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Backcasts archive: Through June 27, 2008

Blog calendar: June 27 | June 24 | June 23

posted June 27, 2008

Diving with sharks shouldn't be such a whale of an issue

Sorry, Mr. Cousteau, but despite your extensive marine know-how and famous pedigree, we find criticism with your criticism of the new program that allows regular folks to swim with whale sharks at the world's largest aquarium.

What seems like an intriguing and unique opportunity to "Swim With Gentle Giants," as the Georgia Aquarium has dubbed the adventure that launches this month, is being panned by experts who claim divers could harm the mammoth denizens, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Yes, two whale sharks died at the facility last year. And, yes, no one knows for sure why they expired. And, yes, a bad reaction to chemicals introduced to neutralize parasites is the prime suspect.

But Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the late Jacques Cousteau, the guru of the depths, claims that in light of the mysterious shark deaths the aquarium shouldn't allow the public to swim with the big fish.

What strikes us as odd is that Cousteau's argument doesn't seem to account for the regular encounters with humans the whale sharks already experience. Last year, according to spokesman for the Atlanta facility, divers made some 5,000 trips into the 6.3-million-gallon tank for maintenance. What are another dozen swimmers and divers a day (as the public program calls for) going to matter?

"I certainly don't think there's something to learn from someone swimming with a whale shark," Cousteau told the Times.

We respectfully disagree, Jean-Michel.

A lot can be learned. And there are a lot of benefits.

• It's gotta be much safer for the humans to be encountering a whale shark in such a controlled environment vs. the same in open waters.

• By having the opportunity to witness whale sharks in captivity, perhaps that satiates the curiosity of these folks and reduces the likelihood of them stressing out whale sharks in the wild.

• The chief science officer at the aquarium promises to "pull the program" if the whale sharks can't cope with an influx of visitors, according to the Times.

• A facility spokesman told the Times the aquarium was funding significant whale shark research projects in Mexico. The goal in Atlanta, he said, is to turn visitors into lifelong advocates for threatened ocean creatures.

So, as they say, it's all good.

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posted June 24, 2008

Editor's note: My Back Pages recalls previous columns penned by the author.

My Back Pages: Lifting barred belles at mussel beach

Monster surfperch targeted at Santa Cruz Island

Upon our return to Camarillo Airport from a morning surf-fishing excursion to Santa Cruz Island's desolate west end, a member of the landing crew inquired whether we caught any.

"As many as you wanted," was the reply.

The three of us must have appeared quite full of ourselves at that point. Landing plump barred surfperch, the likes of which aren't often seen on mainland coasts, on cast after cast will do that to fishermen.

Had the query been made a few hours earlier, however, we would have been saddled by frustration.

For all its remoteness, the beachside fishery at the base of Christy Ranch in the idyllic setting of southern California's Channel Islands National Park can be a tough nut to crack for anglers who prefer casting artificials. Such was the case for us, until we discovered the magic of the mussel.

From the air, my partners – Tarzana, Calif., kayak-fishing specialist Dennis Spike and radio personality Pete Gray, co-host of the San Diego fishing talk show "Let's Talk Hook Up" – and I quickly appreciated the west side's lack of fishing pressure. It was then the nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islander (every seat's a window seat) touched down in a bucolic and entirely overgrown pasture.

Grass blades were severed by the propellers. During the approach, I sincerely thought pilot Tom Driscoll would say, "This is where we used to land … before the tarmac was built."

If you can get over the notion of landing in a field, you can fish in a rugged locale that only recently reopened to the public after a five-year closure.

Since February, Driscoll's outfit, Channel Islands Aviation, has been contracted with the Nature Conservancy – a nonprofit organization that owns 90 percent of Santa Cruz Island – to fly surf-anglers into historic Christy Ranch for day trips. No overnight stays are permitted.

Built during the Civil War, the ranch served as an outpost to the island's main facility located in its central valley. In recent times (up until the conservancy group took over in 1987), Christy Ranch was a hunting lodge and destination for island adventurers. Public access ceased earlier this decade.

For our first two hours at the site, the plastic lures on 4- and 6-weight setups were barely nibbled. We diligently changed weights (everything from small split shots to ¾-ounce sliding-egg sinkers) and swapped patterns (from 2-inch dorado-hued grubs to curl-tail scented chartreuses). The work was extremely difficult and yielded just three perch.

Nothing is more frustrating than seeing fish chase bait in the surf and not hooking a thing.

Turns out our gear was too stout. At sizes 1/0 and 2/0, the hooks were bigger than the perch were willing to swallow. Gray longed for a 1-inch grub with red flakes or a similar sand-crab imitation.

It's wasn't until Driscoll strolled to the rocky, southern end of the beach, returned with a handful of mussels and casually suggested we try them that the action took off … exponentially. I baited a size No. 1 hook with a healthy portion of the brilliant-orange meat and, pow, was immediately onto two perch.

The bulb finally lit up. We couldn't pry the mollusks from their craggy anchors fast enough.

Talk about hookups! In less than an hour we beached three dozen perch. My 4-pound spinning rig was routinely bent. These fish didn't give up easily, either.

When the fight did draw to its conclusion, they rode the waves into shore like expert surfers. Their tenacity earned each a reprieve; all were returned to grow to maturity. If ever a bite was wide open, this was it.

It conjured memories of growing up in Oregon and fishing with my family on the coast. Dad would bait a gangion of hooks with mussels and couldn't reel the surfperch in fast enough. Often there would be two, three and even four fish on a line.

Surfperch are viviparous – bearers of live young; uncommon among marine fishes – and many times they would give birth as they were landed. Catch and release was not a popular concept in the late '60s, but us kids did our part. Pops would catch the mamas, and we'd release the babies.

Skip forward to Christy Ranch again, and many of the catches were trophy sizes of 2-plus pounds.

"Most surfperch are much smaller than that; catch averages are palm-size," Spike said. "These were slabs. They were fat, so fat. That's a potential beach where you could catch a record fish."

(The all-tackle record for barred surfperch as recognized by the International Game Fish Association is 4 pounds, 2 ounces, taken nearby, on the mainland, in Oxnard, Calif., in 1996; they can grow to 17 inches.)

"Had we been out there all day, we would have wished we had a scale," Spike said.

Cal State Northridge biology professor Larry Allen explained that mainland specimens are less frequently caught to 2 pounds because fishing pressure is so great. Santa Cruz Island is a different story.

"I would assume that they are big there because they are rarely fished; the population grows to the maximum mature size and they are not taken," Allen said. "That's the usual scenario when you enter an area that hasn't been fished for a long time."

He noted that surfperch prefer open coast and sandy beaches. They swim in the breakers, where the bottom is ruffled and their favorite food – sand crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans – is released.

Fishing is a constant experiment. You work the water until you get it right, or you go home empty-handed. We were intent on casting for distance and discovered late in the day that the fish fin so close to shore; it was a classic case of working too hard.

"I learned that everything I've ever read is correct – that surfperch are in the (surf) zone and if you don't fish the zone you'll never find them. And sometimes the zone is at your feet," Spike said.

Once we scaled back the tosses, flipping the mussels just over the lip of the first trough, we caught as many as we wanted. The noon quitting time came way too soon.

"It was just like going back in time," Gray said.

If you go, bring a scale.

Fly-in, surf-fishing trips to Christy Ranch are no longer available to the public through Channel Islands Aviation – the only aviation concessionaire to Channel Islands National Park. However, anglers can make similar sojourns to neighboring Santa Rosa Island. Call the flight outfit at (805) 987-1301 or visit its Web site for additional information.

This article originally appeared April 17, 1997, in the Los Angeles Daily News

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posted June 23, 2008

Here's a case (study) when it's actually better to have a cat than a dog

This one is so evergreen and so gonna knock over sportsmen, we saved it for a rainy day. But since we haven't seen much rain in the last three days of a largely otherwise June gloom here in Seattle, that's gotta be a sign to share it. Hey, who knows, may it won't rain for the rest of the month. (Yeah, right.)

Anyhow, it seems a cat is good for something a dog isn't – reducing the likelihood of its owner dying of a heart attack or stroke, of all things.

Now think about it: That's a significant accomplishment – saving people's lives.

But that's what researchers at the University of Minnesota have determined. Indeed, as reported by the Web site of the Star Tribune newspaper, their study concludes that feline-less people were 30 to 40 percent likelier to die of cardiovascular disease than those with cats.

As much as pooch lovers may want to believe differently, the study determined that dog owners had the same health risks in this regard as non-owners.

While previous research suggests pets can help reduce stress, according to the Star Tribune, this study targeted other risk factors from 4,435 questionnaire participants.

The variation between cat and dog owners wasn't predicted and isn't fully understood, but it also likely isn't a coincidence, said University of Minnesota stroke authority Dr. Adnan Qureshi.

Wonder if it's too late to teach your pointer to get along with a Persian? Hey, if the cat can survive the new arrangement (and if you can), you'll only be helping yourself.

No word, yet, if cats can help reduce the health risks of dogs.

With rats gone, it's safe flying again in Scotland

As the saying goes, if cats can save people, people can save birds … by getting rid of rats.

Never heard that idiom?

Well, you have now.

The Scottish isle of Canna recently was dubbed "officially rat-free," and that's nothing but good news for the 15,000 seabirds (if not the dozen human residents) that call the tiny place home.

The eradication of the island's introduced brown rats began three years ago in an effort to protect the 14 species of birds that nest on Canna's cliffs, the Associated Press reports from London.

With the help of a team of experts from New Zealand, nearly 4,000 rodenticide-baited traps were set up and down the five-mile-long island that is situated more than 25 miles off Scotland's western coast, according to the AP.

Now it's been more than two years since the last confirmed sighting of a rat, prompting the rat-free designation from British Environment Minister Mike Russell.

That's an estimated 10,000 dead rats. Before the eradication project, the rodents had been invading the bird colonies and eating eggs and chicks in greater numbers, likely due to warmer winters, according to the National Trust for Scotland, which manages Canna.

Hats off to the National Trust for Scotland and the kiwis who ensured this bird story would have a happy ending.

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    About the author: Brett Pauly spent nearly six years editing and publishing ESPNOutdoors.com before moving on to produce the ESPN.com Sports Travel site. He is a national award-winning writer and editor with 14 years of experience in the newspaper trade, including stints at the Los Angeles Daily News and Seattle Times. The Evergreen State is where he now makes his home. Click here to email him.

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