Monday, July 25, 2011

Between Tides in Monterey

First, I would like to quote from Steinbeck's Cannery Row:

The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.

I recently read Cannery Row in preparation for my trip to Monterey. I read Of Mice and Men and The Pearl in high school, but perhaps due to my age, I did not appreciate how marvelously Steinbeck wrote. Now, as a biologist I revel in his accuracy and eloquence in describing intertidal marine life, not to mention his brilliant portrayal of human nature. Steinbeck was friends with Ed Ricketts, a great scientist and human being whose books Between Pacific Tides and Sea of Cortez remain ecological classics that are still relevant today. I was delighted to learn that Ricketts also influenced Joseph Campbell, mythologist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, of whom I am a fan. Steinbeck-Ricketts-Campbell: Oh to be sitting amongst these men at dinner or drink! All great writers and philosophers, but one novelist, one biologist, and one mythologist. Three of my greatest interests!

But I digress, I simply wanted to endorse Cannery Row as a great American novel, superbly written, capturing a slice of life at Monterey at a time when the fishing industry ruled and a ma could make a living combing through the debris left by the tides. It was one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in recent memory.

Partly inspired by the accurate tidal pool descriptions in the novel, I wanted to once again relish in witnessing the life-or-death ecological struggles that are played out in the transient worlds of tidal pools. I made my way yesterday to The Great Tidepool, which is just beyond the Point Pinos Lighthouse on Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. I made no spectacular finds, just the regular refuse of the surf, but still, for one unaccustomed to the watery rocky world "between Pacific tides," I felt as though I was treading on sacred ground. (I took my shoes off like Moses before the burning bush, more for fear that I would inadvertently squash some delicate creature than the sense of the sacred.)

I would like to share here the humble fruits of my exploring:

First thing you notice in the tidal pools (besides the giant blades of kelp) is the hundreds of still or slowly moving snail shells. Now it should be noted that not all snail shells host snails. As we well know, nothing is wasted in Mother Nature, and when a snail dies (or is eaten), the empty shell is often quickly inhabited by those funny creatures we know of as hermit crabs.

Now the type of snails and crabs that are present at Monterey, I am no expert. But to the best of my abilities, and with the use of a handy field guide, I am guessing that most of the snails (or snail shells) I photographed, belong to the Black Tegula, Tegula funebralis.

Photographing the crabs proved much more difficult. I saw hundreds of them, but they were always scattering just a few steps ahead of me. I am also one who is reluctant to turn over stones and disturb wildlife, unless it is for a scientific study. So I got excited when I got up close to one crab who wasn't moving, but then realized it was only the exoskeleton I was looking at. The crab had either died or molted. I think he was just a dead crab. Here I am holding up the carcass:

Thankfully, later to my delight, I was able to capture a living one on film. A photo is below:

I believe both the crabs, the dead photographed and the living on film, are purple shore crabs, Hemigrapsus nudus.

The dead, the living, scrambling atop one another. The living feed off the dead. One snails skeleton becomes a hermit crabs home. Beach fleas feast on the washed up kelp and algae, that dry out in the sun. Steinbeck said it best: "On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Visiting Big Sur

I was thrilled to wade in the Pacific Ocean today along the Monterey Coast and at Big Sur. Although I have been to this part of the world before, one can never get tired of the breath-taking scenic vistas offered along the coast here. Because of the rocky cliffs, steep hills, and high bluffs, shore access is surprisingly difficult in many parts of Big Sur, however I managed to find some foot-trails that offered access to some small coves where I could get my feet wet and climb about the rocky beaches, exploring what lies amongst the sand. I was hoping to find some pleasant tidal pools, but perhaps it was high tide, or I was not in a good location for tidal pools, as I found virtually none. Still I enjoyed spotting a sea lion, tons of beautiful kelp, and enjoying scrubby vegetation that is unfamiliar to us from the East Coast.

It was a beautiful day, but a lesson to myself to do my homework ahead of time. It was naive to think I could just stumble upon tide pools simply by going to where land meets sea. According to, some of the best tidepools in the world are nearby at Asilomar State Park. Perhaps I will make it there tomorrow!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Change in NYC

Picked this up at a farmers market in Manhattan:

Hey NYC! How can we make our city a greener, greater place to live?




Post an idea.

Connect with people and resources.

Make it happen together.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Last night I went to see Hamlet as performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festivel. I won't review the performance here, as that is not the purpose of this blog, but I will say that for me Boscobel and the Hudson River stole the show. I kept overlooking the actors and surveying one of the most scenic views of the Hudson I have yet encountered. There was a light rain and the mist rising off the river and filling the valley was enchanting. It was my first time there, but I am planning a trip back just to enjoy the scenery more, take photographs, and study the history of this storied place. Also there is presently an outdoor sculpture garden exhibit I'd like to explore more closely.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Boating Apps

For sailors, a new high-tech way to guide yourself home. Just don't drop your iPad in the water, or you'll be up a creek without a paddle. (Unless you actually know how to navigate the old-fashioned way!)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Implications for closing Indian Point

According to a New York Times article, a study circulating Albany says that closing Indian Point could raise air pollution levels by 5 to 10 percent even with renewable energy solutions, but as much as 15% without those measures. Also with 25% of NYC and Westchester energy coming from Indian Point, we would be at risk for brownouts at peak summer hours. Also energy costs would rise a projected 10%.

I guess creating a plan to have Westchester and New York City reduce their energy consumption by 25% is unrealistic. But I can dream, can't I?

In the wake of Japan's devastation, suddenly people in high places are beginning to call for the close of Indian Point. Governor Cuomo is apparently one of them, but Mayor Bloomberg doesn't want New York City to face potential brownouts, higher energy costs, and burning even more fossil fuels to feed our energy demands.

Personally, I'm not worried about another Fukushima in my backyard, but I am concerned about contamination leaks into the groundwater and the Hudson. For example, in 2005, a small leak in a spent fuel pool caused radioactive water to seep into the Hudson. That can't be good for the fish. In 2006, the New York Times found high levels of nickel-63 and strontium in the groundwater near Indian Point, which the plant operators admitted is from their leaking pool. How long was has Unit 1 been leaking? How much has gotten into the Hudson? How much into our drinking water? What are the effects for the health of the fish and the environment?

Entergy claims that Indian Point can sustain a terrorist attack, a plane crash, 6.1 earthquake, and many other extreme scenarios, but what about the small amounts of contaminants that seep silently into the groundwater. What are the long-term effects of this? Should we be concerned?

Earning Credit for Boat-Building and Sailing

Recent New York Times article features Rocking the Boat and other non-profits that engage students in meaningful hands-on learning activities after-school that build real-world skills and experience while often earning them course credit at the same time:

Hudson River Community Sailing developed its curriculum with the help of a certified teacher. For math credit in the spring, the students calculate things like the time it takes for a boat to travel a certain distance, given wind and current speed. Over the winter, students built 9-foot sailboats out of marine grade-plywood, an exercise in engineering that can carry science credit.

Different principals award different amounts of credit for the course, and they also determine whether the class is graded or pass/fail. Trevor Naidoo, the principal of Landmark High School in Chelsea, said he offered his students “mostly physical education credit” for the Hudson River Community sailing program, which runs for about six hours a week after school.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Windsurfing the Hudson

A teacher, water-lover, and writer posts about windsurfing the Hudson on this blog. Sounds like we have some common interests! I have only windsurfed once in my life, and I was not very good at it. It didn't help that there was virtually no wind when I tried. Wonder where I could get some lessons and rental to give this a second shot on my favorite river!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Swimming with Salps

At the Jersey Shore again today and when I plunge into the water I find myself in good company. Well, it's company anyways. There are swarms of small gelatinous creatures crowding the water. They are not jellies, but salps: a planktonic tunicate.

Tunicates are interesting in that they are in the phylum Chordata, and yet they don't have a backbone. As a biology teacher I had the interesting job of trying to clear up the misconception that all chordates have backbones. Technically a chordate simply has the following four characteristics at least at some point in their life:

1) a notochord
2) a hollow dorsal nerve cord
3) pharyngeal slits
4) a post-anal tail

At least this is what I was taught in school. In biology classification is an evolving field (pun intended) that is constantly causing us to shift how we categorize living things.

At any rate, as I scooped up my slimy companions from the water and studied them, I honestly couldn't discern any of the above structures. Of course these creatures are very small and transparent, and the features could have been present at a different stage in life, so who am I to judge. I suppose they are chordates, I'll have to take the word of the scientists out there who make these decisions.

I would really like to learn more about these little creatures. I know they are here because the pickings are good. Being planktonic they don't have a whole lot of say in where they go, but when there is lots of yummy phytoplankton around the salps go into asexual reproduction mode, consuming and budding off quickly to make lots of clones to profit from this feast. I guess the phytoplankton must be particularly abundant off the shore where I am staying right now for there to be so many salps.

Is the number of salp invasions increasing in frequency? I don't remember seeing salps a lot (or ever) as a kid, but now I seem to encounter them a lot. Any marine scientists out there able to speak to this? I better check the literature on salps. Is this an effect of global warming? Or pollution such as sewage or fertilizer run off in the oceans?

At any rate, the salps are harmless. Many swimmers find them a nuisance and complain, but I have to hand it to these tunicates, they are remarkably good at doing what they do. I try to think of them as little jelly gems in the ocean, and swim peacefully among them. After-all they do no harm, and these distant choradate relatives were probably on this Earth well before us cephalized bipedal primates decided to plan vacations along marine ecosystems that remind us of our evolutionary ancestral roots.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fire & Water

Tonight millions of Americans made their way to the nearest body of water to watch dazzling pyrotechnic displays in celebration of our independence. For many New Yorkers this means convening on the Hudson River. For others it means the Long Island Sound. For me... I find myself out of my normal habitat and instead dipping my toes in the Atlantic Ocean at the Jersey Shore.

But I sat smiling and enjoying the fireworks, I felt a little sadness too. I felt sad that the thousands of people at the beach would mean hundreds of pounds of litter the next morning. I felt sadness as I watched a child let go of a balloon and it sailed over the ocean. I wondered what marine life would wind up trying to eat the later deflated balloon. I coughed a little over the cigarette smoke, tripped over an empty bottle of vodka, and thought guiltily of how me and my two friends all drove separately to our beach house, although we all live close together and could have carpooled.

Freedom is not the same thing as license. With freedom comes responsibility. I question how responsibly I'm exercising my freedom to drive, consume goods, and spend my vacation. I question how we exercise our freedom to celebrate.

I was happy to spend my July 4th in this way with friends, but maybe one day I'll find a way to celebrate without the crowds, the driving, and the packaged food and bottled drinks. Although I care about the environment, there is a lot of room for improvement in how I live up to my own values.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tour the Bronx River! From your computer.

For those people who are curious about what the Bronx River is like as it winds from Muskrat Cove near Yonkers to Soundview Park where it empties into the Sound, check out this AMAZING virtual tour on the New York City Department of Parks website. The map and photos are great, but the best part are the interviews with the individuals who are working each in their own way to better the Bronx River. From an artist who dreams of a sculpture park in an abandoned park, to teachers conducting water quality tests with students, to a woman untangling the legal mess of who is responsible for the river to get cleanup efforts underway, these interviews tell a fascinating and powerful tale of how individuals are making a difference in their communities.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fish of the Week: Alewife Herring

Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)

Quoting from information from the Bronx River Alliance:

Here in the Bronx River the silvery alewife is an important part of the river’s ecosystem. It is a major food source for bluefish and striped bass, schools of which will often follow the returning alewives for many miles up estuaries and rivers. The alewife is also eaten by such spectacular birds as herons, ospreys, cormorants, and even bald eagles – and they’re healthier for them, too, since they return from the ocean with fewer toxins in their bodies than most freshwater fishes. They also feed eels, gulls, raccoons, crayfish, and turtles, and as the only known host for the freshwater mussel known as the “alewife floater,” the alewife may help reestablish this native population of filter feeders that will help clean the water.

Ranging from Newfoundland to South Carolina, the alewife is spawned in fresh or brackish water, after which both juveniles and adults return to the ocean until the next spring, when they return to the very waters in which they themselves were spawned in to begin a new round of their life cycle. A single alewife may do this for as many as seven or eight years in succession.

The alewife herring is not just a native to the Bronx River, but also the Hudson, Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and other marine estuaries from the Mid-Atlantic up to Nova Scotia. Some populations are landlocked and they are even considered an invasive pest in the Great Lakes. However the herring were once a welcome annual food source to the Native Americans and Pilgrims, until the rivers, both Hudson and Bronx, became polluted. The Bronx River has been dammed up in several places making the upstream migration for spawning impossible, and until recent environmental efforts to clean up the river, the Bronx River was practically an open sewer for waste and garbage.

However the Wildlife Conservation Society and New York City Department of Parks have been working together since 2006 to reintroduce the herring as a sort of experiment to see if a population could be sustained in the newly cleaned waters. (Previously the herring had not been seen in the Bronx River for nearly 350 years!!)

In 2009 seven herring were found to have returned to the Bronx River after a few years in marine waters. Scientists think that these fish return to their juvenile waters by following chemical markers in the water (they smell their way home!). The journey is remarkable and baffling to those of us who lose our way even with maps, street signs, and directions to our destination. The experiment proves that the fish CAN survive in the Bronx River, and not only that, they can make it to sea to mature and make it back to spawn. The problem is those pesky dams, some of which date back to colonial days when the river was used to power flour mills. Constructing "ladders" (they are more like water slides) for the fish to make it over the dams is expensive. For historic preservation reasons, I am guessing the city is reluctant to dismantle those stone dams which go back centuries.

This tiny article in the New York Daily News documents that ecologists working for the Bronx River Alliance was able to find alewife herring in the River for a second year in a row in April 2010. My question is, how has 2011 fared? Are the herring still returning? Are they able to spawn successfully in spite of the dams? How many have returned? I have just emailed a New York City Parks project manager to try to obtain more information on this. Before we celebrate the return of herring to the Bronx River, I need to ascertain that they are in fact still there. Then we need to think about how we can keep the population going and healthy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Strolling along the Sound, Running the Bronx River

Last night my mother and I indulged in some frozen dairy treats in Larchmont. We wanted to take a walk afterwards and I offered to take my mom to Manor Park. If all that is on Wikipedia is to be believed, it is quite an historic park. The history of which I was oblivious until a few moments ago, when I perused the aforementioned web page. What I did know of Manor Park is that is is strikingly beautiful. I as introduced to this gem a few years back by some friends. My mother who has lived in Westchester County most of her life was unaware of this reclusive park that opens out onto the expanse of the Long Island Sound. Standing on rocky outcrops that overlook the Sound you can watch the cormorants and gulls, the yachts and sail boats pass by, and see all the way to the Throgs Neck Bridge. I have climbed down to the shoreline and investigated the tidal pools finding Asteroidea, mollusks, and sundry other marine life.

Last night was a perfect evening. The air was cool and clear. We watched the sky change from azure to shades of pink and violet. We lingered among the fireflies and playing children, until it was getting quite dark and a patrolman asked us to leave the park.

Today I took my water-viewing west and ran alongside the Bronx River. There exists, as natives know, a ribbon park between the the Bronx River Parkway and the Amtrak Harlem line. It extends from Bronxville to White Plains, ending at the Kensico Dam. Today I just ran the bit from Tuckahoe to Scarsdale and back. When I am in better shape I hope to run the full distance this summer.

The weather was just perfect again today. It was very pleasant running in the shade. On one side there is the constant dull roar of cars on the Parkway, on the other you have the occasional whoosh of the Amtrak trains passing by. Yet this narrow park is still pretty and home to considerable wildlife. I always spot a few egrets standing or flying low across the waters. There are usually turtles sunning themselves on the logs. Today I nearly tripped over a chipmunk who seemed very startled by my giant lumbering presence. I tasted some mulberries of both the red and white variety. In past years I have come here to collect them for jams. A friend of mine who is a jammer also has harvested the abundant Japanese knotweed, an invasive species that is crowding out the local foliage along the river in several sections.

I stopped at one of the many bridges that criss-cross the river to peak down at the water. Yes, there are fish in this shallow river. I knew I had seen them before, but I wanted to confirm that they were still there. Although I recognize them, I don't know what species they are. Any tips on what fish inhabit the Bronx River between Bronxville and Scarsdale would be greatly appreciated. I am wondering if they are stocked, because of the waterfalls and artificial barriers, I am guessing they are not anadromous fish. It also seems too far upstream for that.

I have a lot to teach myself this summer before I begin teaching Bronx River ecology to a group of high school students in the fall.

Cod by Kurlansky

I just couldn't put down Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. This book is not just about the bottom-dwelling cold water fish with the flaky flesh that is popular in dishes from the Caribbean to Scandinavia, but it is also a book of human history, the fishing industry, and the anthropology of food! Filled with mouth-watering recipes (and some that readers may find repulsive) Kurlansky explains how cod fueled the slave triangle, fed Lenten diets in Spain for centuries, were secretly hunted by the Basques, fueled Vikings on their discovery of America, shaped Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Glouscester, Marblehead, and Cape Cod. Did you know there were three "Cod Wars" between British and Iceland? Okay, the wars were not officially declared, and there were no casualties, but at points bullets were fired, boats rammed, and trawling nets cut.

After reading this book, I am convinced that the cod has greatly impacted human history, but even more so have humans shaped the history of cod. At risk of giving away the ending, I will say that the conclusion is rather sad. The disappearance of the mighty cod is a harbinger and symbol of the ecological fate of our oceans. This book was published in 1998. I eagerly want to read an update. How has cod fared in the past 13 years? Anyone have any suggestions for follow reading and research?

New beginnings

I am a Biology teacher who focuses on the local ecology of the Bronx River. I conducted research at Rye Marshlands as an undergraduate, and studied water quality of the Long Island Sound. My small town of Pelham just touches on the Sound, and my mother's side of the family is from Yonkers. As a child I would visit my grandmother's house and watch the sun set behind the Palisades which majestically line the Hudson. I have lived in different parts of the country, from California, to Virginia and Maryland, but inevitably I keep winding up wedged between the Hudson and the Sound. I am fascinated by this little stretch of land, which can boast several "rivers": the Hutchinson, the Bronx, the Sprain, the Saw Mill, each of which is at most points more like a stream than a river. My studies of water quality began in eighth grade when I did water testing of the Hutchinson River. I would like to use this blog as a space for me to post my findings and keep up to date on all things Hudson to Sound and the minor waterways that lie in between.

However I will also focus on some of the cultural and historical aspects of these places, and will sometimes post regarding my own interests of cooking, running, religion, and teaching.