Friday, September 18, 2009


By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Call me Ishmael. Call me captain. But don’t call me seasick.

That’s more than I could say for most of the 80 people – including my wife, Sue – who recently went out on a boat to watch whales but instead, in a stunning display of mass disgorgement that even Herman Melville couldn’t have imagined, gave new meaning to the old whaling term "Thar she blows!"

Our high-seas adventure began aboard the Viking Starship, a 140-foot-long vessel out of Montauk, N.Y. Under the able command of the friendly and experienced crew – Capt. Joseph DiLiberto, mate Alex Georgiev and naturalist Artie Kopelman – the Starship set sail at 9:30 a.m. on a six-hour tour, a six-hour tour (sorry, "Gilligan’s Island" fans) about 15 miles into the Atlantic. Destination: the feeding grounds of majestic marine mammals, including the fin whale, the second-largest species, which can grow to 80 feet in length.

Before Sue and I boarded, I noticed a sign on the dock next to the ship. It read: "No firearms allowed onboard." Now I know why: If you get violently sick out on the water, you’ll want to shoot yourself.

A storm had passed offshore the night before and the morning broke cloudy and chilly, but the conditions, if not ideal, weren’t bad enough to cancel the trip.

Kopelman stood on deck with a microphone as the boat chugged out of the harbor and, in a funny and informative routine that included fascinating facts about the creatures we hoped to see, explained what we should do in the event of seasickness. Ill passengers should not use bags but should go "over the rail," Kopelman said, adding: "And not into the wind."

The first sign of trouble came about five miles out, just past the Montauk Point Lighthouse, where the Viking Starship acted more like the Jefferson Starship: It was rocking and rolling in the increasingly churning ocean. Several people, who had turned greener than the water, clutched the rail. Others, disregarding Kopelman’s instructions, clutched bags. Sue clutched me.

Apparently, I was the only passenger, in addition to a group of little kids, who was having a good time. It was like being at an amusement park except that no one else thought it was amusing.

Among the afflicted was Sue, who got sick five times. It may have been a record. At one point, I went inside to get her some napkins and spoke with Kobi Kobayashi, who runs the snack bar.

"I guess business hasn’t been too good today," I said.

Kobayashi shook his head and replied, "I made three breakfasts – sausage and eggs – but they probably went over the side."

Kobayashi, a former commercial fisherman from Japan, has also been a filmmaker. He was the cinematographer on the 1977 Oscar winner for best short documentary, "I’ll Find a Way."

"If you made a movie about this trip," I noted, "you could call it ‘I’ll Find a Wave.’ A lot of people have." Kobayashi didn’t disagree.

About 12 miles out, Capt. Joe decided to cut the trip short and turn around. "It’s too bad," he said, "because we’ve had an 80 percent success rate this year. We’ve been out 20 times and have seen whales 16 times. None today, though."

"Maybe they’re sick, too," I suggested.

"Seasickness is mostly mind over matter," said Capt. Joe, adding that he used to get sick as a boy when he went on fishing trips with his father and uncles. "You grow out of it."

On the way back in, the water had calmed considerably, so Capt. Joe let me take the wheel. For five minutes, under strict supervision, I was Capt. Jerry.

About half an hour later, after the real captain docked the boat under sunny skies, Sue and I, along with scores of ashen-faced, wobbly-legged, would-be whale watchers, disembarked. I was going to ask Sue if she wanted to get some clams for lunch, but I didn’t want to end up sleeping with the fishes.

Copyright 2009 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, September 4, 2009

"Day at the Museum"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Aside from fame, fortune and talent, Ben Stiller has nothing on me. That’s because I recently spent a day at the museum.

Yes, it was the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the site of Stiller’s 2006 box office hit, "Night at the Museum." I didn’t spend a night at the museum for two good reasons: It closed at 5:45 p.m. and I am not, for better or for worse, Ben Stiller.

Still, my wife, Sue, and I decided to spend an afternoon at this famous institution, which we hadn’t visited since our daughters were kids about 20 years ago, to see if anything would come alive.

"Oh, wow, things come alive all the time," said Abiba Ouattara, a guard who has been working at the museum for four years. "Especially at night."

Ouattara should know because she sometimes works the night shift. "The dinosaurs are more interesting than Ben Stiller," she said.

"Maybe I could be in an exhibit," I told her. "I’m a fossil."

"No, you’re not," replied Ouattara, whose love of her job and delightful sense of humor make her a great ambassador for the museum. "But you could be in the human origin section. That’s where we all belong."

Sue and I decided to start with an even older exhibit, in the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing, which is oddly named because dinosaurs didn’t have wings, unless you believe, as do many paleontologists, that they were closely related to birds, especially on their mother’s side.

We saw all the biggies, including T-rex (my, what big teeth you have!) and apatosaurus, formerly known as brontosaurus, a name it must have used as an alias to escape meat eaters such as allosaurus, who was there, too.

We also saw stegosaurus, a huge armored creature that had a brain the size of a walnut, making it the congressman of dinosaurs.

"No wonder it’s extinct," Sue commented.

"I have a small brain and I’m not extinct," I said.

"No," Sue noted, "not yet."

All the dinosaurs died out tens of millions of years ago from one of three causes: climate change, a comet that hit Earth or, as cartoonist Gary Larson theorized in a famous "Far Side" strip, smoking.

Even though the skeleton crew didn’t come alive, it was great to see them again. But an even bigger thrill awaited in a new exhibit called "Extreme Mammals," of which I, of course, am one.

Just as I knew the names of all the dinosaurs when I was a kid because I was, and still am, an encyclopedia of useless information, I also was familiar with the prehistoric mammals, including the woolly mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger (not really a tiger, but it’s dead, so why quibble?) and the giant ground sloth. All of them were here, as was a gigantic hornless rhinoceros named Indricotherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived. It was even bigger than Orson Welles before he, too, became extinct.

Sue and I also made it to the human origin section, where I spotted many of my ancestors, who could easily be distinguished from me because none of them, even the women, had a mustache.

The museum is so large and so fascinating that no one could possibly see it all in one day. Or even one night, as Martin Hollander, a volunteer at the information desk, told me. There is, indeed, a "Night at the Museum" program, but it’s for kids 8-12 years old.

"You’d have to bring a brat," Hollander said.

"I’m a brat. And intellectually, I’m about 8," I said. "Could my wife bring me?"

"Yes," Hollander replied. "You could be Benjamin Button."

Unfortunately, I couldn’t be Ben Stiller. But if he doesn’t want to star in another "Night at the Museum" movie, I’ll gladly take his place.

Copyright 2009 by Jerry Zezima