December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.
November 28, 2012
What would you want to eat if you were starving on a dinghy lost at sea? In the 2001 novel Life of Pi, adapted as a movie now in theaters, the castaway protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi, spends the better part of a year on a lifeboat—and one day as he reaches a near-death pinnacle of hunger, suffering and delirium, he envisions a tree full of ripe figs. “‘The branches…are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs,’” Pi drones to himself in reverie. “‘There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.’” Readers are convinced: Perhaps nothing beats a fig for a starving man.
Life of Pi is fiction, but daydreaming of food is a real-life tradition as old as the saga of man against the elements. If we scour the pages of the many books about grueling expeditions across land and sea, we find an impassioned menu of sweet and savory delights to make the mouth water. In his 1986 memoir Adrift, author Steve Callahan—a sailor who was lost at sea for 76 days in 1982—sets a lavish table of dreams on page 108: “I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about food. Fantasies about an inn-restaurant [I dream of opening] become very detailed. I know how the chairs will be arranged and what the menu will offer. Steaming sherried crab overflows flaky pie shells bedded on rice pilaf and toasted almonds. Fresh muffins puff out of pans. Melted butter drools down the sides of warm, broken bread. The aroma of baking pies and brownies wafts through the air. Chilly mounds of ice cream stand firm in my mind’s eye. I try to make the visions melt away, but hunger keeps me awake for hours at night. I am angry with the pain of hunger, but even as I eat [the fish I caught] it will not stop.” (Film director Ang Lee consulted Callahan during the making of Life of Pi for accuracy in portraying the hardships of being lost at sea.)
Men Against the Sea, the historical fiction account of the sailors cast away on a lifeboat by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, is a novella steeped in stomach-scraping hunger. At one point, a man named Lawrence Lebogue exclaims after a failed skirmish with a huge sea turtle he had nearly pulled into the boat, “‘A monster…all of two hundredweight! … To think of the grub we’ve lost! Did ‘ee ever taste a bit of calipee?’” (Calipee is a main ingredient in turtle soup.) Moments later, Capt. William Bligh tells the crew’s botanist, David Nelson, of the feasts he sat in on in the West Indies. Bligh describes “‘their stuffing and swilling of wine. Sangaree and rum punch and Madeira till one marveled they could hold it all. And the food! Pepper pot, turtle soup, turtle steaks, grilled calipee; on my word, I’ve seen enough, at a dinner for six, to feed us from here to Timor!’”
Bligh and the loyal men of the Bounty lived like princes compared with those of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by an angry bull sperm whale in 1820. In Owen Chase’s autobiographical account of the ordeal, part of the book The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, the first mate holds a mostly dry and colorless course: He tells of how the 20 men journeyed for weeks in their small open boats, racing time, dehydration and starvation. They attempt in vain to kill sharks and porpoises, they land on an island and quickly exhaust its thin resources of bird eggs, and they continue across the open Pacific, hoping always to see a sail while growing ever weaker and emaciated. Through it all, the New Englanders essentially never eat or drink. Finally, Chase pauses in his chronology of dates and coordinates to tell of a moment in which he dozed off: “I dreamt of being placed near a splendid and rich repast, where there was every thing that the most dainty appetite could desire; and of contemplating the moment in which we were to commence to eat with enraptured feelings of delight; and just as I was about to partake of it, I suddenly awoke….” Chase leaves us with our eager forks aloft—and we never learn just what it was that he hoped to eat. Turtle soup, likely. In the following days as the anguished men expired one by one, Chase and his companions resorted to cannibalism. Just eight of the lot were rescued.
While stranded for the austral winter of 1916 on the barren Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, after escaping from Antarctica in three tiny lifeboats, the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition passed the time reading through a Penny Cookbook that one of the men had kept dry through many months of dire tribulations. And how that book made them dream! The men had been living for months on seal (and sled dog) meat, and Thomas Ordes-Lee, the expedition’s ski expert and storekeeper, wrote in his journal, “[W]e want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, black currant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.” Their carb cravings were more apparent when one man—the surgeon James McIlroy—conducted a poll to see what each sailor would have to eat if he could choose anything. Their answers included apple pudding, Devonshire dumpling, porridge, Christmas dumpling, dough and syrup and a fruit tart—with most of these dolloped with cream. Just two men wished for meat (pork was their choice), while one with a bleaker imagination said he just wanted bread and butter. For three more months until their rescue, they ate seal and rehydrated milk.
Author Jon Krakauer tells us in his 1990 Eiger Dreams of the time 15 years before that he and a climber friend named Nate Zinsser were holed up during a storm while ascending a new route up the 10,335-foot peak Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska. Dreaming of food, Zinsser said, “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member on Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic voyage of 1901-1903 on the Discovery, recalls one frigid winter’s day, saying, “And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.” And Felicity Aston, a modern explorer from Britain whom I interviewed last January about her solo ski trip across Antarctica, recalled as a highlight of her journey receiving a gift of a nectarine and an apple upon reaching the South Pole research station.
There was no food shortage on the Norwegian research vessel Fram, which Fridtjof Nansen captained into the Arctic Ocean in 1893. His sturdy boat was built with a fortified hull under the plan that she would become frozen in the sea ice and thereby allow Nansen to track the drift of the ice layer by watching the stars—classic, rock solid science in the golden age of discovery. It was a planned “disaster” voyage—and the men went prepared. Nansen, who finally stumbled home again in 1896 caked in campfire soot and seal grease, wrote in his 1897 memoir Farthest North that the expedition carried at the outset several years’ worth of canned and dried foods of numerous sorts. Only during foot or skiff expeditions away from the boat—such as Nansen’s long hike home—did the team members experience great monotony of diet. On one outing, they forgot butter to slab on their biscuits and so named the nearest land “Cape Butterless.” They lived during longer forays on seal, walrus and polar bear—pinniped and bear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; so much pinniped and bear that the reader feels an itch to floss his teeth and scrub down with dish detergent. Meanwhile, Nansen stops to take depth soundings, sketch fossils, study rock strata and express interest in every piece of possible data—and though the pragmatic scientist never does slip into a shameless food fantasy, we know he had them.
If you’d been in Nansen’s boots, what would you have piled on your plate?
September 20, 2012
The conversation of climate change and its possible effects on our world and our future often hinges on millimeters of sea level rise and half degrees of temperature increase—little enough, perhaps, to make it all sound irrelevant if you’re already a skeptic, or by no means an emergency, anyway. Yet, little by little, ice is melting, storms are getting worse, deserts are expanding and islands are going under. In 2005, a hundred residents of Tegua, an island in the Torres group, turned off the lights, closed their doors and sailed away for good. It was reported as the first known instance when a modern community was abandoned to rising sea levels—though people have questioned what role global warming really had in the abandonment. Now, more islands, coastal cities, low-lying farmlands and wild wetlands are looking at a future growing grimmer by the year. Here are a few ideas of things to do and places to see before climate change swamps the party.
Walk on the beaches of Tuvalu. While standing on the sand and staring across the world of water that surrounds this Polynesian island group with roughly 10,000 people, climate change suddenly seems a force far beyond reckoning with—for predictions that the seas will rise by a full meter or more by 2100 plainly spell doom for a place like this, whose highest point stands no more than 15 feet above sea level. The island is already famous for its very inadequacy as a sustainable nation. There is not enough freshwater to drink, and there is virtually no economy. Now, sea level rise seems to be gnawing at Tuvalu’s wispy, sandy figure—and at its future. Although climate change doubters have accused islanders in Tuvalu of seeking economic gain by exploiting their predicament—and maybe even exaggerating it (islanders have threatened to sue nations of the developed world for reckless carbon emissions)—some scientists say that Tuvalu, and other islands like it, can count their days. Take a walk on this beach while you can. Other islands to visit while they’re above water might include Vanikoro, Kiribati and the Florida Keys.
Snorkel on a coral reef. Throughout the world’s tropical oceans, coral reefs are dying. Bleaching and diseases are destroying these rich sites of micro- and mega-organisms. Ocean acidification—caused by CO2 absorption into the sea and characterized by dropping pH levels—is also having severely deleterious effects on coral and could render some marine regions downright corrosive to certain materials by 2050. As of 2011, according to the environmental news source Grist, 75 percent of the earth’s coral reef environments were deemed to be threatened, while 20 percent were reported already dead—their busy, subsurface communities, occupying just 1 percent of the seafloor but home to 25 percent of marine species, gone silent. The timely correlation to rising global temperatures, plus the rapidity of the phenomenon, leaves little doubt that humans are at fault. Put on your masks and fins and jump in—soon.
Taste the fine wines of the Napa Valley before they turn to plonk. While midocean islanders might have to take to lifeboats as climate change unfurls, winemakers may also have consequences pending. In the Napa Valley, some bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon sell for more than $1,000—but a report in 2006 by Southern Oregon University climatologist Gregory Jones predicted that by the year 2050, this most esteemed of American winemaking areas could be too hot to grow premium wine grapes. Jones has said that just a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2050 could place the Napa Valley at the “upper limit of its capability.” But Jones recently told this reporter during a phone interview that the distinction between a fine wine and a mediocre wine is a nuance only detectable by, perhaps, 25 percent of wine drinkers.
See a polar bear. The intrigue and mystique of the polar bear, to say nothing of its camouflaging properties, are so embedded in a world of floating ice that we may wonder just how this greatest of carnivores could live anywhere else. In fact, it may not be able to. While the polar bear is no stranger to munching berries and shoreline grasses, such bruins always take to the ice again at first freeze to resume the blubber hunt. But the ocean’s northerly ice cap, year by year and acre by acre, is disappearing. This summer, for instance, the Arctic sea ice shrank to less than half of its what it was 40 years ago. For the polar bear, extinction is the worst possible, and perhaps likely, outcome—while speciation is another. This could leave the earth without the polar bear but create a new one—a hybrid between Ursus maritimus and its close cousin, U. arctos, the brown bear. Already, the two have been observed mating and producing fertile offspring in the wild. This may be great news. Nonetheless, you may want to go see a wild polar bear while you can—before the great white bear turns brown.
Hike through the woods in the Everglades. The Everglades is among the world’s wild areas most threatened by climate change. A three-foot increase in sea level will flood much of this forested wetland, stealing precious habitat from the indigenous cougar subspecies, the Florida panther, and the local black bear. What’s more, millions of Floridians are looking at serious consequences of climate change. The entire coast is considered extremely vulnerable to the expected sea level rise, which may be accompanied by inundating storm surges during hurricanes. Florida’s highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, and about 10 percent of its coastal zone could be swamped by seawater by 2100.
Kayak the streets of Venice. The future of Venice is nothing but a watery one—though it’s unclear whether the city will prosper or just go under. In 2009, residents held a mass mock funeral for their town when the declining population hit a benchmark low of 60,000. And while an expensive sea wall could save this city, already a gray urban swamp teeming with gondolas and aquatic taxis, some people—call them curmudgeons or realists—are talking about abandoning it. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Venice is sinking and has been for centuries. Four hundred years ago, occasional high tides washed into the streets. By 1900, high waters were washing over St. Mark’s Square at least a half dozen times annually. In 1996, the city flooded 99 times. Today, monuments and buildings are considered threatened by saltwater intrusion, many first floors have been vacated and thriving tourism on the order of 20 million visitors per year seems to be replacing the resident community itself. But it all spells good times for kayak rental companies—and this is at least one vacation you have plenty of time to take. Other cities that could be swallowed by the sea include New York City, Houston, Bangkok and New Orleans.
August 14, 2012
A real-life drama, tragically similar to the story line of the 1974 film Jaws and replete with sharks, a reluctant town mayor and hired fishermen, has erupted on a small island in the Indian Ocean.
Here, on the usually idyllic community of the French-owned Reunion Island, a 22-year-old surfer named Alexandre Rassica died after a shark bit his leg off in late July. Thierry Robert, mayor of the small Reunion beach town of St. Leu, answered by proposing that local fishermen cull the island’s shark population in spite of protections imposed in 2007, when area coral reefs were made part of a marine reserve. An immediate global outcry from shark advocates sent the mayor backpedaling, however, and he withdrew his proposal. The sharks remained protected, and begrudged surfers kept surfing.
Then, days later, another man was attacked—a 40-year-old who survived but lost a hand and a foot. About 300 outraged surfers gathered outside the St. Leu town hall, demanding an organized hunt. Two fatal shark attacks in 2011 along the island’s beaches already had the local wave-riders on edge, and this time Robert said he would open up the marine protected area to shark fishing.
Now, as Discovery Channel’s annual TV series “Shark Week” takes to the tube amid all the usual viewer excitement over the world’s most feared and fascinating predators, the hunt is officially on at Reunion Island. Hired fishermen, reportedly to be paid by the French government, have been charged with the task of removing 20 sharks from the island’s waters—10 bull sharks and 10 tiger sharks, each species being a known culprit in numerous attacks. Yes: it’s a bounty, that wayward feature of 19th-century wildlife management that many of us supposed had been done away with decades ago. And while the island’s people are understandably upset by the string of attacks, it’s fair to ask: Is imposing a shark bounty the appropriate course of action?
After my last shark post, in which I wrote about the Western Australian government’s proposal to lift protections on great white sharks after a fifth swimmer was attacked and killed in less than a year, numerous comments came in, with most readers lambasting the suggestion of intentionally reducing shark numbers in Western Australia. Several people, though, voiced support for thinning the population of great whites, and one reader even alleged that pro-shark advocates might sing in a different key if they ever spent time in the water. That was an erroneous blast of hot air, for many or most shark advocates do go into the water. They include surfers, kayakers and divers—and I’m among them. I spend many days each year snorkeling in great white shark habitat off the beaches of the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m aware of the small risk of a shark attack and even wear a Shark Shield in the hope of reducing the danger—but I wouldn’t wish to see white shark fishing, illegal since 1994, resume even though it might lower the risk of an attack.
When we walk into a coconut grove, we risk getting bonked fatally on the head. When we cross the street, we risk getting squashed by a car. And when we go surfing, swimming or diving in the ocean, we run the risk of encountering a shark. And so it seems fair that as long as we plant coconut trees and manufacture vehicles, we must refrain from organized shark hunts.
But as we speak, organized, get-paid-to-kill shark hunting is already underway—and even generating praise from the press. A young sport fisherman in Pensacola, Florida, recently won the annual Outcast Mega Shark Tournament on August 4 by reeling in a half-ton tiger shark, which one of the angler’s companions shot in the head with a pistol after a three-hour battle on rod and reel. Tiger sharks are protected in Florida state waters, but the angler, 21-year-old Tyler Kennedy, and the boat’s crew were in federal waters when they hooked the fish. After securing the big dead fish to the boat, they towed it back to port, where the official scale of the fishing derby rang in the tiger shark at 948.6 pounds. The group posed for numerous photos with the bloody, tail-tied shark, its belly distended with what would turn out later to be a seven-foot-long porpoise.
Vividly illustrating the bizarre cultural contradiction between advocating to protect sharks while simultaneously practicing the sport of killing them, Kennedy, who would catch a 336-pound bull shark the next day, told the media he was pleased that the shark’s bulging belly was not laden with unborn pups.
“We were worried that it was going to be pregnant because we really don’t want to kill a bunch of baby sharks,” he told the press.
The young Kennedy’s words were heartening, but confusing. Because which is it? Do we want sharks dead? Or alive? Around the world, these animals command a strange sort of fascination in their human admirers—an urge to see, learn and encounter, but also to kill. While “Shark Week” plays on the Discovery Channel, we’re killing the animals. Shark butchery continues in spite of laws that prohibit cutting off the the fins of live sharks—and some authorities have even shown reluctance to support shark protection laws. Estimates vary, but it seems humans kill between 26 million and 73 million sharks per year for their fins, a prized and essential component in the controversial Asian delicacy shark fin soup. Other mortality totals are not even accounted for. Even some research institutes that advocate shark conservation seem reluctant to criticize shark derbies, which provide them with specimens for dissection. To be fair, shark derbies kill a small percentage of total sharks killed each year—but the public celebration and cheer that derby fishermen receive are troubling. The Outcast Mega Shark Tournament is hardly the only active derby. The Monster Shark Derby is held every summer in Martha’s Vineyard, where crowds of summering tourists cheer and applaud anglers as they haul their dead mako, thresher, porbeagle and tiger sharks from their boats for weigh-in. The Yarmouth Shark Scramble in Nova Scotia, Canada, is still one more, a derby spotlighted in journalist Carla Allen’s new book, Shark On Line. The Food Network’s “The Wild Chef” even sent their hosts out fishing several years ago on a boat at the Yarmouth derby to kill a shark, for the paltry thrill of cooking it at sea. That these derbies and others still take place is a discouraging thorn in the side of conservationists, and a reminder that the lust that has driven humans to wage war on so many cohabitants of the planet still boils in our blood. Opposition to shark derbies is loud (this Facebook page is dedicated wholly to stopping shark-killing tournaments). Yet enough media sources cover the events that it seems clear they’re pandering to some segment of their readership enthralled at seeing sharks die.
In related news, the aforementioned Shark Shield—an electronic device that costs a pretty penny (about $600)—may not be the shark deterrent we would like it to be. Tests by researchers in South Australia found no difference in the frequency with which great whites attacked tuna carcasses fitted with the device and those served au naturel. But a similar series of tests conducted in South Africa produced conclusions well in favor of the Shark Shield’s purported effectiveness.
In less related news, juvenile salmon sharks, possibly affected by a bacteria, have been washing ashore on Northern California beaches. The salmon shark is a close relative of the great white and the mako. They can grow to hundreds of pounds in weight and bear a formidable armory of teeth but are not known to attack humans. When the first beaching incident of this summer occurred on August 5 at Manresa State Beach, several beachcombers found the stranded juvenile and carried it back to the water. Later the same day, another juvenile appeared thrashing on a beach in Pacifica—and do you know who came to the rescue and delivered the pup back to water? Surfers.