Ocean of Hope

Book Review: Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies
Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

“Manatee Rescue” by Nicola Davies (Candlewick Press, 2015) is a middle grade (grades 4-8) children’s book about a rescued baby manatee in the Amazon. In the backmatter, we find out that this book is based on a true-life story.

There are three types of manatees, the West Indian, African and Amazonian. This book is about the ones that live along the Amazon River in South America.

The protagonist is Manuela. She grows up in a culture where killing manatees is a status symbol. She looks forward to the day when she can kill one alongside her father Silvio. Manuela and Silvio succeed in killing a mother manatee, but nothing prepares Manuela for the instant bond she feels for the manatee calf. She secretly vows to raise the calf and return it to the wild.

Manuela and her father take the two-month-old calf home, and Silvio sells the calf as a pet despite Manuela’s protests. Later that night, Manuela and her friend Libia steal the calf and bring it to Granny Raffy’s. Raffy often rehabilitates wild animals.

At Raffy’s, the two girls learn to take care of the calf, from nursing him to cleaning out his pond. Manuela bonds with the calf, who prefers her feeding him his bottle full of milk.

The two girls make a list of things to do, the most important ones (and seemingly impossible) being getting the villagers to care about and never hunt manatees again.

Without giving away the rest of the story away, I will say this book has a happy ending, both fictionally and in real-life.
The backmatter is informative not only about the manatees themselves, but also about the relationship between the natives and the manatees.

Although meant for kids, I think conservation-minded and animal-loving adults will enjoy this quick read (105 pages). It’s a perfect introduction to manatees and community-based conservation for all ages.

Book Review: Tilikum’s Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell

Tilikum's Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell
Tilikum’s Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell

Tilikum’s Dream (Eifrig Publishing, 2015) is a rhyming children’s book about Tilikum, a killer whale, who recently died (January 6, 2017) in his concrete pool of 21 years at Sea World. It is written by Tracey Lynn Coryell and illustrated by Shelley Marie Overton. I liked Tilikum’s Dream because it is beautifully illustrated and the sparse rhyming prose lends well to the music recording that can be downloaded. It has a strong anti-captivity message not just for killer whales, but for all marine mammals chained for life in captivity. It has a happy ending, unlike the real Tilikum who died never tasting the ocean from which he was born. The short text lends this book towards young school-age children who probably have visited a zoo or aquarium and can imagine Tilikum’s predicament. Proceeds of this book will benefit Blue Freedom, an international non-profit founded by a teenager concerned with Tilikum’s and captive killer whales’ welfare. They have created a film titled “Voiceless,” which is available free on YouTube.

Background on Tilikum:
Tilikum was taken from the icy waters off of Iceland when he was approximately 2 years old. Ever since then he has been in captivity, first at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. It was there that he killed his first human with the help of two female killer whales. In 1991 Tilikum was sold to Sea World, where he has been ever since. He killed two more people there, including his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. He then became primarily a sperm donor, his genes in 56% of the killer whales in captivity at Sea World. He was the largest orca in captivity at 22 feet long and 12,500 pounds. May he RIP.

To read Tilikum’s Dream for free (one book a month for free!) click here

Moana Movie Review-Is it Appropriate for Young Children?

Moana and Maui photo by Disney
Moana and Maui photo by Disney

“Moana” is a coming-of-age story of a girl from a South Pacific island called Motunui. She is the daughter of her village’s chief. She is chosen by the ocean (and guided by her grandmother) to return the green stone heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess. One thousand years ago the demi-god Maui stole the heart, which gives birth to life itself, for his people but instead spread darkness. The island goddess becomes a lava monster. It is up to the modern-day Maui and Moana to return the stone heart after the fish disappear from her island, and coconuts are found spoiled.

My 7-year-old daughter and I both enjoyed “Moana,” though she didn’t like the scenes with the lava monster, which looks like it belongs in Middle Earth (the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings world). As a marine biologist I was disappointed that there were not more marine animals depicted in the movie. I was very happy that one of my favorite animals, the manta ray, has a prominent role.

Moana’s sidekicks are decidedly terrestrial, a piglet and a dumb but comical rooster. It’s true that the open ocean is often called a “biological desert,” but it would have been nice if Disney could have celebrated the diverse life that does live in the ocean. I was hopeful after the scene with a toddler Moana in which she helps a baby sea turtle make it to the ocean, and she looks into the ocean, which parts like an aquarium for her. I was happy though to see South Pacific culture celebrated with song and homages to their wayfaring ancestors. And there is no prince in the movie for Moana to chase after, a first for a Disney “princess” movie.

Disney does show the power of the ocean, from thunderstorms creating big waves that overwhelm Moana’s boat, to Moana being thrown into the ocean deliberately and by accident. A good portion of the movie (at least half?) is just Maui, Moana and the rooster Heihei on Moana’s boat. I would not recommend this movie to toddlers, as during solo songs and other dialogue-driven scenes, the toddler behind me would kick more and his younger brother would cry. There aren’t any unnecessary scenes, it’s just that there is a lull at times.

I was surprised that the relationship between Maui and Moana isn’t more cordial initially, but the story grows in intensity as their relationship becomes stronger and friendly.

I didn’t especially like the scene in which Moana and Maui go to the realm of (unrealistic at least) monsters and steal back Maui’s magical fish hook. The fish hook is pivotal to the story, as it allows Maui to transform into different animals to fight the lava monster. The hermit crab is strange, and I didn’t really hear the lyrics as I was worried about our heroes getting the fish hook. The monsters aren’t realistic with their neon colors and fantastical design, but could still scare young children.

In short, I enjoyed “Moana” and would recommend it to any Disney movie fan. Ocean lovers will appreciate the reverence shown to the ocean. Just don’t expect “The Little Mermaid” when it comes to animals. Almost all of the action occurs on the water, not below.

What did you think of Moana?

Finding Dory Movie Review by a Marine Biologist

Dory from Finding Dory picture by: Disney/Pixar
Dory from Finding Dory picture by: Disney/Pixar

Finding Dory was an immensely enjoyable movie, exactly what I expected from a Pixar/Disney movie. The short animated film shown before the movie, “Piper,” (about a baby shorebird) is worth the price of admission alone! Don’t miss it!

I genuinely laughed and I went through a full range of emotions, from sadness all the way to I’m so happy that I’m crying! The movie takes place at the fictional Marine Life Institute in the not-so-fictional Morro Bay, California.

My only scientific beef with the movie is that the waters of California are a frigid 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Dory, Nemo and Marlin live in a tropical coral reef where the seawater is a warm 70’s-80’s degrees Fahrenheit. The gang couldn’t survive the cold waters off of California. Bailey the Beluga Whale is from the Arctic Ocean so he could survive, but Destiny the Whale Shark needs warmer waters (up to 30 degrees North and South for you geography buffs).

The movie starts with Dory as a youngster, doe-eyed and voiced by a child (not Ellen DeGeneres yet). Dory’s parents treat her short-term memory loss as a disability, a parallel that many human parents will identify with. It isn’t until later flashbacks (yes, Dory will remember some events!) that we see how she and her parents were separated.

The whole movie rests on one memory of Dory’s of “The Jewel of Morro Bay,” which turns out to be the Marine Life Institute. MLI rehabilitates marine animals for eventual release. We have the documentary “Blackfish” to thank for that, as originally the MLI was just an aquarium (that doesn’t release animals).

Ellen DeGeneres does a fabulous job of keeping the audience entertained while keeping you involved in the story. One note if taking young children, my 6 year old was frightened by the squid chase when Dory, Marlin and Nemo first arrive in Morro Bay. She enjoyed the rest of the movie though.

Hank the cranky octopus was animated amazingly, even if his camouflaging abilities were a bit exaggerated for the real world (not out of place in their animation world though).

My new favorite character is Destiny. I didn’t like how she had poor eyesight (anyone who has snorkeled with whale sharks knows that they can turn on a dime in order to avoid swimming into you!) But she won me over anyways with her warm personality.

They didn’t say Bailey’s, the beluga whale, name enough so moviegoers may forget it. The ending is far fetched, but should satisfy most audiences, especially those into animal rights.

I highly recommend Finding Dory. It was well worth the wait, and it will delight fans of Finding Nemo. It can stand alone for those who have not seen Finding Nemo, like young children.

Last note, stay until the very end of the credits for a treat. Hint, we’ve seen them before, somewhere…

Book Excerpt Part 2-Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham

There was an alcove in the front of the tender, above the bow, that mariners call a dodger. Eva and Lucaya made it into a clubhouse, draping a sarong across the small opening to make a curtain. They filled a bucket with water and made a mini-aquarium with seaweed and baby crabs and shrimp.
And there was “whale time,” when our banter ceased, and we’d silently scan the surface for a breach or a fluke or a blow- hole. One afternoon Lucaya slept on one of the benches, her head nestled on a rolled-up windbreaker. As the boat rocked gently, small waves made lapping sounds. Cloe sat with her, seeming to doze a bit too. But even when her eyes shut mo- mentarily, her hand stayed on her daughter’s shoulder, should the boat lurch and Lucaya be in danger of rolling off the bench. Down below, the whale calves had their own way of settling in with their mothers. Charlie told me he’d seen a calf hover just below the mother’s belly and the mother wrap her pectoral fins around her calf to tuck it into position. The humpback’s long gray-and-white fins are not stiff like oars. They’re like our arms, with highly mobile shoulders, elbows, wrists,
and long finger bones.
Occasionally we’d see the other tender from our boat. It was being used by a film crew from Brazil.Why were they on the Silver Bank? Because the whales in Brazil wouldn’t let pho- tographers near them underwater, due to the long history of whale hunting there. It was only in 2008 that Brazil declared all Brazilian waters a safe sanctuary for whales and dolphins.
The sanctuary encompassing the Silver Bank had been in effect for almost thirty years. Established in 1986, it was the first humpback whale sanctuary in the world. Like some whale Shangri-La, it had eluded the harpoons.This breeding ground, “delivery room,” and cradle had remained a safe haven.
Whales sleep, but they can’t do it for long, otherwise they’d drown. It’s believed that, like dolphins, only one hemisphere of the whale’s brain sleeps. So they rest, but they’re never completely asleep the way we are. We breathe automatically, but whales are conscious breathers, slipping to the surface intermittently, even as they rest. Inspired by that, Gene had named his operation Conscious Breath Adventures.
The mother, Gene told us, “nurses her calf to the tune of fifty gallons of milk a day, which is very, very thick, very rich milk.The whole time that the females are down on the Silver Bank—and the males, for that matter—they are not feeding, they are fasting.” By time the mother reaches the northern latitudes to feed with her calf, she’ll have lost a third of her body weight.
One more thing—subtle, but unmistakable. Having kids on the boat changed our behavior. Somehow we were more polite, generous, and positive. The girls brought out the best in us. It was as if we’d shined up the chrome bumpers of our personalities because there were kids on board. There was more patience, more kindness, more sharing. More “best.”
We all think we do our best. But children bring out an even “better best” in us. They push the seesaw in the direction of hope, encourage us to take responsibility not just for our lives but also for the future. And no matter how many times a pandering politician utters the same words disingenuously, the bottom line is it’s true.Truth never wears out. It’s inextinguishable.

One of the best spots to sit was on top of the dodger, just above the bow. It had a great view. Eva was sitting up there one day, and I scrambled up to join her. She was wearing my red fleece jacket to stay warm.The oversized sleeves squished into a thick, cozy wrap around her small arms; the collar rose up above her ears.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Seven,” she said with a precocious glance, like, Couldn’t you make more interesting small talk?
We quietly looked out at the horizon, searching for whales. Charlie leaned his forearms against the top of the dodger behind us, his camera poised, should a whale suddenly breach. We were all lost in silent, ripe waiting.
There are questions in life you don’t answer with words.You answer them with how you live. For me, the biggest one had always been,“What truly is love?” Now I had another to guide me:“What if I lived as if my voice mattered?”
The horizon was ultramarine blue, speckled with light. I looked back at Charlie.The wind blew his thick black hair up and away from his forehead. He looked up at me and winked.

Remember the garage? When I wanted to quit the book?
And I’d swung this deal with myself that it’d be like some wild motorcycle ride, and that I could ease up on the throttle when the journey came to an end?
I sighed. The book’s finishing, but this journey, this love of ocean, this deepened love of life, I’ve barely begun ….
“B-r-e-a-c-h!” Eva squealed, pointing to the horizon. The burst of water looked like a depth charge. Forty tons of whale leaping completely out of the water and plunging back cer- tainly would mimic that.
“It’s a rowdy group,” Gene called out. It was a group of male whales competing for the attention of a female. As we got closer, the water seemed to boil with energy.At least nine or ten whales swiftly crosscut each other. Looking downward, I noticed elongated slivers of turquoise moving underneath our boat.
“Gene,” I asked,“what’s that?”
“The fins.”
They were the bright white of the sixteen-foot fins seen through the tinting of the bank’s water. It was actually more than twenty whales that had gathered. At any one time, only half of them came to the surface to breathe.
Whales in a rowdy group will breach on top of each other and rub the tubercles—the knobby protrusions on their chins—raw. We could see scuffs and cuts on their dorsal fins and skin from their oceanic barroom brawl. And while it was all rough-and-tumble, they were very precise about whom to push around.The lady they were competing for was off-limits, easy to identify because of her unblemished torso. And not once did a whale bang up against the side of our tender.
“They don’t have arms to throw punches, but they have pec fins and their big tail flukes,” Gene said.“They also have what’s called the anvil, that bony knob on the bottom of their chin. They hit each other with that.”
The energy whipped up, higher and higher, whales swirling and banging into each other and breaching and diving be- neath our boat. “Just think of it,” Gene called out ebulliently. “There’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of raging humpback whale all around us!”
They were hot on the trail of that millennia-old tradition that never runs dry: mating.The unit of measure for testosterone levels would not have been milligrams—more like gallon jugs. It was late spring, and many of the females had already mated and left for the northern feeding grounds.The mothers will often be the last the leave, lingering until they deem their calves fit to make the journey north.
But single females? Fewer and fewer as you get later into spring. “The competition,” Gene said, “can be fierce.” There was a computer programmer from Texas, Bryan Hager, on the boat. He leaned back, stroked his thick beard, and chuckled with a self-deprecating, mock-Texas drawl,“Da girls … dey all get purdier at closin’ time.”

The last night on the Silver Bank I slept fitfully. My throat felt tight when I woke. I climbed up to the top deck. The night before, a group of us had lingered there and gazed up at the sky. Freed from the glare of urban sprawl or even buoys or light- houses, the sky lay naked above us. I’d never seen stars so bright.
Sometimes change happens so fast you don’t see it, and then suddenly it hits you all at once. In the morning light, all I could see in all directions was the steel-blue horizon. But it was no longer flat. It wasn’t the straight edge that so many thought Columbus would sail right off of when he sailed west from Spain.
It was curved.
If my travels had done anything, it was that I could really feel that curve now—it was as vivid and tactile as the metal railing beneath my hands and the gusts of wind on my fore- head. I turned my back to the just-risen sun.To the west, the earth made an arc to our home in California, and farther still, Papua and the Malay archipelago of Indonesia. To the north, an arc led to the Turks and Caicos and, farther on, to where I was born, New York City. To the east, another arc stretched thousands of miles to the Mediterranean and North Africa.
You know those toys for toddlers with round and square pegs that fit into matching holes? It was like that: the cognitive leap when the round peg fits in the round hole.An irreversible moment.
I’d finally gotten the shape of things, the mystery at the edge, the one that flickered through blinds that always seemed to snap shut too soon.That mystery, that beauty, it was calling me to a deeper, truer home. I’d finally come home in a way that would have been unfathomable before. It was “the place.”
It was a little spinning sphere with a thin glaze of water held to it by gravity, punctuated by archipelagos of islands and mountains and tundra and plains and deserts. And that fluid, transparent medium, intermingled with sun and oxygen, that carved riverbeds through mountains and circulated through seas and pulsed through our veins: that gives birth to life.
Our clapboard house with musical instruments and travel photographs on the walls, where our dog likes to stretch out in a sunny spot on the oak floor and our greenhouse teems with seedlings—our little home—it was nested inside that bigger home within layers and layers and layers of life.
I’d learned to let a mystery be a mystery and a longing be a longing. Better to be inarticulate, but true. So I won’t try to explain it too much except to say that I’m so glad I kept trying to listen to that mysterious longing. It brought me home and closer to others in ways I never would have imagined possible. I’ll keep feeling that mystery, keep longing for it. I’ll never want to extinguish it. It’s life longing to be, to connect, reconnect, beat the odds, and push forward anew.

“From Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2015 by Liz Cunningham. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”
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