Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Premature Proposal to Remove Endangered Species Act Protections from Kirtland's Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler has a breeding range that is intensely focused on early-growth jack pine forests in northern lower Michigan.  The bird evolved under a regime of fire which is how jack pines are able to reproduce.  Through the suppression of fire thanks in large part to Smokey the Bear, coupled with the rapid expansion of human populations, the range of the species was considerably reduced.  By the early 1980's for instance, Kirtland's Warbler nested in 6 counties in northern lower Michigan centered on Grayling, and Mio, Michigan.  Further confounding their habitat requirements, the birds nested solely in jack pine, only between 7 and 12 feet tall, and growing on only one or two distinct soil types.  

Confounding all of these ecological issues was the invasion of the breeding range by Brown-headed Cowbirds, a parasitic bird species that laid its eggs in the nest of Kirtland's Warblers, many times after removing warbler eggs from the nest.  Unable to tell the difference, adult warblers were incubating eggs and brooding the hatchlings, many times including 4 o 5 cowbird chicks and no warblers.  With the passage of time the combination of habitat loss and cowbird parasitism caused the Kirtland's Warbler numbers to plummet.

When I began doing research on this species in 1984 there were about 200 adult males in the population or 400 adult birds.  We estimated that at best there were about 500 or so Kirtland's Warblers in the world population.

Kirtland's Warbler was one of the first species of wildlife listed as Endangered or Threatened under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (and its earlier 1967 version).  Because of the habitat and cowbird control issues affecting its continued survival there was no species more deserving of Endangered Species Act protections than Kirtland's Warbler.

Although their numbers are increasing the same cannot be stated about the protection of its habitat.  Anyone familiar with the Endangered Species Act knows that the word "population" does not appear anywhere in the enabling legislation.  Yet, despite that fact, today I learned that the tRump Administration proposes to de-list (aka remove Endangered Species Act protections) from Kirtland's Warbler under the guise of its population now being at about 5,000 individuals.  

My agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is accepting comments from the public about this proposal and they will continue to do so through July 11, 2018.  This proposal is based on politics. It is not based on biology and not based on the verbiage in the Endangered Species Act.  The proposal is also another example of the continued assault on Endangered Species Act provisions and protections being perpetrated by the tRump Administration.

Below is my letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in which I strenuously object to the proposal on biological and statutory language grounds. If you care about the earth like I do, I encourage you to submit similar comments to the Service.  This is one of many times we will have to do this while tRump remains in office.  

The correct address for submitting your concerns is:

Public Comments Processing
Attn:  FWS-R3-ES-2018-0005
Mail Stop BPHC
US Fish and Wildlife Service
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, Virginia 22041-3803

Don't be shy and don't be bashful.  Tell my old agency exactly what you think.  Don't hold back.  Here is my letter.

Craig Faanes
Sarasota, Florida 34232

April 11, 2018

Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS–R3–ES–2018–0005
Mail Stop: BPHC
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, Virginia 22041–3803

Re:  Proposal to De-List the Kirtland’s Warbler and Remove Endangered Species Act Protection

Dear US Fish and Wildlife Service,

As a former US Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, and project leader of Kirtland’s Warbler recovery research (when the Service had a research branch), I am appalled and dismayed by the proposal to de-list the Kirtland’s Warbler and remove its Endangered Species Act protections at this time.  You and everyone else in the Washington Office knows that this proposal is based on the political motivations of the tRump Administration and most likely the pressure being exerted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.  If you could speak honestly with the public, we would all know this is part of the concerted effort to eviscerate Endangered Species protections and has nothing to do with biology.

Granted, the population of Kirtland’s Warbler has rebounded demonstrably since its precarious levels in the 1970s and early 1980s.  I distinctly remember heading to the Bahamas in the winter of 1984-1985 hoping to learn if habitat issues on the wintering range were to blame for the inability of the bird’s numbers to increase.  We touched down in Nassau with 500 birds in the entire world population and began to search for them in winter.  However please quote for me, the public, Interior Secretary Zinke, or the “president”, where in the Endangered Species Act the word “population” is mentioned as a legal criterion for listing or for de-listing.   It can’t be done because the word “population” is not in the Act.  If it was, there would be no justification for listing the Gray Bat as an endangered species because their numbers were astronomic.  What limited them then and limits them now is habitat.

The very same thing is true with Kirtland’s Warbler.   In the 1970s and 1980s, habitat was the limiting factor.  It wasn’t until the famous Mack Lake fire in the early 1980s, and the subsequent coming of age of the habitat after the fire, that Kirtland’s Warbler numbers began to rebound.  The Service established the Kirtland’s Warbler National Wildlife Refuge so we could have a handle on habitat management to enhance the population.  Much to the chagrin of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Forestry program, the State of Michigan began a more aggressive burning program to provide adequate habitat on a revolving cycle, similar to how natural fire cycles did when and as the bird evolved.  Once adequate habitat was provided, most of it through and under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, the bird’s numbers began to rebound.  The fact that news articles describe the happiness of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources over the proposal to de-list Kirtland’s Warbler should tell you in glaring terms where their passion and focus lies. It does not lie with recovering and sustaining the bird in perpetuity.

I am gravely concerned, as is anyone who cares about this bird more than they care about politics, that if Endangered Species Act protections are removed there will be no incentive to continue to manage habitat to ensure the species continued survival.  We the people know that any assurances provided by Interior Zinke or “president” tRump have as much validity as anything else they have said.

I am heartened to see that you recognize the importance of continuing to control Brown-headed Cowbird numbers in the main range of the species.  Because of human domination of the landscape we will have to continue to control cowbirds for as long as there is jack pine in northern Michigan, and Kirtland’s Warblers nesting in it.   Cowbird control does not come cheaply and what funds are available for control arise from the Endangered Species account.  What assurances do you have and more importantly does the warbler have, that those funds will continue to flow once Endangered Species Act protection is removed?

A recent article in the New York Times stated that this proposal will remove legal protections from the Kirtland’s Warbler.  At least for the moment that statement is false because the warbler will continue to be protected by the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 USC 703-712).  Although the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is a strict liability law, there is NO mechanism in the Act to provide or secure funds to continue the cowbird control program (or the habitat management program for that matter).

The key to the eventual recovery and long-term survival of Kirtland’s Warbler is habitat protection and management coupled with Brown-headed Cowbird control and management.  Those vital components of Kirtland’s Warbler conservation cannot (and in the current Administration will not) remain in place or be viable if the warbler is de-listed.

We all like to celebrate Endangered Species Act victories like the de-listing of the Bald Eagle or the Peregrine Falcon.  However right now, in the current political climate and with the people at the helm controlling the Act and its implementation, removing Endangered Species Act protections from Kirtland’s Warbler is tantamount to biological suicide.  Do the biologically correct thing, not the tRumpian political thing, and eliminate this premature proposal from your files.  If you need someone to write the Federal Register notice announcing that you have changed your mind, I’ll happily write it for you.

Should you be keeping a tally of “for” comments and “against” comments, please place my comments in the “vehemently against” pile.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

An Atrial Fibrilation Anniversary

Tonight at 9:00 pm will mark the 17th anniversary of my first episode of atrial fibrilation! This is the "irregular heartbeat not caused by a heart valve problem" you hear about on heart medicine advertisements.

When I went into A fib my heart rate increased to 208 beats per minute. The sensation was best described as feeling like a fish flopping around in the bottom of a boat in my chest. It took 18 hours to convert me to a normal heart rate and rhythm. The cause? A cardiologist who examined me said that I had overdosed on caffeine. Given the amount of coffee I drank then (average of 12 large cups a day) it wasn't hard to accept the diagnosis.

17 months later I went into A fib again. This time in my office at 7 in the morning. I was hauled away from 4401 North Fairfax Drive in Arlington Virginia in an ambulance. It took 20 hours to convert me and afterward I was put on at least 4 different heart meds to keep it from recurring.

But it did...7 more times including twice while on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In June 2015 I had a cool procedure called "catheter ablation" that essentially cured me of A fib although last week I had a minor episode again.

The moral of this story is that if you like coffee be very careful with the amount you consume. If not you might wind up in an Emergency Room with your heart feeling like its going to jump out of your chest!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Traveling in Shithole Countries

The Philippines - My 120th Country Visited

Recently the child occupying the White House in Washington DC disrespected a large number of countries (all of them non-white) when he referred to them as "Shithole Countries."  Apparently the man-child believes countries and the people in them have no value and aren't worthy of his lofty ego unless they are filthy rich and white like him. As he disrespected those nation's he asked why more people from Norway don't move to the United States.

I recently traveled to the Philippines.  When we landed in Cebu, the Philippines became the 120th country I have visited. With the exception of Canada (eh), Japan, China, Israel, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, and each of the 32 countries I’ve visited in Europe (although a couple of them are sketchy!), the bulk of the countries on my visit list would be considered “Shithole Countries” by Donald tRump. The Philippines are no exception

The main thing I have learned from all this travel is that the kindest, most giving and unassuming people on the planet are those who come from “Shithole Countries.”

Consider the man in the lowlands of Veracruz Mexico, who took me in on Christmas Eve when my car broke down in front of his family’s thatched-roof hut along a river. I had more money in my wallet than this man saw in a year yet his family fed me, sheltered me, and even made a handmade Christmas gift for me so I didn’t feel left out of their humble Christmas celebration

Or consider the store owner in Thailand who chased the customers from her store, locked the doors, and then led me on her motor scooter for 40 kilometers (24 miles) one way to the Bangkok Motorway when I had become horribly lost and could not read road signs written in Thai script. Then when I offered her the equivalent of $10 US for her time she felt offended that I even offered.

Or the man in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula who called me his brother and made me some Arabic coffee to share with him simply because I tried to speak to him in my rustic Arabic instead of insisting on him speaking English to me.

Or the gargantuan man in South Africa who lifted me off my feet and swirled me around like a piece of paper when I told him I wanted South Africa to win the Rugby World Cup. “You’re American and you care about South Africa?”, he asked before spinning me around

There are many other examples, including all of the kindness Cathy and I experienced in this crushingly beautiful and impoverished nation in the Pacific. Curiously on the first of our two return flights from the Philippines I talked with an Emirates Airlines pilot who was from Norway.  I asked him about tRump's shithole comment and about his wish for more Norwegian's to move to the United States.

The pilot laughed and said, "Why on earth would anyone from Norway want to move to a country like yours with its shithole president?"  I couldn't agree more.

As far as I’m concerned I’ll take a “Shithole Country” and the people in it any day.

Whining By US Airlines Doesn't Cut It

Emirates Airlines is regularly voted the best airline in the world - and with good reason.  US Airlines could learn from Emirates if they stopped whining and returned to providing enjoyable customer service

A month ago we flew from Sarasota to Washington DC aboard Delta Airlines.   While in the air I strummed through the Delta in-flight magazine where I found a full-page advertisement (better described as a temper tantrum) in which Delta complained that Middle Eastern airlines were being unfair to US airlines.  The unfairness comes largely from subsidies being paid by middle eastern countries (Qatar, United Arab Emirates were the two countries causing the most angst) that US airlines claim makes competing against those airlines difficult at best.

The US argument is a joke of the highest order because US airlines have been sucking at the federal tit ever since the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 was implemented providing for federal subsidies to support US airlines.  And lets not forget the Essential Air Service program, which currently provides subsidies for airlines serving 163 rural communities nationwide. There’s also the Fly America Act, which since 1974 has required federal agencies to use U.S. air carriers to transport passengers and cargo when such travel is funded by the government.  Delta Airlines, who whined in their inflight magazine about other countries giving airlines subsidies received about $900,000,000 in Federal subsidies in 2014 alone!

I have now traveled to 120 countries around the world.  I've flown on 3,124 actual flight segments since my first flight on October 31, 1977 aboard Ozark Airlines from Minneapolis to St. Louis.  Among all those flights I have flown 1,963,417 actual miles (not frequent flier miles but actual miles in the air).  I know this because since my first flight in 1977 I have kept track of each flight I've taken, the airline and aircraft type flown, the route flown, and the actual air mileage between airports.  If you assume the maximum circumference of the earth is 24,000 miles, then I have flown enough miles on jet aircraft to have circumnavigated the globe 81.8 times.  I know a little bit about being a passenger on a plane.

The issue is not one of government subsidies creating "unfairness" among airlines and countries.  The issue is customer service or, in the case of US airlines, the lack of customer service.

On a recent trip from Orlando, Florida to Cebu, Philippines via Dubai, United Arab Emirates, I discovered what an absolute treat it is to fly on Emirates Airlines. From the moment you step on the plane you are treated with respect and civility - there is no feeling of being cattle in a cattle car like you feel on most airlines in the US. Flight attendants refer to you as "sir" or "madame".  Each is dressed smartly in matching outfits (for males and for females).  The supervising flight attendant for each section of the plane personally greets everyone and encourages you to contact them if you need anything.  Meals are served promptly and bountifully (unlike on US airlines).  If there is a 5-minute delay pushing back from the gate (as happened on our return from Cebu to Dubai, the pilot is on the intercom informing everyone about what they consider a "delay" and apologizing profusely for any inconvenience this may cause each traveler.

When was the last time you saw a flight attendant on a US airline dressed professionally like this Emirates attendant?  I don't remember either.

On Emirates Airlines you are a valued customer. You are not a number.   On Emirates Airlines you don't have to worry about being beaten and dragged from the flight as recently happened on United Airlines.  There is no need to worry about your luggage being used for batting practice (also on United).   You'll never find an Emirates flight attendant treating passengers like this American Airlines flight attendant did.   

The thing Emirates (and Qatar Airways that we will fly in June) have over Delta, United and American is customer service. That is a concept US airlines have forgotten in their rush to charge for everything, cram more rows of smaller seats into a finite space, and reward their shareholders at the expense of their customers.  It’s all about treating passengers like they matter rather than treating them like cattle. US airlines could learn a lot from those they criticize the most.

During all of my travel over the last 41 years I've come to the conclusion that there are only two airlines left in this country that know the definition of customer service and they practice it on every flight.  One is JetBlue and the other is Alaska Airlines.  If only both airlines had flight systems as extensive as Delta, American, Southwest, and United.  Maybe some day.

When Things Go Wrong Halfway Around the World

Malapascua Island, a 40 minute boat ride north of Cebu in the Philippines, is a scuba diver's dream come true.  Travel to and from the island can be problematic at times.

Oh the stories you can tell. If it all blows up and goes to hell. If you ever wonder why you ride the carousel, you do it for the stories you can tell.” ... Jimmy Buffett

After having traveled to 120 countries on the 6 inhabited continents I've learned that when something goes wrong no matter how bleak it seems at first, eventually everything works out. 

Like Friday when we transferred between three boats in the Visayan Sea on our way to the mainland At one point the seas were so rough that the flat boat we transferred to from a larger boat almost swamped in a huge wave. Cathy, leaping from the larger boat to the smaller one, nearly broke her leg when she slipped on the ocean-soaked deck. Then eventually when we arrived in Cebu we discovered that I screwed up and booked our flight for a day later!

So where is the silver lining in this story? Saturday it was storming like crazy on the north coast of Cebu where we came ashore 24 hours earlier.  Lightning, thunder and likely waves that made yesterday’s waves look like they were in the minor leagues. Had we left the island on Saturday we likely wouldn’t have been able to make the crossing to the mainland because of weather and waves

So instead we hung out in the lobby of the Bellavista Hotel where Cathy was knitting away in Margaritaville. I’m watching the Philippines roar by on the street and we are a safe and easy 5 minute ride from the airport and two seats in Business Class on Emirates Airlines, regularly voted the best airline in the world.

Moral of the story is that a minor mistake turned into a positive as usually happens when things go wrong far from home

Paying Tax on a Tax in the Philippines

Receipt for the 750 Philippine Peso Departure Tax paid at the Cebu, Philippines, airport on February 24, 2018

This is a tad funny and ironic when you think about it Most countries impose a “departure tax” on travelers leaving the country. It’s simply another way for countries to legally generate funds without having to indicate how the funds will be used or, in the case of the Philippines, which politician’s pocket the funds will land.

Most countries, including the United States, include the departure tax in your ticket price but not so the Philippines. There after checking in for your international flight you go to a desk and pay a 750 Peso (about $15 US) departure tax

This image shows that the cost breakdown on the 750 Philippine Pesos includes about 63 pesos for VAT or “value added tax”. Thus in the Philippines, travelers not only pay a departure tax but we also pay a tax on that tax! 

Maybe tRump should consider that scam to pay for his ridiculous wall

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Looming Government Shutdown - A Few Inconvenient Truths

With all the hoopla in the media about the pending US government shutdown its important to remember a few inconvenient truths.

1. Government shuts down because it is out of money.  Government is out of money because Congress (one or both houses) can't complete its Constitutionally-required job of presenting a budget and appropriating funds.  To work or expend funds by an agency during a shut down is a violation of the Economy Act of 1932 which carries criminal penalties.

2. Government shutdowns are political theater and nothing more.

3. In 31 years of government employment I endured 9 full or partial shut downs. Most occurred around October 1, the start of the fiscal year when Congress couldn't pass a budget or come to agreement on a continuing resolution. In other words, in 31 years a shut down occurred on average once every 3 years.

4. The most famous (and longest in my career) shutdown was in 1996 when Newt Gingrich threw a fit claiming he wasn't allowed to sit with President Clinton on Air Force One as they returned from Israel. This despite a front page picture in the Washington Post of Newtie sitting with Clinton on the flight.

5. Government employees do not lose any salary because of a shut down. We are given Administrative Leave for the time off and paid our regular salary when the nonsense is over.

6. Social security checks are still written and sent to retirees as are monthly annuity checks for retired Federal employees.

7. Vendors working with government agencies don't get paid during a shut down but they eventually get paid when funds are appropriated. Albeit late, they are paid.

8. The military, law enforcement and other employees deemed "essential" still work during a shutdown. So its not like the Marines come to a halt and can't do anything or the FBI cant chase bad guys that rob banks or Customs can't enforce import laws. The US Coast Guard is still on the water helping boaters in distress and rescuing sick passengers from cruise ships. They can and still do.

9. Air Traffic Controllers still show up for work and still keep planes in flight separated from each other. Air travel does not change or stop.

10. About the only thing that happens when government shuts down is the National Parks close and the National Wildlife Refuges close, and you can't go sign up for new benefits under Social Security, and the Department of Labor doesn't collect employment data for a few days, and there are delays in obtaining Federal housing assistance, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessels have to return to port because they can't operate without funds. All of these things go back to normal once the children in the Congress agree on more funding.
The only thing that really happens in a shutdown is that pompous asshole members of Congress and in the current case a president with an ego the size of Brooklyn, can crow about how they shut down the government to make a point. The last time there was a shutdown (caused by Senator Ted Cruz R-TX) it was estimated that it cost the american economy something like $28 billion dollars.

So when you hear people panting fearfully on tv about an impending shutdown, just open a beer and watch the fools make a fool of themselves. Think of it as a "free" theater performance and nothing more.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Diving Away in Margaritaville - Bonaire Style

Bonaire is one of the few places in the world where you can earn PADI Lionfish Hunter certification and we all know that the only good Lionfish is the one on the end of your spear

While diving offshore from Anna Maria island have you ever thought to yourself – “There has to be better viz somewhere!”  

If you have then you should consider a week of diving on beautiful Bonaire, one of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) in the Dutch Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela.  Diving is superb, visibility less than 60 feet is considered “bad viz,” plus the dive package at the Plaza Resort Bonaire, and diving with Toucan Diving Bonaire, is a bargain at twice the price.  

True there are cheaper options on the island but they don’t include 12 boat dives, luxurious hotel rooms, all your meals, and unlimited alcohol!

Craig Faanes and Cathy Hayslett are headed back to Bonaire during October 27 to November 3, 2018 and want to invite you to come along.  There are three packages available and the price is based on room type:  A Laguna View/Marina View room is $1466 per person in double occupancy; a Pool View room is $1568 per person in double occupancy, and an Oceanfront is $1810 per person in double occupancy.  Those prices include the following:

 7 night All-Inclusive Special at the Plaza Resort includes:
·        Transfers from airport to resort and return
·        Hotel room
·        12 tanks of boat dives with 6 days unlimited shore diving for each person
·        Tanks, weights, belts, free Nitrox
·        Daily buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner (all you can eat) with live cooking station
·        All drinks, including house brand wine, spirits and beer (premium brands not included)
·        Use of kayaks, snorkeling gear, stand up paddleboards, beach tennis, fitness center
·        Daytime activities and evening entertainment
·        Beach chair & Pool towels
·        Room safe and WiFi
·        All local taxes, service charges and energy surcharge

Toucan Diving Bonaire is a PADI 5-Star Resort where you can work on several certifications (Deep Diver, Night Diver, Rescue Diver, Underwater Naturalist, etc.) if you are interested. An added bonus of diving with Toucan Diving Bonaire is that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can earn PADI Lionfish Hunter certification!

American Airlines now flies nonstop from Miami to Bonaire (a 3-hour flight) making travel to the island much easier than in the past.  There is a connecting flight available from Tampa.

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year's Day in Northern Wisconsin History

January 1, 1974 in Rice Lake Wisconsin the ambient temperature at the airport at sunrise was -62 degrees F. Dick Kaner reported that temperature on radio station WJMC. Luckily there was no wind so there was no wind chill. Walking from the barn to our house after milking cows I spit. It hit the snow as a little ball of ice just like in Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire”

By 11 am I was able to start my car when the temperature had warmed to -40 degrees F. My Chesapeake Bay Retriever Chester and I drove out to the Blue Hills near Hardscrabble. I strapped on snow shoes, and we hiked in a mile to check some traps I had set on a beaver colony. I caught 2 beaver whose combined weight was 90 pounds! I put them in my wicker backpack and hiked back to the road.

Snow shoes were an essential component of off road travel in the north woods of Wisconsin long ago

The added weight of the beavers, on top of my wool clothes, caused me to overheat. I took off my coat, slung it over my shoulder, and trundled back to my car. Steam billowed off me as I walked. I wish someone had been with me to take a picture because I must have looked like a cloud on snow shoes.

By sunrise the next day the overnight low had warmed to only -26 degrees F. The beginning of a warming trend. I relive bitter morning and that hike to check beaver traps in my memory every New Years Day.

Not to be outdone, almost three years to the day later, the overnight low in Rice Lake reached -60 degrees F.  As my now deceased mother said that morning "what do you expect? Its Wisconsin."
These bumper stickers were a common sight in Barron County after that equally bitter day in January 1977

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Holiday Greetings from the Littler Latitudes - 2017 Edition

As Christians prepare to celebrate Christmas, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, Muslims celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, and Atheists sit back in amazement watching all of it, its time to reflect on 2017 and think about what lies ahead in 2018.

Like for many of us, 2017 was a year of transitions.  During it I lost a very good friend from college to cancer, as well as my last surviving uncle. I guess Nick's passage means that all of the Beranek cousins are now officially orphans.  During the year I turned 66 years old which is certainly the start of the "Golden Years" we hear about, and on July 1, I married my best friend and dive buddy Cathy Hayslett.

Its nice when you finally meet someone compatible.  (Sorry Wisconsin folks about the Florida State University shirt - we were watching Bristol's college playing.  I was still eating cheese curds and yelling "On Wisconsin" at every opportunity)

The year was filled with travel (not really a surprise by now) with a trip to the Florida Keys in January so Cathy's son Bristol could earn his open water diver certification.  For Cathy's birthday in February we traveled to Bonaire off the coast of Venezuela, for a week of diving in the brilliant blue waters of the southern Caribbean.  Cathy also became a biological grandmother for the first time on February 19 while we were in Bonaire (my grandson Garrett claimed her as his "Grandma Cathy" two years earlier however).  She now has taken her grandma responsibilities quite seriously.

Cathy in grandma mode with Channing Beau.  He's asleep in this picture. He had a PhD in sleeping at that age.

March brought with it cataract surgery on both of Craig's eyes and the removal of a very large non-cancerous tumor (the size of a large plum) from my left shoulder.  There were a few complications with the surgical incision and I came to know the staff at the Wound Center at Doctor's Hospital quite well.  That's all cleared up now and I never want to go through it again.

In early May we flew up to Tallahassee to attend Bristol's graduation from Florida State University (degree in Finance), and a week later took him diving in Roatan, Honduras, as a graduation present.  That month Craig completed a course in Arabic Language and Culture, and another one in speaking French.  I can now speak four languages passably - but there are so many more to go!  Throughout much of the spring Cathy spent hours and hours knitting sweaters for 5 grandchildren, both of her children, and was always looking forward to the next knitting project.

In early June Craig spent 2 weeks in Alaska vistiing his daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Ryan, and way cool grandson Garrett.  He also flew to Barrow, the northernmost airport in the United States, and hung out with Polar Bears on the edge of the Arctic Ocean.

Garrett and me after a long hike to the top of a mountain in Alaska

Garrett really is the luckiest kid in the world

I was there when Garrett caught his first fish at 3 years old.  His mom caught her first fish at 3 years old as well, and also in the Arctic

Nanook.   There is no question who is the apex predator in the Arctic

Welcome to Barrow Alaska. I didn't seen any Snowy Owls while there but it wasn't for lack of trying

Its a long way from Barrow to everywhere.  I could certainly spend a summer there studying birds but there's no way I could survive a winter without going bonkers.

Later in June we did a 3-tank dive with sharks offshore from West Palm Beach.  Its something all serious Jimmy Buffett fans should do.  If only there was a way to sing "Fins" and be heard underwater.

That's me with the orange thing on my right shoulder just after an 11-foot Lemon Shark's nose bounced off my forehead

Cathy and I were married in a tiki hut at the home of our friends near Osprey on July 1.  Garrett came down from Alaska for the wedding, and the night before he was the kid who yelled "Play Ball" at the start of a minor league Bradenton Marauders baseball game (we won that night).

Garrett was able to walk on a professional baseball field when he was 3 years old. His grandpa had to wait until he was in his 60s!

Our wedding was at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday July 1 and at 3:00 pm that afternoon we boarded a Cayman Airways 737 in Tampa and darted down to Cayman Brac for a week of diving at the Cayman Brac Reef Resort.

Its official and she's now stuck with me

Garrett and "Grandma Cathy" at our wedding

Cayman Brac Beach Resort was a great place to spend a week after saying "I Do"

We completed a few local dives throughout the summer and after receiving our PADI certification as Lionfish Hunters, Cathy speared her first Lionfish in early August.  

The mighty spearfisherwoman with her first Lionfish.  They taste much better than they look

About the same time, Craig completed the requirements for Rescue Diver certification, and for Master Scuba Diver certification - the latter being the highest level of certification available to non-professional divers.  With nothing better to do with his time, Craig began working on his Divemaster certification - the first level of professional diving.  Those tasks should be completed in early December.

Autumn in Florida, which looks just like summer, spring and winter in Florida, was filled with college football on Saturday's and watching pro games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday.  Despite Cathy's South Carolina roots, I've converted her to a Badgers fan and a Green Bay Packers fan.  Given the way the Pack is playing this year they need all the help they can get.

October brought us to the Miami airport from which we flew to Barcelona, Spain.  We spent a week in tiny Andorra in the Pyrennes Mountains (Craig's 119th country visited), diving from the island of Ibiza (made famous from the song verse "I took a pill in Ibiza"), and spending time in gorgeous Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  We left Barcelona on November 5 aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship that dropped us off in Port Canaveral, Florida, two weeks later.  This was our second Transatlantic cruise and we are already planning another one in April 2019.  We spent the remainder of the year getting caught up on things that had to slide while we were gone and making plans for 2018.  

So far we are planning 2 weeks in the Philippines in February, almost 2 weeks in Colorado in March where my step-daughter Charlotte lives and where Cathy can refine her Grandma Cathy skills.  Garrett will be down from Alaska then, and with luck my 3 granddaughters from Minnesota will be there as well.  It will be the first time all 5 grandchildren will be in the same place at the same time. which is pretty exciting.

In July 2018. we spend a week in the Maldives off the coast of India with a 2-day stopover in Doha, Qatar on the return. I'm looking forward to helping Cathy experience Arabic/Muslim culture for the first time.  It should be pretty exciting.  Finally, with luck we will be spending Christmas 2018 with my daughter and Garrett in either Costa Rica or the Galapagos.  Maybe if I win the lottery before then we'll spend it in both places!

When we were kids we all dreamed about growing up and most of us were upset that we couldn't grow up fast enough.  Now that we have grown up (at least organically that is) we realize the best gift anyone could give us is a lead weight on the hour hand on our biological clock so we might slow it down a tad.  People are transitioning out of our lives at a faster pace now, which is what the actuarial tables and statistics tell us will happen.  Who knows whom among us will be here today and spoken about in the past tense tomorrow.   

Cathy and I hope in 2018 we can all bury the hatchet from past slights and misunderstandings and come together as friends and family and enjoy what remaining time we still enjoy together.  It would be nice if the nation could do the same thing.  Isn't that part of what the spirit of the holidays is supposed to be about anyway?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Transatlantic Cruise Aboard the Norwegian Epic

The Norwegian Epic - one of the mega ships in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet

"The thing I don't like about cruising is all these people who don't speak English."... An ignorant, myopic, xenophobic American woman aboard the Norwegian Epic in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, November 12, 2017

The Norwegian Epic, a nearly quarter mile long 316 million pound mega ship, sailed from Barcelona, Spain at 1800 h local time on November 5, 2017.  Thirteen very fast days later she was tied off at the cruise terminal at Port Canaveral, Florida, near Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center.  My wife and I were aboard the Epic as she cast away from the pier in Barcelona and as we watched the sun set over an ancient fort overlooking the harbor we had already resigned ourselves to the trip being over almost before it began.

We had booked the cruise in August 2016 and with our early booking (and incredibly good per person rate for the cruise) which entitled us to accepting two inclusive packages from Norwegian.  Our options were 1) unlimited drinks, 2) a 4-restaurant specialty dining package, 3) 250 minutes of Internet use, and 4) reduced rates on shore excursions.  

Because we usually make our own plans when in ports, and since this cruise offered landings in only two ports, we instantly rejected the reduced rates on excursions option.  250 minutes of internet for $125 seemed like an easy thing to pass up considering the value of the other options.  Later Cathy purchased the Internet package and had nothing but constant problems with the service.  We were glad we didn't choose internet for our "free" package.

What we chose were the specialty dining package and the unlimited drinks package.  Both, it turned out, were no-brainers to choose and the next time we cruise on Norwegian (which means the next time we cruise) we will select those same two options.  They turned out to be the most cost-effective options possible.

The Itinerary

Although our cruise departed Barcelona on November 5, we boarded an American Airlines plane in Tampa on October 28 bound for Miami where we connected to a nonstop flight to Barcelona, 9 hours away.  Because I am the absolutely best husband on the planet, I used some of my American Airlines frequent flier miles and and flew us to Barcelona in First/Business Class.  
While following Jimmy Buffett's song line instructions and "reading departure signs in some big airport" we found the gate for the American Airlines flight to Barcelona. I'd return there in a heartbeat.

This was Cathy's first real first class experience including being seated in lie-flat seats that converted to a bed.  We left Miami a few minutes early, not long after the National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for Palm Beach County about 50 miles north.  To say the departure was bumpy was an understatement.  The in-flight service was impeccable, the dinner (and breakfast) we were served were tasty and filling, and the hard sleep made possible by the lie-flat seats made the entire 9 hours worth the 100,000 frequent flier miles it "cost" to fly in First Class over the pond.
One of the highlights of the trip was adding tiny Andorra to my list of countries visited - it was my 119th country

We arrived in Barcelona early, quickly cleared Customs and Immigration then found a bus operated by Andorra by Bus and took off on a 3-hour drive across the Catalonia countryside to the tiny country of Andorra on the Spain/France border.  Andorra was the 119th country I have visited.  We spent one night in Andorra then returned to Barcelona.

The bus station in Andorra.  Catalan is the language spoken in this beautiful country.  Its a mixture of Spanish and French with just enough Portuguese thrown in to flummox you.  There was a White Wagtail foraging along the stream when I took this picture.

For my birthday, October 31, we flew to the Balearic island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean where we spent three nights.  We did some SCUBA diving with the excellent folks at Scuba Ibiza Diving Center, then returned to Barcelona on November 3.  On November 4 we spent much of the day exploring Barcelona with the superb local company Barcelona Day Tours.  Travelers simply cannot go wrong booking a trip with this company.  Ask for Elena as your guide - you will not be disappointed.  While in Barcelona we stayed at the Barcelona Airport Hotel which, not surprisingly, is quite close to the airport but about 20 minutes by taxi from downtown.  The rate was ridiculously cheap for this 4-star hotel and we look forward to returning to Barcelona if only to stay here again!  The breakfast alone was worth the nightly rate.

Departing Barcelona aboard the ship on November 5 we set a course for Malaga, Spain, about 500 miles south.  
For hundreds of years this ancient fort has been perched like a Peregrine Falcon overlooking the entrance to Barcelona harbor

Unfortunately there was an on-board medical emergency overnight and when we woke up on November 6 we were a mile or two offshore from Isla Ibiza (where we dove 5 days earlier).  The unfortunate passenger was dropped off here for medical care shortly after sunrise and we continued on our course for Malaga.

We spent November 7 in Malaga and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Established in 770 BC it has to be one of the prettiest cities I have visited in Spain and in much of Europe for that matter.

Cafe de l'Abuela near the cathedral in Malaga was a perfect place to chill with a glass of Spanish red wine and simply watch the city come alive.

Walking around Malaga was made so much easier by the highly-polished marble streets

Central Park in Malaga epitomizes the beauty of the city

Departing Malaga we spent 4 days at sea before arriving at Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island in the stunningly beautiful Azores.  
Sunrise over Ponta Delgada harbor, November 11, 2017. I absolutely love this island!

We had stopped here on a Transatlantic cruise in 2014 and I thought I would never see the island again.  While here we completed a 2-tank dive with the good folks at Best Spot Azores Dive Center located just a 5-minute walk from the cruise terminal.  Cathy dove with this PADI resort in 2014.  We dove today with a Brit living in Lisbon.  Bruno the owner of the company, and Diego a PADI Instructor served as our divemaster.  Despite the bottom temperature 60 feet beneath the surface being a chilly 63 degrees we enjoyed two great dives and look forward to going out with this company again.
There are five dive shops within a stone's throw of the cruise terminal in Ponta Delgada.  At least 3 of them are PADI shops and one is SSI (Not sure about the affiliation of the 5th one). Despite the competition you cannot experience a better dive than with Best Spot - just make sure to wear a 6 ml wetsuit!

We reluctantly departed Ponta Delgada on time at 1700 h local and spent 6 days at sea before arriving at the Port Canaveral Cruise Terminal near Cocoa Beach, Florida on November 18.As with every cruise we have been on with Norwegian Cruise Lines we didn't want the trip to be over and especially so soon.  Its truly shocking how quickly 2 weeks can fly by when you are on a cruise ship.

The following images show the approximate route we followed on this journey.

The Cruise Ship

We spent 13 nights in Stateroom 10097, a Mini-Suite located forward on the starboard side of the ship

The amenities of Stateroom 10097 included a free bottle of champagne courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line (thanks to our status with this cruise line).

The Good Parts of the Trip

Norwegian Cruise Line certainly knows how to throw a party at sea!  We found the food to be superb (again), the service almost spotless.  Our housekeeper ("Motor-Mouth Melody") had a bit of an issue we never figured out, plus the service in O'Sheehan's restaurant sucked at best.  Other than that we enjoyed so much about this ship.  Entertainment in the Epic Theater was outstanding and included the Epic Beatles.  When they took the stage our second night at sea I though I was looking at the real John Lennon and the real Paul McCartney - they looked that close!  Plus a friend of ours, Parker Lawhorne from Sarasota, is a Costume Supervisor on the Epic.  Parker went to school with one of Cathy's children for many years and we knew he was on the ship.  Looking at the quality of the work he put into productions like "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" made us both wonder why Parker isn't working on Broadway!  One day soon I'm sure he will be.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert was first a movie (in the 1970s) and then a Broadway play and is now being performed on the Norwegian Epic - for free!  The performance was excellent and it came with a strong message of acceptance.  Our friend Parker played a major role in the performance so we are likely a tad biased.

We enjoyed four "Specialty" dining experiences as part of the free packages we were given.  These included Moderno, a Brazillian steakhouse (where I ate shrimp),  La Cucina, an Italian restaurant where I ate shrimp, Cagney's Steakhouse (where I ate shrimp) and the Japanese Tappenyaki restaurant where, not surprisingly, I ate shrimp.  When not in a specialty restaurant we usually had meals in the Taste Restaurant on Deck 5 and in a pinch had dinner (or a lunch) in the Garden Cafe (buffet) on  Deck 15.

If you want to imagine that you are back in a steakhouse in Sao Paulo or Rio look no farther than this superb Brazilian restaurant

 Cagney's is the place to go for a Chicago (Or Nebraska!) steak in the middle of the ocean

By far the most entertaining meal we enjoyed was at Teppenyaki, a Japanese hibachi restaurant.  Our "fake Japanese chef" (his words) from "South Philly (Philippines) was hilarious and made the experience even more memorable

Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner at Taste Restaurant comes complete with an ocean view - if you arrive early enough to grab an ocean view table!

The Garden Cafe on Deck 15 was the place to go for a bounty of food whether breakfast, lunch or dinner

Entertainment options were almost endless.  Cathy found a group of fellow knitters and was usually gone for three hours every morning learning from others how to make her sweaters even better.  There was music everywhere and of course the requisite smoke-filled casino that we merely waked through enroute to somewhere else.  The Epic also has the famous "Ice Bar" where you dress up in an Arctic parka and drink your drinks from glasses carved from ice.  
The walls of the Bliss Lounge will be forever damaged after 13 nights of "Johnny" destroying songs from the stage during karaoke

For us, however, the most entertainment was the nightly karaoke performances in the Bliss Lounge.  Every night this guy calling himself "Johnny" would take the stage in the Bliss Lounge and belt out the most horrific karaoke you've ever heard.  Honestly!   In Sarasota we have a place called Stottlemeyer's where on Monday night they offer up what we call "Shitty Karaoke."  However Stottlemeyer's is a professional production compared to how incredibly bad Johnny is!  We always drank double shots of every drink we had in the Bliss Lounge - I think because of Johnny!

The Bad Parts of the Trip

Despite all of the great aspects of this cruise and of Norwegian Cruise Line, there were a couple of not-so-good parts. First and foremost was the lousy (damned near atrocious) onboard Internet service.  The following letter, that Cathy sent to Norwegian the day after our return from the trip, explains it all.

November 20, 2017

Guest Relations
Norwegian Cruise Line
7665 Corporate Center Drive
Miami, Florida 33126

Re:  Reservation Number 32090291

Dear NCL;

My husband and I are Gold Latitude Rewards members.  This past Saturday we completed a great cruise aboard the Epic on her transatlantic repositioning journey from Barcelona to Port Canaveral.  We look forward to another transatlantic very soon.

While on board the ship I purchased your 250 minutes of Internet plan for $125, and my husband and I both paid $9.99 for the message component of the Norwegian application on our cell phones.  Almost from the first day I had difficulty connecting to your internet service.  At the same time my husband and I found that messages we sent each other on the app were taking up to two DAYS to reach each other’s cell phones, and that included when the phones were lying next to each other in our stateroom!

Because I am an IT professional I made double-sure that each time I attempted to use the Internet I logged out after being online.  In spite of my cautious approach, twice I discovered that your system had not logged me out, and all of my available minutes had been used – even though I did not use them.   I informed the internet manager on board who agreed that the issue was NCL’s problem not something I had done wrong.  Your manager immediately reinstated the missing 150 minutes. Imagine my shock and disgust when I checked my onboard account and found a $7.50 customer service charge for adding back minutes that were lost because of the inefficiency of your system!  That was not something I should have been charged for – it was your mistake and your responsibility to make it right.

Each time I brought up the issue of inadequate internet performance with your onboard manager I was told to “use it overnight when fewer people are on the system.”  I don’t know about you but I prefer to sleep overnight, not spend the night awake trying to use a service I paid to access 24 hours a day.

During our penultimate day on the ship, your system once again showed that I had not logged out (when I had).  I captured screen shots on my cell phone as proof that the remaining 150 minutes were exhausted. Rather than standing in the interminably long line of other travelers at the internet desk, I just resigned myself to the fact that I had wasted a lot of money on your internet service and decided not to fight it any longer, or pay more fees to have the minutes restored. 

One thing this debacle taught me was that I will never again waste my money paying for onboard internet that obviously does not work.   The same is true for my husband and I using your onboard cell phone application.  Granted $9.99 is not a lot of money.  However, it’s the principle involved here – we purchased a service that your system is too inadequate to properly deliver.   This was a major lesson learned for future cruises on Norwegian no matter if it’s a 3-night trip on the Sky to Nassau or a 15-day Panama Canal cruise. We will simply wait to use WiFi in each port visited.

I sincerely hope you can fix this problem for your sake because there were a lot of very upset guests on the Epic who experienced the same shoddy service and heard the same excuses.

The other annoying part of the trip was smokers. The rules for the ship explicitly state that guests cannot smoke on the balconies. In fact I think the only place they can infect others with second-hand smoke is in the casino. However not a day went by I sat on our balcony and inhaled smoke from some uncaring guest upwind from our stateroom.  I'm not sure how Norwegian can catch and censure guests who break the rules - maybe smoke detectors in each room are the answer - however something needs to be done to eliminate the health hazard to non-smokers posed by those who want to fill the air with carcinogens.

The Ugly Part of the Trip

Anyone who has participated in a cruise knows about the silly drill we all go through before departure where we spend 45 minutes learning how to put on a life jacket.  Cruisers also are aware of the usual backlash that happens at the end of the cruise when we all attempt to exit the ship.  However nothing, absolutely nothing, can match the clusterfuck we experienced trying to exit the Norwegian Epic once it docked in Port Canaveral.  Rather than rehash it I'll simply post the letter I wrote to Norwegian Guest Services.  

November 20, 2017

Guest Relations
Norwegian Cruise Line
7665 Corporate Center Drive
Miami, Florida 33126

Re:  Reservation Number 32090291

Dear NCL;

My wife and I are Gold Latitude Rewards members.  This past Saturday we completed a great cruise aboard the Epic on her transatlantic repositioning journey from Barcelona to Port Canaveral.  At least the cruise was great until we encountered the debacle of disembarking in Port Canaveral.

Rather than doing the “Easy Walk Off”, we chose to let you handle our luggage, and we chose the “Green” zone for a 9:00 a.m. departure.  Things started to go downhill early when at 8:30 our housekeeper Melody (Deck 10, Forward, Starboard) was miffed that we were still our stateroom and were impeding her ability to make up the room for new guests boarding for the ship’s next cruise departing that afternoon, despite information we had from Norwegian saying we could remain in our rooms until 9:30. 

To assuage her concerns, we immediately left our stateroom and assembled outside the Bliss Lounge at 8:45 a.m. There we noticed a humongous line of Easy Walk Off guests who were not having a very easy time walking off the ship.  We were directed to wait in the Bliss Lounge where we sat until 9:45 a.m. before the 9:00 a.m. Green Zone was called.  When we reached the security checkpoint just before stepping off the ship, we were told that “because of Immigration and Customs” we would have to wait “a few minutes” before we could exit the ship.  “A few minutes” began at 9:50 a.m. – after standing in the hot sun with no water available, we finally stepped off the ship at 10:45, only 1 hour 45 minutes after we were supposed to originally depart.  Meanwhile there were still tons of guests onboard who had later departure times than we had, and they likely were as upset as we were with this debacle.

Once in the Customs area we were told by an immigration officer that the hold up was because “Norwegian let too many guests off the ship at once and that immigration had insufficient personnel.”  Thus, nobody accepted responsibility for this mess and instead the two major parties (you and Customs) passed the buck to each other.  After standing in line for what seemed like ages, we FINALLY reached a Customs agent at 12:05 p.m., a mere 3 hours and 5 minutes after we were supposed to originally depart the ship and be on our way home.

Whomever is to blame for this mess needs some immediate people management training.  There simply has to be a more efficient way to disembark a ship load of passengers.  Don’t you have some systems engineers on staff who can identify passenger flow problems and find ways to eliminate what happened in Port Canaveral yesterday?  I can imagine the rage felt by some travelers who had to get on a bus or grab a rental car to make a flight out of Orlando in early afternoon.  If they were in the “Green Zone” with us and had planned a 9:00 a.m. departure to catch a 1:00 p.m. flight they were SOL and I would imagine you are receiving a ship-load of angry comments from those travelers.

Its frustrating enough that we have to endure the ridiculous “safety demonstration” on entering the ship the first day where we spend 45 minutes learning how to attach a life vest (by the way after 13 cruises I STILL do not know how to board a life boat!).  Its beyond annoying to have to endure what a ship load of passengers experienced exiting the Epic yesterday in Port Canaveral.  NCL management and the people on the ship responsible should be ashamed of themselves.


I had not been on a cruise until Cathy and I sailed to Grand Turk aboard the Carnival Victory in October 2013.  The Transatlantic cruise we just completed aboard the Epic is my 13th cruise and our second Transatlantic. We both decided that Norwegian was our preferred cruise line after spending 14 days aboard the Norwegian Star on her repositioning cruise from Copenhagen to Miami in October 2014.  I still think the Star is the best ship in the Norwegian fleet; Cathy has fallen in love with the Epic.

There were a few negatives about this trip but they were surpassed by so many positives its almost impossible to count.  At the conclusion of this cruise we now both have Gold status in the Norwegian Latitude Rewards program and are only 13 nights short of Platinum status.  Thirteen nights is a simple Transatlantic crossing and right now we plan to do one from Miami to Rome (15 days) in April 2019.  Norwegian offered an onboard opportunity to purchase $1000 worth of deposits for future cruises, and receive $500 in onboard credits for the cruise we were on.  It didn't require a major in math to determine this was a great deal so now we have $1000 worth of deposits collecting dust in our Latitude Rewards accounts.  Something tells me those dollars won't be collecting dust for long.

I used to scoff at people who participated in cruises until I took part in my first cruise. Now I am hooked and can't wait until we board another ship, and preferably one headed south.  If you haven't been on cruise, make sure you do so soon. If you have been, then make plans to return to a ship sooner rather than later.   If you are a wise and frugal traveler, make that cruise reservation on Norwegian Cruise Line.  You'll be a happy cruiser when you do.

The only thing I do not like about cruises is putting everything behind you at the trip's conclusion.