Feeling Washed Up? Consider the State of the Ocean on World Oceans Day

Recently I’ve been to the beach. I went down to visit an old friend, the USS Lexington. I had stayed aboard her back when I was in 9th grade, about a couple of decades ago, and hadn’t seen her since. It was good to see her again. While down on the beach I went for a quick run for a couple of miles. Sand is much harder to run on than a sidewalk. Much better to get my heart rate up. While I was running I happened along some jellyfish. I made sure not to touch them, but it was fun to look at and ponder them. It’s hard to image a being able to function without a central nervous system. How does a jellyfish gather its thoughts? And it’s not the strangest or most wonderful creature in the sea.


Whenever I think of the beauty of the sea, I think of sea turtles flying through the water or the majestic blue whale, the largest mammal ever. There are extremophiles, bacteria that use heat and chemicals instead of light to sustain a life so far down in the oceans that sunlight has never reached them. Or the mantis shrimp. Which is neither a mantis nor a shrimp. But in addition to having claws that move at the speed of a .22 bullet, they have the best eyes in nature. Where we have three types of color-receptive cones in our eyes, the mantis shrimp has 16! It can see colors no other animals can perceive.


Unfortunately, with all this beauty and wonder, we have put the oceans and their bounty in danger. If you have seen the documentary Trashed or the less depressing Majestic Plastic Bag, you’ll know of the danger of plastic bags. The purpose of this plastic is to keep your food clean and make access to it more convenient, but the plastic never goes away. It never degrades; it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s tiny enough for marine life to swallow. Plastics contain toxic chemicals and have the ability to absorb other compounds, which both leach out of the plastic over time. Fish eat the plastic, as do turtles, birds and whales, and if it doesn’t get caught up in the digestive tract and disrupt the absorption of nutrients, then the chemicals in the plastic inevitably poison them. Fish and creatures pass the plastics in their guts on to the larger predators, until eventually, you have a whopper mackerel some fisherman pulls out of the ocean for sushi, its belly full of the plastic it has collected from the bellies of other fish, flesh tainted with chemicals that have entered its bloodstream. And then we absorb all those toxins into our bodies, poisoning ourselves with each wonderful, tasty bit of sushi.


What’s the solution, you ask?  It’s certainly not giving up sushi. Never. In the short term we can use reusable bags when we get our food at the store. And gaining more knowledge about how the oceans, their creatures, and how they interact with each other is another great place to start.

So join us at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to celebrate World Oceans Day this Saturday, June 4 and learn how you can help the oceans, sushi, and yourself!

The ocean is the heart of our planet. Like your heart pumping blood to every part of your body, the ocean connects people across the Earth, no matter where we live. The ocean regulates the climate, feeds millions of people every year, produces most of the oxygen we breathe, is the home to an incredible array of wildlife, provides us with important medicines, and so much more! In order to ensure the health and safety of our communities and future generations, it’s imperative that we take the responsibility to care for the ocean as it cares for us.


With a goal to stop plastic pollution, “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet” is this year’s theme for UN-designated World Oceans Day. Celebrate at HMNS with a “dive” on life-size 2D coral reefs of the Gulf of Mexico with a marine biologist of the BioSciences Department at Rice University. Free with museum admission.         

And join us June 7 at 6:30 p.m. for our distinguished lecture on a major concern in coastal marine habitats: The Global Coral Bleaching Event: Causes, Consequences and What You Can Do.

Massive die-offs are occurring on reefs around the world due to the ongoing global coral bleaching event. Join marine biologist Dr. Adrienne Correa to learn the science behind bleaching, how scientists are tracking and studying the event, and the role you can play in the future of coral reefs. As a coral reef ecologist Adrienne Correa, Ph.D. works at scales that range from individual microbial strains and meta-organisms to entire ecosystems researching the diversity, stability and function of symbioses. Correa’s recent research targets novel viruses associated with stressed corals-and has documented viral outbreaks in conjunction with bleaching. She is a faculty member in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Program of BioSciences at Rice University.                                                                                                                                  

With Soil, Make Me Wine: The Dirt on Growing Great Grapes

I like wine. And I make my own. Not huge batches, mind you. Just about 30 bottles per month in the winter months. I learned the hard way the chemistry of wine. If you let the wine get too hot while it’s fermenting, it can radically alter the taste.  I let one of my batches get above 95 degrees a few times this summer. I was making a port and the flavor was ruined. The entire batch came out tasting like welches grape juice. Flat, tasteless, 20 percent alcohol-by-volume grape juice. I only inflicted a few bottles on my friends.


Good wine is a combination of science and art. There is the botany of the grapes. The meteorology of the climate. And the pedology. What’s pedology you ask? It’s the study of soil.  And since it is the International Year of Soils, we are going to get down and dirty with the effect of soil on one of my favorite drinks.

The ground beneath us is incredibly active. There are millions of different types of bacteria, fungi, and arthropods that give dirt everywhere its characteristics. If you’ve been taking the museum’s class on gardening and landscaping, you’ll understand the importance of the health of soil for plants. To briefly sum it up, good soil makes good crops. A shocking concept. But beyond that, what effects can the soil have on wine?


The effect of soil and climate on wine is called terroir. Wine tasters with a good palates say they can discern the flavor of the soil in the wine. Scientists have begun to examine a comparison of terroir to wines in an attempt to explain this phenomenon but so far have not been able to. That doesn’t mean that the flavor of the soil isn’t in the wine; it just means more scientists will have to drink more good wines. That’s a study I want to be a part of!

Good soils will encourage the vines to produce grapes instead of growing more vine. So the best soils need to provide lots of water at just the right time and then be able to drain it away. And the soil needs to keep the right nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium available to the vine, which can help intensify the flavors in the grape.


Tasting wine is about more than just “good” or “bad.” With an entire family of varietals out there in the world, it’s about what gives the wine its identity. Fans of wine, like me, like to get closer to the wine and the wine-making process through the quality of its flavor. And, oddly enough, tasting isn’t just about the taste. Wine Folly offers a five-step process to tasting wine, and explains a few things to be aware of. Here’s the basic process outlined in their blog.

  1. Look at the color. This goes deeper than just red and white. Ask yourself how it compares to other reds or whites in color. Gauge whether you can see through it. With practice, you can gauge whether the wine is bold, rich or viscous.
  2. Smell the wine, but swirl it around first to aerate it. Put the wine on the table and move the base in little circles, then shove your nose into the glass and take a big whiff. What do you smell?
  3. Taste the wine. Get enough of the wine to coat your entire tongue and roll it around in your mouth to maximize contact with all your taste buds. Don’t just think about flavor; think about texture and body, how it feels in your mouth. Does it have an alcoholic burn? Do the flavors match the smell?
  4. Decide whether to spit or swallow. You may have to drive later, or you may have 20 wines to taste and want to stay sober enough to think about all of them. If you hate the wine, spit it out. If you don’t want to waste it, swallow it. There’s no right or wrong choice.
  5. Think about the wine and formulate your own conclusions. Wine Folly states, “Wine tasting is a head game. Confidence and bold assertion can often make someone look like a pro.”


Join us for a Periscope wine tasting with local experts, curators, and myself on Wednesday, November 18 at 3 p.m. You’ll see some live wine tasting where we’ll talk about terroir and suggest some wine pairings for Thanksgiving. And to celebrate the International Year of Soils, join us for a film screening of the Symphony of the Soil at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre Dec. 1 at 6 p.m.

Go Back in Time with the Hadza: Last of the First Movie Screening

pic 1There are fewer people connected to nature now than ever before—and no one connected to it in the same way as the Hadza. One of the last hunter-gather groups on earth, the Hadza have lived sustainably off the bounty of their ancestral homeland in Africa’s Rift Valley for at least 50,000 years. But their unique culture and way of life, including the ability to source 95 percent of their diet from the wild, has been threatened by issues as varied as continuing encroachment, aggressive tree-cutting and over-grazing.

That’s why we’ve collaborated with The Nature Conservancy to bring a special screening of the groundbreaking film The Hadza: Last of The First to HMNS on April 13. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, The Hadza: Last of The First is a call to action to establish a protective land corridor to help the Hadza survive.

“The Hadza: Last Of The First” Trailer from Benenson Productions on Vimeo.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the many organizations heeding that call. They established their Northern Tanzania project to empower the Hadza and neighboring tribes to protect their land. Through the project, the Nature Conservancy works with local partners to help the Hadza and nearby indigenous communities secure legal rights to their homeland and works to improve the Hadza’s capacity to monitor and protect their titled land, including helping to fight to extend protections for Hadza land and associated wildlife corridors, as well as protecting grazing resources for pastoralists in buffer areas surrounding Hadza titled land.

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Roughly 60 percent of Africa’s lands and waters are communally owned, so a sustained threat for millions of people is simply a lack of control. An absence of strong institutions and governance exposes millions of communal acres to risk.

That’s why the people, in Africa and around the globe, are so critical to the success of the Nature Conservancy’s Africa program. They are fighting to help local communities, governments and organizations conserve and enhance Africa’s vast array of shared natural resources.

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Film Screening, April13
Don’t miss the Texas premiere of The Hadza: Last of The First in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’ Wortham Giant Screen Theatre on April 13 at 6:30 p.m. This is a one-night-only screening with David Banks, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Africa program and the film’s producers. HMNS and Nature Conservancy members receive $5 off the regular ticket price. For advance tickets call 713.639.4629, click here or visit the HMNS Box Office.

Still yearning for Earth Day learning? Join us April 28 for HMNS’ museum-wide celebration!

Founded in 1970 to commemorate the birth of the modern environmental movement, Earth Day (April 22) aimed to capitalize on an emerging national consciousness about the natural world and channel the energies of anti-war protests in a new direction.

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Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Senator, conceived the idea of a national holiday devoted to environmentalism after a devastating 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif. With bipartisan support, the first-ever earth day inspired 20 million Americans to hit the streets and pour into public parks to rally for sustainable living.

Earth Day eventually lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts — but the battle for our earth is far from over.

Keep the celebration going at HMNS this weekend with Mobilize the Earth, a museum-wide event that teaches participants how to make their lives more sustainable and do their part for the planet.

Register an act of environmental service and join with Keep Houston Beautiful and the Hermann Park Conservancy to clean up the green space just north of HMNS, play around in recycled art at the booths inside our Grand Hall and learn about recycling, energy and water conservation.

What: “Mobilize the Earth” Earth Day celebration
When: April 28, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: HMNS grounds at 5555 Hermann Park Drive.

To purchase tickets to Mobilize the Earth, click here.

To learn more about Billion Acts of Green, click here.


HMNS thanks the Marathon Oil Corporation for their continued support of the HMNS Energy Conservation Club, which sponsors HMNS’ annual Earth Day celebration.