Sea ducks, coral reefs and sunscreen

Gulls and other birds feed as an incoming tide slams against the Maine coast.I recently spent part of a week-long vacation watching the ocean come and go, while a friend and fellow journalist attempted renewing a relationship with what last year had become his pet seagull. The incoming tides smashed and crashed against a huge rectangular boulder about the size of twin Chevrolet Carryalls stacked one atop the other. Every half-dozen or so waves would match timing and reinforce to send spray 30 to 40 feet in the air. But unlike the Chevy trucks, the rock notably did not move when several tons of ocean slammed into it’s side.

In front of and beside the granite outcrop, a hundred or so Common Eider ducks swam and dove for food stirred up by the incoming tide. As is usual (though there are exceptions), Eider males are the flashiest of the species. Their raiment is in starkly contrasting black and white. The women of the species clothe in finery of mostly gray and brown. Now and then, one or the other would stand up on the water to rearrange its wings, like someone rising from the dinner table to pull down a jacket or blouse. Then back to the bottom for another small fish or mussel.

Wave action generated a current that moved horizontally along the rocky shore, moving the raft of ducks and seagulls stage left to stage right as I sat on the porch and watched the play. There was an invisible line that only the birds could see at the far right of my vision. Upon reaching it, they turned and mostly paddled, though a few flew, back to the left edge of their stage, from whence they went through the act of drifting and diving their way down-shore.

Eiders have a preference for mollusks, crustaceans and other shelled creatures that make their home on near-shore rocks. I wonder whether they find tasty snacks on the oceans’ coral reefs. Had I been asked that last week, I would have said definitely not. After all, Eider ducks like colder regions, though they’re known to winter as far south as Virginia. But coral is a warm ocean creature, right?

Wrong, it turns out. There are coral formations in the Gulf of Maine. But they apparently are in deeper water than the ducks swim to the bottom of.

Which is good because a new study has added sunscreen to the medicinal concoctions most of us would not normally associate with coral reefs. It turns out some of the ingredients are hazardous to human health, of questionable effectiveness for their advertised purpose, and destructive to coral reefs.

And one is not actually required to enter the water for the effect. All that is required is to slather a bottle of the goop on our body, lay out in the sun for a half hour or so, then come inside and shower. We wash that stuff down the drain and into the local wastewater treatment plant, which cannot remove it. Then it flows into a creek, joins a river, and eventually finds its way to the ocean.

Another recent study revealed that metformin, a primary treatment in diabetes care, appears to be causing girl fish in the Susquehanna River to grow boy parts. Customers drinking that water also apparently are consuming a concoction of other remedies, including anti-depressants and other substances normally carrying warnings to “Keep Away From Children.”

Sometimes the effect we have seems akin to setting fire to our home. It keeps us warm for awhile, but its effectiveness as a rain block is severely reduced.

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