The Birds: Studying the Gulls on Protection Island

   In mid-afternoon, the word goes out across the eastern end of Protection Island – a cacophony of seagull cries that might translate as: “He’s back.”
   And here comes Jim Hayward, that scientist, armed as usual with a clipboard and a portable scale, stepping carefully through the grasses, peering into nests and meticulously recording what he sees. 
   His reception is best described as mild annoyance. One by one, the gulls waddle off their rudimentary nests, turn and watch Hayward inspect their handiwork – one or more eggs the color of Army camouflage. If gulls could put their wings on their hips and roll their eyeballs like a Disney animation, they would. But then Hayward moves on, and they return to the nests
    Fact is, Hayward has become more or less part of the family. If seniority counts for anything, he has as much claim to this stretch of prime waterfront real estate as the gulls do. Each summer for 21 years, he has returned to resume his lifetime of research with glaucous-winged gulls, several thousand of which nest in the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge.
    To most of us, the island is an alluring image, like Bali Hai, shrouded in offshore mist and strictly off limits to visitors. But to Hayward and his wife, both PhD professors at Andrews University in Michigan, it is a rare, outdoor laboratory, one of the best places on earth to study the biology and behavior of gulls and other seabirds. Each spring, they return to the island to resume that work. 
    If it sounds idealic, consider the living conditions. For three months, home is a rustic cabin atop the island.  They haul all their food, drinking water, fuel and anything else they need by boat from the Cape George marina. They sleep on a mattress on the floor, do all their own repairs and maintenance, and bounce around the island in a rickety pickup truck that is more rust than steel. And, for all this, you will never hear a single complaint. “We are grateful to be here,” Hayward says.
    In their own way, so are the gulls. These are the same birds you’ll see gliding in the slipstream of your Puget Sound ferry, or begging for French fries at McDonalds. And thousands of them, mostly glaucous-winged gulls, return each spring to nest on Protection Island – followed soon thereafter by Hayward and Henson.
    Funded by the National Science Foundation, they are studying the dynamics of breeding colonies – the factors that influence or govern gull populations. “We’re interested in patterns of behavior,” he says. “ What they do, and why they do it.”
    Gulls are ideal subjects for such work, Hayward says. They nest in large colonies and they’re comfortable around people. They’re larger than most birds, and they live in the open, where they can be monitored. They are active during the day. “And they have an interesting, complicated behavior, which has been studied for many years, so that it is fairly well understood.”
    They monitor gulls in several ways. First, they maintain an observation station from the top of the bluff, overlooking the grass-covered spit that extends half a mile to the east, toward Port Townsend. “This is one of the best places in the world to study gulls,” Hayward says. “You can see everything.”
   From that vantage point, they use high-powered spotting scopes to scan their research plots, carefully recording bird-by-bird what their subjects are doing at every hour of the day.
Meanwhile, they maintain banks of digital video cameras, trained on the same nesting areas, running continuously.
    When the birds begin to lay their eggs – usually in mid to late May – Hayward begins his daily tour of the research area, walking through designated plots, inspecting some 300 nests scrawled into the low grass near the shore, counting eggs. Each of hundreds of eggs is weighed, marked and recorded daily for two months – from mid-May to mid-July. Eventually, all this data is entered into Henson’s solar-powered laptop computer, where the number-crunching occurs.
    They’re trying to understand, and eventually predict, how gull numbers will fluctuate based on certain factors – sunlight, temperature, tides, predators and the like.
     For some years, Henson hoped to apply “chaos theory” to gull populations. Chaos is the idea, largely developed by the late Edward Lorenz, that attempts to use seemingly minute changes in biological systems to explain and even predict larger events that appear unrelated. To illustrate his theory, Lorenz suggested a butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil and sets off a chain of events that leads to a tornado in Texas.  Gulls seemed like logical candidates for chaos theory; in fact, Lorenz is said to have considered using the illustration of a gull, rather than a butterfly, flapping its wings.
    Years of work, however, now suggest that gull behavior is best understood not by chaos, but by synchrony, Henson says. Gulls lay their eggs in synchronized “pulses,” she says – lots of eggs on one day, far fewer the next day, then back to higher numbers the third day. 
   “Why would birds lay their eggs in synchronization?” she asks. “That’s what we’re trying to determine.”
    Similarly, they used their data to create a mathematical model that uses tides and time of day to predict, for example, how many birds will perch on the pier at Protection Island. It worked. 
     And so what? Why should we care about when gulls lay their eggs? Hayward offers some practical applications. Gulls, for example, tend to become pests around cities and airports. As scientists increase their understanding of behavior, they could come up with strategies for dealing with birds.
     In a broader sense, gulls provide models that help scientists understand other animals’ behavior. “We’re trying to develop new mathematical techniques to do hard science and ecological field counts,” Henson says. If science can learn to predict fluctuations in gull numbers on Protection Island, they are likely to learn something applicable to ecosystems.
     And, Hayward adds, “I’m just curious. I want to know why gulls are calling now and not later. I want to know why there are more birds in one plot than another. I want to know why they lay their eggs in synchronized pulses.”
     Besides , it brings them back to a place that, despite the rugged living conditions, has become something of a second home. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also play,” Hayward says. “Later in the summer, when we’re not collecting data so intensively, there’s time to relax in a unique place, with no TV, no Internet, no stereo, no cellphones. It’s a sanctuary for us as well as for the gulls.”

(  (From the Port Townsend Leader, July 2008.)

To Sail a Tall Ship

   Pushed by a fresh northerly and a stiff flood tide, the tall ships returned to Puget Sound this week, sailing one-by-one through Admiralty Inlet and continuing down the sound for a gathering of traditional tall ships.
   Last to arrive was the familiar Lady Washington, the Grays Harbor-based brigantine which tied up alongside the Hawaiian Chieftain and Lynx at the Northwest Maritime Center dock. “We always look forward to coming here,” said Ryan Meyer, skipper of the Lady.
   They are among some two dozen tall ships that are stopping off here in route to a spectacular gathering over the Fourth of July weekend on the Tacoma waterfront.
     Tall ships are hardly a novelty to Port Townsend. The waterfront is home to the historic schooners Adventuress and Martha, and the Lady Washington is a frequent visitor. Three years ago, a similar fleet dropped anchor here in route to Tacoma.
   Sailing ships are embedded in this town’s genetic material, like madrona trees and facial hair. Tall ships were the reason the town was established in the first place. Arriving sea captains dropped anchor here to wait for tugboats to take them down the sound to Seattle and beyond. All those handsome Victorians were built by people who expected the railroad to terminate at Port Townsend, so sailing ships could be unloaded without dealing with the sound’s whimsical winds and currents.
   Then, of course, came steamships, and the Age of Sail came to an abrupt end. Those elegant tall ships, with their billowing trapezoidal sails and spiderweb rigging, were suddenly obsolete. Grand old schooners and clipper ships were dismasted and converted to barges, or left to rot on the tideflats. By the early 1970s, only a handful were left.
   Since then, there has been a comeback, perhaps triggered by TV images of the tall ships gathering in New York’s harbor for the 1976 Bicentennial. Old boats like Martha and Adventuress were painstakingly nursed back to life. The Lady Washington was built in Grays Harbor and turned over to a non-profit.
    Today, depending on who’s counting, there are perhaps 200 ships of various classes, ranging from relatively small schooners to a few grand square-riggers. Most, like Adventuress and Martha, are operated by private non-profits and used for sail training. Others are available for charters.
    And Port Townsend is a favorite stopping point. In part it’s because of the cadre of shipwrights, sailmakers and riggers who have chosen to live and work here. But Port Townsend’s waterfront is also the right scale for a tall ship. They moor here comfortably without being dwarfed by skyscrapers, cruise ships and oil tankers. The town and the ships share a common heritage.
   The tall ship comeback could be mistaken for just another toy for sentimental hobbyists. But anybody who has ever sailed aboard one of these ships understands that they fire people’s imaginations, much as they did in the time of Columbus or Cook. It still seems amazing that these big, beautiful vehicles can move at all.
    And at a time of $4 gas and a looming energy crisis, we’re also reminded that they are triumphs of energy efficiency. How can we not admire an ancient technology that can traverse oceans without burning a drop of oil.

   (From the Port Townsend Leader, July 2008)

Exodus NW: The Plague of the Jocks

    Now it has been written that, at the dawning of the Third Millennium, there was joy in the Land of Sasquatch. For, after years of famine and disappointment, the sports gods did smile upon the people.
   Behold, the Huskies won 11 games, and were victorious at the Bowl of Roses. And Ichiro the Quick and Edgar the Ancient led the lowly Mariners to a hundred victories and more, and they overthrew even the evil Yankees. And the Seahawks, led by Shawn the Sure-Footed, won many victories and were elevated to the Bowl of Bowls. And the lowly Sonics won, owing to the many heroic deeds of Gary the Glove.
     And the people of the Land of Sasquatch were most pleased, praising the shooters of basketballs and hitters of baseballs and carriers of footballs. And they built great Palaces iin honor of  their champions, and paid for them by levying hotel taxes upon innocent visitors.
    Now it came to pass, in the reign of Gregory the XL, that there arose a new master of the Sonics, and his name was Clay the Philistine. And the Philistine desired that the players of basketball should journey from the Land of Sasquatch unto the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey, which he believed to be somewhere in Oklahoma.
   But, yea verily, the Sonics had rendered a solemn oath to play many more years at the Basketball Palace, in the center of the Land of Sasquatch.
    So Clay said unto Gregory XL: “The Basketball Palace is no longer satisfactory, for the wealthy Pharisees demandeth to sit on high upon the skyboxes, but the Basketball Palace hath too few skyboxes. Therefore we beseech thee to construct a greater Basketball Palace.
    At this, Gregory the XL was confused. And he went before the people and asked of them: “Shall we build a greater Basketball Palace for Clay the Philistine?”
     And they people said with a loud voice: “Nay! A thousand times Nay! For verily we hath not yet paid for the old palace.”
   And so Gregory XL said unto the Philistine: There shall be no new palace.
   Now Clay the Philistine was greatly troubled. And he said unto Gregory XL: “Thou hast spurned by request. So therefore I shall take my players of basketball and travel through the wilderness to the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey.”
    But Gregory XL said: “Thou canst not violate thine oath.”
And the Philistine said: “I will make sacrifices and burnt offerings to the people, and thus satisfy my oath to play in the Basketball Palace.”
    But Gregory’s heart was hardened. And he said: “Send us not thy burnt offerings, but only thy players of basketball.”
    So the Philistine said unto him: “Therefore we shall journey to the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey. Let my players go!”
    But Gregory’s heart remained hardened, so that he spurned the Philistine’s entreaties.
    And so the Philistine became angrier so that he fell upon the ground and swooned. And he summoned his magicians for advice. And lo the Philistine held forth his staff, and waved it, and said onto the people of Sasquatch: “Woe upon thee, and especially upon thine sports palaces!”
   And it came to pass that a great cloud descended upon the Land of Sasquatch. And while the rest of the world became warmer, there were only dark clouds and cold rain across the land of Sasquatch, even unto the month of June.
   And Clay said: “Let my players go!” But Gregory’s heart remained hardened.
   So the Philistine waved his rod and caused a Plague of Jocks. And, lo, the Husky football coach bore false witness, so that he was banished into the wilderness. And the Husky players flunked beginning basketweaving, or were arrested for sundry crimes, and were disqualified so that the Huskies could not defeat the Beavers, much less the Trojans.
And the Philistine caused Shawn the Sure-footed to be injured, so that the Seahawks no longer journeyed to the Bowl of Bowls.
    And Jamie, He of the Slow Pitch, was banished to the Land of the Phillies. And Edgar the Ancient and Jay of the Bones retired to green pastures, so that only Ichiro the Quick remained. And the Mariners were victorious no more, but instead humiliated the people of the Land of Sasquatch.
   And the Players of Basketball were scattered asunder unto far-off lands, and were replaced by lesser players. And the people were humiliated further.
   Trouble and discontent spread across the Land of Sasquatch. And the people descended into the streets of the city and fell down to rend their T-shirts. And they erected a great burning altar among the sports palaces, and brought their Ms caps and Ichiro bobblehead dolls and Gary the Glove hooded sweatshirts, and cast them upon the fire, crying aloud: “Woe upon us, for these are indeed the darkest days ever in the Land of Sasquatch.”
    And they went unto the High Priest, and beseeched her to prevent the lesser players of basketball from journeying into the wilderness. And amongst the plaintiffs was one Sherman, the Poet, who said unto the High Priest: “We beseech thee to prevent our players of basketball from journeying to foreign lands. For unto us, the players of basketball are as Greek gods.”
    At this, the clouds parted, and a bright light shone from the Heavens. And the bright light produced a Very Deep Voice which said: “Greek Gods! What hath been wrought upon the Land of Sasquatch?”
   And the Very Deep Voice became deeper still, and said: “Verily I say unto you, people of Sasquatch: Get thee a life.”

Shake Hands (ALL of 'em) with O.Dofleini the Great

   Somewhere in the basement of the Seattle Aquarium, six Port Townsenders gather around a utilitarian saltwater tank, lift the top hatch, and peer into the watery blackness. “Hello, Harry,” somebody says. “ Come on out and see us.”
   A mottled-red tentacle slithers to the surface, up and out of the hatch. It keeps on coming, groping for something – food, or love, or just contact with another intelligent being. Another tentacle follows, finds a humanoid hand and wraps itself around it. The hand recoils, and the rubbery suckers break loose with a bubblewrap-like crackle. 
    “Meet Harry,” says our aquarium guide. “Harry Potter.”
    For 20 minutes or so, we stand around that inelegant tank, shaking hands with a slimey critter named for a wizard and equipped with enough limbs to greet us all at the same time.
    Harry, of course, is not just your everyday octopus. He is O. dofleini -- a giant Pacific Octopus – the world’s largest known octopus species. In addition, he is the aquarium’s octopus in waiting; soon he will be moved upstairs to the main octopus display tank, replacing the present occupant, who is about to be released into Elliott Bay. 
     Port Townsend is home to lots of giant Pacific octopus. They can be found living in the rock jetty at Point Hudson. A single shipwreck in Discovery Bay once proved to a rocky condominium for at least eight big guys. Steve Blazina, a Marrowstone Island diver with a longtime affinity for O.dofleini – recently found one living in a log just offshore from Swain’s ; that critter now resides at the Marine Science Center in Pousbo.
   But, for those without scuba tanks, the Seattle aquarium remains the best place around to get up close and personal. Staff biologist Roland Anderson has been caring for and studying local octopus for some 30 years, and he probably knows them better than anyone.
    At about 30 pounds, Harry is no monster. Giant Pacifics are rumored to exceed 100 pounds, measuring more than 12 feet from the tip of one tentacle to another. (Their smaller cousins, O. rubescens or "red octopuses," are teacup sized.) But most “giants” are more or less Harry’s size.
   Large or small, the octopus is a physiological masterpiece - eight tentacles, each of which can operate independently or in graceful synchrony with the others, all emerging from beneath a soft, hoodlike mantle topped by two eyes that seem to size up visitors with profound skepticism.
   Nothing else on earth moves quite like an octopus. Most of time, they move on the bottom, not so much walking as flowing and oozing, each tentacle doing its share of the work. But, when inspired to do so, they become jet-propelled, ingesting sea water and ejecting it at will through a flexible funnel, hurtling through the water like guided missiles.
   They are masters of disguise, instantly flashing from red to orange to brown to white – reflecting the whim or emotion of the moment, or the color of their environment. Unburdened by a skeleton, they are expert contortionists, squeezing through impossibly small spaces. They are strong enough to lift more than their own weight; if Harry’s tank weren’t latched, he would slither out and across the concrete, searching for an ocean.
    And they are very, very smart -- at least by invertebrate standards. Anderson has spent years studying and illustrating their intelligence.
   Octopuses are born, appropriately enough, under rocks, which is where mom deposits some 50,000 to 75,000 eggs, each the size of a grain of rice, and guards the nest four to six months. Once hatched, the newborn octopus floats with the currents, feeding on plankton, gaining as much as 2 percent of its body weight per day. Most will be gobbled up by larger creatures, but the fortunate few who reach maturity will live three to five years.
   As adults, they live in rocky dens and crevices, in shipwrecks or discarded tires or even beer bottles - any place they can squeeze themselves for protection from predators. Their strictly carnivorous diet soon graduates to crabs, clams and fish.
   Their feeding strategy is unique, Anderson says. Octopus have a rasping tongue, much like a small file. They may just pull a clam apart, or they may use that tongue to drill a pinhole in the shell of a clam and inject a saliva that kills the organism within seconds.
    Anderson has recently learned that they are smart enough to seek the easiest method available. But, given the opportunity, they relish their clams pre-processed – on the halfshell.
    The octopus has a parrotliike beak which, in combination with its venom, gives it a nasty bite. Anderson has never been bitten, but some of his colleagues have been. The toxin causes pain and swelling comparable with a bee sting, he says, and may leave a scar. Ironically, the smaller red octopus is more likely to bite than the giants, whom Anderson describes as "pussycats."
   They are somewhat transient creatures, moving from den to den, staying a month or so until it has depleted the local food supply. In some cases, octopuses will stay in their dens, wait for something tasty to swim by and snag it. Or they may venture out to hunt, gallumphing along the bottom on all eights until they find a crab and surround it. As adults, they use their jets only in emergencies - to chase meals or avoid becoming one.
   There is no reliable data on their populations, but Anderson is confident they’re faring well. Each year, he organizes an informal daylong survey, during which amateur divers are asked to look for octopus and report what they find. The results have been fairly consistent, he says – about 200 divers reporting a total of 70 or so octopus sightings. That suggests there are plenty of O. dofleini out there.
    This despite a rather Spartan sex life. They spawn just once, the male using its specialized tentacle to deliver a "spermatophore," or packet of sperm, to the female, who tucks it away for future use. When she's ready, she uses the sperm to fertilize her thousands of eggs and deposits them under a rock.
   That’s where the fun ends. After mating, the male "goes a little crazy," stops eating and abandons its den, which frees up space for his mate. Then he dies. The female hangs on, guards her brood for several months, manipulating the eggs, using her funnel to keep them clean. She, too, stops eating, her body shrinking until the eggs hatch. And then she dies as well.
    People have been fishing for octopus for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks simply lowered clay pots to known octopus habitat and left them there a day or so; when they hauled them back to the surface, the newly resident octopus became tomorrow's calamari. The strategy still works. Octopuses can be caught with a rubber tire tied to a rope.
    Anderson prefers to catch them by hand, scuba-diving into known "octopus holes" such as Neah Bay, Hood Canal, Tacoma Narrows. Collectors entice them out of their dens, grab a tentacle or two and stuff them into a plastic bag.
    Anderson has spent years figuring out how to keep them in captivity. They are comfortable in small spaces, and don’t seem to mind being handled, he says. And they’ll eat just about anything they are offered. But, if left in the main tank, an octopus will reject frozen herring and other handouts in favor of its live neighbors.
    But perhaps Anderson’s biggest discovery is that octopuses have emotions, and wear them on all eight sleeves. "Color changes seem to be linked to behavior," he says. "We're investigating how and why, but they seem to have a range of messages: `I'm ready to mate now,' or `Predator coming!' or "Leave me alone, I'm taking a nap."
    With its mammallike eyes and brains, the octopus exhibits un-invertebrate behaviors such as sleep. The journal Science recently reported Anderson's research on octopus "play." Each of eight octopuses was provided with a white pill bottle. Some ignored it. Some used their funnels to blow it away. Still others shot it around the tank, retrieved it, and shot it again, and again. Anderson sees this as "repetitive, long-term behavior with no apparent function - except that it feels good, which is the definition of `play.' " 
    Maybe that’s what Harry had on his mind the other day when he reached out and touched his Port Townsend visitors.

Plugged-in PT

            Nobody killed the electric car. They all got fed up with the traffic in cities like Seattle and moved to Port Townsend, at Puget Sound's entrance, where they are living happily ever after, humming up and down Water Street, doing what cars are supposed to do..     This spring,  a small fleet was parked fender-to-fender at the foot of the high school football scoreboard for an impromptu electric car convention – ten of them, which took about the same space as a bicycle rack. But that was still more electric cars in one place than most people have ever seen.

            It was an odd display of colorful, teardrop-shaped new models and local conversions, all designed to get you from A to B without emitting the slightest whiff of carbon dioxide.    Judging by the buzz on the football field, local drivers were charged by the idea. The state reports 26 electric cars registered in the Port Townsend neighborhood. That’s one for every 1,100 people, compared to 1 per 7,600 statewide and 1 per 5,700 in Seattle.     That’s an impressive statistic for a small town, given that those little cars start at $12,000,  and can easily cost $30,000 or more.  

            But Port Townsend roads and driving distances lend themselves to electric cars.  Steve Evans, a former Californian who recently bought his second-hand GEM (Global Electric Motors),  drove it down to the recent gathering. “We already use it to run most of our errands,” he said. Another owner observed that, compared to conventional cars, her electric is “ a little rattley-bang… But you adjust your expectations.”

            That means: Expect to drive slower, over shorter distances. You will not be taking your electric onto freeways. And you won’t be driving it to Seattle.  But, then again, the car doesn't want to go there anyway.

            This, however, will change, says Steve Mayeda, of MC Electric Vehicles in Seattle, who trailered two of his electric cars to Port Townsend for the gathering.

            The key factor is batteries.   Electric cars are fueled by stored electricity, and at present that means banks of deep-cycle lead batteries not unlike the battery in your conventional car.   Instead of refueling, drivers must recharge those batteries by plugging them into household power circuits.  To run a tiny car at about 35 mph and up to 50 miles between plug-ins requires at least six conventional batteries, which are stored behind and under the seats.   To travel further, you have to add more heavy batteries, which increases the vehicle weight, which gobbles still more power, and so forth. And there lies the rub.

            But rising gas prices and environmental awareness have recharged efforts to invent a new battery that can store more energy in a smaller, lighter package, Mayeda says. “We’re on the verge of that breakthrough.”    The result could be a technological leap comparable with the development of lithium batteries for cellular phones, which were virtually inconceivable a generation ago.

            Meanwhile, Mayeda finds himself adjusting the expectations of prospective buyers.        “Guarantee me that this car will make it to Seattle and back, and I’ll buy one,” said one woman as she inspected one of his electric models.

            “It won’t,” Mayeda responded. “Maybe in a couple of years. But not now.”

Remembering Bobby: What if, what if.......

   Forty years ago today, I spent the day on a packed airliner over the Atlantic, bound from Glasgow to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport.
    The world was stumbling through a turbulent year. During my year’s study at Edinburgh University, I had glimpsed my society from abroad. I’d watched the news clips of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and of the rioting that followed. I’d watched the Johnson Administration drawn ever deeper into a war that made no sense. My British friends were astounded that America in the 20th century seemed determined to repeat each and every mistake that the British had made in the 19th.
    For these and other reasons, I had mixed feelings about coming home. When we landed at JFK and filed off the airplane, the airport was strangely silent, funereal. Passengers and airline employees wept openly. We soon learned the reason.
    While we were in flight, Robert F. Kennedy had been shot in Los Angeles.
    Less than five years after the death of John Kennedy, and just weeks after the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation had lost another young voice of promise and hope. And Bobby, with his tousled hair and weathered smile, had seemed the greatest promise of them all.
     Dazed by the news, I wandered into a coffee shop and stopped at the door to gawk at the back of a New York cop, sitting at the counter, his service revolver hanging in its holster. During my year in the UK, where handguns are banned and shootings are rare, my only experience with guns was in museums.
     But now I was home.
     At first, the murder felt like another shot fired by that same evil, rightwing conspiracy that killed King and JFK. But the conspiracy theories never worked. Like his brother, Bobby Kennedy was killed by a young wacko with a gun.
    So it became a commentary on guns. How can a society continue to operate while allowing crazy people to carry loaded weapons designed only to kill other people? Yet, even then, I was aware that we are not Olde England, that we are shaped by revolution and the mythology of the Wild West, and that you can’t blithely ban handguns unless you have a practical way to deal with the countless millions already in circulation; and nobody knows how to do that.
   So, if we’ll never know why Bobby Kennedy was killed, we can still ask: What if he had not been? What if Sirhan Sirhan had decided on that fateful day to watch the speech on TV, or to take a day at the beach?
    Given the tight margin in the fall of 1968,, Kennedy probably would have been nominated and elected in November. There would have been no President Nixon, no Spiro Agnew, no Watergate plumbers.
     We can never know what Kennedy would have done with the office. We assume he would have got the nation out of Southeast Asia; but we also know that Bobby had been a staunch cold warrior who worried about Communist China’s influence in the region. To some degree, he had helped get us into Vietnam, making it far more difficult to pull us out.
    I would like to believe he would have pursued racial segregation and women’s rights and universal health insurance. But Bobby’s politics had been shifting, so who knows?
      Perhaps the lesson to be drawn this remarkable week, as a transcendent Barack Obama emerges as the Democratic nominee for President, is that elections matter. Forty years ago, it mattered a great deal that Bobby Kennedy was not elected President, and that Richard Nixon was.
    This year, nobody knows what Obama or John McCain would do in the White House. But it still matters which of them is elected. In 2008, much like 1968, the nation yearns to extricate itself from an overseas war and focus on what’s happening at home. Wherever we sit on the ideological spectrum, we yearn for new vision and direction. For many, Obama seems to offer the same charisma and intelligence and eloquence that RFK promised in ’68.
   And, as a nation, we are quietly, desperately afraid we will squander the opportunity.

Mystery Bay: The Case of the Disappearing Coliforms

   Out on Mystery Bay, the nautical small talk usually revolves around winds and waves and tidal currents – the crucial factors to spending a day on Puget Sound.
   These days, a new topic has been added to the mix – fecal coliforms. And these microscopic bacteria, usually associated with four-letter words, could become the most significant maritime variable of all.
   Mystery Bay is the pastoral cove on Marrowstone Island, tucked deep in Kilisut Harbor. It has to be one of the lovelier bays in the area, surrounded by treed shores and broad oyster beds. In recent years, it’s also become a popular, year-round anchorage, home to dozens of pleasure craft whose owners have fled the rising moorage rates in Port Townsend.
    And thereby hangs our tale. State officials who regularly test the water quality in Mystery Bay and other shellfish areas recently downgraded the bay from “approved” to “conditionally approved” for shellfish.
    What this means is that the Department of Health is concerned that the number of boats will cause an increase in fecal coliform counts around the bay. And this, in turn, could affect the shellfish, including the family-owned Marrowstone Island Shellfish Co, which owns and leases tidelands in the area.
   Boatowners are worried. Most keep their boats attached to buoys which may or may not have up-to-date state and county permits, on tidelands managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. If they get kicked out, it’s not at all clear where else they could go.
   “This is ridiculous,’ grumbles one boat-owner who does not want to be identified, and who keeps his sailboat on a Mystery Bay buoy. “ I don’t know of anybody who is dumping their waste into the bay. This isn’t a problem.” 
    He’s right. State health reports  make it clear that there is no fecal coliform problem in Mystery Bay. The state regularly tests the water at five stations in the bay and the results range from 1.7 to 33 bacteria per 100 mililiters. The average count is just two critters per 100 ml -- well below the state imposed limit. It is as good or better than test results from Port Townsend Bay, or even from the famous oyster beds down in Quilcene Bay.
   All five stations in Mystery Bay meet the state standard, and the station considered most suspect – Mystery Bay State Park – was among the cleanest.
   So what’s the beef?
    “It’s not about fecal coliforms,” says Al Scalf, of Jefferson County Community Development. “It’s about too many boats.”
    State officials acknowledged this. Any place where ten or more boats are gathered together must be considered a “marina.” When I checked last week, there were about 45 boats of every size and shape scattered across Mystery Bay, and many of them near the dock at the state park, the area that state officials are watching closely.
     The conditional approval is based on “the potential for discharge from vessels,” according to Scott Berbells of the state Department of Health. If people start dumping their waste, the bacteria could begin to accumulate in local shellfish, with dire consequences.
    But people don’t dump their sewage in the bay, my friend insists. If they use their onboard head, they discharge the sewage at a pumpout station at the park. No problemo.
    Still, the flap become the subject of a meeting involving four different government agencies, shellfish growers and local Native American tribes who have shellfish rights. “We’re trying to come up with a plan,” says Scalf.
    State officials reiterated their concern that all those boats could create a pollution problem. OK, but so far they haven’t, local officials argued. And evicting the boats would create major problems in a region where boat moorage is scarce and expensive. Kick them out of Mystery Bay, and some of these boatowners might find something new. But why put them through all that if there is no problem?
   Mystery Bay’s little predicament appears to be much ado about nothing. But it is symptomatic of the broader challenge of restoring and protecting Puget Sound. Virtually everybody here understands that our inland sea is in trouble, and most are willing to spend whatever is necessary to fix it.
    But what exactly is the problem, and what can we do about it? I’ve been writing about these things for three decades, and every few years the conventional wisdom changes. At one time or another, it has been a problem of overfishing, or of suburban sprawl, or of urban sewage, or industrial wastes, or rural septic tanks, or of too much asphalt, or not enough eelgrass. It’s probably safe to say it’s all of the above, but that doesn’t help shape a smart set of solutions.
     In September, we’ll start over when the new Puget Sound Partnership issues its recommendations for a new strategy. Who knows what they’ll ask for? 
   But here’s some free advice. If you want to preserve Puget Sound, start by NOT wasting time and energy attacking water quality problems that don’t exist.

Baseball Anonymous

    This is the year to quit. This is the season to kick the habit. No patches, no pills, no support groups. Just say no.
   To baseball, that is. It’s time to kick it, and the hometown team – God bless their mediocre souls -- is making it easy.
    Face it, being a fan has always been an utter waste of time and energy. Even if you rarely made it to Safeco Field (and I was a twice-a-year guy), you were planting yourself in front of the tube, poring over box scores, resenting A-Rod’s defection. All this for a roster of guys who are not very interesting people who live somewhere else, who played for another team last year and will probably play for yet another next year, and who make more money in a year than I’ll make in my career – all because they theoretically can hit or toss a baseball better than the next guy.
   I’ve always understood this made no sense, but I got sucked in. For a long time, it was a bonding experience with my son. Now he’s been on his own for a decade, and I realize I turned him into an addict as well. Then came those few good years, with Edgar and Buhner and Moyer – guys who actually lived here and had personalities as well as being good ballplayers. It was fun.
    So much for history. The thrill of the grass has long since been displaced by steroids, seven-digit salaries, dwi arrests and transient ballplayers. These days, I look at the box scores and, regardless of the score, I barely recognize the names. Only one of their starting pitchers came up through their organization. It’s a team of free agents. And, whatever their stats say, they’re a miserable, forgettable bunch of ballplayers, probably the worst in the Mariners’ grim history, certainly the worst when measured against what they’re being paid.
   So this is the year to switch. Baseball Anonymous. Do not take me out to the ballpark. Buy me some carrot and celery sticks. This is the summer to read novels, take up gardening, or sailing or kayaking. Go volunteer for a political candidate. Adopt a homeless family. …
   Anything but baseball. Yup, my name is Ross, and I’m a recovering baseball fan. And I’m over it. 
                                                               {Published on, May 2008)

All that Glitters: Puget Sound in Bloom

   For most folks hereabouts, spring translates to some combination of flower gardens and sun. They revel in their tulips and rhodies and poppies. And that’s fair enough. But for f us saltwater souls, it’s all about the glitter. We look forward to that first warm, moonless night, when Puget Sound is flat and dark so we can launch a kayak, escape the city’s incandescent glow, and enjoy an all-organic light show.
   It’s a splendid display. Each paddle stroke ignites thousands of tiny explosions of bioluminescent light, reminding us that Puget Sound, for all its ecological woes, still sizzles with life. Puget Sound may be better known for bigger and more charismatic critters – leaping king salmon and frolicking orcas. But the real star power out there belongs to those ever-lovin’, dazzling dinoflagellates.
   Dino-who? OK, they’re microscopic, far too small to be seen by the naked eye. But what they lack in size and grandeur they make up for in numbers – thousands to the cup-full of Puget Sound seawater. And sparkle, because these are the invisible “bugs” which, on warm summer nights, flash an LED-like green across the surface of the sound.
   They’re best-known to kayakers, who ride closer the surface, the better to enjoy one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular displays. But other boaters see the sparkle in their bow wave, or when porpoise swim past, leaving a trail of glitter reminiscent of Tinkerbell in Neverland.
   It happens every year, when the sound awakens from its winter slumber. As the days become longer and warmer, sunlight triggers what scientists sometimes call the “spring bloom.” Countless trillions of microscopic plankton which have overwintered in semi-hibernation in the depths rise in the water column, and begin to feed, or to photosynthesize, and to reproduce like crazy.    By early summer, they dominate the ecosystem, clouding the water, triggering a feeding frenzy that sustains virtually everything that lives out there.
   The largest of these organisms are about the size of these periods...... The vast majority are much smaller.   The explosion is triggered by diatoms, wondrous, single-celled algae enclosed in an exquisite shell of silicon. Fed by sunlight, the diatoms begin to reproduce, one diatom becoming a million within a month. While an individual diatom is quite invisible, their massive blooms can be seen from the air or, in some cases, from space.
   The diatoms, in turn, provide food for zooplankton. There are euphausiids and copepods, which are essentially tiny shrimp, and trillions of chaetognaths, needlelike critters that can actually grow big enough to see with the naked eye. The same bloom includes countless newly-hatched fish and crabs and octopus and other sealife that spend their first weeks and months drifting with the plankton, feeding and being fed upon.
   In a rich ecosystem like Puget Sound, the result is a vast soup. Scoop a cup of water from the sound and it looks like, OK, water. But take a drop of that water and slide it under a low-powered microscope, and that droplet is transformed into a throbbing menagerie of copepods and chaetognaths and diatoms and everything in between. Watch long enough, and you’ll find the bigger guys feeding on the little guys.
   Given the opportunity, and perhaps a reason, some of those guys will sparkle. Hundreds of organisms, from the fireflies back east to deep-water fish, have the ability to glow in the dark or, in scientific terms, “bioluminesce.” It’s a chemical reaction that takes place either as a continuous glow or an instantaneous flash.
   Dr. Claudia Mills, a biologist at the University of Washington marine labs in Friday Harbor, studies some 60 to 70 Northwest species of jellyfish, about half of which are bioluminescent. When she paddles at night, she’ll occasionally glimpse the warm glow of a jelly.
   But most of what we see at the surface are those everlovin’ dinoflagellates, she says.
Dinoflagellates are actually a diverse family of single-celled organisms, all microscopic, that drift with the rest of the plankton. Each consists of two transluscent cones, joined at the base, with a whip-like appendage that causes it to spin, like a top, according to Richard Strickland, the University of Washington biologist who literally wrote the book – “The Fertile Fjord” – on Puget Sound plankton.
   Dinoflagellates don’t qualify as either plants, nor animals, but as algae. They photosynthesize like plants, converting the sun’s energy to food. But they also use those tiny flagella to propel themselves vertically in the water column. During the winter, they’re less active and less abundant. But as the days lengthen, they multiply and move closer to the surface, soaking up energy by day and, when stimulated, glowing by night.
   By midsummer, it’s showtime.  In most cases, they only glitter at night, employing a circadian rhythm so they don’t waste energy during daylight. Reversing the cycle in a laboratory might take a week or more.
   Scientists understand how the process works, Mills says. But why do they glitter? Some years ago, I toured the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, and spent a couple of hours with a researcher who was trying to answer that question. “We understand the chemistry pretty well,” she said. “But we’re still trying to figure out the function.”
   They’re still working on that, says Mills. The prevailing theory is that the luminescence is defensive, serving as a natural burglar alarm or “startle response.” When threatened by larger predators, the dinos flash green, which may attract even larger predators that hopefully will eat their predators, sparing the dino.
   Then again, maybe they’re just showing off, treating the rest of us to a glimpse of Mother Nature’s springtime brilliance.

Puget Sound Perennial: Here we go not again

   Last week it was the Seattle Times’ turn to crank out the obligatory series on the ecological demise of Puget Sound. Several of their finest reporters and artists donned their rubber boots and waded into the challenge, delivering new tales of woe from the shores of Washington’s inland sea.
   It was good, smart, important journalism. Alas, each year it gets more difficult to find new ways to say: Gee folks, Puget Sound ain’t getting any better. I know, because I’ve been there. Over my 30 years at the Times, I worked on several Save-the-Sound series, most recently with some of the same reporters who delivered last week. I continue to write about it because the sound remains the primary reason I choose to live here.
   Still, one gets discouraged. Consider the comments of selected experts in the concluding installment in the Times series. David Dicks, director the Puget Sound Partnership: “We have a lot of studies, a lot of information… but we have to knit it together into a strategy….” Or Kathy Fletcher, director of People for Puget Sound: “We are in a race against time…We need to grab the urgency of the problem and deal with the fact that there is a lot of disbelief that we are going to make a difference…”
   These are genuine expressions of concern that also underscore the problem -- a complete lack of specifics, with utterly no agreement about what’s wrong and what we need to do about it. What is it about Puget Sound that seems to defy solutions?
   The list of suspects begins with us, the people who live here and lack the political will to fix it -- or so goes the argument. But wait a second! Public opinion surveys suggest that people understand that the sound is in trouble, that it will cost money to fix it, and they are willing to pay. And we have payed. Over the past three decades or more, state and local taxpayers have coughed up billions of dollars for salmon restoration, pollution controls, sewage treatment plants, research, and more. 
    A precedent was set in the 1960s, when government cleaned up Lake Washington, which had been turned into a cesspool by countless sewage outfalls around its perimeter. The solution was Metro, which started as a regional sewer agency empowered to build a sewer system around the lake and ship the crap elsewhere – to Puget Sound.
   In the mid-1980s, when I worked on my first Puget Sound crusade, local government decided to spend a billion dollars to build a modern sewage treatment plant at West Point, on the Magnolia waterfront. The feds had said we didn’t have to, because the sound is so deep and its currents so powerful that sewage is efficiently diluted. But local pols decided to build it anyway, and homeowners paid for it. Now the merged King County Metro plans to build another treatment plant – at roughly three times the cost. And ratepayers are going along with the program.
   We can always blame the other guys, the cigar-chomping special interests who call the shots in Olympia. But that doesn’t seem to be the problem, either. The state has cut back commercial and sports fishing, despite the lobbyists’ protests. Pulp mills and other waterfront industries have been shut down, and those that remain are under tougher scrutiny.
   So maybe the problem is, as Fletcher puts it, the “fragmentation of decision making.” While Puget Sound is governed mostly by the state, it’s also affected by at least eight counties, scores of cities, hundreds of special utility districts and more. And we’ve learned that it is part of a larger “Salish Sea” that includes the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Canadian waters.

  The greatest obstacle is not political,  but rather the biological complexity of the sound, and the scientific uncertainty that comes with it. It is not just an ecosystem, but a web of overlapping ecosystems that invite oversimplification and defy understanding. For all our best efforts, Puget Sound remains something of a black box. We assess its health by taking water samples and counting fish pulled up on hooks or nets. Sparkling blue at the surface, it turns pitch dark less than 100 feet down. And just offshore from downtown Seattle, the depths reach 900 feet. We have very little understanding of what lives there, or how the ecosystem works.
   A generation ago, people were energized in part by accounts of gray whales washing up dead on Northwest beaches. Those images helped fuel the efforts to upgrade sewage treatment plants. Only later did we learn that the whales’ deaths probably had nothing to do with pollution, and that gray whale populations were healthy and increasing.
    More recently, scientists have paid more attention to what’s happening on and near the shores of the sound – shopping malls and suburban developments that pave over wetlands believed to be crucial to the saltwater ecology. But those linkages are not well understood.
All these uncertainties contribute to a breakdown between science and politics. Marine biologists and oceanographers are comfortable with uncertainty; they understand that the scientific process is endless, that whatever they learn merely becomes a hypothesis for the next round of investigation.
   This does not work well for governors or legislators who need to decide how to spend the next billion dollars on Puget Sound restoration.
    And it drives the rest of us nuts. We yearn for understandable causes and effects, heroes and villains. We want science to provide us the evidence we need to ban that next shopping mall, to shut down fishing altogether, to build better sewage treatment plants, or preserve wetlands.
And the darned scientists simply won’t provide that convenient road map. On the contrary, with each new breakthrough, each new level of understanding, Puget Sound appears more complex and the solutions less obvious.