Monday, March 20, 2006

The Creatures

Libby and I greatly enjoyed the creatures that we saw on our recent voyage. Unfortunately, we don't have pictures or proper names for most of them. I'll try to draw pictures with words.

First was the baggie things. The first time I saw one I thought it was a piece of trash, a transparent plastic bag blown up by a balloon. Soon we came to understand that these things weren't trash, they were creatures.

The biggest and most mature ones had definite structure. They had a spine-like seam along the top, and the bag had pleat-like folds terminating at the spine. The bag was very transparent and very rigid. Air pressure inside must have held it rigid. The spine was translucent blue in color. The creatures' shape was more boat-like than round, and their length was about 12 cm.. At the waterline there was a flat floating surface of what looked like aluminum foil, or a silvered mirror. Clearly this was a solar energy reflector. I bet that the heat reflected by the mirror is what maintained the pressure in the air bag. Younger baggie things were small, perhaps 3 cm in diameter and mostly featureless. They seemed to float on the ocean in little colonies. How they managed to stick together, we have no idea. We tried to catch a baggie creature with our bucket but we never succeeded.

The flying fish were fun to see. They would appear suddenly in groups. They could fly from one wave to the next, or sometimes fly for much longer distances, perhaps 30 to 50 meters. They always seemed to emerge from the water heading into the wind. That suggests that they have some way to tell which way the wind is blowing when still submerged. I think that they appeared in groups because flight was a means of escape from predators. When a real or imagined predador spooked a group of flying fish, they would all fly. On the morning of our second day at sea, we found two flying fish dead on the deck. It appeared that they must have brained themselves by a direct hit on our dinghy. Aside from the size and the quantity of the flying fish, it was just as they were described in Kon Tiki.

There were almost always sea birds around. At first I wondered how they could fly so far from land without being able to land and rest. Then I realized that they could just land on the water and rest whenever they wanted to. Once I saw a gaggle of three ducks sitting on the water together watching me go by. Another time Libby said that a bird of prey briefly landed on our mast but it soon left.

Once I saw a big orange thing floating. When we got close I could see that is was a turtle. I could see his head and feet. He was about 3 feet in diameter. "Hey Lib!," I yelled, "Come see this." But alas, my shout spooked the turtle and he disappeared immediately. A second time, on the way home I saw another orange turtle. I wondered how long it took him to swim from Mexico to Florida.

Clumps of orange seaweed float everywhere. I didn't pay much attention to them, but once, when becalmed, Libby took a close look at one. She saw a tiny crab swim away from the seaweed, grab a morsel to eat, then quickly swim back to the seaweed. Aha! Crabs typically don't flow or swim very much. They live on the bottom. But out here the bottom was 11,000 feet below us, so the crab couldn't survive that way. A crab living as a symbiont on a clump of seaweek seemed like a perfectly good survival strategy. I would guess that 90% of them must die when they swim away one time too many and fail to make it back to the seaweed. Life is tough.

Groupers. I wrote before in the blog that three big groupers liked lounged in the shadow of our boat when we sat at anchor in Dry Tortugas. The biggest of those must have weighed 400 pounds. I just saw in the market today that grouper meat was selling for $11.99 per pound. Wow. that is food for thought.





On the day we were becalmed, and we were motoring ahead. We saw a region ahead about 25 meters in diameter where the surface was roiled white. There was a flock of several hundred birds circling and diving on the disturbed area. See the picture. Curious, we steered for the center of the disturbance. When we got close most of the birds and fish were scared away from us but we could see the fish. They were big, about 50 cm long. They were jumping and flailing on he surface. Clearly, they were panicked.

Then I looked behind us and I saw a very big black body. At first I thought it was a whale because it was so big. Then I saw the fin and realized that it was a shark. I swear that he was at least 7 meters long. My theory is that one or more sharks were feeding on the school of fish and caused them to panic. The birds weren't big enough to grab one of these big fish but they could pick up scraps of flesh and blood floating in the water. Libby and I were glad that we weren't swimming.

Finally, one night while at anchor at Lois Key I went up on deck. I was treated to the sight of a school of fluorescent jellyfish floating by in the tidal current. There were maybe 40 of them. Each was about one foot in diameter. The cluster of 40 surrounded Tarwathie as it drifted past. There was no moon and it was very dark. The neat thing was that these jellyfish could turn on and turn off their light emissions, so that they seemed to wink. When lit, we could see the network of veins or perhaps the network of nerves in their central bodies. The color of the light was bluish green. It made for quite a show.

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