Songs of Thalassa: Chapter 2

This is a preview of the initial chapters of my new book which will be available for pre-order in March and softcover/Kindle on April 28 on Amazon.com. To learn more about the book visit SongsofThalassa.com.


Chapter 2. Milo

Milo opened a hatch and stepped into the vessel containment area, one of eight chambers occupying the slowly spinning torus of the Duke. The gentle roll of the ship provided gravity for storage, sleeping bunks, dining areas, labs, and the workout and training rooms. He wove past supply bins and blinking panels up to an RV-sized triangular vessel that would be used to explore the planet’s surface. He had nicknamed it Da Bull in honor of the tenacious big-wave surfer Greg Noll. Noll was the first to pioneer big waves on Oahu’s famous North Shore and was known for his no-holds-barred charging style in the surf. Milo had designed the lander to be tough and versatile like Noll, and it could dive underwater or travel between the stars. He wanted to get up close and personal with the waves to create the ultimate holoscreen experience. In many ways, the lander was a complete interstellar ship in its own right—he wasn’t taking chances of not getting back to revel in his accomplishments.

“No damage here,” he said, examining the hull. He opened the lander’s door and leaned back in the pilot’s chair with his hands behind his head, reveling at his ability to infuriate Sage. Although he respected—and feared—her natural surfing talents, he knew her weaknesses well, and stirring her emotional pot always put him ahead in the water. It bothered him that he had only surfed for a few years, while she had surfed her whole life. That’s why beating her will feel so good, he thought.

Cocking back his head, he smiled to himself as he reflected on what led him to Thalassa. After many years of breaking records in other extreme sports, he became instantly captivated watching the power of big waves on the holoscreen. One night while flipping through the channels, a giant wave filled his living room as a sportscaster described the surf at Mavericks. His mouth hung open as the vivid VR projection immersed him in the cold, raw power of the thundering, mountainous waves. He heard the stiff wind blowing back the wave top, the drops of rain hitting the water, the sound of a surfboard slicing down the wave, and the heavy breathing of the surfer. He stood in awe of the indomitable spirit of the surfers that risked tackling such ocean giants. It was a breathtaking experience. The surfers looked godlike, immortal, and overnight some became famous for their death-defying exploits, and others died trying. It was the Roman Colosseum of the time, and he was instantly hooked on the heroic glory of big-wave surfing.

At that moment, he decided that was his next goal, to ride the biggest wave in the world. Then he would move on to other things. But for now, he needed to beat Sage to cement his legacy, and he planned to keep her off balance as much as he could. Dina was also a threat, but she was more focused on Sage’s well-being than setting her own record, as Milo had guessed she would be. The game is set, he thought. Let’s play.

Leaving the lander, he ran his hands lovingly along the yellow hull of his cylindrical three-person submersible. Once he set the ultimate surfing record, he knew that establishing a colony and bioprospecting for microbial resources would be lucrative, as it was on Proxima Centauri B and Ross 128 B. He would use the sub to explore the seas and search out methane seeps and hydrothermal vents, the underwater habitats most likely to harbor life. Thalassa was just the first of many planets he planned to initiate colonies on and extract a fortune. It had better, he thought. He’d spent a major chunk of his assets building the Duke and these vessels, and he couldn’t go home empty-handed. I’ve risked a great deal coming here, he thought with some trepidation.

As he walked back toward the main cabin, he marveled anew at the ship he had built to explore uncharted planets. Exiting the storage area, he entered a hatch leading to a tunnel-like spoke that terminated in a detachable central command center. If needed, the main cabin could undock from the torus and descend to the surface. Milo had been planning this trip for years and was ready for anything.

With keen interest, he stood at a distance and watched Byron and Georgia amid an intense discussion. He had handpicked them both for the mission, and they were integral to achieving his goals. Georgia stared intensely at a display of code on her screen while simultaneously flicking her pencil and talking with Byron, who was absorbed in his asteroid model.

“It just doesn’t make sense, Georgia,” Byron said with exasperation as he stared intently at the holoscreen projection. “These asteroids have a dozen different orbital trajectories, forcing me to make manual adjustments navigating to Thalassa. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unpredictable, and we’re wasting fuel.”

Milo remembered first hearing about Byron, who was a legend in the private aerospace industry, and how he became obsessed with astronomy when he was eight years old. He had looked through a telescope, saw Jupiter’s moons, and realized there was a ton of stuff in space that he couldn’t see with the naked eye and quickly embraced a lifelong career in astronomy. After getting his PhD in physics and mathematics at Caltech, he worked for NASA for a decade before switching to Cutten after NASA was dissolved and Cutten Enterprises became the leader in private space exploration.

Byron grew up immersed in the aerospace industry in southern California and was precise, low-key, and had a computer for a brain with encyclopedic knowledge. At 50, he had extensive interstellar experience and his sharp wit, jet black hair with a splash of gray, and intense eyes gave him a presence that commanded attention. Milo had paid Byron lavishly to join the mission, playing up the possibilities of a unique planet that would provide a rich learning experience. It was an easy sell.

Milo smiled as he waited for Georgia’s response, knowing it would be good. “Well, either your model is wrong or something perturbed the system. There are no alternatives.”

Georgia was Milo’s close friend and an accomplished oceanographer. She was in her early 30s and studied Earth’s ocean circulation and had significant planetary experience, including her dissertation on the ancient oceans and waves of Mars. Her wave forecasting models were legendary, and he was counting on her to give him the edge, as she had in the past. She spoke with authority, her short, curly black hair framing warm brown eyes. She was part of a large extended Mexican family with deep roots in early California history and was passionate, highly opinionated, and bright. Besides Moshe, Georgia was Milo’s biggest supporter on the team and dedicated to helping him achieve his goals.

Byron leaned back in his chair and exhaled. “Well, I’ve triple-checked the model, so something perturbed them.”

“Maybe it was a passing star or a rogue planet,” she said while moving her pencil through the asteroid projection without looking up.

“You’re probably right,” Byron replied. “But there’s no sign of anything now, at least nothing that I can detect. This system is so full of debris it’s hard to track anything. Whatever it is, it’s still around.”

Milo cut in with the daily briefing. “OK, team, huddle up. As we approach the planet, I wanted to give you some updates on—”

Dina approached him and cut him off. “You promised us more information when we got close. Well, we’re close. What more can you tell us about Thalassa?”

Milo turned to Georgia, who scoffed at Dina and said, “He was going to tell you that we just retrieved the probes we sent out last year and I’m trying to process the data, but I keep getting interrupted. These things take time, as the science is, well…complex, as I’m sure you can appreciate—well, maybe not. With luck, I’ll have my 3-D map of Thalassa up and running in a day or so, and everyone can check it out. So keep your panties on.”

Sage rolled her eyes. “Well, you don’t have to be snippy about it. We’re trying to get ready. Remember, we’re the ones taking all the risks while you’re be snuggled safely in your seat. We have a lot riding on this mission.”

Byron’s impatience boiled over. “What about the other part of our mission? You know, the part where our employer and the sponsor for the trip—Cutten Enterprises—wants us to explore the biology and geology of the planet and look for microbial resources? What about the science?”

Sage started to speak, but Milo cut her off. “Yes! Of course, the science is important, and I’ll make sure we accomplish our objectives. But remember, I paid for most of this vessel. Sure, I want to make Cutten happy—I own a significant part of the company, you know—but the big waves are what will make the news.”

“Besides,” Dina said, “who cares about a bunch of microbes?”

Byron raised his eyebrows. “Sure, sure, microbes are no big deal. We’ve already explored 11 planetary systems and found microbial life on Proxima and Ross, so, it’s reasonable to assume we will find primitive life on other planets as we continue exploring. Who cares? Ah, but what if we find something else? Something big and complex? Something sentient? That would be more important than surfing.”

“Huh, yeah,” Sage replied. “Anything’s possible I guess. But I hope we don’t encounter anything in the waves. I don’t need any distractions while I’m setting a new record.”

Georgia let out a sigh. “As we’ve already discussed—maybe you were asleep that day, Sage—it’s unlikely we’ll find anything beyond microbial life. The system is young, only 1.9 billion years old, not even half the age of the Earth, which at that point only had single-celled life. Importantly, Procyon’s white dwarf, which is about as far away from Procyon as Uranus is from our sun, was a red giant about a billion years ago and grew to a thousand times the size of our sun before it fizzled out. The red giant likely fried Thalassa with its solar wind, not to mention the crazy orbital dynamics that occurred when it collapsed into that white dwarf out there. It probably turned the system into the Wild West for hundreds of millions of years with comets and asteroids raining down on everything. Not to mention Procyon’s high UV output. If there was life on Thalassa, it was probably wiped out by those events.”

“Right,” Dina said, flinching at Georgia’s words. “So no 60-foot sharks like megalodon.”

“But remember,” Byron said, shaking his head, “Cutten made a fortune off the bacteria they found on Proxima. They’ve patented thousands of sequences, which more than paid for their investments in space. That’s why they helped pay for the expenses for this trip and for Sage to be part of the crew.”

Georgia smirked at the memory. “As I recall, Cutten wanted their chief bacteriologist, an experienced, PhD-level scientist, on the trip, but Milo convinced them to send Sage because of her surfing experience. What a joke.”

Dina grabbed Sage’s arm as she moved toward Georgia, prepared to launch into another full-blown diatribe.

“Plus,” said Georgia, “Cutten didn’t just pay for some of the expenses. They paid for the jump through the worm portal, didn’t they? That alone probably cost half a billion dollars.”

Milo answered in a soft voice, trying to tone things down. “Yes, that’s true. And we will make sure they get a good return on their investment.”

Byron shook his head. “But all this assumes that the new CITETS amendments won’t pass, right?”

“What’s CITETS?” Dina asked.

Byron answered, “It’s the Convention on International Trade in Extraterrestrial Species, and they’re pushing a draft UN amendment that would regulate the trade of extraterrestrial life. If ratified by the international community, it would regulate, or even ban, trade in extraterrestrial life, such as the microbial life on Proxima and Ross, potentially slowing or halting a new and rapidly growing part of multinational space commerce.”

“But why? Who cares about protecting bacteria?” asked Dina.

Georgia laughed. “We’re already violating the PPP the second we get there. Cutten doesn’t give a shit about indigenous life.”

“The PPP?” asked Dina.

“The Planetary Protection Protocol of the Space Research Council,” Georgia said. “The protocols were written to prevent contaminating a virgin planet with Earth’s life forms. They also protect Earth from alien life, especially microbes. That’s why we have a one-month quarantine at Cassini when we get back.”

Milo frowned at Georgia. “Cutten felt the PPP was broached by the Proteus IX when it crash-landed on Thalassa, so it doesn’t really matter. Plus, they’re just guidelines, not a legal mandate. Besides, Sage will take microbial samples to check for compliance.”

Sage rolled her eyes. “Whatever. I just do what they tell me.”

Byron let out a heavy sigh. “With CITETS, it’s not about the microbes but what we might find next. The environmentalists are trying to get ahead of the discovery of complex life or sentient animals, which they believe is inevitable. It’s a classic conservation strategy, and frankly, it’s annoying. Since it’s easier to mine our local asteroids for metals and minerals, we need microbial space commerce to fund explorations outside of our solar system. I mean, I don’t believe alien sentient life even exists. Why else would—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” replied Sage, cutting his lecture short. “The Fermi paradox and all that.”

Dina shook her head. “What?”

“Look, Dina,” Milo said. “Cutten, like most pharmaceutical companies, is a multinational corporation, so they are fighting to defeat the CITETS amendments and other laws that might limit commerce in space. Since they have most of the commercial space community behind them, it’s not likely to pass. Nor are the proposed amendments to the UN Outer Space Treaty. In fact, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the ‘wacko enviros’ that keep pushing this down everyone’s throats, particularly the ‘Āina Defense Coalition, the major group from Hawaii lobbying for the amendment.”

Milo smirked at Sage as her face turned red. “Hey, don’t look at me. I can’t control my family! The campaign is their idea, not mine. I haven’t talked with my auntie Kēhau in years. I’m not interested in life on other planets, sentient or otherwise, so don’t blame their actions on me,” Sage continued. “In my opinion, this planet is a resource for Earth to exploit. I’m just here for the waves and to grab some cultures for Cutten. That’s it. Then we can go home.”

Milo couldn’t help himself. “Is that really all you’re here for? Have you forgotten about your father?” he said, trying to annoy her further. “I’m sure you want to know what happened to him on Thalassa, right? I don’t think everyone here knows the story.”

Sage clenched her fists. “Shit, Milo, the Proteus is ancient history. Leave my family out of this!”

“Oh, wow,” Georgia said. “I knew your father was an astronaut, but I didn’t realize he was on the Proteus mission to Thalassa”

Milo said, “Yes, as you may recall there were 12 Proteus missions, but three of them never returned.”

“Unfortunately,” Byron said, “the Proteus IX never sent any data back so we’re flying blind.”

Milo kept going despite Sage’s visible discomfort. “One of those missions landed on Thalassa 12 years ago. And most people don’t know or remember their biologist, Daniel Thompson—Sage’s father—or the other crew members. We have very little data from the mission—they lost communication after they began orbiting the planet—which is why we don’t know much about the Procyon system or Thalassa. So, while we’re here, we want to see what we can find out about the fate of the Proteus IX. They must have suffered a systems failure or crashed or maybe even a—”

“OK, that’s quite enough,” Dina said, glaring at Milo.

As Sage’s eyes began to tear up, Dina put her arm around her shoulders. Sage shrugged her off, took a slow, deep breath, and walked away toward her sleeping quarters.

As they closed the hatch, Milo laughed and slapped his leg. “I knew that would get her.”

Georgia cocked her head at his amusement. “That’s cruel, Milo. I understand what you’re doing, but you don’t need to bring up her dead father.”

Byron shook his head and turned back to his console as Milo responded with a wide grin. “Anything is fair game out here and I know her family is her weak spot. I’ll do anything to win.”

Songs of Thalassa: Chapter 1

This is a preview of the initial chapters of my new book which will be available for pre-order in March and softcover/Kindle on April 28 on Amazon.com. To learn more about the book visit SongsofThalassa.com.


Chapter 1. Sage

Procyon System, March 2090

Pitch black, silent. After seven months in deep space, Sage focused on the waves in her head to stay sane. Swimming in the dark with her long, sun-streaked black hair streaming behind her, she relived the waves of her past as her throbbing heart kept the pace. A roiling green behemoth appeared in the black, shimmering in the light, keeling over in mountainous cascades of white foam. As hands of malevolentturbulence reached to grab her, she swam beneath them. Evading the chaos, she emerged victorious on the other side only to see another giant wave cresting before her. Such are my dreams these days, she thought. Endless fear.

Looking through the fish-eye portal, Procyon lit up dark space, a yellow-white star surrounded by bright lines. Byron said the streaks were comets, common in young binary star systems. It didn’t help that Procyon’s white dwarf was a red giant a billion years ago that flamed out, scattering its asteroids and comets to hell. The scorching stellar winds and rain of debris probably killed everything in the system, so chances of finding life here are zilch. Fine by me, more time for surfing.

Drying off, she switched to the paddling machine, and in her mind, she was scratching out at Jaws, a terrifying big-wave surf break on Maui. Seeing dark swells on the horizon, she barely made it past a set of giant waves that caught everyone inside and cleared the lineup. Now she was alone. Fear spiked through her body as a mountain of water crested before her. Paddling fast, she remembered what Dina had taught her: no hesitation. As the swell steepened, she dug deep and pain shot through the healed breaks in her arms—remnants of past beatings on the reef at the mercy of mother ocean. She flipped around, and with long strokes and deep gasps, she was lifted into the air by the cresting lip of the wave. Moment of truth: commit or die. Just the slightest hesitation and she’d be pitched down the massive wave. With a lump deep in her throat, her courage overcame her fear as she began the vertical drop. Without warning, the wires broke on the paddling machine, and her arms flailed loose, her body wracked with spasms as she jolted back into the present and cursed in the darkness, “Fuck!”

Exhausted and numb—this was her second workout today—she got on the bike and pedaled hard as the star view outside shifted. Byron’s making a course change, probably evading another asteroid field. The system was full of primordial debris. She remembered Georgia’s lecture: just one small planet here, no gas giants to suck them up, only a tiny moon. Plus, the planet they targeted was young, half the age of Earth. Probably gets hit all the time. Great. I hope the surf’s worth it.

New stars came into view as she pedaled, picking up the pace until adrenaline pushed away the pain. She recognized one of the constellations, just like Earth. There’s Orion, the belt, with Betelgeuse on the shoulder. But others were askew; the space was warped, confusing. Where’s the rest of the Winter Triangle? Ah, Sirius is over there. She heard her tutu’s voice booming in her head, ʻAʻā not Sirius! Tutu—her grandmother—ingrained in her the Hawaiian names of the stars. ʻAʻā, from legend, was the zenith star and the source of the Polynesian people. And according to her, the Koholā—the whales—were a link to our ancestors in the stars. The whales are almost extinct. Who cares? Ah, old superstitious nonsense. But Tutu believed!

Her heart skipped a beat as a small blue dot swung into view. Thalassa. She had traveled 70 trillion miles to surf its oceans. Her first glimpse of the mysterious world caused her to shudder. Seeing the deep blue of an ocean world recalled her carefree days frolicking in the ocean with her father. I can’t think about him! For the millionth time, she pushed thoughts of him out of her head. Twelve light years from Earth but only seven months in space. Thank god for the instant-jump worm portal. Visions of Thalassa’s waves materialized in her mind. Giant, slow-moving monsters are what Milo had promised, the largest rideable waves in the stellar neighborhood due to the low gravity of the Mars-sized ocean planet. Pedaling furiously, she imagined sliding down a mountain-sized swell with two suns in the sky. Staring intensely at the planet, she heard an ethereal sound—faint, high-pitched notes—as warm waves of emotion washed through her. Music? Am I going crazy?

An image of her father popped unbidden into her head from when she was a child. She held his hand as he patiently guided her into the surf. Then, a flash, and she’s a teenager, sobbing as he left for the mission to Thalassa. He was a crew member of the doomed Proteus IX mission. God, I miss him so much. But it was 12 years ago. Get a grip, Sage. Move on! I’ve got to be ready. She pedaled faster.

But his memory continued pressing into her head. I’d give anything to go back to those days, to live in the warmth of my ‘ohana. She pictured wrinkled toes in warm sand, swimming gracefully with her tutu across the reef, her father pushing her on his surfboard. But no, that’s impossible. I’ve made too many mistakes. I can’t go home. And Dad is dead. But maybe now, on the giant waves of Thalassa, I can reclaim my big-wave record and the love of my fans and followers. I need them. First, though, I have to beat Milo.

Her body trembled at the consequences of traveling so far only to lose. Surfing was her life, her refuge, and there was no back-up plan. The immersive world of the holoscreen was her home, and the cheering of her fans the sweetest music. Watching big waves on the holoscreen was so immersive it was hard to separate from reality. But her disastrous wipeout at Nazaré taught her the fragility of virtual love. As she disappeared from the holoscreen and lost her followers, she fell into a black hole of depression. Drifting in the infinite cold, she lived in a sea of despair so deep she couldn’t reach the surface. But on Thalassa, she had a chance to reclaim it all. Tears ran down her face as her legs became a blur, and she grunted with the effort. This is my last chance! She shook her fear off. Focus on the waves. No mistakes this time.

The darkness vanished as the bright glare of lights blinked on, and the silence was replaced by throbbing rock ’n roll as Milo walked in, jumped into the pool, and began swimming at a leisurely pace. She stopped pedaling and wiped the tears from her face as he surfaced and grinned.

Sage glared back. “What the hell do you want? You ruined my workout.”

He chuckled, pointing at Thalassa. “I’m going to surf the biggest wave of all time on that planet. I’ll be in the history books.”

Incredulous, she tried to appear uninterested in his arrogance but gave in, as she always did. “Goddammit, Milo, you already hold the world record, and nobody’s been able to break it for years. Isn’t that enough?”

Milo shrugged. “There’s always more. Bigger waves. More money. Why should I settle for a mere world record, when the rest of the universe is still out there for the taking? Besides, despite your—how should I say it?—fall from grace, everyone is waiting for a comeback. I mean, come on: you’re young, Hawaiian, and what, five feet high? Of course, every wave looks huge when you ride it.”

She got off the bike and stared fiercely into his eyes, holding back her anger. “That’s why we’re going to Thalassa, right? So you can surf the biggest wave in the galaxy. Then you can broadcast it to your millions of adoring followers. Isn’t that your goal?”

The room shifted, throwing them both to the floor as water sloshed out of the pool. Several sharp thuds reverberated through the ship’s hull. “Shit!” Milo exclaimed. “More damn asteroids.” They bolted to their feet and stormed into the main cabin of Milo’s spaceship, the Duke.

Byron calmly stared at a 3-D holoscreen projection of a moving asteroid field. He spoke without looking up. “I know, I know. I’m doing my best, but the AI only maneuvers around the large ones. We can’t detect the small ones until we’re close, and I can’t avoid them all.” He pointed to the instrument panel. “No hull breaches, and the shields are holding.”

“Yeah, OK,” Milo replied. “Just remember, she’s brand new.”

“Roger that,” Byron said.

Sage knew that Byron enjoyed every minute as he worked his sharp astrophysicist’s mind, and the ship, through the endless minefields of the Procyon system. Byron Kurosawa was the Duke’s principal pilot, although Milo was the mission leader. Heck, Sage thought, anyone could run it. The AI does all the work, and she had piloted the ship in the simulator. Piece of cake! Just plug in the coordinates then boom, you’re there. Except that Procyon’s system was largely uncharted and so full of debris that the AI had overloaded several times.

As she watched Milo speak to Byron, she recalled how she got involved in the first place. The mission started because he wanted to be a modern-day Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian surfer who spread surfing to the world. Milo had poured his considerable fortune into building a state-of-the-art interstellar ship to spread surfing to the galaxy or, more accurately, to broadcast a holovision of him riding giant waves. He hoped his investments would result in continued fame and glory in extreme sports, not to mention the commercial profits from harvesting the planets he surfed.

Milo turned to Sage and continued his rant. “By the way, I have a billion followers, not millions. Don’t you follow the news? But I’ll get even more followers if—” he broke off with a quick chuckle “—I mean, when I beat you. That’s the real reason you’re here.”

She shook her head. “A billion? How is that even possible?” She flinched at the idea that she and Dina were a sideshow, present only to be beaten. After all, they were the former but still popular big-wave women champions. And because Sage’s career was on the ropes, she wasn’t on board just for the surfing but also as a microbiologist working for Cutten Enterprises, the commercial sponsor of the mission. With luck, they’d find microbial life worth something to the biotech industries. But I’m only here for the waves. Fuck my job.

As Milo ranted about his fame and followers, she smiled to herself, remembering how she always used to be the center of attention. In her prime, surfers would leave the water to watch her surf. She was that good—was being the operational word. Now at the age of 26, she hadn’t surfed competitively in years, and her fame was a fading memory. In the fast-paced virtual world, she was quickly becoming a myth. I’ve got to get back on top!

Sage countered his verbal attack. “You’re not a real surfer. You use your fancy wave model to predict where to catch waves. For Christ’s sake, on your record-breaking wave at Cortes Bank, you had Georgia in a helicopter telling you where to sit. That’s cheating!”

“Not technically.” Milo glanced at Georgia for support.

Georgia Alvarez, the planetary oceanographer on the team, reluctantly tore her eyes away from a display of code and shrugged at Sage’s tirade. “Hey, it’s my latest model, and it can predict exactly how the waves will behave and where they will break. I’ve spent years developing it and it’s super cool. Everyone will be using it soon, so why not get out in front? That’s what Milo does—he’s a surf-tech pioneer and has the slickest, fastest motoboards of anyone. So join the party, Sage, or get out of the way.”

Sage and Georgia constantly fought during the journey; the PhD oceanographer wasn’t enthralled with the team’s BS-degree biologist’s credentials and lack of enthusiasm for lab work. Georgia watched with displeasure as she spent all of her time in the gym and on the simulator surfing and piloting the ship’s vessels instead of talking science. Now, after seven months together, they had developed a stiff adversarial relationship. Georgia was always refining her wave models and created one for Mars’s oceans, although they disappeared four billion years ago. Her main role was to guide the surf team to Thalassa’s biggest and best waves and keep them safe while she studied its oceans.

Milo was adamant. “Nobody cares how I get the wave, only how big it is. That’s what makes the biggest splash in the media and makes it to the holoscreen.”

“See, that’s your problem,” Sage replied. “All you care about are your followers and the news.”

“As do you, my dear,” Milo said with a smug grin. “We all know that’s why you’re here, to get your fame back after your accident at Nazaré.”

Sage looked down and shook her head. “Yes, but I’m not—”

Byron cut her off. “Can’t you guys ever stop talking about surfing? Sheesh, Cortes, Nazaré, give it a rest. We’re on a scientific mission, not just a surf trip. I’m trying to get us through these erratic asteroids, and you’re ruining my concentration.”

“Yes,” Georgia agreed, “I’m tired of these arguments too. But we’re not here for surfing, we’re here for big-wave surfing, the apex of extreme sports. And those surf breaks are the holy grail of big-wave riding. They’re like the highest peaks of the Himalayas and just as dangerous: Jaws, Killers, Waimea Bay, Cortes Bank, Mavericks, Nazaré; each year dozens die from getting slammed on the bottom, drowned, or crushed by mountains of water for the slightest mistake. Everyone’s trying to beat Milo’s record by pushing the physical limits. It’s extremely dangerous, and the world is watching to see who will set the next record. It’s a sport where you can make a career out of a single giant wave.”

Milo lifted his arms in the air. “See, she gets it! It’s all about conquering the peaks, pushing the limits when everyone thinks it’s impossible. You tried and failed. Just like your father.”

Sage took a step toward Milo. “Goddammit, leave my father out of it.”

Byron cursed under his breath as the ship lurched, forcing her to grab the counter. A loud thud followed.

Milo ignored it. “But isn’t that why you’re here?” he replied. “Trying to prove your worthiness to dear old Dad.”

Sage’s face turned red as she took another step toward Milo and slammed her fist on the desk. “Fuck! That has nothing to do with—”

Sage stopped and backed off as Moshe took a step out of the shadows. Moshe Geller was Milo’s lifelong assistant and bodyguard. She barely knew him, as he didn’t often speak—but given his size and demeanor, he didn’t need to. Moshe was ex-Mossad, a combat medic, and dedicated to Milo’s protection. He was hired by Milo’s parents at birth to be his shadow. They were inseparable. Moshe was tall and built like an oak tree with thick arms to match his blank, unreadable stare. With a squarish, weathered, leather-like face, dark penetrating eyes, and short salt-and-pepper hair, he was an imposing figure. Despite his tough demeanor, Sage detected a softness inside, but how to get there was a mystery she didn’t care to ponder.

As everyone watched Sage for her next move, Dina ran in from the kitchen. “What the hell’s going on here?” Dina looked around at everyone with a sharp eye, reading their faces. “Whatever, we don’t have time to screw around.” Pointing to a porthole showing Thalassa, she said, “We’re approaching that planet, and we’ll be facing some seriously big waves. We need to be ready!”

Milo let out a gratified sigh. “You’re right, you both need to get ready, and I look forward to the competition. But I plan to leave this planet with the ultimate big-wave record. Maybe 200 feet!”

“Yeah right, Milo,” Dina said. “That’s a mountain of water.”

“But that’s exactly why we’re here,” he replied. “The waves on a low-g planet will be bigger and slower. With my new ultrafast boards and Georgia’s models, I’ll be invincible.”

Dina laughed. “Ha, yeah. I’ve heard that before, and it usually ends in the ER. It’s good we have Moshe here for that. But I still don’t completely understand why I’m here.”

“I need your water skills, Dina. It’s that simple. I trust the tech, but I also want an experienced waterwoman in the line-up, and you’re the best,” Milo said. “And Sage is still somewhat famous, so beating her will make the news. I’ll take both of you down, which is even better.”

“But,” Dina said, “we’re also your toughest competitors and have all the past records.”

He snickered. “You said it, past records. You’re getting close to what—40, Dina? And we all saw Sage’s epic wipeout. It was on the holoscreen for weeks. I’m the one everyone looks to now. I’m in all the e-mags, tweets, posts, insta-whatevers, and the holoscreen broadcasts. I’m the future of big-wave surfing. They will always remember the first person to surf the largest wave on an unexplored planet because no one will ever beat it. It will be epic!”

Sage shrugged, then walked over to the fish-eye portal and looked at the blue dot of Thalassa, almost lost against the endless star fields, comets, asteroids, and dark space.

Milo smirked at his verbal victory. “I’m going to inspect the ship. Daily briefing in 20 minutes.” Then he walked out of the main cabin.

Sage dropped her eyes as Dina walked slowly back to the kitchen. She knew Milo’s goal in life was to be remembered forever, no matter what. And he wanted both of them on the mission because he needed their legitimacy. They were key to his legacy because if he could catch a bigger wave than either of them, the record holders for many years, then he was truly in a league by himself, and no one could argue otherwise. Let him think whatever he wants, I’ll still beat him.

Despite Dina’s support, Milo’s assault increased Sage’s despair. Her life was hanging by a thread, and she knew he’d stop at nothing to beat her. And Georgia and Moshe gave him a huge edge. With a triumph, I can prove that I’m the world’s ultimate big-wave surfer. If not, well…

Looking at Thalassa, she recalled flashes of her father, memories of her tutu, and the strange ethereal sounds. What was that? Despite living in the surfing world, she couldn’t forget her traditional Hawaiian upbringing. Her early teachings had instilled a unique blend of ethics, traditions, and spiritual views, and a belief that she had a bigger role to play in life. And I’ve done that with surfing, right? But as she approached the planet, the beckoning sounds and flashes of her past evoked a faint call to another purpose, as her tutu had foretold. Huh, she thought, is there something here for me here beyond surfing? Then, vigorously shaking her head. No, forget that. I must beat Milo.


“Science fiction…has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation. Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.” 

Alvin Toffler, Author of Future Shock

Walking Whales and The Rise of the Cetaceans

A procetid, the ancestor of modern whales. They swam the seas and walked on land.

…a world without whales. It’s too terrible to imagine.

Pierce Brosnan

As a marine biologist I am always spellbound watching whales on the open sea. Witnessing their majestic movements, they are the most marine of all creatures, but I never fully appreciated their origins until recently. But prior to their rapid ascent during the last 50 million years (mya), the ocean was filled with monster aquatic reptiles such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs plus ammonites. However, after these amazing animals went extinct at the end of the Mesozoic period (65 mya), the oceans were devoid of large aquatic land animals for million of years. Enter the cetaceans.

So imagine an ocean with no whales, no dolphins, and no porpoises. If you could travel through time and swim in the warm Tethys Sea of 50 mya you’d by startled by the early ancestors of whales — the walking whales.

Whales and their relatives, the cetaceans, are related to terrestrial (even-toed) ungulates like the hippopotamus. They are all descendents of semi-aquatic animals that invaded the empty sea in Eocene time’s to prey on rich marine resources. To truly understand the story of cetaceans we need to place their ancestors in the context of continental drift and the formation and fate of the Tethys, and (natural) long-term climate change.


Continental Drift and Climate

The Tehys Sea (TCC), with currents connecting the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, prior to the cetacean invasion, 65 MYAago. From Ubed (2013).
Notice the India continent is not connected to Asia.

During the warm Eocene period volcanism shifted the continents towards their current positions and caused abrupt shifts in climate. While the continent that would become India rafted towards Asia, it trapped remnants of the Cimmeria continent and created the warm, shallow, island-rich Tethys Sea which persisted for millions of years. It was the perfect setting for a mammal to invade the sea. Today, the fossils of early cetaceans are found in the continental shelves of the former Tethys, which are exposed in modern day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and in the Himalaya mountains which were created by India’s collision with Asia..

Simulation of India rafting into Cimmeria and the Asian continent and forming the Tethys sea before uplifting the Himalayas.

These fossil cetaceans show they evolved in the Tethys’ swamp-like seas then spread through what would become the Mediterranean and Caribbean and eventually to the Pacific coasts and worldwide oceans. Much of their success was driven by climate.

In the beginning, when the ancestors of whales invaded the sea, it was super warm –the warmest seen in the last 65 million year. But 16 million years later, the planet shifted to an ocean-rich ice age. It was the perfect climatic driver and resulted in two adaptive radiations among the early cetaceans:

  • First (49 mya): warm climates help spread the early ancestors of cetaceans into the coastal seas and across the Tethys (47-39 mya);
  • Second (33-28 mya): cold climates created a rich, productive ocean where the ancestors of the modern toothed and baleen whales diverged and spread across the planet’s oceans.

Today, the cetaceans — dolphins and whales — are composed of 89 species and include the blue whale, the largest animals on earth, ever. Here’s a brief illustrated description of their journey to global prominence.

Illustration of cetacean evolution, from Wikipedia.

Pakicetus — the first cetacean (49 mya)

Pakicetus was a dog-sized, mostly terrestrial mammal that occasionally hunted fish in the shallow Tethys sea. It had several unique characteristics adapted to a partial aquatic existence: upward looking eyes, thick bones (which assist in floating), and a thickened skull bone to improve underwater hearing.


Ambulocetus — the walking whale (48 mya)

Fossils of Ambulocetus and were first found in Pakistan in 1994 and made headlines as the first “walking whale” due to its combined aquatic and terrestrial features. Individuals were up to 10 feet long and it’s crocodile-like shape included an elongated snout with upward-facing eyes. Studies suggest it was mostly aquatic, using it’s front and hind legs and tail to swim, but occasionally walked on land to drink freshwater and give birth. It was a big change from Pakicetus and one that supported the eventual spread of its descendants (e.g., Remingtonocetus and Kutchicetus) out of the Tethys corridor.

Short video illustrating primitive cetacean locomotion, from Pakicetus to basilosaurids.

Procetids spread across the Tethys (47-39 mya)

Procetids were a big step towards a more aquatic existence but with their hind legs they occasionally still walked (and gave birth) on land. But over 12 million years multiple adaptations arose to a more-marine existence with some walking on land and others being fully aquatic. Major changes include their eyes shifting to the side for better aquatic vision, their nasal openings moved closer to their eyes, and their ears became more adapted to underwater hearing. These major adaptations were key to the success of these cetaceans.

Artist illustration of procetid whales in the middle Eocene period. Author: Alberto Gennari.

Geographically, protocetids were the first cetaceans to leave their origins in the seas of the Indian subcontinent and disperse to the shallow subtropical oceans of the world. Fossils are found in Pakistan, SE Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Georgia, and Texas, showing they crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern reaches of the Tethys, the Suwannee Current of the US SW (e.g, Georgiacetus), and Peru on the Pacific coast (Peregocetus pacificus).

Distribution of Protocetid Whales during the Middle Eocene (about 40 mya) showing localities for protocetids (open circles) in coastal sea (gray). Black circle for the presumed area of origin of the group with I-III showing different dispersal routes. Arrows show Atlantic surface paleocurrents. From: Lambert et al., 2019.

Basilosaurids lose their legs (41-34 mya)

Dorudon, an ancestral whale from the Late Eocene of Egypt. Source: Nobu Tamura.

The basilosaurids, such as Dourodon, were fully aquatic and distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical seas of the world. Their teeth and fossils indicate they ate fish and looked like modern cetaceans, with an elongated tail and terminal fluke. Some reached lengths of 60 feet. Their nasal opening moved even higher up the snout, closer to the position of the blowhole in modern cetaceans. Their ear structures were similar to modern whales and were acoustically isolated by air-filled sinuses between the ear and the skull which allowed them to hear underwater. With their fully aquatic adaptations, they were a very successful group and reached all the world’s continents, including Antarctica. Some were the ancestors of modern whales, the next two groups.

Modern whales emerge — Mysticetes and Odontocetes (33-28 mya)

The ancestors of toothed and baleen whales diverged as the world’s climate rapidly cooled and opened up new opportunities for basilosaurid diets. Shifting continents 34 mya created large-scale changes in ocean currents and temperatures that coincided with this diversification. Principle among them, the isolation of Antarctica and the openings of the Tasmanian Seaway and the Drake Passage resulted in global cooling and the Antarctic circumpolar current that strongly enriched marine resources.

Illustration of development of circumpolar Antarctic current in late Eocene. From Blakey (2020), Geology b102, Historical Ecology.

Baleen whales tap the world’s plankton (36 mya-present)

The evolutionary patterns of modern and fossil species indicate baleen whales (Mysticetes) went through three major phases:

  • An early adaptive radiation (36–30 mya);
  • A shift towards bulk filter-feeding (30–23 mya); and,
  • A climate-driven diversity loss around 3 Ma. (Marx and Fordyce, 2016).

The emergence of crown-shaped teeth 30 mya show an early transition from teeth to baleen, the filter-feeding system inside the mouths of all modern baleen whales. Filter feeding is beneficial and allowed baleen whales to tap huge planktonic energy resources, such as Antarctic krill, which eventually resulted in the large body size of modern species.

Early species were suction feeders, and may have used their serrated teeth to feed on plankton. As the planet cooled, baleen, sheets of fingernail-like teeth hanging from the roofs of their mouths, evolved and baleen whales diversified into many species, including the modern day skimmers (e.g., right whales), bottom feeders (e.g., Gray whales), and the roqual whales, which are lunge feeders (e.g., humpback and blue whales). Their hearing organs became adapted to send and receive long-range sounds, which became the basis for the melodic songs of modern species used for communication.

Mouth of a Gray whale with 300 baleen plates attached to the roof of their mouth to strain food from water and sediment. Photo by Christopher Swann/Minden Pictures.
Baleen shape across the three different feeding methods. Source: American Cetacean Society.

Toothed whales exploit the deep sea (34 mya-present)

As baleen whales evolved ways to tap into the ocean’s abundant plankton, the ancestors of toothed whales (Odontocetes) developed sonar (echolocation) and became the largest predators on the planet. Echolocation involves emitting a series of clicks at varying frequency using an expansion of the head to send sound waves, bounce them off potential prey or surroundings, and receive the signals with their elongated lower jaw. This key adaptation mad them more efficient and allowed them to dive deeper in search of food which opened up the rich resources of the deep sea (e.g, squid).

Illustration of echolocation in dolphins, from Lubis (2016).

The success of these early species eventually gave rise to dolphins and porpoises, sperm whales, killer whales, and beaked whales. Interestingly, early sperm whales, such as Livyatan, hunted other whales with monster teeth.

Status and Conservation

Clearly, cetaceans have a spectacular evolution history of invading the sea and are one of the best examples of gradual evolution. Within 15 million years they went from a terrestrial lifestyle to a fully marine existence and are now the most aquatic and widely distributed of all marine mammals. Similar invasions of the sea by the marine, but coastal, manatees and dugongs (40 mya), the semi-aquatic seals and sea lions (24 mya), and the coastal sea otters (2 mya) and polar bears (130k) occurred but with less success.

From Cressey, 2015.

Tragically, these magnificent animals, the whales, porpoise, and dolphins, have a dark history of human exploitation and most all are on the UN’s endangered species list. Pre-human global cetacean populations were…well, we don’t know and never truly will. Based on genetics, current populations of the remaining great whales are estimated at >10% of their pre-contact populations sizes in most species. Prior to whaling, Antarctic blue whales were thought to number about 250,000 individuals but were reduced to fewer than 400 animals by 1972 — about 1% of its former populations size (Roman et al., 2014). Researchers estimate that in the 20th century alone, three million whales were killed by the whaling industry (Cressey, 2015).

Without a doubt, these magnificent, intelligent animals with their beautiful songs, amazing sonar capabilities, and role as ecosystem engineers which enhance the productivity of the world’s oceans, deserve our utmost respect and the highest level of protection. Their iconic evolutionary record from land mammals to the walking whales, to the dominant animals in the seas just adds to their amazing story.


References and further reading:

  • Cressey, D. 2015. World’s whaling slaughter tallied. Nature 519: 140-141.
  • Gingerich, P. 2012. Evolution of Whales from Land to Sea. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 2012 vol: 156 (3)
  • Lambert, O. et al. 2019. An Amphibious Whale from the Middle Eocene of Peru Reveals Early South Pacific Dispersal of Quadrupedal Cetaceans. Current Biology 29, 1–8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.02.050.
  • Lubis, M. Z. 2016. Behavior and echolocation of male Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins. In: Male Info-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins Captive
  • in Indonesia. Chapter: 3, Publisher: Lap Lambert Academic Publishing, Editor: C. Evans.
  • Marx F, Fordyce R. 2015. Baleen boom and bust: A synthesis of mysticete phylogeny, diversity and disparity. Royal Society Open Science, 2015 vol: 2 (4)
  • Marx F., Hocking D, Park T, Ziegler T, Evans A, Fitzgerald E. 2016. Suction feeding preceded filtering in baleen whale evolution. Memoirs of Museum Victoria vol: 75 pp: 1447-2554.
  • Marx, F., O. Lambert, and M.D. Uhen, editors. 2016..Cetacean Paleobiology (TOPA Topics in Paleobiology). Wiley Blackwell. 319 pp.
  • Roman et al. 2014 Whales as ecosystem engineers. Front Ecol. Environ. 12(7): 377–385, doi:10.1890/130220.
  • Steeman M, Hebsgaard M, Fordyce R, Ho S, Rabosky D, Nielsen R, Rahbek C, Glenner H, Sørensen M, Willerslev E. 2009. Radiation of extant cetaceans driven by restructuring of the oceans. Systematic Biology. vol: 58 (6) pp: 573-585
  • Thewissen, J. G. M. 2014. The Walking Whales: from land to sea in eight million years. University of California Press. 245 pp.
  • Uhen, M. 2010. The Origin(s) of Whales. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, vol: 38 (1) pp: 189-219.

Dr. Abalone’s Address to the Society

WSN logo with famous John Heine kelp art.

Whilst you all have been frolicking along the shores and diving in the sea, as is your way, I, Dr. Abalone, have been scouring the TVsphere for the perfect message for the youngsters of my favorite society, the Western Society of Naturalists. After extensive research I unleash upon you a slew of films so gripping, they win the piscatorial prize for perfection. Because only those that truly love the sea and live daily at its mercy, such as yourselves, can transcend self into a passion for protecting the planet .

Instead of belaboring the details of my long and arduous research in libraries around the world, I instead present a brief distillation of my presentation here along with clarifying notes (or you can just skip to the videos — I know you want to).


My Cute Daughter Steals the Show

In honor of our Mexican hosts and Spanish-speaking participants I asked my daughter Allie Tissot, to translate for me using her remarkable language ability. However, after just a few sentences it became readily apparent that she was embellishing my true words and adding significant extraneous content of her own. Stealing the show as it were. Despite my everlasting love for my daughter, I quickly dismissed her and plunged into the heart of my talk.


I Begin — Dr. Carr to the Rescue

The beginning of presentation: my Business Board

Wielding my Prezi sword, I cast my net amongst the crowd with an earnest intention of tackling that perpetual challenge of all scientific societies: the financial footing of our very existence! Quickly perceiving the lack of interest among the membership, who were passionately engaged in socializing and merrymaking, I masterfully pivoted to my backup plan of super-short but focused TV shows and music videos. The perfect attention grabber for today’s youthful membership.

Wielding the inspiring image of Dr. Carr embroidered in speedo in honor of our perpetual spiritual leader and hero, Jacques Cousteau, I charged ahead by revealing the only true way to capture their parochial interests: selfies! Their delightful laughter made me quickly realized it was a stroke of genius on my part to request these vain instruments beforehand. In essence, I showed WSN themselves.

My backup plan: humor with an embedded message of inspiration (and Dr. Carr).

Mantras & Memes

So, I questioned the milling crowd how the general populace views us marine biologists. No answer was bestowed upon me amidst the growing din so I cut to the chase: mantras and memes. Tragically, in our decadent society we ocean-loving creatures are seen merely through these devices perpetuated through social media. Let me enlighten you with some tragic tales.


I’m a marine biologist and have magical experiences with dolphins.

Actual quote from anonymous marine biology (freshman) undergraduate before enduring the crushing weight of years of chemistry, biology, math, and physics. She never saw a dolphin.

Mom. don’t worry. I Scuba dive with sharks everyday but I pet them and they like it.

Quote from rookie SCUBA diver just prior to being knocked unconscious in the crushing shorebreak. It never saw a shark, ever.

The truth is we are none of that (thank Neptune!), or at least not much. But memes, on the other hand, actually capture some of our compelling character. You know the drill: read it and weep (or laugh).

Marine biology meme found on social media

So let me set the record straight here. First, we will skip what marine biologists REALLY do. Our crushing workload wading through wads of worthless papers whilst welded to our computers is no basis for inspiration. Let’s move on. Second, as PROFESSORS at esteemed institutions of higher learning we damn well know what you youngins really do to relieve the crushing constraint of constant cerebration. For I survived that rite of passage eons ago (as did your advisors). Instead, let us focus on what we THINK we do. For our perpetual image of our persona is all that matters in this god forsaken society. (Note: forgo the other choices, except for Mom. She is God so do whatever she says).


To Save the Society I Transcend Truth

The descent into our inner truth (and three ways to make money)

Let’s us descend into the inner truth of those of us that sanctify their lives scampering along the shores and under the seas. Not only do we deserve the utmost respect in society through our relentless efforts to protect the sea from ruthless capitalists, like them we also deserve copious cash. Tons of it. Because once marine biologists are all rich and famous we can save the planet and live in joy and contentment with our early pleasures and…wait. Is that a contradiction? Anyway, here we go.


Create a Pay Channel

First, we must capture the cash through cable. Come on, we need moolah like everyone else. Give us a break! We’ll even have our own Game of Thrones. Take that HBO!

Descend into the Subtidal (Twilight) Zone

We must capitalize on the risks us professors take in seeking important insights under the surface. Truth be told, we really do leave our cave — I mean office — once and a while. But mostly we send forth our students to do all the sharky work. But hey, there’s a ton of them out there and they fill Dr. Carr’s inboxes eager to embark on any journey he create. Risks? Huh, not for us fearless leaders. Let’s visit our inner zone.

Create Captivating Commercials

Next plan. With the personalized risks we take we can capitalize on insurance for marine biologists. After all, it just another way to take advantage of protect the graduate student masses. Here’s an example, starring my lovely daughter (and my boots) based on the famous Geico Squirrels commercial. Buy MeiCo!


Branding: Family or Foe

The greedy victors in the fight for the Tequila in 2018 (all proceeds go to the student travel fund)

But what is WSN really? We need a brazenly bold brand to boost the Society. I mean WSN is a happy bunch and our annual get togethers involve copious lab reunions that perpetuate the happy fiction that we are all descended from the same marine ecology tree. Truth is, I have personally seen fierce battles amongst institutions and marine laboratories as their armies aggregate at the auction.We fight for bragging rights to give away our meger cash for a single bottle of the coveted tequila. I relished a sip of one small bottle many years ago and although it was slightly nourishing it wasn’t worth the $4,000 the poor students faculty poured out of their thin pockets.

Are We Family, Like the Brady Bunch?

Yes, we honor our heritage and our highly prestigious lineage. We are a happy family and are all related. (actually we do tussle in the literature).

Or are We Foe:
Like A Game of Tequila (Thrones)

We do battle for bragging rights to throw a few coins at our beleaguered students. But have we gone too far?


TV Shows: Let’s Do It!

Now, we have money pouring into our brilliantly branded pay channel and commercials. So we’re set to get rockin. To do that we need to create some captivating TV shows. I mean we are natural actors and are already conducted mating displays throughout the year which demonstrate our immense talents. Just check out the actors below

I should add that some labs, through their intimate scampering with the seals have taken their life style to a new (and franky, disturbing) level and have assumed the role of their beloved animals. Witness the heresy (but this could be good angle for a show!)


Science and Policy:
We Can Do Law & Order

Sure we scientists have law and we have order. But what’s better? Well, science and policy. What could be more fun than chasing down those nasty polluters and throwing them in jail? It’s all for the red, white, and blue.

Science Five’O:
Better Than Hawaii Five’O

Yes, Hawaii Five-O was a classic (I love the wave!) but wouldn’t it be better with underwater shots, science, and surfing? Book ’em Dano, I mean Hixon.

Sharks ‘n Tech
vs. Parks and Recreation

Parks and Rec is very cool show but Sharks ‘n Tech is better and way cooler, right? I mean who can beat sharks? Plus we have super hot tech in spades when we fight the fearful critters of the sea. Don’t hold them, they bite!

Surrealistic Quadrat

So how does my lab conduct science way, way up in mystical Humboldt County? I mean most folks believe northern California is in San Francisco so we must be in a space warp. Yes, we have magic and we have doobies but we also have Grace Slick, or at least her music. Let’s go back to the summer of love.


Naturally cool

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you marine biologists, and members of WSN in particular, that we have an immense reservoir of untapped talent that can be used to perpetuate lovely perceptions of scientists in the social sphere (and make serious cash). But truth be told, we don’t need to exaggerate our esteemed status because, as is self-evident, we are naturally cool. If you need further evidence, let me show you.

Whilst browsing the multitude of memories submitted to me I was struck by how joyous every biologist appeared positioned among the magnificent settings of the natural ocean world we inhabit. I had an extemporaneous epiphany one evening: we don’t need to act because we are naturally awesome and super cool. Here, let the Society speak for itself.


Coda: How it All Ends

And it could end here with I, Dr. Abalone, having fulfilled my mission of entertaining the milling masses and grabbing their attention for a few milliseconds through engaging entertainment. And in surveying the eyes of the crowd I realized I was the only rational instrument standing between the modulation of the milling mass into a sea of throbbing bodies (i.e., the gala dance). But I would be remiss in my leadership duties as President of the the Society if I didn’t remind the membership of the arduous tasks before us, i.e. to save the planet. Thus, to motivate the society to forge ahead into our dark, and fiery future, I briefly recalled our spectacular history.

As if our distinguished natural history was lacking I boldly added that our esteemed predecessors were key in producing the very books we cling it when faced with the daunting complexity of the sea. Namely, Between Pacific Tides (Joel Hedgpeth), Light’s Manual (Ralph Smith), and Marine Algae of California (Izzy Abbott). All past WSN leaders like myself. That grabbed their attention so I thrust myself into my the heart of my pointant plea.

Our House is Burning!

Our warming planet.

I screamed out the radical but true phrase our children have shouted across the globe. Our House is Burning. Tragically, their words are becoming all too true in our rapidly deteriorating world and paint a painful portrait of our planet.

As an esteemed professor standing proudly among the ranks of my academic colleagues, I’ve have personally thought for much of my life that climate change was coming; a threat for the future we could see in our scientific models. But I now know that was a false belief. For climate change is here, NOW. And gosh folks, this is just the beginning as we charge into our relentless carbon-based future. I’m truly frightened for our beautiful planet. (And I don’t frighten easily as I’m a surfer)

Witness the dying bleached coral reefs, or our disintegrating kelp beds, or the heat waves carpeting the oceans. Indeed, whilst preparing my address I endured power blackouts and the threat of wildfire sweeping across my beloved home state of California. These drastic conditions, resulting from dreadful drought and devil winds, are a consequence of our unrelenting global spew of greenhouse gases which oil companies cling to like rabbits with a carrot. Sadly, our great society is crumbling before our very eyes and our esteemed — but blind politicians — do not see it. So we scientists need to make them aware of the world they purposely perpetuate with pollution. In that I bestow upon them the piscatorial prize for perfidy: passivity. A rare perversion indeed.

As my videos have shown, we are marine biologists are perfectly positioned to play the part. For science is pure: we search for truth in nature. And right now nature is sending us an urgent message, she has a problem. As our spectacular photos have revealed, the Society does amazing research so we need to keep doing that. But some of us must step up and inform broader aspects of society of our findings. Others must advocate for change in policy & management with our politicians and anyone who will listen. We must show the world our cool tech and remind them of the awesome creatures in the sea that we protect with our very lives. We must flood social media (you youngsters are better at this then us elders) with posts, tweets, photos, and videos. We must show the world who we are and what is happening to the ocean we love. I know, ok boomer. But this is serious!

We are WSN!

We can do it and already are! WSN is an awesome society. Sure, we site idly at meetings, but we are weaving our recent discoveries together. At our gatherings, like the ebb and flow of the sea, we form networks. New and old labs expand and contract, come together, mix, and develop a wave-like synergy. We play and have fun because we are a driven, passionate bunch. We are a close-knit family, but one that fights for the honor to empty our pockets for the poor students. We fight so youngsters can travel to our gatherings and perpetuate our long and distinguished history.

The key paradigm that is WSN is that it fosters deep friendships, ones forged over shared battles with the sea, decades of creating amazing science, and the honor and respect we develop amongst each other in doing so. We are an amazing society. And now is the time for us to rise to the defining challenge of our generation. For WE ARE WSN!

But whatever we do in our pursuit of truth and tangles with the powers that be, we must always remember the defining axiom of honor perpetuated from a true legend and motivating hero to us all.

Ron Burgundy from the movie Anchorman.

Further pleasurable and informative reading and viewing from Dr. Abalone:

My “How to Become a Marine Biologist…” series:

More Dr. Abalone posts:

The Quest for a Monster 100 Foot Wave

A 100 foot wave at Nazaré? Tum Butler rides a monster on Dec. 2018. Photo: Pedro Miranda.

Some rise up as huge mountains and, as they roll, meet another slab section. … If you combine Jaws, Puerto Escondido, and the Waimea shorebreak and put them all on steroid, you get Nazaré.

Garrett McNamara, Hound of the Sea

Big Wave Surfing

Surfing. The leisure sport of Hawaiian kings. Picture surfers floating peacefully offshore, riding gentle breakers to the beach. True. But the real action these days isn’t just surfing, it’s big-wave surfing, riding monster life-threatening waves. It’s the apex of extreme sports and surfers are risking their lives pushing the limits to ride the biggest wave possible. But is riding a 100 foot wave possible? Let’s check it out and while we’re at it review how we got here.

You’ve heard their names: Jaws, Killers, Waimea Bay, Cortes Bank, Mavericks, Nazaré. The epic waves at these surf breaks are the holy grail of big-wave surfing. They’re like the highest peaks of the Himalayas and just as dangerous. Over the last decades dozens have died from getting slammed on the bottom, drowned, or crushed by mountains of water for the slightest mistake. Everyone’s trying to set a new big wave record by pushing the physical limits of wave riding. It’s extremely dangerous, and the world is watching to see who will set the next record, currently at 80 feet. It’s a sport where you can make a career out of a single giant wave. Many have tried. But many more have failed.

So here’s a brief chronology of big-wave riding and the escalating size records of waves surfers have set. It should be noted that given the imprecise calculus of wave-size measurement, comparisons of wave size, at least until recently, are difficult to make and often remain inconclusive. Most feel the official estimates of current size records are conservative. And maybe we’ll never know the true size of these monsters. In the past they were measured in increments of fear.


Native Hawaiians pioneer surfing

Max size 8-10 feet. Although surfing was invented in several cultures (notably Peru, China, and across Polynesia), it reached its apex in Hawaii. Often reserved for Hawaiian royalty, surfing was also popular and broadly practiced (HOS, 2019). Hawaiians used four types of surfboards, the papio (3 ft. long), ʻolo (20 ft.), kikoʻo (12-18 ft.), and the alaia (9 ft.).

Hawaiian surfers in 1890. Photo: Brit Herbert Smith

Of course, we don’t know the size of the waves Hawaiians rode but Sunset Beach, a renown big wave surf break on Oahu’s north shore they called Paumalu, had a large native Hawaiian population and likely many surfers. The large size and stability of the ‘olo suggests it was designed to surf big waves by Hawaiian royalty (EOS, 2019; HOS, 2019). However, given the maneuverability of this large, heavy (200 lbs.) board it was unlikely they rode waves larger than 10 feet.

Change in surfboard size and shape that ultimately led to the modern surfboards of today

The 9 foot long alaia was likely the model for the modern surfboard which eventually gave rise to more stability (with a fin) and enabled surfers to ride larger waves.


Hot Curl surfers find big waves at Makaha (1930s-40s)

12-15 feet. Having spent years surfing the gentle waves of Waikiki with newly designed surfboards, in 1937 John Kelly and Wally Froiseth discovered Makaha and realized its big wave potential. It would not be until 20 years later that the premier big wave spot would shift to Waimea Bay so for several decades Makaha was king.

The Hot Curl boys at Makaha, 1940s.
Froiseth at Makaha.

It was at Makaha that Froiseth, along with other surfers, began to challenge big waves. Froiseth was the first modern pioneer of big wave surfing and influenced many future surfers, notably George Downing. Makaha can hold a huge swell, perhaps up to 30-40 feet before closing out. However, given their early-stage longboards, they likely surfed waves up to 15 feet. Although they also pioneered waves on the north shore (particularly Sunset Beach) at that time it was a largely unexplored wilderness for surfers and they remained focused on Makaha (HOS, 2019).


California surfers flock to Oahu (1950-60s)

The photo that stated the Hawaii migration. Woody Brown, Wally Froiseth and George Downing, Makaha Point, 1955. Photo by “Scoop” Tsuzuki.

20 feet. Makaha, Hawaii. Buzzy Trent, Fred Van Dyke, Greg Noll. Local Hawaiian surfer George Downing, mentored by Wally Foriseth, began to push the limits of big wave surfing at Makaha. He also designed surfboards that would influence future board design. As the hot curl surfers challenged the big waves at Makaha they drew attention from the burgeoning California surf scene which started a migration to Makaha and Sunset Beach, including future big-wave surfers Buzzy Trent, Fred Van Dyke, and notably Greg Noll. These “coastal Californians” created a wave of fearless surfers that pushed big wave surfing to higher levels.

George Downing’s 10′ Rocket surfboard,1952. Laminated balsa wood blank with three redwood stringers, fibre-glassed, fin-box, fitted timber and fibreglassed fin. Source: http://www.surfresearch.com.au

George Downing on a Makaha bomb, 1954. Photo: Walter Hoffman

Greg Noll leads the charge at Waimea Bay (1957)

20-30 feet. Waimea Bay, Hawaii. Greg Noll and friends. Noll came to Hawaii in 1953 and devoted 16 years to conquering the scariest waves he could find, and in many way became surfing’s first big-wave celebrity. His sturdy body and no-holds-barred charging earned him the nickname “Da Bull.”

Greg Noll in the archetypal charger’s pose, pushing over the ledge, readying for impact. Waimea, 1964. Photo: Keck.

Prior to 1957 surfers were too afraid to surf the north shore’s premier big wave spot, Waimea Bay. And for good reason. Surfer Dickie Cross died there in 1943 after padding down the coast from Sunset beach on a giant swell. From the beach Waimea appeared too big, too fast, too steep and just generally too treacherous to ride. Add to that a gnarly shorebreak, raging rip current, sharky waters, and the presence of a church on the point and a Hawaiian heiau in the valley and it all added up to a scary, forbidden place.

Surfer heading out to ride big waves. From the film Surfers, The Movie.

The lore was that surfers had been watching it for years, building up the courage to go out. That is until Greg Noll and a squad of surfers (Mike Stange, Pat Curren, Al Nelson, Mike Diffenderfer, and Mickey Muñoz) paddled out in 1957. We don’t know exactly how big Waima was that day but estimates suggest it was relatively small for Waimea Bay, probably 20-25 feet but over time a new big-wave size record was set by these pioneers, particularly Eddie Aikua and Jose Angel.

Eddie Aikua, Dec. 1967. Pushing the limits at Waimea Bay. The waves on Waimea Bay that day were estimated at between 30 and 40 feet high. Photo: Tim McCollough.

Greg Noll charges
a giant wave (1969)

30 feet. Makaha, Hawaii. The epic swell of December 4, 1969 was perhaps the most storied day of any in big-wave surf history and maybe the largest swell ever seen (EOS, 2019). During that swell, with most of the north shore of Oahu closed out and flooded by giant waves, Greg Noll paddled out at Makaha with a few others and waited to surf what was at that time “the biggest wave ever ridden” and the last big wave of his career. It’s a record which remained for thirty years. A big part of the lore is that supposedly no photograph exists of the famous wave, which adds to its charm as a singular event (but see Owers, 2011). The painting below is a depiction of that wave.

Artist’s depiction (Drew Kampion) of Noll’s wave that was never filmed.

Tow boarding changes the game: Laird Hamilton & Buzzy Kerbox (1992)

70 Feet. Jaws, Maui. In 1992 Kerbox convinced Hamilton to try tow boarding and big wave surfing has never been the same. Paddling into waves larger than 30 feet was always challenging and held many back from riding truly large swells. At that time, many felt some waves were too big, too fast, and too dangerous to ride. Tow boarding, which was invented and pioneered by Hamilton, Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and David Kalama, revolutionized the sport. Towing early into a building swell at 40 mph gave the rider a tremendous advantage. Hamilton refined the sport using custom small boards with foot straps and tackled Jaws, a famous big-wave spot on Maui.

Dave Kalama dropping off Laird Hamilton at Jaws. Photo: Tim McKenna.

Noted surf journalist Sam George summed up Laird Hamilton’s courage to push the limits of big-wave surfing:

“If you measure Laird by any standard, he’s the greatest living surfer today. No one can touch him as far as performance, innovation, imagination, pure athleticism, and absolutely unquestionable courage. “

Sam George, Laird Hamilton Tow in Jaws

The advent of tow-in surfing in the 1990s dramatically changed the world of big-wave surfing, opening up previously unridden breaks that were simply too big to paddle in. Using Jet Skis, water-skiing ropes and footstraps, tow-in surfers were able to sling-shot into waves that dwarfed previous records. Fairly quickly Laird set new size records at Pe’ahi on Maui, better known as Jaws. The monster waves at Jaws weren’t even ridden until Laird tried two boarding there. Soon many others big-wave surfers adopted the technique and began charging epic swells in Hawaii.

Epic Wednesday:
Ken Bradshaw challenges
Outer Logs (1998)

80-85 feet. Outer Logs, Oahu. In January 1998 a monster El Niño pounded the north shore of Oahu and flooded across the Kamehameha Highway as it did while Noll caught his epic wave during the storm of 1969. The waves were so big the Coast Guard closed the ocean to everyone: Condition Black. The swell maxed out every surf spot on the North Shore, including Waimea Bay, and was considered too big for surfing. But it pounded a reef many had been watching for years: Outside Log Cabins.

Bradshaw’s Epic Wave: Video: Mr One

That day, Ken Bradshaw, a veteran big-wave rider, was towed into the biggest wave on record at the time. According to Bradshaw on Surfline the incoming wave was: “The biggest thing I had ever seen, it was like looking at a four- or five-story building, going through the ocean…” The height of Bradshaw’s wave has been debated, but most agree it was a solid 80-85 feet. Condition Black raised the bar for charging big waves and inspired surfers everywhere to invest in jet skis and watch for epic swells.


Laird’s Millennium Wave stuns the world

Though not a new size record I would be remiss in not mentioning the “Millennial Wave.” On August 17, 2000, Hamilton broke new boundaries when he surfed the thickest, heaviest wave ever ridden at Teahupo’o in Tahiti. His epic ride at Teahupo’o thick slab cemented his already solid role as surfing’s premiere big-wave surfer and rocketed him to an almost legendary status.

Laird riding the heaviest wave ever at Teahupo’o. Photo: Tim Mckenna
Riding Giants.

Laird’s wave changed the surfing world: it made a seemingly impossible wave possible and restructured how we thought about surfing. It was one of those moments that led to the big wave charging we see today. Tow boarding into such an unbelievably massive wave sparked momentum that pushed the sport to greater heights than ever before. Laird’s wave was featured in the game-changing film, Riding Giants, which was released in 2004 and chronicles the history of big wave surfing.

Man, that shit’s impossible. You don’t do that

“Greg “Da Bull” Noll, on Riding Giants.
Laird’s Wave at Teahupo’o and comments from the film Riding Giants, 2004.

Pete Cabrinha charges Jaws (2004)

70 feet, Jaws (Peahi), Maui. Everything changed in 2002 when Billabong created the XXL big wave awards and assembled a professional judging committee with guidelines in measuring wave height. In addition to stimulating a horde of big-wave seekers ro enter the fray, the shift to actually estimating wave faces using standardized methods made it difficult to compare waves to the past records because there was no official scorekeeper (Guinness stepped up with Cabrina’s wave in 2004). Even so, Peter Cabrina pushed the limit during the “swell of the decade” at Jaws and won the Billabong XXL award with a 70 ft. monster

Cabrina at Jaws on his record wave. Photo Credit: Erik Aeder/Billabong XXL

As Cabrina famously said:

From the first day of tow surfing at Jaws, one thing became crystal clear to everyone. By towing ourselves into these waves with a jet ski, we could catch, and hopefully ride, any sized wave that the ocean would send our way.

Peter Cabrina

With seemingly no limits, and with the media and financial backers firmly committed to filming monster waves, the race was on to push the envelope and ride the largest waves on the planet.


Cortes Bank emerges as the ultimate challenge, Mike Parsons (2008)

Peter Dixon’s book chronicling the discovery of Cortes Bank.

77 feet. Cortes Bank, California. The mythical surf spot that is Cortes Bank, a rocky shoal located in the deep ocean 100 miles off southern California. In the 1990s a new spot was found and pioneered that could potentially hold the largest swell on Earth. It’s location and shape both contribute to its unique ability to converge and focus wave energy from the North Pacific. Importantly, the shape of the bank captures and focuses wave energy along the length of it’s gradual stair-stepping shoal, channeling the energy into the shallowest areas of the reef. Given the bathymetry, a 15-ft, 20-s period wave could easily grow to 4-5 times its height creating a 60-75 ft wave (Dixon, 2011). In a big swell, a perfectly shaped 100 ft wave could be generated; during a once-in-a-century El Niño-type swell, a 1,000 ft wave is possible. All the other big wave spots, such as Jaws, Maverick’s and Todos Santos, begin closing out at 50-100 ft heights into a hugeunrideable wave.

Parsons surfing a 66 ft. wave in 2007, the year before his record-breaking 77 foot wave.

In January of 2008, Parsons rode a wave from a monster storm which generated giant swells and buoy readings of 80-100 ft. With a second major storm bearing down, four of the most experienced big-wave surfers in the world — Mike Parsons, Greg Long, Grant Baker, and Brad Gerlach — jumped in a boat with two Jet Skis and headed toward the Bank. Slingshotting in at high speeds with weighted boards and flotation vests, the team endured horrific wipeouts and risked being lost in the mountains of white water before Parsons caught his epic wave. The surf session was so spectacular it made the New York Times. Greg Long describes the extreme conditions:

I’ve made some heavy missions out to Cortes Bank. But this time, it was all on the line: The biggest storm. The biggest swell. The biggest buoy readings ever seen. And as far as the risk factor, it was off the charts

Greg Long, New York Times (Jan. 2008)
Parson’s epic 77 ft. wave at Cortes Bank. Photo: Robert Brown.

And surfers watch Cortes Bank for the swell of the century, another surf spot becomes the new challenge.


Nazaré emerges as the largest wave on the planet: Garrett McNamara (2011)

78 feet. Nazaré, Portugal. Enter Nazaré, possibly one of the largest surf breaks on the planet and the location of the current big-wave records. It’s a rocky point with a offshore submarine canyon that runs for nearly 100 miles. As waves approach the shore they move fast in the deep canyon and like a funnel are focused onto a shallow sandy bottom where they double up to create monster waves, many estimated at over 100 feet.

McNamara riding his record-breaking wave in 2011.

Prior to Nazaré, Garrett McNamara (or “GMAC”) spent years training and suffering injuries with tow-in partners Rodrigo Resende and Keali’i Mamala at Jaws, Mavericks, and Teahupo’o; he even sought a tsunami from calving glaciers in Alaska. In 2011 he traveled to Nazaré and pioneered the unknown and seemingly unrideable break with tow-ins, custom weighted boards, flotation vests, and an emergency air supply. In his autobiography, Hound of the Sea, he describes the epic wave that stunned the world:

The drop down the face is long. it feels endless. I rocket on down. The face is choppy, the wind is fierce. I can hear, as well as feel, the roar of moving water beneath me. … I breathe deep, stay present.

Garrett McNamara, in Hound of the Sea.

McNamara’s pioneering efforts attracted other big wave surfers to the massive and dangerous break and it soon became the go-to spot for new big wave records.

Another view of McNamara’s record ave in 2011.

Rodrigo Coxa sets the current record at Nazaré (2017)

80 feet. Nazaré, Portugal. On November 8, 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Coxa set a new record three years after a near-fatal wipeout that forced him to stay away from the monster break for months. As reported in Smithsonian magazine: “Plagued by nightmares of being dashed on the rocks below Nazaré’s lighthouse, Koxa says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his sponsor. He had wanted to be a “big rider” since reading about the greats in surfing magazines as a boy, but Nazaré’s big waves had seemingly defeated him.”

It was only after surfing his mountainous wave that he realized he broke McNamara’s record by two feet according to Guinness and the World Surf League (WSL). But he set the new record at great personal cost and many others surfers have risked debilitating injuries, and their lives, chasing a potentially impossible dream . After several surfers expressed doubts about returning to WSL’s 2018 big wave event at Nazaré, the WSL had this to to say about the dangers of Nazaré

… wiping out at Nazaré can be life or death. Waves there can reach heights of up to 70 feet on the face, at which point they weigh 1,000 tons. It’s a place where breath-hold training, aerobic stamina and safety systems are essential for survival. But all of that also adds up to something else: a place where some of surfing’s most incredible achievements can unfold.

WSL, 2018
Coxa’s 80 foot wave at Nazaré

The Future

As to the question of whether a surfer could push the limits and eventually ride a 100 foot wave, the jury is still out. Although several surfers may have ridden one that big, including Tom Butler and McNamara, so far these have not been listed as world records. Maybe it will be Nazaré or Cortes Bank, or even some undiscovered surf break. Maybe it will be a woman such as Maya Gabeira who rode a 68 foot wave at Nazaré, five years after a disastrous wipeout.

The truth is, a 100 foot wave may simply be too fast and too big for someone to actually ride it. Of course, surfers have been down that road before: that’s what they said about Waimea Bay for years before Noll pioneered it in 1957. The truth is there is no limit to the courage of surfers, whether they can survive a wave that size or not. We will see.

References

Listen to the Children

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, center, attends a rally in Berlin, Germany, on March 29. Photo: Associated Press.

We have only been born into this world, we are going to have to live with this crisis our whole lives. So will our children and grandchildren and coming generations…We are not going to accept this. We are striking because we want a future and we are going to carry on.”

– 16-year old Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist

Listen to the Planet

To many, concerns around climate change are a recent topic. They are not. Indeed, warnings go back over 100 years. But we have ignored them. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide levels from human activities have increased 35%, global temperatures have risen 1.4°F, and rising sea levels have added six inches of ocean to the planet. I know, they don’t sound like much. But they are because they are global. As a scientist that has studied climate change since the 1980s I recognize that these seemingly slow insidious changes are unprecedented in Earth’s history. Of greater concern, if you predict where the trends are going, the future consequences for the planet and humanity are sobering.

Effects of global climate change: more frequent wildfires, drought and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of storms. Photos: Left – Mellimage/Shutterstock.com, center – Montree Hanlue/Shutterstock.com.

Here’s what the science says:

  • There is no place to hide; everything on the planet is affected
  • Small average changes drive large shifts in extreme events
  • Changes will continue through this century and for millenia

And although the consequences for ecosystems are severe, it’s not just about the ecology. We are inextricably linked to our living planet. As it goes, we go. Humanity is eight billion souls, and growing fast, and the disruption in air, water, and climate in the midst of our expanding populations creates dire consequences, with the worst yet to come. Importantly, the changes will not impact everyone equally. Those with the fewest means to adapt and those who bear the least responsibility for climate change will suffer the most. Global climate change will amplify our growing inequities to epic proportions.

Listen to the Scientists

I want people to unite behind the science… And that is what we have to realize, that that is what we have to do right now.. I’m not the one who’s saying these things. I’m not the one who we should be listening to. And I say that all the time. I say we need to listen to the scientists.

Greta Thunberg

If you are a skeptic, I only ask you to do what children around the world are asking world leaders to do: listen to the scientists. To deny the science, which is unequivocal regarding climate change, is to deny centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge. This is the same knowledge and structured, logical process that gave rise to modern medicine. Do you question your doctor when you are ill and need surgery or medicines? Climate scientists are the doctors for the planet and Earth is running a temperature. As the children say: Our House is Burning.

You only have to look at the world to see it is changing. Climate change is not something in the future, it is happening now. What common sense misses is that small global changes drive a higher frequency of extreme events. Since the early 1990s, the number of extreme weather-related disasters has doubled according to the UN. Our new climate reality includes stronger hurricanes, more frequent shifts in the polar vortex, recurrent flooding, life-threatening heat waves, longer wildfire seasons, and more rain during downpours, like atmospheric rivers. The Earth’s rapidly receding glaciers and ice sheets, and rapid spreading of marine heatwaves, are telling us something. These events are driven by our warming planet and we’re only seeing the beginning. To quote Wilder and Kammen (2017), “What’s coming down the road in just a few generations will be determined by the inescapable laws of chemistry and physics.” What we do in a hundred years will affect the planet for millenia.

Listen to the Children

So in a nutshell, that’s the science. Now we need action to stop the bleeding, to stop the future consequences of our carbon-based technology. We can do it, we are already are, but not fast enough to make a difference. That’s where the children come in. They believe the science, and what it predicts, and they are rightfully worried about their future, and their children’s future.

Left: Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish parliament in to raises awareness for climate change, August 28, 2018. Right: People protest during a Climate Strike march in San Francisco, California, September 20, 2019. MICHAEL CAMPANELLA/Getty Images and REUTERS/Kate Munsch

Why? Because they are the ones that will be affected the most. They are the ones that will experience the consequences of decades of our denial and lack of action. They are teaching us what many fail to see. When will we wake up to our new reality? The children are angry, and they have a reason to be so, as they watch their future home slowly degrade. They are angry at our “leaders” for failing to lead on climate issues, a major part of the trifecta for a solution (see below). A short year ago, 16-year old Greta Thunberg sat alone outside the Swedish parliament to raise awareness about climate change. This month she was joined by millions around the world. Listen to her explain what’s at stake.

16-year old Greta Thunberg taking world leaders to task for inaction at the UN Climate Summit, Sept. 23, 2019. Source: CNN.

Act!

If you have heard the planet, the scientists, and the children, you know a warmer world is happening, with all its associated consequences. Now we need action to stop the bleeding, to stop the future consequences of our carbon-based technology. We can do it, we are already are, but not fast enough to make difference. A pantheon of world leaders with deep ties to the planet-warming industries deny climate science for political reasons. The US, China, Brazil, Russia, India are all enacting policies that ignore the science. Even if every country on Earth meets the 2015 Paris Accord goals, which is not mandatory but calls on 200 nations to reduce their emissions, we will see a 5F rise in temperatures by 2100. Again, small global changes drive a higher frequency of extreme events and they will create a turbulent future for generations to come. We need to step up our game.

So, here’s what we need to do. And many cities, states, and countries are already leading the way with swift, equitable, significant, and effective climate action to protect our life-sustaining ecosystems and human communities:

  • Politicians
    We need policies that rapidly drives a shift away from our carbon-based industries; policy guides businesses, corporations, and individuals with incentives to transition to a renewable future. California is a bright example and other states are enacting similar policies. The best way to promote policy is to elect officials that believe in climate science and are committed to action. There is no time to fight the wrong political battles.
  • Corporations & Businesses
    They need to usher in a new era of renewable energy; corporations know how to do it but they require stricter laws and economic incentives to make the transition. Although many large oil industries appear to be doing so, most is greenwashing and not truly effective. Policy and economics will push their behaviors in the right direction.
  • Individuals
    We need to be mindful of our energy use and their sources; minimizing our energy use should be everyone’s short- and long-term goals. There are many things that can be done. One big one is driving and flying. In total, the transportation sector—cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships, and freight—produces nearly thirty percent of all US global warming emissions. There are many ways to reduce vehicle use, both in the short- and long-term.

Inspiring climate actions from around the world. Source: UN Climate Action Summit.


The Future

So, let’s listen to the children and the scientists and finally make significant progress on protecting our, and their, futures. There is a lot at stake. The children are rising, and so should we.

Embed from Getty Images

Further Reading:

Why You Can’t Go Home Again (But Don’t Need To)

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
My great grandparents, Bill and Lola Rehkopf at their farm house in Chino, CA in 1913. My paternal grandmother was born in the house.

Home. The eternal quest of our lives. But what does it really mean? We all know the sayings. Home is where the heart is. Home is where you make it. There’s no place like home. And the ultimate dodge, home is home. You may picture it as a house, your hometown, or perhaps where your family and friends live.

To me, growing up in a nomadic Navy family and 21 different houses, home was where my mother made it. When I was young I used to lay in my bed at night and picture each and every bedroom I had lived in; the memories of those spaces flashing through my mind. That was home. But when I left for college, I sought a new home, one of my own. But it eluded me until I had my own family. Ah, this is it. So, for many years I thought, home is where you make it.

However, following the recent death of my father, as my brother and I spent a week cleaning out our parent’s house, a new meaning of home emerged. It hit me like a freight train. Bam! Paradigm shift. Sorting through the endless remnants of my parent’s lives: there it was. Home on a historic platter. There was photos, books, bills, letters, financial papers, plaques, trinkets, you name it. There was stuff from my kids, my brothers kids, us as kids, my parents as kids, even my grand- and great- grandparents as kids; precious pieces of my families lives stretching back over a hundred years.

But as the week wore on home began to feel different, something bigger. In touching, smelling, and reminiscing on the remnants of my ancestors lives, it took on a new meaning. A big part of my home was the long arc of my parent’s lives, both together and apart. I experienced my mom’s grade school and my dad’s high school; I read letters they wrote to each other during the Korean war before they were married; I remembered conversations listening to reel-to-reel tapes from my father during the Vietnam War. Each item connected me to a person, a time, and a place; some in my memory, but many not.

My great-aunt Gaby (back) with Swiss Relative In Valangin, Switzerland, in 1919 during WWI.

In one small folder I found letters and telegrams from my great-aunt Gaby, who immigrated from Switzerland to Nebraska as a child. As a nurse in France in WWI she pushed through war, borders, and bureaucracy to visit her Swiss cousins in 1919. Almost a hundred years later we visited our Swiss cousins, the descendants from that day, and they still remembered stories of Gaby and her visit. Family endures over time.

But I still felt something deeper, a growing concept of home that remained elusive. Because buried in my parent’s belongings were a few of their parents possessions, and among those were older items from their parents. What lay before me was the sorting and sifting of mementoes from generations of my family; items from my ancestors stretching back five generations or more. As I held these precious possessions–faded photos, intimate notes, scribbled family trees, and scraps of needlepoint–I felt the eternal winds of time. I could see and feel the memories of their homes as brief moments of their lives flashed before me.

They called it paradise, I don’t know why.
You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.

Eagles, The Last Resort

In the end I decided that home is what I hold in my heart. Home is the collective memories of my parents and my immemorial connections to my ancestors. But time moves backward and forward, so it’s also the dreams I hold for my children and their futures. Home has an eternal meaning and never ends. As my children go out into the world and create their own families, my home will go with them.

Now I know, as Wolfe so eloquently wrote, home is something you can’t grasp and hold onto. You can’t go home again because what we remember–the permanent and unchanging memory of a place–is swept away by the tides of time. But we can hold home in our hearts and let it resonate in our souls because it is our eternal connections to the past and the future. Home is within us and always will be. All you have to do is imagine it.

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch-we are going back from whence we came

John F. Kennedy

I have always been drawn to the sea. We are all children of the ocean: born of the sea, live by the sea, will return to the sea. And like our families, past and present, and our memories of place and time, the sea is home to us all.

Related posts:

Aim For The Moon: The Space Program That Inspired a Generation of Scientists

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.

— President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

“Houston, this is Alpha II, we are good for launch,” I said, moving away from my rocket. “4, 3, 2, 1. Launch!” As my Estes rocket blasted high into the sky I followed the parachute until I found it lying on the ground, payload intact: a plastic army man. Like Homer Hickam in October Sky, I learned to design, build, and launch small rockets, including mastering the physics of flight, the engineering of rocket ships, and the chemistry of rocket fuel. All inspired by America’s race to land on the moon. I was 12 years old and those experiences propelled me into a career as a scientist years later.

The day we landed on the moon was epic. It was after 10pm on a balmy summer night in Virginia in 1969 and I sat glued to my small black and white TV.  For 15 agonizing minutes, I watched as Neil Armstrong slowly made his way down the lunar ladder towards the surface of the moon. I ran between my TV and my telescope aimed at the moon, imagining what it was like. Finally, the moment arrived as Armstrong placed his foot on the surface and I screamed in joy. The next day I designed and launched more rockets.

My career, and my broad interests in science, were inspired by America’s race to the moon. Between 1961 and 1972, I grew up watching the space missions of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The astronauts were my heroes and I loved the technology. As a kid, those were magical times and they taught me to believe in the impossible. I’ve been a scientist now for 40 years and it’s hard to underestimate the power of those heady days to inspire my career trajectory. I can clearly trace the roots of my interests in science to those spectacular years when we trained the astronauts and developed the technology to land on the moon. Indeed, as I recently watched original footage from the Apollo 11 mission I shuddered once again at America’s amazing scientific achievement.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Kennedy’s challenge to congress in 1961 to walk on the moon by the end of the decade was audacious. At that time the first astronaut, Alan Shepard in Mercury 3, had only spent 15 minutes in space, launched using a modified Cold War ICBM. Nobody had orbited the Earth, there were no multistage rockets, no space walks, and no docking maneuvers. The idea of landing on the moon so quickly was fraught with risks. NASA flight director Chris Kraft had doubts about successfully landing on the moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong put the odds at 50/50, and and President Nixon had a letter prepared in case the astronauts died on the moon. But despite the tragedies of Apollo 1, or perhaps because of it, men walked on the moon in the summer of 1969. And for one bright brilliant moment the world was one and everyone basked in human’s ability to accomplish the impossible.

By today’s standards, the technology was simple and largely untested. A modern cellphone has a million times the power of the computers on the mission and everything was double-checked by hand using slide rules ( I used them until the late 1970s). The book Digital Apollo chronicles the prolonged struggles of computer designers, software engineers, and test pilots to successfully integrate test pilots with the new and complex integrated circuits needed for the lunar landings. At that time most computers were the size of a room. So NASA — working with MIT and Fairchild Semiconductor — created the purse-sized Apollo Guidance Computer that operated on just 72KB of memory (most cell phones have at least 64GB, where 1 GB = 1 million KB).

Yet by sheer will and the technological prowess of over 400,000 scientists and engineers, NASA designed, built, tested, and ran the space program and was able to complete 21 manned space missions including five lunar explorations (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15 and 16). The pace was furious and in the late 1960s, the Apollo program was launching humans into space every 2-3 months. Although the vast majority of the people that helped make Apollo a reality were men, women played key roles in the mathematics, physics, and on mission control staff, but their roles were hidden and underplayed.

Men in white shirts and skinny ties largely ran the Apollo program. Photo: NASA.
Engineer Poppy Northcutt at NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, in 1969. Photo: NASA.
Katherine Johnson doing the math that made Apollo possible. Photos; NASA.

And although I was extremely disappointed when we pulled back from further manned missions to the moon after Apollo, (I thought we’d be on Mars by the 1970s), I’ve cheered for NASA as they continued their amazing scientific achievements using 450 Robotic spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. Since Apollo, they have landed on Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and several comets and asteroids including fly-bys of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And what we have learned about the Earth and our solar system since the 1970s has been stunning.

In all, the US spent $25 billion on Apollo and an average of $8.3 billion a year for space-based piloted spacecraft, <1% of the federal budget. Today, NASA’s budget is < 0.5% of the budget. Looking back, what price can you put on launching an entire generation of scientists ? Personally, the recent resurgence in manned missions to the Moon and Mars have reinvigorated my passion for spaceflight and astronomy and have inspired me to write a science fiction novel. I believe we need another Moonshot, or a similar and ongoing challenge in America, to stimulate interest in science, math, and engineering to inspire present and future generations.

“[S]cientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to government. Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress, we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny.

Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1945.

For the last decades America has underestimated, and subsequently not supported, the role of science in our modern society. As a result, there has been a decline in scientific education and a decline in interest in the sciences. Instead of being a leader as we were in the 1960s, America now lags behind other countries in math and science, testing out in the middle of the pack. We have lost our global leadership. As the generation inspired by the Apollo missions moves into retirement, who will step up to keep the USA’s edge in our rapidly changing technological world?

The dichotomy that we need to spend more on domestic programs, or focus our efforts on climate change, not on space exploration, is a false one as the value of strong science in our democracy is pervasive. The truth is that every dollar spent on space programs is paid back and generates multi-fold returns to our economy every year (anyone use digital cameras, GPS, or eat freeze-dried food?). Sure, climate change is a major threat that deserves substantial economic attention with support from a global coalition, but our country can easily afford to sustain both efforts as we take care of our home planet and reach for the stars. Maybe humans need to leave the Earth to save it.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first walk on the moon, let’s aim higher and create another Moonshot goal, such as mission to Mars. Through more investments in space, we can inspire a new generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers and regain America’s preeminence in technology. Right now there are 12-year-old kids staring at the stars and dreaming of space travel just like I did in 1969. What do we want for their future?

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Dawn Patrols and Paper Routes: Swept Away by the Tides of Time

The smell of the crisp, cool dawn triggers memories of the paper routes and dawn patrols of my youth. Those dark, quiet times before first light were special; a time when life shone brightly. Before dawn’s light, anything was possible and the day was promising. Would the surf be big? What’s happening in the world? For a few years, I lived in those mysteries; the unknowns delivered in daily parcels. There was no predicting either and in that space, I lived for the day and life was simple. But those days are gone, swept away by the tides of time.

846-02792031It started with the Pacific Beach Sentinel. As a nine-year-old in 1966, getting paid to ride my Sting-Ray bike up and down the steep hills of Pacific Beach (PB), California was a dream. Up at 4AM, I folded, banded, packed, and delivered papers in total darkness on my bicycle. On Sundays I had inserts and I bagged them on rainy days. Monthly, I went door-to-door and collected my fee: a few bucks for the paper and 50 cents for me. Tips for on-time, front-door delivery were gravy. 2019-07-26 16.44.17When I switched to the San Diego Union, I made $1/customer and I was stoked; $30-50 a month was a small fortune for a kid in those days. But I would have done it for free: I loved the quiet time — no cars, home lights out, no one in sight. It was my own world and I loved the freedom and peace before the day began.

But life moved on. I lived in a Navy family, and over the next three years I moved to Virginia, then Idaho, then miraculously, back to PB in 1970. As a newly sprouted teenager, I resumed my paper route with the Union. It was then that my pre-dawn existence meshed with my newfound passion in my life: enter surfing and the dawn patrol.

As a  beginning surfer, I quickly became obsessed with finding and riding good waves. Early on I learned the good spots were packed in the morning and wind-blown by the afternoon. Where to go? Dawn patrol! And the early-to-rise lifestyle fit perfectly with my paper route. Here’s how it worked: up at 3:30am, 2½ miles down the hill on my bike to my 50  Union customers in De Anza trailer park; band, pack, and deliver papers; done by 5:00am. Power back up the hill, meet my surfing buddy Neal, grab my board, down the hill again carrying my board and towel on my bike, and 11 blocks (2 miles) straight down Diamond St. to the beach; we’d surf, then head to school (PB Junior High), arriving just before class (or on good days, late). I remember having unkempt wet hair in class, my nose dripping with water, our boards stashed in the bushes. During the summers we surfed all day. It was a totally awesome life!

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Crystal Pier PB at sunrise. From the movie: Jewel of the Pacific, directed by Eladio Arvelo.

Dawn patrol was bitchin’. Staring into the darkness, we could hear the surf and guess about the wave potential. Loud = big waves. But we hoped it wasn’t too loud; that was scary. Over time, we became tuned to Mother Ocean’s moods and learned to predict the quality of the waves looming out of the darkness under different combination of swell size, direction, wind, and tides. The Crystal Pier lights helped. If we saw white foam peeling left and right emerging out of the blackness we’d scramble down to the beach and stand at water’s edge until it was light enough to paddle out. Most times, the waves were small and mushy, but on rare days, we were rewarded with perfect waves. 

tumblr_nm1pj587N01s79rl8o1_1280I live in the moments of those days. They were pure gold. Sliding down a glassy, tubular wave face with the early sun’s rays beaming across the water was Nirvana. The only ones out, we hooted and cheered at each ride, then paddled back to the lineup at top speed with our hearts pulsing in excitement and anticipation of the next wave. It was the pure spirit of surfing. But our sunrise rewards were short-lived. Within an hour, other surfers would appear on the shore, paddle out, and flood the line-up. Even in the early 1970s, PB was crowded as surfing started in the 1950s

Golden moments in life are rare but they last a lifetime. I remember the days when we were rewarded by our diligence and determination to beat the crowds; the triumph of our dawn patrols. But those simple days — paper routes and dawn patrols — are long gone. As with many aspects of life, the relentless march of time has erased the days when the early bird got the worm; they were swept away by the cultural and demographic tides of the burgeoning masses, fears for children, and advances of technology. 

Why? One reason is demographics. San Diego was at the forefront of urban development in California and between the 1950s and 1970s, the population doubled and then doubled again during the next three decades to 1.4 million. When I visit PB now I’m shocked by the crowds swarming the cliffs, beach, and in the surf. I imagine surfers are still enjoying the waves, after all the crowded scene is what they’re used to — it’s the shifting baseline of surfing — but there’s little room for private surf sessions.

And there’s no escape to the dawn patrol, or even to the once remote depths of Baja, as the adoption and use of modern technology has elevated the “luck” of the dawn patrol to a scientific model. Now, due to the superb science of Sean Collins and the advent of Surfline, we know days, sometimes weeks, ahead of time when and where the next perfect swell will arrive with a high level of certainty. These days it’s common to arrive at dawn only to see the beach full of surfers, everyone alerted to a new swell in advance. Today, I can check the surf at PB on two live videocams along with swell, wind, and tide data for the day with predictions for the week ahead. In many ways it’s awesome, but we’ve lost the mystery. Instead of laying in bed dreaming about waves, I pull up the forecast and videocam on my phone. There’s little possibility of finding a swell to yourself by being an adventurous early riser, at least in southern California. The dawn patrol I knew is dead.

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Image of my Surline feed for PB including two webcams and swell, tide, and wind predictions for the day and week.

Simarily, a suite of cultural shifts eliminated paper routes for kids: primarily, declining readership (50% drop nationally between 1970 and 2017) and the advent of adult delivery in cars. Like many recent jobs, adults squeezed out kids to add extra income. Plus, routes are now huge. When I was a kid, about half of the houses got a paper. Now readership is so low that newspaper routes can have 35-700 customers; too much ground to cover by a kid on a bike. 

Also, many parents pulled their kids off pre-dawn routes due to publicity around child abductions. As the abduction data shows, bike-ridden dawn routes by pre-teenage kids in their local neighborhood is the most common age, time, and place for abductions.  However, the horror of experiencing a missing kid is more perception, than reality. The risk, according to the Washington Post, is that children in 2015 were “…being killed less. … hit by cars less. And they’re going missing less frequently…” than the previous generation. The likelihood of childhood abductions in 2015 was both historically low and infinitesimally small. The article concludes: “Truth is, if it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it’s even safer for your own children to do so today.” Even so, it’s rare to see a kid on a per route these days. I don’t think I would have allowed my kids on a route either, but it never came up.

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But I don’t lament the past too much. The Earth spins around the sun and time marches on — it’s the way of the world. We can’t go back, only forward. And like my parents growing up in the 1930s, and my grandparents in the 1910s, the tides of time are strong and sweep away old traditions then surge back with the new. Although I deplore the loss of dawn’s mysteries — the daily doses of the world’s news and the rare clean surf session with my friends — there are so many great dimensions to our shiny-new tech-driven world I can’t complain.

67482._uy630_sr1200630_-1.jpgIn 1980, fresh out of college, I read Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave. It was prophetic: “Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life.” Moreover, he said, the advancing wave of a technological society doesn’t break smoothly but clashes with previous waves to create a turbulent world. We’re living in that world now. And in many ways, life is better. But the constant bombardment of horrific crises and the 24-hour spin of politically-divided news channels is dispiriting and a far cry from the slow pace of dawn’s front pages in the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, I can turn it off, but the effects permeate society. To truly escape, I retreat deep into nature and seek days of solitude to slow the march of time. If we’re not careful, we may lose access to the wilderness and have no refuge at all.

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PB, fall 1970, in my first wetsuit, purchased by wages from my newspaper route.

Those days live in my head and the memories are imprinted in my soul. I can feel my strong legs chugging up the hill on my bike, board in arm, dripping wet, happy. And now, 50 years later, when I’m up at dawn and experience the quiet moments before the day explodes in complexity, I rejoice in the smell and feel of the crisp cool air;  I recall the bright promise of my youthful days delivering the news and hitting the surf before first light. Like many simple things in life, at the time I took them for granted. And before I could place those days in the context of my life and the flow of time, they were swept away by the surging tides of life.

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