Tag Archives: California

In An Octopus’s Garden By the Sea

octopus
My close encounter with an octopus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

I met Steve Vogel after a Rotary International meeting in Carmel, California. Steve is the head of animal husbandry at the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium. He had come to our club to make a presentation on how the Aquarium tags sharks.

I have had up close one-on-ones several times with sharks so there was no news to me there. I was interested in the octopus.

As I explained to Steve, I was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium several years ago during the “member sleep-over.” Yes, as an Aquarium member, you may spend the night inside several nights each year. Now the term “sleep-over” is a misnomer since there is no actual sleep involved due to restless kids and snoring grandpas, but you get to snuggle up with the kelp forest tank none-the -ess.

I should mention that from age six to college, I aspired to be a marine biologist. My first open water expedition revealed that I get invariably seasick. I am now a botanist—a much more terrestrial endeavor—but I still yearn for the sea.

One Aquarium sleep over night, I was wandering around in places uninhabited by the other guests. Of course, they show the movie Jaws at midnight, thus removing all the children from the rest of the venue. I came upon a large enteroctupus dolfleinii, also known as the Giant Pacific Octopus. She or he (Steve made it known that they are not sure of octopus sexes) was attached to the thick Plexiglas side of her tank. I stood there marveling at her anatomy (I will use the term ‘she’ just for reference). She opened her eyes seemingly from a little nap and spotted me. Her eyes locked on to mine and she began to move. In an undulating fashion, she placed her magnificent body right in front of me while I was standing at her tank. She spread her eight tentacles in calculated moves as if she wanted to wrap her arms around me. But that is not what astounded me.

She looked deeply into my eyes, first with one eye, and then the other. The only way I can describe the experience is that we had a “moment.” We related somehow. I am not sure how cephalopods relate to each other, much less a human, but this was really something. I will never forget how that felt.

I described this event to Steve Vogel. I told him that since that encounter I refuse to eat Nama-tako (octopus in Japanese) at the sushi bar. I told him how mortified I was during Red Wing hockey games, without knowing why, when deranged fans threw dead octopi on the ice (this has since been outlawed, thank goodness).

He tilted his head. “Would you like to meet one?” Would I!!!!! As a science and environmental writer, I do get to do some pretty cool stuff. But this was special. It took several emails to make the arrangements, but yes, I did get to be with one.

My Magic Moment

I arrived with my old friend Danny McCarty, a professional photographer, and his 14-year-old daughter Alea. We were greeted by Cynthia Nolan, the new COO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who had been apprised of the encounter. I actually had not slept the night before as I was so excited. After all, how many people in the world get to do something like this? Steve arrived and took the three of us deep into the bowels of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Steve was very clear. “The octopus is a wild animal. It may or may not like you. If it doesn’t, it will go to the bottom of the tank and ignore you completely.” I knew this but was secretly hoping that we would have the “moment” that I had with the other octopus a few years before. That being said, I would be heartbroken if she rebuked me.

So we entered into the dark underbelly labyrinth behind the scenes at the world-acclaimed location. Steve led us up the stairs and opened the enclosure to the octopus’ garden.

“Now, it may not come. It has been fed already and it won’t be interested in eating.” Steve then started splashing water gently towards the creature. She was not far from us and reached out a tentacle. He splashed her a little more. She came right to me.

Octopi have taste receptors in each and every sucker. They have an incredible sensory and nervous system that can maneuver, extrapolate, decipher, and analyze information. She reached up to me and touched my arm. Then, the realization of my wildest cephalopod dreams, we fell in love.

She engulfed my upper torso. She stroked my face, my arms, my waist, and my shoulders. She looked at me as she caressed my body. She gently tried to assuage me to join her in the tank and I wanted to acquiesce. She was very strong. Steve mentioned that she was only twenty pounds. They had a seventy pound octopus before aptly named Octzilla. I was glad I was not so enamored with that big boy, because that could be dangerous.

My friend Danny reached his hand out to one of her larger suckers. She spit him out. She had no interest. She somewhat liked Alea, but not so much.

Now keep in mind, I was careful not to apply any lotion, oil, make up, or anything that would taint our tete a tete. I wanted an authentic experience, not to mention not wanting to spoil her garden.

Truth be told, things got a little heated. She had me engulfed, tugging hard to get me to dive in and play with her. Steve had to peel her off me to slow things down a little. She was excited. I felt her pull me into the center of her body. When I could feel her beak in the innermost folds of her skin, I asked Steve if she would bite. He said that she absolutely would not bite me, she never had. About three minutes later, she gave me a little love nibble. I will proudly wear that scar for the rest of my life.

After Steve pulled her away, sucker by sucker, tentacle by tentacle, we sadly said goodbye. I was so exhilarated by the experience, I practically skipped down the stairs. Steve led us through another labyrinth and out into the Aquarium itself. We looked at her through the Plexiglas in her own little garden where we had just been entwined. She was still lingering by the enclosure entry where we had been. She already missed me.

So I am now an advocate for the appreciation and conservation of the octopi. They are sentient beings living their lives the best they can—just as we are. How would you feel if someone came and yanked you from your home to be the nightly special at the sushi bar?

As stewards of this planet and all of its inhabitants, it is important to keep ourselves open to those “moments” with creatures with which we co-exist. It is imperative to protect their habitats and their lineages. There is something special between us Hominidaes and the other Kingdoms, Phylums, Classes, et cetera.

Something very special.

Upright

UPRIGHT

Excerpt from Book #1 in Brandon’s Pursuit Series, release date Winter 2014:

She had been walking through the Monterey pine and cypress forest, head bent, stooping to inspecting the soil. She remembered what her father had told her, Always remember to look up. She didn’t fully comprehend what he had meant; her nose was always to the grindstone.MontereyCypress- www.sbcatree.com

To her, the coastal pine forest in central California was an incredible place, almost holy—the soil a deep chocolate mélange of organic materials, a fusty rich womb of fundamental creation. She embraced every morning, dawning with perfectly descending sunlit fingers, toying with wisps of fog and ferns as they casually touched down upon a pristine landscape. It was as if the forest were immaculately tended by tiny invisible terrestrial gardeners.

The smell of the land, the soft indirect lighting and the slight chill in the air, even in the summer, had enticed her into her life’s path. She felt most at home in the arms of Mother Nature.

Living for the moment in that forest and remembering her father’s words, she did look up. She saw a grove of the structurally impressive Cupressus macrocarpa, the legendary Monterey Cypress, and marveled at its architecture.

She spied a spectacular 100-foot Pinus radiata—a Monterey Pine. This stately pine should have been extinct years ago and, as such, the species was riddled by countless insidious pests. Wood boring beetles, viruses, and a host of other denigrators had caused this large 150-year-old specimen to topple onto a lower sapling. The young tree lay at a 45-degree angle suppressed by the ancient, waning pine. The tip of the sapling was stubbornly raising its head up to the sky.

This scenario immediately brought Skyler’s memory back to that precious summer with her father long ago.

Every human strives to be upright whether they are aware of it or not. Even if he or she has had the worst possible situations descend upon them, forced to the ground, they will struggle to stay upright. Look around you in the forest child; you will see it happen over and over. You can see the young saplings leaning, stretching, and clamoring to find their place in the sun. When they get established in their own particular spot, they will reach for the sky in perfect harmony with the light, the earth, and in alignment with sheer gravity.

This is what you must do, my little sapling. Take the blows that have been dealt to you and use them to support your stature. The upright life that you lead will be a beacon for the rest of the forest.

She smiled softly. She would have given anything to have had more time with her father. She refused to allow herself to wallow.

 

California Oak Moths—Not All Bad…

 

Carmel Valley Oaks
Carmel Valley Oaks

Brandon Wiggins, Science Writer at Large

Perhaps the California Oak moth is not such a pest after all. Carmel Valley, as well as many other central and northern California areas, has been inundated with squishy worms, defoliated trees, and a brownish-gold detritus covering every surface from the driveway to the kids’ bikes. Albeit messy, the oak worm has its positive aspects.

With two breeding cycles in most years, the Oak Moth (Phryganidia californica) can heavily infest our local Quercus agrifolia, the coast live oak, every five to ten years. Locals have noted that the last infestation this severe was in 1984, yet another year of apocalyptic trepidation. During May and June, the juvenile half to one-inch multi-colored caterpillar will skeletonize the perennial oak’s leaves, cover decks and patio furniture in wormy goo, and chrysalize into many vein-winged oak moths within a few weeks.

Here in Carmel Valley where we have a unique mix of Quercus species, we are prone to these infestations. The deciduous oaks, the Holly Oaks (Quercus ilex), for example, are not eaten by the insatiable larva, but do host the female Phryganidia’s nesting requirements. Although the moths do not ‘eat,’ a job completely undertaken by the larval caterpillar stage, they do lay eggs on the underside of the deciduous oak’s leaves, ready to restart the cycle. Therefore those who have coastal live oaks near perennial oaks will suffer defoliation the most.

A completely fascinating process on its own, chrysalization encompasses the complete morph of liquefied stem cells that re-invent themselves into entirely new beings. Whose idea was that?

Distressingly, the Oak Moth may temporarily feed on other species that are not oak related. These insects will be unable to mature on this material and most will perish before crysalizing into moths. Along that line, if the oak has been completely defoliated, the caterpillars will become malnourished and eventually die without maturing into an egg laying entity. That would explain the putrefying material under the BBQ cover that was left in the corner…

The good news is that the caterpillar droppings, also known as frass, have a tremendous benefit to our overall ecosystem. That thick grainy substance is full of nitrogen and mobilizes overall carbon distribution. It also increases soil respiration and has a direct and indirect effect on nutrient and nitrogen cycling. The best treatment of this material is composting, along with other spring and kitchen waste, for your high nitrogen (green as opposed to flowering) crops.

As for our precious oaks, the University of California – IPM website states, “Healthy oaks generally tolerate extensive loss of leaves without serious harm, so treatment to control oak worm is usually not recommended.” Spraying for Phryganidia could harm birds and beneficial insects and only add more chemicals to an already inundated ecosystem. The oaks will completely recover unless they were weak and ready for their timely demise in any event. As of mid-June 2011, we are seeing new growth on the beleaguered oaks sprout with wild abandon.

As in life in general, the messy bits, also known as “squishy goo,” can nourish the most barren but fundamentally strong beings, given the opportunity and enough time to cycle through the natural processes. The oaks will come back more beautiful than ever. Maybe a few weeks of unsightly mess are worth it!

 

 

The Pursuit of Fluff—A journey into the everyday life of reality

MatherVernalPond
Young naturalist enjoying Mather Vernal Pond, Sacramento, California

Brandon Wiggins, Author and Conservationist

The pursuit of anything is nebulous.

It takes a great deal of clarity, conviction, and perseverance.

The dilemma of the 21st century human is to decide how much effort to dedicate to the pursuit of (fill in the blank). There are many distractions, delusions, and detritus. It is hard to actually tell what is important for the individual—and what is fluff.

It is not for anyone to say for another what is “fluff” and what is not. It means different things to different beings. Can my kid get into the “right” private school? Will my boss recognize the great work I’m doing? Can I ever possibly be the member of society that the media, my friends, and my parents think I should be?

Let’s take a look at the other 99-point-something percent of the bio-mass on this planet.

There are two rules for the survival and perpetuation of species in the natural world, according to Dr. Richard Merrill, a brilliant man and my mentor.

  1. Reproduction
  2. Conservation of Energy

That’s it. Everything else is superfluous.

“Reproduction” may be translated by Homo sapiens as making a contribution to the betterment of our species. The “conservation of energy” reflects the individual’s utilization of available resources. There are only so many minutes in a day, but ever so few moments in a lifetime.

The “energy” that we conserve is finite. It serves all of us to use it wisely.