Clouds over Sutherland

I stand in the cool breath of an amorphous white world.

Unable to see but a few meters to my front, rear, and sides.

The silver, white domes presents themselves as subtle outlines,
shimmering into and out of view.

Yet, sometimes, it seems, they are solid
and it is I who disappear.

To Swim a Mile

Barcelona, Spain – July 20
I was in the ocean twice today, at 7:30 am and again this evening. The water is so incredibly warm. I have not experienced anything like this since Hawaii. Amazing. I swam nearly 1km today, with one break on the beach. I am not an efficient swimmer, having had no lessons since I was six years of age.

This evening I will watch a few Youtube videos to see if I can improve my strokes.

I typically move from breast stroke to side stroke to back stroke to the other side and breast again, essentially rolling as I go to give muscle groups a break. All my days in the turbulent surf at Muizenberg, even if on a surf board, has given me greater confidence in the ocean, and more stamina.

Today, I recognised that I had hit a swimming “high”, the sensation that I could go on forever. As with running, it took about 30-40 minutes for me to get past that first plateau, and then the breathing and rhythm came easily.

My goal is to swim 1 mile, without a break, before I leave Spain.

Barceloneta Bay, Kai Staats swims a mile

July 24
I accomplished my goal! I swam 1.65 km (1 mile) without stopping. Damn! It took over an hour. Might have been faster to crawl on all fours (backward), but I made it.

The stretch between the man-made break (upper right) and the coastline near the W Hotel (lower right) was a bit scary for me as I have never swam that distance before, unable to see the bottom or return to something safe.

However, what the satellite image does not show are a half dozen buoys, anchored by long chains to the ocean floor. If need be, I could have clung to one of them, each was about 100 meter apart.

When I completed the lap, I felt as thought I had been run over by a bus, went back to Matt’s flat and slept for an hour.

From Dark Skies to Data Mining: A Passion for Understanding

On Wednesday, June 24 I will address the Astronomical Society of South Africa, at the SAAO auditorium.

The official write-up was presented as follows:

Kai Staats will give a presentation entitled “From Dark Skies to Data Mining: A Propensity for Pattern Recognition”. The talk will address the situation where few people today are able to experience the brilliance of the milky way due to light pollution and yet our window on the universe is expanding enormously through projects such as the SKA and LIGO.

We are faced with the challenges of fighting to preserve dark skies and at the same time enjoying the benefits of the massive quantities of data becoming available. He will then screen his film “LIGO, A Passion for Understanding”. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, a large-scale physics experiment, is aimed at directly detecting gravitational waves. These ripples in the space-time, known as ‘The Big Bang’s Smoking Gun’ were predicted by Einstein in 1916 and will provide detailed information
about black holes as well as the very early universe. Marco Cavaglia, astrophysicist and member of the LIGO Collaboration will be available, via Skype, to answer questions following the film.

Kai Staats is an entrepreneur, writer, film maker and now student once more, earning his MSc in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town / African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Cosmology Research Group, South Africa.

Goodbye Galen

Two nights ago, my uncle Galen passed away after a return of cancer. I have said all that needs to be said in a forum more appropriate than this, but he was a second father for me at times; I will miss him dearly.

What I loved most was his direct approach to life. He never held back what he thought. Direct. Even blunt. In our final conversation, just hours before he passed, there was again story telling and laughter.

I am going to miss that. Thank you.

When Nature Calls

Adriaan, Holy and I went to Natures Valley with the intent to camp for three nights, kayak, hike, and relax. The kayaking was wonderful, as we engaged in a guided tour of the shallow estuary, its tributaries, and hatcheries. We enjoyd a mid afternoon nap on the first day there followed by a fabulous dinner cooked over two camp stoves and an open fire.

But on the second evening, it began to rain.

That night, I woke to the realisation that the floor of my tent was holding back a substantial amount of water. I looked outside the door to find my shoes floating. By the time I sat up, put on my shorts, and threw the few loose items into my backpack, the water had risen over the waterproof portion of the tent and soaked my sleeping bag.

I yelled, “Adriaan! I think it is time to go!” He yelled back, “Yeah, I agree. Already packing!”

I raced from my tent to the back of his bukkie (truck). Holy was already in the camper shell, having escaped the drips on her face in their large, shared tent two hours prior. The water was up to the wheel wells but the started the engine. Adriaan drove off to make certain he could get the vehicle out.

The entire camp ground came to life. Car engines sputtered and choked. Horns and sirens sounded as electrical systems shorted. People drove and walked to the higher ground just outside the entrance. We were lucky, as our campsite was but 50 meters from the gate. I can’t imagine the effort those further into the camping ground and further downhill must have mustered to escape.

I pulled each corner of my tent from the ground, throwing it over my shoulder. I walked, barefoot, to the top of the road and found Adriaan, Holy, and the bukkie. We went back to get more of our things from their tent and the picnic table. By this time, we waded through water nearly to our waist.

We helped the neighbours escape as they had three children, the youngest of which could not have been a year old. Their car was on higher ground, the water to the undercarriage. They did not seem to recognize what they had to drive through to get out. We walked with their car to make certain they made it, their tent and some belongings left behind.

The water went down nearly as quickly as it had risen. We removed Adriaan’s tent and by 2 am were on the road again, soaked, chilled, and overwhelmed by all that had happened.

Adriaan drove all night. I slept in back, wrapped in a damp sleeping bag, Holy in front with the heater on high. The day went well, with a visit to the southern tip of Africa and then a national park just outside of Hermanus. There we dried our gear and enjoyed a four hours hike.

The next week, I was discussing the adventure with one of the astronomers at SAAO. He was there also, but arrived the next morning. When he and his family arrived, it appeared to be a war zone, downed trees piled across the bridge and riddled across the campground. Gear, tables, chairs, and toys scattered everywhere, soaked, snapped, or destroyed.

The sad truth, Petri explained, is that this happens every couple of years, yet there is not a single sign warning patrons of the possibility of flash flood.

Loggerhead Saved!

Kai Staats: turtle rescue This past Friday I walked to the beach for a short run and yoga session when a surfer walked up and handed me a Loggerhead hatchling, an incredibly small turtle.

I took him back to my apartment complex and knocked on my neighbour Hannah’s door. The look on her face was priceless when she said good morning, but then saw the turtle cupped in my hands.

It was 7:30 am. Hannah called the Two Oceans Aquarium which instructed us how to care for him (her?) until we could make it to town. We placed her on a dry towel inside a small tupperware container and drove to Town. The turtle become more and more listless, eventually not moving unless I touched his shell or front flippers. Even then, almost no reaction. I was afraid she was not going to make it.

Kevin, a marine biologist greeted me at the front counter. I was given a behind-the-scenes tour as we worked our way up a few flights of stairs to a room full of noisy compressors, filtration systems, and glass aquariums which contained a variety of rescued sea animals. One was a very large turtle which was blind in both eyes, but is apparently recovering.

Kai Staats: turtle rescue

Kevin washed the hatchling in fresh water, removed a barnacle, and then placed her in a deep plastic tray at the bottom of what will be his new home for the coming year. He filled up the tank with room temperature water which in turn heated his container.

Kevin explained that Loggerheads do not nest on this side of the continent, so far south for the water is far too cold. He was likely caught in the Indian ocean current that periodically warms False Bay (and Muizenberg beach). He was adrift for no less than two weeks. Only one in a thousand reach sexual maturity (17-33 years), and even then, they have very low reproductive rates.

Within just a few minutes, the turtle came back to life. I had forgotten how much reptiles are affected by the temperature of their surroundings. The cold Atlantic water and then dry, cool air in the car had slowed her down considerably.


I know you only by your silhouette.
Walking, running, dancing in the sea’s foam.

I know you only by your outline,
glowing against the rising sun.

I know you only by the shape
of what I hoped we’d become.

Live Long and Prosper

Mr. Spock

The death of Leonard Nimoy is moving for me. Nimoy was an actor who incorporated the essence of what the character Mr. Spock meant for him, into his every day life.

Having grown up with Star Trek re-runs, even ten years after they had aired (played at prime times throughout the ’70s), much of who I am and what I yet expect of our species was given foundation in that sci-fi TV series.

Perhaps it is a curse, to always compare where we are to where we thought we’d be, but even 100 years from now it seems the foundation of Nimoy’s character Spock will remain an important goal.

He continually strove for balance between the deeply rooted emotional, reactionary side of being a human and the reasoning which enables us to work together, to grow beyond our animal foundation and achieve what no one person can do alone.

Yes, live long and prosper. But more importantly, perhaps, find balance and thrive.

Only a surfer knows the feeling

The sun rises over the back-line, black silhouettes against the shimmering horizon. Sometimes, only shoulders or a head show, the full upper body of the surfers adjacent to me temporarily hidden in the rise and fall of the swell.

But this morning, the sea is nearly perfectly flat. Trapezoids suspended in a web of reflections are bound by shifting edges. They break and rebuild, again and again, each a fragmented mirror for the sparse clouds overhead.

Some days the water is turquoise blue. Others, a dark, river bottom red which gives the false appearance of a far thicker substance. The spring tide brings high water followed by broken shells, sea life, and the occasional body of an adult seal or lost, barking pup.

My legs below the knee are wrapped beneath my surfboard while my upper body constantly adjusts to the undulating water, stomach muscles tensing and relaxing to counter the shifting centre of gravity. Even after months of surfing, I yet find it difficult to bring my arms across my chest or to my front when sitting on a shorter board. Instead, my arms are at my sides, touching the surface of the water to maintain balance, a fluid equilibrium.

I look around me am reminded how new I am to this sport. The more adept sit upon far smaller boards, sometimes lying back as though in a reclining chair. Relaxed, they seem far more at ease. I keep reminding myself how far I have come since mid December, from total frustration to riding every wave I catch.

A poster in the window of a local surf shop caught my attention. A determined man, tangled hair high above his head, turns one hundred eighty degrees far above the crest of a wave. As I walked past I noticed the caption, white on blue, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”

If to be a surfer is to know the feeling, then I will claim, even with such limited experience on board at sea, to be a surfer. As my instructor and friend William has said more elegantly, it is not just riding the waves that makes surfing so compelling, but the time spent between the runs, sitting on the board at the backline, watching the sun rise or clouds roll in

Some days, hours after I have come in from the water, showered, and transitioned to the confines of brick, mortar, and office walls, my chair feels as though it is in motion, rising, falling, and rising again. Inside my body, I undulate with the same rhythm. I nearly grasp the edge of my desk before I am returned to the reality of the moment, and look out the window to determine if the waves provide the ideal medium for my return.

I am learning to read the water in a way that I have not since I kayaked in Glacier Bay, Alaska for ten days, or when I spent a summer running rivers in Utah and Colorado. There is a subtlety to the sea’s motion that tells you the direction of the wind, if the tide is rising or falling, and sometimes its temperature too.

On the water, body prone, head lifted to see just inches above the tip of the board, the smallest of eddies toss and turn the prone, paddling surfer. One meter, two meter, three meter swells remind you how small, how incredibly minimal the mass of your body is against the tireless force.

Looking to the South, toward the backline, surfers seek breaks in the wave, places to pass such that less energy and time are wasted to gain the ideal position. For every wave, full or broken, you must choose a course of action. Dive beneath by shifting your body to the front of the board; lift your chest high to force the water to channel between you and the board; or flip upside-down, the board remaining on the surface, you beneath, only to right yourself again on the other side.

Long board, mini-Malibu, or fish–you must find the best spot to launch your campaign. Depending upon your board, fitness, and experience, you catch what is right for you.

I find my way to the back line, sometime with ease and grace, sometimes with an exhausting, twenty minute struggle, … sometimes not at all no matter how hard I paddle.

Last week, just before 7 am, the water was incredibly smooth, the swells minimal. As I paddled out to where a dozen surfers had already arrived, I noted the fins and bodies of dolphins rising and falling all around the boards. Everyone was talking in hushed tones, pointing. For more than fifteen minutes these sleek creatures moved in and around our human figures. Two women were furthest out, having tried to catch-up with the dolphins given their relatively slow pace.

The dolphins did not seem to mind, for they circled one or twice and surfaced right along side, less than two meters from the women on their boards. One surfer slipped off his board and dove as far as his leash would allow to get an underwater view of the pod.

It was, as I have heard people report, an emotionally charged encounter. I don’t believe they are healing nor necessarily incredibly intelligent as we have heralded without evidence for so long, but there is something beautiful about sharing the water with another mammal. It just feels … familiar.

The wind picked up, driving the small swells into proper wave faces, cresting and breaking in a nearly straight line. Muizenberg is ideal for learning in many ways, for you can walk out and ride in on most days. The only frustration is that the waves do not maintain a proper, clean face for long. You must get on fast, choose your direction, and allow the wave to pass beneath you when it collapses to foam.

I face out, looking beyond the backline where I rest. The swells grow over the course of a half hour. They begin to break close to the beach, the cheers of surfers catching the first waves of the morning carry to us and onto shore. It’s motivating, to witness the success of your companions.

Finally, one I believe I can ride. Sitting on the back third of my board, I spin to face the shore again, lying down quickly. I tap my toes against the very tail of the board to confirm my position given what I judge to be the vertical angle of the on-coming wave, adjust for balance, and paddle.

The sea rises slightly and with it, I rise too. I look to my right and see two meters of water behind and above me. I paddle three, for times more and then as my board tilts forward, throw my arms over my head at the same time for a few power strokes. To my right another, more experienced surfer catches the wave and is carried away as though some mighty creature chose him to carry to shore.

I, however, did not time my approach and missed the opportunity. Frustrated, I am reminded how much I have to learn. Unlike climbing or running which seem to dictate a fairly similar body type for success, surfers come in all shapes and sizes. Guys with bellies bigger than a pregnant woman do flips and turns while a white haired, arched-backed man clearly in his seventies catches every wave he intends. He is a regular, one I watch intently each morning we share.

My third try I am on the cusp, my board balanced just over the edge of the face of the wave. I look down into a well two, maybe two and a half meters deep. I throw my arms over and over, kicking my legs in the air to break the inertia and finally, I drop down the face at a tremendous speed. Quickly, I find my hands on the edges of the board, prop my chest high, confirm I am not about to run over anyone, and then spring onto my feet.

Leaning back, I allow the wave to catch-up (for many times, I am not yet quick enough to catch the wave properly), and then adjust my hips and shoulders and stance to ride what remains until it crumbles to foam.

On a good day, with long runs, I enjoy the simple accelleration, fine tuning my ability to gage the direction of the break and to stay on the face. For others, I am up for only ten, maybe fifteen seconds. On those short runs, I work on quicker turns and walking to the front of the board as the waves presses down on the back end.

As the poster says, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” Falling, falling, falling–as long as the wave is moving forward, you are granted a liquid, perpetual motion machine.

Time just sitting at the backline. The potential sighting of a seal, dolphin, or shark. The sweet taste of the sea. The smell of atomised salt water in the gusts of wind. Even the hard pounding one can take in the face of large waves is part of my life now. I find it difficult to imagine moving back to the desert or high mountains where the ocean has not provided this kind of engagement for tens of millions of years.

Until the next opportunity, my body longs for the motion of the waves.

LIGO Generations

Funded by the National Science Foundation through the University of Mississippi, LIGO Generations shares the passion and the motivation of individuals who have worked for nearly three decades on a single science experiment. We engage in the stories of those who motivated a new branch of physics in order to prove the last piece of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and to hear the universe in a new way.

Read more …