Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seeing a wild sloth is on my bucket list. You?

Two-toed sloth in Costa Rica. Copyright (c) 2011 Jason Kremkau

I actually wrote up a bucket list a while ago, and one of the items on that list is to see a sloth in the wild. Two-toed, three-toed, I'm not particular. Along with mountain gorillas, sloths are my absolute favorite animal and have been since high school. And despite having been to Central and South America a few times, I have yet to see one. They have green fur, for Chrissakes. Green. What animal moves so slow that they have mold, ok not mold, algae, growing in their fur? That is my kind of animal! No I'm kidding. I'm more like Hammy the Hamster on caffeine in Over the Hedge. But, I do seriously relate to the goofy, annoying, always misunderstood Sid the Sloth in Ice Age, which is, by the way, my all-time favorite kids' movie and a serious contender for general fave. It's so funny and the dialogue between Sid and Manny is so spot-on. And it's about evolution!

At any rate, what brought on this post in the first place is that I may get an opportunity to cross "seeing a sloth in the wild" off my bucket list. I am headed to Costa Rica! I haven't been this excited about a trip in a while. My first and only other trip there was in 1999, when I was still married, and Discovery Channel sent me to live-blog about leatherback sea turtles (which you can see here, archived at the Wayback Machine, Love & Death on Turtle Beach - I've linked to day 6 of 11 days, but it is my favorite of all the posts). After that year, my marriage sort of started the downward spiral which I won't get into here! But it was a pinnacle of my career. I loved that trip so much. I remember being so in love with the country, with walking the beaches in the pitch-dark night looking for sea turtles with a gazillion stars overhead, and the phosphorescence in the sand at Santa Rosa National Park - estrellas de arena, or stars in the sand.

So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to go again! The previous time I went to the Pacific Coast and Arenal Volcano (some of my photos here) but this time I get to go to the Caribbean coast! I can't tell you how important aquamarine waters are to my soul... ever since I first viewed that color in Australia as a college student in 1991, I have been absolutely in love with the crystal blue sea... so naturally I'm absolutely thrilled right now!

While there, I am going to cover the Planet, People, Peace conference, the 3rd annual international conference on international sustainable tourism. It will be held at Earth University in the town of Guácimo on the Caribbean coast. And after the two-day conference, I will be going to a couple of sustainable developments and ecolodges. We will be staying at the Selva Bananito - look at the photos! Doesn't it look amazing? I just read that there's no electricity there - wow! Or maybe just not for high-voltage things like hair dryers. At any rate, I will also be staying one night at the Almonds and Corals hotel located in the rainforest of the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge - looks pretty sweet! I might just not come back...

While there, I hope to also see my old pal Jason Kremkau, an amazing photographer who accompanied me to the Galapagos Islands for a story we did for E/The Environmental Magazine - Cruising the Galapagos with a Carbon-Neutral Conscience. He now lives there, just a few miles from where I'll be staying.

But back to you - what animal is on your bucket list? Any wild creature you would just love to see before you kick the bucket?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Eating Meat & Christian Ethics, and BPA is scary

Caricature of me drawn by Emily Ruppel

Two of my latest pieces are... drum roll please...

  • The American Scientific Affiliation's First Symposium on Eating Meat and Christian Ethics - I wrote up this summary of a symposium I was so happy to find (given my interest in this topic) after my attendance at my first ASA meeting. I didn't even blog about it did I? Well it was held in Naperville, Illinois, outside Chicago, and was a great conference where I connected with some truly amazing individuals who are world-renowned scientists (at Princeton, MIT, NASA, and more) and also Christians. The article in the newsletter includes a cute caricature of me with braids by Emily Ruppel, the ASA's new Director of Communications and a cool chick!

    Here's the first paragraph of the article:
    The ASA held its first-ever symposium on the Christian ethics of meat consumption on Saturday of the 2011 conference. As a first-time conference attendee, and as someone who recently committed to avoid factory-farmed meat, I was thrilled and surprised to see this on the agenda at a Christian conference. I had recently published an essay about this very topic, but my editors removed the one paragraph in the essay that discussed the long history of Christian thought on vegetarianism and avoiding meat (and there is one, surprisingly).

  • Prenatal Exposure to BPA and Sexually Selected Traits in Male Mice. Environmental Health Perspectives. Sept 2011.

    This was my first article covering bisphenol A (BPA), a polymer that is an endocrine disruptor and used in everything we eat - it lines cans of veggies, it is in cash register receipts that are on that fax-type paper, it is in bottles we drink from... It's in plastic #7 though not all plastic-7 has BPA so it's a bit confusing. Many things will say "BPA free" now because of the scientific evidence showing it causes harm. I disregarded that until I wrote this article. Yikes - scary stuff!! I ended my piece with:

    “The obvious question is: Does this mean that it could affect gender identity in humans? Admittedly, that is quite a step away, but it does suggest that, at the very least, BPA exposure might make men less ‘manly.’” (says Pat Hunt - who first discovered that her research mice were acting funny after a detergent caused BPA to leach from their cages into their food)

    So, ignore BPA warnings at your peril. But I'm not drinking from BPA bottles! And trying to avoid plastic as much as possible.

I'm headed to Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast soon, and will post an update about where and such... all I Can say is I haven't been this excited about a trip in a long time! I went there back in 1999 when I wrote about leatherback sea turtles for Discovery Channel Online, but that was on the Pacific Coast. I want some Lizano salsa!! Mmmm, good.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Yellowstone National Park - hot springs and cyanobacteria!

Grand Prismatic Spring with Excelsior Geyser bubbling in the background - Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Copyright (c) 2011 Wendee Holtcamp

For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

- William Shakespeare

This week I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to spend some time with Dr Paul Cox, founder of the Institute for Ethnomedicine (among other things - a very interesting and accomplished scientist he is!). This is Paul in the lab looking at some Phormidium under the microscope - a cyanobacteria or blue-green algae. You can see it on the computer screen. I'm writing an article about his work on BMAA, cyanobacteria and Lou Gherig's disease (ALS - Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).
On one of the days, Cox's colleague at the Institute, Dr Sandra Banack, took me to Yellowstone - and this is related to the story! She showed me a little known waterfall, Moose Falls, not far off the road (You can view photos from my last trip there, in 2009 - to the Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs and more - when we saw wolves and bighorn sheep!)
Ah, so lovely! We went on this steep but short hike to a ledge overlooking Grand Prismatic Spring - the largest hot spring in the U.S.! A stunning view isn't it? Apparently not a lot of people know about this trail. You get a much broader/better view than on the boardwalks. We ate lunch up there. This is a view of the Excelsior Geyser beyond in the distance, which wasn't gushing at the time, only bubbling. It is very steamy, but close up the water is just gorgeous and looks like the Caribbean with coral reefs! It discharges 4000-4500 gallons of water per minute! Oh and the entire Yellowstone National Park practically lies inside a giant caldera, or the rim of a volcano. And with 65,000 years or so since the last eruption, we are due for another. Sandra was kind enough to check the earthquake levels for me... I didn't ask! A side view of the different colors in the pool. And guess what makes the yellow and orange colors? You got it - cyanobacteria - one of the most ancient organisms on earth. The orange is actually made by... Phormidium! The same species Paul was looking at in the lab, which he gathered from a wetland in Logan, Utah. Sandra tells me that underneath the orange mat it is green. They are photosynthetic organisms. Not sure why they get the orange top coat - will have to find out. The yellow is from the cyanobacteria genus Synechococcus and they live in hotter temperatures. A close view of the Phormidium mats in the Grand Prismatic Spring

Sandra on the boardwalk near Grand Prismatic
This is a really close up view of the Phormidium cyanobacteria.
I'm actually not sure where I shot this but it's more mats of cyanobacteria.
On the side of Excelsior Geyser - looks like the Caribbean doesn't it? Or maybe a hot tub in the Caribbean!
Another view of Excelsior
Near Grand Prismatic and Excelsior lies this beauty - turquoise pool - reflecting a drop-dead gorgeous sky!
Me standing in front of Opal Pool. Having come here many, many times, Sandra was surprised at how small it was compared to Turquoise pool and suspected something in the water under the earth must have shifted.
This was taken out the car window! The bison walked right by our car. Of course I had to stick my head/hand out the window to take a photo. It was a little disconcerting to be that close to a bison...
The photo makes it look almost like he is missing a limb but he's actually walking. And yes, it was a boy. I looked.
We took a 1.6 mile (each way) flat hike to Fairy Falls. I didn't see any fairies though. Darn!
The mountainside was steep but Sandra darted right up. She's used to trekking the mountains of Samoa, Fiji and other places looking for bats, and other things. Evidence of the massive 1988 fires is everywhere - notice all the downed trees?
She pointed out the many edible berries on the mountainsides this time of year. These are Saskatoon berries and we had some, as well as wild raspberries and huckleberries.
I liked this view of the whorls in this dead tree, plus the new life coming through.
And of course we had to stop by and see Old Faithful. This was my fourth visit to Yellowstone, but I hadn't seen it erupt since I was a kid of 14. We had stopped here while moving from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is pre-eruption. Old Faithful will start putting out some steam. A lot of people had gathered around. We actually arrived about 20 minutes before it's eruption, so perfect timing!
And thar she blows!
On the way out of the park we saw a couple of elk in a meadow. We looked but didn't spot any moose or bear or wolves. Bummer!
A closer view of the two elk.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Nepal photos - red pandas, Himalayas and more

An endangered red panda - aka the firefox - in eastern Nepal. Copyright (c) 2007 Wendee Holtcamp

I am excited about a new documentary being produced by my friend Tim Gorski of Rattle the Cage Productions - How I Became an Elephant.

I met Tim and other members of his film crew (including Jon Kane, who did some video on the new documentary) while trekking through Nepal in 2007 and after this he moved to Thailand and began filming elephants. I'm not sure the backstory of how this film came about but it looks amazing. It tells the story of the 14-year old Juliette, who became passionate about saving the elephants of Thailand. I know that Tim has lived in Chiang Mai for some time filming and researching this story, as well as the undercover wildlife trade.

He and his colleagues are raising funds for post-production, so by all means if this is the kind of work you like to support I give my wholehearted endorsement of Tim and his work! You can donate here and it's a nonprofit, so a fully tax deductible donation. After seeing the sneak peek, I started looking through my Nepal photos and realized that I still have not put many on the blog so with that, here are some final photos. [Past blog posts with Nepal images are here: Thank You India, and other Nepal stories, powerful and sad (orphanage in Kathmandu), it's not my imagination (jetlag, that is), Reflections on non-attachment and jetlag from hell (the best of my images are in these last 3). And then there's this funny story about what happened in Nepal... Speaking of butt hairs.]

You can read the article I wrote for National Wildlife mag, Fighting for the Firefox, online. I also wrote a travel piece for Travel Channel Online: Trekking through Nepal's Grand Ridges.

This is the whole group me on the left, next to Mickey, Mei-Ling. Behind Mei-Ling is Brian Williams, head of the Red Panda Project, to his left is Tim and to his Jon. I don't know anyone else's name except for Sonam (2nd from left on back row) and Kamal (to his right). The photos was actually at the end of our trip but just thought I'd put it here to show you peeps.We were on a quest to find red pandas in the wild! And we saw 3 different individuals. Very few Westerners have seen red pandas in the wild. So I feel lucky! We were not guaranteed to see them either. We had some fantastic trackers who found them almost on the last day of our trek. I don't think I have published most of these photos before! Aren't they cute!!They walk pretty slowly and don't get scared of people. They let us watch for a long time. Their underbelly is black, strangely enough!
I really like this image; the yellow leaves complement the panda well. And a closer up view of the same photo.The image is a little dark but it's so cute!
Before we got to eastern Nepal, we spent some time in Kathmandu. This is a rickshaw driver. Notice how very narrow the streets are, and they have not only people and rickshaws but also cars!!Want meat?No horn zone!A set of bells at the Monkey Temple or Swayambhunath stupa. There are a zillion stairs to get up to the top! I published a couple of pics from there in previous blogs but here are a couple more.
I love this photo! Macaques are everywhere at the monkey temple. I actually never saw any in the wild once we left Kathmandu.Another photo of monkeys at the temple. One of the many Buddhas at the monkey temple.
The river in Kathmandu was so filled with trash. Nasty!
So we set out on our journey, after flying from Kathmandu to somewhere in eastern Nepal that I should remember but I don't. I'll have to ask Brian, our fearless leader - Executive Director of the Red Panda Network. From left, this is Chuckles Borromeo, Mickey Mestel, Brian Williams and Tim.
Me hiking through the mountains.
Clouds would come and go, so the temperature during the day would switch between being freezing and then needing to strip down to a tank top when the sun came out. At night, it was always freezing and I wore every single layer I had to bed! This is a random town in eastern Nepal that we stopped in. I don't remember. We got a kick out of the shirt the little girl had on - Iron Maiden! I'm assuming it was some hand-me-down rather than the fact that she was a fan... The kids in this and other towns would just stare at us like we were so interesting and odd. I love this series of photos. The home and window and the kids - all are so photogenic. The brother and sister took turns looking through the window and then they came outside.
I went with Brian and Kamal to set up a photo camera to try to catch snapshots of the red pandas. It took a good while and during that time the sun went down and I got some amazing photos! See below...
Kamal and Brian setting up the camera. We found red panda poo nearby, which was a good sign!
LOVE this photo. One of my faves. I believe the trees are the very rare Himalayan yew. We only saw them in this one spot.
This photo was snapped before the other one actually.

As it got darker and the sun set below the horizon it turned pink and blueish.Gorgeous! Such a treasure to be able to see the sky change so dramatically.
This is a boy who lived near where we stayed one night, camping in their yard basically! It was near the town of Sandakpur on the India-Nepal border. As this Wikipedia article on the Ilam district says, it is the highest point at 3,000 meters. I thought it was higher than that (that's about 9,000-something feet). Hmm. Here's a map that was on the India border.
A map we saw earlier in the trek - um, I dont think I can read this one! This was one of the last nights there, at a tea plantation we camped at. This is Mei-Ling and Brian overlooking the tea field.We saw a lot of Tibetan prayer flags.
The Himalayas! We were in the "foothills" at 10-12,000 feet, the highest we got, which is high atop the Rocky Mountains in the US!
One of our campsites along the way.
Another of our tents.
Another shot of the clouds that descended on us as we hiked.
Not sure where this was taken.
More houses. They were often quite colorful. A woman and her photogenic home. It seems like one of the Three little pigs homes that if the big bad wolf huffed and puffed it would blow down though!
Mei-Ling and Brian talking in the town of Maimajhuwa where Brian moderated a meeting of all the "forest guardians" in the area - a program he started in order to help protect the red panda. You can read more about it in my National Wildlife Magazine article! I think we may have hand-washed a few items of clothing. I washed my hair!! I was the only one to do so I think the whole trip - ha.The forest guardians and some of the members of the Red Panda Network.We stayed with a family the night of the forest guardian meeting. Tim, Mickey and I stayed with this family and Mei-Ling and Brian stayed with another family. The room where they cooked became verrry smoky!Tim in his room, the next morning. Interesting how they put newspaper on the walls. In my room, whoever's room it was, they actually had a prominent, framed photo of Britney Spears kissing Madonna. Yep. Strange but true. If we got lucky (ha) there was a toilet. Toilets in the east are just holes that you squat over. Oops, they didn't have space for that final T!Rhododendrons in the mist.
Corn and other crops outside a home.
A lady with a nose ring. I think that we didn't see a lot of women with noserings and I'm not sure what they signify.
The two cute kids at the home of the above lady.
Nepali kids are so photogenic!