Thursday, August 30, 2012

Whale eyesight & other things

My schedule doesn't allow me to get out to as many Maine-related talks and lectures as I'd like, but every now and then I manage to squeeze one in. Earlier in August, I was lucky enough to make it down to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, where Dr. Scott Kraus (of Boston’s New England Aquarium)was holding a presentation about "What Do Whales See?" The talk was well-attended, to the point of being standing room only.

John Annala, Chief Scientific Officer for GMRI, gave an introduction in which he emphasized GMRI's focus on sustainability in the Gulf of Maine, as opposed to an approach focused on locking up resources or “preserving” them. Their goal is to increase collaboration across the board, and their current education program has successfully accomplished outreach to an impressive 75% of Maine's 5th and 6th graders, every year giving school kids a look at GMRI's work no matter where they are in the state.

With that context given, Dr. Kraus took his place under the room's giant projection screen, and began his presentation. Back in the 1970s, he was hard at work with a group of scientists collaborating with local fishermen up in Newfoundland, where each year the cod box nets were accidentally netting humpback whales along with the cod schools. No one could figure out why such a huge, obvious structure was being run into by the whales. By all reasoning, they should have been able to sense them in the water, but instead, hundreds of whales were running into them every year, many of them becoming entangled in them with disastrous results for both the whales and the nets.

His team had begun by zipping around disentangling the whales whenever the fishermen sent out an alert, and while they were doing this, they were studying the whales’ behavior. They were perplexed to find that when the whales were trapped, they did not emit any sounds of alarm to broadcast their distress. By 1975 it was obvious to the scientists that something odd was going on. Could it be that these baleen whales didn't use sound the same way as other whale species, including the generation of sonar by which to navigate?

To answer that question, the scientists rigged up a maze in an ideal spot at the base of a Newfoundland cliff where they could observe from above. This was going to be the first time anyone had done any sort of test of whale eyesight limits.

The next time a good subject whale was disentangled from a cod box net, it was transported to the maze test site and fitted for blindfolds. As you can imagine, this was a time for revving up their creative problem solving skills, because the irregular shape of a whale's head demands a unique design for effectiveness and comfort. They also had to take into account the mammoth dimensions of the whale's eyeballs, each the size of a grapefruit.

The scientists wound up using a pair of eyepatches, giant in size. The edges were lined with foam cushions, which served to block accidental visibility as well as giving a comfortable fit to the whale's contoured eye area. Large suction plungers were utilized to attach the eyepatches.

With them in place, the scientists ran a variety of trials, 33 attempts in all. At no time did the whale ever use sonar! The only time the whale successfully ran the maze was when it was given use of its eyesight in daylight. The only exception to this was one nighttime trial when they were attempting to use a flashlight attached to the whale's tail to give the observing scientists on the cliff overhead an accurate sense of where the whale was in the maze.

It turned out that the flashlight gave enough visibility to the whale to allow it to correctly navigate the maze. Needless to say, they had to find another solution for the observers. They wound up stationing them at each point of the maze, where they could see the whale's movement through the water well enough to determine its success.

At the end of the trials, they set their humpback subject free, and went back to the drawing board with the new information that baleen whales didn't use sonar. They were capable of using their hearing for long distance navigation, and recognition of heavy traffic shipping lanes in the water, but otherwise they depended fully on their eyesight, with no recourse to echolocation.

That eyesight is in the green to blue spectrum, suitable to deeper water. This gave the scientists a new source of perplexity, because the copepods that the whales were using as a primary source of food were red in pigmentation, a color which eluded the whales' sight limits. Further exploration determined that the whales could see the copepods as lightblockers, and this allowed them to locate them in the water for feeding.

The scientists, still experimenting with options that would make the cod box nets visible to whales in spite of their limited eyesight, began a series of trials to determine the best color with which to coat the nets for high whale visibility. Using what they had learned from the copepod coloration as a starting point, all sorts of lines were tried, from the typical green, white and black lines of current fishing practice to glow in the dark lines, to LED-lit lines.

The whales ran right into the white, green, black and glow-in-the-dark lines. On the other hand, they responded consistently to ropes that were red and orange, turning aside in time to avoid them. The glow-in-the-dark lines presented insurmountable problems for the fishermen anyhow, as their luminescent nature attracted algae growth in the dark depths. Anytime sub-aquatic growth accumulates, hauling ropes becomes a problem, as the growth fouls the lines as they’re being drawn up into the hauling mechanism on the fishing boat.

[PHOTO: Brian Murphy cleans algae and other growth from the trapline of the Blue Dolphin II. Every time the traps are hauled up, the buoy line needs to be cleaned to prevent overgrowth and fouling of the line. The barrel has a heating coil, and with the steaming hot water and a stiff scrub brush, the overgrowth is brought under control until the next time. The growth occurs because the buoy line is close to the surface, where sunlight encourages all sorts of species of salt water plants and animals to flourish. Photo by Michelle Souliere, (c)2010]

The LED lines had technical problems on two fronts – power supply and durability. In the end, Dr. Kraus was unable to find existing LED rope structured durably enough to survive going through the sheaves of a hauler, and, as he observed in response to my inquiry via email, “the implantation of any LED within existing ropes turns out to be extremely difficult -- others have tried embedding radio frequency PTT tags in ropes with poor success.” (PTT= Platform Transmitter Terminal tags= radio-frequency transmitters used to enable satellite tracking of animals) It is entirely possible that even if the LED ropes had worked well enough, and had generated a positive response in the whales’ navigation, their luminosity may have been problematic in generating growth on the fishing lines, as had been the demonstrated tendency of the glow-in-the-dark lines during testing.

It should be noted here that throughout the tests, local fishermen have assisted Dr. Kraus's team, ensuring that the eventual solution will work on a practical level as well as theoretical. The next series of usability tests is made possible by the participation of members of the Maine Lobsterman Association.

Progress is slow without the ability to communicate directly with the whales. Each conclusion must be made through simple, regulated observation and slight changes in conditions to observe differences in behavior. Still, each year they get closer to making the heavily fished offshore areas of the Northeast safer for the often endangered whales who also call these regions home.

If this sort of stuff piques your interest, why not check out the Gulf of Maine’s Sea State Lecture Series? The lectures are free and open to the public, and are held at the GMRI’s facility in Portland, at 350 Commercial Street. For more information, contact Patty Collins at
(207) 228-1625 or via – or simply sign up for email updates on their website at

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bats in the... library?

Well, the Camden Public Library had an early Halloween visitor in mid-August this year! This little guy found a perch in the children's room of the library, clinging with his tiny fingers to the edge of an acoustic tile. Librarian Miss Amy safely caught the fuzzy flapper in a glass vase, and he was set free elsewhere after everyone got a chance to peek closely through the glass at their new neighbor. The audience read (very appropriately) the book Bats in the Library, by Brian Lies, to celebrate the little guy's release.
See their photo album here:

Thanks to artist Andy Finkle ( alerting us to this! He's shown art locally here at the Green Hand Bookshop, and loves Maine. And bats. And libraries.

Interested parties might want to know (incidentally) that the Camden Public Library is holding their book sale tomorrow (8/25) and Sunday (8/26)!

More info:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Augusta pudding thief legend

One of the many Maine urban legends I've been told over the years is about a man who was found hiding in the ceiling of the State Library in Augusta sometime in the 1990s. Up until last night, I hadn't been able to find out much about it, as many Maine newspapers are not yet digitized, and everyone I talked to had been pretty vague about the year it happened. My only clues were that this guy had set up camp in the ceiling of the library, and had a fondness for pudding.

The story, like many Maine news oddities, made its way into a bunch of AP "news of the weird" columns all across the country. When I finally found it via a searchable archive, it appeared in a Galveston TX newspaper article. Once I had the date, and the fellow's name, I made better progress finding the story in Maine papers.

To set the stage, the Maine State Library forms our backdrop. This austere establishment, founded in 1836, is located in our capitol city of Augusta. The library resides in the Cultural Building alongside the State archives and the State museum. The Cultural Building itself is part of the larger State House complex.

As part of the State House, the library is overseen by the officers of Capitol Security. In September 1991, library staff members sought their assistance in solving a series of baffling overnight item disappearances. These petty thefts continued into October and November.

The missing items were mostly useful everyday items -- flashlights, extension cords, things like that. Capitol Security's suspicions at first focused on office employees and members of a recent asbestos removal work crew. But the more noticeable vanishments were food-related. Employees arrived at work and found that not only had a candy vending machine been cleaned out, but two refrigerators had also been emptied. They knew it wasn't spooks, as whoever took the items had left behind a note of apology. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.

Patterns developed. The staff figured out that the culprits weren't interested in fruit much, but frozen pizzas and especially pudding were favorite targets. Office life being what it is, the employees kept themselves occupied recording a log that tracked what was disappearing and what was staying put. I personally would LOVE to see that log if it still exists.

The staff for the most part seemed to feel sympathetic to the mysterious bandits, and even took to calling up to the ceiling panels to offer assistance if the intruder would simply let them know what they needed. The Capitol Security officers professed themselves "stymied."

The mystery became flesh when on Wednesday, November 20, 1991, a human foot broke through the third floor ceiling of the library, alerting workers to the location of one Andre V. Jatho. He had stumbled while eluding police, who by process of elimination had found his crawlspace hideaway.

Newspaper articles added another character to the script. It turned out that Jatho had company for most of the time. Until shortly before his capture, a companion, the same man who had introduced Jatho to the advantages of the library's crawlspace area, had been his "assistant." By the time the police were closing in on their hideaway, the second man had moved out. Here is another mystery I would love to know more about. Who was the second man? How had he originally found the crawlspace which he later introduced Jatho to? His name is not recorded in the newspapers I have found so far, but perhaps with a little more digging in some microfilm it will emerge.

Why did Jatho need assistance? It could have been because the crawlspace was accessed through a 1 1/2-foot by 2 1/2-foot utility panel, which entered an area filled with bathroom pipes and heating ducts, with no more than 5 feet of clearance at any point. It must have been quite a trick to get in and out of the space, especially carrying contraband. An extra pair of hands for a boost and help maneuvering must have been almost essential.

It's not too difficult to imagine that Jatho might have been somewhat relieved when his arrest finally came. With the departure of his assistant, Jatho admitted that "I was pretty much trapped on the third floor," and expressed doubt that he would have made it on his own much longer. Photos of him being led into court show a small friendly smile on his face, as though he is glad to see everyone and be out in the open again.

Officers found "everything you could think of" in the hideaway, including sleeping hammocks made from mailbags, collections of books by Dickens, Twain and Joyce, 3 VCRs, a crockpot and an overhead projector. Jatho was unable to remember how many days he had actually spent in the crawlspace. Later court documents decided a simple 10-day span of trespass would be left on the record.

Only 20 years old at the time of his arrest, Andre Jatho had traveled cross-country from Santa Clara, California, seeing the country in a blissful fashion until his money ran out. Back in his hometown, his mother, Janine Eichenberger, had no idea where he was, and only learned that he was alive and safe when a newspaper reporter contacted her about her son's arrest in Maine.

Jatho stayed in Maine for some time after his arrest, waiting out his court dates and sentencing, which was gradually reduced to a $500 fine and 25 hours of community service in the local schools. The charges against him had been reduced from felony burglary and theft down to criminal trespass and theft misdemeanors, and even the theft charge was dropped at the end. The library staff he left behind remained fascinated by the events, examining the books and movies the pair had squirreled away, and marveling over their intriguing taste in material.

At the January 1992 sentencing, District Judge Kirk Studstrup spoke disapprovingly of Jatho's "folk hero" reputation, and his notoriety as the "phantom of the library." However he recognized the uniqueness of the situation, and Jatho's cooperativeness in working with authorities since his arrest. Unable to find a paying job in the area, Jatho had since his discovery been working doing maintenance at a local school to earn public assistance.

Jatho announced in court that he would "gladly work with the children" at an Augusta school, where it was arranged he would be installed as an aide to children needing assistance in learning to read better. Once his sentence hours were complete, he looked forward to returning home to California and going to college, and hopefully getting a job in a bookstore.

After the hearing, he smilingly and softly stated to reporters that the people of Maine had treated him very nicely. After the report on his sentencing, his name does not seem to appear in the Maine newspapers again.

If I had to make an educated guess, I would say that a lot of the details of this story still reside in undigitized news archives and in the word-of-mouth realm. The news reports only hint at a wealth of details. This, of course, means I have more digging to do in the future. There are obvious gaps in the press's version of the story which beg to be filled in. If you have any details you would like to add, please drop me a line and let me know!

Information in this article came from:
Lewiston Sun Journal 11/22/91 p1
Bangor Daily News 1/7/92 p7
Lewiston Sun Journal 1/8/92 p1