The EXPEDITIONERS proofs are fresh of the presses and my illustrations for BURIED BENEATH US are in! So what, might you ask, am I up to right now? I’M PACKING FOR MY OWN PERSON SHARK WEEK, YO!!
Tomorrow I am flying out to San Francisco, California to accompany TOPP‘s (Tagging of Pacific Predators) white shark tagging team while they do their work at the Farallon Islands. No, I will not be cage diving, and feeding and petting the wild life is not advised, but I plan to sketch and photograph as much as possible and to interview as many people in the Farallon community as I can. Not to mention, of course, see my first white shark!
While this research trip isn’t mandatory for my book to see print, I’m absolutely certain that this first-hand experience will enrich the content of the project. It’s clear that the final pages are where I have the most rewriting to do, and being out on the water with Farallon scientists will fill out my understanding of these beautiful creatures and their fragile ecosystem.
I’m incredibly grateful to the Farallon community for the welcome enthusiasm and support of my book project! More to come soon! Follow me now on Twitter or Instagram at @KRoyStudio.
Lately as I work on the sketches for BURIED I’m struck by the sheer volume of sun-worship and sacrifice across cultures. Growing up going to Sunday school gave me a disconcerting familiarity to Judeo-Christian sacrifice—of course lambs and first born sons should be slaughtered on altars to appease [the sun] god!—but somehow it’s never really sunk in that this tradition is true for every other religion. Building by building, city by city, the Maya, Inca, Aztec and Mississippi peoples all oriented their architecture towards celestial events as places of sacrifice. The sun rises behind this temple, venus rises in front of that one, and in the case of the Mayan Kukulcan Temple in Chichen Itza, a hand clap directed towards the stairs will echo back as the call of the quetzal bird, the embodiment of Kukulcan himself:
For as long as there has been religion priests have used these kinds of special effects and hocus pocus to validate their tribute demands from their people. This application of astronomy and architecture doesn’t prove or disprove anything about the existence of god, of course, but what amazes me is just how similar the ideas are across all cultures around the world. Wrong or right, religion of any kind does make us feel part of a bigger picture, and if we link ourselves to things beyond our control then we have relief from and less responsibility for our own destiny. I know nothing has really changed—the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. lines up with the sunrise, too (implying a great deal about the religion of capitalism, no?)—but it seems like maybe once upon a time someone out there would have had different ideas.
Or maybe they just had that guy killed?
On a completely different note, a little update on SHARK: I’ve finally purchased plane tickets to fly out and do some first-hand research this fall! Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of several scientists and Farallon experts in the Bay Area, I will be spending several days on the water in early October to witness great white shark tagging and get a water tour around the islands. My foul-weather gear is ready, and Dramamine is at the top of my packing list; fingers-crossed that the sharks put in an appearance while I’m there!
I’m up to more white shark research, and my new favorite thing is weaners. No, it’s not what you’re thinking—”weaners” is the highly scientific term that the marine biology community has assigned to freshly WEANED (get it?) northern elephant seals, and boy are they cute!
Named for the schnoz on the adult bulls, elephant seals are the second largest seals in the world (the honor going to the even more enormous Southern Elephant seal). Full-grown northern elephant seal males can reach up to 4,500 pounds and over 13′ in length, while the females are much smaller at (only) 1,500 pounds and about 10′ in length. Known to be the favored prey of the great white shark, the elephant seals of the Farallon Islands get special attention from scientists. Each season the seals are tagged, counted, and monitored to help keep track of their health and population.
The dark elephant seal pups are born in December/January and weigh in at about 75-80 pounds at birth. But they don’t stay small long; pups gain 8-10 pounds a day from over the course of 28 days, reaching up to a whooping 250+ pounds from nursing alone! For the next two months they’re “weaners,” left behind in the rookeries while their mothers mate with one or more of the dominant bulls and then return ocean to eat for the first time since giving birth.
Alone on shore, the weaners spend their time playing, sleeping, and practicing their swimming skills in puddles. By February/March their hunger drives them to the sea, where they will teach themselves to hunt and dive off shore for the next six months.
In the fall the pups will be referred to as “yearlings,” but sadly at least 50% don’t live to see their first birthday. The ocean is a dangerous place to be an infant, and even hauling out of the ocean is fraught with peril. White sharks patrol the shores of northern California from September to November, waiting for exactly the opportunity a returning yearling represents: a naive and tasty 300+ pound mammal with a body mass made up of almost 50% fat. Every living thing must to eat, and white sharks are no exception. But for now the pups are beside their mothers, fattening up in safety—just a few more weeks until their inner weaner is unveiled!
Huge thanks to a biologist named Jane who keeps a fabulous blog about Farallon Island elephant seal happenings; all of these photos were taken by her during the 2011 and 2012 breeding season. For more about elephant seals from the Marine Mammal Center, click here.
The San Franciso Bay area is home to many things. Alcatraz. The 49ers. Clam chowder. And Ron Elliott, a retired commercial diver who has spent hundreds of hours swimming (cage-free!) among the largest predatory fish on earth. He didn’t do it for kicks, and he certainly wasn’t hankering to be a hot lunch; he just figured that more sharks meant less competition for the tasy urchins he sold to sushi markets. I had heard that these days Ron was taking underwater footage of the white sharks for his grandchildren, and if I wanted to beautifully and accurately capture these animals in my drawings, Ron would be the man to see for a first-hand look.
While home for Christmas, Tim and I had the great honor of paying a visit to Ron and his wife Carol at their home in Point Reyes. After introductions I shared a little more about my shark research and drawing interests, and then Ron led us into his office, complete with double monitors and professional film-editing software, where he turns the best segments into fabulous footage. Not only did Ron show us breath-taking close-ups of white sharks at the Farallon Islands, he pulled up clip after clip of the SAME sharks, taken in different years, who are seasonal neighbors in these waters. From propeller scars and sea lion wounds, their individual swimming styles and hunting habits were quickly apparent, and it was great fun to identify each shark and discuss their personalities with Ron.
In twenty years of diving, Ron has never been bitten by a shark (though he has had a few close calls, including having to use his urchin basket to fend off a mouth full of 300 teeth). But with the camera in front of him—which looks like a giant eye—the white sharks are just as wary of him as he is of them. Good thing; the camera alone is a handful at 28 pounds, loaded with weights to be negative in the water and thus keep the image more steady.
Ron he also showed us dozens of clips of decorator crabs, jelly fish, sea stars, coral reefs, gray whales, fish, and groups of sea-lions. Every video was breathtaking—amazingly clear and colorful, and absolutely packed with activity.
After a wonderful dinner we all watched the 18-minute 2010 documentary that NOAA made about Ron, called “Sanctuary in the Sea: A Gulf of the Farallones Experience,” before Tim and I headed home. It is beautifully done and a tasteful reminder of the conservation work ahead to protect this fragile bay for future generations.
Between Ron’s conversation and lush footage, I now have more than enough reference to work with as I go forward with my shark project. An enormous THANK YOU to Ron and Carol Elliott! I look forward to seeing them both again soon!