Amusing Monday: ‘Serengeti’ TV series focuses on entertainment

“Serengeti,” Discovery Channel’s recent groundbreaking series about African wildlife, has come under fire from some experts for the show’s over-dramatizing animal emotions and motivations. But if we can view these personal animal stories with a bit of skepticism, I think we should feel free to immerse ourselves in the magnificent landscape and life-and-death struggles of the animals. Stunning photography, captivating music and intriguing narration of the various stories provide high entertainment value plus a greater appreciation of nature.

The six-part series, produced by “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, has made its mark as one of the highest-rated nature documentaries ever seen on television. The show recently wrapped up its first season, but you may find all parts available “on demand” from TV providers, or you can watch online with access to the Discovery Channel webpage. If you’ve seen the show, you might be interested in several behind-the-scenes videos. A second season of “Serengeti” may be coming, but I don’t think it has been announced yet.

“We’re not used to telling or hearing the stories of animals,” says Fuller in an explanatory video about the project. “I see pain. I see love. I see joy. I see suffering. I see anger. And I see happiness in animals, and it’s powerful.”

Director John Downer, an-award winning nature filmmaker, said three film crews worked in the field for well over a year, using all sorts of specialized equipment to capture intimate and intense moments on the plains of Tanzania. Hidden cameras, aerial drones and camera-stabilization platforms made the live action possible, according to an interview with Andy Dehnart of “Reality Blurred” magazine.

“In ‘Serengeti,’ there are endless moments of intimacy that you don’t normally see in a natural history film because we’re telling that emotional story,” said Downer in the explanatory video. “And there’s also things, really unbelievable dramatic moments, that I could never script, never write, because you never know they would happen.

“The reality of when you’re there, spending that long in the field with them, the stories come just when you’re least expecting them. And they’re always the ones that just blow you away,” he said.

Narrator Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her acting performance in the movie “12 Years a Slave,” grew up in Kenya and seems to share an intimate connection to the African landscape. She introduces the audience to both predator and prey and finds it worthwhile to root for both.

“There are no bad guys,” she says in the video. “There’s just guys trying to survive. And I think that’s really a beautiful dynamic to watch.”

We meet baboons, zebras, elephants, antelopes, gazelles and giraffes, along with hippos, wildebeests and buffaloes. We also meet some powerful characters among the predators: crocodiles, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas and jackals.

One thing became clear to me: Water is an important aspect of the drama. Both predator and prey, as well as rivals in family groups, must find water. That brings ongoing conflict at the river and watering holes that can dry up or turn to mud-laden traps.

Cinematographer Matthew Goldman said one of the biggest challenges was filming in the rain, even though a special housing was built for the cameras that ride along on stabilizing platforms on the sides of the film trucks. The rains provide for interesting footage, he said, but the crew was unable to shield the camera lenses from scattered water droplets. Keeping a lens clear was a task not without risks.

“My job is to jump out and clean the lens,” Goldman said. “When it does start raining, lions especially get very excited, so it can be quite nerve-racking when you are focusing on what you are doing … and the lions are playing and starting to get into this hunt mode.”

The emotional connection with the animals is enriched with an orchestral musical score. Vocal credits go to Lola Lennox, daughter of Scottish singer-songwriter Annie Lennox. The song “Wild Hearts” (above) is written and performed by singer-songwriter Cathy Dennis, who has written many pop hits including Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.”

As I said at the outset, some wildlife experts are apoplectic about the manipulation that takes place to produce a compelling narrative story. The animals might be viewed as actors playing a role, and discerning eyes have noticed that sometimes a single character is augmented with multiple animals playing the role.

Sometimes the narration presumes the feelings of animals, which just might go beyond human understanding. Do animals really love their babies the way humans do? It is hard to say, but it is nice to think so.

“This is documentary as theatre,” writes Rebecca Nicholson of The Guardian newspaper. “I’m not saying gritty realism is always a more appealing approach, but this all-out anthropomorphism sometimes reaches beyond what it can deliver, which is a shame because, visually at least, it’s a stunner.

“It’s all very well to smother animals in human emotions, but the animal world is brutal and cruel, and cozy reconciliations are few and far between,” she continues. “I could feel the manipulation happening as if a puppet master were making me dance, but the death scenes … had an impact. At last, ‘Serengeti’ began to carry me along with it. If this is entertainment, then at least it entertains.”

I confess: When it comes to toxic chemicals, I trusted the FDA too long

Bisphenol A has been creating a dilemma for me since I first heard that it could disrupt normal hormone function in people and animals.

BPA chemical structure

BPA, as the chemical is known, is produced in large quantities, sold around the world, and used in many products — including food cans, plastic bottles, toys and even sales receipts you might be handed at a retail store. Exposure is widespread, with detectable levels of BPA found in at least 93 percent of Americans who are 6 years old or older.

As part of my daily routine, I check out research reports on a variety of environmental and water-related subjects. It seems like there is a never-ending stream of reports, numbering in the thousands, that continue to find problems with even low exposures to BPA.

And there’s the root of my dilemma. The federal Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for protecting us from tainted food and drink, keeps telling us that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure. Check out the statement from the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Stephen Ostroff.

In 2008, I informed readers (Water Ways, April 11, 2008) that I was searching for and throwing out my drinking-water bottles likely to contain BPA. My actions were based on alarms raised by researchers, including those at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For years, I’ve wanted to provide firm, up-to-date advice about BPA, but I guess I’ve been unduly stymied by my faith in the FDA.

With those thoughts in mind, I called Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University’s Center for Reproductive Biology. Pat has studied the science of BPA for many years. One of the problems leading to the FDA’s position, she told me, is that government officials don’t want to give up the long-held toxicological approach to regulating chemicals.

Under the old-fashioned system, the more exposure one receives to a harmful chemical, the worse the health problems are likely to be. So the FDA determines a safe level and expects everyone to comply. But that system does not always work for hormones or for chemicals that act like hormones — such as BPA.

When would a higher dose of a chemical produce a lesser effect? Hormones often work in partnership with a receptor — like a key in a lock — to produce a biological response. A chemical that mimics a hormone may produce an inappropriate and even harmful biological response. Starting at extremely low doses, things may get worse as the dose is increased. But at some level the hormone receptors may become saturated, causing the biological effect to diminish as doses continue to increase.

This is just an example, but hormones and related synthetic chemicals may not react in the same way. Their dose-response curve may even be different for different organs of the body.

That is one problem with the toxicological system under which the government operates, according to Pat Hunt and two other researchers who wrote an opinion piece in the journal “Nature Reviews: Endocrinology.” In the article, she and the other authors praise an extensive — and expensive — research project launched by the federal government to identify the harmful effects of BPA. The project goes by the hopeful name CLARITY, which stands for Consortium Linking Academic and Regulatory Insights on Toxicity of Bisphenol A.

The project was insightful, they argue, but only if FDA officials are willing to look at the limitations of the study’s design and avoid rejecting findings from academic researchers that might not fit an expected pattern.

“Although, ideally, a consensus between the approaches should be possible,” their article states, “differences in research culture made the CLARITY effort akin to expecting a group of folk and punk rock musicians to pick
up their instruments and play together 
in harmony.”

Low-dose effects were found in the data of many studies and should have set off alarm bells, they say. Exposure for animals in the developmental stages are particularly concerning, and the effects may not show up until the animal becomes a sexually mature adult.

“Taken together, these data suggest that low-dose BPA exposure induces subtle developmental changes that act to impair the endocrine, reproductive, neurobiological and immune system of adult rats,” states the article, which goes into far more detail than I can cover here.

BPA has gotten a lot of public attention, which has encouraged manufacturers to replace BPA with other chemicals and advertise their products as “BPA free.” The problem is that the substitutes may be just as bad or worse, according to researchers. In fact, some of the substitutes have been banned in Washington state, so companies are off to the next replacement chemicals.

The problem is that the modern world is filled with chemicals that have not been adequately tested for safety, Pat told me. Ideally, the chemicals would have been tested before they went on the market, but that’s not how things were done in the past. Now the government is challenged to identify chemicals on the market that cause health problems even while people are being continually exposed.

The current Trump administration seems to have little interest in this topic, even though a new federal law signed in 2016 by former President Barack Obama was designed to address the problem. I wrote about this for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016, along with a story about “rogue chemicals” in the environment.

“A lot of us feel that, to come up with a safe level of exposure, some of these chemicals should not even be in the products they are in,” Pat said.

In explaining this difficult problem to the parents of young children, she sometimes holds up a package of birth-control pills and asks, “How much of this should I be allowed to give your child?” Parents don’t want their child to have any, she said, yet we live in a world in which children are ingesting such chemicals, like it or not.

I had thought that the FDA had at least banned BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and other products that could increase exposure to children at a critical time of their development. But that was not the case. The agency had simply “abandoned” its approval of such uses, because companies had changed their products voluntarily.

“An amendment of the food additive regulations based on abandonment is not based on safety but is based on the fact that the regulatory authorization is no longer necessary,” the FDA emphasized in a fact sheet.

In other words, the FDA has never changed its stance on BPA. Meanwhile, a number of states have taken steps to protect children. Some — like Washington — have gone further to protect more of the population. But others have done nothing.

So what can people do about BPA and other chemical concerns?

“You can ask for what you want,” Pat said. “I always tell consumers that they can vote with their pocketbooks.”

Personally, I have cut back on canned foods, because BPA is used to reduce metal corrosion, although it can leach into foods — especially acidic foods. I no longer heat food or drinks in plastic containers, and I’m slowly converting to glass for storing food on the shelf and in my refrigerator.

For more information and tips about what you can do, check out these sources:

Amusing Monday: Movement of music captures climate discord

Using music to describe measurable changes in climate — and expressing the anxiety caused by the ongoing changes — is one approach to the climate problem that has been engaging scientists and musicians alike.

I’ve been following several methods of converting data to sound, which approximates music in some ways (Water Ways, Jan 16, 2017). But the Climate Music Project in San Francisco starts with a nearly complete musical composition and allows the data to alter the sound in remarkable ways.

Composer Erik Ian Walker had been writing and recording music for 30 years when he joined the Climate Music Project in 2015, collaborating with scientists and technicians to explore musical approaches to climate change.

“I welcomed the invitation to write and perform ‘Climate’ for CMP because I feel very strongly about the necessity to communicate the urgency of stopping the negative effects of human-caused climate change,” Erik said in an interview on CMP’s website. “Being a composer, this was the best use of my talents to do something. I also like the intersection of science and music very much, so it was a good fit….

“Decisions that had to be made were whether the climate data was going to be the music (sonification), or whether the data was going to alter music composed before the data collided with it,” he continued. “We chose the latter, as that was the more interesting scenario for a dramatic rendering…

“The hardest part was composing a ‘theme’ and framework that would not devolve too fast as the data we were using began to change the music,” he said. “There is a subjective response of the ear, outside of prescribed numbers, that gauges where ‘double’ of something is, for example. So, we had to find an ‘end point’ of the piece, where the greatest degree of climate change would be, hear what that would sound like, and work backward from there.”

The result is shown in the first video on this page, which shows the piece accompanied with dynamic charts and graphs. In fact, if you happen to be in San Francisco on Sept. 19, you can see and hear a CMP performance of “Climate” at the Exploratorium in the Embarcadero waterfront district.

The piece is about 30 minutes long and offers two scenarios: one in which humans continue on the current path of pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and another in which major changes are made to keep the rise to less than 3.6 degrees F. — the goal of the Paris Climate Accord.

Reporter John Metcalfe describes in CityLab how the melodic movement begins to shift as the calendar reaches the start of the industrial revolution.

“Weird distortions like twinges in a stretched-out cassette tape arrive in the late 1900s as Earth’s energy balance is jolted out of whack,” he writes. “Looking into the future, the music then turns darker and frenetic in the decades post-2017 — the beat and pitch racing, the melody discordant and churning, and the planet’s temperature soaring into an irreversible heat hell.”

Besides the first video, enjoy the following samples of music from two different time periods offered by CMP on Vimeo:

Stephan Crawford, who started the Climate Music Project, explains how he came up with the concept of creating music that can help people experience climate change in an emotional way in an article by Alessandra Potenza in The Verge magazine. The second video on this page provides an idea of how the collaboration works for those involved with the project.

The difference between Erik Ian Walker’s “Climate” and sonifications of data — which certainly have their place — is that you can become immersed in the music, enjoying even the dark parts for their emotional impact. To sample and purchase Erik’s “normal” music go to Bottom Feeder Records’ webpage.

The third video is a promo of the Climate Music Project from two years ago.

Native Olympia oysters expected to gain a new foothold in Sinclair Inlet

A massive amount of oyster shell — some 1,500 cubic yards — will be dumped into Sinclair Inlet near Gorst next week to lay the groundwork for a healthy population of native Olympia oysters.

Native Olympia oysters are smaller and can easily fit inside the more common Pacific oyster shell. // Photo: Kitsap Sun

Limited numbers of Olympia oysters have been growing in Sinclair Inlet, hanging on since long ago, said Betsy Peabody, executive director of Puget Sound Restoration Fund, which is managing the operation. Existing oysters probably just need the right substrate for their larvae to attach, grow and ultimately expand the native oyster population.

The $300,000 project — which will deposit the equivalent of 150 dump-truck loads of Pacific oyster shells — will be the largest one-time application of shells anywhere in Puget Sound, Betsy told me. Her organization has undertaken similar projects in other areas, including Liberty Bay near Poulsbo, Dogfish Bay near Keyport, Dyes Inlet near Bremerton and Port Gamble Bay on Hood Canal.

The yellow area marks the location in Sinclair Inlet where oyster shell will be placed.
Map: Puget Sound Restoration Fund

The shells, which came from commercial oyster farms, will be washed off a 200-foot barge using a jet of water beginning Tuesday and taking up to four days, according to the current schedule. The shell will cover some 15 acres of tidelands toward the middle of the inlet where Highway 166 branches off Highway 16.

This washing process typically creates a patchwork of shell covering about 80 percent of the bottom while 20 percent remains bare, according to plans for the project. The thickness of shell on the bottom will vary, reaching up to 3 inches in some places. No eelgrass or other sensitive vegetation was found during surveys of the tidelands to be covered. The property is owned by Kitsap County.

Historic locations of major Olympia oyster beds in Puget Sound. (circa 1850)
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

In the early 1900s, Sinclair Inlet was used as an 122-acre oyster reserve for protecting seed stock, which could be purchased by commercial oyster growers. Oyster reserves throughout Puget Sound were largely forgotten after Pacific oysters — a different species imported from Japan — began to dominate the oyster market.

Olympias went extinct in some areas, killed by pollution, shoreline development or other factors. In a few areas, habitat was largely undisturbed and the original oyster species persevered. But many embayments, including Sinclair Inlet, were able to support only a fraction of their historic populations.

“Olys evolved in this area and managed to maintain a foothold in the most surprising areas, despite what we’ve thrown at them over time,” Betsy said. “They are tough little critters. You can even find them in places where everything else is plastic. Building back their densities seems like a good thing to do.”

Oysters have a number of good qualities besides being a favorite food of many people. They can filter out plankton that can trigger low-oxygen conditions. Plankton also reduce sunlight needed for critical vegetation, such as eelgrass.

The 19 areas in Puget Sound declared a high priority for Olympia oyster restoration.
Map: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated Sinclair Inlet as one of 19 priority restoration sites for Olympia oysters in the Puget Sound region. See “Plan for Rebuilding Olympia Oyster (Ostrea lurida) Populations in Puget Sound…”(PDF 559 kb)

In natural oyster beds, young oysters are able to set and grow on the shells of their ancestors, often forming oyster beds or reefs that help perpetuate the substrate for future generations. Sedimentation and damage to the shoreline can interrupt the process and eliminate the substrate needed for the oyster to survive. Putting down a lot of shell to create new substrate has proven to be the best way to boost the population in most areas of Puget Sound.

If the Olympia oysters do well in Sinclair Inlet, eventually more shell could be brought in to expand the growing area, Betsy said. If, however, natural production of oyster larvae is not enough, PSRF could develop a broodstock program by utilizing its shellfish hatchery near Manchester, as has been done for other areas. If that were to happen, adequate numbers of Olympia oysters from Sinclair Inlet would be used to produce the oyster seed, thus maintaining the genetic diversity of the inlet.

In 2010, Puget Sound Restoration Fund established a goal of restoring 100 acres of Olympia oyster habitat with shell placed in bays where the native oysters are expected to do well. The Sinclair Inlet project will bring the total to 85 acres, with other areas in the planning stage to help the group meet its goal by the end of next year.

About half of the $300,000 being used for the Sinclair Inlet project came from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, with other funding from the Washington Department of Ecology, Kitsap County and PSRF. The Suquamish Tribe also participated in the project.

Other information:

Amusing Monday: ‘Shaaark!’ cartoon raises public awareness

Jacques, the main character in the cartoon “Shaaark!,” made an appearance this summer in a new video that tells the story of his creator, Australian Phil Watson. I’ve posted this video first on this page, followed by another recent video by Watson, who developed a comic strip followed by a series of cartoons featuring the foibles and fables of sharks.

“I do want to use my cartoons to entertain people and help them to see that sharks aren’t as scary as they may have thought,” Watson was quoted as saying in an interview with Oliver Feist of Stop-Finning.com.

In one cartoon, a young shark is frightened by a bolt of lightning striking the sea. He looks to his father for comfort. “Don’t worry,” says the parent. “You’ve got more chance of being taken by a human.”

In another cartoon, a shark sits and watches television from an overstuffed chair, with popcorn on one arm and a drink on the other. An announcer on the TV ponders: “But are they as terrifying as they seem? Find out on … ‘Human Week.’”

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New permit could address excess-nitrogen threat to Puget Sound

Nitrogen from sewage-treatment plants, along with other nutrient sources, are known to trigger plankton blooms that lead to dangerous low-oxygen conditions in Puget Sound — a phenomenon that has been studied for years.

Nitrogen sources used to predict future water-quality in the Salish Sea Model
Map: Washington Department of Ecology

Now state environmental officials are working on a plan that could eventually limit the amount of nitrogen released in sewage effluent.

The approach being considered by the Washington Department of Ecology is a “general permit” that could apply to any treatment plant meeting specified conditions. The alternative to a general permit would be to add operational requirements onto existing “individual permits” issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES.

The general permit would involve about 70 sewage-treatment plants discharging into Puget Sound. Theoretically, an overall nitrogen limitation would be developed for a given region of the sound. Treatment plant owners could work together to meet that goal, with the owner of one plant paying another to reduce its share of the nutrient load.

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Amusing Monday: Faucets seem to hang in mid-air as water runs

They call them magical floating faucets in the United States, but I’ve also seen them called floating taps, spigots or spouts. The illusion is one of a faucet floating in the air and producing a stream of water with no apparent source.

“Tap Fountain” in Cala Galdana, Spain
Photo: Cala Menorca tourism promotion

They have been created as decorative, amusing fountains in all sizes — from tabletop models, which you can purchase or make yourself, to giant sculptures that can be viewed from a distance or as close as you wish to get.

Large faucet fountains seem to be popular in Spain, where the “iconic red tap” marks the starting point of a large water slide outside the Tobogan restaurant in Cala Galdana, a resort town on the island of Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea. A Resort Guide to Cala Galdana, which includes a photo of the red tap, creates an exciting invitation to this locale. I wasn’t able to find the name of the artist who created the sculpture.

A silver faucet fountain in El Puerto de Santa Maria, located in southwest Spain, is said to be the work of the late French sculptor Philippe Thill. It might, however, be a floating faucet inspired by Thill, whose website (archived) shows a similar piece titled “Insolate Fountain” along with other water-related sculptures.

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New site to be added for fall salmon-viewing on Kitsap’s Chico Creek

The most popular spot on the Kitsap Peninsula to watch salmon swimming upstream to spawn will be off-limits to the public this fall — but Kitsap County officials have a backup plan.

Erlands Point Preserve, as seen from Erlands Point Road // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Chico Salmon Park, located off Chico Way next to Kitsap Golf and Country Club, will remain closed until the fall of 2020 while a new bridge is built across Chico Creek on Golf Club Hill Road.

The park, which includes trails to Chico Creek, is the best place I know for people to observe this natural phenomenon during the fall migration of chum salmon, which are still abundant in the Chico Creek and its various tributaries.

The plan this year is to allow people to reach Chico Creek at the 30-acre Erlands Point Preserve, a county-owned property less than half a mile away, off Erlands Point Road. Volunteer stewards will clear an overgrown trail and build a new gravel viewing pad near the stream, according to Jackson Lee, volunteer coordinator with Kitsap County Parks.

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Amusing Monday: Deaf pit bull gains confidence while learning to surf

Every year about this time, dogs mount their surf boards to ride the waves in various surfing competitions, and each year new stories seem to emerge about human-canine bonds that grow out of this unusual sport.

Mr. Breakfast is a deaf pit bull who was rescued from the dog-fighting world and became the close companion of Liz Nowell of San Diego. Mr. B, as she calls him, was originally named Briggs. When Liz first fell in love with him, he was withdrawn and had some behavioral problems, as she explains in the first video. But thanks to her patience and understanding, this dog’s world has grown richer and dramatically better.

“Once his name changed to Mr. B, people began to see past his tough-looking exterior to the warm gooey lov-a-bull goof inside,” according to an article in Pit Bull Press. “In the past years, Mr. Breakfast has learned four new signs, learned how to surf and has developed a truly happy nature as our bond has developed.”

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Yearlong pumping test will help define aquifers across Kitsap Peninsula

An unprecedented yearlong pump test of a deep water well in Central Kitsap is expected to provide a wealth of new information about our underground water supplies.

Joel Purdy, hydrogeologist for Kitsap Public Utility District, checks the flow at Newberry Hill Well 2, which is being pumped at 1,000 gallons per minute for a full year. // Photo: Christopher Dunagan

The 900-foot-deep well, off Newberry Hill Road, will be pumped continuously for a year, drawing water at a rate of 1,000 gallons per minute. Drawdown effects of the high pumping rate will be measured in 56 other wells — including those operated by Silverdale Water District, Kitsap Public Utility District, the city of Bremerton, North Perry Water District, Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor and others.

The pump test is designed to better define the extent of aquifers throughout Central Kitsap while increasing the accuracy of a groundwater model developed to predict water supplies across the Kitsap Peninsula.

“This is going to be one of the best data-gathering tests,” said Joel Purdy, hydrogeologist for Kitsap Public Utility District. “Hydrogeologists dream of doing this kind of aquifer test.”

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