Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shuffles in the Sand With Stingrays: My Up-Close Encounter at Stingray City Bahamas

"Without a doubt, I'd venture that at least 99% of the people, who experienced the stingray encounter with me that day, left with a new (or deeper) appreciation of marine life, and our responsibility to protect it."  - Me

One of the several perks of going on a cruise - I learned last month in the Bahamas - is the option* to go on adventures (or "shore excursions") when the ship is in port. In my last post I told you about one of them - the sharks and slides of Atlantis Aquaventure. But, as crazy-exhilarating as that was, it was the up-close encounter with 40-or-so majestic southern stingrays that I'll tell stories about when I'm old (and rambling on to whomever gets within earshot).

A southern stingray resting on the sea bed
"SStringray" by Original uploader was Wrtiii3644 at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Jacob Robertson using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This is that story. 
(Note: When I'm old and going from distant memory, it's possible that I will have been a passenger on the Titanic, and the stingrays will have been whales, or seals.)

Shuffles in the Sand With Stingrays

On a small motor boat on the way to the sandbar known as Stingray City, a burly fellow presided at the bow, before a captive audience of wide-eyed tourists (myself counted among them). In his weathered hands he held a child's plush toy - a stingray - with which, during the 15-minute ride, he taught us all we needed to know about the animal's anatomy, behavior and what we could expect at the habitat.

Actual salty, burly man with stuffed stingray

I repeat: At the front of the boat, there was a salty, burly man, teaching a mini-class on stingrays, using a stuffed animal, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, on the way to a sandbar in the middle of nowhere, where the tourists would go frolicking with a flock** of rather large, tame ones. (It was nuts!)

When the boat arrived at the enclosure - an expansive, open area of calm, mostly waist-deep, sparkling, turquoise water - we could see no rays, and no other life, besides a scattering of  Bahamian stingray "wranglers," who were awaiting our arrival.

"Walk toward the center of the enclosure and shuffle the sand at your feet," said our burly sea guide, "and watch that last step, it's a...whoa!"

He didn't need to finish the sentence, because the lady in the front of the line - the one who missed the last step and face-planted in the shallow water, with her eyes open - kindly demonstrated for us. (It's OK, only her pride was harmed.)

A starfish in the middle of my path. After I determined he was real (vs. a plastic decoration), I named him Patrick. 

They said I could pick Patrick up for a few seconds. That he was like 95% water.
He didn't talk, nor make any sudden movements.

I had no idea why I needed to shuffle my feet, but I did as I was told (have you ever tried to walk through the ocean, shuffling your feet in knee-deep water? It's an aerobic, balancing act. In other words, people like me tend to lose footing and become buoyant). Thirty-nine seconds later, they were gliding toward me - seemingly from nowhere, and with alarming speed - at least two rays, with wingspans of over four feet each.

I'm not sure whether I breathed for the next minute or so. At least until after they'd reached my legs, realized I had no food to offer them (they can smell it), and kept on gliding toward the next person.

I took this photo, after I regained my composure.

FYI: I figured out pretty quickly that shuffling lets the rays - who, when at rest, bury themselves in the sand - know to get out of the way. Additionally, it signals to these rays, in particular - who've been socialized to humans, using food - that it's snack time! So, naturally, when they sense humans in the water - even from football-field-lengths away - they drop everything and head for the source. Kind of like how seagulls follow ships to catch the fish the motor kicks to the surface.

But, holy cow, y'all! When I caught sight of that first pair of stingrays, coming straight for me, I wasn't sure if I'd faint or squeal with joy. All I could do was stand there frozen stiff, until they had safely passed.

Some folks are about to get a warm, fluttery feeling against their legs!

It wasn't long before there were so many rays swimming around and through the group's legs (like a pen full of puppies, really), that my fear gave way to cautious curiosity and amazement. I even got the courage to reach down and touch one as it glided by. (I'd already felt the silkiness of their wings, as well as the roughness of their barbed tails, against my legs.)

This one, I reached out and touched. 

Fact: Southern stingrays can't disengage their barbed tails like a bee's stinger. They can, however, when threatened by predators (e.g., sharks), curl them up over their heads scorpion-style, and deliver a nasty, venom-infused wound. In spite of this, they are naturally docile creatures, preferring to simply swim away. 

Respect the spine-tail!

What I will most remember about interacting with those rays, though, is (after volunteering to do so) taking a raw calamari squid in my fist (with thumb tucked under for safety), lifting it up under the ray's mouth (as her handler cradled her at the water's surface) and feeling the strange vacuum suction, as she slurped it right out of my hand.

I prefer my calamari deep fried and drizzled with lemon.
Also, in related news (regarding my posting of that photo)...Today's forecast in Hell: Cold with a 100% chance of flying pigs. 

Fact: Stingrays don't chew their food, but, like the inside of a duck's bill, have a spiny surface around their mouth opening to crush the shells on their prey.

Rays have big mouths. Watch those fingers, wrangler man!

Out of anxiety that not all the raw quid would be distributed, and not all the rays would be fed (which, it turns out, is never a concern, because the rays have plenty of natural prey to feed on in their habitat), I volunteered to feed a lot of rays!

Lots of feeding, I did. 

Some of the larger females (they were all female, and all had names) - just like something out of that popular, clothed sea sponge cartoon - even showed begging behavior, by gliding straight up people's legs and backs (Gary the meowing snail, anyone?), in an attempt to get picked up and fed. It was surreal. And hilarious!

Hiya, giver of tasty snacks; I'm just gonna climb up your leg and see what you've got!

via fanaru

To my delight (contrary to a few Internet reviews I'd read), we were allowed to bring our own cameras into the water and shoot as many pictures as we liked! My Olympus takes crappy pictures, but it's waterproof, so I snapped myself silly. (And, because I mostly just blindly submerged the camera, hoping it would focus on a ray, sadly, the photos were even more crappy than usual. Or, the subject was not a ray, but a close-up of someone's rear end. Oh, well.)

Besides making friendly small talk and encouraging people to interact with the rays, each of the professional handlers (called "wranglers") was knowledgeable and freely answered questions about the animals in their care. I know this, because I managed to lure one of them into a 20-minute conversation. (Although, after the first five minutes, it was mostly him doing the talking.) He - who couldn't have been older than 21 - spilled practically everything he knew about stingrays, among other salt-water things. It was clear he had respect and love for the animals, was proud of his job, and had been waiting - for who knows how long - to unload everything he'd been storing in his head on a willing pair of ears.

My new Bahamian wrangler friend

We talked about the late Steve Irwin, the circumstances of his deadly ray encounter, and the public misinformation about rays that ensued. By the end of our talk, the young man felt like an old friend to me, and I would've gladly joined him - had he asked - for a feast of his favorite meal - cracked conch salad - even though the thought of it (eating chunks of cold conch) made my stomach queasy.

Once all the squid had been eaten, and the rays had lost interest in us, it was time to go. The boat ride back buzzed with lively conversation - our small group no longer strangers, but kindred spirits. Spirits, bonded for life over a flock of puppy-like, squid-eating stingrays, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, on a sandbar in the middle of nowhere.

My photographer helper ☺

** Optional, as in costs extra, not included in the price of the cruise. So, you better be darn sure you do your research beforehand, as I did.
* A group of stingrays travelling together is called a fever; however, I used "flock," because who the heck knows what a fever of stingrays is?

For more information about Stingray City Bahamas, visit their website. Additional information is provided for their sister location at Grand Cayman here and here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

There're Sharks in These Waters! - 5 Ways to Avoid Jumping Over Them

Alternate titles:
  • I Used Questionable Judgement While on Vacation Last Month
  • Wherein I Address "Jumping the Shark" Both Literally and Figuratively
  • I Hugged Dug (From the Pixar Film UP) and I Liked It

Little known fact: I write the titles of all my blog posts before the posts. Sometimes days before. In other words, the creative juices flow from the titles (I don't know why, that's just the way it is). 

Why this matters: I'm still (as I type) coming up with alternate titles for this post. So, if it (the post) comes out half-baked, I cannot be held responsible. 


Remember how in elementary school, when you got back from summer vacation, the teacher would sometimes have you write an essay (on newsprint paper with lines on it) entitled, "What I Did on Summer Vacation"?

Yes, well, I'd like to do a condensed essay for you now (circa my writing ability in 1976). 

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Over my summer vacation, I went on a cruise to the Bahamas. It was fun. When I was in the Bahamas, I went to a place called Atlantis Aquaventure and went down a giant water slide called the "Leap of Faith." The slide looks like it is going down the outside of a real-life Mayan temple. Not many people go down it, because it's really scary and almost taller than a skyscraper. Also, when you get to the bottom, you shoot into a chamber that is surrounded by a shark tank. There are lots of big sharks swimming in the tank, but they can't get past the glass to bite you. I did it twice. 

Note: Not me. I am not a man. I took the photo, however, and a few hours before, *I* was the fool sliding off a pyramid into a shark tank. 

On my last day in the Bahamas, in a town called Freeport, I rode in a motor boat with a glass window in the bottom out over some reefs in the Caribbean Sea. When the captain stopped the boat, we could see schools of tropical fish and sharks swimming through the glass window. We also saw a wrecked tug boat that had barnacles growing on it. The sharks and other fish circled the boat when the captain's helper threw bits of raisin bread off the side. I don't think the sharks were man-eating because they liked eating the bread. So did the seagulls. On the way back to the shore, only one lady got seasick. It was a fun day. 

Sharks on the reef, under the boat.

[end of essay and 1976 writing flash-back]

Although I didn't technically jump a shark on vacation last month, I did, in fact, slide/ride over (more than) one in close proximity. Therefore, the following tips are written from experience: 

5 Ways to Avoid Jumping the Shark(s) (while on vacation)
  1. Don't get in the water. 
  2. Don't go on vacation during Shark Week, when there's a high probability of a sharknado. (Because then you might get caught up in the cyclone and fly over one.)
  3. When your friends/family/tour guide suggests you attempt the shark stunt, refuse to do it. Have some will power. 
  4. Stop going on vacations. 
  5. Go under, or around the shark, instead. 

Who remembers the old Happy Days episode (and by old, I mean 143 years ago, in 1977) when Fonzie water skied over a shark? I don't...because the show had already gotten STUPID by that point, and I'd quit watching it! 

And that, friends, brings me straight to my next point: figurative shark-jumping. 
(Caution: Heavy use of metaphor ahead.)

I believe you all know what the idiom means. It means, the show got so boring, that the writers (with the producers' blessing) had to write something incredibly hokey into the plot to spike ratings. But, who the fudge cares about water skiing over sharks, y'all? Who wants to tune in and see Scooby-Doo's bratty nephew (Scrappy) ruin all the mystery fun? And why the heck did Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm have to grow up, anyway? Can you imagine if the writers for Sesame Street made Bert and Ernie grow up, become trapeze artists for Cirque du Soleil, and spun them off into their own Elmo's World-esque mini-show each week? No!!! I say, (1,000 years from now) let those muppet children (are they? children?) go out in a blaze of glory, without having aged one minute! [end rant]

Random photo of Jon Farleigh witnessing something monumental, while holding his own leash.

So, here's the thing. Not only did I literally get in shark-infested waters while on vacation, I've been sensing (no, more like fearing) a few figurative sharks in my (blog) waters for several weeks. And, y'all, I got myself so worked up, I came this close to making #4 in that list up there a reality. (Except make it say "stop writing the blog" and not "stop going on vacations.") I was this close

Yet, here I am. Not doing #4.

Random photo of Dewi sleeping through an earthquake, apparently lying in a puddle of his own slobber.

And you know why? Because I befriended them. The sharks in my blog waters. Yep, turns out I like sharks. If they were giant octopuses, or spiny lobsters, I'd probably like them too. Because if I didn't, why the frell would I have written them into my blog waters? This is not a TV show and I am not Fonzie! It doesn't matter if I jump a shark, because I'm a creative writer, and writing about sharky stuff makes me happy! What I need to do is stop worrying that other people will disapprove of my shark-jumping skills. (Which, I suppose, are passable, since neither I nor the blog are dead yet.) 

So, no, this is not the blog it was three years ago. That's OK (I affirm to myself). I'm not the same writer, or person, for that matter. And maybe next week? I'll be chasing alligators in Australia. Who knows! 

Random photo of Bobby Flay sleeping inside Youngest Child's summer camp bag, while I was trying to pack it.

Please Cut the Corny Metaphors and Tell Me What the Heck This Has to Do With Anything!

Fine. Here's what you should take away (if you're still reading):

  • On this blog, there will be more Tacky Cardigans. And some litter box anecdotes, with a splash of product review. Oh, and I changed my 15-year-old cat's name - you'll hear about that. And the handmade purse I'm getting with Dewi's likeness on it...OMG! SO adorable! Oh, and the pet-assisted meditation tutorial...just for starters.
  • Me telling you that Jon Farleigh just rolled over on his back next to my foot, which means either 1) he wants a snack, 2) he has to pee/poo, or 3) he wants a belly rub. At the moment, I believe he needs to poo. Hold on, I'll be back....OK, I'm  back. They both had to pee and poo. But Jon Farleigh just flopped over again. [insert belly rub]
  • This blog is not subject to Nielsen ratings, nor does it have stockholders who give a rip. 
  • You need to subscribe by email (see upper right sidebar) to this blog. Please do this. 
  • Sharks are largely misunderstood.
This would be where I might write "The End," except IT ISN'T! BECAUSE LOOK!

I met Pixar stars, Dug and Russell, at Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida! On my way to Mt. Everest (there was a Yeti, and I nearly died, but that's not relevant right now)!

This, friends, is one hard-working professional dog handler (slash) celebrity body guard. 

Dug likes to rub on walls. Who knew?

I was one happy camper (get it?), despite my inner wondering whether Dug and Russell were secretly female. I don't know how to edit that stripe out of the photo.

I will never wash (nor tape off) that outfit again. 

Russell picked his nose and tried to put his finger on my shirt right before this scene.  I told him he had crossed the line. He just looked at me and smiled. 

Hey, you think it's too late for me to change the title of this post? Yeah, never mind. 

P.S. I still have to tell you about (and show you) the stingrays. REAL live Southern stingrays that I met and interacted with in the Bahamas. Later...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Is it a fruit bat, you ask? Nope, it's actually my new FOSTER KITTEN!

So, in the 300 or so years (hours?) since I last wrote on this blog, all kinds of relevant* things have happened in my life - not the least of which was this...

...which ended up like this...

...all while I was trying to be on vacation! 

* Relevant, as opposed to irrelevant things, e.g., all the times my kids left the door open and let the flies in, or that at least twice a day, a hair falls out of my scalp unbeknownst to me, lands on my bare skin, and makes me think I have a spider crawling on me that I can't flipping see.

Well, guess what? I faked the hack! (not really) Just to collect the (nonexistent) blog-hack insurance money! I got 23 cents, less shipping and handling, which, all told, left me owing a dollar and 18 cents. I do not recommend faking your own blog hack, people. It's not worth it. Just go out and recruit a couple legitimate bloggers (who write well and make good pictures) to do it for you. Please let them think it was their idea, though. You know, so they won't think you're a complete nut job, and wonder whether they need to report you to the FBBI (Federal Bureau of Bozo Impersonators). You don't wanna be on the run from those guys. Trust me.

OK, so where was I? Oh yeah! Stuff that's happened while I've not been writing! Y'all! I've got a bunch of pictures to post from my vacation (most of which include animals), but those are gonna have to wait until another day. That's because I have much more pressing news to share...

And his name is Fitzwilliam Darcy McDrool (Mr. Darcy McDrool, because he drools when he purrs), but you can call him TRAVIS*!

* Travis being his real name. I made up the other one, because I have a major crush on Travis, just like I have one on Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

But, lady, I don't even like peaches!

NO, he's NOT a fruit bat (I already told you that); he's my four-month-old foster kitten from the Richmond SPCA, and we're already into week three of his four-week stay!

Here, have another, less batty look...

Hey, that's not "beef purr-gundy;" it's apple butter!
Oops. Hold on...

There's this, and have a peek at these...

Isn't he handsome?!

FYI: Phone charger cords come in a variety of colors, including fuchsia. 

This is his Vogue, angry model look. Underneath, he's a real pussycat. ;)

And, finally, (my favorite, a little artsy)...

What a babe!

* Cell phone photography courtesy Eldest Child. The editing (in PicMonkey) is mine. 

Here's Travis' adoption profile on the Richmond SPCA website


I assure you the Travis in this photo is the same Travis who appears in all of my photos. The difference is that in his adoption profile, the sun wasn't shining directly into his eyes. Sweet boy. 

So, I was sitting on my return flight home from Florida, waiting on the tarmac for takeoff, when I spotted an email on my cell phone from the foster care coordinator at the SPCA. The subject read: Kitten Foster Care. My being a registered foster care provider, I see lots of emails during kitten season, bearing the same subject line. It kills me every time, as taking care of under-vaccinated wee ones, alongside my existing feline crew, is just not feasible. 

However, this email was different. It wasn't the wee ones who needed fostering, so much as the older (3-4 months old), fully vaccinated ones, who'd been waiting for cage space on the adoption floor, and (the clincher) were perfectly fine interacting with existing cats in the home. I thought about it for exactly 79 seconds. Then, while still seated on the tarmac of Orlando International Airport, I volunteered.

Travis was in my home the next morning. I hadn't even unpacked. 

And, you know what? I would do it again in a frazzled, morning-of-the-first-day-of-school minute! (Did I mention today was the first day of school? Oh, well it was! It's also my kid's birthday! And there's another birthday tomorrow! Awesome times, yo!)

So, there you have it! The most important (in a humanitarian sense, that is) relevant thing that's happened in the 300 400 or so years (minutes?) since I've written on this blog!

Do you know anyone in the Richmond, Virginia area who might want to give a silky gray, dog- and cat-socialized, purring, drooling (only when he's reeeealy happy), sweet-smelling, fuzzy, cuddly, hilarious, space-saving kitten a permanent, loving home???? (Think really hard, OK!) If so, will you share this post? Or simply Travis' adoption profile

Oh yes, and you'll want to mention these adoption perks!

He'll be staying with me until the week of September 12-19, at which point, if he hasn't already been adopted, he'll join several other kittens on the Richmond SPCA adoption floor. (sigh)

Thanks for reading and listening, everybody! I'll be back as soon as I can with those wild beast pictures from my vacation! (You think I'm kidding...)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

5 Reasons Puggles are Totally Cooler than Corgis

Kolchak here. You know, Kolchak? The loveable puggle from Kol's Notes with a penchant for homemade dog treats, DIY/crafts and a secret evil plan? If you didn't catch yesterday's post from Disc Dog Mort from Dogthusiast, then you should probably check it out. Go now, it's important, I will wait. 

You back? Good.

That fool! Kelpies are so easy to trick. Let that be a lesson to you, pups. You don't want to tangle with the superior wits (and incredible good looks) of a puggle. All I had to do was suggested to Mort that he could have more discs and he was more than happy to do my dirty work, trapping the Dewi & Jon, distracting those insufferable c*ts with the nip and leaving my path to taking over the Chronicles of Cardigan clear. All I had to do was throw a disc and Mort was out of my way too.  
Not bad for a day's work. 

Look at these loveable goofballs. Kidnapped, crated behind bars and still smiling like fools. Corgis!
You guys seem pretty "cardi crazy" over here. Everytime I come over here it's pictures of corgis, stories about corgis, jokes about corgis. It's always CORGIS! CORGIS! CORGIS! Enough already! It's time for Chronicles of KOLCHAK. I'm the star of this blog now. It's going to be all puggles, all the time and you're going to like it. Capische?

So now, with no further ado, 5 Reasons Puggles are Totally Cooler than Corgis

While puggles and corgis have a whole lot in common (we're comical, sturdy and we shed like it's our job), there's also a whole lot that sets us apart. Puggles are totally awesome.

#1: We aren't all "fancy pants"

Apparently corgis can't just be corgis, oooooooh no! They've got to be all fancy with their "Welsh Cardigan this" and "Pembroke" that and all "We're so posh, we live with the queen". It all just seems like a lot of work and snobbery that bpils down to one thing: some corgis have tails and some don't. Yuck, who needs all that snobbery? I'm a puggle. 1/2-Pug, 1/2-Beagle. The best parts of two of America's favourite breeds. I'm everyman's dog. I'm a dog's dog. Nothing fancy. Nothing crazy. Not like those show-offy corgis. I mean, what does a corgi even NEED a tuxedo for?!

#2: We don't have "fluffy pants" either.

Have you ever seen a close up of a corgi's butt? WHAT IS WITH THOSE PANTS? (Or should I say pantaloons?) Why are they so weirdly fluffy and out of proportion with the rest of their bodies? Puggle butts aren't all weird like that. We have perfectly normal dog butts with muscles of steel, topped off by the perfect curly tail. See? SEE?! 

(Bonus: Watch this video, but while you do, imagine Sir-Mix-Alot is playing over the whole thing.*I like puggle butts and I can not lie.*)

#3: We aren't pushy, domineering brats.

Hey! That's not my being rude. That's a real thing that I read about corgis on a corgi website. Seems those fluffy little jerks can be a bit bossy sometimes. While puggles are often accused of being bossy, that's actually inaccurate. We're just self-assured, we know what we want and we are excellent at convincing our humans that what WE want is what THEY want. That's not domineering, that's just good business sense and this vacuum cleaner totally had it coming. Sometimes you have to put your appliances in their place.

#4: We don't have delusions of grandeur. 

I don't know where these corgis get their sense of importance?! I mean really?? 51 Corgi Gifs that will Change Your Life?  39 Smiling Corgis Who Will Inspire You? The 40 Most Important Corgis of 2013? WHO ARE THE CORGIS KIDDING HERE? What crazy person is running the corgi PR Machine? Someone needs to remind these fluffy little beasts that they are not the centre of the Universe. Puggles aren't like that. We don't have articles declaring that mere pictures of us will change your life and help you lose 15 lbs. because that is ridiculous. We don't need the whole world to love us. We aren't trying to be the latest internet craze. Puggles are just chillin' like a villain with their peeps and being awesome. Ain't nobody got time for this celebrity0dog nonsense.

#5: We're smart as woof.

Can I just say that a puggle would never get trapped in their crate by a disc-obsessed kelpie and an evil genius? We are killer smart and given enough treats, you can teach us to do almost anything. I mean, can you imagine a corgi doing this? COULD a corgi even do that with their weird, squat little half-legs? I doubt it. I don't even know how they get around on those pegs. It just looks awkward. I digress though, I was saying that puggles are smart. Almost too smart. A puggle could out smart you, if you're not careful and then where would you be? It really is best to stay on a puggle's good side or you could fine your site hacked and find a shrine erected to the honour of the most handsome puggle who ever walk the Earth. This guy:

Why do you think puggles are better than corgis? 

Leave your opinion in the comments AND WATCH OUT. In my quest for world wide web domination, your blog could be next.


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