Sunday, June 28, 2009

Invasion of the Jellyfish

BALTIMORE, MD - Most people recognize jellyfish, or sea jellies, by their unique transparent bell shape and long dangling tentacles. Gently they float along with the current, waiting to sting an unsuspecting swimmer or washing up on the beach, flattened and rather yucky looking.

A new exhibit, "Jellies Invasion: Oceans Out of Balance" opens this Saturday, May 23, 2009 at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Here is your chance to learn more about these mysterious creatures and see their beauty up close, without fear of being stung. There are seven different species in a separate exhibit area that showcases their diverse structure and colors. Interactive displays in the area provide short video clips, photos and text, to highlight the devastating impact these animals are having on our world today.

Related to Anemones and Corals, the early stages of the jelly look more like plants on the ocean floor. The familiar shape and texture of the jellyfish we see in the ocean are the free-floating adult medusas. Most of us wouldn't recognize the early stages of their development, as they change dramatically, through several body changes until they become the wandering adults we know as jellyfish.

Jellies have survived some 650 million years and are the largest of the plankton family. The title of the exhibit "Jellies Invasion" isn't a marketing catchphrase but a warning of the damage being caused around the world by increasing populations of Jellies. The introduction of North America's Leidy's comb jelly in the Black Sea has devastated the local fishing economy and was responsible for the collapse of the anchovy industry. We often hear about non-native species invading America but seldom hear the reverse. It is suspected that ships traveling from North America picked up the Leidy's comb jelly in their ballast tanks and were later discharged into the Black Sea. Capable of producing 2000 to 3000 eggs per day, it is almost impossible to eradicate the jellies once they are established.

Other factors suspected to be the cause of increased jelly populations are global warming and overfishing. There is plenty of debate over global warming, add this to controversy. Overfishing and pollution leave a void of fish where jellies can reproduce without predators keeping them in check. Remember the publicity about fishing nets catching and killing sea turtles? One of the mainstays of the sea turtle diet is jellies; a single sea turtle eats hundreds of pounds of jellies a day. Less sea turtles equals more jellies.

The exhibit is small but very well appointed with interactive learning tools and roving experts who are happy to address your questions. The creative lighting and placement of cylindrical tanks highlight the grace and beauty of these floating gelatinous zooplanktons.

Getting there: The National Aquarium in Baltimore is located in the Inner Harbor of downtown Baltimore. opens Saturday, May 23 at 501 E. Pratt St. Tickets are $14.95 - $24.95 for general admission. Call 410-576-3800 or go to Included in the price is the Austrailia exhibit, Rain Forest, other attractions. The Dolphin show and 4D theater are an added charge.

Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race 2009

BALTIMORE, MD. - While much of the world was keeping an eye on the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby, hundreds turned out in Baltimore, Maryland for a race of a different kind. The 11th annual Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race is one of the wackiest races on the East coast. Well attended by a friendly and fun loving crowd, the race is advertised as "a race of totally human-powered works of art designed to travel over land, sand, mud and really deep water."

The moving creative sculptures are made by teams from such diverse backgrounds as the the Physics and Sculpture departments of the University of Virginia, Roland Park Elementary School's 8th grade class, and individuals looking to win big. Hosted by the American Visionary Art Museum , this championship race had 33 registered kinetic sculptures by race time.

To win this race the entrants, often called Kinetinauts, because of their fearless artistic and engineering skills, must human-power their creations over a 15 mile course. The course is through downtown Baltimore and includes some interesting obstacles: Kinetinauts must swim their sculptures in the Baltimore Harbor, traverse a sand pit, push through a mud pit and return in one piece.

At the Canton Waterfront the sculptures drive down a ramp into the harbor, where there are plenty of kayaks and safety boats making sure everyone gets out of the water as healthy as they entered. Where land meets water is where the seaworthiness of these sculptures are tested. There are some who sink , some who flip on hitting the water, and some who have trouble getting out and up the ramp. The rules are strict regarding outside help to help push or pull the kinetic sculptures out of the water.

Following some great achievements in the water test, the pilots drive their strange vehicles several blocks to Patterson Park, where an obstacle course is set up. The pilots and crew must drive their vehicle through a sand pit while the crowd cheers. I was amazed how the crowd would open a pathway for the vehicle to race into the pit then close ranks behind it for a better view. No one was run over and the fluidity of the crowd seemed rehearsed. After the sand pit it was on to the mud pit, located on an uphill part of the course, just to add a little challenge. The mud tenders seemed to get the worse part of the dirt, having to shovel the mud back into a nice wet, oozy pile for the next racer. Many made it through with some pushing by their team, some were bogged down. All had fun.

The spectators are as fun to watch, and photograph, as the movable artwork. The crowd is enthusiastic, yelling and encouraging all entrants as they brave the water, sand and mud courses. Many dress for the occasion in colorful and outlandish costumes. If you're in the market for a puppy or dog this is a great place to check out the different breeds. We saw probably a hundred dogs, of all sizes and shapes, enjoying the outing in Patterson Park and along the race course. All were friendly and seemed to enjoy the outing as much as their leash mates.

Returning this year were a number of favorites from previous races: Fifi, the giant pink poodle, Bumpo the Indian elephant, last years' Grand Mediocre East Coast Champion Rat Rod, and the ever popular P.L.A.T.Y.P.U.S. (Personal Long-range All Terrain Yacht Proven Un-Safe). New creations included the Happily Never After, Rocky Horror Picture Shoe and The Oregon Trail, based upon the pilots' favorite childhood computer game.

There are at least 14 awards that are just as much fun as the wild and crazy sculptures. There is the most prestigious honor, the ACE Award, that recognizes a pilot who has "conquered not only the race course, but his machine and himself." This award also entitles the pilot to be addressed as "Most Visionary Pilot", and for people to stand when he or she enters the room. I did say these people were a lot of fun, but not modest. There is the "Next to Last" award to keep the race interesting to the end and the "Golden Flipper" award for the best water crash or flip.

The idea of a Kinetic Sculpture race started with Hobart Brown in 1969 in California. An artist and gallery owner, Hobart reportedly got started with in the Kinetic Sculpture race field when he modified his son's tricycle to a five-wheeled decorated "Pentacycle." He was challenged by another artist to race down Main street on Mother's Day. Other artists joined in the race and each year it grew a little more. Soon the race was the longest human powered sculpture race in the world with a course covering 42 miles from Arcata to Ferndale, California. Hobart went on to help set up Kinetic Sculpture races throughout the United States and Australia. There are about ten races annually, including the Baltimore race that Hobart help setup in 1999.

The Kentucky Derby is billed as, "the most exciting two minutes in sports." The Baltimore Kinetic Sculpture Race takes a bit more than two minutes to finish. It takes about 7 hours and 58 minutes longer than the Derby, so it could be billed as, "the most exciting, creative, and fun-filled race day anywhere."


At the end of the day "Goin Griswold", a takeoff of the Chevy Chase Vacation movie, complete with the mother-in-law on the roof, was the Grand Mediocre East Coast Champion by the Gottwald family of Great Falls, Virginia. "Happily Never After", by the Make Believers team, won the Art Award and was one of my favorites.. Before the race started a giant pumpkin was transformed by the Fairy Godmother into the gothic carriage that wowed the crowd.

The Engineering Award went to "Cheese Racer," designed and engineered by students from Sollers Point Technical High School. "P.L.A.T.Y.P.U.S." by David Hess and his Horkology Foundation took the People's Choice by popular vote. This is a returning entry from last year with a few improvements and style changes. Platypus also holds the record for the largest crew with eight pilots pedaling and a driver.

Going where no man (or woman) has gone before the Speed Award was beamed up to NCC-1701 and the It Cain't team, returning for their fifth year. The Golden Flipper, for capsizing in the harbor went to a wet "Green Racer" crew. "Hot Beef Injection" was cooking food along the way in their chicken leg, spatula and other food costumes. They won The Best Pit Crew Award. Or should it have been the "Best Pit Beef Crew" award?

It's not too early to mark your calendars for next years 12th Annual Kinetic Sculpture Race in Baltimore - May 1, 2010.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Port Call - Castaway Cay, Day 7

CASTAWAY CAY, BAHAMAS - Imagine a quiet private island in the Bahamas that comes to life only when a Disney Cruise ship arrives. A couple of times a week this small island has thousands of visitors, from around the world, arrive to spend a few luxurious hours on the pristine beaches,to enjoy the clear water, special activities and the service of attentive hosts. Until the ship arrives only a small group of Disney staff is on this 1000 acre piece of island getting it ready for the next wave of tourists.

This small island has a beach for everyone. Castaway family beach has plenty of lounge chairs, umbrellas and beach access for everyone. There is an adults only beach, Serenity Bay, with cabanas and hammocks for taking in an afternoon of massages, drinks and sunning. The teens have their private beach to snorkel and kayak, and the younger children have Scuttle's Cove to explore.

One of the first areas we came across after leaving the ship was a small cove with the Flying Dutchman Pirate ship anchored. This is Davey Jones' ghost ship from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest movie. It is a great backdrop for pictures, you may even catch a glimpse of Jack Sparrow on the beach.

There was no hunting for a place on the beach as chairs, umbrellas and hammocks were positioned on for anyone, no charge. The ship brought lunch to the island and set up buffet lines in the buildings that were designed to look like castaways may have built them, only a bit larger scale than say Gilligan's Island buildings.

There were a number of excursions available, like jet skiing, glass bottom boat tours, and a Stingray adventure where kids can touch and feed Stingrays. We opted for the sedate bicycle tour followed by some beach volleyball and topped off with parasailing, another peer pressure adventure I was glad I tried.

The winds were high and the parasailing was breathtaking, I recommend it for anyone, even if you have a fear of heights. The harness, rope and pull of the chute gave me the sense of security I needed to enjoy the flight. The way the boat is designed that pulls you into the sky you could take off and land without getting wet. That is unless you have two teenage daughters telling the driver to "dunk em". He also succumbed to peer pressure and in we went for a refreshing dip before being pulled back up and onto the boat.

The island has had several noticeable improvements since our visit four years ago. The bike and walking paths have been paved, which makes for better biking. A new observation tower has been erected to look over the small undeveloped island. And some new buildings to cover the eating areas and house some local craft stores have been built. The island has it's own Post Office where you can mail your postcards with Bahamian stamps and a Castaway Cay post mark. One feature that serves as the main thorough fare across part of the island is the runway, reportedly was used by drug runners before Disney bought the island. Now it is part of the bike path and serves as the shuttle point to the adults only beach.

This was a picture perfect island and a great way to spend the last day on a weeklong cruise. Some of Disney's new tours have been designed to stop twice on Castaway Cay. I wouldn't mind coming back a couple more times myself.

Disney at Sea - Day 6

Five days on a cruise ship, can it get any more relaxing than this? Yes. Today is day six at sea with the Disney Magic and a there are a variety of ship based activities scheduled that include; art at sea, comedy performances, stage shows, movies, lectures, dancing and jackpot bingo, not to mention all the food you can eat, lounging around the pool and visiting the ice cream machine on deck 9.

For those wondering if a Disney Cruise is too straight laced, today there will be the following tasting seminars - Wine tasting, Tequila and Margarita Tasting, Martini Tasting, and Beer tasting, and don't worry the ship is supposed to stagger like that when you walk.

We left Cozumel yesterday evening and will travel all day and night to reach Disney's private island tomorrow morning. There are a number of activities to choose from on a cruise ship and our Personal Navigator lists them all by starting time. As I have mentioned in an earlier story, the teenagers have their own private area on deck 11 in the stack. This exclusive area is in the forward smoke stack, one of two smoke stacks that give Disney ships the classic look of a 1930's ocean liner. They have dedicated counselors and activities planned throughout the day culminating in a "homecoming" dance at midnight.

For younger kids there are age appropriate activities. Parents get a pager so they can be reached anywhere on the ship. Family activities for today include Pajama Jackpot Bingo, where you get extra bingo cards for wearing your pajamas, now that could be interesting. Later in the day Final Jackpot Bingo will held in the large Walt Disney Theater with a jackpot of over $7,000. A few days ago a young man won a trip for two on a future Disney Cruise.

Before the Bingo games I signed up for Gordon Wilson's art talk "cave art to pop art" Gordon is the art auctioneer for West End Gallery, Inc. on Disney Cruise Lines. He could be your favorite art history teacher or professor. His knowledge is vast and interesting and he has a dry sense of humor that enhances his story telling. What I learned from his lecture included: the artist Erte who, as one of the most prolific artist of the twentieth century, may be responsible for the idea of the thin model. His contemporary fashion designs feature stick figure thin models in gorgeous gowns and fashions. Another fact I never learned in history was that Michelangelo signed only one piece of his artwork and sculpture in his lifetime. According to early biographers, a young Michelangelo was thought by some to be a front person for the real artist who created the Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica. To make it clear who the real artist was he returned at night and carved the words "Michelangelo Buonoratti, Florentine, made this" in a prominent place on the sash across Mary's chest. He never again signed any of his work. There were a number of other fascinating details he had on well known and not so well known artists.

Lunch or Dinner can be taken by adults in the reservation only Palo restaurant. This formal dining is an extra cost but has its own kitchen and master chef in an elegant dining area on deck 10. So while the kids are enjoying an activity you can slip away for a romantic getaway.

Two different comedy headliners, Kevin Johnson and John Charles, were on tap in the Rockin Bar D for an evening of laughter. First up was the comedy and ventriloquism of Kevin Johnson, he is the guy from "America's Got Talent" tv show who would do the "Godzilla Theater" with his two birds, where his mouth moves in a delayed non-synchronized way than the words he was saying. John Charles does a different act, as a singer comedian. He warms quickly to the audience, setting up a rapport that has the audience singing along in some of his zany songs. Being on the ship a few days his comedy was tied into what everyone could relate too. For example one of the health features Disney has incorporated very successfully is to have staff hand out disinfectant hand wipes to each passenger at every place food is served, and before leaving or entering the ship. He had everyone swaying their hands above their head singing, "we've got the cleanest hands in the world" to the tune of "He's got the whole world in His hands". He had a number of other songs that kept everyone wanting more.

Also this evening was the theater performance of Disney Dreams, a play about a little girl who discovers the power of her dreams. Peter Pan and other Disney characters let viewers in on the secret of happiness; "with a little faith, trust, and pixie dust, you'll see that your dreams can come true."

Well I didn't win the Final Jackpot Bingo, but was happy for the person who did (isn't that what I'm supposed to say on a Disney Cruise?). A little about the bingo that I'm not sold on, literally and figuratively. They offered electronic bingo cards that would play 96 cards at one time and let you know when you were one away from winning. You could also opt for the real punch out cards and watch frantically to make sure you had the right numbers punched. I have to say, I enjoyed the interactive punching out and watching, although the big winner had his electronic machine blinking all the way to the bank.

Well I'm off for a gentle rocking to sleep to get ready for the last full day at Castaway Cay, and perhaps a bit of parasailing. Until tomorrow pixie dust and all that stuff to you.

Port Call - Cozumel, Mexico

COZUMEL, MEXICO - The Westerly winds that caused our early departure from Grand Cayman yesterday created rougher seas as we traveled West to Cozumel, Mexico. During the night I realized why the sliding closet doors had Velcro on the edges, it's there to keep them from sliding open and shut as the ship rolls.

Arriving early we docked at the Punta Langosta Pier on the island of Cozumel, Mexico's third largest island. The two larger islands of Mexico, Tiburan Island and Isla A�ngel de la Guarda are in the Gulf of California.

One of the more popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean , Cozumel is renowned for its scuba diving and snorkeling, with underwater visibility reaching 100-200 feet. In 2005 the island was hit with two category 4 hurricanes, Hurricane Emily in July, and the much slower moving Hurricane Wilma, in October. It was the slow moving Wilma, which hovered directly over Cozumel for many hours, that caused the most damage. The island lost billions of dollars to damage and lost revenue as the result.

There was no need for boat tenders in Cozumel, we docked right next to the pier. We met our excursion director and fellow adventurers in the Rockin Bar D, deck 3, for a short briefing and to sign in. Outside the ship we traveled via taxi to the Adventure Park for what turned out to be a cross between S.W.A.T. training and a Fear Factor challenge, but without the bugs.

Our excursion was called the "Adventure Park, Zip-line & Snorkel Combo". We were met at the entrance to the facility by Charlie, a former Mexican Army soldier, who was the perfect host for this adventure. He was enthusiastic, friendly and instilled a sense of confidence in us that he knows exactly what he is doing. After a brief tour of the beachside facility we are given a safety briefing and then outfitted with a climbing harness, helmet and climbing shoes. Charlie and his expert crew checked everyone a couple of times to make sure everything fit properly. We were then off to the six climbing towers, with 3 different heights, up to 60 feet. The tallest tower that we later rappelled off is reportedly the highest climbing tower in Mexico.

My teenage daughters are the first to tackle the towers and move up without any problems, it's nice to be young and healthy. As they made their way to the middle tower, about 40 feet tall, they noticed that I had been hiding behind my camera giving them encouragement. Now was my turn. Thanks to Charlie's experts, the belay safety man, not only made sure I didn't fall he went the extra mile and pulled on the rope to help me move up the tower.

My wife scaled the wall and we we're doing high fives when we're told to move on to the largest tower in Mexico. Again the girls did great. I could have enjoyed just watching, but peer pressure being what it is, I succumbed. Halfway up with my hands cramping so much I could hardly open them, I felt the extra tug on the rope from the belay man and knew I could make it. Thanks Charlie.

Next it was on to rappelling off the 60 ft. tower, there were two assistants helping people, both very professional and safety conscious. Just to be on the safe side I lined up behind the man named Jesus. More high fives all around. I was now ready to try out for the local police S.W.A.T. team when I returned home. We did some rope bridges and zip line flying before we moved on to the snorkel challenge.

Again, the team led by Charlie were great. We were issued very good fins, mask, snorkel and life vest and were to follow Charlie as we jumped into the clear azure blue water. With the gentle current we drifted down the beach for several hundred yards checking out the stingrays, eels, and barracuda, as well as many sergeant major fish, named for their brightly striped sides, which look like the military insignia for a sergeant.

After a shower and drink we returned to town for a little shopping. I was looking for a shirt with a pirate theme since tonight was pirate night on board the ship. We stopped at several shops, which had the best prices of the entire trip, especially t-shirts, 5 for $20.

The jewelry stores had great prices on watches and gold necklaces and the clothing shops had quality merchandise at great prices. My daughter wanted one of the thread I.D. bracelets with her name on it, which was for sale by many of the street vendors. Her name is not very popular and they offered to make on for her in five minutes. I didn't believe that was possible because it looked machine made and there was no machine in sight. He said he would do and began pulling thread from a thimble. She chose the colors and he moved his hands around and around until, within five minutes, there was a finished bracelet with her name. He used a lighter to melt the ends to hold them in place. It was worth the price just to watch how talented he was. I am still amazed when I look at the bracelet that he did such a great piece of craft work.

Back on ship we attended the screening of Walt Disney's Race to Witch mountain. We then donned our pirate shirts, fresh from Cozumel and got ready for the Pirate dinner to kick off the Pirates in the Caribbean Party. Dario and Petra, our servers from Ukraine and the U.K., were dressed as pirates. Some of the patrons must have planned ahead for this party, they were in 3/4 length leather coats, high top leather boots, and of course the three pointed pirate hat that would have made Jack Sparrow envious.

After dinner it was an all out party on decks 9 and 10 with dancers, jumbo LCD screen, Mickey and his pals, and even fireworks. Another of the many Disney firsts - they are the only cruise line that shoots fireworks at sea. It was like the fourth of July in the Caribbean.

I'm a bit over my 1000 word limit, so I'll sign off until tomorrow when we spend another day at sea, as we head to the Bahamas and Disney's own private island - Castaway Cay.