Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Mermaids" on Animal Planet Raises Deeper Issues: Aquatic Ape Theory and Dangerous Sonar

original artwork, Justina Frantez

            Is our blue planet also home to mermaids? For centuries we’ve enjoyed myths of sea creatures sharing our seas and shores as lovers, mothers, and lost children. From the plaintive Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid to “mermaids-are-the-new vampires” fantasy novels, to celebrities like Lady Gaga donning dazzling silver tail flukes — mermaids are again swimming into our storytelling.

 Animal Planet premiered “Mermaids: The Body Found” on Memorial Day weekend amidst massive media coverage. Most reviews focused on whether mermaids are real, missing the deeper issues the film raises: the lethal affects of military sonar on sea life — and a very intriguing Aquatic Ape theory.

Many of us ocean advocates and researchers have long been fascinated by The Aquatic Ape theory first offered in 1960 by marine biologist Alistair Hardy and made popular by Oxford-educated, Welsh author Elaine Morgan in her many books. The Aquatic Ape theory of human evolution is an alterative hypothesis to the reigning “Savannah” theory of homo sapiens, which states that our ancestors left the trees to hunt and gather on the African open plains.

But recent pollen analysis and fossil evidence reveals that the emergence of the savannah occurred after our ancestors stood upright and walked on four legs. East Africa’s climate was warm and wet. At the end of the Miocene period, seas were rising and the jungles often underwater. Our ancestors might well have adapted to a more amphibious life in estuaries and along coastlines.

The Aquatic Ape hypothesis asks some important questions not explained by current anthropological dogma:

Why do bi-pedal humans have so little body hair when other plains' predators are furry and walk on four legs?

Why can humans hold their breath up to 20 minutes, longer than any other terrestrial animal?

Why are human infants more like water babies, with the instinctive ability to swim?

If humans evolved in a hot, dry savannah, why do we have so much subcutaneous fat as if to insulate ourselves from cold water?

Mainstream and academic anthropologists ridicule and dismiss The Aquatic Ape theory as an alternative to their savannah hypothesis. Academics and scientists can be as slow to consider a new theory or ideas as established religious leaders. But despite the academic brouhaha, the Aquatic Ape conversation is quite lively and enduring. Michael Odent, author of We Are All Water Babies, offers fascinating notions of how aquatic childbearing and nurturing might have helped our evolution

In Aquagenesis: the Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea, Richard Ellis wonders why this theory of our possible human amphibious origins has not yet been respectfully considered by mainstream anthropologists? “Something has to replace the savannah hypothesis,” Ellis concludes in Aquagenesis, “the aquatic theory is gaining more and more support.” Why is science leaving this provocative theory to Animal Planet’s Monster Week?

Water babies. Mermaids. Aquatic Apes. How could our human imaginations not be captivated? The Animal Planet “Mermaids” also explores another issue that is based on current events and actual science — the dangers of military sonar in our waters. Mermaids and Aquatic Apes may not yet be proven. But the deaths all over the world from the lethal drone of military sonar are well documented. And increasing.

After long denying that military sonar tests were linked to deadly dolphin and whale strandings — from the Canary Islands to the Bahamas to Japan — the U.S. Navy has recently admitted: The violent blasts of its military sonar may be more harmful than previously thought. By its own estimates, U.S. Navy sonar and explosives “may unintentionally cause more than 1,600 instances of hearing loss or other injury to marine mammals in one year.” 

Military sonar at its most intense frequencies can disorient, deafen, and even rupture living tissue. The acoustic trauma so shocks marine mammals that even deep-diving whales surface too quickly and die from the bend’s — decompression sickness. Other injuries linked to military sonar include brain hemorrhages and lungs shredded into pulp. For the whales and dolphins whose lives depend upon their own sophisticated echolocation, it’s like being bashed and brutalized with the blunt instrument of unbearably loud sound waves. A horribly traumatic death.

Earth Justice, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Indian tribes are now suing the Navy over its plans to expand their sonar tests off Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. Public comment meetings will be held June 11th in Hawaii and June 20th in Southern California.

 Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island who has studied the mammals for years describes military sonar as “acoustic bullets.” When a three-year-old orca, Victoria (L112), mysteriously died in February off Washington, military sonar was suspected. Balcomb stated that injuries to Victoria’s head, chest, and side are consistent with blast trauma from Navy sonar. 

Dolphins are known to rescue us from drowning. Can we do no less to protect them from this lethal weapon of military sonar, these underwater sound bombs they cannot escape?

When you tune into Animal Planet’s Mermaids, dive beneath the surface of fascinating CGI mermaid images and listen to the subtext of this timely film: You don’t have to be a mermaid to know that our oceans are in deep trouble. “Mermaids” is most valuable for the questions it raises. What if the Aquatic Ape is not just entertainment? What if it’s a viable theory of our own origins? Would we take better care of the oceans? 

And what can we do in real-life to stop this military sonar that is an underwater holocaust for our marine mammals. After all, this water planet is our first womb and our life support.

Maybe it’s because our islands and coastlines are sinking that we’re obsessed with mermaids. Maybe like those possible amphibious ancestors, we might again learn to adapt to a water world. Homo Aquaticus.

Brenda Peterson's recent novel, ANIMAL HEART, explores the issues of military sonar, dolphin strandings, and the Aquatic Ape theory.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Wilma, a lone, sociable beluga adopted by a village in Nova Scotia. Brenda Peterson on the left with camera and her National Geographic co-author (on right) Linda Hogan, encounter Wilma

Brenda Peterson

This Mother's Day, as we celebrate our own mothers, we can also celebrate the many people who adopt other species, wild and domestic, and love them as their own.

Sometimes it takes a village to practice this interspecies adoption.
In Nova Scotia, the village of Guysborough adopted an orphaned wild beluga calf they named Wilma. The two-year-old beluga swam lonely circles in the harbor. Wilma used floating buoys as her toys and rubbed up against boats so often that her white flanks were often gashed and scarred from propeller wounds. Yet true to the nature of this sociable species, Wilma continued to playfully approach boats to greet schoolchildren and tourists. So fishermen designed a protective box for their outboard motors. Village elders set their clocks by her and one couple said, "In the evening, we like to hear Wilma make noises like snoring. It's very reassuring."
Though Wilma was what scientists call a "lone, sociable," who had somehow lost her mother and her pod, she was rarely alone in the harbor. At a town meeting, the whole village of Guysborough turned out to hear how they could best adopt and care for Wilma. They brought in Cathy Kinsman of the Canadian Whale Stewardship Project and marine mammal biologist, Dr. Toni Frohoff. Villagers wanted their conservation help to protect Wilma from any outside captive industry who might condemn Wilma to life in a tank.
"Wilma trusts us, don't you know," a grizzled boatman said. "She's our responsibility. Just tell us what Wilma needs."
The Whale Stewardship Program helped educate Guysborough about how to best watch over their baby beluga in the wild.
When I visited Guysborough, the boatman took us out to meet Wilma. I was struck by how young she seemed as she exchanged a long, childlike gaze. In Wilma's eyes were all the loneliness and need, the dependence and trust of a human child. Wilma was alone of all her kind, yet surrounded by well-meaning people. She had the plaintive, engaging look of a child awaiting adoption. And this village had the earnest, anxious attitude of adoptive parents.

Village schoolchildren reach out to Wilma on a field trip in the Guysborough Harbor

I realized that here was another kind of family model, an interspecies kinship new and fragile, awkward and inexperienced. But this was a model for what the future might be, between species that increasingly must meet. To adapt a scientific term, here was the human version of allomothering -- caring for non-maternal offspring.
Animals who allomother offspring other than their own include aunties, uncles, siblings, and even non-relatives who babysit, feed, and protect the infants from predators. Animal allomothers spend time with the infant so the mother can forage, rest, and meet her own needs. Infants who enjoy such cooperative care have a much higher rate of survival in the wild. And if the mother dies, these offspring are often adopted and their lives saved.
There are benefits to being allomothers. In baboon society, primatologist Barbara Smuts observed that young male baboons who offered friendship, babysitting, grooming, and companionship to elder matriarchs, were often chosen as mates.
When humans offer allomothering to other species, it often requires remarkable adaptability and advocacy. It's natural to love one's birth child. But what if the creature you are trying to mother is covered with hair, or bites you, or claws you, or has a grasping tail? What if that baby needs to sleep in a pouch, or in a tree, or requires a diet that includes moose scat or pureed fish? And what if that baby animal is endangered or weighs tons at birth?

Close encounter with Wilma, the beluga whale. Read the whole story in Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals at this link: http://www.amazon.com/Build-Me-Ark-Animals-ebook/dp/B007HXFSPK/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2

In another village on the remote Baja peninsula, San Ignacio Lagoon, generations of villagers have protected gray whales in their birthing lagoons. Since the 1970s, when Renulfo Mayoral's father, Pachiko, first documented what scientists call "The Friendly Whale Syndrome," villagers have served as naturalists and boatmen to researchers and tourists who seek a unique encounter with the great gray whales.
As well as being the foremost naturalist in this lagoon, Renulfo is training the next generation in stewardship of the gray whales. He looks on proudly when his first young female boatman, Lupita, navigates the exhilarating encounter with baby gray whales practically leaping into our boat to be touched.
"My grandfather taught me to love las ballenas, the gray whales," Lupita says. "They are my relatives who visit every year."
Closer to home in my own Seattle neighborhood of Alki Beach, a group of dedicated volunteers, called Seal Sitters, sit vigil over seals who spend half their lives sharing our shores. On a busy urban beach like Alki, dogs off leash and curious people can disturb the pup's vital rest and scare him back into the water where he may not find his mother again. Weaned pups just learning to fish especially need to rest. Fifty percent of seal pups do not survive their first year. So the Seal Sitters, trained by NOAA, protect the seal and educate the many passersby until the seal can return to the water.
When we adopt another species, we reach out past the boundaries that keep us lonely and limited to just "me and mine." Now as we face massive extinctions of other animals, we can expand the way we love. In the words of the wise Mongolian family in the film, The Weeping Camel -- allomothers know that "the heart, whether human or animal, knows no borders."

Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author of 17 books, including the memoirs I Want to be Left Behind and Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals. She is the co-founder of the Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Her new picture book, Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save the Seal Pups is just out. For more: http://www.leopardandsilkie.com

Monday, May 14, 2012

NPR's "Living on Earth" interview on Leopard and Silkie

Dear Friends,

Listen to the NPR interview on our new book, Leopard and Silkie, with kid Seal Sitter, Etienne, or you can read the transcript here. 


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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Seal Sitters

Listen at this link:


Air Date: Week of April 20, 2012

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

Silkie. (Photo: Robin Lindsey)
Alki Beach is a popular destination for Seattle natives, and it’s also home to some of the region’s seal population. Seal pups are left alone on shore while their mothers search the sea for food, and curious people and dogs endanger the young seals. But a group of concerned neighbors called Seal Sitters have banded together to protect the pups and educate people. Seal Sitter founder Brenda Peterson, author of the children’s book “Leopard and Silkie” and 11 year old volunteer Etienne, spoke with host Bruce Gellerman about their quest to save seal pups.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.
GELLERMAN: A small crowd gathers on Seattle’s Alki Beach. Nearby, a seal pup lies in the sand.
[LITTLE GIRL: Can we go say hi to him Daddy?]
GELLERMAN: Like other mammals, seal pups depend on their moms for food. But while she takes to the sea in search of fish, the pup is left to survive the perils of the shore alone.
That is where Brenda Peterson comes in. She finds and saves seal pups by Seattle’s Salish Seashore. Brenda Peterson is the founder of Seal Sitters and the author of the new children’s book “Leopard and Silkie.” It’s about rescuing seal pups. Brenda Peterson, welcome to Living on Earth.
PETERSON: Thank you, Bruce. Good to be here.
GELLERMAN: So, these marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal [Protection] Act. The federal government protects them, but you say that they’re being threatened.
PETERSON: I think they are needing more protection and it’s because our beaches are really urban at this point. And, though these are urban seals, the pups are not prepared for such activity.
The moms leave the pups after just a few hours sometimes. But when you’re on Alki beach in Seattle, there is so much activity that the mother who leaves the pup at say, 4:00 am when it’s very peaceful, will try to come back to pick up the pup after fishing to nurse the pup, and there are five hundred people on the beach. And if it’s so full of people, their survival goes down.
GELLERMAN: So, basically leave the pups alone!
PETERSON: Yes. The shoreline is a very important place. They spend fifty percent of their time onshore. So we’ve been trained for the past several years by NOAA for marine mammal strandings to look to see if there’s human caused injury, to see if there is a pup on the beach who is injured or starving or not surviving the weaning period. And when we go out on our daily walks, instead of tuning out, we’ve trained people to keep their eyes out for pups.
GELLERMAN: So, this organization that you’ve founded Seal Sitters, basically trains people to help keep pups separated from people.

Etienne and her sister Noemi at Alki Beach. (Photo: Robin Lindsey)
PETERSON: Exactly. The number one predator on the beach is dogs off leash. There are diseases that go back and forth between all of the pups. So we try to protect our own domesticated pups as well as the seal pups. So we saw a need to actually do a kind of daycare on the beach for newborn pups.
GELLERMAN: In your new book “Leopard and Silkie,” about two seal pups, you use a word which I had never come across, it’s ‘allomothering.’ Do I have that correct?
PETERSON: I was hoping you would ask about that.
GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) Well, what’s allomothering?
PETERSON: I came upon this idea that scientists call allomothering, which means nurturing a species that is not your own.
GELLERMAN: So, the people, the volunteers that you train in seal stitting, are allomothers!
PETERSON: They are allomothers and allofathers. We have guys on the beach, we have teenagers, we have grandmothers we have retired people. I call it neighborhood naturalists.
GELLERMAN: I understand that you have one of your young volunteers there: Etienne, are you there?
GELLERMAN: Hi, so you are how old are you, Etienne?
ETIENNE: I just turned eleven.
GELLERMAN: How long have you been doing seal sitting?
ETIENNE: Well, I really started when I was in second grade. The first time I saw a seal pup it was Forté, we named him Forté because he was strong and he had been injured. My family came down to see this pup and when we did we saw Robin Lindsay, a photographer and she told us all about the seal and seal sitters.

Leopard. (Photo: Robin Lindsey)
ETIENNE: A bit later, in second grade, we were doing a project of people who stick their necks out and volunteer to help to make our world better. I decided to do Robin. Ever since then I was part of the Seal Sitters.
GELLERMAN: So you gave a name to one pup, any others?
ETIENNE: I haven’t named one. But there have been some named Pa and Queen Latifah. There’s one named E.T…
GELLERMAN: Have you ever saved a seal pup?
ETIENNE: I haven’t personally. But I have helped to save one by telling people about them and not to hurt them or go near them, don’t disturb them.
GELLERMAN: So, if I was walking down the beach and I had my dog off leash, what would you say to me?
ETIENNE: I would ask you to please put your dog on a leash, so your dog can’t get injured by the seal. Also, his scent could rub off onto the seal, as a human’s could, and then the mother would not have her scent on her pup and then she wouldn’t come back to get him.
GELLERMAN: Oh, really? Has that happened? Have you ever sent that happen?
ETIENNE: I have never seen that happen. But it has happened before. People have poked them with sticks, even gone as far to take them into their bathtubs. Sometimes, they die.
GELLERMAN: You know, Etienne, I’m looking at this book by Brenda, and I’m looking at the pictures and seals are really cute.
ETIENNE: Yes they are!
GELLERMAN: But, would you spend so much of your time and emotional energy saving an animal if it were ugly?
ETIENNE: Well, I would because they’re still an animal. And they’re still a life and they’re still part of our planet.
GELLERMAN: At your age, many kids are thinking about doing babysitting, not seal sitting. Do you think you’re going to get busier with your life and you’re going to stop doing this?
ETIENNE: Well, I am busy right now, but I still try my hardest to be able to do this, too. I want to try to be a seal sitter for as long as I can.
GELLERMAN: What do you think of Brenda’s book, “Leopard and Silkie?”
ETIENNE: I love the book. It’s a great book. It shows how you can help a seal.
GELLERMAN: Well, Brenda, that’s high praise from Etienne!
PETERSON: Out of the mouth of babes. I am so moved whenever I hear the children because they are the future.
GELLERMAN: Well, Brenda, what’s the future of federal funding to save marine mammals? I know the funding is scheduled to be zeroed out.
PETERSON: We’re really alarmed about that, Bruce, because stranding networks such as ours, they are the first responders to anything on the beach that washes up or is stranded. So the stranding networks are the kind of vital resource that shows us the health of our marine systems. And why should we cut funding to the only thing where humans and animals interact successfully and compassionately?
GELLERMAN: Well, Brenda, thank you very much.
PETERSON: Thank you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: And, Etienne, thank you.
ETIENNE: Thank you for having me.
GELLERMAN: Etienne is a volunteer seal sitter. The organization, based in Seattle, was founded by Brenda Peterson, who’s also author of the new children's book about saving seal pups “Leopard and Silkie.”


Leopard and Silkie website http://www.leopardandsilkie.com
Seal Sitters website http://www.sealsitters.org