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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#477: Nature... Kind?

Way back in the dark ages, 1974 to be exact, Cleveland Amory founder of the Fund for Animals published a book entitled Man Kind? In it he criticized the human activity referred to as "sport hunting." While I didn't always agree with Amory back then, I did share his negative opinion regarding the killing of animals simply for "sport." If it was truly a sport, then the animals should be armed as well to even up the odds a bit. However, I do distinguish between that activity and hunting or fishing for food. To me that is simply a part of The Mutual Eating Society we encounter in Mother Nature. With the possible exception of scavengers, most critters kill to eat. Even herbivores often take the lives of poor defenseless plants! Talk about an unfair matchup!

Some people have a view of nature that it is all peaceful and in total harmony... that we would be much better off if we only ate fruits, nuts and leafy greens and didn't kill animals at all, even for the dinner table. Anyone who truly understands ecology and the interactions of species within ecosystems should know that species do indeed eat one another... and usually while their prey is still alive! I'm an exception... I could never swallow even a goldfish live (nor do the Charleston due to my knock knees). Lions hunt their prey, drag it down and munch on it often while the wildebeast or antelope is still kicking. Kelp bass and morays swallow their blacksmith dinners whole. The great whales practically commit genocide while consuming billions and billions of plankton in a single gulp.

However these examples are of predators and their prey. The kill is for one simple reason... to sustain their own life, at least until they become prey themselves. This is what makes ecosystems function... entire food chains and food webs of critters eating one another. This is necessary to sustain life and even the health of the ecosystem itself. That is why I place such emphasis on the behavior I refer to as "munching" in my columns. Of course the other "M" word, "mating" is equally important in sustaining both the species as its members are munched, and the food supply for other critters!

What I dislike about sport hunting is that it involves killing for entertainment, pleasure... and, too often, ego. Prior to 1975 I hunted and fished, both for food and for the control of ecological pests such as feral pigs. However, I never killed for "recreation." A few years earlier I had visited the home of one of Colorado's fish and game commissioners. He was a big game hunter and his home was full of stuffed heads on the walls, elephant foot tables and upright tusks, taxidermied big cats and the skins of various mammals covering the floor as rugs. While a very nice man, and father of one of my students, I could not understand the thrill he got from this.

This past weekend I was reminded that even Nature exhibits examples of sport killing. On Saturday I observed four ocean sunfish (Mola mola) floating at the surface, either recently deceased or in the process of becoming so. One poor fish floated on its side right by the dive park stairs, flapping its pectoral fin in a vain attempt to right itself and swim away. The following day one of the victims was still floating at the surface and divers gave me reports of two more Molas that were on the bottom in depths ranging of 20 and 95 feet. My goal for the day was to find and film them.

I had no trouble locating the dead Mola at the surface, but had to film it there as it was still positively buoyant and would not remain at depth for any length of time. I had little problem finding the one at 20 feet even though it was lying on the bottom. As I filmed it, I became aware that although it was near death it was still trying to move its "tail" fin in a last gasp of life. Actually in this species the tail fin has been lost through evolution and replaced by the merging of the dorsal and anal fins. The eye on one side seemed able to focus on me as I filmed, but on the other side of the head the eye was missing... undoubtedly pecked out by seagulls while it was still near the surface. Watching this magnificent fish in its death throes was a very sad experience.

So were these ocean sunfish dying because of humans? No. They were the victims of "sport killing" by a fellow resident of King Neptune's realm, our own California sea lions. The sea lions seek out the young Molas (these were all under two feet... nowhere near the average adult size of six feet and 2,200 pounds, or supersized individuals of nearly 11 feet in length and over 5,000 pounds. How they get that big feeding on jellyfish (er, sea jellies) I'll never understand! I'd like to see a sea lion tackle something it's own size! The marine mammals bite off the upper and lower fins of the youngsters, leaving them helpless in the water. Often they will then toss the fish around like Frisbees. I saw one doing so outside the park as I suited up to dive.

I wouldn't have a problem if the sea lion then proceeded to feast on the poor sunfish, but they rarely do. Occasionally they will take a few bites out of the underbelly where the Mola is softer, but usually they just leave and seek out another victim. So sea lions indulge in sport hunting as well as humans... nature is not always kind. It can be a real tooth (fang) and claw world. In fact, as I was searching for the third sunfish in the deepest part of the dive park, a sea lion buzzed past me. A short time later I looked up and saw a still healthy juvenile Mola swimming about 30 feet above me. As soon as it saw me, it quickly swam away. I had to wonder if it thought I was just another sea lion out to get it.

© 2012 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 29, 10:00 AM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Ocean sunfish swimming unmolested, juvenile flapping its pectoral fin at the surface;
the head of the one that was still alive as I filmed it and it lying on the bottom.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2011 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia