Monday, February 8, 2016

Ocean Hall: NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, Washington, DC

Aquarium Exhibit, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
We had come to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, to see the special exhibit of the Passenger Pigeon (see my post for 11/10/14) and with a limited amount of time afterward, we had to make a choice of where to go next.  We started in the Ocean Hall and were so engaged that we spent virtually all of the rest of our time at the museum in there.  From the huge whale skeletons hanging overhead and an aquarium with live fish, to a preserved giant squid and cases with fossils of prehistoric ocean life, we had more than enough to look at.
Trilobite fossil

Panels accompanying the whale skeletons explained how whales had evolved from land dwelling mammals. One panel showed how some prehistoric species had both teeth and short baleen that helped them filter feed.  One of the most intriguing whale skeletons was of a species called Basilosaurus which had such an elongated tail that it was incorrectly thought to be a giant sea reptile when it was first discovered. Small hind limbs show that it was descended from land-dwellers.
Section of spinal column of Basilosaurus
The fossil cases were filled with the remains of creatures that lived in ancient oceans. In many instances they have been preserved in incredible detail. Crinoids, trilobites, starfish, and clams are just some of the fascinating fossils displayed.

Crinoid Fossils (Cretaceous)
I couldn’t resist having my picture taken looking through the jaws of megalodon, the now extinct giant shark that is an ancestor of the great white shark. I wrote about another megalodon jaw at the Raleigh, NC,  Science Museum in my post on this blog on Dec. 2, 2013.  Megalodon is also the subject of my book Giant Shark: Megalodon, Super Pre-Historic Predator.
 
Jaws of Megalodon
As we left the Ocean Hall we passed the elephant mounted in the rotunda at the entrance to the museum.  Next time we visit we need to allow more time so that we can visit the many other exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
African Elephant


Monday, February 1, 2016

SICILY: VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES, Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Tom at the re-assembled remains of the Temples of "Castor and Pollux".
My brother Tom loves to travel and Italy is one of his (and my) favorite places. Here is another report from his most recent trip, in December 2015 and January 2016, when he went to Sicily.
Temple of Juno
A highlight of my trip to Sicily was going to the Valley of the Temples located on a high ridge on the outskirts of Agrigento. I drove with three friends from our resort in Sciacca south to Agrigento on a sunny and warm January day.
Temple of Concordia
This World UNESCO Site includes remains of seven temples, all in the Doric style. The best preserved, Temple of Concordia, was built in the 5th Century BC by the Greeks. Due to its good state of preservation it is ranked amongst the most notable edifices of Greek civilization existing today.
Remains of the Temple of Heracles; it is the most ancient in the Valley
We walked downhill two kilometers from the top of the site, taking many photos and admiring the remains of the temples and imagining what life was like centuries ago in this beautiful location high above the Mediterranean. The Valley of the Temples is the largest archaeological site in the world with 1,300 hectares (3212 acres).
In Sciacca we stayed at the Torre Del Barone Resort. It is a beautiful resort right on the sea and all rooms had a view. The weather was great and I even went swimming in the Mediterranean [with a wetsuit]. Sicily is beautiful with lots of orange trees and olive orchards.

Monday, January 25, 2016

SICILY: Mount Etna and Taormina, Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Hiking to the top of Mount Etna, Sicily
My brother Tom loves to travel and Italy is one of his (and my) favorite places. Here is his report from his most recent trip, in December 2015 and January 2016. 
Tom near the top of  Mount Etna; Mount Etna is a World Heritage Site
I recently visited Sicily, Italy for one month. I climbed Mount Etna with a group of friends after taking a cable car up the first steep stretch. Mount Etna, 10,922 feet, is the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is in an almost constant state of activity. In fact, it erupted just a few weeks before I arrived in Catania.
House buried by ash from earlier eruptions of Mount Etna
One can see houses that have been buried by the volcanic ash on the lower slopes of the volcano.

The view from near the summit of the blue Mediterranean Sea are breathtaking, and fortunately there was not too much snow so we were able to hike easily. 
Taormina, Sicily
Taormina is a charming coastal town just north of Catania at the base of Mount Etna. My friend and I visited the Greek Theater which is just a few blocks from the Old Town. It overlooks the sea and Mt. Etna in the background and is still used for concerts and is the site of the annual Taormina Film Festival.
Ancient Greek Theater at Toarmina
Famous actors like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have received awards in this spectacular open air theater. It was built by the Romans upon the foundations of an older theater of the Greek period. What remains today dates from the second century A.D.

For our visit to Taormina and Mount Etna we stayed in Sciacca at the Torre Del Barone Resort.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

150,000 VIEWS OF THE INTREPID TOURIST!

Water Jousting in Sete, France (guest post by Gwen Dandridge)
As of today, there have been 150,000 views of The Intrepid Tourist! Hooray! I am thrilled that so many people have been reading the blog and thank all my viewers for their interest and enthusiasm. The viewership has been steadily growing since I launched the blog in April 2011.  I also thank all my guest posters. Many of their posts are among the most popular. Out of 257 posts so far on the blog, the ten all-time most popular are: WATER JOUSTING, Sete, France by Gwen Dandridge, Nov 12, 2012; YELLOWSTONE IN WINTER: Part 2 by Owen Floody, May 19, 2014; FAIRFIELD IOWA, Mailboxes and More by Barbara Siebenschuh, Oct 8, 2012; AKUMAL, MEXICO, Place of the Sea Turtle, Aug 5, 2013; PAPUA NEW GUINEA by Ann Stalcup, June 1, 2015; MOROCCO: Marrakech, Fes and Rabat by Kathryn Mohrman, Feb 4, 2013; STONE MOUNTAIN GEORGIA: the Mount Rushmore of the South, Aug 15, 2011; BURREN NATIONAL PARK, IRELAND by Marianne Wallace, July 22, 2013; WANDERING THROUGH SICILY, Part 1, by Gretchen Woelfle, Oct 28, 2013; and MARY ANNING’S Amazing Fossils, Feb 11, 2013.
Check them out if you haven't read them already, and look for more as The Intrepid Tourist keeps on traveling!
Meeting "Mary Anning" at the Natural History Museum, London

Monday, January 18, 2016

GIANT SEA REPTILES OF THE DINOSAUR AGE at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, CA

Mosasaur skeleton from Kansas at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Several years ago, when I was researching my book about giant sea reptiles, I visited the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in Exposition Park to view the fossil skeleton of a mosasaur. The huge mouth and sharp teeth made me glad that I wasn't meeting this creature in real life! In the late Cretaceous Period, about 80 million years ago, these huge reptiles were the supreme predators of the sea. But, like the dinosaurs, mosasaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. We know about them from their fossil remains.

Fossils of mosasaurs have been found all over the world, including Antarctica. A recent discovery in Hungary reveals that mosasaurs lived in both freshwater and saltwater. They swam in North America’s inland sea, and their fossils are especially numerous in Kansas and South Dakota. The largest known species, Tylosaurus, grew to be up to 50 feet long and weighed up to 11 tons.

Mosasaurs were excellent swimmers and propelled themselves through the water with a side-to-side motion of their long tails. Most of them ambushed their prey, making a swift attack and catching it by surprise. Bite marks on fossil nautiloids show that they were preyed upon by sea reptiles like mosasaurs.

Chambered nautiluses are still swimming in the ocean today.
Mosasaurs probably ate anything they could find, including other mosasaurs. The preserved stomach contents of a Tylosaurus found in South Dakota contains the remains of a smaller mosasaur, a bird, a fish, and what may have been a shark.

Mosasaurs, along with the icthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, also extinct, were the largest reptiles ever known to swim the Earth’s oceans. They are part of the amazing diversity of life during the Dinosaur Age.

You can read more about these fascinating animals in my book Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age, illustrated with beautiful water color paintings by Laurie Caple.

Monday, January 11, 2016

WALK BY THE BAY at McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, San Francisco Bay, CA

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Chavez Park in Eastshore State Park
On New Year’s Day the weather was crisp and clear, so we decided to go for a walk on the trails in Eastshore State Park along San Francisco Bay. After parking at the corner of University Avenue and Frontage Road in Berkeley, we passed through the gate and walked through the Berkeley Meadow, partly fenced off for habitat restoration.
Path through the Berkeley Meadow
On the other side, near the Berkeley Marina, we joined the trails of Chavez Park. Along the shore, we watched coots and other water birds swimming in the bay. Ground squirrels foraged for food in the grass, popping in and out of their holes when people came too close. As we looked east over the water we could see the University of California campus in Berkeley; to the north we saw horse stables for the Golden Gate Fields race track.
Path along the North Basin
One hundred years ago, the tide flats and meadows that now make up the park were part of San Francisco Bay. Gradually the shoreline changed as trash and landfill were dumped into the water. It was an ecological disaster. A community effort led to cleaning it up and turning the land into a recreational area that everyone could enjoy.
On October 3, 2012, the California State Park and Recreation Commission renamed this 8.5-mile shoreline parkland McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in honor of Save The Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin.
On the west side of the Chavez Park we looked out over San Francisco Bay toward the Golden Gate Bridge. There was a steady wind, perfect for sailing and kite flying. It was a beautiful day and a great way to begin the New Year.
Kite Fliers in Chavez Park
For More Information:
Eastshore State Park (http://www.ebparks.org/parks/eastshore) extends 8.5 miles along the East Bay shoreline from the Bay Bridge to Richmond. It includes 1,854 acres of uplands and tidelands along the waterfronts of Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, and Richmond. Eastshore State Park parallels the most heavily traveled corridor in the East Bay, making it a highly visible, highly accessible area of parkland. The website provides directions and a map of the trails.

Note: Sylvia McLaughlin, after whom the park is named, was a remarkable woman. She recently passed away at the age of 99. You can read about her life and efforts to Save the Bay in this obituary at the Los Angeles Times.
Ground Squirrel

Monday, January 4, 2016

GIANT SQUID at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Giant Squid at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
More than one hundred years ago, the French writer, Jules Verne, wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, about a fantastic voyage on a submarine called the Nautilus.  As the ship cruised the oceans of the world, it met all kinds of  strange creatures.  At one point it was suddenly attacked by a group of giant squid.  The huge animals peered into the windows with eyes the size of basketballs and wrapped their long, snake-like arms around the ship.  Everyone was terrified.  The crew battled the squid, and finally escaped.
Illustration of a giant squid from 20000 Lieues Sous les Mers by Jules Verne, 1870
Jules Verne’s  story is imaginary, but the giant squid that he wrote about are real. They are the world’s biggest animals without bony skeletons.  The largest known giant squid was 57 feet long--longer than a school bus.
Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
On a recent visit to Washington, DC, I had the chance to see a preserved giant squid up close at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It had been caught by fishermen trawling for blue whiting in the Bay of Biscay in July 2005.  Its arms were so long I couldn’t view the whole animal with my camera.

Squid are members of the same family as octopus and live in oceans all over the world.  Like an octopus, a squid has eight arms lined with rows of suckers which are used for holding on to things.  But it also has two longer arms for feeding. When a squid locates its prey, it grabs it with its feeding arms, then kills its prey with the sharp, horny beak in its mouth. A giant squid can eat up to 500 pounds of food a day!

Giant squid live in water up to a half a mile deep and, until recently, no one had ever seen a giant squid in deep water.  In 2004, Japanese scientist Tsunemi Kubodera hung a long line with bait and a camera in a place where giant squid were known to live.  Then he waited. Suddenly, on September 30, 2004, at 9:15 a.m., a giant squid attacked the bait.  The camera clicked. This was the first time that a giant squid had been photographed in its natural home. 

Giant squid are truly one of the world’s strangest and most interesting creatures, but I’d definitely much rather meet one in a museum than out in the ocean.