Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lines for Hope

I’m so glad that Keith Rittmaster, in Beaufort, N.C. and other agencies in the U.S. have monofilament recycling efforts. It’s evident what volunteers can do to prevent wildlife injuries and even death, and if you’re interested, please contact your area’s resources to see what you can do.

Check out the Cape Lookout Studies Program website for more information and volunteer opportunities.

It was my honor to write this article for All At Sea Southeast magazine. If you want to see more environmental issue articles, please let the editor know. Thanks.
Fishing line is designed to bring in big fish without breaking, to carry heavy weights and lures, and to run behind mega fishing boats. It’s also problematic. Strength coupled with a biodegradable time-line of nearly 600 years, means that generations of marine animals will battle unnecessary waste, long after fishing tournaments cease.

Keith Rittmaster poses beside his mobile monofilament recycling bin. He’s holding “Lionel” the 6- month old bottlenose dolphin that has fused fishing line in and around its jaws. Photo by Helen Aitken
When lines with attached hooks are cut, the general perception is they fall to the sea floor without further incident. Stainless steel hooks don’t rust away, and fishing line can wrap over fins, flippers, necks and tails. Shiny hooks and loops of monofilament are inviting to marine animals. Much like curious puppies, seals, dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and whales find what fishermen leave behind. Caught, wrapped or trapped animals can succumb to infection, loss of limbs, or starvation. What might be thought of as a play toy, can inflict injury or death.
Alternatively, PVC monofilament receptacles at the dock, marina or tackle store, provide a great home for used lines and hooks.
Since 2007, Keith Rittmaster, the North Carolina Maritime Museum’s Natural Science Curator and Director of the Cape Lookout Studies Program (CLSP) in Beaufort, has been helping individuals to build or obtain the receptacles, while providing programs and support through the CLSP website.
The bins cost about $100 to make with a 4 or 6-inch diameter PVC pipe body, elbow top and a screwed cap at the bottom. A quarter-inch hole drilled in the cap drains water. Easily installed, the bins are visible in white, but painting or using reflective tape makes them more noticeable. They sport information labels and a metal sign explaining the CLS Program. “Beach walkers go out of their way to take the monofilament off the beach,” said Rittmaster.  When the bins are full, the bottom comes off and the bin contents are removed.
However, there are some drawbacks. Once, a marina owner told Rittmaster the bins should be mounted higher because people were urinating in them. They can be misused for trash, bait or dirty diapers. Some bins are located with trash and recycle cans along the beach. Unfortunately, at one site in Atlantic Beach, the receptacle was installed upside down, rendering it useless.
The improper placement of a monofilament recycling bin at Atlantic Beach, N.C. Photo by Keith Rittmaster
“Our fear is that it goes up and someone doesn’t maintain it,” said Rittmaster. Individuals, organizations and businesses should consider the long-term maintenance and obligation to recycle before installing. In addition, unless the marina puts up the receptacles, it is not responsible for maintaining them.
Rittmaster keeps up with 51 installed bins along North Carolina’s coast, but says more are needed. He also fashioned a monofilament-recycling bin on a dolly that goes along the waterfront during fishing tournaments.
Keith Rittmaster would like to receive the recyclable line for statistical purposes. Just bring the collected line to the Cape Lookout Maritime Museum, and he will send it off to
Unfortunately, woven fishing lines or line with wire cannot be recycled. In fact, cutting them up for the trash can is difficult, but necessary. Six-inch pieces won’t entangle birds or be a problem for marine life if they somehow get in water.the only monofilament-recycling center, Berkley Fishing Company. Since 2007, about 1104 pounds, or 1100 miles of monofilament has been collected, sorted and cleaned by CLSP volunteers. The lines are weighed, packed up, then sent off.
The Berkley Conservation Institute, in Iowa, has recycled over 9 million miles of monofilament, collected from more than 17,000 recycling bins, in the last twenty-four years. They make fishing tackle boxes, reels and fish habitats as artificial reefs from monofilament. When a box of the line is received, they send back a new box and shipping label.
On a worktable in Rittmaster’s office, is the skull of a 6-month old male bottlenose dolphin. He had gotten into a web of fishing line shortly after birth. Gradually the line cut into the flesh, and fused with growing bone. As the dolphin grew bigger, the line got tighter and four and a half months later, the young mammal starved to death. It’s a sad reminder for CLSP perseverance.
For information and receptacle directions, Contact Keith, or 252-504-2452.  
Berkley Recycling Center,
 State Monofilament Recycling Resources:

MARYLAND  Check with local marinas or tackle shops

VIRGINIA  Dept. Game and Inland Fisheries,


GEORGIA  Jekyll Island Sea Turtle Center, 912-635-4444,


ALABAMA Auburn University, 251-438 5690,

MISSISSIPPI  Department of Marine Resources,(228) 374-5000,


TEXAS  Contact John O’Connell, Texas Sea Grant Extension Agent, at 979-864-1558.

I'd love to hear from you. Write me at
Have a great day.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dolphin Strandings Bring Concern

Besides writing humor, my paying job involves writing for boating magazines. I've been very blessed to have an editor at All At Sea Southeast magazine interested in letting me write about environmental issues. I'm presenting an article I've written in the September, 2014 issue below. 

Sorry, It's not humorous, but worthy of reprinting and getting feedback. 

Coastal residents have reported seeing an increase in the numbers of dolphins stranded on the beaches over the last year. A few survive; the majority are not so fortunate. Although this is not the first incidence of dolphins in trouble, concern is growing among professional marine wildlife managers about what is happening and why.
More than 740 animals from New Jersey to Florida were stranded during an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for bottlenose dolphins in 1987-88. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program was created  to investigate. A marine virus specifically targeting these particular (cetacean) mammals reduced the population fifty percent.
Monitoring from New York to Florida between 2007 and 2012, the count of bottlenose dolphin strandings reached 295. Unexpectedly, from July 2013 through June 2014, the strandings increased to 1370 animals; Virginia, North Carolina and Florida saw the highest numbers. Another UME was declared.
Dr. Vicky Thayer, in the baseball hat, starts the necropsy process
Investigators do not yet know which population stocks are affected the most or have the greatest risk, but they estimate 39,206 bottlenose dolphins may be affected. “Bottlenose dolphins are about one half of the total number of strandings here (North Carolina),” said Central Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator, Vicky Thayer, PhD., a marine biologist with North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
Stranded animals included all ages and genders and a few live mammals. They showed lesions on the skin, joints, mouth and lungs, again infected with cetacean morbillivirus. That virus particular to dolphins, porpoises and whales affects their lungs, brains and immune systems, enabling other health problems to appear. Little is known about the virus, but other morbillivirus strains produce measles in humans and distemper in canines. No vaccine or medication has yet proved successful against the strain targeting cetaceans.
The response team is mobilized quickly after a stranding. “I’m on call 24/7,” said Thayer. “The most challenging things in responding to strandings in this area are the geography, the barrier islands, and sometimes not being able to bring animals back to the lab.” Getting to one stranding location in mid-July, took three hours by boat.  Unfortunately, there are probably more strandings not reported.
“We sample everything if the carcass is fresh. If it isn’t very fresh, we take fewer samples, but every sample we take costs money to analyze…we have to send them out,” said Thayer.
“With strandings, you have to be careful because, the reporting has gotten better.” In the past, reporting was by radio, or after coming back to the dock. Now smart phones send immediate photos with GPS locations. Thayer wants to avoid jumping to conclusions without comprehensive forensics.
“For most of the strandings that occur other times, we don’t know the reason. Sometimes, we find the smoking gun, sometimes its natural mortality, sometimes it’s a stingray sting, sometimes it could be propeller cuts. And just because they have propeller cuts or shark bites, doesn’t mean that’s what killed them; they could have been sick before that. So we have to be careful,” said Thayer.  “The pattern of strandings, of when and where they occurred, is very similar to the last one. The last one, 1987/88 would be over by now. I’m hoping that this one is ending now.”
“As I understand it, there are some bottlenose dolphins alive now that were alive in 1987-88, so they are immune to the virus. I think some species exist with it, and it doesn’t affect them as badly; but others, it just knocks them out.” Apparently, the virus spreads by contact, for example, mother to pup through the eyes, mouth, or wounds. Contributing factors might include environmental toxins and pathogens and migratory stressors.
Necropsies determine the cause and manner of death, health and disease status. The organs are examined; samples of tissue, blubber, and teeth are taken. “For a lot of species that wash up, most of what is known about them comes from stranded animals little known out there -  their biology, physiology and anatomy,”Thayer said.
The animal is genetically identified for its population stock and migration range, and a dorsal fin photo may identify the animal from a database set up by Thayer and her husband Keith Rittmaster, North Carolina Maritime Museum Curator of Natural Science.
Living animals are monitored to see whether or not they will return to open waters. In normal times, animals go to facilities for help. With the potential spread of deadly virus, facilities are not accepting dolphins, so humane euthanasia is done. Thayer indicated, “In other locations and particularly during mass strandings, under certain conditions some animals are tagged and released at a location different from the stranding site, after they are tested for certain health parameters.”
The John Prescott Grant provides some funding; stranding networks must compete for money each year. Therefore, each network is volunteer-staffed and other agencies help as needed. Thayer drives a Division of Marine Fisheries truck, has an office at Center for Marine Sciences and Technology from NCSU, gets help from Marine Patrol and the Park Service, and has a half-time assistant. Volunteers provide transportation, help with necropsies, bring food to the crew, or donate money. Thayer would like extra supplies, safety vests for the crew and T-shirts to identify volunteers.
Regarding UMEs Thayer stressed “These animals are ecosystem sentinels; they represent the health of our ecosystem, sort of the canaries in the coal mines. If they are dying in large numbers, it could be indicative of general ecosystem [ill] health. It’s something that we should pay attention to and I hope we continue to get funding to respond to these strandings.”
An UME Contingency Fund allows the public to donate money for supporting research, the special costs involving tissue collections, lab work, and care of living marine
mammals. or 301-427-8402.
To report injured or dead marine animals, call 877-WHALE HELP (1-877-942-5343), or use the free Dolphin & Whale 911 app, As a precaution, stay back 100 feet, keep animals away, and do not swim in surrounding waters, especially with open wounds.
Keep up with dolphin findings and those affected weekly,

 MARYLAND   Maryland Department of Natural Resources (dead animals only)
Cooperative Oxford Laboratory
Oxford, MD, 800-628-9944 
National Aquarium in Baltimore, Marine Animal Rescue Program  (live animals only)  Baltimore, MD,             410-373-0083
WASHINGTON D.C.  Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of Natural History   Washington, DC,               202-633-1260
 VIRGINIA  Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center   Virginia Beach, VA, 757-385-7576
 NORTH CAROLINA   To report a stranded marine mammal in Carteret, Pamlico, Craven, or Beaufort counties – or Hammocks Beach State Park in Onslow county (dead or alive) call: 252-241-5119
To report a marine mammal stranding south of Hammocks Beach, please call: 910 962-7266
To report a stranding north of Ocracoke, call: 252-455-9654
SOUTH CAROLINA South Carolina Stranding Hotline  800-922-5431
GEORGIA  Georgia Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline  912-269-7587
FLORIDA Florida Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline  888-404-FWCC (3922)
ALABAMA Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline  1-877-WHALE-HELP (1-877-942-5343)
MISSISSIPPI Mississippi Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline
888-806-1674  Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, MS    888-767-3657
LOUISIANA  Louisiana Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline  504-235-3005
TEXAS  Marine Mammal Stranding hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922)
Helen Aitken is a veteran science educator, writer and photographer from eastern N.C. who loves classic wooden boats, “backyard” boat makers, and contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast.  Visit her website at
 Have a wonderful day. I'd love to hear from you, so write me at

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Losing It Again

By now you can imagine that things just happen to me.
Well, "it" happened again.

I had been working at my computer for several minutes, when the phone rang. I got up to answer the phone and felt something warm in my front pocket. Strange.

I reached in it and found 2 melted foiled tabs of butter. 

I guess I forgot that I had put them in my pocket when carrying my cutlery, napkin and butter from the dinner buffet. 

Apparently, my short term memory is declining. Now I need to see if I can get the grease out of each layer of clothing.

Think about an old southern saying. If the butter had been in my back pocket, you could have called me "a biscuit."

I hope you have a grease-less day. Write to me at

Monday, August 25, 2014

Jaws Boat Gets New Sharkskin...

One of my favorite things about being a writer and writing for a boating magazine is the opportunity to meet and interact with boat builders, boat makers and people who love boating, or do extraordinary things associated with boating.

Over the past 4 months I've become intrigued with wooden boat named the Cricket II. She's has a great history with charter fishing, deep sea fishing and shark hunting. Her first owner and captain was Frank Mundus, a larger than life character with marketing skills for getting new clients, equivalent to the best firms in the nation. He was a living legend; his shenanigans, fishing knowledge and his boat, is what inspired the book and movie Jaws.  

Right now, I'm working on a mini book for the Cricket II and her latest adventure, becoming a fishing boat for wounded warriors and disabled American vets.  In fact, I consider it an honor that Captain Joe DiBella wanted me to write the story. When it's available, I'll let you know. 

Until then, take a sneak peek from an article I wrote in the August/September issue of Carolina Salt magazine, pages 29-30. I'd love to know what you think and so would the editor.

Check out the Cricket II's website and make a donation if possible:

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Commander’s Picnic Finds the “BOOM”

I'm a member of the Fort Macon Sail and Power Squadron. Some might call it a yacht club. However,there are no yachts or club house, so you could probably say that we are a group of nuts, nuts about boating. There are so many personalities and great people to just hang out with that, sometimes rather than go boating, we just hang out.

Case in point.

Despite the constant rain on July 21st, a large group of FMSPS “ducks” couldn’t be swayed from gathering for the Commander’s Picnic. We lounged under a huge gazebo to share the masterfully grilled hot dogs, hamburgers, tequila lime chicken, fabulous side dishes and high-in-calories deserts.
Scott is in the red shirt

The conversation was friendly and like most gatherings, the guys and gals tended to part ways and congregate together. The wind picked up a bit, and cool air brought a chill to anyone still wet; I grabbed my damp raincoat and so did a few others, but the conversations continued.

I couldn't help but think it was a perfect time for a nap, if only there had been one of those zero-gravity lounge chairs.


“What the heck was that?” I asked.

Someone answered, “That was a potato cannon firing.”

“A what?” still unsure what to make of it.

Another replied, “J.B.’s shooting potatoes.”

My curiosity got the better of me, and I had to lean over the gazebo railing. “What kind of potatoes are you using, red potatoes or russets?”

J.B. replied, “Red potatoes.”  

Bob Howd supervised J.B. so that he put the best potatoes in the tubes. Of course, they had to do some field-testing before allowing others to join in. Moments later, the first person on the scene ready to do some potato firing was none other than the soft-spoken, Pat Hardee.

This is Pat Hardee and J.B. Bagby.
Pat is one of the “quiet ones.” You know the kind of person that surprises you by pulling a prank, leaving you amazed and smiling. Case in point, she was one of the first down the gazebo steps to wait her turn.
Not afraid, she held on to the tube as J.B. directed, and it fired with a loud “Boom.” Her first attempt went about 80 feet.
“Holy Crap, look at the arc on that,” came out of my mouth. Everyone laughed; I was seriously amazed.

“Hey J.B., did you learn to do this in Chemistry Class?” I asked.

He replied, “Yes, I did.”

“That’s our UNC university dollars at work,” I retorted.

I could only imagine what the neighbors would say. “Do you need some sort of permit to shoot one?” I asked. Nina said, “Please, don’t give the government any more reasons to tax us.”

Scott was next in line. He rested the potato cannon rested on his left side, since he is left-handed. As a retired USMC Colonel and an expert in handguns and rifles, he was confident to shoot a mere potato. He stood erect, aimed and “Pop.” The dud landed about 25 feet from the standing point. Dejected and hanging his head, he feigned humiliation.

J.B. ramming down the potato.

Before I could retain some sense of dignity, I too lined up to shoot a potato. J.B. tutored Roy Thompson and me on the mechanics. PVC tubing, shaved at the top end, left a razor-sharp edge that cut the right potato diameter so that it could be rammed down into the barrel. It was surprisingly simple and yet amazingly efficient.

“How do you hold this thing?” I asked, grabbing it under one arm to rest it against my body and the other arm to steady the trajectory.

“You want to hold it about 45 degrees, not 20 degrees like Scott held it, but 45 degrees,” said J.B.

As I gazed out over the firing range, to my right, there were at least 25 boats in their slips and to my left, two other boats, tied off along the walkway. There was little room for error. What would I do if I hit one of the boats?  How could I justify insurance payoffs for potato shrapnel?

Okay, let me get my aim right. Asking Bob Howd, “Does this thing have a kick?” He just smiled without answering. I didn’t know what to expect.

J.B. spayed White Rain hairspray, the highest volume of alcohol/lacquer mixture in the cheapest form, into the end of the barrel and closed it. He turned the Coleman camp igniter, again and once more, “Boom!”
My potato went the farthest, about 100 feet away.

“I almost hit the trees, “I said. Thank God, I didn’t hit a boat.

I was too proud to shoot it the second time- there was no way to break the best distance and there was still the matter of the boats. However, Scott was willing to pay cold hard cash so that Pat Hardee could fire one again. I still held the distance.

 “That was the most redneck fun I’ve had in years,” I said laughing.

Walking to our car Scott said, “JB has to be adding extra hairspray to the ladies’ tubes. I’m sure I was given just one little, whiff. You had more stuff in your tube.”   

Maybe so.

I foresee potato-firing competitions in our squadron future. 

May all your potatoes land where they should. Email me, I'd love to hear from you.
Have a great weekend.

Friday, June 27, 2014

I'm Such a Big Chicken

I hate changing my winter clothes for summer ones.  The entire process is exhausting: washing, folding, packing and moving them back to the attic. My winter items have been stacked on top of a bench at the foot of my bed, in some baskets on the floor beneath it, as well as in a large laundry basket and on two side chairs.

It’s the end of June, and it’s overdue for my lightweight shorts, shirts and capris.

When I change my clothes out, I mentally prepare for 8 or more hours of tedium.  An old movie I’ve seen a dozen times is the perfect backdrop to accomplish the task.  The dialogue will keep me company and memorable scenes break up the monotony.

First, the cats go out.  Otherwise, they rediscover the joys of empty baskets, and drawers left open.  They watch for soft sweaters to lie in and dangling strings on pants that will be pulled across the floor in a familiar game.

The baskets show imprints of fat cat bodies and lots of left-behind hair; it’s everywhere and nothing is spared.  Collect the hair and a new sweater would be produced.    

Sorting through a basket, I find an old, soft, yellow cotton nightgown that I can’t seem to throw out.  I picked it up and a huge dark roach appears underneath, attached.  I threw the gown on the floor and screamed like no other scream could be screamed, one that is immediately recognized by Scott as “my roach scream”. He makes a fast dash to the bedroom to encounter the monster.

I must stop here to explain that there are varying levels of happiness, excitement and terror that trigger physiological reactions; hysterical laughter, peeing in one’s pants and blood-curdling screams are just a few.   I suppose I have and still do exhibit all the fore mentioned reactions; if I held these in, I would explode, just as badly as if holding in a violent sneeze.
The roach scream generally comes when I’m in the kitchen preparing dinner or cleaning up, or anywhere near dog or cat food.  Since the cats eat in my en suite, my bedroom or bathroom is another surprise location. 

Since I was both a cheerleader and a singer in earlier years, I can project my voice to decibels equivalent to mach 1.  When I scream, I become paralyzed.  Sadly, the roach isn't adversely affected.  Scott is prompted to find the vacuum cleaner or a sturdy shoe to annihilate the beast, a job well suited for a retired Marine Colonel.

You may ask why a roach would instill such fear into a science educator whose passion in college was entomology.  I would have to say that it stems back to my childhood with a non-air-conditioned home, where the southern heat and humidity would allow the world’s largest vermin to enter.  They would make their way to the tops of the curtain rods and then fly across the room.  In actuality, they became kamikaze, dive-bombers, ultimately hitting their target, my head or face or other bodily parts with such precision that I knew the entire species made me a target.  

That deep psychological defect has tortured me for a lifetime.
All roaches, underneath that waxy calcareous exoskeleton, have a pair of wings, perfect for dive bombing.  Give me snakes, wild animals, or even an alligator to face before the villainous roach.  Not only do they fly, but are also nasty creatures, according to the Raid advertisements, carrying up to 32 diseases, so I have reason to hate these vile creatures.

Getting back to the dilemma at hand, Scott ran into the room and all I could do was point to the object.  He carefully picked up the nightgown by a corner and eased his way out the door and into the hallway, where he saw the massive object and immediately dropped the gown.  Then he began to dance on top of it, Flamenco style.  Convinced that the culprit was flattened, he opened the gown and began to laugh.  Peeking out the door, I saw him hold up the hideous thing, and I understood. 
It was a feather off one of the cat’s toys.    

That feather blew me away.

May all your days be filled with feathers. Email me at

Ta ta.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer memories

I can't help it, I love the summer and even though it may be 200 degrees in the shade, I love the thought of going barefoot, wearing shorts that are too short for my chubby legs and feeling the sunshine on my heavily sunscreen face.

I also have fond memories of the summer when I was much, much younger... If you indulge me, I'll tell you about it.

·         We lived about 20 minutes from the nearest beach.  We took trips to Topsail Beach every weekend and if we were very good, during the week.  
      There was only one pool we went to and it was always over crowded, but the ocean was always big enough for everyone.  

·        It didn’t matter if our bathing suit was full of sand, we wore them home like that and then put the water hose down our suit to flush out the sand and any sea creatures we brought home.

·         Flip-flops were the best shoes, you could buy them for about fifty cents, so we had several colors.  
      They could get wet, you could run in them or ride a bicycle with them, and they were the only shoes we could wear when we got sunburn on the tops of our feet.

·        Who needed a beach chair when a beach towel would do on the sand?  
      Who needed to sit on a beach towel when making sand castles and digging up fiddler crabs (mole crabs) took up our time? 
      Buckets, shovels, a float for the ocean and a cooler of food and drinks, were all we needed. 

·         Mom always wore the “loudest” DeWisse or Rose Marie Reed black bathing suit with bold red roses or poppies on the fabric.  She wore the biggest brimmed hat to match, red lipstick, painted nails and toes to match and we listened to WJNC am station on the transistor radio.

·        There were no SPF sunscreens, only the characteristic smell of Coppertone Lotion.  
      I found out that I was allergic to coco butter in some suntanning lotions- I broke out in dots all over.
      We also mads a concoction of baby oil and iodine...

·        Saltwater taffy was actually made at the beach and it was fascinating to see the large paddles pulling and stretching the the different colors and flavors.   
      You had to take home a box for later.  
      Now, the boxes of saltwater taffy come from New Jersey.

W  We didn’t have air conditioning in the car, so we would cool off only driving down the road.  

     A&W Root beer came in a paper megaphone and if we were lucky, we got a root beer float.  
     I consumed so much before being a teenager, that I can’t stand the smell of it today.

·         Kool-Aid was our favorite drink and watermelon was our favorite dessert.  I still love these. 

     Today, when I get a notion to get some sand between my toes, I only have a 15 minute ride to be there.  
     Boy, am I lucky.   

     I'd love to hear about your summer adventures.

     Email me me at or on Facebook.   

     Have a cool summer day.