and it made an impression on me that no No-Smoking campaign could have done better.
Still, smoking isn't the only way people develop lung cancer. Nowadays, pollution can do you in just as easily. You hear stories of people like Dana Reeves, philanthrophist and wife of the late Christopher Reeves, who recently passed away at the young age of 44 from lung cancer, having never smoked in her life.
The American Lung Association recently published their State of the Air Report for 2006, which provides an air quality report card. They've made it nice and easy to look up your home area by zipcode, or navigate using a map. For example, my town of Santa Cruz, CA gets an A while nearby Santa Clara, where my husband works in the Silicon Valley, gets an F for ozone and particle pollution.
Did You Know? A Polar Bear's Nose Is It's Secret Weapon
Did you know?
A Polar Bear's Nose Is It's Secret Weapon
Some people refer to polar bears as noses with legs. That's because they can smell a dead animal like a whale or seal on the ice from up to 20 miles away! Their black noses stand out on the blinding-white of the Arctic, allowing them to be seen from up to six miles away through binoculars. According to some sources, the polar bear will cover its nose with its paw when sneaking up on a seal, in order to avoid detection, but this is, as far as I know, unsubstantiated by scientific evidence.
May 11, 2006
Bear Breed Blending
Napoleon Dynamite made the liger, a cross between a lion and a tiger, famous, but they are certainly not the only hybrid about. Still, most hybrids occur in captivity, where they don't have much mate selection potential. We're talking domestic pets like dogs and cats, and zoo critters. Various bear species, such as polar bears and grizzlies, have successfully had cubs in zoos, but no cases have been documented in the wild.
IQALUIT, Nunavut - Northern hunters, scientists and people with vivid imaginations have discussed the possibility for years.
But Roger Kuptana, a guide from Canada's Sachs Harbor was the first to suspect it had actually happened when he proposed that a strange-looking bear shot last month by an American sports hunter might be half polar bear, half grizzly.
Officials seized the creature after noticing its white fur was scattered with brown patches and that it had the long claws and humped back of a grizzly. Now a DNA test has confirmed that it is indeed a hybrid — possibly the first documented in the wild.
Colin Adjun, a wildlife officer in Nunavut, said he's heard stories before about an oddly colored bear cavorting with polar bears. "It was a light chocolate color along with a couple of polar bears," Adjun said.
The DNA results were good news for Martell, who had paid $50,000 for guides and a permit to hunt polar bear. Before the tests came back, the 65-year-old hunter was facing the possibility of a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail for shooting a bear for which he had no permit — as well as the disappointment of an expensive hunting trip with no trophy.
The local natural resources department now plans to return the bear to the hunter.
If you think about it, it makes sense that species hybridization does not occur frequently in the wild. Not only do the relative species need overlapping territory, but also overlapping breeding seasons. Even if the species match up on the breeding calendar, they still need to be close enough in species to have fertile offspring. They also have to recognize one another as potential mates and survive the encounter without killing each other.
And that's just what appears to have happened when a grizzly male met a female polar bear over a seal meal romantically lit by the Northern Lights. Was it a fluke of nature, or were the bears driven to one another over global warming and habitat destruction?
Whatever it was, it was likely a one night stand.
May 4, 2006
Hawaiian Honu: The Green Sea Turtle
Shane Swimming With Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Hawaiian waters are a haven for four of the remaining seven species of sea turtles in the world: the green sea turtle, the hawksbill, the leatherback and the olive ridley. The green sea turtle is the most common.
Six out of the seven remaining sea turtle species of the world are either endangered and on the verge of extinction or under threat of extinction. Sea turtles have the distinction of being one of the few species on Earth to have witnessed dinosaurs evolving and going extinct. They've lived through ice ages, existing much as they do now, roaming the seas long before the Hawaiian Islands even existed. Some sources even claim that the Marquesas, the first humans to travel to the Hawaiian Islands, were guided by not just the stars, but also sea turtles.
It is unclear, however, if these ancient creatures will be able to survive the age of man.
The cold-blooded, air-breathing Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is called "Honu" by the locals. We don't know how long the turtles live in the wild, but guestimates project mature adults may reach 80 to 100 years if left alone, reaching sexual maturity at about age 25. Because it takes so long for turtles to mature enough to reproduce, recovering from decline is a long and risky process.
Mother turtles haul out on exposed beaches on which they were born and lay their own clutches of about 100 leathery eggs, burying them in the sand and leaving them to their fates. As the mother turtle drags herself back to the ocean, she leaves an obvious trail leading straight back to her eggs. Nowadays, with beachfront property at a premium, turtle nesting grounds, also called natal beaches, are under threat not just in Hawaii, but also Central America and the Caribbean.
The temperature of the eggs also appears to influence the gender of the resulting hatchlings. Colder eggs tend to result in male hatchlings, while warmer ones tend to become females. As the world warms, we may see a shift in the healthy gender balance of turtle populations.
Sea turtle infant mortality is very high due to egg and hatchling predation from animals like Indian Mongoose, and other human-related impacts have had negative effects as well. For example, lighting near beaches seems to confuse hatchlings, luring them onto roads instead of toward the safety of the sea. Even once the hatchlings reach the water, they face many other threats beyond their natural predators like sharks.
Clumsy by-catch fishing habits result in unnecessary turtle deaths and diseases like fibropapillomatosis have greatly harmed turtle populations for the past century. Sea turtle shells and meat (green turtles are a main turtle soup ingredient) is often seen on the wildlife blackmarket, their fat was once harvested for its oil. Juveniles, who cannot sleep at depth, are forced to rest on the surface and often suffer from watercraft collisions and floating trash like plastic soda can rings.
Turtles are much more agile in the water, moving at speeds up to 35 mph. When we came upon this pair of green sea turtles, they swam up to us from below so quickly, we barely had time to get out of the way. After taking a breath (adults need to breathe about once every two hours when at rest), they returned to their dark overhang in the rocks, deep enough not to be bothered by snorkelers.
At one time, millions of green sea turtles swam the world's oceans. During the past century, their numbers have declined so much that eventually the green turtle was listed as an endangered species in 1978. The Hawaiian green sea turtle has made a partial comeback in the past couple of decades through conservation efforts. Since being listed, the turtle population has grown back up to several hundred thousand.
Current Hawaiian green turtle population levels are still thought to be below pre-western contact, and probably pre-World War II levels as well....Green sea turtles, as well as other sea turtles in Hawaii, are fully protected under both the federal Endangered Species Act and under Hawaii state law. These laws prohibit hunting, injuring or harassing sea turtles or holding them in captivity without first obtaining a special permit for research or educational purposes. Swimmers and divers should be aware that riding sea turtles is illegal as it puts the animals under unnecessary stress. Fines for violating these laws protecting turtles can be as high as $100,000 and may even include some time in prison.
More At: Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Still, the rise in the turtle population is a positive sign that conservationalists and wildlife officials are doing something right. It has also helped that in the past decade or so, it has become quite cheap and easy to use GPS tracking of marine creatures. Scientists now gather a lot of important data like migration routes and breeding areas, which helps policymakers protect the animals more effectively.
The first year Hawaii's green sea turtle expert counted the animals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he found 67 nesting females at East Island, French Frigate Shoals.
Three decades later, on the same island, George Balazs' research team counted 467 nesting females in a season -- a nearly 600 percent increase.
Using additional data from the main Hawaiian Islands and mathematical modeling, Balazs estimates that Hawaii now has as many as 35,000 mature green sea turtles and perhaps 250,000 juveniles age 6 or under.
What a difference 25 years under the protection of the Endangered Species Act can make.
More At: Honolulu Star-Bulletin: Comeback
Check out our Maui, Hawaii podcast - a video program that highlights this beautiful place!
Melting Ice Bears & Dried Up River Horses
The Plight of the Polar Bear is one we've been hearing a lot about lately, with the melting ice in the polar north causing significant declines in areas like Northern Canada.
Enough concern resulted in some studies on the vulnerability of the polar bear, and this past week, The World Conservation Union (IUCN), the organization which maintains the world-wide endangered species list, published some disturbing findings.
Without a reversal of global warming trends, the IUCN predicted polar bear populations would drop more than 30 percent in the next 45 years as melted ice caps deprive the animals of their habitat.
The common hippo was also ranked as vulnerable, "primarily because of a catastrophic decline in the Democratic Republic of Congo," the IUCN said.
Unrestricted hunting for meat and ivory has caused a 95 percent decline in the central African country's hippo population since 1994, it said. The animal has never before been listed as threatened.
While polar bears are finding their hunting grounds melting from beneath their paws, the hippos (named for "river horses") are wallowing in dried up rivers for similar reasons - global warming. Herbivores by nature, the hippos leave the water during the night to graze on grasses, but they depend on the existence of rivers and mud holes for shelter, to keep cool, and to raise their young. They also play a very important role in the ecosystem by way of their dung, which provides nutrients for the local fish. The fish are a primary food source of the local people.
Because the hippo pods are always near precious water sources, hippo-human confrontations happen frequently and with fatal consequences.The hippos, once common throughout Africa, have suffered from a variety of setbacks in recent years, from the bushmeat trade to mysterious mass die-offs related to antrax and cannibalism. But yes, I still want a pet hippo. Just a little one.
Check out our Frolicking Hippos podcast - a video program highlighting these playful animals!
Check out our Kenya Waterhole podcast - a video program experiencing a sunrise in Africa!
May 3, 2006
The Mongoose: A Maui Menace
Whenever we plan to visit somewhere, I always look up the local wildlife. So when we headed to Maui, I was ready to check out lots of birds, turtles, fish and a couple rare mammals. I hoped to see a critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, although I was doubtful we would manage that since there are less than 1500 left.
The Devil-Eyed Snake Charmer
Most of the mammals on Maui, and Hawaii in general, are not native. They were introduced for a variety of reasons, and I've frankly never seen so many feral species in one place. One particular alien species I wanted to check out was the Indian Mongoose. As in Kipling's Jungle Book character Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the devil-eyed cunning critter is famous for taking on venomous snakes like king cobras. But that's not why the ferret-like mongooses are sometimes referred to as the most dangerous animal in the world. That illustrious title was earned when it became clear that the mongoose is unparalleled when it comes destroying native species. A fact that Hawaiians learned the hard way.
So why, you might ask, would the mongoose be purposefully introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, the endangered species capital of the world? And by that, I'm refering to the fact that Hawaii has more endangered species per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. The answer is simple. The story of how the Mongoose got to Hawaii is a familiar one of greed.
Greed and rats. (Just like the feral cats got there!)
Way back in 1872, some Jamaican sugar planter (rum yum!) got this great idea to introduce the mongoose in order to keep his rat problem under control.
W.B. Espeut got the idea that Indian mongooses might take care of the rat problem in Jamaica if turned loose in the sugar cane fields there. So he sailed across the ocean to Calcutta on a ship called the Merchantman, captured four male and five female mongooses (one pregnant) and brought them back across the ocean to Jamaica.
Twenty years later, in a journal article, Espeut gave the mongooses rave reviews. Besides killing rats, he wrote, "snakes, lizards, crabs, toads and the grubs of many beetles and caterpillars have been destroyed."
It'd Be Amusing If It Wasn't So Sad
Espeut was so successful, he created a new Jamaican export: more mongooses! When the article reached the sugar cane plantations of Hawaii, the farmers saw an answer to all their rat problems. So despite some dissent, the Hawaiian farmers ordered 72 mongooses from the Jamaicans in 1883. The mongooses were raised on the Big Island and spread amongst the islands. Little did they know...
Lana'i and Kaua'i remained mongoose-free, but on the other islands, the introduction of the Indian Mongoose has been a disaster of epic proportions. Mongooses do kill rats, but not the numbers needed to justify their use. Unlike the nocturnal rats, the mongoose is active during the day. So instead of ridding the islands of rats, the mongooses have found many other things to eat instead. Their diet is surprisingly varied. In fact, it appears there's very few things that a mongoose won't eat.
The nature of their foodstuffs depended largely on the opportunities available. An examination of the stomachs of 180 individuals revealed insects, spiders, snails, slugs, frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, eggs of birds and reptiles, all kinds of rodents, crabs, fish and fruits. Members of this species have also been known to catch mammals many times their size, up to the size of hares and even the young of white-tailed deer.
The Indian Mongoose has no natural predators in the Hawaiian Islands and so they have to be controlled using poisoning and trapping. They carry several nasty diseases including rabies and leptospirosis.
Nowadays, mongoose rule every Hawaiian island except Lana'i and Kaua'i, and even there it may only be a matter of time. Recently, mongoose have been sighted on Kaua'i. Almost all the mongooses on the Hawaiian Islands today are descended from those nine original ones brought over by W.B. Espeut from Calcutta.
Where Are All The Birds?
We expected to see lots of tropical birds in Hawaii. Sure, we did see some neat-looking cardinals and lots of cattle egrets. But where were the seabirds - the albatrosses, the petrels, the frigatebirds (I love that word)?
We were told to go to Lana'i, since they don't have mongooses. We didn't see a single sea bird on our entire week-long visit to Maui. This is not really an exaggeration - the total was two in a wildlife refuge surrounded by water.
Two... on an island.
Mongooses love eggs (Shane prefers the term "potential birds"). They throw eggs against rocks to break them open and then eat them. The mongooses have preyed on not just the eggs though, but also fledgling and adult native Hawaiian birds, not to mention endangered sea turtle eggs and hatchlings.
One case that seems to have truly horrified the Hawaiians is that the mongooses like to snack on the Hawaiian State Bird, the Nene, or Hawaiian Goose.
In 1952 the remaining nene population was estimated to be about 30 birds. Current estimates are around 1,300 birds in different populations on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Molokai and Kauai.
Almost half of the statewide population exists on Kauai, probably due to the fact that predatory mongoose are not known to be established on the island.
What's To Be Done?
Mongooses are even more difficult to get rid of than rats. They're smarter and more agile. The IUCN has listed the mongoose as one of the top 100 worst invasive species, causing $50 million in damages each year in Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands alone, but while some money is spent on combating invasive species, it hasn't been enough in terms of wildlife management and the mongoose has a firm hold on the islands. That $50 mil figure is interesting, but you have to wonder how one would measure species extinction in dollars.
Some people have taken the matter into their own hands, reminding us of the snow monkey (Japanese Macaque) bounty we heard about in Japan. Rumor has it there's a B&B in the Big Island that used to give a free night's stay to anyone who brought in a dead mongoose with treadmarks that matched your car tires... You gotta wonder, did they stop because it was in poor taste or because the frequency of mongoose roadkill made the promotion too costly to the B&B hosts?
Check out our Maui, Hawaii podcast - a video program that highlights this beautiful place!
Eating Eels: Am I a Foodie Freak?
Every once in a while, I run across something that reminds me that my life is not exactly normal. That the choices I have made are not obvious to other people. I have come to realize that my choices in cuisine are somewhat uncommon, but the more amusing part of it to me is that most people don't realize it.
My parents still think I eat like I did when I was 13 years old. Back then, I was set on becoming a marine biologist (big surprise there) and I refused to eat any creature I might study. I liked salads. I liked very little else. My brothers would eat anything, but I was the family's picky eater. At least until my youngest brother developed his own set of bizarre tastes.
I refused to eat fish, and frankly, almost all meat, not to mention a variety of other things, until I left home and went to college. Even there, I had a pretty limited set of foods I really enjoyed. But then I started traveling and I came to some conclusions. The most important was that I was going to miss out on a very important cultural experience if I did not relax my rules about food and try stuff.
So I made a new rule: I would try just about anything and give it a shot. What I discovered was that I liked a huge number of foods - when they were prepared well. In Hawaii a decade ago, I discovered that fresh-caught fish was excellent, but I was still disgusted with crappy breaded pre-frozen fish sticks that I'd associated with "fish" as a child. Nowadays, I'm still as stubborn about food quality. I have no interest in paying for mediocre cuisine - like why would I order oysters in the Midwestern United States unless the place was famous for em?
The World Is My
In Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, France.... the list is pretty long, I've sampled a huge variety of edibles, some weird but many quite tasty. All were foreign. I learned that the green stuff they pawn off on us in the United States is not real wasabi, but a powdered substitute that is nowhere near as good as the real thing. I learned that wild boar was one of the tastiest ingredients for fondue and hotpots and kudu antelope jerky is leaner because wild game in Africa has little chance to grow fat and complacent on the plains.
I think I've spit out something twice in the past decade and I felt terrible at the time and was discrete. The first time was in France. Chittering sausage at a restaurant in Paris. One would think sausage was a safe bet, but it was vile. Even Shane, the guy who will eat anything and like it, thought so. And this after all the blood puddings, garlicky snails, still-wiggling oysters that writhed in agony when you poured lemon juice and tabasco on them. The alligator on a stick, crawdaddies, and so many unidentifiable things in Asia that are probably better left that way so I might enjoy them in the future without thinking too hard. The second incident occured last year in New Orleans, when I bit into a frog's leg and it's knee popped. Really, I don't think I really should be blamed for spitting him out into a napkin and grabbing my umbrella drink on that particular horror.
Now, when I go out to dinner and see people ignoring the specials, instad ordering stuff like the teriyaki chicken plate (the equivalent of a kid's chicken finger plate on the menu) at a famous sushi restaurant, I feel bad for them.
When they taste something, having already made their decision to dislike it, and follow up with a great dramatic scene of dislike, I feel bad for them.
When we travel internationally and fellow visitors consistently request Western-style meals, I sigh. When it happens at places that specifically offer these services, that's cool. But going to a restaurant in Italy and complaining when their order doesnt look like what you get at Domino's is insulting. It's really no wonder Shane and I prefer to travel incognito, with the fewer people knowing we're American, the better.
Anyway, the point here is, I really don't think I'm a very picky eater anymore really, but now it seems like most Americans are. Even my parents aren't particularly adventurous when it comes to food, although they still tease me for being the picky one. Instead of embracing the cuisine of the rest of the world, we Americans prefer to mold and pervert it into our own version and expect the rest of the world to serve it to us. Then we call ourselves well-rounded, world-weary individuals when we hit up the local kabob joint or Chinese take-out that has often had to stoop to selling us the Americanized renderings. The authentic stuff is served up in the back and eaten by the cooks.
Last week, Shane and I were sitting in Mama's Fish House, a fantastic restaurant on Maui's north shore, drooling over their menu (the photo here is from a smiliar main course to what we ordered, snagged from their website). We were chatting with the waitress about her recommendations and the specials, and she hesitantly asked us, "Will you eat fish raw?" We both blinked. At first, I thought she was joking. You mean there are still people who won't? I mean adults, not my picky little brother or 16 year old sister-in-law.
We're in Hawaii. Damn right we're going to eat the sushi there, since it's fantastic. This particular restaurant can tell you the individual fisherman that caught your dinner, the boat it came off of, and exactly where it was hooked, too, so you can make informed decisions with regards to Seafood Watch. Just the day before, we had plowed through a Costco-sized portion of sliced ahi while sitting atop the volcanic peak of Haleakala. People kept walking by and commenting on our excellent taste.
Anyway, the question caught me off-guard. Living in California, we just take sushi for granted. Well, the people I hang around with do, anyway. And seared ahi is barely sushi from our perspective, anyway. It's cooked enough! At Mama's Fish House, we ordered:
Appetizer: Sliced premium quality Ahi Sashimi with real wasabi root dipping sauce and pickled ginger.
Salad: Ahi Sashimi Salad - Sashimi, Hana pohole fern, crispy won ton strips, Big Island ogo and wasabi goat cheese served with roasted sesame dressing.
Split Main Course: Two fish - Ono and another island fish (Opakapaka maybe?)- cooked in ti leaf "package" with coconut milk with Molokai sweet potato, baked banana, island pineapple, mango and papaya, two kinds of lychee and a fresh young coconut, served with slow-roasted Kalua Pig in the style of old Hawaii with Hanalei poi.
Dessert: A Trio of Creme Brulee - Passionfruit, White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, and Mango
Drinks: Tried just about every drink on their menu, from the Mai Tai to the Citrus Mint Refresher (amazing). The
Framboise de Maui from Ulupalakua Ranch was especially nice with dessert, although a bit pricey to take home when our local Bonny Doon Vineyard Framboise is so good (and a quarter the price).
Everything we got was fantastic, in case you were wondering. I even packed up the cracked coconut garnish and gnawed on it at the airport. So good!
Anyway, I didn't really give the whole raw fish culinary weirdness another thought until today, when I ran across this adventure travel article about a guy who ate an eel.
So what does giant eel taste like?
Fatty and "a little off-putting" is the conclusion of writer Mike Randolph, who travelled to New Zealand's Waikato River to find out and wrote about his journey for Explore magazine.
He also decided, after catching and killing the 1 1/2-metre-long beast with some difficulty and cooking it on a grill, that portobello mushrooms are "not the ideal accompaniment." Their texture - "soft, chewy and slippery - is too similar to the eel flesh."
My absolute first reaction was: WTF is this guy talking about, adventure travel?! And why are people listening with rapt attention as if he were Robinson Crusoe? What's the bloody big deal in eating an eel?
Do people who eat sushi not know that unagi is smoked freshwater eel and anago is saltwater eel? Unagi is one of the most popular sushi orders out there, after tuna and salmon. Unagi is my absolute favorite food in the world. And it's not just the Japanese cuisine that eats the slithering sea critters. The Brit Royals used to love Lamprey Pie.
There's a great little California-style sushi restaurant in Santa Cruz called Mobo. I often take people who don't know sushi there to try stuff for the first time and unagi has never failed to appeal to people: it's tasty and those who are concerned with the "raw" aspect are comforted by the tender barbequing process. Mobo makes a great roll called a Corruptor, which is unagi, basil, garlic and macadamia nuts. The whole roll can also be tempura'd to get it nice and crispy. You should try it sometime.
So ok, this guy did catch an eel and barbeque it up himself. I'll give him points for that.
But if he didn't do so with his bare hands, I'm just not impressed.
Spotted Moray Eel Shane Almost Stepped On. Doesn't He Look Tasty?
May 2, 2006
Hawaii: The Cat Conundrum
On our recent trip to Maui, Hawaii, Shane and I hiked up to 'Iao Needle in 'Iao Valley State Park. It was really more of a walk up a couple flights of stairs (133 steps) than a hike, but it was quite pretty. Still, it took longer to find a parking spot than it did to climb to the top of the trail and view the needle, a natural rock pinnacle standing 2,250-feet tall, surrounded by the walls of the Pu'u Kukui Crater.
Long ago, the 'Iao Needle was called by its traditional name, Kuka'emoku. The peak is known as the phallic stone of Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the ocean. During the late 15th century, the valley became a burial area for the rulers of Maui and O'ahu. The remains of the chiefs were buried in secret hiding places within the valley. Later, the high peak, which has a view of Kahului harbor, was used by warriors as a lookout point.
During the Battle of Kepaniwai in 1790, Maui warriors retreated from the forces of King Kamehameha I. Kamehameha defeated King Kalanikupule and conquered the Maui army in order to unify the Hawaiian Islands. The battle was said to be so bloody that dead bodies blocked the 'Iao Stream, damming it.
After a nice picnic on the rocks above 'Iao Stream (it was nice and clear now), we were checking out the Hawaiian gardens of taro, mango, papaya, and bananas when we saw a cute little tabby cat hunting in the lush undergrowth. I pointed it out and said I thought it was a feral cat. Shane said it was probably a house cat from a nearby house. We got sidetracked checking out a bright yellow spider and promptly forgot about the cat until we headed back to parking lot.
There I noticed about nine cats were just laying on the grass, watching the parking lot. Later we even saw a cat hanging out with a pair of feral fowl. Evidently, feral cats are a serious problem in the Hawaiian Islands. According to this map of Alien Species, feral cats have invaded every major island.
Domestic cats where probably introduced back in the 1700's when ships first began arriving on the islands. Cats were often kept onboard to keep the rats under control. Once on the islands, cats thrived, feeding on the many bird species of the islands. According to the Hawaii Cat Foundation, free roaming cats are incredibly prolific. A single female can have up to 18 kittens a year. Feral kittens have a high mortality rate, but those that survive can reproduce from as young as four months of age. In other words, they reproduce like rabbits!
Today, feral cats are one of the major threats to endangered bird species of the Hawaiian Islands, second only to the Indian Mongoose.
The federally endangered Palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper, is threatened by feral cats in their protected, but limited habitat of mamane and mamane-naio forest on Mauna Kea. Biologists have been monitoring the Palila population for years and have found that since 1998, 8 to 11 percent of monitored Palila nests were depredated annually by cats. Cat predation inhibits efforts to restore the Palila population.
The 'Alala or Hawaiian Crow, is highly endangered. Endemic to the island of Hawaii, this crow was once abundant in the lower forests on the western and southern sides of the island. However, by the early 1990's, 'Alala could only be found in the Kona Forest Unit of Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge. By October 1999, there were only three individuals left in the wild. A captive-breeding program was started in the 1970s, and by 1998, 24 birds had been released. However, 18 died and the rest were recaptured to protect them and preserve genetic diversity.
The following federally threatened and endangered native birds in Hawaii are also known to be preyed on by domestic cats: Hawai'i Creeper, Hawaiian Dark-rumped Petrel, Hawaiian Duck, Hawaiian Goose, Hawaiian Hawk, Hawaiian Stilt, Newell's Shearwater, Nuku pu'u, Large Kaua'i Thrush, and Small Kaua'i Thrush.
How to solve the cat conundrum is an ongoing debate. Some feel that the cat is not a native species and trapped feral cats should therefore be euthanized. Others feel that managed cat colonies of cats that are trapped, neutered and released (TNR programs) are more humane.
While TNR programs work well in the continental United States, they don't work particularly well in the Hawaiian Islands where so many endangered bird species live. Neutered cats still kill native wildlife.
Managed cat colonies are fed outdoors, attracting more cats, as well as rats and other predators, resulting in public health threats due to disease. Domestic cats can be disease vectors, from rabies to cat-scratch fever. They also carry parasites like toxoplasmosis, roundworm, and hookworm. In 2001, a woman walking her dog was attacked by a pack of feral cats in Honolulu and the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus children's center had to shut down temporarily to deal with an outbreak of fleas from a nearby feral cat colony.
Check out our Maui, Hawaii podcast - a video program that highlights this beautiful place!
May 1, 2006
Isn't it funny how just when you've been thinking about something, the topic pops up in the news?
Take snakes, for example. We just returned home from a lovely trip to Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. There are no snakes native to Hawaii, but we certainly saw lots of eels while snorkeling (see the one above). I'd always assumed that snakes were rather primitive (or at least older reptilian species compared to most creatures of the day) and that they had likely originated in the oceans in the forms of ancient eels. After all, most life originated in the oceans, and I generally consider land and freshwater species to be "newer" than most ocean critters.
It got me wondering why Hawaii would have eels but not snakes. Sure, the islands are quite remote, but still. It seems the perfect habitat for snakes to live - lots to eat, some parts desert, others rainforest. There are certainly snakes in the islands of Oceania and Southern Asia.
Upon returning home, I was catching up on my podcasts, including Nature's podcast. This science journal podcast covered a recent fossil finding that suggests that snakes as they are now may very well have originated from footed creatures on land, not from water serpents as many previously thought.
An ancient snake with hips connected to its spine might be proof that slithery serpents originated on land, not in the water, a new fossil find reveals.
The fossil snake—which has a primitive pelvis and robust, functional legs outside the ribcage—dates from about 90 million years ago.
The species, named Najash rionegrina, is the earliest limbed snake ever found in a fully terrestrial deposit
Sonar Strandings & Dolphin Deaths
We're planning to spend part of our honeymoon on Zanzibar, so I keep pretty close tabs on the news of the area. The little island off the coast of Tanzania is known for its beautiful beaches and spectacular diving. This past week, there are been some very sad news for the area as a large number of dolphins washed up dead on the north shore of the island for reasons "unknown".
Villagers and fishermen on Saturday buried the remains of the roughly 400 bottlenose dolphins, which normally live in deep offshore waters but washed up Friday along a 2.5 mile stretch of coast in Tanzania's Indian Ocean archipelago.
A U.S. Navy task force patrols the coast of East Africa as part of counterterrorism operations.
Whale and dolphin strandings happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the animals have been poisoned. In this case, the dolphins had empty stomachs, which rules that out for the most part. Recently, more and more strandings have been attributed to sonar. Specifically, military active sonar, low frequency or mid-spectrum sonar, employed almost exclusively by the military.
Can Active Sonar Really Hurt Marine Life?
At this point, the answer is yes. Although the U.S. military doesn't seem to wish to accept this reality, the evidence is pretty conclusive at this point. The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission is made up of 200 of the world's leading whale biologists. Their recent report claimed evidence linking active sonar to whale strandings is "very convincing and appears overwhelming."
How Does Military Active Sonar Hurt Marine Life?
Now, we're not talking the little fish finders on fishing vessels here. We're talking long-range military active sonar. The type of sonar that sends huge, powerful sound wave booms through tens or hundreds of miles of ocean.
Each loudspeaker in the LFA system's wide array, for example, can generate 215 decibels' worth -- sound as intense as that produced by a twin-engine fighter jet at takeoff. Some mid-frequency sonar systems can put out over 235 decibels, as loud as a Saturn V rocket at launch. Even 100 miles from the LFA system, sound levels can approach 160 decibels, well beyond the Navy's own safety limits for humans.
The prominent science journal Nature has published numerous findings on the effects of active sonar on marine mammals. The current reasoning is that the active sonar "confuses" the marine mammal's echolocation abilities, causing them to strand themselves. While this might be true of animals receiving weak signals from great distance, I tend to think that "confusing" is a rather watered down term when the poor creatures are bleeding in the ears and brain. Frankly, it sounds more like a case of rendering a creature dependent on sound deaf and terrified with great booms of noise.
Pathology evidence of stranded whales has shown that they have suffered from embolisms, or nitrogen bubbles in their tissue. Much like divers who ascend too quickly can get "the bends" and die, the marine mammals appear to suffer from a similar condition after being hit by the deafening sound waves. They panic and surface too quickly.
Those that survive often suffer from other, more subtle changes in behavior whose damage is much more difficult to measure. Just searching for "active sonar" on Nature.com turns up some interesting examples, like how whale songs, a key part of courting and mating rituals, are changed after the whales are exposed to the sonar noise.
Marine mammals use sound to navigate, to communicate with mates and young, and to find food. Military sonar has been shown to disrupt these key activities and over time, the health of marine mammal populations. The long-term effects are just not yet known.
Have There Been A Lot Of Marine Mammals Injured?
It's very difficult to determine how many whales and dolphins have been killed or injured by the use of active sonar because it's likely that only a small percentage of the animals wash up on beaches to be counted. Many animals may just drown in the deeper waters in which they live and we wouldn't know it other than by their absence.
One of the first clear-cut cases of active sonar harming whales was back in March of 2000 when a U.S. Navy battle group was using active sonar off the Bahamas. Four different species of whales became stranded on the beaches of the Bahamas. Post-mortem analysis found that the whales were bleeding internally around their brains and ears. Although the Navy initially denied any responsibility, the subsequent government investigation proved otherwise. Since then, many other strandings have been tied back to military activities and active sonar usage. So far, thousands of marine mammal deaths have been attributed to active sonar use.
And these are just the ones we can count.
What's Being Done?
Back in 1994, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) investigated rumors of active sonar experiments being conducted off our own California coast, a well-established whale migration route. The rumors proved to be true. Conservation organizations like the NRDC are continually lobby to limit use of active sonar in the world's oceans. Governmental agencies like the EU and NATO have been petitioned with some success. Some countries have already begun to phase out use altogether, or at least limit it where it will do the most harm. The United States has been hesitant to follow suit, despite the overwhelming evidence.
Conservationalists argue that where the technology cannot be abandoned entirely for security reasons, then at least it can be used judiciously. By avoiding key marine habitats like migration routes, breeding areas, and marine reserves, the negative effects of active sonar can be minimized, at the very least. Passive sonar (listening but not transmitting) can also be used to determine if marine mammals are in the area before using active sonar.
Still, for every positive step forward, it seems a road block arises. A federal court ruled the Navy's plan to deploy LFA sonar through 75 percent of the world's oceans illegal in 2003, in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The Navy and conservationalists came to a compromise: judicious usage of active sonar with regard to marine life with flexibility for training exercises. None of the limits applied during war or high threat conditions and the agreement was considered a good balance of environmental protection and national security. The Bush Administration didn't agree. They followed up by exempting the U.S. military from core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Now the administration is appealing the ruling limiting deployment of LFA sonar.
Dead Dolphins In Zanzibar
With no food in their bellies, it seems unlikely that the dolphins that washed up this past week were poisoned. Eastern African countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia have seen recent and continued Al-Qaeda activity, so it's not surprising to have an active military precence in the area. Banging away on active sonar, no less. National security is, therefore, a real concern here. But still, there is a cost to active sonar use that needs to be communicated to the public, understood, and considered when determining acceptable losses in decision making. These choices have a significant impact on our planet.
Quote of the Week: Boxing With Glaciers
It's like boxing a glacier. Enjoy that metaphor, by the way, because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is.
-Stephen Colbert, White House Correspondents' Dinner