This morning I had the honor of chatting with presenter Mike Hill on BBC Tees Radio, covering Whitby and northeast England, about my current crowdfunding campaign for a trip to England and a new biography of William Scoresby. I’m excited to share the story of one of the northeast’s famous sons with listeners in the region! I’ll post the link to the radio interview after it airs.
The local newspaper in Whitby, Yorkshire, ran a feature story about my campaign to raise money for a trip to England! The Whitby Gazette reports that I’m planning to research the personal letters and diaries of my third-great uncle William Scoresby, the first polar scientist, at the Whitby Museum.
“She also aims to find out more about how his observations influenced leading explorers, naturalists and statesmen,” reporter Sam Jones writes.
Scoresby himself bequeathed his voluminous collection of writings, scientific instruments and artifacts he collected on his many whaling voyages to the Whitby Museum. I gather that since his death in 1857, few people have examined the collection. That’s where I come in, and I’ll use the information I find in a new biography of this pioneering polar explorer and naturalist.
I’m working on a book about my ancestor: a polar explorer and whaling ship captain named William Scoresby whose 200-year-old discoveries are helping today’s scientists understand global warming. I’m raising money for a trip to England to research his letters, and–because environmental progress is in jeopardy these days–write a book that offers valuable insight into climate change, wrapped up in adventure. I’d be so grateful if you checked out my Indiegogo campaign, watched my short video, and spread the word! Thanks!
On my third hour of scanning the waters of the western New York bight for whales, I began to understand what a lookout on a 19th century whaleship must have faced. Incessant salty wind and chilly spray buffeted my face as the undulating surface of the water played tricks on my perception. Dark waves rose up in the distance like the black back of a diving whale, then dissolved into glittering spume.
You may not think of New York City’s coastline as prime whale habitat. As a matter of fact, the Atlantic waters off Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island present an all-you-can-eat buffet for humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises. There have also been sightings of fin, sei, minke and sperm whales just a few hundred meters off the Coney Island boardwalk, but humpbacks and dolphins are the most common species seen as they migrate between the North Atlantic and the Caribbean.
The annual migration winds down in October, but it was one my goals this year to go for my first New York whale watching excursion, so I boarded the American Princess on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens for the October 16 cruise.
Whenever I go on an outdoor adventure in NYC, I’m always the most overdressed, over-prepared person there. On this whale watching trip, I wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, thick sweater, waterproof jacket, scarf, gloves and hat, plus sunscreen and sunglasses. I also brought a thermos of water, a complete lunch and additional snacks, binoculars, field notebook and pens, lip balm, smartphone–practically everything necessary for an extended day trip off the grid. Everyone else was in t-shirts and casual slacks. Well, it’s better to have something and not need it than need something and not have it, as my dad always says.
As we motored out to the waters off Long Island, I kept my eyes peeled for our cetacean friends, but saw only greater black-backed gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls and a trio of flying lesser scaups. The sun shone on the water and turned it shades of charcoal, slate-blue and silver. I spotted a ball of bait fish, probably menhaden, churning at the surface. The captain turned off the engines and every passenger waited in silence for a whale to surface around the fish, but none did as the fish slipped past the boat.
Standing at the railing of the lower deck, I kept scanning the water, looking for movement that didn’t seem to flow with the rhythm of the waves. Two hours, then three hours passed without a sighting, and I thought of the sailors who would be sent up to the crow’s nest in a whaleship for hours at a time to look for “fish.” If three hours felt like a long time to me, what about three hours for the poor chap at the top of the mast? Or three days for the rest of the crew, just waiting to lower the whaleboats in hot pursuit? Or three week, or three months? I gained new appreciation for the whalers’ resilience. I think the experience will give me a better perspective for writing such scenes in my biography of my great-great-great-uncle William Scoresby.
As it appeared more and more likely that we wouldn’t see any whales as the four-hour cruise came to a close, I parked myself at the stern out of the wind. I watched a gull soar and dip over the boat’s wake, following us as we headed back to port.
Suddenly the captain shouted over the intercom (he actually said this!), “there she blows! There she blows! Twelve o’clock off the bow.” I hustled to the other end of the boat and watched the sea with the rest of the passengers, and waited. About five minutes later, the whale came up and just broke the surface with its back before diving back down. The captain tried to estimate when it would next come up for air. Another five minutes went by, and then it surfaced with a puff of exhaled vapor that caught the late afternoon sun. Again it dove deep. Two more times we were able to spy it off the aft and starboard sides–this lone humpback seemed to be in no hurry to get away from the boat.
But we had to get back to shore, so we sailed back in the direction of the Coney Island parachute drop, visible in the distance throughout the whole excursion. We had never left New York, but I felt like I had been very far away.
Shannon Leigh O’Neil and I recently took a long-planned road trip through New York’s Finger Lakes region to soak in some world-class art, science, nature and wine.
The first stop on our ambitious itinerary was the Corning Museum of Glass, a collection spanning 35 centuries of glassmaking, from utilitarian objects to fine art. The special exhibit I wanted to see was a bit of both.
Ever since I saw Harvard University’s collection of glass flowers, I’ve been obsessed with the Victorian-era scientific glass models created by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The Corning Museum’s exhibition, “Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka,” presented scientific models of sea anemones, octopi, mollusks, and other animals, all created by the German glassmakers in the 1880s.
According to the museum, Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf designed the small glass models in their Dresden studio and advertised the 700-piece collection to universities and museums as a teaching tool that was “universally acknowledged as being perfectly true to nature.”
But how did the land-bound Blaschkas design their marine invertebrates–which, if brought above the ocean’s surface, collapse into formless blobs–so accurately? The exhibit displays scientific illustrations of the animals that were published in 19th-century journals, which the glassmakers copied in colored pencil to improve their design. Then, with the proportions and shapes in mind, they reproduced their two-dimensional sketches in three-dimensional glass.
Amazingly, each glass model would be made to order and shipped in a specially padded box. To streamline production, the artists made tiny parts–miniscule eyes, single tentacles, and individual filaments, stored in matchboxes–so the glass models could be assembled quickly.
“Fragile Legacy” displayed a handful of the matchboxes’ goods, in addition to Rudolf Blaschka’s glassblowing table and several glassmaking tools. The real stars of the show, though, were the glass models themselves, molded and painted to look incredibly lifelike. I could imagine the 125-year-old anemones’ tentacles wiggling in an oceanic current.
Researchers at Cornell University, which loaned most of the models to the exhibit, are now using the collection as a roadmap to assess some of the shifts in biodiversity between the Blaschkas’ time in the late 19th century and today. “We hope to find out whether they are surviving in the sea as magnificently as they do in glass,” says Drew Harvell, a professor and curator of the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models, in a statement.
One of the museum’s permanent exhibits, showing the development of glass and glassmaking over the past 3,500 years, was just as enthralling as the Blaschka glass models. I naturally gravitated to a case of 18th- and 19th-century whale oil lamps, and discovered “forest glass,” a type common in medieval Germany and so called because the minerals in the glass gave it a loamy green hue. On the other end of the timeline, Shannon and I loved the naturalistic forms of the Art Nouveau vases and lamps.
The Blaschka glass models in “Fragile Legacy” will be on view until January 8, 2017. I recommend it highly!